Tag Archives: teaching with technology

A digital device policy in the classroom

Every semester, it gets harder and harder for me to police student distraction in my classes. I set policies, they become hard to enforce, and then things spiral out of control. Lather, rinse, repeat. It seems to get harder each semester as we become even more connected to our digital devices.

This semester I am teaching two courses that are both lecture style. I often do in-class active learning activities that require a laptop or calculator. Students can work with one of their peers if they forget their laptop. I ask students to keep their laptops and cell phones away during class when we are not doing an activity that requires their use, but over time, the laptops come out.

Sometimes when class starts I remind students to put their laptops away until we need to use them. The laptop lids close, but half a dozen laptops reopen within 15 minutes of the announcement. I am losing the battle.

Laptops and cell phones are a distraction to everyone, not just the students who are using the laptops, and they interfere with everyone’s learning. I can handle some disrespect in the classroom but I become less tolerant when students are disrespecting their peers who want to learn.

I am experimenting with new ways to set and enforce policies. I firmly believe in focusing on student learning and treating students like adults. I think it’s better for me to set policies that trains students to deal with expectations they will encounter in other parts of their lives rather than stick with an unnuanced ban.

Below is a message I posted to my course discussion board. The statement (aside from the opening paragraph) will now be added to my course syllabus. I plan to introduce the cell phone use rubric periodically throughout the semester when things spiral out of control. Feedback is welcome.


I want to clarify the laptop policy in class. My ultimate goal is student learning, and the time we have in class is a great opportunity for us to learn. I know everyone is attached to their digital devices and it’s hard to put them down. (Confession: it’s hard for me, too). Here are some guidelines for device use in class.

Laptop and cellphone policy. Laptops and tablets should be put away and closed if we are not using them for an in-class example. Research* shows that laptop use in class leads to lower grades for those with the laptops and even lower grades for those who are sitting by the laptop users due to the distractions they provide. I ask that you respect your peers’ desire to learn and not engage in distracting behavior in class.

* Sana, F., Weston, T. and Cepeda, N.J., 2013. Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, pp.24-31.

Here is an article about the research: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/14/laptops-in-classrooms_n_3756831.html

This is a guide for cell phone usage in class:


I’ve made a few memes that I use in class but they no longer work and my undergrads are no longer familiar with Star Wars episodes IV-VI! But I like them 🙂



My teaching journey: there and back again

Today I gave the keynote talk for the spring New Educator’s Workshop for teaching assistants at UW-Madison. I’m posting my slides here. My talk was entitled, “My teaching journey: there and back again.”

Abstract. I will talk about my journey from a painfully shy TA to a professor who is comfortable in the classroom and when talking to the media about research on the evening news. I will talk about strategies I used to be effective in the classroom given my strengths (and weaknesses).  Topics include time management, active learning techniques, easy ways to teach with technology, tips for managing student expectations, and things I wish I knew when I was starting to teach.


Blog posts that inspired my presentation:


Public sector operations research: the course!

Course introduction

I taught a PhD seminar on public sector operations research this semester. You can read more about the course here. I had students blog in lieu of problem sets and exams They did a terrific job [Find the blog here!]. This post contains summary of what we covered in the course, including the readings and papers presented in class.


Public Safety Overview

  • Green, L.V. and Kolesar, P.J., 2004. Anniversary article: Improving emergency responsiveness with management science. Management Science, 50(8), pp.1001-1014.
  • Larson, R.C., 2002. Public sector operations research: A personal journey.Operations Research, 50(1), pp.135-145.
  • Rittel, H.W. and Webber, M.M., 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), pp.155-169.
  • Johnson, M.P., 2012. Community-Based Operations Research: Introduction, Theory, and Applications. In Community-Based Operations Research (pp. 3-36). Springer New York. (Originally an INFORMS TutORial)
  • Goldberg, J.B., 2004. Operations research models for the deployment of emergency services vehicles. EMS Management Journal, 1(1), pp.20-39.
  • Swersey, A.J., 1994. The deployment of police, fire, and emergency medical units. Handbooks in operations research and management science, 6, pp.151-200.
  • McLay, L.A., 2010. Emergency medical service systems that improve patient survivability. Wiley Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science.

Facility location

  • Daskin, M.S., 2008. What you should know about location modeling. Naval Research Logistics, 55(4), pp.283-294.
  • Brotcorne, L., Laporte, G. and Semet, F., 2003. Ambulance location and relocation models. European journal of operational research, 147(3), pp.451-463.

Probability models for public safety

  • Larson, R.C. and Odoni, A.R., 1981. Urban operations research. This was the textbook we used to cover probability models, queueing, priority queueing, and spatial queues (the hypercube model).

Disasters, Homeland Security, and Emergency Management

Deterministic Network Interdiction

  • Smith, J.C., 2010. Basic interdiction models. Wiley Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science.
  • Morton, D.P., 2011. Stochastic network interdiction. Wiley Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science.

Papers presented by students in class

Papers selected for the first set of student presentations (background papers)

  • Blumstein, A., 2002. Crime Modeling. Operations Research, 50(1), pp.16-24.
  • Kaplan, E.H., 2008. Adventures in policy modeling! Operations research in the community and beyond. Omega, 36(1), pp.1-9.
  • Wright, P.D., Liberatore, M.J. and Nydick, R.L., 2006. A survey of operations research models and applications in homeland security. Interfaces, 36(6), pp.514-529.
  • Altay, N. and Green, W.G., 2006. OR/MS research in disaster operations management. European journal of operational research, 175(1), pp.475-493.
  • Simpson, N.C. and Hancock, P.G., 2009. Fifty years of operational research and emergency response. Journal of the Operational Research Society, pp.S126-S139.
  • Larson, R.C., 1987. Social justice and the psychology of queueing. Operations research, 35(6), pp.895-905.

Papers selected for the second set of student presentations (methods)

  • Ashlagi, I. and Shi, P., 2014. Improving community cohesion in school choice via correlated-lottery implementation. Operations Research, 62(6), pp.1247-1264.
  • Mandell, M.B., 1991. Modelling effectiveness-equity trade-offs in public service delivery systems. Management Science, 37(4), pp.467-482.
  • Cormican, K.J., Morton, D.P. and Wood, R.K., 1998. Stochastic network interdiction. Operations Research, 46(2), pp.184-197.
  • Brown, G.G., Carlyle, W.M., Harney, R.C., Skroch, E.M. and Wood, R.K., 2009. Interdicting a nuclear-weapons project. Operations Research, 57(4), pp.866-877.
  • Lim, C. and Smith, J.C., 2007. Algorithms for discrete and continuous multicommodity flow network interdiction problems. IIE Transactions, 39(1), pp.15-26.
  • Rath, S. and Gutjahr, W.J., 2014. A math-heuristic for the warehouse location–routing problem in disaster relief. Computers & Operations Research, 42, pp.25-39.
  • Argon, N.T. and Ziya, S., 2009. Priority assignment under imperfect information on customer type identities. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, 11(4), pp.674-693.
  • Pita, J., Jain, M., Marecki, J., Ordóñez, F., Portway, C., Tambe, M., Western, C., Paruchuri, P. and Kraus, S., 2008, May. Deployed ARMOR protection: the application of a game theoretic model for security at the Los Angeles International Airport. In Proceedings of the 7th international joint conference on Autonomous agents and multiagent systems: industrial track(pp. 125-132). International Foundation for Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems.
  • Mills, A.F., Argon, N.T. and Ziya, S., 2013. Resource-based patient prioritization in mass-casualty incidents. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, 15(3), pp.361-377.
  • Mehrotra, A., Johnson, E.L. and Nemhauser, G.L., 1998. An optimization based heuristic for political districting. Management Science, 44(8), pp.1100-1114.
  • Koç, A. and Morton, D.P., 2014. Prioritization via stochastic optimization.Management Science, 61(3), pp.586-603.

I missed a class to attend the INFORMS Analytics meeting. I assigned two videos about public sector OR in lieu of class:

Jon Caulkins’ Omega Rho talk on crime modeling and policy

Eoin O’Malley’s talk about bike sharing and optimization (start at 3:51:53)

Blog posts I used in teaching:

We played Pandemic on the last day of class!

teaching hack: student moderators for in-class presentations

This semester I taught a PhD seminar course on Public Sector Operations Research. You can read about it here on our class blog and here on Punk Rock OR.

The students presented three research papers over the course of the semester. I created a schedule for the student speakers, and I matched each student with another student who served as the moderator. The moderator’s job was to introduce the speaker and to field questions after the talk like in department colloquiums. If there are no questions following a talk, the moderator should be ready to kick things off with a question or two.

Students often follow my lead and wait for me to ask the first question. Sometimes when a presentation ends I am too busy jotting down notes on my grading sheet to kick of the questions. Awkward silence follows. My intent was to get the students more engaged in the other presentations and to encourage them to demonstrate leadership in the classroom without assigning extra work. I would say that it worked very well. Following each presentation I had at least one student ready to ask insightful questions, which often led to other students asking interesting follow up questions. The students took ownership in the Q&A session following each presentation.

My favorite part was the unexpected consequences. I did not envision students stepping up to introduce their peers. One introduction was really sweet. I think we all got a little choked up when one student introduced her peer as a “good researcher and a great friend.”



engineering systems: critical infrastructure and logistics

This semester I am team teaching an introduction to engineering course for freshmen (EGR102 at UW-Madison). The course is designed to help students choose a major in engineering by exploring engineering grand challenges. In the course, students discover that there are thousands of ways to be an engineer, not just 10 ways to be an engineer (corresponding to the 10 engineering majors). I believe this approach helps to retain students in engineering, particularly women and minority students who may not have enough role models in engineering to help them feel like they belong.

138 students are enrolled this semester. Students have several common lectures in a large lecture hall. Then, we divide the students into sections (“themes”) of 20-24 students so they can explore a topic in more detail. Each theme must cut across all the engineering majors so it has something for everyone. Each student is assigned to 2 of the 6 themes for about 8 classes each:

Theme 1: Engineering Solutions for a Healthy World
Theme 2: Safety and Risk-Analysis of Emerging Technology
Theme 3: Critical Infrastructures and Logistics (mine!)
Theme 4: Megacities and Urban Engineering
Theme 5: Controlling Carbon: Powering our Future Societies
Theme 6: Global Engineering Challenges: Energy and Water

Here is my list of required and recommended reading for my theme on critical infrastructure and logistics.

Media about cities and the engineering challenges that cities provide:

Systems thinking and engineering design

Thinking about next-generation transportation, public transit, and the sustainability of public transit:

Self-driving cars

Smartgrid, the connected home, and cyber-security


Non-technical constraints

Here are the course learning objectives:
By the end of this class, students should be able to…
1) Identify a societal problem that requires an engineering solution and identify non-technical constraints.
2) Design multidisciplinary engineering approaches to societal problems.
3) Appraise and evaluate these engineering approaches.
4) Compare and contrast various engineering solutions.
5) Identify the different engineering disciplines and describe how each can contribute to the solution of grand challenge problems
6) Find, select, and correctly document credible sources for use in a group research project.
7) Summarize and discuss important facts, ideas, and arguments from different sources in well-crafted written assignments.
8) Present research findings on a coherent and defined topic to the class in a clear, organized, and persuasive manner using the appropriate media tools.

Related reading:

how college is like choosing between going to the movies and watching Netflix

The ASEE newsletter has an article about MOOCs that I found particularly interesting. I am not interested in teaching a MOOC, but this article has  general implications for those interested in flipped teaching or teaching with technology, two big trends in higher education. The full article is here [Link].

A not-so-surprising conclusion is that teaching MOOCs is not at all like lecturing, even when literally delivering lectures online. Recording a 50 minute lecture for a MOOC will make for an unpopular online course. Instead, short segments of 6-9 minutes are ideal. Yes, we are teaching to the YouTube generation.

To captivate such a diverse audience, “it’s good to have bite-sized content,” advises Whiteman, who has distilled basic mechanics into short modules and “edu-bytes” of no more than 10 minutes. Armando Fox, professor in residence in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, reorganized his 90-minute lecture into 8-to-12-minute video segments or “lecturelets” for his software engineering MOOC, each covering a topic with one or two self-check questions. Evidence from the field suggests shorter is sweeter. New data from edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider created by MIT and Harvard, for instance, put the optimal length for lecturelets at 6 to 9 minutes. Median viewing time, where half the students watch the entire clip, peaks at 6 minutes, then falls rapidly. The edX data also reveal that mixing talking heads with computer screenshots or slides is more engaging than screenshots with voice- overs. [emphasis mine]

I had heard about breaking the lecture down into pieces, but I had previously heard (a few years ago before MOOCs took over) that 15-20 minutes was ideal. Six to nine minute lecturelets are much shorter and a lot more work per minute of lecture. Teaching difficult content while telling a story in 6 minute chunks requires a lot of skill. Not surprisingly, it takes an eternity to create the MOOC equivalent of a single lecture:

 MOOCs require “a huge amount of work,” says UC Davis’ Owens, who devotes two full days preparing each 60- to 90-minute lecture. To maximize his instruction time, he writes eight pages covering not only exactly what he will say, including jokes, but what he will draw. It takes eight hours to record the lecture, stopping, starting, and rewriting as necessary. The editing crew needs 32 hours to synchronize the audio, screencasts, and video into a complete lecture. Online education veteran Autar Kaw, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of South Florida, estimates that it takes five to 10 hours to produce each hourlong lecture video beyond the time needed to develop textbooks, simulations, and real-world problems.  [emphasis mine]

This sounds unappealing to me. I don’t want teaching prep time to cut into research time or time with students. A more traditional way of teaching can be done effectively with much less work (plus cornier, more spontaneous jokes!). Since so many universities expect professors to be more adept with research than teaching, I don’t see MOOCs the way of the future unless incentives radically change.

I don’t mean to be cynical. The fact of the matter is that I want to be an excellent teacher, even if it takes a bit of time. I try to try a few new things with teaching every semester to improve my skills. Progress is steady and slow. Also, as an introvert, I feel like my personality needs some time to adapt to new teaching styles, because entertaining a room full of students does not come naturally to me. Some professors may simply not be the right fit for teaching online or flipping. But despite personality issues and the lack of incentives, moving toward more online teaching and flipping may be doable as long as professors can move at a tortoise-like pace to make this happen.

I try to turn a lecture into a story, something that feeds into the narrative I tell the class over the course of the semester. Students can better figure out why a theorem, result, or example is important if I connect it with the story of what we are doing in class that day as well as over the semester (and yes, it took me a few years to figure this out!). I suppose I teach with a series of “lecturelets,” but they are probably longer than 6-9 minutes long.

In general, professors have and will continue to adapt to new technologies and teaching styles so long as it doesn’t take 20 hours to prep for a single class. It has been my experience that anything other than lecture takes a lot more preparation time (there is a reason why lecturing is popular!). There are only so many hours in a day.

My favorite part of the article compares teaching to watching movies:

USF’s Kaw still prefers the “social experience” of the traditional classroom but says it’s like choosing between going to the movies and watching Netflix: “I like both.”

Have MOOCs affected how you teach?

turn your iPad into a tablet using PDF Expert

At my last university, I used a Windows Journal PC tablet for teaching, and I absolutely loved it. To cut down on costs, I researched alternatives for my first class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I decided to go with PDF Expert by Readdle based on a glowing endorsement from Marina Epelman.

PDF expert is a pdf annotation app available for iOS and Android that costs $10 (I bought it on sale for $5). It does a lot. Here is Readdle’s description:

PDF Expert 5 is an essential application to store, read, annotate and sign PDFs. Highlight, strike out, draw with your finger or make your notes! Filling out PDF forms is a breeze. Smart zoom and intelligent snapping makes it easier to edit PDFs the way you want it. Sepia mode, text to speech an other helpful features create a great reading experience.

The app is great. Here is an example of lecture notes annotated with pdf expert [pdf]


I use the Adonit Jot Classic stylus to annotate the slides. Others have recommended the BoxWave EverTouch Stylus and the Wacom Bamboo stylus, the latter is better for those who annotate with a light touch.

I didn’t want to write this blog post until I read my student evaluations in case my class hated the tablet experience. The students seemed to like the app almost as much as I do. I use PDF expert to:

  1. Annotate pdfs while teaching.
  2. Annotate and mark up student papers for teaching and research.
  3. Sign papers.

What I like about using PDF expert:

  1. I can link it with my Dropbox and Box files to wirelessly send files.
  2. I can email the files directly to anyone directly from the app.
  3. It’s indispensable outside of class. I use this app to sign documents, review student paper drafts, review proposals, read papers for a paper competition, and review slides
  4. I can organize files into folders. PDF expert is so useful that I started to use it for everything. Managing clutter is key. The app helps me keep track of my files in folders. If I am on a review panel or a best paper competition, I can store the files I need in a folder and then delete afterward.
  5. You can merge pdfs and delete pages.
  6. It has a display mode and doesn’t go to sleep during class.
  7. It is easy to insert a blank slide, an indispensable tool when teaching when I need to clarify a concept by drawing a picture or working through a short example. I specifically checked for this feature when comparing pdf annotation apps (this feature wasn’t available in all of the pdf annotation apps).

In summary, I really like PDF expert. The only downside is that it took an extra click to use the tools (the pen and inserting a slide). That is a bit unavoidable with a touch screen, but it can be a bit awkward with a live audience. I got used to chatting while inserting a slide to limit awkward silences during class. I preferred using Windows Journal on a tablet PC to PDF expert, but at $10, PDF expert delivers a much bigger bang for your buck.

If you don’t annotate, I recommend considering it. Annotating has improved by teaching:

  1. It helps me to better explain complex concepts. I can easily add something to the slide on the fly if helps comprehension. Students better remember my explanations when they look at what I annotated.
  2. I face the class when teaching with a tablet. Facing the students builds rapport.
  3. I talk too fast. Annotating helps me slow down. Students who aren’t native English speakers truly appreciate this.

This is another blog post in my teaching with technology series. Go here to read other blog posts.