Oct 02

Understanding LTI

I spend a lot of my time working with LMS (Learning Management System) integrations that rely on LTI.  While LTI is not necessarily a new concept – it became a standard in 2010 – it’s a relatively niche specification that isn’t as well known.

So what is it?

LTI stands for Learning Tools Interoperability.  Essentially, LTI connects two different systems or applications (learning tools) together so that a user from one system can jump seamlessly into the second without having to log in.  If you’re tech savvy, you may know that this is not a new concept.  Having a user pass from one system to another without having to sign in is known as Single-Sign On (SSO) and can be accomplished through various methods such as Shibboleth or OAuth.

The power of LTI is that it is specific to an education setting and – in later versions – can accomplish extra tasks, such as sending a grade value back to the first system.

How does it work?

LTI relies on three crucial components:

  • Key
  • Secret
  • Launch URL

The launch URL is the destination.  When the user clicks on an LTI link, the user is transported to the Launch URL.  The Key and the Secret are a username and password to unlock the door of the destination.  Your Key (username) tells the destination who you are, whereas the Secret is the password that unlocks the door.  While the above example may be overly simplistic, it explains the basic concept of LTI.

What’s It For?

Within an education setting, there is often a singular website/application that hosts course materials, classlists, and grades, among other things.  These are often referred to as a Learning Management System (LMS) or Course Management System (CMS).  LTI provides a means for creating a web link to an external resource (for example, an online textbook) that enables the student to pass from the LMS to that external resource without having to enter a username and password.  It allows students and instructors to link to various resources and not have to remember different accounts, creating a more seamless experience.

Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of what LTI stands for and how it works.  If you’d like to go further in depth, feel free to browse the IMS Global Learning Consortium’s website.

Jun 05

Discovery instead of Reaction

Yesterday I was sitting with my three year old son while eating dinner. He did something humorous so I held out my knuckles for a fist bump. Upon bumping our fists he stated, “That was crummy.” I immediately was insulted and my mind started to churn. Why was that crummy? What was so bad? But then I realized that this is a three year old who doesn’t really make those kinds of distinctions. At this point I lean in and ask him why our fist bump was so crummy. His dead-pan reply: “I had crumbs on my fingers.”

I laughed. He gave me a disapproving look. However, it really forced me to reflect. How often do I get immediately worked up about something someone says? How easy it is to get angry or upset at the smallest thing! This experience cemented in my mind the extreme importance of Listening. Too often we hear what a person is saying, and don’t take the time to understand the message. Instead we get frustrated by the person’s words and something harmless becomes a wedge that makes further communication difficult, if not impossible.

As a result, I’ve renewed my efforts to glean the true messages from my conversations, instead of reacting to a “crumby” situation.

Dec 11

LED Light Bulbs Have Arrived

image

Sylvania’s LED Bulb

I’ve been a proponent of LED light bulbs ever since I heard they were being developed. However, as with most new technologies, it has taken a few years to finally become functional and cost-effective. Finally, that day has arrived.

The LED light bulb uses light emitting diodes (LEDs) to create light instead of a filament found within standard incandescent light bulbs. The main benefit of the LED is that it uses significantly less energy. However, LEDs are directional light sources and manufacturers had to contend with light temperature (color) and heat dissipation.

As with CFL (compact fluorescent) light bulbs, the first LED bulbs were rather white in color contributing to a cold feel. Standard incandescents, by comparison, often emit a warmer, almost orange glow. Along with the color difference, early LED bulbs had low light output, placing them in the equivalent range of a 40 watt lightbulb. To top it off, the early LED bulbs would cost $30-50. With poor output, cold color, and a high price tag, the LED bulb was not an attractive option.

However, as I was browsing my nearby big box home improvement store, I was pleasantly surprised to see an LED bulb that finally overcame all three of these factors.image

The Sylvania LED bulb has a light output equivalent to that of a 60 watt bulb and the same light color (2700K). I was excited to finally see a 60 watt equivalent LED bulb, but what made it even better was the price tag. The bulb was selling for under $10! Immediately, I bought a couple and headed home. The bulb’s color and light output is true to an incandescent, although a bit directional (see picture below). Also, you get the full light output immediately, in contrast to a CFL bulb that requires some warm-up time.

 

Overall, the LED bulb has finally become a worthwhile choice in standard home lighting applications. Compared with CFL’s (the next best alternative for energy efficiency), LED bulbs achieve full brightness immediately and do not contain mercury. Combine these features with the energy efficiency and a price tag under $10, the LED light bulb is now an attractive lighting option.

Nov 24

The Moto X: Hands-on Review

Image of the Motorola Moto X

Credit: CNET.com

If you follow technology news, you’ll know there has been a fair amount of press regarding the Motorola Moto X. Overall the phone has received positive reviews while being the first phone released by Motorola after being acquired by Google. It was these reviews, along with the added bonus of being “made in the USA”, that swayed me into purchasing the phone. While the reviews are pretty accurate, I feel like I never saw a good accounting of the smaller details that make or break a phone on day-to-day use.

Getting Started

Out of the box, the phone is pretty impressive, but it’s just a touch too big in my opinion. The curved back is comfortable to hold, but the one item that takes getting used to is the location of the power button: it’s on the side, above the volume buttons.  Unfortunately, there is a bit of setup required to customize the device, remove any bloatware, and activate some of the features, so it does take a little bit of navigating and setup time.

Some Great Features

Speaker

Just like the power button, the phone’s speaker is in a slightly different place than a lot of standard phones.  The Moto X speaker can be found on the back of the phone next to the camera. I was a little worried about the speaker location, but calls and music sound quite nice and not muted at all (probably due to the curved back).  Testing the speakerphone, I was very impressed by the voice quality of the caller and the ability of the phone to pick up my voice without feeling like I’m shouting.

Active Display

One of the features that I’ve come to enjoy the most is the Active Display.  The Moto X will display new notifications on the phone’s screen automatically without the need to press a button.  While I thought this could be distracting, it’s a nice signal that I have a new text, email, etc without the need for a blinking light.  Pressing the message shows a short excerpt of the message, with the ability to open the message or dismiss it.  While that’s helpful, here’s where it starts getting exciting.

When I take the phone out of my pocket or otherwise bump, jostle, or jiggle the phone, the active display will light up showing the time and any notifications.  Since I use my phone as my watch, this simple feature improves my day tremendously.  I don’t need to push a button to see the time, or if I have any messages.  Instead, I simply take it out of my pocket and the information is already displayed.

Camera and OS Updates

After receiving a number of complaints about the camera’s picture quality, Motorola released an update that improves quality.  This was a great move by the company.  In addition, the phone was also updated from Android Jelly Bean to Kit Kat after bringing it home from the store.  These two updates helped improve the phone and bring its features to the latest and greatest; also showing that Motorola is standing behind its product.

Drawbacks

Not so Touchless

One of the selling points of the phone was the touchless ‘OK Google Now’, that responds to your voice without the need to turn on your phone. Overall, I’m a little disappointed.  First off, it often takes a couple of tries before the phone registers that I’m saying ‘OK Google Now’.  Secondly, and most importantly, if you have your device secured with a password or pattern, you will need to enter it in before your command is processed.  While this may not seem like a big deal, the requirement to enter the password or pattern, makes the touchless feature not so ‘touchless’.  For me this was a big downfall, as it kills the touchless aspect, requiring me to still unlock my phone before I can call, text, etc.

Corporate Calendaring

In addition to the touchless feature, I’m a little disappointed in the phone’s calendaring capability.  My calendar is my saving grace during the business day, telling me where to go and who I’m meeting with.  I was used to the ability of using a Microsoft Exchange calendar with the option to accept or decline with or without sending a response.  The Moto X is lacking this feature making it a little less convenient for those who are attached to a corporate calendar.

Summary

Overall, I think the Moto X is an excellent phone that is comfortable and capable.  My biggest issue stems from the inability for a ‘touchless’ experience with a password or pattern set.  However, the phone’s Active Display, great speaker quality, and other features such as remote wiping/locating or ability to silence my phone if I’m in a meeting (Motorola Assist), make this a powerful phone.  The Moto X takes a good step in the direction of a phone being intelligent enough to help me manage my day rather than a day spent managing my phone.

Oct 30

Curved Displays… Coming Soon?

Image of Samsung Galaxy Round smartphone

(Credit: Samsung)

When first hearing about the recently released smartphones with curved displays, I instantly thought it was rather absurd albeit kind of cool.  However, it turns out that there are some good benefits to a curved display.

In this article (http://gizmodo.com/why-samsungs-curved-smartphone-display-isnt-just-hype-1453993230), Dr. Raymond Soneira​ explains the multiple benefits behind curved displays.  The key is that the curved display acts much like a magnifying mirror, in turn reducing ambient reflections and offering slightly increased privacy.

All in all, it’s a good read for those interested in the science behind displays.  Which leaves me wondering: How long will I have to wait for my computer (or iPad) to have a curved display?

Oct 21

Web Technology Resources

I’ve always been a big proponent of life-long learning, and I often get asked what are some good resources to learn about x.  With the vast majority of individuals connected to the internet, it has become rather simple to advance one’s own learning and discover something new.  As a technologist, I have my go-to sites that I use on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis depending on the topic at hand.

One of my on-going interests is web development and programming, which I enjoy pursuing on a daily basis.  From the basics of HTML and CSS to more advanced topics of PHP, Perl, and Java, the web has a plethora of resources designed to instruct, supplement, and coach.  Some of my favorites include:

  • W3Schools – a great resource for understanding and trying the basics of most languages
  • CodeAcademy – a site that aims to teach coding through simple step-by-step tutorials and scenarios
  • StackOverflow – an excellent question/answer site.  Chances are someone has had the same issue and that someone else has posted a solution or two
  • Manuals/Specs – while these can be dense and/or intimidating for the novice, they are a great source for finding out the correct syntax or functions
    • MSDN – The Microsoft Developer Network has a lot of resources, but I primarily reference the SQL resources.
    • PHP.net – An authoritative source on the php language

If you’re just starting out, or brushing up on existing skills, be sure to check out these great resources.  As our lives depend more and more on web technologies and education focuses more heavily on STEM, these resources can help individuals develop valuable skills or theoretical knowledge.

Aug 06

The Value of Parenthood in the Workplace

Upon learning that I would soon become a parent, I received the same advice from a number of individuals: “You will never see the world the same way again.” Fast forward three years and I can definitely say that the advice is true.

However, while my view on life has definitely changed, there are some great benefits of parenthood that I wish everyone could experience:

Introspection: Having your own kids forces you to look back upon your own upbringing with a fresh perspective. The tables have been turned and you suddenly see why your parents made the decisions they did. For me, it made me respect my own parents a whole lot more. While this is enlightening, the real value of the fresh perspective is when you can apply it to your present circumstances. Being able to see multiple perspectives of an argument places you in a good position to find a solution that will please all parties involved.

Priorities: The new perspective also helps to reinforce what is truly important in life. While this will inevitably be different for every person, for me it focused on three areas: the importance of family, the value of relationships, and the ability to look long-term. Having these three priorities has large implications within the business world, helping to build loyalty with your employees, develop a strong network of colleagues, and engage/improve in strategic planning and vision.

Responsibility: There is nothing quite like being entirely responsible for another human life. The amount of dedication and sacrifice it takes to raise a child is enormous. If an individual can raise a child, it nearly ensures that the individual has the stamina to work through a tough situation and see it through to the end.

If you had asked me three years ago how having kids would effect my professional career, I would have been nervous that it would have a negative impact. However, as I reflect upon the last three years, I can confidently say that being a parent has helped me hone the skills that allow me to be successful in the workplace.

Jul 01

Lessons from a Disaster

Over the past week, I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to experience first-hand the devastation that flooding can leave behind. My hometown received a torrential downpour, dousing the town in nearly four inches of rain within two hours. Since the ground and streams were already saturated from earlier rains, the runoff had a disastrous effect, unable to be contained by the storm sewers.

My parents were badly hit by the flooding, losing nearly everything they had. I’ve now spent several days cleaning up mud-soaked belongings and digging through piles of things that constituted my life for the past few decades. Overall, it is an extremely sobering experience, but out of the muck I managed to find several important takeaways:

It’s just stuff. This is a hard lesson as you see the remnants of your past being tossed into a dumpster. It was not a fun experience, but at the end of the day, I looked around and still had everything I needed. As I arrived home, I was shocked by the amount of unnecessary stuff that had built up in my own home. I began to reflect on a question I always seem to come back to: “Would I be just as happy without this stuff?”

Relationships are key. Humans have a great way of bonding together during times of crisis, but it’s pretty easy to spot the valuable relationships. These are the people who go out of their way to help you out. They don’t wait for an invitation, but come and dig in or drop off some hot food, knowing you’ll need it before you ask.

Everything is relative. I know its cliche, but no matter how bad you have it, someone always has it worse. The night before their house was inundated, my parents were cleaning up two inches of water in my grandmother’s house. The next day, when my parents had three feet of water, two inches of water didn’t seem so bad.

While these three ideas are not new or original, it always seems to take a crisis to help reinforce. Hopefully, this will serve as a gentle reminder.

Dec 04

The Importance of Design

I attended a meeting today that was held in an executive board room, complete with nice chairs, a picturesque view, and a giant conference table.  In a room that looked as if everything was precisely planned, I was alarmed to see this door, which served as the main entrance/exit to the room.

Image of a door handle

Now, you may not be able to spot exactly what is wrong with this door, but what if I asked “Do you push or pull to exit this room?”  This came to bear on me by watching many people try to pull a door that was meant to be pushed.  Why?  Because there is a handle, implying the need to pull.  This is a great example of accessibility in design, found in a number of areas ranging from website design, building design (ADA), and universal design (educational pedagogy).  The design of an object should imply how it is to be used without the need for directions; think of this as simplicity to the extreme.  Designers (architects, teachers, IT professionals) need to understand that the shape or the look of an object reveals a great deal about its purpose.

 

How would you have designed the door handle to clarify the need to push?  Are there things in our lives or workplace that can be reshaped to clarify the intended purpose?

Mar 12

QR Codes

QR Codes are becoming more pervasive in everyday life.  I find them in magazines, on posters, event on billboards.  So what is a QR Code?

A QR Code (which stands for Quick Response) enables the encoding of information into a scannable barcode.  Very similar to how your grocery items are scanned at a cash register, a QR Code can store information so that anyone with a scanner (in this case, a smartphone or tablet) can access it.  Codes can store text, hyperlinks (urls), email addresses, even an electronic business card (vcard format).  There are many other options, but those are good ones to get you started.

The easiest way to play around with codes is to visit a website that generates QR codes.  If you do a Google search, you can easily find one or two sites that will do this for free.  Generally, these sites will let you select the format, edit the information, and generate the code.  This one, for example, takes you to this website.

So why use QR codes?

QR codes offer a great method for getting data across mediums easily and quickly.  Think about the following scenario: you mail a card to your customers (or family) with instructions to visit your website for more information.  Instead of remembering the url and entering it into the device, the individual grabs their device, captures the code and is transported to the exact website (without any chance for input error).

This is just one of many ways to utilize QR codes.  Some other ways that I’ve used include putting a code in a powerpoint presentation to allow audience members to view a document or website.  Adding a QR code to a business card to allow easy transfer of your information into the individual’s contacts (remember that vcard format from earlier?).  Whatever you decide to use these codes for, have fun and experiment!

Let me know if you’ve found a creative way to use a QR code!

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