So long and thanks for all the fish

After eight years very happy years my time with Cetis has drawn to a close.  I am moving on to pastures new as a Senior Lecturer in Blended Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University starting early next month.

When I started at Cetis, Sarah Currier, who’s role as EC SIG Co-ordinator, I replaced told me that it had been “the best job I’ve ever had”. And, eight years later, I can whole heartedly agree that working with Cetis has been the best job I’ve ever had. I’ve learned so much over the past eight years, moving from SIG Co-ordinator to Assistant Director. I know I wouldn’t have been able to get my new job without the myriad of opportunities I’ve had through Cetis.  I’ve had lots of laughs and a few tears along the way. I still remember that feeling of impending doom as I dialled into my first IMS content packaging working group meeting :-)   The support of all my colleagues has been invaluable and I’d like to thank Lorna Campbell in particular for taking a risk and hiring me in the first place.  I was convinced for quite some time that the decision had been based largely on my shoes . . .

I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting point to leave the organisation than just after winning the ALT UK Learning Technologist of the Year. As I said when I received the award, I really feel that it was a recognition not only of my work but of everyone in Cetis. It was also tinged with a sense of irony as myself and my colleagues Lorna and Martin  had recently been made redundant by our host institution as they no longer felt our work was strategically relevant.

However all good things come to an end and I am really looking forward to the challenges of my new post and being fully integrated within an institution. I will now be looking to Cetis now to provide me with insight and guidance for many years to come. If you are interested I’ll be sharing my new adventures on my new blog.

So in the words of Douglas Adams, who always comes to mind at times when I can’t think of anything else to say,

so long and thanks for all the fish


After eight very happy years working for Cetis based within the now sadly no longer with us CAPLE (Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement) at the University of Strathclyde my working life is moving a bit sideways over the next couple of months. The University of Strathclyde had decided to no longer continue its relationship with Cetis. See Lorna’s post for more information, and so my contract (like my colleagues Lorna and Martin) is terminating on Wednesday 31 July. Like Lorna I’d like to add a huge thank you to former CAPLE colleagues for all their support over the years.

I should point out that this has nothing to do with the change of funding between Jisc and Cetis, and that Cetis is going to be continuing after 31 July. However due to various issues with new jobs, contracts, summer holidays and general “faffing” I won’t be a Cetis employee on 1 August. Hopefully there will be new “Sheila shaped Cetis” hole which I will be filling later in the year.

In the meantime I’m looking forward to starting some evaluation work with the OER Research Hub team at over August and September. But – and here comes the shameless plug – if you have a learning technology emergency over the next few weeks and think I can help then you know who to call, DM, email . . .

My primary email address will be changing to, but my twitter and Skype ids will remain (can’t get rid of sheilmcn!). I will hopefully still be blogging but maybe not quite as regularly over the next month or so.


CAPLE in happier times


LASI . . . going to many homes

The Learning Analytics Summer Institute (LASI) is taking place this week at Stanford University. Although I’m not one of the lucky few attending in person, Doug Clow (from the OU UK) is leading the live blogging brigade and I’ve been enjoying catching up with the sessions via all the posts, and looking forward to reading more – thanks guys! A number of the sessions are also being live- streamed via the SOLAR website.

But the action isn’t just in sunny Stanford this week, there are a number of other LASI local events taking place around the world from Hong Kong to Holland and many places in between this week. On Friday the UK LASI event takes place at the University of Edinburgh. Around 60 delegates will debate and demonstrate a range of learning analytics related topics and we’ll also be hooking up live with Stanford as well as catching up with some of the recorded sessions. The event is sold out but there will be a few “well kent” (as the say in Edinburgh) tweeters who will be sharing what’s going on during the day (follow #lasiuk), and I’ll be blogging more next week about the event.

Dear Sheila . . . The MOOC Agony Aunt Column

After much cajoling and numerous requests . . . well OK, one from Martin

I’ve decided to start a new, possibly weekly, feature for all of you out there who are grabbling with the numerous challenges of MOOCs. Whether you’re an instructor or student, this could the place you’ve been looking for to get some words of wisdom based on my vast experience MOOCs (cough, cough).

The questions (and answers) have started flowing already on twitter.

And in a more considered reply to Grainne’s question

Remember “M” doesn’t stand for “magic” it stands for “massive”. So on the instructor side of things, be prepared for a massive amount of extra (unpaid) hours reformatting and structuring your course. All content and activities have to be MOOC-ified and will only work on a MOOC enabled platform, other online systems just can’t cope with all the new and exciting MOOC pedagogical approaches you’ll be using. Then, when the course is running remember that if you have an introductory forum for students to “share where we are all from and why we’re here” you may feel the inclination to read them all and that will take a massive amount of your (again unpaid) time. So be strong, keep smiling and keep with the programme. By the end of week 2 most of your learners will have realised that they have far more pressing things to do and so the contributions will have dropped off to a number that is manageable for you to at least have a cursory glance over whilst your having a nice cup of tea and biscuit.

From a student point of view, remember “M” doesn’t stand for “magic” is stands for “massive”. It will take as much time and effort as one of those old fashioned distance, or even those that take place in real time in a real place (like a University) courses, to complete. But just remember you don’t actually have to participate, and can drop out at any time and go and do all that other stuff that you need to, and have a nice cup of tea.

Grainne, Owen – hope that helps and gives everyone else an idea of the scope and scale and contribution this feature could bring to the MOOC-ology or is it MOOC-oshpere?

As the comments/tweets flow in, I’m am also hoping to enlist the support and guidance of my former colleague Christine Sinclair (part of the #edcmooc team) but more importantly former agony aunt writer for the Jackie magazine.

How to succeed at Mooc-ing without really trying

Heard about MOOCs but far too busy doing more interesting things to sign up to one? Not sure if they’re for you?  Feeling pressure to be part of the “mooc crowd”? Keep signing up for MOOCs but keep getting that cba (can’t be a****) feeling after the first week? Fear not, here’s a handy list of tips to ensure you too can get maximum impact, increase your twitter followers, and look like you are at the heart of the next Mooc that takes your fancy.

The quickest way to get noticed in MOOCs is via twitter, so start using the course hashtag as early as possible. Post some random musings (the more bizarre the better), the week before the official start date. The first week will be filled with “hello I’ve just signed up for xxx” – go for something more eye catching. With 6 million participants on a course you want to make sure you stand out from the crowd and most importantly get retweeted. If you don’t think you’re going to get @StephenFry or @PeteCashmore to retweet posts, fear not there are other strategies.

Only sign up for MOOCs where you know someone who is part of the course team.  @ them at every opportunity (with the hastag of course). They’re bound to reply and retweet at least some of your messages. Remember in the first week in particular the people running the course  are desperate to show signs of activity and engagement. 

Alternatively start a tweet off (my polite description for a fight) with the official course twitter account. @ them slightly left field questions that are impossible to answer in 140 characters, but which they can’t be seen to not to answer. Reply to everything with more obtuse comments. Undoubtedly a couple of your followers will pitch in too creating the impression of even more noise engagement.

Dazzle people with analytics. This is getting slightly tricker now more people know about @mhawskey’s twitter archive and tags explorer which have been proven to make even grown Mooc-ers cry:-) But try and get a graph/diagram from somewhere. Sign up for bottlenose and take a screen grab of their sonar view of the course hashtag. Will distract people for days . . .

If you can’t dazzle with analytics, get someone else to.  Set up a challenge that is just too tempting for @psychemedia not to have a go at.  

Follow these simple techniques and by the end of the first week you will have been featured enough to be seen as in integral part of the course, and can go and back to doing something more interesting instead.

More advanced strategies including FB and  google+ to follow.

The problem with most university websites

is pretty much summed up by the genius of xckd in this cartoon

xkcd comic  - the university website

xkcd comic - the university website

and was the focus of one of the plenary talks at this weeks #iwmw12 conference given by Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal, Robert Gordon University. The gist of Fredrick’s talk centred on the contradiction in Universities of the innovative role they play in terms of creating, developing and using technology and the apparent lack of creativity and user focus when it comes to using technology for communication purposes.

Do you find the corporate comms emails you receive a bit like former Soviet block communications full of “interesting” facts on 5 year plans etc? I hadn’t really made that connection before but I did find myself smiling along in agreement with that analogy. However it was University home pages which were the main bugbear and the focus of Fredrick’s talk. News, too many links, scrolling pages, all were taken to task.

I think it is fair to say that most University home pages are quite busy spaces, but telling that to a bunch of institutional web managers . . . well it was almost a Donald Clarke, ALT-C moment :-) However I think it was useful to highlight the schizophrenic nature of universities and how that is reflected in home pages. Fredrick pointed out that big companies/corporations seem to be much better at simplifying their home pages, however they have a much clearer corporate identity.

What is the key focus of a University and so it’s home page? Research? Teaching and learning? Information for prospective students? Everyone wants their “bit” on the front page, despite what stats might tell us about no-one actually reading the news sections, if Professor X has just got a gizillion pounds for their research project, they, and the institutional marketing team will probably want something about that visible on the front page. And, as was pointed out in the Q&A session, university web sites are usefully managed and created by very small teams with little or no budgets and in that sense actually do a pretty remarkable job compared with commercial websites.

During the conference I was introduce to this alternative homepage for students at LSE.

LSE cloud

LSE cloud

Great idea isn’t it – these are the web spaces the students want to access quickly. But of course not that useful for prospective students.

So what can be done? Well as Fredrick did admit, communication is the key. But the communication and future developments should be based on real stats and analysis of site use and not just someone’s personal preference.

Getting down to the business of building distributed virtual learning environments

Over the past few years we have been following and developing the notion of distributed learning environments. This culminated earlier this year with the publication of the CETIS briefing paper on Distributed Learning Environments and the JISC DVLE programme.

Yesterday all eight of the funded projects made their way (well, actually the level of rain made it feel a bit like swimming) to Bolton for their first meet-up. The programme is divided into two strands, with the first comprising of three projects of six months duration, finishing in December this year. Glasgow Metropolitan College and Glasgow University and concentrating development of a specific widget/VLE plug-in each. Teesside University is taking a more user centric approach by running a number of workshops and then developing widgets from ideas that emerge from them. The other strand is made up of the remaining five projects (MMU, University of Reading, the Open University, University of Edinburgh and Southampton University). These projects are funded for a year, and are investigating the larger issues of integrating more flexible and interoperable approaches to institutional learning environments. More information about the projects is available from the JISC website.

The main technologies in use across the programme are W3C widgets (mainly through using Apache Wookie incubating), Open Social and IMS LTI and Basic LTI and their new Basic Outcomes. To help bring everyone up to speed on each of these a large part of the morning was given our to presentations on each. Ross Gardler (OSS Watch) did the honours for Open Social, Scott Wilson (CETIS) for Wookie and Wilbert Kraan (CETIS) for IMS. Copies of the presentations will be available via the CETIS programme support page over the next day or so. These set the scene for a round of breakout discussions. Mark Stubbs has already blogged about some of the specific security/ authentication/wookie issues the W2C project is grabbling with.

I sat in on the Open Social group where the security issue also came up. Ross argued quite strongly that the technical issues around security have to a large extend been solved outside the education sector and we just need to trust the technology. However, the group did agree that there were cultural issues with education (particularly HE) around knowledge and understanding of identity and authentication which needed to be broken down. We also discussed the possibilities of using open social in a portfolio context. The University of Reading are looking to extend the functionality and interoperability of their in-house developed portfolio tool. The group discussing the IMS options spent quite a bit of time musing over the time/cost implications of developing full LTI integrations over using Basic LTI and the limitations of both – from the wider when will the spec be finalised issue to smaller I can build it but how long will it last, and in the long run does that actually matter?

In the afternoon we had more discussion particularly around wookie implementation. One concern around wookie for a number of projects was its sustainability. As with any (relatively) new technology, sustainability of external systems is a key concern for anyone looking to deploy it in a significant context. However, as Ross pointed out more than once, the fact that wookie in now in part of the Apache foundation, the chances of sustainability are greatly increased. The University of Bolton are also committed to its development and again as with anything, the more use it gets the stronger it becomes.

Along side the more technical discussion there was a concurrent discussion around user-engagement. As explained earlier the Teesside project is very much focussed on gathering real user needs and has designed face to face work shops (adapting templates creating by the RLO CETL and the Sharing the Load project). We discussed many approaches to “paper design” including having print outs of various mobile devices to remind people of the actually size of the finished app/widget. The group all agreed that scope creep, nicely illustrated by Scott Wilson from some recent workshop experience where they found delegates trying to design a whole VLE instead of a specific “thing”, was something that teams needed to be mindful of.

W2C is taking a different approach towards user engagement. They are using an external company to build their first official iphone app (due out sometime next week), followed later in the year by blackberry, android and widget versions. The team are going to use this initial app with students and staff to get feedback and inform future developments. The cost of external development they feel is offset by time savings for the team and gives them something tangible to test with. There also seemed to be a general consensus that actually seeing “the app for that” was incredibly powerful in terms of user engagement – particularly for VCs :-)

There is a great deal of synergy between the projects and I hope that yesterday provided an opportunity to forge stronger relationships across the programme and beyond. It looks like there will be a number of apps/widgets to share with the community by the end of the year.

CETIS is providing support to the programme and we will be organising a number of open meetings over the next year for other to engage with the projects. So watch the space for more updates and information and if you are involved with similar work, please let us know.

Ada Lovelace Day

Wednesday 24th March marks the second Ada Lovelace day “an international day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.”

Due to me forgetting to take my dongle with me on my travels today (one of the the perils of the technology road warrior) here is my belated post.

This year I’d like to highlight the work of Juilette Culver, a developer at the Open University. I’ve know Juilette for, I guess about 4 or 5 years now. At the moment I have most direct contact with her through her work on Cloudworks which is part of the OU’s Learning Design Initiative (and part of the current JISC Curriculum Design Programme). I don’t get to work with developers in the way I used to pre working for CETIS, however Juilette is exactly the kind of developer I think everyone should work worth – creative, caring, eye on the technology ball, willing to listen and try new things and share her knowledge and experience with the wider community.

Lorna commented the other week in her blog about the lack of women at certain techie events such as Dev8D. Juliette is also one of the few women who does go to these events and keeps the flag flying for female developers.

PRODing around Curriculum Design – what happened to content packaging?

This is part of a post that’s been sitting on my desktop for sometime, however I’ve been spurned onto publishing it by the recent posts from my colleague John Robertson about the use of IMS Content Packaging and QTI in the current UK OER programme.

Part of the support function we at CETIS offer to a number of JISC programmes evolves around our project database PROD. We have (and continue to) developed PROD as a means of capturing information around the technical approaches, standards and technologies projects are using. This enables us to get a programme level overview of activity, what’s hot/what’s not in terms of “things” (standards/technologies) projects are using and identifying potential development areas. Wilbert Kraan has also recently blogged about his experiments around a linked data approach to information stored in PROD giving an overview of JISC activity.

John reflected that “In comparison to many e-learning development projects few projects in the UK OER programme are using elearning specific technology (more on this in a future post) and as a result out-of-the-box support for CP is not prevalent in the programme. There is also only limited use of VLEs in the programme”. In contrast projects in the current JISC Curriculum Delivery programme quite unsurprisingly as the programme is about course delivery, make substantial use of VLEs. In fact of the almost 60 different types of technologies and standards identified in use throughout the programme, the most prevalent is VLEs, with Moodle being used by half of the projects. But like the OER programme few of the projects are packaging their courses. In fact only 3 projects are using IMS CP and 3 SCORM. And in some ways that is probably down to the default export functions on tools rather than a considered approach to packaging material.

Now in many ways this doesn’t really matter. The world has moved on, we’re all working the cloud, linked data with relate everything to everything when, where and how we want it . . . So, has the content interoperability within VLEs exercise failed? Do the real users, and not those of use at the cutting edge of development, just not need to think about it? Are there enough, workable alternatives?

However I do think it is interesting that there seems to be some kind of gap around content packaging. Maybe this is due to a mix of bias and guilt. I have spent vast chunks of time in IMS meetings trying to improve the spec. Was it all just a waste of time? Should I really just go and open my shoe shop? Is IMS CC doomed to the same fate as CP? Well actually Warwick Bailey, ICODEON, gave a presentation at our distributed learning environments meeting last week which provides a pretty compelling case for use standards based structured content.

With the OER programme we’ve had a number of discussions in the office around people looking for ways to essentially wrap their content and CP just doesn’t seem to feature in their radar. I know that there are other ways of pushing out content but in terms of archiving and allowing people to download content CP is actually a pretty good option – particularly for learning resources. John also commented that another reason for not choosing CP could be that “detailed structuring seen as superfluous?” Well maybe, but actually, having structuring is really useful for end users. And for archiving purposes CP does have its merits too.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that sometimes we don’t always have to look for the shiny and new, sometimes there are things out there that are maybe a little less shiny but functional nonetheless.

CETIS 09 the video – some thoughts on the process

Regular visitors to the CETIS website may have noticed that we now have a video from the CETIS09 conference on the front page. As the content consists of “talking heads” from delegates, we hope that it gives a flavour as to why people came to the conference and what their expectations and overall impressions of the event were.

Although we have traditionally, and continue, to get feedback via feedback questionnaires we have been toying with the idea of using video to capture some more anecdotal feedback for sometime now. The old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words rings particularly true for an organization such as CETIS. It can take quite a while to explain what we are, what we do, and most importantly what impact we have on others – hell it can take about five minutes to even say Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards :-) So, using video has the potential to let others explain the benefits of what we do e.g. why do people take two days out of busy schedules to go to our annual conference?

However, as with anything getting to the point of the final video has been a bit of a journey which started as these things often do with a serendipitous meeting. Mark Magnate from 55 Degrees, had a meeting with my colleague Rowin Young about assessment related activities which I joined and during the course of the meeting he talked about the Voxur video capture system they had been developing. One thing led to another, and we decided that this “lite” video system might just provide a way for us to actually start getting some video feedback from our community and the obvious place to start was at our conference.

There are a number of video capture booths/systems on the market now, but the things that I particularly liked about the Voxur system, were:
*Size – it’s small, basically a macbook in a bright yellow flight case with a bit of additional built in lighting. So, it doesn’t need much space – just a table and somewhere relatively quiet.
*level of user control -a take is only saved when the person speaking is happy with it and they choose to move on. As it is basically an adapted laptop it looks pretty familiar to most people too.
*Editing – the user control above means that you don’t have all the “outtakes” to sift through and the system automatically tags and related answers. There are still of course editing decisions to be made but initial sifting time is cut down dramatically.
*Q&A style. With this system you have the option to have a real person record and ask questions so people aren’t just reading a question on screen then responding. Hearing and seeing someone ask you a question is a bit more personal and engaging.

In terms of actually preparing for using the system at the conference, the most time consuming, head scratching part was actually getting a set of questions which people would be able to answer. Making the switch from getting written to spoken answers did take some time. Also we had to bear in mind that this wasn’t like an interview where you could interject and ask additional/follow up questions. Once someone is sitting in front of the laptop they just work their way through the set of questions. In the end I know that we did leave in a couple of quite challenging questions – but the responses we got were fantastic and we didn’t have to bribe anyone.

During the event, as it was our first time using the system we did have Mark “manning” the box. And this is something we will continue to do really just to explain to people how the system works, and basically to reassure people that all they really have to do is hit the space bar. We had to do a wee bit of persuading to get people to come in but overall mostly people we asked were happy to take part. A mixture of natural curiosity and not scared of technology traits from our delegates probably did help.

It was quite a learning curve, but not too extreme and hopefully it is something that we can build into future events as a way to augment our other feedback channels.