Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Drop.io dropped dead!

MediaFire - Free File Hosting Made Simple
I've gushed about the Drop.io service for a while to my colleagues and in another blog.  I was actually getting ready to gush about it here, now that I've had some time to use it and be more specific about ways to use it for teaching and learning.

It was a great service for educators, allowing us to post large media files (podcasts, slide presentations, images, videos) in password protected "drops."  But as of mid-December 2010, drop.io is dead!

As I've lamented before, the downside of using third-party (meaning not you) software and websites to build resources for teaching and learning is that sometimes they change drastically or disappear completely with no warning.  Leaving one up the proverbial creek.

Apparently, the founder of Drop.io got a better offer from Facebook, which also bought the rights to the Drop.io technology.  Pulling the rug out from under the rest of us.  They couldn't have known the drop-dead date is two days before the end of my semester. But it is . . . and so what do I do now?

Unlike many other services, who recommend clients to another service, Drop.io declined to do that.  Perhaps they were obligated by contract (is Facebook planning to unveil their own version of Drop.io?).  They even disabled the comment feature on their blog, so stranded users cannot share with each other possible solutions. I cannot wait for the next incarnation, if that's what's planned, because my students need access to files now.

The solution I found, at least for now his Mediafire. This is a similar "drop" site.I've just started using it and because it is organized in a different way than I am used to, it is taking some time to become familiar with all of the possibilities. But I wanted to post this option now so that others who are stranded can find a place to land quickly.

Mediafire is a free service that allows you to upload files, even very large files, into folders that can be private or that can be shared publicly. The public folders may contain files that are password-protected. This is very useful to me because I have files that include images and other materials that I have permission to use in my course but do not have permission to distribute publicly. The password protection allows me to post the files for my students in a way that prevents others from accessing them.

I found that the uploading process in Mediafire is much simpler than it was in Drop.io. Organizing my files into groups is also easier. Because I have a very large collection of files to post, I've opted for the "pro" upgrade. There is a small charge for this upgrade. But it also comes with some very handy features, such as the ability to create a custom URL for each folder. Thus, I can use one URL for one course and a different URL for another course. That prevents students from getting mixed up and using the wrong files.

On the other hand, there were some nifty features in Drop.io that I have not yet been able to find in Mediafire.

So I'm really glad to have another place to drop files for my students. If you are looking for a Drop.io alternative, you may want to check out Mediafire.

If any of you have some experience using Mediafire, I'd love to hear from you. or if you have some other drop sites that you have been using an education, let us know about those.

If you want to see how it works, go to http://www.mediafire.com/TheElectronicProf and see what I've posted for you there.  To download a file, you must use the password JohnDewey  (FYI, passwords are attached to files--not folders--so you can have some files that are password-protected and some files that are not).

Want to take a quick tour of Mediafire? Try this video.

Monday, November 29, 2010

More on my WebCT to Moodle conversion

In my last post, I outlined an easy way to convert online tests and quizzes formatted for WebCT into files formatted for Moodle.

Well, it's a few weeks later and our crew has a done a great job of helping me convert my files using the method described.

However, there are few items they found during the conversion process that I thought I'd pass along . . . in case any of you find yourselves in the same situation.

When converting from WebCT to Moodle be aware of these translation issues:
  • In some of my randomized Question Sets (called Random Blocks in Moodle), I used fractional points for scoring.  That is, for "review items" from previous tests I typically give .5 points per correct response (rather than 1.0 points).  However, one cannot do this in Moodle.  All items must be scored in whole points. 
    • To solve this issue, Dave (our Moodle Master) suggests changing all point values to whole numbers.  For example, my .5-pt items all become 1.0-pt items.  Then, all the items that were previously 1.0 point each should be converted to 2 points . . . to keep the ratio of scores the same as the original test.  Then, you can either likewise adjust your course's total points to account for this shift or you can count the test for half of the number of points scored.
  • I have some items that are in the "Matching item" format that have only two possible matches.  For example, I have a list of six functions and ask students to select either "steroid hormone" or "nonsteroid hormone" for each of the six items.  However, in Moodle one must have a minimum of THREE matching items. 
    • Moodle For Dummies (For Dummies (Computer/Tech))
    • So Dave's suggestion is to simply add "Ignore this selection" as the third choice for such items. 
      • I think for some of them, I'll modify that a bit so that it's a more viable distractor based on the content. 
    • And when I get some extra time, I may change the items in question so that there really are three possible answers.
  • In WebCT, some "Multiple Response" items graded as partial credit for selecting each correct item sometimes assigned 33.3% to each of three correct answers.  That meant that WebCT really only have .99 points for a 1-point item.  But WebCT then rounded up so that it really didn't make much difference in the long run.  However, when converting to Moodle, each 33.3% designation became 33.333... instead.  So it's actually more precise that WebCT.  FYI.
  • Short answer items (such as "fill in the blank") were not always case sensitive in WebCT (unless you specified that in the scoring).  In Moodle, such items are always scored with case sensitivity. 
    • So if you want to accept either Eustachian tube or eustachian tube, you have to program in both answers as possible correct responses.
Do you have other WebCT to Moodle conversion advice to share?  If so, please comment!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Rebuilding online tests in a new platform

In my last post, I whined about having to migrate my online tests from our colleges old LMS system (Blackboard CE / WebCT 4) to our new platform (Moodle).  Using both Moodle's migration tools and those of our vendor (Moodle Rooms), I found that my online tests "broke" when migrated to the new system.

As I've mentioned here before, I provide huge randomized test banks in my courses to produce an almost endless variety of different versions of my online tests. So when my test files broke, it was a big problem. Tens of thousands of items might have to be re-entered.  Hundreds of image files would have to be reuploaded into some of those test items.

Luckily, I found that I had the solution already in hand!  Thanks to the advice of faculty in my department many years ago, I had always constructed my online tests in Respondus before uploading them to Blackboard CE / WebCT 4.

Respondus is a third-party software program that allows you to quickly upload text files of tests or quickly create new test files.  Because Respondus is easier to use than WebCT's native test editor, all my test files already existed in my archive as Respondus files. 

Respondus has a nice feature that allows you to select which platform you want to use for your test . . . WebCT, Blackboard, Angel . . . and Moodle.  So what many of our folks (mainly our hardworking LMS support team) are doing now is opening my WebCT tests in Respondus, toggling the platform to "Moodle" and letting Respondus convert my tests files. 

Because Moodle handles test items and settings a bit differently than WebCT, we still have to check everything after the conversion and make a few adjustments. But this is a heck of a lot better than completely rebuilding my test bank!

In my case, I build my tests and quizzes in Respondus first.  Before uploading them to the LMS.  But if you've never used Respondus before, that's no problem.  The program has a feature that allows you to download your tests from any standard LMS to create a Respondus file.  Then you convert that file to a different LMS format, check it and tweak it, then upload it to your new LMS.

I'd rather be at the circus than doing this.  But it sure beats completely rebuilding everything from scratch.

Click here for a follow up to this topic.

Friday, July 30, 2010

There's a price to pay

Adopting new electronic tools and the interactive strategies for teaching and learning that they enable has a hidden price. Not just the obvious price: the time and effort it takes to learn, implement, and assess any new teaching/learning tool.  But the hidden price that you incur with an ongoing implementation of that new tool.

What is this hidden price? Well, if you spend several years building . . . and assessing . . . and tweaking . . . and upgrading . . . and expanding . . . a set of tools in a particular format, or in a particular platform, or requiring particular equipment, then you are really on a big hook when powers beyond your control pull that format, platform, or equipment out from under your feet!

This has happened to me in overlapping waves over the last couple of years.

It started with my lionden.com website . . . I'd spent a decade building a website of more than 300 web pages using Microsoft's website creator FrontPage.  Well, a couple of years ago, Microsoft decided to pull it from their lineup.  So why not just keep using it?  Because they also pulled support for FrontPage and also pulled the availability of the server-side extensions needed to run a FrontPage website.  Although each page was mostly standard html, some of it was unique to FrontPage . . . and some of it was just old and/or crappy.  But my entire navigation structure collapsed without the FrontPage server-side plug-ins.

Several well-meaning and competent webmasters advised me that converting my page for use with Dreamweaver or other popular website creator (or plain vanilla html editor) would be relatively easy.  Turns out, they were wrong.  They'd never actually done it themselves.  They had only theorized about it.  The truth is, I've had to completely rebuild everything.  Two years into it  . . . and it's still not quite done.  I have a day job, after all.

Then my college decided that they were going to completely rebuild the college website, converting from a standard in-house web setup to a hosted, proprietary CMS (content management system).  Which means that I have to convert all the faculty web pages I've built.  Turns out that the hundreds of flash files needed to play the in-service presentations on my faculty web pages can't be uploaded to the new system . . . at least not in any way available to faculty.  Thank goodness, our webmaster found someone to convert webpages for the handful of us that have a large, complex set of resources on the college website.  And I moved the most complex stuff off the college website and into one of my own websites. But still . . .

While all that is being hashed out, our college then decided to move from Blackboard CE (the old WebCT 4) to Moodle as our LMS (learning managment system).  A test with the fancy migration tools shows that my courses pretty much completely fall apart.

After a decade of building several courses with complex sets of student resources, I now face converting them all quickly to a system that is very unlike the system they were originally built for.  I'm looking forward to having the help of our wonderful support team . . . but it's going to require a LOT of hours to get everything converted and running smoothly.  And there's that day job I still have.

Now don't get me wrong . . . clearly, I'm a big proponent of experimenting with new tools in education.  But as you build or collect such resources, keep in mind that some day you may have rebuild everything.  Either that, or give up that teaching/learning strategy that you have come to rely on to help you and your students achieve your goals.

In other words, when you implement a new strategy, I think it pays to think about . . . and plan for . . . the likelihood that you may have to rebuild sometime in the future.  A price to pay . . . maybe . . . someday.  So building in transportable modules where possible, keeping raw files of documents and images tucked away in your archives, and recording sources of your borrowed resources seems like a good strategy to reduce the time and effort that may be needed should the rug be pulled out from under you. And where possible, you may want to create and maintain your own website and other resources rather than relying on your college or university system.

Coming soon . . . a nice shortcut that I found to quickly rebuild online tests, quizzes, and exams, in a new platform.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Free webinar for teachers

I just learned about a FREE webinar for teachers that highlights some nice tools that you may not be aware of yet. It's called Free Tips, Tricks, and Technology Tools for Teachers and is hosted by Innovative Educators.  

I'm not sure how long this webinar will be FREE . . . usually Innovative Educators charge a substantial fee for their products.  So I'd take advantage of this quickly.  And it does give you an idea of whether the usual fee charged by this company is a good investment for you (or your school).

It's an "on demand" product, which means that you can access it when you want to . . . there's no specific date or time.

Some of the resources featured in the webinar include:

Open Office
Google Docs
Google Apps
Google forms
 Windows Movie Maker
My DropBox

Here's the URL to gain access to the webinar http://my-ap.us/a2BedP

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Share your world

One of the increasingly popular ways to share your PowerPoint slides and handouts with your students and colleagues is the web service SlideShare.

You can use SlideShare to upload your slides and share them publicly or privately.  Private sharing, where you give you students a secret URL, may be useful when using copyright images that you shouldn't be broadcasting widely or when sharing presentations that you don't necessarily want the whole world viewing.  Such private sharing is not a particularly strong wall against misuse of your material . . . but is pretty effective most of the time.

Presentations that you've uploaded to SlideShare can later be narrated, which is a great feature.  That means that you could use SlideShare to host virtual lectures or introductory previews.  You can even embed them in your online syllabus or course management system.

Your students and colleagues can either view your presentation on the SlideShare website in a viewer (or full screen), or they can download the file and play it in PowerPoint directly.  Colleagues could perhaps edit and add to your presentation, then upload their version for sharing.

One of the best features of  SlideShare is that it's FREE!

Here's a sample of a narrated presentation from SlideShare that you might want to share with your colleagues.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why I'm skipping the iPad

As a professor on the lookout for new tools to help me effectively teach my students, I couldn't wait to see the new iPad.

I currently use an iPhone to check for emails from my students and respond to them.  I can also check in on my course management system (CMS) but, wow, is that clunky on an iPhone.  And I can't really make changes easily, either.  And keeping my Facebook pages for my blogs for students and professors up to date from my iPhone isn't ideal either.

When I first heard about the iPad, I thought it may be the solution I need for some of these functions I need:
  • An easy way to navigate through and use my CMS while away from campus (and away from hotspots), as when I'm at a conference or taking a weekend hike.

  • Use full-color e-books.  I absolutely love my Kindle . . . but being an anatomy and physiology professor (and author), the monochrome Kindle just won't cut it for my discipline.

  • Print the occasional document using a printer connected to my wireless network.

  • Multitask among my email client, my CMS, and other programs.

  • Allow me to use slide presentations, video, and other media on a large enough screen to share with students.  That includes my Flash-based lecture Previews.
But I'm realizing that the iPad won't help me much, if at all, with these needs.

Did you know that . . .
  • You can't print a document from an iPad
    • Huh?  That's a pretty basic function for a hand-held computer, I think.
  • You can't connect to a monitor or projector
    • So I can't show media to more than a couple of students at time during a help session away from my "smart" classroom.
  • You can't use Flash. 
    • WHAT?!  You read that correctly . . . iPad cannot access Flash-based websites, cannot display certain functions at other websites (the Flash-based features), cannot use the new Flash-based e-book readers . . . . the list is virtually endless.
  • The display isn't designed for reading.
    • Because it doesn't use e-ink (like the Kindle) or even OLED (organic light emitting diode) in the screen,  you're not going to have the same "easy on the eyes" experience of a dedicated e-book reader. I like to sometimes read for an hour more . . . but with the iPad, I think that may be difficult.
  • There is no optical drive and no USB connectivity
    • So if you want to watch or rip video or music media, you'll need a "real" computer.
    • Want to view or edit and save the slides on your thumb drive?  Forget it.
  • You cannot multitask.
    • No switching between open programs like you can on a "real" computer.
    • Oh, my.
Starting at $500, I can't see how the iPad is a solution for me . . . or for a lot of folks.

 I'd love to love an iPad.  I simply cannot.

Anybody out there have a different opinion to offer? 

{NOTE:  You may want to check out 10 Things Apple Doesn't Want You to Know About the iPad }

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ustream for professors

Have you been to Ustream yet?

It might be the biggest thing for providing videos to your students since YouTube (or the education-oriented knock-off TeacherTube)--both of which I recently told you about.

Ustream  is a website where you can use your webcam to broadcast live from your computer.  For FREE!

Because Ustream allows unlimited internet broadcasts, you can broadcast to an unlimited number of students or colleagues.  Here are just a few ideas:
  • Broadcast your class to students who are ill, or are at a distant location.
  • Broadcast help sessions or tutorials to students.
  • Hold online orientations to your courses (especially useful for distance education courses).
  • Broadcast demonstrations that would be difficult in the classroom.
  • Visit remote locations to which you cannot bring the entire class (virtual field trips).
  • You know that already-answered question you still keep getting? Broadcast it and forget it!
  • Broadcast "preview" introductions to lectures or demos before class time, so students are better prepared.
  • Host live webinars with students or colleagues . . . anywhere in the world
  • On a field trip or research trip . . . or stuck in your lab?  Broadcast back to the classroom live from your location.  Bring your scholarly activity to the classroom, without having to take the whole class along.
  • At a conference?  An out-of-town funeral?  Hold class anyway by broadcasting from your location back to the classroom.
  • Hold a virtual meeting with colleagues on other campuses.
  • Your entire class can watch live or recorded broadcasts of current events such as political debates, rocket launches, disaster sites, sporting events, wildlife activity, etc.

Because you can record your live broadcasts on Ustream , or upload previously recorded video from YouTube or your computer, viewers can access your content asynchronously.  So you have to put your head into the lion's mouth only one time for that dramatic demonstration . . . and never again after that.

If  you teach at a school where cutting-edge teaching technology is frowned upon as too risky for the network, you'll be glad to hear that neither the sender nor the receiver of a Ustream broadcast has to have any special software installed.  Well, you do need a browser . . . but all you need is a browser. OK, a webcam helps if you are the one broadcasting.

However, you can opt to download a FREE desktop application called Ustream Producer, which helps you import movies, audio, screen captures, and more, into your broadcasts more easily.  They also have iPhone and Android apps you can use to broadcast from your smartphone.

Hmmm, wouldn't that be great when you have a chance to meet a hero in your discipline, such as a famous scientist or historian, to be able to broadcast a quick chat with them and share this with your students?

You can embed live or recorded broadcasts in your webpage or a PowerPoint slide, or simply link to them.

Check it out for yourself at ustream.tv

And here's an example of a live feed of a hummingbird nest.