Instructional Technology @ UMB

Experiments using instructional technology at UMass Boston

by Marietta Schwartz

WebAssign vs. OWL

This semester I’ve got the big organic lecture (close to 200 students) again. Which I am thoroughly enjoying – using iClickers, the document camera, Blackboard, and OWL. This semester we decided to do a test of a different online homework system: WebAssign. The folks at WebAssign graciously agreed to let us do a one-semester trial at no cost, so I have both online homeworks available to the students and at the end of the semester I will be asking their opinion. I already have an opinion myself – and it is mixed! On the one hand, I am very familiar with OWL, and it doesn’t take me terribly long to set it up. The downside is that, due to the commercialization of the system and concerns about student privacy, instructor-level types such as myself no longer have access to some of the behind-the-scenes features that made the administration easy. The worst is the new method for adding in a student after the semester has begun. In the past, the student would send a roster request from inside OWL, it would show up as a message, I would click on the “add student” link, and that was it. Now, I have to add the student’s information to my roster spreadsheet and re-upload the spreadsheet, which means reminding OWL that this is a tab-delimited file, copying columns if necessary, adding headers to all the columns, and confirming that yes, this is really what I want to do. It takes a LOT longer. I understand the privacy concerns, but hey, these are my students, and I have all their information in my roster anyhow, so why can’t I just click on the link and go? I’m sure that the OWL administrative folks have very good reasons for this, but it is still annoying. And they know that I feel that way, so this isn’t news at all; and I certainly don’t hold a grudge, just am continually annoyed every time I have to add a student. Oh well.

On the other hand, WebAssign, while it does use questions specifically from our textbook (but adds in variables, similar to OWL, so that students don’t always see the same question; this is one of the beauties of an online homework system IMHO) is more difficult to set up. When the section was created, I had to put an end date on it. Silly me, I put the last day of classes, not realizing that all assignments would have to have a due date earlier than that. And it defaulted to 12:00 AM, which is really midnight the night before. And what I really want is for students to be able to access the problems until the final, which is a few days later. The WebAssign help system says that I can change that date, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how. Sigh.

I’m waiting for the end of the semester to run any student reports, so don’t have a sense yet of how the two systems compare from that perspective. I have already gotten some student feedback, and (like my own opinions), it is mixed. We’ll see what the overall opinion is next month, I guess.

by Marietta Schwartz

Wikis and Blogs (Part 1)

So I’ll be teaching a Freshman Seminar this coming semester. That’ll be a new experience for me – I’ve been here for 22 years, I remember when the First-Year Seminar requirement was instituted (back in 2000 or so), but I’ve never had anything to do with developing or teaching one. So this should be interesting.

But all that aside, I’ve decided to incorporate two new (to me, at least) types of instructional technology into the course. First of all, the students will be divided up into groups of three, and each group will be responsible for developing a wiki over the course of the semester, and presenting it to the class at the end. (To put this all into context, the course is based on a book called "Napoleon’s Buttons: Seventeen Molecules that Changed History". I highly recommend it. Each group will choose a chapter from the book, and their wiki will elaborate on the material included in that chapter.)

I will also be presenting material from the book, and each student will be blogging their thoughts on the topics being presented. They will also be able to read and comment on each other’s blogs. Kind of like keeping a journal, but more public and with better handwriting. 🙂 I (fairly obviously) know a little more about blogs than I do about wikis, but I’m sure that I will learn more about both of these as the semester goes on, and will report back.

Wish me luck! 🙂

by Marietta Schwartz

More on Blackboard

So I have learned a lot more about the Blackboard course management system since the last time I posted (and it’s been a while, I know!). One of the things I’ve been exploring is the use of the "timed release" tool. I discovered that I could set up an entire course’s worth of quizzes and exams, have them right there, but hidden from the students until a particular day. You can set a release day and specify how long the quiz or exam is available. The release day/time comes, the quiz magically appears, students have a set amount of time to take it (I generally make it available for 3 days – but they only get one attempt, and once they start they have (for a quiz) 30 minutes to finish) and then it is no longer available.

This accomplishes a number of things. First, I don’t have to remember to go back in and set up a quiz the day or so before I want to give it. This is especially handy if it’s a summer course and I happen to be in New Hampshire or something that week and don’t want to haul all of my course materials with me. Secondly, it avoids the problem (at least I think it’s a problem) of students trying to either do the whole semester’s worth of work in the first week or in the last week. It effectively forces them to pace themselves. And in a science course, even if it’s aimed at non-science majors, pacing is important if you’re going to actually learn anything.

I have each chapter set up in Blackboard as a "learning module". Once the student enters the module, they see (in order) a chapter summary, chapter goals, links to the Adobe Presenter presentations (see separate blog post on that topic), links to relevant web pages, the homework assignment, any other assignments, and finally the chapter quiz. By setting it up this way, students don’t have to click all over the place in Blackboard – everything is collected in one tidy bundle. And it makes it very hard for someone to say "I didn’t know there was an assignment for that!"

So, Blackboard continues to be extremely useful, and I continue to encourage my colleagues to use it.

by Marietta Schwartz

Adobe Presenter

One of my sabbatical projects is converting an “in-person” course that the department hasn’t offered lately into an online course. As I was working on this, I was trying to decide the best way to present the actual course content. The course itself will be offered via Blackboard (see my earlier post on that topic); but how do online “lectures” work? I am not usually a PowerPoint-oriented person – I am much better at talking about material than I am at turning it into a pretty presentation – and I also believe that if you’re going to put every word onto a PowerPoint then why bother? Just assign reading in the textbook and leave it at that.

So, how can I turn my usual way of presenting material into something that works online? This is where Adobe Presenter comes into play. It’s a plugin for PowerPoint. Basically you put a normal sort of PowerPoint presentation together (so for me that means key points, illustrations, things like that – more of an outline than anything else) and then, using a nifty headset with built-in microphone, you record a voiceover. You advance the slides as if you were in a lecture hall – you can use all the cool animations, etc. that you want – and you talk about it, again just as if you were in a lecture hall. You can record over and over again, individual slides or the entire thing, and then when you’re happy with it, you “publish” it. The whole thing winds up as a Shockwave file, and lives on the UMB media server. You immediately get a URL for the presentation, which can then be put into Blackboard as a web link (or put on any other web page, or emailed to anyone that you want to show it to).

When the student clicks on the web link, they see the presentation and hear the audio at the same time. They can pause the presentation (perhaps you’ve put a link into a slide and you want them to go off and look at that before coming back to the presentation), they can replay any particular slide, they can jump ahead, they can watch it over and over again. There is also a “notes” tab, so if you wrote anything in the “notes” section of the PowerPoint, the student can read it. Very useful for making your presentation accessible to hearing-impaired students!

I’ve done three presentations so far, and have (I think) seven or eight more to go for a complete course. Another nice thing about this method is that it will be very easy to run the course again. If I decide I want to re-record something, or modify one of the presentations, I can – but if I’m happy with them they way they are, I just put the links into the new course and there you have it.

So, Adobe Presenter is a deceptively powerful tool for online teaching. It has lots of other cool features that I haven’t really explored yet – for instance, there is a quiz tool that lets you embed quiz questions right into the PowerPoint. You can also put animations into the PowerPoint and they will work beautifully in the final presentation (I have only used this once, but it looks great). There is a certain learning curve associated with it, but it wasn’t a steep one, so if you’re doing anything with online learning, whether a blended course or a fully online one, you might consider checking out Adobe Presenter.

by Marietta Schwartz


Another new piece of technology that I incorporated into my large lecture class last semester was "clickers". Also known as "Personal Response Systems" (PRS), these look a lot like a TV remote control. The student buys one, brings it to class, and uses the buttons (usually A-E) to "click in" their answer to a multiple choice question.

Step one is deciding on a brand of clicker to use. There are four or five different ones out there. After some research, I settled on the "iClicker" brand (and feel free to consider this a plug for the iClicker!). Why did I go with iClicker? A couple of different reasons. First of all, that’s the clicker type that was already being used in the big biology classes, and it seemed rather evil to make students purchase a different one. But that wasn’t what decided me. I discovered that many of the clickers out there require you to use proprietary software to write and display the questions. One of the neat things about the iClicker is that you can show the questions using whatever software you want – Word, PDF, PowerPoint, anything. If you can get it up on the screen so the students can see it, it will work. And that is very cool.

So, having decided to go with the iClicker, the next step was figuring out what to do with it. Actually, there are two very different things to worry about – one is what to ask, and the other is how to collect the data and give student feedback. Deciding what to ask is pretty easy, actually. You generally have to ask questions in a multiple choice type format. But there are a lot of things you can ask! I wound up with one big PowerPoint document with all of my questions in it, which makes it easy to share the information with colleagues as well as re-use it if I am so inclined. Some of the questions were demographic in nature (when did you take freshman chemistry? Within the last year, less than two years ago, less than five years ago, etc.); but most of them were aimed at either short-term or long-term understanding of a topic under discussion. Sometimes I would ask a question BEFORE lecturing on a topic (especially if it was something that they really should have seen before in freshman chemistry); sometimes I would ask a question immediately after lecturing on a topic, and sometimes I would begin the class by asking a question on a topic from the previous class. All of those gave useful information.

A good source of questions, or at least question ideas, is the test bank that comes with most textbooks. But once you’re into the clicker mode of thinking, it’s not hard to come up with your own questions as well – and, in fact, the iClicker software gives you the option to ask questions "on the fly" so that you can make them up in the middle of class easily.

Speaking of the software, it’s amazingly easy to deal with. The whole thing runs on a thumb drive that plugs into the base that they give you (which then plugs into a USB port on the computer). It works with Windows or Macintosh. And because it’s all on the thumb drive, you can work on it on any computer without having to reinstall anything. There are two programs – iClicker.exe and iGrader.exe. As you might expect, the iClicker software is what you use in class – it pops up a little timer that is always floating on top of the other windows, and when you’re ready to ask a question, you put up the question and click "Start" on the timer. You see a countdown timer, and it also counts the number of responses clicked in. When you’re finished, you can pop up a bar graph that shows how many students chose which question, and you can then discuss it with the class if you’re so inclined.

After class, you can use the iGrader to look at the student results. The software takes a screen shot of the question, so you don’t have to worry about remembering what you asked. It generates HTML reports on the fly; and I discovered that I could copy the screen shot and the bar graph into Word very easily, and then type in a paragraph or two discussing the question and how it should be solved and whatever else I felt like saying. Then I could convert the whole thing to a PDF file and post it on Blackboard for the students to see. (See earlier post on Blackboard if so inclined.)

An informal survey of the students in the class showed that they were very happy with the iClickers. They liked having a question at the beginning of class, as it helped get everyone’s attention and focus them on the material at hand. They also noted that the questions during class helped them see if they really understood it or not (and it was very interesting for me as the instructor as well to see what they picked up quickly and what they struggled with).

I intend to continue using the iClicker in class, and at least one of my colleagues is going to try it this semester as well. I really think they are useful and very easy to use, and I highly recommend them.

by Marietta Schwartz
1 Comment

OWL (Online Web-Based Learning)

OWL is an online homework system created by UMass Amherst some years ago. It originated in the chemistry department, but it isn’t a science-specific system; it is used by art history, physics, economics, and many other disciplines. I was part of an NSF grant to write the database for the organic chemistry homework, so learned a lot about OWL at the time. The idea is that you can write questions that have variables in them; the question pulls the variables from a table that is associated with the question. So you can ask a particular type of question (such as "What is the pH of an 0.25 M solution of HCl?") and have the concentration and the acid (and therefore the correct answer) change every time the question is accessed. This prevents students from deliberately getting the question wrong (since part of the system tells you the correct answer, as well as feedback on how to solve the particular type of question) and then going back and entering the correct answer without actually knowing anything. It can be set up to give students an infinite number of attempts, or you can set a specific number of tries. It can be used as a quiz-delivery tool, even.

UMass Amherst has sold the chemistry OWL databases to one of the big publishers (I forget which one) and it is being used in chemistry classes all over the country, both freshman chem and organic!

We’ve been using Organic OWL for more than five years at UMass Boston. One thing I quickly discovered is that extra credit points have to be associated with anything of this sort, otherwise the students don’t bother using it (even if you tell them that it is of great benefit to them). We essentially proved this by also using the freshman chemistry database but not awarding extra credit points. Very few of the freshman chem students even accessed the OWL system (much less worked through a significant number of the problems) while at least 80% of the organic chem students did at least some of the OWL problems.

We get very positive feedback from the students who have used Organic OWL. They like the fact that they get immediate feedback on the questions; they like that it is web-based, so can be accessed from home, work, or school; they like that they can get a large number of similar questions for extra practice.

I’ve seen a number of different "electronic homework" systems, and OWL is my preferred one. It is easy to set up from the instructor’s perspective (and as they refine the software, it’s getting easier); you can set due dates to match exam dates, or have everything due at the end of the semester, or not set any due dates – basically, it’s very flexible. The scores are downloaded as an Excel spreadsheet, making it easy to integrate with local record-keeping. And, at least from the chemistry perspective, there is a great variety of question types, making it very useful for the students. I highly recommend it! 🙂

by Marietta Schwartz

Document Cameras – Yes, They Are Instructional Technology!

Today’s topic is the lowly document camera. This is something that has been around for quite some time, and is often overlooked in a discussion of instructional technology. But the document camera is an amazing tool on so many levels! The most obvious, of course, is that it takes the blackboard off of the wall. Instead of a vertical writing surface with all its attendant challenges (can you write big enough? how long will your arm/shoulder take reaching up high in the air to write on the board, especially if you are "vertically challenged"? can you write a straight line across the blackboard, or does your writing gradually drift downwards? and hey, what about that chalk? I spent years getting chalk smears on my clothes, my hands, my arms, my nose (because chalk dust makes my nose itch). and speaking of chalk, how is your eraser technique?) we have moved to a horizontal writing surface, much more ergonomically friendly, not to mention no more chalk dust getting in your nose, on your clothes, in your delicate electronics. But it’s so much more than just that!

The first thing I learned about the document camera is that you must have the correct writing implement. My favorite is the ultra-fine Sharpie pen – it is dark enough to project well yet thin enough that I can draw complex chemical structures and not have the lines run over each other. I use the pens enough that I will literally wear out at least two of them in a given semester. I write on the blank side of used paper (a great reason to save all those flyers and things that show up in the mailbox). And, in contrast to the blackboard (once erased, it’s gone) – if I take a piece of paper off the document camera and start writing on a new one, and then a student has a question about something I wrote on the previous piece of paper, hey, I can just put it back on the camera and discuss it some more! And I can then take those same pieces of paper back to my office, run them through the automatic sheet feeder on my printer/scanner, save them as a PDF file, and post them to my Blackboard LMS website. My students absolutely love this. They still show up for class, but they don’t worry quite as much about copying down every little thing that I write.

Now here’s something that I learned this past summer. There were "technical difficulties" in Lipke Auditorium, where I usually teach, and the class was shifted first to Snowden Auditorium for a week (which was OK except that the document camera there is set too low, and I had to bend at an awkward angle to write) and then to the Media Auditorium in Healey Library. Now that second room was not good at all. It did have a document camera and the attendant technology – but the resolution on the camera/projector was AWFUL and the students had a terrible time reading what was being projected. When you can’t tell the difference between a 5 and an 8, that’s not good!

Document cameras would be great if they were nothing more than a horizontal blackboard – but there’s so much more you can do with them! If you have an interesting illustration that you’d like to share – sit it on the document camera and zoom in on it! Everyone can see it, and you can use a laser pointer to indicate which parts of it you want to talk about – or just point at the relevant bits right in the book, and your finger will be projected up there along with everything else! (Now, does this mean that you should be getting regular manicures and making sure your fingernails are clean and wearing "interesting" rings? Up to you!) I’ve discovered that teaching things like drawing Newman projections is simplified immensely by using the camera. I sit a molecular model right on the camera bed, and draw the Newman next to it on the paper. Everyone can see exactly what I’m doing. Amazing! I’ve done lots of molecular model demos using the document camera. Organic chemistry is a very visual subject, and it’s so easy to show the students exactly what it is they should be looking at this way!

In fact, I’ve even done chemical demonstrations on the document camera, in little Petri dishes. You can see color changes and precipitation reactions easily; you don’t bring large amounts of chemicals into the lecture hall; everyone in the room can see what you’re doing (as opposed to just the first three rows).

So, to summarize, the document camera is an incredibly powerful piece of instructional technology. If it is small enough to sit on the camera bed, it can be projected, and this will bring an amazing amount of flexibility to your teaching. Be creative – in fact, if you come up with any interesting ways to use the document camera, please comment here to share with the rest of us. Thanks!

by Marietta Schwartz

Blackboard LMS

I know that a lot of people may not think of an LMS as “instructional technology”, but in fact it is one of the most commonly used types! UMB currently uses Blackboard Vista, and I have found it exceedingly simple to deal with (plus the LMS-IT people are amazingly helpful!). It is password-protected, so only registered students can access the materials; and LMS-IT populates the roster for you from the PeopleSoft roster. This also means that some things that can’t be posted on a “public” website can be posted within the LMS (often copyright-protected materials; for instance, some answer keys for course materials that are posted on a publisher’s password-protected site give permission to re-post for class use as long as it’s on another password-protected site). This certainly saves a bundle on photocopying – basically, if you could photocopy it and hand it out in class under the “fair use” policy, you can scan and post it on the LMS.

[Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert; this is my understanding of the way it works. If anyone thinks that they have better info, please post a comment and let the rest of us know!]

I must confess that I am not taking full advantage of the LMS as yet; it is possible to give timed quizzes online, for instance, and to release information to a subgroup of the class at a particular point in time. Those features, I suspect, are of much more use to pure online courses; my class is, fundamentally, an in-person lecture course with web enhancements.

One of the features that my students have taken full advantage of, however, is the threaded discussion. They’ve used it to ask questions (and then the whole class can see the answers; which means I don’t get asked the same question fifteen times); often, they answer each others’ questions (and then I don’t have to!); they used it early in the semester to look for discussion swaps; all kinds of things go up there.

I’ve also found it very easy to post things such as sample exams. On the previous course website (a public site), there were basically two ways to update the site. Either use Contribute (and don’t get me started on that!) or update a local copy of the web page and then FTP both the new page and whatever new materials were added to the server. With the LMS, I just log in, and click on “add file”. Browse for the file on my computer, and it uploads into the folder that I was just in. Much simpler! I can add links to websites just as easily; I can add folders and put things in them to unclutter the main page with just a few clicks, and it immediately shows me what the changes look like.

So, bottom line, I am very happy with the Blackboard Vista LMS, and encourage everyone who currently has a course webpage on a different server to give it a try!

by Marietta Schwartz
1 Comment

What is “instructional technology”?

It’s always important to define one’s terms before starting a lengthy discussion of any topic. In this particular situation, I think of “instructional technology” as the use of any and all types of technology, whether in-class or online, to enhance classroom instruction. For example, I am currently using at least four different types in my large organic chemistry lecture on a regular basis (and more on an ad hoc basis). Things that come to mind include: the Blackboard course management system (and this would include the threaded discussion board that is included, as well as the ability to post all sorts of materials in the secure LMS environment); the OWL online homework system; the document camera in Lipke auditorium; and iClickers. I will expound at length on each of these (as well as others) in separate blog postings. But this is it for now. 🙂

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