Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clicker alternatives and a New Year's wish.

Classroom response systems, aka clickers, are a great way to provide some interaction and student-centeredness to a large lecture hall class. Even in smaller classes, these systems can provide useful feedback to both instructor and student as well as providing stimulus for discussions. They are expensive though, and I always have my eye out for alternatives. Recently I've found two that can be had for free, but with major limitations.

The first is from Microsoft. They have developed the Interactive Classroom for Powerpoint plug-in, available as a free download It seems like a well designed system. Instructors can put questions up right on a Powerpoint slide, start and stop when the question is open for responses, and immediately display results. You can even spontaneously pop up questions on the spur of the moment. There are two limitations, on the instructor side it only works with the latest Windows version of Powerpoint, 2007. The second limitation is that all the respondents must be connected to the network, and have Microsoft OneNote installed. OneNote is bundled with the version of office available to our students, but except in our Windows teaching labs, and maybe some classes in the College of Business, it's far from likely that every student in a class would have a Windows computer available.

A more likely scenario which uses devices almost all students have in their possession, is Poll Everywhere. The instructor side is entirely web based, so you can use it on either a Windows or Macintosh. On the response side, you can use any device that can access the web, via a web page or Tweet, and also regular phone text messages, a modality dear to the heart of college students. Between laptops, notebooks, smart phones, iPod Touches, iPads, and regular cell phones, almost every student would likely have some device that could respond. Each individual question is set up as a poll, but you can group polls and move from one to another rather easily. You can choose to view a "static chart" that just displays the possible answers and the codes needed for submitting, and when you've received all the responses, switch to a "live chart" which displays the results. Polls can be embedded in a Powerpoint slide. The big limitation with Poll Everywhere is that it's only free with up to 32 respondents. There are paid plans that allow up to 1000 respondents per poll, but they're not exactly cheap. $399 per semester for each instructor. (This would actually be cheaper than we're paying now for eInstruction's CPS System). There are also plans where each student subscribes for $14 apiece for a semester for each class.

It should be noted that there are some features available in the classic clicker systems not available on these. The most noticeable one is that it is not recorded who responded to what. You get the interactive benefits in class, but lose the ability to track how students are doing, as well as using it as a way to record attendance. The other issue is the question of whether every student would have a compatible device, and if that were a basic free cell phone, a text messaging plan that wouldn't cost them extra to use it.

It would really be great if someone created an open source solution for this. It seems like it would be within the capabilities of the Plone content management system which we use on our campus, although it would probably require some special scripting or workflows to make it workable. (You know who I'm talking to here).

The system would probably have to be web based. Eliminating text message responses would reduce the universality as with Poll Everywhere, but I think it would still have a lot of application. For example, in our College of Nursing, all students are required to have a smart phone, and in several nursing classes I've been in recently, every student had a laptop open (following the instructors Powerpoint, I might add). I'd be willing to bet it's not unusual to see College of Business classes where everyone had a laptop, netbook, ipad or smart phone, and likely upper division science courses too. And keep in mind, the price of admission here would be as low as a refurbed iPod touch, which college kids could also find lots of other uses for, and who knows how cheap Android devices will get. If the system was free otherwise, and lots of instructors adopted, I'd bet it would encourage students to get some kind of device to make use of it.

The basic system would consist of a series of one question polls. A sophisticated Plone user could probably rig this up without special scripting, but to make it widely applicable, I think some special tools to simplify it would be necessary. The nature of the questions would primarily be multiple choice, but numerical entries and text entries would be useful too. The Instructor would have to be able to move to a particular question (from a menu maybe), make it active to receive input from users, and stop it from being active. When they had received all the input, they would then display the results, perhaps as a graph or a histogram in the case of numerical answers (This would be a great way to demonstrate a normal statistical distribution).

On the client side, you'd probably want to strip it down to all but the essentials needed to vote, since you might have as many as 200 users logged into the wireless network. If the users were on mobile devices a special CSS for them could do the trick, but I'm not sure how you'd do it for regular laptop users, maybe having one display for the page owner, and a different simpler display for the rest of the world. It would be great if they didn't have to move to a different page to go to a new question, that is, it would just update as the instructor moved to a new question.

I'm sure Plone stores survey results, so the instructor could later review how the class did, but it would probably be difficult to track who voted how without creating an account on Plone for each student. I'm not sure how much this would clog up the server, but we spend enough on conventional clickers that it would probably be worthwhile for a specific Plone server just for this purpose to be set up and connect it to the LDAP server.

If this could be set up as a Plone "product," I'm sure we could see some widespread use of it around the country, and it would probably be a sure conference presentation, and of course it would be the ultimate of cool.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rhythm Guitar Therapy

I've played guitar since I was thirteen years old. In college, I was an active local folkie. Except for one spontaneous coffee house performance in the late '70's, and accompanying Christmas carols at a pack meeting, I hardly touched it for the rest of the century. Then, in 2001 Sarah and Andy gave me an American Standard Telecaster, and a year later a Marshall amp. I've been a regular basement rocker for the last decade. (They're also responsible for moving my listening habits from Classic Rock 'n Roll to the harder, metal edge–Loud Rock according to Andy's title at his college radio station.)

There are three impetuses for this post.

The first is my friend, George Possley, with whom I played and sang regularly in college. George recently retired from being a higher education techie and former math teacher, and has set about his life's dream of being a recording star. Accordingly, he posts a daily song to YouTube on his channel Geoman7447. George wondered in a Facebook comment on my wall what I sounded like now and encouraged me to record and post something, OK, here ya go, George.

The second was a blog post by Lisa Golden last fall about why she blogs. My take away from that post was that to really follow through with any creative process , you have to put it out there for an audience to chew on. Thanks for the nudge, Lisa.

The third was an article this weekend in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about an upcoming performance by Los Straightjackets. One member of the band stated that they had been moving to a more punk, metal sound. I have always described my guitar playing as surf punk metal and I wanted to establish my precedence as surf punk metal hero.

So I recorded the piece below sometime in November. It's through a Line 6 Pod into Audacity on a Mac Book. This is the fourth take. I tried different settings of amp type and effects, but they all ended up sounded much the same once I fiddled with them to sound like me. I'm not sure which guitar it was, either the black Ventura or the Warlock.

The basic riff is one of the first things I learned to play on the guitar.

Listening to the playback, I get the impression that this is a long rhythm part in search of a lead. From the title of the post, you can see I consider myself essentially a rhythm guitarist.

One of the things guitar magazine editorials always encourage the beginner to do is follow their own style. I've always been of the opinion that you really don't have much control over it, a style is going to emerge once you start doing something with enough facility to not have to concentrate totally on the mechanics. I should mention that I've been taking formal lessons for three years, and it's starting to stick, and by the time I retire, I may have the confidence and skill to approach other musicians to play with, but, I don't think it has had much influence on what you will hear here. That having been said, if this sounds like something you might think it's fun to play drums or bass to, give me a call.

It might fall into the category of what Sarah occasionally characterizes as more fun to play than to listen to, most commonly applied to Yingwe Malmsteen and Steve Vai.

So here it is, my riff on Rebel Rouser–Nick Dvoracek raw and unfiltered. I don't think I'm the kind of rebel Duane Eddy had in mind.

Rebel Rouser (MP3, 4MB, 4:18)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Better handouts, fewer dead trees

One practice that wastes a lot of paper yet doesn’t yield any benefit is printing Powerpoint presentations one slide to a sheet of paper.

One real downside is that it creates quite a stack of paper. Who needs to carry around 36 sheets of paper when you could get away with six. Another problem other than the simple mass of the extra paper is the hassle of leafing through all those pages to review the presentation.

When you go to print a Powerpoint file, there’s a “Print what” menu. The default is “Slides” meaning print one slide to a page. If you pull down the menu, you’ll see a choice for Handouts. When you select that just to the right is a choice for 2, 3, 4, 6 or 9 slides per page. 2, 4, 6 and 9 fill the page with reduced size versions of the slide. 3 only fills half the page with slides, and fills the other side with lines for writing notes.

A common response is: How am I going to read slides that are reduced that much in size?

There are two things that compensate for this reduction. One is that the type size for a Powerpoint presentation is typically in the 32 point and up range. The type you normally read on a page is 10 or 12 point so although six slides to a page is reduced from the size that you need for the whole audience to read, the type on the printed page is pretty much what you’re used to. Legibility studies show that readibility on a printed page is much better at 10 to 12 points than at larger sizes.

The second control is that the printer has much higher resolution than the projector you use to watch the presentation in class. The projector is probably 1024 x 768 pixels (There is some variation, but that’s been the standard for about 8 years). At the average laser printer’s resolution of 600 dots per inch, thats only about 2 x 1 1/4 inches, so the 3 x 2 1/4 reproduction you’re seeing on a six-to-the-page handout is actually more detail than you see in class.

Another thing you can do to make a better handout and be more sustainable is the Color/greyscale menu just below the Print what menu. (Output on a Mac) The default is Color which is pretty obviously reproducing exactly what you see on the screen, although you’re probably printing on a black and white laser printer, so what you get is a grey scale interpretation of the color image. Unless the presenter was pretty careful in keeping the contrast up, that could make a difficult to read print.

The second choice under Color/greyscale is Greyscale, kind of a confusing choice for the menu item, but what it does is drop out any background color of the slide to just white paper, changes the color of any text created in Powerpoint to black, and reproduces any graphic or photo to a grey scale rendering. So basically you get high contrast, easy to read text, and exactly the same information for any illustrative materials, and you save a lot of toner and wear and tear on the printer.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

iPad mania

One of the weird things about learning technologies is the way new things pop in in fits and starts and dominate your life for a while. Some become so mainstream as to be almost invisible. Desktop Publishing came in the '80's, Presentation software (dominated by PP of course) and course management systems in the '90's, student response systems (clickers) in the oughts were exciting new developments. Now the stream is pretty continuous. The latest splashy new toy is the iPad. It's one of the most successful product introductions ever, and now we have to see what we can do with it in education.

There's no question it's the most comfy, intuitive way to surf the net. Yes, yes, I know, no flash. That is irritating, but it's surprising that after a tiny bite of disappointment when encountering a non-functioning flash object, well, you just surf somewhere else. The web is a big place with lots of shiny things to look at. I'm not a gamer, but I've read that the iPad and it's little sibling the iPod Touch are making big inroads as gaming applications. There's no question that the iPad has gotten more press than any other single product ever. It gets 786 million hits on Google versus 679 million hits for Windows 7.

So what can we do with this in education.

Well, personally, and I'm not an instructor, I'm using it mainly as a PDA (a '90's term, Personal Digital Assistant); staying in touch with email and calendar while on the go. (It's also nice to whip open and have something to read while waiting for Windows 7 to reboot while installing something in a classroom, which I inevitably have to do in the beginning to of the semester.) An objective of mine for the iPad is to not print anything that's been sent to me as an email attachment when going to meetings. (I do still carry a pad of paper to take notes.)

I have a personally purchased one of my own at home which my wife and I refer to as the source of all knowledge. We use to refer to our iPhone that way, but that's become mostly a road tool since we got the iPad, although it's not unusual to have one of us on the phone and one on the pad at the same time.

In order to find out what kind of teaching/learning affect it can have, we used some money available on the happy end of end-of-the-year accounting to purchase five iPads and some software and projector connectors to loan out to faculty for one month and have them report what they made of it. Since payment for apps is tied to an iTunes U account, it took a while to figure out how we could pay for apps, while not leaving a University purchasing card available for our borrowers, but that got worked out and it leaves it possible for borrowers to install free apps (and even pay for apps if they want–they would still be good for installation on another iPad if they acquire one themselves after our loan period, but they'll be wiped from ours before going to the next instructor.) We did include the pretty sweet iWorks suite–Numbers, a spread sheet, Keynote, presentation, and Pages, word processing and layout–and a connector to display it on a classroom projector.

If this sounds like an announcement to solicit participation in our little project, its too late. The announcement hit the Announcements email list, which I have to mention isn't closely monitored or even subscribed to by a significant portion of the population, at 4:00 on last Friday afternoon (Were you at your desk monitoring email at 4:00 on Friday afternoon?) The five available iPads were spoken for in under 5 minutes, and we now have them reserved well into the next semester.

I'm not sure if we can scarf up more money to add to the project and I'm going to wait for the reports of the first wave before I even try for that. I can't wait to see what they're going to come up with. I suppose they could just say they used it to watch YouTube in their office, but I'm hoping they'll come up with some interesting uses that affect teaching and learning.

But it has gotten my imagination going.

About ten years ago we bought a portable computer lab. Ten laptops on a cart with their own wireless access point. Instructors had been complaining that they couldn't get into one of the three teaching computer labs on campus when they needed to, and besides, what they wanted was for small groups to have a computer to work with, mainly to seek resources on the internet to inform discussions. That failed pretty miserably because we could get about an hour and a half use on a battery charge, and it took four hours to charge up, not to mention somebody had to carefully connect each computer to the power supply back at the classroom technology office. (Distribution was limited to two adjoining classroom buildings, but they account for about half of all classes.) This meant only one class could use it each day. Also, since for efficient battery charging, they had to be shut down, which meant they had to be started up in class, taking up a few extra minutes. It's not the first thing you think of, but they also had to be handed out and gathered back up, taking up a few more minutes. If the class didn't get them packed up, one of our staff had to do the cleanup, tricky to do in ten minutes between classes, especially if you have other deliveries scheduled. There was the obvious security issue. Did the instructor count to see if all the laptops were actually put back in the cart? This never actually happened, but there was no control to cover it other than the vigilance of the instructor.

OK, fast forward 10 years and change the laptops to iPads. An iPad can easily get 11 hours of use out of a charge that only takes about an hour, they weigh 30 percent what a laptop does, and they come on instantly, and don't require shut down, and wireless is available everywhere on campus. We could even set them up so they didn't require any log-in to the wireless network.

The security issue is kind of amplified though, thanks to the extreme portability and desirability of the iPad, and– it's not a computer. If you're trying to teach how to use Photoshop or Indesign, it's not going to work. A lot of internet applications don't work on them–for example, I can't edit this blog post on it and the text editor in D2L doesn't work.

However, many internet apps do work–I can post to Facebook and even older discussion boards–and as noted before, it's the greatest way ever to surf for information to inform discussions and fill out reports in small group situations. And there are lots of special purpose free apps that could have instructional value.

If we did this we'd have to find some creative way to solve the security issues, and someone would still have to take class time to hand them out and gather them at the end of class. I'm not going to pursue this idea unless I have a pretty good idea that instructors would like to use them in this manner.

If you substituted iPod touches for iPads, it would be even more portable. You could get 15 of those in a small briefcase. They also cost half as much. Again as noted above, before I bought the iPad, our iPhone was the source of all knowledge and the iPod Touch is pretty much the same device until you want to make a phone call. Would these meet the kind of objectives instructors have in class?

This leads me to the thought, that since small groups are the target users, is it possible that enough students in the average class have smartphones of some kind in their pocket to meet this kind of objective, eliminated our need to make the expenditure and manage their distribution?

I've never had much luck getting comments on this blog, but to quote one of my favorite bloggers: Wise and worldly readers, do you have any ideas how iPads could be applied to teaching and learning?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bring 'em in

One of the changes I'm most excited about this fall is that all our classroom computers now have built in cameras and have the videoconferencing software Skype installed. Almost every faculty member has colleagues who are either experts on some topic you cover, or are teaching a similar class at another institution. Bringing in guest lecturers has always been a great way to engage students, but it was pretty inconvenient and expensive. Connecting classes at different institutions to compare or collaborate on projects is another rather engaging idea. Desktop videoconferencing lowers the bar to accomplish these objectives to almost negligible levels.

Skype is a commercial outfit that makes money by interfacing the internet with conventional phone lines which allows them to charge less for international calls, and allows travelers to make international calls from wherever they're connected to the internet. Luckily this doesn't have anything to do with the video-conferencing end of the business. All computer to computer calls, whether video or audio only, are completely free.

To make a video call, you need some sort of camera, but as mentioned, all the classroom computers at UW Oshkosh have one installed. For your guest's connection at the far end, many laptops come equipped with a camera, and an external camera that's pretty good quality can be had for $40 at Target.

We've had a few instructors work this into class in the past few years.

Barb Benish in Journalism has had several alumni from their program who have gotten jobs in the field skype into her class (do you have to capitalize it when you use a proper noun as a verb?) to discuss what they actually end up doing in the real world, and how the class content prepared them. How's that for validating learning objectives?

In the current presentation environment, it's pretty common to want to accompany the human presentation with a presentation or demonstration on a computer. Skype makes that pretty easy with a Share Screen function. You lose the video while the screen is shared, but it's easy to switch back and forth at will, and while the distant guest is sharing their computer screen, they can still see and hear the video of your class. Jodi Carlson in Career Services has brought in a vendor into class to demonstrate software that the students need to use and we have a similar event planned for Becky Cleveland in Nursing.

Dating from before Skype, when we had to have somewhat rare and expensive special videoconferencing systems at both ends, the Economics Department set up a partnership with a similar class at the University of the Pacific in Lima, Peru. The students worked on parallel projects, with small student groups communicating and eventually holding a mock trade negotiation at the end of the session. (It was handy that they're only an hour later than us so they could meet at normal class times.) While there are still some advantages to these high end video conferencing systems, Skype could now accomplish everything we did in those sessions for the cost of a web cam, and you don't have to arrange for us to bring in the video conferencing equipment.

In another example of pre-Skype days using the higher end video conferencing system, Paul Van Auken brought in the author of one of the books the class was reading. The author traveled to Eau Claire to utilize a video conference facility at UWEC. Now, the author could probably have stayed at his home in New Auburn (or anywhere else with a moderate to fast internet connection.) This year the Miriam Toews, author of the Common Intellectual Experience book, cannot make to campus as we have done with prior years, but we plan to have an event connecting over Skype later this fall. I wonder if we could have gotten Steve Martin in a Skype call when they did Picasso at the Lapin Agile last year?

Outside of class, Skype is a great way to be involved in meetings you can't physically attend. Last spring my colleague Kerry Huberty was afflicted with a broken foot. We were both going to attend a meeting in the College of Ed and Human Services on a cold rainy morning on which it would have been a definite problem for her to cross campus on her little medical scooter. I just walked into the meeting, whipped out my laptop at the end of the table and connected with Kerry on the other side of campus. The meeting proceeded pretty much normally with the benefit that we could continue to deal with the agenda that required Kerry's input.

I gave a presentation with desktop video conferencing to a conference in Toronto a few years ago. My co-author AnnMarie Johnson was physically attending the conference, but I was really the main presenter. She connected her laptop to the internet and the projector, and I delivered the presentation. Being able to see my audience really made a difference. If you've ever been a presenter with a "webinar" system where the audience can see and hear you, but the only communication back is a chat window, you know that can be a pretty strange experience. Even a low resolution video image coming back gives you the feedback to know if the audience got your jokes or simply if they are paying attention. I was surprised how easy it was for me to see raised hands and converse with attendees during the Q and A.

More than a few job interviews have been conducted by departments on campus via Skype.

Skype has an option for audio-only calls with up to 20 participants. Lenore Wineberg in Curriculum & Instruction has used this to allow her students to participate in elective out-of-class discussions on the course material. John Zarbano of Radio-TV-Film/Theatre used a similar method to meet with his on-line summer class. It's also a great way to have office hours available for distant students.

In order to use Skype, both parties need to have a Skype account which is as as easy to set up as any other internet service, and you have to have the program Skype installed (already on all our classroom computers). It's available for every kind of computer and actually as voice-only on many smart phones. To make contact, you exchange your Skype user names, which get added to a contacts list. Calling is a simple matter of clicking on the name on the contact list and clicking a green button with a telephone icon on it. Skype, of course, has to be running on both ends, so it's a good idea to establish times via email prior to the video call.

The cameras on our computers are fixed to the computer, but at UW Oshkosh our classroom computers are on carts with wheels so it's pretty easy to turn it around to face the class and tilt the computer to frame the image the way you want. There's no zoom, but if you need a little more intimate contact, a student questioner can come closer to the computer.

Back in my days as a photography teacher, I had thought it would be neat to have my class talk to a famous photographer or museum curator. I wonder if I could have gotten them to take the time if I had a Star Trek transporter. Skype's not quite transporting our atoms across space and time, but it does a pretty good job with a picture and voice. I wonder who will be the first to bring in a Field's medal or Pulitzer winner to a class in Oshkosh? Dare we go for a Nobel laureate?

As usual, for UW Oshkosh readers, give me call if you'd like some help.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Media Services —> Learning Technologies

I've worked for 25 years for Media Services at UW Oshkosh, but no more. I'm not going anywhere, but we're changing the name to Learning Technologies.

If you think of the last time you actually held some specific media in your hand other than a CD or DVD (which are just digital storage devices), you'll understand the logic.

The last time I saw a 16mm film was appropriately enough at my predecessor's retirement party ten years ago. The last time I used an overhead transparency was simply as a prop to take the photo at the top of this blog.

It's been a long time since the point of our unit was to manage and play back media. Content is delivered from a variety of interchangeable digital storage devices, and most of it from the "cloud" of the internet.

Also, much of what we do now involves various kinds of instructor-student and student-student interaction that simply isn't associated with specific content-digital drop boxes, on-line discussion, clickers, video conferencing, etc.

The choice of the the new name, Learning Technologies, is part semantics and partly a no-brainer.

The semantic part involved the choice between Learning Technologies and Instructional Technologies. We thought Learning implied the more the active and interactive nature of what we support, whereas Instructional seemed to continue the old sage-on-the-stage philosophy.

The no-brainer part is that virtually every campus in UW System with a group that shares our functions has some variant of Learning Technology in their name.

We also had to change some of the names of some of the segments of Learning Technologies (I wonder how long it will take me to get used to using that name).

The group that supports use of technology in the the classroom has been know as Instructional Technology Services–way to broad a term–so we're changing that to Classroom Technology Services. They are expanding their support to include software and methods in face-to-face instruction, not just delivering and maintaining the equipment.

Television seemed a little 20th century, so Instructional Television Services will become Instructional Video Services.

The Instructional Resources Center (IRC) is a name I'm a little more invested in since I was coordinator of that unit for 15 years. Again, it was a little too broad, and in the past few years a lot of technologies fell under the moniker of the Instructional DEvelopment and Authoring (IDEA) Lab. The services offered by the IRC became concentrated on presenting in class and presenting scholarly work, as well as developing graphic materials for on-campus communication, so they will become Graphics and Presentation Design.

For several years we've been using the IDEA Lab as a designator of both the room itself and the support for some of the new technologies, but we're going to add the categories On-Line Learning and Interactive Media and Web Development to lead people more directly to those services, retaining the IDEA Lab name for the facility.

And before anybody mentions that the Authoring in the IDEA Lab name is kind of a nineties term, we're retaining that name because it's the one that just about everyone on campus knows and associates with us.

Although I've been aware for some time of the historical anachronism of the name Media Services, I've had a hard-to-define reluctance to change it. I didn't think the name was that big a deal since we were keeping up with a contemporary suite of services, and that organizationally we were in the right place–Media Services reporting to Information Technology reporting to the Provost and Vice Chancellor. (n.b. Notice that Polk Library is not in that chain, although we both eventually report to the Provost. We haven't been organizationally associated since the break-up of Enrollment and Information Services when John Berens retired in 2005.)

But I guess I must have picked up some marketing savvy in recent years. This summer I came to the stunning realization that every time I or someone in my unit introduced themselves at a meeting as being from Media Services, they always qualified it with "We're the Learning Technologies support unit." Duh!

Now that we've made the leap, I'm beginning to embrace the new name. Director of Learning Technologies sounds a little grand to my proletarian little heart, but if it helps people find and get the support they need, I can live with it.

Postscript: In a beautiful little example of irony, someone just came in to my office with a pile of overhead transparencies to be revised and reprinted. I guess none of us can escape our past.