Quick Tips: Tweeting to Learn

Twitter Logo Blue BirdToday it seems that everyone is tweeting, from politicians to celebrities to regular folks. And yes, even academics are tweeting. For high profile users, Twitter allows users to quickly get out a message to followers, whether political or public relations. For academics, it can be a great way to share conference takeaways, timely articles, or, in the case of Johns Hopkins University Professor of History, Martha S. Jones, to stimulate class discussion. A recent article in the JHU Hub, History Class Meets the Digital Age, details Jones’ practice.

Jones thinks that giving students skills in using social media is as important as teaching content and having students learn to do research. “Which is why this semester, six sessions of Jones’ History of Law and Social Justice course are taking the form of Twitter chats. Over the period of an hour, Jones posts 10 questions related to that unit’s reading, and students—along with anyone else who happens to drop in on the chat—respond and discuss. Far from an afterthought, the chats—conducted using the #lawsocialjustice hash tag—are a central element in the course and determine 30 percent of a student’s grade.”

Just as they might do in class, these students are participating in a discussion, albeit one they can contribute to while in their pajamas lounging at home as easily as in the quiet space of the library or while sitting on the quad enjoying the fall weather.

“The questions are rapid-fire, with a new one popping up every six minutes. Students are required to answer each question, which means that responses often overlap, but also that all 20 can fully participate in a way not always possible in a traditional class setting. Responses are limited to Twitter’s 280 characters, which encourages students to distill their thoughts, though many are also learning to “thread” their responses to allow for greater depth.”

And the audience is not limited to the instructor and classmates; Jones invites her 8,000 plus Twitter followers to join in as well. These additional voices enrich the students’ learning experience as they become teachers themselves byclarifying or providing nuance to their responses when questioned by others on the chat. In some cases, the followers contribute additional expertise to the conversation. Jones appreciates the give and take with a larger community as well the view that students get into her roles as a professional/scholar/researcher—something that undergraduates may not always see or have access to in their relationships with faculty.

If you are interested in using Twitter in your class, read the full article to get more detail. In addition, two previous Innovative Instructor posts have looked at using Twitter in the classroom and will provide additional resources: Using Twitter in Your Course (December 10, 2014) and Tweeting the Iliad (November 22, 2016). Faculty have asked about whether students might have reservations about setting up a Twitter account. If tweeting will be a requirement for your course, it would be wise to make that clear in the course description and again on the first day of class. Student response to tweeting in Jones’ course and to the courses described in the previous blog posts on Twitter have been overwhelmingly positive. The Innovative Instructor welcomes comments on your pedagogical experiences with Twitter specifically or social media more generally.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Twitter blue logo https://about.twitter.com/press/brand-assets

Lunch and Learn: Alternatives to the Traditional Textbook

On Thursday, October 25, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.the first Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year. Marian Feldman, Professor and Chair of History of Art, Professor of Near Eastern Studies; and Joanne Selinski, Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Computer Science; presented on Alternatives to the Traditional Textbook.

Marian Feldman started with a presentation on the Open Educational Resource (OER) she created several years ago for her courses on ancient Mesopotamian art [see slides]. She commented that Mesopotamian art may seem esoteric; not many people are readily familiar with the subject matter. Mesopotamian culture began in the 10th millennium BCE, centered in (but at times extending well beyond) what is now Iraq, and flourished in the Bronze and Iron Ages with the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian empires from the 3rd millennium to the 6th century BCE.

“Open Educational Resources are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.” (creativecommons.org) Feldman’s motivation for creating OER for her course stemmed in large part from the fact that there was no good textbook available. The only text, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (Frankfort) was published in 1954, and though new editions were released up until 1996, the material was not updated. In 2017, a new text, Art of Mesopotamia (Bahrani), was published, but at $90 a copy, Feldman plans to stick with the OER she developed as a free alternative for her students that is also more directly relevant to the materials she covers.

The OER has other value as well. When Mesopotamian art is introduced in a standard survey of art course, a $90 textbook is overkill, while the modularity of her OER works perfectly for an introductory approach. Feldman was also interested in highlighting these works of art in a time when many cultural heritage sites and objects in the region have been destroyed or are under threat. The OER as an open resource puts information in the public domain where it is easily accessible.

Screen shot of OpenStax CNX website home page.Feldman applied for and won Technology Fellowship Grants (2015 and 2016) from the Center for Educational Resources (CER) that allowed her to work with two graduate students in Near Eastern Studies, Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor, to undertake the project. The CER advised her on a platform for sharing the modules—OpenStax CNX at Rice University. From the website: “OpenStax publishes high-quality, peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks that are absolutely free online and low cost in print.” OpenStax CNX was a good fit because Feldman was not particularly technology oriented, and it offered a relatively easy-to-use platform. She also liked the “knowledge chunks” concept where content modules can be aggregated into a custom “text” for students. The platform uses a Creative Commons license and content is freely accessible to all.

Feldman and her graduate students created 15 modules over two years. Each module is stand alone, and many incorporate videos. The modules can be downloaded as a PDF—which students found useful for study purposes—although multimedia content such as videos is not viewable in the PDF. She noted that because the platform is open, she cannot track use by individual students to be sure that they are viewing the modules. However, end-of-course surveys of the students indicated that they had found the OER modules to be valuable course content. She received positive feedback from colleagues as well. The one complaint from students was that at times the platform was slow, particularly when playing multimedia clips and downloading materials.

There were challenges with creating the OER modules. Feldman acknowledged that it was a lot of work. All multimedia content—images, videos, interactive materials—had to be in the public domain or permission had to be obtained from the rights holders. There were some technological challenges with the platform. Feldman described it as “clunky” at times. The built in HTML editor was easy to use, but limiting for formatting purposes. She had hoped that having the students use the modules might allow her to do less in-class lecturing, but that was not the case.

Feldman has run some analytics on the modules, using Google Analytics, and discovered that beyond her own use (and that of her students), the modules have been viewed by others, but perhaps not as much as she might have hoped. Over a 12-month period excluding JHU use, the various modules were viewed between 6 and 150 times. There was a big spread on the IP access—viewers came to the site from around the world. The relatively small numbers of viewers for her modules on OpenStax CNX are in contrast to a TED-Ed Animation project she worked on during the same time period, targeted at the K-12 constituency. The Rise and Fall of the Assyrian Empire has received over a million views!

zyBooks website home page screenshot.Joanne Selinski introduced the audience to zyBooks, billed as an affordable, interactive, online textbook platform for STEM disciplines. Selinski is piloting the use of a zyBook for the Gateway Computing course she is teaching, although she had previously used a limited version of zyBooks in teaching a Java course. While zyBooks is not free, it is relatively low-cost, about $50 per student depending on instructor customizations.

Selenski noted that she had the opposite problem from Feldman—her field, computer science, is constantly changing and advancing so that texts become outdated quickly and must be updated frequently. Print texts simply can’t keep up with the changing curriculum. Moreover, courses are not standardized across departments and institutions, so a standardized text may not be flexible enough for adaptation to a particular curriculum. And, every instructor teaches standard courses differently, so there really is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all textbook. Thus the discipline has seen a move from print books to courseware on interactive platforms.

In Selinski’s experience, students didn’t read textbooks and she would have to repeat the information in class. Homework assignments applied the work done in class. Using zyBooks allowed her to flip her class model, with students learning concepts outside of class and doing applied work in class individually or in groups. She had wanted to flip her class previously, but didn’t want to use only videos for outside-of-class instruction. While she does use some videos as a supplement, zyBooks provided a great overall solution.

Selinski gave a demonstration of the customized zyBook that she developed for her Gateway Computing course. The modules are a mix of various types of demonstrations and exercises interspersed with fill-in-the-blank, true-false, and multiple choice questions. She finds that the quizzing while doing method is beneficial to student learning. There are challenge activities for students looking for more advanced work, but they are not required as in-class group work covers the challenge material. Everything is auto-graded. Selinski can choose which assignments will be graded. The biggest benefit is that students get introduced to the core material before they come to class.

Selinski noted that the company worked closely with her (and other JHU faculty in the pilot) to develop their texts from a menu of pre-created modules. She liked that zyBooks offers lots of options for customization. The interface is easy to use. She can add notes on the modules for specific instructions or to make comments. More advanced students can take advantage of extra materials. She was able to add a student who enrolled in the class late and change the deadlines/due dates for that individual. And, she can see who has done what in terms of the on-line work. Overall, zyBooks has great reporting features. Her one caveat was that students won’t do work unless it is required.

Because this is the first semester of use, she does not yet have data on student response to the platform, however informal comments suggest that students like it overall. She responded to student complaints that too much was required in the early part of the semester and reduced required material to some extent. She will like be more selective when using zyBooks next semester.

A lively discussion followed the presentations. There was a question about whether material from these alternative texts could be integrated into Blackboard, JHU’s course management system. In both cases, the answer is no, that these are separate platforms. Links to material can be provided in Blackboard, but the content resides on the platform—OpenStax or zyBooks.

Selinski was asked to elaborate on what students do during class time. Classes are small sections of 19 or fewer students, and she has a teaching assistant, so she can have them working individually or in small groups and oversee them all. Generally, there is an in-class assignment, activity, or problem to be solved that reflects the material covered in zyBooks. Sometimes students are working on paper, others times on their laptops, other times on the board. For some activities she may do a brief lecture for background before the students start working.

There were questions about the zyBooks platform, course development, and subscription model, and the availability of materials for students on both platforms after a course has ended. Selinski elaborated that zyBooks offers general texts that are updated frequently and can be customized by each instructor for their use. A course can be saved and copied for use in a subsequent semester. There is no sharing across institutions—another institution cannot readily see a JHU instance of a course. Students subscriptions are for the duration of the semester; after which they cannot access the course. They are able to download PDFs of content during the semester they are enrolled. Feldman noted that OpenStax CNX is by nature open and free accessible to anyone at any time.

There was some discussion about the benefits of interactivity, and there was agreement that modality should match the content being presented. As for print versus online, it is clear that it may come down to personal preference–some prefer reading online while others want a hard copy of a text. Feldman noted that the evolution of the Internet has led to a re-thinking of the concept of an intellectual canon for an area of humanistic study. The Internet allows a break from such narratives with inherent advantages and drawbacks. This has implications for how faculty teach and students learn. [See M.H. Feldman, Rethinking the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art in the Internet Age, Published Online: 2017-06-22, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/janeh-2016-0002.]

Finally, Mike Reese, Associate Dean of University Libraries, Director of the CER, and lecturer in Sociology, offered another alternative to the textbook that is free to students. In the courses he teaches he is committed to students not having to pay for textbooks. Instead he assigns materials such as e-books and research articles that are available to students through the library. This Lunch and Learn session demonstrated that there is more than one way to lower the cost of textbook materials for your students.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Web page screenshots

What’s New in the News?

Row of brightly colored newspaper boxes.At The Innovative Instructor, I follow other pedagogy blogs and publications, and have a few favorites that are frequently referenced in these pages, including Vanderbilt mathematics professor Derek Bruff’s Agile Learning (“educational technology, visual thinking, student motivation, faculty development, how people learn, social media, and more”), Faculty Focus (“higher education teaching strategies”), Pedagogy Unbound (“a place for college teachers to share practical strategies for today’s classrooms”), and Tomorrow’s Professor (“online faculty development 100 times per year”).

One old friend, ProfHacker, had been hosted since 2009 at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and is now becoming independent. Beginning Monday, October 1, 2018, you’ll find new posts, as well as archived material, at Profhacker.com. ProfHacker has long been a great resource for technology for instructors inside and outside of the classroom, including hacks for productivity and personal work as well as teaching and learning.

Another good blog retired last spring, but fortunately the posts are archived. Teaching Tidbits, hosted by the Mathematical Association of America, offered assistance with problems math instructors face, but many of the posts were relevant to all teaching faculty (e.g., 5 Ways to Respond When Students Offer Incorrect Answer, How Transparency Improves Learning).

Recently I have come across two new-to-me resources I’d like to share. The first is Mark Connolly’s (Associate Research Scientist, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin School of Education) STEM Professor Newsletter. This, like Tomorrow’s Professor, is an email subscription. Unlike Tomorrow’s Professor’s posts, back issues of the newsletter do not seem to be available online. You can see the first two issues on the website to get an idea of the content.

Second, the Chronicle of Higher Education now offers the Teaching Newsletter. The link will take you to a page where you can subscribe as well as see back editions with articles such as What Podcasts Can Teach Us About Teaching, When Your Course Suddenly Needs an Overhaul, How One Teaching Expert Activates Students’ Curiosity, and The 5 Tips for Student Success That a Longtime Instructor Swears By.

There’s lots of great advice, teaching strategies, and instructional resources offered in these blogs and publications. Now comes the challenge of finding time to read it all.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

The New Google Sites

We’re always on the lookout for applications that instructors and their students can use to enhance course work. A previous post We Have a Solution for That: Student Presentations, Posters, and Websites (October 6, 2017) mentioned a new version of Google Sites as having potential as a presentation software that allows for easy collaboration among student team members. Today’s post will delve deeper into its possibilities and use. This post is also available in PDF format as part of The Innovative Instructor articles series.

Logo for Google SitesNew Google Sites is an online website creation platform. It doesn’t require web development or design experience to create sites that work well on mobile devices. The New Google Sites application is included with the creation tools offered in Google Drive, making it easier to share and integrate your Google Drive content.

In 2006 Google purchased JotSpot, a software company that had been creating social software for businesses. The software acquired from that purchase was used to create the first iteration of Google Sites, now known as Classic Google Sites. Ten years later, Google launched a completely rebuilt Google Sites, which is currently being referred to as New Google Sites.

New Google Sites hasn’t replaced Classic Google Sites so much as it offers a new and different experience. The focus of New Google Sites is to increase collaboration for all team members regardless of their web development experience. It is also integrated with Google Drive so that teams working within the Google apps environment can easily associate shared content.

This new iteration of Google Sites is designed with mobile devices in mind. Users are

Screenshot example of the New Google Sites editing interface.

Example of the New Google Sites editing interface.

not able to add special APIs (Application Programmable Interface, which extends functionality of an application) or edit HTML directly. This keeps the editing interface

and options simple to ensure that whatever you create will work consistently across all browsers and devices. While this may seem limiting, you still have the option to use Classic Google Sites if you want a higher level of control.

In a classroom setting, instructors are often cautious about assigning students projects that require them to learn new technical skills that aren’t directly relevant to the course content. Instructors must balance the time it will take students to achieve technical competency against the need to ensure that students achieve the course learning goals. With New Google Sites, students can focus on their content without being overwhelmed by the technology.

In addition to ease of use, collaborative features allow students to work in teams and share content. Group assignments can offer students a valuable learning experience by providing opportunities for inclusivity, exposure to diverse viewpoints, accountability through team roles, and improved project outcomes.

New Google Sites makes it easy for the causal user to disseminate new ideas, original research, and self-expression to a public audience. If the website isn’t ready to be open to the world, the site’s editor has the ability to keep it unpublished while still having the option to collaborate or share it with select people. This is an important feature as student work may not be ready for a public audience or there may be intellectual property rights issues that preclude public display.

Professors at here at Johns Hopkins have used New Google Sites for assignments. In the History of Science and Technology course, Man vs. Machine: Resistance to New Technology since the Industrial Revolution, Assistant Professor Joris Mercelis had students use New Google Sites for their final projects. Teams of two or three students were each asked to create a website to display an illustrated essay based on research they had conducted. Images and video were required to support their narrative arguments. Students had to provide proper citations for all materials. Mercelis wanted the students to focus on writing for a lay audience, an exercise that encouraged them to think broadly about the topics they were studying.

History of Art Professor Stephen Campbell used a single Google Site where student teams collaborated to produce an online exhibition, Exhibiting the Renaissance Nude: The Body Exposed. Each student group was responsible for supplying the materials for one of five topic pages. The content developed from this project was accessible only to the class.

In both cases, students reported needing very little assistance when editing their sites. Typically, giving an introductory demonstration and providing resources for where to find help are all students need to begin working.

Recently, Google has created the ability to allow other Google Drive content to be embedded in a site. This means that you can embed a form or a document on a web page to elicit responses/feedback from your audience without them having to leave the site. This level of integration further supports the collaborative nature of Google applications.

Currently, this iteration of Google Sites uses the New in its title. There may come a time when Google will drop the New or re-brand New Google Sites with a different name. There is no indication that Google will stop supporting Classic Google Sites with its more advanced features.

Use of both versions of Google Sites is free and accessible using your Google Account. You can create a new site by signing into Google and going to the New Google Sites page (link provided below). You can also create a site from Google Drive’s “New” button in the creation tools menu.

It is recommended that students create a new account for class work instead of us­ing their personal accounts. While this is an additional step, it ensures that they can keep their personal lives separated from their studies.

A Google Site as displayed on a desktop, tablet, and smartphone.

A Google Site as displayed on a desktop, tablet, and smartphone.

Additional Resources:

Reid Sczerba, Multimedia Developer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Google Sites logo, screenshots

Grading in the fast lane with Gradescope

[Guest post by Scott Smith, Professor, Computer Science, Johns Hopkins University]

Three speedometers for quality, grades per hour, and efficiency.Grading can be one of the most time consuming and tedious aspects of teaching a course, but it’s important to give prompt and meaningful feedback to your students. In large courses, aligning grading practices across multiple teaching assistants (TAs) necessitates a level of coordination that includes scheduling grading meetings, reviewing materials for correct answers, and calibrating point evaluations, all of which can take up valuable time during the semester.

In courses that teach programming, we typically assign students projects that require them to write programs to solve problems. When instructors grade this type of assignment, they not only have to observe the program’s results but also the student’s approach. If the results are not correct or the program doesn’t run, we have to spend time reviewing hundreds of lines of code to debug the program to give thoughtful feedback.

In the past, my method for grading assignments with my TAs may have been arduous but it worked. However, last year, no TAs were assigned to my Principles of Programming Languages course. Concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time to do all the work, I looked for another solution.

Consistent grading and providing meaningful feedback for student’s every submission, especially with multiple teaching assistants (TAs) can be challenging. Typically, when grading, I would schedule a time to sit down with all of my TAs, review the assignment or exam, give each TA a set of questions to grade, pass the submissions around until all were graded, and finally calculate the grades. When a TA had a question, we could address it as a group and make the related adjustments throughout the submissions as needed. While this system worked, it was tedious and time consuming. Occasionally, inconsistencies in the grades came up, which could prompt regrade requests from students. I kept thinking that there had to be a better way.

About year and a half ago, a colleague introduced me to an application called Gradescope to manage the grading of assignments and exams. I spent a relatively short amount of time getting familiar with the application and used it in a course in the fall of 2016, for both student-submitted homework assignments and in-class paper exams. In the case of the homework, students would upload a digital version of the assignment to Gradescope. The application would then prompt the student to designate the areas in the document where their answers can be found so that the application could sort and organize the submissions for the ease of grading. For the in-class exams, I would have the students work on a paper-based exam that I set up in Gradescope with the question areas established. I then would scan and upload the exams so that Gradescope could associate the established question areas to the student submissions automatically. The process of digitizing the completed tests and correlating them to the class roster was made easy with a scanner and Gradescope’s automatic roster matching feature. Gradescope became a centralized location where my TAs and I could grade student work.

There are a few ways to consider incorporating Gradescope into your course. Here is a non-exhaustive list of scenarios for both assignments and exams that can be accommodated:

  • Handwritten/drawn homework (students scan them and upload the images/PDFs)
  • Electronic written homework (students upload PDFs)
  • In-class exams (instructor scans them and uploads the PDFs)
  • Coding scripts for programming assignment (students upload their program’s files for auto-grading)
  • Code assignments graded by hand (students upload PDFs of code)

The real power of Gradescope is that it requires setting up a reusable rubric (a list of competencies or qualities used to assess correct answers) to grade each question. When grading, you select from or add to the rubric to add or deduct points. This keeps the grading consistent across multiple submissions. As the rubric is established as a part of the assignment, you can also update the point values at any time if you later determine that a larger point addition/deduction is advisable, and the grade calculations will update automatically.

Screenshot from Gradescope--Review grade for assignment feature.

Screenshot of Gradescope’s Review Grade for an assignment

After being informed that I wouldn’t have any TAs for my Principles of Programming Languages course the following semester, I was motivated to use one of Gradescope’s [features, the programming assignment auto-grader platform. Being able to automatically provide grades and feedback for students’ submitted code has long been a dream of instructors who teach programming. Gradescope offers a language-agnostic environment in which the instructor sets up the components and libraries needed for the students’ programs to run. The instructor establishes a grading script that is the basis for the analysis, providing grades and feedback for issues found in each student’s submitted program.

Overall, the use of Gradescope has reduced time spent grading and improves the quality of feedback that I am able to provide students. For instance, when I release grades to the students, they are able to review each of the descriptive rubrics that were used when grading their submissions, as well as any additional comments. Auto-grader was really the star feature in this case. Students were able to submit their code, determine if it would run, and make corrections before the deadline to increase their chances of a better grade. There are features to reduce the number of allowed submissions, but I choose not to set a limit so that the students could use an iterative approach to getting the right solution.

Gradescope is only effective if your rubrics and grading criteria are well thought out, and the auto-grading scripts require some time to set up.  Creating the grading scripts for the programming assignments may seem time intensive, but by frontloading the work with detailed rubrics and test cases, more time is saved in the grading process. The value of this preparation scales as enrollment increases, and the rubrics and scripts can be reused when you teach the course again. With more time during the semester freed up by streamlining the grading process, my TAs and I were able to increase office hours, which is more beneficial in the long run for the students.

Screenshot showing student's submission with rubric items used in grading.

Student’s submission with rubric items used in grading

The process for regrading is much easier for both students and instructors. Before Gradescope, a regrade request meant determining which TA graded that question, discussing the request with them, and then potentially adjusting the grade. With the regrade feature, students submit a regrade request, which gets routed to that question’s grader (me or the TA) with comments for the grader to consider. The grader can then award the regrade points directly to the student’s assignment. As the instructor, I can see all regrade requests, and can override if necessary, which helps to reduce the bureaucracy and logistics involved with manual regrading. Additionally, regrade requests and Gradescope’s assignment statistics feature may allow you to pinpoint issues with a particular question or how well students have understood a topic.

I have found that when preparing assignments with Gradescope, I am more willing to create multiple mini-assignments. With large courses, the tendency would be to create fewer assignments that are larger in scope to lessen the amount of grading. When there are too few submission points for students who are deadline oriented, I find that they wait till the last few days to start the assignment, which can make the learning process less effective. By adding more assignments, I can scaffold the learning to incrementally build on topics taught in class.

After using Gradescope for a year, I realized that it could be used to detect cheating. Gradescope allows you to see submissions to specific questions in sequence, making it easy to spot submissions that are identical, a red-flag for copied answers. While not a feature, it is an undocumented bonus. It should also be noted that Gradescope adheres to FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) standards for educational tools.

Additional Resources:

  • Gradescope website: https://gradescope.com
  • NOTE TO JHU READERS ONLY: The institutional version of Gradescope is currently available to JHU faculty users through a pilot program. If you are faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus interested in learning more about how Gradescope might work for your courses, contact Reid Sczerba in the Center for Educational Resources at rsczerb1@jhu.edu.

 

Scott Smith, Professor
Department of Computer Science, Johns Hopkins University

Scott Smith has been a professor of Computer Science at Hopkins for almost 30 years. His research specialty is programming languages. For the past several years, he has taught two main courses, Software Engineering, a 100 student project-based class, and Principles of Programming Languages, a mathematically-oriented course with both written and small programming assignments.

Images Sources: CC Reid Sczerba, Gradescope screenshots courtesy Scott Smith

New Mobile Application to Improve Your Teaching

Tcrunch logo. Tcrunch in white letters on blue background.Finding time to implement effective teaching strategies can be challenging, especially for professors where teaching is only one of their many responsibilities. PhD student John Hickey is trying to solve this problem with Tcrunch, a new application (available on the Apple and Google App stores for free) he has created.

Tcrunch enables more efficient and frequent teacher-student communication. You can think about it as an electronic version of the teaching strategy called an “exit ticket.” An “exit ticket” is traditionally a 3×5 card given to students at the end of class; the teacher asks a question to gain feedback from the students and the students write a brief response. Here you can do the same thing, but Tcrunch eliminates any paper and performs all collecting and analyzing activities in real-time.

Tcrunch Teacher Portal screen shot.There is both a teacher and student portal into the app. Teachers can create and manage different classes. Within a class, teachers can create a question or prompt and release it to their students, who will also have Tcrunch. Students can then see this question, click on it, and answer it. Student answers come into the teacher’s app in real-time. Teachers can evaluate the results in the app or email themselves the results in the form of an Excel document. Other functionalities include multiple choice, a bank of pre-existing questions to help improve teaching, and an anonymous setting for student users.

John developed Tcrunch because of his own struggles with time and improving learning in the classroom:

“I taught my first university-level class at Johns Hopkins, and I wanted more regular feedback to my teaching style, classroom activities, and student comprehension than just the course evaluation at the end of the year. As an engineer, frequent feedback is critical to iterative improvements. I also knew that I was not going to handout, collect, read, and analyze dozens of papers at the end of each class. So, I created Tcrunch.”

The app development process took nearly a year, with iterative coding and testing with Tcrunch student view of app. Screen shot.teachers and students. Both student and teacher users have enjoyed using Tcrunch. They have referenced enjoying the ease of use, being able to create and answer questions on the go, and having a platform for all their classes in one place. John has personally found Tcrunch has helped him to restructure classroom time and assignment load, and even to find out why students are missing class.

John cites this development process as the main difference between his app and already existing polling technologies.

“Finding out what the professors and students wanted allowed me to see the needs that were not filled by existing technologies. This resulted in an app specifically designed to help teachers, instead of the other way around, for example, a generalized polling tool that is also applied to teaching. The specificity in design gives it its unique functionality and user experience.”

In the future John wants to extend the reach of Tcrunch to more teachers through advertising and partnering with Edtech organizations.

While the app may not be as flashy as Pokemon Go, Tcrunch has great utility and potential in the classroom.

To find and use the app, search Tcrunch in the Apple or Google App stores and download. John Hickey can be contacted at jhickey8@jhmi.edu

John Hickey
National Science Foundation Fellow
Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. Candidate
Johns Hopkins University

Images source: John Hickey 2018

Lunch and Learn: Creating Rubrics and Calibrating Multiple Graders

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, December 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 2017-2018 academic year.  Laura Foster, Academic Advisor, Public Health Studies, and Reid Mumford, Instructional Resource Advisor, Physics & Astronomy, presented on Creating Rubrics and Calibrating Multiple Graders.

Laura Foster led by giving us a demonstration of her use of Blackboard for creating rubrics. She noted that she might be “preaching to the choir” but hoped that those present might take back these best practices to their colleagues. Noting that many faculty have negative opinions of Blackboard, she put in a plug for its organizational benefits and facilitation of communication with students.

Foster started using Blackboard tools for a Public Health Studies class where she was grading student reflections. The subject matter—public health studies in the media—was outside of her field of physical chemistry. Blackboard facilitates creating a rubric that students can see when doing an assignment and the instructor then uses to grade that work. She showed the rubric detail that students see in Blackboard, and how the rubric can be used in grading. [See the CER Tutorial on Blackboard Rubrics and Rubrics-Helpful Hints] The rubric gives the students direction and assures that the instructor (or other graders) will apply the same standards across all student work.

It empowers students when they know exactly what criteria will be used in evaluating their work and how many points will be assigned to each component. Foster has found that using rubrics is an effective way to communicate assignment requirements to students, and that it helps her to clarify for herself what at the most important points. She noted that a rubric is very useful when there are multiple graders, such as Teaching Assistants (TAs), as it helps to calibrate the grading.

In response to questions from the audience, Foster stated that rubrics can be developed to cover both qualitative and quantitative elements. Developing good rubrics is an iterative process; it took her some time to sharpen her skills. There is flexibility in differentiating points allotted, but the instructor must be thoughtful, plan for a desired outcome, and communicate clearly. The rubric tool can be used to grade PDF files as well as Word documents. Foster noted that it is important to take opportunities to teach students to learn to write, learn to use technology, learn to read instructions, and learn to look at feedback given on assignments. Being transparent and explaining why you are using a particular technology will go a long way.

Reid Mumford gave his presentation on how he calibrates multiple graders (see slides). Mumford oversees the General Physics lab courses. This is a two semester, required sequence, so not all students are excited to be there. The sequences are on Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism; both labs are taught every semester with multiple sections for each course. Approximately 600 to 700 students are taking these lab sequences each semester; students are divided into sections of about 24 students. The labs are open-ended and flexible, so students aren’t filling in blanks and checking boxes, which would be easier to grade. Lab sections are taught and graded by graduate student TAs, with about 30 TAs teaching each semester. Teaching and grading styles vary among these TAs as would be expected. Clearly, calibrating their grading is a challenge.

Grades are based on the best 9 of 10 lab activities, which consist of a pre-lab quiz and a lab note. All activities are graded using the same rubric. The grading scale used can be seen in the slides. One of the criteria for grading is “style,” which allows some flexibility and qualitative assessment. Students have access to the rubric, which is also shown in the slides.

About three years ago, Mumford adopted Turnitin (TII), the plagiarism detection tool, for Screen shot of Quick Mark grading tool.its efficient grading tools. It works well for his use because it is integrated with Blackboard. TII does its job in detecting cheating (and Mumford noted that lots of students are cheating), but it is the grading tools that are really important for the TAs. TAs are encouraged to be demanding in their grading and leave a lot of feedback, so grading takes them two to four hours each week. TII’s Feedback Studio (formerly known as GradeMark) allows TAs to accomplish their mission. [See CER tutorial on Feedback Studio and The Innovative Instructor post on GradeMark.] It was the QuickMark feature that sold Mumford on Feedback Studio and TII grading. Using the rubric for each activity, QuickMark can be pre-populated with commonly-used comments, which can then be dragged and dropped onto the student’s submitted work.

Graph showing General Physics Laboratory Section Grading Trends.These tools helped make the grading load more efficient, but calibrating the multiple graders was another challenge. Mumford found that the TAs need lots of feedback on their grading. Each week he downloads all the grades from Blackboard grade centers. He creates a plot that shows the average score for the weekly lab assignment. Outliers to the average scores are identified and these TAs are counseled so that their grading can be brought into line. Mumford also looks at section grading trends and can see which sections are being graded more leniently or harshly than average. He works with those TAs to standardize their grading.

In calculating final grades for the course, Mumford keeps three points in mind: final letter grades must be calculated, there should be no “easy” or “hard” sections of lab, and distribution should not vary (significantly) between sections. He makes use of per-section mapping and uses average and standard deviation to map results to a final letter grade model. Mumford noted that students are made aware, repeatedly, of the model being used. He is very transparent—everything is explained in the syllabus and reiterated weekly in lab sessions.

In conclusion, Mumford offered these take-aways:

  • Calibrating Multiple Graders is not easy
  • Tools are needed to handle multiple sections efficiently
  • Rubrics help but do not solve the calibration problem
  • Regular feedback to graders is essential
  • Limit of the system: student standing is ambiguous

In the future Mumford plans to give students a better understanding of course standing, to calculate a per-section curve each week, and to overcome some technical issues and the greater time investment that will be required with weekly calibrating and rescaling.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo, slides from Mumford presentation

We Have a Solution for That: Student Presentations, Posters, and Websites

Some of our faculty are moving away from traditional end-of-semester assessments, such as term papers and high-stakes final exams, in favor of projects that can be scaffolded over a period of time. These may include having students share their research in an oral presentation, poster, or website. The question is, how do you support their research output? Fortunately, we have some solutions!

If your students are doing either oral presentations or electronic posters, check out Prezi Next, the new version of the online presentation application. [See our post on the original version, The Power of Prezi, from October 2014.] The new version, which runs on HTML5 rather than Adobe Flash, offers many more templates, a more intuitive interface, supports more file types, and is easier to navigate while presenting. While Prezi is great for a linear presentation, one advantage is that presentations can be designed to be non-linear, useful for facilitating a less formal discussion for example.

Looking for a presentation software that allows for easy collaboration among student team members? Check out Google Slides. Like Google Docs and Google Sheets, access to the slides can be shared and multiple users can work on the sides remotely and simultaneously—there’s even a chat feature to make group editing easy. There are some nicely designed templates, themes in Google-speak, and you can easily integrate content from Google spread sheets and documents. There is also a downloadable version of Google Slides for desktop use.

If you don’t like the templates in PowerPoint or Google Slides, check out Slides Carnival, which has many creative templates available for download, including fonts, icon sets, maps, and charts, graphs, and tables styled for each template. These work with both PowerPoint and Google Slides.

If you are looking to have your students create a website, Google Sites has recently come out with a new version of its website creation application. When you sign into Google Sites you can choose to use the classic version or the new one. The new version gives you fewer options (just six themes available currently), but is a snap to use, being essentially drag and drop. There no messing with HTML code, and it is easy to tie into the content from your other Google apps. There is an “add editors” feature that will facilitate group work. It’s a great option when you want your students to be focused on creating content, not on struggling with technology.

We also have some resources for students doing presentations and posters—online videos on creating and designing effective PowerPoint presentations and posters, as well as some handouts on these topics. See Presentation Strategies on the CER website. If your students (or you) are looking for freely-available and rights-free visual resources (images and multimedia) check out CER’s Visual Resources page.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: cc Wikimedia Commons

We Have an App for That! SketchUp

SketchUp logo.SketchUp is a three-dimensional rendering application that uses a sketch-based approach for creating models. It may be beneficial to anyone looking to visualize three Screen shot showing the range of items (people, landscaping, buildings, monuments, vehicles, appliances, furnishings) that can be drawn with SketchUp.dimensional structures, spaces, or objects. With a free-to-use version available for download, SketchUp is an affordable way to develop 3D models. It is easy to learn compared to professional 3D graphic software packages.

The application was created in 2000 by @Last Software. Google purchased SketchUp in 2006. Under Google’s ownership, the program was developed further and integrated with Google Earth to allow importing models for geo-location. In 2012, Google sold SketchUp to Trimble Inc., a mapping, navigation, and surveying equipment company. Trimble continues to develop the application and support SketchUp’s growing community of users.

Three-dimensional rendering software is typically complex and requires a significant time investment to learn and use. SketchUp was developed to be intuitive and easy to learn with the intent to bring “3D modeling to the masses.” It was used early on by architectural firms to provide quick concept renderings of buildings and environments. Today, the application is used by interior designers, landscape architects, civil and mechanical engineers, and film and video game creators. There are use cases for the program ranging from exploring building structures, conceptualizing mechanical objects, teaching complex structures, and remodeling houses.

Using your imagination to conceptualize physical spaces is difficult. CommunicatingSketchUp drawing showing a building in ground elevation. ideas and concepts that involve spatial and volumetric relationships in space, such as comparison of size and distance between objects, is often more effectively accomplished by sharing visualizations and renderings of the subject. This allows viewers to have a common point of reference in which to talk about details.

Three-dimensional models offer immersive and engaging aspects that are potentially exciting to viewers. For example, sharing a virtual walkthrough of an ancient city or a 360-degree view of a design prototype can make the experience memorable for your students, which helps them retain the information presented.

Creating three-dimensional models for pedagogical purposes has traditionally required the use of expensive professional modeling applications and highly skilled staff. SketchUp’s free modeling tools make the process of creating models an intuitive experience. This can be a great starting point for faculty to produce three-dimensional models and environments. Moreover, your students may not have developed the ability to think spatially. Assigning a course project that involves the use of SketchUp creates an opportunity for learning these skills.

Screenshot of SketchUp building plan showing extensions and repositories.SketchUp provides accurate tools for the rendering of objects and spaces. As an easy entry point for CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, SketchUp can be used in disciplines that require technical drawings and diagrams. For example, SketchUp can be used to conceptualize urban planning initiatives to think through the impact of proposed changes to a community. Resulting models can be shared with stakeholders complete with walkthrough animations and annotations to provide additional information.

Drawing of a verge and folio mechanism created in SketchUp by Reid Sczerba.

Example diagram of verge and folio mechanism created in SketchUp.

SketchUp can be particularly useful for design projects in engineering disciplines that require the development of prototypes, such as a design project to develop a radio transmitter and receiver within a size specification that could withstand an impact of 100 pounds of force. Team-members could use SketchUp to map out the circuitry for the electrical components and develop the housing. There are methods to use a SketchUp model to create a physical prototype with a 3D printer.

At Hopkins, Bill Leslie, a professor of History of Science and Technology, had in the past required students to build a shoebox diorama of a museum exhibition featuring a topic of their choice. After discovering SketchUp, he offered students the option to create their exhibition space in 3D. The students were unanimous in choosing SketchUp, which improved both the consistency of the projects and the logistics of presenting them to class. Students demonstrated creativity and engagement in the project.

Interest in virtual and augmented reality has increased in recent years. Companies have developed new technologies and methods to offer opportunities for people to experience virtual environments. Universities have been investigating technologies such as Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, and Microsoft HoloLens. Currently, there is a lack of content available to make use of these emerging technologies. SketchUp could find itself in a position to be a starting point for the creation of 3D spaces that can be experienced in a highly immersive environment.

Trimble offers a free version of the application called SketchUp Make. It includes all of the basic features for modeling. SketchUp Pro is a full featured version that includes features such as solid modeling tools, importing terrain and satellite imagery, dynamic components, and importing and exporting file formats necessary for use in other applications. If you are an educator and plan on teaching with SketchUp, you can request a free one-year license to use the full-featured SketchUp Pro. Students are also able to get a discount on a one-year license with proof of enrollment.

There are video tutorials available for learning SketchUp. These tutorials are often the most efficient way to learn the application and get a quick start on a project.

One of the best resources from the SketchUp community is the 3D Warehouse, an online repository for sharing user-generated models. The models found in the 3D Warehouse can be a starting point for your own projects. There are a number of companies that have uploaded professionally created models of their products so if you are looking for a specific model of say, a household appliance, you may find it there.

SketchUp is highly extendable, giving users the ability to develop plugins with the Ruby programming language. The Extension Warehouse is a repository of plugins you may install in your instance of SketchUp. Not all plugins are free, but if you need to have a photo-realistic polish or find a way to streamline a modeling process, the Extension Warehouse may have the answer.

Additional Resources

This post originally appeared as part of our Innovative Instructor print series in the Technology forum as SketchUp.

Reid Sczerba, Multimedia Development Specialist
Center for Educational Resources

Images sources: Logo and screenshots from SketchUp.com, Verge and Folio digram CC Reid Sczerba.

Considering the Use of Turnitin

Earlier this week an article from Inside Higher Ed (IHE) caught my eye. Sign with hand and text reading prevent plagiarism. In New Salvo Against Turnitin (June 19, 2017) Nick Roll summarizes an essay by Sean Michael Morris, Instructional Designer in the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College, and Jesse Stommel, Executive Director, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. The essay authors argue that faculty should rethink the use of Turnitin, questioning not only “…the control and use of people’s data by corporations…” but “…Turnitin’s entire business model, as well as the effects on academia brought on by its widespread popularity.” Morris and Stommel further contend that those using Turnitin “supplant good teaching with the use of inferior technology” reducing the student-instructor relationship to one where suspicion and mistrust are at the forefront. [Turnitin is a software application used to detect plagiarism, and Morris and Stommel are not the first to decry the company’s business model and practices.]

Although the IHE article provides a fair summary, as well as additional comments by Morris and Stommel, it is worth reading the 3,928 word essay—A Guide for Resisting Edtech: The Case Against Turnitin (Digital Pedagogy Lab, June 15, 2017)—to appreciate the complex argument. I agree with some of the concerns the authors address and feel we should be doing more individually and collectively to school ourselves and our students in the critical evaluation of digital tools, but disagree with what I feel are over-simplifications and unfair assumptions. Morris and Stommel cast faculty who use Turnitin as “surrendering efficiency over complication” by not taking the time and effort to use plagiarism as a teachable moment. Further, they state that Turnitin takes advantage of faculty who are characterized as being, at the core, mistrustful of students.

The assumption that faculty using Turnitin are not actively engaging in conversations around and instruction of ethical behavior, including plagiarism, and are not using other tools and resources in these activities is simply not correct. The assertion that faculty using Turnitin are suspicious teachers who are embracing an easy out via an efficient educational technology is also not accurate.

The reality is that some students will plagiarize, intentionally or not, and the Internet, social media practices, and cultural differences have rendered complicated students’ understanding of intellectual property. I believe that many of our institutions of higher learning, and faculty and library staff therein, make concerted efforts to teach students about academic integrity. This includes the meaning and value of intellectual property, as well as finer points of what constitutes plagiarism and strategies to avoid it.

I believe it is relevant to note that Middlebury College’s website boasts a mean class size of 16, while the University of Mary Washington lists an average class size of 19. Student-faculty ratios are 8 to1 and 14 to 1 respectively.  I cannot help but feel that Morris and Stommel are speaking from a point of privilege working in these two institutions. Instructors who teach at large, underfunded, state universities with classes of hundreds of students, relying on a corps of teaching assistants to grade their essays, are in a different boat.

The authors state: “So, if you’re not worried about paying Turnitin to traffic your students’ intellectual property, and you’re not worried about how the company has glossed a complicated pedagogical issue to offer a simple solution, you might worry about how Turnitin reinforces the divide between teachers and students, short-circuiting the human tools we have to cross that divide.” In fact, we may all be worried about Turnitin’s business model and be seeking a better solution. Yet in this essay nothing more concrete is given us on those human tools and how faculty in less privileged circumstances can realistically and effectively make use of them.

The Innovative Instructor has in the past posted on Teaching Your Students to Avoid Plagiarism (November 5, 2012, Macie Hall), and using Turnitin as a teaching tool: Plagiarism Detection: Moving from “Gotcha” to Teachable Moment (October 9, 2013, Brian Cole and Macie Hall). These articles may be helpful for faculty struggling with the issues at hand.

Yes, we should all be critical thinkers about the pedagogical tools we use; in the real world, sometimes we face hard choices and must fall back on less than ideal solutions.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall