Category Archives: colleges and universities

Second Chance for Second Life?

thumbby Hap Aziz

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website, Jeffrey R. Young has an article titled, “Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom.” I do remember Second Life, and I actually used in some college courses I taught about eight or nine years ago. It was primarily a tool where I could gather with students for additional lecture time outside of the classroom, and often it was a combination of socializing and course content Q&A. Fortunately, my students were comfortable with technology (the course was on the subject of digital design), otherwise I would not have been able to provide the technical support to get the students signed up, logged in, and comfortable in the environment. The technology is smoother now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for students not confident in their online computing skills.

The history of Second Life is interesting in that it began as a possible game world framework, but the development environment was so robust, SL morphed into an open-ended virtual space that really had no particular purpose. This was both its advantage and its curse, as enthusiastic users that saw potential in the technology worked at finding a purpose for the platform. Many higher education institutions acquired space in SL, and educators used it for lectures, office hours with remote students, and a variety of other activities somehow connected with learning. And while the individual users may have designed unique personal avatars, the education spaces, for the most part, were representation of real campus locations (or at least could have been real). There are a number of reasons SL was unable to sustain itself at its heyday level of engagement, and Young explores them in his article in connection with the latest tech wave of Virtual Reality innovation. Second Life, in fact, is looking to ride the new VR wave with its Project Sansar (indeed, if you go to the SL site, you’ll see that you can explore SL with the Oculus Rift, which is a step in that direction).

Will the addition of 3D VR breathe new life into Second Life? As a technology, there is no question that VR has great novelty out of the gate. But I still believe that without some sort of meta-narrative point to drive engagement, SL could go through another bubble-burst cycle. By “meta-narrative,” I mean that Second Life itself needs to have a point, rather than offer itself up as an environment where users can do anything they want. Why enter a virtually real world to “just hang out and look around” when we can much more easily accomplish that in the really real world?

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Filed under avatars, colleges and universities, education, emerging technologies, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, holograms, narrative, simulation, technology, virtual classrooms, virtual college, virtual reality, virtual worlds

The Power of Pretend

thumbby Hap Aziz

My daughter is a pretty typical 8th grade student. She has her friends, and her interests range from anime to archery; from Tom Sawyer to Twenty One Pilots. Her mother and I consider ourselves to be fairly active in her academic life, and education is a strong family value in our home. Her grades are good as she earns mostly A’s with the occasional B every now and then. Like most students, she has her most favorite subject areas and her least favorite. While she usually brings home A’s on her report card and is a good student in both, her favorite class is History and her least favorite is Math.

“In History you can pretend to be anybody,” my daughter says, explaining her preference. “Who wants to pretend to be a plus sign?”

I like to use this anecdote when I discuss the importance of narrative as an essential element of engagement for learners. People aren’t computers, and telling stories is much more effective than performing a data download.

In my last blog post, I wrote about approaching higher education website implementation in different ways, and I made the assertion that an institution’s website should be another tool used for student engagement. Interestingly, the folks over at Usabila have linked the topics of storytelling and website engagement together in a brief article titled, “Storytelling for a Better User Experience.” I especially like this statement from the article:

Stories unify and clarify often complex ideas into something tangible and universally understood because they appeal to something more than just intellect, they appeal to our emotions. Building a real human connection is the best way to engage your users and is the strongest motivation for action.

Considering that in my last post I wrote about a different model of institutional website management, why not explore a different model of institutional website design and implementation? Currently the websites are built according to a rather common format. There is information to be offered to an audience. With a (hopefully) sensible architecture and interface, visitors to the website should be able to find the information they need and move on. Not the most exciting activity, but this is information access based on a transactional paradigm.

How might a website operate if it were designed to interact with users from a storytelling perspective? I might imagine a very simplified interface to begin:

It’s really very simple. The user needs or wants some information, and the website is able to make a query, letting the system do all the work. We already have some indication how such a system might work in the real world: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. There are some obvious challenges with this design approach, most notably that this doesn’t do a great job of providing information to users other than what they specifically request. Sometimes we don’t know what we should know, and as a result, we don’t know how to ask for it. Bottom line, while this is an interesting approach, website exploration becomes somewhat of a chore. Okay, it becomes more of a chore than it already is. Which brings us back to the idea storytelling and game development as a possible way forward.

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal talks about an online game called Chore Wars that turns doing household chores into a competition in which people can earn experience points and ultimately be motivated into doing more chores. McGonigal writes about Chore Wars:

Individual success is always more rewarding when it happens in a multiplayer context, and this is part of Chore Wars’ successful design as well. The game connects all of my individual activities to a larger social experience… I can see how I measure up to others and compare avatar strengths to learn more about what makes me unique. Meanwhile, as I’m working, I’m thinking about the positive social feedback I’ll get in the comments on my adventure, whether it’s friendly taunts from a rival or OMGs of amazement for getting such a herculean task done.

Can interacting with an institutional website become a competitive task that in which you can compare your browsing and information-gathering experience with other visitors? I don’t see why not (and I also don’t see why elements of the traditional web paradigm can’t be provided alongside). There’s a story in there; a quest, perhaps. Some narrative scenario that sets up the user’s interaction with the website. The narrative may drive the user’s actions or it may simply provide a colorful context for exploration. In either case, it allows us to pretend that we’re doing something bigger or more exciting than figuring out how to sign up for the new semester or where to go for parking passes. That’s gotta be worth at least a few XP, right?

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Filed under Android, colleges and universities, Cortana, experience, games, gamification, Google Now, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, narrative, play, Siri, storytelling, website

A Different Approach for Higher Education Websites

thumbby Hap Aziz

Having worked extensively in the corporate sector as well as in higher education, I often find myself comparing how certain tasks are accomplished, which particular business practices are similar or dissimilar, or what criteria influences strategic decisions at the leadership level between the two functional verticals. While many of the operational components are common across the corporate sector and higher education, the operational practices are often 180 degrees apart in terms of management and strategic decision making. Coming from a strictly corporate perspective, the differences may seem antithetical to success. All too often, institutions struggle with their web strategies, and the result is that their internal communities do not realize any of the benefits of a modern web implementation, or worse, the communities suffer from an unacceptably poor implementation.

My particular interest in this topic is that an institution’s website should be yet another tool to foster student engagement–with the institution, of course, but (through integration in the learning ecosystem) with content areas of interest as well. Yes, the website should be an extended instrument of learning, technology, and play! First, however, institutions need to get the basics in order (and perhaps in a subsequent blog entry I’ll address the utilization of websites for teaching and learning). It only takes a moderate amount of experience in higher education to see that there are considerations having to do with decentralized decision-mailing that require a complex collaborative model to push institutional initiatives forward. And in the long run, that’s almost 100 percent irrelevant to building a successful web presence in the higher education space and to winning a battle for student mindshare being played out in virtual space.

In the corporate sector, effective websites are usually built and managed by a single functional area specifically tasked with website development and ownership, often within the context of marketing leadership. In any event, the key components of effective website development are all handled by the single functional area:

  • Content
  • Visual (and Audio) Presentation
  • Functionality
  • Architecture and Usability
  • Search Engine Optimization and Digital Reach

In a higher education institutional setting, rather than group these components together and “hand the keys over” to a single group, the responsibility can be divided across functional areas, with some overlap and collaboration where appropriate. For example:

  • Content – may be handled by a publications office in collaboration with the specific departments contributing content for their respective web areas. Content is primarily textual information along with graphic images, photographs, or video segments that meet particular criteria.
  • Visual (and Audio) Presentation – could be the responsibility of institutional marketing, making sure the maintain brand fidelity. Content elements provided by publications or individual departments must adhere to established presentation standards.
  • Functionality – should facilitated by IT, though IT should not define and impose functional constraints on the website. All other groups may desire particular functionality in service of area goals (for example, publications may desire a particular content-approval workflow, in which case IT should be able to identify and implement the most suitable content management system to meet the need).
  • Architecture and Usability – is a design concern that goes beyond typical marketing functionality, and the expertise may be located in any of a number of areas within an institution such as a design department or computer science department in which usabilit and human-computer-interface issues are considered. Architecture and Usability will provide acceptable parameters within which website presentation exist.
  • SEO and Digital Reach – can be directed out of a business program in which digital marketing is a component of the curriculum, or the institution’s marketing group may manage this component provided the specific skill set is represented on staff. There will be communication between this group and publications in order to ensure that website content is optimized for search engine performance.

The benefit to establishing this decentralized model (and this is just one example) of website management is that the separate areas will be able to go about their business independently (for the most part), only having to coordinate at certain points in the website implementation and management lifecycle. Additionally, all groups do not need to participate in all meetings, which tends to reduce frustration with the overall process and friction with each other.

While the model is fairly straightforward in print, the groundwork and internal institutional communications required to ensure that it is and will remain sustainable can be significant. This is where institutional governance comes in, and there must be buy-in and commitment to the outcomes produced during a collaborative planning phase.

Having worked directly for a number of institutions over the years, I understand that this is not a simple process, and individual ideas regarding website ownership can run deep. The conversations need to be open, and the process to settle upon a model needs to be transparent. Don’t hesitate to call in a trusted advisor, but do resolve to set a reasonable timeframe for discussions. Taking too much time can be a costly mistake, because the “competition” continues to move forward. It is important to recognize that your students are often the quickest to identify your competition, and students can be the most unforgiving critics if they perceive other institutions to be meeting needs that their own institution is not. You only get to lose that mindshare battle once.

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Filed under colleges and universities, communication, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, Internet, strategic planning, website

Taking a Contrary View: How Useful is the Syllabus?

foxnewsby Hap Aziz

I noticed a picture making the rounds of Facebook today of an Austin Community College professor, David Lydic, wearing a t-shirt with the caption, “It’s in the syllabus.” The picture linked me back to this article on the Inside Higher Ed website title, appropriately enough, “It’s in the Syllabus!” I needn’t go into great detail regarding the specifics of the article, but one can readily surmise the overall tone of the content: educators are often frustrated by repeated questions for which the answers are found within the course syllabus.

While the picture shows an angry instructor, Lydic explains that he was posing for the photograph with that expression at the request of the student snapping the shot. Indeed, Lydic wears the shirt primarily as a humorous way to remind students of the existence and utility of the course syllabus. Like many instructors, Lydic has repeatedly gotten questions that would all be answered for students if they simply read the syllabus provided to them.

What I found very interesting were many of the comments posted in response to the article. Many appreciated the t-shirt for its light-hearted approach:

“I got a kick out of this article. All I want to know is ‘Where can I get one?’!”

“Getting the attention of the students is often difficult. This humorous approach will stay with the students not only in this class but others! Love it!”

“This is an easy, fun way to remind students of their responsibilities and it will stick with them.”

But some comments indicated some deep frustration and a rather unflattering view of their opinion of at least some of their students:

“Yes, we should hold their hands instead! Science knows that they cannot read the syllabus all by their little selves!”

“Syllabus skippers (and grade-grubbers, and deadline-benders, and special case pleaders?) may think they are entitled to ask any question they want. But they’re not. Public higher education is a public good that very few people have the privilege to use. Asking dumb questions or asking for special consideration in a classroom full of students is akin to leaving your trash on a public beach: it just ruins the opportunity that more thoughtful and responsible people are happy to have, and happy to share, by doing their due diligence.”

I’ve taught for many years in both public and private institutions; at community colleges as well as universities; face to face and online courses. In every one of the courses, I would begin my dialog with the students by telling them that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Not because I was interested in holding their hands to spare them the chore of reading, but because I understand that the learning process is complex, and that individuals struggle with different issues when they encounter something new.

Clearly, though, there is something to the “dumb questions” point if it resonates with so many in the teaching profession. Right? As the title of this blog entry suggests, I disagree with that perspective. Consider if we were discussing some other product, and the consumers kept asking the same question(s) over and over. There are several questions we would ask ourselves (“maybe our user manual stinks,” or “is the design of our product fundamentally flawed?”) that would indicate an attitude and a desire to better serve our consumer.

My point is this: if so many students regularly ask questions when the answers are in the syllabus, could it be that the syllabus construct is flawed, and we as educators should address that? In defense of students, we need to admit that:

  • Syllabi, while often addressing the same categories of information are by no means standardized in their format (even within the same academic departments at the same institution).
  • Syllabi are often used from term to term, and not all instructors are completely rigorous in the process of updating information.
  • Modern students are often non-traditional, and many are the first members of their family to go to college, so syllabi are a new thing for them to comprehend along with a whole host of other new things.
  • Modern students are conditioned by a world of just-in-time-information accessibility, so they often do not consider or ask a question until they actually are in a particular situation. Informing students at the beginning of the term via the syllabus that the final exam is worth 25% of the course grade doesn’t make sense when they don’t start thinking about the final exam until the end of the term.
  • Modern students are accustomed to searching for information using services such as Google, yet syllabi are often provded as Word or PDF documents (or paper!). This is not ideal for when searching for particular bits of information.

It seems to me that the age-old syllabus is not meeting the needs significant numbers of students. The solution isn’t, however, to dig in our heels and insist that students simply read the syllabus. At least that’s not the user-friendly, service-oriented solution that would actually address the issue in a meaningful way–more meaningful than a t-shirt that admonishes the student for their unfamiliarity with that document.

So as a challenge to my fellow educators, what might we provide to our students instead?


Filed under colleges and universities, communication, course syllabus, education, education course content, effective practices, Hap Aziz, higher education

The Practicality of the Massive Open Online Courses Model

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

Earlier this year, Dr. Joshua Kim (Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College) wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed titled, “Why Every University Does Not Need A MOOC” in which he examined the question of whether or not all higher education institutions should develop MOOCs as part of their teaching and learning portfolio of offerings. The core point of his article is that institutions should not necessarily try to follow the MOOC model as developed by a handful of pioneers. This is a risky endeavor, he reasons, and the key to success is in looking at other models of educational program development. Specifically, Dr. Kim recommends that institutions exercise introspection and examine what unique program offerings they might bring to market in order to appeal to a highly diverse learning community.

The argument has some merit, and indeed we see examples of institutions creating programs that have a “twist” to attract students: Lone Star College’s partnership with the oil and gas industry and the Mississippi Corridor Consortium’s partnership with Toyota for an education-to-work program are just two examples. Certainly, the idea of finding opportunities to engage students in learning that leverages an institution’s own collective expertise and “DNA” is not a new idea… and it is not an idea mutually exclusive to MOOCs, to be offered up in their place. In fact, it isn’t difficult to imagine these innovative programs being offered, at least to some degree, in MOOC format. Where I think Dr. Kim’s argument fails is that he blurs the distinction between program viability and demand as opposed to engaging delivery mechanisms and opportunities. Ideally, institutions should be looking to combine both of these elements.

That is not to say that the use of MOOCs will guarantee any measure of success. This is hardly the case–given the current levels of student preparedness, the revenue models under which different institutions operate, and lack of experience that many (if not most) institutions have in implementing non-traditional modes of online education, developing MOOCs can drain an institution’s resources while driving no change in the status quo of enrollments, retention, and student success.

The question of whether or not to implement MOOCs is preceded by the more basic question: “Under what circumstances can MOOCs thrive at my institution?” This is much more difficult to answer. What are the programs to be considered at MOOC candidates? How do we assess students for enrollment? And perhaps the elephant in the room for many institutions, especially those that are tuition-driven: how do we sustain the model without negatively impacting our revenue? While I cannot offer comprehensive answers (that discussion is just beginning in higher education), I can see some potential pathways for exploration:

  1. We should be looking at MOOCs as a delivery option for large enrollment courses with longer refresh cycles. At least while an institution embarks on the MOOC path, the economy-of-scale issue is a top-of-mind consideration to be addressed. Building MOOCs that will “be around for a while” with less need for revision while help in budgeting, and attaching MOOCs to courses that already may have more faculty (and even instructional design) resources associated with them will be helpful as well.
  2. MOOCs should not necessarily replace traditional on-ground and online courses, but rather they should be offered as a supplemental environment. As an additional learning environment, the existing student support mechanisms can still be utilized, which might mitigate some of the concern over the participation of tech-novice students. And keeping MOOCs associated with course that are funded traditionally is one way of covering their development and maintenance costs.
  3. We should seriously consider collaborative efforts between institutions and team mentorship (not “teaching”!) from an instructor pool. Again, the sharing of resources is a consideration, but a big “win” with this approach is the potential for extending and enhancing the learning community. Ultimately, if we are able to provide more types of support for our students, we widen our pathways to improved student success.

Are MOOCs for everyone? Certainly not, at this point in time. However, taking a measured look at how MOOCs might be integrated into an institution’s existing model of instruction is a conversation that will be coming up more and more in higher education.

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Filed under colleges and universities, cost of education, education technology, face-to-face instruction, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, learning outcomes, MOOCs, online education

Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Filed under children, colleges and universities, computer games, creativity, education, education technology, effective practices, emerging technologies, face-to-face instruction, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, legacy systems, online education, smartphones, social media, Student Information System, tablets, technology, virtual college

Entrepreneurship and Instructional Content: Using Kickstarter to Fund Games for Education

by Hap Aziz

The development of course content, especially at higher levels where students are more sophisticated and discerning regarding their academic materials, has always been a challenge. It is important to be able to strike a balance between cost of development (both in resources and labor), instructor expertise, and turn-around time (or development time in response to current or recent events that might have an impact on the course learning objectives). Basically, it has been a question of what can the instructor build by him or herself, in time for the upcoming lessons, that isn’t going to involve a budget request from the department. Because of this dynamic, the “promise” of computer games transforming the education landscape has never really been realized, it if the prevailing thinking around this doesn’t change, neither will the landscape. What likely needs to occur is a shift in the expectation of games in education; designing a learning activity that plays like Modern Warfare–or even Angry Birds–is well out of reach of faculty skills and department budgets.

A possible pathway out of this impossible maze of twisty passages involves two strategies to be executed simultaneously:

  1. Utilize game formats and development tools that individual instructors can use effectively
  2. Be creative in finding methods of funding (and the funding should only need to cover relatively small amounts)

It is with both of these points in mind that I developed the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative Kickstarter project. To the first point, I selected an “old school” type of computer game that can be developed quite effectively by a single person; an instructor who wishes to build something small scale in time for the upcoming semester, for example. To the second point, I decided to fund my project through Kickstarter, a crowd sourced funding model in which backers make donations rather than investments (meaning that if the developer is able to raise the funding, there is no pressure that the project become profitable enough for repayment).

My idea is simple: if instructors can use a form of computer games such as Interactive Fiction (a form that the literature shows is effective even with reluctant readers), they would be able to develop smaller game exercises that can be integrated into their curriculum, and expanded upon over time. With Kickstarter funding covering some relatively minor miscellaneous costs, there would be no significant budgetary impact to take into consideration.

(In fact, we could go even further and consider the creation of an education-specific form of Kickstarter. Imagine institutions tapping into their alumni base for course material development or even program funding on a smaller scale.)

I invite you to review the Kickstarter project by clicking here. The funding window is open until early June on that project. You can find additional material on the project at the official project blog by clicking here. Please feel free to share your thoughts, and I’ll be sure to report back throughout the development process.

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Filed under colleges and universities, computer games, cost of education, crowdsourcing, education course content, education technology, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, higher education, Interactive Fiction, Kickstarter,, technology, vintage technology