Articulation 3: the virtual salon

December 7, 2016 at 6:06 pm | Posted in hands-on, projects, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The central idea of this resource was the virtual salon, based on a panoramic photo I took of the Shine salon:


Using sliders to pan the photo

As previously mentioned, I found an article by Glenn Simsek on the Articulate user forums that showed how to create a scrollable panorama based on two Storyline sliders.

  • Slider 1 has the panoramic photo as the slider button ‘fill texture’
  • Slider 2 is visible to the learner and is used to pan the photo

I scaled the photo so it was the correct height to fit my design for the 960px x 720px (px = pixel) slide; so the height is 342px and width is 2048px. In fact I resized all images to minimise the bandwidth required by the resource.

Storyline objects are layered, and I added a copy of the background image with a transparent window (600 x 342 px). This acts as a frame that overlays the photo so that only a 600px width slice of the photo is visible at any one time.


The blue bar behind the photo in this image is the Storyline slider 1. I needed to calculate the width of the slider so that it matched the width of the photo. If the photo is panned hard left, then the hidden part is (2048-600)=1448px wide. Ditto if panned hard right. The total width of slider must allow for 1448px on each side of the 600px width central window; so width = 1448 + 600 + 1448 = 3496px.

This was set on the Slider Design tab, along with parameters to centre the photo when the learners arrive in the virtual salon. I also set the slider to move in 100 discrete steps; this looks visually smooth and enabled me to easily use the value of variable Slider 1 for triggers that control the visibility of other layers on this slide.

Variable=Slider1, Start=0, End=100, Initial=50, Step=1

Slider 2 is a regular slider whose Variable is also set to Slider1 – so moving this slider also moves the other one with the photo. Of course moving this slider left also moves the photo left, which looks like you are panning right, so I fixed this by reversing the Start and End values for Slider 2:

Variable=Slider1, Start=100, End=0, Initial=50, Step=1

Areas of Interest markers on  the panorama

I wanted the learners to search the virtual salon for areas of interest, but didn’t want to use mouse-over as that technique does not work on mobile devices. Instead, I chose to have markers appear when the photo was panned to a specific value. I added triggers to Slider1 which showed a layer with the marker if the value of Slider1 was between two values, and hid it if it wasn’t. For example:

Show layer loc1 
   when the slider moves
   if Slider1 is Greater than or equal to 94
   AND Slider 1 is Less than or equal to 96
Hide layer loc1 
   when the slider moves
   if Slider1 is Less than 94 
   OR Slider 1 is Greater than 96

Using a range of valid values (94, 95 and 96 in the example above) made it easier for learners to pan the slider and spot the markers; a single value (e.g. 95) was too difficult.

Returning to the virtual salon

The value of variable Slider1 is stored, so the virtual salon photo is automatically panned to the same point as it was when the learner last saw it when they return to the slide.

I wanted areas which learners had already visited to be visually indicated, so I created versions of the marker for each of these states:


The variable loc1 is set to TRUE when learners view the area of interest and is used by a Slide trigger to change the appearance (state) of the Button_loc1 on layer loc1:

Change state of Button_loc1 to
   when the timeline starts
   IF loc1 is equal to TRUE

I also added triggers to the frame image to make sure the correct layer was visible when learners return to this slide  (i.e. when the timeline starts as the slide is redisplayed):

Show layer loc1 
   when the timeline starts 
   IF Slider1 is Greater than or equal to 94 
   AND Less than or equal to 96
   AND loc1 is equal to TRUE

You can see that with 10 locations to find, this slide already had 40 triggers – and there were another 10 or more to add… but I’ll talk about some of those in the next article.

Next: Articulation 4: trigger happy



Articulation 2: PPPPPP

November 16, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

With approval to go ahead with development, the next step was to start preparations in detail. All of these activities proceeded in parallel:

  • Creating the content– writing the text and finding the images for each topic
  • Calculating the data – the energy, water and money savings for each topic.
  • Liaising with businesses – suppliers of hairdressing products and a local salon.
  • Coding prototypes – learning exercises using Storyline to test my ideas.
  • Documentation – a necessary evil.

Creating content

The challenge was to write just two or three sentences about each topic that conveyed its environmental impact and sold its benefits in ordinary, non-technical language. For example, for low-flow aerator taps:

Aerators introduce bubbles into the water and help it feel soft. They also reduce the amount of water used — and save energy as you need less hot water.
They are inexpensive, simple to fit and the payback period is typically just a couple of weeks.

It may be an obvious point, but getting the script right is essential; if it isn’t then no amount of flashy multimedia interaction will compensate for that.

Photos from Shutterstock were chosen to accompany each topic, and a careful record was kept to ensure it was easy and quick to cite them correctly when the credits slide was created much later in the project.

Data calculations

Other researchers on the project had already obtained information about environmental benefits; for example “Low-flow aerators can save money. Fitting a tap aerator at a cost of £5/tap could result in water savings of £13/tap/year (*based on tap being used 20 times a day for 15 seconds  Source: Envirowise info sheet, 2007)”.


Tap aerator – image ©

My idea was to translate the costs and savings for each topic into a standard format that would give the energy, water and money savings each year if adopted by a small four-seat salon. As learners worked their way through the training, a running total could therefore be kept of the savings from all the ideas where they clicked the Like button, so they could easily see the amount saved and scale that up for their own salon if required. I suspected that although the energy and water savings would be seen as a good thing, it would be the substantial money savings that would really gain their attention.

I developed a fairly complex Excel spreadsheet for the calculations; luckily my engineering background meant I wasn’t phased by having to use the specific heat of water to calculate the number of Megajoules used to heat 1000 litres by 20 degrees and then convert that to kWh so that the annual cost savings from a low-flow aerator tap could be calculated. A maths-free version of my calculations is included in the training, hidden behind a ‘How we calculated this’ link. I didn’t think that many learners would chose to view these, but thought that it was important that we were able to justify the savings we claimed; for example:

Assume standard tap flow rate is 5 litres per minute and aerator tap flow rate is 3 litres per minute.
Assume standard tap is used for 20 minutes each day, for a total of 30,000 litres each year.
The aerator tap saves 12,000 litres a year = £60
It also avoids heating that water, saving 420 kWh and £59.
The total saving is £119

Liaison with businesses

We wanted to include images of a few specific products, such as the Gamma Piu energy-saving hairdryer, and Enki one-use towels. I emailed their distributors and made sure we had written permission to use the images they provided.

We also worked with Shine, our on-campus hair salon, who kindly agreed to allow us to use their salon as the basis for the ‘virtual salon’ photo at the heart of the training. We also used it as a location for the introductory video with Dr. Denise Baden. I made sure that we got all the location and personal release forms required, including some from clients who appeared in the photos.


Coding prototypes

I built several rough prototypes to learn about variables and to verify that my ideas were achievable. There were also two key features I needed to develop:

SCORM data: As mentioned in the first article, this work was funded by a research project which wanted to identify topics ‘liked’ by the learners. For example, with modern shampoos there is no need for two applications, and shampooing once saves time, water, energy and money – as well as reducing water pollution. Were the learners persuaded by these arguments?

It was agreed that the training resource would be hosted on SCORM Cloud, which would enable data tracking. I built a prototype to learn about how the system worked and interacted with a resource created using Storyline and published using its SCORM output options.

Scrolling panoramas: I wanted to create a ‘virtual salon’ for learners to explore and find areas of interest. I used my camera to take a 180-degree photo of the salon, and then talked to colleagues and searched the excellent Articulate user forums for advice. I found an article by Glenn Simsek that was exactly what I was looking for, and spent some time experimenting with that to get it right. It may even be the subject of the next article in this series!



Painful experience has taught me the value of documenting projects as you go:

  • an accurate timesheet to help me more accurately cost future projects;
  • a record/store of meetings, emails, decisions, sign-offs and so on;
  • a record of all resources used and their source;
  • notes about the coding developed, which makes it easier to understand what you did and why when you return to it months later to make changes.

This account makes it seem like I prepared everything in advance, but of course the reality was messier; the script was amended as the project developed, a few new topics were added, most of the data calculation happened during the development phase, and almost all the images were chosen and edited as the relevant topic was created.

In the next article I’ll start discussing the nitty-gritty as the resource begins to be developed.

Next: Articulation 3: the virtual salon

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.

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.

Saving the planet, one picture at a time

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

EMA: the Electronic Management of Assessment

November 2, 2015 at 11:23 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , ,
Diagram showing assessment and feeback lifecycle

The assessment and feedback life cycle (adapted from an original by Manchester Metropolitan University) CC-NC-BY-SA

One of the great learning technology success stories of the past few years has been the rapid growth of e-submission where students submit their assignments online instead of in person at the Faculty office. This enjoys almost universal support from students due to its convenience, with no need to print the essay or queue to hand it in by the deadline. Unfortunately, that is also the point at which all kinds of challenges begin:

  • are those essays printed and then distributed to the markers by administrative staff?
  • or are markers willing to change their working practices and mark on-screen?
  • how are the grades and feedback returned to the student?
  • how does the system support penalties for late submission or extensions with mitigating circumstances?
  • does the system support policies such as anonymous and double-blind marking?
  • does the system support moderation and consequent changes to grades?

And within these larger challenges are important QA details such as whether an audit trail is retained showing both markers original grades and comments as well as the moderated grade and comments.

There are currently four systems in use at Southampton; the Blackboard Assignment tool, the Turnitin originality-checking system, our JISC-funded institutional e-Assignment tool, and the handin tool developed and used only by Electronics and Computer Science. None of them provide a complete solution and there is no institutional policy mandating their use for all (suitable) assignments.

Southampton is one of the partners on a JISC project about the Electronic Management of Assessment (EMA). This aims to support institutions who wish to develop their policies, processes and systems, and share case studies and examples of good practice. It recently published an online guide Transforming assessment and feedback with technology, and is developing a toolkit that institutions, faculties and departments can use to benchmark their current use of EMA and plan their next steps. ILIaD will be working with colleagues in faculties, iSolutions and Student and Academic Administration to help the University take a step change forward and ensure that everyone (students, academics and administrators) gain real benefits from online submission, marking and feedback.

Lecture capture for teachers

June 16, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The University of Southampton has invested in Panopto, an institutional lecture capture system that is hosted on a cluster of high-performance servers and integrated with our media servers. This level of investment is clearly unrealistic for schools and colleges, but there are all kinds of low-cost alternatives.

Lecture capture services
If a college intends to make widespread and frequent use of lecture capture, then systems like Panopto are available as hosted services – so there is no need to buy or manage any servers. A key issue to consider will be the upload bandwidth of the college’s internet connection, which must have the capacity to handle the video data being sent to the service. On the other hand, when learners access those lectures from outside the college, it will not use any of its bandwidth.

Video hosting
This issue of where the recorded lectures are hosted is a key consideration. Although they could be hosted on the college’s web servers this is not ideal as they are not designed to deliver lots of streaming video content, and the college’s internet connection will also probably be a bottleneck. It makes much more sense to host the videos using a commercial service such as YouTube or Vimeo, and many of the alternative below can publish videos directly to YouTube. The videos can be published as ‘private’, so that only people who know the URL can access them, but teachers should always be aware that social media means that any video is potentially public!

If a computer presentation (PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi etc.) is central to the lecture, then a simple option is to record the PC screen and the teacher’s voice. The software needs to be installed on the PC and this often means using your laptop rather than the PC installed in the teaching room. Costs range from zero for the free open-source CamStudio to around £120 for an educational licence for Camtasia Studio.  Alternatively, there are low-cost online screen recorders such as Screencast-O-Matic that can be used on any computer. Google screen cam software to see similar software and services.

Good audio quality is essential, and the microphones built into laptops may not be adequate. A USB boundary mic will allow you to move around the classroom but will also pick up audience and environment noise. Wired tie-clip mics on long leads (4m) are cheap and work reasonably well. In your office or at home, a USB headset (£25) works really well.

Screencam software will also enable you to record the image from a webcam – as an alternative to the screen, as a picture-in-picture, or switching between the screen/webcam in the editor, depending on the capabilities of the software. You will of course have to position the webcam and ensure the lighting is good. Some webcams have really good microphones and can be used instead of a boundary mic, even if you choose not to record the video.

Flipped learning
It is probably more educationally effective for you to record short (up to 10 minute) videos that target specific learning outcomes and use these as self-study resources to support your face-to-face teaching activities. These recordings can be made at your desk, or more likely at home where it is quieter and you won’t be interrupted. You may want to script what you say to ensure you can record in one take (after a couple of practice run-throughs) and minimise any editing required. [More on flipped learning]

Both iPads and Android tablets have a wealth of apps that can be used to make educational videos, such as Explain Everything. [More alternatives]. These are best suited to recording videos for flipped learning rather than capturing live lectures. Alternatively, you can attach the tablet to a tripod and use it like a video camera if all you need to record is the teacher rather than a presentation.


November 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized, waffle | 2 Comments

ILIaD_TEThis Monday (3 November) saw the official launch event for ILIaD, the Institute for Learning Innovation and Development at the University of Southampton. I’ve supported the use of learning technologies at the university for 23 years now, and in that time I’ve always been part of teams with acronym names; the ILC, CLT, LATEU, TELE and most recently CITE. I think ILIaD is my favourite so far, but maybe that’s only because I’ve always been interested in the Greek myths and the tales of the Trojan war.

For those of you without the benefit of a classical education, the Iliad is Homer’s epic tale of the forbidden love between Paris and Helen of Troy, the wrath of her husband King Menelaus, the gathering by King Agamemnon of the greatest warfleet ever and the subsequent 10-year siege of Troy (the kingdom) and fair Ilium (the city). Both sides displayed the greatest heroism as well as despicable brutality and essentially fought each other to a bitter stalemate. It was only the cunning of Odysseus and his plan for a wooden horse that finally allowed the Greeks to take the city, burn it to the ground, slay and enslave its citizens and reunite Helen and Menelaus. A second epic tale, the Odyssey, tells of the ten year journey home for Odysseus as the gods and fates blow him this way and that.

If you want a highly readable version, I recommend Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by the excellent Alan Lee (who did much of the visual design for the Lord of the Rings movies). There is a companion volume, The Wanderings of Odysseus. Do not under any circumstances watch the execrable film Troy, with Brad Pitt – we’re still waiting for a decent retelling, but the all-star 1971 The Trojan Women tells of the aftermath from a female perspective.

ILIaD’s mission is to ‘revolutionise education’ at the University, perhaps by using the trojan horse of learning technologies to infiltrate new pedagogies into the ivory towers of academe? Let’s hope it doesn’t take us ten years!

Going online to enhance face-to-face teaching

October 16, 2014 at 11:27 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This was the title of a talk by Professor Simon Lanacaster from UEA, who was visiting our Chemistry department. The lecture room was packed and his dynamic and enthusiastic presentation did not disappoint. His aim was, as far as possible, to get his audience to experience first-hand the methods that he has adopted to teach his courses in a radically different way – and that won him the Royal Society of Chemistry Higher Education Teaching Award in 2013 for “innovative use of technology to engage, challenge and enthuse students by blurring the boundaries between the internet and the lecture theatre.

Right at the start he encouraged us to avoid taking our own notes and to tweet our comments and observations instead using the hashtag #sotonpeer. The idea is that Storify could be used after the session to weave the best tweets into a coherent summary – and true to his word, he made that available at 1am this morning, just 8 hours after the talk. In everyday use this task would fall to the students and there might be several alternative summaries to choose from.

Maybe we (the audience) need more practice or advice on how to tweet effectively, but in my opinion the Storify fails to capture much of what was said and includes a lot that is irrelevant (if amusing). But there are a few gems in there – in particular Richard Treves linked to a post by Clay Shirkey which includes strong evidence against the use of laptops, tablets and phones in class, except when specifically requested by the tutor. He argues that they are a constant (and highly effective) form of distraction, and that multi-tasking interferes with learning: “Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.” For myself, I did find that tweeting and reading others tweets during the session was a major distraction, and that the notes I took (I was bad and ignored his request) did capture the points I found interesting. Why didn’t I tweet them instead? Because they mostly took more than 140 characters. I also wonder how appropriate Twitter is for the diagram-heavy notes that chemistry requires.

Simon did say that he used Twitter comments by students as a source to guide ‘just-in-time’ teaching, adapting it to their concerns and questions. He also uses a Twitter widget in their VLE (Blackboard) so that students who choose not to use Twitter can still see the tweets from other students. He encourages students to post photos of their experimental results, and they are very motivated by getting responses from around the world. There is also a #hashtagane meme…

The session then moved on to the use of screencasts (screen and voice) and compared this to lecture capture (screen, voice and video). There is plenty of evidence that students use recorded lectures for last minute revision, binge-viewing all the lectures like a HBO Box Set shortly befor exams – hardly a good use of their time! A better idea is to flip the classroom, so that students view recorded material before they come to a session that can be much more interactive because it doesn’t have to transmit the content. The challenge is of course that student may come unprepared, and need to quickly learn that that is a bad idea. As Simon put it “Turning up to a flipped session is like attending a fancy dress party without dressing up, you’re missing out on the experience.”

Simon uses Camtasia Studio to create and edit his screencasts, and has used the advanced functionality of that application to produce ‘vignettes’ – a key chunk of a longer screencast that is augmented by quiz questions.These focused learning/revision resources are needless to say extremely popular with students. However, one challenge is the amount of tutor resource required to create these vignettes, and his solution is to get his undergrads to prepare and present presentations that are then recorded using Camtasia. The students are paired and allocated a revision topic. They produce a draft in PowerPoint which is reviewed by their tutor. Feedback is provided by adding narration to the PowerPoint. The drafts are also shared with their peers who give provide further feed-forward advice about how to improve them before they are presented. The recordings of the best presentations are then used as learning resources for future cohorts.

Throughout the session Simon used TurningPoint ResponseWare to gather instant feedback from the audience on the points he was making – for example “What would it take for your department to adopt some of the methods used today?” where option 1 was “An Act of God”! Handsets were available for any members of the audience who did not have a web-enabled  device to hand. This worked really well, although my phone battery was getting low by the end of the session and at present this is a concern as tutors make more use of in-class mobile technologies. That said, the latest phones have a fast-charge facility where they can recharge to 50% in just 15 minutes, so this is likely to be a non-issue in a couple of years.

The final part of the talk was on the benefits of peer learning, and the use of a Student Response System such as ResponseWare to faciliate conceptual questions that really get students to engage with and discuss the subject. This is of course based on the fully researched and proven learning gains of the Peer Learning techniques developed by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard. Simon’s advice is “Don’t ask recall questions in a flipped sessions; they need to be challenging and require understanding of a concept. Questions need to be in ‘the Goldilocks zone’ where not all students will be able to answer correctly.”. He has asked students to suggest possible answers in class, typed them directly into TurningPoint and polled the cohort. This has the advantage of crowd-sourcing student misconceptions rather than trying to anticipate them. I was amused that the example question Simon used required a basic understanding of the principle of accelleration under gravity, yet the majority of a room packed with PhD-level science academics failed to get it right, even after further ‘peer instruction’ discussion.

So a great talk with some excellent take-home ideas, with the benefits coming from the integrated use of a range of technologies and plenty of student activity and input.

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