Saturday, 31 July 2010

BLT! I like that. (The new webtools site).

Once upon a time there was ILT. Then it became e-learning or elearning and now it's . . . well . . . both and yet neither one nor the other. I've always liked information learning technology. It says it all - technology, learning, information. I suppose it could be argued that NLN got it right with their Learning Technology team, of which I was a member for a while. E-learning has always confused people and required us to spend the first 20 minutes defining it at the start of sessions and our colleagues from other parts of the planet think e-learning is distance learning or variations on the theme anyway. Which is fine too but all this hyphenated stuff is very 90s now. If you have to think up a term to describe something then your time's better used thinking up ways to use it. So I'm going back to ILT and good old web tools. Oh, hang on, they're apps now. Back to Square One.

Whatever it's called, we want tutors to use IT. Students expect it. They like accessing notes, tasks and anything they missed and want to look at again in their own home, with a friend or just somewhere other than the classroom at 9am. Or the library where they can't make any noise. Or the IT Workshop where they need the ID card they've forgotten and the computers probably don't have their familiar software, especially browsers, anyway.

All that's needed is to get a baseline of course materials on-line somewhere, make them look attractive, quick to load and simple to find. There are lots of great tools out there to make using learning technology easy for even the least enthusiastic tutor.

I've updated the webtools site and it's now all about what I'm going to call BLT. Brilliant learning technology. What you can do now is amazing and there's not a moodle upload or log-in in sight! The concept's unchanged: office-type, planning, research, media and web design applications listed in categories. All are free and almost all ad free. You are encouraged to review them, make comments and these you can now do using forms on most pages. I've dropped the PBworks wiki pages for this as it was quite hard work adding new pages both there and on the site plus links between them for every new entry. Instead, I'm using Google forms which will publish responses through the site. Good examples people have supplied of apps in action I shall retain and make links to them on the appropriate pages. The wiki will stay but I'll redevelop it as it is one of my favourite BLTs in its own right.

So, go and get your images sorted out and resized, find or even make a video, add them to some cool web pages showing students how to be really smart in their research so they can complete your course for which, of course, you have put everything on-line somewhere, haven't you. Ah, forgot . . you'll need to plan all that but, yes, there'll be a tool for that!

Enjoy the new site!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Forums for a change

Something else I need to research is a forum. A colleague at an institution I work with has suggested that we should have one for distance learning students. Now forums, or fora I suppose, have been around for a while but the only ones I've actually found useful myself have been those I've been taken to by Google when trying to find answers to something like why I'm getting strange messages on my laptop or how to focus the viewer display on a digital camera.

You know you're in a forum because most contributors have strange names and even stranger icons next to them. They either know absolutely everything or are asking simple questions. There seem few in the middle. The answers and links often provided are usually jolly good and have to date either reassured me that I needn't worry about something or provided a pretty quick answer confirming that I should. Very seldom have I ever had to post a new query and most of the ones I've visited I never joined anyway.

You also know you're in a forum because whoever designed it was rather better at php code than designing things. Nearly all comprise streams of verdana stretching across the wide screen with shades of grey or lime green separating entries. There's little clue on the page to where you actually are in many cases either.

An exception used to be Lefora, with nicely laid out pages and templates you could use to create your own forum. I used these a lot once but because there were inactive for a period they were archived and now I'd need to start all over again to retrieve them. That says it all, really, no-one participated much in them. They could contact me in all sorts of other ways and the material I published there was essentially stuff I'd already written and published elsewhere too so it would only have been interaction between members that would actually have created any original content.

In some fields I am sure such interaction could occur and be encouraged so I'm not against the idea. I just don't see myself doing any more with forums in the future than I've done to date. Pop in when I need something and then move on. That doesn't help with research, though, so I am going to try very hard to keep an open mind and see what I can come up with.

Facebook pages have a lot to recommend them for some groups of students who would feel completely at home in the environment. That's one option. Another is LinkedIn which I have joined but done little with since. It could be the answer for the more adult types we're likely to be dealing with. I shall also take a fresh look at Lefora and PBworks, the excellent wiki application. Zoho might do something too. I seem to recall that their suite of applications dwarfed the might Microsoft's mainstream list - and Zoho's are free.

I do have this feeling, though, that whatever we created will have a burst of activity for a few weeks and then people will just e-mail each other or their tutor as they've done to date. We'll see.

OneNote is probably the answer . . . if I can figure it out

I've got a presentation to make soon to a University about how students can use Microsoft's OneNote to keep activity logs, notes, plan to meet learning outcomes, liaise with tutors and maintain a portfolio. Whilst this was intended originally for students on distance learning courses in the Work Based Learning sector I keep thinking to myself that it really ought to be of interest to almost any student.

For some reason, though, I'm finding it hard to get my head round the application. It seems to look nice and I have a good idea of what I need to illustrate and can use several of my own courses for material and samples of collaboration and liaison, web links, notes and the like but actually doing it in the Microsoft product just isn't coming naturally at all.

I may well have to take a look at some samples from a Scottish institution that I know are using it, or have recommended that their staff use it for various courses they send them on but I really do want to be able to do it myself so that I can illustrate the idea with confidence and recognise the various elements easily. My mind keeps wondering whether I could do all this more easily in Google docs and that's probably the problem. Whatever I do nowadays, I have the same thought: "Ah, I could use Google for this..." which is great in many ways but not what I can expect everyone else to do.

I keep telling myself that I've managed, finally, to get the hang of 2007-style ribbons in Office, that I really do like the new ease of smart document styling and there are some nice graphic tools there too. Hopefully I will get there in the end with OneNote too and have something other than Google to share with colleagues soon.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Short distance learning

In a couple of months I shall walk into a classroom and there'll be around 20 new faces looking at me and wondering just what they've let themselves in for. I tended to think the same thing some years ago but I seem to have got the hang of it now although I still get nervous which is silly but there you go.

There are a few things I can do between now and then which will help enormously. So this is my list of things to do over the summer break.

1 Write a plain English intro for the course, module or unit that reminds them that it can be interesting and can be useful stuff to know or be able to do in the real world

2 Look at the criteria or learning outcomes again and check that the tasks, exercises and assignments I've got in mind will meet them and that they don't have to do a whole load more for no good reason

3 Re-write the tasks and display them in an appealing way. It's bad enough calling something an assignment, never mind giving it to them as a long-winded form that puts them off and has the actual bit about what they're supposed to do buried on page 3.

4 Do the tasks myself, not just to make sure I'm not asking something silly but also to create a sample that they can see where appropriate. This will also give me an idea of how to extend the task for the smart guys and perhaps make it simpler for the less able at least to achieve something.

5 Make the tasks easily accessible on-line, on web pages rather than Word documents. Add links to notes, the criteria they're supposed to meet and my sample effort.

6 Write bundles of notes on related topics and some specific guidance for the tasks themselves. Make the notes look nice, with illustrations where appropriate, and presented well, including as web pages that load quickly.

7 Provide links to useful web sites and further information on the topic or tasks.

That's really what I've got to do, and what they've got to do in a nutshell. The funny thing is that I wrote these notes for a totally different institution's tutors who all work on distance learning courses. I also wrote some notes to guide students through their side of the process and how various web tools can be really useful. I might add those here too next.

App Inventor for Android

This is quite remarkable. The very idea that 'normal' people can make applications, sorry, they're called apps now, for their mobile is just so hard to grasp. Yet it seems to be true and could be one of those massive leaps that happen from time to time in technology and what we do with it.

The GoogleLabs App Inventor for Android ..

"You can build just about any app you can imagine with App Inventor. Often people begin by building games like MoleMash or games that let you draw funny pictures on your friend's faces. You can even make use of the phone's sensors to move a ball through a maze based on tilting the phone.
But app building is not limited to simple games. You can also build apps that inform and educate. You can create a quiz app to help you and your classmates study for a test. With Android's text-to-speech capabilities, you can even have the phone ask the questions aloud.
To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app's behavior."

Apart from spelling behavior differently there'd be no point in me trying to put this any better. I carry on, with acknowledgements to the GoogleLabs writers..

"App Inventor is simple to use, but also very powerful. Apps you build can even store data created by users in a database, so you can create a make-a-quiz app in which the teachers can save questions in a quiz for their students to answer.
Because App Inventor provides access to a GPS-location sensor, you can build apps that know where you are. You can build an app to help you remember where you parked your car, an app that shows the location of your friends or colleagues at a concert or conference, or your own custom tour app of your school, workplace, or a museum.
You can write apps that use the phone features of an Android phone. You can write an app that periodically texts "missing you" to your loved ones, or an app "No Text While Driving" that responds to all texts automatically with "sorry, I'm driving and will contact you later". You can even have the app read the incoming texts aloud to you (though this might lure you into responding).

App Inventor provides a way for you to communicate with the web. If you know how to write web apps, you can use App Inventor to write Android apps that talk to your favorite web sites, such as Amazon and Twitter."

This all sounds great and I can imagine students will really love this too. Now, I wonder just how 'easy' it really is? I'll let you know in a while.

Google just keeps on getting better and better

And it's still free, that's like a bonus! The latest improvement that I'm itching to try is in options available when making Google Forms. Forms are already a brilliant way to add lots of interest to teaching and learning material and now it looks as though we'll be able to make different parts of a form display depending on the responses to a question.

I have been staring at a blank screen for a while over the last few days trying to figure out the best way to revise my ICT Staff Assessment tool and this may be an answer. More about that in a while I hope.

The webtools site is also undergoing a good shake-up. It's proving to be a longer process than I'd first thought but'll get there. Google now could appear on virtually every page but I still do want to get you playing (and hopefully reporting back too) on some of the lesser known and newer tools out there.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Let's do the Time Warp again

I've just spent an excruciatingly boring day at an FE college. No. I'm not a student; this was as a member of a department team tasked with completing a form. This form appeared to have been designed to fit into some kind of quality management process, with good knowledge of an Ofsted language dictionary being required which (fortunately and sadly) I do possess. With nine pages divided into sections covering various elements of course management and delivery, each seeking strengths and weaknesses - no, sorry, we're not supposed to have weaknesses any more so the latter heading read Areas for improvement - it would be familiar to any of you who have wrestled with something called a Course Review or even a Strategic Annual Review.

The first thing that struck me was that the form was dreadfully badly designed for anyone to use. In fact it wasn't a 'form' at all in a Word sense. It may have looked OK when printed, in an Arial Bold kind of way, but the boxes to be filled in were all formatted as justified text so huge gaps appeared between words and the font in the box was the same black ruddy Arial Bold so it rapidly became a messy-looking affair that wasn't something anyone could possibly have any enthusiasm to read. Perhaps that was intentional. Filling in a box tended to push everything below down and, more often than not, split things confusingly and randomly across page breaks. I did suggest Control + L or + Enter a few times at appropriate moments during the day but that fell on deaf ears or may have been mistaken for something to do with hell or giving birth.

The second thing was that as we debated what should be entered the most senior chap there was typing it very haphazardly and slowly on the form. In some ways this would have made sense had he been able to spell or summarise what we were saying reasonably quickly but we could only watch as a succession of red and green wavy lines appeared at almost every burst of keyboard activity. As he'd connected his pc to a smartboard an original idea of sharing the process became a bit of entertainment for the rest of us.

What was actually being entered, even after debate with reasonably intelligent colleagues, was typical academic-speak. Saying the same thing twice, using long words wherever possible and not actually saying anything much at all at the end of the day, just in case it didn't match something somewhere else on this form which was rapidly assuming almost biblical importance. This was because all the good things we reckoned we were doing well didn't have any obvious evidence. Our assurances were not to be trusted. It had to be something written in a Course Management File and if it wasn't written on the right form in the right section of said CMF then it didn't happen.

So this drivel went on for several hours. I did think about asking why we were doing it in the first place but that was one of those question that you really do need to pluck up a bit of courage to ask. I did have the courage but didn't think of it until about 4 o'clock and had to dash off to collect my son from school five minutes later.

What really frustrated me, though, was when many strengths were shown as figures for things like how many students had enrolled, been retained and succeeded. These numbers were on various sheets of paper. Those sheets had been printed from a nearby computer. Someone then counted up the three numbers from the lines on the printed sheet, yelled them at the expensive typist who then did his best to slap them in the right box. Then we all watched the little Windows calculator appear on the smartboard and sums being entered, the answers then being put in brackets with a percentage sign added into the same boxes. To top it off, a benchmark figure was entered with a ± number indicating how much better or worse we were.

All this flaming data is available on a college Management Information System or other computer records. Why on earth couldn't the form be populated with this information automatically?? It's a successful department in many ways but we should surely manage information better.

And the department? Computing. Oh boy.