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 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.