Monday, June 30, 2008

ooVoo Chat with Shelli Fowler

In this chat Shelli and I cover first the nuts and bolts of using ooVoo and the cost of recording, then we turn to how it might work to use this for a guest speaker, and we wrap up with a discussion about students multiprocessing at their computer and whether students will view this type of content. It was really helpful for that part that Peter Doolittle from Virginia Tech had spoken here last January, because he did a demo on the multi-tasking issue, that said it just ain't so. So in doing one of these chats with a guest speaker, one might be tempted to make the conversation more complex to challenge the audience to pay attention. But that cuts against the grain of my own thinking that good instruction, and elegant presentation more broadly, should make the hard things seem simple, not vice versa.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Firefox 3, MS Word, and Web 2.0 apps

My habit has been to author my posts in Word, put in links and formatting there, use it for spell check and page length, and then when I'm reasonably happy with the document copy and paste into a Blogger post. The formatting is preserved mainly (Blockquotes are one thing that has to be put in afterwords and embedding a video is another). I've been doing that for a while and pretty happy with the process.

It no longer works with Firefox 3. For reasons that are beyond me, the copy no brings up all of Microsoft's specific xml crapola into the document and it ends up screwing up the formatting and making things icky. I wasted a lot of time yesterday trying to clean up such a document in a Wiki I was wokring on.

This seems like a step backword. I'd be interested in hearing whether other have had similar experiences. I may switch to IE as my primary browser, or even try Opera.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Online Video for Blended Courses – Balancing Competing Needs

I continue to believe that pedagogy should drive any learning technology implementation, but every once in awhile it is important to drill down on the nuts and bolts of the technology implementation. This post is about that, the various idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes one confronts in working through such an implementation and the compromises that have to be made along the way to get things to work, more or less.

We’ve recorded a seminar with a few students, are now in the process of taking those recordings and chunking into clips, more or less aligning the clips with subsections in the textbook and with the instructor’s PowerPoint presentations, and then displaying those clips along with other course content. Below I’m going to ask a series of questions that you might think of as determining requirements for the solution we’ve come up with.

Q: Where do the video clips reside, on a College server or an external host?
A: The decisive factor here was having complete control of content. We opted for having the College host. One implication is that our video is being delivered in Windows Media Format. The solution is also related to the next question.

Q: Are the videos password protected or open access?
A: We anticipate students coming from the LMS to see the videos and are designing that way. The students have already authenticated to get them into the LMS. We don’t want them to have to authenticate again, so for this coming semester the videos will be open, though we will try to make it impossible for Google searches to find them. In the future *perhaps* we can develop a trust relationship between the LMS and the Video host so we can get the higher level of protection yet with students not having to put in another password, but we won’t have that for this fall. I should note that the pay version of has the nice feature that you can make the video private but nonetheless embed it in a another Web page, such as this blog. (You can’t do this with YouTube.) This is the functionality we want but we opted for College hosting anyway because it is a big deal to go off campus with content that we want to control.

Q: How are text descriptions and related metadata of the video rendered? What software is used for that?
A: We toyed with using a new product called Ensemble, but ultimately we opted for embedding the videos within a discussion post in the LMS. (See this screen shot for a look.) One reason for this is that Ensemble in its current version links to a player that launches separately. We wanted to allow for an embedded player, to seem similar to other video experiences students are likely to have had.

Q: If students want to make a comment or ask a question about a particular video clip, how do they do that?
A: This is another reason for using the discussion post as the Web page where the video clip is embedded. A student can simply hit reply and ask a question right there. Otherwise, we’d have to have one area for the videos and another play for Q&A and it would be harder to tie the two together.

Q: How will students find the appropriate content for them to access?
A: For a first pass through at the content we will use the learning module structure that is in Blackboard Vista to arrange the content. When students want to review, however, they’ll likely find content via search rather than by browsing for it, particularly if they want only one clip or bit of content. Some of the content for the course will reside on a publisher’s Web site. There is no search solution that we are aware of that allows one search engine to find that publisher content as well as content inside the LMS site for the course. So we knew we’d have to deal with at least two search engines. We opted to go for two and no more. This is yet another reason for using the discussion posts. The search engine in Blackboard Vista does find the text in these posts.

Q: Any other tips of adjustments you want to mention at this point?
A: We found the ShowStatusBar attribute of Windows Media player and enabled that. In the screen shot it has text in pale blue on the left saying “Paused” and on the right indication the time played so far and the total time of the clip. This is a nice functionality that we think is important, particularly letting the student know how long the full clip is. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to function well. The status bar sometimes doesn’t appear. I don’t know why.

Q: How is accessibility being managed for the video content?
A: We’re still working on this. The current thought is to produce and open caption alternative that is launched in a separate player, and produce the captions below the video rather than as an overlay. But captioning is a time intensive activity – about 8 to 10 minutes per minute of video. So we may not have the content fully captioned when we roll this out for the fall.

Q: Are there other accessibility issues to be considered?
A: The previous screenshot shows content that is rendered via a Table. Current Accessible Web Design suggests use of Cascading Style Sheets instead of tables. Here is an example using CSS as an alternative. Looks at where the Reply and Forward Buttons appear. Also, look at how the tan background is all broken up. We’ve not yet figured out how to use CSS without producing this sort of result. And if we can’t solve this, we’ll use the Table formatting and then perhaps post the caption video in a different message that just has that has a simpler layout.

Q: I see that you are doing a rate the video with an external polling tool, What is that?
A: First, YouTube has a simple rating scheme for each of its public videos, and most other video sites have imitated that. So we thought we’d do that too. We’re curious to know whether the students take the time to click that. Second, we wanted the students to rate the videos but not rate the comments of the other students. There is a built in rating scheme in the discussions within Blackboard Vista that could have been enabled, but if it is, it is active for all replies to posts.

Q: Are there any final thoughts you want to mention?
A: We’ve designed this to a screen resolution of 1024 x 768. It should work ok at higher resolutions, indeed the CSS screen shot was taken at a higher resolution – it just means everything will seem smaller and there will be more stuff on the screen. But someone who wants a lower resolution may be disappointed. Also our videos are rather large – 640x480 when they were capture, shrunk to 600x450 as they are rendered. This makes the managing screen real estate problem harder. Smaller videos would be easier that way, but we think they’d be less compelling to watch.

Further, it is clear we’ve not yet reached the point where an instructor could do all of this on his own, unless he was quite technically proficient and had a lot of time on his hands. There are a lot of small detail things that need to get decided and most instructors would give up before they’d have a satisfactory solution. Let’s hope it gets easier in the future.

ooVoo Chat with Blaire Bundy

Blaire works for Academic Technology@DoIT at University of Wisconsin and is a colleague from the CIC Learning Technology Group. Our conversation was mostly about using video interviews for generating content that learning technologists would promote, in lieu of face to face interviews for the same sort of content.

Monday, June 23, 2008

With Apologies to Ed Sullivan

It's a really big shoe!

Big Brown was a 2:5 favorite in the Belmont stakes. You could make some good money betting the entire rest of the field if you knew Big Brown wasn't going to win, place, or show.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

PowerPoint as HTML in LMS

Instructors who post their PowerPoint presentations to the the LMS in advance of class do so in anticipation that students will print out the slides and bring to class, so the students can take notes and make annotations directly on those print outs. Indeed this may constitute the single biggest use of the LMS, as an electronic file distribution tool for students to view content offline.

But suppose a course is converted to a blended format where some of what used to be done in live lecture has been moved online. For example, suppose the lecture has been video recorded and the recording is distributed online, either in toto or as a series of clips interspersed with other content. And suppose that some of the online content is PowerPoint presentations. Students might still want to print those out on paper, but now they might want to view online as well. Further, they might want to find the content in a particular PowerPoint presentation via keyword search, rather than via browsing through the presentations themselves. This is more likely when the student is looking for a slide or two in trying to satisfy some query the student has. And if done this way, the student may not know she is looking for some PowerPoint slides. She might be interested in postings on the topic in the class discussion board, an assessment or assignment that deals with the topic, really anything that might be relevant.

These last desiderata suggest that if the course Web site is housed in an LMS then the search tool in the LMS should be utilized to help students perform such queries. And, once the instructor makes a conscious decision to employ the LMS search tool as a way for students to find particular course content quickly and efficiently, then it behooves the instructor to make the PowerPoint content searchable, not just the title of the presentation, but the slide titles and the bullet points as well.

On my campus the LMS is Blackboard (WebCT) Vista. The search tool there is reasonably robust – it indexes all html files that appear in the course site, as well as all content in their tools, such as the discussion or quiz tools. So to make this approach work, the PowerPoint needs to be converted to html and the html version must be inserted into the course site. Below I discuss how to do this with the tool that is built into PowerPoint. This approach may be less desirable than others, because it favors Internet Explorer over other browsers, but surely it is the simplest thing to do. There are some other converters out there that move the PowerPoint to html in a browser-neutral way, but I’ve not yet tried those.

Here is a brief example of output of this sort. This presentation aims at the instructor who teaches with a Tablet PC and might mark up blank PowerPoint slides in the session that is recorded. The idea is that afterwards slide titles can be put in to help the student navigate to the particular slide in question. One wants to put in the slide titles in a way that doesn’t muck up the hand written content.

* * * * *

And here are step by step directions for what to do after the PowerPoint has been created so it can be loaded into WebCT Vista in such a way that keywords within the PowerPoint can be found by the search tool for the course Web site.

1. After completing the PowerPoint, save as Web page (*.htm, *.html). This produces a top level .htm file and a folder full of other stuff.
2. Enable Webdav for the course site. (This should probably be done anyway, quite apart from this example.) Here are the instructions for XP. I’m not sure how to do this in MS Vista but perhaps that translation is not too hard.
a. Under the Build Tab in the course site in Compass (WebCT Vista), go to File Manager.
b. Open the Action Links for the File Manager (the little pull down menu to the right of the words File Manager).
c. Copy the url there.
d. Go to My Network Places on your computer
e. Choose Add a network place
f. In the Wizard choose: Add another network location
g. Paste in the url you copied.
h. On most campuses, it is likely that your login and password to the LMS will be the same as the login and password for WebDav. At Illinois, when you give the authentication info for WebDav, use your Active Directory password. This is not the Bluestem password for Compass.
i. Type in a name you can remember for this WebDav folder.
j. You will have to log in again to access this folder. It will show all the contents of your file manager for the course. You can drag and drop onto this folder.
3. Drag both the top level .htm file and the folder full of stuff from your PowerPoint presentation into your WebDav folder.
4. Go back to your course site in Compass (WebCT Vista). It may take a few moments for the file and the folder to appear in your file manager for the course site.
5. Once they do appear, put the top level .htm file wherever in your site that you want students to access the presentation. Verify that if they do access this way they can get to the entire presentation. Do this by accessing via the Student View.
6. So, for navigation purposes you only have to insert that top level .htm file.
7. But for search, you need to get all the files associated with the presentation that now reside in the File Manager into the course site so the search tool can index them. Therefore make some Compass (WebCT Vista) folder off the homepage (or off some folder that is off the homepage).
8. Select insert file. Navigate to that folder in the File Manager with all the stuff. Select all. Then insert.
9. Afterwards, delete the file called “Outline.” If you don’t do this step it will show up in the search as a second entry. But only delete this file in the folder in the course site. It must remain in the folder in the File Manager.

* * * * *

It seems every tool nowadays comes with its own search. So if you mix and match environments, it seems more and more likely for this to be the case, then you run into the issue of whether you use multiple search tools, in my view a loser from the student perspective though I’m guessing at that rather than knowing so by experience, or you see if you can come up with one search tool that finds all the content. If the content all were on the public Internet that one tool would be Google, and the question then would be how to make the content available in Google while avoiding a lot of false positives. But online quizzes, certainly, and online discussions quite likely will be password protected and not findable by Google. If you want that content to be searchable by those who do have a proper password, then doing something like what is suggested above makes sense. But to do that effectively, the presentation content must also reside inside the LMS. At a time when many learning technologists are preaching openness, this might seem like a move backwards.

My response is to consider the perspective of the individual instructor, the one who has been using the LMS to distribute PowerPoint presentations ahead of time for face-to-face lecture. The discussion about open educational resources is happening entirely outside this instructor’s purview. The move to a blended approach in the teaching is a big jump, one that requires this instructor to make considerable changes in perspective. The way to make a big jump is to break it up into a sequence of little steps, each itself manageable provided the earlier steps have already been taken. Making the course resources open is one of those later steps, after the instructor has thought through and realized that commercializing his own creations is not in the cards but, more importantly, also realizing that he can still make interesting content that he can be proud of showcasing.

We’re taking it one step at at time.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Widgets in LMS

Using a RSS reader widget from, the video below shows how to bring in external feeds with relevant course info that is more convenient for the student than the alternative of using tools within the LMS for this information, because the info is "right there" rather than "only a click away." Also note that particular feeds were chosen because they display well in the Widget. Hence is used instead of, for example, Google Calendar. Likewise, Wordpress is used instead of Blogger, because the Wordpress feed shows the time of the post. I don't know why Blogger feeds don't, since the time is a feature of the actual post, but somehow that information doesn't get into the widget.

Monday, June 16, 2008


We perpetrators of crimes from afar don’t usually see our victims. Instead we think of self and our own bumps and bruises. We commit folly and wallow in our losses, small as they may be. When the real damage reveals itself we feel shame, for our lack of imagination, for the innocents who go punished when we do not, and for our blame remaining hidden. We can only hope, late to the game as we are, that those innocents don’t suffer too severely and that our humble efforts to atone make some small difference.

Topping the news this morning is the horrific flooding in Iowa, more evidence of Mother Nature gone awry due to global warming. I was to have been in Iowa City today for the Summer Writing Festival. But the campus has suspended normal operations and the workshop was canceled as a result. I had wanted to visit with some colleagues beforehand. In our email back and forth last week they alerted me to the problems with the flooding ahead of time. The Festival itself was at first optimistic that it could go on in spite of the bad weather, but things went from bad to worse.

Last Thursday and Friday I was disappointed that this week at the Festival had been canceled. The workshop was to be a new opportunity and I was looking forward to it. But over the weekend, with the further storms here and there, my attention switched to those who’ve been victimized by the weather and what if anything can we do about it. Directly and immediately, there is probably not much we can do. Indirectly and longer term, I think there are plenty of things to try.

I’m trying to reduce my own personal carbon footprint. Last week, I ordered a Honda Civic Hybrid to replace my Pontiac Aztek. This should double the fuel efficiency when driving. The dealership was back ordered for this model. I’m to take delivery in late August or early September. But I believe it will be worth the wait.

I’ve also taken to turn off the lights and ceiling fans in our house in rooms where nobody is currently located. It’s miserly behavior, to be sure, the kind of thing my father did. But it’s not just for pinching pennies. It feels like the right thing to do.

The hardest thing for me personally, but I’m going to try, is to change my diet and, in particular, eat less meat. I wonder if others are feeling the same sense of obligation.

I don’t really understand the feedback loop by which reductions in consumption such as described above get translated back into reductions in production, particularly if those reductions are small, only at the individual level, not yet at the macroeconomic level. But surely a macroeconomic reduction in consumption is comprised of many individual reductions. Rather than free ride and get on the train only after it has left the station, why not reduce consumption now?


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hidden Conversations

Growing up I was very fortunate to have a steady best friend, David, all the way from first grade through high school. David’s house and mine faced 56th Avenue; we lived diagonally across from each other, each a corner house, his bordering 211th Street, mine on 212th Street. Over those years we played a lot of ball games with a Pensie Pinkie. (I could find no image on the Web for Pensie Pinkie but if you have no idea what I’m talking about you can find some info by looking at this page for the prime competitor, the Spaldeen.)

Our favorite game was slapball. The way we played it you needed at least two players in the field, a pitcher and someone else to take the throw at first base. We could accommodate more fielders if there were more kids who wanted to play. When we first played the game David’s older brother Lesley was the permanent pitcher for both teams. As we got older we learned to “pitch” too, in this case a motion similar to throwing a dart where the ball bounces once before it’s ready to be hit. It’s amazing how much spin you could get on one of those Pensie Pinkies by flicking your finger as you tossed the ball.

We had some special ground rules owing to where we played. My family had a one-car garage attached to the house (but you still had to go outside to get into the garage) and the driveway was steeply sloped so it really wasn’t good for anything sports-wise; but we did have a stoop that was perfect for stoopball and David and I played that too when we didn’t have enough kids for slapball. David’s family had a two-car garage, luxurious for the time and the neighborhood, that was unattached to the house and with a flat driveway, which was perfect for our slapball infield.

The heading east lane on 56th avenue (my side of the street) and the heading west lane (David’s side) were separated by a “mall,” mostly weeds and some trees surrounded by curb, about the same width as one of the lanes. This was well before the Pooper Scooper Law went into effect so the mall was a bit of a minefield and you either tried to avoid it altogether or carefully watch your step while walking in it. The mall was where our outfield started and the ground rule was that if you hit the ball there or beyond on a fly you were out. On offense the goal was to hit it sharply but on the ground and see if you could get it through the infield. If you got a big hit that way with the ball ending up on the mall or, even worse, on the lawn of the Old Lady who lived next to my house and across from David’s, then it was the fielders’ problem and they had to chase it.

Slapball was our main game when we had four or more. When we had three we played Chinese Handball, using the Garage Doors as the wall, and with two apart from stoopball we either played boxball or “errors,” the latter where you threw the ball at the garage above the doors and the other person had to catch the throw on a fly. You’d get an error on the throw if you missed the target and a different type of error if you didn’t make the catch. David killed me at that game. He was a much better ball player. But I learned to passably catch a ball with one hand that way and my hand-eye coordination definitely improved for all ball games as a result.

The simple joys of childhood sometimes mask the valuable lessons from the play. On the emotional front you learn how to compete but still keep it fun, how to keep from being a spoiled sport when you want to win too badly, how to accommodate players of different abilities and temperaments and different ages too. My brother, 20 months my junior, often tagged along. He didn’t have a friend like David who lived close by. Similarly, David’s older sister Julia also tagged along. I was really lucky that way. I never had to feel lonely or out of place. The siblings were not as fortunate.

Probably the most important outcome was to gain a strong core value for friendship. It seems throughout my life I’ve almost always had a best friend and in making choices about my circumstance I’d often be driven to favor that choice where I’d be pretty sure of striking up or resuming a good friendship. The prime cause behind those choices can be found by looking back at those times with David and the happiness in that.

With all this good fortune and David living right across the street, hard for me to miss his playing outside when walking out our front door, you might think this all came about by us finding each other and then moving along from there. But you’d be wrong. It didn’t happen that way. Indeed, we lived in that house for over a year before I met David. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, my mother found the house of another kid who also ended up being a friend, Steven. He lived around the corner and down the block on 211th Street. My mom took me over to Steven’s house. David was already there. We played upstairs that day. I’m guessing it was Mr. Potato Head, but I was 5 or 6 at the time, so it was 1960 or 1961. Who remembers specifics with accuracy that far back? In any event, I was the one late to the party and the only reason I got there at all is because my mother dragged me.

For several years thereafter it was Steven, David, and I as a threesome at play, with various siblings on hand from time to time. This persisted even though by an odd quirk 56th avenue became the dividing line for where to go the primary school when a new school opened up in our neighborhood starting in second grade. So Steven and I went to P.S. 203 while David stayed at P.S. 31. By junior high we were all going to the same school, but the trio didn’t survive. Somewhere around that time Steven started to find a different crowd. My friendship with David, based mainly on play outside of school, stayed strong. I don’t believe we took any classes together till perhaps junior year in high school. That didn’t matter.

Thinking about this all these years later, and knowing that I really had it in for my mother for other things she did later on where she pushed me in what I thought was the wrong direction, I’ve really got to hand it to her. I don’t know if I’d ever have gotten into that deep friendship with David without her setting it up at the beginning. For that I’m very grateful.

* * * * *

Last Thursday our four-week summer session concluded. Along with the rest of my eLearning team, I’ve been involved in a project to record video of a small seminar offering of a finance course that is taught in large lecture mode during the fall and the spring. The processed video from the seminar, along with other online content, will replace one hour of live lecture in the fall. In my college, this effort marks our first foray with a “blended learning” format in large classes. The day before the final exam for the summer course I conducted a focus group with the students, right after the regular instruction had concluded. The primary goal going into that conversation was to get the student take about having such seminars as a means to generate fodder for other blended offerings that might be done in the future: Did they like the course? Would they recommend to a friend to participate in such a seminar if given the opportunity? How did the filming (there was a large flat panel at the front of the room to show what was being recorded at any time – front camera shot, rear camera shot, or output from laptop) affect their behavior in class? Were they self-conscious or did they learn to ignore the camera? These were the questions we had going into the session. I was also prepared for the students to go off script and frame the issues as they saw fit. Indeed, they did exactly that.

Reaching this point in the writing, I hit an impasse and am only beginning again after a two-day hiatus. The news from the focus group was good but for some reason that challenged me in the writing. Partly, that’s because everything we’re doing with this summer offering is intermediate product only – input for what will be delivered in the fall, not a true end in itself. We wouldn’t offer a stand-alone small seminar class like this in the absence of recording it for re-use. It would be too expensive in that case. Also, so much of my writing style come from imitating what I read, much of which is in newspapers or magazines. The bulk of those are critiques of misplays in politics. There are fewer pieces written as affirmation of what is happening. So it’s harder for me to structure the argument now because there are fewer models of what a good structure should look like. Then too, I’m really not a dispassionate observer but rather an active participant in the project, so very much want all the news to be good. The makes it tough to use my usual reportorial style in this case. So much for this brief aside, now back to the post.

The students liked the course very much. After a day or two they got comfortable and it became clear during the focus group that they bonded with the professor and with each other. They felt empowered to ask questions because of the small numbers and because the instructor’s friendly tone encouraged that. (Note that the students were actively recruited for the seminar and hence it is far from clear how “typical” students would have reacted to this experience.) And, because they got to know each other more than they would in a typical class, they could better appreciate the contributions of their classmates.

Although the course was set up as a small seminar precisely so we could capture the student contribution and we understood that much of the contribution would come as they posed their questions, I was nevertheless surprised by the results of the focus group. My mental model for the course was a classroom version of the Charlie Rose Show. I like to watch that show on occasion, depending on the guest and the topic, and reasoned that if we could produce something akin to that the students in the fall would like to watch it too. Charlie Rose is often a bit verbose and sometimes he appears to be competing with his guest for who gets to speak. But by the end of the interview a lot has been said by both Rose and his guest. So I was hoping to to reproduce that consequence in the sessions that we recorded.

During the first week, I watched a substantial amount of what was recorded, the raw “footage” before we had processed it. There were questions from the students, to be sure, but mostly it was the instructor talking. The instructor has taught the class many times before and he’s very glib with the content. The students, in contrast, seemed rather shy to me and perhaps were too patient to step in with their questions. During the weekly lunch meetings between the instructor and me, he and I discussed the issue of how to encourage student participation. We had multiple conversations on this topic, before and during the course.

Subsequently, I’ve reached the conclusion that a TV talk show likely does not provide the right norm for us in considering a course like this, especially an intro course where the students are fairly inexperienced in the subject. “What is the right norm?” I wonder. Have we produced something that is noticeably distinct from recording straight lecture? I’m curious about how the students in the fall will react to the processed videos.

There is different lesson to be had from the world of economics. An option has value in advance, even if it is ultimately not exercised. The students felt comfortable in their ability to ask questions and that comfort might be sufficient to make them enjoy the approach – the option value was present. Yet its presence didn’t imply they were asking questions all of the time. Further, when one student would ask a question that would often encourage a follow up from another student, so the questions that are there typically occur in clumps rather than be distributed uniformly through the sessions. After the first couple of days of the course I looked at the recordings less intensively and might very have well passed by an interval of students questions without realizing it was even there, only to find it on a subsequent viewing of the content.

Contrary to this impression formed by looking at the videos, in the focus group the students emphasized the small numbers enabling intensive interaction with the instructor and with each other and they reported the experience was unique, not replicated in other classes they’ve taken. I queried them specifically on this after one student offered up the idea and the rest completely agreed. Further, and this was music to my ears, about midway through the focus group session another student offered up without any prompt from me that the class was kind of like attending office hours. This was the point of departure I mentioned earlier. We talked about office hours extensively and their experience with office hours in other courses. A couple of the students were the type to seek out the instructor on a regular basis, just to have the interaction, not as a last minute thing before an exam. But by the nature of that, it didn’t happen nearly as frequently as in the summer course.

Last Friday, after the course had concluded there was a debrief meeting with the instructor and my staff. We posed the rhetorical question of how to induce the same feeling in the fall when there will be a massive number of students as was achieved in this summer offering. We talked about having the students do group work that would be like the type of problems that were worked in class during the summer. The instructor offered up the suggestion that rather than do all that group work out of class, why not use the face to face discussion section time for some of the group work, and instead of having the TAs spend most of their time in presentation mode, why not instead have them mentor the groups. If there is a need for them to present content, they could do that by producing brief presentation for online delivery. I was delighted with this suggestion and very pleased that the instructor has taken up the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish. How all of this will be executed in the fall is another matter that we’ll have to research then. For now we’ve passed a crucial milestone. We’re on the same page regarding the general approach we want to take, the mode of behavior we’d like to see from the students, and with similar ideas about how to instrument those outcomes.

* * * * *

I tend to extrapolate a lot from a few small successes. In reflecting on the focus group, I reframed for myself what it was that the students were doing during the summer course – they were engaged in academic play. Play is fun. They enjoyed themselves in the course because it was play. At the heart of academic play is the ability to ask questions and to have follow-up discussion emerging from those questions that have been posed. My inference from the focus group is that there are many other students on campus who would like to participate in academic play (we’ve got around 30,000 undergraduates) but few of them are actually doing it. Then, the questions are why not and what might we as an institution do to reverse matters.

Having introduced the word play into my thinking, it was no stretch at all to remember back to those good times with David and my mother creating the pre-condition for that friendship to develop. (I should write another post, perhaps even a short book, on coming to understand things as an adult by tying them to experiences from childhood.)

Large classes at institutions like mine seemingly have a kind of Gresham’s Law at work where the behavior of those students who are only going through the motions tends to trump the behavior of the more earnest students – ergo the cheating, plagiarism, and sense of nihilism. So, my rational self says it’s very hard to change that and produce something we’re proud of, where the students themselves feel they’re getting a lot out of the experience. But my hopeful self, buoyed with the good reports from the summer offering and seeing the instructor embrace the approach we’d like to pursue, believes it’s not all that hard to get a good outcome. And, doing so should be replicable in other courses.

There is a liberating aspect in producing video for online delivery that is aimed at replacing some parts of the live class session, whether that video is recording of a seminar done as we have done this summer, it’s produced at the instructors desktop such as via a Jing screen capture or a chat in ooVoo, similar such productions done by the students themselves, or yet some other approach. The liberation emerges because the need to spend class time to “cover” the material vanishes. Coverage can be handled via online delivery. Then, using discussion sections for a planned and organized form of office hours starts to make sense. If done that way most students will attend rather than only the few with initiative as happens now. And play via academic conversation appears to be achievable at large scale.

If students do play this way will they interact seriously with the online content, perhaps as a way to get ready for the discussions, alternatively as a way to satisfy their own curiosity? That’s what we need to find out.

Thanks mom.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Information or MisInformation

As a reader, should I believe stuff like the above or not? Let me point out that most students are out of school now and yet many of them may be registered where they attend. So I'm guessing students are under sampled in this poll and there is sampling bias. Do the reported results correct for the bias or not? I have no clue. I can't get that from the story. If, ultimately, Obama gets a big kick in the polls when students go back to school in the fall, the polls will report that as momentum when all it may be is mis-measurement during the summer.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Veep Peep

Assuming it's not going to be Hillary, my nickel bet is on Barbara Boxer. That choice would help in a remarkable number of demographics. If you want to play the game, here is the list of current U.S. Senators and here's a page to find all the governors. Of course there are those not currently in office (e.g., Sam Nunn) or who hold other office (e.g., Mayor Bloomberg) so the potential pool is quite large. Have fun!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Open Source or Ad Supported Software and Content

The economic storm we’re now in is soon to become a deluge, according to Louis Uchitelle of the New York Times. The source of the problem is state and local government spending. To date in this business cycle, such spending has served as a counter force to the downturn. But tax receipts have lagged and the state governments are building up hefty deficits as a consequence. Surely spending cuts are just around the corner. For the usual Keynesian reasons, this bodes poorly for the economy overall, with the smart money waiting on the sidelines to see if we’ve past the bottomed out phase or not. But it is particularly troublesome for us who work at public institutions of higher education because it looks like serious budget cuts will be coming, if they haven’t hit already.

Within IT at like instiutions, I suspect things are particularly troublesome in this regard. Back in the early part of the decade when my university when through a previous downturn, administrative units were hit more heavily than were academic units and IT tends to be viewed more as as administrative function, even as most of the users are doing so in an academic context. There is the further point, made first by Nicholas Carr, that IT as it has matured has lost the ability to differentiate us as institutions, and hence the non-utility part of IT, if such a part exists, appears as if it can be dispensed with. And there is the still further issue that certain cost increases appear to be unavoidable – heating and cooling are notable in this category; everyone is aware of how the pump price of gasoline has skyrocketed and HVAC costs are obviously highly correlated with gasoline prices. So that is likely to make campus administrators more cautious about any other expense that seemingly is avoidable.

Budget cuts in IT is indeed a dreary subject, so instead of focusing on that let’s consider emerging technology and services, where by use of the term “emerging” I want to take the perspective of our respective institutions rather than the view of developers of such technology. In this sense emerging means there’s not yet institutional lock-in to the service and the future direction still seems remarkably flexible. Social networking in an academic context may be in that category. Likewise, so may video hosting, even at campuses that have supported video streaming for some time. They likely haven’t supported anything akin to YouTube and almost certainly have no mechanism to support student created videos made for an academic purpose.

Now let me take an aside and talk about my “roots” with instructional technology, formed mostly during 1995-96 when I was a grantee of the SCALE project here on campus. I had used the application PacerForum in spring 2005 and then switched to FirstClass thereafter. We referred to these applications as “off-the-shelf” software. First Class, in particular, was a poor man’s alternative to Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange and had a clientele both in business and higher education. Such software survives and evolves based on the needs and vicissitudes of the marketplace. Sometimes such software dies out. PacerForum, though quite admired by its users on Campus, didn’t or couldn’t make the switch to TCP-IP. The grantors from SCALE at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, former executives from IBM, had a distinct preference for us to use off-the-shelf software. While they never fully explained “the why” in this stipulation, the consequence was clear enough. It encouraged an approach of adopting pedagogy to the software and seeing what was possible that way, creating an emphasis on the teaching approach rather than on the software development, and demanding a degree of creativity on the part of the instructor to get a successful implementation.

Having also served as sponsor of some ed tech software development projects, wherein the developer’s primary goal, to do well by the users, seemingly trumped concerns about the business sensibility of the development, an admirable but undisciplined approach that oftentimes proved unsustainable after the grant money runs out, I’ve come to appreciate the approach with off-the-shelf software and still favor that approach ceteris paribus.

But, of course, things have changed. Most of the applications we might be interested with nowadays are Web based, accessed by a browser, rather than require a dedicated client as was the case 10 – 15 years ago. And many are “freely available” with a seeming explosion of new offerings in the past year. Many of these fledgling offerings hope to make it commercially. There seem to be two possible alternatives for that. One is to generate revenue directly, mostly likely via ad support, and see whether the operation can sustain in that manner. The other is to not worry so much about revenues up front but instead to focus on the experience of the users and grow based on their word of mouth, with the hope of viral growth and then to be bought out by one of the big players in the future and capitalize in that manner. Of course there can be hybrids of these two forms, such as where there is no sell out to one of the big players but where the ads emerge as a revenue aspect after there has been some substantial growth in usage. If you take those two extremes and allow for all permutations and combinations, that’s my current day analog to off-the-shelf software.

Likewise things have changed with campus software development. Home grown has been supplanted by open source, whether for LMS, ePortfolio, or any number of other applications. And to the extent that these efforts are meant as alternatives or tonics to the commercial provision of these applications, so much the better. But in the previous paragraph I was seemingly making an argument for commercial provision. So what gives?

Let’s consider the split between applications that the campus provides for users and applications that the users select for themselves. When I was getting started in the mid ‘90s, this divided nicely by the distinction between client-server applications on the one hand, and desktop applications on the other. There still is a difference between campus supported and user selected, but the notion of desktop applications is going by the wayside. Unfortunately, in my opinion, our thinking about campus provision of service hasn’t really accommodated that change. And the result is that we in IT take the scope of what should be provided by the campus as more broad than it otherwise might be.

Let me illustrate with a concrete example. I don’t want to make this an advocacy for the product, but I hope discussing it will help to bring out the issues. Consider the social networking application Ning, which is unabashedly ad supported. The feature of Ning that I want to take note of is that, like many other social networking applications, it employs the email address of the user as the login. Suppose that I, wearing my instructor hat, wanted to use Ning for my class and interact with them in that manner. Then I’d spend some time setting up the Social Network to my specifications and after that I’d invite my students to participate. I’d use the class roster that I can get from the grade book in the LMS to issue those invitations. The students would have to opt in and accept my invitation to have access to this class social network.

This is the first issue. Is my invitation coercive? Suppose the students don’t want to be part of that social network. Can they opt out by not accepting the invitation? Note there is no opt out for students in the campus LMS. They are in there by virtue of having enrolled in the course. So the opt out can’t be because they object to the pedagogic approach the software encourages and that I as instructor have embraced. Rather it would have to be because they don’t trust the commercial provider to protect their privacy, even when they can’t get into the social network without a password. The fear is that the vendor will data mine the individual information in such a way that might be detrimental to the student in the future. There may also be fear about copyright appropriation.

It is on these issues that my campus has either blocked or slowed down contracts with a variety of commercial vendors, who don’t seem willing to ensure the security of this information in writing. But I’m not the institution in my current position and in the above discussion I’m acting as an individual instructor. In that role I look to a different set of information to try to attain these type of assurances. Does the software work well? Are there other users more or less in the same boat as I who seem to be using the software successfully? Do I feel safe using the application? If I were a friend of the students rather than their instructor, would I feel ok inviting them to use it? In practice these questions are likely to be asked implicitly. When the answers are in the affirmative, meaning when I feel comfortable with the application, then I might very well embrace the application for my class.

The next issue turns from me the instructor back to the institution. What should the institutional stance be on this sort of instructor behavior? Possible alternatives include: go for it – active encouragement by the institution, don’t ask don’t tell – tacit acceptance of the practice by the institution but instructor beware because the liability might be on you, or you can’t do this – prohibition by the institution because until the institution has gotten the vendor’s promise in writing the students are being put at risk and the institution has in loco parentis. Which of these three we actually do might depend on to whom at the institution you pose the question. For software that has an admission charge (an Island in Second Life costs real dollars) the institution may be able to exercise control over campus dollars being spent on such software. For software that is freely available to the end user, however, there is no mechanism for institutional control up front that I am aware of. So de facto I believe we have don’t ask don’t tell, with the only mechanism for the institution to get involved after the fact being for a student in the class to lodge a complaint. But, if I had my druthers, we’d see an activist promotion by the campus, which would send an explicit message to all instructors to the effect of, “Go ahead with the use of commercial software that is externally hosted for your courses as long as you intend to use that software for legitimate academic purposes. We want to encourage you to innovate in your classes. An important way to maintain quality in the classroom is via your innovation and one way to innovate is for you to embrace emerging technologies. We understand there is some liability risk in doing that and we the campus will bear that risk for you as long as your intent is to promote the learning of your students.”

Now let’s take it another step. We’re in the world of don’t ask don’t tell where there is commercial provision of social network software that might be used for academic purposes. Absent the activist promotion described at the end of the previous paragraph, how does the availability of the commercial software impact the campus decision to host its own social networking software for academic purposes? Consider this question in light that many are arguing something like, “The students spend all their time on Facebook and if we want them to engage in their studies while online we have to provide something equally as compelling.” And with that let me return to how I led off this piece, talking about the economic downturn. How can the campus in good conscience embrace new applications of this sort when there isn’t sufficient budget to support what’s already a production service, when IT spending appears discretionary, and when other clear needs on campus are being given short shrift? Though consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, if you agree with the sentiment expressed in this question, might you reconsider your thinking about instructors choosing to employ externally hosted social networking software for their classes?

* * * * *

Let’s switch gears and now let’s think of the instructor as content creator. In days of yore there was the “textbook model” under which faculty who wrote textbooks would have copyright of that work unless and until they sold that to a publisher, and such work would normally not count for promotion, tenure, or salary review except perhaps if it attained sufficient visibility to have some light pointed at the faculty member’s department and host institution. But textbooks are a dying breed and online content that has resale value is subject to a severe appropriability problem. Where do the incentives come from nowadays to get faculty to write good and interesting online content? Should those incentives be provided by the institution, perhaps in the form of some bonus payment for delivery of such content? Should faculty be marketing themselves much in the same manner as musicians who tour, viewing the online content as in part promotion for the live presentation, which ends up being the revenue generator? What about the alternative of faculty content displayed on Web sites that are ad supported, where some of the ad revenue bounces back to the faculty member, that in lieu of a royalty payment?

Many may feel uncomfortable with that suggestion and I’d be among them. There is an ethical issue regarding instructors making money off their students. I know on my campus there have been cases where the instructor is one of the co-authors of the textbook and in a position to require the textbook for the course and where colleagues of the instructor have viewed the behavior as less than exemplary if not downright uncollegial – it’s ok to make money off of students at other campuses if instructors there willingly embrace the textbook, but for our own students charging them for the content is immoral since so much of the content is an outgrowth of the teaching experience that was had on the campus and hence the instructor should feel a debt to the campus for providing such a productive environment. (A similar argument, attributed to Herb Simon, is made here for why on ethical grounds society should have a 90 percent flat tax, though Simon recognizes the incentives from such tax would be disastrous.)

Nowadays, however, many of the large gateway courses (the ones that would generate enough eyeballs so that ads might actually prove revenue generating) are taught by adjuncts who are on year to year contracts, rather than by faculty on the tenure track. And these folks tend to get paid less salary-wise. In the class system among instructional personnel, the adjuncts are definitely treated as second class. Further, because their teaching is often the main part of the job, the online content they make while teaching might quite possibly be considered “work for hire” and therefore the copyright may be held by the home institution rather than by the instructor himself.

My experience is that such instructors tend to be extremely cautious about their position – they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their circumstance. Thus in spite of their focus on teaching, that makes them very slow to innovate with technology, especially if any of the innovation appears to be labor saving and hence possibly leading to their own (unplanned) obsolescence. The point is that the incentives are quite different for such adjuncts than they are for tenure track faculty. Might it be ok for adjuncts to produce content on ad supported Web sites? Might that give these instructors incentives to product good content or, at least, incentives to produce content that would attract eyeballs?

If the instructor does produce good content and profits from it as a consequence, what should the institutional stance be? It’s all well and good for the institution to create an open repository for such content for those instructors who decide to contribute there. But when the repository gets few contributions, can the institution look down its nose at commercial alternatives that might rebate some bucks back to the instructor?

The traditional argument against commercial interests sponsoring research is that it leads to bias in the outcomes and ultimately the parochial interest trumps the broader need, producing a perverse outcome. But a substantial aspect of argument is that the sponsorship remains hidden and so others are not able to factor that in when evaluating the results of the research. Ads, by their very nature, are overt. A different sort of argument would have to be made to argue against this incentive for the creation of instructional materials, namely that the students are not mature enough to evaluate the bias and hence that in an environment with ad supported content one is likely to witness a mild form of brainwashing rather than true instruction. Perhaps.

Yet I think the argument either needs to be more subtle or it is simply wrong. Many of us have come to trust Google as a search engine. It produces results quickly and efficiently and most of the time we find what it is that we were looking for. But, depending on what keywords we used in our search, Google might spit out a bunch of sponsored links – ads targeted by the words used in the search. We understand that’s Google’s way to make money. They’ve pioneered the approach. Do we think their search results are skewed as a consequence of the ads? Wouldn’t a widespread belief that the results were skewed kill the goose that laid the golden eggs? Likewise, wouldn’t an instructor who has a reputation as a good teacher do much harm to said reputation by deliberately biasing materials in order to generate additional ad revenue? What magnitude of revenue would it take for us to scratch our heads in answering that question?

Let me close with the following observation. We need to talk about this more, a lot more. We’re not ready to provide answers to these questions but the eager beavers among the faculty are ready to embrace commercial ad supported applications, purely because many of these applications are more functional and user friendly than other alternatives. So these faculty will act and then we’ll react, quite possibly inappropriately, meaning not in the best interest of our institutions.

The budget pressures might spur this sort of dialog. Sometimes being in a tough spot causes one to be more pragmatic in approach.