Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Possibly the most worrying Tweet ever from an education company (@Blackboard)?

This is possibly one of the most worrying Tweets I have ever seen from an alleged education company:

OK, so I can see an argument for not using technology for technologies sake, but on the other-hand for a company to apparently divorce technology from student success seems to me to be very worrying, and somewhat limiting. What makes students successful is access to skilled teaching staff and great learning resources, and without the good up-to-date technology the staff can't build the learning resources the students need for success.

I have used Blackboard for over 10 years and I think I know the system and understand the technology quite well, and during all that time I would argue that that the underlying system of Blackboard has hardly advanced beyond a simple FTP (file transfer) system with a poorly written web interface. Blackboard will argue that things have advanced, and yet the differences between Blackboard 2004 and Blackboard 2015 are minimal. Everything still takes forever to do on the system as there are too many clicks, and some things, for example assessment, have never really worked (for example, I cannot find away to make assessments secure so that students can't see their marks until I decide to release them). What Blackboard needs to do is to get in touch with technology, and to understand how it can be leveraged to lower the entry barrier for staff to produce great learning tools for the students.

In case you think I am just having a swipe at Blackboard then I am not as most virtual learning environments (VLEs - a terrible phrase that should be dropped) seem to suffer from the same problems, that is, they don't do the simple and required well, and the barrier to entry that staff have to face to use the system is far too high.

Come on Blackboard, get with the technology so that we can improve the student learning experience by producing the learning tools and content that the students need and deserve.

Update - Wednesday December 30, 2015: One thought occurred to me this evening as to how a decent VLE could be built that would meet the needs of the students and the staff and that is to use the Wordpress blogging software as a base. Yes, I know it is a blogging platform, but I have already seen it used as the base for developing online teaching systems through the clever use of Wordpress themes.  

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

How to make an email Christmas card?

In a moment of madness I decided to make an email Christmas card...  Sounded like an easy task, but wasn't.

First thing I need to do was come up with a design and I decided to go for a simple image and message, but then there was the question of the image...  Ideally I wanted something unique (hence all the stock images of dancing Christmas trees were out), and something that looked modern and worked on desktop, tablets and smart phones. What I needed was a homemade animated gif that was in a reactive design ('reactive design' means that the design adapts to the screen size.  Easy huh? Well, no...

Basically there were X parts to the problem:
  1. Getting the moving image
  2. Editing the movie
  3. Coverting to an animated gif
  4. Constructing the 'card'
  5. Sending the emails

1. Getting the image

Getting the image was relatively easy.  I just shot a video of part of the family Christmas tree... Easy...

For this I just use a camera mounted on a tripod.  The tripod was needed as the final moving image was going to be a looping animated gif so the image frame needed to be steady.

I decided to record a 10 second clip of the flashing lights so as to at least catch one complete cycle.

(Originally I was going to use the live photo option in the iPhone and convert that to an animated gif (which is relatively easy to do), but I discovered that without a tripod the frame sides moved too much and so produced a very shaky final movie.).

2. Editing the movie

This was another relatively easy thing to do as I am very familiar with Camtasia 2, which I think is a great movie editing program.

Using the program I was able to trim the original 10 second down to a 1 second cycle of the flashing lights.

3. Converting to an animated gif

Conversion of the movie to a looping animated gif (I needed it looping so the lights were continuously flashing) was, like editing the movie, very straight forward as used GIFBrewer, which allowed further editing of the image, and the addition of text.

Once I had the gif corrected, and had adjusted the size, I then exported the animated gif.

4. Constructing the 'card'

The challenge here was to make it 'reactive'.

I knew that to make the card I would have to write it in HTML (which I know), but I had to make the email 'reactive' so that it was readable on desktops, tablets and smart phones.

Reactive design is not new, and it is something I have done in the past, but it can be tricky, especially when dealing with email, as opposed to browser, clients. Basically the way a reactive design works is that the layout and sizes of elements on the page are adjusted for the best look on the available screen space. That is, the design 'reacts' to fit the device.

When producing a reactive design there are two approaches that you can take. You can either hand-code the design, which can be hard-work and very difficult, or you can use a program. For the card I opted for Responsive Email Designer, which whilst it did the job did have a rather steep learning curve. (I also looked at Mail Designer Pro 2, which was easier to use but lacked in fine control, that is, you couldn't directly tweak the underlying css.)

From Responsive Email Designer it was possible to set up the various breakpoint in the design for different screen sizes, and to produce the email that I wanted. However, there was a problem... Responsive Email Designer does not support the bulk sending of emails.

Of the two programs I looked at Mail Designer Pro 2 was the easiest to use (most Mac like), and was particularly good for entering the text, but weak on layout control, whereas Responsive Email Designer was excellent for layout, but truly terrible for entering text, and had some really annoying interface quirks.

5. Sending the emails

The final stage of the process I thought was going to be the easiest... How wrong I was!

From the Responsive Email Designer program I had the final card. I had the HTML code, and all the css, but I couldn't send the card to my lists.  I could send it to myself, but when I tried to forward the card to my lists the responsive design broke.

I tried viewing the card as a webpage and then using the built in feature on the Mac to email a webpage, but that also broke the responsive design.

There is no way to add HTML code to a message in Apple Mail (there might be a way in which this can be done using the signatures but that looked like a really tedious hack that I didn't want to attempt).

Microsoft Outlook used to have an 'Insert HTML' feature, but it has either been removed, or is now so well hidden I can't find it. And I also couldn't find a way to do it using the web interface.

In the end I went for MailChimp, which is a tool I have used before, but was one I was hoping to avoid using just to send out some quick and simple Christmas email messages....

Monday, 25 May 2015

Four really useful exam tips

Recently I asked the staff teaching biomedical sciences at Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed) and at Newcastle University UK for some revision and exam tips and this is what we came up with:

1. Do you know where and when the exam is being held?
Sounds obvious but it is worth checking you know where and when your exam will be held. Nothing worse than spending weeks (hopefully) revising and then turning up at the wrong time and wrong venue and missing the exam. Also, make sure you set more than one alarm clock if your exam is first thing in the morning, or get a friend or parent to phone you up to make sure you are out of bed and heading to the exam hall. 

2. Try to get plenty of sleep before your exam

Try to get plenty of sleep the night before the exam. Being sleepy during an exam is not good.  Don’t try to boost your alertness with caffeine etc., and do not pull an ‘all-nighter’ revising the night before the exam. That last minute ‘cram’ very rarely works. 

3. Think Positive
In an exam don’t panic, and think positive. If you encounter a question you don’t understand move on. Don’t sit there dwelling on it, leave it and come back to it later. Be positive. Don’t panic.

4. Don't Dissect!
Do not post-mortem your exam as that will only cause anxiety and distress. Resist the urge to talk to friends about the exam. As soon as the exam has finished go off for a walk, or a treat, and don’t hang around with your classmates that think either they did brilliantly (“that was so easy!”) or who think they have failed (“that paper was impossible”). Resist the urge. 

17 Revision Tips....

Recently I asked the staff teaching biomedical sciences at Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed) and at Newcastle University UK for some revision tips and this is what we came up with:

1.  Try answering questions from past papers
Have a look at past papers and try some of the questions. However, don’t fall in to the trap of thinking that just because a similar question has come up in recent years it will be on the next paper, or thinking that as a particular question hasn’t been seen for a number of years it must be due to make a return. Lecturers are sneaky…..

2.  Don’t become a revision Zombie
Revising for an exam is hard work, but if you work smart, and you start your preparation early you will reduce the risk of becoming a Zombie. Try to take breaks, do some exercise that clears the mind and gets the blood pumping to the brain. If you do become a revision Zombie please resist the urge to attack your classmates and eat their brains. If you see a Revision Zombie RUN!

3.  Your brain is not a sponge - be an active learner
Your brain is not a sponge, it needs to be exercised. If you went to the gym to get some exercise just standing there looking at the weights or the running machine is not going to do it. You need to be active, you need to be involved. The same is true of your brain. Just reading your lecture notes won’t do it. You need to be ‘active’. Read the notes, put them down (so you can’t see them), recall the material (re-write or redraw it), and then check it against your original notes. Doing this will strengthen the memory of the material.

4.  Keep your brain alert
Your brain needs food, your brain needs oxygen. If you just sit there revising for hours and hours you are going to get slow, tired and sluggish, and your brain is not going to get the food and oxygen it needs to help you revise. Take a break, get up from the desk and go for a walk. Clear your brain and then come back and start revising again. You will be more productive and get more done.

5.  Don't waste time
Don’t waste time making your revision notes look pretty.  No one else is going to see them. Your notes should be functional and clear. They should be concise. They don’t have to be pretty and all coloured in with tons of sticky notes on the margin. Use the time you have to revise smartly. Revision is about revisiting material, you have hopefully already learnt, so as to refresh your memory. It is not about colouring in! 

6.  Find your best place to work

 Find the best possible place you can for your revision. Ideally it should be somewhere comfortable (but not so comfortable that you fall asleep), somewhere that is quiet or noisy (depending on your taste) and where you have control over noise levels, and it should be somewhere free from distractions (smart phones, Twitter, Facebook, TV etc.). Once you have found your ideal place, use it!

7.  The Revision Timetable
Make a revision timetable and try to stick to it. Work out how long you have to the exams and how long you have to revise each topic. Don’t fall in to two of the classic revision timetable traps: 1. You spend so much time making your revision timetable that there is no time left to revise (see Rimmer in Red Dwarf for an example of that); 2. You spend all your time revising for the first exam and forget that there are two other exams a week later. 

8.  Don't just sit there - get some exercise
Studies have shown that going to the gym after a period of study can help with the recall of the material. Don’t spend all your time revising, get some exercise and get your blood flowing around your body.

9.  Don't just read, learn...
Just reading your lecture or class notes is not learning the material. You need to be active to strengthen your memories and understanding of your notes. The easiest way to do this is to move the information in and out of your brain. Read the notes, re-write them in a different style (or draw them as a mind-map or diagram) without looking at your original notes, and then check your new notes against the old. By doing this you have moved the information in to your brain (reading), out of your brain (making the new notes), and then back in and out of your brain as you correct your new notes against the originals. This approach to learning is backed up by a number of studies, and has been shown to work.

10.  Mix it up a bit...
Just sitting there reading the same thing over and over, or ploughing through your notes class after class is not learning, you need to alternate your activities to keep your mind fresh and to keep learning. Try breaking your study up in to small chunks of learning followed by a small test to see if you have learnt and understand the material. Doing this will keep you fresh and alert, and speed up the learning process. You never know, it may even make it fun! 

11.  Test yourself
When you are revising just reading the material is not going to make it stick in your brain so that you can magically recall it during the exam. You need to understand the material and make connections. You need to summarise and process the material. Reading is passive, learning is active. Try reading the material and then after a shorty break try recalling the material, and checking your recall against your original notes. Doing this will test you so you will know how much you really understand, and it will help you strengthen the memory of that material.

12.  Don't Panic!

During the run-up to an exam it is very easy to dwell on little things that would normally be insignificant in your daily life and to start panicking. Don’t!  Don’t listen to rumours, don’t dwell on the trivial, and if there is a problem speak to someone, a classmate, a teacher, a lecturer, or a parent. Key thing is not to panic, and to keep hitting the revision.

13.  Tick! Done!
Hopefully you have prepared a revision timetable and you are following it. If you are then one handy tip is to mark off your revision as you do it as this will give you a sense of achievement and progress. It is always nice to tick something off on a todo list.

14.  Treat yourself...
Constantly revising is not going to work. You will get tired and inefficient. You need to break it up. The easiest way to do this is by giving yourself planned treats. For each revised lecture or class you could give yourself some time on Twitter or Facebook, or watch some TV. May be chocolate is your thing? If so, then for each 30 minute period of study you get two squares of chocolate or a biscuit (be careful though as this revision technique can lead to obesity). A slightly healthier option may be for every 30 minutes of revision you go for a short walk. The choice is yours - treat yourself for all your hard-work!

16.  Keep your brain active... Mix it up

Try to keep your brain active by varying the material you revise. Try something really tough, and then switch to something easy. Mixing it up can help you retain information and improve your understanding. 

17. Stop looking at social media!

Avoid temptation. Try to get quality non-fragmented revision time. Stay off the social media. If you are a social media junky then use it as a treat to help you revise - for every 60 minutes of revision you earn 5 minutes on Facebook or Twitter. Put the phone down, lock it in a drawer, and resist the urge. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

What is "academic engagement"? – Apparently this isn't!

The other day I had a very interesting conversation with a senior member of a University (no names  -I'll leave you to guess which one) about the nature of "academic engagement", specifically what constitutes "academic engagement"?

What I found particularly interesting was that "academic engagement" is still considered by a number of UK universities, and also a number of senior university staff, as still the "classic" engagement – that is, production of scientific papers, grants, printed books, etc. and that online activities such as this blog, Twitter, FaceBook, Google+, and YouTube, all of which I am active on, are in fact NOT true academic engagement.

Personally I would argue that online activity is the highest form of "academic engagement" currently available for most academics.  If I look at the stats for my online activities they are not stellar, but they are OK:

  • YouTube: 11,000 views, 27 subscribers, 47 videos (~230 views per video; top video over 2,000 views)
  • Twitter: 650 followers, 3,400 posts
  • Teaching blog (the one you are reading): 43,000 page views, 53 posts (~800 views per post)
  • Nature Blog: Not allowed to say….
All of the above has been over a 3 - 4 year period, and I haven't actually done anything to really promote my online activities. I just keep blogging and posting, mainly for my students and for some fellow academics that may be interested.

If I look at my "academic engagement" from traditional scientific publications (these can be viewed on Google Scholar) I have 30 published paper, which have generated 827 citations over roughly 25 years. But, how many people have read the papers?  Fellow scientists may be reading the papers, but not citing them, I doubt students or the intellectually curious will have looked at them.  I think I can assume that besides the authors that least 827 other people have read my work, but I seriously doubt it is many more than that. In turns out that getting a handle on how many people read a scientific paper is difficult.

A recent article - Academics Write Papers Arguing Over How Many People Read (And Cite) Their Papers - suggested the number is low, as does a blog post by John Cook, which is repeating a tweet, which suggests the number may be as low as 5 (although no one seems to know the source of that number).  If I look at my data on academia.edu it would suggest my papers have a low number of readers, and ImpactStory paints a similar picture.

 Just taking the stats for this blog. My first post was in 2009 so it has been going 6 years. 43,000 page views is 7,100 page views per year. Over a 25 year period (the period I have been publishing scientific articles) that would be 177,500 page views. I doubt that my scientific papers have been read 177,500 times...

The argument could be made that my scientific papers could make a greater contribution, and therefore show greater "engagement", if they lead to a break through discovery - but how often does that happen?  Alternatively, it could be argued that one of my blog posts or videos helps a student pass a course and that one day that student goes on to make the break through discovery....

So, what shows greater engagement? This blog, or the papers I have published? Tough call.

Mind you, there is the question of why am I bothering to write this post, or run this blog, or use Twitter, FaceBook, Google+, or YouTube, if it doesn't count as "academic engagement"?

Monday, 13 April 2015

Percentage Solution Calculations - an online course...?

I am always looking for new ways to deliver material online and recently I can across Fedora, which seems to offer an interesting solution, so I thought I would give it a try. You can see my efforts at with a Percentage Solution Calculations course I have produced.

Blog Post Bonus: Download a PDF on percentage solution calculations.
What is interesting about Fedora is it follows a School | Course | Lecture model. So to me it feels familiar - that is, the structure is just like my day job!

When you register on Fedora you create a School - in my case I created the Maths4Biosciences School.

Maths4Biosciences Homepage
The School

Once you have a School you can create courses, and I created a Percentage Solutions course.

Percentage Solutions Course Homepage

Welcome page to the Percentage Solutions course

And with your course in place you can then add the lectures.

Blog Post Bonus: Download a percentage solution calculations spreadsheet
The course welcome page also shows the curriculum...

Percentage Solutions Course Curriculum
Course Curriculum

Once you have enrolled you can start the course and it walks you through the lectures...

Percentage Solutions Course
The course...

Each lecture can containing text, images, audio files, videos, quizzes, and discussions.
The weakest part of Fedora are the quizzes. To create a quiz you have to use an external site, and the structure of the quizzes is poor as it is limited to multiple choice (MCQ), and there is no way to provide the user any feedback on their answers. Interestingly the lack of feedback is something a number of online quiz systems fail to do... I may have to look in to that...

Anyway, I was very impressed with Fedora. The site was very user-friendly, and it was surprisingly easy to construct the lectures on the Percentage Solutions course.

I have also taken a number of courses on the site (they are there to help you get familiar with how Fedora works) so I have also experienced things from the students' perspective. I enjoyed the courses and found them useful, and as a student I found the site easy to use.

Blog Post Bonus: Download a PDF on percentage solution calculations.