January 2009 Archives

Zooming in on Elegance: A Classy Flash App

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I just wanted to share an example of a partcularly effective museum Flash viewer from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The exhibition is on European Decorative Arts focusing on the 17th-18th centuries.

If you're familiar with furniture from that era, you'll know that the pieces were very detailed. You really need to get in close to appreciate the artistry - which would require a fairly high resolution image (which would then take up a lot of downloading time and screen real estate). However the MFA uses a nifty Flash viewer to get around the bandwidth and screen problem.

If you click on the Tour button, the Flash viewer opens and it has the standard thumbnails of items to view at the bottom. Click on one to see a closeup. Unlike other museum Flash viewers, this one has two levels of zoom, and you really need them both. Another nice feature is that the thumbnail remains in place but has a red rectangle which you can use to pan to different areas of the close up.

I've seen similar viewers before but this one is particularly well executed. The zooms are really high quality so you can see a lot of detail (check out either the clock or cabinet), and I was amazed at how much detail I could really see. Plus I loved being able to zoom anywhere on the object. Most zooms seem more restricted.

In order to save on bandwidth, I notice that the images pixelate while you're zooming around much like Second Life. I think this really speeds up the movement process so that it's in real time. I feel so totally in control. Sometimes it is the small details that make a difference.

A Team Learning Conundrum

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One of the video vignettes from the Rock Ethics Institute Principles Curriculum is about group ettiquette for student group projects. Although it's "ettiquette" this clip neither shows a loud argument or an initial session to establish operating parameters.

Instead it shows how one of the group members can subtly highjack a project. The specific scenario is that three students - an Anglo male, an Anglo female and an African-American female student are asked to make a joint presentation, but the male student forces through his idea, writes all the slides and categorizes other comments as "stupid" or "I already did that." Not too welcoming.

What's interesting is that the other members realize he's taken over, but aren't sure whether to complain. It's apparent that they feel his work is actually adequate and will earn them a high grade and so wonder what they are really concerned about. Since they are being silent for now, if anything happens later, the dominant student really will wonder what went wrong (it's too bad he's not a body language reader).

And The Problem is....

Actually one student does identify a problem - which is that when one or more students are super dominant in a project, the others do not have the chance to practice the skills they need to learn. Even though the overall product will be fine and not mess up their GPA's, there is a dissatisfaction among the non-dominant members that they did not do more. Not only are they not practicing the research, organization and writing skills they need to learn, they feel almost no ownership in the project. Even if they get an "A", they may just say "Whatever".

I can relate because the same thing happened to me. I was in a group phonetics project (with a romantic couple yet). Even though I volunteered to help, they did all the recruiting, wrote all the test conditions and did most of the digitization. I actually like linguistics, so I actually did want to learn what to do. Fortunately, we had to submit separate results sections, or I might have literally learned nothing for the project. Group projects in linguistics? No thanks.

I think the clip here shows the underlying paradox all team assignments must overcome - how do you gain the benefits of team learning without losing the opportunities for individuals to learn what they need to do?


First, I think it's important to consider WHY team projects are a good idea for a course. I do think a valid learning objective for working on teams is to learn to work on teams (almost all working environments require group skills). Some other ones, like reducing the number of assignments submitted to an instructor, can be more dicey in my opinion. Does it serve the student?

Almost all team learning experts recommend students rate their peers, but is it clear to the non-dominant students that there is a real problem? Suppose the African American student (who is genuinely concerned) makes a comment, but her team member says nothing. The result is that the dominant student may feel that "race" is a factor (Ugh).

I do think that expectations for each person should be drawn up with guidance from the instructor. Many teams assign specific roles to each members, and that can give each person a sense of ownership. A guideline here could be to require roles, maybe an editor, researcher and person to the the jazzy opening/closing. Another might be to require some task from each member (e.g. each person must record one subject so that we all learn how to use the audio equipment).

The Right Learning Space?

We had some ideas about creating appropriate learning spaces for group projects, and here I think the right learning space would be a mini-conference room with a shared screen everyone could see. One problem was that the lounge set up showed the dominant student just working on slides on his laptop and spitting out his comments. Really he was so focused on the slides, he wasn't paying any serious attention to his teammates.

I believe a shared screen would change the dynamics. The whole team could judge the quality of the product. Changes could be shown live. And if another laptop (or iPhone) was in use, someone could even be doing some live research. If you're really brave you can all meet virtually and do it over Adobe Connect (which might be more convenient for everyone). In other words, I think a shared screen would give a sense of shared ownership.

As you can see, I think there are solutions to creating a worthwhile team project. In retrospect, I wish I had been on a good team project. Not only can you make more friends in school, but you CAN learn a lot from your peers if you're in the right state of mind.

Rock Ethics Institute Academic Integrity Vignettes

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Another great resource on plagiarism and academic integrity comes from the Penn Rock Ethics Institute. Like the copyright videos on http://copyright.psu.edu/, the vignettes are video plays which are meant to entertain as well as educate.

A favorite is Plagiarism Vignette is both a warning and an call to research glory - as well as a reminder not to eat chalk when you're excited.

In addition, the site also includes some vignettes on teamwork, another concept students need assistance with. Kudos to the Rock Institute for presenting some realistic team interactions.

Assessing a Logic Course

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This January the ETS team successfully completed a pilot of an online course on symbolic logic and turned it over to Liberal Arts for future maintenance. Now it's time to assess what happened and see if we (or I) learned anything.

We did a survey of the students and it did pull up a few interesting results worth sharing.

  • Over half (55.6%) of the students had taken two or more online courses. One had taken up to four. Online learning is becoming a common part of the Penn State experience.
  • A question dear to my heart was how often video captions were used. Two thirds (66.7%) of the students reported using the videp captions. They were on by default, but it's interesting to note that students were happy to leave them on (and remembered seeing them). Only 7.4% said they weren't aware of captions.

  • The most popular addition to the course? The inclusion of special symbols and templates in the Word homework assignment files. Although the online lecture, videos and quizzes were also appreciated, a simple logistical step can still really help.

We got plenty of other data on communication, course satisfaction and so forth, but it was in line from what I've seen in other online courses.

The course went well, but could use improvements. Like many technical courses there is a balance between presenting enough content to accurately convey the tools of the field but not overloading the students. Many students reported feeling frustrated, but post tests would reveal whether they were just annoyed or really confused.

Fortunately, the students generally reported being satisfied with their interactions with the instructor. That's always a good place to start.

Get your "Plagiarism Today"

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Pardon the cheesy title, but I did want to point out a new blog on plagiarism and copyright I've found recently:


It updates daily and has some great articles explaining different aspects of copyright. A recent favorite is "Five Stupid Questions That Aren't". After reading this, I feel like I might know something!

Need a Free Green Flash Sun Photo ?

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I recently did the copyright & free graphic session of the Winterfest Digital Media Day, with accompanying handout (FindingImages.pdf). I have to confess that images hold a special place in my heart pedagogy wise. As much as I love text, there are times when nothing can replace a visual.

Like text, still images can also be "cheaper" than video or animation especially in terms of the amount of memory needed. But images can be expensive in terms of production especially if you are wanting an image of a relatively rare phenomenon (e.g. a green flash when the sun appears green just at dusk or dawn). It's often cheaper to borrow if you can.

Sun at horizon appearing green
Seriously enlarged image of a green sun on the horizon. Original courtesy of Kai Schreiber. Licensed under Creative Commons

Fortunately, the Web 2.0 world has given us more options than ever for finding legal images. For instance the Wikipedia page on the Green Flash includes a lovely photo donated by Mila Zinkova who licenses under a GNU Free License documentation. Wikipedia is great for finding both donated images and images from the U.S. government which are otherwise buried in opaque search interfaces.

Flickr is another great source. As Stevie Rocco explained in an earlier copyright seminar, the advanced search option in Flickr includes a checkbox for Creative Commons licensed items. Again, you can often good results like this image from Mike Baird.

I can attest to the power of both tools because I had to find an astonishing arrays of photos for thermodynamics including:

I'm really glad we didn't have to send a photographer to all of these locations.

My Weekly iTunes Song of the Week Sidetrip

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One of the few Web 2.0 activities I regularly participate in is the iTunes Song of the Week. In fact I participate so regularly, I would say it's almost like a cult for me. Obviously, I love it for the free music, and frankly I haven't felt so musically hip in years. If you download enough, you will eventually get a free song which later appears in a major cinema soundtrack, a teen show or perhaps the Wegman's background music track.

But it's also very interesting to read the reviews for the iTunes Community (which is fairly large). If nothing else it is a great chance to see how one of the larger "communities" functions in the wild. Sometimes a review will recommend another single which I have already heard somewhere in a TV ad, but have never been able to download. Very informative (and profitable for the recording artists). Peer to peer is definitely king here.

I've also learned that for every new artist I have discovered here, I read at least one review from someone who has seen said artist in Dallas, London, San Francisco or Los Angeles. No matter how "with it" I become with the modern musical trends, I know that there will be someone even hipper. Web 2.0 means learning humility.

Of course, the interesting part of all may be the ratings fights. Do you love it or hate it? Or more importantly - do you love it when everyone else hates it? Based on reviews I have seen, I would have to definitely have to classify the core iTunes Single of the Week audience as being suburban and favoring acoustic driven 90's flavored singer-song writers. If we are on a rap or electronica week, reaction is rarely positive. As a closet urban music listener, it IS frustrating to see how little Turkish/German jazzy electronica is appreciated.

This week, we are back to singer songwriters, but the top review was a 1-star questioning the ubiquity of the singer-songwriter genre. A community rebellion perhaps? We are asked to click "Yes" if we agree, and push the review even further up the rankings. I have to confess that I did click "Yes", but then downloaded the song. It actually seems fairly catchy, and I do like the chance to expand my horizons.