If you are serious about blended learning – give teachers a mobile phone

In 2002 when I was working as an FE/HE lecturer at a college, the team leader made a decision to provide all staff in the team with mobile phones. The team in question was a PE and Sport team, which due to the nature of the subject, we were often teaching on the field, in the sports hall or at non-college facilities. Health and Safety had insisted that when in these locations the teacher had to carry a mobile phone – so we had a bank of (I think) 4 such phones for this purpose – but logistically this was a nightmare. No-one took ownership of the phones, so they weren’t set up for individuals with useful numbers stored in memory – they were often not charged, and the mechanism of having to return phones after the session (when you didn’t always go straight back to the college after a session), was a nightmare, as well as someone having to co-ordinate a booking system to make sure staff took the right phone, to make the logistics work.

So to partly overcome this problem, and to try and improve communication within the team (which had expanded so much we now occupied 4 staff rooms rather than 1) – the team leader managed to argue the case to provide all staff with a mobile phone. At first it sounded very expensive, but the college managed to get a deal with their provider, so the handsets themselves were quite cheap, and the package was basically a pay as you go – but at a reduced rate due to the number of devices. Any private phone calls that staff made – they paid for themselves – and all in all this was a highly successful model of working.

What we realised very quickly after deploying this model, was because these were work mobile phones, we could pass the number onto students. This had numerous advantages:

  • If a student was running late due to traffic, bus broken down etc. They could text the tutor with an apology/explanation – which saved you disrupting the class to deal with their late arrival. They could now just sneak in, without the tutor having to stop.
  • If a student wasn’t understanding part of an assignment – they could either text or call – even out of hours. The beauty of a work mobile phone was I (as the tutor) had the choice as to whether I wanted to take that call, or to ignore it. If I was happy to take the call, and I could help the student, this would probably save me (as the tutor) time in the long run, as the assignment would be quicker and easier to mark, if it had been completed the way I had wanted it.
  • Logistically – if for example a venue changed at short notice – we had various mechanisms to get messages to students (email, VLE, SMS bulk messaging system, notice board) but we didn’t have a mechanism for the students to easily reply to these messages to enter a dialogue. Having the mobile phone in our possession meant we could pick up these queries even when not at our desks.
  • There are then the numerous teaching and learning things that we can do with mobiles (which I cannot cover here, but have discussed previously on this blog).

In 2002 I knew that our team was ahead of the game in this way of thinking, but I thought that within a few years this would be norm, it horrifies me that in 2014 with the cost of mobile telephony being as cheap as it is – hardly any institutions provide their teaching staff with mobile phones. We waste huge amounts of money setting up complex landline based systems with a phone on a desk, then ask teaching staff to spend 28+ hours a week teaching – not at their desk. They come back from a 5 or 6 hour stint in classrooms at various locations, to find not just a mountain of emails, but also half a dozen voicemail messages from parents, students, other colleges etc. all needing a response a few hours ago – and now they have to spend the next 45 minutes trying to chase things up. Had they been able to take the call in the 10 minute gap they had between lessons – the issue could have been resolved quickly and instantly which is better for them and better for the students.

As FE and HE institutions look to increase the amounts of online learning within the provision – one part of being an online tutor is we need to have as many methods of communication between student and tutor as possible – as different students will have different preferences as to how they communicate. Not all will like using email, and even less will want to use the inbuilt communication tools within the VLE. I recently worked with a college that conducted a survey asking learners what their preferred method of communication was, and as I expected – SMS (texting) still came out as the learners preferred method of communication. For them it is cheap (most contracts will offer at least 2000 text per month), it is quick, and they have a record of the conversation in their phone. When we offer online learning we need to provide students with the ability to communicate by phone (and a proper number not a 08 number to a switchboard that costs the learner), email, and SMS as a minimum.

We don’t have to provide top of the range phones. A basic mobile that does calls and texts would actually suffice, and cost hardly anything – although for a little extra you could get a basic Smartphone which would then cover the email, VLE and Skype communication options as well.

If teams are unsure how to fund such an initiative – here is an idea: Most teams that I talk to have weekly meetings, that last at least an hour. If we assume that the staff time at that meeting is worth (estimating low here) £10 per person per hour – why not agree that in the first week of each month, there is no meeting. We could then get a contract on a basic Smartphone for £7.50 per month, leaving £2.50 per month spare to cover any out of contract calls, or data usage. If there is any really important information that staff needed to get at the missed meeting – why not write this up as a summary and send to the team to read on their new mobile phones.

As colleges start to seriously look at elements of online learning – the provision to staff of mobile phones is the easiest, and cheapest thing we can do – the efficiency benefits it brings, easily outweighs the costs, and should be a no-brainer for management to see and action. I hope that in the coming months and years there is a wake up in the sector that paying lots of money to tie a phone to a desk that a tutor is hardly ever at – is absurd, whereas spending money to provide a communication mechanism that follows the tutor around, is what students and tutors want, will increase efficiency and staff morale, improves health and safety and is an essential thing that needs to happen.

If anyone would like to discuss further then please comment below, or via my work mobile phone 07922115678.

Using discussion forums to create ‘Stretch and Challenge’ activities

I am currently working with various different clients, helping them to develop their use of the VLE system Moodle.

Discussion icon One of the techniques that I show people is how a discussion forum can be used to create an effective ‘stretch and challenge’ activity. Stretch and challenge, is a term that is used by Ofsted, and relates to ‘does the tutor provide an opportunity for the more able learners to be sufficiently challenged – beyond the core learning objectives that they expect everyone in the class to meet?’ A few years ago – this area of work seemed to be one of the key questions being asked by inspectors, and something that caused many tutors problems. Other factors in the Ofsted inspection regime are currently more important, but stretch and challenge is still observed and commented on.

When I was teaching, I used the VLE extensively to support my delivery. I would organise each course by topic, which was often (but not always) structured with 1 topic per week. Within each topic, I would provide certain common items – e.g. some notes related to the topic, relevant links, some form of activity and as the last item within each topic, I would pose a challenging question related to that topic. For this I used the discussion forum mechanism to pose the question. This was for me a convenient mechanism as easy to set up, and I was providing an opportunity for the learners to engage in discussion during or after the session. In reality – in most cases no actual discussion took place within the forum itself, however this didn’t matter – as I knew from observing the students behaviour and from verbal conversations that took place during the session or at the start of the following session that they had read the question, and some had thought about an answer to it. On some occasions discussion within the forum did take place – which was great as it gave the ‘quieter’ learners a chance to air their opinion, as well as giving learners access to other learners opinions (which then helped with their assignment writing where they had to present a balanced viewpoint on a topic – not just their own viewpoint).

Examples of some of the questions that I used in my teaching were:

  • There were discussions in the media about sexual inequality within sport, and it was highlighted that women tennis players at Wimbledon got paid significantly less than the men. Tim Henman then contributed to this debate, by stating that it was right that men get paid more as they play best of 5 sets, compared to women playing best of 3. I was able to use Tim Henman’s opinion as an opener for the discussion – which did evoke a huge response from both the males and females in the group – without me having to offer my opinion on the topic.
  • In biomechanics (science of sports movement) I carried out an experiment to estimate the force that the bicep has to exert to move the forearm. The reality is that the muscle itself has to exert a much greater force than the end movement (as this is a type 3 lever which gives mechanical disadvantage) – so the challenging question was ‘Why has the human biceps muscle evolved as it has which gives such huge mechanical disadvantage – which hasn’t evolution moved the muscles attachment to the forum further from elbow, which would allow greater forces to exerted by the forearm? (Please comment on this blog post if you want to offer an answer).

The hard part of this process was thinking of a good challenging question, here are a few tips:

  • When starting a discussion, making a statement and then ending it with the word “discuss” – often doesn’t open a discussion. Instead ask a more specific question to open the discussions.
  • If applicable – asking topical questions (e.g. relating to something currently in the news) will more likely evoke a discussion.
  • It is possible to ask a question from a viewpoint that isn’t your own – which allows you to ask more ‘risky’ questions (see the Tim Henman example above).
  • Asking a question from someone else’s viewpoint also allows you to ask a question that is more likely to create an emotional response – which in turn is more likely to attract an answer.
  • If students do post – you can contribute to the discussion to further develop it, explore other avenues/opinion, reference articles or webpages that are relevant.
  • If you do respond to posts – be careful not to ‘kill’ a discussion by giving the students the ‘correct answer’ straight away, instead try to lead them through further questions.
  • Questions don’t have to have a right and wrong answer (again, think about the Tim Henman question.
  • Think of a series of questions in one go – rather than one at a time. This is much quicker, and it is often possible to relate questions together. Most VLE systems will have the option to time release the dicsussions, or you can manually hide them, and make them visible as required.

If  you can think of other tips, then please add to the comments below.

Using headphones to take photos with iPad or iPhone

I recently learnt a little known iPad/iPhone trick – that is really useful, especially for people using an iPad in a teaching and learning situation.
Using headphones to take a photo with iPad
If you have a newish headphone set that has a volume control on the headphones – then this can be used to take a photo or video on the iPad. Pressing the volume down button on the headphones – will have the same effect as pressing the button on the screen when in the default camera app.

There are a few uses of using this technique as follows:

  • If I am creating a video of myself (e.g. introducing a topic to learners) – I can start and stop the video with my headphones, which are out of site of the camera – without having to lean forward and (visibly) touch the screen.
  • If I am carrying out movement analysis in a sports setting, and I have set my iPad up on a tripod (see previous blog post on this topic) – if I touch the screen to start the recording – I risk wobbling the set-up, which reduces the quality of the video. By using the headphones there is no wobble in the system.
  • Again if the iPad is on a tripod and I am operating the taking of the photos/videos – by using the headphones, I can do this without having to look at the device – which means I can keep my full attention on the class. If I am pressing the button on the screen, I have to momentarily take my attention away from the class, potentially missing something important.
  • If working outdoors in the cold, it is possible to operate the camera with gloves on.
  • If working in certain environments such as a workshop, kitchen, farmyard – it is possible to operate the camera even without fully clean hands. At the end of the session you can wipe the controls of the headphones clean.
  • If working with disabled learners, the processing of holding the device, and looking at the screen, and pointing in the right direction, and then taking the photo can be tricky for some, often resulting in movement of the device as the on-screen button is pressed. By using the headphones (and possibly a tripod) we can reduce this effect. This won’t work for all – some will find the on-screen button easier to manage, but others will find the headphones option easy to control.

There will be many other uses that I haven’t listed here (maybe people will comment if they can think of any).

Reflections on Using tablets in FE and HE assessment event

This blog post is an example of how a blog can be used for reflective practice. I am going to reflect on a training session that I recently ran, and use this reflective practice to help me improve the session for the future and help with my planning of other similar sessions.

Image of Dave Foord

Self Reflection

On Friday 28th March 2014 I ran the first FE/HE session for The Tablet Academy at Lougborough University. The session was designed to look at the use of tablet devices in assessment, and attracted 8 people from across the country.

There are lots of different people, companies and organisations offering tablet training at the moment, of varying quality and varying price (and no direct correlation between the two), so I was keen that I offered something different, something more than the very easy “look at me and how clever I am with an iPad” type session, that yes can be inspiring, but often doesn’t give people a chance to unpick bigger issues.

Therefore the main focus of the day, was to try to get the attendees to think openly about the use of tablet devices in assessment, including the issues that may arise, and not just the positives that can be brought. We also made the decision to focus on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) rather than specifying a particular platform (e.g. iPads).

The structure of the day was:

  1. Introduction presentation.
  2. Exploring options of how tablets can be used in education.
  3. Designing, completing, then assessing an assessed activity with tablets.
  4. Bringing it all together.

Here is my reflection on each part:

Introduction presentation

I created a short presentation that was designed to set the scene, and to try to create the mindset of not using tablets to replace laptops, but to look at what tablets do that laptops cannot, and how this can be used beneficially in assessment. On reflection, I should have spent less time on this point and more time demonstrating options of what is possible with tablets. I didn’t want to spoil the next activity by giving the attendees the answers to the tasks I was about to set them, but some of the the attendees would have benefited from such examples to help make the rest of the day less abstract.

Exploring options of how tablets can be used in education

We had allocated a significant amount of time (over 2 hours) to this part of the day, which was an opportunity for attendees to explore different options of how tablet devices can be used in assessment. Because each person would have different organisational needs, roles and devices, I created 7 separate tasks (challenges) for them to look at. Each task had some background information, then a set of questions/activities for them to work through which would hopefully guide them through an exploration of that topic, with me facilitating them to unpick some of the issues. I estimated each topic to take about 30 minutes so hoped that people could explore 4 or 5 of the options in the allotted time. As it turned out the tasks took longer than I anticipated, so they only managed to cover 2 of the tasks, which was a shame. For future events, there are various options:

  1. I could shorten each topic, but then have a section for each topic which is titled “further exploration” or similar – so they could continue exploring at a later day.
  2. I could have sent attendees some pre course information so they could look at the options and possibly start some of the tasks (even if they only downloaded any required apps, and created accounts where required on them – which would have saved time).
  3. I could have been more draconian with the time keeping, forcing them to change topics if they spent more than say 40 minutes on any topic. I am not a big fan of this idea, as I need attendees to be comfortable with their explorations, and it is more beneficial for them to unpick a smaller number of options well, rather than more options badly.
  4. If I increased the time of the introduction, to include a quick demo of each idea, this would then have saved attendees time when exploring these options.

Having jotted down these possible options, I think points 1,2 and 4 above could be used together to improve this part of the session, and is what I will do next time.

Designing, completing, then assessing an assessed activity with tablets

This part of the day worked really well. Working in pairs, each pair had 30 minutes to design a tablet enabled assessable activity. They would then share this with a different pair. Each pair then had 30 minutes to complete the task set by someone else, after which they returned the work to the original pair, who had a further 30 minutes to assess and give feedback.
For this activity I was very strict with the timings, using a countdown timer on an iPad to keep me and the group focused. By setting a very specific and challenging time helped to keep people on task, and stopped the afternoon from ‘drifting’. Attendees very much got into the spirit of this activity, they had a lot of fun (which is good), they were imaginative (which was the intention) and they uncovered a few problems with the logistics of actually getting the task to the other people. The main reflection (which was also echoed by the participants feedback) was they didn’t need 30 minutes to assess the work, so could shorten this easily to 15 or even 10 minutes, apart from that I would keep this part of her he day the same.

Bringing it all together

As with any good training session, it is important that there is a chance to reflect and regroup at the end, and some form of identified action for people to do next. For this I set the task of asking people to identify the 5 Ws – Why, What, When, How, and Who for them to identify a small step that they were going to take to move their organisation forward in using tablet devices in the process of assessment. After the slightly pressurised previous 90 minutes as they raced against the clock, this made for a useful reflecting and refocusing activity. We then had some general discussions and used Socrative as a tool to reflect on the day in general.

Looking at the feedback provided by the attendees all bar one were very satisfied with the day, with some highlighting a few of the points I have made above. A few said they would have preferred the day to be platform specific (e.g. Just iPad, or just Microsoft) rather than BYOD, and a few wanted to see more examples of good practice.

From my perspective, I wanted the day to be a chance for people to unpick the real issues around using tablets for assessment, and as such I knew that people would encounter certain problems during the day, which was good, as better for them to encounter them here rather than with real assessments, however these few problems may have been perceived as outweighing the benefits of using tablet devices, which wasn’t my intention. The biggest problem that people encountered was the BYOD issue – of working with ideas that work across all platforms. Many thought Google Docs would be a good option, but discovered that these didn’t work well on iPads and sharing them was more complicated than expected. I tried to reinforce the point that in reality you use the tablet devices when they are most appropriate and use something else when not appropriate, e.g. It is perfectly acceptable for a member of staff to use a computer to create the assessment, the student to use and tablet to complete it and the tutor to use a computer to mark it.

My thanks go to the staff at Loughborough University for their support, in particular Charles Shields and Farzana Khandia.

 

Using my phone to record audio for Moodle

This blog post is about how a mobile phone and a free internet service called iPadio, helped me to recover an awkward situation by recording audio from my phone – then adding this to a Moodle course.

I was running Moodle training for a client in Worcester. The day that was arranged I had access to my car so planned to drive – however due to the floods we had to postpone the training to a different day when I didn’t have my car, so had to rely on the train network. I was a little nervous as had to catch 3 separate trains, with not much time for changes – so if any of the 3 trains were delayed I risked turning up late. The client accepted this risk – so we went ahead.

As it happened my nervousness was justified as my first train was significantly late, meaning that I knew I would be late for the training. Many people in this situation (including me a few years ago) would at best find this distressing and at worst enter a mild panic – but I was able to execute a plan:

Robin Hood (1922) - Allan Dwan

Because the first part of the Moodle training involved attendees accessing an ice breaker activity – this could be started without me – all I needed to do was introduce myself and session to the delegates, and luckily I own a phone that gave me all the tools that I needed.

I used a service called iPadio (I have blogged about this in the past on numerous occasions) – this is a free service which I had previously subscribed to – and it allowed me to record an audio file simply by dialling a London phone number (therefore free to me as part of my minutes allocation) and talk to an answerphone to record my welcome message.

As soon as I had finished recording, I went to the iPadio website (via my phone) located the recording, and copied the URL for that recording. I then went into the Moodle course that I was using during the training and added this at the top of the course as a link. Ideally I would have downloaded the audio file, and then uploaded it as an MP3 file to the Moodle course,  but I couldn’t quite do this from my iPhone – so had to settle for linking to it instead

Then the final part of the plan was for me to phone my contact at the centre – explain the situation, and ask them if they could start the session for me – by simply finding the Moodle course, and playing the audio message I had left for them.

All of this I completed in less than 10 minutes from my phone whilst stood on a cold and windy platform at Leicester Railway Station, and I hadn’t even had breakfast or a cup of coffee at this point (and those that know me well, know that I don’t function until after my second cup of coffee)

Although not an ideal way to start a days training – it did show the attendees one of the powers of Moodle – to be used in situations where the teacher isn’t present (either planned or not planned) but where the teacher is still able to influence the class.

Usually when I do audio recordings, I am sat in my quiet office, with a headset on and using either Audacity (PC) or Garageband (Apple) – which gives me good quality audio recordings, however there are often situations when I want to record an audio recording when I don’t have this set up, and for this using iPadio is great – as all I need is my phone, the final file will be an MP3 which is the best for most purposes (if I used the built in sound recorder in my phone, it saves it in a proprietary format that can only be accessed by people with the same make of phone), and I can do various things including downloading, linking to, or embedding which covers all possible bases.

CPD on Using Tablet Devices in FE and HE

iPads, Android devices and Microsoft Tablets have quickly established a place in society, and with that a place in education. Many schools are investing in such devices – some with 1:1 roll out and other with banks of devices. FE and HE has as always seen a hugely varied approach to this area of work. Some organisations have decided that if charging £9000 per year to study, to take a few hundred pounds out and buy each student a device as part of the course is feasible. Others have worked on the notion of allowing the students to bring their own devices (known as BYOD) and have actively created appropriate wireless infrastructures to make this happen. And of courses there are some who actively block the idea of these technologies being used in the classroom.

Image of a Windows TabletWhichever approach is taken (and those taking the last approach will soon have to change) – the underlying theme is giving the teaching staff the opportunity and time for staff development in this area. One of the problems with tablet devices is they are so easy to pick up and start using – this gets seen by some as removing the need for staff development. Yes the devices are generally easy to use – but to use them effectively in a teaching and learning situation does require different, possibly new, and at times outside-comfort-zone skills which do need to be learnt.

Many schools have realised (the hard and expensive way) that you cannot just buy devices, give them to staff and students and expect grades to rocket upwards – any benefits the devices bring will take time to materialise and usually only happen after well delivered and strategically planned staff development. The same is true for FE and HE, and especially if the BYOD model is being followed, as teachers have to think about the ways that tablet devices can be used in education, AND they will be presented with a myriad of different types, operating systems, apps, and screen sizes as well.

Most colleges and universities will have in-house support teams who support CPD activity for their staff, and many will have the ability the support and deliver the required CPD activities, but I am experiencing a significant number who don’t have the ability (yet) or worse still – they think can support this area of work but they don’t actually the breadth and/or depth of knowledge and experience to support this work effectively.

For the last few months I have been working with a company called The Tablet Academy, who specialise in providing pedagogic based training in the use of tablet devices (they cover Apple, Android and Microsoft). Most of the work to date has been within the school sectors, but (with my involvement) are now supporting FE and HE as well. We have put together a catalogue of specialist FE/HE courses, as a sample of possible training that can be offered – but we specialise in tailoring sessions to an organisations needs and requests.

I think The Tablet Academy’s position of being device agnostic (supporting Apple, Android and Microsoft) without having an preference or financial interest in any of them, puts us in a very strong position, especially within FE and HE where the BYOD model is likely to be a significant player.

Device to attach an iPad or tablet to a standard tripod

image of an iPad mounted on a tripod

As a former PE/Sport science lecturer, the iPad is a wonderful device, that I wish existed when I was teaching, as  it’s potential for me to video something, then play it back easily with options to slow motion, fast forward etc. is superb, and if I wanted to carry out some slightly more scientific analysis, then we now have an affordable device, that can be easily used by the teacher or students, and I am very impressed by the quality of photographs and footage from an iPad, as even when capturing at a fast frame rate as is often required in sports analysis situations, the quality is excellent, even in low lit indoor situations.

If I am doing some analysis, then I need to mount the device onto a tripod so that it doesn’t move, shake or vibrate. I spent ages trying to source an affordable attachment that would attach to a standard tripod – and surprisingly I struggled. There are many expensive alternatives that are too costly for education (in my opinion) or there are some very wobbly looking options, which I wouldn’t trust, or the options were unique to a a particular model of device which I didn’t want. Luckily a colleague of mine, Ron Mitchell – did locate what I was looking for, which is made by a company called iStabalizer and is called the Tab Mount. The only place that I could find that sells this in the UK is Amazon (which is a shame, because as a company I prefer to use companies that pay their taxes), and the direct link (at time of writing this post) is here - cost at time of writing is £22.95.

Basically the device is a spring loaded mechanism, where the top and bottom pull apart then spring close again and clamps tight around the tablet, and then has a standard tripod thread on its back which can be used to attach to the tripod. It will work with a range of tablet devices of different size , and in most cases you shouldn’t need to remove the device from any protective case that it is in, which I think makes it ideal for education.

Image of the iStabalizer tab mount

You do lose the use of the arm of the tripod with this arrangement, but for sport analysis where the tripod isn’t going to move, this won’t matter. As well as uses in sport, this could have obvious uses for other subjects such as music, media, art or simply for a teacher than wants to film their students and doesn’t want to have to hold their device.

If any PE/Sport Science teachers are interested in a training session on how to use iPads or other tablets in a PE/Sport setting then I run bespoke training sessions through The Tablet Academy, details of the iPad based session is available at http://www.tablet-academy.com/courses/using-ipads-in-pe-and-sport/65.html. These courses can be arranged for an individual organisation, or there are the £99 courses which are great for schools that maybe have only 1 or 2 PE teachers, and the Tablet Academy isn’t just UK based, there are centres setting up around the globe.


All images by Dave Foord - http://www.flickr.com/photos/davefoord/sets/72157640918612424/

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