Adventures in Teaching Technology

I have 5 lectures to give this week on a variety of topics from polymers for biomedical applications through to the chemistry of groups 16 – 18 and basic spectroscopy (equations of light).  Me, I’m versatile!  The polymer chem lectures are an absolute luxury because it is the only course I teach that is directly related to my research, i.e. I talk about papers that I use every day in research.  The others are general chemistry lectures covering the necessary parts of an undergraduate chemistry curriculum.

The chemistry of group 16 – 18 is part of a series of 10 lectures on main group chemistry and periodic trends.  These are difficult lectures both to give and to be on the receiving end of.  There are many theories and ideas, often contradictory in places (learn the exceptions and the rule!), but much of the course is about improving general chemical knowledge.  Hydrolysis of chlorides and oxides is a typical example where you have to know how specific classes of compounds react, but also some of the more interesting exceptions to the rules.  Last year, when teaching this for the first time, I decided to start recording the lectures to give students a second chance at picking up the key points.  It worked really well and was well received by the students.  I was already using a tablet PC to annotate powerpoint (from a teaching innovation project that involved annotating NMR and IR spectra in lectures).

The logical next step was taken last semester – using Camtasia to record the computer screen in lectures and my voice.  Last semester it worked OK but I was just using the microphone on the computer – not much use if, like me, you wander about a bit when talking.  This semester I think I’ve got it sorted by using my dictaphone to record the audio (using a small clip on microphone) and then replacing the audio from the screencast.  It works much better that way.  This semester I’ve started recording pre-lectures using the software.  Last year module feedback indicated that students would like a wee bit of revision of pre-university/first semester topics to get them prepared or back up to speed before tackling new ideas, so I’ve been making three short (8 minutes max) mini-lectures to introduce topics.  I ask the students to watch them before coming to specific lectures.  At the moment, I’m only doing it for specific lectures because I don’t want to overload the class or myself!  I then provide a short multiple choice quiz on webCT for the students to test their knowledge.  I consider pre-lecture content to be fair game for exam questions.

I would love to get back to traditional chemistry teaching technology – demonstrations – but teaching in various lecture theatres makes this impossible.  Currently I’m not even teaching in a room with a periodic table on the wall which makes periodic trends a little harder than necessary.  I occasionally use YouTube chemistry clips but decided this year to bite the bullet and record a couple of relevant demonstrations myself.  I’ll post my first attempt later in the week, once I’ve used it in class.  There is no audio because (a) I’ve heavily edited the demonstration to make it fit in to 2 minutes, the actual experiment took about 8 minutes and (b) I’d like to be able to talk about it as I show the clip.

Now, I have to go and finish a quiz for a problem class tomorrow – we’re using ‘clickers’!