Tag Archives: teaching with technology

Piazza, a love story

This is another teaching with technology post (old posts here). This one is on Piazza, a course management system masquerading as a souped up discussion board. I used to use BlackBoard, which I disliked especially after it became clunky and cumbersome to use after “upgrades.” It’s hard to describe exactly why I like piazza so much, so I made a short video showing off some of its features.

My single criteria for rating course management systems:

  • Time to upload and organize class materials.  I use significantly less time on piazza than I did on BlackBoard.


  • Intuitive to use
  • The right balance of simplicity and bells-and-whistles
  • With a single click, you can post an announcement or send an email when you upload a file/video/link/assignment to piazza.
  • Assignments and other resources are on a single page, so important documents don’t get “lost” in the system.
  • When you log in, you can immediately see everything you need to do for your students (e.g., unanswered questions).
  • Private messages on piazza replace emails from students, so everything is really all in one place.
  • Great help posts and emails from the Piazza team to answer questions as you go. The best advice they have is to ask students to post their questions on piazza. When they email you instead, don’t answer. Instead, tell students that is a good question and that you will answer it once it is on piazza.
  • Apps for iOS and Android.
  • I no longer have to answer every student question – they can answer their own and I can “endorse” a student answer.
  • Great statistics on your students’ piazza participation. It’s potentially Big Brother-like, but in a good way. A very handy feature if you have a participation grade. Plus, introverted students who are more comfortable participating on piazza than in class will be “credit.”


  • No gradebook
  • Students can’t hand in assignments electronically
A meme I made and displayed in class (via the projector) to remind students to use piazza.

A meme I made and displayed in class (via the projector) to remind students to use piazza.

google docs are a great teaching tool

It’s the end of a long, brutal semester for me. I’m due for another teaching with technology post (see others here). This time I’m blogging about how wonderful and versatile google docs is for classroom teaching.

I started to use google docs two years ago when a student put together a shared google spreadsheet for a multiobjective decision analysis project that we were performing as a class. It was a fantastic way to collaborate.

It’s worth noting that there are several ways to share a document in google docs: you can share the document with certain users, anyone with the link can see the document, or google can search and find your document. You can allow view access or modify access. You can give ownership to someone else. Therefore, you can be protection or open with google docs. As I said, it’s versatile.

I have found many ways to use google docs when teaching.

  1. I created simple class calendars that are easy to update and change (see one here). I ended up changing the schedule quite a bit during the semester this semester, and it only took a minute to change the official class schedule on google.
  2. I created a spreadsheet for my multiobjective decision analysis class project. Our project was to select the best restaurant for celebrating the end of the semester. We all participated in collecting and anayzing the data, and a common spreadsheet eliminated emailing of the “hot copy.” It was superior to DropBox in that we could modify the same document at the same time. If someone else modifies the spreadsheet, it shows up as new in my document list (its name is boldfaced), so I didn’t have to spend time figuring out if anything in it had changed since the last time I looked at it.
  3. My stochastic processes grader and I came up with homework assignments together via google document. He would propose homework assignments, and I would modify the assignments according to what I covered in class. Then I posted the assignment to BlackBoard as usual.
  4. My grader wrote homework solutions in google documents. It became easy to share the solutions with students.
  5. I wrote exams with google docs so that my grader could offer feedback at his leisure.

I use BlackBoard to host all of my course materials. I have a love-hate relationship with BlackBoard. It provides many course materials, including a course calendar. But BlackBoard is cumbersome to use–I could spend all day in BlackBoard updating course materials. Google docs saves time.

I should note that at my university, student emails are run by google, so it’s extra easy to use google tools with students. I would imagine that all students have gmail accounts, but it might be hard to collect emails if you want to only share your docs with your students.

I’ve used google docs for other professional tasks. Recently, I set up a colleague’s visit with google docs. I shared the link with my colleagues here at VCU and gave them view access only. They were able to see the available times in the schedule and sign up for a meeting. They could always see the most recent version of the schedule, saving me the time of emailing to and from everyone. Then I emailed the link to my colleague.

My department ran faculty searches via google docs. It was an efficient way to keep track of the ~200 people who applied to the open positions and to manage campus visits.

The INFORMS IT committee used google docs extensively. It was the most impressive use of google docs I have ever seen. We wrote and edited reports. We went over them in meetings. We compared document histories.You can view how to find document histories in the image below.

Here are two things you might not know.

1. You can leave comments in a google doc. With multiple users, this can become a conversation.

2. You can chat in a doc in real-time. My grader and I would often do this before class as I was going over what I would assign to students.

You can view histories in google docs.

I’m looking forward to doing even more with google docs, such as writing collaborative proposals and replacing documents I would normally upload in BlackBoard.

How have you used google docs in (or out of) the classroom?

the flipped classroom

The Chronicle recently published an article about the pros and cons of the “flipped classroom.” Here is a description of the basic concept:

As its name suggests, flipping describes the inversion of expectations in the traditional college lecture. It takes many forms, including interactive engagement, just-in-time teaching (in which students respond to Web-based questions before class, and the professor uses this feedback to inform his or her teaching), and peer instruction.

But the techniques all share the same underlying imperative: Students cannot passively receive material in class, which is one reason some students dislike flipping. Instead they gather the information largely outside of class, by reading, watching recorded lectures, or listening to podcasts.

And when they are in class, students do what is typically thought to be homework, solving problems with their professors or peers, and applying what they learn to new contexts. They continue this process on their own outside class.

The immediacy of teaching in this way enables students’ misconceptions to be corrected well before they emerge on a midterm or final exam. The result, according to a growing body of research, is more learning.

I tried a flipped classroom two years ago. In an operations research, math, or engineering course, flipping can entail giving the lecture outside of class (using slidecasts) and then working problems in class. Thus, this post is part of my teaching with technology series.

When I flipped, I  started with a traditional lecture for two weeks, then flipped for 3 weeks. After 5 weeks, I let the students decide how to proceed. They voted for a mini-lecture at the beginning of class followed by working problems for the rest of class. I agree with the article: justifying the motivation to flip up front made a huge difference. Students may not want to change, but they are motivated by the promise of doing better on exams and in the course, so they were willing to give flipping a try. I find that students don’t complain if I reiterate the benefits from their perspective–but they still may not the changes. It’s easier to be passive in class.

The upside of the approach is more learning for the students. Some of the students only worked with their friends in class. Others made new friends, which then helped them do better on homework assignments.

The upside for the professor is knowing exactly what parts of the problem are hard for students and being immediately able to address problems.

The down side is lower student evaluations. According to the Chronicle article,

The average score on a student evaluation of a flipped course is about half what the same professor gets when using the traditional lecture, she says. “When the students are feeling really bad about required courses, it doesn’t seem like a good thing.”

Mine were lower than expected, but they weren’t that low. I busted a few cheaters in a small class that semester (I talked to 3 of 15 students face to face and made an announcement that implicated others). My teaching evaluations probably reflected their anger at me more than the flipped lecture. Still, the evaluations are a good time for students to gripe about whatever didn’t match their expectations.

There are other downsides.

Another big downside with almost all teaching with technology tools is that most of the work has to be done up front. With the traditional lecture, the professor can wing it, finishing lectures a minute before class. Not any more with the flipped classroom. Lectures need to be prepared, delivered, and recorded well before class. The slides need to be available for the students to review in class. In class examples need to be well-prepared to discuss when student questions arise in class (students have a lot more questions when they are working problems than when they are snoozing through a lecture). This is a huge challenge for research active faculty members. Traveling to conference, publishing, and working on proposals makes it hard for me to carve away time before every class. I notice that I have been spending an increasing amount of time prepping for the first day of class before the semester starts (starting a BlackBoard page, uploading documents, etc.) It is getting almost unbearable. With my research demands, I have been fantasizing about giving old school lectures and not maintaining BlackBoard sites.

Another downside is giving more power to the students in class. The results are dependent on the personalities in class. My flipping experience was a success because I had a few highly motivated students with strong personalities. They urged all of the students to buckle down and work on problems during class. I have found it much harder to work problems in other classes. I didn’t get the evaluations that I hoped for, but the learning and satisfaction in class was tangible. I have had a lot of trouble getting other classes to work on group problems in class.

I teach classes in computer labs, and it often is more than 80 degrees in my classrooms. It is really hard to do a flipped classroom due to the lack of collaborative desks and hot temperatures. Given that universities have built classrooms for lecturing and computer usage, I wonder if the desks no longer promote collaboration. Infrastructure is important! However, we rarely start discussions about infrastructure when it comes to teaching. I’ve mainly taught in computer labs like this. I’ve sometimes taught in old school lecture halls like this or in rooms with large immovable desks like this. All of these types of classrooms provide challenges. What is the best way to teach given the infrastructure at hand?

I am not an expert when it comes to education. For whatever it’s worth, I enjoyed the flipped classroom, but I wasn’t in love with it. It’s kinda like asking students to eat their vegetables (they won’t “like” it, even though it’s good for them) and it can be challenging with the classroom setup. I am more comfortable with a half-lecture, half-facilitation approach where I coach students through problems.



The discrete optimization blog has reached the end of the tour

As you may recall, I required my PhD students to maintain a discrete optimization blog this semester. Since the semester is over, the blog will “end” as well (although it will live on in the blogosphere).  I miss my students’ new posts already!  I wrote about a the lessons I learned this semester while undertaking this teaching experiment and included some blog stats (you may be surprised on the top blog posts of the semester).  I’ll refer you to the class blog for more.

dropbox: a love story

This is my third post in my series on teaching with technology.

This post reviews Dropbox, a online folder that saves and backs up your work online and syncs the files across your computers. It doesn’t back up and sync everything, just whatever is saved to the My Dropbox folder. The My Dropbox folder is like every other folder on your computer, where subfolders can be created to organize contents.  In this folder, Dropbox literally creates a copy of each file on each file in the folder on each computer (and backs them up online).  You can open and modify files offline, and then Dropbox will back up and sync files when it has a connection. I haven’t had a single problem with syncing.  I often copy my active work and papers to the My Dropbox folder so that I can work on them on my tablet in the evening.  That way, I always have my work with me, even if I forget my flash drive in my office.

Dropbox files are private.  There is a public folder that can be accessed (read only) by everyone.  Users can create shared folders.  The only problem with shared folders is that there is no owner, so all users can add to and delete files.  Some improvements to sharing options are the only way I could imagine improving Dropbox.

Dropbox is really useful, since I regularly use a tablet.  After a semester of saving my teaching files on a flash drive and transferring files to my desktop (where I back up my files), I pursued better alternatives.  Dropbox emerged as the single perfect tool for managing files across multiple computers. As an instructor, I use it to move files that I use for teaching between my PC and tablet. I use my tablet to create and edit most of my teaching content, but I like to back up all of my files on my main PC in my office.

I haven’t found too many other uses for Dropbox with regards to teaching. Dropbox requires downloading software to the computers where it will be used. It’s one thing to require students to create an account, another to ask them to install new programs (unless they are math or computational programs necessary for class).  However, I did create a shared folder for the students I worked with.  Only one student signed up for an Dropbox account, and we have yet to really start using it.

I don’t know how I lived without Dropbox for so long. Obviously, I find it indispensable as an instructor and researcher.  Its uses are unlimited when combined with other tools (Steve Brady recommends using Password Safe with Dropbox–I’ll have to check that out).

I would be happy to refer anyone to Dropbox (Disclaimer: I get extra storage for every user I refer–I could use the space).  Just use my email address.

Related posts:

RIP delicious

DeliciousI am overdue for another post on teaching with technology.  This post is about the social bookmarking tool delicious (or Del.icio.us as you may know it).  Yahoo! announced that they are shutting down delicious.  I decided to write my review anyway, since this review is mainly about social bookmarking tools, which can certainly exist whether or not delicious does.

I gave delicious a test drive this past year.  I still am not sure what social bookmarking really is and how it can be effectively used, but I loved being able to save all of my bookmarks online and access them on whatever computer I am using.  Bookmarks are tagged rather than put in folders (it’s like gmail’s labels vs. every other email client’s folders).  Tag bundles can be used to arbitrarily group tags together under one umbrella.  All of this is quite handy. Eventually, I found myself using delicious on my browser rather than my bookmarks folder.  It was just easy to organize and access bookmarks than using my browser.  Ultimately, I would say that delicious offers a mixture of three benefits that people can take advantage of to varying degrees:

  1. Bookmarks are available online and are always available.
  2. Bookmarks can be shared with others (and are shared with others whether you like it or not).
  3. Bookmarks are tagged instead of put in folders, which improves accessibility.

The only problem with delicious is that #1 and #2 are at odds with one another.  The tags and bookmarks on delicious are public, which means that everyone can see who else tagged the same bookmarks within delicious, and outsiders can view the list of bookmarks that I’ve tagged.  I’ll admit, that part of the social networking aspect is a bit creepy.  However, it was easy enough to make bookmarks private, which essentially solves that problem.  However, the tags for the bookmarks are still public (the solution here is to use inconspicuous tag names).  I was annoyed that Yahoo! announces my bookmarks to everyone and their mother on Yahoo! sites.  This meant that my relatives occasionally are perplexed by my choice of tags.  I never figured out how to manage the privacy settings on delicious, and this comes from someone who was able to master Facebook’s complicated and ever-changing privacy settings.  Delicious just didn’t have an easy and transparent way to manage privacy settings.

I can’t see too many uses for delicious in the classroom, unless I was teaching a course in which we needed to find many links to content specific material.  If I were doing so, Delicious makes it easy to add others to my network (but in reality, I’ve added two people).  We can create a common tag like the rubric for the course in order to find one other’s bookmarks.  I had been hoping to use Delicious in a course I developed on algorithm analysis, but alas, the class was canceled and I wasn’t able to try this.

In retrospect, I found that benefits #1 and #3 are a big deal to me.  I am surprised by that.  But then again, browser bookmarks haven’t really changed since I started using browsers. They could really use some revamping to be useful, and a tool that offers serious benefits in that department could make a really big splash.  Despite the demise of delicious, I am hopeful that there will be better bookmarking options in the future.

In the end, I am not surprised that Delicious is being shut down.  It’s a handy little tool that I will miss, but it doesn’t offer enough to revolutionize how I do things online, and it’s certainly not a game changer with respect to social networking.  The conflict between accessibility and privacy was always a concern for me, and maybe that was an issue for others.  But I do hope that a new tool with better features replaces it.

Do you use delicious?  How do you save and organize your bookmarks?

Related posts:

should Kindles be used in higher education?

One of my goals this year is to test out and review several teaching with technology and social networking tools. I will periodically post reviews here.  I should preface that the reviews are aimed at higher education professors in STEM fields.  I consider teaching to include both classroom teaching and student mentoring/advising, and thus, the reviews will cover one or both of those components of teaching.  Look for the teaching with technology tag.

My first review will be about the Kindle DX by Amazon. The DX model has a larger screen than the regular kindles. Two years ago, Amazon announced plans to market kindles for higher education.  One year ago, several pilot programs began that used the Kindle DX.  I have had my kindle for a year and have tested it out pretty thoroughly, although there are certainly things to learn.  This is what I’ve learned so far.


  • The large screen is wonderful!
  • The kindle has a nice bookmarking feature for kindle books, where the reader can highlight text and come back to it later.  Notes can also be saved.
  • The case made for the kindle protects it well from all the abuse it takes in my laptop bag.
  • Kindles display words very nicely.
  • Kindles weigh less than most textbooks.
  • The one textbook that I bought was significantly ($50) cheaper than the print version.  It looks like there really may be cost savings for textbooks.
  • Text documents display beautifully on the kindle, and the font size can be resized.  Books available free via Project Gutenberg, for example, are great to read if you like reading classics.  A list of various file formats supported by the kindle can be found hereNote that textbooks are all in Amazon’s proprietary format.
  • I uploaded all of the papers I have on my computer in pdf form.  The large screen is necessary for reading pdfs, since the kindle cannot resize the print.  The print is usually pretty small and hard to read despite the larger screen, except for journals that are printed on smaller paper.  It is a handy way to read and review papers, although a laptop can essentially do the same thing.  It is especially handy to have a pdf of a paper open while writing a paper or proposal on a laptop, since it creates a second monitor of sorts.
  • The kindle holds its charge for a long time.
  • The adapter for the kindle has a combination outlet plug (for charging) and USB drive (for uploading and downloading from my computer).  One cable is better than two cables.  I also like how the cable is white, so I don’t lose it among my many other mostly black/gray/orange cables.
  • I love testing out sample book chapters on my kindle.  I downloaded about twenty book samples to my kindle for my recent vacation.  I read them on the train ride.  When I finished my books, I could easily purchase a new book based on which sample enticed me the most.  Amazon emailed me a receipt.
  • I have 20-20 vision, but it is not quite perfect.  I wear glasses for reading computer monitors and other digital displays in order to avoid squinting and headaches.  I do not need glasses when reading the kindle–it is definitely more like reading a book.


  • Few textbooks are available on kindles.
  • Pricing on other books is frustrating. If I can buy a used version of a book for $0.01 ($3.99 with shipping), I’m not sure why I should I pay $9.99 for a kindle book. Frugality trumps tech toy novelty for me.
  • Kindles do not display figures well.  They are not displayed seamlessly with the text.  I noticed that figures often rotate the dimensions of the figure to display larger, which is nice.  The figure captions often are displayed on the following page, however, which is an enormous problem.  The newer model (Kindle 3) may have fixed this bug.
  • I do not like how kindles display equations.  Kindles seem to display words well, but they have trouble with everything else.  That means technical books are not as readable as my summer beach reading.
  • The highlighting feature could definitely use improvement, since it is cumbersome to search for highlighted text, when many sections in a book may be highlighted.  I greatly prefer using Post It notes in hard copy books.
  • The highlighting and note taking features do not work for pdfs.
  • It is really hard to flip back and forth across pages of a book. It takes a second to turn pages. It’s not a long delay, but it is annoying when flipping back and forth in a book to prepare lecture notes.
  • Searching and going to new sections (rather than going forward or backward one page) is difficult.  I can’t imagine a student being able to effectively use a kindle for a timed, open book exam.  I can barely use it to create lecture notes.
  • As mentioned earlier, I uploaded a large number of papers to my kindle. The user interface for finding files is extremely primitive (it lists the papers, sorting them according to a criteria that one can choose).  Scrolling through hundreds of files for the one I want is time consuming.
  • I can’t lend kindle books to students that I mentor and advise.  I have a lot of books in my office, and students often need them more than me.
  • Testing out sample book chapters is useful for my personal fiction and nonfiction reading, but not so useful for textbooks, since I’ve already made up my mind about which book to use and since I really need to see more than the table of contents and the introduction to decide which book to purchase.

The bottom line:  I thought that the cons would outnumber of the pros. It’s refreshing to know that the kindle has a lot of benefits, but the obstacles to using the kindle for textbooks–both for students and professors–are large indeed.  The largest drawbacks are the user interface, limited highlighting and bookmarking features, and the inability to flip back and forth well.  Thus, in the end, I find that the cons outweigh the pros.  I would not use a kindle book to prepare lecture notes again, and I think that in itself summarizes my positions.

I really think that kindles are perfect for people who tend to buy all of the books that they read and who read their books start to finish.  I use the library when possible and lend my personal books to others when I am done reading them, so I tend to carry around a bunch of real books along with my kindle (which defeats the purpose).  With improved pricing, I would do most of my personal reading on the kindle, but that is as far as I see myself going with the kindle.

How do you and your kindle (or e-reader) get along?

Additional reading