New Educational Technologies: eHere Today and eGone Tomorrow? – Mark Morton

A question that I’m often asked when I give a workshop on a new educational technology (or what I like to call “NETs”) is this: “How can I be sure that this technology is here to stay?” Well, no technology is really here to stay. Clay tablets had a pretty good run of about three thousand years, but they were eventually supplanted by paper scrolls. And scrolls gave way to books. And now books are being challenged by ebooks and ebook readers. The anxiety behind the question, though, is legitimate, and it arises from the fear of investing a lot of time and energy into learning or implementing a new technology only to have that technology become obsolete a short time later. Occasionally, this has happened to me. For example, a couple years ago I began using an online “to do list” program called Todoist. I loved the program because it was a boon to be able to access my task list from anywhere — including from my Blackberry. But then I discovered Toodledo, another “to do list” program that does everything that Todist does and more. So I decided to switch. The change, though, was painful. There was no way of exporting my tasks and categories from Todoist into Toodledo. I had to move everything over manually, by re-typing or cutting and pasting.

Hopefully, though, I won’t have to go through that tedious process again, if and when I decide to switch to yet another online task management program. That’s because one of the features of Toodledo is that it allows you to export your tasks and categories in a variety of formats, including iCal, XML, and CSV. The same thing is happening with ebooks: early products tended to be based on proprietary formats, meaning that an ebook purchased for one ebook platform couldn’t be read on a different ebook platform. Since the middle of 2008, though, there has been a movement to adopt an open standard (known as epub).As a result, ebooks published in the epub format can now be read on a variety of platforms such as Adobe Digital Editions, Lexcycle Stanza, BookGlutton and the Firefox plugin OpenBerg Lector. Several hand-held ebook devices, too, now support the epub standard format, including the Sony PRS 700.

The trend with digital technologies, then, is toward open standards. Does this mean that in the near future you’ll never again have to worry about transitioning from one product or platform to another product or platform? Well, no, there will continue to be some growing pains as technologies continue to evolve and supplant one another. But for the most part, the transition will be eased by open standards, and by widgets that will help you convert your data configurations from one format to another when you decide to upgrade. In the long term, of course, everything will change dramatically: in twenty years, finding a hand-held device that will play MP3s will probably be as challenging as it is now to find a computer that accepts the old 5 ¼-inch floppy disks.

Seeing is Believing: Using Visuals and Demonstrations – Katherine Lithgow

I had the opportunity to attend Richard Wells’  Kin 160 Ergonomics in Industry class this past week and was treated to a variety of demonstrations which gave me a flavour of what ergonomics is all about.

During the last week of class, the students were able to apply what they had learned about factors ranging from furniture to noise and lighting, by using that knowledge to promote well being and system performance in the design of a call centre.  In class, we had a chance to ’feel’ what the various recommendations were like. We tried reading at various light levels; we measured the light level in the classroom to see how it compared to the recommended value; we noted the classroom temperature and compared it to the recommended value. We also got a sense of what it was like to carry on conversations in a number of work place settings by talking at a normal level with our neighbours while various recordings of different noise levels were played ranging from factory noise to household noise. We also ‘heard’ how pink noise could improve the noise levels in work environments.

Demonstrations during the lectures are not new for this class. I looked at the Kin 160 UW-ACE site and

This scene illustrates some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization
This scene illustrates some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization

read some of the weekly blogs that Richard posts for his class and found that the Candy Factory clip from the ‘I LOVE LUCY’ show had been used to ‘sum up some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization.’

The students then participated in their own assembly line process of ‘writing a letter to Santa’ exercise which illustrated how one person could become overloaded while others had plenty of rest time. The Demand/Control Model was used to assess this situation and demonstrate ‘how important job design is to create system performance and human well being.’

Students also are given the opportunity to provide examples which reinforce what they are learning in the class by submitting photos of good and bad ergonomics design.

Throughout the term, Richard has used demonstrations to show how ergonomics concepts are applicable to most work and leisure activities. When you can actually experience to some extent the impacts of good and bad ergonomics design, you’re better able to describe the impact of ergonomic design on people’s health and performance, and from experience can describe how and why this can occur which, it so happens, is one of the course objectives!

One of Richard’s final blogs for the course encourages students to pay attention to ergonomics in their everyday life, ‘Make sure you use the ideas to improve your own well being and performance… there is now good evidence that university age people are developing chronic musculoskeletal problems from their academic computer use and setting themselves up for reoccurrences of these problems; remember, primary prevention is the way to go.’ Learning a lot easier when you can see how you benefit directly from the knowledge.

Social Networking in Teaching and Research – Trevor Holmes

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the differences between Facebook and Academia.edu. While Facebook accomplishes so many different things (some great, some really horrid), Academia.edu seems to be a winner for those scholars who want to find contacts around the world in their research areas. It works based on a tree-like structure within each university that then cross-fertilizes according to one’s sub-fields across all universities in the system. Besides meeting academics with similar research interests, connections can be made via papers and citations (although I haven’t tested that aspect yet). Senior scholars and graduate students are getting involved. A brief review:

http://scienceroll.com/2008/10/11/academiaedu-social-network-in-science/

A final question: Will research-based social networking improve teaching? Directly? Indirectly? I’m asking this not only because I work at the CTE, but also because I do believe firmly that the “specialness” of university study is that one joins a community of intellectuals for a time — in short, there is and should be a link between teaching and research. More on that question later.

Effective letters for teaching-award nominations – Trevor Holmes

What a boring place the world would be if all letters looked the same! Nonetheless, there are some features that make letters for major awards more persuasive…

  • Start with how you know the nominee, since when, and in what context
  • Give your own qualifications as a context for your comments
  • Get to know the award for which the professor, instructor, or teaching assistant is being nominated — address whatever criteria you honestly can address
  • Provide specifics: not just your favourite teacher ever, but the specific ways in which he/she (for example) helped you grasp a concept, choose a major, succeed in a career, teach others something, overcome test anxiety, become aware of your own skills, and so forth.
  • Explain with examples how you are different for having had this teacher. What did you take away from the course BECAUSE of his or her teaching style and/or methods? This might involve concepts, but it might also involve values, approaches, or attitudes!

Blog: A four-letter word – Mark Morton

The word ‘blog’ was invented in 1999 as a shortened form of ‘web log.’ Since then, blogs have increased exponentially in number. Many blogs are created and abandoned after a few weeks while others have thrived for years. Most blogs are read by a small number of people but a few — such as the Huffington Post, a political blog — is read by more than a million people each month. In higher education, blogs have also come into their own: blogs by Stephen Downes and Will Richardson are read by thousands of educators around the world.

So, if there are so many blogs — good ones and bad ones — out there already, why create another one? Well, here at the Centre for Teaching Excellence, we think that a blog will help us communicate ideas and issues pertaining to teaching in a timely and (dare I hope) lively manner, ideas and issues that will be of special interest to the University of Waterloo instructors who make up our target audience. Our centre already has a newsletter that does an excellent job of presenting a round-up of news and events pertaining to teaching, but it only comes out once a term. This blog, as we see it, will be more dynamic, responsive, opinionated, and colourful — a kind of crazy uncle to our more sober newsletter. We hope to share new research and best practices pertaining to teaching, but we also hope to inspire engaged debate — because that, surely, is at the heart of all learning.

By the way, here’s a link to an interesting post on another blog entitled “The Arrogance of Blogging.”