Weekly Teaching Note
Apr 16 2014
Bridging the Geographical Divide: Teaching in a DL Classroom

As a new faculty member at NYIT, one of the things I had to adjust to was teaching in a DL classroom. These rooms are connected by videoconferencing equipment, so half the class is always watching me on TV and I’m in the room with the other half. I split my time between the two campuses to get face time with all of the students but it’s still difficult to judge how well students are getting the material during a lecture when I’m looking at half of them on a tiny screen. In addition, there is a lot of variation in what our students know and how well they know it. We also have a lot of students who are working full-time jobs while going to school, so they need as much flexibility as they can get. I use Socrative.com to give quizzes to make sure they are getting the material, which is helpful.

I teach an artificial intelligence class and a programming languages concepts class, and these have been taught in the traditional “read at home, lecture in class” manner. All my students bring laptops to class, so I try to spend as much class time as possible having them doing rather than listening. The problem is that all the students have to move at the same pace, which is too slow for some and too fast for others. That led me to look at blended learning and adaptive learning platforms.

Here’s a list of features that would make such a platform ideal for my needs:

  • Content creation: in addition to pre-designed classes, I can add my own materials
  • Activity tracking: I want to see what each student does on the platform: which lessons they view, their performance on quizzes and other embedded assessments
  • Adaptive learning: students see material of varying difficulty, based on their performance up to that point. Some of our students need to cover basic material before moving on to the actual class material but others don’t; some students get a concept quickly, others need more instruction
  • Encourages interaction: I want the ability to embed quizzes, simulations, and other interactive activities into the on-line material
  • Enables teamwork: Students should be able to collaborate in real time on group activities. This feature would be particularly helpful in a DL room, since it would allow groups of students who are on different campuses to work productively during class

I started by looking at the MOOCs (Udacity, Coursera, EdX) and on-line textbooks (CourseSmart). I’ve also looked at quite a few adaptive learning platforms:


Unfortunately - but not surprisingly - none of these platforms has all the features I’d like. This semester, I am using SmartSparrow to deliver content both during and outside of class. Thee platform has some of the features I’m looking for: SmartSparrow lets me create my own lessons and embed quizzes, and it tracks each student’s progress. However, there are some limitations with it: the authoring tool is pretty clunky, the types of questions are limited to multiple-choice and short answer, there are limited tools for managing a class, and the system has no integration with Blackboard. As a result, I’m reluctant to recommend SmartSparrow to others unless you enjoy tinkering with software and don’t need the Blackboard integration and other course management tools.

Here’s a feature comparison for the platforms I looked at:

  Content Creation Activity Tracking Adaptive Learning Encourages Interaction Enables Teamwork  
http://www.smartsparrow.com yes yes yes yes no  
http://www.aleks.com no yes yes yes no  
http://www.mymathlab.com no yes yes yes no  
http://www.edgenuity.com no yes yes yes no  
http://iknow.jp no yes yes yes no  
http://www.mytools2learn.com/education no yes yes yes no  
http://www.wiley.com/college/sc/oriondemo no yes yes yes no  
http://www.knowillage.com/index.html ? yes yes yes no  
https://www.schoology.com/home.php yes yes no yes ?  
http://www.knewton.com no yes yes yes no  
http://realizeitlearning.com no yes yes yes no  
https://www.coursesites.com/webapps/Bb-sites-course-creation-BBLEARN/pages/index.html yes yes no yes ?  
http://www.teachingtree.com no ? no ? no  
http://educanon.com yes yes no yes no  

Richard Simpson, PhD
Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
New York Institute of Technology

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