Bex’s Brave New World

Greetings from Wales!  I’ve had a rather busy few months, having accepted and started a new role as a Learning Technologist at Cardiff University.  I lived in my native Cornwall for 38 of my 42 years, so moving to Wales has been quite an emotional wrench, but more importantly, has been very exciting too.  So, one week into my new role, I thought it was about time to give myself an ILT ‘audit’, once more dust off thisblog, look at the tools and equipment I own / use and see where I want to go next.  First things first – I think it may be time to upgrade my equipment.

My trusty MacBook is now 7 years old, and though it still works as well as it did on the day I bought it, has never had a virus or any cause for repairs and has lovingly held my entire music collection on iTunes for at least 6 of those 7 years, my thoughts are turning to buying a replacement.  So far, I have managed to narrow this down to one of three devices:

  • 1.       An iMac.  And a full-on model of course, with 27-inch screen, 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz8GB (two 4GB) memory1TB hard drive NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675MX with 1GB and the apprearance of a well-groomed supermodel from the future, though possibly more beautiful.  However, there are several issues.  An iMac costs a fortune, it uses proprietary software only, some of which can be a real pain in the proverbial to use, the machine cannot be ‘tinkered wi th’ as far as adding extra memory, a better sound / graphics card, etc.  However, on the plus side again, it (probably) wouldn’t go wrong or pick up a virus.  However; vitally, I have a feeling that desktop PCs are going the way of the Dodo, so this could be a very expensive but very beautiful white elephant.
  • 2.       A Windows laptop.  There are some really good, cheaply-priced models out there.  Lenovo (a subsidiary of IBM) are making basic but robust devices at the moment – I saw a £300 model with 1TB memory advertised just last week- and with Windows 8 and Office 365 now up and running and in domstic use – these both being systems that I do need to be familiar with in my role – this is a serious consideration
  • 3.       A ChromeBook.  Now, ChromeBooks fascinate me.  They are completely internet based so have no operating system.  They (apparently) cannot pick up viruses.  They start up in seconds, and everything from storage to software is cloud based.  They’re very cheap too – the cheapest model being £200.  My instinct tells me that this is the way computing is going to go, with everything housed in the cloud and the need for installing software via discs becoming a thing of the past – look at the way console gaming has been moving over several years as an example of this.  And look at Microsoft 365 – a completely cloud-based Office package.  In a seemingly endless time of austerity, these ‘quick and dirty’ machines could end up stealing the proverbial show.

Let’s scrub the iMac.  A beautiful device, but ultimately this could just be a very expensive waste of money.  That narrows it down to the laptop or a ChromeBook.  Or possibly both.  I’ll report back when I have decided…

AMENDUM (May 2013):

I got a Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook.

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Book Review: Moodle 2 for Teaching 7-14 Year Olds

When I was first approached to review Mary Cooch’s latest PACKT publication: Moodle 2 for Teaching 7 – 14 Year Olds, I admit to being a little bemused: as an FE and HE practitioner, VLE Administrator and self-proclaimed Moodle expert I couldn’t immediately see what use this book would be to me.  I could not have been more wrong.

So what makes this book so good?  Mary Cooch’s writing style means that even the most tech-wary of readers will immediately feel at ease.  This is a book written by a teacher for teachers – there is no jargon or techno babble, and the writer’s caring, supportive voice can be heard clearly throughout. 

The author assumes no prior knowledge of Moodle, and ‘no particular experience on the web.’ Yet, despite its calming tone and crystal clear instructions, it never becomes patronising.  Colour screen shots help immensely and help to clarify the already clear instructions further. Users are clearly shown how to design a Moodle course that isn’t just another repository of Office documents and PDFs, but a fully interactive and absorbing experience for students.   Therefore, just because the author assumes that the reader is a beginner, she doesn’t go on to assume that it’s only the basics that need to be covered.  And it is at this point that I realised that even an arrogant Moodle ‘Know it All’ like me could learn a few new things. 

Once the basics have been covered the book goes on to look at concepts such as using the popular quiz and puzzle making website ‘Hot Potatoes’ (and ultimately providing a ‘how to’ within a ‘how to’!).  Another section looks at embedding Flash Games, including the infamous ‘Fling the Teacher’.

By chapter 6, the author merrily has her readers adding HTML coding to Moodle pages (thereby embedding Google Maps, Voki avatars, StoryBird essays, Wordles, YouTube films and more.  This is followed by an excellent chapter about accessibility and advice or teachers new to Moodle.  The author then foes on to explain file extensions clearly – something I found incredibly useful, as I’m often getting my ‘doc.’ and ‘docx’ confused and my ‘Jpegs’ and ‘Pngs’ mixed up!

The final chapter looks at more advanced Moodle operations such as lessons, surveys and conditional activities.  I will confidently bet my last cheese sandwich that by the time the typical reader reaches this chapter, their Moodle stage-fright will have vanished and they will feel more than able to tackle these more complex acts, such is the clear, focused and friendly text. 

As an addendum to this review, I noted with interest how parents are encouraged to look at Moodle for evidence of their children’s work and school experience.  In these days of ‘digital transparency’, it’s good to see more and more educational institutions opening their systems up to parents and carers.

So.   I heartily recommend this book for the intended audience…but also believe that this would be a fantastic introduction to using Moodle for any practitioner, be they in the compulsory on non-compulsory sector.  A superb publication all round!

Kill the Pigeon (Hole)

Whatever happened to individuality? Why are we so scared of people not fitting into a recognisable, comforting box of our own design that we feel compelled to design quizzes, tests, skills audits and questionnaires to force people to fit into constructs of our own imagination? And why, after ‘building’ such constructs, do we merrily label ourselves according to our learning style, teaching style, form of intelligence or preferred blend of coffee?

Educators, as far as I know, are reasonably bright, therefore I would hope, reflective, critical and self-aware people.  Yet I know of no other industry or sector as that of education so willing to pigeon-hole teachers and students with relentless head-down, arse-up passion.  As soon as another dusty, bespectacled academic decides that teachers are either dolphin or panthers (or some other mobile phone tariff), or that we are aural, visual or kinaesthetic learners, their thinking becomes reified as the new black in education without question.

 But isn’t it actually dangerous to look at our class list, see that we have a majority of supposed ‘visual learners’ in our class, then teach a curriculum to their preferred style, ignoring the fact that in the real world nobody really gives a toss how you prefer to learn? By mollycoddling, aren’t we actually un-preparing our learners for the world outside of the educational institution?   

 Let me step back a wee bit – this is starting to sound very black and white and a little ‘ranty’. 

 I do admit to thinking that we all have different forms of intelligence: some people are more practical than academic for example.  In my Teacher Education days, when talking about Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (for years I’d ignorantly refer to him as Howard Marks by mistake, then wonder why my students would snigger and mumble about ‘Afghan Black’ and ‘Lebanese Red’) I could see exactly what the revered Dr Gardner was saying: Take 50 people with the same IQ and some will be better at maths, some at languages, some at music, some at construction and some at unicycling.  These broader brushstrokes do serve a purpose: roughly defining who you are without the need to constrict you, put you in a box, stick a label on you then move on to the next specimen.

 As humans, we seem to have an almost primal need to brand ourselves as ‘visual thinkers’, ‘left-brain thinkers’, ‘dyslexics’, ‘left-handers’, ‘dolphins’ or ‘reflectors’, so as a result, as soon as another theory of learning is published it becomes doctrine without challenge.  If we, as teachers, are supposed to be so bloody clever and critical, why do reify without question anything that certain people say?  (Though I am waiting with baited breath for the day that Geoff Petty suggests all Further Education lecturers should wear day glo green because the colour makes students better behaved. Education’s cry won’t be ‘but how can you prove that and doesn’t this all sound a bit mad?’  It’ll be ‘What shade of pink should we wear Geoff?’)

 Steve Wheeler is, amongst other things, Associate Professor of Learning Technology at Plymouth University and a genuinely nice bloke.  In his blog, Learning with ‘e’s, he posits that ‘the teacher’s worst enemy is bad theory’.  Because someone with the prefix Prof or Dr attached to their name has suggested something, we should not accept it without question. Instead, maybe we should do just the opposite and question it before accepting?

 Actually, that’s one of the reasons I left Teacher Education.  I could no longer espouse this stuff (Wheeler refers to it as ‘folk medicine’), nor could I really continue my habit of locking the classroom door and saying ‘all that stuff you’ve been told about learning styles is crap’, as mavericks cannot remain mavericks for long (as I found out)…

Read Steve Wheeler’s aforementioned blog entry, then read the rest of his blog.  It really is good stuff and it says exactly what I’ve been harping on about, but far more eloquently.

Review of The Mahara 1.4 Cookbook by Ellen Marie Murphy

The Mahara 1.4 Cookbook by Ellen Marie Murphy claims to present readers with ‘over 50 recipes for using Mahara for training, personal or educational purposes’, and this reviewer is happy to say that it delivers exactly that!

Mahara is a widely used open source ePortfolio system that allows users to build dynamic and engaging portfolios in no time.  This book thinks outside the ePortfolio box and shows readers how to apply for jobs, create a body of work, organise work for certification and accreditation, support teaching and learning, develop classroom projects and even create their own social network. So, in a nutshell, it looks at features users may not have explored and shows how to use them in ways they may not have considered and is of particular interest to anyone interested in building an ePortfolio or in helping others to develop their own.

The book also provides guidance in the use of open source programmes and applications such as Gimp, Picasa and Audacity that can be used in tandem with Mahara and provides the reader with techniques for creating dynamic and engaging templates, showcases, portfolios and professional resume packages.

The book is split into 8 very specific chapters that cover 8 very individual projects: Mahara for the Visual Arts looks at showcasing and reflecting upon a body of work while Literature and Writing examines how Mahara can assist with first and second language acquisition, journals and poetry books and provides a short tutorial on using Gimp, a free image manipulation programme.  The Professional Portfolio reflects upon resumes, CVs, letters of application and references while Working with Groups looks at building a newspaper, setting up web pages and how to make templates, with a very useful tutorial looking at how to create a group newspaper using newsfeeds from student journals.  The Primary Education Portfolio is a fantastic chapter for anyone wanting to use Mahara imaginatively and looks, among other things, at creating classroom pages to share with families, setting up a slideshow to create a book and using ‘secret URLs’ for setting access levels: something vital if working with younger students.

The Social Portfolio is a fun look at how to ‘pimp’ a profile page, add slideshows, write on a user’s wall, and even add features such as a visitor counter and Twitter feed, whereas The College Application Portfolio talks about building a college entrance portfolio creating an academic achievements page and recording extracurricular activities and work experience logs.  Finally, Certification and Accreditation Portfolio for Higher Education looks at how to build the ECIS International Teacher portfolio, creating access pages for outside viewers and archiving portfolios.

At a personal level I do like the way the chapters concentrate on individual projects and uses for Mahara, enabling educators and learners who may be hard-pressed for time to dip into chapters that are relevant rather than having to read the book from cover to cover. This is definitely not a wordy publication, with each chapter’s introduction clearly stating what the chapter is about briefly and succinctly.

Instructions, as with all books by PACKT are clearly written and chronological with keywords emboldened and box outs show warnings or important notes, tips and tricks. Colour illustrations contextualise written instructions, making this a book for people with a range of learning styles.

Definitely recommended reading, whether you are new to the concept of ePortfolios and thinking of using Mahara or already use it but want to see what it can really do.

ePortfolios. Brill or Bobbins?

I think they’re pretty brill, and here’s why…

 …I’m currently checking out an ePortfolio system for which the college has a licence, but is making little use of.  It’s called SkillWise and is probably very familiar to loads of educational establishments and businesses.  Having had a brief scan of the website and a chat with IT Services so that I can have a play, so far it all looks reasonably easy to use.  However, that’s not the real point of today’s post, which is about my ongoing love of ePortfolios and my frustration that nobody else seems to understand this strange love affair!

 

The shared office I have just left is packed to the rafters with ex-learners’ bulging, paper-based portfolios (some up to five years old).  They take up so much space there is barely room for anyone to work in there.  Were there to be a landslide of ring binders, people may get injured.  Paper cuts would be the least of their worries though – a heavy lever arch file with sharp corners falling from a high shelf can cause rather a lot of damage to one’s ears. I know this to be true. The obvious solution then would be to pack them up and stash them in the college‘s archives (all attempts to contact the portfolios’ owners having come to nothing).  Thing is, the college now has to charge for archive space, so this isn’t a viable option either.  Which is the first reason I like ePortfolios.  Here are a few more:

 

1.      They save space (yep, already mentioned that, but I’m neurotic and the list has to be complete)

2.      They save on travel time, and therefore petrol.  No more having to lug your portfolio on a 76 mile round trip that costs a fortune in fuel and takes a chunk out of your day.  And I just read that back as ‘They save on time travel’, which would be a ridiculous notion.  I mean, why would you want to curtail regular visits into the future / past?

3.      They save costs – and by that, I mean the cost of paper, ink and the electricity needed to power a printer.  And have you SEEN the cost of ring binders nowadays?  Tsk.

4.      External moderators can access learners’ work remotely, so have no need to travel from Invercargill to Cornwall to moderate one cohort’s work.  This, again, saves time, money and petrol.

 

I’ve been using ePortfolios for several years now and they haven’t cost me a penny!  (I’m assuming that ePortfolios from other companies can cost quite a lot of money).  Using Moodle, I’ve found that there’s a workaround.  That’s a lie.  I was told by someone who had discovered this for themselves, so it isn’t my invention.  Anyway, I now set up groups named after each learner, and then enrol that learner into their named group. I then give each group its own forum.  Moodle forums are very easy to use and learners can either type their work directly into them as a ‘forum post’ or can upload their work as an attachment to a forum post.  The beauty of the group system is that learners can see their own portfolio/forum mashup thingy, but nobody else’s.  However, as course teacher, I can access each portfolio – as can anyone else (such as a co-teacher or external moderator) as long as they have access as a teacher to the course.

 

My aforementioned frustration stems from the fact that both practitioners and learners alike seem to be very wary of ePortfolios.  Not sure if ‘wary’ is the right word actually.  Apathetic?  Confused?  They think that it’s going to be a really complicated and time consuming thing to implement and use? Maybe that someone will pull the plug on the ePortfolio provider and all their work will be lost?  Maybe it’s that feeling of having something tangible at the end of a course – a piece of work that can be held and seen and even smelled…and has physical substance?  But if that’s the case, then why are so many portfolios uncollected and mouldering in my old office? 

Half Learning Technologist…Half Luddite…Half Mathematical Incompetent….

There are quite a few bits and pieces in the digital landscape that have caught my eye and that do require further investigation. When I do I’ll post more in-depth writings here, but for now here is the first addition to my digital smorgasbord of Things I Don’t Fully Understand Yet But Am Going To Have A Play With.  I have to warn you, this particular bit of technology has been around for a long time, and is a concept that I should have got a handle on years ago.  I am a bad learning technologist because it has passed me by and no amount of whining about how I haven’t had the time to investigate further will make any difference.  Once I’ve written this I’ll take myself off to bed with no dinner.

 QR Codes have been around for some time, but my tiny mind couldn’t work out how a series of random black and white patterns in a square could translate into web-based content.  I was scared of the concept, for surely this wasn’t physically possible? Clearly there was some kind of majicks at work: demonic spells or voodoo jiggery-pokery? How could a Smartphone take a photo of something Mondrian or Matisse would have been proud of then ‘turn it into’ a web page? How? If I take a photo of my mum my browser doesn’t then take me to random web pages or display a previously hidden message on screen! Unable to make any sense of this witchcraft, I ignored the whole concept.  Until 3 weeks ago that is, when I stumbled upon an app for the BlackBerry whilst looking for something completely different. Finally admitting to myself that this was something I really did need to know about, what with being someone who is supposed to know about stuff like this, I downloaded the app. 

 

QR Code Scanner Pro is a free application and one that’s dead easy to use. Find a QR code, open the app, point phone at QR code, wait a few seconds, phone vibrates to show that it’s picked up the code, look at phone screen, go directly to the web page linked to QR code or read the message the code was hiding in its monochromatic frame on-screen. Bob’s your uncle etc.

 

Having captured several codes (mostly from bottles of vodka, cider and lager, admittedly) I started to wonder what else these black and white images could be used for.  I’d viewed web pages that gave code-capturers entry to competitions and access to special offers, so was keen to see how they could be used in education.  Here’s a few of barely formed ideas I’ve come up with:

·      Treasure hunts / information quests / guided tours.  Good for orientation, Problem Based Learning, investigations or just getting learners out of their seats and out and about enjoying our balmy (barmy?) summer weather. Need to think about this a lot more, but I sense there’s something there…

·      QR codes as profile pictures that can link to the user’s personal website, ePortfolio, blog or online business card. Or even traditional business cards….

·      Quizzes? Not sure how, but I can see a possible way of doing this.  Again, need to find out more….

Qurify www.qurify.com is really simple to use and it’s free. Type the message or URL of your choice into a window, press the ‘qurify’ button and a QR code is produced in a couple of seconds.  The code can then be emailed to contacts, printed as a hard copy or converted to a JPEG or PNG file. Just need to work out what I want to do now…if anyone out there has any ideas, please do let me know.  So I can steal them..!

If you build it…they will (not) come…

When I flap my mouth like this, it can often get a negative response.  I think my writer’s voice is arrogant and possibly a bit smug.  I read back my old blog posts and have to admit to wincing and thinking: “Who IS this idiot!  What an opinionated t**t”.  I’m mentioning this because this post may well go down the arrogant / smug / t**t route, so you’re forewarned now and I apologise in advance.

 If you’re still here…I’ve noticed over and over again how many costly IT projects and initiatives go the way of Milli Vanilli and fruitcake cheese.  Millions of pounds given to educational establishments and businesses to develop admittedly beautiful, swanky and cutting edge websites, social networking sites, Virtual Learning Environments, digital repositories, galleries and showcases…..all of which end up being no more than glorious follies.  Virtual tumbleweeds career along deserted forums, message boards, film repositories and glossaries.  To quote Richard Herring: why is this Stew?
Well, I have a theory, and because I am arrogant, it’s something I bang on about whenever I’m at a conference or seminar. And I may well be completely and utterly off course with this.  But…if you build it, they will not come.  Really!
Want to get your learners to network socially?  Built them a standalone social networking site linked to your school or college?  Wondering why after a flurry of curiosity on days 1-3, nobody has logged in for 4 months?  I reckon it’s because they’re all on Facebook.
Want to build a swanky site that wil host all of your learners’ videos?  Developed something that cost a fortune for designers to put together and another fortune to host?  Wondering why none of your learners have uploaded anything? I reckon it’s because they’re all on YouTube (or, increasingly, Vimeo).
Many people say that it HAS to be this way because of permissions, eSafety, school and college firewalls and the like.  Ok….I get that to a point…but by blocking all of this stuff we’re shielding our learners from reality (something for another post, perhaps?) so they are ill-prepared for the ups and downs of digital life and identity outside the school walls.  Besides, loads of learners have phones that keep them permanently hooked up to YouTube and Facebook in school or college anyway!
So.  Why do we think that it’s up to our learners to come to us?  Why can’t we screw up our pride, allay some of the concerns associated with young people using social netowrking sites and the like  (and save millions of pounds and thousands of man hours) by going to where THEY are already and moulding their educational and digital experiences into a shape they recognise and, vitally, feel comfortable using?
Ok.  Read all of that back.  I sound like an uninformed twonk.  No surprise there…