Lightboard: Mirror Magic – Mary Power

I was recently introduced to the lightboard technology and immediately I was hooked.

lightboard image
Open source hardware:

My discovery of the lightboard was timely as CTE colleague Mark Morton and I had just been discussing the mirror paradox, which is so eloquently explained in this Washington Post piece . Mirrors challenge us intellectually – oh you really do have to love physics!  Seeing a lightboard video presentation for the first time has the same effect (or did for me anyway). The first thought that went through my mind was “WOW….he can sure write backwards well!”  Watch this one minute video to see what I mean:

The original Lightboard designed by Michael Peshkin, an Engineering Professor at Northwestern University, allows the creation of videos that are filmed in reflection using a mirror, resulting in the apparition of the skilled backwards writer.  Another option for creating lightboard videos is a post-production digital horizontal flip of the video. I, however, am partial to the mirror model, which in addition to having a “cool” factor allows for the video to be uploaded instantly with no post-production processing.

So whimsy aside, what is a lightboard exactly? How and why would it be useful in teaching?  In most simple terms a lightboard is an illuminated sheet of glass on which an instructor writes with fluorescent markers, as on a  whiteboard or chalkboard. The major difference is that instructor is facing the “audience”. This is absolutely an improvement on the traditional chalkboard where an instructor’s back is facing the audience when writing and often, unfortunately, while speaking. As Peshkin says ” that just gives you a little bit better sense of engagement with your students as you’re talking, and gives them a better sense that they’re being spoken to, rather than somebody just writing.”

Some might argue that these videos are too instructor focused. I would argue however that the presence of the instructor is much of what makes these videos work. In part, it is the human presence that draws the viewer in and helps develop instructor immediacy, something often difficult to attain in online and blended course videos.  The other aspect is the potential for increased learning over a traditional voice-over PPT presentation. By actually watching the physical steps taken to solve a problem, for example, and seeing the visual emphasis placed on specific steps or items learning can be enhanced. A recent study by Pi el al. confirmed this; finding that student attention and learning was significantly increased using pointing gestures in recorded video lectures over non-human (PPT animation) cues or no cues at all (Pi et al., 2016).

I truly think the lightboard technology is not a gimmick, but is rather another great instructional tool that can be used to help explain challenging concepts. I believe that this technology can be used to create rich learning opportunities for flipped, blended and online courses.

I am currently working with our audio visual studio team to determine the feasibility of building a lightboard here at the University of Waterloo. I know a number of faculty already interested in using it and studying its educational value if we build it.  I would love to hear from others interested in using this technology when we have it operational, so please get in touch.


ELI: 7 things you should know about Lightboard

Northwestern Lightboard

UBC Lightboard

Pi, Z., Hong, J. and Yang, J. (2016), Effects of the instructor’s pointing gestures on learning performance in video lectures. Br J Educ Technol. doi:10.1111/bjet.12471


UW STEM Education and Mobius – Paul Kates

Back in August 2016 my colleague Tonya Elliott from the Center for Extended cemc university of waterlooLearning wrote a post on Online Math Numbers at Waterloo, and Comparative Judgments as a Teaching Strategy in this space.

In that piece Tonya talked about the thousands of UW students who have taken online UW math courses and of the recognition of excellence received for the educational resources in these courses.  Today I present more information about the new online environment named Mobius first introduced there.   This platform offers authors and students expanded opportunities for rich, interactive learning.

As examples are three UW-Mobius project collaborations (CEMC, CEL) with the evolving Mobius system available free to the public:

uw open math mobius site
cemc university of waterloo




uw open eng mobius

To get a feel for what Mobius can do I’ll describe and link to specific features from each of these sites.

In the Chemistry for Engineers course you will see short (approx 5 minutes) narrated videos and animation.  Live self-check concept questions using the ordering question type let students know which part of their answers are right or wrong. Other locations in the course make use of the Maple mathematical engine underlying Mobius allowing students to check their skill at doing calculations.  These questions provide a motivating hint if students feel unsure.

The Linear Algebra1 1 Open Math site is designed differently, offering longer 20 minute presentations alternating with live quizzes.  Each quiz question has its own template for generating tens or hundreds of different question variations giving students the chance to repeat and master the material.

The example chosen from the CEMC site is an interactive demonstration of the cross product of two vectors.  On screen controls allow students to manipulate the size and orientation of two vectors while displaying the vectors and their cross product.  This is an example of a Mobius math app.  Math apps are great for letting students visualize concepts, experiment with dynamic objects and explore what-if questions.

UW has created thousands of questions for use in our Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Engineering courses.  They are all freely available to use in any course you teach.  As are the many Math apps on the Maplesoft Math app gallery page and on the Maplesoft shared content Maplecloud web site.

If you are curious about Mobius and want to learn more there is a hands-on seminar in two weeks (Thu Mar 2 11:15 AM), part of CTE’s very popular EdTech week.

You don’t have to wait two weeks though.  If you have an idea for a Math app and want help realizing it, want to browse through the question banks, want to see how a lesson is created or just want to play around with Mobius then please get in touch.

Paul Kates
Mathematics Faculty CTE Liaison, x37047, MC 6473

VoiceThread Project: Call for Participation — Gillian Dabrowski

voicethreadAre you looking for ways to engage your students in learning? Consider partnering with the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) and the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) to pilot a new instructional tool in Waterloo’s on-campus and online classes: VoiceThread.

You may be interested in learning about the pilot if your goal is to engage students in any of the activities below:

  • Idea sharing and interaction
  • Community building
  • Social learning
  • Peer instruction
  • Critical reflection
  • Presentation practice
  • Digital literacy skills building
  • Language practice

What is VoiceThread?

VoiceThread is a media-based discussion tool. A key feature of VoiceThread is that it enables you and your students to create digital presentations and make them the centre of a discussion. Presentations can include documents, images, PowerPoint slides, audio, or video. Students attach comments to the presentation using a keyboard (text), a microphone or telephone (audio), or a webcam (video). Discussions are asynchronous, meaning students are not online at the same time.

Why use VoiceThread?

Penn State’s Use Case Introduction gives several examples of why instructors use VoiceThread:

  • On-campus, create digital presentations on difficult to comprehend concepts and processes. Students can review content multiple times and ask the instructor questions on specific slides.
  • Enable students to present knowledge and research digitally. The class benefits from exposure to a multitude of topics. The presenter benefits from practice articulating themselves verbally and peer feedback.
  • Actively engage students in online lectures by prompting them to comment on specific slides or respond to questions posed within the presentation.
  • Increase your online instructor teaching presence and build online class community by initiating weekly kick-off discussions.
  • Create an online ‘seminar’ course experience where students grapple with heavy readings together in both written and verbal formats.

Pilot Details

The VoiceThread pilot is scheduled to run from Winter 2017–Winter 2018. Faculty who participate in the pilot will receive a VoiceThread account linked to their LEARN user account and a course site. Training and support for the pilot will be supported by CEL, CTE, and LEARN Help. Faculty participants and course participants will be asked to provide feedback via survey response, panel discussion, and interview.

If you would like to volunteer to be a part of this pilot, please contact CEL’s Gillian Dabrowski,, or your CTE Liaison with the following details:

  1. Name
  2. Course information (CourseID, name, section) and expected number of students
  3. A description of how you will use VoiceThread in your course to support student engagement and assessment. How might VoiceThread help solve a problem you are experiencing with discussions or assessment as you currently use them?

More Information


Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE).

Crowdmark – Online grading for large courses

This Fall 2016, the University of Waterloo will have 25 courses with stockvault-pile-of-paper117595a class size of between 500 and 1000 students and 10 courses of  between 1000 and 2000 students.

The amount of paper handling to administer the potential 33,000 final exam papers from these large courses will be monumental. (For fun, guestimate the volume of paper this amounts to.)

The Mathematics Faculty has been  successfully experimenting for a year with a online grading system called Crowdmark, a company founded by Professor James Colliander of the Mathematics Department of the University of Toronto.

Professor Colliander was faced with a similar problem: grading 5000  Canadian Open Mathematics Competition (COMC) papers each year with  100 volunteers.  As with final exams, each paper is typically graded by a number of markers so keeping track of which questions are graded on which papers and when the papers are free to be passed to another marker is a time consuming and error prone business.

Crowdmark (CM) attempts to eliminate some of the time and trouble spent managing the grading process.   We are not talking about a quiz system with automatic grading. Crowdmark is hand-marking done online.  Skilled people still grade, and tests and assignments are still created for printing on paper so there is nothing new in this part of an instructor’s routine.

So, what is it that makes the marking process more efficient when done online?

  • Markers are able to grade the same paper at the  same time.  No more locating and waiting for a paper that someone else is grading.  Or waiting for a batch of papers to arrive at your location to begin your stage of grading.  Grading can be done concurrently at multiple locations and times.
  • Grades can be automatically summed, collected, summarized, distributed and recorded in a Learning Management System without needing to check for arithmetic or transcription errors.
  • No time needs to be spent returning piles of exam papers.

There is a time and money cost to using online grading.  The physical papers have to be scanned into digital format (PDF file) before grading can start. High speed scanners (500 pages per minute) can process 1000 10-page exams  in 20-30 minutes once delivered to the scanning machine.

Here I’ll briefly discuss how instructors and students use CM.

Steps for an instructor:

  • upload one test or exam pdf file into CM (leave 2 inches blank on the top of each page for CM ID info and set 1 question per page)
    • CM duplicates the test pdf for each student and adds a paper and page ID to each page
  • download from CM the pdf file of student tests and print it
  • after the test scan all written test papers into a pdf file and upload the file into CM
    • CM arranges the pdf file pages into a grid pattern: each row holds a student’s test pages
  • each marker clicks on a page in the grid to read, comment, and grade it
    • when grading is complete page grades are summed for each test paper by CM
  • match each test paper cover page student ID with a student name in your CM course (assigned seating at UW can eliminate this step)
  • you choose whether CM sends each student their grade and a CM link to their graded test paper or to keep the grades and graded papers private and just download the grades for inclusion into a course grade

Steps for a student:

  • write the test paper by hand as usual
  • may receive an email from CM with a link to a CM page showing their test results

The links at the end of this post provide further details about Crowdmark.  In addition, 2 live sessions demonstrating Crowdmark are coming up at the end of August and the beginning of September.   The first is an introduction to Crowdmark on Wednesday August 31 and  the second follows up a week later on Wednesday September 7 (1:30-3 PM) with details about a University of Waterloo system named Odyssey that works with Crowdmark.  Odyssey organizes test papers, students and exam room seating providing relief from some time-consuming management overhead.

Crowdmark is not a free service, but the University of Waterloo has a licence so there is no charge to individuals (instructors or students) at the university.

If you are interested in learning more about online grading for your course please get in touch with me.

Paul Kates
Mathematics Faculty CTE Liaison, x37047, MC 6473

Intro to Online Marking using Crowdmark: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 – 10:30 AM to 11:30 AM EDT
Crowdmark home page,   help pages and  youtube channel.
UW Odyssey Examination Management

Working outside the box

Over 70% of our courses offered on-campus use LEARN to some extent to manage course content and communications and to support online learning activities. Data extracted from Waterloo’s LEARN system can provide us with the details of which courses are using its various built-in tools, such discussion forums, quizzes and rubrics. This data can give us a preliminary snapshot of our innovative courses that use instructional technologies.

However, this snapshot is incomplete because we are currently unable to identify blended courses that use external instructional technologies, such as Piazza, Twitter, peerScholar, Diigo, Top Hat, mobile apps, and so on. As a result, we have not been able to document the full extent of courses that are innovative by virtue of the technologies that they employ to support active, student-centred learning. Such technologies often offer learning opportunities that are not otherwise available, but tracking these non-LEARN instructional technologies is challenging and had not been attempted in the past. However, we know that many instructors are working outside the box. girl looking over a box

Innovative Instructional Technologies Project

This spring the CTE Faculty liaisons, myself, and the SID Emerging Technologies, Dr. Mark Morton, embarked on a project to gain a fuller understanding of the extent of use of instructional technologies outside of the LEARN environment on campus. CTE’s work in this area supports the Outstanding Academic Programming part of the current strategic plan, with the goal to “to expand the appropriate use of technologies to enhance students’ learning experience”. Our first step was to send a request to all instructors to indicate whether they were using Twitter, Quizlet, TopHat, IF-AT cards or Dropbox and to identify tools they were using in categories such as Google tools, polling tools, blogging tools, wikis, or screencasting tools. Many instructors replied and we have started to build a picture of the number and variety of external tools that are being used across campus.

What we found

Over 50 different tools were identified by instructors. Piazza, Google Tools, Camtasia (a screencasting technology), Dropbox (the external Dropbox, not the Learn one) and Twitter were the most frequently mentioned, and the categories with the most variety of tools were presentation tools, blogging tools and polling tools. Screencast-o-matic, Explain Everything, WordPress, MediaWiki, SurveyMonkey and Doodle are just a few of the tools that instructors are integrating into their teaching and learning activities. We will continue to collect information on the many and varied instructional technologies that are being used across campus. We will also be adding a new section to the CTE website in the fall outlining the objectives instructors have for using some of these technologies (for example, dissemination of course content, supporting group work, fostering a community of learners, etc.) as well as identifying  “friendly contacts” for specific tools (instructors who are willing to talk to their colleagues about how and why they are using these technologies in their courses).

As we look to the future and how technologies will enhance students’ learning the trend seems to be towards a more modular or LEGO-like learning ecosystem rather than an LMS, but we may already be there as more courses use a diverse, and likely dynamic, set of technologies for a variety instructional purposes.

photo credit: t whalen via flickr cc

Distracted Students: Time for Us to Re-focus — Christine Zaza

Hands holding a smart phoneIn today’s university classrooms it is common to see students distracted by their laptops, tablets, phones, or smart watches.  Although they are physically present, those who are distracted by technology are not always psychologically or socially present or engaged in learning.  This is a widespread problem despite the growing body of research which shows that off-task multi-tasking with technology during class is detrimental to a student’s learning and to the learning of those around them.  Teaching distracted, disengaged students is leaving many instructors frustrated, discouraged, and deflated.

In their attempt to restore the learning environment, some instructors, and even some institutions, are banning laptops in their classes.  At the University of Waterloo, banning laptops in class is not an option because that practice not only violates UWaterloo’s Policy on Behaviour (Policy 33), it also violates provincial legislation (AODA and Ontario Human Rights).  (See the CTE Teaching Tip Sheet Laptops in the Classroom: Virtue or Vice.)  Although banning technology in class isn’t an option, instructors can ask students who use technology in class to sit in designated areas (e.g., sitting on the sides of the lecture hall) so that they don’t disturb others who are not using technology.

It is tempting to focus our attention and frustration on students, but students aren’t the only ones distracted by technology.  Faculty and staff are too, and they are sometimes distracted by technology at meetings, conferences, and other professional events.  Yet in those settings, this behaviour seems to go unquestioned.  Outside of the university environment, it has become the norm to be distracted by technology in the car, over dinner, at soccer games, grocery stores, etc.  With these ever-present distractions, the demands for self-regulation seem to be higher for all of us now that we have access to the entire world in the palm of our hand.   Many of today’s technological communications tools use persuasive techniques that make it harder for many of us to sustain uninterrupted focus.  It has become socially acceptable to disrupt our face-to-face interactions in order to communicate with friends and family via technology.  The problem is so prevalent that some people are turning to technology to help them block distractions from technology.  For example, Freedom is a technology-blocking app that allows individuals to block distractions on their electronic devices for selected periods of time, and the demand for this type of technology seems to be growing as people strive to regain control of their time and attention.

It is natural for teachers to want students to live up to their learning potential.  However, it’s easy to forget that students are mature adults who are ultimately responsible for their own education.  In discussing the problem of students distracted by technology in class, I have four recommendations to propose:

First, we should stop referring to technology as though it is a single entity which has only negative effects.  Technology can be used to improve student engagement in class, and it can be used to improve learning and facilitate communication, among other things.

Second, we should make the distinction between brief, minor distractions (e.g., quickly checking for or responding to a text, looking up a word in an online dictionary, checking a schedule or schedule reminder) and major, more disruptive distractions (e.g., watching videos or movies, playing video games, online shopping, engaging in lengthy chats in social media, etc.).

Third, we should apply the same standards and expectations to the entire campus community as we apply to students.   I have yet to hear anyone talk about implementing designated seating for technology users at staff and faculty meetings.

Fourth, we should use an ecological model as a framework for thinking about how to address this problem.  We can’t expect students to change their individual behaviour with technology without also considering the context in which they are choosing that behaviour and the larger context of the social norms which influence behaviour.

Rather than focusing on distracted students, let’s involve students in conversations about how technology-related distraction affects our campus community and what we should do about it.


Christine Zaza is CTE’s Faculty Liaison for Applied Health Sciences, Psychology, Sociology & Legal Studies, and Support Units.
Photo courtesy of Open Arms (Creative Commons License).

Open Educational Resources: A Call to Action — Dina Meunier

open signOn February 8th, Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in B.C. presented a strong case for the use of open textbooks in higher education to an interested audience at the University of Waterloo1. Open textbooks, he argues, such as those provided through OpenStax College or BC Campus OpenEd, benefit students, professors and institutions.

What are open textbooks? Open textbooks are “licensed under an open copyright license [such as a Creative Commons license] and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public.”2 How do open textbooks differ from electronic versions of traditional textbooks? Some textbook publishers provide students with an online or digital version of a traditional hard copy textbook, but access to this electronic version is not free and it is under a limited license, that is, students loose access to the digital textbook after a period of time, for example, 6 months after purchase. Open textbooks, due to the nature of being openly available also promote lifelong learning, says Jhangiani.

There is no denying that traditional textbooks are expensive. Textbook costs have increased by 82% in the last decade, according to Jhangiani and these costs contribute to crippling student debt.  In Canada, the average student graduates with a debt of over $28,000 and three years after graduation, only about one-third of graduates are debt free, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Jhangiani argues that professors can mitigate this unfortunate situation simply by deciding to use an open textbook or a series of open educational resources to replace their traditional text.

Another advantage of open textbooks, for both students and instructors, lies in their flexibility. Open textbooks, Jhangiani explains, “aren’t just free, they’re free with permissions.” These permissions include the ability not only to retain, reuse and redistribute the resource, but to potentially remix and redistribute it based the instructor’s pedagogical goals for the course.

Universities also benefit from the use of open textbooks. There is a direct relationship, Jhargiani says, between textbook costs and student success and retention. Research shows that students enrolled in courses using OERs, had lower withdrawal rates, had better grades and enrolled in more courses in the current and subsequent semesters3.

So why aren’t more instructors using open textbooks?  Lack of awareness about where to find open textbooks and uncertainty around their quality are two of the main reasons.4 But the quality issue is an issue of perception.  Jhangiani states that quality has improved dramatically in the last 5 years and recent research shows that 75% of faculty who have an opinion about OERs, rate them as equivalent or better than the traditional textbook.5

Want to learn more about open educational resources? March 7 to 11th is Open Education Week so there is no better time to start than right now.

  • Check out how the Faculty of Mathematics is leading the way in Waterloo’s own open courseware initiative: math.uwaterloo and courseware.cemc.uwaterloo;
  • Explore the possibility of incorporating an open textbook in your upcoming course this spring or fall;
  • Are you interested in creating your own set of open educational resources to replace a costly textbook in your large enrollment course? Contact the Centre for Extended Learning (, we may be able to help you!


1To view “Open Educational Practices by Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani,” Centre for Teaching Excellence, (published to YouTube on Feb 12 2016) go to

2Open Textbook FAQ. BCCampus OpenEd.

3 Fischer, L., Hilton, J., Robinson T. J., & Wiley, D. (2015). A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 27(3), 159-172. doi:10.1007/s12528-015-9101-x

4 Green, K. (N.D.). Going Digital: Faculty Perspectives on Digital and OER course materials. Retrieved from The Campus Computing Project.

5 Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (Oct 2014). Opening the Curriculum: Open Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2014, Babson Research. Retrieved from

The author of this post, Dina Meunier, is Associate Director of Online Learning at Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning