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.

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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.

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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.

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