More on e-portfolios

I’m currently evaluating e-portfolio tools and today’s quick review was about uploading folders and adding them to my e-portfolio. I’ve only had an hour or so today, so I’ve looked at Mahara and Pebble Pad, and I’m not greatly impressed with the capacity of either of them to handle folders. Mahara doesn’t seem to allow uploading of anything other than single files. Pebble Pad does offer the option of zipping a folder. (I suppose you could upload a zip file to Mahara – I’ll have to try that later ) But when you do upload the zip file, Pebble Pad unpacks it and treats each file as a single asset. It would be nice to have the option of adding the folder and its contents as a single asset,

Of course, in Pebble Pad you can recreate the folder as a webfolio page and link to each assets, thus creating a de facto folder (Which could, with a bit of design work look quite nice). In Mahara you just have to create a new folder and upload everything into it. On the other hand you can display it as a folder in a view.

But really, what an e-portfolio needs is a way to put things in the right place quickly. Many resources these days do consist of multiple files, so I think this would be a useful functionality. (I suppose, in the interests of full coverage I ought to have a look at how Blackboard’s E-portfolio tool manages this.)

30 years of e-journals.

Well not exactly. But last night I was using British Education Index, and noticed that it was a Dialog product. It took me right back to a room at what was then Manchester Polytechnic in, oh, it must have been 1981 when we were shown a dial-up version of a Dialog database of bibliographic references on a green screen computer. (Actually, I think the on-screen text was orange, but you get the point.) It hadn’t really occured to me until today that these things have been around for nearly three decades. And yet you still occasionally hear of academics who ban their students from using the Internet!

BBWorld Europe 09

Just a very quick update on the opening keynote from Michael Chasen, Blackboard’s Chief Executive. Essentially BB appear to be trying to come over all Open Access – some interesting features are promised about opening up the content store to either institutional level, or to a completely open model where items in Blackboard can be made available to any other Blackboard user (whatever their institution) . They’re also promising an Instant Messaging tool, (free) and a more sophisticated interface with Facebook (or indeed, any other “online space where students might be found.” I’m Not quite sure about that when I think about it. ) They’ve got round the authentication problem by pushing stuff out of Blackboard. For example a student who is logged into Facebook might be notified that they have a new grade, but they’d still have to log into Blackboard to find out what the grade actually is. They’ve also released a nice looking iPhone app. for remote users.

Unfortunately I can’t really liveblog from the conference as the hotel only has a few open access stations, but I’ll try and write a more considered report on what they’re up to when I get back.

Digital overload

Picked up a very interesting alert from Wired magazine today featuring an interview with the author of a book which argues that the constant interruptions and distractions that digital media offers us may (and I stress the word MAY) be rewiring our brains in a way that will make it even more difficult to concentrate on a single topic in depth. Now, this is of interest to educators because I’ve often heard people say “Well, my children can do their homework while listening to music and snowboarding on their Nintendo Wiis at the same time”  Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect, but I’ve never been wholly convinced by this argument. 

I’d be the first to admit that I am not one of the world’s great multitaskers, but my experience has been that if, say I put my iPod on and try and read or write at the same time,  I am pretty sure that if I’m concentrating on the text, I stop listening. (Or if I concentrate on the music I’m not simultaneously concentrating on what I’m writing or reading.) So from my experience I’d say that people aren’t working in parallel with these tasks, they’re working in series. (to borrow an electrical metaphor.) Of course, just because I can’t do something, doesn’t mean that others can’t but I do think that interruption is often fatal to the flow of thought. One thinks of Coleridge and the “Man from Porlock” who may have deprived English Literature of a great poem. (Nobody ever seems to suggest Coleridge might have been writing a load of old rubbish when he was interrupted, but I digress)

I suppose the point of all this rambling is should we switch off our twitterers and iPods, and sequester ourselves in some quite cloistered environment when we have a major project. Or just work at home. Or more to the point should we try and persuade students to do so. My inclination is to think that we probably shouldn’t. Thinking back to my days as an undergraduate (long before iPods and mobile phones) my mind found it quite easy to wander from social problems in pre-industrial Lancashire, or the antics of medieval popes to considerably less elevated academic topics. Maybe though there’s a way to get our mobile devices to get our attention back on track somehow. Texting questions to a lecture audience? Now that would be a neat trick!

Has E-learning lived up to its early promise?

After the rather bitty liveblogs from the Blackboard conference, I’ve started to write up the other presentations where I took notes with a pen. (Now there’s a reliable, resilient and portable technology!) Hopefully, they’re a bit more reflective and readable. Rather than try and write up the whole conference in one post, I’m going to release an account of each presentation as a single post. This one’s probably the longest!

See the slides at

The first keynote presentation which was from Andy Ramsden, head of e-learning at the University of Bath, who set about exploring whether e-learning has lived up to its early promise. In one respect he showed that it has, by using an electronic voting system throughout the presentation which would have been very unusual a few years ago, and did lead to quite a lot of interactivity in the session. He started by reminding us that those of us involved in e-learning were actually small cogs in big institutional machines, but that didn’t stop us from doing quite a lot to bring about change. In the first electronic poll he showed that at least 25% of the audience had been involved with virtual learning environments for more than 8 years, (including, it has to be said, your correspondent!) which led to the unspoken conclusion that if e-learning hadn’t lived up to its promise, we’d no-one to blame but ourselves!

He then presented the results of a survey at Bath, which found that 51.7% of academics didn’t post their lecture material before the lecture, and that 21.9% didn’t do it afterwards. In fact 10% of academics at Bath don’t engage with learning technology in any shape or form! Even those that do, tend to use things like PowerPoint, or even OHP transparencies. That said, there was some encouraging use of newer technologies like Twitter and videoconferencing. So, it appears, on the face of it at least, that the newer technologies have not changed teaching very much. But as Andy indicated, that kind of conclusion didn’t sit very easily with the array of technological gadgetry sitting on the desk in front of him, and he also noted that most people do in fact share things like web resources quite a lot. But there was another question about how they did this sharing, and we had another poll this time using a service called Edutext (I’ve got us a free trial by the way I’ll post here when the details come through) This time we all texted in the ways we shared information with colleagues. Predictably e-mail was by far the most common communication method in HE. (By a very large distance indeed.) So, there are at least two technologies, e-mail and the web that have very much lived up to their early promise.

What might explain this phenomenon. We were introduced to something called the 4-Es model developed by Collis & Moonen, (Which I shall be stealing, ahem, referencing for my ED thesis). This states that an individual’s likelihood of making use of a technological innovation for a learning related purpose is determined by four factors

• Educational effectiveness
• Environmental (that is, institutional) factors,
• Ease of use
• Engagement.

Without going into more detail this explains why people are perfectly happy to post word documents purporting to be the “course handbook” but less happy to spend time designing and posting on-line quizzes, learning how to use text messaging to promote interactivity in a lecture, developing multimedia etc. etc. Essentially if you want to get a technology adopted (the “success threshold”) you have to balance all these four factors. Take the example of the course handbook. The institution encourages the posting of these things. ||It’s easy to attach a document to a file (well, it is for most people). It’s information students need, so it’s educationally effective. (Actually, I think that’s questionable, but I take the point that it meets a need that students believe that they have.). I’m not all that convinced that it’s all that engaging, but course handbooks are something that people are familiar with. You can see that quizzes don’t really tick the same boxes, and you might say the same about some of the other technological floribunda, that grow in the e-learning garden, such as Second Life, blogs, wikis, and so forth. (They’re often engaging, but not easy if you’re new to them, nor are they institutionally encouraged, (well, OK, they’re not discouraged, but setting up a wiki isn’t an obvious route to academic advancement) and their educational effectiveness is, to date at least, unproven.

One of the things that we can do is to try and lower the environmental factors. If we can do this, we should be able to push the success threshold down.

The second strand is concerned with ease of use and engagement. Most obviously the network must be sufficiently robust to allow users to do what they want to do. Engagement does of course cover things like the relative attractiveness, ease of navigation, and other attributes, but it can also be encouraged by modifying the environmental factors. If, for example, posting high quality interactive materials was seen as a route to career progression then it is quite likely that more people would be inclined to do it. (That, of course, is precisely the argument we’re making for the deposit of material in the institutional repository.) The fact is though that Universities are in general rather more geared up to running relatively simple teaching and learning activities than they are to operating riskier programmes that have higher level learning objectives.

So, how might we change the situation.

Well, at this point, Andy went into a discussion of QR codes. Careful readers of this blog (and if you aren’t, may I ask why not?) may remember these being discussed in a previous posting about mobile technologies. A QR code is a variant on the bar code that can be scanned with a camera phone. Once it has been scanned it can link to a web site, send an SMS message to a phone, transfer a phone number, or simply provide more text. They are appearing in posters and advertisements in our larger cities, (although I haven’t noticed one in Lincoln yet). There are all sorts of potential educational and administrative uses, including campus tours, Library catalogue information, (although I wasn’t clear how this would work), they can be appended to printouts and the user can scan them for further guidance, and more exotically they can be used in Augmented Reality Gaming (Again, I hope you’ve been paying attention, – I wrote about this back in June – it’s a project at Manchester Metropolitan University where they send the students off around the city to find these QR codes. Not that I’m exactly sure about the wisdom sending students into some parts of Manchester flashing expensive technology around, but I guess it’s their city and their project!)

There is no suggestion that QR codes are the solution to lowering institutional barriers. Andy was using them as an example of the way of thinking we need to adopt if we are going to keep on developing technology. We need to ditch large scale workshops, and focus more on specific projects, which we might lead, but ensure all the team delivers on. We should prioritise profiling at meetings, (i.e. who does what, what are people’s capabilities) and produce short frequent publications reporting on our projects, and we should do it in all media. The point is there’s a long term commitment to be made, and it involves a change in the way we think about educational development.

Open Sim practice

Lincoln's first virtual site
Lincoln's first virtual site

There’s an interesting proposal afoot for a project to develop a virtual front end to Blackboard, so I thought I’d have a go at building in a Virtual World – It’s a lot harder than it looks, but I did manage to create a reasonably convincing picnic site – the idea is you’ll be able to click on things and be taken to appropriate bits of the VLE. Fortunately, (for the users) I won’t be doing the design but here’s my first stab at it

Great Expectations of ICT – JISC report 2008

Just read this very interesting report on what students expect in terms of ICT provision when they arrive at university.  I did think the methodology was a little questionable in that an on line survey and discussion groups is, by default, going to pick up on students who are inherently more enthusiastic about IT, but bearing that in mind there were some intriguing findings. Not least that

  • Students are fine with Web 2.0 tools as long as they are in control of the environment – they don’t in general want lecturers leading their use of these tools.
  • Students generally are very comfortable with VLEs which do pretty much what is expected of them.
  • There is not much apparent interest in mobile learning
  • Students place very little value on virtual worlds (so my trip to Nottingham last week might have been a bit of a waste of time!)
  • There seems to be a desire for universities to provide training in thinking about the implications of different technologies, than just providing access to different technologies, and training in how to use them.

None of which is all that surprising I suppose. In some ways I think the first finding is the most interesting because it raises some issues about control of the learning environment. When you think about it it fits with the way of thinking that argues that learning is better when the students produce their own learning, rather than consume it.  Although another interesting finding was that relatively few students knew what a wiki was, let alone how to use it, which rather supports the argument that there is a need to think about what you do with information, rather than just how to retrieve it. Haven’t got time to write a longer post about this now, but I might well return to this topic – For the time being the full report is at

No, not about food . is a social bookmarking site where you can save and share your bookmarks. I’ve started to use it because I’ve been asked to conduct a survey of what people in the University are doing about Personal Development Planning, and I thought it would be useful to get an idea of what other Universities are doing. You simply save the URL, and you can write a little description and give it some tags so other people can find it.  

Currently, I’ve only got two bookmarks, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.  – Anyway it’s to be found at

And you can add this post (or any other) to  by clicking on the del.ic.ious icon at the bottom of the post. In fact you can add it to a variety of bookmarking sites. Not that I’m trying to increase my readership, or anything like that. Heaven forfend!

The Power of the Web

Here’s something to think about. I use Google Alerts to notify me about news stories, blog entries and web sites that I might be interested in, and one of those is of course “University of Lincoln”. One of our students suffers from cataplexy, a condition that apparently causes muscle weakness under stress, and in this unfortunate woman’s case, it’s so severe that laughing can cause her to collapse.

But that’s not really the point of this entry. What has struck me is how quickly it’s gone round the World. I’ve seen stories about it from such exotic publications as the “National Ledger” which is a newspaper in somewhere called Apache Junction in Arizona, and other assorted local newspapers from around the world. Now I might mutter darkly about newspapers being too mean to employ journalists to actually go out and report on stories these days, preferring to employ interns to sit at computers all day, but what I’m getting at is that think it very odd, (and encouraging) that I found a story about my own institution from so far away. (In fairness, the local paper here, the Lincolnshire Echo did pick it up quite early on, but then, I wonder where they got it from!) Of course, it’s an unusual, human interest story, which might make it more prone to wider circulation – but it does illustrate how the alerts can help keep one informed.

Oh, and here’s the story if you’re interested. (From the BBC’s local news site, so they got it too.)

Pipes and Mashups

I’ve been experimenting with Yahoo Pipes – a sort of web mashup application which I need to spend a great deal more time with. Here’s an example of what it can do. This is just a search for the term “e-portfolio” condensed into a blog post. It’s all very well, but I’m struggling to think of many more practical applications in our context, but then I suppose I haven’t really looked in detail at what it can do. So many things, so few hours!