Monday 13 December 2010

Surely something wrong here?

I spent a good hour trying to figure out why a deceptively simple-looking device in Excel to colour some rows green and others red to indicate which teams were top and bottom respectively in a table didn't do what it said on the box. It's called conditional formatting and my 12-year old son said he could do it fine in Excel2003 but not Excel2010. I had hardly ever used conditional formatting at all before but eventually worked out how to write the formula needed. (For those intrigued, you had to type something like =h3>m3 which, for some reason, just didn't come naturally!)

The task was all about some team scores in a range of activities. They had to be added up and then the list rows coloured to show the top and bottom teams. A macro was also needed to do some sorting which he managed effortlessly. I remember that macros usually took me a couple of goes as I would click something either at the start or the end which stopped it working or landed up on a blank sheet. Not for the youngster, though - right first time.

After solving the = business my only real contribution was to show him how to make the sheet look cool by changing colours, using some different fonts and hiding virtually everything except the displayed data. He had also quite happily protected the sheet and left unlocked just those cells that a user might change and included some validation rules to ensure someone's favourite team didn't get a sneaky huge score added in.

Today, at a Further Education College, I had cause to look at some assignments that were being issued to students. The topic was related to business information systems and required students to suggest and illustrate methods to display data in a pretty similar way to my son's task.


Except there was no requirement that they could do validation. No requirement for any automatic colouring of cells or smartening of the sheet appearance. Arial, possibly one of the worst-looking spreadsheet fonts apart from Comic Sans, rules OK, apparently, unless you have Office 2007 or later. Not a hint of macros either.

These students are 17, 18, some going on 20. Most of them do not seem particularly dumb, some even give the impression of being pretty geeky and can do things like evade the clutches of the internet filtering system and get extremely high scores in the helicopter game. But not only did they look at me with those vacant expressions that make you wonder whether you've asked them to explain the difference between ought and should and would or explain how the date of Easter Sunday is calculated when I mentioned validation, macros and conditional formatting, many seemed to find the simple task before them a challenge.

These are Level 3 National Diploma Computing students, for heaven's sake! OK, they can do some binary sums that my 2nd year schoolboy doesn't know about but he is so far advanced in comparison on what I call the ICT skills that could be useful in an office environment it's weird. Yes, he's pretty bright but what he's doing at school - in what I call 2nd year (Year 8 I think in new eduspeak) - is what the whole class is expected to achieve, whether they like spreadsheets or not.

I wondered how on earth my daughter, 14, had managed to cope with that as I don't remember tears or dramatic messages on Facebook pleading for help in 2008. Apparently she just did it and hoped for the best and, whilst not enjoying it much and not exactly shining bright on the formulae front, she knew what we were talking about, at least, and had I offered tickets to Matt Cardle in Concert she would have been able to help her little brother in my absence.

Now, the group of National Diploma students are largely similar to most preceding years I can recall. I've never actually taught this topic but it seems that the criteria for passing at Level 3 fall way short of the school's learning outcomes. What on earth is going on? I know standards have slipped but, taken in conjunction with generally appalling written English and research skills which comprise solely Google and Wikipedia it seems we're about to release yet another qualified yet totally unqualified bunch of otherwise pleasant enough people into the world of work.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Wikileaks: disclaimer

I can see that I'll shall have to add a disclaimer along the following lines to tweets, e-mail, document footers, presentation slides, blog posts, Facebook and LinkedIn updates, wiki pages, sites and, yes, definitely, Technorati, American Idol and XFactor articles!

The contents of this communication may or may not have been written by me and even if it was it may not reflect what I actually think as I have have missed a crucial not in a sentence or accidentally jumbled up the words. My computers do not all require a new log-in when idle and any one of a range of passing children, girlfriends, clients, colleagues or pets may have used the keyboard in my absence. There are also lots of people with my name and I am never too sure which one is me so treat any text as potentially totally meaningless. I am also not very well off so suing would be quite pointless.

A 140 character version is available on request.

I shall also start talking to people more.

Friday 3 December 2010

Reason 543 Why You MUST Stop Site Blocking: Your Employees Can't Solve Their Problems On Their Own

I couldn't have put this better myself. So I won't. Here's an excellent article by Michelle Martin's The Bamboo Project. The link takes you to the original article which I have simply reproduced below. Of course, it's probably blocked by your institution :/

Yesterday was a typical day for me as a knowledge worker--lots of unrelated problems to solve, ranging from troubleshooting an issue with a Wordpress blog I was setting up for a client to gathering information on employment statistics for people with disabilities. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in having this kind of wide-ranging work to do. Even the specialists among us have found their job duties broadening in this tight economy.

For me, solving these problems turned out to be relatively easy. I work for myself and don't have to worry about site blocking, so was able to easily access and search the blogs, social networks, videos and forums that gave me the answers I needed. If necessary, I would also have been able to access my own networks through social media.

Unfortunately for the vast majority of front line workers at the organizations I work with, this would not have been the case. For them, many of these sites are blocked. If "blog" is in the title or URL, they can't go there. If the information is on a social network or forum, they can't visit it. Forget YouTube and its vast array of tutorials. Even many basic websites are blocked.

At the same time, their managers will complain that staff don't solve their own problems, that they aren't innovative or creative in their work. Well of course they aren't--they are denied basic access to the people and information that might actually help them get their jobs done! They are forced to rely on people within their own organizations--many of whom don't have the answer either--and on those websites the powers that be deem to be "acceptable."

When I do trainings and presentations, participants will frequently ask me how I "know so much." It's simple. No one is blocking my access to the web, so when I have a question, I can get an answer. I'm empowered to get information and solve problems on my own. If you want people to do their best work, they need the same access.
Well said! Not only do I see the Access Denied sign almost every day at work but the screen also tells me my attempt has been logged and if I'd bothered to read the rest of the small print it's probably also been passed to HR to add to my file and someone will be talking to me about retraining and mind adjustment in due course. I am so tempted to type in some really bad site addresses and don't know how I've resisted that to date! To be fair, IT technicians do usually free sites up for me when I ask them but I'm usually in the middle of trying to get some answers and waiting for however long it takes them to do that isn't an option.

People wonder why I do so much work at home.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Why work doesn't happen at work

A brilliant talk by Jason Fried, well worth sparing 15 mins of your busy time at work to watch!

Saturday 20 November 2010

There are 9 million bicycles in Bejing

I was never particularly brilliant at Geography, which probably explains why I often ask "Where am I?" but that's another topic, but I did spend many hours with a small paperback Atlas, especially those little maps of the world where the sizes of the countries were changed to reflect their population, fridges per person or whatever.

I'm still fascinated by statistics and maps, though, and The CIA World Factbook is one of those sites I can wander around for ages. You learn that there are more girls than boys in Ukraine, for example, which may explain why there always seem to be a lot on stage in most of their Eurovision entries. And there's not a lot going on in the phosphate mines on Christmas Island these days but no doubt many of its 1,402 population will be enjoying a vaguely palindromic Christmas Island Christmas soon, knowing that no other country can do that.

Back in the 1990s the data was available in a huge workbook with hundreds of sheets and that was a great tool to use in Excel classes. Now it's all web page stuff and not so easy to play with. However, it's still got a massive amount of well-displayed, and reliable, data which is updated every two weeks or so. The whole shooting match can be downloaded too, free, which is nice when the internet breaks down in class and you need to give students some research to do. With so much data available, thinking up some questions to keep them interested shouldn't take long - and there are maps galore too.

You might also have a giggle at the Kids' page which includes the classic line "CIA employees gather intelligence (or information) in a variety of ways, not just by “spying” like you see in the movies or on TV (though we do some of that, too).

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Good ideés

The talented people at Ideé Labs have added some new tools to their set. You may know about Multicolour Search Lab, which will find images matching whatever colours you choose, and TinEye, which will locate where duplicates of an image (maybe that photo of you when you were 2?!!) have been used (with or probably without your approval) on a web page somewhere.

The new ones (to me, at any rate) are the Visual Search Lab, where you enter tags and get pictures displaying that particular combination, and BYO Image Search Lab which finds images similar to the one you provide.

Whatever you may be teaching or training people to do, I am sure you'll be able to find a way to sneak one of these into a lesson. Or stick a collage on the wall, for no other reason than it's about time those old posters were binned. (But that's the subject of another article to follow!)

Friday 12 November 2010

Naughty but nice and a lot quicker

Yes, I know I should have done them in August. But I didn't and I've just spent most of the day knocking out 10 schemes of work and a slightly ridiculous-sounding 300 lesson plans. It was blowing a gale outside and raining so that helped keep me indoors.

If you do the sums that's nearly 700 pages. Now, I can type pretty quickly but that's beyond even my old PA's capabilities in a single day. Luckily, there's the new version of my Scheme of Work and Lesson Plan tool which made the whole job a lot easier. Still clunky, but it does the job. (I'm hoping a nice young chap called Steve will help with a web version soon!)

You fill in all the bits and pieces related to the programme and lessons on one spreadsheet. Then some nice formulae copy the text into the right places on either a Scheme of Work sheet or to the appropriate one of 30 Lesson Plan sheets. Those sheets are set up to look reasonably good when printed on A4 and I can now run off whichever items I need as and when required.

In reality I usually find the notes I scrawl on the back of an envelope in the car a few minutes before the lesson starts are what I actually do but on occasions like next week, when someone is likely to come and watch the proceedings I'd better look a bit more organised.

Of course, if you happen to work for one of those institutions that say "You'll be downgraded if you don't use the standard institutional form" or it's on the wrong colour paper, even, in one place I've heard about  ". . . using anything other than Arial size 11" then you, like me will be very naughty. But it is nice and a lot quicker.

I've added a sample you can use to the More page of the webtools site if you're also running a bit late with this task.

Friday 15 October 2010

Binging - it simply neither looks nor sounds right

It's amazing to watch students searching on the web these days. I nearly typed googling but that doesn't actually describe what they do . . .

You see at one of the places I lecture the IT technicians have made Internet Explorer the only browser they can use and left all the Microsoft defaults in place. That means the search box is for Bing. But that doesn't seem to affect students because as soon as you ask them to do anything they type google into the address bar anyway which produces a list of sites from which they choose and then, finally, type what they want to know about in the box. (In fact, they'd probably do this anyway even if the technicians did change the deafult search tool to Google.)

If we had Chrome then they could just type the search term in the address bar and they'd save a lot of time. I did ask why some of them did the long-winded thing and thought it might have been because they all now used Chrome at home but no, they just seem to have got into the habit and some didn't even notice the Bing box

I suppose that instead of googling we might have been talking of students binging. Hmm. I guess now I understand wht that never took off.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Facebook for teaching and learning?

This is a reply I gave to a question on the excellent JISC Curriculum Champions list today which I thought may be of wider interest.

I've been experimenting with Facebook pages (as well as lots more!) over the years. In one institution that I'm associated with these have only been accessible on phones or via proxy browsers in class so of little use there but, after almost zero activity of value for two years, I have found a remarkable increase in the last few months by students and colleagues from home and discussions, sharing of thoughts, constructive comments and links to pretty relevant resources surprisingly (to me!) unlittered with rubbish or 'I'm just getting Luke to make me a sandwich' stuff which they now seem to reserve for their own personal pages.

I won't pretend that anything marvellous is happening but it's a familiar, dead easy to use environment and the new input each week has been something I have been able to refer to and expand on, or encourage more research into, in normal sessions. In particular, I've seen students helping each other with tasks and saying what they think about topics which doesn't seem to be happening much on the VLE.

In another institution access is not initially restricted and although one or two tutors have set up course or module pages none seem to have had much impact. It really does still seem to be something mostly used out of the classroom. This place has installed a control mechanism that enables tutors to monitor students' screens from a staff pc and as purely social use gets their access pretty smartly cut there have been quite a few mistakes as it was difficult to distinguish a personal page from an 'approved' one! I guess the topic (project management) hasn't lent itself to as much interest in research and sharing there as the other (web design) where there are links and visual interest a-plenty.

What does appear to be working well are pages set up in some Work Based Learning sectors I've been involved with. All the participants are adults and spread out across the planet, occasionally meeting for practical workshops. The simplicity of creating photo albums, for example, has enabled people who I know have pretty low ICT 'Office-type' skills to share examples of what they've done at these workshops. Discussions do have regular and generally organised input and a little direction from tutors which helps a lot. The main purpose of the pages was initially just to promote an organisation's events and activities and the inclusion now of nice comments, images and links to resources has had the pleasant effect of enhancing its image and their workshops.

There's nothing being done here that couldn't be done using other applications but Facebook just kinda works for many. I certainly wouldn't describe any of this as particularly significant, however, as there are lots of new tools around and coming up which enable more efficient and manageable delivery of course materials and interaction which will, I feel, be ultimately be preferred to facebook (unless fb develops its own app further in that direction!). In particular the advent of sites people can contribute to (and tutors edit) simply and the marvellous RSS feeds from tutors, students and authoritative source blogs will make a big difference to life in the classroom. Twitter is also proving to be an excellent tool for finding and sharing really up-to-the-minute ideas and resources and, indeed, many of the most valuable posts of those facebook pages were, in fact, auto feeds from Twitterfeed or similar!

Lastly, here's a video I found of a recent discussion in the States that you may get colleagues talking too. Some odd spelling in the comments - not mine, I should add!

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.

Friday 11 June 2010

Google for Educators

I like the idea of being a Google Certified Teacher. Even if you don't apply for that then there are still lots of well-produced and effective materials available, for free of course, the latest being ideal for tutorials on whether to trust websites and appreciating just how stupid you can make yourself look on-line!

Applications for the Google Certified Teacher have to be in pretty soon and they insist that they're accompanied by a link to a 1 minute YouTube video that applicants have created. I wish my sons' smartboard antics were sub-1 minute which would save me the trouble of thinking up something new. actually, typing that has given me an idea - I can interview Bryony, Kirri and Matti on what's cool in the classroom or which teacher's the one that needs the most help . . or something like that.

Friday 30 April 2010

Big picture solutions

We love images. But lots of staff and students still seem to have trouble resizing them to share, whether by e-mail or in documents.

Thanks to an E-learning colleague for reminding me about XP PowerToys and their Image Resizer which makes the task of making that huge digital image manageable and probably less than 5% of its original file size delightfully simple.

If you use a lot of screenprints you should also get Irfanview to edit and save them rather than just pasting some whole screen image in. (If only to avoid the embarrassment of showing everyone what else you may have had open at the time! Many times I have had to smile at the other browser pages visible, file names in a folder view, an ancient operating system still being used, snippets of personal e-mail visible or that nice pink and purple Windows theme!)

More information and some illustrations on my FAQICA blog.

Monday 5 April 2010

Feedback :)

Although some of these appear to be from earlier times, I am doing my best to keep the spirit of good marking and report-writing alive. (Feedback, being a screeching and wailing noise, is something I seem to receive from, rather than give to, parents and students.)
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Saturday 13 March 2010

A vision of students today (old but relevant)

Draft Blogger

Well done, Blogger! I have so often been tempted to move to another blog application where much smarter designs and simpler editing of the look and feel have been available. The choice of initial designs has been fixed since the year dot or shortly after until now . . .

Although still in 'draft' they say, Google have opened up some really smart developments for us bloggers with their Blogger Template Designer. Looks like I'll stick around a bit longer!

Have a look and start using this for your own blogs. Or go to Blogger in Draft and log in as usual. Have fun.

Friday 5 March 2010

When will they ever learn?

You know you're getting older when everyone in the audience appears younger than you are! Still, that helped my theme along a bit as I had an opportunity to get good minds a-thinking at Cambridge Regional College for a VLE Forum earlier today.

A last minute change of agenda meant that I got to speak earlier than expected so it was a relief to find the internet was nice and quick and my sample moodle site opened up reasonably quickly. Not as fast as my own site would have but I couldn't recall where I'd put the link on that one. I started by recalling a visit to Hertfordshire Regional College some weeks ago where the blisteringly fast speeds made web pages sort of snap at you and you seemed only to have to imagine a page and up it appeared.

Back in 2004 or thereabouts I had taken part in an end-of-event show entittled The Good the Bad and The Ugly in which I bemoaned the slow progress in getting some pretty simple ILT and e-learning ideas into the mainstream, especially with people who really should have been setting a good example.

I recalled:

VLE courses that were just lists of links to Word documents in blue text, interspersed with the occasional PowerPoint link, none of which would exactly open in a hurry or without umpteen further decision-making clicks on the way.

  • SharePoint coming on the scene but only being understood by pretty techy people who produced similarly long lists of blue text links for staff à la form for students' courses on a VLE. What was good enough for students must have been good enough for staff, I mused,
  • I recalled inboxes stuffed with huge 1MB attachments and sometimes several Word files attached to All Staff e-mails. Word documents staff were expected to complete and then save and return so that maybe 20 or 30 individual documents could then be combined in some way by some hapless secretary; Excel spreadsheets that tutors were expected to complete and return every month in order to update some central record that must have caused headaches for the ultimate recipient when he or she received 56 files with names like achievement[23].xls, achievement [22].xls and so on.
  • There were a few odd geeks like me around in 2004 who were creating web materials for students but not many and we were seen as a bit odd.
  • Portfolios were made of something called cardboard. Thick card which folder in such a way that, by placing sheets over two metal pillars stuck inside somehow, papers could be retained. The papers themselves needed to have holes punched in them by gadgets most people had somewhere other than where they looked first.

Ah, how times have changed, haven't they? Or have they?

Finally getting to the second slide of the presentation the screen changed to reveal a massive list of links to Word documents, so many on a VLE course that the complete list wouldn't fit on the screen print I'd taken. That was a current 2010 course I'd copied from a VLE I had seen. It wasn't at all unusual.

The third screen showed a staff intranet page made by IT Technicians using SharePoint. Another long, long list if tiny blue lines of underlined text, more links to hundreds of Word documents. That was a current 2010 page being used at another institution.

A fourth screen showed my own College e-mail inbox. Top of the list were files with attachments. Yes, things had changed here - the size. Two were over 7MB and several at 3 or 4MB! I recalled how I used to get messages from someone called System Administrator. System would write to tell me that I had exceeded my limit. Another click revealed yesterday's mail which included, yes, you've guessed . . Mr Administrator was still employed and still sending me the same message.

I wailed a bit about this as I tend to do when stuck for words (although I certainly couldn't have been stuck for Words). then, in the spirit of being helpful I went to slide five and illustrated how a VLE page could be a happier place altogether. Adding images would be a good start. There they were. Replacing Office documents with web documents would be a good move too. I showed people both the use of moodle web documents using text simply copied and pasted from Word and the lovely Google documents solution.

I emphasised how several people could be given permission to edit a single document using Google Docs and how the application would retain all the versions and changes and indicate who had done waht. It would be saved automatically and kept safe and sound my the mighty G team.

The multiple spreadsheet file nightmare could be solved by using an on-line spreadsheet too.

Then I showed how a presentation needn't be PowerPoint and how a mini version could be used to display ideas on a VLE, blog or web page. I was, indeed, using a Google Presentation there and then and had arrived with zero materials to plug in or worry about.

The penultimate slide was a recommendation that we should see these types of provision of materials and communication and the new 'basics'. There was nothing particularly complicated about using any of the tools now available and anyone who can find headers and footers on the Office 2007 ribbon in under 10 minutes would be able to do what I had done. The people at the meeting were those who could make a difference and help bring the new ideas to colleagues. Training programmes and staff development sessions on these topics could be fun as well as genuinely useful rather than merely ticking boxes on the latest Government educational 'initiative' compliance list.

But it isn't really our colleagues who need the real help. From what I could tell by observing a range of senior staff at work over the last few years it is the institutional leaders and even some heads of organisations supporting change who need to change the most. Because they haven't had anyone nagging them or insisting they include ILT in their 'lesson plans' for staff development, teacher training, academic board meetings, Startegic Annual reviews, statistics gathering and all the rest, or maybe just because they didn't feel comfortable with new ICT, many have fallen far behind or not moved an inch since the start of the Century.

Just as Government departments and various quangoes are now urging us to help Granny get connected, I suggested that we could do our bit by 'adopting an Executive' or 'supporting a Senior'. If we see something that can be improved by utilising the very same tools tutors are being exhorted to use then we should, as delicately and tactfully as we can, show them how they can demonstrate so much better practice.

Otherwise, now that they don't teach . . . when will they ever learn?

My thanks to JISC RSC Eastern for inviting me to speak at this event and for Cambridge Regional College for hosting such an excellent day, including a wonderful five course lunch! But that's another story.

Saturday 27 February 2010

Until Heads, Principals get it, use it, live it or retire much frustration continues

I have been invited to speak to some nice e-learning people at a JISC RSC forum in a few days and really would like to make an impact. I guess it's not going to change the world but I would like to do a bit more than just talk about web tools. For a while now I've been attending events, listening to students, watching developments at my College and others and seeing staff development activities come and go and I'm amazed at how little seems to have changed since I started looking at this in any detail back in 2003.

Yes, there are more smartboards in classrooms and the PCs seem to work a bit better and more equipment is available in staff rooms and classrooms. But I would have expected that to have happened anyway - as a sort of natural progression - what I can't detect is any significant shift in the enhancement of teaching and learning using the stuff, despite all the money poured in to various government agencies, some of which trickled out to institutions and despite all the effort made by some really talented and well-meaning e-learning advisors, guides, support people et al.

What appears on the smartboards or on the new screens is much as one would have expected from gradual progression too. But that seems to have ground to a halt with Moodle. It's been available for 5 or 6 years now but all students get from the vast majority of courses on the 'VLE' is a long list of links to Word documents or PowerPoint presentations. Click on one and you're waiting while the PC configures something or other and after a few minutes there's some tedious-looking Times New Roman or Arial spread across a sheet of A4 that doesn't fit the screen and a bundle of toolbars that are not exactly relevant to the content.  Go for the PowerPoint link and hold your breath as the excitement builds - will it be a new window or not? Will it start playing and advance at a rate faster than I can read or will it open with all menus blazing and invite me to skip the first five slides as I can see them to one side and they look uninteresting?

The presentations themselves seem largely to be text only, and far too much of it at that, and many slides appear pretty much as they did when the content was imprinted on a thermal transparency encased in a cardboard frame and displayed on the wall by some overhead projection device.

That really seems to be about it. Where are the images? Where are the web pages that load so much more quickly than Office-ware? Where are the news feeds and illustrated links to interesting support material? Often students simply print out the Office-ware and carry on as before which makes me wonder why on earth the tutor went to all the trouble to upload the stuff in the first place. Oh, statistics. Of course. I forgot. By logging in to the VLE management can get lots of lovely figures about how many students are using it, and how many tutors haven't visited the CPD section since 2007.

I know some well-intentioned managers who have wanted to spruce up the rather sad default display of courses or links to other pages by introducing icons, images related to content etc. and this has improved the visual side of things. The trouble is, it can take a while to set up and is a pain to change should any of the content pages be moved or should new ones be required. It's usually only a few members of staff that can do that sort of thing well anyway as it's not exactly straightforward.

Even if progress by staff generally has been gradual, it has been positively zooming in comparison to that of many senior managers. 'All staff' E-mails still come out with Word documents attached, often several and PDFs a-plenty. The inevitable presentation at a meeting is a PowerPoint, with only the nice new Office2007 backgrounds distinguishing them from years gone by. The handout, though, is still the familiar six-to-a-page sheet of mini slides that sets everyone looking for their glasses. Some more enlightened presenters do put the material on Moodle but, once again, it's the link as I've bemoaned above.

That, indeed, in my view is why so little has really changed in some institutions. Few senior managers, those who should be setting an example to others, who should inspire others, who, damn it, can afford to hire the staff to do so if they can't themselves, so few seem to use technology effectively themselves in either their 'teaching' staff or general communication. If Marketing or PR people haven't something handy then it's unlikely that there'll be any images in the communications. There's very little use of the VLE that staff are constantly being hounded to use. There's virtually zero evidence of any of them having any web presence themselves or being able to contribute to updating web content to share with staff or the world.

I remember, six years ago, showing a Principal's Secretary how using a blog could replace whole piles of minutes and notices and how her boss could use it too. The feed from the blog could have appeared as headlines on a web page or the VLE and people would think 'Wow! If he or she can do it then so can I'. Well a few might, at least. The blog is still live but the last entry was the first.

I remember showing another College manager how Google documents could be utilised in 2006 to allow several people to work together on a document. Instead of umpteen people battling with different versions of a spreadsheet and never knowing whether report[1].xls or report[3].doc was the right file to use, there would be one document on-line which was automatically saved and the latest edit shown. Everyone would know where they were and inboxes would be saved vast amounts of confusing attachments. The guy loved it but nothing ever happened.

Where these events occurred and I was the person trying to make the change then I feel as though I failed. I should have been more firm, insisting that they try the new ideas. I tried to show good examples and where other institutions did seem to move on a little I hoped that would help me implement change. It's funny - I never actually found out why senior staff didn't do it. I have a feeling it was a lack of confidence - having to ask for help may have been embarrassing, a fear of making a silly mistake when using the 'new' technology. They were the bosses, too. They had made it. They didn't need to impress anyone. No-one was going to threaten them. Old, familiar ways sort of worked still and only odd people like me seemed to object out loud. So nothing happened.

Now that they don't teach, will they ever learn?

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Friday 29 January 2010

Getting IT right and getting IT wrong

Interesting e-learning forum meeting at Broxbourne today. Wandering around the brand new college it was great to see plenty of spaces that students, or anyone else for that matter, could use with pcs and wireless access available across the building for those with the log-in details. They claim to have 'the fastest network speeds of any educational establishment in Europe' which wasn't something I could test although web pages certainly did snap at you, loading as fast as you could enter an address. In a funny way, I quite missed the small delay!

What I did particularly like, though, were the myriad facebook pages evident and the fact that the equipment was scattered and not limited to strict rows in a workshop. There were even comfy seats, sofas and I could well imagine students happily staying on there after the last timetabled session as opposed to rushing to get away as most tend to do in most places I'm aware of. Well done, all involved in planning there.

Sure, the small matter of £zillions being available so that one could start from scratch will have helped but I am certain these kind of areas could be created at other institutions, and the less restrictive attitude to where students go in their own time wouldn't cost anything except a few slices of humble pie to be eaten by those who keep maintaining that they have to block all blogs and social networking to, er, protect students. They do have filters in place for the nasty stuff but generally tutors are trusted to control where they visit in classrooms and the use of proxy browsers appears to be as close to nil as it'll ever get.

That cheered me which I did rather need as a lunchtime discussion was worrying. Another member of the forum was explaining how yet another compliance word now being spelled with a capital letter, safeguarding, had affected her day-to-day life at another college. Apparently she could not have students as 'friends' on social networking sites, she couldn't send e-mails from a private account, nor text from her own phone. Basically, she was told she mustn't communicate in any way with a student other than via an 'official' route and that included offering lifts as well, incidentally, and not for reasons that had anything to do with insurance. I presumed that it was OK to talk to them about something not directly associated with college but not so sure she wouldn't have had restrictions on that too!

The person in question was not some dodgy old bloke with a history of complaints from 16 year olds. It was a bright and cheery young lady dealing with students not a great deal younger than herself. Whatever the age or gender, though, this sort of misinterpretation of initially well-intended guidlines is dreadful. Clearly her institutional managers have decided to bolt down the hatches and have attempted to regulate themselves out of any possible issue but just what does that say about their trust in the decency of their staff? It says they have none, or worse: they presume that their staff will behave despicably unless controlled somehow.

It is so difficult to argue against this sort of thing. You get all sorts of looks and tut-tutting but someone has to. I am beginning to wonder if I might need safeguarding myself - against misguided policy-makers and the aspersions they'll be casting before long.