Category Archives: learning resources

Visual Clutter

So why do we feel the need to fill the space with signs and notices.

At my local library/community space, I noticed how cluttered the new café area was with notices and signs. The end result was not clarity, but a visual cluttered mess.

The Campus Cafe

The nice and probably somewhat pricey wooden café sign is now covered with notices and menus. There are lots of notices and signs on the noticeboard behind the counter too.

Now I am sure whoever designed the new space probably didn’t think it would end up as cluttered as it has been. Likewise I am sure that the people who put up the notices didn’t start putting up notices and signs in order to clutter the visual environment. They probably had very good reasons, such as wanting to change behaviour, following a complaint that there wasn’t a sign, or there is an event they need to publicise.

The problem with visual clutter is that too many notices and signs usually has the end result that none of the signs work any more. We don’t see the signs and notices because there are too many.

Most new spaces start off as a blank canvas and then because of various issues, behavioural ones usually, signs are put up. Notices are also added to inform and advertise.

In order to maximise impact you can put up a large temporary sign or notice for a short amount of time. They key is to make it large, bright and visible. The other thing to note is to remove it, but don’t immediately replace it. The impact will be more noticeable and it might have the effect you are looking for.

I have often seen similar things in libraries, you have a nice clean visual environment, and then before you know it, the place is full of signs and notices. Signs telling you to work quietly, not to eat or drink, not to use the PCs for Facebook.

In terms of signs about behaviour, just because there isn’t a sign doesn’t mean that the behaviour is acceptable and just because their isn’t a sign doesn’t mean that you can do what you like. When I ran libraries we didn’t have a single sign saying no cycling, but that didn’t mean we would condone cycling in the library, and if there was a cyclist in the library, I doubt a no cycling sign would make any difference. Just because there wasn’t a sign, that didn’t mean that entitled someone to cycle in the library, as there wasn’t a sign.

So next time you are about to put up a notice or a sign, ask yourself is this the best way to achieve what I want to achieve?

The impact of the fickle nature of the web

Broken Web

Over on my tech blog I have been writing about the fickle nature of the web, it is one of those things that I find annoying. You post a link, embed a video and then a bit later you find that it has gone! This was very apparent today with the news that the BBC are, in order to save money, will close down their recipe website. For me this is a mistake, however I also understand how this can happen, not just with textual content, but also media too.

Now as I write this blog post, it would appear that the BBC have climbed down somewhat and the recipes will be moving over to the commercial BBC Good Food website.

Screengrab from BBC Food website - Eton Mess

The impact of archived, expired and missing content may be annoying for me, but it is probably more annoying and frustrating for teachers who have created or curated content using third party links and embedded media and find that the learners are unable to access the third party content. These links need to be fixed or replaced, embedded media needs to be found again, or an alternative discovered. I know when I was working with staff, this was an issue they found very frustrating when creating courses and content for the VLE.

Personally I when writing content for my blog, I try not to use third party sites (in case they disappear) and try not to embed content if I can help it. There are times though when people have removed a video years later and looking through an old blog post you find the embedded video has disappeared as the obscure service you used has shut down, or was taken over.

As I said over on the tech blog, sometimes I think, why do people and organisations like the BBC do this? Then I remember I have done this myself and sometimes you have little choice.

WCC Logo

Back in 2001 I was appointed Director of the Western Colleges Consortium and we had a nice little website and the domain of westerncc.ac.uk and the consortium was wound up in 2006. As a result the website was shut down and the domain lost.

Back in 1998 when I created my first web site, using Hot Metal Pro I used the free hosting that came with my ISP account. A few years later I moved hosting providers (as I was using too much bandwidth) and had a domain of my own. I did leave the old site up, but due to bandwidth usage it was eventually shut down!

I remember creating a course site for my learners using one of those services where you got a free domain name and free hosting, should I have been surprised when they shut down and asked for large fees for transferring the site and the domain. It was often easier to create a new domain and get new hosting. The original site was lost in the midst of time.

We have seen services such as Ning, which were free and well used, but once the money ran out and they started charging, lots of useful sites shut themselves down. People then moved to different services.

For these small sites, it probably is less of an issue, annoying, slightly frustrating, but you can live with it, it’s part of what the web is about. However with big sites, like BBC Food, then it becomes more than annoying, especially if you have a reliance on that content for your course or your teaching.

Since I wrote my blog post yesterday , the reaction on the web has intensified (and it looks like has had an impact). One blog post from Lloyd Shepherd, one of the original team who worked on the archive makes for interesting reading.

It was my team that ran product management and editorial on the new Food site, and the site that exists today is largely the site we conceptualised and built at that time.

He explains the basis behind the site

The idea was very simple: take the recipes from BBC programmes, repurpose them into a database, and then make that database run a website, a mobile site, and who-knows-what-else. Create relationships between recipes based on ingredients, shows, cuisines, and who-knows-what-else. And then run it with as small an editorial team as possible whose job was simply to turn telly recipes into database recipes.

He continues to point out that as far as the remit of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, the food archive hit two key points.

Did we discuss ‘public service remit’? You bet we did. Every day. And it really came down to two things:

These recipes have already been paid for by the BBC licence fee payer, and they’re being under-utilised. A new service can be developed out of them for very little up-front cost.

Nutrition is now a public health issue. Obesity is draining NHS coffers, government guidelines are badly understood and terribly publicised. There is a role for the BBC to play in this, and this is the way to do it.

Though at this time we don’t know for sure where the content will be archived, rumour has it, it will be archived on the Commercial BBC Good Food site, one impact which I know it will have will be on catering courses that use the BBC content to support the learning of the students. A lot of the recipes are from professional chefs and provide guidance and inspiration to learners who are starting out on their careers. Additionally the way in which the archive works, they can find ideas and recipes for different ingredients. Even if the archive is moved, one aspect of the BBC Food site that will be missed, is the lack of distracting advertising.

It would appear that the BBC are moving away from an archive to library of content, which can be “borrowed” for 30 days before it expires. That got me thinking…

In the olden days when I was running libraries, we use to “weed” the collection of book stock which needed replacing, was out of date or no longer been used. We would buy new content to either replace or update existing books, or buy books that were completely new. One thing we were clear about was that we were not an archive, old stock was to be removed and got rid of, usually recycled or sold. The copy of the Haynes manual for the Hillman Imp from 1972 was interesting in its own right, but from a teaching and learning perspective wasn’t actually of any use any more.

Haynes Hillman Imp manual

We didn’t have the space to store and keep books and journals just for the sake of keeping books and journals. Of course with online materials that space argument becomes less critical, but there is still the resources required to manage curate large quantities of digital content to ensure that the content is accessible, searchable and relevant.

I personally don’t think the BBC Food archive is a library that needs to be reduced, refreshed and restricted, I think it is a great archive that should be kept. For me there are two services here, one is the archive and the other is a service delivering current and new content. It’s a pity that the requirement of cost savings means one was planned to go. Hopefully the recipes will be saved and restored when they move over to the new site.

In my post on Ning starting to charge  back in 2010 I mentioned above,  I did say one of the issues with using any free Web 2.0 service is that they may not be here forever.

Gabcast is no longer free, but Audioboo is. Jaiku is pretty much dead, but Twitter is alive and well. Etherpad has gone, but iEtherpad is up and running.

I still think what I said in 2010 is still relevant today when talking about services and web tools.

At the end of the day this is not about a service disappearing or now charging, it’s much more about how when using these services you don’t think about long term, but have the capability and the technical knowledge to move between different services as and when they become available.

Use what is now and in the future use what is then.

Though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t complain and moan when something like the BBC Food “closure” happens, as sometimes there aren’t real alternatives, especially when it comes to content rather than a service.

What this whole story tells us is that the web can be fickle and relying on the stickiness and permanence of web content can be a challenge for teachers and lecturers. How do you cope with the transient nature of web content?

Image Credit: Broken by David Bakker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Can I book a PC please?

old books

When I managed libraries in FE you often had to field calls from suppliers of PC booking systems. They were always surprised, when I not only said we weren’t interested in their product, but I didn’t see the point and how they improved teaching, learning and assessment.

I know for many libraries I realise that a booking system for the PCs is seen as a vital piece of software, alongside the Library Management System.

However have you ever asked yourself why you have one, and what would happen if you turned it off?

iMacs in the library

We removed the PC booking systems, as no one could come up with a good business case for them.

Reasons given included to restrict the amount of time a student could use a PC for… never quite understood that one. Yes students should take breaks when using a PC, but is this down to software or better done through education and understanding?

Another issue with time restraints, is that it implies, if you have a one hour limit, that learning takes place in one hour chunks and only one hour chunks! That doesn’t happen!

Other reasons, is that there isn’t enough PCs in the library to meet the demand, so yes a booking system will help constrain demand, but isn’t the issue then to get more PCs, rather than a PC booking system?

PC utilisation data across the whole college, will probably show that there are unused PCs in classrooms, one question to ask is how can they be used more effectively?

I do understand, coming from an economics background that with limited resources and unlimited wants, you can have shortages. The question is do you go down the planned economy route or go for a more laissez faire approach.

The planned approach does cost money in terms of software, hardware, support as well as operational staffing costs. The laissez faire approach means allowing the learners to make decisions about when and how they use the PCs.

One feature of one of these systems said

Whether you use predefined or open text messages, there is no need to physically approach users.

…and this is a good idea, because you wouldn’t want to talk to the learners would you, enabling you to build a working relationship with them, so that they know who is who and whom to go to when needing help.

The sales pitch goes onto say…

“Possible confrontations are avoided, cultivating a more studious environment.

Well we wouldn’t want staff to talk to the learners would we, why would we want that?

From my experience, the opposite is what happens. The staff become more distant from the learners, the library staff see their role is about managing resources and not about supporting learners… resulting a more confrontational environment when it comes to anti-social behaviour, as the learners don’t have a working relationship with the staff and don’t respect the staff or the environment.

We need staff to talk to the learners, we need to build relationships through effective communication, it enables learners to understand that the library staff are a key part of the library and can be a wealth of guidance, knowledge and information that will support the learners in their learning and supporting them in their assessments

We had one complaint from a student who liked to book a PC, so it was booked and reserved, so they could then go and have breakfast… leaving the PC booked, but not being used.

Usage patterns after removing the booking system, demonstrated increased use and higher utilisation.

What we also found with booking systems was that students would book a PC at say 10am. The previous booking would leave at say 9:50am, another learner would find the PC, but knowing it would only be available for 10 minutes doesn’t use it, the learner who booked the PC, then fails to turn up at 10am, we wait 10 minutes before freeing up the PC. This means PCs were “unavailable” as they had been booked, but weren’t been used.

We also found that learners wanted to book PCs so they could sit with their friends and be social, not having a booking system did mean that they could all use a PC, but not necessarily together. This resulted in less behavioural issues in the library.

If someone was desperate and wanted to book a PC for a specific time, then no problem, we did this manually. In other words booking was the exception rather than the rule. The learners could even manage such a system themselves.

As Ofsted noted when they inspected the college:

Outside lessons, many learners make constructive use of the college’s libraries and resources.

No mention of booking systems, or issues with PC access. I should also note that at least one of the inspectors sat in the library alongside learners when working rather than sit in the base room we had provided.

So here’s an idea, why not turn off your booking system for a week, just as a trial and see what happens. Confusion, possibly, chaos, probably not. Another option is, if that idea is too radical, why not have some bookable PCs, but allow others to be fully open access and record utilisation patterns.

I understand that for some library staff they see the PC booking system as a critical component of how they manage resources, from my experience, and especially in times of reduced funding, they are probably one thing that can be removed and the funding used for staff or learning resources, with minimal negative impact and potentially a more positive environment in the library itself.

Library Signage

No Swimming in the Library

As today is today I am reminded of something I did five years ago, when we added a range of new signage to the library.

What was interesting was that it didn’t work, no one noticed the new signs or paid them any attention,.

Though it should be said we never had a problem with swimming in the library again.

Libraries in the Internet Age

Commoncraft have released a nice video on how libraries have changed in this age of the internet.

We want them to succeed and we made this video to help the public understand how libraries have changed in the Internet Age.

There is more to research then just using Google.