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 required 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 fairly 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.)


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