Remote Learning at a Residential College

by Steve Taylor

Since shortly after the web was developed, colleges and universities have used it for conducting distance education programs. Leaders in the practice included public institutions, whose mission included serving a wide geographical area of non-traditional students; large universities, who were challenged to provide alternatives to courses taught in huge lecture halls; and professional schools and trade schools, whose focus was on procedural skills. The emergence of MOOCs in 2012 brought more attention to the practice. It has not been obvious, however, how distance learning technologies could benefit small, private, residential, liberal arts colleges like Vassar. Many have doubted— reasonably so—  that an online course could offer a better learning experience than a face-to-face course with a small student/faculty ratio. At Vassar this summer, we identified a use for distance learning technologies that borders on the ironic: a residential college connecting with its students when they’re not in residence; an institution known for small class sizes interacting with a student cohort of 700. We used Moodle to enhance our summer common reading program for incoming students.

Vassar College has administered a common reading program for first-year students every summer since 2006. The Dean of Freshmen’s office mails a copy of the chosen book (this year’s was Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoire, Fun Home), along with other orientation materials, to each admitted student’s home address. The students are instructed to read the book, but there have been no other requirements. For the summer of 2014, Dean Susan Zlotnick wanted to enhance the common reading experience with some online interaction, using Moodle. Over the course of several weeks, ACS produced three short videos, each with a different faculty member speaking about an aspect of the book, and inviting students to respond to one of several discussion prompts. Student participation was high, for an activity that had no penalty for non-participation. 427 of the 670 students (64%) posted responses, most of them substantial in length.

The goals of the common reading program are to give incoming students a preview of what classes at Vassar might be like, and to give them an opportunity to have a common intellectual experience with each other before courses begin. By all accounts, that was successful. This experience raises an interesting question: what other aspects of Vassar life might be enhanced by having an online space for shared information and social interaction?

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GIS Tools for Teaching and Research

by Baynard Bailey

Anthropology Professor April Beisaw is a very active user of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and other technologies in her research and in her classroom. ACS recently produced a video featuring Professor Beisaw employing mobile mapping devices in the field (devices she was able to purchase via the Frances D. Fergusson Technology Exploration Fund). Using the GPS mobile mapping device makes it easy to collect data that can then be imported/loaded into GIS to make nice maps. The video features April Beisaw using mobile mapping devices for field research.

Professor Beisaw continues to be a dynamic user and an advocate for using various GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technologies in her classroom. Last year she asked that QGIS be added to the base image for public computers on campus. I didn’t know about QGIS until April pointed it out to me. QGIS is a free and open source tool that empowers users to “create, edit, visualize, analyze and publish geospatial information”. It is also cross-platform, so that means you can use it on your Mac, Windows or Linux machine. (As an educator, I really appreciate it when software is free and cross platform!) Not too long ago, April gave a little demo in her office showing me and a couple Economics professors how to import maps into QGIS and how to get started creating your own customized maps. It seemed like a great tool for teaching and research, although there is a bit of a learning curve.

All of these maps were made with free QGIS:



I should also mention that Vassar has a GIS lab (using ArcGIS) in Ely Hall 114 and that GIS is available on the SciVis Lab machines. Vassar GIS users can also arrange a consultation with Stephanie LaRose, who is a GIS specialist that comes to campus a couple days a week. If faculty or students are interested in pursuing any of these technologies or resources and would like help, please contact Academic Computing Services by emailing acs@vassar.edu.

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Recording Video or Audio Directly Into Moodle

Vassar’s Moodle system has a new tool, with the possibly too cutesy name of “PoodLL.” PoodLL provides a bridge between Moodle and the camera and/or microphone on a person’s computer. There are two main ways it can be used:

1. An instructor can record a video or audio message directly onto the main page of a Moodle course, or into the instructions of a discussion forum, or even into the description field associated with a file. Previously you would have to use some other software to make the recording, then upload it into Moodle; now no other software is necessary.

Are there things that come across better when seen or heard than when read? A poem or a foreign language passage? A view of a physical object or action? Here’s how to use PoodLL to make the recording:

2. You can create an assignment (or a quiz) in which students reply by recording themselves. Many instructors use Moodle’s Assignment activity to collect files (like research papers or homework exercises) from students. Now the Assignment activity can also be used to collect video or audio recordings from students.

One of the most obvious uses of this is to ask foreign language students to record themselves speaking in the target language, but be creative! A lab instructor could ask students to make a brief video showing the results of their procedure. Drama students could record a dramatic reading. Here’s how to create an assignment that lets students record their responses:

If you’re not yet feeling muddled by Moodle’s PoodLL, you might try noodling with an audio or fiddling with a video. There’s also a whiteboard function, so you could doodle in Moodle’s PoodLL. More on that in a separate post.

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Digital Storytelling – Autobiographies with Final Cut Pro

computer-eyeNot too long ago I posted about Final Cut Pro X being an awesome tool for students new to video editing. I was in a class yesterday where the students blew me away with their outstanding work, after just one hour’s worth of training. I was so excited, I wanted to share their work with you.

The Context: The past few years I’ve worked with Professor Erin McCloskey and her EDUC 373: Adolescent Literacy classes. During the course of the semester, Vassar students are paired with area middle- and high school students. They work together developing stories, podcasts, videos and multimedia. We’ve used WordPress blogs to host, document and present their work, to share with classmates and parents. For the Vassar students to introduce themselves to their middle-school partners (and to their VC peers), we asked them to produce 1 to 2-minute digital autobiographies.

The Workshop: Last week during class, I trained the students in FCP X, and this week they posted their stupendous digital autobiographies. I asked them during their presentations if they had ever edited videos before. Most had little to no experience with video. I wanted to share these videos as the assignment really played to the strengths of the students. These are highly personal and very charming.

 

Student Videos: Here are a few representative examples (but all of the stories were great in their own way):

I showed them how to make their autobiographies in FCP X, but a few students did some interesting things on their own. Logan made an animated movie using his laptop’s camera. Stephanie combined her love of photography and used the YouTube Editor and FCP X to make this video.

We had a great class yesterday (2nd in the semester) sharing these videos with each other. Next week the VC students will use their videos to introduce themselves to their middle- or high- school partners. Professor McCloskey led a dynamic follow-up discussion where she asked her students to reflect upon the difficulties they encountered creating their videos, and how that experience could possibly provide insight when they begin to work with their adolescent literacy partners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Creating Interactive PDFs using Adobe InDesign

IndesignScreenShot

Using InDesign to create interactive PDFs

The term “interactive PDF” refers to a PDF file designed to be viewed on screen. Interactive PDF features are the parts of a PDF that provide your audience with additional functions that are more commonly found in websites. Some of these features include buttons, hyperlinks, rollover states, embedded sound, and video, among others.

Designing an interactive PDF might be advantageous when you want to create an interactive experience for your reader but don’t necessarily want to place this content on a website. Using Adobe InDesign also allows for total creative control of your design, unlike most blog or webpage templates. Another advantage to creating an interactive PDF is that the file size is generally small and easily sent by email.

There are some disadvantages to this format though. To take advantage of the interactive features, your reader must view the file in Adobe Reader. If the file is opened in a web browser or other programs like Preview, the results are often unpredictable. Another drawback is that while InDesign is a powerful program, it takes some time to learn the design workflow. I have found Lynda.com tutorials to be very helpful in providing basic introductions for creating interactive PDFs.

Click here for Lynda tutorial

Recently, Vassar’s Art History Department chose to use the interactive PDF format to build study guides for Art 106. Students in this course are required to identify many works of art and architecture, but making these images available to students in a clear and concise manner has been a challenge for faculty. Interactive PDFs allow students to view a thumbnail image of each work, along with the corresponding metadata. When these thumbnails are clicked, they link to the Luna database that stores high-resolution, and detail views of each work. When the viewer scrolls over each thumbnail, the caption next to the image disappears. Scrolling on and off the image functions like using a flashcard, and is useful for self-quizzing. Even though this format is designed to be viewed on screen, it can easily be printed as well.

Here are links to two interactive PDfs that demonstrate several of the features mentioned in this post. For proper functionality, remember to view these documents in Adobe Reader.

Click here to view an example of the Art 106 interactive PDF.

Click here to view an example of other interactive PDF features.

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Voice-Over Slideshows

powerpointNarrated recordings of slides can be useful for providing supplementary information to students, or to help prepare for upcoming class activities.  They can serve as a component of a flipped, or partially-flipped, classroom, or simply provide complementary material for a traditionally-structured classroom.  Microsoft PowerPoint and Macintosh’s Keynote are two of the most popular software options for producing slideshows.  In Keynote, narration of a slideshow results in a single audio file, whereas a PowerPoint slideshow narration produces individual audio clips for each slide.  The single audio file model of Keynote introduces some difficulties when one wants to insert a slide, or rearrange slides, after the full presentation has been recorded.  While one can generate individual audio clips in an external program, such as QuickTime Player, and drag them into Keynote, it is not a simple process and, in the end, PowerPoint wins out for the flexibility and simplicity offered by its model of an individual audio clip for each slide.

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Using your computer’s built-in microphone or a USB microphone, you can create your own narrated slideshow.  The following instructions are specific to a Mac, however the procedure is very similar when using a PC.  After connecting the mic, if necessary, be sure to select the appropriate audio input/output source in system preferences.  Open your PowerPoint file and select the first slide.  Click the tab labeled  Slide Show.  Then, under Presenter Tools, select Record Slide Show.  After selecting Record Slide Show, the audio recording screen opens and recording starts immediately.  You can pause ( ll ), restart ( ↺ ) & continue ( ▷ ) as needed.  Click on the forward arrow at the bottom of the current slide (or use arrow keys) to advance.  Press the esc button or Exit Show at top-center to finish recording.  Select yes when asked if you want to save your slide timings (this includes audio).  As you can see, the procedure for creating a narrated slideshow in PowerPoint is quite simple.

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Screenshot of audio recording in PowerPoint on a Mac.

Any subsequent editing is also straightforward.  For example, to re-record audio for a single slide, simply select the slide, then select Slide Show Record Slide Show. Make your recording for the individual slide and esc, or Exit Show, when finished.  You may also insert a new slide anywhere in the lineup and add audio to that single slide without causing the audio to fall out of sync on the original slides.  Another layer of multi-media that one may take advantage of is that of adding video/movie clips to slides.  It is not a difficult task and may be worth exploring as an additional enhancement to your presentation.

It is important to save your presentation as PowerPoint Presentation with the filename extension *.pptx.  The format designed to be compatible with earlier versions of PowerPoint (PowerPoint 97-2003 Presentation), which uses the extension *.ppt, has a number of features disabled.  As a result, students watching the slideshow on a Windows machine will not be able to take advantage of the “s” shortcut for pausing and restarting the presentation.  Finally, when you are ready to share your presentation with students by posting it on your Moodle site, for example, you may wish to save it as a PowerPoint Show (*.ppsx).  When students double-click on the file icon, it will automatically launch into the show mode, and they won’t be able to edit your slides.

If you have any questions or would like additional information, please contact Shelly Johnson, ACS liaison for the Sciences, at x7866 or mijohnson@vassar.edu.

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Reflection: A Semester with FCP X – Video Editing with non-film students

fcpx2013Last summer the decision was made to use Final Cut Pro X as the supported video editing software for Vassar students. CIS deployed FCP X in the Film Department’s editing labs as well as in the Digital Media Zone in the library. To help us adapt to the switch from beloved FCP 7 to FCP X, we organized an on-campus workshop with Roberto Mighty. For two days Film faculty and CIS employees worked shoulder to shoulder, getting valuable hands-on experience with an interface that was new to most of us. There had been quite a controversy about Apple’s changes from FCP 7 to FCP X, and most of us were apprehensive about the switch. But after two days of excellent instruction, our general sense was that the FCP X could generally do anything FCP 7 did, and it did some things better. I was looking forward to using it with students.

Using FCP X for Digital Storytelling

Past years I’ve worked with French Faculty with students who were tasked with creating digital storybooks. (For more on the pedagogical goals of this project, I invite you to read Digital Storytelling in Intermediate French.) Early in the fall, I met with Tom Parker and Mark Andrews to discuss their classes’ projects. In small groups, the students compose and illustrate children’s storybooks in French, which they scan and narrate. Previously we’d uploaded the images to VoiceThread and done the recordings via their online Flash interface. Students were able to upload and record easily enough, but I found other aspects of VoiceThread lacking (editing, layering audio, search, embedding, restrictive licensing, to name a few). FCP might be harder to learn, but once learned, they would have total flexibility on how they created their projects and they would have a skill that might be used for another project or life after college. Tom and Mark were amenable to the idea so we tried it out.

I only had an hour with the students so it was a bit of a challenge to cover the essentials in such a short period. Luckily, their projects only required them to import their scanned storybook pages into FCP X, then record narration. We spent a fair amount of time doing practice narration. We touched briefly on titles, incorporating sounds and music, and exporting. Students that had brought scans of all of their storybook pages were able to get a significant amount of work done during the workshop. One of the classes was able to have a follow-up workshop where I was able to work with each group, advising and troubleshooting. This was extremely valuable and I wish we had been able to schedule this for both classes. Generally speaking, students adapted well to FCP X and were quite successful. I don’t think I would have been confident enough to use FCP 7 in the same way. Here is an example:

I liked how they were able to incorporate both their narration and some sound effects. The use of titles, music and end credits added a bit of polish too. I should add that most of the students I work with have little to no experience with video or sound editing.

America in the World Digital Narratives

Eve Dunbar and Carlos Alamos co-taught AMST 250: America in the World this past fall. For one of their major assignments, students could choose to write a paper, create a podcast, or a a digital narrative. I trained the entire class to edit audio, but a couple students were interested in using video for their digital narratives, so I met with them one-on-one. The students were able to start editing after an hour of training. Here’s an ambitious project that a student put together based on interviews she made using her phone:

FCP X FTW!

So for me and my work, FCP X has been a win. It is an easy to learn and very capable video editing platform. Students are able to get up and running with their video projects in a way that would have been too daunting to attempt in FCP 7. (One hurdle is that special formatting is required for projects on external drives to show up in FCP X.) Students do have the option to download a trial version of FCP X, which is often all they need to get through a project.

I’ve already got one class scheduled to use FCP X this semester: Candice Swift’s ANTH 245: The Ethnographer’s Craft is going to use FCP X to create digital enthnographies; they will use Final Cut to create voice-overs on top of stills and video. I am looking forward to this FCP X project and others like it this spring.

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New Moodle Feature: Annotating Student Papers

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.44.32 PMWith the recent upgrade to Moodle 2.6, instructors have a new function available: If a student uploads an assignment in the form of a PDF file, the instructor can make various types of annotations to the file directly within Moodle. Previously, they would have to download the file, use some program that provided annotation functions, then upload that revised version to Moodle, for the student to download. Now that can be done within Moodle.

Annotation functions include highlighting, circling, drawing, stamping an available graphic (like a checkmark or an X), and writing Post-It-type notes.

Here’s a quick demo:

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R for Data Analysis and Graphics

RR is becoming the most widely used statistical software in academic science and it is rapidly expanding into other fields. R is a free language and environment for data manipulation, calculation, graphics and much more. It runs on all of the major platforms, including Windows, Mac and Linux. While it is command line driven, several good graphical user interfaces (GUIs) exist that open it up to a wider group of users with differing technical abilities.

Popularity

When various metrics for the most popular data analysis software packages are compared (Muenchen, R.A., 2013),  R demonstrates a dramatic increase in popularity over the previous 5 to 10 years.  A plot of posts to email discussion lists, shown below, illustrates a rapid growth in discussion of R.  And over the past few years, R has become the most discussed software by nearly a two-to-one margin.  However, one must be careful when interpreting these results.  For example, the consistently low level of discussion for SPSS may be reflective of the fact that it has a simple interface leading to less of a need for discussion.  However, there are also fewer variations in analysis offered in SPSS than those that exist in R and other applications with somewhat less user-friendly interfaces.

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Sum of monthly email traffic on each software’s main listserv discussion list. From “The Popularity of Data Analysis Software”, http://r4stats.com/articles/popularity/.

User Friendly Interfaces

Over the past few years, a number of GUIs for R have been developed that make R more accessible to a wider group of users.  RStudio, a popular GUI for advanced users, is what is known as an integrated development environment. This interface is similar to MATLAB, is designed for programmers, and provides syntax highlighting and integrated help among other features.

Screenshot of the popular Rstudio graphical user interface.

Screenshot of the popular Rstudio graphical user interface.

 

Rcmdr, pronounced Rcommander, is a basic-statistics GUI that offers menus, buttons, and dialog boxes to simplify usage for those with less advanced technical skills. The commands that are generated via the user’s actions are shown in an output window. They can be edited and resubmitted, if desired, helping to familiarize the user with the R language. This is useful for those with moderate technical ability who are interested in learning basic R commands. A third R GUI, Deducer is designed to be a free, easy-to-use alternative to proprietary data analysis software such as SPSS, JMP, and Minitab. It has a menu system to do common data manipulation and analysis tasks, and an excel-like spreadsheet in which to view and edit data frames.

rcmdr

Screenshot of the Rcmdr graphical user interface.

Availability

R and RStudio are installed in the SciVis Lab located in the Mudd Chemistry Building. Additionally, both R and the GUIs mentioned above are freely available and can be easily installed on your personal computer. RStudio also offers a web-based version that can be used in lieu of the desktop version. The availability of a web-based server means that one doesn’t have to install software on a personal computers or go to a computer lab. It can be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection. Our system administrators are in the process of evaluating whether it is feasible to host an RStudio web server on campus, and we are hopeful that this convenience will soon be available to the Vassar community. If you would like to learn more about R, please contact ACS liaison Shelly Johnson.

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