• Dave Foord
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Using PowerPoint to manipulate images: Creating soft edges

This is the second tutorial in a series on ‘Using PowerPoint to manipulate images’. For people like me that doesn’t own nor has the graphical skills to use the high end graphics packages, PowerPoint is my primary image editing tool, even if the end location of the image is going to be somewhere else (Word, Excel, VLE etc.)

A lot of people when adding images to resources will find an image, and chuck it in without thinking about how the image looks, what size it is, what other images are visible alongside it etc. If I am using an image as a ‘decorative’ element designed to break up the text and to act as a ‘memory hook’ for the learner, then one technique that I sometimes use is to change the image to have soft edges. This (as the name suggests) softens its appearance, so it blends into the ‘page’ rather than having the harsh sharp edge that makes it stand out. If someone is going to be spending a lot of time viewing a particular screen, having soft edges can be easier on the eye than the harsh edge of a bordered image.

Here is an example of an image that I have used in a PowerPoint presentation:


Image of 2 carnival goes wearing skeleton masks and hats. The image is rectangular with a hard border.

Here is the same image that has been turned into an oval and had the edges softened (annoyingly the theme that I use for this blog, puts a grey border around the image that I don’t want!):

Image of 2 carnival goes wearing skeleton masks and hats. The image has soft edges and no border.
The following video shows how easy this is to achieve, note – it is possible to edit multiple images at the same time – if you hold a finger on the ctrl key whilst clicking on the images you can multiple select those images, and then any changes that you make is applied to them all consistently.

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Creating a RAG system in Excel tutorial

It may sound a bit sad, but I love Excel – once you have mastered a few simple techniques, you can put these techniques together in different orders to create some very powerful effects, and for me one of the most powerful things that I can do in Excel, is analyse some data in a way that will visually highlight an issue to me, so that I can act upon that issue quickly. One such technique that I (and many others) use is using a RAG rating system. RAG stands for Red, Amber, Green – (based on traffic lights), where things that are on schedule and up to date are Green, things that are a possible concern are Amber, and things that are a significant concern are Red.

Image showing a simple RAG system created in Excel

This following set of videos, are designed as a tutorial to teach you the skills required to create an effective RAG system within your own Excel files.

If you like this tutorial, then please subscribe to my YouTube Channel at:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWuDqvf7nO6-00JMMxm1lIw?view_as=subscriber


Introduction

The first video is an introduction, showing the end product of what will be created.


Using the Now() function

The Now() function is a very simple way to bring today’s date and time into a cell within the spreadsheet, which can then be used to compare against other dates within the spreadsheet, e.g. to see which are in the past or future.


Using a basic IF statement

The IF statement in Excel is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to carry out analysis of data in Excel.


Using a Vlookup function

The Vlookup function, seems a little confusing at first, but once used a few times is relatively straight forwards – and allows you to lookup a value in the left hand column in a table, and then return a value from a specified column in the same row of that table.


Using the Max and Min functions

The Max and Min function are very simple to use, and will tell you what the largest or smallest value is in a list.


Using Conditional formatting to create horizontal bars

Conditional formatting is where the appearance of a cell changes based on values (either the value of that cell, or different cells). This video looks at creating horizontal bars that move further right as the value increases.


Using Conditional formatting to create icons

Another option when applying conditional formatting is to add small icons to cells, for example up and down arrows, traffic lights, warning flags etc.


Putting this altogether to create the RAG system

The final video shows how the skills covered above can be put together to create the desired RAG effect.


I hope that this tutorial has proved to be useful.

If organisations want training providing in things like using Excel more effectively, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php

Template to quickly create a 2 Circle drag and drop activity in Moodle

On Monday I released a template that I have created allowing people to easily create a 3 circle Venn diagram activity in Moodle. Today I have created and released a similar template for a 2 circle Venn diagram activity.

The template is PowerPoint based, and allows the teacher, to quickly and easily create the Venn diagram with the correct dimensions, and then the required coordinates that Moodle uses to identify the different zones are provided for you, so it is possible to create such an activity in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The following image shows how the activity looks in Moodle, in this case I have used a chemistry example – the beauty of this type of activity, is that it can be used in any subject area (not just maths).

Image showing the example activity

The template file for this, can be downloaded directly via:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources/2CircleVennDiagramActivityForMoodle.pptx

And a video explaining how to use this is:

I will be adding more similar templates to this collection in the coming days and weeks, and they will be available at:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_Moodle.php

If you want to keep up to date with similar videos, then subscribe to my YouTube channel via:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWuDqvf7nO6-00JMMxm1lIw?view_as=subscriber

 

Strategic considerations if thinking of switching from Moodle to Canvas

Last week I attended a ‘Digital Innovation rOundtable’ meeting in London – this is an informal group of FE providers in the London area that meet regularly to discuss pertinent issues in the are of learning technology. Last week’s topic was around Canvas LMS – which caught my interest hence I decided to attend.

All of the providers at the meeting are either current or past users of Moodle, and 3 have made the change from Moodle to Canvas, and have been very pleased with the results.

The purpose of this post, is for me to reflect on the event and to provide some strategic considerations that need to be included in any decision making before switching VLE. I have met with various senior managers/leaders who have decided to make the switch, but the reasons they give are ‘we have heard it is better’, or ‘The college down the road is using it, so it must be good’, and these are not good reasons to make the switch.

At the meeting last week, many of the attendees were unhappy with their Moodles, but this isn’t the fault of the system, but faults in the way that it has been set up over the years, themed and supported. People were saying that they didn’t like Moodle because it doesn’t work well on mobile devices – when in fact if set up properly, Moodle works really well on mobile devices, and is one of its selling points. Other people complained that everything was too cluttered – but this again is down to the decisions made within the organisation. If a Moodle uses a 2 column theme like Adaptable, or the newer Boost them, then it isn’t cluttered at all.

During one of the presentations from an organisation that has switched, they kept highlighting things in Canvas that cannot be done in Moodle – but in fact most of these things, are things that can be done, and with the Moodles that I support are routinely done as standard, which highlights the problem isn’t with Moodle per se, but with the way that it had been used in that organisation. A lot of emphasis was made on the appearance and layout of Canvas, which for those that haven’t looked at it yet, is quite similar to the Boost theme in Moodle.

Advantages of Canvas over Moodle

  • The main selling point of Canvas is its simplicity – it is easier for staff and students to use, which is obviously a good thing, it has also been designed from the ground up based on the user experience, so is a lot less ‘clunky’ than Moodle (which having evolved over many years organically and by lots of different people , there are a few inconsistencies in the way things are done and the language that is used, which to an average tutor is confusing).

Advantages of Moodle over Canvas

  • Moodle has the potential to do a lot more than Canvas, with the huge number of plugins available, and its constant improvement, it is a far more powerful tool (in the right hands).
  • It is also a lot cheaper than Canvas. A typical sized college in the UK should be able to have Moodle externally hosted in the region of £5,000 – £10,000 depending in the specs, and levels of support etc. Speaking to people at similar sized institutions that are using or looking to use Canvas, they are being quoted in the region of £25,000 – £30,000, so there is a significant difference in cost here. If an organisation spent half of the difference between the 2 on training, external support etc. then they could make their Moodles work really well.

Breaking the decision making process down

Image of 2 characters looking at a signpostOne thing that became apparent at last week’s meeting, was the difference between people’s Moodles. Some are good, some bad, and some down right ugly. If you have a Moodle that is so ugly that people hate using it, it has a huge negative perception, then the decision to switch is going to be a very different one to if you have a bad or good Moodle, where investing a little time and money into what you already have is probably a better option moving forwards.

The first steps when considering whether to switch or not, is to consult as many stakeholders as possible – and for this I mean students, teachers, and whatever learning tech teams you have – find out what they like, don’t like, how they are using it, which features are widely used etc.

Then identify what you as an organisation need both now and in the foreseeable future. Many people are choosing options based on current behaviour – e.g. most teachers are sadly still using Moodle as a file repository for their learners, but as we move forward with the notions of blended learning, we need more than file repositories, and we have to be careful that switching to a ‘simpler’ system, may be a good thing for the current behaviour, but what about the expected and required behaviours in a few years time?

Thinking about the costs

As mentioned earlier, if done properly then Moodle should be the cheaper route to go down, which for FE providers at the moment, has to be a serious factor in the decision making process. When Canvas first appeared in the UK, it was seen by many as a cheaper option than Moodle. That is no longer the case, and what we don’t know is what the pricing will be in the future. I firmly believe that Canvas are not planning on following the Blackboard model, of hiking prices once people are committed to using them, but if in the future the company is bought out by a bigger company that does have different morals/pricing ideology then we cannot rule out this eventuality, and this has to be factored in as a potential risk (even if a small one). With Moodle being totally open source and free, there is no risk of a price hike – it will always be free, and if the hosting companies put up their prices, you simply move to someone else. From a risk management perspective, this is a significant advantage of Moodle.

[Edited on 17/01/2018 – Since initially releasing this post, Dave Perry commented that Canvas is owned by a venture capital company – as per this press release: https://www.instructure.com/news/press-releases/instructure-secures-pre-ipo-series-e-round so the risk of a price hike is slightly higher than I realised, as the venture capital firm is going to expect and demand a return on its investment]

Going back to earlier in the post, most people that are unhappy with their current Moodles, are due to poor decisions being made at various points in the set up and deployment, and probably associated with this, is insufficient money and support to get it right. I foresee that many organisations that got Moodle wrong, will see Canvas as a magic pill, that will solve all their ills, and will make the same mistakes with Canvas’ deployment as they did with Moodle’s deployment – the result will be, in 3 or 4 years time, we will be back again having conversations about the problems with Canvas and thinking about switching to whatever is next around the block.

Whether an organisations stays with Moodle or switches, then there has to be an additional internal investment to get the best out of either tool.

Strategic impact on switching

Something that is often missed during the decision making process, is the impact on the teaching staff. If all the teachers hate Moodle, then you don’t have a problem. However if you have some (even if only a few) who like it, and have used it effectively and over the years have invested significant amounts of time and love and energy into improving their courses, then they are not going to be happy to have to redo all that work again in a new system, and this has to be effectively managed. Thinking about myself as a former teacher and how I would react if this happened to me – I would be furious, and any future work that I do, I would make sure is more portable in case we change ship again, but in doing this I would be creating a weaker experience for my learners. If an organisation does have a few such teachers and decides that they are going to switch, my recommendation would be to set up a ‘super-user’ system. Any teacher can apply for this, you then select a handful of super users (based on their previous uses of Moodle). These are then given a single down payment to work an extra week in the summer holidays to transfer their Moodle courses into Canvas, and to use these as exemplar courses for others in the future.

Conclusion

Canvas and Moodle are both excellent tools, and I hope both will be around for many years to come. If an organisation doesn’t have a VLE or their Moodle is so horrendous then the choice of Canvas is easier. If an organisation has Moodle and is either Bad, OK or Good then the decision to switch needs a lot more thought. My instinct would be to first investigate what can be done with what you already have. I support various clients with their Moodles, and the ones where I have a high level of control, then the Moodle is clean, mobile optimised, has high levels of accessibility, a good user interface, and is a pleasure to use – so it is possible to create what you want with Moodle.

The decision making process about whether to switch or not, needs to be a properly run project in its own right, firstly to identify if to switch or not, and then what next steps to carry out to ensure that the development and deployment of whichever tool is properly managed.

Shameless plug

If an organisation wants an independent external person (who is a teacher by background, not a technical person) to come in and review what you currently have, what you could improve, and help you to make the sorts of decisions detailed above, then please get in touch. I have provided such a service for many providers, who have found the process extremely useful, and for many has resulted in significant cost savings, as well as the obvious quality improvements.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/away-fork-decision-waymarks-1020437/

Of course it is possible for universities to run 2 year degrees

Earlier this week the BBC reported that the universities minister Jo Johnson, has proposed that some degree courses could be delivered in two years rather than three, which would save the students approximately £25,000 in total on their education costs. Since this announcement, I have seen lots of comments from academics, and universities themselves, saying that this is a ridiculous idea that cannot be delivered in reality – and this both upsets me and worries me.

Image of a lecture theatreWhen I worked for a university over 10 years ago, we carried out a feasibility study and a project looking into accelerated degrees courses, and concluded that it was perfectly possible to do this in a way that was sufficiently attractive to both the learner and the university. And that was 10 years ago – when we look at how much technology and our understanding has evolved in that time, it should be perfectly straight forward to do this now, especially if some of the degree is delivered online.

I am not saying that a 2 year degree is a good thing, there are many advantages of 3 year degrees, mainly that the student has time to challenge their own thoughts and beliefs and change them over time as their studies progress – but recognising that there are now huge financial burdens on getting a degree, I feel that socially there has to be progression into looking into more flexible methods of achieving a degree, either via accelerated courses over 2 years, or via more flexible elongated courses, allowing students to work and study at the same time.

But my main worry here, is the fact that so many people have stated that it isn’t possible. If we look back 150 years, manned flight wasn’t possible, space travel wasn’t possible, Climbing Mount Everest wasn’t possible, people owning their own computer wasn’t possible etc. Of course it is possible to run a degree over 2 years. Yes one would have to look carefully into the logistics, and the make up of the teaching personnel within a team may have to change slightly to accommodate different ways of working, but from a student’s perspective, many degree courses work on about 30 weeks of study a year, which leaves 22 weeks of non-study time, of which some could easily be used for extra work.

So why have individuals and organisations been so quick to dismiss the possibility here – and this is what scares me. I believe that the organisations realise that if it is better value for the students, then it probably means less money for them, hence the resistance towards it. If this is the case, then economically this would suggest that what universities are currently charging the students is more than what it actually costs to teach them.

Whether 2 year degrees are a good thing or a bad thing, isn’t the key here – the key here is that anything which increases student options is good – I expect that most students would stick with the 3 year model anyway, but for the few that do choose an accelerated degree it could mean the difference between doing a degree or not. I hope that some universities out there see this potential opportunity positively and do take up the challenge to deliver in this way.

Planning for ‘snow days’

About 5 years ago I was supporting an institution – who due to their geographic location, would have numerous days each year affected by snow. As an organisation they were determined to stay open as much as possible (otherwise they would go entire weeks without provision), and so they planned for ‘snow days’. These were a mixture of subject specific student paced activities that could be taught at any point during the calendar year, and then generic sessions teaching things like study skills, careers sessions etc. The idea was that if on a snowy day, half the teachers and a quarter of the students couldn’t get in, they could simple use these planned activities to provide education to the learners with the resources (teachers that had made it in). They even had a member of staff (who lived within walking distance) whose duty on such a day was to co-ordinate which students would get which activities to ensure they didn’t have wasted repetition. This model worked really well, the staff and students were used to it, and accepted it, and because the sessions had been planned in advance (and once planned are valid for future years) – they were quality sessions, not something thrown together at the last minute just to fill time.

Snow covered roadAbout 3 years ago, I was contacted by a college to provide training for some of their teachers. The idea being to improve their skills at creating ‘online’ learning activities that are self paced and can be run with minimal tutor interaction for that particular activity. The way that I ran the session, was to create online versions of the ‘snow days’. I had one attendee from each subject area, so the first challenge was to identify a part of the curriculum that can be taught in isolation to other parts, and most importantly at any time of the year between late November and the end of March. Once that topic was identified, it is then building the learning activities for that topic, usually in the form of 5 stages as following:

  1. Providing them with some content – e.g. links to websites, videos, or files.
  2. Asking them a set of challenging questions around that content, to help focus the learners on the key points, and to think critically about the content. Depending on the subject, these may be closed questions that can be tested with a quiz where the computer gives instant feedback, or open questions where students either discuss with their peers via some form of forum activity, or more individual questions, where the student either brings answers to a future classroom activity.
  3. Designing an activity in which the learners will use the information from the above, to do something creative. This could be designing a poster to explain the concept, writing a press release from the eyes of a certain person, creating a mind map of the key information, etc.
  4. Designing a ‘stretch and challenge’ activity – e.g. something optional that the more able students can do if they want, but are not obliged to. In simple terms, this is usually a challenging, discussion provoking question posted into a forum.
  5. Assimilating the above into an area on the VLE in a way that is self explanatory, can be hidden until required (and then un-hidden easily).

The idea here, is if the organisation has a ‘snow day’ or similar (flooding, swine flu etc.), they have something already planned, which is easy to administer, can be completed by both the students that have manager to get in, and for some of those that haven’t, and if the weather is such that it hasn’t been required during the year, the teacher can just run this anyway at a convenient time for them.

I have run similar training sessions with other providers since (including schools, and a University), and they have proved to be very successful – not just training staff in a different way of teaching, but at the end of the day they have a tangible product (a planned ‘snow day’), and for one organisation in particular, this was picked up favourably by a future Ofsted inspection.

If any organisations are interested in me running such training days for them, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php – I have already had 2 communications this morning, from teachers at organisations that will today be using the activities planned in these training sessions.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/winter-snowy-street-frozen-snow-1209348/

Blended learning is not ‘new’ – and calling it so is damaging

I was recently in a conversation about blended learning with a senior manager of a college, who kept referring to blended learning as being ‘new’, or this ‘new way of working’ or this ‘new approach’. At first I accepted these slips of the tongue, as referring to the fact that it was new to him and possibly his organisation, but as the conversation developed, I realised that he was seeing blended learning as being new in general, which of course it isn’t.

I don’t want to try and pinpoint the exact point in history that blended learning started (many other people have done that) – as that isn’t the purpose of this post, the point here is that it clearly isn’t new. Although we didn’t call it blended learning at the time, I was doing a form of blended learning about 16 years ago. In 2007 I started working on the excellent AASE programme at Loughborough College – which was and still is a hugely successful blended learning FE programme, and I have been working on blended learning projects almost exclusively ever since. So for me that is at least a decade, which in education and technology terms, is a very long time, and certainly not ‘new’.

Going back to the conversation with the senior manager. He was clearly scared of this way of working, and a way of coping with that fear, was to somehow make it sound that this was an untested, or experimental way of working that hadn’t been proven, and in doing so justified his lateness when arriving at the party. But the problem here, is that this inaccurate fear, and his overuse of the word ‘new’ (I don’t think he was conscious how often he did it) – is going to have a very negative effect on his organisation. If he has to stand up and inspire teachers to change their ways of working, he will struggle to do so, as he hasn’t even convinced or inspired himself.

Image of 2 characters, one on an upward arrow, the other on a downward arrowI also expect that this situation isn’t isolated to him or his organisation, and is quite widespread through education in the UK, and I predict is an issue that may take quite a few more years to go away. What I do expect to happen is a greater gap between those organisations that do and those that don’t, as the organisations with senior managers who simply don’t get it, being held further and further behind, whilst others progress into the future.

I cannot offer any magical solutions to this problem, as I feel it is possibly ingrained within the ‘DNA’ of the individuals – I just hope that over time enough people come into the senior positions that do get these ideas and notions, that there can be the widespread cultural change to stop treating things that have been around for years as ‘new’.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/white-male-3d-model-isolated-3d-2064871/