Public Transport Route Planner

My work involves me traveling all over the place, and as we are a 1 car family, I don’t often get to drive, so have to rely on public transport. This I actually prefer as I hate driving to places, I am much happier being sat on a train, doing some work, rather than getting stressed behind the wheel, and when I run training, my work is very intense, so I am often exhausted at the end, so getting into a car to drive home for 2 hours, doesn’t appeal.

The problem with trains, though is that they don’t always take you that close to your desired destination, which either means taxis (which can cost a bit), or trying to work out the local bus network – and for this, I find really useful as it can help me to plot such journeys, and shows me maps of the various interchanges and bus stop locations, another problem with bus travel in unfamiliar locations.

I am the master, the computer is my slave!

I was talking to someone last week who was trying to work out how I had evolved from a lowly sport science lecturer, that wasn’t into gadgets, couldn’t use a video recorder and had no desire to understand how technology works; into someone that is quite proficient on a computer, uses it extensively in my work, and now rely on this ability to earn a living.

My simple response was that I had worked out that there was something in this ILT idea, and once I had made that decision I just taught myself what I needed to know, and things just went forwards like that, however further discussion revealed that there is more to it than that, and I can attribute that to a couple of features:-

Finding Freedom

Originally uploaded by empirical_perception

For many people they will use a computer to do what they know how to do. I am different in that I will do things that I don’t know how to do! This may sound daft, but what I am getting at, is that I would think about the teaching and learning first, and think about what desired output I would want, I would then think about doing that on the computer, which often involved me having to learn new skills first. It was these ideas that taught me about animations in PowerPoint, and how to use many of the functions in Excel and many other things that I now take for granted. And the process never stops, with the vast array of Web2 type technologies out there, and the fact that these can be interlinked – gives an almost infinite number of ways to do something, and this is why I have been and will continue to be an innovator in this area of work.

So for me the relationship is me being the master, and the computer being a tool that does what I ask it, to save me time, improve productivity and improve quality. For many people this isn’t the case – they assume the role of the slave, doing what the computer lets them do.

But it isn’t easy. It means that I have to work constantly outside my comfort zone, for me that is OK as I am only comfortable when outside my comfort zone (if that makes sense) – as I need the adrenalin and excitement and challenge of the unknown, and the uncertainty of it all. If I did stay in my comfort zone for too long I would quickly become bored.

Most people are not like me (which is probably a good thing) so I don’t expect people to work outside of their comfort zone the way that I do, but there is an issue here with regards the staff training in this area of work. Over the years I have changed my style of my training, so rather than producing long ‘how to sheets’ which we then work through for each session, I produce much less in the way of support materials, and try to encourage people to ‘explore’ more, to use the help facility more, to use online tutorials in the software, and to learn transferable skills that they can move between software packages, and systems.

Choosing different pins when creating Google Maps

I am not sure quite how (as I am sure it worked when I originally wrote this post) but the method that I describe below doesn’t work completely as described. I am trying to work out how to get round this, as I think this would be a really useful technique. If I can solve this, then I will re-post to this blog and will update this post accordingly.

Sorry for any confusion caused.

I have in the past blogged a couple of times about Google Maps – for example gives instructions on how to create a Google Map from a Spreadsheet of data, and explains how you can create a radius diagram from a pin of either road distances or travel times.

With the first of the above techniques – one problem with this is that you often end up with the pins that are plotted being invisible at first – meaning that you have to then edit each one in turn to choose the desired colour pin, but it is possible to add data to the original spreadsheet to automatically plot pins of your choosing.

To do this add a column and title it something like ‘image’ or ‘icon’. Then you need to add against each entry the URL of an image that you want to act as the marker for the point – you could use anything (e.g. your own company logo) as long as it is small in size. Or you can use the pins that Google provide – all we need to do is find out the URL of each of the pins, that you may want, which I have done for you here so



has a URL of:



Red pushpin

Red pushpin

(so all you need to do is copy the URL and change the ending to either red.png, red-dot.png or red-pushpin.png to get the desired shape.

You can then replace the colour ‘red’ with yellow, green, purple, pink, or blue to get different colour pins

We can also have letter markers such as



which has the code of (and you can change the letter A for any other letter of the alphabet)

If we are creating our starting list in the spreadsheet it is possible to automatically create a different letter for each entry – by using a simple formula in the spreadsheet

And whilst researching for this post, I discovered which has a few other icon URLS in its list.

So having created our spreadsheet of data, and added an image URL against each URL – if we then go to the site mentioned in my first blog post) – When you get to Step 2 – there is a button for ‘Advanced Options’ – if you choose this, then against ‘Image URL’ choose whatever column header you had in your spreadsheet.

With some clever understanding of Excel and the use of formulas, this could be a very powerful technique for creating maps.

Creating a ‘distance from’ Google Map

My wife and I are currently campaigning to keep the midwife run birthing unit of St Mary’s in Melton Mowbray open – this was where we had 2 of our 3 kids, and think that it will be a real shame if it is closed.

As part of the campaign, my wife wanted to plot on a map the distances from all the birthing centres in the area – as there is a Government agenda that all people should have the choice of where to give birth (hospital, mid wife run centre or home) and this has been interpreted by some as travelling less than 15 miles. I did some searching and found out that Google Maps could represent this quite nicely – the end result being

Map showing the 'catchment areas' for birth centres around Melton Mowbray

Map showing the 'catchment areas' for birth centres around Melton Mowbray

(click on the image to see the map in Google maps)

To create this, we first of all found the postcodes of the different birthing centres, and used to create a kml file which will plot the points for the birthing centres onto the map (click here to read an earlier blog post on this)

In the past when I have done this, it gave each point a black and white icon, when I did it this time it applied no icon, so I had to click on each point in turn to format the icons – for this set it was OK as only a small number of points. I will blog again another day showing how you can get the pins to automatically add.

Then I needed to create the radius diagrams around each pin – there are various ways to do this with an exact circle, but the technique that I used actually worked out distances based on a car journey – for this I used I had to go through my points in turn, and enter the postcode, I then chose my settings (in my case 24 km = 15miles) but I could have used a time. This then again produced a kml file, which I could add to my map exactly the same as with the earlier method.

This technique has obvious uses for geography students, but I can also see this being used by travel and tourism, leisure, business and many more.

OU release Moodle tool to aid referencing

One of my areas of work is that of plagiarism deterrence, in particular when using TurnItIn (software that helps a tutor detect matches between a piece of students work against the Internet and other students work). Dealing with plagiarism isn’t about just detecting copying – but it is a much wider issue looking at educating the learners, designing plagiarism out through assessment design, and then using the detecting tools as a deterrent not a rat catcher.

One part of the whole process is about referencing, and this in itself is a thorny issue. I have worked with staff who are sticklers for correct referencing and if a student has missed a comma out, or cited the wrong year of publication or something they have then treated the work as plagiarised, whereas the tutor down the corridor may not even bother to check the references. What is interesting to note, is that plagiarism is the act of passing something off as your own, which isn’t – so if you put down any form of reference (e.g. ‘I stole this from a Google Search’ ) – even if it is an awful reference – then you cannot treat that as plagiarism – you need to treat it as bad referencing, or bad academia, but not plagiarism.

The other issue is then about the importance of referencing styles – again some are sticklers for getting the (usually Harvard) referencing system absolutely spot on, whereas others (like me) recognise that the purpose of referencing is so that the writer, or any reader can easily locate the source of information.

Color-coded bookcase

Originally uploaded by juhansonin

I will admit that I hate referencing – I found it tedious, I didn’t fully understand the rules and sometimes even omitted a source from a piece of work, just to save me having to think about how to reference it, and it is with that, that the recent release from the OU excites, me – it will do the tedious hard work for me, allowing me to concentrate on the more important aspect of evaluating and analysing the work that I am creating.

For more information on the OU referencing tool go to

Using Excel to create a matching pairs activity

I am a big fan of Excel, and have discovered over the years how to use it as a very effective teaching and learning tool. In the coming weeks (and months depending on how busy I get) I plan to create a few tutorials to show how different types of activity can be created.

My first attempt is going to look at creating a simple matching pairs activity, and to do this we will learn about

  • IF statements
  • Data validation
  • Inserting a hyperlink to move from 1 sheet to another
  • Sorting a list
  • Combining contents of cells to create a sentence
  • Unlocking cells
  • Protecting sheets
  • Hiding gridlines, sheet tabs, formula bar and row + column headers

This tutorial will consist of 4 screencasts.

The first shows the end product, and the reasons behind some of the choices


In the second screen cast we will look at how we create the sheet that the student will enter the answers into


The way that this resource works, is the student enters some answers, then clicks on a ‘check answers’ button which shows how many they have right. This looks really clever, and some people think I have used code to create it, but all I have done is create a second sheet in the workbook, that is laid out identically (so looks the same) which checks the answers. When the student clicks on the button to ‘check answers’ or the equivalent one to return to test, all they are doing is flicking between 2 separate sheets.

The third screencast looks at how to duplicate the entry sheet (to create the check sheet) and change it to check how many the student has got correct.


In the 4th tutorial, we will look at the final stages of tidying up the resource and making it work neatly. We will during this process hide the rows of the table containing the answers. The key to a resource like this, is once you have created something like this once, you can then just change the data in this table and you have a new resource.


There are a few more improvements that you could make – for example, on the check sheet, at the top of the page we could add a formula to the title, to copy it through from the ‘test’ sheet – this way if you change the title on the first sheet, it will automatically change the the heading on the second page. Also if the students don’t answer all the questions, when they check their answers they will get a ‘0’ displayed. This could easily be removed by adding another IF statement.

I hope that this has been useful, and look out for future tutorials on this topic.

Simple formatting tips in Excel, to improve quality of learning materials

People often talk about what is there favourite e-learning tool or piece of software, and if I am asked, I answer by saying “If I were to be abandoned on a desert island with 30 students, with computers but I was only allowed one piece of software, I would take Microsoft Excel”

Why – quite simply it is a very powerful tool, which when you know how to use it, becomes a very easy tool within which to create learning materials, and even though I have access to more sophisticated tools, over 50% of the learning objects that I create use Excel. A lot of people think that Excel is about tables of data, with an ugly grid behind and complicated tool bars and navigation system – but when creating learning objects, all these can be stripped out, so when the learner views the resource they won’t even realise that it is Excel.

This short screencast shows a few such formatting tips that can be applied to make a learning resource more user friendly.

or –

I will be creating a series of blog post on the use of Excel over the coming weeks, so watch this space for more information.