Ask Learners to Prove They’re Learning with NEXTCHA

Ask Learners to Prove They’re Learning with NEXTCHA

Drawing off the idea of the CAPTCHA, the NEXTCHA asks learners to answer a question before proceeding through an activity.  I like the idea, but I don’t know that I’d implement it on every slide of a presentation. It seems to be an excellent way to engage learners and to make sure that they comprehend critical elements of the lesson before progressing to more complex concepts.

The Debate Rages On (or The Validity of Online Lab Science Courses)

When you get your taxes done, do you really care whether or not your accountant has ever dissected a cat?

It’s late and I’m thinking.  Never a good combination, I suppose, but this has been running through my mind a lot since a session yesterday on the fully online lab science courses created and offered by SinclairOnline.

After the presentation, the discussion turned to the question of whether or not a fully online lab science course is TRULY equivalent to a face-to-face lab.  One person brought up the fact that no one would want to have a doctor who had only completed online science courses, and I would have to agree.  When I go to a surgeon, I trust that this individual has done a lot of work on a lot of real live bodies before he/she took the scalpel to my flesh.

But this misses the point.  No one is suggesting the development of a fully-online medical school.  No one is suggesting that real hands-on experience in a science lab should not be required for students who intend on working in scientific fields upon graduation.  However, for students who are majoring in subjects such as HRIM (Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management), Aviation, Dance or Digital Media Production (to name a few), why should such an emphasis be placed on the use of a real scalpel to cut the real flesh of a real dead cat.  Of what practical use will the hands-on examination of blood cells through a real microscope be to a student whose goal is be an historian?

Students who major in biology, chemistry, physics, nursing, and funeral service will have ample opportunities to get their hands dirty in a lab, and should, by all means, take as many hands-on traditional lab science courses as possible.  And in an ideal world, it would be wonderful if ALL students had the opportunity to participate and experience a full traditional lab science course.

But we don’t live in an ideal world.
Lab space is at a premium.
Budgets have been slashed.
We can’t hire more teachers.
We can’t build more science labs.
We can’t buy more equipment.
More than ever, community colleges are being asked to do more with less.

This is where the online lab science course is MOST needed.  With the online lab science course, students cover the same material, complete the same assignments, and meet the same outcomes.  The delivery method is different, yes.  But the end result remains the same.  Students learn the same concepts.  No, they don’t get to handle scalpels.  No, they don’t get to smell the formaldehyde.  But they DO get to master the concepts and understand the critical elements of the course.

By providing online lab science options to students, we free up valuable lab space for students who are pursuing degrees in the “hard sciences”.

Just my late night thoughts….

Comments, questions, concerns or (gentle) criticisms are always welcome.


INND13: Day 1 – Session 5 – Pioneering Online Science Lab


In 2006, Sinclair began work on fully online degrees, which brings up the big challenge… How do you teach science online? After much internal discussion, they began to develop a fully online Astronomy Lab course. Using a team of faculty, Instructional designer, graphic designers, and flash developers, they created all the course content from scratch.

The course is housed in ANGEL, and includes text and multimedia elements to deliver instruction and assessments. As always, the most difficult part of creating an online science lab course is making certain that the lab sessions are equivalent, regardless of delivery method.

Established six standards for online labs, to make certain that onlinelabs are equivalent to face to face labs. Online labs must be:

  1. Intuitive
  2. Clear instructions
  3. accessible
  4. Reusable
  5. Platform Independent
  6. Meets Learning Objectives

Engaging Online Astronomy Students

Received a grant to explore possibility of putting lab online. Initially put materials online for face-to-face students to explore before developing and launching fully online version. Face to face students were impressed by online resources and their feedback encouraged faculty to move forward with development. Course Materials include step-by-step video instructions which demonstrate how students are to complete labs and interactive flash-based activities which students complete to meet learning objectives. In some cases, the web-based versions were easier for student to use and helped foster greater comprehension of course material. Outside publisher resources were employed to further enhance course materials where it was not feasible for the college to produce the materials in-house. Utilized 4 team fishbowl discussion forums. Fishbowl forums allow teams to post to each other and allow non-team members to view other teams’ observations but not respond inside of forum.

Immersing Online Students in Biology

As programs expanded, online Anatomy and Physiology course was needed. Online class mirrors face to face outcomes, objectives, and tests. “Articulation lab” has students open a virtual box of bones and assemble the structures as indicated. Provides direct and instant feedback to students, and assesses their knowledge of material. Also developed Android app “Skeletal Lab” for articulation exercises. “Blood Smear Lab” reproduces blood smear activities as done in class. Students perform all adjustments on virtual microscope to get blood cells into focus. Cells contain pop-ups which describe individual formed elements. Also contains a fetal pig dissection with video of real live dead pig dissection and then flash activities where students virtually dissect a pig and review various parts.

And the question comes up… Is the online lab equivalent to the traditional lab? In my mind, it depends.

What are the course objectives?
How will the course impact the students in later classes?

But this is something that will require deeper consideration and much greater analysis…

On a Personal Note (or Dallas in PJ’s) #INND13

I’m a bit of an introvert and I very rarely promote myself or any of my endeavors.  For instance, I’m in a band and always feel guilty when I send out Facebook invitations to my friends each time we schedule a gig.  However, I feel compelled to mention this because I’m just so excited about it.

Each year, the League for Innovation in the Community College hosts an annual conference.  This year, the conference, Innovations 2013, (Twitter: @InnovationsConf or search #INND13) is being held from March 10-13 at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, TX.  I mention this because at this conference, Prof. Ellen Genovesi and I are presenting on our experience in the design, development, execution and support of a fully-online lab science course (Human Anatomy).  The session, which we’ve lovingly titled “Biology Lab in Your Pajamas! The Fully Online Lab Science Course“, will be presented on March 12 from 2:30 to 3:30.  This is my first time presenting at a national conference, so I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity.

Prof. Ellen Genovesi (the content expert), and I (the instructional technology geek) have planned an entertaining and informative session in which we’ll discuss every aspect of the process, from the initial course proposal all the way through to the feedback we received from students who’ve completed the course.  If you’re an instructional technology kind of person or a science faculty member or just someone who wants to see how a lab science course can be taught online, this session will provide some insight from a couple of folks who’ve seen the process all the way through and lived to tell about it.

Oh, and as an extra added bonus, we will be wearing pajamas for this presentation. Seriously.

That’s it for my plug.


Hope to see you in Dallas,


Life in the Cloud: Day 2 (or It’s Either Simple or It Can’t Be Done…)

I hate to write something that says nothing, but that’s pretty much what I’m doing now… 

A lot of the things I do just can’t be done in the cloud (yet).  Today was one of those days where the Life in the Cloud experiment went well simply because there is no way to do perform some of my work in the cloud.  I require too many specialized applications and too much dedicated local processing power. 

So on one hand, day 2 of the experiment could be considered an utter failure because I couldn’t do most of my work in the cloud. But on the other hand, it was a great success because everything that could be done in the cloud came easily and I encountered no stumbling blocks along the way. 

Tomorrow, however, is another day with its own unique set of challenges. We shall see…


Life in the Cloud: Day 1 (or Slightly Singed)

So the first day of my 30 day experiment has come to a close.  Overall, it was a success.  However, the first thing I’ve realized is that I do a lot more in a day than I think I do, and I use a lot more tools than I realize.  On the list I posted yesterday, I forgot about the amount of audio file conversions I perform.  I often receive files in .WAV or .WMA format which must be converted to a .MP3 format in order to optimize them for web delivery, and today, I received a batch of such files.  What to do???

My first thought was to use for the audio conversions, but the problem with Zamzar is that I can only upload one file at a time, and it kicks out links to individual files which must be downloaded separately.  Although a relatively simple solution, it isn’t really the most efficient or effective way to do things.  So I did a little bit of research and discovered  I tend to steer away from tools with such obvious names because of all the Malware and other such nastiness I’ve encountered over the years.  But lo and behold, did exactly what it promised, quickly, efficiently, and without infecting my workstation.  I was able to batch process the audio files and download them as a single file.  Who could ask for more?  So, instead of using my usual audio conversion tools, I was able to do the file conversions on the web without touching the lavafloor. (See yesterday’s entry for an explanation on the lavafloor concept).

I also had to take a single MS Word document and break it up into several smaller PDF files.  I almost touched the lavafloor on this one, but somehow managed to keep my limbs inside the ride at all times by using Microsoft Web Apps.  I loaded the .DOCX file into the MS Word Web app and started working on it, but the problem is that the Word web app doesn’t allow you to open up multiple documents at the same time.  So, instead of copying and pasting the text from one document into another and saving the resultant files as .PDF documents, I had to cut out only what I wanted from the document, save it as a .PDF, restore the deleted text, then repeat the process for each new document I was creating.  Not much more time or labor consuming than what I would have done, but still not the ideal solution.

As the title of this post indicates, I did get slightly singed today and wound up opening a desktop application, but not for long.  So rather than actually burning myself on the lavafloor, I only singed myself a little.  After thinking about it, I realized that I could have performed the operation in the cloud, but I was in a bit of a rush and didn’t think about it.  So what was the application and what was the purpose??  I had to resize an image.  Had I been thinking, I could have easily uploaded the image into Pixlr or the app and resized it.  But I didn’t.   I opened up Paint, resized the image, saved it, and went on about my business.  So, this was a misstep onto the lavafloor.  It wasn’t caused by any limitations of the cloud, it happened because I’m so used to doing things in a certain way, and I’m still getting used to the experiment.

Final rating for the day?  On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being a complete failure and 10 being a total success), the cloud gets an overall rating of 10, and I get an overall rating of 9.  Not too shabby for a beginning.  But I do things which are much more complex than this…  Let’s see where it goes from here.

Stay tuned…


The Beginning of a Great Adventure (or The Floor is Made of Lava)

When I was a kid, I used to play this game called “the floor is made of lava.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  Maybe you’ve even played it yourself.  For the uninitiated, the rules go something like this.  The hardwood floor (or shag carpet or linoleum tile or whatever) is made of lava.  Your mission is to navigate the room without touching the lavafloor.  You can climb on the shelves, the desk, the dresser, the bed, the TV or any other furniture, as long as you don’t touch the floor.  You can even stand on your shoes if your shoes are on the lavafloor, but you can’t touch the lavafloor yourself.  If you drop something and it hits the lavafloor, then you can’t pick it up because it’s in the lava.  If you, yourself, touch the lavafloor, then you have 3 seconds to get off of the lavafloor or else the game is over.

Um… ok.  How does that relate to instructional technology?

I’ve decided to undertake an experiment and will be documenting the process here.  The experiment is this… for the next 30 days, the floor will be made of lava.  I will not use any desktop applications other than my web browsers, Spotify, and a couple of internal applications that we use here for which there are no web-based alternatives.  I’ll be working exclusively in the cloud and documenting the successes and failures of my journey.   Think of it as the “floor is made of lava” game for grown-ups.  I’m sure I’ll touch the floor on occasion, but so long as I don’t abandon the mission altogether, then I’ll be safe and I’ll just have made a misstep.

Why am I doing this?

My reasoning is twofold.  First, I’m trying to see just how well our students would be able to perform in a fully web-based environment.  If they were to take an online course with us and didn’t have access to any additional software, would they be able to succeed?  Second, I’m trying to envision the office work of the future.  Our job is to educate our students and prepare them for the “real world.” What will the “real world” be like in 2 years?  Will we still be using big productivity suites or will we be more reliant on web-based apps which can be accessed from any device without relying on operating system specific software.  I’m trying to see if I can function in the “OS agnostic” world of the web.

What tools I’m using (for now)

There are scads of tools that can be used for this experiment, but here’s the list I’m starting out with… I’m sure it will expand as the experiment progresses, but here’s how I’m starting.

Web Browsers: Google Chrome, Firefox
File Storage: 
Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft Skydrive, Apple iCloud
Productivity Suite: Google Docs, Microsoft Office Webapps
Image Editor: Pixlr
Screen Capture: Pixlr Grabber
Text Editor: Drive Notepad (Chrome app)
Instant Messenger: (Chrome app)
Additional Presentations: Prezi
FTP Client: FireFTP (Firefox add-on)

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post to see how (and if) I survived day one of the experiment…

As always, any questions, comments, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms are always welcome.


PowerPoint Plus – Part Two: Yes, You DO Need To Draw Me a Picture.

PowerPoint is a visual tool.  Using it to project copious amounts of text onto a wall is not an effective use of the tool.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, every word that appears on a PowerPoint slide should serve a specific purpose.  If the text does not directly address the point, it should be omitted.  As you create your presentation, look for ways to condense the text and find more economical ways of making your point. Remember.  You are the presentation, PowerPoint is the tool.

The Rule of Six aka The 1-6-6 Rule aka The 6-6-6 Rule

If you’ve done any research on designing PowerPoint presentations, you’ve probably encountered the infamous “Rule of Six” or one of its countless variations.  This “rule”, which has been floating around for at least a decade, suggests that presentations should be created with one primary idea per slide, no more than six bullet points per slide, no more than six words per bullet point, and no more than six all-text slides in a row. On the surface, these don’t seem to be bad suggestions, but they work better in theory than they do in practice.

Think about it.  Under this “rule”, it’s recommended that your presentation contain thirty-six consecutive bullet points, so long as each bullet point contains no more than six words and the bullet points are spaced out equally over six separate slides.  HOGWASH!  POPPYCOCK!  BALDERDASH!  It is never acceptable to present thirty-six bullet points in a row.

So what are you supposed to do???  

Remember.  You’re the expert.  Your presentation is on a topic in which you are well-versed.  Your audience is there to hear what you have to say, not read a bunch of bullet points.  Design your presentation so that it is an aid, not an impediment.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Bullet Points

This is where the fun begins.  If you’re not supposed to use tons of text, what are you to do?  Images. Images. Images.  It can be challenging to find images which convey your ideas, but well-selected images will serve you (and more importantly, your audience) far better than a screen full of bullet points ever could.

If you’re presenting on a progression of events in chronological order (either in the form of a timeline or a step-by-step instruction), it’s pretty simple to use images to tell your story.  It’s a little more difficult to find images to express complex concepts, and sometimes it simply can’t be done.  But, more often than not, there is an image that can help get your point across.  If nothing else, the use of an image as the slide background can help set the mood for the concept you’re introducing and provide you with a fresh canvas on which to present your ideas. (More on that later)

When possible, use images that you have created, either in the form of photographs you’ve taken or images you’ve designed a graphics editing program.  But if you need to get images from another source, there are plenty of resources online.  Try to avoid clip art and animated GIF’s.  Such images, like the Comic Sans font, may seem cute at first, but your audience will find it hard to take you seriously.  

If you have access to an image repository such as Shutterstock or Getty Images, then you’ve already got a wealth of materials at your disposal.  However, if you don’t have access to such a repository and don’t have the budget to purchase images, fear not!  There are many other excellent resources for images.  In 2009, the website Cats Who Code published a list of 50 sites to find free stock images that can be incredibly helpful.

Personally, my first stop for images is Flickr Creative Commons which contains images released for use under the Creative Commons license.  Check out this post for a step-by-step walkthrough of how to locate and download Creative Commons licensed images from Flickr.

Make It Cool!

Regardless of where you find them, images are a critical component of any great PowerPoint presentation.  If you’ve ever created a PowerPoint presentation, you’ve undoubtedly inserted an image into the slideshow, so I won’t bore you with the step-by-step on how to do that.  What I do want to mention, however, is that PowerPoint 2010 contains a wealth of image manipulation tools which allow you to apply some impressive effects to your graphics without having to use a complex high-end image editor.

To apply effects, insert an image into your presentation, click on the image, then go to the “Picture Tools | Format” tab in the ribbon.  In the Adjust section, click on the “Artistic Effects” dropdown to preview some of the effects available.  Once you’ve selected an artistic effect, click on the “Color” dropdown to enhance or modify the color of the image, or click on the “Corrections” dropdown to change the brightness or contrast of the image.

Be prepared to spend some time with this, not because it’s difficult, but because you’ll have so much fun playing with the different options that it’ll be hard to decide which enhancements you want to use. For the example below, I used the “Paint Strokes” artistic effect, applied 300% Saturation, then decreased the brightness and increased the contrast by 20%, all with a few clicks of the mouse.

Before After

This is a significant improvement over the original, but what if you I want to take it even further?  I like the idea of using this image on a slide, but I’d much instead of putting an image on the slide, I want the image to BE the slide!

It’s actually pretty simple.  To use an image as the slide background, RIGHT CLICK on the slide and select  “Format Background”. In the window that appears, click on the “File” button, select the image you want to use as your background, then close the Format Background window.

Then, it’s just a matter of making a couple of minor adjustments… You’ll need to suppress any background graphics on the slide. To do this, go to the Design tab, and make sure the Hide Background Graphics checkbox is selected. Then, adjust the font face, size, and color for any text on the slide and you’re ready to go!

Before After

And that does it!  The key here is to create or locate high quality images for your presentation and once you’ve added the images to your presentation, give yourself the liberty to explore and experiment with the multitude of options that are available to you.   Exceptional PowerPoint presentations don’t just happen.  They’re are envisioned, designed, constructed, and reconstructed.

I certainly hope you got something out of this which you might find helpful, and as always, any comments, questions, concerns or (gentle) criticisms are welcome.


PowerPoint Plus – Part One: Themes and Things

Let’s start out with a simple one, shall we?  You may know that PowerPoint comes with lots of preconfigured themes, but did you know that you can customize the themes to better suit your personality and purpose? This post discusses how to select a PowerPoint theme and how to customize the colors and fonts of the selected theme.

Unless you’re presenting to an gathering of infants or aliens, the odds are that your audience members will have seen PowerPoint presentations in the past, so getting flashy with the animations and graphics won’t impress many people.  But that doesn’t mean that you want your presentation to consist of merely a white screen with black Arial font.  On the contrary, you’ll want your presentation to be unique.  This is where themes come into play.

When creating a PowerPoint presentation, the first thing you’ll want to do is select a theme.  Under the Design tab in PowerPoint 2010, there is a  wide variety of pre-configured themes available.  If none of the themes quite suit your needs, you can always visit Microsoft’s website and find a new theme.

Once you’ve selected a theme to work from, you can customize the color scheme by clicking on the “Colors” drop-down which can be found just to the right of the row of themes.

As you can see in the image on the right, there are plenty of preconfigured color schemes which can be applied to your presentation.  To apply a color scheme, just click on the color scheme you want to use and you’re done!

But if none of the pre-configured color schemes meet your needs, you can customize the color scheme by clicking on the “Create New Theme Colors…” link at the bottom of the “Colors” dropdown.

This will load the Create Theme screen where you can customize the colors for your theme.  This will probably involve a bit of trial and error, but once you’ve got your custom colors ready, you can re-use them in future PowerPoint presentations.

A word of caution: Creating your own color scheme can be tricky. Although selecting the colors is simple, it’s critical that you try to use color schemes which won’t distract your audience or which won’t be clearly visible to color blind individuals.

If you want to explore color theory further, there are a wealth of websites devoted to the topic. For a quick introduction to color theory, check out this article from There are also a lot of websites which will help you design color schemes using the color wheel.  A couple of the sites I use to assist with the development of color schemes are colorsontheweb and colorschemedesigner.

Selecting Fonts

In addition to creating a custom color palette, PowerPoint also allows for the creation of font themes. While not everyone will want use a custom font theme, they can come in very handy and can add a personal touch to a PowerPoint presentation.  To create a custom font theme, click on the “Fonts” dropdown in the “Design” tab (just beneath the Colors dropbown).  There only two customizable elements (Heading Font and Body Font) each of which are pretty self-explanatory.

The key here is to use fonts which are easy to read and won’t distract the audience. The only “rule” is to NEVER use Comic Sans or other “handwritten” fonts as the heading or body fonts. These fonts may appear cute at first, but they quickly become tiresome and look horribly unprofessional.  For more information on typography and fonts check out this list of  8 Essential Web Typography Resources from Mashable.

I certainly hope I’ve enlightened you a little with this post, and next time I’ll discuss using images in PowerPoint.  When to use them, where to find them, and how they should be added and cited.

As always, any comments, questions, concerns or (gentle) criticisms are welcome.


PowerPoint Plus: Wise Design and Added Value

Welcome to the first post in a series of articles on PowerPoint presentation design strategies.  I was going to call this series “PowerPointers” but that name brings to mind images of a wild gang of needlepoint enthusiasts leaning against lampposts wearing meticulously embroidered leather jackets, twirling needlepoint frames around their fingers as they protect their turf… not exactly my target audience.  Perhaps a more brilliant title for this series will arise as I move forward.  We shall see.  But as this is not a series of articles on the coining of clever monikers, I do hope that you will forgive the lack of creativity in the heading…

So what’s the point??

This series will introduce methods I’ve used to make exciting, engaging PowerPoint presentations. I’ll be using PowerPoint 2010 for these posts, and for advanced PowerPoint creation, I do recommend using PowerPoint 2010 over PowerPoint 2007.  I’ve found that PPT 2010 contains several new functions which are indispensable.   This series isn’t about jazzing up your PowerPoint presentation with frivolous bells and whistles to your PowerPoint presentation.  It’s about using WISE DESIGN and ADDING VALUE.  While bells, whistles, animations, LOLcats, and video clips can be amusing, they are useless if they don’t add some sort of value to the presentation.

Design Wisely

Wise design basically means developing and implementing an economic design strategy.  In a wisely designed presentation, all elements serve a purpose.  Every word and image is in place for a reason.  Unnecessary information, images, and animations should be stripped away, leaving the presentation with only what NEEDS to be there.

But what if I NEED all those words on the slide?  The simple fact is, you don’t NEED them.  If you’re presenting in front of a live audience, your discussion will expand upon the information covered on the slides as you present.  If the slides are overloaded with text, images, and/or animations, the audience will pay more attention to what’s on the screen than to what’s being said, practically eliminating the need for a speaker!    If you’re presenting online or recording a voice-over narration, keeping your audience tuned in to the sound of your voice is even more difficult, and if your PowerPoint slides are too busy, the audience will tune you out as they read your slides.

But what if I want to hand out printed copies of my presentation?  Won’t they need all that text?  If you’d like to provide handouts of your presentation, use the Notes feature of PowerPoint to add all the text you had originally intended to include on your slides and print out the Notes pages so that your audience can walk away with any extra information you may have wanted to provide that wasn’t in the actual slides.   Better yet,  if you’re providing handouts,  don’t give them a copy of the PowerPoint at all!  Give them a single-page handout that ADDS VALUE but doesn’t reproduce the entire presentation.  Typically, there is no legitimate need to provide a slide-by-slide hard copy of your presentation.  You can always make your presentation available on the web so that interested parties may download and review it on their own.

One last thing about hard copies.  If you are providing them, try not to distribute them until AFTER you’ve completed your presentation.  Handouts can be a distraction, and you want your audience to be focused on YOU, not on the papers in their hands.

Adding Value

In order to design better PowerPoint presentations, we must first understand the role of PowerPoint.  Your performance as a presenter/teacher/facilitator should be the primary focus of the audience.  The audience should be engaged, excited, and eager to learn about your topic.  The PowerPoint presentation should not be your presentation, it should add value to your presentation.  Quite often, presenters will use PowerPoint as a crutch rather than a tool and instead of truly presenting on the topic, the presenter merely reads to the audience.  If people are paying to take a class or attend a seminar, they typically want something more exciting than a presenter reading slides.

The remaining posts in this series will discuss ways in which you can add value to your PowerPoint presentation, but perpetually reinforce the fact that the presentation itself should be clean and well-designed from the outset.

If you’re reading this and would like to contribute any ideas or have any requests for future PowerPoint articles, let me know…

As always, any comments, questions, concerns or (gentle) criticisms are welcome.