Online Courses, Sure!

As the academic year kicks off again my pile of to-read has once again become unmanageable. The result is that in between Blackboard, i>clicker, and Wacom tablet questions I am trying to sneak in an article here and there.

Inside Higher Ed has published, Survey on Faculty Attitudes on Technology, along with an article of the same name to compliment the survey which does a fantastic job summarizing the results and pointing out some interesting findings. The survey results are probably not alarming, faculty are skeptical of technology (especially online courses) and it’s place in the educational process. However, those who have taught online courses, are less so. So if you’ve never taught an online course you probably don’t think there is much value in them, but if you have you are more likely to think there is some value in them. That’s pretty much what I would expect, but it also reveals an interesting viewpoint that is often overlooked and highlighted in the quote from Cathy Davidson, we are looking at the wrong problem. Maybe we can use this information to develop professional development programs to help them become more comfortable with technology.

This seemed to match up with another issue that is on my short-list. Recently there has been a huge push to create more tech savvy law students. Whether you focus on research skills necessary for lawyers in today’s marketplace, technology competency to get the job done faster, or just wanting to improve the learning experience by leveraging new technology – the conversation is a constant, and the results are often mixed. As you can imagine there is a lot of finger-pointing going around. Who’s responsible for creating tech savvy students; faculty, technology specialists, parents, employers, the world?

While this survey was not focused specifically on this question, it helped to further expose a potential problem – maybe we are approaching it wrong. Perhaps the problem is not that students need to change, but that everything in education does to reflect a new environment. Car companies falter, businesses shutter their doors, but education presses on in the same manner wondering why people are getting bent out of shape. As a recent grad of a library science program I wonder often how my education will actually translate to the workplace. So far, I’ve mostly relied on myself to learn what I needed to – and it leaves me feeling a little bewildered and unnerved! It would seem I’m in the majority.

At BCLS I’ve spent a good deal of my energy on trying to demystify technology to faculty, who then adapt a tool they find interesting for their own use, and then we work together to bring it into the classroom. It’s a very slow and time consuming process, but very rewarding. There are also many failures too. We keep trying to rectify problems and know that some day we will find the solution, and often times solutions are not even possible yet – and when you see a conversation with a tech convert go from fear to “I am thinking of a technology that doesn’t exist yet” talk about #winning.

Now time, staff, buy-in, energy, etc… are all stretched, but I for one would love to know your thoughts. How can we make higher ed more tech savvy in subtle ways, so that when asked if an online course is as good as a face-to-face course, someone might shrug their shoulders and say “Sure, could be”?

I’m a one man show and I try to do one-on-one consults, share information on email whenever I can, which happens to be the preferred contact method, do luncheons with demonstrations, smaller lunches with liaison librarians, and generally run around evangelizing everything ed tech I can.  You?

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Mini Tablets, why I’ll leave it for now

ipadminiI loved the idea of smaller tablets.

  • Less expensive makes them easier to access, even for people who are stingy with their electronics budget like me
  • Lighter, making my argument that I’m “exercising” when I walk around with a full sized tablet less convincing, but it sure doesn’t hurt as much when I fall asleep reading and it drops on my face

What I didn’t think about was the hardship that would wreak havoc on my eyesight, the internet is just not ready for 7 inch screens yet. On my phone I expect the small screen. I am not one who will read articles on my phone, pinching and zooming, squinting my eyes and such. Yes, of course I have often times pulled up a PDF to check on some quick detail and so forth, but I am very aware of the lack of screen.

Somehow I forgot this with a mini tablet.

After nearly a year with an iPad mini (as opposed to my full sized Transformer Prime) I am now leaving it behind at the office at night, and finding my eyesight is better off. Outside of apps, and not all apps mind you, many are still not correctly sized for the screen, I found myself constantly wanting a bigger screen. Or positioning the tablet far to close to my face.

When trying to demonstrate apps or uses in the classroom things also fell apart. Using remote desktop became a huge frustration, writing was practically useless, and the “smallness” received many comments from my audience and trainees.

However, if I used the device exclusively for reading ebooks (not PDFs, .Docs, or anything productive) I would be happy. I read a book in Play Books, Kindle and the native bookstore and was very happy with the re-sizing options. It just fell apart when I tried to do anything else.

That may be the plan, but at least for me, it has soured me on the mini tablet craze for now. What about you?

Audio feedback with my tablet, we can do that

Notability Logo

When I came to my current position at BC Law School one of my first projects was to improve the way in which faculty could provide audio feedback on memos to students in the first year program. At the time the best options were to use a digital voice recorder, convert the files to a non-proprietary format, zip them in groups, and upload them to our LMS. A few assumptions are being made in this process, one that we had a server to easily transfer files back and forth between staff and faculty, and two that we needed to make the process a little more complicated than non-law scenarios because of the need to preserve anonymity.

As the years have progressed we did get to cut out a few steps, namely the conversion process as newer models provided more friendly formatting options by default. Even the zipping process was made a little easier when the newer hardware would place comments in folders that could be quickly transferred to a desktop.

And then the tablets began to surface. One of the faculty in the first year group asked me how having a tablet, an iPad in her case, could improve this process – because it should be able to right? It seemed to make a lot of sense, so we got to work…

Our goals were make the process easier, use no paper, and make use of this shiny new hardware. Hey, at least we were honest about it.

What we found out is that the options were scant, even with the 100’s of thousands of apps in the App Store (does it need a TM?!). We almost resolved to use a laptop and utilize Adobe Acrobat Pro’s recording options, which were actually superior than our solution because they embedded the audio right in the document at certain places, so the user experience was better. However, the Adobe Acrobat Pro solution also created gigantic files for the length of time we needed to record, upwards of 45 minutes per memo.

We resolved to find a solution for the iPad, and Notability seemed to be it. Notability is an app created with the intention of taking notes, marking up PDF’s, recording lectures or voice comments to yourself, and making it easy to sync these notes up easily to the cloud. Since we began it has become more robust, which we’re grateful for, making it even more useful (though STILL not on Android, my mobile OS of choice).

What we did was this;

  1. require all students to submit memos in PDF form
  2. create a shared Dropbox folder (compatibility built into Notability) with the faculty support person assigned to her, that the faculty member could access to load up memos on her iPad
  3. mark up, and make audio recordings with navigation references based on numbers throughout each memo. For example, “See #2, my comment here is…”
  4. export each annotated memo with audio comments to Dropbox (automatically creating a zip file)
  5. return the feedback to the students via faculty support who would see the finished memos in the Dropbox folder

Voila! So we ticked all of our boxes, no dead trees (well no paper anyway), easier to record and work with while grading, and we found a use for that tablet. While Notability may not have been intended to be a grading machine capable of delivering audio comments, it sure makes the process possible and painless.

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