Thursday, December 20, 2007

Technology, Colleges and Community Online Conference

I live in Canada and these days everywhere I look, I see snow. There is about 3 feet of snow outside and I have been shoveling dutifully for several days. You might ask, what do I think about when I'm shoveling? Well, this morning, I was thinking about Hawaii. Wouldn't it be great to go to Hawaii? Where there's no snow! Well, it's a bit out of my budget for the moment; however, I'm going to Hawaii in another sense this spring. The Technology, Colleges and Community (TCC) Conference is hosted by Kapi'olani Community College, in Honolulu, Hawaii. I've heard some good things about this very unique conference. It's a completely virtual conference. All the presenters and attendees stay in their current locations yet everyone joins together in synchronous and asynchronous activities for three days (April 15-17, 2008). Personally I think this is a really great idea!

If you are a college teacher with no budget for conference travels, only $69 USD gets you full access to everything, including the archive of everything presented and recorded for 6 months! Talk about bang for your conference buck! Check out the 2008 Theme:

"TCC will feature papers and general sessions on the continuing evolution of distance learning, online communities and collaboration, social networking, and best practices of instructional technology. [including]:

* Online, hybrid, blended or other modes of technology enhanced learning
* Emerging Internet tools for teaching and learning (blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc)
* Technology applications that facilitate communication and collaboration
* Building and sustaining learning communities
* Instructional models for learning in virtual environments (Second Life, etc)
* Distance learning including mobile learning
* Ubiquitous and life-long learning
* Open content and open source
* E-portfolios and other assessment tools
* Student success and assessment strategies in online learning
* Student orientation and preparation
* Student services online (tutoring, advising, mentoring, career planning, etc)
* Online learning resources (library, learning centers, etc)
* Professional development for faculty and staff
* Accessibility for persons with disabilities
* Gender equity, digital divide, intercultural understanding, and open access
* Managing information technology and change in educational institutions
* Institutional planning and pedagogy catalyzed by technology advances
* Global learning and international education
* Educational technology use around the world"

So, I would like to give special thanks to Mother Nature for making me think of Hawaii this morning. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! See you all next April. (*smile*)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Carnegie-Mellon Shares Its Stuff!

I’ve written before on this blog about science-based educational material available on the web that I have found useful. A colleague of mine (merci Louise!) just brought another website to my attention. It’s part of a long-term initiative by Carnegie-Melon University. The Department of Biological Sciences has published a website chock-full of online resources for Biology.
  1. Interactive Animations. Flash-based animations show a variety of biochemistry and modern biology phenomenon from how cell membranes work to how DNA replication occurs.

  2. Simulation Labs. These interactive simulations begin to show how some conventional biology labs take place in real life. They could effectively used as ‘pre-labs’ to prepare students for a real life lab.

  3. Supplements. Currently there are two available: a glossary and some ICE structures.

  4. An online modern biology course that is under construction. It’s an Open Learning Initiative, which is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Definitely worth a look!

The best part about the Carnegie-Melon project is that it is publicly available on the Internet. So if you like any one of these items, you can use it with your students in class or as homework. Direct them to the links you find useful and supplement you lecture and textbook material with more interactive content. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Learning objects that work!

It's no secret: I don't know everything! (*smile*) In conjunction with the provincial general election, there is an referendum in Ontario on October 10th on electoral reform. I've been hearing about it on TV and on the radio. We have two choices in the referendum. We can vote to keep the current 'Past-the-Post' method or we can choose to adopt a new method: 'Mixed member proportional'. So despite living in Ontario my entire life, I had never heard the expression 'Past-the-Post' and of course, I have no clue what 'Mixed member proportional' even means. Clearly I had some learning to do before October 10th so I can make an informed decision.

There are a couple of ways I can go about to find the answers to my question. I could try to Google those two methods and read about them. However, instead I chose to see what the Elections Ontario was producing to educate citizens on the subject. I'm glad to say I was pleasantly surprised!

In addition to an informative website they created a Flash object that did an excellent job in educating me. It has a few features that I think are best practices in Flash object design:
  • The navigation is excellent. The learner quickly understands that there are 7 chapters. It's easy to pause and move around from chapter to chapter at anytime.

  • The learner chooses the order in which the chapters are viewed depending on which topics they are seeking information on. This non-linear progression through the learning object is excellent for customizing a learner's learning.

  • The people showcased in the learning object also act as the learner's guide. They give the learner tips on how to navigate and they participate in the transition between chapters by clicking, along with the learner, on the buttons on the screen. It really gives you a sense of being 'supported emotionally' in the learning by these people in the learning object.

  • Closed-captioning can be toggled to allow the learner to read what is being said in the learning object.

  • The learner can even download a printable version of the video in PDF format.

  • It is also available in two languages. Here is the French language version.

So after examining this very excellent learning object I can now say I know how I'm going to vote on Oct 10th. Can you see any other excellent features in this learning object? Do you see any weaknesses? If so, please post your feedback as a comment.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Engaging Interactions!

B.J. Schone, the author of the blog, has finally released his free eBook called Engaging Interactions For eLearning (downloadable here). BJ sought my opinion on the content of his eBook when it was in an earlier draft and I really liked it from the first read. For instructional designers, professors and instructors working in the field of web-enabled learning this eBook does a good job at highlighting ways to make learning experiences interesting and engaging at the level of student-to-content. It's a challenge we're always faced with as most of us know that when we create a course, we want to avoiding creating a really boring 'page-turner'. BJ has assembled 25 student-to-content interactions suitable for the eLearning context that can improve the learning experience by engaging learners to the content instead of simply having them read mountains and mountains of material. By using some of these examples and also by including a component of student-to-student interaction in your online course, then you'll start to observe the synergy between these two aspects: it's the real 'sweet spot' in student satisfaction and in online learning. You'll build engaging and motivating courses which include a positive and useful sense of community; it's a perfect foundation to learn at a distance. So have a look at this free resource. It's worth a read. Enjoy.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Definitions: Web-courses

John Gedeon, an Educational Technologist from the University of the West Indies (Trinidad and Tobago), recently contacted me with a question about my opinion regarding the definitions for courses that have different degrees of web-involvement.

As he has discovered there is a great deal of overlap and confusion in the lexicon describing distance learning courses especially when technology is involved. In my mind, there are only 3 types of 'web courses':

1. Web-enhanced F2F. I define this as a face-to-face (F2F) classroom course with a web technology as a resources for it (typically a web-page or LMS). This web-page houses content and resources that support the F2F onsite course.

2. Web-based Online. I define this as an exclusively non-classroom course where some web technology (typically a website, email distribution system or LMS, etc.) fully supports all the infrastructure required for students to complete their work. Students never meet each other, or the instructor, F2F.

3. Hybrid F2F:Online. A mixture of both Web-enhanced F2F and Web-based Online such that at some point during the length of the term students must meet in class AND at some point during the the length of the term students must conduct their work online using some web technology.

What do you think about my three types? Can you think of a 4th type? Did I miss anything here? If so, please leave a comment by clicking 'comment' below.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Free Images Databases (sorta!)

It's no secret that I work for the Department of National Defence (DND) in Canada. As such, I am part of the Canadian Federal Government. Any images created by staff of the Federal Government can be shared with other staff for the purposes of government business... copyright free! So when I design courses here at the Royal Military College of Canada, I sometimes consult image databases that are held by the Federal Government. So I contacted my buddy Darryl (see his blog here), who's a graphic designer, and asked him for a selection of the databases he finds most useful for this purpose. Here's what he said:

Probably the best site (quality images, supplied by DND so no copyright issue, usually with a full caption so you know the context, on an operation basis, with links to all three branches) is:

A site that also falls in the "safe and useful" category (usable and DND-sanctioned) is:

Of course, the various branches tend to have their own thing going on, such as Army's ...

And beyond that, even the particular brigades and fighting groups have identity sites (where you can sometimes find excellent pictures), for example ...

If you are lucky enough to be a reader of this blog who's in the Canadian Federal Government then the above links might be useful for your work.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Life by PowerPoint!

Ok, you've all heard by now the expression "Death by PowerPoint". Yup, it's a clever expression and it's also true. As teachers and instructors most of us have used PowerPoint in the classroom. It works for us, but sometimes it doesn't work for the learners. They just see too much of it... and lots of it is just boring and mind-numbing.

I need to constantly remind myself of this. In my teaching life I try to keep PowerPoint to a minimum. However, when I use PowerPoint I have to think of ways in which I can make the PowerPoint better for learners.... not just better for me as the teacher.

Vicky Davis, of 'Cool Cat Teacher Blog' fame, has recently cobbled together some information that provides a good refresher to educational practitioners about creating effective PowerPoint presentations. Everyone could use a refresher, including me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Habits of Mind

My brother is a grade school teacher in Toronto. He recently sent a website my way that describes 16 Habits of Mind; where a Habit of Mind is defined as contributing toward "knowing how to behave intelligently when you DON'T know the answer."

I encourage everyone to read the summary of the Habits of Mind concept. Aside from the insightful quotes found in this document, I really found that the information rings true based on my experience in personal, work and educational settings.

How do you feel personally about these 16 Habits of Mind? Which ring true for you? Which do not? Any thoughts? Please leave a comment by clicking 'comments' below, if you have the time.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Ok, we all know what YouTube is and today I learned about TeacherTube. Basically, it's YouTube for education. It has a wide variety of videos that are useful to educational practisioners and students alike. Some of the types of videos you will see there include tutorials on software tools, presentations on education (alternate link), lessons on how to add fractions, and thought provoking videos on a historical concept. TeacherTube hosts many interesting video clips and there is likely something for everyone. Despite some bandwidth and downloading slowness that I experienced while using the site, I still give big kudos to TeacherTube. Keep going.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Facebook Addiction

Have you tried Facebook yet?

I’ve been on Facebook for a couple of months now and it is time for me to write something about it in this blog. After thinking about the Facebook phenomenon for quite some time I have to admit that the allure of Facebook for me is that I can be a voyeur and an exhibitionist at the same time. (Get your mind out of the gutter here… while I explain.)

When you’re on Facebook you ‘collect’ friends. At last count I had 88 people on my friend’s list. Honestly, many of them are not ‘friends’ per se but more so acquaintances. However, Facebook doesn’t have any tools that discern the level of friendship you have with someone on your list, so ‘friends’ is what everyone is called. Now these 88 people have Facebook accounts and almost anything they ‘do’ on Facebook gets streamed into a news feed that I can monitor. So every time one of my friend’s joins a group, posts a photo, comments of someone’s wall, post’s a note, charges their status, etc., I can be notified. Now do you see what I mean by being a ‘voyeur’? I can ‘watch’ what all these people are doing on Facebook. So with little effort using Facebook, I can take notice of the fact that my friend Leo was dejected that the Toronto Maple Leafs missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs without even talking to him in real life (*grin*).

So that’s the ‘voyeur’ part of the equation… what about the ‘exhibitionist’ part. That comes into play because I understand that this information sharing on Facebook is a two-way street. I know that if I put a picture of myself on Facebook that all my friends will have access to it. For example, they’ll know I went to that party last weekend if I put the pictures on Facebook. So it’s a way for me to broadcast news to my friends (and acquaintances) in a global shotgun-like fashion.

So you might ask ‘are these the only ‘pay-offs’ when using Facebook?’ No. Here’s a list of ‘payoffs’ that I feel are addicting people to Facebook.

  1. You can find long-lost friends. For example, I found a cousin of mine who I had lost touch with. Now I can ‘watch’ his Facebook-life and interact with him on there easily, despite being hundreads of kilometers apart. Big Pay-off.

  2. You can feel popular. For example, I’m in a race. I’m in a race with my wife to see who can find the most friends on Facebook. Every time someone asks to be your friend on Facebook or every time you ask for someone’s permission to add them to your friend-list and they say ‘yes’, you get a pay-off. This tangible endorphin-loaded shot of ‘I’m popular’ courses through your veins. Pay-off.

  3. You can feel loved. For example, you can feel the love come right through the computer screen when a friend of yours posts a photo on their Facebook that includes you in the picture and then tags it with your name. Your smiling face is now found on someone else’s Facebook photo album and there’s often a nice caption to the photo saying how great/fun/happy your are, or at least were, when the photo was taken. Another example happen to me when I was sick with a cold the other week. I updated my status to explain my illness and a friend of mine spent an actual real-life non-virtual American dollar to send me a virtual Kleenex Box Gift on Facebook. She sent me a virtual gift on Facebook to cheer me up. I felt the love. Pay-off.

  4. You can use Facebook as a type of event-invitation software. You can create a real-life event such as ‘party at my place’ and then invite a sub-set of your Facebook pals to it. They get an event notice and they can RSVP directly on the personalized Facebook event page. Much easier (and more fun) than a long series of emails and/or phone calls. Pay-off.

  5. You can pipe your blog’s RRS feed directly into Facebook. So if you are already a blogger, you can integrate your efforts with Facebook. Now all your Facebook pals will be advised when you publish new blog postings. Pay-off. (Now if Facebook could do the same integration with Flickr then that would be a big Pay-off to the photographers of the world.)

  6. You can join groups of like-minded people. There are many social groups on Facebook. For example, the local watering hole that I frequent has a group. So not only can I interact with the regulars in person at the bar, but I can also embarrass them virtually by putting funny pictures of them online on Facebook. Pay-off!

So there’s a few pay-offs that I can think of. One point I haven’t touched upon that is certainly giving Facebook momentum is that you can do all of the above with great ease. Facebook is dirt easy to use. The interfaces are intuitive, the system is very reliable technically and the functions do what you think they do. So kudos to the Facebook team…. this social software is definitely giving MySpace a run for its money.

Do you use Facebook? Can you think of a Pay-off I haven’t listed above? Do you have an ideal for using Facebook in an educational setting? The readers of this blog would love to hear any comments you might have about these issues. Click ‘comment’ below. Oh and I almost forgot… do you consider me a ‘friend’ or ‘acquaintance’, if you do please add me to your Facebook friend list. I want to win this race I have with my wife HAHA!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Find files instantly with Google

I work in a military university that has a military computer network. This network has a firewall that is very stringent. Some file types are blocked by the firewall. In fact, the list is quite long and that makes me very frustrated at times. But I digress... haha.

I was asked by one of my colleagues to try and put together a list of file types that are blocked by the firewall. So I now had the challenge of quickly finding different files on the internet to test if they passed through the firewall of not.

A quick search of Google found this fascinating Tech Recipe for doing just that. It's an amazing trick of syntax with Google that lets you find any file type you are looking for.

For example,

Are you looking for some WAV files? To find unprotected directories on the Internet that house WAV files use this syntax in Google:
-inurl:htm -inurl:html intitle:"index of" "Last modified" wav

Are you looking for some SWF files? To find unprotected directories on the Internet that house SWF files use this syntax in Google:
-inurl:htm -inurl:html intitle:"index of" "Last modified" swf

Are you looking for some MP3 files? And not just any MP3 files but MP3 files of your favorite band? To find unprotected directories on the Internet that house MP3s of 'The Tragically Hip' as an example, simply modify the Google syntax as such:
-inurl:htm -inurl:html intitle:"index of" mp3 "the tragically hip"

Try it for yourself. Isn't Google interesting?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Video animation can be powerful

As most of my readers know, I am a trained biochemist. When I went to university and while I worked in the field, most of the cell biology that I came to know I had learned by reading a text description and by looking at a two-dimensional static cartoon representation. I had to extrapolate these rudimentary items into a three-dimensional dynamic mental model that was useful for me when conceptualizing cell biology concepts.

Well that was then, this is now.

Thanks to BioVisions at Harvard University, they have produced a video animation sequence of how a leukocyte (a.k.a. white blood cell) works at a basic level. The video animation is so detailed and so powerful that it comes very close to the kind of three-dimensional dynamic mental model that I was taught to create for myself all these years. My first reaction while watching this was quite emotional really. To finally almost ‘see’ what I’ve been trying to ‘imagine’ by entire scientific career gave me an amazing feeling.

The animation video is available in two formats:

1) A non-narrated three-minute version with a powerful music overlay. It can be found on this page and it auto-starts.

2) An almost nine-minute version that contains the same animated sequences as the three-minute version; however, it is slowed down to accommodate narration of the action. It can be found here under the title “Inner Life of the Cell”.

Take a peek at the video and let me know what you think from either a scientific or non-scientific perspective (or both!).

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Wiki uses at Universities

Wikis, a popular Web 2.0 technology, are being implemented increasingly in higher education settings. Some universities have deployed a university-wide wiki while others have deployed department-specific wikis.

(Some of these wikis have been taken down - they existed at the time I wrote this post in March 2007). Some examples of universities in the USA that have deployed a wiki are: University of Southern California, Case Western Reserve University, Ohio State University, Stanford University, Brown University, Hampton University, University of Virginia , University of Florida, Yale University and University of Chicago . Some UK examples are: University of Bath and University of Wales. Wiki installations have been noted at these Canadian universities: University of Calgary, McGill University, Brock University, York University, Queen’s University, University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, Carleton University and McMaster University.

In general, these institutions are using wikis for these main purposes:
  • Manage communication for collaborative staff projects (i.e. Project Management)

  • Facilitate professional collaboration, and document authoring, online between staff and other professional colleagues inside and outside of the institution

  • Allow university-associated athletic clubs and student groups to have a user-editable web presence

  • Propagate community news

  • Allow academic classes to build a group wiki on a topic/idea

  • Allow groups of students to build a wiki for the creation of a shared academic deliverable (i.e. research projects, presentations, reports)

  • Manage and maintain documents online that need frequent updating such as SOPs, policy, procedure and orientation manuals

  • Allow front line workers to easily build online FAQs

  • Joint authoring and archiving of committee minutes

  • Collaborative website space for an academic/professional conference or meeting

My institution, RMC, could benefit from a wiki installation, as it would bring all the many above benefits to diverse facets of the RMC community: Academic Teaching, Research, Social and Administrative.

From a Course Design and Development (CDD) perspective at the Division of Continuing Studies, there could be many useful benefits to having an RMC-hosted wiki. Here are two examples:

Example #1: Pedagogical point of view

Some DCS courses offer students the option of using non-RMC hosted free wiki services to facilitate group collaboration in projects at a distance. At this time, no known hosted free wiki services can cross the PWGSC DWAN firewall. If RMC were to host a wiki, wiki software could be chosen that would be firewall-friendly, such as MediaWiki. The addition of a student-to-student, and/or student-to-instructor, collaborative tool such as a wiki would complement very well the WebCT and DNDLearn LMS functionalities currently at RMC, especially if it is compatible with the PWGSC DWAN firewall. Furthermore, wiki software could be deployed in both official languages.

Example #2: Staff productivity point of view

The Course Design and Development process at CDD operates under a project management framework and often has Course Development Teams with members that are geographically dispersed. A wiki would allow a team member-editable web space where project management and status information could be communicated and shared. This same wiki could also serve as the location for the joint creation of text-based documents by the Course Development Team. The built-in wiki functions of document change history (that identifies precisely the author of the change), and document recovery at any point in the editing of a page, would be powerful tools for accurate document version control in this group collaboration.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Is your online course interactive?

What do we mean by ‘interactive’ anyway? Well, in the past I have used Ellen Wagner’s definition from her 1994 work (In support of a functional definition of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 8(2), 6-26.) which defines interaction as “reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another” (I first mentioned this definition on this blog in Feb 2005).

I recently came across an old (read: year 2000) paper which had a rubric for assessing the level of interactivity in an online course by Rablyer and Erkhaml at the State University of West Georgia: How Interactive are YOUR Distance Courses? A Rubric for Assessing Interaction in Distance Learning.

With a quick Google search I discovered that the authors updated this rubric four years later in an article published to the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks.

Have a look at the newer rubric in this paper. I think it is pretty good. It focuses on five major elements that contribute to interactivity:
  1. Social and Rapport-building designs

  2. Interactivity in the Instructional Design of the course

  3. Interactivity with the Technology Resources

  4. Evidence of Learner Engagement

  5. Evidence of Instructor Engagement

I took the opportunity to run a recent course that I designed through the rubric and noted that this course scored approximately 18 out of a maximum 25 points. A score of 18 just barely places this course into the “High Interactive Qualities” category (range of 18-25). This rubric also helped me see where there is ‘room for improvement’ in the interactivity in this course. Run your course through this rubric to see where it lands. Let me know if you find this rubric useful and/or if you know of any other rubrics that assess interactivity in a distance course.

Monday, February 19, 2007

File too big for email?

When sending email, we've all received this message at one point or another:

Error - Recipient Email Inbox is Full. This email was not delivered.

Yup. Pain in the butt. Periodically I send large media files to people and if my file is larger than 2 Mb, I often wonder if it will ever reach them or not. I was listening to an episode of EdTechTalk recently and they spoke about a service that can help me with this problem: YouSendIt. Without any account creation, it allows anyone to store a file of less than a 100 Mb on their server for a 7 day period of time and it can be downloaded by the intended recipient onto their computer. I tried it and it works. I uploaded an 8 Mb file and specified the email address of my recipient. It then sent my recipient an email with simple instructions on how to download the file. This is a great service that bypasses the email inbox and is especially useful for large files! If you're a power user you can create an account and it will accept files as large as 2 Gigabyte! That's almost two and a half CDs worth of files. WOW! Let me know if you find this free service useful.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Does Web 2.0 mean anything to you or your students?

Are you having trouble seeing how Web 2.0 ideas like Blogs, Wikis, Mashups, Social Bookmarking, and Podcasts relate to you or your students? Do you have trouble seeing the difference between the old Internet and Web 2.0? This video created and produced by Micheal Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University, may help you connect the dots on these concepts. It was added to YouTube 2 weeks ago and has already received over 1 million viewings. It's a powerful video. I love it. What do you think about it?

After watching that video, and thinking about it for a bit, take a look at this video response posted 5 days ago by CoreyTheRaven. Pretty cool.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Five things Meme - I've beed tagged

On the 20th of December, 2006, Alber Ip tagged me with 5 Things Meme. I never even knew about 5 Things Meme until yesterday when I noticed that Albert had tagged me. A quick Google search filled me in on the concept. Basically, bloggers are ‘tagging’ each other with the challenge to reveal to their readership five things that they wouldn’t otherwise know. So…. I’m game… here goes.
  1. I am a hockey addict. I have loved the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL since I was a teenager. While I do not play ice hockey myself, mainly due to the fact that I can’t skate backwards, I play outdoor road hockey (with shoes not skates!) regularly on Sunday mornings and I play indoor floor hockey regularly on Thursdays. Despite my love for the game, I am not a good hockey player. I get ‘A’ for Effort and that’s about it. HAHA! Here’s an interesting fact about my relationship with the Detroit Red Wings. I grew up in Windsor, which is nestled beside Detroit, and I have never attended a Detroit Red Wings hockey that was being played in the city of Detroit. I have only seen them in Ottawa and Montreal. Someday I will go to the city of Detroit to see a game.

  2. Prior to becoming an educator, I was a Cancer Research Scientist. I worked in the field of breast cancer research for 10 years. I have co-authored 12 articles in refereed scientific journals. I have been in the field of education for almost 5 years now and I have zero publications. Go figure!

  3. I am an Internet junkie. Whenever I am at my computer, I am logged in to several services such as MSN, ICQ, Skype, and my newest fun thing: Facebook. I’ll write about Facebook on this blog another day. Stay tuned!

  4. I was married last year and my wife is now pregnant. Our first baby is due in July. How exciting!

  5. My middle name is Andre thus making my initials: EAT. I discovered that my initials formed a word when I was 9 years old. I approached my mom to tell her of my discovery and she said she had never noticed that before. Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with patterns in peoples initials. Strange but true!

So there are my 5 things meme. So, now I’ll build a list of five blogs I regularly read and tag them in this message. We’ll see if they ever read it. (*smile*)

eLearning Queen
James Farmer: Incorporated Subversion
Tony Karrer: eLearching Tech
Stephen Downes
Ankush Gupta: The Learned Man

Consider yourself Tagged folks. N-Joy!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Mashups? Does this have anything to do with potatoes?

In 1995, I was working in a research lab and we were working on state of the art Pentium computers. Bye-bye 486! (*smile*) A couple of my lab-mates and I stumbled across a piece of software called PointCast. Do you remember this software? Basically, it was a client that ran on a computer that had interesting stuff ‘pushed’ to it from a central server. Stuff like news, weather and sports. It was a like a 'super-newspaper' that combined together information from different news services and sent it right to our computer desktop… and all of this updated frequently, in the background, without us doing anything. The idea was cool but the utility of this service quickly faded away because all the time-slices it was stealing from our computer made our Pentiums feel like 486s again. We had said goodbye to the slow processor speeds of the 486 and we wanted our fast Pentiums back. So PointCast went out the window.

Ok, so why the story? And how does it relate to the title of this posting? Well, back in 1995 if you would have asked me about the word ‘mashup’, visions of dancing potatoes in the kitchen would have popped into my head. I have a real weakness for yummy mashed potatoes (*smile*). Today the word ‘mashup’ has a much different denotation. I realize now that PointCast in 1995 was a rudimentary type of mashup: a collection of information from other web services that are integrated together into one web page. (See 'mashup' in Wikipedia for more information.) With the creation of more diverse web services, like podcasts, online games,, flickr, rss feeds, YouTube, etc., a mashup can be so much more useful than the model of a news-focused PointCast mashup of 1995.

I was at a talk a couple of weeks ago where mashups were being discussed and someone threw out a website: It’s a service where you can create you own web page that is a mashup of almost any user customizable web material that you want. I’ve been using it for about a week now and I really like it. I set it as my homepage in Firefox and it’s a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for the things on the web I tend to look for on a daily, or weekly, basis. The pageflakes development crew is actively working to make the user experience better by adding new types of mashup items as well as refining those that are already available.

Do you want to see my personal Pageflakes homepage? You can get a quick idea of how a mashup might be interesting to you by visiting mine here.

What do you think about mashups and pageflakes? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Leave a 'comment' below.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Support Materials for using Wikis at a Distance

I am currently designing and developing a masters level course on Entrepreneurship that will be delivered at a distance in a web-enabled format. The professor and I have decided that the major assignment in the course will be to create a business plan. Students will be put together in pairs and asked to produce a 1st draft business plan. Selected members of the class will provide feedback to each draft business plan and then the pairs of students will finalize their business plan for submission to the professor. In order to facilitate collaborative authorship of the business plan, despite students being geographically separated from each other, we chose to offer students the option of using a Wiki. I’ve written about Wikis before so this post won’t be re-iterating what I’ve already discussed. Instead this post is more of a show and tell. In this course, we’re not obliging the groups to use a Wiki; however, we’re providing details on how to use one in case they want to try it. I have created two support documents for students:

1) A Word handout, which describes what a Wiki is, suggest one free Wiki service (i.e., and briefly gives the steps on how they can get started.
2) A short Flash tutorial showing how to get started on WikiSpaces.

Have a look at these resources. If you have any ideas on how they can be improved, please let me know.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Rewards and Challenges of Blogging

Scott McLeod has just released the results of his recent survey of Edubloggers. 160 people responded to questions that examined the reasons why they blog, the challenges they face in blogging, how many feeds in their RSS agregator and their favourite non-Edublog. Check out the short Flash-based presentation for a summary of the results. Kudos to Scott.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Paper still beats electronic in 2007!

Catchy title eh? A colleague and I (thanks Susan!) just wrapped up a very small study with some graduate students at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) and the results were quite interesting. First, let me briefly explain the scenario and method. We selected one graduate course in the Masters of Arts in Defence Management and Policy programme and it had 7 people enrolled for the Fall 2006 semester. This course was offered at a distance using WebCT as an LMS. Students were provided with a paper-based package of course notes free of charge. They were required to purchase 6 textbooks and 2 readers (i.e. collections of scholarly articles). One reader was paper-based while the other reader was electronic-based. Our experiment was to try to measure which type of reader students preferred. For this experiment, we offered the electronic-based reader at a 20% lower price than the paper-based reader. The electronic-based reader was a professionally done product through collaboration with Access Copyright and VitalSource. Near the end of the course, students were administered an anonymous questionnaire which gathered data on the readers and how they used them. 5 of 7 the students chose to complete the survey.

Here are some of the most interesting results.

When asked ‘which reader they preferred to use’, 100% said they preferred the paper-based.

When asked ‘If you had a choice between purchasing a reader in a paper-based format for full price (say $70) or the same reader in a discounted electronic-based format (say a 20% discount), which would you purchase’ 80% of students said they would purchase the paper-based reader.

When asked how much of the electronic-based reader they printed, three students said they printed more than 60% of the reader (Note that 60%+ represents 240+ pages of printing). One student said they printed between 40-60% and one student printed between 10-20% of the reader.

When asked what were the reasons for printing pages from the electronic reader, 100% of students stated two reasons: i) ‘I printed pages because I prefer reading on paper instead of the screen’, and ii) ‘I printed pages because it was easy to transport the printed readings between two or more physical locations (i.e. example: home, work, library, coffee shop, etc.)’ 80% of students stated this reason for printing pages: ‘I printed pages because I always print all course materials’. It is interesting to note that only 1 student stated ‘I printed pages because I had limited Internet/computer access.’

I realize that the sample size is very small here and the target market is not the typical graduate student in Canada. At RMC, most graduate students in the Masters of Arts in Defence Management and Policy are either military members or associated with the Department of National Defence in some way. However, based on these results I will default to recommending the creation of paper-based readers for the courses I design in this programme in the future.

Quantity vs. Quality: Keywords

The ancient battle raging since the beginning of time shows to sign of letting up. Furthermore, some people still confuse quality with quantity. For example, if I am designing a webpage and I put 1,349 keywords in the header does that improve the ability of web-searchers to find my page? Does the quantity of keywords matter or does the quality of keywords matter?

The reason why this is on my brain this morning is because I discovered a new Google gizmo: Google Image Labeler. It’s a game-based application that pairs to random users together, gives them 90 seconds, shows them a random image on the net and asks them to give keywords that represent it. It claims that it will use these responses “to help improve the quality of Google's image search results.” Hmmm. I’m not convinced that adding keywords to images necessarily will improve Google’s image search results. I’ll tell you why. When I play this game, obviously I have an incentive to get as many matches with my partner as I can. So when I see a certain image, I always try to default to the simplest terms in order to maximize my chances of making a match with my partner. For example, if I see a group of people posing for a conference group picture. I try generic keywords like: “people”, “picture”, “group”. How does the addition of generic keywords like this improve the Google image search results? I’m not convinced that adding more keywords to an image… especially very generic ones… will improve the search results. However, maybe Google knows something I don’t. They obviously do because there a multi-million dollar company… and I am not (*grin*). What do you think about this game and whether or not it can be a useful way to improve Google image search results? One thing that I am convinced of, it’s a pretty entertaining game (*smile*)