Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Gathering of the Clans: 31st May 2017 at Edge Hill University

Occasionally a number of ALT Special Interest Groups such as MELSIG, ALTNWESIG, ELESIG get together for an event, and this time the theme was Digital Placemaking.

The idea is that the spaces in which learning and 'learning activities' are taking place are changing. Where in the past they may have taken place in classrooms, libraries, and where informal conversations took place (e.g. in the pub), now learning spaces are moving online, blending physical and virtual spaces, perhaps using tools that the institution provides, but often not.

Today's event gave us room to explore what we might mean by Digital Placemaking, looking at learners' agency to develop their own learning space and experience. One of the first things that we were asked to do was to share the space that we feel we learn best in. This was a useful exercise for getting us thinking about our own 'informal learning' and experiences.

Andrew Middleton talked about the Digital Placemaking idea as a possible 'fourth way' of approaching digital capability, and expanding the idea. He mentioned the work of Rosemary Luckin which I've not come across, and will explore further.

I really enjoyed the 'Twalk' where we toured the campus, going to different learning spaces, discussing questions about them and sharing our thoughts on Twitter. Being in a context really helps the discussion about the space.

So it was a very worthwhile day, and I'll aim to explore some of the areas and points of interest further. This and other similar events at the same time have been well documented on Twitter.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Making Someone Else's Idea a Reality

Many people come to Learning Technologists with big ideas that they want to make a reality, which is absolutely a good thing. However because it is difficult to understand how complex something is in an area that you are not an expert in, people can have unrealistic expectations of timescales, and exactly how the aims will be met.

Rather than everyone getting frustrated with each other, here are some things I’ve learned that might help a new Learning Technologist get started with projects in their institution.

  • Start by understanding the project aims, but discouraging details. “I want a portfolio that students will use to evidence their learning in a range of contexts over the rest of their lives, and it will have an animation of a dog which changes pose and colour as you develop and learn…” is the sort of request that starts well but which can cloud its own aims. Try and see what is behind the dog animation idea; perhaps they just want it to feel friendlier than online portfolios they have seen before. 
  • Find out what has inspired them to ask for this; often they have seen a conference presentation and you can examine and even use, something that already exists,
  • Once you have understood the aims, then you do need to agree on practical details of features, and make decisions on who will do what. Be realistic about what you can do. If it turns out no-one has enough time to work on the project, grants might need to be applied for or support from senior management won, in order to pay someone else to work on it. Alternatively you could find other institutions and external organisations who want to do a similar thing and work in partnership.
  • The initial version of the project may only contain a small number of the hoped for features. Don’t try to meet all the aims at first, as you’ll probably never even get version one released. Make it clear that it will be something that develops over time, taking feedback from users.
  • Before you start, make sure they know what they need to supply you with (resources, learning objectives) and by what date. Be clear that if they slip in providing suitable resources, you will have less time to work on the project. Perhaps put aside 10/20 specific days to work on the project and let them know that these are the only days that you can work on it.

So that’s my limited perspective, and shows how I will attempt to keep my stress levels low and my time protected during future projects. Any advice from others in the comments would be happily received too.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

ALT-C 2015: Things to Consider

As part of getting funding to attend ALT-C I need to think of ways to share what I learned, so I'm going to have a go at writing up the main messages that I've taken away.

Keynote 1: Steve Wheeler

Key message - Students could help us think in different ways.

Steve Wheeler from Plymouth University explored how learning is changing, and how we need the help of students to help us think in new ways.

It can be difficult for us to notice what opportunities new technology offers; things change fast and we have little time. I was reminded that in about 2008 there was a short time when students said that they couldn't get on computers to do work, because almost every computer was logged into Facebook. It was the consequence of a time just after the growth of social media, but just before everyone had smartphones that could be used to access social media tools. These sort of odd things happen, and almost before we can react properly they've changed again. If they are difficult to predict in the short term, then in the long term it is impossible to think what might change and how the collection of those changes working together might affect our context.

We could learn from each year's intake of students about how technology could be used. Steve used the example of interactive whiteboards where early users just used them like blackboards, but someone without the experience of using blackboards who was given time to explore, might discover the possibilities.

In the past the learning technologies we had such as videos, and TVs, were primarily transmission tools, but now networked technologies can help move us towards student centered learning.

Teachers are often nervous about using technology, because there are aspects that they think the students know better than them. Even Steve's students reported feeling like this when they went into school to do teaching practice and became the teacher, so the nervousness doesn't seem to be related to age and experience with the technology. Personally I feel the same in induction sessions with the students when you advise a student to solve an issue one way, and other students come with other (sometimes better) solutions. I feel like I'm losing the position of 'expert'; but as Steve is saying, perhaps we have to accept that in a complex changing environment there is no alternative.

On the topic of where the technological expertise lies, Steve pointed out that the 'Visitors' and 'Residents' theory is better than the much criticised 'Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants' theory if we are going to understand the way staff and students approach technological tools and spaces.

Keynote 4: Phillip Long

Key Messages - Cognitive Science can tell us a lot about learning. Performance and learning are not the same.

Phillip Long spoke about the importance of using what we know from cognitive science when designing learning activities and environments.

First he talked about Soderstrom and Bjork's work on the difference between learning and performance, where “Learning reflects the relatively permanent changes in behaviour or knowledge that support long-term retention & transfer” and performance is the temporary fluctuations in behaviour or knowledge that can be observed and measured during or immediately after the first acquisition process.

He discussed how there are different techniques for practicing in learning (e.g. distributed practice), and how some will work better for short term performance and some for long term learning. This can cause problems when working with students as they can really enjoy the results of short term performance gains and find aiming for these motivating. Long term learning methods with initially poor results can cause them to react badly.

He talked about EdX's use of Cerego (see Jessie Brown's overview) which is software that learns your personalised memory decay curve and aims to use this to optimise learning and methods of practice. Also if we want to encourage students to do important, but potentially tedious learning activities there is evidence that introducing transcendent purpose can help students, especially those with poor grades to start with.

He finished with the question "How can we bring good learning science into elegant learning environments that fit your institutional culture."

Other Things of Interest

Key message - Technology is not neutral.

The work P.A. Danaher was presenting was based on Affordance Theory (Gibson, 1979) via Actor-Network Theory (Wright & Parchoma, 2011). He mentioned how these theories say that technology is not neutral but shapes and is shaped by its users and occupants, and how effective research needs to respect that.

Key message - Learning Technologists should be agents of change.

Peter Bryant from London School of Economics talked about the 'Middle Out' approach to institutional change. This was a concept taken from politics about the importance of creating growth through the middle classes, but in his focus on institutional change he says that there is a problem when Learning Technologists end up just maintaining the status quo by just supporting existing practices and not innovating new ones. He argues that Learning Technologists should see themselves as agents and leaders of change at a strategic level and that we should aim for "a role where the learning technologist argues, lobbies, supports and resources change and where they work to break down functional barriers and silos between academic and professional services, in order to seek change through the development and celebration of a collective identity".

Key message - Technology affects power dynamics between teachers and learners.

Jonathon Worth spoke about his experiences as a photographer, how he learned to take advantage of the open nature of the web, and the resulting open course he ran. He discussed ethics around loss of privacy, changes to power within a class, cultural and technological barriers that might emerge, and how technology might affect trust. The idea that students should be asked to give informed consent around their use of 'the digital' is a challenge.

Key message - Virtual field trips are possible, but require a lot of initial development.

Work from the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds was presented, where they had created a field trip environment using the Unity game engine. This allowed field trip activities to be undertaken without the travelling, and allowed disabled students to participate more fully in them. The level of detail was only really suitable for undergraduate study, and they are looking at the possibilities of developing it in more detail for post-graduate learners. Adding hand drawn field sketches to the simulation alone took 80 hours work, which indicates the time taken up by the project.

Key message - Online learning can play a role in reducing inequality.

Laura Czerniewicz spoke on the effects of online learning on inequality. She notes that we saw $1.87 billion (£1.22 billion) in ed tech funding in 2014, which means the effects cannot be large, including the effects on the developing world. She referred to Therborn's 2013 book that looks at types of inequality to consider.

Challenges to consider include being aware of:

  • how online learning benefits some groups more than others
  • how learners need help so that they are prepared to learn in the online environment
  • how access to electricity and the internet affects any strategy
  • how mobile may be the answer if the price of data can be reduced
  • how verification of learning rather than learning alone is required for people to get jobs
  • how colonial attitudes need to be avoided and pluralistic epistemologies considered

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Blackboard Teaching & Learning Conference 2015

I attended the Blackboard conference which took place in Liverpool in April. Most of the sessions had a practical rather than theoretical focus, and many were about projects similar to ones we had been running. This meant that the experience of attending this conference was very different to a conference like ALT-C, as it was more about reflecting on what we had done, than exploring new areas or thinking about ideas that were new to me.

In this post I'll try and present an overview of some of the sessions that I found useful, or which got me thinking.

Graham Brown-Martin - Learning Re-imagined

Graham Brown-Martin was talking about findings from his Learning Reimagined project, which asked the question "What is school for?". They started by asking famous thinkers for their opinions. Seth Godin took the controversial view that schools were set up to train factory workers and so we need something different now. Noam Chomsky talked about the possibility of "searching the riches of the past" to create something new and exciting and referenced Ivan Illich's book 'Deschooling Society' where he talked about learning webs and networks.

In his project, Graham went on to explore educational institutions around the world, and came away with six 'learnings':

  • Context
  • Environment
    • The benefits of problem based curricula and de-siloed subjects.
  • Engagement 
    • Teaching is not a delivery system for content.
  • Technology
    • There is a choice between aiming for the 'same system but faster' vs. transformation
  • Assessment
    • Parents get focussed on grades as the thing that will make their kids successful. We need to focus on skills as the thing that will make the difference.
  • The Future
    • There is a choice between treating GDP as a KPI vs. encouraging the next generation to re-imagine society.

Anne Campbell - How do we develop part-time distance teaching staff in best practices for using Blackboard Collaborate with student groups

Anne from the Open University shared what they had learned when teaching their geographically widely distributed staff to use Collaborate. As most staff development is informal and situated in the workplace, they considered how to create opportunities at a distance.

They had two routes, basic and next steps. The basics were covered with a self-study week, and the next steps involved a two week moderated route where staff needed to commit 14-15 hours (attendees are salaried staff, so there are no issues with them needing to be paid hourly). The next steps route included online synchronous activities which included pastoral support, and gave an experience of being a student online. There were also forums, a peer support group, events at weekends, and a good practice wiki.

Anne advised demonstrating how Collaborate is used in different disciplines, and to avoid getting stuck precisely replicating classroom experiences.

Myles Blaney - Learning Analytics: Exposing Student Data [slides]

The University of Edinburgh are developing a building block to give themselves better access to data in Blackboard. They will make the building block available on OSCELOT. Have a look at their slides for the details, but I took two things from this presentation. Firstly not all students want to be given data about their learning, and there are a wide range of reactions to being made aware that data is being collected and used. Secondly, there is no need to buy an expensive system to access data for use in Learning Analytics. Start off with what is freely available, and see how you can use that, and if you have the need for anything else.

So that's just a short overview. It was an interesting conference, and I appreciated everyone sharing their experiences.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Learning Analytics: White Rose Learning Technologists' Forum - 28th January 2015

I had the pleasure of 'crashing' the White Rose Learning Technologists' Forum yesterday, tempted by the focus on Learning Analytics.

Martin Hawksey led the main session of the day, talking about Learning Analytics: Threats and Opportunities, followed by Patrick Lynch from Hull talking about the work he's been doing. In this post I'll try and explore some of the themes we looked at. Twitter activity used the #wrltf hashtag if you want to take a look at that.

What is Learning Analytics?

Martin talked about it being important to see the links between Learning Analytics and more mature fields and disciplines such as Network Analysis. We looked at a couple of definitions which you can read in his slides. The definitions talked about using data and analysis to understand and optimise learning, and to develop "actionable insights". We took part in discussions where the need to consider the differences between business and learning analytics become clear.

Threats: 'The Absence of Theory', 'Visualisations', and 'Ethics, privacy and data sharing'

Mike Caulfield wrote about how Big Data is usually used in a Behaviouralist way and how it "asks us to see entire classes of people as sets of statistical probabilities". He argued that we need theory to guide us as to what we are looking for.

Caulfield also argues that "it is actually “small data” — data that can live in a single spreadsheet — that paired with local use has the greatest potential". This is an aside in his article, but is probably the main thing that I took from this event.

Martin led us through some other thoughts on why decontextualised data is not useful, before moving on to the dangers of taking dashboards and graphs as neutral things, when really they are almost always designed to tell a story in a certain way.

We then looked at ethics, with InBloom used as an example of an educational initiative that many thought was unnecessarily collecting user data that all sorts of people could then access.


Learning Analytics can help start conversations, and act as a feedback loop between students and instructors. Martin Cooper has done work on how it might be used to help disabled students.

An important quote from a Simon Buckingham Shaw presentation is used "What kind of learners are we trying to create? This should drive our analytics".

Tools we can use

Both Patrick and Martin demonstrated tools that we can use to collect, manage and use data.

Martin talked about the various ways in which Twitter is used by teachers and then demonstrated his TAGS (Twitter Archiving Google Spreadsheet) tool as a way of archiving Twitter activity. When planning to use this it is worth knowing that currently the Twitter API limits Tweets to those posted in the last 7 days, and to the last 18,000 Tweets in a series.

This tool takes 5-10 minutes to set up for yourself, and I used it to archive/collect the tweets related to the event.

Patrick demonstrated the use of Tableau as a tool that he uses along with the 'R' language to explore data, looking for oddities that might reveal an interesting story. For example using Tableau to present data from a course they noticed that lots of students were accessing a resource after the module had finished. They asked questions and found that the students were finding it useful in another module, and the resource was then embedded in that other module too.

For those interested in exploring these things further, Patrick recommends engaging with the Apereo Foundation community and keeping track of how JISC is promoting and investing in Learning Analytics on our behalf.

In his experience it is important to work with students from the beginning. Some students see it as Big Brother and others as something useful. In the future he thinks the collection of data is likely to change from opt out to opt in, and if that is true we will need to ensure that students both see and receive a benefit from it.

Personal Reflections

Previously my perspective on Learning Analytics was that it was something that would only be useful in online courses where you could collect huge amounts of data about all a student's learning activities. Yesterday's event introduced me to smaller scale ways that we could collect and use data to benefit student learning, and a convincing case was made as to the smaller scale very focused work potentially being more effective.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

MELSIG Event: Creative Lecture Capture, Webinars & Screencasting

I attended the MELSIG event called 'Creative Lecture Capture, Webinars & Screencasting' yesterday at the University of Nottingham. It's a long journey, so even the early train didn't get me there for the start, but the sessions that I did attend told some interesting stories about the use of things like webinars, lecture capture, and iTunes U. I've written up notes on a few of the sessions, and I apologise for any errors.

Webinars: Inside and outside the institution

Helen Whitehead spoke about webinars at the University of Nottingham. They've been using Adobe Connect generally, but chose to use Google Hangouts for their MOOCs, and they sometimes use Lync when working with staff. She advised to think about who your audience are before choosing which system to use, for example if they are in China or the NHS they may be limited in what they can access.

She had some tips for the use of webinars

  • Use a countdown timer and/or welcome music before the session
  • Ideally leave the speaker with as little else to do as possible. It's a good idea to have a moderator who welcomes people, starts the recording, reads the chat, etc.
  • Webinars should be short, simple and interactive. If they are not interactive you might be better just creating a recording and making that available.

In Google Hangouts students can watch the sessions if they are not logged in, but they can log in to interact. She noted that Hangout sessions need a clear purpose if people are to attend them.

We had a discussion about why attendees usually engage using the chat tool, but not their microphones. It was put forward that they might be attending in a busy office, or a public space. Someone thought that students should be told in advance that they might be expected to speak, and perhaps asked to prepare something short to share.

Using lecture capture technologies to support peer-to-peer
feedback among first-year Fashion students in a studio-based learning

Ann Draycott, Rob Higson, and Glenn McGarry from the University of Derby presented on media enhanced feedback and their Flexible Feedback Project. In this project first year fashion students gave each other feedback on their creations using Panopto.

The benefits to using this institutionally provided and supported system were it was scalable, peer support and central support was available, and data protection and governance has been thought through. Challenges were related to using a system beyond its intended use, and finding workarounds.

iTunes U Special Focus Panel

Peter Robinson from Oxford told us about their long running iTunes U project. They have 6000 episodes on there now, and have put the same content on the web too. At first they didn't want to put full sets of lectures up, but they do now, with 50% of it CC licenced. A lot of what they have learned was written up in the JISC Steeple project wiki.

Terese Bird from Leicester talked about their smaller iTunes U project which linked in with their OER and lecture capture projects.

They got staff on board by having a meeting with a free lunch, emailing key people, and sharing success stories. Terese spent about a month working 4 days a week on this to get it launched, but then maintaining it took about a day a week.

Leicester find iTunes U to be a way to showcase their work around the world, as iTunes U is blocked in very few countries.

Graham McElearney from Sheffield talked about their more recent project from 2013. They have a commitment to public engagement, and saw iTunes U as part of this rather than a marketing tool, although it does raise the profile of academics, disciplines and the institution.

In discussions it was noted that it's important to consider your audience when making resources available. iTunes U might be great for an international audience, but for 15-17 year olds in the UK you might be better having resources on YouTube. However iTunes U allows you to put audio versions on and many people appreciate the ability to download audio versions of the lectures, and listen on mobile devices.

Running Video Assessments

Ellie Kennedy and Helen Puntha from Nottingham Trent told us about their work on an extra curricular module about sustainability. In this module students created videos as part of their assessment, and the best videos are being used as learning resources for future students.

Exploring the value and use of recorded student presentations

Alex Spiers talked about Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine's use of work recording sessions using Panopto. For a first year module with 15 students they recorded all lectures, presentations and other sessions and found that no students had issues with being recorded, and most viewing of recordings occurred during assessment periods although different students accessed the recordings different amounts. Student response was positive and they wanted similar provision in other modules.

The event was a good opportunity to see a range of activities that are taking place. If you want to know more there is the Twitter activity from the day, and Padlet was used to record webinar tips from attendees, and ideas for using video for student work.

Friday, 31 October 2014

3D Virtual Worlds: A Catch Up

My SOLSTICE Fellowship work was based on 3D Virtual Worlds, and included things such as running introductory staff development sessions, collecting a list of relevant research to help researchers and teachers get started using the environments,using it as part of a course for online role play and practicing risk assessments including preparing students to use the environment, and writing up a report on the financial costs of taking the next steps in moving the use forward in the institution.

Since 2011 when that Fellowship ended, there have been some major developments. There has been further growth in the use of OpenSim as an alternative to Second Life (SL), and Linden Lab decided to reinstate the educator discount, possibly in response. Linden Lab also announced a 2015 beta release of a ‘next generation’ virtual world “that will be in the spirit of Second Life" although they will keep Second Life running at the same time. They have also enabled some use of SL using the Oculus Rift, which seems an appropriate development. Finally 'SL Go' was released to allow access on mobile devices. In this post I wanted to explore these things further, answer some of my own questions, and consider what the changes means for use of 3D Virtual Worlds at the institution.

Firstly why might you use OpenSim instead of SL?

Hypergrid Business have an intelligently written article comparing the two. The key things that come out of it are that OpenSim costs less and therefore allows you to use more space, and the open nature gives you flexibility. SL will offer stability though, and the large community there has created a large amount of content that you can buy. On an individual level you would have to consider your budget and what space you need for your activities. On an institutional level it would depend on the amount of use you were expecting.

What do we know about Linden Lab's next generation platform?

It will be a creators platform like SL, but one that appeals to a larger audience. They've taken on 40-50 people to build it, and it should be about of beta by 2016. Finally the work on Oculus Rift integration might mean that it is going to allow something more like a Virtual Reality experience. I'd say that currently SL has limited uses in the institution, but a new platform that looks really good, that appeals to a larger group of people. and that works with virtual reality headsets might be worthwhile investing in at an institutional level.

What kind of experience do you have in SL using the Oculus Rift?

Phobos Jamberoo has posted a video of what SL looks like through the Oculus Rift which gives us an idea of the experience. SL is usually used in 3rd person perspective and much research has been done about your relationship with your avatar. As David Burden points out '5 key differences between virtual worlds and virtual reality', virtual reality makes sense in a first person view, and therefore you are reducing the importance of the avatar and possibly reducing use of camera controls.

What kind of experience do you have in SL using SL Go?

I've not tried it myself although it's only 70p to try it for an hour so I might as well have a go. Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins has written about the experience and was very impressed by the graphics, but less by the controls.