Moving on…

After twelve years, I’ve decided to leave CETIS and I finish today. In my final blog post, I just thought I’d share with you with a couple of things that have really stood out for me during my time as an e-learning technologist. I had thought about reviewing the changes in e-learning technologies over the past twelve years – and there have been huge changes: tablets (and phablets), MOOCs, Moodle, and ebooks, to name but a few. But the technology isn’t important, that will always change. What is important is the people who try and make that technology work for the benefit of the student.

I have admired and been inspired by the sheer dedication, passion and hard work of staff, who are trying to make the tertiary education experience better for students, despite a myriad of challenges. This work is often unheralded and yet has a huge impact. It’s been a joy working with so many wonderful people.

I have also loved seeing people collaborate, both in the accessibility and relationship management arenas. It’s not always easy to share issues and experiences with potential competitors and yet when staff at different institutions do come together to do this, the student and the institution are left the richer. It been a pleasure to bring people together via the Accessibility SIG (Special Interest Group) and the JISC Relationship Management Programme and to see relationships grow and blossom.

I don’t have any plans as yet, which is somewhat scary and exciting at the same time and I feel a bit like Mr Benn, with a whole world of adventure before me. Of course, I will miss my CETIS colleagues, we’ve been through a lot together, and so rather than say goodbye, I’d just like to say remember the good times and celebrate!

Relationship Management: Communicate, communicate, communicate

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Compendium of Good Practice in Relationship Management in Higher and Further Education, written by myself and Lou McGill. The Compendium will be made available shortly, but I thought I’d post up a few samples to whet your appetite.

Increased and improving use of electronic communication tools across a wide spectrum give the greatest number of contact opportunities for the widest number of students, representing increased capability.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Communication is at the very heart of relationship management and is linked strongly with both staff and student well-being. Staff working in student support services, for example, recognise this, but do not always have the resources to provide effective support to everyone. It is not only communication between the institution and students that is important, but also communication between different departments and staff roles. Some processes, such as recording mitigating circumstances where emails are triggered at different stages, can be quite complex.

Students prefer a single communication channel to multiple emails and sources for accessing support services. When developing digital resources for student support, consider how students will interact with them and how communication with the support service will be handled; for example social media is ideal for presenting bite-sized pieces of information tailored to student requirements. Therefore:

  • resources should be designed to work on both computers and mobile devices, eg tablets and smartphones, so that students can access them any time, anywhere
  • self-check facilities, such as psychological assessment questionnaires, should be made available to help frame the context for support issues for both staff and students and personal online feedback should also be provided once any self-check questionnaires have been completed
  • social media services, such as Twitter, Facebook and even email can help engage and inform students about support services; for example, the University of Sheffield’s Well Connected Twitter stream is followed by over 200 students
  • SMS (Short Messaging Service) texts can be used to send key information to students about their course or institution, as well as personalised information relating to bursaries, for example
  • consider the terminology being used; for example, both staff and students may have differing interpretations of words such as ‘placement’, ‘work experience’, or ‘internships’.

Feedback has shown that students favour using digital media for accessing student support services and information. They value resources that have the backing and authority of the institution as it can be trusted to provide dependable advice. Offering support services online can provide the following benefits:

  • Cost saving: For example, the University of Nottingham uses Mahara to communicate with students on placement, because it’s more efficient than sending individual emails to students; it also enables visibility and tracking of what has been communicated to students
  • Informs potential students: online information, such as blogs, can inform potential students and can be reused by staff for guidance, marketing and recruitment
  • Provides a channel for communication for staff-student and student-student online conversations
  • Promotes sharing: staff and students can share information when it is all in one place.
  • using web based social and professional networking tools can reduce challenges around data ownership and institutional support requirements and takes advantage of systems that students and alumni may already use for career and personal development

When developing digital resources for students, internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive. One way to ensure this is to include representatives from a variety of backgrounds (such as faculty, IT, Student Services, Registry, Statistics Units, Students’ Union etc) and talk to stakeholders on their terms. This approach can strengthen collaboration across departments (and even across institutions). It will also encourage ownership, stimulate creativity and provide multiple perspectives and solutions.

Digital resources that provide student support can be marketed to students using a variety of formats from conventional posters and flyers to messages sent out through social media, such as via Student Union Facebook newsfeeds, which can reach thousands of students. Timing is important, so it is important to focus on times when students need this information most, for example at the beginning of the academic year and exam time. Institutional branding is important as students view any university branded support service, as comforting, supportive, reliable and trustworthy.

Institutions can work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment, particularly in the role of mentors, who can offer recent experience of the transition. This can alleviate some of the burden of student support provision from within the institution, but still requires appropriate management. Alumni can also act as important links in professional networks by introducing students to employers and other professionals.

Professional networking, particularly that with a strong discipline focus, can be supported by institutions to maintain connections with alumni and help to consolidate links with employers. Integrating this aspect into student modules also serves to connect students to important networks before they leave and helps them maintain links with the institution once they have graduated. For example, Aston University has integrated:

“…business engagement content into the new website. Stakeholders can now get direct access to relevant business contacts, case studies, and partnership opportunities.” (Pymm, S. (2012). A Report on the implementation of AstonConnect+. Aston University)

How to approach communication and networking

  • Internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive
  • Talk to stakeholders on their terms
  • Consider how students will interact digital resources for support and how communication with the support service will be handled
  • Tailor information and the communication method to student requirements
  • Consider the terminology being used
  • Design resources to work on computers and mobile devices
  • Use self-check facilities and provide personal online feedback once completed
  • Use social media services to engage and inform students
  • Focus effort on the time of year when students need particular types of information most
  • Institutional branding is important
  • Integrate professional networking into the curriculum
  • Work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment

Further information

The MOOC just got better!

I’ve just finished Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) MOOC (see my previous post MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student). Personally, I’ve found it a very enjoyable, but challenging experience (due to my lack of skills, but isn’t that the whole point of learning?).

The course tutor rounded off the course with a short video of his reflections. For those of you who like facts and figures:

  • 29,568 students watched at least some of the video lectures
  • 20,443 students did at least one of the automatically marked multiple choice quizzes
  • 3,203 students completed at least one of the assignments
  • 765 students completed all 5 assignments
  • students came from all around the world, with at least 130 countries being represented.

As students, we’ve had ample opportunity to provide feedback to the teaching team about the Coursera platform and the course as a whole. That feedback has been acted on quickly with tweaks being made to class materials or assignments, while students are still working on them. MOOCs therefore offer an agile solution that takes the student’s needs into account.

It hasn’t just been a one-way transaction. As a student, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both the teaching team and my peers. The teaching team has also learnt from the students, who have shared resources, reading lists, articles, etc and helped other students. Taking an online course doesn’t mean that the student is isolated. Many students have held their own meet-ups, either face-to-face or virtually. You could say, using the classic cybernetics term, that they were part of a self-organising system, building up communities to support and help each other long after the course has finished.

Just one year ago, there was no Coursera. So everything I’ve used on the course has been created over a very short period of time. But you wouldn’t know. Aside from a few bugs and minor niggles, the whole thing ran very smoothly. One thing to note is that Stanford doesn’t need to run this course. It already has a great reputation, but that hasn’t stopped the teaching team from working hard to pull together the content and make it freely available to everyone.

And now the MOOC has just got better. I’ve just had an email from Coursera to tell me that it now has a Career Service to help Coursera students find jobs. Should I wish to take part (and I may need to shortly), they will share my details with selected partner companies (likely to be US based). This could be good for me as a student, although it’s not without concerns. In the (probably very near) future, a company could cherry pick the best students from online courses, because they’ll be able to follow students with potential as they submit their coursework. They may even influence the course itself. Coursera will no doubt get its revenue from acting as a matchmaking service. However, this needs to be handled carefully. Issues could include companies bombarding students with advertising, a limited pool of companies being able to select students (but who wouldn’t be flattered to be offered a job by the likes of Google or Apple?), US only companies, companies that only support (financially?) Stanford (or other Coursera universities), etc. It’s not without its potential difficulties. However, from a student point of view, it seems like a great idea.

So did I finish the course? I certainly did and can now quite legitimately say that I have a Distinction from Stanford University!

MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student

Photo of a mortar board hat and scrollThere seems to be a lot of animosity toward MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the moment, mostly it seems because they don’t offer the same experience as a traditional on-campus course and because of the issues around assessment.

But I wonder how many of those nay-sayers have actually taken a MOOC? From a student point of view, a MOOC is a wonderful opportunity to try something for free, with no obligation if it doesn’t work out, or if circumstances force a change of mind.

So I’ve taken off my e-learning hat and I’m writing this from a student point of view. I’m currently doing Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) course. As I live in a rural area and work full-time, there is no other way that I would be able to access such a course. I’m not doing it for the “statement of accomplishment”, which if I complete the course, I’ll get at the end (although that carrot does help). I’m doing it for my own personal development, skills upgrading and enjoyment. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to take such a course in my own time at my own institution.

As I said in my previous post, MOOCs and Carrots back in September, the types of students on these courses are not students who would normally be able to study in a campus setting. People seem to be taking such courses to upgrade or complement their existing skills or even just for the challenge. There are mothers with young children, housebound people, people with disabilities, people who don’t live anywhere near an educational institution, unemployed people, etc. Not only that, people can take each week’s module whenever they want, wherever they want. Be it at 9pm at night when the children have gone to bed or on the train on the way to a meeting. These are non-traditional students who would be unable to attend a class in a traditional setting.

The HCI course is peer-reviewed, which I think is a sticking point for many educationalists. This is not without its challenges from both a student and educationalist perspective as some of the forum posts testify. However, as a student, it enables me to see other students’ work and how they have approached a particular task. The learning comes not just from following the video lectures and attempting each week’s practical assignment, it comes from what my peers say about my work as well as from what I can observe in theirs.

One student asked if the online HCI course was any different to the one that Stanford’s own on-campus students take. Both online and on-campus students have the video lectures (although some are done physically by the on-campus staff), the on-campus students have 10 weeks to complete the course (online students have 9), on-campus students also have an hour’s lab time per week (presumably with some sort of assistance from staff), and of course on-campus students’ work is assessed by teaching staff. In both cases, the content is the same.

Some students do want that (electronic) piece of paper at the end, perhaps for the prestige of successfully completing a Stanford course (the type of statement of accomplishment depends on the student’s average marks for the course) or for demonstrating to their employers that they have completed it. Many other students are completing the course at their own pace (it is quite intensive) and are doing it because they want to learn about HCI in their own time and their own way. For them, a MOOC is a way to facilitate that – they get the guidance and support they need but there is no fear of failing or dropping out, as the course can always be taken again next time or over an extended period of time. For many students, the learning goal is not a piece of paper, but the acquisition of a new skill or undertaking a personal challenge.

Institutions and educationalists should not look at the MOOC as a threat to the sector (at least not yet), because the type of people taking these online classes are generally not able (for whatever reason) to take a traditional on-campus course. It may be some time before the assessment side of things is robust enough to enable students to receive proper accreditation.

MOOCs do fill a need, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many thousands of people flocking to take them (the other course I’m taking has over 34,000 students registered). So before, we look at MOOCs in a negative light, let’s look at it from the student point of view. After all, as educationalists, isn’t that who we’re here to serve?

Student Retention: Mental Health at the University of Sheffield

Photo of a brass compassThe DCSMH (Digital Communication and Student Mental Health) project at the University of Sheffield has created a website, Well Connected, which provides a library of self-help resources, a self-check facility, and social media functions for supporting students with mental health difficulties.


Many HE (Higher Education) institutions are facing increased demand from students for mental health services. There are increasing numbers of students with complex difficulties, so the institution needs to be able to promote mental health support effectively. The challenges include:

  • students with mild difficulties may not be prioritised for face-to-face support whilst those with more severe difficulties do not always access the services provided
  • the area of mental health can be a sensitive topic for the institution, staff and students, which needs careful handling
  • increased demand for mental health services means that traditional face-to-face support is becoming severely stretched.


The Well Connected website, which was co-created with students, has provided benefits for both staff and students:

  • non-clinical student support and academic staff feel more confident in their response to students with mental health difficulties
  • the site includes a validated online self-check or referral tool which may help students wary of contacting mental health support services to make the first step to getting help
  • using digital communications to keep students informed can relieve pressure on physical support services and provide a channel for communication messages of wellbeing, especially at particular times of the academic year.


During the project, feedback from students has shown that they favour digital media for finding out about mental health issues. However,

  • don’t underestimate the strength of institutional branding and authority; for example because the Well Connected website has the University’s stamp of approval, students feel that they can rely on it and that it can be trusted
  • ensure that training is put in place for support staff in the use of any online resources
  • although online support resources can relieve some of the pressure on face-to-face support staff, remember that there will be additional work required in the support and maintenance of an online resource and in managing communication campaigns.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

MOOCs and Carrots

Photo of a bunch of carrots

I’ve just started a free online Coursera course on HCI (Human-Computer Interaction). This is my first time taking an online course and I thought I’d share some of my observations on both the course and on using a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

The HCI course is being run by Stanford University and consists of a number of short video lectures, peer-evaluated assignments and online quizzed. There is a student forum, free access to software to help with the course, and lots of text and videos to support the general interaction with the course.

The first thing that struck me about the HCI course itself was how much it will complement my existing work as an e-learning technologist in the accessibility field, as well as there being similarities with the service design approach, which has been part of my Relationship Management work. In fact, there are quite a number of e-learning technologists on the course.

The second thing that really stood out was the wide variety of the types of people from around the world taking the course. Apart from the obvious – students taking this course as a complement to their main study and people in employment upgrading or complementing their existing skills – there are mothers with young children, housebound people, people with disabilities, people who don’t live anywhere near an educational institution that offers such a course, unemployed people, etc. These are very much non-traditional students who would be unable to attend a class in a traditional setting. Perhaps the rise in MOOCs won’t necessarily threaten the current university sector but will complement it by attracting those on the fringes of mainstream education?

There are some differences between attending an educational institution as a real student and as a virtual student. Perhaps the biggest one might be the social and collaborative aspect. If one is motivated to attend class for social reasons (e.g. seeing a different group of people, doing something outside of the normal day-to-day routine, etc), then one may be more likely to continue. However, no-one is going to notice if one hasn’t attended a virtual class! Perhaps one way to encourage attendance in online classes to offer a carrot. In the case of the HCI class, students who successfully complete the course will be awarded a “statement of accomplishment” signed by the tutor and there are grade penalties if you miss assignments or don’t take part in peer evaluation. Not all classes offer this, so it will be interesting to know whether offering a sort of certificate really makes a difference to drop-out rates. If I manage to make it to the end, I’ll let you know!

Carrots photo by vierdrie.

Accessibility of e-Textbook Readers

Last night, I sat in on an EASI (Equal Access to Softtware and Information) webinar about the accessibility of e-textbook readers by Ken Petri from Ohio State University. It seems as though the device designers are really trying hard to get it right, although there’s still some way to go.

Photo of a paperback book.

After a short introduction to the legal context (Advocates for the Blind sued Arizona State University over their use of Kindle resulting in Amazon making changes to its software), Ken gave an overview of the current e-book formats on offer, which are mostly based on XML (eXtensible Meta-Language):

  • PDF (Portable Document Format) – common, but mostly inaccessible unless tagged correctly.
  • MOBI (Adobe).
  • AZW (Amazon) – ePub-like format for the Kindle, but lacks its rich structure.
  • XPS (XML Paper Specification) – designed to look like the original paper copy; only used by Blio.
  • DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) – accessible standard for digital talking books; not much control over formatting.
  • ePub v3 – read by most readers (except Kindle); has a lot of DAISY’s accessibility features; rich formatting control, including video/audio embedding; full support for MathML (although no readers can read it just yet). It’s basically XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language) with super styling, i.e. CSS3 (Cascading StyleSheets) with SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and JavaScript.

He then followed this with an overview of e-book reader accessibility:

  • Kindle – has a free accessibility plug-in for PC; uses its own text-to-speech engine, so won’t work with screenreaders; not possible to copy and paste text; the finest grain of movement through the book is sentence by sentence; allows synching of different platforms so notes made using Kindle on the iPad can also be viewed on a PC. (Apparently it’s very easy to bypass the digital rights management and convert both MOBI (Adobe) and AZW (Kindle) formats to ePub and read the book on another device!)
  • iBooks 2 (Textbooks) on iPad – proprietary version of ePub v3, although authoring software, iBooks Author, is free; good for embedded graphics; can only be used on the iPad, not on the iPhone/iPod nor any other device; limited textbooks in the iBooks Store; possible to read ePub books using iBooks 2, but the fine-grained reading experience isn’t there; words highlighted as played; full typographic control (e.g. enlargeable text, high contrast, etc).
  • Blio – has incremental zoom for focussing on a small section of text and back out again.
  • ReadHear – a downloadable app for Mac or PC; uses DAISY; accessible maths equations; words highlighted as played; full typographic control (e.g. enlargeable text, high contrast, etc); rich screen reader access (for DAISY books only).
  • NookStudy – cross-referencing; synchronised highlighting for comparison purposes, where several books (or different pages of the same book) can be open at the same time; cut and paste; look-up using Wolfram Alpha.

For further information, see Ken Petri’s e-Book Reader Accessibility and Comparison Matrix (under development).

Although the presentation focussed on the accessibility of readers rather than on the content, some mention was made of authoring tools. For example, Calibre is a free, open-source tool that will convert across formats using RTF (Rich Text Format), e.g. from Word to DAISY (although it doesn’t do MathML). There is also a plugin for creating DAISY books from Word itself.

To sum up the importance of e-textbooks, Ken’s presentation included a quote from Eve Hill, Senior Counsellor to the Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice:

“In education, the current transition from print materials to digital materials creates and incredible opportunity for people with print disabilities to finally use the same products as their peers and to gain the same benefits as their peers who do not have disabilities.”

Of course, there are negatives, such as affordability of devices, proprietary formats, limited storage capabilities on some readers, possible short shelf-life as device OS’ (Operating Systems) move on, etc; and authors and publishers still need to be made aware that they need to make the content accessible. However, I think e-textbooks have much to offer everyone, not least the opportunity to present information in an interactive and engaging way in a format that almost everyone can access.

Joint BSI/JISC CETIS Accessibility Workshop

February’s Accessibility SIG (Special Interest Group) meeting was jointly run with BSI (British Standards Institution) as an informal workshop, focussing on the accessibility standards’ work being done around the world across various domains. It took advantage of the presence of a number of international standards developers and strategists, who were in the UK (United Kingdom) at the time, to foster exchange of work and ideas between the standards and education communities.

Presentations ranged from an overview of the accessibility standards work being done across the globe by Alex Li (Microsoft) to the development of accessible widgets by Elaine Pearson and her team at Teesside University.

Several of the presenters talked about their ongoing work in accessibility specifications and have asked for feedback from the community. So if you would like be involved in helping to shape these developments, people working on the following specifications would really appreciate your feedback:

* Standardisation Mandate M/376 (Phase 2) – Dave Sawdon from TRE Limited described how this work will create European accessibility requirements for the public procurement of products and services in the ICT domain (similar to the American VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template), which was introduced by Ken Salaets of the Information Technology Industry Council). The development team are particularly looking for public procurement officials to help define this standard.
* Access For All v.3.0 – works on the premise that personalisation preferences need to be machine readable, so it uses metadata to describe these personal needs and preferences. Andy Heath and the specification development team at IMS would like people to download it, try it out, implement it, check it works, and provide feedback.
* BS 8878:2010 Web accessibility. Code of practice – Jonathan Hassell, BBC, talked us through the background and purpose the recent web accessibility Code of Practice and Brian Kelly, UKOLN presented BS 8878 in the context of an holistic approach to accessibility. However, whilst it is now available for public use, user testing of the Code of Practice can only really be done in the field, so please join the community of practice and provide feedback on your experiences of implementing BS 8878.
* Mobile Applications Accessibility Standard – This standard, proposed by Yacoob Woozer of the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions), is still very much at the drawing board stage, with the focus on mobile applications rather than on creating websites that can viewed on different devices. However, suggesstions on what to include in the standard would be welcome.

Several of the presentations focussed on the work of specific standards bodies – David Fatscher from BSI gave us an overview of BSI; the various ISO standards which feature accessibility elements were introduced by Jim Carter from the University of Saskatchewan; and Shadi Abou-Zahra of W3C talked about the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) guidelines.

And finally, I am very much appreciative of the work that the BSI staff and Andy Heath put into making this event such a success. It was it was a great opportunity for the standards and education sectors to get together and I hope that some lasting collaborations have been forged.

Crowdsourcing to Fix the Web

Well.. not the whole web, obviously, but some of the inaccessible bits. Fix The Web is a site which encourages people with disabilities to report any accessibility problems they have with a website. Volunteers then take these problems up with the website owners.

It is not intended to make web developers lazy (“I’ll wait until Fix the Web volunteers tell me what I need to do”) but rather to highlight the issues faced by people with disabilities, particularly as most web developers are not accessibility experts and most people with disabilities are not web developers.

Using a middleman (or woman) to act as an interface between people with disabilities, who experience problems with inaccessible websites, and the web developers themselves could help make the web a better place for everyone and act as an informal means of educating developers about the importance of accessibility.

iPad Accessibility

I’ve just had a very quick look at the Apple’s latest and much awaited offering – the iPad. I say, a “quick look”, because I haven’t yet been able to wrestle it from the grasp of its new owner. However, I did manage to request a demo of the accessibility features.

How can something so visual, which relies on accurate touch, be made accessible? The form factor has a lot to do with it. The iPad is much larger than the iPod Touch and iPhone (not quite a sheet of A4) so Apple has more room to play with, which helps. The extra real estate means icons for the apps can be selected with even the largest or most arthritic of fingers unlike the iPod Touch or iPhone, which require almost pianistic dexterity.

There are accessibility settings for text-to-speech and magnification, although you’d probably need someone to set the settings on first use. This changes the gestures required to use the device, e.g. for magnification a three-finger swipe will increase the size, etc. But for me, the way the device works for visually impaired people really caught my attention. By selecting the Voice Over (text-to-speech) setting, every time the user touches the screen anywhere, a box highlights the text and the name of the app is read out. The required app can be selected by tapping. This means that visually impaired users can still navigate and select the various apps on what looks like a completely visual interface.

The iPad comes with a free e-book – Winnie the Pooh – and I was intrigued to see how this would be handled. The book has images and I was pleasantly surprised to hear them described. The descriptions were far more descriptive than alt text. The image of Pooh sitting outside his house was charmingly described, even down to the “childish writing” of the sign saying “Mr Sanders”. OK – I guess it’s down to the publishers of e-books to ensure that their books are accessible (and also to the app developers), but it does show what can be done.

These comments have only been made on the briefest of looks at the iPad and there will no doubt be some accessibility “gotchas”, but I think the size of the device has made a huge difference to the way in which accessibility can be handled.

So now, I’m going to see if I can distract the iPad’s new owner so I can have another quick look, but unless It’s by something equally as innovative, I don’t think I’ll have much of a chance!