A view from Down Under

Melbourne Seventh City of Empire, part of the Australia 1930s Exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne Seventh City of Empire, part of the “Brave New World: Australia 1930s” Exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria

I’ve spent the last two week in Australia thanks to a trip to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute 100th Annual Congress in Melbourne. I attended the Chemistry Education symposium.

So what is keeping chemistry educators busy around this part of the world? There are a lot of similarities, but some differences. While we wrestle with the ripples of TEF and the totalitarian threat of learning gains, around here the acronym of fear is TLO: threshold learning outcomes.  As I understand it, these are legally binding statements stating that university courses will ensure students will graduate with the stated outcomes. Institutions are required to demonstrate that these learning outcomes are part of their programmes and identify the level to which they are assessed. This all sounds very good, except individuals on the ground are now focussing on identifying where these outcomes are being addressed. Given that they are quite granular, this appears to be a huge undertaking and is raising questions like: where and to what extent is teamwork assessed in a programme?

Melbourne from the Shrine
Melbourne from the Shrine

This process does appear to have promoted a big interest in broader learning outcomes, with lots of talks on how to incorporate transferable skills into the curriculum, and some very nice research into students’ awareness of their skills. Badges are of interest here and may be a useful way to document these learning outcomes in a way that doesn’t need a specific mark. Labs were often promoted as a way of addressing these learning outcomes, but I do wonder how much we can use labs for learning beyond their surely core purpose of teaching practical chemistry.

Speaking of labs, there was some nice work on preparing for laboratory work and on incorporating context into laboratory work. There was (to me) a contentious proposal that there be a certain number of laboratory activities (such as titrations) that are considered core to a chemist’s repertoire, and that graduation should not be allowed until competence in those core activities be demonstrated. Personally I think chemistry is a broader church than that, and it will be interesting to watch that one progress. A round-table discussion spent a good bit of time talking about labs in light of future pressures of funding and space; and it does seem that we are still not quite clear about what the purpose of labs are. Distance education – which Australia has a well-established head start in – was also discussed, and I was really glad to hear someone with a lot of experience in this say that it is possible to generate a community with online learners, but that it takes a substantial personal effort. The lab discussion continued to the end, with a nice talk on incorporating computational thinking into chemistry education, with suggestions on how already reported lab activities might be used to achieve this.

Gwen Lawrie delivers her Award Address
Gwen Lawrie delivers her Award Address

Of course it is the personal dimension that is the real benefit of these meetings, and it was great to meet some faces old and new. Gwen Lawrie wasn’t on the program as the announcement of her award of Education Division Medal was kept secret for as long as possible. I could listen to Gwen all day, and her talk had the theme “Chasing Rainbows”, which captured so eloquently what it means to be a teacher-researcher in chemistry education, and in a landscape that continues to change. [Gwen’s publications are worth trawling] Gwen’s collaborator Madeline Schultz (a Division Citation Winner) spoke about both TLOs and on reflections on respected practitioners on their approaches to teaching chemistry – an interesting study using a lens of pedagogical content knowledge. From Curtin, I (re-)met Mauro Mocerino (who I heard speak in Europe an age ago on clickers) who spoke here of his long standing work on training demonstrators. Also from that parish, it was a pleasure to finally meet Dan Southam. I knew Dan only through others; a man “who gets things done” so it was lovely to meet him in his capacity as Chair of the Division and this symposium, and to see that his appellation rang true. And it was nice to meet Elizabeth Yuriev, who does lovely work exploring how students approach physical chemistry problem and on helping students with problem solving strategies.

Dinner Date
Dinner Date

There were lots of other good conversations and friendly meetings, demonstrating that chemistry educators are a nice bunch regardless of location. I wasn’t the only international interloper; Aishling Flaherty from University of Limerick was there to spread her good work on demonstrator training – an impressive programme she has developed and is now trialling in a different university and a different country. And George Bodner spoke of much of his work in studying how students learn organic chemistry, and in particular the case of “What to do about Parker”. The memory of Prof Bodner sitting at the back of my talk looking at my slides through a telescopic eye piece is a happy one that will stay with me for a long time. Talk of organic chemistry reminds me of a presentation about the app Chirality – 2 which was described – it covers lots of aspects about revising organic chemistry, and looked really great.

The Pioneer, National Gallery of Victoria
The Pioneer, National Gallery of Victoria

My slightly extended trip was because I had the good fortune to visit the research group of Prof Tina Overton, who moved to Melbourne a few years ago, joining native Chris Thompson in growing the chemistry education group at Monash. It was an amazing experience immersing in a vibrant and active research group, who are working on things ranging from student critical thinking, chemists’ career aspirations, awareness of transferable skills, and the process and effect of transforming an entire laboratory curriculum. I learned a lot as I always do from Tina and am extremely grateful for her very generous hosting. I leave Australia now, wondering if I can plan a journey in 2018 for ICCE in Sydney.

From Hokusai exhibition, NGV
From Hokusai exhibition, NGV. My interpretation of students managing in a complex learning environment

Mayer’s Principles: Using multimedia for e-learning (updated 2017)

Anyone involved in e-learning will know of the cognitive theory of multimedia learning, which draws together information processing model (dual coding), cognitive load theory (working memory), and the notion of active processing. You can read a little more of this in this (old) post.

Anyway, for most of us who don’t do full on e-learning, Mayer’s principles have value when we make things like videos or multimedia that we wish the students to interact with outside of their time with us. As such, Mayer’s principles, as reported in The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning are well cited. Mayer has just published an update (HT to the wonderful new Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/CogSciLearning), and because I have nothing better to do than twiddle my thumbs for the summer (thank you Adonis), I made a graphic summarising the 12 principles he describes. Many seem obvious but that is probably no bad thing; as well as thinking about videos, there might be some lessons about PowerPointing here too. Click on the image to embiggen.

Mayer’s Principles: Using multimedia for e-learning (from Mayer, R. E. (2017) Using multimedia for e-learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, doi: 10.1111/jcal.12197)
Mayer’s Principles: Using multimedia for e-learning (from Mayer, R. E. (2017) Using multimedia for e-learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, doi: 10.1111/jcal.12197)

Revising functional groups with lightbulb feedback

I’m always a little envious when people tell me they were students of chemistry at Glasgow during Alex Johnstone’s time there. A recent read from the Education in Chemistry back-catalogue has turned me a shade greener. Let me tell you about something wonderful.

The concept of working memory is based on the notion that we can process a finite number of new bits in one instance, originally thought to be about 7, now about 4.  What these ‘bits’ are depend on what we know. So a person who only knows a little chemistry will look at a complex organic molecule and see lots of carbons, hydrogens, etc joined together. Remembering it (or even discussing its structure/reactivity) would be very difficult – there are too many bits. A more advanced learner may be able to identify functional groups, where a group is an assembly or atoms in a particular pattern; ketones for example being an assembly of three carbons and an oxygen, with particular bonding arrangements. This reduces the number of bits.

Functional groups are important for organic chemists as they will determine the reactivity of the molecule, and a challenge for novices to be able to do this is to first be able to identify the functional groups. In order to help students practise this, Johnstone developed an innovative approach (this was 1982): an electronic circuit board.

Functional Group Board: Black dots represent points were students needed to wire from name to example of functional group
Functional Group Board: Black dots represent points were students needed to wire from name to example of functional group

The board was designed so that it was covered with a piece of paper listing all functional groups of interest on either side, and then an array of molecules in the middle, with functional groups circled. Students were asked to connect a lead from the functional group name to a matching functional group, and if they were correct, a lightbulb would flash.

A lightbulb would flash. Can you imagine the joy?!

Amide backup card
Amide backup card

If not, “back-up cards” were available so that students could review any that they connected incorrectly, and were then directed back to the board.

The board was made available to students in laboratory sessions, and they were just directed to play with it in groups to stimulate discussion (and so as “not to frighten them away with yet another test”). Thus students were able to test out their knowledge, and if incorrect they had resources to review and re-test. Needless to say the board was very popular with students, such that more complex sheets were developed for medical students.

Because this is 1982 and pre-… well, everything, Johnstone offers instructions for building the board, developed with the departmental electrician. Circuit instructions for 50 x 60 cm board were given, along with details of mounting various plans of functional groups onto the pegboard for assembly. I want one!



A. H. Johnstone, K. M. Letton, J. C. Speakman, Recognising functional groups, Education in Chemistry, 1982, 19, 16-19. RSC members can view archives of Education in Chemistry via the Historical Collection.

Why do academics use technology in teaching?

This week is All Aboard week in Ireland, essayed at “Building Confidence in Digital Skills for Learning”. I am speaking today in the gorgeous city of Galway on this topic, and came across this paper in a recent BJET which gives some useful context. It summarises interviews with 33 Australian academics from various disciplines, on the topic of why they used technology in assessment. While the particular lens is on assessment, I think there are some useful things to note for those espousing the incorporation of technology generally.

Four themes emerge from the interviews

The first is that there is a perceived cost-benefit analysis at play; the cost of establishing an assessment process (e.g. quizzes) was perceived to be offset by the benefit that it would offer, such as reducing workload in the long-run. However, some responses suggest that this economic bet didn’t pay off, and that lack of time meant that academics often took quick solutions or those they knew about, such as multiple choice quizzes.

The second theme is that technology was adopted because it is considered contemporary and innovative; this suggests a sense of inevitability of using tools as they are there. A (mildly upsetting) quote from an interview is given:

“It would have been nice if we could have brainstormed what we wanted students to achieve, rather than just saying “well how can ICT be integrated within a subject?”

The third theme was one around the intention to shape students’ behaviour – providing activities to guide them through learning. There was a sense that this was expected and welcomed by students.

Finally, at the point of implementation, significant support was required, which often wasn’t forthcoming, and because of this, and other factors, intentions had to be compromised.

The authors use these themes to make some points about the process of advocating and supporting those integrating technology. I like their point about “formative development” – rolling out things over multiple iterations and thus lowering the stakes. Certainly my own experience (in hindsight!) reflects the benefit of this.

One other aspect of advocacy that isn’t mentioned but I think could be is to provide a framework upon which you hang your approaches. Giving students quizzes “coz it helps them revise” probably isn’t a sufficient framework, and nor is “lecture capture coz we can”. I try to use the framework of cognitive load theory as a basis for a lot of what I do, so that I have some justification for when things are supported or not, depending on where I expect students to be at in their progression. It’s a tricky balance, but I think such a framework at least prompts consideration of an overall approach rather than a piecemeal one.

There’s a lovely graphic from All Aboard showing lots of technologies, and as an awareness tool it is great. But there is probably a huge amount to be done in terms of digital literacy, regarding both the how, but also the why, of integrating technology into our teaching approaches.

Click link to go to All Aboard webpage


Finding out about Learning Analytics

I’m attending the JISC Learning Analytics network meeting (information), which is giving a good overview on the emerging development of learning analytics, and its integration into higher education. Learning analytics aims to harness data about students interactions and engagement with a course, whatever can be measured, and use that in an intelligent way to inform and empower students about their own academic journey. Of course, one of the major questions being discussed here is what data is relevant? This was something I explored when looking at developing a model to help tutors predict student performance and identify at-risk students (see CERP: 2009, 10, 227) but things have moved on now and the discipline of learning analytics looks to automate a lot of the data gathering and have a sensible data reporting to both staff and individual students.

There was an interesting talk on the rollout of learning analytics from Gary Tindell at the University of East London, which described the roll-out over time of a learning analytics platform, which might be of interest to others considering integrating it into their own institution. He identified 5 phases, which developed over time:

  • Phase 1: collecting data on student attendance via swipe card system. This data can be broken down by school, module, event, student. Subsequently developed an attendance reporting app (assuming app here means a web-app). This app identifies students whose attendance falls below 75% threshold and flags interventions via student retention team. Unsurprisingly, there was a correlation between student attendance and module performance.
  • Phase 2: student engagement app for personal tutors: this pulls together data on student attendance, module activity, use of library, e-book activity, coursework submission, assessment profile etc and aims to privide tutors with a broader profile of student engagement.
  • Phase 3: Development of an app that integrates all this data and calculates a level of student engagement based on a weighting system for identifying at risk students (those at risk of leaving). Weighting can be changed depending on what is considered most important. It allows students see a level of engagement compared with their cohort.
  • Phase 4: Research phase – intention is to use data to inform the weightings applied to student engagement app. Initial correlations found highest correlations for attendance and average module marks. However, more interestingly, multiple regressions suggest all engagement measures are significant. They have developed a quadrant based model that identifies low engagers to high engagers, and provides an indicator of student performance. One of the key measures is previous student performance – but is that a student engagement measure??
  • Phase 5 – currently in progress, developing 3 different sets of visualisations of student engagement.
  1. Compare individual engagement with UEL school and course
  2. Provides student with an indication of where they are located in terms of student engagement
  3. Provides an indication of the distance to travel for a student to be able to progress to another quadrant.

The next steps in the project are about aiming to answer the following questions:

–          Can we accurately predict student performance based on a metric?

–          Can providing students with information on their level of engagement really change study patterns?

It’s the last point that particularly interests me.



What are your thoughts on lecture flipping?

I am giving a keynote at the AHEAD conference in March, and the lecture itself will be a flipped lecture on lecture flipping. The audience will be a mixture of academics and support staff from all over Europe and beyond, and the idea is that they will watch the presentation in advance (hmmmm) and we will then use the time during the actual conference presentation to discuss emerging themes. I will be highly caffeinated.

In order to address some of the issues around lecture flipping that face most educators, I would be interested to hear thoughts from lecturers and support staff on the idea of lecture flipping. Any and all of the following… please do comment or tweet me @seerymk:

  1. What do you think the potential of flipping is?
  2. What concerns you about the model?
  3. Is it scalable?
  4. In terms of resources, have you any thoughts on the materials prepared for lecture flipping in advance of and/or for lectures.
  5. How do you consider/reconsider assessment in light of lecture flipping.
  6. Any other genius ideas that I can rob…


A future direction for clickers?

student answers

Clickers are routinely used to survey class on their understanding of topics or test their knowledge with quizzes, and as technology has developed, there have been clever ways of doing this (See: The Rise and Rise…). One issue that arises is that as lecturers, we don’t have a convenient way to know what individual students think, or what their answer is.

glassesEnter this recent paper from BJET, An Augmented Lecture Feedback System to support Learner and Teacher Communication. This paper describes a clicker-based system, but instead of (or as well as) a lecturer viewing a chart of responses, the lecturer sees the response hover over the student’s head. I know it’s early in the year, so I will let you read that sentence again.

The system works by way of the lecturer wearing glasses that scan the room and when each response is entered. The technology (while very clever) is still very rudimentary, and no-one in their right mind would want to look like this in their classroom, but as Google Glasses or equivalent take off, who knows what possibilities there will be in the coming decade.

I think it’s an interesting paper for showing a different aspect of lecturer-student interaction in the class. Quite what you do when you see that some students are incorrect is up to individual teaching scenarios.

The authors have a video explaining the paper in more detail, shown below.

The rise and rise of clickers in chemistry

As recently as 2008, a review of clickers in Chemistry Education Research and Practice had difficulty finding reports of their use in chemistry lecture rooms. In the intervening years, the increase in usage has been nothing short of meteoric. It’s interesting to survey the recent literature to consider how clickers are used in chemistry.

Simple response

The first category is those who use clickers in a simple check of the class’ understanding of a topic – do they know x? King (JCE, 2011, doi: 10.1021/ed1004799) describes the use of clickers to allow a class to identify the ‘muddiest point’, with the most common cause of difficulty being the subject of a review in the following lecture.

Initiate class/peer discussion

The second type of usage is to use clickers to gauge opinion from the class, often on a misconception, and use the initial class responses as a basis for discussion, with possible reassessment. Wagner (JCE, 2009, 86(11), 1300) describes the use of clickers in this manner, for example in asking students: which of the following substances has the ID(50) value? [aspirin; DDT; nicotine; caffeine; ethanol]; and initiating a subsequent class discussion based on the student responses. Mazur’s Peer Instruction is based on this approach.

Considering sequences

Ruder and Straumanis have a very nice paper (JCE, 2009, 86(12), 1392) on using digit response function in some clicker handsets so that students may input a sequence. Two examples illustrate the concept. in the first, students have to select which two precursors from two lists of reagents (in this example Michael donors and acceptors) they would choose in order to prepare a desired product. In their second example, students are asked to select the reagents they would add, in the correct sequence, to produce a desired product. These questions offer two advantages; they allow for a much larger set of possible answers and so minimise a lucky guess and they require students not only to know an answer, but to consider that answer in the context of a total problem. Clickers which do not allow numerical answers can still consider this approach – several more incorrect answers can be easily generated, and if clever, common wrong answers can be included. In fact, the authors say that they only show the responses to the top few most common incorrect answers.

This approach is also used by these authors to test students on curly arrow mechanisms – carbon atoms in a diagram are numbered, and students can describe their understanding of the mechanism by entering multiple-digit responses to represent a mechanism. It’s clever, but some of the very extensive models described seem a bit elaborate to expect students to be able to “code” their curly arrow mechanism into numbers. However, it shows how far the technology could be pushed. A similar approach using numbered carbons on complex organic structures as a basis for numerical entry is described by Flynn in her work on teaching retrosynthesic analysis (JCE, 2011, doi: 0.1021/ed200143k).

What and why?

My own use of clickers follows Treagust’s work (e.g. CERP, 2007, 8 (3), 293-307), where he asks students two-stage multiple choice questions. The first is a simple response, and the second is asking students to select why they chose that response. This work by Treagust is very clever, as it allows students who may know or guess the correct answer to really challenge themselves on their understanding of why they know what they know. The wrong answers in Treagust’s work are developed from literature reports of misconceptions. He has been very generous in sharing examples of these in the past.

In the lab

My colleagues Barry Ryan and Julie Dunne completed some work using clickers to assess pre-and post-lab activities. You can find out more about that here.

Do you use clickers? If so, I’d be interested to hear how in order to compile a “Chemist’s User’s Guide”.


Prezi arrived on the scene about two (maybe three?) years ago. Since its introduction, conference attendees’ snoozing during a succession of PowerPoints has been interupted by a sense of sea-sickness induced by well-meaning presenters and their carefully crafted Prezis. All Prezis I have seen are like a PowerPoint presentation riding along a rollercoaster. They are linear in format, usually contain bullet-points (a major faux-pas in the eyes of Prezi-purists) and have a start, middle and end. They offer no additional advantage to PowerPoint. I don’t really like admitting this to the learning community, but I don’t really like Prezi.

Exhibit A:

Take the Prezi below. This was my one live presentation I gave at a chemistry education conference, I think in 2009. What attracted me to Prezi was the fact that you could show the audience the overall presentation in one go, and as you go along highlight the sections of the talk you go through as you progress. (This Prezi, for extra nerdiness, was shaped as a reaction profile diagram, which no-one in the audience noticed. For shame, physical chemists, for shame). It had pictures and videos embedded. It took me an age to do and I was very proud of it

I wonder however, in the effort to help peple get a grasp on the overall presentation, whether I lost them in the detail of the talk with a constantly swishing screen. Even now I can see faces in the audience following the presentation as it rolled around, probably trying to wonder where to focus next, as I wished helplessly for the presentation to stop being so gut-churningly jolly. There is something elegant and simple about a well designed PowerPoint slide.

Exhibit B:

Well I don’t like to pick on other people, but if you’ve made a Prezi, can you take a step back and ask yourself, what added value does it have over PowerPoint? There is an add-in for PowerPoint that allows slides to be grouped together. PowerPoint animation is becoming really quite impressive. PowerPoint doesn’t leave you fretting about whether the computer you’re giving the presentation on will have Flash Player. PowerPoint doesn’t make your audience seasick.

Exhibit C

We all recognise there is something terrible about most PowerPoint presentations. But people interested in technology have a terrible habit of ambulance chasing the latest gig (see Exhibit A) rather than taking something that’s quite good and working on it to improve it. For PowerPoint, I think disabling the bullet point, having a maximum word count per slide and creating purposeful handouts for after presentation digestion are three ways to improve.

Exhibit D

Someone very cleverly suggested to me today that Prezi could be a very useful mind-mapping software. I think that has potential. But it’s not a presentation!

I want to be wrong about Prezi. I really do. It looks and feels cool. But I just don’t see it as a good alternative for presentations. Am I wrong?!!

500 Years of Science Infographic

This is a great way of representing the contributions to science over the course of 500 years. The chemistry line (tan coloured) begins with origins in alchemy and starts as chemistry proper with Robert Boyle, followed by Black, Cavendish, Lavoisier and Priestley. The station intersections show where one scientist had an impact on two or more disciplines – needless to say Newton is a central hub!

Click on the image to access a version of the map which allows each scientist’s name to be followed through to their Wikipedia entry.

To ensure you always have the latest version of the map, click on the link to the original author’s blog entry.

Interview with John Biggs

Found these on iTunesU from La Trobe University (Australia) – interviews with John Biggs (constructive alignment and problem based learning); Vaughan Prain (teaching science);  Chris Scanlan (New media for journalism students); Lorraine Ling (future of education). Nice, listenable, relatively short podcast interviews.

Link to Biggs interview is here – this will open iTunes and the others are there [would like a nice iTunes embedder…?]

Image Credit

Virtual worlds in chemistry higher education

This post examines some examples of the use of emerging technologies for chemistry education, focussing on the virtual world second life and web-based virtual platforms.

Second Life

Second Life is a virtual, online world where users can interact and engage with others while moving through a created virtual space. While perhaps better known for less than desirable uses, academic institutions are putting a lot of resources into creating Second Life spaces, including the Open University and DIT. Anecdotally, chemistry is sometimes given as an ideal subject to use in Second Life, allowing for anything from testing out reactions to showing spatial arrangements of atoms in molecules in 3-dimensions. A recent review of the use of Second Life and Chemistry outlined a number of proposed opportunities for using the virtual world in the teaching of chemistry (Lang and Bradley, 2009). These include visualisation of molecules (user enters the name of the molecule and it is rendered after referring to a database such as ChemSpider); visualisation of chemical reactions including bond breaking and making; docking simulations and more complex molecules such as peptides and proteins. Additionally, spectral visualisations and physical properties are available. the review continues with some teaching applications, which includes details of quizzes, games and student exhibits of work. Some details of research dissemination (including, heaven forbid, research conferences – see Welch, 2010) and islands (pre-designed locations in Second Life) belonging to ACS and other chemical organisations are described.

Second Life offers alternative means for visualisation, but to what added benefit?

One has to wonder, why? There’s nothing new in visualisations (and there is mixed evidence on whether 3D visualisations actually help students at this stage (Urhahne, Nick and Schanze, 2009)), and although the technology is clever and the graphics pretty, is this extra work and burden (getting students into Second Life) really worth it? In one study of students using augmented reality versus physical models, it was found that many students preferred interacting with the physical model (Chen 2006). It seems that the main additional outcome to a standard web platform is the social aspect of Second Life. An example offered was that students could seek out other professional scientists and interview them. However, while there is undoubtedly potential, I think as a practitioner there would be a lot more worthy resources that could be developed given the time.

Virtual Laboratories

Slightly less technological than Second Life, but along the same principles are the establishment of Virtual Laboratory spaces, where you can, in the words of one project, “mix chemicals without wearing safety goggles” (Virtual Chemistry Laboratory, 2010).  The Virtual Chemistry Laboratory are interactive simulations, clever Java based materials which allow the student to conduct experiments and see what they results will be. The advantage is that they can test out some different mixes or approaches as a dry run.

While there is nothing new in the idea of virtual labs, the technology is getting very smart. The Bristol ChemLabs Dynamic Laboratory Manual is an Articulate based flash interface which is really outstanding in terms of quality, interactivity and engagement, along with feedback. Its integration into the teaching programme really shows the power of these type of activities as pre- and possibly post-lab work, to for example reduce the cognitive load, allow for introducing meaningful post-lab further analysis and problems. The downside is that content of this level of sophistication costs an awful lot of money to develop, although to purchase content it is now relatively cheap.

These types of emerging technologies will undoubtedly be piloted in the future. Of most interest to practitioners will be the answer to the question – what added benefit does it bring to learning?


Chem, Y-C (2006) “A study of comparing the use of augmented reality and physical models in chemistry education”, Proceedings of the 2006 ACM international conference on Virtual reality continuum and its applications, available at: http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1128923.1128990 (May 2010).

Lang, A and Bradley, J-C (2009), “Chemistry in Second Life”, Chemistry Central Journal, 3, 14, available at http://journal.chemistrycentral.com/content/3/1/14 (May 2010).

Urhahne, D, Nick, S and Schanze, S (2009), “The Effect of Three-Dimensional Simulations on the Understanding of Chemical Structures and Their Properties”, Research in Science Education, 39, 495 – 513.

Virtual Chemical Laboratory (2010) Available at: http://www.merlot.org/merlot/viewMaterial.htm?id=89055

Welch, CJ (2010), “Virtual Conferences become a reality”, Nature Chemistry, 2(3), 148.

Is there a role for m-Learning?

Mobile learning is often heralded as an answer to several problems in higher education. Students can access material anytime, anywhere, doing anything. Lecturers can provide lots of detail and supplementary material knowing that students can access it on the bus to college, while jogging in the gym or even in the library! I wonder about the reality of any of these claims, even allowing for hyperbole. In this post I aim to look at m-learning is, and potential “real” uses in practice.

A 2007 Educause article on mobile learning provides an overview of the potential of m-learning (Corbell and Valdes-Corbell, 2007). Unfortunately, among lots of quite useful information on the pros and cons of various mobile devices for learning, the article places the material in the context of Prensky’s “digital natives”, which when you actually teach so-called digital natives, you realise is a complete misnomer.  In addition, this article makes a statement, common in a lot of literature on mobile learning, that “e-learners will no longer be chained to their computers and network connections, they will be learning while hiking in the mountains, strolling on the beach, or jogging along the city street.” The quote is attributed to Schroeder (2005 – the link referenced in the Educause paper does not work any more). I have to question the concept of “learning on the go” – certainly the literature on podcasting indicates that even though it is mobile, learners still set aside a particular study time to access podcasts, usually in a fixed space such as at a study desk. [See my article on podcasting]

OK, it's gone red, now what do I do? Is there a role for "just-in-time" learning in chemistry?

So even allowing for hyperbole, is m-learning a potentially useful tool? Molenet, a large UK project for mobile learning in further education funded by the Learning and Skills Council defines m-learning as “The exploitation of ubiquitous handheld hardware, wireless networking and mobile telephony to facilitate, support enhance and extend the reach of teaching and learning” (Molenet, 2010). It adopts a somewhat more realistic attitude to modern learners, dispelling the myth that young people do not need training in new technologies.

This definition and approach seems to me to be a pragmatic as it encompasses what I see as two key issues. The first is that the mobile technology should be kept as simple as necessary. In the case of podcasts, it is easy to get an mp3 file onto some form of player, or listen to in on a portable (or even fixed!) PC. The second is back to Gilly Salmon’s mantra – what is the pedagogic rationale for using the technology? As the Educause article rightly points out, simply recording lecture material is not an effective use of the technology. In a mobile situation, students are unlikely to be taking notes or able to comprehend something we would normally use diagrams to explain. Therefore placing ourselves in the position of students, what would be a useful mobile learning tool? I think snapshots of material – reviewing one key concept that students find difficult, or introducing a term or idea before a lecture that students may find difficult to process within a lecture hour (aiding cognitive processing) or posing problems or thoughts on a topic would be useful resources. Even better would be if they were integrated into other resources, so that they fitted into a larger resource where the students could use the information to try out something and get feedback. Corbell et. al mentions the idea of “just-in-time” podcasts, lasting about 3 – 5 minutes. These kind of time-frames will very much dictate the nature and content of these resources, which I would see as being very much supporting other learning rather than the main “content provider”.

Content other than podcasts, on a mobile basis, become very much more laborious as a practitioner to develop. One colleague has developed a series of mobile-friendly videos on practical techniques, that students can play while on task – a fabulous idea but one which took a huge amount of development time. One would wonder, as the photo alludes to above, whether this would be good or safe practice in a chemistry laboratory environment. The potential game-changer over the next few years – iPad/e-book type devices may have a more limited impact than would be expected – issues about cost, proprietary formats, etc may limit their use. I don’t think, for example, that all my students would have a notebook or a laptop. And before I ask them to get one, I would want a much firmer footing than I currently have for knowing it was going to improve their learning.

Corbell, J. and Valder-Corbell, M. E. (2007) Are you ready for mobile learning?, Educause Quarterly, 2, 51 – 58.

Molenet (2010) www.molenet.org.uk (Accessed May 2010)

Social Network Sites as an Academic Induction Tool

This post provides an annotated bibliography of some work on using social media (in particular Facebook) as a pre-registration/pre-university/induction tool. The references given can also be found at my Delicious site. Some examples of the use of Facebook for induction purposes are given at the end.

facebook logo

Facebook, social integration and informal learning at university: ‘It is more for socialising and talking to friends about work than for actually doing work’ [Link]

This is a really interesting paper on the use of Facebook as a pre-university networking tool. The study was carried out in the University of Leicester and respondents to the online survey in the study were drawn from all academic disciplines in the university (20% science; 28% social science; 19% arts). The paper looked at several aspects:
– the use of Facebook pre-registration
– the role of Facebook in social integration during university
– potential role of Facebook for university support services and academic departments.


The survey found that many students had Facebook prior to/on joining university and used the site specifically to make new face-to-face friends at university (especially people in the same hall/course). Facebook, rather than other social network sites, was associated with university level education. Simultaneously, students were joining Facebook at this stae to keep in touh with current face-to-face friends who they would not now see as much.

Social integration at university:

Towards the end of the first academic year, the most common number of university friends per respondent was 30. 3/4 students agreed that they used Facebook more than they did on starting university, with usage including keeping in touch with pre-university friends; planning university social events and making social links at university. The paper discusses each of these, along with providing some respondents thoughts on use of Facebook for formal and informal learning (outside the remit of this annotation, but students saw Facebook as a social rather than academic space).

A Study on the Effective Use of Social Software by Further and Higher Education in the UK to Support Student Learning and Engagement [Link to PDF, see page 22-26]

This is a smaller scale study to the Leicester study, but from a practitioner point of view is more useful. It describes the introduction of a Facebook group for students enrolling on a particular degree programme (BA English) at a Birmingham university. The stated purpose of the pilot project was to east the transition from second to third level. The course director’s research interests are already in the area of content analysis of Facebook posts, and found that much content related to college work.


The group was established and information sent out to incoming students, with clear guidelines on what the group was for (asking questions and getting to know each other). By the end of induction week, 2/3 of the lass had joined the group.


Topics discussed and posted onto the Wall included queries about the reading list, introduction to fellow students and details about their accommodation.


Students identified the main benefit as being meeting people before course starting (51%) followed by ability to access information (24%). Staff benefits included being able to identify and address induction queries/concerns and improving social cohesion between staff and students.

Issues Identified:

– Some students did not join Facebook.
– Both staff and students raised concerns about the group being “Open”.
– Apart from addressing academic induction queries, the course director did not identify the group as an academic space.

The group ceased to be used after Induction week, probably because the students identified other personal virtual and real life spaces to interact, without the need for this portal.

Evaluating Systematic Transition to Higher Education [Link]

This study did not use Facebook, but used Ning in a very nice way – students enrolling into first year completed this pre-enrollment induction programme covering both social events and some generic skills information. Ning was chosen over Facebook because
“The most important feature of the site is the ability for students to meet other students at the University in a safe environment where, unlike other social networks such as FaceBook, everyone is part of the same community”

I think Facebook groups gets around this problem, but as a concept, this example has a lot of information to offer.

The Use of Social Networking by Students and Staff in Higher Education [Link to PDF]

This study discusses the use of a purpose built Facebook style social network site at the University of Westminster called Connect. The authors argue that the advantage of such a site over a formal (Corporate) VLE is that the user can decide “what they wish to discuss and who they wish to work with” and that such sites can complement the more formal academic environment of a VLE. They consider that such sites have a major role to play in induction. The results of the study included the fact that more first years (undergrad and postgrad) accessed and interacted with the site than other years; although does not describe whether and how it was used in induction activities.

How can technology be used to improve the learner experience at points of transition [Link to PDF – pages 14 – 16]

This is a recently published review of the area of using technology to support transition points in education, including the school to university transition. It mentions several examples aiming to help students to “settle in, adjust, reduce anxiety, deal with change and learn generic skills”. Several examples are discussed, including initiatives at Sunderland, Manchester, Bournemouth, Bradford, Brighton, Lincoln, Leeds, and Sydney.

The following quote indicates the power of the use of social media for induction:

“Keenan (2009b) notes that offering information and resources before students arrive, in students’ own space and time, spreads the load, helps them to absorb information, gain confidence and can help develop early commitment, engagement and perseverance. Students can find induction week overwhelming and therefore such ‘transition mechanisms’ (Keenan 2006) are important and access prior to induction – to other students, to the course and to the university – is seen as a key step towards providing a successful student transitional experience.”

Examples of Universities using Facebook for induction purposes:

  • Queen Margaret University MSc (pre-registration) Physiotherapy: This example is a “Page” consisting mainly of announcements from programme coordinators, and librarians.
  • University of Leicester Law Freshers 2009: This example is a “Group”, with a lot of interaction from students with posts about texts, timetables etc. It’s not clear whether the site is student generated or has an official role.
  • University of Gloucestershire FCH Induction: This example is a group, but acted only to signpost the members to a university page. There are some posts in the discussion from students wondering about where others are based for accommodation.
  • Learning, Teaching and Enhancement Office, University of Bath: This is not an example but describes the use of facebook sites for academic induction, mentioning that a number of departments have set up site for students accepted onto their programme to provide information on courses, and to create a network to allow students to communicate before arrival.

VLEs: Are they dead or not?

In our first week of our Trends in E-Learning module, we’ve been looking at the VLE is dead debate. The seed for discussion was Martin Weller’s blog post (now over two years old) which makes the valid point that there are several independent third party (free) applications out there that address most if not all of the needs a VLE does, and do it a lot better because each individual application is that company’s core business.

I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with VLEs as a practising lecturer, and a student, and as someone who has, if I may say, above average capability in PC and web literacy than your typical academic (as well as boosting my own ego, this is important as I’ll mention later). We’ve had a useful discussion over the week (in our closed VLE discussion board) which has given me the opportunity to hone my thoughts.

Fota House Garden, Cork (M Seery)

It is dead.

I like Martin Weller. He writes with a sense of pragmatism and Feet On The Ground and seems to be both someone who thinks a lot about these things and teaches himself, which gives him an edge over a lot of commentators in my book. The VLE was born from a need to create an online workspace for students, to make files available and to communicate with students effectively (Phillips, Cormier and Styles 2008). In reality, it is in the main two things in my experience: a content repository for lecture notes and supplemental notes and a way of administrating a course through the mail/announcement/discussion board communication tools to students registered on the module. Whether its use as a content repository is a good thing is for another debate, but if this is the main use, why do we need one at all? Lecturers could provide a webpage with links to their presentations. This, coupled with having the email address of all the students means that these two uses are obsolete.

VLEs are closed, walled gardens, with the lecturer as gatekeeper to the information within. What’s in the VLE is therefore considered important, because the lecturer puts it there. There are two points to tease out here. The first is that if the lecturer defines the information the students should know, there is pressure on him (I’m male) to keep that content up there and up to date, making sure a range of issues are covered. He spends a lot of time working through the content of the web picking out information from trusted sites, academic papers and interesting presentations as well as links to core texts and placing it online in a nicely arranged manner so students can come into the garden and pick whatever roses of information they want. But when the student wants to learn some information for themselves, they do not have any experience in sourcing information, checking validity, because sourcing information to them has meant logging in and accessing the file the lecturer sourced. Secondly, it is a moot point whether students access much or any of this information at all, unless it is intrinsically related to assessment. If they need it at a future stage, post-module, they can’t get it because they are no longer allowed into that garden. This has been my own experience as a student in modules I have completed in the past.

The alternative therefore is that information can be placed on a website or referral area to all the resources a module needs. Slides could be posted on slideshare, wiki discussions and class activities on pbworks, screencasts on Screenr.com or using the free monthly allowance of screencast.com, or of course YouTube, podcasts on iTunes, pictures on flickr, discussions on an open discussion forum, assessment on… well that needs fine tuning but Google will come up with something soon I’m sure. Or the whole shebang could be placed on Google sites, Facebook or some of the other giants that are getting a taste of this market. What’s the difference between this and a VLE in the traditional sense? Well in this case, neither access nor content is restricted. This area becomes more of a first referral site – a place to start looking – scaffolding learner’s embrace of the information source that is the internet through the language of tags, ratings and credibility. No need for expensive customary VLEs. An additional advantage for the lecturer is that they don’t have to struggle with the terrible interface of VLEs, instead using the simplicity and beauty of something like WordPress, the mass appeal of Youtube and the versatility of compiling interesting information on Delicious.

It isn’t dead.

But wait! I like James Clay too. Full of useful tips and advice and an Eagerness To Share good practice, he has been the one I have followed that makes most sense about what a VLE actually is, and how it can be used. His podcast #40 is really excellent and I recommend anyone interested in a short synopsis of what they can do with VLEs listen to the second half of it, where he outlines a five stage plan for using a VLE. The message coming out of this is that let’s not get too hung up on what a VLE is, but more what can we do with it. His five stages range from uploading content, resources and assignments, interactivity with feedback, discussion and sharing of thoughts to running a module online.

One of the comments to Martin Weller’s post, above, makes the point argued by Grainne Conole that the VLE walled garden provides for a “trusted brand”. In addition, while I might personally be comfortable of using an array of sites and tools, I know a lot of my colleagues wouldn’t, and it would be difficult at an institutional level to provide any support for the variety of tools and sites each lecturer may individually choose. It might also be difficult for students to know what bit of information is where. The two great practical advantages of the institutional VLE are that the students are added by the institution registration procedure, and the gradebook feature allows for students privacy with respect to individual grades to be protected. To go it alone, this would involve a lot of work on behalf of the individual lecturers at what would be a very busy time of the year. While usage at the moment is probably underwhelming, through progressive staff training and development, staff could be introduced to the “stages” of using a VLE, so that over time the true potential could be realised.

Is it dead or not?

What do we want to use a VLE for? In the end, it is to help students learn. So I suppose it doesn’t really matter what we use as long as we are aiming towards that goal. I don’t like the walled garden nature of a VLE. Practically and psychologically, it reinforces an objectivist approach in assuming the lecturer has all the knowledge and students will absorb it all from the VLE. But I do like the structure a VLE can provide, and as a student I like this too – knowing I can go to a particular place to find resources on a topic. The ID and gradebook features are also beneficial.

When I was a student, I worked as a gardener in a beautiful 19th century garden. The main section was the Radial Garden, a walled, with very formal layout of beds and highly manicured lawns. As you walked through this section, you passed through a gate into a less formal, although still structured section and then through a third set of gates, passing through the wall into the Pleasure Grounds, which was a beautiful informal grounds with specimen trees that seemed to go on for ever. The difference between the Radial Garden and the Pleasure Grounds was stark, with the middle section acting as a transition. Both extremes were equally beautiful, equally of interest to gardeners. Perhaps this is a method of introducing material to learners online. Provide them with the structure and formality of a formal VLE setting, but as the module progresses, let the students go and explore. Let them outside and report back what they find useful, Build in this knowledge into the course structure, incorporating their thoughts and your feedback, so that content knowledge is developed in a shared way. It sounds Utopian, but I think there is something there for consideration.


Lawrie Phipps, Dave Cormier, and Mark Stiles (2008) Reflecting on the virtual learning systems – extinction or evolution?, Educational Developments, 9.2.