Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is there a study guide for the exam?

It is a week before the exam, and one of the most commonly asked questions is, "Is there a study guide for the exam?", or some variation of that. If the answer is yes, then chances are that you have spent good amount of time putting one together with the hope that it will not just get placed in a stack of papers.

In this post I will suggest a way to use the Oncourse Wiki for creating study guides and sharing the effort with the whole class. The right time to start preparing such a guide is during the weeks when the material for the upcoming exam is being discussed. The effort of creating a study guide can be delegated to the students. This way, they will not only have the necessary material to prepare for the exam, but having spent time compiling this resource are more likely to retain the information.

You can start a wiki with a few questions, and ask the students to add more questions as they read and research the material for the current topics. If the students don't know the answers right away, they can leave these answers blank. Since this is a collaborative effort, any student can add a question or a comment to the wiki, and any student can answer a question.

Wiki mark-up language may look confusing if you've never used it before, but it is very simple. It may help to start by looking through the knowledge base. I use a simple scheme of adding the "h1 " prefix to the heading, "h3 " prefix to all questions and "* " prefix to all answers. This uses a larger font size for the questions and a bullet/indentation for the answers, as shown in the sample on the right.

So, the wiki mark-up for this example is:

h1 Chapter 6 - The System Unit

h3 What three factors determine the power of a microcomputer?

* ?

h3 What is a binary system?

* A number system based on two digits 0 and 1 (off and on)

h3 Name three character coding schemes.

* ASCII, EBCDIC, Unicode

h3 Memory used beween a fast device and a slow device is called __________.

* Cache

By making the study guide a collaborative effort, you can turn the tables, and ask the students whether the study guide is ready. Of course, you should plan to check it frequently to find any misinformation, or to fill in any unanswered questions. The accuracy and quality of answers will also provide you with some assessment of the readiness of the class as a whole.

One of the other benefits you get from using Oncourse is that the content is backed up and archived. You can also get creative and add images and other components to the wiki, so I'm sure you will agree that the benefits far outweigh the effort.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pick a card; any card!

All through school (K-12 and beyond), we have all used flashcards for learning many concepts. Whether it was for learning "A is for apple", math facts, foreign languages, or scientific names; flashcards were always there to the rescue. I even remember dropping the deck or cards and then spending time to reassemble it in the correct order (I guess, there is a little bit of Adrian Monk in all of us).

Recently, I wanted to create flashcards for my students and started looking for somewhat of a modern solution with only a few requirements:
  • I wanted to be able to easily embed the flashcards in my course blog.
  • It had to be quick-and-easy, because the only one with free time these days is the computer.
  • It had to be inexpensive (preferably free)
The solution I found is Quizlet. The free version allows up to 8 decks (sets), and subscription for the full version is only $10/year. Once you create a set, you can use the "Link or embed" option near the top-left to get the code for embedding the flashcards in your blog/website. Most blog sites allow you to create/edit your post in HTML format. For example, the blogger has a tab labeled "Edit HTML." Once you copy the HTML code from Quizlet site, you can paste it directly into your blog post, as long as you are in the HTML view.

Below is a deck I created for my students.

NOTE: Though, I have chosen text-only cards for this example, Quizlet does allow you to add images.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Testing 1, 2, 3 ... Is this thing on?

Have you ever considered recording an audio podcast for your course, but left the idea on the back burner because you can't find the time to overcome the technology hurdles? Well, this blog post should help in getting the ball rolling. You may be wondering, why just audio and why not a video podcast or a screencast?

I'll write some helpful ideas about video-podcasts/screencasts in a future post, but audio-only podcasts have their own place in content delivery. If the content calls for an audio podcast, then go for it! Audio podcasts are easier to record and edit, and easier for students to consume. Please keep in mind that my goal was to find the shortest path from starting to publishing, so this is just one suggestion.

I use Audacity, the free and open-source software for my recordings. It is available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, and has a very intuitive interface. The installation on Mac OS is straight forward, however, on Windows be sure to also install Lame. This addition component is required for creating MP3 files.

If your computer doesn't have a built-in microphone, then I would suggest getting a headset (headphones and microphone, both in one). You can find something inexpensive, or fancy-shmancy. In my case, I use a MacBook, so it has a built-in mic and it seems to do the job well.

A few things to observe about your recording environment:
  • Find a spot away from the air handling intakes or vents. These can add unwanted noise.
  • If there are kids around while you're recording, post a sign outside your door as a reminder.
  • Remember to turn off the ringers on your phones.
Next, it is time for a sound-check. Record a few short clips while fine-tuning your audio settings and listen to find the best settings (or at least the one that you are happy with). It is also a good idea to record a few seconds of silence and then listen to it to make sure it isn't picking up any annoying hums/static. Cleaner recordings will make it easier for the students to focus on the content.

A few suggestions about the podcast structure:
  • Add a short music clip at the beginning and the end of your podcast episode.
  • Use the same clip for the beginning of each episode, as it becomes an "identifying clip".
  • If the recording is more then 10 minutes long, I would also suggest adding one or more brief breaks (no more than 10 - 15 seconds each) in the presentation by adding another music clip.
  • It is helpful to have a collection of music clips saved on your computer. You can find some free ones here.
Now, as for the actual recording process, you could take one of two approaches. You could record the whole podcast, and then listen to it and edit portions of the audio, as needed, or you could take my approach - record short clips at a time and assemble these as you go. My approach cuts down on the preparation time.

I start by opening the starting Music clip, and then I save the Audacity project immediately with the appropriate episode name. This Audacity window is the place where I assemble the complete episode, and I will refer to it as the "main window." Next, I open a second window for the actual recording process. I record 2-3 minutes of audio, verify it, and if I'm happy with it, I copy it and paste it to the end of the main window. This means that if I have to re-record, I'll repeat only the 2-3 minute segment, while all the work up to this point is safe. Speaking of safe, make sure you save the main window often.

Another advantage of using this piecemeal approach is that identifying the areas that need editing becomes easier. I can zoom into a section (ctrl-1 on Windows, command-1 on Mac), delete/reduce unwanted pauses, carry out other editing functions, and then zoom back out (ctrl-3 on Windows, command-3 on Mac).

When I need to add a music clip for the end or a break, I open it in another window and then copy-and-paste it into the main window.

Once the recording is complete, I use the "Export as MP3" option to create the final copy. At this point, I am done with the Audacity project and can archive it and move it to an external hard-drive.

If additional changes are needed, after the file has been exported, it is better to open the Audacity project than opening the MP3. Each time you open an MP3 and then export it again, there is some loss of quality.

Additional thought: In some of my podcast episodes, I add in an eight-digit code to help verify that the students have listened to the episodes. I give the code two digits at a time at various locations in the recording. Here is an example of an episode with a code. Granted that there is potential for the students to share the code, but that is just like any other challenge the educators face in regard to academic honesty.

If this post has helped you move your podcasting project from the back-burner to the dining table, I would be interested in learning about your experiences.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

K201 - The Computer in "Business As Usual"

In my previous posts I have written about how I've been using Adobe Connect for Office hours and in place of clickers to ask questions in the classroom. I also mentioned that all K201 instructors from IUPUI Kelley School Of Business held a practice session when, for one class session, the students were asked to attend remotely. This was a planned session intended to help students understand some procedural issues like asking questions, taking notes, etc..

Well, talk about great planning, Mother Nature raised her hand and said, "your practice session shall not go to waste", and buried Indiana in a thick sheet of ice, resulting in a first-ever three-consecutive-day closing of the IUPUI campus, among others. In the beginning or the semester, K201 instructors had also made an announcement in class, "If the campus ever closes for weather related or other emergencies, K201 will still be in session via the "Virtual Classroom" (Adobe Connect link in Oncourse).

On February 1, without a single email from my students about any doubts related to the "what, when or where" of the class meeting, I had nearly all of my students in the Virtual Classroom. I got some hot tea, closed the door and put a "Do not disturb" sign as a reminder for the kids. I used two computers to connect, so I could present from one and watch the chat-room activity from the other. It was also helpful to know what the students were seeing.

I won't say that the session was flaw-less, because there were two brief network outages. First time, I was able to reconnect right away, and the second time, it took about 5-7 minutes. I have to mention the patience and cooperation from my students, as every single one of them waited for me to re-connect.

So, here is a recap of the things that were helpful:
  • Having used Adobe connect in the classroom brought the students up-to-speed the quickest.
  • Having a practice session early in the semester was helpful, as we could pick a day that was not packed-full.
  • Using two computers was helpful from my perspective, as I could keep an eye on the chat room and could see exactly what the students were seeing.
  • Recording the session for students who couldn't attend, because of power/network outages.
Any student who wasn't able to connect remotely, will not be penalized, of course. It just means a little extra hard-work to catch-up.