Do You Even Blog, Bro?

I am not above a little Internet humor and meme referencing, as you can see, readers. Today’s post, quite amusingly, deals with blogging and whether blogs have a place in the realm of education or whether they are best kept out of the classroom. I will argue for the former while going over some of the research on the subject that I found both relevant and interesting. Of course, there are several ways to use a blog to begin with. Some people never get around to writing a blog and merely read those of other people. Up until seven weeks or so ago (as of the time of writing this post), I was certainly one of those people. Those that write blogs can also do so in a variety of ways. Most people choose to write solo, whether on one blog or multiple, while others co-author blogs with friends or colleagues with the same interests, much in the same way that most of the papers that I have reflected upon have been co-authored by two or more people. So what does the research have to say about blogs?

Divitini et. al. (2005) found that blogs were ineffective for enhancing interactivity amongst students, with only six out of 31 students posting any content to either their personal blog or the common blog shared amongst all students (Usage of the blog section, ¶1). I find this to be a result of how the blog was introduced to the students in the first place. The blog, in this research, was just another optional tool for communication between students that existed in addition to other forms of communication, such as the university’s Learning Management System (LMS). Indeed, students cited the fact that the blog was just another system that they would have to learn to navigate on top of the LMS and, with a heavy workload, they simply did not have time to devote to the blog as well (Motivations section, ¶1). I believe that unless students are required to use a blog, results such as this are inevitable. While many students are likely more aware of what a blog is nowadays than they were back in 2005, the majority probably have never written one and likely would not unless prompted to as part of their coursework.

Kim (2008) found that blogs have many advantages over other computer-mediated communication (SMC) systems such as email and Blackboard. First, systems such as Blackboard require that students visit a website that acts as a central hub in order to participate in any sort of discussion, or to even become aware that one is taking place. This means students may completely miss out on a discussion or lose interest (p. 1343). The authors compare this to the RSS feed system used by blogs that sends an updated list of information to students that they can easily check at their convenience (p. 1344). Of course, with Blackboard and other similar systems now having smartphone applications, receiving notifications is not necessarily an issue so perhaps this grievance may not have the same weight it did when the authors wrote this paper.

Perhaps more important are the next several issues raised. The author noted that current CMC systems do not promote any sense of ownership and may actually cause some students to feel anxiety over participating in online discussions. With a blog, however, students take ownership over the content that they produce, which can help lower anxiety about posting while increasing motivation at the same time. Unlike posting in communal areas where students may be afraid that their opinion is in the minority, having a personal blog to post on gives a sense of safety to the owner about posting their thoughts on a subject. Also contrary to the CMC systems is the fact that teachers are not the ones disseminating information. Blogs are a decentralized system of communication that students can tailor to their own preferences. This makes for a more relaxed atmosphere that encourages commenting and intercommunication. Blogs also have the advantage of being filed in chronological order, with comments and discussions attached to the blog entry themselves rather than appearing at the top of a thread, as is the case with online message boards where you see the newest comment before seeing the original post. This means that anyone can read a blog post and then follow the attached discussion from start to finish in the comments attached to that piece (p. 1344).

Indeed I have found all of these things to be true when writing this blog and reading those of my fellow classmates. Certainly the sense of ownership motivates me to produce my best work and RSS activity feeds helped me to keep track of my classmates’ progress on their blogs as well. Seeing what my peers were producing also helped to increase my motivation and so I believe that in an educational context, personal blogs rather than community blogs are to be preferred if we wish for student adoption rates to be high. While I cannot say that I have ever had anxiety over posting in communal spaces such as message boards, as I have spent a considerable amount of time doing so in the past, having something that is entirely attributed to me is a completely different experience and so extra effort goes into ensuring the quality of my writing, which is what I would want out of my students as well.

Finally, in the research by Halic et. al. (2010), results showed that sense of community was directly related to perceived learning. When students felt a strong sense of community by connecting with their peers using blogs, they reported more satisfactory learning experiences. They also found that interaction with the instructor via the blogs was important to the level of perceived learning by the students. They go on to mention that while unstructured blogging can facilitate communication between students and still foster a sense of community, the presence of the instructor can help to focus discussions and keep students from veering off from course-specific issues (p. 211). As someone who has always valued feedback, I would say that getting comments from an instructor on what is being produced is, indeed, a critical factor in the success of blog utilization in education. Peer feedback also helps me to reflect and reconsider my own ideas, although the research by Halic et. al. indicated that only 25% of those surveyed said that they valued peer feedback. Not everyone is comfortable with receiving peer feedback, particularly if it is negative. Thus, instructors that wish to use blogs as part of their assigned coursework may want to consider a structure for comments made by peers, such as having students comment on one post that they find interesting each week, while leaving other praise and criticism to the instructor to write in their comments.

To wrap things up, I can say that I personally find blogs to be a fantastic tool for helping students to reflect on and think more deeply about what they have learned or read about in a given class. Being able to read and comment on the blogs of peers also opens us up to new opinions and viewpoints that we may not have considered, which further enhances our learning. Blogs can also be used as a form of journal as well, with students publishing their works to their blog, effectively creating a portfolio that they can then go back and reflect upon and which documents their progress as they grow as writers. Students might be surprised after keeping a blog for a one-year course as they compare their first entry to their last. This also lets instructors utilize methods of dynamic assessment (DA), evaluating students on not only the writing they produce, but how well they adapt and change their writing strategies based on feedback given by the instructor. Most courses evaluate students by comparing their work to that of others, but by using portfolios via the medium of blogs, instructors can evaluate students on their growth and how well they overcame individual issues and problem areas. Of course, DA can be utilized with standard, hard copy portfolios, but having peer and instructor feedback and instant availability of the portfolio (provided there is Internet access) makes blogging a more powerful tool, in my opinion.
References

Divitini, M., Haugalokken, O., & Morken, E. M. (2005). Blog to support learning in the field: Lessons learned from a fiasco. In
Proceedings of the Fifth IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT’ 05).

Halic, O., Lee, D., Paulus, T., & Spence, M. (2010). To blog or not to blog: Student perceptions of blog effectiveness for learning in a college-level course. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(4), 206-213. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2010.04.001

Kim, H. K. (2008). The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computer & Education, 51, 1342−1352.

Wikipedia: Brought to You by…Who Again?

Another day, dear readers, and another blog post…or five. First up for today is the topic of Wikipedia. While I am not an avid user myself, as Wikipedia is generally not accepted as a reference for academic papers, it has provided me with knowledge on a number of topics when I have turned to it for some leisure reading. I have also used, on more than one occasion, the references listed at the bottom of Wikipedia articles to track down actual academic papers to use as sources for some of my own research. There are those that turn to Wikipedia for most of their knowledge, as well as for getting the daily news or for fact checking along with Google.

I suppose that I am just not enthralled with Wikipedia the same way that others are. It is the same to me as YouTube. I go there if there is something specific that I am searching for, but I never find myself getting sidetracked by endlessly clicking links until I am on a page so far removed from my original topic that I cannot remember how I came to be there. This is not to say that I do not appreciate Wikipedia for the colossal achievement that it is. It is, perhaps, the most impressive example of communal knowledge that exists today. It is constantly being edited, updated, and policed, which seems to give it an edge over textbooks and encyclopedias. Why then, is it also plagued with doubts over the quality of the information it contains as well as its accuracy and neutrality? This has everything to do with the fact that it is a collection of shared knowledge, the so-called wisdom of the crowd. It is because we do not really know who it is that writes Wikipedia that makes it so suspect. While I am, admittedly, not interested enough in Wikipedia to care about its innerworkings, there are a number of researchers that care about this topic quite a bit. As an educator, it may be worth knowing how Wikipedia is written and maintained as we are all bound to have students that present works with Wikipedia as their source. So who does write Wikipedia?

Kittur et. al (2007) separate Wikipedia users into two groups. There are the elites, made up of administrators and high-edit users, and then there are the common users. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, once stated that 2.5% of the users on Wikipedia were responsible for half of the edits made (pp. 1-2). This was in 2004. At that time, a very small number of the elite users were creating and editing a majority of Wikipedia’s content. As Kittur et. al. noted, this is significant because the question of who is doing the work at Wikipedia also determines how resources are allocated. The tools and features that are designed at Wikipedia likely cater to these users who have such a heavy influence. It seems only fair as administrators are selected through a strict peer-review process and after demonstrating themselves to be trustworthy. These admins then gain abilities that are not accessible to other users, such as the ability to lock pages temporarily so that they cannot be edited (p.2).

The concern here is, with 2.5% of the users making half of the edits, and administrators being few in numbers, can we really say that the information on Wikipedia is unbiased? Thankfully there was a shift away from this domination by the elite starting in 2006, when the percentage of the total number of edits made by administrators dropped drastically. Many hypotheses on the cause of this phenomenon were examined, but it was ultimately discovered that a rise in the total number of low-edit users was the driving factor. EVen though administrators and elite users were not decreasing their activity on Wikipedia, the population growth of low-edit users was so significant that the small number of edits and changes to content in articles accounted for a majority of the edits made (p. 7). While this certainly makes Wikipedia seem more neutral, the anonymous nature of its authors still keeps it from being a source that we, as educators, can allow our students to utilize, in my opinion.

And then we come to the work of Niederer and van Dijck (2010), which frustrates me if only because they never seem to give a clear purpose for their paper. It seems as if they want to discredit the reliability of Wikipedia’s information, as so many of Wikipedia’s detractors do, but they never outright say so. Their main point seems to be that most existing research on Wikipedia focuses on the human element without ever mentioning the interaction between the human editors and the multitude of bots that help to maintain Wikipedia in the background (p. 2). They want to argue that most Web 2.0 technologies are an elaborate socio-technical system rather than an achievement of human ingenuity by itself (p. 4). Again, I find myself questioning the point. Are bots and the technological portion of these other socio-technical constructs not created and programmed by humans?

In the research by Kittur et. al., the bots are mentioned in the research as one possible explanation for the decline in the percentage of edits by elite users, which is shown to be false, but certainly there is acknowledgement that there are bots at work doing important edits and content creation tasks on Wikipedia. What more is to be said and how is it relevant? Unfortunately, the authors rehash a lot of the research by Kittur et. al. concerning the trend of elite users refining technology and managerial systems before the common users begin to become the primary users of a system (p. 7). I can only gather that they are trying to make the case that because most edits are now being made by the common, low-edit users, Wikipedia’s ability to quickly deal with vandalism is now due mostly to the vigilance of bots than of committed community members. Even so, what difference does this make? Human programmers designed these bots with the same thinking and methodology of human users (p. 12).

The only interesting part of this article for me is that, in the case of articles and content written in endangered world languages, it is bots creating and editing large portions of the content compared to common language articles (p. 21). Of course, I find this interesting only in that Wikipedia and its bots are helping to preserve languages that are dying out, not for any reason related to education. Ultimately, the authors end by stating that understanding these underlying elements in all Web 2.0 technologies is fundamental for truly understanding how the Internet works. I cannot bring myself to agree, however. I am aware that this is not an article related to education and is purely focusing on technology, but I still fail to see the point. Perhaps it is because the authors seem to keep saying that it is important to understand how these technologies work without actually giving us the “why.”
References

Kittur, A., Chi, E. H., Pendleton, B. A., Suh, B., & Mytkowicz, T. (2007). Power of the few vs. wisdom of the crowd: Wikipedia and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Paper presented at Alt.CHI ’07, San Jose, California: ACM.

Niederer, S. & van Dijck, J. (2010). Wisdom of the crowd or technicity of content? Wikipedia as a sociotechnical system. New Media & Society, 12, 1368-1387.

Factors in the Acceptance of Computer Based Assessment by Men and Women

Back for a third time today, folks. As I said before, it’s crunch time and there are many readings to be reflected upon in these last few days before the final deadline for this class. Once this outpouring of blog posts ends, I will be attempting to post regularly on topics of my own choosing. Some will come from my next class in the masters program, some will be topics and articles that I just genuinely wish to spend time discussing. No matter what this blog turns its attention to, I hope that it continues to be interesting and thought-provoking to the readers who are kind enough to spend their time reading and considering my thoughts and those of the authors whose articles I present here. Now, let us move on to the topic of this blog post.

Today I will be discussing cyber assessment. Cyber assessment is a broad term and can be used to describe anything from using technology to assess whether writing is the result of plagiarism to the more literal usage of e-learning and digital tests/quizzes. In my current course, our dear instructor allows us to submit our quizzes for the class in a typed format. This is a fine example of the more literal definition of cyber assessment. While we did read articles about data mining being used to detect plagiarism, as well as a comparison of the response rates between online and paper-based surveys, these two topics were not particularly interesting. The article that I did find intriguing was the one by Terzis and Economides, which explores the differences between men and women in their perceptions and acceptance of computer based assessment (CBA).

Terzis and Economides (2011) had previously created a Computer Based Assessment Acceptance Model (CBAAM) that uses eight factors in order to define behavioral intention (BI) to use a CBA. These factors are Perceived Playfulness (PP), Perceived Usefulness (PU), Perceived Ease of Use (PEOU), Computer Self Efficacy (CSE), Social Influence (SI), Facilitating Conditions (FC), Goal Expectancy (GE) and Content (pg. 2110). For those that read my previous post and remember Davis’ research, you know that PEOU and PU were the main factors that he said determined acceptance of any type of information technology by a user. Here, Terzis and Economides state that their model shows that behavioral intention to use a CBA is strongly correlated to PP and PEOU. They also state which of the other aforementioned factors significantly explains Perceived Usefulness and Perceived Playfulness. According to the research, PU is significantly explained by Goal Expectancy, Content, Social Influence and Perceived Ease of Use while Perceived Playfulness is defined by Usefulness, Content, Ease of Use and Goal Expectancy. The authors then add that Computer Self Efficacy and Facilitating Conditions also help to determine Perceived Ease of Use (p. 2110).

In this study, Terzis and Economides (2011) wanted to determine the differences between men and women in the factors that affected their perception and acceptance of a CBA. They formulated hypotheses based on a vast amount of research in a variety of areas. I do not want to elaborate on all of it, but one example is their hypothesis that PP influences behavioral intention to use a CBA more in men than in women. They based this on research that determined that men expressed more positive feelings toward multiple choice assessments than females and also because previous studies found that men enjoy playing computer games more than women, meaning that men’s characteristics are more aligned with CBA’s game orientation (p. 2112).

Ultimately, the research done by Terzis and Economides showed some very interesting things. Before we talk about gender differences, I would like to highlight some of the general observations. First, the authors state that Social Influence is a strong determinant of PU. Remember when I previously talked about those who might use Facebook just because everyone else is? As it turns out, there is correlations with Davis’ PU factor after all. In other words, even if a user would not necessarily perceive a site as useful on their own, they may already have that perception in their mind upon their first visit if they know that a lot of other people are using the same system (p. 2116).

The authors also noted that Goal Expectancy shows that students who are prepared and expect to be successful in a course are more likely to find a CBA useful as well as playful. They also noted that while Content has no direct effect on BI, it does influence PP, PU, and GE. This indirect effect on BI means that a CBA that contains content that is clear and interesting is more likely to be used. Finally, the research did not show any correlation between BI and PU like previous research, but an indirect effect exists here as the correlation between PP and PU was high. As mentioned above, this research showed that BI is most strongly correlated to PEOU and PP, not PU like with Davis’ study. Since PU has a high correlation with PP though, it must be considered when designing the CBA (p. 2216).

As for the gender differences, the authors found that the male students are more influenced to use a CBA through Playfulness, Usefulness, Content and Social Influence. This means that if the creators of a CBA want to influence male students to use the CBA, they have to make the CBA playful, they must make it useful for enhancing male students’ knowledge and performance, they must ensure that it delivers both appropriate and clear content, and they must make the CBA something that will be recommended and suggested by their peers and their teachers (p. 2119).

The female students are mainly influenced to use a CBA through Playfulness, Ease of Use, Content and Goal Expectancy. This means that Playfulness and Content are important for both males and females, but the authors note that these factors do not matter to the same degree as they do for males. On the other hand, female students are influenced by Ease of Use and Goal Expectancy, unlike the male students, and not by Usefulness and Social Influence as the male students were. This means that creators of a CBA who want to influence female students to use it must create a CBA that is easy to use with a simple design. The CBA also has to pique the interest of the female students in a way that maximizes their preparation and raises their Goal Expectancy (p. 2119).

Using this research, educators who wish to create and utilize CBA’s in their classrooms can understand the factors that affect students as a whole, as well as the individual factors that matter more to men than women and vice versa. This understanding can lead them to create better CBA’s that all of their students want to use. Without this knowledge, utilization of a CBA might be fractured amongst a given student population, resulting in less than optimal outcomes and perhaps even a reduction in willingness to use a CBA in the future by the instructor themselves.

 
References

Terzis, V. & Economides, A. A. (2011). Computer based assessment: Gender differences in perceptions and acceptance. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 2108–2122.

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: A Siskel and Ebert Approach to Website Reviews

Hello again, readers. This second post for today is going to again deal with the screen layout literature that I previously spoke about in the first, but in a much different way. Using this literature as a basis, I have been tasked with reviewing two websites of my own choosing with the caveat being that one must be a website that I approve of while the other should be one that I do not. Naturally my satisfaction or lack thereof is to be based primarily on their layout and design.

The factors that helped me to choose my “thumbs up” website are the factors that are practically nonexistent in my “thumbs down” site. For those that read my previous blog post on the topic, you should already be familiar with these factors, but I explain them here again for the purpose of this assignment, which I am to write in a format resembling an academic paper while being allowed to present it on this blog. I have also cited literature that I did not discuss on the first post from earlier today, so there are fresh elements to keep things interesting.

Thumbs Up Website – Edmodo

I choose Edmodo as my website that I feel exhibits many of the features of good layout and design. I presented this same website in class as part of a show-and-tell of useful technology in which my fellow peers and I took turns introducing and explaining in detail some sort of technology that we felt our peers might not be aware of or, at the very least, not have a deep understanding of.

Edmodo, at its core, is a website designed to help teachers increase the efficiency of their classrooms. Teachers can create groups for each of the classes they teach and then invite their students to join these groups, and the service itself, without students ever having to give their personal email addresses to the teacher. This certainly eliminates any concerns over privacy issues that academic institutions might have, particularly at ones where students are not given a school email address. Once both teacher and students are signed up for Edmodo, the teacher can use the site to give students assignments, send reminders, create quizzes and tests, and much more. Students, in turn, can submit assignments via file upload, takes quizzes and tests, post questions for the teacher, etc. Teachers can also mark submitted work and assessments right on the site and have the results shown to their students immediately. It is this kind of functionality that contributes to the perceived usefulness of the website, which is now being utilized by thousands of teachers around the world (Davis, 1989).

Edmodo is also as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. The decision of which features to use is entirely up to the teacher and nothing will appear under the group for a given class unless the teacher specifically creates and posts it. Until that time, icons for creating things such as assessments, polls, and assignments sit up at the top of a class’ group page, completely out of the way and undistracting as can be seen in Figure 1 below. It is this design choice that also gives Edmodo its perceived ease of use, as teachers can find the tools they want to use quickly, but are not distracted by unused elements taking up screen space (Davis, 1989).

edmodo1
Figure 1: Screenshot of an Example of an Edmodo Group

If we need a reason to further delve into the aesthetic side of Edmodo, we can refer back to the work of Kurosu & Kashimura (1995), who discovered a high correlation between interface aesthetics and perceived usability. It was Altaboli & Lin (2011), however, who defined what makes a website aesthetically pleasing, citing the three elements of unity, balance, and sequence as necessary in a site’s design in order for it to be considered so. Looking at Figure 2 below, Edmodo clearly exhibits these traits. It has uniformity across all pages in terms of fonts, colors, and even icon design, which utilizes an outline-type design with a great amount of empty space in the center and no color fill. Balance is achieved by the use of significant white space on the sides to keep the main elements of each page centered while also using a smaller amount between elements to keep them from blending together. Sequence is present as the page naturally flows from left to right and top to bottom as one would expect. Icons, as previously mentioned, are placed in locations that make sense without being distracting.

edmodo1
Figure 2: Screenshot of Edmodo’s Main Screen After Login

Because Edmodo follows a design style typical of many popular social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it can be said that it has a high level of prototypicality. Everything is where we have come to expect certain items to be, with the features relating to the main site itself, such as the home button and search field, located in the upper left and continuing along the top, while navigational menus that are found once you are on a group page are located to the left. Even the icons for creating the various content items are set up much like the status update field of Facebook, located directly under the main site icons at the top and complete with tabs to change the type of content we are creating. This high level of prototypicality keeps users from wasting time getting their bearings on a page and allows them to begin adding or editing the content they are interested in immediately (Tuch, Presslaber, Stocklin, Opwis, & Bargas-Avila, 2012; Roth, Tuch, Mekler, Bargas-Avila, & Opwis, 2013). In my own usage, I have found that I can easily navigate to the group for the class I want upon logging in and from there immediately find the assignment submissions I wish to view or create the content that I need to send out to my students.

Overall, I believe this combination of perceived usability, perceived usefulness, and the aesthetic features that help to bolster these things are a driving force behind Edmodo’s consistently growing number of users. The fact that Edmodo is also fully customizable so that teachers can tailor it to their needs while also being a completely free service simply increases the overall satisfaction that this site gives its user base from the very first time they sign on.

Thumbs Down Website – Yahoo Japan

I chose Yahoo Japan as my “thumbs down” site as we had discussed it briefly in my class and the discussion we had about it was interesting so I wanted to bring that discussion here to my blog as well. Yahoo Japan seems to suffer from, quite simply, being a Japanese website. In fact, I, and many of my classmates, are convinced that a majority of Japanese websites are built on the premise of trying to fit as much content onto the screen as possible at any given time. Figure 3, which follows this paragraph, clearly demonstrates this apparent design choice. The American version of Yahoo is certainly not this cluttered.

yahoo1
Figure 3: Screenshot of the Yahoo Japan Homepage

The only saving grace of Yahoo Japan is in the fact that it uses white space on the sides to center content, much like Edmodo. Unfortunately, I cannot say anything positive aside from this in terms of aesthetics. The abundance of icons makes finding the content that I want akin to a word search. The small font size also greatly reduces the readability of the website and I am a younger man viewing the site on a Macbook Pro that has a high resolution Retina display. I can only imagine how horrible it must be for someone older viewing the site on a low resolution monitor. The content that the home page displays from the beginning is also seemingly random, with no clear sense behind why the many boxes are in the order in which they appear. At the very least, the search bar is where one would expect, but aside from this, Yahoo Japan has an incredibly low level of prototypicality.

If Yahoo Japan wants to turn things around, they may want to first mirror their American sibling, which has considerably less items in its navigational menus and employs much larger font sizes for headlines and other text. I think that even the U.S. site could use more white space between articles on its main page, but I understand that it is a news site and it wants to still keep at least 4 or 5 articles on the screen at any one time. It is still leaps and bounds above Yahoo Japan in terms of allowing me to find content that I am interested in and navigating back and forth between various pages on its site.

It would be easy to condemn the designers of Yahoo Japan if it were not for the fact that popular Japanese sites such as mixi are also cluttered messes. It makes me wonder what those that pursue web design as a career in Japan are taught inside the classrooms of their vocational schools. As someone who is well-versed in web design, I am sure that the answer might horrify me, but I would love to hear back from you and get your opinions on the matter, dear readers. Is this an actual phenomenon in Japanese design or am I just perceiving it as such because the two sites I mentioned just happen to be some of the most popular in Japan in recent history? I would also appreciate links to some well designed Japanese websites. While I do not believe all Japanese websites suffer from this problem, having actual evidence of such would be nice as my own web searches are seeing my inner web designer sink into depression.

 
References

Altaboli, A., & Lin, Y. (2011). Investigating effects of screen layout elements on interface and screen design aesthetics. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, 2011(5), 1-10.

Davis, F. D. (1989). Perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, and user acceptance of information technology. MIS Quarterly, 13, 319-340.

Kurosu, M, & Kashimura, K. (1995). Apparent usability vs. inherent usability: experimental analysis on the determinants of the apparent usability. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York: ACM Press. http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=223355

Roth, S. P., Tuch, A. N., Mekler, E. D., Bargas-Avila, J. A., & Opwis, K. (2013). Location matters, especially for non-salient features–An eye-tracking study on the effects of web object placement on different types of websites. International Journal of Human- Computer Studies, 71(3), 228-235.

Tuch, A. N., Presslaber, E. E., Stocklin, M., Opwis, K., & Bargas-Avila, J. A. (2012). The Role of Visual Complexity and Prototypicality Regarding First Impression of Websites: Working Towards Understanding Aesthetic Judgments. International Journal of Human- Computer Studies, 70, 794-811.

Using Interface and Screen Layouts to Increase User Base

Hello, readers. Long time, no see. Crunch time at the end of the term both at work and at grad school had severely limited my blogging time, but you will have a number of posts to look through as I focus my efforts on meeting deadlines for my class. As usual, I will not rush anything to publication so if any of the topics are covered briefly, it is only from my own lack of interest in fully engaging with it. Today’s post will certainly not fall under that category as I am extremely interested in screen and interface layout as a web designer. Why should you care about this topic if you are an educator with no professional-level foray into game creation or web design? Well, if you are following this blog and want to be a teacher that incorporates as much technology into their teaching style as possible, then you will most likely create a web page, however simplistic in design, at some point. That or you will be advising students who are creating a web page for a project that they are doing for your class. You may never develop a game for educational use, although I will attempt to convince you to try in an upcoming post, but having working knowledge of what makes for a good screen/interface layout is helpful. It is certainly one of the first things that you must consider before creating a web page, and even more important if you are crafting an entire website.

I will look at a number of articles that I found interesting on this topic, probably covering about three of the eight that were read for the class. Each article focuses on slightly different elements or has differing results from what the researchers expected based on previous research done in that area. The oldest of the articles is from back at the end of the 1980’s. Davis (1989) wrote back then about how the perceived usefulness and the perceived ease of use of any kind of information technology was a critical factor in that technology being accepted and widely used. Keep in mind that we are talking about perceptions here. Regardless of the truth of the matter, Davis’ study focused on whether a user believed a given system enhanced their job performance as well as whether they believed using a system to be effortless (p. 320). Davis is even careful to warn readers at the end of his article that the results are not based on objective reality, only the subjective appraisal of the participants (p. 335).

The fact that this study was done on electronic mail is, in itself, interesting, but let us take a moment to think of the real implications here. Even if an interface’s or a website’s layout is complex beneath the surface, with numerous functions and capabilities, if it looks easy to use and users can see a real purpose for its existence, they will become regular users. For us educators, we may want our students to use a webpage or website that we construct to go along with our class, or we may have designed a simple game to help them study something like vocabulary. From Davis’ research, an educator looking to do something along these lines must, at the onset of the design phase, start considering how they will construct something that their students will instantly see as beneficial while also not requiring any sort of a learning curve.

Consider Facebook for a moment. I have not yet begun to cover social media, but nevertheless, it can be used for the purpose of our discussion here. At its core, Facebook has a great number of features that have to be learned if you really want to master it, but at first glance, it looks surprisingly easy. I find my friend, I click on a button to “add” them, and when they accept my request, I begin seeing all of their posts, pictures, etc. on my News Feed as soon as I visit the site. I can easily see how useful Facebook is for keeping up with people that I might not have many chances to meet in person so that drives me to continue using it. Of course, I may find out later that I need to learn how to upload photos, create albums, and play games with friends (which I personally avoid like the plague), but I became a user because it all seemed simple enough and I saw value in the system. Now I cannot claim that it is all due to the two factors Davis found, as many people are likely to do something just because everyone else is, but I am sure that these factors still contribute, particularly for those who may not be as comfortable with computers and the Internet, yet who still use Facebook.

Altaboli and Lin (2011) focused more on screen aesthetics in their research and how these affect a user’s perception of what they are being presented with. In the article, they mention previous research done by Ngo et. al. that proposed fourteen measures of screen aesthetics. These measures were balance, symmetry, equilibrium, unity, sequence, density, proportions, cohesion, simplicity, regularity, economy, homogeneity, rhythm, and order (p. 2). Altaboli and Lin, however, decided to focus only on balance, unity, and sequence based on the findings of earlier research by Ngo and Byrne. Completely subjective as my opinion is, I agree that these elements are factors that are present on websites that are aesthetically pleasing, whereas the other elements such as economy and proportions do not seem as crucial.

What I took issue with, as did those classmates with whom I discussed this article, is the experimental design used by Altaboli and Lin. In fact, much of it has to do with the participants, of whom there were only 13 (p. 4). That alone is not enough to obtain statistically valid results, although Altaboli and Lin claim otherwise (p. 5). Among some of the other grievances is that the participants included only three women, the age range of the participants was limited, with a median age of 29.3 years of age and a standard deviation of only 6.1 years, and finally, all of the participants were graduate students of engineering (p. 4). I also took issue with the fact that one of the screens that should have scored low because it did not possess any of the characteristics mentioned above actually scored quite high, yet Altaboli and Lin eventually write it off as experimental error, saying that effects of some of the other fourteen elements should later be investigated just to be sure that those are not causing the result (p. 6).

Still, I did like that Altaboli and Lin created a regression model and utilized it along with already existing survey data for 42 websites, despite their formulas originally being designed for data entry screens. The result was that they found correlation between the values computed by the model and the scores on the website questionnaires for items that dealt with the visual layout of the site (pg. 7). I would like to see them redo their experiment with a larger variety of participants and then use that data along with the website questionnaires, which did have an adequate number of participants as well as adequate variety. Until then, I can only continue to subjectively look at websites that I find aesthetically appealing and check if the three elements singled out in this study are present or not.

Finally, we have the study done by Salimun et. al. (2010). This paper was interesting to me because another paper coauthored by Salimun (in the same year, no less) had indicated that users actually preferred a medium level of aesthetics for an interface, yet this paper indicates that the higher the aesthetic level of an interface, the better the response time a user would have with a searching activity (Conclusion section, ¶2). In practical application, this would correspond to how fast a user could find what they are looking for on a web page, for instance. In this study, six elements were looked at compared to the three from Altaboli and Lin’s study. The six elements included cohesion, economy, regularity, sequence, symmetry, and unity (Methodology section, ¶1). Thus, two of the three elements from Altaboli and Lin’s study are present.

Again, I found that the number of participants was quite low, at only 22, but they were split evenly between males and females and they all came from different backgrounds of study. Unfortunately, they were also all computer literate and used computers daily, whereas I would have liked to have some participants who rarely used computers participate (Participant section, ¶1). Nevertheless, we can gather from this study that a website or interface with a high level of aesthetics as measured from the usage of the aforementioned six elements would have a greater chance of increasing user response time than one that does not. If we indeed believe in the study’s results and design our project using these measures, assuming it produces the intended results, then it would also likely increase the perceived ease of use. Users would quickly find what they are looking for rather than getting lost during navigation, which generally causes frustration. As I mentioned with Davis’ study at the very beginning, perceived ease of use is what draws users in and keeps them coming back. While the use of aesthetics may not cover the perceived usefulness aspect of Davis’ study, it does cover the other half and is thus something that must be considered when designing any site, application, or game if it is to succeed.

 
References

Altaboli, A. & Lin, Y. (2011). Investigating effects of screen layout elements on interface and screen design aesthetics. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, 2011, 1-10.

Davis, F. D. (1989). Perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, and user acceptance of information technology. MIS Quarterly, 13, 318-340.

Salimun, C., Purchase, H.C., Simmons, D., Brewster, S. (2010). The effect of aesthetically pleasing composition on
visual search performance
. Paper presented at NordiCHI 2010, New York, New York: ACM.

HTML: Foundation of the Modern Internet

Hello again, readers. Less than 12 hours after publishing my blog post about Google, I am back again with yet another update. This time I only have one article that I am reviewing and so this is likely going to be my shortest blog post to date. The topic for discussion today is one that is near and dear to my heart: HTML. Many of you might look at HTML code and it would look no different to you than the famous neon green code of Matrix fame. I first cracked the code of HTML when I was about 15 or 16 years old, back in the days of dial-up Internet and the dominance of America Online (AOL) in the Internet Service Provider (ISP) arena, when I taught myself how to code web pages from scratch using HTML without the aid of any programs such as Dreamweaver.

If you are unfamiliar with many of the terms I used above, worry not. Knowledge of HTML and website design is not needed as the piece I will be looking it is actually an early chapter out of a book and gives an introduction to the wonderful world of HTML. Before I get into the various topics covered in the chapter I read, I feel that I should air a few grievances I first, while others are sure to follow later.

In a chapter that seems to be aimed at novices with no knowledge of writing HTML or how the Internet works, Blake (2013) attempts to cover too much in just 23 pages (24 if you count the notes) and extends into areas that novices will have a hard time understanding as they are likely to still be trying to wrap their heads around the few basic HTML tags that are introduced. In addition, this chapter begins with the topic of the Internet being great for finding primary source materials for lessons, but quickly jumps to a lesson on the history of the Internet, only to revisit the topic of the Internet as a useful tool in foreign language (FL) classrooms in its final pages (pp. 25-27). I believe the author should have simply made this chapter into two distinct chapters, having one focus on the history of the Internet and rise of HTML and the other focusing on the usefulness of the Internet as a tool for enhancing learning in FL classrooms. Those grievances aside, I want to now take a deeper look at the content of the chapter, varied as it may be.

The chapter starts with some statistics concerning the enormous growth of Internet usage worldwide since the year 2000 as well as a breakdown from a report done on the activities teenagers are using the Internet for. Unsurprisingly, the most popular of these activities is processing email at 89%, while buying merchandise is the smallest percentage mentioned at 43% (p. 25). These statistics might be useful in enlightening educators who are completely out of touch with the types of activities their students like to engage in when it comes to technology, but for the rest, it just punctuates already familiar knowledge with some handy numbers to go along with it. The first section then ends with the aforementioned talk about the Internet being a prime place to find authentic source material for teaching foreign languages.

From here we get the entire history of the Internet recounted to us, going as far back as the 1960’s and the precursor to the Internet, ARPANET, which was funded by the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA for short (p. 28). Again, this seems very misplaced in a chapter that begins and ends with talk of how the Internet can be used inside a foreign language classroom.

Following this history lesson, Blake goes on to introduce us to HTML, explaining its purpose and how it works, while even giving a very brief example of some HTML coding. This is forgivable as most novice readers can get by with the explanations provided, but Blake unnecessarily carries on to advanced topics on JavaSCript and PERL that will only serve to alienate and confuse these same novice readers. Furthermore, while Blake explains what you can do with these advanced scripting languages, the applications described, such as interactive quizzes, do not tie in to the point he later makes about how teachers should be using the Internet to promote student-centered learning.

Eventually we do get to the redeeming part of the chapter wherein Blake talks about the common mistakes teachers make in using websites in their FL classrooms. One such mistake is using websites to try to teach grammar in a contextualized way, but still using discrete grammar exercises. In Blake’s view, doing so is a failure to take the Internet’s abundance of authentic material and using it in a way that allows students to be both autonomous in their learning and collaborate with their peers (pp. 39-40). Blake then moves on to talk about a topic that should be familiar to those of you that read my previous blog on Google. Without mentioning the term action competence, Blake speaks of the necessity for students to take their knowledge and apply it to a situation in which it is meant to be used and how more interactive tools are necessary to accomplish this (p. 42).

The final section of the chapter focuses on Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) for teaching grammar and how this type of teaching can be accomplished using web technologies. Blake again emphasizes the need for communicative activities that force students to negotiate meaning in order to deal with real-world tasks that they are asked to perform (p. 43). Blake gives some ideas for such cooperative activities, but sadly, the list he constructs for suggested activities contain many items that students perform on their own. This leaves the section feeling disjointed, as was the problem with previous sections. Certainly the entire list of suggestions causes students to engage with the material more than they would have through a lesson following the strict grammar translation method and he gives many ideas for how to help students determine meaning from unfamiliar structures with materials that are above students’ current level. I can acknowledge that as a positive. I do, however, believe that Blake should have separated the discussion on activities for engaging with authentic materials on their own or with teacher support from discussion on activities that involve collaboration with peers that will be more communicative in nature, especially because the section started off talking about cooperative approaches. Were it I writing this chapter, I would have chosen to focus on the cooperative methods as Web 2.0 technologies, as we have been discussing lately, are ideal for crafting activities suited for this style of learning. Bouncing back and forth between activities that can be done alone and then talking about cooperative activities like presentations or writing an essay about cooperative work only serves for readers to miss the point that Blake is desperately trying to make (p. 45).

I would like to read more of this book to see how Blake expands upon certain ideas, but after doing this reading, my fear of being subjected to more disjointed writing and having too many topics crammed onto an insufficient number of pages is likely to keep my experience with Blake’s writing to this lone, isolated chapter.

 
References

Blake, R. J. (2013). Brave new digital classroom: Technology and foreign language learning. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Doumo Arigatou, Google-sensei!

Hello, everyone. While it may seem that I am churning out blog posts like hot cakes lately (and I very well may be doing just that), I am admittedly behind in covering all of the content that I have read for the purpose of discussion here on this blog. That being said, I will endeavor to not compromise the length of my posts for the purpose of catching up.

This time around we will be discussing none other than Google. Did you know that in Japan, Google is often referred to nowadays as Google-sensei (グーグル先生)? It’s true! For those of you with no knowledge of Japanese, the term sensei is often translated as “instructor” or “teacher,” which is how it is being used here. Of course, the actual meaning of the Chinese characters denotes deeper meaning and in Japan, sensei is not thought of as a title, but gives acknowledgement that the person has more experience than you in a given area. It is used not only for teachers in schools but for doctors and instructors of traditional arts such as budō (Japanese martial arts) and tea ceremony.

Interesting anecdote aside, Google has become so prevalent in many of our lives that it is now the stand-in teacher for all of those times when we do not have someone more knowledgeable at hand to answer questions that we do not know the answer to. It is also much easier to do a Google search than to call up a friend or mentor and have to go through the formalities of conversation (greetings, small talk, detailing the situation and the question at hand, etc.), as I often have my answer seconds after typing out my question. Of course, Google has evolved into much more than a search engine and now has applications and services for a variety of things that are ripe for usage in our classrooms. In this blog post, I am going to be looking at three articles that reference Google’s applications within the realm of education. I warn you now that I am going to be quite harsh on one of them as it sounds more like an advertisement than academic writing. I am also going to hold back on many of my own thoughts about Google and its potential for use in the classroom as I am currently in the process of writing (as of this blog post) a longer academic paper on implementing Google in an academic institution, including potential uses, difficulties with implementation along the way, etc. One article will touch on these things already, but the paper I am writing will be on my own personal experience here in Japan and I do not want to subject you all to the same thing twice when I later share the paper here.

In the article by Barlow & Lane (2007), the authors talk in length about how Arizona State University (ASU) transitioned to Google’s suite of applications tailored to educational institutions, which is known as Google Apps for Education. They first bring up Google Mail (Gmail), noting that ASU was able to transition from their former in-house email solution to Gmail in less than two weeks and give ASU’s 65,000 students an email solution that included 2 gigabytes of storage, enhanced spam filtering, an instant messaging service, and much more (p. 8). The article later goes on to talk about student usage of Google Maps, which they use to view the various ASU campuses, plot buildings and other areas of interest, and even utilize satellite and GPS technology to view real time locations of buses and estimated arrival times. The article also mentions the popularity of the switch to Google Apps for Education, noting that demand was high among faculty members to be switched over from the legacy Exchange service and that students were migrating their accounts at a rate of 300 per hour on the first day that Google’s services went live on the campuses. There is also mention of the ease at which Google allowed for integration with the university’s single-sign-on environment as well as the availability from Google should problems arise with mail or other services that the university’s own help desk cannot handle (p. 9).

Still, looking at the conclusion of the article and seeing “ASU is excited to continue working with Google and will consistently strive to provide its faculty, staff, and student populations with exceptional standards, options and solutions,” I cannot help but feel like this is just a big promotion for both Google and the university, showing that they are up to date with the latest technologies in order to attract more students (p. 10). There is no discussion about how students and faculty can use Google Apps for Education for classes. Google Documents (Google Docs) is mentioned, but its usefulness for collaboration is never once brought up. Nothing remotely negative or related to issues that arose during implementation is found here either. I would expect a more thorough analysis in a piece of academic writing. The uses mentioned are fine, but focusing only on social aspects of the application suite seems unprofessional in my opinion.

Having the advantage of writing his article two years after Barlow & Lane , Herrick (2009) does a much better job at looking at the features more in depth and presenting a case study that includes some of the problems that were experienced by Colorado State University (CSU) when they implemented Google Apps for Education. Herrick also chooses to start things off with a discussion of Gmail and takes readers through the process of implementation, noting the control over accounts that administrators have over certain features (GOOGLE MAIL section). Features not mentioned in the article by Barlow & Lane are highlighted as well, such as the ability to compose mail when offline as well as the search feature built in to the service (Organizing E-mail section, ¶3; Extending Google Mail section, ¶2).

Herrick goes on to discuss Google Calendar next and does an excellent job of highlighting its many features. Users can have different calendars for different types of activities, from classes to social events, and each is customizable as well as shareable, as long as administrators allow it. Speaking of the administrators, university admins can set up Google Calendar to allow everything from equipment to classrooms to be reserved if they so choose (Using Calendars section, ¶2). Integration with in-house systems is also possible so that things such as class days and times can be made to appear on students’ calendars (Managing Calendars section, ¶2).

Herrick moves on to talk about Google Talk for messaging and audio/video chatting, Google Docs and Spreadsheets for creating simplified versions of the kinds of files usually reserved for Microsoft Office or Apple iWork, and Google Sites for creating simple websites that can be published to the web and viewed by anyone if administrators allow. Herrick does make sure to note what I previously mentioned in relation to Google Docs, which is that it allows for collaborative document creation between students. I personally think this feature is great for classes held in computer labs or for giving students the ability to work on group assignments even when they cannot get together outside of class.

Towards the end of Herrick’s article, there is mention of some difficulty with student migration, with many students claiming ignorance of the migration despite numerous notifications. The time that actual migration took was also said to be quite long, clocking in at 7 seconds per account, which may not be a problem for smaller institutions, but CSU was migrating 25,000 accounts (Case Study Revisited: Colorado State University section, ¶2-3). If you are an institution that is giving students access to an email address for the first time, as I am currently attempting to undertake where I teach, this will not be an issue; however, it will take a considerable amount of time creating accounts for every student if your student population is large.

Herrick, too, ultimately rules the implementation of Google Apps for Education a success at CSU, noting the considerable cost savings versus an Exchange server as Barlow & Lane did, and recommends other institutions to get on board with the idea as well. That is two university advocates for the Google Apps for Education suite, for those of you keeping count. Temple University, where I am currently doing my graduate work, also makes use of it, bringing us up to 3. This may sound as though I am setting up for a discussion of an article in which the author criticizes Google, or something similar along those lines, but I am not. The final article that I looked at for this discussion actually revolves around a broader topic, which is Web 2.0 technologies, of which Google Apps are a part, and their use in competency-oriented design of learning.

Not wanting to make this topic too dense and unapproachable for the casual reader, I must nevertheless note that this article revolves around two key concepts: constructivist theory of learning and action competency. The first is easy enough to understand. Constructivist theory, without being a pedagogy per se, deals with the idea of learning through experience. “Learning through doing” would be another way to describe this. Constructivist theory is often mistakenly assumed to mean that students are wholly responsible for the learning taken place and that the teacher merely facilitates, but since we are talking about learning through experience, this can also be applied to guided learning as well. Action competency focuses on the learning process and is concerned with performed behavior. It deals with knowledge, skills, and motivations of the learner and requires a certain degree of complexity in the challenges that the learner must face.

Without getting more complicated than that, we can now look at what role Google Apps can play in putting these theories into practice. Schneckenberg, Ehlers and Adelsberger (2010) discuss a case study with a course in which the teacher does not create even one lesson during the entirety of the course (p. 757). Instead, Google Apps are used to give students access to course readings, allow them to discuss and brainstorm ideas via Google Docs, critique each others presentations and receive teacher feedback through Google Sites, and to reflect on their own learning via some of these same features as well as blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies (pp. 757-758). The authors cite the increased engagement with the course subject matter as being the main reason for the high quality of student works on both the class presentations and final literature reviews (p. 758).

I also believe that student engagement can be increased using Google Apps for Education even when utilizing a guided teaching style where students are not as responsible for their learning as they were in the case study in this article. Certainly having students brainstorm or collaboratively create documents for assignments or in-class activities is not something reserved solely for student-guided classrooms. No matter what teaching style you are utilizing, Google Apps for Education can clearly help to give students more hands-on experience with the material they are learning and allow them to use it in collaboration with their peers. Any time we make our students think more deeply about what they are learning can only be seen as a success, in my humble opinion. As we move further and further away from lecture-based teaching and the reliance on repetition-based drills, technologies like Google Apps are what give us new ways to help our students develop competency and to continue to expose them to the lesson content when they are outside of our classrooms. For this, I think we can all say, “Doumo arigatou, Google-sensei!”

 
References

Barlow, K. & Lane, J. (2007). Like Technology from an Advanced Alien Culture [1]: Google Apps for Education at ASU. SIGUCCS’07. Orlando, Florida, USA.

Herrick, D. R. (2009). Google This! Using Google Apps for Collaboration and Productivity. SIGUCCS’09. St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

Schneckenberg, D., Ehlers, U., & Adelsberger, H. (2011). Web 2.0 and competence‐oriented design of learning—Potentials and implications for higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(5), 747-762. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01092.x