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Drupal Site for Military Writers Society of America

For the last few months I have been working on a new website for the Military Writers Society of America. The goal was to create a collaborative writing site, where the members of MWSA could share ideas and work together to create the online version of their magazine Dispatches. In many ways, the goal was the same as when I create an online classroom for university students: the technology should assist collaboration and never hinder participation.

If you are curious, the new MWSA website is at: http://www.mwsadispatches.com

What I've learned during this process will influence my approach to designing other online spaces, including courses. Allow me to detail the lessons, some of which were frustrating.

1. Drupal was a good choice.

I experimented with several other content management systems, such as Joomla, Mambo, Moodle, XOOPS, and the classic PHP-Nuke. It was Drupal or Joomla, and Drupal won. For all the choices out there, I settled on Drupal because it is so ubiquitous and r…

Ask Slashdot: Is E-Learning a Viable Option? - Slashdot

Over on Slashdot, the following question has 165 comments in under ten hours:
Ask Slashdot: Is E-Learning a Viable Option? - Slashdot

Once again, we should remind ourselves that technology and other materials depend on the teacher's ability to use those tools wisely. Technology alone is never a panacea. Also, technology does come with its issues.
Students working online, either at home or in class, can and do get distracted. We all do. It's hard for me not to skip over to check the latest headlines or skim science news RSS feeds. Do you really expect students to be disciplined?
Technology, used wisely, offers amazing new potentials. But, I've seen what happens when a teacher doesn't realize Twitter and Facebook have become the favorite topics of the class period.
Ideally, we teach students to focus. That might be with a book or with an iPad, but focus matters.

The Desktop Computer is Dead. Long Live the Desktop!

hardware case miditower (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
December 5, 2011 Deadline
January 2012 Issue

The Desktop Computer is Dead. Long Live the Desktop!

Prognosticators keep telling us the “Dark Tower” personal computer is dead. The experts have predicted the year of the handheld, netbook, tablet, all-in-one and media computer. Each of these smaller devices was supposed to mark the end of the tall tower or hulking desktop computer.

Yes, for many people the huge tower is dead. If you want to type and surf the Web, you can use almost any new computing device. But for many of us the desktop computer not only lives, it is essential to our work (and play).

Most of my students are content with inexpensive notebook or netbook computers. Some of my colleagues at the university use iPads with portable keyboards. The average computer user does not need a huge tower next to his or her desk. For most people, a $2500 computer is an unnecessary expense.

But, I know some pe…

Can Anything Be Taught Online?

One of the questions facing colleges and universities is "Can Anything Be Taught Online?"
The simple answer is, no. But some of almost every topic can be taught online. I ask the question, "How Much of Topic X Can Be Online?"

When an institution wants to take a topic online, it should ask the following:
How much of the course content will work online, in the time allotted? How will that content be delivered? How will knowledge and skills be evaluated?What technologies will be required?Do potential students have access to the needed technology?
While a school cannot have a veterinary surgery practicum online, they can provide simulations and much of the background material leading up to the physical practicum. Someday in my lifetime I imagine "robot-assisted" surgeries will be common. (They exist now, but are limited to a few procedures and there are physicians present.) Still, I'd want a surgeon to have performed "real" surgery, in case the …

GAO report finds cheating, plagiarism and other violations in for-profit colleges’ online classes - Politics - The Boston Globe

This story explains some of my doubts about online education. It is not online education that concerns me, but the poor oversight and administration that threatens to further erode confidence employers have in online degree programs.
GAO report finds cheating, plagiarism and other violations in for-profit colleges’ online classes - Politics - The Boston Globe First, the obvious question: if the GAO is examining for-profit institutions now, how long before they investigate “non-profit” colleges and universities? I have plenty of questions about education in general, including higher education quality, regardless of the charter of the institutions or their settings. State, non-profit, or for-profit, any institution is only as good as its administration and faculty. Online, oversight is even more challenging than on-campus. It requires more time and energy because it is easy for students (and some faculty) to cut corners online.
The GAO examined enrollment, cost, financial aid, course str…

There’s More than One App for Weddings, Too

Special Wedding Column
November 13, 2011 Deadline
Special Issue

There’s More than One App for Weddings, Too

Brides and grooms, as you plan your special day you might find it reassuring that for everything from the guest list to the reception music the slogan is true: “There’s an app for that!”

App developers know you need some assistance. More than three dozen iPhone and iPad apps match the keyword “wedding” when searching the Apple iTunes App Store. There are a dozen or so wedding applications in the Android Marketplace, as well.

With so many wedding apps in the App Store and Android Marketplace, you should read the reviews carefully. Only a handful of apps receive four or five stars in the user reviews. Thankfully, apps are affordable so you can try several different wedding themed apps and still spend less than $25.

An iTunes gift card would allow a bride-to-be to purchase complete set of wedding apps, including a game or two.

Wedding Planners

The most popular wedding apps help org…

The Ultimate Online Shopper (and Bride-to-Be)

Wedding Style Special Edition
November 4, 2011 Deadline
Special Issue

The Ultimate Online Shopper (and Bride-to-Be)

“I bought my wedding dress online.”

When a young coworker told me she shopped for almost everything online, I naturally doubted her. Why would you buy a wedding dress online?

“I wanted a classic dress,” she explained, “something vintage. So, I went online.”

It all started with a simple wedding dress in a classic movie. Off my colleague went to The Knot (theknot.com), one of the leading online resources for brides-to-be. Several of the dresses featured were “almost” what she wanted, but none of them were perfect. She then visited local shops, but still failed to find what she wanted.

After explaining what she wanted, a local seamstress mentioned to the frustrated young woman that an existing dress could be altered. This was a moment of inspiration. The bride-to-be was transformed into the ultimate online shopper.

Somehow, she found her dream dress for $1200 on Craigslist …

Have a Happy High-Tech Holiday

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
October 31, 2011 Deadline
December 2011 Issue

Have a Happy High-Tech Holiday

Holidays are about faith, family, and friendships, with some gift giving as an added bonus. If you can be with loved ones for the holidays, that’s the most important gift. Still, giving that perfect gift is a challenge we all face. The best gifts reflect how well you know the recipients. Allow me to offer some ideas from the Virtual Valley.

Idea 1: Earphones.

If the music lover in your family is still using “buds” instead of headphones, consider the gift of high-fidelity sound. Yes, old-fashioned headphones. Until I tried a pair of Skullcandy Throwback headphones, I had no idea how great an iPod could sound. Skullcandy (skullcandy.com) sells “over the ear” headphones resembling the old padded ones my father used in the 1970s. They might look odd to young people, but the sound difference is astounding.

Marshall headphones (marshallheadphones.com) are a great gift for anyone famil…

Blackboard Nightmares

I spent most of today trying to get an online course ready to launch this weekend. I've never been a fan of Blackboard and the last 48 hours or so have been a reminder as to why. There are also some tool-related issues that are not purely "technical" (more on that later), but are leading to frustration.

Uploading files into Blackboard, as with most online systems, is straightforward enough. But when you have dozens or even hundreds of files to import it can be a miserable experience. It is not all Blackboard issues, either, but these have been issues that didn't creep up in my life until this struggle.

Issues of the last two days include:

1) Safari doesn't support the latest Adobe Acrobat plug-in. Neither did FireFox, Camino, or Chrome until I updated Chrome to the latest "beta" version. Safari does display PDFs with a built-in viewer, but PDFs within frames still require a plug-in to function. So, while I've been working with PDFs on dozens of we…

Writing Instruction Blogs, Twitter Feeds, and Facebook Page

My wife and I maintain two blogs, Twitter feeds, and a Facebook page dedicated to creative writing instruction. I have discovered that readers prefer to choose how they receive updates and blog feeds, so we've tried to offer the most popular options.

First, a reminder to visit the Tameri Guide for Writers (http://www.tameri.com/) if you are interested in creative writing. The Tameri website is not an academic writing website, though it includes some resources for teachers of writing.

Our blog on creative writing and mass market fiction:
http://www.tameri.com/wordpress/

You are reading my blog on using technology in writing instruction:
http://poetcsw.blogspot.com/

The two blogs are featured on our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tameri-Guide-for-Writers/239305212783049

You can find "Follow Us" links for Twitter on the blogs and on the Tameri website. Please consider following us using the social networking method of your choice.

Conflicting Visions of Online Ed

At the university where I teach we are engaged in a debate familiar to online educators: which delivery methods will we embrace and why? When discussing online education it is important to clarify how the experience will be "delivered" to students and how well the delivery method complements the instructional styles of various instructors.

I have a decided preference for courses that include either some face to face meetings or live "synchronous" communications between the instructor and students. My preferences as an instructor reflect my preferences as a student, but only when I consider the best instructors I had throughout my education.

Online education can refer to any of the following:
Distance learning via teleconferencing technologies hosted in a traditional classroom setting;Synchronous learning conducted by an instructor specifically for remote students only;Hybrid learning, in which students meet sometimes in classrooms and sometimes online;Complementary …

Crafting a Résumé for the Digital Age

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
September 26, 2011 Deadline
November 2011 Issue

Crafting a Résumé for the Digital Age

Job hunting is tough enough without companies forcing applicants to use poorly designed online résumé submission databases. A reader emailed me asking why some companies rejected her résumé, despite great qualifications. Based on my experiences assisting students on the job market, I suggested the reader’s résumé might have the wrong margins for some online systems.

Yes, the wrong margins can lead to rejection in today’s digital job hunt.

Hiring committees tell me they receive 200, 300 and, in one case, 500 applications for job openings. My students want every edge they can get when applying for positions. I’ve had to learn a lot about the hiring process to help students craft résumés for this strange new reality.

The university where I work uses an online career database. Many employers have turned to these systems. You might have used one already, via the Web. The job …

Annoyances with Blackboard

Every instructor using a course management system / learning management system (CMS/LMS) ends up discovering the various annoyances unique to the system. Some have more annoyances than others, which is one reason I prefer Moodle but still have plenty of "kind suggestions" for the developers. I also like that if you do spot a problem with Moodle, you can participate in fixing the weakness or error.

Then, there is Blackboard. It isn't one or two annoyances. It seems there's one annoyance after another when I try to deal with Blackboard. The hosted Blackboard Learn system we use at my university seems to be one challenge after another. I don't know why, but it is more annoying than the previous versions of Blackboard and its other products I have used as an instructor.

Tonight's list of complaints is incomplete, a mere hint of my frustrations.

1) Editing announcements, discussion threads, and other content is inconsistent. I've tried editing the HTML direc…

Online Teaching vs Classrooms

As the second week of courses ends at my university, and I have prepared for the third, I finally have a bit of time for reflection.

First, let me state that the department in which I work is dedicated to delivering an online degree program that is equal in value and student experience to the on-campus degree. This task is not easy, since online courses by nature are different. From the delivery method itself to the nature of assessing students online, there are differences we cannot ignore, so we must adjust to ameliorate those imbalances.

Unfortunately, the university is running an ad campaign in local media that suggests online degrees are "convenient" for students. Nothing could be more misleading, in my opinion, than suggesting that an online degree is somehow more convenient or in any way "easy" compared to traditional studies. Online education requires more time, not less, and requires more self-discipline of students. The accelerated pace and the lack of …

Artists Gather Online: The Valley’s Virtual Art Colonies

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
August 29, 2011 Deadline
October 2011 Issue

Artists Gather Online: The Valley’s Virtual Art Colonies

Not long after the first artist used charcoal and ground seeds to create the first cave painting, the first critic arrived on the scene. Having stated a mastodon could create better artwork, the critic then left the artist alone in his cave.

I am certain that within months, a handful of prehistoric artists met around a fire to reassure each other that critics were simply Neanderthals without any artistic abilities.

Over the following centuries, artists gathered in various places. Among the more popular settings where author’s met were cafés, restaurants and unemployment lines. Being an artist has never been easy and it is only occasionally profitable. It’s little wonder that artists need to gather and commiserate.

After gathering, artists find themselves reenergized. The support of your creative peers makes it a little less terrifying to expose your belie…

Preparing an Online Course

I'm taking a short break from designing my Blackboard shells for both an on-campus and online course because I'm exhausted. Don't let anyone try to persuade you that online courses and courses with online content are somehow "easier" to prepare and to deliver. The time and energy required is substantially greater than the effort to prepare a traditional university course. Universities need to consider this time and energy more accurately. The minor stipend I receive for creating an online course does not reflect the time I invest in the effort.

I definitely believe there are more benefits than negatives to providing online content to students, including extra content for traditional on-campuses courses. But, we have to admit that effective online delivery is time-consuming. The reasons for this are many; I can address a few now:

1) The course management software itself requires time and effort.

Everything online is simply more time consuming. The benefits inclu…

Preparing for 2011-12

I'm preparing for the 2011-12 school year, which this year means learning new software systems, university philosophies, and everything that goes along with any new job in today's connected world. I hadn't really thought about the comparisons until this month, but I am noticing how my issues at work aren't that different from those of my wife at her office.

Group scheduling and management software varies from okay to horrible. I've used several different "groupware" platforms. The new employer uses Novell GroupWise — at least until school starts. Right before school starts the university will be switching to another platform. Not the best of timing, but that's reality in any organization.

The university is also migrating to new learning management software, new Web servers, and a new collaboration platform. What could go wrong?

It's strange how dependent we've become on our networks. My wife and I have struggled with synchronizing calendars…

Virtual Theology: Comparative Religion Goes Digital

Internet Sacred Text Archive (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
August 1, 2011 Deadline
September 2011 Issue

Virtual Theology: Comparative Religion Goes Digital

Among the books in my personal library are several shelves of religious texts and scriptures from a variety of world religions. While most of my library consists of various Christian and Judaic texts, I also own a number of Qurans; Hindu Vedas, Puranas and Bhagavad Gita; some of the Buddhist texts known as Buddhavacana Sutras and Pali vinaya; and other texts from different faiths and philosophies.

My preference for physical books for reading does not extend to research. Not that long ago I would have a concordance on hand to cross-reference words and phrases within a Bible or other scripture. There are concordances for Qurans and Sutras, but like Christian Bibles, the concordances differ by translation. If a poem, novel or other literary work referred to something from a religious tradition, I found mysel…

Been Away, But Soon Blogging Again

My blogs have been inactive for a few weeks while I have been in the process of moving from the Midwest to one of the Original Thirteen. I apologize, but Internet access has been unpredictable at best and blogging on the road proved too difficult to maintain.

Thank you for understanding. It is interesting how reliant we are on Internet connections.

I will have new posts in the first week of August 2011.

Online Universities: An Opportunity for Valley Residents

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 27, 2011 Deadline
August 2011 Issue

Online Universities: An Opportunity for Valley Residents

Individuals with college and university degrees have a substantially lower unemployment rate than others in our community. Every political, business and educational leader I’ve met in the Central Valley has told me that education is essential to improving the quality of life in our region. Unfortunately, for many Valley residents the dream of a college degree remains merely a dream.

While I have a doctorate specializing in technology and literacy education, I remain skeptical when anyone starts talking about the potential promises of online education. My research identified many barriers to success online, from poor visual design of classes to teachers not interacting with students. Too many students do not finish college degrees they start, either online or in traditional classrooms. This leaves many people burdened with debts they cannot repay.

Online cour…