June 2010 Archives

Collaboration: Really Letting Go

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A question a lot of us at Penn State struggle with is how to get buy-in from partners to work with us on our projects. I don't have any magic bullets, but I do have an interesting insight.

In Jan 2009, I became president of our local chapter of the Embroiders' Guild of America (yeah for me). This is an all-volunteer group, so if I don't get buy-in...nothing is happening. For various reasons, I was concerned with a sense of lassitude in the group. Membership had dropped, we hadn't held any community events in a while or even brought in an outside instructor. It's hard to stay motivated if you're not sure buying thread online is a good idea because of the economy. So I really wanted to invigorate the chapter if I could...but how?

As you can imagine, I did come up with a list of ideas, but ironically the best ideas had nothing to do with me. Soon after I became president, a group proposed a workshop in a technique I was not too fond of with someone I was not sure about. But...I could tell that there was a core group of the membership who really wanted this. So I initiated a workshop exploratory committee.

As you may have guessed, we did hold a workshop and it worked out well. Not only did a lot of people attend, but a lot of the group helped in the organization. We got some really good ideas about where to hold it, how to get funding, what to feed people during and where to eat dinner afterwards (one of the few original ideas I actually had). It was a lot of fun...and we're already planning another one (started by someone else).

My lesson was that the collaboration may be more important than the idea. We do have lots of great ideas here at ETS like Media Commons, e-Portfolios and the Educational Gaming Commons, but so do a lot of other folks. Some of our best and most beloved projects have come from suggestions/demands from the "people". For instance, I remember a time when instructors were doing blogs with "extralegal" platforms. We really needed the Blogs at Penn State project to catch up with them, but ETS has made it so much better.

There are lots of ways we can get "our" projects done and that can be a good thing, especially if we want to demonstrate how technology can be transformative (seeing IS believing). But, if we really want partnerships, maybe we need to figure out ways for our partners to tell us what they want. Who knows what they might come up with?

iPad: Accessibility

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In case you've been wondering, Apple did consider accessibility issues when releasing the iPad. There is a built in screen reader you can activate called VoiceOver (or can have a sighted techie activate), an additional zoom feature and "White on Black" which reverses the display colors (useful for some lower vision users).

I would also reiterate that the larger screen enhances accessibility for low vision users, some motion impaired users and users who may need to a holistic view of a text.

But the iPad won't be perfect for everyone. Writer Steve O'Hear notes that some people still won't have enough function for the touch pad interface. The iPad does allow for a keyboard dock, which is also good if you need to type a long report.

I also have to note that I haven't tested Voice Over yet, so I can't comment on its effectiveness. One thing I wish were more available is the ability to change default fonts. There is theoretically the ability to change font settings in some apps, but it's not universal or even easy to find. It can have an impact for legibility (especially when the default font is a decorative handwriting font as it is in Notes).

It's not perfect, but I am glad Apple is paying attention to this issue.

iPad - Bigger is Better

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I was finally able to obtain an iPad this week, and already I am in love with it. I'll try not to overlap too much with comments from my colleagues Jeff Swain, Cole Camplese and other satisfied users.

My main comment is that the bigger screen makes a huge difference in how you function with it in comparison to the iPhone/iTouch. I have been very happy with the iTouch but never felt I could take it it to a meeting instead of a laptop. The iPad is a whole different story.

The larger screen allows me to view a larger list of e-mail, read larger paragraphs, zoom in on tiny logins and type more quickly. Today I was able to look at a Google Doc, then book an appointment on my calendar. I could have done it on my iTouch, but it would have involved a lot more squinting. Yesterday, I was able to quickly check e-mail from my couch and even forward a video link to a friend - much more relaxing than the iTouch squint or the laptop shuffle. And I can look up a table of codes and scan it much more efficiently. Very handy.

A bigger screen also means better photo viewing and video watching. If you have a Flickr set for a class, the students will see much more detail on an iPad than an iTouch. The bigger screen also means that working on a spreadsheet or long text is plausible - assuming you can get the synch to work (coming soon).

And then there are the apps and games. They generally benefit greatly from a larger screen also. With the iTouch, I favored casual games with simpler interfaces, but with iPad I was able to dabble in games with more complex RPGs and shoot-em-ups like Plants vs. Zombies.

The great news is that you don't need to have an iPad version of the game or app to get the benefit of the bigger screen - there's a handy 2x button on the lower right that will let you zoom in on any app. There's some slight pixellation, but I'm not going to complain. A graphing calculator is even better with bigger buttons and larger display screen. So is solitaire.

The iPad isn't going to replace my laptop or even my iTouch. I still need the iTouch for the gym, and I still need the latop for my power apps (Photoshop, Dreamweaver,...) with a physical keyboard for power typing, especially if includes a lot of exotic characters. But it's nice to not have to move the laptop except when I really need the power app. Disconnecting and reconnecting is fairly complex, particularly if a 2nd monitor is involved. Plus, the iPad is much lighter. I can literally stick it into my Vera Bradley bag and take it to a meeting where all I have to do is take notes and look up a Web site. This is the killer app that may finally replace my notepad!

Report on Bamboo Workshop #6

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Last week I attended the Project Bamboo workshop with John Harwood, the senior director from Teaching and Learning with Technology. Project Bamboo (http://www.projectbamboo.org) is a proposed platform for both a social network site for humanities scholars as well as a space to store digital data and access online tools for humanities research analysis.

Penn State TLT staff who would like to read a more formal report of the workshop can access it via the TLT internal blog at https://staff.tlt.psu.edu/node/7428.

Those Kids Today....

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Tony Bates pointed out a new research article indicating that college students are less empathetic today than a few decades ago. Tony Bates is skeptical, and frankly so am I.

Here's my favorite headline:

Today's college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and '90s, a University of Michigan study shows.

followed by

"Many people see the current group of college students -- sometimes called 'Generation Me' -- as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history," said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry.

"It's not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others," O'Brien said.

I had to laugh because back when I was an actual college student in the 1980s, adults were making the exact same complaint about us. After all we were the generation that made Risky Business a blockbuster and brought the classic Yuppie poster "Poverty Sucks". Our teachers were really worried that we were listening to too many hair bands, rap songs and Madonna instead of more meaningful songs like they made in the 60s.

And lest we forget, the generation just ahead of us (the ones who had graduated and were entering business) were discovering fine wine and fine stock options and embracing the hedonistic delights of Dynasty and Dallas. A lot of people were worried about the collapse of civilization.

Today of course, we have reality TV and 24-hour cable, but the truth is I really don't think that much has changed since my college days. Students today are still partying, drinking, wearing inappropriate outfits and watching silly TV, but they're also making snarky comments about what they see and probably doing more charity work than my peers ever did. The 2000s were the Penn State generation that built THON to the largest student philanthropic student organization ever.

A lot of instructors and researchers like to complain about "today's students" or "today's youth," but who are we kidding? College kids have been goofing off for generations - it's, like, part of their job. I suspect that today's youth may even be goofing on the survey a bit (or they got tripped up on a confusing set of survey options with a lot of double negatives).

There can be true generational differences, but I also feel that some things remain the same. I do remember one comment that explained a little about what college is supposed to teach - "You know, The Terminator is really a very good movie." In other words, we are supposed to be having new experiences, even the "stupid" ones, and learning to judge for ourselves.

Some Interesting Foreign Language Games

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I'm at the CALICO conference on using technology with foreign language instruction, and this year, games and virtual worlds are a big theme. There's lots of experimentation with Second Life, custom virtual worlds and role-playing games for foreign language practice.

Xenos

An example of a custom virtual world is Xenos Island (for English as a Second Language). We got a quick tour of this, and although the graphics are not Halo quality, they are still appealing. The island has multiple zones which feature a variety of word games, some single player, but many requiring multiple players. I haven't had a chance to play yet, but it looks like there's a lot there to keep students interested.

Islet (in Development)

Another presentation focused on a product still in development by the military. They are working on some realistic "action games" featuring combat scenarios in Iraqi Arabic and Senegalese French (Africa). Like commercial games, the 3D graphics were spectacular and the music was jamming - but you have to conduct the entire operation (including surveillance of the locals) in Arabic or French.

This is the concept many educational gamers have been dreaming of, but it did raise some interesting quesitons. The goal is to encourage military personnel to practice foreign language skills on their own time, but will it appeal to non-gamers? The speakers noted that they would be developing non-military scenarios (e.g. medical simulations), so they were aware of the issue.

My other question is if the game is making light of a sensitive situation. It's true that we are on combat missions in some of these areas and language skills are critical for success. But the music was just like every other "mindless" combat game. What's the balance between appealing to gamers and being sensitive?

For the record, there are "politically incorrect" foreign language scenarios. It is true that some people in Sri Lanka may have problems distinguishing Americans from Britons (at least that's what my Sinhala text book, written by a Sinhala native speaker claimed). I can also attest that the term "Red Indian" (the kind that live in North America) is alive and well for some Welsh speakers (ByFf/WTF!). Sometimes we need to acknowledge this reality, but there is a fine line.

BTW - One of my favorite foreign language modules were the Austin Police files to train English-only Texans how to deal with the Spanish-speaking population. I admired it for having simulations like pulling someone over for a traffic ticket. With the passing of the Arizona immigration law, tensions are higher than ever, but it is still a situation that will happen for legitimate reasons. At times like this, I can only hope there's a counterpart training scenario for how to deal with deal with drunken English speakers on vacation in Canún...just saying

And then there's Façade

Speaking of uncomfortable situations, none is more painful than the ones presented in this simulation of a young couple you are visiting for drinks. If you ever wanted to simulate being in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? this is the game for you.

In this game, you are invited to visit a college buddy Trip who is married to Grace. As you approach their apartment, you overhear them arguing (the script varies). Fortunately, they welcome you in, but after a few minutes, the situation begins to derail (again with some variations). It's up to you to keep the party going, and you can choose to smooth the waters or add heat to the fire. See some examples below.

There are obvious applications for both counseling and language use (not to mention learning to script randomized scenarios), but the truth is that most are playing this for the entertainment value (kind of like Grand Theft Auto). This is also a reality we need to acknowledge.

Expression Web Roundup

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This week I've been playing with Microsoft Expression Web, the successor to FrontPage. The good news is that I would recommend it, especially if it means you will stop using Front Page. I still see a lot of TWT portfolios using Front Page, and yes there are recurring Mac glitches.

Basic Review

Although I will still be using Dreamweaver as a primary editor, I am comfortable recommending Expression Web as a good solution for many people, It is cheaper than Dreamweaver, and its interface is more similar to Microsoft Office (a major appeal of Front Page over Dreamweaver).

However, the code it generates is superior over Front Page. It is 1) cleaner, 2) standards based especially in terms of formatting which is CSS based and most importantly 3) more browser neutral. The interface is somewhere between Dreamweaver and Microsoft Office, so that newer users may be a little more comfortable, but power users can generally find the tools they need.

Unicode Review

Again, Expression Web does much better here than FrontPage. My major complaint with FrontPage in terms of Unicode was that it defaulted to the vendor-specific encoding win-1252. Surprisingly Mac supports this to some extent, but it led to all sorts of display glitches, especially for "exotic" punctuation such as smart quotes and en/em dashes, all of which were conveniently inserted by Word (the source of a lot of FrontPage text).

Expression Web is now Unicode by default, although you can adjust encodings if you need to. It also has a fairly straightforward way to insert the LANG and DIR attribute, and an Insert Symbol tool which is superior to Dreamweaver's

I did have two complaints

  1. The default font in code view is Courier which doesn't incorporate a wide range of Unicode characters. You can have HTML looks fine in WYSIWYG mode but displayes as question boxes of death in code view. Fortunately you can switch the code font to something like Arial Unicode MS.
    BTW - Dreamweaver supports font switching in code view (at least on the Mac). As long as a font is available, the code will show a character.
  2. My other complaint is from Expression Web 2 in which Language tagging was directly tied to the keyboard you were using (by default). However, I was testing keyboards and managed to set my language tag to Greek for the entire doc...before I even typed anything in. Yikes. Interestingly, this option disappeared in the most recent version (good thing).

In terms of Unicode support, I would definitely recommend Expression Web although my heart still belongs to Dreamweaver. That doesn't mean Dreamweaver couldn't use a few tweaks though (I still tend to enter a lot of Unicode info by hand...just saying).

Accessibility

The one area Expression Web fell short for me was in terms of accessibility.

One of the things I love about Dreamweaver is all the tools which allow developers to enter quirky accessibility features in WYSIWYG mode. Insert an image and you are asked for an ALT tag. Insert a form field and you are asked for a LABEL tag, and the TABLE tool lets you quickly generate TR tags.

Not so with Expression Web. It does prompt you to enter an ALT tag for images (an improvement), but that's pretty much. If you want LABELs on FORMs or TRs with SCOPE on a TABLE, then you have to do it by hand. This is so much more tedious, the temptation is to skip it to the end...and you know what happens then - nothing.

An interesting accessibility tool is i-Map Creative Access from the Tate Museum in Great Britain.

Basics

In this project, select pieces of art from their collection has been additionally annotated for visually impaired audiences. The site includes an image, an extensive description of the image ("Orientation") - a feature that can be added to most descriptions of visuals.

In addition though, there are two options depending on the severity of your visual impairment. For those with near total loss of vision, there is an audio tour (with transcription) as well as a PDF of the images which are meant to be printed on a printer which supports embossed Braille and raised images. The site also supports a menu to switch between normal, large text and hi-contrast view.

For low vision users, there are some animations such as this animation of Matisse's The Snail The images are in Flash, but there is keyboard support and text external to Flash. Very interesting to view actually

Gap in Usability

I would recommend this site, but there is one accessibility gap - the one for usability. For some reasons the PDF file for the raised image is separate from everything else. In fact there is one document which has the Braille and images for the entire set of annotated images.

I really fail to see the benefit of one document separated from everything else. For one thing, it's simple to split a PDF into multiple docs, even if all you have is the PDF. For another, it is very confusing to gather everything together for a single piece of art.

I would really prefer to see everything relating to the piece on one page - image, description, audio and PDF. I would also love to see it integrated into the regular collection with maybe an iMap icon for those pieces with the extra annotation completed. The animation, in particular, would be valuable for sighted visitors since they separate and describe the components of the art very well.

Accessible, but Not Universal

Although this is a fabulous project with great lessons to be learned, I am heartbroken about the lack of usability and lack of universal design. This kind of navigation where the "accessibility" features are split off is counter to the concepts of universal design where everything is integrated in one place and available to all.

it's also the kind of design that scares people new to accessibility who think accessibility is a second site, not one site with a few extra features.

It is possible that iMap is a demo, which is why it is split off. But it could also be a project whose funding has run out and dropped off the radar in terms of maintenance. I really hope I am wrong.