Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Brick and mortar stores -- Apple, Microsoft and Google?

Dell, HP and others now have relatively upscale Chromebooks that approach, and in some features surpass, the high end Google Pixel and Google just announced that Chromebooks will be running Android apps in the future. At first, those apps might not be optimized for the Chromebook form factor, but many will look good in phone or tablet-size windows and I bet we see Chromebook-friendly Android apps in the future.

Given all that, I thought I might like to get one, so I headed over to the closest thing I know of to a Google store -- the Google section of my local Best Buy.

It's a total Fail.

As shown here, all they had was half a dozen low-end machines. That might work for a Chromebook for a school child, but it is not sufficient for someone thinking of spending $700 or more.

But, it gets worse.

There were two, sweet, young sales people wearing Google shirts next to the Chromebooks, so I asked if they had other machines -- perhaps a Pixel -- somewhere else in the store. It turned out they didn't know what I meant by "Google Pixel." I explained what a Google Pixel was and one of them went off to inquire. When she came back, she said they did not have them.

Since I was there, I asked about the six machines they had on display and discovered that they were confused about the difference between memory and storage. None of the machines on display had more than 2GB of memory, but they assured me that that was no problem because you could attach a large external hard drive.

(In the early days of personal computers, there was a joke that the difference between computer store sales people and car sales people was that the car sales folks knew they were lying).

I don't know if these kids were Google or BestBuy employees, but they were wearing Google shirts and that surely cheapens the top-notch "Googler" brand.

If Google hopes to sell and support high-end hardware, they will have to do much better than this, and that will be expensive.

A little while ago, I had been in a shopping mall near my home and dropped in on the Apple and Microsoft stores, which are just a few stores apart.

It was the middle of the week, but the Apple store was quite crowded. Customers were talking with sales people, playing around with machines, getting help from Apple "geniuses," etc. Apple runs classes in the stores, offers walk-in customer support and the employees are knowledgeable and helpful. I snapped this picture just before the man in the foreground told me to stop taking pictures:

I walked over to the Microsoft store and found it to be pretty well empty -- the store employees outnumbered the customers. They had a wide range of computers on display -- from both Microsoft and OEMs. They also offered service and classes and the workers were as knowledgeable and friendly as those in the Apple store. There was no pressure and no problem playing around for as long as I wanted to and they were happy to have me take pictures.

I had visited the same Microsoft and Apple stores two days after Christmas in 2014 and, while both were more crowded post Christmas, the Apple store was totally jam packed and the Microsoft store still fairly empty.

I personally don't see much difference between the Microsoft and Apple stores and can't figure out why one is so much more popular than the other, but, I can tell you for sure that Google will have to be creative and spend a lot of money if they want to sell us high end hardware. They will also have to step up customer support. You can sell a $35 Chromecast in a BestBuy store or online, but not a $1,300 Pixel Chromebook.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Two teaching experiments with Google Hangous on Air

I teach a class on the applications, implications and technology of the Internet and a major theme running through the course is the use of the Internet as a tool for collaboration. As such, we tried two teaching experiments using Google Hangouts on Air (GHoA).

(GHoA is a free video conferencing application for up to ten people. It differs from other video conferencing services in two ways -- an audience of unlimited size can watch the video conference while it is live and it is automatically recorded and stored on YouTube when it ends).

Student "office hours"

Our first experiment was having students who had done well on the midterm hold "office hours" online using GHoA. I did not participate in any of the sessions, but reviewed the videos afterward.

Students holding "office hours" online

Since I was not "present," the students were generally unguarded and light hearted, talking more freely than in class. Their discussion revealed a couple of content misconceptions, which I corrected the following week.

They also discussed the class itself. One group agreed that it was harder than they had expected and one group felt free to criticize the class. That gave me the opportunity to bring their criticism to the entire class, discuss the point they made and to give the most critical student extra credit for speaking his mind.

They talked about their study habits and how to do well in the class. In doing so, one group came up with the idea of using our weekly quizzes as a “study guide” and answer/discuss questions online. (I don't give them the answers).

They also got to see and hear themselves in an online conference and learned some practical things about microphone adjustment, camera location when using a phone or tablet, microphone positioning, speaker feedback, etc.

The sessions were not mandatory, but I gave those who participated extra credit for convening or attending a session. Many students chose not to participate and I polled them, asking why. Schedule conflicts at the time sessions were convened was the most frequently cited reason.

An online class meeting

The second experiment was to conduct a class session using GHoA instead of in the classroom. (We met at the usual class time, so schedule conflicts were not an issue).

I begin each week with a presentation of misconceptions I saw in their homework assignments and quiz answers from the previous week and current events relevant to our class. Since the goal of the class is to introduce the "skills and concepts needed for success as a student and after graduation as a professional and a citizen," that is followed by presentations focused on a couple of concepts and on a skill, for example, how to use GHoA, an image editor, etc.

I followed the usual in-class format during the GHoA session. The first nine students who "came" to the GHoA session joined the live video conference and those who logged in later joined the viewing "audience."

This was the first time I had run a GHoA class, and it was a learning experience for me. As shown below, I made a number of technical errors. It also felt strange to be presenting material without seeing the audience -- it made me appreciate radio announcers. I suspect one could get used to it.

Mistakes due to my inexperience

I also made the mistake of not preparing the students well enough. They only had one presentation and one assignment with GHoA before we ran our experiments.

After the session, I polled the students on their experience during the live hangout and their use of the recorded video. Here are the poll results for three of the questions on the live hangout:

Selected responses regarding the live class session

And two of the questions about their use of the recorded video after the session:

Selected responses regarding the session recording

As you see, they said they were more comfortable viewing the session at home than in class, their minds were less likely to wander and they generally thought it was as good or better than the classroom as a learning experience. The majority went back and watched at least a portion of the session recording, but there was an inconsistency in their reporting.

The last four questions asked about their overall preference and solicited comments. When asked whether they preferred meeting in class or meeting in a GHoA, 53% preferred the GHoA, 13% the classroom and 33% were indifferent. When I asked them in class what they thought was the best way to offer the course next semester, the consensus was that the first few meetings should be in the classroom and about half of the remaining meetings should be online.

(There were 19 questions in the entire questionnaire and you can see the full poll results (including their comments) here).

This was my first try at using GHoA and I made several mistakes which could be corrected. If others have used GHoA as a collaborative teaching tool, please share your experience.