Category Archives: stuff

The tyranny of the timetable

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

What is a timetable?

An academic timetable is a way co-ordinating four elements:

  • Students
  • Academics or teachers
  • Rooms
  • Time

Currently the timetable is something that is often done to teachers, academics and students, over which they have minimal input or control.

In the world of Education 4.0 where we want to transform teaching, provide a personalised adapter learning experience and re-imagine assessment, all within a fluid digital and physical campus, the timetable as it stands now is something that constrains and blocks this potential vision.

As a student at school, college and university I had no control or influence over my timetable. When I first started teaching, I was given my timetable, I wasn’t asked to input into the process. It told me what I was going to teach, who I was going to teach, where I was going to teach and when I was going to teach..

As a programme manager in another job I had a bit more input into the whole process. We didn’t have a system or mechanism for creating the timetable, just large sheets of graph paper. It felt like some kind of three dimensional chess combing the four elements outlined above. What I do remember about the process, the first static aspect was the rooms, then the part time cohorts, after that everything else was just fitted into what was left.

Back then following student feedback, it was apparent that some of our timetables for our full time students weren’t exactly student friendly. They were expected to be in every day, and there were large gaps in the day between lessons. The end result was a fair bit of absence and a fall in retention.. So one year we decided to build the timetable around the student, we condensed their week into three (longish) days. Then we fitted in the rooms and teachers into the process. The end result was an improvement in attendance and retention.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

These days we have timetable systems, some are based around Excel, others databases and some proprietary timetabling systems. There main focus is to avoid clashes, and enable people to discover when to if rooms are free. However in my experience they are still quite static systems that are still done to students and academics.

You have a cohort of students, you have a number of weeks to deliver your subject and you are assigned a room or space for that year. If you want to do something different than you normally do, you sometimes have to make do, and undertake it in the same space, or you have to struggle to find a space, do things out of hours or just give up. You want to deliver online, then you still find you have to retain using the space, because otherwise you might lose it!

We need to build an intelligent timetable, one that adapts and changes to the changing requirements of different subjects, teachers, spaces, cohorts and individual students. This is easier said than done.

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

So what is the current landscape like? Most timetable systems operate in a silo, a fixed point in time. It is hard to make dynamic changes to the timetable, as it is rather inflexible. Once it is set up, because the fact it inflexible, only very small changes can be made, but making a large number of changes wouldn’t be possible.

So could we build a smart timetable? A smart timetable would be able to flex and change as the demands placed on it allow rapid shifts and changes. I need a larger room, the timetable would be able to accommodate it, whether it be for one week or the rest of the year. A smart timetable would inform decisions about space.

An intelligent timetable would be able to make changes in advance, based on information gathered from across the college. It could predict what spaces would be available and what changes would be needed, based on data and make changes as required. So as a cohort increases, it would automatically assign a bigger room. As a curriculum changes, they change the cohort to the most appropriate space.

There are some challenges on this, especially if the campus is diverse and large. Students may not know where specific spaces are, going to a different space each week. A smart timetable would need to know how long it can take to move between different rooms to accommodate room changes. Students would need some kind of way finding process to find the rooms. So in order to build a smart or intelligent timetable you need to have already created a digital map of your campus. You need to have already identified route mapping, timings and accessible routes.Similarly students may need to receive notifications about which rooms they will be in, how will these be sent?

If you are changing the curriculum, how would the intelligent timetable system know what the space needs are for different kinds of activities? So you then need to be able to define the curriculum in a way so that the timetable can interpret that and make appropriate decisions about spaces.

What spaces are appropriate for what activities? How do we know this? Does the space have a huge impact on learning? How do we describe this from a digital perspective?

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

When you start down the road, moving from a static timetable to a smart timetable, and then onto an intelligent timetable, you start to realise that the timetable is actually a small part of the work involved. There is a whole lot of data needed to enable the timetable to make smart or intelligent decisions.

Of course with a whole lot of data, you can then start to think about timetabling analytics. Can we start to use our spaces better? Can we improve the timetable for students? Can we improve the timetable for staff? Can we utilise resources for efficiently? What interventions do we need to make to enable this?

We need more detailed advice and guidance on why we need an intelligent timetable and how it could support the future that is Education 4.0.

We need to design the data infrastructure required to feed into any future intelligent timetable product.

Could we even build a prototype of a smart timetable, or even an intelligent timetable.

How do we overcome the tyranny of the timetable?

Hey Siri, are you real?

Hey Siri, are you real?

Following on from my recent blog post about installing voice assistants on campus, I recently read an article, Giving human touch to Alexa or Siri can backfire on how trying to make voice assistants appear to be human or have human touches may not give you the results you were looking for.

A team has found that giving a human touch to chatbots like Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa may actually disappoint users.

Just giving a chatbot human name or adding human-like features to its avatar might not be enough to win over a user if the device fails to maintain a conversational back-and-forth with that person…

This reminded me of a conversation I had at an Intelligent Campus workshop where the idea of trying to make chatbots appear human was probably not a good idea, and maybe they should intentionally make their chatbot non-human.

There are potential challenges as Microsoft found out with their paper clip assistant, but was that because it was a paper clip or because it was annoying?

Clippy

In many ways Clippy was the ancestor of Siri, Cortana and other modern day assistants.

A non-human chatbot could also avoid some of the gender issues that occur when deciding if your chatbot is female or male.

This Guardian article from March discusses this contentious issue, of gender for voice assistants.

Providing assistance has long been considered a woman’s role, whether virtual or physical, fictional or real. The robots that men voice, meanwhile, tend to be in positions of power – often dangerously so. Think Hal 9000, or the Terminator: when a robot needs to be scary, it sounds like a man.

Patriarchy tells us that women serve, while men order, and technology firms seem content to play into stereotypes, rather than risk the potentially jarring results of challenging them.

The article talks about EqualAI

EqualAI, an initiative dedicated to correcting gender bias in AI, has backed the creation of Q, what it says is the first genderless voice.

So if you do have a non-human chatbot, if you want to extend it to be a voice assistant, at least soon you will be able to have a genderless voice behind it.

So what (rather than who) should be your chatbot? Well it could be an anthropomorphic animal or maybe something else that is special to your university or college.

So what would your chatbot be?

Time is a solution…

time

Is time the solution to the problems we face in education?

It can be nice to have the time to do new and interesting things, but the reality in which we live, work and learn, is that time is limited and we don’t have the time to do everything we want to do.

I was brought into an interesting Twitter conversation last night in which Sue Watling referenced my blog post about why I don’t have a dog.

The preceding discussion was about staff and that lack of time was a major barrier to engagement and how institutions failed to recognise the time required to adopt new practices and learn to do things in different ways, whether that be through the use of technology, or different teaching practices.

The problem appears to many to be a lack of time.

“I don’t have the time.”
“When am I suppose to find time to do all this?”
“I am going to need more time.”

Therefore the solution is more time.

However is time the solution to the problem?

Well it is a solution to the problem of not having enough time.

I don’t have the time to do this… so giving people the time is the right solution?

Messages go back to “management” that lack of time is the problem and if only they would provide more time the the problem would be solved. The management response, as expected would usually be there is no extra time.

I would question though is the problem one of lack of time?

Once we focus on time as a solution, we lose sight of the actual problems we are trying to solve. Sometimes we need to go quite far back to really understand the problem we’re trying to solve.

One example is the use of the VLE, staff say they don’t use the VLE because they lack the time to use it, and don’t have the time to learn how to use the VLE.  It could be anything, not just the VLE it could be lecture capture, the Twitter, or even active learning, project-based learning, the use of active learning spaces. However for this post I am going to use the VLE as an example.

So the solution to people not using the VLE is giving them time… Time is once more the solution to a problem. However is not using the VLE the real problem, why are we thinking of the VLE as a problem to be solved? The VLE isn’t a problem, it’s a solution to different problems or challenges.

It can be useful to back track and focus on what and importantly why you are doing something and then frame the conversation within that, rather than the couch the solution as a problem.

Time isn’t a problem.

The VLE isn’t the problem.

So what’s the problem then?

You would hope that the VLE is seen as a potential solution to institutional challenges such as improving achievement, widening participation, accessibility, inclusion; these are often quite explicit in institutional strategies.

How can we provide access to resources, additional materials, links to students? We know discussing course topics and collaborating on problems improves student outcomes? How can we do this in a way which is accessible at a time and place to suit the students at a place of their choice?

Often that’s the problem we’re trying to solve.

The VLE is an ideal vehicle to make that happen. The problem is that use of the VLE becomes detached from the actual problem and becomes a problem in itself. We ask staff to use the VLE, often without adequately explaining why it is being used as part of the strategic direction of the organisation. The result is that the use of the VLE is now seen as an extra, something additional, so compared to the other priorities set by the institution, it is a low priority.

This also happens with other changes in the organisation, the introduction of new teaching methods, or new learning spaces. If the change rhetoric is isolated from the strategy, then the change becomes a problem to be solved, we don’t see the change as solving a different problem.  So can we blame people for wanting time to do stuff, when they see this stuff as an extra, an addition to the work they are currently doing.

clockwork

We also know that when people say they don’t have the time, or they need time; what they are actually saying and meaning is…

It’s not a priority for me, I have other priorities that take up my time.

Priorities in theory are set by the line manager, who is operationalising the strategic direction and vision of the institution.

There are also personal priorities, which can be in conflict with institutional priorities. Your institution may want to present a single external voice, but then there are staff from across the institution who want to use Twitter.

Using a digital lens as outlined in this blog post and paper provides a simple method of couching potential digital solutions such as the VLE to solve the strategic challenges set by the institution.

So the next time someone says they don’t have the time, stop, reflect on what you are saying and maybe seeing solutions as problems, and focusing on the actual challenges that the institution is trying to solve.

Survivorship Bias

In my recent blog post I reflected on the wealth of news articles about highly successful people who failed their A Levels, or how everyone can be a millionaire I was reminded of this great XKCD cartoon.

They say you can't argue with results, but what kind of defeatist attitude is that? If you stick with it, you can argue with ANYTHING.

Every inspirational speech by someone successful should have to start with a disclaimer about survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways.

These stories are designed to bring hope to some people, but I also feel they send a stark message to others that don’t need to worry about working hard for exams, because regardless of the result, you will become a millionaire!

News outlets at this time, never tell the stories of those who failed their A levels and never have financial success, which is the majority of those students who failed to make the grade. Many of these will though have successful and happy lives. They also never tell the stories of those who did succeed and went onto happiness and financial success.

So what’s your failure story?

You too can be a millionaire!

millionaires shortbread

Yesterday was A Level results day, for over 800,000 students they got a letter explaining the outcome for most of two years studying. For some it will be an amazing result and they will progress onto the next stage of their lives. For some there will be disappointment, and uncertainty.

For another 800,000 young people, September will see the start of their A Level journey whether that be at Sixth Form or at an FE College. I wish them luck and hope they work hard to achieve the success they desire.

One thing that they do need to realise is that despite the BBC News publishing stories like this one, The A-level failure who became a multi-millionaire, you do need to study and work at your A Levels.

The day Giles Fuchs learned he had failed his A-levels, his family gathered around the dining table for dinner as normal.

His father didn’t say a word during the meal, waiting until the plates had been cleared to turn to his son and say: “Giles, I hope you’re good with your hands.”

Hoping to prove his dad wrong despite the dismal results, the next day Mr Fuchs knocked on the door of the biggest estate agent chain in Northamptonshire to ask for a job.

Today a multi-millionaire 52-year-old, and co-founder and boss of UK serviced office business Office Space In Town (OSIT), Mr Fuchs says that the three years he spent working for that estate agency in the East Midlands gave him an invaluable grounding.

I do find that often news outlets, like the BBC News, publish these stories, which I am sure are all published with good intentions about giving “hope” to those learners whose A Level results weren’t as good as they hoped.

I think they also have a negative aspect to them too, which is the impact it has on learners who have yet to start their A Levels (or even their GCSEs). The message appears to be don’t worry about studying, even if you fail to get the results, you will still be a millionaire!

Lots of successful people, such as Richard Branson, Jeremy Clarkson, all messed up their exams, but still found success and became millionaires!

Looking back you can see stories across the news media on how it’s okay to fail, but you can still be a millionaire! Here is a list of just 15 people who succeeded despite exam failure.

News outlets at this time, never tell the stories of those who failed their A levels and never have financial success, which is the majority of those students who failed to make the grade. Many of these will have successful and happy lives.

They also never tell the stories of those who did succeed and went onto happiness and financial success.

Many people for whom GCSEs and A Levels were not the way to academic success may find success later with Access courses and going to University that way, or study through the Open University. Apprenticeships offer another route to success.

We can all be millionaires, but the reality is that most of us won’t be millionaires. Only 1% of the UK population are millionaires and a third of those live in London!

So do you want to be a millionaire?

Let’s not give up hope, but let’s celebrate success, celebrate hard work and effort. Let’s give a realistic hope to those who weren’t successful, show them alternative routes to academic success, or vocational routes into employment.

It’s not what you say you do, it’s the way that you do it!

language

I was thinking the other day that I don’t have enough readers of the blog and insufficient engagement.

So the solution has to be that the name of the blog isn’t right. First idea would be change the name from “elearning stuff” to “blended learning stuff”.

Then again maybe I could choose “e-pedagogy stuff” or what a about “threaded learning stuff”. How about “hybrid pedagogy stuff”?

Do you think that changing the name will significantly increase readership and engagement on the blog?

No.

If I want more readers and more engagement, then maybe, just maybe I should think more about the content I write, the style, the questions I ask, the quality of the writing, the frequency of posting and so on…

So when we start thinking that the problem with the embedding of digital and learning technologies, is the name that we use, such as blended learning or e-learning the problem, then we probably have a bigger issue.

If staff aren’t engaging with digital and learning technologies as part of their continuing professional development, then changing the term we use will have some impact, but not significant. It may encourage some to participate, but it may confuse others. However the language we use, though can be powerful in some contexts, is not the reason why people decide not to engage with digital.

It’s like the reason that people often say about lack of time, when the solution is not about providing more time, but is about setting and managing priorities. It really comes back to the reasons why people choose to engage or not and the reasons they give.

If you are having challenges in engaging staff in the use of digital and learning technologies and thinking that changing the “name” we use is the solution, i would suggest you may actually want to spend the time and effort thinking about your approaches and the methodology you are using.

Of course the real reason people choose to change the language, is that it is much easier to do that, then actually deal with people!

What do you think, we now language is important, but is the problem the terms we use or is it something else?

Show me the evidence…

I think this line is really interesting from a recent discussion on the ALT Members mailing list.

…in particular to share these with academics when they ask for the evidence to show technology can make a difference.

Often when demonstrating the potential of TEL and learning technologies to academics, the issue of evidence of impact often arises.

You will have a conversation which focuses on the technology and then the academic or teacher asks for evidence of the impact of that technology.

From my experience when an academic asks for the evidence, then the problem is not the lack of evidence, but actually something else.

Yes there are academics who will respond positively when shown the “evidence”, however experience has taught me that even when that happens then there is then another reason/problem/lack of evidence that means that the academic will still not start to use technology to “make a difference”.

When an academic asks “for the evidence to show technology can make a difference” the problem is not the lack of evidence, but one of resistance to change, fear, culture, rhetoric and motivation.

You really need to solve those issues, rather than find the “evidence”, as even if you find the evidence, you will then get further responses such as, wouldn’t work with my students, not appropriate for my subject, it wouldn’t work here, it’s not quite the same, not transferable…. etc…

Despite years of “evidence” published in a range of journals, can studies from Jisc and others, you will find that what ever evidence you “provide” it won’t be good enough, to justify that academic to start embedding that technology into their practice.

As stated before, when someone asks for the “evidence” more often then not this is a stalling tactic so that they don’t have the invest the time, energy and resources into using that technology.

Sometimes it can be “fear” as they really don’t have the capabilities to use technology and lack the basic ICT confidence to actually use various learning technologies, and as a result rather then fess up their lack of skills, they ask for the “evidence”, again to delay things.

Just turn it around, when you ask those academics who do use technology then, you find that the “evidence” generally plays little or no part in their decisions to make effective use of technology.

So what solutions are there to solve this issue? Well we need to think about the actual problems.

A lot of people do like things to remain as they are, they like their patterns of work, they like to do what they’ve always done. This is sometimes called resistance to change, but I think it’s less resistance to change, and more sticking to what I know. I know what works, it works for me, and anything else would require effort. This strikes me more about culture, a culture where improvement, efficiency and effectiveness are seen as not important and the status quo is rarely challenged.

Unless an organisation is focused strategically and operationally in improvement, widening participation, becoming more efficient, then it is hard to get people to think about changing their practice.

When it comes to embedding learning technologies we often talking about changing the culture of an organisation. This can be hard, but doesn’t necessarily have to be slow. I am reminded of a conversation with Lawrie Phipps though in which he said we have to remember that academics often like the current culture, it’s why they work in that place and in that job. So don’t be surprised when you are met with resistance!

Creating a culture which reflects experimentation, builds curiosity and rewards innovation, isn’t easy, but also isn’t impossible. There are various ways in which this can be done, but one lesson I have learnt in making this happen, is that the process needs to be holstic and the whole organisation needs to embrace that need to change the culture. What I have found that you need to identify the key stakeholders in the organisation, the ones who actually have the power to make change happen. I found in one college I worked in that the real “power” wasn’t with the Senior Leadership Team (who often had the same frustrations I had when it came to change) but the Heads of Faculty, the managers who led and managed the curriculum leaders. They had the power to make things happen, but they didn’t always realise they held that power.

Getting the rhetoric right, but also understood across the organisation is critical for success in embedding learning technologies. Often messages are “broadcast” across an organisation, but staff don’t really understand what is meant by them and many staff don’t think it applies to them. Getting a shared understanding what is required from a key strategic objective is challenging. I have done this exercise a few times and it works quite well, pick a phrase from your strategic objectives and ask a room of staff or managers what it means and to write it down individually. You find that everyone usually had a different understanding of what it means. A couple of examples to try include buzz phrases such as “the digital university” and “embrace technology”.

Finally looking at what motivates people to use technology to improve teaching, learning and assessment.

When I was teaching, I would often experiment with technology to see if it made a difference, if it did, I adopted it, if it didn’t I stopped using it. The impact on the learners was minimal, as I didn’t continue to use technology that didn’t make a difference or was even having a negative impact. What I also did was I applied the same process and logic to all my teaching. So when I created games to demonstrate various economic processes, if they made a difference I used them again, if they didn’t then I would ask the learners how they would change or improve them. When I gave out a reading list of books, I would ask the learners for their feedback and, those that didn’t make a difference or had no positive impact, then they would be removed from the list! I was personally motivated, but we know you can’t just make that happen.

When I was managing a team I ensured that any experimentation or innovation was part of their annual objectives and created SMART actions that would ensure they would be “motivated” to do this. Again you need to identify the key stakeholders in the organisation, the ones who actually have the power to make this happen.

So when someone asks you to show them the evidence what do you do?

Just checking the e-mail…

iOS e-mail

What’s the first thing you do in the morning? What’s the first thing you do when you sit down at your desk at work? I suspect you are probably checking your e-mail? It wouldn’t surprise me that you leave your e-mail client (like Outlook) open all the time and respond as those little pop-ups appear on your screen. So how often do you check your e-mail?

Actually I would think that if you are reading this blog, having seen the link on social media, that your answers to those questions would differ from the norms of the behaviour of most people in the workplace.

For many people e-mail is their work. Usually the first activity when arriving at work (after making a coffee of course) is checking the e-mail. Then throughout the working day the e-mail is checked and checked again. Productive activity is interrupted by those lovely notifications popping up. Mobile devices like the iPhone suddenly make e-mail even more accessibly, those red numbers going up and up and make it essential the e-mail is checked again, even when travelling, at home and at weekends. Work is e-mail and e-mail is work.

I find it interesting how often we default to e-mail as the main communication tool, to the point where it replaces other forms of communication or discussion. People also often use e-mail for various activities that really e-mail wasn’t designed for.

Continue reading Just checking the e-mail…

On the tech side…

Birmingham

As some will now as well as talking about e-learning stuff, I also like to talk about the tech side of things too. Over the last few months I have been talking about things I have written about on this blog before.

In my blog post Mobile WordPress Theme I have covered the update to WP-Touch, which adds a dedicated mobile theme to WordPress blogs really easily and looks great. If you have your own WordPress installation, then this plug-in is really easy to install.

Mobile WordPress

In another article I talk about how we melted the wifi at the recent UCISA event on digital capabilities. The conference centre struggled to cope with 120 delegates as the wifi, that in theory could cope with 250 wireless clients, failed to deliver a stable consistent wifi connection.

On this blog I wrote about the fickle nature of the web based on the original article which appeared on the Tech Stuff blog. This was in response to the original decision by the BBC to remove the recipes from their BBC Food site.

Weston Village

In addition to the individual post mentioned above, I have also written about my continued issues with getting FTTC at home. As well as my new Three 4G connection, where I am getting nearly 50Mb download speeds.

So if you fancy a more technical read, then head over to the blog.