## Screencasting in Linux

December 10, 2013

I just got myself set up to do screencasting on my Linux machine. I use Fedora, and it was not too bad. I just want to record my set-up and recording process so that I don’t forget anything.

First, I would like to thank my Linux administrator for helping me (he is awesome), and I would like to thank Vincent Knight and Andrew Stacey for giving me the outline and encouraging me.

To set up, I had my linux administrator install recordMyDesktop (I tried to do this, but I either don’t have permission or I don’t know how to do it properly. Or maybe both). But initially, the video would freeze, creating a lag between my voice and the screen. I was able to fix this by using this solution.

But it all works now. Here is my process:

To record:

1. Open gtk-recordmydesktop.
2. Open MyPaint.
3. Use my Wacom Bamboo tablet to write in MyPaint.
4. Record the screencast with recordMyDesktop.
5. This records in ogv format, which does not play well with YouTube. To convert to avi, I type the following into the command line: ffmpeg -i foo.ogv foo.avi

I welcome feedback on how to improve this process. In particular, I am not certain that .avi files are the best to upload to YouTube.

## Chromebook!

November 26, 2013

I live on a Windows campus. I came from a Mac campus, and I really wanted a Mac, but I was unable to get one. Rather than get a Windows machine, I opted for a Linux machine. I am not really a member of the Linux community (I don’t have the skills to belong), but I have been really happy with my machine. The main drawback is that it is not portable; there are many times that I wish I had a laptop.

In fact, portability actually makes me more productive. I work at a very social campus (both students and faculty), which is nice exactly up until the point where you need to get a lot of work done. If I had a laptop, I could leave my office to work at a place where no one can find me.

I briefly considered last year switching from my Linux machine to a Windows laptop. This would be portable, and it would also make it easier to create screencasts. However, I am loathe to give up the dual monitors that come with my Linux machine, which seem to triple my production.

I would consider buying a MacBook, but I do not have a lot of money available to me. So, instead, I bought a Chromebook. It was used, it was \$160, and does 95% of what I want a computer to do (even though it is basically just a web browser). In order to save money, I opted for an old Samsung from Amazon Marketplace, rather than the newest version.

I am very happy with my purchase so far. The reason for this—and I wouldn’t have bought a Chromebook if this hadn’t happened—is that William Stein and friend created a ridiculously useful service that allows me to create $\LaTeX$ documents online, do all of my calculations online, and gives me a fully functional shell with which I can ssh into my work computer. Without Sage Math Cloud, I would not have gotten a Chromebook. With it, I get all of the benefits of dual monitors and portability for only \$160.

(I have received nothing from Google, Samsung, or the Sage Project for writing this post).

## Review of _The Schools We Need_ by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

November 21, 2013

I read The Schools We Need by E.D. Hirsch last month, and I wanted to get my ideas down here. This is a post that I had hoped to spend more time on, but I have had a tough time finding time to blog about it. I have 30 minutes now, so I am going to see what I can do.

I wanted to read Hirsch’s book for a couple of reasons. I have heard about Hirsch since I was an undergraduate. I have always viewed him as a “bad guy” in education, in that Hirsch and I would probably disagree about a lot of things. But I was never really informed about his views, and I was hoping this book would help (spoiler: it only sort of did); if I am going to disagree with someone, I figured I should know what they actually are saying. Additionally, we have friends with kids in a Hirsch-inspired charter school, and I wanted to be able to speak knowledgeably to them about the school.

I had a tough time figuring out what to think about the book. I vacillated between thinking that his ideas were completely uncontroversial and thinking that his ideas were bad. In the end, my opinion is that he has some reasonable ideas, although he has more bad ideas (again, my opinion). Most of all, it seems to me like he mostly likes attacking straw men.

Here is my summary of his ideas (again, I read this book a month ago, so take this with a grain of salt): a big problem with education is that different students learn different things in grade $n$, which makes it difficult to teach grade $n+1$. Compounding this is that the U.S. has a pretty transient student population, so it can be impossible to know what a transfer student knows. His solution is to have a set of national standards.

But more than this, he thinks that the standards should be a set of facts that students know. For instance, it is very important to know what the capital of Egypt is after the first grade.

He emphasizes that these facts need not be learned through rote memorization. On the other hand, all of his recommendations about what to do seem to suggest that he thinks that rote memorization is the way to do.

My biggest question is whether he correctly describes the attitudes of K-12 teachers. He repeatedly talks about K–12 teachers’ disdain for facts. Listening to Hirsch, one would think that K–12 teachers go out of their way to make sure that students don’t learn any facts; that is how much he thinks that the teachers hate facts.

I have spent some time around teachers—enough to see how one could possibly get this impression. I have heard teachers say things to the effect of, “They just want us to teach the kids a bunch of facts.” But my interpretation of this is that the teachers were complaining that they were being told to only teach facts, and nothing else.

(Coincidentally, I also recently learned about classical homeschooling. This seems to be the sort of fact-based education that Hirsch might like).

I also found it interesting that he complains that progressive educators say that progressive education has never been tried and should be given a chance, when (Hirsch says) we have actually had a progressive education system for almost 100 years. He then goes on to complain that a traditional education has never been tried (recently, anyway), and should be given a chance. So Hirsch makes exactly the same complaint that the progressives do, yet provides little evidence that he is more correct than they are.

Here are my main takeaways:

1. Hirsch is helping to convince me that some sort of national standards is probably a good idea. I was leaning this way already, although I still could change my mind on this.
2. I would like to find out if the culture of K–12 education is as hostile toward facts as he says it is. I suspect that he is wrong about this, but I would like to hear from people who know more about this than I do.
3. Even though I understood much of what he wrote as being very reasonable (I am a big fan of facts), I think that I am not correctly understanding the severity of his stance. He makes several statements that suggest that he is much more extreme than I would like (e.g. he seems to implicitly endorse doing a lot of rote memorization).

Any sort of background on Hirsch’s ideas would be welcome in the comments.

## Campus Famous

October 5, 2013

Here is a problem that I have. Or, maybe, here is something that is true about me that I wish were not true: I want to be famous.

I actually don’t want to be an actual celebrity, but I want to be well-known on my campus; I want to be campus famous (it is worth knowing that I work at a liberal arts school with roughly 350 faculty members).

In and of itself, this is not bad. In fact, it may be good. This stems from the fact that I feel a strong sense of community and I want to nurture it. To do this, I want to build bonds with a lot of people. But even with people I don’t have a bond with, I want them to know who I am. This is useful, since I feel like I have skills that other people might find useful (just as I have people on campus that I seek out when I have a problem that needs to be solved).

But the problem comes in in actually becoming campus famous. The easiest way to do this to do a lot of service. This is because it is very easy to get to work with people outside of my department in doing service, but very difficult to do by teaching or research.

Now I actually enjoy doing some amount of service, I indubitably do my share of service, and I think that much of it is worthwhile. The problem comes from the fact that it is very tempting to keep increasing the amount of service I do. The more service I do, the more people I meet. The more people I meet, the more relationships I build on campus. The more relationships I build on campus, the better the campus is and the happier I am at work.

Part of this is that I want to be a good employee, and doing service is part of that. I also take pride in my school and want to see it reach its potential. I should do enough service to help make these two things happen. But I should not do more than that simply because I want to be campus famous; that is just ego. Doing service just to feed my ego does not align with my goals. I need to be aware of this when I make decisions.

Finally, here is some news that is less related than it initially seems: I recently agreed to be on a campus-wide committee to assess our “Common Curriculum.” But I thought of writing this post before I was even offered a place on this committee, and so I was very mindful of my desire to become campus famous when I accepted. Also, I think that this meets my goal of “Continue to try to improve my teaching.” Having goals is an essential part of good teaching, and assessing them is also important. This is a couple steps removed from how I normally think about my classroom, but I think that I should learn about what we, as a college, are trying to teach our students (and how well we are doing it).

So I am pretty sure that this isn’t just me trying to be campus famous.

## New IBL-Peer Instruction Hybrid Model

September 18, 2013

Here is my plan for my abstract algebra class in the spring semetser. This is probably a little early to post this, but it ties in with Stan’s post on coverage in IBL classes.

My plan for the spring is to run an IBL course. I wrote my own notes this summer (although they are based heavily off of Margaret Morrow’s notes). One problem that I have with most of the IBL notes for abstract algebra is that they do not do much with ring field and field theory. In creating my notes, I included just about everything that I would want to include in a first abstract algebra course (including a section on group actions). This, of course, is too much content to cover in a semester in an IBL class (I suspect, anyway).

Here are the details: I figure that I can expect the students to discuss 5 problems per class, I can assign 1 other problem as a special type of homework, so I have accounted for 6 problems per day. Since there are about 30 days of class, this means that I can expect them to do 180 problems on their own. But I created a set of notes with 234 problems, and I expect to add more throughout the semester. This is too many problems.

But my solution is similar to Stan’s: I have roughly 50 extra problems for 30 classes. I can simply do three of the problems for students via screencast for them each class period (then I get some extra days for exams, review, and snow days). This has a couple of advantages. First, it allows me to cover all of the material I want to cover over the course of the semester. Second, it gives students model proofs to help them learn how to write proofs.

A second feature that this course will have is a better integration of IBL and Peer Instruction. I am a fan of both pedagogies because of the learning gains reported in the research. I am a fan of IBL because of the level of independence it promotes; Peer Instruction does not do this (at least, the way I do it). I am a fan of Peer Instruction because of the way it stamps out misconceptions and helps students make sense of mathematics; IBL does not do this (at least, not the way I do it). So I am continually looking for ways to combine these pedagogies.

Peer Instruction (for me) works best when the students have already been exposed to the content. I have previously tried to merge the two pedagogies by splitting the semester into halves. This has its advantages, although I am trying something new out next semester: I am going to have IBL classes on Mondays and Fridays (30 classes), and I will have Peer Instruction classes on Wednesdays based on the material that was covered on the previous Monday and Friday.

The basic idea is this: students are introduced to an idea the first time in preparing for an IBL class. They see the material a second time in class. They see the material a third time on the next Wednesday’s Peer Instruction class. They see the material a fourth time on homework/tests/whatever I end up planning.

I am really looking forward to this. Please let me know of any potential problems or improvements that you can think of.

## Do I miss being on Twitter and Facebook?

September 6, 2013

No.

It has been a month since I took a leave from Facebook and Twitter, I thought that I might miss it, and I was prepared to admit failure after a week if I found that I missed them too much.

But I don’t. I think that social media is the sort of thing that you enjoy when it is there, but don’t miss when it is gone. This might just be me, though (watching sports is similar; I enjoy it when it happens, but I don’t miss it when I can’t watch).

Actually, there is one thing that I miss: I miss having more ways to procrastinate at work. I find myself looking for more websites to click, and I am disappointed when I realize that there is nothing else on the web that I already know I want to look at. This, of course, is a good thing.

So what have I been doing with my time? I think that I have spent a little more time on Google Plus, although not much more. I have been blogging a bit more—maybe 1.5 posts per week instead of 0.5. At home, I think that I really have been spending more time with my kids, which is a huge win. At work, I think that I have been, well, working more. This means that I have gotten done with projects sooner, and I have generally had fewer things hanging over my head.

I actually have had some presence on Twitter and Facebook, since I receive emails when someone mentions me. But this has only happened roughly six times this month. I replied, but I was not logged in for very long.

I have no plans of going back to Twitter or Facebook soon. I think that I will likely re-evaluate after this semester is over.

## Update on Problem Reports

September 4, 2013

As discussed in my previous post, my “math for liberal arts” students need to demonstrate achievement (I don’t know if “demonstrating achievement” is the best term, but I am going to go with it for this post) in several learning goals by submitting “problem reports” and pointing out where exactly they are demonstrating said achievement.

We had our first problem already. The students submitted their first problem report on Monday. About three-quarters of them did not explicitly point out where they were demonstrating achievement in the problem reports; they tended to generally state something related to this on the cover page, but they did not link. or “tag,” it to the specific place where the demonstration occurs. This is a problem for two reasons:

1. I want students to have to be very aware of what they are doing, and specificity is important to doing this. So it is important to “tag” each demonstration to make both the student and the teaching staff aware of what the student was thinking.
2. It is really, really tough to grade these if the students do not “tag” the demonstrations.

I did provide a sample problem report that included this tagging, but the underlying problem here is that I did not support the students enough with this new/unusual way of grading. So here is my two-part solution:

1. We did not grade Monday’s submissions; rather, the students can resubmit on Friday. I explicitly told them to “tag” their demonstrations for their resubmissions.
2. I spent today’s class (Wednesday) writing up another sample problem report in front of them. So students saw exactly the process of how to create these.

I have a good group of students, so I am guessing that problem reports will be good on Friday. This is just a good reminder to me that you almost cannot communicate enough when you are deviating from what is typical in a mathematics class.

## Yet another grading scheme

August 26, 2013

I am teaching our “mathematics for liberal arts” course for the first time. This is a topics course, so I can teach whatever I like; I have chosen to do a Pólya-type problem solving course.

In class, the procedure will likely go like this: students get new problems to work on on Mondays and Fridays. Students will work on old problems on Wednesdays.

The grading of the course has five components: problem reports, correct solutions to problems, quizzes, a final exam, and a project. Without going into too much detail, here is how the final grades will be determined:

• Students will get at least a C if they provide a modest amount of evidence that they have achieved the learning goals (see below) and get at least a CD on the final exam (“CD” is like a C- or D+).
• Students will get at least a B if they provide a good amount of evidence that they have achieved the learning goals (see below), do well on the quizzes, do a project, and get at least a BC on the final exam (“BC” is like a B- or C+).
• Students will get at an A if they provide a whole lot of evidence that they have achieved the learning goals (see below), do well on the quizzes, do a really good project, get at least a AB on the final exam (“AB” is like a A- or B+), and get correct solutions to many of the problems.

In short, C students are able to demonstrate good habits of mind, B students are also able to understand and replicate solutions, and A students are also able to generate solutions to problems.

The learning goals are this:

• You will improve your written and verbal communication skills.
• You will be in the habit of providing and demanding evidence for any assertion.
• You will be in the habit of employing supposition when you encounter new ideas (“What if the idea were tweaked to be slightly different. What would happen then?).
• You will be in the habit of employing different perspectives by determining how other people think

• You will be in the habit of making connections between new ideas and old.
• You will be in the habit of planning before acting.
• You will be in the habit of using heuristics (“rules of thumb”) to help you solve problems.

The way students demonstrate evidence that they are achieving the goals is this: each student specifically states which of the learning goals were “used” in the problem report. For example, the first problem in class is a simple variation of the game nim; I would expect many students might claim that had to employ different Perspectives in solving the game, since they will have to think about how the opponent will respond to each move. Additionally, the student might have a partial solution strategy; if the student provides a “proof” of why the strategy is guaranteed to work, the student can also claim that they displayed evidence of the Evidence goal.

So the students are responsible for realizing what they did (although I have a grader who is going to verify that the students did what they said they did). I like this because it encourages students to use these good habits (“I need a Connections, so I had better try to think about whether this problem is related to something I know”), it forces students to reflect on what they did, and this is how most of the “real world” works (When I apply for tenure, I am the one who needs to provide the evidence that I deserve tenure. Similarly if I were to ask for a raise.).

I help my students by telling them where they can often find opportunities to provide evidence of the learning goals. For instance, students can cite each problem report as Communication, although it must be well-written to get credit. I tell students that the Game Theory questions and the Knights/Knaves/Liars/Truth-tellers problems are good for Perspectives. I also tell students to pose new, but related, problems in each problem report (from The Art of Problem Posing); this is good for satisfying the Supposition goal.

Now tell me this: what could possibly go wrong?

## Jo Boaler’s MOOC

August 21, 2013

I finished Jo Boaler’s MOOC last week. I thought it was very good. It is worth checking out yourself (tip: watch the videos at double-speed), but here is a summary of what I learned:

1. It is important to foster a “growth mindset,” rather than a “fixed mindset.” I was familiar with Dweck’s work before, but I feel I understand it better now.
2. Writing “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you and want you to improve” once on a student’s paper at the beginning of the semester seems to have a huge positive impact.
3. If you want to encourage a growth-mindset, it is very important that you ask open questions. Boaler gave the following example: instead of giving the students a particular rectangle and asking to find the perimeter, ask students to draw a rectangle with perimeter equal to 26. These tasks both “test” the same concept, but the former has only one right answer, while the latter has many.
4. One of the problems that struggling students have is that they do not know that they can decompose numbers to help them. For instance, they do not know that 12*7 can be solved by doing (10+2)*7=10*7+2*7; they tend to believe that this is not allowed. “Number talks” are useful in demonstrating that this sort of manipulation is encouraged; a number talk is basically asking students to do a mental calculation (like 12*7), and then hearing all of the different ways that students calculated it. Then students see that there are many ways of doing the problem, and all are acceptable.

I am teaching a “math for liberal arts” course this semester, and I basically have it designed. However, after going through this MOOC, I am planning on tweaking all of my prompts to make them more open. I don’t think that I will be very good at doing this, but it will be good practice for me. Additionally, I think that I will incorporate weekly “number talks” with them (I will definitely do this in my spring course for elementary education majors).

There was a lot more in this course, but these were the highlights for me. I found that this course was definitely worth the amount of time required; Boaler did a nice job of giving just enough “homework” to be useful, but not so much that it was overwhelming (in fact, the homework was pretty minimal, time-wise).

## So you suddenly have 68 students enrolled?

August 11, 2013

Suppose you are an instructor who uses Inquiry-Based Learning. You are used to running a particular course with 30–35 students, and you are about to start teaching that course in two weeks. But then you find out that you have 68 students registered for your class. What do you do?

Peer Instruction, hands down. Here is how you do it.

Since I am assuming that you only have two weeks to prepare, this is the most basic way of implementing Peer Instruction. Robert Talbert’s Guided Practice idea would be better to include if you are able.

If it is too late to get “clickers,” use Poll Everywhere, Socrative, or Learning Catalytics. I would tend toward Poll Everywhere, since it is pretty cheap (\$65 per month for 68 students—get someone else to pay for it), and students only need a texting plan to use it. But Learning Catalytics seems pretty awesome; I just don’t trust all of the students to have a tablet or smart phone.

Do you have a textbook for the course? If so, here is the recipe:

1. On the first day of class, assign students to fixed teams of 2 or 3. This will help every student feel like they are part of a community in your class. Students should sit together with their team. You may want to change up teams later in the semester.
2. Students read a section of the text the night before class. You prepare 5–10 multiple choice questions based on the section. These questions should cover the main points of the section. Some questions will only be to help students understand a definition/concept, other questions will force students to confront misconceptions. Peer Instruction is awesome for confronting misconceptions. Just make sure that you have good distractors for each question.
3. Everyone comes to class.
4. If you need to pass back papers, make administrative announcements, etc, you can do that at the beginning of class. But do not, under any circumstance, give an overview of the section; this will teach them that they do not need to read the section, and the result will be that your class will eventually morph into a standard lecture. Instead, simply start the first clicker question.
5. Display the question on the screen. Have students silently think about the question themselves and “click” their favorite answer when they are ready. You may want to give them a fixed time limit here, although I usually do not; I can usually tell how much students need by the number of students who have already responded. But I usually do not have 68 students.
6. Look at the results, but do not let them see the results (mute the projector if you need to). If the students overwhelmingly get the correct answer, display the results and give a very brief explanation about why the correct answer is correct AND why the other answers are incorrect. (Note: there is a high bar for “overwhelmingly correct.” For instance, on a True/False question, if half of the students know that the correct answer is True, say, and the other half guess blindly, then 75% of the students will answer correctly. This is bad, since half of the class does not understand. So you might want 90% correct answers on a True/False question, slightly lower for a question with three options, etc. This is an art and not a science, though).
7. On the other hand, if the students do not overwhelmingly answer correctly, tell the students to discuss their answers with their team. The students should try to convince the other team members of their answer, but the students should be open to changing their mind. Once the team agrees on a single answer, have them re-vote. You should wander around the class as much as you can here, eavesdropping. Once most students have responded (or your time limit is up), display the results to the class.
8. Now, explain why the correct answer(s) is (are) correct AND why the incorrect answers are incorrect. You can tell how long you should spend talking about this by how the teams did in the most recent round of voting. If they did well, do not talk for long. If they did not do well, give them a more thorough lecture (although you probably will not need to talk for more than 10 minutes).
9. Repeat with the remainder of your questions until class ends.

This will get every single student involved, and my students have overwhelmingly loved the experience. There is also evidence that Peer Instruction will help students learn enough to increase grades by half of a grade.

If you do NOT have a textbook, you should do your best to find some sort of a free online text for them, write your own notes, create your own lecture videos for students to view before class, and/or use existing videos (e.g. Khan Academy) to use to “transfer” knowledge to the students before class. Then you can use class time to have the students make sense of the new knowledge.

Failing this, lecture. But build some number of clicker questions into your lecture. The process is the same as outlined above, but you will just have fewer questions.