Friday 23 December 2011

Eight Out Of Ten Cats...

I first had this idea about a year ago. Now I'm beginning to see others saying similar things and, although I haven't quite got my head around exactly what I want to do, here's the gist of it. I see college students at various places where I work every day and must have about 100 at the moment that I'm teaching at some point or other through the week. (My remarks are a general summary of what I find overall and do not necessarily all relate to any one institution). Some students are bright, some have trouble understanding their timetable, never mind assignment instructions. Some arrive on time for their 9 o'clock session, most don't. Some actually do some useful work during the session. Most don't.

Now you're probably already shaking your fist at the screen or shouting at me something to the effect that this shows a good number have no respect for the college rules, me or that they should be disciplined, thrown off the course and that it's all my fault. If I were a better tutor or course manager then everything in the garden would be lovely...

I have, therefore, asked them for some honest reasons as to why they either arrive late and my colleagues for similarly honest reasons as to why the ones that struggle are on the course in the first place. I knew the answers already but it was good to get confirmation. All many students really want to do is stay on a course for as long as they can or until they get a job. They want to go to university next and that will allow a further extension before they really will have to start working full-time. Few have any real hope of getting a decent full-time job when they leave school so they come to college. Those that might have done well at job interviews are probably the ones who also got good grades at school and so could either go straight to university instead or are the few bright sparks who I've got, with grades that were just not quite good enough so they're doing A level equivalent courses at college and then hoping to go to university.

By far the majority didn't do very well at school, maybe scraped through a few GCSEs and now are scraping through another batch of subjects at college. Several at one place had wanted to do something other than what they're enrolled on but the department managers in that area had got their act together and insisted on decent GSCEs and references before taking students on. So the students tried a department where tutors were instructed to take almost anyone because the numbers enrolled had to meet some target. Not meeting the target would mean fewer teaching hours and so fewer tutors. Someone also said that the college has a pastoral role, care in the community and all that. If they didn't take them they'd be roaming the streets so they were doing the local community a service. Some students had some pretty dodgy behaviour history too and, if their parents weren't going to show them some good practice then that was the college's role too. So we finish up with a class comprising a few who genuinely want to study that subject and have the right attitude and a load that don't really and haven't.

Because their parents get quite considerable tax breaks or income support for them remaining in full-time education, and some do still get an Educational Maintenance Allowance or similar weekly payment for attending too, there is massive pressure at home for them to be a college student. Some I've spoken to would, in fact, be content doing some part-time work and gaining some experience in the real world, even tedious jobs, but their parents insist that they stay at college. So stay they do. They've worked out that it is almost impossible to remove them from a course unless they behave absolutely ridiculously badly and, although some can be a pain, they know how to play the game and don't cause trouble on the premises. They've also worked out that they don't need to attend many classes to pass the course. They just need to do a pile of assignments. There are a lot of assignments but no exams so, as long as they hand something in sometime before June that is good enough to get past the basic criteria then that's all that's needed and, remarkably sometimes, they do finally come in with what's required although quite where they've got it from is often a question not easily answered.

Of course, passing, say a level 2 course means that they can move on next year to a level 3 course. That lasts another two years so colleges have got them for three years at least. That's money in the bank for the college, for their parents and a qualification to boot that can probably then get them into one of the less concerned universities where they'll have another three years not having to worry about getting a job and support continuing to trickle into the home too.

Commands from on high about attendance targets and success rates pervade all that tutors do. If someone has them missing attendance ticks from the register then they get hauled before panels and get planted on some action plan form or another that is supposed to correct things. So now tutors don't bother. As long as they see them at some point in the day and know they're alive then they're there and their attendance figures look exemplary. They may not get the maintenance grants (as no-one will sign those unless they turn up) but there are rather fewer of those now and the sums are less significant too.

For success rates, with everyone staying the course and handing in bare pass material then job done, 100% thank you very much. Well, there's always one or two who do drop out, move home, get arrested or something so it's nearer 80-90% but that's OK. The college can publish reasonable figures and everyone's happy.

Except they're not. The bright sparks who want to study and learn more in lessons don't get a chance to when the others are around. Either there's too much noise, not enough pcs or the tutor is constantly having to ask some to stop playing games, turn off the phone, demand explanations of why they are they late etc. Some actually quite like it when the others are really late or don't turn up at all. For example, I can get on really well and move some of the students way forward and discuss progress properly with them. Not all my colleagues, understandably however, allow the others that flexibility and the good ones suffer as a result.

So the others are not so happy either. I may ignore the passenger students and basically let them play the game but they have a rough time with colleagues who don't. So those colleagues don't have the best of days when they're teaching that group either where many just reluctantly sit in the sessions waiting for break time.

All in all, this is a disaster. Something has to change and this is what I'd like to do. Sweep away the classrooms, the timetables and even some of the courses too. Enrol everyone on a new type of programme that provides the skills that employers demand nowadays, in fact have been demanding for years but we don't seem to do a great deal about it. In their first year they do the basics, Maths, English, communication skills and the like plus some other useful modules that may be pertinent to their general career direction. Then they move on to the specific modules related to what they want to achieve. More often than not these would be shaped by employers because they would be helping to fund the education and offering to take some of them on at the end. So, where this applied, the students would be learning what the employers needed them to learn as a priority.

This programme could be a variation of a foundation degree in the UK for many of the existing level 3 candidates currently doing BTEC National Diploma type programmes which seem to be the bedrock for so many Further Education institutions. Attendance ceases to be an issue because the vast majority of learning can take place on-line, at home or wherever. When they want to learn, where they want to learn at a pace they want to learn at. I would suggest that regular 'workshops' are arranged whereby the tutors do meet the students face-to-face and can assist them individually with their progress or specific queries. This is the Work Based learning model that I have seen used effectively at Middlesex University and could be adapted with a little imagination and effort.

Existing institutions could run this type of programme with rooms cleared of pcs and clutter, furnished as pleasant enviornments where tutors and students can chat as well as work, using laptops, tablets, wireless networks etc. as well as a few pcs or macs. Only those institutions that could prove that they can work in the community with local employers to deliver what was required, though, would get the business so I guess many might close. This opens the door to other types of organisation to offer them instead and I don't see any big problem with that, provided that they can set up the appropriate quality controls over assessment and employ the staff to run things.

That brings me to the other matter - that of quality. Once the ridiculous, and, honestly they are laughable, targets and benchmarks for Further Education are binned then we can start to see both honest assessment and students passing because they genuinely have done what they should have done and all the nonsense about attendance and shouting at students who don't turn up at 9am or can't concentrate at 10:15am for some reason virtually disappears. Those who want to learn and get on will do, some quickly, some not so quickly - it's up to them to a large extent. With some guidance they manage their own learning. The quality of such figures as are produced will also be sound as there should be fewer reasons to want to fiddle them. Local competing institutions might even decide to work together. Good grief, that would be different!

Lastly, students on this type of programme would be free to work as and when they wished. As well as providing some much-needed income for themselves and, I suppose, their parents, they could be learning so much more about what work is actually like and, who knows, even get that thing about getting to places on time, behaving responsibly and even getting certain tasks completed on time! Just like they are constantly being asked to do at a college but which few actually ever seem to manage to achieve willingly. Employment is the answer to a lot of things. Employers can sack them. Tutors can't. Employers can offer real incentives that they recognise. Tutors can't. Employers can offer a tangible, realistic prospect of a future. Tutors can't.

So I would like to ask anyone out there who thinks they could support a Universal Foundation Degree programme along these lines to get in touch and, especially, to see whether there are any commercial organisations who might represent potential financial backers at the outset as setting this up takes time and money. I have a few expert e-learning colleagues who are interested in joining me with possible designs for modules that could be validated by a university to deliver some of the foundation modules referred to. Naturally, there will be a mass of other modules required to meet a wide range of future progression needs but, to a large extent, these ought to be available through tweaking of existing course units, modules or whatever.

After briefly outlining the idea to a group of 40 or so students some time ago, at least half of them said that they would have preferred to study that way if they had had the choice. Of the rest, they were evenly divided between those who liked the discipline and organisation of college as it stood and wanted to remain in a school-like environment. The others said they didn't mind, provided that they weren't worse off and could still get a qualification (and I'm not sure they were paying that much attention to what I was saying!) So my guess is that about 8 out of 10 of eligible students would, in fact, go for it - if the funding or grants were there. There does exist funding for part-time Foundation Degree programmes through Finance England but that is related to family income so its not ideal but I suspect there are other sources that those in the know might be able to tap to make such a venture feasible.

As I said, it's time for a change, and hopefully one where I can help make a difference!

Thursday 22 December 2011

£14 million for Analysis, Thematics and Networks, £14000 for an Intern

Surely some of us can get together and apply for some of this huge amount money that is floating around Government departments and The European Commission? This is in addition to the last lot mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago. It would be easy to grumble about wasting our money but why not actually get some and do something useful with it before somebody else does? And, of course, include me in the deal somewhere!

Local Enterprise Partnership Capacity FundDepartment for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)

The Fund now has a broad objective of supporting LEPs to address the issues that will best help them deliver local growth. A share of £3 million funding can be used to support a range of activities, including the following:
  • Analysis of existing economic data or intelligence to help LEPs prioritise the activities to engage in.
  • Analysis of new or emerging industries or clusters.
  • Analysis of potential barriers and collection of new economic data. This may include analysis of data that already exists on a local authority level, on an LEP level.
  • Training for board members.
  • Facilitating SME engagement with the partnership.
  • Identifying economic benefits of working between LEPs on infrastructure issues or sectoral priorities.
ACTION! 2012 (UK)Working Title FilmsA full-time intern placement and bursary award to give individuals vital experience and exposure through working in an international production company. The bursary award is £14,000. 

Applicants should be eligible to work within the UK and have some experience in the film development and production sector and a proven commitment to a career in the industry. The internship will take place on a full-time basis for one year. Interviews will be held in London during in the spring. The deadline for receipt of applications is 17 February 2012 at 5pm.

EUROPE FOR CITIZENS 2007-2013The European CommissionActive Citizens for Europe
Town twinning citizens' meetings - indicative budget of €6.1 million.

Networks of twinned towns - indicative budget of €4.5 million

Citizens' projects - indicative budget of €1.3 million

Support measures - indicative budget of €805,000.

Active Civil Society in Europe - support for projects initiated by civil society organisations - indicative budget of €2.8 million.

Active European Remembrance - indicative budget of €2.4 million.

URBACT IIThe European CommissionThematic coverage for this Call includes a series of topics related to the Europe 2020 strategy for innovative, sustainable and inclusive cities. Project proposals must select from one of the following topics:

Innovative cities1. Promoting innovation and the knowledge economy.
2. Promoting social innovation.
3. Promoting employment and supporting labour mobility.
4. Promoting entrepreneurship.

Sustainable cities1. Developing low carbon and energy-efficient urban economies.
2. Enhancing urban planning performance and an efficient public administration.

Inclusive cities1. Promoting the active inclusion of specific groups.
2. Fostering regeneration of deprived neighbourhoods and combating poverty.

The total eligible budget for a Thematic Network is €800,000.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Money, money everywhere (if you can cope with the paperwork!)

New Energy Efficiency Funding
The Department of Energy and Climate ChangeUp to £50,000 is available for each successful community to be used to help assess the potential for energy efficiency and local renewable energy generation in their locality. Organisations including parish councils, voluntary associations, development trusts and faith groups are all eligible to apply.

Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
EU Charter of Fundamental RightsThe available funding consists of an indicative amount of €20.97 million. Grant applications must be for a minimum of €75,000, for up to 80% of overall eligible project costs for one or more of these topics:
  • Informing on where the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights applies and where to turn to if fundamental rights are violated (CFR).
  • Promoting the Rights of the Child (RoC).
  • Combating racism, xenophobia and antisemitism (RXAS).
  • Fighting Homophobia: Enhanced/improved understanding and tolerance (HMPB).
  • Training and networking between legal professions and legal practitioners (TRAI)
  • Citizenship
  • Participation in the democratic life of the Union (DEMO).
  • Raise awareness about Union citizenship and the rights attached to it and identify obstacles to their effective exercise (CITI).
  • Raise awareness and improve knowledge about the EU rules on free movement, in particular Directive 2004/38/EC (FREE).
  • Facilitate sharing of knowledge and exchange of best practices on acquisition and loss of Union citizenship (BPoC).
  • Address the gender imbalance in participation in the European Parliament elections (GEND).
  • Data protection and privacy rights
  • Training and awareness raising on data protection including general information on the fundamental right to the protection of personal data and awareness-raising campaigns.
  • Improving practical cooperation between Data Protection Authorities.
  • Reinforcing children's privacy in the online environment.
  • Identifying and tackling the challenges posed by new technologies for the fundamental right to data protection.
  • Technological and organisational means to improve data protection compliance.
and, for supporting the functioning of non-profit organisations in this field, €1.6 million is available and grants can for up to 80% of the total eligible cost of the Forecast Operating Budget, up to a maximum of €250,000.

Community Buying ChallengeDepartment for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) A £60,000 initiative has been launched by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Co-operatives UK to promote community buying models. The competition is open to groups and organisations within the public, voluntary or business sectors. Awards will be made to support training, mentoring and seed funding for stand out projects, with a £15,000 prize available for an overall winner.

Daphne Programme (2007-2013)The European CommissionThe available funding consists of an indicative amount of €25.83 million. Applications for a minimum grant of €75,000, for up to 80% of overall eligible project costs, are invited.Projects under this Call should focus on the following priorities:
  • Rights of victims of violence.
  • Violence linked to harmful practices.
  • Children as victims and perpetrators of violence.
  • Perpetrator programmes and interventions.
  • Training programmes for professionals in contact with victims.
  • Empowerment work at grass-roots level.
  • Media violence, particularly violence linked to new technology and social networking tools.
Projects require a partnership of two organisations from two different Member States. Public or private organisations and institutions, such as NGOs, local authorities and university departments are eligible to apply.

Clore Award for Museum LearningThe Art Fund Prize & Clore Award for Museum LearningThe single award of £10,000 will be presented in June 2012. Entries are accepted from across the whole range of museum and gallery learning activities, including but not restricted to schools, colleges, or community settings. Projects and initiatives which were launched or mainly took place during the calendar years 2010 or 2011 are eligible

Europe for Citizens 2007-2013
The European Commission
  • Town twinning citizens' meetings, indicative budget of €6.1 million.
  • Networks of twinned towns; indicative budget of €4.5 million
  • Citizens' projects; indicative budget of €1.3 million
  • Support measures; indicative budget of €805,000.
  • Support for projects initiated by civil society organisations; indicative budget of €2.8 million.
  • Active European Remembrance; indicative budget of €2.4 million.

Film Networks Fund
Creative England Funding is available towards a range of activities including:

  • provision of editorial and technical support for emerging talent looking to produce work;
  • delivery of networking;
  • screening and industry speaker events and master classes; and
  • provision of peer-to-peer support, mentoring, training and advice.
The Film Networks Fund is a fixed call with £150,000 to award in the current round. Awards will range from £2,500 to £25,000. Applications can be made by legally constituted organisations operating in the English regions (outside Greater London); and legally constituted organisations operating outside the English regions that wish to develop and deliver activity in the English regions (outside Greater London).

Daphne Programme
The European Commission
supporting the functioning (operating costs) of non-profit organisations - such as voluntary associations, foundations and NGO's - pursuing activities which contribute to the objectives of the specific programme DAPHNE III.

A total budget of €3 million is available and grants can be for up to 80% of the total eligible cost of the Forecast Operating Budget, up to a maximum of €250,000 for the financial year 2012.

Sunday 13 November 2011

If you need Learning Technology advice or expertise...

With LSN now in administration this may be a good time to remind anyone out there looking for Learning Technology skills or advice that I am available! Backed by some colleagues with many years' experience in industry, FE and HE (and with the JISC RSC Eastern Region E-learning Forum to consult if you have something really difficult for us!), you may find it reassuring that we don't pay ourselves the £160,000 a year that LSN paid John Stone.

The new E-people Consortium web site was something I was going to put together over the next month or so. I think I'd better do that this week now!

We can advise on anything LSN could do. So, if you've been let down or were thinking of asking them for help, contact me instead:

Friday 11 November 2011

It's time for a change

With several good minds in e-learning being made redundant in HE and FE institutions recently I would like to set up a consortium of these bright and smart people to provide advice and practical assistance to schools, colleges, universities here in the UK and, where practical, anywhere else that can make it worth our while.

For too long now big firms like Capita and the like have dominated the scene and many colleagues will be familiar with the clunky and poorly designed interfaces, the cost of those extra packages needed to ensure that one set of data can be merged with another and trying to meet management requests for reports by techniques like highlighting a load of columns on the screen and copying and pasting them into a spreadsheet so that they can actually do something useful with them.

Moodle provided FE Colleges, in particular, with an opportunity to escape from the costly clutches of WebCT but, for many, has merely remained a kind of repository of Word and PowerPoint files in long lists broken by the occasional heading. Despite all the enthusiasts and well-meaning support and, indeed the good intentions of its creators and developers, virtual learning environments have remained precisely that - virtual learning environments, an environment where learning might take place but doesn't really. VLEs were all the rage back in 2002, like smartboards, when the British Government handed out substantial chunks of money to institutions to develop what was then called ILT or Information Learning Technology. We had Becta, LSDA, Ferl, NLN, CEL, NLN and a whole alphabet soup of similar bodies with similar aims, all offering conferences in nice hotels and many recruiting Regional Co-ordinators and E-Guides or Subject Something-or-others. I was one, seconded to LSDA and had a marvellous time touring the many institutions in my region spreading the e-learning gospel and handing out grants for projects. With NLN Learning Technologies Team I even got to work with some Education Department officials and began to comprehend how to get money allocated to fund our ideas for what we could do next.

With AoC in 2004 I was particularly pleased to lead the development of a scheme whereby staff in institutions could buy a nice new computer or laptop and get the cost deducted from their salary, thereby saving a very handsome 30% or more by way of income tax and other savings. That started brilliantly but having to put together a 78-page bid document to ensure that the whole thing met all the EC legislative requirements meant enthusiasm stalled and, although it did get launched, the company acting as go-between twixt people and the suppliers gave up the ghost and Labour withdrew the tax relief shortly afterwards.

I have written and spoken a lot already about how little real change there seems to have been, though, in the classroom. Apart from a projector and smartboard, and more computers, many institutions still don't seem to have got it, or if they had, they haven't moved with the times much since. So many tutors still get told to 'put it on moodle' so students have to scroll through tedious-looking lists of Office document links which take an age to open. That's all anyone has taught many tutors to do - upload a document so it is an understandable failing. We need pictures, links to web pages and fast-loading material, not Microsoft Office files. We need some variety so that tutors can do things their way and display material independently, without lots of notes and training, and in a style that they choose rather than being obliged to follow some house style created by someone in Marketing who really only meant to set rules for adverts and posters, not every ruddy document produced by anyone at the place.

We need assignments that are easy to read and understand so there's a chance that students will actually read them and not merely point to a screen and ask the tutor what they're supposed to do. We need systems whereby students can drop work off on-line instead of printing a myriad copies - but not one that refuses to accept anything that isn't on its very short list of acceptable formats.

What we don't need are more and more computers strewn around classrooms, usually arranged so that once the students have sat down the tutor is left staring at a load of backs and heads and shoulders silhouetted against bright screens. Once, yes, I was arguing for more and more equipment to be available in classrooms but now we can move on from there. Wireless networks aren't the on-off affairs they once were and seem to run whatever is thrown at them just as fast as anyone wants. Laptops, tablets and pads take up little space and don't restrict anyone to where they sit, or, for that matter, even which part of the building they actually get taught in. By all means leave a few pcs or macs whirring in the rooms - and, of course, changing to portable devices would imply that all those barren places can now have one too! - but nowadays every space can be a learning space, and every room a 'well-equipped' classroom.

One of the barriers to tutors' advance on the e-learning front has been the fact that so many still don't teach in places where students have access to computers so, whilst those that are with it may get them to use their phones or refer them to addresses to check out at home, in the library or ICT suite later, they don't get the instant in-class benefit of having lots of goodies on hand to display as and when the mood or lesson plan takes them. This could be bashed down in one move.

My heart actually sinks now when I walk in to a brand new multi-million pound establishment classroom and am greeted by the backs of 50 black Dell monitors and, worse, boxes and cables linking everything together in some sad spaghetti world. Where a few weeks earlier had been a delightful, well-lit living and learning space with notice boards still with rectangular profiles and a carpet not decorated by random chewing gum splodges there is now just a mass of machines, chairs and work surfaces like some old office furniture store.

New technology means that we can provide attractive, comfortable space for learning. We can take account of what kit the students themselves bring in and like to use. If that's a phone then we need to work with phones more. If it's a laptop then we need to allow them to tap into our wireless networks and if that means beefing up the security to cope with all that invasion of IT Services' privacy then so be it. They've had a good time secreted in a room far away from the main show for long enough.

It's not particularly expensive these days either. Even if institutions have now spent all their grants and extra ILT funds on this and that or him and her then we're mainly talking about refurbishment and x new bits of kit which shouldn't represent that great a chunk out of the income each full-time student generates. And if the profit really isn't there then I suggest that senior management aren't doing their job effectively so lose one which should pay for 1000 laptops.

There are also still grants and project funds galore out there if you look. It's hard work digging them out and often the deadline for bids is a matter of days away by the time you find it. Universities have lots of bids they can apply for from organisations like JISC as well as the heavier and difficult to comprehend European stuff which appears to be continuing apace regardless of the demise of the countries' economies in the EC. HE is supposed to work with FE on many of these projects but usually have, er, a 'special relationship' with just one institution and all the others seldom get a look-in. And if you're really keen then there's always something available for those politically-correct minority projects which could be tweaked to suit what you have in mind with a bit of imagination.

Tutors aren't going to have time to do all this and curriculum managers are getting scarce these days as belts get tightened and they're the least able to justify their office desks and secretaries. So it's down to the senior management team to get on with this but they can only do so if they actually comprehend what e-learning and the technology itself is really all about. Now that, regrettably, is where all the policies, initiatives and Blair money has almost totally failed. I would say 'utterly' rather than 'almost' were it not for the fact that I do know one or two brilliant minds and enthusiastic people who have made it to the top table and one or two one-time good tutors or curriculum managers have even been promoted and can now bring some common sense and new thinking at their meetings. Most of the 2006 SMT crowd, however, now have very respectable salaries and training in all sorts of areas useful for their own career advancement but have managed to avoid technology for the last 5 years. You only have to to see the e-mail Word attachments, PowerPoints at meetings (and that, indeed is what all their presentations are as few have dared venture into non-Microsoft land) and occasional forays into distributing an Excel file for others to update and send back, to be able to make a pretty accurate assessment of their own skills and confidence in using new technology.

So who is going to promote new thinking when the risk of their own lack of competence at worst or understanding at best is highly likely to be out there for all to see? One or two questions from well-informed staff is all it takes to blow a hole in the poor well-dressed people's veneer. Even those with a determined personality and appropriately thick skin, and especially those with an appealing honesty in admitting they're not as good as they know they ought to be these days, need a stuff drink or to restart a smoking habit before embarking on and leading the business of making a change.

But change there must be. And that's where my colleagues and I hope to be able to help.

1. Recognise things need improving.
2. Accept that you don't really know what you're talking about when it comes to technology and e-learning.
3. Appoint us to get you some money and start the process and maybe locate some experts at your place.
4. Get on with what you are good at.
5. Take the credit later and give up drink and fags again.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Learning Styles

Nice Infographic on the Mindflash site. I expect their course building tool costs a lot but it's worth a visit for the pics.

Education Planner have a simple on-line assessment questionnaire if you're not sure what type you or your students are. I made another one in Excel years ago and here's a Google Documents version that's a bit clunky but gives you an idea. I'll try a Google Form when I get a spare moment. That ought to work better as long as I can find a way to show results, of course.

Friday 4 November 2011

Google and Microsoft need to talk. For the kids' sake, at least.

Am I the only one who loves mini Google presentations but is now struggling actually to show them to anyone in Internet Explorer? I have them in iframes all over the place: on blog pages, moodle VLE pages and wherever else they might come in handy should I need to make a quick summary of something in class.

This is how one of them should look:

Since when they first appeared clunkily on the scene many e-learning years ago I've been telling everyone how brilliant they are. Now I feel a fool and probably look a bit stupid too when I'm there at the front of the class or a conference somewhere where IE rules (usually an academic institution of some sort) and behind me is a message announcing to everyone that 'This content cannot be displayed in an iframe' next to a large red cross symbol. No not the ambulance one - the Access Denied type.

Luckily my blog viewers are also now unable to see how stupid I really am as my new Google+ profile image is just a little box with the red x that we all were once so familiar with in the 90s days of web image upload mistakes or sheer sluggishness of connections.

Then there's the problem with Google's lovely new charts that simply don't appear at all! Now, in a way, this is slightly less embarrassing than the message as my class or audience may not actually see that they're missing, just conclude that I've hit the return key a few too many times or that my text had been hijacked by Microsoft's other missile in the software wars, Word's default spacing in 2007 on.

The post should look like this:

So where have the charts gone? Why can't IE display them, or, at least try.

Back to my presentation problem. Internet Explorer offers the choice of opening the aforementioned presentation in a new window. OK, I'll give that a try...

Oh boy. What on earth are we supposed to make of this message? 

It really does take a minute or two to figure out what on earth that means. You try. (And I think I'm someone who is fairly quick too so Lord help some of my colleagues!)

It turns out that it doesn't matter in the slightest which you click...

Because the window stays black. Completely black. I gave up trying to make any sense of the Help window too.

Unless I am being very, very stupid indeed I am sure there must be others out there who are getting as confused as I am and, no doubt, wondering what on earth to do. We should be told, don't you think. If all this is due to Google advancing at a rate of knots with which Microsoft can't keep up, or, more worryingly, a deliberate refusal by Microsoft to facilitate Google display in a pleasant an efficient manner so that users may be obliged to blow the dust of their 365 documentation then it is, perhaps encumbent upon both to talk to each other. For the sake of the kids. At a conference I can usually demand Chrome in advance or, if stuck in IE, get some laughs and sympathy and think of something else to keep them occupied. I can't do that with an Ofsted inspector gazing at me from a corner of the room as will be the case on umpteen occasions next week. Heeeelllpp!!

[I am hoping someone will see this and tell me I have been stupid and a simple change here or there will fix it. If so, then I will instantly publish the news and apologise to both G and Big Blue.]

Saturday 29 October 2011

Here comes the $35 tablet!

Aakash Tablet from Venturebeat on Vimeo.

Well, if you're at school in India, that is. Even allowing for a Government subsidy of about $20 this is one cheap solution that works and will enable millions more children to see what we see and take for granted on our notebooks, pcs and tablets that cost ten times as much.

Yes, our kit may look cooler, work a bit faster, even have the seemingly essential letter i at the start of the model name but...

... the information we all access remains the same.

Thanks to Robert Rendl, a thinker at, Vienna, for sharing this initially.

Monday 24 October 2011

Monday 17 October 2011

Daughter's algebra homework takes me back to school

My daughter is smart but was understandably grumpy with some very tiresome algebra homework. The trouble is I love numbers and my enthusiasm for solving even the alien-looking display of letters, symbols, lots of brackets and superscript probably annoyed more than helped her. I can just imagine today's conversation at break:

"Did you do your maths homework?"
"No. Daddy did."
"OMG. What, without getting cross or reminding you how useful algebra will be?"
"Well, he didn't get cross but he did do the 'it'll be really useful' thing. He seemed to quite enjoy it, actually."

It had been a while since I'd had to do battle with x² and y³ but I really do think her school could have come up with more pleasant exercises - or at least less cumbersome answers that made you think you simply must have done something wrong when the last line of 'simplification' looked a damn sight more complex than the expression we'd started with!

Anyway, for some reason that I can't really explain, but I'll blame her for it, I woke up this morning trying to figure out how to slice a triangle so that the area of the small triangle at the top is one-half of the original area.

So the pink triangle above has 1/2 of the area of the bigger one.

What I wanted to know was where to draw the dotted line. Now there'll be people reading this who can just shout out the answer but I had to work it out. At one point I even looked up sine, cosines and tans on Google as I'd forgotten which was which. The answer, which I think is right, is delightfully simple (and that's the sort of problem Royal Latin School should be giving my daughter). You divide the original height by the square root of 2.

Then I had another thought. What height would a triangle with just a third of the area be? Ah - divide the height by the square root of 3! Brilliant. Ooops, no, surely, that can't be a series developing, can it? Because the next number is 4, so to make a small triangle with just one quarter of the original area would, if my thing were correct, simply mean having one half the height as the square root of 4 which is a nice, friendly number, 2, rather than some weird one with piles of never ending decimal places.

(The fact that I could, in those instances, never actually precisely measure where to draw the ruddy line did disturb me but I decided to leave that, together with why I can't measure a third of an inch properly, to another day.)

A picture helped me convince myself that I wasn't being silly.

So, with a little bit of algebra (I gave up on the trigonometry) I've discovered that you can make a smaller triangle of whatever proportion to the original just by diving the original height by the square root of whatever the fraction is to be. Along the way fractals made an appearance too when I played with numbers like 16 and 25. That's another story I'll share in a while.

And if my daughter is still struggling, there's always the excellent Khan Academy!

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Goggles at the Zoo

Holding a Staff Conference in a zoo was, of course, bound to lead to a few jokes but what a great place! Whilst networking between sessions has its value, we did, actually have plenty of time to chat over lunch and on a mild autumn day it didn't seem to have as much value as wandering around and finding muntjacks crossing the path or ring tailed lemurs on the other side of a hedge. Add an ape or two, owls and some other exotic birds and some good exercise and you had a good reason to leave the discussions for a while.

Still remembering the Google Goggles presentation from a few days ago at the E-learning Forum this was also a great opportunity to put it to the test. I mean, I had no idea what the muntjack were but Google Goggles told me. This was the first time I'd used the software which had gradually downloaded itself the day before when I was in an area with a rather better connection than I have at home. It really is dead simple to get for Android users, taking care of its own download and installation with little more than the occasional tap on OK - and it's free. I had no idea how to work it but needn't have worried. You just tap the icon and it fires up instantly, presenting you with a camera like view and, assuming the camera's pointing in the right direction, another tap on an icon takes a snap and sets off the scanner. The scanner is a blue faded line that whooshes across the screen (and up and down sometimes too for reasons best known to itself). That takes a while and, once it's done you get told either that it doesn't recognise what you and it have seen or it does and then provides a bundle of similar images and some data which can be clicked to provide whatever else you want to know.

I clearly need more practice at aiming as most of my efforts, especially the ones where others were watching and I was hoping to show off , produced the unrecognised response. So more about that when I get a bit more success and maybe stop shaking when I press the buttons!

Unless I had something else running that I wasn't aware of it does seem to eat into my battery life, though and, from a full charge in the morning the bleep that tells me it's shutting down through lack of power (and, frustratingly, doesn't give me any time to grab a charger and do the decent thing to revive it) comes at about 7pm. That's not too good. Just as well I didn't make any calls or use the phone to make notes or do any research during the day or I'd have been lucky to make it home.

Something else I discovered after almost a year with this phone was that I could zoom in on things with the normal camera. I feel such a fool and must have missed, or not bothered taking, loads of potentially good snaps before! I had an ape in view and accidentally pressed what would normally be the volume control. And I'm now staring the fellow in the eye as if I'm a few inches away! Remarkable.

Some interesting developments with FE on the horizon and, for the first time for a while, I have some real hope that I may have a chance to express some views and constructive suggestions and actually have them considered. More on that another time. For now I have to deal with the problems that Staff Conference days do bring: 34 new e-mails to do something with (and that's after archiving those that are just for reading some day), figuring out what a new HNC course is all about and gathering enough information to ensure that I appear reasonably informed for a new group starting tomorrow and assorted personal matters like advising on increasingly difficult children's homework (I have already abandoned hope of being any use at all on my 15 year old daughter's Biology and Chemistry is virtually at the edge of my comprehension too). I seem to recall that the Khan Academy had some courses - looks like I'll be going back to school there again soon! Then there's the matter of liaising with the nice Edufire people who want me to do a Helping Students Succeed course soon, following up on a bundle of interested enquiries about my Staff ICT Skills Audit and then there's the E-learning Consortium to set up. Twitter and Google+ will ahve to wait another day by the seems of it. Hope I'm not missing too much. They have become my Daily News. Oh, and I nearly forgot ... dinner.

Monday 10 October 2011

Tutors need to shut up and listen too

"We are looking into different ways to survey students to capture the 'learner voice'". Saw this on a Curriculum Champions Forum and I was about to reply with the usual survey webtools ideas when I stopped and thought a little more. Just what is this 'learner voice'?

A few years ago I remember a Quality Manager getting very excited about something called Learners' Voice which seems pretty similar apart from the capitals and a slightly more appropriate s and apostrophe at the end. A few days later the place was filled with Learners Voice (sic) posters and before we knew it this had become a compulsory item in tutorials and things called SARS where we take a guess at what grade a Department will get next year.

Now the Quality Manager concerned was genuinely interested in getting learners' views on what was going well and, I suppose, albeit a little more reluctantly, in what wasn't, but once the concept became an item that could be put on an agenda like Every Child Matters, Equality & Diversity and so on it all became rather drab. Previously enthusiastic tutors got forms to fill in. They were told off if they didn't get them in by certain deadlines. Presentations were issued to guide us and, basically, try to persuade students that when they did fill in the questionnaires that were now being developed left, right and centre they remembered to, er, say the right things.

Each group had to have a Course Representative. Now I have always thought that a better name would be an Of Course Representative because you can just guess who'll get elected. Few people tend to offer themselves up for the job, especially after they've been given a pile of assignments, and the ones that do will be those who prefer talking to listening and it gives them a chance to have a good moan about the premises, too many assignments, equipment or a tutor - and they'll do precisely that. It may or may not be the general view of the group. It can be pretty difficult to tell sometimes as some in the group are so quiet and really do just want to get on with the job in hand as best they can with whatever tools they've got available. A bit like tutors really. We could all go to meetings and say that we could do a much better job with this equipment or that application but it wouldn't make much difference. A decent manager will know that already and if he can squeeze the extra cost - and there's always an extra cost somewhere, even when you don't think there ought to be - out of his boss then he will have done so. A decent tutor will similarly know what changes, improvements, developments or whatever would make life, social as well as academic, better for the students. They'll have asked for them already. So whilst it can be nice to have another body asking for the same things, (and the current view is that students get listened to more than tutors), I am not convinced that much actually changes as a result that wouldn't have happened anyway.

Before the Learners' Voice got its capitals, tutors still knew what students thought, their concerns and their desires. All that seems to have happened is that it has become enshrined as Good Practice, got its own page in the Manual and, of course, ticks an OFSTED box. What seems to have become important is the process - the collection of views rather than listening to them or doing anything about them. Yes, against each statement there'll be an Action Point and against each Action Point there'll be a set of Initials for whoever has to do something by whatever Date goes in the last column. But smart managers will always put in there things that they had in train anyway so that it is no extra work to record action being taken. It's all a procession of evidence now. If we really listened to the learners' voices then we'd hear all sorts of little things that the Of Course Representative isn't going to bring up at a meeting with an agenda and Action Points. But those little things, people chatting about this or that to do with their course or tutor, wishing they could have this or that a bit earlier or later - these are the things that actually could make a difference and are what managers should be hearing. Not the selected sentences or big issues but the casual comments - that's what may tell you or colleagues something new about how the group feels.

So, to answer the Forum post: simply watch and listen, and let the students feel that you are genuinely listening to their voices. Your phone is likely to be a great tool, just tap the video button and record some of them telling you what they think about the course, the environment, tutors etc. Or if they don't like being filmed, record just the audio. Or just get them to share comments with you on a blog or VLE. Freestyle. If you try and structure it all then the originality and flow of comments can cease and they'll be thinking before they speak and it'll get a bit average and grey. Except for the Of Course types. They'll have plenty to say whatever you do! But you'll get a bit more balance this way.

Now, having got all these wonderful, probably rather amateur-looking or -sounding files, what do you do with them? Management and Marketing will adore the positive stuff and will gladly take that off your hands and you may even get back some clips to put on your own programme VLE or blogs. The bits where they're moaning and groaning about things? Oh dear, such a shame that the quality wasn't very good or you forgot to set the volume properly, wasn't it? Never mind. I'm sure you'll put anything important on an agenda for a meeting sometime.

Augmented banality

By the end of today I need to have some initial materials for nine new units or modules ready for students. You guys teaching Maths or History don't know how lucky you are that, for a large extent, the content is pretty constant. I've got to cover some at Level 2, some Level 3 and for a new HNC programme a couple of modules at Level 4 in things like web development or the impact of IT on business where, even if the technology hadn't changed much (which it has!) there are brand new sets of criteria that students have to meet this year so even if I had done it last year my stuff would need changing and, for the ones I have taken over, the last chap wasn't exactly hot on publishing material.

"It all has to be on moodle," announce managers. That seems to be the Holy Grail nowadays. "Stick it on moodle and we'll be able to tick the E-learning box for OFSTED." But have you tried making a reasonably attractive job of displaying materials on moodle? It's not easy. First it can take an age to upload every image that you want to work with and rearrange things on page and then you're faced with making moodle web pages look reasonable, which requires more than a little skill and some diving into the html code, and often finish up doing what every else does which is to make a list of Office documents and presentations. I understand that moodle 2.0 makes life much easier but we haven't got that.

I can see how it is a good idea to have a central one-stop shop for students. They log in and can get what they need. But that does depend on us all putting what they need there in the first place. And doing so in a way that is a bit more interesting and appealing than the contents page to a textbook with links to text documents that not only take an age to open but, when they do eventually appear, don't actually say much more than the textbook or an Edexcel web page says already. I have seen super examples of moodle being used well but invariably there's either a web design team or expert geek supporting them or even doing the display work.

Even then there are examples of nonsense. Well-designed, but still nonsense. As in the school that e-mails parents about some important announcement with a link in the body of the e-mail. You click the link and arrive at a beautifully laid out and themed moodle page. There is another link to click for the important announcement. PDF time. Long PDF time. Hurray! It's opened, and it's a size I can read without moving back six steps with a pair of binoculars the wrong way round. Two paragraphs. Important, yes. Glad I got the message but ... why on earth didn't they simply stick the text in the e-mail?!

Then I hear that some tutors in institutions get told to put their schemes of work somewhere completely different as well (or instead, I haven't figured out which yet). Not only is that place some drive on the staff server where they probably haven't visited since the 1990s but it's not somewhere they can access from home, and home is the only place they can actually get any work done in peace and with some reasonable software and equipment. As I said, I'm teaching web design, presenting information using IT and other modern, design-led modules like that where how I provide materials should be an example of the very same good practice I am trying to teach them!

My only solution is to produce all my stuff as I had planned, using all sorts of new ideas and applications that present it nicely and publish that on various blogs and web sites as before, and just putting links to it on the moodle pages for now. I can probably make the moodle pages, assuming someone has remembered to give me editing rights to them, and, indeed, has actually created the new ones I'll need, look a bit smarter with some images and design text for links rather than the odd default fonts and sizes with incorrect line spacing settings that display headings in larger fonts incorrectly when they require two lines. But the actual material will be somewhere else where I find much simpler to work with it all.

Of course that will land me in more trouble as I am apparently breaking some E-safety rule by using my own web spaces. If I remove any reference to a non-institution e-mail or non-course-related sections of my site then I may escape the men with the black bin liners. For a while, at least.

And there I was, getting quite excited about augmented reality after a super session at the Eastern Region E-learning Forum. I can probably mange to keep my students happy and well-provided for and stay in a job. But some colleagues I was speaking with really are still struggling, despite all the wonders of the new things happening around us. It really is time that someone has the courage to tell managers who reckon that adding Microsoft Office documents or PDFs and presentations to moodle and shared network drives is good E-learning practice in 2011 that they're wrong. It's just augmented banality.

Twitter: An Amateur Astronomer's Tale

As you sit in meetings today or plan lessons and listen to people telling you how terribly bad twitter is and is just used by students to waste time here's a simple little example of how you might try and change some views. I've often looked up at a night sky and wondered what the stars were and occasionally, very occasionally in the past, seen a shooting star streak across a black background above me. In the last few months I have learned a little about meteors and meteor showers and shown my children and friends where to look and when to see some of these wonderful sights themselves.

I'm really not the type of person to stand in a field at night staring at the sky at all but someone called @VirtualAstro inspired me to do just that. I don't know his name. He lives in Berkshire somewhere and that's his twitter name. I've been following him for a while now and he tells us in simple terms when there is likely to be something worth looking for. An amateur, with equipment he'd collected over years and spent all his savings on, he also publishes great pictures of what's going on up there for the benefit of those of us who may have missed a nice display.

I can't remember how I started following him. I expect someone I was already following must have mentioned him in one of their tweets and that was it.

This morning his news was not about the stars. Someone had broken into his house and stolen all his equipment, including some really old but valuable bits and pieces. Gradually, in a series of short bursts of less than 140 characters each, the story unfolded. The police had been. The insurance company had said the valuable bits weren't covered. He couldn't afford to replace them. The police catch the burglar. Some idiot had sold everything for £200 to buy drugs. He refused to identify the dealer who had got the equipment now. The police said he wouldn't see it again. The poor fellow was angry and devasted. Then he gets a pile of kind messages from followers and donations from some of them too. I don't know how much he has got so far but he's obviously amazed. You can just tell from his words that in a matter of hours he turned from being totally distressed to overwhelmed by the good nature of people he's never met.

This isn't much to do with education of e-learning, I know, and I'm sure there are far more dramatic stories out there that twitter or other social networks have featured in. I just felt that I had to write about this one. It happened this morning.

And if you hear of any Japanese Series 4000 super wide and ultra wide eyepieces for sale, let me or @VirtualAstro know. I have no idea what they are but the twitterverse will and it would be so good if someone somewhere can bring a happy ending to this episode.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Staff ICT Skills Audit Tool

Following yesterday's Eastern Region E-learning Forum I have had lots of requests to use this tool in institutions of all shapes and sizes. That's great and I shall be doing my best over the next few weeks. However, there's some help I need. Maybe someone at Google Docs can help or is there anyone out there with a bright idea?

The form collects data wonderfully and stores it all in a nice spreadsheet. So far so good. I can analyse this data using some formulae but it takes a while and sometimes I do like to watch tv or even teach students or mark their work. So what I really want is a tool or an application which will gather up whatever the user fills in and do the analysis for me then display it for them to see. I guess they'd need to click a Show Me My Results button or something to activate the extra feature and it needs some kind of health warning that, as I haven't seen the results myself and had a chance to spot some errors, they shouldn't get either over-excited or unduly depressed should the results appear impossibly good or embarrassingly bad.

The form is available here if you want to take a look.

A colleague at the Forum did mention something that I wrote down as 'flambaroo' but a search for that or variations of the name came up with nothing relevant. Now I know that someone who loves playing with PHP code and SQL could probably knock me up something and I have two possible sources of help for that but it's still a big job and, as I can imagine that different organisations will want slight tweaks made to things like the titles or department names and possibly even the question bank too and how it is compared to a benchmark, I would be forever bothering them with what sounds like a simple change but which actually takes them away from sleeping for several days in order to revise all their code.

If I can tweak things myself and get some magic application to do the night shift work instead of an ex-student who deserves some chance to get a life or a real job then I can survey the whole damn country and see if I can get Michael Gove to appoint me as an E-learning Tzar or something with a nice title and a bit of useful income. Or just gets some E-learning, ILT or ICT training work.

Answers on a postcard to or however you prefer!

Friday 7 October 2011


At last, a chance to get out and talk to people about e-learning again! A nice day at The M├śLLER Centre in Cambridge. I couldn't find the ALT code for a small version that character, sorry. The Eastern Region E-learning Forum, merged with the VLE and Technical Forums and probably the Staff Development Managers' one as well, and we all gathered in this lovely environment where we were well looked after by JISC Regional Support Centre colleagues.

Both speakers in the morning session had a similar theme - things you can do with a smartphone. It was such a relief that not once did I hear what is becoming an annoyingly generic term iPhone either. QR codes. I had inwardly groaned a bit when seeing this on the menu but the actual title 'Augmented Reality' was intriguing enough to make me pay some attention and I genuinely learned something. Dale from Exeter University explained nicely. QR codes are those strange square icons that are appearing everywhere nowadays. they contain some large box-like graphics in some corners and a load of dots in such a way that one would presume that there'll be quite a few combinations before they need QR2 with either smaller dots or larger icons. Each graphic represents a link to something. You can make your own and anyone with a smartphone with some QR code-reading app installed can then simply point the phone at the graphic and up will appear a bundle of information, usually a web site, about whatever it is the person who created the code wants to show.

Yes, there's danger there but never mind! While the chap was showing us some variations on the theme I downloaded a reader and tried it out. My first QR reading. I was quite pleased with myself and wondered why I hadn't done so ages ago. I think it's something about the graphic which I have to say I find quite annoying, almost offensive to look at. Why i should think that I don't know. perhaps my brain already has some software installed that simply sees the arrangement of black and white pixels and gets grumpy. I now know quite a bit about bats, for that was the material involved in this marvellous bit of research work done by Exeter University to enable students to wander around their campus with various devices and get told all about what creatures lurked there.

Prior to that I'd been dragged on stage to do a brief impression of a magician, sweeping away a cloak to reveal my Vice Chairman's innards being displayed on a huge screen by the QR code slapped on his shirtW we were both quite relieved that he hadn't worn it a little lower. thatw as a more advanced version which even moved as he did so as he jumped so too did his organs jiggle. Not the sort of thing you expect at an E-learning Forum at all.

We also got to see how Google Goggles identifies whatever you happen to point your phone at and comes up with a load of gen about that too. I knew about this but hadn't seen it in action. Great. I shall get that too. In fact, that could be even more useful and may be what can rid us of the nasty looking QR invasion as and when Goggles can do what the codes do and can maybe interpret individually designed items which don't have to be boxes of pixels.

A great time was had by all and I do hope that everyone responds really favourably to the surveys about how useful they find the RSCs as the Government seek to get them to justify their existence. Just get shot of LSIS and give the money to JISC RSCs, especially the Eastern people. That's what I say. Maybe I should make a QR code to link to a large message saying just that and then stick the codes all over the MPs' drinking areas, loos and wherever else they make decisions.

That's the odd thing about these QR things. You see one but may not necessarily know what it's going to tell you about. Could be fun.

Outside The Moller Centre, Cambridge is a fountain with worryingly straw coloured water

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Reluctant PowerPoint (or Word or Excel)

So there we were, politely watching the smartboard show us how PowerPoint2010 was doing whatever PowerPoint2010 does when it's woken from a long summer break slumber by the presenter clicking one of the files in the list displaying the contents of his memory stick.

For a change, I was watching and not presenting and trying so hard to resist the temptation to help. As the minutes slowly ticked by - and they do tick slowly by in circumstances like this - the presenter, a Department Head, looked around and you could see that classic combination of panic and disappointment in his demeanour. I had promised myself that I'd behave and not comment on colleagues' e-learning techniques or methods used as it was a small group of mostly new staff getting training in something to do with tutorials. I knew how I felt about being dragged back to work a week early for this and had sympathy with my colleague who had presumably been dragged back even earlier to put this stuff together so the last thing I was going to do was make things worse.

When he went for the 'paper option' and distributed the classic A4 six-to-a-page handout with text that made me wish I'd brought my magnifying glass and cleaned my glasses better I thought I'd better offer some assistance, though. I had no quick solution to the slow-opening PowerPoint business itself but saw it as a bit of a challenge to get his show on the screen and on the road. I did have an idea but, as there were only a few of us there and the slides were nothing that he couldn't talk about perfectly well without them anyway, I suggested we carry on and I'd try the idea later.

Once he'd finished and was chatting to the others, I sneaked behind his back and opened Google Documents, then uploaded his presentation file to my account. Luckily it was a tiny file and that was virtually instant. I selected the conversion to Google presentation option and a minute or so later clicked the uploaded file in my list. Up came the first slide and another click had it full screen. "I've got to tell everyone about this!" I thought to myself and asked my colleague if I could briefly explain what I'd done.

"Oh, you've opened it. Well done!" he said.
"No," I replied. "This is a Google document version on-line. This is the sort of thing that could happen to any of us - and probably just when we don't want it to - like when an OFSTED inspector is watching you!"
I quickly ran through the process again and everyone was suitably amazed - that always makes me feel good. I miss not doing this sort of stuff and, with no ILT Co-ordinator or Champions nowadays, no-one gets much guidance any more.

I did think about mentioning that he really ought to have had a .pps (PowerPoint Show) rather than a .ppt so that the audience didn't get a glimpse of what was coming up but with only a few slides that wasn't such a big deal. The filenames and picture icons for some of the other stuff on his USB stick, however, might have caused some amusement and I did mention that it is a pretty good idea to keep the documents you're going to use at least in a folder away from potentially embarrassing or personal items!

It's all very simple stuff but hopefully there's half a dozen people who'll be less reliant on reluctant local Office applications now.

Friday 29 July 2011

Then I thought a bit more about it

Until schoolgirl victims of nasty crimes were found to be in the list of phones 'hacked' by journalists the general feeling I detected amongst friends and colleagues was of little real concern. I'm not saying that celebrities deserved to have someone reading their messages but they should expect that their lives will be minutely examined for tittle-tattle by those feeding the demands for red-top headlines. If they had intended to get up to anything that readers might find a little salacious then they could afford to use a different phone or should have had the sense to ask someone about the risks involved in the communication tools they'd be using. Whilst Hugh Grant and others are right - it is quite wrong and they are entitled to privacy - the fact that their messages didn't stay private was not exactly headline news in itself and some good solicitors would ensure a series of nice big settlements in their favour.

When certain victims' names, and those of other genuinely innocent individuals, sadly came into the story, however, a quite extraordinary frenzy of outbursts has followed and the news is dominated by News of the World, News International, Murdock, senior staff, journalists and advisors, the Prime Minister, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all and, good grief, House of Commons Committees. What no-one trying to defend themselves in all this has said is just how easy it is to get access to most mobile voicemail, which seems to be what most journalists or informers have done. It is not like accessing a person's computer, e-mail account or web site but often simply a case of dialling a number and entering an easily obtainable code. No, people shouldn't do it but there's a lot of things people shouldn't do.

Why might they have wanted to access those girls' phones or those of parents or others the subject of so much unbelievable outrage? No-one seems to have asked that question. If a journalist had discovered some vital clue that had helped identify a place, a person, a time or whatever which helped either solve a crime or prevent another, or display a different motive for someone's actions to that previously assumed or something valuable in one way or another then I doubt whether they would now be being pilloried and we would be generally grateful for newspapers digging deep where the police might have feared to tread. In fact, I suspect that we might never have queried the legality of their activities and the police would have turned a blind eye to the practice. They must, surely, be doing this themselves anyway?

I can easily understand that one's first reaction on hearing the news of certain victims' phones being 'hacked' would be the scream "What??!!" Mine was too but then I thought a bit more about it.

If all the girls' messages, or parents' calls or the minutiae of other non-celebrity people's lives had been publicised as a result and caused distress then, I agree, totally, that that would have been wrong, very wrong, and I would be firmly on the side of the baying hounds seeking sackings, resignations and more. But, unless I've missed something (I don't read the newspapers that seem to be concerned in the main) they haven't been shared with anyone and remain private. It does seem to me that we have, to a great extent, been wound up by a very clever campaign by a flailing Labour Party leader, haters of the Murdock empire and a motley crew of associates with the key aim of tarnishing the image of David Cameron.

Presumably he had better protected his voicemail and texts - or, more likely, not said or written anything they could use.

[This is not about education or e-learning - just something I wanted to get it off my chest.]

Monday 4 April 2011

The World's Simplest On-line Safety Policy (well... America's, at least...)

This is an excellent article on the subject of child protection and how managers scared of their institution being sued ban access and stifle communication.

Someone should now write in a similar vein with adjustments to reflect UK legislation instead of America's. I'll have a go myself if nothing appears soon. I am tired of hearing about decent and good colleagues being threatened with dismissal because they share information over social network sites, their own web sites, wikis or whatever or dare to use their own e-mail rather than the institution's to communicate with a student.

And if you're reading this and can only think of one reason why any teacher might want to do so then I sincerely hope that my 14-year-old daughter and 9 and 12-year-old sons are not being taught by you or staff under your control.

It is time for good, innovative and decent teaching staff to stand up and be trusted.

Saturday 12 March 2011

"Please Sir, I'm bored." "OK. Go home and watch a movie."

As a colleague commented, "if everyone watched Salman Khan's talk at TED this year it would change the world." So find yourself a spare 20 mins and watch it - show it in class and see what the students think. Show it at the next staff development meeting in place of that tedious item on the agenda that no-one really has any enthusiasm for.

Although this talks mostly about learning maths there's a whole lot more out there. What really fires me up to write this on a sunny Saturday is how eloquently Salman Khan voices what I've been trying to get across for ages - and how much clear support he gets from the audience compared to the curious blank faces I get in some quarters when I challenge the value of the figures my traditional teaching is supposed to generate.

I am far more useful to students when they want me to tell them something, explain something or just help - not when I want them to be there. With exceptions, I guess, for a lecture or activity that is obviously something that they're all actually asking for where a session to do that makes sense, I really don't care who comes in when. In fact I would prefer that only those who want to learn something, discuss something or get help from me or colleagues do turn up. If the others that aren't ready to learn for some reason drag themselves in and sit morosely playing games or texting friends then they're nothing but a distraction and a pain as I do feel obliged to make some effort to get them at lest appearing to be active in case the Principal walks in again. But that is the only reason.

The vast range of abilities and enthusiasm for various modules that I encounter each year has forced me to look afresh at what I do every year.

So the first term I do the pretty traditional stuff and do tend to follow the rules. After that, though, it's over to them. They look at what I publish or check out ideas with friends outside the lesson and come in to share my time and attention on what they need individually. Looking at what Salman illustrates it could be that I could try that approach from the very start. That would need a bit of courage. The world of education is changing, though. I like to think I'm changing too. I just wish I didn't have to pretend that I'm not because lesson plans that all say 'Start | Wander around being helpful | Finish' don't exactly match the minute-by-minute script I am expected to produce and registers don't have a code for 'This guy is getting on really well in his own time and doesn't need to attend this session' or 'Worked with a group late yesterday and did more than he'd ever have done at 9am on a Monday'

Friday 25 February 2011

The end of 'the cat ate my memory stick, Sir'

Sometimes ideas just occur to you. There you are, sitting at traffic lights, wondering why they're still red when there's nothing else in sight and even a well-driven Ferrari wouldn't collide with you if you jumped them, and you realise that you've thought of something that you really ought to have thought of years ago. But didn't.

So there I was, similar scene, and there this idea was too. Getting work out of students seems ridiculously difficult. I mean, it's not asking much that they print something each week or write some notes and hand them in, or even keep them for a while and give me stuff maybe once every few weeks. I say it's not asking much but, thinking about it, anything involving a presentation file with more than half a screen print seems to gum up the printing works for a whole lesson and, of course, the next few too until you get someone to clear it or a grey-striped print does eventually emerge. Then there's their own well-honed excuses: no longer do dogs have to eat assignments - we have USBs that can be left at home, break, especially those the College issued at Induction, we have networks that mysteriously lose folders, especially in the early weeks and variations on similarly unlikley catastrophes that no doubt will be covered by parents' Contents Insurance policies before long. That reminds me: I need to upgrade my Public Liability Insurance as I am finding it increasingly difficult to avoid using really quite bad language when such lame excuses are presented, and especially when the printer only does the 'er' bit and forget it has a pretty vital first syllable.

Now I tell everyone about Google Docs and blogs from Week One and some do use them but, and this is the thing, if they all, one lesson soon, simply transfer all their tasks and work in progress to Google Docs or a blog then (i) I would get their stuff automatically without waiting for printers, (ii) I could see how they're actually getting on with tasks (many 'haven'y quite finished, Sir') and (iii) marking is dead easy on-line anywhere I happen to be with no carting folders home when I think I'll have time to mark but don't or leave them at work when I might have.

Blogs, particularly, are great for displaying images and more visual stuff that looks crap in crappy grey-stripe-scale. With units like Digital Graphics and Web production to cover it's virtually essential unless I can persuade Art & Design to be nice to a bunch of lads disturbing them and their nice colour printers every week which I never quite manage to pluck up the courage to suggest aloud.

This is linked to my previous post threatening to 'do' all their assignments and I was thinking where to start. This is a good place. There's nothing very new here at all, folks, I know. Just the determination to do it.

Now, when are those lights going to change?!

Wednesday 23 February 2011


My National Diploma students are now half-way through their first year, or 2nd years are three-quarters of the way through the whole 18 units and the vast majority still seem to have pretty empty folders in the 70s metal filing cabinet. So I thought I'd do all the assignments myself - for the units I teach, of course! If I can knock out something suitable in a week or so between ILPs, ICRs, SARs, LATs and whatever other initialled documents are requested when staff return from February sojurns to pastures greener and warmer or whiter and colder then that might convince some students that they really ought to do some work.

If I do manage the 15 assignments I've set them reasonably quickly then I'll be much better placed to push forward the suggestion that that's what all tutors should be doing.

Obviously, I shall be marking mine myself!! Just in case.

Monday 14 February 2011

Why staff ICT skills matter

Once upon a time a teacher could walk into a classroom with some chalk, a pile of papers and talk. Students would usually listen, take notes with a pen and more paper and the topic would be discussed, examined and, with a bit of luck, eventually passed. Lesson followed lesson, people came and people went, boards were scrawled on, cleaned then covered again. If a student was lucky he’d get the notes down before they disappeared and would remember that evening enough of what had been discussed to complete his homework too.

Now a teacher doesn’t even have to walk into a classroom but for those that do they are confronted by students with an array of computer screens and keyboards, some maybe their own, others standard issue affairs and in place of the blackboard there’s an electronic whiteboard connected to a computer, a projector and maybe other gadgets too. Those that aren’t in a classroom may be in a virtual classroom, staring at a screen where students’ head lurk in little boxes or text files across other little boxes in different colours as they converse with them and each other. They may even just be sitting at home with a laptop with their students sitting at their homes with their laptops sifting through a website for notes and indications of what they should be doing next.

ICT skills are in evidence everywhere in teaching and in learning. At the start it’s all about impressions as students view institution websites and publications to decide where they shall study next. There they witness the design talents on-line of a marketing team offering illustrations and extracts from a curriculum and decide whether that could be the place for them. On the way they may get a glimpse of some tutors at work in a classroom or a video of their students saying how much they like life there. Sometimes they’ll see some sample course content and learning material too which some tutors have supplied after more than a few requests by that pushy girl from Marketing or found themselves being filmed doing something that makes students smile and look interested at the same time.

If staff have managed to escape being dragged in to the marketing campaigns themselves they sure don’t avoid Open Days or Enrolment Events advertised on the backs of buses or the local radio station to such an extent that they enter a hall throbbing with potential candidates for their courses and clasping certificates for whatever they’ve managed to pass to date. Those certificates, those posters, those radio interviews, the letters inviting parents to come along and the lists on the table of what staff are offering this year and how to pay for it – all created with someone’s ICT skills and, increasingly nowadays, with the teaching staff’s ICT skills in evidence.

As students sit a desk and start to chat to their prospective tutor there is a two-way process emerging already. The staff member is eyeing their behaviour, demeanour and wondering how much trouble they’ll cause in class while the other is looking at the documents scattered on the table, the type of laptop the chap’s using, what applications he has open on it, what browser he’s using and wondering why he’s writing things down or impressed that he has a notes app. on his mobile or data in an on-line spreadsheet to inform the discussion in real time.

See you’ve got Firefox, Sir.” could even be the first words from the student to which there may seem to be a myriad possible responses from the interviewer when it is more likely that there are just four.

  1. Yes, I’m trying out version 4.02. Released yesterday. Like the new tabs and it’s fast isn’t it?
  2. Oh, er, the browser. Yes, well-spotted! Have to use these ruddy forms admin give us. Wouldn’t be so bad if the wireless connection worked but can’t seem to get on-line.
  3. Have I? Right. Good. Now, how can I help you?
  4. Glance at parent for a clue.

Immediately, the student, and perhaps the parent too, gets one of four impressions of the staff member’s ICT knowledge if not skills: from ‘on a part with mine, by the seems of it’, through ‘could be good but spotted a weakness’ and ‘he’s not at home with this stuff’ to ‘this guy hasn’t a clue’. That doesn’t mean that he’s not the best History teacher in the world or won’t fire them through their Health & Social Care National Diploma at a rate of knots with distinctions all round but it will set part of the scene in the mind of many an observer, including, of course, the Staff Development Manager who happens to be listening in at the next desk.

Let’s assume the interview goes well and after a few more communications of various type and quality the student decides to join, is accepted and arrives in September for something called Induction. This is where things really start to matter. The student has made one big decision and is rather set on a track now for probably at least a year if not two or more. There in a room somewhere he’ll be addressed by the person who will be the main player in his academic life for some time. Before he gets to the room, though, he needs to find it. The tutor thought a map and some signs might be useful. All the other tutors did too so there, displayed in abundant clarity on a noticeboard, walls or columns, is a collection of how well a host of staff can put half a dozen words on pieces of A4 paper and manage to add large black arrows.

In the room the multitude gathers and, possibly for one of the few times in their post-school academic lives, they look up and to the front with some interest. They are ready to be impressed. They want to be impressed. They appreciate that they may not be, of course, in all cases and in those instances they’ll be comparing what they know they can do to what the person at the front does in one of the few areas they can assess at this time. ICT skills. They need to go away with some genuine belief that the teachers they’ll be stuck with can handle the basic equipment and, preferably, show some talent and efficiency using ICT to communicate. They’ve got in the car. They need to know they’re not going to crash. Or they will be making some early judgements and mentally noting that this or that teacher is struggling with something that they can fix or do better.

The smartboard eventually becomes visible on a bright early autumn day when someone closes the window blinds. And there’s the presentation. Or is it? Did they have to watch as the teacher laboriously searched his desktop for the PowerPoint icon and then give them a preview of the first few little slides before the full screen view finally emerged? Can they read the text? Is it just the same as what he’s saying or more like wallpaper? Or something in between that keeps them focussed and provides opportunities for learning rather than mere spoon-feeding? Indeed, do they get surprised by a website or a web version of a presentation they can view at their leisure another time should they wish to? Let us hope they don’t get some dreadful PDF that has to be scrolled and scrolled and scrolled and makes them wonder why it wasn’t just handed out in the first place. Or, worse, a Word document that requires things to be installed before it will show anything at all, or is entirely in Arial font or the appalling Comic Sans that primary school teachers used to use in when there were only five different fonts in Windows 3.1. Some students may now even be wishing the teacher had used Courier New which has a kind of retro look and could even be regarded as rebelliously cool in 2011.
Now a good communicator may get away for a while with simply excellent speaking abilities, moving around and holding their attention, questioning, interacting, inspiring and informing with mere words, panache and plenty of expression and body language. But it will only be a while and, sooner or later, the ICT skills will be on show. And ICT skills really are on show – unlike one’s subject knowledge, dress sense or humour how a teacher puts text and images on paper or on screen, how they record and store data, how they manage classroom equipment are all out there, day in, day out, night or day in fact in some instances, for viewing by whoever looks on-line, unscrambles the handout in their pocket, thumbs through the course material, checks their progress or reads the e-mail, text message or letter home.

No teacher today can avoid ICT or hide their abilities to utilise it.

The induction group has started to look around the classroom. What’s on the walls? Where once there might have been acres of that coloured paper that faded after a few days in the sun with a scalped white paper border and individually cut-out letters and shiny photos carefully arranged in the design there is now a mass of A4 white print-outs, all in black print, illustrating what students did last year or posters advertising last year’s dance and trip to Alton Towers which could be in colour. There are prints of digital photos taken at an event. And then there’s the notice that tells them they can’t use their mobile phones, eat or drink and what might happen should they attempt to download something they’re not supposed to. The IT Department notices are generally a good guide to how well the equipment will function and the range of useful software likely to be available on the computers once they get to use them.

The small print A4 sheets in Times New Roman with a heading in a slightly larger font in bold and red are not a good sign. The big bold, fun-looking Check Our VLE for what you can and can’t do! Or We do IT well to help you do it well! Now they’re going to make the students more inclined to have faith in the team of technicians often only slightly older than themselves and, more importantly, their teacher’s ability to deal wit them effectively when the printer gives up the ghost of the last person has left a load of plugs dangling from the back of the staff computer.

It may be tempting to say that the teacher may have been issued with a set of standard documents or materials for Induction but this is their chance to establish in the minds of their cohort where they stand. I’m sorry about the quality of this presentation / document / handout – I did suggest they used x, y or z application or put them on-line for you but... will go along way towards restoring a bit of faith that all is not lost with the fellow they’re with although it does say something about that person’s ability to influence those who produced the rubbish in the first place. That also brings us to managers who often manage to keep away from students until something goes wrong and they need to be disciplined but do, or certainly should, have time to see and comment on drafts of general department materials. They could have a huge influence, both from ensuring that the best skills are used in the process and in setting an excellent example themselves. Unless they have good ICT skills themselves it can be very difficult for managers to comment constructively on items or administrative procedures. They also need to be aware of what is possible even if their own abilities mean they could not do it themselves.

In terms of teaching staff’s ICT skills, however, it is of fundamental importance that managers know not only how confident their staff feel in a range of activities and processes but also how confident they themselves feel – if not in actually implementing those skills but at least in knowing what could and should be done and in leading the way in negotiations to attain higher standards and, of really significant importance, demonstrating to their staff and colleagues by their own good practice.

Most managers have been teachers themselves in the recent past and not having to teach the students now is no excuse for not maintaining their own ICT skills. In similar vein to how students perceive their teachers so too will many teachers view their managers and be influenced by them for better or for worse.

In this area, whilst demonstrating excellent practice is key, there are areas where managers will have more effective input than teachers. This could be in the processes used to record progress, store data or promote their curriculum. How they distribute information to their staff through presentations, reports, e-mail and more – all of this almost daily activity will set a standard by which they will be judged. For better or for worse. The manager who regularly sends out all staff e-mails with a large Word attachment or the spreadsheet that umpteen people have to complete and return is asking for trouble. Sooner or later someone has to tell them that publishing a single document somewhere with which staff can collaborate or to which they can contribute is far more efficient on many levels. That in itself will inspire some staff to use similar techniques when asking their students to share or collaborate on a task or activity. For enrolment data or progress reports substitute an on-line set of data. For last month’s minutes of a meeting substitute the on-line blog of last session’s discussion and you’ll get the idea.

The manager himself may, indeed, have acquired actual management skills as well as teaching skills and therein might lie an ability to utilise project management software to display and share information regarding how well a particular course is progressing and the contributions being made and tasks allocated to various tutors and colleagues. Substitute course, tutor and colleague and insert group assignment, student and other students respectively and there is a tool that could be used in class instead of the office backwaters or boardroom.

Moving back to the Induction session again there will be the essential distribution of timetables. It’s the one piece of paper that students do tend to carry around and stick on their wall at home. The set of 15 to 20 will be a daily reference for many a course tutor or whoever answers his phone on a Monday morning when that student’s mother calls to say they’ll be late. They’re always tables and probably Word tables with a lot of lines and occasionally more than one font. Even if the institution has some ancient software that produces these automatically and managers believe they have ticked a box or two for effective use of ICT in that respect following years of attempting to solve the riddle of rooms, people and times manually the resultant print-outs are seldom examples of clear and wonderful presentation of information. Tutors and students with some semblance of awareness that such items ubiquitous display does relate to how they are themselves perceived will go home that night and produce a much smarter version. Those clear and attractive efforts will get noticed and gradually, even if students’ versions end up in an array of pink and totally inappropriate fonts for their own use, the second generation of official ones posted on boards and left lying around classrooms will look professional and generally give the impression that those staff care enough and have the basic abilities to make a difference. That can only bode well for the future.

The smarter tutors may also have added some formulae to their timetable that indicate how many hours they’re doing and contrasting that to what they’re supposed to be doing. That can be particularly useful when, as is so likely to be the case, the timetable changes every so often during the first month or two.
After Induction the students finally start coming in or, in direct learning instances, opening their handbooks or downloading materials, and get to see just what their teachers can do. There’ll be text in documents galore – handouts, session notes, instructions, forms, surveys, questionnaires, leaflets and manuals that their teacher has prepared.

There’ll be lists of names and numbers, modules and tasks, who’s done which and when. There’ll be pie charts and bar charts and line graphs that even if based on data the teacher hasn’t originated will need to be produced and knowing how to use spreadsheets and manage data can make a big difference to record keeping and progress reporting both to management and students.

Presentations will be here there and everywhere, still seen as the principal component of a staple ILT diet by many which begs another question to be examined later.

A world without images or graphics would be a very tedious one and teachers will be expected to add them to a range of documents at the very least. Finding suitable ones they are allowed to use and managing the size of ever-increasingly high resolution digital camera pictures is becoming necessary if storage areas, VLE or e-mail uploads are not to exceed limits. Some will be taking their own pictures and getting students to do so too.
Whether it’s through Firefox or not, the internet will play a major part of any course and how teachers utilise its vast resources will be seen. Whilst the software used may be standard issue, it will readily be apparent whether staff can search efficiently. The number of staff that I have observed locating websites by searching for Google, finding that site and opening the home page, entering website addresses there and then clicking on the site link is remarkable. All they had to do was enter the address in the address bar. One step as opposed to four. Having said that, students also do this far too often but the fact that they remain unchallenged in this and a myriad other inefficiencies shows a need for training.

Even those who seem proficient in searching start to look amateur when initial terms don’t seem to come up with what they seek and some simple but effective search terms could aid their quest considerable had they been aware of them. Having found a site, do they bookmark it or add to a favourites list in a manner that makes it readily accessible next time for themselves or their students, probably in another room? Can they quickly display the page in a more accessible way for those at the back or with poor sight? Or do they simply apologise and get students to move closer? Everyone copies and pastes text from a web page of some form – some a great deal. Ignoring whether they should or shouldn’t for the moment, do staff do this in a smart and effective manner with the required chunks now neatly displayed in a document or presentation slide, or data nicely set out on a spreadsheet ready to be analysed, sorted or stored? Or does the pasted bit stand out like a sore thumb from their own text and annoy those working with it by insisting on trying to connect to a web page whenever it is accidentally clicked or thumped on a smartboard?

We may not expect all students to be as aware as they should of the reliability of information on the web but teachers certainly should be capable of speaking authoritatively on the subject and being able to recognise elements of a page that may give rise to contention or is there doubt as to what its content meant?

There’ll be e-mail communications to send, receive and manage and teacher’s inboxes will range from the neat and tidy ordered folders to the mass of mail mostly unopened that they must get round to sorting out one day. Are they aware of the abbreviations that students will use or will they panic, thinking someone is sending them Lots Of Love when really they just think something’s funny? Do they know that there are other ways students like to communicate these days and that e-mail amongst the young is rapidly being seen as old-fashioned just as many of those over 40 might now regard sticking stamps on envelopes and posting in a box somewhere as something we only do when dealing with mother?

Although the term podcast seems to have come and gone the business of recording discussions has become simpler with smartphones being able to do so at the touch of an icon. Video has long been both the bane of some teachers’ lives, the black rectangle in the PowerPoint show that worked fine at home but refuses to display in class as well as something, at the other extreme, some students and staff seem to be able to take, store and display in a matter of minutes whenever the mood takes them. In the middle is a vast array of teachers who would often like to capture some moments or share a visual process and may well have the kit to do so but never quite pluck up the courage to do it.

Not many years ago it was only the few geeks or web specialists who published material on-line. Then VLEs arrived and provided a way for staff to do so in a fairly standard and managed style of web page. Now, through blogs, wikis and literally thousands of web tools, anyone prepared to spend a short time experimenting with and becoming familiar with a selection of applications can publish with ease and do so in a stylish, smart, professional or fun way to suit their audience. Social networking tools have transformed the communication routes and interactivity between students at large outside their institutions and many expect to continue in similar vein in the classroom. Some teachers have kept up but many can only stand and stare and worry about something called e-safety the e-word that above all others has contributed to fear and progress in this particular field. It is now possible to publish on-line not only a complete set of course materials, tutor presentations, reference material and but also videos of the tutor’s lessons themselves. There are simply massive sets of resources on almost any topic imaginable from which a tutor could select to assist in delivering teaching. How good are they at locating these, assessing their quality and accessibility, not to mention actually transferring them or linking to them so that they can actually make good use of them?

Do teachers share their successes and failures in their own development and use of new technology? Do they know how? Even if the teacher we met at the start of the whole process has been impressive in his ICT skills to this point the extent to which he has since sat back and thought that he’d learned enough may indicate how useful he could be at inspiring others to move forward or how he will continue to cope as the pace of change in technology and what we can achieve with it moves ever faster forward and trickles yet further down into general family and social life. Out of the teenager’s bedroom and into the living room, lounge and classrooms, ICT and what it can do has become part of daily life now.