Results on the Fly: In-class surveys using Google Docs
Taught by: Paul Ruud
What is the course in which you use instructional technologies about? Tell us about its origin, goals and objectives.I use instructional technologies in several courses, but especially in a course introducing probability and statistics. This course is required for all majors in Economics, but students from other majors also take it because probability and statistics are fundamental to interpreting observations in many fields.
A basic goal of the course is to lead students to see how one might view a sample of data as only one instance of a repeatable experiment. The results of the experiment cannot be known exactly in advance and, even after conducting the experiment, the results of repeating the experiment cannot be anticipated precisely. Nevertheless, there are such underlying characteristics as probabilities that one can investigate.
Because the experimental data could have been different, statistics provides formal ways to account for the inherent uncertainty that is always present. Without statistics, we tend to ascribe too much precision to experimental results.
What were the technologies used and how did they change or enhance your course?
I use several technologies, including a course website, spreadsheet software, a tablet microcomputer and display for lectures, and Google Docs, a free web-based word processor and spreadsheet technology. Google Docs makes it possible to conduct in-class surveys and experiments so that the results produced by individual students appear on a display at the front of the classroom as the results occur.
My application of Google Docs is novel but straight forward. Students come to class with notebook computers and connect to the internet through our campus-wide wireless network. I email a survey to them, which they complete and return in class. Each response appears instantaneously in a spreadsheet which I project onto a classroom display. Thus, all the components of this application are already available and no additional equipment or software is needed.
The Student Response
How have your students responded to your use of this technology?
Students enjoy watching the results unfold. The process is a tangible experience of uncertainty about what the data will be and, therefore, the random character of experimental outcomes. That in turn underscores the uncertainty in statistical inferences.
What were the challenges you faced when teaching this course?
This course is required for many students and the material can be counter-intuitive and technical. We are all notoriously incaccurate at assessing probabilities or recognizing randomness. The modern conception of probability rests upon set theory, which can be about as stimulating as balancing your checking account. Statistical methods of inference often appear mechanical.
What new directions would you like to explore with technology in your teaching?
I hope to enhance the in-class experiments by adding graphical displays of the data that change as the data comes in. A key idea is that like individual experimental outcomes, the statistics that summarize those experimental outcomes are random. The display of this characteristic is more powerful with graphical visualization than with tables of numbers.
I am considering the surveys to poll the students' understanding during a lecture. This is a technique employed with specialized hardware that can be carried out with the network and microcomputers that are already in hand. The responses are anonymous so that students can answer questions freely, without concern about the impression that they are creating for the teacher or their classmates. So it gives the instructor an opportunity to quickly obtain candid responses to questions about comprehension.