Monday, March 18, 2019

Have I become too much of a specialist to find a job?

Up until about two years ago I had a really good job. I was an Educational Software Developer, with a sort of skunk-works remit. I did the special projects, sometimes linked to Educational Research, and sometimes just intended to improve the ability of teachers to create good quality content. I also had a quiet office, where I could use voice recognition software, and make training videos. In the neighbouring offices I had colleagues I could bounce ideas off who were interested in the use of technology to support learning & teaching. There were things that weren't perfect - I hadn't really been getting enough time to properly engage with the IMS Global QTI working group, so had dropped off that, and I felt my expertise in e-learning technology and interoperability standards wasn't being used as effectively as it could be. JISC development grants had also ended, so that way of funding interesting work was gone. However, overall I was fairly happy in my job, and felt I was making a useful contribution to supporting teaching.

Then there was a change - a reorganization moved me and my colleagues who do the technical support and local customizations for Moodle from a teaching support department to a IT business systems department. We were promised our jobs wouldn't change, however mine has changed beyond all recognition. In this department we do not do experiments - projects that might fail, and we do not initiate anything. Anything interesting I was working on was cancelled, as it either had too few users, or might lead to support requirements. That included every project that aligned to my PhD. I also have several more layers of management between me and decision makers, so my expertise is far more deeply buried, and my University web page no longer lists research interests, grants and publications, so staff who look me up just see a job title that doesn't really reflect who I am.

Although I still have a private office for now, it's not quiet enough to use voice recognition software, and I need to wear uncomfortable industrial ear defender headphones when I'm programming. In a few months we'll be moving to open plan - over 80 people, many with jobs that involve a lot of phone calls, densely packed with no space for work that needs silence. I'm also already largely isolated from other people with a interest in pedagogy, but the new office is off campus so my isolation will be complete.

The truth is, my job has turned into one I'd have had to be desperate to apply for, so the time has come to start job hunting. Unfortunately, jobs for Senior Educational Software Developers with experience of international collaboration on developing and implementing specialist educational interoperability standards, and an interest in educational research don't come up very often... In a way this is my problem - I got used to being an internationally recognised expert, but no one here knows or cares about my expertise.

So, I'm not really sure how to go about job hunting. My ideal outcome would be for the University to create an appropriate role for me, but I doubt that will happen, so if anyone else wants to offer me a job, I'd like to hear from you.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A blog post about my first vlog post

About a week ago I posted my first 'vlog post' to YouTube. I have a couple of different reasons for trying vlogging: I want to learn and develop ways of making short educational videos more efficiently to assist the teaching staff I support at work, and I also think that it might be the best way to communicate some of my research.

Unsurprisingly no one has looked at my first vlog - so far I've not publicised it, and I doubt there's many people searching for videos about the meaning of "blended learning" - my chosen subject for this first attempt.

However, getting lots of views was not my aim, learning was. In some ways I'm quite pleased with the result - the vlog was filmed as one ~10 minute take, with various mistakes edited out afterwards to bring it down to ~5 minutes. Editing was quite quick, so in terms of efficiency of production it was not bad. The end result however isn't great. I don't think I'm a natural in front of the camera, and a lot less of my face would have made it better... Next time I should plan to have a few images rather than just slides of some key information. The content also doesn't need the video, so could actually have been put in a blog post with a lot less effort. It also would probably have been more accessible, and quicker to digest in that form.

So, thinking about education, probably before making a video the teacher needs to think "Is there anything in this lesson that needs video?" If the answer is no, probably text and illustrations is a better choice.

From my viewpoint, was it worth making this Vlog post? Yes, because it was about learning, so the fact that video was unneeded in this instance is just part of the lesson.

If you're remotely interested, the Vlog, 'What do we really mean by "Blended Learning"' is here - I think the last 10 seconds, when I come to a conclusion is maybe worth watching :-)

Monday, November 27, 2017

H5P and the Common Cartridge


Over the last few weeks I've been having a look at H5P, a rather nice way of creating interactive content that can be embedded in Moodle or Drupal. One of the strengths of H5P is that the information to edit a piece of content is included in the distribution of the content, however this also means that the server side part of a full H5P implementation is fairly complicated, as it needs to support editing. As a way of learning more about H5P, I started creating my own implementation, and quickly realised that in practice very little is needed on the server side for a pure delivery system.

This got me thinking, could an H5P module be included in an IMS Global Common Cartridge, allowing it to be deployed on any LMS/VLE? A secondary advantage of packaging H5P modules like this would be that they could be embedded in text pages to make interactive textbooks - something that is currently not possible with the Moodle implementation. (I think it might be possible to use H5P on Drupal to provide modules in iframes to be included in Moodle book or lesson activities, but I've not tried it.) I also have a strong preference for open interoperable standards for content - while Moodle book and lesson are open source, and their backup versions are simple enough to decode, they're not really intended as interoperable content types.

So, what is needed to get an H5P module into a CC package?

H5P modules are written in JavaScript, using the JQuery library, and will also include CSS, so the page header includes the script tags to include JQuery, some H5P core code and the module specific code and links to the CSS files. The H5P data is included as a JSON object called H5PIntegration, which also includes paths for Ajax and the H5P root. The Ajax actions are optional, though required is the user state or outcomes are to be stored. As the Common Cartridge specification does not support any server side code, my implementation leaves the Ajax fields blank. The H5P root setting is a slight problem, as it is relative to the server root, and there is no fixed path for deploying common cartridge. In addition to this path, each individual H5P activity also has a path to its content, relative to the server root. To fix this, I added an extra small bit of JavaScript which creates the H5PIntegration data, adding in the path at runtime.

  <script>
    H5PIntegration2 = {...};

    function PrepareH5P()
    {
         path = document.location.pathname.split('/').slice(0, -1).join('/');
         H5PIntegration2.baseUrl = path;
         H5PIntegration2.url = path + "/h5pdata/";
         for(var cid in H5PIntegration2.contents)
         {
             var intid = cid.substring(4);
             H5PIntegration2.contents[cid].url = path + "/h5pdata/content/"+intid;
         }
         H5PIntegration = H5PIntegration2;
    }

    PrepareH5P();
  </script>

With this JavaScript added, provided the script and CSS includes have relative paths, the page is compatible with the Common Cartridge, and supports H5P activities.

So far I've only done a proof-of-concept experiment with one simple H5P activity, however I see no reason why this technique shouldn't work with any activity that doesn't depend on user data being stored on the server.

What next?

Over the next few weeks I'll try and tidy up the code I used to generate the Common Cartridge, and extend it to support multiple H5P activities per page, and multiple pages. Once it's in a suitably usable form, I'll stick it online, and probably also on Github so others can play with it.

In the longer term it would be really nice to have an extended version of Common Cartridge that supported minimal server side rules, something comparable in power to QTI response processing, but able to interact with any HTML page. I think that would be sufficient to support session storage and outcomes from H5P activities, or other JavaScript interactions. It would also provide a way of creating properly interoperable material equivalent to Moodle lesson, though (hopefully) less constrained.

I recently was shown a Runestone Interactive book, "How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Interactive Edition" by Jeremy Singer, who is using it as the text for a L1 Computing Science module.   Interactive books like these can be linked from CC packages using LTI, and for now that is the way to do it. However  a platform neutral interoperability format that could support open interactive textbooks like these within the VLE, that could be remixed by teachers to suit their needs would be a very useful thing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Making simple GIF annimations.

Yesterday I posted this video describing how to make an animated GIF by using Inkscape to position transparent PNG images over a background, and then using giffy.com to put them together as an animated GIF, however video is not an ideal medium for sharing information like URLs, so I'm adding these to this blog post, along with some other resources and ideas.

The software I used to create the PNG images is SmoothDraw, a free drawing package that works particularly well with graphics tablets. SmoothDraw is only available for Windows, however the open source package, Inkscape, which is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, would also be suitable for this part of the process. I've put a few of my PNG versions of Sarah's doodles at www.niallbarr.me.uk/picture_library/doodles.zip which you can use if you just want to play with the second and third stages.

In the video I also used Inkscape to position the PNGs over a background, however for the Daily Create 'Jump' animation I actually used a similar commercial package Xara Photo & Graphic Designer. For this particular task I don't think there is anything better about either package, but I prefer Xara for more advanced graphics (which may well be due to my greater familiarity with it rather than any intrinsic superiority over Inkscape.)

An alternative way of doing this, which might be better if you're using this as an activity for children would be to print out the PNGs, and carefully cut round the edges, and photograph them over a background - the technique used by Terry Gilliam for animated segments of Monty Python's Flying Circus. (Consistent lighting a fixed camera position are important if you're doing this.) A desk lamp and a webcam works as a simple setup.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

My daily create fantasy band

When I suggested the fantasy band idea for the daily create I was thinking I would create some sort of photo manipulated image, but unfortunately today I was a bit short of time, and also finding suitably licensed images of musicians is not too easy. So, a blog post instead.

Once or twice I have seen bands live who had sounded very good in recordings, but turned out to be
fairly terrible when I actually heard them play live. So, I have a rule for my fantasy band - I will only include people who I have seen playing. I'm not going to require them to still be active or even alive - after all this is only a fantasy. But I do require them to be talented: they have to make up for my terrible keyboard playing.

 So to start. My singer needs to have charm and warmth, to be the personality that fronts the band as well as having a great voice. The late Cab Callaway is my choice for this role, and perhaps that means I'm putting together a jazz band. Given that, I'm going to include someone who I first saw playing in the Halt Bar when he was a teenager, but who has gone on to become a legend. On saxophone my fantasy band will have Tommy Smith. On bass, not actually a jazz musician but someone who could certainly play all the most complicated bass parts, the late Chris Squire of Yes, and it's good to keep a strong rhythm section together so on drums I would have Bill Bruford, though it is a concert I saw him doing at Strathclyde University with his band Earthworks that wins him a place in my fantasy jazz band. I feel that the late Alan Holdsworth would have been he right guitarist for this band, but sadly I never got the chance to see him live, so he is not allowed. Instead, my favourite guitarist, Andy Latimer of Camel gets the final place in this fantasy line-up.




Monday, June 26, 2017

Daily Create 1995

I like to photograph wildlife, and when I do I naturally try not to disturb the animals that I'm photographing. I'm not great wildlife photographer, and I'm unlikely to ever sell a photograph or win a prize, but that doesn't stop me trying to make the best photographs I can. A few years ago I went on a one day photography course organised by the RSPB, and the professional wildlife photographer running the course gave a few hints about selling photographs. He told us that the animals in photographs should always look perfect, and we shouldn't bother photographing a bird that is moulting, or which has a couple of bent feathers. He also told us that if we wish to sell photographs we should never have any visible human artefacts within the photograph, so no pictures birds on feeders, or even on a mowed lawn. But perhaps most important of all, he told us that most of the time for the great shots the professional photographers will use trained animals.

I disagree with all that. When I take a photograph I aim to documents nature, and also nature's interactions with humans. The wildlife around me is living in a very human defined environment and it would be silly to pretend otherwise, so I see no harm in photographing birds on a feeder, or having houses in the background.

And so to this daily create, where we were asked to tell a story about some pictures of a tree frog sitting on a rhinoceros beetle. Before I had any ideas, I went and read Mariana Funes' blog post about the photos,  which got me looking at the photos properly. I'm not an expert on amphibians, however a bit of research has told me that Indonesian tree frogs do not have opposable thumbs, so there I think there is something very wrong about the frog in these images. I am a rather more expert on arthropods, and I'm fairly sure the beetle is either dead or anaesthetised - the positions of it's feet do not look right. My guess is that both animals were not in a healthy state, and are supported by threads, and very probably glue.

So the story for the daily create. Sadly the success of the occasional genuine amazing animal photograph has led to other people faking them for a wee bit of Internet fame, and this regrettably involves cruelty to animals. Like Mariana I do not wish to further share these photographs.



So my photograph for today, I often share photographs of puffins or drawings I have based on them. Here is a photograph of humans and puffins together. The puffins know they are safe, because the only humans that ever visit them on their remote island are there to admire the puffins, and the humans are enjoying seeing beautiful wildlife in its natural environment, and being careful not to go so close that they alarm the puffins.





Thursday, June 08, 2017

JISC Connect More Scotland

On Tuesday I attended the JISC Connect More Scotland event at Glasgow Caledonian University. A significant theme of the event was digital literacy, and in particular, digital literacy of academic staff. In his introduction to the event, head of JISC Scotland, Jason Miles-Campbell, mentioned a job advert he had recently seen for an academic post which only mentioned familiarity with Microsoft Office as a required IT skill. Of course, many people might think this is an appropriate level of IT literacy for an academic, but if we are going to succeed in getting greater use of on-line and blended learning we need academics with a wide range of digital skills and confidence.

The keynote was from Martin Hamilton, JISC's 'Futurist' - that sound like a rather cool job! Martin's talk covered trends in artificial intelligence, robotics and space exploration. His AI examples included the rather wonderful edges2cats, and also more mundane things like self driving cars...


The workshops covered a range of things - you can see some of the slides on JISC's slideshare.

My personal takeaways:
  • Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies and JISC's Co-Design Playdeck might be useful planning tools.
  • Microsoft's HoloLens is really interesting, but rather uncomfortable with my glasses. The anatomy lesson that was being used as a demo was interesting, but a bit low resolution when I tried to look closely at internal organs. I wish I could justify the price to get one to play with.  
  • Small fun activities are a good approach for CPD to get staff to engage and improve their digital literacy. Chris Rowell's 12 Apps of Christmas is a rather nice example.