Friday, 6 July 2012

E-fair 2012 Review: 'Could Do Better.'

The 12th E-learning Fair organised by JISC RSC Eastern took place in Watford, Hertfordshire yesterday. As with all these events, a shiny new Further Education College building was the venue - in this instance the recently opened West Herts College. Practitioners and interested individuals came from all over the Eastern Region and beyond and there were also representatives of a number of organisations showing off their wares and services for the teaching and learning community.

The communication from the College had those dire warnings about parking 'being very limited' at the campus, with what are becoming increasingly frequent admonishments from educational institutions and agencies about driving cars anywhere. Fortunately, I arrived to find a huge car park with bags of space so I don't quite understand what all that was about. Much as though their offer to support me with a cycle loan was appreciated, the journey from Northamptonshire to Watford was slightly beyond what I reckoned my legs could manage. Having said that, the number of traffic jams I encountered during my unfortunately-timed trips may not have resulted in the car being that much faster!

It was a pleasant enough building and not as ugly as some of the new ones and certainly an improvement on what was crumbling on the site before. A strangely inconspicuous entrance made you feel that the place was, at least, not one of those extrovert buildings that shout at you, almost appearing to watch you as you approach vast glazed entrance portals that somehow manage not to show your own reflection. Once inside there is this massive reception area where the lovely RSC Eastern staff looked like little Lego models in the immense space. There were also rows of those ticket machine things like you have to pass through to get in or out of a tube station. That would fool a great many students at some colleges I know and would definitely cause an enormous rise in greenhouse gases as they bus or taxi home again to get their ID cards. Presumably Watford students have better memories or have them glued on to their bodies somehow.

Normally at events like this you're handed a card bearing your name and who you represent housed in plastic of varying degrees of quality which then has to be appended somehow to your clothes or, more popular these days, a brightly coloured bit of material allows you to dangle said ID around your neck. Here we had the bright lanyard but to that was attached a mini booklet with one's details on the first page and inside the agenda for the day. It would no doubt have sounded a great idea at the planning meeting but I have a feeling that absolutely no-one actually ever consulted said booklet which tended to open upside down and there was always someone around to ask what was happening and where anyway.

In fact, my urgent need after a 2½ journey was a loo and I didn't just get waved in a vague direction but a delightful young student took me to the appropriate door and even asked whether I'd be able to find my own way back again. That was something that did impress me throughout the day - the students (well, I am presuming they were students) were extraordinarily polite, smart-looking and helpful. Later in the day I was asked to go and get myself filmed giving views on the day and, again, it was a team from the College that ran that. Three really nice young people, professional and, whilst I have yet to find out how good their filming and editorial skills are, they did serve their College well. I have always found similar behaviour at my children's school when parents are dragged in for some talk or another but seldom have Further Education college students come across that well.

The purpose of these events has always been to inspire people to use new technology, new techniques in their teaching or in supporting learning. We get people from other colleges to show what they're doing, to talk about what they find works and some agencies or commercial organisations have stands promoting their services or wares. Once there might have been a string of these government agencies and quangos but now there's just LSIS. One commercial firm, whose name escaped me (which says something about their marketing prowess) was getting lots of attention by dropping iPads from a great height. Wrapped in some ghastly-looking rubber blob, the devices seemed to survive. Well, they would. But would I really want to go around with some huge, rather ugly-looking black rubbery blobby tyre wrapped around the thing? Hardly. It reminded me of the great big bumpers they sued to put on Volvos for a period in the 1970s. I am sure that, assuming Apple doesn't require future buyers to sign a form declaring that they'll never put one of these things on their products in public and kill the market immediately, this will be one of those products we giggle about in a few years' time. The same firm also had sheets of that unbendable but light plastic stuff with slits in that somehow would enable you to create an individual or group workspace or something. Yes. I moved on.

To get a coffee you queued at a table, spooned some instant granules into a cup and then had the challenge of working out how to extract water from one of several silver tube-like affairs with black plastic lids and a sort of spout. These things may look nice but there is never, ever, a clue as to what you're supposed to do. Or what may come out if you do manage to figure out the process. Luckily I was accompanied by someone familiar with the things and eventually managed to press the black part in the right way to get hot water.

Probably the best part of these events is the chance to chat with colleagues and find out what they're doing, meet new people with the same problems as you in making something work and perhaps hope that one of two of the people you meet might give you a chance to do some work for them or give a talk at a staff development session or even another conference.

Whilst I do get nervous prior to giving talks, it is something I always enjoy and get lots of appreciation for afterwards and I'd love to do more of that sort of thing. Our guest speaker this year was Lilian Soon, an intelligent and lively young lady who is particularly good at knowing what to do with mobile devices and getting people to share views using one or another set of web tools. I share a lot of her views and was delighted when she came out with a Google Presentation instead of PowerPoint and referred to VLEs with some disdain. Now that's something I haven't heard anyone else saying. She was a bit uncomplimentary about xtranormal, a nice site where you can make mini cartoon animations which I quite like and I never did find out why but, that minor point aside, she talked a great amount of sense. That is highly unusual for guest speakers at other events but we do seem to get good people at our e-Fairs.

A few minutes in, though, and despite her laudable intent, I did find myself itching to get up and take over. We were sitting in some theatre environment, shades of very dark grey everywhere, remnants of tape on the floor and with odd lights here and there shining directly at three or four of us in the audience and on the floor around her. She was standing on a tatty stage, quite a small area and you could sense that she wanted to wander around but couldn't easily. One leg kept flicking up in an endearing way as if she were about to start running somewhere but didn't. What she said was good but what she demonstrated didn't really work. There was a video of how Google Presentation could be used to create a supposedly stunning animation. I have seen something similar (and a lot better, actually) and this one was not very good. It really needed the background track which I believe contained music and some explanation of what the hell was going on. As it was, you could sense the audience wondering how they were supposed to make a presentation with the stated 450 slides, not to mention why. If anything, that would have put someone off Google Presentations for life.

Lilian then tried to get people to respond to a question by texting their responses which would then appear on the screen behind her. I suppose if she had gone off for a while we might have done something but fiddling around in that light with phones that may or may not have had a connection there wasn't a particularly popular activity and most of us were too busy listening to her anyway. There was also a most distracting animated swirly affair on another screen which repeatedly showed tweets to the e-Fair's hashtag. With a total about about six different messages that got quite annoying. Maybe if the software didn't whirl them around so much it would have been better. We've had these displays before and they been fine but not that one. So only three or four responses appeared and you got the sense that she was struggling a bit. It's all very well showing off these things but they do need to work and the audience needs to be given some ideas as to how they could actually be useful (and work) in a classroom, assuming classrooms are where students will be, of course, in future.

That topic she did touch on and I was pleased to see reference to a range of good on-line courses and materials like The Khan Academy and some American universities. In a similar talk I gave a while ago, though, I had illustrated what they did and what the interface looked like, as well as getting quite a wow moment when people saw the extraordinary list of topics that could be addressed. Lilian really missed those sort of opportunities, running along to the next item without actually making that much of an impression at the time. She was also really having difficulty with connections that simply didn't work with the dreaded NOT RESPONDING message appearing rather more often that any presenter wants to happen. This all serves to worry people who are there to see what they might perhaps try with technology. In a way, you can get away with these glitches and troubles with a highly technically aware audience but not with people who are nervous about what they can do. If she can't work it then what chance do I have? was a theme running around the section of the theatre I was in and I suspect it was wider too.

So, whilst our guest speaker certainly had all the right ideas and such good intent, and did make several great points along the way, it was nothing like as good as she could have been. Luckily, all her items are available on-line and many will go and see some of them as they should have appeared so all need not be lost.

Most of the day would have been spent by people going around the Show And Tell area where nice people from places from Norwich to Bedford, stopping off at Chelmsford and Cambridge on the way, had pcs displaying whatever they'd been working on at their own institutions. Bedford had a student progress tool that could be plugged in to moodle. It looked remarkably similar to the Google Spreadsheet I have been using for years. It was pretty and I am sure there is something about it that would make all the effort put into its development worthwhile but, in terms of simply showing students or managers the progress through units there wasn't much I could see. I guess the automation of its updating when students upload assignments would be a plus but how difficult is it to add a tick to a spreadsheet box? I also wonder how many of my old colleagues would have wanted their students' progress shown as nil (because they hadn't actually handed stuff in) when they were, in fact, doing well, working on them - which was why my sheet had that element of 'seen to be working well' or something like that in a different shade so that anyone observing my or their progress needn't panic. If the sheet picks up all the criteria from some database of BTEC modules, though, now that could be useful - but will they share it? Now there's the rub. For a price, no doubt, knowing Roy Currie!

Lilian had mentioned one excellent point that I've just remembered: here we all are looking at wonderful bits of software and doing this or that with it but what does it actually achieve? Sometimes all it does is show things differently but doesn't really help them learn any better. It can take longer to put something on a VLE than to put it on a blog or your own web site. Do students really appreciate VLEs any more? There are other ways to do things. In fact, I gave that speech way, way back in 2005 at exactly the same College!

One of the best bits of technology on display was from Norwich, where Phil Ackroyd had a dozen mice which people could use at the same time and have their individual marks or whatever displayed on one screen. He told us about Microsoft's free add-in called Multiple Mouse. I hadn't heard of that before and, whilst it did look a bit chaotic at times, I can well imagine how teachers could use this in a class with wireless mice and something like a voting form or marking areas on a drawing. Very simple and that went down really well.

JISC TechDis were on display as well with their well-researched and respected assistive technology. So too was an Apple TV something or other that I'm afraid I didn't get a chance to investigate as thoroughly as I should. Someone was also doing wonderful things with QR codes but the last upgrade on my phone had wiped out a whole pile of apps and QR Reader was one of them. That was several months ago which rather brings it home as to how useful these blurry squares really are in day-to-day life. Yes, I can see the value of a quick way to give people links to material but until some reader is embedded in devices rather than having to be installed and activated it's not for me. Just give me a simple web address. The guy with the codes I remember seeing at another E-learning Forum event some time ago. There he had shown us Google Goggles too and created a brilliant show based on that and QR codes. Today he was at a small desk covered, literally covered, in gadgets but none of them were the sort of thing you wanted to pick up and play with. They may well have been wonderful things and he is definitely someone who knows what he's talking about but maybe needs a little better promotion and organisation next time.

Rod Paley from Xtensis had some cool web templates under construction which looked like an interesting mix of social network and resource sharing for educators. I could see that the structure his colleagues had developed could be a winner in all sorts of fields so that should be worth following. These guys often come up with attractive designs and clever animations and present piles of data well but never quite hit the big time. I may well be working with them for some project I have on the go at the moment. More about that somewhere else. Whoever does the designs had a marble theme this time which was fun and the one and only freebie this year was a bag of marbles. I managed to get the very last one going. That'll please the kids. Now there's promotion that works - that is, I think, the first link I've put in this article. (I may well go back and ad a few more later.)

Finally, it's the end and Gerard Harper, the RSC Eastern team manager, does his thanks for coming bit and we all clap quite a lot. He wasn't on his best form this year, possibly the harsh-looking cuts to his budget next year were on his mind and leaving him a little lacklustre this time. He's an amiable and well-informed and well-connected chap and, with his team, work very hard to put these events together and in running several varieties of forum throughout the year. These events were once led by the Eastern Region E-learning Forum itself, Gerard's being the agency that supported them and helped make them happen. LSDA, Becta, NLN, Ferl and goodness knows who else would have their logos on the programmes (which I used to design too!) but only LSDA ever put any money into the kitty and even that wasn't much. I did like the fact that the Forum was independent, though, and I have to pay due respect for Gerard's outfit not totally taking them over and allowing anyone, within reason, who wants to show or have a stand use the opportunity. The events are all RSC branded now and they do everything. I just turn up nowadays and didn't even get to pick the prize-winners this time. I was thinking of resigning as Chairman of this E-learning Forum, thinking that there might not be that much more we could do and having little influence on anything at meetings but, after seeing just how little most practitioners and institutions have moved over the years, I can see there is a massive amount still that can be done, needs to be done and, perhaps, it is time to shout a little louder.

Despite all their best efforts, none of the agencies has really had the impact I would have expected after all these years at the classroom interface. Smartboards, VLEs, on-line materials and all the peripheral uses for devices would have happened anyway. On-line courses and the exciting possibilities offered by 'flipping the classroom' or variations of these themes are happening anyway. Universities are slowly waking up and doing things their own way, especially in the States and with Google and other major players. We seem to have lost that connection with the Giants. We need them, whether people, consortia or big companies. The Forum most definitely has a purpose to its existence and the chance to discuss with colleagues what is happening and to share all the super knowledge that exists in out community remains and I want to see that flourish and draw in more people from sectors we haven't yet reached. The Fair, as an annual event we look forward to, should continue and I'm happy for JISC RSC to take care of the organisation of it all but I want the Giants there not just mentioned in passing.

I do blame myself to some extent. I haven't been active enough. Since the last reorganisation at my college I have been tied to a timetable and simply unable to get to meetings or sessions for several years and have had to turn down invitations of give excuses. I even managed get the date wrong last year and miss the Fair completely! I'm free of all that now. So it's time to get my act together, get the Forum back on the road as it once was, get inspirational colleagues back on board and starting doing what we should be doing - demonstrating excellent practice ourselves which, regrettably, didn't really happen this year as well as it might. Few will have noticed, and I am confident that JISC RSC will, once again, get glowing reports on their feedback sheets but I should have added a line to mine: "They worked hard but could do better."

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