Back In The Saddle and Gearing Up

Even though I didn’t really announce it, I took most of the summer off from blogging. No big reasons other than I wanted to collect my thoughts and re-focus while preparing to start working on a Ph.D. this Fall.

So why would I want a Ph.D. when colleges are dying and no one is hiring? Well, because first of all… none of those predictions are coming true. Colleges are going strong and numbers are growing. That growth is fueling many colleges to hire more staff. My current employer has hired many new positions and is pushing to add a few more. In fact, I hope to talk one of the new Instructional Designers into joining us here in EGJ. I know its not all rosy fields out there in academia, but there are many bright spots and I want to continue to be a part of those.

Ultimately, though, we will always need academics. The definition of what that is might change, but we need to people to continue thinking and studying and researching and pushing the boundaries. I can’t push those boundaries until I have pushed my own as far as they can go.

So, that is what I am planning. We’ll see how this journey goes. But if you start seeing more reference to obscure philosophers in my writing, you will know where that weirdness comes from :)

To honor free comic day…

As many of the more geeky EduGeek readers know, last Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. I took advantage of this by catching up on Marvel’s fun and compelling Sinister Six (which was not free, by the way). This event has me thinking of a tool that I have used in the past which allows anyone to design, draft, and publish comic book strips. This is another entry on tools that instructors might use to appeal to visual learners: the tool I highlight this week is Bitstrips.

Bitstrips are an easy way to embed information visually to your students

Bitstrips are quick to make and they can convey information to your students visually without much effort. It is also a simple way to create a static avatar for your course.

Bitstrips can add a bit of visual  flair to:  your syllabus,  your learning  management system,  your orientation  handouts,  even exam instructions.

Bitstrips are not just for instructors, either. You could assign comic strip writing as creative exercises. A great thing about Bitstrip comics is that they can be edited by more than one person, if the designer desires. Therefore, students can work on creating a strip together. For example, a group could design a strip reflecting their interpretation of something that motivated a character to do what she or he did in a novel. Or perhaps they could draw up a case study graphically reflecting a prescribed course of actions.

Example of a bitstrip giving advice on how to ask effective questions.

Bitstrips are easily transferable, both on-line and off. They can be embedded into websites, downloaded as a image file, e-mailed and/or printed. Clearly this flexibility makes Bitstrips quite open as an assessment opportunity.

So, with that being said, I would be really interested to know what uses for this you might have. Send me a note @clongstr on Twitter and I will gather them to post later.

Are Changes In Store for “Distance Education”?

Distance Education is a broad term that covers a lot of ground – everything from a remote campus connected to a hub campus via video cameras to a totally online, self-guided learning module.  I am beginning to wonder if we will start to see a greater divide between the two most popular modes – video meetings at a distance and online “anytime, anywhere” learning.

In other words, will future course catalogs start dividing courses between synchronous and asynchronous courses instead of the standard online vs. in-class designations?

Let’s face it – the killer value of online learning is the “anytime, anywhere” aspect of it.  I’ve actually dropped an online course before because it required two face-to-face meetings a week. If I could make those meetings, I would have just signed up for a degree with a local college instead of going the online route.

Here’s my question: is it really fair to students to label a class as “online” if it requires some kind of regular, synchronous video session?  I would venture to say that is a little misleading – just taking into account the current view of what “online” means.  Most web sites out there are asynchronous in nature, so I believe that is what most students are expecting when they sign up for an “online” course.

Of course, labeling courses as just synchronous and asynchronous could cause another set of problems when students sign up for a synchronous class and find out that they don’t have the technical equipment to connect to the WebEx session or whatever it may be.

None of this is meant to foo-foo on synchronous meetings in distance learning.  I think there is a need for it.  Someday, I think we are also going to see virtual worlds evolve to the place where you have near photo-realistic avatars that are mapped to your body movements by a web-cam, all displayed on huge, wide screen, multi-touch holographic computer monitors.

I just am beginning to wonder if we need to start actively separating distance learning from online learning, so that students will have a clearer idea of what they are getting in to.  “Distance” learning would come to describe those classes that happen synchronously at a distance, and “online” would come to describe those courses that happen asynchronously over the Internet.  Maybe some are already doing this, but it seems that the terms are used pretty interchangeably now.

Plus, I get tired of going to conferences and having to explain over and over again why I would never use a video vendor’s product in the classes I produce, they need to talk to these people that do that, etc., etc.  I would just like to be able to say “I am more of an ‘online’ person than a ‘distance’ person” and that be the end of that.

Just a random musing for the day.

Textbook rentals anyone??

Where have I been?? Yet another edtech trend was brought to my attention today, and I had never heard of it before…

We’ve been working (read: struggling) with our campus bookstores, trying to work out a solution for our online/distance students who want to sell back their books. Sure, they could always sell them through or ebay, but we want our bookstores to set up some type of procedure to work with them. (How do your campus bookstores handle this, if you don’t mind my asking?)

Well today, out of the blue, my director sent me an email that didn’t really offer a solution, but it does offer a definite alternative. Textbook rentals — much in the spirit of Netflix and movie rentals — allow students to rent textbooks for a month/semester/year (depending on the service you choose) with the understanding that you will return the textbook in “good” condition. Different services have different pricing schemes. Below is a quick look at a couple of textbook rental sites that are out there.

Claims to be #1 in textbook rentals. You pay per book for a semester, quarter, or summer. You do have the ability to extend your rental for an additional cost for an extra 15 days, 30 days, semester, or quarter. They’ll even plant a tree for every book you rent, buy, or sell with them. Here’s an example of what you might save:

Biology with MasteringBiology
ISBN: 0321543254 price (new): $137.75 price (per semester): $66.79


Campus Technology did a story on them today, so I wanted to include them in my post, but sadly several of their pages (including the signup page) are throwing errors.

According to CT’s story, Skoobit offers several plans to choose from. The special 45-day summer rental plan allows a student to rent books at $24.99 each. Or students can opt for what they anticipate to be the most popular plan – $10.99 per book per month for four months. Not bad … if only their site would work.

Listed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, allows students to rent books for 15, 30, 60, 90 (~1 quarter), or 125 (~1 semester) days, with the option to purchase it new. Going back to our previous example:

Biology with MasteringBiology
ISBN: 0321543254 price (new): $137.75 price (125 days): $63.75

So you can definitely save quite a chunk of change using these websites. Oh how I wish these had been available when I was getting my undergrad degree. That being said, even grad students (who tend to hold onto their textbooks to keep as references) would be interested in these sites. Several offer the option to purchase the books new, and with our example above,’s purchase price ($142.94) is close to even’s (current) lowest used price ($123.89).

Anyway, as a result of all this, we’re planning on letting our students know about this. My question for you all is — had you heard of this before? Have you heard from any students who have used these sites? What did they think?

The Death of the Learning Management System? (part 4)

As I’ve been reading more and more about the EduPunk movement and the related call for the “death” of the CMS/LMS/VLE/etc, I’ve noticed some interesting developments. Some people refer to the LMS as a “prison” that forces teachers to contain all learning in one small corner of the Internet. This is labeled as “inhumane” and “counter-productive” (because of the separation from the rest of the world).

Now the logical counter-argument to that is “what about the traditional grade school classroom?” Are they inhumane and counter-productive because they meet in a school building? Would it be more productive to have 4th graders meeting for class at the local park? Maybe high school English classes should meet at the local mall so that they can have more humane instruction? Well, of course not – the point being that having education happen behind closed doors is not always a bad thing. So why is it such a big deal to some when it happens in online learning?

“Well, some people do that for the entire class online and never take advantage of the resources on the web!” you might reply. True enough – but we have a term for those types of people in the instructional design world: bad course developers! Bad! Bad!

I think that is where I differ from parts of the EduPunk movement and those that hate LMS programs. I am not ever going to base my opinions or arguments on bad instructional design. I scratch my head in confusion at the notion of “LMS-as-prison.” Every time I design a class, I include massive numbers of links to outside sites. I sit with instructors to see how we can get students out on to the web, participating in the global conversation on their subject (even creating some of the conversation and content themselves). And I do this quite easily with older versions of BlackBoard, WebCT, and Moodle.

Most arguments against the LMS, and even studies about their effectiveness, are basically flawed because of this. They look at how classes are used in an LMS, and then based on what they see happening in that class they usually deem the LMS as useless. When I look at the classes they study, I usually just see bad examples of Instructional Design more that a tool that is lacking anything.

Also, I think the use of terms like “Learning Management System” and “Virtual Learning Environment” are misleading. The correct term should be “Course Management System.” These programs should really only be used for administrative purposes – class roles, grades, content repository (all classes need some content – even though it should be kept to a minimum), etc. Also, tools need to be provided for student safety when sensitive topics are discussed. Some topics should be discussed in a closed corner rather than out on the world wide web in some cases.

To say a program manages learning or is a learning environment will give the impression that it is a closed place where learning is imprisoned. It doesn’t have to be that way. Use the LMS program as an adminstrative hub for your class – and then insert a link to something else and get the students out there learning.

Of course, none of this is to say that LMS programs can’t add social tools to their programming. It’s all tools – so the factor that matters is what the instructor does with them… not the tool itself.

I guess that is my big point: stop focusing on tools so much! They are only tools – use them how ever you want!

This is also not to say that I love everything about CMS progrmas. When you really look at it…. there is really no reason why the CMS should cost as much as it does in some cases. And don’t get me started on lawsuits.

New iPods are here!

For those of you who couldn’t fit your entire music library on the paltry 80 gigabyte iPod now you have the option to purchase the 160 gigabyte version. The iPhone has come down in price by $200 and now you can get your iPod with the iPhone’s snazzy interface, but it only has a 16 GB drive (huh?). The Nano now has video  …I could write about this stuff all day, but here is a link to the site instead:

Kaplan Test Prep + iPod = Higher SAT scores?

I guess it was just a matter of time before the connection was made between the iPod and drill and practice for standardized tests. Kaplan has thrown its proverbial hat in the ring with 3 test prep “games” covering reading, writing, and math. It makes a lot of sense. Everyone (myself included) has their nose buried in their iPod …when waiting in line at the store, while attending a painfully boring class lecture, or while navigating rush-hour traffic. Hmm, do I sense a possible niche market for iPod ready driver’s education simulations?

The intersection of convenience and security

Well, I just downloaded RealPlayer BETA. It is most cool. Now you can save any streamed video to your hard drive. Technically speaking, this is great, but one of the key advantages of using streaming technology is the degree of control maintained over material (i.e. it couldn’t be downloaded). I wonder what effect this will have on those using copyrighted material under the Fair Use umbrella?

TXDLA Conference Highlights

I’d like to reflect on the Texas Distance Learning Association’s (TXDLA) 10th annual conference for a minute. This was my 5th time going and, in my opinion, this is one of the “can’t miss” conferences held each year. This year I think it drew somewhere near a thousand educators. Here are a few observations:

  1. Moodle was everywhere. For whatever reason, I have not paid much attention to this open source LMS in the past. It has my attention now. At one session, that gave a broad overview of Moodle, someone asked, “This does everything that Blackboard does. Why would anyone pay when you can get the same features for free?” Good question. Over the next few months I hope to have some answers for you. In my spare time (cue laugh track) over the next few months, I am going to set up Moodle 1.8 and create a course. I will report back on the pains and pleasures of the experience.
  2. I attended a session on the implementation of a course, “Going Online to Teach Online Faculty About Teaching Online.” Allison Peterson from Texas Woman’s University gave an outstanding presentation on why the course failed. I took away a *lot* of good info from this session. Of equal importance, it was nice to know that I am not the only one who has been a part of a misstep or two. We need more honesty like this to advance our field. Nice job Alli.
  3. The most memorable quote occurred while standing in line for lunch. The gentleman behind me was praising a colleague on his ability to pick up technology. He said, “He is good …really good. He is going to be a Digital Native before long.” I had a flash to the Aflac commercial with Yogi Berra in the barber shop.
  4. The statement that got me thinking the most was made be the Keynote Speaker, Elliott Maise. He said that teleconferencing is on the verge of really taking off. Being more of an asynchronous learning guy, this really hasn’t been on my radar. I worked with teleconferencing at The Medical University of South Carolina a while back, and the experience did not leave a great lasting impression. The technology was expensive, clunky, and it seemed to interfere with learning more than promote it (I often had to baby sit the equipment to make sure it behaved). It should be noted that this was five years ago and the technology is vastly improved. I’ll stay tuned.
  5. People are curious about Second Life. They aren’t sure what to do with it yet, but they are interested.

Not your everyday touch-screen

I’m *sure* there are educational applications for this. I’m just too busy drooling over it to think of any. This was just too wonderfully geeky for me not to post.