Saturday, December 17, 2016

Free Range Organic Pumpkin Spice Tattooed Mustachioed Lectures

Our semester is finally over at Leicester, and I've been thinking about what worked well in my teaching, and where improvements can be made. My students are generally pretty responsive to my teaching methods, which are probably best described as semi-structured blackboard-based lectures with lots of classroom participation. It's especially hard to get students engaged in a lecture hall with more than 100 students (at 9 a.m., on a Monday, sorry GY1019 students), and I'm always looking for more tools to "bring them in". I have used TurningPoint and response clickers for a few years to do in-class anonymous polls about lecture material. I can see, in real time, whether I've been successful in getting the material across to students based on how many answer the questions correctly. But I think even more importantly, students who engage directly with the ideas in the lecture (even if it's just by clicking a button on a response clicker) have already made better progress towards understanding the material than those who listen passively.

For years I used the blackboard (instead of slides) to illustrate my lectures, writing down key terms, diagrams, and equations. Earlier this year, though, I injured my foot, and walking or standing to lecture has been difficult*. I tried different alternatives to the physical blackboard, and I settled on ExplainEverything, that I use on an iPad and project overhead for students to see**. It's similar to the blackboard I've always used, but it doesn't require me to get up and walk around. I can record the lecture as a video (provided I remember to hit the record button) and post the videos for students to review later on their own. It's worked well with the roll-out of lecture capture this year, which is good because I wasn't sure how I would record and publish my lectures using an actual blackboard. The Panopto*** system we use**** captures slides and audio (provided you stay directly in front of the microphone), and there's even video cameras in the classroom, but it's difficult to get an angle that captures everything important on the blackboard.*****

I suppose for a long time I liked the idea of the "naked classroom" (although I could have been spared the snigger-enducing moniker), with just a blackboard, some chalk, and an enthusiastic lecturer. I still operate on the same principle, though, of spontaneous and responsive teaching. I admit that it took me several weeks into the semester to find a setup that worked well, and things didn't always go smoothly. I always brought backup board markers and even pen and paper for an overhead projector for when things really went south, and I had to use them more than once. I would recommend the digital blackboard method, though, especially for anyone with mobility issues who teaches like I do. But is there even anyone left who does blackboard-based lectures? I'll be lobbying to make them hip again (artisanal lecture methods, you heard it here first!).

*Having to sit around a lot and consequently spending quite a bit more time on the internet may or may not have been the reason I started this blog.

** I don't want to get too product-focused, but I use ExplainEverything with the Adonit Jot stylus. It's helpful to have something that can write clearly and make a halfway decent diagram. I have not received any sponsorship for any of the materials I mention here, ever.

***BTW did you know that the panopticon was not invented by Jeremy Bentham, but by his brother Samuel who developed the ideas for factory production in Russia? Mind: blown.

**** One wonders whether they consulted with any French philosophers before they decided on a name for the software.

***** Some places have done an excellent job capturing and distributing lectures, but I think it usually requires someone to be actively filming, or at least editing footage from a few different angles and close-ups. I'm also a big fan of Richard Mullers' Physics for Future Presidents lectures, which I listened to as an audio podcast.

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