Happy New Year

In the past I’ve looked at previous posts about what I think will happen, and reflect on those ideas. It’s not that I don’t think reflection is valuable, it’s just that I’m not that interested in navel gazing (hell, I can see my navel getting bigger by day).

This year, I’ll outline some of the projects I’m currently involved with and will try to write about this year.

Work Projects

So for work, I’m working on two large-ish projects. One is a Productivity and Innovation Grant funded project lead by the University of Guelph, around learning outcomes in D2L. What the project encapsulates is ensuring there’s alignment between course, program and ultimately University related outcomes – and the reporting that D2L will suggests where there are holes in the alignment. It seems like it will improve the Analytics/Insights tool greatly with global reporting options – which is something I’ve struggled with greatly.

The other, is around Learning Portfolios. The department that I’m embedded with has gotten some funding from the University to advance Learning Portfolios (the ePortfolio tool in D2L) on campus and it’s looking like we will be responsible for this area from here on out. I think that some improvements to the way the tool works by D2L will only help the adoption of the tool – however there’s still some major hurdles that have to be overcome before there’s widespread adoption. That’s not to say that adoption and use hasn’t grown greatly, it has – just the impact of the use so far has not produced enough of a ripple to spread campus-wide. That’s our job in year two. I’m putting in a Fusion 2014 proposal to co-present one of the really interesting stories from first semester that ties blended learning, learning portfolios and helping students reflect (in this case on career choices).

Personal Projects

Other than the banal things like redo the bathroom and visit more places, I’m putting out a record with my one band and releasing another record with my other band. Not very exciting unless you like hardcore punk.

While this is work-related, I want to put together a rubrics repository (like Rubistar, but much more focused on local courses, and local sharing) that has a series of rubrics saved covering higher education courses that the University teaches. This way, it gathers together some of the best work that faculty have done, recognizes them, allows them to set sharing permissions, and ultimately, choose to export as PDF or into D2L. This is a big project, and really not on anyone’s timeline, but I want it to happen. It’ll have to be open source, and to that end, maybe it doesn’t just spit into D2L but into Blackboard or other systems too. The first iteration will of course work with our system (D2L) and then maybe we can branch out.

I’d love to help update the Feed2JS codebase to get it WCAG 2.0 compliant.  I’d also love to blog more.

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

// 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.

ePortfolio Implementation: Inhibiting Creativity?

I know, I know. Job complaints are rarely the sort of thing you want to read, nor that I want to write. I really don’t! I love my job, the things I do which are varied and interesting. I’m at a bit of a crossroads though, I’ve been doing this job long enough that I worry about the documentation of how to use tools influences the way the tool is used. Quite often the most creative, interesting ways tools get used are in that first few hours of learning how to use a tool – one of the reasons I believe that blogs end up used for a short time, and people abandon them as time wears on – they’ve learned all that they need to know and with curiosity satisfied, there seems to be little value to them going forward.

So I’ve been writing lately documentation for Desire2Learn’s ePortfolio tool specifically for our instance of the platform. I’ve put together a diagram that shows the different parts of the layout with pixel dimensions, a guide to setting up the Chrome plug-in, and now a guide to using the Chrome plug-in. In my initial draft, I had examples of how one might use the plug-in, because it seems to me, you have to know why you might add a file, or take a screenshot of a webpage, before you actually do it. Maybe these examples will be held up as some sort of  “best practice” or worse still “the way to do something’? I have always strived to write neutral documentation, where it just told you how to do something, with pictures illustrating the concepts. With ePortfolio though, you can do many tasks in different ways, none of the wrong or lesser than another. You can add an Artifact through the plug-in, through the Learning Environment, and there are valid reasons to add that Artifact both ways. You can tag things, you can choose to use collections if you want. You can have a big mess of things in your ePortfolio.

Who am I to tell someone that the way they’re doing it is wrong?

Apparently, I’m the one to tell people how to do it. The problem is that I instinctively want to find the most efficient way to use a tool – that’s part of my job. With ePortfolio, each path is equally complex (if you let it) or simple. There is no best path, there is no way to do it “right”, which again, will frustrate many, annoy others, and please a small few. The design of the tool pleases me ultimately, because I’m fascinated with how people deal with obstacles in learning. Unfortunately, there’s a part of me that wants the technology to not get in the way. Maybe that’s what my problem is ultimately.

When people are faced with problems they tend to either get collaborative and/or creative. Both of these conditions I love, because frankly the world can use more of both qualities at the moment. Does providing a path for those to follow stunt people’s instinctive creativeness? Is there a way with documentation to make it useful without making many decisions on what goes in, and that editing process then leaves alternative paths to grow over and be forgotten? Or is this another way to see who is really creative and thinking differently, because it allows everyone access to the tool, and then those who are energized by it, can take it places I’ve never thought about?

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.

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.

A New Method of Assessment

Well, not quite new, but a new wrinkle on the old way to assess language skills. When I worked in the Second Language area of my former employer, they did assessments in an interview session where the interviewer could only ask and respond according to a script. I always thought that this could be automated and it was one of the items I was going to push forward this year before my contract was not renewed. Ah well, missed opportunities. It’s nice to see that Desire2Learn’s latest upgrade allows for recording right in the tool – finally. This is something second language learners have been looking for – having used other solutions like the clunky Can8 system – having an audio stream connect directly to the LMS is a great thing. Of course, assessing verbal skills is tricky, and certainly you wouldn’t want to do too much of this sort of assessment at a distance, but business courses could easily say record your 10-second elevator pitch, listen to it, improve it and submit the best version. All in that one assignment you have a reflective component that deepens the learning and builds a practical skill both things lacking in higher education.  To build it out further, you could add in a component of what makes a good elevator pitch prior to the assessment, perhaps a video of a good elevator pitch or a demonstration of you giving an elevator pitch.

For me this is a real advancement in LMS’s. We’re not relying on written skills (which have been in decline for the last few decades) as much as one used to because profs are bored with marking papers and students are bored with writing papers. Yes, papers still have a purpose in higher education. Look at the popularity of Michael Wesch, who largely has gained his academic fame from videos on YouTube (not to say that he’s not a highly respected anthropologist, he is the author of many of those papers!). Surely these are markers that education is changing – shouldn’t academics respond?

Adding MouseOver Tooltips Within Desire2Learn

Lightly tested with: IE 7/8, Firefox (Win) 3.0/3.5, Chrome 5/6, Safari (Win/Mac) 5, Safari (Mobile). No guarantees for browsers earlier or later.

I’ve been working both angles of my strengths lately – I was asked by a faculty member who was trying to use the D2L tools for glossary and content in conjunction to provide context sensitive tool tip like definitions of terms. Like all web programmers, why start in a vacuum? So knowing that a great tooltip JS is available in JQuery, I considered using it.  The JQuery solution is a large one to embed the entire library for a couple of functions. Looking further, I searched out this tutorial/premade tooltip script, which does the job nicely. It would clobber any styles created by D2L that had been already added to a topic created prior to adding the script, so I had to hack around it to fix that. I also had to fix the tooltip always surfacing above the text, which in the frames based LMS world, defeats the purpose of having a definition; in this case you get a definition you can’t read because it’s behind a frame (or the top of the window). Another fix I put in was to ensure the box did not appear off screen if it was too close to the edge of the window, it still does in certain cases, which I haven’t narrowed down – if anyone out there wants to take a crack at fixing it, be my guest.

The implementation of the script isn’t too difficult if you’re OK with editing HTML code (a matter of adding three lines and editing two lines) and are precise in your edits.

Here’s a link to the PDF instructions and the zipped file with the javascript and CSS file.

Of course, if there’s any errors please let me know and I’ll correct and/or clarify them as soon as possible.

Hit The Ground Running

This week is going to be hellish. I’m helping some faculty put some language assessment test online in Desire2Learn, which has lead me to really rethink how to use some of the tools that the LMS provides. Their needs are such that they do language assessments and aren’t testing recall – so they want to play a video and have students take the quiz. Not a problem, you’d think. Of course, it is. The solution I came up with is to use an image information field, without inserting a picture, but using the comments section, which has full use of the HTML Editor, to insert the video at the top of the screen. The downside to this workaround is that if you have more questions than the screen holds, you have to scroll the video off the page.

I’ve also got to start refreshing my presentation from a couple weeks ago for a new audience, this one more receptive to web 2.0 and online stuff in general. Also it needs a piece that talks about how easy (and the potential drawbacks of integrating it into a LMS) it is to put into D2L.

I’m also doing my normal work routine stuff, helping train some faculty, creating media, working with video and text. By 9:30 this morning I hit most of my targets and was already drowning again in more work. Semester start-up indeed.

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).

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.