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.

 

Managing all those web apps with Rambox

 

The nature of my work means I need to be very nimble with the technologies I use to communicate with different groups of people.

In addition to the internal tools we use at BCcampus (a mixture of RocketChat, Skype, Bluejeans, Basecamp, Confluence and Zimbra), I am also involved with numerous communities, collaboratives, working groups and other assorted groups of people and projects each with their own preference for communication and working. I stay connected to ETUG using Slack, PBworks, Collaborate and via a good ol’ fashioned email distribution list. The OpenETC prefers to use Mattermost. Another Slack group for Creative Commons. My own personal communication tools include 3 different Twitter accounts, a Mastodon account, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger.

Now, pretty well all of these are web based tools accessible via the browser, which I used to manage using a Firefox built-in feature called Tab Groups. Tab Groups gave me the ability to group different tabs together by whatever criteria I wanted, creating different “desktops” within Firefox. But about a year ago, Firefox dumped that feature, forcing me to rethink how I managed my entire workflow.

Basically, what I want to do is separate primarily communication tools (email, Slack, RocketChat, Skype, Mattermost) from both productivity type applications (Sandstorm, wikis, GDocs, WordPress) & info consumption (Feedly, general browsing kind of stuff).

I tried a number of different ways. I experimented with different tab group extensions, tried downloading standalone apps for many of the tools I used, but nothing really worked well for me. Until I came across Rambox. Rambox is an open source app that works like a specialized web browser that allows you to groups different web applications into one app.

screen shot of rambox

Rambox. One app to rule them all.

Rambox has been especially useful in grouping together the various IM-type applications that I use everyday: RocketChat for our internal BCcampus communications, 2 Slack channels (ETUG and Creative Commons), Mattermost (the OpenETC), Zimbra (BCcampus email), Basecamp (our PM software), and helping me keep my browser set aside for reading/writing and other productivity tasks.

Interesting thing that I’ve discovered is that it has helped me in 2 ways, which, at first, seem incompatible. First, it has made me more responsive in those various communication channels. It is much easier to see at a glance where conversations are occurring, and to quickly pop in, catch up and stay connected to convos in various communities.

The second, opposite side of the equation, is that it has made me more focused when I am doing more productive type tasks in my browser. When I want to write, I can minimize Rambox and ignore everything to focus on the task at hand. Then, when I am ready to check in with my communication channels, I can maximize Rambox and quickly see where I need to go to catch up on communications.

It hasn’t been technically perfect. Skype is a bit of a pain in Rambox as it doesn’t fully support Skype (no video). And it seems like Skype is updated almost on a daily basis and everytime it is I need to uninstall and reinstall it in Rambox. Not a huge deal, but still a bit of a pain.

Also, if I get an attachment in Zimbra (our email system at BCcampus), I need to download and save it locally first. If I click on an attachment in Zimbra within Rambox, I get an error message. So, that adds a bit within my workflow.

But those are minor compared to the reduction in cognitive load I feel using the app. It has helped me to compartmentalize my work and has helped me manage my workload immensely. For that, I am a big fan of Rambox, and just made a small donation to say thanks.

 

Students as customers

A few weeks ago, I was a virtual attendee at a member meeting of a regional higher ed I.T. consortium. In attendance were I.T. Directors and CIO’s.

One of the speakers at the event was an I.T. vendor who continually kept referring to students as “your customers”. Now, once or twice in a vendor presentation is annoying. But he kept repeating it over and over again to the point where I got so frustrated that I did what most people do when they are frustrated these days.

I vented on Twitter.

Now, I get that, to most vendors, everyone is a customer. But I do recognize that it is easy for this type of language to just slip by unnoticed until it becomes an uncontested part of the education landscape, and I think the language of student as customer needs to be unpacked whenever possible.

Thinking of students as “customers” makes me very uncomfortable. When we think of students as “customers”, I believe it changes the relationship we have with students. It alters how we see them. How we interact with them. And it alters how they see themselves. When students begin to see themselves as “customers” of education, then they soon build their expectations of what their education should be using the paradigm of a consumer transaction.

If you have taught, you may have experienced a moment when a student challenges you on an assessment with an argument that contains some version of “I am paying a lot of money for this course, therefore I deserve a better course”. That is one of the more obvious manifestations of the student as customer mindset.

We need to stop referring to our students as “customers”.

It’s a position that the confirmation bias engine that is Google supported when I went Googling shortly after my Twitter outburst.  First result Google returned was a 2008 op-ed article from Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars. Talk about supporting my tweet.

Students are – to embrace a tautology – students. That’s to say, the relationship between a college and a student is sui generis. It needs to be understood in its own terms, not twisted to fit the needs of a metaphor. It doesn’t need to be modeled on the relationship between merchants and consumers, or any other metaphoric arrangement. (Students are not constructively thought of as “patients” either, despite the urges of residence life and student affairs staff. Nor are students “clients,” “colleagues,” or “partners,” etc.)

Alia Wong in a 2016 article in The Atlantic digs deeper into the history of how U.S. institutions developed a “student as customer” mentality, and the increasing influence that various ranking schemes have had on institutions. These rankings, often designed with the intention of helping students make better decisions about where to go to college, have helped to instill a student as customer mindset with institutions as they continually chase high rankings in order to get the greatest number of students applying to their institution. We begin to instill a student as customer mindset on ourselves well before the student even applies to attend our institution as we try to figure out how to best market our services to potential students.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., Patrick McGhee in The Guardian notes a certain ironic twist in our desire to treat learners as customers at a time when so many businesses want to see their customers as learners.

It seems strange to exhort universities to treat learners as customers at a time when businesses are increasingly trying to treat customers as learners. Business analysts are reflecting buying patterns relating to knowledge and learning: “instant skills” has been identified as one of the major consumer trends for 2015. The idea is that there is a relative shift away from “having” to “creating”. Successive generations are spending less on things and more on experiences, desiring collaboration, creativity and transparency.

An Australian perspective offered by Kelly Matthews from the University of Queensland gets to the heart of the implications that “student as customer” has on teaching & learning, noting that, how we see our students influences how we teach, and how students see themselves influences how they learn.

The idea of being a customer shifts the responsibility of learning onto the lecturers, leaving students with a passive role to play. Yet, we know students need to take active ownership of their own learning. Numerous studies demonstrate grades suffer – and students learn less – when they are passive learners.

If students see themselves as customers, it shifts the burden of responsibility for learning away from the students and onto the teacher, making them passive, not active, learners. Instead, Matthews advocates for students as partners, which is far more appealing to me than students as customers.

Core values of students as partners are grounded in principles that highlight how students and staff can work together as co-researchers, co-teachers, and co-creators.

Student as customer is a pretty easy narrative to blindly fall into, both for students and for educators. As students are forced to bear more costs for their education due to continual cuts and rising fees, it is easy to understand how they adopt a transactional, customer-service based attitude towards their education.

For educators, we are often swimming in a sea of neoliberal economic values in our institutions. We are continually being told that the most important bottom line is the economic bottom line.

While the eternal optimist in me wishes we could completely remove all financial fees from our education systems (which is one of the appeals of open textbooks as I think forcing students to buy learning materials reinforces this consumer mindset of learning), the pragmatist in me knows that eliminating all fees for students would be difficult and likely bring about it’s own issues and problems.

But I do believe that educators need to continually kickback at the notion that students are customers because it fundamentally changes the nature of our relationship, boiling it down to dollars and sense. Getting a post-secondary education isn’t like buying a new car. Deep learning has to be driven by something other than economics and the more the language of consumerism seeps into our conversations, the more education adopts values that mimic the market. And we are not the market.

 

Microsoft vs the US Government could have implications for cloud services in BC

The US Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments in a cloud computing case that could have implications for the BC higher education sector interested in using cloud services.

For years, FIPPA legislation in British Columbia has been both a hurdle and a blessing (depending on your perspective. Mine changes almost daily) for post-secondary institutions wishing to utilize cloud based services that store data outside of Canada. Section 30.1  of BC's privacy legislation states that, “A public body must ensure that personal information in its custody or under its control is stored only in Canada and accessed only in Canada,” unless prior consent is received or another section of FIPPA supersedes this requirement.

Recently, we have seen moves from companies like Microsoft and Amazon to set up data centres here in Canada, in part to help meet the data sovereignty requirements of legislation like BC's. The belief being that local data centres can help contain the data within Canadian legislative boundaries. It is the same strategy/belief that led Microsoft to set up data centres in Ireland.

Which is the crux of this US Supreme Court case currently underway. The US Department of Justice is trying to get Microsoft to turn over emails that are stored in their Ireland data centre.

If Microsoft loses this case and are forced to hand over emails to the US government that are stored on their servers in Ireland, then they could conceivably be forced to hand over data stored on their data servers in Canada at some point in the future. Meaning that having data stored in an Amazon or Microsoft data centre in Canada would be a moot point as it would not be able to provide the level of data sovereignty protection FIPPA needs.

When the most recent review of BC's FIPPA legislation occurred,  post-secondary organizations like BCNET and thr Research Universities Council of BC made the case to the BC privacy commission that section 301. is a barrier to the use of cloud based systems in higher ed in this province. At that time, the commission noted that, with Microsoft, Adobe and Amazon setting up data centres in Canada, that should provide adequate services to Canadians and satisfy the FIPPA legislation. However, should Microsoft lose this case and be forced to turn over data stored in Ireland, it could be a moot point.

On the other side, it could be a real opportunity for Canadian organizations who do provide cloud service, like BCNET through their EduCloud service, and spur a greater demand for self hosted applications and Canadian based companies to emerge with made in Canada education technology solutions .

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