Blending the classroom with Khan Academy

During the Fall 2016 semester, I ran MA0900 – Intermediate Algebra – as a blended classroom (MA0900 Spring 2017 is being run as a blended classroom too). That is, the class was a blend of lectures, written assessments, online videos, and online homework. What was the motivation behind blending the class as opposed to centering it around weekly lectures? Several contributing factors were considered.

Motivation for blending

Before the Fall 16 semester, Intermediate Algebra was not offered. The lowest math class was Math for Life, a class perfectly suited for general education but not particularly helpful for students moving on to Precalculus and Calculus. Moreover, the professors teaching Precalculus and Calculus had become frustrated that their students were hitting a wall due to a lack of algebraic conceptual and mechanical skills. MA0900 was put in place to address this need.

The class is a two credit class and meets once per week for one hour and twenty minutes. It is a remedial algebra class, and therefore, a key assumption is that the students will not be seeing any of this material for the first time. Each concept and skill is thoroughly covered – perhaps not successfully – in high school curriculums around the world.

Due to the fact that the class only met once per week and the fact that each student was trying to remediate his or her algebra knowledge, a blended classroom was exactly the format needed for each student to fill in his or her own algebra content gaps – at his or her own pace. A one-size-fits-all lecture would not be helpful for this particular audience. It is for these reasons I went all-in on blending the classroom using Khan Academy’s Algebra I Mission. I am in my second semester using this format, and I plan on transitioning the Precalculus class to a similar format in the future.

Khan Academy Missions

Khan Academy produces video content, written content, and practice exercises for virtually every subject area. It is tremendously well-developed in math. In addition to the written and video content, Khan Academy has what they call Missions for each core math class. The website’s definition for a Mission is as follows: “Missions are personalized math experiences in which students can learn at their own pace, master skills that are challenging and appropriate for their level, and use hints and videos to learn and review.” Additionally, a teacher can create a class that links to a specific Mission and can serve as a Coach to suggest skills for each student and monitor student and class progress. I created a class using the Algebra I Mission. On the first day of class, I provided a class code for students to gain entry into the Mission once they created their account.

The Algebra I Mission contains roughly 180 skills. Since the class is a two-credit, one meeting per week class, I could not expect to cover and work through all 180 skills. Instead, each week I selected a set of skills that the students would be responsible for for that week. If the class were to meet three times per week – such as the Precalculus class or most other classes at AUP – I could be more ambitious with the number of skills to cover throughout the semester.

Class Format (as of Spring 17)

The weekly class meeting is scheduled in a computer lab. This allows students to work on their Mission skills in class, and it allows us to troubleshoot any tech problems on the spot. Curiously, despite being quite tech savy, many students initially have trouble signing in and navigating the Mission environment. By being able to address those issues immediately, together as a class, we eliminate the need for students to troubleshoot those issues themselves.

In parallel to the Khan Academy Mission, I use the learning management system Blackboard to post all weekly Mission assignments and skill videos. Each week, I post the set of Mission skills I want the students to work on for that week. This bullet point list of skills is posted as an Announcement on Blackboard.  Also, I created a semester-long weekly schedule pdf with all of the weekly skill lists; students can work ahead if they choose to. That pdf is posted under Course Materials on Blackboard. It lays out exactly what we will be working through each week.

On the Mission, I am able to manually suggest the skills I want the class to work on. I get to choose the due date and how many questions they need to get correct in a row before moving on from that skill. I set each due date one week later and set the number of questions in a row needed to move on from each skill to be 5 (Khan Academy gives the Coach the option of 5 in a row or 10 in a row). By manually making these recommendations, the skills for the week appear at the top of the page with a notification in red that the skill has been assigned by the coach and is due a week later. This keeps the student from having to dig around too much to find the requested skills.

What about the week-to-week content instruction? One class meeting per week does not leave a lot of time for actual instruction of the concepts for the week. For this, at the beginning of each week, I post Khan Academy video links for each of the skills to be covered that week. These video links are posted on Blackboard under Internet Links, and they have the same titles as the skills on the Mission. These video links are separate web links and are not accessed through the Mission. For example, if one of the Mission skills to be worked on during the week is called “Compound Inequalities,” there is a link posted which contains a 4-6 minute video explaining compound inequalities. Typically in each video Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, explains the concept in question and does a few examples using that concept.

It took me awhile to pull myself out of the equation a bit. I often felt that students needed my explanation. No video could possibly explain the topics as well I do. But, Khan’s videos are explained clearly and in just the right length to keep students’ attention. Khan’s explanations say more or less what I, or any other Algebra teacher, would say when explaining a core Algebra topic. Perhaps they are not the most mathematically rigorous, but that is not what I’m looking for in a remedial Algebra classroom. As far as I’m concerned, the videos contain good explanations, an abundance of examples, and can be rewatched, paused and rewound as often as a student would like. That cannot happen if it was just me lecturing.

I stress to students that the sequence in which they complete their work each week is important. Ideally, students watch the videos first, taking notes and working out the examples as they go along. Then, once finished watching the videos, they go into the Mission and work on each of those individual skills. In reality, since everyone has seen this material before, many students try and work on the skill first, and then consult the videos if they hit trouble, if at all.

Each week there are 6-7 skills assigned. These 6-7 skills are required for the weekly homework grade. That being said, there is nothing from preventing a student from working ahead by a few weeks. Each student knows why he or she is in the course. Those who want their two credits and do not need any more math afterwards stick to the minimum weekly requirements. Others, who know they will move on to Precalculus and Calculus, move ahead and work on specific content gaps in their knowledge – after completing the weekly requirements. The homework grade each week is based on completion of the assigned skills for the week. It is not based on accuracy. Simply, did the student do the work, or not? If there are seven skills for a week, the homework will be out of seven points.

I hope the online environment will get the students working on math problems and not becoming paralyzed by right or wrongness. Plus, they get instant feedback on each problem they complete. This eliminates the time lag between writing homework down, submitting it to the teacher, and waiting a few days or weeks to get the graded assignment back. I’m convinced that the instant correct or incorrect feedback, plus a new problem to work on right afterwards, keeps the attention of the student and gives him or her the opportunity to fix the initial mistake. Students can more quickly and effectively capitalize on their mistakes.

What takes place during the weekly class meeting? As the teacher of the class (coach), the Khan Academy Mission allows me to see everything the students do on the Mission. I can see how long they spend on each problem. I can see which problems they used the written hint and which problems they used the video hint (both the written and video hints are available on each problem). I can see what time of day they are working. Finally, I can see which skills have been practiced and which skills are the students struggling in. In fact, I can see a list of each student that is struggling and on which skill. In class I devote 45 minutes to covering concepts from the previous week’s skills that I saw students struggled with. Also,  I’ll spend time discussing potentially problematic concepts from the skills for the week to come. This part resembles a typical class lecture, except that what I lecture on depends on the student performance in the previous week and other troublesome issues for the week to come. If a student does not need any help with the topics I am lecturing on, then he or she does not need to listen to my lecture and can keep working on the Mission. This is part of the reason why being in the computer lab is so important. The remaining 30 minutes is left for the students to work on the Mission and to ask me or other students questions.

To make sure students come to class, I make attendance 10% of the grade. Even if students work ahead on the Mission, they will still need to come to class if they do not want the attendance portion of the grade to impact their grade. Plus, I want students to have that one regular block of time each week where they know they need to come in and work on the Mission skills. Most can finish a bulk of the skills for the week and they can get their questions answered on the spot.

It is not entirely true that each student can work at his or her own pace. Since I set the weekly skill requirements, each student must at least finish those skills. So while everyone must complete the minimum weekly requirements, it would not be unusual for several different students to finish the class at completely different skills – both ahead of the assigned skills. In short, there is a lower bound on what students need to get through, but there is no upper bound.

The midterm and final exam only test the skills required each week. For the students that have advanced past what the rest of the class is on, they will not be responsible for those concepts on the midterm or final. For the Mission work there is no limit to what can be reached by a student, but for in-class paper exams, there is equity for each student. Moving forward, I would like to find a feasible way of creating tailored exams for each student, depending where he or she is in the skill list.

Problems

The class format outlined above is how I have structured the course this Spring 2017 semester – which I would say is moving along successfully. During the Fall 16 semester, the format was slightly different and had its share of problems. Here is a list of problems experienced.

  • class not held in a computer lab
  • too ambitious weekly skill recommendations (10-15 weekly skills instead of the current 6-7 weekly skills)
  • students not watching the videos
  • not making attendance part of the grade
  • weekly paper quizzes
  • lack of clarity on weekly expectations
  • not enough help navigating the Mission environment (directly linked to not being in the computer lab)

In Closing

The above lines are how I have chosen to run my blended classroom. There are good elements of it and certainly there are flaws, so I welcome any feedback. I’ll strive to make each semester a better blend than the others. What I’m convinced of is that blending can be used with success in the low level math classroom. I’m confident it can work well in other subject areas too, and so I look forward to hearing more experiences from those blending their classrooms.

 

 

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Assignments with BlackBoard

Most of us give assignments in our courses (papers, proposals, projects, lab reports…) and ask students to submit an electronic version of their work. The most common submission methods are usually by email, through Dropbox, using google docs or other similar tools… However, students tend to get confused when we multiply the tools used for communication in a course, and so do we. Moreover, some students have difficulties sticking to the submission deadlines and the common tools do not really help enforce those 🙂 And most importantly, the feedback process can be a real hassle for us: download file-insert comments-grade-copy grades into grade-book -upload/share file with student(s) – potentially get a second version of the work – and ditto the whole process… 😐

After trying out online document sharing tools and email exchanges for a while, and not being satisfied with the entire process, i realized (thanks to Robbie) that we can use BlackBoard to set up assignments. It’s really easy and very efficient, and it is after all the official institutional course tool at AUP that (all) faculty and students are using.

Through BlackBoard, you can create assignments and provide feedback to students while easily managing all sorts of settings: availability, instructions, type of submission -individual or group assignment, number of attempts – single or multiple attempts, due date, grading options -score or letter…You can see who submitted the work and when, then grade the assignments and provide feedback (comments) to the students through BlackBoard. You don’t even have to download the files, unless you want to of course. You can set up your assignments gradually as the course unfolds, or create them all at the beginning of the semester and make them visible to students at specific dates. On the student end, they can download/upload files individually or in groups, insert comments, see your feedback and their grade, submit an improved version of the work (if authorized), and most importantly they have to stick to the deadlines!!

You can find all the details about BlackBoard Assignments here : https://en-us.help.blackboard.com/Learn/Instructor/Assignments

I have been using this for all sorts of assignments this semester and it is working perfectly well. The students find it easy, and they know that everything related to the course happens through BlackBoard, including email communication with the whole class or with groups created within the class – but I’ll keep that for another post 😉

 

TodaysMeet – a useful classroom tool

In my role as Fellow of AUP’s recently launched Teaching and Learning Center, I’m particularly interested in how teachers and students can make the most of technology inside and outside the classroom. Recently, with Robert Payne – our colleague from Global Communications – I co-organized a short series of workshops addressing just that. I’ll be writing about these sessions in more detail at a later date.

For my inaugural post here, I wanted to share something that I learned how to use through facilitating those workshops, a simple tool that made a significant impact in my classroom. One of the workshop aims was to consider how smartphones could be a productive, rather than disruptive, presence in the learning environment. Mark Ennis, a colleague who teaches in Comparative Literature and English and Global Communications is, it turns out, a useful resource on this topic as he’s been thinking about technology best practice for some time. He let us know about the deceptively simple, yet powerful, TodaysMeet.

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On one level, TodaysMeet is a straightforward online application that lets users contribute to a basic real-time discussion. Aesthetically, its nothing to get excited about and reminds me of the ill-fated chatrooms of the late 1990s. Anyone can set up a room and securely (it can be password protected) invite people to exchange online. Contributions are short and limited to the length of a Tweet, just 140 characters.

One of this ways Mark uses this tool is in his public speaking classes to prepare students for distracting social media messages that increasingly are displayed alongside speakers at public conferences. He helps students to be more interesting than the real time feedback they find themselves competing against.

In one of my English composition classes, I decided to try something different. As any teacher of academic writing knows, one of the challenges is helping students discover compelling, succinct and pithy thesis statements. For me, Todays Meet was an enjoyable way to get students to share, peer review and discuss thesis statements for an upcoming assignment. I logged into the site on the classroom PC, created a room for my students and projected it onto the whiteboard. I told students the URL and invited them to switch on their phones and contribute their draft thesis statements to the page, encouraging them to use their real names for easy identification. Armed with a whiteboard marker, we set about discussing, scribbling on and improving the thesis statements. Such an activity can be fairly tough, and it can be difficult to keep students engaged. The class was small, and we generally worked in an informal, collaborative way, which I think suited this kind of activity. In short, this approach – while not being something I’ll be using every week with my students – provided a refreshing change to the classroom dynamic and certainly caught the imaginations of the students concerned. I’m not completely convinced it made their thesis statements stronger, but we’ll get there in the end….

Welcome to the CS Department Technology for Education Blog

Dear colleague,

Welcome to our new blog which is dedicated to advances in tools and technologies used in education.

This blog was inspired by Rebekah Rast’s TLC weekly, and is a collaboration between the Computer Science department and the Office of Assessment, Learning and Institutional Research.

Being the closest members of faculty to the latest advances in computer science, we thought of contributing to the effort of discussing and reviewing tools which can facilitate and improve teaching and learning by what we know best.

Many of us are already familiar with tools such as Doodle, Polleverywhere, Wordle and Dipity. Such tools target normally a wider audience than university instructors but being simple to use, can immediately help enhancing class experience.

Other tools and technologies for teaching and learning are sometimes developed by computer science instructors who sought to improve their class experience by combing their teaching experience as well as their software skills. Naturally, these instructors design their tools to accommodate computer science courses.

Many other tools require basic technical skills in order to get started with. These last two and other reasons may make many tools less accessible to instructors outside the computer science community.

In this blog we would like to try and share our experiences in various tools and technologies which we have found to improve our class experience. Tools will range from the very basic and general, such as Doodle, to sophisticated teaching environments, such as Gradiance.

Future posts will include class stories, tutorials, students feedback, instructors reviews, screen shots, demos and any other material which can make the tools we use more accessible to the whole teaching community in the American University of Paris.

This blog is open to all instructors and students in the university and will be moderated by the CS department. Please contact the administrator in order to be added as an author to this blog.