Thursday, 11 November 2010

Seminar: Enhancing learning through technology

Yesterday I attended a seminar snappily titled Synthesis Report on Assessment and Feedback with Technology Enhancement held at University of Southampton. The aim of the seminar was to present the findings of a project commissioned by The Higher Education Academy looking at the use of technology to enhance assessment.

I have recently started a role at Southampton Solent University where I will be developing their study skills website succeed@solent so this seminar was perfect timing.

They handed out copies of Effective Assessment in a Digital Age: A guide to technology-enhanced assessment and feedback. The guide is full of great case studies and more importantly for me examples of how practitioners have assessed the success of projects. With reviewing succeed@solent I'm keen to evaluate it's effectiveness. From a quantitative perspective some of this should be straight forward; analysing stats and traffic but how does one judge whether a user has gained or learned anything from an online course? I'll be reading the guide to find out more so I can plan my own action research around the use and development of succeed@solent.

During the afternoon we took part in workshop activities where in small groups we had to redesign 'analogue' elements of a course and consider digital alternatives. The course was Leadership in Disaster Situations and the current assessment methods were written case studies with multiple-choice and open questions, a two day practical exercise in a woodland and a final written paper with open questions. In our groups we had to recommend how technology could be used to enhance the assessment and feedback of the course, provide a rationale for choices and evidence that the methods will have the desired impact, explain what evidence needed to be gathered to prove the benefit of the new technology and consider the impact on the tutor, students, central exams office and departmental manager. It was a lively session with lots of different ideas, ranging from student blogging to the use of virtual worlds such as Second Life. I felt that the workshop was missing one large chunk of information - the profile of the end user (student). How could we design a technological solution if we did not know about the user's needs? There were also valid comments about how technology is not always the best solution, for example if you want to learn how to build a shelter it's difficult to learn unless you're hands on.

The seminar also reminded me to visit HEA and JISC to find out if other learning providers have carried out research into online study skills and I made some useful contacts.

Also, a few colleagues from Solent's Learning Technology Unit were there so it was a good chance to make some new acquaintances and also get their take on online learning.

Friday, 18 June 2010

BBC raw computers

Until last year I worked in BBC Factual and Learning as a Senior Content Producer for the Adult Learning team. One of my final projects was BBC raw computers; an interactive, immersive website aimed at complete computer beginners. It was an intensive two-year project for which we created interactive Flash videos with a presenter Tom teaching basic computer and internet skills.

As Senior Content Producer it was my responsibility to manage the project, including working closely with an independent production company RedNomad. In addition, due to having a teaching background, I took on the role of editor for scripts, wrote factsheets and managed user testing.

From the start of the project it was imperative that we put the user at the centre of the design process and brought in subject matter experts to provide critical reviews of scripts and factsheets.

raw computers
is split into two main sections; Getting to know your computer and Introducing the internet which are then split into smaller sections, such as The mouse and Using email. Originally we had planned a separate section on health and safety, but I decided that as it should always be part of computer use, instead we covered key issues throughout raw computers.

In Computer basics we introduce the user to the computer's hardware and explain the importance of using equipment safely; adjusting seating and lighting appropriately, taking breaks and avoiding hazards. The presenter, Tom, explains this to the user on screen and there is also a factsheet they can print off and refer to, which I wrote.

In Registering on a website we explain about ensuring a website is secure and only providing the personal information users want to. We also cover security questions, usernames and passwords. With passwords we advise users to chose one that mixes letters and numbers, to use different passwords for different websites and to NEVER give your password out to anyone as no legitimate company will ever ask for it. There is also a Password checker game where you can test your password’s strength.

screen shot from BBC raw computers showing the presenter infront of a password testing gameScreen shot from BBC raw computers

In Using email we advise users to treat attachments from unknown sources with caution and explaine how to manage and file emails in folders.

The website has a range of accessibility options; all audio has subtitles, text on screen can be changed to three text sizes and six colours are available and there are text versions of the content for those who didn't want to use, or have, video on their computer. Also, we wrote the script with our target audience in mind; sentences were short, words with few syllables - making the content accessible for a low literacy audience.

BBC raw computers ended up being a lot of hard work, but it’s something that I’m very proud of. I hope users and practitioners have found it a useful tool for learning about using computers and the internet.

Using video to connect with the world

One of the outcomes of being restricted with travel for the past few months has been an exploration of using technology to communicate with people. In the past I’ve always preferred meeting people face to face, but with a leg in plaster it hasn’t been feasible.

As previously blogged I used Skype when in hospital to chat to family and friends and since then my peer Kathy and I have used it to chat with each other about the ITQ course, as well as regular sessions with our tutor Di.

A few weeks ago I was due to attend a meeting with The Reading Agency via a conference call. At the last minute a hospital appointment was rescheduled, so I jokingly said to them that I’d send them a video with my thoughts – they took me up on the offer! To start with I regretted my brash offering as I had not previously used the video and record facility on my Mac, or even uploaded a video. It was a frantic morning of testing the video and sound and familiarising myself with iMovie before uploading the final product to YouTube. It’s my first video and as it’s on project management it’s not particularly exciting, but I think it’s a useful demonstration of how technology can reduce barriers for people. Without the video I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to the meeting and it meant, even though I couldn’t travel, I could still be there ‘in person’.

My colleagues fed back that my video was very well received! However, on reflection, next time I would improve how I’d framed myself in shot and also make a shorter video – less for the audience to sit through! I will also spend time familiarising myself with iMovie, how to edit and compression options for uploading videos to YouTube, as mine took ages to upload.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Being online 247

Though I may moan a bit about Mac hardware (obviously it's the machine's fault I can't always get it to work... not the operator's!), I am quite addicted to being online 247. My main partner in crime is my iPhone which I've owned for over a year so it's starting to look a bit sorry for myself.

My partner, family and friends make jokes about how I have to be constantly plugged in and to some extent they're right.. but I have been known to leave technology behind (occasionally, with some disgruntlement). Though, the internet has also been my salvation.

My Mac and me from my hospital bedAt the end of January I made the mistake of going ice-skating... a whole fifteen minutes in I fell over and fractured my tibia and fibula. The break is what Plymouthians would call 'a proper job'. Originally it had been expected I'd be in hospital for only a few days, before coming home with a cast and on crutches. But, what is known as 'Michelle luck' kicked in even more and I ended up being in hospital for four weeks, on a ward that was closed to visitors for three of those weeks. Life was not fun.

My salvation, and I really do mean this, was the internet on my iPhone and later on my Mac. Luckily, at the start of my stay, my mum had brought in my Mac with tv programmes and films loaded onto it (thanks awesome bro). As my hospital television did not work, it's all I had entertainment wise.

So many wireless networks... no passwordsMy iPhone was used by doctors to take photos of my leg (to see how the skin was progressing), people sent me pictures of the outside world, I emailed people tales of woe, updated the world on my progress via Facebook and received encouragement and support. And, I even made phonecalls. Luckily my iPhone contract had unlimited data (though recent news reports suggest this is all about to change), but frustratingly I could see numerous wireless networks no-one had the password to!

After two weeks - with no obvious 'escape' date scheduled, my mum posted me my broadband dongle. I loaded it up with credit and soon could chat with and see (hurrah!) friends and family via Skype, browse the web and generally keep in touch with the world.

I really believe that if I'd not had the internet the ordeal would have been far worse. Having technology and the internet to hand, be it accessed over 02's 3G network on my phone, or the Vodaphone's 2G network on my internet dongle, meant I could stay in touch with the people that mattered.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Online training - Apps and Benevolent Bill - part two

I rejoined the online training session to be introduced to the wonderful world of EduApps. Offered by JISC, these are a range of free software that can be used to support teachers and learners. A few caught my eye, particularly those for dyslexic learners and I was eager to learn more so watched their podcast and introduction video:

But, unfortunately the downloads are for Windows based PCs... not for a Mac :( I've added it to my ITQ TaDa list as after flicking through their AccessApps guide I'm eager to try them out once I'm back home, where I have a spare PC.

One interesting point they made was that for dyslexic people their colour preferences can change over time. I'd never heard of this before so it's useful to know, particularly when learners amend the settings on their computer, they'd need to be able to change them in the future.

For safety, Di recommended f.lux programme that adjusts the light on your computer's monitor depending on the time of day. This intrigues me, particularly as I get tired staring at a screen all day and it would reduce the glare. One to try when I get back to my flat.

Another website recommended was AbilityNet's My Computer My Way which shows users how they can change settings on their computer to make it easier to use. Great step-by-step walk-throughs on changing settings for vision, hearing, motor and cognitive skills for the Mac and PC.

The rest of the presentation was about the various units we have to complete for the module, including some suggested activities. I've decided I'm going to create my own activities with the aim of teaching myself more about the Mac operating system - though whilst always considering accessibility.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Online training - Apps and Benevolent Bill

I've just started watching my second online training session; Apps and Benevolent Bill originally held on 8th March. This session links to the User Fundamentals Unit and I'll be blogging my thoughts as I (belatedly) take part:

System preferences - Universal Access
On a Mac, under System Preferences there is a Universal Access button. It was interesting to look at this to enable me to amend the computer to suit my needs, but it will be also be useful for working with learners.

Helpfully, the font in this window was larger than standard size. A user can change options for Seeing, Hearing, Keyboard, Mouse and Trackpad. I read through the different options and decided to change 'For difficulties seeing the cursor, Cursor Size' and moved it to just above Normal as sometimes I lose the cursor on the screen!

Screen grab from a Mac of Universal Access with Cursor Size changed to greater than Normal
Screen grab from a Mac of Universal Access with Cursor Size changed to greater than Normal

A learner I work with who is visually impaired would also find it helpful to change the size of her computer's cursor. As she uses a PC rather than a Mac I can refer to Jisc's Accessibility Features of Microsoft Windows® to check how to change cursor settings on her computer.

In the Hearing section you can select to flash the screen when an alert sounds, this would be helpful for learners with hearing impairment (such as my uncle). Using sticky keys or repeated key strokes will be helpful for users who would take time to press key combinations or might accidentally hit a key more than once.

WebbIE is a web browser for blind and visually impaired people. I hadn't come across this browser before, it's useful to know about. It displays a page as a plain text output in a window allowing the user to explore a page, follow links and complete forms. However, what surprised me about this was their guide to alt tags, recommending that web developers shouldn't use them. For a visually impaired user the information is superfluous as they can't see the image. However, I'd argue that as a visual user I often hover my cursor over an image to get more information about it from the alt tag. It was an interesting view point I'd not thought of before.

Webbie can also be used by web developers to test the accessibility of their website. This is really helpful for me as I also develop websites for companies.

Finally, the site contains lots of links to other great websites and programmes, such as Easy YouTube and screen readers.

Web browser accessibility
I didn't realise that there are so many accessibility options for web browsers. Di linked to a great summary list on Wikipedia comparing common accessibility features of web browsers.

I've viewed as far as Slide 5, have to stop now and start from Slide 6 of the presentation later.

Comment: I've noticed when I save images and upload they're rather degraded which can make text difficult to read. At present I'm using Grab on the Mac to take screen grabs as a tiff and then exporting as jpgs using iPhoto. I'll have to investigate to improve quality of the image.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

User fundamentals - accessibility on a Mac

Last November I needed to buy a new laptop and as my grandfather gave me his old iMac and I owned an iPhone the logical step was to purchase a MacBook Pro. Getting to grips with a new operating system has been quite challenging, particularly as I've only ever used a PC before.

Over the last ten years I've had a physical problem with my arms and hands which leads to discomfort if I repeatedly carry out the same action. Due to this I had taught myself to navigate through an operating system using only the keyboard, to rest my hands from using a mouse. However, I learnt this on a PC, now I have to get to grips with a Mac.

On a PC to get up to the menu bar in an application I would use keyboard shortcuts, but the same shortcuts don't work on a Mac. To find out which shortcuts I could use I visited the Apple website to read about how the Mac's operating system comes with a variety of assistive technologies. This gave a good overview, but I had to visit the Mac OS keyboard shortcuts page to get more specific information.

I tried some of the shortcuts, but frustratingly they didn't always work! I mentioned this to my tutor, Di Dawson, who helpfully found out that to get to get to the menu bar I needed to use the keys fn (function) + ctrl (control) + F2 (function 2). This is an extra key in comparison to on a PC and annoyingly I find it difficult to do with one hand.

Once I figured this out, I could then open and shut down my computer just using my keyboard. My peer, Kathy observed me opening and shutting down the computer and wrote a witness statement.

To close down applications I used cmd + Q or fn + ctrl + F2 to access the menu bar and then use the arrow keys to navigate around the menu, the enter key to select an action and then close the application. Finally I used fn + ctrl + F2 to access the Apple menu and then close the computer.

I'm disappointed that the Mac website doesn't provide all the information I need on keyboard shortcuts, I think the way forward is to ask other people for advice, such as using forums.

Update: I've just figured out how to reduce the number of keys I have to hit. I've changed a setting in System Preferences under Keyboard so that Function keys only work as standard function keys. For example, to access the menu bar is now only ctrl + F2 - which I can do with one hand, hurrah!