Why I stopped using a commerical VLE and made my own

In my last 2 blog posts, I have described my early forays into online learning, and using a VLE to support my face to face delivery.

In the second post I mentioned some of the problems that the VLE we were using at the time presented, and how these barriers were undermining the benefits that the VLE could bring, there was also a problem with the accessibility of the VLE, and with the the college that I was at having an RNIB college associated with it, making sure the VLE would work with things like screenreaders and magnification software was essential. So I decided to make my own! I sat down with the college webmaster and designed what we wanted, he did the clever stuff for me in Dreamweaver to create the pages, CSS files etc, and then I edited the pages using Microsoft Frontpage – which people will laugh at (and I was ridiculed by many ay the time) – but it was simple enough for a non web developer like me to use – and by creating a set of templates, all I had to do was copy and paste, then change the text and hyperlink to the desired files.

What we created did not have the functionality of a modern VLE – (e.g. tracking, assessment, integrated forums, etc) but at the time was a very effective way of making resources available to the learners. To this day it is still in my opinion the ‘best looking’ VLE that I have ever worked with – and I tested it extensively with a variety of visually impaired learners, and it did very well for them. The downside was it wasn’t as easy for the average tutor to upload – which is why we only used it for 2 years before changing to another system.

When I first started using a VLE there were only 3 commercial products available at the time. In the early 2000s the Government threw money at colleges to buy VLE systems, and as a result within a year there were over 100 systems that one could buy. Having built my own VLE and used it effectively for most of a year, the college principal told me I had to go and buy a commercial system – because we had been given money to do so. I spent many days visiting other colleges, going to presentations from companies like Blackboard and WebCT and each system that I saw had a fundamental problem – they hadn’t considered accessibility, and I wasn’t prepared to spend lots of money on something that was less accessible than what I (a PE teacher) and a web developer had put together effectively in our spare time.

So I told the principal that we didn’t want a commercial VLE, and suggested that he gave the money back to the Government. This didn’t go down very well, so I asked if we could use the money for anything else, which we were told no, so I contacted whichever government department or organisation was handling the money (to explain why I wasn’t going to buy a commercial VLE – which would have been breaking the law, by discriminating against disabled learners) and eventually we compromised that we could have half the money as long as it was invested in developing our in house system.

This decision to not invest in a commercial VLE was one of the best decisions that I made in my early career (not that I knew it at the time). Many colleges having jumped on the VLE bandwagon, didn’t pick the best product. Of the 100+ available, most didn’t last more than about a year, with a core of 10 main providers dominating the market, and many colleges ended up switching systems early on, others found the systems were just too complex for the tutors needs and abilities at the time, and many didn’t understand their potential so just used them as very expensive file dumps. The decision to not go commercial, meant the college could easily change what it was doing, and as a result the VLE use could evolve over the next few years. At the time that all this was happening, I started a debate on the ILT Champions mailing list about ‘do we really need a commercial VLE’ and what started off as me just asking a rhetorical question for the sake of discussion, turned into quite a profound thought process – and I am pleased that based on that discussion, at few other colleges also didn’t jump straight away into the commercial VLE quagmire.

Having started the debate about me not liking commercial VLEs, someone put me in touch with an Australian called Martin Dougiamas who was developing an open source system called ‘Moodle’. He gave me access to a sandbox area of his system and asked me to test it for him which I did. I gave him some feedback – and made a few suggestions, (and we spoke on the phone a few times) – the most important one being to consider accessibility, which Martin hadn’t thought of. Anyway things went very quiet on the Moodle front, until about 2 years later when it suddenly became widely available, and maverick teaching staff at various organisations who were frustrated with the limitations of whichever VLE they had, started to use Moodle instead. Over the next few years most FE organisations switched to Moodle, with many HE and Schools also doing the same.

It feels to me that many organisations took a similar journey (although later on and slightly slower) to myself as an individual with the VLE evolution and use. It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring – there have been many debates about ‘The VLE is dead’ but I cannot see that happening for many years yet. What is important is the way that it is used – and making use of the wonderful array of tools that a modern VLE has to interact with and engage learners, and not just use it as a file repository (which was where I started) – but sadly seems to be the norm for far to many education providers.
Moodle-logo

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Why educators should use creative commons images?

I have regularly blogged about different tools to locate creative commons images, however I thought it would be useful for me to go into more information about ‘why’ we should use these – and not just from the logical response of staying on the right side of copyright law.

To start with, we need to understand what Creative Commons is. The following YouTube video explains this quite clearly. This is a New Zealand based video but the principle is the same in the UK and elsewhere.

Now onto the question of  why? I will be talking about this in an event next week, for which I have created an audio and an associated transcript (pdf) below.

Why it is important that educators use CC images (audio)

Why it is important that educators use CC images (transcript)

So – as well as the legal reason for using Creative Commons images, there is also the moral and educational reason – in that we need to prepare our current learners not just for their current studies, but also for the workplace beyond.

I was running some training at a primary school, where I introduced them to the idea of the Xpert attribution tool, and how this attaches the reference to the image, and if we get primary school children used to seeing correct referencing of images, when they get to secondary and FE/HE levels, they will be more familiar with this notion.

Adding subtitles to YouTube videos using CaptionTube

YouTube is a wonderful resource, it works on just about all internet enabled devices, it hardly ever goes wrong, it is easy to use and although there is a lot of low quality rubbish on there (in my opinion), there is also huge amounts of really useful high quality videos that we can use in education to enhance our teaching and learning practices.

A feature of YouTube that many don’t know about, is the auto-captioning option – in other words YouTube creates a transcript of the video without you having to do anything. If you are watching a video on the YouTube page and you want to see the captions, then there is a button below the video (currently to the right of the where it says ‘add to’) which is the transcript button – this brings up the transcript as a timeline below the videos and automatically advances with the video. This can be great for learners that have a disability (e.g. are deaf), but can also be really useful to find a key point within a video.

For example I often use short sections of the excellent TED talk video of Ken Robinson talking about schools killing creativity. If I want to locate a certain section within that video, I use the automatic captions that appear below it to locate the section that I want.

Because the transcripts are computer generated, they do contain errors – and depending on the clarity of the voice and the background noise of the video will determine the accuracy of the transcript. For some reason my voice never does well with automated speech to text systems, including YouTube.

However if you do want to override the automatic captions that YouTube creates with your own ones, then this is very easy to do – and for this I use a service called CaptionTube This is a simple system where you sign in (using a Google Account) you locate the video you want to caption (which could be your own or someone elses) and then you play the video pausing it at intervals to add your captions. If the video is your own, then you can add the captions to it there and then, if it isn’t your video then you can send the transcript to them to see if they want to upload it.

The following video (by John Skidgel) introduces the basics of CaptionTube.

Here is a video of mine that I captioned using this method. This took me 12 minutes in total from opening the page to my captions appearing on the video on YouTube.

Adding Captions to a video is a simple way to increase the accessibility of a resource, as well as potentially increasing the number of people that see your video, as the contents of the captions will get picked up by search engines (if the video is set to being public and listed).

Using a colour combination chart when creating resources

In my early days of teaching, and just as I was starting to get my head around the tools that were available to me (PowerPoint) – I was faced with a multitude of colours that I could choose as background or font. The problem is that certain colours don’t go very well together. Some are obvious – such as having dark text on a dark background, or light text on a light background (but I am still suprised how I often I see this mistake made), and others are less obvious like using green and red or blue and red.

Then I created a very simple tool that helped me when choosing colours, and saved myself time in the process. I created a grid where I had a variety of combinations of backgrounds, and fonts in each of the different colour combinations – by glancing at this, I can then see which colour combinations work better than others, without having to keep changing the settings until I get something that works. This grid was stuck to the wall next to my desk.

I also used this when I had a student with a visual impairment in my class. I took the grid to him, and asked him which colour combination he found best – he looked at the grid and quickly said black text on an orange background. So I quickly changed the colour schemes of my presentations for that unit (which because I had used the Master Slide was very quick to do) – and as a result of that (and other simple changes I made to my teaching) – in my sessions he didn’t need to have the note taker that he needed in all the other lessons he attended – which for him, was a wonderful experience (as well as saving the College lots of money).

The grid (which I still use) is available for others if they want to use, and can be located on my website towards the bottom of http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_powerpoint.php. Although I originally produced this for the use of PowerPoint, this works with any technology where you have the option to change colours, and can be a really useful way of increasing accessibility of learning resources.

The video below introduces this chart.

The legacy of the paralympics on education

I missed most of the Olympics as was on holiday, but I watched as much of the Paralympics as possible, and I (like many others) have been blown away with the standard and the excitement that it has brought, but what has really pleased me is the media coverage (and positive media coverage) that it has achieved. When I taught, one my main subjects was around the area of ‘disability sport’ – and I remember during the 2000 Sydney Olympics the TV coverage was something like a very superficial 30minutes each evening, showing the main sports of athletics, swimming and wheelchair basketball and sports like boccia and goalball getting next to no coverage.

12 years later and channel 4 has broadcast over 400 hours of coverage, showing all sports, all athletes, and the programme ‘The last leg‘ I thought was superb, as it highlighted that we don’t have to be nervous discussing disabled people, it doesn’t matter if we occasionally get the terminology wrong (as long as it isn’t offensive) and disabled people don’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool, and treated like innocent kids all their lives.

So what impact will this have on our education system?

There is a huge opportunity for education to deliver the legacy that the games set out to create. Hopefully the physical education agenda will be addressed. There have regular media debates about the amount of PE on the curriculum, which I hope does increase, but we can also look at the attitude of PE. In the last 15 or so years there has been a move to widen sporting participation to all, which has unfortunately been translated into seriously reducing the competitive element of sport. I think there is a need for both, which the Paralympics to me has shown – many of the disabled athletes that were interviewed, echoed that competing (and winning) is what drives them and how that is an essential part of their life, and I hope a balance of meeting the needs of driven students can be met along with those that don’t like sport.

Outside of the PE agenda, there are also lessons to learn – watching the blind athletes playing football was amazing, and showed that a lack of vision does not render an individual incapable, similarly a lack of limbs is not a barrier to some amazing swims, jumps, throws and runs, and the archery competitor that used his feet to hold the bow, and his mouth to release the arrow shows the ability for some disabled individuals to find innovative ways to overcome perceived barriers. Hopefully when a disabled individual enters an educational establishment, their ability and potential isn’t prejudged by someone, that then holds them back from that point forth. The problem with the current model, is disabled students are assessed by an ‘expert’ within the organisation who comes up with a support plan identifying what adaptations are needed, and although this works for most, there are many people that end up with the wrong type or level of support, which rather than helping them, holds them back. Hopefully students, parents, carers and teachers will have the confidence to challenge these support plans if they think they need improving.

From a teaching perspective – there is an opportunity to better meet the needs of disabled learners. I have long preached the notion of inclusivity, which is rather than creating non-accessible practices and then using methods to overcome them – instead we look at what we are doing and create resources and practices that can be easily adapted (ideally by the student themselves). I know the CPD budgets are currently tight within organisations, but I think investing in CPD in this area would be a worthwhile investment, as learning inclusive techniques, will save the tutor time, will raise the standards of teaching for all learners, could reduce the learner support costs, and would help to produce a world beating education system.

One of the best training programmes for educators that would cover this, is the ITQ for accessible IT practice which I have been running for a few organisations over the last 18 months, and I think offers excellent value for money, as well as giving staff the opportunity to gain a recognised qualification.

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The accessibility benefits of using audio in teaching and learning

My last 2 posts in this blog, have looked at the use of audio within teaching and learning as follows:

In this post I want to think about some of the accessibility benefits and issues for this area of work. Firstly (and sadly) a lot of people use accessibility as an excuse not to use audio more, often stating that they don’t want to use audio in case they have a deaf learner in their class.
No hay más ciego que el que no quiere ver...

This is a commonly misunderstood area – as (although it may sound silly) many deaf learners actually find audio content really useful. Agreed, if someone has no hearing then audio is of no use to them, but many people that are identified as being deaf have some hearing, and many of them will have hearing aids that will amplify noise so that they can hear something. For these learners accessing a lecture is often difficult as the hearing aids will pick up all noise in the room, including the lecturers voice, mutterings from other learners, the hum of the strip lighting, the squeaking of pens etc. making it very hard to hear. The use of induction loops has helped this issues to a certain extent, but still isn’t ideal, as you hear the tutors contribution but not necessarily what other learners say. If however as part of the process an audio file has been produced summarising the key learning points (and remember you can always get the learners to do this – see my post on ipadio) – a deaf learner can in a quiet environment (e.g. their bedroom) listen to this – altering the volume accordingly so that they can hear it through an ordinary audio player and pick up some extremely valuable information that would otherwise have been missed. With this in mind, when I record audio, I amplify the recording slightly (which is very easy to do with things like audacity) – as it is always possible to turn the volume down, but it isn’t possible to turn the volume up above its maximum.

Another question that I am often asked is “Do we need to provide a transcript for all the audio recordings we make?”. This question again is another barrier (excuse) that stops people using audio, as the time to create such a transcript puts them off.

Personally, my interpretation of the law (and I am not a lawyer – so do not take this as legal advice) is as follows:

The law (Equality Act 2010) states that

  1. We have to make reasonable adjustment.
  2. We have an anticipatory duty, to be prepared for a variety of disabilities and associated possible adaptations.

So – what does that mean? Part 1 is simple – yes if we are using audio and we have a learner who states that they need a transcription then we need to provide it.

Part 2 – is more tricky. Many people interpret this as we should produce the transcripts upfront, but this doesn’t make sense to me, as if we followed that logic through it would mean for every session someone delivers, they would have to turn up with their resources printed on a variety of colours of paper, in different fonts sizes and fonts, and in audio format, Braille format, videoed as British Sign Language etc. This to me wouldn’t be a reasonable expectation.

So I don’t automatically provide transcripts, however what I have done with a few organisations that I have worked with is ensure that there is a mechanism in place to create such transcripts if required (e.g. if a student asks for one) – very quickly (this I think is a reasonable adjustment). Many people ask me if there is a technological solution to converting audio to text, and sadly there isn’t a fully reliable one, so my solution would be to just employ a very fast typing temp, who could listen to the audio files, and transcribe them. The problem here is many organisation would then argue over whose budget would pay for this temp (e.g. is it central, is it the teaching team(s), is it learner support). Personally I think it should be a central budget – as the key here would be getting it done quickly and the organisation should have a procedure in place to do this if a student requests it. I am aware that most organisations don’t, which is a shame as it would be a very simple mechanism to put in place.

So in summary – we should not avoid using audio on accessibility grounds, instead we should embrace it, if we can make sure that audio recordings are clear and recorded at above average volume then great. If we do produce transcripts up front then brilliant but of not possible then having a mechanism in place to create them should suffice.

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.