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I'm looking into holding my basic statistics class in a computer lab in the future to avoid a lot of the by-hand computing that happens in statistics classes. For example, very few students get anything out of the calculation of standard deviations or correlation coefficients by hand.

I'm looking for experiences of other math educators who have taught in a computer lab -- not speculation about whether this is a good idea. What were the unique challenges of teaching in a computer lab, and what were the most surprising benefits and drawbacks?

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I have been an IT/maths teacher, so I have spent several years teaching in a computer lab, and watched others use the room, sometimes very effectively, sometimes not so much.

I have recently seen some excellent computer based courses and now can not imagine teaching statistics (or calculus or physics) without regular access to a computer lab. It totally transforms what you are able to do with students.

But...

Teaching in a computer lab is an entirely different skill than most other kinds of teaching. I have seen very experienced and competent teachers totally lose a class, or at least a large portion of it, and not even know about it until things are totally out of control. Just as a lecturer learns to read a lecture hall to know what to do next, you will need to learn to read the computer lab.

To make matters worse, there are also some computer lab layouts that make it extremely difficult to work with as they are often designed to fit in a ton of computers rather than accommodate effective teaching. You will need to figure out how to use the space effectively. Computer labs are not interchangeable like regular classrooms or lecture theatres.

For students that "speak computer" fluently, they can use it to learn the material much faster and more deeply. The best students will be able to play with the computers and discover things faster than you can teach them. These students can create challenges you need to be prepared for. Do you have more advanced stuff for students to experiment with after they finish the lab work in 15 minutes? If not, it is dead boring for the students, and potentially disruptive for the class.

Then there are those that will spend the hour looking for the Start button... if they make it past the login screen! Do you have good TAs or student helpers available for those who just don't get it? Losing a student is unfortunate in a lecture, but near fatal in a computer lab, as catching up to the flow of the class is much harder, and the motivation smaller as there is always something to distract them at a computer. Nothing replaces 1-1 help. Organising students into small groups is useful at high school, but I don't know how it would work in your situation.

Try to have well designed activity sheets that students will be able to work through independently, and maybe have a manned tutorial session for students to catch up on what they missed in the lecture.

Make sure that the digital resources are well organised and easy to find, without diving through four levels of sub-folders. Make sure any printed resources match the current digital resources as much as possible - a wrong file name or hard to access sub-folder can throw the lesson for a surprisingly long time.

When you get to know how a computer lab works, you will get a feel for when to bring students' attention together for instruction, and when to allow it to run a little longer in tutorial mode. Don't be afraid to run it a little looser if you can see students are engaged and learning. The extra experimenting that they are doing may be more valuable to their understanding than cramming in the last bullet point of your planned class.

It will take a while to get right, and you may be constrained by the lab setup and other resources available, but I think you will find the payoff will be worth it.

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I see you teach university level courses, however, I think that my experience in a high school classroom may offer some insight.

I teach an introductory applied statistics class at my high school and I have made the transition this year to having students use of technology very frequently. Unlike you I have the luxury of having computer carts, so I get to choose when a student has a computer in front of them -- which has become more and more often. I would estimate that I allow students to use some form of technology to engage in statistical calculation at least 50% of class periods. If am not able to secure computers, I will allow students to use their cell phones to access various online statistics calculators.

I think the greatest benefit to this is that you can spend more time having students run through multiple examples and data sets. For instance, inquiry approaches to developing an understand of statistics are far more possible as computation is much quicker. Unlike in past years, by having user friendly technology (e.g. not a ti-83) I was able to cover the following introductory topics through investigation:

  • Outlier affect on measures of center
  • Comparing data sets based on measures of center and spread
  • Transformations on data sets and their affect on center and spread
  • Correlation coefficient

and I plan to use it extensively in my upcoming probability unit.

It has also allowed me to introduce estimation as a routine activity to encourage students to become familiar with the mental math of statistics -- something all of us who are familiar with statistics do. I ask students to make estimates of some statistical measure and then check their answer. This has helped them interpret statistics more easily by having a more fluent sense of what these statistics imply about the underlying data.

Computers if used well can help student see into the heart of these measures by preventing the actual calculations from becoming an impediment to deeper understanding. That being said, the calculations themselves offer insight into the value and meaning of a particular statistic. The temptation I have found is that with technology prevalent in my classroom, I am much more likely to decide that it not worth it to spend time manual statistical calculations and graphs. But these calculations do have their worth if presented properly. For instance, I also decided not to requires students to use a statistical table for the normal distribution by allowing students to use an online calculator. Some might argue however that there is value in using these tables in the same way that using a slide rule or abacus helps you develop intuition about numbers.

Technology can be just as procedural as manual calculation. As with all teaching, it largely comes down to how you use it.

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  • $\begingroup$ great answer! just to add, I know a teacher in my district at another school that teaches his class exclusively with computers, using Google Sheets to analyze data sets and create models etc. It seems to work really well for him and also give the students a chance to learn a very powerful spreadsheet application $\endgroup$ – celeriko Dec 10 '14 at 15:40
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I was a TA for a Probability class (which means that I had to do recitations and tutorials for a small group of students which are enrolled in a bigger class guided by a professor), my experience is that you need to be strict with students in the first few weeks, otherwise your students will end up in facebook or twiiter and not paying any attention to your class (I know because it happen to another TA of the same class). I usually started with 10 to 20 minutes of a lecture setting (that is, not using the computer but introducing the concepts first and then showing how the computer might help), after that I began by provide the students with a "lab guide" which contains an activity (which for this course, consisted in getting proficient with the R language) that took often an hour an a half to complete. My advice after this experience is that, you need to have a small group, and be ready to deal with students that are not tech-savy. The good things were that most of my students liked the material, and I provided guides to more material and activity guides that introduced new concepts for the next tutorial.

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I am writing as someone who has been a statistics student next to a computer lab. I think this was a great opportunity, because I could learn the statistics concepts in "class," then walk over to the lab and program them into a computer as soon as "class" was over. I couldn't imagine a better transition from "theory to practice" in any course than this one.

And the experience put students on notice that these applications were "live," not just out of a textbook.

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