Monday, March 28, 2011

e-Learning Platforms in a Nutshell

I've been examining e-learning methods over the past two months for a client. As a student and teaching assistant I have experience from both ends of e-learning. I've found that there are a lot of ways to online educational opportunities. But e-Learning platform appear to be gaining popularity as a comprehensive and integrated solution.

An e-learning platform (also called an online learning management system or LMS) is a website that embeds various Internet media and educational processes. The basic unit for an e-learning platform is an individual course, but a student's entire course load can be offered within the same website.

An e-learning platform comprises three main components, each with various functionality and access levels (often called a view):

1) Student view - students can read, view and/or interact with course content and communicate and collaborate with teachers and fellow students.

2) Instructor view - instructors can structure courses, post content, interact with students, receive assignments, and post grades for their designated courses.

3) Administrator view - a more technical role, administrators run the LMS, which includes both front-end decisions such as granting access rights and archiving, as well as back-end work such as ensuring the platform integrates with other necessary technology.

There are other types of access levels such as guest (i.e. can only view designated areas) and teaching assistant (i.e. similar to instructor but with reduced privileges).

Most e-learning platforms have a core offering and optional additional functionality (which may be add-on or plug-in software). Within the core offering instructors choose which tools to use and how to structure their course.

Leading Products
There are two dominant leaders: Blackboard and Moodle.

Blackboard is a for-profit company. Blackboard will either enable users to install and run the system on their own servers or offer a hosted solution (i.e. that is the software and database resides on the company's servers and is maintained by them). For extensive information on Blackboard the University of Toronto's Blackboard pages are helpful.

Moodle is open-source, which means a global collective of people jointly develop and support the software and make it available to others to use for free. You can download the software and install it on your server and run and customize it for yourself. Alternatively, there are companies that will host the software for you on their servers and maintain it. To get a sense of Moodle, there is a demo that allows you to see a sample of it from a student or teacher view.

Other main LMS organizations include Desire2Learn a commercial service based in Kitchener, Ontario, Haiku, and Sakai an open-source solution.

Goals of a e-learning platforms
  1. information - offer course material
  2. communication - news and discussions amongst instructors and students
  3. collaboration - jointly-authored assignments or presentations
  4. evaluation - grading by instructors, feedback from
Product Features

Informational tools may consist of:
  • Lessons - instructor-supplied text or multimedia content (e.g. podcasts, videos)
  • Resources - instructors or students can post webpages, PDFs, images, audio, or video files
  • Glossary - a course-related terms appearing as links or a list
Communication tools may consist of:
  • Announcements - posted by instructor to the LMS homepage
  • Updates - course news or recent discussions received via RSS feeds or emails
  • Forums - threaded discussions
  • Chats - live text-based chat room
Collaboration tools may consist of:
  • Wiki - collaborative document editing
  • Calendar - team and/or class-based scheduling
  • Blogs - individual text-based articles
  • Groups - instructors can divide classes into smaller units
Evaluation tools may consist of:
  • Quizzes - with automatic grading (if multiple choice)
  • Assignments - allow students to upload a file and receive grade & comments
  • Grading - instructors assign grades and manage class averages
  • Surveys - poll the class on course topics or offer their evaluation of instructor
  • Ratings - students can provide assign their value to a lesson
Benefits of a LMS
  • integrated, all-in-one place solution, which allows:
    • connections and cross-linking of various course materials
    • only one interface for students and teachers to learn
    • simplicity of finding all course material
  • web-based administration
  • can ensure all course content follows academic institutional policies and jurisdictional regulations (e.g. accessibility, privacy, security) - if not using a hosted solution
  • no advertising appears (except with some free, hosted solutions)
  • extensive functionality
  • streamlined grading processes
  • requires some IT knowledge and skills (if not using a hosted solution), such as
    • installation
    • integration with web server and database
    • quality assurance and trouble-shooting
    • back-ups and archiving
    • user tech support
    • customization
  • hosted solution may entail data being stored outside of Canada (and therefore not subject to our laws, e.g. privacy)
  • high cost for commercial software or for hosted solution
  • likely more functionality than most instructors need or students will ever use
  • cloistered environment, which omits participation and exposure to other interested people or ideas
Other Considerations
There are benefits (beyond financial) to using non-integrated solutions such as free web-based applications such as blogging tools, social networks (Facebook), Google Docs, Twitter, YouTube, etc. EDUCAUSE published a 2-page paper on this topic entitled 7 Things You Should Know About LMS Alternatives

e-Learning platforms cover a broad array of concerns from technological to pedagogical and from usability to feasibility. This post was meant to cover the basics.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

IPTV - TV over the Internet with Bell Fibe

I'm not afraid to admit it I haven't had cable tv in over 8 years - until recently that is. Partly this is due the ubiquitous crap on tv and it's partly due to the fact that I'm a horrid tv addict.

In Toronto, an antenna will pick up a bunch of channels, so a cable or satellite package isn't necessary. We bought a digital antenna last year and got high definition channels and US signals. But then the American channels stopped sending their signals over the air, and we definitely missed PBS. We also rented, bought, borrowed and signed out from the library a lot of DVDs. This kind of on-demand service better suited our lifestyle and viewing preferences.

When TV channels and YouTube started offering more and more content online about 3 years ago we loved being able to watch what we want without charge. But either hooking up our laptop to our tv or watching programs on the laptop was a poor experience, so we didn't do it often.

Bell Fibe
My kid and wife have been pestering me for ages to get cable. Around Christmas I was feeling generous when Bell called offering their IPTV service - Bell Fibe. The price was good - $27 a month for the basic package with 2 years free use of a personal video recorder (PVR). As an Internet fanatic, I was also intrigued by the idea of receiving my tv signal via the Net.

I'm not sure how Bell Fibe compares to other services. Still, here are my experiences for anyone considering Bell Fibe or IPTV.

Signal quality
There is occassionally buggy or no reception - this happens every few days, including during our fav shows. I never experienced this in the many years of cable nor have I seen it when watching satellite tv at others' houses, so this is a problem. If we have the fan on in the same room as our receiver the signal is a mess - this will be a huge problem in summer.

Can't surf the Net on TV
I believe the salesperson promised me the ability to surf the Net seamlessly from our TV. I was definitely promised faster download speeds for my overall surfing. Neither has happened. Bell Fibe is supposed to come with proactive monitoring to ensure that we always have highspeed, but I haven't noticed a difference. The former may have been wishful thinking on my part. We also got a Wii this Christmas and I was excited to be able to surf web on it - but the usability and viewability sucks for everything except Youtube. YouTube detects we're watching on a TV browser and offers a medium-tailored version - I wish more sites did this.

System compatibility
Before we had Bell Fibe we had a new Sony tv, an antenna, Blu-ray player, VCR (yes we still have one), and a Wii. They all played nice together and the remotes got along well. Bell Fibe needs a custom remote and has not got along well with the others. Things are hard to operate now and Bell often gets out of sync and needs annoying manual resetting.

Search & guide features
The promo material for Bell Fibe hypes their unique search capability as one of their main distinguishing traits. Users can search by program or actor up to two weeks in advance. At first, I thought this was great, but it doesn't take long to get to know when and which network a fav show is on. It was more useful when we had a free trial with a gazillion channels as I could quickly find Xena playing somewhere at any given moment. A serious flaw, however, is that the actor info for shows only lists up to four actors. And the actors listed may not necessarily be the leads or stars. Frankly stars are the only ones who anyone would search for, so this often negates the value of this feature.

Their tv guide feature seems standard to all tv services now. Listings include title, plot synopsis, date of production, rating, and cast. The guide allows one to add and then browse by favourites. A feature they don't have that I have seen and like is colour coding of channels based on channels one gets and doesn't. We have to manually remove the channels we don't get up from our guide, but this means they don't show up at all so we don't know when a channel is offering a free preview.

Split-screens - I like the ability to have the main screen stay open and have another mini-screen appear on the bottom. Also, one can browse the guide and see a mini-screen of a channel without actually having to go to that channel. I'm not sure if these features are standard on other services but they are definitely great for channel surfers such as myself.

Family friendly
I'm not sure if satellite or cable offer this feature, but I really like Bell Fibe's parental controls. I can quickly set the tv to block my kid from seeing inappropriate stuff while we channel surf. The blocking is based on ratings, however, so they are not foolproof. We can easily unlock by show or for a block of hours by entering our four digit passcode. It also blocks the pay-per-view and video-on-demand service, which is great as my six-year-old already knows how to pull these up and is enthralled by them.

At Christmas Bell had a special channel with games, music, countdown, and links to holiday programs. We loved this, but they haven't had anything else like it subsequently.

Bell Fibe's pricing structures does not appear to be significantly different than other services. One cannot completely custom order channels despite Bell's claims of this. One has to get a certain high and expensive tiered service before being able to order a-la-carte. Their channel packages, as with other services, are ridiculously expensive and bundle a ton of crap with a few good channels. Video-on-demand is also crazily expensive at $12 for a new release or $7 for really, really old movies. Their VOD offerings, and preview functionality, however is impressive.

Interactive television? Not yet
One thing that does seem awesome - but is nothin yet is the "Interactive" and "Learn" buttons on remote. They don't currently do anything but apparently their our plans for this. Interactive tv - wow, I'm not holding my breath for that as it's been much-promised but little delivered for years now.

I've seen commercials that with Bell Fibe one can program the PVR via the Internet from any location. This would be great when travelling or if one forgot or suddenly heard of a must-see program. I have no idea if this service actually exists yet and I can't find any mention of it on Bell's website.

Final thoughts
Currently, Bell Fibe is only in Toronto and Montreal. They aren't the only, or first, IPTV service in Canada, as it appears to be Saskatchewan's Sasktel, offered the service since 2006. BTW - Sasktel is the first company in North America to offer HD channels over the Internet (according to the Leader-Post).

I like the price of the service and the PVR (the true game-changer). But problems with reception, particularly when our fan is on, is a definite drawback. I'm interested in possible future innovations resulting from IPTV. But I'm not completely sold on it, at least until reception is as good as - if not better - than cable or satellite.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Return of Electronic Brainstorming

Using computers to facilitate brainstorming sessions has been (occassionally) talked about in academic and management fields for the last two decades, but I have never heard of it actually implemented in a real-life scenario. Back in 2008, I blogged about the potential and problems of electronic brainstorming, but I haven't encountered the topic subsequently.

Until last month, when I was invited to participate in an electronic brainstorming session for my faculty's IT department. Granted, this project was in an academic setting and was part of a research study, otherwise it was a real organizational project. The goal was to help provide ideas and prioritization for future IT projects.

Description of Electronic Brainstorming Session
The software used was SAP's Streamwork, which from a user perspective was easy to use and worked flawlessly. It probably wouldn't be difficult, however, to build such a system or make use of existing online tools to do this as the functionality is fairly simple.

The first part of the electronic brainstorming session involved using a web-based interface to generate ideas. Participants were instructed to add as many ideas as they wanted to. The software was a standard web form that allowed one to enter free-form text.

The second part of the session occurred a couple of weeks later. Using the same software, we were then asked to prioritize everyone's items. Duplicates were manually filtered out by the project coordinator, but I believe no other contributions were censored (certainly none of mine were altered). All items appeared as unordered group with no indication of the contributor. There were approximately 40 items which we then individually dragged and dropped each item and placed from top to bottom to reflect our priority order.

Pros & Cons

Volume of idea generation

In real-life scenarios there are time limits and group dynamics that make it difficult for everyone to offer their ideas. One of the benefits of electronic brainstorming is that participation can be opened up to a much larger number of participants than is feasibly possible in real-life environments. The project I participated in seemed to have a small number of people participating (i.e. under 20), but this seems a deliberate intention to use a Delphi Decision-Making process, which uses selective recruitment. If there is no management requirement to participate or incentive offered - it is possible that only the usual suspects of keeners and malcontents will volunteer. Increasing volume is not necessarily a great idea, as when it came time to prioritize I found the 40 items I had to examine was my limit of what I could keep track of and handle. Nonetheless, I have been in real-life brainstorming sessions where after a few initial ideas, it was painfully difficult to get contributions. So by opening up participation to a larger and more geographically dispersed group (if applicable) and allowing people to participate when and where they choose, it is likely that a greater number of contributions will result.

Duplication of ideas
In real-life group brainstorming sessions, participants will have seen and heard others' contributions, so there is little concern of duplication of ideas, as there is with electronic brainstorming. This can be a serious limitation as I witnessed with the Canadian government's Digital Economy Consultation last year. The government asked citizens to generate and vote on ideas. But there was so much repetition and overlap - and no means to filter or merge - that it undermined the ability to read all the items let alone vote meaningfully on specific ideas. (Not that I believe the government had a sincere desire to harvest these ideas generated anyway.) I'm not aware of a good way to automatically purge or merge duplicates. In the case of the project I participated in, someone manually had to do this. For large-scale projects this could be time-consuming, but the benefits to users are substantial.

Value of anonymity
Anonymity is a central concept of electronic brainstorming (although not a system requirement). I believe it is essential to allow free participation. Without anonymity people may not want to offer ideas for fear of being judged or challenging organizational sacred cows. Thus real-life sessions tend to be dominated by a few people, and in my experience generate ideas that are fairly safe and banal. When it comes to prioritzing ideas, anonymity is even more important as it is difficult to give a low priority to ideas from one's supervisors or befriended co-workers.

In contrast electronic brainstorming, there is no fear of real or perceived judgment or reprisals. I felt like I could say whatever I wanted to free of repercussions and could also offer ideas that I would otherwise have felt were too trivial or personally relevant. Anonymity has its downsides in that it does allow people to offer offensive ideas or unhelpful, possibly insane, rants (as per trolls and flaming on open online forums). But in a workplace setting, this hopefully won't be an issue. All the 40 ideas I encountered were valid and coherent.

Quality of ideas
Although the contributions were legit, there were some ideas that needed clarification or persuasion. There was no way to follow up with an idea originator for more information, thus the ideas must stand on their own - and some didn't. As anonymity was promised, I'm not sure if even the project facilitators were able to request a contributor to refine a contribution. It would be possible for a system to allow a facilitator to receive all contributions unidentified and then submit clarification requests via the system and consequently not identify the person. In real-life sessions, it is easy to ask someone to explain or defend their idea. If the goal is only idea generation, then this step might not be important. But when it comes time to prioritize ideas, it is essential that participants understand what they are voting on. Perhaps a step could be built into the process allowing participants or facilitators to ask for clarification prior to the prioritization.

My biggest complaint with the electronic brainstorming session I participated also applies to real-life scenarios and that is that there is no mechanism to indicate which items are to be followed up on. An ideal step of any brainstorming project would be for every item to have an official response from management on their plans on how to address it or why they are unable to. Such transparency would show participants that their input is truly valued and useful to the organization.

I feel electronic brainstorming was a better method for me. In my experience, real-life meetings tend to be dominated by a handful of people or a lot of time is wasted with group dynamics (e.g. turn-taking, social niceties, idle chit-chat). This approach not only afforded me more opportunity for me to share my ideas, it was also more time efficient.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

User-Generated Map & Meaning Making via foursquare

I recently presented at the conference Boundaries, Frontiers & Gatekeepers on some of my Foursquare research.

I've embedded this as a Slideshare presentation. It doesn't offer an elegant way to display the speaker notes so I had to include them as comments (if anyone knows a better way, please let me know). To view my notes, you'll need to click to Slideshare's website.

My research on location-based services, georeferencing, and mobile applications is still in the very early stages, but this presentation gives a sense of the area of my exploration.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

QR Codes Tried Quite Recently

On the diffusion of innovations curve, I admit I'm not the quickest adopter. Tech has to prove its value to me in a unique (and affordable) way before I'll dive in. And the positives have to outweigh the negatives. The latter point was why I waited so long to get a mobile phone - the downside of my work being able to call me whenever and wherever (without remuneration) was not worth the benefit of being able to call my wife and find out what movie to rent.

I've seen QR codes (those odd black and white box-shaped symbols) on posters and in print magazines before. I never felt the benefit of being quickly directed to a webpage while reading a magazine outweighed the effort of downloading the special software required for QR codes to function on my mobile. And as for advertisements on posters, why would I waste my highly-overcharged data for an ad?

It was just this weekend that I finally saw a use of QR codes compelling enough for me to give them a try. We were at the Tim Burton exhibit at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). I'm a huge fan of Tim Burton (although he may have peaked at Big Fish) so I was excited to see props from his movies and learn more about his work. The exhibit did not disappoint - it was amazing!

I noticed there were QR codes interspersed throughout the exhibit. I've read about QR codes used in libraries, art galleries, museums, etc. but I have never seen them used this way in Toronto yet. A similar audio project in Toronto called Murmur for cellphones made good use of mobile-facilitated audio content. I am intrigued, however, by the opportunity that QR codes afford for quickly-delivered audio and video.

In theory, anyway.

I decided to download the software for my mobile (BlackBerry Curve) to read the codes. I chose ScanLife 2D Code Reader as it was free and came up early on the results page ofBlackBerry app world. It downloaded quickly and installed easily. The interface is incredibly easy to use.

The first time I tried it, it worked beautiful. I simply clicked on the ScanLife software icon, chose capture, took a picture, and an introduction on YouTube of the Burton installation loaded fairly quickly.

Subsequent scans did not work so well - or at all. The software doesn't show me guide lines in my camera, so I'm not sure how to best position my camera. Several times I was not able to get the software to recognize a QR code. Taking another picture of the code usually worked, but not always. Also, some times the QR software would only take a picture of the code and nothing else.

I'm not sure if the glitches are the result of the Scanlife software or my BlackBerry? My mobile is not yet 2 years old but already seems obsolete.

As for the content, I think that it needs to be more compelling than the TIFF offered. The commentary by Burton or others was interesting but appeared to be only audio. That might make downloading quicker, but the content should be more fun, unique, and tailored to the medium. At least it would have been fun to have clips from his movies.

I felt like this was just audio guide content reposted to YouTube. I don't like audio guides as they prevent me from interacting with the people I'm with (which is one of the best qualities of going to such events). Audio guides also don't offer the user much control, as in the ability to skip parts or fast forward.

Another problem was that it is difficult to hear audio content unless one wears headphones (which I never carry with me). The exhibit was crowded and noisy, so it was extremely difficult to hear the content unless I put it right against my ear - which then defeats the purpose of having visual content.

The use of QR codes at TIFF was good for specifying what users would get if they scanned the code. But I have often seen them used without any sense of what lies on the other side - so why would I bother? I also see them all the time on the subways, but as my route is mostly underground - they'll never work for me - should be some way to cache the experience and load it when in an area with data access. Or better yet TTC should have 3G or (even better free WiFi) access.

Everyone suffers from Canada's ridiculously over-priced bandwidth costs, so I'm dubious about the role of multimedia via QR codes, as it consumes so much. I think the most viable uses will be things like coupons, third-party reviews, or exclusive content.
As the medium matures and the technical power of mobiles improves, I can, however, imagine QR codes facilitating some incredible experiences. It would be great to have interactive capabilities to display content tailored to your specific interests. Or for art installations, it would be great to be able to interact with digital versions of the art or to add your own inputs and make a new art piece. At the very least, QR codes could be used to facilitate sending digital postcards to friends or subscribing to an email list.

Now that I have the software installed, I'm looking forward to seeing innovative uses of QR codes. It just better be compelling enough to use up my precious, costly bandwidth though.