Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Re-designing Learning Spaces for a Laptop Environment

One of the things that I love about my job is that I never really know what my next project will be. This past year I became involved with furniture design. Not in the "lets start with wood and glue" kind of way, but in the "how do we make our open spaces more accommodating to students with laptops" way. We needed to rethink what defined a "learning space" and how we could make the open spaces of our building collaborative areas for students to work. We also wanted to re-think our Media Center space and how that could be made more collaborative.

One of the easiest and biggest changes we made was adding additional power. You could see students all huddled around the power outlets to charge their many devices. We added 16 outlets to each of our atriums - the large gathering spaces in the foyers (i.e. atriums) of our building. This was probably the biggest investment we could have made. We immediately saw students using these areas more.

We then had to think about furniture in those spaces. It needed to be multi-functional (we have "social" events there) and movable, but not so movable students would walk away with it and furnish their dorm rooms with it. In the end we decided on a large collaborative table (seats 6) at cafe height (see how I use those designer terms - I tell you I have a new calling) that had lamps that could be removed and be transformed into a serving buffet. Then we set-up one Atrium to be more comfortable, with lounge chairs and the other atrium with more tables and chairs. On the two-top tables we added plug extenders and lamps that I used zip-ties to attach the cables to the table pedestal. This allowed for cord management, but provided just a bit more of a deterrent for would be thieves. The four-top tables are movable and can be reconfigured to fit our needs. Overall for the past few months we have seen students using the area in all the ways we have intended  and nothing has gone missing!

The Media Center I was less involved with, but just as proud of. They did an excellent job of creating collaborative spaces for students to work together on projects as well as keep places for individuals to do homework or study. My favorite spots are the meeting areas that allow for six laptops to be connected and then switch between users. It truly demonstrates what a 21st century learning space can be!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

U-Streaming Tech Tuesdays

I have been conducting Tech Tuesdays (or it's previous carnation Wired Wednesday) for the past few years. Slowly, bit by bit I have had lower and lower attendance. I wasn't completely discouraged, faculty would ask if sessions would be taped and available later, so I felt that the content was worthwhile. I just could never get the timing right. Last year I started Ustreaming my classes. This did several things for me. 
  1. I was able to record my class easily - you can stream and record. Not only that  it automatically posts. I didn't have to go through the extra hassle of getting my video internet ready.
  2. I was able to stream my class that may be of interest to faculty that can't be on campus, or others in education that are interested.
  3. It created an automatic back-channel through the Ustream chat (once we got passed the do not watch the video as you sit in class - created sound)
My graduate student would stream and record my sessions as well as man the chat to see if there were any questions. By the end of the Fall semester my number of participants dropped to one maybe two people and they were always the same people. I decided to be more economical with my time and this year decided to only Ustream. One of the downfalls of Ustreaming a live class is that it can be difficult to capture the teacher's screen. Another issue was that most of my classes are centered around discussion or activties - not really stream or recording friendly activties. I really wanted these videos to serve as a resource for my faculty. So I decided to focus on the quality of my Ustreams and to stream out of my office in a controlled evnironment.
I used the video camera I traditionally stream with (Sony Handycam - it is a miniDV cam, but has a Firewire port that I can connect to my laptop), and shared my screen as well. In effect creating a streaming screencast. It took me awhile to finally get my settings down, but by the third Ustream we were working well.
At first I was having screen resolution issues. My audience could not read the words on my screen, especially when I was demoing an application. I have an excellent Internet connection so I decided to transmit with "Best SD Quality 16:9" I also had to lower my screen resolution on my own machine to 800x600. I recommend you change your screen resolution and close all un-needed applications before starting a UStream. I found that the application Backdrop on a Mac is perfect for hiding your messy desktop!
Then I set-up a few input scenarios. I wanted to be able to change form a talking head to a talking head with a screencast (PiP - Picture-in-Picture) to a screencast only - all while keeping the same audio input from my camera. Luckily, Ustream Producer will allow you to create these presets and save them. However I did run into audio issues (especially in my first Ustream). I found that I needed to test these pre-sets every time. I also needed to mute the audio on my computer so I wouldn't get re-verb issues. Once you start a stream, in order to change your settings or add more inputs you have to stop the stream, fix your issues and then re-start.
Eventually, my graduate student Preference and I had a good groove going. Fifteen minutes before we started we would get everything set-up, I would practice streaming with all of my inputs and she would sit next to me with a laptop tuned in wearing headphones. She also ran the chat for me while I talked. I could only do so many things at once, plus it messed with my screencast.
Overall my attendance was better we had up to 16 attendees for one session and as low as 2 for another. However, now I also have some great resource videos that I can use at a later date.
First Ustream Screencast (audio issues)

Latest Ustream Screencast - much better :)

If you have any suggestions to make my Ustreams better or topics that would endear themselves to a Tech Tuesday - please let me know. Check out my Ustream channel at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/tech-tuesdays Who knows what I will do next year!