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.

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Adding files to Moodle in multiple formats

In my previous 2 posts I have talked about:

Wordpress icon Adding a file into a content area in Moodle 2

Wordpress icon Adding file type icons to Moodle

Another consideration when using files within any VLE system, is there is now a strong case to upload content in more than one format to take account of the fact that there are many different systems out there, and not all file types will be accessible from all computers or mobile devices.

e.g. a word document if opened on something like an iPhone or iPad although it will open, the layout and formatting may be changed and may make it unusable. If the word document is only ever going to be read and not interacted with by the learner, then the sensible thing is to save the file as a PDF – which will work on any device and will appear exactly as you want it. If I want the learner to edit the document – then I upload in both Word format and PDF format.

Again PowerPoint does not always work well on a non-microsoft device. If the presentation is very static with no animations or enhancements, then I will save this as a PDF and upload in that format instead. If the PowerPoint does have things like animations then I will upload this as a PowerPoint show – so that those with PowerPoint have the benefit of this functionality, but I will also upload a PDF version immediately below it – the animations won’t work, but they will be able to read the content on the screen – and if the presentation is well designed then they will still be able to access all of the information. Hyperlinks within PowerPoint will still work when exported as a PDF – although is complex hyperlinks have been created from non-rectangular shapes, then these will be converted to rectangles which may reduce the functionality.

This is where using the Adding file type icons to Moodle technique really comes in as it becomes clear to the user which file they want to download.

I have tested this method on various projects and the feedback from the learners has always been really positive.

In my next post, I will talk about another way to add links to files within Moodle.

Using Google Docs (Drive) to create a collaborative learning activity

Google Docs or Google Drive as it has changed it’s name to, is a suite of office tools that work via the internet and store the different files in the cloud (on the internet) rather than locally onto the computer. This has huge advantages in terms of the files are backed up automatically, can be edited on a variety of different computers (including Smart phones) and they allow multiple people to contribute or view the files.

It is the ability to allow multiple people to edit that makes Google Docs an excellent collaborative learning tool, as it is possible to set up activities where different learners are accessing and editing the same document at the same time – this means that they can see and respond to what each other is doing in real time.

An example of such an activity is one that I ran recently used at a training event as part of the Advanced Teacher Learning Coaches programme. This took me about 10 minutes to create and set up, so nice and quick, and the learning experience was far greater than doing this in a non-collaborative way. If you want to use the activity above (possibly swapping in your own websites for your particular area), click on the link above, then save a copy of this (from the file menu) – you can then alter the sharing settings to allow other people to edit it. A video showing how to do this can be found below.

Using Google Docs for collaborative activities – is a great way of working with higher order thinking skills. What I will often do is set a simple task where each person or small group of people have to edit an area within the document answering a question or questions. What I then do is ask everyone to swap areas (e.g. so they are looking at someone else’s contribution) – I can then ask a more challenging question – such as critique the other person’s responses, or present a counter argument to their point, or ask them to identify which of the points made by the first group would also be examples of….. etc. and if time allows, then I sometimes set a third question where they look at a third different set of responses and answer another challenging task or question.

Another really useful feature within Google Docs, is that you can see the revision history – so you can identify which people have contributed most (and when) – which can be useful if doing this as part of an assessed activity – and you can roll back to earlier versions of a document, so if someone does something very damaging (e.g. deleting everything, writing something defamatory, or using it to cyber bully) you can roll back to an earlier version (or restore point).

The fact that these documents will work on most if not all Smart phones makes this a really powerful, versatile and truly mobile opportunity.

Cropping a YouTube video before adding to Moodle

in April 2011 I blogged about how it is possible to use a service called TubeChop to crop a YouTube video and then embed it into PowerPoint, and this has been one of my most viewed posts on my blog.

I used to use TubeChop as well when embedding a video into a VLE such as Moodle or Blackboard, but have found that it hasn’t always worked, and doesn’t work on iphones/ipads etc as it plays as flash only – so I have found another far more reliable way of cropping a YouTube video before adding it to Moodle, by simply editing the embed code for the video. This technique works really well when accessing videos via Moodle on a mobile device, which I think is going to become a massive feature in the next few years.

The video below will show how to do this (apologies for the poorer than usual sound quality)

In summary:

  1. When we select the embed code we untick all of the option boxes below it.
  2. We copy and paste the embed code into something where we can edit it (e.g. word, notepad)
  3. We find the text “rel=0” and after it add “;start=xxx;end=yyy” where xxx is the number of seconds at which you wish to start the video, and yyy is the number of seconds at which you wish to end the video.

There are lots of uses for this technique – often when watching a YouTube video, you don’t want to show all of it, so cropping the bit that you want makes the process more efficient. You can also use videos as part of Moodle Quizzes, either in the question, the answer choices (it using multiple choice) or in the feedback. So if you find a video of something relevant to your area, you can crop it to just play a few seconds – then ask a question based on what the student has just seen, or have cropped videos in each of the answer choices (e.g. question could be which of the following videos shows the correct technique for ….) then show 4 videos clips, with one correct and 3 incorrect.

I am also a big fan of when using video, we need to instruct the learners what they are doing with it – e.g. asking them to observe something in particular, or critique the video, or watch the video then answer these questions… By breaking a video up using the cropping idea, we can easily add these textual instructions between the clips, rather than just dumping a whole video on the VLE for them to watch without a clear purpose.

This technique works really well with anything that allows iframes to be embedded (e.g. Moodle). It therefore may not work with Blackboard (in which case TubeChop may be still required). I also haven’t too date worked out how to get this to work in PowerPoint – so again for that I am stilling using TubeChop.

 

Making use of statistics from YouTube

A few years ago YouTube was seen by many in education as a source of evil that had to be blocked. banned and banished at all costs -because of the nasty things that learners may see there. This was a shame as alongside some possibly undesirable content is some excellent content, and the YouTube’s streaming capability is better than any others as works on all devices, is quick to load and in short just works.

Luckily the number of organisations blocking YouTube has reduced, especially within FE and HE, and even many schools. This pleases me as I have posted many videos to YouTube – most of which can be used by others, as they give simple clear step by step instructions on various elements of learning technology.

Something that I also find interesting, is the statistics that I get back – I can see how many people have viewed each video, where they are from, what sort fo device they have used and how they have found the videos. This helps me to plan future videos to meet my audiences needs, and if I was using these videos to support teaching and learning, I could use the analytical information to quickly see how effectively my learners are accessing these videos.

When I upload videos on behalf of one of the organisations that I work for, I almost always have the settings of making it public but unlisted. This means that the videos cannot be found by someone else searching for it – they can only be found if someone knows the link to it. If I embed one of these videos into an area the VLE to support a particular session or topic, a week or so later I can see how many people have viewed the video – (and when). Although not an exact science, this gives me a useful insight into the user behaviour – especially if I compare this with the usage data from the VLE.

In one instance I found that lots of learners had visited the area on the VLE but hadn’t played the video – which made me realise that I had embedded the video too far down the page – so I changed it’s position. On another occasion the video had been played many more times than the VLE area had been accessed, which I assume meant that the learners had watched the video multiple times – which as the video was directly related to the assignment task, I assume means they were using it to aid their completion of the task (which was its intention).

I appreciate that most teaching staff won’t have the time or inclination to look at things this way – I was mainly just looking out of interest – but if people do have the time/interest then this could be very useful information to confirm that they are doing things right, or give them pointers as to where they need to change things slightly.

Whilst looking at my own videos, I discovered that my most viewed video of all time is the one about adding countdown timers to PowerPoint.

This has had over 45000 views in 2 years, and currently gets viewed over 3000 times per month. This single video accounts for more than 65% of all views of the 67 videos on my channel. This video shows to me the power of YouTube – the fact that this attracts so many views means that it must be doing something right, and what a shame that there are still many educational organisations that are depriving their learners of this resource.

Students using their own devices – e-learning stuff podcast

My last blog post was about changing attitudes about using learner owned devices, which then prompted an e-learning stuff podcast with James Clay, Lilian Soon, and Ron Mitchell, where we discussed this basic idea further, with James playing devils advocate, and Lilian, Ron and Myself making sense of the some of the issues (barriers) that are often presented when this issue is addressed.

Some of the key messages are about giving the learners choice, looking at the teaching activities not the technologies, and the idea is not to completely replace organisation owned computers, but allow learners to use their own instead, thus liberating other computers for students who may not be able to afford their own ipad or similar.

I made a point towards the end, about how letting learners use their own devices offers wonderful accessibility benefits for disabled learners, and I think these benefits outweigh the problems of the digital divide issues, which can be managed through sensible financial investment, good management and decision making.

A point was also made about the cultural change required to make this work, but one thing that is in our favour in this area, is we are not looking for a wholesale and sudden shift in attitude from our staff – but instead if we allow those that want to work this way to do so, once others see the benefits, and students identify which ideas they like and don’t like, it is then easier for other staff to follow suit over a period of time, and I think this shift can happen gradually over a period of time, allowing the infra-structure to upgrade sufficiently, and the cost associated can be offset against savings in not replacing as many organisation computers as they naturally reach the end of their lifetime.

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/7037/6868878321_1f659890d3_b.jpg on 2012-3-06
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/27214509@N00/6868878321/ created on 2011-12-24 17:38:57
April RinneCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Using a phone to capture audio and make learning more fun

This is the 4th entry in a series on making learning more fun.

Students carry mobile phones around with them, and something that mobiles phones can do very well is record audio, either into the phone itself, or into a web based system such as Ipadio. (Which I have blogged about before)

We can use these ideas as a way of bringing variety (and therefore more interest / fun) into the learning process.

To listen about how this may work, here is an ipadio recording on this topic, that I have linked back into this blog.

Visit http://ipad.io/Txv to hear my latest ipadio phonecast

If you use things like Moodle or Blackboard then the embedding mechanism works even better, providing more information and a more attractive player.

Ideas of how you could use this technique:-

  • Ask learners to interview each other, whilst they role play characters within a scenario
  • Ask learners to explain the topic just taught using audio only (and therefore no visual information)
  • Ask learners to create memory rhymes for key information
  • Ask learners to reflect at the end of the session on what they have learnt
  • For the teaching of languages, the possible uses of this is enormous – the tutor could send an audio file to the learners each day in the language they are learning, or the learners could practice their speaking and then the tutor / peers can provide feedback.

This is an area where teaching can be radically transformed with just a bit of imagination.