Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Google Wave: First impressions

I recently got my Google Wave invite* (thanks to Jure) and I wanted to share some of my initial impressions. As most of you probably know already, Google Wave is an online real-time collaboration and communication tool, which combines elements of e-mail, instant messaging, social networks and wikis (watch the overview video for more info).

It was first announced in May, with a big promise of reinventing e-mail for the 21st century. It has been in private beta for some time now, and it's been getting mixed reviews with many people marking it as overhyped. So I was really curious to try it out on my own and see if it can live up to its (big) expectations.

I've now been using Google Wave for about a week with various existing and new contacts. Currently, one big limitation is that you don't get any invites when you start using the service, so your pool of contacts is initially quite limited and therefore you probably won't be able to immediately use the tools in that many real-life situations. Overall, I still believe this tool has a lot of potential to replace many collaboration tools (don't think it will replace e-mail in the near future though), but it still needs some important features before if can go really public.

The cool features

These are the main things I like about Wave:
  • the basic functions are quite easy to use and understand (although I was already familiar with the basic philosophy and interface from watching the hour long developer preview),
  • easier to use than wikis because of a familiar e-mail like interface,
  • the ability to collaborate in different ways,
  • adding links with the Google Search function is really cool,
  • you can get a lot of additional functionality with Wave extensions like the Mind Map gadget shown below.

Using the Mind Map Gadget in a wave: the initial mind map was created by me, other participants were able to add and vote on the elements

The missing features

And here are the main things that I don't like:
  • you can't add new Wave extensions with one simple click (here is how you do it - ouch!),
  • embedding waves on the web should be as easy as embedding YouTube videos,
  • as a wave creator, you should have more control over who can edit your waves and in what way (currently every wave participant can edit everything in a wave),
  • when using Wave you're always shown as online to your contacts and there's nothing you can do about it,
  • participants in the same wave can see what you're typing in real-time and you can't change that; real-time typing is useful in some cases, but not always (a good thing about e-mail is that you can rethink and rewrite your message before it gets sent out),
  • you should be able to organize contacts into groups,
  • the ability to edit blips in a wave and adding in-line comments isn't very intuitive or easy to use, so most people just keep adding replies at the end of the wave, which easily turns waves into noisy chatrooms; as my friend Angela said in a wave conversation: "It's the same as IRC but with rich content",
  • you can't delete waves.

Bottom Line: Not there yet, but certainly useful in the real world

So, Google Wave provides a lot of great functions, but it lacks many privacy/permissions settings, plus a lot of features are still too difficult to use. A lot of users also complain that it can also be quite slow (especially if you add a lot of extensions in a long wave). But let's not forget that Wave is still in beta, so I hope that some of the main annoyances get fixed before it opens up to the public. I browsed through Product Ideas for Google Wave today, and I think most users agree on the basic improvements that Wave needs.

Even though my list of missing features isn't short, I'm still a Google Wave believer and can't wait to try it out in the real world. For example, I really like the idea of using Google Wave at conferences and in classrooms or the ability to use Google Wave widgets in Moodle courses (I'm also looking forward to an activity module for embedding whole waves into Moodle).

Links that can get you started

If you're just getting started with Google Wave and still feeling a bit lost, I suggest you check out the 5 minutes overview of 15 key Google Wave features and Mashable's Google Wave Complete Guide. If you're on a Mac, you can also try out Waveboard, a desktop app for Google Wave. Personally, I keep Waveboard always open, so I can see when new waves or changes are made. And there is also Waver, an Adobe AIR Wave client, which works on all operating systems.

Let me know about your first impressions in the comments or let's talk about it in Google Wave! (my username is alja.sulcic (at) googlewave [dot] com)

* Sorry, don't have any invites to send out yet, will tweet when I do.

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The power of the unexpected

We're all naturally curious beings, but our day to day lives often get stuck in predictable routines that can dull our minds. And what's a great way to wake up our curiosity? The unexpected. Something that makes us pause and wonder, something that requires us to reconsider what we know about the world.

Like the company that added the ability to hear a duck quack when calling their toll-free number. Or The Fun Theory initiative, which among others included the world's deepest bin to motivate people to throw garbage into the trash bin. Take a look below and pay attention to people's reactions.

I love this example because it shows a lot of people inspecting the bin, trying to figure out how it works.

And that makes me wonder why is there so little of such wonder in our schools? The place, where such behavior should be expected; the people in the video above show a very clear desire to understand the bin, to learn why it behaves in an unexpected way. Do our students have such a desire to learn in our schools? And if not, what can we do to bring the unexpected and the wonder in our schools?

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Helping people find answers

My experience with teaching online courses (and participating in various online communities) has led me to believe that there are three basic groups of people when it comes to finding answers to their questions:
  • Social learners: people who prefer finding answers by asking other people.
  • Resource learners: people who prefer finding answers on their own using any available resource.
  • Passive learners: people who prefer waiting for answers to find them.
We can be part of a different group in different settings, although usually people tend to have a preference for one of the groups. And why do I find this important? I think it's important to be aware of how people prefer finding solutions to their problems when you're trying to teach people or provide technical or other types of support. And be willing to accommodate differences in their favorite approach. This is especially important in an online setting, where there's a spatial and often a time barrier when you're interacting with your students, colleagues or clients.

What the first group, the social learners, needs the most is an easy way to ask other people their questions. Provide them with different channels, make yourself available. And if you want them to keep asking questions, you have to make sure they get their answers in a reasonable time frame and that the answers provide enough information value and that they don't make the person feel bad or even stupid for asking the question. Thank the people when they're asking questions, and try your best to answer them. And don't forget that often an honest "I don't know, I'll have to look it up." can be the right answer. Also, be prepared to answer the same questions all over again, but don't be afraid to link to previous answers when you're working in an online environment.

In a large group of people the second group, the resource learners, can also help you provide the right answers for social learners. Resource learners often like the challenge of an open question and will gladly share what they've learned on their own to help out their peers. Just take a look at Twitter or Yahoo! Answers. What you can do to help resource learners solve their problems more effectively, is providing a lot of different resources, which should be easily accessible and searchable.

The most difficult group to deal with are the passive learners. They tend to solve problems by following what others do, find answers that are not related to the question or simply walk away. Different circumstances can make an individual a passive learner, such as lack of time or interest, lack of confidence when using an unknown communication tool or even fear of asking the wrong questions. They often complain when they don't achieve the expected results, but you just can't seem to be able to convince them that asking questions when problems arise can help them solve problems.

So what can we do to help passive learners? My usual approach is to provide regular directions from different angles, sometimes provide answers to questions nobody is explicitly asking, and to keep offering help. Some people just might need some time to start feeling comfortable before they start asking questions, and I try to make sure they know it's never too late to start.

But at the end of the day don't forget that you probably won't always be able to turn every passive learner into a social or resource learner. This doesn't necessarily mean that you've done something wrong or they are not successful learners. It might just not be the right time, place or circumstance for them. You can't always help everyone, but do try to find out how you can best help each individual.

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The problem with workshops

Here's the thing: I don't believe one or two days long workshops really work when you're trying to change the way people do something or convince them to use a new tool. These workshops are like a first date. It can go really well, you get all excited... but then, the next day, you have this urgent thing at work to do, so you don't have time to call back... and then you have another big project to plan and... oh wait, what was the workshop all about? I'll go to another one next year.

The problem with short workshops is that you usually make a good impression, but you don't develop a relationship. Sure, you might get one or two people excited enough to get involved with the subject further, but most people won't. Most people won't really get it after a day or two. They need the time and place to figure things out on their own. If there's somebody by your side immediately solving all your problems for you, you don't really learn much.

So, what do I believe in? I believe in longer lasting workshops where participants are gently guided by a tutor, but require participants to invest their time and energy in solving problems. I believe in workshops that keep participants active with regular challenges and that provide a lot of feedback for the participants. And workshops that provide some follow-up, opportunities for keeping the relationship alive even after the workshop is officially over.

For example, I recently guided several groups of teachers through a three weeks long Moodle introductory workshop delivered online, through Moodle. During that time I was there for the participants to help them get through problems on their own, and to encourage them, to let them know they were doing a great job. The time we spent together was enough to start developing a good relationship, but I also tried hard to let them know that was just the beginning: Yes, you have successfully completed the training, but this is where the real work begins. Go into your own classrooms now, and practice. And nowadays there's always a way to get more help online; either from other users or from me. The important thing is that you keep asking questions!

The thing to keep in mind here is that adopting a new tool/way of thinking (aka learning) is not an event, it's a process. And not an easy one, so don't expect to be done with it in a few hours by having people clicking together in the same room!

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Google Squared - a great tool for educators?

Yesterday Google announced Google Squared, a new release from Google Labs. From the official announcement: "Google Squared is an experimental search tool that collects facts from the web and presents them in an organized collection, similar to a spreadsheet.". I've played with it for a while today, and while it might not be the best way to search for things, I can imagine a lot of great ways to use it in classrooms.
A sample Square on cloud types
The most obvious use is for teachers to use Google Squared sheets as learning materials. You can easily create a list of US presidents, african countries, renaissance artists, cats breeds, learning management systems, ... and much more. Textbooks are all full of lists, but they are static. With Squared, you can create your own list, edit rows, columns and data, and easily change the whole list whenever you want to.
The automatically generated lists are (of course) far from perfect, but that's exactly where I see the biggest learning opportunity. You can present an incomplete list to your students and have them find missing data or check the validity of the provided data. You can also have students try to create their own lists (you can even start with an empty table), save them on their Google accounts, and then compare lists with peers. Who got the data right? Is your data source reliable? I think this can be a great exercise on how to deal with online resources. And even the Squared Help page emphasizes double-checking the information in your Square! :)
Do you see Google Squared being useful in classrooms?

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Virtual worlds in education and Moodle

Today I'd like to share with you my recent paper about using virtual worlds in education, with a special focus on how we can use virtual worlds with Moodle. I wanted this paper to be a basic introduction to why virtual worlds are good for education, and also provide a basic overview of some of the most interesting virtual worlds/tools on the market today.
Here is the embedded version from Scribd:
I presented this paper at the 3rd International Slovenian MoodleMoot with a live demonstration of Webline.lite (a super easy way to add avatars to any website), and I hope I managed to encourage some teachers to think about virtual worlds as a possible addition to their online courses. This year I was positively surprised to hear so many teachers using blogs and wikis in their classrooms, so perhaps next year I won't be the only weirdo talking about virtual worlds anymore :)

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Moodle Presentation

It's been almost two years since I created a brief video presentation of Moodle, and now I finally took the time to update it with a new version. Initially, I just wanted to update the usage statistics, but I ended up doing a redesign, and I also added some information, so it's slightly longer than the previous version. In addition to that, the video is now available in better quality and in widescreen format. And now, without further ado, I present you the new, improved Moodle Presentation:

You can view the video presentation on YouTube, Vimeo, and blip.tv. I created the presentation in Apple's Keynote, so you can also view the slides that I used on SlideShare.

I hope you enjoy this presentation; and feel free to use it to spread the word about Moodle!

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day

If you haven't heard it yet, today is Ada Lovelace Day, "an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology". I must confess I haven't heard much about Ada before today, but I have of course heard much more about Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer she was programming on. And that's a good indicator of how history often forgets to mention women's contributions. Let's all take a moment to remember who Ada was:
"She is mainly known for having written a description of Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical engine. She is today appreciated as the "first programmer" since she was writing programs—that is, manipulating symbols according to rules—for a machine that Babbage had not yet built. She also foresaw the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on these capabilities." (Wikipedia)
Luckily, times are changing, but women in technology (and many other fields) are still a minority, and that's why I, as a woman in tech myself, can relate to the idea of Ada Lovelace Day. For me, today is about thanking the women in our lives, who have the power to inspire us all in unique ways.

And I'm glad that it's with the help of technology that I came in touch with several women, who use technology in inspiring ways. Today, I'd especially like to thank Angela Thomas, a researcher with a unique approach to digital media, Alanagh Recreant, who is using technology to promote sustainable development, Aliza Sherman, an unstoppable web pioneer, Chris Collins, a passionate educator and community builder, and Grace McDunnough, an innovative musician and explorer of new worlds.

And, last but not least, I'd also like to thank my mom. She showed me that it's ok for women to know about technology, and she brought computers and the internet into our home at a time when these things were still considered irrelevant by most people. It was thanks to her that I practically grew up with computers and that I saw the great potential of technology from an early age.

Thank you all, and keep up with the good work!

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Interested in Moodle? Find a MoodleMoot to attend!

Moodle is a great open source and freely available online learning management system, but what really makes it special is the large community of teachers and administrators that are using it in many different and innovative ways. And that is why Moodle conferences called MoodleMoots (gatherings of wise Moodle users) are always great events to attend for anyone already using Moodle or trying to learn more about it. They are a great opportunity for people to share best practices and to find new connections and even friendships.

And it is with great pleasure that I'm now helping organize the 3rd International Slovenian MoodleMoot, which will take place on May 22nd in the lovely and sunny coastal city of Koper, Slovenia (my birth place!). I would like to invite you all to attend our Moot and present your experience with Moodle; and if you can't make the trip to Koper, you can even present remotely via Skype. If you'd like to learn more about our MoodleMoot, see the official Call for International Presentations.

In case the timing of our conference isn't right for you, I'd also like to encourage you to take a look at the list of other MoodleMoots that are being organized all over the world. So far I was only able to attend the Austrian Moot once, but I sure hope I get the chance to visit others as well! Moodlers are usually a really great crowd, and I'm already looking forward to seeing some great practical uses of Moodle and related tools at our Moot. I hope to see you there too! :)

P.S.: Speaking of great conferences... don't miss The Virtual World Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) conference this weekend (March 27-29) - it's a free conference taking place in the virtual world of Second Life.

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Improving student engagement with game mechanics and a smart progress bar

Keeping students motivated and interested can often be challenging; even more so when you're dealing with distance learning. There are of course several pedagogical approaches that we can use to keep students motivated, but lately I've been thinking about how we could make the tools that we already use in education more student friendly, more engaging and fun to use. And here's an idea I've been playing with in my mind lately: the integration of smart progress bars into a LMS (Learning Management System) to increase student engagement.

Progress bars on the web - nothing new

I've noticed that several websites are using progress bars to encourage users to fill out their profiles. You've probably seen this on LinkedIn or SlideShare and even in various tutorials. Another thing I've noticed is that these progress bars really work on me! Every time I see one of these I try to increase the level of completeness; I admit that it even convinced me to give out my e-mail address to a Facebook app! What is great about these progress bars is that they usually suggest the next step you should take to increase the completeness. "Want more? Add this box to your profile!" It's simple, easy to follow, and you get something new to do each time.
LinkedIn profile completeness
It's also common to show some kind of progress bars in learning activities such as online lessons. You've probably seen this too: "You've completed 80% of this lesson". Unfortunately, these progress indicators are often way too impersonal too provide anything else than plain information. And this can be quite boring. You know in advance that all you have to do is keep clicking the Next button and you'll eventually get to the end.

Integrating progress bars with smart suggestions into a LMS

Now, what if we would try to integrate the interesting type of progress bars in e-learning courses? I'm thinking about some sort of course-wide (and even site-wide) progress indicators. Let me explain what I mean.

You have an online course, and you're using a LMS; let's say Moodle (the LMS I'm most familiar with). And you have a set of activities students have to complete. Your LMS allows you to group these activities by weeks or topics. Now you also have a tool that allows you to set the connections between activities. For example, a student should first read the introductory article, then discuss it on the forums, and at the end of the week write a blog post about the subject or make a podcast about it. And let's also say that you could define a set of activities that have to be completed to unlock the next section.

Now, imagine a block that would show each student how much of the activities have been completed or how many points the student has accumulated in the current week/topic. At the bottom of the block there is a link that says: "Well done Lucy, you've completed 80% of this week activities! Click here to find out what else you can do this week." or "Great job Lucy, you've earned 80% of the available points for this topic! Click here to find what you can do next to get that perfect score!"

A sample Moodle block with a progress bar
After clicking the link, our student, Lucy, gets a list of activities that she hasn't completed yet or that she can improve. It's not necessary to show all activities; the LMS only shows activities that make sense for Lucy at that time. Just a few of activities that Lucy can do next. If we want to get really smart, we could even suggest activities that best suit Lucy's learning style. Let's say we know that Lucy likes doing podcasts, but hates writing. In this case, the LMS would just suggest Lucy to do a podcast, and leave the option of blogging out (Lucy could of course change her preferences at any time and choose from a full set of activities).

At any time in the course, Lucy can also get the info about how successful she was in previous weeks/topics and have a look at the course overall progress bar. To make things more interesting for Lucy, we focus on the overall course goal, and reward her each time she completes one with activity with another activity that bring her closer to achieving the overall goal. Lucy is also getting curious about what kind of activities she'll get to do after she completes the current section. She knows her teacher always find interesting things to read and do. And you know what? I also think Lucy has been a good student so far, so she certainly deserves a special reward each time she completes a section of activities. We can display another star next to her name, and this week she also made it on our list of top students! Hurray Lucy! You're so close to becoming the master of the course and save the princess!

Ah yes, these are all well known game mechanics, but we're currently not doing a very good job at implementing them in education, so why don't we try do engage Lucy by giving her a clear sense of achievement in each course she's taking? And if Lucy is doing really well, we might even give her the option to tell her Facebook friends about how good she is by allowing her to export some of this info into her Facebook stream.

The same principle could also be implemented site-wide. For example, upon login in her school's LMS, Lucy can see how much of the activities she completed in the current semester/year/program and receive suggestions on what activities she should do next - across different courses. If we want to get really, really smart, we can let Lucy tell us how much time she has available and suggest an activity that she can do in that amount of time or let's try to guess which subject would most suit Lucy on a Monday morning! And again, we can also take into account her learning style preferences or even what we know about her past behaviors.

Should we do it?

Showing students exactly where they are and what their next steps can/should be is very important. And I think that progress bars and smart suggestions could provide an interesting motivational tool and a powerful way to help students organize their study and follow the progress of their study or a course.

Technically speaking, integrating the progress bar in a LMS course or site shouldn't be too difficult. It might get a bit more tricky to develop a really smart suggestion system, so I don't expect to see that one soon. Right now, I'd really be happy just with a smart and personalized progress bar :)

Now, I've seen a lot of individual online activities that provide some sort of progress bar and feedback (for instance, the Moodle Lesson module), but I haven't yet come across any LMS that would provide this for the entire course or site and that would allow teachers to easily and precisely define the flow of different types of course activities. And I also haven't seen any smart suggestion systems for learning activities. Am I missing something or is this something that hasn't been done yet? Is anyone up to the challenge of implementing the described game mechanics into our courses? Let me know!

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A little attention goes a long way

I recently celebrated my birthday, and one of the most memorable greetings came from quite an unexpected source: the business social networking site Xing. I received an e-mail informing me that they are giving me 10 days of Premium Membership. That in itself is a nice touch, but what really brought a smile to my face was the picture of a Xing cake with my name on it that was attached to the message.
My own virtual cake! Yummy! :)
Technologically speaking, it was nothing special; it's quite simple to program a piece of software that does this for every member's birthday. But still; Xing took the time to think of a special way to wish their members a happy birthday, and it certainly worked for me. I confess that I don't even use Xing regularly, but this simple gestures has increased my appreciation for the site. An unexpected and original display of affection can certainly go a long way. Can you remember when was the last time you tried to do something different, unexpected, something personal for your customers/students/friends?

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

My grandpa is a blogger and doesn't even know it

When I talk about social media I often mention the fact that my grandpa has a blog. Well, actually two blogs: one for his local mycological society and the other for his local pensioner organisation. It all started when his mycological society wanted a website where they could post news and announcements. I told him I would set up a website where he could post his own news. And that was it. I also created a short manual with a few annotated screenshots of the Blogger interface, so that it would be easier for him to start. And now he rarely needs my help with his two blogs; he writes and tags his posts, adds pictures from various events, and even gets an occasional comment from his peers.

Why am I writing about this? I think this is a good example of how sometimes there is no need for getting too involved with the specifics of a technology we want to adopt (or convince others to adopt). My grandpa doesn't need to know what social media or blogging is and he doesn't even need to understand how hyperlinks work because he mainly writes about real life events nobody else is blogging about. He had a need and I helped him to find the right tool for the job and provided what he needed to start. And that's where we should all start when thinking about new technologies: with the need they can help us fulfill. The tools are usually not the problem anymore. So don't be tempted to make web 2.0 (or any other shiny new technology) about buzzwords or about technical specifications. Web 2.0 is a web that enables people to share experiences easily and more effectively, and Web 2.0 is for me a web where my grandpa is a blogger.

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.

Monday, February 23, 2009

In case you've been wondering...

Yes, it certainly has been a while since I last posted on this blog. I can easily think of several reasons for this: finding micro blogging easier for sharing quick ideas and cool content, having the feeling that what I have to say has already been written more eloquently somewhere else, not finishing drafts, spending more time writing a newsletter for my company, dealing with health problems, struggling with finding the right direction and voice for this blog... and probably much more. But that's not really what I want to talk about today.

I started this blog as a personal exploration of this new medium and perhaps it's best to keep it this way. It's just one of the many channels I use to communicate with the world and right now I have no desire to have this blog as my main channel. That's why I'm not writing this post to promise to blog more regularly or to keep this blog in a certain direction. And neither am I giving up on this blog completely. I might post again tomorrow, next month or even next year; the thing is that I just don't want to worry about that anymore. I never considered myself a blogger anyway; right now I'm just somebody who enjoys writing blog posts once in a while, and I think I do a better job at sharing interesting content through my Google Reader shared items or on my recently revived tumblelog.

So, I guess I just wanted to make an announcement that this blog isn't quite dead yet, but at the same time admit that I really have no idea of what you can expect here. All I can do is to invite you to keep watching this space and watch its journey with me. Who knows, we might find something interesting along the way :)

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at blog.ialja.com, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.