Friday, December 30, 2005

Teaching 21st Century Students with 19th Century Technology

The chalkboard has been used in math classes since 1801. I have spent the past few days thinking fondly of the days when one could be expected to teach calculus with little more than a slate board, some chalk, and some yellowed lecture notes.

My dad got me a new printer-scanner for Christmas, so I moved my old scanner to my office. Unfortunately, it's not working. Most alarmingly, my discussions with tech support suggest a hardware problem. This is especially distressing as the old scanner's software made it easy to scan multi-page pdfs; the new scanner will only scan one page documents. So much for my plans to facilitate the posting of solutions to the web. It's not worth my time to typeset solutions; few students download them.

I have also become increasing frustrated with my textbook's online homework system. (You know, one of those fabulous extras to explain why the book is a great deal at only $150.) The sense of foreboding comes early in the process: in order to sign up for an instructor account, you must provide your book rep's name and contact information. Where do you find this? On the form where you are asked for this information is a link to another form where you can search for your book rep. Once it returns the search results, you then have to retype them into the other form! Then you have to wait for approval of your account for so-called security reasons. What's the worst that would happen if students nefariously created an instructor accounts? They could assign themselves problems and have the grades sent to themselves? And what if an adjunct wanted to create an account? How would the book rep know that this was an instructor? What about a grad student from another department? How could my book rep know if this student was teaching calculus for the math department or learning calculus as part of his program?

Allegedly there is also a Blackboard cartridge so that this system can be used locally. I have not seen hide nor hair of it. Back in October or November my book rep promised details; I have heard nothing. I have not followed up on this because I am, at best, irritated by Blackboard.

Then there is the mysterious list of browsers that work with the system: for the Mac, it's Safari 1.3, Safari 2.0, and Mozilla 1.2.1 (no later versions). Based on how poorly it was working with Safari 2.0, I tried it with the unsupported Firefox 1.5: even worse. And every time I tried a different browser (or cleared my cookies, quit, and restarted to fix some glitch), before I could log in I had to go through a complicated process of telling the site which school I was affiliated with. Very annoying, as I was using my office computer, so their site could have guessed from my IP number; also my login name is my (school) email address. Plus, they know my affiliation from the registration process, so that could have been sent to the site automagically after I logged in.

Then the usual litany of complaints: The math does not typeset beautifully. (Typographical beauty is important to me -- and to many mathematicians; it's a key belief in the cult of notation.) There are all manner of codes that students will need to access the site. Students are less persistant that I am in terms of navigating the awkward interface. Not all the features appear to be active. I haven't been able to access the pdf version of the textbook. The documentation is patchy in places.

But I will stick with it for now, as I find it more interesting to fight with computers than to grade calculus homework.