Sunday, August 19, 2012

On Nouns & Verbs in a BYOT World - A Math Teacher's Reflection

Math Department Chair, Layton Elliot, is a near-constant fixture in the Teacher Resource Center. When he is not mooching off our coffee (our Keurig manna is strong), he is constantly pushing and challenging the IT department to be more open and more flexible. He has grown from the "guy who stuck his laptop into the freezer" (it was overheating) to a power user who is always looking for the next thing to improve math education...or intra-team communication...or faculty collaboration. When I received this reflection, it seemed the perfect time to hand the reigns over for a guest blog.  In keeping with my format, he approaches TL;DR as he addresses "Verbs, Not Nouns", the BYOT culture wars, and the need for critical analysis at CHOICE OF TECH level. I resisted the urge to comment, but you are free to do so below

Technology is so infused in what I do each day, from creating math worksheets to consuming Olympics live streams. And yet, I find myself wanting more. Lots more. Much as our director of faculty development states that we are “never fully developed” as professionals, a theme of the 2012 JSEA Symposium, our technology is just never quite good enough. On one end, we want (or are told we want by Apple press events) higher resolutions, faster bandwidths, and more storage. But on another end, we want a satisfactory marriage of the various computing services out there. I am quite now convinced through personal experiences and dozens of conversations with our CIO that I cannot subscribe wholly to a single ecosystem. I use Apple for some aspects (phone, music, tablet), Microsoft for others (primary computer, home theater, Office documents, Exchange, Skydrive), Google (forms, collaborative documents, class webpages, shared calendars), Amazon (books), and Dropbox (collaborative folders). Though I am hopeful that one day I’ll see Microsoft Office on an iPad or a better iTunes on Windows, I have accepted the limitations of the odd interplay between these services.

But there is also another element at work. Maybe it is marketing. Maybe it is brand loyalty. I’m often asked if I’m a PC or a Mac (didn’t know the kids remembered those commercials). My students ask why I use an iPhone and not an Android device, while other students laud me for being part of their cult. And admittedly, when it came time to get a tablet device, I already had so much invested in the Apple ecosystem of media and apps that the iPad was a more compelling choice for software alone. But, I maintain that if I had started with an Android phone, I’d probably have an Android tablet now with very little change in functionality or satisfaction.

A few months ago, I had a former student arguing that Pages on iPad shouldn’t really be used to write school papers. I challenged that notion as an exercise. I had not really used Pages much, and wanted to see what he was getting at.

  • He stated first that it did not have the features of Microsoft Word. I was hanging out with a few friends, and we were arguing the merits of both sides. We opened the program using Airplay to display. Passing the iPad around, we were all able to quickly create a new document and begin using features such as inserting pictures or diagrams. The experience was even superior to MS Word in the manipulation of aspects of the document, such as margins and picture sizing/placement. True, it did not have near the scope of features of its more mature brethren, but it did have most of what a typical student writing a paper would want. We decided that it was missing an equation editor (not used by most students in most situations) and a reference manager (only introduced in Word 2007 and on).
  • His second point was that it was not easy to print. One of my friends, an Apple fanboy, pointed out that his printer was Airplay compatible. Another challenged if we even needed a paper intermediary, since all his college teachers graded digitally. And sure enough, Pages can export to a Word doc for E-mailing. At this point, we all agreed that it could not be used for collaborative document-writing, but we were comparing with Word 2010 (not the web app), so that wasn’t fair.
  • Third, “who wants to type a paper on a tablet screen?” That’s a limitation of the device, not the software. The same argument can be made of Word 2013 on Windows RT without a keyboard.
  • What about MLA? I found that one interesting. I argued against the utility of MLA/APA. They made sense when formatting and text were intrinsically linked. But these days, formatting is a function of the venue on which information is viewed. MLA was a standard for a heading, a title, margins, spacing, and references. It was important when documents were printed (although I am amazed at how long it took those standards to catch up to variable-width fonts). It doesn’t make sense for a purely digital document. Citations can be hyperlinks with much greater reference ability.
One-by-one the arguments crumbled. But these aren’t new. The same thing has happened for Google Docs. But what was at work was this notion of seeing a college paper as a pure Microsoft Word experience. Where does that come from? Sure, I was taught that the only way you could turn in a paper was if it was Times New Roman, 1-inch margins, double-spaced. But even I had the stubborn WordPerfect friends. In grad school, some of my peer were scared when Microsoft Word introduced Calibri as the default font. It ended up being OK. Openoffice.org and Google Docs challenged if a computer even needed an expensive “office suite” of apps.

Is brand loyalty with software keeping us from seeing the strengths of interoperability and choice? What other artificial limitations do we place on ourselves? (Is it preferable to own music/movies or have access to them?)

This past year, I’ve had similar challenges with technology in math education, some of which have challenged my own preconceived notions.

  1. The de facto standard of math equations is Design Science’s MathType. Now, I am admittedly not crazy about plugins, especially ones that will require lifetime subscriptions to retain full functionality with future versions of Office. Since Office 2007, the built-in equation editor has been significantly enhanced with smoother fonts, in-line editing, and implementation across the suite of apps. And yet, people still want MathType.
  2. The graphing calculator is still seen as a “which buttons do you press to make this happen” device by many who teach with the older models. The TI-Nspire CX that we are using now in freshman and sophomore classes is built with a context-based menu-system. Graphing calculator apps on Chrome, Android, and iOS have limited menus and more intuitive interfaces. Students all have BYOT devices that show graphs at much higher resolution with greater manipulative capacity than even their calculators. And yet making that connection to the learning potential is an uphill battle.
  3. Student STILL see math as coming only from their teacher or their book. I received an E-mail from a student today saying she was struggling with Interest and Investment word problems. I asked if she had looked up examples online. Her response: “you’re allowed to do that?”

We tend to want to limit ourselves to comfort zone. “I don’t know how” becomes an excuse for “I don’t want to spend the time to learn.” I see it in students, educators, and myself. But whenever I have forced myself to use something or try something, I have been amazed and pleased with the results. And I want more.

Maybe we’ll always want more from our tech, and that’s how it should be. For every feature that becomes a way of tech-life (saving attachments to cloud storage on a mobile device to, viewing class inking via web apps on any device), my imagination sees even more possibilities with what is on the horizon. What will this year bring? iOS 6, Windows 8, Surface, another dessert from Google, smaller, faster… Those are predictable. But what is going to be the small feature that will change everything? That’s the exciting unknown that keeps me tuned…