Playing with Technology

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. ~Arthur C. Clarke

  • Some tools to keep an eye on

    Now that we have a number of faculty switching their course management out of Moodle and into WordPress, there are a couple of tasks that need tools to be identified. The two big ones are file sharing and grading. There are a couple of options to monitor for file sharing: Dropbox and Google Drive. There are a number of faculty using each and probably a number that use both. It may come down to personal preference as to which one works best for a given faculty member. There are a number of plugins for WordPress that allow for some amount of integration. As of now, there are not any obvious ways to do similar things for Google Drive.

    For online grades I am checking out Engrade and LearnBoost. These seem to be fairly feature rich and easy to use. Again, I don’t know if there can be one perfect gradebook software package. A package that is flexible enough to meet every faculty members grading scheme is usually too confusing to get setup. At the same time the simple packages usually are missing features desired by a number of faculty. I’ll try to have a few faculty use each and see what kind of feedback they give.

    I’m also interested in having a few faculty try Learning Catalytics as a classroom response/personal response system. We currently use Turning Technologies TurningPoint audience response system, but have not tried their ResponseWare solution. This may be another option to investigate.

  • The demand for residential liberal arts colleges

    My previous post made mention of the astronomical cost of an education at a liberal arts institution. I estimated that in a few years we would be able to support at most 75 such schools. Based on data presented in For Have-Nots, the Rockier Road to a College Degree Increases the Appeal of Alternatives it would seem that my estimate is WAY too high. In the article they present data indicating that there are about 4.35 million 18-year-olds. The number of these students that expressed an interest in small colleges is reported to be 0.05% or 2,175. If we look at the number interested in private colleges and universities the pool expands to 8,700. Using the 8,700 figure for students private institutions are trying to attract and 75 for the number of such institutions would mean an incoming class of 116 per institution. My experience indicates that most private institutions are trying to attract classes of around 500 students. This would mean that there is a demand for about 20 such institutions. Data from the Chronicle would seem to indicate that there are certainly more than 20 such institutions and could be 40 times that number. So how are liberal arts institutions dealing with this? Are most even aware of what I perceive as a pending collapse? Or have the numbers always looked like this and if so is there something different about the numbers today than in the past?

  • MOOCs and the Future of the Liberal Arts

    This past week I was finally able to attend a hangout hosted by Bryan Alexander. The topic of discussion was MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and open education. If you are not familiar with MOOCs then you might want to look at a few examples: Udacity and DS106. The participants in the hangout came from a variety of institutions and backgrounds and had a very lively discussion.

    I believe that I got the ball rolling by stating that I thought MOOCs pose a real threat to all colleges and universities but are a particular threat to liberal arts institutions. There are a couple of reasons for why I think MOOCs should be of greater concern to liberal arts institutions. The first is that they potentially represent an extremely low-cost options for obtaining skills. Note that I purposefully did not say education. I am not sure that participants are getting an education because I come from a liberal arts background and see an education as something more than learning how to do things. However, I am not sure that the general public sees the same distinction and thus the threat posed by MOOCs and similar endeavors.

    A second threat is that they for the most part seem to ignore things like class standing, grades, and other educational benchmarks. They are OPEN and this is also something I think presents a particular threat to liberal arts institutions. Liberal arts institutions represent the Ivory Tower to many and of late it seems to me that the general populace is not sure they want an Ivory Tower locking away education.

    I think both of these threats are exacerbated by the incredibly high cost of obtaining an education at a liberal arts institution. Wooster is charging $47,600.00 and the top ranked liberal arts college, Williams, is charging $54,560. Compare these figures to the median household income in the US which the Census reports to be about $50,000. Even when you figure in financial aid these prices will probably represent 50% of household income. How can this model continue to be viable? I’m not sure it can and I think MOOCs and other open educational resources will hasten the death of this model.

    I think I said that in 10-15 years we would see the collapse of large numbers of liberal arts colleges, unless they can adapt. Sure there will be a few of the very prestigious institutions that survive and continue to serve the 1% of the population that can afford to attend. I’m not sure what will determine which institutions survive, but I am pretty certain we will not need more than 50 or so (maybe 75) liberal arts colleges with the traditional model. So to survive the other institutions will have to adopt a different model. One possibility is for them to develop a symbiotic relationship with open education resources. In such a relationship the faculty member is not responsible for delivering the content, that is handled through open educational resources. The faculty member is then responsible for developing challenging interactive activities and projects and for leading engaging discussions. I would imagine that such faculty would be asked to carry a load of 5-6 classes a semester or to average 11 classes a year. This would allow the institution to reduce the number of faculty and thus reduce overall costs.

    The question is whether such an institution can still retain the soul of a liberal arts institution?

    Update: In thinking further about what role the faculty would play, I think they would be the ones to provide context. I am not sure that OERs and MOOCs are great at providing a context for what a student is learning. Yesterday, while talking to a faculty member, I happened to visit Khan Academy and was presented with what seemed like hundreds of videos on Algebra. I sampled a few and most jumped right into the mechanics of the issue (factoring, solving an inequality, etc.). To me they were missing the why, the context. I don’t claim to have viewed every OER that is out there so I am sure some provide a context, but I would guess most do not. So I think successful faculty members will be the ones who can adapt to providing a rich context for the material being presented in OERs and I think liberal arts faculty are in the best position to adapt.

    Thanks to Matt Gardzina for pointing out Barry Mills’ 2011 Convocation Address which touches on a number of the ideas floating around in this post.

  • Digital Scholarship and Interactive Publishing

    Digital Scholarship and Open Access Publishing are two trends that have been emerging for several years, and at this point have probably arrived. The advent of platforms such as Blogger and WordPress have made it extremely easy for faculty to share their research and “publish”. I like tools such as these because they are free and very easy to learn and put the control in the hands of the faculty member. Of course there are thorny issues about how such self-published work should figure into the tenure decision. I’m sure many institutions are developing policies to help their faculty understand how blogging, tweeting, etc. figure into the tenure process and hopefully Wooster is one of them.

    Being very interested in this issue, I was happy to see a session on Digital Scholarship and Interactive Publishing at the NMC conference held this past June. It turns out the session was not what I expected. This session focused on the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. This is the set of tools used to create magazines such as Martha Stewart’s Living for the iPad. I was a little disappointed but then I remembered that Instructional Technology had been asked to find a method for creating digital abstracts for the Independent Study projects completed by Wooster Seniors.

    You can get a sense of how the suite is being used in education by taking a look at a post on Adobe’s site about Case Western Reserve University. Wendy was at the session and demonstrated a prototype for a scientific journal. The demonstration included interactive animations of one of the author’s experiments and video clips of the author explaining or demonstrating aspects of the article in more detail. It was a very interesting example of what exactly could be done with the digital publishing suite. The downside is that it requires students to use Illustrator which is not something most of our students have been trained to use and of which we only have about 20 licenses for on campus. In addition, it might require the college to use Adobe’s service for delivering the final products.

    Fast forward to April and Apple’s announcement of iBooks Author. This is again a proprietary format and delivery system, but it is so much easier to use than Adobe’s digital publishing suite. Students also have much more access to iBooks Author since it is free to download and about 40-50% of students have some form of Apple computer. iBooks Author also has the ability to export to formats other than iBook format. While it is not perfect, I see it as a better solution for Wooster at this time.

    This also seemed to be the view of a group of faculty and staff that attended a brown bag lunch in April on the state of digital publishing. The group considered Adobe’s solution to be too complicated for a first time user and thought significant training would be required. In contrast they thought someone could create a simple iBook in under an hour, but also noted that users were locked in to the templates supplied with iBooks Author. At least one faculty member left saying they will have two or three of their IS students create iBooks as part of their IS experience this spring.

    I would say that there still isn’t a killer app for digital publishing, but developers are getting closer.

  • Twitter in the classroom

    I’m not sure why but I haven’t really had the urge to post (as evidenced by the absence of more than a year). It’s not that I don’t have things to write about or say. I think I’ve just had other things that I felt were more important. Anyway, I’m going to try and work through my backlog of notes from SXSW, NMC, NERCOMP, and some other things.

    In March of this year I attended SXSW and tried to focus on presentations and panels with a higher ed focus. The first event and by far the most interesting was Using Twitter to Improve College Student Engagement by Rey Junco.You can listen to his presentation

    or view the slides

    The gist of Dr. Junco’s presentation was that students were more engaged, as long as it was clear that Twitter was an important aspect of the class. Dr. Junco presented the findings of a study conducted with colleagues to substantiate this statement. The study had faculty use Twitter for announcements, to have students organize study groups, to have students ask the professor questions, and discuss a class reading. The class had a twitter account and each student had an account. Ning was used as a control. The stats gathered from pre- and post-engagement surveys indicate that the students felt more engaged and actually were more engaged. Also of interest was the fact that the Twitter group had a .5 higher mean GPA.

    Interestingly, in a larger class of 300 with no control and where students self-selected to use Twitter, were not encouraged, and where the instructor never really used Twitter or the class hashtag, the students claimed to feel more engaged but showed no statistical evidence of being more engaged.

    The take aways for me were:

    • Faculty should be interacting with students on Twitter.
    • Course content must be integrated with Twitter for engagement to be increased.
    • Faculty should encourage students to use Twitter to collaborate.

    As with any technology, if the faculty member isn’t invested in using it then there is a very good chance that the technology will not benefit the students or help meet the learning goals.

Sometimes I’m an Instructional Technologist and sometimes I’m a Mathematician, but I’m crazy all the time.



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