Monday, December 31, 2007

New Years Resolutions for Online Students and Faculty

Here are a few thoughts for good things to do for the new year when you spend a lot of time online:
  1. Backup!!!!!!
    You put a lot of effort into those papers, presentations, and projects. Make sure you have at least one backup copy of your hard work. I try to have both local and online copies: such as a CD copy and a copy emailed to my Gmail account.
  2. Clean up the computer.
    Now that you've got those important files backed up, you can clean up after yourself. Organize your files (I have folders for classes and projects), get rid of old drafts and unused images, etc.
    Do you have a lot of articles you've downloaded and want to keep for future reference, but are currently cluttering up your drives? You can upload PDF files of articles to Refworks, creating your own article library accessible from any web computer. If you have non-PDF copies of articles, you can Print/Export to PDF in many applications these days (especially on Macs), or use an online converter like Zamzar to create a PDF (there are lots of PDF creators available, this is just the one I'm using most often). If you have hard copy you want to convert, but don't have good scanner software, you can convert individual page TIF files (a common scanner format) to multi-page PDF's using DocMorph from the National Library of Medicine. Docmorph can handle other graphics files, too, so whatever your scanner produces can probably be converted.
  3. Update your software.
    Did you say No/Cancel several times this semester because the update message came by just as you needed to upload files or finish a paper? Check your operating system, Adobe Reader, web browsers, office suites, etc. But especially check your anti-virus, Internet firewall, and anti spy/adware programs.
  4. Think about what you do and what you are using. Are you using a particular service or software because you always have or because it does what you want, just the way you like it? What do you want your software to do? Do you want something simpler or something with more features? Are there essential features that you must have? (For instance, I need a calendar that syncs to my Palm and to our online calendar system, so I have to use Outlook.) And, are you willing to pay for it? Once you've thought about all this, then...
  5. Consider alternatives/Try something new.
    Do you always use Google to search? Do you automatically choose a particular web browser? Different products and services have different features, and, as we're seeing today with Netscape, even old standbys don't always last. It's good to try something different every so often, but remember to stay open minded. The purpose of this exercise is to find something different, something that might be better (at least for some purposes), not to find a clone of what you already use. Be willing to experience a little awkwardness as you learn. (Obviously, don't try this when you are stressed by deadlines!) And remember, you can always go back to your old system. Or maybe you'll find that you'll end up using more than one: I use Google for most general searching, but I have better luck with businesses in Yahoo! Local. And for some things, I like Microsoft's Academic Live Search better than Google Scholar.
Have a Happy New Year, everyone!

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Thoughts on the fragility of digital systems

I, like some 17,000 other Elgg/Eduspaces users, got an email this weekend announcing the closing of the Eduspaces service. I'm sure that a fairly large number of them thought, also like me, "What's Eduspaces?"

Eduspaces, as it turns out, is/was the free host for the Elgg open source "social platform". I do remember signing up for an Elgg account a couple of years ago (a class, a workshop?), but I didn't remember the Eduspaces name. There are blogs, file storage, discussion areas, etc., in the Elgg system, and it will still be available for those who want to install it on their own servers. Just the hosted implementation at is going away.

Luckily for me, I had signed up and never used the account. I have no content to worry about in Eduspaces, but that certainly isn't true elsewhere. I have blogs, pictures, documents, video, audio, and combinations of things up all over the Internet. I have enough accounts with services that I've tested out that I've had to implement a system for keeping track of them. (I'm using the "private" setting on to keep links and usernames/emails for services as I sign up for them. Of course, it doesn't do me any good for those things I've already forgotten about!)

Migrating content is something that everyone who uses any sort of digital system should be aware of. When you sign up for a content tool on the web, whether it be a photo storage site or a blog or a discussion group, you should ask if you can export your content in a reasonable manner (and printing pages and pages of content should not be considered a reasonable manner). When I started a project on Zoho Notebook recently, I was happy to discover that the content can be exported as a web page.

It's not just a Web 2.0 problem, though the fragility of the business models for many of these projects makes it more obvious. SCSU is about to lose access to the previous version of our WebCT system, so those with old courses need to migrate their content NOW! (Faculty: contact Stan Walonoski right away if there is old course material that you want back; students: contact your instructor.)

On a different note, I was recently having a discussion with someone who wrote a thesis quite a while ago (in computer eras, anyway). He doesn't have a print copy, and is having trouble reading the floppy disks. First problem--when was the last time you saw a computer with a 5 1/4 inch drive? Second problem--what version of Word Perfect is this? Third problem--are the files still good? (He's found someone for problem one, has some leads for problem two, and is now waiting for the results on problem 3.) I've got dozens of disks (3 1/2 inch, mostly) with files that I wanted to save back when, but most of them aren't readable now, either because I don't have the software or because the files have gotten corrupted over the years. Online storage would help the hardware problem (even 3 1/2 drives are getting scarce), but not the file format problem.

As we document our educations, our careers, and our lives increasingly online, we need to think about the fragility of digital systems. Do you backup? Do you save important "artifacts" in multiple formats? (A .txt file is a .txt file and probably will be for a very long time, thank goodness.) Do you check if your online accounts have mass export features? Do you keep track of what's where, or, like me, do you have bits and pieces scattered around from whatever was new and interesting at the time?

And please deposit a print copy of your thesis with your library.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Snow and online classes

A bit of "watercooler" conversation:

"One of the advantages of online classes is you don't have to worry about whether snow will cancel class."
"Are you sure that's an advantage?"

SCSU is closing at noon today, by the way, thanks to what promises to be a messy storm. Be safe everyone, wherever you are.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Open Yale Courses

Our neighbor in New Haven, Yale University, has joined the amazing community of prestigious universities offering free access to course materials online. Yale's offerings, called Open Yale Courses, are in the form of video, audio, and accompanying materials like problem sets (with answers), exams, and lists of assigned readings: essentially the entire course except for interaction with the faculty member. Seven courses are currently available: Fundamentals of Physics, Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics, Modern Poetry, Death (Philosophy 176), Introduction to Political Philosophy, Introduction to Psychology, and Introduction to the Old Testament. At least 30 courses are planned for the next few years.

The video is high quality, filmed by university videographers, and tailored to the needs of the course. An article in Inside Higher Ed highlights the importance of displaying the board during a physics course, to show the discussed equations and examples. Transcripts and audio are available, and the video is available in several formats, including high bandwidth downloads.

All the materials are licensed via Creative Commons, so the materials can be reused noncommercially as long as credit is given. Yale has already entered into agreements with the governments of China and India to show the videos on state televisions, and individual faculty at universities in China, India, Mexico, Argentina, and Ethiopa have announced their intentions of including Yale materials in their courses (via the Yale Daily News).

Are you teaching or taking a similar course? These courses, as well as the other Open Courseware courses at other universities, represent a rich source of ideas and supplementary materials for instructors and students. These are wonderful for instructors teaching a new course or updating an old one. Or think of them as guest lecturers who are always available (just not for questions afterward). For students they represent the ability to get another perspective on a topic, and the access to world renowned scholars, without paying world renowned tuition.

And, of course, none of us (at least no one reading this) have an excuse anymore for not being lifelong learners.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Online forms for materials in storage

Our bound journals and the Oversized and Juvenile collections have been in storage across campus since we got them back after the flood last Thanksgiving. We had to develop a process to fetch books and copy journal articles for what we thought would just be a short time until we moved into the new building. Well, with another semester's delay on the move, we decided that we really needed a better way for people to request materials than just having the paper forms at the library desks.

On the Library home page, under Quick Links on the right, are links to the Journal Retrieval Form and the Oversized and Juvenile Book Retrieval Form.

The Journal Form is only for articles in the bound journals and microfilm. First check the Journal Locator (or use the "Find Article @ SCSU" buttons within the databases). If the article is only available in the "SCSU Print and Microform Collection" (example), click on the "SCSU Print and Microform link" (or the "Journal" link if your came in though the Find Article button) to bring up the CONSULS catalog record (example). Double check to make sure we have the correct year listed under the "Location Bound Journals" or "Microfilm" listings. Note the last volume and date (volume 34, 2006 in the example). Everything from this issue/date back should be bound and will need to be requested. Double check recent issues by clicking on the "Latest Received" link (example). Anything listed as "Arrived" will be on the current issues shelves on the first floor of the library. Don't request these using the Journal Retrieval form. (Students who cannot come to campus, i.e. online only students, can request articles from these journal issues via Interlibrary Loan.)

Most people reading this will want to use the Email option. Be sure to use an email that you check regularly and that has enough room to receive large attached files. Articles will come as PDF files. If you haven't received your article within a couple of days, first check your spam folders, then contact the library--your request may have gone astray in cyberspace.

If your article "should" be available online according to the Journal Locator, and you can't get to it, email me before requesting the article. Your request may be rejected if we don't confirm the error first.

The Book form is for those items listed in the CONSULS catalog as Oversized and Juvenile, marked with an OSC note. If the status of the item is "In Repair", don't request it. These items were damaged in the flood and are not available. Commuting students who are only on campus once or a twice a week should find this most useful, since you can now request a book a day or so before you come to campus and it should be waiting for you at the Circulation Desk when you get to the library. While staff retrieve books several times a day, if possible you should request books at least 24 hours in advance. Books will be held at the Circulation Desk for 10 days and can be checked out and renewed for the normal loan periods (28 days for students, 1 semester for faculty and staff--1 renewal of the same period).

These services will go away when we move into the new building and have space for the collections, again. That is currently scheduled for the end of the Spring '08 semester.

If you have questions, please contact me.

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