Saturday, March 14, 2020

Planning to move teaching online (suddenly)

So it seems that we will be moving to distance learning, not the baby steps that we've been taking (in many iterations) over the last 23 years, but suddenly, all at once. A whole moderately large, very traditional University, with no time to plan, switching to distance learning... Exciting times!

Being a University, nothing can happen without a committee being formed, so naturally there's a committee, but I'm not involved in that. 

However, I have been working with learning technology for around 30 years and the vast majority of the almost £500k grant income I've had in my career has been related to on-line and distance learning. I've also got a degree from the Open University, so I've got a bit of relevant experience from the student perspective. Oh, and I also helped facilitate a cMOOC once, and have done a lot of distance collaboration as a member of IMS working groups. So, although I'm not an expert in suddenly switching a university to distance learning, and not really an expert on distance learning, maybe my background means that I can provide some useful insights and hints.  

It seems to me that there are probably going to be two distinct phases to this on-line experience - the first, starting on Monday for the University of Glasgow, will be largely unprepared. The second will start with the new academic year in September, by which time there will be quite a bit of preparation done. I hope that preparation will include providing teachers with some training and technology to make it easier to teach from home.

One of the things I have been doing this year is working on a proposal for a digital skills course for academic and support staff. A feature of this course is going to be that it focuses on using free and open source software to do things well enough, rather than using expensive professional software to do things to a media professional standard.  Events in the world have rather overtaken me now, and this up-skilling is probably needed right now rather than in six months time.What I'm thinking now, is that I should just start writing this course, making bits available as I complete them.

What I don't know is what's to do first. I was expecting my course to go from basic image creation and editing, through audio recording and editing and ending up with video editing, with accessibility and web publishing being themes running through it. However, while that order makes logical sense as a course, it probably isn't addressing immediate needs.

So, teaching staff, University of Glasgow or elsewhere, is there any tutorial that you would like provided, to help you do your teaching online next week? Please let me know in the comments. The sorts of things I could cover include anything that will be in my digital skills course, or using specific features of Moodle.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

A sad list of cancelled and never started learning technology projects...

Recently I attended the first day of our annual learning teaching conference, which is spread over three widely separated days this year. Most of the presentations were really good, but it was the discussions that followed them that got me thinking about some of the projects which I probably would have been working on if I was still in the Learning and Teaching Centre. 

I've listed a few, that I'd be happy to resurrect if i got the opportunity, here. Some of these were cancelled when I was moved to IT Services, and others were proposals that were turned down. 

If you'd like to see any of these projects are progressing, please add comments to the blog.


One of the themes of the day was accessibility, and with distance learning being continuing priority for the University, Closed Captions for videos came up. One project relevant to this is my ClosedCaptionHelper, a Windows application that helps the user type up closed caption files with the correct time codes in them. This project wasn't actually cancelled - it just ceased to be a priority because money was allocated to get commercial captioning done for the projects I was supporting. I don't know if there is still a need - commercial captioning services are remarkably cheap - however, it could be resurrected if there is a demand.

Future peer review

Peer review, were students review and comment on each other's work, has been shown to have considerable learning benefits. (Nicol et al. 2013) Currently there are two peer-review packages in use at the University, Moodle workshop and Aropä, but both have limitations. Moodle workshop can be difficult to configure for each exercise, and has no support for group work, while Aropä does not integrate well with Moodle. A fundamental problem designing good peer review software is making sure that the requirements of different teachers are met, without making the user interface too complicated. The idea behind my Future Peer-Review project would be to create a new LTI tool with greater inherent flexibility, but with the user interface made simple for teachers by allowing them to choose from a limited set of scenarios created by learning technologists. The learning technologists would have access to the more complicated setup options, which they would use to create the scenarios. Because this approach would eliminate some of the need to compromise between complexity and usability, the same tool would be able to support both individual work and group work modes. The tool itself would be an LTI application, launched from Moodle or another VLE.

Content Authoring Tools including Efficient Quiz Authoring 

The current process for creating e-learning content can be rather inefficient, and one area that I am interested in looking at is making use of simple syntax similar to markdown for creating content that can be delivered using different mediums. The most obvious area for efficiency improvements is writing e-assessment questions. Currently this is typically done using web forms, which are quite clunky. A more efficient method is to have a text format that can be automatically read into the quiz questions. A tool that use this approach was the CASTLE toolkit from the University of Leicester. My tool would go a bit beyond what was supported by CASTLE, as I would include standard markdown for text-formatting, and also support mathematical equations by including MathJAX.

The same approach could be used for authoring other types of e-learning content, for example books with interactive sections, or exercises were the student would select various actions, and see different information based on what they had selected. (An example of this type of exercise would be a virtual diagnosis exercise for medical or veterinary students.)

This would also be the starting point for writing IMS Common Cartridge content with extended functionality, which I'll describe in slightly more detail later in this blog post.

Desktop Presentaton software - UPresentTo

With an increasing emphasis on making use of blended learning for face-to-face courses, and also an increase distance learning, making short educational videos is becoming more common. As a distance student, I have found that the style of videos makes a huge difference to how easy they are to watch. I find videos that are basically just a voice along with static PowerPoint slides extremely unengaging, whilst just adding a face in the corner makes them feel a bit better. A second issue with videos is that editing together different parts can take quite a long time, so ideally video was created with as little editing required as possible. I spent a bit of time thinking about how to achieve this, and came up with a piece of software which combines web slides, embedded applications and web sites (with the ability to pause them and annotate the screen), optional telly prompting and a virtual whiteboard. It is also used to control OBSStudio, which allows the inclusion of web cam shots and pre-recorded video into the storyboard. Although it is still a bit clunky, when combined with the right hardware, this software does make creating okay-ish educational videos a lot easier.

NGDLE Prototyping

The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) is a more distributed version of the VLE, making use of protocols such as LTI to connect separate components. Although called the next generation, it is to some extent already with us as we are increasingly using LTI tools to extend the functionality of Moodle. For example at the University our lecture capture software and library booklists are both linked to Moodle using LTI. Sarah and I wrote a paper on this, before the term NGDLE had become the standard name for the concept.

One of the things I would like to do is develop a process for creating the components of this distributed learning environment, using a mixture of product family engineering and generative programming for the pearly boilerplate aspects of the applications,  and exploring potential extensions to LTI to make the combination of small, relatively simple, tools work as well as the integrated VLE is that we are used to. (Obviously these extensions would then be fed back to IMS for consideration for inclusion in a future version of LTI.)

To some extent this project would also combine some of the others here, for example the future of peer review system would be one of these components. The product family engineering and generative programming approach has also been used already for YACRS and a few other projects at the University.


The IMS Common Cartridge is a way of creating learning material that can be deployed in different VLEs, however it has very limited capacity for including interactive content other than quizzes, with a fairly limited set of standard question types. (And some VLEs, for example Moodle, ignore the quizzes.) I have done some experiments with adding more interactive content to Common Cartridges, including creating specialist types of quiz questions for academic writing exercises,  and adding an H5P activity into a common cartridge. The limitation for both of these is that Common Cartridge doesn't have any support for custom server side code, so there is no persistence, i.e. when the student closes their browser there is no longer any record of what they have done. QTI 2.0, which I was involved in the development of, has a simple set of instructions that can be used to process and store quiz responses on the server, without any risk of being able to interfere with other processes. I'd like to design an extension to common cartridge with support for simple server side rules like this, giving it sufficient power to record students responses, and at marks to a gradebook. (Although QTI is part of the inspiration for this, I would avoid its XML syntax which is neither user-friendly, nor particularly easy for developers.)


Thursday, January 23, 2020

My thoughts on an IT Strategy for Learning & Teaching

This week we had a meeting of IT staff from around the University, with our director of IT telling us about the University's new IT strategy. There was a lot of good things there - major new investment in infrastructure to reverse years of underspending on IT, and a commitment from senior management that this investment will be ongoing, rather than a temporary fix. However, one thing that was missing was any mention of learning & teaching. Of course, many of the infrastructure improvements will be of benefit to learning & teaching, but it would be nice to have a strategy for the parts of our service that specifically support learning & teaching. The director did say that the strategy isn't finished yet, so maybe learning & teaching support is still to be covered. However, in the absence of a current strategy, here is my thoughts/wish list...

Our current support for learning and teaching seems fragmented and often contradictory. In addition, it leaves gaps, particularly when it comes to supporting the scholarship of learning and teaching. The fragmentation means that we have different teams supporting learning and teaching who technically have different roles, but whose roles seem to overlap. We need someone with a proper overview of all learning & teaching support to eliminate this overlap. The current structure also means that the expertise in learning and teaching that there is within IT services is buried under too many layers of management to have influence, so this role needs filled by someone who either shares that expertise, or is at least knowledgeable enough to recognize and use it. 

Supporting scholarship of learning and teaching, (teachers in higher education developing expertise in the pedagogy relating to their field and  contributing to educational literature and practice) is a University priority that we should share. Part of that scholarship is engaging with new or innovative use of technology in education, so we need a coherent structure to provide both technical and logistical support for that, with staff available to meet with teachers to discuss their needs, and then collaborate closely with them to develop solutions. Part of this means that we need to recognise that learning technology and business systems are fundamentally different and need managed in different ways - learning technology is an early adopter of new ideas, and is constantly evolving, whereas business systems are fundamentally conservative and aims for stability.

The next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE) is already present in higher education, even though it is still not really clearly defined. Broadly speaking this is a digital learning environment made out of small specialised tools linked together using LTI or similar technology.
Like every other University we are already moving to the NGDLE  through increasing use of LTI tool, both on and off campus. We need to embrace this properly, and decide whether we want to be leaders or followers. We also need to have a system in place to cope with the fact that the future DLE is going to be a network of different tools, with different licences, contracts etc. What we must not do, but are currently at risk of, is become the big name university that every dodgy supplier with more skills in sales than in IT targets for their customer list.

One thing that I have felt has been missing from IT services for the last few years has been a senior member of staff with a background of working in the teaching side of the University. In the past we had deputy directors of IT services who had started off elsewhere in the university, and even in one case, still involved in teaching. More recently our senior staff have all been IT professionals, which possibly is why our support for learning & teaching has lost focus. I'm not sure we need someone as senior as a deputy director, but we do need someone with deep knowledge of learning technology and related pedagogy in a more senior role. This person could then address the fragmentation of support, provide a suitable communication channel with teaching staff, and take charge of the NGDLE related changes.

At the moment there seem to be two rather extreme models of management in IT Services - one very much a hands on member of the team in the hardware sections, and in the software side, a very hands off hierarchical structure with managers also doing a lot of administration. I don't think either is ideal, but for learning technology I do think a degree of direct involvement is essential to remain on top of the subject - maybe the solution is to resurrect the idea of an Academic Related post, and get someone who's got some academic credibility into a senior IT role, with a professional administrator to support them.

At one time this was the type role I aspired to, however in recent years, the way my career has gone has not given me the opportunity to develop the skills needed for such a senior role - my management development ended when JISC stopped funding development projects. That brings me round to one final piece of strategy - we need to invest in our own people, and develop the future leaders ourselves. Otherwise, we risk ending up in a situation I've seen develop elsewhere, buried under an ever increasing load of bullshitters...

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Office noise levels part 2

As a comparison to the office nose graphs I posted last week, at the weekend I set up my noise meter in my study at home and created the same graphs for that location. Like the previous graph, this shows a time when I was largely sitting working in a private room. As it was another warm day, the window was open, but there was very little noise from outside - no one nearby was cutting hedges or anything like that. The underlying ambient noise level (green lines) is similar at about 42dB, but the average sound levels and noise variation at home are dramatically lower.
Ideally it would be possible to get the noise generated by my own activities isolated, as that would give a clearer indication of the underlying disturbance noise. In the home standard deviation line (red) in the middle there is a two hour period when I was out, which is clearly visible, suggesting that most of the other sound variation came from my activities. In the work standard deviation line, the last two hours are also showing time when my office was empty, but clearly not as disturbance free.

We're due to be moved into a large open-plan office soon, and when that happens I'll try and run the tests again.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Office noise levels

A couple of months ago I sat a decibel meter on my desk for a few days, and recorded the noise levels in my office. Although I feel my office is very noisy, the figures I got didn't seem too bad compared to typical levels I found on-line. But one thing I did spot was that the most disruptive noises - people talking in the corridor - were also not particularly loud.

At the weekend I came across a paper, "Defining the Acoustic Environment of (semi-)open Plan Offices Acoustic Measurements leading to Activity Based Design for retrofit Buildings", which included average noise levels for various types of office. The authors of that paper found that the average noise levels in the modern (open-plan) offices they looked at were fairly consistent at about 51dB, but there was variation in the standard deviation from ~3 for an office filled with programmers to ~5 in an office with mixed tasks.

So, I went back to my records, picking one day look at, and plotted average sound level, standard deviation and lowest 2 second average in 5 minute segments from 7am to 6pm.

The minimum sound level line gives an impression of the background noise - the higher levels for a while in the afternoon are due to a graduation, with the new graduates and their families congregating in the quad outside my window, so this is an unusual event that can be ignored.

I suspect that the standard deviation line at the bottom (and the large variation in noise levels through the day) show why I feel my office is too loud, even though actual average sound levels are OK, the number of disruptive noise events is high, and this is what makes if feel like a noisy and unpleasant environment to work in.

It would be interesting to get similar records from other offices along with information on their occupants impression of how noisy they are to compare with this - maybe a nice wee research project for someone. I've not had much success in finding research on the impact of noise on knowledge work, other than the well known work DeMarco and Lister covered in PeopleWare, but that research should make this a major concern to managers.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Creating an environment for Learning Technology development.

In a recent post "A supportive environment for developing learning technology" I discussed two Universities with specialist departments that allow them to develop cutting edge learning technology that addresses their needs. At the end of that post I said I'd suggest ideas of how other Universities without such specialist departments might get the same benefits, without substantial costs. The key is recognising the factors that are actually important, and then finding a way to provide them without committing to the cost of a full specialist department. However, slotting learning technology into a business systems department does not work.

Learning Technology development requires embracing risk, experimentation, and occasional failure - so needs a different approach from business systems. Learning technology will always be used in ways that are unpredictable, and on a multitude of different devices, and needs to fit the users requirements. Learning Technology development is a complex interdisciplinary process that involves research and scholarship. Business system development is very different: business systems are typically static and inflexible - no one is doing research on improving them, and every user has almost identical needs. More importantly, the end user is trained (and forced) to use them correctly for the designed purpose. Because they have very constrained requirements, and long periods between updates they can be run with very traditional, bureaucratic processes and separation of teams. External cooperation, essential for open source Learning Technology, is also largely alien to the business systems world.

This means that the business system development section of a central IT services department is not the right place: the required culture is quite different.

The core things that are needed for Learning Technology development are:
  1. Expert developers with the right knowledge and skill sets.
  2. A quiet productivity space for the developers.
  3. Close communication between the experts and decision makers.
  4. Sufficient access to suitable servers for development, testing and piloting
  5. Close collaboration between developers and teachers who will be end users.
  6. Access to a wide range of devices for testing.
Looking at each of these in turn:

1. Developers

A Learning Technology Developer is a programmer with specialist knowledge. As a programmer they need to be a generalist, able to work in a variety of languages, but they should also be familiar with the key specialist knowledge for learning technology: pedagogy, interoperability standards,  accessibility, data protection etc. Programmers need to be good at self-directed learning, so much of the specialist knowledge could be learnt on the job given suitable guidance, but if starting with a team of one, someone with the right experience and expertise is essential. The ideal candidate would have a track record of both educational software and academic publications, and experience of working with IMS and other standards. Teaching experience would also be a nice extra, though maybe not essential.

2. Space 

Space is an issue at the University where I work, and I suspect at most others, however space at a University follows a variant of Parkinson's law - "Work expands to fill the time available for it's completion". In my experience in each University department, space requirements expand to fill the available space, so the issue is not so much a shortage of space, as a shortage of space in the right places. The needs of productive programmers are well researched and documented (DeMarco & Lister, 2017)*, though largely ignored. For a university they shouldn't be a huge problem as they're similar to the needs of a lecturer - a quiet private office, large enough to have one-to-one meetings and with a large desk. Importantly, there is no need for close co-location with colleagues unless they're working on the same project, so this office can be anywhere on campus, as long as it's quiet. (The usual argument for co-location, being available to just quickly chat, is a major productivity drain for programmers.)

* Anyone making decisions about where to locate programmers (or other knowledge workers) should read Peaopleware part II, "The office Environment" first. The impact on productivity of inappropriate office space is quite staggering.

3. Communication  with decision makers

One of the factors that is makes the Connected Intelligence Centre at  UTS successful is that the head of that department reports directly to the DVC Education, meaning that the experts and decision makers have close communication. In my hypothetical department-less version the same would have to be achieved by having the developers line managed by someone in direct regular communication with the VP/DVC for Education. A related aspect of CIC is that it is also a community of experts, and the benefits of that may be harder to emulate in my department-less alternative, but maybe my solution to points 5 & 6 also solves that.

4. Suitable servers

This one should be easy - just give the developers a prepaid credit card tied to Amazon EC2 or Microsoft Azure, and provide a quick way of allocating DNS names to pilots. While it should be easy, in the past when I've had the research income to run Amazon servers with a pre-paid card finance have blocked it, but I expect a supportive VP could easily make this happen. 

5 & 6. Collaboration with teachers, and access to test devices

Again, easy in some ways, but in my experience getting the right people together happens more by chance than design. However, I've got an idea about this that also solves another problem.

I recently read a couple of papers (Porter & Graham 2016, Porter et. al. 2016)  that were looking at what staff felt was needed to support them adopting blended learning. For those that are confident with technology it seems that the main perceived requirement is evidence (from peers) that the new techniques work, but the less confident staff would also like tutorials and by one-on-one assistance with the technology. From my own experience I also know that sometimes even the most confident early adopters also sometimes want access to more specialist equipment for content development, a wide range of devices for testing, or just a place away from their office to avoid disturbances.

My idea to solve this, and also create the serendipitous meetings needed to get good collaboration going, is to have a drop in content development and testing suite, with a Learning Technologist available to provide one-to-one assistance. Group training could also take place in the same location. Importantly, the Learning Technologists from around the University would take turns providing support, so all departments would feel ownership, and the Learning Technology Developers would also take turns in this role so that they met and talked to teachers.

Ideally this would be dedicated space, with a range of workstations, separate sound proof booths for recording videos and audio, and more specialist equipment like a lightboard, microphones and cameras, and good quality graphics tablets. However that gets back to the whole finding space at a University issue, as that would require a bit more than an empty office in an obscure quiet corner. A temporary solution might be to allocate a teaching cluster to this purpose outside normal teaching times, and if that was successful the argument could be made for dedicated space. 


DeMarco, Tom, and Timothy R. Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Third edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2013.
Porter, Wendy W., and Charles R. Graham. ‘Institutional Drivers and Barriers to Faculty Adoption of Blended Learning in Higher Education: Drivers and Barriers to Blended Learning Adoption’. British Journal of Educational Technology 47, no. 4 (July 2016): 748–62.

Porter, Wendy W., Charles R. Graham, Robert G. Bodily, and Daniel S. Sandberg. ‘A Qualitative Analysis of Institutional Drivers and Barriers to Blended Learning Adoption in Higher Education’. The Internet and Higher Education 28 (January 2016): 17–27.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Learning Technology Developer: the importance of job titles.

A couple of weeks ago I came across a blog post by Anne-Marie Scott titled "Why we need learning technology developers", and thought "I'm a 'learning technology developer', why have I never thought of having that as a job title." That led onto thinking a bit about both the importance of job titles, and the importance of having the right structures in place to support learning technology development.

"Learning technology developer" is a fairly accurate description of what I have spent most of my professional career doing, however I've never actually heard of it being used as a job title before. My current job title is something like "Senior Systems Application Developer", which is rather nonsensical - I don't do systems programming. "Senior Learning Technology Developer" would properly reflect my main role and responsibilities, so I'll probably try and get my job title changed to that.

Job titles matter, because they affect how people are perceived by human resources, and to a lesser extent by managers. That means that they affect how people are treated and what facilities they are provided with. If my job title was "Senior Research Fellow" rather than "Senior Systems Application Developer" I'm fairly sure I would not be about to be moved to an large open plan, off campus office with 90 other IT and clerical staff.

Of course, I'd still have the problem that the decision makers don't know what Learning Technology Developers are, and how they should be treated, so even with the right job title I'd still be moving into a totally inappropriate space - after all, if the decision makers had ever read "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams", they'd never consider putting Systems Application Developers in an mixed use open-plan office.