Sunday, 27 September 2009

was told (w/o provocation) by someone at the pool this morning to read Marx's Das Kapital; will shortly be checking forehead for writing...

Saturday, 26 September 2009

"Getting Started": A New Approach

The short version: I haven't previously blogged much about the training we do but I thought this was mention-worthy, and the patient reader (or impetuous scroller) will be rewarded with a link to some resources at the end.

The less short one (in two parts):

Pilfered from Blog with a View at, found via Google ImagesMy workload seems to have gone beyond crazy this week (and it was already twitchy, drooling and rabid).

One of my colleagues, Robyn, has been getting ready to leave our Team recently, and Richard (the other guy on the e-Learning Team) has been on leave. That's left just me to deal with all the email queries about courses on Blackboard that have been pouring in. Next week it's Freshers' Week and everyone has obviously either just got back from holiday or has just woken up to the fact that things need preparing.

Meanwhile, I've also had two workshops to deliver with my colleague Paul Janota from IT Services. They were both "Getting Started with Blackboard" training sessions. We tend to run perhaps five or six times of these a term and they're internal, so the first one at least didn't involve too much preparation. But the second...

Normally, Paul takes everyone through their first steps in Blackboard with the aid of the Netskills guides produced by the Newcastle University. Once he has spent half an hour doing this from the front, he then gives them the same amount of time to follow the guides themselves while we go around giving individual help to anyone that needs it. Then about an hour into the session, once they've got a good idea about the basic functionality and limitations of the system, I talk about our Good Practice courses. These are example courses, copied from actual courses that were selected on the basis of their demonstrating good course design and making innovative use of tools within Blackboard (or the Web generally) for teaching and learning purposes. Once I've spent about ten minutes presenting some of these and showing people how they can access them in their own time, they all resume following the guides, while I go around asking if anyone needs specific courses setting up (though Richard sometimes does this bit).

And that's what we did on Monday. As usual.

However, yesterday, in our second session, we decided to take a different approach.


Over the summer, Robyn and I have been working on a new online Help system. The new help information is presented on a wiki within Blackboard (we use the Learning Objects Expo LX tool). Preparing this has been a long and painstaking task: detailing every step needed to, for example, post an Announcement or Assignment, ensuring the information is thorough but not too dry or boring, and trying to keep the pages from being too technical despite all this. We've tried to put each tool in a teaching and learning context but at the same time keep the pages concise. We don't know if we've succeeded (we're pretty sure in some areas we haven't had the time to) but the idea of putting this information on a wiki was to make it easy to change and not just for one member of the Team but all of us and, if need be, people from other areas too. So we're not really expecting it to be "finished" as such - ever, let alone by next week.

As long as the information is comprehensible, relatively accessible and easy to navigate, we'll be happy (and relieved). And it very nearly is.

Except a couple of weeks ago, having returned from foreign climes and possibly still a little affected by the sun, I thought it'd be great if we could make these online guides print-friendly too. That way, we could use them in place of our Netskills guides during workshops, thereby cutting out some of the what we'd always thought to be unnecessary stuff and also making them more specific to Reading.

So on top of all the firefighting, I spent a sizeable chunk of time this week, perhaps even a clock's worth, going through the guides, making sure they followed on from each other, and changing links so they were not just user-friendly but paper-friendly too. I met with Paul halfway through the week and we agreed on what other changes should be made.

Then Friday came. After a punch-up with the photocopier, I arrived at the workshop and rather apprehensively distributed the new guides. I basically had to run through the whole session with a new outline because the order in which tasks were done had changed slightly. I was a little nervous because I wasn't sure the new guides would compare and, although Paul had brought the old Netskills guides as back-up, it would've been embarassing for us and confusing for the attendees, switching halfway through.

Thankfully, it all seemed to go well. There were, unfortunately, a couple of steps missing from the guides and a couple of spelling errors (for which I apologised) but the participants seemed able to follow the guides just as well as previous participants had the old ones. I shouldn't have worried I suppose; Paul and I were breaking a pattern that we were used to, but the attendees had by design never come to a "Getting Started" session before, so they weren't about to make comparisons, favourable or otherwise.

The feedback we received was very positive so I'm glad I put the time in. Now I just have make all the more advanced-level pages print-friendly and we'll have a whole set of new resources to use.

We've started to promote our new Help System yet: we have a few changes to make to the tab in Blackboard before we're ready. Hopefully these will done by Monday evening and I'll get my weekends back and live a peaceful life once more. However, the wiki pages are already available publically at this address -

If you're using Blackboard and you're struggling for help guides, then you might want to use these. Feel free to copy and modify as you see fit, though some credit would be nice where possible! And let us know how it goes, if you have time.

In summary: (1) We've made some new resources, (2) we're very nearly proud, and (3) I should write shorter blog posts (but see point 2).

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Catching Up

It's Wednesday, my fourth proper day back after returning from my travels, and I have a big pile of to-do on my desk. Not that I got to do any of it today as I had some meetings which produced their own to-do, which I then had to do first in order to clear my desk (and mind) for the original pile of to-do...

The main tasks at the moment seem to be:
  • Finishing our new online Help System which uses Expo in Blackboard
  • Changing the iLearn e-portfolio enhancement tool in response to the feedback we received from students
I'm now really appreciating the fact that we decided not upgrade to Blackboard version 9 this year.

When I get time I also intend to write up my remaining notes from ALT-C which I'll then back-post here and advertise up-front.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Learning Technologists on Twitter

I just used a tool on a site called TweepML, where Steve Wheeler (timbuckteeth on Twitter) has arranged a list of learning technology professionals. The tool enables me to follow all of them on Twitter with one click. Which is to say I will now be able to see every time they tweet something.

If you have a Twitter account and want to be be updated yourself you can do the same here.

I don't really know if I will be able to keep with all these tweets - I've gone from following a manageable 36 'twits' (that is the term apparently) to a sudden 103. That's 67 people all of whom I imagine are Twitter enthusiasts and who therefore will be tweeting on a regular (e.g. maybe four times an hour? more?) basis.

Still, it's a neat tool and I can always opt out if I find certain people aren't tweeting stuff I want to read.

I've signed up to be on the list myself. It asked me to give a justification as to why I should be on the list - my three reasons:
  • I work in an HE e-Learning team
  • I did quite a bit of fiddling with e-portfolios last year
  • I'm generally neurotic about technology and the way it might be shaping our lives, for better (eg. instant connection and communication) or worse (eg. increasing "alienation", connection only in a voyeuristic sense)
So that last reason might disqualify me from the list! And also, I'm not really sure I tweet enough, especially w/r/t work. Still, if you would like to follow me, I can be found @guypursey

Friday, 11 September 2009

had the first full day in the office in over a month and the desk is mess again already...

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

ALT-C 2009 Day One Round-up

As this is my first post-holiday post I'll try and keep it brief. I'm in Manchester for the next couple of days for ALT-C. ALT is the Association for Learning Technology and the C bit stands for Conference. It's a chance to spend a few days feeling confused about which of the ten parallel sessions you want to attend and more generally hobnobbing with other learning technologists and professionals in the education sectors.

This year's conference got off to a good start, thanks to a keynote from Michael Wesch, which covered identity, the search for authentic self, the history of "whatever", and how this is all looking in our new age of digital media. If you haven't heard of Michael Wesch before I strongly recommend having a look at his short and informative videos on YouTube - specifically The Machine Is Us/ing Us and A Vision of Students Today.

Wesch was funny, knowledgable and sometimes just plain endearing. He began by talking about his experiences in Papua New Guinea, living with people who have no (or perhaps next to no) experience in the way of exposure to digital media, the Internet, or any of the devices that conspire to keep us constantly "connected". According to Wesch, the people he stayed with don't even have names (that they can remember), their village and community are so tight-knit. It made an interesting contrast to his following description of mass civilisation, in which the search for recognition and desire to escape from anonymity have become so crucial that flocks of consumers become hell-bent on winning the next American Idol contest.

I don't think Wesch actually used the word 'alienation' but for me it would have summarised this feeling perfectly. The feeling that creates this desire, that is. And I was glad that he said, despite our need to engage with digital media (as educators, technologists, and citizens, I suppose), the Papua New Guineans seemed just fine the way they were - "disconnected", which sounds perjorative perhaps because it comes from our own homogenising value system with regards to "progress".

I'd like to write about this more - it's an area that fascinates me - but I should mention some of the other sessions I've been to.

Josie Fraser hosted a symposium called "The VLE is Dead" in which a group of four panelists got to put forward their views before opening up to the floor. The panelists themselves were lively and entertaining in their responses to the audience but some expressed frustration that the debate wasn't focussing on the real issues - which when they were brought up seemed to imply that the whole factory-based education system and perhaps even the socio-political organisation of educational institutions needed to be radically changed before something like the VLE (which may only be symptomatic of these larger issues) would die.

One of the panelists Nick Sharratt made a good play on words with the headline "VLE not finished" - meaning that's it's not so much vanquished as incomplete and it's our responsibility as technologists to keep working on it.

James Clay, one of the panelists has posted a video of the whole talk on his blog here. You could try watching the first twenty-odd minutes for a summary of the views as I don't think the panelists really shifted positions on anything fundamental. You can also leave comments there and take part in the general discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #vle.

The final "highlight" of the day was Steve Wheeler's session on Twitter which was kind of chaotic and may have left some newcomers to the tool feeling confused, but raised some interesting questions about its possible applications in teaching and learning contexts. I'll perhaps blog again sometime on the Infinite Summer project I mentioned previously, as an example of this.

All in all, an interesting if tiring first day. It doesn't help that I still have jetlag...

(For once, all the photos are my own! Ie. I pressed the button on my camera and they're not just pilfered from somewhere like usual...)