Free and the stuff that disappears in the night

One of the biggest frustrations with Google stuff (tax issues aside!) is this sort of thing:

Winter cleaning | Official Google Blog: “On January 4, 2013, we’ll be shutting down several less popular Google Calendar features. You’ll be unable to create new reservable times on your Calendar through Appointment slots, but existing Appointment slots will continue working for one year. In addition, we’ll discontinue two Calendar Labs—Smart Rescheduler (we recommend Find a time view or Suggested times as alternatives) and Add gadget by URL. Finally, Check your calendar via sms and Create event via sms (GVENT)—U.S.-only features for creating and checking meetings by texting information to Google—will be discontinued today, as most users prefer mobile Calendar apps.”

Now, I know that free comes at a price.  And I know that for every ‘free’ tool you use online you should have a back-up plan.  A little contingency thrown into the mix.  But if your job is to see a tool for its worth in a learning and teaching context… and promote / support the way in which is might be used… and the rug gets pulled on the feature or functionality that actually makes a difference to people… then, going Google can be a frustrating experience.

No point crying over disappearing free stuff…

I guess some of it is because they’re always concentrating on their core stuff rather than the extra faffy, sometimes experimental stuff… but unfortunately, it’s that stuff that can be most useful.  So far, they’ve culled Google Notebook – which I found brilliant for online research; they’re culling Appointments – which are fantastic for organising those one-to-many relationships where a group of people need to speak to you one-to-one; Gadgets disappeared from spreadsheets; Google search timeline went and support for Picasa on anything other than Windows drastically reduced.  Am sure there are others, but it is a pain.

Using free stuff is one thing.  Depending on free stuff or imagining it’ll never change is another.  Maybe it’s a nudge to us to continually look at what we’re using and whether that needs a tweak too.   But one thing’s for sure.  Imagining that that ‘essential’ tool you’ve found online is going to be there for the foreseeable future is going to leave you with a very sad look on your face!

via Kinda Learning Stuff


10 Ideas for using Google Sites in Education

Gotta love a bit of working together…

I was just creating a few bits and bobs for a workshop on Google Sites for collaboration and thought that it might be handy to share my ’10 ideas for using Google Sites in Education’.  They’re dead easy to use… no, they’re not the most advanced, slick thing out there… but for sheer ease of creation and collaboration, they’re a brilliant little educational tool!

Student-created discipline specific sites (what a mouthful!)
One of the best ways of knowing if you know something is trying to explain it to others, so why not use a Google Site to get your students doing that? For example, – brilliant site which shows the power of student collaboration and along the way improves students’ digital literacy as well as providing a great resource for prospective students

Team wiki
Create a Google Site to act as a team wiki with page templates to structure the content people put in and get them collaborating! You’ll have a living breathing dynamic wiki started in no time.

Club or society site
Belong to a club or society and want to promote it to others? Why not try a Google Site? You can embed a Google Calendar to share important dates of events as well as share files / photos / reports from the club too.

An example Google Sites ePortfolio, this one’s for
Certified Membership of the Association for Learning Technology

Get students to create themselves an ePortfolio using Google Sites where they can use pages to structure the items they want to share and can embed media-rich examples such as video, audio, presentations etc, to demonstrate competence across a range of areas.

Research presentation
Have your students research a particular subject and get them to present their findings using a Google Site. They can include docs they’ve created, videos they’ve found as well as use pages to put their findings into their own words

Open online classroom
What about creating an online learning environment using a Google Site? If you want to collaborate between the university and the wider community, giving access to all parties can be problematic with standard virtual learning environments… but using a Google Site to share lessons / content / tutorials could be a great way to open up your classroom.

Departmental website
If you’ve got documents you’d like to share with a large group of colleagues, then sorting out sharing for all of them and making sure that they don’t disappear if someone leaves can be a problem. A Google Site, complete with page permissions to give authorship to the right individuals, is an excellent way of giving people a central place they can find out what’s what.

Help and support resources
Tired of answering the same question over and over from your students? Maybe a Google Site where they can easily find answers… and contribute their own as the course goes along… could be a great way of making life simpler for everyone. It doesn’t just have to be text, it’s easy to insert videos into your pages too.

Cross-departmental working
Students on French courses sharing work with Engineers? Chemists and Musicians? A Google Site could be a great way to get students from different departments sharing and for you to share content with them.

Online staff development
Finding time to attend a staff development event can be a complete pain in a busy schedule. A Google Site with resources which people can work through at their own pace is a golden opportunity for you to support others while demonstrating how useful online learning can be! What do you know about that others might want to know about? Could you get a group of people together to create a Google Site sharing their expert knowledge for others to work through? That could be the starting point for something excellent!

There ya go… 10 ideas for using Google Sites in Education!

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Top 10 books to shape your TEL thinking…

Image by Eric Mueller, under a
CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Okay, so this is my top 10 (and they’re in no particular order) and you may well have other books you rate… but here are some books which have really influenced my thinking / proved useful for reference when it comes to technology enhanced learning and I thought it might be useful to share them.

Rather than linking to book sales sites with each book, I’ve linked to related resources you might find interesting!  If you want to buy them – Google is your friend.

1.  John Biggs and Catherine Tang – Teaching for Quality Learning at University
I have many rant-worthy subjects which, if triggered, will be produced and put on display for the audience… not understanding that we are involved in the practice of educating and learning… and not understanding that we also have to model practices to others is one of those trigger points.  Understand processes of learning.  Understand learning design.  And if you’re a learning technologist, working with academics / students, speak the language of learning!  Start here.

2. Rhona Sharpe, Helen Beetham, Sara de Freitas – Rethinking Learning for a Digital Age: How Learners are Shaping Their Own Experiences
Another of those books which gets across the learner perspective brilliantly – and gets you to challenge yourself with your own learning and teaching practices in the process.

3. Ormond Simpson – Supporting Students in Online, Open and Distance Learning
When I had not long started working for the Open University I picked myself up a copy of this book – and it was just SO useful to me supporting my distance students.  Now about to come out in a third edition, I still rate his learner-centred approach highly and the clarity of his writing is spot on. 

4. Malcolm Gladwell – The Tipping Point : How little things can make a big difference
Heard someone use the phrase ‘the tipping point’? You probably have… and if so, then this’ll tell you all about it. Why is this useful for technology enhanced learning?  Because spotting that moment when things tip from being ‘just a few’ to ‘just about everyone’ is part of the trick of seeing what needs support and where the potential areas for future development lie.  And understanding how you can influence that too is also important.

5. Chris Anderson – The Long Tail: How endless choice is creating unlimited demand
You can’t avoid the technology bit of technology enhanced learning (nor can you focus on it too heavily, it should be said!), so why not understand how and why technologies become established?  It’ll help you see where tech fits and get you to think about what might be just around the corner too.  It’ll also help you think about the value of that niche you might just have ignored, but which was existing and thriving in the long tail.

6. Daniel Pink, Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us
Now, this one may seem like a bit of a random recommendation, but I honestly believe that if you’re going to work in any area connected to learning and teaching, you have to understand where people are coming from to help support them get to where they could go.  You want real engagement?  You need to get motivation.

7. Etienne Wenger – Communities of Practice – Learning in Doing
Another of my rant-triggers is people bandying about phrases without understanding them in anything more than a superficial way.  For a while ‘communities of practice’ was that phrase!  It is a really important concept when it comes to e-learning and learning support / engagement – and for getting your head into what learning is and where it might exist, blurring the boundaries between formal and informal education.  An influential work.

8. Jane Seale – E-learning and disability in higher education
Of all the things that technology can do, opening up the possibilities for accessing education / learning to a wide range of people is one of the most exciting things.  So, why not understand the landscape of e-learning and disability as well as pick up lots of hints and tips too?

9. Garr Reynolds – Presentation Zen
If you’re going to work in Technology Enhanced Learning then communication is vital – and getting yourself some solid presentation skills that are going to get your ideas noticed, and your presentations appreciated should be pretty high up your list!

10.  Chip and Dan Heath – Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck
This kind of goes along with the presentation skills I mentioned with Garr Reynolds book.  Present ideas beautifully… sure… but present beautiful ideas which will stick and then exciting things can happen!  You have to be a salesperson for your ideas – and this is especially true in technology enhanced learning.  It’s not necessarily the tech that’s the biggest issue… getting people to get on board and to engage with your ideas… that’s where the tough stuff lies!

There’s not a great deal of tech there, I admit it… but what there is are books that will get you thinking.  Get you reflecting.  And provide a platform from which you can build your own practice.

And that has to be worth it, I think!

What would be on your top 10 list?


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Top 10 Power Searching with Google Tips…

I recently completed the ‘Power Searching with Google‘ MOOC (massive open online course) and thought it would be useful for me to share some of the tips I picked up along the way… here goes…
1.  Image searching is far more useful than you might have realised
Searching for infographic CVs on Google
If you’re looking for an example of a CV you’d just type ‘CV example’ into Google, right?  Well… what you might not have thought about doing was going to the images search and typing it there instead.  The reason this is great is it’s a really quick way of doing a visual search for layout ideas… or diagrams… or visual explanations of concepts etc.  Brilliant for that!
2. Google search is not case sensitive
Y’know, I just didn’t realise this… but it isn’t.  If you search for ‘NASA’ or ‘nasa’, it won’t matter – the results would be the same either way.
3.  But word order matters
Searching for ‘green grass’ and ‘grass green’ will produce two very different sets of results.  Think carefully about the order in which you enter search terms as this will affect your results.
4.  Using the site: operator can help narrow your results
If you’re after results just from academic institutions then simply add to your search criteria (no space between site and the domain extension) – this can be a really great way of finding what other institutions are doing on particular subjects.  Equally, restricting it to will keep your results from UK domains etc.  Simple technique but very effective.
5. Using the filetype: operator can help you track down more than just pdf files
Did you know you could add in filetype:pdf and it would just find you pdf files?  Nor did I… but nor did I know that it could search for other file types which could be extremely useful.  For example, search for something with filetype:kml (kml are Google Earth files) and you’ll be able to see your results in Google Maps – perfect for tracking down walks / routes to places even historical expeditions which have been mapped.
6. Search features can short cut you to answers quicker
Using the weather Search Feature in Google to
quickly track the fact that it’s going to rain!
Want to find out the weather in Sheffield (it’s rainy, by the way!)… just type in weather Sheffield and it’ll come straight up.  There are a whole host of ‘search features‘ which do things like this, from finding out the time in other cities to sunrise times in your holiday location to definitions, performing calculations, converting units, looking up health conditions and more.  There are tons of them which you may have noticed producing quicker results but not realised this was a feature… it is and it’s excellent!
More search tools
7.  You have more search tools than you might realise
If you click on more search tools on the left hand side of a search window it’ll drop down to reveal some more search goodies.  You can restrict items by the time they were published (which is great if you want to find out the latest news or blog posts on something or articles published within a particular period)… you can search for sites with images, for content at a particular reading level or even do a ‘verbatim‘ search which will search for exactly the terms you want with no ‘help’ from Google.
8.  Google’s translation functionality is superb
Yes, you can come up with some wonky translations but did you know you can search pages from other countries which have been translated?  It’s in the more search tools section mentioned above so is straight forward to access.  Why would you do it?  Well, want to know what other countries are saying about the crisis in the Eurozone?  Want to know how an event was reported elsewhere to give additional context?  This is a terrific way to do just that.
9. Don’t think like your query, think like the results you want to find
This sounds a bit mad, but actually makes sense.  If you’re trying to find an answer to something you’d think you should type in the question but this won’t necessarily get you what you’re after – the search engine doesn’t answer questions just finds results.  Instead think about what terms might appear on the pages you want and enter those as keywords instead.  Be aware that this might skew your results – so choose keywords with an awareness of their impact (i.e. searching for the place ‘Londonderry’ will bring up different results to searching for ‘Derry’ because of the political history attached to the name).  To include both terms in your results use the OR operator.
10.  Image searching is brilliant
Drag and drop an image into a Google search and
it’ll find it on the web (if it exists there)
Yes, I know I’ve already mentioned this, but how many times have you come across images / diagrams where a student has referenced ‘Google’ as the source or (lazily!) said ‘I don’t know where I got it’ (as if it just landed itself on their computer one day in an act of academic magic). If you save that image to your computer and then drag it into the images search bar – you can find other instances of it on the web and most likely track down the source.
There you have it – my top 10 ‘power searching with Google’ tips (there were more than these and I bet I’ll come back to this post and think ‘why didn’t I mention that?!’).  If you’ve got a bit of time to squeeze in some new ideas, then explore Power Searching with Google.  I bet you’ll get a few tips from that too!

via Kinda Learning Stuff

Finished a MOOC!

Get me!  100%!  Okay, so probably
everyone got 100%… but even so…  :o)

Hooray! I finished my first MOOC!!! The Google Power Searching one which wasn’t massively complex… and it didn’t feel massively massive either!  It came in a pretty standard format. Watch a video… do some simple activities… repeat… do a mid-course test… watch video… do simple activities… do post-class test.

The thing is, I completed it. Which is more than I’ve done with any other. What was different about this one?

1. Well, the format was familiar. No, it didn’t set the world on fire in terms of jamming in every technology under the sun… and no I didn’t take part in the discussions (though I did look at a couple)… but it was straightforward.

2. It was genuinely useful. The search techniques are immediately transferable into practice and though a lot of it wasn’t new, there were sufficient ‘ah ha!’ moments to make it worthwhile.

3. It was short. The sections were digestible. 6 x 50 minute sessions with videos which were anywhere between about 3 and 8 minutes long was perfectly easy to dip into. And the end was in sight quick enough for it to fit with everything else.

4.  I felt in control.  I didn’t have to join in with the interactive bits if I didn’t have time.  If I didn’t even have to watch the main videos if I didn’t want to – there were text alternatives provided which made it scannable.  There were no hurdles of forced participation and that worked for me.

For me, what makes a successful MOOC (so far)?

A format that isn’t too complex, a tangible payoff from studying and timings / delivery which fit in with everyday life.  MOOCs that haven’t worked for me have bombarded me with ‘stuff’ to the extent where I felt I was drowning.  Or encouraged me to join in with others and gave me activities which would require a hefty chunk of my time to complete and share (sharing something always makes you spend more time on it than you would do if you were on your own and didn’t have to show it anyone).  Plus, if there are no bits which are transferable then you really *really* have to be motivated to stay on course.

Would I do a MOOC in this format again? Yup.

And I quite enjoyed it!

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Audio feedback – some thoughts on ‘A Personal Voice’

Image from Kenn Delbridge, available under a
CC BY-ND 2.0 license
Last Friday, the 29th of June, I attended an HEA symposium at the University of Leicester called ‘A Personal Voice? The whys and hows of effective audio feedback‘.  It took the form of a couple of workshops and then some presentations and discussions.
Which sounds simple enough, but when the workshops involve a group of people from a range of Higher Education Institutions coming up with Olympic themed-limericks and drawing pictures to illustrate… then you can see that it wasn’t your ordinary event!  In fact, it was a whole lot of fun as well as being really engaging and thought-provoking.  Oh, and if you’re wondering, the limerick exercise was a route into getting us to provide written feedback, reflect on that feedback and then have a go with audio feedback.  It also got everyone talking – and if in the future I run a staff development session and there are limericks involved, then the organisers of this event are to blame!  :o)
Our Olympic themed limerick illustration
In terms of the experience of providing audio feedback, each of the four groups used different technologies – from Jing to an mp3 recorder, Adobe Acrobat and – I think – the iPad app ‘Explain Everything’ (though I’m not 100% sure on this one, sorry!).  The experience of recording feedback in this way was fascinating.  Many people really struggled with getting started – there’s a real anxiety about recording your own voice which is hard to overcome.
Our group were given Adobe Acrobat to insert voice comments on the ‘script’.  The advantage was that this is a free tool and that it’s relatively straightforward.  The issue for me, at least, was that it’s seriously difficult to spot your comments once you’ve put them on a script.  And the interface isn’t intuitive in the slightest especially when it comes to reviewing or even editing your comment (the edit function is non-existent).  Putting specific comments within the script also sounds like a good idea, but because of the lack of structure to this – where do students start when it comes to retrieving their feedback? – and the artificial fragmentation of breaking your comments into lots of short recordings was just a strange experience.  You lose the flow of your thoughts.  The temptation to be too curt is there.  And from a student’s perspective, the ability to quickly scan through comments is removed entirely – without indexing of comments, using them as an ongoing reflective tool is extremely difficult.
When we reviewed the feedback given by the group using Jing, this seemed far better.  It felt like you were being talked through the feedback rather than just having it drop on you in individual chunks.  It also felt as if it were a slightly more natural experience for the person giving feedback too – though obviously since this wasn’t me, I’m only guessing!
Things that came out of this workshop?  Don’t script your feedback – it sounds dull and is dull to receive.  However, do structure your feedback – help the learner to find their way through it, ‘I’m going to be covering three things, a, b and c in this feedback’ etc are helpful.  It’s useful to signpost which bits of the script you’re talking about – with the mp3-only option this was particularly important since the script was not on-screen at the same time as the audio.  Additionally, talk like a human being and personalise where possible!
It was interesting to hear about the ‘A Personal Voice‘ project and ‘AUDIBLE‘ as well from Jennifer Beard, University of Leicester.  They looked at various aspects – Contiguity (in context vs out of context comments); Working memory (chunking feedback vs a single overall feedback file – presenting more material results in less understanding!); Personal vs. community experience (do you provide individual or group feedback?); Nuance (is it the way we say things or do we choose to say things differently via audio?).  It will be good to see the results of their work – some of the initial findings were shared and a couple of things particularly stood out.  Firstly, the fact that distance learning students didn’t prefer audio feedback to written, especially compared to on-campus students who liked it far more.  Secondly, students didn’t just want icing on their feedback cake – they want sprinkles too… audio feedback is one thing but they like audio and written feedback.  The fears of workload overload loom large, I fear.
After Jennifer came Warren Kidd who presented on his experience of using audio to deliver feedback to trainee teachers at the University of East London with ‘Why haven’t you written on my work?‘.  He’s an engaging speaker and it was interesting to hear him say that he goes for a structured rather than scripted approach (confirming the earlier thoughts during the morning’s sessions).  Things to consider when thinking about structure:
  • What is the purpose of recording?
  • How long should the recording be? (theirs were around 3 – 4 mins)
  • How should the recording start? (‘Hello this is x giving you feedback on y, you may wish to have your assignment with you during this podcast etc..’)
  • When should the grade be disclosed? (they elected to do this towards the start of the feedback with the normal caveat about the grade needing to be confirmed by exam boards – randomly placing the grade was artificial and unhelpful)
  • What is the relationship between what you do or don’t write on students’ work?
He said his workflow involved jotting down a few key points as a skeleton and using those to guide his feedback.  Helpful and practical advice!
Warren also spoke about getting over the scariness of the mic through his work with producing podcasts prior to giving audio feedback (you can get a flavour of his podcasts on his blog) – how to get people through that particular issue is something to reflect on, I think.  He emphasised the importance of giving feedback rather than feed forward and viewing the audio feedback as a form of personal tutorial.  Although they have an anonymous marking policy, they were able to adapt this to reveal the students’ identities after marking – so, scripts were marked anonymously, but feedback given slightly later with identities known.  This really helped them give that personal feedback and the feeling that students were being talked to as individuals.  Warren played an example of his audio feedback and it really was great to have the opportunity to hear this.  He recalled having seen – through chance – his student receiving their feedback and seeing them nodding along in agreement, then later mailing him to thank him for helping them understand points they’d previously just not grasped.  It clearly is an engaging format for learners.
More drawing and limericks in workshops from
now on, I think!
Questions I came away with, however… is it the fact that this is forcing practitioners to think about what is the purpose of feedback and how it fits into the curriculum which makes the difference?  Or can we honestly say that it is the audio format which is the key?  As someone who’s used to providing a very conversational and personalised form of written feedback I didn’t really recognise some of the issues which were presented about written feedback. It was interesting to note that no staff development work on feedback was done prior to the research from the University of Leicester.  If you haven’t controlled for that variable in some way, then how can you know that it was providing feedback in either audio or written form which made a difference?  There are always better ways to do things – and feedback in audio form doesn’t automatically transform into being ‘better’ simply because of technology… just as feedback in written form doesn’t instantly become ‘worse’.  
Also, viewing feedback as being ‘conversational’ simply because you could hear the conversation doesn’t mean it is a conversation if the participant is given no voice.  In other words, it’s still mono-directional in a way that a personal tutorial isn’t.  
Finally, if you’re looking to audio as a way to make the marking and feedback process more efficient / easier, then I don’t think you’ll find that it is – especially if there’s still a need to provide written feedback too.  If anything, the workload seems to be expanding!  This is definitely a point to ponder further!
A really interesting and valuable day – many thanks to the organisers at the University of Leicester!

via Kinda Learning Stuff

10 Tips for using images in presentations

Have just got around to uploading a few bits and bobs to SlideShare and thought that it might be handy to share the ’10 tips for using images in presentations’ slides I did. They’re dead simple…

1. Fill the screen for more impact
Using a small image can be okay sometimes, but for a really punchy slide filling it with the whole of an image can work brilliantly – it not only helps you emphasise your point but keeps you from jamming on too much text (which just won’t be read)

2. Make sure your image leaves enough space for the text
… so, when you’re looking for images to use – keep that one in mind!

3. Don’t use clipart
… well, not if you can help it. It’s kinda stuck in the 1990s and looks amateurish. It can be okay if you edit the clipart so it fits in with your overall style for the slides, but generally best to avoid

4. Avoid busy images
Too much stuff going on in the image makes it hard to read any text over the top – if you *need* to use *that* image, then consider using a slightly transparent fill behind the text / applying a little bit of shadow to the text to help it stand out.

5. Avoid pixelated images
The normal culprit here is using an image which either isn’t high enough resolution or is too small and you stretched it to make it larger on the presentation. Don’t! Find good / appropriate quality shots and use them instead. Pixelated = poor quality.

6. Work with your colour scheme
Don’t have a colour scheme? Get one! You can search for particular colour images in and finding something that complements what you’re trying to do with the design of your slides is really what you’re after. The exception here is if you’re deliberately using the colour to make a point. I might use a darker image to create a particular mood then contrast that with one with bright blues and greens etc to open things out again. Whatever you do, think about the impact those colour choices have on the message you’re trying to get across.

7. Avoid cheesy shots
Stock images with smiley models posing awkwardly? Not so much! Don’t be too literal either. I remember seeing a presentation one time where every point was illustrated with a literal image. Where they talked about ‘building bridges’ – up popped an image of a bridge. ‘Reaching out to students’ – there was an image of someone reaching out. It’s just a bit… well… awkward… and in the end takes the emphasis off what you’re trying to present!

Everyone likes a little bit of sparkle in their
presentations… right?

8. Don’t let the image dominate
Remember, this is a presentation which *you* are giving – the images are like visual punctuation. They can help make points, they can emphasise or set a mood… they can illustrate… but they shouldn’t take over. If the audience are mesmerised by the images you’ve used… they’re not listening to you!

9. Use the rule of thirds
Actually, use basic design principles. Presentation Zen has a wealth of these that will apply perfectly to your presentation and the way you use images. Go… have a read. It really will help you get away from that boring bullet point style and get you feeling comfortable with using images to good effect.

10. Don’t infringe copyright
This is SO important. Either get permission, use Creative Commons licensed images (in accordance with the license) or use your own shots. It’s not hard to take okay shots and it’ll keep you on nice safe grounds with your presentations. Equally, there are tons of fantastic images with a CC license that you can use.

As long as you’re thinking about the images you use, how you use them and why… that’s a much better place to be than just glueing bad images onto a bullet-point heavy presentation. Trust me on this one. :o)

via Kinda Learning Stuff