All posts by Dee Schmidgall

Dee Schmidgall

One Instructional Technology Consultant’s Holiday Wish

Boy Writing LeetterSince it’s the holiday season, and I’m fresh out of deep, pedagogically significant ideas to post, I’m offering this letter-to-Santa missive as my final contribution of the year.

Dear Santa,

I know it’s a busy time of year for you, what with bringing toys and goodies to all the faculty and instructional designers that beavered all year to make online and hybrid learning effective, efficient, and enjoyable, but I have a few things to ask of you.

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Dee Schmidgall

Make Your Online Course More Accessible

Go to any online learning conference and you’re sure to hear concern about universities being sued for web accessibility issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Making your course site accessible can feel overwhelming, but let’s take a look at a few ways you can make some progress.

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Dee Schmidgall

Is Video Right For Your Course?

When I’m contacted by faculty who want help creating video for their courses, one of the first things I ask is why they want to make a video. Most of the time it’s to add some instructor presence in an online or hybrid course, but often it’s to replicate a lecture they’ve given in the face-to-face version of the course.

I’m always a bit apprehensive as I tease out the reasons for the request. I don’t want to trespass on the instructor’s prerogative to teach the course as s/he wishes, but I do know that many of the videos I see don’t serve their intended purpose—assuming the purpose is to promote learning or add instructor presence. 

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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!