Archives for May 2008

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Podcasting…But Were Afraid To Ask!

ipod-touch.png"Podcasting" is a term that actually encompasses a number of different technologies, all working together to deliver audio and/or video content on a particular topic.
A podcast is different from a normal audio file (such as a music file) in that they also allow a user to subscribe to a podcast feed, such that as new podcasts become available, they can be immediately downloaded to your computer for future listening.
I found an extremely comprehensive web site called PoducateMe which will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about podcasting and then some. The author, MIcah Ovadia, even provides detailed technical specifications for an optimal podcasting setup for a mostly reasonable price. If you are interested in creating podcasts, then there is an investment of time and financial resources required to get a podcasting setup that delivers high-quality audio content. Ovadia describes how he set up a podcasting system for about $1000, but you can certainly create podcasts for much less, though the audio quality might suffer a bit. Video podcasts will require some investment in a digital video camera in addition to the audio software and hardware.
Besides the technical aspects of podcasting, Ovadia also explores some applications of podcasting in education and describes the experiences of podcasting at other institutions. Overall, PoducateMe is very, very comprehensive and also a great introduction to the technology. Some of the technical aspects can be a bit overwhelming if you are not an electrical or acoustical engineer, but it the general discussion is still pretty easy to follow.
Podcasts are typically packaged in MP3 format or some other format that maintains a reasonable level of audio quality while at the same time utilizing the minimum amount of storage space. Prior to packaging in MP3 format, an audio file can take up several MB of storage space (over a hundred MB if you include medium-definition or high-definition video).
Podcasts should also be kept relatively short (15-30 minutes). This serves the dual purpose of keeping the files relatively small while also helping to keep a listener’s interest. Many people listen to podcasts in their cars or otherwise engaged in another activity, such as jogging or gardening, so the idea is to give listeners something to focus their minds on while their hands are busy.
Several faculty on this campus are using or have used podcasting technology to supplement their courses and keep students engaged in the materials. I know that the Russian professor (Dr. Irina Ivliyeva) and the French professor (Dr. Audra Merfeld-Langston) have used Audacity in their classes to record their students speaking the foreign languages. The students can then hear themselves speaking and work to correct their pronunciations. As far as I know, these recording are strictly for student use during or outside of class, but Audacity is one of the principle technologies used to create a podcast.
Dr. Richard Hall has used video in his classes to supplement his material as well. He creates some videos on his own, but also uses freely available videos from the web.
If you want to simply use podcasts instead of creating them, then you can subscribe to a number of podcast-hosting services, such as iTunes. One of the advantages of iTunes podcasts is that they have iTunes U. iTunes U is where many universities and colleges post their content, which is freely available for download. MIT is one of several institutions that has a number of courses hosted on iTunes U, so this might be a good way to supplement your courses or spark a discussion among your students.
I think it would be great if we (Missouri S&T) could establish our own presence in iTunes U, but this would require significant time, resources, and investment from all levels of the university. Actually, we should probably start very small, but we would still need some dedicated resources to manage the content and drive the program to make it successful. Stanford University has a PDF document that outlines the steps an institution should take to get started (they were among the first institutions to join Apple in creating iTunes U). Any one interested in getting the ball rolling on this?

Dial F for Frankenstein

In 1964, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story titled "Dial F for Frankenstein", wherein he postulated the idea that the phone network (this was written long before the Internet as we know it today existed) had become so large and complex it was effectively a giant brain that becomes self-aware.
The central idea of this story is one that has been exploited for decades in such movie franchises as The Matrix series and The Terminator series of movies. Most folks don’t see this as a very credible threat to our existence, even though spam email and bot networks are really clogging the available bandwidth on the world wide network.
Why is this important? Luke Fernandez wrote an article in Campus Technology ("Frankenstein in the University") that also addresses the issue of technology and how it impacts human behavior. One could argue that even though machines are not self-aware, they still require us humans to care and feed them in order to function properly (our IT server administrators keep a very close eye on the Data Center on campus to make sure that it continues to operate and are very quick to respond when it doesn’t, much like training a new pet).
Fernandez suggests that there is some anxiety in academic circles over new inventions that may be controlling the way human beings teach and learn, instead of us humans being the driving force in the learning environment. Ideally, the computer should just be another set of tools such as pen and paper (the traditional method of learning for thousands of years).
For instance, the popularity of YouTube and other video-hosting services such as LiveLeak and even iTunes (which hosts video podcasts) has led to an explosive increase in more visually-oriented materials, even if it is simply an instructor presenting a standard classroom lecture to a roomful of bored students. Fernandez notes that critics of this new technology point out how difficult it is to compare visual media against each other to find the inconsistencies, thus leading to further investigation and deepening our knowledge on any given subject. Written media–this blog entry is an example–can be compared to each other and studied at leisure. In fact, I find the transcript of a video much easier to digest than the video itself, even though the video may be amusing or entertaining on a different level (for one thing, the transcript can be edited to remove the verbal pauses and stutters we are all guilty of when we speak–we don’t consciously notice these, but they are definitely noticeable when replaying a video several times to understand the speaker’s content and meaning).
Continuing with the Campus Technology article, Fernandez notes that many faculty are extremely skeptical of digital learning tools in the classroom. To some faculty, the online course represents a threat to their academic freedom, especially when the move to a technological platform for education is driven by university administrators instead of by the faculty (especially if the faculty have no say in the decision process).
One of the biggest challenges universities face when they adopt technology for use on campus is what technology to implement and how to manage it over a long period of time, especially if the technology does not live up to its promises. Enterprise-level software solutions are hideously expensive to purchase and maintain. They generally require significant investments in time and energy to keep them running. Upgrading software to the latest version also can be expensive, as both the IT staff and the campus community need to be trained in its use and operation (the transition to Office 2007 is a prime example of this).
Fernandez concludes his article on a positive note, commenting that even though technology is here to stay, we should not just give in and accept that we have no control over how it is used. We all retain a measure of agency. There are a wide variety of technological tools to assist us in education. The real challenge is to find the tool that serves our needs best and improves the learning outcomes for students, who have grown up with this technology. They will have to be prepared to deal with the technological challenges of future generations.

Technology Learning Space Implementation — We are not alone

cs213-04.pngEducause Quarterly has an article in their most recent issue about technology learning spaces–more specifically, a technology-enhanced learning studio implemented at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), one of our sister campuses. According to authors Jim Tom, Kenneth Voss, and Christopher Scheetz, their project was an unqualified success, leading to increased student and faculty satisfaction with the learning process. However, it is still too early to determine what, if any, impact there may be on the overall student learning outcomes.
The space they designed is very similar to a number of ongoing projects the Educational Technology team is currently working on here on this campus. The first technology-enhanced learning space with all the bells and whistles was in University Center 105. Although it still has a lot of great features (and is solidly booked all the time for classes), it is starting to show some significant wear and tear. The laptop machines also need to be upgraded to keep up with the changing technology. EdTech is working on improving this learning space and also to develop newer learning spaces on campus with the active cooperation of various departments.
The UMSL learning space described in the article had a number of specific goals it had to meet:

* Be flexible to accommodate differences in teaching and learning styles, activities, and content.
* Be social spaces that enable collaboration and interactivity during class time [or outside of class time — EdTech]
* Address creature comforts and ambiance because these can enable learning in significant ways
* Ensure that equipment, facilities, and furniture are accessible to students and teachers and comply with regulations derived from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Missouri S&T Educational Technology is also working to create learning spaces that meet these goals. We have a number of projects in progress for 2008. We are upgrading Physics 104, creating a new space for the Civil Engineering department, adding a new Faculty Learning Studio in Norwood 208, upgrading the new learning space in Toomey Hall (the new Mechanical Engineering Building), and redesigning Engineering Management 222.
We have already transformed Computer Science 212/213 into a very comfortable study lounge that gives students the opportunity to use the same technology on collaborative projects as their instructors use in the classroom. Indeed, CS 212/213 gets quite a bit of use–I almost never see it empty during the semester–and it is a very good place for students to work together on group projects.
We have also upgraded the Language Learning Lab in Humanities and Social Sciences (I think it is Room 202). The foreign language instructors love it because it allows students to record themselves speaking their new foreign language and also allows them to hear themselves speaking it as well.
If your department is interested in creating a new learning space on campus, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love to work with you.

Physics Simulations Available from Unversity of Colorado at Boulder

quantumtunnel.jpg
I found a suite of physics simulations (one of the simulations is a chemistry simulation) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. These are Java-based simulations so if you want to view them you will need to have the proper Java Runtime Environment installed on your system. Standard desktop systems at Missouri S&T should already have it and if you don’t, you should be prompted to install the right JRE when you try to view one of the simulations.
By themselves, the simulations can be difficult to work with, but if used within the context of a class where the instructor can provide the guidance needed to interact with the simulation, I could see where these could be very useful to illustrate particularly difficult concepts in physics and chemistry. For instance, the Quantum Tunneling and Wave Packet simulator definitely requires some guidance from an instructor who can explain the concept of quantum tunneling and what the various factors involved the process are (one of the options available allows you to configure the energy of the wave in the simulation, which has a significant impact on the probability that a wave will have sufficient energy to be measurable on both sides of the energy barrier–there is always some probability to find the wave on both sides of the barrier, but higher wave energy and lower barrier energy means the probability increases).
Anyway, I encourage instructors who teach physics or chemistry to at least take a look at these simulations. Other simulations include projectile motion (by firing various objects out of a cannon), http://phet.colorado.edu/new/simulations/sims.php?sim=Balloons_and_Static_Electricity, conservation of energy (by creating your own skate park), and salts & solubility.

Morphing web sites

Network World has an article in their latest online issue that discusses the use of "morphing web sites" for increasing sales revenue for advertisers. The basic idea is that a web site "shapes" itself to a user’s preferences as the user navigates through the web site. The advertisements that are delivered to the web site are designed to appeal to the user’s preferences based on their navigation, eventually leading to a sale.
Now, what does this have to do with education? As I was reading through the article, I came across the following:

The BT experiment assessed subjects’ cognitive styles based on four different cognitive-style characteristics, each having two options. The cognitive styles defined whether individuals were readers or listeners, impulsive or deliberative, visual or verbal and leaders or followers.

These cognitive styles are the same styles used by students in the classroom to absorb the information presented. Some students are visual learners, others are aural learners, some are verbal learners and others rely more on pictures and images to help retain the information.
An educational web page or web site that could adjust itself to present information in a manner that was in tune with a particular student’s individual learning style (learned by the system as the student navigates through the web site) could significantly increase the amount of information retained by the student. In the particular example described in the article, researchers thought a morphing web site could lead to a 20% increase in sales (or more). I don’t know if this same increase would apply directly to an educational application of this technology, but it would definitely be worth finding out.
Another application for this technology pointed out in the article is to use it to identify a user’s cultural preference as well, once again providing the user with content suitable for their culture as well as their cognitive style.

Paper-based instruction an archaic (and obsolete) tool of the past?

analog_v_digital.jpgIn an article in the latest issue of Campus Technology, Dr. Trent Batson argues that paper-based instructional tools–i.e. the "traditional" means by which students learned in the past–are no longer much relevant in a Web 2.0 world.
The challenge for faculty who need to provide meaningful instruction to students is to engage the students in the world that the students are familiar with. Admittedly, this means instructors may have to use Facebook or MySpace in order to reach students (in fact, there is a Blackboard utility called Blackboard Sync that allows students to access Blackboard content directly from their Facebook page).
Batson offers a couple of questions for faculty members to think about if they are interested in incorporating Web 2.0 technology into their courses such that the pre-defined learning goals are still met.

1. What work is best to do with my real-world immediate presence?
a. What is the right mix of lecture, group work, experimentation (virtual or real), and of oral and electronic interaction?
b. How can my students connect with this work when I’m not with them between classes so they can continue their projects?
2. What work is best to do without my real-world immediate presence?
a. What rubric can I supply to my students for project or discovery work using the Internet and Web 2.0 spaces?
b. How can this work then be connected back to the classroom process?

Baston appears to argue for separating the course material into manageable chunks that students can access depending on if they are in class or out of class. This may require some tweaking of course material by faculty to make sure that students are still able to engage in the learning process outside of class time. Thanks to Web 2.0 technologies, students are no longer limited in what resources they are able to access to work on projects or term papers. Students can still use paper-based resources such as bound journal articles in the Library, but they can also access that same content online and–perhaps more importantly–engage the author(s) of a journal article directly or discuss the article in a forum or on a blog (in fact, this very blog post may be a good example of such activity, as you, dear reader, are invited to comment on this post).

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Archiving Your Blackboard Course

Blackboard_Logo.jpg It’s the end of the semester and while we are looking forward to summer, there are a few things you can do to help prepare for next year. One of those is to archive your Blackboard course to be ready to use the material in coming semesters.
Why would you archive? Archiving is great for providing you with all the information in your Blackboard course for use in another course. This can be particularly important if you are not teaching the course for a few years due to scheduling or a sabbatical.
Archiving is easy. Just follow these simple steps.
* From your Blackboard course, click Control Panel.
* Click Archive.
* You can choose to archive the different portions of your account.
* Click Submit.
     Note: It doesn’t immediately prepare the file for download. Blackboard will send
     you an email letting you know when the package is ready.
* Click on the zip file to download. Remember where you saved the file!
     Note: This is a zip file that only works inside Blackboard.
* Once you have downloaded the file, remove it from your Blackboard course.
Now you have your course information ready for when you next need it.

And now for something completely different…The famous presidential debate on Blogs v. Wikis

I found the following video on YouTube (of course). Since this is a highly-charged political year, I thought this might be an entertaining diversion. When it comes to providing content online for students, particularly when using a Web 2.0 technology such as a blog or a wiki, instructors have to weigh the benefits of each technology before implementation. Both wikis and blogs have their uses and the instructor should have a good understanding of what each technology is and what each is best suited for.
Enjoy!

Using Facebook for Creating Study Groups

Some time ago, Campus Technology published an article about a student in Toronto who set up an online study group inside Facebook. At its peak, his group included 146 students. However, the instructor for the class didn’t approve, so punished the student (Chris Avenir) by charging him with academic misconduct.

The homework questions counted for 10 percent of the grade in the class. When an administrator discovered the group and informed the professor, Avenir received an F and was charged with academic misconduct, punishable by expulsion. An appeal filed last week was to be settled this week by the campus.
According to the Ryerson school newspaper, The EyeOpener, Avenir was singled out even though he said he never posted any answers on the discussion pages. He is quoted as saying, "What we did wasn’t any different than tutoring, than tri-mentoring, than having a library study group."

I would tend to agree with the student in this case. How is this really much different than getting a group together at the library to study? The main difference here is scalability. Because the students worked together online, more students could participate at any given time. Furthermore, students could study asynchronously, when it was convenient for them. This is definitely an area where the Net Generation has a lot of expertise because they simply grew up with this technology. They actually expect to be able to tap into these resources as a matter of course.

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"7 Things You Should Know About…" Series from Educause Learning Initiative

Since 2005, the Educause Learning Initiative has been releasing a series of briefs–one a month–outlining new and emerging learning technologies. Each brief starts with a plausible scenario that introduces the technology in question. The brief then asks the following seven questions:
* What is it?
* Who’s doing it?
* How does it work?
* Why is it significant?
* What are the downsides?
* Where is it going?
* What are the implications for teaching and learning?
The answers to these questions varies depending on the technology.
Here is the answer to the last question excerpted from their brief on Wikipedia (June 2007):

What are the implications for teaching and learning?
Wikipedia blurs the line between consumption and creation of knowledge, giving motivated students the opportunity not only to use but also to generate knowledge and see themselves as members of a community of learners. Wikipedia offers students an opportunity to hone their research skills—by evaluating its content against other information sources—and to engage in a global community of collaborative content development. Students can
see how knowledge is created, participate in that process, and understand when their comprehension of a topic is sufficient to make a valuable contribution. Some learning theorists contend that content creation and analysis is a necessary component of learning. Wikipedia can encourage students to analyze what they read, ask questions, and engage in reflective, creative learning.

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