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Experimenting with Storytelling in Adobe Spark

Media Commons has recently started experimenting with Adobe Spark as a potential supported tool in our arsenal of storytelling technologies and techniques. I knew that if I were to dive into Spark, I’d need to have a real project to complete – but I’ve been struggling with what I would like to build on the platform that would actually be compelling.

As usually is the case, a conversation with an instructor finally prompted me to get moving in one particular direction. I decided to take my last big international trip and turn it into a Spark story in the form of a travelogue.

1500 Miles in México

Using Spark for several hours showed me, first off, that it would be entirely plausible to expect that a student would be able to complete something similar – either with their own media or images/video that they find online (even through the platform itself, in the case of the former) – in a reasonable amount of time. I was expecting, as a web designer, to find that Spark felt overly limited and would leaving me wanting more customization. Happily, I can report that this is not the case: The constraints Spark places around each of the templates and modules you can add there-in are more freeing, if anything. Instead of getting bogged down in the specifics of typography or image sizing and placement, I was able to let the tool (and its designers) take charge knowing that the finished result would look just fine. With that out of the way, I was able to focus much more on the story that I was trying to tell.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but Spark felt a bit like iMovie-izing WordPress. I’m excited to see what happens when I pilot this with 70+ Education majors at Harrisburg in just a few weeks and will report back on what the results end up being.

Sigur Rós takes the Tate

In a collaboration that I could only imagine in a fever dream, Sigur Rós has composed four new tracks that for a piece celebrating the Tate Modern entitled “States of Matter”. The audio is also accompanied by distinct videos and all can be remixed through the interactive experience. It’s a great way to explore this recent renovation and history of the Tate. And probably as close as I’m going to get to revisiting my favorite museum until airfare gets back to being reasonable…

2015 is …

2015 is ...

I haven’t put a year-end album list together since 2012 and I’m not entirely sure why. But that had to change for this quickly-closing year as it was truly a stupendous one for my ears. A lot of the releases I’ve included were either directly connected to the Iceland Airwaves music festival or uncovered as a direct result of researching bands that I got to see there (whether new to me or longtime favorites). These include LoneLady, Úlfur Úlfur and Braids. Björk, of course, had to be on here, even if her album hadn’t also been fucking amazing. The rest really just represent the tracks that provided the soundtrack to my life these last twelve months – from travels to projects to strolls and drives alone around the city. Enjoy the playlist below, featuring three tracks from each artist and click through the album art to dig a little deeper into each 2015 release.

Inadequate reflections on Iceland

It’s been a week and a half since returning from a ten day trip to Iceland – a trip that I’ve been dreaming of since first hearing Björk and realizing that she was (arguably) a real person from a real place on this planet (probably). Normally, when I get back from travel, it’s pretty easy to sit down and come up with some sort of a concise reflection on the journey that just was.

Iceland defies this kind of treatment.

Ostensibly, we (Dusty, Amy and myself) were in the country to take advantage of the wonderful sounds of the Airwaves 2015 festival. We definitely did do this, clocking up between 26 and 28 shows each during the five days of concurrent sets all around Reykjavík. We also managed to get sleep, see the aurora (twice!) and feed ourselves (fish and chips, chocolate bars and hot dogs count, right?) so I consider this a major accomplishment. But this was only one part of the trip.


The rest was seeing some of the country. And, in this regard, we accomplished much and very, very little. With our remaining days on the ground, we covered something like 1000 miles and checked out both guide book recommended and completely unmentioned scenery. It was staggeringly, jaw dropping-ly, bewilderingly and beguilingly beautiful.

And only a small portion of what we completely missed on this trip.

I want to go back again in winter. I want to visit in spring, summer and fall. I want to go east, north, west and again to the south. In short, ten days was both overwhelmingly long and wildly too short a time in Iceland.

And you should visit, too.

More photos, as always, on Flickr. There’s also a boatload of concert footage on Facebook.

Back in London: DeL 2015

London, 2015

First off, a note to my future self. If you aren’t me from a point beyond this one in time, please feel free to skip ahead to the actual trip recap. Now that it’s just us, Nick-to-be, please remember that traveling to the other side of the Atlantic for both a conference and to catch up with multiple friends is great. But following it up with a 19+ hour travel day and then four trips to campuses is not really advisable. Not if you want to be coherent during the next week. And you like being coherent.


While it was a short affair at just two days, Designs on eLearning offered an extremely rich experience for attendees at the 2015 conference in London. Having attended for the first time last year in San Marcos, Texas (to present on the Palmer Guide project), I was curious to see how DeL would adapt to the decidedly different environment.

I was not disappointed.

Sessions were remarkably well-curated and presentations built nicely off of each other. The inclusion of day-ending student keynotes was stupendous, especially since the students themselves were incredibly adroit and engaging. Conversation, across the board, was thoughtfully skeptical, prompting attendees to ask tough questions about technology access, implementation and necessity both in session and in hallways. And, speaking of hallways, the venue, Central Saint Martins was inspiring in and of itself, all of the above not-withstanding.

Some particular highlights for me included:

  • Kathryn James of Edinburgh Napier University shared her doctoral research which focuses on the adoption of technology in teaching practice. By focusing on understanding the “lifeworld” of each academic involved in her case study, Kathryn was able to get deeper into the day-to-day of faculty in the humanities. What she learned confirmed for me one of my own observations: instructors refer to themselves as “luddites” as a defense mechanism and avoid technology not just because it makes them feel vulnerable, but also because many technologies made mandatory aim to provide an administrative benefit to the institution, not to their teaching. Kathryn has synthesized these findings into a recommendation that ed-tech professionals shift focus towards “discipline enhanced technology” – basically, tools that are chosen and supported for the purpose of furthering an academics’ teaching of their field of expertise. At the same time, recognition of negative feelings caused by experience taking a back seat to familiarity with arbitrary tools needs to be always present when taking part in any conversation around adding tech to a course. This was possibly the best session I’ve attended at any conference – I seriously had to fight the urge to give a standing ovation.
  • Ahead of our presentation in the afternoon of the first day, Ann Luther presented on her own research project called ENTITY MAPPER. A cross-institutional project between UAL and Parsons, ENTITY MAPPER allows users to input coded qualitative data sets and then visually sort them in a fluid online interface. The entire project was created out of Ann’s need for a tool with a better interface for mapping her own data – and a refreshing “I’ll build it myself” attitude towards getting one. I’ve already been talking with Heather about possibly using ENTITY MAPPER to analyze We Listen stories and really think it’s got amazing potential.
  • As mentioned, the student keynotes were all excellent – in fact, possibly better than many paid keynotes I’ve encountered. In particular, Jon Clair’s presentation on the quantum nature of the creation of art in a digital/physical world was both graphically excellent as well as very thought-provoking. The audience definitely seemed to enjoy picking his brain about how to build lab and studio spaces in future. Gabrielle Edlin, on day two, shared a hard-hitting presentation focusing on equality, sexism, gender performance and harassment in the online space and how digital creativity might be used to change the conversation by flooding the multitude of information channels with the right message. I hope these sessions were recorded with the intention of making them broadly accessible as they really show what level of presenting is attainable for students. Our students included.

Of course, the real reason I was there was presenting with Heather Hughes on our work with We Listen and specifically the early programming in Pittsburgh at the Penn State Center. (If you’re just tuning in on this topic, you can start here and work your way forward through this post and then this one to get caught up.) First off, thank you to Ann for ending just a bit early while presenting on ENTITY MAPPER and to Charlotte for being a benevolent timekeeper: those extra minutes let us get through all of our video examples, of which there were many. Heather really did yeoman’s work laying out the history of the program and unpacking its ethos and implementation trajectory. Jumping in at the Pittsburgh portion, I had the pleasure of talking the attendees through the summer LArch internships and the fantastic projects Jeff and Emily put together (entirely without being mandatory, I did not fail to stress). We had fantastic questions from the audience and then many conversations with lots and lots of great feedback – from a chat with fellow Penn Stater, Rose Cameron straight through to dinner at LASSCO Ropewalk that evening.

Download the Presentation

Tourist Time

Getting back to London for something like my fifth or sixth time was pretty wonderful, especially since I finally felt confident completely in getting around. With an Oyster card in hand and not nearly enough hours to spare, I stormed through 25-30,000 steps a day worth of exploration. Heather and I started out with lunch at Inn the Park, my favorite spot and one I’ve been to on each visit followed by a stroll around St James’s and Green Parks. We also got in a visit to the Tate Modern and tracked down fish and chips before hitting the town in Soho with a new friend from Texas State University, Maia Wright.

Naturally, I also relished in the opportunity to catch up with my friends Ben and Andy, transitioning to staying at their newly renovated flat at the end of the conference visit. They graciously took me out to see Pomona at the National Theatre followed up with a requisite late dinner at Ben’s favorite, Joe Allen. And, since my time in town just happened to coincide with the arrival transplantation of yet another friend, Susan, I was able to get in a daytime visit and dinner out with her, as well.

The only downside to all of this is, of course, desperately wanting to go back – or at least get caught up again on both email and sleep. Until next time, London…

Following Up: Summer Programming at the Penn State Center

Well, somehow it’s the first day of classes for the Fall term already. Though I’m not in any way sure where the Summer went, I do know that a large part of mine was spent impatiently awaiting the opportunity to write up this blog post because it signals the (very!) successful completion of major milestones in the programming I’d established with the Penn State Center in Pittsburgh.

Preparing to Show and Listen

Intern Orientation - tailored presentation on documenting engaged scholarship projects in Pittsburgh

click the title slide to view the presentation

As mentioned in my previous post detailing the start of this Summer’s engagement with the interns who would be calling the Center headquarters, an orientation session and training kicked things off on May 26th. Since video documentation had never been part of the Landscape Architecture internships the Center had hosted in the past, I wanted to provide students with an example of what would be feasible but also very professional without a lot of technical investment. Eventually, I settled on:

By next breaking down the video into its component parts, I explained to the interns exactly what kinds of materials they’d need to collect – and why – while in the field.  We also discussed sources of additional, legal media, getting consent from interview subjects, using the Mobile Media Kits provided for their work and other related topics before breaking into a more project-specific Q&A.

After receiving a very enthusiastic response towards story documentation from all of the interns (not just the two Northside interns I’d been expecting to work with were in attendance) and their coordinators, I returned with Heather Hughes to offer a follow up workshop based on the We Listen programming on which we had been collaborating.  We Listen aims to raise awareness of difference by applying intentional listening to recording the stories of those in a given community. It also presents a natural fit for these interns as they found themselves working on projects that respond to the needs of city neighborhoods and their residents.

Turning It All Loose – and Waiting

Honestly, after training (and attending the Northside interns’ orientation session with GTECH Strategies so they could learn about their summer projects more in-depth), my main role became that of just-in-time support for the students as they worked through gathering twelve weeks of materials for their projects.

This became the very long wait. And a period of anxious curiosity. (Offset by some really great press via the University-wide news, though.)

I learned that I didn’t need to be worried in the least, though, as the last week of the summer experience arrived and I got to see what had been created by Jeff and Emily during their time with the Community Asset Mapping project in my neighborhood.

And you can, too:

These two both did an amazing job for first-time documentarians and story listeners, especially given they worked with nothing more than iPad minis and their own iPhones. I couldn’t be more proud of the work they put together.

Stories Go Trans-Atlantic

Perhaps it was a bit of a gamble, but Heather and I felt very confident about the potential for We Listen principles and practices at the Penn State Center, especially as it pertained to being piloted in these neighborhood-based engagements for summer. So we submitted a proposal to talk about the experience in London at the Designs on eLearning conference. We must have gotten that confidence across, as well as some of our excitement because we were accepted and will be departing in mid-September to present at Central Saint Martins (!).

We Listen in Pittsburgh

As before, this work at the Center is still developing – as are our slides for DeL. So keep an eye out for not just the full presentation when its finished but also updates on everything going on here in Pittsburgh in the weeks to come.

I’ll never curse Adobe again (probably)

There’s always been a part of me that has pondered what graphic design would have been like as a job pre-InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop (or any other digital tools). This video from Sean Adams at walks through a typical layout job using the analog process.

And…no. Just. No. I would have lost my mind (or, at the very least, cut myself on the hour with an Exacto knife).

Montréal (or “my weight in poutine”)

Much like this time last year, I’ve just returned from the EdMedia World Conference, held in Montréal, Québec (providing me an opportunity to use accented characters frequently). Unlike the 2014 conference, though, I was not only an attendee this time but also a presenter since the brief paper Heather Hughes and I submitted was accepted and published in the proceedings. So, my favorite conference, my first published paper and my first trip to Montréal all in one go?

Most excellent.

For 2015, the conference was compressed (rather suddenly) to three days from four which lent a feeling of urgency to the schedule. Though they were intense days, they were also chock full of interesting sessions from presenters representing institutions around the globe.  Some highlights:

  • A different keynote speaker kicked off each morning and my favorite was certainly Tuesday’s: Jennifer Howell from Curtin University in Australia.  Her presentation focused on the sense of self one both creates and interacts with while navigating many different curated “selves” in digital spaces.  She raised the very good point that we become increasingly disconnected from our true selves as we spend all of our time tending to “best possible selves” across social media platforms and beyond. But she also called for recognition of this trend and the overarching reality of total inundation in media – both our own and others’ –  in our teaching and learning.  Her call to action for the attendees was to shift towards transmediated learning which she defined as “the convergence of popular culture, media, cultural studies, socially mediated connections, networks, technology and learning”.
  • An interesting trend across several conference sessions was commentary on working with indigenous populations. In fact, Monday’s keynote from Norman Vaughn (Mount Royal University in Canada) casually mentioned “A lot of you work with indigenous peoples…”. Another session attended was one on respectful research practices when dealing with these communities presented by a Canadian working in Australia with the Maori. There were more on the schedule, as well. While my initial reaction in the morning was “Do we?”, I actually took a lot away from that later session (presented by Michelle Eady from University of Wollongong) on research practices and realized that, yes, in fact we do something fairly similar when interacting with the diverse communities that make up the campuses and their surrounding regions.  I have a feeling the notes taken here will be called upon several times more.
  • I also really enjoyed learning about mobile and augmented reality tools in a session presented by New Zealand-based educational technology lecturer, Thom Cochrane. His was more a demonstration of the tools that have worked in his own teaching experiences – including examples of student work and hands-on opportunities – than a dry reading of a paper and was a great way to get things kicked off on Monday. I have plans to check out Wikitude for place-based projects with the Penn State Center and hope to find the right instructors at some campuses to try similar tools alongside travel abroad opportunities as they develop, especially for repeating campus trips (setting up past students’ AR map overlays would be a great resource for first time student travelers).

Oh, and that presentation. After getting used to presenting in 50-75 minute class periods, the reality of a 20 minute time slot is that it’s now so short. That is to say, the presenting was done before it even really felt like Heather and I had started. Lucking into a post-coffee break afternoon timeslot was a fantastic boon and the room was nicely filled-out and attendees were attentive. My favorite keynote speaker was even in attendance, which was a very nice surprise. Though time for questions was limited with the next brief paper presenters needing to set up while we tore down, a few good ones came our way from those in the audience and we hope to get more emailed to us once people have a chance to unpack what they learned last week (I know I’ve barely had time to do this just yet).

Download the Paper

Download the Presentation

More photos, as usual, on Flickr
Of course, I did get to spend some time out and about exploring Montréal, too. I kicked off a week of walking everywhere by strolling 7 miles out to Habitat 67, an amazing residential development leftover from Expo 67 (and still inhabited today).  From there, I made my first visit to Old Port and took in the life in the square in front of Notre-Dame Basilica – as well as taking in caffeine at the totally excellent Tommy café. On other outings, I found myself walking 400 steps up to the top of Mount Royal for the spectacular view, hiking a few miles over to Café Venosa, a new cat adoption center and vegan coffeeshop (that might be my favorite discovery) and eating my way through all of the poutine the city had to offer. (I can definitely say I now know where to find a three poutine “flight”, for instance…) Montréal was far more sophisticated and way more inviting than I ever imagined and I’m happy to have learned of yet another North American city that I wasn’t giving enough credit (the first being México City). Always good to know what’s in your own backyard…

Explaining a paradox

Kurz Gesagt (don’t feel bad – first I’ve heard of, too) has published a truly adorable look at the Fermi Paradox, something I find myself pondering more than is healthy. It’s really clear and informative and terribly cute, as well but it mostly caught my attention because of how much it reminded me of these animations from 2005’s take on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Anything that can remind me of this gem amongst novels and its film adaptation…well, its creators must be “good people”.


Combining two loves

It was with great delight this morning that I discovered the maker’s of one of my favorite art-y games, Monument Valley are developing their own take on digital automobile instrumentation. Ridiculously addictive and visually arresting iPad game + in-car technology + elegant, contextual interface design? *swoon*

There’s a great, detailed write up over at ustwo’s site and you can participate in the conversation as well as downloading the design and code work to contribute to the project.