Giant Walkthrough Brain

I was lucky to have been taken to a masters’ student seminar by Tatiana Karaman yesterday1, to see some work on a number of her related neuroanatomy projects as part of the Computational Media Design Program at the University of Calgary.

Tatiana sat through a 45-minute MRI head scan in order to get high quality 3D data to work with. She took the data and made a series of slices, which she then fed into a 3D printer. The quality of the prints weren’t quite what she was looking for, so she massaged the data and fed it into a laser cutter to make more robust plastic pieces. And wrote software to let people scan QR codes on the physical slices to get more information. As one does.


1xb0HvRl0J2esoyeccGspo0-NUSxKYFxre8jgspMB6w-e1405619906703But, before getting to that stage, she was involved with a project to create a virtual Giant Walkthrough Brain, based on Joseph Bogen’s design from way back in 1972. He proposed a 60-storey model of a human brain (30 storeys above ground, 30 below) to allow people to walk through the brain and see various bits up close. Strangely, that didn’t prove to be feasible. Until Tatiana and her team built it in software, using the LINDSAY virtual human data.

Jay Ingram took that 3D model on tour in 2014, presenting an interpretive tour through the brain, complete with live music by Jay Ingram and The Free Radicals (and Tatiana running the brain tour live on the big screen). It was part of Beakerhead in Calgary that year, and won the 2014 Science in Society Communication Award from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

Since then, the Giant Walkthrough Brain software has been updated to include support for Oculus VR:

And for use in an immersive 3D CAVE environment:

I have to say – what a fantastic student project. Innovative science. Making art. Collaborating with peers. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. Amazing.

  1. thanks, Leanne! []

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 platform is a really nice way to get started in building an ePortfolio.

The 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 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 []
  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 []
  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 []

Redesigning the UCalgary D2L homepage

It seems like a small, unimportant thing, but the D2L homepage is probably the single most important web page for students. While they occasionally use the university website, and periodically use the portal (to sign up for courses and pay fees), D2L is where they spend a substantial chunk of their time as they work through their courses and programs. We’d launched D2L with a news-centric homepage, so that we could easily push notifications and support resources during the transition from Blackboard. It worked well for that, but became a dumping ground for accretion – links added, blurbs added, until it was a wall of text that everyone basically ignored.

So, we took a look at how students use D2L, and what they needed on the homepage. It’s their place, not The Institution’s, so it needs to be useful to students with a much higher priority than anyone else. The first thing students need is access to their courses. That used to be tucked into a small widget in the right sidebar. Now, it has the prime spot at the top of the main content area (where it should have been all along). Then, they need to be able to see what’s coming up – important dates on the calendar. Also, now right on the homepage. And they can enable it to show events from any of their courses as well (and then integrate it into their phones etc… through the iCal format). One thing that surprised us was the seemingly-trivial idea of having a weather widget on the homepage. Why on earth would that be needed? Clearly not necessary. But it can’t all be about need and necessity – sometimes it’s important to have a subtle reminder to go outside on a nice day (or a reminder to stay inside and study when it gets crappy outside).

I also made the decision to take many of the “Important Links” out – they were important to the people that wanted them there, but not necessarily to the students. We looked through the aggregated (and anonymized) web analytics to see which links had actually been used since January 1, 2015. Not many. So we made the call to remove several.

Also, we added a link to let students (and others) give feedback so we can hear complaints or suggestions and respond more quickly.

The Instructor-focused portions are not displayed to students – they don’t see the Instructor Resources or Grades Export sections because they’re not relevant. Students now get a pretty streamlined homepage (as it should have been from day 1), which should help them get to what they need, and to help keep organized throughout the semester.

It’s a collection of many small, seemingly trivial changes, but the overall redesign should make things much less painful for students.

D2L homepage, comparing old crappy version and awesome new version.
Left: the previous version, accreting things since launch in 2013. Right: Redesign with student needs given priority.

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…


This has been a project within the Technology Integration Group for the last several months – redesigning the 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 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 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”? []

on enabling innovation to enhance learning

When we work with instructors, there are 3 general groupings, in terms of their comfort level and technology integration and innovation in their courses.


There is a small group that doesn’t use much technology, doesn’t integrate much in their teaching, and don’t pursue any strategies that would be considered “innovative.” From the outside, this group is often labelled as Luddites or dismissed as being laggards, but that is definitely not always the case. There are important innovations happening in this group, but they may not be visible to outsiders because they aren’t using the shared language of silicon valley innovation. Not every innovation requires high technology, or even technology at all. We can learn much from the Reluctant adopters, because many of them are reluctant to adopt mainstream technology because it doesn’t do what they need.


There is a second, much larger, group that does integrate some technology, tries some new and changing pedagogical strategies, and basically is self-supporting as a status quo. This majority adopts technology because it’s there, and looks to their peers for guidance on what to do, and how to do it. Again, this is not a bad thing. These people are experts in their fields, and they adopt “innovation” when it suits their needs. And they ignore the new shiny when it doesn’t solve an immediate problem. And that’s fine.


A third group, at the “high end” of the bell curve, explores new technologies, integrates them into their teaching, and tries emerging strategies to try to engage students. This group builds stuff, finds new stuff, and tries new things. The Shiny. They take risks. Which is great, but not everyone has the time, comfort level, or experience to do that. So we need to learn from this group, give them support to help them do the stuff they’d do anyway (but maybe do it more? do it better? do it more successfully?), and learn from that.


It’s tempting to focus on the Pioneers, because that’s where new ideas are usually introduced, but we need to focus on all three groups in order to effect real and sustained innovation across the university. We need to work with all three groups, learn from what they do (and what they don’t do), and then showcase successes to help everyone adopt things that will help them in their practices.

This is basically just another way to look at Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations double-S-curve. Ron Newmann presented a version of it at the 2013 LiFT Conference. They’re looking at how to identify new innovations, and track their adoption from 0-100%, rather than trying to help foster adoption of constellations of innovation across a population, as we’re doing at the university level.

I see our job with the technology integration group as being the green arrows in the diagram. We work with everyone, and help them to enhance the learning experience. We work with them to identify, support, and enable innovation and successful integration of appropriate technologies, and to push the state of the art of teaching. That’s how we can help support and sustain real innovation broadly across the entire university.

I keep coming back to the guiding statement our group came up with:

To enable innovation and creative integration of learning technologies to continuously enhance the learning experience.

This is why we do what we do. It isn’t about shiny tech. It’s about working with everyone to help them enhance learning.