Taxonomy of Learning Environments

by Steve Taylor
There’s been a great deal of talk in higher-education circles over the past year, about the perils and possibilities of online learning. Often that talk has been in the context of MOOCs or Coursera, but there are many variations of online learning and I often find that two people discussing the topic have fairly different things in mind. Here then is a taxonomy that we can use to get a little closer to understanding each other.

Classroom Learning (also called Face-to-Face Learning)
This type of course serves to anchor one end of the spectrum of remoteness in learning environments. It refers to the traditional environment, in which matriculated students and their instructor meet in real space, on a frequent basis— usually two or three times per week. Readings and homework assignments exist on paper.

Enhanced Classroom Learning
As in traditional classroom learning, matriculated students and their instructor meet in real space on a frequent basis, but some of their course materials— and more significantly their course activities— reside on the web. Students may be expected to contribute to online discussions or blogs, collaborate online with classmates on group projects, or take quizzes or exams online.

Blended Learning (or Hybrid) Courses
In this type of environment, matriculated students conduct a majority of their learning online, but meet face-to-face with their class a few times throughout the term of the course. This is essentially a distance-learning approach, with some added checks, giving instructors an opportunity to confirm that students are on track, and possibly to administer an exam in a proctored setting. Blended learning courses are often offered for adult learners in rural areas, who have to drive a long distance to campus.

Distance Learning
In a distance-learning environment, matriculated students take an entire course— or sometimes an entire degree program— online. Many universities offer distance-learning programs for students who would not be able to accommodate the schedule and location of traditional courses. Many public universities, with their commitment to educating the diverse populations of their states, have had distance learning programs for years, and many large, private universities have such programs as well.

Massive Online Open Course (MOOC)
MOOCs started to become prominent in late 2011 or early 2012. They exist entirely online and, unlike the other learning environments mentioned, they do not require learners to be matriculated in any particular institution. They are generally free of charge, but offer no credits. Because there is generally no instructor interaction involved, an individual MOOC may have thousands or even tens of thousands of students.

A number of universities have endorsed and supported their faculty members who wish to design MOOCs. Their motivations at this point seem to be a desire to “push their brand” into a larger population and, to some extent, a desire to provide a public service to that population.

Traditional, residential colleges like Vassar have been providing enhanced classroom learning experiences for many years, but most are just beginning to consider whether it makes sense for them to offer courses with reduced face-to-face time.


Faculty Student Panel on Online Learning

“Teaching with Technology in the Liberal Arts: Present & Future” – a panel discussion

Wednesday, October 24, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.

A panel of Vassar faculty and students presented diverse perspectives on the use of technology in the curriculum, including online instruction, “flipped classroom” practices, distance learning systems, and their potential impact on our campus.

Moderator: Steve Taylor, Director, Academic Computing Services
Panelists: Ben Ho (Economics Department), Tom Ellman (Computer Science Department), Sarah Cheng ’13 (Committee on Academic Technologies) and Matt Harvey ’13 (VP for Academics, Vassar Student Association)



Vassar Moves up to Moodle 2.0*

by Steve Taylor
Most software programs are in continuous development, as we all know from the “Upgrade to the latest version” alerts that pop up on our screens all too often. When the program runs on a server, as Moodle does, those upgrades usually happen without our notice, because the changes are either small or they happen to a part of the program that’s not so visible to us.

But then there are the big upgrades, the ones where the version number changes on the left side of the decimal point. Moodle has made that change (from 1.9 to 2.0) and we will be implementing the new version at Vassar this summer (2012.)

The most important reason for us to do this is simply to keep up with all the development that happens in and around Moodle. Since Moodle 2.0 was released in late 2010, third-party programmers have abandoned creating and enhancing the products that work with version 1.9 and have devoted themselves exclusively to writing for the new version.

Beyond that compelling-but-unsexy reason for us to upgrade, there are some great improvements to Moodle 2.0:

Better Editor. The editing tool that Moodle presents whenever you write a description, label, blog post, forum post, email message, etc. has been replaced with one that works properly with the Safari and Chrome browsers and is more resistant to the bugs introduced by pasting in text from Microsoft Word. (Text copied from Word includes LOTS and LOTS of invisible tags that can potentially “break” your Moodle page, to an extent that is very difficult to fix.)

External Repositories. When you add a file to your course site, the source doesn’t have to be your desktop computer– now you can directly add a link to a file from an external repository, like YouTube, Flickr, Dropbox, etc.

Better Looking. The new Moodle has more attractive themes to choose from, to set the visual tone for your site; it will also automatically format pages to look good on mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.

Re-engineered activities. The gradebook, wiki, and quiz activities have been completely overhauled for easier use and better performance.


The new version introduces some challenges, of course. A strength of Moodle is that it’s an open-source product, which  means that third-party developers can create add-on functions. Some of the add-ons that we’ve used at Vassar won’t work with the new version. These include the FLV Player (for streaming video), Scheduler (for office hours), and the Page format (for multiple tabbed pages within a course site.)

Also, there will no longer be a “Files” area, hidden from students, where instructors can upload files for later linking. Hidden folders of files will now reside on the “front page” of a course site.

The switch-over will take place in mid-June. ACS will be working with instructors to make sure that their migrated sites still work properly and that instructors know how to work in the new Moodle.

* (Actually, 2.3)


Google Plus for Educators

by Steve Taylor

Google has “semi-released” a new service that many people consider to be a direct competitor to Facebook: “Google +”. Like Facebook– or Twitter, for that matter– it’s a social network, meaning that you identify other people that you’re interested in and you share information with them.

Nearly every college or university student uses Facebook, so it was natural for faculty and administrators to start exploring how they might take advantage of that to improve communications with students. But many found the idea of an instructor friending a student to be at best a little awkward and at worst, creepy. Part of the problem is that, in Facebook, a “friend” relationship is bi-directional: in order for a student to see her teacher’s postings, the teacher has to see hers. (That problem can be addressed with Groups and restriction settings, but creating those takes more effort than most people want to make.)


Google+ takes a somewhat different approach: relationships can be one-directional, more like following someone in Twitter. You create “circles” of acquaintances of different types: current friends, high school friends, family members,  co-workers, etc. and include different people in one or more of them. They’ll be notified that you added them to a circle, but they won’t know the name of that circle and they won’t be obligated to add you to any of theirs.

As an example, an instructor could create a circle that includes all of the students in English 101. He can share websites or comments with that circle, so that they appear in those students’ news feeds. But he doesn’t have to share his comments or pictures from last night’s barbecue with that circle. And if none of them add the instructor to any of their circles, he’ll never see anything they post. Of course, if they also make “English 101” circles with the same members, they can share things that are appropriate for that group.

Students could also create temporary circles for chatting and sharing materials among a project group. (As could faculty researchers.)


“Hangout” is the Google+ name for a video chat. At the moment, this is probably the slickest way for a group of people to do video chatting. It’s very easy to do, can accommodate up to ten people at a time, and it’s free. Though you can schedule hangouts, Google thinks of them as being spontaneous– like if you’re hanging out in the college center and friends bump into you and hang out for a while. But an instructor could use the hangout feature for online office hours or for holding study sessions. Or for collaborating with research colleagues. Or for interviews.

There are other features too, but circles and hangouts seem to be the most intriguing ones for educational use. As of this writing, Google+ is in pre-release, which is to say that it’s available to people who know someone who knows someone, but it should be generally available soon.


Knowing What You Don’t Know

by Steve Taylor

One of the findings of research into learning and student behavior is that many under-performing students are over-confident in their mastery of their material. Over-confidence leads to inadequate studying. One remedy is to provide students with frequent opportunities for assessment. These opportunities don’t have to be in the form of time-consuming exams. They can be quick, ungraded assessments, whose only goals are to let students know if they really know what they think they know. If you’re worried that adding frequent assessments will eat away at your class time and add to your own workload, you may find some relief in technology. Here are two techniques.

Moodle Quizzes
One way is to create short, ungraded, auto-corrected quizzes in Moodle (or whatever Learning Management System you use.) Since students can take them out of class, they won’t affect your in-class time. And if they’re multiple-choice, or some other objective-answer format, you can designate the right answer so that Moodle can tell the student how well he or she did. Keeping them ungraded removes any temptation for the student to cheat. This is important, because the assessment has to be genuine— devoid of any self-delusion— in order to be effective. It also means that you don’t have to worry about honesty issues.

Not many Vassar instructors make use of Moodle-based quizzes. That may be partly due to the fact that they take some effort to create, but also to the fact that a multiple-choice quiz may not seem to be a valid measure to base a grade on. But it may be just valid enough to make students re-think whether or not they’ve studied enough.

Another way to conduct a quick, ungraded quiz is to do it in class, with clickers. Clickers (known more formally as Audience Response Systems) are small, handheld devices that each student in a class can use to instantly submit an answer to a multiple-choice question. In most cases, their use is anonymous. They may take up no extra time in your class, because you probably already do frequent comprehension checks in class, by asking “Is that clear? Does everyone understand that? Can we move on?” The problem with that method is that most people will mumble assent, whether they understand the material or not. Who wants to be the one person in class who says that they don’t get it?

One student may not want to admit that he doesn’t understand the material; another may think she understands it, but be wrong. A quick quiz will address both problems. And besides letting students know where they stand, it may also let you know if you need to spend more time on the topic or if you can move on.

A clicker system will display your question on the projection screen, collect everyone’s silent, anonymous answers, then display the results as a graph. The results may be surprising to everyone.

ACS has a set of clickers that can be borrowed as needed.


The 2011 Teaching with Technology Forum

by Steve Taylor

On April 7, Academic Computing Services (ACS) hosted its 9th annual Teaching with Technology Forum. The forum features a keynote address, given this year by Prof. Lisa Paravisini, on the topic “Teaching with Blogs: Going from the Source to Cyberspace.”

Twelve faculty members and two Computing & Information Services members presented posters and made themselves available to explain technology projects that they had undertaken over the past year. Here’s an overview of those presentations:

“Native Narratives in Archaeology: a Tumblr Blog”
Students in Sara Gonzalez’ class created blogs and made archaeology-based postings about Native North American culture. was used to collect the separate blogs into an organized whole.

“Blogging About Semiotics in WordPress”
Students in Saúl Mercado’s Semiotics course use a blog to apply theories to contemporary linguistic and multi-media objects. Their postings have explored intermedial art, fictional language, the evolution of language, the semiotics of gesture, the language of robots, as well as sports and advertising.

“Off the Wall: The Frances Lehman Loeb Center Blog”
Nicole Roylance, Coordinator of Public Education and Information at the Lehman Loeb Art Center, maintains a very active blog site about exhibits and events in the Center.

“Developing an Online Multimedia Database of the Vassar College Costume Collection”
Arden Kirkland has been developing online materials for exploring and learning about Vassar’s historic costume collection. She has begun using the new, web-based “Omeka” system to organize data, photos, 3D representations, etc. , as well as a blog in which student participants share their experiences with the collection.

“The Queer of Color Glossary Project”
Hiram Perez’ course “Queer of Color Critique,” explores issues of race and sexuality. He and Sean Wehle (2013) created the Queer of Color Glossary, a blog site intended “to house a growing discussion of queer of color terms, theories, practices, activism, and art.”

“High Performance Computing for the Sciences”
Marc Smith and Jodi Schwarz co-taught a bioinformatics course, which included both Computer Science and Biology majors. The two groups learned to work together to develop software for analyzing biological data.

“VAST Stories in WordPress”
Erin McCloskey’s students work with local middle school students via the Vassar After-School Program. She created a blog site, both to share the children’s work with friends and family and to develop the Vassar students’ ability to write for a broad audience.

“Viva and Bacteris: Blogging About the Small Stuff”
David Esteban maintains two blogs— one about viruses and one about bacteria— and he expects students in all of his classes to write entries as guest bloggers. They choose a recent study from the primary literature and write a brief description. The target audience is the general public, so the students— including freshmen— must describe the work in an accessible and interesting way.

“Memory Across Generations: an Oral History Project About Holocaust Memory”
Students in Silke von der Emde,’s course, “Memory Across Generations,” collected oral history materials concerning the Holocaust. They conducted face-to-face interviews with two Vassar alumni/ae in NYC using digital recording devices, Skype interviews with more remote alumnae/i, and one in-class videoconference with Marvin Chomsky in Austria. They used a blog to collect all of the information and results.

“Vassar Campus Sound Map”
Students in Tom Porcello’s Media Studies course on Sound explored the use of immersive audio representations of spaces, called soundscapes. Nick Inzucchi (2011) created a 3D, interactive, virtual environment, using 15 simultaneous sound recordings from a campus space.

“Learning in’s Online Training Library”
Chad Fust, of CIS, provided information about, the broad set of online training materials on technology subjects, now available to college constituents.

“Blogging the Chester Cycle”
Dorothy Kim and her students performed a play from the 16th-century Chester Cycle, in Toronto. They used a blog site to document their rehearsals and preparations and to provide related material to the community.

“The Faculty Lounge Network: Online Campus Tools for the Vassar Community”
Students in Tobias Armborst’s Architectural Design course were tasked with addressing the spatial aspect of the issue of encouraging a feeling of community among the faculty. John McCartin (2011) and William Mann (2012) responded by organizing a directory of available faculty lounge spaces on campus an facilitating a way for faculty members to reserve and cater those spaces. They created an attractive brochure and The Lounge Explorer, an interactive website with which faculty members could explore the available spaces.

“eBook readers: iPad 2 vs. Kindle”
John Collier, of CIS, demonstrated and compared the most recent models of iPad and Kindle, with particular regard to their use as e-readers.


A Review of Preview: Free, Easy Photo Editing and PDF Annotation

by Steve Taylor

Basic Image Editing
Over the years, many Vassar faculty members have asked how to get a copy of Adobe PhotoShop®, an expensive program used by professional graphic artists for creating and editing digital images.  Typically they’re not looking for sophisticated, complicated functions, though— just some basic things like re-sizing, cropping, and adjusting the brightness or contrast. Though there are some free or cheap programs that can do these things, such programs are generally not easy to use. Now they— if they are Mac users, anyway— have a great alternative: Preview.

Preview is a program that has been included with the Macintosh operating system for many years. By default, it’s the program that launches if you double-click on a  JPEG file or PDF file. And initially, that’s about all it could do: show you what a file looks like.  But over the years, it’s accrued more functions and the current version— the one that comes bundled with Mac OS 10.6— is an elegant tool for basic image editing.

With the Color Adjustment tool, you can change the brightness, contrast, saturation, temperature, tint, sharpness, and even a sepia effect. The Size Adjustment tool is essentially the same as PhotoShop’s— you can adjust the height, width or resolution, choosing whether to resample the image when doing so or not. You can use your mouse to select a portion of the image and crop the rest out. You can rotate or flip the image. You can copy and paste pieces of the image. When you’re done, you can save the edited version in any of several file formats.

And while this is not new, it’s a nifty capability: you can drag a collection of image files onto the Preview icon to present a slide show.

PDF Annotation
Preview can also display PDF files— in fact, it’s the default PDF viewer on a Macintosh. What’s new is that you can now use Preview to annotate a PDF in various ways.

You can drag a circular or rectangular shape around something on your page or make an arrow pointing to it; you can choose the color and line thickness for this.

You can create a text box and type a comment wherever you like; you can choose the font, size and color of your text. For longer comments, or ones you don’t want to clutter up the page too much, you can embed a link to a note that will pop up in the margin— ideal for commenting on student papers submitted as PDFs.

If your PDF was created from a text file (i.e., not simply a scanned image of a text page), you can select a portion of the text and highlight it, underline it, “strikethrough” it, or embed a web link into it. You can also insert a bookmark into a specific spot and name it; all your bookmarks for that document will be listed in the Bookmark menu.

After being saved and shared, all these mark-ups will be viewable by people using PDF viewers other than Preview, such as Acrobat Reader®.

You can’t get a copy of Preview all by itself; it comes bundled with the operating system. If you don’t see all these functions in your Preview, you may not have the current version. For more details about these and other functions, click on the Help menu within Preview.


Student Writing for a Global Audience

by Steve Taylor

It may be humbling for instructors to realize that they don’t necessarily inspire the highest quality of writing from their students. Of course, students are motivated by grades to submit good writing to their teachers, but many have found that the prospect of students having their papers read by their peers can be even more motivating. For years now, many instructors have had their students upload written assignments to a shared digital space and found that the expectation of that sharing significantly improved the quality of writing.

The ante is now raised, as some instructors require their classes to share their writing with the whole world, via a publicly accessible website, such as a blog. These students know that they not only have to assemble sentences well enough to avoid embarrassment among their classmates, but they have to get their information right or risk being called out by any number of experts in their topic.

Publishing to the world is more than just a challenge not to fail, though— it’s also an opportunity for students to put themselves out there as legitimate, albeit novice scholars. Instead of paying several years of dues in graduate school before daring to submit a bit of original work in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, they’re publishing now, and getting feedback as well.

At an ACS symposium this fall, Profs. Lisa Paravisini and Jenny Magnes spoke about these and other benefits of student blogging. “If you define your assignment topic well,” Lisa said, “having students publish their writings to a blog ups the ante, in terms of audience. The potential audience is the world.”

Lisa Paravisini-Gebert

One assignment she uses is to have students completely re-write a Wikipedia article. Their research must be thorough, accurate, ethical, and original. Sometimes earlier contributors to an article will immediately undo the submission; other times, it will remain and possibly generate some discussion among different contributors.

It’s even more interesting for a student to be able to publish original material, something that’s more feasible than most people realize. Students in Lisa’s environmental studies project photographed and interviewed people adjacent to the Casperkill Creek and blogged their work. What they shared was unique materials, of interest to a potentially wide audience.

Jenny Magnes

Jenny Magnes assigned her students to propose and execute a simulation project related to electricity or magnetics. They had to write a proposal, then a plan, create the simulation, and finally post their reports on the blog, along with their data files.

All of it was original work. Jenny browsed the web to make sure none of the proposed ideas were already posted somewhere. Each student had to make substantive, constructive comments on each others’ posts. But classmates weren’t the only ones responding.

One of her students did a project on induction (as in induction ovens), including one video that she made and one that she found on YouTube and several simulations, depicted with thoughtfully designed graphs.  One of the reader comments was from an upstate firm that does work similar to what she had simulated— the student was invited to visit the plant and speak with the engineers!

Lisa has also seen some surprising responses to blog posts. In her own blog about Caribbean Studies, she mentioned some of Sean Penn’s work and promptly received a comment from Mr. Penn’s assistant. One student posted a critical analysis of a book and heard back from the book’s author!

As Lisa says, online publishing brings a sense of responsibility to students’ research methods; they have to carefully consider issues of integrity, ethics of attribution, and originality. Because you never know who might be watching.


Farewell to Blackboard!

by Steve Taylor

For almost ten years, Vassar faculty and students have used the Blackboard system for sharing files and communicating within their classes. As we ring in the new year and ring out the old, Blackboard is one of the things we’re leaving behind. Here’s a little background on how we got to where we are.

By the late 1990s, many faculty members were learning HTML and creating websites for their courses, but quite a few colleges and universities had begun using “course management systems” or “learning management systems” to give their faculty an easy way to make course materials and activities available to their students online. There were a number of competing products— Blackboard, WebCT, Angel, “Web Course in a Box,” CourseInfo, First Class, WebBoard, and others.  I was interested in this development, but decided to wait a bit and see how the competitors fared.

By 2001, it was clear that Blackboard would become the dominant product in the marketplace. Since so many dot-coms were dying early deaths, that seemed a good enough reason to choose Blackboard. I approached the Director of CIS (Diane Balestri) and proposed that we adopt Blackboard. She wasn’t convinced about the prospects of this new technology, but suggested that if I could purchase it with my existing budget, we could try it. (Luckily, the initial offering was cheap.)

In the fall of 2001, we had our initial trial— about a dozen instructors used Blackboard for 19 courses. (More than a third of them were Chemistry courses.) Blackboard’s use grew dramatically:

There were a fair number of complaints about how Blackboard functioned, but Blackboard Inc. was very poor at responding to suggestions or even bug fixes. And the cost had grown to more than $40,000 annually. So in 2008, we began exploring alternatives and eventually decided to replace Blackboard with Moodle. Moodle is an open-source program, which means that anyone can customize the program to their liking. At Vassar, we’ve taken advantage of that by adding and removing functions, clarifying wording, creating our own look and feel, etc.

As of fall 2010, no active courses were using Blackboard, but the server was still available for instructors to access old sites. As of December 31, the server has been shut down. (ACS maintains archives of all Blackboard course sites, which can be imported into Moodle at any time in the future.)

Moodle has been enthusiastically welcomed by many, but the transition has not been easy. Once everyone is fully out of the transition stage, though, I think they’ll be quite happy with Moodle. And if there’s anything we don’t like about it, we can probably change it!



by Steve Taylor

Not long ago, the idea of live two-way video communication seemed futuristic. For years, phone companies dabbled with video-enabled telephones, but the bandwidth of a telephone connection just isn’t up to the job. With the nearly ubiquitous high-bandwidth Internet connections of the present day, however, one-to-one video conversations  via computer have become commonplace.

By far the most common system for this at the moment is Skype. Skype began as an Internet-based phone system (“voice over Internet protocol” or VoIP), but in 2006, added video capability. You can use Skype to connect to someone’s standard telephone (without video, of course), but there is a charge for that. When communicating Skype-to-Skype, voice-only or with video, there is no charge. That’s true for international calling, too, which is especially compelling, given the cost of traditional long-distance phone calls.

Apple’s iChat program also supports videoconferencing, including multi-party conferences, but only operates on Macintosh computers.

In education, one powerful use of videoconferencing is for a class to be able to converse— in real-time— with a highly regarded author, artist, or scientist, for whom it would not be practical to arrange a site visit. Children in elementary schools use videoconferencing to chat with authors of their favorite books.

Vassar students in Prof. Jeremy Davis’ Experimental Animal Behavior class used Skype to interview authors of articles they were reading. Students would read several articles by a single scientist, then prepare some questions. They would discuss the papers in class, then call the author, to ask their questions. Both students and scientists enjoyed the experience.

Since most recent-model computers have built-in cameras and microphones, Skype is easy to use for one-to-one videoconferencing. Using it for one-to-many conferencing is more difficult. Although it’s easy for a class to see and hear the remote person via a classroom’s projection system, the classroom computer’s built-in camera and microphone don’t work well for a room full of people. With funding from the Fergusson technology fund, Prof. Davis purchased a conference microphone, which made it easier for the class to speak to their remote scientists.

Another way to use videoconferencing in education is “many-to-many,” in which one class interacts with a remote class, often in another country. This technique has been used by Prof. Silke von der Emde’s German classes and Prof. Hiromi Dollase’s Japanese classes, to share knowledge with students in other cultures.

This type of videoconferencing calls for a more sophisticated system. There is a special communications protocol (H.264) that enables high-quality, real-time video and audio communication, but must be done using a specially designated device, rather than a standard computer. Many colleges and universities, as well as hotels and conference centers, have rooms with these devices. Vassar has such a system in College Center Room 204. A centrally located microphone picks up voice from anywhere in the room. The videoconferencing device— located above a 50-inch LCD display— includes a video camera that can be pre-programmed to pan and zoom to a dozen different locations in the room, so that the remote viewers can see the individual who is speaking.

In order to make use of Vassar’s videoconferencing facility, you’ll have to reserve the meeting room via Campus Activities and arrange for an operator via Media Resources. It’s advisable to arrange for a test-run previous to the conference day, to make sure that everything works on both ends.

Vassar’s newest player in this field is Adobe Connect Pro. Connect Pro is essential a web conferencing system, which is to say, a system for sharing computer screens and text chatting, which has for many years been used as a way to provide training or product demos to groups. But Connect Pro also includes voice and video channels and the ability to record sessions for later playback.

Please contact your ACS liaison to get started on any of these systems.