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Desire2Learn Impressions from Annual Conference

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Two weeks ago, I was asked to attend to attend the annual Desire2Learn (D2L) Fusion conference, partly to scope out their accessibility initiatives, but also to get some impressions of their product and corporate culture. My main comparison of course is my previous experience, including their pre-Blackboard ANGEL conferences, but I have also had some experience with Blackboard and WebCT.

The short summary is that I was very favorably impressed on a number of levels for reasons I will share below. Any company is hoping to put their best foot forward at these events, but I was surprised to see how much the D2L folks understand the needs of higher education, including our jaded cynicism.

Commitment to Pedagogy

A theme running through the conference was a fairly significant commitment to supporting modern pedagogies. Not only is D2L investing resources into portfolio tools, analytics, social media and mobile learning, but they are also committed to helping us understand the tools. For instance, the staff used the portfolio tool to share files and sponsored a portfolio contest, plus they developed a mobile app for the conference which gave attendees experience using it.

Unlike other conferences, almost half the sessions were conducted by the staff to help train attendees in the various D2L tools and many were hands on. I thought that was very helpful for institutions and instructors new to the LMS. The other half showcased best practices and advanced tweaks in a good way as well, and many of these were conducted by various institutions.

They also had an excellent keynote from science writer Johan Lehrer who had some interesting information on neurology and the cognition of the "a-ha" moment. Any conference with a good keynote is a good conference for me.

Commitment to Accessibility

A pressing concern for the CMS team has been accessibility, so I was interested to hear what the D2L folks had to say. Again, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much the corporate culture had embraced the issue. For instance, they were willing to demo a course in a screen reader and encouraged us in the session to take a test spin...with a blindfold. They also gave a good session of how to review and adjust content with the ever popular HTML editor.

The company also brought in experts such as Karen McCall to provide sessions on accessifying Office documents (still the source of the majority of our content in resident instruction).

For the record, I know Blackboard is also committed to accessibility and that both companies have NFB (National Federation of the Blind) certification. But I appreciate that D2L is using the accessibility challenge as a way to understand and improve the experience overall and not just as a way to meet legal guidelines.

Answering Pesky Questions

One thing that any vendor working with higher education should know is that there are a lot of people available to ask pesky detailed questions...often in public. I have been one of them from time to time. But the D2L staff was ready, even with the difficult transition questions. The presenters were generally able to provide specific details and were candid when something wasn't as perfect as one could hope for.

This was a lot more believable than some vendor presentations who presented everything as a turnkey solution. They often weren't.

I also learned a bit about their support structure and was interested to learn that schools worked with project specialists who specialized in finding solutions for different educational scenarios. They sounded somewhat like instructional designers to me, and that's a handy expertise for an LMS company to have. I don't know how this would play out for Penn State, but it would be different from ANGEL interactions, which are generally positive, but do not necessarily include a whole lot of instructional design type discussion.

Any Drawbacks

Unfortunatley, it's hard for me to comment on the tool very much, but I do know the interface won't be like ANGEL. That doesn't mean it's a bad interface, but unfamiliarity is something to consider when planning a transition. You may be able to do the same things or more, but not necessarily in the same way.

For instance, there are lots of ways you can tweak D2L, much as you can tweak Drupal into a multitude of experiences. Tweaking though does require a willingness to dig into the technology. This is great for online course shops, but it's important that any tool still remain accessible to a harried resident instructor. On the other hand D2L will have integration with Adobe Connect and other products. That would be very interesting in of itself.

I have to admit that I wouldn't mind seeing D2L come to campus. It's made me excited about the LMS and that's something I haven't felt or seen in a long time.

Create UMG (User Management Group) for PSU Course

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The UMG utility is a good way to manage access to certain Penn State online tools such as protected blogs. For instance, the UMG allows you to connect a protected blog to a course roster which updates itself automatically. Details about UMGs can be found at http://kb.its.psu.edu/node/1010

However, you have to first activate the UMG before it can be used, and while the process is easy, it's not entirely transparent...so I thought I would blog it.

Activate UMG for a Course

  1. Log in to https://umg.its.psu.edu/
  2. Click Course Groups on the right.
  3. Select an appropriate course from the menu. The menu should be pre-populated with any course in the current semester that you are an instructor of record for.
  4. Click Submit and the UMg will be created for you. The UMG will automatically be assigned a name based on campus, course and section numbers (e.g. "umg/course.up.ling497b.001")

Create Protected Blog

  1. Log in to http://blogs.psu.edu and create a blogs following instructions on http://kb.its.psu.edu/article/1315
  2. On the Blog creation screen, make sure check the Protected option
  3. When you create the protected blog it will be stored in your personal PASS space and only be accessible to you. You will have to link it to the course UMG to give students to view it.

Connect UMG to Protected Blog

  1. Log in to https://protected.personal.psu.edu/ or go to https://www.work.psu.edu/, then click Manage Protected Personal Web Space in the left menu.
  2. In the Protected Web Space area, click Access Control Manager Wizard in the left menu.
  3. On the next screen, click the plus sign next to the blogs folder icon.
  4. Click the directory name of your protected blog (e.g. "ling497b"), then click the Next button.
  5. Check the option "Restrict access to blogs/... using Access Account userids," then click the Next button.
  6. Check the option "Restrict access to blogs/... using class lists, roles and/or groups.," then click the Next button.
  7. A list of activated UMGs from all semesters will be displayed. The list may also include lists based on your work units. For each course, a UMG for owners and admins will be created alongside the main UMG.
  8. Select the appropriate UMG (e.g. "umg/course.up.ling497b.001") in the left hand text box, then click Add, then click Next). You should see a summary of the permissions for that blog.

Note: Although the roster of the UMG is automatically updated, you can also add grant permission to individual users to a protected blog or UMG by adding user names. The protected blog can also be assigned to individual FPS accounts.

Google Culturomics Overview

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A topic which got some mild buzz in both the linguistics community and the Star Wars community is the Google word frequency tool they have been publicizing. For one linguistic view, see my Linguist in the Wild blog entry - Culturomics meets Darth Vader.

Headphones...On a Phone

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This week I tested a piece of equipment I've been curious about...headphones which plug in to my phone. I tested it when I used the phone to call in to Monday's NMC Adobe Monday's meeting. It was very easy - plug in the jack (which looks like a phone jack), activate the "headphone" setting and dial away.

It's the 4th set I own (in addition to the ones on my speakers, the one on my iPod and the one to Breeze)...but I'm really glad I asked for them.

Since I was on a telephone, the sound was very good, and I didn't have to reserve a conference room. This can save space for those webinars only I will be attending or ones where I can't make the central conference room because of back to back meetings. The one thing I missed was the back chatter with my colleagues, although I did run into someone away from UP in the regular chat room (small world some days).

The classic use for the headphone is to free the hands and prevent neck creak. They could be handy for long phone consultations. I have fond memories of sales managers pacing the halls with phone headsets. It probably saved the life of a difficult customer.

I know our Cisco phones vary in features, but if yours has the "Headset" button or a headset jack in the back, then it could be an option.

Electronic Reserves: An "Unglamourous" But Successful Service

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Electronic Reserves - a University Libraries Service in which instructors request library content for their courses to be digitized and made available online to students. A few of these documents may be streamed music or online images, but truthfully most are PDF files.

Around 2003, I worked with the Libraries and the Penn State ANGEL Programmers to conceptualize and implement a nifty ANGEL utility - an ANGEL Reserves tool which lets students jump straight from their ANGEL course to the correct course Reserves without a second login and course search.

This tool may not sound as exciting up front as some other technology options, but I am proud to say that this is one service that has stood that the test of time. Despite minimal marketing (at least from ITS), the tool is still being used in over 600 360+ courses in Spring 2008 (or 700+ courses/year) across 19 campuses. Electronic Reserves is also one of the tools I can guarantee that I will use in just about every course I teach.

Connecting Electronic Reserves to ANGEL solves a lot of problems for instructors. Not only can students go to just one location, but copies will be legal 99% of the time (for instance, I may be able to link to a pre-existing image from the CAMIO image database which Penn State has purchased access to). On the other hand, because ANGEL is password protected, there is potential for TEACH Act leeway for at least a semester. And Electronic Reserves saves file space on the ANGEL because files are really hosted at the Libraries. It's almost a .... mashup?

So although the ANGEL Electronic Reserves is a fairly small scale utility, it's one of the projects I am very proud to have been associated with. It looks like just another way to link to a PDF file, but really it introduced me to the world of the mashup, service integration and the single signon portal.

I just wonder what Electronic Reserves will be connecting to in another five years.

Create a Comic Strip

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We've seen courses, especially social sciences, in which students are sometimes asked to write scenarios. Maybe it's a vignette on a diversity issue or maybe you might be asked to write a script the miniseries on Balboa's discovery of the Pacific.

In any case there's a new tool - http://www.makebeliefscomix.com/comix.php where students can create comic strips. In this tool, students can select a cute character (animals and humans), then write out dialogue or thought balloons. It could be useful for elementary video storyboarding. Interesting premise.