Guest post: We help you learn better

I wrote earlier about how one of my projects for the summer is to improve the UBC Learning Commons website. Sam Wempe, one of the brilliant students on my team wrote a post about what we are trying to achieve, where we have come and what we still have left to do.

Below is the article that he wrote, originally published on the Learning Commons site:

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This summer, myself and a team from the Chapman Learning Commons have been working on an epic endeavor; nothing short of a website that helps students learn better. As with any website, the first hurdle is actually getting users to your site, followed by the equal challenge of providing information in a way that is not only engaging but useful.

The current site is a goldmine of resources thats has grown enormously over the years; however, student feedback has shown that this growth has made many of these resources hard to locate or take advantage of. Based on these responses, we focused on three inter-related issues.

Navigation

so many menus! so many layers!
so many menus! so many layers!

As a result of the large amount growth the site experienced over the years in an attempt to become a one-stop shop on campus, the content outgrew the organizational structure. Due to the challenges that existed in making a website 5-6 years ago, this made perfect sense as there was very little UBC content online. Luckily, by May of this year, many of our partners have developed quality websites themselves, giving us the ability to concentrate on building a solid site centered on the student academic experience.

Remedies

  • 2 clicks or less intuitive navigation: done through condensing and renaming menus, reducing the amount of potential pathways down to just a few, very logical ones. The design aspect below was also crucial to this.
  • Trim the fat: cut out as much content as possible that does not relate to improving your academic life. For example, if someone happened to be interested in abroad opportunities, they would be referred to Go Global’s own website; as opposed to trying to maintain this content ourselves. This makes the site leaner and more efficient.

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Visual

One should also know the point of a website by just glancing at it. If a user likes a site’s main feature, they are more likely to stick around and look into other resources; something seriously lacking in the current site. Text-heavy pages scare away users, overly busy sidebars distract and constrain the content and providing users as many navigational options as possible created too many moving parts and points for confusion – all these needed to be refreshed for 2011 and beyond.

concept of new learning commons site

Remedies

  • Break up content pages: elimination of large blocks of text and utilization of ample forms of digital media, such as youtube videos, slideshare presentations, podcasts, etc.
  • Dropped the sidebar: to free up more digital real estate on the page for content and moved any crucial bits to the bottom.
  • App-Like carousel and landing pages: use the front page carousel to highlight the most common reasons someone would visit the website. Currently this is used to highlight current or upcoming events (which confused the mission of the site, according to student feedback); this has been moved to blog-like feed just below the ‘Welcome to the Learning Commons Banner.’ While the landing pages act as visual launchpad to the various resources within the heading.

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Engaging and Interactive Content

There are incredibly valuable resources on the site which took an immense amount of work and research to put together. The problem revealed through the navigation and visual aspect, was that this content was both hard to find and hard to get through. Reading lots of text is no fun, but try getting a stressed, time-pressed student to read five pages on time management; much less find the time to do so! Yet, the transfer of these skills is precisely what the site is about, striving to make exceptional accessible content for all students, by students.

prototype for time management toolkit

Remedies

  • Vegetables hidden in the dessert: ‘toolkits’ were designed to be interactive, self-reflective, do-at-your-own-pace tools to learn skills, figure out an action plan and provide connection points to the variety of in-person resources, such as peer-academic coaching or the writing centre.
  • Accessible to all students: provide resources that are useful for all types of learners by including relevant videos, podcasts, software, print-outs and interactive activities.

PLEASE HELP US!!

Current Websitehttp://learningcommons.ubc.ca/

Prototype Website: http://learningcommons-redesign.sites.olt.ubc.ca/

The Learning Commons is meant to be an evolving project, grounded in feedback from our partners and students alike; we need your help! A few issues in particular we are struggling with:

General Navigation:

how do you find it moving between pages, not just navigation from the home page? Does it seem intuitive or confusing?

Headings and Categories:

We have three main categories that most of our content now resides in. Naming has been one of the biggest hangups, as the more popular headers tend to cause the most confusion about what content exists under them.

What we offer, for services and resources available to students, especially those available in the CLC. This has come across as the most solid heading.

Student toolkits for the interactive skill-building tools. Other options include:

  1. Become a Better Student
  2. Strategies for Students
  3. Learning Strategies
  4. Learning Secrets

Which option are you drawn to? The issue here as that this needs to come across as helpful without sounding remedial. Meanwhile, it has to be narrow enough of a definition to not confuse users as to where content should exist.

Beyond the Classroom as our main referral page to academically enriching opportunities, such as studying abroad, service learning, student directed seminars, etc. Other options include:

  1. Involvement
  2. Enhance your degree

Do these names and definitions makes sense? Particularly, are these headings so broad that you would have trouble placing what goes where and is there too much potential overlap?

Building pages around content, not fitting content into pages: this is where the raw information on the site exists. Using the wider pages offered by dropping the sidebar, we have tried to divide up the content that would make the most sense for the subject; instead of a standardized layout across all content pages.

  1. Take a look at a few different content pages (link, link link). does the idea of breaking up content make information easier to find or understand? Or would more standardization in layout be better?
  2. Consider how are current site lays out this content (link & link).
  3. The end result could be more of a hybrid, selecting one way of dividing up content (question 1), but using that layout arrangement for all the content pages.

Toolkits: go through our prototype time management toolkit. Tip, be sure to hit the print button after you’ve filled in the questions!

  1. Do you know where to start?
  2. Is the rest of the content on the page below the slideshow / reflective questions useful or necessary?
  3. Do you find the toolkit useful? Is this something that could help you manage your time better?

Glaring absences:

is anything missing from our previous site or from what you would expect to be here?

Any and all feedback is welcome in the comments section, on twitter, facebook or by email (peer.assistants@gmail.com)

Why I think Google Plus is revolutionary

I wrote the post below on July 2nd 2009. It sat in my Evernote for just under 2 years now, but with Google Plus, Google just did so much of what I was talking about that I guess I should share it now. The rough draft that I wrote is below. I’ve put in how Google plus fulfills the pieces below that.

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//Stuff I wrote in 2009:

Coming up with the perfect Communication system:

These are all the avenues I use to communicate with others:

  • In person
  • Phone
  • Windows Live Messenger
  • Windows Live Messenger (video)
  • Gtalk
  • Skype
  • Email
  • Twitter
  • Blog
  • Facebook Chat
  • Facebook messages
  • Facebook Wall
  • SMS (text messages)

How can we classify these though?

Length:
-Short form: SMS, Twitter, Facebook Wall
Medium form: Email, chat, blog, blog comments
-Long form: Email, Chat applications, Phone, Blog

Fidelity:
-Face-to-face: In Person, Video Chat
-Voice: Phone, Skype
-Text: Email, Blog, Chat, Twitter, Facebook Wall

Urgency
-Urgent: SMS, Phone, Chat applications
-Important, but not urgent: Email, Facebook Messages, direct twitter rmessages, in person
-Neither urgent, nor important: blog, twitter, facebook wall.

Audience
-myself: delicious, notes, google tasks, word documents, reminders
-small audience: SMS, Email, Chat, Twitter direct message, phone in person,
-medium audience: Facebook wall, Twitter
-large audience: Blog

Temporal
-Synchronous
-Replies within short time frames
-Whenever
These are my rules for which apps to use, rules that I kind of instinctively obey because they are the most convenient. They are rules that I break all the time. They probably have differences and similarities to your rules. Why is that? Each of the services that we use has different social connotations to us. I might believe a Facebook message is for important things, but you might think it is just for fluff and never check it.

How to fix it?

Here is my proposal for the workflow of my dream communication device:

  1. Choose who you want to communicate with, person, group, all your friends, open internet (Which is what Facebook’s privacy changes have just done)
  2. Choose the urgency (this should probably be more granular than what I just set up).
  3. Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video).
  4. Choose how synchronous you want it to be.
  5. Specify how long you want the message to be (for text this step could be automatic, just letting you know when you start to cross boundaries).
  6. From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people.

Now, the critical part of this system is that the receiver gets to define how they are notified about your intent to communicate. These can be rules based on your location, your status, the time, what your calendar says, who is trying to contact you. even who you are with. So for instance, all urgent messages from your close contacts are pushed to your phone which beeps or vibrates. If it is not urgent, it is sent to your desktop, where a popup can appear every hour detailing how many new non-urgent messages are waiting (this stops the smartphone syndrome of constantly checking email, facebook etc jsut to see if something important has come up).

//End of stuff I wrote in 2009.

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Some random images from my phone… no uploading required!
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Now for how Google Plus implements so much of this:

Choosing who:

Circles is 95% of the way there. Between Circles, individual people, people with the link, public, they’ve really made that part super easy.


 Choose the urgency:

Not implemented by Google Plus… here’s hoping they do.

Choose how synchronous you want it to be.

The difference between the chat and the sharing pieces.
 Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video)

All in Google Plus.

Fidelity choices on Google PlusFidelity Choices on Google Plus

Specify how long you want the message to be:

Google Plus just does it automatically. I’m not sure if this one is relevant anymore.
From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people:

Google has at least made a start on it

Settings for recieving posts on Google Plus

The big thing is that Google Plus does this all in one space. No message box, chat box and email inbox, no separate places to rebuild your community again and again, just all in one application.

I think that’s kind of awesome.

Helping students learn how to learn

nick confused

I am currently working for UBC Student Development / UBC Library as the Student Development Coordinator for the Chapman Learning Commons. My role includes managing the space, the students who work in the space and the learning services that are run out of the space.

What makes this position fascinating for me is the problem that it poses, namely:  how do I manage/create/frame services in a way that actually leads to them helping students be better at school?

This problem is massively difficult, as at a university level, being better at school requires students to break over 12 years of bad habits and replace them with good habits. As anybody who has tried to pick up good habits knows (especially in the time-constrained university environment), changing habits is very, very hard work that takes time to show results. Anything that one creates to help students do this has to be really, really good (if it is possible at all).

So, for this summer, in order to actually achieve this goal I’ve settled on 4 different principles that will hopefully lead to success.

  1. Hire good students. This piece is critical. Having awesome students work on these projects helps keep things in perspective, makes customer development easier and brings a fresh sense of energy and ideas into the field. This piece’s current status is definitely “mission accomplished”.
  2. 1-on-1 peer mentorship is currently the only really feasible solution to this problem. Having a well-trained peer guide you and keep you accountable is a hundred times better than any online resource or workshop that I could create.
  3. Solve the pain. Students experience a lot of pain and the whole point of this is to help reduce that. Wording like “learning services” means absolutely nothing to most students, we need to frame things in a way that shows them how we will help them get rid of their pain.
  4. Be lean and agile. Concepts like “Do More Faster”, “release early, release often” and all the other techniques that I have learnt around successful software development and entrepreneurship apply in this context too. We are here to actually fix the problem, not just follow through on the requirements document.
That’s the plan, 2 months in I hope it’s working. One of the pieces that we’ve made some big strides on is the Learning Commons website. If you’d like to see some of the principles in action compare the current site to my student’s current prototype (principle #1 can be seen in the quality of the work). We still have lots of work left to do on it, but the idea should be clear. If you do take a look, please drop some feedback, they are iterating fast so any feedback helps!
Current Learning Commons site
Current Learning Commons site
New Learning Commons Site
New Learning Commons Site

(if you’re looking for a place to put the feedback, just comment below)

Using Game Design Theory as a Framework for Course Design

Poster on Using Game design to influence course design entered at the UBC Computer Science Undergraduate Poster Competition

A while ago I wrote a post titled “school is just a game, let’s make it a good game“. At the time I thought I was really clever for coming up with it. Unfortunately, the idea was being looked at in other places and this idea now even has a title: “the Gamification of education”.

Gamification is one of those words that just sounds dirty. It sounds like (and just could be) a disease that people want to unleash upon school (this could also be due to the fact that “gammy” was a part of my slang vocabulary as a child). To many it is in fact a dirty word, the sentiment of “wait, what, we’re going to use operand conditioning to get students to learn?”… “This is evil and mindless and corporate.” is travelling around.

Of course, if you apply the FourSquare method of just tacking on “achievements” to a course, this sentiment is justified. But what if instead of turning school into a crappy game, we started with the premise that it is already a game and that a way to improve it would be to make it a better game?

In order to test that premise I spent 4 months working with Kimberly Voll to review the current literature around game and course design looking at what good game design was and seeing if we could apply it to course design. The in-depth hectically cited paper and poster are attached below for those who want to read them but here are the cliff notes:

We looked at 7 different elements (these are not the only 7, just the ones we looked at) that designers play with to create good games and looked for places in course design literature where these elements had been looked at. The 7 are:

  • Motivations: Designing in a way that complements the reason for playing
  • Reward: Providing multiple types of satisfying rewards
  • Punishment: Creating punishment that can be enjoyed (games that never punish you suck)
  • Challenge: Keeping the game just hard enough to be engaging
  • Story: Providing a narrative and sense of mystery that pulls the player forward and gives them a sense of purpose
  • Community: Giving players a chance to interact with other people
  • Freedom: Giving players as much agency as possible (or at least the illusions of agency) within the game’s structure

By tweaking these 7 different aspects game designers create incredibly engaging games. If we want to make a more engaging course, all we have to do is tweak those elements as well. Notice, we don’t have to add the elements, they are already a part of the course, they just need to be fixed. A key thing to note is that this is not a one-size-fits-all way of looking at things, each course (just like each game) would need to come up with a unique way of improving on these elements.

Paper is below and I will be writing much more about this as I go on to work on it over the summer and study it as a Master’s thesis.

Paper on using game design to influence course design

Poster on Using Game design to influence course design entered at the UBC Computer Science Undergraduate Poster Competition

Fixing Mac OS

I just got a shiny new 13 inch MacBook Pro to use at work. Now, I feel that debates around the question “which operating system is better” are silly and believe that all of them have pros and cons. To prove it, I run Ubuntu on  my desktop, Windows 7 on my laptop and now Mac OS on my work laptop.

That being said, in my opinion, one of the greatest weaknesses that Mac OS has is its window management. The operating system believes that it can do a better job than me in arranging and sizing the windows on my screen. This fails drastically once you have more than one screen, or have lots of windows to manage.

To fix this I found a great free tool called “better touch tools“. The app works great for its intended purpose of adding more control over trackpad gestures and keyboard shortcuts, but it also allows you to add the window-snapping function of Windows 7. This means that setting windows side by side or making them full screen can be done with a flick of the mouse, as opposed to painfully dragging the box in the bottom right corner.

For anybody who’s work entails looking at more than one application at a  time or who uses multiple screens, this app is a must!

Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat, giving the big boys a run for their money.

I have installed every new release of Ubuntu for the last 8 versions (my first was 7.04 Feisty Fawn). I would use each release for a few weeks, get frustrated with the amount of effort it took, then return to Windows. Every time I could see the potential, but Windows 7 was always just a better operating system on average. I think that has finally changed.

After getting frustrated with Windows 7 taking a ton of time to do anything I installed Ubuntu’s Maverick Meerkat and I haven’t looked back. I think the 6-month release cycle has really paid off in a huge way for Ubuntu. All the little improvements over the versions have come together into something that now competes.

So why is it so good?

Continue reading “Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat, giving the big boys a run for their money.”

Your Personal Learning Environment – Presentation to JumpStart 2010

I just finished presenting a workshop on Personal Learning Environments to around 300 international students for UBC’s JumpStart international orientation. I think it went really well, but for anybody reading this that went to the lecture, don’t hesitate to comment below on how I could improve.

My story arc was as follows:

In order to create and effective personal learning environment you need to recursively go through the following process: Continue reading “Your Personal Learning Environment – Presentation to JumpStart 2010”

Are we fighting a war?

I just watched the movie “Idiocracy” as recommended by Brian and Joe. In the words of d’Arcy Norman“damn. that movie was depressing, funny, and awesome”. It tells the story of a distopian future, where due to the fact that smart people have less children than stupid people, by the year 2500, smart people have died out. Everyone is incredibly stupid. Those left spend their time drinking “Brawndo, The thirst mutilator. It’s got electrolytes!” and watching people get kicked in the balls on television. It’s a future where everyone behaves exactly as Kraft, Walmart, etc want us to behave. It’s a brilliant cautionary tale and I highly recommend watching it.

Idiocracy Poster
Idiocracy poster (via Wikipedia)

Will it happen though?
Is there a possibility that humanity is doomed to get dumber? I think yes. There are many different reasons why this may or may not be so (all of which better suited for a non-wee-hours-of-the-morning post), but I think the largest of those is that in a world of stupid people, the corporations win. Corporations are psychotic entities that would do anything to get us to behave as they want and they have a lot of power (as described in another thought-provoking move, the Corporation). The power is evident everywhere. They are doing their damndest to use all media at their disposal to dumb-down children and make them into perfect buying machines, doing their bidding.

How do we stop it? We fight back in the schools. If education can be revolutionized (and there are many smart people working on it) then we can teach the young how to take back the power from the corporations and to make them do our bidding instead. Eating healthy,  exercising, learning and being compassionate are what smart people do and we need to ensure that despite the corporation’s efforts, everyone is given the tools and motivation to do so.

This is a war, it’s humanity VS. the corporations.We are fighting to see who controls who. If we get real about being flexible and innovative enough to fix education and make it a place where people learn to become smart enough to take back power from our creations.

Kiva – 11 months later.

I joined kiva.org and gave my first loan 11 months ago. 1 Month later (almost a year ago) I wrote a blog post titled “Kiva: The Cheapest way to help poor people“. It described how Kiva is a great way to get your feet wet with giving, due to the fact that you loan money as opposed to giving it. It also goes into some depth as to the academic arguments surrounding micro-lending.

So after 11 months how do I feel? Continue reading “Kiva – 11 months later.”

Themes – A personal journey

Twenty hand

My site has gone through a lot of them changes over it’s history. Even though one of the bloggers that I admire most (at least before he went off the deep end) disagrees with theme changes, I feel that creating and changing my themes has allowed me to flesh out my ideas around aesthetics as well as my sense of self and personal style. I started university believing that I had no artistic talent whatsoever and have slowly come to realize that I just never spent any time developing it.  I treat my theme as a personal journey, it showcases my knowledge, ability and feelings at a given point in time and allows me to show everyone in a visual way when those things change by updating my theme.

So although I’ve lost a few of the steps along the way, here is a subset of the themes I’ve hacked along the way…