NERCOMP – Wikis for collaborative work

The last session I attended at NERCOMP was a presentation on the use of wikis at Bridgewater State College. Eric LePage and Timothy Wenson showed off their “BSCwiki” to a rather large audience (perhaps owing to the fact that the last time slot of the day only offered three breakout sessions).

The BSCwiki was built using MediaWiki, the same open source wiki software that runs Wikipedia, as well as, the wiki I set up for our department’s use back in the summer of 2006. The BSCwiki appears to have the familiar MediaWiki interface with only modest modifications.

One of the first classes to use the wiki was a computer science course in networking. Students were assigned to groups that then collaboratively authored wiki pages on course topics. The instructor maintained a “to do list” as a wiki page, and students could refer to the list and update it as the work progressed.

The BSCwiki was also used beyond the classroom. For example, it was used for project planning for a trial of moodle ( at Bridgewater State. BSCwiki was integrated into LDAP for user authentication. While only authenticated users were allowed to create and edit pages, anyone could view the wiki. The wiki is also deployed on a secure server (

While Eric demonstrated how to create a wiki page, I spent some time examining the BSCwiki at the link above. I went to the “all pages” page by going to, and noticed that they only have about 100 pages in the wiki. That’s not bad, I guess, but then I noticed that quite a few of the pages were either empty or skimpy “stub” pages. As a former broadcaster, I noticed a wiki page for “Writing for radio and TV” that was actually a brief plug for a program on WRAP, 106.9 FM (which sounds like it is probably a student-operated radio station).

The demo of the features of MediaWiki was a bit boring for me, but it was nevertheless interesting to hear how wikis are being used in higher education. I was particularly encouraged by the number of people in attendance.

After Eric had completed his demo, Timothy talked a bit about the technical aspects of installing and configuring MediaWiki. The software is open source, and can be freely downloaded from There are also a variety of extensions on that site that are available to extend the functionality of MediaWiki. One of the extensions added to the BSCwiki installation enabled LDAP authentication.

At this point I raised my hand and asked a question: “Is this why you have your wiki on a secure server?” The answer was yes, that running it on a secure server kept LDAP passwords encrypted so they wouldn’t be sent as clear text. I was curious as to whether SSL was essential, and found this blog post on Library Web Chic that suggests that recommends it (

This session confirmed for me that wikis have great potential for fostering collaborative work in higher education. Still, getting people interested in using wikis more broadly takes some effort. My experience has been that most wikis have a relatively small number of active contributers.

NERCOMP – Student retention through tech

Northeastern University (Boston) has developed a CRM (customer resource management) application to help increase student retention, by improving communication with faculty, students and advisors. This session was a demonstration of this application and a discussion of its impact. Kostia Bergman, Director of Undergraduate Education in Biology at Northeastern, began the presentation by presenting some background on the project.

The university wanted a more effective system for communicating information. Supported by a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, the university adopted the platform behind This platform is web-based, user-friendly, and integrated well with existing technology. It provided the ability to track and view student interactions, trigger automatic e-mail alerts, and automate reporting.

The system was phased in over last summer, and was fully online by the Fall semester. A user task force was charged with monitoring the progress and offer suggestions for refining the interface. The name adopted for the system was FACT, an acronym for Faculty Advisor Communication Tool. It is built on two applications: a faculty J2EE web application for submission of cases, and the front-end for advisors and administrators. is a per-user license-fee hosted product, while the J2EE was developed in house.

Vanessa Ritz then demonstrated the Northeaster CRM system. As I watched the demo, my impression was that the interface was a bit cludgy. Lots of web form elements (buttons, checkboxes, pop-up menus), extensive use of tables, and rather plain data display. This may just reflect the limitations of the web interface, as the data itself is stored on Much of that data is in turn drawn from the student information database at Northeastern.

A demo of the web interface followed. This was a more polished interface, although there was still quite a few web form elements, and not a lot of “Web 2.0” flavor (no noticeable use of Ajax, for example, although I suspect I only saw a small subset of the interface).

There did seem to be a rich data store available for advisors. The interface provided a mechanism for communication between advisors and faculty. I take it that faculty don’t serve as advisors at Northeastern, or at least there is some degree of separation of advising and teaching functions.

So far there has been positive response to the new system among faculty and advisors. The university hopes to expand the use of this technology among more faculty in the coming year.

This seems like an interesting effort to improve communication on campus, but it appears to me that it is still in a rough state. Also, it wasn’t clear to me the specific advantage of using over an in-house CRM solution. Finally, the extensive use of web-based form elements seems a bit dated compared to more modern user interfaces.

NERCOMP – Blended learning and Faculty Develoment

Blended learning, which combines traditional face-to-face classroom instruction with online learning, appears to be growing in popularity at many colleges. This session explores the effort at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth to help faculty develop the skills needed to be effective in a blended learning environment.

Faculty training faculty is one of the strategies used to promote faculty development. Rather than rely solely on academic computing staff, faculty are considered an important part of the development team.

The UMass system received a $650,000 Sloan Consortium grant last year to promote blended learning. The grant has helped develop alternative course calendering, highly interactive blended courses, and enhancements in faculty development programs, including a 2-week online blended learning training course (using Wimba) for faculty interested in teaching in a blended learning environment.

To encourage faculty to convert traditional courses into blended format, faculty received a $4,000 stipend. Participants had to complete the 2-week online training program, as well as additional training sessions. Faculty were expected to use Wimba Live Classroom, integrate a variety of new technologies, and allow peer observation and evaluation of their blended course.

The UMass Dartmouth Blended Learning Institute was held in June, 2007, with 12 invited faculty participants (as well as 8-10 guest participants). A central web site was provided, with links to the online training courses, surveys, documents, and additional resources.

Through a series of asynchronous online discussions, participants explored how to define blended learning, identified strategies and best practices in blended learning, discussed what technologies can be used, and how to use them effectively. Each participant created an action plan for implementing what they had learned in converting a traditional course into a blended learning course.

Wikis were one of the technologies demonstrated in this session. A PBWiki was shown. I’ve used PBWiki before, and found it to be quite easy to use, although I’m a bit concerned about the security of a hosted wiki. Other hosted options include WikiSpaces and Wet Paint.

Another technology explored was online learning spaces. An Adobe Captivate session was shown, with Camtasia Studio video. It looked a little like Tegrity, although more stand-alone than lecture-based, and with integrated assessment tools.

Other technologies briefly mentioned included blogs, clickers and lecture capture software; they are conducting a Tegrity trial this semester. The Wimba tools were integrated into Blackboard Vista.

Faculty participants reported great interest in continuing to teach in the blended format, and encouraged colleagues to embrace blended learning. Most believed that the technologies helped them to teach more effectively. But they also found that getting up to speed took a lot of time and effort, and that technical issues posed problems for some students.

NERCOMP – What we can learn from Hollywood

This morning’s general session was a presentation by Scott Kirsner, a columnist and contributing writer to a variety of publications, including Wired, Business Week, Boston Globe, New York Times and Variety. He is also the author of “Inventing the Movies” and “The Future of Web Video.”

Scott showed an 1894 kinetoscope clip (Ciecedo with Pepe) to illustrate the attitude of Edison and Eastman about technology. For Edison, the kinetoscope, a “peep show machine” that played back moving images, was a much more appropriate use of the technology than film projection (such as the Lumiere brothers’ cinematographe technology). Back then, Edison said…

“We are making these peep show machines and selling a lot of them at a good profit. If we put out a screen machine, there will be use for maybe about ten of them in the whole United States…Let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Next, Scott showed a clip from the Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” or motion picture with sound. Back then, an MGM executive argued that “Sound is a passing fancy.” Of course, sound soon became the norm in movies.

Similarly, color in motion pictures started slowly. The Technicolor company started in 1915, but it would take years before color would be widely adopted. The prevailing thinking at the time was that color was just a gimmick and wouldn’t last. Douglas Fairbanks stared in one of the first feature-length color movies; afterwards, he said he would never do it again. But the fledgling Disney company adopted color, as did the producers of 1939’s “Gone with the Wind.” This was the “tipping point,” and soon color technology became widely adopted. In part, Hollywood embraced color in order to give it an “edge” over the new medium of television (which initially was in black and white).

William Castle’s “The Tingler,” starring Vincent Price, illustrated the 1950s thirst for gimmicks in movies. Theaters would install small buzzers under every few seats and activate them at key moments during the film. Scott called Castle “The King of Movie Gimmicks,” and argued that he was successful because he focused on the fact that people went to the movies to be entertained, to have a fun experience.

Scott noted that in 1982, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Within a few years, the sale and rental of movies on video was a significant revenue stream for Hollywood.

When digital video editing systems were first introduced, many traditional film editors refused to adopt them. But again, the technology would prevail. When 1996’s “The Piano Player,” the first feature-length film to be digitally edited, won an Academy Award for best editing, it was clear that digital editing would replace the “cut and splice” film editing of years past.

Disney at first pooh-poohed the digital animation work of Pixar, convinced that the technology would never achieve the quality of animation that Disney prided itself on. Of course, a few years later, Disney wound up buying Pixar for billions of dollars.

Quoting George Lucas: “When confronted with something new, [preservationists] come up will all of these reasons why it can go wrong, and they don’t come up with any reasons why it’s the right thing to do.”

So what can we learn from these examples? In Hollywood, and every industry, there are three kinds of people: the innovators (who want to push the state of the art), the preservationists (who want to conserve traditional ways of doing things), and the sideline-sitters (who just sit and watch from the sidelines to see what will happen).

Innovators typically don’t spend enough time trying to understand why people resist change. They tend to underestimate the importance of persistence, and the value of having the right connections. Having a better mousetrap isn’t enough; you need to get people to embrace it. And you need to push for change while honoring the traditions of the past.

This was an interesting and engaging presentation, with plenty of good examples to prove his point. I think he may have been “preaching to the choir” a bit, since most of those in the audience were probably already familiar with the tension between tradition and innovation. But it was good to ponder some of these specific examples from the history of Hollywood.

NERCOMP – Tegrity demo

So it’s day two of the NERCOMP conference, and I began the day by attending a demonstration session of Tegrity. The title of the session was “Recruiting, Retention and Relevance (the 3Rs): Leveraging New Learning Technologies for Competitive Advantage.” The main presenter was Alan MacDougall, Director of Academic Computing at the University of New Haven.

Tegrity bills itself as a “class capture” solution. Essentially, it’s a system for producing enhanced podcasts of class lectures. To help illustrate the technology, this morning’s session is being captured by Tegrity, and will be made available for attendees to review after the conference.

Students already capture class lectures in the form of handwritten notes, and many record lectures on their own. Instructors speak at an average rate of 120 words per minute, but students write notes at the rate of 20-30 words per minute. Thus, students that don’t have good listening or note-taking skills can benefit from Tegrity’s ability to create a multimedia recording of a lecture.

During this presentation, I noticed a small tool bar at the bottom of the projected image. This seemed to be a recording indicator, and included a simple “VU meter” indicating audio recording levels. There were also buttons for pause and stop, and an arrow button that would appear to expand the toolbar to provide additional functionality.

Why did the U of New Haven choose Tegrity? The #1 objective was to improve student outcomes. Another concern was ease of use. The ability to create content that could be deployed on multiple platforms, including iPods, was a big plus. UNH began their initial deployment of Tegrity in Spring 2006. A campus-wide license model allowed for up to 2,000 users; they may soon exceed that limit and will have to pay higher licensing fees to Tegrity.

At UNH, Tegrity presentations are integrated into Blackboard. This helps control access to the content, and provides some protection on the distribution of intellectual property. Students can view the captured class in a web browser or download it to their iPod. They may also subscribe to a class’s RSS feed to have new lecture podcasts automatically downloaded to iTunes. The text on slides is searchable, and students can jump to just the section of a lecture that they wish.

In addition to class capture, UNH have used Tegrity in recruiting, to create training videos for students, faculty and staff, and for providing review sessions for students to complement class lectures.

Contrary to what one might think, Alan claims that class capture hasn’t had a significant impact on student attendance. If anything, he believes it has helped improve attendance (although he didn’t offer any specific numbers in support of this claim).

Tegrity has contributed to the growing number of “hybrid courses” offered by UNH. (A hybrid course typically refers to one that combines traditional classroom instruction with online instruction.)

Most faculty and students say they really like Tegrity; some say they love it. Students are more relaxed in class, as they realize they don’t need to be furiously writing down notes. Students can review material as often as they wish until they “get it.”

Screen annotations are captured as well as slides. Anything that appears on the display is captured, so a lecturer can use a web browser or any program and have the screen captured.

The size of an hour lecture capture can range from 40 MB to 150 MB or more. Files deployed for iPods are compressed to make the files smaller. Tegrity sessions can include external video, as well as video and animations embedded into PowerPoint.

After attending this session, I have a better idea about what Tegrity can do. I’m still not convinced of the cost-benefit ratio, especially in light of software solutions like ProfCast combined with the free hosting of iTunes U.

NERCOMP – Rethinking Overheads

The last session I attended today was a thought-provoking presentation on improving the design of overhead visuals, such as the “slides” produced by PowerPoint and Keynote. Russell L. Kahn, Director of the MS in Information Design and Technology program at the SUNY Institute of Technology, shared some of the key ideas from his forthcoming article in the Journal of Educational Technology Systems.

Millions of presentations are presented every day, and most of them use some form of overhead visuals. Out of the box, PowerPoint encourages slides with a text heavy, title-with-bullet list format. Most presenters just focus on the verbal content conveyed by the text on a slide. But there are many weaknesses of this approach. Not only is the standard PowerPoint slide boring, it discourages active thinking in the audience. Students tend to just write down word for word what they see on the slide. The more text on a slide, the faster students must race to write down everything. PowerPoint’s default design encourages reductionism and oversimplification.

Posting slides on the web to discourage this behavior can help, but not much, since this can discourage students from listening to the lecture, or even attending class. Kahn said that empirical research supports this contention.

So what to do? Kahn argues for a rethinking of overhead design, with two distinguishing features. First, place a succinct, one-sentence assertion at the top of each slide. Below this, instead of a bullet list of supporting points, provide “visual evidence” in the form of a photo, diagram, map or other relevant image. Try to convey the gist of the assertion using a visual element.

He suggests that the assertion sentence should be in a 30 point sans serif font, flush left, with sentence capitalization. Subheadings, if used, should be 18-24 point. (I myself would find anything below 28 point too small to read from the back of a lecture hall. And why would he mention subheadings if he is encouraging the avoidance of bullet lists?)

Other suggestions: try to use active verbs, not passive verbs. Keep lists to 1-3 lines, with generous white space. (So I guess limited use of bullet lists is OK. Hmm.) Use presenter tools for your speaker notes, rather than using the slides. Podcast your lectures rather (or in addition to) providing slide handouts. Focus on developing presentations that are more student-centered, rather than teacher-centered.

Visuals communicate on a different level than text. A good visual can communicate much more effectively and memorably. Kahn’s approach embraces students as active thinkers and learners, rather than passive recipients of information.

Kahn points to a 2005 Virginia Tech study by Alley as evidence that his approach works. In this study of 800 students, those in courses that used the assertion-visual slide structure achieved significantly higher test scores. Retention of information was clearly higher when using visual slides rather than text-heavy slides.

I think Dr. Kahn had some good ideas in his presentation, and I applaud his campaign to move beyond text-heavy slides. I’m not sure if I agree with his assertion-visual design model, as there may be situations when only visuals are appropriate. Further, I find moving images to be even more effective for some applications. Where video is either not available or inappropriate, at least one can use tasteful animation, transparency effects or scaling to give some sense of action to static images. Toward the end of his presentation, Kahn did mention that one can put video in a PowerPoint slide, but that he had not done so. (Not to brag, but I do this all the time, as do many of my colleagues.)

Some of Dr. Kahn’s favorite web resources for visual evidence include Newseum, Flickr, Ted, Google, SIRIS and YouTube.

More information about Dr. Kahn’s work is available at his wiki at