Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Fusion 2012 - a week on

The Fusion conference was probably one of the best organised and most enjoyable I have been to and the opportunity to get to know other "e-champions" across the university was incredibly valuable.

The key note speakers were inspirational, the delegates were good humoured, polite and interesting, some of the break out sessions I attended were genuinely educational and the product itself - the learner management system used by my university - looks shiny and engaging. But I have returned to reality and specifically the reality that OUR version of the shiny stuff is a couple of iterations behind and as such still has the clunky awkwardness and grey institutional unattractiveness that makes it difficult to get excited about.

I have spent some time this week trying to discover if and when some of the tools I have seen will be available to use (rubrics! please!) and today I am back to looking at tricky workarounds to be able to teach and assess in a way that is most appropriate for me and my students.

It isn't that I am against VLEs per se - indeed I think the new version of ours will deliver much of what I need - it is just that what I need is constantly moving and changing to keep up with innovations in teaching and learning and the VLE lags a fair distance behind.

So what do I want in an LMS?

1.  The basics: a classlist that links effortlessly to grading information and assessment drop box

2. A place to store or link to resources of various types

3. A "news headlines" feature that automatically notifies students of updates

4. A Discussion Board that does the same

5. An attractive, intuitive interface that makes it as easy as, say, Facebook to log on, find stuff, add stuff, create a personal page or profile (or "portfolio") and submit stuff for assessment

6. A simple way of assessing online OR if files must be downloaded & uploaded, that this can be done in zipped batches and not painstakingly one at a time

7. A way to group topics into folders or sub pages that keeps things tidy and navigable

8. A place where students can easily create and collaborate on content

9. A place where students can easily give feedback - to me, to one another

10. and finally - for added *sparkly*, *shiny* attractiveness - a way of changing the appearance or backgrounds to home pages and a navigation box that is a bit more blog/wiki/ (just - you know - web 2.0) -like. 

Some of this I have seen before in other systems; some I know is to come in the next release of our own. In the meantime, I face the next academic year with my usual battery of work arounds and off-VLE platforms.

And of course, any VLE has limitations - if only in terms of portability. So maybe, I try to convince myself, taking the students out on a virtual field trip is not such a bad idea as it does at least introduce them to tools that they will be able to use after University. Knowing about Google docs, blogs, wikis, survey monkey, twitter, diigo, google+, slideshare, facebook and all the other tools I regularly use is not in itself a BAD thing and judging by the number of my peers to whom these fairly mainstream web tools are a closed book (to use a non-digital metaphor!) it is probably a very good thing.

My students are very unlikely to ever again live their lives within the metaphorical confines of a VLE-like system (unless they continue in academia). It is highly likely that they will go on to work in jobs where an understanding of social media and web 2.0 tools will be essential, for marketing, planning, working on projects, reaching service users and for just keeping in touch with colleagues. 

So although I was very nearly convinced in San Diego that the promised land of "version 10" will provide me with everything I need in one place, maybe I'll also continue to steer my students on their own course through slightly more uncharted waters.....

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

E-Portfolios: an e-piphany

Amy Mangrich explaining the narrative arc of her students' reflections

I am really interested in using e-portfolios with students - for reflection, for employability, for collaboration, on line formative assessment - a whole host of stuff that could be really useful, fun and creative. Unfortunately the eportfolio that comes with our VLE is almost universally loathed for its clunky functionality and lack of intuitive interface.

There are about to be changes to the whole system - eportfolios included - which we are being promised will smooth out the wrinkles and make them both more engaging and more portable. I really hope so because I was part of some sessions today which really made a convincing case for wider use of this tool.

Amy Mangrich from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee showcased a module which had been completely restructured to integrate reflective activities which led the student through the development of the "story" of their own intellectual development. This they then translated into a series of found or created images and finally dropped the collection into Voicethread to narrate an audio commentary.

Amy's belief that the multi media immersion was both emotionally and intellectually engaging (as well as developing media skills) was very convincing and inspiring. My own personal action points are to think about the seamless alignment of module structure, formative tasks and summative assessment on the one hand, and greater creativity and courage in the use of the eportfolio as a platform.

Amy and the instructors in the next session on eportfolios (yes there was a theme to my day) stressed over and over the need for a) templates created for the students to follow b) examples for them to look at and c) training in the technicalities of eportfolio assemblage.

By scaffolding the tasks the students gain confidence and by limiting their choice of presentation platforms, it levels the playing field to some extent. My own preferred policy of giving students some freedom of choice can result in some of them spending too long agonising over the "right" tool.

Some students I suspect would find the eportfolio tool in the VLE a bit limiting but the fact that it is institutionally supported, requires the same log in as the VLE, and generally does not terrify students in quite the same way that the weird and wonderful world of wikis and facebook can do, means that is potentially easier to access.

In the second session I had a further epiphany about the value of the eportfolio for assessment - tutors can access students work at various stages of development to give feedback - and why not summative? This could mean feedback/comments and even grades given "live" in the work without the download/upload faffing about experienced when marking assignments via normal dropbox submission.

The Virtual School of Georgia presentation focussed on the use of eportfolios for staff development - and that's crucial too: you really can't insist on student using this tool until you feel confident to do so yourself. More food for thought...........

In a brief lunchtime conversation with an instructional designer from Nashville Tennessee, I heard again a message which many presenters echo: there needs to be more than just a minimum requirement for VLE learning rooms. Courses need to be designed around the VLE and modules within them need to follow consistent patterns - the naming of "units", the sequencing of tasks, the alignment of learning outcomes - these all need to be far more prescribed, monitored and enforced if the VLE is going to engage students. The current policy of "let a thousand flowers bloom" is great in terms of academic and professional freedom for STAFF, but disorientating, and a bit shabby in terms of the student experience.

Now, whether you really want or need such a tightly controlled learning environment is another question, but if you ARE going to have an institutional VLE, it really ought to give the same high quality experience no matter what module is being studied.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Creating Accessible E Learning

Just back from a really practical session on the do's and don'ts of making learning accessible.

Lots of simple things I can see I do so wrong. Using headings is a great start to allow users of text readers to find their way around a lot of text.

High contrast text and using HTML or word documents instead of pdf is important. Also the importance of creating meaningful text for hyperlinks (which should also be underlined) and not just putting "click here" repeatedly.

Alternative text for illustrations is something I confess to being too lazy to do consistently. Having a presenter with a visual impairment to explain the implications of NOT thinking about accessibility was really helpful and illuminating in a way that just reading the manuals isn't, and she did this with such humour and good grace that noone was made to feel bad for all their previous errors (OK I mean me...)

Monday, 16 July 2012

A Conference unlike any other

….that I have ever been to!

This conference is huge – over 1000 people here – and energy levels are already high. The whole experience is carefully crafted and branded, scheduled, teamed, hashtagged and mobile app’ed.

The opening keynote is from the CEO – in a suit but no tie, massive screens amplifying his image through the huge ballroom here at the San Diego Hilton, talking about the company’s record on accessible learning, the imperative to take learning out of the classroom and into the world.

The enthusiasm is sort of infectious but the upbeat, unrelentingly positive tone is also a little embarrassing to British ears. Our party hoorahs with some irony and reluctantly gets on its feet when bid - but maybe we'll get over our reserve by the end of the three days.

Here in San Diego I can’t get over the sensation that I am an extra in an offbeat american comedy: it may be the jetlag but the sense of unreality was not helped by having arrived at the tail end of ComicCon and finding ourselves surrounded by Batmen and Wonderwomen, children in Star Wars and Dr Who themed costumes and thousands of Big Bang Theory types clutching their oversize goody bags.

There is so much to do here at the conference – in terms of sessions, poster exhibitions, product displays – and there is a strong air of competitiveness. The VP of Marketing is just explaining how we can win points for our teams or win “swag” for ourselves by entering various draws and a contest for the best e-portfolio.

Currently we are listening to and watching Sal Khan of the Khan Academy: giving the story of how his enterprise started in 2004 – tutoring his niece in maths via speaker phone and early internet tools. Really interesting and funny - he developed software to generate maths problems to support a growing number of cousins wanting tuition but finding it strenuous, was advised to put explanatory videos on You Tube. The cousins preferred him on You Tube to personal tutorials :)

Great to hear an account of modest ambitions and a real desire to support learning. Setting the theme for the conference? 

Friday, 6 July 2012

PLE revisited

Three years ago I started out trying to define a PLE or Personal Learning Environment, with the production of this Prezi