Managing student responses

March 3, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Posted in educational, student response systems | Leave a comment

We are piloting the Meetoo web-based student response system which supports in-class messaging as well as polling. Students can send messages which are immediately visible to the whole cohort, and click to ‘like’ messages they agree with. It is also possible for the tutor to moderate messages, but let’s leave that feature aside for now.

I’d like to share and reflect on the experiences of James Wilson, a colleague in our Faculty of Health Sciences, who used Meetoo for the first time this week in a session about mental health issues for around 80 students. His feedback to me included:

During the session I personally found it a challenge to multi-task – it meant juggling my oral engagement with the audience while monitoring the message board. During the session the message board exploded with comments and I simply could not keep track.

At the start of the session he invited the students to share their thoughts and questions throughout, and these mainly appeared as three ‘bursts’ of 10-15 messages around specific themes.  Most of the messages were comments on the content of the session and none required an answer from the tutor, so there was no need for James to ‘keep track’. A total of 81 students answered polling questions using Meetoo, so it seems only a minority were sending (and reading?) messages.

Some typical comments:

Medication can solve a large portion as many cases can be along the route of chemical imbalance in the brain.
Mental illness often involves a combination of medical and therapeutic interventions like CBT, counselling therapies etc.
Giving a tablet to someone does not get to the root cause of the problem!!!!! We should be helping not medicating straight away

Suggested good practice

Tutors could ask for comments at a few relevant points during a session, and just review messages as they come in. Some students will send comments, while others will simply use the ‘like’ feature. Directing students to the message feature like this should lead to a higher proportion of students engaging with it. The Meetoo FAQs indicate that it will soon be possible to sort messages by the number of likes, which would be helpful.

In a recent webinar, Meetoo said that they would soon offer an open-text question type, but those are best suited to one or two-word answers, so I still think messages are the best way for students to share comments. The tutor can mark selected messages as ‘favorites’ and I understand that it will soon be possible to share just these messages with the students via a Projector tab. This would enable the tutor to gather feedback from the whole class and then re-focus their attention on a few of the key points raised. I think there is also an opportunity here for the tutor to ask students to spend a few minutes discussing those key points in small groups.

Perhaps if students have a question they would like the tutor to answer, they could prefix their message with a Q – for example “Q why do you think mental health issues are increasingly affecting teenagers?” The tutor could quickly review the messages towards the end of the session and either answer these at that point, later online or in the next session.

Social messages

Students sent social messages at the very start of the session, but these stopped as soon as the session got underway. There were no inappropriate messages; just jokey ones. I think this is a good example of students exploring how the system works and then getting focused.

I spy beginning with w
To the walls…
Yay window
*leaves conversation

Finally, one student posted a very positive comment at the end of the session about the use of Meetoo which got ten likes:

Awesome app. Should be used for all our lectures! Encourages more discussion for us shy ones ??

This initial feedback indicates that Meetoo offer an easy-to-use and effective medium for in-class comments that encourages discussion, and that further experience will help us develop and strengthen its impact on learning.



A user guide for Common Learning Spaces

November 10, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Posted in educational, systems, useful links | Leave a comment


I represent ILIaD on the Common Learning Spaces Working Group, and provide input on issues relating to technology in those rooms. It is interesting to consider how much technology there is in a modern lecture theatre; the lectern PC, data projector, visualiser, DVD player, microphones, connections for Ethernet, audio, VGA and HDMI video – and of course the touch-screen panel used to control all these devices.

We’ve been putting some thought into how we can help tutors get to grips with all of these; it seems that there is no training provided for new tutors and when I looked for documentation it was hard to find and out of date – no mention of HDMI for example. Over the summer I used WordPress to create a new website that aims to provide ‘just in time’ advice; it is accessed via the simple shortcut:

Laminated A4 posters will be displayed by the lectern that give that link as well as the ServiceLine contact number for urgent problems. The posters have space so that simple issues such as “no black whiteboard marker” can be written down and fixed by the team of room checkers at the end of each day.

The CLSWG regularly reviews a list of the problems encountered by tutors in CLS rooms, and a troubleshooting section on the website aims to help tutors quickly fix simple problems themselves. Of course if the PC isn’t working they won’t be able to access the online advice, but then they need to phone ServiceLine anyhow!

Its important for ‘experts’ such as myself to remember that learning technology includes the common hardware that tutors use every day as well as the online systems we are more usually concerned with.

Using interactive scenarios in class

October 21, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Posted in educational, student response systems, Uncategorized | 1 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.

Update: here is the PowerPoint file for the scenario. Note that you will need a (free) Meetoo account and have installed the Meetoo PowerPoint add-in for the polling to function.

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.

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.

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.

Content Curation for learning and teaching

August 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Posted in educational, useful links | Leave a comment

Robin Good lists ten reasons why he thinks that content curation will play a major role in the way that we educate ourselves in the future. By this he means a process by which groups of learners collaborate to locate, evaluate, select and organise relevant online resources as a learning activity for themselves and to create a resource which can guide other learners.

If we learn not by memorizing facts, but by collaborating with others in the creation of a meaningful collection-explanations of specific topics/issues/events then, for the first time in history, we can enrich planetary knowledge each time we take on a new learning task.

The ten reasons he lists revolve around the challenges that today’s information-rich environment pose to traditional post-compulsory education and the problems that people encounter when they use search engines such as Google to look for learning materials. It is an interesting read, especially if you follow the link to his Mindomo mind-map, which provides a guided tour with descriptive text, images, links and embedded YouTube videos. This zooms in and out in a way that is reminsicent of Prezi as you take the guided tour around the mindmap, and is a good example of curated content in itself.

I’m not sure that the radial structure of the mind-map is suitable for what is essentially a linear journey through the material, and I personally don’t like all the zooming around. In addition, you can’t leave the tour and pick it up where you left off; you are always taken right back to the beginning and have to follow every step. I’d like to see a system that provided more navigation for learners, so they can skip through for an overview and then return to any topic to explore in more detail. Maybe a graphical wiki is what is needed? (Quick Google search) Maybe something like Kerika?

How PowerPoint Can Impair Learning

May 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Posted in educational | Leave a comment

For the past few years I’ve been on a mission to try and improve the quality of Powerpoint presentations given in the University, and have run many workshops that promoted good practice. This included accessibility issues (colour choices, font sizes) and design issues (layout, use of graphics and images). The main problem is that slides are often used as lecture notes, and do a poor job in both roles. The slides have too much text on them and consequently use small font sizes, and this reading difficulty is compounded when they are printed out 3 or 6 to a sheet as notes. In addition, printed slides mean that students do not need to take notes in the lecture – but taking notes is an active learning strategy that would help them understand and remember the content.

However, academics want proper peer-reviewed research to back up these assertions, so I was delighted to pick up a link from an ALT discussion thread today to a recent article in Computers & Education that clearly proves that text-heavy slides have a negative impact on learning: Slide presentations as speech suppressors: When and why learners miss oral information.

The retention of information presented orally and of information presented orally and on slides was measured separately in each condition and standardized for comparability. Cognitive load and subjective importance of slides were also measured. The results indicate a “speech suppression effect” of regular slides at the expense of oral information (within and across conditions), which cannot be explained by cognitive overload but rather by dysfunctional allocation of attention, and can be avoided by concise slides.

Even better, the paper has a great selection of citations to follow up and use to reinforce my arguments for good slide design.

Wolfram Education Portal – Interactive maths

January 23, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Posted in educational, useful links | Leave a comment
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Given the all the recent hoo-haa about Apple’s iBooks, it is interesting to look at the new Educational Portal from Wolfram, the company behind the Mathematica computational application and the Wolfram|Alpha ‘knowledge engine’.

As you would expect, the focus is on maths, a topic that really benefits from truly interactive learning resources. The first two courses are the key foundation topics of Algebra and Calculus. “In the portal you’ll find a dynamic textbook, lesson plans, widgets, interactive Demonstrations, and more built by Wolfram education experts.” Access is currently via a free account, although they warn that they may start charging in the future. You need to download and install a free browser plug-in so that you can view the interactive CDF Computable Document Format pages.

iBooks are fine if the topic requires words, images, audio/video, animations and MCQ questions but it runs out of steam if you need to calculate, graph or visualise data. That’s where CDF really shines – not as glossy as an iBook, but seriously functional. At the moment you can view and interact with CDF on your desktop (Windows, Mac, Linux) or online (again, desktop browsers only). Their website says that Mobile apps are ‘coming soon’, including an iOS browser. That may well be the case, since they already produce many iOS apps, known as course assistants. It looks like Android users will be out of luck again – no iBooks and no CDFs 😦

Tutors can create their own CDF resources using Mathematica, so the creation of free Open Educational Resources is a possibility. It is interesting to look at the licensing agreement, which in many ways is similar to the one about Apple’s iBooks that has upset so many people. Again, if you want to give away your OER there is no problem, but if you want to sell it, Wolfram would like a slice of the action. Seems perfectly reasonable to me, and is in fact a driver in favour of OERs.

And the resources themselves? Algebra has a comprehensive collection of matching lesson plans and textbook pages, all with plenty of interactive examples, while Calculus is much less formal with 19 demonstrations and 12 problem-solving widgets. There is plenty there of interest to science, maths and engineering students from college to University.

E-Learning in the School of Medicine

March 25, 2011 at 11:59 am | Posted in educational, useful links | Leave a comment

Yesterday the School of Medicine held an open day to showcase their work on e-learning. Unfortunately I was unable to attend as I was on strike over the proposed changes to USS pensions. However, the project team, led by Dr Sunhea Choi, have put together an excellent website which provides a great deal of information about the resources they have developed as well as the processes and tools used to create them.

I especially liked the interactive map of the development process, and the catalogue of materials includes videos that give a flavour of the interactive learning created. The materials themselves are obviously protected by password, and you will need to log in first via the School of Medicine home page to access them.

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