“I think it’s really important that people don’t lose their voice in all of this…you can be personal with your students, build that relationship and still be super professional – and have a more successful experience with your students because of it.”
In this episode of the Not-So-Distant Learning Podcast, co-hosts Maureen Glynn and Terry Greene chat with one of their fellow E-Learning Designers, Stephanie Park, about her work supporting Trent faculty transition their courses to remote delivery over the summer and fall. It’s the last episode before Christmas break, so we also play a Christmas Ghost Game!
Some resources mentioned throughout the conversation:
Save Me Dog Rescue is the organization Stephanie volunteers for and adopted her dog Cooper from!
As a community-based organization, Contact North | Contact Nord helps underserved Ontarians in 800 small, rural, remote, Indigenous and Francophone communities get jobs by making it possible for them to access education and training without leaving their communities.
I’m not talking about the gift-bearing cubes from Super Mario here (although that would also be very, very cool), I’m talking about the way that tests in Blackboard can be structured. Using random blocks in your test is great when you only want some of your test to be randomized. Or if you want to only serve up a fraction of the total question pool.
To create a random block, you’ll need to have already created a pool of reusable questions. After selecting the questions from the pool that you want to use (I opt to grab everything) you’re then able to select how many you’d like randomly displayed to students during the assessment.
If you’ve already created all your questions in a test but would like to take advantage of the block system, you can populate a pool with these by clicking the “Find Questions” button while in the Pool Canvas (this will be a visually similar process to what you see above, but instead of selecting questions from pools to put into your test, you’ll be selecting questions from a test to put into a pool).
Random blocks (and question sets) are great ways to organize and administer testing in Blackboard. Do keep the following in mind while crafting your assessments:
Double check how many questions you want to display from the number selected (this is generally set to ‘1’ by default)
All questions found in the block or set will award the same number of points; you are not able to adjust the scoring of individual questions.
The order of questions (or blocks) in a test can be adjusted by hovering your mouse over the left-hand side of an element, dragging, and dropping into place
You can learn more about Test Pools by reading Trent IT’s user guide. If you think you need a helping hand with things, or a couple extra pointers, you can get in touch with all of us by emailing online[at]trentu.ca.
Are your discussion boards tasting a little bland lately? Maybe it’s time to pour some homemade sauce on that discussion board to spice things up.
These boards typically have but one ingredient: Endless, endless text. This simple recipe adds just a few more ingredients: openly licensed imagery, any photo editing software, and each other. Here are the basic steps for students to follow (That’s right, your students are doing the cooking):
Skim, scan, or even read deeply through the threads for a quote from a peer that resonates with you. Any kind of remark that you feel deserves some recognition for being a smart one works. Copy that text and take note of who wrote it (for attribution).
Head over to a place where you can get openly licensed images that you are free to use without worrying about copyright issues (like Unsplash, Pixabay, or Creative Commons Search) to find an image. Bonus points for an image that symbolically relates to the quote. For example, if the quote you’re saucing up is about “stretching our resources” your image could be someone pulling apart some play-dough or something. You get the idea. Take note of the source of the image (again, for attribution).
Now that you have the quote and the image, you just need to put them together. Open up that image file in any photo editing tool or app that you have. Whether you’re on a PC, Mac or phone, there are instructions here to add text to an image.
Once you have fancied up that quote with an awesome image, head on back to the original discussion board and post it! Make sure to let the person you quoted know about it, as they would likely enjoy seeing their words on display all fancy-like. Don’t forget to add alternative text to the quote for accessibility reasons.
Enjoy the new taste sensation of a discussion board with some flavour!
Here, have an example (note that the quote is attributed to the writer and the image is sourced).
“Every morning I get up and I watch the war, watch the war, watch the war, And every morning it upstages everything I know”
(Jonatha Brooke & the Story: War, 1995)
We live in stressful times, and while there are increasingly patches of sunlight pertaining to remote learning, too often the ambience has been one of confusion and fatigue among my fellow instructors as they wrestle with learning systems and how to engage their classes in ways which resemble the enthusiasm we all like to imagine exists in our seminar rooms. It seems ingenuous to compare it to the grinding apathy of experiencing conflict through the absorption of media, but in a sense, there are enough similarities to draw the parallel. We take in what we share with one another, and throughout the fall term, for too many, there was stress and fear and worry. It echoed around academic circles, and with every retelling, the feeling of shared distress almost visibly grew within the comment sections.
That’s not my story, though.
By sharing my own experience, and how I got to where I am, I hope that I may offer another ray of light to continue driving away the foggy clouds of confusion and tension, and provide another tool through which readers might be able to connect still more with their classes.
I’m a historian by training and passion, so it’s only right to begin with some history and context. For decades now, I’ve taken what free time I have into video games, often mixing them with my research, but typically relying on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications to facilitate my games when I team up with other players to accomplish mighty digital deeds. I’ve been familiar with Mumble, Skype, TeamSpeak, and all the rest for years now, and over the past five years, one VoIP really began to dominate the games I played; it was called Discord, and it allowed gaming guilds to build servers, organize text and voice channels, discuss strategies, and conduct group missions or raids.
Discord is a free application which can be run both as a downloadable executable tool, and a web-based chat system. It’s a freemium business model, where users pay for extra services, but the security, low latency, convenience between PC and mobile uses allow for a rapid community-building platform which many gaming guilds have used to great effect. While Discord controls all the many images, files, and messages sent through its service, it has openly stated that it will not sell information from users, and it does not use advertisements.
You can see, I suspect, how this would be of interest to a variety of communities, and Discord’s success is testament to its strategy. Its success has also landed the company in some hot water over time, with alt-right groups using it to organize rallies thanks to its relative privacy and how easily used it is. Life is never sunshine and roses, especially where the internet is concerned, and where those who use it for unsavoury purposes are concerned.
That said, I confess that when covid-19 became the institution-closing pandemic it became, and classes were abruptly halted, I was somewhat surprised when my incredible group of first year students asked to use Discord as a way to keep up with our weekly meetings. I’d offered to work with whatever tool they chose – I expected something like WhatsApp, which my antiquated BlackBerry despises, frankly – and I was not only relieved but delighted by their choice.
I duly set up a Discord server, and for the remaining weeks of class, we had some really great discussions. As fall rolled up, I immediately decided to try the same approach, but more intentionally, and I therefore invited students in my second year course to join a class Discord I built. I did not make it mandatory but instead optional, providing Discussion Boards through the Blackboard LMS should students elect not to use Discord.
The whole class pretty much joined Discord immediately. There is always some early intensity when you’re fostering a sense of community, and one mixed blessing of the application is that I can have it open throughout my work hours. This allowed me to devote the requisite time to the class to help them feel safe and comfortable, but it also meant that I was always “on” so to speak. Not a great hardship for me given my gamer past, but certainly not something that every faculty member might crave at least initially.
Every morning Discord automatically launches as my computer turns on, and every morning I would read through student conversations. At first they were stilted and formal, but as I commented frequently, encouraged them steadily, students began to risk themselves with one another. The turning point came in late September when two students began to discuss what it feels like to be Black in Canada in the general channel. I’d taught one before, and they had always been quiet in person, clearly uncomfortable in a seminar room full of peers who likely did not grasp the challenges that come with being racialized. In Discord, I saw an entirely different person from that quiet student; I saw someone who was active, engaged, vocal, and brave. I watched as they opened up and spoke frankly about their experiences, and other students entered the discussion in positive, encouraging, beautiful ways that continued to build a feeling of community.
I chose to be as vulnerable myself as my students were being, and I spoke freely about my passion as an Africanist, as a scholar of identity, and my strong feelings around the injustices of the slave trade and its terrible legacy. The students gave back what I gave them, and increasingly, the community was one of support, strength, and ongoing commitment to learning more. I made a point of reminding students that I and my TAs would not be marking them for weekly contributions but as an average of ALL their contributions throughout the term. My intention in this was to take the pressure off already overloaded learners and do my best to make their engagement in this platform one of voluntary excitement rather than tedious obligation. I have been rewarded tenfold.
It’s nearly the end of term now. I don’t have to throw nearly as much energy into building a community which is clearly now self sustaining. When I launch Discord now, I read the beauty of students sharing their passion for the subject I teach. I watch them linking videos they have found about the topic for one another to review, I see them helping each other as they work on assignments, I delight in their thoughtful, well-considered responses. They post at hours I’d be sleeping, or before they go to work, or while they’re out walking and have their phones handy. The key features have been convenience, utility, and community. Discord simply was a capable, organic platform to facilitate this level of engagement, and it was one the students took to with excitement and enthusiasm.
And now, every morning when I wake up, I no longer ‘watch the war.’ Every morning these students upstage everything I thought I knew as I see greater engagement than I’d even get in a seminar room at this stage in a term. I am awed, and I am humbled to see the passion among these learners, and to be a part of the community we share.
Over the summer the goal of our work was to help people scale up quickly and get ready to deliver the good stuff online in time for September. Now that we’re confidently knee-deep into autumn, and you’ve got the basics down pat, you might be considering taking it to the next level.
Below we’ve listed just a few open source media tools that can help you create, edit, and refine your learning materials. Depending on your technological proficiency these programs might look a bit daunting, but everyone starts somewhere. The more you play around and experiment the better you’ll get. And we’re here to help and encourage your experiments!
Open Broadcaster Software gives you the ability to record or stream video all on your own. If you’ve seen some of the crazy things people can do while streaming on YouTube or Twitch, you get the idea of just how far you can take things. And OBS is a tool that many of them use to make it happen. With OBS, you’ll have the power to fine tune your video production (the layout of visual elements, organizing different audio inputs). OBS is a great tool to play around with if you’re looking to move beyond simple virtual backgrounds, or for anyone looking to add more visual flair to their videos. Here’s a guide to get you started.
GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, a free and open source Photoshop alternative that has been in the works for decades. GIMP is packed full of features and tools that will allow you to create, edit, and save images in a variety of formats. While the interface might seem excessive, GIMP is an excellent choice when MS Paint or Preview won’t cut it—without the price tag that comes with a tool like Photoshop.
Yet another open source tool that has stood the test of time, Audacity is a program that will let you record and edit digital audio. You’ll be able to visually observe your waveforms, snip and paste selected segments, and export your edited audio. Audacity is for people looking to record podcasts, or work with their audio independently of other media.
It takes some time to master these open source tools, so don’t expect overnight edu-stardom (maybe give it a week or two), but as you learn the ins and outs and develop material, you’ll likely see how they can help you to refine and create even better stuff for your students.