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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Winter 2006 term post-mortem

Since I found the post-mortem analysis of my teaching experience last term to be a useful exercise for myself as well as a convenient way to brief others, here is another at the end of our Winter term at Drexel. I taught CHEM242 Organic Chemistry II.

1) This was the second term where I assigned recorded lectures from a previous term and held workshops instead of repeating myself one more time. In contrast to the previous course CHEM241, most of the lectures had some publisher material that I could not share publicly. This was not an issue for the audio podcast but any visual information (aside from the introductory first lecture) had to be password protected. I had traditionally done this by keeping files on WebCT. However, since our upgrade to the Vista edition of WebCT, students were complaining that downloading files was problematic because of a time-out error, even for small pdf files. In order to work around this, I moved all downloadable files to our CoAS server in a password protected folder. This worked really well because it enabled any or our faculty to construct a regular URL (e.g. http://showme.physics.drexel.edu/coas/aquino/242-2005-wi-week1fri.pdf) to link to a file and provide the password only to their students. I don't think it is possible to create a URL to a file in WebCT from the open web. One has to first log in.

2) I am a proponent of using technology as sparingly as possible because there is an intimidation and confusion factor that must be overcome for many students taking a non conventional class such as mine. That is why I resisted using wikis so long and why I pushed for viewing the streaming screencasts as the only way to access the lectures. However, just as student demand motivated me to start podcasting the audio, student requests for making the lecture videos downloadable pushed me to provide the lectures in AVI format. One problem with that was the large file size (about 200 Meg/hour) and the annoying fact that AVI files created by Camtasia need special codecs to play. One of my students found a site to download the codecs but I think that is just asking too much of my less technically inclined audience.

3) The real video breakthrough this term came from yet another request, a student who wanted to view the lectures on her new video ipod. Those of you who have been following this blog will know that I was not a big fan of vodcasting lectures, mainly because of the gigantic file downloads that were initially being pushed through the feeds. But it turns out that it is possible to create vodcasts in m4v format that will play beautifully on a video ipod at 50 Meg/hour. Although the resolution is not quite as good as the Flash screencasts I have been providing, for applications not involving 12 point fonts (like small text on a website), it is just fine for typical powerpoint presentations. The challenge here is to convince students that they don't need an ipod or Mac to view the vodcast via iTunes. Any computer capable of playing Quicktime will do. But all of the students who have been watching them on their video ipods have been very pleased.

4) Just like last term, only a small number of students made use of any given workshop and a few times no students showed up. However, those who did come made really good use of the time. Some students wanted to work on questions that they kept getting wrong while others wanted to do questions with me before watching the lectures. For concepts like NMR, which involves analyzing spectra to identify molecules, I think that doing problems before watching the theory may actually be a better way to teach it. But each student is different and the beauty of technology is that I can use different tools to see what works best for a particular student.

5) I spiced up the Unreal Tournament (educational version, no weapons) Races this term by offering better prizes. The winner would draw a card for an even chance of winning a video ipod, a chemistry book, a molecular model kit or a consolation prize. I didn't give out the same prize to the same student twice so the odds of winning the ipod improved for persistent students. One student won every prize. There were about 4-5 students who consistently participated in the UT races, which ran about once every week or two. The UT race is basically a quiz using a first person perspective running into doors decorated with chemical reactions and concepts. Any incorrect selection takes the student back to the start of the maze. Students would often continue playing even after the race was over and ask me questions when they were stuck. This type of immersive experience seemed to be a very good way for some students to learn the material.

6) I offered 3 extra credit options worth up to 2%. Although many students were initially interested in contributing to the UsefulChem malaria project, only two persevered and they are still working in my lab. A few students did the blog assignment. I thought the most interesting was about the chemistry behind glowsticks. Those who started early got the most feedback from me and learned the most not only about their specific topic but also about the way chemical information is stored in the world. The most popular extra credit choice was creating Unreal Tournament true and false doors. I was hoping that I could use these for the whole class to benefit and I did select a few for some of the UT races but in the end it was quicker to just create them myself and cover the material that I considered to be most critical. I was toying with the idea of increasing the amount of extra credit for next term but I want the students who get involved to really want to do it out of genuine interest. Otherwise, instead of a constructivist learning project, it will turn into just another hoop to jump through. So I'll keep it at 2% next term as well.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The value of anecdotal information in education

In reacting to one of Mark Wagner's posts, I squeezed out a thought that I had been meaning to get out on this blog for a while:

Since I do research in chemistry and educational technology I can assure you that being productive in each requires a completely different mindset. In chemistry you are trying make a compound and you want a reproducible result for the minimum cost and effort. But you can’t do that with education because human beings are not molecules.

Reducing the value of an educational approach to an average number (like improved test scores) is very counter-productive because it will encourage teachers to hype the results of their experiments to satisfy the gatekeepers (employers, editors, grant managers) and then lose credibility.

I got to watch a student spend 2 hours on an organic chemistry game last week and show me by the questions that he came up with that he was understanding the material on a new level. The statistical value of that is zero but I have no doubt as to the value of that experience for that particular student.

The difficulty comes from the fact that you cannot repeat any educational situation because it results from the interaction of a particular teacher with a particular student at a certain time over a certain subject matter. The teaching experience leaves both the student and the teacher changed and they cannot unlearn it to repeat the experiment.

Certainly, the testable basics in any class must be taught well but, beyond that, it becomes increasingly difficult to quantify the richest unique teaching and learning experiences. However, a conversation with the teacher and the student will reveal the value to anyone who cares enough to ask.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Automatic transcription set up

I managed to set up an ongoing account with CastingWords, where they will automatically transcribe my podcast as soon as the files show up on the RSS feed. They tell me I am their first customer to be set up like this so there may be a few kinks to work out. Right now it is taking several days to process the files.

My preference is to have the transcripts posted on a separate blog and linked back to the posts where the relevant podcast and screencast are located. That way I can supply an RSS feed to the transcripts and keep track of how people are finding the content using SiteMeter. It would be nice if CastingWords would directly post in the transcript blog so that I could completely outsource the transcription process but I have not been able to convince them yet. If there are any transcription services out there willing to do that let me know.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

USA today podcasting in education article

There was another article about podcasting in education in USA today. Nothing really new from other similar articles coming out since lecture podcasting really started in a few places in the fall.

As I have mentioned before, the main story in the mass media seems to be about how to introduce podcasting without reducing attendance. This is shifting the focus away from the real issue about how this new technology is affecting learning.

This quote says it all:
Skeptics hope the rush to experiment with iPods won't affect classroom teaching.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I have not checked if this works but, if it does, this is really powerful stuff. FeedYes lets you create an RSS feed for changes on any website.

Thanks to Andrew from SHU Innovation for LTA.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Open source science and commercial interests

It is always fascinating to observe self-organizing systems evolve. This happening now in open source science. Consider this example.

ChemRefer is a company that searches the literature to answer chemical questions for free, making money through advertising. They are subscribed to our UsefulChem blog, where I posted about a request made in the SynapticLeap for an improved synthesis of a drug for a tropical disease.

It turns out that ChemRefer finds a thesis with an alternative synthesis and contributes that without being asked.

I don't know if ChemRefer's model will be successful but, as those with similar motives try, the wheels of science move a little bit forward.

I talked a bit more about this in my Peer Review in the Google Age presentation.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Podcasting the PAET conference

I just finished processing the podcast for the Philadelphia Area Educational Technology conference that I helped coordinate with Laura Blankenship last week at Haverford College.

Somehow the audio settings on my tablet PC were altered and the mic became hypersensitive. This made for some poor recordings for some of the louder presenters and some were not usable.

Although not pretty - the recordings that are there are understandable.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

MSN RSS search feeds

Although I have mentioned this a few time in prior posts, such as for chemistry research, I want to re-emphasize how important it is that MSN has incorporated RSS feeds of general searches.

Google has been doing it for a while for blog searches only, and even there the subscription process is not as simple. With MSN you can just scroll down to the bottom of any search, click on the RSS icon then click on a "subscribe with Bloglines" button and you are done. And it turns out MSN indexes blogs also so the search includes pretty much what you would get from BlogSearch in addition to a general web query.

This has changed the way I introduce RSS in 5 minutes to newbies:

1) Show them how to subscribe to Bloglines
2) Show them how to subscribe to MSN RSS search feeds and let them start collecting around their interests

If anyone is aware of other search engines doing the same thing please drop me a comment.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Screencasting and NetMeeting

For the special RSS club meeting last Thursday on Peer Review in the Google Age, I wanted to do a live screencast. Thanks to a lot of help from Rob Rasberry at Drexel, we got most of it to work. This is what transpired:

1) Frank Fulchiero from Connecticut College and Heather Morrison from Simon Fraser University in BC watched the screenshared feed over NetMeeting. This installs easily from any Windows machine. Just go to Start->Run and type "conf".

2) We had a webcam in Philly and, although we could not get it to work inside of NetMeeting, I just displayed it on the desktop and it was shared along with the rest of the desktop.

3) Although I think NetMeeting is supposed to prevent feedback, we never really got the audio to work well so I just shut off the speakers on my computer and left the mic on. Heather talked with us through a regular telephone conference call.

4) We also had the Polycom unit running to connect with Frank. This enabled both sides to control a video camera remotely and worked great. The downside, of course, is that everyone needs to have a unit installed. But this was useful because Frank was able to compare the audio quality of the feeds. He found that the Polycom was much better than NetMeeting. I was on a wireless connection on my end - we'll see if it improves with ethernet next time.

5) During the live presentations, everything went fine. Heather was able to share her screen and do her presentation. However, the Camtasia recording got very choppy (audio and video) at that time and really was not usable. I don't know if it is because of the screen share or the addition of the camera but the AVI after an hour was gigantic (800 Meg vs. 200 Meg normally) and it was very difficult and slow to edit in Camtasia afterwards. I'll try without the webcam next time to see if it solves that problem.

6) Two of the three presentations are now available as podcast, screencast and vodcast. The Powerpoint presentations are actually podcast in separate posts but iTunes still does not recognize ppt as a valid enclosure (they should show up other podcatchers like ipodder).

Jean-Claude Bradley mp3 podcast/screencast vodcast and Powerpoint
Peggy Dominy and Jay Bhatt mp3 podcast/screencast vodcast and Powerpoint
Heather Morrison Powerpoint

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