Under development: SWANI

Anyone who’s ever worked on a European funded project or programme will be all too familiar with the volume of paperwork and time spent on administration and auditing to meet European funding and reporting requirements.  Digital signatures, although highly time and cost efficient, are not acceptable for auditing purposes with only hand signed documentation being permitted.

As part of a consortium providing a significant amount of European funded work based learning in Wales, Coleg Sir Gâr were keen to find a solution that would meet both European and Welsh Assembly Government requirements for hand written signatures as well as providing the elegance and efficiency of the online learner management and learner support systems colleges and tutors wished for.

The Secure Work-Based Learning Administration through Networked Infrastructure (SWANI) project, funded under the JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants SWaNI FE programme, therefore set out to identify ways of addressing this tension and establish a pilot project as a proof of concept to form the basis of a long term solution.

After some research the project team settled on the Fastdox digital document system as offering exactly the combination of hand signed originals and timestamped digital copies necessary to meet the needs of all parties.

The documents to be signed are created in a MySQL database supported by a very user friendly and remotely accessible web interface.  These are then printed using the Fastdox software which applies a unique pattern of microscopic dots to the physical document to communicate with the digital pen.  The pen functions just like an ordinary pen, allowing trainers to sign the documents normally and therefore produce the required hand signed physical document, but the pen also stores all the written information, time stamped, for later downloading into the online learner management and auditing system: an excellent overview of the entire process is available from the product site itself and an exploration of how it was put into practice can be found on the project’s blog.  At between £4-500 for each pen and software package it represents a one-time investment that fulfils a long term requirement, requires little training for tutors to use and meets all the requirements the project set out to address – indeed, the biggest problem the project team ran into was the lack of standardisation in documents across WBL providers and changes to the document design part way through the project which required some revision.

With the pilot now coming to a close, the project team will be adding further information to the project website and undertaking a series of dissemination activities.  Their solution should be useful not only to FE colleges with similar funding and auditing requirements but for anyone looking for efficient and effective digital document management and tracking.

Mobile assessment: MCQs on Android

Mobile learning and mobile assessment are recurring topics of interest, and with the huge popularity of smart phones capable of highly sophisticated technical innovations they’re increasingly viable.  Both the Google App Inventor and Apple’s iOS Dev Center enable non-experts to create applications for these platforms, enabling the delivery of highly focused activities that can nevertheless be easily shared and adapted for different circumstances.

One example of this can be seen in Liam Green-Hughes RefSignals Android app which assesses users’ knowledge of the meaning of various signals and gestures used by ice hockey referees to indicate penalties.  It’s a fully-formed MCQ test: introductory rubric, a series of questions with feedback on incorrect answers and score keeping, and a final score display.  And, as he says, all produced without writing a line of code.

The source code for the app is available from the link above, allowing the test system to be adapted to any subject or purpose, although given the philosophy of simplicity Google designed into their app inventor teachers – and learners – can easily create a similar tool themselves should they wish.  And being Android, there are no app store oddities to present a barrier to sharing and exchange of such simple but potentially invaluable developments :)

Many thanks to my (iPhone using) colleague John Robertson for the tip.

Is there anybody there?

There’s an interesting discussion on the INSTTECH list at the moment about the impact of lecture capture technology on physical attendance in the classroom or lecture theatre, sparked by this article which reports that the majority of students prefer to study online.

Various responses are being reported, such as making physical attendance compulsory in order to pass the course or refusing to post the recorded lecture if more than 10% of the class are absent.  I can’t help feeling that this really misses the point of lecture capturing: what is the point of recording this material so that it’s available when students want and need to access it if you then insist that they have it delivered to them in person at a time of your choosing?  If students don’t want to sit through the same lecture twice, it seems a waste of resources to record it if you’re going to make them physically attend it anyway, as they won’t be interested in accessing it again in the future, at a time when they may benefit more from it.

More enlightened (in my opinion) responses place the onus on the lecturer to make students want to attend his classes despite the availability of these resources online.  Some pre-record their lectures and require students to view the recording before attending the scheduled class, which is no longer a traditional lecture but an interactive dialogue between tutor and students.  Others use discussion breakouts, or voting tools like clickers to ‘add value’ to the class through spot quizzes or opinion gathering.  For these educators, there is a recognition that if their classes as they stand don’t make students eager to attend, the classes need to change instead of enforcing presence.

Emily Springfield of the University of Michigan sums the discussion up nicely:

Why is decreased attendance a problem? I overheard two students talking in the elevator yesterday. “So, do you go to class or just listen to the lectures?” “While everyone else is in class, listening at natural speed, I’m in the library listening to two lectures at 1.6-1.8x speed.”

If students can get everything out of class they need by listening to a recording, why should they go to class? I’d say either make class time useful beyond a recitation of information, or don’t sweat attendance.

Just as with ‘presumption of guilt’ approaches to plagiarism, attendance requirements and penalties for absence are based on the assumption that students are fundamentally slackers, lazy chancers who don’t even want to do the bare minimum, and fail to recognise the financial or personal circumstances that may mean they get far more benefit from viewing lectures in their own time rather than having to attend in person at a fixed time.  And simply changing the rules to enforce attendance rather than changing the classes to encourage attendance does itself seem a particularly lazy approach to dealing with the situation ;)