The Promise, Perils and Progress of Educational Technology

Below is a draft of my prepared remarks for the EduFan panel at D2L Fusion 2016. I actually didn’t read these remarks; rather, I extemporized my remarks in order to respond to the prompts of the moderator. But I was able to bring most of the points I raised in my prepared remarks (as well as quite a few more) during the panel. My comments seemed to be well-received by those in attendance.

First let me say thanks for the chance to speak on this panel. I’d like to thank D2L in particular for recognizing me as an EduFan. It is a distinct honor, and I look forward to seeing how the EduFan idea evolves.

And I’d like to thank the moderator for giving a mostly positive spin to the title of this panel: “The Promise, Perils and Progress of Educational Technology.”  While there may be some perils, I think most of us here at Fusion are likely to focus on the promise and progress of educational technology. And that includes me. For over 30 years, I’ve been a college professor who has embraced technology in my teaching and scholarship, evangelized the broader use of technology by my faculty colleagues, and encouraged my administrative colleagues to more fully consider the academic benefits from investments in technology. Drawing from that experience, I’d like to share with you today one simple principle and two practical suggestions.

The one simple principle is this: educational technology is primarily an academic resource, rather than a physical resource. Embracing this simple principle sounds easy enough, but in practice, the physical essence of the hardware and software behind educational technology can make it difficult to see beyond its nature as a physical resource.

Not that there’s anything wrong with physical resources. Every institution of learning has physical resources, like chairs and desks, file cabinets and lighting fixtures, doors and windows. But the windows in my office are quite different from the Windows running on my laptop. Actually, I’m more of an Apple fan myself, but that’s another story.

The point is while we need physical resources in education, we also need academic resources, like books and journals. To be sure, books are also physical resources. You can count them and hold them and store them. But books are primarily academic resources. They have value well beyond the value of the physical paper and ink. Indeed, books don’t have much value at all until they are opened, and read and engaged with as part of the learning process.

And so it is with educational technology. Yes, at one level it’s a physical resource. You can measure it in gigahertz and terabytes, calculate return on investment, analyze costs and benefits. You can treat it as a physical resource, but in my opinion, that’s mistreating it. In an educational environment, technology should be seen primarily as an academic resource. And the investment, management and deployment of that resource should be guided by that one simple principle.

Which leads me to my two practical suggestions. First, I believe the chief information officer of a university should ideally be an academic officer. In practical terms, that means moving toward the norm where the CIO of a university will hold the title of vice-provost rather than vice-president. If we accept the principle that educational technology is primarily an academic resource, then I think the top leadership structure needs to reflect that, in name as well as in practice.

Fortunately, I think we’re making good progress on this front. I’m encouraged by the growing number of university CIOs who not only have academic backgrounds and credentials, but hold academic posts, like the vice provost at West Virginia University, the associate provost at St. Bonaventure and the senior associate dean at George Washington University. And these are just a few examples of universities that clearly see the important role of academic leadership in technology. But even where CIOs aren’t formally recognized as academic officers, there tends to be a growing expectation that the technology leadership of a university unequivocally embrace its academic mission and priorities.

And in part, I think we can thank libraries for that. After all, we have long recognized library resources as academic resources, and library directors have traditionally been seen as an important part of the academic leadership of a university. Which leads me to my second practical suggestion: tenured faculty positions in educational technology. Just as it’s fairly common to have tenured non-classroom faculty in libraries, I hope it will someday be the norm that we’ll see tenured non-classroom faculty lines specifically in educational technology.

Now I realize this second suggestion may be a tougher sell, but it makes more sense if ed tech divisions are headed by academic officers. This will allow the development and implementation of tenure and promotion policies for academics whose primarily responsibilities lie outside of the traditional classroom. It may seem a bit far-fetched, but again, think of the library faculty who already achieve tenure and promotion, often without teaching a single class. Surely, if having tenured faculty in libraries is seen as an important part of the management of their academic resources, why wouldn’t we also see having tenured faculty in educational technology as an important part of the management of that kind of academic resource? Think of some of our brightest instructional designers, many of whom have advanced degrees and classroom experience. What if they could achieve tenure? What if they could serve alongside other faculty in policy deliberations and curricular committees? Consider the possibilities of educational technology divisions that see faculty as colleagues and partners, rather than as clients and consumers.

In conclusion, I believe the simple principle and two practical suggestions I offered today could lead to a paradigm shift in education, one that could help us more fully realize the promise and progress of educational technology.

Farewell, Podcast Producer?

Yesterday, Apple released Mountain Lion, the latest version of Mac OS (or what they are now simply calling OS X). And while I wasn’t surprised, I am disappointed that Podcast Capture, Podcast Publisher and Podcast Producer have become legacy software.

To be sure, there were signs that this day would come. When Lion was released last year, Apple added the Podcast Publisher app to interact with the new Podcast Library service on Lion server. Upgrading to Lion client did not remove the Podcast Capture application from the Utilities folder, so you could still use it to upload to Podcast Producer servers. And even though it was not turned on by default, you could still run Podcast Producer on Lion server, albeit with a few headaches.

Now it seems Apple just wants to bring the Podcast Producer era to an end. Introduced with Leopard server, the first Podcast Producer was not fully baked. Still, many OS X server admins, including myself, successfully overcome many of Podcast Producer’s initial limitations. When Podcast Producer 2 came out with Snow Leopard server, it seemed like Apple was finally taking the podcasting service effort seriously. While it wasn’t perfect, Podcast Producer 2 was arguably Apple’s best effort to date at offering in OS X Server a useable solution for creating, hosting and managing podcasts.

Unfortunately, it appears that Podcast Producer 2 was the last genuine effort by Apple to offer a podcast service with their server product. While Lion server included the simplified Podcast Library service, it was clearly not a replacement for Podcast Producer 2. Nor was the Podcast Publisher app in Lion client much of an improvement over the Podcast Capture app. Indeed, Podcast Publisher seemed little more than a weak, dumbed-down, iWeb-like app for podcasts. The app offered some nice “eye candy” for podcast creators, but one didn’t have to dig very deep to see that its functionality was at least a full step backward from Podcast Capture. Even Apple seemed to tacitly admit that Podcast wasn’t all that strong by keeping Podcast Capture as an option in Lion client, and Podcast Producer 2 an option in Lion server.

But with Mountain Lion, Apple appears to just want the whole podcast era to die. When I upgraded a Lion client to Mountain Lion yesterday, both the Podcast Capture and Podcast Publisher applications went away. The installer wasn’t even polite about it. No notice to the effect that these apps would be removed from the computer. No moving of the apps to the trash. No moving the apps to some kind of “deprecated software” folder. Both Podcast Capture and Podcast Publisher just vanished. Permanently deleted. It was a bit of a shock when I saw the dreaded question marks in the dock where Podcast Capture and Podcast Publisher used to be.

For those of us who came to depend on Podcast Producer 2, it seems that running Snow Leopard Server is the most practical option for now. But how long that remains practical as Apple moves forward is an open question. Although I hate to admit it, eventually we may all have to forget the Podcast Producer era. It seems Apple already has.

Getting Flowplayer working on Lion Server

I’ve recently been working on upgrading Snow Leopard server to Lion server. While the new interface to Lion server looks good, it really lacks a lot of the options available in the Server Admin application of Snow Leopard. Lion also lacks MySQL, but that was fairly easy to install and configure.

What wasn’t so easy to figure out was why Flowplayer wasn’t working when I moved to Lion server. On some pages, the embedded Flowplayer swf file wasn’t even showing up. On other pages, the background image would appear, as well as the play button image overlay, but a black screen would appear as soon as one would try to play back a video.

After trying many things over the past week, I finally discovered that the issue was that Flowplayer wouldn’t work with Lion server’s Apache 2 configuration of gzip compression. These lines in an .htaccess file did the trick…

Options +FollowSymLinks
RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule \.swf$ – [E=no-gzip:1]

Actually, I only needed to add the last line, as I already had an .htaccess file that had the first two lines. I suppose I could have added these configuration directives in one of the httpd.conf files, but putting them in an .htaccess file ensures they won’t be overwritten by a software update.

I’m still struggling with other issues with Lion server, but hopefully I will be able to resolve them soon. I’ll try to document them here, not only in the hope that it might help others with similar issues, but also to remind me of what I might need to do in the event I need to reinstall. They may also be helpful should I eventually move to Mountain Lion server this summer.

Podcast Producer 2 and the iPad

Shortly after I got my iPad, I discovered something interesting. Whenever I visited one of the many web pages on my Snow Leopard Server with embedded videos created by Podcast Producer 2, the videos wouldn’t play. When I clicked the thumbnail, the image would just turn to a black square.

Some of you who read my blog know that I’ve written many posts about Podcast Producer 2, a key component of Snow Leopard Server. I’ve described various techniques for getting Podcast Producer 2 (PP2) to “play nice” with Windows Internet Explorer, and how I substituted the Quicktime plugin for the open source Flash player Flowplayer. Of course, Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone, but that wasn’t a major issue since Snow Leopard Server dishes up a different version of a PP2 page for iPhones. I had hacked together a solution that would serve PP2 videos inside Flowplayer when viewed on a computer browser, but serve PP2 videos inside the native H.264 player on the iPhone.

But my little cludge didn’t work on Mobile Safari on the iPad. That’s because Snow Leopard Server doesn’t serve up a different page for iPads like it does for iPhones. Perhaps this is deliberate, since the bigger screen real estate on the iPad doesn’t necessitate the compact presentation of an iPhone-optimized page. Or perhaps Apple didn’t include in the latest update to Snow Leopard Server specific user agent detection code to serve iPad-optimized pages.

Whatever the case may be, I reported this situation as a bug to Apple a few days ago. I had hoped that the most recent Snow Leopard Server update would include code that would produce PP2 pages that could be viewed on the iPad, but no such luck. Hopefully, this will come in an update down the road. But until then, I’ve developed a workaround.

Here’s how I got PP2 to play nice with the iPad…

First, I downloaded the open source javascript library Modernizr from This little gem allows one to detect whether a client’s web browser can handle HTML 5. Mobile Safari on the iPad can display HTML 5 video, and in fact, Apple explicitly recommends using the HTML 5 VIDEO tag to display video on an iPad optimized page in this technote.

I put the Modernizr javascript file in my web directory (I just put it at the root level). Then I added a line in the custom wiki theme that I use for PP2 pages. The line I added is just a simple SCRIPT tag that references the Modernizr javascript file. Essentially, every page the PP2/Wiki Server produces that uses this custom wiki theme will include a call to the Modernizr javascript library. This wasn’t hard to do; in fact, the process was very similar to what I did to add a call to the Flowplayer javascript library that I described in great detail in a previous post.

Next, I added the following bit of code in the expandMedia function found in wiki.js (and compressed_wiki.js)…

else if ( {
var objectHTML = '<video autoplay width="'+img.width+'" height="'+(img.height+(extendHeight?16:0))+'" src="'+fullSrc+'?sessionID='+server().sessionID+'" controls></video>';
embed.innerHTML = objectHTML;

Essentially what this code does is call on Modernizr to test whether a browser supports HTML 5, and if so, uses HTML 5 to display the PP2 video instead of presenting it with the Quicktime plugin. I use the autoplay attribute to cause the video to click when a user clicks on the thumbnail. And the controls attribute causes the video to be displayed with whatever playback control bar is provided by the browser.

Again, I describe in great detail in this previous post the process for editing the wiki.js and compressed_wiki.js files, since I used a similar technique for swapping out the Quicktime plugin for Flowplayer. I would certainly recommend making backups of the original wiki.js and compressed_wiki.js files, as well as any modifications, since these files will likely be overwritten by future Snow Leopard Server updates.

With these changes, the Podcast Producer 2 videos on my website can now be played on an iPad. Indeed, as an added bonus, these videos are now displayed using HTML 5 on any web browser that supports HTML 5, like Safari and Chrome. The Modernizr script detects whether the page is being viewed in an HTML 5 capable browser, and if so, my code swaps in the appropriate HTML 5 code.

My iPad is happy now. Here’s hoping that the folks at Apple who maintain the Snow Leopard Server code will produce an update that will work with an iPad someday. Until then, my little hack seems to do the trick.

iHave iPad…and iLove it

Yesterday morning, at around 11:15 a.m., the doorbell rang. It was a friendly UPS delivery man, handing me a package from Apple. Inside, was my new iPad.

I was in the middle of a Skype conversation with some friends from Germany, so I took the opportunity to give them an exclusive look at me unboxing my new pride and joy. They were quite impressed, especially with how thin and sleek it looked. I promised to give them a better look when I’m in Germany this summer to attend a friend’s wedding.

I’ve had just over a day now with the iPad. I’ve already downloaded a couple of dozen apps, including a bunch of free ones and a few that I purchased. One of the apps that I’ve downloaded is the WordPress application, which is what I’m using now to create this post. (I’m also using a bluetooth keyboard, which I find a bit easier to use than the onscreen keyboard for longer typing sessions.)

So far, I must say that I’m very happy with my purchase. The iPad is really a remarkable device. I had written earlier about how much I wanted one, and why. But now that I actually have one, I can honestly say it’s even better than I had imagined. Really. It’s that good.

What makes it so good? Let me mention my top three reasons why the iPad is my new favorite device. First, the iPad is super fast. Tap an icon, and BAM, you’re online. Tap another, and you’re looking at your email in one of the best email interfaces I’ve ever used. Tap another, and you’re reading a book, or watching a video, or listening to a tune, or playing a game. This thing is already making my laptop seem slow (and it’s a pretty fast laptop).

Second, the iPad is gorgeous. It’s aesthetically very pleasing. Elegant lines, with tastefully understated controls. Beautifully intuitive interface. Brilliant bright screen that’s easy on the eyes. It’s the kind of cool look you just want to show off to others. And yet for all its good looks, the iPad doesn’t get in the way of the content it displays, whether it’s a web page, a movie or an email. It just makes all of that content look great.

And third, the iPad is versatile. It does so many different things right out of the box. But when you start adding apps, and experiencing what developers have been able to do with the iPhone operating system on a bigger screen, you begin to realize this is so much more than a big iPod Touch. I like the iPod Touch, and I’ve owned a couple of them. But the iPad is so much more. And with more apps being added every day, this thing really does fill the niche between a laptop and an iPhone. And it does so very well.

Some people have compared the iPad to netbooks and Amazon’s Kindle, but really, there is NO comparison. I’ve used netbooks, and they are mostly underpowered mini-laptops. I’ve used the Kindle, and while it’s a fine ebook reader, it’s a one-trick pony. And with the iBooks app, that pony is looking like an old mare.

It won’t take long for the iPad imitators to appear. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there is plenty to flatter about the iPad. There already is something called a “JooJoo”, which is probably the closest to an imitation iPad out there right now. We’ll probably see Google push out the Chrome OS to a slate. I could see Motorola releasing a king-sized Droid. And of course, Microsoft will undoubtedly copy Apple; they always have. But by then, we’ll be talking about iPad 2.0.

Once again, Apple has a hit on its hands. Once again, Apple has led the way toward a new paradigm in computing. And once again, I’m very glad I bought an Apple product.

NERCOMP 2010 Recap

The last couple of days I’ve been in Providence, Rhode Island attending the 2010 NERCOMP Conference. NERCOMP stands for “Northeast Regional Computing Platform,” and it’s essentially the Northeast regional affiliate of Educause. And Educause is, to quote their website, “a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology.” I’ve been a fan of Educause for many years, and recently, of NERCOMP. I attended the NERCOMP Conference in 2008 and found it quite valuable. I also blogged the 2008 Conference rather extensively here on

This year I decided to not blog in real time, as I did a couple of years ago. Instead, I tweeted real time, and took session notes in MacJournal to review and distill later. Here are three of the best ideas I gleaned from the conference…

Course trailers. I love this idea, something they started doing recently for undergraduate general education courses at Harvard. Essentially, these are two minute “movie trailer” plugs, highlighting what a class is about and why students might want to enroll. I wish all of the classes in our department had trailers. Then I could just point students to the trailer when they ask “what’s this class about?” Sure, we can put a syllabus online, but a little web video could really sell a class, and give students a better feel for what they’re getting into.

Facebook pages for historical figures. Another great idea: have students create, maintain and role play as important historical figures in your discipline. The session I attended described how this was done in an abnormal psychology course at Emerson College. Students created Facebook pages for Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Carl Jung, B.F. Skinner, Aaron Beck, Victor Frankl and other important historical figures in psychology. Students said they much preferred this kind of writing to a more traditional paper assignment. This would be a great activity for classes that cover a lot of history.

Tech Innovations TV show. Stony Brook produces a series of short web videos featuring faculty doing innovative stuff with technology. Post the videos on a web page and promote it to other faculty, as well as students, administrators and the community. The videos could be interviews done in a studio, but they could also be just simple videos recorded in a faculty office or classroom using a Flip camera.

Speaking of Flip cameras, I presented a “poster session” on how we’re using these little gems, along with Podcast Producer 2 and Flowplayer in support of our public speaking courses at West Chester University. If you would like to know, here’s a link to the screencast of my presentation. I enjoy the direct interaction enabled by poster sessions, but I wished I had time to visit some of the other poster sessions. I hear there were some good ones.

NERCOMP 2010 was a great conference. I got some good ideas, and hopefully shared a few. The “swag” on the exhibit floor was above average, and the food was good and plentiful. I definitely hope to attend another NERCOMP conference in the future.