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


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Rounding up the peer review and digital badge project

Marcy Towns’ lovely paper from 2015 described the use of digital badges in higher education chemistry, specifically for assessment of laboratory skills. This work was important.  The concept of badges had been around for a while. When I first came across them while doing an MSc in E-Learning back in 2010, laboratory work seemed an obvious place to use them. But while the technology promised a lot, there wasn’t feasible systems in place to do it. And what exactly would you badge, anyway? And would undergraduate students really take a digital badge seriously?

Towns’ work was important for several reasons. On a systematic level, it demonstrated that issuing badges to a very large cohort of students in undergraduate laboratories was feasible. At Purdue, they used an in-house system called Passport to manage the badging process from submission of videos to viewing online for assessment, and subsequent issuing of the badges. But more importantly for me, Towns’ work reasserted the notion of laboratory skills and competencies as something worth assessing in their own right. Skills weren’t being implicitly assessed via quality of results or yield in a reaction. This approach – videoing a student while they demonstrate a technique was directly assessed. This is not something you come across very often in the education literature (some notable exceptions are pointed out in our paper).

This work answered two of the three questions I had about badges – there are systems in place (although as I discovered, Blackboard just about manages to do this, with a lot of creaking).  And there is scope for badging laboratory skills – the concept of badging is built on demonstrable evidence, and videoing techniques is part of this. Whether students take badging seriously I think still needs to be answered. My own sense is that there will need to be a critical mass of badges – an obvious ecosystem where it is clear to students how they can progress, and our own work in this regard is extending into more advanced techniques.

Incorporating peer review

One of the great insights Towns and her students shared at a workshop at BCCE last summer was the notion of narration in demonstrating techniques. Early videos in their initial pilot studies were eerily silent, and it was difficult for them to know what the students’ understanding was as they completed a technique – why they were doing things in a particular way? So they built in narration into the requirements of the demonstration. I think this is one of those things in hindsight that is obvious, but for us to know up front in our own implementation was invaluable.

We opted to have a system where students would video each other rather than be videoed by a demonstrator, and that the narration would be in effect one peer telling the other how they were doing the technique. To facilitate a review of this at the end, the demonstrators in the project came up with the idea of a peer observation sheet (they designed them too – bonus points!). The whole set up was to encourage dialogue – genuine interactions discussing the experimental technique, and allowing for feedback on this based on the guidelines presented in the peer observation sheets. These acted as a framework on which the lab was run. Lord knows chemists like instructions to follow.

Feedback then is given in-situ, and indeed if the student demonstrating feels after discussion that they would like to video it again, they can. This notion of quality, or exemplary work, is underscored by the exemplars provided to students in advance; pre-laboratory videos dedicated to correct display of technique. This whole framework is based around Sadler’s design for feedback, discussed… in the paper!

We’ve documented our on-going work on the project blog and the paper summarising the design and analysis of evaluation is now available in CERP.  It is part of the special issue on transferable skills in the curriculum which will be published in the Autumn, primarily as we felt it developed digital literacy skills in addition to the laboratory work; students were required to submit a link to the video they hosted online, rather than the video itself. This is giving them control over their digital footprint.


Resources – digital badges, peer observation sheets, links to exemplar videos – are all freely available on the project website.  I really think there is great scope for badges, and look forward to where this project will go next!

Three badges

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Video: e-portfolios for documenting learning in the 21st century

Here is a talk I gave to school teachers at an NCCA event in Dublin Castle earlier this year. It discusses:

  1. Why and how we should enable students create digital artefacts to document their learning?
  2. Practical approaches to doing this – discussing digital badges and wikis in particular.
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vimeo Direkt

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#ViCEPHEC16 – curly arrows and labs

The annual Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education conference was on this week in Southampton. Some notes and thoughts are below.

Curly arrows

Physicists learned a lot about curly arrows at this conference. Nick Greeves‘ opening keynote spoke about the development of ChemTube3D – a stunning achievement – over 1000 HTML pages, mostly developed by UG students. News for those who know the site are that 3D curly arrow mechanisms are now part of the reaction mechanism visualisations, really beautiful visualisation of changing orbitals as a reaction proceeds for 30+ reactions, lovely visualisations of MOFs, direct links to/from various textbooks, and an app at the prototype stage. Nick explained that this has all been developed with small amounts of money from various agencies, including the HEA Physical Sciences Centre.

Mike Casey from UCD spoke about a resource at a much earlier stage of development; an interactive mechanism tutor. Students can choose a reaction type and then answer the question by drawing the mechanism – based on their answer they receive feedback. Version 2 is on the way with improved feedback, but I wondered if this feedback might include a link to the appropriate place in Chemtube3D, so that students could watch the associated visualisation as part of the feedback.

In the same session Robert Campbell spoke about his research on how A-level students answer organic chemistry questions. My understanding is that students tend to use rules of mechanisms (e.g. primary alkyl halides means it’s always SN2) without understanding the reason why; hence promoting rote learning. In a nice project situated in the context of cognitive load theory, Rob used Livescribe technology to investigate students reasoning. Looking forward to seeing this research in print.

Rob’s future work alluded to considering the video worked answers described by Stephen Barnes, also for A-level students. These demonstrated a simple but clever approach; using questions resembling A-level standard, asking students to complete them, providing video worked examples so students could self-assess, and then getting them to reflect on how they can improve. David Read mentioned that this model aligned with the work of Sadler, worth a read.

Laboratory work

Selfishly, I was really happy to see lots of talks about labs on the programme. Ian Bearden was the physics keynote, and he spoke about opening the laboratory course – meaning the removal of prescriptive and allowing students to develop their own procedures. Moving away from pure recipe is of course music to this audience’s ears and the talk was very well received. But you can’t please everyone – I would have loved to hear much more about what was done and the data involved, rather than the opening half of the talk about the rationale for doing so. A short discussion prompted this tweet from Felix Janeway, something we can agree on! But I will definitely be exploring this work more. Ian also mentioned that this approach is also part of physics modules taught to trainee teachers, which sounded a very good idea.

Jennifer Evans spoke about the prevalence of pre-labs in UK institutions following on from the Carnduff and Reid study in 2003. Surprisingly many don’t have any form of pre-lab work. It will be interesting to get a sense of what pre-lab work involves – is it theory or practice? Theory and practice were mentioned in a study from Oxford presented by Ruiqi Yu, an undergraduate student. This showed mixed messages on the purpose of practical work, surely something the academy need to agree on once and for all. There was also quite a nice poster from Oxford involving a simulation designed to teach experimental design, accessible at this link. This was also built by an undergraduate student. Cate Cropper from Liverpool gave a really useful talk on tablets in labs – exploring the nitty gritty of how they might work. Finally on labs, Jenny Slaughter gave an overview of the Bristol ChemLabs, which is neatly summarised in this EiC article, although the link to the HEA document has broken.

Other bites

  • Gwen Lawrie (via Skype) and Glenn Hurst spoke about professional development; Gwen mentioned this site she has developed with Madeline Schultz and others to inform lecturers about PCK. Glenn spoke about a lovely project on training PhD students for laboratory teaching – details here.  This reminds me of Barry Ryan‘s work at DIT.
  • Kristy Turner gave an overview of the School Teacher Fellow model at Manchester, allowing her to work both at school and university with obvious benefits for both. Kristy looked forward to an army of Kristy’s, which would indeed be formidable, albeit quite scary. Even without that, the conference undoubtedly benefits from the presence of school teachers, as Rob’s talk, mentioned above, demonstrates.
  • Rachel Koramoah gave a really great workshop on qualitative data analysis. Proving the interest in chemistry education research, this workshop filled up quickly. The post-it note method was demonstrated, which was interesting and will certainly explore more, but I hope to tease out a bit more detail on the data reduction step. This is the benefit of this model – the participants reduce the data for you – but I worry that this might in turn lead to loss of valuable data.
  • Matthew Mears gave a great byte on the value of explicit signposting to textbooks using the R-D-L approach: Read (assign a reading); Do (Assign questions to try); Learn (assign questions to confirm understanding). Matt said setting it up takes about 30 minutes and he has seen marked improvements in student performance in comparison to other sections of the course.
  • David Nutt won the best poster prize. His poster showed the results of eye-tracking experiments to demonstrate the value or not of an in-screen presenter. Very interesting results which I look forward to seeing in print.

The conference organisation was brilliant and thanks to Paul Duckmanton and Charles (Minion) Harrison for leading the organisation. Lots of happy but tired punters left on Friday afternoon.

I couldn’t attend everything, and other perspectives on the meeting with links etc can be found at links below. From Twitter, Barry Ryan’s presenation on NearPod seemed popular, along with the continuing amazingness of my colleagues in the Edinburgh Physics Education Research Group. One of their talks, by Anna Wood, is available online.

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Getting ready to badge and looking for interested partners

Over the summer we have been working on a lab skills badging project. Lots of detail is on the project home site, but briefly this is what it’s about:

  • Experimental skills are a crucial component of student laboratory learning, but we rarely assess them, or even check them, formally. For schools, there is a requirement to show that students are doing practical work.
  • By implementing a system whereby students review particular lab techniques in advance of labs, demonstrate them to a peer while being videod, reviews the technique with a peer using a checklist, and uploads the video for assessment, we intend that students will be able to learn and perform the technique to a high standard.
  • The video can form part of students electronic portfolio that they may wish to share in future (See this article for more on that).
  • The process is suitable for digital badging – awarding of an electronic badge acknowledging competency in a particular skill (think scout badges for… tying knots…).

Marcy Towns has a nice paper on this for pipetting and we are going to trial it for this and some other lab techniques.

Looking for interested parties to trial it out

I am looking for school teachers who would like to try this method out. It can be used to document any lab technique or procedure you like. You don’t necessarily need an exemplar video, but a core requirement is that you want to document students laboratory work formally, and acknowledge achievement in this work by a digital badge. We will provide the means to offer the badge, and exemplar videos if you need them, assuming they are within our stock. Interested teachers will be responsible for local implementation and assessment of quality (i.e. making the call on whether a badge is issued).

Yes I need help with badge design
Yes I need help with badge design

This will be part of a larger project and there will be some research on the value and impact of the digital badges, drawing from implementation case studies. This will be discussed with individuals, depending on their own local circumstances.

So if you are interested, let’s badge! You can contact me at: michael.seery@ed.ac.uk to follow up.

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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.

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YouTube Direkt

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Photosynthesis Animation and Interactive Activity

ed-2012-00213h_0003A recent J Chem Ed paper (free to access) contains a link to a photosynthesis activity that might be of interest to those teaching this topic. The activity is a little difficult to get at, and when you do get it, it is a Flash file, so will not work on iOS.

To get the activity, go the the paper landing page, and select Supporting Info. Download and extract the zip file, and open Photosynthesis.exe file.

The animation is nicely produced. It is a little static from the user perspective – each section involves watching an animated video – but the whole is nicely structured and comprehensive. There is a quiz covering some of the concepts covered at the end – perhaps a future iteration could include more interactivity in the main part.


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Lack of literature on flipped lecture rooms

Compiling literature on flipped/inverted classrooms for higher education isn’t easy. A lot of returns are of the “I couldn’t believe my ears!” type blog, which is fine for what it is, but not an academic study. Yet more literature, typically of the Chronicle or Educause type, tends to say flipped classrooms are great, and they lead on to MOOCs (as in the case of this recent C&EN piece), with a subsequent discussion on MOOCs, or tie in flipped classrooms with Peer Instruction, with a discussion on peer instruction. In these cases, and especially so for PI, this is the intention of the writer, so it is not a criticism. But it makes it hard to say what value flipped lectures have in their own right.

I want to think well of flipped lectures, and have piloted some myself, the concept being an extension of pre-lecture activities work that I have spent a lot of time on. While looking for methodologies to rob for a future study of my own, I had a look in the literature. The study most people seem to refer to is an article published in 2000 in the Journal of Economics Education which described the implementation of the inverted lecture. The paper is a nice one in that it describes the implementation well, with the views of students and instructors represented. But there is not much after surveying students in terms of considering effectiveness. I come from the school of thought that says if you throw oranges at students in a lecture and survey them, they will say it helped their learning, so I’m surprised that this study is referred to by evangelists in the flipped lecture area. The course site is still available, and while it looks a little dated, it does seem to align nicely with what the Ed Techs would consider good instructional design (resources, support, social area, etc).

A more recent study is that in Physics Reviews Special Topics: Physics Education Research. While it appears this is more of the pre-lecture type of activity rather than flipped lecture (ie there is still some lectures involved), the lecture room seems quite active. This study found that students who completed the pre-lecture work did better in exams than those that didn’t.

Not much else in my initial trawl. I’ll keep looking, as of course people might have done this and not called it flipped or inverting the lecture. Of course part of this is that education research takes time, and perhaps in the next few years, we will see lots of flipped lecture room literature.


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The Application of Technology to Enhance Chemistry Education

Call for Papers

Contributions are invited for a themed, peer-reviewed issue of CERP on The Application of Technology to Enhance Chemistry Education which is scheduled for publication Autumn 2013. Guest Editors: Michael K Seery and Claire McDonnell.

Topics for contribution may include but are not limited to:

  •  Blended learning to support ‘traditional’ instruction (e.g. online resources, wikis, blogs, e-portfolios)
  • In-class technology (e.g. clickers, iPads or equivalent)
  • Online learning (e.g. distance learning initiatives, online collaborative learning, active and interactive eLearning, computer simulations of practical work, modelling software for online learning)
  • Cognitive considerations for online learning (e.g. designing online resources)
  • E-assessment (e.g. formative assessment strategies, automated feedback)
  • Reviews and Perspectives (‘State of play’ of current trends, historical perspective)

Contributions should align with the principles and criteria specified in the recent CERP editorial (Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 2012, 13, 4-7). To summarise, there is a requirement that papers provide an argument for some new knowledge supported by careful analysis of evidence; either by reviewing the existing literature, analysing carefully collected research data or rigorously evaluating innovative practice.

Submission of Manuscripts

Manuscripts should be submitted in the format required by the journal using the ScholarOne online manuscript submission platform available through the journal homepage http://www.rsc.org/CERP/. Enquiries concerning the suitability of possible contributions should be sent directly by email to: Michael Seery michael.seery@dit.ie and/or Claire McDonnell: claire.mcdonnell@dit.ie.

Important Dates

Manuscripts should be submitted by 4th January 2013 to be eligible for consideration in the theme issue, subject to authors being able to address revisions without too much delay. Manuscripts received after the deadline can still be considered for the theme issue, but the usual peer review process will not be compromised to reach decisions on publication, and if such articles are accepted for publication too late to be included in the theme issue then they would be included instead in a subsequent issue.

As with other CERP contributions, articles intended for the theme issue will be published as advanced articles on line as soon as they have been set and proofs have been checked, ahead of publication in the theme issue itself.

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Variety in Chemistry Education Meeting, 2012

Variety in Chemistry Education is one of my favourite conferences which I attend annually (2010 and 2011 reports here). This year’s meeting was held along with the Physics Higher Education Conference, providing the catchy Twitter hashtag #vicephec. The meeting was opened with a keynote by Prof Martyn Poliakoff, inorganic chemist from Nottingham, but better known to 102,403 YouTube subscribers as the star of the Periodic Table of Videos series, which have been viewed over 25,243,185 times. Prof Poliakoff received the 2011 RSC Nyholm Prize—awarded every other year for Education. He spoke about the development of the videos, working with video journalist Brady Haran to create 120 videos with over 4 hours film time in a little over a month. The urgency was caused by the pending end of a financial year! After completing the periodic table, they continued to work on videos (everything from concrete to Viagra). What struck me most though from this presentation was the sense of collaboration—a world-renowned scientist sharing his knowledge with that of a skilled video journalist. Hopefully it is a collaboration that might inspire others. Prof Poliakoff’s talk—which was personal and beautifully delivered—ended with a special tribute video to Ronald Nyholm (one of the two men behind VSEPR theory), which I suspect had even the quantum physicists choking back a tear.

With the onset of presentations (15 mins) and bytes (5 mins), it became clear that the organisers had carefully thought about the programme, with clear themes emerging. The first of those is the increasing use of technology in education. These included several talks on supporting in-class learning using multi-media resources. Simon Lancaster (UEA) spoke of a trial regarding flipping the lecture, and on a similar concept, David McGarvey and Katherine Haxton (Keele) spoke about pre-lecture activities they developed for their students (See September 2012 Education in Chemistry for a full article on pre-lecture activities). Dylan Williams talked about using multi-media clips for supporting lectures, and David Read on some fantastic worked answer videos for allowing students to engage in self-assessed work (during the summer, which they liked!). Technology continued into workshops on screencasting, wikis and online practicals.

The keynote from David McGarvey (Keele), the 2011 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award winner, stayed with the technology theme. He has used a wide range of technologies to support innovations in laboratory practicals, presentation skills and most impressively, audio feedback. His work on feedback—especially interim feedback—is inspiring. We were spoiled with a preview of this talk at the Irish Variety in Chemistry meeting earlier this year, which I wrote about here. I always come away from his talks with  lots of great ideas, so well thought out, and a concern that he can’t be sleeping much if he is working on so many great innovations at once.

Another theme that arose was that of student support in terms of college experience. Transition from school to college, international students, and distance learning students all have specific issues. An example was the talk by Gita Sedghi (Liverpool) spoke about supporting international students so that they integrated and interacted fully in their new environment, with a suite of supports such as pre-arrival planning, peer mentoring and student monitoring (interviews).

Context and problem based learning continues to be popular, and the recent focus by the RSC and the HE-STEM programme has generated several new resources available to use. These included an excellent package on costing and developing a fireworks display developed by Gan Schermer (Bath), a scenario on the theme of energy by Dylan Williams (Leicester) and talk on the process of redesigning a traditional hardness of water practical to give a multi-week C/PBL scenario for first years (Karen Moss, NTU). Two workshops on this theme were on designing ill-conceived problems and on developing commercial skills for chemists.

The third keynote was given by Paul van Kampen (DCU). This excellent talk outlined his personal journey in becoming a science education researcher as well as being a scientist. It was interesting as he highlighted what aspects of being a scientist could translate into education research, as well as illustrating what was different in the two research fields—for example the inability to “control” the sample in a science education “experiment”.  Many in the audience are actively at the boundary of scientist/science educationalist and the talk was a useful marker in the considerations around designing, implementing and validating educational materials. His talk also highlighted the great advantage of co-hosting the meeting with physicists; as even though we are based in the same city, we as chemist and physicist had never previously met. The closing forum agreed the experiment of co-hosting was successful, and if #vicephec13 is half as successful as this busy, informative, and entertaining meeting, it is a must-see on next year’s calendar.

Some highlights

  • There is a kid in us all: “We made chlorine gas!” Over-excited delegate after the Microscale Chemistry workshop (delivered by Bob Worley, CLEAPSS/Brunel)
  • Useful tip: Use personal whiteboards as a low-tech version of interactive teaching (Simon Lancaster, UEA)
  • Talk that changed my mind: A trio of talks on Peerwise, including Kyle Galloway (Nottingham) whereby students developed quiz questions to help each other study. Students liked having questions specific to their course, and enjoyed writing questions.
  • Simplest idea is the best: Katherine Haxton (Keele) on getting students to do a screencast instead of an oral presentation. It is self, peer, and tutor assessed. Some excellent meta-cognitive concepts included in this well designed innovation.
  • Time saver: Stephen Ashworth (UEA) on using Excel to generate a large number of questions for online VLEs with specific feedback. CONCATENATE is my new favourite Excel function. Absolute genius.
  • Change to teaching: More interim feedback, David McGarvey’s work on using interim audio feedback illustrates what can be achieved.

The entire meeting’s tweets have been added to Storify, which includes many links and references to resources and websites mentioned. I plan to compile a list of these and add them here.

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Showing Worked Examples in Blackboard Quizzes

I’ve been thinking of ways to include worked examples and hints in Blackboard VLE quizzes. Cognitive Load theory has something called the Worked Example effect, whereby learners who receive direct instruction in the form of worked examples perform better than those who don’t. The reason is attributed to providing novice learners with an approach to solving a problem that they can replicate, thus alleviating the working memory load while solving a problem. There’s some more on worked examples here.

The question then was how to provide a worked example (or a hint, a slightly less informative way to guide students) in Blackboard quizzes. I want to have them at the point where students can click on them as they need them, rather than having to leave the quiz and go off somewhere else to get help. I did this in this trial with Javascript buttons. The video below goes through how it looks and the mechanics of it.

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8th Irish Variety in Chemistry Teaching Meeting

DIT played host to the 8th Irish Variety in Chemistry Teaching meeting, modelled on the very successful UK Variety in Chemistry Education (ViCE) meeting on Thursday May 10th. There was a workshop in the morning covering two aspects of technology in chemistry teaching; using wikis, by Claire McDonnell, who demonstrated how to set up, edit and modify a wiki, along with highlighting the advantages of a wiki for monitoring group work – the ability to be able to track who did what and when. Claire identified this as the most useful aspect of wikis from her perspective in teaching. My own part of the workshop was on podcasting using Audacity, as outlined in the recent article in Education in Chemistry.

The remainder of the day was divided into two themes, Supporting Student Learning, and Broadening the Curriculum; followed by the keynote talk from David McGarvey at Keele.

Supporting Student Learning

There’s no doubt technology is becoming more and more common-place in chemistry education to support student learning. Christine O’Connor (DIT) opened this session describing her implementation of the use of podcasts to support lecture material and annotate worked examples. Her ongoing work involves investigating how students use these resources; some key points were that students liked the audio files with their lecturer’s voice, but they liked having print outs too as they could quickly scan through that material, which they can’t do with audio files.

Simon Collinson (Open University) described his work with Eleanor Crabb on the use of online chat-rooms to run tutorials (using Elluminate). The software allowed for voice, video, drawing and text from both instructors and students. Simon reported that while students liked the chat function, he was worried that with a large group the text box may get distracting. While students liked the idea of a microphone, they were reluctant to use it “on the spot”. Simon’s interested in looking at how providing students with some advance material ahead of the chat-room sessions might help reduce the cognitive burden involved in both being online and thinking about chemistry.

Pat O’Malley (DCU) used Articulate to prepare some pre-lab activities for students. Some clever ideas here included a virtual map of the lab, with Articulate Engage used to annotate the image so that students could navigate around the lab and familiarise themselves with where things were kept. along with videos on various techniques, he had a nice resource on how not to use a pipette, along with the result of a broken pipette meeting with a hand and some red stuff appearing. Pat assured us no students were harmed in the filming. In terms of getting students to use the resources, Pat described how he made some questions very specific to the resources, for example; what label (a) referred to in a particular slide.

Finally in this session was Mike Casey (UCD). Mike described the implementation of a student poster assignment, whereby the student had to take a medicinally relevant drug and make a poster on it, including the chemical structure, 3D structure, annotate functional groups in the drug and illustrate some physical properties. The students had to independently use resources to work out how to draw the structure and prepare the PowerPoint slide so it had a professional feel. What was most impressive was that this assignment was administered to class sizes of up to 450 students, and achieved a 96% completion. This was facilitated by using a lab session to introduce the assignment, and assign lab tutors to help students with queries. Each student gave a 5 minute presentation where the core organic chemistry of the slide could be discussed. It was a really simple, effective strategy, and Mike showed some clever ways of highlighting Ireland’s role in the development of pharmaceuticals.

 Broadening the Curriculum

The second session of the afternoon was on the theme of broadening the curriculum. First up in this category was Tina Overton (Hull) who took us through some of her work on dynamic problem-based learning. The idea is that after presenting students with their problem and context as in a normal PBL scenario (for example, designing a green-campus, costing the impl,emtation of bio-diesel for a bus company), students are given some condition change mid-way through the project—for example: changing costs of materials, changing legislation, a natural event (e.g. earthquake), etc. Students would then have to re-assess the intial information they rquested and see how to adjust their project given the changing conditions. All of this was carefully implemented through well-organised card system, which probably accounted for the fact that students didn’t seem to mind the changing conditions, which they were not expecting. Feedback from students was positive. Tina is making several of these resources available on the RSC’s website later in the year.

Marie Walsh (LIT) spoke about her involvement in the “Chemistry is all around us” project—an evolving network of chemists from around Europe collating resources for chemistry education. The website from the original project is http://www.chemistry-is.eu/and the new project is focussed on three themes: (1) Students’ motivation; (2) Teacher Training; (3) Successful experiences. The new website is being developed at http://projects.pixel-online.org/chemistrynetwork/info/index.php.

Odilla Finlayson (DCU) spoke about integrating research awareness into the curriculum, by getting students to talk to research staff and postgraduate students. The process was organised through a lab-session where students would meet researchers in their teams and find out about their research/process of research, and then report their findings in a group presentation. Students reported that they liked the idea, and were much more aware of the research activities within the School.

Keynote Speaker

David McGarvey (Keele) was the meeting keynote speaker, having won the 2011 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award. David gave a broad ranging talk covering various innovations he has initiated over the last number of years. These included developing context-based spectroscopy labs using sunscreens as a basis. As well as experimentation, the labs involved preparing a poster, completing a simulation on sunscreens depending on location in the world. One of the other novel features about this project was getting students to complete a mock assessment exercise using provided assessment criteria, so that students could really get a feel for how the assessment worked. David’s work on sunscreens is available in full at this Education in Chemistry Article.

Another project described was some impressive work with audio feedback. In the example shown, students had to prepare and deliver a PowerPoint presentation on a lab experiment. Rather than just providing feedback after submission, students were offered interim feedback on their PowerPoint slideshow. This was done using audio feedback, recorded with annotations using a tablet PC on the student’s work. David played a few of the sequences, showing the student’s interim submission, his feedback, and the student’s final submission incorporating the feedback points. It was very impressive, and a nice antidote to the notion that students don’t take feedback on board. Perhaps it might be better as a rule to give feedback on an interim basis rather than at the end? David’s work on audio feedback is available from page 5-9 in the July 2011 issue of New Directions [PDF].

David also managed to find some time to talk about his screencasting work, whereby he uses Camtasia to record screencasts to cover material causing difficulty to students, worked examples, etc. He recommended the use of a table of contents feature to allow easy navigation for students so they could jump to the section they wanted to listen to. David has also used screencasts as a means for feedback, in a collaborative project with Katherine Haxton, also at Keele (see New Directions, July 2011, p 18-21).

Thanks to all for a great day. The presentations will be available on the conference website by end of May.

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Heat of Reaction (Calorimetry) Video

Here’s a video made to explain the concepts of reaction calorimetry carried out in school/early undergrad chemistry. It’s a simple experiment, but students sometimes find the calculations hard, especially in relation to heat loss to the calorimeter.

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8th Variety in Irish Chemistry Teaching Meeting – DIT 10th May

The Chemistry Education Research Team wish to invite you to the 8th Variety in Irish Chemistry Teaching Meeting which will be held in DIT Kevin St on Thursday 10th May 2012. The meeting is sponsored by the RSC Education Division Ireland.

Programme and Call for Abstracts

The aim of the meeting is to allow those teaching chemistry at third level to share “what works” – useful ideas and effective practice from their own teaching.

The keynote speaker is Dr David McGarvey, University of Keele, who was the 2011 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award winner.

A call for abstracts is now open for short oral presentations (10 – 15 minutes) on any topic related to teaching and learning chemistry. The deadline for abstracts (150 words maximum) is April 5th 2012.

Attendance is free, but registration is required. Registration forms for those intending to attend/present can be downloaded here and should be submitted by April 5th 2012 by email to michael.seery@dit.ie


An optional workshop will be held on Thursday morning (10.30 – 12.30 pm) on the topic “Using Technology in Chemistry Teaching and Learning” and will cover the following topics: “Podcasting and Screencasting”, “Using Wikis in Chemistry Education”, and “E-assessment”. The cost of the workshop is €10.

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Podcasting in Chemistry Education

My article on podcasting for chemistry has hit the shelves and has made the cover of Education in Chemistry. They have put it online too for free so, click on the image to go to the article!

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Using WordPress for E-Portfolios



The Resource Pack aims to show how WordPress web publishing platform (WordPress.org) can be a useful tool in creating and presenting e-portfolios. It aims to show what can be done technically to integrate various elements of an e-portfolio: the documentation of learning, conversation with peers and tutors, and presentation of the ‘product’ for assessment and/or feedback. [Jan 2012] You can download a PDF of this guide here: WordPress for E-Portfolios.


E-portfolios are a popular method of documenting and presenting learning that has occurred in a module. They are promoted for this purpose as they provide a means to record both the process of learning—thoughts, learning, and reflections that occurred during a learning experience—as well as the product—the showcasing of that learning for review or assessment. Components of an e-portfolio may include digital media, comments and reflection, statement pages such as statement of philosophy & prior learning, etc. Often these components may be categorised by themes or modules on a particular programme of study. The portfolio as a whole can lead to a large back of digital objects, which during or after the period of study, will need to be presented in some coherent way. This Resource Pack aims to provide suggestions and mechanisms to assist in compiling and presenting these digital objects in an easy and scalable manner using WordPress.

WordPress is a web-based software used for publishing websites. Rather confusingly, there are two: WordPress.com which is mainly used as a blogging platform, where all material is hosted by WordPress; and WordPress.org which has extensive additional features (Plugins) which extend it beyond blogging use. wordpress.org is self-hosted; the user provides their own webspace for putting the material online. This document relates to WordPress.org.

Installing and Set-Up

Fig 1: Log-In Screen

WordPress.org is self-hosted, so the user needs to arrange their own webspace (I use Blacknight who are reasonably priced and reliable, and have WordPress pre-installed) or arrange server space with their institution. Once installed, the Administration (Admin) page can be accessed through the page www.example.com/home/wp-admin where there web address www.example.com/home is the URL established during installation. This prompts for a login, which again was set during installation.

Once logged in, the user is presented with the Dashboard. This can be a little daunting at first sight! However, the key elements that are used are Posts and Pages. These are discussed below.

Figure 2: Typical WordPress Dashboard


When starting out, many users do not want their portfolio to be viewed by anyone else, except perhaps their tutor and/or peers. There are various levels of privacy available.

  1. Search Engine Privacy: The built-in privacy feature with WordPress allows you to block search engines finding your portfolio. Therefore, to access your site, someone would have to know the exact URL. This is achieved by selecting Settings > Privacy > “I would like to block search engines, but allow normal visitors”. This will add the phrase “Search Engines Blocked” to your dashboard, as shown in the example above. However, the portfolio is still available to view on the web for anyone who knows (or guesses) the URL.
  2. Total Lockdown: In order to have the portfolio available only for whomever the user decides, it is necessary to download a Plugin. There are several available. A rather blunt but effective one is “WordPress Password” which allows a site-wide password to be entered before viewing. To obtain this plugin, select Plugins > Add New > and search by Term for the Plugin name. Click Install to download the plugin to the website and then Activate make your plugin active. You can deactivate the plugin at any time in the Plugins menu. Now any visitor to your site will have to enter this password to access the portfolio. Other methods of restricting access (for example by requiring User Log In) are available.
  3. Selective restrictions: It may be desirable to have certain elements of the portfolio accessible, and others restricted. There are a range of options available here, and they are discussed in the Presentation section below.

Arranging Content: Pages and Posts

Content can be added to WordPress in two ways: on a Page or on a Post. Pages are permanent, generally with content that remains fixed (although we will exploit some useful page plugins, below). Therefore pages can be considered as the main structure of the website. For example, there may be a home page, an About Page, and other pages relevant to the portfolio—perhaps sub-home pages for each module in a programme, or pages covering various components such as a Teaching Philosophy, Prior Learning and so on. While pages can be added at any time, it is worthwhile planning out what pages you plan to consider for your portfolio. This is discussed below.

Posts are updates to the website that are time stamped, such as in a blog. Usually posts appear on one section—the blog—in reverse chronological order. In a portfolio, posts are usually dynamic in nature—blog posts considering thoughts and reflections in time as the user progresses through their learning. They are usually used to demonstrate evidence of engaging in the process of learning. As posts are usually written in time, they may not form a sequential series of thoughts related to one module or one concept, rather they reflect what the user was thinking about at any one time. Therefore in the presentation element of a portfolio, posts would not be read in order, and need to be available to be called up as required at various points in pages or other presentation elements.

Building the Portfolio

Figure 3 shows a simplified template for an e-portfolio. In this scenario, there are two modules being shown in the e-portfolio, along with a Teaching Philosophy, a blog and an About page. Module 1 has several sub-pages; a page which will selectively compile all blog posts related to a theme called “Category B” (and only this category), a sub-page containing a digital artefact—e.g. an essay, audio, picture, video and so on—and a sub page containing a Bibliography of web links or links to journal articles. Finally, there is the Blogroll, which has all the posts made on the blog. The details about how to construct this architecture are provided below. Although this is a simple scenario, it covers most of what would be required in a scaled-up version of an e-portfolio.

Fig 3: Template for Organisation of a Portfolio

Page Architecture

First, we will create the pages required. After installing WordPress, two pages will be apparent—a so-called Home Page (although this is actually the Blogroll) and an About page. Therefore we need to first create five more top level pages according to Figure 3: an actual Home Page, and pages for Module 1, Module 2, Teaching Philosophy, and the Blog. To create a Page, select Pages > Add New and type the page name in the title bar. There is no need to add content yet, but if you like you can type in a short page description for each of your pages created, except for the Blog page, which should be kept blank. We know have six pages—the five created and the already present About Page.

Fig 4: Sub-pages arranged by selecting appropriate Parent

Module 1 in our template has three pages associated with it. We create an additional three pages, as described above, except in this case we also need to configure these three pages so that they are recognised as sub-pages of Module 1. To do this, we select the Module 1 page as Parent page in the Page Attributes box, usually on the left hand column of the New Page. If you forget to do this now, you can always return at any stage to reconfigure a page by selecting Pages and choosing Edit for the page you wish to change from the list of pages shown. For each of the three new pages created: Module 1 Blogs; Artefact; Bibliography; we assign the Module 1 page as the parent in the Page Attributes option.

We have now created all of the Pages required according to our template. Clicking on Pages will show the list of pages in the Portfolio. You will also notice that the sub-pages are indented in a list beneath their parent page. Of course it is possible to extend this to sub-sub-pages and beyond by following a similar approach as described.

Before moving on to program each page, there is one default option that requires to be changed. After installation, WordPress automatically uses the blogroll as the homepage. As you will not yet have made any blog posts, it is probably a generic “Hello World” post that is posted on your homepage. To force WordPress to go to your new, real, homepage on typing in the portfolio URL, select Settings > Reading. In the options presented, choose “A static page” for the Front Page display and name that Front Page as “Home”­ the homepage just created above. We now also need to specify where the blog posts will go, and we can use “Blog”—the blog page specially created above to house these. After saving changes, when you type in the portfolio URL, the page should go to your new actual homepage.

It is worth reviewing progress made so far on the front end of the website. Depending on the theme installed (see below), your pages will be listed along the top or down the side of the website.[1] Usually, sub-pages are not shown or are activated by a drop-down menu. We will see later how additional customised menus can be added along with these page links, that are usually included by default. Click around the website to ensure that pages are as you expect them to be.


Fig 5: Add New Category

Up to this point, we have concentrated on the site architecture – the underlying structure of the portfolio. Before progressing, we need to make some blog posts (assuming you want to use this feature). Adding a Post is the same as adding a page, except we select Post > Add New. Give the post a name: e.g. “Module 1 Week 1 Reflections” and type in some content. Now, before saving, we need to categorise the post. On the right hand side of the page, there is a Category option. Click Add New Category and type in the name of your category – in the example below in Figure 5, I have called in “Discussion Boards”. Click “Add New Category”, un-tick “Uncategorized” and when you’ve finished typing your blog post, hit “Update”.

While you are here, make a second blog post with some nonsense content (you can delete them later), called “Module 1 Week 2 Reflections”, and assign it a category “VLEs”. In our template above, you notice that we wish to selectively pull in some posts on to one of the Module 1. This selection will be achieved by using categories. We will return to this below.


In order to demonstrate the bibliography page, we need to add some weblinks. To do this, select Links > Add New. Add in 3-4 web links, giving them different link categories. If you wish to link to a journal, the most useful way is to link to the journal article on the journal’s page or give the DOI link.[2] The links on the bibliography page can then be easily incorporated using the WP Render Blogroll Links, below.

Putting it all Together

We have now completed the architecture and additional components required to finish the template shown in Figure 3. While it seems laborious, everything discussed can be done as you develop your portfolio, and the advantage of doing it as you go along means that when you come to the presentation stage, everything is automagically in place. You can decide what is viewable, and where it goes very easily.

Several pages (and posts) in our template just require normal text, images and other digital resources, These can be included using the standard WordPress editor—simply type in the text you wish, or click on the add image/media buttons to include pictures or media as with any web editor.

The bulk of the portfolio is usually built in this way. For embedding material, such as YouTube videos, copy the embed code from that website, and paste it into the editor. YouTube offers a range of embed sizes (e.g. 600 x 400) and the one you select will depend on the theme you choose for your portfolio (see below). Avoid choosing too large a size (> 600px in width) as while they may fit your theme and look good on your widescreen, remember your viewers who may have to look at it on a tiny tablet!

Two pages are left to complete: the selective category page and the bibliography by category page. These are best achieved by using Plugins. Plugins are extra bits of code written by third party agents that do specific tasks in WordPress. There are hundreds of thousands, and they vary in quality. Some useful ones for e-portfolios are listed below. It is not necessary to incorporate these straight away if you are a beginner, but the use of categories in blog posts and links, above, mean that when you do wish to include them, they will require very little work.

Useful Plugins for E-Portfolios

Some useful plugins are listed below. While it is not necessary to include all of these straight away, they do make for an easier life when your portfolio gets to be quite big in size.

List category posts plugin allows you to list blog posts on a page by category. For example, on our template, we wanted to only list one particular category on a page. After downloading List category posts and activating, posts for any category can be listed simply by typing in the code on the required page:

[catlist name=discussionboard]

will list all of the posts on the page which had the tag “Discussion Board”.[3] Of course it is possible to just simply type in these links, but the advantage of this method is that the page automatically updates every time you write a new blog post and tag it with the “Discussion Board” tag.

WP Render Blogroll Links is a similar plugin, except that it organises links by their category. To insert a list of links according to any category anywhere on a page or post, enter the code:

 [wp-blogroll always_show_names=1 catname=”Discussion Board”]

This code will list all the links given the category “Discussion Board”, showing the name of the link (rather than the URL). As with List Category Posts, it is possible to list all links by category, identify links by catid, etc. [4]

Fig 6: Broken Link Checker

Broken Link Checker is a very simple plugin that checks any link from your page and alerts you in the dashboard if that link doesn’t work. You can click to see what is wrong with link and modify if required from the dashboard, without having to re-enter the post/page. It is a must-have for every WordPress installation.

Askimet is a SPAM detector. If you plan to allow comments on your blog, then this is a must. It is already downloaded on installation and just needs to be activated with an Askimet API key. Step-by-step instructions are provided on installation.

Usernoise is a simple plugin that allows for a nice way for users to contact you without giving your email. It is also Spam resilient. I have found that in order to get email from a WordPress installation working, I have had to download HGK SMTP.

Restrict Content is a nice plugin that is a bit more subtle than WP Password mentioned earlier. It allows for you to restrict access to some of your site; pages, posts or even down to just some paragraphs while allowing others to be open view. Even more useful is that you can set it up so that different registered users (set up in Users > Add New) can have different levels of access—for example in a portfolio, you may wish peers, tutors, and external examiner to have different levels of what they see.

Showcasing your E-Portfolio

As the portfolio is usually always on view—even just to the tutor—organisation according to the template shown above will mean that it will be well-structured and easy to navigate. There are some final front end things to decide when presenting your portfolio. The first is the portfolios theme.

The great beauty of WordPress is that you can customise how your page looks by choosing one of thousands of themes. This is a good thing—you have lots of choice—and a bad thing—you have too much choice! Themes can be changed at any time, and if you are new to WordPress, I recommend that you stick with the pre-loaded theme (currently “Twenty Eleven”). The theme I use in my portfolio[5] is called “Portfolio” (coincidence!). The main decisions in choosing this theme were that it had a sharp layout and included drop-down menus for the sub-pages to allow for easy navigation. When you are ready to consider a new theme, choose Appearance > Install Themes and search until you find your perfect choice…!

Navigation is another key component of showcasing your portfolio. For this reason, I use the home page to list all of the main components of the portfolio, with links to these. The menu bar across the top is automatically added as new pages and sub-pages are created (and ordered using the number system, as explained above). New menus can be added in WordPress[6] easily using the Appearance > Menus Option. This allows you build a menu comprised of whatever you like: categories, pages, web links and so on.

There is a right hand column in my theme, which again shows some navigation options, and some important pages I want to stand out. WordPress uses Widgets to allow you place what you like in these side bars (assuming your theme choice has side bars—most do).


Figure 7: My e-portfolio using the Portfolio theme, showing drop-down menu for sub-pages of a page

Widgets are activated in the Appearance > Widget section of the dashboard. This uses a drag and drop mechanism to add widgets to your sidebar(s). For example, if you wanted to list all of your pages in the sidebar, simply drag the pages widget over and place it where you want. Because we have defined things by category (posts, links, etc) we can be quite specific about how we arrange the content in the sidebar using the available widgets. Common additions to sidebar include RSS feeds, Twitterfeeds (download a Twitter plugin (e.g. Twitter for WordPress) and after activating, this will be an option in the Widget area). I would suggest though that the aim of the sidebar in a portfolio is to aid navigation, not cram stuff in. I have left just the pages, and two areas I wanted to highlight—a reflective commentary and a feedback area.

Good luck with your e-portfolio. If you have any feedback on this guide, please let me know so I can improve for future versions!


[1] The order of pages as they appear in the menu can be changed, but it is clumsy. When editing a page, there is an option in Page Attributes called “Order”. The pages will appear left to right in increasing numerical order. Therefore, change these values (and Update to save), so that the numerical sequence matches that which you want. Feel free to leave gaps in the sequence, in case you decide to slot in a page as a later stage. It’s not great, but it’s all there is.

[2] See http://dx.doi.org/

[3] Note that WordPress creates a “slug” version of the category name (i.e. no caps and without spaces)—this is viewable in the categories list. Categories are also defined by number, and it is possible to use the number rather than the name by using [catlist id=24] for category number 24. See http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/list-category-posts/other_notes/ for the extensive range of options with this plugin.

[4] See http://0xtc.com/plugins/wp-render-blogroll-links/ for plugin details.

[5] My Portfolio is at: www.michaelseery.com/portfolio

[6] Assuming you have WordPress 3.0 or higher.

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My experiences of teaching online: A case study


My paper on taking a module that was taught in class and moved online has been published in CERP (free to access). The paper aims to share my own experiences in teaching a module online so that others considering this approach might find some information of use.

The paper is set against a background of what I consider to be a general disaffection for online teaching among staff and students. This is apparent from surveys by the DRHEA—which reports that the main use of VLEs is as content repositories; the UK HEA (pdf)—where students ranked “e-learning” as the least enjoyable and least effective method of teaching; and large scale US study which reports a disappointing level of criticality in considering the effectiveness of online engagement.

The rationale for moving the module online is presented. It was found from practice that the online version of the module opened up new possibilities, especially in the domain of transferable skills. A table of learning outcomes, and how they are aligned with assessment is given. Implementation of the module online followed Gilly Salmon’s Five-Stage model, which was useful in this case because the online delivery was supported primarily by discussion boards. Notes and reflections from my experience of implementation are incorporated.

Finally, evaluation aims to capture what went well and what could be improved—both from my own perspective and that of students. One of the great benefits was observing a growing sense of independence among the students, and their ability to move beyond structured problems to being able to tackle unfamiliar ones. Some suggestions about encouraging engagement from all students are presented.

If you read it, I hope you enjoy the paper. It has certainly been an interesting module to deliver over the last number of years. The fifth version of the online delivery begins in a few weeks!

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E-learning (dis)traction

I think the start of my teaching career coincided with the rise of the VLE. Early on, I remember being told about these new learning environments and the array of tools that would help student learning. Encouraged, in the nicest possible way, to upload material and use the institution’s expensive new toy, many lecturers complied and uploaded course materials, support papers, practice questions and so on. In this ideal world, the students couldn’t have had more learning resources at their fingertips. Learning was going to happen.

In reality, this has not been the case. The DRHEA e-learning audit (2009) reveals some disappointing figures across the Dublin region. Students regularly log into their VLE, but mostly access it to access course materials (lecture notes). This makes VLEs a very expensive version of Dropbox or other online repository.

This is also reflected in the UK. In my own subject (chemistry) and in physics, the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre review of student learning experience showed that e-learning came bottom of the pile when students were asked to say which teaching method was most effective and most enjoyable.

A Distraction

For most lecturers, e-learning is not part of their day to day practice, perhaps because of lack of confidence, probably because of lack of awareness. Mention e-learning, and the discussion quickly moves to whether to use PowerPoint and whether those notes should go online.There may also be subtle fears of replacement – that if learning can happen online, perhaps it can happen without lecturers at all! (Of course, anyone who has taught online knows the truth here!). And as the DRHEA survey shows, if academics engage with the VLE, it tends to be in the form of mimicking what they do in lectures, rather than supporting what is done in lectures.

Institutions, bless them, are concerned with e-learning from a perspective of usage and branding – how does their toy compare with next door. There have also been subtle and not so subtle undertones about how e-learning can provide cost-savings in the future, which is a naive viewpoint. Institutions need to be protected from themselves. If, as a community, we don’t consider valuable uses for incorporating into our practice, institutions will want to fill the vacuum, just as was done previously with pushing content online. Lecture capture, a spectacular waste of tax-payers money, is looming large and is already catching on in the UK. It looks good, makes for good PR and students “love” it. The fact that there is little or no evidence to show that it helps with learning is disregarded. As a community of educators, we should be concerned about this “innovation” being pushed on us [I recommend reading this for a fuller discussion of lecture capture]

Students, well bless them too. Students are clever, articulate, funny and they are our future. But they are also sometimes a bit stupid. Students will always want more – more notes online, more resources, more quizzes, self-study questions, more more and more! In the relaxed days several months before exams, they mean well and plan to engage with all of this material. But all the evidence points to the fact that students rarely engage with the material until it is too late, just before exams. At this stage, they find the nature of the content, often not even re-purposed for an online environment (substitution of what they have rather than supplemental to help them understand what they have), useless for their learning.

Finally, we have my very good friends, the learning development officers, who try various strategies, sometimes against all the odds, to assist lecturers in incorporating e-learning into their teaching. Locally, their help has been of great value to me, but reading about e-learning on blogs and on The Twitter Machine, there is a sense that the ideas and conversations within the learning development community does not reflect what is happening on the ground. There is perhaps a false sense of advancement, buffered from the great unwashed of PowerPoint debaters by early adopters and innovations in the literature. This can lead to a disconnect in language – acronyms, gadgets and tech jargon which results in the lack of confidence among lecturers who may wish to change. The term “learning technologist” does not help, as it immediately imposes a (false) divide between learning and e-learning.

Gaining traction?

So, what to do? The high participation rates in VLEs indicate that this is a place where learning opportunities can be provided. Students are hungry to engage, if material is there. One of my favourite authors in the literature on e-learning for practitioners is Gilly Salmon (Gill-e-Salmon?). A core component of her approach is for practitioners to ask themselves: “What is the pedagogic rationale for implementing any proposed change?“. I think  this is a very powerful position – it speaks in language all perspectives can understand, or at least appreciate (institutions I am looking at you). Lecturers, identifying problems or issues in some teaching practices can consider how to integrate a change, perhaps harnessing technology, into their teaching. Because there is a need; an underlying rationale even; the implementation has a value and a role to play in the module delivery. Lecturers may refer to it, and better still integrate it into their class work. Students are now presented with specific, often bespoke learning materials with specific purpose of supporting their learning at a particular stage of their learning in the module. Instead of just representing lecture information all over again, there is a reason at particular stages in the module, to interact with these reasons – they have a value. Learning development officers can offer their considerable expertise in supporting lecturers in developing the resources, so that they are fit for a purpose. And institutions are happy because students are happy and access statistics look good. In our own work here at DIT, we have enjoyed some success at the micro-level employing this approach – moving away from mass content upload (“shovelware”) towards specific learning resources tailored for and incorporated into specific modules. It takes time and is harder work, but the value of what is produced is greater for all.

Now, I feel better after that.

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Jennifer Burke Award

After submitting a project on the pre-lecture resource work completed for the Teaching Fellowship, I have won the Jennifer Burke Award. This award is awarded annually by the Irish Learning Technology Association (ILTA) for  Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

The process was quite an innovative one, and I actually got quite a lot out of it. Submission for consideration of the award cannot be more than five minutes. For mine, I made an Articulate presentation that was a model of the resources that the students see, to try and give a sense of how students would have interacted with it. The submission was required to show how the idea was innovative, how it was implemented and how it worked.

Short-listed applications were then invited to the Helix two weeks ago whereby we started off with an “innovation speed-dating” session, meeting each of the five judges in turn and explaining the concept to them. I was a little bit cynical about this, but the calibre of the judges was extremely impressive, and I found myself wishing I had spent more time preparing for it! It was a really great way for the judges to find out more about the idea, as each one had their own interest or angle that they were interested in. The judges were introduced to us at the start of the final, and included a representative from academia (at the coalface), a representative from ILTA (pedagogy-technology), representative from industry (innovation), representative from the HEA (policy) and last year’s winner (standard) – and for each of these I considered the term in brackets to be the bit I would focus on in each of the speed-date sessions. This meant that it was possible to cover a lot of information about the innovation in a short amount of time (35 minutes). I got a lot out of this session, as in discussing the idea with the judges, they prompted a lot of ideas from their perspectives that I hadn’t considered.

The speed-dating was followed by an interview with the entire panel, which focussed on the core concepts – why was the resource introduced, how did it go, what did I learn and what would I change. Again, some useful things came out of this – most importantly for dissemination that the pre-final resources might be more useful for dissemination than the finished ones, as individuals could tailor them to their own situations. This is something I plan to do now, which I never would have thought of.

The other great output was in talking to the other finalists. They had some really great, impressive innovations and all  shared a passion for considering how best to effectively use technology in our learning. I got so many ideas from just talking to them and having a look at their ideas, which I think will be summarised on Jennifer Burke website soon.

All in all, a very positive day! Many thanks go to the organisers at ILTA for what was obviously a huge amount of work behind the scenes, and the judges for giving up their time. I wholly recommend anyone considering applying for next year’s award to do so – the process is a very beneficial one in terms of personal development.

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Using Pre-Lecture Resources in your Teaching

Using Pre-Lecture Resources in your teaching

Much of my study on educational research this year has focussed on Pre-Lecture Resources, working with Dr Roisin Donnelly at DIT’s Learning Teaching and Technology Centre and my colleague Dr Claire Mc Donnell. I’ve turned into something of an evangelist for pre-lecture resources, so in order to spread the good word, I have prepared this resource guide for others thinking of using a similar strategy. I’d love to hear from anyone who has considered this approach or is using a similar approach. The guide accompanies a presentation at the 12th Annual Showcase of Learning and Teaching Innovations, DIT, Jan 2011. Click on the image to access Using Pre-Lecture Resources in your teaching”

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