Oops, it did it again…. The Fall term 2011 has managed to sneak up on me, like its 2010 predecessor. All of a sudden, it’s all back. I am facing a crowd of 400+ students, teaching the same introductory physics class I taught last year, in the same humongous, with its microphone, its two big screens and no white board.
This year I am doing things differently, though. The main change is that I am using presentation software (obviously Keynote) to deliver my lectures, something that at the beginning of my teaching career, back in 1996, I had sworn to myself never to do . How did that come about ?
Last year I was confronted for the first time ever with the task of lecturing in this large room, which has no white (or black) board. It has two big projection screens, hooked to two computers (of course one can use one’s own portable computer). Furthermore, there are two document cameras [these are essentially good ol' overhead projectors, except that they allow one to write on a regular sheet of paper, and have the writing projected on the screen(s)].
Next best thing
I did not even for a moment think of using slides. I have always had the (preconceived) idea that for introductory physics and math courses, it is very important that students not be fed pre-digested notions, presented in some bullet format. I was convinced of the importance of seeing concepts slowly take shape on a board (black or white), as instructors work their way through the various logical steps, using the simple and precise language of algebra. To me, the fact that the instructor needs some time to write things down seemed beneficial, in that it gives students a few seconds to “chew” on each equation, sentence, definition, passage.
While I still think that there is some general validity to that, I have to admit that I had until now no personal experience with anything different for an introductory level course, either as a student or as an instructor.
So, since no white board is there, I decided that I would try and duplicate (to the extent that that is possible) the white board experience, by using the document cameras. I would lecture writing on a sheet of paper, projecting it on the screen — it seemed like the next best thing to having an actual white board.
A disaster ?
No. It went OK… I guess.
I got through the semester, and students seemed reasonably satisfied (my student evaluations were actually the best I have ever had for a course at that level) — still, I was not happy with my delivery. Halfway through the term it was clear to me that that is not the way to go.
The problem is, plainly and simply, even though one wishes to use a document camera as if it were a white board, it is not a white board.
One needs to write large enough, so that everyone in the audience will see, in turn greatly limiting the amount of text or equations that can fit on a single sheet. During a typical 75-minute class, I would easily go through 10-12 sheets, and that causes fragmentation in the way information is presented. I soon came to regard that as detrimental to an effective delivery.
What is worse, even though I typically had an initial “plan” for what every one of my sheets would look like, that plan often changed, either in response to questions or requests from students (e.g., to review a problem discussed in the previous lecture), or simply because, as I was lecturing, I changed my mind. I believe that anyone who has taught, knows what I am referring to. An instructor can almost always sense from the audience, whether a particular way to illustrate a given concept, which (s)he thought would be effective, is actually working or not.
If one is using a white board, that is not really a huge problem. There is plenty of space, one can erase and start over, and written stuff “sits” before the students for a long time. Erasing and starting over when one is writing on sheets of paper is problematic. If the plan is altered, if the order in which things are presented changes, then often times one has to start on a new sheet just at the time when a crucial piece of information (an equation, a formula, a concept) is put down. Although there are two projectors, and therefore the last sheet can be left up for a while, I found the whole routine impractical and unwieldy. I would often have to interrupt and dig out previous sheets, on the request of students.
A month ago, when it dawned on me that the beginning of the semester was around the corner, and that I would be teaching the same course, I decided that this year I would try something different.
Better than I thought… so far
The advantages are obvious. First of all, each slide is much clearer, cleaner, better organized. Everything that needs to be stated is there, no risk of forgetting anything important, even if I lose my train of thoughts, or just have a bad day. I can avoid all algebraic mistakes by making sure I have everything right in the first place, ahead of time .
One potential problem could have been the fact that screens are mounted too high for the instructor to be able to use a stick conveniently, and the room is too large for a laser pointer to be seen by everyone — plus, there are two screens. On the document camera I could highlight things as I wrote, but how would I be able to point to important stuff on the screen, quickly and easily ?
Have I mentioned before how awesome the iPad is ?
I swear, this device is just a life saver. Yes, I am using it to deliver my lectures. Besides being of course much more convenient and easier to carry around and to use (touch screen technology just works for me), it has added built-in features that no ordinary laptop computer (that I know of) can match. One that is proving crucial to me is the simulated laser pointer, to where I gently press on the screen of my iPad with my finger, on the place in the slide where I want to point and … voilà , a big, fat red dot magically appears on the screen, right where I want it. No, how cool is that, really ?
When it comes to the iPad, all I can do is repeat what I have stated in the past, namely that it amazes me that such a product did not become available ten, fifteen years earlier. I know that they are already selling millions of them, but I am thinking that it will be a big hit especially among educators, as people realize its full potential.
Yes, there are still some.
Making slides is a challenge. First of all, making slides, any kind thereof, is always a lot of work, no question about it. I would be a liar (I mean, even more than I am already) if I denied that the thought of being able to re-use the material in the future makes it less unpalatable. But, it is a lot of work — mostly because the software is… well, it is not a matter of it being bad, as much as it is of it just not being there.
The key aspect to keep in mind is: this is not like giving a seminar, nor a public lecture. One cannot assume any kind of prior knowledge on the part of the audience, and one needs to convey precise, detailed, quantitative information. As I wrote last year, a lot of these students are not comfortable with algebra as they should be, and it is therefore necessary to show in detail how formulae are derived and utilized.
If anyone is aware of software that allows one to write easily equations and animate them (yes, I wrote “animate” — as in, e.g., move something from denominator to numerator, simplify etc., as if I were doing it on the white board), I would greatly appreciate a pointer.
It is not that one cannot accomplish the task using regular presentation software, it is just slow and inefficient (imagine having to construct fractions and square roots by putting lines together, creating objects and placing them around… many, many times) . And, most software created to embed equations into presentations created with commercial software such as PowerPoint or Keynote, is either impractical or does not deliver .
Also, technology is good but not quite perfect yet. It is not possible to project on two screens two different slides. Why would I want to do that ? Well, I would like to keep the last slide on one screen as I go through the next one. I can do that but it is clumsy, I have to connect one of the two screens to one of the two built-in computers and project the same presentation (saved in PDF format somewhere) in parallel, so that I am one slide behind. Yes, it is as clumsy as it reads, and one in two times I forget to advance the other presentation, and students have to remind me (I suppose it keeps them awake).
Another thing that requires some initial adjustment is the delivery. If one need not write, one can go faster — much faster. It is important that one time oneself properly, or one may easily end up going too fast (not that that happened to me. Students totally did not ask me if I could slow down and/or what the heck I am on).
Another issue on which I can use some advice is the following: again, because I can insert more text into my slides, text that I would not have the time to write in if I were using a white board or my sheets, I thought it might be helpful to add some explanatory sentences here and there. However, that is turning out to be a double-edged sword, because a lot of students try copying slides in their entirety, and the more is written on the slides, the harder it is for them. Of course, to me a slide is not meant to be copied, and yes, I have explained it to them — plus, I am putting my PDF slides online anyway… but, they still asked me to write less on the slides. I guess I am going to have to find the “sweet spot”, hopefully soon.
As far as the rest is concerned, well, computerized homework is awesome — but expensive. I have to admit it, the notion of charging students for submitting their homework assignments is one with which I am not entirely comfortable, even though alternatives are worse (if you are about to suggest that University step in and subsidize that cost, I see stand-up comedy in your future). I think it is high time some Mountain View-based software company step into the education arena…
 I mean for an introductory undergraduate physics course. I have used slides before to teach graduate courses, but that is really a different kind of animal.
 The room is simply too big. Those sitting far in the back could not possibly see anything written on a white or black board.
 Yes, of course I also do that when I lecture on the white board, but confusion, oversights and mistakes are always possible — it is part of being human.
 It is true that there are some compatibility and rendering issues when transferring a Keynote presentation from a Mac to the iPad, but they seem fairly minor to me (No, I do not create the actual presentation on the iPad — I do not think that that is quite doable, honestly).
 Before anyone passes me this link — I am familiar with that product. The thing is, I could not care less if equations are created elegantly and rapidly — IF fonts are a) inconsistent with those of the presentation software and b) not easily changeable, the software that created said equations, whose purported goal is precisely to make equations seamlessly embeddable into one’s presentation, is useless. Period.