Stop blaming the tools, and invest in CPD

There seems to be a recurring theme in education, where tools are blamed for poor practices. PowerPoint, Interactive Whiteboards, Tablet devices and various VLEs have all fallen foul of this phenomenon, and yes the tools themselves may contribute, but in most cases it is the way that they are used that is the problem.

If I use a sporting analogy – if I play cricket and I get out cheaply bowled (which is sadly too common an occurrence) it is not due to the fact that I have a cheap bat that is over 20 years old – it is due to the fact that I swung the bat and missed the ball. I would never blame my bat for my inability, nor would I head to the local cricket store and spend £200 and expect to suddenly start scoring 100s – I would still get bowled cheaply, just with a more expensive bat for decoration.

Image of computers in a skipGoing back to PowerPoint – the staple presentation giving technology that is used and abused by many, and yes sadly there are many low quality presentations out there – but then you look at some of the things that I (any many others) have done with PowerPoint, and realise that it can be an excellent tool. So what is the difference? Well usually having the time, desire and opportunity to learn how to use it effectively. When I first started working freelance just over 10 years ago, I was regularly running training sessions on the effective use of PowerPoint – but nowadays, I run very few, as people think it is ‘old-hat’, everyone knows how to use it (which is clearly not the case) and it isn’t seen as fashionable to run this sort of training. People have tried using or encouraging others to use different tools such as Prezi, Keynote, Google slides, Sway etc. but without investment in CPD in these, the same problems will occur. Rather than people creating bad PowerPoints, they just create bad Prezis (which is like a bad PowerPoint, but additional sea sickness thrown in), and so these tools will get blamed for the poor use, and we will switch to the next ‘new’ miracle tool, and around we go again.

We currently have a similar situation appearing within the VLE market. For many years – the two heavy weights were Blackboard and Moodle, but Canvas has arrived on the scene with a bang, and many institutions are switching to it. It’s main selling point is its simplicity of use, which is obviously attractive, but talking to decision makers in organisations that are switching, I am again sensing that people are switching because they are blaming the previous tools, rather than the lack of CPD opportunities about effectively using the tools. My prediction for the future, is there won’t be enough CPD for the use of the new tools, they therefore won’t be used as effectively as they could be, and in 4 or 5 years time, they will switch again.

The decision to change VLE tool, is a huge decision for an organisation to make – there is the cost involved, the disruption, the transferring of existing courses etc. so not a decision that should be made lightly – but my current fear is that people are making the decision for the wrong reason. A more sensible approach would be to invest more in the CPD of your existing tools from the start, so that they can be used effectively, rather than blaming the technology.

So please, can we stop blaming the tools, and focus on the CPD?


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/computer-scrap-technology-garbage-2049019/

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The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).


Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.

Creating equations in online environments

I am currently working on a project, where I am creating web based resources (using Moodle) to teach maths. As part of this process, I need to create properly laid out formulas (or formulae if you prefer the alternate acceptable plural of formula). We are using what is becoming a widely accepted standard of MathJax which in turn supports the use of something called LaTex to create the desired formulas. So for example if I wanted to create something that looked like:

y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}

I would enter this into the editor using the code:

$$y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}$$

or

\[y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}\]

At first I started to learn the exact syntax and would translate what I wanted into either of the codes above. This proved to be both time consuming and prone to mistakes. Then I discovered an excellent website that helps me do this:

https://www.codecogs.com/latex/eqneditor.php

This website gives me a box into which I construct the equation that I want – above the box is a huge suite of grey buttons which each represent a different mathematical function or options. These take a bit of time to learn, but quite quickly one gets the hang of this, and using the buttons and adding the numbers / letters that you require you can quite quickly create the desired formula that you want. Underneath the white box, your formula is displayed as it will appear, so it is possible to see what you are doing, and check that this is correct.

Once you are happy with what you have created, at the bottom of the screen (in a cream coloured box) is the option to choose the export style that you want – so if you need LaTex, you choose that, if embedding into WordPress, you choose WordPress etc. You then copy the code beneath this, and paste into the editor of whatever you are using.

One of the facilities within the editor, is to create correctly aligned equations:

Image of an inline equation

Which in LaTex is created with the code:

\[\begin{align*} x+3 &= 7\\ x &= 7-3\\ x &= 4 \end{align*}\]

This is very hard to manually write out, but quite easy using the codecogs website. The button for this, is the bottom right button on toolbar (letters n and r in brackets) – then under that is a button that has “y=…” as the text, and when you hover over it, it tells you that it is the align tool.

For anyone who is using mathematical formulas regularly this is a really neat tool.

 

Creating a YouTube based discussion activity in Moodle

I run a lot of training on effective uses of a VLE (usually Moodle) and one of the easiest activities that I show, is finding a video on YouTube, and then embedding this into a forum activity within the VLE.

The reasons for doing this are:

  1. By embedding the video (rather than simply linking to it) – we remove all the distractions, adverts, etc. that appear on YouTube around the edges.
  2. By adding this as a discussion activity, we ask the students a question – this will focus their attention whilst watching the video, rather than just passively  ‘absorbing’ it.

It doesn’t matter if students don’t actually post their answers to the forum (although useful if they do), as they will still benefit from watching the video with the question in their mind.

The following video goes through the steps of how to embed the video, and the basic settings within a Moodle forum activity.

And if you want to only show a portion of the video you can always identify the exact start and end points that you want to play, by following these instructions:

https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/cropping-a-youtube-video-before-adding-to-moodle/

Ask staff what they want their VLE to be able to do

Yesterday I was running a series of training sessions for a college starting to use Moodle as their VLE. At the end of the day I set up a very simple activity (using the Database activity) where I asked the staff to identify “Wouldn’t it be great if Moodle could….?”. I asked them to try and think outside of the box – e.g. what would make a huge difference to their teaching, but you don’t think Moodle can do.
wishing tree
I then quickly went through all the suggestions (8 in total) and explained which were or were not possible. Of the 8 suggestions, 6 of them were possible – this had a wow factor with the staff, most of whom had suggested things they didn’t think could be done. I then tried to reinforce the idea that you start with identifying what you want to do, rather than what you know how to do.

Of the suggestions, one of the ‘not possible’ ones, was taking the dogs for a walk. From the 6 possibles – ideas were things like:

  • Ability to set up a blog for them to carry out reflective practice (achievable with the OU blog plugin).
  • Ability for students to store files on the system (achievable with the Private files function).
  • Include an online video meeting space (achievable in various ways with a web conferencing tool).

This is the first time I had tried this activity. I set it up expecting some of the suggestions to be possible – I wasn’t expecting 75% of them to be possible. I will certainly be repeating this activity in the future.


Phote source: https://flic.kr/p/8ouCLT

Bulk uploading items to a Moodle Glossary

The Moodle Glossary is one of the simplest activities to use within Moodle. It’s primary purpose is to set up a glossary that the students populate or at least add to, rather than the tutor populating it – however there are occasions when it is useful for the tutor to populate the glossary. This could be if the tutor wants to provide the students with a ‘correct’ list of technical terms and their definitions, or if the tutor wants to create a crossword using the Moodle Game Activity plugin – which pulls the data out of a glossary activity.

If the tutor is populating the glossary, they could enter the data manually item by item, but this is very time consuming, especially if they already have the data to hand in a spreadsheet or similar. Luckily there is a way to bulk upload these items. It is a little complex, but once you have done a few not too bad, and certainly a lot easier than manually typing in lots of items.

Firstly – we need to create the glossary, the following video from Moodle, goes through this step:

Then the clever part is importing the list of terms from an external source. This is covered in this video:

The XML converter that is used, can be located here:

https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=91224#p489666 with the direct link to the actual file itself being:

https://moodle.org/pluginfile.php/159/mod_forum/attachment/489666/glossaryXMLconverter_html4.zip

You only need to download and unzip this once – as long as you can remember where you have saved it to. Although it may seem a little convoluted at first, this technique will save serious amounts of time compared to manually entering lots of data.

The only other thing to note, is the default settings of the glossary may allow the students to add their own items to this glossary, if you don’t want this to happen, you can stop this by using either of the following options:

  1. In the glossary settings – make it so the ‘Approved by default’ option is set to ‘no’.
  2. Go into the permissions for that glossary and next to where is says ‘Create new entries’ delete students from the list of roles that can do this.

 

 

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.