When my son came home from school with a list of one hundred words to learn (thanks Michael Gove) I wondered if some technology could help. Somewhat hesitantly I started searching Apple’s App Store hoping to find something that wasn’t tied to a US-English dictionary. My search turned up a range of apps, the one I settled on was Super Speller by a husband and wife software team – Quiet Spark. One of the reasons for this was their sensible approach to privacy and an absence of adds (well worth paying £1.99/US $1.99 for).
Don’t let the clean interface of this app fool you into thinking it is too basic. It is deceptively powerful. Essentially you create a series of tests by typing in words, then use the iPad or iPhone’s microphone to record yourself saying them. That means your children will hear the words spoken in the local accent. So far so good…
The list supplied by (to?) the school doesn’t just contain words that are tricky to spell (like achieve or rhythm) it also contains words that sound alike. The question that initially troubled me was how can you use an auditory cue to help the listener differentiate between the potential responses? That’s where (with a bit of lateral thinking) this app excels. Rather than just saying the word and stopping, you can follow it with an explanation, e.g. recording the phrase “aloud – as in speaking out loud” or “allowed – as in permission to do something”. This way the meaning of the word as well as its spelling can be reinforced each time the test is taken. Equally, you could include it in a sentence and say something like “Spell allowed, as in ‘you are not allowed to pick your nose'”.
Once a test has been set up, there are a range of delivery options. Most are what you expect – the ability to shuffle the order, ignore capitalisation and, if you really feel the need, to set a time limit. Something that isn’t part of the enterprise testing solutions I am used to (think QuestionMark, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) but perhaps should be is Super Speller’s Smiley hints option. Essentially this feature adds a Smiley at the top of the screen that provides the user with regular clues whether or not their spelling of the word is on track. This is particularly useful when learning a new list of words. Whilst helpful, achieving full marks in a test using this feature means you miss out on the reward offered under “full test conditions” – a screen full of balloons to pop.
The app also offers a Study the Test mode, where a link is added exposing the iPad’s dictionary. Just remember to set up the appropriate language for your iPad and enable/disable the dictionaries before hand! The app will honour these settings – an important feature as it should be your teacher, not the device that has the last word in how a word is spelled.
Unlike some apps designed for mobile devices, this one supports multiple students, making it great for families who have chosen not to issue everyone with their own device. Before you take a test, you are prompted to enter your name, and the results are saved against your name.
Often it can help to add a few words not on the test list. This doesn’t need to be an attempt to trip them up – inserting the name of a favourite toy or TV character can add a bit of light relief and remind them that learning should be fun!
The app has a lock option you can use to prevent access to the Manage Test (a.k.a. the See the Answers) page. Whilst locking it down might initially seem appealing to parents, if you leave the app unlocked, then children can have fun making up their own tests, challenging each other (and who knows, even their parents!) Creating extra tests has proved much more of a draw to my children than the built in word search and scrambling tools (though your results may vary!) It also provides some insight into the breadth of their current vocabulary and a chance to pick up any misunderstandings or mispronunciation early on.
It provides good reporting tools if you want to check on your children’s progress – you can step through the responses in each attempt. I’ve yet to explore the tools for sharing tests with others via email, but I can see the advantage, particularly if I was a teacher wanting to use this for practice in my class.
This app was written by parents to help their own child and I think this focus on making it appealing to children is the key to its success. Only time will tell whether the balloon popping will retain its appeal with my children, but Super Speller has already proven to be a good way of getting them to complete their literacy homework. If I could change one thing, I’d like to add the ability to record an introductory or congratulatory video clip for a test, to make it feel even more personal.
BbWorld was different this year, the second with Jay Bhatt at the helm. This was most obvious during the main keynote/road map presentation. Gone was the rapid pace, regular clapping, the “cult of Chasen”, Bhatt was noticeably lower key, with some of the audience left waiting for some “killer” new announcement that never came. Indeed, some people who should have known better tweeted that the keynote was simply announcing a repackaging of nothing new. Bhatt undersold himself.
The keynote hid several major changes amongst a wide-ranging discussion about modern society, it’s ills and why the current education system won’t fix it. Needless to say this was delivered though the spectacles of technological-determinism and left me and many other members of the audience feeling a little edgy.
Moving on to the hidden changes, the first was a rebuilding of Blackboard’s wide range of products into a series of bundles. These will differ slightly for the K12, Higher Education and possibly the professional education markets. From my hurried notes during the conference these are:
Learning Core – essentially Learn plus the Community System, Content System (including xpLor and portfolios) the social/cloud tools and some form of mobile access.
Learning Essentials – adds Collaborate and possibly some more features from Outcomes
Learning Insight – adds Analytics for Learn and also Outcomes for Assessment
Learning Insight and Student Retention – not the most imaginative name, nor the clearest definition, this seems to add some extra student retention features to complete the bundle.
Why is this important? Well Blackboard has just raised the base offering, essentially when this is rolled out, everyone will have at least the traditional academic suite (the ‘deathly hallows’ of learn, community and content). This should make it easier for the company to support the product (effectively by giving the product catalogue a long overdue haircut) but also much easier for users – the help documentation will finally apply to all users and we can get rid of questions such as ‘do I need the community/portal part for this to work?‘ It should also make user experiences more shareable and transferable. Anything that removes divisions between the user community is a good thing.
Secondly, a new user interface was demonstrated. This was a working prototype, accessing a standard learn database (if such a thing truly exists!) but using node.js to render much of the page content client-side. This makes the interface appear much more responsive and allows Blackboard to match the end-user rendering speed of other solutions such as Canvas. By shifting much of the processing work onto the client side, it also helps the core Blackboard product to become more scalable. The use of client-side just in time rendering also offers the possibility for much better reporting/learning analytics. A problem with building web pages in server memory and then sending them out to the end user is that you never know whether they saw the bottom of the page (or even the middle of a long page). If it is rendered on demand – e.g. in response to the user scrolling down – then we can record the fact that the information was at least actually displayed on screen to a person! In conversations I had with Stephanie Weeks she confirmed that this fact had not been lost on Blackboard either.
This is one of several signs that Blackboard may finally be able to lever their market dominance and vast range of products for the better. Hidden in the programme was a ‘State of the Union’ address by SVP Gary Laing. He began by sharing rather too much of his life story and desire to work with Blackboard to reimagine (re-engineer?) education, but then thankfully he talked about key changes that are occurring behind the scenes. Coming in to the company with fresh eyes he has seen the results of Blackboard’s aggressive takeover and merger approach: multiple product lines, often with a degree of overlap, running on different hardware, often based in different parts of the world, written in different languages by individuals in different teams, often with their own definitions of what should be common terms defined (and hopefully stored) only once – users, departments/schools, institutional roles, term dates, etc. Laing showed us how these teams and products should be rearranged so that features like analytics and mobile feel built in rather than bolted on. He challenged us to think about SMAC – social, mobile, analytics and cloud (note this could be re-arranged as SCAM). These are ideas he wants us all to bring back to our home institutions.
Then, a third Blackboard hosting was offered – as well as self-hosted and Blackboard’s current managed-hosting, there is to be a third multi-tenant option currently referred to as a public cloud solution. This looks like an attempt to play catch-up and stem the loss of clients with limited budgets to cheaper cloud-only solutions (particularly Canvas). It is unclear how building blocks will fit into this model and how much freedom individual clients will have to select or write their own.
Indeed there is much still to work out. What will the new pricing structure look like? How will building blocks be able to exploit the new Ajax user interface? How many clouds can Blackboard manage? There were also some noticeable omissions – both the community and content systems were effectively ignored during the conference. Have they a place on the roadmap?
I think there are many reasons for hope from BbWorld14 and much for both Blackboard and the staff and student users to learn. It was great to see so many students present at the sessions and as ever, their choice of external keynote speakers was excellent. As for number 15, to be held in Washington DC, if they can reintroduce the client voice back into the programme selection, to allow it to become more critical (in a constructive way) then I am cautiously optimistic for the future. At least they late realised that dropping the developer conference was a mistake 🙂
I’d like to end this review with a challenge for Jay Bhatt and his colleagues at Blackboard. If he really wants to reimagine education and believes that the way to do this is through data-based decisions, then is he willing to move Analytics for Learn into the entry level Learning Core bundle? Giving every Blackboard user across the world access to powerful, integrated learning analytical tools would be a very strong message. Creating a common platform and millions of users would give the field of learning analytics a real boost, by allowing staff and students to easily exchange interesting questions and patterns. That might just get the slogan off the t-shirts and into our daily teaching and learning…
I spent today in Edinburgh at a presentation about Canvas – a VLE by the strangely named company Instructure (it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). To declare a potential interest, I currently work for an institution that has a long history with a competitor – Blackboard. I leave it to the reader to decide whether/how that colours my comments.
A large part of the day was spent listening to staff not sales people – Darren Marsh and Margaret Donnison from Birmingham University which has recently been through the periodic VLE review process that every educational institution undergoes from time to time. In Birmingham’s case, their current VLE (WebCT) had gone ‘end of life’ and so they were facing a migration regardless of which product they chose. In that sense it is an excellent example of an unbiased evaluation, as there was no status quo option. On the down side, WebCT is pretty long in the tooth and would fare poorly in a comparison with almost any VLE on the market today.
As well as the need to find a new VLE system, the University felt that distance and blended learning was becoming more important and that the market was undergoing a period of disruption due to factors such as increased student fees, MOOCs and alternate modes of delivery. Their needs were clearly expressed in a few points:
a high quality product
fit for purpose
That last point is interesting – in a market dominated by a small number of vendors, is there a risk that all institutional offerings look the same? This is an intriguing proposition that I have some issues with – is the online learning experience only skin deep? Equally does just changing the appearance of content (akin to applying a different template to a WordPress site) significantly alter the learner’s experience in any meaningful way? That doesn’t fit with my experience. I think the MOOC I learnt most from so far was the #OCL4Ed course hosted on WikiEducator/MediaWiki. It looked awful and was hard to navigate, but the learning activities were well-designed and stimulated meaningful collaboration amongst the participants (e.g. commenting on each other’s blogs – see http://apperleyrd.wordpress.com/).
A question I didn’t think to ask at the time was where had this notion of distinctiveness come from? Was it requested by academics, tired of working in the same old online courses, was it from students, or perhaps from marketing? I have seen a lot of student feedback describing institutional VLEs as ‘clunky’ and ‘tired looking’ but I’ve never seen any students asking for them to be more distinctive!
The findings of Birmingham’s detailed tender process were echoed in the subsequent demonstration of the Canvas product – there is a large feature set common across all the major VLE platforms. We saw demonstrations of online marking using the cloud Crocodoc/Box View service, adaptive release of content based on dates and tests scores, integration with third party services such as Kaltura, Panopto, YouTube. Whilst slick, these features should have been familiar to the audience and many required the purchase of third party services (e.g Kaltura and Panopto). Assignment workflow was a little disappointing, lagging behind that in Moodle or Blackboard – no support for moderated marking, anonymity and other factors held dear (even if perhaps in some cases misguidedly) by many UK HEIs.
Great play was made of the ability to use the IMS LTI standard to connect to third party systems. They publish an impressive catalogue of possible integrations at http://www.edu-apps.org/index.html. A closer inspection shows that very few of these services have been certified as compliant by IMS (see http://developers.imsglobal.org/catalog.html), which makes me wonder whether they take advantage of the full range of LTI features (e.g. populating the grade centre) or are just a simple launch point that may or may not actually implement LTI. Later I browsed through a few entries on edu-apps and some of the comments about tools no longer working (including the YouTube integration) were a bit worrying – although in this case they might have just referred to integration via Moodle.
Also, although IMS are working at a standard for analytics data – caliper – this is not yet ready to implement, so integrations that rely on LTI will not provide any tracking/usage data to the parent VLE. This is a missed opportunity for both staff interested in their learners actions in a given course and those trying to aggregate data across courses, or attempting to measure the return on investment in a particular tool.
Interesting too that like many other VLEs, the ability to integrate with 3rd party systems using LTI first requires action by a user with appropriate privileges (see http://www.edu-apps.org/tutorials.html). Whilst the document suggests this can be done at a course level, in practice I think this may be restricted to system administrators – if only to keep the lawyers happy and to safeguard the privacy of our users – creating a potential bottleneck to innovation.
Although only just coming to the end of their first year of using Canvas, Birmingham had found the time to solicit student feedback via questionnaires. The usual caveats about small sample sizes, risk of only capturing the extremes of opinion and questionable use of some leading questions all apply. Still 84% of students agreed with the statement that they found canvas easy to use, and an encouraging 88% found it useful for their studies. Perhaps more worrying is why 12% did not, assuming that it contains links to the course materials, online tests and e-submission!
Common themes that the students praised were ease of use and a clean layout. Looking at Birmingham’s implementation (which provides a pretty standard canvas course) you can understand the ease of use – the interface is relatively uncluttered and the content is restricted to materials relevant to the courses they are taking. There was no evidence of any portal functionality being delivered through canvas – a later perusal of their website identified [my.bham] – a student portal based on SunGard’s Luminis product.
The clean layout is an interesting comment. I’m not sure if this means ‘it looks like Facebook/Wordpress’ and just reflects the widespread adoption of this user interface model, or whether it was very like the old WebCT course structure they already knew? Screenshots showed templates with similarly labelled folders on Canvas, some even going to the trouble of replication the icons representing folders in WebCT. On a more positive note, it might be the result of carefully planned and structured courses on the new system.
One advantage of switching learning environments is that it offers the institution a chance to start again. It is all too easy for systems to become bloated over the years (like an old laptop) with content that is no longer used, courses based on copies of copies of copies, all of which can have a negative impact on performance. Also it provides staff with the chance to review the content and online components of their course. Doing this across a whole institution and with a real fixed deadline, where just using the same stuff as last year is not be an option, has benefits that can’t be achieved through an isolated course review (though I’m not arguing you should stop doing this either, there’s just an extra benefit/multiplier effect when everyone is thinking, talking and sharing about this at the same time). It’s also a good time to check all the links work, content is copyright cleared, etc.
It is also a good motivator to get staff to attend training. Birmingham use a mix of face to face workshops with online materials – with separate courses for staff and students.
As a relative newcomer to the market and built for a hosted, scalable solution from day 1, I was interested to see canvas performs on mobile and tablet devices. Sadly there was no evidence of responsive design comparing the experience in a standard browser at different screen sizes and on laptops and tablets 😦
Like many other vendors, they have released mobile apps for iOS and Android. I thought that the mobile UI they showed actually looked nicer than the standard one, with clear icons next to course menu buttons giving an extra clue to the functionality of the links . Special apps exist for dedicated tasks e.g. the SpeedGrader app for online Grading – which on a cursory inspection seems a bit like Turnitin’s GradeAnywhere app, though without support for offline marking of downloaded scripts.
This video shows Canvas deployed on a range of devices and footage of the custom SpeedGrader app:
A few eyebrows were raised around the room when they mentioned their approach to versioning/software release: there is only one version. They operate an agile approach with new releases every three weeks. When probed, there is a degree of control, it is possible to turn off or delay the implementation of new features on your build. This is good news if you want to avoid any changes during key times (e.g. online exams) but seems to contradict the one version policy and I am not sure how it works with their online help documentation – does it respect all these local settings?
The product is only available as a hosted service, sitting on the Amazon AWS cloud, providing a scalable solution, with a promise from Instructure (UK) of 99.9% uptime over a year – assuming it doesn’t fall foul of a denial of service attack by those angry about it’s approach to in-country taxation. They use the Dublin-based AWS European Data Centre for EU clients to keep everyone happy. It is unclear whether all the bundled extras – e.g. the Big Blue Button conferencing app – also offer an EU or -Safe Harbor compliant solution.
Although Canvas’ origin lies with American computer science students dissatisfied with their current online experience (sound familiar?) the staff present in Edinburgh were keen to play the international card. It was good to hear them supporting localisation for different languages (no support for Gaelic yet) and with research and development teams available in-country – in the case of the UK in London. As one of the small fishes in a pond still dominated by the US, it is always nice to know that someone is listening and able to act locally.
Although we ran out of time, they are also analytics options and Instructure staff were keen to hear from UK institutions wanting to use their Canvas network product to facilitate MOOCs (like #BlendKit2014).
More information about Birmingham’s experience can be found on the UK Canvas site (though tred carefully as the comparison table Canvas publish doesn’t give me much confidence in their QA – I found errors in the third row: Development Technology). They also link to this video, note it was uploaded to YouTube by Canvas, not Birmingham:
Some final thoughts:
Q. Did the day leave me feeling that our current platform (Blackboard) was pedestrian or had been eclipsed? A. No – some features in Canvas look slicker/more mature/better than Blackboard, but equally some features in Blackboard look slicker/ more mature/better than Canvas.
Q. If I was looking to implement a VLE from scratch or undergo a review of provision would Canvas be on my short list? A. Yes.
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’ TPACK – Technological 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: http://edudemic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/padagogy-version2.png – 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.
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: https://www.apple.com/uk/education/real-stories/essa/
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? Featured Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aperturismo/4488250788/
Some random musings on technology enhanced learning