Using interactive scenarios in class

October 21, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Posted in educational, student response systems, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My colleague James Wilson has been using a technique called Forum Theatre since 2004 to help engage Health Science students in complex issues around the lived experience of people with mental health problems, in particular their interactions with the health care system. He works with other staff and students to devise a short improvised play that exposes the issues, which they then perform in class. The audience can interrupt the play at any point and suggest alternative courses of action; the cast improvise to show how that might affect the outcome. The play is usually run several times during the session to explore the various choices and consequences.

James has also experimented with using in-class voting using Turning Point clickers to allow the whole class to suggest alternative courses of action. At specific points a voting slide is displayed and the students chose which option they favour; the play proceeds based on the most popular choice. This also simplifies rehearsal since the play is now a branching scenario with a small set of fixed decision points, although much of the script is still improvised.

Although this technique is highly effective and gets great feedback, it does require a good deal of rehearsal time and a cast prepared to improvise in front of an audience. I wondered if a slide-based scenario using in-class polling could provide similar educational benefits, and have developed a small demo to show how it might work. A key principle is that students should discuss the choices in small groups (e.g. ‘turn to your neighbours’, so this would work with large cohorts in a tiered lecture theatre) before voting individually.

I believe this approach has applications in many disciplines, from health sciences and medicine to engineering, business studies, environmental studies, languages – in fact any topic where the tutor can imagine a learning scenario.

Creating an interactive scenario

The first step is to sketch out the scenario, using pencil and paper or a tool like Visio. The scenario comprises a collection of nodes linked by choices. In the planning stage, each node is just a short description (e.g. “get on train”). Make sure your nodes are initially widely spaced so you can easily add extra nodes between them as the scenario develops. Longer scenario should be structured into distinct segments that are connected by just one or two choices. I think that all the Fighting Fantasy adventure game books by Ian Livingstone that I played when I was young were great training for this style of writing!


I then created an template slide with areas for the story text, an image and the choices; with a bit more thought I would have used a Slide Master for this. I copied the template to create one PowerPoint slide for each node, each with a descriptive title (e.g. “Catch the first train”). Images were used to help make the scenario seem more ‘real’.

Each node should not have more than a couple of short paragraphs; if students need to view detailed information about the scenario, make it available online or on paper. The writing is perhaps the most challenging part; it needs to be authentic, concise and carry the story along. The choices should guide student discussion that supports the learning outcomes, and it should not be trivial to identify the ‘correct’ choice.

Both Turning Point and Meetoo make it easy to convert a numbered list of choices into a polling question. For technical reasons this needs to be done before the next step, which is to link each choice to the relevant slide. In PowerPoint, select the choice’s text, right-click and choose Hyperlink > Place in this document > target slide title. Good descriptive titles for each slide greatly assist this process and also contribute to the storytelling of that node by setting the context.


The final step is testing; making sure that all the links work correctly and that the scenario guides the students to the discussions you want them to have. You may want to add extra links that make it easy to jump back from a node that describes a poor outcome to an earlier node so that students can make a different choice.

MeeToo online polling

March 31, 2016 at 4:24 pm | Posted in student response systems, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


MeeToo is designed as a business tool to support meetings and conferences, but provides some strong educational features. Its overall design is clean and modern, and I found the user interface simple to understand and quick to use. The messaging feature in particular offers some interesting new ways to communicate with the class, get comments/questions/feedback from them and make it easy for students to indicate which of these they agree with. The free PowerPoint add-in offers similar ease-of-use to TurningPoint and really integrates the questions into your slides.

Meetings: A collection of poll questions are called a Meeting, which are named (e.g. MANG1001 week 1) and have a defined start and end date/time. Each meeting has a unique nine-digit ID (eg 121-284-301) which students will use to access the questions and vote. An Invite button makes it simple to send an email with the key details, including a link to the iOS and Android apps. Students can also vote using any modern web browser.

Messages: If enabled (default is ON), Messages can be sent by the Host (tutor) to all students, and students can send messages which again everyone can read.  The Host can edit or manually hide any message. The Host can also activate Moderation (default is OFF) which means that all new messages are stored in an area called Needs Review. The Host can then drag these to another area; Reviewed, Published or Hidden. This enables the Host to select which messages students see in a very controlled way.

A ‘thumbs-up’ icon next to each published message enables students to quickly indicate their agreement, and provides another way to gauge opinion and conduct quick polls based on student suggestions. In a lecture it would also enable students to easily provide feedback to the tutor about which questions (from other students) they would most like the tutor to address.

A neat feature for the Host is the ability to activate a ‘Projector’ mode that opens a new browser window that just shows the messages in a chosen area (e.g Reviewed)  as well as the number of ‘likes’ each is receiving. It looks like this will work best for say 5 or 6 chosen messages without scrolling.

Polls: All questions are simple multiple choice or multiple response with a set number of allowed selections. Results can be shown as number of votes, % of votes, or both. To create a question the tutor just types the question text and the answer choices (one per line). There is no support for formatting, maths or images. The interface makes it easy to duplicate, delete or edit questions. Polls can be individually opened and closed by the Host, and student votes are immediately shown on the tutor’s screen. Again there is a ‘Projector’ mode that opens in a new browser window and shows the current question and answer choices, but not the live polling results. When polling is closed the tutor can push the results to the ‘projector’ and to the students’ screens.

PowerPoint Add-in: this free download for Windows PowerPoint (only) uses Microsoft’s .NET framework, which may require an additional download depending on your version of Windows. It adds the MeeToo ribbon to PowerPoint which makes it easy to add questions to new or existing presentations. Standard slides that have the question as the slide title and the options as a bulleted list can be automatically converted to a question slide. It is also possible to add Analysis slides that either a) show the results of up to six polls on the same screen, b) recall the results of a previous poll or c) total the results of up to six polls. Options a) and c) require all polls to have the same number of answer options. Display options include the ability to hide the results, show a countdown clock, play sounds  during and at the end of polling, and (very neatly) select chart elements so they can be easily formatted and styled to match the rest of the presentation. All of these are ‘per slide’ – there is no way to apply these choices to all slides. A ‘sample results’ button simplifies testing of questions if required.

The tutor needs to access their MeeToo account in advance to set up the Meeting, since the meeting ID (as well as their username and password) is required to connect PowerPoint. A button on the toolbar then provides instant access to the MeeToo web dashboard. Questions created in PowerPoint are copied to the dashboard when the questions are displayed.

During the presentation, question slides are initially displayed with polling disabled and the tutor must press Enter to start polling (and the countdown timer if used) and Enter again to stop polling and display the results (unless hidden by choice).

Cost: MeeToo offers a free educational licence for up to 100 students/lecture. Annual licences are available for 500 students (£845) and 1000 students (£1495) but this is for a single user (tutor) and although this might be awkwardly sharable between a programme team, there is no multi-tutor site licence available.

Skeleton notes -helpful and effective?

March 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Posted in educational | Leave a comment

The idea underpinning skeleton notes (also called guided notes) is a simple one; students are provided with a set of lecture notes that has gaps where selected key details and formulae should be, and fill in these gaps during the lecture. There might also be charts, graphs, diagrams and maps which need lines drawn, axes labelled, data values added etc.

The aim is to scaffold students’ ability to create well-structured notes that contain an appropriate level of detail and to reduce the amount of time (and therefore attention) they need to write the notes, while at the same time helping them to maintain attention during the lecture. Far too many students try to write everything down, making it difficult for them to actually process what is being said and creating notes that are difficult to use as revision aids.

Skeleton notes are also good for dyslexic students, since they greatly reduce the amount of text that needs to be written and so make it possible for them to take their own notes during a lecture. They would also work well for a student who missed a lecture and caught up using a recording – they could take their own notes instead of copying a friends.

A useful paper is Do Guided Notes Improve Student Performance? by John Morrow (2012) which provides a good introduction to guided notes, a literature review and a study which reveals some surprising results:

“It is interesting to note that while there was no significant difference in performance between students in the two semesters, the majority felt that guided notes were extremely beneficial to their success in the class. With respect to the in-class benefits, 82% responded that they were better able to pay attention to the presentation while using guided notes and 73% reported that guided notes helped them retain more of the material because they used guided notes. Additionally, 76% preferred using guided notes over taking their own notes, stating that guided notes better organized the material. Regarding the usefulness of guided notes for test preparation, 88% stated that guided notes helped them prepare for exams.”

So lots of benefits, but none of them translated into improved exam performance! That said, this is only one study, and others he cites did show improvements.

A quick green-ink rant about the awfulness of 3-slides-per-sheet PowerPoint printouts. Many tutors put too much text on their slides (slides are not substitute lecture notes!) so the text is unreadably small – and these printouts ‘excuse’ students from taking their own notes, which we all know are a key way for them to identify key details, organise that information and link it to previous knowledge.

Poll Everywhere user group

February 12, 2016 at 11:03 am | Posted in student response systems | Leave a comment
Tags: ,


Monday saw the first meeting of the UK HE/FE Poll Everywhere user group, held at Regent’s University London in an oasis of green at the heart of that city. The attendance of around 35 people shows the level of interest in Poll Everywhere, a system which has its roots in education.

Dani Arama, PE’s education support manager, had flown in from San Fransico, and gave us an quick tour of new features and a heads-up of others still in development – for example an attendance tool. She was also able to clarify some of our questions about licencing and it was reassuring to hear that if (for example) you paid for 2000 licences, there was no hard ‘cut off’ and that there would just be a discussion with PE about moving to a more suitable plan. In addition, she said that with prior negotiation some exceptional uses could be taken into account, such as use at a one-off big conference. This is clearly a different model to that we have with ResponseWare, where I’ve had to set up a shared calendar to help tutors ensure that we don’t exceed our licence limit (250) to avoid some students not being able to vote.

There were three presentations from current users:

Jorge Freire from City University London outlined their pilot project to evaluate and compare Poll Everywhere and ResponseWare. Areas of interest include integration with their VLE, analytics and reports, account management, authentication and ease of use in practice. They will also be exploring tutor’s concerns about the use of mobile phones in class and the increased potential for distraction.

Darren Gash from the University of Surrey discussed their move from Turning Point clickers available through library loans to Poll Everywhere. Some students were reluctant to borrow and use the clickers as their ws a £50 fine if they lost it, and in a survey 87% of 149 students preferred using own device to clickers, and 93% of 150 found PE easy to use. He also introduced two case studies – in one, students studying a ‘Pyschology and Education’ module discussed a topic in class then typed their individual 100-150 response into an open text question. The tutor downloaded all the responses, gave each brief feedback and uploaded that as a single document to the VLE the following day. Initially student answers were shorter and the tutor feedback longer, but as the weeks went on that reversed – they provided better, more detailed answers and less feedback was required.

Denis Duret from the University of Liverpool shared the outcomes of a comparative study between card Communicubes, Turning Point clickers and Poll Everywhere; 62% of students preferred PE. The clickers were seen as more reliable and less distracting than phones, but students didn’t like cost. Again, their were staff concerns about the use of mobile phones in class.

The user group also discussed ideas for activities and meetings; the preference was for regular webinars plus an annual face-to-face event.

Voting for Fidel

January 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Posted in student response systems, waffle | Leave a comment

Winning poster by Daniela Healey

Yesterday I was pleased to be able to help my friend and colleague Dr Denise Baden run an X-Factor style gala event at which five groups of young people from schools and colleges performed their own songs about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. The aim is to ‘crowd-source’ a complete musical, and the first performance will hopefully take place in Southampton later this year.

My role was to manage the audience voting using TurningPoint and clickers, so I worked with Denise to design the slides provided technical support at the event. I suggested that the voting slides used 1-5 stars instead of rating each song from ‘very good’ to ‘not good’ and I wasn’t happy with the middle ‘neutral’ choice… what does it mean to be neutral about a piece of music?

The event was thoroughly enyoyable… and quite stressful! I had my fair share of technical problems with the audio (from the laptop to the PA system), Turning Point (despite prior testing) and the data projector (which wouldn’t show the whole screen, so I had to re-design the slides). However, the five performances were fantastic and in the end ‘it all went alright on the night’. The audience votes (around 240) were hurriedly combined with those from the expert musical panel and the winner’s certificates presented. The clickers were also used to quickly gather research data from the audience to help evaluate the impact of the project – we all need to ‘show impact’ these days!

You can find out more about the project and listen to some of the music at its website and Facebook page. Viva La Revolution and Hasta La Victoria!


Saving the planet, one picture at a time

December 10, 2015 at 5:17 pm | Posted in software, Uncategorized, waffle | 1 Comment
Tags: , ,


I like to think that I take quite a good photo, and on rainy lunchtimes I will often while away some time on the Digital Photography Review website to gain inspiration and keep up to date. Today I read an article about an improved method of compressing standard JPEG images that can lead to reductions in file size from 20-40% for typical web-page images up to 50-80% for full resolution camera images. And the technology, JPEGmini by BEAMR, is available now as a stand-alone program, a plug-in, a server or a web service, and claims to be able to make these reductions with no perceptible loss in visual quality. There is a free trial version for both Windows and Mac PCs, or you can use the free web service.

For me, the appeal would be to significantly reduce the space taken by my iPhoto library (currently around 15,000 photos) without reducing image quality. And of course backing up those images to cloud storage or uploading them to the Photobox print service I use would be significantly quicker. The $20 stand-alone app will do batch conversion, so it won’t take me much effort either.

This quote by the developer, Dror Gill (whose father Aaron Gill was one of the chief scientists who worked on the original JPEG standard in the 1980s) caught my eye:

“There are a lot of terabytes wasted by files that are larger than they need to be. There is no point using bytes and bits that are not visible to humans. The industry is doing it all the time. Maybe we should calculate how many exabytes are being wasted every day – the inefficiency of normal JPEG compression pollutes the environment.”

And the point here is that the storage and transmission of images has a real cost; disk storage and network transmission consume energy – a lot of energy when you consider the billions of images taken, uploaded, stored and viewed on the internet every day. Social media users upload and share around 2 billion images per day. In 2013 it was estimated that the internet used 10% of the world’s energy supply, more than aviation! So a simple technology that minimises the storage required for images and the bandwith needed to transmit them could really make a significant impact on global energy use. But not as much as more efficient video and audio compression methods…

CMALT: professional status for people who support learning using technology

December 1, 2015 at 11:51 am | Posted in communication, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


I was delighted to read that Elizabeth Charles, Head of E-Services & Systems at Birkbeck, University of London, has become the 300th person to achieve CMALT and become a Certified Member of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT). I gained CMALT in 2009, soon after the scheme started, and have assessed one or two applicants a year since then. I am pleased to say that I was lead assessor for Elizabeth and thought that she submitted an exemplary portfolio that clearly evidenced her deep understanding of the Birkbeck learners and the ways in which she could use technology to support their learning. Well done!

A small group of ILIaD staff are also now in the process of developing their CMALT portfolio applications, so if you are interesting in joining us or finding our more, please get in touch. You can read more about CMALT and the application process on the ALT website.

Informal learning spaces in student halls

November 30, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Posted in educational | Leave a comment
Tags: ,

Mayflower informal learning space

I’m involved in the University’s Common Learning Space (CLS) working group, helping to plan the institution’s teaching facilities, and have just completed an analysis of a survey of academics’ experiences teaching in these rooms. I hope to include some of these findings in a later blog post, but one immediate outcome was a meeting with David Podesta, Senior Estates Manager for our Residential Services.

He wanted to show me round a new informal learning space on the ground floor of the University’s new Mayflower Halls, a development of multi-story flats in the centre of the city with 1100 study bedrooms. When I visited it on a rainy Monday morning there were only a couple of students working together, but it is really well used in the evenings and late into the night, providing students with a social alternative to lone study in their bedrooms. There are a variety of tables and chairs, a coffee machine and a handful of bookable group study spaces (see photo) with a screen to enable students to share the output from a laptop or tablet. We talked to the students and they really liked using the space, but asked for a printer to be available – so some valuable feedback from its users!

The aim is to develop similar spaces in all the halls of residence, perhaps repurposing the student bars which are struggling to remain profitable as students adopt a culture centred on cafes and clubs. The University has already invested in similar social learning spaces on campus, so the move to decentralise them is an interesting and welcome initiative.

TEAMMATES peer feedback system – review

November 13, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Posted in systems | 1 Comment
Tags: ,

Diagram showing TEAMMATES features

TEAMMATES ( is a free online system that facilitates anonymous peer feedback between students working in groups. It has been developed since 2010 by academics and students at the School of Computing and the Centre for the Development of Learning and Teaching at the National University of Singapore, and their intention is to keep it as a free service. My view is that it is a well-designed, mature system that offers an excellent user interface and experience. It runs on the Google App engine which provides strong stability and scalability, enabling it to cope with large cohorts and groups.

Tutors do need to have a Google account to use TEAMMATES, but students do not need one and can submit responses and view their feedback without ever needing to login or sign up. However, if they do login to TEAMMATES using their Google account, they can access all their TEAMMATES courses and feedback in one page and create a user profile.

Here is an overview of the process:

  1. Tutor logs in to TEAMMATES, creates a course and enrols the students/teams by simply copying the data from a spreadsheet (team, name, email, comments).
  2. Tutor creates a session and adds the questions they wish to ask. It is easy to copy and then edit an existing session.
  3. When the session opens (at a scheduled time) the students are emailed a unique link that they use to access their feedback form.
  4. The tutor can view the responses submitted at any time.
  5. Students are sent a reminder email 24 hours before the session closes (at its scheduled time). Extra reminders can be sent manually if required.
  6. After the session closes the tutor can review the results and then click publish to email the students with a unique link to view their individual feedback.
  7. The tutor can download the session results as a spreadsheet file. The results could be used to adjust individual student grades for group projects depending on their peers’ assessment of their contribution.

A real strength of TEAMMATES is the range of question types available and the flexibility of the feedback paths and visibility that can be easily assigned to them. For example, the question below asks students to provide feedback to the other members of their team about their ‘contribution to team meetings’ by choosing an option. The visibility has been set so that the feedback is anonymous, and only visible to the recipient (of the feedback).

TEAMMATES question creation 1

However, note that many other visibility options are available, so if the question asked for comments about ‘strengths that the student brought to the team’ then that feedback could be shared with the rest of their team and the givers identified. This opens up many interesting possibilities for generating constructive formative feedback for developing effective teams and team skills.

The rubric question format makes it easy for students to provide feedback on a range of issues using a compact format. The rubric can also be shared at the start of the project so that the students have clear guidance on the behaviours that are needed to get good marks.

TEAMMATES question creation 2

The overall ease of use of the system is also a major plus, as it encourages multiple formative feedback activities during a group project/assignment. For example, near the start of the project a simple session (form) could provide team members with early feedback on whether their performance requires improvement. Later on, another session could be used to help the team keep on track, then a final session could be used to assess effort, contribution and teamwork and summatively use the scores to individualise grades.

ParticiPoll – review

November 6, 2015 at 12:46 pm | Posted in student response systems | Leave a comment

ParticiPoll is a online service that enables simple polls to be added to Powerpoint presentations. At the moment it only works with Windows and PowerPoint 2010 or later – see their how-to guide for a overview of its use.

The system enables presenters to add a multiple-choice poll (6 choices max) to any slide that lists those choices using A-F bullets. Voters use any web browser to navigate to a unique URL – in my case – to make their choice. The add-in makes it easy to add a large QR code to a slide to simplify access. The voting screen always shows six possible choices and does not refresh after each vote – I liked this and thought it made it really easy to use – just click to vote when a new poll is shown. The free version shows adverts, but they did not seem to be intrusive.

ParticiPoll voting interface

The presenter can see the number of votes cast and the resulting bar graph is hidden until they advance the presentation. The vertical bars show the % and number of votes for each option.

In the free ad-supported version, there is no limit on the number of voters or the number of polls per presentation. Pro licences are available for $10 per month or $100 per year, and enable customisation, private polls, and download of poll data. Crucially, they also enable live audience comments which are shown on a separate web page.

Overall, I thought this was a really easy to use system, and the availability of a low-cost monthly licence with audience comments makes it ideal for occassional events.


It requires an Add-In to be downloaded and installed, so if academics wish to use it in teaching rooms they will need to install it on a laptop and use that to present. Alternatively, ParticiPoll also provide a macro-enabled file that needs to be run before you open your presentation – I tried this and it seemed easy enough to do at the start of each lecture.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: