NMC 2006: Teaching a New Elephant New Tricks

Richmond looked at Pachyderm just before I joined ATS in 2003. We decided to pursue other technologies instead of Pachyderm. As a result I never really understood what the application is like. While NMC has presented several sessions on Pachyderm, I had other sessions that I needed to attend. This morning's session on using Pachyderm as a presentation tool in the classroom offers an alternate use of the program, but I'm hoping to learn more about Pachyderm overall.

Catherine Gynn and Susan Fisher of Ohio State University presented. Only one person in the room other than the presenters was familiar with Pachyderm. Catherine (from the The Advanced Computing Center for the Arts & Design presented the history of the program. The Digital Union at Ohio State was the perfect organization to explore the program while it was still in beta.

Pachyderm was not set up to be a presentation tool – it's an interactive authoring environment, that allows for an exploration of ideas from different perspectives. Ohio State wanted to contribute something to the project but didn't have programming staff.

They discussed the features they wanted in a presentation tool. PowerPoint is evil. But it was important to think about they ways they are teaching to see how the tools can help. Pachyderm is a different tool, but would the tool improve presentations.

PowerPoint is not dynamic. They were looking at Pachyderm as a sophisticated multi-modal tool. There's no metadata in PowerPoint, but Pachyderm is made for this. You can make a conforming object so others can find it. Objects in Pachyderm can be updated by people who aren't programmers.

Can they improve access, quality or cut the cost? These are the three criteria that drove the project.

Once you've logged in, you can create an object. There are several kinds of templates that are available to be used, including Aspects, Commentary, Enlargement, Exploration, Layers, Media Focus, etc. Catherine suggests users read the manual to understand the different templates and their uses.

The server code is not yet available, but it is going to be made available as open source. There are no more beta accounts available, so everyone needs to wait for the general release.

Catherine walked us through putting an image into a page, with text. Text can be adjusted via HTML tags. She published the object (“with zip file”).

Susan Fisher took over the presentation at this point, talking about Pachyderm from the faculty's point of view. She used Pachyderm as a presentation tool for the entry level non-majors Biology course. One challenge is that no one wants to attend the class – they are from every other discipline on campus. And her class had 700 students, which was a whole other challenge. Students don't seem to retain much, but they need to remember this stuff beyond college to handle questions about things like stem cell research, evolution and global warming.

She decided to capitalize on pre-existing skill sets that her students were bringing to the course. In addition, there is a significant percentage of students in a 700 student class with learning pathologies that you need to address. There are also students who just don't absorb material in a lecture format. Only 30% of students absorb material in a lecture.

She relied on the arts since everyone spent time in kindergarten had art experience. She also worked with animation, working with students in a multi-modal way to get the material across. Susan is not particularly technically proficient, and doesn't like to give 700 students a minute to lose focus while she “fiddles around with the computer console”.

She wanted a seamless delivery method for her class. Pachyderm has the potential to do this. She then showed us a presentation she's done at several universities, on teaching science to the MTV generation.

The presentation “slides” Susan used in Pachyderm had a navigation bar at the bottom, with 7 slides listed at a time and an arrow presumably pointing to additional slides to be accessed. An image displayed on the left side of the screen, with a vertical line in the middle of the page separating the image from the slide text. There was enough room for a slide “title” at the top, which was bold, and up to four points for the slide. Text (punctuation) was used in lieu of bullets.

When Susan got to her Dancing DNA page, the image was replaced by a video on the left. The video was actually an image, and clicking on the “play” button launched a new window containing a QuickTime movie (Dancing DNA). The video contained both a computer-generated animation and a dance piece demonstrating mitosis. They used original music, which was good (kudos to Beverly Botsford). Susan talked through the video explaining what we were seeing as we watched. This was effective.

Susan also showed videos on the Krebs cycle (using a marching band) and photosynthesis (using football players to illustrate the Z-scheme). Susan did seem to have trouble with navigation bar, which made noises as she navigated. There weren't easy queues for her to know which slide had the video on it (other than the buttons beneath the video, which were small).

In the end, what impressed me in the session were the videos. Pachyderm as a presentation tool wasn't as impressive. The navigation bar seemed difficult when moving beyond what was displayed and the slides don't seem to contain more information than a PowerPoint presentation. Images in particular seemed to have too much white space around them – I would have liked to have seen larger images or more text. Like PowerPoint, the presentation can be uploaded into a course management system. There is an ability for people to jump to different points in the presentation in a non-linear way (tools like Breeze Presenter or Captivate offer these features). Loading time for videos is another draw-back, and you can't change the ping sound that happens when you mouse over a navigation button.

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