(Spare) Change

This post may only be worth a defunct penny, but it’s all I’ve got on a sunny, near-Spring, Friday afternoon. With the accelerated rate we accept change in our devices, software, computers, media consumption habits – it’s shocking how glacial Learning Management Systems move. It’s as if they don’t think anyone would want something different. Even the new upstart, Canvas, does the same sort of thing (albeit under a nice shiny coat of paint). Every system’s sales pitch is about giving students (or learners) the power to do stuff, but ultimately, the administrators of the system disallow that for many good and some bad reasons.

Good reasons? Privacy is a huge one, although maybe becoming less and less important as time moves on. Security is another – for instance, while administrators can give student roles the power to create content, it would also reveal content that was due to come up later in the course. First Class was always a great tool that gave control over users to differing levels – so if you had a group, a student could have full capability to delete, add, create or remove anything in that group. If that group lived in a course (a conference in First Class terms) the student could traverse higher into the course level and only access certain functions.

Bad reasons? Convenience is one of them. “Everyone gives students this permission set, so we suggest that you do too”.

What it often means is that we have a pre-conceived notion of how a student should behave in an online space, and by hook or by crook, we’re going to make them fit in. Pounding square pegs into round holes doesn’t make sense in life, why do we insist on it in our online course delivery vehicles? Why can’t modern systems allow for a level of complexity that respects people. In some cases, you do want content to be protected, but it’d be awesome if students could add their own content as well. Students present in your course? Wouldn’t it be great to have them able to access an area to share their presentations with each other?

This isn’t such a startlingly new idea. The criticisms that are laid out in 2004 are the same as they are now. Why? The Learning Management System is solving a problem based on a narrow definition of what a classroom is, rather than what learning is. Learning in 2015 is a much more nuanced, complex thing that it was even a decade ago. More students, larger classes, more dynamic mix of genders, races, classes and sexualities – never mind learning preferences and personal history. How can a monolithic system solve that problem? By getting more complex. Is that solving the problem though? Based on my experience, no.

So where does that leave us? Well, I suspect at the tip of the iceberg. Maybe experiments like DS106 are part of the answer. Maybe some of the interesting analytics work will help us define who students are, and how to teach to them. Maybe it’s the abolishment of the course and implementation of a much more agile, holistic package delivering real learning based on individual need.And that’s where my thoughts circle back to student empowerment. I’m sure you can piece together where this might be going, but maybe getting rid of the moronic, capitalist structure (yes a course is a capitalist invention to assign a monetary value for a period of time with instruction) is the first step. A first step that won’t happen, but a good first step. Then we need to get real about student empowerment. Not talking about  it, but actually doing it.

Publisher Integrations with D2L

So I’ve tried to write this post several times. Tried to work up some semblance of why anyone would care about Pearson or McGraw Hill and integrating either publishers attempt at crafting their own LMS into the one that our institution has purchased (at no small amount).

Then it hit me while going through Audrey Watter’s great writing (in fact, go over there and read the whole damn blog then come back here for a quick hit of my snark). The stuff that I’ve been challenging Pearson and McGraw Hill on is stuff that we should be talking about. I’ll encapsulate my experiences with both because they tie nicely together this idea of giving private interests (eg. business, and big business in this case) a disproportionate say in what happens in the classroom.

The concept is really twofold. One, why are we providing a fractioned user experience for students? This disjointed, awkward meld is just a terrible experience between the two parties. Login to the LMS, then login again (once, then accept terms and conditions that are, well unreadable for average users), then go to a different landing page, find the thing I need to do and do it. Two, students are being held hostage for purchasing access (again!) to course activities that in any sense of justice, would be available to them free. Compounding this is the fact that most of these assessments are marked, and count towards their credit. And there’s really no opt-out mechanism for students. Never mind the fact that multiple choice tests are flawed in many cases, but to let the publisher decide how to assess, using the language of their choice, is downright ugly.


So Pearson approached us to integrate with their MyLab solution about two years ago. We blankly said no, that request would have to come from a faculty member. Part of that is fed by my paranoia about integrations, especially when they require data transfers to work, part of it is that frankly, any company can request access to our system if we allow that sort of behaviour. Finally a faculty member came forward and we went forward with an integration between Pearson Direct and D2L. I will say that parties at D2L and Pearson were incredibly helpful, the process is simple and we had it setup in hours (barring an issue with using a Canadian data proxy which needed some extra tweaking to get working correctly). The issue really is should we be doing this? The LMS does multiple choice testing very, very well. MyLabs does multiple choice testing very, very well. Why are we forcing students to go somewhere else when the system we’ve bought for considerable sums of money does the very same thing well? Well the faculty member wanted it. What we’ve found is that most faculty who use these sorts of systems inevitably find that students don’t like jumping around for their marks.

Additionally, when the company has a long laundry list of problems with high stakes multiple choice testing, how does this engender faith in their system?

McGraw Hill

Again, all the people at McGraw Hill are lovely. None of them answer any question about accessibility, security or anything it seems straight. That may be because their overworked, that may be because they don’t know. None of the stuff I’ve seen is officially WCAG compliant, however it may have been created prior to that requirement being in place, so they may get a pass on that one. The LTI connection is very greedy, requiring all the options to be turned on to function, even though D2L obfuscates any user ids, and it bears no resemblance of an authenticated user (thanks, IMS inspector!) it still needs to be there or else the connection fails. What kind of bunk programming is this? Why is it there if you don’t use it? Why require it? Those questions were asked in that form in two separate conference calls, to which most went unanswered. I did receive a white paper about their security, which did little to answer my direct questions about what happens to the data (does it travel in a secure format? who has access to this feed?) after it leaves D2L and is in McGraw Hill’s domain.

Now I’m paranoid about data and private companies. I immediately think that if you’re asking me to hand over data that I think is privileged (here’s a hint, it’s all privileged) you should be able to at least answer why in the name of all that is unholy, that you deserve to have access to it, and if I agree to give it to you, what happens to that data, when it leaves my system and sits on yours. That should be easy to answer and not require any sort of thought. It makes me wonder if anyone is asking these questions at all. They must? I mean, everyone is thinking about this sort of stuff right?


I’ve been involved, somewhat peripherally, with the Open Badging Initiative for the last six months or so. Initially, it was a way to start thinking about breaking the LMS (Integrated Learning Platform? aw, screw it, I don’t know what the thing is called anymore) out of the box it’s in and communicating what the LMS does well with other parties. I thought it could be a way to communicate skills, think about developing a short-hand language through the badge to communicate with other people. It’s really a way to check all the boxes that get me excited currently. Open standards? Yep. Mutating a system to do something other than what was intended? Yep. Visual design an image that communicates a value to another party? Yep. Explore the value of a systematic education? Yep.

The problem is that I essentially stopped programming in 2004 when I really didn’t need it anymore. Sure I’ve done a few things like hack together a PERL script to parse out values in a text file, and dump it into a database, but using badges at this point, or at least at my institution, I need to get up to speed with programming and handling JSON, XML if I’m going to start tinkering with our LMS and implementing badges. Ouch. Thankfully, I’ve got a few friends and colleagues who’ll help me get there.

For those of you who don’t know, badging is a way of giving value to something by awarding an image that represents that value. At it’s simplest, it works like the Scouts – demonstrate something and get a badge for demonstrating that you know something. It’s basically the same proposition as what grades are in higher education. The neat thing is that the badge doesn’t have to be tied to a number that’s arbitrarily set by someone (a teacher) or something (a computer, schooling system…). It can be tied to evidence or not, depending on the issuer of the badge and what they demand for getting the badge. That’s where badging is cool for me.

When you earn a badge that conforms to the Open Badges Standard, it can be pushed to your backpack. This is the central repository of badges for you. I’ve embedded below a portion of my backpack for you to see how one might display achievements.

What makes badges a little better than a grade value is the evidence of learning which is listed as part of the criteria. Now in many cases this is not as transparent as it should be. For instance, I’ve been working through CodeSchool’s Javascript introduction and JQuery courses that issue badges. Their criteria is displaying on a page that “confirms” I completed a module. Wouldn’t this page be much better if it shared exactly what I did to earn the badge? That would be powerful. I realize that there’s all sorts of considerations for student privacy, and ideally they would be able to control what is shared with the badge (maybe an on/off switch with each badge issuer to allow for a simple description of what earned the badge or a more detailed results page). That might lead to badges being more than a symbol of learning that doesn’t communicate clearly to the viewer what was learned.

Survey Says? A: Integration!

We’re in the midst of developing an LMS survey – which has broader implications as we also want to ask about other services my department provides (which is Blackboard Collaborate for web conferencing and iClickers for classroom response). All of a sudden, this quick survey has turned into this potentially really long thing that people will be unlikely to answer. Never mind it’s late in the semester (exams started yesterday) so I expect that user responses will be less than stellar.

With that said, it will be interesting to see what people think of D2L as we’ve introduced it. In the three years I’ve been here we’ve made some significant upgrades (from 9.2 to 10 in one year, and to 10.2 the next) and with those upgrades have come some significant growing pains. Next year should see us integrate Blackboard Collaborate, Pearson and McGraw Hill into our instance of D2L, which will hopefully solve some issues for faculty (namely the butt ugly interface you have to use with Blackboard Collaborate). We’re also planning on fixing the partial e-mail issue and additionally have PeopleSoft integrated into our process as the old Student Information System is going to get shut off. Cripes, that looks like a lot of change on paper – and I’m not quite sure how things will get managed. So yeah, if I’m not blogging that may be why (never mind the two presentations I’m co-presenting at Fusion, or the one I’m doing at AAEEBL!). Busy, busy summer.

Well, what does that mean for you, good reader? Well, probably more of the same – sporadic updates, maybe some neat charts and graphs,  some preliminary findings from our Learning Portfolio initiative in year one and more snarky comments about what MOOCs have become.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Answers for 2012

Every year I try to do a Questions for the year – themes that I think will be interesting to explore and think about. At the end of the year, I go back and see how wrong I was.

For 2012, the Questions are here.

For those questions here’s some answers:

1. Pearson LMS? No big deal. I think the Blackboard free LMS is more important in the LMS space, but Pearson may be doing some things, but nothing big or earth shattering. Of course, a lot of faculty I work with don’t use Pearson texts.

2. Web mining useful? Ultimately yes, but increasingly difficult to do. With Twitter becoming more walled off, Instagram way more walled off and Facebook increasingly walled off, it’s much more difficult to use something like Ifttt to get something cool to mashup. It’ll be interesting to see how open data sources survive, and whether APIs will wither. I’d like to see more open data – I think it’s where we’ll see growth and interesting possibilities emerge. From an economics standpoint, these sorts of niche areas will be tremendous economic generation in the future.

3. MITx? In and of itself is not that big, but EdX, Udacity, Coursera and the others are making MOOCamania running wild on you. Credentials is still a big thing, but I suspect that’s the gateway and where these startups will make their money – partnering with a school who will rubber stamp their findings – or partially rubber stamping credit.

4. Android tablets in Education? Big fart of air. iPads still rule. Android will suffer for the hundred of crappy tablets and lag of killer apps on the platform. For phones, it’s fine; for tablets, not so great.

5. Learning Technologists? Still play their/our marginal role.

Walled Garden or Safe Space?

I’ve been to several, if not hundreds of community gatherings, discussion groups or encuentro (as the Zapatista’s put it) where there was always a safe space for members who wanted to engage but felt marginalized. The idea of the safe space is for those that feel marginalized could be empowered by taking some of the space of the gathering and discuss and bring forth issues that are of importance to that group (and eventually bring those forth to the larger group).

I often wonder if the traditional LMS could be a safe space for students. Not to knock the decentralized approach of DS106, because I too value the idea of putting an idea out into the open, seeing if it resonates with anyone else, and building on it. But I often think there’s a value to having everything together in one spot, to help students learn. The decentralized approach clearly works, because you can see where and when DS106 is successful. The arguments against LMS’s are fairly well trodden, they are locked down and unable to share externally – which is true in their unadulterated stated. However, you can easily embed a wiki, or other community based site (like YouTube) bringing the community in, and partially exposing the real world (as much as the Internet reflects the real world). At times in higher education, I think there’s a value in providing a space where one can experiment with ideas without having the pressure of the real world to bear on them. That should be what education is about.

I have a vested interest in keeping the LMS at the University I work at, because frankly, that’s my job (with that said, if it ever were to be decentralized, I’d be nimble enough to support blogs, wikis and other web 2.0/3.0 tools as well). I often say that there’s value in having a central location to reside in. Of course, there’s too few reasons to go to most courses – no sense of community, no value placed in a discussion online, no reward for student engagement… the list goes on and on. I can’t see great advancement in the use of LMS’s in general until faculty are looking for ways to connect their classrooms with the world.

Questions for 2012

1. Does the Pearson LMS gain traction with anyone seeing as Desire2Learn and Blackboard have both integrated with Google Apps for Education? It’s interesting for me because the University I work at now is looking at replacing their internal e-mail system with Gmail for students to start off with, but will later expand that to everyone. They’ve also made an announcement that Google Apps for Education are coming, which I think is a huge deal, but everyone else seems to not be talking about too much.

2. Will web mining for information be a growth concept in 2012? I’ve seen Pattern, a python based toolset to access information, as well as sites developed like Ifttt which makes programming logic available to the masses in an easy to understand format (almost like Yahoo Pipes). There’s a lot of hope for Ifttt, at least from my perspective, it does take a bit to manipulate to get it to work.

3. Does MITx make an impact? I suspect it will, it could change the whole model of distance education and if it’s MIT that’s assessing and stamping approval, that’s a huge thing. However, does it mean that the credibility of MIT as a credential granting source takes a hit (ie. does more people with MIT education mean that it is worth less in the long term?) or are we looking at a real paradigm shift, where the credential means less and the knowledge exemplified means more?

4. Android tablets are cheap, but are they any match for the quality (and sheer amount of apps available for media creation) of an iPad in education? I know there’s no evidence to suggest that iPads help learning (starts halfway down that page), however it does allow a form factor that beats a laptop as a mobile learning device – as we could consider any Internet enabled device a learning device – it’s up to that pesky user to actually do something with it rather than play Angry Birds or Super Stickman Golf. By the way, Android tablets also have Angry Birds. And Super Stickman Golf – so consider your productivity screwed on either device.

5. Will Learning Technologists become even more important a bridge for faculty and technology? I provide support for the LMS at the institution but I also can help design learning, use different strategies and suggest ways to embed learning deeper by using different tools in and outside the LMS. I’m a big fan of wikis providing they are used in a way that support and demonstrate the learning. I think there’s two ways institutions can go – one tell faculty to just worry about teaching and research, and let the technical side be developed by a techie. The other is to demand the faculty learn the technology, and use it to be supported by a techie. Either way, the technologist is there to support. I think the successful institutions will have technologists that can be given room to explore where the technology is going without being too far ahead of the faculty needs. That sweet spot is hard to find, and lots of institutions will fail at it.