An e-Learning Setup That’s Convenient for the Instructor, Too

Red_AppleThe popularity of online learning has soared in recent years, particularly for adult and continuing education students, where online classes now account for 20% of the courses these students take. Further, it is expected that over 80% of post-secondary students will take at least one online course during their college careers. Even courses that are not classified as online courses are often enhanced by e-learning resources, such as class recordings, surveys, and discussion boards. College students today expect to use the additional learning supports online resources can provide.

At Lewis, we use Blackboard as our course management system. Blackboard is the most popular course management system on the market, and it has improved steadily through the years thanks to the addition of a number of tools, some of which are written by third-party vendors, which integrate well with the platform. I’ve never been a huge fan of Blackboard, however. As a “power user”, someone who posts a lot of material online and records his lectures so that students can download them whenever and wherever they want, the rigid structure of Blackboard’s course shells, the excessive number of clicks the tool makes you do to post and retrieve resources, and the lack of online document editing has soured my experience of the tool. Indeed, one of the practices I think makes me most successful as a teacher – the recording and posting of class videos – has proved difficult for me to support with Blackboard, because it has been nearly impossible to align the videos with text and Powerpoint expressions of course content. That is, until now.

I’ve always wanted to be a lead guitarist in a band, for obvious reasons. One of the less obvious reasons is that guitar magazines love to do in-depth interviews about guitar heros’ rigs, and I’d relish the opportunity to brag about my 1973 Gibson SG running through a 1965 Fender Vibrolux amp. (Guess I just did. Sorry.) Well, I’m going to take this opportunity to describe my “teacher hero” rig – the tools I use to organize educational resources on Blackboard for my students. Sure, I don’t need a roadie, and there certainly aren’t any groupies, but I mesmerize and astonish my audience nevertheless.

  • Class recordings: I record every class meeting using Camtasia, a screen- and audio-capture tool. I record my voice using a Bluetooth mic so that I can walk around the class and still have my voice picked up. I use a Wacom Bamboo tablet to scribble notes during class, as if I were marking them on a whiteboard or smart board. I also type notes into Notepad++. For programming classes, I type the programming code into the development environment. Since Camtasia records whatever I put on my computer screen, it all becomes part of the recording. I produce it as an mp4 file so that students can later play it on any device, including Flash-hostile iPads and iPhones.
  • Class notes: I write a somewhat detailed outline of each class session in Word. I do not use Powerpoint, because nobody who has ever watched a Powerpoint presentation can figure out whether to read the bullet points or listen to the speaker. So, I write my notes in Word and use them as a script, but I do not display them during class. They serve as a record of each class’s activity. During class, I will sometimes paste source code we write and diagrams we draw into the Word doc to make sure they provide as complete a record of each session as possible.
  • Store class notes on Skydrive: The class notes are stored on Microsoft Skydrive. This is a more recent addition to my repertoire. Skydrive is both a cloud-based, web-accessible storage facility and an application that can be run on a variety of computing platforms, including Windows and a number of smart phones. On a PC, Skydrive is mapped to a particular folder on the hard drive. I save note sets to this folder. When I save them for the first time, the new document is uploaded to the Skydrive cloud service. When I edit them and save them again, the edits are uploaded to the cloud service, too. I share the Skydrive folder for a particular course, so that it is given a publicly available web address. This allows my students to link to it.
  • Link to the class recordings from the Skydrive note sets: After I produce the mp4 file for a class session, I upload it to our web server in the Computer Science department. It now have a web address. I add a hyperlink to the recording in the note set and save it on my laptop so that the change is made on Skydrive, as well.
  • In the Blackboard shell for the course, I add a link to the course’s Skydrive folder. This gives students easy access to the notes for the course. Since the notes include links to the recordings embedded in them, the students now have easy access both to the detailed class outline and the accompanying lecture.

This has worked out extremely well for me. Since starting to use Skydrive, all I have to do is edit the notes documents in Word, including adding links to the associated mp4 recordings, save them, and the students have instant access to them through the Blackboard course shell. I’ve even used them in class to include the C# or Java code we write in class. As soon as I copy the code to the notes documents and save them, the students can download the latest copies from Skydrive. I’ve never been able to share the code we write during class in real time, but now I can.

This is so much better than repeatedly uploading documents and links to Blackboard using their inconvenient click-happy interface. I’m able to keep the students constantly up-to-date with the course material, and they know exactly where to look for the course’s resources.

It might not be rock and roll, but I like it. And I think they do, too.

 

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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