Reflections on FETC 2016

This was my fourth trip to Orlando to attend FETC, and there were some notable differences from previous years. Our group was significantly larger than in previous years, and included faculty, staff, masters students, a PhD student, and representatives from companies that work closely with us. We wrapped up FETC with a brief podcast. I will expand on my comments in that recording, and talk about a some other things I noticed at FETC 2016.

When talking about the conference itself, the layout and size were noticeably different. The exhibit hall stretched from north to south, with the keynote area at the "back" of the convention center. The exhibit area was definitely smaller than it had been in previous years, but still large enough to keep attendees busy exploring booths.

As noted by my colleagues in the podcast, there wasn't much that was particularly revolutionary or innovative to be found at FETC. This seems to be a reflection of the market in general. We all seem to be waiting for the next "big thing".

While not exactly new, this seemed to be the year of the robot and maker spaces. I was particularly intrigued by Ozobot. I believe this is a great way to introduce young children to basic coding skills. The Ozobot will follow a path drawn out by magic markers, and simple instructions can be given to the Ozobot by simply alternating the colours drawn along the path. While a great implementation, I believe there are two challenges. First, what is the next step after the Ozobot? Once a child has mastered the instructions and "played", the Ozobot itself cannot go beyond its very basic programming. Second, the price tag of $50 USD is quite steep for such a simple robot that likely won't see much classroom time. A class set of 18 is $1000, which is not really a deal at all. Some extras are thrown in, but you give up the value of 2 Ozobots to get the extras. If the Ozobot was $20 USD, with a 25-unit bundle (with extras) at $500, I would be more excited.

Sessions and conversations around maker spaces almost always include, or even focus on, the topic of 3D printing. There were a few booths showcasing 3D printers, but it is interesting that none were from the "big players" (Epson, Canon, HP, etc). It does lead to concern about acquiring a device from a company that might not be around next year.

One "throw back" at FETC was typing instruction. There were several booths focusing on teaching typing skills. I have been told that this is a response to poor results in online tests where students that know the content are still doing poorly because they cannot type quickly enough to finish on time. I imagine these skills are also valuable for collaborative work on Google Docs or Office 365.

I have still been considering the question about what I hope or expect to see in the future for educational technology. Other recent events, including CES, showcased quite a bit in the VR/AR (virtual reality/augmented reality) space. I only saw a little of this at FETC. I know the system requirements for Oculus Rift are fairly demanding, and it is also very expensive. If that was the only option, I would understand why it didn't make an appearance at FETC, but Google Cardboard seems a reasonable choice for VR in the classroom. Hopefully we see more immersive and interactive uses of Cardboard soon.

Remote Student Participation

On Wednesday we learned that one of our students would need to participate in classes remotely. Starting Monday.

Of course the first suggestion volunteered to me was, "Can't we just Skype the student in?" Our classes are not standard university undergraduate lectures. Our instructors are typically modelling the K-12 classroom. They move around quite a bit, and the students participate in small group activities. Skype running on a stationary device was not going to work.

I had a pretty good idea that what I really wanted was a VGo, but there was no way we were getting the funds for that. Even if, by some miracle, we managed to convince "the powers" to buy a VGo, it was virtually impossible that the convincing, purchasing, delivery, and setup would happen before Monday morning.

A couple of years ago I discovered Swivl at an Ed Tech conference (I honestly can't remember which one). I encouraged our Instructional Resource Centre to purchase a couple of them for use by our students for their micro-teaching videos. The students record themselves delivering a lesson activity, and then review it to evaluate and adjust their teaching methods. The students would often setup cameras on tripods, or ask another student to do the recording. Neither method was ideal. A tripod did not allow the student to move around, and audio was troublesome in both scenarios.

With Swivl, the "teacher" wears a wireless tracker (with integrated microphone), and the Swivl base turns and pivots to follow the tracker. The recording device (typically a smartphone or tablet) sits on the base. A single, short audio cable connects the base to the device to record the audio from the mic integrated into the tracker. It really is impressive in its simplicity, and works quite well.

The problem is that Swivl's primary use and design is around recording lesson activities, not video conferencing. The Swivl base connects to the recording device using a male-to-male, 4-segment 3.5mm cable. This is a fairly standard plug found in pretty much every smartphone and tablet. It carries both the mic-in and audio out. Unfortunately, this cable runs directly from the Swivl base to the device, with no splitter or plug in the base for the audio out.

Our initial tests using Lifesize Video (the standard video conferencing solution used by our university) and an iPad confirmed that audio was being recorded from the mic in the tracker, but no audio would play back unless the base from the cable was unplugged from the iPad.

We decided to try a 3.5mm 4-segment to 2 x 3.5mm 3-segment splitter.

Adapter to break out the mic in and audio out connections
We actually had to use two of these adapters. One was used to convert the 4-segment mic out from the Swivl base to a standard 3-segment mic line. The second was connected to the iPad allowing us to plug in the mic from the Swivl base, and a set of external speakers.

Swivl video conference cart
Our Swivl telepresence setup

With everything plugged in, we started a Lifesize Video session and everything worked! The final bit was putting everything on a cart that could be easily moved between classes, taping together some of the cabling (to try to prevent instructors/students from unplugging cables from splitters), zip-tying some of the cables to tidy it up, and labeling plugs that couldn't easily be taped in place ("to iPad").

It would be nice to have the cart completely wireless, but we settled on a single power cord. The Swivl has a 4-hour battery life (estimate), and the student has back-to-back classes that total 5 hours. We also didn't have battery-powered speakers.

It would also be better if the remote student could control the direction of the Swivl rather than relying on the tracker, especially during the small group sessions. This is a feature of Swivl Cloud Live. Swivl Cloud Live is in beta, and I did submit the form to sign up. I see more experimenting in the next couple of weeks.

Friday morning we conducted a test session with the student and all went well. The first class is Monday morning. Fingers crossed.