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.