Using Google Apps to create a fast feedback tracking system

I have been very lucky to work with Loughborough College in recent months on an LSIS funded LIT project, which looked at using the functionality of Google Apps (which the college uses) to create a mechanism to speed up the feedback process for students once they have submitted their BTEC assessments.

In order to achieve this the services of Martin Hawksey were enlisted as the mentor – as his knowledge and skill in using Google Scripts was going to be required. The project was originally lead by Patrick Lander, but he left the college to return to New Zealand, so after he had done all the hard work, I was able to take over to finish off and get the pleasure of seeing the project through to fruition.

The project is currently in the testing stage, to check that it works fully before rolling out wide scale (which will now have to be next academic year) but the early indicators are good.

The project has been a very interesting one, not just from the technical side of things but also recognising that teaching staff work in very different ways, and for this to work we had to accomodate these different ways of working – which proved a huge challenge, but one which I think we have overcome. The main issue to overcome was to reduce the need for the tutor to record information in 2 separate locations (e.g. on the feedback sheet for the learner, and in a central recording and tracking location). The starting point was the idea of using a spreadsheet grid which then effectively mail merged the information into a feedback sheets that the learners received – however some staff don’t like filling out information in grids, and you are very limited with the formatting options of the feedback. So the solution is (in over simplistic terms) – information can be entered into a spreadsheet grid if the tutor wants to – or there is an interface that can be used which is more user friendly – this then fill sin the grid for the tutor. They can then produce feedback sheets for their students – in which they can individually add formatting or additional information to the feedback – and once done they can ‘release’ the feedback which puts a copy into the students area, and send them an emil notifying them. Although this may not sound it, when in action, it speeds the process up significantly, and because the actual grade data isn’t being entered twice there is less chance of data copying errors.

All of the outputs from the projects have been released to the wider community, in a hope that other people will see the benefits and develop this further. Full details of how to do this can be found on Martin Hawksey’s blog post on this at http://mashe.hawksey.info/2012/05/hacking-stuff-together-with-google-spreadsheets-fast-tracking-student-feedback-system/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=jisccetis. Personally I think that for an organisation to use this they would have to have implemented Google Apps for this to work (it could work without it, but I think would be very difficult – as each student would need a google account, and the tutor would need to know their email address).

As the project goes through testing, further updates will be made to the project blog at http://thehub.loucoll.ac.uk/elearning/category/lsis-lit-project/ 

Adding screen tips to an image in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint

If you have a word document that contains images – there is a simple way to add an element of interactivity to it, without having to alter the appearance of the document in any way.

The basic principle is to have an image (e.g. a photo) and as the learner moves their mouse over the image – it provides a screen tip which could name or describe that part of the image. This is a very basic form of interactivity, but it is very easy to do and is a good starting point for someone if they have existing Words based resources.

This technique can be used to improve the accessibility of a resource, (in that you are providing additional information to the learning – without cluttering the screen with too much information) or to add an element of differentiation (the learner that is struggling to understand the image, can hover their mouse to get more information).

This technique is part of the JISC TechDis accessibility essential series – and can be found at http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/AccessibilityEssentials/2007/AE2/modules/authoring%20accessible%20docs/use%20of%20screen%20tips.html

The following video shows how to do this.

In this video, the hyperlink points to the top of the document as that is where the image was. If you are using an image part way down the document, you can either insert a bookmark next to the image to link to, or give the image a heading (and use the styles to make sure it is a heading) and link to that.

You can also use this technique in PowerPoint by just linking to the slide that you are on, as shown in this video.

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 5 – Making it happen

This is the 5th and final post in my series on the notion of the flipped classroom. So far the previous posts have been:-

So if  an organisation wants to start using the flipped classroom, what are the considerations?

To me the most important point, is to think this through strategically. This is not something that can be taken on lightly or whimsically and without proper planning. We have to think about which courses this would be suitable for. As I mentioned in the second post in this series – not all learners will want this mode of delivery and especially if students are paying to study (at HE) if a course is going to be taught this way, I think it should be upfront and advertised so they can consciously choose (or not choose) to study there. In the past Universities in particular have had the freedom and mindset to change the way that they deliver without consulting with the students, and without any real comeback. Now that the fees are so high, we have to treat the student more as a customer, so cannot do this.

If a course decides to use this model of learning, we have to think, do we do this for all units or modules, or just some. Or do we experiment with one term or half term first and see how it goes. The key here is that students have to be clear what is going on – we cannot keep chopping and changing as we go along, and for the idea of the flipped classroom to work, it has to become embedded within the students experience – so we cannot just do an odd session here or there – we do need to give this a significant amount of time for the students to settle into it. This area is where the process needs to be closely managed, and is where I think the biggest risk of failure lies. If for example students are studying say 6 units at one point in time, and 1 of the 6 wants to use the flipped classroom ideology. The process will need to be managed to ensure that the students have the time to be able to do the preparatory work required. The problem lies in (typically) week 7 of the semester when 3 of the remaining 5 units have submission deadlines – and the students spend their ‘free-time’ working on this rather than the other units, they then turn up to the ‘flipped’ seminar not fully prepared and the seminar makes no sense.

Another issue is how do we create (or locate) the content that the students will be accessing. One option is for the tutor to create these as they go along – which as long as they stay 1 or 2 weeks ahead of the learners is OK. Many don’t like this idea as they see it as risky, but from my experience it was no different to how many face to face lecturers work, so is an option – as long as the tutor recognises the time required and can factor this into their weekly schedule. The other option is to create everything up front – which requires a bigger amount of initial investment, and is seen by many as less risky but if you choose a style of content packaging, that when you use it with the learners doesn’t work very well, your initial investment will have been wasted, as the packaging will need to be retrospectively changed.

Another issue to consider is the quality issue. When we watch video we tend to judge the quality of the video against the quality that we see on TV, which is professionally produced (at huge cost), and delivered in HD onto your expensive 40″ flat screen – as a result most videos that an educational organisation produces to support teaching and learning will be inferior quality, but this is OK, and we are lucky that videos that apear on the Khan Academy has set a benchmark for us. For years we have talked about elearning or ILT as a method of getting away from ‘chalk and talk’ – and yet ironically the Khan Academy videos are basically just that (they even have a black background – like a chalk board), and although not everyone likes them – we cannot deny that they have had a huge impact on many people.

So if a tutor is creating video clips as part of the flipped classroom process – we can use screen casting software – some of the free ones being perfectly adequate. It doesn’t matter if we occasionally cough in the audio, or things aren’t really slick, as the Khan Academy has shown. If we want to use handwritten notes, then I would be inclined to invest in a digital tablet that allows you to write with a pen rather than the mouse, or if we know exactly what we are going to write then we can prepare these as typed boxes that we just drag into view during the process e.g. like in this video, where I have created a revision activity.

When I created this, my kids (and 2 others) were in the house making noise – I didn’t realise how much noise as I had my headset on – but you can hear them in the video. My initial instinct when I played it back was to re-record it, but I didn’t because I wanted to show that for teaching and learning purposes, this would be OK – we need to concentrate on the quality of the content and the way that it is presented – rather than spending hours and hours making the very little tweaks that although improve the quality doesn’t justify the time.

I have worked with a few organisations recently which seem to want to go for a wholesale blanket change of delivery to this new ideology – which worries me somewhat, especially as they seem to be doing this because there are problems with the quality of teaching and learning and they see this as a way out of trouble – however I am concerned that the current problems with teaching and learning will only be exaggerated by this process not solved.

Another problem is the support needed. Most organisations will have some form of central team that can help with the production of elearning content or videos, but it is highly unlikely that any could fully support an entire organisation switching in one go. If the flipped classroom is ever going to be a long running success, it will require tutors to be given the tools, time and support for them to create the bulk of the content themselves, with the central teams working in a support capacity, rather than a doing capacity.

And as I end many of these blog posts – the need for good quality CPD (and strategically delivered) is paramount. This isn’t just a 2 hour session in July to introduce them to the ideas – we need to learn about the differences between online delivery and face to face delivery, where and how to find appropriate images, how to capture effective videos, and probably even little bits of html so that we can put this together within the VLE.

If we get it right it could be great. If we get it wrong, it will be a disaster. The flipped classroom is definitely not a short term cost saving practice. If we are serious then we need to think it through strategically and carefully, and not just jump on the bandwagon because it is passing….then next one is probably just round the corner.

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 4 – increasing accessibility

This is the 4th blog post in a series on the topic of the ‘Flipped Classroom’. In the previous post I identified the possible benefits that this model could bring in terms of widening participation, with one area being possible benefits to disabled students, which I want to unpick further here.

Not all disabled learners are going to prefer this model, but there are going to be many that may. The commonest disability that we are likely to encounter within education is dyslexia, and if I broaden this out there are 3 categories:

  1. Those that are diagnosed.
  2. Those that aren’t diagnosed yet.
  3. Those who have dyslexic tendencies without being officially recognised.

Organisations will know how many of the first group they have, but we have no idea how many of the other 2 groups that there will be. The advantage of the flipped classroom is this may help these learners without them having something different (and the associated stigma) to the rest of the class.

So – how may this help? Education discriminates against dyslexic learners because education has an over reliance on the importance of language – the very thing that dyslexics find most challenging. Many dyslexics are above average intelligence, and they develop coping strategies to overcome this discrimination. For many the coping strategy is based on ‘getting through the lesson’ and they have to spend a lot of their effort just making sense of various forms of information and the way it is presented, rather than trying to develop a deep understanding of the topic being taught. If we have a flipped classroom scenario – the learner can use tools like text to speech, coloured overlays, onscreen reading bars etc to help them access the information. If any content is video or audio the learner can pause, rewind etc. giving them the extra time needed to make meaningful notes – rather than having to work at the pace the tutor has set.

If a learner accesses the information up front, they can then come to the seminar session prepared to enter into high level discussion with their peers.

In my first post in the series, I mentioned how a visually impaired learner may benefit, and the logical reasons are the same – they take control of their support needs and adaptations, they work at the pace that is best for them, and in an environment that they find most conducive to learning. Similarly if a learner has a hearing impairment, they can study in an environment (probably one without background noise) that is best suited to them. One issue that is interesting here, is many educators think that audio (including video) is not going to be good for someone that is deaf. If someone has no hearing then this would be true, however there are many people that are deaf that have some hearing, and make use of hearing aids to amplify sounds to give them some hearing. For these people – listening to a lecturer speaking in a lecture theatre with the sound of the air conditioning, projector, students coughing, squeaking of pens taking notes etc is very hard, even if an induction loop is used. However – if the same content is provided as audio or video, which they can listen to in their own environment and using technology to amplify the sound to the best level for them – again with the ability to pause and rewind bits they didn’t fully hear is very useful.

Of course there will be many disabled learners who won’t prefer the ‘flipped classroom’ ideology – but the key here is the notion of choice that I identified in my second post in the series. The learners who prefer the flipped route sign up for courses running it, for those that don’t they sign up for an alternative course. The challenge here will be for the people advising the students, to have the confidence and knowledge to advise the students correctly, without introducing a prejudice that ‘because they are disabled the flipped classroom won’t work for them’.

If some organisations do get the flipped principle working, and the right students choose those courses, we have the potential for some disabled learners to be able to study without having to declare their disability (and the associated stigma) and that to me is a very powerful and exciting position.

The image below shows a student using technology to invert the colours to high contrast and increase the text size.

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/3073/3050414114_f2ae8bb229_b.jpg on 2012-5-14
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/66606673@N00/3050414114/ created on 2008-10-20 10:43:05
cobalt123CC BY-NC-SA 2.0