Monday, May 29, 2017

West Chester University’s RECAP Conference

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to join about 150 faculty and staff colleagues participating in West Chester University’s RECAP conference. RECAP is an annual conference held each May at West Chester University, showcasing “the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning in higher education.” The conference dates back to 1996, when the acronym for the conference was coined (Resources for the Electronic Classroom: A Partnership). Our conference this May was the 21st RECAP – a pretty impressive run!
Over the years RECAP has grown to involve faculty from Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education and regional higher education institutions, and to reflect advances in technology related to teaching and learning in higher education.
There are many wonderful things about RECAP, starting with the enthusiasm of all of the organizers and the participants. I also truly appreciate how it takes place right after WCU’s spring commencement, which means we attend the conference while still in the afterglow of watching another group of students achieving a major life milestone and knowing that we played our part in that success. Commencement is always such a great reminder of why we teach and why we apply our technology and course design expertise to the teaching and learning goals of our universities.

The thing that I love the most about RECAP, though, is the way that the typical walls between faculty members and technical staff members fall away for a day. We share thinking on course design, on technology tools, and on ways to make online or hybrid courses as personal and interactive as face-to-face courses. We all come together with common purpose, in the belief that when we combine students who want to learn, an expert faculty member who is passionate about his or her subject, and the right mix of course design and learning tools, we bring out the best in all involved in the learning process. The result really is greater than the sum of the parts.

At this year’s conference, we were fortunate to have an invited keynote by Marc Andonian of Gartner to open the day. Marc, who is a Gartner Vice President and Executive Partner, has decades of strategic IT experience, much of it involving higher education. Marc used two of the Gartner frameworks, the Hype Cycle and the Market Clock, to put the conference session talks into a useful context, encouraging attendees to think about the maturity of the ideas and technologies. With that helpful context, attendees might be better able to decide which ideas and technologies warrant their attention and investment.

When the day’s sessions were done, I got the chance to close out the conference with a Recap of RECAP. We looked back on the day and the comments heard from attendees via Twitter and other feedback mechanisms, and in an interactive session attempted to tie it all together with observations from all sixteen sessions.

I very much hope that all RECAP attendees came away feeling as inspired as I did, ready to try some new ideas and technologies and to grow as educators and educational technologists. New students continue to arrive at our campuses each year and it’s exciting to think that we can bring great new ideas to help them on their college and life journey.


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Sunday, April 30, 2017

When Cars Fly

(Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)
The idea of flying cars has been part of the human imagination for as long as we've had cars -- maybe longer (flying carpet, anyone?). It isn't hard to imagine why. We dream of getting to places faster, avoiding busy intersections, having more freedom to travel over unpaved areas, and of course having a wonderful birds-eye view of our world.

(Image Credit: Back To The Future 2)

Flying cars play starring roles in movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Back to the Future and cartoons like the Jetsons. Many videos can be found on YouTube with related vehicles, and Uber seems ready to work with potential partners creating flying taxi-vehicles. Some "flying cars" seem to be fold-up airplanes, others seem more like dune buggies with hang glider attachments. Still others borrows from military helicopters and are designed for vertical take-off.

 (Image Credit: Hanna-Barbera Productions)
Lately, we've been hearing about ways in which inventors might be getting closer to something practical. Another design getting lots of attention lately is the the Kitty Hawk from Google co-founder Larry Page, which seems to be a large octo-copter drone with a seat strapped on top.

Kitty Hawk Test Flight

This video is fun to watch, but it certainly prompts many questions. How safe is this vehicle? Who would regulate (or insure) it? How close is it to production-readiness, and what would it cost? Where should such a vehicle be permitted to operate?

Would you drive (or fly) this vehicle? How much would you be willing to pay for it?
Please leave a comment and let us know.


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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Talking To Technology

Until about the mid 1980s, almost everybody interacted with a computer using only a keyboard and a command line interface or “CLI.” No mouse, no point and click interface, and certainly no touch screen.

When the mouse and the point-and-click interface came along as part of modern computers and operating systems of the mid-1980s, it drastically changed the way we interacted with technology. Though the CLI still has its place, today we rely heavily upon the mouse and the point-and-click interface as we have for the last 30+ years. Over time, the mouse became wireless (making it look a lot less like a “mouse”) and the window systems became more sophisticated. Faster computers and networks made video possible, and cheap, fast mass-storage devices allowed us to hold all our photos, songs and movies. The point-and-click interface, though, has remained largely the same.

About a decade ago, a new interface became available and caught on quickly. The capacitive touch interface, first on smartphones, later on tablets, and now on some laptop computers, has become the dominant interface for those with mobile devices.

Will speech and natural language interaction be the next game-changer, as the mouse was in the 1980s, and touch was 20 years later? Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all seem to think so. All have introduced products and capabilities that allow speech as input and audio as output, meaning you can talk to your technology and it talks back.

The first major system on the scene was Apple’s Siri, released in the fall of 2011 for use on iPhones. Google Assistant, Amazon Echo and Microsoft Cortana followed soon after. While Apple’s Siri was first among the big players, the others each introduced interesting new capabilities. Google could leverage what it knew from your calendar and other tools to bring more value as an assistant. Amazon introduced standalone, stationary devices which could be extended to deliver “smart home” capabilities through “skills” or capabilities accessible via voice. Most of all, each new voice interaction system showed advancements and improvements in language interaction to the point where the earliest systems like Siri soon seemed far less impressive.

The Good, the bad, the ugly

Now that we can talk to technology, a reasonable question to consider is whether and when speaking and listening is a preferred interface. A clear advantage is that speaking and listening are part of a more natural user interface, close to the way we interact with each other. For most of us, conversation is the communication tool we learn first! Also, there are times when the point-and-click interface just doesn’t make good sense, such as when driving. A conversational interface with our technology seems far safer in that setting.

There are pretty clearly some disadvantages to consider, too. First, talking to technology still looks and feels a little strange. When I pass people on the street carrying on a phone conversation via a Bluetooth earpiece or some in-ear headphones, a small part of me can’t help noticing how they look like they are talking to themselves (and how can I be really sure that they aren’t!). And some people have noticed that kids growing up with Alexa in their house or Siri on their devices talk a little loudly and abruptly, even when talking to people. Second, an office full of people interacting with their technology may be noisy and disruptive and may even error prone for obvious reasons. Third, there are some tasks that probably just work better in a point and click interface. The voice interface makes it more difficult to leverage visual information (like a map) and to select specifics from that information (like a street or address). Finally, as a practical matter, the technology is still far from perfect. Voice assistants seem to still misunderstand us a little too often to be a primary interface.

What now?

It’s probably fair to guess that that last point won’t be true for very long. Improvements will come to voice assistants as they come to so much of the technology around us. Apple, once the leader and now lagging, is quite likely to make up lost ground in a future release of Siri. Some are speculating a major revision from Apple in 2017. The other major vendors will respond and introduce improvements as well.

Maybe a next leap forward in user interfaces will leverage Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality as the next logical step. A number of niche vendors are producing interesting AR and VR products, and the big vendors will surely respond with some of their own. Another interesting blog topic for another day.

What do you think about user interfaces? And what will be the dominant interface of the next 5 years? Please post a comment and let us know what you think.

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