The nomadic board

(a long post on my panoply of teaching tools.)

When I started teaching in the UK more than 10 years ago, I was a teaching assistant at King’s College for Foundations of Computing and for a number of other courses. I was using chalk on a blackboard (to be precise: a green board), and in some rooms I was using an OHP with slides and a marker. Students didn’t have laptops and phones didn’t have internet.

A number of things have changed: here are Middlesex there are no blackboards, there are a few OHP left (a lot of times without slides), students have smartphones and in some cases I have to teach in rooms without (white) boards. The only certainty I have is that in every room there is a projector, a networked PC and video input for a laptop; the other certainty is that students are very likely to be connected using a phone or a tablet or a laptop (quite often a combination of these).

For sure, it is not possible for me to use the same teaching tools I used at King’s. There are two things that I can do:

  • start moaning
  • adapt

I am not going to express an opinion on which situation is better but, after a while, moaning is boring even for the moaner: I decided to adapt.

My first consideration is that there is no way for me to ban smartphones and other internet-connected gadgets from the room. Therefore, I decided that it could be a good idea to employ them, and this is what Lalith and I did a few months ago: http://q.mdx.ac.uk/about.php

The mechanism is simple: I can prepare questions in advance and advertise them to students at the right point in the lecture. Students then need to use their devices to answer the questions. This is an example of what students see on their devices (this is optimized for small devices):

Click here to answer: http://q.mdx.ac.uk/ox51g

 

And this is what I see as students answer, live in the class:

Results for a question about high order functions in Haskell

(It was quite clear that only half of the class could get the type right, so I spent a bit more time on high order functions during the labs).

The short code that I advertise to students is OK (5 characters in total), but it is probably too long to get it right most of the time. So, my second consideration was: let’s use Twitter to advertise the questions and other messages to students; a number of courses around the world are already doing this, so it is probably not a bad idea… Notice the small Twitter (and Facebook, if you prefer) buttons above in our application: these allow to share the question with a simple click (by me). I have created a Twitter account for my modules (https://twitter.com/cmt4031 and https://twitter.com/bis4610), and this is where I post the questions. In this way, students only have to follow the course, and they will receive the links directly: no need to type, they just need to open their Twitter stream during the lectures.

There was another problem left: the lack of a board. This would be a big change for me, I definitely need a board to make examples, respond to questions and do exercises. As usual, I had an idea while running: use a tablet. I have a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1: I have this one because I wanted something where I could write using a pen (note: the iPad and other tablets will not work, you really need a tablet with a dedicated pen to have the adequate resolution). I used the tablet to annotate reports and theses, can it be used as a board? YES it can! And it works great: you only need to mirror the tablet on a desktop (or on a laptop) connected to the projector, and you have a board (see “Technical details” below for additional information).

 

The nomadic syntax of First Order Logic (lecture in room C215, no board, using my Linux laptop with vinagre). The big screen is out of focus, but I guarantee it is readable.

In this way you have more than a board: you have what I decided to call a “nomadic board”. You can walk around the room, sit with the students, move around, sit somewhere else, etc. My current workflow is the following: I do not project the slides, even if these are available online and students can see them if they want (possibly using their devices, possibly during the lecture). Instead, I write the key elements of the slides on the “board” (definitions, etc.), walking around and sitting with students while I do this. If there is a question, or if I ask a question using q.mdx.ac.uk, I explain the answer using the “board”. At the end of the lecture I upload all the notes from the “board” as a PDF file to our VLE so that students have these available (in addition to the standard slides).

There is an additional benefit. In Italy, it was quite common to be “called to the board” to solve exercises. The teacher / lecturer / teaching assistant would pick a random student and ask to solve an exercise. I used to do this, but I stopped a few years ago as it was impractical to switch between slides projected on a screen and the whiteboard. But now I can do this again, just a bit differently: instead of asking the student to walk to the board, I walk the “board” to the student:

 

Michael (CMT4031 student) hard at work to encode mutual exclusion on the tablet (H104 lab, using the Windows 7 desktop in the room with RealVNC)

Typically, I ask “what is the day today? 28th of January?”, and I look for the 28th student from left or right; I have a number of variations on this (“what is your day of birth”,  add the two digits, and so on), so that students cannot choose their seats according to the day.

Overall, this is working quite well and I’m happy with the current situation. Setting up the whole mechanism requires a bit of IT knowledge, so I’m not sure that the technology is ready to be adopted by everyone (see the “Technical details” below). But I guess that, eventually, the integration of tablets with projectors will become more common.

What if projectors are removed? Well, I’ll adapt once more…

Technical details.

In theory, the problem is very simple: you need to mirror the tablet on a desktop/laptop. Unfortunately, this is currently not as easy as it seems, and you need to ab-use some tools. If you are lucky, this is the quickest way I could think:

  • On your Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, install TeamViewer Quick Support (notice: this is probably going to work on the smaller Galaxy Note / Note 2 phones as well, let me know in case you have one of these and it works for you)
  • On your laptop / desktop install a standard version of TeamViewer.
  • From the laptop/desktop, connect to the tablet. Of course you do not want to control your tablet from the laptop/desktop: you just want to make full-screen the window with TeamViewer on the laptop/desktop, and project this.
  • Now go back to your tablet, and start drawing with your favourite application. Remember to switch off screen savers etc, both on laptop/desktop and on tablet, and to disable auto-rotate on the tablet (you’ll learn all this with experience :-).

So far so good. The only problem is that you may be behind a firewall (or you may have privacy concerns for sensitive data etc.). The desktop version of TeamViewer is usually not a problem, as it uses port 80 and port 443 to connect to an external server (owned by TeamViewer, hence the privacy concerns), and these ports are normally open. The version for Android, however, uses a strange port (5891 IIRC). Outgoing connections to this port are blocked at Middlesex, so the TeamViewer option does not work here. VNC can be used in this case (as it remains inside the local network), but at this point you need a VNC server for Android. Again, this is not too complicated, but you need to root your device. Nothing difficult,  but do this at your own risk!

  • On your tablet, under Settings -> Security select the option “Unknown sources” (this allows the “installation of apps from sources other than the Play Store”)
  • Download and install the application ExynosAbuse-v1.40.apk from this link (first post) http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2050297
  • Launch the application you have installed and select “Root device” (notice: you can always “unroot” the device from the same application. The good thing of this is that you do not need a new image etc.)
  • You can now de-select “Unknown sources” in the security settings, if you want.
  • Go to the Play Store and download droid VNC. This works fine for me, without a problem.
  • Download a VNC client for your operating system (I used successfully: RealVNC on Windows XP and Windows 7; vinagre on Linux; Chicken of the VNC on Mac)
  • Start droid VNC on your tablet, copy the IP address and port number to your client running on the laptop/desktop, and project the result.

Job done. It works well for me on a wireless connection with not exceptional bandwidth.

Additional random notes:

  • Does it take long to set this up at the beginning of the class? No, not longer than setting up the slides
  • Great idea! Why don’t you show the slides next to your notes? Because there is no space. Well, this depends on the projector. The tablet has a resolution of 1280×800. In my experience, you need around 80% of that to write comfortably. Let’s make it 1024×768, and this is probably the resolution of a “standard” projector, as the one in C215. So, in this case, there is no space left for anything else. The situation is different if the projector is HD (1920×1080). In this case you can probably have the tablet in portrait, and have half of the screen free. The projector in H104 seems to be HD, but my current problem is that I cannot rotate the RealVNC window. I will try with other clients, I’m sure there is a solution…
  • A board that moves around? I think I have seen this somewhere… Yes I have seen it as well: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0246266/

3 thoughts on “The nomadic board

  1. Louis Slabbert

    Glad to see you are using these tools for teaching!

    Tip: If you had an iPad you can just use http://www.reflectorapp.com/ to Mirror your iPad (or iPhone) on your computer

    You don’t even need Wireless Network at the place where you are teaching:

    MacBooks also make the setting up on an ad-hoc Wireless network extremely:
    Just click the “Airport Wireless” icon and click Create Network. Done.

    With PC’s you can use:
    http://virtualrouter.codeplex.com/
    I haven’t used this as I previously used Connectify which has now become a commercial product.

    Reply
  2. franco Post author

    Thank you Louis!

    The problem with iPad (and other tablets) is that they are not pressure sensitive, the resolution is the one of a finger. This is not enough to draw diagrams and formulas as in the figure above. I’ll show you the tablet next time I’m around your office so that you’ll see the difference :-).

    Regarding the network connection: if you want to use TeamViewer you need to be able to exit the (Middlesex) gateway on port 5891, but unfortunately it’s closed. If you remain inside the university network all ports seem open, so I just use the default wireless network with VNC.

    But your suggestion is perfect for all those rooms (and there are a few of them) where there is no wireless signal.

    Reply

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