June 2009 Archives

Teaching Ideas for an Interactive Language Map

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I found a good resource for language data in the U.S. based on data from the 2000 Census and an update from 2005. It's a good resource, but how can we maximize it's impact on students? By blogging or class discussion of course!

One exercise I really did was to take took the basic U.S. map showing concentrations of non-English speakers (bluer = higher percentage of English speakers) then asked students to guess which language communities were being represented. In some cases (e.g. South Texas) it was clearly Spanish, but for others in Louisiana and northern New England, the answer may not be as obvious to students (Hint for New England: Some grocery stores have trilingual ATMs - English, Spanish and French, for those near the Quebec border).

The most interesting comment to me was one student saying she wished she knew more geography. But maybe this exercise will help her remember some states better in the future.

You can also have students examine data locally and compare with different regions. I find Los Angeles a good case study because I think a lot of people (at least on the East Coast) associate it only with Spanish and maybe East Asian languages, but there are actually many more including relatively affluent Persian and Armenian communities.

Finally, I would recommend asking people look up the third largest spoken languages in different regions. Overall in the U.S., the third largest is Chinese, but in Pennsylvania it's German and Tagalog (Phillipines) in California. Data could be compiled in Google Docs or in a joint blog, and could then form the basis of a discussion about migration patterns or U.S. linguistic history.

I think a lot of instructors are in the practice of handing out links, but it's really great when you can build an exercise around it. It's a habit I'm getting into more though (I hope).

P.S. I should note that today the map is hanging when collecting data, but Internet speeds have been slow in general...hopefully it's a temporary glitch. If the map isn't working, you can retrieve the raw data by clicking Tabular View

Reimaginging Text as Video

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We had another good conversation in our Faculty Fellow meeting and at one point we talked about video documentation. We know from focus groups that faculty find video projects intimidating, but actually I kind of do also. We've identified lack of skills and lack of rubrics as a possible source of anxiety, but I wonder if storyboarding is another skill.

The truth is that structuring a video is a skill I am not sure about yet. I know how to write a piece of text document and design a decent graphic, but video somewhat eludes me. What angle should I use? What shots will I need? How do I pull it all together?

If I have a set of clips available I am confident I can create a narrative similar to Five Card Nancy - but what if I have nothing? Granted there are a few genres I can replicate such as a grassroots video or a basic screen capture, but I am not sure how to create a compelling docu-drama with multiple shots. It's very new territory for me.

At some point, I probably will pull it all together, but for now it's somewhat of a mystery because it's not a genre I have mastered yet. Ultimately, this is why I would hesitate to assign a video project...although it's a good idea. I'm still more comfortable with a term paper or PowerPoint slide show.

I'm hoping that the case studies will help me with this issue, but I suspect I am not the only one with this dilemma. Stuart commented that few technical writing classes cover video even though it is increasingly a media writers will be asked to produce content for.

Crucial Conversations and Reality TV

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Last week, I completed the last of the Crucial Conversations Training where Lisa reminded us to keep practicing. Fortunately, both my personal and work life provide plenty of opportunity so I am not too worried about practicing.

However another important aspect of learning these skills is observing others. The seminar provided some great scenarios, but I have found another source for video scenarios...reality TV and sitcoms. A lot of the weirder conflicts are actually results of pitfalls discussed in the seminar like making up a story before you find out all the facts or not being sincere. I can now diagnose problems as they arise.

In fact there was a fascinating multi-episode arc from a Bravo TV series where two women (I'll call them B & K) got into a terrible conflict because each was making assumptions about what the other was saying. It wasn't just the ladies involved making assumptions either, but the entire Internet leaving comments all over entertainment Web sites basically saying how they couldn't believe that K could be such a b*tch (villain story anyone?)

However it wasn't until the reunion episode when another women (I'll call her A) actually practiced Crucial Conversation skills (summarizing each person) that all of a sudden people realized that 1) K didn't mean what we thought she meant and that 2) B wasn't a perfect angel. Hmmm. Another insight was that although a lot of fans weren't so thrilled with A...darn it she did make a lot of sense here. Maybe she's not as bad as we thought? It is amazing how often we WANT to tell ourselves a victim or villain story. It can be very entertaining, but also very destructive (I know...I've been the storyteller).

Of course the irony is that if all the people on reality TV really began to practice Crucial Conversations, the ratings would drop like a rock because it would get a lot quieter. However boredom in my personal life is a risk I'm willing to take...but I hope reality TV doesn't catch up too soon. I still need it as a real-world lab experiment.

Web 2009 Accessibility Presentation Files

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Click links below to download PowerPoint file of presentation and PDF file of links.

Why do I Duplicate So Much Documentation?

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I've been on many projects where I spend time rewriting content - both technical documentation and course content. It seems to defy logic because if this content is already created why should another version be needed? Shouldn't a link be sufficient? Are we only doing this because we don't know any better?

Actually I do believe there are rational reasons for this phenomenon of duplicate documentation, even if they are not fully articulated. I think understanding them could help us build models where we can truly build the kinds of community-driven efforts we want.

If I Write It, I Control It

Sounds like a petty copyright but consider - suppose you link to a site and it disappears, what do you do then? Symposium keynote speaker David Wiley had an interesting solution in using the Wayback Machine to link to an archived version, but even that may not be 100% foolproof.

Another issue of control though is consistent format. Some instruction or content may be coming from different sources, but the goal of most editors is to ensure that there is a consistent voice. For instance, the ANGEL docs are written by a group of 15 people, but the format is the same, the images use the same browser and a local goddess of grammar makes sure they are all comprehensible to the general user.

Similarly the Lynda.com online video instruction series maintain a consistent format. Although the content is presented by a number of different trainers on a number of different topics, viewers can generally be sure that 1) the training videos will be segmented into short digestable segments, 2) support files are available and 3) the trainers are going to give a rehearsed presentation. This is very reassuring if you're panicking about an exotic piece of software.

Finally, it should be noted that most do-over documentation is written is for a specific local audience. Back when I was writing blog documentation, I had to make sure that we only referenced utilities we had uploaded, included information on authentication and, of course, how to activate your Penn State Personal Web Space. This kind of customization is what leads to a lot of duplicate documentation.

I Can Do This Better!

A lot of duplicate documentation comes from frustrated users. For whatever reason, the original documentation was either not satisfactory, or maybe not even discoverable. As a result, users re-document the process (so they can perform it later). If they are being generous, they share what they know either via e-mail, a blog or even a second site.

To be honest, users are generally right. I have a case where my information on an ITS tool actually comes from the Biology department. On the other hand...user preferences vary widely, especially depending on experience. One user may want to understand a concept but not care about implementation; another may need to access all the technical details but can skip over the basics.

For instance, a lot of my Unicode doc writing arose out of the fact that what I was finding was written by programmers for other programmers. Or it was written for Windows users, but not Mac users. There was kind of gap waiting to be filled.

Today, an interesting twist is whether a video or a cheat sheet may be desired (maybe it depends on what stage you're at in the project).

Adding a Missing Piece

I think the first two pieces are the hardest to tackle, but honestly what I think most communities are interested in are collecting missing pieces, especially for complex pieces of software like Flash, Photoshop or even Microsoft Office and ANGEL. A program like Flash has a lot of options available, but not even Adobe can experiment with every scenario.

Thus, what happens is that a lot of developers work through problems on their own and then (hopefully) share what they find. Currently this happens through various social networks - large and small. A small scale version is one instructor e-mailing a tip in the same department; on a medium scale information may be shared in a users forum. The largest is probably posting on individual blogs.

The information is available, but very scattered. The question is whether it can (or should) be compiled in a more organized fashion (beyond the Google search). After all, where's the line between creativity and consitency? Who has the time and where is the reward? Are flame wars a possibility? - In some cases yes!

I don't mean to be pessimistic, but these are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed in order for any kind of community to be successful. I have participated in several joint instruction projects/communities ranging from ANGEL docs to serving on an expert e-mail panel. In each case though, I was confident of the rules of the road.

Acessibility Can Be A Designer's Best Friend

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Here's a scenario familiar to many instructional and visual designers - an ambitious instructor (or other non-design savvy professional) creates a product that can only be described as well... hideous, tacky, amateurish or maybe just "needing a little adjustment." The colors may be too bright, the BLINK tag may still be in use, items may be moving randomly or an unusual cursive font may have been selected for the entire page. Or a video may be too long, text too technical for anyone but a graduate student or any number of common beginner mistakes.

The trick has been how to suggest changes without offending the sensibilities of the author. One strategy that can be helpful is to cite "accessibility." Even though there are well-established design principles that should be observed, they can seem subjective unless presented correctly. Accessibility, on the other hand, is becoming more familiar as a legalistic principle a lot of tech people try to comply with. They seem much more objective (while remaining exotic enough for authors to realize that this Web stuff has many facets).

And ironically, a lot of good design principles are also good accessibility principles. The blink tag is bad for people with epilepsy, and low vision users definitely need good (soothing) color contrast as well as standard sans-serif fonts. A lot of usability principles, especially in terms of consistency and structure, mirror recommendations for learners with cognitive disabilities.

Accessibility can also be invoked to explain why some "trick problems" should be avoided or why it's a good idea to provide some additional resources (e.g. PowerPoint lectures/Podcast). You're not making it "too easy" for students, but rather ensuring that diverse audiences are getting a chance to learn.

Of course, there are other ways to disseminate design theory to non-designers, but I am pleasantly surprised at how many instructors are genuinely interested and sometimes pleased to learn how to use accessibility to improve the overall design for everyone.

I would warn that accessibility should be used as a tickler and not as a threat. Although I have fallen into the trap of waving accessibility like a red flag, it really should be used as a yellow caution flag. In most cases, I feel that accessibility principles should be used to improve a product or lesson plan, but not be so cumbersome that innovation is blocked. Accessibility can evolve with technology.

That Text is Too Rich For Me

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There are a lot of tech trends out there to comment on, but one of the sillier, in my opinion, is the tendency for cut and paste to capture formatting as well as text. Capturing format is useful if you are moving a table or a paragraph from one section of a Word document. The same is true for text blocks in Photoshop and bullet points in PowerPoint.

But what about BETWEEN applications? The truth is that it's rarely so useful. Normally I want the data in the string (e.g. the URL or a portion of a Web page); rarely do I care exactly what font or color it's in. Imagine preserving formatting of text from 10 different Web sites in 1 Word document. It's not a pretty sight.

Yet I find myself constantly reformatting text from Web pages in Word, PowerPoint and even in my database (really - who cares about capturing format there?). Even Stickies - simplest text editor ever (virtual Post-it notes for the non-Mac audience) is not safe. I just had to unformat some text pasted from Word. Somehow, allowing formatting into a document now means it will be preserved in the paste operation.

The complaint of wanting consistent text formatting may sound trivial, but it does speed processing of reading if everything is a consistent font. Plus, it's not as ugly.

I do have a solution though - I just open a copy of BBEdit and paste the formatted text there will all formatting will be instantly removed (Yes!) and then copy and paste into the second application. In case you're wondering why I'm wasting a blog post on this...all I have to say is that 5 minutes here is less time than the cumulative time it takes to unformat or move it through BBEdit.