A Buffet of Educational Technology Thoughts

If you’ve read anything in this blog, you know that I’m subject to “oh look, shiny!”, constantly distracted and going in one hundred directions. This post will get as close to the way my brain works.

First up, we’re scrapping Blackboard Collaborate as our web conferencing tool and installing WebEx. As a conferencing tool it’s light years ahead in terms of usability and functionality. I’m sure some of our more advanced users will find the quirks, but hopefully we can manage to stay one or two steps ahead of them. We had been Collaborate clients for years, migrating over from a self hosted Elluminate install.  Over time, the product, and it’s terrible Java interface, caused our users issues. We did integrate it directly with our D2L installation, which solved a lot of the interface issues, but then we’ve been hit with conversion errors that can’t be fixed by the user but prompt a ticket to Blackboard support. While Blackboard support have been excellent in this particular case, they haven’t been great over the years. Combine that with the fact that Blackboard has been promising a lot, and not producing a whit of evidence that they’ll be able to pull it off. If they weren’t so big, I’d be calling all their promises vaporware, but I fully expect they’ll be able to deliver eventually. It’s the eventually part that’s the problem.

Second, I’m working through how we can roll out blogs effectively to faculty who want their students to blog, but want a campus install to do it from. I know WordPress Multisite is the way to go, but it’s going to be a slow going process as we need to work with other groups on campus to make this one happen. I personally think that having an academic blog is an important piece of the process of going to University and becoming an academic – how else do people disseminate their findings to the public without the filter of a news organization? How else do academics form their own personal learning network? I’m a huge believer in blogging as a form; and I see it as a reflective practice more often than not. It’s also a space that I can use to see how ideas sound, and it helps me articulate ideas better (by slowing my brain down to typing speed, which is much slower than my mouth goes).

Third, is the upgrade to Turnitin, will practically force us to convert our existing connection between D2L and Turnitin to the new LTI connection between the two parties. As always, this is a last minute addition to our semester startup, so it’s an added complexity that we didn’t really want to think about but will have to consider over the next few days. While Turnitin is forcing everyone to upgrade, there is an opt-out process, but from what I know (and I’ll know more later this week when we chat with our academic integrity office) we don’t know what that really means? How does opting-out effect us? Can we revert if everything craps out and nothing works post-upgrade?

Fourth, I’ve been asked to sit on a portfolio advocacy committee, that will push portfolio use to “the next level” campus wide. I have a few ideas, but I’ve never been fond of sitting on committees, more fond of the work that needs to get done out of the committees. I guess it’s progress when you have someone who knows what it takes and whether it can be done currently, rather than facing down the fact you can’t do what you had proposed due to technical feasibility. My boss is sneaky good at eliminating my ability to point the finger at other people’s decisions, so I guess this one will partially be on me.

Blackboard Collaborate Integration with Desire2Learn, Uhh D2L, LE uhh Brightspace 10.3

I think I did that right?

Back in June we took a few weeks and integrated Blackboard Collaborate (our web conferencing tool) with our instance of the Learning Environment (Brightspace just doesn’t feel right). We are currently running 10.2 SP9 of the LE.

Reflections? Well, for such a simple integration (and really the D2L interface is waaaaay better than the Blackboard Collaborate interface) it took a hell of a long time. We had to purchase and get D2L to install the IPSCT pack – so if you’re entering into an agreement with D2L and may way to do this later, definitely spend the cash up front. From start to unveil it was over six weeks – now that’s not solid work on just this. After D2L installed the IPSCT pack, we had to contact Blackboard support to get our credentials. Seeing as we’ve had total turnover in who supports Blackboard Collaborate, our new Collaborate support person was not on the list of approved contacts – which is funny because she’s the one who does all the tickets. So we contact our account manager. No response. It turns out that well, they are no longer our account manager, that’s why we haven’t heard from them in over 9 months. Great. So support can’t do anything, neither can our phantom account manager. Finally we get to the bottom of who our new Blackboard account manager is, they straighten out the mess and our person is now an approved contact. After that it still takes a week to get our credentials for test and prod.

Configuration on test went smoothly enough – if you’ve ever worked with External Learning Tools in the LE, it’s the same as any other configuation in that tool – have the address to make the connection, secret key and password, check a few more boxes, and then off you go. Now everyone who gets enrolled in the LE gets a Default Role at the org level, and then gets assigned a more applicable role at the course offering level, which means for us, you have to go through not only the Instructor/Student and TA roles, but the Default Role as well. While this is a pain to do, it’s often easy to forget to do it – and that’s what we promptly did. A day or two was spent tearing what’s left of my hair out, until the lightning struck and it sparked the engine enough to get it firing again.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and we get some time to implement it on prod, we yet again forget what we did to make it work. A week later we said something to the effect of  “Fudge, Default Role…” ran off to the LE and fixed our error. Sometimes it’s not the technology that fails you…

Answers for 2011

Well, I guess a year’s time is as good as any to have some answers – even if the answer may very well be no answer. For the original post see: Questions for 2011. Yes, there will also be a Questions for 2012.

1. What makes anyone think that the video games push (mostly by the iOS platform devices, but Xbox, Playstation and Wii) has anything to do with formal education? 

Well, I don’t know if gamification gained any traction, but things like achievements in video games have lent themselves to things like badges. I suspect that my original assertion that it will be marginalized, will remain until someone can quantify and measure the whole process, much like they’ve tried to do with standardized testing.

2. Why haven’t educational institutions really pushed for a mobile learning environment? 

I think there’s been some motion here – certainly the open courses are structured so that they are mobile friendly, and the big two LMS vendors (Desire2Learn and Blackboard) are both becoming more mobile friendly, I suspect the resistance comes from the institution’s inability to control and verify that a potentially mobile student may not be that student, and the only way to assess a person is still in-person. I don’t think it matters anymore, in work most people will use the Internet to research a possible solution to whatever problem they face, so knowing something isn’t as crucial as it once was. Knowing something however does allow you to find a solution sooner – making you a more efficient worker – which is what capitalism wants.

3. Will the consolidation of the web conferencing tools that education typically use (Wimba and Elluminate) mean that new companies with new models will arise? 

Well, they haven’t arisen yet, but there’s a plethora of tools out there to replace Blackboard Collaborate or whatever it’s called this week. However, no one has put together the killer app – which I hope is the form the web conferencing takes – mobile native, low bandwidth friendly, and most of all, accessible.

4. Wither edupunk? 

Yup. edu-post-punk should be interesting.

5. What will Pearson as a publishing giant and accredited University mean? 

Turns out, not much. Unless you consider an extremely walled off garden of textbooks in a proprietary LMS with Google Doc integration something.

Chronic Failure

So, it today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Perry wrote a brief article about the “irony” of D2L suing over a course management contract in Utah. It’s ironic that the author could not find a distinction between a procedural bidding process that D2L thought was violated, and Blackboard attempting to run all LMS companies out of business by predatory patenting. Yes, all lawsuits are exactly the same, and Desire2Learn should never, ever, sue someone again because they were critical of Blackboards lawsuit happiness. For future reference, patenting something you cannot patent, then suing people who “violate” the patent is equal to suing someone who you think violated the procedure of a public bid. Way to go critical thinking.

OK, now that’s out of my system, I don’t think D2L should have sued but should have just walked away from it – sure it’s half a million dollars – but in the long run if the start-up can’t handle it, they’ll collapse and one of the big LMS players will swoop in and clean it up.

Blackboard Does It Again.

So have you heard the big news? No, not that LeBron is going to Miami. Blackboard buying Elluminate and Wimba to integrate into the new Blackboard Communicate. Now the cynical will say that Blackboard will take the best pieces and make them into the worst functions of the new system… you might be right. What’s really interesting is the gluttony of Blackboard. Not only is it not enough to lessen the landscape with LMS’s, buying up major players, but also the tools that integrate into the system itself. Sure, people want one-stop shopping, but instead of locking them into tools that they may never use, why not use the building block approach that you already cultivate? Allow these other companies to grow and develop, to work with you and others? Oh yeah, the others bit. If Blackboard got a report card, “Works well with others” would definitely need improvement (“works well with clients” would also probably rank pretty low). Blackboard is acting like Google/Apple/Microsoft and any other large software company, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Yet I am.

Multiple LMS Usage

At Mohawk College, we use multiple learning management systems. I know this is odd, not many folks have the luxury of playing with Blackboard, WebCT, FirstClass and Desire2Learn (as well as Moodle). We’re closing in on the dates that will eventually close Blackboard and WebCT as our license will be up. I’ve been alternately happy and sad about this; I’m happy because these are aging systems, and with Blackboard, hasn’t seen widespread adoption in the College. Originally it was our upgrade path from WebCT, until Desire2Learn became our platform of choice.  I’m sad because I think there was a small opportunity for a program of study to build in flexibility in teaching and learning for their students. I’m disappointed in the usual push-back that multiple systems are clunky and that students don’t want to manage multiple sets of passwords and user names. Well, sure, but they do that already with Hotmail, Gmail, Myspace, Facebook and whatever other stuff they’re using. Really, isn’t it better to simulate real life, where you might have to login to one system for payroll management, but another for communication? Isn’t that building a mental flexibility and an ability to adapt to new systems quickly, a crucial skill going forward?

That’s not to say that I’m unhappy with Desire2Learn,  it doesn’t have any performance issues (much like what Stephen Downes wrote about the Sakai vs. Moodle in the OLDaily) and it’s been the best of the lot by a longshot. I wish it was more robust in the web 2.0 area, and a built in collaborative document would be a good way to have student collaborate (without their LiveRoom add in), but it’s easier to use than Blackboard and WebCT and is web-based, which is a plus for those who don’t want to download the client for FirstClass.

Aesthetics as Part of Usability

So the recent past has me thinking about the aesthetics of e-learning spaces, and while that may seem like a non-issue for many people, I believe it will be incredibly important as educators move forward. We rely on aesthetics to assist us in a quick reliability check. We all do this in real life when we meet a person, as they say first impressions are important. Well, this is no different in e-learning or in a face to face class.

Certainly Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle and other modern LMS’s allow a creator to exert some control over how content looks. You are somewhat functionally trapped into a frame where content is held with some of these systems, but in many cases those are constraints that you can work with (against?). As an educator you might also have other issues restricting the look of your content; headers are a certain color, color schemes might be imposed by your institution, usability experts tell you what icon to use for a link or even font size might be restricted.

As an educator you have a dual purpose as well, you need to make your content accessible as well. So that means you should consider things like contrast of color, whether your font size is large enough for the visually impaired and whether your images have alt tags to ensure a screen reader can convey the description properly to a user. In fact, your institution might be under law to make your content accessible.

Frames in and of themselves pose problems for stringent accessibility rules, so your LMS might already be screwing you. It’s quite possible it’s screwing you anyways… never mind that ugly thought…

It’s not particularly difficult to make a website accessible. It can be tricky to make it aesthetically pleasing and usable. Seeing as I’ve brought up visually impaired users, I would be very very remiss to not mention this other blog article about 10 Tools for Evaluating Web Site Accessibility especially for color blind users. While these are for websites, you can use most of these tools within LMS’s as well. The Firefox extention (#1 in the linked article) is excellent, and has identified a couple areas that I need to be aware of in my own work. Of course, this doesn’t really speak about aesthetics. Well not explicitly anyways.

Aesthetics are pleasing the eye – which can be difficult to hit the centre of the target everytime as we all view things differently. I often get asked, how can I make something look good? Practice is my default answer, but when pressed I will concede that you can’t go wrong with the classic black, white and grey. Add an accent color of (one of) red, blue or green and your e-learning space will look professional. If you have a predetermined header, or logo, grab one of the colors as an accent from that. Simplicity is key. It’s when people start to get fancy that sometimes people run into trouble.


As Blackboard moves more and more towards a corporate, soulsucking model of managing… in an homage to WackyPacks (which probably has done more to foster my sense of humor, bad puns and everything else)… I bring you Blechboard:


And in the spirit of the Open Ed conference that’s going on in Vancouver – my remix of the Blackboard logo is satirical – feel free to reproduce but be aware that your rights might be different than my rights. Blackboard logo is a registered trademark of the Blackboard company.

Social Media: Trends and Implications for Learning

I was going to blog last night and didn’t end up doing that because I spent an hour, a very worthwhile hour with 150 other folks in the August session of the AACE “Conference” on Social Media: Trends and Implications for Learning.

Towards the end of the discussion veered towards the tool having no influence on what you’re teaching, rather the tool is influenced by your personal philosophy of teaching. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario – does your philosophy influence what tools you use or does the tool influence your philosophy? I tend to think that tools are neutral, until you use them. The tools you then use, and how you use them, inform others of your worldview and philosophy.

For instance, you are teaching at a distance, and have some choices as to the tools you use. Of course, this all presupposes that you have a choice.You weigh the value of a distributed set of social networking resources (twitter, google docs, blogs etc) against the value of putting everything in an LMS (D2L, Blechboard, WebCT, Moodle). On the one hand, you might want your students to have a central point of entry is convenient, useful, simple. You can give PowerPoints, additional notes, and other resources that you find in the LMS and be relatively certain that students will find them and maybe even look at them. From a pedagogical standpoint, this is more of a Behaviourist standpoint with a nuturing element. Most LMS’s model this sort of instruction – sure there’s workarounds to allow more collaborative tools, but if you want students to mark each other, you as the instructor still have to enter marks. The instructor role puts you in a role of power over students, which is not a really new concept.

By distributing learning, you allow for serendipity to drive your course content somewhat, but you can guide learning by participating in the distributed nodes wherever they exist. By choosing a less centralized mode you are revealing that you are more of a constructivist, or will to engage in constructivism at least.

The argument is that it’s pedagogy that’s driving those decisions. I tend to agree… but then the question arose “Is a teacher who uses Moodle more open than one that uses Blackboard?”  To which I responded “I suspect so, but one tool does not inform about us fully.” (If you want the full context, click the link above and zoom to the 55 minute mark, I’m Jon K.) I wanted to take a bit to expand on that, my thinking was not clear enough to say what I should’ve said – “No.” Comparing Moodle to Blackboard is like comparing Firefox to Internet Explorer. They are both LMSs and serve the same function – as a central repository of information – which implies that any other information about your course is secondary, or less useful.  Sure, one is a better tool to use than the other (politically?) and one may have features that you value over the other. They in the end serve the same purpose.

On another note, if I’m going to keep sticking my foot in this hole, I’m going to have to brush up on my McLuhan. Maybe some McGoohan too, just to put me right round the bend.