Tag Archives: technology

It Takes Audacity

By  Matt McKinnon

Ok, so not just Audacity; any recording and editing software will do.  But Audacity is free, works with all of the major operating systems, and, at least in its basic form, is not hard to use.  (Though in order to export the files, they have to be converted to mp3 format using the LAME encoder.)

A few of my students have had trouble doing this, but most are able to create their own audio files to attach in Blackboard for me and their colleagues to listen to.

And that simple addition to my American Dreams course has added a dimension to online education that, after five years of teaching in the BLS program, I did not expect.

The voices are full of character. Rich in diversity.  Different in their tone and cadence.  Some are smooth and polished, others hesitant.  Some are quite moving, even poetic.  Some are transcendent in their plainness.

But all of them are honest.  Real.

They are like voices out of a Ken Burns documentary: serious, focused, reading (not speaking off the cuff) a personal account of the American Dream.

They add a profundity to the most banal of writing assignments.  They add depth.  They add life.

The assignment is simple: write a five minute reflection on what you think about the American Dream.  And then record it and post it on Blackboard.  Students do this twice—once in the beginning of the course and then again at the end, almost like a personal assessment of how their views have changed.  For the final assignment, they submit the written version as well.  And it is here that I have learned to appreciate the depth, the character that is conveyed with hearing someone speak their own words—as opposed to simply reading their words myself.

Of course there are limits:  I wouldn’t want to hear someone read aloud their five-page paper on politics and religion in America, or worse yet, their twelve-page book review in the Senior Seminar.  But for something short, something as personal and as powerful as a dream, as the American Dream, as their American Dream, it has an amazing effect.

I realized it when I listened to the audio files the first time I taught the course last year.  In a way that the written word cannot achieve, these voices of my students grabbed me—grab me still—and, for lack of a better way of saying it: made it personal.

After all, if we’re honest, we must admit that with all the benefits of distance education (and there are many), one of the things that’s missing is personal contact.  And what’s more personal than a voice?

Ok, a face.

Here’s me and my wife (I’m on the right).

Here's Vicente Fernandez.

And those rare times I have seen a picture of a student in one of the assignments they submit in their Senior Portfolio—usually as part of a photography assignment or a blog—it has had a similar effect: giving an added dimension to someone whose existence to me is represented entirely by the written word.

But there’s something about the human voice.  The old adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words, but if you’ve ever lost someone dear, you’ve probably had the thought: “What I would give just hear their voice again.”

Now here’s Fernández’s voice (and his hat):

But let’s not get carried away.

I have to admit that I hate Facebook, only reluctantly joined LinkedIn (but never use it), don’t care what folks are doing this weekend (or did last weekend), don’t want to see pictures of people from high school whom I didn’t really like in high school (or my second-cousin’s newest baby), and generally believe that our culture has gone overboard with social-networking, the effect being that communication (and society?) has been thinned out and dumbed down.

But when we take what’s useful from these platforms and make judicious use of them in our BLS courses, well, the effect can be startling, enriching, enlightening.

And in the case of Audacity, it can literally be the opposite of dumbing down:

It gives students their voice.

My Experience in the BLS Program at UNCG

By Julia Burns, BLS Class of 2012

I woke up this morning and went into the bathroom to do my daily ritual as usual. The only problem that I have is looking in the mirror at a very scary soon to be 52 year old! Thinking, I realized today is 11th of December and it is 4 more days until I will officially be graduated. I did it! I worked hard to get my Bachelor of Arts degree while I worked making money in a reputable job. It took me 2 years in person and a year online to complete in 3 ½ years what normally have taken in 4 to 5 years. How did I do it?  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

When I first enrolled, I thought this was going to be a breeze – a piece of cake. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I never worked so hard in my life. A traditional student can walk to class, take notes, study, test, and interact readily with other students; an online student does not have that luxury. An online article by Terence Loose points out the following seven myths about  online learning:

  • Online courses are easier than in-class courses.
  • You have to be tech-savvy to take an online class.
  • You don’t receive personal attention in online education.
  • You can “hide” in an online course and never participate.
  • You don’t learn as much when you pursue an online degree.
  • Respected schools don’t offer online degrees.
  • Networking opportunities aren’t available through online education.

I compared these seven myths to my experience with online classes. I am technologically illiterate. I received a lot of personal attention in online education. I couldn’t hide in an online course and not participate if I expected to receive a grade and keep my financial aid. I learned more from studying on line than I did from attending in person. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a well-respected, fully accredited, state university. I made some wonderful contacts online–not just on the North Carolina campus but from all across the country as well as all over the world.  Through online classes, I have learned the art of self discipline, how to prioritize better, how to write for specific disciplines, developed a stronger interest in all types of literature, and a gained great appreciation for all types of anthropology.

Many classes featured heated debates, such as the mock trials in “Great Trials in American History.” This was done live online and all students had to participate. It was a difficult night because in some parts of the country there were terrible thunderstorms and a lot of tornado activity going on. The thrill of the storms and the debate combined was really exciting!

What do I intend to do with this online degree in Bachelor of Arts? I would like to be a lawyer or a teacher. But in the meanwhile, I have chosen neither. I am currently refreshing my algebra skills to take the GRE and get my Master Arts in Liberal Studies. The law has always fascinated me, teaching would be a great challenge, but to become better educated is where I am headed. Who knows–maybe I will get my PhD?

Online Learning: Accidentally Green

This is where I admit I’m a little bit of a green freak. I use an electric lawn mower, an electric weed eater, and an electric leaf blower at my house, partly because they’re less expensive to fuel and maintain, but mostly because it allows me to avoid the wasted fossil fuels and absurd emissions of small gasoline engines. I can’t afford an electric car on an academic’s salary, but I did manage to find an electric scooter that I could afford, and I ride it to work any time the weather’s not too horrible…and as an old motorcycle lover and bicycle nut, I have a ridiculously liberal definition of “not too horrible” for riding. So yeah. Green freak. That’s me. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.When I first started working with the BLS Program in 2004, our primary goal was not to provide a green method of delivering our classes. In fact, it was the least of our considerations. We were mostly concerned with meeting the needs of the nontraditional students who wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t have the leisure to make it to regularly-scheduled classes on campus. The people we thought about were working 8-to-5 and weren’t served by the evening offerings on campus. Or they were working parents and couldn’t afford childcare to go to class. Or maybe they worked in some field with unpredictable hours, such as emergency services, or the medical field, or the airline industry, or even the good old restaurant business (and we have since had students in all of those fields). Whatever they were doing to pay the mortgage and support their children, we wanted to make classes that they could complete from home, in the hours they could manage to carve out of their schedules. From what I hear from our students, I think we’ve been pretty successful at that goal.

What we didn’t plan was the myriad ways in which our online classes are so much more resource-conserving than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Here are a few that come to mind.

No Driving — Instead of having each of our students burn a few gallons of gasoline getting to class (a lot of them are pretty far from campus), we use a few watts of electricity to deliver their classes electronically. They can participate in their classes anywhere they can get online, whether that’s at home, at work on a quiet night shift, at their favorite coffee shop, or from their hotel room while they’re traveling on business. It goes even further than that, because many of our faculty also teach their classes from home. Given that we have faculty who live in the Triangle, in Charlotte, and even out of state, that adds up to a lot of driving avoided by teaching and taking classes online.

No Buildings — We don’t need big spaces to gather faculty and students in the same room, so we don’t have to spend a bunch of money and resources building, heating, cooling, and lighting classroom buildings. That means fewer buildings and more green space for everyone, and it adds up to a substantial savings in terms of resource usage. Even with smart climate-control systems, classroom buildings take a vast amount of energy to heat and cool, and because of their scale, they have to be heated and cooled around the clock, even at night when no one’s around. By delivering our classes online to our students, we help reduce the pressure to build and maintain more resource-hogging classroom space. In fact, an online class full of students using their laptops at home, even if they leave them on all the time, still uses less electricity than it takes just to run the nighttime security lighting in a classroom building.

No Paper — Using online discussion boards, and writing, receiving, critiquing, and grading essays online saves reams of paper (literally) for each online class. My writing-intensive class has ten discussion boards, a prospectus, an essay, and a final revision. With twenty-five students in that class, assuming one full page each for the discussion boards, two pages for the prospectus, and ten pages each for the essay and revision, that’s (*does some math*) eight hundred pages that aren’t getting printed. Add in a syllabus that doesn’t have to get printed and handed out to the class, and that one 25-student online class has saved two whole reams of paper. Multiply that by the twenty-four classes we are offering this semester, and that’s a nice, heavy case of paper that isn’t getting deforested, pulped, packaged, shipped, and most likely ending up in a landfill somewhere at the end of it all.

So, less driving, less construction, less heating and cooling, and less paper. As a green freak, I gotta say that’s not too shabby as an accidental side effect. And here we were just trying to make it easier for you to go to class in your pajamas!

Recalculating

By Marc Williams

Anyone in a car with a GPS knows the phrase “recalculating.” Once you program your destination and begin your journey, the GPS expects you to follow the path with unwavering trust. The slightest turn from the designated route—a pit stop, a scenic detour, a bite to eat—will cause the GPS to recalculate the route. If I miss a turn and get frustrated, the Garmin’s voice is steady and confident, never losing sight of the path. It’s oddly comforting to know that someone in the car can keep their cool. Interestingly, on my Garmin system, and on all of the GPS devices I’ve encountered in other cars, the voice that calmly says, “recalculating” is always female. Is that merely a coincidence?

CNN.com’s Brandon Griggs recently wrote about the new iPhone 4S feature, Siri,

and its distinctly female voice. Griggs notes that female voices are far more common in talking devices than male voices, and provides some interesting theories on the various reasons why talking computers tend to be female. For instance, Griggs cites Clifford Nass of Stanford University:

iPhone's Siri

“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” said Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”

HAL 9000 (From Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Another theory suggests that Hollywood uses male computer voices in suspense and thriller movies to create a sound of “menace,” so perhaps we find the idea of female computers to be more less menacing.

Or the historical theory is that WWII aviators relied on females for navigation, since their voices were easily distinguished from the male voices of the other pilots.

In many BLS courses, including my arts courses, gender roles and gender identity are discussed and debated at length. In fact, last week, my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class was discussing gender attitudes on war in our examination of the Greek comedy Lysistrata.

So what does the trend of female computers say about gender attitudes on technology today?

Siri in action:

Anti-Plagiarism Tools

By Marc Williams

All of my classes in the BLS program involve some kind of essay or research paper.  Additionally, students discuss a variety of course topics using threaded message boards—a kind of virtual classroom discussion.  With both kinds of writing, many students supplement their understanding of the topic by conducting quick online searches.  Sometimes these efforts are deliberate attempts to research but in some cases, students “just want to be sure” their thoughts are on the right track.  In either case, I ask students to document the sources they consult but I suspect that many informal online searches go undocumented.  Unfortunately, students who conduct this kind of informal web research without proper documentation can easily commit an act of plagiarism–even if the student does not intend to deceive.

My rule of thumb for students is to include any source consulted in a bibliography, whether that source is quoted in the paper or not.  Sources that contain unique information or sources that are quoted in the text of the paper require parenthetical citations, a hallmark of Modern Language Association format (MLA).

I’ve found two tools that make online research and documentation just a bit easier.  The Online Writing Lab (OWL), hosted by Purdue University, contains a variety of style and formatting guides, including details on MLA format.  This site is up-to-date with the 2009 MLA format updates, is completely free, and can replace the hard copy version of the MLA Handbook I used to ask my students to purchase.  The OWL contains great information on citing electronic and web sources, which is great for online students who do so much of their research using the web.  Using the OWL can help students present all of their sources in an easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate format.

Second, I’ve found an application called Zotero, which is a plug-in for Mozilla’s Firefox web browser.  With Zotero installed on my browser, I can document a web source in one click.  When I’m conducting a web search, I launch Zotero and the software helps me track all of the information I need to generate bibliographic entries: the site’s name, the date the site was published, the date on which I accessed the material, and the URL.  I can sort the various sources into a folder so all of my sources for one project are stored together.  Zotero allows users to take screen shots so that the content of the web page can be stored along with the citation data.  And files can be attached to each entry, so I can download a PDF of a journal article and save it along with the necessary citation data.

The Rise and Fall of 3-D

By Marc Williams

I have always loved going to the movies.  Now that my wife and I have a young child at home, we don’t get out as much as we used to, so going to the movies is a particularly special treat. We subscribe to Netflix so we can watch movies at home sometimes but actually going to a movie theatre for the big-screen experience is rare thing these days.

Over the past year or two, most of the movies we’ve seen in the theatre were offered in 3-D. Moviegoers nowadays are often given a choice between traditional 2-D and 3-D–we typically opt for the 2-D experience but we have, of course, occasionally opted for a few 3-D titles.  For example, we saw the final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, in both 2-D and 3-D.

How and why did this trend of 3-D films start?  3-D is not a new idea–filmmakers have been experimenting with the technology for nearly one hundred years and feature films have been offered in 3-D for well over fifty years.  But 3-D has become a craze.  I think it began with Avatar, which was probably the most successful and critically acclaimed 3-D film of all time. Hollywood knows a good money-making machine when they see it, so in the wake of Avatar‘s success, the major studios mobilized and started offering more and more 3-D titles.  Theatre chains have also found a way to cash in on the phenomenon; ticket prices for 3-D films are significantly higher than prices for standard 2-D films.

While I admired Avatar for its technical achievement, I personally have not been able to embrace the 3-D craze. My personal distaste for 3-D primarily stems from the fact that most 3-D films I’ve seen use the 3-D technology as a cheap gimmick, not as a storytelling device. If there is an explosion in a 3-D film, is the story truly enhanced by making the viewers feel as if shrapnel is headed in their direction?  I don’t see much payoff for this use of 3-D, yet this is precisely how most films choose to employ the technology.

Avatar is a different kind of 3-D film for several reasons. First, the lush physical environment is given tremendous depth through the use of 3-D; this is important because the film is about the beauty and fragility of the environment.  In this regard, Avatar does not use 3-D as a cheap gimmick.  In fact, the film was shot in 3-D; it was part of the director’s plan for the film all along.  Most 3-D films today are not shot in 3-D–they are converted to 3-D from a 2-D format.  Disney’s re-release of The Lion King in 3-D is a great example of this; they’re simply capitalizing on the 3-D craze, offering viewers only a slightly different experience from the original 2-D film.  To me, that experience isn’t worth the extra $5.00 the movie theatre wants to charge for a 3-D ticket.

Another issue with 3-D is the amount of light on the screen.  3-D technology depends upon darkening the picture by about 50%.  Film critic Roger Ebert has been particularly critical of 3-D films specifically for this reason–the picture is simply too dark.  I found this to be true in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II when I saw it in 3-D.  Images that are intensely white in the 2-D version (bright light, for instance) lost their luster in the 3-D version, seeming more gray than white.  And given that the 2-D film was already very dark and shadowy, some of the picture was rendered incomprehensibly dark in the 3-D version.  Some of the other technical concerns with 3-D are outlined in this letter to Roger Ebert from Walter Murch, arguably the most distinguished film editor in the industry.

Box office receipts are beginning to show that 3-D is becoming less and less palatable for moviegoers.  This could be a rejection of the extra $5.00 being charged by theatre chains, or perhaps a reaction to dim, dizzying images.  I was surprised to learn, for example, that the 3-D version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II generated only one-third of the revenue generated by the 2-D version of the same film.  Because profits are down, the 3-D craze is likely nearing its end.

The point is that a brilliant and promising technology can die if no one is willing to use it properly.  Director James Cameron made Avatar using processes no one had ever used before in a feature film, so he had to be willing to adjust his typical methods in order to maximize the 3-D technology’s potential. The question all of this raises for me is the employment of new technology in the classroom–especially the online classroom.  Given that the BLS degree program at UNCG is offered online, it seems we instructors and course developers run the risk of adopting technology without really using it to its fullest potential.  Or even misusing it.

I have certainly been guilty of using technology in ways that create a obstacles to learning–how can this be avoided?  Or better yet, how can technology be used to give students and faculty an advantage? In what ways can technology truly enhance the educational experience, especially online?

Thinking, Adapting, and Thinking

By Marc Williams

Eric Ries

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, has some bold ideas about entrepreneurship.  In a recent interview for Wired magazine online, Ries argues that old adage “right place at the right time” is not a formula for business success:

 “There was a study done in the early 20th century of all the entrepreneurs who entered the automobile industry around the same time as Henry Ford; there were something like 500 automotive companies that got funded, had the internal combustion engine, had the technology, and had the vision. Sixty percent of them folded within a couple of years.”

Ford, according to Ries, was simply better at adapting to changing circumstances than his competitors.  It wasn’t the quality of his original idea, which wasn’t at all unique, but rather his willingness to change his idea.

A contemporary example Ries uses is Dropbox, a file-sharing program that allows uses to sync files and folders online—and allows users to designate folders as public, private, or shared with only selected users.  Dropbox didn’t begin with a massive PR campaign—it started small, adapted to what its small customer base wanted, and experienced overwhelming growth because they continued to adapt.

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Watch live video from Startup Lessons Learned on Justin.tv

So what can teachers do to help prepare students for a world in which adaptability is key?  In my online courses in the BLS program at UNCG, I typically utilize at least one assignment that requires revision.  Sometimes it is easy to focus on obvious errors—mechanics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, et cetera.  When reading student writing, I challenge myself to look for the ideas and challenge my students to strengthen, support, or even reconsider those ideas.    In what other ways can teachers promote adaptability in the classroom?