Slides from My UBTech 2014 Presentation "Unleash Your Inner Spielberg When Flipping the Classroom"

I was asked to speak again this year at UBTech. It's an interesting educational technology conference with a pretty diverse audience of faculty, instructional staff and senior-level administrators. I always get a lot out of the conference, and this year was no different.

Attached to this post is a PDF version of the slides from my presentation "Unleash Your Inner Spielberg When Flipping the Classroom." It was another good presentation, with great follow-up from a number of attendees.

This was my favorite tweet about the presentation:

Brian Klaas' Unleash Your Inner Spielberg talk...MIND BLOWN

If you're interested in me speaking at your institution about this topic, please get in touch!

Non-Technical Presentations: Double Speaking Duty at UBTech 2013

As much as I love giving talks on Web development at conferences like cf.Objective() and NCDevCon, I also talk at numerous educational technology conferences throughout the year. I've been asked to speak at the always-interesting UBTech 2013 conference this year — and not to speak just once, but on two different topics!

I've had the privilege of speaking at this conference for the past two years, but this year I'm taking on double duty by giving two separate talks. They are:

  • From Media Hype to Reality: One University's Experience with Coursera: My team has been offering Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on the Coursera platform for a year now. There's a huge amount of hype and concern about MOOCs and how they will affect (save? destroy?) higher education across the globe. My colleague, Ira Gooding, and I will be talking about our direct experience offering MOOCs and how that differers from the sometimes exaggerated stories being pushed out in the education and technology media. MOOCs are really interesting, and are a serious pressure point on most colleges and universities, so we expect good discussion at the end of this session.

  • Unleash Your Inner Spielberg: The Director's Cut of Online Lectures: This is another variation on the very popular talk that I've given at a number of conferences over the past few years, and a talk that I've given in long workshop form as well as an annual talk to students where I work. This talk is all about using techniques from the worlds of film and theater to create more engaging lectures that result in greater learner information retention. I really enjoy giving this talk, and this year there's new stuff on how cognitive science is telling us to focus, edit, and sharpen our information delivery in order for people to actual retain the information they are given.

If you happen to be at the conference, please come check out these sessions!

A Few Thoughts on Google's Course Builder

As my primary work revolves around online education and using technology to create an excellent learner experience, part of my job is to keep on top of many of the learning platforms available. Coursera has been making a big splash of late, and I've taken a number of courses on the platform. Lore has been gathering a large amount of buzz, especially as a replacement for more traditional learning management systems (and not a system for teaching at massive scale, like Coursera).

Today, Google released the first version of their Course Builder tool. It's not a web-based tool that you visit in your browser and build. It's actually a downloadable code base that you run inside Google App Engine. So that's pretty cool: download the GAE runtime, make your changes for your course and your material, and then upload to GAE for deployment. No hosting, no database setup, none of the system admin work that's the hallmark of more traditional learning management systems like Blackboard or Moodle, but also giving you the flexibility to build the course as you please.

And that's the problem.

Of the major issues with adopting any new technology — specifically in higher education — is a lack of time on the part of the content creators. Rarely do faculty have the time or inclination to learn new technologies to incorporate into their teaching. New technologies have to be very easy to learn, with a minimum of amount of friction, and allow content experts to be content experts, not technologists. While there absolutely is a percentage of any faculty body that will gladly pick up a new tool or a new programming language to get the job done, they're in the minority.

Google's Course Builder requires that you know JavaScript, and HTML. Stupid easy for us web developers, no doubt, but a major barrier for entry for educators from the primary level through graduate school. They don't know JavaScript, or HTML, and they don't have the time (amidst the crush of actually teaching and communicating with students and doing all their required administrative work) to learn, as "easy" as we may perceive it. The frequent response to this is "Well, there's got to be a TA or staff member in IT who can help them with this." The problem there is that the TA or staff member can't generate the content. The subject matter expert has to do that. If the subject matter expert has to generate the content and then sit down and spend time with the person who knows how to translate that into JS/HTML or whatever the toolkit requires, it's a time loss on both sides. More problematic, these kinds of positions aren't often funded, or the funding is minimal.

Not everyone should know how to code. I know that this is an initial release of Course Builder from Google, but it will appeal largely to people who already know how to code and probably have built their own online course materials using their own website or an existing LMS.

A couple other notes about this project:

  • Those promoting educational technology systems — specifically learning management systems — need to get over the idea that course content means video. There are so many other ways of building interesting, interactive learning experiences, but example after example promotes video as the way in which all content should be delivered. Google does the same in their guide for Course Builder.
  • Putting quiz/assessment questions and answers in JavaScript is a bad idea. Easy to implement, yes, but any student who knows how to view source will see the answers. Not acceptable for real assessment.

Speaking at cf.Objective(), UBTech, but, alas, No Open CF Summit

It looks like it'll be another busy Spring for conference presentations for me this year.

I'm honored to have been selected to speak at cf.Objective() this year. I've always enjoyed the conference, and found the speakers to be high-quality and the actionable information I take away from the conference even better. I'll be talking about making high-performance caching easy with ColdFusion. The session focuses on using Ehcache (or any memory-based cache) to significantly improve application performance by caching the right data for your application's use. This is another iteration of the presentation I gave at NCDevCon and the CF Unconference at Adobe MAX last year, but with the guidance of the excellent conference advisory board for cf.Objective(), I've added some key points I had previously missed.

I'll also be speaking at UBTech on a different topic in a different field. In the past year, I've given the "Unleash Your Inner Spielberg" talk at a number of conferences and to different groups across the country. I've really enjoyed doing this talk, and it's evolved a lot a long the way. The team from UBTech called me up late last year to let me know that my session on this topic was one of the highest rated at the conference last year (formerly EduComm). They wanted me to come to this year's conference, but talk about the things I've learned while giving this talk. As such, the title for the presentation this year is "Unleash Your Inner Spielberg When Creating Online Lectures, Part 2, The Director's Cut." It's going to be challenging sifting through three hours of material to get it down to 35 minutes for the UBTech presentation, but relentless editing is a very good challenge to face once in a while.

I'm a bit disappointed that I won't be able to make it to the Open CF Summit this year. It's a really interesting conference, and they've lined up some very interesting speakers and partners. The sessions are really geared to hands-on, practical integration solutions between CFML and lots of different services and environments. It's also incredibly affordable, at $72 for registration. Maybe next year!

Unleash Your Inner Spielberg When Presenting

I've had the privilege of speaking at technical and educational conferences for more than a decade. At the turn of the century (it really wasn't that long ago), I was speaking on using streaming media in higher education, and even did a session on the first release of the Flash Media Server at conferences like Syllabus (back before it became the Campus Technology conference).

There was, alas, a long, dry spell for me in speaking at conferences for the past five years. That dry spell recently came to an end, in a big way.

In the last year, I've spoken at Adobe's Education Summit at MAX, CUE 2011, and Educomm 2011. I also recently spoke as part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology's speaker series, giving a variation on the same talk that I gave at some of the other conferences: "Unleash Your Inner Spielberg When Presenting (Online) Lectures."

There are a lot of ways to present information in PowerPoint-style presentations. Most of them don't facilitate information dissemination and cognitive flow. My presentation focuses on using techniques from both film and the stage to help make presentations more engaging and increase learner information retention.

I'm pretty happy with how the presentation has turned out over its various iterations. It's been great for me to get back into the hard work of presenting, refining a presentation, and tuning it for the appropriate current audience.

A recording of the latest iteration of this presentation can be found on the Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology's web events site.

On App Inventor: Speaking the Language of Novices

Google's App Inventor is a great idea. Empowering consumers to create is always a good thing. Visual Basic was the key to Microsoft's long-time success. Map making tools are the reason why Warcraft III and Starcraft still sell on retail shelves, more than a decade after their release. iMovie, Windows Movie Maker and its counterparts have helped make YouTube the site for almost every Web meme of the last five years.

Visually-oriented IDEs are a great way to develop software quickly. Visual Basic and Delphi are two classic examples of this, and their tradition of partial WYSIWYG views carries on to Visual Studio and Flex Builder today. (I've also made the argument that if Adobe wants CFBuilder extensions to really take off, they need a visual UI to create them.) They've even evolved to have a similar visual language: panels spread out on the screen which allow for inter-panel communication and interaction, playing off visual and interaction patterns common to many IDEs. When you fire up Eclipse or Visual Studio, you, as a programmer, can say "Oh, I know the basics of how this IDE works because it looks like other IDEs I've worked with."

All of those tools, however, expect that the user has some kind of fundamental understanding of the basics of programming: simple data structures, simple logic controllers, and so on. You simply can't get by without them.

Now let me say that I've had minimal direct experience with Google's App Inventor. I don't think that's a problem here because I want to talk about first impressions, as those mean a lot to the average, non-technical user at whom Google is targeting the product.

Take a look at this screenshot from the product's home page:

App Inventor Demo Screen

The focus of the UI is on the simulated phone screen in the middle of the window, as it should be. Take a look at the list of controls under "Palette," on the left. There you'll see titles for controls such as "Canvas," "ListPicker," and "TinyDB." Although there is a question mark next to each which, when clicked, tells the user what the control is, that text (and other text on the screen) is very much the language of the programmer and not the user. A non-technical, non-programmer, average, everyday Android phone user (who is the target user of App Inventor) would probably look at that and say "What the heck is a ListPicker?" I've worked with a lot of "non-technical, non-programmer users," and know pretty well that when any "programmer-ese" comes in to play in the UI, users tend to be taken aback and almost immediately take a combative approach to this UI written in a language other than their own.

This programmer-centric language works its way in to other elements in very subtle ways. Look at the properties you can manipulate in the "Components" and "Properties" panels. The text which describes the properties you can manipulate, while clear, is written in camel case — a programmer's, not average user's, convention. "CheckBox1" could just as easily have been displayed as "Check Box 1." The same goes for "BackgroundColor" and "BackgroundImage." I know this sounds trivial, but it's clearly the work of programmers who expect that users will get or, at least, grow accustomed to the way software is written by programmers, not "average end users."

I also have to wonder if the basic assumption of the standard IDE UI as the default UI is an appropriate one. In my experience, users are task-focused. They want to be able to make a movie from video on their camera and upload it to YouTube. They want to write a letter to their congressman about an issue that is important to them. They want to set up a quiz for the students in their class to take. As users are task-focused (and not document focused), an application should start with smart defaults and help a user accomplish basic tasks quickly. Instead of showing the standard IDE UI at startup, App Inventor may be better served with a "Start Screen" which could ask:

What kind of application would you like to build?
  • One that uses data from my Twitter account.
  • One that uses maps to display places that are important to me.
  • One that lets me chat with my friends.
  • None of the above.

The options presented here, when selected, would then pull together some of the basics for the application, saving the "average user" quite a bit of time and lay out most of hte plumbing required to get their desired application off the ground. This "Start Screen" could be turned off in the application's preferences for user who don't want to be bothered with this kind of getting started page.

The blocks tool that the team has devised to map out the internal logic of the application is really smart. It makes visualizing the logic clear and it's easy to drag and drop components in to the right order. No-code development environments like this are key to getting "average users" to use the tool to create applications that do what they want.

I've used "average users" in quotation marks throughout this entry. That's because I don't think the real audience is "average users" — meaning someone who owns a smartphone but hasn't developed software before. The tool was developed by university-level faculty and targeted towards students at various levels (elementary, middle, high and university) but in the context of teaching software development. As such, I believe the tool makes the fundamental assumption that you have to have some knowledge of the art of programming. That assumption informs the design of the UI and how users interact with it. It makes it vastly simpler for individuals to develop applications (even me!), but it's not a tool that can be used by just anyone with experience with smartphones.

App Inventor was created by a lot of people much smarter than I. It's also still in beta and something I know that the team will improve upon over time. I just have to point out that if they really want to create something which allows the average user of a cell phone to build their own applications, they need to create a UI that, from start to end, reads in the way that an average, non-programmer user would understand.

Flowgram: Next-Generation Demonstrations

Flowgram is a really nifty new, Flex-powered service that takes Web-based demonstrations to the next level. I don't get impressed by many training tools any more as I've been exposed to way too many that do the same thing in less and less interesting ways. Flowgram isn't just a screencasting or video demonstration tool. It actually brings up the Web page that you are trying to demonstrate. It's the full Web page and the viewer can interact with the page because, well, it's live!

This goes way beyond simple screencasts where you can watch, but not participate. It's much closer to what you can achieve with Adobe Captivate in terms of providing training for desktop or Web-based applications. Because you're dealing with live Web pages, you will run in to the issue of logins preventing users from getting inside a site that requires authentication, but theoretically, you could show them how to create and account, log in, and go from there. Captivate's simulation mode works around these issues, but you have to deal with changes to the Web pages you're demonstrating in Captivate, which can be time consuming and expensive. (Granted, Captivate can do a whole lot more, including branching, which isn't even in in Flowgram's playbook.)

You can also add in annotations to the Web pages you're demonstrating, add still images, pull from Flickr and and Facebook image sets, import PowerPoint files and then mix it all up.

The service itself uses a Flex app with and a whole lot of <iframe>s to get the job done, but the experience is really quite seamless and really darn interesting.

Like all Web-based services, there's the Flowgram branding and site redirection that you pretty much can't get around, and, of course, you run the risk of your content going away if Flowgram goes away. It is, however, a really interesting service for those looking to create Web-based demonstrations of (mostly) Web-based properties. I'm definitely going to be using this for some of my future training content creation, though I'll still rely on Captivate for demonstrations of desktop-based applications.

How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law, or, How the Law is Raising a Generation of Criminals

Larry Lessig, of EFF, Creative Commons and Net copyright battle fame, gave an excellent talk at TED in Monterey, CA, earlier this year. In this talk, he makes a pretty good, common sense argument about how the law is trying to strangle creativity. More interestingly, and the part that spoke very clearly to me, was how the law was corrupting our culture and turning many of us, especially those on the younger side of 40, in to those who live their lives against the law.

His argument (and, again, watch the 20 minute video, as it's excellent) is that the law, buttressed by conglomerate lawyers, proactively seeks to punish those who remix and rebuild content in to something new. He's not defending those who steal content outright and sell it as their own (which he should not). The side effect of this is that this strangling of creativity has a corrosive effect on our culture, and that it is raising an entire generation who live their lives (at least their creative lives) against and outside the law. If you post something on your MySpace page or make a hilarious video remix and post it on YouTube and use someone else's (copyrighted) content, you're breaking the law. But this (and this is critical and key) is how many, many young people communicate their lives. As such, they begin to see their lives and the key ways in which they communicate their lives (their photos or music on MySpace) as against, or outside, the law.

As a gay man who can still get fired from my job without any legal protection in 26 states and who can get jailed or killed in many parts of the world for holding my husband's hand, living against the law is something I'm familiar with. Until a few years ago, I could be arrested in any state in the country for having sex with the man I've chosen to share my life with (and in some parts of the country, men still are, even though it's clearly in violation of U.S. law). Living against the law diminishes you as a person, and, in very subtle ways, it makes you devalue your contribution to society.

In a culture where thugs are glamorized and where more and more youth express disaffection with the simple fact of work and societal contribution, anything that directly forces them to live against the law because they want (or need) to express themselves in the medium that makes the most sense for them is both troubling and disturbing. If society, represented by its laws, says "You are not allowed to be yourself, to express yourself, to share and communicate and collaborate about your life in any way that we don't expressly proscribe," why would people want to participate in that society? Where will the next generation of artists come from? What great stories will go untold because we aren't allowed to tell them?

Again, like Lessig, I'm in no way advocating wholesale copyright infringement. That's just not cool. Artists deserve (fair!) compensation for the work they create. But the impulse to create, to contribute back to the community, to make everyone feel welcome and whole and part of society, should be our priority, rather than embedding in generation after generation the idea that their only life is one that must be lived against the law.

How Do You Know I'm a WoW Geek?

Quiz SampleI may not be the best player in WoW, but I do play quite a bit. I talk about it with my friends, much to my partner's chagrin, but here's how you know I'm a WoW geek: I let it seep in to my work all the time.

In addition to developing some pretty mean Web apps for eLearning at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, I also end up doing training for some of those apps. I'm a decent public speaker and if you have a technology person who can also communicate clearly and enthusiastically with the user base, you've got someone who's in fairly high demand.

So I'm prepping some training materials for a quiz/assessment tool that we're rolling out, and all of my example questions have to do with WoW. The screen shot on the right shows this (if you can actually read it). I'm curious to see with this new training material if anyone actually gets the references.

Hammers and Nails

When a new content-creation solution gets rolled out in online course systems, I've seen a tendency at many higher-education institutions to try to turn the tool into the solution for every problem or perceived problem in online courses. Take, for instance: Macromedia (now Adobe) Breeze. It's an awesome product, and we use both Breeze Presentation and Meeting in our online classes.

Since we've rolled out the tool, however, some people see it as the solution to all of our content delivery issues. Some examples:

"Can't we add some videos to the Breeze presentations?" Well, sure, but is that the right environment for delivering 6 minute videos when Breeze only does progressive download of videos? "But it sure would be nice for the students to watch videos inside the lecture presentations. See what you can do."

"How about if we move our exams out of our testing system and in to Breeze presentations? They can do basic testing, right?" Well, yes, they can, but is that really the right environment to deliver exams? You'll have to give up things like randomization, pulling from a question bank and a bunch of other things that our testing system can do. "Oh, well, it sure would be nice for the students if they could take their quizzes right after they watch the lecture all in the same place."

"Can we put the lab exercises in to Breeze? Breeze makes everything look so nice and it looks more like how it looks in Word than HTML does." Well, I suppose you could, but is converting 7 printed pages worth of text, tables, and images directly into PowerPoint and then Breeze really the best thing for learner comprehension? "Well, the students are very used to Breeze, so it would be nice to have things presented in a familiar way."

I'm not knocking Breeze, really. I've seen this happen with tools we've built (assessment/testing systems, simulation builders, file storage and organization tools, etc.) as well as with other tools pushed out across the educational enterprise.

It's great that some faculty and staff will push a tool to its limits and try to get it to do things it was never really designed to do. But there's a big difference between what you can do and what you should do.

Make sure that the tool is right for the job. There's a saying in software development that goes "If your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail." Now, some people could level that accusation against me, and they wouldn't be totally off-base, because I use ColdFusion for all of my development work. (Because CF lets me get a lot more done in a lot less time than say, JSP/J2EE, or PHP, or, heaven help me, ASP, and is really quite robust and has nifty stuff built in for rich forms, speaking to Java/J2EE systems, pdf generation, and truly allows for rapid application development.) That said, I also know that as wonderful as a given tool may be, it's not always going to be the right solution for every eLearning problem. You have to mix and match best of breed tools, and then you'll have something that works well, makes sense, and provides a truly rewarding learning experience for your users.

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