By Doug Ward

Hundreds of start-ups and established companies promoted their ideas and educational technology products at the ASU GSV Summit last week in San Diego. Many were quite good, even if they didn’t live up to the magic that some of them promised.

I’ll write more later about some of the ideas that emerged from the summit, a gathering of technology companies, investors, and educators. For now, though, I’d like to highlight some of the technologies that stood out as having the most potential. This is anything but a comprehensive list. Rather, it reflects my interests as a university professor, as someone who works to improve teaching and learning, as someone who thinks and writes about the future of higher education.

I have not tried any of these products extensively, and I am not endorsing any of them. Rather, they stood out as addressing real issues in education or seemed to have the potential to influence higher education in some way.

Mursionscreenshot of mursion website

What it does

Mursion is a training simulator that allows people to interact with on-screen characters. The interactions are realistic and can be tailored to many different scenarios. It works through algorithms but also through a person who acts a bit like a virtual puppeteer, adding real-life touches to the interactions.

Why it’s worth a look

This has great potential for things like diversity training (confronting racially charged scenarios) and teacher training (helping instructors learn to deal with controversial topics in the classroom). The company says that people who have used it engage with the characters much more frankly than they would real-life actors. I believe that based on the demo I saw. The cost is $125 an hour.

Versalscreenshot of versal website

What it does

Versal is a platform for creating visually attractive and easy-to-follow online lessons. It has a drag-and-drop interface, and it ties in to Blackboard, OneDrive and many other popular learning management systems and online tools, including Google. Widgets within the platform allow easy integration of material from about any online site.

Why it’s worth a look

As we create more hybrid and online courses, we need a way to provide visually appealing, interactive content. Versal looks as if it can do that through an easy-to-use interface. Its ability to embed content in learning management systems makes it especially appealing. A $50 faculty account allows a single user to create and embed course material. A school- or university-wide account starts at $7 per user.

SignalVinescreenshot of signalvine website

What it does

SignalVine provides a two-way text messaging system for students. University staff members work through a computer dashboard to send personalized messages to students. Students can respond as well as ask questions and ask for help. The system provides data on students and messages.

Why it’s worth a look

Universities need to do a better job of reaching students on mobile devices. Students respond to and act on text messages far more than they do to email. (I’ve found that in my use of Remind in my classes.) The company founder made a compelling case that students tune out blanket text messages, as well. This could become a valuable tool for reaching all students but primarily for connecting with students we are concerned about losing. The cost is 50 cents to $1 per student per year. The company was a finalist for the Lumina Foundation Social Innovation Prize at ASU GSV.

Citelighterscreenshot of citelighter website

What it does

Citelighter is an online environment that provides a scaffolded approach to writing. Instructors drag and drop elements onto a board that students then use it to move step-by-step through writing assignments. It has built-in rubrics that provide data about each student.

Why it’s worth a look

Weak student writing is one of the biggest challenges many instructors face. Citelighter allows instructors to create structural guides for writing assignments, provide feedback quickly and easily through rubrics, and gather data about student performance. It is one of many companies with similar products aimed at helping students improve their writing and arguments, including Rationale, NoRedInk, Peerceptive, and EssayBuilder.

LTG Exam Prepscreenshot from ltg prep presentation

What it does

The company creates mobile apps that allow students to study for the SAT, GMAT and other exams.

Why it’s worth a look

The company is using data from its apps to match students with universities, and allowing universities to reach out to students through the app. I don’t see this as a university teaching app but rather something that administrators need to pay attention to as students make their college choices. The company was one of three winners of the Venture Award at ASU GSV.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Using technology to help students take risks

Rather than use technology to make education more efficient, why not use it to help students take more risks in learning? That’s the question that Greg Toppo poses in an article for The Hechinger Report. “Good teaching is not about playing it safe,” Toppo writes. “It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again.” He’s exactly right. By helping students push boundaries, we help them learn to think more critically, understand themselves more fully, and solve problems more effectively. Technology can indeed help with that. I’ve found that demonstrating and having students try new types of hardware or software often opens up thinking and sparks surprising creativity. My advice: Subvert away.

A good message about learning and doing, eventually

Wired magazine jumped on the sky-is-falling bandwagon last week, declaring, “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.” Amid the alarmist words and some self-promotion, though, the article, by David Edwards of Harvard, makes some good points. Edwards argues that students need more opportunities to work in loosely structured environments like innovation labs and culture labs, which give them hands-on experience in using their own ideas to tackle big problems. “Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover,” Edwards writes.

statue of child reading a book
Statue at Bibliothèque Saint-Jean-Baptistein, Quebec City, Doug Ward

When new ways of teaching aren’t so new
Buzzwords permeate education as much as any other profession. Often those buzzwords are just repackaged versions of tried-and-true techniques. Katrina Schwartz reminds us of that in an article for MindShift, writing about how school administrators and non-profits push “new” approaches onto teachers even though the teachers have used those same approaches for years. That can be especially disheartening when teachers adopt new techniques, only to have impatient administrators pull back financing. “To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students,” Schwartz writes.

Briefly …

In the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter, Roben Torosyan writes about a book so useful to his teaching that it took him 10 years to finish. … Diverse: Issues in Higher Education writes about the trend of requiring undergraduates to take 15 credit hours a semester to help them graduate in a reasonable time. … The Chronicle of Higher Education writes about a professor’s idea to have researchers explain their work in the style of BuzzFeed.

Tech tools

The message scheduling service Buffer offers a list of useful tools for creating images for social media.DesignSkilz offers a substantial list of sites for downloading free photos.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Council gives generally poor grades for core university requirements

In a scathing report on core liberal arts requirements, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gives more than 60 percent of colleges and universities a grade of C or lower. “By and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum,” the council says in its report, “What Will They Learn?”

The organization generally favors tradition over innovation in course offerings, and encourages a more active role by regents, trustees and alumni. The core curriculum by which it judged colleges and universities consists of writing that focuses on grammar, clarity and argument; a survey of literature; intermediate competency in a foreign language; U.S. government or history; basic economics; college-level algebra, logic, computer science or linguistics; and natural science courses that emphasize experimentation and observation. The council was especially dismayed by a dearth of requirements for a basic course in U.S. government and history, and for basic economics.

In Kansas, the only university to receive better than a C was Wichita State, which received a B. KU received a C. Some other Big 12 schools fared better. Baylor received an A; Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and the University of Texas-Austin received B’s; Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas Christian received C’s, and West Virginia received a D.

Like all such report cards, this one measures only what the creators want it to measure and tends to oversimplify complex issues. The report raises many good points, though, whether you agree with the criticism or not.

Making a case for blended learning

In the second part of an article on blended learning, the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter argues that blended learning needs to be “positioned as an institutional strategy that can result in organizational learning.” The article is based on a chapter in Kim VanDerLinden’s book Connecting Learning Across the Institution. Not surprisingly, it says that faculty members who have never taught an online course are more skeptical of online learning that those who have. The same applies to blended learning. It ends with excellent questions about employing blended learning.

Part 1 of the article provides a good overview of blended learning, including definitions. It argues: “The pressures on higher education in 2014 are perhaps greater than in any other time period.  The strategic adoption of blended learning is interconnected to all the issues that are front of mind for decision makers such as accessibility, affordability, limited resources, and competition, not to mention perhaps the greatest interconnected concern – student learning.”

Thumbs up for software that allows creation of animated whiteboard videos

I mentioned a new tool called VideoScribe in a previous post. I downloaded a trial and gave it a spin. (See above.) It’s definitely worth a look for anyone interested in creating animated whiteboard videos. The interface is mostly intuitive and I was generally happy with the video I produced for a session on threshold concepts. I did run into a few glitches that are worth noting:

First, the timeline is a bit clunky, especially as you build up a lot of images. All the images are placed on one continuous timeline at the bottom of the screen, and I struggled moving a few of them to the right place. They sometimes ended up in random spots. Ungrouping them (or the equivalent) before I moved them helped.

I liked the ability to import SVG files I pulled from Open Clip Art, but those imported images didn’t always render as well as I would have liked. The final image was fine, but the drawing of them on screen sometimes looked clunky. That said, I ended up buying access to VideoScribe for a year. After my trial ended, the company offered a 33 percent discount.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

A focus on efficiency, for learning’s sake

The Evolllution began a series on operational efficiency at colleges and universities with an interview with Cathy Sandeen, vice president for educational attainment and efficiency at the American Council on Education. Sandeen lays out the right goals for cost efficiency, saying the process should aim at ways to help students learn and earn their degrees. “We need to work together to figure out how we can change and do things differently,” Sandeen says. “It’s not saying we’re doing things wrong in the past; it’s just how we can do things better in the future.”

During October, the Evolllution plans to tackle these questions:

  • What impact does operational efficiency have on institutional growth and competitiveness?
  • How can postsecondary leaders effectively communicate the value of efficiency-related changes to institution-wide stakeholders?
  • Do students notice when institutions are efficient?
  • How can institutions leverage technology tools to become more efficient?

Job skills vs. liberal education

Emmanuel Felton of The Hechinger Report writes about how City Colleges of Chicago remade themselves by aligning courses with the skills that were most in demand in the region. The change has helped City Colleges, a system of seven community colleges, improve abysmal graduation rates, at least somewhat. Felton interviewed several business leaders who espoused the benefits of tying education to skills that industry needs. One executive said higher education needed to take the same approach. That might serve some students and it would certainly serve industry in the short term. In the long term, though, we need a wide range of people who possess the critical-thinking and adaptive skills provided by a liberal education.small boy and adult sitting next to each other at desks

Keep an eye out for student mental health issues

Claire Shaw at The Guardian urges instructors to pay attention to students’ mental and physical state. She provides a list of warning signs that may indicate that students need assistance. She also offers several suggestions for instructors to help prepare themselves for struggling students.

A worldwide shortage of teachers

A new UNESCO report says that 93 countries face a chronic shortage of teachers and that many of them are recruiting people who lack any training in education.

An adaptive system that helps personalize learning

Stephen Downes of the National Research Council of Canada writes about beta testing of an adaptive learning system that combines customized materials from dozens of sources with data from learning, social environments and work environments. He calls this a “learning and performance support system.” Despite the stuffy name, it sounds fascinating.

Way cool: A tool for creating animated whiteboard videos

I’ve always been fascinated by animated whiteboard videos that show drawings being created in fast motion right before my eyes. I just came across a tool called VideoScribe that will help create those videos – for a price, of course. The software costs $198 a year. There’s a seven-day free trial, though. I’m going to have to give it a try. I’ll share my results.