Thursday, 6 November 2008


Tuesday's voting was bound to lead to an historic election - the US would either have gotten its first African-American president or its first female vice-president. So I stayed up to see some of the results trickle in, which for the UK happened during the small hours of Wednesday morning.

The BBC's coverage seemed particularly shambolic, consisting of David Dimbleby trying to interview an ever-shifting panel of experts, insiders or opiniated wafflers but constantly interrupting what might have been interesting answers by updating those who had just joined the table as to what they were talking about and updating us with pointless commentary mostly on pictures of a sparse crowd of Republicans miserably shuffling around as if someone had just done something in their hat...

I didn't see it at the time having drifted well-off into sleep before the results were annouced but this botched interview with Gore Vidal was actually a highlight of this otherwise ridiculous coverage.

And what was particularly irksome was that they continually focused on the fact that then-Senator (now President-Elect) Obama is black. Dimbleby couldn't seem to get enough of this word, and most of his questions seemed to centre on this one fact, while the rest of the time was spent mocking Republicans they'd managed to timetable into their barely orchestrated game of musical chairs.

Sure, Obama's being black is a first but the BBC's unsubtle emphasis on this single fact overlooked the far more important fact that his campaign was for the most-part co-ordinated as a post-racial affair. More importantly still, this may be the first genuinely intelligent President that the U.S. have elected in at least eight years. Is the BBC's seeming inability to address these points down to the limits of televisual media, which can only ever hope to address what it thinks are populist questions in the time given?

Also a first, and here we get to why I'm ranting about it on this blog, is that Obama used the web as a crucial part of his campaign to appeal to a younger and potentially more diverse spectrum of voters. There's a podcast over at The Guardian - direct link here - which addresses this issue specifically. They talk to Andy Carvin, the NPR's social media expert who talks about how the use of the Web had practical applications beyond simple appeal to voters, namely:
  • Using social networking for politically like-minded people to meet up - resulting in an historic coalition of support for the Democrats
  • Ways of getting donations from all over - meaning that Obama was able to turn down public funding, so confident was he of getting enough donations from the electorate at large
Andy also talks about the way people have used sites like YouTube to keep up-to-date (I know I have) - and the ways sites like these have a way of catching people out. Someone says something untoward and it can go viral and be seen world-over. And yet that's the thing that's made Obama truly remarkable throughout this campaign - is that he has been potentially subject to more media scrutiny than any other presidential candidate in history and, save a few slip-ups (his comment about certain voters clinging to "religions and guns" for example), has still managed to get most of the popular vote and an electoral college landslide.

And how? There's been much use of words like "grassroots" and "movement" in trying to describe the support behind Obama in the past year, which I think conceals the fact that what we've actually seen has been a highly-organised, controlled campaign. There may have been elements of the Democratic support that could be described as "grassroots" but this was still largely a top-down affair, remarkable because it managed to involve so many young volunteers.

What remains to be seen is whether the people that met using these tools will maintain their connections and keep politically engaged. This will be crucial over the next 100 days or so as Obama attempts to face down a worsening economic situation and meets with pressure from corporate interests to break or ease up on some of his campaign promises. If Obama's "grassroots" supporters can stay in touch and, more crucially, organise then we might see what can be properly called a movement.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Blog of the Week: Five Thirty Eight

Anyone been following the US elections? As a serial drama, it's been fascinating and I wouldn't be surprised if a few weeks after the inauguration, someone options a film of the whole thing.

So, if you're interested, here's Five Thirty Eight - a blog which compiles multiple poll findings from the States and tracks each of the candidate's popularity. The site gets it's name from the number of electors in the electoral college. It's frequently updated and should make interesting reading over the next couple of weeks.

At the time of writing, Democrats should have a lot to be happy about but of course there's only one poll that really counts - and that one's taking place on November 4th.

(I should prob'ly stop calling this feature "blog of the week" if I can't actually keep the blog up-to-date. Perhaps, I'll just refer to it as Recommended Blog in future...)

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A view of the clouds

Another article, again from The Guardian, in which Richard Stallman - the founder of GNU - warns readers that "cloud computing" is a trap.

Cloud computing is where users decide to store their mail or files (such as images, documents, spreadsheets, slideshows, etc) online instead on their hard drive or on a memory stick that belongs to them.

I guess cloud computing and its downsides as they are argued in the article are the flip-side to Web 2.0.

If I'm being honest (and I do try) I haven't come across this phrase before - it sounds like another fashionable buzz-term to me. But even though I've not heard the saying, I've thought about this kind of thing. If we define Web 2.0 as online sites that allow the users to generate its content, thus creating new open spaces for users to congregate, share and store information then inevitably, with the increase in Web 2.0 use we're going to see more users moving their content online - and therefore off their own machines.

I suppose there's a certain naïveté about total Web 2.0 advocates in that while these spaces are public-domain, they're not publically-owned.

However, Stallman says: "If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's web server, you're defenceless." Perhaps, the following question will suggest a little naïveté on my part but where are we going to store and share this stuff if we can't afford our own web server?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Freshers on Facebook

The Guardian has this timely article on how Facebook is used by students before they arrive at university. It's Freshers' Week now, here at the University of Reading and so all the students who have been meeting online in preparation for their arrival at university will now be meeting face to face. I wonder how many surprises they'll be, how different students come across from the identities they present in their profiles.

There are a number of interesting points in the article - which you can read for yourself - mainly from research done by the University of Leicester. Among them is the issue raised again and again here at Reading regarding the distinction between academic and social areas online.

I don't think students necessarily want lecturers to use Facebook (which they see as their space for socialising). At the most, I'd say they want their lecturers to use tools like it to make communicating and accessing course materials more efficient - and even that is debatable. The issue really boils down to whether these new technologies are good for teaching and learning - an obvious point but one that can be easily forgotten in the anxiety of keeping up with the times or in the hot pursuit of new toys.

When it comes to the social side - well, I've already blogged about the nature of friendship on Facebook and the different policies users might adopt when interacting on Facebook or social networking sites in general. I'm sure a lot stockpiling of friends goes on, partly so's there's a readymade support network in place by the time students arrive, partly so's the numbers for everyone are higher.

That may sound cynical but I'm increasingly beginning to think the nature of the site itself is cynical. Having friends counts and newsfeeds of what everyone is up to all the time can't be good for a healthy perception of life. Lecturers should be looking into tools like Facebook when they can, not so they can use them but so they can know what it is that shapes their students' worldview.

Monday, 15 September 2008

R.I.P. D.F.W.

One of my favourite writers died at the weekend. The news shocked me more than any other news I can think of.

David Foster Wallace was only 46. His short stories and essays are all very personal so, although I never met him, I felt like I knew him.

More shocking is that it looks as though it was a suicide. This is especially upsetting given that he was not only extremely talented but that suicide, depression, isolation, alienation, loneliness, were all themes in his work; I always assumed that his ability to riff on these difficult topics and make them personal and funny and moving was merely another facet of his genius, not that he was writing from personal thoughts and experiences.

I haven't even mentioned the effect he has had on contemporary fiction and literature. His writing inspired many to reassess literature's purpose in a world increasingly filled with distractions. His death no doubt will lead to further reassessments. Hopefully, it won't overshadow his work.

Anyway, there are a lot of tributes and memoirs being posted on the web - among which, the following:

@ The New York Times
@ The Times Online

and, more personal than the above:

McSweeney's Internet Tendency

BACK-POSTED: 27/06/2009

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Blog of the Week: Orwell's Diaries

I'm technically in the States as this is being published but am writing it before I go for scheduled release. So it seems appropriate that I should mention this blog, which is similarly delayed (albeit by much longer)...
‘When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page’, wrote George Orwell, in his 1939 essay on Charles Dickens.

From 9th August 2008, you will be able to gather your own impression of Orwell’s face from reading his most strongly individual piece of writing: his diaries. The Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.
So: one of our greatest political writers is "blogging" seventy years after he first wrote his the content. Enough said, I think.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Physics Rap, Anyone?

Found this video courtesy of the Pynchon-List today (yes, that's a mailing list dedicated to Pynchon).

e-Learning at its best or worst? I found it educational anyway. And it's like old-school hip-hop. What's not to love?

Monday, 4 August 2008

New Look

Anyone seen the new look It's very sexy...

I only spotted it today! Not sure when it happened...

I wonder if this'll make it harder to explain for "social bookmarking for beginners" sessions...

You can get to my bookmarks, if you're interested, by going to

Thursday, 31 July 2008

ILP Walkthrough

Continued from previous set of screenshots... (As ever, click to enlarge/expand images.)

'ILP' stands for 'Individual Learner Profile'...

... a document which students are encouraged to fill out to aid them in the reflective process.

It was designed by Caroline Jacobs at the University of Portsmouth and adapted for the University of Reading by my colleague, Sarah Morey. The version we're seeing here has been further adapted (by me) from a paper-based form to a slightly more interactive web-form.

The idea of it being like this is that it fits seamlessly with the portfolio course-integration that I developed to making using e-portfolios in Blackboard easier.

If the user clicks the ILP option accidentally, they can always back out by clicking the familiar-looking 'Cancel' button at the bottom. As you can see in this screenshot, they're asked to confirm that this is what they want to do and warned they will lose any answers if they click 'OK'.

If the student clicks 'Submit' but hasn't answered every question, a little alert box tells which ones they need to go back and do.

This way, the students can't miss anything; they have to complete all questions before they continue.

When they finally do click 'Submit', the answers are automatically stored in their portfolio.

More on Step Four soon.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Blog of the Week: Greta Christina's Blog

Does 'blog of the week' sound patronising? I hope not. All I mean by it is that I've been looking at a particular blog this week and think it worthy of mention here. I don't mean to suggest that I've looked at all the blogs on the web and that this is the best out there, this week. It might not even be the best of what I have read in any given week.

But the blog I've been revisiting this week must surely be up there. Here's a nod in the direction of Greta Christina. As she herself says, she uses her blog to riff on "sex, atheism, politics, dreams, and whatever". She's been blogging, or better yet "thinking out loud", since 2005.

I found her site some months back after I'd read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Despite being an atheist myself (albeit with an interest in religion), I wasn't very impressed with some of its arguments (especially with regards to moral philosophy). So I was on the look-out for other arguments from different viewpoints. And my search for the term "atheism" brought up this surely now-famous posting about anger at religious views in America and the world today. I recommend reading it, no matter what your views are concerning religion as I think it makes some very good points and passionately too.

More generally, I like the presentation of her site. She breaks up the text with little pictures, some of them purely decorative, some illustrative of some point and others poignant or disturbing. Check out the simple image of a coathanger in the "Atheists and Anger" post, for example.

Of what I've read, I think I can safely say that Greta Christina is always opinionated but never patronising, always well-informed but never digressive, and always engaging but always on equal terms with her readers.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

What I've Been Doing Today

It's not perfect by any means...

... but it will hopefully help ...

... by providing specific instructions ...

... as the user actually goes through the process ...

... of creating their portfolio.

Click any of the images to enlarge/expand.

Check back on Thursday...

for screenshots of the ILP feature so far.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Reading On/Off The Screen

A quick glance at the Guardian website today reveals a few separate but related articles, here, here and here. The common theme: reading from a screen.

It interests me because my last two posts have been fairly long and opinionated; perhaps not ideal for the computer screen. I wonder if I've really got the hang of writing for the Web.

I read and write a lot in my spare time; so far that's been the strongest influence on my blogging here. I've included pictures and blocktext in recent posts but a more radical approach might be in order...

The idea of the blog of the week I suppose is that I can look at what kinds of blogs are out there and what makes them successful in my (so far long-winded and prose-y) opinion. To date, we've only had three but two of them have been webcomics.

There's something about the comic strip form seems to lend itself really easily to the screen. It's visual, it usually gets to the point quickly and that point is normally funny. It'd be interesting to see if something like a longer narrative could be pulled off in this medium though.

Currently, I can't imagine trying to read a novel on one of the new e-readers coming onto the market - I'm too fond of paperbacks. What about you?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Facebook, Identity and Friends

Went out for lunch today and picked up a copy of The Independent, to later find the following inside...
The first I knew about it was a phone call. My girlfriend admonished me for succumbing to the temptations of Facebook, a website whose poisoned fruits I had previously said I found unappealing. I stood accused of two crimes: a lack of willpower and a failure to confess.

Not guilty on both counts, I pleaded. Alas, I was the victim of a fraud. Somebody, somewhere – and believe me, I'm pretty sure I know who you are – had launched a vendetta. They hated me. And what a visceral, calculating and malicious hate it was.
(More here.)

It might sound a little brain-dead of me to say so but I never thought about the possibility of this kind of fraud occuring before. I already have a Facebook profile and so the idea of someone setting one up for me with the intention of defaming me hadn't crossed my mind.

A drunken woman... vomiting. Found via Wikimedia Commons...A significant proportion of people - most of them students - probably do a pretty good job of defaming themselves on the site anyway, via drunken photos and carelessly filled-out profiles. It's interesting the way some people casually put up (or at least put up with) their bad pictures in what is arguably a public forum - as the article says:
Online networking [...] destroys the boundary between public and private. My public identity becomes not so much a consequence of my achievements as of your dodgy snaps from last Friday.
In many cases those 'dodgy snaps' become a matter of pride - how many of them do you have? How many comments are there for each one? More recently, I've noticed via my own newsfeed a tendency for comment-trading. People commenting on others' pictures - often making only short remarks, in order to start up conversations around the images and how they look. It seems to border on obsessional in some cases. It's not just comments which are quantified in this way...
Online social networking is having a profound effect on the way in which people communicate, chiefly by substituting virtual association for real friendship. In so doing, it is also redefining friendship, giving it more porous boundaries and relaxing the rules by which two people, or a group, interact.
This, I think, is the largest consequence. I've had conversations with friends about this (I mean actual conversations with real friends - in a physical place where you can hear yourself talk - remember those? Or am I getting old-fashioned here?). Different people I know have different policies toward it. Some accept friend requests from everyone (even if it's the kid they hated at school), some only accept requests from people they like(d) and for others only the people they're currently in touch with will do.

I think there are three main "policies", each with their own argument:
  1. Kennedy and Khruschev: not friends exactly but they understood the notion of stockpiling...Stockpile "friends". Why not? Your number goes up which means you look more popular and you get to play the voyeur by checking out what these people are up to, what kind of online conversations they have and even what their weekends and holidays look like. The more you accept, the broader a view of humanity you have!
  2. "Friends" reunite. You may not know them now but that doesn't mean you won't ever know them again. Why not maintain a connection with the people you liked from your past? It could lead to some interesting places or offers... and even if it doesn't you still get to spy on them.
  3. What are "friends" for? If you accept or add anyone, then your "friend" count on Facebook isn't really a truly reflection of your actual circle of friends. After all, friendship by definition should be about quality and not quantity and you shouldn't let social networking re-define that for you.
Perhaps someone can think of other approaches or arguments like this... What are your thoughts?

Anyway, I could go on. But I'll round up here: I have friends (again, actual friends) who, like the author of the Independent article, would follow that last argument. The difference between them and the author is that they actually have set up Facebook profiles. They say they're nearly always on the verge of deleting their accounts but then as long as they dictate the terms by which they use it, I don't see why they should.

Especially, if someone's going to go and set one up for them otherwise.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Blog of the Week: Very Small Array

Okay, I missed one last week. I was busy tidying my room, washing my hair, going on dates... (Yeah right; it was work as usual).

Here's Very Small Array. Brought to us by Dorothy Gambrell of Cat and Girl fame (which'll one day be a blog of the week here too, probably), this one is updated pretty irregularly.

As with the previous blog of the week (yes, two weeks ago now...) only the newest post ever shows on the front page, normally featuring an interesting visualisation of some obscure data. Somehow, most entries manage to be both quirkly funny and bizarrely poignant at the same time...

Check out this one, for example (as ever click to enlarge/expand):

And for the confused or bored, let me elaborate.

is a site featuring free classified ads and discussion forums. The most well-known (or notorious) section of Craigslist is the "Missed Connections" area which features posts from people who thought they had some kind of brief but unarticulated spark with someone, usually a stranger, usually in a public place. For example:
You were on the Central line and I got on and we made eye contact a few times. You seemed very tired, but you still looked cute. You had on a brown knit sweater on top of a plaid undershirt, and some cute loafers.
The ads are written in the hope that that stranger (or whoever) will read it and recognise themselves described in the post and reply and then that something will happen...

The site is used all over the world, though it was started in America, and the locations where "connections" are missed are, as you'd expect, very varied.

So the above image shows the names of places where connections were most frequently missed by State, displayed in the actual States themselves. While I have no idea what the black patches mean, there's something poignant about the data being presented in this way with the stark white-on-black. Instead of being given their proper names, States are labelled with the names of corporate coffee houses (like Starbucks) or popular shopping destinations (Wal Mart) and I can't help but picture lonely people wandering around with shopping trolleys or sitting quietly desperate with coffees, surrounded by so much stuff but still hoping for something as simple as a "connection"...

I'm not sure if this counts as webcomic or not but it's pretty powerful stuff and I can't imagine it existing in any form quite so potent and far-reaching as a blog.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Portfolio Update

The new developments I've been working on for Blackboard's e-portfolio system are now being shown to staff at Reading in the context of our iLearn project:

This is just a screenshot of the entry point to the tool, which sits inside a standard Blackboard course. This is pretty much the final version as we're going to be copying this for anyone who's requested an iLearn course this week. It's quite clean and simple and I like it that way :-)

The tool itself has changed a lot. What went from being a simple help system (which I presented at conferences in Manchester and Wolverhampton) following your movements around the portfolio help area in Blackboard is now an attempted enhancement of the tool - with Preview functions built in and additional quizzes which students take to populate their portfolio with information. The "help" itself has shrunk, however, from being a full explanation of what each area of the portfolio tool does to simple snippets of text that basically tell the user where to go next. The idea being that users wanting to do more advanced things will usually disregard help anyway...

I have been trying to work on a system that will assist the user in uploading documents to the Content System though this has proved more difficult and we're running out of time... More on this soon.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Blog of the Week: xkcd

Well, why not one a week? Assuming I read enough blogs that I consider worthy of attention, it shouldn't be any trouble. I suppose, if I run out of ideas, I can just go all self-referentially postmodern and link to this one.

But this week I want to mention a different kind. Normally, when I'm explaining what a blog is, either to an individual or during a talk, I use the analogy of a diary where the newest entry is at the top. I don't know that that's a good explanation really but it gets people started - they understand that the blogging tool does the dating and sorting for you and I think that's the crucial difference from ye olde "Web 1.0 "websites.

Only blogs don't have to be in journal or diary form at all. They can be webcomics like xkcd:

A sample from xkcd. Click to enlarge...
One I thought might appeal to academics - click to expand/enlarge. Although my recent favourite, which contains some swears and is therefore mildly NSFW, is here.

Which is why I think it's worth a mention here. When you visit the website, the newest strips always appear on the front page and then there's a "Prev" and "Next" button for you to navigate your way through other comics. It's updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and you subscribe to a feed as with other blogs.

Also, it's funny. Which should've been reason enough really.

Tip: Hover your mouseover each strip for a follow-up punchline. It means misinformed screenreaders but they were never very good with webcomics anyway.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Recovering from e-Learning Week

Not that we have much time! Tomorrow marks the beginning of Reading's annual Learning and Teaching Conference (programme here); for the first time it'll be running over two days. I'll be chairing a session and, along with my colleague Maria, giving an overview of Blackboard Academic Suite and how we've piloted it this past two years. I wouldn't want to give the illusion that we've prepared though...

Last week's run of sessions on e-Learning went well though. Just to explain: e-Learning Week also runs annually - whereas we repeat a number of talks and workshops on various e-Learning topics throughout the year, dedicating five days to the lot means we can make a concentrated effort and join some of the themes and strands up. Our "Good Practice" session for example is two hours long and, this time round, allowed for about half an hour talking about general tips on e-accessibility and course design, as well as showcasing some "good practice" examples of courses, before going to a "hands-on" and letting the attendees try things out with practice areas while we go round and help those that need it.

I delivered Friday's penultimate session which was more of a lecture and was called "Keeping Up With Your Students: Changes in Technology". It generated lots of discussion as usual, not least the title which could be deemed controversial depending on how it's interpreted. More on that another time, perhaps...

Feedback for the week overall was very positive and I think only one of the sessions was in any way weak. But it was one we'd never run before so we'll re-arrange it before next time. When the responses have been compiled, I'll post some of them here.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Interview with me

To my surprise, I've discovered that someone has uploaded a podcast interview with me. Actually, there's input here from other people, most of whom manage to say far more interesting things. The title suggests it's just between me and Alan Carr though.

It also implies that we sat down in a room together and he asked me questions to which I had considered and worthwhile responses when in actual fact Andrew Middleton, microphone in hand, caught me during a coffee break at April's PPPSIG while I was trying to get my teeth into an enormous cake. That not only explains the noise in the background but also how I manage to talk a lot without really saying anything...

Perhaps it goes to show: you really can't have your cake and eat it :-)

Monday, 30 June 2008

Blog of the Week: Language Log

Not that I'll be picking a blog every week or anything... But thought I'd point to Language Log here, a site I visit fairly regularly, which always has something interesting to say about the state or nuances of our (or, for that matter, any other) language...

Three highlights from the past week:
  • Beware of "Nerdview"! This is particularly aimed at e-Learning people I suppose (or perhaps just me?) and is especially timely as it's e-Learning Week here at Reading, where we run a number of workshops over five days in which staff can receive training, help and advice on using our VLE (Blackboard) and other tools out on the web (for the purposes of teaching and learning). This post (and this one too) should emphasise the need for those who spend a lot of time with the technical to take a step back when talking to those who don't.
  • A lot of students use Facebook and anyone who has an account and checks in regularly will already be aware that it's constantly being updated. This posting at Language Log details a subtle change for the better, which, though small, I'm quite pleased about. And the end of the post is reassuring; it's good to know Facebook are taking the complexities of identity, both real-world and digital, into consideration...
  • And, finally, a cartoon... The original post is about "talkativeness" and mentions gender but I don't think I need to explain how it might also illustrate generational differences concerning communication and technology... Shame it won't fit into my squashed blog; click to expand/enlarge...

Cartoon strip called 'Zits'

Friday, 27 June 2008

About this blog

I finally got around to sorting this blog out! Well, sort of... It still needs work.

Basically, I've been stockpiling stuff to go up for a while but rather put it all up with today's date, I've decided to back-date it. So for notes on meetings/conferences/etc I attended before today , I'll date it around the actual date of the event itself. Every post dated before this one will have a footnote formatted a bit like this:

[This post is back-dated. dd-mm-yyyy]

That date at the end being the date of the actual posting. Whenever I back-date posts, I'll create a new post to explain there's something new to the blog up with links. A bit like this one:

I can't really think of any other way of doing this at the moment. What do you think? Feel free to use the comments link below to leave me some advice! It's open to all...

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Preview of Previews...

One thing that's always annoyed me about the Blackboard Basic Portfolio is the fact that if you want to see your portfolio you have to go right out of it back to your list and then click on the title to open it. I suppose you could leave it open in a different window and then modify and refresh...

Not good enough for me though. I've decided to add a "Preview" button to the main portfolio menu. It's written in from the left hand panel (which I control) using a bit of Javascript. This is what it looks like:

See the difference?

The whole lack of preview for templates when you go to add an Item annoyed me too - it's like you're going into a new page blind, with no support when you get there. So I've added a "Preview" button to that too:

When you click the button it detects which item you've selected from the drop-down list and then opens another window with a Preview HTML file in it. I'm still working on how to get some sort of div in there that warns users that they are in fact looking at a preview but I think it's a small step towards making the interface more user friendly.

[This post is back-dated. 27-06-2008]

Thursday, 19 June 2008

"Enhancing the Student Experience"

Eggh, up before 5.30am this morning and on my way to London by 7.15 but all for a good cause: to go to the BLU Conference at the University of Hertfordshire. My colleague Maria was presenting on behalf of Reading there and is no doubt getting smashed at the dinner tonight. I only went for the day though, staggering home this evening so I could blog on the following delightful topics...

  • A presentation on vlogging by a student at Hertfordshire called Miles Dyer, aka "blade376", who talked about his experiences, both learning and personal, on YouTube. Considering he'd never presented at a conference before he came across as very cool and engaging - but then he has appeared on More4 News, not to mention the millions of views his videos have got on YouTube itself, so he's experienced at appearing in the public eye. Here he is, giving a quick summary of the conference last night:

    His talk generated a lot questions in the after-session, mostly about the specifics of fitting Miles' experience into an educational environment. Could it work within the "enclosed" setting of the university? Would asking students to vlog sterilise the process; make it unexciting? Miles himself said that he tended to post videos when he was inspired by something - which is presumably why his vlogs are so popular, as they're never forced. Essentially, I think successful vlogging (and I'm guessing, having never vlogged myself) would be opportunistic and spontaneous - but, of course, the opportunity has to be there in the first place...
  • The keynote delivered by Betty Collis looked at how the company Shell have developed a learning vision and strategy within their workforce and she also looked at the similarities and differences between learning in Higher Education and the corporate sector. She and her husband produced a booklet subtitled "Technology as a Learning Workbench" which is available from their website here.
  • I saw a talk in the afternoon from Trevor Barker (also of Hertfordshire) who explained that we needed a new student modelling techniques to map onto the skills inventory emerging from use of Web 2.0 technologies. I couldn't possibly summarise the talk here but it left me with the feeling that I've still got a lot reading to do around pedagogy in general and, furthermore, that there's still a lot of work to be done by everybody in exploring the relationship between technology and skills.

Now I need to eat and sleep!

[This post is back-dated. 27-06-2008]

Friday, 18 April 2008

PPPSIG Meeting at University of Hertfordshire

This meeting was for the Special Interest Group concerned with Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes (hence PPPSIG) and was the second dissemination event of its kind. The whole day was interesting so this is just a summary of what happened:

The most useful presentation of the day came from Andrew Middleton and Alan Hillier, who basically went through and talked around a series of samples from actual podcast files delegates had sent in. This was a really good way of demonstrating the various forms podcasting can take:
  • monologue or lecture form
  • recorded discussion
  • video guidance in real-time
  • edited/produced video

Each of the examples also represented different gradients of formality. My favourite examples were a short video spoof of a legal claims advert which was used to teach science and an example of a help guide to Blackboard which was done really informally (there was a phone ringing in the background, for example, and as the support officers navigated their way around the site there was more informal chat about the tool and some general banter). The former was professionally done but also very informal while the latter was obviously recorded on the fly but still remained informative.

Of all the examples I saw, the “rough-edge” approach seemed to work the best and I imagine would be most effective in creating or strengthening staff-student connections. The presenters seemed to think this was true too; the student feedback revealed that they liked it when they could hear, for example, their lecturer turning pages while they gave feedback on essays or the sound of another glass of wine being poured… One could make the argument that podcasts provide the potential for more intimacy than even the face-to-face setting of a huge lecture hall.


We got a chance to make our own podcast too. In about forty-five minutes, a group of four of us put together a script, recorded it using free software and then published it online. It’s only about two minutes long and you can tell it’s a bit on-the-spot, as opposed to hitting one, but the results are here. (The obligatory out-of-the-office photo is above.) At this workshop we were also given a step-by-step booklet and a CD of resources.


The other workshop I went to was run by Andy Ramsden and focussed on designing and planning podcasts. This was more of a brainstorming session and some useful experiences were shared. One of the ideas I came up with there was for getting students to make podcasts for tours of the campus so prospective students can chose to walk around themselves with the file to guide them around. The idea of the workshop was to take everyone’s ideas and see if and how the finer details would work: in this example, iPods would need to be available to borrow for those that don’t have them, for instance.

We also had an overview of the IMPALA (Informal Mobile Podcasting And Learning Adaptation) project, funded by JISC, which had some interesting ideas and approaches to podcasting.

The day ended with a panel-led discussion on what we’d all learned and how useful the day had been, complete with a real-life student who had herself recorded podcasts. She warned that the process was very time-consuming though she conceded that the professional magazine-format approach she had chosen to take required a lot of recording and editing.

Lastly, some of the panel seemed particularly concerned with the idea of “sustainability”; how one can keep an effective community of practice going after funding has ended. Along with actually acknowledging and addressing the issue throughout the day, the group keeps a PPPSIG wiki which anyone can visit and anyone involved in the SIG can contribute to.

Further thoughts from the panel:
  • Do students change note-taking technique if recorded lectures are available? Allows students to be more attentive as they could flesh out notes later on?
  • Would students stop attending lectures if recordings were available?
  • Does it matter if students don’t attend lectures?
    • As long as they learn it doesn’t matter.
    • But lectures can give student-life structure. In fact some students complain if they don’t have enough since this is what they’ve paid fees for.
    • There is, however, a difference between attending and learning.
    • The temptation to unpick podcasts might lead to unnecessary time being spent on listening to recordings repeatedly?
    • Interestingly, the student on the panel added that podcasting would probably tend to dissuade only the disruptive or disinterested students from attending lectures, meaning better learning for everyone
So if you're interested in podcasting I'd recommend getting in touch with someone via the wiki above and seeing if you can attend the next event!

[This post is back-dated. 27-06-2008]