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.

Using my phone to record audio for Moodle

This blog post is about how a mobile phone and a free internet service called iPadio, helped me to recover an awkward situation by recording audio from my phone – then adding this to a Moodle course.

I was running Moodle training for a client in Worcester. The day that was arranged I had access to my car so planned to drive – however due to the floods we had to postpone the training to a different day when I didn’t have my car, so had to rely on the train network. I was a little nervous as had to catch 3 separate trains, with not much time for changes – so if any of the 3 trains were delayed I risked turning up late. The client accepted this risk – so we went ahead.

As it happened my nervousness was justified as my first train was significantly late, meaning that I knew I would be late for the training. Many people in this situation (including me a few years ago) would at best find this distressing and at worst enter a mild panic – but I was able to execute a plan:

Robin Hood (1922) - Allan Dwan

Because the first part of the Moodle training involved attendees accessing an ice breaker activity – this could be started without me – all I needed to do was introduce myself and session to the delegates, and luckily I own a phone that gave me all the tools that I needed.

I used a service called iPadio (I have blogged about this in the past on numerous occasions) – this is a free service which I had previously subscribed to – and it allowed me to record an audio file simply by dialling a London phone number (therefore free to me as part of my minutes allocation) and talk to an answerphone to record my welcome message.

As soon as I had finished recording, I went to the iPadio website (via my phone) located the recording, and copied the URL for that recording. I then went into the Moodle course that I was using during the training and added this at the top of the course as a link. Ideally I would have downloaded the audio file, and then uploaded it as an MP3 file to the Moodle course,  but I couldn’t quite do this from my iPhone – so had to settle for linking to it instead

Then the final part of the plan was for me to phone my contact at the centre – explain the situation, and ask them if they could start the session for me – by simply finding the Moodle course, and playing the audio message I had left for them.

All of this I completed in less than 10 minutes from my phone whilst stood on a cold and windy platform at Leicester Railway Station, and I hadn’t even had breakfast or a cup of coffee at this point (and those that know me well, know that I don’t function until after my second cup of coffee)

Although not an ideal way to start a days training – it did show the attendees one of the powers of Moodle – to be used in situations where the teacher isn’t present (either planned or not planned) but where the teacher is still able to influence the class.

Usually when I do audio recordings, I am sat in my quiet office, with a headset on and using either Audacity (PC) or Garageband (Apple) – which gives me good quality audio recordings, however there are often situations when I want to record an audio recording when I don’t have this set up, and for this using iPadio is great – as all I need is my phone, the final file will be an MP3 which is the best for most purposes (if I used the built in sound recorder in my phone, it saves it in a proprietary format that can only be accessed by people with the same make of phone), and I can do various things including downloading, linking to, or embedding which covers all possible bases.

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.

‘Mobile phones are strictly prohibited’

Something that really annoys me, is signs like this:-

“The use of mobile phones in the reception area is strictly prohibited”, why do they need to put the word ‘strictly’ into the sign? – What is the difference between something being ‘prohibited’ and something being ‘strictly prohibited’ – and why was I allowed to take this photo (using my mobile phone) of my colleague using his mobile phone, right in front of the reception desk, without being challenged? Wouldn’t a sign written with more positive language been better – e.g. ‘The reception staff would prefer if people moved away from the desk when using mobile phones, as it can make it difficult to hear people on the phone. Thank you’

Strict prohibition of mobile phones

Originally uploaded by Dave Foord

Learners ‘recording’ lectures with their mobile phones!

Last week at a MoLeNET event, James Clay pulled of an impressive stunt, where he used his mobile phone to record and broadcast live to the Internet a question posted to the panel of experts, showing both how easy it would be for a learner to do the same thing, and then how many issues this raises. James’ Blog posting on this, and the video itself is on http://elearningstuff.wordpress.com/2008/09/18/live-at-the-molenet-2008-conference/

A week earlier I was running a training session on challenging behaviour and the issue of mobile phones was raised, and one attendee mentioned that he was aware of a colleague that had just been suspended because of a learner recording something on their phone (I don’t know what because he couldn’t give any details) – and this he thought was a justification for banning phones completely. Personally I don’t think banning phones completely is a sensible solution to that issue. If the tutor was doing something for which they deserved to be suspended, and a learner had the sense to capture it, then personally I think all is fair. Even if phones were banned, unless all learners are thoroughly searched on entry to the premisis, if they thought it necessary to record and report someone, then it would be very easy to do that covertly.

So looking at both scenarios mentioned above, I can foresee a lot of educational institutions, changing their policies to ‘ban’ the recording of lectures with mobile devices, but this I see will be problematic.

How do you enforce such a ban – if someone breaks it, what do you do – remove them from the course and mess up your retention data, or take them to court (I hope not).

What about learners with disabilities, there are many out there who currently legitimately record lectures so they can access them later at their own pace etc. Many use specialist sound recorders for this, but one of things that m-learning brings was the potential for them to use everyday kit (such as a phone) so they could do it more discretely, and widespread ban would damage this practice.

Which policy would such a policy go into – would it be part of the IT acceptable use policy, if it is then the problem is that this really covers the acceptable use of institution equipment and systems – with the mobile phone it is learner owned and outside of this control.

So – as James eludes to in his live broadcast – this is an issue, it is here now (only a lot of people don’t know about it yet) and it needs some considered thought across the board, and I propose that this should happen sooner, rather than waiting for problems, and having knee-jerk retrospective decision making.