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iPad redux

I broke down and bought an iPad. While I am still learning itsc capabilities and shortcomings, I was enchanted with the idea of a mobile writing and drawing tool. A friend on Twitter heard my reasoning and linked me to a cheaper option... A spiral notebook. I appreciated the joke but of course wanted something more cloud oriented so I could tweak works in progress, do minor edits to things, take advantage of moments of inspiration that could be easily shared with myself and with others. I had a mobile web browser in my iPod, but so far the iPad is a huge trade up because it has a serviceable keyboard and can open and edit my documents (using a combination of Dropbox for file storage and Documents to Go for editing. I find it easy to take notes using Penultimate and yes, I play Angry Birds, and I draw. Not sure if it is worth the $750 I laid out for it, and not sure it's magical, but so far the iPad is what I'd hoped for and expected. I am especially pleased with the swirling and editing and even the built in "keyboard," though I don't quite see myself knocking out an entire novel on this thing. Oh, but I did write this post on it and found it pretty easy to do!

Me & My IPad

The Year of the Tablet

It sort of boggles my mind that one year ago today, basically nobody outside of Apple had seen an iPad. That wasn't revealed until January 27, 2010. I remember when it was touted as Apple's answer to e-readers, but the e-reader aspect of it seems to have been lost due to, well, to Angry Birds and Facebook and all the other things you do on an iPad besides read books. I also remember that people were underwhelmed, and the main feedback was: what a stupid name.

Jobs knew what he was doing. iPads, like iPods and iTunes before them, reinvigorated Apple and captured a whole new market. It is now the principle product to beat. 2011 will be the year of the tablet, says practically everybody. This will particularly be pursued in education, but I agree with this HuffPo columnist who thinks either the things have to get powerful enough to replace laptops, or they have to get a lot cheaper.

In the meantime, I'll have to stick it out with my iPod Touch for a while. Baby clothes and mortgage payments, etc., come first. At least I can play Angry Birds.

In 2010, the University of Minnesota's Science Teaching and Student Services (STSS) building was completed on top of the site where the old Science Classroom Building once stood. Since I had an office in the old building up until it was destroyed, and because I passed by the construction site almost every day on the way to work, I decided to informally document the destruction of the old building and the rise of the new.

In watching the video, I was struck by how quickly I had forgotten the old building and even the process of constructing the new one. The old Science Classroom Building certainly served its purpose, and many even enjoyed teaching in it. It had the look of a bomb shelter, and its concrete and protruding rebar exterior--a portion of that building was never completed so that it had steel bars jutting out from over the stairwells--gave it an indestructible feel. As the video shows, it took some concerted pounding to take the old stalwart down and a lot of effort to raise the new one.

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Making Movies

Thanks to Nick Rosencrans of the University of Minnesota Usability Lab for this information about the accessibility of Apple's mobile devices.

Mobile devices like the Apple iPhone and iPad provide new options for using technology in our lives. People who have specific needs for their devices - perhaps due to vision, motor or hearing difficulty - can take advantage of these devices as well.

How could a touch-screen device like the iPhone possibly be useful to someone who is blind? Here's a first-person account of one person's experience using the device in everyday life.

Apple's mobile devices all ship with iOS including a feature called Voiceover, a screenreader-like function that lets people with vision difficulty use their iPhone or iPad. A free guide to using Voiceover is available here. Many iOS applications cater to the needs of those who need assistance using their device. Here are a couple catalogs from an accessibility standpoint: Maccessibilty and AppleVis. For more info about Apple's commitment to accessibility, see their Web site at:


One fun, lightweight, and fairly simple tool you might use is Wordle ( It takes a bunch of text and creates a word cloud. Here's one based on the 2010 National Educational Technology Plan. (Click for a larger view.)


Wordle: National Educational Technology Plan


Here are three suggestions for using Wordle in teaching and learning... I've seen the first one used successfully, and would be curious how others are using word clouds. Please share in the comments.

  1. If you have an online chat, bulletin board, Twitter stream, a class blog, or some other text generated by the class you can use Wordle to show a snapshot of what people have been talking about. Though a superficial snapshot, it can be a fun way to begin the discussion. Are there any words that emerge that are surprising?
  2. Students can also use Wordle on their own, creating word clouds from texts and documents. This is certainly no substitute for reading or careful analysis of a document, but, as with a discussion, can be a fun entry point to a more thoughtful discussion.
  3. Students can do snapshots of their own papers, learning journals, short stories or notes. This can be a way to "share" their work with others without having to share all the details. The word cloud conveys thoughts and feelings without being very personal or detailed.

Educause just released a brief on alternatives to the traditional learning management system ,"7 things you should know about LMS alternatives." This short, serialized paper discusses how some institutions and instructors use tools like WordPress, Slideshare, podcasts, VoiceThread, and Diigo to "fill the gap" created by a conventional course management system. While there are certainly disadvantages to relying exclusively on third party applications--security, continuity, reliability, and integration, for instance--these tools are evolving more quickly than conventional course management systems. The Educause authors suggest that "the practice of augmenting a standard, centralized LMS is a trend that can be expected to continue among faculty members."

When course management systems first appeared in higher education almost 15 years ago, they represented one of the first points of entry to the web for many instructors. They offered a relatively easy way to put material online and promised the opportunity to create computer mediated interactions among students. Two recent studies (Griffiths & Graham, 2009; Lonn & Teasley, 2009) have suggested, however, that the vast majority of current CMS users (at Brigham Young and the University of Michigan) primarily engage the content delivery and broadcast functions of their course management systems rather than the more interactive tools. If these two institutional studies are indicative of a larger pattern of use, it might confirm the Educause assumption that instructors are seeking alternatives to the LMS for creating rich learning environments.

Griffiths, M. E., & Graham, C. R. (2009). Patterns of user activity in the different features of the Blackboard CMS across all courses for an academic year at Brigham Young University. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2). Retrieved from

Lonn, S., & Teasley, S. D. (2009). Saving time or innovating practice: Investigating perceptions and uses of Learning Management Systems. Computers & Education, 53(3). 686-694.

7 things you should know about LMS alternatives (2010). Educause Retrieved from

Twitter as Clickers 2.0

I'm not a big believer in using social networking tools as academic technologies; or at least not the most popular tools. Trying to work something like Facebook or Twitter into a class causes issues with identity management -- students either have to create a new account for academic use or allow their personal and academic worlds collide. Moreover, since these tools were not made with academics in mind, they don't have classroom-friendly architectures, such as teacher-moderated groups of students.

However, there's a lot to be said for something that's available and immediately familiar, so when a history instructor asked for a way to do clicker-like formative assessment with open-ended text responses from students to make comments and ask questions during films shown in class, the consultant from CLA-OIT suggested Twitter.

umnhist.pngStudents were already familiar with it and understood the 140-character-limit microblog style. They initially all shared one Twitter account created for the course, and used three different "hashtags" (searchable keywords) to make different kinds of comments while watching a film. The team quickly learned that one account couldn't handle that much activity -- Twitter's engine decided that so many posts at once from a new account was suspicious and locked it up for a while. To avoid this, a single account shouldn't have more than forty posts or so in an hour. The CLA-OIT lead on the project created ten accounts, dividing them among students, who added their Internet ID to each "tweet" so they could get credit. Meanwhile, he decided that multiple hashtags wasn't necessary and settled on one for the duration of the experiment.

Despite changing the instructions, students adapted easily and their "back channel" discussion was quite successful. The improved engagement was noticeable, and the quality of comments and questions was excellent. The back channel gave the instructor and TA an easy way to monitor how well students were following the material and prepare for the short discussion after the film was done. One of the tech team would quickly generate a word cloud (using of the Twitter discussion, which provided a fun visual way to capture the nature of the Twitter discussion and frame the follow up discussion.

In a nutshell, here's what instructors might do to replicate a similar Twitter experiment in their own course:

  1. Create a number of similarly-named Twitter accounts. You do not need to provide one per student, depending on how many "tweets" they will be expected to produce. Just keep in mind that a single Twitter account shouldn't deliver more than 40 tweets or so in an hour; so one account for ten students is perfect if they write 2-3 tweets each.
  2. Enable all of the accounts to follow one another so anybody logged in can follow the conversation.
  3. Have students "tag" each post with their ID if you want to give them credit for participation, and a keyword for the subject. Neither of these is absolutely required if you do not intend to give credit and if students are having the same discussion from the pre-made accounts, but might help your own recordkeeping.
  4. Consider registering the hashtag/keyword with a tool like Twitter's database usually fails to deliver complete search results.
  5. Consider creating a word map using; you will need to copy the twitter feed and remove some of the noise. This can be done more easily by exporting from twapperkeeper, since the data can be opened as a spreadsheet and all of the other columns (time stamps, accounts, etc.) deleted before moving the text to Wordle.

WordleCathedral.jpgAs well as the process went, I have my doubts that Twitter is the best tool for a classroom "back-channel"; it's just the most available. The ideal solution would be a University-sponsored tool that taps the existing users and class lists so teachers can create Twitter-like chat rooms with minimal effort. Students could participate with their usual ID and password, access a class group, and jump in. Instructors could monitor the chat for formative feedback. A custom RSS field could deliver just the text of the twitter discussion to greatly simplify word maps, and the database could provide more reliable archives. Such a tool could be built in an open source tool like Drupal or the made-to-microblog StatusNet.

However, Twitter has most of what you need to engage students in a back channel and monitor their thoughts during films or lectures.


My latest web-based distraction is Vark. It's a Q & A forum, and while there's been a bunch of other attempts to create a web-based all purpose knowledge base (such as the infamous Yahoo! answers), Aardvark is different. Questions aren't posted to a public forum, they're just sent directly to people who claim to know about that kinda stuff. Their answers are sent directly to the person who asked. Although the questions and answers not private, since random strangers will be seeing the question and the answer, they're not exactly public either. There's not a searchable archives or an effective way to browse through latest results. You can't find a user and see all the questions they've asked.


It's interesting and mildly addictive to see this in action. So far I've asked questions about cats, middle school football, and books. I've answered questions about Minneapolis, writing, books, cooking, applying to graduate school, and a few other things. I've passed on questions I didn't know the answer to or (in some cases) really understand -- decomposing the tensor square of the fundamental representation of so(n) in a direct sum of irreducible representations, for example, or how to rectify the frequency out of range problem on the first level of VTMB. But it's interesting to see what people are asking and rewarding to see a case where you can say, "I know this!"

This has got me thinking about authors and audiences. In a typical web forum, anyone can see the posts, anyone can answer, and anyone can read. So there's no filter to keep people who really don't know much about the topic from throwing out an answer, or somebody who knows a lot from trying to steer it towards an agenda. For example, say that Joe has just heard of The Beatles and wants to know which album to buy first. Ask that in a typical web forum, and you might get something like this:

Poster 1: I dunno there stuff that well but I like Love from Cirk de Solay. [sics all the way through]
Poster 2: Sgt. Pepper.
Poster 3: Frankly, The Beatles really lost their edge after Pete Best left the group. If you really want to hear The Beatles at their best, track down "Live at the Star Club Hamburg 1962."

Nothing's wrong with getting a smattering of opinion on the topic, but how does a casual questioner know how to sort through a plethora of responses? It's the noise they were trying to cut through.

On Vark, poster 1 types would probably skip the question. There's something about a public forum that compels people to join in regardless of their expertise. They're just feeling chatty, so they jump in. I further think that poster 3 types will be less inclined to be pedantic. Their own answers aren't framed by others, so they won't feel a need to demonstrate deeper understanding of the topic and "win the thread," as people jokingly put it when an innocent discussion turns into a debate.

It's really about genres. A web-based discussion board has everything we need to ask questions and get answers, but participants bring different motives for participating and different senses of what they are doing and who their audience is. It seems like the whole history of web communication is the same: a tool is made with one intended purpose, and the actual users make a completely different use out of it. Discussion boards could be an innocent place for small talk, but have been associated with argument and social power since the days of Usenet. Blogs were originally link driven "web logs," but soon became laundry lists of daily activities. Ironically, the micro-blog -- meant to be a chronicle of daily life -- quickly became more link-driven, while also expanding into a make-shift chat tool. Vark uses sophisticated social networking architecture to limit the tool to its intended use. For the most part, it's working.

The concept has implications for higher ed: peer sourcing of technical questions, research recommendations, even mundane questions about campus policy and nearby dining options. Creating a home grown system would require significant immediate investment to catch on, but would have a huge potential for facilitating community, not to mention helping lost first years students find Appleby Hall.