Friday, June 20, 2008

What Makes a Classroom "Smart"?

At a recent conference, the presenter was discussing a new technology he had put into a group study lab. He stated that they didn't want to refer to the room as the name of the technology because the technology might change down the road. Fair argument...

They decided instead to rebrand the product, a strategy that many schools have used with their course management systems (mostly unsuccessfully, by the way -- people still complain when the underlying technology changes). So, they called them "smart spaces." Hence, one of my least favorite terms has now expanded to apply to informal learning spaces.

We've all heard of so called "smart classrooms". Us technology folks feel that when we put computers, data projectors, and other equipment in a space, it makes it smart. Of course, as these folks show off their smart classrooms, they show photographs without people. An empty "smart" classrooms seems to me to be an oxymoron. Isn't it the people that make space "smart"? Anyone who has had a computer crash on them knows it's certainly not the technology.

Here's another one.... "learning management systems." Sometime over the last four to five years, products such as Blackboard and Sakai stopped becoming course management systems. Granted that these products have become much more sophisticated and course management system may no longer be tie right name, but isn't it presumptious for us to believe that technology can manage learning? Interestingly, the most common reason I am given for the name change is that when people hear "CMS", they now think of "content management systems". The name change is meant to avoid confusion. Sure clears it up for me.

Some might respond that I'm arguing semantics. What does it matter what we call it? After all, people are intelligent. They know what we're talking about.

The problem is that us tech folks sometimes forget that our language, the words we choose to use to communicate, impact people's perceptions. We've all seen people's faces turn blank when a saavy technologist tries to explain why a document won't print. Five minutes later nothing's any clearer and the document still hasn't printed. Sometimes I get the sense that some of the technologists are trying to impress the others with their deep knowledge and sophisticated language.

Technologists have a reputation for using language that most others can't understand. We have a habit of finding really cool solutions to non-existent problems, or of making life more complicated than it needs to be (ask my wife about her frustration with having to juggle five remote controls to get the television to display the output from a VCR -- thank you Harmony remote controls! -- but I digress). Our explanations of these solutions don't help as they often include all types of acronyms and foreign language. I knew a technologist once who even made up his own words when he was trying to explain a concept.

At the end of the day, us technologists have to know how to call it like it is, in plain language. If it's a classroom with technology, and we need to distinguish it from classrooms with no technology, let's call it a technology classroom. (Note that I didn't refer to it as a technology-enhanced classroom, another trigger. It's easy to argue that in some cases, technology most certainly doesn't enhance the classroom experience.)

Interactions between people add the "smartness" to a classroom, and learning can't be managed. Thinking about the language we use when we're talking to people and communicating concepts can only help us as we work with real people to use technology.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Evolution of Second Life

It shouldn't surprise anyone that technology continues to evolve faster than we can keep up with it. However, as I was preparing for a faculty talk on Second Life, I was amazed at how sophisticated it's becoming.

For sure, the graphics are still not high quality, and the manipulation of objects is still clumsy, but the people using Second Life are becoming increasingly sophisticated on what they're able to do. Give credit to the Linden folks for creating an environment with substantial flexibility.

In the early days of SL, people were constructing buildings and environments as a way to re-create the real world. Witness schools like Princeton, MIT, and Vassar and their recreations of campus buildings, complete with the traditional chairs and lecture halls (if everyone hates lecture halls so much, why are so many of them being recreated in SL?).

Then, the galleries started taking off....first galleries that displayed "traditional" art. Vassar recreated the Sistine Chapel, which takes advantage of the ability to fly around the room in order to get a closeup view of Michaelangelo's work. Now, you are seeing installations that create "objects" that would never be possible in the real world. (

This week, I found some amazing things being done in the sciences. It's now possible to walk through hurricanes, view a recreation of a solar eclipse, view (and interact with) real time 3-d weather maps, and manipulate scientific equipment. The Science School ( is just one example of the work that's being done.

With all that being said, one of the best questions I got during the presentation had to do with all of the hype SL is receiving, with many stating that this is the magic bullet for solving all pedagogical problems. We have to remember that there is a long history of these magic bullets. Just like the introduction of the television, the VCR, the laser disc, the personal computer, and the world wide web, Second Life is one of many technologies that are available for teaching. One must decide if investing the significant time this type of tool will take will help accomplish or enhance teaching and/or learning goals.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Luna Insight

  • Got a demo of the next version of Luna Insight. Talk about nice. They've simplified the interface, made it more integrated, and added tons of features. One of the more impressive features is the ability to manipulate multiple images at once. Imagine having a pile of images on your screen from multiple sources (including Flickr), with the ability to zoom in on two images next to each other, overlay them, resize them, and then create a web link so that view of the images can be shared with others. Very cool.

Powered by ScribeFire.


I often find the vendor area to be the most useful part of Educause. It's always good to talk face-to-face with sales reps and to find out what new things are being released. This year, there seems to be more vendors than ever before. I spent four hours on the exhibit hall floor yesterday and still haven't made it all the way through. (I have to keep in mind that as many vendors as there are at Educause, the InfoComm exhibit hall is about four times bigger.

Faronics (maker of DeepFreeze) - it's always easier to talk to a vendor when you already do business with them. ETS started using DeepFreeze this semester. I've always liked the balance of flexibility and control it provides. The sales guy says that a new version will be released in January that allows a "super list" to be created. When someone on that super list logs into the machine, they have complete control. There's no longer a need for an administrator to unfreeze a computer before making changes. It'll be automatic. Faronics has also released a version of DeepFreeze that supports Leopard.

I also learned about another product called "PowerSave." It's a very intricate program designed to cut energy use on computers. If the computer has no activity for a certain amount of time, it shuts itself down. The decision to shut down is more involved than whether or not there is keyboard or mouse action. It also looks to see whether programs are running, and an array of other actions.

  • I saw Dell's new tablet. It'll be released on December 11. It's not much lighter than my Toshiba. However, the most interesting thing about it is that you won't need a special stylus. You can use any hard device (similar to most PDAs). Surprisingly, most tablets require the special stylus.
  • Saw a product called DyKnow, that provides a nice software solution to screen sharing for computer classrooms. One interesting feature is that it allows the instructor to completely black out the students' computer screen. Unfortunately, there's no Mac version. I emphasized repeatedly that without a Mac version, we're not interested. (I was thinking about the VCRC and ways we can update that facility.)
  • Respondus allows faculty to create quiz questions off-line and upload them into the course management system, including Moodle. The interface is much more intuitive than Moodle or Blackboard.
  • Lots of consulting/help desk services for open source software, especially Moodle and Sakai. One outfit (I don't recall the name) provides 24/7 first line support for Moodle for about $35K per year. They say that it's expensive, but cheaper than what a full-time support person would be.
More later.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Educause Day 2

(I attended a preconference session yesterday that was so bad, I'm not going to spend the time to summarize it. I did get some very useful materials that will help ETS in its planning. The materials, however, had nothing to do with the topic that had been advertised. --ok, maybe with some extreme stretching....)

The opening session featured Doris Kearns Goodwin. The first time I heard her speak was on Ken Burns' Baseball documentary on PBS. I'd heard of her because of her writings, most notably her biography of Lincoln Johnson. Her speech here at Educause was about leadership qualities. Her most current work is on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Her speech outlined some of the qualities of Abraham Lincoln that made him one of the best U.S. Presidents and how his leadership held the U.S. together during the Civil War.

  • A capacity to listen to different points of view. Lincoln encouraged dissenting opinions, and his cabinet knew that there would not be retribution for them being outspoken. He wanted to hear dissenting opinions, yet also realized that consensus could be paralyzing.
  • An ability to learn on the job. Lincoln admitted when he made mistakes. He felt that failures don't hurt us, it's the inability to learn from those failures that are most hurtful.
  • A willingness to share credit. Lincoln felt you can accomplish anything if you don't worry about who gets the credit.
"The path to success is wide enough for more than one person to walk it abreast."

  • A willingness to accept blame for subordinates.
Early on in the Civil War, one of Lincoln's cabinet was called to the Capitol to testify about why the troops were getting such shoddy supplies. Congress was blaming the problems on the Cabinet member. Lincoln took the blame for the failure, stating that he had made decisions in the early days of the war, when everything that was so chaotic, that had led to the shoddy supplies.
  • An understanding of one's own weaknesses. Lincoln had a temper, but felt that anger would not be helpful in getting through the Civil War. When he was angry, he would write a letter to a member of his Cabinet, but never give it to him. He was able to redirect his anger into the letter, and then use it as a way to talk to his Cabinet without his temper.
"Letting resentment fester is poison."

  • A strength to adhere to his goals. At the end of his first term, the war was not going well for the Union and Lincoln was starting to lose popular support. His party told him that he would not win the election unless he gave up his stance on abolishing slavery in the hopes of pulling the South back into the Union. Lincoln refused, and a few weeks later Atlanta fell, considered to be the turning point of the Civil War.
  • Leaders have to be able to relax and renew. Although Lincoln was in the throes of leading the country through the Civil War, Lincoln still spent hours with his friends and was a frequent visitor to the theatre. He had a great sense of humor and always had stories to tell his Cabinet.
"Upon hearing someone call him two-faced, Lincoln responded, 'If I'm two-faced, I surely would not have picked this one."

  • Refusal to hide from adversity. Even though Lincoln was getting criticized for continuing the Civil War, he still made sure he met with as many people as possible. He frequently visited the troops on the front line.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007