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:

supporting technology integration

In late 2013, our Provost struck a Learning Technologies Task Force, to develop a plan to sustainably implement and support learning technologies across all faculties at the University. The result of that task force was the production of the Strategic Framework for Learning Technologies in the summer of 2014 – a document that lays out some high level priorities and specific strategies to address them. Much of the document directly guides the work of my team (the Technology Integration Group in the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, Educational Development Unit) – I keep a copy of it handy, and have a poster version of the priorities and strategies pinned to the wall in my office. One of the interesting aspects of the Framework is the emphasis on combinations of learning technologies and spaces – that we need to consider the physical as well as digital aspects of the learning environment.

One of the major strategies described in the Framework involves providing coaching and mentoring for instructors who are integrating technology in their courses. This is a model that was pioneered by some faculties during our recent Blackboard-D2L migration, and having coaches available in those faculties was an extremely important factor in the success of that migration.

Those D2L coaches were grad students, hired by the faculties as a special form of teaching assistant. They were given professional development (workshops, training, orientations), and community support and facilitation. It worked really well, and this is what the Framework strategies are designed to sustain and scale up across the university.

So, we will be launching a full Learning Technologies Support Program – this will offer Learning Technologies Coaches in all faculties. Funding will be provided to Associate Deans Teaching and Learning, with some recommendations for how they might implement the model in their faculties. The way we’re implementing the program, each faculty will have a high level of flexibility. Some might opt to have a Coach (or Coaches) providing deskside support. Some might need Coaches to be primarily supporting those instructors who are innovating in their course designs. Or, a combination. Or, something different. We will also need to figure out how to incorporate instructors and coaches at various locations – including the 4 campuses in Calgary and sites in Lethbridge, Edmonton and Qatar. With 13 faculties involved, each will need to do something different to meet their unique needs and context, and providing that level of flexibility will be essential to the success of the program – if we just hired a bunch of Coaches centrally and farmed them out, we’d lose the domain-specific context that is extremely important when working with instructors.

These Coaches – and we won’t know exactly how many will be involved in the program until faculties decide how they want to proceed – will be supported through my team in the Educational Development Unit. We’ve created a new position – Technology Integration Specialist – and that person will be primarily working with the distributed network of Coaches, forming a community of practice and providing professional development and communication across all faculties. The hope is that this community of Coaches will learn from each other, and that we’ll be able showcase successes from each faculty and use those to improve and enhance the learning experience for all students.

It’s going to be strongly based on a distributed community model, with a domain-specific focus in each faculty. The new Technology Integration Specialist role will be extremely important in connecting people across faculties and roles. At a high and abstract level, it might work something like this:

Learning Technologies Support Program

I firmly believe that this is the most important program to support the meaningful integration of learning technologies at the University. This goes far beyond licensing shiny tech, or installing new apps. It’s the careful and intentional allocation of significant resources to develop a strong community of people, working to support instructors in their practice. This gets to the core of how instructors can adopt new practices and appropriate technologies to (hopefully dramatically) improve the student learning experience.

This has been my main project for awhile now, and I’m thrilled to see it move from planning stages to actually beginning to implement it. We’ll be documenting the activities of the program, as well as other initiatives that implement the Framework, on a new-but-not-yet-public Learning Technologies website. More on that soon…

the most important edtech advancements

Jim wrote about his thoughts on the most important advancements in educational technology. I think he’s onto something – the exact tech isn’t important. Nor are the logos on the shiny things we build and/or buy. My personal stance is that we’ve seen 2 major changes on our campus – neither of which are directly related to specific technologies.

  1. Human-scale technologies
  2. Distributed, coordinated, domain-specific community support

The first shift is nothing new – it’s also not constant or consistent. It’s about individualized ownership/control/access to technologies. Some new tools are cheap enough that people grab their own copies – even gasp without asking permission, or even notifying anyone. Some tools are good enough that The University grabs a few copies and hands them out more freely for people to do stuff. I’ve seen people do things with creating online resources for their courses that was simply not possible even a few years ago – and even if technically possible, involved the need to spin up projects, find funding, management, designers, etc…. Now, an instructor can sit at her computer and create really good resources for her courses, on her own, without needing to ask permission. And students can do the same. That’s a fantastic shift.

We’ve been doing things in my group to help with that – we’re setting up a Faculty Design Studio, to give people a place to come work with higher-end tools. We’re ramping up a “tech lending library”, so people can sign stuff out, without needing to go through Project Management or funding requests. Want to play with a GoPro camera to record something for your course? Go for it. Need a tripod, microphone, camcorder, lights? Sure thing. Keeping technology available at human scale is important. It’s more than Enterprise Platforms and [Learning|Research|Administration] Management Systems.

We’re also changing how institutional programs are being run. Our Instructional Skills Workshops involve participants recording themselves presenting or facilitating. In the Olden Days™, that involved a big video cart, with microphones, cameras, mixing boards, DVD recorders, CRT monitors, etc… and was a Big Deal to set up. Now, we have a set of Swivl robot camera mounts, some iPod Touch handheld video recorders, and a tripod. Done. Videos get uploaded to Vimeo1, and it’s all faster, easier, and better than what we did before. And instructors are signing the Swivls out to do similar things for their own courses. Great stuff.

The second shift is probably the more important one, though. Distributed, coordinated communities of practice to support instructors who are designing their courses and integrating learning technologies. We’ve moved from a centralized model – where everyone had to come to The Big Department In The Middle™ to get “help” to fix their courses. That wasn’t great for a few reasons – it can’t scale, without dozens of staff members in TBDitM™ – but also, it positions the support for technology integration as some Other. Something bolted on by other people outside of an instructor’s faculty or department. Something foreign, extra, separate. Superficial.

communities of practice across campus

The community of practice shifts the support model into being native in each faculty and department. With domain-specific understanding of the pedagogies used in each context, and of the activities that make up the learning experience. And of the technologies that enable, enhance and extend these activities. We had this, informally, before – but isolated pockets of in-context support were not able to benefit from what people had learned or tried in other contexts. So, intentionally designing the central portion of the support community as a coordination hub to enable people across campus – NOT as a “come to us in The Middle and we’ll fix your stuff”, but as “hey – let’s come together to learn about what we’re all doing, and how we can share that to make it all sustainable and meaningful for everyone.”

That’s where the magic is. Coincidentally, I’m currently looking to hire the person who will act as our coordinator/collaborator/cruise-director for this distributed community of practice.

  1. until we eventually get a campus video platform set up – 4 years and counting on that… []

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 []

on banning technology in the classroom

UCalgary made the national news, with this segment titled “Calgary professor bans modern technology in his classroom1.

I really don’t know what to say about this. My gut reaction is something like “if they’re tuning out and checking Facebook in class, that’s data about how the class is going, and banning technology would just hide the symptom rather than actually fixing anything.”

Also, the prof still uses her own tech in every class, with laptop and projector etc… fired up. So, it’s not about technology on its own.

This is about control, more than technology. I’m not sure what to make of that. I don’t know the prof, and have never seen her teach. She teaches linguistics and psychology – perhaps her specific subject matter or teaching style work better without “technology”?

I have a bit of a problem2 with instructors having that much control over adult students. She does allow some technology – students are using pens and paper – but bans other technologies that are deemed disruptive3. As one student says in the segment – they’re paying to be there, and they should be able to make their own decisions about what technologies they use.

Ironically, I also see instructors who fall on the other side of the spectrum, mandating that students MUST USE TECHNOLOGY because of reasons. We’re talking about adult students from diverse backgrounds and contexts, and mandating (or banning) anything may just not be appropriate.

Yes, there should be codes of conduct. Mute your speakers. Don’t use loud clicky keyboards. Don’t sit in the front row and watch Netflix marathons, etc…. But, is “banning” technology really a solution? Does it just emphasize that The Instructor is In Control, and that Students Must Behave? The reinforcement of the power relationship may be doing more to have students “on task” than the lack of modern technologies.

update: Dr. Siedivy wrote an article in the Calgary Herald back in September, I’m still not sold. This feels like conflation of cause and effect. Are students unengaged because they have Modern Technology™, or are they facebooking and tweetaring because they’re unengaged in the class? She talks about her sister being unengaged in her technology company meetings, and “multitasking” on mobile devices instead of being bored. Sounds familiar. But, in meetings/conferences/whatever where I’m engaged, the Modern Technology™ either a) stays closed, or more likely b) gets used to support engagement in whatever conversations are happening. Boredom begets unengagement begets “multitasking”. Banning multitasking doesn’t make people magically feel engaged and included in the activities.

  1. although it’s clear that the professor is a woman, so whoever titles segments at Global National obviously doesn’t watch the segments, and has a strong sexist bias when it comes to professors, who are certainly all men of course []
  2. as the manager of the Technology Integration Group, I may have a bit of a bias []
  3. Disruptive as in “causing a distraction”, or Disruptive as in “giving power to those who are not standing at the front of the room”? []

My vision for Learning Technologies at the UofC

This is where I go out on a bit of a limb, but I think it’s important to share this kind of info to see if it’s on the right track, too ambitious, or not ambitious enough.

Basically, the last year has been one of constant change in learning technologies at the UofC. We changed LMS, from an antique version of Blackboard, to the latest version of Desire2Learn1. We replaced Elluminate with Adobe Connect2. We rolled out Top Hat as the campus student response system. It’s been a lot of things changing, some while the academic year was under way. I’m hoping we have these things stabilized by the end of the Fall 2014 semester, so we can move on to more interesting things.

We have had difficulty in keeping our key learning technologies up to date over the years, in a kind of digital parallel to deferred maintenance on our facilities. Then, when we reach a crisis, we have to react and strike Urgent High Priority Projects to enable massive change to respond to impending technology failures. We need to get past that reactive mode, which keeps our resources tied up in emergency projects, and into a more proactive mode that is forward-looking, so that we’re able to plan ahead rather than panicking about averting imminent disaster.

As a university, we offer a set of common tools that form up the core learning technologies platform. This is important, because it provides a common starting point for all 14 faculties and various service units. If they can start with a common set of tools, we can provide some cohesive support and enable people to get up and running. It provides a consistent experience for students, so they don’t have to learn one LMS for a class in Sciences, and a different one for a class in Arts, and a different one for one in Kinesiology, etc…. That consistency is downplayed, but it is incredibly important.

Students are under a pretty extreme level of pressure to succeed. They face rising costs, crushing debt, and more competition than ever before. If we can provide them with a consistent experience, they spend less time learning the tools and more time engaging each other and doing more interesting things.

Also, we have students whose success depends on this consistent experience – anyone that uses a screen reader to support their visual challenges will tell you that inconsistent interfaces essentially destroy the learning experience for them, as they have to battle with various navigation models and learn to find things in each environment.

The University of Calgary’s common learning technology platform currently consists of:

  • Online Tools
    • Desire2Learn
    • Adobe Connect
    • Top Hat
  • Classroom Tools (classroom podium software stack)
    • SMART Notebook
    • MS Office
    • various media players
    • various web browsers
    • Skype

These are common tools that are centrally funded, and are available for use by every instructor, student, and staff member in our community. They provide various levels of flexibility, which cover the most common use cases (and even lets you pick various themes and enable plugins to really customize your site as needed). And and probably wouldn’t have been considered part of the core common learning technology platform before I started my new role and basically started telling everyone that that’s what they were.

But, these tools don’t cover all common needs. We still need to add a few tools. The most urgent needs are for video hosting and survey management.

Video hosting is important because we currently don’t have a place where we can say “hey. you need to share a video? just use this…”. Today, individuals have to spin up their own YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, or other accounts and publish their videos there. Which works, but what happens when an instructor leaves the university? The videos they published to their accounts on various services disappear. We have no way to provide support for these services. Students, again, have an inconsistent experience (why does video from my Math course work on my iPad, while my Chem course videos don’t?). At the moment, the only campus platform for hosting videos is a static webserver. So, 500MB video files are uploaded to a server, students are expected to download the video and install whatever video player is required (is it MP4? Will that work in QuickTime, or do I need Windows Media Player? Can I play a WMV file? etc… and we still have courses with Real Media files. Yeah.

So, by adding a video hosting service to our common platform, instructors and students can host videos in a place that’s managed and consistent, and will be able to know that videos will work on whatever device they use, and won’t disappear when a prof moves to another institution.

Similarly for survey management. We currently rely on individuals to spin up their own Survey Monkey or similar account, learn how to use it (there are many many online survey platforms that are used), and pay for the pro account so you can export your full data set. This adds up quickly. If we provided a campus survey platform, individuals wouldn’t have to pull out their credit cards, and we’d be able to manage the data and provide a level of support that isn’t possible otherwise.

OK. So we add video hosting and online surveys to the common learning technology platform. That provides the starting point for all faculties to build from. But it still won’t cover unique needs – we have 14 faculties, each with signature pedagogies, and it’s just not realistic to assume that their unique needs can be fully met by a handful of campus-provided common tools. How do we provide a common set of tools and support innovation and unique requirements?

Departments often manage their own platforms – our Faculty of Medicine is involved in an open source consortium to build and maintain an online platform tailored to their needs. They also get to manage the servers and software required to run that platform. Other faculties use other platforms, and are able to have dedicated servers managed by Information Technologies in our campus datacentre, but each one is essentially a standalone project, requiring separate dedicated resources to maintain and monitor the server and its software.

What if we were able to provide something like the Reclaim Hosting model on campus? That would give individuals access to host whatever software they need, mostly through the one-click installers built into CPanel, while running the whole thing within the campus datacentre so that everything is properly managed and backed up. Again, this is stuff that’s possible now, by having individuals go to GoDaddy, MediaTemple, iWeb, or any of a long list of hosting providers where they can set up whatever they want. But, they have to find a good provider. They have to learn the unique way of managing the software on that provider’s platform. They have to remember to pay the annual fee charged by the service provider. And they need to back their stuff up. That’s a lot of points of failure. We need to provide a more streamlined way of supporting this kind of innovation, so they’re able to focus more on the innovation and less on the management of the service.

I think this is where we need to go as a university. We need to provide the best core tools as a common platform. We need to provide consistency while not stifling innovation. And we need to provide support for innovation, exploration, and truly unique use cases.

So, my visionary plan3 for campus learning technologies is to finish stabilizing things by the end of the Fall 2014 semester (which means before Christmas 2014), adding in the missing pieces to make sure we have a really solid core platform. And then, to be able to start working on more interesting things, including planning out what would be required to implement a Reclaim Hosting service on campus.

  1. that’s probably going to wind up as a blog post or two, but later… []
  2. still in progress, but it started back in January []
  3. which isn’t actually that visionary – it feels more like common sense and catch-up in 2014 []