Bill Weye

Category: Instructional Design (page 1 of 2)

Weekend reading – 3 Dec 2010

Weekend reading for your pleasure and edification …

Seth Godin says “Once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention. More clutter isn’t free. In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit.” Online instructors should definitely learn that lesson.

From EDUCAUSE, 7 Things You Should Know About Agile Development. It began in the world of software development, but the project management method Agile has expanded into other disciplines. I’m very interested in how I can integrate Agile methods into my work.

Dan Rodney’s list of Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts, keystrokes, tips & tricks, and recommended programs. A great one-stop resource for becoming a power OS X user.

From Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, “Underlying Factors of Sense of Community in Asynchronous Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Environments”:

Currently, many CSCL [Computer Supported Collaborative Learning] environments enable students to create personalized profiles and provide virtual spaces, such as online Coffee Shop for off-task discussions. This serves to get students more engaged in learning activities, to improve students’ connectedness, and to enhance sense of belonging in the learning environment. Yet, the findings of this present study suggest that to achieve such goals, CSCL developers should also add features and capabilities to the environment, which enable students to be aware of other’s activities and status.

Photo by Troy Holden and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

When professors go wild! Cell phone edition

There seems to be an Web meme of capturing video of professors going crazy in live classes. Because more and more classes are video taped and posted online, more of these videos are surfacing.

For your entertainment pleasure, and a holiday treat, I present a selection of my favorite professors going wild when cell phones ring in their classes. Hey, you can’t get this stuff in online education!

If you’re cell phone rings in class, think twice about answering it.

Photo by hillary h and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

5 Mac apps that can improve your work efficiency

Here are 5 applications that I use every day on my Mac, making my work life a bit easier. If you’re a Mac person, please leave a comment with your favorite work productivity apps and how you use them.

When I got my new work computer, I immediately loaded the 5 applications that I find most useful: LaunchBar, Adium, SoundSource, Growl, and iShowU HD.

LaunchBar5LaunchBar might be the most powerful productivity application for the Mac. Ever. Quicksilver is a similar application, though it hasn’t been updated in a while. Among other things, you can launch every application, document, web page, email … anything from your keyboard. It’s like Spotlight on steroids because within LaunchBar is a system of widgets and AppleScripts that add other features like searching the Web, calculating, copy and paste history, moving files. It’s kind of crazy because most people never use all of the available features. I’d like to do an experiment to see how many days I could go learning one new feature every day. I suspect that it would take more than a year before I exhausted all the features of LaunchBar. If you have any intention of become a Mac power user, get LaunchBar.

soundsourceSoundSource is a wonderful free app that does one thing well: helps you choose the source of your sound and where it’s supposed to be output. It loads on start-up, appearing in your menu bar, and from there you choose the various options where the sound is coming from and going. You could do this by opening the Sound Preference panel all the time, but I’m making sound adjustments on my computer at least 5-6 times a day, which would be a pain in the neck. Normally I have one set of ear buds through the headphone jack and a USB headset/mic at the same time. I listen to sound through the external speakers, the ear buds, or USB headset. SoundSource is the traffic control for all those inputs and outputs.

growlDo you know Growl? It’s a notification system that works in the background, letting you know when activity is taking place in various programs on your Mac. It’s real simple. When I get an email, chat activity, or am using my favorite FTP program, Transmit, Growl gives a graceful pop-up on the screen with information like the email subject line. Not a must have, Growl does make the work day marginally easier.

adiumOne thing that irritates me about instant messaging are the too numerous standards: IM, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google/Jabber, and many others. I have three different instant messaging accounts myself! Adium is an open source (free) program that handles all your different chatting accounts in one interface, seamlessly. If you have to use instant messaging for work, get Adium.

I believe one of the most under used tools in online education is the screencast. Depending on your discipline, screencasting can be a useful tool to describe and demonstrate procedures on a computer screen (read my blog post Common elements of effective screencasts). There are probably a half dozen different Mac applications that can help you create screencasts, but I find iShowU HD the best. Based on price and ease of use, iShowU HD is the best. Unlike some others, it’s Mac only; in general I find applications with both Mac and PC versions to be a lesser grade than those developed strictly for the Mac.

iShowU HD comes with presets for creating videos that can be posted to all the major video sharing sites, allows you to create watermarks on your videos, record your face using the built-in iSight camera at the same time as creating the screencast, among many other features. If you need a tool for creating screencasts, I recommend iShowU HD.

Okay, Mac people, what applications make your work day a little easier and more productive?

I haven’t forgotten the Windoz people; stay tuned for a future post running down the best work productivity apps for Windows.

Photo by mag3737 and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Future of the textbook

I saw an interesting presentation by the co-founders of, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, sponsored by UMassOnline on October 1 (more, detailed info). is a project to create a Creative Commons based, online art history text book (Harris and Zucker are art history professors). You can watch the video of their presentation below.

I have two takeaways from the presentation. First, about the technology I used to record the video, the new iPod Touch. I was able to record 40 plus minutes of high definition video (720p) with decent audio and video quality, which took almost no effort. It’s not professional broadcast quality, but given the circumstances — like the lights being turned down — the video came out well. Our instructors should think about using this or similar easy video technology to create content for their courses.

The second takeaway from the talk is also video related. The folks at are using video in some interesting ways, including using Second Life to take virtual tours and do commentary about the Sistine Chapel. Other videos feature Harris and Zucker standing in front of a piece of art and having a conversation about it (not in Second Life), like this conversation they had while in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Hey, instructors, you too can do this! Making quick field videos with commentary, no matter what you study, is entirely possible. I can picture biologists, economists, historians, and zoologists taking their $150 video cameras into the field and creating brief commentaries that can bring students into your world.

Anyhow, enjoy the presentation from the fine folks at

Photo by Old Shoe Woman and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

A technique to encourage critical thinking in online disucssions

In online education the tool most often relied upon to encourage interaction among students and instructors is the discussion forum. Mostly asynchronous discussions. It can be an effective tool if instructors at the same time can encourage active learning — that is, learning by doing.

If you’re interested in developing more critical thinking in your online course discussions, let me draw your attention to an interesting study done by some folks at Georgia State University and published by the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. “Using the Four-Questions Technique to Enhance Critical Thinking in Online Discussions” takes the “four question technique” from another study about encouraging critical thinking through active learning in face to face classes, and develops it for the online class environment.

The four question technique

To develop multiple types of critical thinking the researchers wrote questions that encouraged analyzing, reflecting, relating, and questioning. The original study used the following questions:

  1. “Identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology that you learned while completing this activity.” (analyzing)
  2. “Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology is important?” (reflecting)
  3. “Apply what you have learned from this activity to some aspect of your life.” (relating)
  4. “What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about?” (questioning).

Using a modified version of the Washington State University Critical and Integrative Thinking Scale (WSUCITS) as a discussion grading rubric, the researchers found that using the four question technique did enhance critical thinking.

Do you use any unique methods to encourage critical thinking in your online discussions?

If you’re a UMass Amherst online instructor for Continuing & Professional Education and would like help brainstorming ideas to increase critical thinking by your students in discussion forums, please write to our faculty support line (facline <at>

Photo by  Rob Inh00d and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

How Apple is changing the future of e-Learning

One of the frustrating aspects of supporting people in their e-Learning experience at a university — faculty and students — is that far too often support calls boil down to help with technical issues. They can be Java, browser (Firefox, Safari, and/or Internet Explorer), Flash, Microsoft Word, or PDF issues causing people fits. It’s a drag because we’d rather be helping faculty develop better courses, which means more effectively communicating with students, not tracking down browser incompatibilities with a certain version of Java and Blackboard.

That’s why Apple’s continuing battle against certain technologies that can gum-up the works on the Web is interesting to a guy like me. Because of Apple’s dominant market position in certain sectors — mobile computing, through its iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and laptops — it can turn the Web around to it’s way of thinking.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. In an interview the Starbucks Chief Information Officer, Stephen Gillett said that

iDevices from Apple are used more in its stores than any others. How important is that? Well, Gillett wanted to use Flash on the social network, but there wasn’t any way he could because of Steve Jobs’ refusal to support Flash. Even today Apple is refusing to include Flash in its laptops and desktops.

Apple is trying to transition away from using the Adobe Flash technology because in many instances it slows down the Web experience, and it’s not a very accessible technology for people with disabilities. There are alternatives that Apple does support on it’s iPhones and iPads.

And now the same situation might be happening with Apple’s support of Sun’s Java technology (read here and here for more details and commentary). Until now Apple has included an installation of Java in it’s operating system; Java was distributed and updated along with the Mac OS X operating system. That won’t be happening anymore, according to Steve Jobs, because Sun can spend the money to update Java for the Mac, not Apple.

Getting back to the topic at hand, what does this all mean for the future of e-Learning? There are two forces at hand that will define e-Learning technologies into the future: open, cross platform Web technologies that Apple and others are promoting; and the move towards mobile computing using smart phones and tablet computers. Those forces mean companies like Blackboard will have to eventually transition away from technology like Java that is proprietary and adopt open standards. That’s a good thing because, in time, it could probably lead to many fewer support calls from people pulling their hair out over a Java issue in Blackboard.

Common elements of effective screencasts

People research the darndest things. I found this useful article published in the online journal, The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, about common elements and instructional strategies of screencasts.

Based on the screencasts of the three journal authors and other professional screencasts, a framework with two categories was developed:  structural elements and instructional strategies.

Structural elements describe the format of a screencast in terms of “sectioning, screen recording, and general narrative elements”. The three common structural elements the authors identified  were

  • Bumpers – formulaic intros and “outros” to the videos
  • Screen movement – there are two options here: dynamic screencast movement (the video follows the mouse movement on the screen, like a movie camera) and static screencast movement (there is no point of view movement following the mouse, just a static frame). The default production choice is for static screencast movement; the authors hypothesize that dynamic movement is most often used in advanced screencast topics.
  • Narration – the authors have identified two types: explicit and implicit narration. Explicit narration coincides with the procedure that the learner can see on the video, while implicit narration is a more general description of the procedure that can be viewed on the video. Often both types of narration are used in the same screencast, the authors note.

The authors found five instructional strategies used in their screencast samples. While none of the screencasts used all of them, no other strategies were found.

  • Provide overview – “overview of a particular topic by introducing the topic, giving a rationale for studying the topic, and connecting the lesson topic to future lessons.”
  • Describe procedure – providing procedural, or even sub-procedural knowledge of routines and tasks.
  • Present concept – “an explanation of a specific concept related to the screencast topic,” a similar strategy was to “describe options available in completing a procedure.”
  • Focus attention – “The narration and/or cursor location direct learners’ attention to a particular component on the screen or to a certain part of an overall procedure.”
  • Elaborate content – “[elaborate] beyond the topic with regard to a particular procedure, concept, or other aspect of the screencast. This instructional strategy facilitates opportunities to enrich learners’ understanding and to encourage learners to consider other aspects of the process or concept associated with the screencast’s subject-matter.”

I think you could probably argue with this framework, but it’s a good starting point if you’re new to the world of screencasts. New screencasters can draw on the framework to structure their videos and use clear instructional strategies.

In a future blog post I’ll have a screencast that will demonstrate this framework.

Grabbing attention with the thematic and visual impact of words

Wordle is a tool that can help you visually demonstrate to your students what a passage of text is about, what the author was emphasizing in their writing. The above word cloud was created based on the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. The bigger the word, the more it’s prominance in the text you’ve asked to be analyzed. Of course, the assumption is that the more often a word is used, the more important it is to the meaning of the text. Do you think that’s a good representation of the Gettysburg Address?

A practical application for this tool in online teaching might be including these word clouds on the introduction or splash pages for your modules. If you were teaching an English course that was discussing Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” then you might include the following graphic that’s based on part 1 of the poem.

song of myself word cloud

How else can we use these word clouds in online education?

Update: Here are 10 uses for Wordle for learning.


Troubleshooting Java problems on a Mac

Mac users, just like Windows users, have issues with Java sometimes. Here’s a screencast that explains how you can begin the troubleshooting process before calling the friendly support person.

For users of Blackboard the most common problems seem to revolve around Java, so if you first clear your cache, delete the security certificate, restart your browser, and log back into Blackboard, that might solve your issue. If it doesn’t, then your efforts will give you a head start in the troubleshooting process.

Photo by cesarastudillo and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Give the Internet a break!

That’s right, please give the Internet a break. Don’t blame it for being slow sometimes, or maybe being broke when you most need it. If you truly understood how the Internet works, I think you’d be amazed that this complex tool actually works.

In today’s podcast I explain why using the Internet is not like turning on the faucet in your home, plus I explain one technical aspect of the Internet that will blow your mind: packets. After listening to the podcast, if you’re looking for a bit more information, here’s a short description of how packets work to deliver information over the Internet.

If you want to learn more about the history of the Internet, here are two books, both of which I’ve read, that should quench your thirst for understanding the Internet.

Have a great day, thanks for listening to the podcast, and take a deep breath the next time the Internet is giving you fits.


Copyright © 2019 Bill Weye

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