Weekly Learning Technology Digest… 12

Image from Thomas Hawk, available under a
CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Another week has zoomed by and the weekly learning technology digest has been scooping up lots of bits and bobs from across the web.  Sometimes it seems that everything’s nicely connected… other times there’s a complete hotchpotch of ‘stuff’.  This week falls into the latter camp!

  • Eight free tools for teachers to make awesome infographics‘ – we love infographics for visualising data / making clean, succinct points… we love free… so, what’s not to like from this article I spotted on the Educational Technology and Mobile Learning blog?  Nothing!  But… for a bit of balance – you might like this article from ReadWriteWeb which questions whether easy creation of infographics is a good thing!
  • I attended a webinar where the following resource was shared ‘Critical Friends and Effective Practice‘ and thought it was worth passing on this week too.  Whether you’re talking about large-scale projects or small-scale practitioner-led innovation… developing an activity to developing a programme – having a critical friend can be more helpful than you might realise. 
  • At the same webinar the ‘JISC Change Management InfoKit‘ was shared – and again, if you want to stash this one away to refer back to, it’s a good one to know about.  I’m sure when you read the ‘organisational cultures‘ section you’ll have a penny dropping moment about your own institution and this will really help when it comes to thinking about how to approach change issues.
  • For the past few weeks online open courses have been very much the hot topic.  Which makes this article in Forbes, ‘What my 11 year old’s Stanford course taught me about online education‘ fascinating reading.  A couple of points – the (slightly disturbing) way the 11 year old applied his new found knowledge and the quote “The most important button for video lectures is not ‘play’ but ‘pause.’” – have given me real food for thought.
  • Learning analytics were also on my radar this week – and ‘The State of Learning Analytics in 2012 – A review and future challenges‘ by the Open University’s Rebecca Ferguson is well worth reading if you’re getting to grips with what this might mean for learning and teaching practices as well as the learners themselves.
  • Google launched their ‘Research tool‘ – which essentially means that your Google docs become active spaces in which you can carry out web-based research as you go (it’s gradually being rolled out so you may not see it yet – I can see it in my personal gmail account, I can’t yet see it in my Google Apps account).  While this is no replacement for Google Scholar, it’s a great addition – and reveals yet again the importance of information literacy in the curriculum.
The Research tool accessed via a right click in a Google Doc
  • Google+ Engagement still way behind Facebook and Twitter‘ was an interesting headline in Mashable… but… the problem with their figures is that they are only analysing public postings / interactions… since Google+ is centred around the use of circles to control the audience to which you release content, it makes this a bit of research to take with a pinch of salt. One of the quotes in the comments on this article I think hits the nail on the head in many respects, ‘I don’t think of it as a stand-alone social network; I think of it as a social layer added to most of Google’s other products‘, so whether or not comparing it with Facebook and Twitter is even relevant, I’m not sure.
  • And finally… a few random articles if the above didn’t satisfy your appetite for all things ed tech! ‘What’s the point of hashtags?‘ from ReadWriteWeb (handy overview), ‘The Fallacy of Information Overload‘ from Brian Solis (it’s a lack of purpose, relevance and focus instead if you’re interested!) and ‘How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet‘ from Gizmodo (fascinating look at why things can go wrong)
A bit of strategic thinking, a little slice of social media, a small selection of tools and techniques for the classroom… and that’s your lot!

See you next week.


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Interesting stats (?) and an office move

(Life on the Frontline with the Learning Technologies Team Helpdesk)

I keep stats regarding the volumes and the nature of the enquiries we handle here on the helpdesk.
(I need to get out more)

I have been doing this for two years now. Looking back and comparing the two years, month by month, I find it interesting (did I mention I need to get out more?) that the numbers of enquiries have mostly matched each other.

The chart below shows the enquiries received from September 2010 to last month. This years figures are in blue.

You can see that mostly the monthly totals mirror each other. The only significant difference was in February when this year we had 679 enquiries compared to 364 the year before. This can be attributed to the fact that this year in the Spring Semester we had extra calls relating to our new VLE which wasn’t in existence the year before.

Total Enquiries
I have mentioned before that the biggest percentage of enquiries we receive on the helpdesk is from students and staff requiring access to their relevant VLE courses.
The volumes of these types of calls also seem to match per month year on year. 
Enquires re access to VLE courses


No doubt the statisticians out there will say there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this and it’s all relative and nothing unusual, why is he drawing attention to this?
The answer is I find it interesting – I need to (you know the rest)

Office Move

So we moved into a different building last weekend.
I duly informed all and sundry at the university by various methods of internal communication that from noon last Friday until noon on Monday, the helpdesk would be unavailable to allow us pack everything away, uninstall the IT stuff etc. etc. and then do all that in reverse in the new place on Monday morning.
Surprise, surprise we were still being contacted throughout this ‘closed’ period.  I spoke to one chap on the phone and explained I would have to get back to him later as we weren’t actually able to access anything currently because we were in the middle of moving offices and in a state of organised chaos as had been widely advertised.  “Yeah I know that” he said. “I just thought I’d try you anyway”.
Cheers fella! – well at least we know we are needed!!
Ian Mumby
Leaning Technologies Support Coordinator

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Google spreadsheet mail merge… makes rollover a joy!

Attribution Some rights reserved by limbte

My work life is mostly occupied by the rollover (moleover) at the moment and so it’s the little things that make the process easier, more efficient and generally more interesting that please me greatly… and one of these things is the humble mail merge!

In MOLE (Sheffield’s VLE) we have things which I’ve always called Custom courses… I’m no longer allowed to call them that as users don’t know what that means so aside from calling them non-standard or non-CIS courses I’ll have to fall back on a fuller definition…

Courses which are not created automatically as part of student information system integration (modules) but are requested on a case by case basis by academics. Before we had Organisations these courses were used as community spaces and departmental virtual offices amongst other things but now they tend to be courses for a whole programme of study or used for cross modular projects.

Anyway, long winded explanation over, we have these courses which are not part of the automated rollover each year and so we have to rely of the course owners to get in touch with us and let us know what they require for the following year. Previously we have sent out general emails requesting that people fill in forms and let us know what they require. Invariably people didn’t know the email actually required them to do something and so a number of things happened…

  1. The course would disappear from the student’s list before expected
  2. The course wouldn’t get the next year’s cohort of students added

So this year I’ve attempted to streamline the whole thing a little….I thought that if I could gather the requisite bits of data about the non-standard courses I could create a mail merge to send the emails to the individuals directly involved in the courses which contain the specifics of the current course and even pre-fill some of the form fields for them on the Course Request form for the coming year.

Mail Merging

  • So first gather your data – in my case it’s about all these non-standard courses which includes useful things like the Course ID and Name, the Instructors on the courses and their email addresses (very important!) and also any module/programme codes which have been used for student enrolment.
  • Then put all of this into a Google spreadsheet and here comes the interesting bit…
  • Go to the Script Gallery (under tools) and install a script called ‘Yet another mail merge’ (accepting the permissions along the way).
  • This mail merge script integrates with Google mail so you can format your draft email and insert the spreadsheet fields as variables written like this – $%fieldname%. You can even put a variable in the email subject (which is dead useful!)
  • So once you have your email written and your data in the spreadsheet (including the email addresses) you click the mail merge option in the menu and off it goes… it asks you which email draft you would like to use and also for the column containing the email address (if it’s not obvious from the title). It then populates a new column in your spreadsheet telling you an email has been sent.  

Prefilling google form fields 

In my case I wanted to make it as simple as possible for the Instructors to fill in the Course Request form and make sure that we received accurate data back and the best way of doing this was to try and pre-fill some of the fields on the form. You can do this by finding the ID element from the HTML code for the form field you wish to pre-fill something like entry_05 and then append it on to the URL for the form in the usual way using &entry_03=$%fieldname%.


What I did find was that, as this method of pre-filling the form fields is a little bit of a hack (I would be glad to hear of a better way), it only works for fields which are on the first page of a Google form. Any subsequent values disappear as they are in the URL (GET) and the form is submitted using a ‘POST’.

I have yet to send out the full mail merge but I have tested it successfully and I am looking forward to all the responses coming into another lovely spreadsheet rather than having to collate all the individual form responses of previous years!


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First look: Google+ Hangouts On Air for education

Hangouts On Air enabled

Well, in the last few days, Google have been opening up the ‘Hangouts On Air’ facility within Google+.  What this means is that you now get the opportunity to stream your hangout live and have it recorded on YouTube – which is fantastic.

However… though I think Hangouts On Air for education could work well for sessions you want to be completely open – webinars are a prime example…  wherever you want your students to engage and discuss things in an honest, open – and sometimes vulnerable way… I’m not sure that the recording / streaming of a Hangout On Air outweighs the potential barrier that lack of privacy while the hangout is live would present.

Equally, it’s also worth thinking about your institutional policy on the openness of your teaching? Does your institution allow you to broadcast to the rest of the world?  That’s going to impact on this too… and is important to bear in mind!

Here are a few of the ‘early days’ pros and cons… am happy to be corrected / have others add things to this list.  It’ll be interesting to see Hangouts On Air develop as a product and to see what Google prioritise…


  • Easy to use
  • Free
  • Readily available if you have Google Apps enabled for the campus
  • Can stream live to YouTube and reach a global audience
  • Can invite specific people to take part live – but have to do this ahead of going ‘On Air’
  • Can share apps within the hangout (as with normal hangouts)
  • Recording made of the hangout which can be downloaded from YouTube
  • Can control visibility of YouTube video after the event
  • Can embed video within an institutional VLE
  • Can create screencasts using a Google+ Hangout On Air – you don’t need an audience to hang out
  • Can edit the recording using YouTube’s video editor – including annotation, closed captioning 
  • Can take advantage of Creative Commons licensing within YouTube for the resulting video


Copyright notice / participation agreement
on entering a Hangout On Air
  • Cannot limit the audience on YouTube when streaming – it’s either public or public
  • There are extensions on Chrome which will allow people to ‘find’ your Hangout On Air easily too – and which further publicises your hangout and diminishes any privacy
  • Cannot share resources for which you don’t have permission / have the copyright
  • Difficult to moderate comments on YouTube whilst running the session
  • Because when it’s live on YouTube it’s public, random strangers can comment on your Hangout On Air
  • Learners might be put off participating because of the public nature of the Hangout
  • You can’t kick someone out of a Hangout – only block them
  • If the URL of the Hangout On Air is shared then anyone with the URL can join even if they weren’t invited
  • As the broadcaster, you have to take responsibility for others copyright infringements

Useful further resources:

More on Copyright in Hangouts On Air

Commons questions about Hangouts On Air

Hangouts On Air – Terms of Service

Final thought:

Hangout On Air live and public on a Google+ stream

I think that Google+ Hangouts which you can limit to very specific groups – circles and individuals (or even an institution) will be a more comfortable informal learning environment for now… unless Google allow a finer control of the live audience for Google+ Hangouts On Air.  The advantage of built in recording and integration with Google Apps sites really makes Hangouts On Air a very attractive teaching tool… but since part of learning is about admitting what you don’t know and experiencing failure – I think that having a ‘safe’ environment in which that can take place is vital.  Google+ Hangouts On Air aren’t that space at present while Google+ Hangouts can be.

It takes a brave person to learn in public.  It takes an *extremely* brave person to learn in front of a potentially global audience!


via Blogger http://learningtechnologiesteam.blogspot.com/2012/05/first-look-google-hangouts-on-air-for.html

Two weeks of ‘flipping’ the classroom

In a previous post, Chris Clow talked about using the Ted Ed site to help teachers ‘flip’ their classrooms using You Tube videos and I briefly talked about it in a post about the Google Teacher Academy. But what is this ‘flipping’ of the classroom? The basic concept behind it is to move direct instruction away from the classroom and onto video so that students can look at it at their leisure and watch it again as need be. The added benefit of this is that it frees up classroom time for practice of the concepts and individual help for students who have questions. If you want to find out more about it, Salman Khan’s TED talk below is a good starting point and these articles, infographic and blog are also worth a look.

I’ve been wanting to try something like this for a while, not specifically because I’m a technologist but because I’ve begun to feel that my lessons have been getting very stale for my students. The same ritual of input-exercise-homework doesn’t seem to inspire them anymore – or indeed me – and I thought trying something radically different might shake things up.

I also wanted to experiment with the idea of the paperless classroom as well. I’ve met a lot of teachers who complain about technology in the classroom as something that reduces communication in the classroom, that creates barriers and isolates students and teachers rather than improving communication. I wasn’t always convinced by these arguments simply because my experiences using technology had always been pretty positive. Instead I felt that paper was far more of a barrier to genuine communication. My lessons that are least involving for the students always tend to be the ones where I have photocopied reams and reams of handouts for them to work through.

So, I decided to experiment with a class I am going to have for the next seven weeks for ESL exam preparation. The basic idea was to set up a website using Google Sites and all information regarding the lesson would be available there. I would also provide pages within the site that offered the students weblinks to additional resources they could use for self-study and out of class practice. One other goal of the course was to try to reduce – in fact eliminate completely – the need for students to do homework. I recently read an article that really hit home to me about the pointlessness of assigning homework to students and I wanted to make any work the students they did out of class optional. 

The Home Page of my class site

The strict definition of flipping the classroom seems to focus a lot on video instruction, created either by the teacher or using sources already available such as the Khan Academy, Ted Ed and You Tube EDU. There is not so much video content available for my subject and I don’t really have time to create it myself, so I relied on a mixture of video content from You Tube and other text content found around the web.

Two weeks in…

Ok, so it’s been two weeks now doing this, I’ve had six lessons with the students and it’s gone a lot better than I expected. From the outset I explained that this would be a different kind of class, a lot of it would be spent in the computer room, they would be responsible for their own learning more than usual and they would not get any direct homework. Having that initial conversation with them really helped, they asked questions, I clarified a few things and I haven’t had any seriously negative reaction since then from them.

I was a bit worried that students would get tired of sitting in front of the computers rather in the classroom but this hasn’t happened yet. I’ve tried to make their time in the computer room as interactive as possible: rather than them working individually, I tend to put two students round one computer to force them to communicate. I also take regular breaks from the screen for small group and whole class discussion.

The homework situation has been interesting as well. On the website I provide a clear overview of the lesson goals for the day and description of the tasks we are going to do with all the relevant links and videos. At the end of each lesson description I always add a few additional tasks for them to do such as contribute to our forum discussion, fill out a survey, read some information from an article and stress that these are completely optional. However, a surprising number of them – at least 50% – actually do them. 

Student task, watch a You Tube video and evaluate using a Google Form

I haven’t got any formal feedback from them so far and I’ll probably wait until the end of the course to do so, but I’ve asked them informally about the lessons and the responses have been very positive. One lady said she liked them because she’s not only learning English but also useful web skills as well such as uploading video to You Tube (I got them to video each other to practice interviewing) and using Google Docs. A couple of others said that the lessons were interesting because they were different. One student said he like the fact that homework was optional!

The biggest issue in the class so far – and this is something I hadn’t really thought about – relates to the use of browsers and window/tab management. The description of the tasks to do in class are on our website and there are numerous links to other pages within our own site or to external web pages. Most students still use Internet Explorer and this opens new windows when you click on links and this means they are constantly flicking between windows trying to navigate back to the page they want. I wish the University of Sheffield could find some way to officially support Chrome on our managed desktops, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

The other issue outside of the class is that it does take quite a long time to prepare the lessons, at least twice as long as I would for a normal lesson. Finding content online is time-consuming, as is the process of presenting it clearly on the website. But this is getting better with every lesson. As I collect more sources and become more comfortable formatting pages in Google Sites, the amount of time it takes me to prepare a lesson comes down.

What I’ve really loved about these classes so far is walking into them with nothing in my hands, it’s an oddly liberating feeling and it has really improved my interaction with the students. Rather than hiding behind papers, I find I’m talking more to the students and I’m more aware of what they are doing in class and what problems they are having. This I believe is very much at the heart of the flipped classroom, this idea of freeing up class time for more personal attention and individualised instruction.
It’s very early in this experiment but I’m cautiously positive that this is something I would like to do more of with my classes. Once I get to the end of this course, I’ll get some formal feedback from them as well as reflect myself on how well it went. Then I’ll decide how much of this I want to incorporate into my future classes.


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Weekly Learning Technology Digest…

Image by chotda, under a
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

This could well be my shorted weekly learning technology digest ever! What with a Bank Holiday and the fact that I’ve been ill for much of the week, I’m pretty sure that plenty of things simply passed me by.

Still, there are always interesting bits and pieces happening in the world of learning technology so the ones that caught my eye this past week are…

  • Making the case for creating Open Educational Resources‘ – I rather liked this article from Steve Mackenzie, De Montfort University, which not only outlines the case for making OERs, but gives a good overview of the area if you’re not entirely sure what people are talking about when they mention ‘open’ in education!
  • Along those same lines came an article from ZDNet which asked ‘Are universities reluctant to use iTunesU‘ – the short answer seems to be ‘yes’.  The longer answer is ‘look at the barriers mentioned, then think what they might mean for your institutions’.
  • The popularity of ‘social readers’ in Facebook also appears to be collapsing according to BuzzFeed – and if you’ve had the experience of seeing a link to a news article within Facebook and following it means you have to install a particular app to read it (which then puts you off entirely!), then you’ll simply nod and say ‘I’m not surprised’ to this one.  The counter-argument is that it’s Facebook’s layout which is diminishing the use of them, but… they really *are* very irritating! It just shows, tying someone in to your environment / forcing them to install something to access content they can easily get elsewhere isn’t the best way to go about things!
  • Which is intriguing, because apparently Facebook have just launched their own app store… interesting…
  • Carpe Diem‘ from the University of Leicester – this one is a couple of years old, but I saw something which reminded me about this approach to online course design and I think it’s worth flagging the resources here.  The workshop outline / model is particularly useful for course teams working on new online programmes – worth a read.
  • So, flipping the classroom is a new buzzword… but… what about ‘making the classroom turn cartwheels‘ which Cathy Davidson from Duke University is advocating – where students themselves build the content and course for open public consumption.   Some really innovative approaches to the curriculum in this article.  Connected, open, creative seem to be the key elements here.
  • Finally, Hangouts On Air were pushed out worldwide by Google – if you haven’t got them yet, then they’re coming.  This is potentially very big news for education, but (and I’ll blog about this early next week) I think there are some key issues which we can’t dodge when thinking about their role.
You know, every time I say there wasn’t very much to note… there always was!  It’s really hard to ignore the ‘openness’ agenda at the moment and with developments of social / collaborative tools… they seem to be pushing one another forwards all the time.
See you next week!

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5 Reasons to Use Google Docs… and 2 not to

Over the last couple of years I’ve been using the cloud-based Google Docs almost exclusively for my word processing needs and as a way for students to write and submit their essays. Despite its growing popularity – particularly since Google created a Dropbox-like desktop version called Drive- many teachers and students still prefer to use traditional software programmes such as Microsoft Word for document creation. However, I think there are compelling reasons for teachers to at least experiment with Google Docs in their classroom.

Reasons to use Google Docs…

Free Your Inbox

As Google Docs are created online and can be shared automatically through an email address, there’s no need for the constant back and forth with attachments via email. I could never keep on top of whether I’d marked a student’s writing or had sent it back to them. Having one version that is always up to date is so much easier to manage. 

Work together

Google Docs can be a great tool for teachers to collaborate on documents together with colleagues or to encourage students to peer review and check each other’s work. There is no limit to the number of people who can work together on a document and it can be done synchronously or asynchronously. If you are doing it synchronously, you even have the option to chat with the other people editing it in a sidebar.


One of Google Docs great features are the margin comments you can make on students’ work. I know you can do this in Microsoft Word as well, but Google Docs makes it more interactive by creating a chat-like structure down the side of the page. I can comment on a part of a student’s essay in a side comment and then the student can reply with a suggestion or correction in the box below.
side comments on Google Docs

Even better, any comment that anyone else makes on a document of mine will be sent to me via email and I can actually add further side comments direct from my inbox. This feature is particularly useful when you’ve asked students to correct portions of the text and you just need to acknowledge that the correction is suitable.

Never lose your work

We’ve all had that situation where we lose all our work on a Word or Powerpoint document because the programme crashes or the computer freezes. Or documents accidentally get deleted from a hard drive or flash drive due to carelessness or technical breakdown. With Google Docs it’s impossible to lose more than a couple of sentences as it automatically saves every few seconds

And it’s not just documents…

Google Docs has a full office suite, including Presentations (their Powerpoint equivalent), Spreadsheets (Excel) as well as Forms for creating surveys and quizzes. With the release of Drive, they have now integrated other services such as mindmapping, 3D drawing, and picture and video editing. All of these share the same sharing and collaborative features, so you can work on a presentation, mindmap or spreadsheet together.

And a couple not to…

Don’t expect anything too fancy

If you create complex Word documents and Powerpoint presentations with lots of tables, charts, images and graphical flourishes, you might find Google Docs very frustrating. Inevitably, an online application will never offer the same range of functions and options as a standalone programme and when you go beyond just using text in Google Docs, you often come across annoyances and limitations in formatting. My biggest issue comes with when I try to insert a table into a Google Doc: they are difficult to edit, it’s difficult to select rows/columns and there are very limited cell formatting options. The same goes for image editing.

Complicated sharing options

Google try to give you lots of options for sharing your docs: you can share with individuals, groups, you can share a document via a link, you can make it public, you can share it only within a domain, such as the University of Sheffield. You can also do all of these things with whole folders and not just individual docs. You can also adjust the level of access to those you’ve shared a document with: you can give collaborators full editing rights or just the right to view the document or comment on it. 

which option should I choose for sharing?

While it’s great to have this degree of granularity when sharing, it can be very confusing when you first start using Google Docs and there’s a good chance you’ll share documents with people you didn’t mean to, or you won’t give your collaborators the level of access to the document you wanted to and they aren’t able to edit or comment on them. There’s quite a learning curve with the sharing settings on Google Docs and you might not want to go through that if you deal with sensitive and private documents on a daily basis.

Should I use Google Docs?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: if you are tired of the constant email back and forth with attachments, tired of constantly losing your work due to computer freezes or accidental deletions; if you have to grade and comment  on students’ writing regularly; if most of the work you do in office programmes are text rather than table and images; if you collaborate frequently on documents/presentations with colleagues; if you are willing to put some time in to learn the sharing settings on Google Docs – then yes also.

My own experiences have been almost entirely positive with Google Docs, the only downside being the limited formatting options in some of the applications. It has made the process of marking and commenting on students’ essays a thousand times easier for me and the options for collaboration and peer feedback on work are incredible. If you haven’t had a chance to try it, I would recommend you at least giving it a go and seeing if it works for you.


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