where the wild (spammy) things are

Wordfence automatically blocks IP addresses that repeatedly attempt to brute-force logins on UCalgaryBlogs. After a few attempts, they aren’t able to try again for a few minutes (in case it’s a legitimate person trying to log in, it doesn’t banish them entirely right away). If they knock it off, the ban gets lifted. If they keep hammering, the ban gets escalated, eventually putting them in a permanent penalty box (identified by their IP address – not perfect, but it’s all we have).

wordfence-countries-report
Blocked logins by country, August 8-22, 2016

I was half tempted to just drop the ban-hammer on the entire country of Russia, but we have students there (and I wouldn’t want to anger Putin or his tiny-handed American mouthpiece). The US? Buffalo appears to be one of the biggest sources of spam bots – colocated servers (compromised? rented by spammers?) are a big chunk of the attacks we get.

Collaboration station demo

The Taylor Institute has 5 learning studios, designed for active and collaborative learning. People who are using the space have access to some great technology to support their work, including 37 “collaboration stations” (we really need to come up with a better name for those…).

Here’s a quick-ish demo of the basic functionality provided by the stations, recorded using the lecture capture system built into the learning studios.

Technologies mentioned and/or used in the video:

we made it

I’m still amazed at how intense the last several months have been. The Taylor Institute construction was completed, the AV systems were installed and integrated, and an seemingly endless series of high profile events have taken place. The past 6 months have been by far the most intense, high stress, high energy, high profile, and chaotic that I’ve ever experienced. And we’re currently on the last major event for awhile.

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Each of these items is an epic event, taking weeks or months of planning. Each has taken 100% of our attention, and we’re learning about life in a world-class teaching-and-learning research facility. But, I’m looking forward to the end of Congress 2016, which is the last major event for awhile1. REDx is the last #congressh2016 event in the Taylor Institute (aside from a tour that I give on Friday, but that’s trivial), and we might actually be able to relax and enjoy the event.

The biggest thing I learned, or had reinforced because I already knew it, was that the Taylor Institute team is absolutely fantastic. An extremely creative, passionate, interdisciplinary team where everyone works incredibly well together to do amazing things. I can’t wait to see what everyone is able to do, once we’ve recovered from this insanely busy High Profile Event Season, and we can all focus on our our jobs again.

Whew. We made it. It’s been one hell of a year so far. Looking forward to things settling down a bit, and then to playing with instructors and students to try some fun things with learning technologies and spaces for the rest of the year.

  1. the next major one I’m aware of is a learning technologies symposium which I will now be able to start planning, targeting late 2016 or early 2017. More to come on that front… []

on untethering

I’ve been without work email for almost a week, as a result of a rather large-scale malware incident that took many systems on campus offline. Many folks in IT have been working around the clock to restore hundreds of computers and systems, and I’m thankful for their efforts. It’s a heroic, thankless task, and they are likely getting some steam from people despite the fact that they’re working flat-out to resolve this.

But, it’s given me a chance to think about things. Having no email or calendar for nearly a week. Initially, I was really freaked out. I basically live in email. Everything is in there. It’s my living archive of things I need to remember, and I’d expected to be paralyzed without it. And my calendar has become my only way to cope with the constant stream of demands on time. If it’s not in my calendar, it doesn’t exist. Often, I’m booked solid all day every day, for the next couple of weeks1.

And, we are legally restricted from using non-university-provided email or calendar tools because we need to comply with data retention policies so that things like FOIP requests can be handled. If I spun up a separate work email/calendar account, FOIP requests wouldn’t have access to those, and there would be no institutional record.

So. No email or calendar for a week. And it’s been awesome. I still find myself occasionally checking email, but largely, I’ve been actually talking to people more, or texting, or using other channels as needed. And I feel like I’ve been more productive, less stretched-too-thin.

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I need to learn from this. I’ve given email and calendar so much power that I’m basically just along for the ride. A robot, following the algorithm generated by the Exchange server. Be here at this time. Do this thing. Answer this question. Then go to this place at this time. I feel like I’d lost some autonomy, some control, some flexibility, although I was busy. So busy.

“How’s it going?”

“Oh. You know. Busy. So busy!”

“Yeah. I know what you mean.”

“Can’t talk. Gotta go! Busy!”

Yeah. I don’t want to be That Guy™. I need to untether, even after I get a shiny new email account this afternoon.

The other thing that happened this week – my Wahoo RFLKT bluetooth bicycle display died. It connects to Cyclemeter on my phone to show data (time/speed/distance/average speed/whatever), and I’ve loved it. But I’ve been riding without any live data this week. I still record the data using Cyclemeter on my phone, but I can’t see the data while I’m riding.

Again, I expected to be twitchy without the constant feedback. But, again, it’s been awesome. I feel more relaxed. I’m enjoying the rides more. There’s something about not having a constant stream of data running in the background. I don’t know how fast I’m going. Or what time it is. Or how late I am. I just focus on riding.

So. I’m thinking a lot about untethering. The data is still very important to me – for the bike, it’s motivating to have a record of the rides – for email, it’s how people communicate2. But I’ll be trying to take back some of the power I’ve given it.

  1. in a rolling event horizon – more than 2 weeks out, and the calendar is pretty empty, but booked solid for the next 2 weeks – which makes it super-fun to try to accommodate last minute, even urgent, requests []
  2. still, in 2016, email is the common platform. We use other tools, but everyone uses email []

on digital posters at an academic conference

Poster sessions are an important part of any academic conference – providing a way for researchers (including both faculty and students) to share their research in a format that supports describing methods, discussion, and results as well as fostering discussion about the project. Normally, these posters are printed on large format printers, carefully rolled into tubes for travel, and hung from poster boards or walls in a conference venue. It works, but requires the posters to be completed days (or weeks) ahead of time to allow for layout and printing (and any revisions to fix typos or omissions). It also requires a the content to be static – it’s a printed poster – and the format usually involves a 4’x6′ sheet of paper packed with dense micro-print and footnotes.

When we were planning the 2016 University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, we knew it would be the first conference to be held in the new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. It’s a facility designed from the ground up to be pervasively digital, and it felt wrong to be doing printed posters when we have 37 high quality screens for use in the learning studios.

So. We committed to doing the poster session in digital format. Something we’ve never done before. I’d never designed a digital poster – there are different affordances and constraints. Although the screens are full 1080p HD resolution, that’s actually much lower resolution and lower data density than people are used to with traditional large-format printed posters. We had to do some experimentation, but it turns out that it’s possible to take a poster file that has been prepared for print and display the PowerPoint or PDF version of the poster just fine on the 50″ displays on our collaboration carts1.

Another thing we had to plan for – the rooms where the posters would be displayed were being actively used during the conference. So, the rooms would need to be combined by raising 2 Skyfold walls and moving all of the tables and chairs out of the way. It took a grand total of 40 minutes from start to finish, and the entire combined Learning Studios ABC was ready for the poster session. Amazing. Many hands make light work, and the technology worked flawlessly2.

After the poster session (which worked – I was totally not anxious about that. At all.), I did some quick napkin math. We were using 18 of the displays, which works out to 75 feet of digital posters. And we only used half of the Collaboration Carts in the building3. Wow.

I drafted a one-page “How to design a digital poster” document for participants to get an idea of what might be involved. It grew to 2 pages. It’s a lame and incomplete guide, but I needed to give something to the people who were being asked to prepare digital posters… I also ran a drop-in session for people to try their poster designs, and my team consulted with several people about how they might prepare their material for the poster session. Best team ever.

We realized that most people will be familiar with creating PowerPoint and PDF files, and our Collaboration Carts4 don’t have the full Microsoft Office suite, so we needed to find a way to reliably display these standard files through a web interface. I initially thought of using Google Slides (as indicated in the howto document), but quickly discovered that Slides renders many things… non-optimally. But – there is a company that has some experience with Office files, and who provides a cloud-based web renderer for such things.

Digital posters served up via OneDrive shared folder

OneDrive to the rescue. The PowerPoint rendering is flawless, and the more-conventional posters with microtext rendered perfectly – and were completely legible on the 50″ HD displays! I set up a shared OneDrive folder so my team had access to upload copies of peoples’ poster files (most showed up with a PowerPoint file on a USB thumbdrive), so a quick drag-and-drop to the shared OneDrive folder took care of webifying the poster for display during the session. Easy peasy.

But not all posters were conventional print-posters-displayed-on-digital-display things. A handful tried something completely new – one team created an amazing graphic poster inspired by Nick Sousanis’ work on Unflattening. Amazing. And it won the “Best Poster” prize!

Poster created by Sloan Dugan and Gillian Ayers. Posted with permission from Sloan Dugan.

I created my poster (in collaboration / based on work by Brian Lamb) as a self-playing looped video file (authored in Keynote and Procreate ) – and really struggled with the format. The pacing is difficult to get right, because the poster runs in the background to foster conversation. For a video poster, people may not be able to stay for long, and wind up missing large chunks of the concept. I’ll work on it some more… Perhaps with a layer of navigation and interactivity, so participants can trigger brief video (or other) segments as they explore, rather than sitting and watching something like a museum exhibit…

Quick observations from the session… It was by far the highest energy academic poster session I’ve ever seen. There wasn’t the usual “I’m here for the wine and food, and will talk to enough people that I won’t feel guilty about leaving early” kind of thing – people were genuinely having great discussions. Fantastic. We actually had to kick people out of the room after the end of the session because we had to reset the room for conference mode before day 2 of the conference (and we only had our volunteers for so long, so needed to finish that conversion before they headed out). We had to give 4 announcements, flash the lights, and eventually just throw the switch to turn off the poster displays before people started leaving. Amazing. I’ve never seen such a thing. I don’t know if it was a result of the novelty of the session – nobody had seen digital posters done in that way, at that scale, before – or if it’s yet another indicator that we have an absolutely incredible community of instructors and students at the University of Calgary…

One thing we’ll need to do is facilitate a series of sessions throughout the year to provide opportunities for people from across campus to come together and think creatively about what a digital academic poster could be – how can interactivity be a part of the experience? How can live data or external media be pulled in? What happens when the design constraints of a physical large-format printed poster are let go, and a poster is designed to take advantage of the affordances offered by the medium?

If anyone knows of any really good resources to help support mindful design of digital/interactive academic posters, I’d love to see them!

  • Nancy Chick [wrote a brief essay about creating posters for the scholarship of teaching and learning, and visual representation of concepts](http://sotl.ucalgaryblogs.ca/posters/).
  1. we REALLY need to come up with a better name for these things – 50″ touch-enabled display, embedded Windows PC for Internet connectivity, and a Mersive Solstice Pod, on wheels, times 37. Collaboration Cart doesn’t really work, but it’s all we’ve come up with that isn’t a corny forced acronym… The cart things are able to be moved throughout the learning studios on the main floor of the building, and the actual hardware that runs them is safely tucked into a server room on another floor – all we have on the carts themselves is the display, and a converter to send the video signal down from the server room over HD-BaseT and then into the display via HDMI, and another wire that sends the USB signal for the touch interface over Ethernet up to the server room []
  2. which was a huge concern for me – this is the first full-scale event we’ve run in the building, aside from grand-opening types of things – and was also the first time all of the Carts were fired up and running independently (usually they’d been run in presentation mode, mirroring the instructors’ display that’s on the Big Screen, but for this session, each Cart was a separate thing which put a HUGE load on the network because of all of the video being chucked around to drive the units… []
  3. again. Better name? []
  4. again. Horrible name. []

on the Taylor Institute grand opening

It’s been a long process, but the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning opened this morning. The last 4 years have been an intensive planning/collaboration/development/implementation process, with people from many organizations coming together to build on the vision of the Institute.

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From the Institute’s website:

The Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is dedicated to better understanding and improving student learning. It is both a building and a community that extends well beyond the building’s walls.

The Taylor Institute brings together teaching development, teaching and learning research, and undergraduate inquiry learning under one roof.

The institute supports building and sharing teaching expertise; integrating technologies to enhance learning; and conducting inquiry to improve student learning. Through the College of Discovery and Innovation, the Taylor Institute offers undergraduate students opportunities for inquiry-based learning, experiential learning and interdisciplinary research.

It’s an impressive interdisciplinary facility, intended to become a community centre for teaching and learning to bring instructors and students together from all 13 faculties on campus, as well as to include the broader community. We have many groups working together within the institute, making collaboration a part of how we work – including learning technologies, learning and instructional design, curriculum development, educational development, and scholarship of teaching and learning. All of these groups are housed together in a single facility in the heart of our main campus, making it an important place for people to come together to explore and experiment with teaching and learning innovation.

I worked most closely with Bernelle, Sextant, and Matrix (and of course UofC folks in the Taylor Institute, Information Technologies and Campus Planning) in the design and implementation of the amazing learning technologies in the Institute. Much of the early design work was highly conceptual, as the technologies had never been implemented in this way before. Early in the process, I asked for photos of what some of the pieces looked like, and for names of people I could talk to about how well they work. “um. that’s not possible. nobody’s ever done this before.” Awesome. No pressure 🙂

The active learning classrooms are designed from the ground up to be flexible and reconfigurable. Skyfold walls are retractable, making it possible to have one giant active classroom, or 3 smaller ones. Everything is on wheels. The rooms feature 37 “collaboration carts”1, with all of the computer hardware installed in an IT server room on a mezzanine floor, and all video passed back and forth over ethernet and HD-BaseT. The carts are fully mobile within the active learning studios, and will work in any of the floorbox locations in these rooms.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how people use the facility – the initial implementation has some core functionality, but the real magic will happen when people start going off script and doing things nobody imagined. We have lots of fun projects planned to help stimulate that kind of innovation…

  1. we really need to come up with a better name for these… []

Looking for digital whiteboard software

We’re setting up a bunch1 of “collaboration carts” in the new building. They’ll be used to do a bunch of things (videoconferencing, wireless collaborative displays via Mersive Solstice Pod, Google Docs, Office 365) – when someone plugs one into a floor box, it fires up and asks them what they want it to be. One of the things we want it to be able to become is a digital whiteboard – as much as people love digital stuff, they really love whiteboards.

So. I’ve been trying to find a really great whiteboard app – the embedded PC runs Windows 8, so I’m looking for a Windows application (or a web app if we can make it do what we need). It needs to be super-easy to start a session, and it needs to be super-easy for people to save the whiteboard images (bonus points for emailing the images to someone automatically at the end of a session).

I’ve been gathering links to candidate software using my Old Timey Antisocial Bookmarking platform. Any recommendations?

Update: It turns out the 50″ Panasonic TH-50lfb70u displays have whiteboard functionality baked into the hardware. We will be looking at that ASAP – they’re still being installed, so we can’t actually try them for another week…

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  1. 37 is a bunch []

We’re hiring: Taylor Institute Operations Technician

We’re looking for a rare combination of technical skills and strength in collaboration and consultation on the use and integration of a wide array of technologies in the new Taylor Institute building. It’s going to be an extremely important role, working with everyone in the Taylor Institute, and from across campus, to effectively use the shiny new stuff that’s being installed in the building (literally – right now, installation is under way!). Mobile collaboration huddle stations. High end audiovisual systems – with laser powered projectors! Working with folks who are making cool stuff in the Faculty Design Studio. And lots of other stuff that we’ll all be figuring out together once the building opens in April 2016.

If you know anyone who would like to come work with a pretty amazing team, send them our way

Taylor Institute under construction