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Capturing chemistry lab experiences using tablets - an experiment in itself. (STeM SAFFIRE)

How this story begins

This month (August 2013) Tamsin Kelly, lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Canberra, enquired about the possibility of using SAFFIRE funding to trial tablets to replace paper based lab notebooks.

This is a write up of some of our thoughts and considerations in our search for technology options available and what might work and how devices themselves are provisioned (BYOD or provided for example). Comments are welcome!

Electronic Lab Notebooks: Before I begin people such as Rich Apodaca have written about specialised Electronic Lab Notebooks as compared with apps/services such as Evernote. ELN's are expensive, and like Rich we wanted to find out if a todays general consumer tablets were up to the task.

BYOD versus Provided

One of the first things that came up in discussion was how to get these devices into students hands. There are of course a number of options.

  • The university provides the devices - either through loan or permanently as part of the course package (for an example see:
    • Pros
      • Everyone has a device, among other benefits this takes out the guess work when designing curriculum.
      • Everyone has the same device, so we know what students will be capable of doing with their devices.
      • Consistent experience can be designed because of the controlled learning environment.
      • Others (please comment)
    • Cons
      • Cost to the institution.
      • Device ownership results in less device damage and theft. (needs reference)
      • Any weakness or deficiency in the technology that is provided will potentially have a negative impact on the curriculum design, and due to the mono culture other solutions/platforms would not be available to resolve these issues.
      • The devices need to be managed:
      • Others (please comment)
    • Possible Workarounds
      • Provide a range of devices, making sure that there are options on each device that have feature parity, or have feature diversity. Students then either work in groups or use a device/platform that suits the needs of the activity being undertaken.
      • Others (please comment)
  • Students are asked to bring their own (BYOD)
    • Pros
      • They can use their device/platform of choice. 
      • Students will be familiar with their platform and not have to relearn another mobile environment in order to be productive. 
      • We know there are iOS users who would never use Android, and Android users who would never use iOS. Replace these platform names with your platform of choice.
      • Zero cost the the institution in terms of managing provision or other approaches.
      • Others (please comment)
    • Cons
      • Can't be sure if everyone has one
      • Must deal with multiple platforms and inconsistent device/app functionality
      • Others (please comment)
    • Possible Workarounds
      • Policy is needed, for one example see: Loughborough University 
        • This may cover the bare essentials of a mobile device in terms of hardware and software features, e.g. Camera, GPS, secure WI-FI, etc. (As opposed to Display X, Camera Y, display connector Z.
      • Create Rainbow groups based on device (more below). 
      • Abstract the learning activities to their pedagocial and disciplinary purposes - don't relate them to specific apps or devices.
      • Others (please comment)
So which to go for? It probably depends on your budget, both short and long term. Our position is likely to be BYOD. But why?
  • Two weeks ago (start of August) Tamsin wanted to run this pilot using tablets to replace paper notebooks and she wanted to buy about 4. At that time we were thinking that we would require students to buy a tablet in 2014, therefore I gave advice to Tamsin that we should trial some cheap Android tablets (9.7" Amicroe) that were available from the local UC shop. If these devices proved to be affordable and suitable then students with limited budgets who didn't have a device would have options. Benefits to students go far beyond a unit, and even more so when the course as a whole starts to take advantage of the fact students have access to these tools. 
  • From on a quick survey by Tamsin, 30% of the students in the 2013 Semester 2 pilot chemistry unit already have a tablet computer - mostly iPads with some Android tablets. Working in groups, everyone will have access to a device with the addition of the 4 bought for the pilot.
  • Providing tablets, for now, is largely seen as unsustainable. Compared with expensive text books, as units adopt the use of them and the number of opportunities for students to use them grows and as prices come down, we would expect tablet computers be cheaper and far more often used. This personal purchase becomes even more attractive when eBooks become the preferred distribution medium over paper, when one considers that tablets as a cost borne by the student is multipurpose and can be used in all areas of student life: study, personal, social and professional.
  • We agree with the markets classification of these devices, that tablets are a consumer device, and therefore students will want choice. By providing devices we are producing a mono-culture and limiting choice. And for the growing number of students who already have a mobile computing device, what will happen to the one provided? Worst case would be sitting unused somewhere. Taking this line of thinking further, what happens when a unit bases an activity on the specific device given to students - now they have to carry around two devices, there university device and their personal device? I don't think that would be appreciated.
  • There are ways to design curriculum that get around the equity issue and at the same time leave the device as a personal consumer choice:
    • Group work where there exists a range of devices in the group, and those without have access. (This strategy was introduced to me by Leonard Low, since then I have learned it is also known as a Rainbow Group and also used for non-technology related reasons - such as making up a group with a range of personalities.)
    • By desiging the curriculum around activities that are not app related but Learning Outcome Related. In other words, like the national Common Core in the US (not saying it's perfect) the principle is that the outcomes are given to the students but the how is up to them. In other words they can choose whatever device, OS, app, service that works for them but the outcome is that (in our case) they document the lab session according to the requirements as set by the lecturer.
    • By basing the design of the activity on outcomes it means that while some students can do everything with a $700+ tablet, others will be able to do the same thing (in our case) with a digital camera and an old laptop. For activites that require accelerometers, GPS, 3G etc, these features can now be found in tablets as cheap as $200 or less (e.g. 9.7" Amicroe or higher end 7" tablets).

What about the apps and services?

As mentioned above, if we based the activity around the outcomes, describing only the upper layers or affordances of technology it means we don't lock students into a particular platform or app. We, for example ask students to:
      • Take digital photos of your favourite architecture (rather than "Use your (device name and app name) to take a photo.
      • Submit work digitally (does not assume artefacts are created digitally, they may be converted later). Rather than "Use (app specific instructions) to post your (app specific work) to the lecturer"
      • Document your lab session using descriptions, images, tables, equations and submit digitally to the lecturer. Rather than "use (app name) to record you lab session, adding tables using (app name), and export to PDF using (app name).
So rather than specify the apps students should be using, we apply the BYOD philosophy to the apps as well - BYOA. Thats not to say we can't make suggestions about what device and apps can do certain things. We can't expect students new to the platform to know all the options available to them. But it does mean that we can put forward the one goal, while suggesting a number of options that could be used to achieve it. Going further - we can ask the students to discover and make recommendations to the whole class, this has the added benefit of us not having to know all the possible devices and apps out there but learn about them anyway through our students. And as with BYOD, if a particular curriculum goal needs an app found only on one platform - and there are enough devices in a cohort to break the cohort up into groups, then Devices Based Rainbow Groups can be formed to overcome that access and equity issue. For blended cohorts where some students are at a distance and possible geographically on their own this may be a challenge. Unless its possible for the student with the device to conduct that bit of work with their device/app and feeds the results back so the group can continue to work on the results, respond to predictions, etc.

Providing App options

For a lab notebook we wanted an app whereby the student could write up the experiment as the went, and use the tablet to take photos along the way, draw equations, and embed tables. Some of the apps I looked at that might make good electronic lab notebooks were:

First a note on the app that can do it all: I couldn't find one, maybe looking for the perfect app is a red herring. Instead, we are more likely to find a collection of apps/services that together provide some or all of the functionality required to complete a task - perhaps we need to finish off a task in a desktop environment. At this time tablets and smartphones are still relatively recent so there hasn't been a lot of time to fully explore the potential of these devices - but it's fair to say that one day they will rival low end PC's in terms of power. At the moment they are great for consumption and capture - not so great for curation and creation. This is changing as evidenced by expensive devices like the later gen iPads and the Samsung Galaxy Note series of devices (I use a first gen 5" Galaxy Note and I find it a very capable content curator and creator). However traditional platforms are still a superior platform for creation of content. 

With this in mind here are some Android apps (iOS has a solid base of apps, so I'm not worried about finding decent apps on that platform) I found while looking for a replacement paper lab notebook:
  • Evernote
    • This was the first app we tried - we assumed it would fit the bill - and the test was going well - until... I found that images I took with the camera were not put inline with the text I had written. But is this a deal breaker? Probably not, I could still use this app to take notes, use the camera app to take pictures, the office app to make tables, and even paper for equations etc and take a photo of them too. I could then put it all together on my desktop. Just because the one app can't do everything probably doesn't matter.
  • Kingsoft (
    • I don't know why I didn't try the many Android office apps first! In terms of mixing various media and formats in one document this app beats Evernote. It provides the basic office features but is designed for tablets. This means, among other things, you can embed a photo in realtime (using the tablet camera and without leaving the app) and you can insert drawings (done with your stylus or finger in real time). Due to the standard office features you can also embed tables, and adjust fonts etc. It's cloud enabled too, so you can send your document to email or Google Drive, etc.
  • Papyrus
    • This is a handwriting app and works well for that. But again images were not embedded inline, and it can't use a keyboard - virtual or physical. It's designed for freehand writing. Which makes it great for equations, hand writing, and other freehand tasks but you would need other apps for other tasks.
  • I tested a bunch of others with limited specific functionality (photos/photo captioning/note organisers/etc).

So, going forward

So, what do we have now? On Android we can suggest freehand apps, photo apps, typed note apps, other chemistry related apps, and an app that comes close to being able to bring most of that together in one app. I can almost guarantee that if I found this capability on Android it will exist for iOS and probably more so. We can then leave it to the students as to how they want to work and what they want to use.

What we give students in terms of instructions is what we want from the lab report with some ideas to get started, rather than what devices and apps to use.


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