Take me to Embed or Lose me Forever!

Written By Dave on Thursday, April 3, 2014 | 10:17:00 AM

FringeEdTech is designed to help educators maximize the potential of existing technology - not necessarily the newest, latest, and greatest (although I did just order my Amazon Fire TV today!) toys. So today, I'm not talking about a sweet, shiny new thing. I'm talking about an old philosophy and technically easy idea to implement. 

I'm talking about embedding.

I work in the Office of Online Learning at the college I'm at, but that's a bit of a misnomer as faculty leverage our learning management system (LMS) to deliver content in face-to-face courses as well as hybrid and online. Using an LMS is great, even if it is just a repository to hold files (like a syllabus, handouts from the class, etc.). Most LMSs make it easy to administer assessments, collect assignments, and participate in discussion forums. Therefore, many of our faculty use our LMS (we currently use ANGEL, but we are in the middle of a migration to Blackboard - Moodle, CourseSites and EduOnGo are great systems, too). Even if you don't have access to an LMS, the following holds true for general websites, as well.

Overwhelmingly, I see a huge philosophical mistake when it comes to distributing files (for today, I'll use PowerPoint as a euphemism for any attachment). The easiest way to get a PowerPoint to students in an LMS is to attach them, but there are many reasons why it is better to embed the file. 

When a presentation is embedded in an LMS, it renders nicely. No extra clicking or downloading. Here is what it looks like in Blackboard when a student encounters an embedded presentation:

Embedding ensures a smooth, seamless educational experience
Yeah, this presentation makes subtle references to Harry Potter. Cistem Aperio!

Juxtapose that with attaching a file in ANGEL:

Attaching a file can cause great confusion for the student
DANGER WILL ROBINSON! The dreaded "Red Text Countdown" is ANGEL's defense mechanism to clarity.

In no particular order, here my compelling reasons why embedding is far superior than attaching files:

No need for external software
The best example of this is when Office 2007 rolled around and faculty were distributing .docx files to students who only had Office 2003 and couldn't open them. Shame on Microsoft for not addressing this sooner, but shame on faculty for not understanding this was an issue for their students. Even today, this is problematic. As more and more students consume content on mobile devices, it's hard to know if the user will be able to view attachments.

But more importantly, if you embed a Google Presentation (I'll use Google products in the discussion today, although OneDrive is a viable  - albeit inferior - substitute) in your LMS, students don' have to manage dozens of files for the semester. If you think poor file management is not an epidemic, look at the desktops of your colleagues and try to make sense of the files littered about. And I shudder to think about managing downloaded files where some are on my iPad, some on my phone, some on my desktop and some on my laptop.

Version control is not an issue, either. If I embed a Google Presentation today, but make changes to it next week, students will always have the most recent edition - this isn't true with attached files. I would have to redistribute the updated PowerPoint.

Students can assimilate content into their own cloud
In most institutions, students lose access to their courses when the semester ends. That's it. All the experiences in that class terminate. All the content is inaccessible.

If you use a cloud service to host your content, students can apprehend it into their own cloud (this is especially true for Google Drive). Generally speaking, it is easy to take an embedded Google Document and capture it into your own collection. While this may be a deterrent to some, I would posit that anything you put in your course can easily be apprehended by students; you can't protect your content (and the Instructional Designer in me asks why you would want to). More and more students are arriving at college already accustomed to Google Drive (thank you Google Apps for Education), and many colleges and universities are even adopting the Google platform.

Embedding Google Documents helps the student retain the information from their class for as long as they want.

Students don't leave the environment
When I was in fifth grade, Mr. Massa was reticent to have me leave the classroom and go to the bathroom (a sentiment many teachers share). There is a common fear that students will get distracted and either A) take some detours on the way back, or B) never come back. YouTube is the perfect example. Why would you link to a YouTube video when you can embed it? Giving a YouTube link to a student is like giving a one hundred dollar bill to a five year old in a candy shop - if they ever come back, they'll be exhausted, lost, and all hopped up on goofballs. We understand this; that's why YouTube makes it easy to embed videos and why most LMSs have tools built in to embed a YouTube video. 

The same is true with documents. Don't give students a wild goose chase; provide a clear, concise way to consume the information. This is the twenty first century! We should be able to embed content in lieu of attaching it. It's way more convenient for the student. It's all about encapsulating the experience so students don't need to go to other software to view documents that are made available to them. 

Faculty can modify content without being in the LMS
For me, this is the game changer. If I am sitting at JiffyLube, getting my oil changed and thinking about how I can tweak some content I posted in Blackboard, I might not be able to do it easily if the content resides in Blackboard. The Blackboard Mobile Learn app is geared towards students, and using the web interface from a mobile device to modify content isn't the easiest thing to do. And boy do I hate authenticating into Blackboard. 

Enter Google Drive. I can modify my content ridiculously easy from my mobile device, and the changes will propagate into my LMS (assuming I embedded the Google Documents) instantaneously. How awesome is that?

Easier to push out updated content
I alluded to this earlier, but this is such a potent idea that it is worth repeating. Content will never have to be redistributed. Let's imagine I teach five courses a semester. Even better - let's assume I'm an adjunct at three different colleges. If I have a document, say a PDF that has a brief biography of me, as well as contact information and how I can be reached, and I distribute it on day one, it's in everybody's hands. Now, let's say something changes and I need to modify it. Hey, these things happen. Well, now I have to modify it and push it out to three different systems. However, if I had designed it in a Google Document and embedded it (even better - published it ), then I can instantaneously push the changes out to all instances of where that one document resides.

This is especially handy if you have multiple venues where your content is accessible. But let's face it, if you build content into your LMS the old fashioned way, you might find out down the road (if you teach at another institution with a different LMS or your current institution elects to use a different LMS) that the content might not transfer well. You'd be insulated from this if you choose to embed your content (because the HTML code for embedding tends to translate from LMS to LMS).

Productive cloud software is more collaborative than most LMSs
Blackboard, ANGEL, Moodle, and many of the other learning management systems are great. They do a wonderful job of managing learning. But they were not built to be collaborative. The next generation of LMSs have a more collaborative flavor, but really still lack the collaborative tools that other platforms have. 

On the other hand, Google Drive and OneDrive were built with collaboration as the focal point. So it seems to be a no-brainer - use the framework of the LMS to organize the information, and embed the really collaborative tools like Google Documents. Most students probably will not even recognize that an embedded document is not native to the LMS.

An decidedly beneficial byproduct of using the model of embedding is the collaboration that is opened to faculty. Sure, ANGEL has LORs and Blackboard has Content Collections, but neither one of those mechanisms are truly easy to use for faculty collaboration. It is very limiting. Once you start using Google Drive (or OneDrive), then it instantly becomes a lot easier to start collaborating.

Automatic backups
Again, there are features in ANGEL and Blackboard to back courses up. The system administrator might even have scripts to do that for you automatically. Where I work, every Friday we automatically backup any ANGEL course that has been accessed in the past ten days. There is a sense of safety there, but that doesn't preclude catastrophes from happening.

Google Drive will backup every single change made to any document (with the ability to revert to any particular version). And that happens with no extra effort from you. So whereas content created in an LMS may or may not be backed up reliably, all content in Google Drive (and OneDrive) are always saved.

With all this said, there is one extremely important thing you need to know - to enable the content such that anyone can view it - not just Google Drive or OneDrive account holders, you have to change the permissions. Roughly speaking, you typically want "Anyone with the link" to be able to view (or comment, or edit) a document.

If you don't like HTML code, or you are not familiar with sharing in cloud services, then come back on May 15th to get a free book on embedding in the framework of an LMS. An intrepid librarian and I have joined to create an OER book that covers the rationale (and the mechanics) of embedding within an LMS and LibGuides. You can see our work in progress here, but come back in mid May for a truly spectacular show.

I'd like to close by briefly outlining why I prefer Google Drive over OneDrive. I think there are three distinct advantages to Google Drive:

  1. Google Drive is much easier to edit on mobile devices. OneDrive requires extra software and subscriptions whereas Google Drive is free and encapsulated in one clean, concise app.

  2. Sharing on OneDrive is less intuitive and harder than Google Drive.

  3. Embedding a OneDrive product into an LMS is risky because it is easy for students to leave the LMS (engaging full screen mode on an embedded PowerPoint opens another tab with the document in OneDrive). Google Drive does not hijack the browser.

So, that's it. I am fully aware that the topic of embedding might seem daunting or technically too complex, but I assure you that if you can copy and paste, you have the requisite skill set to embed anything.

I am also fully aware that some of the concepts I've presented today might be a little polarizing in the tech geek world. But That's why there is the ability to engage in conversation! I would love to hear what people have to say (I do not, by any means, presume that my ideas are the best presentation methods). I do stand by my assertion that Google Drive is a better alternative than OneDrive for embedding content, though! 

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Extra points to the first person who can attribute the movie that the title of this post is based on.

About Dave


  1. Hi Dave- I came across your blog post while preparing for a TCC presentation on Cool Tools for Blackboard. I am linking to this post and your video on embedding. Thanks for the info!
    Andrea G