Blogging, and other tools generally…

I’ve started looking through various bookmarked pages; an interesting co-incidence that when I thought I’d try to look at a range of aspects of Blogging in HE, I found that WordPress now offers the ability to use an online creator at WordPress.com to write for a self hosted blog. Not sure I’d bother in the future, but useful to test it now!

So, blogging. Where do I start? Well, where did I start? August 2004; that was just before we started teaching a unit that was going to require students to blog, so I thought I’d better have a go myself. I wasn’t entirely sure, as I’ve never been a great writer, but I got going. Over the years my blogging has waxed and waned, I’ve taken to twitter , then as we started to move students at Portsmouth into Google Apps for Education, so Google+  seemed more relevant. (This is a general one, I lost the Portsmouth one when I left). There were other tools in between times, many of which stopped offering freely hosted services (anyone else used to use Elgg?), or didn’t work for long enough to really get students to use them (Google Wave anyone?)

Today, there are so many different options – recently, I’ve had Known mentioned to me; what I’d not realised is that it’s developed by Ben Werdmuller – who’d co-founded Elgg (which I’d liked a lot at the time).

I’ve just read another story covering the changes in tools used – other than Facebook, I’d say I’ve tried most of those, either for myself, or with students. Some I’ve stuck to, some I’ve drifted from. When I left Portsmouth, I realised the problems with having material tied up in a particular domain. Moving this blog was easy – WordPress makes it so. Extracting all my contacts from Google Apps far less so. I created a “takeout” – but it’s not going to be easy to get it all back into my current account. I am starting to do it manually. Guess this is where it all adds up to a PLE. (Or, given that these are mostly things designed to work with others, a PLN).

[Oh, and not sure I’d bother using WordPress.com to create posts in the future, though it is a very clean looking interface]

 

Changing another unit!

Having posted some of my ideas about updating Edcom and wanting it to be more “Web2.0” oriented, I’m also thinking about another unit – Research Methods for the Level 2 students. (warning; may take some time to appear).

This was originally developed by Terry King, for a small group of students – all of whom were intending to do a study project. In October, I inherited the unit, plus a much bigger group of students – many of whom are intending to take the Engineering project option.
There have also been a couple of other minor changes – in the last run, the community was based in Eduspaces. Due to the frequent outages on that site, and the fact that it wasn’t running the latest version of Elgg in September (still isn’t), I decided to use Edublogs.

I spent quite a lot of time discussing the value of having an online presence – beyond that of Facebook etc. Getting students to register and to set up a blog was time consuming; at least, it was for those 10% of students who didn’t, or who did, but forgot to tell me the URL, etc.

The marking has been quite time consuming – trying to find their blogs, their comments on each others’ blogs etc – and then to link that into the essay they have to write. (They were told to refer back to their blogs in their essays, but so far, only 1 has).

So, reluctantly, I’m thinking of removing the external blogging element for next year. I know that the able students liked the flexibility that WordPress gives them over WebCT “blogs”, but I’ve also got to think of the practicalities.

I’ll call them “learning journals”, rather than “blogs”; but more importantly, mark the posts they put in it. Each week there is an activity, which is designed to feed into a blog post. I’ll scrap the final essay, which should, had they actually done all the activities, be quite easy. They were encouraged to refer back to their blog posts / comments from others, to show how their ideas developed. (But, as I already said, of the 20 or so I’ve marked so far, only 1 has). I’ll keep in, though, the marks for commenting on each others journals.

The tool in WebCT Vista will allow me to very easily see who’s posted – and, more importantly, who hasn’t. (RSS is great – and I’d added a Grazr on the home page, drawing on Google reader – but I had to add them manually – and I only knew who’d updated their blog, not who hadn’t…)

I still think that the external presence is important – so I’ll include a “bonus” up to 10 marks for those who create a good PLE – using whatever tools (so long as they’re RSS enabled) and send me the details. I think I’ll make it so that they have to have things in it that are related to this unit (research methods) – but, if they also want to include material that supports other units, so much the better. I won’t nag them to do it though … just give them pointers at the start – and point out that there are bonus marks riding on it.

What's in a name?

I’ve recently been involved with an email based discussion with other colleagues about aspects of “mobile” learning. There are various things we’ll be looking at, such as capabilities devices that students actually have, technical developments etc., and, the aspect I personally feel is crucial

…the pedagogical issues involved when delivering learning material on small form-factor devices

At the same time as answering the various messages that were flying around I read the 2010 Horizon report(pdf) – which has as “One year or less”, Mobile Computing. I then read a little further and noted that part of mobile computing is the area we’re interested in (small form factor), but it also encompasses wireless access in general.

The available choices for staying connected while on the go are many — smart phones, netbooks, laptops, and a wide range of other devices access the Internet using cellular-based portable hotspots and mobile broadband cards, in addition to wi-fi that is increasingly available wherever people congregate.

I therefore wondered if “Mobile” was the correct word for the group, and asked around. One suggestion was that “personalised” would be better, though my own view on that is that a student could have a “personalised” learning experience on the latest gaming machine with 2 24″ monitors – or her new android powered phone (clearly a rich student!); so it’s even more generic (though something, alongside aspects such as encouraging staff / students to make best use of OERs that should be being done anyway. )

My preference had been for “handheld”, so I asked on Twitter. Initially the answers had pointed towards “handheld” – possibly due to the leading nature of my posts! Simon Brookes included the point I’d forgotten – though would have known had I thought about it – about the frequent lack of keyboard. However, later in the evening, Jon Trinder and James Clay joined in, and the discussion swung back towards “mobile” (or learning mobility – which was Andy Black’s suggestion) – with the additional point that in that case a “mobile device” could be the coffee shop!.

In the case of UoP, I feel that we’ve already addressed many aspects of “mobile learning”. The wireless network is pretty ubiquitous (from talking to people at other Universities, it’s one of the most extensive), all our coffee shops (and, whether by accident or design, several local non-University ones) have it; we have both an encrypted and (more recently) non-encrypted option (I can now get the OLPC on it :)). We also have it in most teaching areas. So far, I’ve not heard that any academic staff have prevented students using laptops in lectures. There’s also a pool of loan laptops in the library. So, we’ve got good support and understanding, I think, for wifi access from laptops that are running reasonably recent versions of Windows (2000/XP/Vista/7), Mac OSx+. There are probably a few linux users – but the chances are they’re relatively geeky and installed it themselves. (The main drawback that I see to this is the lack of powersockets where you happen want them!)

The new group, however, is looking at netbook & smaller devices so:

  • huge range of OSes (and is more likely to include novice computer users with linux based netbooks);
  • small screen
  • limited input options
  • access via wifi or 3G

That’s why I feel that the word “handheld” is, in this case more appropriate – and could guide us when considering “the pedagogical issues involved when delivering learning material on small form-factor devices.” (by default, I’m assuming we’re thinking about using them to get students involved via discussion etc., as on paper, “delivering” could be seen as one way). There’s also raising staff awareness; most are, as I’ve already said, tolerant of laptops on desks. Most assume that phones on desks = (non-academic related) texting!
Any other comments?

Trying to update a Unit!

I’m currently teaching a Unit called “Educational Computing” (warning: server often slow/down)
The current unit looks at how to design & create what’s essentially a learning object – for something that is fairly fact based – things like GCSE revision are common choices. The software the students create (currently using Flash or HTML) is designed to be used by a single user, and tends to be pretty traditional (in no small part, that’s due to the fact I tell them they have to identify how you’d both teach and assess someone online).
They also have a group research project, looking at recent developments in eLearning, so, research into Mobile Learning / SecondLife for teaching etc.
The unit was created several years ago, when most students were enthusiastic programmers. Now we’ve got far more who are on a range of degree schemes, many of whom aren’t keen programmers. (Not to mention the fact that Flash has a much greater learning curve than Authorware).
However, I want to radically rethink the unit! I want to make it more community based, but still recognising that there are some subjects for which a fairly traditional approach works well – the drill / practice tools that are easy to build – and useful if you’re trying to learn your tables etc!
I’ve had a few ideas and have also been talking to one of our online developers; so my current plans are:

  • Maintain the overview of how people learn, including (among things) that some things need lots of repetition and essentially have a “right” answer, while others lend themselves far more to discourse and don’t have a right answer.
  • Get students to find & evaluate a range of different types of online learning resources – for different subjects / ages / etc.
  • Develop a community of online course developers through a range of Web2.0 tools – I’ll suggest some – whatever happens to be current next October, and get them to find others. [Get them to develop their own PLE?]
  • Have a set of real life projects by asking round the Uni / friends who happen to be teachers. e.g.
    • 1st year history undergraduates studying pre-Industrial communities
    • Newly qualified nurses wanting to develop professional links with their peers
    • A class of primary children studying their local area in Geography
  • Get them to create a website / set of resources to suit the above. Not quite sure at this stage, how much I’d want them to actually *create* material, and how much to evaluate existing resources & draw them in to form a coherent whole ..
  • And then some form of group research project – perhaps getting them to use CiteULike etc., more than I currently do; … not sure

Any suggestions?
It’s going to have to be something that I can set up in our VLE (WebCT Vista), and a certain amount of my teaching material will have to be there – however, there’s nothing to stop me having lots of links out!
I have to work out how to have the balance between discourse happening within the VLE (as that’s where it’s meant to) and that outside (issues of services ceasing / students not wanting to set up yet another account being balanced against the real world that’s out there.)

The New Web Literacy

The New Web Literacy Notes from a presentation by Dave Millard at Southampton. I was invited to this (and to the others they’ve had this term, but I teach on Wednesdays & can’t get from Portsmouth to Southampton in 5 minutes!)

He raises some useful points about using Web based tools – both the traditional monolithic VLE and the more flexible PLE. I tend, whenever I can, to favour the more flexible (after all, as a student, no-one told me that I had to keep notes in a hardback A5 notebook or whatever. I chose to keep them in the way that suited me best).  Obviously, a totally open type of PLE can lead to difficulties for some students. Not all are comfortable with all tools; not all like to use them all.

We have a VLE at Portsmouth – and part of my role as faculty eLearning co-ordinator is to get staff to use it. However, I don’t see it as a be all and end all. There are other, supporting tools available. It doesn’t mean going to Facebook – but it may well involve looking at the skills students develop through using Facebook etc. (often without realising they are IT skills), and how those skills can be used to support learning individually / as a group. It will, however, be interesting to see how tools like Newport’s Facebook application, and the one that Cambridge are developing are taken up by students. My feeling is that it won’t be a particularly large number, but it will be some, and those few may well use it enthusiastically. Thus, as long as it’s not taking too much developer time, probably worth maintaining. But not enforcing.

Something like Elgg – which I like a lot I’d see as a starting point – for many students it may well also be an end point. Others, however, will want to add to it, using a range of sites – possibly ending up with no elements of Elgg.

the DNA of the Personal Learning Environment?

Graham Atwell posts a link to a long paper he has written about PLEs in general. In his blog post, he re-posts the comments he makes about reflection, the difficulties of getting students to reflect – and the fact that there is natural tendency to comment superficially on what the student thinks the teacher is going to want to read.

Reflecting on work isn’t something that I had to do at school, nor in my first degree. It’s something that I find hard, yet I have to get students to do it. Atwell quotes from Kathleen Yancey’s “Reflection in the writing Classroom”:

reflection is always a fiction where students write specifically to the needs of the tutor.

PLEs, XCRIs, SUMs and other acronyms in Melbourne

Scott Wilson has yet another set of slides about PLEs – not quite the same set as I’ve seen before – and so has some useful extra additions. There are a few slides comparing VLEs & PLEs (I’d love to know what he said as he presented those slides!). You will, however, need to have QuickTime (not Quick Time Alternative) installed in order to see some of the slides, so I’ll have to check them later on another PC.