The History of “Innovation”

There I was, thinking myself so clever for coming up with “new” ways to grade papers.

No wonder that new ways to handle the paper load, advances in efficiency in the production of response, have a long history in the teaching of college composition. The use of lay readers (called “reading assistants” at Vassar before they were phased out in 1908) may be one of the earliest, but it was only a harbinger. Here is a short list of shortcuts, with date of earliest record I can find in the post-WWII literature.

  • Mark only the presence of problem, leaving it up to the student to locate and correct it (1940)
  • Use a projector to respond to student writing in class (1942)
  • Use a checklist, or rubberstamped scale of criteria (1950)
  • Hold one-on-one conferences to respond (1946)
  • Have fellow students read and respond to papers (1950)
  • Hold one-on-two or one-on-three conferences to respond (1956)
  • Record comments on audiotape (1958)
  • Respond only to praiseworthy accomplishments (1964)
  • Have students evaluate their own essays (1964)
  • Respond only to a limited number of criteria (1965)
  • Have students use computerized grammar, spelling, or style checkers (1981)
  • Add comments to the student’s digital text with word-processing footnotes or hypertext frames (1983)

Automated Conference Scheduling with Schedule Once

In a recent newsletter, I wrote about using Adobe Connect Pro web conferencing software to hold conferences with students in my online classes.  One burden in this practice is scheduling.  I started this summer with 60 students in my online classes and scheduling and managing that many conferences became a chore.  I used FerrisConnect’s Groups tool to set up one-person groups with a sign-up sheet.  I’d start by creating 75 slots and then manually typing in the time and date for each.  It would take a good twenty to thirty minutes or more each time to set up, and it was also time consuming to add more conferences slots later.

What’s Out There

For this semester, I researched several online scheduling services to see if there was some way to make scheduling more efficient.

For my choice, the system had to meet most of these criteria:

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Easy for students to use
  • Easy to set up many one-person time slots
  • Easy to vary the schedule from week to week
  • Output to a conference list I can follow when I am holding conferences
  • Allows students to reschedule

A lot of the systems I eliminated for complexity.  Most of those were for business and assumed multiple “resources” (i.e. staff) on a regular 9-5 schedule.  My schedule changes every week due to meetings and kids in school, etc., and I do conferences with classes every other week.  Some systems were for medical practices and had the look, feel, and text of a doctor’s office.  And a lot were set up for group meetings instead. After looking at a lot of systems, a couple stood out: Schedule Thing ( and Schedule Once (

Both Schedule Once and Schedule Thing are easy to set up and have a simple interface.  Schedule Once is ad supported and Schedule Thing is free for one resource (me).  Schedule Thing was originally written for restaurants, so the students would be signing up for “reservations.”  Table for one, I guess.

Using Schedule Once

Although I liked the cleaner interface and lack of ads better in Schedule Thing, I ultimately picked Schedule Once for one reason: setting up my schedule is much easier.  In Schedule Thing, you have to set up regular hours and then block out the time you’re not available.  Schedule Once links to Google Calendar; when I want to set up availability, it loads the calendar and I draw my availability on the calendar with a virtual highlighter pen, so I’m setting up the time I am available rather than setting up the time I’m “not unavailable.”  In other words, I set up my specific availability rather than start with a general schedule.

Here’s how Schedule Once works:

  • I set up my availability
  • I make the link available to students in my course
  • They visit the web site and pick times from a calendar
  • The student and I both get a confirmation email
  • Schedule Once creates an appointment on my Google Calendar

Some of the nice features: the web address for students is short (  After I set up availability, if I later block out unavailable time on Google Calendar, Schedule Once will schedule around it.

In order for it to work as I need it, I have to use Schedule Once in “appointment mode” rather than “meeting mode,” which is for coordinating a meeting with multiple people. Also I set up a rule in Lotus Notes to automatically send the email confirmations to a folder so they don’t clog my inbox.

There are a couple of drawbacks to Schedule Once.  There are ads on the student page (though they are unobtrusive).   There’s no way for students to cancel their conferences, although they can just sign up for another one.  By using this site, I’m adding an external product to my process as well, so there’s no University tech support.  Also, even though I start conferences on the half hour and tell it to schedule 30 minute conferences, it offers students some time slots on the quarter hour, so there will be occasional 15 minute gaps.  I guess it thinks I need more breaks!

These are minor drawbacks, though, and so far I am pleased with the system.  It has made scheduling conferences so much easier that I’m using it for my face-to-face classes as well.

Adios Tegrity. Hello Jing!

Tegrity Troubles

After struggling with Tegrity, I’ve decided to switch to Jing for screen capture. Tegrity has had way too many problems.  I’ve had lots of students complain about it.  I’ve switched to using a laptop exclusively and spent two hours yesterday trying to install Tegrity on my laptop (Windows XP)  and record a ten-minute talk for my students. Here are the problems I encountered:

  • The Tegrity recorder would not install unless I used Internet Explorer (you can’t just go to Tegrity’s web site and download the recorder; you have to start a recording online)
  • The installation required two restarts
  • I had to start the recording several times to get around IE’s security settings
  • When recording using IE, I could not switch between PowerPoint and a PDF that I wanted to show my students
  • In order to record and switch screens I had to use FireFox
  • I could not log in using the record function from the Tegrity icon in the system tray

After all those hurdles, I finally recorded my ten-minute video.  I trimmed the first ten seconds of dead air from the front of the video using the Edit screen.  After I went back to the video, I found that ten seconds of video had been removed, but twelve seconds of audio had been removed, making the entire audio track out of sync.

Maybe that was just a server hiccup, but after a few choice words, I decided then an there to ditch Tegrity entirely and find something else.


Jing is easy! After you download the client and set up an account,  it lives in a glowing semicircle at the top of the screen, and you just click on it and record a quick video with narration. I’ll do it now.

I recorded a video of me typing this sentence. It took two seconds to start the recording, and as soon as I stop it, it’s available on the server in under a minute and you can paste in a link, like this:

Jing is nowhere near as robust as Tegrity, but for recording quick videos, which is what I want for my online courses, it is perfect.  I downloaded the software, learned how to use it, and posted my first screencasts in under thirty minutes.

The free version sticks a Jing banner at the beginning and does not record directly from the webcam.  The pro version is only $14.95 a year and adds some features.  You can upload directly to YouTube and record video from the web cam.

Both versions have some limitations.  You can only record up to 5 minutes at a time.  For longer videos, you have to go with Camtasia Studio, which is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of price and features.  Also, with both versions you get a free account, but you are limited to 2GB of storage and 2GB of monthly bandwidth.

With the free version though, you can save the videos as .swf files to your computer.  I tried uploading that to YouTube, but it didn’t work.  I did load it into our LMS, and the videos play just fine.  And it is so easy,  you can record a longer video in parts and post the parts.  So, for recording short screencast videos quickly, I think Jing is about perfect!

Using Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro for One-on-One Conferences

For about two years now, I’ve been touting the value of the grading conference in teaching writing to anyone who will listen. I’ve found that meeting students one-on-one to grade their work, in addition to the more traditional “draft” conferences has had enormous positive effects on my students’ work and my own work as well. I started the practice in my face-to-face classes in order to stop procrastinating on grading papers, and I found as an unexpected outcome that the quality of the interaction is greatly improved. I’ll be happy to discuss it at length if you ask . . .

Anyway, about a year ago I decided to find a way to do the same technique with online courses. I always felt if I could just sit down with students and talk that the results would be so much better. I began using Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro in order to do that, with wonderful results.

Connect Pro is a web conferencing software. If you’ve ever attended a webinar (love those neologisms) you know what kind of software I am talking about. Conferencing software allows for lots of interaction: two-way audio, chat, sharing documents, live polls, etc. What makes Connect Pro work well in this case is the ability for the presenter to share his or her computer screen.

Here’s how it works in my course:

A few days before conferences are scheduled to begin, I post a sign-up sheet on FerrisConnect (I use the Group Manager and create one-person groups with times listed on a sign up sheet). Prior to the meeting, I’ve collected their work via the Assignments tool, and have the file open and ready to go.

At their alloted time, a student follows a web link to the meeting space and then calls me on the phone. There’s no software to download or accounts for them to set up. Once we get the meeting going, I share my screen and we read through the document together. I use Track Changes and Comments to record notes from our discussion (whether it is a draft session or a grading session), and when we’re done, I convert save the file as a PDF and post it back on FerrisConnect for them.

There are many advantages I found to conducting online conferences. First, they are efficient. Because we have a conversation, I can reduce a lot of the bypassing that happens in online courses. I can explain an issue and they can ask questions. At least I know that they’ve heard me.

Second, the experience is personal. Many students really enjoy these sessions, and I do too. I get to know them much better, and they get to know me. I use a webcam from my end, so they know my face and can see non-verbal cues as well. My “disappearing” rate among online students is lower with this personal connection, and we have better working relationships.

Third, the writing is better. Students have a better understanding of my feedback when I add the live conversation to the typed notes. I see fewer instances of students repeating the same kinds of flaws in their work, in part due to the conferences forcing me to stay on schedule with my feedback!

I’ve developed some specific practices to help things along. For example, I’ve learned to be flexible with time. I do conferences on afternoons, evenings, and weekend. I balked at doing weekend conferences at first, but then I remembered I would be sitting around Saturdays staring at a stack of (virtual) papers anyway. I also give students opportunities to reschedule if they need to, in order to meet as many of them as possible.

I schedule the conferences on the half hour. It doesn’t take half an hour to do a conference, but there needs to be that leeway for technology hiccups and students arriving late and early.

The conference room has a virtual door, and I use it. I lock the door when a student comes in, because sometimes the next student pops in early or at the wrong time.

I have students call me directly, rather than the built-in voice conference. With one student that’s easier. If I were meeting a group, I would use the built-in audio. I set up a Skype phone number so I could use a headset and the same number at home or at work.

I tell students to maximize their screen and ask them often “Do you see that?” when I’m highlighting something. There is a small time lag with AdobeConnect, and I have to be careful not to go too fast.

Overall, the time invested in grading this way is worth the return for me. Despite my years of trying, I am still very slow at grading papers on my own. This method is not for everyone; a lot of hours are eaten up doing these conferences. I do them seven or eight times a semester with each student.

In order to get started with Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, you can contact the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. I also recorded a demonstration of the software at work. You can find that here:

Learning with BlackBoard Learn 9.1

This semester, I am teaching my face-to-face LITR 286 course with the help of BlackBoard Learn 9.1 (henceforth “BB”), as part of a pilot testing group. Our current Learning Management System will eventually be phased out by BlackBoard, and this system is one possibility for replacing it.

The best compliment I can give BB is that it has become transparent in my classes. In other words, it has become just another of our class tools that my students and I use to communicate and learn. The learning curve for the students seemed the same for using FerrisConnect. I have used BB for the same purposes I used FerrisConnect last semester, with the same results.

These sections of LITR 286 are face-to-face, so I am using BB in a web-assisted teaching mode. I use the site for a number of purposes:

1. A repository for course materials
2. A collection point for team assignments
3. A grade book
4. A conduit for email

Probably the most advanced use I am making of BB so far is for group assignments. I have students arranged into groups of four to five students, and we meet once a week in lab where they complete a team assignment, such as an analysis of a poem. BB has a groups tool, similar to FerrisConnect, so I can create an assignment for a group. One person from the group submits the assignment, and the grade flows back to all the group members when I grade the work. The only problem we’ve had is if a student submits a filename with a number sign in it, I can’t download it; however, BlackBoard is working on the issue.

In the second half of the semester, the teams will work together to produce a longer assignment over several weeks, and I look forward to using the Wiki tool. The Wiki will allow them to collaborate online on a single document and it will allow me to track who contributed what to the document.

I have found the gradebook quite easy to use. It is much faster than FerrisConnect in that you can edit directly inside a cell, much like a spreadsheet, rather than waiting for another window to open and close. There are lots of options for filtering your gradebook view as well to quickly look at all assignments on one screen, for example. Another option is to show just one student’s record across the screen. I’ve found this helpful during conferences when I want to go over grades with a student.

I’ve also used the email tool for communicating to students. The default setting for email is to send email out from BB to the students’ Ferris email addresses (although it still has internal messaging as an option). When they reply to the message it goes to my Lotus email, rather than back to BB. I’ve found this tool a quick way to communicate with students; many students have mentioned that they saw an important announcement on their email accounts when they missed class.

Another positive result was an improptu online peer review session during our snow day earlier in the semester. When I found out the bad weather was coming, I told them on that Monday that we would do peer review online instead of in the lab and they could use lab time if they wanted help with this. I emailed them the instructions later that day. When Ferris closed on our lab day, it turned out we had to do it online, and it worked with few problems (other my putting one student in the wrong group).

There are a number of key differences in the BB system. For example, the course menus are entirely customizable. You can choose to put tools in the course menus, much like on FerrisConnect, but you can put folders there or links to content or whatever you like. It does require careful planning, though. Otherwise, an instructor might end up with a huge list that would be hard to navigate going down the left side of the page.

Another nice feature is to be able to add bits of text or HTML to a page along with links to course items. It makes the individual pages much more customizable. Probably the biggest improvement over FerrisConnect is the fact that the HTML Creator actually works. You can quickly create text online using a word-processor-like interface.

Overall the site runs much faster than FerrisConnect. However, we are using a site hosted by the company, rather than a Ferris-hosted site, with a limited group of students and instructors. As I understand it, Ferris is exploring whether company hosting or Ferris hosting is the best option.

All is not perfect, however, and some people in the pilot have had some hiccups. Some of those issues have to do with learning all the options; because it is robust, there are a lot of settings to deal with sometimes. The biggest drawback right now for me is there is no Grading Forms tool in BB. The company is developing it, however, and plans to have it integrated later this year. Bea Griffith-Cooper from FCTL has been collecting any issues we’ve encountered into a wiki to be part of our pilot group’s overall evaluation.

So far, BB has met my needs as an instructor for a web-assisted course and I see it working well for my online sections as well.

BlackBoard Training Day

So yesterday was our all-day training session on BlackBoard 9.1 for those of us who are piloting classes in the system for this semester.  I’ve had a couple questions via Facebook, so I’ll answer them here.

What is the roll-out schedule for BlackBoard 9.1?

The schedule, as far as I know, has not been set yet.  In fact, the decision to switch to BB 9.1 hasn’t been made yet.  We originally were going to pilot two or three systems but the FerrisConnect Advisory Board and Academic Affairs decided to pilot BB first, since it exists with our current software provider.  My feeling is if it’s not a disaster, we’ll probably switch.  Information about the decision-making process is here:

Will we have to start over with this new software like we did with the switch from WebCT to FerrisConnect?

There are several issues wrapped up in this question.  First, FerrisConnect was our name for the next WebCT product.  We had WebCT Campus Edition, and then we switched to WebCT Vista, because Campus Edition was going away.  In the middle of this transition, BlackBoard bought WebCT and stuck its name everywhere, so WebCT Vista suddenly became BlackBoard Vista (and Microsoft Vista came out at the same time.  Oy!) We called it FerrisConnect.

So what we know now as FerrisConnect is the last remnant of WebCT, which is also going away.  What we’re moving to is what used to be the BlackBoard line.  There are important differences between the two (see a comparison at the link above) but also a lot of very familiar things.

Another issue is that we did not have to “start over” with FerrisConnect.  It was a newer and different system (though not as different as we initially thought: all that stuff about courses vs. sections and templates proved to be mostly irrelevant), but we were able to migrate a lot of courses and content.

With BB 9.1, some people in the pilot had their courses migrated from FerrisConnect, but I chose not to.  I like to rebuild courses every semester to make them fresh and make sure no old stuff gets moved without me reviewing it.  So I do know that courses were migrated, and I did not hear about a lot of problems at the training.

What is your impression after the training?

It is a lot more efficient and runs more quickly, but we are running on BlackBoard’s server right now and are not integrated with our system (Mary Holmes is managing student accounts manually).  There are a lot of little things that are better, like moving things by drag and drop rather than with menus.  I’ve started building my course, so here’s an old vs. new screenshot:

Keep in mind that the “new” layout is much more flexible: you can put whatever you want in the menus, change the course entry page, easily mix html and content links on the pages, etc.   In fact, the training emphasized up front that instructors have to make decisions about how to organize courses using the menus:  you could organize it by tool, the way FerrisConnect is, or by unit (one folder per week), or by content, or some mixture.  (This also opens the door for disorganization, so it’s something to be emphasized f0r training).  I think this flexibility is a great asset, though.

Also something which is much better is the GradeBook (called Grade Center in BB 9.1).  It is very easy to navigate and contains lots of tools for looking selectively at data (categories, filters, smart views).

One thing that is nearly impossible to do in FerrisConnect is weighted averages.  It is very easy to do that in BB 9.1.  Say, for example, you had a class with quizzes, tests, and assignments, and you wanted to make quizzes worth 20%, assignments worth 30%, and tests worth 50%.  All you do is assign each column a category tell it how to weight each category and then there is a tool that adds all that up for you and figures out the math.  And, if you added more quizzes in partway through the term, as long as you assigned them to the quizzes category, the system readjusts automatically.

There are lots of little things in the Grade Center that are neat too.  You can quickly change one cell, without waiting for three different screens to load.  You can quickly show one row on the screen and hide the rest, so if you were working with a student, you could show only that student’s grade on the screen.

Another good thing is that the’re no prohibition on using the back button in the browser.

A couple of negative things came up.  First, there are not popup announcements in BB 9.1–but it does have a sophisticated “alert” system.  Also, as it stands, there is no mechanism built in to enforce time limits on tests (there is a time limit, apparently, but once it counts down to zero, nothing happens; it does notify the instructor that the student went over the time limit, but doesn’t show what the student did after the time limit).  We found out that Princeton developed a “building block” that we can install to fix this problem.  As I mentioned before, Grading Forms are not implemented, but are in the works for this summer.

Also, there is no centralized Assignments page, which seemed odd at first, but it turns out it is just different: you manage assignments in the Grade Center instead, and it uses the Alerts system to notify students.

All in all I am pretty excited about trying out this system—but I’m in “new toy” phase right now.

Bb Learn 9.1 First Impressions

I’m taking part in the BlackBoard Learn 9.1 pilot in Spring semester 2011 at Ferris.  This is the system we are considering upgrading to, what some people are calling FerrisConnect 2.  The information about this pilot is posted by the FerrisConnect Advisory Board here:

Basically, the idea is that we’re trying Bb Learn 9.1 first and if there are no major troubles, we will begin transitioning soon.  Our current product will be no longer supported after 2013.

My goal with these posts will be to record my impressions during the pilot to share with the campus community.  Being a writing teacher I have my own biases about what a course management system needs to do, so bear in mind these are just one person’s impression.  I also use Ubuntu Linux as my operating system on my personal computer, so compatibility is a concern for me, although I use WindowsXP on my office machine.  I’ll try not to post anything that’s factually incorrect, but will post corrections if I do.

First Impressions

So far, I’ve only spent a couple of hours with the new system in training mode on BlackBoard’s own servers.  We’re in sandbox mode now, just playing, so nothing is integrated yet with our system.  I’ve watched the first training video and played around with some things.  A quick screen shot:

Here are some things I am excited about:

First, there is no more separate Build and Teach tabs, just a simple Edit Mode on/off switch in the top right.  I don’t know yet how this affects grading or anything, but the Off setting shows the student view.

Second, the course menu is highly flexible.  Instead of just the tools living in the course menu as in FerrisConnect, you can add the equivalent of FerrisConnect content links there.  You’re not bound to the home page as the point of entry into the course.

I am also really excited about the new Wiki tool.  I do collaborative writing projects in the course I’m going to pilot next semester (Literature 286: Justice in Literature), and you can put students into groups and track their individual contributions to the group Wiki.

Another thing I really like is the Visual Editor mode.  It is similar to the HTML Creator in FerrisConnect in that it has word processor-style buttons for editing text, but it is different from FerrisConnect in that it actually works. (It never seems to finish loading on the machines I use).  You can easily incorporate files and images into pages online and even YouTube videos via a “mashups” button.

Overall, so far everything seems pretty intuitive to me.  There are key differences in the interface between this and FerrisConnect.  I usually adapt to changes quickly, though (except I still have trouble finding things in Word 2007), and I’ve had fun playing with the new system.

Here are some things I am less excited about:

One key loss in this new system is Grading Forms.  I knew this going in (it’s mentioned as “Rubrics” on page 4 of this report as a loss), but it is a big loss for me personally.  I teach writing courses, some of them completely online, and I use Grading Forms to grade papers and discussion participation.  I don’t know yet if there is some sort of workaround. (Note: according to Mary Holmes, this feature will be added to Bb 9.1 next summer!)

The look of the courses seems to be a standardized corporate gray color.  So far, I’ve found that I can only customize the color of the course menu, which I have.  That may not be all bad; I’ve seen lots of offending color combinations in courses (contrast, people!) and the new course panes use a white background which I’m fond of (as you can tell by my blog). I imported my LITR 286 banner and it kind of clashes with the existing colors.  This could be an administrative option to allow or disallow customization, so I’m not 100% sure of this as an issue yet.

Wrapping up . . .

I’m excited to play with this new toy so far.  I’ll post impressions periodically and cross-link the new posts to Facebook. We’re having training sessions and development sessions over break, so I will post frequently prior to the new semester.  Feel free to email me any questions.