One thing that’s been difficult for me this year, teaching with computers, is figuring how to avoid competing with the computer for student attention. I’ve used procedures (such as having students turn off screens during direct instruction) with some success. That is, I can make sure students aren’t looking at something online — but it doesn’t mean they’re listening to me. I also didn’t have an LCD projector in one of the classrooms I was using, so that made it very difficult to demonstrate any techniques or software features to the class. It’s really different than teaching math on a whiteboard.
The usual answer to problems like this is “learning management software” which is a basically a combination of screencasting and remote control software. I looked at commercial solutions like NetOp School and CrossTec Schoolvue but the cost was really high for something I’d never tried before. I wasn’t sure if it would just be an expensive remote control, and I didn’t feel comfortable requesting the purchase.
Enter iTALC, an open-source package that does basically the same thing as these commercial solutions. I asked the IT staff here to install it over the winter vacation (and they graciously agreed) so today is the first day I’m really using iTALC. So far, I can report that the screen lock is extremely effective. It does change the power dynamic in the class — instead of asking them to turn off their monitors and waiting for them to agree, I can just do it immediately. It’s a little strange to wield that power, so I try to do it in a very clear and direct way. I’ll start talking first, giving them a verbal cue that I need their attention, about 30 seconds before I actually lock the screens. Already I notice that some students are more responsive to that verbal cue.
The monitoring capabilities are useful too. Many computer labs are laid out in such a way that there’s no place you can stand and see every screen at once. But in my overview, I can see what every student is doing. Here’s a screenshot of what it looks like when they’re all working:
I’m looking forward to showing demonstrations by broadcasting my screen. Overall, I think this is going to be one of those tools that I’ll wonder how I lived without.