Teaching online in higher education requires most instructors to use an LMS (Learning Management System; i.e. Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, etc.). According to ECAR, 99% of higher education institutions report LMSs use as ubiquitous on campus. Understanding how an expensive LMS displays content on mobile devices (used more and more by students to access content — as well as a huge opportunity increase interactions with and among our students) and ensuring the user experience of a course designed with an LMS is up to par with user experience created with  free, more social, and easier-to-use technologies that are surfacing like wildfire these days in the edtech startup arena are important topics for higher education administrators, instructional designers, and faculty to remain aware of.

I shared some of other thoughts LMSs in a recent post (to be fully transparent) and will reserve those for the moment, as my reality for today is the same as that of many other faculty — I can use external tools but I also have to use an LMS.  So, how the question becomes we bring these two worlds together in design that makes sense for our students?

And, most importantly, what can the LMS community and edtech startup community learn from our experiences as educators?  I hope this post will illuminate a few insights for both communities, as well as for faculty who share my own interests.

Life as a Hacker Teacher

Often we hear about new tools and their potential for learning.  That may mean they create more visually engaging content than the content within our LMS, which can be flat and simply boring. It can also mean a tool could inspire new options for engaging with students including opportunities for content creation, which can be clunky and even down right impossible with some LMSs.

But then there is the somewhat uncomfortable introductory moment…when you must figure out how to integrate that awesome new tool with your LMS in a way that creates a fluid experience for your students. If you can’t do that, it’s not worth it.  And, to me, this can be the most difficult part. I often tell people, teaching with Blackboard has taught me some pretty impressive hacking skills.

This week, I am experimenting with Tackk.com/education. I learned about Tackk after follwing the ISTE feed this year. There was much awesome chatter about it! Then yesterday, my good friend and colleague Anna Stirling shared a post on Facebook about it, which nudged me to take another look. It was enough to get me to spend the day exploring, thinking, and wanting to redesign much of my class.

What I Learned:

What I learned (view the 9-minute video above for a visual tour!):
  1. Tackk’s user interface is simple and intuitive.
  2. Tackk offers cool features including a simple URL paste option for plugging in online videos and a nice RSVP feature that allowed me to ask my students if they’re planning to attend my online orientation. The content items on a Tackk can be moved up or down with a simple arrow (similar to Blackboard’s drag/drop feature).
  3. The overall design of a Tack is more coherent and visually appealing than content designed using Blackboard. I’ve tried for years to create content with Blackboard that is visually appealing and I have simply given up. I’m not a web designer and neither are more than 99% of college instructors. Creating content should be simple and intuitive, and it should look beautiful. Period.
  4. I also learned that the YouTube videos I have manually embedded into my Blackboard course do not render on either my iPad or iPhone. This was disappointing, to say the least, considering that the majority of my students own these devices (a fact I know because I’ve surveyed them for years). Each of my learning units includes a welcome video that I have taken the extra time to record and YouTube videos that demonstrate complex photographic processes. Does this gap prevent students from viewing the content? Or at the very least create a missed opportunity for reaching my students (that I wasn’t even aware of)?
  5. The very same videos render beautifully in a Tackk embedded into Blackboard.
  6. While a Tackk can be embedded into Blackboard, there are only three embed code options provided by Tackk and the largest one is tiny. It does not render a visually appealing experience in Blackboard. I edited the HTML code (to 800 wide x 1200 tall) and it then it rendered well in both Firefox and on an iPad. Tack needs more embed options that play well with LMSs.
  7. The embed code created a scroll bar, which resulted a double scroll situation in Blackboard. This is a problem that also needs to be resolved.
  8. There is no option to add alt-tags to images in a Tackk. Alt-tags are critical additions when creating web-based content because they are read by screen readers (accessible devices used by blind students when navigated the web) and are a necessary element for creating accessible web content.  This needs to be resolved on Tackk’s end (and I would add, nearly all ed tech startup tools I experiment with).

Moving forward

This semester, I’m considering using Tackk for some of my content in my online class. I’d like to hear from Tackk about some of the suggestions I offered above to see if they could be implemented.  Next semester, I’m considering having my students create visual learning journeys with Tackk. I think it’s a promising learning tool!

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