Tuesday, May 29, 2007

iGoogle and the LMS

I continue to find that my preferred approach to discovery about all things technology is what I’d call “learning by futzing.” By this I mean I stumble onto something without trying to find it, then get curious, then try some things, then some search to learn more, and after a fashion I feel I’ve got a reasonable understanding and something to show for it. This morning’s example (that found itself well into the afternoon) was Gadgets you can make yourself for iGoogle (formerly Google’s personal page; don’t call it a portal). The two that I started with are first one that can store a sequence of YouTube videos that will play within the Gadget window and second a Gadget called Daily Me that could be used for Course Announcements. (Windows Live is a possible alternative to iGoogle but I didn’t see any gadget-like object you can make simply by filling out a form.)

Indeed, I started to think about using iGoogle as a way to deliver a whole bunch of Course Information. Some of this info would be Gadgets that are specific to the class, such as the ones I mentioned above. Others would be for tools that are more generic, like Google Calendar and Google Docs, that could be used in many different classes. (The specific calendar would be course specific and docs might carry a class tag and might have access controls on a class by class basis.) Here is a screen shot of what I came up with in short order.


Certainly my first stab can be improved upon with gadgets for bookmarks, images, and other external but course related content. I wasn’t trying to make the be all and end all with this effort, just a quick sketch of the possible. Having done that, I uncovered some challenges as well. Here are some issues with doing this for real.

1. It is very easy to export individual gadgets so others can put that on their own iGoogle page. I couldn’t figure out, however, how to export a whole page of gadgets in one fell swoop. So there is a bit of an issue of getting that whole page information out, including the layout. I don’t think this is insurmountable. But it is a tad clunky doing it one gadget at a time.

2. The various Google tools handle access control differently. For example, Google Docs allows one to give access via Gmail Contacts and then to use Groups for that (very nice). Google Calendar, however, appears to only allow access via individuals. Someone creating access, like me, might prefer restricted access to public access for a variety of reasons, but if each member of the class has to be added one by one, that’s a pain.

3. Incidentally on this, I was able to create a class group using email addresses from a course I had taught a while back, but I had to do some manipulations in Excel to import that into Gmail and I’m not sure that other instructors would be up to that.

4. The Banner on the iGoogle page takes up a lot of room. I’d like to squish it down so that more gadgets can show up. This issue about vertical space is something that Google hasn’t mastered. When some of the gadgets have video feeds or image feeds, they will take up substantial vertical space. My sense is that you should be able to get in about 6 gadgets (two rows of three across) in view without scrolling. Of course that depends on screen resolution. I design for 1024 x 768 – standard for laptop viewing. My font size may be larger than most, but if you can only get the gadgets into view by having miniscule font, you’re cheating.

5. The Daily Me gadget (Class Announcements in my example) doesn’t have a line for the time of the last posting, it should have that, nor does it have a way to archive previous postings, it should have that too.

So there is room for improvement. But what is there is not half bad, in my view, and I believe it does a better job than the LMS in terms of giving some useful information about the content in the various gadget windows without requiring a click through to get at that information. I’m betting that students would like this to be used for classes. Certainly, that would be an interesting thing to test.

There is one further obvious benefit from the approach, at least for when the student is working on his or her own computer, especially if iGoogle is set as the homepage in the browser. (That’s what I do at present.) Then the class page is just one click away – another Tab in iGoogle. That is quite convenient, more convenient than logging into the LMS. Consequently, for the content that the instructor is pushing down to the students it might very well be a better way to distribute that stuff.

I started to think of whether instructors who tried this approach would use the LMS in addition. Some, who are only using the LMS for content push to begin with might not, although if they have copyrighted content in PDF format this approach won’t do the trick and they’ll need either the LMS or eReserves. And if they want to track use, this won’t do the trick either.

Others who have been using the LMS quite extensively but have wanted a public space for their course as well might like this approach for the latter need. The widgets that aren’t just RSS feeds are extremely easy to manage. And the RSS feeds brought in this way might get more of a look by the students than if they are brought into the LMS course site in some fashion (e.g., by using RSS to Javascript and pasting in the result.)

I don’t have a good sense of how actual LMS use is divided between content push and more interesting pedagogical use. (I do know a fair amount of the use here is simply for the grade book function.) If you take the content push out of the LMS, what does that do to the demand for this type of environment? Ask the question again if online content push can be seen as a textbook substitute. Textbook publishers seem to like the restricted access form of distribution that the LMS enables, for example consider the Pearson buyout of eCollege, but the iGoogle approach may be more engaging to the students, in large part because the content can be dynamic and shaped by events, not fixed in advance.

I’m not as up to speed as I was last year about LMS vendor developments and how they might respond to content push efforts via iGoogle. I know that Blackboard has launched Scholar.com, but I don’t have a good sense of how that is faring. And I’m not well informed about what the other vendors are doing here nor about what the other open source LMS are doing here. Student-centric and particularly constructivist approaches to learning minimize the value of instructor content push. So Moodle, in particular, might not feel very threatened by this. I’m not sure.

If I were an LMS vendor (not very likely but for the sake of the argument let’s maintain the pretense) I’d be moving hard to differentiate the product away from the content push area and toward tools that have clear pedagogic benefit, or like my FSI session I’d argue that content push and assessment need to be melded in an effective way for which the LMS is well suited. But I’d also be worried because as a vendor I’d know less about my campus clients and their use patterns than I’d like. Further I’d worry because Google Apps, at least the standard version, is being marketed as a freebie so it’s hard to compete with that, especially as budgets for IT seem to be tightening.

Going back to my role as Dean for eLearning in the College of Business, I’m thinking about this purely from the convenience angle for students and instructors. And I suppose for that it comes down to whether iGoogle starts to get used for content push in other domains. On the student side, I think many of them are already using Gmail, so this is not such a stretch. On the faculty side, I’m less clear. It will be interesting to observe as this unfolds.

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