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Archive for December, 2010

Pondering the Next Semester

Posted by Patrick on December 4, 2010


I can’t believe there’s only two weeks left to this semester.  Time flew by so fast.  It seems like yesterday that I was hired to teach three different courses with less than a week to go before classes were set to start.  Overall, I’m happy with how things went considering I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants the whole semester.  I’ve had to keep lessons pretty “traditional”, but I know it’s a survival mode that I’m not planing on adopting permanently, and well… I survived.

A few challenges I’m now aware of and finding solutions to are that:

  • Most classrooms only have blackboards and old-school projectors (for transparencies).
  • I must book computer labs a few days a head of time if I want a spot.
  • The computers are old and slow, but the IT department insists on using Microsoft Office 2010
  • Other than Maple, there’s no math software installed on the computers.
  • Even on my office computer, I don’t have administrative privileges to install software on it.

Next semester should be better though.  For starters, I know what I’m teaching 6 weeks a head of time instead of 6 days.  I’ve also applied for a classroom with a computer and projector (but I might not be getting it), and I’m thinking of a few workaround to the challenges mentioned above.

Because I can’t install anything on school computers, I’ve been using PortableApps [2] to install free/libre software on a USB key (that’s what the IT department suggested I do when I asked them to install OpenOffice on my computer).  It made a tremendous difference to my planing since I only use free/libre software with GNU/Linux at home.  For next semester, I’m thinking of buying a bunch of cheap 1Gb USB keys from walmart, installing PortableApps on them, and loaning them to my students (with a deposit of course) for them to use so that they can save their work using open formats.  No more problems reading xlsx files!

A few weeks ago, I also made a wonderful discovery that I’m extremely exited about: Geogebra [3].  The school I worked at the past four years required all our students to buy a copy of Geometer’s Sketchpad (GSP).  It was my first time using this type of software; I quickly grew fond of it and used it extensively in my classes.  Sometimes, I used it to create live demos of mathematical concepts, but very often, I made my students create the demos to explore the concepts.  In a one-to-one laptop school, this kind of stuff was much easier to do.  Since the beginning of the fall, I’ve been missing GSP a lot and tried to hack Excel demos together that just weren’t the same.  Until I found Geogebra.  So far, Geogebra does pretty much everything I would have wanted to do with GSP, and as an added bonus, it’s written in Java so it can load on any platform without the need to be installed.  Geogebra files can even be converted to html and inserted in webpages as interactive demos.  Which leads me to meat of my pondering.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about creating some sort of online class notes.  With a platform like Dokuwiki [4], I can easily edit the pages from any browser, typeset math equations with the PHPMathPublisher plugin, and add Geogebra applets.  I started writing some notes for one of my courses already, and so far so good.  What I’m wondering is how I should use these notes, and to what degree I should make the students participate in the process.  Here are a few options from the “safest” to the “riskiest”:

  1. I write the wiki, use it in class to drive the presentation/discussion, and give the link to the students as an added resource.
  2. I write the wiki, the students make the Geogebra applets to illustrate the concepts, and I include the best ones in the wiki after.
  3. I prepare the structure of the wiki and the students do the rest.

I’d love to go with the third option.  I think it could potentially be much more interesting and meaningful to the students, but this year I’ve had the strange experience of having two very different groups: one is very engaged with a very positive dynamic; the other is the complete opposite.  When I picture these two groups, I see such different outcomes.  Should I start with option 1 and push towards option 3, or should I start straight with option 3 and reverse toward option 1 if they don’t buy in?  And what if they really don’t buy in?  Is it worth doing at all?

A challenge I’m still struggling with is how to deal with the vast difference in student engagement at the school.  That underlies so many other issues.


  1. Photo under CC-By license by Flickr user irishwildcat, <>
  2. PortableApps, <>
  3. Geogebra, <>
  4. Dokuwiki, <>

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