October 20, 2017

Distraction Free Reading

Distraction free reading is visual accessibility

You are not alone if you have struggled to keep your focus reading through articles on the web that are bombarded with still and animated ads. For example, reading Why One Millennial Musician Is Working To Save Music Education) is a challenge as shown in the brief animation below.

Animated gif showing distracting ads

Millenial musician article with ads

Readers are easy to use with many benefits

However, there are a surprising number of readers who are either not aware of or do not attempt to apply reader tools built-in or readily available in Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. Through a simple click these tools enable distraction free reading of most web pages by stripping everything but the article’s text and relevant images.

Using a tool's appearance options text can be enlargened, font style changed, and background color modified. As a result readers feel empowered to focus on reading in a calming environment, providing an opportunity to more effectively retain information. Distraction free reading is visual accessibility.  A list of other benefits:

  • You can reduce the text size to print the information that you need to read in a much more compact format, thus reducing paper waste.
  • Print or save the rendered page as a PDF document for filing or reading later with a smart phone or tablet.
  • Use a browser reader to remove busy, animated web pages to show only text and relevant images will significantly reduce the drain on your device’s battery (laptop, smart phone, tablet).

The section below shows how to enable Reader tools including installing an extension in Chrome.

Safari (iOS, Mac) and Firefox (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Safari for Mac and iOS devices have the built-in Safari Reader. Firefox Reader View is also built-in the web browser and works equally well on both iOS and Android devices. Both tools will automatically display for pages that they can successfully reformat. Some pages including multiple column home pages are not suitable for reformatting.

For example go to the NYTimes page: Would Carrots by Any Other Name Taste as Sweet? (Links to an external site.) and apply Safari Reader or Firefox Reader View.

Click Firefox Reader View
Click Safari Reader

Chrome (Mac and Windows)

Google Chrome does not include a built-in reader like Safari and Firefox but installing the recommended Mercury Reader extension (Links to an external site.) provides a button on the Chrome toolbar that provides the same functionality as Reader and Reader View.

For example go to the NYTimes page: Would Carrots by Any Other Name Taste as Sweet? (Links to an external site.) and click  Mercury Reader [1].
Click Mercury Reader

Firefox Reader View includes narration

In Firefox Reader View use appearance options [1] to change the font type, font size, margin width, spacing between lines, and background color. Readers can also choose Narrate [2] to to narrate text and change the speed or choose from a variety of voices.

Firefox Reader View with appearance and narration controls

Millenial musician article - distraction free with larger text

March 29, 2017

Quality Assurance in Blending Learning


Standards-based instruments with course component checklists are useful for reviewing instructional course design but can not adequately assess instructor experience and student-teacher interaction.


The BlendKit Reader Chapter 5: Quality Assurance is a fitting conclusion to an already excellent series of chapters. The chapter presents a balanced view on the merits and limitations of course standards review instruments and encourages a holistic approach as part of the evaluation process.  

Caveat emptor - course design rubrics and checklists

Course design rubrics such as UCF’s Blended Course Peer Review form (PDF) and the OSCQR Rubric and Process (page links to a list of excellent resources including rubrics and examples) are important tools for assessing course design. UCF’s rubric is designed for peer review and lists criteria for implementation of a blended course. Peer review can result in engaging and "meaningful dialog about the course and teaching/learning process". 

Checklists and rubrics/review forms are especially helpful to faculty who are new to blended or online learning or would like to do more than a simple document transfer from traditional to online. Based on cumulative experiences these tools address most aspects of course design and serve as a reminder to what might be considered for inclusion. They are typically broken down into easily assessed components. 

However, as the BlendKit Reader points out there are limitations.  

A caveat in using the same standards rubric repeatedly over time:

We all like the ease of copying and pasting to repurpose documents such as revised syllabi but the BlendKitReader points out the danger of repurposing standards-based rubrics without critically evaluating each criteria: 

The challenge of implementing a one-size fits all rubric would be daunting: 

Complementing or blending checklists

The chapter discusses the merits but limitations of measuring instruments, which can lead to a "focus on the designed (online) environment of the course to the exclusion of the experience of instructors and students in the teaching/learning process (whether online or face-to-face). ” So what to do if these rubrics are not sufficient? One start is to examine the Monterey Institute course evaluation (PDF) provides a balance between "most checklist-based reviews and the intensity of the criticism model". This screenshot displays part of evaluation tool. The document was last updated in 2010 so downloading the file for personal archiving is recommended. As pointed out in the Faculty Development section below there are many opportunities to obtain feedback from peers and students such as the Muddiest Point. 

Effective teaching is difficult to measure with rubrics and is ideally assessed holistically to consider the student-teacher and student-student teaching and learning:

Faculty Development

In addition to taking the BlendKit course there are many teaching resources that can assist faculty with course design and teaching strategies. Most of these resources are written by faculty for faculty:

but this chapter quote stands out: “One might argue that faculty in meaningful dialogue with other faculty about the teaching/learning process is the most effective form of faculty development with everything else being merely layers of facilitation.” That is why peer-to-peer review, training, attending conferences, and informal discussions are so invaluable to developing and improving blended/online courses. As with blended courses, faculty initially meeting with other faculty in person is optimal with the option to follow up face-to-face or online. The chapter suggests developing a journal with personal teaching goals, benchmarks, and collect formative feedback such as peer review and self-evaluation, online suggestion box, one-minute threads, polling, and focus groups. Note taking tools such as Evernote or OneNote fit well into developing an ongoing journal and collection of ideas. 

  • High quality faculty development is crucial to effective blended programs
  • Develop a journal with personal teaching goals, benchmarks, and formative feedback from a variety of tools and methods
  • Assess different course design rubrics to determine which criteria meets your institutional and teaching needs but with a critical eye on what appears to be commonly accepted.
  • Balance rubrics with other evaluation methods that assess teaching effectiveness
  • “These limitations have to do with the prescriptiveness, credibility, scope, and atomism of such standards groupings.” 
  • “Nearly all sets of blended/online course standards bear the imprint of an overt instructional design emphasis (e.g., instructional objectives, constructivist influence, technology-dominated, etc.). ”
  • “One might argue that faculty in meaningful dialogue with other faculty about the teaching/learning process is the most effective form of faculty development with everything else being merely layers of facilitation.”

March 23, 2017

Blended Content and Assignments


Designing an integrated (F2F and online) blended course with a focus on a modular structure of diverse content and learning activities requires careful planning, experimentation, and ongoing feedback. 


Opportunities (and Challenges)

The list of Technology tools for teaching and learning is seemingly endless, continuously refreshed with updated and newer tools, gradually leaving others less tended to behind. There is the consideration of ease-of-use cost, obsolescence (e.g. Google Reader, Dropio, Zaption), and most significantly its potential for learning and assessment. Faculty typically adapt their school's learning management system and after an initial comfort level explore technologies that complement what the LMS lacks or insufficiently provides. 

Help for Faculty

There are number of teaching focused Twitter feeds and chats, blogs, conferences, and courses (in addition to BlendKit of course) that can assist faculty with course design, teaching strategies, and choosing technology materials and tools that have been tested and evaluated by others.  A partial list:
Technology Tools and Outside Course Resources

There are blogs, Tweets, free courses, and these teaching with technology lists:
but there is no substitution for face-to-face interactions (meetings, conferences) with faculty, instructional technologists and designers, and students. 

Course Design (including integration into LMS)

The chapter points out that uniformity guides students through the content and helps reinforce learning. To add, a diversity of content provides students with different experiences and perspectives. Instructors can align their structured content and activities into learning management system modules, which are included in most new systems such as Canvas, which will be used in the examples in this post. HTML pages, links, documents, lecture recordings, and videos can be added as course materials to these modules. For activities instructors can include quizzes, discussions, conferences, and collaborations.  

The Canvas.net course United States History is module based as shown in the diagram below.  Regardless of LMS modules and content/activity tools, course organization, learning resources, student engagement, and assessment depend on teaching excellence.

Content creation Tools

The chapter referred to content creation/screencasting tools such as Jing, Camtasia, and Audacity (audio). Snag-it, Screenflow, and Microsoft Office Mix are newer tools that allow instructors to add embedded video, audio, call-outs, and annotations to PowerPoints. Although screen recording software has evolved with more features and improvement, the time to create and produce lecture videos can be considerable. Some instructors prefer the simplicity of PowerPoint’s build-in recording tools to add audio annotations for each slide. However, this process requires students to download the final PowerPoint lecture to their desktop and having the software available to open and play. 

Ideally, enhancements to online presentations tools such as Google Slides will evolve to include live recording and embedding multimedia onto slides such as audio, video, and annotations so that live lectures can be viewed and played online.  

  • Designing courses by modules facilitates integration of F2F and online environments
  • Uniformity guides students through the content and helps reinforce learning.
  • technologies are adopted more readily when cast in the “context of existing teaching and learning activities
  • freely available online learning resources provides an opportunity for educators to either link to or create derivative works based upon many educational resources
  • Implementing different and new technologies for the first time in a course can be challenging. Start simple to help ensure success for students and faculty and then explore other tools. 

“I'd devote more attention to integrating what was going on in the classroom with the online work. This was true even though the project's faculty development sessions repeatedly emphasized the importance of connecting in-class material with out-of-class assignments.”

"When applied to learning, certain activities can be utilized to greater effect when appropriate matching occurs between: the technology used, the learning desired, the context of use, the learner experience, the instructor experience, and the nature of content."

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