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Outsmarting the LMS: Embedding Google Docs

I generally love all things Web-related: social media, digital media, coding, learning management systems. You name it. But there are two things I absolutely hate and will avoid whenever possible. Uploading and logging in. I hate them both. They use up valuable time. They're obnoxious. So, I'm left with two options. I can either bite the bullet and just put up with both of those feudal tasks, or I can find a way around it.

Obviously, I chose the second option.

I have been doing this for a few years now, and it really has saved me a lot of time and frustration. This is why I would like to pass on the golden nugget known as embedding Google Docs in your LMS.

Step One: Convert to Google Docs

Before you can embed a Google Doc in your course shell, you have to have a Google Doc to embed. Most of the docs I  use in my class (e.g., assignment descriptions, syllabi, tutorials and FAQs) originally existed as Word docs. Google makes it really easy to convert Word docs into Google Docs. You simply to go your Google Drive, click upload, and choose to convert the document (see below)

TCU_Shared_-_Google_Drive

TCU_Shared_-_Google_Drive

In the event you want to create a Google Doc from scratch, you can read this help document directly from Google. They've already done the work so I don't have to!

Step 2: Grab the Code

After you have created your Google Doc, you will need to grab the HTML code to add to eCollege. You can see this process in the images below:

Embedding_Docs_in_eCollege_-_Google_Drive-5 Embedding_Docs_in_eCollege_-_Google_Drive-2 Embedding_Docs_in_eCollege_-_Google_Drive-5 2

Step 3: Paste and Modify the Code

Now that you have the code in your clipboard, you need to go to the page in your LMS where you want to embed the Google Doc. The following screenshots are taken in eCollege, but there is probably a similar feature in all LMS products.

Student_Teaching_Mid_School_742__Alexander_-3

Student_Teaching_Mid_School_742__Alexander_-3 2

Student_Teaching_Mid_School_742__Alexander_

Notice the extra code I added to the original iFrame code in order to make sure the entire document displays in the LMS. If you do not add the width and height code, it will show up as a small box on the LMS page you created. The width should always be 100%, but the height may vary to ensure the whole document will fit in the frame without extra scrolling.  The end result looks like this below:

Student_Teaching_Mid_School_742__Alexander__and_Embedding_Docs_in_eCollege_-_Google_Drive-4

The beauty of this technique is that when I make a change to the Google Doc, it immediately shows up in eCollege! No uploading and replacing old documents each semester. When I copy my course shell each semester, the HTML is still there so I only have to modify the original Google Doc. I don't think I will ever go back! So, give this a try and see how it works for you. You can also watch an archive of this Google Hangout where I showed this technique to some colleagues. Good luck!

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.

Presenting with LiveSlide

I am always on a quest to find better ways to control my content during class meetings with my iPad. I have tried just about everything, from mirroring with Airserver to SlideShark, and nothing has quite done what I want. Either the tool is too unpredictable (Airserver) or it is too narrow (SlideShark), so I continue to keep my eyes peeled for ways to present my lectures while mobile in the classroom.

The best solution I have found so far is LiveSlide, a simple browser-based tool that lets you remotely control slides from any device. Teachers can use it as I do, to project content to the class while controlling it from a mobile device, or they can share the slides with their students and have them follow along during class. Students can also take notes on the slides for themselves, and the tool has a few interactive features for questioning and quizzes. I have not used many of these features, but I plan on it in the coming weeks.

LiveSlide is incredibly easy to set up. Since it is browser based, there is no app to install. Educators who sign up with their school e-mail will be automatically upgraded to the Elite account for free.

Once your account is set up, you can either create presentations from scratch or import them from your computer or Google Drive. Obviously, I use the last option since I typically create my presentation with Google Slides anyway. I have imported approximately 20 presentations so far, and I have not had so much as a hiccup during the process.

Students can view slides using one of two options. If they want to simply view the slides, they can join remotely using an access key. The teacher can decide whether or not the students can advance the slides on their own or if they must view them at the teacher's pace. The teacher can add quizzes and polls for students to answer, and students can submit questions while the teacher is presenting. I typically log in from my iPad then join the presentation from whichever computer is connected to the projector.

If students want to make a copy of the slides for themselves, they can pay a small account fee and be added to the course. All slide decks for that class will show up in their account, and they can take notes directly on the slides. I have not used this option, so I cannot verify how the students takes notes (writing on the tablet screen vs. typing). I think this will be a great feature when I begin to use it.

My favorite feature of this tool is that teachers can quickly add content and blank slides to a deck while they are teaching. You can add a YouTube video, take or import a picture, or add a blank slide to draw a diagram. I have already surprised myself a few times by drawing impromptu diagrams or importing a picture for everyone to see. This is a feature not available on any other web-based tool I have used.

There are a few limitations to LiveSlide that I hope will improve over time. For one, there are shape tools (circle, square, and line), but there is no way to move the objects around once they have been added, and I can't figure out how to delete them. I don't use this feature much, but I might if it was more responsive. Also, sometimes the tools disappear from the page if my iPad goes to sleep. I have to reload the page for the drawing tools to come back, which can be a little distracting while I am teaching. If I don't draw attention to myself, I doubt the students know what I am doing. :-)

Overall, I have to say I am quite impressed with this little tool. The team that created and maintains this tool is very responsive (hint, hint ... read that last paragraph). You can learn more about LiveSlide from their YouTube channel, which I plan on viewing carefully in the future. I hope to use more of the features in the near future and write more about it.  Keep up the great work Atlas Learning team.

*Note: There are a few tools on the web that use the name LiveSlide. Make sure you look for the one in the Atlas Learning toolkit. There is also a social network called Liveslide, but that is not something I am interested in at this point. :-)

 

Outsmarting the LMS: Creating Drag and Drop Folders

Update! Since posting this several months ago, Google has disabled embedding a Google Site. It's nice to know my Technology Ninja skills are being noticed (which is the exact opposite of what a ninja actually wants to do). I will leave this tutorial in case Google decides to start playing nice again.

Software developers must have a really distorted view of how professors use their time. Maybe they think we teach a few times per week and spend the rest of our time playing golf or drinking coffee while we complain about students. Maybe they think we enjoy spending hours each semester staring at progress bars while our files upload. Who knows. What I do know is that over the last 10+ years in higher education, I have developed a love/hate relationship with every LMS I have been forced to use. I love them because it is the best way to communicate with my students. When they want to know something, this is where they look first. I can post grades quickly, give feedback on their work, and create a safe place to share information.

I also hate the LMS because most of them are outdated, not very attractive (though that is not really such a big deal), and require redundant work from semester to semester. My goal the last few years has been to outsmart the LMS and find ways to work efficiently despite its limitations. I will spread these ideas out over several posts, which may take me several weeks to work through. The first topic I would like to address is creating drag-n-drop folders for documents and other media.

Step One: Creating Folders in Google Drive

The first step is to download and install the Google Drive desktop app. This is a pretty easy step, and the program runs unnoticeably on your computer. Once you have this installed, it will sync your Google Drive from the cloud to your computer. Anything you create from the computer (folders, files, etc.) will also be instantly synced to the cloud. I like to stay organized, so I created folders for each class, and then created folders within each class folder for the different things I would be sharing with students. This includes assigned readings, PPT files, assignment descriptions, etc. I already had some of my files ready for the new semester, so I copied them into the appropriate folders.

Step Two: Embed Folders into Google Sites

This is the step that might be a deal breaker for some people. As you may know, you can share a Google Drive folder with anyone with the link, which is a pretty handy feature when you want to share a bunch of stuff that might exceed the e-mail attachment limit. Unfortunately, Google has blocked the folder view in Drive from being embedded using the iframe tag in HTML. If you do this, you will be met with a blank box in the middle of your webpage. The only way to embed dynamic content from a Google Drive folder is to embed it in a Google Sites page. Sites has a widget for embedding an entire folder. So, for every folder you want to share with students, you will have to create a webpage for that folder. In order to keep myself organized, I structured the Google Site exactly like the folders in Google Drive. For example, I created a page for each class, then I made a page under that page for each folder I want to share. This took some time, but I should only have to do this once. I can always make more pages and folders, but the basic structure is there.

Step Three: Embed the Google Sites Pages

The final step is pretty straight forward. You do not need to know a lot of HTML to embed the Google Sites pages into your LMS. My institution uses Pearson LearningStudio, which allows me to directly edit the HTML. First, I created a tab, or Unit as they call it, for each folder. I then used the following code to embed the webpage on that tab:

<iframe src="http://www.somepage.com" width="100%" height="1000"></iframe>

You may need to adjust the settings of your Google Sites page so the embedded folder will stand out, but that is an easy fix. It should look something like this:

Crit_Investgatn_Teach_Learning_040__Alexander_

The beauty of this system is two-fold. First, any time I want to add or delete files from a folder, I just do it from the Google Drive folder on my computer and the changes are immediately synced anywhere the folder is embedded. I can also edit files and the changes are immediately synced. Second, this code is preserved anytime I copy a course to a new semester. So, I only have to do this once and all of my content follows.

What hacks have you come up with to make the LMS easier to deal with? I would love to hear your ideas.

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.

All In: The New LMS

Today I attended a presentation sponsored by Apple about the changing role of mobile technologies in higher education, particularly colleges of education. This is of particular importance to my college right now because we are beginning to talk a lot about how and why to use different types of technology in our courses. Many faculty have been using technology for many years in their courses, but we are starting to see a shift in the role of technology in terms of how students access and use information. The presentation today, given by John Landis, Ph.D., was very much in line with the conversations I have been having with some of my colleagues over the past few months.

I will be honest, Dr. Landis' presentation was impressive. He is a great storyteller and is current on the trends and predictions sweeping through both K-12 and higher education. He understands that technology has traditionally been used to help teachers do what they've always done more efficiently or faster. He knows that students these days can get the same content traditionally transmitted from the instructor on any device, anywhere, at any time. And it's usually a lot more interesting. None of this was new to me, but it was still delivered in a fresh and relevant way. Landis presented a blend of theories, examples, and demos, primarily from his MacBook and iPad Mini, and the technology worked like a champ. He mirrored his iPad display using an Apple TV, and could switch pretty quickly to his MacBook Air to demo other programs. As a pretty heavy tech user, I was impressed that he was able to change speeds in so many different ways without so much as a hiccup.

What this presentation made very clear to me, however, was something I have been mulling over for quite some time. It is this idea that in order to fully leverage the benefits of one device, you must fully employ all of the devices in that particular ecosystem. In this way, Apple is actually becoming a device-based LMS. Just like Blackboard or Moodle have a suite of tools under the hood, Apple has an array of powerful tools that can really change the way teachers and students approach learning. The catch, however, is that one must buy in to the whole ecosystem in order to really see these benefits. For example:

  • I can create a customized, multimedia iBook on my MacBook for free, but it only really handles Mac-based media (.mov, Keynote, Pages, etc.).
  • Only my students with an iPad can download the multimedia version of the book and get the full benefit. Students running Mavericks can also read the book on their Mac, but students with Android or Windows devices are left behind.
  • I can mirror my iPad to my MacBook using AirServer, but it's not stable and does not work over my schools WiFi. If I want to really mirror my iPad, I need an Apple TV.
  • I can sync content across devices with a variety of tools, but the only way to sync ALL of my content is with iCloud, which is only for Mac.

The point is, each tool Dr. Landis showed us does amazing things. I want to try everything he showed us (except for the stuff I am already doing ... I want to keep doing it). But the only way to leverage the capabilities of each tool is to use it as part of the Apple Ecosystem (a term he used repeatedly). Apples are meant to work with other Apples, and there is really no motivation to make them work with Android (Google) or Windows. My workarounds, as I have found, are much more complex than the typical tech-using teacher is willing to mess with. I have found a way to teach from my iPad without using AirServer, which is a pretty awful replacement for an Apple TV. I use Google Docs to host and share course files, which works pretty well most of the time, but it's not as slick as content aggregated in an iBook. I have founds ways to do the things I want to do, but it's always a little more work when I am doing this across devices and outside "the ecosystem."

My take-away message is that Apple, Google, and Windows really are trying to create a system, and already have, where users must be "all in" in order to reap the benefits of their technology. More than ever, their tools only really play well with their own family members, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a balanced digital life across platforms. With the exception of a few apps like Evernote or Google Drive, content on your device stays on your device.

I have no idea which ecosystem TCU will join, but I think they will eventually need to decide. These companies, which control the market, are leaving us very little choice otherwise.

One to Many: Using Ustream for an online study session

I try to be responsive to my students each semester and make adjustments to my courses that let them know I value their opinion. There are some things I don't change, such as assignments or due dates, but there are other areas in which I can be responsive. One such area is providing the students with resources that will help them be successful on the exams. After the first exam, some students were freaking out about the sheer amount of information I was expecting them to remember. In order to focus their efforts, I began sending out learning objectives after class. I think this helped, but some of them still felt overwhelmed.

This is when I decided to hold an online study session. I had been playing around with Google Hangouts, and I thought this would be a great tool to facilitate a study session. However, after some testing and investigating I realized this was not the best tool for what I was trying to do. Google Hangouts only allows 10 people to join, and I have over 100 students. There is also a 2-minute lag in the Live Broadcast between what I am saying in real-time and when the audience actually hears it. This may work well for some types of broadcasts, such as a live event or a performance, but this does not work very well for a question and answer session.

After some exploring, I found out about Ustream. This tool is very much like Google Live Hangouts, in that someone can set up a broadcast and allow viewers to watch through a Web browser. I set up a channel for my class, which I sent out to the students the day of the study session. Presenters can either broadcast from the browser, using the iOS app, or download Ustream Producer and broadcast from their desktop. The browser and mobile app use the camera on your device, and you can only show your face. The Producer program lets you also share your desktop, which is what I used to share documents and slides from the class.

Once I had everything set up, I started broadcasting and recording the review session. The hardest part of this session was speaking to an empty room. Ustream is different than Google Hangouts or Skype in that only allows one-way communication. This caused some awkwardness because I did not get any feedback from the audience. I kept checking to see if the presentation was still recording, which made it even more awkward. The students sent me their questions using TodaysMeet, which is a simple, impromptu chat room. There is no sign-in required, and the room can be saved indefinitely. The recorded presentation is embedded below:

Video streaming by Ustream

The feedback from the students was quite positive about this review session, and the whole process was quite easy. This took about an hour of my time in the evening, and this is something I an easily incorporate into my class each semester. I hope to find more creative ways to host study sessions, but this was a good place to start.

Creating visual tutorials with Snapguide

For the past two weeks, the students in my graduate class have been exploring various ways to provide scaffolding to learners using digital tools. These explorations have been grounded in an article we read by Mayer & Moreno (2003), which describes 9 practical ways to reduce cognitive load using instructional design principles and digital tools. The students have done everything from creating QuickStart guides with screenshots and Word to screencasts with Screencast-o-Matic to "flipped" lessons with Educreations. The main theme that emerged from all of these explorations is that digital tools, while easy to access and use, are still quite complex and rarely work in isolation. Content creators need to understand a variety of tools to create, share, and distribute their digital products. Some people call this digital literacy. Teachers rarely have time to devote large blocks to teaching their students how to use digital tools, which is why it is helpful to have a variety of techniques to record and share explanations which can be viewed outside of class time. This is the beauty of digitally-supported scaffolding. Teachers can continue to support student learning even when class is not in session.

To further explore this concept tonight, the students created visual tutorials with Snapguide. I found this tool when I was looking through the help resources for another tool, InfuseLearning. I really liked the interface, and when I saw the iOS app I was really impressed with how easy it is to use. The students and I agreed this would be a great way for kids to practice How-To writing, and for teachers to send visual instructions home. I remember sending home detailed written instructions for parents when I was teacher, and the science projects STILL did not come back done correctly. I would have loved to have something like Snapguide to visually walk the students through the project.

It's amazing to me how visual our culture is. Now that seemingly everyone is walking around with small computers in their pockets, there is no end to the media people can create about everyday processes and skills. In addition to being visual culture, we are a culture of sharing. Snapguide combined with other tools like Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter give us the potential to learn just about anything.

Here are some examples my students created last night in class:

Check out How to Make a 3D Foldify by TCU Horned Frogs on Snapguide.

Check out How to Make a Paper Bus by TCU Horned Frogs on Snapguide.

Check out How to Create a Foldable Mini House by TCU Horned Frogs on Snapguide.

What tools do you use to learn and share new things?

Lecturecasting with a Bamboo

I recently got a question from a teacher about recording mathematics explanations using a Bamboo from Wacom. I have never used a Bamboo before, but I know people who have and I've seen other tablets like it, so I knew what this teacher was asking. When using a Bamboo, you project your computer on the screen using a digital projector, and the tablet is essentially a big mouse pad that lets you draw or write with a stylus. I have used similar tools before, and there is no projection on the tablet itself. You can just see your marking on the computer or projector.

Since the computer is the "brains" for the Bamboo, rather than an app on an iPad or other tablet, Bamboo users must use a program that runs on their computer. To my knowledge, the are not many computer programs that function as a whiteboard AND let you record your explanation. One would have to use a whiteboard app concurrently with screencasting software. This may become more trouble than it's worth, in my opinion. There is, however, a web tool called Educreations that works as a whiteboard that records pen strokes on a virtual whiteboard. The developers really push the iPad app, but there is a web component to it as well. I have used it with my students, and it works pretty well when there is no iPad available.

Using this tool, the teacer would project the browser page using the computer, and the Bamboo would be the writing tool. I wanted to walk myself through the process and recorded a demo, seen below (Note: I am not using a Bamboo; rather, I am remotely accessing the screen from my computer on my iPad using SplashTop. The iPad is acting like a Bamboo ... complicated, I know.)

The teacher to whom I was explaining this process bought his own Bamboo and teaches in a school devoid of many technological tools other schools have access to. My goal was to point him to something free that offered most of the things he wanted to do. Conceptually, this teacher understands the value of digitally recording complex explanations to students. He can go back and revisit old problems without having to rewrite them on the board, and since the entire explanation is recorded the students can watch it later when they are working independently. I tip my hat to teachers like this who catch a vision and seek out information to make it happen given the resources they have access to. iPads and other tablets are slick, trendy, and honesty, quite powerful, but they are not the only way to implement innovative teaching strategies with technology. No matter what the tool, there is no replacement for persistence and creativity.

Projecting lectures with SlideShark

As I mentioned in a previous post, I used my iPad during the Spring 2013 semester as a control center for displaying images, video, and (don't judge me) bullet points. In my imagination, this made me the coolest professor on the planet. I oozed awesome with every gesture and swipe of the iPad. My students thought I was a dork.

I don't know if that word actually came to mind, but the vibe was definitely tangible in the room. My protocol for projecting the iPad display was pretty reliable, but I was using AirServer over a Bluetooth connection that could only handle a small amount of data at once. There was often a delay between what I was doing on the iPad and what the students were seeing, and sometimes the connection would freeze altogether. This connection would also not handle video or any type of animation. Personally, I did not see this as a big deal, but my students did and said as much on their course evaluations.

This prompted me to re-think how I was going to use my iPad as a portable lectern, or if I was going to do this at all next semester. I revisited a few different options I had explored before, and nothing seemed to do what I wanted. That is, of course, until I happened to read the SlideShark blog. I had used this app a few times already for presenting slides, and I liked it quite a bit. I was able to monitor my presentation with a timer, see my presentation notes, and quite importantly, preserve any animations I had embedded in the slides. The app also handles embedded video pretty smoothly without the need to include the video file somewhere on your device. Everything is computed in the cloud and is downloaded to the mobile app.

Until recently, I still had to mirror my iPad display onto my MacBook via AirPlay by way of AirServer in order to use SlideShark. Even though it was a step up from some other apps I was using, it still got hung up sometimes and would stop advancing the main points I was covering in the class meeting. Apparently this is quite exasperating to undergraduates (though they expect me to be "cool" with their "multi-tasking").

SlideShark has now added the Broadcast feature to it's app, which lets a presenter remotely control slides through the cloud from an  iPad. This means I do not have to connect my device to my MacBook via AirServer. I just have to make sure my iPad and the computer connected to the projector are both online. Here is a brief rundown of the workflow:

  1. Upload the presentation to your SlideShark account
  2. Open the SlideShark app from your iPad
  3. Download the presentation to your device
  4. Open the presentation and click Broadcast
  5. Open a browser on the computer connected to the projector
  6. Go to: www.slideshark.com/meet/username
  7. Your slides will be remotely controlled with your iPad and displayed through this browser window. You can expect a 2-4 second delay between the device and the browser. When you stop to think about it, that is FREAKING AMAZING! 2-4 seconds?! Are you kidding me?!

Of course, this method is not perfect. You can't ...

  • Show the iPad display. This will only show your slides. If you need to switch between apps, you will still need to use something like Reflector or AirServer.
  • This option is not free. After June 15, when the trial period ends, the ability to Broadcast slides will set you back to the tune of $95 a year. That is not chump change in my household, but I think it will be worth the money if I use this tool as much as I think I'm going to.
  • I have still had some problems getting videos to play. The FAQ section says that any format of video other than AVI or WMV will not play in-app. Since I'm a Mac user, this is a problem. I am still testing it out with .mov format, since that seems to be the .wmv equivalent on a Mac. You should also be prepared for a very lengthy upload time, depending on how many videos, and of what size, you include. Additionally, this will eat up your storage space if you upload too many large files with embedded video.
  • You will encounter problems if you try to include active links to web pages. Since the slides are running within an app, the link will open a browser but it won't be visible through the Broadcast meeting in the browser. Oddly, hyperlinks within the document, such as Action Buttons, still work. This enables users to create non-linear presentations, if that's what they prefer to do. I rarely use this feature myself.

If you are interested in using your iPad as a mobile lectern for teaching, I would recommend  testing this and other methods of remotely controlling your iPad in order to see what works best for you. If your school/workplace does not block AirServer over WiFi, this by far the best way to go. If that is not an option, SlideShark may be a pretty dependable workaround.

I used to hate Twitter until I started loving it

I opened my Twitter account in late 2007, about a year after the company started. I wrote my first tweet in early January 2008. I must have gotten inspired and posted another one 3 months later, after the twins were born. Then silence. In that time, the company and its brand grew like crazy. Celebrities were battling to see who could get the most followers. Athletes were displaying their intelligence for all the world to behold. People were losing their jobs over ill-advised tweets. One reporter even used it to tattle on the President for saying, "jackass." And all this time, I refused to use it. It wasn't just refusal, but a complete loss for any real reason to use it other than feeding my ego and trying to look hip. I will just come out and say it, "I hated Twitter," and I refused to use it.

Yet, I still managed to get 31 followers. This is approximately 1 million less than Ashton Kutcher, but it still feels like a lot. I actually know most of the people who follow me, and I wonder if they are disappointed that I don't post more. Probably not. To date, I follow no one on Twitter. I have no idea how clever Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, or Ellen DeGeneres are because I don't read their tweets. I assume they are just as clever in 140 characters as they are in 1 hour on television.

Fast forward to Spring 2013. I am teaching several classes at a wonderful private university in Fort Worth. I have many students and many, many papers to grade. I am constantly getting e-mails, and I constantly have information I need to e-mail my students. Our learning management system has an announcement tool and mass e-mail function, but they don't work great. Some of the students don't check eCollege very often, and my mass e-mails to the class many times end up in the Spam folder. The announcement tool is clunky, and it takes about 10 clicks and a login to post something, and that is just for one class. Yet, several of my students suggest, quite honestly, that they would like to get more frequent updates about events and assignments, especially when items were posted to the grade book.

Clearly, I needed to do something different. Enter Twitter. It hit me one day that I could just as easily post something to Twitter and embed a widget on the home page of my course eCollege shell. Now I can post announcements from my phone, iPad, or MacBook, and they immediately go to the feed on my homepage. No logging in. No saving. No e-mailing students to announce a new announcement. The students can actually follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my Tweets. I will confess this is probably the one area of technology where I can honesty say they know more than me. Whatever they do, they can get my announcements and updates in a format that works for them. If they prefer to check eCollege, that works. If they like to get updates via e-mail, they can get that. If they want push notifications on their phone, foggedaboudit. Services like Twitter take the content and let users decide what they want to do with it and how they choose to receive it. Since the process is so easy, I'm much more likely to post class announcements than if I know I need a 5-10 minute block. The 140 character limit forces me to be concise. No more wordy, rambling announcements with 20 updates and 10 links. The announcements are short, simple and easy to remember. I can also include links to other documents or resources.

So, I do not consider myself a "tweeter," but I have found a use for this tool 5 years after creating my account. I am eager to see how this works when I start using it from the onset of the semester. I don't think it will lead to better learning or more student engagement, but it will keep me connected to the class in a way that makes sense to them. And if there is less complaining, I'm in.

iPad Mini-Projects in a Lecture Course

When my college got a cart with 20 iPads, I began brimming with ideas. I had been teaching in a computer lab for about 7 years, and there were many ideas I had always wanted to try on tablets and mobile devices.

Computer labs can be a challenging place to teach, and I must admit I am still not completely comfortable having to remind students repeatedly to stop looking at Facebook or Zappos. There are many activities you can do in a technology-enriched classroom, but it takes some time and careful planning to teach the students how to carefully move media from a camera to a computer to the cloud to a different computer and back to the cloud. Some of my students never become quite comfortable with storing and retrieving their data from multiple devices, even though the technology is advanced enough nowadays to make the process seamless.

An environment which is even harder to teach in than a computer lab is a large lecture hall. Until last fall, the largest class I had ever taught was about 30 students. This all changed when I began teaching the course for my college intended to orient early-career students to the big, wide world of education. This class is primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores, and they are a mix of education majors and folks from other programs seeking an elective. The class meets for two hours, three days per week. I typically facilitate lecture/discussion on Monday, Wednesday is spent in schools observing teachers and students, and Friday is a lab with more discussion, presentations, and other activities. Needless to say, this class is its own planet with quite a bit of gravitational pull.

Teaching this class presented many challenges, but the most immediate to me as professor on record was to make the Monday lecture/discussion not so brutal. Here are a few facts you may or may not know about college students :

  1. Their primary objective is to earn a high grade. This is particularly true at a private university.
  2. This objective tends to keep the students' focus on points, scores, and averages.
  3. This tends to divert their attention away from learning for the purpose of mastery.
  4. Class time, therefore, is seen as something required to help them meet their objective.

This becomes challenging because anything the students perceive will not be on a test or included in a paper becomes unnecessary, in their opinion. So for me, the goal has been to make the Monday class meetings something the students want to do rather than have to do.

One method I have used is mini-projects with the class iPad cart. I didn't want to burn the students out with these projects, but I had a few ideas I had used on a smaller scale. I was ready to try them on a larger scale with more students. My iPad mini-projects this semester included:

  1. Short Public Service Announcement videos about risky behaviors many students try in school. The students got into groups of 3-4 and made a short PSA about the risky behavior they were given (e.g., drugs, alcohol, delinquency, pregnancy, STDs, and cheating. They had to include at least two statistics we discussed in class, and the video had to include everyone in the group. They uploaded the videos to a common Google Drive account, and I made the videos available for each student to view.
  2. Group wiki about the hard decisions school districts must make about funding and cutting programs. Each group played School Budget Hold'Em, then reflected about their decisions on a wiki. The iPads turned out to be not so great at editing a wiki, but thankfully many of the students bring their laptops to class.
  3. Thank You video to participating school. The students in this class, in addition to hearing me pontificate each week about the mysteries of education, observed in local schools for an hour each week. I put them in groups and had them record short thank you messages, which I edited into one video. I then sent the final video the schools, which I assume they enjoyed but I don't really know for sure.
  4. 5 Picture Charades about the various philosophies of education. They worked in teams and tried to portray a different philosophy of education (traditional, progressive, existential, and critical) in 5 pictures. All I have to say is, students can be very creative when they want to.
  5. Flipped lesson outlining the lesson sequence using Educreations. The students were given relatively easy topics, such as long division, simple machines, branches of government, and subject/predicate, and instructed to create a short lesson for students. One of the requirements was to label each section of the lesson (activate background knowledge, state objectives, explain the concept or skill, guided practice, independent practice), which I think was one of the key parts of this project. The students thought the main take-away was learning how hard it is to explain things succinctly and accurately. I still find that challenging with my own children.

I learned a lot about using iPads with a large class in a lecture hall setting. There were a lot of challenges and mistakes, but not as many as I would have predicted. As technology usually goes, my hiccups came in places I didn't predict. I think the students received this projects pretty openly, and their products were very good for the most part. The other challenge was finding time to watch and read their creations. 20, 2 minute PSA videos can take a lot of time to get through, especially when you add in transition and loading time. I will have to think of a way to do this better. These activities definitely stretched me and increased my own skill set, and I am eager to try it again in the fall.

Mission Control

I have always been one of those teachers who likes to show a lot of stuff on the screen. Before projectors, I displayed graphs, charts, images, and graphic organizers using a TV or overhead projector. I have always loved supporting what I have to say with visuals. So, it should come as no surprise that my computer, or any computer, is a necessary resource for my teaching.

I also like to switch back and forth between media. I am that guy who always has about 10 tabs open in a browser, and an addition 5 programs running on my computer. I switch between slides to documents to video to applications. I'm sure this drives my students crazy, but they get used to it. One thing I never got used to was being trapped behind my computer while I teach. I am definitely not one of these roam-the-room types, but I don't like to stand behind my computer and constantly have to look down at my screen. Since I utilize far more tools than just PPT, the little clicker thing never really worked for me. What I have always wanted is a miniature control panel that fits in one hand and allows me to switch seamlessly between apps and media, and even mark up that media for emphasis.

Well, during the Fall semester this capability literally fell at my doorstep when my department bought me an iPad. I had always wanted to use an iPad, but I didn't want to spend the money. I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to new devices. Anyway, I got the news from my dean that I would be getting an iPad, so I began researching ways to use it as a mission control for teaching.

Mirroring

My first task was to figure out how to mirror my iPad on the screen of my MacBook Pro. I discovered there are basically two ways to do this. You can use the iPad as a remote desktop and control the computer using the device. I tried PocketCloud, Doceri, and Splashtop 2. PocketCloud never really worked for me. I would be logged in, but I would have trouble connecting my two devices. Doceri worked pretty well, and even allowed me to mark up the screen, but it cost money and I didn't really like trying to find things on the screen. Besides, I was far more interested in teaching from the iPad apps than I was using the programs on my computer. Splashtop actually works really well, and I was able to get it for free. However, it is still just a remote view of my computer, which is not what I want. I much prefer the interface and ease of use of the iPad.

To keep this short, I settled on AirServer to mirror my iPad on my MacBook. There are a couple of programs that do this, and I liked this one best after downloading a couple of demos. AirServer fools your iPad into thinking your MacBook is an Apple TV, so you can use the built-in AirPlay to wirelessly mirror your device. For AirServer to work, your MacBook and iPad must be on the same wireless network. My university is very strict when it comes to using the wireless network, so this kind of thing is blocked. I found out, however, that I can pair my MacBook with my iPad using Bluetooth, and it works just the same. The only hiccup is when I try to stream video from the iPad to the MacBook via Bluetooth. It almost always freezes, so I have started playing video files directly from the hard drive. Other than that, this is a great solution that has not failed me yet.

Apps

The next thing I had to do -- and I am still doing -- is find apps that enable me to enhance my teaching with the iPad. I mean, if there is no value added, then why spend $12 for AirServer and bother figuring out how to mirror the display? I did quite a bit of reading and researching different apps that do the things I want to do in my classes, and I have found a pretty nice set that I rely on regularly. Here they are by category.

Presentation Slides

  • SlideShark: Easy to import and sync from the cloud, and maintains animations and formatting
  • Explain Everything: A nice combo of slides and an interactive whiteboard. Also lets me record my talk and upload it directly to Google Drive or YouTube (which I have yet to do.) By the way, when I Google "explain everything," it gives me a definition for the word "everything." Now that's pretty funny.

Cloud Syncing

  • SugarSync: This lets me sync everything (that I want) from my computer to the cloud. I can then access it from the iPad and send it to just about any app.
  • Google Drive: This basically does the same thing, with the added bonus of displaying Google Docs, which I use a lot. This interface is also much better for images and PDFs.

Student Engagement

  • Socrative: This is a clicker app that still just blows my mind. I hope it stays free forever, but I'm sure it won't. I can send out quick polls to my class, both forced-response and open-ended. I can also create quizzes and exit tickets, and have the results e-mailed to me in a spreadsheet. I will probably write exclusively about this app later.

In order to demonstrate how this works, I have created a short video of how I move between apps during one of my class meetings. This is unedited, but you will get the point.

"I used to think I was good at explaining stuff ... "

I've taken a hiatus from this blog since August 28. I actually have started three other posts that I abandoned for various reasons. Well, now I'm back. For now.

This year as I began my new position, I was given access to a whole new variety of digital tools. At UNT, it was digital fabrication and energy monitoring. I had enough devices to give one per group of students, which meant I could do some really cool things. It's a lot of fun teaching project-based learning to future teachers when you have the tools to do it. Of course, there were other things we didn't have at UNT, like interactive whiteboards and mobile devices (specifically, iPads). So, there were some other important skills that were hard to teach.

At TCU, I don't have the project-based learning tools, but I do have an interactive whiteboard, my own iPad and cart of 20 iPads for students to use in class. This has opened up a whole new domain of learning and teaching with technology. I have been able to do activities with my classes I thought I would never be able to teach. My goal over the course of the next several weeks (months?) is to post some of these activities, along with examples from students.

The first activity I would like to talk about is Flipped Classroom lessons using Educreations. I have been piloting several of these Digital Whiteboard apps, such as Show Me, Explain Everything, and Knowmia, and Educreations was the best fit for this activity. Show Me also would have been a good fit for my activity because it instantly syncs lessons to the Cloud and you can access the video files from a browser. Additionally, it lets you download a copy of the video file to your computer in case you want to do additional editing or combine lessons. Educreations does not have this capability yet. As a side note, Explain Everything (paid) and Knowmia (free) are very robust tools and worth learning. They allow you to import and export media and projects to other Cloud services like DropBox, Google Drive, Evernote, and Box. There are many tools for presenting content, including embedding web pages, video, and audio files.

For this activity, I gave the students three "badges" they were to earn: video editing, screencasting and a flipped lesson. The idea behind the flipped lesson is that students present content to students to watch and learn at home with the intention of doing more collaborative, hands-on activities at school when everyone is in the same room. The students worked in pairs to create and record a short lesson, which they later uploaded to the class Educreations account.

Beyond the simple interface of the tool and how fun it was to create mini-lessons, I knew this was the only way for my students to see the importance of developing this competency as a future teacher. The students commented on how great it would be to create examples for how to correctly work math problems, edit their writing, convey science and social studies concepts that students and parents could watch at home during homework time. This is usually when students have questions, and many parents feel frustrated trying to help their children. I can't speak for everyone, but I routinely would tell my dad, "But that's not how the TEACHER did it!"

An added benefit for this activity is that students got to practice explaining academic concepts at a level their students could understand. You really have to think about such aspects as pacing, language, examples and sequence when you are planning these lessons. The students were able to practice presenting to students without dealing with some of the environmental factors that often stump early-career teachers, such as crowd control and limited attention spans. As one student explained, "I used to think I was good at explaining stuff, but this activity really forced me to think about what I was saying and how fast I talk." Even though this was not my intention, the class got an impromptu lesson on micro-teaching.

I plan on integrating this strategy into my classes many more times in the coming semester. Ideally, I could work with a teacher (or two or three) and have my students create mini-lessons based on the content being address in the schools. My students would get experience teaching lessons in a concise, understandable way, and the teachers and students would have resources to utilize at home. An added benefit would be feedback from teachers and students about the quality of their lessons and explanations. We'll see how this goes.

To see some examples created by students in my class, visit our Educreations page.

Connected to what?

I've had this thought more than once during the past few weeks: What if I delete my Facebook account? I have no real reason to delete it, and I certainly have nothing against Zuckerberg or the company (though recent history has definitely exposed his true business sense). I haven't posted anything I'm trying to hide, and there is no one in my Friend list who I believe to be a liability. So, what is the source of these feelings?

Hollowness.

That is the feeling I am left with when I look at Facebook. To me, it is a very hollow. I know it is not that way for everyone, such as my sister who is very involved in playing various games with several of her friends. I know many people who chit-chat back and forth with their friends all day, as if they were in the same room. I think this is great, but it's not the experience I have had. I'm not sure it's the experience I want to have.

The obvious advantages to Facebook are the networking and being able to see what people are up to (assuming they choose to share their lives) without having to ask. Networking, especially in this day and age, is a benefit. It's nice to have a central place where you can send people messages, knowing it will go directly into the e-mail inbox. It's also frustrating when you never get a response from someone, knowing your message went directly into their e-mail inbox. To this end, I would say this has been my main use of Facebook.

Facebook also does a nice job of keeping people who would not ordinarily be in your consciousness in your consciousness. Stalking, lurking or whatever you want to call it probably is not a benefit, except for those moments when you think, "I wonder whatever happened to old So-and-so," then you proceed to find him or her on Facebook, only to discover he lives in Peoria, Illinois and sells sand to hourglass companies. "Oh," you think to yourself, and move on. But at least old So-and-so is in your thoughts in some way, which is a way to stay connected to your past, I guess.

For me, the hollowness comes from knowing there are many people in my Friends list who want to know about me but aren't really interested in knowing me anymore. They want to have a connection to me in case I ever come in handy but they aren't committed enough to actually connect. I have a handful of friends who actually do write back, chit-chat or want to get together from time to time, but I am starting to think those are the friends I would have stayed in touch with even if there were no Facebook.

Like I said, hollow.

The main question for me, however, is not the impact this 21st century digitally-driven social networking has on me. I'm a grown-up with a great job, wonderful family and sense of purpose in life. I can deal with a little hollowness. The bigger question is how does this type of connecting affect people who have never known anything else? How are my children going to define friendship? Will they grow up thinking that people are information you need to simply find out? That once you know the person's information, you "know" that person? Will they believe the lie that you are what you share? Will they feel compelled to tweet, update, instragram or whatever every single experience they've had, or even worse, manufacture experiences just because they think they'll make for a good tweet, instragram or update?

When I think about the true friends in my life, I think of inside jokes, mountain adventures, long stories to fill long bus rides to school events, secret pacts made by a campfire, calling each other over college breaks to find time to hang out. I think about talking over dinner, serving together with someone other than ourselves in mind, playing phone tag for weeks until one of us catches the other person at home, road trips. Friendships should be so heavy with shared experiences they leave a wake in our past that never really dissipates.

I'm sure my children will use Facebook (or something like it), but I am starting to believe I will have to be purposeful if I hope to keep it from becoming the central piece in their social lives. Lives are more than data, and connection is more than updates. One way to help with this is to keep my account open and use it responsibly. And Friend them when they're old enough.