Doing math online (Module 5, ISTE-SS 6, 7)

Module 5 is about investigating ISTE Student Standard’s 6 and/or 7:

ISTE Student Standard 6: Creative Communicator – students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.”

ISTE Student Standard 7: Global Collaborator – “students use digital tools to broaden their perspectives and enrich their learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in teams locally and globally.”

When I read these descriptions and their corresponding indicators, the thing that stood out to me was that students are going to need a good way to talk math in a digital setting. Whether students are connecting with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures (indicator 7a), working with peers, experts or community members, to examine issues from multiple viewpoints (indicator 7b), contributing to project teams (indicator 7c), or collaboratively investigating solutions to local and global issues (indicator 7d), students will need to communicate complex math ideas clearly (indicator 6c) and choose appropriate platforms to do so (indicator 6a). This led me right to my investigation question:

What platforms can students use to talk math and do math with each other in an online setting? More specifically, what platforms would be better than typing in chat windows or video chatting and sending pictures of your handwritten work?

The short answer is: I didn’t find an interactive, online tool that I think is obviously better than chat windows/video and pictures, or even a clear winner among the tools I did find. They all have their pros and cons (or glitches). I’ll discuss a few of the tools that I want to keep playing with, but it will hardly even scratch the surface of what’s available. For 60+ online whiteboard-like resources, I will refer you to these two links:

The platforms I’d like to keep playing with are:

  • Ziteboard – an online whiteboard I tried it out after reading Kar Romkodo’s (2016) mini rave review in the comments here.
  • iDroo – a whiteboard with extra things like a function editor and chat window.
What I Wanted

It’s hard to even articulate what I wanted in my online, interactive space. I wanted a smooth feel. I wanted to be able to draw and type. I wanted a function editor so that x^2 + y^2 could look like x^2 + y^2. I wanted it to feel fluid as I transitioned between these functionalities.

As I played with some whiteboards, I decided that chat boxes are still beneficial, and as always, I prefer having sharing and permissions settings. With further play, I found that I want the eraser to erase whole brushstrokes (as opposed to erasing only the pixels that the eraser is covering), and yes, I want to be able to export my whiteboard image… (that’s not always standard?!)

What that Meant – a Stylus

I immediately realized that in order to get what I want, I will need a stylus. Without that, drawing math on an online whiteboard is, to me, an absolute no-go. Trying to draw an integral symbol (\int) or even a simple x with my mouse or touch pad just filled me with anxiety. I would never choose that over sending a picture of written work, which makes it hard to see myself confidently suggesting that a student use a whiteboard that way.

Unfortunately, adding a stylus removes a level of accessibility for these tools. Some college students already have devices with a stylus, but many don’t and it’s not something I’ve ever owned. I decided it was worth purchasing though, because I’ll be starting a math master’s program in the fall, and I will be doing the whole program as a virtual, out-of-state student. However, I don’t want a new computer that supports a stylus. Instead, for about 30-dollars, I found a highly recommended USB device that works on the laptop I have: Huion’s H420 Graphic Tablet. The stylus interacts with a little pad that plugs into a USB port and acts as a fully functioning mouse and then some, with the capability of converting your handwriting into text.

As I hoped, the stylus made a world of difference as I tried to draw math on various whiteboards, but the experience is still not as smooth as I wanted…

What I Found, Generally

Unsurprisingly, on all of the online whiteboards, drawing is not nearly as smooth as it is on a program like MS Paint. In particular, the online whiteboards can’t keep up with fast writing. As long as you are making a continual brushstroke, fast is fine. But the moment you start making multiple brushstrokes, you have to be careful; I can’t write at a normal speed on these sites. In comparison, when I’m on a computer program that supports drawing, like MS Paint, my normal-speed writing is just fine. Here’s an image showing slightly careless, normal-speed writing on both Paint and Ziteboard.

Of course, I could use a little practice to make my writing look nicer, but the difference is obvious. Online, my equal signs regularly look like the L shape you see in the first Ziteboard column, and the second Ziteboard column got really out of hand. This issue makes me want to scrap online whiteboards and instead do a screenshare so I can use a program like Paint, but that takes away the interactive piece. That might be okay, depending on the circumstance, but and interactive board was part of the point.

What I Found, Specifically

Ziteboard

In spite of the need to draw slow, there are a lot of great things about Ziteboard.

PROS:

  • Clean, intuitive interface.
  • Mirror view option: helps everyone on the board see the same section of whiteboard.
  • Laser pointer option: allows others to see where your cursor is.
  • Lock all: locks the current objects on the board, allowing you to erase and clear all without deleting those objects.
  • Add images to your board.
  • There appears to be a Slack integration if you’re using Chrome (details here), which I should look into considering what I loved about slack.com! (See this post for my thoughts on Slack.)
  • Text editor.*
  • Others can edit what you have typed. So if you type an equation in a text box and your collaborator wants to copy+paste that equation, they can.*
  • They have a really nice FAQ page here, which I think is worth highlighting.*

The main con is that it’s been glitchy for me on Internet Explorer – but everything is glitchy on IE, so I don’t blame them. (Which, who uses IE?, I know. I use three browsers and IE is among them; it’s the browser I use for anything related to my Digital Education Leadership (DEL) MEd program. When an interactive website isn’t functioning properly during our online class meetings, the first questions is always “what browser are you using?” and the answer is nearly always “IE.”) That said…

CONS in Internet Explorer:

  • Navigation button doesn’t work properly.
  • Side panel items work intermittently.
  • “Export whiteboard” won’t export.
  • Once you add text, the editing options don’t function as intended, but you are still able to edit the text.*

None of these things have been issues on Firefox, so I recommend using a different browser. But until I switch all my DEL stuff to a new browser, it’s something I’ll have to work around in IE.

Regarding what I said I wanted in a platform, there’s no typing and* no function editor and I don’t see a chat window, but what it does do, it does well (except in IE) and I think Ziteboard is worth recommending. If I don’t need to use a function editor, this is probably the site I will use for my future online whiteboard needs.

*Edit: Ziteboard saw this article and emailed me a very nice email! They let me know that there is typing, and honestly I should have known because there’s a text-size selector in the same menu as the brushstroke-size selector. To access the typing (on devices with a keyboard) you click to draw a dot, then simply start typing.

iDroo

iDroo, on the other hand, more of what I was looking for, so in a sense I feel like I can’t complain, but there are a few things I wish it did better.

PROS:

  • Function editor.
  • Text editor.
  • Chat window.
  • Import images.
  • You can move all items you create (including drawings) and edit any text/function.

CONS:

  • I can’t see a way to export your whiteboard, which is a big con, I think.
  • Again, IE is glitchy and I can’t copy+paste in iDroo when using IE. Being able to copy+paste is super important to me because after painstakingly entering the math in the function editor, I definitely want to be able to copy+paste it. Thankfully, this doesn’t appear to be an issue in Firefox.
  • Zooming in and out is very hard to control, in both IE and Firefox.
  • The header bar never goes away so the board-space is a tad limited.
  • You can’t edit text or functions created by other board users, which I think is a bummer. I don’t know if this would actually be an issue in practice, but it seems like something I would want to be able to do.  Edit: I’m wrong, you can edit a text or function box that someone else creates. But you can’t edit a text/function box that someone else is currently editing. (I use two accounts to play with these tools and I must have been coincidentally clicking only on text/function boxes that I was already clicked into on my other browser.) Initially I said I didn’t know why I wanted to be able to edit what others had typed, but I realized, as I said earlier, it’s nice because then you can copy+paste the math that others have entered.

iDroo doesn’t feel as smooth as I want, but I’m having a hard time identifying why. It could just be that there’s a learning curve, and with practice, transitioning between functionalities would feel more fluid. Nevertheless, it does actually have a lot of what I was looking for, and I think it’d be worth giving iDroo a shot for online math-collaboration.

Final Thoughts

The Huion Tablet seems like a great product so far. It is working exactly as I had hoped (minus wishing online sites kept up with fast writing) and I’m excited to try it out in a real collaboration. I am expecting that the tablet and interactive whiteboards will be beneficial to me in my math program, which leads me to believe that the stylus + whiteboard combo is worth exploring as a way to meet ISTE Student Standards 6 and 7, Creative Communicator and Global Collaborator. And actually, with the text and/or function editors, Ziteboard and iDroo may not even need a stylus to be good platforms, depending on your needs. Hooray for free tools!

Hmm…I wonder if there exists a keyboard/device that has only math related keys…? That’d be something.


References

Grech, Matt. (2016). 10 Best Online Whiteboards with Realtime Collaboration [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://getvoip.com/blog/2016/09/14/online-whiteboard-collaboration/

iDroo. (2017). Retrieved from https://idroo.com/

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2016). ISTE standards for students. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016

Romkodo, K. (2016, May 15). Re: 5 Free Online Whiteboard Tools for Classroom Use [Blog comment]. Retrieved from http://mathandmultimedia.com/2014/06/10/online-whiteboard/

Smith, C. (2017). Interactive Whiteboards. Retrieved from http://www.shambles.net/pages/staff/intwhiteb/

Ziteboard. (2017). Retrieved from https://ziteboard.com/