Hosting Course Content in the Cloud (or, There’s Got to Be a Better Way!!)

I cannot sing the praises of cloud storage loudly enough.  The cloud has revolutionized the way I deal with files and if it’s not changed your life yet, it’s only because you’ve not tried it or haven’t used it properly.   While I could go on about the collaboration tools and the ability to host forms and collect data and all that great stuff, I’m going to to restrain myself for now and talk about one big topic that’s dear to my heart (or at least that has a major impact on my day-to-day work).

If you’ve read this blog with any regularity (or just looked at the “About.Me” in on the right-hand side of the page), you’ll see that I’m the Senior Analyst and Blackboard Administrator for a community college in New Jersey.  Our institution does not have the infrastructure or finances required to host Blackboard on site, so we’ve opted to use Blackboard’s managed hosting services rather than buying the necessary hardware and hiring the additional staff required to maintain physical servers.  Managed Hosting has proven to be a fantastic solution for us, and I’d recommend it for any cash-strapped institutions who want to be competitive in the online course market.  But because we are managed hosting clients, we do have some restrictions, and space is one of them.  That space issue, dear readers, is the topic of today’s sermon.

One of the biggest issues I face as a Blackboard administrator is the constant need to evaluate the amount of space being used on our Blackboard servers.  We set limits for course sizes, but (of course), we get those calls from faculty who are desperate to add content to their courses after having met their quota for the course.  While I could be a jerk and say “You’ve met your quota…. figure it out.”  I don’t do that.  I try to accommodate the faculty requests and help as much as possible..  (We are on the same team, after all).  But there comes a point where I have to drop the tough love bomb and utter that oh-so-difficult two-letter word….. “no”, and direct them to post their materials in the cloud, then post links in Blackboard that will direct students to the files that are hosted on the cloud servers.

For the most part, I recommend that our faculty use Google Drive, for two big reasons.  First, most folks already have Google accounts, so the setup is very simple.  Second, and more importantly, in my mind, Google Slides presentations are mobile-friendly by default.  We have a responsibility to our students to meet them where they are, and most of them want to be able to access course materials via a mobile device.  So, when I meet with faculty to discuss moving materials to the cloud, here’s how I tackle it.  I talk about…….

Benefits of Cloud Storage

  • All documents for all courses in one easy-to-access location.
  • Updated documents are immediately available in online course shells.
  • No more uploading documents to multiple sections.  The single link to the document in the cloud can be used in all sections of a course.
  • Works great on mobile devices!
  • Saves space on Bb servers and keeps Rodney happy.

Usually, points 2 and 3 are the ones that get ’em hooked.  If you’ve ever taught an online course, you know what I’m talking about here. In the pre-cloud era, if you’ve misspelled a word or decided to add something to a presentation or document, you had to update the file on your computer, re-upload the updated file to the LMS and repeat the process for each class in which the presentation or document appeared.  That’s not a big deal for one or two items, but if you have to make substantial edits throughout the course of the semester, it can get really tedious and time-consuming.

But, if you’ve got everything in the cloud, you just open the document or presentation, make your edits, save your work, and you’re done.  The only thing you need to do to get started is to upload your materials to the cloud, share the presentations or documents or whatever, copy the link to the presentation or document, and add it to your online course.  That’s it!

Over the next few days/weeks, I’Il be posting a series of articles on how to use Google Drive to manage course content in the cloud and completely liberate yourself from the old-fashioned chore of edit, upload, repeat….

Til next time……

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Life in the Cloud: Day Eight (or Oooh! Lava hot!!)

Well, the day-to-day workstuff in the cloud is pretty easy all the way around.  I’m trying to use Google Docs and Google Drive a little bit more just to see if they’re any more flexible and less resource-intensive than their Microsoft counterparts, and on the Chrome browser, they certainly appear to be.  Although, I suppose, to be fair I’d need to use the Microsoft Office Web Apps in Internet Explorer, but I’ve had so many bad experiences with Internet Exploder in the past that I’m just not sure I’m ready to take the experiment to that level… just yet.

Today’s issue does however concern the functionality of one the Microsoft Web Apps… Outlook.  I had to step on the lavafloor a couple of times today thanks to the Outlook Web App.  Sure, I’m running the web app in Chrome and maybe if I ran it in IE perhaps I wouldn’t encounter these issues, but I don’t think that’s the case.  Today, I had to search through some older e-mails and it occurred to me that the Outlook Web App doesn’t have the basic sorting and searching capabilities that are native to its desktop counterpart.  A search that only took a couple of seconds in the desktop application was complicated and damned near impossible in the web app.  Oh, and Quick Parts.  The web app doesn’t have quick parts which I oh so dearly love…  So, since I’m having to write similar responses to student e-mails today, I realized that it was unproductive to try and do it in the cloud (although I’ve got a method that works reasonably well) and just gave up and used the desktop app for a little while.

Dammit.  My shoes and socks are burned clean through!

Tomorrow is another day.

~Rodney

Image above borrowed from http://fatkidatcamp.com/2011/07/25/monday-funny-116/the-floor-is-lava/

Life in the Cloud: Day Seven (or Steady as She Goes)

Very, very, very, very little to report right now.  Today has been a day of helping students and faculty prepare for the coming 10-week semester.  The experiment is still in process, my feet are staying off the lavafloor, but there have been no major developments in either direction.

I’m simply posting this so as to not break the chain.

Life in the Cloud: Day Six (or The Issue of Load)

Living in the cloud!  It’s so liberating!  So exciting!  It’s so… freaking… slow…

I will be the first to admit that during the course of everyday work, I put my computers through some serious abuse.  Most folks would never have any need to do the horrible things I do to my workstation on a daily basis.  At the end of the day, my workstation can often be heard sighing with relief as I shut it down for the evening, assuming, of course,  that I’ve not had to leave it powered on overnight in order to process some batch job or another.

Today, as I labor to do everything possible in the cloud, I’m finding that my workstation is running much slower than usual.  Okay, my first confession is that I’m using Storyline to convert some PowerPoint presentations into web-ready presentations, something which cannot be done on the cloud.  My second confession is that my workstation is going through its weekly virus scan.  My third confession is that I’ve got 12 tabs open in Chrome, one page open in Firefox, and am playing Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 23 on Spotify.  (I’ve never knowingly listened to Viotti until today, but it’s good stuff.)

But, I’m also working on a workstation that’s a little bit more powerful than what most folks are accustomed to, and one would think that even with this great load of work processing that my machine would be able to handle whatever punishment I dole out.  Apparently not.

Which brings me to the point of today’s episode in the Experiment.  We are a community college and we serve a wide variety of students from a diverse set of economic circumstances.  Some of our students have Alienware machines which are designed to run resource-intensive games without problem, while other students are on Windows XP machines that can barely run Internet Explorer 7 and an instance of Word 2003 simultaneously without surrendering to the Blue Screen of Death.

How do we direct students to work exclusively in the cloud when the machines they’re running can’t handle the load?  What ARE the minimum requirements, the absolute bottom from which they can work?  Will a more modern netbook do the job?  Would the same XP machine work with a Linux OS instead of XP?  If so, how do you instruct students to make such a dramatic shift?

Hmmmmm…..

Life in the Cloud: Day Five (or Mmmmmm… Cupcakes)

Over the weekend, my wife made some truly amazing cupcakes. She doesn’t bake very often, but when she does, it’s an event and the results are a wonder to behold. This time around, she made cupcakes for someone’s birthday using a recipe she found on Pinterest. Now, my wife is not a techie type person. As a matter of fact, she just started using a smartphone about a week ago (she upgraded to the Galaxy S3 from a non-smartphone), and she’s still adjusting to the shift. But the fact that she was able to access Pinterest (her new stuff sharing service of choice, after being addicted to StumbleUpon for years), and locate the recipe without even knowing what she was looking for has really got me to thinking of how the web and social media in particular have redefined the way we learn.

So what does that have to do with the topic? Nothing much, but a lot when you consider how dramatically our lives have been altered by the Internet. Folks who aren’t techies now spend a considerable amount of time online doing things that were unimaginable not that long ago. My job as an instructional technology guy is to make it so that folks use technology without realizing what’s going on behind the scenes, hence the experiment about which I am blogging….

Today, the experiment yielded more of the same positive results as I created a series of documents in OnCloud for use in a project, stored the documents in a series of Dropbox folders and used the iPad to access the docs and take notes during meetings. More of the same stuff I was doing on Friday, but with the same results.

I’m a week in to this project and am realizing that things are starting to get easy. Either I’m getting the hang of doing this, or I’m not challenging myself enough. I’m still steering clear of the lavafloor, but what else can I do while I’m up here???

Stay tuned.

~Rodney

Life on the Cloud: Day Four (or The Right Tool for the Job)

The first week of this experiment has seen a wild blend of successes and setbacks, but more importantly, it held a lot of lessons for this Instructional Technology geek.

Today, I’m going to take a minute to sing the praises of Evernote.  If you’re reading this, the odds are that you’ve been using Evernote for a while and know all about its capabilities.  But in case you’re not aware, Evernote is one of the most popular and trusted cloud-based note-taking apps out there.  With Evernote, you install the app to your mobile device(s) (iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile are all supported) and create notes (which can include text, audio, images, or video) on the app then sync the notes to the cloud.  Unlike CloudOn (which for some reason I always want to call OnCloud), Evernote notes can be created, saved, accessed and updated from any practically any mobile device.  Today, I went to a meeting and decided to leave the iPad in the office and use Evernote on my Android phone to take notes.  Once I got back to the office, I opened the app in Google Chrome and lo and behold, there were my notes, organized into my Evernote “workstuff” notebook.    It’s just that simple.

For those of us who remember having to write notes on paper, then try to decipher our handwriting and type the notes into the computer upon our return to the office, this is an amazing innovation indeed.   It’s all about adapting…

The point of the whole Life in the Cloud experiment is to explore ways in which I can change my professional practices to work in the cloud and be productive from anywhere.  Can I live in the cloud?  Certainly.  I’ve worked in all sorts of environments over the years and can quickly adapt to any new technology.  That’s what I do.  The cloud and mobile technologies are simply the latest steps in that journey.  Can I really get used to accessing, editing, updating, deleting, or otherwise working with my files from anywhere?  Sure.  Can these alleged time-saving apps actually save me time?  Sure.  Can I actually use these tools without stepping on the lavafloor?  Well, that’s a little trickier, but I’m doing it. It’s all about changing habits and adapting to new innovations.

The goal of this little experiment is to collect data which will inform our decisions as we develop and implement strategies to help our students and faculty utilize cloud-based tools in online and face-to-face classes.

Ultimately, we want to make the technology as transparent as possible so that the faculty can focus on teaching and the students can focus on learning.

But alas, I’ve begun to ramble… So I’ll stop here and run off to enjoy my weekend.

~Rodney

Life on the Cloud: Day 3 (or Turbulence in the Cloud)

If you’re going to live on the cloud, you’d best make sure that you’ve got all the tools you’ll need before you get up there. So far, it’s not been that bad, but this experiment is entering its third day and now all of a sudden, I’m encountering a little turbulence and the ride is a bit bumpier than what I would have liked.

It seems as if my Java installation is corrupt or malfunctioning or something. Firefox keeps spitting out errors but Chrome acts like it doesn’t notice anything. So I get to fix my Java issues… yippee. Is this stepping off the cloud? Yeah, I guess so, although I’m not really running any desktop applications, I’m still not in the cloud doing this good stuff. More updates later.

Updated 11:20am (EDT)

So my Java situation has been rectified. The problem stemmed from the fact that when Java is updated, older versions of Java are not automatically removed. After trying to uninstall the older versions, I realized that traces of old versions of Java (registry entries, etc.) remain behind after the program has been uninstalled. Oh, joy.

Rather than digging through the registry and possibly screwing things up, I turned to Microsoft FixIt. I downloaded and ran the FixIt program, it removed all traces of Java from my machine and I was able to install Java Version 7, Update 7. Ugh.

Updated 6:09pm

So after the Java nightmare earlier in the day, I was able to get back up on my cloud and spend the rest of the day without touching the dreaded lavafloor. As a matter of fact, the experiment went splendidly this afternoon as I was in a couple of meetings and used CloudOn on the iPad to take notes and jot down ideas. CloudOn is a wonderful little app that allows you to create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint presentations on an iOS or Android device and sync them to your Dropbox or Google Drive. The MS Office clone apps in CloudOn are not quite as powerful as their desktop counterparts, but they get the job done with ease, and really… would you want to create a full-on hardcore PowerPoint presentation with all the bells and whistles on your iPad?

All in all, ignoring the Java debacle, it was a successful day in the Cloud. Tomorrow is Friday and I think it’ll be a raging success… Or at least I hope it will.

~Rodney