ABC Learning Design at Aston

July 20, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Posted in educational, hands-on | Leave a comment

ABC storyboard showing activity cards on a design grid

Back in March, I attended a JISC workshop run by Clive Young and Nataša Perović from UCL, which introduced me to their ABC Learning Design activity. This is a development of Ulster’s Viewpoints activity that I was planning to use at Southampton before ILIaD hit the rocks of organisational change. I came away from the workshop determined to try it out in my new role and discussed using it with my academic colleagues in Languages and Social Sciences.

However, later that month I was invited to teach part of our PGCert for new academics, specifically module 3, Becoming a Research-Led Innovator in Higher Education. I was given free rein to redesign it within the limits of the learning outcomes, and quickly decided that Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework and the related ABC Learning Design activity would form both the theoretical and practical heart of day 2 of the module.

One challenge I faced was scale; I had three cohorts of around 30 students each and so had to repeat the full-day session on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I wanted them to use ABC to create a storyboard for one of their own modules, discuss that with two other students and then talk about how they could modify their storyboard to introduce some form of educational innovation. There simply wasn’t going to be room for 30 sheets of flip-chart paper on the tables, so I created a scaled-down version of the resources based on an A3 design grid and business-card-sized activities.

After several hours wrestling with temperamental printers and a rotary guillotine I had around 1200 activity cards – I thought that each participant’s module might need 10 or more activities. Next time, I’ll have them professionally printed as business cards!

The ABC activity was well-timed; it took place after the students had returned from lunch and it was really hot weather, so if I’d given a presentation I think they would all have gently snoozed. As it was, my own observations and feedback from the students confirmed that ABC is a truly excellent ‘thinking tool’ that structured some very lively and productive conversations about the learning design of their modules. In addition to working in their own groups, some of them found real value in visiting other groups and simply observing their conversations.

The ABC resources from UCL are open-source and provided under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA licence, so here are my modified versions for you to download, use and adapt using the same licence. They are all PowerPoint files, so are easy to edit and print as required:

ABC_read_me_first – ABC_module_gridABC_activity_shapeABC_activity_descriptors  – ABC_card_set


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.

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!

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.

Update 2: a couple of useful links about creating branching storylines

Paul Nelson has a a really useful guide to designing branching narratives

Christy Tucker has some advice about allowing paths to merge, reducing the number of nodes, and using good/OK/bad outcomes to enable leaners to recover from poor choices.

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
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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?

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