The Value of Proximity

Togetherness is a good thing.

It’s pretty clear, even in recent studies, that we want to present information to students in “multiple modalities” (text, graphics, video). But there have been a few studies discussing the placement of “learning objects” (text, video, images) on a webpage, and how that placement relates to learning. The results of a 10-year study at UCSB by Richard Mayer and colleagues focused on how best to use audio, text, video and other media elements (1) . They discovered that how media elements are handled on the screen impacts learning.

Improved learning resulted from adding graphics to text, and from adding text to graphics. But “[t]he trick is to use illustrations that are congruent with the instructional message”, rather than for effect or entertainment.
Interestingly, a conversational tone and the use of an “agent” (a talking head video or animated cartoon), even just the voice, also helped learning.

Explaining graphics with audio improved learning also. But too much was overload. Audio and text explaining a graphic decreased learning, and any gratuitous or dramatic elements added only to get attention caused distraction and also decreased learning.

Putting the issue of relevancy aside for a moment (obviously the text and graphics should both be trying to further the same instructional goal), I think the important issue is proximity. If there is a graph at the top of the page, but the graph is explained with text three paragraphs later, I don’t think it will help.

Proximity is critical, because the relationship between objects that may be obvious to instructors may not be obvious to students.

In my online lectures, I have always put illustrative images next to the appropriate text. I remember in the late 90s repeatedly looking up a cheat sheet my mentor, Kathleen Rippberger, made showing me how to write HTML to wrap text around an image (thank you, HTML). Over time, I came to embed videos, then YouTube videos, also within the lecture page (thank you, embed code). This year, I began embedding the primary sources right into the lecture (thank you, iframe).

The desire to keep things together even caused me to explore putting a lecture and the corresponding discussion together on the same page, which I could do using iframes in Moodle. But the effect is still not seamless, and it looks awkward on mobile devices.

lecdisctogether

If we extend the principle of proximity to the defaults on a typical Learning Management system, however, we will be disappointed. I despair as I look at Blackboard’s default menu, with everything separated: “course materials” here, discussion forum there, tests way over there. It was this problem that led our instructors to create the main page as an interactive syllabus. But even there, the page is a list of links:

week1links

The goal of proximity explains why so many instructors try various forms of “modules” and “units”, which seem to me like online versions of the paper packets we used to use in grade school.

Proximity thinking has come a little late to online education, but it needs a place at the table. The delay has been caused by not only the LMS, but by all the reasons the LMS is popular, including deceptive plug-and-play functionality and ongoing difficulty creating structured learning experiences if you aren’t a web-head. Time to consider proximity as its own design concept, within the LMS if necessary.

(1) Ruth Clark, Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why, Learning Solutions Magazine (2002)

Another voice for history

To take students through the text of a historical document, I downloaded a sample UK voice called Peter from Infovox (free for 30 days, then $20 for the one voice). It works through my Mac’s Universal Access system. It’s quite awkward to have it read just text, since even at high-threshold settings it wants to read aloud all the computer commands and window changes. By putting the Magna Carta into a TextEdit document and recording with Snapz Pro, I did this:

I also tried a UK male voice at Cepstral but I couldn’t get it to behave properly.

This approach might be more effective with bouncing ball or highlighting, but I’m not sure.

Animated lecture in context

What if I could give a bit of history lecture “on location”?

Continuing with looking at animation, I downloaded Tellagami  (which I first read about on Greg Kulowiec’s blog) to my iPod Touch and was able to do this:

It saves as mp4 to the Tellegami website, and their Share button gives embed code. Or I suppose one could download it using one of those sneaky browser extensions.

The limitations were that I had to upload photos to the iPod, and that the audio was a little dicey – I had to make sure the Touch was a couple of feet away from me to not get static. Oh, and it’s limited to 30 seconds!

I don’t have an iPad so it hadn’t occurred to me to look at apps, but now I will.

And next I hope to borrow an iPad to try Explain Everything, the other app from Greg’s post.

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:

 lecturewarofworlds

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:

warworldsdisc

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.

Presence through video and Voki

Instructor presence, though it can be defined more technically, is a perception that the instructor is there and available to the student during a class. Lately, in addition to my weekly summaries and guidance in the discussion forums, plus announcements and messages with individual students, I’ve also been using two other elements: an introductory video at the beginning of class, and a Voki introduction to each week.

Here’s the introductory video for this coming summer:

Here’s video on how I create my weekly Voki:

While both are clearly presentations rather than interactivity, I think the spontaneity is important in encouraging students to see me as a real person at the “other end” of the class. That’s why I prefer cheap and easy methods like these (webcam and iMovie for the video, free Voki for the animation) rather than more “professional” means.

Ending the Half-Assed Textbook Adoption

Next semester I am completely textbook-free, having dropped even the historical atlas so I can do other cool things with my new Honors class. My Western Civ text is a compilation of my online lectures, which I’m editing over break. Everything else is Wikipedia “context reading” and my extensive online written lectures. All else is student discovery, posting, interaction, practice, etc.

In the meantime, I receive emails from the bookstore demanding my book orders. The assumption is that I must order books. Also in my email is notification of a subcommittee meeting on campus about affordable textbooks and what to do about those high prices.

Is the textbook era over? No. If I loved a book, if I used every page, if I followed a textbook slavishly in my class, I’d order that book.

What’s over is the era of the half-assed textbook adoption. The classes where the prof has students buy a whole hardback textbook but only use half of it, or only assigns a few chapters, or has students read “selections” from it. We can’t, in good conscience, do that when textbooks are so expensive and bookstores just can’t find that previous edition, or sell it used at exorbinant prices.

I didn’t intentionally dump them all, you know. I looked carefully for a book, as I noted in last month’s post.

But this semester I used a new book in my early Western Civ, an on-site class. It has good sources and its own methodology, which corresponded with mine — collecting primary sources and analyzing them together instead of engaging in narrative. (Narrative, I’ve decided, is Wikipedia’s job, or mine if I have a particularly good story to tell.) And we used this book, and they did homework from it, and they mined it for documents on open-book quizzes.

But I wasn’t really into the book. I didn’t love it, I didn’t quote it, and we only examined its contents intensively in class a few times. So why did they have to pay $80+ for it? Not good enough.

So go ahead and adopt that textbook. But do it wholeheartedly, because it’s the basis of your class. Because it fits so well with your pedagogy you smile when you open it. Because you know that $150 for the new edition is totally worth it, since it gives your students such an excellent educational experience.

Just don’t go half-assed.