Tweaking my work from home gear

Prior to COVID, my work schedule was 3 days at home and 2 days in the office, so when COVID hit I was in a pretty good space to transition to full-time work at home. A few years back I purchased an inexpensive convertible desk from Ikea, modified it a bit by adding a shelf to elevate a larger monitor, and invested in a decent headset for video conferences and remote presentations. It was a functional setup that served me well when I divided time between home and office, and for a time when virtual meetings and webinars were occasional, not multiple times daily, events.

But then 2 things happened that has made me want to up my virtual work at home toolset.

First, COVID hit and, like many other organizations, BCcampus went fully virtual, as did every institution in the province with whom I work closely with. Second, I picked up another sessional online teaching position at the University of Victoria to go along with the sessional online teaching work I do at Royal Roads University. So not only has the amount of time I spend online in BigBlueCollaborateZoomTeams meetings increased, but I am also spending more time creating videos to help add a sense of presence to the online courses I teach. The more time I spent doing both of these things, the more I began to notice a few things about my setup that could use some tweaking.

For one, my audio. I have a background in radio production and broadcasting, and as much as the headset I had was a step-up from earbuds (I honestly don’t know how you Apple folx can spend hours with those things in your ears day in and day out), the audio quality was starting to bother me in the videos I produced for learners. And after making a return appearance to ds106 radio a few weeks back with Maren, Anne-Marie and Tannis, I have in the back of my mind I want to pick up some more DJ shifts on the freeform station. So, I invested in a decent microphone, stand, shock cage and a good old fashioned set of over the ear comfortable headphones.

Microphone and headphones with computer

My audio setup is now;

  • Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB Cardioid Dynamic Microphone ($150) I went with this one as it seemed to balance affordability with quality. I wanted a cardioid mic for the directional pickup pattern as the room I am in is fairly noisy and I hoped that going with a cardioid mic it might help reduce the amount of bg noise. It is very directional, meaning I need to have it fairly close to my mouth for it to work well, so it does now make appearances in my videos. This mic is also both USB-C and XLR ready, so if I want to plug into production-quality gear I have a universal XLR plug that can get me hooked up. It is also portable, so I can take it on the road with me if I want. And I can plug headphones into the mic which gives me a much more immediate and real sense of what the mic is “hearing” at the time of recording, meaning it is easier to catch distracting background noises. If I would have had this a few weeks back when I guested on ds106, for example, I would have immediately noticed that the wind in the bg was being picked up my the mic I was using. Instead, we went the whole show without me catching that basic audio gaff.
  • Mic stand ($30) with shock mount cage ($10) & sock ($5 for 4 pack) The mic stand attaches to the side of my desk, so without the cage to absorb vibrations, every touch of the desk would be picked up by the mic. The sock filters out things like popping p’s and wind noise. Cheap, but does the job for the time being. But I can see where repeated moving it in and out of position on my desk is going to cause it to lose it’s tensile strength pretty quickly.
  • Sennheiser HD201 audio headphones ($100) I went with these because they are lightweight, comfortable and sound very good. They are not noise cancelling but isolate enough of the audio around me that I can hear what the mic picks up. And they are comfortable to wear for hours at a time.

On the video side, my office is a very bright room with large windows on three sides. Working in tons of natural light is a joy, and I have a large window in front of me that really helps with front-facing light (an important part of good video is good front lighting) but not when you have a large window directly behind you that can make lighting for video a real challenge as the backlight from the window behind me sometimes caused me to appear dark on-screen, or was overly intense in the bg. And the blinds we have in this room are butt ugly and battered, so when they are closed I am conscious of every bent and battered blind in camera view behind me.

Man pointing at sunny window behind himOh yes, the view behind me. Something that I really never cared much about in the past, but perhaps I should now as people seem to be paying attention to that. Well, right behind me is my wife’s office workspace and she is not keen on making on-camera appearances while I am in meetings or creating videos. Because I am on camera so much she was avoiding using her own workspace. Also right behind me, our treadmill which, like the blinds, was making me increasingly self-conscious about having in over my shoulder in the shot.

Man pointing at treadmill behind him over his right shoulder

Now, tools like Zoom and Teams have virtual backgrounds and I tried those, but was never happy with the results, especially when used with my new mic which takes up a bit of screen space. I ended up with odd effects using the background option.

Zoom call where fingers are mysteriosuly missing from particiapnts hand

Zoom caller with hunk missing from shoulderZoom caller missing arm caused by bad Zoom virtual bgThe virtual backgrounds weren’t really cutting it. So I thought about hanging some kind of curtain from the ceiling to help with the issues. But right above my desk is a ceiling fan so hanging things not really an option. Besides, I’ve moved my office in the house a few times and may want to do it again, so the idea of having a portable background was appealing.

Then came a tweet from Doug Belshaw a few weeks ago talking about a portable green screen he had purchased from Elgato. I ordered one from Best Buy a few weeks ago ($250) and it finally arrived yesterday, and it works like a charm. Here it is sitting just behind my chair, hiding the backlight and treadmill. I have set it up quite close to the chair for the photo, but it would normally sit back a foot or two to give me some space.

Desk with green screen behind it

And a shot from behind where you can see the skeleton of the setup.

 

Photo pf the back of a green screen

And here is what it hides behind me.

Photo of treadmill and desk

The green screen feels like a solid, well-built unit. The fabric is thick, the hardware solid, and setup is a snap.

Open the storage box and lift. Push down back into the box when done and prop it in the corner. Set-up and takedown is 30 seconds. And, being portable, I can take it to any location.

Tall carrying case for green screen

Packed up and stored tucked away in a corner of the office.

Today I used it for the first time in a meeting and was super happy with the results. No light bleeding through causing a weird halo around my head and sharp, crisp lines. And no treadmill in the background.

Man in a Zoom

All in all, an investment of about $500, which, while not insignificant, does feel like an investment in making my home a more comfortable work environment, while increasing the audio and video quality of my presence for both synchronous meetings and facilitated learning experiences, and for the creation of media artifacts that I’ll use in my teaching & learning practice.

Up next – a webcam that I can mount at eye level.

 

Using Mattermost as class hub

Over that the OpenETC site, Tannis has posted on some interesting ways that the open tools of the OpenETC are being used to support teaching & learning. It reminded me that I am looooong overdue posting about my own use of Mattermost last fall with students in my LRNT 528 course Facilitating in Digital Learning Environments.

As I mentioned in a blog post last summer, I wanted to try an IM-like chat tool for a number of reasons. First, after using these types of IM tools myself for years, the conversations seem to be more free flowing than occur in a standard Moodle discussion forum. Conversations in chat tools feel more like conversations. A bit more spontaneous and natural, and I wanted to see if a change in technology could bring that same natural energy to class discussions. Second, chat tools blur the lines between synchronous and asynchronous communication and can make it easier to have a spontaneous chat sessions while still giving students who prefer the time and space afforded by asynchronous the opportunity to respond on their own time. Third, chat tools have better support than most LMS discussion forums for more diverse methods of communication. GIF’s and emoticons are easy reaction tools that can help people create social presence within a learning environment. Finally, IM tools are increasingly common ways of collaborating and communicating on the web, and for this particular group of learners studying digital facilitation in online learning environments it felt like an important tool for them to use at some point in their academic career as I can see these types of platforms becoming increasingly more important in digital facilitation.

Slack use in class seems to be increasingly common, but after their “mistake” last year where a number of user accounts (including academics & students located here in British Columbia) were deactivated for seemingly political reasons, I was not in a hurry to outsource my facilitation to them, especially when there was a viable open source alternative, Mattermost, being hosted here in BC by the OpenETC. This was my overarching reason to use Mattermost over Slack. So I created a team in Mattermost for my LRNT528 Digital Facilitation class in the hopes of doing a direct replacement of the Moodle discussion forums with Mattermost channels.

My cohort was small (14 students) and the facilitation class part of a larger Masters program in Learning & Technology, many with years of experience in teaching & learning roles, so I would classify the learners as tech savvy educators, which is one of the reasons I felt ok experimenting with a new technology.

That said, I wanted to be explicit with the students that Mattermost was an experiment, and provided some extra support to walk them through the account creation process, including a Q&A session specifically about using Mattermost in a course introductory synchronous session. Along the way I was able to contribute back to the OpenETC some how-to documentation that I put together for my students that others can use in the future if they would like to do something similar. Living out the “contributions, not contracts” piece of our OpenETC philosophy.

In my week 1 course activities, I asked students to create their Mattermost accounts, update their user profile to add a photo or avatar, and post an introductory message tagging me to let me know they were in. These were fairly low stakes activities that would help to get them comfortable in the environment. As they entered the space and posted their welcome message, I made a point to greet them personally. I also pinned some general guidelines to the top of the Town Square channel that spelled out some general expectations for the space.

Welcome to the LRNT 528 Mattermost chat group. This will form the discussion hub of the course. There are channels set up for each of the scheduled discussions we will have in the course (CoI, TEK-VARIETY, and Final Reflection), plus this main channel called Town Square where you can post general questions.

Some guidelines for posts.

  1. Keep your discussion posts to a single point. This will help keep your posts short.
  2. If you find your posts are getting long (over 150 words), then you likely have a lot to say about the topic we’re discussing. In that case, consider writing a blog post on your blog and then paste the link to your blog post here.
  3. Feel free to use memes, gif’s, and emoticons. These are legitimate forms of communication. That said, don’t needlessly use them, or use them as a replacement for genuine discussion.
  4. Don’t feel the need to academically cite content in your posts, but do include links to external content that is relevant to the discussion.

Above all, read carefully, reflect before sharing, challenge tactfully, question thoughtfully, forgive mistakes (yours and theirs), and have fun learning.

I structured the Mattermost discussion area to include a general Town Square channel, two channels, one for each of the facilitated discussion I wanted to have in the course, and a Final Reflection channel where we could debrief the course at the end. I also created a Sandbox channel where students could post and experiment, but it turned out not to be needed as much of the experimentation with the platform happened in the general Town Square channel.

What worked well (my perspective)

Overall, the technology worked well. The conversations did seem more spontaneous, yet still well thought out. I did see an increase in the use of emoticons and gifs, and quite often could see conversations unfolding in real time by students who happened to be on the platform at the same time discussing course content.

Being able to have students tag others in a conversation is also a nice feature common in many IM platforms and not in the Moodle forums. You can @name someone to draw attention to a post, or bring someone directly into a discussion as opposed to if someone name drops you in a discussion forum post. I am beginning to think of the @name feature also as a form of attribution as I saw it used in ways to tag other learners who made a good point or that someone wanted to build on. And by using @all I was able to message all learners and draw attention to something – a salient point made by a learner, or to provide some further clarification.

Students also used the direct messaging feature of Mattermost to communicate with me which I appreciated as all course related conversations were now central within Mattemrost and not in my email account.

This was a digital facilitation course and students do an experiential learning assignment where they become the facilitators, designing a week of facilitation for other learners in the course and I was pleasantly surprised at how many of them decided to use Mattermost themselves for their own facilitation weeks, which said to me that they were feeling comfortable enough in the space to use it on their own.

What didn’t work well (my perspective)

On the downside, threaded conversations are a not quite as straightforward as in a discussion forum and sometimes it could feel overwhelming to figure out how to view and respond to specific threaded discussions. But once learners figured out how to use the threading feature it seemed to lessen the cognitive load of being presented with a wall of seemingly unstructured conversation when entering a channel.

What the students thought

I ran a short informal survey with the students at the end of the term to get their feedback on using Mattermost as compared to Moodle discussion forums, and overall they were quite happy with the tool comparing it favorably to Slack in terms of functionality. But more importantly, there was overwhelming consensus from the learners that Mattermost did change the way they participated in the class, and the technology did make them feel more engaged with both the course material and their classmates.

I can’t release the details of the feedback as it was an informal summary of students that was meant just for my own information. But the results were promising enough, and gave me enough information to show that there is something about the way that tools like Slack and Mattermost works that changes the way students participate and engage. I am planning on using Mattermost again this fall with a larger cohort and am going to pitch doing a SOTL focused piece of research on using it, this time with ethics approval so I can publish some findings next year.

 

Resources to help learners learn online

It is beginning to look more likely that institutions will be leaning heavily on online and blended models of course delivery this fall, meaning that not only will there be a lot of new instructors teaching online for the first time, there will also be a lot of students taking an online course for the first time as well.

Right now, there are numerous initiatives underway across many systems to help “scale up” instructional capacity, including my own organization BCcampus where we have been doing numerous webinars and drop-in office hours on the basics of online learning aimed at instructors across the BC post-sec system. But I was curious as to what is being done to support those students who will be taking their first online course.

Quite a few resources were shared with me in the Twitter chat, so many that I thought I would curate them into a single blog post. If you know of more open resources that focus on helping students learn to learn online, please feel free to and them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this list.

Posts and Articles

Open Books

  • Learning to Learn Online, Christina Page & Adam Vincent (KPU) & LibreTexts. Openly licensed (CC-BY-SA) book that includes an interesting section on SQ3R reading technique.

Handouts

Videos

Slides

Courses

  • Learning how to Learn Online, Open University. A comprehensive 6 hour open micro-course from the UK’s Open University that can be applied to both online and face to face contexts. Especially useful is a section on how to be a reflective learner.
  • Digital Literacy: succeeding in a digital world, Open University. 8 week open course also from the Open University. Not focused specifically on learning how to learn online, but full of information that  This one is also a bit more general and focuses on developing digital literacy skills in general.
  • Essential Skills for Online Learners, University of Manchester. 4 hour micro-course that focuses on three core skills: Organization, Collaboration, and Communication
  • Being an OU Student, Open University. Another micro-course (12 hours) from the OU. This one aimed at potential OU students so some is specific to the OU. But the section on How to be a Successful Student contains some more general tips, including tips from students like getting your family & friends on board.
  • Learning how to Learn, McMaster University & UC San Diego (Coursera), MOOC not focused specifically on online learning, but more general learning. This one looks like it touches a bit on learning sciences and covers topics like chunking and retrieval practice.
  • How to Learn Online, Open University (via FutureLearn), 2 week MOOC that is one of the few that looks like it covers the topic of informal learning and has students examine how they are currently using the internet for their own informal learning.

Websites

  • Adapting to COVID-19 from my colleagues at BCcampus is full of resources for both students and educators, including some resources around dealing with stress and mental health issues. Openly licensed for reuse (CC-BY)
  • Keep Learning Online from UBC. Comprehensive and openly licensed for reuse (CC-BY)
 

Flattening the online education curve

It struck me last night that what is happening at many institutions right now in response to COVID-19 is our own version of “the curve”.

You are likely well aware of the curve in COVID-19 terms. It is what we are all working on flattening with physical distancing, cancellation of mass gatherings, and moving much instruction to virtual environments.

There are many reasons why we are flattening the COVID-19 curve, but high among them is to protect our health care systems from being overwhelmed with an influx of COVID cases at all once, making it impossible to keep up and leading to their potential collapse. The idea is, if we can work on reducing this sudden influx of patients requiring urgent care in our hospitals and spread the cases out over time, it buys time for our health care systems to keep up and manage the cases.

Chart showing illustration of flattening the curve

Flattening the curve gif CC-BY-SA credits on gif. Retrieved from The Spinnoff

One of the effects of flattening the health care system curve, however, has been the sudden stress it has put on other systems, like the systems at our educational institutions that support instructors and students with online learning. Overnight there was a spike in demand at institutions for help and support to transition instruction online. In effect, measures taken to flatten the COVID curve created other curves; massive spikes in systems that were not designed to support such a massive scaling up overnight.

This spike at our educational institutions has put a great deal of pressure, stress and focus on the systems at institutions designed to support online and distance learning, and the people who are feeling this acutely right now are the people; IT staff that need to keep the systems up, instructional designers, faculty support, educational technologists, people who have experience working at the nexus of education and technology, specifically online education. These are our institutional front line workers who are struggling to cope with a spike in supporting online teaching & learning.

Hopefully a bit of immediate pressure will be let off soon as the end of the academic term is approaching for many on a traditional semester system (others in trades training or who are on a quarter system may not be in this position). This academic term was the scramble term with the closure of face-to-face classes happening right in the middle of the term. The chaos term is coming to a close.

This is not to imply that things will get easier. Indeed, a second spike is coming, albeit at a traditionally slower part of the academic year with the start of spring terms and a summer term on the way. But hopefully as the end of term arrives for many institutions, this will provide a bit of reprieve from our own front line workers, and give administrators some time to prepare for the tsunami that is likely coming our way in September as many are predicting we will continue to see some kind of physical distancing restrictions in place.

By prepare, I hope that one of the measures institutions will seriously consider is shoring up the people who support faculty and students. Increasing the people capacity in their teaching and learning centres, faculty development, instructional design, IT support areas with people who have experience in online teaching & learning and educational technology. As the initial emergency response settles over the coming weeks, now would be a good time for administrators to consider hiring reinforcements to help prevent a collapse of the people who are currently working to flatten our own curve.

 

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

Image of 45 record of song Who's Zooming Who by Aretha Franklin

Not one of Aretha’s best, but felt appropo

I am a bit behind on all the COVID pivot stuff that has been happening in higher education as I was off on a personal leave from work. Of course, it was impossible to completely ignore, but COVID and the higher education response was more like a dim buzz in the background of my life over the past few weeks.

One thing that was hard to miss, however, was the overnight success of the synchronous video platform Zoom and how it seemed to explode into higher education consciousness. It felt like almost every conversation, every blog post, every social media post I did see included educators discovering Zoom as institution after institution announced they were moving classes online. Which seemed interesting to me that such a relatively new entrant into the educational video conferencing marketplace could rise to such a level of notoriety in such a short period of time ahead of many established incumbents in the field. It wasn’t Collaborate, BlueJeans, Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect or a host of others that captured the zeitgeist. It was Zoom that seemed to become the overnight sensation.

Yesterday as I began resuming my normal work duties, I wanted to probe this “Why Zoom” question a bit as I think there may be some lessons in here that would be useful for educational technologist around the diffusion and adoption of education technologies. To be clear, I am not so much interested in technical superiority (real or perceived) of one platform over the other, although some conversations did hint at that. My interest is more to try to understand how Zoom seemed to go viral and in a very short period of time reach almost brand ubiquity levels of usage and acceptance. So I posted on Twitter

Below is a breakdown and some analysis of responses I received.

1) Incumbency


There were a number of tweets In response similar to Trent’s. We already had a license so that is what we went with. Which makes total sense. If your institution has already made the investment, then why move to something else?

But yet, I had this sneaking suspicion that there were many instructors who were jumping onto Zoom despite their own institution having licensed other synchronous tools. Indeed, I wasn’t the only one alone in thinking this.

and

Which highlights some potential issues that educational technologists can learn from. There was some speculation in the Twitter convo that institutions simply do not do a very good job of internally promoting the tools and, just as importantly, the intended purpose of those tools. Some commented that learning technologies can get licensed by a specific department or program and never be known outside that department or program, which is likely more common in larger institutions than smaller ones. There is also the possibility that instructors have given the institutional tool a go and made a conscious effort not to use it for whatever reason, perhaps not liking the user experience.

If you feel your institution could be in any of these camps where you suddenly see a lot of your instructors using or asking about Zoom, it would likely do some good after this time of crisis blows over to spend some time digging into why that happened, and examine your own internal efforts to make it known that you offer and support tools that do what Zoom does.

2) It traverses the work/home/school/social boundaries

There were a few responses like this one from Lucas that spoke about how Zoom seems to be a tool that has a lot of verticals. By that I mean it is used by a wide variety of groups, from families to educational institutions, corporations, small and medium size businesses, non-profits – Zoom seems to have a foothold in all these areas. At the same time that higher education was moving online, so too were a lot of people starting to work at home at organizations that had never had scalable desktop virtual conferencing before. This likely created a a happy confluence that Zoom could capitalize on.

I think there is a lesson in here for education technologists on how technology diffusion happens that is similar to what many of us experienced when mobile devices first began to pop up in our institutions. The drive for mobile adoption did not come from the institutions. It came from the students, staff and faculty, and the institutions needed to react to these consumer devices suddenly showing up in our institutions. I think something similar occurred with Zoom where instructors brought it in via its use in personal contexts.

Like wine o’clock (a usage I can heartily endorse these days).

Stephanie’s tweet also highlights another reason why Zoom Zoom’d the way it did….

3) The freemium model is different

For many video conferencing applications that do offer a freemium tier, that tier is usually capped at the number of users that can use it in any given sessions. Your session can be for as long as you like, but usually only with 2-4 users. The Zoom freemium model flipped it so that you could have dozens of users in it, but were limited to 40 minute sessions. This is brilliant. It gave educators the one thing they needed above all else in a freemium session – more people.

4) Aggressive Marketing

There were a few comments that revolved around the marketing practices of Zoom and how it seems to have an aggressive online marketing campaign that is probably being influenced by data gathered from their online partners. If an educator starts Googling terms like “video learning platform” or “online video for teaching”, there is a good chance that Zoom is targeting them with online ad’s. Start seeing these ad’s online more and more and feeling the pressure of needing to find something to solve an immediate problem, then Zoom is the answer. Zoom marketing, informed by metadata gathered by someones activity on Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc has probably identified that person as an educator to Zoom and therefore someone who ad’s should be targeted to.

5) Technical advantage

There were quite a few responses that said Zoom worked, and worked well, and that has led to it becoming the go to tool. Which may be true, although I have used numerous video conferencing platforms and find not a heck of a lot of difference between the quality and utility of Zoom compared to others. They all do the same job, or at least similar enough that I don’t see a huge difference that would warrant the oversized embrace of Zoom. And, well, Zoombombing has laid bare at least one pretty major flaw.

If there is a technical superiority compared to other (what I will call legacy) tools it is likely because Zoom is fairly young and has likely benefited from that as many older apps are often hampered by the technology of the time they were born. So, if there is a technical advantage to Zoom, it is likely partially due to the fact that it is not burden by technological legacy and benefits from modern development practices and technologies.

There were a few of “it just works” kind of comments. But as Mike Caulfield notes, “it just works” has an insidious side.

Privacy

Which leads nicely into the final point. I could not in good conscious write a blog post about Zoom without talking about privacy. Follow this thread….

Ian Linkletter also spoke a bit about how he perceives the culture of Zoom, the company

Indeed, Zoom appears to be of the “move fast and break things” mindset and has some serious work to do on the privacy front. But to be honest, I can’t say with any certainty that any other platform is better or worse than Zoom in this regard, with the exception of open source systems like Big Blue Button that you can host on-prem yourself. Having complete control of the application is one of the best ways to can protect user data and ensure that it does not become marketing data. As Doc Searls notes

Zoom is in the advertising business, and in the worst end of it: the one that lives off harvested personal data. What makes this extra creepy is that Zoom is in a position to gather plenty of personal data, some of it very intimate (for example with a shrink talking to a patient) without anyone in the conversation knowing about it. (Unless, of course, they see an ad somewhere that looks like it was informed by a private conversation on Zoom.)

We are living through a truly unprecedented event. So unprecedented that our provincial government has temporarily relaxed privacy laws (PDF) in our province to give higher education institutions (and others) more flexibility to meet the needs of their students, staff and faculty. However, let’s make sure that the technologies we use right now to bridge us to better days don’t simply become the default tools out of convenience or inertia.

Thanks all for contributing to the convo on Twitter. Twitter has felt a lot like the old days of Twitter these past few weeks, and I am seeing a lot of great sharing, support and conversations. It feels like the best of what Twitter and a PLN is.

If you have made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Zoom. Feel free to drop a comment.

* although I don’t think what is happening right now can be or should be considered online learning or distance education, or any other established term used to describe learning that is not done face to face. This is emergency teaching and learning in a time of unprecedented crisis. We are in a period of reactive teaching and learning, which is the opposite of online learning. Online learning is planned, deliberate and thoughtful in the sense that online courses often take months or even years to develop, not days or weeks. So, let’s not call what is happening right now online learning. Nor should we be rushing to do anything silly like use this as the time or circumstance to evaluate the effectiveness of online or distance learning. Because what is happening now is not online or distance learning.