Room at the top

January 18, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment

It is now nearly the end of my second week at Aston University, where I am now the Teaching Fellow for Technology Enhanced Learning in the School of Languages and Social Sciences (LSS). I am also part of the institutional Centre for Learning Innovation and Professional Practice (CLIPP) which in many ways is similar to how ILIaD was at Southampton. So I’m part of a central unit but based in a school (faculty).

My office is on the top 10th floor of the North wing of the main building, with panoramic views to the West of Birmingham. This was originally the College of Advanced Technology, opened by the Queen in 1955 and at the time was the second-largest brick building in the world, after Battersea Power Station. I found this architect’s impression in the lobby:

College of Advanced Technology - Birmingham 1955

The North and South wings were added in the early 1960’s and have little to recommend them; they make finding your way around difficult and the floors don’t line up, so you can walk down a corridor from the 9th floor of the North wing to the 7th floor of the main building. I’m spending more time in lifts that I have ever done before…


This shows the South wing’s subtle addition to the original design, as well as the Blue and red SkyLifts. There is also a Paternoster (up-and-over) lift, sadly no longer in operation.

The students are busy taking exams and the academics marking them, so during this liminal time I’m easing into my tasks and responsibilities here and learning how the systems work and who are the key people to make contact with.

I’ll finish with that view:




December 19, 2017 at 8:27 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment

The final day. After 30 years and 5 months I’ve reached the end of my time at Southampton and my attention turns towards Aston. And yes, it does feel very odd, but today has been a good final day.

It started with a couple of ServiceLine tickets about iSurvey; the first wanted to know if people could save their responses and return later to complete a survey. The answer was ‘yes’, but the online help wasn’t helpful so I corrected that. The other wanted to know if a survey could politely direct people who didn’t match specific requirements to the exit, and I politely pointed them to the relevant help page. I then helped my colleague Julie Reeves configure her new WordPress site that aims to help support Researcher Development and we talked about ways and means of attracting readers to her work. I love this combination of hands-on geekiness, just-in-time user training and consideration of the wider issues. Then it was on to a meeting with my long-time colleague and TEL pioneer, John Woollard from the Education School. We were meeting some of his PhD students for an informal chat about learning technologies, reflecting on the drivers and barriers to effective use of TEL in the classroom, especially in developing nations.

After lunch there was a Yule-log party with my friends Matt, Sam and Graham (amongst others) in the iSolutions ‘Managed learning Environment’ team. We’ve been two sides of the TEL-support coin since the turn of the century, and are a good example of the blurred lines between ‘learning technologist’ and ‘learning technologist‘. There was plenty of cake and a good deal of talk about learning to drive and cars we have known. Finally, I worked on an update to the Sustainable Hairdressing resource that I developed for Denis Baden as part of an ESRC project. There were a few minor edits, but the key activity was to automate the process by which learners gain their Sustainable Stylist certificate. The project funding has nearly run out, so they will no longer be gathering data via iSurvey and emailing certificates manually. I used a link from the final screen to a Google Form to gather the name and email address of people who completed the training, and then Form Publisher to use those details with a Google Slides template to generate a personalised PDF certificate which is automatically emailed to the learner. Magic!

So Long and Thanks for all the fish!

December 15, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish!

Back in July I wrote a post ‘30‘ which marked my thirtieth anniversary working at the University of Southampton. At the end of that week I applied for a job as a Teaching Fellow in Technology Enabled Learning at Aston University in Birmingham, and I’m pleased and excited to say that I was successful! So after three decades I’m leaving Southampton to make a fresh start in the Midlands…

I thought I ought to give a farewell lecture, looking back at all the units and projects I’ve worked for, and the colleagues I’ve worked with. I’m an inveterate hoarder, so I also had quite a few objects from those far-off days – from the first user guide I created in 1987 (for the Wordwise word processor on the BBC-B) to the ultra-thin 1.4kg Sony Vaio N505 laptop I bought for a project in 1999 (nearly a decade before the 1.36kg Macbook Air).

After some thought (inconveniently in the middle of the night) I came up with the perfect theme – ALIBABA or A Life in Buzzwords and Bad Acronyms – which pretty much sums up my career. Looking back through my file archives it is amazing how many buzzwords and acronyms I have worked with, so my talk goes from DTP to BYOD, via HTML and a couple of dozen others.

If you have 35 minutes to spare, I made a recording of the talk for posterity. My next post will be in the New Year, from my new job. Merry Yule and best wishes for the coming year.

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish – image by Mathiole – which you can get as a T-Shirt. Cool!

Green Gown awards

November 20, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Posted in educational | Leave a comment

Many congratulations to Simon Kemp, who just won a Green Gown award in recognition of his excellent work supporting sustainability. I was really pleased to see in the video that he is still using the UN Sustainable Development Summit game that we developed in 2012; this uses cards and simple rules to facilitate negotiation between teams of students representing global power blocs to get their preferred goals. We tweaked the rules in 2013 to reward and encourage co-operation between the less powerful blocs (e.g. Africa and India) and counter-balance the influence of the major players (US, China and Europe). The result is a really enjoyable and engaging educational game that teaches students about negotiation, the need for compromise and the difficulty of choosing which UN sustainable development goals to focus on.

Ian Cognito: an infamous academic

July 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Posted in MOOC, waffle | Leave a comment

A piece of work I did a few months ago has finally made it to the small screen, as FutureLearn’s English as a Medium of Instruction for Academics enters its second week.  I was asked to record a truly awful lecture to illustrate a whole gamut of behaviours that tutors should avoid. I’m involved in local amateur dramatics, and this sounded like a fun bit of theatre to devise. It had to be a fairly short lecture, and I chose a resource (old – so uses Flash) I had already made about copyright as the basis.

I thought about how I would bring in the various elements of bad practice, but the whole thing was recorded in one take without any rehearsal. You may note that I nearly corpse a couple of times, but manage to keep going. I was especially pleased with the cultural references to English children’s literature from the 1950s that would bamboozle any international students unfortunate enough to be in the audience.

So without any further introduction, here is Ian Cognito showing how not to do it…

I’d just like to point out that Ian Cognito is my evil twin and in no way reflects my actual teaching style. Just as Anna Nymyti is my ‘fake Polish student’ alter-ego I use for testing software systems… and I’ve just learned of a French cousin called Sue Denìmê…

Ally: a game changer for accessibility

July 12, 2017 at 10:55 am | Posted in educational, systems | Leave a comment
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Ally logo

Yesterday I attended a Blackboard webinar about their new system, Ally, and immediately saw that this would be a ‘must-have’ for any institution that is serious about improving the accessibility of their online resources. Ongoing changes to the Disabled Student Allowance have made institutions legally responsible for providing reasonable adjustments for students with learning differences and disabilities, and Ally offers three ways to meet that duty.

Automatic creation of accessible versions of resources

Ally integrates with Blackboard’s normal workflow, so tutors upload their files using the same process as they currently use (which now includes drag-and-drop) and the primary link is to that file (e.g. a Word, PowerPoint or PDF document). A new dropdown menu offers links to accessible versions; HTML, ePub, electronic Braille or audio file. These versions are only generated by Ally the first time a student requests it, and are stored by Ally so do not take up additional storage space on our Blackboard servers. Ally uses Amazon Web Services for processing and storage, and offers institutionally-controlled cloud storage if required.

I was really impressed with the quality of the conversion from original file to HTML. Ally uses sophisticated semantic structural analysis and machine learning to recognise headings, lists and tables and even deals with multi-column layouts, maths and equations. The HTML version is used as the basis for the other accessible formats.

So Ally provides students with accessible versions of documents without any additional effort or input from tutors. That in itself is a major win, but wait – there’s more…

Nudging tutors to improve the accessibility of their resources

When the tutor views the resource item in Blackboard, they see a small coloured ‘gauge icon’ alongside the link. Green indicates good accessibility, orange is so-so and red means it needs improvements. Clicking the icon brings up detailed feedback on what the problems are and what the impact on students is – for example if images embedded in the document do not have ALT text, then students with visual disabilities cannot access them at all. Ally also offers context-sensitive advice about the practical steps needed to resolve the issue (e.g. how to add ALT text in Word). Tutors can upload a revised version of the document and immediately see its improved rating.

Institutional oversight of accessibility data

The final aspect of Ally is designed to help institutions meet their legal duty by providing the data that enables accessibility to be measured and improvements to be tracked over time. It lists the most common issues, and identifies those modules that need significant work. The administrators can drill down to individual modules and resources, so care will need to be taken to ensure that tutors get appropriate support and advice and that this is not seen as a performance management tool.

The three aspects of Ally: 1) alaternative accesible versions 2) instructor feedback and 3) institutional report

It’s easy to see how these three aspects of  Ally work together to enable institutions to make a step-change in the accessibility of their learning resources – and that’s why I think Ally is a game-changer. How can an institution NOT offer this facility?

As a final note, I was really impressed that Ally already works with Blackboard, Moodle Rooms and Canvas Instructure, and will soon be available for stand-alone Moodle and even D2L’s Brightspace (Blackboard’s main rival). That’s the right move – accessibility for all!


July 7, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment

This week, it has been 30 years since I joined the University as the Desktop Publishing specialist in Computing Services. Back in 1987, a massive IBM 3090 mainframe provided most of the University’s computing power, supplemented by BBC B Micros and a wide variety of other early micro-computers. I was one of the lucky few to have an IBM XT 286 with a 6MHz 80286 processor, 640kB of RAM, a 20MB hard drive and a 13″ colour screen with VGA graphics showing 16 colours from a 256-colour palette at a resolution of 640×480 pixels. I used it with Ventura Publisher and the only HP LaserJet on campus to create user guides, posters and newsletters. This was pre-Windows; Ventura had its own graphical user interface (GUI) that used a mouse.

Today, I’m still lucky enough to have a state-of-the-art device; I’m typing this on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with a 2.2GHz Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a 12″ screen showing 16 million colours at a resolution of 2736×1824 pixels. OK, the screen is a bit smaller, but it is fully touch-enabled with pen input… and I have a lovely 27″ display plugged in to it. Today I’ve mainly been using it to author an interactive guide using Articulate Storyline.

And of course it has this thing called ‘The Internet’ that was still in its infancy when I started… Do I feel old? Not really, just experienced.

decentralised – delightful – digital

May 18, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Posted in event | Leave a comment
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Yesterday I went to see my colleague Adam Procter give a talk about his ongoing PhD research in Web Science. Adam is Programme Leader for Games Design and Art at our Winchester School of Art and always has interesting things to say about the intersections of learning, technology, design and culture. You can view the slides on his website.

He started with a provocative question “Why are the digital tools used by tutors so terrible, and why can’t anyone fix this?”. He graphically showed this by contrasting the 2-minute 20-click process required to upload and announce a PDF using Blackboard and the 10-second drag-and-drop equivalent using Slack. This wasn’t an entirely fair comparison as Blackboard stored the PDF in structured folders, while in Slack the PDF was an item in a linear timeline – and the latter approach makes it hard to find resources later, especially if keyword search is poor. For example if the PDF is called Lecture 5 Design Theories a search may find dozens of messages with one or more of those keywords. But the tutor could spend a further 10 seconds to drag-and-drop the PDF to a DropBox folder, thus enabling learners to also access and browse structured resources.

The first section of his talk focused on arguments for decentralised systems to support learning. A key concern is the way in which the dominant, centralised web companies (Google, Facebook and Twitter) track our interactions to commoditise our data and individualise (and constrain) our experience. This can be a good thing, but as we discovered during the Brexit campaign, it also led to “information bubbles” and the viral spread of fake news. In the education world, learning analytics privilege things that can be easily measured, which are not necessarily the things that really matter.

I make the case that digital technologies are being imposed upon formal learning environments, particularly focused within HE and often associated with the ‘student experience’ agenda. This imposition often reflects what amounts to a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, in which pedagogy is side-lined by neo-liberal practices of efficiency and surveillance.

Alan Bainbridge (2014) Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education

You can join the discussion about decentralised services on Adam’s research website.

The second section explored delightful design, and after a brief ghost-train ride through the everyday horrors of some of our institutional systems moved swiftly on to some examples of playful and elegant UI and UX (user interface and user experience). I particularly liked this diagram showing Aaron Walter’s hierarchy of user needs.

maslow-hierarchy-interface-design< I feel I ought to confess that writing this blog post is definitely a displacement activity to put off the awful moment when I need to continue developing our new Digital Learning website using SitePublisher, perhaps the most user-hostile system I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. >

I think that most of the delightful examples he showed are a result of three convergent factors; apps that need to do just one thing (excellently), hardware that easily supports animated interfaces, and authoring tools that simplify the creation of those interfaces. There is also a greater focus on designing UI and UX that guide users through process flows, such as booking an airline ticket. For example, I recently came across a great blog post by Issara Willenskomer on the 12 principles of UX in motion to improve usability.

In the final section, Adam introduced an early prototype for a digital tool to support learning. This involved linked nodes of information and reminded me conceptually of some of the visual tools I have played with over the years – in particular The Brain and the excellent (and free) CmapTools. My current go-to visual organisation tool is MindMeister, which enables sharable mind-maps. I thought his prototype focused too much on content creation and lacked support for social learning, but hey, it’s early days yet.

I also think that familiar tools and systems are more likely to be adopted than bespoke solutions – so at the moment I’m looking at the new Office 365 and thinking what a great learning environment it would make, with its seamless integration of file storage, communication and collaboration… plus some really neat content creation tools such as OneNote and Sway. Some features (Teams, Planner) are ‘very similar’ to popular tools but that’s a good thing (unless you are Slack or Trello).  It’s also a million miles away from being a decentralised service, but Microsoft really seem to be paying attention to the user experience – maybe not delightful, but pretty good and getting better all the time. So to finish with another provocative question “Which IT company do you think is bringing the most exciting innovations to market at the moment, and would you trust them with your data?”


Storyline video with embedded quiz questions

May 11, 2017 at 10:07 am | Posted in hands-on | Leave a comment

The Articulate Community was, as usual, immensely useful when I wanted to learn how to embed quiz questions in a video, and this post builds on advice and examples from David Anderson and Montse Anderson. In particular, I liked Montse’s use of Storyline’s Lightbox feature to show normal question slides on top of the paused video… but the template she provides does not include this feature, so I needed to figure it out for myself and ended up with an elegant hybrid of their two approaches. Try this for yourself by clicking the screengrab – and/or download the Storyline 2 .story file.

video quiz screenshot

Step-by-step process

  • Start by creating a slide for your video and a set of question slides.
  • Add a hotspot over the video, right-click on it and deselect Show Hand Cursor on Hover. This prevents learners from clicking on the video to pause it.
  • Press spacebar to play the video and tap the c key to add cue points when you want your questions to appear. The cue points show on the timeline and be dragged to fine-tune their timing.
  • Add a new layer to your video slide for the first question. I called this layer Q1marker.
  • Add a graphic marker to this layer – I used a circle with a ? You can set the size, colour, font, transparency and location as required. You should change its duration from the default 5s to whatever is required – so mine are on screen from 0s to 4s on the layer’s timeline. I also used animation to fade the object in and out (0.2s each); this looks much smoother than a sudden appearance and disappearance. Finally, I added a Hover state to the marker – I just changed the fill colour and font colour.
  • On the video’s base layer, add a Slide Trigger that shows layer Q1marker when the timeline reaches Cue point #1. Add similar triggers for the other question layers.

Now when the video plays, the marker will appear on top of the video for its set duration when the timeline reaches its cue point. The video does not pause, and learners do not have to click it – so short durations could test observation and speed of reaction. Markers could even be (nearly) transparent so avoid giving a visual clue to a critical event in the video e.g. a mistake in a medical procedure.

  • Add another layer which will pause the video and display the question. I called mine Q1lightbox. This layer has no objects; just a Layer Trigger to Lightbox slide ‘question 1’ when the timeline starts.
  • Click the Properties gear icon next to the layer’s name and select Pause timeline of base layer and Hide slide layer when the timeline finishes. The first pauses the video while the second un-pauses the video after the lightbox slide closes.
  • I adjusted the duration of this layer’s timeline to 1.5s. This means that the video will resume playing 1.5s after the learner completes the question, giving them just enough time to re-focus on the video.
  • Now add a trigger to the marker on layer Q1marker to show layer Q1lightbox when the user clicks.

So now if the learner clicks on the marker, this layer is shown, the video pauses and the first question slide is lightboxed (i.e. displayed on top of the current slide). The final step is to adjust the question slides to work using this lightbox approach.

  • Add a trigger Close lightbox when the user clicks to the Continue button on both the Correct and Incorrect layers.
  • Delete any Next and Previous buttons – these questions are ‘stand alone’ and are only seen if the learner clicks the marker while it is visible.

Now when the learner reads their feedback from question 1 and clicks the Continue button, the lightbox closes, the layer Q1lighbox plays out its 1.5s timeline before automatically closing, and the video resumes playing.

The good news is that after testing that this all works as expected you can now copy-and-paste the elements to quickly create further questions:

  • Video base layer: copy the Slide trigger and edit the layer shown and cue point used.
  • Q1marker layer: copy and edit the layer’s name, the location of the marker and the layer shown when the marker is clicked.
  • Q1lightbox layer: copy and edit the layer’s name and which question slide is lightboxed.
  • Question slide: copy and edit the question. responses and feedback.

This example will no work on iPhone or iPad at the moment, but after some investigation I eventually found this was a problem caused by the Edshare repository I used to store the output files.

Click video to start it playing?

In the course of this frustrating series of tests I tried an extra step required if you want the video to click when played:

  • Set the video option to Play video when clicked
  • Create a graphic saying ‘Click video to start’
  • Add a Slide Trigger to Pause timeline on this slide when the timeline starts
  • Add a trigger to the video:
    Resume timeline on this slide when the user clicks
    (optional: Change state of “Click video to start” to Hidden when the user clicks)
  • Move the hotspot so it starts at about 0.25s on the timeline

You need to pause the slide timeline and restart it with the video, or they get out of step, and start the hotspot after 0.25s so you can click on the video to start it!

Articulation 6: playful learning

April 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Posted in projects | Leave a comment
Tags: ,

I was keenly aware that this training on sustainable hairdressing was voluntary, and this provided several design imperatives:

  1. It should be fairly quick to complete; I was aiming for around 40 minutes and our data showed that was actually the average time taken.
  2. That placed constraints on the amount of content, especially text – and I also thought that ‘bite sized’ ideas would best suit our target audience.
  3. It should be engaging and fun, with plenty of interactivity: exploring the virtual salon, liking ideas to increase your EcoPro score and answering quiz questions. I also included a few playful items, described below.
  4. I really wanted learners to say that it was “interesting and quite fun” rather than “dull and boring” in any word-of-mouth (and social media) recommendations.

Quiz questions

Learners were presented with a single quiz question as they left each area to return to the virtual salon. These were not scored and were used as an opportunity to emphasise a key learning point. Storyline makes it easy to show layers providing a hint if the first attempt is incorrect and the correct answer if the second attempt is incorrect.

Graphic carbon savings calculator

Denise wanted learners to understand the scale of savings that could be made by some simple changes in hair-washing behaviour; for example do you really need to shampoo twice? I created a slide with six options that showed the carbon savings graphically by using a footprint shape whose area matched the ‘carbon footprint’ of various choices:

Again, a link to the calculations was provided for anyone who wished to view them.

Good try!

The start of the training includes guidance on how to Like ideas, see your EcoPro score and collect the Big Ideas, where it says “Click this icon if you see it on any page.” I thought some learners might try clicking the example icons and wanted to ensure that their initiative was acknowledged. Why ducklings? Because I thought any training that made you smile was off to a good start!

Easter Egg

It was about a year ago, just before Easter, when I visited Shine to take the panoramic photo used for the virtual salon. As a ‘thank you’ to the staff I bought them a chocolate egg, but first placed it on a shelf so it was included in the photo. Many apps include an ‘Easter egg’, a playful feature or message hidden by its programmers, and I thought it would be fun to use the real egg to access one of the ten areas in the salon. I wanted to reward the learners with a cute photo, and after debating the relative merits of kittens and puppies decided to use both! This area concluded with a research question whose feedback made the point that most customers do want salons to consider environmental issues. Remember that this training aimed to motivate hairdressers to change their behaviour by providing them with carefully selected information.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Try it yourself!

We are no longer collecting data, and the training is now hosted on the University’s Edshare repository and can be accessed by anyone. Why not give it a try? Most learners took around 35-40 minutes to complete the training.



Click the image to access the training.


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