Nearpod: What the students thought

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After the iPad & Nearpod experiment two weeks ago (see Oct 11 entry), it is only now that I had a chance to ask students (well, the group that was luckier with the wifi connectivity) how they felt about it. Their response was much more positive than I thought.

The main positive comment was that they could take a more active role, even though technically this only involved scrolling around on a web page, clicking one or two links deep, and then choosing answers in the quiz. Some said they enjoyed the quiz because they could make a choice without the awkwardness of speaking up or raising a hand. Overall, the feeling of being in charge made a difference.

And yes, one student commented that this experience -mobile, interactive, online learning- felt more like 21st century. He did not say in comparison to what- but yes, a lot of the tutorial work I do is still based on printouts, and I probably do too much talking and explaining instead of letting students get on with stuff.

Some student liked using the almost box-fresh iPad minis simply because of the allure of handling the beautifully designed, slick technology- obviously part of Apple’s success (“We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them” -Steve Jobs on the Aqua interface, 2000) and the reason hundreds are fingering the pads in Apple shops. And I suppose that’s OK, as long as we’re clear this is not the reason we use them in teaching….

This student feedback is very encouraging, for tutorial work as well as for the interactive exercises I want to do with first year biochemistry students in a lecture flipping experiment next year.

first nearpod experiment

first nearpod

Some thoughts on my first experience with using iPads and Nearpod in a first year undergraduate tutorial. One of the first things we are trying to teach our life science students (and indeed the topic of one the first exercises that the distance learners in the MA DTCE course are asked to work through!) is the critical use of online resources. When I was a student 20 years ago, the information sources I could find in the library -textbooks, monographs, scientific journals- were all pre-filtered for quality and authority. Many of them were hard to digest, but I never had to question the accuracy of their content.

That’s all changed of course with the internet. It would be easy for us to wholesale discredit any information students find that didn’t come from a scientific database, but it would also be unrealistic. Not to mention disingenous when I use wikipedia myself to get a first impression of an unfamiliar field, for example when I’m marking an essay that’s far from my scientific comfort zone.

My ideal tutorial session on this topic would be to have each student do their literature search “live” during the tutorial, and I would be able to share any one student’s screen with the group whenever they come across a source they can’t easily judge. I suppose that might take too long and would favour the fastest students. I am also not sure if there is an app that allows “screen sharing” and switching like in a TV studio. The next best thing I could think of was joint web browsing starting from the same page, and a discussion of how to identify quality internet sources. I designed a Nearpod presentation with a short intro on the importance of asking “who wrote it? where is it published? what kind of text is it?” and a succession of six web pages. All were Google search results for the topic “aflatoxins” (the toxins produced by mold growing on foodstuff, particularly peanuts). I gave students some time to look at each page and check the “who, where, what” and then quizzed them “Is this a reliable source?” and “Can we cite this source in an essay?”. The webpages ranged from schoolkids’ chemistry homework to top scientific journal articles.

The individual browsing was made possible by iPad minis which the Faculty’s e-learning team has bought as a pilot project. IPads are of course already widely used in schools, and many universities are getting on board, but I gather there is still debate over how to get the most out of them, and also about “bring your own device” (byod) versus “a free ipad for each fresher”. We have been close to the latter but have held off in the end, not least because Wifi connectivity in our main teaching building – a massive block of concrete that efficiently shields all radiation, good or bad – is patchy. Nevertheless, our intrepid e-learning team arrived with iPad minis for all, set them up for Nearpod and kept them running smoothly as much as circumstances allowed.

I did the same session twice yesterday in two different rooms, and Wifi connectivity indeed made all the difference. In the first group (poor connectivity), moving through the Nearpod presentation and browsing the web pages was slow and frequently disrupted. The technical issues distracted everyone; not being able to view the whole set of pages meant that I couldn’t really get the point across. Second session, better room: big difference. The students seemed to enjoy the browsing but needed some encouragement to discuss what they found.¬† Some interesting points came up that I hadn’t thought about- for example, why is a ten year-old web page not up to date while a Nature article from 1966 can be “gold standard source material”? Using the Nearpod quiz functions allowed me to see how students had voted and I could discuss with them directly. Getting two students with different answers to justify their choices worked well in one case.

I think I might have made that exercise a little too long; we did not have a great amount of wrapping-up time. There was some inevitable faffing about while I launched the presentation. Maybe four webpages would have been enough, more carefully chosen to be less obviously good or bad. I did not use the full evaluation tool; that would have taken too long, and instant feedback on the quiz they’ve just taken seemed to make more sense. I’ve only now realised that one student did not submit answers even though he seemed engaged. Not sure what happened, teething problems. I have sent the presentation as “homework” to the group that didn’t get the full experience. Overall an encouraging start- if the wifi works!

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A nod to my postgrad programme. (And the name of the blog…) It’s the early days but over the next three years I’m hoping to get my head round the theory of education, communication, digital media and …everything. (Hey, physics has a theory of everything, why can’t we have one here.) And then apply it to make informed decisions about how to make online, interactive, web 2.0 stuff work in life science education. Perhaps even answer the question, “Should we use tablet computers/ ipads in our teaching, or are we just trying to be in with the cool kids?”

So, here’s the idea: Over the next months (years?) I’m going to post my musings and actual experiences with digital technology in the service of higher education here.

I will also write reflections on things I’ve learned in the Masters by distance learning that I have just started in the field of (deep breath) digital technologies, communication and education. As a science geek, reflective practice and verbacious essays do not come easy to me. However, I am now sold to the idea of evolving my attitudes and understanding by writing, and hope that these posts might eventually even be worth reading by others.

As they say in China (I think), May the exercise succeed!