Category Archives: Collaboration

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Dave Middleton

Can mass sychronous events work with MOOCs?

Dave MiddletonMOOCs tend to involve consuming online content, taking automated assessments and peer networking. While students may feel some connection to the academics who create the courses by watching recorded videos of them, the opportunities for synchronous connection with subject experts are limited.

Dave Middleton is a tutor manager with the Open University and has been training tutors to use Elluminate effectively for several years. When online tutorials were offered to students in Wales on Exploring Psychology, one of our most popular modules with around 4,000 participants each year, students elsewhere began to complain that providing the events only to the Welsh was unfair.

So Dave spotted an opportunity to try something new. He opened up an Elluminate room to the entire module population, advertised a two-hour event, sat back and hoped that 3,850 registered students wouldn’t all turn up at once. In the event 200 did. The received wisdom is that online tutorials become unworkable when numbers exceed 20 but clearly the way this was being handled didn’t result in the expected chaos. Dave was able to enable group work and problem-based learning rather than simply lecturing at the students. 75% of them responded that the session had met or exceeded their expectations.

Comments included:

“The tutorial exceeded my expectations! It was well organised, easy to understand and packed with useful information”

“This was truly amazing and inspirational. The concept is fantastic.”

“Very enjoyable – I initially thought 2 hours would seem a long time for an online tutorial but the time just flew by. Great to be taking part from the comfort of your own sofa! ”

“I think these tutorials should be available for all modules as many, like myself, cannot attend face to face ones for the same reason we cannot attend brick uni’s and have chosen to study with the OU. I would like to say well done to the tutors, the organisation and structure was a great improvement. I only wish there were more of them.”

Faculty policy on online tutorial provision was changed after Dave’s experiment. For the first time there was evidence not only that the tutorials could offer an excellent learning experience to large numbers of students but would also be highly popular with those who didn’t otherwise have the chance to attend face to face sessions.

The lesson for MOOCs is that mass synchronous online sessions with subject expects can be motivational and effective. The tools available in Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate) and similar systems enable effective interactive teaching with hundreds of students simultaneously. Such sessions have to be properly planned of course both logistically and technically to avoid a “MOOC mess” such as the one which happened on Georgia Institute of Technology’s module with Coursera which resulted in the course being withdrawn.

Is Dave’s experience of dealing with a couple of hundred students at once the limit?  I suspect someone somewhere some time soon is going to push the technology and the logistics to accommodate many thousands of students in an engaging synchronous session.

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Google Apps

Facilitating group interaction in Google Apps

Google AppsOur pilot roll-out of Google Apps is going well.  To date we’ve invited 12,000 students and nearly 2,000 of them have signed up.  At the moment it’s up to students what they do with the tools and we’re staying out.  The possible uses for formal learning though are intriguing and I just had a chat with Rhodri Thomas about the next steps.

We’re looking at replicating our tutor group structure within Google apps.  That would have two initial benefits:

  1. You could email those in your group more easily
  2. You could share documents with them easily too

It also might make you feel some affinity with those in your group I suppose and be more likely to share things.  Some students of course might not want to be emailed by members of their group or to have documents shared with them so we’ll need to think about that.

Sharing documents with the wider world outside the University is also likely to be of interest.  Currently we’ve locked down the ability for users to share documents outside the domain but there will soon be pressure to open this up.  You might have a collaborative project with people elsewhere or wish to share eportfolio content with a future employer.  There are also third party applications such as DocsToGo which apparently won’t work unless this option is switched on.

Our exploration of the use of Google Apps as an eportfolio system continues.  Eportfolios sometimes need to be assessed, and one of our key requirements will be to ensure that any content that is submitted for assessment is preserved in that state.  Another option would be to export it into our assessment handling (eTMA) system however the alterations to formatting when transferring out of Google Docs and into Word may mean it’s better to keep the documents in Google and invite the tutors to go there instead.

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Google sidewiki

Annotation – the missing element in iPad-based learning

I’ve been getting a bit obsessed recently about the importance of annotation functionality, as a number of my long-suffering colleagues will testify.  Here’s my logic:

  1. iPads and other ebook readers will increasingly replace paper
  2. Some learners, particularly children, will make the transition away from paper now very quickly and be happy to study considerable amounts of textual content from iPads (and a whole range of even better devices under development)
  3. When reading educational content most learners will want to take notes in order to help them concentrate, reflect, and for future revision
  4. The success of social networking, social bookmarking etc suggests that many learners may wish to share their annotations and view the annotations of others

Trying out various systems and in conversations with people here including Anna de Liddo, Louise Olney, Jason Platts and Colin Chambers, I’ve been clarifying my thoughts on the features an ideal annotation system for learning in a social context should comprise:

While I’ve been talking primarily about an iPad app so far, working offline, the system would ideally work with content viewed on any web browser as well.  Google sidewiki is an example of a basic system which allows you to annotate any web page.  Cohere is a much more sophisticated system which also allows you to build up concept maps collaboratively.

An issue with both systems is that they require adaptations to the web browser – a plug-in for Firefox or IE for example.  We could potentially build similar functionality into Moodle so that it works on any browser – but then you’d only be able to annotate content presented in Moodle.  I like the idea of the system sitting outside the LMS/VLE so that you can annotate anything found on the web.

Google sidewiki

Making an annotation
While viewing content in a web page or ebook you can select some text you wish to annotate.  That text is then placed into an area at the side of the document or superimposed on it temporarily.  You can edit the text and add comments and tags.

Sharing annotations
You can opt to keep the annotation private or to share it with various groups (this is where the annotation system could link to the LMS/VLE for greater usefulness) e.g. tutor group, course, the University, the world or a user-defined group.

Viewing annotations
A web page shows all the annotations you have made, organisable by document name, date of annotation, tags etc.  When browsing documents you’ve annotated the relevant text is highlighted, and you can see the annotation if you want to.  In addition you can see the annotations of people in the groups you belong to or your friends.

Friends, rating and reputation
As with Facebook, Twitter etc you can choose to follow people whose annotations you like.  You’re prompted in some way when they’ve made a new annotation.  You can choose to rate their annotations and this leads to reputations for some people as great annotators.  That may prove motivational for some people and also allow others to identify the best annotators.

Social bookmarking
As well as annotating text you can annotate an entire document or webpage, tag it and share it in the same way as other annotations.  This amounts to the same kind of thing as a social bookmarking system.

Good annotation software should help many learners to study online or offline in the future using a computer or iPad-type device. We have a project at the Open University aiming to develop such functionality over the next year and are currently looking at whether Cohere can be adapted.  I’d love to hear any ideas for further functionality.

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Now learners control their VLE/LMS

Much of the criticism levelled at virtual learning environments / learning management systems relates to the control of the environment by the institution rather than the learner. The individual student has minimal ability to upload their own content or to set up collaborative tools unless this has been pre-ordained by the institution. The argument goes that students (and teachers) prefer free Web 2.0 systems because they can do what they like with them; VLEs are just administrative systems for making content available to designated groups of students.

VLEs have traditionally been based around the course/module as the unit of organisation. Any other form of structure such as a superstructure (eg a degree which combines a number of modules) or a substructure (eg a tutorial group) can be difficult to set up. At the Open University we have now produced a module for Moodle called Shared Activities which allows a student or any other user of the system to set up their own forums, shared blogs or wikis and invite any other VLE user to join them. Other tools could easily be added to the list in the future.

I cannot stress enough how fundamentally this changes the underlying assumptions of what a VLE is. The institution still sets up course web pages, uploads content, specifies learning activities and assessments and provides formal tutor groups with the right students (and tutor) having access to them.

But now individual students can also form their own study groups or use the system for social networking purposes with others in ways that they decide. There is no need to get permission or involve an administrator in setting up a blog, wiki or forum – just a requirement to click a box saying you agree with the terms and conditions and will be responsible for moderating the forum etc.

It has taken more than a year since this system was built to get it released at the University. There have been concerns about the loss of control by the institution, and also procedural, legal and support issues. However finally the reservations have been overcome and the system is available to all students and staff on the VLE. One reason to offer the system to staff as well is so that they can set up their own shared activities with other staff and become familiar with how the VLE works, thus potentially gaining ideas for how these tools could be used for teaching purposes.

If you’re staff or a student on the VLE at the Open University you should now be able to set up a shared activity. Please note that currently no user support is offered.

If you run Moodle elsewhere you can download the Shared Activity Module for Moodle.

Associate Lecturers at the Open University can use these tools but if they want to do so for teaching purposes there is a separate procedure to follow.

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Synchronous online means teaching not lecturing

Category : Collaboration

I’ve been attending the Elluminati Community Conference today which gave me the opportunity to be both a speaker and a delegate, very similar roles to those of teacher and student. During one of the other presentations by Kimberly Gates, I realised that my use of Elluminate for my “class” left something to be desired.

Kimberly’s presentation was about reaching students who have poor levels of reading and numeracy but her tips were equally relevant to students of all levels. When she asked the participants how they would describe the session she’d been running so far they sent in the following comments (extremely rapidly):

Lots of polls
In easy to digest bits
yes, simple words
v. interactive – good
very clear slide content – not too cluttered
Lots of QA
Slide builds
appropriately chunked
Audio paired with text
lots of active learning
typing as you are speaking
lots of polls require interaction
revealing content 1 point at a time
You say and also we can read it
minimal slide text content
slower and lots of white space and large font on slides
you are speaking slowly and clearly
making sure that everyone understands
need to ensure color text can be read by students who are not color blind for red

Kimberly continually posed questions and asked people to type in the responses. She was multitasking by typing one thing while she said another (how did she do that?) Meanwhile I had basically just delivered a tedious traditional-style lecture; I could barely keep up with reading and advancing my slides, watching the countdown timer to ensure I didn’t overrun, referring to my notes and trying to look at the camera at the same time. I certainly did not manage to keep on top of the dialogue taking place in the chat window or monitor whether people were sticking up their hands, clapping or otherwise gesticulating at me…

Online synchronous teaching is not about lecturing at people – it’s about involving your class continuously in a whole host of different ways. I saw how you can bring video clips easily into your presentations to provide illustration; I saw great question and answer sessions with people either speaking their questions or typing them; I saw how students can interact between each other individually during the class as well as interacting with the whole class; I saw wonderful use of polls with instant feedback to the whole group, pointing devices which highlight particular parts of your slides… I have a lot to learn.

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Twitter – how interconnected are you?

Category : Collaboration

Warning: do not read this unless you are obsessively interested in twitter and have nothing better to do with your time.

I’ve been stimulated into thinking about this by various sites I’ve seen recently which measure your online connectedness – plus some tweets and blog postings by Tony Hirst. Some of these measures are pretty crude – for instance measuring how connected you are on twitter by adding the number of people you follow to the number of people who follow you. What if you hardly ever go into Twitter? Or if most of your followers just registered for Twitter once and then gave up? In that case you’re not as connected as you might seem.

Taking your followers first, can we find a way to measure the “quality” of your connectedness to those people ie to know if they’re actually viewing your tweets? The more often they go into twitter the more likely they are to be reading what you’re writing. The easiest way to measure how often they’re going into twitter is to see how often they’re tweeting themselves. That person has a twit value which could be based on their average daily number of tweets sent, perhaps calculated over the last month.

Say you have 3 followers: Martin who tweets on average 5 times per day, Gráinne 7.5 and Mary 0. Adding your followers’ twit values together gives 12.5 which we can call your tweet impact. If your average number of tweets sent is 2 then you have a daily tweet impact of 25. So that’s one part of our measurement for connectedness.

If you only send tweets and never read others then you’re only connected in one direction which is not very connected… So we also need to measure the number of tweets you read. We can’t know how many you bother reading of course but we can calculate how many you receive. Of course if you never go into twitter then receiving 1000 a day is pointless. But the more you tweet the more likely you are to be reading your tweets so we can base your own twit value on your average daily number of tweets sent.

So if you follow 4 people, Martin, Gráinne, Mary and Tony (who tweets 11 times per day) you can add up their scores to get 23.5. As your average daily tweets are 2 you can multiple 23.5 by that to get 47. This is a measure of the impact on you from the tweets you receive.

That would be quite a good place to stop but unfortunately my brain keeps ticking over here and there are other factors which can be considered. Direct tweets I propose should be discounted because they’re equivalent to emails (and it’s impossible to find out automatically who those direct tweets are to).

What about @tweets then? These are likely to have a much higher impact on the person you’re sending them to than one sent to all your followers. @tweets should contribute to your interconnectedness score in a different way to normal tweets. They should get a score higher than just the twit value of the person they’re aimed at, say five times the twit value. And for everyone who’s following you and that person, they are also likely to be impacted more than just with a general tweet because they’ll be interested in what that says about the relationship between the two of you. Perhaps your score should be double their normal twit values to indicate the higher level of tweet impact.

Thus if you send an @tweet to Martin, who’s twit value is 5, the tweet impact on him is actually 25. But Gráinne also sees that tweet because she’s following both of you. Her twit value is 7.5 but the tweet has greater than usual impact on her because she takes more interest in it so it doubles to 15. The total tweet impact then is 25 + 15 = 40.

@tweets received by you could be scored similarly.

One final factor which occurs to me is the relative value of tweets you read from people who are also following you. There’s a good chance you’ll know that they’re your followers therefore you’re more likely to take note of the tweets they’re sending you. The tweet impact could therefore be increased, say by a half.

Now that I’ve got this rubbish out of my head, I should now be able to get to sleep.

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Is online socialisation necessary?

Category : Collaboration

Socialisation is generally considered to be a necessary or at least useful precursor to effective participation in online classes. It forms stage 2 in Gilly Salmon’s widely applied five-stage model. I’ve been thinking about this since I asked her in, I think, 2000 if she thought online classes ran better if the people had met physically beforehand. A lot of educators assume that to be the case. Gilly was adamant that it was better that students who would be working with each other online did not meet up in advance; any negative impressions gained face to face could harm later online interaction.

I’ve never been entirely convinced of this, and have been reflecting on the vital role of socialisation for many of our students after spending a week in August at the OU Residential School in Santiago de Compostela (students pictured here are on a fact-finding mission around the city, where socialising is a by-product of the learning activity). The intense interactions between students and with staff over the week, let alone the huge amount of learning that took place, were clearly very beneficial for the great majority of participants. I had the impression that because contact with other students was so rare, the experience meant much more to them than it would have for campus-based students.

Of course the World has changed hugely since 2000 and most of us are much more comfortable now with online socialising, developing varying degrees of addiction to email, Facebook or Twitter. That socialisation phase may be less necessary for students now much more comfortable with the technologies. Shailey Minocha has been researching education in Second Life and told me this morning that she finds students resent online socialisation activities unless they are clearly connected to the course content or learning outcomes. She reported on a tutor who found the same in face-to-face settings: busy students who have travelled to a tutorial want to get stuck into the content immediately. They’re more inclined to socialise at the end of the class when they feel they’ve got what they wanted out of it.

Perhaps the conclusion from all this is that we’re all so short of time that we don’t necessarily realise how important the social element is to working or studying effectively with others. If we want our students to have opportunities for socialisation so that their relationships are more productive, we have to be clever about the way we design those experiences. Many take up the chance for unstructured social contact with others anyway and benefit immensely from chatting to others in residential schools, tutorials, online forums, videoconferencing and Second Life.

Physical presence may result in better long-term relationships with a positive impact on learning, motivation and progression; some students may be able to achieve the same through online interaction. What is becoming clear is that any socialisation activities perceived as having no direct learning outcomes relevant to the assessment are likely to be considered by students a waste of time!

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Six steps to a successful synchronous session

Category : Collaboration

Cath Wilkins, an Open University Associate Lecturer among her other jobs, gave an interesting presentation this morning at the Teaching Mathematics with Online Tutorials conference. I’ve reported before on the Elluminate maths trials at the OU. She teaches on the OU MSc Programme which has 500 students actively studying on it and is probably the biggest online maths masters in the World.

Cath books two hour slots for online maths tutorials using Elluminate – the first half hour to get people familiarised with the system and to chat followed by an hour’s lecture during which she makes heavy use of the whiteboard to explain the maths. In the last few minutes students carry on chatting or trying out the whiteboard. Most students don’t use their microphones but find the chat very helpful. Cath describes her six steps for a successful e-tutorial:

1. Book the room and brief the students – she sends them a link to the Elluminate support page, and that seems sufficient.
2. Write the talk and save it as an overlaid pdf file – not being used to preparing powerpoint presentations this took her a lot of time. The presentations were saved as pdfs and converted into jpgs to place in Elluminate.
3. Practice in the vRoom – this is the free area Elluminate provides for people to try the product out with a maximum of three participants.
4. Do the tutorial – including using the file transfer facility at the end to send through files.
5. Get feedback from students via an online questionnaire.
6. Make the URL of the recording available for students who didn’t attend or want to experience aspects of the tutorial again.

So how did the thirty out of her sixty students who took up the offer of an online tutorial find the experience. Cath received the following comments from students:

“The OU MSc lacks any ‘communal’ element and this goes some way towards providing that.” – nearly all the students mentioned the community aspects which these etutorials help to facilitate.

“Mathematics comes alive when you hear it being spoken out loud, and the process on Elluminate is just as clear as in a face-to-face tutorial.” – Cath thought this was going a bit far but clearly here was one satisfied customer.

“Not having a microphone wasn’t a problem as I could type any questions I had.” – even those students who had microphones tended to use chat to communicate instead.

“It was nice to send little messages to each other.” – they really enjoyed this aspect, didn’t abuse it, or seem to get too distracted by it.

“The system was easy to use, although a bit cumbersome to set up.” – this comment came from someone whose version of Java was incompatible initially. No-one else out of the 30 students (divided into two sub-groups) had installation problems.

“The eTutorials focussed my studies and my mind on the important aspects of the course” – clearly another satisfied customer, and maybe a key reason for having tutorials: helping students to see the wood for the trees.

Cath concluded by listing her pros and cons of teaching using Elluminate:

1. It’s an effective way to teach
2. It’s recorded for later use
3. Very little training is needed for tutor or students
4. It’s a good solution if students are geographically spread out
5. There are few technical glitches – though she got logged out a few times
6. It’s better than nothing – there were no opportunities to interact with the students before Elluminate started being used

On the downside she finds that there is a lower level of feedback from students compared to f2f teaching, despite the use of questions, ticks, crosses and emoticons. And she had to think on her feet a lot – it was not easy to put up detailed maths at short notice. Final verdict: “Exhausting but exhilarating”.

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Open University selects Elluminate for desktop conferencing

A press release yesterday announces the selection of Elluminate for our synchronous desktop collaboration and communication requirements. This comes after a lengthy procurement process in which 14 vendors submitted tenders. Elluminate scored the highest on our educational and technical criteria. Our evaluation team think the product is particularly well-suited for distance education and includes features we consider essential such as breakout rooms when a tutor wants to split the class into smaller sub-groups. It’s already partially integrated with Moodle and we’ll be working further with Elluminate on that. As with the other enhancements we’re making to Moodle, that code will be made available freely to others who want it.

Elluminate will replace our in-house system Lyceum which is used extensively for language courses. On all of our courses it offers many new possibilities for learners to be brought together with tutors and with each other. Videoconferencing, audioconferencing, shared whiteboards, application sharing and instant messaging are about to become a lot more accessible to our learners and tutors.

Elluminate is providing a hosted service initially for us while we set up the service and do the integration work at the University. Watch this space for further details on the roll-out if you’re at the OU.

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Telepresence: videoconferencing on steroids

Category : Collaboration

Videoconferencing has been around for a long time now and its educational potential has been exploited in many ways. Telepresence is videoconferencing on steroids and gives the impression that the people you’re speaking to remotely really are sitting on the other side of the same table. I tried this out in a meeting with and Barbara Ougden from CISCO today at their offices in Bedfont Lakes, and Vito Amato in Phoenix.

CISCO telepresence experience

The audio quality and lip synch were perfect; the video quality exceptional. I actually involuntarily raised my arm to shake Vito’s hand when he first appeared. It would be hard to better this technology, short of projecting a 3-D image of Vito into a real chair in the room a la Star Trek. You can see telepresence technology becoming essential kit very quickly for any company which wants to save on airfares and jet lag. What about for distance learning? Too expensive and bandwidth-hungry for the time being to do this on a big scale I suspect but telepresence sessions with subject experts where learners get together in remote sites could be feasible.