Wednesday, June 27, 2012

ANGEL Tip #1: Personalizing Your Announcement in ANGEL

Okay, here is my first attempt at blogging.  Whether we like it or not, technology is here to stay and trying new things with technology can enhance our way of communicating.   I work in the Academic Technology department at North Shore Community College and have been asked to help “blog” about what I consider important things concerning academic technology at NSCC. You will occasionally see blogs from all of us.

I thought I would introduce an “Angel tip” segment for this blog.  I will attempt to have a new one every month. As you probably know ANGEL is our Learning Management System (LMS) here at North Shore Community College and everyone at NSCC has an ANGEL account.  All credit courses offered here have an ANGEL shell and faculty use these shells in a variety of ways.  Some use ANGEL for their online courses, others may use it as a supplement to their onsite course.
Typically, when I conduct a “New to ANGEL” workshop I will talk about the importance of posting an announcement on the ANGEL course homepage.  When students log into their ANGEL course it is important for you to have a message welcoming them, directing them or updating them on the course.  Personalizing your course is a great way to make the student feel as though you know them. You can do this by having the announcement begin with their first name.
Now, here is Angel Tip #1 for you: 

You can use an “agent”  to add a student's first name to an announcement. 
To do so just add the following   $FIRST_NAME$    into the announcement text box.  Add it exactly as I have written it.  This will enter the student’s first name on the announcement page.  It will also work using course mail.
I am hoping you enjoy this tip and if you have any you would like to share, please feel free to comment.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Death by 1000 Clicks with Your Online Content and Course

Click, click, click  goes the mouse.  It’s very simple and small action.  A mere light pressing of a button with a finger.  It brings to mind Staples' “That Was Easy” giant red button.  Unequivocally, clicking a mouse button for many people is a relatively easy task.  But we should be wary of the fact that clicking the mouse is merely a representative action.  It’s a real-world action that mainfests as input and action within the bits and bytes of a computer.  In older days, clicking the mouse meant to select something.  Later on, the double-click allowed for something to be executed (“opened”) or highlighted.  Over the years the graphic user interface (GUI) known as the mouse has become expansively more useful.  

In fact, the clicking of a mouse has been made infinitely complicated—and that’s with only 2 buttons.  For instance, in Word as I type this blog post, with only 2 buttons (though my mouse has 7 buttons) , I can do the following tasks (Note:  These are all capable without actually using the tool bars or menus at the top of the screen):

Place my cursor on the page at a particular point.

  1. Navigate the document
  2. Select a text by highlighting it
  3. Cut
  4. Copy
  5. Paste
  6. Drag and drop
  7. Choose bullets
  8. Choose numbers
  9. Choose word styles
  10. Choose font colors
  11. Choose font type
  12. Choose font size
  13. Highlight a text in varying colors
  14. Boldface
  15. Italicize
  16. Underline
  17. Align Margins
  18. Look up words
  19. Look up synonyms
  20. Translate
  21. Access the Fonts Menu
  22. Access the Paragraph Menu
  23. Access Options Menu
That’s over 20 actions with just 2 buttons and movement.  Not only that, those actions range from the simple to the complex in terms of outcome and what a person would cognitively have to do for each (e.g. selecting a font vs. selecting a synonym:  one appeals to aesthetics, the other appeals to articulation).  

My point is to emphasize the degree to which a click is not a simple action.  It’s complex and in the digital world, it’s about as complex as operating a vehicle in terms of the decisions that need to be made (that being said, it’s not nearly as life-threatening).  You have a limited amount of tools within driving (wheel, gas, break) and from it, an infinite amount of choices can be made.  Initially, you drive cautiously as you learn the tool, but eventually are making complex calculations about your driving though sometimes not consciously aware of it.  Similarly with the mouse, we’re doing lots with it and we automate that to some degree but that doesn’t negate the idea that it takes a toll on our cognitive load.    

So why all of this talks about clicking?  Because we often think of it as a small action, but it’s not.  When in the context of navigating a website, the hyperlink teleports us into a new visual landscape, a new place to familiarize ourselves with, a new place with additional doors.  It's a portal to further portals and too many portals can be frustrating.   When a person clicks through to the new place, they have taken a mental leap from one place to the next.  And these leaps take a toll.  They take a toll on the person’s time but also on their attention and stimulation.  Clicking can be mentally exerting even when it isn't physically exerting.

When thinking about your online content or course material, it’s essential to keep this in mind.  Providing too many links (of which I’ve certainly been guilty) drains the attention and time of the students.  If we paralleled the idea of links in the real world, it would look something like this:  You have assigned the student 5 readings this week.  Instead of saying, all the readings can be found “here” (library reference desk, a hand out you provide, or some other place of where it can all be accessed), you tell your students, “go find them they’re spread throughout the library”  or “I’ve placed the readings in 5 different rooms.”  Then, having them do this every week that you have readings.   The physical quest to find them parallels the mental quest and a certain amount of frustration about having to fetch. 

This is not to say you should dump everything into one folder, but students should have a clear and direct path to access their material.  Putting folders within folders within folders means students clicking further and further and if they follow the wrong path, they must double back and continue clicking through.  The extra clicks are taxing on the student’s time and attention.  It’s not so much they are looking for the distraction or a reason, but 1000 clicks can (virtually) kill the student’s motivation.  

With Angel, so much of what we use in the course in located in the Lessons folder.  This means that students must come first to Pipeline, then to  Angel, then to your course homepage, and then to Lessons.  That’s 4 leaps already.  How many of us click through 4 layers of a website to find information?  Look to make it easy or clear for them to get to what they need.  Don’t make added levels unless there’s a substantial reason.  Keep information cohesively together so that your students can focus more on what you want them to learn or do and less on how to get there.   

So under Lessons, you might present them as such:  
Introductory Material
  • Introduction
  • Syllabus
  • Course Walk Through
  • Introductory Discussion
Guidelines, Rubrics & Learning Tools
  • Assignment #1 Guideline
  • Assignment #1 Rubric
  • Discussion Guidelines
Module 1*
  • Learning Guide**
  • Reading 1
  • Reading 2
  • Discussion
  • Dropbox
Module 2
Module 3

*Faculty often create a folder of Learning Modules and then puts these into it.  Personally, I’d recommend against this, because you’ve just created another level.  

**Once in a learning module, rather than creating more folders, try to align things in a hierarchal manner that mirrors how you want students to move through the material.  If you want the learning guide first, put it at the top.  We look at pages and move from top to bottom in them, so it makes sense to align your material that way.  For more on information design, consider this article or even this one which focuses on website design but has some ideas useful for instructors (after all, the Angel shell is really just a type of website).

How do you deal with the clickiness nature of the digital world when trying to provide content for your students?

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Wonderful Ways of Using a Word Cloud

One of my most recent and enjoyable discoveries is word clouds.  Those not entirely familiar with them, may want to find this very interesting.  Word clouds are program-generated images that display the words within a specified text in proportion to how often each word comes up.  Ultimately, it visualizes according to size, the most common words within a text.  (Also, just to clarify, most of these programs will automatically remove prepositions and other such small structured words; some will allow you to put them back in).  Using a word cloud opens up opportunity to consider meaning and interpret the text differently than we might otherwise do.
Jefferon' s Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence

 An example I used recently was to compare the original draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson to the finished draft that was signed in July 1776.  This proved a great example on numerous levels as it showed students how a text can change as something enters into a group process.  It also allowed for students to see tonal changes that they might not have seen otherwise.  The visualization of the text helps make connections that students might not otherwise been able to conceptualize.  

This has been a very useful tool in opening up discussion and helping students to see (as well as look for) patterns.  Usually, when students hit the wall with a hard or unfamiliar text, they grow resistant or just frustrated in trying to make sense of it.  However, word clouds offer a lifeline of ideas without necessarily "giving it away."  The word cloud gives a different view, but it does not give the students the answer on how to analyze a text, which is good.  It helps, but it doesn't do the work.

 The applicability of this tool can be addressed in many different disciplines such as history (consider using this for unlocking primary sources), literature (measuring symbolic value vs. word value), politics (all those speeches and texts to use), and even math (discussing probabilities, frequency, etc of word usage).  Not all word-cloud generators are the same and there are often restrictions to the length that you can play with them.  Two of the more popular word cloud generators are Wordle and Tagxedo.  
Final Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Worlde is a simple program than Tagxedo.  You can copy and paste a text or add a RSS feed, or enter a user name.  The generated word cloud can be manipulated in limited ways in for layout, font, color scheme, and choice of words, etc.  It's a very clean and simple tool for the neophyte and allows for the user to get accustomed to working with word clouds.  Tagxedo is a bit more robust.  You have a lot more options from the beginning, including using Twitter, RSS feeds, URLs, internet searches, and news.  Additionally, once the word cloud is created, you can reformat in numerous more ways than Wordle.  However, that being said, the fact that you can copy and paste a large chunk of text into Wordle rather than just use a website can be more useful to some people.

Regardless of which one you enjoy, I encourage you to try them out and let me know what your results were.  

Have you used word clouds before and to what effect?  How do you foresee word clouds being useful in your class?  What could a word cloud do to unlock your students understanding of the material?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Guide to eContent for North Shore Community College

In addition to the eContent Fair that we had in late may, the NSCC Goverance Information Technology Committee has constructed this guide to understanding and using eContent materials at our college.  It should provide faculty with the clearest sense about how to move forward using eContent.  That being said, if you have further questions about using eContent in your class, we welcome you to contact us to talk.  

Facts about purchasing e-books:
More and more students and faculty are getting on the e-book bandwagon.  The most common reason given is the reduced prices as compared to regular print books.

In most cases, e-text books aren’t bought so much as rented.  Often times, students only have rights to the e-book for the duration of semester or two.  In some cases, students will have rights to access the e-book until such time as a new edition is printed by the publisher.  Special allowances can sometimes be negotiated for e-books that a student will likely need throughout their college career (a nursing handbook for instance.) 

Publishing companies will offer pricing discounts on e-books based on the number of students in each class.  The more students who purchase the e-book, the lower the cost of the e-book will be.  Additionally, larger prices breaks are available if several classes or even an entire department decide to go with one e-book or a single publisher.

There are often different prices for people purchasing solely an e-book and for those purchasing the e-book along with additional online supplementary material.

The NSCC bookstore is part of consortium of college bookstores and, therefore, probably gets better prices on e-books than students buying on their own would.  

Many companies offer custom text book options.  This allows teachers to select just what they want out of a single book or allows them to combine sections of different books into one package for their students.  This can lower the cost of purchasing as the students don’t need to buy whole books when just chapters will do.

Students have the ability to download a copy of their e-text book to an e-reader such as a Kindle or an iPad.  As of right now, this type of feature is not widely possible, so most publishers encourage students to make use of an online portal. 

Facts about the nature of e-books and curriculum:
Most e-books are more than just flat text files or PDFs.  

Many publishers have created online course material to supplement their e-book offerings.  This supplemental material often takes the form of an internet portal.  

Students will have a username and password that they set up with which to log into the publisher’s portal.  There they may find various tools such as:
  • Interactive version of the text book that allows for the insertion of student and instructor notes as well as bookmarking and highlighting
  • Videos
  • Interactive diagrams
  • Sound recordings
  • Sample test questions and guided examples
  • Assignments or notes left by the professor
  • Simulations and Learning Games
Professors can use the online portal to gather and track information about student use.  For instance, a professor would have the ability to see how often each student logs into the site and for how long they stay logged in.  Some publishers have even gone so far as to collect data about what sample questions students are answering correctly or incorrectly.  This could help a professor determine which content areas the class is struggling on.  

Note: Not all e-books have speech to text capability which may make accessibility an issue.  Some books will work with 3rd party accessibility software like JAWS (for more information on JAWS please contact Disability Services.)

Depending upon the publisher, some portals may interface directly with NSCC’s Learning Management System (ANGEL.)  This means that students can access the e-book materials from within an existing ANGEL course.  In virtually all cases, at a minimum, a link to the publisher’s portal can be placed within ANGEL.

Facts about e-book support:
Publishing companies provide technical support for their products to faculty and students.  There are FAQs and basic troubleshooting tutorials available 24x7 on the publishers’ websites.  Additionally, depending upon the publisher, live phone or internet chat support is available during daytime hours (for example, from 8AM – 7PM.)

Note:  While the college can provide instructional support, it cannot provide technical support for these online portals.

To support faculty who are making the transition to e-books, many publishers offer training videos as well as user group discussion panels and meetings.  

Some publishers will send a specialist to the campus to conduct live trainings for faculty or even provide in class demonstrations for students.  Often that specialist is then available at later date via phone or email.

Questions to ask yourself before you decide to use e-books in you classes:
  1. Do I want both the print and e-versions of the text books to be offered to the class?
  2. If I’m using several text books, is it possible to combine them into a single custom text book?  If I am only using a few select chapters from a text book, is it possible to create a custom text book?
  3. Are other professors at the school using the same text book or publisher?  Perhaps greater cost benefits can be realized by placing a combined order.
  4. Will using e-books and the expanded online tools offered by the publisher change my goals for the class?
  5. Am I prepared to fully utilize all of the tools that come with e-books or am I just looking to provide the students with an electronic version of the book that is cheaper than a print version?
  6. How, if at all, will my in class instruction change because of the options afforded me by the e-book?
  7. How much training will I need before I feel comfortable teaching with the whole e-book package?
  8. What type of usage would I and my students make of the publisher’s online portal?  Would I want to sign into the publisher’s portal during class and teach from that?  Will I ask students to complete assignments in the publisher’s online portal?
Next Steps:
Before making a decision about e-books please contact Academic Technology at and/or Information Systems.

Academic Technology has experienced instructional technologists and designers that can help you formulate a plan to effectively use the new tools that will now be at your disposal.  Additionally, they may have pre-existing contacts or arrangements with the publishing company you’d like to use.   

Working along with you and Academic Technology, the Information Systems department will be able to help determine the amount of ANGEL integration that can be achieved.  This would possibly alleviate the need for a professor or students to manually register at publishers’ websites.  Additionally Information Systems can check to make sure that the computers available on campus are properly configured to support the media content provided in the publishers’ portals.