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

November 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a 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.

onlineTED polling

October 14, 2014 at 11:30 am | Posted in student response systems | Leave a comment
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onlineTED https://onlineted.de/ is a free online polling service for educators developed by the Technical University of Munich which has over 5000 users and won an Innovations in Teaching Award 2013.

Running a poll

As a tutor, your first step is to create an account and log in. The main screen displays a large QR code that students can snap with their phones directly from the screen in the lecture hall. There is also a URL and access code for students using laptops or non-QR-enabled devices. There is no need for students to create an account; they just need to enter the access code for the poll.

As soon as tutor starts a poll, students see the answer choices (only) on their mobile devices, not the question or any media. The question, media and answer choices are all displayed on the tutor’s screen, as well as the URL and access code in case students need to reconnect.

Students make their choice by touching or clicking a choice. This is immediately recorded and they cannot change their choice afterwards. The number of votes is shown at the bottom of the screen (in German, e.g. 17 Stimme)

The tutor starts a 6-second countdown, shown graphically on screen, then the results are automatically displayed as bars showing the % who voted for each option. The length of the bar is proportional and the correct answer (if there is one) is coloured green rather than blue.Tutors can run more than one poll in a session if they wish, so for example they could do a quick in-class evaluation at the end in addition to the main educational poll.

A Quick Poll feature enables tutors to quickly evaluate student opinion using the following scales:

  • Nominal (yes/no/undecided)
  • Ordinal (very low/low/medium/high/very high)
  • Ordinal (very good/good/satisfactory/sufficient/insufficient)
  • Rating (strongly agree/agree/neither agree nor disagree/disagree/strongly disagree)

Creating a poll

Tutors can log in to prepare polls for use in class. The Poll Editor starts simple; all you do is enter the poll name and a single question with up to 5 answers. One of the answers can be selected as correct and a note (not displayed in poll) added. When this is saved, you are returned to the Poll Editor screen which lists all your polls, and you need to edit the poll to add further questions. The edit screen provides many more options: add question, show statistics and print view. Each question can be edited, deleted, re-ordered, or have a single media uploaded (max. 2MB GIF, JPG, PNG, MP3 and MOV).

Viewing results

The results are of course shown on-screen in class, and the tutor can use next/previous buttons to review the responses to any  question until they leave the poll. After that, they must use the Poll Editor to edit the poll to be able to view statistics. They must choose the exact time/date of their poll from a drop-down list of ALL polls by all users. They can compare results with a previous run of the poll (again chosen by exact date/time). Both these views (result and comparison) can be displayed in a print-friendly format.


This free system has many strengths; the simple interface, the ease of student access, the clear countdown and results display. The Quick Poll feature provides a simple way to quickly gain student feedback on impromptu questions. Drawbacks are that students cannot change their vote and that viewing results of a poll later involves knowing the exact date/time that it finished. Another concern is that as this free service grows in popularity, how will its developers fund its maintenance and infrastructure? One option could be for the project code to become open source, so institutions could run their own servers and join a community of developers.

Polls by Blackboard

October 13, 2014 at 11:48 am | Posted in software, student response systems | Leave a comment

This free beta service from Blackboard Labs enables educators to create simple multiple choice questions that students can vote on in-class using any device with web access. They control the poll using a web interface and see the results of the votes in real-time.

  • All users access the service via http://polls.bb/vote – there is also a dedicated iOS app.
  • US users can also use SMS text messages to vote.
  • Educators have to sign in with Facebook to create polls.
  • Voting in a poll can be anonymous or require a Facebook login.
  • The website needs you to share your location so you can join nearby polls, listed by name.
  • Alternatively, you can search for polls by name.
  • Questions can have between two and five answers.
  • Questions can include an uploaded image.
  • Answers can be rearranged by drag-and-drop.
  • Questions do not have ‘correct’ answer indication.

The educator uses the service to create the poll questions in advance of the session, then logs in during the session to open the poll.They can select the questions in any order (or use the next/previous buttons) and must click a button to open each question and enable voting. They click again to close a question and disable further voting. The tutor display shows a pie-chart summary of the voting which updates in real time as votes come in or students change their vote. When voting on all questions is concluded, the educator clicks a button to close the poll.

Once a poll is closed it cannot be re-opened, but you can review the saved pie-chart results, which show the % of voters who chose each option. You can however duplicate a closed poll to create a new poll, make changes if needed and run that one as normal.


This service offers free basic polls that are easy to create, manage and vote on using any web device. The ability to have a question image is very useful. The requirement for tutors to log in using Facebook may be a barrier to some. Tutors may need to minimise the browser window or run the poll from a separate device if they want to keep the voting secret until the students have voted and the question is closed.


October 13, 2014 at 11:15 am | Posted in Uncategorized, waffle | Leave a comment

This post should mark my return to this TELic blog after an absence of around 18 months. In the interim I have been heavily involved in the production of FutureLearn MOOCs for the University, so to start with there was lots of interesting stuff that I couldn’t talk about (commercial confidentiality) and then so much to do that I simply didn’t have time to post about it. There may well be some reflective catch-up posts about that experience, but for now I just want to write a few quick reviews of online ‘student response systems’ that facilitate in-class voting and feedback.

Oh, and the unit I belong to has transformed from CITE (Centre for Innovation in Technologies and Education) to ILIaD (Institute for Learning Innovation and Development). Onward and upward!

Different Trains

February 27, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

[full screen viewing recommended]

Different Trains is all about the widening gap between the educational experience of the rich and poor – or these days between the rich and everyone else. There is a concern that MOOCs could be seen as a viable alternative to decent funding for education, and that elite universities will essentially go private while the rest go to the wall. In the video I explore the educational journeys taken by two young people just a few years in the future – in February 2026.

Kaz is studying online to gain the qualifications he needs to gain a contract job with an online insurance business, and this involves working his way through virtual reality business simulation games in which he needs to get a good score to progress to the next level. The system provides him with personalised feedback to help him, but each level costs – so this is education by instalments.

Lucy, on the other hand, has wealthy parents and is having the ‘Oxford experience’ at the University of Edinburgh – so lots of personal tutorials and the opportunity to build the network of contacts that lead to a top job. As always, it is not just what you know, but who you know…

Their story is told through the phone messages they send and receive. Kaz is on his way to a face-to-face job interview (having presumably passed the online interviews) while Lucy is returning from Milan where she was fitted with cybernetic eye lens that provide access to Vir (the name in the story for the digital information space). Invented jargon is used to make the language unfamiliar – so for example HiNet means wealthy (High Net Worth) but also encompasses class distinction from LoNets – and Lucy’s friends display some contempt for them. As for the hùndàn zhōngo lawyers… well, you can guess…

Technically, the entire thing was created using PowerPoint:mac 2011 and a collection of Flickr CC images. I used the animation timing to fine-tune the appearance of each message and was really pleased that it required very little fiddling to get it to match the wonderful music sevenhundredbeats by Duncan Beattie that I found on ccMixter. I recorded the video using an evaluation copy of Camtasia 2 for Mac. Overall effort was around 10 hours but quite a lot of that was spent searching for the right images and music.

Reflections on the edcmooc

February 27, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Posted in MOOC | Leave a comment

I’ve really enjoyed the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC run by the University of Edinburgh through Coursera. Its tutors have created a really engaging alternative to the usual xMOOC formula (course = recorded lectures + readings + MCQ tests + forums) by basing the first four weeks around some fantastic short films from YouTube and Vimeo. Many of these have had an SF flavour appropriate to the course themes of utopias, dystopias, and being human in a digital age – but crucially each is accompanied by a few fairly deep questions to consider while you watch the film and discuss afterwards in the forums.For example, the short film Sight has the following text:

Sight explores how the ubiquity of data and the increasingly blurry line between the digital and the material might play out in the sphere of human relationships. The focus on the emerging social and educational use of game-based ‘badging’ is particularly interesting. What is going on here, and how do you interpret the ending? How does this vision align and contrast with the ones in the first two films?

One or two carefully selected academic papers provide some depth each week, but overall the course doesn’t have much content. I’ve appreciated the space that has created for thinking and discussion – other MOOCs I have sampled have an abundance of content to transmit. If I had a criticism of the course, it is that although it was advertised as “an invitation to view online educational practices through a particular lens – that of popular and digital culture.” it (in my opinion) views future possibilities rather than current realities. However, even if it isn’t quite what it said on the tin (or maybe I just mis-read the label) I like the flavour and texture a lot!

This final week is where we submit our assignments, and the tutors have given us the widest scope possible to exercise our imaginations and creativity within some clear assessment criteria. The peer review process starts tomorrow, and my next post will cover my own submission.

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