Emory Report
July 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 34

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July 9, 2007
Technology notes for Teaching, learning, community

Alan Cattier is the director of AAIT’s Academic Technology Services.

For those of us who work in Academic Computing, summer acts as prelude to fall. As prelude, it offers the opportunity to introduce services and themes to the Emory community while sounding out how they will be received in September, as the school year more traditionally starts. This summer is no different as a number of upgrades and training workshops signal future direction for our next academic year.

First and foremost, Emory’s online course management system, BlackBoard, has been upgraded to an enterprise worthy infrastructure that introduces the potential for new and expanded functionality. Perhaps more than any other application, BlackBoard witnessed explosive growth over the course of 2006–07, moving from roughly 100,000 hits a day to nearly 30,000 hits per hour at peak usage. Many of the service disruptions that occurred last year were due to the lack of available computing resources to meet the spikes in demand, resulting in slow performance and, occasionally, failed connections and server outages.

Since the upgrade, what are some of the new capabilities that are available beyond substantially improved robustness? Discussion forums have been completely redesigned, providing subscription options to keep students connected to ongoing discussions; new moderator settings allow for more distributed discussion management for small groups; and the grade book has options for import and export of single tests as well as full customizability of test feedback. In addition, AAIT has been testing a module that will introduce the option of blogs and wikis within BlackBoard courses and these services should be available in the fall to instructors who request them.

If BlackBoard is the Web-based environment where faculty and students go for course resources, LearnLink is the place where faculty and students go for quick text-based discussions and to connect up with their online community. LearnLink looks different, as well, for those who have checked in over the summer. LearnLink’s new client offers a substantial redesign of the user interface of the desktop, with larger, more navigable icons as well as new functionality to support small teamwork in “Workspaces.” In order to bridge a connection to the Web environment, there is now a bookmarks manager to allow transparent surfing to designated Web sites from within the LearnLink client. Information on the new client is available at www.learnlink.emory.edu/guides/.

However, not all changes in teaching and learning services this summer are solely focused on the online environment. One major target of AAIT research has been to pilot an approach to recording class lectures. Using special software, faculty who teach using PowerPoint can record their voice in addition to the slides and any annotations made to them. The recorded file can then be available for distribution as an online resource that can be viewed on the Web, within BlackBoard, or on an iPod Video. Depending upon the success of the pilot, this capability might become more readily available on the campus next year.

Training sessions at Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching focused on two additional topics. First, Personal Response Systems, more commonly known as “clickers,” garnered a great deal of faculty interest as a promising classroom technology. Used to provide immediate feedback in that setting, PRS allows a teacher to ask questions and have students “click” their response. In the exchange, both faculty and students can assess whether the material being covered has been adequately comprehended.

The second set of workshops focused on using podcasts (online, portable audio files, that are streamable or downloadable) and vodcasts (online, portable video files, that are streamable or downloadable) to complement more traditional class materials. On the topic of iPods, the actual location where many of these files end up, the latest student survey indicates that more than 70% of Emory students have Apple’s specific player and an additional 20% have some form of MP3 player. Part of AAIT’s summer testing looks at mechanisms to distribute podcast and vodcast content alongside other class resources.

This past year clearly saw a pivotal shift by faculty and students toward online resources for teaching and learning. This summer, AAIT’s upgrades to the infrastructure and features of Emory’s teaching and learning environment speaks to meeting that shift, while providing a range of tools that can be used both inside the classroom as well as online. As many individuals at Emory return from their research and collaboration around the world, it is increasingly tools like these that tie us together as a community, allowing a reach and a variety of strategies to live and learn globally.