From eLearning on Handhelds to eSurveys

Just when you think a technology has been surpassed by the next big thing, it sneaks up on you again. For years there have been various attempts to do interesting things with PDAs in the classroom. PDA manufacturers have funded grant programs to seek out creative applications that demonstrate why you should consider using PDAs for your students, or, encouraging or requiring them to make the purchase.

But the general sense is that the value of the PDA is in its name: a digital assistant, doing assistant-like things well, such as keeping track of your schedule, phone numbers and the occasional restaurant look-up in a foreign city.

Committing to a technology in search of applications is generally a high- risk endeavor. Various schools have tried, and the results have been interesting. Medical students at Harvard, for instance, all seem to have PDAs because scheduling time is a critical activity. For them, it’s worth the cost, especially given their income potential. For the rest of us, keying in on the ‘assistant’ attribute also shows some promise. Using PDAs as programmable data collection devices has proven useful (http://www.concord.org/research/handhelds.html).

The trend in classroom interactive tools has been to try to drive the cost of registering the students’ responses down, and put the effort into creative question presentation, management, response capture, and interpretation. Classroom response ‘clickers’ are in the $25 per unit range for a variety of products. The cost is in the special access point and software that is polling it, then processing and presenting the data.

WiFi may be changing all that. eLearning Dynamics Inc. (www.eLearningDynamics. com), in partnership with Wake Forest University, has entered the online course-tool arena with an approach that combines PocketPCs, dynamic interaction, and testing. The entire system is managed from a laptop computer via the enterprise services of an 802.11b wireless network. PocketClassroom software lets the faculty member poll the class with a variety of questions, instantly counting the responses and displaying them for just the instructor, or for the instructor and the students. Careful attention to classroom testing, assessment, and the workflow of handling these functions distinguishes PocketClassroom from many more extensive online learning suites.

Combining secure and confidential messaging with group and threaded discussion tools, all from the PocketPC, lets the instructor engage students in discussion and poll them when desired. Reporting tools for comparing students in the class, across classes, and across academic years is possible. It is unusual for a PocketPC device to enable such a wide suite of student testing options. However, it may give you a clue to know that the company’s heritage comes from the entertainment world, measuring responses to test audiences during screenings of Hollywood films.


As the Tablet PC starts to enter the marketplace, is there room for the handheld form factor? The personal device market is highly volatile, so it’s difficult to know whether the Tablet offers sufficient teaching and learning support for the price point to capture faculty, student, and institutional attention. Time will tell.

Briefs


A University of Michigan grad student faces up to five years in prison for hacking into the university’s computer system and stealing private usernames and passwords of over 60 students and professors.

Graphics programs dominated the Top 10 list of software applications sold to the academic market by Dallas-based Journey Education Marketing Inc., with Microsoft Office XP Professional taking the top spot.

Washington University purchased an open architecture Linux-based supercomputer which users say will help it build a community of users of parallel scientific computing.

Columbia University purchased the entire collection of Gale's 18th Century Collections Online, a digital content pool of 150,000 rare English-language and foreign-language books and papers published in Great Britain during the 18th century.

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Survey Says—
Outsource or Do It Yourself?

When the time comes to administer an online assessment, what do you do? You might develop your own Web page, marry it to a CGI script to have the results e-mailed to you as a text file, and spend time aggregating the results into something you hope will be useful. Alternately, if the survey is to go to a large number of people you might contract with an in-house service if your campus has one, or consider purchasing a testing package. If you’re on a campus with a course management system—and increasingly more campuses are investing in these systems—part of that system might administer one flavor or another of assessment.

But did you know that there are other options? A host of online survey firms have emerged on the Internet to offer you either flat rate or per-survey online assessment options. If you don’t have a package available to you from your school, or the one you have isn’t to your liking, consider using one of the many Web offerings (see box, below).

Do online survey services really offer a valuable service? You’ll have to judge that for yourself. I can tell you that a major institution, which shall remain nameless, was, like many, doing online surveys of its faculty. They were using a unit within their university that did good, quality, survey research. But it was primarily a survey that, with the right tools and some effort, might have been done in another way and for a lot less than the $65,000 a year that was being charged. That’s exactly what was done. A subscription to an online survey service was taken and the survey transferred to this delivery method. Statistical summaries were obtained, as before, and basic item analysis of the results provided.

But there are drawbacks to this approach. The data returned are from individual surveys and not therefore integrated into any on-going record of either the individual respondents or of a series of assessment instruments. That d'esn’t prevent someone from building this data set after the fact.
Whether or not you find online Web survey services useful depends on your needs. At the very least you should consider the option of outsourcing if it saves you time and money and provides what you need.

Syllabus2003
If you didn’t make it this year’s Syllabus conference, you missed a good one. The conversation was engaging, the visit to Stanford exciting, and the sessions worthwhile. This was an interesting ‘experiment.’ It combined a community discussion about teaching and learning with technology and a visit to a campus where we saw examples of different decisions about teaching with technology implemented. If you attended Syllabus, let me know what you thought of this approach to sharing ideas. Was the conference center plus campus visit a winning combination?

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