Computer Lab Design

I was in a high school this morning to work with two Career Studies classes. It was an introduction to Blended Learning using the virtual Learning Environment (Desire2Learn), and we were scheduled into a computer lab. This is what it looks like:

I couldn’t fit it all into the frame, but there are 30 computers (there are a few along the windows to the right of the image) and there is a projection screen on the wall behind me to my left. The classroom is enormous; I’d estimate it’s 30 feet (across in the photo) by 60 feet.

As I worked with the students I found the setup of the room to be really frustrating. Most students were too far from the projection screen, so that made it hard for me to demonstrate stuff whole-class. Also, if someone needed elbow support, I was 40 feet away from my computer. In the end I decided to mostly provide verbal instructions and coach people that needed help. The screens face every which way, so I couldn’t even see half of them from any one location in the room.

The classroom definitely needs a redesign. Some points I would consider:

• arrange desks to make it easier for the teacher to circulate and guide the learning
• keep the instructional laptop close to the learning area
• put students closer together so they can help each other
• keep the projection screen close to the student computers

It’s not a highly mobile classroom; you can’t move stuff frequently. These are desktop computers which use power supplied by posts coming out of the floor. But up to the limitations of the hardware, I think we could do better.

Why I’m leaving the Board Office and going back to the classroom

Yup, it’s true: in September 2014 I’ll be teaching in a high school and I won’t be the e-Learning Contact for the Algoma District School Board. That means I’ll also be giving up the positions of Regional Chair for the Sudbury-North Bay Region, Secretary for the Northern e-Learning Consortium, and of course Chair for On The Rise.

This isn’t precisely news; I “made the announcement” in June of 2013, but a lot of folks are just hearing about it now. With On The Rise approaching I’m having a lot of conversations with eLCs and other edtech folks from around the province, so it’s come up a few times in conversation. I wanted to clear some things up and explain myself for everyone.

They’re not forcing me back

Just wanted to get that out of the way. No one is making me leave the eLC position, although that’s a popular misconception. I applied for and was offered a position as the Subject Area Head (department head) for Math at Superior Heights C. & V. S. in Sault Ste. Marie. That process happened in June, and the principal and I agreed to wait a year while I tried to transition out of the eLC role. We’re eight months into that year now.

I like being the e-Learning Contact

This is work I’m good at, and it’s work I enjoy. I have contact with every school in the system and lots of great people from around the province. The eLCs are wicked-awesome and it’s a pleasure to collaborate. I like planning conferences with them. I like getting free PD. I like having time to explore new ideas and talk to people with other perspectives and from different contexts.

But I’ve been doing this a long time

This is my sixth year in a central role, and my fifth year as the eLC (I spent a year in Numeracy support first). I last taught daily in a classroom in 2008. Think about how long ago that was. Really. Take a minute.

Wow, eh?

It’s a good idea to get back to the routine and rewards and challenges of daily classroom teaching. I don’t want to lose touch with what it’s like to struggle with content, with WiFi, with supervision, with all of the dozens and hundreds of things that teachers live with, deal with, and overcome each day.

I once had a teacher tell me I’d been out of the classroom too long and that I couldn’t understand what it was like to be a “real” teacher anymore. That was almost two years ago, and I want to ensure that she doesn’t become right about that.

And I have other things I want to do

I’m going to teach math. I like to teach math. I’m excited to try Blended Learning and e-Learning and using my YouTube channel and graphing software and graph paper (I miss graph paper) and….

I want to work with the math department at SHCVS. They’re good people and I’m looking forward to digging into our instruction together to make things even better for students and for each other. I want to spend time every day in the same place to help people. I want to go deep into instruction, not just wide.

And I also miss being part of a larger staff. Working on Program Team is fairly isolating in a lot of ways. I spend a lot of time in my office at my computer. That’s not the way it’s “supposed” to be, but that’s the way it is. I talk with most of the people who work in our building, but we’re not having after-work social gatherings as a rule.

Plus there’s a lot of travel as an eLC

I have a family. They don’t get to see me when I’m out of town, and although I have travelled less this year I’ll still be out of town over 20 days this year. I realize that’s not “bad” compared with some of the jobs out there, but it’s a lot more than what I’ll have as a classroom teacher.

I’m also tired of travelling. I’m tired of driving and flying during the evenings and on weekends. I leave on Sunday. I get back at 1:00am on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. I have to eat out for three days. I work in the airport lounge. I have to get rental cars. We have to have two vehicles because I’m going East and my wife and kids are going West. I have to pay for stuff out of pocket and get reimbursed later. Six years of that is a little exhausting.

Also, someone else should do this for a while

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who can do this job. Then I look around and see that there are over sixty other people in the province who do the same job every day, often with fewer resources, more resistance, and less time. Perhaps I am the only person in our board with my skill set and experience. But I developed this over the course of years, and someone else can do the same (or better!).

Also, I probably have biases and baggage that prevent me from making progress in certain parts of the work. Maybe I’m not pursuing a project or strategy, or maybe I don’t know about a teacher whose work should be shared. Maybe I am stubborn about something that I really shouldn’t worry about. The problem with these gaps is that I can’t see them all, and only bringing someone else in to do the work can make them clear.

But who’s going to…?

The work will get done, or not, as the case may be. Frankly, it’s not all getting done now. I am a terrible bottleneck at our board. My to do list is mercifully digital, because if I was to record it on paper I might need a logging permit first.

Sometimes I think it’ll be good if someone coming in can’t do some of the things I do. This is a highly technical job right now, and I don’t think it should be. The eLC is a teacher, and the work should be work that only a teacher can do well. I feel that other kinds of tasks should mostly be given to the people who are best suited to looking after them.

Some things will be different. My successor will have other ways to accomplish stuff, novel approaches to tired problems, and generally a lot to offer. I certainly wish them well, and I’ll be here to support them in the transition and beyond, because that’s who I am.

I think I’ve done well in this role, and I can look back and see objectively that we’ve come a long, long way from 2008 by any measure. I’ll miss the near-constant contact with everyone in my Skype group most of all, and I hope that catching up at 3:00pm and on Twitter and at eSymposium, ECOO14, or OTKR12 will be enough to maintain those relationships.

I have four more months as the eLC, and I plan to cram in as much as possible (including OTRK12 and an EdCampSault). I want to leave things both easy and awesome for the new eLC so they can focus on effective instructional practice instead of technical issues and clerical work.

Thanks

I’m not gone yet, but for the last few months of my eLChood I want everyone I work with to know how fantastic they are and how much it means to me to have been a significant part of what we’ve done in our board, in the North, and in Ontario.

Thanks for a great time, everyone.

What’s the difference between e-Learning, online learning, Blended Learning,…?

Janet Broder (@peachyteachy) asked this morning,

A bunch of folks tweeted back at her, including me, but I thought it was worth a slightly longer explanation that Twitter permitted.

There are a lot of terms

e-Learning (or eLearning, or elearning – we fight about this one), Blended Learning, virtual learning (I don’t like this one; makes it sound like it’s pretending to learn), online learning, hybrid learning, digital learning… gross, eh? They’re not all useful, and some of them make things fuzzy.

I’ll explain my take on each of them. You can have your own take; it won’t hurt my feelings.

e-Learning

This is learning in which the interaction between student and teacher is online. For us this is generally a student taking a course from a teacher without going to a physical classroom with that teacher. They might be in the same building, but the learning and the communication is done online.

There may be an offline component (for example, a student might write a response on paper), but there is always an online connection (e.g. they take a picture of their response to send to the teacher).

Blended Learning

In Ontario, Blended Learning is the use of the Provincial Learning Management System (more recently termed the virtual Learning Environment) with a face-to-face classroom. At the moment that’s using Desire2Learn with your students.

But that’s Blended Learning with capital letters. For “blended learning” I feel you only need to be using online tools. Connect your students to the Internet. That definition is more inclusive, but then it also includes some less meaningful implementations. Not all forms of blended learning are equal. Using the Internet to enhance instruction is complex, so we spend a lot of time figuring out how to do it well. [Plug: that’s a big part of On The Rise!]

Hybrid learning is the same thing, but I think is a term more commonly used in the United States.

Online Learning

For me, online learning encompasses both e-Learning and blended learning. I think of it as “using online tools for learning”. It doesn’t matter where you are on the face-to-face to e-Learning spectrum; online learning is the spectrum itself. The key element is the use of the Internet. Just like blended learning, this can be done poorly or awesomely.

Digital Learning

This one’s my favourite. This is everything. Digital learning includes online learning which includes blended learning (and Blended Learning) and e-Learning. It also includes “offline digital learning”, like using local software and digital cameras.

We’re still figuring this out…

…and in the end, it’s all just learning. I’m optimistic that we’ll get to the point where the only distinction will be whether you’re face-to-face or not; digital will be the norm.

Be patient: it’s a semester change

Tomorrow begins the second semester for most Ontario school boards (some Northwestern Ontario boards began a week ago), and I’m trying not to stress about it too much. I’m pretty well-prepared, with e-Learning courses mostly created last June or this fall, Blended Learning courses about 80% ready in November.

But there are a few courses left to complete, a host of e-Learning student accounts to create/maintain, and several hundred emails to send (mostly mail merges, thankfully). I made promises to have things ready for people this week that I wasn’t able to deliver when I said I would, and I really hate that (I imagine the people counting on me hate it even more). And just like F2F classes, there are always last-minute shuffles (for us, two teacher changes) which increase everyone’s stress level.

So I’m trying to be calm about the whole thing, to recognize that some things won’t work, that some email addresses say “.com” when they should say “.ca”, that messages will be missed or misunderstood.

And I’m hoping everyone else will do the same. Be very patient with the people who try to keep the system running: guidance counsellors, school leaders, IT technicians, administrative assistants, eLCs, and so on. It’s hard work, it’s complicated, and everyone’s doing their best.

Be gentle with us. We’re trying.

I’m working with a few teachers to design e-Learning courses. In Ontario, many e-Learning courses have content provided by the Ministry of Education as a starting point for delivery. e-Learning teachers will often take that existing content and use, change, delete, and supplement it according to their needs and the needs of their students.

But the interface that’s being used in these courses seems to have some problems. It was designed “a long time ago” (that’s just a few years, in this realm), and the learning environment has changed in possibly significant ways. The existing structure for most (not all) courses is to have one module per unit of the course, and then a series of pages for each activity in that unit. An activity consists of an Overview page (which is visible to the student in the Table of Contents), an Expectations or Learning Goals page, a page or group of pages labelled Content, and a page labelled Assignment. Expectations/Learning Goals, Content, and Assignment are linked internally from the Overview page, rather than listed in the TOC, so students see only Activity 1, Activity 2, etc., instead of a long list of all of the pages involved.

Student view of an eLO-provided course

Problems come up for the teacher in trying to navigate and edit the pages they want to. If they click Overview and then the internal links to Content, the learning environment registers them as being in the Overview page still for editing purposes. The teacher has to instead click the TOC link to the Content page before editing, and there are a bazillion such pages all called “Content” or “Assignment” (since they’re all in the current unit). There are other issues as well, but this is the one I see a lot.

Teacher view of an eLO-provided course

For students, navigating is something they get used to, but it’s not intuitive for them. They enter the activity and click on the Content page, engage with the lesson, go to the Assignment page, complete a task, return to the Content page to continue with the lesson, etc. The back-and-forth is irritating at the least, and it’s difficult for a teacher to maintain if there are any changes.

A student view of the 4-page structure of activities

Sometimes an Assignment will ask the students to participate in a Discussion. The Assignment page will give instructions, which are duplicated in the Discussion Topic area. Similar stuff happens with Dropboxes. This is a problem for maintenance as well: if you want to alter the instructions, you have to do it in more than one place.

So here’s what I think we should do.

• Let’s have a module per unit, and a module per activity within that unit. Let’s make the Activity Overview and Learning Goals a single page, and the Lesson/Assignment a single page (I have to think of a good name for this; maybe it depends on the task).
• The lesson materials and assignments are presented sequentially so that students are less likely to skip the “content” and just attempt the “assignments”.
• Hiding/conditionally releasing a unit/an activity means acting upon a module instead of a group of pages.
• Editing a page is always possible, since we’ll do away with those pesky internal links and rely on the TOC structure instead.
• Instructions for Dropbox/Discussion tasks will be included in either the Content area or in that tool but not both, and will be applied consistently throughout the course.
• Discussions, Dropboxes, Quizzes, etc. are not linked to in the Content pages but may be linked to in the TOC (there are lots of issues with changes in the way these tools are linked, so I don’t think the questionable advantage to an inline link is worth it). These items are also named really well, like “Unit 2 Activity 3.2 – For Loops” (including the course code, unit, activity and assignment details, along with an unambiguous title).

A sample of a revised course.

What do you think? What have you learned from your experiences (in Ontario or elsewhere, in K-12 or higher ed)?

Math rendering in Desire2Learn

I made a mistake (gasp!) in our eLC e-Community yesterday, saying that rendering math equations in D2L required a Java plug-in because browsers don’t support MathML. My information was out of date (I did check an existing course to confirm the browser’s behaviour, but the course was from 2011-2012; the new versions are updated).

Thankfully Tim Hasiuk posted this morning with some gentle corrections, so I figured I’d explain for the world what’s going on.

What I said in e-Community

“If I were to teach a math course using the learning environment I’d probably replace all of the equations with images using a service like CodeCogs.com’s Online LaTeX Equation Editor (http://www.codecogs.com/latex/eqneditor.php) and keep all of my source LaTeX equations. Here’s how CodeCogs renders f(x)=\frac{5}{2}cos(x-\pi)+\frac{1}{2}

I’d grab that image and insert it into the course – it’s browser and platform independent.”

Tim made the following points (portions removed, indicated by …):

“Problem with using images is that they degrade if resized, and the vLE doesn’t allow a lot of image options.

As a side note, MathML is what is used by the vLE embedded viewer to display the LaTeX equations created within the content area. So instead of copying an image, you could copy and paste the code from cogs into the LaTeX equation editor within the vLE content editor.”

Some investigation

So I looked at a newer course (MCV4U for next semester) and saw that Tim is right – the equations are rendered using MathJax (http://www.mathjax.org/), which is a Javascript project. The MathML in a course might look like

$<mrow> <mfrac> <mrow><mn>3</mn></mrow> <mrow><mi>x</mi><mo>-</mo><mn>3</mn></mrow> </mfrac> </mrow>$

which renders in the browser, using MathJax, inline like this:

So that’s pretty nice.

Testing the different equation editors in the vLE

But if you’re trying to write new equations, what’s the best approach? I tried expressing the same function in each of the three D2L-provided equation editors: the Graphical Editor, the MathML Editor, and the LaTeX Editor.

The MathML code was

$<mrow> <mtext>f(x)</mtext> <mo>=</mo> <mfrac> <mrow> <mtext>2cos(x</mtext> <mo>-</mo> <mtext>π</mtext> <mtext>)</mtext> </mrow> <mrow> <mtext>π</mtext> <mo>+</mo> <mfrac> <mn>1</mn> <mn>2</mn> </mfrac> </mrow> </mfrac> </mrow>$

The LaTeX code was

f(x)=\frac{2cos(x-\pi)}{\pi+\frac{1}{2}}

Here’s how a test page I made renders in each browser I have (you may need to click/tap each to see the full version):

Internet Explorer 11

As you can see, the browsers were very similar in their handling of the code. In each case I left the default settings for MathJax, which users can choose on the fly (in the past, it was a D2L preferences setting to use a Java plugin or to render the MathML directly). Here are the choices:

In IE and Chrome it was best to leave as HTML-CSS; MathML was not rendered by the browser (as expected) and SVG was a bit wonky (inconsistent type size was the most noticeable issue).

Firefox provides native support for MathML, though, so here’s what it rendered:

Looks familiar, eh? Firefox did a nice job, which makes sense.

So what’s the right approach?

Take a look at how things rendered above.

First, the Graphical Editor doesn’t do a nice job (or I’m using it incorrectly). This is really clear in the function notation on the left side of the equation. Kinda gross.

Second, the MathML was rendered nicely. It’s a bit small, but you can adjust the zoom as a user, so that’s not a really big deal. It’s also done inline with the text, which is nice.

Last, LaTeX is the most beautifully rendered (in my opinion), but it suffers here from being a separate, centered block (it’s not inline), which is arguably an issue that is a dealbreaker. Most interesting to me is that the LaTeX is actually converted to MathML for rendering. Has anyone found a way to get LaTeX’s prettiness while still being inline, without having to dive into the HTML? I’d like that to be something a math teacher (and a math student!) would feel comfortable with.

Semi-Final Conclusions

If I were teaching it, I’d be using the LaTeX editor because I’m comfortable with LaTeX as a language. If I didn’t know any LaTeX I’d probably go to an extension or website which uses a graphical editor to produce LaTeX live, like CodeCogs.com’s Online LaTeX Equation Editor (http://www.codecogs.com/latex/eqneditor.php) This is the easiest one I found in my quick search. There are also ways to convert the LaTeX to MathML so that you can use the MathML editor and get the inline capability if you want (see http://www.fmath.info/java/latex-mathml-converter/ for one example).

LaTeX Update

There is currently a really nice, comprehensive guide to using LaTeX for Math at ftp://ftp.ams.org/ams/doc/amsmath/short-math-guide.pdf and another helpful resource at http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX/Mathematics

Another LaTeX Update

This is a really cool tool for recognizing your hand-drawn symbols and returning the name of the symbol in LaTeX: http://detexify.kirelabs.org/classify.html

And here’s a graphical/the-way-you-type-math conversion tool that will generate LaTeX: http://mathlex.org/latex

Brief reflections on the SNB #PDLM

Thanks to Tim Robinson for tons of work on the presentation.

Last Monday the Sudbury-North Bay (SNB) Region hosted the e-Learning Contact (eLC) Provincial Digital Learning Meeting (PDLM) online using Adobe Connect (AC – just kidding). Each region has a turn at hosting a PDLM, and ours was hot on the heels of eSymposium (eSymp) on November 19th (esymp.ca).

I want to mention first that I work with a truly amazing group in our region. I’m privileged to be Chair for our region (no one else wanted to be) and was also lucky to be co-hosting this PDLM with Andrew Swartz from Northeastern Catholic DSB. All of the eLCs in the region contributed a great deal to the event, and [spoiler alert!] it was very successful!

The Agenda

• Welcome, etc.
• D2L Update
• Best of eSymposium (three breakout sessions)
• Break!
• Mini Virtual Ed Camp
• eLO update

I think most of this is “normal” (although awesome, because SNB was hosting), but the Ed Camp was different for us.

Mini Virtual Ed Camp

We were using Adobe Connect, so we opened up a fresh chat pod and asked the participants to type in topics they were interested in. We hosts watched the torrent of ideas rush past, and we noticed three topics “trending”: Carousels, Integrations (particularly GAFE and O365) and ePortfolio.

We set up three breakout rooms, one for each topics, and asked people to choose which they wanted to go to. We made it clear that we weren’t “presenting” in those sessions, but that anyone there can ask questions and anyone there can answer them. Participants could go to a room to learn something new, go to a room to act as an expert, or anything in between.

It worked well

People mostly stayed put, although they were welcome to move between rooms (only about 5 people did). That’s partly because participants have to be moved in Adobe Connect (they can’t just wander on their own; they need help from hosts).

I didn’t get to attend the breakouts myself, but feedback I heard was that the 30-35 minutes was about right for those topics. Much longer and people might have found their attention wandering. The groups were also large (one around 35), so that’s pretty big for easy online chit chat.

I’d like to participate next time

I’m hoping a future PDLM includes some Ed Camp time; I’d like to try it out. I wonder if a service other than Adobe Connect would be better to allow people to move between rooms, or if multiple meetings would be better (separate URLs).

I think a face-to-face Ed Camp would be pretty sweet too – I’d love to see one here in the Sault.

Big plans… :)