March 2010 Archives

Living in Grayscale

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There are a variety of color blindness testers, but a new one from A List Apart is Nocturne, a free Mac app which allows you to quickly disable color on your monitors, add tints or even invert the colors of your monitor.

In fact, I'm writing this blog entry in grayscale mode right now. Cool!.

In terms of accesibility, gray scale is recommended as a way to sense how well a Website will perform in terms of contrast and color blindness, which also relies on contrast. While it's good to see how your Websites check out (most are usable) and how Madonna looks in black and white (awesome of course), I found the real challenge was in doing something playing a video game.

So, I experimented with playing a version of Bejeweled in black and white because you have to rely on color so much. Result: Total nightmare!. Although I'm able to decipher static icons and menus and enjoy Youtube videos, the result for the game was a major meltdown. It moves very fast, and some of the shapes are quite similar - it was really hard to distinguish the spherical jewels from the hexagonal jewels and the octagonal jewels. The hue really is the major cue here.

Screen shot of Bejeweled - gird is filled with colored gems of different shapes

Screen cap in black and white

Inverted mode was also interesting. The play was easier, but a some of the colors inverted to similar shades of blue. This is similar to the problem most color deficient viewers have - they can see colors, but not all of them. Colors which contrast vividly for us, particularly red/green, are just similar shades of yellow or brown for this audience.

Screen capture - colors inverted

So for me, the main lesson is that color deficiency is not a huge challenge (obviously), but there can be an impact in speed if shapes are not distinct enough. Fortunately, I think most color deficient folks have had a lot of practice compensating.

Good Example of Keyboard Support for Motion Impaired Users

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Few interactive modules appear to incorporate support for motion impaired users, but I found one from the British Museum that does (at least in part). One of their educational modules is a virtual recreation of an Ancient Greek theater.

It's similar to a Quicktime VR in that you can rotate left or right to see different views of the theater. You can do it with the mouse, but the site also announces you can use the left arrow or the right arrow keys. It's not perfect though, you can't "touch" objects without the mouse (even showing a cursor that you could move around with keys might help).

I'm sure you could find other areas to improve accessibility, but it's nice to see that they were thinking about it, especially in a Flash module.

UCLA Student Tutorial on Copyright & Plagiarism

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UCLA has a nice student tutorial on copyright, plagiarism and organizing research tasks at

Good information, but accessible. Plus you can see how Carlos and Eddie navigate the modern academic maze.

I like it so much I'm double posting!

Achiever vs. Explorer Learning

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A recent gaming concept I became acquainted with was Bartle's playing modes which include socializing, dominating, achieving and exploring. I was able to rule myself as a socializer (more solitaire please) and a dominator (as much as I like a good flame war, I try not to start one).

But that left exploration and achievement...which I do like, but rarely at the same time. Although I enjoy both modes, I think they contradict each other somewhat for me. To be really simplistic, I associate achievement mode with "school" and exploring learning with "research."

When I am in achievement mode, I want it to be structured, have clear goals and guidelines and to be efficient. I want to know just the information I will need to achieve the goal (an A, a certificate, a passing score, whatever). Rewards are definitely more extrinsic, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy the process. I really do enjoy learning "stuff", but I will confess to being impatient if I don't pick it up quickly. I also tend to be more "instructor oriented", that is I want to know what the INSTRUCTOR thinks is important to I can give the "right answer." In one sense, I treat school as a bit of a game, and I know I am not alone.

But achievement mode is different. I am happy to have a structure (preferably one I decide on), but am happy to wander off the beaten path. The one thing I am not to happy about having is either a score or a timeline. Yes, I want to know what others think, but want to be free to form my own judgment, regardless of any other opinion. And if I decide something leads to a dead end, I want to be free to drop it. So...although I enjoy achieving in academics, it is difficult for me to enjoy exploring in academics. The guidelines are much fuzzier and the stakes for being "wrong" seem much higher. And again, I don't think I am alone in this thought.

Let's compare and contrast.

Achieving Wants Exploring Wants
  • Instructor oriented
  • Extrinsic rewards
  • Clear grading rubric
  • Clear goals
  • Clear information, stick to topic and clear "rules"
  • Insight into instructor mindset
  • Self oriented
  • Intrisic rewards
  • Create rubric, structure
  • Freedom to deviate
  • Freedom to drop experiment/research
  • Mentoring only upon request

Ironically though, exploration probably leads to more meaningful learning for a student. A student learns a lot by pursuing his or own interest, but probably needs some mentoring at some point to make sure the results are "on track". But how can we convince students to take the chances you need to take to switch from "achieving" to "exploring?"

I think this something a good mentor needs to help students with. I distinctly writing my first undergrad thesis. There was a theoretical point that I knew my advisor disagreed with so I was trying to tip toe around the issue. I finally asked what he "wanted", and he replied that he wanted me to spell out what it was I really thought - so I did. Fortunately, he really meant what he said and approved the text based on my argumentation.

I was a lot more confident doing the same thing after that. It's a tricky point to navigate though as both a student and a mentor. But it's critical to helping students really becoming more comfortable "exploring" in the classroom rather than just "acheiving."

iMix for Fun & Non-Profit Learning

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Offering Cheap and Legal Files

An issue that comes up in some classes is how to legally license music files for classes in foreign language, history/sociology or music. Traditionally instructional designers have recommended services such as ITS Streaming or one of the digital audio archives from the University Libraries. The disadvantage of streaming is that a student must be connected to the Internet. Additionally there may be some loss of audio quality because the file must still fit in a certain bandwidth.

A second alternative is the Penn State iTunesU service which allows students to download podcasts from specific courses. The quality issues are gone because it's a download, but there are still murky legal issues for downloading commercial songs and videos. While the TEACH Act allows streaming from password protected sites, it does not strictly allow downloads.

The iMix (Custom iTunes Store Album)

A third option which can solve some of these problems is an instructor-created iMix or a custom album created within the iTunes Store. For example, suppose you wanted to show how and R&B music can used for social commentary or share different genres of Spanish language music with your students. An instructor can legally play the music in class and stream it through ANGEL, but if the instructor wanted to provide students the chance to listen to lyrics repeatedly, some sort of "album" would be needed for students purchase.


In the past, textbook publishers would license compilation albums, but instructors may not have had as much flexibility in selecting material. Now an instructor can create a custom iMix and give the title to students for them to download. There is a cost to students - about 99¢ to $1.29 per song. But now students can buy the whole album or only the songs he or she really feels are necessary. It's also environmentally friendly in that students download digital media instead of using yet another plastic CD.

Best of all is that licensing issues are neatly dodged - an iMix provides a quick and legal way for instructors to access the fairly extensive iTunes library (which does include Welsh hip hop) and select the best titles for the course. Since students are buying from the iTunes store, instructors can be assured that the music publishers and artists are getting a proper share of the revenue. It also avoids any sort of media duplication and storage issues that would normally be a nuisance.

And...students may even decide to buy other music or podcasts from a particular artist. Who knows? The nice (and dangerous) thing about the iTunes store is how easy it is to branch out and find more titles.

FYI - Textbook publishers are using this already. I got this idea from viewing a French language iMix from Heinle.

Quick iMix How To (iTunes 9)

These instructions are for iTunes version 9. As an instructor you need to:

  1. Download the iTunes application and open an account.
  2. Check the iTunes store for music titles you want then purchase titles. They will all be stored in the Music section (accessed through the Music in the left list.
    Note: Do not import from a CD. If you import songs from a legal CD, you will likely get an error when creating the iMix.
  3. Create a playlist (File » New Play List) and give an appropriate title.
  4. Click the Music section and drag songs into the new play list in the order you like.
  5. To reorder songs, click the top of the number column then drag song titles up and down as needed.
  6. To create an iMix, highlight your playlist, then go to the Store menu then Create an iMix (Store » Create an iMix...). Click the Create to show that you understand that the playlist will be displayed in the iTunes Store, log in to your iTunes, then click Publish.
  7. You will see an information screen for the new album. Add notes and change the title as needed, then click Publish again.

iMix information page

Wait A few Days to Access...

Your iMix should be approved and published within a few days. To access it and get the link, do as follows.

  1. Open the iTunes application, and go to Store » View my Account. Login with your iTunes account if necessary.
  2. On your Apple Account Information page, click the Manage iMixes button. In iTunes 9, it's in the middle of the page.
  3. A list of published iMixes appears. Click the link for the iMix you wish to review. It will open the iMix in the iTunes store window and show a list of prices.
  4. To email a link to yourself or your students, click the Tell a Friend link to the right. The link will be at the bottom of the message sent out. The link for the one iMix I have created is
  5. To find the embed code for your blog, click Publish to the Web. The next window will include a preview and the embed code in a box to the left. The image of the iMix above is actually from an embed code.

Some Use Cases

The iMix may be appropriate for these scenarios

  • Foreign Language - to listen to non-English music
  • Music courses - many genres are represented in iTunes
  • History & Political Science courses - to hear music from a specific era, including rock and roll classics. iTunes also includes satiric artists such as Tom Lehrer.

Possible Disadvantages

Because no tech is perfect, I will note some disadvantages

  • Not everything is on iTunes, and if a song cannot be purchased in iTunes, then it cannot be included in an iMix.
  • On a related note, you can't mix iTunes U.K. and iTunes U.S., and yes there is material available at iTunes U.K. (or other non-U.S. iTunes) that are not available in the U.S. store.
  • Students must have access to an iTunes account, and an iTunes account requires someone to have a valid U.S. credit card number.
  • All songs in an iMix may need to be purchased from the iTunes store. Imports from a CD cause an error. Fortunately, instructors usually only need to buy the specific titles needed from any one album.
  • Can one student buy the iMix then share with his or her friends? Of course, but there are some limitations into the iTunes system to minimize the ease of file sharing.

Link Between Cut/Paste Plagarism & Student Clulessness

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Although most students realize that submitting someone else's paper as your own is plagiarism (and a major academic violation), a joint study from Swarthmore College and University of Michigan indicates they may not realize that cut and paste plagiarism is also a violation.

In a recent study conducted by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob, students are given an essay writing assignment, but split into two groups. One is assigned a plagiarism tutorial which also covers cut and paste plagiarism while the other is not. Dee and Jacob report that assigning the tutorial "substantially reduced the liklihood of plagiarism."

Penn State has several plagiarism tutorials available including:

Role of Small Projects in the Educational Tech Ecology

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A question that comes up frequently in ETS is what sorts of projects we should take on. I think it's a given that supporting university-wide services such as ANGEL, Blogs at Penn State, and Media Commons is crucial.

So is supporting projects for large-enrollment courses such as STAT 200, SPANISH 1-2-3, ENGL 202C, BIO 12/4/2 and so forth. It's great when one project can affect improve education for hundreds of students.

But what about smaller projects? Should the still have a place in ETS? You probably won't be surprised that I do think we should consider projects for smaller courses in some cases. Although large-scale projects are extremely important, I do think there are lessons that can be learned from smaller-scale projects.

  1. Smaller projects allow for experience with non-scalable tech. A lot of of the newer technologies don't scale first. Yet if we try them with smaller student populations, we might get more experience with them and be more prepared for when the tech hits prime time.

  2. Larger classes have more resources. The Spanish Basic Language Program transition to online learning has been a stunning success...but it relies on a dedicated tech-support person to support it across all the sections and instructors. Few small courses will ever have anything approaching this level of support. I think we all know this subconsciously, but if we at ETS only deal with large courses, we can be lulled into thinking a typical instructor has more resources than is really available. Been there, done that.

  3. Small classes provide good examples of how to use technology. When I am looking for examples of how to use a new form of technology in different ways, it usually comes from a smaller class and an instructor who has tried it out on a smaller scale.

  4. Advanced classes are smaller classes and advanced classes usually have more higher order learning goals. Although it's important for ALL classes to include chances for reflection and analysis, sometimes it's the case that a student won't have the prerequisite skills or knowledge to perform at the highest learning objectives - that may come in a later semester (in a smaller class). More advanced classes may also require interesting tech that a lower-level class may not need...yet.

  5. Most classes at Penn State are smaller classes. They may not have the TA's or even the podiums to use. How can these classes all be improved? The Teaching Learning Assistant program is a large-scale program that can help many instructors, but it assumes a limited tool set and limited use of the set. Experimentation may or may not be possible.

The list above explains why I think it's nice to have smaller projects in the mix, but even I would admit that we still have to be careful on how to maximize our bang for the buck. I do think it's important to consider 1) How outcomes can be shared, 2) How to encourage instructors we work with to share within their department/college and especially 3) Templatizing new tech. If we build an innovative quiz, media exercise, game or presentation format for one instructor, can we expand its range for other disciplines? Interesting issues to ponder.

I will share one resource sharing story that surprised even me. Several years ago two of us at ETS worked on an animation for the heating of supercritical fluids At the time, it sounded fairly obscure and I admit that the instructor had to spend quite a bit of time explaining the concept enough to us so that the team could get it built. But...lo and behold, several years later, the concept re-emerged at a different campus in a different course in a required course for a large group of engineers. The second instructor was quite happy to see that we had this animation available.

Although it was one specialized really did have the potential to impact more students than we would have guessed.