Textbooks of the Near Future

by Larry MacPhee, Associate Director

Drawing of printed textbooksWhen I went to college, back in the 1980s, each of my new hardcover textbooks weighed over 5 pounds and cost over $100.00. Cheaper used and softcover texts weren’t yet readily available. Since that time, increasing numbers of students have been selling their textbooks back to the bookstore or other re-sellers in order to get a wad of cash to fund a keg-party or the next semester’s textbook purchases. The increased availability of used textbooks has driven publishers, they argue, to raise the prices of their new texts and, at least to my skeptical eye, to make numerous small changes to each edition and release these new editions at ever shorter intervals to try to reduce the usefulness of old editions. So, for decades, students and publishers have been locked in an “arms race” that hasn’t been particularly good for either side. That’s about to change.

Kindle logo (person sitting under a tree, reading)Enter Amazon.com, the model for a disruptive new relationship between students and textbook publishers. Amazon is the world’s largest bookseller and they now sell more eBooks than paper books. They deliver their eBooks via the Kindle, but also through the free Kindle reader app for Android phones, iPhones, and iPads because Amazon only cares that you buy their content; not what you read it on. I bet not too many college students own Kindles, but they sure like their smartphones! I recently asked a fairly typical group of over 100 university students how many of them owned “smartphones.” Almost every hand in the audience went up, so most students already have a mobile device capable of reading eTextbooks. I also asked them how many were currently using electronic textbooks. Not a single hand went up. In the business world, this is what people call an “opportunity.”

Student using a smartphoneThe big academic publishers in K-12 and higher-ed, including Wiley, Pearson, Cengage, Benjamin Cummings, Houghton Mifflin, MacMillan and all the rest, are ready to get into the game. They’ve been watching Amazon long enough now to see that it’s a winning strategy. According to the publishers, and I don’t doubt their numbers, about one third of textbooks purchased annually are used, not new. Each of those re-sales is lost profit for the publishers. But because of something called DRM, or “digital rights management,” students won’t be able to re-sell their eTexts. While there are plenty of ways in which eBooks might be superior to paper books, the big one for the publishers is DRM. With eBooks, the used textbook market is dead. It’s also possible that the publishers will profit from not having to print and distribute physical books, but at least some of those profits will be offset by the need to publish online editions, and maintain servers and a larger IT infrastructure. Publishers will tell you that students are going to love eTexts for the mobility, reduced weight, the ability to get corrections, updated content, and for the multimedia elements that make the eBook a richer learning experience. While both paper and electronic editions exist side by side, you can even expect the eText to be cheaper to drive customers into the new market. So students will like eContent, and publishers will profit from it. But convincing faculty, most of whom don’t particularly like technology or change, that eTextbooks are worth the effort will be a challenge.

Image showing ebook creation in Apple's iBooks Author toolFaculty control the textbook adoption process, and they remain somewhat skeptical that moving to eTexts is worth the effort. Publishers could try to pressure them by eliminating the paper edition, but that might drive an instructor to select a competitor’s product. They could use student demand, by making the eText cheaper than, and different from, the paper edition. They might even try to convince faculty with incentives like a free iPad, or by encouraging faculty to “build your own book” by assembling chapters of pre-built content. In the days of the printed text, especially in the K-12 market where California and Texas heavily influence content decisions, the publisher sometimes faced the challenge of trying to satisfy diverse customers with the same content. Now the “controversial” chapter on Evolution or Global Warming or the Big Bang or Birth Control Methods can be easily deleted or replaced, because the customer is always right! In higher ed, the ability to easily mix and match digital content may also appeal to instructors who want to customize their courses. Apple hopes faculty will start writing their own eBooks for iPad using their free tools. I don’t think the faculty will go willingly into this brave new world, but it’s probably going to happen whether they like it or not.

On the Horizon

by John Doherty and Lorraine B. Elder

Cover image of the 2011 Horizon ReportThe annual Horizon Report, published by the New Media Consortium (NMC), describes educational technologies that are ripe for adoption in the coming year, the next 2 to 3 years, and 4 to 5 years out. The 2011 Horizon Report is now out. The full report (.pdf) is available on the NMC site. The work that went into the report is documented in NMC’s Horizon Report wiki.

2011 Horizon Report Predictions for
Educational Technology Adoptions During the Next One to Five Years
1 year or less 2 to 3 years 4 to 5 years
Electronic books
Mobile devices
Augmented reality
Game-based learning
Gesture-based computing
Learning analytics

Dead on or dead wrong?

Drawing of a targetPast Horizon Reports have included some notable hits and misses, perhaps stemming from the biases and interests of the researchers, many of whom inhabit the leading edge of educational technology and are removed from the laggard community. For example, the 2005 Horizon Report said social networks would be adopted within education in four to five years. Social networks went mainstream long before that but have seen less adoption in education than expected, perhaps partly because until recently they weren’t well integrated with learning management systems, and partly because many educators often viewed—and still view—social networks with suspicion.

Drawing of a game controllerAnother element of the 2005 report suggested that educational gaming would be widespread by 2008. The 2011 report says that game-based learning is still two to three years away, evidence that prognostication is an inexact business.

Still, it’s worth contemplating some of this year’s predictions.

Electronic books and mobile devices

Photo of Amazon KindleThese two technologies do seem to be obvious choices, and they’re not unrelated. For example, Amazon Kindles and Apple iPads are good devices for displaying ebooks, and both are popular with consumers (the National Federation of the Blind’s lawsuit against Arizona State University for its Kindle use notwithstanding). Last July, Amazon’s ebook sales outpaced hardcover sales, with 143 ebooks sold for every 100 hardcover books.

Photo of Apple iPad

However, digital rights management still acts as a bottleneck for adoption of ebooks in education, especially for books published outside the U.S. For example, the Kindle edition of Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, is receiving very good reviews in British publications but is not yet published in the United States and won’t be available here until at least November 2011, a year after its British publication. Fortunately, some publishers realize the value ebooks can bring to teaching and learning, and they are decoupling the purchases of ebooks and printed books. McGraw-Hill now allows students to buy or rent—for much lower cost—an ebook without forcing purchase of its physical counterpart.

A new report by Rob Reynolds of Xplana indicates projections for the digital textbook market over the next five years. Their projections agree with the Horizon Report regarding coming adoption of ebooks, but their time frame is more conservative.

Graph showing percentage of projected digital textbook sales in the U.S. 2010-2017

Photo of  Samsung Galaxy TabThe 2011 Horizon Report notes that some tablet devices, such as the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab offer enough compelling additional features to make ebooks “a potentially transformative technology” because they can now include rich media and supplemental material not possible in a printed book. Book cover of Raven BiologyInkling’s edition of Raven Biology is cited as one example of a title that “brings the study of this science to life with detailed illustrations and animations, in-line keyword definitions, and interactive quizzes embedded in each chapter.”

On the mobile device front, the 2011 Horizon Report notes three converging points:

  • Within the next year, Internet-capable devices will outnumber computers.
  • In Japan, 75% of Internet users already choose mobile devices as their primary means of access.
  • By 2015, 80% of people accessing the Internet will do so from a mobile device.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has an interesting infographic showing rates of ownership of several types of mobile devices by age group. Tablets and ebook readers show comparatively low rates of ownership, but laptops, MP3 players, and cell phones show high rates of ownership across age groups. Only 9% of adults don’t own any of the devices, and 63% of those non-owners are age 66 or older. Take a look at the full-sized graphic for details.

Graph showing that 85% of all U.S. adults have a cell phone

Many educators are already challenged by the presence of mobile devices in classrooms, with some instructors issuing blanket bans on phones and tablets. We think that’s the wrong reaction. Instead, instructors should capitalize on the devices. Have students use mobiles to search for, create, and present content and to collaborate and interact with each other and with the instructor. For example, envision students examining 3D models of chemical structures while they work on lab experiments, or consider getting feedback from students by polling them and letting them respond from their mobile devices. Instructors who object to mobile devices in the classroom are missing a golden opportunity.

Augmented reality & game-based learning

Icon of the Star Walk applicationThink about the benefit of using augmented reality applications on anthropology or geology field trips. Star Walk, a popular astronomy app by Vito Technology, puts a virtual planetarium on your phone or tablet, showing you a real-time view of the night sky with informative overlays. These kinds of applications have obvious potential in higher education, and their cost is often low, once you discount the initial expense of purchasing devices capable of using them. Many developers have already jumped on this bandwagon, so the choices should increase rapidly.

Google Map showing Route 66 in ArizonaNorthern Arizona University’s Cline Library augmented an exhibit, Route 66 in Arizona: Don’t Forget Winona!, with a Google Maps add-on that lets users look at photo archives of towns highlighted along the route. The map works in web browsers and on smartphones.

Game-based learning has spawned several conferences and studies (.pdf), a sure sign that the topic is gaining traction among educators. However, given the time and cost of developing high-quality games across the many academic disciplines, as well as possible bias against games among faculty, we suspect widespread adoption of this technology will take more than three years. Pioneering educators are gaming already, but the masses will follow more slowly.


Illustration of a graph and pie chartAt the 2011 ELI Annual Meeting, David Wiley, Associate Professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University, defined learning analytics as a way “to harness the power of advances in data mining, interpretation, and modeling to improve understandings of teaching and learning, and to tailor education to individual students more effectively.” As an example, he described the development of strategic tutoring, which relies on data to help predict the need for proactive student support. You can view a video or download his slides for that presentation and others on analytics and openness in education.

Businesses have already capitalized on analytics. Think of the recommendations you get from Amazon or Netflix or the coupons you receive when you pay for your groceries. Given the current budget-slashing climate for higher education, analytics are a no-brainer, and savvy institutions are getting on board now, using the data they already have and not waiting five years. Any university seeking funding or even tuition dollars is going to have to rely on data to demonstrate the effectiveness of its programs. No convincing numbers? No dollars.

Illustration showing elements of Northern Arizona University's Grade Performance Status tool, including instructor messages and the ResourceConnect websiteNorthern Arizona University has already started using analytics in its Grade Performance Status (GPS) tool, which uses data on students’ academic performance, grades, attendance, and positive feedback to identify students who might be headed for trouble in their courses, and to prompt instructors to reach out to those students to assist them.

So what’s the immediate message of all this for educators? We think it’s get moving on getting mobile, look toward ebooks, and start analyzing your data now.

Pedagogy and the iPad

by John J. Doherty and Kevin Ketchner

Angry Birds App iconPerhaps the hardest part of owning an iPad is trying to avoid the addictive world of Angry Birds, the favorite game app of the new British Prime Minister. For just $5 you, too, can attack pigs with hard-headed flying birds.

That kind of distraction is exactly what many faculty worry about when we ponder the place of tools such as the iPad in the classroom. We fear that our students will be more engaged with their games or Twitter feeds than with our lectures. But the iPad, the iPhone, the Droid, and the flood of other new tablets and smart phones finding their way into our classrooms are not the cause of student inattention. These gadgets are just tools, and student engagement depends on good teaching whether or not a cool gadget is present. In Technological and Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge (.pdf), Punya Mishra and Matthew J. Koehler note that we need to understand not only various technologies but also how the technologies affect our pedagogy.

The iPad is a good case in point. Since the iPad’s launch in April 2010 some educators have begun to examine its place in education. Our experience in using the iPad for teaching is that it is useful in two distinct ways, consumption and production, although it currently is more useful for the former than the latter.


The iPad is very obviously a tool for consuming information and media. Reading publications such as the New York Times or watching movies through the Netflix app seems to be a natural fit for the device. In the classroom, we have been using iPads as a way to deliver information to our students.

Kindle App iconFor example, in a course on Reinventing King Arthur, John used the Kindle app on his iPad to give his students access to some of the course readings. In fact, he chose the course readings based on their availability in ebook format, and in one instance, John was able to bring back into his course a text that had been out of print for almost 20 years! In another case, students who chose to download the Kindle version of a new book were able to do so several days before others were able to order the printed version (although this might have been an error on Amazon’s part). The students used their own devices, mobile or otherwise, to read the ebooks, which was possible because the Kindle app is no longer limited to the Kindle device. The app can be used on PCs or Macs, desktops or laptops, iPads, iPhones, Droids, and iPod Touches. One of its best features is that you can read the same book on various devices, and the app will remember where you left off. You can start reading a book on your laptop and then later switch to reading on your phone without losing your place.

Screen shot showing price differential on Amazon.com for print and Kindle versions of The Mists of Avalon

Kevin has been using the iPad for an Honors course on the cultural impact of comic books. Marvel, DC, and other publishers have iPad apps (iTunes link) that present comics in sharp, HD-like quality. When you can zoom in on details of comics in high definition, the panels take on an immersive quality.

The following panel is a screen capture of the Iron Man (2004) #1 book, available in the Marvel app.

Iron Man comic panelCover image for V for Vendetta

Students in the course can download the movies Iron Man (2008) and V for Vendetta (2006) via the iTunes Store or other media sources. By examining both the comic serial and the movie versions of these stories, students see how the superhero movie genre has reinvented the comic.

Wikipanion App iconStudents can also use reference apps such as Wikipanion (Wikipedia) to find out details about characters in these stories (such as Guy Fawkes, the original fundamentalist terrorist who is burned in effigy in the UK every November 5th).

The ebooks John uses in his course include built-in dictionaries that make it convenient for students to look up unusual words, which is invaluable for texts based on older versions of the English language. The iPad apps can also read the texts aloud.

Here are some other apps that we’ve experimented with and have found useful for teaching.

App Description
iAnnotate App iconiAnnotate PDF ($9.99) Syncs PDF documents between your desktop and your iPad. It also lets you highlight and underline and add commentary, which is great for our e-reserve readings.
CineX App iconCineXPlayer ($3.99) Delivers Xvid movies to the iPad through iTunes. Includes subtitles and TV/VGA output. The advantage to this app is that it supports more than just iTunes native formats.
Netflix App iconNetflix (Free) The app is free, but you need a Netflix subscription to use it. You get access to the Netflix streaming library. John has had his students view the BBC TV series Merlin (2008) and the movies Camelot (1967) and Excalibur (1981).


Dragon Dictation App icon

The iPad is opening doors for some differently abled users. Its built-in text reader can give voice to anything downloaded to iBooks. Dragon Dictation is a free iPad app that uses voice recognition to create text email messages and even Facebook and Twitter updates. The iPad’s magnification and closed-captioning features also make content available for a wide range of people. The New York Times recently reported on how an iPad elicited reactions from a 7-year-old boy who has a severe motor neuron disease. The same article noted that autistic children are also engaging more with this tool than a regular computer.


Pages App iconAs a production tool—that is, for generating rather than just consuming content—the iPad has plenty of potential, but it still has lots of room for improvement. Much of this post was written in the Pages app on the iPad, using the on-screen keyboard. Or at least it was until we started getting annoyed when we typed too many extra n‘s and m‘s because those keys are uncomfortably close to the space bar for our not-so-nimble digits. So we just synced the iPads to our desktops and continued typing from there, using real keyboards.

The on-screen keyboard works well enough for some things: browsing the web, searching the App Store, typing things into Wikipedia. In our opinion, though, an external keyboard is an essential add-on if you want to use the iPad for serious writing.

Numbers App iconKeynote App iconIn addition to Pages, the other two iWork apps—Numbers and Keynote— for the iPad are useful production tools . Each costs $9.99 from the iTunes Store. iWork will soon be available to the NAU campus through a site license, and it is a decent alternative to the MS Office applications. John developed some of his course documentation in Pages and Numbers.


MobileMe iDisk App iconSome of the drawbacks to using these apps include lack of easy cloud syncing and inability to print directly from the iPad. That said, the MobileMe iDisk app does provide some access to the MobileMe cloud (which requires a subscription) or the beta of iWork.com. There are rumors of an about-to-be-released Google Apps app for the iPad and Android that will allow for editing of Google docs, spreadsheets, and presentations. Apple is undoubtedly working on updates to their products to fix these and other shortcomings, and they are also exploring cloud-based computing, but if you want to take the iPad plunge now, you should be aware of these limitations. Syncing the iPad to your computer also leaves a lot to be desired, because you need to go through iTunes to make it work at all. The advantages of using the iPad over a netbook as a mobile production tool are currently few.

Penultimate App iconWhiteNote App iconRecently, we discovered two note-taking apps for the iPad that let you use your finger or a stylus. We tested Penultimate and WhiteNote in meetings and in the classroom. The former is pretty slick but simple. The latter needs some work, especially in how it uses the screen and the writing space. But it offers the bonus of letting you browse and import from the web, PDFs, and other formats, and it also uses cloud-based resources for saving and sharing PDFs via Google Docs.

Blackboard Learn Mobile App iconMoodle m+touch App iconThe iPad and some smart phones are beginning to offer access to learning management systems (LMS), such as Blackboard Learn and Moodle. Mobile apps are available for both of these LMS, but their functionality is quite limited, although the Blackboard Mobile Learn app syndicates content from that LMS quite well. For the moment, though, both Blackboard Learn and Moodle are best accessed on the iPad through a browser.

Lessons Learned and In Progress

The iPad holds much promise for education, but it is still in its infancy. Missing but available soon with the impending release of iOS 4.2 release are the ability to multitask (that is, to run more than one app at a time), print from the iPad, and even output information to other devices through AirPlay. The ability to easily display the content of your iPad on an overhead projector is essential for educators, and we hope Apple addresses that shortcoming quickly. Apple’s prohibition of Adobe’s Flash on the iPad means that some of our preferred media sources, such as streaming films available through our university library, are not viewable on the device. Skyfire logoHowever, the Skyfire browser, which converts Flash video to a format that works on Apple’s mobile devices, might soon solve that problem.

The most obvious lesson we learned is that students like using the iPads for classes. It wasn’t at all hard to get the students to use the iPads. It was hard to get the students to give them back.

John J. Doherty is an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University’s e-Learning Center and an instructor in NAU’s First Year Seminar and Honors programs. He has been studying the Arthurian Legend formally since 1989, but has been reading and writing about it much longer. Kevin Ketchner is a librarian with NAU’s Cline Library and also teaches in Honors. His love of comic books has generated a strong interest in visual literacy and narrative.


Twitter Spreads Wildfire News Like, Well, Wildfire

by Lorraine B. Elder

Panoramic photo of the Schultz Fire in Flagstaff, Arizona

Smoke plume from the Schultz Fire in Flagstaff, Arizona

Some people still think of Twitter as a tool for sending out 140-character messages about trivia such as what you ate for lunch, but during Flagstaff’s wildfire crisis, Twitter turned out to be one of the best sources for up-to-date information on the Hardy Fire (282 acres with 95% containment as I write this) and the Schultz Fire (currently 14,800 acres with 40% containment) as well as the Eagle Rock fire near Williams. Twitter logoAnyone could use the Twitter hashtags #flagstafffire, #hardyfire, #schultzfire, #schultz#wildfires, or #flagstaff to find or tag information about the rapidly unfolding drama in our mountain town. Hashtags are short text identifiers preceded by the # character to indicate the topic of a message. Twitter messages are often called tweets.

One person in our department who was following Twitter was able to notify another about an impending neighborhood evacuation even before county officials had knocked on the evacuee’s door. Flagstaff’s mayor, Sara Presler, or @sarapresler in Twitter notation, used Twitter effectively to send out information about the status of the fires and to inform citizens about upcoming press conferences and public meetings related to the fires. Tweets from government organizations, individuals, and various groups got information out much more quickly and frequently than conventional media could. Of course the local newspaper and radio and television stations also used Twitter, and their tweets fleshed out the picture of the fire situation in advance of their regularly scheduled publications or broadcasts. Speaking of pictures, many Twitter users posted photos of the fires from their vantage points, which was an incredibly effective way to calm (or terrify) loved ones from afar. Tweets about the fires generated so much traffic on Twitter that the story was picked up by Mashable, a popular technology-oriented social media site.

Photo of sunset view of smoke from the Schultz Fire in Flagstaff, Arizona

Sunset view of smoke from the Schultz Fire enveloping the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona

If your impression of Twitter is that it’s only an endless stream of inane chatter, think again. If you judiciously choose the people and groups to follow, Twitter can serve as your up-to-the minute personal newsfeed. Of course you need to view some tweets with a critical eye. Not everyone who who uses Twitter follows the journalistic standards and ethics we’ve come to expect from mainstream media, but many regular folks do a fine job of reporting the situation.

Here are some of the Twitter users who provided valuable information during the fires. Click the links to see their Twitter pages.

  • @ArizonaDOT (Arizona Department of Transportation)
  • @azds (Arizona Daily Sun newspaper)
  • @AzEIN (Arizona Emergency Info Network)
  • @AZFireInfo (Arizona Fire Info)
  • @AZPubRadio (KNAU radio)
  • @coconinocounty (Coconino County official information)
  • @CoconinoNF (Coconino National Forest official information)
  • @dsoltesz (Deborah Lee Soltesz, Flagstaff resident)
  • @ENeitzel (Eric Neitzel, national public information officer from Show Low Fire Dept.)
  • @inciweb (national incident information system)
  • @FLAGscanner (live scanner feeds from police, fire, and EMS groups in Flagstaff)
  • @naztoday (students at NAU’s School of Communication)
  • @sarapresler (Flagstaff’s mayor)

Let us know in the comments about other good sources of information on Twitter.

If you’d like to learn more about how to use Twitter, either as a newsfeed or an educational tool, contact the e-Learning Center. Or follow us on Twitter (@nauelearning) or Facebook. In the meantime, hug a firefighter. They’ve worked hard to save our town and our forests.

College Is for Everyone, So Attendance Is Mandatory!

by Larry MacPhee

Professor taking attendance at a lecternAmidst the flurry of bad press over SB 1070 (.pdf) and the resulting boycott of Arizona, you might have missed something interesting on page two. NAU made the Chronicle, and Slashdot picked up the story. It has been spun as a privacy and digital rights story, but it’s really something much bigger. It seems there’s a plan in the works here at NAU to use student ID cards with embedded RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to record class attendance. We’ve been using clickers to do this for years. So why are university administrators increasingly interested in mandatory attendance? The answer is complex, but it has a lot to do with a societal shift that is having ripple effects in academia. Michael Wesch says it this way: College is for learning, and learning is for everyone. So college is for everyone. It wasn’t always this way.

DiplomaA college education used to be something one aspired to, but it certainly wasn’t a necessity. For many students today, going to college no longer feels like a choice. The bachelor’s degree is the modern-day equivalent of the 1950 high school diploma. Students increasingly resent the liberal studies courses that teach “critical thinking” but don’t give them the tangible workplace skills they think they need. Given the number of times a modern worker changes careers, critical thinking, the ability to write, and other versatile competencies are more important than ever, but we haven’t done a good job selling that argument. Many students now see college simply as an expensive and time-consuming obstacle that must be overcome on the path to a good-paying job. Knowledge for its own sake is no longer the primary motivator. As Ronald Reagan once said, echoing the growing public sentiment, “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?” So while the public is less interested in a classical education, demand for diplomas is at an all-time high. But universities are slow to change and haven’t really adjusted what is taught or how it’s taught. As a result, universities are admitting more students who are unprepared for—and less interested in—acquiring that classical education. Can you see now why mandatory attendance is becoming an issue?

Retention, High Standards, Relevance, and Choice

Administrators want to give students—including those who are unmotivated and unprepared—more opportunities to succeed, which keeps tuition dollars flowing in, so they sometimes focus on reducing the D/F/W (drop, fail, and withdraw) rates. Faculty sometimes see this as pressure to lower standards, so they push back, blaming K-12 for sending them unprepared students, refusing to teach remedial material, and resisting efforts to change the way they teach. Both groups need to realize that lowering standards and refusing to change won’t solve the problem. Instead, courses need to be redesigned to make them more compelling, practical, and relevant. Otherwise, faculty will be forced to deal with a lot more dissatisfied students who will disrupt the classes in which they don’t think they are getting what they paid for, and the perennial conflicts between administrators and faculty will continue to escalate.

Think back to your own education. What was the biggest difference between high school and college? Students acted out or tuned out in high school classes because they were required to be there and didn’t, for any number of reasons, want to be. Classroom management, a life-and-death skill for K-12 teachers, used to be mostly unnecessary for higher ed instructors. In college, students who didn’t want to be there quickly stopped showing up and, until recently, colleges have been mostly ok with that. The old attitude was that “college isn’t for everyone” and “it’s your money.” We are teaching young adults to take responsibility for their choices, the argument goes. A university is a place for free thinking, and if students choose not to attend class, who are we to tell them otherwise? But retention is the new mantra, and mandatory attendance is seen as one way to enforce it.

Unintended Consequences?

What will be the effects of mandatory attendance on college classes? On the surface, it seems like a good idea. Numerous studies show a strong positive correlation between attendance and student success. Students need to know that attendance matters and that we’re serious about it. But if we dig a bit deeper, there are several problems. In most studies, student success is only strongly correlated with voluntary attendance. If you make attendance mandatory, the effect is considerably, but not entirely, diminished. Hand holding an attendance cardAlso, we don’t achieve our goal if the students can easily defeat the mandatory attendance system; all a student has to do is give his ID card to a buddy who attends class. So will mandatory attendance actually improve student success? Yes, for a few students on the fence, attending class more often will make the difference between a pass and a fail, and some of our students do need a push in the right direction. But what worries me more about mandatory attendance is a negative unintended consequence. University instructors unaccustomed to unruly and disrespectful students are in for shock. They will be spending more effort on classroom management and it will negatively affect their ability to teach. Effort expended on making the courses more relevant, interesting, and engaging without lowering standards is a far better return on investment. If a course is compelling, students will gladly attend and value the lessons you deliver. Isn’t that better than forcing them to sit through a dull lecture?

Further reading

A Case Against Compulsory Class Attendance Policies in Higher Education

Skipping class in college and exam performance: Evidence from a regression discontinuity classroom experiment

Does Mandatory Attendance Improve Student Performance? (.pdf)

Do students go to class? Should they?

Should class attendance be mandatory?

Why You Shouldn’t Use PowerPoints in (Most) Online Courses

by Lorraine B. Elder

Sigh. Where to begin? There are so many reasons why using PowerPoint for online courses is a Bad Idea. PowerPoint is just a tool, of course, but it’s so often the wrong tool for the job, especially in teaching online. A hammer is only a tool, but in the wrong hands, well, it makes a mess of things. So it is with PowerPoint.

It’s not that PowerPoint—henceforth referred to as PPT—can’t be used effectively for teaching online. It’s just that most people have developed deplorable PPT habits and now believe that textually dense PPT slides, cheesy animated transitions, and gaudy 3-D graphs are de rigueur for teaching in the classroom and therefore are the perfect choice for online courses, too. To that I say “Nuh-uh. Not. FAIL!” Who else says so? Well, these guys:

Don McMillan, Life After Death by PowerPoint

This video humorously highlights the problems of bad PPTs.

Guy Kawasaki, The 10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint

Although Kawasaki is targeting entrepreneurs rather than educators, his points still generally apply.

Edward Tufte, PowerPoint Is Evil

Information design guru Edward Tufte has long decried the evils of PowerPoint, even going so far as to suggest that “stupefying fragments” of reasoning split across multiple PPT slides might have contributed to a space shuttle disaster. The following image is from his commentary on the Columbia explosion. Click the image to see a larger version.

Diagram showing 6 levels of information hierarchy

The gist of their criticism is that too many people use PPT poorly even in the situations for which it was designed, namely in-person presentations. The slides tend to serve as a crib sheet for the presenter rather than informing the audience. Now imagine those problems multiplied when a PPT presentation that was awful enough in person gets posted online without the benefit of an instructor to explain the lacunae. Online students assaulted by bad PPT can’t even pelt the instructor with tomatoes.

The Crux of the PPT Problem: Missing Information

A PPT slide, when used to good effect in the situations for which it was designed, contains a single important bit of information. The individual giving the presentation in person is expected to orally set the context, explain the rationale, fill in the details, identify nuances and counterpoints, extrapolate, and draw conclusions from the nugget on the slide. The problem with posting such slides online should be immediately obvious: without the presenter, the slide is next to useless because all of the supporting information is missing.

“Ah ha!” you say. “That must be an argument in favor of putting full paragraphs on slides.” Um, no. If you feel the need to write full paragraphs to explain whatever it is you’re teaching online, fine. But don’t put them on a PPT slide. Put them on a web page. Web pages are pretty good at handling lots of text, as well as audio, video, and other media. PPT isn’t.

Basically, a PPT presentation that was well constructed for an in-person presentation is inadequate for an online course. And a PPT presentation that sucked in person will suck worse online.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at these:

Robert X. Cringely, If We’re in Trouble, Its Probably Because People No Longer Really Listen

A highlight of Cringely‘s post is this paragraph:

PowerPoint is supposed to play the role of the nerdy kid from the A/V department who keeps all your slides straight and makes you look good. But more often than not, I get the stack without the presenter, and no matter how smart or informed I am, any solo effort to expend that stack into an adequate proxy for a 10,000-word document is simply bound to come up short.

Olivia Mitchell, New Evidence That Bullet-Points Don’t Work

Mitchell describes a presentation given by Chris Atherton, a cognitive psychologist who delivered an 86-slide presentation (ack!) on how to design slides that work with the human brain instead of against it. Although I imagine the presentation was fascinating and informative if you were there to see it live, clicking through the slide deck leaves you feeling that something (clue: it’s a person) is missing. Dr. Atherton’s slides are adequate (if overly abundant) for in-person delivery. But posted online without the benefit of her descriptive explanation and insight, they are not entirely helpful and certainly aren’t substantive enough for a student to learn from and be tested on. BTW, if you’re sick of reading this blog post, see Dr. Atherton’s slides 51–54 to get the quick and dirty summary of the point. Slide 71 is also pithy.

Why Are Instructors So Eager, Nay Insistent, about Putting Their PPTs Online?

Lots of reasons, but mostly these:

I’ll address each.

Instructors have a large library of PPTs they’ve built up over the years

So what? I have a large library of audio cassettes that I recorded years ago from my vinyl record albums and then lovingly hand-labeled with a calligraphy pen. They are stashed in a drawer, representing cherished memories, especially since I sold all the vinyl at a yard sale. But do I actually listen to them? Heck no! Like most people, I’ve upgraded to digital recordings from Amazon, iTunes, and Magnatune. I also listen to compilations on Pandora. The digital versions sound better, are more easily organized and searched, and they don’t degrade the more often I listen.

If your PPTs are more than two years old, you probably need to update them anyway so that the information reflects the current thinking and latest research in your academic discipline. And it wouldn’t hurt to root out those typos and embarrassing spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. While you’re at it, get rid of the illegible tiny type and the annoying SCRIPT IN ALL CAPS. Also ditch the ugly lavender-on-pea-green color scheme and the not-as-cute-as-you-think animated clip art.


Even 18-pt. text is too hard for the average person to read. Stop using tiny text. Especially stop using reversed sans serif italic fonts on a too-light background consisting of a pointless gradient. More bullets are not better. Entire paragraphs, while good for providing the supplementary detail necessary for students to grasp complex concepts, are not best presented on PowerPoint slides. Instead put your paragraphs on a web page, which has the added benefit of being accessible to students who use screen reader software. And be sure to include ALT text descriptions of your images and graphs. This approach might also keep you from getting sued. Capice?

Ugly and Hard to Read

Lack of contrast is bad. If you expect people to be able to read your slides comfortably, use a text color that contrasts sufficiently with the background color. Don’t use colors that are hard for color-blind people to distinguish (red-green, blue-yellow)

Not Cute

innocent smileys smileys smileys

My point: musty old PPTs aren’t as valuable as you think. It’s time to move on. And since you’re gonna have to update your material anyway, you might as well do it in a new way.

Instructors already know how to use PPT and don’t want to learn a new tool or process

Instructors seem to forget that they weren’t born knowing how to use PPT. They had to learn to use it, and now it’s time to learn how to use something else. Some instructors think they’re too old, too tired, too busy, or too important to learn new stuff. Others are technophobic and afraid to ask for help, thinking it would signal weakness and vulnerability.

But if you don’t update your skills, you’ll fail to connect with your 21st-century students and will get lousy course evaluations. Online instruction and Web 2.0 tools differ from in-person instruction, and if you don’t learn the differences and adapt your teaching methods accordingly, you’ll hear about it from students. Many new tools focus on ease of use and time savings, so you might discover that new approaches are easier than you imagine.

My point: you owe it to your students (and yourself) to make time to learn new skills, and you don’t have to go it alone. Seek assistance from the faculty development, educational technology, or online learning department on your campus.

Instructors think their PPTs are crystal clear

If your PPT slides are well designed for an in-person presentation, they are too cryptic to post as a standalone online presentation. Terse one- or two-word slides often are understood only by the person who wrote them or by experts in the field. To students, who are novices, more detail is needed to provide a fuller explanation. In person, you provide that detail by speaking. Online, you still need to provide the detail that the slides lack.

If, on the other hand, your PPT slides are an outline of lecture notes or are chock full of explanatory text and complex diagrams, then PPT is the wrong medium for posting that information online. Instead use media that work well online: web pages containing embedded links, images, audio clips, video clips, and the like.

My point: slides that seem the model of clarity to you are likely opaque to your students, and chopping lecture notes up onto multiple online slides won’t help. Instead, use the right tools for the job.

Instructors’ sense of self has become scarily entwined with their PPTs

I have invested all of my self-esteem in this PowerPoint Presentation. It is all that I am and all that I will be. It is a digital reckoning of my value. Did they catch the chimp who made your slides? Ow. Ow. Ow.

You are not your PPT. If your PPT were as valuable as you, we wouldn’t need you to teach at all, would we? But you should have an inkling by now that posting a PPT online does not constitute a well-taught course. Online courses need active participation from a genuinely engaged instructor to make them successful.

My point: unlike you, your PPTs don’t have brains, insight, and something to contribute to society. Don’t give up your seat on the bus to your PPTs.

Instructors have gotten bad advice

Swept up in swine flu fever, some universities are recommending that faculty post their PPTs online, but they fail to warn instructors of the pitfalls of that approach, and they don’t all offer guidance about good ways to make material available online. Just as swine flu propagates through close contact and bad hygiene, bad PPT mythology spreads infectiously. Instructors see other instructors using PPT poorly and assume that’s the way it should be done. Don’t fall for it.

Many universities have departments whose job it is to be expert in instructional design, information design, and educational technology. Avail yourself of their services. Get some guidance and training in how to teach well online, how to design your materials for online delivery, and how to convert your PPTs into something more useful for online courses.

My point: just because other instructors use PPT badly doesn’t mean you should too.

Instructors don’t realize that not all students have equal access to PPT

Students don’t all have Microsoft Office, or they might have an older version that isn’t entirely compatible with the one instructors use to create presentations. PPTs created on Windows-based PCs don’t always display well on Macs, and tools available for Mac users aren’t on par with those for Windows users. These issues don’t matter when you project slides from your computer in an in-person classroom, but they matter a LOT when you post your PPT file online and then make the fallible assumption that students will be able to open it on whatever computer they use and see exactly the same thing you see on your computer.

Even more importantly, students who have disabilities and use assistive technologies such as screen readers might not be able to get at the information in your PPT at all unless you’ve carefully made it accessible. If your school receives federal funding, you need to be aware of Section 508 requirements to make information accessible. By posting inaccessible PPTs online and making them a required part of your course, you might invite a lawsuit.

My point: use tools that make your information available to all of your students, regardless of their preferred computing platform and need for assistive technology.

Any Exceptions?

The comments here generally apply to asynchronous online courses, those in which students can work on the course at whatever time is convenient for them, and there’s no expectation that everyone enrolled in the course will be online at the same time.

If you teach a synchronous online course, especially one that uses some kind of web conferencing features, then—assuming you’re going to be online in the course at the same time as your students and will be communicating actively with them—of course you can use your well-designed, nonboring PPTs, as long as you address the accessibility issues and fill in the gaps by using either audio or textual chat.

If Not PPT, Then What?

Ah, that’s a subject for more blog posts to come.

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Under Pressure?

by John Doherty

Blood pressure cuff and bulb

Chippin’ around – kick my brains around the floor
These are the days it never rains but it pours
— Queen, David Bowie, “Under Pressure

Under budget pressure from our universities, we faculty have no choice but to do more with less. Unlike Queen and Bowie, however, we cannot scream “Let me out,” so we turn to technology for some pressure relief.

Wally Nolan and I, instructional designers at Northern Arizona University’s e-Learning Center, discuss ways to apply technology to your courses in our weekly podcast series, Tuesday Tips on Teaching With Technology (iTunes link). But we don’t just talk about it; we practice what we preach.

For example, I have been using technology in teaching my Honors courses to help make connections amongst my students. With Kevin Ketchner, another NAU Honors instructor, I have been using Blackboard Vista to move some face-to-face community-building tasks, such as icebreakers, online. Kevin and I discuss our approach in an article we have forthcoming in the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council:

[W]e adapted and moved an icebreaker from Conrad and Donaldson (2004) to Blackboard Vista. Following some brief peer-led introductions during our first live meeting, we assigned students a Name That Movie activity in a Vista-based discussion … .  For this discussion, we asked students to respond to the prompt in a discussion thread, in part to also introduce the tool to the students. Also, this assignment was not graded, yet still received such phenomenal interactions. It generated 307 messages in one class that initially had 18 students (one later dropped out) over the course of 5 days, between our Thursday meeting and our next meeting on the following Tuesday. Our only adaptation to this activity was to have the students come to class to discuss their final responses. Walking into this Tuesday class after this activity was a different experience from the week before—it was a very noisy room, students visiting with their neighbors, discussing their movie titles and music tastes. Students were referring to each other by name and moving about the room to share movies, songs, and other similar tastes with each other. Connections had been made and a community was forming. (pp. 66-67)

At the e-Learning Center we emphasize that the adoption of technology needs to be purposeful. Too often, technology gets promoted without prior consideration of the educational implications of its adoption. Successful adoption of educational technology depends on the instructor’s understanding of the potential educational benefits of the technology, consideration of the technology’s pedagogical appropriateness for a given course, skillful implementation of the technology, and clear communication to students about how they should use the technology.

For good information on new and emerging technologies and their potential applications in education, check out the Educause Learning Initiative series titled “7 Things You Should Know About ….”


Conrad, R-M. & Donaldson, J.A. (2004). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Doherty, J.J. & Ketchner, K. (2009). Making connections: Technology and interaction in an Honors classroom. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Society 10(2): 66-68.