Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Should Online TAs Have Tablet PCs?

I intend for this post to be a natural extension of my discussion yesterday on First Steps. Let me focus on the use of discussion boards as an online class Help System, where any member of the class can post a query about some work the students are required to complete and any other member of the class can post a response to that.

In may subject areas, restricting attention to text is quite limiting there is notation specific to the subject and representing the ideas in that notation is far better, if it is possible to do that online. Also, many ideas are best explicated via diagrams or images of some sort. That point is easy. The question I want to ask here is this. Can one go from text use of online bulletin boards to “rich language” use of online bulletin boards in a straightforward manner or does that type of extension still entail a lot of pitfalls? And, if the latter, is there anything that can be done about it?

The link below is an example from Econ, something I’ve lectured on a zillion times. It’s not pretty but it does demonstrate notation intensive writing along with the type of diagrams that economists favor.

Compensating Variation

I produced the diagram on my Tablet PC by making a blank slide in PowerPoint, going to SlideShow mode, and choosing the Pen, and then writing. I saved as a jpeg, that slide only, and then uploaded the result to a Web server where I have an account. Then I linked to the file from the blog post. That worked, but the process is a bit tedious. As an alternative, I tried to make an email in HTML with the handwriting within the message and then sent to the blog. That is much faster. But it didn’t work. The image of the handwriting doesn’t appear. I’m not surprised. The blog post is a Web page and to render images within a Web page the image must be at some source location.

The above means it really is easier to do notation and diagrams within email than it is to do this in a blog or discussion board. As a non-techie, I don’t understand how the email pulls it off. Obviously it is smarter than I am. I believe the ink annotations are converted to image files but it is the mail program rather than me personally that specifies file name and file location for the images. It would be nice if electronic bulletin boards could do likewise for images, in which case than be pasted in. Now one has to use the html command (img src=”imagename.jpg”). That email has figured this out makes me jealous and I really wish the bulletin board had this capability.

An easier way to get image data of this sort is to copy it via screen capture. (Of course that means the content has to exist someplace else so it can be copied.) Microsoft provides some freeware to accompany the Tablet PC which combines the screen capture with ink annotations. Below is a link to an example of that.


In order to do screen capture in communication of this sort one really needs to do area capture. My own experience with using the built in screen capture (Fn key + PrintScreen) is not very satisfying in that one has to crop the image afterwards to make it useful. There are free screen capture utilities out there and old time users will be familiar with SnagIt if not other screen capture tools. But I wonder how many students have such a utility on their own computer and whether they’ve used that functionality.

A third way to get hand constructed notation and image into the computer is to write it out on paper and scan it in. Scanners are now dirt cheap and bundled in with the printer. But this approach is also clunky and it typically will produce large files, especially for a user who is not otherwise aware of what is going on while scanning.

I also note that many course management systems have a built in equation editor for their discussion board area and other places where html can be displayed. These are fairly straightforward to figure out how to use, but input is slow. If I were a student I would use this sort of thing for a formal assignment where I wanted my stuff to look good, but I would not use it otherwise.

Similarly, even without a Tablet PC one can make simple diagrams with programs like Paint, and somewhat more complex diagrams with Visio. Students can master these tools in fairly short order, but the same caveat applies to them as to the equation editor. It is a little slow to get something constructed.

My conclusion is that none of these approaches is “really great” as a way to have richer language in the discussion. They are each possible, but there is some clunkiness. At this point it is natural to ask whether there are alternatives that might be better. In this case the obvious one is to use a chat and whiteboard combination.

My experience with electronic whiteboards is that with a mouse only they seem like a frivolous tool, not very useful. But with a digital pen, say from a Tablet PC, they become quite useful. The Whiteboard has the same feature that the html email has, the pen writing shows up immediately and it can be sent quickly to other users. So imagine the TA has that capability and the students use chat. This would seem to better, it will enable some of the rich language to be used, certainly by the TA and possibly by the students too.

Not expecting Shangri La, let me say what is less desirable about the approach. Students will write differently in chat than they will while posting to a bulletin board. It is much easier for someone else to read through prior posts to a bulletin board than to read through an archive of a chat.

So if I were doing this in my class I’d have both areas and have the TAs as much as possible archive their whiteboard sessions as posts to the discussion area. But look what’s happened. Now we’re way beyond the getting started point. I wish the technology were easier.

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