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Tech Samurai

Gamification: A semester in the trenches

My reasons for wanting to use gamification strategies in my large Intro to Education course were obvious: student accountability, timely and continuous feedback, and better motivation to do otherwise rudimentary activities. I learned pretty quickly that implementing gamification strategies was more difficult than I initially thought. First, I had to figure out the instructional design aspects of gamification. How many points are different experiences worth? What do I count and what do I leave out? Second, I had to figure out how to keep track of all of this and communicate it back to the students. As I have written about before, I used Google Sheets to do this.

Overall, I would say I am pleased with how my first attempt at gamification turned out. Was it perfect? No way. Did the students like it? Mostly, but I'm sure I will hear from those who didn't on my course evaluations. Did these strategies help me reach my course goals? Absolutely! Class attendance was the best it has ever been in the 3 years I've taught the course. I regularly had over 90% of the students completing the weekly readings every week. That is unbelievable! I actually had students competing to complete extra credit so they could move to the top of the leaderboard. I did not see that one coming. Even though the course outcomes associated with these gamification strategies were successful, I learned a lot about how to do it better next semester. I will discuss these lessons in more detail.

More Competition

One of my goals in using gamification strategies in my class was to increase engagement and not give students a laundry list of things to do every week. Well, the way I structured the points, it turned out to be just what I was trying to avoid. Every week the students had to complete a module (video and/or reading + short quiz) before class on Monday. Then they went to schools on Wednesday, and there were points associated with that. On Friday, they participated in small group discussion, which had even more points. Everything was recorded on a big spreadsheet, and students were ranked on a leaderboard. What I discovered was that most of the students completed all of the requirements each week. Basically, there was no way to really move UP the leaderboard. Students could only move DOWN if they failed to complete a requirement. Believe it or not, that is not very competitive, and therefore, isn't all that much fun.

There were minimal opportunities for students to do extra and move up the leaderboard, but they were in fact so minimal that it hardly made a difference. This didn't keep the students from trying to get more points here and there, which was my first clue that there needs to be more competition. Some ideas I am playing with include:

  • Using Kahoot for discussion questions
  • Students voting for "best" responses to questions
  • Competitions between discussion groups (attendance, challenges, completion rate, etc.)
  • Challenges during class

I do not want to overdo this, but I think a little more competition would make this aspect of the class a lot more fun.

Reboot

Another flaw in my approach this semester was that the "game" lasted all semester. I gave the students monthly feedback in the form of a points sheet, which led many of them to just see it as a big assignment. I would venture to guess that they viewed this experiment as a big ole' laundry list because I treated it like one. In the end, there was no way for students who had gotten behind early in the semester to make corrections and do better the next time around. Students could recognize the impact of their choices on their point total and start to do better, but it did not erase early mistakes. This goes against the nature of most competitive endeavors, where players can overcome early mistakes later in the competition and keep themselves in the game.

I am thinking about splitting the game up into three smaller games this spring, and starting the points and leaderboard over each time. This will allow students who get off to a bad start to do better the next time. I can still keep track of completed assignments and attendance for the purposes of grading, but I will link other incentives to the leaderboard. What are the incentives? I have no idea, but I have a few weeks to think about it.

Better Feedback

Another issue I ran into this semester was getting feedback to the students on a weekly basis. I did pretty well at first, then some of my TAs got behind on entering scores and I went a few weeks without sending updates to the class. Once everything was updated and I got around to sending the updates, some of the students were like, "Whoa! How did I lose all these points?! I thought I was doing OK!" And I was like, "How can you not know if you missed class or an assignment?!" And they were like, "Hey man, we're too busy to remember all that!" And I was like ... OK, you get the point.

This observation has less to do with the game itself and more to do with giving more timely, detailed feedback. Some of the students felt like they were in the dark all semester and did not know they had missed 6, 7, or 8 classes until the end of the semester. I was never the kind of student to miss class, but I can see how it might be easy to lose track over such a long period of time.

I have a plan for keeping the spreadsheet updated better, but it is not really worth writing about here. Needless to say, I think weekly updates will help quell some of the panicky e-mails at the end of the semester.

What am I missing?

I am pretty sure my second attempt at gamification will go much better than the first, and I'm looking forward to putting some of these ideas into practice. For those of you who have been doing this for awhile, what are your suggestions? Am I missing something obvious? Am I making assumptions with potentially disastrous consequences? I would love to hear from the true game masters!

5 Ways to Find Out What Students are Thinking

Bored Students Student participation typically falls into two extreme ends of the class discussion continuum. Some students raise their hand every time I ask a question. These students have an opinion on just about everything, and if I'm not careful they will dominate class discussion. I have had experiences where the same 2-3 students will talk so much during discussions that the other students will stop raising their hands. As a teacher, this is definitely a scenario you want to avoid. The end of the spectrum is characterized by a roomful of students who are so disengaged they will barely make eye contact. Maybe they didn't do the class reading, or perhaps they think that avoiding discussion will shorten class time and end in an early dismissal. Perhaps the class is large and students are intimidated speaking in front of the group. Either way, it makes for a very awkward and aggravating situation.

The longer I have taught, the more strategies I have discovered for getting the entire class involved in discussion. Early in my career I would just pose questions to the entire class. I eventually learned simple strategies like using cards or popsicle sticks for calling on students who don't raise their hands. This helped me get more students involved. Still, getting called on was a game of chance and some students would tune out in hopes that their number wouldn't get called. I eventually started using some different pedagogical strategies such as Think, Pair, Share, Numbered Heads Together, Jigsaw, Jeopardy, or Fishbowl for engaging students in discussion prompts. Each of these techniques for facilitating discussion got everyone involved and had more accountability than sitting in class hoping not to get called on.

Even with great discussion strategies, there are times when I want to know what the students are thinking. This isn't always possible when the majority of the discussion is a verbal exchange. I have used chart paper or construction paper to have students summarize their thoughts, but this is not always easy to present and when it's all over I'm stuck with a bunch of chart paper.

With the emergence of free (or kind of cheap) web-based and mobile apps, teachers can find out what students are thinking in a variety of ways, and all without using up all the consumables. I will describe five tools I have used in my classes to put student thinking at the forefront of the discussion.

Socrative

This is a free app that has iOS, Android, and web-based options. Students enter in the class code then wait for a prompt from the teacher. Results are instantly aggregated on the screen, giving everyone real-time results from the prompt. There are several options for prompts teachers can send the class, including T/F, Multiple Choice, and Short Answer. Prompts can be generic (i.e., A, B, C ...) or prepared in advance with specific answer choices. Results from saved quizzes can be downloaded as a spreadsheet for further analysis or grading.

Socrative is a great tool for quick discussion questions where you A) want students to talk about a prompt and B) get fast statistics on what everyone is thinking. I have had students use the mobile app on their phones many times, and it almost always works like a champ. I just post the question, students grab their phones, and within minutes you have a bar graph populated with student responses. This can actually prompt further discussion.

ActivePrompt

Another way to find out what students are thinking is to have them place a dot on an image. When enough people do this on the same image you can start to see trends and hotspots. I have done this with continua (e.g., Place a dot on the continuum where you believe the responsibility lies for a positive classroom: Teachers or Students), maps, quadrants, or other diagrams.

When you upload an image to ActivePrompt, you are given two prompts: one for the students to place their dot, and one with all of the dots displayed. You can try this using the following URL:

http://activeprompt.herokuapp.com/SBGWN

You can see the results here:

http://activeprompt.herokuapp.com/TWBUN

I have used this tool in class several times, and it has always been reliable. Students will typically discuss a prompt in pairs, place their dot based on their discussion, then we will discuss patterns and themes as a class.

InfuseLearning

This tool has many of the same features as Socrative, but it has the extra benefit of the InfuseDraw tool. Teachers send students a prompt on which they can draw, annotate, or label an image. Results are saved in the teacher dashboard and can be downloaded as a PDF. Like Socrative, the students do not need an account to log in. They just enter the class code and they are ready for the teacher to send the prompt. The few times I have used this tool it has worked great. Since Apollo, my class-syncing tool of choice, has some of the same features I tend to use that tool instead. However, if you are looking for straight prompts without having students follow your presentation on their screens, InfuseLearning is the way to go.

Google Presentation

I have already written about how to use this tool before, so I won't spend a lot of time explaining how I have used this activity in class. You can do the same thing, or something similar, with Google Docs or Draw, but I like the features in Presentation and the fact that you can assign each group a different slide in the same file.

Google Forms

If you are wanting to get more extensive feedback from students, Forms is the way to go. Results from the forms are instantly sent to a spreadsheet. We all know that spreadsheets are like magic because of all you can do with them. With the emergence of Add-Ons, you can now do even more. Some examples of ways I have used Form data: display the automatically-generated pie graphs, randomly choose responses directly from the spreadsheet, cut and paste the responses into Wordle for an (almost) instant word cloud, or e-mail the students a badge once they complete a set of prompts or an activity (this is not done in real-time ... usually after class).

Since the types of items you can use in a Google form are so diverse, there are many opportunities to use this tool to facilitate discussion in class. Responses are anonymous by default unless  you include an item for names. This tool will require some preparation before class, but that is true of most that I have mentioned here. It's one thing to send out an impromptu poll using Socrative. It's something quite different to make my students sit and watch me create a Google Form. Overall, this is a great tool to keep in the box and use when it fits your instruction.

The importance of discussing and reflecting on learning experiences is pretty well documented. When we give students the opportunity to verbally process their thinking, we increase the chances that they will be able to retain and apply skills and knowledge after the fact. Discussion and reflection helps us give new information personal meaning. Good class discussion starts with good pedagogical practice, but with new tools there are even more opportunities to make it relevant, engaging, and active.

What tools or strategies do you use to facilitate class discussion and find out what students are thinking?

Are You a Technology Ninja or Samurai?


ninja-samurai

I will start by stating the obvious: There is a HUGE difference between learning to use technology for yourself and using it effectively in the student learning process. Both applications of technology have specific skill sets, they inform each other, and they are both important. In the educational technology world, you might see this dichotomy through various lenses: digital media literacy, TPACK, SAMR, or some other framework you're fond of presenting at conferences.

My awareness of the massive difference between these technology applications came when I began encouraging the students in my large, 100-person education course to bring their laptops, tablets, and phones. OK, I don't have to actually encourage college students to bring their phones to class. Pry them out of their hands? That's more like it. Anyway, once I began infusing my class with activities that require technology, I realized I am not as good as teaching with it as I thought I was. Yes, I knew how to do some cool things to present information to my class, but when it came to using technology in real time with 100 students in a way that kept them active and engaged, I had a lot to learn. This is when I decided I was a pretty good Technology Ninja, but I had a long way to go until I was a Technology Samurai.

What do these two terms mean? Let me explain.

Technology Ninja

Ninja were covert agents who specialized in espionage, assassination, sabotage, and infiltration. They were skilled at disguising themselves as servants, camouflaging themselves with trees and other objects, and scaling the walls of buildings like Spider-Man. Their objective was to infiltrate enemy dwellings without being seen. In fact, there is probably a ninja in your pantry right now, scooping out your peanut butter with a Chinese Throwing Star.

As a Technology Ninja, I have gotten really good at using technology in ways that my students hardly know it's there. My most recent set of posts about Outsmarting the LMS is a good illustration of ways to be a Technology Ninja. You can embed documents and web pages, install scripts, and set up forms to make your job easier, and the people actually using these tools have no idea about the magic you have worked on the back end. They just know it works.

While these ninjutsu techniques save me a lot of time and energy in the long run, they do very little to influence the lived experience of my class meetings. Most of the work is done in the background, usually in the form of tinkering, testing, and modifying. It wasn't until I told my entire class of 100+ students that I wanted them to bring their devices to class that I realized these skills were not sufficient for me to reach the level of technology greatness I have always aspired to achieve.

Technology Samurai

When I first began thinking through these ideas, I wrote this out as SAMRi. Get it? SAMR with a lower-case i, like Apple does, only at the end of the word instead of the beginning. Because I am aiming for the R (redefinition) in SAMRand after I achieve the R in my technology integration skills/knowledge, then I will be a technology SAMRi! Uh ... yeah. Anything that needs that much explanation is not as clever as I initially thought it was. Also, SAMRi would direct a lot of traffic to my blog by people looking for Saudi Arabian folk music.

So, what is a Technology Samurai? The traditional samurai were an elite class of noble Japanese warriors, dedicated to protecting their culture, leaders, and territory. Unlike those stealth and sneaky ninjas, they were skilled at hand-to-hand combat and infantry tactics. Their weapons of choice were swords, kama, longbows, daggers, and armor. They were skilled horsemen, and they were also known to use rifles and cannons in the latter years of their existence. Samurai were also governed by a strict honor code, characterized by discipline and loyalty. In a word, they were fearless.

You know what else is fearless? Telling your class to BYOD. Unless you have thought through the details of your activity, you will have students knee deep in Pinterest or Facebook before you can say, "OK, let me just try one more thing to get this to work." Students love technology, but not in the way nerds like me think they love it. They love that technology connects them to the things they love.

So, after having done this for a semester, I have started coming up with a few essential skills that every Technology Samurai must master. These skills/tools are focused primarily on teaching in a BYOD or 1:1 environment. I will address being a Technology Samurai in the areas of digital media projects, collaboration, research, etc. in the coming weeks.

Sync your class

You must have a way to get every student in the same place and keep them there. Your class LMS page won't work. Neither will a Facebook group or Schoology or Edmodo. Why? There are too many other features to look at. Grades, assignments, forums, friends. Too many distractors. You need to keep them all in the same place at once. I recommend a tool like Apollo or Top Hat. If all of your students are on iPads, you may consider NearPod. Each of these tools has something in common: they put your content on every screen in the room at the same time. Yes, students can stray away, but not as much as you might think.

Reduce Friction

This is something that took me awhile to figure out. Personally, I do not like logging in to things. I would much rather log in once and then have the tool remember me. Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter .... they are great at this. My school's LMS? It's like Guy Pearce in Memento every time I close the browser window. Whenever possible, I try to minimize the number of times students have to log in to do class activities. Once is ideal, twice is acceptable, three times is just getting to be plain annoying.

Collect student responses

In addition to getting all of the students in one place, virtually speaking, you want to keep them engaged. A good way to do this is to involve them in activities that make them think then require a response. There are several tools that will let you do this. Apollo and Top Hat have built-in student response features. Socrative and Infuselearning provide another way for students to respond, and they do not have to set up an account to do it. They just enter the class code, and they automatically receive a prompt every time the teacher posts a question.

Deploy links

Another important tool to have in your arsenal if you are going to teach like a samurai is to be able to deploy links to the class. By deploy links, I mean send the student out from your synced content to other content (videos, web pages, forms, etc.). Apps like Apollo and Infuselearning have a built-in link tool that will send a URL to every student logged into your class page or presentation. This is really handy if you want students to spend a few minutes reading and discussing an article, blog post, video, or image. You can also send the students to an editable Google Doc, Sheet, or Presentation if you want to give them a place to discuss or share ideas.

An acceptable alternative to sending links to students is using a URL shortening tool, like bit.ly or goo.gl. Just remember to use a serif font so the students can tell the different between capital I and lower-case L. You may also want to consider if this is appropriate based on the size of the room and projection system, the age of the students, and number of times you are having them key in shortened URLs. If you have a bunch of these on the board, it may get confusing to the students.

Facilitate group work

Another skill to master as a Technology Samurai is to keep students engaged in group activities with their computers. I mean, the students have lugged their computers to class and followed along up to this point, so why not do some things with computers that computers are uniquely good at doing. Maybe that involves editing the same document at the same time, or adding slides to a common presentation. You can have them pin and explain places on a map.  Annotate or draw images using the drawing quiz tool in Apollo or Infuselearning. Create a 5-picture story, or capture a 30-second explanation on Educreations. I'm not trying to exhaust the possibilities here. If you went to the trouble to have the students bring their computers to class (or went to the extreme trouble of providing a device for every student in the school), then leverage the capabilities of a computer. Don't use it like a pencil then complain that students just want to look at Pinterest.

Showcase the students

Now that you have had the students doing some activities on the computer during class, showcase their work. Display their annotations and diagrams. Flip through the presentation and let each group present their page. Show the 5-pic stories and see if the students can guess the topic. Watch the 30-second explanations. This part of the BYOD learning environment is more than the payoff. It's the point in the lesson in which you communicate to your students whether you, as the chief learner in the room, value this activity as a real learning endeavor or just a hi-tech time filler. If you truly value the work they are doing, then devote time to acknowledging, praising, critiquing, and sharing the fruits of their labor. If you blow past the showcase, don't be surprised if the students show less enthusiasm and engagement the next time around.

You should strive to be both a ninja and a samurai. A samja. A ninjurai. A SAMuRinja. Both skill sets are important for teachers these days, for different reasons. One will keep you learning, the other will help you focus on student learning. The way of the ninja and samurai is not easy. They involve risk, uncertainty, failures, faith, persistence, patience, creativity, and problem solving. There is great cost in becoming a lifelong learner, but it's not nearly as costly as settling in and ceasing to grow and develop as a teacher.

So, what are your examples of being a Technology Ninja or Samurai? I will follow up on this, and I would love to hear your ideas.

Some Bullet Points and a Picture

As a teacher, I am always making instructional decisions. More often than not, these decision manifest themselves as questions. What do I want the students to know, understand, or be able to do at the end of my lesson? Who will do most of the talking, me or the students? Where does this lesson fit in the big picture of the class? Will I use technology? Will the students use technology? In addition to asking myself these questions, I am also continually looking for ways to teach better. That includes instructional strategies and technology. In some cases, the stars align and I discover strategies in which technology allows me to teach a lesson in a completely new way. For those SAMR enthusiasts out there, this would be R, or redefinition.

One such idea I recently came up with is an activity I call Some Bullet Points and a Picture (SBPAP). Yes, I have a dry sense of humor. This activity builds on the time-tested teaching strategy of having students work in groups and put their ideas down on chart paper. I love this activity, especially for class reading activities. I will assign an article, divide the class into groups, have them read a specific section of the article, then summarize and share their section with the rest of the class. This is a great way for the students to take ownership of the article and teach it to each other. It also gives them an advance organizer for when they go back and read it again for the exam.

SBPAP is the same idea as using chart paper, but the students summarize their group discussions on separate slides in a Google Presentation. I did some minimal setting up before class by creating the presentation, making it editable for anyone with the link, and creating a separate slide for each section of the article. The students then went to the Google Presentation, found their slide, and began summarizing their section of the article. The only two rules were 1) they had to paraphrase every main point in their own words, and 2) they had to find a picture that characterized their main points. The students used the research tool to find their images so they did not have to leave Google Presentation. Overall, the students loved the activity and we had a lot of fun seeing everyone's slides get edited at once.

There are some obvious advantages to doing this activity with a Google Presentation instead of chart paper:

  • The summaries are all in one place, so I can see which groups are making progress and who is not
  • Since the students are all working on the same presentation, I can project it and have each group present their ideas
  • The research tool allows the students to search for images, videos, quotes, charts, facts without leaving the presentation
  • After the activity is over, I can export the presentation as a PDF and post it to my LMS
  • The slides give me a record of what we covered in class, especially for students who missed and want to know if we "talked about anything important"
  • I don't have to figure out what to do with the chart paper after the activity is over

SBPAP was a great way to engage the students and have them actively learn the content. I will definitely do this again, and I may even think of some other ways to modify this activity and leverage more features of Google Presentation.

What are some innovative ways you have used Google Presentation in your classes to facilitate group work or engage the students?

Move over LiveSlide ... Hello Apollo

Apollo IconA few weeks ago, LiveSlide got a complete overhaul. So complete, in fact, that it was given a new name. I have written before about how much I enjoyed using LiveSlide, and I am happy to report that my overall satisfaction with this tool has not changed at all since I first started using it. I would like to go over a few of the new features that I really like about Apollo. First of all, Apollo is a classroom presentation/engagement tool. Imagine a classroom full of children with devices or computers, such as iPads or Chromebooks. Imagine instead of projecting your content on one big screen and requiring students to follow along, you could project your content onto every screen at the same time. This is exactly what Apollo does, but the newly updated version does so much more.

Slide Sharing

The main feature of Apollo is that it lets the teacher set up classes and share presentations with students on multiple platforms. Since this tool is completely brower-based, students can access the content from phones, tablets, and computers. Students can create an account in minutes, and for a small subscription they can access all of the decks from a class anytime they want. The free account allows students to follow along while the teacher is presenting, but they don't have access to the decks outside of class.

The teacher can set up the decks to advance all at the same time, or students can browse the slides at their own pace. There is also a tool for taking notes, though this would only be necessary if the student has the subscription. Several of my students have paid for the subscription, and they have liked being able to review their notes and the slides (with my annotations from class) when preparing for a test.

Annotations

The teacher screen features several different tools for annotating slides during a lesson. The tool I use most is the pen. I have surprised myself at how often I write things down on the slides, or draw arrows and circles for emphasis. I guess I have used PPT for so long, I forgot this is what teachers actually did when chalkboards were cutting edge technology! The eraser tool from LiveSlide is gone, which is a little annoying. I do like to be able to erase things when I make a mistake, so hopefully that feature will come back.

Control

The feature with the most promise is the ability to hand over control of the slides to a student. The student must be signed in to the class to do this. Once there are students signed in, I can pass off control and they will be able to annotate the slides for everyone or advance the slides. This has a lot of potential for group work and gathering formative assessment about their progress. In the past, I would have groups stand up and share what they talked about. Now, I can give them control and let them show their work instantly on the big screen.

Assessment

A new feature to Apollo is the ability to quiz students on the fly. The multiple choice tool has been there all along, but now you can turn a slide into an assessment by having students annotate or draw an image. Their drawing is instantly saved to the deck, and you can get quick feedback about their understanding of a concept. For example. you could create a slide with an image of a plant cell. While you are on that slide, you add a Drawing Quiz. When the students get to that slide, they will be prompted to draw on the image (e.g., label the parts of the cell) and submit their answers. The images then show up in a dashboard for you to look at. You can also add the student submissions to the presentation if you want to show it to the class.

Web Content

One of the hardest things about teaching in a BYOD environment (at least for me) is deploying links for everyone to view. In a computer lab, I can use SMART Sync or LANSchool to send content to all of the students, but this is much harder in a classroom where everyone is on their own computer. I have tried shortened URLs with bit.ly or goo.gl, but I still have to stop what I am doing and write the address on the board. With Apollo, I can add a URL to a slide, either in advance or on the fly, and it instantly creates a link in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. Students can then click on that link and view the content I have pushed out with minimal disruption to instruction.

I can do the same thing with videos. By simply adding the video URL, Apollo identifies the video and embeds it into the deck. So, rather than put a class full of students asleep watching a video on a big screen, I can have small groups of students huddle around a small screen and discuss a video. I have already done things like, "Stop the video every time you see [blank] and discuss what you think the teacher will do next." It's much more active than just showing the video and trying to discuss it as a whole group.

Recording

One feature I have not used yet is the ability to record a presentation while I am presenting. In order to do this, you have to download the native app and present from a laptop. I haven't really had a reason to do this yet, but I will play around with it this summer when I have some time.

There are many things I like about Apollo. I like that their team is so responsive. One of their reps actually drove to my campus to watch me use it in action, and gave me some feedback for adding students to the class. I like being able to wirelessly control the slides from my iPad and walk around the room while the students have the same content on their screens. I love being able to add links, blanks slides and video on the fly for students to view. Even more than that, I really, really love being able to annotate the slides in real time. No lag, no awkward angular lines ... just my good ole' terrible handwriting for the students to behold in all its glory. Apollo really is a great tool for teaching in a BYOD class. You can learn more about Apollo at their YouTube channel.

I would encourage you to give Apollo a try. I am also interested in hearing about other strategies for keeping students engaged and active in a BYOD environment. Let me know of your ideas, I would love to hear them.

Studying with Google Hangouts on Air

A few months ago I wrote about using Ustream to broadcast an online study session with my large class. I used it twice, and it worked pretty well both times. The main hangup I had with this tool was that I had to download a separate program to display my screen to the students. I was able to figure it out pretty easily, but I prefer tools that do not require any downloads.

This semester when I was planning the different activities for the students, I thought about trying Google Hangouts on Air. I actually thought about using it last semester but there were a few issues that made me gun shy. First of all, there is a significant lag between when I show something and when the audience sees it. This isn't a huge deal, but I was worried it might be a distraction to the students. What I discovered is that this is not even noticeable to the students because they don't know when I start speaking. The other issue I had was that students had to have a Google account in order to post questions. Honestly, I did not want to manage everyone getting a Google account, so I opted for Ustream and TodaysMeet for students to post questions.

After some thought, I jumped in with Hangouts on Air, and I could not be happier about this decision. First of all, students who really want to ask a question will figure out the Google account thing. I did not have one complaint or issue arise over this detail, so it turned out to be nothing to be worried about. Here are some of the features that make Hangouts on Air perfect for an online study session:

  • Q&A: Students can post questions to the Q&A tool, and I select them as I answer each question. The beautiful thing about this tool is that once the session is over, the Q&A tool becomes like a set of bookmarks that will snap to the exact part of the recording that addresses each question. Students to have to be signed into Google to post a question, but as I said before this did not prohibit students from asking their questions.
  • Screen Sharing: Hangouts comes with a lot of built in tools, one of which is screen sharing. This invaluable when it comes to putting up slides from class or drawing diagrams. I mean, who wants to just listen to me talk and see my face for an hour? I would much rather hide behind my bullet points.
  • Browser based: Hangouts is also completely housed in the browser, so there is nothing to download (other than the plug-in which accesses your mic and camera).
  • Scheduled Events: You can actually set up the hangout in advance and invite people to view it. This is very helpful for people like me who tend to forget things because Google will send reminders that the event is coming up.
  • Session Recording: This feature only applies to Hangouts on Air, but once you go live it starts recording. This is also a great way to create screencasts with book marks to different steps in the process.

I was pleasantly surprised how easy this tool is to use, and how many features it has built in. I will definitely use it for future study sessions, and I may even find ways to do it better. In case you are interested. Here is a link to the recording from a few nights ago: Online Study Session.

Video Conference Tools: Choices, choices

Tonight in my graduate technology class, we spent most of the meeting testing and discussing a variety of video conferencing tools. I had a few criteria for choosing the tools we would demo:

  1. The tool had to have at least a free entry-level account
  2. The tool had to stream a video feed in real time
  3. The tool could not rely on installed software on both sides of the call (I strayed from this criterion with Skype)

So, my criteria were pretty simple, but considering the context of my learning environment, each of these was pretty important. I teach in a computer lab, and the computers do not allow installations. I did not have time to install software ahead of time, so I stuck close to applications that don't require a download and installation. The tools I chose were:

You can see the detailed results of our class meeting on Video Conferencing document.

Skype

The first tool we looked at was Skype. This video tool has been around for quite awhile, in tech years. I remember using it in 2006 to conference with people at different universities all over the country, and even then it worked pretty well. The main problem then was the hardware. Webcams were clunky and unpredictable. They required extra drivers and programs to work. But for a free tool, it was pretty amazing. Well, it hasn't changed much since then, and all changes have been for the better.

Because the lab computer did not have Skype or webcams and microphones, I had to demo this tool using to of my devices. So, I displayed my MacBook for the class using the projector, and I called myself using my wife's Skype account on my iPad. The students could see both ends of the call with the devices in the lab, and we were able to discuss most of the features of the tool. Even though this tool requires each user to install the program, it is quite easy to use and has several applications in schools. My favorite is Mystery Skype, which I have not had a chance to do yet. Skype allows for conference video call with up to 10 users.

Google Hangouts

The next tool we looked at was Google Hangouts. I had never actually used this tool before because, well, I don't really have a reason to. I had looked into using it with a different class I teach, but it was not a good match for what I was trying to do. So, I was excited to see how this would work with a class of 7 people. Each person had a Google account for other projects we have been working on, so I knew everyone would be able to join the session.

The process for joining the Hangout was a little more involved than I had thought it would be, but I pointed out to my class that it gets easier after they have done it a couple of times. One everyone was in, we were able to test the different features of this tool. We looked at screen sharing, chat, YouTube sharing, and I even tried on a few of the silly masks and hats. Since the students did not have webcams, we were not able to share control of the meeting, but I think they got the point. One constraint to this tool for large classes is that only 10 people can join a Hangout at one time. Hangouts on Air allows unlimited viewers, but as I will discuss, there are some limitations

After using Hangouts for a few minutes, we switched over to Google Hangouts on Air. I showed them my screen as I set up the live broadcast, then I showed them how to find the live feed. I enabled the Q&A feature (which in order to use, users must be logged in with a Google account)  before I broadcast the meeting, and we were able to post a few questions and answers, which when clicked snap directly to each response without watching the entire video. We also used a stopwatch to monitor the lag time between when I did something on the screen and when the viewers actually saw. We determined that it was about 45 seconds, which was better than the first time I used Hangouts on Air.

One feature I personally like about Hangouts on Air is that the broadcast is automatically recorded and sent to my YouTube account. This removes the Q&A responses from the video, but it quickly creates an archive that others can watch within minutes of the original broadcast. If viewers access the recording from my Google+ profile, the questions and answers are still there. Overall, I am impressed by the many features of this tool. Logistically, I will need to think through how to use the Q&A tool with my class, but compared to other tools it is pretty easy to set up and use.

Join.Me

I first found out about this tool a few years back when I had to train a new instructor in a different state how to use Moodle. Even though she could not figure out the audio call feature and we had to use the phone, it was a great way for me to walk her through the LMS and answer questions about the course. Since then, this tool seems to have gotten even better and it is a great way to communicate with people, especially if you are helping them troubleshoot a problem on their computer or performing a demo of some software that runs on your machine.

Of all the solutions so far, this is the easiest one for collaborating or conferencing with a small group of people. The person who initiates the call is given a 9-digit code, which users can enter to join. The session can either be hosted directly through the browser, or users can install the join.me application on their computers, which allows the extra benefit of different people taking turns sharing their screens. The browser option only allows the session initiator to share his screen, which in this case was me.

Join.Me also has an audio feature where attendees can talk using an internet connection or phone call. Since no one in the class had a microphone, we were not able to test this feature, but when I joined the session from my iPad, the call feature worked great. This tool also has the ability to allow different attendees to control the host computer, and you can send files to the users from your computer. In terms of attendee engagement, there is a chat feature for questions or backchannel jibber jabber. Each session, when using the free account, allows 10 people to join a session.

Ustream

The final tool we looked at, which I have written about before, was Ustream. This is similar to Hangouts on Air, but there are some unique differences that make it better suited from some types of presentations. There are two ways to broadcast to a large audience: Broadcaster and Producer. Broadcaster works directly through the browser and only shows video from the webcam. There is no way to share your screen, which may be a limitation for some types of presentations. Producer is a free application you can download from Ustream, and it does enable screen sharing using yet another downloaded app. This option was a little hard to figure out the first time I was testing it, but it was pretty simple once I got used to it. Compared to Hangouts on Air, the lag time is much better. We tested it a couple of times, and it was around 15 seconds.

This tool does not automatically record broadcasts, but you have that option if you want. The presenter can turn the record feature on an off during the presentation, which might be a good way to break it up into smaller segments for later viewing. Whereas the landing page for Hangouts on Air is the presenters profile on Google+, Ustream lets you set up a "channel" that serves as a hub for all of your presentations. I like this better than the Google+ profile page, which serves as a hub for all my posts and updates. Ustream would definitely be easier to navigate as a student who is trying to find an archived recording because the broadcasts are not crowded out by other content. Recordings can also be migrated to YouTube if you want to embed it in a web page or blog.

Each broadcast also has a Social Stream feature, but users must be  logged into Facebook, Twitter, or Ustream to post questions. I am pretty sure my students don't want their questions showing up in their Twitter feeds, so this may not be a great feature for all people. Just like Hangouts on Air, an unlimited number of users can view the presentation, but it is a one-way conversation. If you are collaborating with a small number of people, I recommend one of the other options.

And the winner is ...

Clearly, each tool we tested in my class has its unique set of features and some limitations. Some are good for small group collaboration, others are good for large presentations. Some are better for screen sharing, and others are good for performances. Just like with all technology solutions, you need to analyze the context in which the tool will be used before you settle on a tool. The context should dictate your choice of tool. This was a great experience for my students, and the whole process was actually pretty fun. I think 4 different tools is the ideal number to test in a 2-hour class meeting, and each student walked away with some good information about the affordances and constraints of different video conferencing tools.