Sunday, May 15, 2005

Online alternatives to straight presentation

Let me begin with something I tried that worked pretty well with IE on a PC when I used it in my class a year ago. I will get to the lack of universality in a bit, but first let's consider this as is. This is a mini lecture featuring some of my Excelets, voice over, and transcription of the voice. (The first slide that comes up has algebra instead of Excel. The other two slides have Excel.) Like yesterday, this presentation downloads first. You can run the executable from the server and then it auto-installs after you click the OK button.

IF IE is not your default browser and you want to see how this works, temporarily set IE to your default browser before clicking the above link. To do this go to Control Panel, Folder Options, File Types, and then set the application for the htm and html extensions to be IE. You can reset to your preferred browser afterwards. Also recall that IE has the security bar that blocks content. You may have to click that bar to enable the content. This will allow the embedded realplayer to play the audio. When you click to the second or third slide, choose Open. This will enable the Excelet to display within the page.

Go to the Revenue Comparison slide. The Excel spreadsheet appears inside a window called an IFrame (which means it's actually being displayed in a separate browser window). The reason for using IE is that then Excel will display within the browser and the reason for using the IFrame is that the position of the size and the window can be predetermined. This falls under the category I call, "screen management." That is fairly important so the student can focus on what's central and not be distracted by sidebars.

Let's talk about the good and the bad of this slide. If you push the button within the spreadsheet area the graph moves. Something is going on, but what? You can play with that for a bit to try to figure it out on your own. Or you can restart the audio from the beginning and listen to it as you manipulate the graph. The audio is better than the text here because you can listen to the audio and manipulate the graph at the same time. So you can experiment on your own or experiment in a planned way as the narration guides you. The text transcription may seem like overkill. It is there for two reasons. First, it is useful for anyone who is hearing impaired. Second, it makes the page searchable for keywords. This is helpful if the pages are also used as a reference.

In fact, the text is not a really a transcription of the audio. The text was written first and then read aloud to generate the audio. I think I sound a little stiffer that way. It is hard for me to talk about the economics and think about that when I'm reading text off the printed page. But the stiffness notwithstanding, this might not be a bad practice for this type of content. Imagine if students made these things in a course project. An instructor might build up a nice multimedia glossary for a course in this manner.

The key for making this work pedagogically is that the Excelet has to convey some interesting bit of economics and then the voice over has to explain what is being conveyed. The two work well in conjunction. I think this is much better than the straight presentation. And it is brief. This is meant for 10 or 15 minutes max.

Now let me turn to the universal design issue. How do we do this? Well for starters, let's ditch the IFrame, because if we're going to continue to use Excel we have to expect that to launch as a separate application. My view is that now we'll have two windows. We can envision dividing the computer screen in half and have Excel (as representative of any application that that might be used for the student to do some work) in the left half and the browser which has the navigation elements, link to the Excel file, embedded audio player, and text transcription all in the right half. If you knew Javascript (I don't) you probably can get halfway with this simply by having the browser open to the correct size and position with the Javascript. If not, there needs to be some direction to get the two windows set up correctly. They shouldn't overlap so one can move from one application to the other without hiding any of the information. This won't look beautiful, but it is do-able and it is functional.

So now we have something that is fairly compelling and can be used regardless of the computer environment. What's next? Well, for starters we should ask whether the students will view this material. We've given at least a few carrots. In the next post we'll talk about the sticks.

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