Under development: eMargin

eMargin logo

When I was studying English at university, one of the more engaging and intriguing sites of discussion and debate was the margins of printed texts.  These are the ultimate asynchronous discussions, taking place over decades in some cases, rarely revisted by their participants once they’d left their comment on previous comments.  It was fascinating to encounter often very different perceptions on both primary and secondary texts, and they encouraged me to reflect on my own interpretations and arguments as well as articulating them in the form of comments added to those already there.  These serendipitous discoveries definitely enhanced my learning experience, providing the opportunity to discuss texts and solidify my understanding significantly beyond that provided by limited tutorial time and the very few other opportunities for debate available.  Similarly, I encouraged my students to write on their books to increase engagement with the texts they read and legitimise their interpretations and opinions, although that was often met with askance looks that clearly said, ‘sod that, I’m selling them later.’

So I was very interested to learn about the eMargin project, which is developing an online collaborative textual annotation resource as part of the JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants funding round six.  The eMargin system allows a range of annotation activities for electronic editions of texts, encompassing notes and comments on individual sections, highlighting, underlining and so on, all personalisable to support different tastes and access requirements.  What takes this beyond the usual functionality offered by ebook readers is the ability to share these annotations with class-mates and students from other institutions, enabling their use as educational resources by design rather than chance.  Teachers are able to control the degree of exposure of annotations in line with institutional policies on student IPR, and the system may be developed further to allow students to control which comments they wish to share and which to keep private, allowing them to use the same system for personal study as well as class work.  By providing an easy means for sharing ideas, together with a wiki feature for building and capturing consensus, this system will be of value in all disciplines, not just English Literature where it is being developed.

The project team, Andrew Kehoe and Matt Gee of the Research and Development Unit for English Studies at Birmingham City University, are developing the system through a number of iterations in the light of feedback from teachers and learners, and engaging participants in other institutions and other disciplines to demonstrate its versatility.  The team is also exploring the possibility of integrating eMargin with VLEs, and its potential as an eassessment tool; it may also have value in tracking the development of learners’ ideas in order to reduce opportunities for plagiarism.

The project runs until the end of May 2012, when source code, user guides and an archive of textual annotations will be available via the project site.  You can also visit their FaceBook page.

LTIG Round 6 call for funding now out (edited 21/2/11)

The JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants programme funds a small number of projects each year to explore and support innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  These projects cover a vast range of subject areas, technologies and activities, from poetry to chemistry, LaTeX to Twitter, QR codes to the Wii, virtual worlds to augmented reality.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about a number of these projects, the innovative activities they’ve undertaken and the very wide range of technologies in use within this programme.

JISC have just released a call for the latest round of funding available within this programme.  The application process is designed to encourage speculative and innovative ideas, the first stage consisting of submission of an outline proposal rather than the traditional full bid.

The deadline for submission of proposals for the current call is noon on Monday 21 March 2011.  There’s also a briefing event being held at 2pm on Tuesday 22 February in Elluminate which potential applicants are strongly encouraged to attend.

Best of luck to all applicants!

Edit (21 Feb 11): Martin Hawksey offers some excellent tips on bidding through his JISC RSE Scotland North & East blog.

ALT-J renames and goes open access

ALT have announced that, from January 2012, Research in Learning Technology (formerly ALT-J), will be going open access, a move that should significantly increase its readership and availability to an international audience.  Although back issues over eighteen months old are already freely available through the ALT repository, providing unrestricted access to the most up-to-date issues won’t just benefit non-member scholars but also the visibility and online presence of ALT itself.

(Spotted via Grainne Conole)

Testing is the best teacher

In an educational world where there is a constant drive to find new and entertaining ways to support learning, it’s intriguing to see a major research project publishing its findings that, actually, traditional tests of recalled knowledge are significantly more beneficial for learning than either ‘cramming’ or the increasingly popular concept mapping.

The research, published in this month’s Science magazine and summarised in an excellent article in a recent New York Times, highlights the clear improvement in performance learning supported by assessment provides over these other approaches.  It’s also noteworthy that cramming, although markedly less effective than testing, was found to be more effective than concept mapping.

The article also highlights what is for me the most fascinating part of this research: an inverse relationship between learners’ confidence in their knowledge and the quality and quantity of what they actually recalled.  Students who repeatedly reviewed a text or who drew concept maps while consulting the text had higher levels of confidence in their knowledge of that text than those students who read the text once and then sat a test based on their recall of it.  However, in subsequent testing a week later the students who had learned the text through testing consistently performed significantly better than those who had learned by concept mapping or cramming.

One commentator suggests that this is because ‘the struggle [to recall] helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning.’  This really does seem to get towards the core tension between making learning ‘fun’ and feel productive, and maximising what students actually learn.  Concept mapping can allow learners to illustrate in great detail what they (think they) know, but it provides no challenge to that knowledge, no way of pointing out the gaps in knowledge.  It’s a world of unknown unknowns, with the misplaced confidence it inspires demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect in unfortunate action.

Whatever the underlying reasons behind the findings of this research, it’s good to see the debate being opened up again and the encouragement for a re-evaluation of received wisdom about the best ways to learn.

WebPA and Moodle integration

webpa-logo-gifWebPA continues to benefit from its lively and creative community, the latest development being a very elegant Moodle-WebPA plug in developed by John Tutchings at Coventry University.

John has produced two videos to demonstrate the plug in in action, the first illustrating the single sign in for the two systems which allows population of the WebPA course with students taken over from Moodle. The second demonstrates migration of existing Moodle groups to WebPA, again utilising the single sign in across both systems.

This plug in is still at the beta stage, but anyone interested in helping test it is welcome to contact John, who can be reached via his website.

Assessment of games based learning

It was well worth the early start today to attend a fascinating webinar presented by Nicola Whitton of MMU on ‘assessment of game based learning’.  Part of the successful series of webinars hosted by the Transforming Assessment project funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council and based at the University of Adelaide, this was the second of two events focusing particularly on games in education.

While the previous seminar looked less at assessment and more generally at games and pseudo-games such as Second Life, Nicola’s talk drew a sharp distinction between play, play worlds and simulations.  Games don’t need to have awesome graphics or vast budgets to succeed: great learning designs may be gamelike without the author ever consciously intending to design a game.  Games might ‘mashup the real world and the game world’ in imaginative and creative ways, but

lecture theatres aren’t particularly effective in real life, so reproducing them in a world where you can fly just seems really strange

I feel as though I’m SL-bashing again, but I found it really refreshing to have someone state so clearly that no, just because something’s virtual doesn’t make it a game, its the nature of the interaction between learner and content that does.  It doesn’t make it a more or less legitimate learning tool either, but the distinction is important as they both have valuable but different things to offer, and represent very different learning models.

Nicola distinguished between the use of games as an assessment tool and the assessment of games based learning, an important distinction that often seems to be overlooked.

Assessment within games offers some valuable elements: it can be automated, repeatable, potentially integrated in the learning process, impartial.  External assessment, defined here as any non-game assessment activity, by contrast, is capable of greater creativity, more tutor control, but is also more time-intensive and can be unconsciously partial.  Higher levels of learning such as analysis and critical thinking are far more difficult to assess by any automated method, including games, as they attempt to use quantitative methods to assess qualitative outcomes.

Games often have a binary, win or lose outcome that doesn’t accurately reflect the subtleties of degrees of competence or ability, and which can be counterproductive to learning through play when used as assessment.  By using external assessment processes and disassociating game performance from course grade, games can provide a safe learning environment in which failure in the immediate game context can actually be invaluable for further learning and growth.

As with any other form of assessment, including pen and paper tests, expertise in the assessment format – in this case, gaming literacy – can significantly alter the outcome of the assessment.  As always, assessment must genuinely assess the intended learning outcomes and not, for example, the ability to navigate effortlessly through the game world (a major issue even for experienced gamers when it comes to Second Life) or familiarity with general gaming conventions.  This suggests that assessing game based learning within the game environment would be a preferred approach, but while teachers may find it relatively easy to integrate innovative approaches within their teaching practice, applying this to assessment, particularly higher-stakes assessment, can provoke hostility from higher authorities.  Nicola did, however, reference the SQA’s GamesSpace initiative, presented at a CETIS special event earlier this year, as an example of a national assessment authority embracing such technologies for a major qualification strand.  GamesSpace is particularly worth noting as it allows the assessment of process and not simply product and incorporates human rather than automated marking: the candidate uses an avatar to progress through a series of role-related tasks, priorities and activities which are recorded in a format identical to the pen and paper alternative for manual human marking.

Learners too may demonstrate some hostility towards games as teaching aids – but this resistance is something that has been observed in relation to other innovative approaches too. Anything that appears to trivialise learning or that can be interpreted as trying to make learners ‘not feel they’re learning‘ can provoke scepticism and resistance in learners.  It can be hard to get away from the priviliging of traditional models of teaching and learning, from the scholars seated at the feet of the master, from the three essays in three hours make-or-break finals paper.  When learners can see the value in using such approaches, they are generally very willing to engage with them – learners are in general pragmatic, strategic and outcomes-orientated, whether their teachers like it or not.  Interestingly, Nicola’s research has demonstrated that a ‘propensity to play games for fun is in no way related to an inclination to play games for learning.’  She also cast some healthy scepticism on the oft-quoted finding that women play puzzles while men play shooters, pointing out that these findings come from surveys completed by self-selecting groups and can’t be taken as gospel; as a women who’d far rather shoot pigs than click cows I find it good to have my preferences acknowledged :)

The two sessions offered very different views of a sometimes controvertial field, and regardless of personal opinion these varied perspectives were invaluable.  This excellent series of seminars will be continuing for the rest of this year and into 2011 and is well worth engaging with, as is the rest of the project’s extensive and highly informative site.

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 ;)

2010 ALT Awards open for entries

The annual ALT awards recognise good and innovative practice and achievement in learning technology.  Entries for this year’s awards open this month in three categories: learning technology practitioners, learning and teaching resources and effective use of video.

  • Practitioners who feel they are ‘outstanding in the use of technology to support learning’ may enter the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year Award by Thursday 10 June.  The award is split in two streams depending on the status of the nominee.
  • The Jorum Learning and Teaching Competition which recognises ‘exciting, innovative learning and teaching resources’ will again be presented at ALT-C.
  • Information on the ALT/Epiguem Award for the Most Effective Use of Video will be available on the site shortly.

Awards will be presented at the ALT-C Gala Dinner in Nottingham.  Good luck to all who enter!

eAssessment Scotland 2010 – call for papers now open

Those of you interested in delivering a presentation or workshop to eAssessment Scotland 2010 have until 1 June to get your proposals in.   Themes for this year’s event include reports on successful implementations of eassessment within institutions, staff and student views, and emerging trends, techniques and tensions in eassessment.   This year’s conference, on the theme of Marking the Decade, will take place at the University of Dundee on 3 September and will include keynotes, presentations, seminars and posters as well as the second year of the Scottish eAssessment Awards; the event is free to attend and pre-registration is already open.

The investment gap

I’ve just had a short chat with a lecturer who was taking a quick break from the class he’s in the middle of teaching.  He mentioned that he was using a SmartBoard, and his frustration at seeing what he could do with the technology if only he’d had proper training in how to do so – as he said, being one of over 100 people at a 20 minute demonstration 18 months ago just doesn’t count as training, no matter how much the powers that be might want it to.

He also reported a similar situation at another institution at which he teaches, which has invested a great deal of money in technology enhanced classrooms and none in training people how to use them.  As a result, the potential of these classrooms is completely unused, and lecturers are frustrated at their lack of knowledge of how to tap into it.

‘They don’t need to pay us to train!’ he said, suggesting that both institutions simply open the classrooms for an hour or two some evenings with a technologist there to help people out, and let small groups get actual hands-on practice with the technology.  It’s just not reasonable to expect a lecturer to have his or her first experience of using new technology be in front of a class of 50 students.

This lecturer’s enthusiasm for exploring new ways of teaching, and his vision of the things he’d like to be able to do if only he knew how, were inspiring and infectious, and it’s so frustrating to see such a clear example of why new technologies aren’t being made the most of.  The reluctance to invest in adequately training staff to use the new technology an institution has just spent heavily on seems like a terrible false economy.