Award-winning mathematics instructor Dr. George Ashline shares his advice for engaging students with smart boards, classroom capture, and more.
Professor of Mathematics and Statistics,Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont
PhD in Complex Analysis, MS and BS in Mathematics
George Ashline, PhD, has a passion for problem-solving. This is obviously a part of the reason why he became a mathematician, but it has also had an outsized impact on his teaching at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, where he has been since 1995.
“There’s an expectation here that you will be an excellent teacher as well as progress in scholarship and service,” he says. “So I focus on the practice of math teaching—finding and implementing the best and most effective ways to engage students.”
Like many educators, Ashline is interested in addressing educational challenges, such as how to improve student engagement, participation, and deep learning in a wide range of courses. (He teaches foundational courses such as Calculus, discipline-specific courses like Math for (elementary school) Teachers, and upper-level electives, including History of Math.) An approach he turns to more than any other: technology.
Below, Ashline shares four of his favorite types of technology and some practical advice for their application. He uses these technologies in most of his courses, such as any course from the Calculus sequence. Most recently, he has used these approaches in Calculus II, with its focus on integration techniques, polar and parametric equations, sequences and series, and an introduction to three-dimensional coordinates and vectors.
“Technology helps me create a detailed record of classroom discussion and learning materials for each day of the semester.”
-George Ashline, PhD
Course: MA 160 Calculus II
Course description: Integration techniques and applications; sequences and series; plane analytic geometry including parametric curves; polar coordinates; space geometry including an introduction to vectors.
4 tips for bringing technology into the classroom
Through attending professional conferences, conducting personal research, and reading journal and popular articles about the latest technological developments, Ashline has developed a set of best practices around integrating technology into a math classroom. They have proven effective enough that, in 2016, he was awarded the Northeastern Section of the Mathematical Association of America’s Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching.
Ashline notes that he uses these types of technologies in his mathematics classes, and he feels they can apply to classes in almost any discipline.
1. Use SMART Notebooks to create a daily record of classwork
Writing on the blackboard (or whiteboard) means that, at the end of class, an eraser wipes out everything. To address this problem, Ashline integrated SMART Board technology into his undergraduate classrooms, beginning in 2011.
Here is how it works: Before class, Ashline creates a SMART Notebook file, which he then opens and displays on interactive flat-panel displays (like large TVs). Using touch technology, Ashline is able to write directly on the display throughout the class period, then save everything when class ends. Soon after class, he makes that day’s file available to students through the school’s learning management system (LMS).
One downside Ashline has found: With this technology, everything must be written on one display screen at a time, so educators may not be able to fit as much as on a larger blackboard or multiple whiteboards. But he thinks it is a small price to pay, given the advantages.
2. Use video capture to record classroom discussion—available anytime, anywhere
While the SMART Notebook provides a cumulative snapshot of the class, Ashline also uses video capture software to record his classroom sessions in their entirety. These captured videos are available to students throughout the semester (and even in subsequent semesters) on the LMS, so they can revisit any topic at any time.
To create them, he has one camera focused on the SMART Board connected to the classroom computer, and he places at least one microphone in the room. The technology then captures the audio portion of the discussion as well as two video streams (one focused on the SMART Board and the other simultaneously recording all of the computer content for the class). Ashline says that providing videos has helped students be more “present” during class, as they know they can watch them later to revisit topics and flesh out their notes.
Currently, due to an impending phase-out of the program he has been using (Tegrity), he and others at the college are exploring replacement options, including Panopto and Echo360. One thing he likes about Tegrity is its ability to be preset to record, like a DVR, so the video automatically comes on at the start of class and concludes at the end of class. As part of one pilot group for the new technology, he is glad that these new options also allow for prescheduled classroom recordings throughout the term. He adjusts the title of each recording to match daily class topics, to make it easier for students to use the video archive throughout the term. The recordings become available in the LMS soon (about an hour) after each class. Furthermore, it is straightforward to set up ad hoc recordings for additional class sessions. Also, outside of the LMS, recordings can be shared in various ways, such as through hyperlinks.
3. Edit previous class captures into short trailers to increase participation and preparation
In recent semesters, Ashline has found an additional way to make use of his 60- to 90-minute class captures: He edits them into 5- to 10-minute “preview videos.” To accomplish this, he uses the editing software that is available within the classroom-capture technology. Then, in future semesters, he supplements homework readings—which not all students complete—by assigning the appropriate preview video(s) and asking students to participate in an LMS forum discussion, where they address provided content questions and offer their own initial questions and comments.
Ashline adds that creating the previews is possible since he has access to the full videos. (Finding appropriate content and creating a relevant, shorter preview video can take considerable time—perhaps a few hours, especially initially.) He particularly likes doing this for calculus classes, since topics are so content-rich that it helps students come to class ready for new discussion. He says it has led to a notable improvement in class preparation and engagement.
4. Simplify your classroom response tech to get more students to chime in
Since 2009, Ashline has used classroom response technology (such as clickers) in his undergraduate classes to increase engagement in discussions. However, recently Ashline has been exploring a lower-maintenance technology that achieves the same goal—with less expense and fewer problems. (Clickers can break down, need new batteries, or be in short supply.)
“In recent semesters, I have been using an iPad in my classes to implement Plickers, a simple tool to poll my classes,” he says. Plickers is a free classroom response system that connects a mobile app (used by the instructor) with a unique set of paper response cards given to the students. To respond to a poll question, students simply hold up the card with the symbol that corresponds to their answer; the instructor can then scan the room with the iPad and the app automatically captures and aggregates the poll results.
“I like it because it’s a simple and free system, and you don’t have to use specific clicker technology,” Ashline says. Plicker polls still provide every student a chance to participate, which lets them—and the instructor—know whether they have learned topics for a given class.
Ashline notes that these various forms of technology provide a multifaceted approach to supporting students and encouraging deeper classroom participation. As with any pedagogical approach, he says, it remains important to carefully monitor how well the technology is enhancing classroom practice and then make adjustments as needed: Educators need to develop their own sets of tools and technologies within their own educational contexts and constraints to help meet the diverse learning needs of their own students.