Building Calculus: The toolbox

Building Calculus: The toolbox

We're now less than two weeks away from the start of Fall classes. The time feels much shorter than this! At this point, the building process for both my courses — Calculus (2 sections), and Discrete Structures — is coming to a close, and I'm transitioning from building to getting ready to deploy.

Last week I wrote about how I went about choosing the learning materials for Calculus. (For new readers, I'd previously written about the framework and modality for my Calculus course, the learning objectives, the learning activities, the assessments, and the grading system.) I made the point that learning materials are separate and different from technological tools; a video is an example of a learning material, while different tools might be used to interact with it. However there's a point where materials and tools are inextricable from each other, and obviously in our current situation course technology plays a larger role than ever. So, let's talk about tech tools.

What is a "tool"?

As with most of the building process for my courses, I'm looking back at the Quality Matters rubric, which states that:

Tools are types of software and applications that enable learner interaction and may be used for content delivery or providing feedback in the course; they may be included in or external to the learning management system (LMS).
Examples of tools include, but are not limited to, discussion boards, chat rooms, gradebooks, social media, games, whiteboards, wikis, blogs, virtual classrooms, web conferencing, announcements, assignment and quiz tools,  plagiarism detection tools, video repositories, online proctoring tools, and collaboration tools.

Keep that phrase "enable learner interaction" in mind. What it means is that the purpose of a tool is to enable and support active learning. "Interaction" might include student interaction with other students, interaction with the content, interaction with the professor, even interaction with other humans outside the course. Remember the definition of active learning is instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.

Tools and learning objectives

Every aspect of a well-designed online or hybrid course — and of all other modalities as well — at some point has to connect back to the learning objectives that the instructor has written for the course. That's a central theme of the building process I've written about, and of the QM rubric, and it holds no less for course tools than it does for learning activities, assessments, and learning materials. If you are contemplating using a tool in your course, ask yourself: How does this help students master the learning objectives? What learning objective does it enable?

The QM rubric says it this way, as part of its instructions on how to evaluate the quality of an online course:

Clear information and instructions are provided regarding how the tools support the learning objectives or competencies.  For example, a course that requires posting to a discussion forum makes it clear how the discussions support a learning objective or competency. Tools are not used simply for their own sake.

That's my emphasis at the end, and oh, how I hate hearing this. I'm a nerd and I love shiny tech objects, and as my students from the past can tell you, there are few things I like better than rolling out interesting new tools to see how they work. In my mind, I always have a higher purpose for introducing a new tool with students; but actually, many times when I've done this it's just to use the tool for its own sake, or to give me some fodder for a new blog post, or something. What I have not done consistently enough in the past is put a filter on my tool use and ask, about a tool: What learning objective does it serve?

Online courses and digital minimalism

One of the most influential books I've read recently is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport (who wrote some of my other favorite books like Deep Work, and whose Study Hacks blog is a regular destination). One of the main points of Digital Minimalism is precisely the idea that we need to put filters on our tech use in order to attain a life that is focused and meaningful. In particular, just because a piece of technology conveys some positive amount of benefit for us, it doesn't mean we should let it in to our lives.

This was the guiding concept that led me to drop out of Twitter recently after over a decade of use. Twitter used to add lots of value to my life and work, until it started to become more noise than signal. Toward the end, I could still see that Twitter provided some benefits. But that didn't mean I should keep using it. I needed to look at the whole picture, and when I did, I found that the tiny amount of signal I received from Twitter through interactions with people I respect and had even become friends with, was dwarfed by the tsunami of noise Twitter produces — an appalling mix of meanness, hostility, negativity, defeatism, tribalism, empty virtue-signaling, and cowardice, coming even from many of the very users I'd come to respect in the past, enabled and amplified by the shallowness of the medium.

So I dropped out (still posting there via Buffer but not visiting to read responses or DMs), and the benefits were immediate and strong. It felt a little like when you regain your sense of taste and smell following a bad cold. Newport phrased the experience like this:

Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins. Just as important: they’re comfortable missing out on everything else.

He recommends a "digital declutter" where we remove tech from our lives piece by piece and then applying strong filters to letting it back in:

To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must: (1) Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough). (2) Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better). (3) Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

And that gets us back to online and hybrid courses. When we're choosing tools for courses, there are so many choices that you have to have filters on in order to make any meaningful choices. For my courses, the filters are:

  • The tool should be free for students and open source whenever possible (and beware of freemium models). As with learning materials, I'm not 100% opposed to tools that students need to pay for, and I have no problem personally paying for a tool that I use. But there are so many good free and/or open source tools available for learning that it's hard to justify a high price tag. Choosing free/open source tools when possible — for example, SciPy instead of MATLAB, Desmos instead of a TI graphing calculator, and so on – removes the stress of having to pay money on top of tuition just to participate in a class. However, as I said, beware of so-called "free" tools that collect student data; as the saying goes, if you're not paying for the product then you are the product.
  • There should be a variety of tools, but not too much. Just as in my toolchest in the garage, having a variety of tools equips me for a variety of jobs, and it makes work more fun and interesting. However one can go overboard with this; see below.
  • Tools must enable student interaction and connect to my learning objectives. As mentioned above, this is the only real reason we use tools in the first place — to work actively and make progress on learning objectives. If a tool does not enable active learning or does not have any clear connection to a learning objective, or if it duplicates a tool that already does this without improving on it, then it stays on the shelf.
  • Tools should be as simple as possible. This goes for all tools, including the analog tools I keep in my garage. In most cases and especially in lower-level classes, students should be able to pick up and use a tool starting from zero with no tutorials necessary.

It's no coincidence that the first three of these are the same filters I used for learning materials.

Example: Choosing a whiteboard

Back during my sabbatical at Steelcase I learned how wonderful whiteboards can be. Steelcase makes deluxe quality whiteboards and the building where I worked had them everywhere, and they were constantly in use. There's something about a whiteboard that seems to switch my creative and organizational juices on simultaneously, and I think I'm not the only one. Being separated from physical whiteboards is, honestly, going to be one of the hardest things about teaching this fall. So at some point I needed to go searching for a digital replacement.

It turns out this is a very crowded space. Cassie Williams and Celes Woodruff from James Madison University put together this terrific comparison document for virtual whiteboards — it's terrific but overwhelming, even for someone like me. There are only seven tools on that chart, but I know there are more, they are all a lot more similar than they are different, and taking time to tease out the fine differences between them sounds like a fatal rabbit hole to go down, just days before classes starting.

Here is my thought process for how I selected what I did:

  • First of all, do I really need a whiteboard? What learning objectives does one serve? Well, yes, I do need a whiteboard tool, because any of my learning objectives that have to do with writing or sketching things out is enabled by a whiteboard. Here are just a few of the early micro-objectives that I plan on using the whiteboard to enable:
Find the limit of a function as the input approaches a point, using algebraic simplification.
Given the graph of a function, make a reasonable sketch of the graph of its derivative.
Use basic derivative rules to solve problems about slopes, velocities, and rates of change involving basic functions.

All of these, and others, will involve digital whiteboards to write and draw. It's possible to do these with other tools but the whiteboard beats those, because it's the epitome of the simple tool.

  • Which ones are free for students to use? As far as I could tell, all of them are free for students to use. However, some of the ones on the list required students to set up user accounts, which I don't necessarily approve of.
  • Which ones seem to enable student interaction the most? It seemed like all of the ones I tried enable student interaction to some degree, but some of them do it better than others. Explain Everything, for example — which is a great product that I use regularly because it plays nice with Chromebooks — has multi-user interaction capabilities, but they seem weird and unnatural, like the tool wasn't built with that in mind. GoBoard on the other hand has text, audio, and video chat built right in to the tool in a natural and easy way (not to mention built-in Wolfram|Alpha and Desmos, which is amazing).
  • Which ones seems simplest? I just mentioned GoBoard, and while I was really impressed by its features, it has so many features that I felt it lost the essential simplicity of a whiteboard. It's the classic tradeoff in every technology between features and simplicity (which I've written about before regarding GTD software). I think a lot of students would just get lost trying to use it, and that shouldn't happen with whiteboards. Google's Jamboard, on the other hand, irritatingly lacks some core features that it ought to have, but it's dead simple.
  • (Bonus) Which ones do I already know how to use? Of the ones on the list, I had used Jamboard and Explain Everything before. That's just bonus points because there's no harm in learning new software, and if I — with a PhD in math and 25 years experience using educational technologies — can't pick up a new tool within an hour or so, I can't expect students to get it without more work on my part than I'm willing to put in.

The winner: Jamboard. As I said, I already knew Jamboard and Explain Everything; I took the time to audition GoBoard and Miro as well. The latter two are very impressive, and Miro in particular looks like what I hope Jamboard someday becomes. In the end, I went with Jamboard because of its simplicity and my experience with it; it also helps that a lot of my math department colleagues also use Jamboard (and we have an actual physical Jamboard in the department) and that we are a G Suite for Education campus, so everybody has university-managed Google accounts that Jamboards plug nicely into.

However, I like what Michael Hyatt once said about technology, that every tool he uses is on a perpetual 24/7 job interview. If I keep playing around with Miro this semester and decide at some point it will do a better job of enabling student interaction than Jamboard, I have no issue switching.

In case you're wondering, the other tools I'll be using in Calculus are Desmos (and Desmos Activities) for most student work involving graphing and data; Classkick to deploy much of my pre-class and asynchronous activities (I'm sort of in love with this tool right now); polling tools to do peer instruction during our F2F meeting (going back and forth between Mentimeter and Poll Everywhere, and need to pick one soon); and Campuswire for student work that requires communicating with each other outside of the F2F meetings. That's in addition to the usual stuff like Blackboard for our LMS and Google Docs and Forms for all kinds of miscellaneous tasks.

The point isn't so much the tools themselves as the process by which they were selected. Each tool in the box is there for a reason — no tool is there for its own sake — and that reason is to enable some form of student interaction. And they were chosen over alternatives because I judged them to be the best at what they do.

In the next and possibly final post on building my courses, I'll give some parting thoughts about this entire business before we dive in and actually start teaching.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.