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Transforming Teaching at Fresno State with Tablets

This tablet program was as much about helping faculty integrate technology into their courses as it was about outfitting students with computing devices for their academics.

California State University, Fresno had all kinds of reasons to implement a mobile device program. For one thing, new students arriving from local high schools with broad 1-to-1 initiatives, including Fresno Unified School District, Clovis Unified and Central Unified, increasingly expected tech in the classroom. Also, like all public institutions, Fresno State is big on reducing the cost of college. Being able to use open educational resources widely across campus could go a long way toward that goal — achievable only if students were outfitted with a means for working with those digital resources. But perhaps the most compelling reason to launch "DISCOVERe," the university's tablet program, was to nudge its faculty into integrating technology into their courses and teaching.

Here's what Fresno State has learned.

Set Expectations Low for Faculty

Faculty participation in the tablet program at Fresno State is entirely voluntary. Once they're accepted into the program, they receive their devices and begin attending a set of two-hour sessions scheduled every couple of weeks to gain the basics of tablet usage and learn how the devices might be applied for specific purposes or particular courses. "It could be using the device as a presentation tool or for interactivity and creativity, for assessment, for collaboration and engagement or as a tool for reflection," explained Sue Yang, the university instructional designer who coordinates that faculty training.

From there, faculty attend a weeklong summer workshop where they explore how to use the tablets in their own courses, she added. "It could be a specific app or [program] they know they want to use."

Joe Ross, an assistant professor of biology, was part of the original cohort of instructors at the very beginning of DISCOVERe. He remembers spending a lot of time in those sessions with his colleagues just "learning how to use apps — playing with them, testing them." What was clear to him from early on was that teaching staff were left to choose which apps were most appropriate for the topics they were teaching. Nothing was mandated. That approach, he said, "was, of course, ideal for faculty. We generally hate to be told what to do. We are the experts and we think we know what's best to do in a classroom."

Picking the Right Course Isn't Always Easy

The class Ross chose for his inaugural tablet effort was an upper-division genetics course (required for the biology major) that he had previously taught only once before. He and his department chair both realized that choosing a required course for first-time tablet-enabled teaching was risky. What if this was the only section of genetics being taught that semester, and he failed miserably?

So they decided to split the section in half, one taught using the tablet and the other following the traditional instructional approach. The two classes showed up in the schedule back-to-back. "The first one of the day was the traditional class," Ross recalled. "Then I went one floor up in the same building to the classroom above me and I taught the tablet version."

Take Baby Steps

During that first semester, initially the only difference between the two sessions was that Ross handed out exercises on paper in the first class and distributed them as PDF files in the second class. "The transformation was not very significant," he acknowledged. "It was substitution, the lowest level of incorporating technology into a classroom. We took a paper-product process and turned it into an electronic process."

Still, even with that small change, there was a benefit, Ross pointed out: Because students filled out the worksheets digitally and handed them in that way, they still had copies to study from even if he hadn't returned them yet. Likewise, he could keep a copy of all of the students' assignments in digital form too, "which is great for ongoing assessment."

But the most transformative activity Ross undertook that semester was to record all of his lectures using Explain Everything and upload them to YouTube, "so that students could watch a video of me solving problems." The advantages were apparent for students who had to miss class for sporting events, illness or death in the family. "All had resources that they could use to help pick up where they left off."

Although he admits there were "lots of different confounding factors," he said that the students in the tablet class experienced a significant increase in their grades compared to the traditional class — "Something worked."

Then Get Creative with the Medium

Since that first attempt, Ross has gone much further in incorporating the tablet into the classroom. For one, all of his classes are now tablet courses. For another, he's finding ways to use the tablets to involve his students in higher-level learning processes.

For example, he was keen to introduce "authentic experiences" to his students — a tough venture in a lecture setting. But Ross has accomplished that: The tablet program has enabled students to go online to access a DNA sequence database, grab the sequence of a gene and do an analysis in class, "to get the feel for what it really is to be a geneticist," he said.

Plus, those types of activities have allowed Ross to create what he considers to be the "cheat-proof exam." When students have access to the internet, lecture videos and even answer keys to study guides, how do you fairly test students on course material? His response was to come up with exercises that the student has to perform. "There's not an answer to every question. For some questions it depends on what gene the student decided to download the sequence of and analyze," he said. "It's more work for me, but I feel like that's very fair tradeoff to make sure the students are getting fairly assessed on what they know and what they're able to put into practice during an exam."

The format of the tablet device itself has also proven a good choice compared to other kinds of devices, insisted Ross. "The touchscreen was key for me," he said. "In my genetics class we do a lot of diagrams and representations of processes. I love to be able to ask students in class, for example, to draw me a picture of their pedigrees and to send it to me." When they've done that, he can pull up their anonymous responses immediately, put them on the class projector and facilitate a group analysis.

Make Sure You Have Faculty's Back

For ongoing support, Fresno State hires students and puts them through "a hundred hours" of special training to turn them into "DISCOVERe guides." These are people who staff an Apple Genius Bar-like help desk to assist students and other campus community members with their mobile devices, whether those are part of the tablet program or not.

Those guides also go into the classroom when faculty request concentrated help, according to Mike Pronovost, former DISCOVERe project coordinator and now the service desk manager. "They're there to jump in and help so the 'customer' doesn't have to stop what they're doing, call classroom video services and [wait] 15 or 20 minutes for somebody to show up. Most of your course is eaten up by that point."

Most instructors never request a guide. "But if they do," he said, "usually it's for the first three weeks, and then they end up saying, 'OK, I no longer need them.'"

A byproduct of the guide program is that the students involved get plenty of career experience. Pronovost noted that a lot of them end up being hired by Apple and local school districts to support their tablet programs.

Refresh the Old for the New

The modest nature of the tablet training that members of the faculty undergo belies the fact that it's constantly being refreshed. As Yang observed, the past two cohorts have generated a lot of different implementation ideas for teaching. So she and her training team try to incorporate those ideas into the professional development delivered to the newest cohort too.

On top of that, she said, "We always ask the previous faculty members if they would have time in their schedules to come and talk to the current cohort, to give them ideas of what they've gone through; what some of the issues are they may come across with their students or in their teaching; and what they've learned and how they've implemented that. Everyone's busy. But any time a previous DISCOVERe faculty member can come and share their ideas, it's always more than welcome."

Don't Give, but Grant

In 2014, DISCOVERe began giving grants to students enrolled in designated "tablet-required" courses to supplement or cover the purchase of a device from the university bookstore. The size of the grant and the roster of devices has changed with each semester. In spring 2016 the grant was $300, which could be applied to the purchase of one of five types of tablets:

  • iPad Air 32GB;
  • iPad Air 2 64GB;
  • iPad Pro 32GB;
  • Microsoft Surface 3; or
  • Samsung Galaxy TAB A.

That grant program could officially cease at the end of this semester, since the university has no funding planned for it in fall 2016. However, university president Joseph Castro has asked the provost and CIO to recommend a plan for long-term financial sustainability, presumably to continue supporting those students who need help in acquiring tablet devices.

In the meantime, faculty training continues, as does course redesign — both of which may turn out to be the big payoff. The number of instructors participating in DISCOVERe has grown from 33 at the start of the program to 250 (out of a campuswide total of 1,400) who have received iPads and undergone professional development activities, thereby immersing themselves in tech-enabled course redesign. There are no signs of those pursuits slowing down.

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