Monday, June 22, 2009

Progressive disclosure or the dreaded build?

Since the mid-'90's I've been doing workshops training people to use Powerpoint and do it effectively and have had a web page with my workshop handouts and presentations. In the presentation I use to introduce the workshops, one of the things I recommend is the use of custom animation to introduce concepts on a slide as you get to them in your spoken presentation. Recently on a Physics Blog of all places, I saw a link to report of a study which found that using custom animation has a detrimental effect on learning!

Coincidentally, I was looking at my web site's Google Analytics today and noticed my Powerpoint page has been getting a few more hits than usual lately, so out of curiosity, I googled "Powerpoint instruction" to see where I landed. The last time I did this a couple years ago, I quit looking after 50 pages. Today, it was number four on the first page! I'm going to have to be more careful about what I'm shooting my mouth off about–and the first thing I thought about was this study about custom animation.

In an article titled "The Dark Side of Custom Animation" published in The International Journal of Innovation and Learning, Stephen Mahar, Ulku Yaylacicegi, and Thomas Janicki of the University of North Carolina Wilmington compared two classes who used the same recorded lecture with a synchronized Powerpoint presentation. One was set to present each element on a slide as it was presented, and the other to present the the whole slide at once. They found that students could recall more details of the slide presented all at once, than with the one progressively disclosed. (I've only seen the abstract and blog summaries of the article, but I've got an interlibrary loan request in for the whole thing).

My fondness for what I've always called progressive disclosure, long before Powerpoint existed, is based on several ideas.

Back in the stone age, probably the biggest abuse of overhead transparencies was to put practically your entire presentation on one transparency. They were relatively expensive, kind of bulky to drag around, and a bit of a distraction to change during your presentation (Although they were kind of fun to throw like a frisbee into the audience if you had a good stiff mount). The bad things about this were that regular typewriter type (12 pitch for you oldsters) was a little small to be read from even the middle of the room, not to mention the back row and it also gave the audience something to read while you were speaking. I'm pretty skeptical of the idea of multi-tasking, especially when the tasks are reading and listening. If I'm reading something, I lose track of what's being said.

I said earlier that people put their whole presentation on one transparency. Well it was more like an outline of their whole presentation, so when reading the outline, the audience was probably missing the full detailed story the speaker was saying. The same thing is true of Powerpoint. (If the text on the slide is exactly what you're saying, you're already doing badly enough that no technique is going to save your presentation).

You (again those of you old enough) may remember presenters attempting to do "progressive disclosure" by sliding a paper down the transparency revealing only what had been covered by the presenter. With illustrations we used to have multiple overlays which could build up to the complete visual. (I had an instructor in AV grad school who referred to this as selective revelation, which has a spooky religious sound to it). This is exactly the idea behind custom animation in Powerpoint.

In addition to missing out on what's being said while reading, the audience may skip ahead to the end, and start wondering about how you reached the conclusions, instead of listening to you explain how you did. Revealing on your slide the parts of an argument or process as you talk about them seemed to me to allow you to concentrate the audience's attention on what you were saying rather than having them get ahead of you.

In the age of Powerpoint, in many presentations I've found myself listening to a presenter expounding on a list of points on a slide, and realized I'm not sure which point they're talking about. Looking at the slide doesn't help me clarify anything, and I lose more of the spoken presentation reading the list on the slide. It seemed to me that presenting the slide one point at a time would keep me focused on the subject being dealt with right now.
My basic point is that I thought progressive disclosure, on an overhead transparency or with Powerpoint, concentrated the power of the projected visual to focus the attention of the audience, allowing you to develop a concept point by point. The Mahar et al study seems to contradict this.

I'm curious to see the slides used in this study. Were they just lists of bullet points, labeled illustrations or diagrams of processes?

Did the students have access to the slides after the lecture? Could it be a matter of better note taking from the static slide? Would they do better if given access to the slides after the lecture so they could concentrate on the presentation and have the illustrations to review later?

There is an alternative in Powerpoint that would preserve my need to know which part of a slide was currently being talked about, and to also have the entire slide available. One of the classes of effect in Powerpoint is Emphasis, whereby the element being acted upon is made to look different–one assumes more noticable–when it's place in the order is reached. Using this instead of the Entrance effect would help the audience stay synced between the spoken presentation and the visual on the screen, and preserve the enhanced retention effect the Mahar et al study seems to have identified. It wouldn't keep the audience from reading ahead, but maybe that's not such a detriment to understanding I thought it was.

When I get the whole article maybe I'll send some of these questions to the authors. Maybe they'll google themselves and find this blog and submit a comment!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How Conveeeenient.

The Church Lady always made that sound like a bad thing, but with instructional technology, making something more convenient can lead to benefits for learning.

I recently participated in a planning meeting for a daylong faculty development session to inform faculty what instructional technology tools are available and to encourage adoption. We talked about what added value these technologies gave to teaching. Things like better interactivity and engaging the wired generation came up, but when I volunteered convenience, the rest of the group was reluctant to include that in the list, but I've seen several instances where the initial impetus to adopt a technology was because it made something involved in teaching easier, and as a side effect, had a positive impact on learning.

An example that is dear to my visually oriented little heart is the use of Powerpoint to bring illustrative materials into lectures (notice I didn't say anything about putting a lot of text on the screen). I was a history major as an undergraduate. In five years (yes, I took five years), I don't think I saw a single map, chart, diagram of succession or picture of any historical figure or location during a lecture. Before scanners, the internet and digital cameras, in order to show a picture to your class, you had to schlep down to the AV department with a stack of books and periodicals, wait a week or two until they were done, probably pay a buck or so per slide, and then drag a slide tray to class with you, if there was a slide projector available. And then you only had one copy of the slide. If there was another lecture or presentation in which you wanted to use that picture, you had to either get another copy or remove it from your original presentation and hope you remembered to put it back right side up before you gave that lecture the next semester. With digital images, you can make as many copies as you need with a keystroke, organized into as many different lectures as you need and if you use network storage, you don't even have to carry anything to class. Not only that, but with presentation software like Keynote or Powerpoint, you can label and annotate and draw Officer Obie circles and arrows all over them. Associating a concept with a visual image is a powerful tool for retention. The language learning software Rosetta Stone builds vocabulary by associating words with pictures rather than with text rendering of English equivalents. This benefit to learning was always there with slides and overheads. What has made it more common in classrooms today is that it's easy. (I guess I am assuming there's a computer and projector available in the classroom–at UW Oshkosh, this is a valid assumption)

Another fairly recent example is GradeMark, an add-on to the plagiarism detection software Turnitin. It has a lot of features that offer convenience for instructors. It provides for on-line submission of assignments which are then accessible to both student and instructor on the web, so no one has to keep track of stacks of paper or files. The big thing that makes life easier for the instructor though is the comment library. Every comment you make is saved and available to be repeated with a menu selection. Since most commenting on papers consists of repeating the same criticism thousands of times, this is a great time saver. In a workshop introducing Grademark to a group of faculty, when we got to the comment library feature you would have thought we had given them a raise. Making it easier leads to more and more timely feedback from the instructor, which certainly has a positive impact on learning.

Group projects for students have been problematical requiring students to sync class, work and social schedules to get together. This is one case where technology making it easy can be detrimental to learning, or beneficial, depending on the tool used. Students very quickly discovered the divide and submit strategy. Any project was broken up into pieces, each student wrote a bit of the report, exchanged them via email and then somebody cut and pasted a Word document together and submitted it to the instructor. The method does provide the convenience of not having to physically get together, but really circumvented the learning objective, since there really wasn't much group work being done. Students dislike this method because they feel they're being judged on what might be the shoddy work of others and instructors don't like it because they can't tell who contributed what. On-line collaborative writing tools like Google Docs and Wikis provide the scheduling and shoe-leather-saving convenience, but more importantly to the learning objective truly allow the students to interactively work on a document as a group, and provide some individual accountability by maintaining a log of who did what.

Whenever a group of Learning Technology folks get together, it always comes up that in order to get faculty to adopt instructional technologies, you have to make it easy. I think they usually are referring to easy to learn. In the examples I've cited, there is some learning the instructor has to invest in, but once implemented, can make it easier to do things you been doing all along, and give your students a learning booster in the bargain.

Friday, June 12, 2009

You can't always get what you want, but....

Sometimes you do get what you want. This is a little bit of a long story involving the history of classroom technology and the sometimes labyrinthian budgeting of the University of Wisconsin System. The large lecture halls on our campus were some of the first rooms to be "technology enhanced," which means to have some sort of projector installed which will serve up the screen from an installed computer, the screen from a user supplied laptop, video from tape or DVD, maybe a document camera, and some way to control all these devices. At this point in history, some of them have been through one upgrade since being first enhanced in the early to mid 90's and are now due for another upgrade, and a couple for odd reasons have only been half enhanced (I'll explain as the story goes on). It seems like every time I have attended an event in a classroom in the past several years, I was grossed out by how dim the projectors were. In a statewide conference that we hosted last year, the presenters had to keep changing the lighting from "presentation mode" to "off" so the audience could get a decent look at the photographs in the presentation. I felt like everyone was looking at me wondering why the projectors were so lousy.

So, for the last few years, I've been focusing on upgrading these big lecture halls where so much instruction takes place.

I have to mention a lot of the smaller classrooms also really need upgrading too. (see an earlier post) The primary source for funds to install technology in classrooms is the Classroom Modernization Fund, which was established in the early 90's to enhance classrooms with the then new technology of digital projectors for computers, which could also project video, which had almost 100% replaced 16mm film by then, but until then almost had to be viewed on a television set, which made things a little tricky in large lecture halls.

Sometime around 2002, we started utilizing this money to replace computers and projectors which had been purchased with this fund. The number of classrooms which have projectors and computers in them has grown quite a bit, and in recent years, most of the Classroom Modernization Fund has been dedicated to replacing computers and projectors, and especially due to a perfect storm of funding to install new classrooms in 2002-2003, we currently have more equipment that needs replacing than the Fund can handle.

But, there are other sources of funds that can be used for Classroom Technology.

The Clow Pits are three lecture halls that have had special problems for installing technology. One of them was technology enhanced in the mid '90's. The stage area and most of the seats are only accessible by stairs, which means they're not ADA accessible, and if you want to remodel them they have to be made ADA accessible, but because of the way they're sort of buried into the ground surrounded by city and university utilities, this was so expensive to be out of reach, so there they sat without much technology. In the two rooms that had no installed technology, we put a projector on a cart in the front of the lecture hall, which worked OK, but it's inevevitable that when you say loose cable, you often also have to say risk management, and if the instructor didn't trip when wandering around the stage, they had the projector shining on them, and casting a shadow on the screen. Another issue was that we could get the projectors only so far from the screen, and even with an expensive wide angle supplementary lens, the image was a little small for the room.

Now these rooms had projection booths in the back from the era of 16mm projectors where we could place projectors (without "remodeling"), but a data projector needs about a 1/2 inch diameter cable running from the computer to the projector, and there is a distance limitation. This distance limitation could be overcome, but we're talking about even more expense. Recently, however, someone invented a relatively inexpensive technology where the video and control signal would be sent to the projector with Category 5 cables (your computer is connected to the internet with a Category 5 cable), which are much easier to deploy these kinds of distances than a proper video cable. Also about this time, the the video projector in the one of these lecture halls that been installed failed early in the semester, and because it required building scaffolding to get to the projector hanging from the ceiling, we had to put a projector on a cart in that room too.

This came to pass after the deadline for submitting Classroom Modernization Proposals for that year, so even if I did have money in that Fund, it would be a year and a half before we could make these improvements. Well, we also have the Student Technology Fee in UW System. Each student pays a certain amount that is supposed to be dedicated to increasing student access to technology. I had always refrained from addressing the Student Technology Fee for classroom upgrades, because the guidelines for that Fund explicitly exclude that type of use unless a committee composed of students (which we do have at our institution) decides that's what they want to do with it. The previous year they had decided to put aside 10% of the fund to purchase classroom technology in a new academic building which will open in 2011, so that seemed like they were amenable to this kind of expenditure. I made the proposal for these three problematic rooms, and they went for it! The upgrades took place last winter. Not only are the projectors more conveniently (and safely) located, and their controls were more consistent with what we have in other classrooms. but we also specified higher brightness projectors which put a very nice image on the screen even with the room somewhat illuminated.

I should say something about the brightness of projectors. The image in these big lecture halls is over twice as wide as the image in a normal classroom, so the light is spread over an area more than four times as great, and if the projector brightness is equivalent, it's four or more times as dim. In the past, high brightness projectors were available, but were four times the cost of a normal room projector, so we always had installed the same projectors in the lecture halls and just accepted that we would have to turn the lights almost off to see a good image. Considering that people still had memories of turning the lights completely off to view 16mm films and slides, that wasn't so hard to accept. Several things have changed since then. In the first place, the projector is in use for almost the entire class today, so sitting in the dark is more of a bother. Secondly, projectors are much brighter in general, and higher brightness projectors intended for these large venues are now only a little more expensive than the ones for normal classrooms.

Now to another set of lecture halls, this time two rooms in Halsey Science Center. The technology in these rooms had been installed as part of a building remodeling project in 2001. The outside vendor who did the installation frankly did a lousy job. We almost immediately replaced the portable projectors they had hung with heavier duty models, but those are now getting old, and as mentioned earlier, are kind of dim compared to new projectors. We also had a problem with the control system. The programming of the control systems in this case was done by the vendor, who retained the rights to the programming, so if it needed changing, we had to go to them to get that done. This is not an unusual arrangement, but it is getting to be less common. What really capped this off was the vendor went out of business without giving us the programming, so any change would require starting from scratch, which is a bit of expensive programming. Somebody dropped one of the control devices several years ago and we had quite a scare that we would wouldn't be able to recover this programming. Also at issue is that newer control systems now have less complicated programming which was easy enough to learn that our technicians could pick it up in a three day training session.

I had proposed improvements to these two lecture halls to the Classroom Modernization Fund, but before the time came for the committee to review that proposal, another of the UW System's funds entered the stage. There is a Classroom Renovation Fund, which in the past was distributed to the campuses annually, but now is distributed on an irregular basis. It allows for installation of technology, much like Classroom Modernization, but also covers a wide range of remodeling and infrastructure improvements that Classroom Modernization does not. Since it is the prime source of funding for these extensive remodeling projects, our Facilities Management group is loath to use it only for technology improvements. Last year, we received a larger chunk of this fund than we had been getting, and Facilities decided to use some of it to make the improvements to these two lecture halls that I had recently proposed for Classroom Modernization! (It turned out this had to be delayed a year, but the improvements will be done this summer) Five lecture halls down and three to go!

Now to the lecture halls in the Nursing/Education Building I had been embarrassed in that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They also had older, dimmer projectors, and also had older, although still working and reprogrammable, control systems. Complicating this one were limited inputs on the control system. These older control systems really couldn't add a new device. If you wanted to use a laptop, you had to take the video cable from the installed computer, and plug it into your laptop. In addition, we had added a document camera in there which had a feature where you could plug the computer into a port on the document camera and if the document camera was off, the projector displayed the computer, and when the document camera was on, it displayed the document camera. This allowed us to add the device, but to put it mildly, this was a sub-optimal user interface. More than a few guest speakers lost a chunk of their available time trying to get their laptop image on the screen.

Well, the Student Technology Committee had been so forthcoming with the Clow Pits, I made the proposal to them for these rooms. What a difference a year makes when working with a student committee. This year's committee not only didn't approve the proposal, they were a little offended that I even tried to take such advantage of them when I had other funds (however inadequate) for classroom technology.

But, the committee didn't make this decision for about six months after I had proposed it, and during that time I was pretty confident it would get funded. I began to worry about that last lecture hall, the largest one in Halsey Science Center. This was the first multimedia classroom and a big showpiece when it was first installed in 1992. The original design was pretty good. It's always been popular with faculty because it has two projectors. You can show a video on one and the computer on the other, or the installed computer on one, and your laptop on the other (this is the science building, ya know). We had replaced the projectors once and updated the control systems two years ago. but I worried if I got all those other lecture halls upgraded with new, brighter projectors, this room was going to look pretty dim. I had intended to make this my highest priority in the next Classroom Modernization cycle although that meant it wouldn't happen for a year and a half.

Enter the last budgetary player, End-of-the-Year Accounting! It's a little frightening when I think about it too much, but especially in Information Technology, there can be quite a bit of difference from what you plan on in a budget, and what you actually have to do with that budget. Happily some costs go down unexpectedly, less happily some staff leave and you have salary savings, and you always stick something in there in case something unexpectedly breaks, knowing that you'll probably have new needs you hadn't thought about if nothing does break unexpectedly.

This year, our IT division was on the happier end of that equation and at the end of the fiscal year we identified a good bit of money, and my boss decided to fund the Nursing/Ed project the Student Tech Fee had rejected and get to that big Halsey Lecture hall a year earlier!

There's some question about where the Nursing/Ed project can be competed this summer, but my wish to bring these lecture halls from their somewhat outdated condition to some pretty neat places to teach is going to be granted. In contradiction of Mick Jagger's famous lyrics, In addition to getting what the University needs, I'm going to get just what I wanted.

In case there's anyone still reading this incredibly long post, and in case any of you are UW Oshkosh faculty, start looking for pictures, videos and web resources to illustrate your lectures next year, because they're going to look really good.