Miscellaneous

Google Cardboard and Photospheres

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Google CardboardAfter Google Cardboard was announced at I/O back in June, we bought one for a prize giveaway at BrainBlast. As soon as it came, everyone in my office started experimenting with it and was immediately fascinated. For those who aren’t familiar, Google Cardboard is a cardboard cutout with two lenses, a neodymium magnet that acts as a trigger for input, and an empty space for your smartphone. With iOS or Android apps that provide a stereoscopic (side-by-side picture) view, looking through the lenses provides an easy-to-implement but very effective virtual reality experience.

Smartphone-based virtual reality has been around for awhile in the form of Durovis Dive and other do-it-yourself headsets, though I’d never really paid much attention, since the headsets were still fairly expensive. But after seeing Google Cardboard and realizing how inexpensive a virtual reality headset could be, I found myself thinking about the numerous possibilities it could bring for our teachers and students. For starters, the Cardboard app and Chrome Experiments released by Google have plenty to engage the imagination: navigating through Google Earth, seeing 360-degree videos, an animated short, and watching and exploring the virtual tour.

There’s a number of places to get a Google Cardboard headset, and Google lists a few on their web site. I can personally vouch for the quality of the Unofficial Cardboard headset at https://www.unofficialcardboard.com/products and you can buy a version that’s already put together for you, but if you’re crafty you can buy an unassembled kit and put it together yourself (it’s actually not that difficult).

The cheapest I’ve been able to find is at Tinydeal: http://www.tinydeal.com/diy-google-cardboard-vr-3d-glasses-for-iphone-samsung-cellphone-p-135220.html The price on this bounces around a bit, but usually it’s between $2.50 and $3.50. You can check back later and see if it’s cheaper, but I’ve bought 10 headsets off Tinydeal and they’re decent enough, but the magnets aren’t very strong so if you’re using it with an app it might not always detect the input. The eyes seem like they might be just slightly too far apart, too.

One of the coolest things that modern smartphones can do is capture photospheres using the Google Camera app for Android or the Photo Sphere Camera app for iOS. It’s similar to capturing a panorama with your smartphone, except you also capture photos above and below. The best way to take a good photosphere is to try to keep the phone in one place and pivot yourself around it as you snap pictures at every angle. If you have a tripod with a handle that can rotate it in every angle, that’s ideal. Otherwise, resting your smartphone on an object like the edge of a table or chair can give you fairly good results if you have trouble keeping your camera in the same position. Check out the collection of photospheres others have made on Sphereshare and the G+ Photo Sphere Community for some examples.

I created my own photosphere uploading and sharing web app (best viewed in Chrome) that you can use to easily share your photospheres, and view them with a Google Cardboard headset via the browser. You can also embed your photospheres as seen below. Try clicking and dragging to scroll around if you’re on a desktop. If you’re on a phone, you can rotate the scene by moving your device around. Click the icon in the bottom left to toggle between standard and stereoscopic/VR mode.

Upload or import your own photospheres at http://viewer.spherecast.org and view them in Google Cardboard.

Two Approaches to Page-Based Moodle Layouts

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Many of the school systems in the state of Utah have moved to Canvas as their choice of LMS. Canvas has been endorsed by UEN, and has been consistently gaining traction. At first, Weber School District was exploring this option, but decided against it. For one, assuming we used the hosted version of Canvas, it would be entirely too costly for a district of our size. Second, even if we used the self-hosted open source version, it would’ve required rebuilding in Ruby all the custom integration we’ve already built for Moodle. Third, our 200-something active Moodle-using teachers would have had to convert or rebuild their curricula in the new system. And fourth…well, we figured we could take the best parts of Canvas, and build something even better.

So we explored, analyzed, and researched exactly what was required to deliver the optimal hybrid and online course experience for our students and teachers. After a few months of design and development, we launched our new Moodle design in April 2012. And we’ve continually been making improvement and feature enhancements since then. We’ve done our best to address the needs of our teachers and students, and provide a framework that is clear, intuitive, and complimentary to both hybrid and fully online learning environments, while addressing the major concerns with our old system. So far, it’s been very well-received. I call the new layout “SimpleMoodle.”

SimpleMoodle

simplemoodle-editingmodeYou’ll immediately notice the design strays from the traditional Topics or Weekly format most Moodlers are used to, and adopts a page-based layout. There are some page-based course formats like FlexPage by Moodlerooms, and one created by the University of Sussex. Pages encourage a logical, linear progression for teachers and students to follow. While this may not exactly accommodate all the instructional styles our teachers wish to use, we’ve built it to be flexible enough that most, if not all teachers will find it useful.

One of the major strengths of SimpleMoodle is the course navigation on the right. All pages are organized into a hierarchy, and are divided into units, topics, and pages, which should be pretty familiar to most teachers. The teacher can move these pages around the hierarchy tree by dragging and dropping. Pages can also be hidden so students can’t select them, or dropped into the Archive section at the bottom, which doesn’t show up for students at all. This way, teachers can save pages for later use without having them appear in the navigation.

simplemoodle-popupOne of the complaints we’ve received about our old vanilla Moodle system is that it’s overwhelming. In the past, whenever we’ve provided Moodle training, teachers arrive at their empty slate of a Moodle course and just don’t know what to do. Given the time constraints and the sophistication of Moodle, we’d often only be able to teach them a fraction of the options. Sometimes simpler is better. We conducted a survey of our teachers and students and identified the most commonly used features, and made them readily available and identifiable by the red boxes. Clicking one of the “Add Resource,” “Add Assignment,” etc. boxes opens a popup window with more options and a description of each one.

simplemoodle-assignmentsThere are a few other pages that make the experience easier for students. The “Resources” and “Assignments” buttons at the top of each page take the student to a list of each activity and the unit number they’re located in. If a student is viewing the page and has completed an assignment, a checkmark appears next to it. If a teacher is viewing the page, a count of ungraded assignments shows up. The checkmarks and ungraded assignments counts appear in the hierarchical menu as well.

simplemoodle-courseinfoThe “Course Info” page contains information about the teacher, and this is where the News forum is located, too. The teacher’s photo is shared here, as well as a short biography of them. From this page, the student can also view the syllabus or send the teacher a message. It’s a nice concise location for the most basic course information a student might find interesting.

We’re continuing to develop new features, and at some point in the future, we intend to make the SimpleMoodle course format and theme available for free download.

WEU Pages

weupages-studentmode

For World Education University, I designed and built another page-based course format I’ve simply called “WEU Pages” (maybe I need to find a new naming guy). Instead of topics, this course format uses units. The focal point of each unit is a main activity, typically a SCORM file, with other resources and activities complimenting it and listed below. Progression through the course is fairly linear. As soon as a student completes one unit, they move on to the next.

weupages-editingmode

In editing mode, the teacher has extra features available. One is uploading an image to each unit listed in the horizontal navigation across the top. These images can be whatever the teacher thinks will visually describe the unit. Images uploaded are automatically resized to thumbnails. The teacher can also drag-and-drop the unit boxes to reorder them.

The editing teacher will also see a drop-down panel below the main activity, which shows the different features. Clicking one of the buttons shows a popup window similar to the one in SimpleMoodle, and the teacher picks which type of activity they want. To move activities to different units, the teacher simply needs to drag them up to the unit box. They’ll disappear from the current unit, and reappear in the desired unit.

One nice thing is that any Topics-based course can be gracefully converted to the WEU Pages course format. It degrades nicely as well. The course format takes the first available SCORM activity in the topic and makes it the “main activity” that shows in the larger box. In some cases, a Page resource or Quiz may become the main activity as well.

 

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A Tuition-Free Higher Education School Opens for Enrollment

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World Education University (WEU)A new online university I’ve been involved with for several weeks just opened for enrollment. Based out of Palm Springs, California, World Education University is a for-profit, tuition-free, online school. It was founded on the belief that everyone in the world should have access to higher education without cost, bypassing socioeconomic barriers that would normally prevent people from engaging in important learning opportunities, and elevate them into higher-class lifestyles. It joins the company of other free online learning communities like Coursera, edXUdacity, and the University of the People, who offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). However, there’s an important difference between World Education University (WEU) and other learning communities: WEU is set up as a standalone institution, and has been awarded degree-granting status by the state of California. And they are restlessly pursuing fulfillment of accreditation requirements. So instead of partnering with different colleges that offer college credit for MOOCs, like the University of Antioch has done with Coursera or Colorado State has done with Udacity, everything will happen in-house.

While the structure is probably most similar to University of the People, WEU is taking the for-profit route, instead of non-profit. Tuition costs are subsidized through advertising and forming business partnerships, rather than through donors. Every student will have a marketing profile. Very few people would ever claim to like ads, but sitting through a few ads and an occasional marketing survey in exchange for a college degree? Who wouldn’t do that?

I’m optimistic. With the recent news that 40 more public universities started offering college credits for free MOOCs, I think the time is right for an endeavor like this. There’s a few obstacles WEU is aggressively striving to overcome so it can sustain itself as a valid and effective institution of higher learning in the long run.

Instructor Involvement and Peer-to-Peer Learning

In a MOOC I participated in recently, one person noted, “A MOOC is very illustrative of what self-directed learners can do. There is, very purposefully, I believe, little intrusion from a teacher in the traditional sense as the participants start to create their own meaning. In this way new knowledge on the given topic evolves.” I love the peer-to-peer approach to learning. It encourages socialization and collaboration, deeply involves students in the educational process, and empowers students to take control of their own learning. An online environment is especially suited for peer-to-peer learning, because it tends to level the playing field. Educators have noted before that shy students tend to open up to their teachers and classmates in an online class, and say things and voice thoughts they’d never have the initiative to communicate in a face-to-face situation.

Light BulbStudents can’t be left in the dark. There must be a structure, and typically in an online learning environment an instructor or facilitator assumes that role. However, in a MOOC, this can be a little trickier. To help address this, WEU is implementing an adaptive learning system which facilitates educational experiences unique to the individual’s learning styles. And if WEU can successfully emphasize the best aspects of its peer-to-peer approach to learning, it will really soar in the quality of its learning material and how its students engage the courseware and their classmates.

Validity of Degrees

Certainly, it is a prime time to implement a higher-ed business model like WEU. The economy is still recovering, unemployment rates are high in many areas, and college tuition rates are continuing to rise faster than inflation. People recognize the need for marketable knowledge and skills a college setting can provide, but it’s not within everyone’s grasp financially. The attraction of zero-cost education is growing, as evidenced by the constant rise in MOOCs, and the attention they’ve received from accredited universities.

But how attractive will this be to students? I can understand why it’s hard for some to rationalize spending time on a course for which they don’t receive a tangible benefit, such as a raise or an industry-recognized diploma. In the U.S., accreditation is especially a big deal. For example, according to the course catalog, WEU is offering a Masters in K-8 Instructional Mathematics. Many K-12 schools and districts offer raises, tuition reimbursement, and added recognition for teachers who complete extra degrees. But if it’s not accredited, teachers may not receive these benefits.

However, this is not always the case overseas, especially in developing countries. In a place like Thailand or Malaysia, a degree from an American college is valuable no matter the accreditation status. Such a degree is evidence the graduate is knowledgeable and fluent in English…both highly marketable skills in such an area. WEU will undoubtedly be extremely attractive to students from countries with a lower socioeconomic status.

Fortunately, WEU has a full-time staff actively working on fulfilling the requirements for accreditation. As soon as they make more headway in this area — and I’m confident it’s just a matter of time — you can bet I’m going to enroll in a degree program, but that’s not stopping me from participating in a few other classes as a non-credit student for my own edification and personal enhancement.

I highly recommend visiting World Education University’s web site to learn more about this unique school, its mission, goals, and the courses it offers.

 

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