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. []

UCalgary ePortfolio platform

We have been doing a lot of work on ePortfolios within the Educational Development Unit. The most visible result of that work is the EDU’s in-development department ePortfolio. As we talked about what we wanted to do in order to document the activities of the department, and to connect these activities to our strategies and priorities, it became clear that an ePortfolio was the best way to do that. And it also became clear that we needed more flexibility than was possible in the D2L ePortfolio tool. So, we built it as a site on UCalgaryBlogs, which runs WordPress.

We learned a lot about collaboratively authoring ePortfolios in WordPress, while simultaneously supporting the D2L eP tool. The problem with the D2L eP tool is that it’s an enterprise-class tool. Apropos of nothing, the protagonist narcissistically quotes one of his own blog posts:

Enterprise Solutions kind of suck for individuals, and for small-scale innovation.


The use of blogging software for student ePortfolios is not new1. There are some truly fantastic examples of blog-powered ePortfolios:

Common themes for these great examples? All published openly (which is how I found out about them), and all published with WordPress. Each one looks completely different – although being published with the same underlying software, they take on the personality of the person, not the tool. Interesting. Of course, lots of people use different tools, but the range and flexibility of WordPress is impressive.

Publishing on the open internet changes how people write, giving the opportunity to formalize thinking about concepts, as well as personal reflection:

…the fundamental quality of putting one’s narrative online gave students new perspectives on how they assessed themselves.

— Nguyen, 20132.

And the nature of the ePortfolio needs to be an individual, as opposed to institutional, space:

…ownership of the ePortfolio should be solely with the student

— Roemmer-Nossek, B. & Zwiauer, C., 20133

Roemmer-Nossek & Zwiauer go on to describe three potential purposes for ePortfolios in higher education, all of which are kind of obvious and intuitive, but it’s handy to have them explicitly stated:

  1. support of individual learning (ePortfolio as process)
  2. participation in the production and publication of knowledge (presentation of content and artifacts)
  3. as a means of supporting development of ones own voice within the university (community of learners)

All three of those potential purposes are important. How best to address them? If we simply roll out The One True ePortfolio Platform™ and compel students to use it, it breaks what we know about the importance of ePortfolios as being individual and personal spaces. If we don’t provide a common platform, it has the potential to become a chaotic and unsupportable hot mess. The trick is to find the balance in the middle.

The guiding principles we are working with are that ePortfolios need to be owned by the student, that they need to be personal spaces, that they need to be flexible enough to do whatever the student needs to do in order to document their learning and to support their ongoing practice of reflection, and that the practice is grounded in current research and literature.

So, providing access to multiple ePortfolio platforms – some institutional, some personal, others completely independent of the institution – is how we believe we can best give students the flexibility to build their own ePortfolios in whatever manner makes sense to them based on their personal interests, abilities, and comfort levels.

As a result, UCalgary currently has two major components of an ePortfolio platform. We have the D2L ePortfolio tool, fully integrated into the Brightspace learning management system. And we have a more loosely integrated ePortfolio platform powered by a streamlined WordPress multisite installation.

My personal belief is that the WordPress ePortfolio platform will provide much more flexibility for students, and will also better support them as they integrate their university experience with lifelong learning – they can take the ePortfolio with them when they graduate, and use it anywhere they’d like, since it can be exported and imported easily into any WordPress instance. The eportfolio.ucalgary.ca platform is a really nice way to get started in building an ePortfolio.

The eportfolio.ucalgary.ca project is a really great example of how collaboration works in the Educational Development Unit – all of the groups came together, pitched the idea, did the research, built the tool, developed documentation and resources, and launched it. Technology Integration, Learning and Instructional Design, Educational Development. All jumping in without having to strike a Project or committee or working group. The end result is really great, and the model of collaboration is something we see all the time. Best. Team. Ever.


A simple, streamlined, and common platform that gives a structure or framework to help students get started. Without having to click 15 times to add something from a course. With some really good resources to help people get situated.

It’s integrated with campus systems only for authentication – there is a link within the D2L “My Tools” menu that brings students (well, anyone – it’s open to anyone in the UofC community) right into WordPress without having to login again. If they don’t use that tool link, they can login right at http://eportfolio.ucalgary.ca and use their UofC CAS account to login. Easy.

And that’s where the integration stops. Content will have to be copied/pasted or screenshot from other places, or re-uploaded within the ePortfolio. This makes publishing content an explicit act by the author, and not some magic automated tool. Everything that is added to a person’s ePortfolio is done manually, hopefully with thoughtful reflection on what, why, where, and how that content would be displayed. Automated “push this to my ePortfolio” tools short-circuit that.

And, of course, people are encouraged to find the platform that works best for them – that may be one offered by the university, or it may be something else. The goal is to support student learning, and the best way to do that is to make sure that students own their work, in whatever way is meaningful to them.

  1. MacColl, I., Morrison, A., Muhlberger, R., Simpson, M., & Viller, S. (2005). Reflections on reflection: Blogging in undergraduate design studios. Blogtalk downunder conference 2005. Retrieved from http://incsub.org/blogtalk/?page_id=69 []
  2. Nguyen, C. F. (2013). The ePortfolio as a living portal: A medium for student learning, identity,
    and assessment. International Journal of ePortfolio, 3(2), 135-148. Retrieved from http://www.theijep.com/past_3_2.cfm []
  3. Roemmer-Nossek, B. & Zwiauer, C. (2013). Hoe can ePortfolio make sense for higher education? The Vienna University ePortfolio framework taking shape. European Institute for E-Learning, 206-214. Retrieved from http://www.eife-l.org/publications/eportfolio/proceedings2/ep2007/proceedings-pdf-doc/eportfolio-2007.pdf []

Dee Fink’s keynote at #TICONF2015

Dee Fink, giving the opening keynote presentation at the 2015 University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching. The theme of the 2015 conference is Design for Learning: Fostering Deep Learning, Engagement and Critical Thinking.

We hadn’t planned to record the keynote, but Dee asked us if we would, so we set something up that morning. The video is usable, but we’ll be producing higher quality recordings for future events…

relaunching elearn.ucalgary.ca

This has been a project within the Technology Integration Group for the last several months – redesigning the elearn.ucalgary.ca support website so that it can be more useful to instructors and students who are integrating technology into their teaching and learning. The previous site was nearly a decade old, and had been designed by accretion – full of links, documents, links to documents, etc… but difficult to actually find things that are important. So, the redesign.

First, we moved from Drupal to WordPress – the new site runs on UCalgaryBlogs.ca. This gave us the flexibility to treat it like a knowledgebase, apply a more useful theme, and enable some additional functionality like tagging and live search of content.

Previous Drupal-powered site on the left, new WordPress-powered site on the right. Both screenshots are of approximately the same square region “above the fold” on the homepage of the site.

With the knowledgebase model, content is available right away, without layers of drilling down. The search box is live, so people can just start typing what they’re looking for and it searches all content to find relevant bits. (no siri support. yet.)

I’m super proud of what my team was able to accomplish with this1 – and excited to see how we grow it from here. Now that we have more flexibility on what we can do with the site, we have lots of plans to revise some of the content, incorporate contributions from the community, and start a series of showcase articles to highlight innovative and successful applications of technology-enabled learning.

  1. and lots of other things – I need to write a post about our awesome new app for the 2015 Postsecondary Conference on Learning and Teaching! []

on learning spaces and technologies

As an institution, we design learning spaces and select learning technologies, and implement them in ways to make them available to enable and enhance student learning. But, the design decisions made in the development, selection, and implementation of these resources shape what is perceived to be possible. The resources may not be technically restrictive to specific usage patterns and pedagogies, but through design decisions there are paths of least resistance that will naturally be found.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

-Marshall Mcluhan

Rooms will tend to have a natural “front” and “back” if there is a large projection screen on one wall. Even if flexible and mobile classroom furniture is provided, the common usage pattern will be rows facing the front.

Physical structures themselves can be seen as artifacts that communicate nonverbally.

-Strange & Banning, 20011

Clip  8

Even though tables are on wheels, and chairs are movable, they gravitate toward the natural “front” of the room. In the photo above, there is actually another large screen along the right wall (opposite the windows) with an independent projector. But it’s largely ignored, and chairs might as well be bolted to the floor in this configuration.

IMG 0003

Another room, in the same building, designed without a “front”, and with highly movable and individual furniture. The room looks different every time I see it. There is a projector, but it’s on a cart, because it needs to point someplace different each time it’s used. Even the pillar in the middle of the room gets used as a natural way to divide the room into quarters, without needing walls or barriers.

Rooms typically have a front because it’s easiest to do it that way. It’s easier to set up. It’s easier to reset between sessions. It’s easier to clean. It’s easier to maintain. Many of those reasons aren’t learning-focused, so we wind up with institutional and historical paths-of-least-resistance defining how spaces will be used. But it doesn’t need to be that way. The JISC InfoNet Learning Spaces website contains a wealth of resources that provide suggestions and provocations to design spaces to be learner- and learning-centric.

Learning science indicates that successful learning is often active, social, and learner-centered. However, with the multiple responsibilities of faculty, staff, and administrators, as well as the large numbers of students most campuses serve, ensuring successful learning without the support of IT may be impossible. Individualization and customization are laudable goals for instruction; they are also time intensive. With the appropriate use of technology, learning can be made more active, social, and learner centered — but the uses of IT are driven by pedagogy, not technology.

– Oblinger & Oblinger, 20052

Basic decisions, like “where is the screen, and how big is it?” define what the room will be used for (no matter what the stated goal of flexibility might be). Basic technology like “have whiteboards everywhere” makes the room useful and flexible. Having seats not bolted together, or spread around tables, makes the room inherently more reconfigurable – even if the tables are on wheels. Tables suggest a way to use them. It’s difficult to overcome those subtle suggestions.

Similar patterns exist in learning technologies – whether physical devices like projectors and screens and podiums (podia?) or software-based resources like learning management systems or student response systems or discussion boards.

Audrey Watters is working on a book on the history of teaching machines – Chapter 1, on “Programmed Instruction”, looks at how some intentional (and unintentional) design choices made during the early development of what is now called “educational technology” has saddled us with decades of baggage and historically adopted-and-forgotten-about decisions. Her recent article on the history of multiple choice testing machines uses the concrete example of multiple choice exams becoming hardcoded into optical scoring machines. Multiple choice tests typically have no more than 5 possible choices, because of the physical limitations of printing the sheets and on the optical scoring device on detecting student answers. And yet online exams still maintain a similar pattern despite not being limited by either printing or optical scanning.

What other historical and technological implementation details have framed the perceived possible uses of learning technologies? Why are discussions typically linear and threaded, rather than more network-based and organic? Why are learning management systems typically institution- and course-centric, rather than learner-centric?

More importantly, how can we critically analyze our designs and implementations to question these inherent historical-and-not-learner-centric patterns?

The mission of EDU in the new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is to “build teaching and learning capacity by creating networks of practice, supporting technology integration, and promoting evidence-based approaches in order to enrich student learning experiences.” To do this, we will need to constantly critically reflect on what we are doing, on what instructors and students are doing, and how the decisions and actions shape the learning experience.

  1. Strange, C.C. & Banning, J.H. (2001). Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work. John Wiley & Sons. San Francisco. []
  2. Oblinger, D.G. & Oblinger, J.L. (2005). Is it Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation. In Educating the Net Generation. EDUCAUSE. Retrieved from https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101b.pdf []

How do you connect to people online? (the video)

How do you connect to people online? from D'Arcy Norman on Vimeo.

(Link to video, for the RSS folks)

I had to cut back on the scope quite a bit to keep it to a 15 minute length. This could have easily turned into an epic documentary… Lots of very difficult decisions.

Thank you SO much to everyone for the contributions.

How do YOU connect online?

I’m taking a graduate level course on Technology & Society, and for my Big Term Assignment, I’ve decided to try something a little non-traditional. Taking a page out of Alan Levine’s great playbook, I’d like to ask people to respond to a simple question:

How do YOU connect online?

More info is available over on the project website – but the short version is that I need people to respond to the question, however they interpret it, in whatever format they’re comfortable responding. I will assemble the responses into a narrative which will be published on November 30, 2009.

Please spread the URL – I need as many different responses and perspectives as possible.

Question about the nature of connections

Ceviche at Casa del LambI just posed this question on Twitter, but thought I’d try posting it here as well, in case there are different people reading each stream…

How is the nature of connection between people online different from “traditional” offline connections? How, really, do they differ?

I’m hoping to tease out some real, perceived, and possibly false differences between internet connections and traditional connections between people, for a project as part of the Technology & Society course I’m taking. I’m not meaning TCP/IP connections, or ethernet, but how people are able to connect, interact, communicate, engage, etc… online as opposed to offline.

Any thoughts?