Learner-Shaped Technology

October 28, 2011

Transparency as the Catalyst to Transformation

I’m excited to host my first guest blog by colleague Diane Boyd, Associate Director for Furman’s Center for Teaching and Learning as she reflects on our trip with StudioLab consultants to ThatCamp Pedagogy.

Diane’s post:

THATCamp Pedagogy, Vassar College October 15-16

This was our first THATCamp, and many of us on the road to Poughkeepsie (including Mike Winiski, and student consultants Lacey Brantley, Shanda Edwards, and Boone Pilkington) from Furman’s Center for Teaching and Learning and StudioLab had some trepidation about creating an agenda for the meeting “on the fly” during the first session on Saturday morning.  Added to that low-level anxiety was wondering how to prepare for any impromptu presentations we might give at the conference or during “Dork Shorts.”

I was delighted at how well Matt Schultz orchestrated the schedule building on Saturday morning.  Participants suggested topics online before the meeting (and during our agenda making session) and those people were to take ownership of the session during the conference.  Logistically this worked well, except when a person suggested two sessions that got scheduled simultaneously (as was Mike’s dilemma with “Distant Reading” and “Interpreting Visualization”).  One suggestion: in some sessions it would be more effective to have a more deliberate matching mechanism.  That is, create the option for suggesting sessions without leading them:  people who suggest a session could request a co-facilitator/expert rather than become the session leader. I understand the non-hierarchical advantage to the current set up (which also promotes transparency!), but I also believe the current system prevented people who were genuinely curious about a topic from suggesting it (for fear that they would become intrepid leaders!)

Transparency, and in turn, transformation, emerged quickly as abiding conference themes. The BootCamps I attended provided ample time for brainstorming with fellow campers, and many transformative ideas for digital humanities projects were the result. In “Integrating Digital Projects into Undergraduate Courses” we focused on using audio recordings in a Latina Feminisms class.  The importance of “voice” for the professor made audio interviews a meaningful DH choice.  In “So Long, Lecture” another camper, also a student, talked about a prof who taught iambic pentameter by having her students walk to the beat.  Incorporating multiple senses as key to enduring cognition was useful to me as I plan a “Yoga in America” class where we engaged in daily physical practice a well as investigate the translation of traditional yoga to a Western, American lifestyle. Always our discussions began with the learning goals and then moved to the appropriate technology, if any, that would support the project.  Lacey, Boone, and Shanda agreed that it was transformative to “see behind the curtain”—watching professors struggle with the constraints of administrative demands while also attempting to build meaningful assignments that assist in the life long learning process.  And it was transformative for each of us to once again consider the transparency and integration of our roles at the Center for Teaching and Learning: we are at once teachers, learners, facilitators, experimenters, collaborators.  When we allow these roles to be fluid—when we take the risk to be transparent in our teaching, learning, and thinking—meaningful personal and professional  transformation are the inevitable result.

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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March 15, 2007

Remember the Milk (and don’t forget to feed the soul)

Filed under: collaborate,general,technology,time management — Mike W @ 10:32 pm

I’m thrilled with Google Calendar. It has really helped us coordinate schedules here at work, and at home, we no longer have to exchange email lists of events, which we previously had to then manually copy to our respective individual calendars. It’s saving a lot of time. Although Google Calendar doesn’t yet have tasks, there’s a cool web app that does – Remember the Milk.

It allows for prioritization of tasks, reminders, and integrates very nicely with Google Calendar. Once you add the Remember the Milk Calendar, you’ll see the following on your Google Cal which links to your tasks. These can be edited inline via Google Cal.


Among other nice features, if you tag your tasks to represent the nature of the to-do item, a tag cloud can be displayed which takes into account priority and due date. So the bigger the tag appears in the cloud, the more likely it is that the task is on your radar to get done.


I’m beginning to feel more and more that there’s a strong spiritual element to time management. The better I prioritize my work and home tasks, the more attention I seem to give to the right things. I really like Covey’s examples using different size rocks to represent important and not-so-important tasks.

My goal is to make sure I have enough tasks on my list that I can tag as spiritual (time for reading the Bible and other inspirational material, doing something nice for someone just because, or adding issues to prayer). Maybe a shrinking spiritual tag will be a flag to focus on prioritization. Remember the Milk is set up so that tasks are private (unless published), so I’m the only one who can see the tags and the cloud.

It’s worth experimenting with, anyway. If technology can help me be more purposeful with my to do list, then I’m all for it.

It took me a while to get used to the interface (lots of AJAX), but by using keyboard shortcuts (like ‘t’ for new task and ‘d’ for assigning due dates), I was able to quickly add tasks and prioritize them.

January 30, 2007

Learning in Retirement Blog Class

Filed under: collaborate,education,general,technology — Mike W @ 6:46 am

Yesterday I taught a FULIR (Furman University Learning In Retirement) class on blogging as part of Dr. Lipscomb’s What’s New in Technology Series. I’m really enjoying the opportunity to get back in the classroom, and this was a great group of folks – friendly and very curious, especially with regards to how this technology fit into the big picture. The initial discussion was fostered with some iClicker questions about experience with blogs and familiarity with the term ‘Web2.0’. After a quick overview, we jumped into creating our own blogs.

The time I spent on Friday creating WordPress accounts (wordpress.com) for each participant was worth it. We quickly started creating posts, and I think everyone enjoyed swapping out themes.


Sample WordPress Theme

I’d like to see WordPress simplify adding pictures to a post. What if by inserting a photo into a post, it was uploaded behind the scenes, instead of having to upload, send to editor, etc..? We got through it, but the challenges highlighted the counter-intuitive user interface.

I think a decent portion of the class may keep blogging, based on the questions I was getting after class. Several wanted to know more about feedreaders, so they could consolidate the blogs they have been following.

A couple of things to do differently next time:

1. Track down some mice for the laptops. The trackpad was a significant barrier at times.

2. Provide more detailed, step-by-step instructions for adding / editing a post, and especially adding an image.

A couple of things to keep:

1. The clickers. This helped get a quick, anonymous gauge of experience level.

2. Directions on how to get to the admin panel. Many of the themes either make this link hard to find or remove it altogether, so having this in the handout really helped.

I really enjoyed this and might propose some classes for the spring!

One person commented as they left that they would explore this more the next time they couldn’t sleep. My blog started one morning when I was tossing and turning. I wonder how many blogs have started during a bout of insomnia??

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