November 2010 Archives

Mandatory e-textbooks

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There are two trends about e-textbooks. First, it is getting popular. According to a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, CourseSmart, a leading e-textbook seller reported a '400 percent increase' in sales for 2009 from the year before. Second, students still prefer traditional printed textbooks (Read another TEL blog article) because students do not want to "give up the ability to quickly flip through paper books, write notes in the margins and use a highlighter to mark important passages." Perhaps, because of those old habits, E-textbooks make up very small portion (under 3 percent) of whole textbook market although it is expected to grow up to 15 percent in 2012.

Recently, there are some new attempts to change those old habits and resistances of students in order to deal with high costs of textbooks. Making e-textbooks as required reading. According to a report of the Chronicle of Higher Education, some colleges and universities including Indiana University at Bloomington and Virginia State's business school are experimenting to have students pay mandatory course material fees (around $30 per course) for all e-textbooks and reading materials for the course, which they can read online or download. College leaders who are pushing the new programs hope that this mandatory e-textbooks can control high costs of textbooks. And they claim that this can save the textbook industry at the same time by reducing digital piracy.

However, some issues remain. The reporter of the article asks a few questions: Is it ethical to force students to buy it, even at a reduced rate? And what if students feel they are better off on their own, where they have the option of sharing or borrowing a book at no cost?

Adding a face & voice to online learning

Who says online learning has to be impersonal, detached and a lonely endeavor? Who says online classes are about staring at a screen full of content with minimum interaction with course mates?

Many faculty members are challenging these misconceptions by incorporating technology in their online classes as well as harnessing the capabilities of web 2.0 to increase student engagement and boost online student retention rates. A few faculty members at Lexington Theological Seminary are no exception. Several faculty members at the seminary have introduced technology into its online classes that allows students and faculty to interact via video and audio, as reported in an article by Campus Technology. Known as the MegaMeeting, the program lets instructors show PowerPoint slides, post questions to students on a noteboard application, teach using audio in addition to supporting text chat features.

MegaMeeting's potential for building a sense of community among online students who would otherwise never meet face-to-face is great. Instructors are able to set up virtual rooms (not unlike virtual chat rooms) that are available 24/7 so that students can meet with one another to collaborate on group projects and work on their assignments. One of the faculty members who have been using MegaMeeting said one of the advantages of this program is its ability to let students see the professor and vice versa, which is not (yet) too common in other online programs. In addition, the audio and video features of this program allow students to discuss articles and readings as well as ask questions during lesson time. In typical online courses, students would likely have to do that via emails.

Lexington Theological Seminary has already set up several online communities in its learning management system, which allows students to communication freely with one another about courses and professors without staff intervention. These online communities are Lexington's efforts to foster relationship-building amongst its online learners. However, the method of combining video and audio, and using the program's applications to its fullest in the classroom has enabled faculty members to bring this relationship to a whole new level.

Where Are My Notes?


First graders to doctoral students know it's important to take good notes in class. Notebooks and the pencils may soon be going the way of the abacus thanks to new technology.

It can be convenient for people to take notes on laptops, electronic tablets, digital pens or other devices. The inconvenience comes when you don't have access to your notes on that particular electronic device.

A recent New York Times article highlighted some new innovations that allow smartphones, tablets, laptops and other technology to synchronize with one another automatically.

To illustrate the issue the Times gave this scenario:

Say you're sitting on a plane with your laptop, jotting down some brilliant words for that speech you're giving next week. Back at the office, those notes will never find their way to the copy of the speech you've stored on your desktop, unless, for example, you e-mail them to yourself.

Now companies including Simperium and Evernote offer applications you can install on your various mobile and stationary devices. The companies' servers gather and coordinate those notepads, keeping all the entries up to date.

The article elaborated on the services provided by Simplenote from Simperium and Evernote. It said Simplenote's specialty was typed text notes. Evernote can handle notes sent by keyboard, digital pen, scanner or camera phone.

Evernote offers a both a free and premium service ($45 a year) that work across most devices and platforms.

Online learning to the rescue

Colleges reported the highest-ever annual increase in online enrollment--more than 21 percent--last year, according to a report on an annual survey of 2,600 higher-education institutions from the Sloan Consortium and the Babson Survey Research Group, as seen in The Chronicle. The 21% growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 2% growth in the overall higher education student population and nearly 30% of all college and university students now take at least one course online. Online learning has truly become a force to be reckoned with.

With an increasing demand for online learning, college administrators at public universities are urging their fellow colleagues to seriously consider online learning as a larger part of the solution to maintaining academic quality and student access amid budget cuts and dwindling state contributions in this tough economy, as reported in an article in The Chronicle. In a pilot program, the University of California will enroll approximately 5,000 undergraduates in high-demand courses next year in what the university hopes will allow them to stay "excellent without becoming exclusionary." The university's commitment to educating middle and lower-income students along with its dire finances are the impetus for this program.

Despite initial reservations by some faculty members to online learning and teaching, more faculty members are starting to see online education as a quality alternative to face-to-face learning. In a special report on online learning in The Chronicle, over 80% of faculty members rate online courses as not being inferior to traditional courses. Faculty members also indicated that the top motivating factor for teaching online courses is meeting students' needs for flexible access and over 70% of faculty members consider it the best way to reach particular groups of students.

The complete report, "Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010", is available here.

The Humanities Go Digital

Humanities professors are teaming up with technology experts to push research in new directions. A recent New York Times article provided some interesting examples of how technical tools can help researchers pose new questions and find answers.

For example, the article mentioned researchers who are digitally mapping Civil War battlefields to understand the role topography played in battles. Academics are combining animation, charts and primary documents to create new ways to teach students about Thomas Jefferson's travels.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has teamed up with the National Science Foundation and institutions in Canada and Britain to create a new grant program to push research in new directions. The program is called the Digging Into Data Challenge.

While some researchers are excited about this melding of humanities and technology some are critical of the alliance. The field of humanities deals with aesthetics and emotions. Some critics wonder how these elements can be measured.

The New York Times article quotes Brett Bobley, director of the endowment's office of digital humanities. He said, analyzing unprecedented amounts of data can reveal patterns and trends and raise unexpected questions for study. He cited the human genome project is an example of how an area of study can be transformed.

"Technology hasn't just made astronomy, biology and physics more efficient. It has let scientists do research they simply couldn't do before," Bobley said.

Blind students and professors allege discrimination at Penn State

Campus technology at Penn State is leaving blind students behind, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The National Federation for the Blind has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Penn students, faculty, and staff alleging the university has created serious challenges for blind members of its community. These challenges, it says, amount to an attack on students' civil rights and hinders equitable access to education.

According this press release from the National Federation for the Blind, grievances include an online library catalog which is improperly coded for screen readers, in-class technology which is not suited to blind faculty, and partnerships with campus venders, like PNC Bank, who are not sufficiently accessible. In addition, the course management software Penn State uses, Angel, is not suited for screen-readers in its full version, locking students out of important course information. Important websites, like academic departments and the Office of Disability Services are also not coded for screen readers.

Penn State's student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, reports a Penn State spokesperson assured the newspaper these complaints are taken seriously and being investigated.

This is not the first time the NFB has sued a university over access issues. Last year, it sued Arizona State over its use of Kindles in the classroom. Kindle has a text-to-speech feature in books themselves but lacks this accessibility in its interface (e.g. settings, menu, book selection). Following Arizona's agreement to discontinue Kindle use, other universities followed suit.

The NFB's official complaint against Penn State can be found here.

Some resources how to make technology more accessible can be found here, here, and here.

Sixth Sense computing

Have you ever watched a video about "SixthSense" on
If not, watch it below. You will be amazed at the technology.

Here is description about the presentation from
' Sixsense' is "a wearable device with a projector that paves the way for profound interaction with our environment. Imagine "Minority Report" and then some."

If the 'SixthSense' becomes a common device like laptop computers, what would happen in our classrooms? How can instructors and students utilize this device in their learning experience? Maybe you will be able to see instructors and students interact with each other using this device and their motion will lead to some collaborative work such as virtual art painting. That is just one imagination of mine. Nobody can't tell or imagine exactly what will happen. But one thing is for sure. Technology is surely going further and further.

Socially engaged reading: Making e-Reading communal

Have you ever had the experience of borrowing a book with copious marginalia from the library or a friend, and having those marginalia greatly improve your experience of the book? It happened to me once when I borrowed a copy of The Sun Also Rises from my hometown's public library. Someone who understood the themes and writing style of Hemingway with a level of sophistication I didn't have had made notes in the margins and underlines on specific phrases throughout the text. This person's notes greatly improved my understanding of the text, and I sometimes wished for their previously owned copies of other authors as I moved through my undergraduate English literature education.

Of course, none of us wants just anyone's comments displayed as we are reading - I've borrowed plenty of books with comments in the margins by others that I didn't appreciate seeing (One previous reader of a Jane Austen novel had decided to underline every reference to trees, I assume in an attempt to find a theme. Since I cared not a tiny bit about trees in Austen's text, I found the notes distracting and annoying).

All this makes me excited about a new mobile app, Social Books. Users can share their virtual bookshelf with friends and on Facebook and Twitter. Now when I read a book a friend greatly enjoyed, I can see his thoughts, and be a part of his experience with the book, as I read it. You could have friend groups organized around shared passions and share texts, comments, and links, extending your experience of the text through other readers' (who you find relevant) thoughts.

The uses for education are exciting. Imagine if you could see your classmates' comments in context on a shared text. It could make class discussions much more engaging. Your professor could share the text with the class, with a few notations in text that draw your attention to the areas she especially wants you to pay attention to.

The key to this idea is the social network. Already in the Kindle, readers can see what other readers of the text have highlighted. I almost always turn this off, because other readers don't highlight what I would have highlighted, and all other readers of a text are not relevant to me. But if I can read 20 Economic and Demographic Factors Driving Online and Blended Program Enrollments by Betts et al and see the comments of colleagues who are also involved in online higher education, the text is enhanced in a way that is relevant specifically to me.

I can't wait to get the app. I hope my friends and colleagues do as well.

We've all got them: Dysfunctional illusions of rigor in higher education


A colleague sent me a fascinating article today, Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor: Lessons from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, by Craig E. Nelson. Nelson discusses several theorists of student learning, from Baxter Magolda to Terenzini and Pascarella to Kuh, and describes his own evolution as teacher over his career.

Nelson organizes the article around eight "dysfunctional illusions of rigor", like number one: "Hard courses weed out weak students. When students fail it is primarily due to inability, weak preparation, or lack of effort." Nelson draws on research literature in student learning to debunk the common assumption that some courses are just hard, and high percentages of students will simply fail. He notes that alternative models of pedagogy can go a long way in facilitating student learning, especially when the pedagogical improvements increase interaction - between the students and the learning material, between the students and instructor, and by extending learning from assessments by giving prompt feedback.

Nelson's article is an engaging discussion of many familiar assumptions about student learning. He doesn't directly address technology in his essay, but the findings and discussion are relevant to all teaching in higher education, including technology-enhanced learning or online learning.

The article is chapter 10 in To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, Volume 28, Linda B. Nilson, editor and Judith E. Miller, associate editor. Copyright 2010 by John Wiley & sons, Inc.

If you cant beat them, join them.

tweeties_free_twitter_icons1.jpgThat is what some lecturers are saying about social media in the classroom. Lecturers these days face an uphill battle to get students to stay focused especially when laptops and mobile devices are considered not just communication tools but extensions of students' identity, without which students seemed entirely lost and helpless. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little here but most students these days are rarely seen without some sort of mobile devices and that can be a huge source of distraction for them as many lecturers have found. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, some lecturers favor outright obstruction such as banning laptops and mobile devices as well as attempting to shut off internet access. These lecturers belong to the school of thought that social media sites such as Twitter are just "attention-bankrupting" sites with little or no educational value. Others have gotten more creative and have joined students on the social media bandwagon in order to better engage them. Their efforts have paid off.

In a new study, reported in the article, it was discovered that using Twitter in the classroom might actually lead to greater engagement and more importantly, higher grades as long as Twitter is used for relevant educational activities. The study also discovered that Twitter was able to deepened relationships among students in the class. Through discussing course work, the students realized they shared similar values and interests and were thus able to build strong relationships across diverse groups.

Instructors such as Dr. Rankin and Professor David Parry who had used Twitter as an instructional tool in their previous courses have mostly sung praises of it. Both were pleasantly surprised at how successful Twitter had been in extending the conversation beyond the classroom and in promoting engagement. Dr. Rankin discovered that Twitter was able to increase participation in the classroom because students were able to overcome their shyness and fear of speaking in front of an audience when using Twitter. Professor David Parry has also discovered that Twitter, in providing a platform for students to continue their discussion after class period was over, was able to keep students interested and engaged for longer periods of time. They were therefore able to have richer discussions than hour-long class sessions would allow.

Want to learn how you can increase student participation and engagement through the use of social media tools? I recently wrote a blog post on the various ways instructors can and have use(d) social media in the classroom, which would probably be a great starting point if you want to explore the various ways you can use social media for educational purposes.

What the Heck is RockMelt?

A new web browser designed by some of the team that brought you Netscape is being released and promises to help integrate your web surfing and social networking.

RockMelt makes it easier to keep up with friends, get news updates and access your favorite web pages from any computer, according to the company's website.

"Although most people spend more time using their web browser than any other program on their computers, most browsers have not kept up with the evolution of the web into a social media hub," the principle financial backer of RockMelt, Marc Andreessen, said in the New York Times.

RockMelt is built on Chromium, the open source project behind Google's Chrome browser. Its launch comes 16 years after Netscape introduced the first commercial Internet browser. RockMelt is the first browser to be fully backed by the cloud, according to the company's website.

A "share" button on RockMelt makes it easy to post a Web page, a YouTube video or any other items, to Facebook, Twitter or other sites.

Here's an explanation from the RockMelt website:

Share or tweet links often? Yeah, us too. No more wading through each site's goofy share widget or copy-pasting URLs. We built sharing directly into the browser, right next to the URL bar. Like a site or story? Click "Share" and BAM - link shared. You can use it on any site to post to Facebook or tweet about it on Twitter. It's just one click away. That easy.

Wherever you go on the Internet, RockMelt makes the Web a personal experience. Because RockMelt is the first browser you log into, it unlocks your Web experience with your Facebook friends, your feeds, your favorite services, even your bookmarks and preferences.

Like other browsers RockMelt is free and it plans to make money by earning a share of the revenue from web searches conducted by its users.

RockMelt's backers acknowledge that getting people to use their browser is a big challenge. They hope their product will create some buzz and the recommendations to use it will be spread through word of mouth.

Individualized e-learning by data mining

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Have you ever wondered how Google, Facebook, or Amazon recommends you something or show online ads that are very close to your interests? As many people know, these online services heavily gather and analyze user data including previous visited websites, friends network, keywords entered, and so on. With the data, they customize user experience accommodating each user's interest and need. This is how they make money.

If commercial services can do it, why not higher education? Similar efforts are emerging in higher education, especially in an e-learning field. According to a news report from Inside Higher ED, the University of Phoenix, a big for-profit higher education institution, announced at the 2010 Educause conference their ambitious "Learning Genome Project", which they hope to revolutionize online learning by individualization.

According to Angie McQuaig, director of data innovation at the University of Phoenix, the Learning Genome Project is "building a new learning management system (or LMS) that gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally (i.e., infer students' details from their behaviors in the online classroom) and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their learning DNA."

For example, if students learn better from watching a video than reading a text, the system will feed them more videos. If a student is bad at interpreting graphs, the system will recognize that and present information accordingly.

While it sounds great, the project is just a conceptual framework for now. However, if the project comes to true, it may provide significant benefit to students and may be better than traditional offline learning in terms of accommodating individual differences. It is very difficult for instructors to meet individuals' different learning styles in an offline class of 20 to 30 students.

There are, of course, challenges. First, it would be very expensive and difficult to build the learning management system. Second, the privacy issue will be huge. One could imagine how people would worry about and want to protect their personal data. McQuaig later said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that the University of Phoenix will let students choose how much information they submit to the system.

Despite these challenges, it seems that some other higher education institutions will follow the University of Phoenix in order to enhance their online learning and student success. In a near future, we may be able to see individualized e-learning become popular and its impact on educational achievement.

Generic Equals Boring

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Use specific, non-generic photos on your website. That's the result of a new study from web consultant and author Jakob Nielsen.

Nielsen's latest eye-tracking survey found "big feel-good images that are purely decorative" are mostly ignored online. He found users will engage with an image for extended periods of time when they know the photo of a person or object is non-generic and corresponds to the text.

The study compared a set of products on Pottery Barn's furniture web site and a page of televisions on The research found users largely ignored the televisions on the Amazon page because the images were generic and not inviting.

In contrast, when people looked at the photos on the Pottery Barn website they spent a longer time on the page and engaged with the detailed photos of the actual objects for sale.

"The way to excite customers is to offer an engaging experience, which means focusing on meeting their needs. This lesson holds equally for non-profit organizations and universities, even if they don't refer to their target audience as customers," Nielsen writes on his website.

Nielsen advises web page designers to invest in good photo shoots. "A great photographer can add a fortune to your web site's business value."

PS--Did you even glance at the photo of the generic pill at the top of this post?

Purdue releases course management and retention tool

Purdue University, in partnership with SunGuard Higher Education is releasing a course management system called Signals. Signals was initially tested at Purdue and developed by its associate vice president of Academic Technologies, John Campbell. Like other course management software, it provides space for electronic grading and disseminating course materials, but Signals goes further. Signals is a student retention program, designed to designate struggling students early on in courses, allowing instructors and other academic resources to reach out and provide support.

Signals works by allowing both students and professors to monitor progress and success in a certain course. Color-coded signals--red, yellow, and green like stoplights--indicate a student's risk level for failing the course. The students see these signs whenever they log onto the course's website. Depending on the signal, it offers suggestions and resources. For example, a student doing poorly in chemistry might be reminded by the program of a tutoring program available for schools. The program also reminds professors of their students' progress and gives them options to offer help and insight. For examples of how Signals works, check out this presentation. In addition to the information professors input like grades, Signals also has access to previous student information and grades. It also integrates into existing BlackBoard technology.

In this new story on the software, one professor with 900 students over three lectures praised the software, particularly it's early detection. Signals starts tracking students by the second week of class. Often professors must wait for the first major assignment to realize a student is behind. Overall, professors at Purdue have praised the program. It will be exciting to see how other universities integrate this product, especially with the University of Phoenix moving towards personalized course management (check out TEL Blogger Michelle's post about that here!).

For more information on Signals' release, check out these new stories:
NBC Nightly News Report
"Signals" help studnts stay on track

Want to help students succeed? The answer can be found online.

Start a Home Tutoring Business – The Right Time, The Right Industry.jpgOnline learning resources can potentially be the missing link needed to ensure the success of students, asserts Mark Milliron in The Chronicle. Milliron points out that one of the fastest growing segment of higher education today are non-traditional students such as adult learners and part-time students, among others. Traditional classroom methods aimed at traditional students will not work as well for these students who require more flexibility and convenience to manage their work-study-life commitments. Institutions' teaching methods need to evolve and make full use of the online resources at their disposal (or in the market).

In order to help non-traditional students stay in the program, sometimes the solution can be as simple as adding an online section or online component to the course, which can significantly increase the likelihood of success for a working student or parent. This is because having an online alternative to traditional face-to-face courses can help remove barriers that allow students to complete degrees in a time that best fits their schedules. Other tools such as online-learning-management systems can help students improve their academic performance. For instance, Signals project, which is a program that detects early warning signs in the students' academic performance and provides early intervention can help students succeed at higher rates. The program works by giving up-to-the-minute, predictive-model-based feedback in the form of traffic lights--red, yellow, and green, which lets students know how they are performing in a course before it is too late. Some institutions have turned to online student-service support systems such as Atlas/Life map, which is a system that keeps students on track academically, to ensure that they graduate on time. This system was such a hit with students that the institution which implemented it went on to see their graduation rate (almost) triple that of its peer institutions.

Online learning systems can not only help students complete courses, especially gatekeeper courses, and succeed in them, but may sometimes even help those students outperform their peers who took the same courses the traditional way. In fact, a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that students who took all or part of their classes online performed better than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction, as reported in another article in The Chronicle. In addition to the opportunities for meeting learner needs, the ability to attract new students also is great, said The Chronicle. Institutions such as Central Penn have seen a substantial increase of 97% (average) in new student enrollments per term after implementing the Blackboard Learn system. The above results are hardly surprising since online learning systems and tools can provide a rich and supportive learning experience for students, which has allowed online education to meet the needs of so many students.

The Whole World in Their Hands


Apparently laptops in the classroom are yesterday's news. A new study by Educause: Center for Applied Research (ECAR) finds that by the end of 2011 the sales of smartphones and other hand held devices will surpass the sales of computers. ECAR surveyed 30,616 students and found 51.2% owned an Internet capable handheld device. Of those students, 32.2% used these devices for non-course activities during the class. (I doubt this finding will surprise any college professor!)

The top Internet activities performed from a handheld device were; checking information such as news, weather, and sports (76.7%); using e-mail (75.1%) and utilizing social networking websites (62.5%). Almost 75% of respondents who currently own handheld devices expected their use to increase or greatly increase in the next three years.

The survey also found student desktop computer ownership has decreased from 71.0% to 44.0% in the past four years. Laptop ownership increased from 65.4% to 88.3% during the same time period.

For the first time, the ECAR 2009 student survey asked, "How should your institution first notify you of a campus emergency?" The results found 55.3% of students surveyed chose text-messaging. Far fewer survey participants chose e-mail, voice telephone or a public address system.

You can read the full study here.

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