Dissecting the Backchannel

I participated in a panel discussion during the Desire2Learn FUSION Conference during July in Memphis (FUSION08D2L). The other panelists were Robbie Melton, Stephen Downes, and Michael Feldstein. Our topic was “What would you like to see happen in the future of e-Learning?” Each panelist took approx 5 minutes to share some thoughts with the lunch-time audience about one topic that was near and dear to them regarding the future of e-Learning. After those opening comments, the floor was opened to the audience to either ask questions of the panelists or make comments about the opening remarks.

Pie chart of backchannel usage

Pie chart of backchannel usage

We used Stephen’s chat function from his website to create a backchannel that was displayed on two large screens, one on each side of the front of the hall where the panelists were seated. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at the chat archives and analyze the types of entries that were made. Although there were a couple of premature postings, I started counting at 12:27:21 PM which is when posts started coming in for the panelists even though the opening comments were still being completed. For my analysis, the first posting was by Hiro Sheridan of Oral Roberts University. The last posting was at 13:16:21 by the ever-popular Anymouse (Stephen’s default username for those who don’t enter one). Altogether, I counted 167 posts from point A to point B.

This presentation was also being streamed live on the Internet using UStream.tv (archive here). There were only a few questions that were asked by audience members using the two microphones that were available in the room, and of course there is no archive of those questions except for what you can hear on the UStream recording. Of the 167 posts in the backchannel, it is impossible to know how many of them came from people in the room with us and how many came from the 50+ people who were viewing the Ustream feed (which could have also included people in the room who opened the streaming video page on their laptops). In other words, questions and comments probably did come from anyone and anywhere.

I arbitrarily categorized the backchannel posts into one of the following six categories:

  1. Panel questions: these were specific questions that were asked of the panel members that appeared to be serious in nature. There were a total of 32 of these questions. Examples:
    • How will MUVEs like Second Life impact education in the next five years?
    • Do you know of any study where K-12 online students were surveyed to see if they would be interested in an online degree environment?
  2. On-topic comment: here an audience member was making a comment about something that had been discussed by the panelists, or related to one of the questions asked by other audience members. It was deemed to be on-topic if it related to the future of e-Learning. There were 20 of these comments. Examples:
    • I would like to see truly adaptive eLearning systems — different paths for different learning styles … and a system that supports this well.
    • Laggards have just started to waste epic amounts of time and money on my campus and they do not care and not interested in learning…UGH
  3. Off-topic comment: this was the largest category and included many comments about the nature of the panel discussion and the use of the backchannel, as well as where to get the best BBQ in Memphis, and other idle chatter. There were 55 of these comments. Examples:
    • Wow, this is why we don’t want students having laptops in classrooms I guess
    • To really wreck a panel put up a backchannel
    • The Net gen student works this way ALLLLL the time…three windows and listening…the speaker has to “join in”
  4. Humor attempt: there were 40 posts that I categorized as (mostly) lame attempts at humor. Keep in mind that this was a room full of education professionals, not high school kids trying to impress their friends. Examples:
    • Play Freebird
    • I am going to get a patent on “Anymouse” tomorrow! And sue Stephen the next day.
    • Can someone please bring toilet paper to stall 3 in the men’s room?
  5. Shots @ D2L: a few people decided that it was an opportune time to direct some sort of put-down at D2L. Most of these could have easily fallen into category 4 (humorous), and overall I think D2L was very much NOT bothered by the shots across the bow, but I felt that given the nature of a D2L-hosted event that these comments needed to have a category of their own. There were 9 such comments. Examples:
    • Did D2L open their API yet?
    • API, what’s an API? –signed, John Baker
    • john baker, who’s john baker?
  6. The last category is sort of an Other for those empty posts or those that were clearly just testing to see how the backchannel system worked. There were 11 of these posts. Examples:
    • does html work in this thing
    • I guess HTML does work in this thing

According to my (admittedly subjective) analysis, only about 31% of the backchannel entries were productive. In my opinion, only the first two categories listed above can be considered productive. I was not at all bothered by the use of the backchannel, in fact I was rather intrigued by the whole thing. So much so that I probably spoke a whole lot less than I am usually inclined to do since I was rather busy watching everything else that was going on. I was also able to see the chat postings on Stephen’s site as they were coming in, which was often a bit prior to the ten seconds that each message was displayed on the screen. In other words, I was oftentimes reading ahead and not paying attention to the task at hand.

One additional observation has to do with the progression of the posts during the approx. 50 minutes that posts were being made to the backchannel. During the first 20 minutes, there were only 6 posts, 5 of which were productive (related to the presentation topic). During the third ten minute period, there were 26 productive posts and 22 non-productive posts. During the fourth ten minute period, there were 12 productive posts and 44 non-productive posts. During the last ten minute segment there were 9 productive posts and 47 non-productive posts. As my six-year-old might say, “I see a patteren” (sic) there.

I hope you weren’t expecting a brilliant conclusion to this piece, because there isn’t one. I’m not going to make suggestions about how a backchannel could be used more productively, although I would appreciate some comments that might give other perspectives on this use of a backchannel or others that you are familiar with. Was this a train wreck, or more like a game of bumper cars?

Toondoo, Zoho, Jambav, Adventnet – it’s all good

Another toondoo by Barry

Another toondoo by Barry

At the risk of sounding too much like a fanboy – I just have to say it one more time – love Toondoo and Zoho. This is nothing new for me since I’ve been sort of an evangelist for the past couple of years now. However, they continue to surprise me with how much they pay attention to their users and how responsive they are to suggestions or comments. With regard to Toondoo, back in Dec. 2007, I included them in my end of year list of the Top 12 Web 2.0 Tools. In that post I lamented the fact that I had wanted to use Toondoo with the elementary schools kids where I run the after-school Tech Club, but that I wouldn’t do it because there was too much inappropriate content on the site – mostly lame attempts at adult humor in cartoon format. Within a day or two of that post I received an email from Toondoo telling me that they had added a safe search button at the top of each page and a personal setting that can be turned on to not show any content that has been flagged as inappropriate. I was impressed with their responsiveness, but not terribly impressed with the solutions. I would still have very little control over whether the students turned on the safe search button, except when they were right in the classroom with me. Alas, I had them complete their comic strip projects using a far inferior, but safe, comic creation tool at MakeBeliefsComix.

Then, earlier this month I included Toondoo in my post of the free web tools that I would be willing to pay for. My caveat here was that I would be willing to pay for the tool in order to use it with the youngsters if they could give me a protected environment – think of something like a Ning site which can be password protected, but where the group members could create, share, comment upon, and otherwise do everything that you can do on the regular site, but only with your fellow group members. Sort of a fully-featured gated community for young toondudes.

Lo and behold, I received an e-mail from Rajendran D. of Jambav within just a few days of making that post. TPTB at Jambav thought that was a good idea and were especially intrigued that I had even offered to pay for it. They are proposing that I be a beta tester for their new branded sites opportunity. They will provide a unique URL such as LakeSuperior.toondoo.com and allow me to host the members of my choosing. They are thinking that this service will probably sell for about $50 US per year, but they are offering it for free to me as a beta tester to use it with the students and to report back to them with suggestions and comments. This isn’t yet a totally done deal, but I’m confident that I will be able to try this out with the Tech Club when school starts up again in the fall.

Jambav is owned by Adventnet, which is a profitable software development company. Zoho is also owned by Adventnet, which gives them a potent 1-2 punch in my book. The most recent moment of Zen for me regarding Zoho tools was when I was presenting at the Tennessee Board of Regents Summer Institute last month (TBR08). I did two sessions on Zoho tools that were well attended and well received. There were many times that jaws dropped during those sessions as people saw some of the functionality that they didn’t know existed, or hadn’t taken the time to investigate. I always say that I think the Zoho suite is far advanced over Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and a few Google users confirmed what I was thinking about the power that is Zoho. I also did a session there about Toondoo, and there were so many great ideas about how to use comic strips for both student projects and for other purposes related to online courses and programs. For example, (1) make a Toonbook of frequently asked questions, (2) have students prepare a comic strip to introduce themselves at the beginning of the class, (3) instructor-created comic strip or toonbook as a topic teaser (introducing a new topic before more in-depth study), and several others.

Paying for Free Stuff

Flick photographer badge

Flick photographer badge

Until recently, the only Web 2.0 tool/service that I’ve ever paid for was Flickr. Two years ago I paid about $48 for a two-year Pro membership to Flickr. I had been using the free version and liked it so much, and found that it was so valuable to me, and found that the free version didn’t quite meet all my needs (I now have 2,550 items uploaded there), so I broke down and spent a little money. I haven’t regretted that choice at all. I paid that fee prior to Flickr becoming a Yahoo property. The other part of my decision was a sincere desire to lend modest financial support to make sure that Flickr could survive. With Yahoo now in the driver’s seat, they really don’t need my cash any more (or do they?), but I’m going to renew my membership within the next couple of days for another two years.

The second time I paid for something was just recently when I started this new blog here at wordpress.com. It’s totally free to have any number of blogs at WordPress, but I wanted to use my own URL (barrydahl.com). To do that I had to pay $10 per year for domain mapping which is what makes this blog appear at my URL instead of the standard wordpress.com URL. I’m also going to pay another $15 (per year) to be able to customize the look and feel of the blog through the style sheets (CSS) for this particular theme. Therefore, my WordPress blog is going to cost me another $25 per year.

Apparently I’ve found my sweet spot for what I’m willing to pay for a really useful service – $25 per year. Now the question is, which services are worthy of my financial contributions, and why? I’m seriously thinking about paying for more of these services in an effort to help make sure that they are still around in the future and to help insure that I have a higher quality experience with those services. Before I even begin to make the rest of the list, I have already decided that I would be perfectly happy to spend about $200 per year (yes, I know that’s still almost nothing – I guess I’m cheap). Therefore, I’m looking for about 8 applications that I would spend about $25 each for. That would leave the other 75-80 tools that I currently use (some very little, some very much) in the unpaid status.

3) I love the photo editing tools at Picnik.com. They have a premium plan that fits right in at my $25 per year guideline. The free tools are probably good enough for me, but occasionally a premium tools might come in handy. The other thing you get with the premium service is that they take away the on-screen ads. The ads are a bit annoying, but something that I’m generally willing to put up with as long as something is free. The premium tools and no-ads are probably not enough reason for me to pull the trigger on the payment – but keeping them in business so that they can continue to fluff the clouds and kill the ants (or whatever other references to a picnic that they make) is probably a pretty good reason.

Picnik screen shot

4) The Zoho Suite of web office (and other) tools has become indispensable to me. I use the online word processing often, I love Zoho Creator and Zoho Notebook, and sometimes use at least four of the other tools there (Polls, Sheet, Wiki, and Show). However, most of their tools are free and I’m not really interested in the few tools that have a premium (for-pay) service. Those premium tools are directed at a Business audience and for the most part aren’t very useful to me. So, although I would be willing to pay a little sumtin-sumtin, I guess I won’t. Creator is the one premium tool that I do use, but their $25 per month fee (for business accounts) sounds about 12 times more expensive that what I’m willing to pay, so I’ll stick with free.

5) Although I’ve been playing with several different online music services, I still like iMeem the best. I’ve been using the free service but they do have a $25 per year premium service. I could see paying the fee but there are two reasons that I haven’t yet. a) their premium service doesn’t include any really compelling services that I feel I must have, and b) I keep feeling that the next best music service is right around the corner. Still, I would (and just might) pay iMeem sincwe it is one of my favorite Web-based services and it fits within my price range.

6) gMail (and all the other Google services) is free. There is no doubt that I get enough value from their various services that I would be willing to pay my agreed-upon pittance, but I’m not compelled to do so until they really need the money – and besides, they’ve never asked (any of us).

7) Skype is a tool that I’ve used a lot over the past few years. However, I’ve found the quality of service toSkype screen shot be rather shaky over the past several months. This is a tool that I would have been willing to pay $25 for in the past, but now that the calls aren’t very clear and that the video is more unreliable, I’m not so sure that I still would be willing to pay. Still, it’s great for when I’m traveling (especially out of country) to be able to talk to and see the family on the computer. There are now plenty of alternatives to Skype, so maybe now it’s time to pick one and go with it.

8 ) I love Toondoo for making comic strips and ToonBooks. I would be willing to pay $25 per year in order to have a separate site where kids could create and share their cartoons away from the temptations to view some of the less appropriate materials that are often found on the main site. They added a safe search button, but that only goes so far. What I’m thinking about is sort of a Ning site where only the people you want to let in will be there but where you still have access to all the Toondoo creation tools. That would work well with my elementary school afternoon tech club.

9) I really like the quality of video delivery from Blip.tv, quite a bit better IMO than YouTube. For hosting and delivering my videos I would be willing to pay something, but there $96 per year Pro Account is a bit out of my comfort zone. They have several features available only to Pro account holders, but none of them are compelling enough for me to plunk down $96.

10) I haven’t decided for sure yet, but maybe I would pay $25 per year for either a social bookmarking tool like del.icio.us or Diigo, and maybe I’d also pay for a good wiki site such as PBwiki or WetPaint. But for right now, free feels like the best price point for all of these tools.

So, to recap, I’ve only spent $50 so far out of my $200 allocation for “free” tools. I’ll report back after a few months to let you know whether I pulled the trigger on any other payments. After writing this post, I’m less inclined to do so than I was when I started down this path.

TBR Keynote – Clicker Responses

Here is a SlideShare deck from the opening section of my keynote address at the e-Learning summer Institute on Web 2.0 held at the University of Memphis by the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR08). There is a 10-min audio file attached – click the green triangular Play button at the bottom of the slides.

I used clickers to get a sense for how Web 2.0 immersed the participants were prior to embarking on a 2.5 day adventure into learning about Web 2.0 and what they can do with those tools in their classes. Yes, I realize that clickers are not Web two-point-oh-ish, but they were useful in gathering info about the crowd. Here are a few things that I found interesting. 1) At the beginning of the conference (when the slides were captured), 56% of the group did not have an account at any of the following: Skype, SlideShare, Twitter, UStream, or Zoho. By the end of the coference I’m sure that everyone had accounts with at least some of those services. Ditto for several other tools. 2) Only 22% feel well-versed in web accessibility issues. 3) No one (except me) in the group had read the Cluetrain Manifesto (they need to).

One slide (#5) got messed up when uploading the PPT slides to SlideShare. This happens occasionally when text wraps to a second line in SlideShare even thought it didn’t do that in PPT. It’s always a good idea to not run your text too close to the edge of the slide if you are going to upload into SlideShare. Maybe I’ll get that fixed, and maybe I won’t.

Cover it Live – Clarence Maise

Clarence is the keynote speaker for Day Two of the TBR e-Learning Summer Institute on Web 2.0 hosted at the University of Memphis. WordPress won’t allow embedded windows as I would normally do with Cover it Live – so click the link below to open a new window. You can follow along as I comment on his presentation and you can add your own comments as well.

Open Cover it Live Window

Tennessee Summer Institute

Summer Institute Word Cloud

I’m in final preparations mode for my opening keynote and then 2 more days of hands-on workshops for the Tennessee e-Learning Summer Institute which is being co-hosted by the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and the University of Memphis.

  • WHAT: TBR eLearning Summer Institute: Web 2.0 Applications for Teaching and Learning Online.
  • WHEN: June 25-27, 2008
  • WHERE: University of Memphis FedEx Center
  • WHO: open to all TBR faculty and staff members.
  • TAG: TBR08 (Twitter hashtag:  #TBR08)

Over the course of the three days (2.5 actually) there will be three keynotes and at least 21 breakout sessions which I believe will all be hands-on. My keynote on Wednesday morning will be followed by Clarence Maise, Instructional Designer, University of Missouri St. Louis on Thursday morning and then by Michael Grant of the University of Memphis on Friday morning.

I will be working with the attendees on the following breakout sessions:

  • Digital photos and editing tools
  • Zoho collaborative tools: Writer, Sheet, Show, and Creator
  • Zoho Notebook
  • Google Notebook and iGoogle
  • UStream.tv and other live broadcast tools
  • SlideShare, Slide.com, and other SlideShow tools
  • Cartoons and Comic Strips

I took the liberty of creating the word cloud at the top of the post as a way of highlighting many of the features of the Summer Institute, not the least of which I’m expecting will include some Blues and BBQ!! Word cloud created at Wordle.net (it’s a little too much fun).

My del.icio.us Tag Cloud

My tag cloud using Wordle (all the cool kids are doing it)

Wordle tag cloud