Fusion 2013 Recap

So I went to Fusion (Desire2Learn’s conference around their products and tools), presented a fairly well received workshop on how to embed an RSS feed into a widget or content page (thanks again to Cogdog aka Alan Levine, Barry Dahl and The Clever Sheep aka Rodd Lucier, for having some part in my ability to do that – perhaps even unbeknownst to them). I also presented how my institution added a Polling widget to our Org level homepage at the Unconference (thanks to Kyle Mackie and his band of very merry helpers in setting that up).

Most of all I stressed about travelling for the first time without my wife since, well, we got married (in 1995). Usually I fill a role in travel, that of planner, navigator, organizer – but she’s the fun and my social mediator. So frankly, I was worried that I would get to Boston, and well, not know what to do, or be the wallflower that I usually am. Thankfully, after arriving early enough on Sunday, getting oriented to the city (a bit) I fell into my usual travel routine and sort of discovered that I still know how to interact on my own. This year’s Unconference, my first, was well, pretty much what I expected. I didn’t expect weirdness galore –  however there was enough of that, but it was the perfect start to my experience at a conference. I got into a pretty good discussion of the why’s and workarounds and issues we’ve had with the Desire2Learn Learning Platform with Andy Freed and Dave Long.

I met a whole bunch of  people I follow on Twitter at the Unconference  – further proving that Twitter is my most important network of connections. Of course, I finally got a change to meet Barry Dahl in person, and of course, we hit it off. I have to admit, I was a bit scared to meet people in person. I always worry that real life is different than online, and well it may just be… well, awkward. I have to say that Barry is the same person online as he is in my real time interactions with him. Meeting the people I’ve interacted with online was the best thing that happened during the conference.

DAY ONE

I arrived at the conference hotel proper, signed in and was assigned to the “Red Socks” team (others were the “Bobby Orrs”,  the “Larry Birds”, etc). The Twitter hashtag for the Red Socks was #RS, not #BS as I wanted to put in a bunch…. Ran into our D2L Account Manager, Lee, who’s honestly one of the best account managers I’ve known. Had a good chat with him, and moved on to talking to the ePortfolio team about all the different ways we want to employ ePortfolio at my institution. Got a really, really good sense of where the product is going, and if it works as easily as it should, the tool should be really, really beneficial to students.

I attended an introductory session on Analytics (now rebranded Insights), because I’m still a bit boggled by the tool, how it does great reports at the course level, but the interesting stuff for me anyways, is at the organizational level, and often I find that the damn tool doesn’t run. I don’t know if that’s me, not really understanding the tool, or the tool not working. Either way, this session didn’t really help, as it was truly an overview.

Lunch rolled around with an OK keynote by Michael Horn, talking about how education is ripe for disruption (like the Auto industry, Music industry or other industries). I guess the analogy doesn’t work in Canada where there’s a level of government involvement in the “competition” between institutions and how education is not a product to be purchased like music or automobiles. Also the charts he showed made no sense to me and communicated even less. John Baker had some suits from other corporations talk with him about education – which I guess was fine. Frankly, I am not a fan of suits, and while I’m sure I could’ve gleaned something from the discussion, all I kept thinking was “these guys are figuring out ways to sell me some product I don’t need”.

Checked out the new Document Templates in a session as well, which was interesting but we won’t have the time post upgrade to do anything with them. Perhaps down the road, but knowing how things work, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to find the time to do anything interesting with them.

Ended the day in a session with Jason Thompson from Guelph about their in-house PEAR tool, which stands for Peer Assessment and Review, which talks with D2L through the API. Probably the most interesting thing I learned today, which was mostly about the peer review process and something that I think will be important as a long-term goal with McMaster and it’s Learning Portfolio project.

In the evening we went bowling and played pool. I’m more of a people watcher but got to hang out with my new friends from Guelph and some old friends from Mohawk College, was good overall but slightly overwhelming. Walking back to the hotel was probably the most interesting thing I did, in the process went by the oldest firehall in Boston. The walk back to the Newbury Guest House was winding as I took an unexpected detour, but it all ended up fine. Part of the fun being in a different city is those weird explorations down roads unexpected. This was a good one.

DAY TWO

Up early, to the conference early.. and well nerve wracked from the anticipation of presenting. I’m never calm about presenting no matter how familiar I am with the subject matter – I suspect that comes from my constant analysis of “what could go wrong?”. More on that later.

The sessions started really early – or maybe it was just me. Of course, I arrive and grab some stuff to eat, start to pour a coffee, and some people exiting the main hall pointed out that I was on the big screen, to which I responded to with a truly confused “huh?”. What a way to make you not hungry, having my mug up on screen twenty feet tall. My wife did say take pictures of yourself in Boston, so I did…

Was only a brief moment of celebrity. Note to self, hide better when Barry has a camera. Another note, compose your shots indoors and check to see if they work. As for the sessions on day two:

I started with the Heutagogy session which was interesting – talked a lot about self directed learning. I think one of the things that get in the way with Learning Management Systems in general is that there’s no mechanisms for students to determine pacing. This is something that I’ve come up against a fair bit – especially in MOOCs – where you would think that students being able to determine their own pacing might be a good thing. I wonder if something like this could be structured using the Checklist tool, students could opt-in to a voluntary “section” to graduate with – and then use restrictions to manage different dropboxes and quizzes? This session was an interesting starter to the day.

The next session I attended was Ohio State’s expanding the LMS session that delved into some of the issues of using third-party (mostly publisher) platforms integrated with the LMS. They did note that Pearson and McGraw Hill integrations were the most technically challenging which makes sense when those publishers have developed their own environments. While my institution isn’t thinking about this sort of stuff yet, it might get there sooner than later. It was interesting to hear and unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the follow-up session which was more technical in nature.

I then attended the ePortfolio lightning round – which may have been the best thing on Tuesday. There was a ton of ways that ePortfolio that is being used, but all of them are using the ePortfolio tool to be a reflective tool. Many find that they scaffold reflective practice at the first with forms to define “how to reflect” and then as the course develops, they tend to bring in less structured reflections. I think this is really valuable for our use in courses – in fact it’s some information that I’ve passed on to a couple instructors in discussions about how they can use the Learning Portfolio (which we’ve called it) at McMaster.

Lunch was next. Delicious. I have to say, the food was excellent throughout the conference. The keynote was from Karen Cantor, and to be honest it didn’t resonate at all because I was presenting right after lunch. Had some interesting conversations with my friends at Mohawk College again – not about work but about life in general.

I did my workshop right after lunch on RSS Feeds using Feed2JS and a bunch of other open source tools. I hit the wifi cutoff switch on my laptop mid demonstration and that lead me to switch to the house laptop for the finish. Panic was coursing through my veins, but I think I held it together pretty well.

After I finished it was a blur again, but I rounded out the day with the Web 2.0 tools “Free and Funky” session. There were a ton of tools listed but there were three that were new to me: Quizlet, Quietube and Twine. Out of all these tools, I should maybe document using some of these for our faculty – just to broaden their horizons as to what can be in content.

At the close of day, we had a police escort to the JFK Library/Museum, which was an awesome building. I ended up seeing 5% of it because, well, I was chatting with a bunch of people. There was more drinking, eating, some dancing (not by me) and after an ill advised stop at another bar, it was time for sleep.

DAY THREE

The sessions everyday seem to start earlier (or maybe bedtime is later)? After a quick breakfast and only one incident of me on screen, I headed off to the sessions.

The first session I attended was a bit out of my wheelhouse, but it was on how ePortfolio was being delivered at the K-12 level. One of the best quotes I got from this session was “Course design is like playing chess”. Indeed it is, there was a lot of talk about nuts and bolts – one interesting concept was that rubrics being embedded with forms that are used as Exit Cards for each week. I wondered where the rubric information goes – back to the student obviously, but can it be connected to a dropbox?

The second was a session on Rubric and Competencies best practices – incredibly useful in my context as not a lot of faculty use Rubrics or Competencies – and I think we’ll need a Rubrics workshop and a Competencies workshop. In fact I hope that the language around the tool changes – and Competencies shift to Learning Objectives. The nice thing about this session was the takeaway in that we got some pre-built rubrics. I think we’ll be designing some basic rubrics (by taking the common assessment methods like essays, proposals and common critera like critical thinking, spelling, structure) and distributing through the org level of the Learning Environment.

I attended the Respondus LockDown Browser session, which was an interesting thing to think about. I know that issues of academic integrity (which is in and of itself a weird buzzword) in blended and online delivered courses are something that my institution might have to think about moving forward as they look at more blended learning projects. I don’t know that it was immediately valuable, but we’ll see if there’s something we can work with going forward. I’m always looking for things that are easy to integrate with the LMS, and this is one thing. I’m not particularly happy with the idea that it’s built off of Internet Explorer, because that browser frankly blows, but I understand their logic.

Day three’s lunch was again, delicious, but distinctly messy. I escaped unscathed, but man, I could imagine dropping pulled pork or baked beans on my shirt no problem… Alec Couros delivered the closing keynote, and even though I’ve seen most of the elements that Alec ran through – I really enjoyed seeing the whole thing put into context. He had a well deserved standing ovation. His keynote was entertaining and informative. A great way to close the conference.

EXCEPT there’s one more session – the last session was incredibly useful and unfortunately poorly attended. The last session was all about optimizing images for the web to make it more mobile friendly – I learned a ton from it. Mostly about the amazing tool Tiny PNG and the optimization tricks for JPG files for Retina Displays (double the pixel size, and use the media queries to shrink) to allow for higher pixel density. Also, I’ve always been pretty staunch about JPG optimization being at the higher level (80% or higher) because of the lossy compression that happens. The presenters were saving images at 40% and getting comparable quality for great filesize improvements. While that kind of nerditry is not necessarily important for anyone outside of developers, it is important for almost everyone who is putting a picture in a course, because that is going to be seen on a mobile device.

LMS Review

I’ve spent 19 hours at work the past two days, so I come home, plop down in front of the computer and blog about work.

As with all Colleges, we’re in the final days of preparation for the first classes next week. For us at Mohawk, that means manually (well, through input scripts) creating classes, enrolling students and creating instructor accounts. Until last year, Mohawk has never had a policy that said “we as an institution will use one LMS”. So the e-Learning department (of which I am a small part) has been very very lucky to be able to experiment with several different platforms. FirstClass is one of the longest running options at the College – having been in use for at least 9 years, probably more. If you’ve never used it, you’ve missed out. It’s a standalone client, so it’s not a web browser based solution, and while it’s quirky, it has lots of options for collaboration. In fact, having used it for around 8 years, I think it’s still heads and shoulders above the other LMS’s in that aspect.

WebCT is still running at Mohawk as well, and I never really had to use it but the instances I’ve had to develop content and media for it, it’s fine. I never liked the view options (switching from designer to student view to see how things look and function), and it actually plays nice with others (sort of). I mean you can export something and import it somewhere else and it kind of works fine.

Mohawk’s also running an instance of Blackboard CE 6, which as I understand it is some hybrid between WebCT and Blackboard. Like WebCT, it’s ok. Fairly locked in, and creating user accounts on it is a real pain, involving a custom hacked Perl script, XML massaging and a CSV. Getting students in shouldn’t be this difficult should it? Of course Blackboard offered to integrate the system with our Student Information System, for a fairly large (to me anyways) sum. No thanks, how about creating a way to bulk import students that doesn’t take half an hour?

We also have an installation of Moodle. Which was pretty daunting for faculty to use as there’s not a large support component for them. That’s not to say that Moodle doesn’t have a large support community, it most certainly does. Our faculty are not the most e-learning adventurous, and the ones that are, are already using one of the 5 systems in place (FirstClass, WebCT, Blackboard, Desire2Learn and the Portal CourseTools, which e-Learning doesn’t have any control over). So the ones who might’ve been interested in trying Moodle were probably scared away by the lack of immediate help with the system. Which is too bad, because the flexibility it can deliver is really nice. It’s the MySQL of osCommerce (or WordPress?) of Learning Management Systems.

Last year, e-Learning (I was only peripherally involved with the department as I was working with technology for second language learners at the time) went through a nine month review process, to look at acquiring one system to replace the six. Desire2Learn came out on top. The final paper is on the LMS Review blog.

Having worked with Desire2Learn for about four months, I’m disappointed with the collaborative tools (blogs specifically, but online documents were something I had hoped they would be developing).  I guess I shouldn’t be, my expectations of a modern system is far and above what the average instructor or user would expect or need. And it’s perfect for that beginner user – I just hope that we don’t end up down the garden path and find out that it’s not quite robust at that level. Of course, I know it sort of is. Barry Dahl and Kyle Mackie are always posting about interesting things to do with D2L and I hope that our faculty can get to that point. I guess it’s part frustration that we haven’t used it before, and even though our admin has been using a lot since February, he still feels he has no mastery of it. That to me suggests there’s some depth to the system. Maybe we’re all a bunch of self-deprecating navel gazers? It is an exciting time at Mohawk. I talked to two faculty members today who were genuinely excited to use the system, which is all I need to get through the day I suppose.

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.