Category Archives: learning

…and the Russians used a pencil

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

There is an apocryphal story that has no basis in fact, about how the US space agency, NASA spent millions of dollars developing an ‘astronaut pen’ that would work in outer space, while the Russians fixed the problem much more cheaply and quickly by using pencils.

What the story reminds us that sometimes the low tech solution can be a better choice than trying to utilise a high tech solution.

With the current situation impacting on learning and teaching, there is a lot of talk and posts out there on how to deliver online teaching, many of these talk of the use of tools such as Zoom, video and Teams.

Normally when working from home I have all the bandwidth, but with “forced” home working and now we schools are closed, it won’t be just me wanting to use the internet. Now the rest of the family will be wanting to use my bandwidth….

This scenario also won’t be isolated to you and your home. Your neighbours may also be working from home, or using the internet so the contention ratio may rise as more people try and use the same data capacity.

There will be numerous companies and organisations running online meetings and calls. Schools are expecting their students to access online resources through tools such as Google Classroom, but also other online services such as Doddle and Hegarty.

You can imagine the increase in demand for streaming services such as Netflix and iPlayer as well for people who are self-isolating.

learning
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

There will be an impact on these services as multiple people start to use them more than would normally be expected.

There is only so much bandwidth and as demand rises for bandwidth it will cause dropouts and buffering.

It won’t just be restricted to home broadband, but also mobile networks. 

Vodafone has said it is experiencing a 30% rise in internet traffic across its UK fixed-line and mobile networks.

The FT reports on the EU asking streaming services to limit their services (behind a paywall).

The EU has called on streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube to limit their services in order to prevent the continent’s broadband networks from crashing as tens of millions of people start working from home.  

This will have an impact on how you work, if you depend on connectivity. For calls and meetings. You may find asynchronous low bandwidth communication and collaboration tools a better option than the full functionality high bandwidth tools you are use to.

The same can be said for teaching online, we might want to deliver lectures live using a tool such as Zoom, even delivering lectures asynchronously using lecture capture may not be easy. Before it might have been possible to have a Teams video meeting instead of a tutorial, today it might be more challenging.

Some are saying, well my broadband seems to be working okay, but we also need to consider the student as well.

Some universities have already advice in place for this kind of challenge.

LSE now advising staff to think about asynchronous and low bandwidth online learning activities.

The LSE tweeted out their advice where staff may be teaching students with restricted internet access. 

They have a web page offering advice and guidance – Teaching and learning provision for students in areas where internet access is restricted.

Image by David Schwarzenberg from Pixabay
Image by David Schwarzenberg from Pixabay

So how can we create low tech and low bandwidth learning activities?

Generally when asked to move to online delivery, people often think that the easiest thing to do is to translate what they do in the physical academic environment and move it online.

This means conversions such as I normally deliver a lecture, so I will use a live video stream to deliver that lecture to my remote learners.

Likewise, I usually run a seminar to discuss a topic, so I will use a Teams video conference to for the discussion.

These are in the main high tech and high bandwidth activities which may work from a delivery perspective on your broadband connection, but not necessarily work at the other end on your students’ devices and connections.

Well there are some simple technical things you can do that could make the life of your learners easier.

Move from video to an audio stream

Video requires a lot of bandwidth, moving to an audio only stream requires a lot less bandwidth. However you should think about how you might need to adjust the way in which the content is delivered if you are only using audio. Radio is different to television and those differences should influence th design of how you deliver the content or teaching.

Go with asynchronous delivery rather than a live stream

Minimise file sizes

Because internet connectivity can be slow and inconsistent in some regions (or for the reasons about contention outlines above), it is advisable to keep file sizes to a minimum.

The University of Reading has an useful site on compressing files.

The key thing to think about is, that proprietary files are usually quite large, so converting to another format such as PDF may help to reduce file sizes.

Similarly, providing an audio only version of a video file can help those who have slow internet connections

Avoid proprietary file formats

So you have Office 365 and a licence for Powerpoint, do your learners have the same software if you share a Powerpoint file? Yes you can use some online services to convert the file, but do your students know how to do that?

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay
Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Think mobile

Will your students, who no longer have access to the IT labs on campus, have a device that can access the teaching you are delivering? They may only have a mobile device, so does your content work on mobile.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Designing learning 

Having said all that, another option is to think about the design of the learning to work in a low tech low bandwith environment..

It might also be useful to design activities that work asynchronously, so aren’t dependent on a continuous live internet connection to work.

Lectures can be recorded and downloaded, but what about using other forms of content, such as books, journals or other work as a stimulus for learning? Content can be more than just lectures.

So for example instead of running a seminar to discuss a topic, using Teams video conference, move to an asynchronous format using a discussion forum.

100 ways to use a VLE – #3 Having an online discussion

Debates can be asynchronous as well, through a discussion forum. In many ways this can be a different debating experience with the opportunity for all students to make their point.

100 ways to use a VLE – #5 Having an online debate

You can use high tech tools that require decent technology and bandwidth, but sometimes you can make do with a pencil.

Could we build a treehouse?

Image by Th G from Pixabay
Image by Th G from Pixabay

I have written before about informal learning, and how that once you start designing informal learning it becomes formalised. What you can do is create spaces, as well as provide technology, that can encourage informal learning.

A simple example of this is providing ubiquitous Wi-Fi across the campus, especially in social and communal areas.

What would you design in your informal learning spaces if money no object?

This was the brief we had in a workshop at the Leeds Business School at the recent ALT Learning Spaces SIG in January.

So the brief was to think about how an existing space could be refurbished into an informal learning space. There were three scenarios, a very limited budgetary option, a classic budgetary scenario and ours, which was “budget, what budget!”

We were split into groups, two groups had a (realistic) limited budget to work with, another group a bigger budget and our group… well our group had an unlimited budget. We could go to town.

There is still something useful about this kind of scenario, even though it isn’t realistic, as with any blue skies thinking, you can start with unrealistic and unattainable outcome, but bringing that back down to reality, means that some things will remain.

The space we were working with was a real space, and is in the West Park Teaching Hub at Loughborough University. This is a round space, currently divided into two semi-circle teaching spaces. The space wasn’t working as planned, in the main due to noise leaking between the spaces.

The space was circular and I immediately thought lets go right out there and think about doing something very different, so I threw into the initial discussion the idea of either building a fairground carousel, my thinking was of the double decker ones you see in Germany and France.

My other idea, which the group liked more, was let’s build a treehouse in the space.

The seminar room we were in had interactive whiteboards for each group, so I got to work to “sketch” a treehouse concept for the space.

The key concept was to bring in nature into the space, both in terms of the tree, but also real foliage and natural light.

The other aspect was to design the space to create various different ways in which the space could be used for informal learning, both for individuals and for groups.

One thing I have done in spaces I was managed (some years ago) was designing the space to allow for quick (or light) informal learning and spaces for longer deeper informal learning. I took my cue from coffee shops, where though they basically sell coffee, there are different coffee drinking scenarios. There are those people who want to pop in, sit down, have a quick coffee and then go. Similarly there are two people, who want a break from shopping, so want to chat and have a coffee. Then there are the people who want a longer coffee drinking experience (maybe they are going to have cake or a sandwich). They will spend much longer in the coffee shop, they may even have a second coffee. Sometimes a group will come in to discuss and chat over coffee. Then there are those looking for a place to use their laptop.

In a lot of coffee shops, you will see they design the space to meet these differing needs. Near the entrance are usually tables and chairs and occasional soft seating. As you venture deeper into the coffee shop, you will find sofas and more comfortable seating, but also larger tables and chairs (for groups).

So back to the learning space design, we wanted to do something similar. We wanted a range of furniture that would allow for multiple and varied informal learning scenarios. Places where a learner could sit down and check something on their laptop. Tables that would allow a couple of learners to grab a coffee and chat about their most recent lecture. Furniture for longer and deeper informal learning scenarios, working on an essay or a group project.

We felt that lighting was important and would both encourage and discourage informal learning. Everyone felt coffee (and snacks) was important, but were aware of the noise issues that this could cause. Acoustical planning would be undertaken to create quiet spaces and ensure noisy spaces could be contained and the sound absorbed by the furniture and plants.

Technology would be embedded and integrated into the treehouse. There would be ubiquitous Wi-FI, well would you expect anything less. There would be places to charge devices. Screens would be available for small group work, as well as traditional whiteboards and other areas to write on.

Image by Duddesack from Pixabay

We also thought a big screen surrounding the tree could be used to change the mood of the space, as well as for information.

It was a fun task and we enjoyed working together. It certainly wasn’t a realistic option, but some of the concepts and ideas could certainly be utilised in a real budgetary envelope when designing a space for informal learning.

What is the difference between strong, thorough and exceptional? – Weeknote #37 – 15th November 2019

BT Tower in Fitzrovia
BT Tower in Fitzrovia by James Clay

One interesting read this week was this blog post

An ‘Edinburgh Model’ for Online Teaching Programme: Notes from a pilot run.

In this post, Dr Michael Gallagher, a Lecturer in the Centre for Research in Digital Education, describes how he and colleagues drew on current expertise and research within The University of Edinburgh to inform and design a new online course…

It was an interesting read, but I find it equally interesting that we are still having difficulty with delivering and teaching online that we still need to run pilots.

There has been substantial amounts of research and practice in this space, this is reinforced by the forthcoming A Manifesto for Teaching Online which, as indicated in the article on the  ‘Edinburgh Model’ was a source for the course, much of what is distilled in the course comes from the outcomes of the Near Future Teaching project and the Manifesto for Teaching Online.

This isn’t though a course which is delivered online, this is a course for teaching people how to teach online and it wasn’t initially delivered online.

This first pilot of the course was run face to face to allow the team to focus on specific areas and get rapid feedback from participants.

In my reading and experience, people really get to understand the challenges and affordances of delivering online if they have first hand experience of being taught online, both bad and good. A similar thing can be said for non-online teaching (or what we sometimes call traditional or face to face teaching. This is something that all teachers will have experience of, being taught in a face to face or traditional manner before they start teaching themselves. Though I wonder can we teach online if we have never been taught online? Should be said though the team are planning to run the course fully online in early 2020.

I suppose there is for me an element of frustration that the concept of online teaching isn’t new, there has been considerable research in this space, but it’s still something that we as a sector struggle with. Hopefully sharing experiences from these pilots will help, but we have been doing pilots for decades now… Continue reading What is the difference between strong, thorough and exceptional? – Weeknote #37 – 15th November 2019

The future of learning… ten years later!

FOTE09

On the 2nd October 2009 I was at the ULCC Event, The Future of Technology in Education.

Little did I know the impact that this presentation would have on me, my future career and education in general.

I felt a little intimidated to be invited to talk at the event, we wouldn’t have called it imposter syndrome back then, but I did wonder if I was the right person to talk at such an interesting conference. It certainly had a TED talk feel to it. I must thank Frank Steiner and Tim Bush from ULCC for their support and help and inviting me to talk at this FOTE and future FOTE events.

2009 was quite a year for me, I had won the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year award that year. It was also the year of “The VLE is Dead” debate at the ALT Conference.

The event took place at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, which I remember wasn’t the easiest place to get to via the underground. Knowing London better now I think I would probably have just walked across Hyde Park from Paddington to get there. From about 2001 I started going to London a lot for work, well a few times a year, which was considerably more than when I was a lecturer in Bristol. I use to go to London, arrive at Paddington, take the underground, pop up somewhere, go to a meeting or an event, before popping back down into the underground on my way home. These days I visit London a lot more and have spent a lot more time walking around London, so have a much better grasp of the geography of the place. I remember being quite impressed with the place, and that you could see the nearby Albert Hall.

Albert Hall

I spent a fair bit of time putting my presentation together, in the end it comprised 82 slides… and I only had twenty minutes to deliver my talk. A challenge that took some doing.

My presentation was entitled The future of learning…

The aim of my presentation was to discuss how learning would and could change with the affordances of technological change.

So what of my predictions?

Well we know predicting the future is hard and generally most people get it wrong.

You will no doubt not be surprised that I got a lot of things wrong…

One thing I feel I did get right was that mobile was going to be big and important. I said how I felt mobile was the future. The audience did have a range of mobile devices themselves, but most phones were nothing more than phones that could do SMS and the Snake game. There were a few smartphones out there, but if my experience was to go by, they were clunky and difficult to use. We had the iPhone, but it hadn’t quite had the impact that it has had by today.

We didn’t have the iPad, that would arrive the following year. So no surprise that in my talk at FOTE I didn’t mention tablets

My talk actually started off talking about the past, how we are still impacted and embedded by the past, which makes change challenging and difficult.

I then talked about the present and some of the issues and problems that technology was causing in classrooms and lecture theatres. PAT testing was a real concern for many back then, don’t hear much about it these days in relation to BYOD or learner devices.

One of the challenges I saw back then was how academics and educationalists wanted to categorise learning, so we had e-learning, m-learning, mobile learning, online learning, digital learning, etc….

I said that I thought categorising learning and putting it into different boxes was restricting and that really we should focus on learning and blur the boxes, blur the boundaries.

Boxes

It was fine to talk about the “boxes” at conferences and in papers, but experience has shown that categorising learning into boxes caused confusion for teachers and academics, who rightly focussed on the word before the learning as a problem to be solved and then found it challenging.

However back then I said, and I still stand by this today, is that learners and academics need to understand the potential of technology and digital to better understand the affordances and opportunities that it can provide for learning. You don’t need to be ab le to do the technology, but you do need to know what it can do.

I also brought in scepticism about technological advances, something I would draw upon in future talks and presentations.

Nokia N95

Video (and film) had been used for learning for years, but people were sceptical and convinced that video (ie lecture capture) would stop traditional learning activities. However we know that television didn’t destroy radio, we know that radio didn’t kill newspaper, books didn’t replace folk stories. When we have a new technological development, often the result is a negative impact on existing technologies, but often the result is affordances about the potential of the new technology, enabling access that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

I also talked about the potential of video on mobile devices. Video cameras were getting smaller and cheaper, the quality was getting better as well. You could buy video cameras which could record HD video, even if it was a challenge to capture and edit it on standard computers of the time. This was before the concept of streaming became mainstream. I showed a Sanyo Xacti camera which was waterproof and dropped it in a jug of water. These cameras could be used in dirty and dusty environments and the washed under the tap!

James Clay presenting at FOTE09

Mobile phone video has become so much better now. I am still impressed that my iPhone can record 4K video… If only we could get people to record video in landscape!

GPS was usually an option on devices back then, today it is more prevalent in the devices we buy. I saw this as an opportunity, the concept of geo-location based learning was something that felt quite magical at the time. Your device knows where you are, so personalises the learning based on your location. What I missed was how location tracking and would become a very big issue for people.

There was a bit of a backlash against e-Books back in 2009, as people felt that they weren’t as good as “real” books. For me they weren’t a replacement for books, they enabled different ways of reading. For many e-Books and e-book readers enabled a new way to access books and content, that otherwise would mean they wouldn’t have access. I presented on the future of reading at #FOTE10 the following year. I became a bit of an expert on e-books as as result. I presented on e-books at many different events and conferences, as well as writing a chapter in a book, and finally a book on Preparing for Effective Adoption and Use of Ebooks in Education in 2012.

Today e-books are part and parcel off education with easier access to books by students from academic libraries. As I did predict, we didn’t see the end of physical books, we still have bookstores and people still buy physical books.

reading a Kindle
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Back then in 2009 connectivity was either slightly haphazard, or expensive, or both. We had 3G, but it wasn’t widespread, it would be another three years before we saw 4G.

WiFi was there, but it didn’t always work and network congestion would often cause the WiFi to fail. This happened with frequent regularity at events and conferences I attended back then, as delegates killed the WiFi with too many connections.

In the future I felt connectivity wouldn’t just be important, it would be critical for the future of learning.

Today we have really good (and cheap) mobile data, 4G is more available and 5G is starting to appear. Ubiquitous WiFi is certainly there compared to ten years ago, Eduroam has made it easier for people in education to connect when travelling, but WiFi is easily found in most places. This has allowed users to do so much more when travelling and moving about, or just when drinking coffee. I certainly notice how many people are streaming video, having video chat, doing so much more, because they had the connection and the bandwidth to do so.

Mobile often means battery power, and access to charging. Everyone remembers how their Nokia phone would last days on a single charge, today, most people seem to complain how their smartphone battery doesn’t last the day. Batteries may not seem to have got better, they have, just that we demand more power for our complex devices. We have seen significant improvements in battery technology, but we have seen a huge increase in our demand for power on our devices. Streaming video requires more power than reading an e-mail. One thing that has taken time to filter through was the importance of the ability to charge devices. Since 2009 we have seen trains and buses adding power sockets, and USB ports for charging as well. Hotels have added similar sockets. Some lecture theatres now have plug sockets as well.

In my 2009 presentation I talked about the technological penknife.

Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

This is one thing I got very wrong, I thought that the idea that a device that did everything meant it did everything badly. A penknife has multiple tools, but most of them aren’t very good doing the stuff they are designed to do. People would prefer to have specialist devices for specific activities. Why would you have rubbish video from a phone, when you could have a decent HD video camera? Why would you use the rubbish microphone on a device, when a specialist recording device would do it so much better? Well that didn’t happen, in reality we have seen devices become so much better that we don’t need to have multiple devices. We have the penknife, but it’s a really good penknife, really good at everything.

I then went on to talk about change and the importance of managing change. I talked about how change can be a series of small steps, but noted the importance of missing steps, endless steps and steps that trip you up.

These slides were really where I started to understand strategy and writing strategies much more. This certainly helped me in future roles and influenced heavily the design of certain aspects of the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme in which I was part of the research and development team led by Lawrie Phipps.

I talked about activity, technology should never be about the technology, it needed to be about how it could enhance or improve activities. Or where the affordances created new opportunities for different activities. We still have a perception that we shouldn’t talk about technology first, though sometimes I think we should.

Technology allow for flexibility, flexible curriculum, flexible approaches to delivery, flexible learning. I think we have made a little progress here, but so much more is possible these days. The technology enables flexibility, but that doesn’t mean it will just happen, there is so much more that needs to happen to enable flexibility.

Back then I felt sharing was important, not just sharing content (as in open) but also sharing ideas, concepts and approaches. Not that this didn’t happen, but it was difficult to do so. Today it is much easier to share than it was back then, so much so, I think we have forgotten about the time when this didn’t happen.

I talked about the importance of working collaboratively. Since the talk online tools have made it so much easier to collaborate. Collaboration across institutions (and countries) is so much easier these days. Tools such as Slack enable groups to talk and work together.

I talked about innovation, celebrating ideas. Innovation doesn’t always mean better, it means different or new. Following on from that I talked about experimentation and encouraging it within our institutions.

If you want innovation, then it needs to be embedded into the strategy, rewarded and not penalised when things go wrong. It needs to be done in collaboration with learners not done to them. I think we are seeing much more innovation and collaboration these days, and the student voice is helping to inform developments and ideas.

I said we need to re-think assessment, technology was going to have an impact. I think it has, but not in the way we thought it would. We try and use technology to “fix’ assessment today, rather than re-imagine how we assess.

I talked about culture and how culture can enable change, but also frustrate it. Culture is about what and who we are, it’s the sum of the people within an organisation. This was something we covered years later in the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme.

I have written about the importance of culture and strategy in this blog post on writing strategies.

I have always seen technology as a solution to a problem. Technology in itself is not the problem needing to be solved. This was something that I wrote about in 2018.

I finished the presentation about talking about the future and how the future was about the learner, the student. It was about how they wanted to learn, where they wanted to learn, what they wanted to learn and with whom they wanted to learn. Why did we need to think about the future, it was because we needed to think about the learners, then, now and in the future.

So did I predict the future?

No.

It certainly though had a huge impact on my future, some of which I have outlined above. As a result of this talk I was invited to speak at a range of events and conferences on the future of learning and a range of mobile learning events. I spoke the following year at FOTE 10 about the future of reading, which resulted in me doing much more in the e-book space.

So there is also a video of me (looking much younger) presenting, if you want to watch what happened…

Online learning doesn’t just happen

student on a laptop
Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

When it comes to the delivery of online learning, the assumption is made that it will just happen. Assumptions are made that academics who are experts already in delivering learning will be able to easily transfer their skills to an online environment. Even if they are provided with some training, what they will require will be minimal. The training will usually be about the mechanics of online learning, as these academics are already experts in learning, so why would you even “insult” them with training about learning!

What can often happen is that the processes and methods that people use in the physical space will be translates verbatim to an online space. It will not taken into account the challenges of an online environment, or recognise the affordances of said environments. This also ignores the potential and affordances that online environments can bring to learning.

  • Lectures will become webinars.
  • Presentations will become PowerPoint slide decks.
  • Handouts will be Word documents to be downloaded.
  • Verbal communication will be done by e-mail.

The online environment will become a repository of materials that will be forgotten and ignored. The end result will be a lack of engagement by students and a deluge of complaints about this whole online learning experiment.

Writing in a notebook
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

The overall experience is expected to be the same, but merely re-creating the physical experience online is often disappointing for both students and academics. Many of the nuances of face to face learning can be lost when moving to online. Part of the issue is that physical learning activities don’t necessarily translate readily into an online environment, the nuances of what makes the face to face so valuable can be lost in translation, similarly the possibilities and affordances of the online space can be lost.

A lecture is more than just someone at the front talking to an audience. There is something about bringing together in a single place, the physicality of that “performance” adds to the whole experience. Though the oral nature of the delivery can be captured, the non-verbal aspects will often not be noticed, but are equally important as the verbal ones.Students will share a common experience, and they will have a similar experience to others in the room.

As webinar can be used as an online lecture, but you won’t have the non-verbal cues, even when using a webcam. The academic will miss out on the whole group experience and their non-verbal language in response to the lecture.

Using webinar technology can allow for a complex and fluid conversation to happen at the same time as the lecture. Using the chat functionality can enhance and enrich the experience. In my experience it helps to have someone else in the webinar space to manage the chat area, to respond, to provide links and content and to summarise at appropriate times to the academic delivering the webinar feedback from the group. It’s really hard for one person to do all that and deliver an engaging lecture. Another aspect that is often forgotten that online delivery (be it audio or video) appears flatter than when seeing it for “real” so one thing I do is up my performance a notch or two. Take it too far and you will become Alan Partridge, but it will make for better delivery if you brighten and enhance your delivery.

Of course webinars don’t have to be a lecture, they could be a group discussion. Why replace the lecture with a webinar, when you could replace it with a podcast of various experts discussing the topic of the lecture. Of course online means you can bring in experts from across the country (if not the world) to discuss the topic and record it for future listening by students.One of the affordances of online is that it doesn’t have to be live, it can be recorded and then watched by the student at a time and place to suit them. Suddenly this opens up a wide range of opportunities, why just record yourself in a lecture theatre, why not take to the road and turn your lecture into a radio programme. Why not create a film about what you want to talk about? Of course this takes time and effort, but sharing and collaboration (much easier to do these days online) means you could share the load with others in your field.

It is easy to upload files to an online environment, but in isolation what is the context. If you create great PowerPoint slide decks for your lectures, do they work without the lecture? Personally my slides are usually just images or single words, that look nice, but really without the talk tell you nothing I was talking about! There are tools and processes out there that can turn simple PowerPoint files into online videos through recording an audio track as they are presented. You could do this live (using webinar technology) or pre-record using the built-in tools. Something to recognise that these files can be quite large, will your students have the connectivity and the bandwidth outside campus to access them? Will you need to provide alternatives?

Though for many PowerPoint is a familiar tool, there are other tools in the toolbox that can create engaging online content. Some even allow you to add interactive elements. How you create good online content isn’t just about the technical aspects of using said tools, but also recognising the pedagogical principles that need to be followed when designing online learning content. If you start to add quizzes or questions, there is a whole new raft of skills that may need developing.

reading a Kindle
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Though it might be thought uploading Word documents to the online environment, is one way to get content to students, there are so many other resources out there to create an effective online learning experience. The subject of e-resources could fill a book and often does. Understanding what is possible with resources is one thing, understanding the wealth of resources out there is something else.

We know that everyone loves e-mail, and it is often the default online communication method for many. However using a single tool for all types and formats of communication is not effective or efficient. Who really wants their sacred inbox to be filled with numerous conversations and questions that are getting in the way of other “important” work e-mails. If you have more than one cohort, then it becomes even more difficult. Conversations are really hard to follow in e-mail, mainly as people don’t respond in a linear manner, they add their comment to the top of their reply. For conversations and discussion, e-mail is a really bad online tool, especially when there are so many better alternatives out there for doing this kind of thing.

I find e-mail is best for the one-to-one messaging (and occasional) conversation and for the broadcast style one-to-many messages (though even then I think there are better alternatives out there for even that kind of message). Using appropriate platforms for online conversations opens up a range of learning possibilities that could not happen in the offline world as well as re-creating the conversations students and academics have.

Overall there is more to online learning then learning the mechanics of online learning. That equally applies to students as well as academics. Don’t assume people can do online learning, there are skills, techniques and possibilities that need to be thought about and taken onboard. As well as the mechanics of using the system, there is the how of online learning, the process of learning that also needs to be considered. Really it should be considered first and then deliver the technical training.

So how are you approaching the subject of online learning with your academics? What works? What challenges have you come across and how did you overcome them?

Is this the future of “teaching”?

learning
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Today I saw this link in my news feed and it did make me think about how we could use AI to support learning, but also some of the real challenges in making this happen.

China has started a grand experiment in AI education. It could reshape how the world learns. – MIT Technology Review

An interesting read on how China is using it’s technological might (and economies of scale) to utilise AI to respond to demand for tutoring to catch up and for the college entrance exam, the gaokao.

The article says that three factors have driven AI education, firstly supported by tax breaks, a $1bn investment. Second intense demand for tutoring and people (read parents) willing to pay for it. Thirdly masses of data to refine algorithms and a population not as concerned about data privacy as we are in the West.

This AI teaching model is gaining traction in China, could the UK do something similar? Well we certainly couldn’t match the investment, people don’t like paying for stuff and we have big ethical concerns about data and privacy.

Could we learn from China?

Well one aspect of the tutoring system is how it adapts to the needs of the learner and as a result personalises the learning that is made available to the learner. Could we use a similar system to support learners in their learning journey? Not necessarily fulfilling the entire learning journey, but aspects and parts of the journey.

Well the system doesn’t necessarily remove the human function within learning and teaching, in the same way that books didn’t and in reality neither did the VLE. What it does do is free up time for teachers to focus on those aspects of learning which technology and AI can’t do well or not at all.

Group working
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

I don’t see AI systems replacing teachers, in the same way that text books, workbooks, don’t replace teachers. What I can see is how such systems could enhance the learning journey. Rather than a blanket list of resources and links, more focused and personalised approach to meeting the learner needs.

I can see a system also working intelligently to understand the context the learner is learning in. Are they travelling or on campus, or at home? What is their connectivity like? Are they on their own, with peers from their cohort? What assessments do they have coming up? Have they been working for a while, do they need a break?

Before we get to that, there is a lot of work to be done on how we measure these aspects of learner context. Importantly we also need to consider the ethical aspects of any such system.

Understanding your audience

puppets
Photo by Umut YILMAN on Unsplash

Back in February I saw this tweet on the Twitter

I started writing a blog post about this and then never finished it, so then I found the draft and decided to reflect on this technological development.

Imagine if such a technology existed and was in use. A lecturer using an Augmented Reality headset, which uses facial and emotional recognition gauges student engagement.

Now there is a huge question mark over whether we could even develop such a technology and create the unbiased algorithms  that would be required to both define student engagement and how using facial and emotional recognition would actually be able to measure that engagement.

Just because someone said they were engaged in a session doesn’t mean always they were.

One of the other key questions for me that needs to be answered is, what does a lecturer do if using such a system, found their audience disengaged. Do they continue despite knowing this, stop and send people home, or do they launch into a song and dance routine or even a puppet show?

What do lecturers do now when they believe that their students are disengaged?

Top Ten Blog Posts 2018

This year I have written only 17 blog posts, in 2017 it was 21 blog posts, in 2016 it was 43 blog posts, in 2015 I wrote 24 blog posts. In 2014 I wrote 11 and in 2013 I wrote 64 blog posts and over a hundred in 2012. In 2011 I thought 150 was a quiet year!

Do signs work?

The tenth most popular blog post in 2018 was asking So do signs work? This article from 2013 described some of the challenges and issues with using signage to change behaviours. So do signs work? Well yes they do, but often they don’t.

The post at number nine was my podcast workflow, published in 2011, this article outlines how and what equipment I use to record the e-Learning Stuff Podcast. This is only one way in which to record a remote panel based podcast, and I am sure there are numerous other ways in which to do this. I have also changed how I have recorded over the two years I have been publishing the podcast due to changes in equipment and software. It’s probably time to update it, though I am not doing as much podcasting as I use to.

Dropping three places to eighth was 100 ways to use a VLE – #89 Embedding a Comic Strip. This was a post from July 2011, that looked at the different comic tools out there on the web, which can be used to create comic strips that can then be embedded into the VLE. It included information on the many free online services such as Strip Creator and Toonlet out there. It is quite a long post and goes into some detail about the tools you can use and how comics can be used within the VLE.

The post at number seven, climbing one place, was Comic Life – iPad App of the Week. Though I have been using Comic Life on the Mac for a few years now I realised I hadn’t written much about the iPad app that I had bought back when the iPad was released. It’s a great app for creating comics and works really well with the touch interface and iPad camera.

Sixth most popular was a post from 2018, called “I don’t know how to use the VLE!” This blog post described a model of VLE embedding and development. This post was an update to the model I had published in 2010.

In at number five, is also a post from 2018, Why does no one care about my digital strategy? This post described some of the background to the leadership briefing I wrote with Lawrie Phipps on the digital lens.

digital lens

Holding at fourth, is Can I legally download a movie trailer? One of the many copyright articles that I posted some years back, this one was in 2008, I am still a little behind in much of what is happening within copyright and education, one of things I do need to update myself on, as things have changed.

Dropping one place back to third, was Frame Magic – iPhone App of the Week, still don’t know why this one is so popular!

FrameMagic - iPhone App of the Week

Back in 2015 I asked I can do that… What does “embrace technology” mean? in relation to the Area Review process and this post was the second most popular post in 2018, last year it was in sixth place, so it’s getting more popular.

Once again, for the sixth year running, the number one post for 2018 was the The iPad Pedagogy Wheel.

The Padagogy Wheel

I re-posted the iPad Pedagogy Wheel as I was getting asked a fair bit, “how can I use this nice shiny iPad that you have given me to support teaching and learning?”. It’s a really simple nice graphic that explores the different apps available and where they fit within Bloom’s Taxonomy. What I like about it is that you can start where you like, if you have an iPad app you like you can see how it fits into the pedagogy. Or you can work out which iPads apps fit into a pedagogical problem.

So there we have it, the top ten posts 2018.

Encouraging informal learning

So how do we encourage students to learn outside the formal structures and processes we put in place across our institutions?

Informal learning in my opinion is learning that happens outside the “control” of the institution, but is part of the learning towards a qualification that a learner will undertake. This learning may happen within the institution, but will also happen outside at home, at work or in a coffee shop. This definition of informal learning differs from non-formal learning in that the activity of learning is still tied to the institution and the qualification, but is not a proscribed or set activity as set down by a practitioner or an academic.

So can you design informal learning?

No!

There we go that was easy wasn’t it.

You see when you design informal learning, you formalise it and as a result it becomes formal learning.

So if you can’t design informal learning, then how do you design informal learning?

It’s not about designing informal learning, it’s about institutions facilitating and encouraging informal learning. If this happens then, with encouragement from practitioners (rather than setting activities) we should see more learners learning informally.

So how should institutions encourage informal learning?

Well the key really is to think about what actually facilitates and encourages informal learning.

It’s a combination of factors and can include design of learning spaces and the learning activities undertaken by the learners.

Creating the right contexts and environments for informal learning, will ensure that the concept of learn anywhere and anytime is encouraged and enhanced.

Don’t forget the coffee, well of course that could be tea, soft drinks, even cakes and chocolate. Having refreshments can aid the learning process, but also encourages people to be within an informal learning space.

So where is it written that learning has to be uncomfortable?

After I put some sofas into the libraries when I worked in a college, I was asked a few times why do I have sofas in the library when the library is a learning environment?

I would ask then, where is it written down that learning has to be uncomfortable? Where is the rulebook that states learners should sit at desks on hard chairs? Is it not possible for a learner to learn whilst sitting on a sofa? Why can’t a learning environment be enticing, comfortable and even a little bit social?

Sometimes you want to take learners out of their comfort zone, but I am not sure that means making them sit on hard benches! Providing spaces that learners like to be in, ones they will spend time in, combined with other factors could encourage informal learning. If all other factors were implemented, why would you spoil it all, by having an uncomfortable environment?

With dependency on the internet and connectivity for learning these days, it is critical when wanting to encourage learning to have ubiquitous, fast and dependable wifi. Any spaces will need to have the capacity for multiple connections, many learners will have two or more devices that use wifi.

Dropped connections, insufficient bandwidth can result in learners going elsewhere or doing something other than learning.

Another factor that often gets ignored is the impact building construction can have on 3G and 4G signals. If learners are using their own connections, then building construction should be considered in respect to that issue.

When creating spaces that will encourage informal learning, then it needs to provide different furniture for different activities.

Sofas for calm individual reflective thinking, tables and chairs for small group work. Quiet secluded places for focused work. Use appropriate furniture for small groups discussion.

As well as the physical aspects of the space, it is also useful to
think about the temperature, the lighting and ambient noise.
Use furniture, walls and plants to create quiet and less quiet spaces for example. Having the same kind of lighting across a space may be efficient, but using different kinds of lighting for different spaces can both encourage different kinds of activities.

As well as physical spaces, it is also useful when encouraging informal learning, to provide access to virtual collaborative spaces. This could be the vLE, but other options are available such as Slack, WhatsApp or even a Facebook group. It’s not just about providing access (through the firewall) but also about providing guidance and best practice so that learners have a better understanding of the benefits (and limitations) of these virtual collaborative tools. It would also make sense to check that the organisation has a sensible Social Media policy that reflects the use of social media tools for learning.

Think about any non-formal activity and ensure that student has access to appropriate resources (digital and non-digital). Is access to those resources mobile friendly? Will they work on the kinds of devices those learners are using when learning?

One thing to ensure is you have an appropriate Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy to facilitate informal learning.

So how are you creating spaces for and facilitating informal learning?

This blog post is inspired by a blog post on informal learning, that I wrote in 2010, and a cookery book activity from the ALT Winter Conference 2016.

It’s an extra, but does it need to be?

keyboardbw

Over the years I have spent a lot of time working with teachers helping them to embed digital technologies into their practice. I have also collaborated with colleges and universities and seen the strategies they use to embed digital. In an earlier post I described my journey and the approaches I have used for support and strategy. In this series of articles I am going to look at the process that many teachers use for teaching and learning and describe tools, services, but also importantly the organisational approach that can be used to embed the use of those tools into practice.

One challenge that is often faced when embedding learning technologies is that a lot of teaching staff see digital technology as something extra to do in their teaching. It’s a bolt-on, something extra to be done on top of the teaching and assessment workload.

Part of this has to be down to the way in which staff are introduced to or trained in the use of learning technologies. Staff attend a training session, or read an e-mail about some kind of new service or tool, or a new functionality and then are asked (usually politely and nicely) to start using as part of their work. The obvious reaction is that staff will see this as an extra.

Another part is down to the technocentric approach that is often used when talking about learning technologies, the training is focused on the technical approach to tools and services, this is how you use it and this is how it works.

At a simple level, even just uploading presentations to the VLE is an extra piece of work. Using a lecture capture system requires more effort than just the lecture. Using padlet to capture feedback requires more time than not capturing feedback.

This negative reaction to learning technologies, then extends to the use of other kinds of technolog, that can even save time, or isn’t recognised when the potential benefits are longer term.

So what can be done?

I don’t think there is an extra with the “this is an extra” model of staff development, it will certainly inspire and help those who want to engage with technology and those who can see the potential long term benefits. However in order to engage those staff for whom it is an “extra” this different approaches need to be considered and used.

There isn’t anything wrong about the technocentric approach, despite what the “pedagogy first” brigade may tell you, however the focus needs to be on the potential of the technology, what it can do, what is can provide and what the benefits are. The technical processes can be covered as well, but put the focus on what the benefits are for the member if the staff and importantly the learners.

Another method is to focus on the processes and workflows that staff have and see how technology can improve, enhance and smooth out those processes.

Finally what about the affordances that new technologies can bring, the potential not to just change what we do, but allow us to do things we had never considered.

So what strategies do you use to engage staff who see embedding technology as an extra?