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New e-learning home: The E-Learning Bakery – come in for some tasty edutech recipes #edtech #elearning #lrnchat

Hi, everyone :) Given my passion (read “addiction”, too) for both e-learning and cakes, I have recently launched the E-Learning Bakery and will continue sharing my experience with educational technology there. Looking forward to seeing you there, or on Twitter: @elearningbakery! :)

Image credits: Cakes and Pies 2, by kodakgold.

The end of the road for e-voting handsets … or is it? A look at Top Hat Monocle #edtech #uoltech

Well, if you listen to some of the new companies on the market, you would be excused for thinking that that’s pretty much it for all clickers out there. Long gone are the days when it was acceptable to think that e-voting handsets (aka “clickers”) could be used successfully to create opportunities for interaction, discussion, and deeper learning in a classroom. Now if you’re not in the Cloud, there may be something wrong with you ;)

Picture of a tombstone with a clicker on it

These days it’s all about the learners’ personal handsets (I guess nothing beats them for personalised learning, right)? Well, although I am also looking for ways to have the fewest possible numbers of things to carry around, I take great (perhaps too much so) pleasure in looking at the new companies’ arguments.

After a (brilliant, I must say) webinar from one of the newest companies offering web-based alternatives to clickers [Top Hat Monocle - who, in my personal experience, are one of the most active (read "pushiest") companies out there], a friend prompted me to compare what I’ve seen with my experience with clickers (we mainly use the eInstruction clickers at Leeds in the UK), as well as other web-based systems (last year I took an interested look at PollEverywhere and then spoke about it at ALT-C 2011), or alternatives such as Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro (which is not strictly an e-voting tool – it’s rather a very capable online coferencing tool with MCQ (multiple choice questions) and MRQ (multiple response questions) functionality).

In short: why should you throw away your clickers (some say)?

  • they’re expensive (from about £25, but prices do vary depending on how capable the clickers are and how badly a company wants to get you, so definitely shop around and look to buy in the quiet periods – March/April; definitely not August-October)
  • they’re heavy and breakable
  • the batteries run out when you least expect it
  • students prefer to use their phones
  • students would more likely cheat passing clickers around than give their phones to their friends
  • the software running behind the clickers is not very capable of tracking student performance

So why should you look towards web-based alternatives?

  • because they’re perfect in every single way :)

Seriously now, let me try and put together some sort of comparison. I’ll list seven categories below and what I think of each one of the tools I have seen.

Overall ease of use

I would say that traditional clickers win this category – in particular eInstruction, whose software has a PowerPoint add-in which turns a slide with text/images/whatever into an interactive question in just a couple of clicks.

Other clicker tools, such as TurningPoint and Quizdom have separate applications or rather cumbersome add-ins which create new slides for your questions. What that means effectively is that, if you deliver your PowerPoint deck somewhere else where they don’t have the voting software installed, unless you hide that question slide, your presentation will suffer from the rather ugly inactive ‘interactive’ slides. What you get with eInstruction if you use their Response software is a little green “i” icon at the bottom left of your slide – won’t bother many people.

Next in line I would put PollEverywhere because its limited question types [MCQ, Open-ended questions, or (pledge-to-help-me) Goal questions] are easy to author and equally easy to embed into websites, PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi shows – yep, you heard that right; pretty cool.

Following that, and because, on the one hand, you’d need to spend a little bit of time getting your head around the online conferencing functionalities, and on the other hand, the fact that not all PPT 2010 objects are well-supported (but there are ways around it, of course) I would put Adobe Connect. It only supports MCQ and MRQ through its Poll functionality, and the other features it comes with are excellent for face-to-face and remote interaction.

Finally, Top Hat Monocle is a capable tool with lots of functionalities. Unfortunately, the PowerPoint integration is not amazing (although I do like their widget that floats and can capture whatever you have on your screen and turn it into an interactive question, with the possibility of retrospectively setting what the correct answer should have been to a question you’ve just created on the fly). Top Hat is for me a dual-screen solution: you can have so much information coming in from your students through it (responses to questions, how they’re feeling about the pace of your delivery, full-text answers to questions; new questions) that you either need a wingperson to keep an eye on that data while you’re lecturing and give you signals in appropriate places (yep, I know, how feasible is that?), or you need to have the mother of distributive attentions… (I know I don’t, but it’s a skill I guess…). For me Top Hat is a powerful revision tool both for lecturers (how did I and my students do in the session?) and students, but not a very polished face-to-face interactive tool yet.

Data protection

Now that’s a tricky one… or not, depending on how much you care about such policies (I really hope you do if you’re an educator … I’ll share my view on this in a future post in the near future).

With web-based services such as Top Hat Monocle or Poll Everywhere, your students’ data is on the companies’ servers. I may be a bit paranoid, but knowing that the mobile phone numbers of 30,000 students are going to be on a third-party server (some of them are not even within the EU) together with their names, e-mail addresses and other personal details concerns me a lot. So basically, you have to trade that for pretty impressive functionality if you want (if you really, really want :) ).

Having said that, the pricing model of Poll Everywhere is different, allowing you to pay for a number of anonymous users and get on using it, while Top Hat want your students to create accounts before they can access the service.

Working with clickers is tons safer, as all the data lives on the machine / network you are using, and because students use separate devices to interact, there is little personal data to be stored and potentially lost. However, in the case of using clickers for attendance monitoring or some more meaningful data monitoring, you will (at the very least) need to link clicker IDs to students IDs, so you’ll need to safeguard that.

The same applies to Adobe Connect. You can run a truly anonymous sessions where everyone who has the web address of your room can just join, or you could integrate it with your VLE/LMS, students’ accounts would be copied across and, through wizardry of your own (as Adobe don’t support any VLE/LMS integration yet), you could gather and display meaningful data on your students.

So I’d say clickers win this one again despite the significant manual work involved in linking clickers to student IDs, with Adobe Connect a very close second.

Statistics tracking

… which leads us nicely to this category. Right off the bat, from what I’ve seen so far, Top Hat Monocle was excellent! A mini-VLE or mini-LMS if you like, with opportunities for students to go back over interactive sessions, see how they’ve done, what the correct answers were, what questions they could work on in their own time (and even upload homework files). Although I’ve seen Poll Everywhere capable of pretty impressive statistics tracking and report generation, I would have to say that Top Hat was top drawer in this category.

In the case of clickers, while you can export session raw data, you’d have to have some clever folks around to create ways of visualising that in similar ways (some universities in the UK have gone down that route of writing their own code to interpret raw e-voting data and it’s working well, but it’s not quite like the out-of-the-box Top Hat extravaganza).

Finally, a similar principle could apply to Adobe Connect: the raw data is there, but you need some magic to tame the API into showing you only what you need. Not impossible by any means and there are already companies that will be very happy to take your money and help you out :)

Accessibility

I would personally give this category to Adobe Connect and also to my recollection of the eInstruction e-clicker. The reason for bringing Adobe Connect in is that you can display both questions and results on tablets and mobiles. You can also zoom into slides displayed, but you cannot zoom into the question text and results.

I remember (and will have confirmation soon, so there will be another post coming) that you could do the same with the eInstruction clicker, with the added benefit of being able to zoom into questions if they were delivered through the Response software rather than through PowerPoint.

With normal clickers, you need to have reasonably strong fingers to press the buttons (have only had one or two complaints so far regarding the small size and difficulty to press the eInstruction clicker buttons, but they’re worth knowing about). Moreover, I wouldn’t consider the LCD screens some of them come with anything worth writing home about… but that’s just me…

With Poll Everywhere, unless you are using the web interface to vote, which, just like Top Hat Monocle, can’t be pinched and zoomed into, you rely on how accessible your phone is to text or tweet the correct answer. The results can be viewed from another web link which actually looks ok on a tablet but, again, can’t be pinched and zoomed into.

Flexibility and reliability

Well, there’s not a lot to say here: you use the clickers and the results appear in a graph pretty much instantly and reliably if you are using radio-frequency clickers and a bit less reliably if you are using infrared clickers. The e-voting software is a lot more reliable these days, although you may want to watch out for reported conflicts between SMART Podiums (who also have their own e-voting clickers to sell) and certain versions of other e-voting software (such as Response 6.7) which can’t make its way to the comms ports because SMART is hogging them (this is supposed to be fixed in a new release of SMART firmware if it hasn’t already happened… I’m under the impression it hasn’t).

Regarding  Adobe Connect, provided your WiFi doesn’t crash an die, voting is a doddle.

Web-based services like Top Hat Monocle and Poll Everywhere are generally impressively fast, but can also suffer glitches, as you’re texting or Tweeting specific numbers / users, the SMS is processed by an SMS gateway, and then that is interpreted and sent back over the web to your graph. Most of the time it works fine, but expect to have the odd surprise when the Internet decides to pull over for a coffee, and have a plan B with something interesting to do while you’re waiting for the graph to become animated by your students’ votes.

Additional Features

I know e-voting is meant to be just that, but more and more solutions allow you to do other things, too. In terms of interaction, Top Hat Monocle would come top with their homework, file upload, and revision functionalities among other things. Student progress tracking functionalities also looked interesting. Top Hat also had the most question types.

The latest clickers also come with homework mode, which could come in handy if your students didn’t have access to computers and the Internet outside your institution. In terms of question types, you’ll have to check what each clicker model can handle as we’ve often found some could only handle MCQ / Survey and True/False, and couldn’t do Numeric/Order/Short answer.

Poll Everywhere was a nice surprise in that it was the first (to my knowledge) solution to allow web, SMS and Twitter voting at the same time. Good reporting functionalities, but shame about only offering three question types.

Adobe Connect, with its native online conferencing functionalities, is still very close to my heart, though: having one environment where you can record a session, with live Q&A through chat, mobile and tablet apps, screen sharing, webcam and audio, polls and whiteboards is quite a cool thing from my point of view.

What’s the slickest option? (yes, I know – how vain can I be?)

I would say that Adobe Connect is the slickest thing among the four. Its mobile apps look great and do an adequate job (more functionality for the presenter and SWF support would be highly appreciated, but that’s another story). It has potential for both anonymous and named voting, and it has lots more interactive features that don’t overwhelm you too much.

Image of Adobe Connect on a tablet

Poll Everywhere is also very shiny and the possibility for synchronous Twitter, SMS, and web input – not to mention the Prezi integration – are brill. Again, shame about there are only three (out of which two actually usable in day-to-day education) question types available.

Clickers can be fashionable (like the TurningPoint design), or rather more bulky (like most of the others), but with e-voting apps also available, the experience can be as slick as your phone.

Top Hat Monocle is a very competent beast with lots of very cool features, but at the moment there’s something that stops me from recommending it as the tidiest of beasts. You will surely recognise lots of options when you start working with it, as well as spot a few original ones, but I’d personally say it’s quite a lot to get to grips with if you’re still weary about bringing technology into your sessions.

Customer Service

Top Hat Monocle pride themselves with 20-minute response times to customer queries. The bloke who did the webinar for us got up at 4am US to be able to talk to us in the soft light of the UK morning, and did so very knowledgeably, so I’d take my top hat off for that.

Adobe, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to get answers from, although it all depends on the relationships you’re building. On Twitter, they are lively. There is also an Adobe Connect LinkedIn community which is brilliant, and they have also fairly recently set up a UK education team, so things are looking up.

However, we have also developed a really good relationship with the UK suppliers of our clickers, Banxia, who have often gone out of their way (including writing original code for us) to help us out if we were having problems.

Finally, PollEverywhere also seem to be a lovely, helpful, responsive and, what’s very valuable for me, non-pushy company with a good product. Worth keeping an eye on them just in case you need to go somewhere and can’t carry a bunch of clickers with you.

Cost

After spending some time in the industry, this is what one of my friends starts with. I sometimes do that, too, but I have also learnt that there is no such thing as a free lunch. You will have to trade off some functionality / maybe sell your soul in the process. You’ll also need to look at how user-friendly and intuitive the chosen solution is: getting kit at half the price of something else, but needing support for every single person using it because of poor solution design is one of the biggest false economies you can make.

From what I know, clickers start at around £25 and can go up quite a bit. The software tends to be free, and the only other things you’ll need are the receiver, batteries and carry cases. The e-voting apps, much more convenient, are not much cheaper at the moment, unless your institution enters some kind of site-wide license agreement, which is when you can start negotiating significantly. Some institutions (Huddersfield in the UK among them if I’m not mistaken) have staff working on free e-voting apps – worth keeping an eye on conferences such as ALT-C if you’re in the UK, where one tends to see such things; if you live elsewhere, there are some mouth-watering e-learning and mobile learning conferences out there… don’t get me started, but do share what you find ;)

Top Hat Monocle is priced per student, at $20/semester or $30/5 years. Naturally, the more students you have, the lower the price. They encourage students to sign up rather than the institution signing up on behalf of the students.

Poll Everywhere has the opposite approach: a lecturer signs up and chooses to pay for a number of concurrent participants in his/her interactive sessions. It is free for up to 40 participants if you want to test-drive the system, then it’s a yearly charge which, if memory serves me right, starts at $750/200 or 250 students voting at the same time on individual polls (it doesn’t matter which students, they don’t have to be the same ones, and you can create an unlimited number of questions). Anyway, get in touch with them, and they’ll also be able to talk to you about the discounts you get if you sign up for several years.

What would I go for?

A bit of a tough question and I’ll definitely keep an aye on them all and others in order to be able to recommend the appropriate tool when working with my colleagues in the different faculties and services.

Right now, however, I’d like to revisit the e-voting apps that the clicker companies have produced, and I’d also like to get my hands on the Adobe Connect development roadmap to see what else can be expected soon.

All are possible contenders, but at the end of the day, for reasons listed above and others which I’ve kept to myself (curious? watch this space), I’d say we’ll still see clickers around us for some time yet.

What’s your view on this, though? Have you gone down a different road and never looked back? That’s what the Comments box below is for if you could spare a few minutes. Thanks! :)

Paracetamol-induced musings on the Microsoft #Kinect #uoltech

No better time to reflect than when you’re quite full of Paracetamol, wouldn’t you say? – I mean, what else is there?… It’s a less than charming situation, one in which I kind of wish I could just talk to my house and it would make me cups of tea or it would allow me to wave my hands around to get stuff… which reminds me that I never got round to talking about the session I did on Kinect at ALT-C 2011. Following the session, through the magic of Twitter, I got introduced to one of the Microsoft guys on the road talking about Kinect and then went down to London to FOTE11 for a chat- excellent bloke! I felt a little like a DJ: three machines, two of them set up with Kinect drivers (one with the official SDK, one with the open source one – I loved his face when I told him that, but he was actually very cool about it eventually ;)).

    • I started off with waving my hands to drive the presentation below using the Nuxiva StagePresence application on a Win 7 machine connected to a Kinect.
    • Then I switched to annotate verbally a whole bunch of videos on clever uses of Kinect by even more clever people from around the world.
    • Finally, I ended on a quiz created by Ray Chambers which I had hacked in my childish way. Such fun :)

What did I learn in the process?

  • first of all, that the Kinect microphone array is truly spectacular – I tested it with Adobe Connect Pro and it was loud and clear at all times, although I was walking around a room quite a bit (not a huge room, I know, but still a very good result).
  • secondly, that the Windows 7 built-in voice recognition is a serious contender to other software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking. Since then, I’ve played with the Google Android speech recognition and I can’t say I’m blown over… not horrible, though – it got me on Amazon UK pretty fast today to see where on earth was my copy of Bounce.
  • thirdly, that with the best will in the world, not even Lynda.com can help you learn C++ programming in one night (not that anyone sensible was ever under this impression… what does that tell you about me, though? :))

What’s next?

  • I for one am still waiting for the Razorfish DaVinci Kinect so that I can project it in a public space and see how people play with it
  • I am also quite curious to see where all the excitement has gone: either people are hard at work coding (I know a few universities in the UK, including my own, have courses on which students write applications for the Kinect, and in that respect, the Microsoft Imagine Cup is a great initiative), or they got side-tracked by all the “how do I use iPads in education?” discussions which someone always feels the need to restart pretty much every other week…
  • another good idea is to drop in regularly on the Coding4Fun Kinect space and OpenKinect, and see what these guys are up to…
  • get back to my Paracetamol and keep asking myself why do I feel that Microsoft are now the good guys and Apple are rather the opposite… Is it because of the super funny Clippy that I feel this way?

The world of rapid e-learning more accessible with #Xerte joining #articulate – with thanks to @terrymc #uoltech #edtech

Are you after rapid e-learning tools that help you create accessible online resources? Then check out what happened last week when I started testing Xerte, as well as my thoughts on how Xerte fits in with another rapid e-learning favourite of mine: Articulate Studio.

What’s the best way to have a productive e-learning afternoon? As the regular participants to the European Articulate Conference would no doubt agree, the recipe is simple:

  • invite a bunch of cool people (in this case the University of Leeds Learning Technologists Network)
  • put a cool e-learning tool they’ve not had much experience with on the menu (Xerte – also see this JISC TechDis Xerte resource)
  • source an exciting and well-informed but also chilled-out and by-no-means-pushy presenter (@terrymc)
  • set a challenge (“Let’s push Xerte and see how it handles multimedia, as well as see whether it plays nicely with our VLE/LMS – Blackboard 9.1″)
  • provide cake (one chocolate and one carrot worked well as my own cheesecake was not really worth writing home about) and one pineapple (odd? it got great reviews, though, and made the session even more informal :))
Xerte is a cool rapid development tool. Lots of folks have written about it and it keeps growing. The following reflects my own experience of it, so if I get stuff wrong, please tell me and I’ll happily put my hand up and correct it. As I was playing with it, I was also thinking of another rapid e-learning tool that I like using and whose community I would invite over to my house for breakfast, lunch and dinner any time – Articulate. So let’s get cracking and I’ll keep things as short and snappy as I can. My observations about Xerte are in bullet form and my comparisons with the current version of Articulate Studio 09 are straight underneath, preceded by a ‘-‘. Hope that makes sense.

What is Xerte?

A web-based environment with a great set of content templates developed by some frightfully clever folks at the University of Nottingham.

Xerte Insert Media menu

Xerte Insert Media menu

Xerte’s main advantages:

  • accessible (Tab navigation works very well and the Drag-and-drop exercise template which you can drive only using the Tab and Space keyboard keys is very cool indeed; I haven’t run it through a screen reader personally but I have not read anything suggesting it would not behave nicely so far).
    – Articulate also does Tab navigation, but is less accessible (until Storyline comes out and HTML5 support is added to Studio, that is…).
  • lots of templates and the list is growing. From simply inserting content as text, images, and videos, to embedding YouTube, Twitter searches, and RSS feeds, you have loads of choice.
    – The Articulate community has lots of templates, too, but they are mainly PowerPoint (content layout) ones. Articulate Engage and Quizmaker have a contribution, but getting RSS feeds in and the like is currently a bit tricky as you need to embed the dynamic content into a separate webpage or SWF file and then import that into the Articulate resource.
  • online environment meaning you don’t need to worry about licenses, copying files across, etc.
    – as an Articulate user, you could get around this issue a little using Dropbox to share files, but you’d still need licenses to edit these files. No online editing option yet and editing off shared drives and memory sticks is not recommended – I personally lost several narrations this way… lucky I had back-ups…
  • plays well in Blackboard 9.1, although we didn’t get the SCORM to work first time… then again, as we had no quiz to track, there was little point persevering, so the .zip archive showing nicely in our VLE did it for us.
    – Articulate SCORM hasn’t been supported well in our Blackboard 9.1 and we’re trying various work-arounds. .zip archives were just fine.
  • the Drawing template is very cool (although I didn’t work out what the Interactive mode was, but then again, I didn’t get round to reading any documentation for this – I personally blame Apple for the attitude :). I tested it with a graphics tablet and it wasn’t bad accuracy at all.
    – nothing similar in Articulate – you’d have to use PowerPoint’s drawing tools which are cool, unless you want to use the Scribble tool which will drive you mad – anything else, even Paint is much better for that!

    Xerte Drawing template

    Xerte Drawing template

  • you can add FLV and SWF video to your resources (I tried .wmv, .mov, .avi, and .mpg but they weren’t supported). If you haven’t got the videos in the two required Flash formats, you can use free tools such as FormatFactory to convert your vids.
    – apart from those two, Articulate has native support for .mp4. Moreover, the Articulate Video Converter will do exactly what the name implies, while also allowing you to change the sound volume, crop the video (very cool!), insert watermarks, and chop off the ends.
  • the Audio Slideshow template is very cool – it allows you to have a piece of audio running in the background, while several “slides” can be cued in. I see this as a very cool tool for demo-ing synchronous language interpreting:
    • have the instructions always visible
    • have the source speech in the background
    • have individual blocks interpreted, and the sound louder than the source sound, which should be decreased, too, to avoid confusion while keeping the reference speech in the background
    • combine these individual blocks with additional images/text which discuss problems related to the individual meaning blocks
    • cue everything in (NB: watch out, as you can only set Synch Points which are integers – so 1 second and not 1.3; everything gets rounded up to the nearest integer… not ideal for teaching interpreting come to think about it, but here we are…)
    • in the published resource, the nested pages do not appear as subpages and it’s all a continuous flow of sound, text and images.
    • cool!

- an equivalent effect with Articulate could be obtained by having the main speech running as an audio track throughout the resource, and then individual PowerPoint slides having their own audio/video/images/text. You could get a lot more content in using PowerPoint animations and you could also synchronise to the exact time in the audio without worrying about integers…

Xerte Audio Slideshow

Xerte Audio Slideshow

  •  the Transcript Reader template is similar and makes life very easy if you want to sync text with audio (NB: don’t forget the integers, though…)
    – similar effect can be created with PowerPoint, yet if you’re not a confident PowerPoint user, you’ll find this Xerte template a great relief.
  • the Synched Video allows to cue in text and image while you’re watching a video, which is something that currently you can’t do with Articulate (but will be able to soon I hear through the grapevine…)
  • Multiple Perspectives is another clever little template which allows you to insert several videos and audio files with text and an image to show different points of view. Dead simple, useful, and good looking, too (something which overall seems to be the trade-off with Xerte: you get accessible resources, but the default skins are rather boxy and not very inviting … again, I blame Apple for this attitude on my part :). However, the good news is that you can customise the skins if you host Xerte on your own servers, so here’s an avenue for designers to top up their budgets a little…)
    – hyperlinked thumbnails and images in PPT can create that effect, too.
  • the Chemists among you will be very excited to hear there is a JMOL viewer built into Xerte. Yey! :)
    – not sure how to do that with Articulate unless you use a Web Object and insert an external webpage which has the JMOL object running smoothly
  • Embed Content is a template that’s meant to allow you to stick in anything else that doesn’t already have a dedicated template (such as YouTube videos, for instance). The good news is that it works. The bad news is that you may need to fiddle, as my embed URL worked, but my embed code didn’t and I couldn’t be bothered to fiddle (I blame it on Apple, you see…)
    – Articulate still needs to go through Web Objects for most of this to happen (except YouTube videos and a small number of other services I believe)

    Xerte Embed Content - Zoom.it in this case

    Xerte Embed Content - Zoom.it in this case

  • if you’re feeling lazy, Xerte also has a Charts template, where you type in your values, choose the colour for a series of values, and you get a chart. Simples! (just don’t expect anything fancy in terms of layout, shades, 3D and the like…)
    – the PowerPoint charts are likely to look much better and you don’t have to type in your Excel data again, which is a bonus.
  • the Hotspot was easy to set up (shame the Interactive Diagram template didn’t want to work…)
    – a capable, though less accessible hotspot is possible in Quizmaker, too; to be honest, you can also generate the same effect in PowerPoint, too – up to you.
  • overall, I think the Interactivity templates are worth mentioning as they provide simple, but effective breaks from linear content
    – Quizmaker has 20 question types, but I felt the Xerte ones were easier to set up. Quizmaker, nonetheless, is much better at supporting, combining, and sync-ing multimedia. Branching is also possible from Quizmaker, as it is from Articulate presenter, too, and I couldn’t see anything similar in Xerte.

    Xerte Interactivity templates

    Xerte Interactivity templates

  • a significant compartment of the Xerte box of tricks lives in the Misc and mitchellmedia.co.uk menus, though, with various feeds to be embedded – some trickier than others (don’t say I didn’t warn you about the Twitter feed, although that may be somewhere in the documentation – by now you should know that I blame Apple… :) )
    – Articulate is not as competent yet, unless you go via the Web Object, in which case you’re sorted.

    Xerte Misc templates

    Xerte Misc templates

My issues with Xerte:

  • linear structure of the resulting resource (I find it hard to see how one could devise an educational scenario and allow students to explore) – I couldn’t see straight away a method for creating a tree structure in the resource Table of Contents menu
    – the Articulate Slide Properties all you to go mad with branching, names, tree structures, automatic or user control of resource progress and more.

    Xerte table of contents

    Xerte table of contents

  • my Windows keyboard settings didn’t change in the Xerte editing area, too – for instance, when I changed the keyboard to French, in my Chrome Xerte window it stayed in English, so I had to use the Xerte Character Pad (at the time of writing supporting French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish), which was not ideal… Not sure if this was Chrome being inflexible…
    – PowerPoint, Articulate Quizmaker and Engage will let you type in your chosen language
  • the Bullets template didn’t actually give me any bullets – just text
  • sound/narration import is limited to .mp3 (no wav or wma) – not a deal-breaker for me, but useful to flag up
    – wav is supported in Articulate alongside .mp3. In addition, a powerful audio editor is always on hand to allow you to brush up your narration until you get it perfect. This is also very helpful when updating your resources, because you don’t need to re-record everything again, but only the bits that are new.
  • image resizing is poor, although, if you set the Image size to  “full screen”, you get a magnifying glass to view the pixelated bits
    NB: choosing the “actual size” image settings will only get you into a pickle with high-res images as I could only see the top right corner of mine and no scrolling was available…
    – images in PowerPoint can be edited and modified quite significantly (cropped, re-coloured, stylised). You can change the Articulate publish settings to achieve quite crisp images in the Flash wrapper. Even better in the upcoming HTML5-supporting versions.

    Image inserted with "full screen" setting

    Image inserted with "full screen" setting

  • in fact, I have found that images in general are a bit tricky in Xerte unless you’ve resized them yourself beforehand:
    • leave them on “auto” and you can’t really work out what they’re about anymore, particularly in the case of software screenshots
    • set them to “full screen” and they will cover text that is supposed to appear next to/above/below them
  • audio sync-ing with text and images which is possible in some of the templates (see the Highlights section above) can only be done up to the nearest integer – so no chance of text being highlighted at 2.3 seconds into your narration – you’ll have to live with 2 seconds and so slightly out of sync…
    – not an issue in Articulate if you’re happy to use animations in PowerPoint.
  • the Morph Image is also quite interesting because you can fool people into thinking they’re zooming into a live image … now what do I think of this? Personally, I would much rather use a high-res image and an online service similar to Zoom.it or GigaPan and embed the result into a webpage through the Embed Content template, although it worked with the embed URL but not the Embed Code for my Zoom-it example… (see above)
    – you can use the Web Object tool in Articulate to embed such resources. For some you may have to set up separate html files, others (e.g. YouTube) will come in directly.

Conclusion

I think this post is probably the longest I’ve ever done, so I’ll try and keep this short.. ha! (and I don’t blame Apple for this, btw.) So how do I feel about Xerte and how does it sit next to Articulate?

As @terrymc put it, too, they’re complementary, and one shouldn’t necessarily replace the other. Here’s what I reckon:

  • I love my scenario-based learning resources and building something like that in Xerte would make me throw too many things around in frustration that I can’t combine elements that the templates do not cater for (for instance, a video and an embed object or an RSS feed…) I am aware I can build my own templates if I want, but I really don’t want to do that (I just blame Apple for that). I’m happy to put a video and an External Object in my Articulate resource and be done with it.
  • On the other hand, it’s really nice to see so many templates and I feel that if one of my lecturers is short of time and resources, is not a confident PowerPoint user, and needs to get a mixture and static and interactive content out there fast, Xerte will be a good choice.
  • Talking accessibility, Xerte is currently much better than Articulate (although you have tabbed and arrowkey navigation in the Articulate files, too). However, I have also seen the future of Articulate and it’s called Storyline – a tool so fine that designers will snap it up as soon as it comes out: HTML5, lots of interactive content, and very cool features which I am not allowed to talk about… yet :).
  • Talking looks, Xerte is way behind at the moment but some designed skins may push it forward quite a bit.
  • Talking internationalisation, Articulate will do pretty much whatever you ask of it (it will take language keyboard changes comfortably as far as I know). Currently Xerte is limited to on-screen language keyboards. On the other hand, Xerte’s XML content publishing format means that it is currently easier to localise (exactly how much easier will be the topic of a future blog post). But Articulate… nope, I can’t say any more :)

Xerte is free and Articulate isn’t. However, Xerte is just starting up and very keen to see how people can use its numerous templates, while Articulate has the biggest and best (imho) community of instructional designers – who, incidentally, have basically saved PowerPoint for e-learning from a slow and sad demise, put quite a few bells on it through Articulate Studio, and showed the world things that folks didn’t think were possible before. Just wait until you see Storyline, though… ;)

Xerte is an online authoring tool and Articulate isn’t. Now that’s inconvenient and I’m the first to say that, but I am also looking at the bunch of functionalities I have in Studio (powerful audio editing, ok video editing) and wonder how feasible it would be to port all that online … (I know Apple’s taught us to get stroppy if things are not simple, but I also know that if I were on a desert island with an Apple brain I’d be stuck there. Not necessarily waiting and redesigning my raft until it’s perfect, but rather because I couldn’t get very far until an update would send me back…) Cheap shots, I know… I do apologise… :) I still don’t agree that we should expect simple technology without having a clue what made it so simple. If something breaks, you bet I’m gonna try and fix it – I don’t want to buy more of a breakable thing… Anyway…

Therefore the deal to me is this: in the case of Xerte, you are starting with your current knowledge of e-learning, the templates that the super clever folks in Nottingham have built for you, and also joining a growing community of Open Education Resources (OER) creators. In the case of Articulate, you pay for a very cool (and very soon way cooler) application, and you join a community of established industry and education instructional designers whose contributions can make you a top designer, too, in a short while.

Of course, there is nothing really stopping you from using Xerte but getting your instructional design fixes from the Articulate community… apart from your conscience after a little while, that is ;) If you are truly a professional, you will have one. If not, then … then I guess you are part of the reason why the Occupy Wall Street movement started… (deep sigh)

Anyway, I’m signing off now and I’ll be happy to read your reactions. Best thing to do now, if you haven’t already, is to get an account with Xerte and a demo version of Articulate Studio (and Storyline when that comes out soon).

Whiteboards? Tablets? Smart paper? Hmmm… #edtech #uoltech – thanks 2 @oneiseitwopi & @ul_berg

The web is cruel and direct: not writing for two months looks like a nice long holiday. It was in fact the opposite, with 4 presentations at ALT-C 2011 and several new projects at my University. All in good time, though (or just look on your right and you’ll see the links to the recorded sessions ;)).

Last week, thanks to an @ul_berg initiative, I attended a very informative and thought-out presentation by Jill Johnston from the University of Sydney talking about why students still bother to come to lectures even if everything is recorded and available online after the session. It kind of boiled down to students being social beings and lecturers being able to provide a lot of added value when meeting face-to-face as opposed to online.

Yet I’m not going to talk about that, but about something which I found quite amusing. Jill referenced 2 papers as a fun starting point: one from 2000 asking whether the new kid PowerPoint will ever end up replacing the blackboard, and one from 2008 asking whether the new kid Lecture Capture will ever end up replacing the lecturer.

As people were half-smiling around the room but actually taking the second question rather too seriously for my liking, I thought I’d share what one of my colleagues – Steven @oneiseitwopi – had just told me 30min before the session: he is a lecturer in Medicine and a confident and frequent PowerPoint user. Last year he joined in a bit of fun I was having with PaperShow, a smartpen which basically enables you to have a very cheap (about £80 at this time on Ryman) wireless interactive whiteboard that you can walk around with and pass to your audience. What Steven is experimenting with this year is to deliver sessions without any PowerPoint: only with hand-drawn explanations and graphs done live in front and with the help of an audience  by using a smartpen and smartpaper. He’s done this for the last 6 hours of his teaching and, together with a colleague, he sees a lot of excitement and appreciation among their students:

  • the content is covered at a much slower, digestible rate;
  • it almost becomes a story which Wizard Steven is creating under their very eyes and which they can tailor to their needs by asking questions and seeing the answers materialise alongside other explanations.

To me this is so elegant it’s worth giving Steven a hug every day for the rest of his life. However, what it is not quite so, is simple. It looks simple on the outside, but then again so did Steve Jobs’ presentations. Like Steve, Steven prepares thoroughly for his sessions. Unlike Steve, Steven is not afraid to come out of his comfort zone and draw/write live in front of a large audience.

So I wonder: how many people will actually go for something like this? How many people in universities are comfortable using visualisers, interactive whiteboards, and all the technologies that make teaching and learning fun because you’re a bit out of your comfort zone (unless you are a hybrid between one of the animators working for RSA and … you as the subject matter expert)? How many people put their hands up when asked if they like drawing? (not many according to Jay Cross and my heart sinks a little at how seriously we’ve come to take ourselves…)

So where are we? What technology can let us do what we would like to in order to make face-to-face sessions more engaging and effective? Well, we have a few options at this stage:

  • PaperShow is a great wake-up call for those who have become a bit too dependent on PowerPoint. That is not to say that PowerPoint will die – presentations will still need to be given and I think you only need to glance at the work done by Duarte Design, Garr Reynolds and their friends to see why presentation software will still be needed.
  • Prezi is an interesting alternative for folks who would like to do a little bit of something like kinetic typography (but not know they want it) and stick in some videos, too. I saw a very cool example at the ALT-C conference where it was used as a portal to a whole range of other resources – a dude had set a picture of a tree as the background, and all the resources his team were offering were either leaves or flowers depending on their type. Looked neat!
  • tablets are still the way forward for me (not necessarily the Wacom type, but rather the Android/iPad type IMHO), but we’ve still got a little bit to wait until they are as cheap, sensitive and accurate as people want them, and until wireless projection becomes common and folks can walk around annotating, drawing, etc. and sharing (having just mentioned accuracy, I remember seeing an example of an artist using MyPaint on a Nokia 900 – unbelievable!!! and I got this phone 3 years ago :)

For the time being, though, I am off to find Steven and give him a big hug :)

An i-P-a-d and an Android tablet walk into a pub… (#uoltech #edtech)

First of all, apologies for the weird spelling. I just don’t want to get spammed (again) by bots with You-Know-Who related offers :) (that’s even funnier, as I made the mistake of watching Harry Potter recently; fab effects, but it seemed there was no budget left for dialogue… shame…)

So: I had an iPad2 on loan over the week-end. I must say I was getting nervous, so I kept my Android tablet handy just in case I had to counteract an Avada Kedavra move from the iPad (don’t worry, I’ve got better things to do than remember all the HP spells, but Wikipedia doesn’t ;))

I work in education and therefore I didn’t do any taking apart of the hardware to check out where things were. As far as I’m concerned, they all come from the same factory where people don’t make much a day, so that’s not a good start anyway…

Over two days, I have grown to like quite a few apps on the iPad.

  • iTunesU is just mind-blowing. How can rubbish TV continue to get millions of viewers when you can easily find inspirational (and occasionally funny) speakers on iTunesU is beyond me…
  • Popple is a great mind-mapping tool. It isn’t brill in terms of sharing your work (PDF and image by e-mail is pretty much all it seemed to handle, but it was extremely good fun to use).
  • Flipboard is the most beautiful RSS reader I’ve ever seen… I’ve got to say that! The fact that you can stick in a Google Reader account and presto you get your own magazine-style issue with the latest from the people you follow (similar to what paper.li is doing online) is just brill!
  • The Guardian Eyewitness app is both thought-provoking (some very powerful images you can start your lessons with), but it’s also an educational tool (it actually tells you what the settings on the camera had to be, how much time in advance the photographer had to set up, etc.)

I’m pretty sure you’ll find tons of other very cool apps in there (and I have, too, but don’t want this post to be excessively long), but was I ever regretting going for an Android tablet?

  • Yes when it came to missing out on iTunesU (but I guess I could go round the issues by watching the podcasts through an RSS or on my laptop, and there is also hope out there and work-arounds).
  • No, when it came to everything else. Fair enough, everything is pretty and slick on the iPad, but the Android is not so far behind.

First of all, my Android tablet doesn’t fall over when it comes to displaying Flash websites. That’s very important, especially when looking at Open Educational Resources created a while back. Moreover, not being able to quickly check out a Prezi show embedded in a webpage is just silly… I know there’s an app for that, but there’s also a limit to how modular my world is (and it may not be as Apple think…)

So what do I do currently with my Android? I read a lot more, try and keep up to date with the world and my social networks, and I play word games.

  • Pulse is a neat RSS reader. Not as flashy (LOL!) as Flipboard, but very good indeed.
  • the Polaris Office suite that comes free with my ASUS Transformer does the job of editing word files, presentations and spreadsheets very elegantly (ok, some tables are displayed in a bit of a wonky manner, but it’s nothing to cry about)
  • Hootsuite is not as pretty as on the iPad, but does the job of managing my Twitter activity well.
  • the Kindle app is brill! I was a bit low at just having Aesop’s fables to read (although they are superb, I must say), and then I just tried my luck on Amazon to see whether there are any free Kindle books. Guess what! There are tons (and my newly-acquired Don Quixote has just reached the inn at the end of his first day on the road…)
End of the joke (if you can extend your generosity to call it that…)
So: the iPad and the Android tablet walk into a bar/pub :). How do they get a beer? Well, the iPad needs to go to a particular spot (the Dragon Dictation app), ask for the beer, then e-mail the request to the bartender because that app isn’t allowed to talk to many other apps (I know, you are in a way centre stage, but it still feels like you’re in the naughty corner… until uncle Steve lets you out…). All this done, though, it will probably get the most beautifully-designed glass you could ever make if you could be bothered to spend the time.
What about the Android? Well, it will ask for a beer straight away from anywhere in the room (the Google voice recognition engine is built into the Android keyboard – how about that?) and the bartender will hear a request. Now it may not hear the right request, so the Android may end up with a deer, a meer..kat and a … something else, but it will get a beer pretty much at the same time as the iPad. What’s more, it will also have some new friends to talk to (the deer, meerkat and other thing) – but it may find they have little in common (but that’s another story) ;)

Beware of PDF gremlins chopping up your hyperlinks (#edtech #uoltech)

It’s no secret that, although it is not actually true that tech falls on its face when you need it most, when it does, it certainly feels like it. It’s just happened to me while working with Adobe Acrobat Pro.

What was I doing?

Not a lot: I wanted to create a PDF from an MS Word document which had some links in it.

Well, a bit more than that to be perfectly honest:

  • I also wanted that PDF to have several bookmarks to several points of interest in my document
  • I wanted the PDF to show automatically the Bookmarks menu when opened
  • I wanted to include metadata for the PDF: the author, copyright info, etc.

Where did I go wrong?

Well, in looking for all these fancy things, I kind of forced myself into having to use Adobe Acrobat Pro (adding and modifying Bookmarks is super easy, although make sure you also position the bookmarked bit where you would like it to be displayed – e.g at the top, middle, bottom of the page, rather than just place the cursor in front of the text and add a bookmark. Moreover, a quick File/Properties in the PDF gave me access to all the other functionalities I was looking for).

I also thought that, if I were to use some features of Acrobat Pro, I may as well use the same application to create the PDF rather than take the easy way out and use the Word functionality to Save As .pdf. This is where things went downhill.

In one case, in my original MS Word file, the link Text to display was not the same as the link Address (right-click on the link and choose Edit Hyperlink… to access this information). Why? Because the address was rather long…

My Acrobat Pro dealt me two serious blows:

  1. It disregarded the information in the Address area and just copied the info in Text to display across
  2. It converted my dashes in the link to funky codes, thus guaranteeing there was no chance anyone could get to where I would have liked them to be.
Practically:
  1. My original link Text to display was: http://suchadrag.wordpress.com/portfolio/suchadrag-goes-for-a-prize
  2. The link Address was http://suchadrag.wordpress.com/portfolio/suchadrag-goes-for-a-prize/#comment-142
  3. What Acrobat produced was: http://suchadrag.wordpress.com/portfolio/suchadrag%E2%80%90goes%E2%80%90for%E2%80%90a%E2%80%90prize

The fix

Well, apart from recreating the PDFs with the full links, there’s not much to do… the nice folks on the WordPress forum did try to help, but there may not be a lot they could do… Temporarily, I am following their kind advice and have added an additional text box signalling the fact that visitors to my blog may get to a Page-not-found message; I am also telling them where the info they are looking for actually is.

What I will do differently next time

I am still keen on producing bookmarked PDFs (in my experience, having menus on the side does help). I also like this menu of bookmarks to appear automatically for my viewers’ convenience. I also like to be able to add bookmarks in the menu to areas which are not necessarily new headings, but rather important paragraphs. Acrobat Pro allows you to do all of the above with ease.

On the other hand, the integrity of my links is very important to me, too. So I will keep saving as PDF from within MS Word/Open Office to start with. Then I will use Acrobat Pro to add all the other bells and whistles.

Finally, I will try and remember to check every single link rather than a representative sample…

Hope this helps you, too, and saves you a bit of growling and shouting (don’t worry, I did plenty of those for you, too). ;)

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