Tool Roundup Part 2: Making Online Lessons…Online

cwNOTE: this post was written in August 2014, but has been languishing, unseen, in my ‘Drafts’ folder since then.  As a result, it’s probably very out of date by now – technology years are like dog years – but it may still have some merit!

In part 2 of my ocassional ‘Tools Roundup’ serties,  I’m going to look at a couple of tools that teachers can use to make their own online learning resources / lessons / activities.  As with part one of this series, these tools need to hit certain criteria in order to be considered:

  • They are free to use (or have a free basic account)
  • They are easy to use – so if you only have enthusiasm but no IT skills, you can use them without throwing your laptop out of the window in frustration.

Here at Cardiff, as with many educational institutions in the UK, the free online resource-authoring tool of choice is Xerte, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Indeed, I have been using Xerte on and off for several years now, and it’s pretty good (plus objects can be published in a variety of formats, making them playable on any device, be it a computer, tablet or smartphone).  However, it can look a bit intimidating to those who have enthusiasm, but not much in the way of experience, confidence or time.  This is why I’m looking at these alternatives, the first of which is:

Tool #1: TED Ed

This is a very quick and easy way to produce a stylish, interactive online lesson or resource.  Simply pick a film on TED Talk or YouTube to centre your online lesson around, copy the film’s link and a framework for constructing a lesson is provided. Adds your own text, questions and discussion headings, press a button, generate a link and you’re done.  This does mean you are tied to whatever happens to be on TED or YouTube (so it may well be that there is nothing there that quite ‘fits’), and although I do like TED…and I know that this may not go down too well with some fans…I do find it all a bit evangelical and smug sometimes. Sorry.

I have made a very quick and dirty lesson about Genetics (and called it part one of three. I like to set myself unobtainable goals by thinking I’ll have time to make parts 2 and 3, when really, all I want to do in my spare time at the moment is ride my bike and eat ice cream).  In this instance I have chosen to make my lesson public: though when you do sign up for a free TED Ed account, can make a lesson and you can choose to keep it private, so only those who you choose to share a link with can access it.  Here’s Genetics Part 1:

Tool#2: Versal

This tool is very new, so still in Beta stage, and provides users with a very clean and simple interface based around dragging and dropping customisable gasgets (such as text areas, quizzes, surveys, videos and Prezi presentations) on-screen, then adding content via a very basic WYSIWYG editor. This makes for a very logical and visually engaging experience – you start, effectively, with a blank canvas then build your content using these gadgets as digital ‘Lego’ blocks. Content can then be published and made avaialble as a URL or embedded into a VLE or blog.  Paid membership as a single user or an institution also gives the user the ability to publish content as SCORMs

Versal have added a really nifty collabroation feature that allows users to work together to create courses and lessons. I’ve not tried this yet, so don’t know if this happens synchronously or whether only one user can contribute at a time, but I’ll be checking this out later.

I mentioned a few of the gadgets avaialble to users a little earlier, and will admit that in the short course I’ve made while learning how Versal works, I have stuck to the very basics: text, video, multiple choice quiz and survey.  There are many, many more examples of gadgets such as interactive diagrams and maps, an anatomy gadget (which I am going to have to look at, as it could be especially useful in my line of work), and several that do look a little tricky to figure out…

Here’s that short course I mentioned.  Surprisingly, it’s called Doctor Who 101… Oh – bear in mind that you need to set up an account to view the course.

Tool#3: Office Mix

Another tool still in its Beta stage, Office Mix is a free bolt-on for Microsoft PowerPoint.  Download it here and, once installed, you will find your copy of PowerPoint now includes a shiny new ‘MIX’ tab.  You can now add screen recordings, voiceovers, videos, polls, true and false / multiple choice / free response questions and a whole ranfege of nifty things.  student analytics can be recorded, presentations published as SCORM packages and the finished content can be accesseds on any device, be it a Windows-based laptop or a smartphone running iOS.

This is ideal if you are already familiar with PowerPoint (and as it’s ubiquitous, there’s every chance that you are) but not so familiar with the software used to build online resources.  It’s free, it’s very easy to use…but it is only available to those who use Windows-based machines, so if you’re running Office for Mac on your MacBook, you won’t be able to download or use Office Mix.  With Office 2016 for Mac coming out at the end of the year, I can only hope that this issue is fixed.

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I’m a Private Blogger, a Blogger for Money…

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I have been invited to write a blog post as part of a JORUM project looking at mini-curated collections.  The project aims to showcase and highlight existing resources available from JORUM that have been selected and used, or inspired teaching.  Plus, any posts published earn as £75 Amazon voucher, and with season 8 of Supernatural and series 7 of Doctor Who out imminently…well, this couldn’t have been better timed. 

So here’s my post…

I’m Bex Ferriday and I’m a Learning Technologist at the School of Health Care Sciences at Cardiff University.  In my past life as a Teacher Educator my teaching interests were based around teaching theory, with particular reference in training teachers who wanted to specialise in linguistics.  As my role changed to that of Learning Technologist in a subject area I know nothing about (I can’t even put a plaster on properly), so my interest is now in locating existing online activities to support the subjects lecturers within my School deliver – namely nursing, midwifery and healthcare.

With this in mind, I’d like to highlight a number of resources I have recommended to these lecturers, starting with a very simple case study exercise in the style of the popular 90s ‘choose your own adventure’ text-based computer games.  Part of the Ethics Virtual Patient (EVP) series of online activities, and simply called Jake Clarke, this activity sees the user deciding the fate of the eponymous Jake, a fellow Healthcare Studies student who has developing problems with drugs and alcohol.  As his friend and peer, students need to decide which course of action to take in order to assist Jake.  I have chosen and then gone on to use this resource because, rather than looking at a case study relating to someone students can’t relate to or empathise with, it looks at a situation many students could very well find themselves in.  It can also form the basis of further discussion, so has more depth than an activity that is simply completed online in isolation then forgotten about. It’s also very easy to use, so can be completed by even the most technophobic student. A final plus point is the facility to give electronic feedback relating to the online aspects of the activity to the authors afterwards – who clearly seek to improve upon the work they are doing rather than simply develop, upload and forget about the activity.

Nottingham University’s School of Nursing and Academic Division of Midwifery have produced a wealth of online learning objects.  One that I recommend to midwifery lecturers here in Cardiff is called Midwife’s Abdominal Examination in the Antenatal Period.  This multimedia, interactive resource looks, among other things, at inspection, palpation, fundal, lateral and pelvic examination and does so in short but cohesive and coherent bursts of information – no 50 slide, text-heavy PowerPoint info dumps, just brief, clear voiceovers with accompanying images and films.  Interactive activities consolidate the theory covered by way of drag and drop activities and open questioning and clear feedback is given immediately after each activity has been completed.  Navigation is clearly signposted and the online package can be worked though outside of the classroom or used within the classroom, in a group setting, in order to provoke discussion. The flexibility and clarity of information provided are the two main reasons why I recommend this activity.

Another Nottingham University – authored online learning object I have recommended that lecturers (this time in Nursing) use with their students is called Plasma Proteins and Drug Distribution.  The University is very advanced as far as online learning provision goes – they use their own in-house, open source eLearning authoring tool Xerte to produce web-based activities in numerous subjects that fall under the Nursing and Midwifery banner, and this, as with so many others, is another example a resource I recommend for the following reasons:

  • No advanced technical skills are required to work through this – as a web-based activity, all that is required is the URL and a computer with an internet connection.
  • This means there is no need for students to log into an unfamiliar site or to get to groups with a complex interface.  Ease of use is vital to student motivation
  • Information is provided in short, cohesive bursts and consolidated with narration, animation and interactive activities.
  • Links to further (related) online resources and activities are provided, so students can direct their learning at a pace and level that suits them.

Another web-based resource that, once again, provides a clear, multisensory and interactive online learning experience for students in Midwifery is Baby First!, a resource designed to help midwives to support families over the first important year of life when their baby has an intellectual disability. Using the perspective of new parents and their experiences when discovering that their new-born has Downs Syndrome gives students the chance to empathise with their ‘clients’ rather than feel distanced from situations such as the ones highlighted in the activity.   Again, users are invited to give feedback regarding the online content and ease of use, and there are areas in which to record and print out reflections.

My final recommendation has been used regularly by School staff and students studying radiography, and though ancient in technology years (being, as it is, seven years old), it still provides a clear, multi-sensory overview of X-Ray Beam Manipulation.  The resource was made in partnership with South Birmingham College and JISC and comprises an animated simulation that shows the effect of mAS and KVp on x-ray beam quality and intensity (mAS and KVp being the controls used to adjust at the console density and contrast when operating an X-ray). Rather than simply showing this demonstration in a rather didactic manner, importantly, the resource also allows the user to alter the controls of a simulated x-ray machine and to see the effect that has on the x-ray beam and the final x-ray produced.  This hands-on activity consolidates the theoretical content, and provides a safe way of carrying out simulation away from the classroom or X-ray laboratory.

I’m championing these web-based resources because there is no ‘faffing’ – these are not SCORMS or ILMs, there is no expectation on the part of staff to be able to know how to download a complex package, nor how to upload it to an LMS or VLE once downloaded.  This simplicity does prevaricate lecturers from being able to track learner use and responses, but ease of use from both a lecturer and student perspective is fundamental to online learning. This means that staff are more likely to use the resources in their own practice (and have done, as they are not only relevant, but also mean that time is not wasted re—inventing the wheel).  And that’s why JORUM is so important – there are so many resources covering such a range of subjects just within the Health Care Sciences curriculum alone that by using or repurposing them huge savings can be made in time and money.

Got MOOC?

Dear Lord, how I love an acronym.  They really are not used enough in education, so the invention of yet another: in this instance MOOC, has me bouncing around in paroxysms of joy. (A MOOC, in case you aren’t sure, is a Massive Open Online Course.)

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Actually, MOOCs aren’t new – they first originated around 2008, which is about 20 years ago in computer years.  They are aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the Internet and often use open educational resources. Typically they do not offer academic credit or charge tuition fees. Because of this, only about 10% of the tens of thousands of students who may sign up complete the course.

I say because of this subjectively.  As someone who has participated as a student in a MOOC, I have experienced the huge drop out that occurs sometimes just days after a course has begun.  I was a student some 5 years ago in a muvenation course: the first course of its kind to teach real life educators how to be virtual world teachers. This did offer certification upon completion which, though at post graduate level, was really no more than a ‘placebo’-it was a piece of paper, it told you that you were able to perform specific skills at specific levels, but was not designed to be recognised as an accredited qualification.  Participation and assessment occurred predominantly in Second Life, but also via wikis, Flickr and Moodle.  At the start of the course something like 400 people enrolled or showed interest, with only 40 participants completing the course.  This fits nicely in to the 10% success rate I mentioned earlier, but in this instance is a pity as the course was fantastic: very well designed, genuinely interesting and innovative, and a real pleasure to take part in.

Why do people drop out?  I’m guessing that lack of time is the most common reason cited by those who do leave a course before its end, but I suspect that there’s often more to it than that.  Humans like to earn badges and add strings to their bow.  If course completion isn’t rewarded by something (even if it is a placebo), then they wander off track and will find something that does offer tangible reward. 

There is something else I think is important too – and that’s cost and its allegiance with ownership.

In the clutches of a never ending recession many of us simply don’t have the funds to pay for a course.  It seems logical then to think that a free course would have a lot of appeal.  And yet…if you don’t invest financially in something, do you invest psychologically?  If I plough my hard earned money into a course then I want to finish it: effectively, I want to get my money’s worth.  If it’s free, or even paid for by a third party, then my motivation isn’t really ‘there’ because I haven’t put anything on the line or taken a financial risk (of sorts) in order to complete the course

So can MOOCs be successful?  Futurelearn, the first UK-led, multi-institutional platform for free, open, online courses, certainly thinks so. Their plan is to increase access to higher education for students in the UK and around the world by offering a range of courses through a single website. They are partnering with the British Library, British Council and 17 of the UK’s top universities (including the very university for whom I work) and will launch their first courses later this year.  Futurelearn are also majority owned by the Open University. Kudos (and years of experience) ahoy!

This all looks promising.  Futhermore, a quick scan of the Futurelearn website unearths the following quote:

Whilst MOOCs don’t always lead to formal qualifications, they allow students to gain invaluable knowledge to support their careers, or their own personal learning goals. There are no entry requirements and students can take part in the courses regardless of where they live in the world or their financial circumstances.

Now this is something I can get my head around: the fact that students enrolled on MOOCs can gain knowledge that will implicitly help them in their careers or personal targets -or simply because they want to learn something new for no reason other than to have learned something new. I’m a huge advocate of keeping the brain muscle flexed: that if we exercise our minds in the same way we do our bodies, then we may stave off senility and remain as sharp in later life as we were in our youth.  Maybe MOOCs can be a cerebral dumbbell of sorts – maybe they should become compulsory for the over 60s?!

To summarise, though I guess I haven’t answered any questions, nor have I managed to tie down just why MOOCs are:

  • such a big part of the ed-tech zeitgeist
  • have such low retention and achievement rates

I have read so many articles and offered opinions of MOOCs, that I can only surmise that they are and will always be a double-edged sword: another example of ‘Marmite’* learning perhaps. I’m keen to get involved in my university’s work in MOOCS, and equally keen to see just how ‘successful’ they are.  Though because of its laid back, non-accredited nature, can a MOOC really be gauged as being a success or a failure?  Answers, as ever, on a postcard please…

*(You either love it or hate it.)