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Joshua Holden's (Semi-)Professional Blog

Jun 06
End-of-Quarter(s) Wrap-Up
I think it's actually been two quarters since my last post, so I'll try to provide a summary of my Tablet PC activities the past two quarters....

Winter Quarter I taught two classes, Statistics and Discrete Math. Statistics I taught using DyKnow --- the big thing there was that I used PowerPoint to create the slides that I imported into DyKnow, and it was the first time I'd used PPT in any extensive fashion. I couldn't have done it without TeXPoint, which is an add-on for PPT that lets you type (La)TeX syntax for formulas and fairly painlessly convert them into either a symbol font or an embedded picture. It's a little rough around the edges but I highly recommend it for the price, which is very reasonable.

In Discrete Math I didn't use DyKnow, but I probably could have very easily --- I used a set of handouts that were created in Maple and converted to PDF, which was essentially the same workflow I used Fall Quarter to put my handouts in DyKnow. The students filled in the blanks in the handout in the traditional pencil and paper way, and I used PDF Annotator, having learned the hard way in a previous quarter that Adobe Acrobat was not up to the job. PDFA did exactly what I wanted, although occasionally it was weirdly slow or misplaced pen strokes. Again, though, I think the price was totally worth it.

Which brings us to Spring Quarter, in which I was faced with an interesting situation --- two classes I had never taught before, neither of which had a standardized syllabus. One of them was our fairly new "introduction to the math major" course, and the other was an advanced elective topics course in quantum computing. In both cases I decided to use the whiteboard as my main method of class presentation, mainly so that my space wouldn't be restricted by the size of the projector screen. I wanted to write free-form instead of using prepared slides and the only classrooms at our school which have really sufficient screen space for that (IMO) are the dedicated tablet classrooms, which I didn't want to take up when I wasn't really using the tablet capabilities.

In the end I didn't use the computer very much in the "intro to the major" classroom at all, although I did use it extensively for grading the writing projects that made up a good portion of the class --- I went paperless for those and I though it worked out very well. I did not use the pen, however, just the keyboard- and mouse-based review features of MS Word and Adobe Acrobat.

My big use of the computer in the Quantum Computing class was for lecture notes --- I did them all in MS OneNote and printed them out to bring to class. I would definitely do it again --- just the idea of having a digital copy of everything really appealed to me --- but OneNote had some drawbacks. My original thought was to do text using the keyboard and draw in all the equations and diagrams with the pen, but I quickly decided that was too slow. In the end I drew in the diagrams with the pen and some of the matrices, and faked everything else with the keyboard, which was adequate for my own usage but didn't produce results I'd show anyone else. Putting in proper mathematical notation is possible using OneNote but just too slow --- I really wish I could have used TeXPoint but OneNote doesn't accept plug-ins the way Word and PPT do so apparently there's a big technical issue there. The OneNote developers say they're considering the issue and there may yet be an answer. If it's not ready by next quarter I would consider trying to use MS Word instead; it also accepts ink and there's a version of TeXPoint, although I haven't tried it.

But in the end I managed to go through an entire class with no paper left at the end that I had to save! Between PDF grading keys, OneNote lecture notes, electronic paper submissions, and a few scanned-in sheets of random scratch work, I managed to pitch everything that I usually stuff in my file cabinet at the end of the quarter. Yay! And one last note --- really an addendum to my previous post --- shortly after my last post I was faced with some electronic copies of articles I wanted to read carefully but not print out. My first thought, based on my success folding up my tablet on the laptop stand, was to fold the tablet up and lay it down to read. Then I thought --- you know, if I turn it sideways (and turn the screen display sideways) it will fit the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 PDF a lot better! And it did.

Then I got to the office, where I don't have a stand and my docking station doesn't really turn 90 degrees easily. But I remembered that my monitor actually turns 90 degrees! I never found that very useful with a conventional laptop, but the ability of the Tablet PC OS to turn the display easily using software really came in handy here, despite it not really having anything to do with the Tablet at all.

So that made reading those 8 1/2 by 11 PDFs a lot more pleasant! I have to ask, though --- isn't that a silly way to distribute an article about using Tablet PCs to go paperless?

Nov 16
More grading and ways to use both a pen and a keyboard
So as a follow-up to my last post, I managed to grade my next quiz using a Tablet-based key, and along the way discovered or ("unvented", since I'm sure I'm not the first!) a couple of neat new ways to use a convertible Tablet.
At home, I don't have a proper docking station so I'm using a laptop stand with a built-in hub, plugged into which I keep a keyboard and mouse.  (Apparently I'm feeling grammatically pretentous today.)   Usually I use this with my convertible Tablet in laptop mode (screen up).  If I need to write on the tablet, I discovered one good option is to swing the screen down but leave the body of the Tablet in place.  This requires telling the computer that the screen is in upside-down portrait mode, but I can pretty ergonomically use either the pen or the USB keyboard, which is nice.  It feels a little like using a drafting table, since I'm looking down on the screen which is raised at an angle.
At work, I do have a proper docking station, so I decided to try the same thing.  (Unfortuntely, for this model you need to undock in order to swing the screen around, but tht's a minor inconvenience.)  Of course, when I put the laptop screen in upside-down mode, my external display also turned upside-down, which was annoying.  But then I discovered that if I told Windows to "extend the desktop" onto the external monitor, I could flip just the Tablet screen.  As an extra bonus, I could put primarily keyboard-based programs (like Maple) onto the external display and pen-based programs (like PDF Annotator, which I was using for my grading key) onto the tablet screen.  Once I figured out how to tell windows that the external diplay was on the left an the Tablet screen on the right, instead of vice versa, I had a really nice setup!
Unfortunately, then I tried to get really fancy and move the Taskbar from the Tablet screen to the external monitor, which put Windows into the Freeze of Death.  (Is that the right term? :) )  So I won't try that particular trick again.  At least, for a while....
Nov 07
Grading paper tests using a Tablet key
I've been letting students use laptops (and now tablets) on some exams and quizzes for some years now.  But I still require them to copy everything by hand onto a test paper and hand that in.  That may change in the future, but for the moment I'm doing that grading on paper.

So in the past what I've done next is to take a blank copy of the exam, fill in the solutions, and then make a fairly detailed rubric describing how I'm going to grade.  I sit down with the solution key and the stack of papers, and as I go through the papers I revise the rubric as necessary.  When I'm done, the solution keys go into a folder for each course, and eventually into a file cabinet from which they may or may not ever emerge.

I've been thinking for some time that this is a waste of paper and of filing space, and that some portion of this process should be done electronically.  Last week I sat down with my tablet and a stack of exam papers and tried it out.

Firstly, I was afraid that the process of reading the key off of the tablet while I was working would be inconvenient, but it turned out not to be bad at all.  If I was even a little bit organized in my workspace (and I was only a little bit organized!) I could leave the tablet where it was and shuffle papers around it --- essentially I treated it as a very large and heavy piece of paper.  Even with it plugged into a power outlet, that worked fine.

Two unexpected bonuses (besides saving on paper and filing space):

I could easily use multiple colors on my key:  one color for solutions, another for point values, maybe another for notes for next time or alternate solutions or things I announced in class because I'd botched them on the test.  (Not much of that last week, thankfully!)

I could erase cleanly.  What with all of the rubric revisions I do on the fly, this was amazingly helpful.  I had no idea how much easier my solution key would be to read just because I didn't have to scribble things out.

OTOH, this week I had a short quiz to grade and I intended to do it the same way.  However, my computer wasn't booted up when I started and by the time it had finished booting up I had already written the solutions key out on paper and started using it.  So that key stayed on paper.  Stay tuned for next time....
Oct 31
Math in Your Hands
I almost forgot:  I gave a poster presentation at WITPE entitled "Math in Your Hands:  Integrating the Use of Maple with the Collaborative Use of Wireless Tablet PCs"  I've posted the poster on Slideshare at <>.

Here's the abstract:

This poster is a preliminary report on a Fall 2008 project to explore the use of tablets in calculus classes in order to foster student engagement by incorporating active learning and collaborative activities. The use of tablets can make many improvements in a classroom, but mathematics classes pose special challenges which have not yet been systematically explored at Rose-Hulman. The most difficult of these from a technical perspective is the integration of Maple with other Tablet PC software. This project explores ways to achieve this integration as well as other pedagogical improvements which the use of Tablet PCs could bring to mathematics classrooms at Rose-Hulman.
Oct 31
Another piece of software I saw at WIPTE was "SLICE", which is available at <>.  SLICE is a competitor with DyKnow and Classroom Presenter, although "competitor" isn't really the right word since SLICE isn't commercial software.  It's being developed at the University of Illinois, and the presenter at WIPTE called it "research software", which seems to mean "rough around the edges".  It does have some really nice features, though.

Since I'm very familiar with DyKnow and not at all with other similar systems, I though I'd just give some pros and cons of SLICE compared with DyKnow.

  • Free.
  • Very user configurable (if you know how to code XML and Python).
  • "Laser pen" lets you write strokes which disappear automatically when you make the next stroke.
  • Buttons to take polls with can be embedded right into a panels, either in advance or on the fly.
  • Instructors can establish answer boxes on the panels where students writing can be seen by the instructor in real-time.


  • Currently lacks many features of DyKnow, including options for synchronizing students with instructor and management of panels.  (These could be added by a user, but only if you know XML and Python.)
  • Not completely stable (can crash).
  • User interface not as polished.
  • Not as many options for export of notebooks.
Oct 31
I was at the Workshop on the Impact of Pen-Based Technology on Education (WIPTE) a couple of weeks ago, and saw a couple of new (to me, at least) pieces of tablet-related software that I'm pretty excited about.  The first is called MoboMath, from Enventra.  It's a mathematical handwriting recognition system that lets you write mathematical expressions on a Tablet PC or other pen-based device and it automatically converts it into one of several formats, including Microsoft Equation Editor, TeX, and MathML, or just a nice typeset image.  Even better, you can use the pen to easily drag-and-drop the converted output into another application such as Microsoft Word or Maple.

It seems to do a pretty good job of recognition and it has very nice features for correcting mistakes in recognition, including easy access to alternate choices.  What I'd really like to use this for is entering expressions into Maple; unfortunately the MathML output isn't quite compatible with Maple.  However, I've been talking to the people at Enventra and they say that will be fixed quite soon!

Oh, and for those using Excel on the Tablet PC, Enventra also has MoboCalc, which is supposed to do similar things for Excel formulas.  I haven't tried that one yet, though.
Oct 31
Integration of DyKnow with Computer Algebra Systems
I'm putting together a sabbatical proposal which would involve developing tighter integration between computer algebra systems and DyKnow and I'm trying to gauge the level of interest among math instructors for such a thing. As a starting point, I'm enclosing a short proposal (at the bottom of this post) that I sent to the CTO at DyKnow describing what I'm interested in --- sorry that it's a little technical, but hopefully not too bad.  The notebook I mention below is posted here.  There's a free version of the DyKnow client you can download here, or if you don't want to bother with that I've also posted a PDF version here.
My dream product for interfacing DyKnow with Maple (or another Computer Algebra System) would be a version of DyKnow which understood mathematical expressions and/or CAS commands embedded in the DyKnow Inbox. When these mathematical expressions were selected, a menu option could be invoked to pass the expression or command to the CAS. The CAS would return the value of the expression or command, which could be either displayed in a pop-up window or inserted into the Inbox. For example, page 1 of the enclosed DyKnow notebook shows entering functions into Maple (Maple's responses are shown in blue), and also using Maple to plot a curve (in Maple, one would right-click on [f(t), g(t)] and choose a plotting method from a menu to produce the plot shown). Pages 2 and 3 show more complicated Maple calculations; again, Maple's responses are in blue.
This ability to interact with the CAS would provide a number of benefits to the instructor and student. For example, the instructor could show what happens to a calculation when various parameters are changed, or answer student questions about how changing various parts of the equation affects the answer. DyKnow's replay function could let students go back and see the various versions of the expression and how the answer changes. Alternatively, the instructors could ask students to do problems using DyKnow where they would have to enter their own calculations, and DyKnow (using the CAS) would provide the answers, which the students could then submit to the instructor using DyKnow's panel submission features. Ideally, the instructor would be able to choose whether expressions in the Inbox could be entered and/or modified by the student or only by the instructor to suit various circumstances.
As a less ambitious goal, DyKnow could support mathematical expressions embedded in the Inbox which could not be directly manipulated but could be copied and pasted into a CAS and the answer copied and pasted back into DyKnow, in the same way that text and images can now be copied and pasted. This should also include the ability to copy animations, three dimensional figures, and virtual reality environments produced by the CAS and paste them into DyKnow in a way that preserves the ability of the student and instructor to interact with them. Page 4 of the enclosed DyKnow notebook includes a window onto a web page which has two manipulable 3D graphs and a 3D animation; unfortunately I believe this web page is not accessible outside Rose-Hulman. Pages 4 and 5 show static captured versions of the web page, however.
Oct 31
First a quick introduction --- one of my interests is the use of technology in undergraduate mathematics education, and I'm going to try to use this blog to talk about some of the hardware, software, and pedagogy involved. I'm currently involved in a project to investigate the use of Tablet PCs and DyKnow (a collaborative note-taking and classroom management system) in teaching calculus, and also the integration of Tablet PC's and DyKnow with Computer Algebra Systems such as Maple, Mathematica, etc. If you are also interested in these things, I'd love to hear from you!

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