Sunday, November 24, 2019

Headsets - not pretty but best for audio quality

Many web meetings and webinars are spoiled by poor sound quality. The volume level fluctuates, background noise interferes and the sound quality varies. Often this is due to the unstable nature of wireless connections, but generally the problem is caused by headsets or the lack of them. A post by Ken Molay on his Webinar Blog, The Perfect Webcam Headset Doesn't Exist, outlines the main problems. The in-built microphones can offer good sound quality (I've heard some good examples of this) but more often than not they offer a metallic sound and require the speaker to speak directly into the laptop without moving around. Another drawback of the in-built microphone is that if you try to type it sounds like an elephant practicing tap-dancing. I often use a desktop microphone (Jabra Speak) and this offers very good quality but not if you move around a lot or start typing of doing anything on the actual desktop. The in-built microphones in webcams are usually the worst possible choice, though in my experience the computer often chooses this as the default microphone so it's a good idea to always check before starting a web meeting.

 Bluetooth earpieces with microphone would seem an ideal option but there are drawbacks even here.

Wireless devices lose power, lose pairing, and catch interference from other signals. Bluetooth is susceptible to transmission lag that can mess up audio/video synchronization or make smooth two-way conversation difficult.

So the best option seems to be the good old wired headset, preferably with a USB connection.

A headset is the optimal way to get near-field clarity and consistent volume, since it stays in place at the same distance from the mouth no matter what the presenter does.

The trouble is that headsets aren't particularly flattering fashion accessories and are not particularly comfortable either. I use a big clunky Logitech headset that works well but it would be nice to have something less conspicuous. Most people would rather not use one at all and this is evident in many meetings and webinars I am involved in. Ken Molay concludes that there is still no headset that ticks all the boxes: light, comfortable and almost invisible. The best bet is the ultra thin boom microphones often used by conference speakers but no manufacturer has produced one with an earpiece speaker. Ken offers a nice specification for manufacturers to deliver. I hope it comes along soon for the sake of better web communication.

My ideal, "optimal" headset for use while on a video webcast would be a thin whip boom earhook microphone, connected to the USB port of my computer, with an integrated low-profile earpiece. The whole thing should be available in two or three colors to get closer to a range of human skin tones. It needs a minimum six-foot (two-meter) cable. And it should be optimized for USB low-power operating voltage and human speech frequency range.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Developing digital professionalism - let's be careful out there!

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash
I like the term digital professionalism used by Bernadette John in an article on JISC, "We’re sleepwalking into a surveillance society with the tech in our pockets". She raises concerns that we are often unwittingly sharing sensitive information due to the fact that the apps on our mobiles and tablets are uploading our photos and conversations to cloud servers without our knowledge. Even images shared over encrypted apps like Whatsapp are then shared automatically to Apple's iCloud making them potentially available for public view. Basically we all need to spend time understanding and trying to tame the powerful forces working around the clock on our mobile devices.

People are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. They're not aware of what their obligations are with regards to the tech in their pockets, they're just using it for work without mindfully considering what the risks and benefits are and making a balanced and informed decision about it.

She gives examples of doctors sharing patient information with colleagues on encrypted services, unaware that other apps are copying the images and saving them to publicly accessible cloud services. For example, all photos I take on my mobile are automatically uploaded to iCloud and Google Photos and so even a private photo that I do not share on any social media are visible elsewhere. If you are aware of that you can be careful what you photograph, but if you don't realise this you risk sensitive photos becoming public. Our mobile apps often have the ability to store and send tracking data, conversations, e-mails and other actions - we have of course accepted this by clicking OK in the terms and conditions. We simply haven't fully grasped the sometimes treacherous power of the devices we hold so precious.

This isn't a generation issue. We all need to become more responsible users even if it means moving from cool but "leaky" platforms and apps to less cool but more secure alternatives. 

We need to actively train students in what we expect of them with regard to how they carry themselves on social channels, and to make it explicit. We need to show them scenarios where things haven't worked out well for others, and ask them to explore those scenarios. But we can't do that without also doing it for the staff.

The article ends with a list of digital professionalism dos and don'ts with an overall message of "get smart". Remember that all those devices, platforms and tools are designed to be as sticky and addictive as possible. Check your profiles, security settings, permissions and shut down potential leaks. Think before you share and even when you do, be aware that whatever you share digitally can easily be shared by others. That doesn't mean we have to lock down everything and go completely offline. Sharing is still extremely rewarding and collaboration is essential for learning. But in the words of the sergeant in the wonderful eighties cop series Hill Street Blues - "Let's be careful out there."

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Attention seekers - taking innovation from project to mainstream

There is no shortage of innovative and exciting projects in education full of enthusiasts investigating new ways to enhance learning or widen the horizons of current educational practice. However the challenge of moving from project to mainstream often proves too great and few innovations get a chance to make a real impact on the institution's core activities.This is a source of frustration for all of us who have been working with educational technology but it's worthwhile stepping back a bit and looking at all the other important issues that are competing for the attention of policy makers and management: internationalisation, accessibility, diversity, sustainability, pedagogical development, quality assurance etc. Educational institutions must deliver what is asked of them by their government authorities or owners and if these requirements do not include specific objectives for the issues mentioned above, then those issues will naturally be of secondary importance to the management. If your cause is not on that priority list then your chances of getting noticed are low.

In recent years in Sweden there has been little coherent strategy from the top on the use of educational technology and as a result development has largely been fragmented and responsibility delegated to each institution. Things are changing now with the issue once again on the agenda of the government authorities but for many years it was hard to see real progress. There have been many projects and initiatives but almost always bottom-up and dependent on short-term financing. If bottom-up is not met half way by top-down strategies, commitment and incentives then all that energy just evaporates into thin air.

The struggle to catch the eye of the decision makers was nicely captured in a lecture I attended the other week by Melissa de Wilde from Gent University in Belgium. She is a researcher in educational innovation and described her efforts to promote virtual exchange at her university. Her story was familiar to everyone who has tried to introduce new concepts and perspectives. The challenge of simply getting people's attention is probably the greatest and demands resilience and stubborn persistence to make any kind of headway. Decision makers are the hardest to influence unless your issue can help them tick at least one of the boxes on their to-do list. Teachers can often be interested in your cause, but simply don't have the time or energy to get involved, especially since your cause is just one of many admirable but non-essential ones vying for the attention. Key success factors according to Melissa are simply getting your foot in the door and not withdrawing, getting help from a high status staff member or an external expert (deus ex machina), providing support to those who do engage, making sure to document, measure and analyse the process, creating  opportunities to share experiences and success stories and simply making yourself and your colleagues hard to ignore (creating a buzz).

However, no matter how hard you try, nothing helps your cause more than it becoming national policy and part of the institution's mission, so you need to address the policy makers as well as the grassroots. If we can join forces with other causes vying for attention and show that you can tick several boxes in one go then the chances of mainstream adoption must be high. Digitalisation can for example help to build sustainability (reduced air travel, paper use), promote internationalisation (virtual exchange, online collaboration), widen access to education (online courses), enhance inclusion (digital tools for text-speech-text, translation, sub-titles) and pedagogical development (open pedagogy, online courses, collaborative learning, best practice dissemination). If we have to compete for attention we will not get very far. Joining forces must be the answer.