Zappers zapped.

December 4, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Posted in student response systems | Leave a comment

SRS handet being struck by lightningAfter seven years of use, I’ve decided it is time to zap the zapper – no one else uses that term and it really doesn’t describe what they do at all. So all hail the clicker.

Now to update a pile of documentation and web pages…

Stumbling into some pitfalls with ResponseWare

December 4, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Posted in student response systems | Leave a comment
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I’ve just run a session introducing the online ResponseWare Student Response System to some academic colleagues, and have identified some pitfalls… by stumbling straight into them. I should start by saying that I think online SRS are the way to go, especially now most students have a smartphone, and all of our lecture spaces have excellent Wi-Fi following an ambitious upgrade project. ResponseWare has the advantage that it integrates perfectly with the Turning Point clickers that are already in widespread use across the university, and that it therefore minimises the learning curve for tutors and does not require them to recreate their resources and quizzes for a new system.

So, the gotchas were:

  • If possible, iOS and (especially) Android users should install and use the ResponseWare app rather than using web-browser access; it gave a reliable and superior user experience. Of course the app needs to be up to date (v2) and will need updating again before the end of the year following another upgrade to the ResponseWare service.
  • If not, iOS and (especially) Android users should use an up-to-date version of Chrome rather than the default browser. I had one user with an iPad v1 (iOS 5) and another with a Samsung tablet using the default Android browser (Internet) – neither  of which worked.

There was also an embarrassing gotcha in my presentation:

  • The response grids for my short-answer questions used an unreadably pale grey from the slideshow’s colour scheme; I should have tested the presentation first before delivering it. Mea maxima culpa…

One of the attractions of ResponseWare is that students without suitable mobile devices (or have run out of battery charge) can be given a clicker so they can still take part in the voting. The tutor just needs to bring a small number of clickers (enough for 10% of the cohort perhaps) as well as a USB receiver. This will work fine for multiple choice questions, but will not work for short-answer questions – and this may become an issue as tutors start to take advantage of the short-answer questions enabled by ResponseWare.

One of the participants asked whether requiring students to use their phones/tablets/laptops in sessions will simply encourage them to become distracted by Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat etc. etc. etc. My answer was that there are plenty of legitimate uses for such devices (such as notetaking or looking up references) and that we need students to develop the self-control to pay attention to their own learning as well as our teaching – especially if it has been made more engaging through the use of SRS and the pedagogic techniques they facilitate.

Nevertheless, this seems like a good place to repeat that link to to a post by Clay Shirkey which includes strong evidence against the use of laptops, tablets and phones in class, except when specifically requested by the tutor. He argues that they are a constant (and highly effective) form of distraction, and that multi-tasking interferes with learning: “Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.”

Perhaps academics need to devise educational approaches that require students to make effective use of their mobile devices, which scaffold and help model good practice while discouraging off-topic uses. I suspect that social (collaborative) learning will be at the heart of this since it is the lone (isolated) student who has the greatest motivation to get distracted by communicating with friends or browsing around something that seems more interesting than a didactic lecture.

Bridging the Gap – supporting new distance learners

December 2, 2014 at 5:55 pm | Posted in distance, educational | Leave a comment

Mark Brown slide showing digital campfires quote

An interesting presentation at the ELESIG event hosted by Southampton Solent University, in which Professor Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University, talked about the project Experiences of First-time Distance Learners [full report].  This explored the transition of learners from college to university with an especial focus on online students in their first few weeks, driven by concerns about retention and completion.

In 2011 OECD data showed the New Zealand completion rate was 66%, while in the UK It was 79%. But of course there is wide variability between institutions and the kinds of students they cater for, and NZ has a much larger proportion of distance learners.

“Institutions have a moral and financial responsibility to improve student retention”

The project’s key research objective was to improve the supports and services available for first-time distance learners, and to utilise the students’ voices on their experiences.  20 ‘typical’ learners produced video diaries, created with the aid of a ‘reflective prompt framework’. Ethical dilemmas were encountered with example learners who were struggling – they were provided with individual help but of course this affected the study. And how to compare their very different stories?

It seems that 25% of distance learners are ‘support seekers’ who actively search out the help they need while the other 75% are ‘lone wolves’ who didn’t really want to interact.  Life happens… so for example there was a mismatch between first two weeks of university term and school holidays for learners with children… and mostly they had no idea what the reality of distance learning entails. A key finding was that having clearly articulated study goals really helped with resilience and success.

“Metaphorically, how can we use the new digital technologies to provide caves, campfires, watering holes and mountain tops which promote a stronger sense of belonging and connectedness?”

And of course we are really talking about the affordances of those spaces: individual study and reflection, storytelling, social exchange, and celebrating successes.

Finally, he made the point that MOOCs can give learners a taste of being an online learner in their chosen discipline, as part of a cohort – so they can really start to understand the amount of time, effort and self-discipline required.

Using Student Response Systems to build student’s Academic Self Efficacy

November 28, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Posted in student response systems | Leave a comment
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Today ILIaD hosted a session by Dr Fabio Aricò, a lecturer in economics at the University of East Anglia who was awarded an HEA Teaching Development Grant to disseminate some really interesting practice – full details of the project including resources and presentations can be found on his website.

As I understand it, at the heart of Fabio’s project is a desire to improve his students’ Academic Self Efficacy (ACE) – in other words their confidence in their own ability and understanding of the subject, as well as their capability as independent learners. The way that he does this is to provide them with lots of feedback about their performance on in-class conceptual questions, answered using the Turning Point Student Response System. In an extension of Mazur’s Peer Instruction method, Fabio also asks the students how confident they are in their inital responses to the conceptual questions.

The data from Turning Point is processed  and the results form the basis for a written report that Fabio posts on the course website within a few days of the session. See below for an example of how the feedback makes good use of the data:


He also asks the students how difficult and interesting they found each session, and can track this over the course. The difficulty rating enables him to adapt his teaching, but also provides feedback on the amount of independent study that the students are engaging in. And of course the data also allows him to track attendance – with the students’ consent of course.

For me, the key messages were that the use of a Student Response System enabled ASE to be measured during learning throughout the course (rather than just at the end when the exam results are known) and that students really valued the regular, prompt and specific feeback that this method affords.

A bonus was Fabio’s strong recommendation to read this extremely useful article:

Nielsen, K.L., Hansen, G., and Stav J.B., (2013), “Teaching with Student Response Systems (SRS): Teacher-centric Aspects that can Negatively Affect Students’ Experience of Using SRS”, Research in Learning Technology, 21, accessed 27 June 2014, 14:00.

E-Learning with Camtasia Studio

November 26, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Posted in lecture recording, software | Leave a comment

E-Learning with Camtasia Studio book coverI’ve been a fan of Camtasia for some years now, and this screen recording/video editing software has been the subject of several posts on this blog, so I wasn’t too surprised when I was approached by Packt Publishing to review their ebook E-Learning with Camtasia Studio. Weighing in at 188 pages, it turned out to be a really useful introduction to the thinking, processes and planning required for almost any multimedia learning/training resource, as well as covering Camtasia-specific features. The author, David B. Demyan has obviously has a great deal of practical experience in using Camtasia to produce interactive learning and communicates this clearly in his writing.

As mentioned, a significant portion of the book is devoted to non-technical but essential issues, from establishing the learning outcomes and the learner profiles to planning, scripting and storyboarding. It goes on to cover the essentials of creating and editing using Camtasia – introducing each of the key features (such as pan-and-zoom) without un-necessary detail of every option. This is a good thing as there are plenty of other online resources including the TechSmith website that provide that level of detail. What is really useful and new, however, are the chapters on the addition of interactive features (hotspots, quizzes) and the integration with learning management systems using SCORM. Even if you already know Camtasia, you will probably find that these sections alone justify the modest cost. The e-book comes with a ZIP file of sample files that you can download so that you can follow through the exercises and example production – and this includes all the planning documents as well as the media files. Recommended.

Packt Publishing offer two further books on Camtasia by different authors – one on Advanced Editing and Publishing and another on Building an E-Learning Course with Camtasia Studio – and the latter seems to broadly cover the same material.

I’ve also been a long-time subscriber to Daniel Park’s helpful emails about Camtasia from, although I never got around to buying his well reviewed (but more expensive) Camtasia Guide. Prompted by writing this review, and looking through the sample chapters Daniel provides, I think that the book reviewed above is not as comprehensive, but provides better coverage of the topics it does include – and the example project management files are  the icing on the cake.

“Because we’ve always done it that way…”

November 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Posted in waffle | 1 Comment
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The ILIaD was launched on 3 November with a conference on the theme of ‘revolutionising education’. All members of ILIaD were encouraged to submit proposals, and I decided to tackle two entrenched features of Higher Education which I think are ideal targets for revolution. The first is the shocking under-utilisation of expensive buildings and facilities that seems to reflect a model of education 150 years old; why are they only used Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm for 30 weeks of the year? I accept that is a simplified view and that research facilities and study spaces such as the Library are used much more intensively, but it is still broadly true. The second is the straight-jacket of the hourly timetable for administrative convenience rather than educational need. We get lectures that are 50 minutes long (minus the time needed to set up and settle down) which is too long for anyone’s attention span if it is ‘just a lecture’ and too short if it is to be properly interactive. And don’t even get me started about three-hour lectures without a break and the wasted time moving between lectures…

When I found that my proposal had been accepted, but was to be a 7-minute Petcha-Kucha-style slot immediately after lunch, I realised that radical action was needed. It needed to be lively enough to wake people up, but wasn’t going to have any time to really unpack or discuss the issues. Inspiration arrived in the form of Hieroglyph, a bold project by Arizona State University and an anthology of ‘science-fiction’ stories that extrapolate current technologies to offer a positive vision of the future, in contrast to the more usual dystopias.

I framed the issues using a story; a history lesson from the future, delivered online by LearnU, one of the leading commercial universities in 2050. The lesson comes from a unit on ‘A century of educational revolution in the UK 1945-2045′ and compares current (early 21st century) university practice (utilisation and timetables) with the model offered by LearnU. Their ‘learning centres’ are located in rented retail units in shopping malls that are open from 7am-midnight, seven days a week, 51 weeks a year., and include café franchises so that students can socialise easily. The educational promise is ‘learn while you earn’, an explicit recognition of the fact that most students will need to have a job to survive while they study.

Their model is an easy-to-envisage extension of MOOC technologies and pedagogies that includes small-group (virtual) seminars facilitated by (under-employed freelance) postgraduates to provide the personal and individual mentoring that good education requires. I also suggest that  assessment technologies will have evolved to the point where they can provide automated feedback on essays – although peer assessment will also be an important part of the equation for both cost and educational reasons. The net result is that LearnU can provide degrees at a total cost of around £6000, spread over two to five years of part-time study, and that around 60% of students choose to study this way for reasons of cost and convenience. What about degrees such as medicine or engineering that require expensive labs? Well, in LearnU’s view those are ‘someone else’s problem’… perhaps industry’s or whatever is left of the NHS?

Needless to say, this has had a drastic impact on traditional public universities, many of which have failed financially. The story doesn’t say so, but it is clear that some elite universities continue to thrive, providing a first-class education for those who can afford it – or are lucky enough to be be awarded bursaries. This is definitely a two-tier system, with the elite institutions perpetuating the all-important social networks of the ‘haves’. See my video ‘Different Trains‘ for another story about this. This isn’t a vision of the future that I would welcome, although it does have some good features… so not entirely a dystopia. And I see LearnU as a consortium of EU public universities and academic publishers, so for some institutions it is a route to survival and growth.

My talk included two key questions:

  • What are the factors that prevent universities from breaking out of their current inefficient utilisation patterns?
  • What will universities need to do to enable them to not only survive but thrive in a world where commercial universities can offer a degree for £6000?

By all means post your thoughts to the comments…

FOOTNOTE: In the story I suggest that the currently-controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Programme (TTIP) is the key that enables US providers to start offering degrees in the UK. This may not be true, but a 2014 briefing paper written by the European Universities Association states:

The EU and the US have embarked on negotiations designed to culminate in a major trade deal. Will it lead to unrestricted market access to higher education services? This is not the first time that the issue has arisen. The question is complex, the implications uncertain, and the answer unknown.


November 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized, waffle | 2 Comments

ILIaD_TEThis Monday (3 November) saw the official launch event for ILIaD, the Institute for Learning Innovation and Development at the University of Southampton. I’ve supported the use of learning technologies at the university for 23 years now, and in that time I’ve always been part of teams with acronym names; the ILC, CLT, LATEU, TELE and most recently CITE. I think ILIaD is my favourite so far, but maybe that’s only because I’ve always been interested in the Greek myths and the tales of the Trojan war.

For those of you without the benefit of a classical education, the Iliad is Homer’s epic tale of the forbidden love between Paris and Helen of Troy, the wrath of her husband King Menelaus, the gathering by King Agamemnon of the greatest warfleet ever and the subsequent 10-year siege of Troy (the kingdom) and fair Ilium (the city). Both sides displayed the greatest heroism as well as despicable brutality and essentially fought each other to a bitter stalemate. It was only the cunning of Odysseus and his plan for a wooden horse that finally allowed the Greeks to take the city, burn it to the ground, slay and enslave its citizens and reunite Helen and Menelaus. A second epic tale, the Odyssey, tells of the ten year journey home for Odysseus as the gods and fates blow him this way and that.

If you want a highly readable version, I recommend Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by the excellent Alan Lee (who did much of the visual design for the Lord of the Rings movies). There is a companion volume, The Wanderings of Odysseus. Do not under any circumstances watch the execrable film Troy, with Brad Pitt – we’re still waiting for a decent retelling, but the all-star 1971 The Trojan Women tells of the aftermath from a female perspective.

ILIaD’s mission is to ‘revolutionise education’ at the University, perhaps by using the trojan horse of learning technologies to infiltrate new pedagogies into the ivory towers of academe? Let’s hope it doesn’t take us ten years!

making MOOCs: Archaeology of Portus

October 23, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Posted in MOOC | Leave a comment
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Archaeology of Portus was the FutureLearn course that I really wanted to be involved with, as I have always been interested in Roman archaeology and have visited many sites in Britain and Europe, including the extensive ruins of the ancient port of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber near Rome. Portus was an artifical port built about 3km up the coast to provide additional port capacity at the height of Roman Imperial power.

Almost my first task on joining the project was to push forward the completion of the promotional video trailer for the course. I saw a need for a map that showed the location of Portus and its relationship to Rome, and thought that it would be fitting if it looked like a mosaic. I started by finding a suitable map of Europe on Shutterstock and cropping it to the area, 16:9 aspect ratio and 1920×1080 resolution that we wanted:

stock-photo-old-map-of-the-world-Shutterstock 140319292

Image © Aleksandra Gigowska /Shutterstock

Image © Aleksandra Gigowska /Shutterstock

I then searched for advice about how to create a mosaic effect and found exactly what I needed on DKauffman’s blog. After some experimentation I arrived at the result I wanted, including colouring the tessarae (tiles) to show the extent of the Roman empire at in 117AD, when the Emperor Trajan constructed the fabulous hexagonal basin at Portus:

Mosiac map of Roman Mediterranean showing extent of empire in AD117

Mosiac map of Roman Mediterranean showing extent of empire in AD117© University of Southampton

Close up of mosiac image of Italy

Full resolution section of the mosiac showing effect. © University of Southampton

Of course it doesn’t really look like a Roman mosaic, which would mainly consist of roughly square tessarae – but overall I was very pleased with the effect. It forms the basis of several maps used in the course’s videos, for example showing the trade routes between Roman Mediterranean ports:

Mosaic map showing trade routes between Roman Mediterranean ports

Mosaic map showing trade routes between Roman Mediterranean ports © University of Southampton

The trade routes are speculative and there was some discussion with the academic team about whether we should show such definite routes, given their expertise from the Roman Port Network project. The Wikipedia article on Roman Commerce has a really interesting map showing the movement of goods around ‘Mare Nostrum’!

Going online to enhance face-to-face teaching

October 16, 2014 at 11:27 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This was the title of a talk by Professor Simon Lanacaster from UEA, who was visiting our Chemistry department. The lecture room was packed and his dynamic and enthusiastic presentation did not disappoint. His aim was, as far as possible, to get his audience to experience first-hand the methods that he has adopted to teach his courses in a radically different way – and that won him the Royal Society of Chemistry Higher Education Teaching Award in 2013 for “innovative use of technology to engage, challenge and enthuse students by blurring the boundaries between the internet and the lecture theatre.

Right at the start he encouraged us to avoid taking our own notes and to tweet our comments and observations instead using the hashtag #sotonpeer. The idea is that Storify could be used after the session to weave the best tweets into a coherent summary – and true to his word, he made that available at 1am this morning, just 8 hours after the talk. In everyday use this task would fall to the students and there might be several alternative summaries to choose from.

Maybe we (the audience) need more practice or advice on how to tweet effectively, but in my opinion the Storify fails to capture much of what was said and includes a lot that is irrelevant (if amusing). But there are a few gems in there – in particular Richard Treves linked to a post by Clay Shirkey which includes strong evidence against the use of laptops, tablets and phones in class, except when specifically requested by the tutor. He argues that they are a constant (and highly effective) form of distraction, and that multi-tasking interferes with learning: “Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.” For myself, I did find that tweeting and reading others tweets during the session was a major distraction, and that the notes I took (I was bad and ignored his request) did capture the points I found interesting. Why didn’t I tweet them instead? Because they mostly took more than 140 characters. I also wonder how appropriate Twitter is for the diagram-heavy notes that chemistry requires.

Simon did say that he used Twitter comments by students as a source to guide ‘just-in-time’ teaching, adapting it to their concerns and questions. He also uses a Twitter widget in their VLE (Blackboard) so that students who choose not to use Twitter can still see the tweets from other students. He encourages students to post photos of their experimental results, and they are very motivated by getting responses from around the world. There is also a #hashtagane meme…

The session then moved on to the use of screencasts (screen and voice) and compared this to lecture capture (screen, voice and video). There is plenty of evidence that students use recorded lectures for last minute revision, binge-viewing all the lectures like a HBO Box Set shortly befor exams – hardly a good use of their time! A better idea is to flip the classroom, so that students view recorded material before they come to a session that can be much more interactive because it doesn’t have to transmit the content. The challenge is of course that student may come unprepared, and need to quickly learn that that is a bad idea. As Simon put it “Turning up to a flipped session is like attending a fancy dress party without dressing up, you’re missing out on the experience.”

Simon uses Camtasia Studio to create and edit his screencasts, and has used the advanced functionality of that application to produce ‘vignettes’ – a key chunk of a longer screencast that is augmented by quiz questions.These focused learning/revision resources are needless to say extremely popular with students. However, one challenge is the amount of tutor resource required to create these vignettes, and his solution is to get his undergrads to prepare and present presentations that are then recorded using Camtasia. The students are paired and allocated a revision topic. They produce a draft in PowerPoint which is reviewed by their tutor. Feedback is provided by adding narration to the PowerPoint. The drafts are also shared with their peers who give provide further feed-forward advice about how to improve them before they are presented. The recordings of the best presentations are then used as learning resources for future cohorts.

Throughout the session Simon used TurningPoint ResponseWare to gather instant feedback from the audience on the points he was making – for example “What would it take for your department to adopt some of the methods used today?” where option 1 was “An Act of God”! Handsets were available for any members of the audience who did not have a web-enabled  device to hand. This worked really well, although my phone battery was getting low by the end of the session and at present this is a concern as tutors make more use of in-class mobile technologies. That said, the latest phones have a fast-charge facility where they can recharge to 50% in just 15 minutes, so this is likely to be a non-issue in a couple of years.

The final part of the talk was on the benefits of peer learning, and the use of a Student Response System such as ResponseWare to faciliate conceptual questions that really get students to engage with and discuss the subject. This is of course based on the fully researched and proven learning gains of the Peer Learning techniques developed by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard. Simon’s advice is “Don’t ask recall questions in a flipped sessions; they need to be challenging and require understanding of a concept. Questions need to be in ‘the Goldilocks zone’ where not all students will be able to answer correctly.”. He has asked students to suggest possible answers in class, typed them directly into TurningPoint and polled the cohort. This has the advantage of crowd-sourcing student misconceptions rather than trying to anticipate them. I was amused that the example question Simon used required a basic understanding of the principle of accelleration under gravity, yet the majority of a room packed with PhD-level science academics failed to get it right, even after further ‘peer instruction’ discussion.

So a great talk with some excellent take-home ideas, with the benefits coming from the integrated use of a range of technologies and plenty of student activity and input.

making MOOCs: Exploring Our Oceans

October 14, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The first in an occasional series reflecting on some of the work I have done to assist the creation of FutureLearn courses.

Exploring Our Oceans was Southampton’s second course, and my contribution was to create some of the images and diagrams. One example I am really pleased with was for a step in week 2 ‘How much water is there on Earth?’. Learners were presented with the data they needed to calculate the answer to these three questions:

  • If the global oceans were of uniform depth, what would that depth be?
  • What is the ratio of the average depth of the oceans to the radius of the Earth?
  • If you could take all the ocean water off the planet to form a ball of water, what would be its radius?

We knew that many learners would not have the GCSE-level maths skills required, so I produced a set of four slides (PDF) that showed the answers to these questions using visual analogies that any learner could understand. For example:

  • The calculated uniform depth is 3743m, which I compared to the 3776m height of Mt. Fuji in Japan – so as deep as a mountain!
  • The ratio of depth to radius is 1/1700, which I compared to a sheet of office paper wrapped around a football.
  • The ball of water would be just over 1/10 of the radius of Earth, so about the same size as a pea compared to an orange.

For that final question, I also used PhotoShop to process a stock illustration from Shutterstock by Anton Balazh to show that ball of water hanging above North America and the oceans empty of water:

Sattelite view of North America showing a vast ball of water hanging in space.

Image © Adam Warren, based on a Shutterstock image by Anton Balazh.

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