I know where you’re coming from

Starting a new year means starting a new semester, and this time it will start a week early.

The issue today was IM. My classes are in Moodle, but I’ve always used a status button so students can communicate with me instantly if I’m online.

Moodle has something called Messages. Back in version 1.x, I couldn’t tell which class a student was in when they Messaged me. Instead of fixing this in 2.x, they made it worse by removing all user information outside the courses completely, making it not only impossible to tell which class a student was in, but impossible to get back to where you were working in your course site.

I used to use Google Talk Chatback Badge instead.  It didn’t tell me which class a student was in, but at least it was easy to let them know I was available, and they didn’t have to have a Google account or log in. That’s gone. The option now is Hangouts and other stuff where they have to join Googleland. I can’t be responsible for making someone violate their own privacy that way.

Then it was Plupper, which I routed through iChat. It’s been down all week. I don’t know if it’s coming back, but all week isn’t OK, so I went hunting again.

I was getting miffed that I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was running all over the web trying to find a free service. I began to realize I didn’t really need “chat”, but some sort of help-desky thing. I was at first delighted to find Zoho LiveDesk (link removed at request of Zoho) which I could adapt. i could even create different badges for different classes. Then I discovered that this multi-button feature was only available on paid accounts – it turned out I had somehow entered a 30 trial that would expire. So much for that.

Then it occurred to me. I rent my own server space – I wondered what open source stuff was hanging out there? I found Mibew, and installed it. It even built its own database (though I had to go in and tweak a bit).

Their button was not exactly what I needed (I won’t be turning blonde and I’ve never looked that happy):



So I got into GIMP and made my own:

Then I made one for offline:



After installing Mibew, I was able to set up each class as a “group”, then create button code for each group, so I can see which class they’re coming from! A unique button went onto each class site – I tested them and they work.

I used the Localization feature (which was highly customizable) to change “Live Support” to “For My History Students”, my designation as “operator” to “teacher”, and the language of client and user to student.

It may not be perfect. It may fail. It may crash. Keep in mind, I don’t code. I just know enough to change other people’s code.

But as I was doing this today, I suddenly realized I was Reclaiming the Web, a goal of many smart people for 2014. Happy New Year!

Lecture, sources & discovery

Lecture is not about discovery, unless it is the discovery of how the professor processes and uses information. It can be excellent modelling. When I talk through a historical subject, and its significance, I can model how historians think.

But most professors lecture in order to relay information. This always seemed silly to me, since the “information” was in the book. Now the “information” is on the web. But if they don’t read the information, and understand it, they can get it from the lecture.

In my online lectures, there is indeed information. It is told from my perspective, and everything about it (including what I choose to discuss) represents my interpretation. Because it contains events and dates, and explains them chronologically, it constitutes “content” in the class. My online lectures include my own writing (recorded in audio), links to websites, embedded video, and specially marked links to primary sources.

These sources were originally collected in a paper workbook. Now each unit’s collection is on a web page. Some of them have audio reading the documents (as I’d like to do with Edmund Burke). Questions on these documents are included in the lecture quiz each week.

In “discussion”, my students do not discuss, but rather post their own primary sources, then write about several of the ones posted and the way they tell us something about that era. Through this process I teach historical writing (thesis and evidence).

This week something interesting happened.

In my Depression lecture for US History, I feature a section on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, his radio broadcast from Halloween 1938:


But not until a student posted it as a YouTube video did any of them, as far as I can tell, actually listen to it.

Then this happened:


So I’m thinking. No one went to find the audio before, but they watched a video (that’s really just audio) posted in the forum. Someone was interested because a fellow student posted it. Sure, she posted it because it was mentioned in lecture (maybe), but a student actually experienced it because it was posted by another student rather than by me.

So….back to those other primary sources, the ones I actually assign. Those written primary sources are posted by me as part of the lecture. I suspect few actual read them except to answer quiz questions.

Perhaps if they discovered them instead of me providing the sources? We already do that – they find and post sources every week. Maybe I shouldn’t select sources at all. Perhaps the collection they make is fine – especiallly if they actually look at or listen to what the others post.

I must think on the implications of instructor-provided content. We have this idea that instructors need to curate content. I could do that in a different, more engaging way. But first I need to be sure that, at least when it comes to primary sources, I should be doing it at all.

What do you mean no tags? Conceptualizing what online teachers need.

So I had this great idea that next semester, when students post their primary sources in the forum, they could tag them with a topic. I could provide a list of tags that represent larger areas, the sort of topics they can later work into historical themes: fashion, war, society, medicine, politics, economy, etc. This would work better than search, and allow them to browse the collection they’d created as they thought about their research approach.

But when I went to look at the settings in Moodle (1.9 and 2.2 and 2.3), there was no such thing as tags for a forum post, or even a glossary entry (my other new idea). Moodle only has tags for student “blogs”, which are connected only to each student’s profile and do not work in any interconnected way.

This was a big reminder that Moodle is still an LMS, and that sometimes I simply cannot configure it to do what I need. In WordPress such a thing is a no-brainer, and of course I can set this up in WP, but didn’t I just decide there was no real need for that?

It occurred to me that what I want to do represents an overlap that LMS thinkers don’t understand – the interrelationship between “content” and “activity”. The main Moodle blocks have two drop-down menus when you want to add something, and they clearly indicate the mindset:

A “resource” is supposed to be static, and an “activity” is supposed to be interactive.

A “forum” is considered an activity, a platform for “discussion”. I’m not using it for discussion, but rather for having students create a set of resources (without that nasty confusion a database would bring into play). The students are thus actively creating a “resource” that they need to search and access throughout the class. The lack of acknowledgement of such interplay is what leads designers to think of tags only in terms of blogs.

I am also setting up some secondary historical readings for my Honors class, and there’s no way in Moodle to have students annotate them together.

I just want a static resource, an article, that I’ve introduced, and have students annotate it collaboratively. The only “activity” available in Moodle would be a wiki, and it would not allow in-line commentary. I admit I’m somewhat Talmudic in my idea of what a collaboratively annotated document would look like. So I’ll be trying a circuitous route, uploading a pdf article into Crocodoc, then embedding the resulting doc in a Moodle page to allow for in-place commenting without students needing an account. It’s an awkward solution at best, and one which requires me to wear a Fair Use t-shirt and remove the articles after the semester.

The perpetuation of the division between “content” and “activity” causes harm to learning and prevents some of that innovative methodology everyone says they want. The idea that resources and “discussion” are separate gets passed down to new teachers going online, and they set up their classes that way, limiting their pedagogy.

So, note to LMS designers, including Moodle:

Stop adding internal “features” to your LMS based on webapps you see people using externally  (“blogs”, “scholar”), and start rethinking why teachers use those things. Think about the interactivity between “content” (or resource or page or presentation) and “activity” (the stuff that means servers have to talk to each other).

Wrap your head around the concepts, not just the tools, of teaching online.

The death of Google Talk chatback badge

The Google Talk chatback badge  has been important to a number of us faculty. We are frequently logged into Gmail anyway, and the badge let us put a bit of html on any webpage and students could click and IM with us without logging in to anything. Well, now it’s gone – Google has stopped supporting it and it doesn’t work anymore. They made no announcement (except a single post in a Google Group) and the badges still look like they work, but they don’t. I found out when Pilar Hernández, my esteemed colleague, had students screaming they couldn’t reach her.

I also have featured the badge on all my course pages and my home page for years. I recently made a tutorial on how to use them.

We can discuss why Google did this, and why Google doesn’t care, but I’m confident it’s because they don’t like the anonymity of it. They want everyone in Google Plus, which requires a Google account so they can track you. Given my concerns, I’m not comfortable forcing students into Google-dom just so they can chat with me.

Pilar and I spent all afternoon today trying alternatives.  Finding a replacement for Google chatback isn’t easy – it was a seamless and simple service. It wasn’t a shoutbox and it could be put anywhere, and on many different pages. Using this resource, we tried anything that was free. Meebo Messenger, Pilar’s backup, is also shutting down as of July 11,  so we had to go elsewhere.

Here’s what we tried. (Note: we discovered that none of the below worked with the Google Talk feature enabled – it’s obvious Google has gotten rid of that support also.)

  • Plugoo – commercial looking, big, didn’t work with some browsers
  • Olark – insisted I allow it to access all my Google contacts, and I had to email them to close the account
  • Zoho chat – can log in, but only puts shout box on one page
  • Chatbadge.com – when we tested it, we couldn’t get the messages to actually get to their destination – it seemed like the best but we couldn’t get it to work
  • Online Chat Centers – serious overkill, obviously for major helpdesks, had to log in directly and answer the phone, had a major New Delhi feel to it
  • Yahoo Messenger Pingbox  – not visible in all browsers, must log into Yahoo Messenger, doesn’t relay nickname properly

Our best choice was Plupper. It looked good, and has an open API. We were able to get it working by following the instructions for iChat  for Mac, and Miranda for PC.

It does mean more work, since you have to have the IM client open and be logged in. Nowhere near as convenient for us, but just as convenient for students, which is what we needed.

When feedback isn’t seen as feedback

It’s taken me almost a year to figure out what might have gone wrong with last summer’s class. I need to take a look since this summer’s class starts Monday.

Last summer, thrilled at having only 40 students to tend to in an 8-week class, I had students post their historical theses in the forums instead of on a closed essay exam. I graded them according to a qualitative scale that translated into points, and made comments on each directly in the forums, which took a great deal of time.

I was at first so very happy with this method, having spent much time setting it up so beautifully. Then the class was over, and I got the evaluation, completed by only 16 students.
Ignoring the typical one-person-who-hates-everything-I-do student, 5 felt class expectations weren’t stated clearly. A surprising 6 didn’t find the Contribution Assessments helpful (these contain direct feedback for each and every student, in private), and though 14 said they read my comments on their own mini-essays in the forum, 2 thought I wasn’t even present and visible during class. Some comments on the open essays said:

“It would be helpful if we received more feedback on our short essays instead of a general comments so that we could improve our writing skills.”

“For someone who struggles with the weekly thesis maybe a little more information but since it was a summer class it was face paced. I enjoyed the class the grading was fair just needed a better understanding of the thesis but that could just be me.”

“I think more feedback on the essays is necessary. The only kind of feedback that I received was if something was wrong with my essay, but it would be nice to know the things that I’m doing well so that I could continue incorporating things into the essays that worked well.”

“I wish there was more direction for the writing assignments. Especially the final assessment.”

It has thus occurred to me that the continual, extensive feedback I gave several times a week on the posted essays was not seen as actual feedback or guidance by some of the students.

Keep in mind before you say I’m justing whining, that I give this evaluation every semester, and the overwhelming majority say my expectations are clear, the assignments are helpful, and the things they recommend tend to be things like “more content” or “less work”. Keep in mind also that my public comments on their essays were very specific, but kind and designed not to embarrass anyone. I also marked some of them with a bold For Everyone tag in the subject line, to provide more general comments at the same time. I thought this was brilliant — evidently not so much.

I can’t help but wonder whether doing closed essay grading instead, even if I said the exact same thing on each essay, would have led to a different result. Is it possible that forum postings from the instructor aren’t seen as feedback in the same way we view a private comment on a quiz?

So for the class that starts Monday, I have put the essays back into a standard, private, midterm and final exam format, with (as usual) the practice in the forums. We’ll see what happens.

Some interesting places to meet in real time

We’ve been working at finding places for synchronous meetings of various kinds for the POT Certificate Class. Sure, we can do the usual things, like meet up in Collaborate/Elluminate (we have installations at several of our jobs), but we kinda like free and we kinda like different so lately we’ve been looking at:

Web conferencing or video/audio conversation

Google Plus hangouts

The advantage is that many people already are in Google for something, and it’s pretty easy to find Plus now, and everyone can now access it since it’s out of alpha stage. Great video and audio quality, and the camera can automatically shift to whoever is speaking, putting them in the main frame.  But the maximum is 10 for talking – anyone after 10 can only watch. We liked it especially for quick meetings, kind of like Google Talk with video. One interesting thing is that if it’s public, anyone may drop by. The “with extras” option slows down the system, but lets you add viewing a YouTube together (this didn’t always work) or embedding a collaborative Google Doc, which would make presentations possible.

Big Marker

Kind of like Collaborate Lite, this one let us be on camera with microphones, but we had to have headsets upon entering the room or we got awful audio feedback. We only had four cameras on at once, but quality was good. All panels (participants, individual cameras, whiteboard) were in separate frames that could be resized. A presentation ppt could be loaded, and the presenter could zoom in or mark on it with simple drawing tools (line, box). Only one person could present at a time, and a newly uploaded presentation replaced the old one. Sessions cannot be archived with a free account.

Facebook HOOT

We began with just Facebook group chat, which is only text chat, but then decided to try this. Hoot is an FB application that you add, and the idea is to allow students to meet up together with video and audio. We tried it with five or six people, and as we were talking the creator of the app came in and spoke with us. Spooky but cool. Created by students for students.

Second Life

Here you need a “place” in SL to meet, so it’s like Collaborate only in that sense, and there are colleges and various organizations that will let you use their space. Audio is kind of new, and the application is pretty heavy (Cris Crissman pointed me to a different viewer, called Phoenix, that worked better than the new SL viewer). Learning curve is high, but the learning experience is rich because of the simulation of an actual meeting in a simulated space. Hard to explain unless you’ve done it.

Skype group video calling

For this, one person in the group must have a Pro account.

Alternate formats for “talking” while working together

Slideshare (Zipcast)

The idea here is that the presenter schedule a session where s/he can show him/herself on video and audio while touring through a slideshare slideshow, and you can see who is attending with their icons, and they can text chat during the session. Looks like you need a Pro account to do audio conferencing.

Inside a Google Doc

We meet inside a Google Doc just by putting some text in a Doc, then making it public and letting everyone know the URL. No audio, but real time edits and chat once you open the side window, plus you can annotate. If you were logged in to Google, sometimes it would still show you in the room as Anonymous, which was annoying. The other problem is that the synchronous chat isn’t saved. But it was a great way to create a document in real time.

I’ve heard Etherpad is good for this too, but it’s been bought by Google anyway; Crocodoc is also good for annotating together.


We recently also tried hall.com, which sets up a room where you can do polls, to do lists, and instant message chat — it seemed to work very well.

MindMeister Brainstorming

Lets you text chat while you create a mind map together.


Like Google docs, but better in a way because you can change your name  from anonymous instantly, and everyone’s contributions are instantly highlighted in a different color.

Shut up and collaborate

You don’t always need to be able to see and/or hear and/or text chat with each other — sometimes you just need to work at the same time. The collaborative documents can do this, and so can:


Video collaboration, but we haven’t tried it in real time, though it says it can. 500 MB free. Lets you add clips, transitions, do cuts, etc. A little slow in rendering. Another recent option is wevideo, which we’ll try also, although it only lets 5 people work on one project in its free version.

Prezi Meeting

We haven’t yet tried it, but you can meet in Prezi to collaborate on making a presentation. Icons represent each participant, and move around showing who’s editing what.

 Watch a video together

Not quite ready for prime time, or at least not any better than putting a link in a chat and telling people to go watch.

We tried YouTube itself, which now has a link in the Share options that sets up a Google hangout for watching — we have tried to watch videos together in Google Hangout and it doesn’t usually work. We often all get bounced to a generic YouTube page instead of whatever the participant is trying to load in.

We also tried Chill.com (you have to use Facebook for this), and Synchtube, which didn’t really. We were all able to watch the same video, but speed varied widely. One of our members called it “Asynchtube”. Watchittoo.com made you pay.


Your question: where and when are you guys testing all this? more in the next post!

My question: What else should we check out?