Goodbye Vancouver, Hello New York

I’ve been in Vancouver for just over 5 years now. I came to this city and to the University of British Columbia as a result of the promise of beautiful surroundings and an interdisciplinary learning environment. On both counts, this city and UBC have more than exceeded my expectations.

The formal instruction that I received at UBC helped to provide me with many of the technical skills and the conceptual knowledge that I will need to be successful in the future. My work for UBC, with the Office of Student Development, Department of Computer Science, Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology and the Library has taught me the value of continuous learning and has  allowed me to develop my passion for education.

Now however, in the spirit of continuous learning I will be moving to New York City to work with Red Rover, helping them to build out their engagement platform. I will be learning how to write code at the highest standards by working alongside some of the top developers in New York City. I will also be learning about what it takes to have a company be successful.

Most importantly though, if we as a company get things right, I will have the opportunity to create software that have an actual impact of the learning and engagement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Goodbye Vancouver, I’m off to continue my learning. Hello New York, I’m coming soon, get ready.

 

LEARN on Vimeo on Vimeo

via LEARN on Vimeo.

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)

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)

School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.

The idea here is that games and school have more in common than does school and life. So perhaps, instead of finding ways of engaging students by turning to real life, we should be turning to game design.

How is school like a game?

Both School and Video games are highly repetitive environments where you overcome deliberate obstacles in order to reach a goal. In both cases, you pay money in order to perform work. I’m going to use one of my favorite games of all time, Diablo 2 as an example in some direct comparisons.

Continue reading “School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.”

Blackboard (and other closed LMS systems) make university a rip-off

Here is an anecdote (it happened to me today) outlining just one of the many things that is wrong with closed class websites and LMS in general:

I am currently working at a software company as an intern, writing a program. Now of course, as anybody who has taken Software Engineering knows (don’t worry readers who are not in Computer Science, I promise I will not lose you), when you make software you have to provide different types of documentation about it. Things like, why you made it, how it works, how to use it, who is going to use it… all these things and many more have to be written down formally and saved somewhere in order for your software to live a long and happy life.

Now, Software engineering (CPSC 310) is a class that in part teaches you how to write all of this essential documentation. I took this course with Meghan Allen, one of my favorite professors simply for the fact that she teaches like a human being and not an automaton. This is post is no reflection on her, just on the system that she is pushed into using by those above her . Anyway, in the course she would explain why this documentation was needed and how to do it. She would then provide us with careful examples of what it should look like. We were asked to use her examples as reference when creating our own documentation for our class project.

So far so good, pretty normal learning experience. But, we skip ahead to right now. My little program that I am writing for this big software company needs documentation. I remember why, but am very fuzzy on how. What to do? Of course, I can just go back to the example from class an… but wait. The examples were posted in Blackboard. I can’t see them anymore. They were a great resource… utterly useless as I have no way of applying it to a real life situation.

Ok, Well, not utterly useless. I still have the assignment that I handed in (thanks Google Docs for keeping it safe for me). I could still google the type of documentation and find other examples online, which works, although it takes time (less time of course than writing this post). The thing is, I know that the document is a fantastic resource, why should I have to go and search for others? Shouldn’t the university-provided example be better than most things I can find online anyway? Isn’t that the point of somone spending time writing it up in the first place? Money was used to create that example (mine and the government’s) so why should it be a one-time deal used only to help me complete an assignment? Can anybody come up with a sane reason why it should not be available to me always? I feel ripped off, because I had a resource and it was snatched away from me. If it had been given to me in good old-fashioned paper handouts, I would still have it.

This is just one example amongst a sea of them that I am sure most students experience often. I guess most don’t even realize that they are getting a raw deal for the time effort and money they put into the classroom. In three years of university I have taken well over 10 courses with Blackboard components. What do I have to show for it? See for yourself. Below is my list of blackboard courses. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside doesn’t it?

My blackboard welcome screen
My blackboard welcome screen

Personal Learning Environments

From Sonson on Flickr
From sonson on Flickr... click on image to go to source

At CELC 2009 I was part of a panel of students that tried to answer the question: Personal Learning Environments. What do students think? The other students on the panel were Angeli and Zack. Cindy Underhill was the mastermind that brought us all together and did a superb job of directing things.

So what did us, the students have to say about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)? I don’t know how much I can speak for Zack and Angeli (although we did agree on the majority of things), but here are my (heavily supplemented) answers to the core questions that Cindy asked:

1) What do we know about how students define personal learning environments?

For this question I avoided the (arguably defunct) definition of PLEs as an environment that educational technologists create for students to learn in (nobody even brought it up in the session). Instead, I defined it as “the environment in which I learn” (I think a lot of people are starting to agree with this definition as well). This includes a bunch of distributed technologies (a topic that I regularly blog about), but it also includes other things, like my classmates, my roommates and very big pieces of paper. This is important, so everybody in ed-tech listen up: you cannot create an entire PERSONAL learning environment for students! It is impossible. Every student has their own way of learning, every student evolves their environment continuously (look at how my tools have changed) and any one tool will be obsolete as quickly as any other piece of technology. Don’t despair though… there is still plenty of work for you to do. What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn. The process should be as follows:

  1. Find out where the gaps are in the student’s learning
  2. Fill the gap with an easy to use tool.
  3. Let them know it exists and show them how to use it (the part, in my opinion, that professors and educational technologists are worst at).

I didn’t get a chance in the session to really flesh that out… but there you have it. Give me the tools and let me use them to build my own environment.

2) How do PLEs contribute to the development of learning competencies?

With my definition above, this question doesn’t make too much sense. The reality is, that a PLE only really contributes to the development of a student’s “learning competencies” when they know what the hell that means. Or when they care. Students don’t often take the time to think about how their current study techniques are actually helping them to learn. They just study and pray that they pass the exams… which brings me to the next question…

3) Are PLEs effective without educational reform?

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
Image via Wikipedia

The answer is… only a tiny bit. My PLE is helping me to get good grades… not to learn. In fact, because of how education works, most students don’t have PLEs… they have “PGGEs” (Personal Grade Getting Environments)! At the end of the day, that is what most students really care about. Why shouldn’t they? As Cindy said in her follow-up post “We’ve structured the education system this way, it’s not their fault”. I am often way too busy memorizing things to actually learn them.  Learning takes time and effort… it also takes practice and conversation, it is much more efficient to get good grades by memorizing the textbook. This is not only a curriculum problem, it also has to do with the whole way degrees are structured. A Small anecdote for a recent event in my life:

After speaking to someone in Science advising I realized that I will not graduate from University if I do not take the second introductory (1st year) Physics course. I took the honours version of the first course and scored 87%.  I would dearly love to take a 4th year Psychology course on human behaviour instead… but if I do take it, I won’t graduate. The irony is that for me, the Physics course will be a breeze, I will ace it easily.  I find it so easy that it doesn’t interest me at all. If I took the Psychology course I would enjoy it a lot more. It would also be a lot more difficult and I would actually learn something new. It would contribute far more to my plans for the future than the Physics course.

Seems wrong doesn’t it? That same story is being told by countless times hundreds of thousands of students all around the world.  Then professors complain that the students are not interested in the stuff they teach. If you give students the freedom to choose what they will learn and emphasize through proper assessment that they are there to learn and not just there to get good grades, then students will be interested. I would bet my life on it.

Conclusion to that long-winded rant: Without educational reform students don’t care about learning, therefore their “learning environment” is severely neglected, making it ineffective.

4) What’s your role in supporting the development of personal learning environments?

This was kind of a double-edged question… one for us to throw back at the audience. My comment that I threw back out to the audience was this:

You cannot expect students to think about and improve on their learning if you are not modeling the behavior and seeing what works and what does not.

They may all have finished formal education, but in this information age we all have to continually learn and the better we are at it, the more successful we will be. My challenge then, to anyone who reads this post is:

Think about your own personal learning environment. Really dig deep and figure out what contributes most to how you learn. What distracts from that learning? Now, patch, build and experiment with your own environment to try and improve it. You will find yourself much better off for doing it.

If you are involved in education at any level and you cannot do what I have asked above… then you are really incapable of helping students do it as well.

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What education will look like in 10 years

“What education will look like in 10 years” is the title of the talk that I gave at the UBC Terry Talks conference a few months ago. Terry Talks is a conference modeled after the famous TED talks and it was a raging success. In my talk I touched on the different ways in which I believe education is going to change. I spoke about how it is going to become more collaborative, more “real” and more open. I gave examples of places where all of these changes are starting to manifest themselves and drew some predictions of where things are going to go.

They don’t show my last slide, but in it is a big shout out to a few people like Brian Lamb, Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Groom, Scott Leslie, Gardner Campbell, Alan Levine and D’Arcy Norman, all of who’s presentations, tweets, blog posts, comments and plain old conversations have helped to shape so many of my ideas and beliefs. I think that this stuff really matters and it was your collective influences that helped me to see that.

Here is my talk embedded below:
http://blip.tv/play/AerXPpPRSA
To see more of the talks you can visit the Terry Talks Website.

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Top learning tip… make friends!

I really think that  having friends in your class is one of my best indicators of success. Last term I had some classes where I had friends, I had classes where for many reasons I was unable to get to know anyone and then I had classes where I found friends around halfway through the term. These divisions were almost exactly reflected in my grades. Having people to discuss the content with, having people to study with, even just having the joy of seeing a friend be that extra motivation to go to a lecture made a huge difference for meHCI team.

This term things are much better. I know people in every one of my classes and it has truly made a huge difference to the way I feel about school. I want to be in every class, not just because of what I will be learning, but also because of the great social interactions that I will be having. I am so excited for an academic term filled with social-academic connections that will do wonders for my grades as well as for my overall happiness!

My team from CPSC 344
My team from CPSC 344

UBC WordPress development out in the open

EDUPUNKING_WP_w_groom
Creative Commons License photo credit: bionicteaching

At OLT we have decided to make our steps to develop the WordPress Multi-user platform into a university content publishing platform more prominent, so as to encourage sharing and collaboration. Before this we were all writing about our development on different blogs dispursed around the internet, but now we will all be putting our thoughts, ideas and code in one place. OLT WordPress Development  now lives on the UBC Blogs site at blogs.ubc.ca/development. It is sparse at the moment, but once all of the developers are contributing their work it should fill out quite quickly.

Now if only WordPress.com would get back to us on allowing us to put our plugins in the WordPress repository so they will all be on the main WordPress plugins page…

My learning tools for 2008/2009

So I’ve now had a week of classes. It feels great to be learning again after 8 months of solid work. Since I last wrote a similar post to this I have a gained a much better perspective on all the tools out there and know what works for me and what doesn’t. So, here goes my big bad list of learning tools for university:

Microsoft Office OneNote:

I cannot find any note-taking software that comes even close to OneNote’s ability to keep notes for school. The three levels of navigation and ease of printing PDFs straight to OneNote (seeing as almost all professors insist on delivering their notes in PDF and note HTML) puts OneNote ahead of everything else. I would desperately like to use EverNote (because I can use it from more places than my personal computers with OneNote installed), but it doesn’t let me scribble all over course PDFs like OneNote does.

Mind Mapping:

 
My big mind map
Last year I tried out FreeMind as a means of organizing notes after they were taken. It was great software and worked pretty well, but I just didn’t enjoy using it. I think that the limits of current screen sizes is what makes virtual mind maps so difficult. I just felt like I could never see the full picture and the detail at the same time (which, I believe is something mind maps should let you do). So instead I went lo-tech and have taped a giant white piece of paper to my wall that I will use to map and connect all of my courses on. It is a new experiment, let’s see if it works! I might also resort to using FreeMind again especially for the guest lecturers that are going to be coming in to my Software Engineering Course as there won’t be any predefined lecture notes that I can annotate in OneNote.

To-do lists:

I tried Remember the Milk a few months ago and for some reason it just didn’t stick. I revisited it about three weeks ago and now find it invaluable. The big change I think is that you can embed your to-do lists everywhere! I have my list in my gMail, my iGoogle, my Google Calendar my iPhone and on my desktop. I can send tasks to it using Jott. I find that if my to-do lists are not in my face I forget to look at them. With Remember the Milk I can have a constant reminder.

Remember the milk lets you categorize items, add recurring items (a great one is “pay bills”) and lets you know when things are overdue. Remembering to hand in an assignment, or study for a midterm will be a whole lot easier with Remember the Milk.

Flashcards:

Most courses require some degree of memorization. Quizlet is so much better than any other online flashcard app that I have tried. It gained me plenty of marks last year and everyone that I know who uses Quizlet swears by it. It is easy and fun to use. It is collaborative. It has tests. It will soon have an iPhone app. Enough said.

Time Management:

Google Calendar is possibly the greatest tool ever. My life would be incomplete without it. I actually have over 15 calendars in there that I use to organize my life and keep track of the people around me.

Collaborative Projects:

I’m already using Google Apps for my work on the Student Leadership Conference, so I will probably use that (if my team agrees that is) in my Software Engineering and Human-Computer Interfacing projects. I’m still looking for a good collaborative way to do UML diagrams, seeing as how expensive Gliffy has become.

Pen and Paper:

For my Math courses I’m going the old fashioned notebook route. I really don’t see any other way (seeing as I don’t have a tablet PC). Hopefully the big mind map will compliment it nicely though and maybe help to make some connections between the three Math courses that I am taking.

I will monitor the effectiveness of all of these tools and update depending on what works and what doesn’t (or if I find something around the internet that blows one of these out of the water).

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