Saturday, April 23, 2005

How Much Is Too Much?

I sometimes get a sense from faculty members that they are overwhelmed.

Generally, this is owing to them teaching several classes, having advisees, coaching, living in a dorm, regularly having comments and grades to do for all of the above, plus all the other responsibilities that go along with working at a boarding school. I suppose it is understandable...

But I'm afraid I might be contributing to this problem.

We currently use what seems to me just a handful of applications. However as I look at them the list really does get fairly large. In "productivity" apps alone, we have Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook (or Outlook Web Access), OneNote, and GoBinder that are on everyone's Tablet. Then we have the school portal and the school web site (for internal and external use, respectively). We have limited focus apps, such as MS Reader and Adobe Acrobat (that do much the same thing). Some people use Project, Publisher, PageMaker, and there are department specific apps such as Geometer Sketchpad and Fathom and the four programs that our language department just purchased. Then there is the multitude of utilities such as the wireless projector software, VPN client, spyware checkers, etc. Individuals also use apps that we don't support in any significant way. I don't even know how many.

On top of this, we are trying to get folks to use Blackboard in their classes and we are introducing DyKnow to selected teachers.

Hmm. Maybe I have already contributed to the problem…

For me, at least, this is a real risk. I am one of those people who are like machines when there is new stuff to learn. I have too often stayed up through the night and neglected my family to work with a new programming language and have missed workouts or meals to play around with a new piece of software. I generally can't get enough of it when there is something new to learn and I forget that others can easily get too much of it. I have to fight the urge to throw every cool new piece of software into the mix and I wonder if I haven't lost that fight a few too many times.

Still, every single one of the packages that we use has its place and is very worthwhile. But how do we introduce new ones most strategically? And how do we do so in such a way that folks don't get swamped. And how do we simultaneously improve skills in the existing apps. And how do we do all of this when everyone is already so busy? (See the second paragraph.)

Particularly tricky is the question of helping folks to choose between applications when their functions overlap, or at least appear to. One example of this is the OneNote/GoBinder combination. Both are note-taking applications and do a credible job of that function. Beyond that, however, they offer different features. GoBinder has the task management function (which, by the way, Outlook does as well) and the Syllabus page for managing assignments. OneNote, on the other hand, has shared sessions (a similar function is also offered by DyKnow) and audio and video recording capabilities.

An argument could be readily made for simply selecting between these overlapping applications and offering a more limited selection of software and capabilities. And there is merit to this argument. Folks would have fewer applications to learn and it would probably be simpler to develop a higher skill set sooner. It would simply be that some software capabilities wouldn't be available.

On the other hand, all of these applications (the Tablet-oriented ones at least) are early in their development lives and features are being added regularly. The future is bright for them, but the future may well look very different from the present. Limiting our selection of applications now would ease the learning curve, but it would also close the door on both present and future capabilities that may well be crucial to someone. It could, of course, be opened again, but we would be much further behind the learning curve.

I guess the direction we are going with this (if I don't sound really positive that this is the best way to go it is because I am not--but I think it is) is toward a broader selection of applications, which we in IT need to know pretty well. We will work with faculty to identify the features most useful to them and help them to select and learn those apps that they need for themselves and their classes. This, of course, puts students in the position of needing to learn all of them to at least some level. From what I have seen, though, this is among the least of our problems. In this way, we can adopt a Darwinist attitude toward the applications and let the most fit and most adaptable survive.

Our current battles to find training time in the schedule is going to make this hard and I hope that next year we will factor this into our scheduling decisions up front. I do think the miasma of applications will clear in the minds of faculty members as they begin to work with the Tablets more and see what works for them and what doesn't. Time to practice, time to think, time to discuss make a huge difference in this process.

That seems to have been the case so far with those who already have Tablets. Applications they don't use recede into the background and the confusion lessens--at least until the next new application is introduced.

Now what do I do about all the apps I haven't even had a chance to explore yet?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Conference in a Million

When I took my current position at Vermont Academy, one of the unintended consequences was inheriting a role of involvement with a conference called edAccess. edAccess (originally called just Access) stands for Administrative and Campus Computing Environments at Small Schools. The conference is unlike any I have ever attended elsewhere and one I would heartily recommend to any small college or secondary school, esepcially those considering Tablet PCs. (Full disclosure: my involvement is as a member of the steering committee the only perks of which are a really fabulous dinner the night before the conference and the really fabulous discussion that takes place at those dinners.)

edAccess is not focused on Tablet PCs, but they have been a topic of discussion there for the last two years. Discussion is really what edAccess is all about and the topics covered are always incredibly varied. It is not a place where participation is limited to warming a seat and hearing the "experts" pontificate. It is a place where it is recognized that those of us who are in the trenches are the experts and we share our knowledge with each other in a mutually beneficial give-and-take. Most of the conference consists of small forum discussions around topics of common interest. I can't even tell you what those will be this year, as the topics are selected by the attendees at the conference. I would love to see a number of folks who are involved in Tablet PC programs or interested in them at the conference so that we could share our experiences and help each other to make these programs the best they can be.

The conference this year is June 22-24 at the beautiful campus of Groton School in Groton, MA. More information is available at the web site, It is a highlight of my year and I trust would be one for any of you who can make it, too. I hope to see you there.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Rethinking The Interface

In an earlier post (Training I - do your users think in ink?) I talked about the need for users to learn new skills that seemed disarmingly like skills they had already acquired--but which were decidedly different. This unexpected difference makes for a longer learning curve and can result in a higher frustration level, and potentially even with rejection of the Tablet by users. The proverb of old wine in new wineskins comes to mind.

Another area where I see this proverb as applicable is in application interfaces. There are a lot of obvious ways that applications need to change to work really well on Tablet PCs, most notably the appropriate support of ink. There are lots of other fairly obvious issues that application designers need to consider: the potential for portrait mode orientation, the difficulty of hitting small screen widgets (scroll bar buttons, title bar buttons, etc.) with a pen, graceful recovery from stand-by mode, etc., etc., etc. I am pretty opinionated on this subject and as I am in the process of reworking an internal application to work well with the Tablets I am dealing with this regularly and probably will have more to say in the future.

For now, though, I want to focus exclusively on the problem of reading on a Tablet, apparently one of the less obvious issues judging by past efforts, and give kudos to a group that I think is getting it right.

Reading on a computer has never been a particularly pleasant prospect for me until I had my Tablet. The application that finally made it work is Microsoft Reader. (This isn't the group I mentioned, but Reader is an appropriate segue to talking about them.) In a nutshell, Reader has very successfully replicated for me the feel of reading a book on my Tablet. Some of this is due to the slate mode of the Tablet, as keyboards are in the way when reading. But Microsoft also made some very sound design decisions that, and this is key, went against conventional wisdom and Windows application design standards. They didn't let the current interface paradigm dictate how they approached the reading problem and as a result found an elegant solution to it. I talk about this in quite a bit more detail in a posting on my other blog, The Pew Tablet. While that blog's focus is on how Christians can use Tablet PCs, this particular article might be worth reading regardless of your beliefs if you are interested in this subject.

I mention in that article that while MS Reader (and to some extent Adobe Acrobat Reader) has greatly improved reading books on PCs, reading magazines on Tablets still doesn't cut it. One of the first things I did when I got my latest Tablet was to remove Zinio, a magazine reading application that came preinstalled. Like all efforts I had seen before, the magazines that were published in Zinio looked like the publisher had tried to shoehorn pages from their print editions onto the Tablet screen. A paradigm that works well (in most cases) in print just doesn't cut it at all for me on the Tablet. Nor for that matter do web-based magazines in many cases. In the former, the strengths of the old paradigm mostly don't translate well and in the latter too many of those strengths are thrown out completely. As a result, I simply haven't found reading newspapers or magazines on a computer worthwhile. The Web is great for getting a single article, but that isn't reading a magazine and that is the experience that I have been missing.

However the Missouri School of Journalism and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute have been collaborating on an experiment with a bi-weekly electronic edition (called EmPRINT, for Electronic Media Print) of their newspaper, The Missourian. Their experiment seems to me to be very successful so far. Once again, they appear to have thought outside the existing paradigms and come up with a new one that preserves the linearity and perusal capabilities of paper but doesn't tie you into flipping virtual pages or throw you into hyperlink purgatory where you have to use the back button to retrace your steps when you inevitably get lost.

When one loads an EmPRINT edition of The Missourian, a very newspaper-like page appears, but with only a few stories and pictures under the banner. Different sections of the paper are displayed as tabs on the right side of the page so one can quickly jump to a section of interest, but there is also the ability to browse through the edition page by page. An index brings up a detailed listing of the contents, something print papers don't do, but which is very useful. Stories are usually continued on later pages, but the links to go there are attractive and contribute to the newspaper-like feel rather than detract from it. It is a wonderful, wonderful way to read a newspaper on a Tablet and I hope it is a harbinger of more to come from other print media.

My description doesn't really do this justice, so I recommend that you go to the EmPRINT site and get a copy for yourself. You have to register to download the editions, and part of registering is agreeing to supply feedback to them. I have gotten one survey per edition and there is usually only one question per survey, so this isn't an onerous requirement. But their experiment ends on May 8, so you should hurry if you want to see this in action. Here is the registration page. They do promise that if the results of this field test are favorable, they will continue to publish the EmPRINT edition. I certainly hope they do.

I also hope this way of rethinking the interface represents only an opening salvo. Those of us in education really need e-books and e-magazines and e-texts that are something more than just web or Acrobat copies of the paper book. Publishing houses, are you listening?

Monday, April 04, 2005

Do You See What I See?

When I think about the benefits that the Tablet can bring to a school, I tend to view them in three categories: benefits to the student, benefits to the teacher, and benefits to the class (and other collaborative groups) as a whole. While each category brings strong arguments in favor of Tablets over notebooks, for now I want to begin looking at some of the benefits in class.

Vermont Academy has never been particularly flush with classroom technology. Each of our classrooms has a computer on the faculty desk, and we have always had one or two portable projectors that could float between classrooms and attach to these computers or to a notebook. In addition, we have a computer lab with a permanently mounted projector and screen.

Although the number has fluctuated over time, there have always been some teachers who made regular use of these projectors to present material. It has generally come at the cost, though, of a poor strategic placement of the teacher. Usually the teacher has to sit behind the students during this presentation because the computer needs to be close to the projector which needs to be relatively far from the screen. We've tried some things to get around this, such as a USB wireless remote to advance PowerPoint slides, but these have always felt like workarounds at best.

We are now working with two technologies that show strong promise for not only addressing all of the shortcomings of our wired projectors but potentially bringing additional gains to the classroom as well.

As part of our Tablet PC pilot, we have purchased several Epson wireless projectors. The current model is the 745c though we also have the older 735c. Both come with a wireless network card, 802.11b in the 735C and 802.11b/g in the 745c, and software that allows our Tablets to send the screen image to the projector via wireless. We have added the projectors as devices on our network, but they can work in peer-to-peer mode as well.

With the wireless units, the only constraint on placement of the projector itself is the availability of power and a projection surface. Since our classrooms are generally small, we don't need a lot of wall space as long as it is free from windows, pictures, etc. The real freedom, though, is given to the teacher who can now sit or stand anywhere in the classroom (or technically, I guess, anywhere on campus) and display the Tablet screen for the class. This arrangement allows for face-to-face communication during the presentation--much better than talking to the back of a bunch of heads. While this could also be done with a notebook, the Tablet removes the social barrier of the computer screen standing between teacher and class. The teacher is free to walk around during the presentation and even give the Tablet to a student for her to interact with the materials. Eventually, when all students have Tablets, the instructor can even allow a student to take control of the projector from his Tablet.

Another technology we are exploring is collaborative software. We cut our teeth on this with OneNote shared sessions but are also exploring other tools.

OneNote allows a user to start a shared session, essentially opening up his current page for others to see and work on. The page can be shared read-only or read-write, depending on the need. Other users connect to the machine by IP address and port number. This is a rather cumbersome means of connecting, but it is helped somewhat by OneNote's display of the required connection information on the sharing machine. Outlook users can also send an invitation which makes connecting as simple as a pen tap or mouse click. Users work together, each seeing everyone else's ink or text if the session is read-write or just the host's if read-only. The finished page is left on each individual machine when the session is ended, so everyone walks away with a copy.

We have just recently begun a pilot using DyKnow. DyKnow, which requires a server to operate, likewise allows for shared workspaces, but the control of the space is more granular than what OneNote offers. An administrator sets up classes, with users designated as faculty or students. The faculty member will start the session and students will join in, selecting the class from a pick list of accessible classes.

Sessions are seen as a series of pages, much like slides in PowerPoint. These pages can contain text, drawings, written notes, images, web pages (live), media, etc. To some extent the teacher will control the access to the pages, though students can pause on a screen or scroll backward at will. Students can write notes on the pages as they are displayed, but unless the instructor shares control others generally do not see these notes. There is also a separate space for private typed or written notes associated with each slide. This is particularly useful as pages can be submitted to the instructor or collected by the instructor. Any notes on the pages themselves go to the instructor, but private notes do not. The presentation can be prepared ahead of time or created or modified on the fly. There is more to DyKnow than this, and if it proves out I'll talk more about it later on. For now, it looks like a good way to eliminate projectors altogether plus giving some good classroom collaboration tools.

There is other software that seems to offer some at least of what DyKnow offers. Groove is one. It will be especially interesting to watch Groove now that Microsoft has bought the company. Another package that might be of interest is Classroom Presenter, being developed at the University of Washington. It bills itself as a "distributed presentation system" and uses PowerPoint slides and real-time ink for presentation. The price is certainly right (free), whereas both Groove and DyKnow charge per seat.

This is an area where I expect to see a lot of developments in the near future. It is a natural use of the Tablet in a classroom setting and in other types of collaborative groups. It will be exciting to work with this technology and to see the developments that will be forthcoming. Let me know if you have found something useful in this area.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Are We Empowering or Just Enabling?

I was talking with one of the teachers in our pilot program a few days ago. While he has come to appreciate the usefulness of the Tablet PC himself, he had some concerns about using Tablets in the classroom. Now this wasn't really something I wanted to hear from someone I am looking to as a leader going forward in our project. Fortunately, as we talked further about what has been going on the issue that came to light wasn't with the Tablets per se.

His concern wasn't that the Tablet PC was not useful academically (Phew!), but rather that students were using them to goof off in class. They would browse the Internet, play games or just doodle. Not many students, but a couple. A couple of others were distracted by those beside them, so the negative effect was compounded. In a small class, such as we have at Vermont Academy, this could mean a third or more of the class wasn't paying attention. That's a big problem. It is actually several related problems, but I'll address the Internet access piece specifically.

In-class Internet isn't only a problem at the high school level, either. Stories abound of higher-ed classrooms where the teaching faculty will not allow notebook computers in their classes because of the same issues this teacher was describing. In articles I have read, students own up freely to shopping, browsing, playing games, IMing, even blogging about their class while in class. Here is one such.

So how do we address what is essentially a non-technical problem? Is it really even a problem? Can't some students listen and comprehend better while their hands are engaged? (Being a chronic fidgeter myself, I can appreciate this argument.) Aren't students these days used to multi-tasking and are we just being old-fashioned in trying to squelch this behavior?

Some folks have argued that we shouldn't have computers, or at least wireless Internet, in class because this distraction is too big a hindrance to the learning process. Even though they might have to deal with this in college, that is not our problem nor is it our responsibility. The analogy was made that we don't teach our students to drink alcohol, but they will face that temptation in college. Isn't this just the same? While I do not advocate underage drinking, I would counter that the significant problem of binge drinking on college campuses indicates that maybe there is a problem with that line of reasoning.

My own thinking on this behavior has led me to the conclusion that the only real control of this activity is self-control. Teaching students this self-control is a mandatory part of the college prep process these days. With over 55% of higher ed campuses reporting strategic plans for wireless networks as of the fall of 2004, most of our students will have to deal with this distraction in college. By the time our freshmen graduate, I expect that this number will be significantly higher. (Source: The Campus Computing Project. View their 2004 summary report at this link.) To prepare students for college means more than just giving them an academic base--they need to master many skills if they are to succeed, and learning when to turn off the internet for themselves is going be a key skill.

So how do we teach this skill? More importantly, how do we do it in a way that not only helps the students to learn, but minimizes the negative impact on the classes while the students are learning and failing in their efforts?

My colleague and I agreed that there needs to be a means of control, in the hands of the teachers, that will allow for the shutting off of Internet access during a class when necessary. Some, to be sure, will probably use this religiously so that there is no problem in class. It is their class, and they are entitled to do so. Others may never use this capability, or only at specific times such as when giving a test.

On the other hand, if this is the only means of control that we have--on or off, whether by service (IM, HTTP, content filter, etc.) or completely--the opportunity to learn is severely diminished. We are teaching only control, not self-control.

We also agreed that there is a need for students to be able to fail so as to learn from their mistakes. But we don't want to create a situation where they can fail so completely that their academic standing is threatened. We are an environment that has a lot of supports and they need to be brought to bear in this case. Let the students fail enough so that they feel the consequences, but not so much that they can't recover. This is the major area where we differ from higher ed generally. By and large, a student at university is expected to stand or fall on his own. No one is there to hold his hand or pick her up when she falls. At least not in the same way.

We have to find a strategy that will allow us fairly granular control by student of various access privileges. Then we have to put together a plan whereby the student can rise (or drop) to his or her current best level, balancing control and self-control as appropriate, and the means to help them learn to rise. Ideally, by the time a senior graduates, he or she will have unfettered internet access throughout the day but will have the maturity and self-control to choose wisely when and when not to use it.

At this point, all I can say is that we are working on it. But the fact that we are working on finding the right solution is a Very Good Thing. Some day I hope I can write that we've found the holy grail on this issue. Until then, comments, discussion, disagreements and suggestions are always welcome.