course tools

word of the day

originally uploaded by VROG Bristol

flickr photo originally uploaded by VROG

…to describe the countless hours I seem to be spending filling forms and dotting my ‘i’s’ and crossing my ‘t’s’–paperganda (or paperazzi, if you prefer). But instead of whining, I’ll try to turn this into a constructive thought…

My (lack of) patience for paperganda mirrors my escalating impatience with technology that is overly complicated and requires too much of my valuable time fiddling to get to work. Admittedly, I am a bit equipment challenged–cell phones, VCRs, etc–but I’m hardly a technophobe…I like to think I kind of get how computers and software and digital technology in general works. Today I needed to test a headset for an Elluminate session I’m doing next week. Test 1: internal mic and speakers (on a Toshiba laptop). Not good. Why not? Aren’t we there yet? I’m not trying for CBC quality here–it would be nice if I could talk into my laptop and have it be good enough for a synchronous session in a noiseless environment. Test 2: fancy pants headset from AV services. Nada. I didn’t read the manual, but why should I? Shouldn’t we be able to just plug it in and have it work? Test 3: Borrowed USB headset from colleague. Success!

These kinds of experiences (and a recent post over at EdTechPost) remind me of the aggravation that instructors invariably face when they’re trying to use technology for teaching, hence the inspiration for the 2 minute tools workshops that I started doing last year. Obviously we’d like instructors to feel empowered by technology, not intimidated. And while FOI concerns are often being cited as reasons not to use some of the good 2.0 stuff out there that really can be learned in 2 minutes or less, what else do we have, and can we afford not to? Why would institutions really want to keep investing in questionable tools whose threshold is too high and therefore attracts less users or requires more support? I’ve taught workshops to instructors on how to use gliffy, google docs, and zoho wiki in less than 2 minutes (sometimes they’ve timed me) and the reaction is so gratifying–instructors who never dreamed of having even a simple web page are amazed that they can do it in the same amount of time it takes for the barrista to make their latte.

So, a note to developers and institutional IT departments (not that they’re reading this, but anyways…)

Less is more. Less is more. Less is more. This means:

1. I don’t need a tool that can do everything. It just needs to do a few things well and easily, and integrate with other tools that can pick up from there. Eg. Create an image in Gliffy, then bring it into Google docs to finish the job.

2. Clear the clutter! Elluminate! WebCT! Your interfaces don’t make sense anymore.

3. Three is a magic number. Three clicks. 1. Start/Record/Edit. 2. Stop/Save. 3. Upload/View/Publish.

Screencasting for just-in-time teaching and learning

Via OL Daily–and the timing couldn’t have been better–a list of screencasting tools from Mashable.  I’m a big fan of using (short) screencasted clips to help students–but mostly instructors–get oriented to tech tools. I’m reminded of a time (circa 2000 or so) when I was a digital media student at a small college where the instructor’s idea of ‘teaching’ was to print out the online manuals for the software and distribute them to the class, then hide in his office while we ‘learned’ Photoshop, Director, and Premier.  Sure, there’s a lot to be said about learning by doing, but when one of the students came across a site full of screencasted tutorials we felt like we’d hit the jackpot.  Oddly, the instructor resented us using the screencasts, and if I recall correctly he might have even blocked the site at some point.   Anyhow, the experience taught me that some things that need to be learned are very well suited to screencasting.  I’ve dabbled with ScreenRecord on my Mac  and have been quite pleased, but I’m keen to try some of the others on the list.  My thought is follow up f2f demos of tools with some screencasts that instructors can access on their own time, and if I’m lucky, I won’t have to create very many since some good people are quite happy to share them on YouTube and the like.

metablogging

Via the blog of proximal development I came across 21 classes, which is getting parked here because I’ve been looking for something like this for a while, and it will no doubt be handy at some point. It looks like it provides a way for an instructor and student to manage individual blogs via a class blog portal.  I recently tried explaining to some IT people that something like this would be useful, but did a pretty bad job of it, so it’s nice there’s an easier way.

 

Teaching wikis, blogs, RSS, and social bookmarking

I want to pass on a great resource for instructors who need to explain wikis, blogs, RSS, Google Docs, social bookmarking and other such tools to their students. Common Craft have created some of the most effective, to-the-point, and entertaining instructional videos I’ve ever seen; many of the topics they address in their unique, short videos fall squarely under the ed tech category:

All of these tools are easy to use but, admittedly, can be hard to describe. Common Craft completely demystifies them. Have a look:

Pecha kucha and the end of death-by-PowerPoint

While it is probably too much to hope that pecha kucha (pronounced peh-chak-cha) will revolutionize the way slideware is used in the classroom, instructors and students should know that pecha kucha is great for keeping slideware presentations focused and the audience’s interest up — arguably two of the biggest challenges facing PowerPoint presenters.

 

Like haiku or the sonnet, pecha kucha imposes a strict form on the content. In this case the medium is the slideware presentation. Presenters must show twenty slides — no more, no less — and show each slide for twenty seconds; again, no more, no less. This permits you a mere six minutes and forty seconds to deliver your presentation.

 

The 20 x 20 format is not meant to restrict so much as to force you to be creative and to stay focused on what’s really important. There is no time for digressions. The pace is quick. The presenters I have seen tend not to read from their slides, thus eliminating redundancy. They say what they have to say then move on the next slide, which is always only seconds away. The audience, aware of the format, anticipates the next slide change, and is never left wondering, “when will this end?” Discussion should come afterwards to allow the presenter to flow uninterrupted. When you’re done, podcast it. Blog it.

 

Preventing death-by-PowerPoint is only one of pecha kucha’s advantages. The concise and brief format also means you can also rethink your class time. What to do with the leftover time? This is a nice problem to have. Perhaps the best reason to try giving a pecha kucha presentation yourself is you will have to rework — and rethink — your content.

 

Pecha kucha nights are now held in major cities all over the globe. Participants can present on any topic. The events are social, informative, fun and frequently licensed. That people voluntarily attend events in which they sit through as many as 15 PowerPoint presentations speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the form. Many of the examples on YouTube are well worth a look.

catching up

During my blogging hiatus, which corresponded with my move to the Canadian Polytechnic where I now am employed and a subsequent maternity leave (identical twins!!), I was jotting down on a post-it note new tools that I thought would be useful for instructors and students, but needed more time to explore.  I came back to a very tidy cubicle (thank you tidyers) but no post-it.  I’m trying to recall some of those tools, and bubbl.us came to mind.  I remember liking bubbl.us because like my old standby, Gliffy, it passed the 2 minute test and the drag, drop, click interface works nicely.  But bubbl.us is definitely more suited to concept mapping, since connections between ideas are automatically drawn .  In the past I’ve taught an online distance course where a student assignment was to submit and share a concept map–we used CMap for this purpose, but it wasn’t as seamless as we had hoped.  Bubbl.us would be a good replacement–a quick visit shows that the interface is even more intuitive than before, and the ability to collaborate with others (something we love to do in our constructivist-designed online courses) is a huge plus.  The usual import and export features are there, and although I haven’t tested those recently, I’m pretty confident they work quite nicely–at the very least, it’s easy to find.

more visualisation tools

About 5 years ago I started a mental “wouldn’t it be nice if…” list of technologies/software that I wish existed. I’m still reeling from excitement at a tool that my colleague Paul here at Canadian Polytechnic just pointed me to–Manyeyes, since it’s one of those *better than I hoped* tools that I can scratch off my list. Manyeyes lets you simply convert data sets to visualisation tools, and in 2.0 spirit allows comments and discussion about the data. I’m still exploring, but just a quick look at the visualisation possibilities is educational in itself–clicking on the Learn More link leads to informative descriptions of when and how the corresponding visualisation is appropriate. This alone is well worth a visit from grad students trying to get a grip on qualitative and/or quantitative research methods and data presentation. However, ethics committees will probably want you to take a look at the Terms of Service, since it’s not really suited to data that is confidential.

Conversate

Conversate

One of the contributions technology has made to education is that it has provided us with new tools that have allowed us to reconceptualise instructor-student and student-student interaction in our courses. Email is still a highly valued tool for many faculty, who use it to communicate with students individually or through a class listserv. Most faculty have the knowledge and skill to set up an email listserv quickly, but other interaction tools are a little more out of reach. Here at UBC, the discussion forum tool in WebCT is sometimes the only part of WebCT that is being used in conjunction with a face to face class, but it requires going through a process of obtaining a WebCT shell, which then needs to be populated by somebody (here in the Faculty of Dentistry you would contact myself or James Pagnotta in TST. This isn’t difficult, but it is sometimes a few more steps than some instructors would like.

Conversate is a handy tool that can quickly allow an instructor to set up a discussion space for course topics. It functions a bit like email, in that the emails of the students would need to be entered for them to be notified of the ‘conversation’ but adopts some of the nice features of threaded discussions, providing a visual structure of nesting individual replies, allowing RSS saavy students to subscribe to the conversation, and a few other features that allow everybody to stay on top of the discussion through notification.

Instructors might also find it useful to suggest this tool as a place for groupwork and collaboration. In many courses, group work takes place in group section of WebCT forums, and the instructor has access to monitor the process and step in if need. With Conversate, this feature isn’t lost–even though the conversation is located outside of WebCT, as long as the instructor is given access to the discussion as a member, he or she will be able monitor the group work if needed.

Finally, I like tools that don’t draw me into a long registration process–you can try it out without a login, but setting up your own takes less than 30 seconds.

Writely

Once again, via Brian Lamb a synchronous text-editing tool that I hadn’t tried. I like Writely because:

1. The registration was simple, allowing me to get up and running in minutes, the only obstacle being that it didn’t work with my Safari browser. However, it works well in Internet Explorer, which is what the majority of our instructors and many of our students seem to be using anyways.

2. The interface is intuitive and uncluttered, which means I didn’t waste valuable time trying to figure out where to go and what to do.

3. It builds on what most users will have as prior knowledge, namely how to use Word documents, which means the learning curve is minimal.

Increasingly, course approaches (constructivist approaches) are adopting group work and collaboration on projects as assessed course activities, and students are largely stuck fumbling with sharing word documents in a discussion forum, through IM, or through email. Obviously, distance students don’t have the luxury of being able to meet face to face to work on projects together, and even if they can, sometimes it’s not always the most efficient way of getting something done.

The nice thing about synchronous text editing tools such as this one is that they don’t have to be used synchronously (but obviously can be used that way if needed). Personally, I think that the asynchronicity of online courses is what gives them the potential to be so great, especially for adult learners who don’t want to be stuck with the task of trying to fit synchronous course activities into their already busy schedules. However, some of our course instructors have noted an increased amount of requests for a chat tool option for student-student communication (but not student-instructor communication, which is interesting). But that’s a whole other discussion…

I’m thinking about introducing Writely in a couple of ways:

1. In a case study course, as a space where students would work on developing a group response to a case.

2. In courses where peer-evaluation of writing is required, allowing a peer, or group of peers to comment and assist each other’s work.

I would also recommend it to faculty who are collaborating on research articles. I’ve been using Peanut Butter Wiki for the co-authoring of an article, and while I highly recommend it as a password protected wiki, I feel restricted in the level of formatting that wikis can provide. I like the option to change font colours, easily add images, and spell check (which Writely does) without having to find out how a wiki will let me do that.