Early days in the personal technology classroom

As detailed in an earlier article, MS 101 Algebra and Trigonometry at the national campus of the college is being taught outside of a computer laboratory for the first time in 20 years. At the heart of making this work was trade off. The students were not required to buy the $294.00 text book, the course would use an online open educational resource text from OpenStax, OpenStax Algebra and Trigonometry. The students were required to bring their own technology - smartphone, phablet, tablet, or laptop in order to access the text and to work problems using the Desmos calculator. Assignments are assigned and submitted via Schoology. The following is a rather rambling discourse on these early days in the personal technology classroom.

A single extension cord provides a triple-tap on one side only of the classroom, one student has a phone connected

The classroom is as bare bones as a college class can be. Bare cement floor, a single white board, only two outlets and those are on the back wall. Being an instructor with the college from long before the construction of the current classroom, I was more than intimately familiar with the inadequacies of the design. No projector, no LCD monitor, not even a television in the room. The room is unashamedly basic.

A student using Desmos in portrait mode on a tablet

I specifically did not request any additional technical capabilities. I wanted to run with the room on an as is basis - this is the not the only classroom laid out this way at the college. A new WiFi antenna on an adjacent provides a strong signal, although there are some latency issues surrounding logging on that is a kink still being worked on by tech support. Students are learning to log on to the network well in advance of class, once online latency has not been an issue. The primary app in use, Desmos, does not require connectivity to operate. The desk top version of Desmos only seems to need connectivity when first loading and when saving a graph.

A student on a smartphone similar to whose available in the bookstore, working in Desmos

This is still early days, the end of the third week. The last couple of students that did not have technology have now acquired technology with the help of the bookstore. Although the vast majority of the students are familiar with technology, the few who were prompted to acquire tech for the class are less familiar with touchscreen interfaces and the world of apps.

This student had been working on a borrowed smartphone, an Android 4.4.4 phone that proved unable to download the current version of Desmos. The student did not know how to check the Android version, my familiarity with Android was useful in troubleshooting this particular issue.

The phone on the left would prove to be an Android 5.1 Lollipop and that downloaded Desmos successfully.

A student using a tablet in landscape mode

The students were working from a baby growth chart, reverse engineering the coordinates for the growth curve for the first 24 months.

Baby growth chart

The students entered the coordinates into a table into Desmos and then used Desmos built in ability to fit an arbitrary equation to data to generate coefficients on logarithmic equations. For this data the function y = a ln(x - c) + b provides a better fit than y = a ln(x) +b. The horizontal translation provided by c is useful. In class I presented on the functionality of a, b, and c using Desmos animation capabilities and my lap top. I had the students also enter an the equation and play with the "sliders" generated.

Desmos ably demonstrating that a ln(x-c) + b fits better than a ln(x) +b

Desmos uses x1 and y1 as table headers by default. This is a useful notation as subsequent tables can be x2,y2; x3,y3; and so forth. This allows the plotting of multiple data sets on a single graph and running regressions for each set.

A student on a small Winbook compact laptop

Assisting students with data entry into the table and entering the regression equation began on Wednesday and continued on Friday. I found I had to move from student to student, which is made more difficult by the columnar layout of the desks in the room. Working with another instructor a request for tables in the room has been made.

A student on an HP laptop with a touchscreen and a number pad, working with a student on a smartphone

As I moved from student to student I had to shift tech gears for each platform. My own familiarity with a broad range of tech proved useful. A stylus helps me work with the smaller phones. There are also the inevitable technical issues. One other student experienced Desmos screen freezes such as I have experienced. That student had only stock apps on a fairly new phone, so app interactions was not the issue. I reported the issue to Desmos, and rep had already contacted me on follow-up, which I find amazing.

This student was puzzled by a spurious logarithm - turns out they had forgotten to delete their y=a ln(x-c) + b equation prior to running y1~a ln(x1 - c) + b

Another Winbook device

There are some interesting aspects to a classroom equipped only with personal technology. All of the students using smartphones are also running apps such as FaceBook, Messenger, Instagram, and/or SnapChat, among other apps. There is no way to turn these off without disabling the ability to access the text or save files in Desmos.

Many years ago I stopped trying to control or throttle the "background" use of FaceBook in the A204 math/science computer laboratory. I ask that the students choose to focus on the material at hand, but I do no enforcement. Computers are on, and students can be logged into social media accounts in the background. I have made my own peace with the pervasiveness of social media. Thus I am perhaps more suited to the personal technology classroom than other instructors might be. Most of the students know to mute their pings, chings, chimes, pops, and bells that come with notifications. I am working, however, with the students on their own devices. So if an inopportune Messenger message arrives, I not only must ignore it, but also deliberately turn off any reaction to the fragment of the message that appears.

The messages are often private, and were likely meant for the student's eyes only. As a father of children who are social media active, and as a long time inhabitant of social media in which my students are also active, I have learned to not react to much of what I see. That skill has been useful in the personal technology classroom. This too is something that not all instructors will necessarily cope with equally well.

Although I try to work without larger display devices, on two occasions early in the term I brought in an LCD television to assist in displaying Desmos, the online text, and Schoology. The television is in the back corner because that is where the outlet is and at that time I did not have an extension cord. I do not plan to regularly use the television as I must carry it to the classroom and then run the television from my ChromeBook.

In general, the students are getting used to arriving with their technology fully charged and ready to go. Thus far the class is functional and making progress. There is a good bit more individual one-on-one assistance that I have to deliver device-by-device for 23 devices and their owners. This is perhaps unavoidable. The personal technology classroom is a moderately complex tech environment in which to operate, class sizes should be kept under 25 with fewer being better. The instructor will have to be both tech savvy and comfortable with spending time helping students learn to use their tech while still meeting the content required in the outline.

I do hope we might gain tables that would facilitate collaborative and group work on math problems. I realize that tables do not accommodate as many students as the small desks in the room. My own take is that the opportunities to learn together would be a gain worth the loss of capacity.

I remain optimistic, and the students have been enthusiastic. The students appear to enjoy the opportunity to use their technology in their learning. If a class is enjoyable, then more than half of the motivation battle is already won.


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