All posts by Dee Schmidgall

Dee Schmidgall

Brainstorming with Stormboard and Twiddla

Web-based whiteboards are great tools for real-time brainstorming and collaboration when you and your team members (or students) can’t meet face to face. The best one for you depends on the kind of work you need to do. Let’s take a look at two, the first of which has an offer for educators through mid-summer 2017.

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Dee Schmidgall

UX for Online Courses

Does your online course provide a positive user experience? To determine if it does, you might see how it aligns with information architect and user experience consultant Peter Morville’s User Experience Honeycomb diagram.

Figure 1. The User Experience HoneycombUseful. First, is your course useful? The matter of whether the subject and learning objectives are ultimately useful to the student is certainly important, but here I’m thinking of whether the course supports the stated learning objectives. Does it provide the content and tools a student needs to meet learning objectives, or must the student search for solutions or create workarounds to overcome shortcomings, limitations, errors, or omissions? For example, if your course requires students to record and post audio comments, does it provide tools for doing so, or at minimum direct students to the appropriate tools and tutorials? Further, are the elements or components of your course useful? Do the graphics, audio, or video support learning objectives? Do the readings and assessments? Continue reading

Dee Schmidgall

Quick and Easy Responsive Web Design

Not so long ago it was relatively easy to give your online course content a consistent look and feel. With some knowledge of HTML and CSS you could create a sophisticated page with carefully determined layout, colors, images, and dimensions. Sure, there were some browser issues, most notably with Internet Explorer, but by and large you could create tightly controlled web pages with the comfortable assurance that your viewers would access your content on a screen with predictable orientation and pixel dimensions.

Those days are long gone. With the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets comes the need to design web content that will display properly on a wide variety of screen sizes. That means your inner artist will need to give up some control and learn to embrace responsive web design. Continue reading

Dee Schmidgall

Effects of Web Fonts in Online Learning

Google Web Fonts makes it easy to customize the typeface you use in your online documents. You just search or browse through Google’s offering of fonts (there are hundreds!), then select and add them to a collection. You place some code provided by Google in the head of your web page HTML, and presto: you (and your readers) now have shared access to fonts that were heretofore unavailable. It’s an easy and effective way to control the typefaces displayed on your online content. What’s not easy is determining whether this is a good thing for online learning.

Why? Because research has shown that font selection has a demonstrable and statistically significant effect on learning and the perceived truthfulness of a text. Some of the findings are surprising.

One of the normally unquestioned principles of usability in web design is to facilitate ease of reading, and font selection is a key factor in the achievement of that end. Some fonts like Verdana and Georgia were designed for the web and are easier to read than others, making reading faster and less fatiguing. This facilitates the scanning for information that typifies much online activity.

There are also affective or branding considerations. A serif font like Times might be selected for an article on Renaissance literature because of its associations with academia and the humanities, while a sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica might be chosen for a scientific journal. Choices like these influence how a message is perceived and evaluated, and for skilled designers they are intentional decisions.

Where things get more complicated is in online learning. While it’s generally accepted that ease of reading is a highly desirable goal in most web based applications, it turns out that this is not necessarily so for online learning, where the goal is to comprehend and retain knowledge. Research in 2010 by Princeton University psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer and reported in The Economist demonstrated that learning retention was improved by making text harder to read. In other words, choosing fonts that slow down a reader should aid in their retention of difficult material.

There’s also research on the effect of typefaces on perceived truthfulness or authority of information. Errol Morris reported in a two-part New York Times series on the results of a study designed to test whether certain typefaces influence the credulity of information. He argues that the form of writing can’t be separated from its content, and that the selection of a typeface has a direct impact on the believability of information. His study demonstrates that this effect exists and is statistically significant.

The upshot is that while web font services like Google Web Fonts (and Adobe Edge Web Fonts) provide an easy way to manipulate the typefaces used on web pages, this ability comes with an increased responsibility of designers to carefully consider the context of their use. If your goal is to make it easier for your students to remember difficult material, you should consider making the information harder to read. And if you want them to believe what you write, don’t use Comic Sans.

Dee Schmidgall

Getting Ready For Your Close-Up: Video Tips for Faculty

Making a video that will meet your objectives is not an easy task, but there are some simple guidelines to increase your odds of success. I’ve used this space before to describe the challenges I’ve encountered creating online course videos that are actually engaging to view, so it’s fair to ask why I keep returning to this subject, and why I harp so much on faculty preparation.

Here’s why. In my experience lack of preparation on the part of the on-camera talent (faculty, subject-matter experts, etc.) is the greatest obstacle to a successful video production. It’s an easily preventable waste of everyone’s time and efforts.

And it can be a substantial waste. Unless you’re making a quick webcam video introduction that will run at the start of the course and be replaced the next term, producing video is a resource-intensive undertaking. There are meetings to set goals and gather requirements, scripts that must be written and revised, production personnel and studios to be scheduled, props and digital assets to be assembled, editing and compositing in post-production; all before you get something to review and ultimately publish. Unless you have unlimited resources (and who does?) it’s imperative that the end product meets its purpose, whether it’s to add some social presence or help realize a learning objective. And you can be sure that its purpose won’t be met if it’s unwatchable.

So here are some preparation tips for successful video:

  1. Determine your objective. Working with your instructional designer (if you are lucky enough to have one), ask yourself what’s the purpose of the video. Do you want to introduce yourself and the course to your students? Or is there a process or procedure you want to demonstrate? Why use a video rather than text, a podcast, or narrated PowerPoint?
  2. Write an appropriate script. Some people are naturals on-camera and can speak smoothly without a script. However, most faculty will need a script and a teleprompter unless they’re participating in an interview session. Here let’s reiterate that writing for media is a much different skill than writing for academia. Remember that you will be speaking what you write; your students won’t be reading it. You want to write more for the ear than for the eye. There are many books on this topic; Robert L. Hilliard’s Writing for Television and Radio is an often-cited text and available through the DePaul library.
  3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. The day of the shoot is not the time to give your script a first read-through. Reading aloud through your script will quickly make evident if you’ve included difficult phrases or cumbersome words that make a smooth delivery difficult or impossible. Rewrite the rough spots, and then practice with a friend, spouse, your handy instructional designer, or even alone in front of a mirror. But do it. Repeatedly.
  4. Dress professionally and simply. I recommend a solid color suit for men and women. If you’re a scientist or physician speaking on a clinical matter, then go ahead and wear a lab coat. If your style is more informal a solid shirt, blouse, or sweater is fine too. But stay away from patterns and flashy jewelry, and if you’re being filmed in front of a green screen do not wear anything with green in it. See these guidelines here.
  5. Wear makeup on camera. Both men and women can use a little help with shiny foreheads and dark circles under the eyes. You don’t want to look haggard or washed-out on-screen; you can find some makeup tips here.

Making a successful video isn’t exactly rocket science, but it does require some basic preparation. So follow these simple tips and you’ll increase the chances of getting results your students will watch and you’ll be proud of.

Dee Schmidgall

Follow Up: Creating Engaging Online Video

Last fall, I wrote about the challenges of creating engaging video for online courses. Disappointed with the end product I was getting by serving in a mostly advisory capacity, I declared that I would take a more hands-on approach. I was hopeful that by requiring early ideation sessions, script review, rehearsal, and on-site art direction I’d be able to get results that would meet faculty goals and that students would actually watch.

I’m still waiting for that happy day to arrive. I hadn’t anticipated that it would be so difficult to get stakeholders to deliver a draft of a script on deadline, let alone to find time for substantive review and iteration. Rehearsals? I haven’t been able to schedule one yet. As far as art direction, I’ve bumped up against the realities of working with media services that have limited abilities and capacities; without the resources to do extensive compositing and editing in post-production, there’s very little you can do with a static one-camera set up.

Still, the status quo is hard to defend. In the absence of sufficient preproduction planning and active involvement during the shoot, too often what’s created is a hard-to-watch presentation consisting of a speaker at a podium superimposed over hard-to-read PowerPoint slides. The effectiveness of this presentation approach in a live classroom is debatable, but it’s rarely successful online.

Even better-conceived productions suffer from lack of adequate planning and constraints. Rushed into production at the last minute, a recent shoot with two engaging professors discussing a topic dear to them failed because it was too long to sustain interest and relied too heavily on post-production that our campus media services were unable to deliver on deadline.

I’m still hopeful that a more hands-on approach will ultimately be successful. Building in lots more time for preproduction should help, and my department is taking steps to bring more production in-house for greater control of outcomes. I’m also hoping to find a way for our faculty to work with DePaul’s television studio and personnel; the ability to create multicamera interview productions would give us a powerful way to deliver engaging, high-quality online video.

Dee Schmidgall

Designing Across Nine Time Zones: Twiddla to the Rescue!

Sometimes you need a no-cost way to work collaboratively and synchronously at a distance. For instance, earlier this year I was a member of a graduate-student team designing an interactive app for the iPad. We had a member in Saudi Arabia, another on the eastern seaboard, and several members spread across the Chicago metro area. We obviously couldn’t meet in person to sketch out ideas and critique them. We needed a way to post design documents, mark them up, and discuss in real time. Fortunately for us, we discovered Twiddla, a collaborative workspace with a free version that proved indispensible.

Getting Started

Twiddla describes itself as a real-time collaboration tool. I liked that it was simple and easy to use; just navigate to and click Start a New Meeting:

Twiddla gives you a clean, easy-to-use interface. The toolbar has controls for a virtual whiteboard, tools for adding and annotating documents, images, and web pages, and a real-time collaborative text editor that Twiddla calls an EtherPad. There’s a basic text tool for annotating the display and simple drawing and shapes tools too. Twiddla also offers some fundamental tools to edit and arrange items and a basic administrative tool that allows you to add users and edit your profile.

Once you’re in your meeting room you can edit your profile, invite other users, and load your images, documents, Web pages, or media.

Add and Mark Up Documents

My team needed to be able to see, discuss, and mark up each other’s sketches in real time. Here’s an example of a PDF uploaded to Twiddla and marked up with the drawing tool:

This ability to view and mark up sketches was invaluable to my team, allowing us to review, critique, and iterate in real time, despite being separated by thousands of miles. Twiddla now has a real-time voice tool, but we opted to use Skype for synchronous voice and created a no-cost, real-time collaborative workspace with a combination of ease-of-use and powerful visual tools I haven’t found elsewhere.

While I consider Twiddla far easier to use, more powerful, and better for my purposes than wikis, Google Docs, or Web-conferencing tools like Wimba, it also has extended functionalities like the ability to insert math formulas or upload widgets and code that make it a great collaborative tool for math, science, multimedia, or programming:

Is It Right for You?

There are of course some limitations to the free version. You don’t have a named user account, so you can’t set up a workspace far in advance and send out invitations later. You can’t hold simultaneous meetings, and you’re on your own for tech support. You also can’t archive or save your work for future use, and you can’t have a password-protected private meeting, which might preclude using Twiddla with students in some situations. Paid versions eliminate those shortcomings and add features like unlimited storage, SSL security, custom URLs, and presenter/moderator controls for as little as $14 a month.

However, the free version works really well for me. So if you’re looking for a powerful, no-cost, easy-to-use collaborative workspace, Twiddla deserves your attention. Check it out at

Happy Holidays!

Dee Schmidgall

Are Instructors Ready for Show Time?

Attend any conference on distance learning and you’ll hear lots of enthusiasm for instructor videos in online courses. Whether they’re DIY webcam course introductions or sophisticated in-studio productions, the general belief is that more video equals a better course. I’ve long been an advocate for increasing the use of instructor video, but lately I’ve come to the conclusion that not every instructor is ready for show time.

Why? Mostly it’s because the qualities that make for a good video require skills and attributes that aren’t necessarily found in all, or even most, faculty. Engaging images and narrative aren’t usually what’s presented in a classroom PowerPoint. Brevity is a must, but many academics lecture even when coached not to. Ease and comfort on camera are essential, but I’ve seen too many recordings that feature white-knuckled instructors gripping a podium and staring blankly into the middle-distance.

This isn’t the fault of the instructor. Writing for media and performing for video are specialized skills not part of the typical Ph.D. program. And I’ve been guilty of handing faculty a couple of video production guideline documents, offering some generalized tips, and then being disappointed when the results are less than desired.

No more. I’ve decided that I need to be involved every step of the production process, from ideation to script review to preproduction rehearsal and on-site coaching and art direction. It will be a much longer and labor-intensive process, but I think it’s absolutely necessary to get results that everyone can be proud of.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that some faculty just aren’t able to appear on camera in a way that adds value to their course. While unfortunate, it’s a fact that a stiff, sweaty delivery by a visibly uncomfortable professor leaves a poor impression of his or her abilities as a teacher and, by extension, the program or school. For them there are other ways to add social presence. I’ve worked with faculty who are clearly unsuited for video but who produce really engaging audio podcasts. It would be irresponsible for me to insist on video when using audio gives a much better result.

So are instructors ready for show time? A few are, some others can be made ready, and some will never be. The challenge is to identify which media best suits an individual faculty member, diplomatically guide them to that media, and then follow through with lots of hands-on direction and oversight.

Dee Schmidgall

D2L Migration: A Look Back

Last September, I reported on the Blackboard to Desire2Learn migration at SNL Online, as we moved from our initial planning and design phases to full production and review modes. I promised then I’d keep you posted; I had no idea how all-consuming the migration would prove to be.  Changing requirements, mission creep, and faculty training kept us continually challenged; here’s a look back at each:

Changing Requirements

We developed a course template through an iterative process that included a couple of rounds of user testing with faculty and students. Though we did extensive requirements gathering before developing our prototypes, because of extremely tight time constraints we did so based on our test instantiation of D2L. Platform strengths and shortcomings became known as the actual D2L production environment was installed, and we found ourselves in a long cycle of review and redesign. These redesigns came while our course migration was well underway, which resulted in having to rebuild courses already converted in a meticulous, labor-intensive process. Much of this was likely unavoidable, given we were gathering requirements and developing templates while our IT department struggled to integrate an unfamiliar and untested platform. More time to research, design, test, and iterate on a stable installation in advance of the actual migration would have prevented a lot of headaches.

Mission Creep

We designed our migration procedure to include a course-author review process; authors would review their converted course to ensure accuracy and in doing so would become oriented to D2L.  However, what had been envisioned as essentially a proofreading exercise quickly morphed into rounds of actual course revisions, which exponentially increased the workload. The courses were better for it, but once again more time to plan and allow for contingencies like this would’ve been helpful.

Faculty Training

The paradox of D2L is that the very features that are so empowering for some faculty are confusing and intimidating for others.  FITS devoted enormous amounts of manpower to create extensive documentation and video tutorials for faculty university-wide, but because of the unique nature of the SNL Online template and program we had to have specialized materials and training for our faculty. Changing user and system requirements complicated this process, and my team is still developing training materials as new needs and problems are identified.

The Rollout

Though there were problems both avoidable and unanticipated, the initial rollout of D2L in January was remarkably trouble free. Our user testing gave us a template that leveraged D2L’s strengths and that students found easy to use. Faculty unfamiliarity with the platform and its tools—despite generous training and support resources—required far more attention than student difficulties.
Overall the migration was a tremendous success.

Some problems remain. Certain D2L tools still don’t work properly in our environment; intelligent agents don’t work at all. However, the folks at D2L are dedicated and responsive, and I’m hopeful that these issues will be resolved.

We plan to do a follow-up study to determine how our design can be improved and another to test whether students do better academically with one design versus another. There’s some debate in my department on whether usability and pedagogy are sometimes incompatible; I’d love to see the results of a study addressing that concern.

In a future post I’ll look at lessons learned and what I might do differently given similar circumstances.

Dee Schmidgall

Notes from the Field: Migration to Desire2Learn

Back in June, in “Resistance Is Futile: Embracing an LMS Migration,” I wrote about the challenges of SNL Online’s migration of about eighty fully online courses to Desire2Learn. I’d like to revisit some of the key discoveries and thoughts.

Time Is Not on Your Side

How much time do you think you’ll need to implement the learning management system, get all the stakeholders on board and trained, and successfully migrate your courses? Double that. Then double it again. You’ll thank me later.

It Won’t Happen That Way

As mentioned before, the migration tool that was supposed to make transferring courses from Blackboard to Desire2Learn easy didn’t work as advertised, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s sat through any vendor demo and then worked with an actual instantiation of the product. What was billed as a relatively seamless and problem-free process has been anything but, with a difficult and ongoing integration process with PeopleSoft making our production timelines irrelevant. Key tools, roles, and functionalities we’d relied on having either aren’t yet available or never will be, putting our design specs constantly in flux and making our production workflow reactive and inefficient. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but even our conservative estimates of production time and costs have proven overly optimistic in light of the D2L/PeopleSoft integration difficulties.

Did I Mention You’ll Need More Time?

We have a lot of talented people working really hard to make sure everything works as it should and ensure that this migration is a success for students and faculty. And they’re discovering on roughly a weekly basis that things we thought would work don’t. They need more time to test everything, and so will you.

An Ounce of Prevention

Our course design specs are the result of an iterative process that included a couple of rounds of user tests with students and faculty. As a result I’m able to rely upon real data when I work with faculty to explain our new design and protocols. I’m pleased to say that most seem to understand and appreciate what we’ve done and why. Some don’t though, and a disproportionate amount of time and energy is expended trying to sell them something that has already been made departmental policy. You might avoid this uncomfortable situation by bringing stakeholders to the table at the beginning of the migration planning. Of course, that will likely delay things, which will require yet more time.

Pain Is Growth

It’s really easy to get caught up in the stress of things and lose sight of the goal and its rewards. Disruptive and maddeningly frustrating as much of this process has been, we should ultimately have a much better learning environment for students and faculty. I’m learning I can juggle more cats than I’d imagined, and I marvel at the talent of my co-workers and the grace they show under pressure. Because of their dedication we’ll have a shiny new LMS ready to roll out in January. I’ll keep you posted.