All posts by Alex Joppie

Alex Joppie

About Alex Joppie

Alex has been with FITS since 2008, when he started out as a student worker while earning an MA in professional and technical writing from DePaul. Now he is an instructional designer for the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and the Theatre School. Alex earned his BA in English from Concord University. Alex is a strong advocate for usability in educational technology and a co-lead of the Mobile Learning Initiative at DePaul. Alex follows tech news feverishly, loves early-morning runs by the lake, and is always up for a board game night.

Alex Joppie

The Year of Virtual Reality

If you haven’t ever had a virtual reality experience before, you probably will in the next twelve months.

Virtual reality is coming online in a big way. VR headsets for high-end gaming PCs started shipping this past spring. This fall, Sony is launching a VR headset for its PlayStation 4 game console. Beyond gaming, Google has been experimenting with VR for two years, using phones and a cardboard holder. The low-tech, low-cost solution was designed to get VR into the hands of as many people as possible, and Google has already managed to get many developers on board with cardboard, creating games, simulations, and more. Google has created K12-focused Expeditions, where users can get the full 3D and 360-degree experience of being somewhere very few could ever go–like the Great Wall of China, the Great Barrier Reef, and even the surface of Mars. YouTube is also filling up with 360-degree 3D videos that are meant to be consumed with virtual reality devices. But VR isn’t always just consumptive–apps like Tilt Brush allow users to create 3D paintings in midair. And Google is getting ready to launch a more sophisticated VR platform with its next Android release in a few months, to build on and enhance their Cardboard platform. 2016 is the year of virtual reality.

As an instructional technologist, my natural tendency is to get excited about new technology and its potential in higher education. My instinct is to imagine all the possibilities that the next big thing affords for our classes and to push for the rapid adoption of the latest and greatest tech. But in the case of virtual reality, I’m a little skeptical that it’s going to be a true transformative technology for a couple reasons.

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Alex Joppie

Browser Tabs and Keyboard Shortcuts: My Secret Productivity Weapon for Batching Repetitive Tasks

Sometimes your learning management system just doesn’t provide the large-scale bulk editing or bulk creating options you need it to. So, when you need to make big changes to a course, it can seem like you’re going to be clicking away all day.

A few days ago, I had an instructor who wanted to convert all fifteen of his discussion assignments from whole-class discussions to group-based discussions, and the student worker I would normally delegate this task to was out of the office. I was faced with what would normally be a half day of tedium, creating the group-based discussions, copying the prompts from fifteen discussion assignments into seven group-restricted discussions per assignment, and re-linking the group forums in the modules.

Fortunately, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I got my start in instructional design as a student worker myself, and I found a massive time-saving technique that not only dramatically cuts down the time these things take, but also reduces the opportunity for errors. This project took me about 25 minutes.

I’m going to share the secret to my success–a way of batching these repetitive tasks together.

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Alex Joppie

A Review of the New and Improved Voicethread

Voicethread is a tool that FITS has recommended to faculty for several years. For the past two years we’ve had a site license, giving all of our faculty and students access to the pro features, but we’ve been shy of promoting it too widely. While it’s a great tool, there were some oddities to the workflow of using it, which meant that we were more comfortable helping faculty use it while working closely with a FITS consultant rather than putting some resources online and hoping that instructors would figure it out on their own. It was on “the secret menu,” one might say.

Recently, Voicethread has provided some updates that might make it a little better for a wider audience, but it still has its quirks. For those instructors who may have been introduced to Voicethread in the past and decided it wasn’t right for you, I offer this review of the new version of Voicethread.

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Alex Joppie

Building an Airplane While You’re Flying It: Why You Shouldn’t Build Your Online Class on the Fly

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

In Faculty Instructional Technology Services, we’ve established a recommended timeline of two academic quarters to develop an online or hybrid course, assuming the instructor has a normal course load over that time frame. That’s twenty weeks, give or take. In this time frame, we can help instructors in planning, development, and quality assurance in creating a professional online or hybrid course.

With less time, we can do less.

This quarter, most of our consultants are working on at least a couple build-as-you-go courses, where instructors are still developing course materials while the course is running. I understand why this happens, particularly in the Spring quarter. Instructors are busy people, and it’s hard to find the time to prep for the upcoming quarter, particularly when there are so few breaks in the academic calendar. It also might be a shock to be asked to spend so much time preparing a course they’ve been teaching face-to-face for years and are not accustomed to needing to do a lot of preparation for each offering.

I’ve never seen a course simply not run because the online materials weren’t ready. The course always gets done in the end, because it has to. But that’s not to say that building a course while it’s running isn’t without consequences. Continue reading

Alex Joppie

What to expect when you’re expecting to teach online

It isn’t uncommon for a lot of time to pass between when you’re trained to teach online and when your online class is actually ready to run–after all, you have to develop the course, a process for which we at DePaul budget two academic quarters. That’s a lot of time thinking about building an online class that you’re not spending thinking about best practices for actually delivering the online class. Here are some tips and reminders for keeping your course running smoothly when you’re ready to deliver it.

Before the term starts—touching base with your students

You should send an email to your students two to three weeks before the start of the quarter. Here are some points to cover:

  • Make sure students know they’re enrolled in an online class – This sounds silly, but some students miss that little piece of information in the enrollment system.
  • Reenforce that online classes take work – Some students take online classes because they think it will be easy or in addition to a full schedule of face-to-face courses. Let them know that online classes take time and self-discipline.
  • Inform them of technology requirements, textbooks, and other required materials – Give students ample time to make sure they meet the course technical requirements and purchase textbooks, etc. This will help them hit the ground running in the first week.
  • Let them know when the course site will be available – Your students will worry that they’re missing something if they don’t see the course site in the learning management system. Let them know when it will be available.

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Alex Joppie

The Art of the Discussion Prompt

Discussions are sometimes called the engine of an online course. Discussions provide an opportunity for students to engage with the course content, with each other, and with you—the professor—simultaneously, which means they have a lot of potential for meaningful learning and high retention.

There is no guarantee that students will really apply themselves by just creating a discussion. What you get out of a discussion assignment depends on what you put into it. Here are some tips for writing your discussion prompt, selecting your settings, and participating in the discussion.

Identify why this assignment is a discussion

Step one is to identify your goals for this assignment and your reasons for making it a discussion assignment. Do you want students to see the diverse perspectives of their classmates on the content? Do you want students to debate contrasting viewpoints? Do you want students to give feedback to each other as they apply the course content? How exactly do you want them to engage with each other? Continue reading

Alex Joppie

Progress Tracking in Desire2Learn: The Newer, Better Checklists

Two months ago, DePaul upgraded from D2L 9.4 to version 10.3, a leap of four versions. For our department, that means we’ve had 60 days of leading trainings on the big changes in the system; discovering, reproducing, and reporting bugs; fielding angry complaints about new annoyances that have popped up in this new version; and constantly manning the phones to answer instructor questions. In short, it’s been exhausting.

But I don’t want to talk about bugs or new annoyances. I don’t want to talk about how much time I’ve spent on the phone to get through this transition. I want to talk about something positive. So to take my mind off of all that, I’m going to write about the good part of upgrades–great new features, my favorite being student progress tracking.

What is progress tracking?

Progress tracking turns your Content area into a checklist for students. Every item in your Content can be something that students can check off as they complete it, or something that’s automatically checked when the student does something in D2L, like submit to a dropbox folder or complete a quiz attempt. This is what it looks like for a student.

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Alex Joppie

“Not Supported”

A few days ago, I took a stroll between the DePaul Library and the Student Center, and this is what I saw in students’ hands in a single walk through campus:

  • Lots of Android phones
  • Lots of iPhones
  • Several Macbooks
  • A number of Windows laptops
  • A couple iPads
  • A Chromebook
  • An Android tablet (something in the Asus Transformer family)
  • A Microsoft Surface tablet (I couldn’t tell if it was the Pro version or not)
  • A Kindle Fire

If there were any Linux devices, I must have missed them.

I like seeing the diversity of connected devices we’re using today. The competition among tech companies is good for the pace of innovation, and I like innovation. But it presents a challenge to institutions who allow students to bring their own devices and the students who expect their chosen device to do everything for them. Continue reading

Alex Joppie

Chicago Is Our Classroom

One of the rotating banner graphics on DePaul University’s homepage boldly proclaims, “Chicago is our classroom,” enticing prospective students into a world of experiential learning in a bustling city with rich cultural, scientific, and career resources.

DePaul takes its identity as an urban university very seriously, but after the excellent Chicago Quarter program freshman year, how many DePaul instructors utilize the amazing resources of the city to teach their classes? How many instructors have even thought about what the city offers to their discipline?

Why am I bringing this up in a blog about educational technology? Because the biggest trend in consumer technology in the past five years can enable instructors to create unprecedented student field experiences and connect those experience back to the classroom. The trend I’m talking about, of course, is the proliferation of smartphones and other mobile devices.

This video shows how one instructor utilized students’ own mobile devices last year to help them engage with the city.

This is just one example of what mobile learning can do. And though the specific activities in this video are unique to the educational outcomes for this course, there are numerous possibilities for using mobile devices to help students engage with the city across academic disciplines.

Check out the DePaul Teaching Commons Mobile Learning Page for more information.

Alex Joppie

Mastery and Time

At a conference a couple months ago, I had the opportunity to hear Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, talk about the genesis of his organization and how his model of education differs from the traditional model. Khan Academy, for those unfamiliar with it, offers videos and automated exercises to help students learn a variety of subjects online for free. Khan Academy has also partnered with a few K-12 schools to make these online resources the central learning materials of certain classes.

Khan Academy has branched into other subjects, but it started with math and still tends to focus on STEM subjects. And one of the fundamental realities of learning math is that it’s cumulative; anything new you’re taught is based on what you’re supposed to have learned before. If there are gaps in your understanding of the previous topic, you’re going to have a very difficult time learning what comes next. This is true of other subjects too, but it’s especially true of math.

This is in line with my personal experience. I was always a high performer in math classes in K-12, until my junior year of high school, when I was out sick a lot over the course of a few weeks during a trigonometry unit. I tried to catch up, but after that, everything stopped making sense to me. I wound up getting a C in the class, and though I continued to show high aptitude in quantitative reasoning (bragging rights: I got an 800 on that section of my GRE even as a liberal-arts major), I never took a higher math class.

The problem, as Khan sees it, is that our education system keeps moving students forward onto new material regardless of how well they understand the last unit. The amount of time spent on each topic before moving on is constant while the level of performance of each student is variable.

When Khan Academy works with K-12 schools, that model reverses; since each student can work through the online videos and exercises at his or her own pace, the system can require the student to demonstrate mastery of a topic before moving on. Level of performance is the constant, and the rate at which students move through the material is the variable. This allows students who are behind the curve to spend as much time as they need to on a topic to truly understand it, but it also allows exceptional students to keep learning. There are no speed limits in this model—Khan reports that many elementary students were doing high-school-level math by the end of the year. (The problem with this model, of course, is that it makes the most sense if implemented institution-wide. For an individual instructor teaching a course that’s a prerequisite for other courses, you’re expected to to cover a pre-defined body of material no matter how well each student performs.)

So what do instructors do if the lectures are served in online videos and the assignments are corrected automatically? In a word, teach. One-on-one. To the students who need it, when they need it. Imagine a world in which 100 percent of instructional time was spent interacting with students or providing detailed assignment feedback. And how instructors spend their time interacting with students can be improved by technology as well. Khan Academy’s software provides detailed analytics of student progress to inform the instructor exactly where a student needs help. If a student is missing a lot of problems related to a specific concept, the instructor can intervene, re-explaining the subject, walking through additional examples, and more.

I think a lot of us would think that, now that the technology enables it, this model is more sensible. And there’s a more pressing reason to look for ways to spend more of your time interacting with students rather than lecturing. Your direct interaction with students is the main point of differentiation where we can offer value over the massively open online courses (MOOCs) that are growing in popularity.

So what can instructors take away from this?

1. Start to get out of the business of lecturing and grading objective assignments, because otherwise, you may soon find that you’re essentially spending all your time providing zero value over something like Coursera, which can do it at great scale and thus much lower cost than your class. Either start recording your lectures for re-use so you can flip your classroom, or find high-quality digital materials you can use in your course to substitute for your own lectures.

2. Your maximum value as an actual human being over the MOOCs and automated classes of the world is your direct interaction with students, whether that’s in the form of providing expert feedback on assignments, helping them with difficult concepts, or coaching them on how what they’re learning now will be applicable in the rest of their academic careers or in their jobs. Be prepared to do more of that.

3. Look for opportunities to require your students to demonstrate mastery before moving on to a more advanced topic. Give students a chance to retake online quizzes until they’ve gotten a perfect score, and don’t let them see the next module until they do. Don’t just make students write a proposal for their final paper—make sure they use your feedback and update the proposal before they go on to the module about research. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for doing this that will apply to every discipline, but there are options.

If you can combine rich digital resources, either created by yourself or leveraged from others, with a renewed focus on individual student interaction, plus methods to ensure students achieve mastery before moving on to new material, you can expect higher student performance.