Tag Archives: web 2.0

Three things I wish Google Documents would let me do

Let me preface this article by saying that I really like Google Documents. It’s a fantastic set of tools that extends basic office functionality to the web in really compelling ways. I’ve been incorporating Google Docs pretty centrally in my courses for the last few years — for example, I no longer hand out paper syllabi on the first day of classes but instead write the syllabi on GDocs and distribute the links; and I’ve given final exams on Google Docs with links to data that are housed in Google Spreadsheets. I love being able to create a document on the web and just leave it there for students (or whoever) to come see, collaborate, and comment — without having to keep track of paper and with virtually zero chance of losing my data. (If Google crashes, we have much bigger problems than the loss of a set of quiz data.)

But like anything, Google Documents isn’t perfect — and in particular, there are at least three things that I wish Google Documents would do that would push my really like-ness to unqualified love:

1. Bring back the old Equation Editor. A couple of years ago, Google rolled out an equation editor for Google Docs that was just beautiful — a small editor that had point-and-click features for adding equations and the ability to parse \LaTeX commands. In other words, it was a mini-\LaTeX editor built right into Google Docs that would implement almost any of the essential functionality of \LaTeX, including matrices, multi-line equations, and more. I remember discovering this editor two years ago and promptly writing up every single one of my linear algebra activities as Google Documents. Then, inexplicably, Google replaced this sweet \LaTeX goodness with a stripped-down equation editor that pales in comparison, supporting only a tiny fraction of \LaTeX‘s command set, and in particular no matrices or multi-line equations. And the “new” editor is clunky and doesn’t seem to produce very good results. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of why this change to a clearly-inferior editor was made. It can’t be because it was overtaxing Google’s system! This is Google, for goodness’ sake, and it’s 2011 — can’t we have a real \LaTeX editor for Google Docs? There’s already one for GMail, you know.

2. Allow comments and discussion threads on PDF’s uploaded to Google Documents. From a teacher’s perspective, one of the most compelling possibilities for Google Docs is to have students upload their class work on Google Docs and then initiate a running discussion thread on that work. Such a thing would replace the usual system of handing in work and having the teacher write comments on it, thereby turning the grading process into something more like a conversation. You can do this with documents created in Google Docs. But if you want students to create mathematical work — since, as I just noted, the current equation editor for GDocs doesn’t get the job done — students would have to create their work in MS Word or \LaTeX, convert to a PDF, and then upload it. No problem, except that discussion threads and comments aren’t allowed on uploaded documents. The option simply isn’t there in the menu system. Google acknowledges that comments and comment threads are only available on newly-created documents, and functionality is coming for older documents — but no word on uploaded documents. If this could be made to happen, grading student work suddenly gets a whole lot more interesting (and valuable for students).

3. Auto-shorten URL’s of links to documents. OK, this is pretty minor, because all I have to do is copy the URL given to me by Google and run it through bit.ly. But since Google already has its own URL shortener, why not just auto-compress the URL using that shortener at the moment the URL is generated? It saves a few clicks and makes users happier because we don’t have to deal with URL’s that are multiple dozens of characters long. And more practically, it makes Google Docs easier for novices to use — many new users (I’m envisioning a good portion of students in my classes who I’d like to get to use Google Docs) have no idea that URL shorteners exist.

What else would you add to this list? Better yet, are there hacks or workarounds that resolve these issues? (Or, thirdly, am I just mistaken on any of this?)

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Filed under LaTeX, Social software, Teaching, Technology, Web 2.0

Is Khan Academy the future of education?

Salman Khan is a former financial analyst who quit his day job so that he could form Khan Academy — a venture in which he makes instructional videos on mathematics topics and puts them on YouTube. And he has certainly done a prolific job of it — to the tune of over a thousand short videos on topics ranging from basic addition to differential equations and also physics, biology, and finance.  Amazingly, he does this all on his own time, in a remodeled closet in his house, for free:

I can attest to the quality of his linear algebra videos, some of which I’ve embedded on the Moodle site for my linear algebra course. They are simple without being dumbed down, and what he says about the 10-minute time span in the PBS story is exactly right — it’s just the right length for a single topic.

What do you think about this? What role do well-produced, short, simple, free video lectures like this have in the future of education? Will they eventually replace classrooms as we know them? If not, will they eventually force major changes in the way classroom instruction is done, and if so, what kinds of changes?

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Filed under Education, Educational technology, High school, Higher ed, Linear algebra, Math, Screencasts, Social software, Technology, Web 2.0

The blogging VPAA?

I was thinking over the session coming up at Blog Indiana by John Oak Dalton titled “Chancellor 2.0” which promises to address “existing and emerging obstacles of CEO-grade context” [sic? Was that supposed to be “content”?] for Twitter. In other words, it sounds like the session will be about how to get your college’s upper administration up and running with blogging and tweeting. I’m curious to see what Dalton makes of this, because his home institution seems to have embraced blogging and Twitter at a scale you don’t normally see from a university. Even the chancellor tweets.

I’d love to see more college administrators blogging or twittering, using their real names, making no secret of their institutions, and writing honestly about their successes and struggles in the work that they do. There’s no faster track to giving higher education a measure of transparency that it badly needs than this. That transparency is needed both inside and out.

On the inside, faculty benefit from having a window on what the administration is doing, rather than having an administration that lives and works behind a wall of separation. Students, for whom college administration is especially important but also mysterious, would benefit too. And as faculty have a tendency to objectify administrators and turn them into lay figures to complain about — a mirror image of what many students do to faculty — anything that administrators can do to show people their human side (up to a point, of course; there’s still such a thing as “too much information”) helps the organization operate better.

On the outside, the general public has cultivated such a distrust and dislike for higher education — and can they be blamed, the way we act sometimes? — that giving them that same window on administrative operations would be an honest, unilateral step towards reestablishing the trust that ought to be shared between town and gown. And if I were a parent with a child about to start college, the administrator and faculty blogs would be a valuable source of information about what the college is really like.

If I were a college administrator (not that I’m looking to become one), not only would I be blogging and Twittering regularly, I’d encourage the people who work under me as well as faculty to do the same. I’d be trying to make sure the resources are there to make it happen — dedicated server space for faculty and staff to have their own WordPress installations, and so forth — and most important to make sure that they have permission to speak freely. Imagine what it would be like if your official college blog posts or tweets could be used for your benefit towards tenure.

Are there other college administrators out there who blog or tweet? Or any administrators out there reading this post who don’t, and would care to explain why not?

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Filed under Academic freedom, Blogging, Higher ed, Life in academia, Social software, Technology, Tenure, Twitter, Web 2.0

Farewell, Jott, I hardly knew ye

Jott, the voice-to-text program I have blogged about a couple of times, has come out of “beta” (you mean Web 2.0 apps can be something other than “beta”?) and, sadly, is no longer a free service. (You mean Web 2.0 apps aren’t always free?) There will be a “Jott Basic” plan that will remain free, but all it allows you to do is leave voice messages to the online “Jott desktop”; it does not include the feature that made Jott so addictive useful, namely the ability to have voice messages transcribed and sent directly to your email account, Google Calendar, Twitter, or other supported services. For that, you have to pay $3.95 a month for the regular plan or $12.95 for the “Pro” plan. Also, the basic plan includes ads.

I can’t begrudge Jott for wanting to have some kind of a revenue stream, but I have to say that I am very disappointed in this move, and I won’t be using Jott from here on out. I use Jott to capture thoughts, ideas, and other stuff when I am not near a pen and paper or a computer — driving home, walking across campus, whatever — by phoning them in to Jott, and then Jott sends them to a special GTD folder in my Gmail for non-dated stuff and into Google Calendar for dated stuff. Jott allows me to eliminate several “collection buckets” — notepads, voice recorders, etc. — that I would need for collecting on-the-go stuff and instead just use my normal GMail/GCalendar account. It sounds like laziness, but making me go to Jott’s website to my Jott Desktop to get the stuff that I would capture using Jott, rather than sending it straight to GMail/GCal, adds a lot of complexity to my collection/processing routine. Too much.

Is it worth $4 a month? Not for me; in my household we are pinching every penny we have,  which is one of the reasons that free Web 2.0 apps are such a blessing for me. A search for Twitter posts on “jott” reveals a handful of “It’s worth it and I’m going to pay for it” tweets out there, but a lot more people are like me — disappointed and getting off the Jott bandwagon. Jott would keep a lot of its current users if the free plan would allow Jott to send to just one email or calendar account, and the $4/month plan could send to multiple accounts. Jott, if you’re reading this, give it some thought. Otherwise, it’s been fun, but…

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Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Technology, Web 2.0

What is a basic syllabus in educational technology?

So I’m plotting out my tactical plans for research and scholarship over the next year right now — my imagination being stoked by the completion of my Statement of Scholarship — and I’d like to go deeper into educational technology on a number of levels. I’d like not only to stay abreast of the rapidly-changing face of the technology being used in schools, but also the social implications of that technology, the legal issues behind it, and the technical nuts/bolts/bits of how this stuff works in the first place (including the computer network/programming side of things).

I’m just a user and a self-appointed pundit of ed tech, so I have no idea exactly where to start if I want really to go deeper on this subject. I do know that I’m going to swallow hard and read Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants by Prensky carefully (as opposed to skimmig it as I have done in the past) even though I disbelieve in nearly everything I’ve drawn out of that essay. And I have Friedman’s The World is Flat, which seems to be a seminal work among School 2.0 people, on my bookshelf at work waiting to be read. But what other suggestions would you readers have?

Remember, I’m looking not to become a mindless School 2.0 zombie (that takes no effort at all) but a person who is fluent with all the important aspects of ed tech, including the “tech”.

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Filed under Educational technology, Scholarship, Social software, Technology, Web 2.0

Higher education and Web 2.0

Martin Weller of the UK’s Open University notes in this blog posting that there is an emerging cultural conflict between the world of higher education and the world of Web 2.0:

[T]he challenge is this – when learners have been accustomed to very facilitative, usable, personalisable and adaptive tools both for learning and socialising, why will they accept standardised, unintuitive, clumsy and out of date tools in formal education they are paying for? It won’t be a dramatic revolution (students accept lower physical accommodation standards when they leave home for university after all), but instead there will be a quiet migration. The monolithic LMSs will be deserted, digital tumbleweed blowing down their forums. Students will abandon these in favour of their tools, the back channel will grow and it will be constituted from content and communication technologies that don’t require a training course to understand and that come with a ready made community.

It’s difficult to say whether how accurate this is, given that students’ knowledge of, and ability to use, those tools is questionable at best. But I think Weller is right that students — faculty, too — are increasingly aware of and irritated by the clumsiness and inflexibility of the tech tools that higher education currently uses. It wouldn’t bother me at all if the Angels and Blackboards of the world were left behind in favor of simpler, more decentralized tools that can evolve throughout a semester according to the needs and capabilities of the members of a class. (This adaptability is a real strength of using a wiki as a course management system, as I am finding out right now in my summer calculus course. More on that later.)

Universities and colleges do seem to face a twofold mandate from students: not only to get in the game regarding technology in the first place, but also to do so in a way that keeps things simple and flexible and student-centered. That can be a tall order for higher ed, which is used to doing things in a highly top-down kind of way.

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Filed under Course management systems, Educational technology, Higher ed, Social software, Technology

Looking for an internet voice mail app for students

Sorry for the light blogging, but I’ve been trying to cram in a bunch of work this week so I can take next week completely off. (Summer classes start the week after that.) Today I’m prepping for my summer calculus course, and I have a question for the audience about a particular web service I need but can’t seem to find. 

The calculus class I am teaching this summer is in the evenings, and as far as I can tell all the students who are taking it are commuters. Normally, during the regular school year, I set up lots of office hours and have an open-door policy for students to come and get help when they need it. But since the class is in the evenings and I am staying at home with the kids during the day, and since the students won’t be on campus anyway except for my class, office hours are not really going to be the optimal way for students to get help. I’ll have office hours by appointment, but I can’t really be on campus for hours and hours each week. 

So I have email and IM available for students to use, but students aren’t always around a computer when they need help. But they are around phones all the time, so what I’d really like is to have some kind of voice mail service where students could call in their questions, and then I’d get to them when I could. Of course I have a phone at work, but like I said I am not going to be in the office much, and if they leave a voice message on that phone I may not get it until it’s too late — and we have no way of checking our voice mail off campus. (Or at least, I have no idea how to do it.) And I’m a little reluctant to give out my cell phone number to students, and really reluctant to give out our Vonage number we use at home, just because I’m kind of private and paranoid that way. 

What I am looking for is a service that: 

  • Lets students call in and leave a voice mail message on a server somewhere, which…
  • …I then listen to via the internet, and then…
  • …publish a response to the question via email or a return call. And, 
  • It needs to be cheap or free for me, and
  • Students should not need to sign up or register for anything — just dial a number on their phones and leave a message. 
I thought that Jott might do this, but I think only if every student signs up for a Jott account. I’m not opposed to that, but students might be, and it adds an additional layer of complexity. 
Anybody know of something out there that does all this? Surely the vast Web 2.0 application world has something that matches all these criteria, you’d think. 

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Filed under Profhacks, Social software, Teaching, Technology