Polling In Desire2Learn’s Learning Environment

The process to install a polling widget on your institution’s homepage is fairly straight forward. I tend to prefer self-hosting solutions, and open source at that. Thankfully in my job we have that luxury. If you’re attempting this with no knowledge of PHP or servers, you might have some issues. I’ll try to explain as best as possible, but comment if you get lost in the process, and I’ll be happy to clarify what I can.

The first step is to find a polling software solution; basically any polling software that creates an html/php page can be embedded. It’s preferred that the page lives behind HTTPS, or secure HTTP connection – so if you’re self-hosting the polling solution as we are, you should put it behind the extra security. Why? Well, Internet Explorer doesn’t handle mixed secure and insecure solutions and will give the end user a pop up with some unclear language that in the end, only adds more hurdles for the user to answer the poll. In fact, Firefox now has similar behaviour (with an even less apparent notification that needs intervention before fixing).

We’re using this polling software: http://codefuture.co.uk/projects/cf_polling/ which serves our purposes quite nicely. It’s doesn’t allow for question types other than multiple choice, so if you need that functionality, you’ll have to choose something else. For our polls, we’ve worked the questions so that they fit this mold. The extra bonus of this one is that it stores all the data in a flat file – not in a database. So you only have one thing to maintain.

Within the PHP code, you can edit the options – the PHP file is well commented and shouldn’t give you any issues. One trick I’ve run into is that the D2L widget editor doesn’t refresh the data well – so if you make an error in the PHP, you should create a new file to upload rather than trying to overwrite, I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t letting me reset the data collected (I suspect that the flat file is generated using the name of the PHP file, so when you update the PHP, it won’t force a reset of the data captured. Of course, why it wouldn’t overwrite the typo in the one answer, I’m not sure).

Another downside, and it’s a big one if you want to use these numbers as more than a general indicator – is that this solution does not track users. So, if you do choose this route, be aware that this poll sets a cookie on the computer that answers the poll, not necessarily attached to the user who answered the poll – so the same person could answer the poll multiple times. We don’t particularly care about that, only because we’re using it for a general sense of how the community feels on these issues. With large enough data, even with some mischevious numbers, we’d be OK.

You’ll need some basic CSS skills as well to edit how the page will look – there’s three options by default – but I’ve trimmed out the script to not include the extra options we aren’t using. I’ve rewritten the CSS to more accurately reflect the branding and colour scheme that we use at my institution.

I’ve included the text of the script listed above for an example of what we run and how we customize it. If you can’t see it, visit the text on pastebin.

 


<?
///////////////////////////////////////////////

// include the cf polling class file
include(‘cfPolling/cf.poll.class.php’);

// your poll question
$poll_question =’How well did the Discussion tool stimulate a conversation that improved understanding of the course material?’;

// In this variable you can enter the answers (voting options),
// which are selectable by the visitors.
// Each vote option gets an own variable. Example

$answers[] = ‘did not use’;
$answers[] = ‘a little bit’;
$answers[] = ‘a lot’;
$answers[] = ‘was crucial’;

// Make new poll

$new_poll = new cf_poll($poll_question,$answers);

// (Option)
// if you do not want to use cookies to log if a user has voted.
// if you are not using one_vote there is no need to use this.
// $new_poll -> setCookieOff(); //(new 0.93)

// (Option)
// One vote per ip address (and cookies if not off)
$new_poll -> one_vote();

// (Option)
// Number of days to run the poll for
$new_poll -> poll_for(28);// end in 28 days
// $new_poll -> endPollOn(02,03,2010);// (D,M,Y) the date to end the poll on (new 0.92)

// (Option)
// Set the Poll container id (used for css)
$new_poll -> css_id(‘cfpoll2’);

// chack to see if a vote has been cast
// used if the user has javascript off
$new_poll -> new_vote($_POST);

// echo/print poll to page
echo $new_poll -> poll_html($_GET);

?>

So that’s the backend of things. We currently manually set up a polling question, and will rotate through six different questions (which means six different unique PHP scripts) in a semester. Every three weeks, we prepare a new script page by copying the previous one and editing the end date, questions and answers, and upload it to the server.

Now getting it into a widget in a course (or at the organization level) is dead simple. Create a new widget, edit that widget and get to the HTML code view for the content of that new widget. Once there, put in this code:

<p style="text-align: center;"><iframe src="LOCATION OF YOUR FILE HERE" height="340" width="280" scrolling="no"></iframe></p>

Of course, you’ll substitute wherever the location of the PHP script you’re using is located where I’ve written “LOCATION OF YOUR FILE HERE”. Click Save to save the widget. You won’t be able to preview this widget, so you’ll have to have a bit of faith that your code (and my code) is correct.  Add the widget to your homepage, and you’re home for dinner.

Our experience with this is pretty surprising. The first time we ran the polls there was 36 responses in 10 minutes (during exams), 1450 in 24 hours and 2655 after one week.  After three weeks the final tally was 3598.  Now remember, that’s votes, not individuals. Even so, consider that each student might only vote as an average of 1.4 times, which might skew the numbers somewhat, even so that’s pretty representational (and corresponds with our internal numbers for the tool we surveyed about).

Here’s what the Poll looks like:

screenshot of D2L polling widget at work.

screenshot of D2L polling widget at work.

What do we hope to find with this? Well, personally I wanted to see how the Analytics tool use numbers would compare with users self-reporting. Does use of the tool make for an impression of using the tool? Are students even aware of the different tools in D2L?

UPDATE: It looks like the Polling tool that I used is no longer around. I looked for a mirror but there was none found in my extensive search. There are alternatives – which I found through this blog post on polling with PHP and without databases which pointed to this site: http://www.dbscripts.net/poll/ – this may not work for you because it requires server access to the htaccess file. I’ll continue to update this post if other alternatives present themselves.

RSS is the Most Important Web 2.0 Tool (for Privacy)

RSS is the most important web 2.0 tool because it respects your privacy. When you pull information from another user – they know much less about you than when you read it on their website. They can’t set cookies.

When you read at a distance through RSS, at your convenience, your information isn’t given to the server you’re reading it on via cookie – no time or date stamp, no location rough estimate via IP, no browser information, no information about whether your using a mobile device or not – in fact most of that is irrelevant. It’s about the content of your post. You can choose to interact by posting a comment, which then can give the owner of the feed a bit of information should they want to.

It’s like standing in the square, yelling into a megaphone, announcing some great feat. Some will just listen, some may yell back in opposition, some will walk away. This is how the web should work.

This brief post was inspired by several, but most recently this post at O’Reilly Media about RSS decentralization and Dave Winer’s brilliant but underused RSS Cloud.

RSS Feeds Into A Widget for D2L

Part of my previous (and current) job was (is) to document and describe how to accomplish tasks in our LMS, Desire2Learn. However, there’s lots of things that I learned from others, but have since forgotten the original source, and moreover, can’t find a simple answer for what I used to know. Networked learning indeed. So, the next few posts (hopefully at a more regular interval) will have links to resources that I should know how to do, and push to document locally in PDF format with nice screenshots and everything.

I can’t believe I didn’t document this, nor kept a copy of the process for this, but The Clever Sheep has already done it via video, so I’ll link here: http://blip.tv/the-clever-sheep/using-rss-feeds-in-desire2learn-1012466 – there’s a primer on RSS and what it means, which is not entirely useful for my purposes. Typically my usage is in response to a question like: How do I get an RSS feed into my course? I like to use PDFs to document things – people tend to need to see pictures, and like to print out instructions to have next to them as they do the task. Usually my PDFs get spit out as a response to a question I’ve had more than once, and as such, they get the benefit of many iterations of feedback on the writing and how functional the instructions are.

We’re upgraded to 9.4.1 of the D2L Learning Environment, but will be going to Version 10 soon. From my preliminary investigation of version 10 (thanks Matt Teskey and D2L for the early access) the process doesn’t change and pre-existing RSS Feed widgets import into the new course just fine – nothing breaks.

I would also have to acknowledge the great work that Alan Levine did with Feed2Js, and Barry Dahl who’s presentation on Web 2.0 in the LMS was the starting point for where I’ve gone in the last four years.  So here’s my gift back – How to Embed a RSS feed in a D2L Homepage Widget (PDF). Bonus offer: if you would like to edit the original document, I’ll be glad to share that too, drop a comment and I’ll get in touch directly.

ETC 2010

I’ll be doing a dog-and-pony show tomorrow about Web 2.0 tools and Desire2Learn, at ETC 2010 (Twitter feed here), although it’s not that specific – I’ll be using the LMS as a homebase rather than leveraging the benefits of D2L, keeping it LMS agnostic as my co-worker suggested.

The keynote for the conference is Will Richardson, which no doubt will talk about a lot of the same issues that I’m talking about – mainly because he’s been an influence on my thinking as a classroom educator and this Web 2.0 tools.  In looking around at his approach, and what his likely keynote will cover, I want to be able to add to what I’ve learned from the classroom experiments I’ve run. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of the same things he’s learned. So I’m struggling with how I’ll be able to add value or build on his keynote, other than my natural grace and charm. And great moustache. I’ve got a couple hours on the train/subway/bus tomorrow morning to think about it, so maybe I’ll have a moment of brilliance? I suspect I’ll trim my theory portion of the show and get more hands-on with the different tools and what I’ve found from using them.

The hashtag will be #etc2010conf – so follow it for more information.

Extending Your Reach

Extending Your Reach: Using Web 2.0 Tools in Your Classroom is a presentation I gave earlier today about integrating some Web 2.0 tools into the Desire2Learn LMS. I put up the presentation on SlideShare, although I don’t know how much sense it will make without me talking with it. Let me know what you think of it without the context. Thanks to Barry Dahl (specifically for the help with the wiki, but  also the excellent Desire2Blog) and Kyle Mackie for the source material, and Alan Levine for Feed2JS, without your work it would not be possible to have done this.

I hate that I spent half a day picking out the right font (Communist, if you must know) and at least that amount of time laying out the presentation in PowerPoint, which has to be among the worst product for design, and Slideshare screws it all up via the upload. Here’s a preview, mind the odd formatting of my boxes, font, and at times incongruent fonts. There must be a way to get it right?

If you download it, you’ll get it with the proper layout; you’ll also get the notes, which has the sources of the photographs (all licensed by Creative Commons, labelled for reuse, except the one taken by my wife, who allowed me to use it in exchange for the $20 Tim Horton’s gift card I got at work).

Netvibes

I’ve been playing with Netvibes, after Howard Rheingold’s rave review of the site’s ability to help make sense of information abundance. It’s taken a while for me to cobble my sites together, and I’m still working through some more advanced ideas with the tool (integrating Reader alerts with it). I guess oneof the start up costs have been the time it’s taken to find all the feeds and add them to my Netvibes desktop. Previously I had worked with the Windows Desktop widget for RSS feeds that did an OK job – although it forced me to use Internet Explorer. I never really got into Google Reader, much like how I got into (and out of wave) after the fact. I like the idea of distributing my identity around a couple of sites, not only for redundancy, but for privacy issues as well.

Now that I’ve got a lot of feeds working into it – I feel like a quick glance and I have a brief understanding of what’s going on, and I think this sort of aggregation has a nice element of serendipity to it. Often I click on a posting I want more information about, click once or twice, and find something related (or entirely unrelated).

Cooped In With Audio Tracks

I’ve been playing with the Aviary Online Garage Band style web application called Audio Editor and have been cranking out some neat quick atmospheric items. While it takes a bit of fiddling to get good results, if you’re looking to craft a fifteen second introduction theme, like the one on Howard Rheingold’s videos, then this is a free way to do it. If you spend $25 to $50 on a sample kit you could put together a pretty decent intros and outros for videos or interludes.

It’s fairly intuitive, drag a track to the timeline then add another couple. Add effects, twiddle virtual knobs, and away you go.

Another similar project, although definitely slanted towards electronic music, is hobnox. In some ways hobnox seems more organic, plug the tone bank or 808 clone into a few pedals and dump it into the mixer, then the amp.

So you can add a little pizazz to your videos, which if the content is good, you’ll be able to make them closer to a professional production.

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.

Riding the Wave of Crowds

There’s a lot of talk out there amongst y’all about distributed learning. Considering that we’re on the web and all, that’s a fairly insightful statement. Crowd sourcing was an interesting concept that I hadn’t heard about before, of course I’m not up to date on my marketing theories. I started thinking about how this is partially a business to individuals relationship and how it really emphasizes the power of crowds. Of course, marketing has always been about public opinion and (in my opinion) the power of many to influence.

Originally I read crowd sourcing as crowd surfing, which in my head, could describe the way individuals survey ideas on the web. Pick and choose from search results, go on facebook and ask your network of people questions, search on twitter for tweets about it, read wikipedia – you get the idea. Anyways, like a crowd surfer – you ride the crowd like a wave, eventually crashing to the floor when you have enough information to make a concrete connection to reality again – whether that’s to buy a product, engage in a service, or not do any of that at all.

I like that description of how online activities work sometimes. Plus it’s a nice tie-in to edupunk.