Thursday, 29 July 2010

Week 24 and really struggling

I think I've reached a bit of a low point with H800. Throughout most of the course since February I have managed to maintain a high level of enthusiasm, even when I've found the workload very high and had particularly busy periods at work. Over the past week or two however, I've noticed a significant drop in my enthusiasm and I'm finding it difficult to motivate myself to devote time to H800.

It's possibly something to do with being really busy at work, despite the fact that that it's the end of the academic year. Normally around the end of July things ease off considerably and one's mind inevitably starts to turn to holidays, reflecting on the year past and thinking about how things could be better next year. Whilst most of my colleagues at work definitely seem to be in wind-down mode, I've been involved in trying to recruit some new academic staff to replace colleagues retiring or moving on. It's been incredibly time-consuming and extremely frustrating, and despite making several offers we still have not filled all vacancies. Consequently, all the things I normally do at this time of year haven't been done, and I seem to have even less time than normal to devote to H800.

Added to this though, I have to admit to finding the content of course at the moment rather tedious. I have always endeavoured to approach the activities in H800 with an open mind, even when I haven't found the subject matter particularly interesting. Currently, try as I might, I just can't get interested in the material. I'm starting to think that the core content of H800 could really have been covered in a shorter period than 32 weeks, and that we are now just stretching the material out unneccessarily.

I'm also very conscious of the fact that I haven't yet done any work at all on TMA04, which is due to be submitted in a little over two weeks' time. Reluctantly therefore, I think I'm going to have to become a 'strategic learner' (Remember Richardson (2005) – Week 12) and focus on the assessed work. I will look at the course material, but I don't think I will be contributing much to the forum unless something really interesting comes up.

Friday, 23 July 2010

H800: Week 23 - A5: Reading Jones

Article: Jones (2004) Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks.

Just posted a rather tetchy forum post in response to this activity:

"I'm afraid that when I read papers like this I get rather cross. I'm sure such papers have their place amongst philosophers and intellectuals, but personally I am just trying to make sense of the issues surrounding technology-enhanced learning. To me, the paper does not identify very clear objectives, nor does it seem to reach any meaningful conclusions. It seems to be another example of "musings in the bath" in which the author gathers together the thoughts of various different authors but doesn't manage to present a coherent argument.

Apologies if that sounds rather cynical, but I'm struggling to get the motivation to complete the H800 activities. The course seems to have reached a point where we are thrashing around looking for another angle to examine the same issues from.

Perhaps things may become clearer with subsequent activities.

Jones' article really bugged me for some reason. As I was reading it I couldn't help thinking of Basil Fawlty's famous line about "stating the bleeding obvious"!


Thursday, 22 July 2010

H800: Week 23 – A3: Thinking about my own learning

Prior to starting the H800 course it was over 10 years since I was involved in a formal course of education leading to an award. Obviously there have been countless learning experiences associated with my work through preparation for lectures, scholarly activity and research, plus numerous training courses, staff development and so on. Nevertheless, H800 has been the first structured course of education I have taken for some considerable time. Earlier courses I have taken at undergraduate and postgraduate levels were largely before the widespread use of learning technologies, and were quite traditional in their delivery and assessment.

I have made quite extensive use of technologies in my role as a lecturer, and I have generally been enthusiastic about them. However, the experience of being a learner on H800 has helped me to understand the role of technologies in the learning process. Whilst my views about the effectiveness and suitability of various technologies have changed, my overall perception of them remains largely positive.

As a learner I make extensive use of a VLE (the H800 course site), the tutor group forum, and my own personal blog. I also use the virtual classroom (Elluminate) but less regularly. I have gained a great deal from using these technologies and feel that my experience on the course (from a 'learning' perspective) has been as good, and probably better, than earlier face-to-face courses. In some respects I feel that the use of asynchronous learning technologies such as the tutor group forum has positively helped me to learn more from a discussion than the equivalent face-to-face discussion. I am by nature quite a shy person. In face-to-face discussion I am quite conscious of what I say and how it will be perceived by other people. Consequently, if I am not confident that what I have to say will be appropriate then I will probably not say it. The benefit with the tutor group forum is that you don't need to respond immediately. You can reflect on other contributions, check up on some basic facts, and then make your contribution when you are ready. I have found this process to be quite liberating, insofar as it has allowed me to make contributions with some confidence.

The example of a poor experience with a technology which springs to mind is the use of wikis. By coincidence, I have just left a comment on a fellow student's blog expressing my disappointment with the use of wikis on this course. I really don't think I have gained anything from the use of wikis. Here's the comment I made:

Personally I don't think the use of wikis on this course has been particularly conducive to collaborative learning. In most cases the wikis have consisted of little more than a table to which we have added various bits of information. There never seems to be any tangible outcomes from the wikis. Perhaps this is due to my own lack of enthusiasm, but I really struggle to see the point of them.

I think wikis might be more appropriate when small groups (of say 4 or 5) are required to produce something with a very clear set of objectives. Ideally the individuals within the group would each be tasked with dealing with a specific element of the exercise. They each upload their contributions to the wiki and allow fellow group members to edit them and supplement them. In this way the output of the group could be more than the sum of the individual contributions.

Unfortunately, the way we have used wikis doesn't seem (to me at least) to facilitate these synergies.



Thursday, 15 July 2010

How the internet is changing the way we think

Wonderful piece picked up from John Naughton's blog (Memex 1.1). He cites George Dyson, a science historian, who uses the analogy of different approaches to boatbuilding by tribes in the North Pacific to consider how the internet has changed the way we gather information:

In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results — maximum boat / minimum material — by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don't will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Monday, 12 July 2010

H800: Weeks 21/22 – Activity 2 – VLEs & PLEs


• Sclater (2008a) ‘Large-scale Open Source E-Learning Systems at The Open University UK’.

• Martin Weller’s blog posting about his own ‘PLE’.

• Sclater (2008b) ‘Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems’.

These readings covered the issues which need to be considered by educational institutions and by academic staff in deciding on the most appropriate online learning support environment. The readings basically distinguish between virtual learning environments (VLEs) and personal learning environments (PLEs). It was apparent that there are clear advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. A VLE is usually an off-the-shelf product such as Blackboard which provides a fairly standard structure for online support to courses. Other models include Moodle which is an open source system that can be customised to an institution’s own requirements.

As I have indicated in earlier postings, I am a regular user of Blackboard at my University to support the delivery of my modules. I believe that students do value a well organised online facility which can be accessed at any time. I don’t believe that VLEs and PLEs should be seen as alternatives. There is no reason why they cannot complement each other. The VLE can provide the centralised framework for delivery, but there is nothing to stop individual students developing their own PLEs to suit their particular needs.

I am enthusiastic about the idea of PLEs, and the diagram below indicates how I have mapped out my own PLE. I decided to distinguish between the various resources which I use for work, for H800 and for my personal life, though obviously there are some overlaps between these. I have also added in a separate aspect for mobile learning on my smartphone, since I find myself increasingly using this when I am away from a PC.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

H800: Weeks 21/22 – Activity 1d – The impact of technologies on organisations

Undoubtedly, Web 2.0 technologies have had a significant impact on me personally since I have been working in higher education. The most obvious example is the use of the Blackboard VLE. There is an expectation that every module at the University of Westminster is supported by a Blackboard site but, as I think I have mentioned on several previous occasions, the extent to which Blackboard is used by academic staff varies considerably.
I have a Blackboard site for each of the modules which I teach. For example, here's a screenshot from the Blackboard site for one of my final year undergraduate modules: Building Adaptation & Conservation.

The Blackboard site is first and foremost a repository for all the learning materials associated with the module. This includes the module handbook, copies of lecture presentations, handouts, links to relevant websites and so on. I also use it for the digital submission of coursework, and for maintaining assessment records. I think students value a well organised Blackboard site and appreciate having access to course materials online. However, I would be the first to acknowledge that, up to now, I have not exploited the full potential of Blackboard in supporting my modules, since I have not made sufficient use of collaborative tools such wikis or discussion boards, nor have I made full use of some of the other tools available.
The use of Blackboard has in some ways caused my workload to increase, because in addition to preparing for lectures each week I now have to ensure that weekly module materials are uploaded on to Blackboard. This can be a tedious process, since Blackboard is a bit 'clunky' to use and does not allow bulk uploading. Nevertheless, I think it is worth it for the benefits which students gain, and it does save me having to deal with queries from students who have missed lectures, because I can simply refer them to the Blackboard site.
From an institutional perspective, my perception is that the University did not have a very clear rationale or strategy when it introduced Blackboard. I strongly suspect that it was introduced mainly just to keep up with other universities. I don't believe that the University fully thought through the implications in terms of student expectations, server space requirements and a long term approach to dealing with Web 2.0. Now the University finds itself rather stuck with Blackboard, and is looking around at the options available.
There is certainly resistance amongst some staff to more widespread use of technologies. This is driven in part by the factors that Conole (2009) identifies, including lack of time, a focus on research and concerns over the diminution in the role of the teacher. Despite this, there are plenty of academic staff within the institution who are experimenting with new technologies and trying out innovative approaches in their teaching. This was evidenced at the end of last month when the University held its annual Learning & Teaching Symposium at which many of the presentations were concerned with the use of new technologies. In addition, the University has a good (if small) team of learning technologists who are very willing to help staff develop new initiatives. However I think it would be fair to say that, for the most part, the use of new technologies is being driven by the enthusiasm of individual members of staff rather than any coordinated strategy on the part of the University.
Reference: Conole, G. (2009) 'Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education' in Lee, M.J.W. and McLoughlin, C. (eds) Web 2.0-based E-learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching, Hershey, PA, IGI Global.

H800: Weeks 21/22 – Activity A1c: Examples of Web 2.0 innovations

I spent way too long on this activity, because I kept getting sidetracked by interesting ideas and possibilities. Anyway, the three innovations I have selected are as follows:

  1. Using Twitter in the Classroom.

In recent weeks I've developed a bit of a fascination with Twitter, and though I rarely 'tweet' myself, I have been actively following other tweeters. I am trying to establish whether or not it is feasible (and indeed desirable) to make use of Twitter in my teaching. This example (the Twitter Experiment) demonstrates how one history professor in Dallas uses Twitter as a way of involving her students during (and after) her classes. She has a separate screen running during the class with shows Tweets from students who want to ask a question or make a point. It seems to be an effective way of enabling students to be involved who might otherwise be shy about speaking in front of the whole class. It also helps in identifying queries that many students might have in common. Furthermore, the tweet stream can continue after the class is over.

I think this is a great idea, but I notice that she has a graduate teaching assistant to run this for her during the class. Much as I would like to give this a try, I would not have the luxury of such assistance. Nevertheless, I may consider experimenting.

  1. Using online photo-sharing services (e.g. Flickr) as part of students' coursework

There are several online photo-sharing services available now, including Flickr and Picasa. Most of these offer a free service which can provide online storage of photos and sharing facilities, together with options to tag photos and search public albums. This example from Educause describes how the use of Flickr was incorporated into a project which architecture students were required to undertake. The students were asked to identify examples of buildings of buildings which displayed certain architectural styles and then take photographs of them. This is a fairly common requirement for students studying building styles, but what was interesting was the additional requirement to upload their photographs to Flickr and to provide brief descriptive comments. Thus, a simple coursework exercise becomes a great way of sharing findings with fellow students and learning from each other through building up an online resource.

  1. Using free online screen capture services to provide verbal feedback to students

Professional screen capture software (such as Camtasia) is expensive and takes some time to learn if it is to be used effectively. There are a couple of basic screen capture services available free including Screenjelly and Jing. These allow you to record short screen captures with a voiceover and store them online. You can then embed the videos in a website or email them directly to someone. This has potential to provide a means of giving verbal feedback to students on a piece of work which has been submitted digitally.


By the way, if anyone is struggling to find examples of Web 2.0 innovations, you might be interested in having a look at Russell Stannard's Teacher Training Videos website, which gives loads of step-by-step training screencasts on various learning technologies. Russell is a lecturer at the University of Westminster, and although most of his work nowadays is in the field of multimedia / ICT, his background is in ELT / ESOL.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

H800: Weeks 21 & 22: A1 a & b: Reading Conole (2009)

Read the first half of the chapter by Conole, 'Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education'; just up to the section entitled 'Making sense of the complexity'.

I found the first part of the paper a little tedious, since it essentially presented points which have been made adequately elsewhere, though I accept that this was necessary to 'set the scene'. The examples of the use of Web 2.0 in Table 2 were rather irritating as some of the web addresses were either wrong or the material no longer existed. Furthermore, those links which did work were basically not very interesting.

I thought Table 3 (characteristics of new technologies) provided quite a good summary of the positive and negative impacts of various aspects of Web 2.0.

From around Page 9 onwards, the paper presents some very interesting points, and I felt that the issues raised were very relevant to my own experience in a University department where the 'take-up' of new technologies varies considerably between different members of staff. In particular, I found the following points significant:

  • (p9) The suggestion that students have become used to "small, bite-size chunks of information" and that they learn through "experiential interaction rather than through guided, step-by-step instruction".
  • (p10) Teachers have little incentive to explore new technologies because of other demands on their time, particularly the expectation to conduct research. Research is privileged over teaching, so applying new technologies is low priority.
  • (p10) There is a "disjuncture between student use of technologies and academic use".
  • (p10) Some academics feel intimidated by the possibility that new technologies will "require a fundamental change in their role as teacher and associated loss of authority"
  • (p10) Those academics who are enthusiastic about new technologies struggle to convince colleagues and find themselves up against "outdated arguments" which relate to the way things used to be.

I can relate strongly to all of those points, and I was looking forward to reading the rest of the paper to discover suggestions as to how they might be addressed. Unfortunately, having just had a quick glance at the second half of the paper, I have realised that the paper proposes Cloudworks and Compendium as ways of 'making sense' of the complexity. Sadly, neither of these tools really 'do it' for me, so I'm a little disappointed.

A new smartphone

A week's leave for me this week. Even though I'm not going anywhere I just feel I need to get away from the University for a few days. I got TMA03 in on time yesterday. I found it hard to get motivated to put a huge amount of effort into it, given that the marks don't count for the final assessment, but nevertheless I found it useful in focussing the mind for the ECA.

Once that was submitted I had time to play with my new toy – a new smartphone. The contract on my iPhone finished at the end of June which meant I had the option of upgrading or simply moving on. I looked at the iPhone 4, but I found it hard to justify the expense of getting it (around £200) and O2's new tariffs mean that you have to pay an additional fee for 3G internet access – what a rip off! This caused me to look at alternatives and I decided to consider some of the iPhone's competitors. Although I've really loved the iPhone since I've had it, there are a few things about it that really niggle me. The refusal of Apple to support Flash player is one thing, and I was also getting fed up with the whole Apple approach which ties you into the Apple brand.

So – I went for an Android phone – the HTC Desire - and I'm really delighted with it. What's more, my new contract with Orange costs £5 a month less than my previous contract, gives me unlimited internet access, miles more minutes and texts, AND there was no charge for the phone!

The interface is slightly different to the iPhone but I'll soon get used to it, and there are loads more features on it. I set it up easily for the Exchange server at work, so I had access to my emails, contacts and calendar within about 10 minutes of switching the phone on. It also runs Googlemail automatically, as well as Facebook and Twitter. The internet is much faster than on the iPhone and it's got a much better camera (5MP) with a flash, which also records video. You can set up RSS feeds and it's even got a SatNav. Although there aren't as many apps available as for the iPhone, the Android Market does have thousands of apps and I've already found most of the ones I had previously on my iPhone, and so far they've all been free!

I feel like a kid with a new toy at Christmas, and I know everyone will be getting annoyed with me now as I go on about it. Hopefully it should provide lots of opportunities for m-learning!