2015 Week 9 in Review

Work

  • This week was largely about committees for adjudicating the University of Calgary Teaching Awards – I sat on 4 committees this year, with 3 of them convening this week. Yikes. Lots of incredible stuff being done on campus. I was especially impressed by how all of the student (undergrad and grad) reps handled the process – complete pros in every sense. Love it.1
  • Produced another “intro to my course” video, for Ellen Perrault, in Social Work – these are intended to be short, informal videos that put a face to online instructors.
  • Went to a talk by Kevin Kee (from Brock), about the “200 million email problem” – turns out, it wasn’t about my inbox. Learned about the rapidly-increasing-by-orders-of-magnitude problem in digital humanities, as everything has become (is becoming) digital, and how important it is to shift from reading everything and summarizing, to filtering, prioritizing, aggregating, and building tools and networks to make sense of things that can’t possibly be understood by brute-force reading it all. Kee outlined some of the changes to research, writing, publishing and communicating scholarly works.
  • The first meeting of the EDU Book Club – we’re reading Fink’s book Creating Significant Learning Experiences. I only had time to get through the first 16 pages before the meeting, but it’s already got me thinking about some tangential things.
  • We picked up an iPhone 6 Plus to use as a test device, so Kevin can test the stuff he builds on the bigger screen. I’ll be using it as my phone, as well. First reactions: holy. it’s big. Also, that’s kind of great. I take back all of the snarky comments I’ve made to people with giantphones2. And, this thing is probably the best camera I’ve ever used. As NK would say: aMAZing!

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Other

  • Spock rode a bicycle
  • We’re trying a “screen” purge at home. No screens, except for school and work stuff (and we slipped and had a movie night last night). I’m surprising loving it. We went about 3 days with total screen blackout at home, and I was really surprised at how quiet it was at home, and at how much more we all talked. OK – after hitting Publish, this laptop gets put away again.

Only 1 ski day this week – I took Wednesday off to head back out to Nakiska. The silver chair was out of order, and the other side of the mountain was split up by race training and fences running across it. Some actual powder, but not many ways to actually get to it. Still, not a bad way to spend a morning.

fenced in

  1. I can say the same about all of the staff and most of the faculty members that participated, with one particularly glaring exception by Dr. Assert Dominance Over The Committee. Yikes. []
  2. Brad and Jason – you guys were right []

on learning spaces and technologies

As an institution, we design learning spaces and select learning technologies, and implement them in ways to make them available to enable and enhance student learning. But, the design decisions made in the development, selection, and implementation of these resources shape what is perceived to be possible. The resources may not be technically restrictive to specific usage patterns and pedagogies, but through design decisions there are paths of least resistance that will naturally be found.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us. -Marshall Mcluhan

Rooms will tend to have a natural “front” and “back” if there is a large projection screen on one wall. Even if flexible and mobile classroom furniture is provided, the common usage pattern will be rows facing the front.

Physical structures themselves can be seen as artifacts that communicate nonverbally. -Strange & Banning, 20011

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Even though tables are on wheels, and chairs are movable, they gravitate toward the natural “front” of the room. In the photo above, there is actually another large screen along the right wall (opposite the windows) with an independent projector. But it’s largely ignored, and chairs might as well be bolted to the floor in this configuration.

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Another room, in the same building, designed without a “front”, and with highly movable and individual furniture. The room looks different every time I see it. There is a projector, but it’s on a cart, because it needs to point someplace different each time it’s used. Even the pillar in the middle of the room gets used as a natural way to divide the room into quarters, without needing walls or barriers.

Rooms typically have a front because it’s easiest to do it that way. It’s easier to set up. It’s easier to reset between sessions. It’s easier to clean. It’s easier to maintain. Many of those reasons aren’t learning-focused, so we wind up with institutional and historical paths-of-least-resistance defining how spaces will be used. But it doesn’t need to be that way. The JISC InfoNet Learning Spaces website contains a wealth of resources that provide suggestions and provocations to design spaces to be learner- and learning-centric.

Learning science indicates that successful learning is often active, social, and learner-centered. However, with the multiple responsibilities of faculty, staff, and administrators, as well as the large numbers of students most campuses serve, ensuring successful learning without the support of IT may be impossible. Individualization and customization are laudable goals for instruction; they are also time intensive. With the appropriate use of technology, learning can be made more active, social, and learner centered — but the uses of IT are driven by pedagogy, not technology. – Oblinger & Oblinger, 20052

Basic decisions, like “where is the screen, and how big is it?” define what the room will be used for (no matter what the stated goal of flexibility might be). Basic technology like “have whiteboards everywhere” makes the room useful and flexible. Having seats not bolted together, or spread around tables, makes the room inherently more reconfigurable – even if the tables are on wheels. Tables suggest a way to use them. It’s difficult to overcome those subtle suggestions.

Similar patterns exist in learning technologies – whether physical devices like projectors and screens and podiums (podia?) or software-based resources like learning management systems or student response systems or discussion boards.

Audrey Watters is working on a book on the history of teaching machines – Chapter 1, on “Programmed Instruction”, looks at how some intentional (and unintentional) design choices made during the early development of what is now called “educational technology” has saddled us with decades of baggage and historically adopted-and-forgotten-about decisions. Her recent article on the history of multiple choice testing machines uses the concrete example of multiple choice exams becoming hardcoded into optical scoring machines. Multiple choice tests typically have no more than 5 possible choices, because of the physical limitations of printing the sheets and on the optical scoring device on detecting student answers. And yet online exams still maintain a similar pattern despite not being limited by either printing or optical scanning.

What other historical and technological implementation details have framed the perceived possible uses of learning technologies? Why are discussions typically linear and threaded, rather than more network-based and organic? Why are learning management systems typically institution- and course-centric, rather than learner-centric?

More importantly, how can we critically analyze our designs and implementations to question these inherent historical-and-not-learner-centric patterns?

The mission of EDU in the new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is to “build teaching and learning capacity by creating networks of practice, supporting technology integration, and promoting evidence-based approaches in order to enrich student learning experiences.” To do this, we will need to constantly critically reflect on what we are doing, on what instructors and students are doing, and how the decisions and actions shape the learning experience.

  1. Strange, C.C. & Banning, J.H. (2001). Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work. John Wiley & Sons. San Francisco. []
  2. Oblinger, D.G. & Oblinger, J.L. (2005). Is it Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation. In Educating the Net Generation. EDUCAUSE. Retrieved from https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101b.pdf []

2015 week 8 in review

Work

  • helping to refine the technology/space plan for the new building. learning lots about the intersection between space and technology – blog post on that brewing. hopefully, time to write it next week.
  • head down reading nominations for this year’s University of Calgary Teaching Awards – I get to sit on 3 committees, so there’s lots of reading involved. lots of amazing work on campus.
  • piloted the use of Swivl robot camera mounts to record lessons as part of the Instructional Skills Workshop. Previously, they’d used huge, cumbersome, complicated video recording carts. Now, they use an iPod Touch to record good quality video, on an automated robot tracking camera mount. Worked great, and we learned a few things to improve the process.
  • working on plans to spin up a new Faculty Design Studio in the office – a place where instructors can come to make stuff to use in their courses. Still early days – haven’t even placed the orders for stuff yet (that’s the plan for the next few days) – can’t wait to get this set up and let people book it to make great stuff to support student learning.
  • I’m borrowing a Dell Latitude 7000 2-in-1 tablet/laptop, as a possible alternative to Surface Pro 3. It’s supported by IT, which means it should Just Work™. Early reactions, with about an hour of play time, is that it’s a total turd. Crappy as a laptop. Crappy as a tablet. But combined? Crappy 2-in-1. With Windows 8 Enterprise, so much of the touch-enabled stuff from Pro was turned off by default. I’ll put some more time into trying to convince it to suck less. So far, not impressed. Hard to tell, right?
  • my team went on a tour of learning spaces on campus, led by the director of Campus Planning. Saw some horrible and embarrassing spaces, and some absolutely amazing and inspiring ones. We don’t often get into some of these spaces, because there are classes using them (hence the tour during Reading Week). So, the tour was extremely helpful, as we’re working to come up with plans to improve learning spaces across all campuses.

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If there is a way forward, that is it. We need to try things together and see how they work. We need to apply our theories and find out what breaks (and what works better than we could have possibly imagined). We need to see if what works for us will also work for others. Anyone who does that in education is a hero of mine.

Other

Holy. Week 8 already? Dang.

EEEL wet chem lab

  1. not THAT Common Core []
  2. the page is down at the moment – GitHub/Jekyll issues? []
  3. paging @cogdog ding []

On using a Surface 3

I’ve been using a Surface Pro 3 as my mobile tablet-shaped device for 3 (non-consecutive) weeks. If I’m going to be able to work with instructors who use various bits of tech, I need to be able to speak from experience. That means I need to use more than just Apple devices – so, my time with a Surface. Also, I used an Android phone (Nexus 5) as my phone-shaped-device while traveling to DC last year for Open Ed 20141.

The TLDR version: the hardware is strange, and is the best Windows device I’ve used – aside from the battleship-sized tablet factor. The software is maddeningly not ready for primetime.

First, the hardware. I think this is the best Windows hardware experience I’ve had. I struggled at first, because I initially looked at it as an iPad replacement. As a standalone tablet, it’s just too big. The first night I had it home, I was trying to use it as a tablet, while stretched out on the couch. My wife laughed out loud, and said I looked pretty ridiculous, like I was holding a big picture frame or something. Yeah. As a tablet, it’s not a couch-compatible thing. It’s just too big and unwieldy. It’s really a tabletop tablet. Once I shifted to look at the thing as a laptop rather than a tablet, it started to get better. It’s a decent laptop. Best windows laptop I’ve used. But, because the keyboard is a floppy detachable case, and the thing is held upright by a kickstand, it doesn’t work as a laptop except on tabletop as well. It’s just too unstable to use on an actual lap.

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(about half a second after I took the photo of the Surface-laptop, it fell over because it’s horribly unstable on an actual lap.)

The keyboard is good enough – I’ve been a fan of the flat keyboard style for a long time. The trackpad isn’t bad, but doesn’t feel anywhere near as smooth as the Apple trackpad – scrolling seems to stutter when using the Surface trackpad, but is silky smooth when scrolling using the touch screen2.

The display is really gorgeous. High resolution, bright. And the pen is easily the best digital ink experience I’ve ever had. I wish the pen was compatible with iOS devices. That’d be killer.3

Battery life was amazing – not lasting quite as long as my MacBook Air, but, again, easily the best I’ve seen on Windows devices. The thing runs over a day of actual use, and light use might require a recharge once or twice a week. Nice.

The software. It could be so good. It’s close. But it’s still a Frankenstein compromise of desktop-and-touch smashed together. LIGHTNING!!! IT’S ALIVE!!!!! (maniacal laughter)

Windows 8.1. Oy. So many weirdnesses that I won’t even begin to list them all – I’ll leave that to Ars Technica. The tile-based UI is clean. It’s consistent with other non-desktop experiences like Windows Phone and Xbox One4 and is easy to navigate. But, many apps are hidden in the second screen, and you have to know to swipe up from the bottom in order to see them.

Screenshot  1Screenshot  2

Swipes. So many swipes. I felt like I was in a Bizarro Minority Report. Swipe up from the bottom to see options. Swipe from the right side to see system controls. Swipe from the left to go back to the previous app. Swipe from the top to see options (it works like swiping from the bottom, but the options actually show up at the bottom). Swipe from the top to the bottom to quit an app. I’ve never seen so many fingerprints on a touch screen. And the gestures feel exaggerated because they have to start at the edges, and the edges are far apart because of the massive battleship-sized form factor.

Desktop vs. Touch. Some apps have Touch versions. Some have desktop versions. Some have both. But if they have both, they’re completely separate installations, configured independently, with their own data. So, OneNote has 2 different versions. Each syncs the full content of all notebooks. Each behaves differently. Evernote has 2 different apps. And they’re set up independently. And behave differently. Mail works well, and is optimized for touch, but if you want full functionality, like sending an email to OneNote or Evernote, you need to run Outlook 2013 (the desktop version), which will send the message to the desktop version of OneNote/Evernote.

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And, there’s the quirky interface of desktop apps. Because of the super-high-resolution display, the desktop interface displays in micro size. I’m 45. My eyes are doing the thing that 45-year-old eyes do. There was a time when I would have revelled in the microscopic pixels being displayed in their full native resolution. But now, not so much. Photoshop has an “experimental mode” for the UI, that scales the interface by 200%. It’s a start. But that’s the only high-resolution-aware application I found, and even that wasn’t ideal.5

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I think those are icons on the left. Could just be smudges on the screen. Do screenshots pick those up?

So. The hardware is good, but basically works well only when sitting on a table or desk. The software can be interesting, but is generally so incompletely designed that it’s too frustrating to use for extended periods. It will likely work better as an appliance to support artists creating stuff with the great digital ink pen. Hopefully, Windows 10 paves over the uncanny valley a bit. At the moment, the Windows 8.1 experience feels like a turf war within Microsoft, and the group basically decided to compromise by saying everything gets put in (but then, ironically, brands it as a “no compromise” device – for the company, perhaps).

Anyway. This Surface 3 is going back into the “technology lending library” fleet. If you’d like to sign it out, let me know (if you’re part of the UCalgary community, that is).

  1. I realize now that I should have written something after that experience – basically, it went better than expected. The Nexus 5 hardware was actually really nice – except for the battery life – but Android itself feels like it’s in an uncanny valley. So close. Still so many pointy corners. I’ve never butt-dialled anyone in my life, until then. 2 butt-dials and a butt-text. With a phone set with a pattern-lock-code. I have no idea how that’s even possible. But there it is. []
  2. I kept typing “trackbad” here – interesting []
  3. I tried pairing it via Bluetooth with my iPhone. It saw the pen, and paired, but the connection wouldn’t stay active, and the pen didn’t seem to do anything in iOS. D’oh. []
  4. we picked up an Xbox One a few months ago, and have been really digging it. It’s one place where the weird desktop-touch compromise was completely scrapped, and it works well. []
  5. My main system in an iMac 5K. “Retina” display, which could be set to use micro-pixel insane-high-resolution mode, or the normal automatically scaled interface. Which generally works great, with no real tweaking for apps – they just work, without needing “experimental modes”. The one quirk I’ve seen on the iMac is that the UI scroll-to-zoom feature completely bogs down the system. Not sure what’s up with that. I use that all the time to zoom into stuff quickly, but can’t do that on the iMac. []

2015 week 7 in review

Work

I’m forcing myself to work from a Surface Pro 3 tablet for awhile because I need to avoid locking myself into a pure monoculture. I’ve used the thing for 3 (non-consecutive) weeks now, and it’s been an eye-opener. I’ll likely write up something separate with some details. I’m writing this blog post on it. And I’m not sure I’ll finish the post without switching to my real laptop.

Not much noteworthy at work this week – most of the office was away for the EDC conference in Winnipeg. I went to 2 HR workshops. And worked part-way through a stack of award nominations for the 2 review committees I’m sitting on this year. Good times.

Read

Other

Spring skiing in February. Not much snow left in Kananaskis, so we’re likely not going to be able to head back to Nakiska for a couple of weeks – hoping for a series of big snowfalls in the mountains (see the linked article above on the coming megadrought – ski seasons are going to get browner)

Spring Skiing in February

Huh. I made it to the end of this week’s Update post still using the Surface, and I only had the urge to throw the damned thing a handful of times. Progress.

  1. Windows’ autocorrect feature keeps trying to change Downes to Downers. Interesting. []
  2. that’s 2 different places he writes for, without owning either. Reclaim your stuff, Justin. []

2015 week 6 in review

Work

Read

This is a good lens to use when looking at anything, especially in Big Media. There is a pressure to not tell the likely simple story, when more pageviews and ad impressions can be stacked up with Fox-style hype fodder.

Other

A couple more ski days. Took friday off to head to Nakiska. Where it was raining steadily. In February. Crazy. Still, a good day.

nakiska mighty peace

2015 Week 5 in Review

Work

  • I was in Kamloops for the week, meeting with folks to talk about planning campus engagements regarding common platforms for learning management systems. TRU has a really fantastic engagement started, documenting everything in a wiki and trying really hard to include anyone who is at all interested in participating. Looking forward to seeing how their process evolves this year.
  • Got to hang out with Brian, Alan1, Irwin, and so many others. Lots of great people working together at TRU!
  • Our campus datacentre had an “unexpected power outage” yesterday. I don’t have details about what exactly happened, aside from the visible symptoms of every online service at the university going dark (including the website, and CAS authentication – so, even though D2L was happily chugging along, nobody could login2 ). We need to work on rapid communication about these catastrophic failures. I was tweeting updates from the @eLearningUofC twitter account for almost half an hour before I saw anything official from campus.

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Other

Next time I head to Kamloops, I’ll have to try to get out a bit more. Maybe a day trip to Sun Peaks (which I saw from the air on the way in, and it looks like fun!)… All I saw of Kamloops was the bottom couple hundred feet of the valley, buried under an inversion for the week…

kamloops

And, I think I messed up on week numbers for this year already. Week 5 in January? Hrm.

  1. cough []
  2. and D2L’s hosting monitor team is so on top of things, they’d reached out to me to see what was going on, before I’d heard anything from my own campus IT department… []

2015 week 4 in review

Work

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Other

I took Friday off to go skiing with Evan, and we had an amazing day. We had the hill to ourselves for the first 2 runs. So good.

eye opener

ATOMIC BANJO