Learner-Shaped Technology

April 25, 2020

An unplanned semester online:

Filed under: general — Mike W @ 4:22 pm

Like my students, I’m struggling with the shift to online. I’ve used screencasts (short recorded lectures) previously, but I’m re-evaluating. I like them because they are a compact way of sharing content and context. Most are in the 7 – 20 minute range. But here are the challenges:

1. Time to produce – I know it’s hard to believe, but this one took me about 4 hours to a) get the data wrangled 2) put together an outline 3) record, and 4) edit. So I, either suck at this, or my experience is indicative of other instructors’ experience. I’m open to the former.


2. Time in-class vs. online lecture – This would have taken 2x the time to discuss in class. The presentation wouldn’t have been as tight, and student questions/discussions would have extended the time. But is that “time gain” a good thing, or indicative that something is missing online?

3. Lecturing to no one – You might hear it in my voice, but it’s hard to lecture to an imagined audience. I try to envision my students, and I’ve even stood up to produce the screencast with more energy, but recreating the in-person experience is tough. I miss them.

4. The long term – I think I can use these screencasts, which are primarily information dissemination and demonstrations, to make space in my class for more interaction and discussion. However, that’s going to have to happen in person, or it’s one more thing to figure out how to do online. Zoom breakout groups are great, but are they the same thing as in-person discussions?

Some questions:

  1. Do you find that developing screencasts is worth the time?
  2. A similar, live lecture via Zoom is going to take longer, but is the interactivity worth it?
  3. How do you use short screencasts to make room for my interactivity during synchronous meetings, whether online or in-person?
  4. What went well online this semester? What were the challenges?

March 24, 2020

Lessons from 1918

Filed under: general — Tags: , , — Mike W @ 9:01 pm

After reading this article about how different cities handled the 1918-19 flu pandemic, I decided to get the data graph it. You can see the impact, and the result of St. Louis and San Francisco letting their guard down too early—despite stronger responses in the early phases.  It appears SF likely overestimated the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of this particular virus.

I realize the that virus and Covid-19 are different, but perhaps there’s still a lesson to be learned from history.

Philadelphia (1918) – It’s just like the regular flu. Just keep your feet dry and your bowels open. We’re not canceling the parade.

St. Louis (1918) – This is serious. Avoid crowds. Treat people in their homes if possible. Act early.

San Francisco (1918) – This is serious. Implement social distancing. Wear masks.  

Data source below:

Collins, S. D., Frost, W. H., Gover, M., & Sydenstricker, E. (1930). Mortality from influenza and pneumonia in 50 large cities of the United States, 1910-1929. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan Publishing, University Library, University of Michigan.

July 31, 2012

Designing In-Class Activities in the Flipped and Blended Learning Classroom: An Example

Filed under: blended-learning,design,flipped-classroom,general — Mike W @ 1:28 pm

Overview:  This post provides information about blended learning / flipped classroom modules that we developed for classes that involve creating and analyzing maps.  I briefly discuss the reasoning behind our design as well express my hope that more of the dialog surrounding blended learning and flipping the classroom will focus on resources that help guide the design of effective in-class activities. The modules can be found at https://sites.google.com/a/trinity.edu/acs_grant_gis/home .

There’s been a great deal of chatter recently about the “flipped classroom” and “blended learning”.  If we’re to have deeper dialog, I think it’s important to note that the real conversation is about design. Effective teachers strive to design environments (whether physical or digital) that set the stage for in-class interactions that are rigorous, robust, analytical, dynamic and lead to deeper learning.  Online components are a great resource to help optimize time together; however, the design process is much more complicated than simply inverting in- and out-of-class activities. I’m grateful that these new terms have the potential to inspire a renewed focus on assignment and course design, but the idea behind the flipped classroom is hardly new. Much of our work with faculty at the Center for Teaching and Learning has revolved around designing strategies that help move in-class activities away from the dissemination of information towards more active student analysis and synthesis. Instructors have been doing this long before these terms became popular.

Much of the recent discussion seems to be about moving current lectures online (and the technology to enable this), with class time being used for having students “work in groups to solve problems”—almost as an afterthought.   I’m hoping the dialog will continue to evolve to include more discussion about how to design these in-class sessions more effectively so that students do more than just work in parallel or share algorithms.  Designing these in-class activities is difficult and where the rubber truly meets the road. Simply putting students in groups (after they’ve watched a lecture online) to solve poorly designed problems is a recipe for failure and frustration.  Flipped interactions which hinge on poorly designed in-class sessions are unlikely to promote deeper conceptual understanding and realize the full potential of supplementing classes with online resources.

Just a few resources for designing better in-class problems that I’ve found to be helpful:

Now it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. Through a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South, I’ve been working with Jeremy Donald at Trinity University to design blended learning modules that can be used in any course in which analyzing and creating maps plays and important role. Here are a couple pertinent FAQs from the project:

Q: Are you just trying to move lectures out of class?
A: Not at all. We’ve attempted to do more than just move lectures and GIS “how-tos” online.  You’ll notice in the videos that our focus isn’t so much on tools, but more on concepts. Our goal is to help develop an environment in which students can begin to think more critically about maps and visualization (before they dig into the nuts and bolts of creating maps).   We’re hoping that by introducing students to some concepts and questions outside of class, in-class time can be used to amp up the opportunity for analysis and synthesis.

Q: What’s guiding your design?
A: We are both Kolb Learning Cycle junkies and have been impressed with the results of using Kolb’s Learning Cycle as an assignment and course design framework. Kolb’s paradigm involves a cycle of exploration, reflection, conceptualization, and application.  Our experience is that leading with exploration (whether it be a lab, open-ended question, computer simulation, webcast, etc.) engages and helps students build a framework on which to situate new experiences with prior knowledge, establishing a path towards deep understanding.  Our goal is to move some of the stages of the cycle online to free up class time for application and synthesis.

We’d love to know the answers to the following questions:

1) How’d we do?  How can the modules be improved?  Can you use these in your courses?
2) What principles and resources have you found helpful in designing meaningful in-class problems for students to attack?  How do you design and utilize online environments to set the stage for more meaningful in-class interaction?

Image sources:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/98715075@N00/410132468/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/37113212@N08/5308079192/

February 28, 2011

Focusing and Connecting Presentations with Pecha Kucha and VoiceThread

Filed under: collaborate,data visualization,general,technology — Mike W @ 4:55 pm

Pecha kucha (20 slides / 20 seconds per slide) is a creative way to inspire focused presentations using constraints.  Here are a couple of great examples:


I’ve used this format for student presentations in class and have been really pleased with outcome; however, the way I designed the assignment (the first time), didn’t help us connect ideas from the various presentations very effectively.  This time, I explored VoiceThread’s potential to help us make these connections, mostly outside of class.  For the most part, I’d consider the experiment a success, but our class has some suggestions to make the interface more useful.


A VoiceThread, surrounded by comments.

First some background about the pecha kucha assignment: My goal was for students to gain a better understanding of the major geological processes that are thought to have shaped the Martian landscape, as well as for them to gain an even greater appreciation for the tentative and progressive nature of scientific knowledge.  Mars is definitely a good case study for the latter, as many theories exist for the development various landforms. Ideas have shifted over time, as we sift through and attempt to make sense of mountains of data from various landers (Go Phoenix!), rovers, and orbiters.   In this case, pecha kucha seemed to nudge presenters (myself included) towards a focus on developing concepts with carefully-chosen supporting details, rather than a relentless stream of disconnected facts. After I volunteered to deliver a pecha-kucha at last year’s NITLE summit, I realized just how hard it is to share an idea and advocate for action in six minutes and forty seconds.  I agonized over every word, and spent more time preparing my pecha kucha (the live versions carry much more energy) than I have on 90 minute workshops.

After the live presentations in class, students recorded their pecha kuchas and posted them to a VoiceThread group, visible only to our class.   Here’s the assignment:

Please provide a voice thread comment on 4 posted pecha kuchas (other than your own).  If a presentation has 4 or 5 comments already, find another one to comment on.  Watch the pecha kucha again before commenting.  Please provide insightful comments that extend and deepen the conversation.  Some prompts that might help.

1) I’m still a little unclear about [explanation here].  It would help me to know more about ____________________ or get clarification about ______________________.

2) This seems similar to the features we discussed on _______________________ because ______________________.

3) If I’m understanding _____________ correctly then it means _______________________ (state your interpretation here).  Could it also mean that ________________________?

4) It seems that knowing more about _____________________ would really help us understand ___________________ better because ________________________.

5) A good analogy to help me remember _____________________ process is _____________________.

If you’re familiar with the book They Say, I Say, you’ll notice I borrowed the idea of using templates to help guide student responses.  Okay, so this is the second constraint in the assignment.  I’m all about student freedom.  Really!  I just like the creativity and focus that these particular limits inspired. I was really, really impressed with the depth and quality of student conversation, as they asked questions and identified links between presentations.   I think the combination of student creativity, the VoiceThread interface, and the template above facilitated the discussion.

As the screenshot above shows, VoiceThread comments surround the main presentation, which can be an image, text, or  movie.  Comments can take several forms:

  1. Text comments;
  2. Voice – recorded through the computer, or students can even use their phone.  Students enter their phone numbers on the site (see below), and VoiceThread calls the student and records their comments, automatically posting them to the site;
  3. Video – If students have a web cam (which is more common these days), they can provide a video comment.


Call-in comment feature

The advantages:

  1. The phone option is great.  If a student is having trouble with their computer microphone, they can just dial in.
  2. Students can embed their comment at a particular point in the original presentation.  So if there’s a question about slide 11, you can add your question at the appropriate point in that slide.
  3. Every commenter can annotate the original presentation (called Doodling).  This is great for visual media—much better than a threaded discussion forum in this regards.  Check out the fun Wile E. Coyote example.
  4. In many cases, hearing the student inflection as they posed questions really helped me discern where we needed to spend some additional time in class.  Picking that out in a text-based discussion would have been more difficult.
  5. I was able to easily import a csv version of my roster, which made setting up the class simple.

The disadvantages:

  1. The cost is $99 for a single-instructor, higher ed license.  It’s pretty reasonable, but each student only gets 3 minutes of phone time; then you have to add more virtual coins; then you have to allocate those extra minutes to each student.  Can’t I just get a pool of minutes for all students, VoiceThread?  Better yet, at $99, maybe we should get more minutes included in the package deal?
  2. We ran into problems in which the main presentation got out of sync with a student comment.  For example, Fred (a hypothetical student) was highlighting a crater on the 4th slide of the main presentation to ask a question. But the comment showed slide two when I viewed his comment.  I could refresh the browser to solve the problem, but that was kind of a pain.
  3. You can’t nest comments.  Threaded comments are a must!  When students replied to a question, their comment had to include information to hook their response to a particular question—very inefficient. This will be a much better interface when threaded commenting is added.
  4. I wasn’t able to delete student posts.  They had to do that themselves.  The admin needs that capability.

All-in-all, we thought the interface helped to extend a complex conversation beyond the walls of the classroom.  With a more appropriate pricing model, threaded discussions, and a few bug fixes, this tool can really enhance discussion around rich media when discussion boards tend to fall flat.

Are you using VoiceThread? Pecha Kuchas?  Response templates?  How’s it going?

December 8, 2009

Reflections on Using Twitter in the Classroom

Filed under: collaborate,education,general,technology,twitter — Mike W @ 5:22 pm

At the beginning of the term I embarked on a Twitter ‘exploration’ and described it as such to the class.  I’ve noted my Twitter skepticism and reluctant semi-conversion before.  The final push into this venture was inspired in part by a wonderful talk from Todd Zakrajsek at the Lilly South Conference in Greensboro, NC in February of 2009.   He spoke about the power of social norms and our role as instructors in sometimes reinforcing negative norms (“Where is everyone this morning?” –Todd’s example). While he didn’t mention Twitter specifically, as I designed the course, this technology emerged as a possible tool for promoting a community of readers and establishing a positive classroom expectation of preparation. A phone buzzing with an especially poignant comment from a classmate about an assigned reading, seemed like a potentially subtle and effective way of establishing a positive norm and sending the following message:

Not only are my classmates doing the reading well ahead of time, but they are thinking deeply about it.  I better get on it.


Twitter isn’t the only strategy for helping students engage challenging reading material. Bean and others have outlined some very effective strategies that I’ve borrowed. But it seemed worth trying Twitter as a supplement.

Before I summarize the students’ thoughts on the experiment (Students please let me know what I got wrong in the comments), I’ll talk briefly about the mechanics of setting up Twitter for class and how it was used in conjunction with the reading.

1. The mechanics – I set up a private Twitter group using GroupTweet. I liked this option because current Twitter users could keep their existing logins, rather than creating a new one for class.   If they wanted to send a Tweet unrelated to class, they could continue to do so.  If a tweet was directed to the class, they sent a direct message to the group, prefacing their message like so:

D ourgroup What do you think? Arkady p. 340 “Shortness of life was a primary force in the permanence of institutions …”

The setup was a little cumbersome.  Each student had to follow the group and also allow the group to follow them.  After everyone came to class with an established user account, we spent about 20 minutes setting this all up.  I think it was worth the class time, rather than trying to field questions online.  Many students also set up their phones for text messaging at this time.  I emphasized that this could all be done from the Twitter website and that a text plan was not necessary for completing this requirement.

2. Assignments – A bit of tinkering led us to the conclusion that a minimalist approach is best.  After asking the students to read five forensics articles related to the historical case and send two tweets about each, we all agreed this was counter-productive and too hard to track.  After that barrage, the typical assignment involved posting one comment and one question to classmates.  After a while, one question OR comment seemed enough.  More on that in a minute.

The results:


  • Convenience –  Several students commented that it was very convenient to send a text message when away from the computer.  When an idea struck them, they could share it at that moment.  My thirteen year old will attest to the fact that I don’t text much, but I sent quite a few thoughts to the group this way. One question hit me in the parking lot, and it was delivered to class before I got in my car.  No need to log on that night!
  • Social Norm – There was less agreement on this, but some students nodded in agreement when I indicated this exercise potentially strengthened our reading community.  During an especially busy week, I found myself a bit stressed when my phone started buzzing with student ideas and I hadn’t submitted my tweet yet.  By the time I posted, several of my thoughts were ‘taken’. We seemed to have set an unwritten rule that ‘original ideas were required’, so I had to look at the text from a different perspective—an unexpected but significant plus!
  • Length Restriction – Some mentioned being frustrated by the 140-charcter limit but others felt the constraint forced them to tighten up an idea.  All-in-all this tension seemed to be positive thing.  Many of the tweets cried out for more discussion during class.  I’m putting the character restriction squarely in the positive category, with a few, not insignificant, caveats noted below.
  • Connection – I felt much more on top of student perspectives prior to class after reading their tweets.  Their posts helped me prepare questions and plan for the upcoming discussion.  If there was an angle the students weren’t exploring in their tweets, I could pose questions in class that probed the issue more deeply. Their tweets also revealed some unexpected paths.  Yes, in-depth journals or discussion boards might have provided more insight and required more writing, but there just didn’t seem to be room for that with the other assignments and goals.  In the end, I was surprised at how much the tweets helped me get a gauge of student perspective in a very concise way!


  • Forced syntax: While the character limit forced us to be concise, I felt like I was doing Edward Abbey a serious disservice when I tweeted his quote below.  The original goes like this:

“Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.” – Edward Abbey

Here’s how I resolved to tweet the message under the 140-character restriction:

“Anarchism – founded on observation since few men are wise enuf to rule themslvs, even fewer are wise enuf to rule others.” Abbey

Yikes! Tweeting with misspelled words and truncated thoughts just bothers me.  Maybe I need to enter the 21st century, but there’s part of me that doesn’t want to let go.  Am I having trouble with the anarchy of Twitter?  Stop poking me Ed.  You’d hate this Twitter thing, wouldn’t you?  Perhaps Seldom Seen Smith, Bonnie Abzug, Doc Sarvis, and George Hayduke could have coordinated this way.  #monkeywrenching?  But I digress.

  • Linking: bit.ly and tinyurl do make linking easy, so beating the 140 character limit is possible this way.  I could have used these services to link directly to the Abbey quote above; however, if the reader doesn’t have a data plan, this click through is less likely to occur on a phone.  Tweets I get from the Mars rovers hit my phone this way, but since I don’t have a data plan or iPhone, I don’t click through when reading from my phone.  Most of these tweets turn out to be text message noise because the gist of the message is incomprehensible without the detail behind the link.  Reading from a different client (like TweetDeck) helps me stay connected to the latest news from the rovers (which almost always includes links), but text messaging alone doesn’t cut it.  Agreeing on a client and linking practice is key before implementing this in class.
  • Threads: The students were a bit annoyed at not being able to respond easily and in a threaded fashion to a particularly interesting post.  Twitter has reply syntax(@), but let’s face it, it’s not designed for threaded discussion.
  • Reading Classmate Posts: Many of the early tweeters for an assignment admitted that they weren’t going back and reading others’ tweets until we put them on the screen or passed them out on paper in class (the latter seemed more effective).
  • Delay: There was often a significant delay between when students posted and when the tweet actually displayed, which caused some dismay, since tweeting was a requirement for many of the readings.
  • Hashtags:  Initially, we thought hashtags would help us organize the twitter discussion, but for our purposes, they didn’t seem to add much.  They quietly dropped from the dialog during the latter half of the semester.

Final Thoughts

Rather than confirming my initial doubts about Twitter, the experiment highlighted the appropriate niche for Twitter in my classes.  I’m sure there will be more iterations, but here are my tentative conclusions:

  • Twitter is a great tool for giving me a glimpse into how the students are approaching the reading in a low impact way for both the students and for me.  This window (albeit blurry) helps me develop discussion strategies and questions for the next meeting. Student tweets are an excellent springboard for more detailed discussion and analysis.
  • Less is more.  A single tweet can lead to a good bit of discussion and analysis.  It’s a seed crystal rather than a finished product.  I was really impressed at the deep analysis behind some of the tweets we discussed. Asking for multiple tweets on a particular reading was counterproductive for us.
  • Additional strategies are needed to encourage students to read and learn from their classmates’ post.  Simply asking students to come in with 2-3 posts that interested them before coming to class seems like a possible way to encourage this vital practice.  Additional ideas??
  • Participants need to agree on how they will use links.  If text messaging is the primary delivery mechanism, I’d strongly suggest avoiding linking.  The tweet should speak for itself.  If linking is desired, utilizing a client such as TweetDeck probably makes the most sense for everyone.
  • If you’re looking for more than a catalyst for in-depth discussion, journals or discussion boards are a better fit.  Tweets are a beginning, not a final say.
  • Consider mixing in write-to-learn activities and other exploratory writing to provide students with an additional avenue (in addition to class discussion) to explore their ideas or prepare for class discussion.  Twitter is just one of many tools—including actually writing!

Okay.  I’ll do it reluctantly.  Summing up my post in a tweet …

Twtr exp. shows strgths + wknesses. Unexptd + reslts for prof who hates twtr syntax but likes insight into stdnt thgts 2 prep 4 clss


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