26 February, 2009

Comparing Digital Voice Recorders

We often get asked to recommend digital voice recorders, and in this post I'll try and describe what the options are for affordable models. We're not going to look at the top end stuff for more professional audio recording.

When choosing a digital voice recorder for recording feedback, lectures, or other learning materials, you are probably looking for a voice recorder that:

  1. Records in a widely used format, so that no time needs to be spent saving between formats. Currently, MP3 is widely supported on people’s computers and portable media players. WMA would probably be OK for most students too.
  2. Allows easy export of files from the voice recorder to the PC.
  3. Records audio at a suitable quality.
  4. Is not going to cost too much to replace batteries.

The two main manuafacturers are Olympus and Sony. Olympus devices tend to record in WMA format and Sony in MP3 or WAV, so if you are set on one format over the other this may direct your search. MP3s will be important if you are wanting the audio files listened to on portable media devices, without you having to convert them before you distribute them. WMA files will work on the current Edge Hill University media server, if you are wanting to use that.

If you want to know the details, Olympus' offerings are divided into Notetakers (the VN and WS series) and Dictation Systems (the DS series). For the VN series you'd be looking at paying between £20 and £40, but with these you'll probably need to convert the file to the format you require. The more expensive devices like the WS (£40-£70) and DS (£90-£250) series are therefore better if you can afford them. In the past in LTD and SOLSTICE we have used DS-30 devices which cost about £85, and I've had the WS-321M (£70) recomended to me too. Sony's ICD series devices include the UX models (£80-£100) which look of interest to us, but which I've never used.

If I was to purchase more devices for academic staff to use, I'd want to spend around £100 and go for the Olympus WS-321M with an external Olympus mic like the ME-51S for office use or a ME-15 tie mic for recording lectures. The WS series seems to me to have a good balance between ease of use, quality of recording and cost. We also know from experience that the DS-30 is a good buy at around £90. If you want to record in MP3 format Sony's ICD-UX80 devices look handy, and they would ideally need an external mic too.

Has anyone else got opinions and advice on digital voice recorders?

[image by jinny.wong]

Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

25 February, 2009

Monkeys, Birds and Spirits: Differences in How We Experience Second Life

Jeremy Kemp suggests that there could be a certain development in the way people use Second Life over time. From this it follows that we need to think about which of these groups our own uses might be in, so that we can design for them better.

His idea is that we start of as monkeys, liking a replication of the real world environment. We walk our avatar around the world, walking through doors and up stairs. He also uses the word verisimilitude, which is very impressive. It means that when you build for these users, you should replicate real life to make them feel comfortable.

We then tend to grow into birds. We fly to where we want to go, using atriums rather than stairs. We move and land with comfort and grace. This group of people require phantom barriers. If you use walls and ceilings they should allow you to pass through them, but really you probably just need some sort of landmark. It doesn't rain in Second Life.

Finally we become spirits, seperate in many ways from our avatar bodies. We teleport to where we want to go, even if it isn't far. Rather than move to see something we use the camera controls to change our view. He suggests that for these experienced users we design for an out-of-body experience. Lots of objects replicating the real world environment are just getting in the way of these users' experiences.

See the slide-show embedded below for his slides. The ones that I've been talking about here are 14, 15 and 16, but he has other interesting things worth thinking about.

Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

13 February, 2009

Choosing Images

There are lots of reasons that you might want to use images in your teaching and in the development of online materials. You might want to illustrate a point in a document or in your presentation slides. You might want to change the icon image in your VLE area to better communicate to students what the link leads to.

Whatever the reason, you'll need to be able to:

- Find images that help communicate your point. The images should always be there for communication, not to decorate. Using images as decoration can just add extra unimportant information that detracts from what you are trying to communicate.

- Find images that are copyright cleared to use. Go to a site which supplies copyright cleared images, and keep details of where you got the images so that you can credit the creator.

- If the images are being used for icons, you'll need to edit the images to a usable size.

Image Collections

The two sites that I use to get images are Flickr and Stock.XCHNG.

Flickr is a site where anyone can upload any of their own photos. Not all will be licenced for use but you can search through those photos that are Creative Commons licenced at the bottom of the Flickr search page, or the independent flickrCC search page made by Peter Shanks.

Stock.XCHNG is a site where people upload their own quality photographs for other people to use. You'll need to sign up for an acoount, but it is free and only quality images are allowed.

There are different licences attached to images on these sites, but generally if you search for images that you can adapt you'll be fine. Some of the licences require you to give the creator credit - and that is only polite anyway.

In my projects I now keep a list of where I got the images from, who the author is and a link to the licence agreement. In a website or VLE area, I'll have a small link named 'image credits' which lists this information and in presentation slides, I'll have a page at the end doing the same. This makes sure that you and anyone who re-uses your work at a later time, knows where they are regarding copyright.

Thinking about Purpose

Images can help communication if chosen well. If you are presenting you want images behind you that support what you are saying - not ones that are talking about something else and just creating 'noise' for the students to process. If a student gets to a link on your website or Blackboard area they would benefit from you communicating what it is they will find by following the link - they will benefit from an image that communicates this.

Let's say I'm creating a template for my department to use for its online materials on the VLE, and we've decided to use photographic images for the icons. The icons are probably going to be small - perhaps 150 pixels wide (pixels are) and 75 high - which gives us something else to think about. Will a picture I find look good at that size? Will a small section from the image help to communicate what I want to say.

Firstly I need one for the Discussion Board. I'll go to search through the Creative Commons licenced images on Flickr. I start off by searching for board and get images of chess boards, surf boards and notice boards. It's important here to remember is will the image help the student know what the link is for, and give as much information as possible about it's use.

A photo of people talking would be ideal for this, as the Discussion Board is for communication. OK the Discussion Board is text based, but the image communicates a lot. Don't fall into the trap of using a picture of a notice board, and forgetting that that would not communicate anything useful to the students.

Editing Images for use as Icons

If you are using images, or sections of images as icons, you'll need to edit them and save them as perhaps 75 by 75 pixels. Pixels are the tiny little squares that make up the picture on your screen. Here's how you can do it.

If you are at Edge Hill on campus you'll have access to PhotoEditor (pdf).

However, even if you don't have access to any software there are free web sites that will enable you to edit your software. For example Snipshot.com is very easy to use and is free.

Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

12 February, 2009

Using Comics to Educate

In his 1993 book, 'Understanding Comics' [Edge Hill Library Link], Scott McCloud argues well that Comics are a valid form of communication. From more recent times, take 20 minutes to watch his fantasic TED Talk.

While using comics in education is nothing new, Scott's introduction to Google's Chrome browser comic from last year is an example of an educational application of comics. I read this through, while I would never have made it through the average manual.

The growth of very basic animation as an acceptable serious education tool, can perhaps be seen in series like Nutintuit Studio's technical training videos, which were inspired by the Common Craft Show's In Plain English videos.

I wonder how our basic introductions to technologies and technology enhanced learning might work if we created them as a comic. Would they feel more 'human'. Would they be more widely read than if they were just text? Would they be more memorable? At the moment we're looking at creating a short introduction for staff about using new and emerging technologies for the web site. Perhaps we could use the skills in the team to approach it in a slightly different way.

06 February, 2009

Predictions for 2009

At the start of every year we see a host of predictions about what the future will hold for technology enhanced learning. In this post I’ll give you links to some of them, and briefly try to sumarise.

The Daddy of all annual Technology Enhanced Learning predictions is the Horizon report. This year it looks at Mobiles and Cloud computing in the ‘One Year or Less to Adoption’ category, Geo-everything and the Personal Web in the ‘Two to Three Years to Adoption’ category, and finally Semantic-Aware Applications and Smart Objects in the ‘Four to Five Years to Adoption Category’. There are also sections covering Key Trends and Critical Challenges.

eLearn Magazine has invited many experts to talk about opportunities and challenges that they expect over the next 12 months. Many of these focus on the financial situation and the impact of this on eLearning - for example many seem to think that in the corporate world, eLearning will be again seem as a way of saving money. Other possible trends mentioned are the quiet infiltration of mobile devices, the further development of Open Educational Resources, and the use of more informal online learning environments.

The Educause community has identifies their top five challenges in teaching and learning with technology, in 2009. I quite like the fact that these predictions are more ‘classic’ challenges which will be relevant for our thinking over several years. For example, ‘Developing 21st century literacies (information, digital, and visual) among students and faculty.’. There is a project wiki available as a hub for collaboration in the pursuit of solutions.

Finally, and I'm sure with less well considered conclusions, here's the transcript of my Pete's Crystal Ball session that I ran last month about technologies that could to enter mainstream use at Edge Hill over the next three years. It’s written for a non-technical audience, and so is quite straightforward to read through.

Backing-up Your Personal Learning Environment

With the news that the social bookmarking site Ma.gnolia might have gone down for good, it's a good time to consider exactly how we can ensure we don't lose all the data that we collect in various online services.

Feed Readers make it easy to do this. I can download an OPML file from Bloglines, either to backup the list of feeds that I subscribe to, or to read them in another service like Google Reader. OPML is used as standard, in feed readers and podcast aggregators.

The same is possible with some social bookmarking sites, but there doesn't seem to be a standard way of migrating bookmarks similar to OPML. I use Delicious, and this allows me to download a list of my bookmarks, along with data like my tags. However to import them in to Google Bookmarks I'd need to run them through a third-party program rather than an official Import Bookmarks function.

At the far end of the scale are virtual worlds. There are moves towards your avatar being able to move between worlds, but this is in a very early stage. The fact that Google closed Lively while educators were using it, shows that it is important to be able to move your avatars and creations, in some form, to another environment.

Anyway, the point of this post is really to emphasise the importance of backing up your data. If you've found some web services that you are settled with, and that you are collecting large amounts of valuable data in, the experience of Ma.gnolia shows us that it's not as safe as it sometimes feels.

03 February, 2009

iKnow!: Learning Languages Online

In the spirit of diversity week, I thought I'd write about a language learning site that I like.

iKnow makes it easy for you to set up word lists in any language, including adding audio, and provides the learner with tools to help them learn the words,to understand context, and to test their learning. These tools include basic social networking tools, so that you aren't learning alone, and the BrainSpeed game that tests your learning. Watch their screencast video to find out more, and have a look at the courses for a language that you want to learn like Mandarin or my Romanian lists which took about 10 minutes each to set up with text and audio.

For developers there is an API, and people have linked it up for use in Second Life.

Don't know if it's pedagogically sound, but it keeps me interested, especially the BrainSpeed game :)