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Not one for sitting on the fence

Today I was in Newcastle, lucky enough to attend the #audreytalk event in person –  thanks to Suzanne Hardy and Mike Cameron for the invitation. Audrey Watters – think Hacked Education, Educating Modern Learners and most importantly her own domain [read on] – had travelled north after her ALT-C keynote to challenge the assembled audience sitting in Newcastle University to think Beyond the VLE. I’ve long been a follower of her blogs and her challenging opinions (thus the post title) and it was a great chance to meet her in person. Her slides and notes are available here.

She began with an apology – about the US-centric nature of her writing. She then talked about ed-tech as a route for a new US cultural imperialism. (She didn’t use these words, but I think this process could offer an alternative, darker (re)definition of Euan’s Semple’s catchily named trojan mouse concept). She then had a kick at Blackboard, and another, and another, and also all the ed-tech startups/wanabees who think “Blackboard sucks” but then essentially want to create another, but skinned differently. To over-mix my metaphors, a Blackboard in Facebook/Coursera/any old sheep’s clothing still sucks, even if the potential market and spending record of schools and universities on such systems has investors drooling at the mouth. She was exceptionally critical of the lock-in of data and ideas that a VLE facilitates, fenced off from the outside world (nicely illustrated with slides of cows looking at you across barbed wire).

Yet this walled garden did not suddenly come about when institutions signed up in droves to buy VLEs. There have been fences around schools since at least Victorian times. The reasons for these remain complex – is it protection of identity, income, reputation? Is it thought to promote the rarefied atmosphere ‘required’ for learning – i.e. to keep others out?  iThis self-imposed fencing was explored further by questions from the audience – the internet is still being portrayed as something to be protected from – witness the 4 page acceptable internet-use agreement my 9 year old son son and I had to sign for at the start of his year 5* class at school earlier this month. It could be argued that we get the solutions we pay for, and these learning management focussed systems dovetailed neatly with the needs of institutional managers. Her point is though, that the learners and teachers had little say in this.

She talked about the danger of storing things in the cloud – witness the recent iCloud password hack ‘exposing’ [pun intended] celebrity photos – and stressed the importance of owning your own data. She then talked of a different approach taken by the University of Mary Washington – their Domain of One’s Own initiative – where students and staff are bought their own domain (whose name they can negotiate) and helped to set up LAMP tools such as a blog. An interesting idea and a very brave marketing strategy – note the equal number of dislikes as likes on their introductory video.  I’m guessing from the abandoned Bagman blog that this approach (be it marketting or DIY infrastructure) wasn’t to everyone’s taste. This hands on, take control of your data approach is one that resonates with Audrey.

It has a sense of coming full circle. It was reminiscent of the early web publishing activities of staff and students in the time before VLEs – Audreys uses her own graduate teaching at the University of Oregon in the late nineties as a case study. This was interesting and resonated with my own early teaching experience. I was also a member of what we could term ‘Generation tilde‘ – those who had public web space on their University’s servers, accessible by simply appending ~ and your username to the institution’s domain. We were certainly much freer to publish content than we are now, but I think we suffered from the lack of data about what people were doing on our pages and few had the skills to code online tests, discussion boards, let alone provide tools where students could begin to construct and challenge their understanding online together. The web was freer, but it was also a lonelier place then.

Reflecting on her talk as I travelled home, I couldn’t help feeling that she is on to something, that somehow we need to improve the base level of digital literacy in the population and heighten awareness of where our data is held and how valuable it is. I loved her quote “data is the new oil”. I also loved another version that Doug Belshaw had heard (apologies I remembered the quote but not the source) – “data is the new soil” – I think that neatly captures the fact that this the data are the beginning not the end-point. I am still wrestling with the inherent tension between the desire to be open and the need for private spaces to learn. I think it might be easier for professionals (e.g. teachers) to share materials and if possible the journey (including any wrong turns), all subject to continual refinement and reflection. Martin Weller and Gráinne Conole are a good examples of this from HE. Yet I think we also owe it to our students to provide them a ‘safe place to fail’ – somewhere to experiment, try different approaches and angles, without worrying that these actions will haunt them online through the rest of their life.  If we ask/require students to make their learning public, can we predict the effects? I am worried that such an approach may have a negative effect on learners with low self-esteem, the slower thinkers, those still struggling with the subject, or trying to consider things from an alternative perspective. Would it promote an attitude of playing safe, favouring the students who are first with the most obvious answer, reinforcing the actions of the loudest, or playing to the audience?  Yet how many people would really read students assignments? Shouldn’t I also draw hope from the fact that people seem to find the courage to post the most remarkable things on Facebook (or perhaps that is exactly what I should be worrying about). The web allows does allow you to go back and update your content [if you own the data], so am I just overly-paranoid?

Audrey pointed out that at least some of these issues can be avoided through the use better assessments and of pseudo-anonymity – e.g. choosing the name of your blog and domain with care. Doug Belshaw provided a great counter-example of a UK student who was working on a history project blog about native American Indians. His initial postings were not too great, but his enthusiasm for the topic was fired up when out of the blue a comment was posted from the son of an Amerindian chief (I hope I got that right Doug!).  That’s the way I want things to work.  Perhaps it’s time to rethink that fence…


* That’s the equivalent of primary six for anyone in a sensibly numbered education system – is it any wonder many children find maths confusing if we can’t even apply the most basic principles of arithmetic to the year numbering?

CC BY Image: A photo of Alyson Shotz’ – Mirror fence – taken by Erik Anestad and shared on flickr using a CC BY 2.0 license.


No more writing on the wall?

For the last ten years, electronic whiteboards – such as those produced by Promethean and SMART Technologies – have been standard items on any classroom refit and usually enthusiastically received by staff and students (see Smith, Higgins, et al. 2005). Every day when I drop my children off at primary school, they walk into rooms where the electronic whiteboard is up and running. Any parent who arrives late and has to take their child into the classroom is likely to see them all performing a 5 minute exercise routine following instructions on the board! For examples see this Pinterest site or the Activityworks website, the latter includes some explanations of why some people believe this approach is effective.

My observations of whiteboard use in schools is very different to that in universities, where the boards now usually sit switched off (in some cases hidden behind larger projection screens)!  Even in areas for group work – e.g. booths where students sit around a table with a laptop and an electronic whiteboard at one end – more often than not the whiteboard is unused.  The question is why?

This is a technology that showed a lot of early promise. A study by two staff at the University of Pittsburgh published in 2012 has caught the attention of SMART (in that they add a link of dubious legality to it on their website).  Jang and Schunn watched the way groups of engineering students interacted with/were constrained by the technology. The authors contrast what they term “individual tools” such as a computer or a person’s notes, with “shareable/collaborative tools” such as an electronic whiteboard or a physical prototype. Their results suggest that students who used collaborative tools from the start, and continued to use them throughout the project, were more likely to deliver. There’s a bit of circularity here, and I don’t feel you can unpick whether the availability of the boards increased communication, or if it just shows that people who were already experienced at group communication made good use of the available collaborative tools. SMART certainly hope you take the former view as you can see in this infographic they published summarising the findings. Opinion remains divided – e.g. this 2010 study by Torff & Tirotta suggests that some of the motivation-enhancing effects often associated with electronic whiteboards are overstated.

From my personal experience of using the boards, I have come across a couple of problems (ignoring the high cost of these devices):

  1. They are usually poorly placed in rooms (particularly “meeting rooms”) , meaning that many people sit with their back to the board and have to turn away from the rest of the group to see it. This has the effect of inhibiting conversation, or favouring their use in small groups. The worst example of this is putting them at one end of a table in a booth, making them essentially off-limits for everyone but the two people nearest the board.
  2. They are often too small, making the content hard to read and annotations blocky. Too often they are not as good as a plain whiteboard, failing even at the first substitution stage. If you are trying to project a high resolution image, often projectors aren’t up to the job – with neither the resolution or the contrast. Solutions that can make use of an LED or plasma TV can give much better results – digital versions of microscope slides can finally look as good as  old Fujichrome slides!
  3. Pens and the erasers can go missing, and the on-screen tools you can drive with your fingers are always a bit clunky.
  4. Most boards only support one “touch” at a time. This means two people can’t really draw at the same time – which is something I’d hope would be a key part of collaboration. Users  accustomed to navigating with multi-gestures on their phones and tablets will find the electronic whiteboard a frustrating experience. Suppliers are catching up, but I still think the model is wrong.
  5. The boards can do strange things with other USB devices connected to the same computer (e.g. blocking voting system dongles or some slide remotes). Collaboration tools should play nicely together in my opinion and not restrict you to the tools built into the board.
  6. The required software can be a bit flaky, and some versions are not as backwards-compatible as they should be. Furthermore, the developers seem to write the code where the tools are deployed using helper apps that launch on start up, do they really expect staff to always shackle their laptop to a whiteboard?
  7. Finally, and in my opinion the worst feature, is that they only work when you stand in front of them. If you fix them at a height where most people can reach both the top and bottom of the screen, then you probably won’t see much if there is someone sitting between you and the board. It is difficult to use them without turning your back on the rest of the room. Yes I have seen setups linked to an interactive tablet, but this still needs tethering via USB and so is rarely passed around the table. Perhaps in response to this failing, some boards are now available as “tables”. Whilst the videos of people flicking through and rotating photos look slick, I’m not sure this really is the action most conducive to learning in a tutorial or seminar setting. If the table becomes the screen then you can’t put things on it – what good is a meeting if there is nowhere to put your coffee cup?  How will you take notes?

Despite this list, I have seen people use them and use them well. By capturing a carefully designed “board-centric” activity, the focus of participants can shift from trying to record what is happening, to actually making things happen. That has to be a good thing. They also allow annotation of figures on the fly, which can help address any issues that were not anticipated when you prepared the materials.

Whilst I was initially attracted by the large number of page templates, I think there is a danger of over-preparing the session. Students need to be free to contribute to the session and take it in a direction that, whilst still meeting the learning outcomes, may not be exactly what you had planned. I find that if I have spent a lot of time preparing particular slides, I am more resistant to deviating. That is wrong.

I think the answer is probably to stop trying to write directly on the board. There have been a lot of advances in educational technology since the first electronic whiteboards were designed. The two key ones for me are the rapid growth and availability of wireless networks and tablets. Technologies such as Apple’s Airplay (sharing content from an iPad or Mac newer than mine via an AppleTV) are very slick and free you from the constraints of a single app/program (no matter how good it is). Connection is literally child’s play which should encourage staff and students to have a go. Rather than ask a student to come up to the board, or try and pass them a tethered tablet, surely it is better to get them to take control of the screen from their device. If someone wants to suggest a minor change, pass the tablet. That said, I think this model may be more suited to “serial collaboration” unless the app you are sharing support live collaboration (e.g. a wiki).

The cloud is also changing things –  if someone takes a picture with a phone or tablet (perhaps the result of a particular experiment, or something that illustrates a point they want to make), how easy is it to get it displayed on-screen? Do you need to swap devices, or is there some common repository (be it Flickr, Dropbox, OneDrive or iCloud) that you can use to facilitate instant sharing?

If we do decide to replace electronic whiteboards, it might mean we can finally get rid of switches like this one that are just asking someone to see what happens if you do!


One Step at a Time

This video is released under the standard YouTube License

A colleague just sent me a link to this video created locally. I hope it helps dispel the myth that multimedia is only for the arts and humanities. It shows people working in the sciences  flexing their creative muscles. It is also great to see them willing to share this resource with others. I wish my lecturers had done things like this. Makes you wonder what the students are doing too…

Learning from Schools

I spent most of today at an iPads in Education event organised by Jigsaw24 (an IT solutions company specialising in education).

It opened with Andy Nagle from Apple. Unsurprisingly he stressed the importance of design and illustrated this with the final sequence of Pablo Picasso’s Essence of Bull.  Some die-hard anti-Apple types might find that title strangely fitting 🙂 He then talked about toasters – an object he claims lie unused in your house for 98% of their life. Thus you don’t just buy them for their function – design matters. [I wonder what he’d make of my “toaster” – an AGA?] Whilst good design is a very nice thing to have, I don’t think he really made it clear why design matters in education. Several presenters gave reasons why it might be over the course of the day. Phrases such as “it just works” and “it has to work first time and every time” being frequently uttered by presenters and delegates alike. Whatever 21st century learners may be like, it seems their teachers are not tolerant of technical compatibility issues 🙂

Andy introduced a couple of models that seem to have been very important in shaping Apple’s thinking:  Ruben Puentedura‘s SAMR model – Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition and Matthew Koehlers’ TPACKTechnological Pedagogical Content Knowledge – where the key is that each of these three aspects is of equal importance. Some people I know may take issue with that, but I can see the sense in this if we are thinking about learning as opposed to teaching.


Although we didn’t see this video today, this “horse’s mouth” video explains these theories well. In the US, many in education see the challenge as moving education “above the line” – from enhancement activities (SA) to transformational activities (MR).

It ends with an interesting set of nine components he thinks should be part of any 21st Century Learning. That is something I should give more thought to in a future post.

Later surfing showed that some people have even tried to apply this framework to iPad apps: – I thought that this was interesting but I don’t think any blanket categorisation like this can ever hold up. What is transformative in one situation may be only augmenting existing practice in another.

Andy then left the building Elvis style and we were left in the capable hands of Abdul Chohan from the ESSA Academy.

ESSA Academy


He spoke about the way they had transformed a failing school. It was an inspiring talk and you can get a feel for the impact this whole-scale rebuild of the school, its processes, attitudes and beliefs in this Apple video case study:

He had amazing clarity of vision. His business, he said was learning. What he was trying to do was reduce the time people spent on “busy-ness” (processes/admin) rather than “the business” – learning.  As well as the technological change, the school had looked hard at the accompanying processes. By moving a lot of activities to the iPad, he felt many became more transparent and more visible. Parents could see content on their child’s iTunesU site being updated at night or over the weekend, helping to dispell the myth that teachers stop work when the bell rings at 3.15. Staff could take registers and the data was instantly uploaded into the school’s MIS.

There were a range of other good presentations, most of which just managed to avoid being an out and out sales pitch. One looked at the networking needs – all this mobile technology will put considerable strains on your wireless network. Networks, it seem are not all the same.  Lots of iPads need management. There are tools for this, and some include a series of content filters and access locks. These can be used so that staff, students and parents can all see what they were used for outside school (so no downloading porn or your kid’s iPad folks, or you’ll get a strongly worded letter from the Head!) I also learned about some of the built in accessibility features in iOS. The Invert Colours feature was clever (though not all apps seem to support it). As an aside, I wonder if switching from a largely white to largely black screen would have any impact on battery life?

The last  major presentation looked at another iPad roll-out from a local school which sounds a bit like a crematorium – Stephenson Memorial Primary School.  Emma Overton spoke about their iPad@myPad project. One of the most interesting things to me was the way they had involved the children, recognising and fostering their skills. They recruited a series of “geniuses” – borrowing from the Apple lingo (who later appointed themselves assistants) – each with declared areas of expertise – e.g. Twitter, blogging, iBooks. This was seen to significantly change the way staff and students engaged with each other, with these geniuses supporting other students, or “bought in” to help staff plan or develop particular aspects of their teaching. I think this is a model that could (indeed should) make the transition to HE. There were also some great stories of how a technical intervention can help stimulate the children to improve through greater engagement. My favourite was using the Aurasma augmented reality app to bring the children’s drawings of dragons to life, demanding better stories.  That might be harder to transpose to the HE setting…

All in all a very thought provoking day that really through down the gauntlet to higher education. If this is how these children are learning now, how can we continue this process and challenge them (in a positive productive way) should they choose to come to a University?
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