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Moodle 2: Improving the help functions

January 24, 2013 1 comment

One of the common critiques of Moodle is that when you need some information on how to do stuff, it may take you some time finding what you are looking for and the information may not always be available in the most user friendly fashion.

moodle_docsMoodle 2 promises a range of interesting and useful tools. However at times, might leave us feeling exasperated when we look up that guidance sheet and realise it doesn’t contain what we need. Or that we may be referred to another resource all of which wastes more time. Or that we might have preferred another type of resource for e.g a short video since this may suit our learning style.

The forthcoming move to the latest version of Moodle (Moodle 2) has given us the opportunity to think about the many ways we provide guidance on Moodle and what may need revisiting. Not least of these is the structure of the Moodle guidance area. To address this, the Moodle 2 guidance working group(consisting of Educational Technologists from across the University) have been looking at how we provide resources for staff and students that are both engaging and inspiring, accommodate a range of learning styles and are available at our finger tips.

Currently resources are provided through Moodle in the form of a ‘teaching with Moodle‘ module. The educational technologists in each school provide a variation of this module dependent on their needs. In addition, one to ones and small group sessions are also on hand in schools for staff and students. A recent QAA report highlighted that students had rated the Moodle resources to be helpful. Since moodle is an open source product, there is scope yet, for adapting the guides to meet local needs.

Having taken some advice from universities such as Lancaster, Bath and UCL, the Moodle 2 Guidance WG are structuring a guidance area that will include all the SLE related technologies. The guidance area will adopt a more user friendly format and include how to guides, frequently asked questions(FAQs), demonstration and best practice ideas. A workshop is being planned to help build up the training materials and the guidance will be ready when staff commence training from Easter. More details to follow soon.

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New Learning Spaces: Method of Evaluation

December 17, 2012 Leave a comment
Observation in evaluating learning spaces

Observation in evaluating learning spaces

This is a continuation of ideas being developed around the evaluation of learning spaces at City University London.

At City University London there is a need to better understand the effectiveness of new learning spaces that are being created. City University London is currently engaged in the redevelopment of its estate. A major part of this is the re-conceptualization of the Learning Spaces. The Learning Development Centre (LDC) is working closely with City’s Property and Facilities to ensure that pedagogical principles are considered in the redesigning of City University’s learning spaces.

Understanding the effectiveness of new learning spaces is crucial for two reasons: to evaluate the effectiveness of a space newly created and to prepare better for future learning spaces design and construction. As such, this formal evaluation will be a ‘post-occupancy evaluation’ of the space. It is this stage of the evaluation cycle that presents the greatest challenges in aligning the evaluation method with the rational and practical outcomes that drove design intent. However, it is also crucial as the formative model for a full design and evaluation process, and as a source of data for new informal and collaborative spaces (Lee, 2009 in Radcliffe et al, 2009).

At a broad level, it is important for educational developers and education researchers to better understand how lecturers and students relate to the new built environment and what this means for the exchange of knowledge. To this purpose, it is understood that efforts to develop more effective learning spaces need to be informed by the extensive research into environmental behaviour and psychology (Jamieson, 2007).

To this end, I am found that the observation method is a popular tool in evaluating new learning spaces (Radcliffe et al, 2009).  Observations are builds on the principle that for research into the use and effectiveness of the new learning spaces, it is best to observe what actually happens in the natural setting (Descomber, 2003) rather than to ask for thoughts retrospectively.

In line with the epistemology of participating observation, this study would enable the research team to participate in natural learning situations, enabling better understanding of the learning processes involved in the new spaces. The observations will take place in the natural learning spaces as the research team is interested in the effects of the environment on learning as it happens, rather than they happen under artificially created conditions. This allows the research team to record information as it happens and record critical incidents as they occur (Creswell, 2009).

The observation method has a number of characteristics which cannot be found in other education research methods and which are better suited in understanding the new learning spaces. These include:

  1. It directly records what the user does in the space, as distinct from what they say they do are their perception of the room.
  2. Observation is well matched with other research methods being applied in understanding the SLE and learning spaces. As it is more about the behaviour it complements well other research methods that rely mainly on sharing thoughts.
  3. When combined with contextual information, which will be the case here, observation can give significant insight on the effects of the learning space on behaviour.

We are continually working on developing our research methods for evaluating the learning spaces. Please do share your thoughts and experiences of evaluating learning spaces.

Moodle 2: How file management will work

December 10, 2012 Leave a comment

As posted in Educational Vignettes  Moodle 2 is coming to City University London for academic year 2013-14 and one of the changes it brings is in file management. This post looks at the improvements in file management with Moodle 2 and is the first in a series of posts on how the investment in educational technologies will provide you with opportunities to enhance your teaching practice and support student learning

One of the most significant differences between Moodle 1.9 and Moodle 2 is the way in which files are managed. From feedback collected, improved content management was identified as a priority for staff using Moodle at City University London and Moodle, it seems, has delivered with Moodle 2.0.

opening-files

The internal file manager within Moodle 2, called the File Picker, offers two key improvements in the handling of files:

  1. Quicker and easier method for organising resources through the use of a simple drag and drop interface, where academics will be able to drag and drop files directly onto their module homepage or into the File Picker. Currently, you need to browse to upload your file, so the drag and drop will save clicking and time. For more information about how to drag and drop works in Moodle 2 have a look at this video. Students will also have option of dragging and dropping files from their computer into a Moodle 2 assignment; reducing the amount of clicks involved when submitting an assignment.
  2. More effective ways of managing/storing files, which offers better flexibility in accessing and linking to files across modules. This allows for linked files to be automatically updated with any changes to the master file, ensuring that important information for students is always kept up-to-date.

The progress so far

After a review of external file management solutions, the Repository Working Group (whose membership includes Educational Technologists from each School and the Learning Development Centre) recommended the use of the internal file manager within Moodle 2. The Repository Working Group is currently investigating areas where improvements can be made to the File Picker to further improve the workflow when adding files and also exploring the additional opportunities offered through accessing other internal and external repositories.

We will be providing you with regular updates on how you can enhance your teaching practice and support your student learning through the Strategic Learning Environment (SLE) projects, so watch this space.

Chromakey

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Chromakeying is a technique where a particular colour in video footage is removed and replaced with another video or image. Examples include weather broadcasts where a plain background behind the presenter is replaced with a weather map. The colour being removed can be any hue, but typically it is blue (blue screen) or more commonly green (green screen). The reason for blue and green is simple – skin doesn’t contain any blue or green tones and so remains unaffected by the colour removal. Of course, it’s important to ensure any presenters or actors are not wearing any garments the same colour as the background or these will magically disappear too! There are special blue or green suits that can be worn by actors who need to be removed from the scene – typically they are used to secretly direct animals or hold props in mid air for magical effects.

a dog against blue screen

a dog against blue screen

blue removed and a new background added

blue removed and a new background added

Blue and green screens work very effectively but green tends to be a better choice. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, green is a much brighter colour and software finds it easier to find and remove, particularly when it’s not lit very well. Secondly, cameras tend to be more sensitive to green and have more room set aside to record green information. And thirdly, people tend to wear more blue clothing than green, so it’s a little more practical. The Media & Innovation Lab (MILL) has recently upgraded its studio chromakey with a very pure blue hue, which does work much better than the old paint, which was a standard shade from a hardware store. The reason blue was chosen was quite simple – green is quite garish and as the studio walls are often used just as a plane background, it seemed sensible to stick with the blue.

Most video software has some kind of keying filter for removing blue/green backgrounds and these are tending to get better and better. Final Cut Pro X has a particularly effective one that does a remarkable job, even on default settings. The general rule for good chromakey is to make the blue or green as bright and as consistently lit as possible and to keep the foreground objects sharp and well defined. Blurred images or fast moving objects (which cause motion blur) can give poor results because of the blurring – the software finds it difficult to decide what exactly is the blue/green background and what exactly is foreground. Fine hair also gives similar issues.

blurring problem: what's foreground and what's background?

blurring problem: what’s foreground and what’s background?

Another issue is the video recording itself – most cameras record the brightness and colour information at different qualities, so although there may be lots of detail in the picture, the colour information is much cruder and this affects the ability to isolate foregrounds from coloured backgrounds. High-end cameras record brightness and colour at similar qualities that leads to finer quality removals.

Chromakeying is used extensively for special effects in movies and television, where coloured backgrounds can be replaced with computer generated cities or worlds. TV news use it also – news readers occupy small blue or green rooms which are replaced with much grander computer generated studios. High-end chromakey software and hardware is much better at dealing with blurring and shadows so that the foreground fits seamlessly into their new artificial background. Here’s a few examples – some are quite astonishing.

The MILL recently shot several films against blue screen for use in the Shareville project at the School of Health Sciences. Shareville is a web-based virtual town developed by Birmingham City University with a college, care home and range of colourful characters. These characters are played by actors filmed against blue/green screen, which is removed and replaced with (quite elaborate) computer generated rooms and environments. When lit properly, the characters do look as if they’re actually in the locations rather than against a coloured wall. This was the first big project using the MILL’s new blue screen walls and flooring and so far, the blue seems to be coming off really well. The only problems coming up are caused by the relatively low quality colour detail in the recording, causing a little roughness on foreground elements, especially hair, and dark shadows under feet, which are staying as black blobs.

Filming Shareville against bluescreen in the MILL's TV studio

Filming Shareville against bluescreen in the MILL’s TV studio

Other uses for chromakey at City have included presentations where slides display behind the presenter and interviews shot against blue and then replaced with more appealing backgrounds.

The alternative to chromakeying is to draw around every foreground element for every frame of video, and cut it out from the background – a process known as rotoscoping. This gives fantastic results but is a very laborious process. However, this is sometimes the only solution in features, especially when the character steps outside the coloured background or the blue/green screen isn’t clear enough because of dust, smoke or mist.

University teaching: insights from a Business Professor of the Year nominee

November 15, 2012 Leave a comment

A month ago, Dr Nick Motson and Professor Meziane Lasfer from the Cass Business School at City were nominated by their past and present students for the Business Professor of the Year award in the ‘only global contest to recognise and reward excellence in Business teaching’.

 

I wasn’t surprised that Nick had been nominated for this prestigious award, as last year he invited me to peer review one of his lectures and it was there that I witnessed first-hand why he was (and indeed remains) a popular lecturer at Cass. My review ended with this:

Nick on the whole you do a fantastic job of asking your students many questions throughout your lecture, this shows that you really care about what they think. You have a good rapport with your students and your teaching style is energetic and enthusiastic – this really brings the lecture alive. It is clear that you spend a lot of time preparing for your lectures and thinking about how they will be delivered in a way that is interesting for your students and I think your students genuinely appreciate this.

So what is the secret to Nick’s successful teaching approach? I recently interviewed Nick to find out more, starting at the beginning of his teaching career less than a decade ago…

Following completion of a Banking & International Finance degree at the-then City University Business School (now the Cass Business School), Nick worked as a trader in investment banking from 1992 – 2005, gaining a wealth of practical industry experience. From 1999 – 2001 Nick studied for a Masters in Finance at the London Business School and it was during this time that he realised how much he enjoyed studying. Encouraged by his Masters experience, and spurred on by supportive guidance from a lecturer who taught him during his undergraduate days, Nick subsequently saved up to study for a PhD at the Cass Business School, which he began in 2005. Nick’s PhD study was in part funded by the Foundation for Management Education (FME), who offered him a two-year fellowship in exchange for contribution to teaching and research at Cass. Nick credits the FME for helping him make the transition from industry to academic teaching, and further with later funding him through the International Teachers Programme (ITP – a development programme organised by a group of 11 leading business schools located in Europe, North America and Asia).

Towards the end of his PhD, Nick was approached by Cass to teach as module leader for several electives as part of their MSc programme. Armed with pedagogic know-how and industry experience, in 2006 Nick set about developing his modules, including ones on Hedge Funds and Structured Products which proved very popular amongst students.

The key to Nick’s teaching success is his ability to bring current, real-world case studies and issues in the classroom, using a teaching by questioning approach to encourage active student engagement. This is a boon for students and employers alike. For example, Nick uses his lectures to actively demonstrate the Bloomberg Terminal (a suite of financial software tools), and the practical skills that students learn from these sessions have been described as excellent by future employers (see also cass case study). A leading investment bank also fed-back to Nick that the product knowledge exhibited by his former students is impressive and better than that of students from other business schools.

Nick is modest of his teaching success, saying he is lucky in that the topics he covers are inherently practical and of great interest to him, adding “if you haven’t got passion for the subject, it is very difficult to teach”. Nonetheless it is clear that Nick devotes a significant amount of time in preparing his modules and lectures to ensure that they remain practically relevant and up-to-date for his students entering into a rapidly evolving industry. His strategies for doing so are simple:

1)      Maintain links and contact with industry to stay on top of differing trends and establish an understanding of the skills that employers want. Nick does this by working as a consultant trainer for private bankers, teaching them the same subjects as for his Cass students whilst simultaneously learning from key experts also involved in the private training courses. In addition, Nick advocates partnering with industry organisations – he describes working with the CAIA (Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst) association in a mutually beneficial way. Here Nick offers to teach 60% of CAIA’s curriculum for a particular programme, and Nick’s students benefit since this comes with the assurance that CAIA’s topics are up-to-date with market needs. Furthermore, Nick describes that associations like CAIA can help run events for students, and offer students to sit their accredited exams at a substantially reduced cost.

2)      Keep in touch with your students to keep in the loop. Nick uses social media like LinkedIn to keep in touch with his former students and learn from them how the market is evolving and has changed since they were students on his course. Nick brings this knowledge into his teaching and has even had one former student invite his boss into a lecture as an external guest speaker.

Speaking about the future, Nick tells me that there are a couple of exciting developments on the horizon, enthusiastically pointing out a range of new programmes currently being considered for approval, in addition to further partnering with other organisations. Given Nick’s successful teaching track record, I’ve no doubt these new programmes will be highly popular amongst students.

I wish both him and Meziane well in going through to the next round in this year’s Business Professor of the Year contest.

Siân Lindsay

Siân Lindsay is a Lecturer in Educational Development at the LDC and is the LDC academic liaison for the Cass Business School at City University London.

‘Just come in and hook up’: The simple case for implementing Apple TV in Higher Education

November 1, 2012 7 comments

Image

This educational vignette makes the simple case that Higher Education Institutes, including City University London, should adopt Apple TV because it will benefit both staff and students. Apple TV, has the potential to be a very useful learning technology.

City University London is currently engaged in the redevelopment of it’s estate. A major part of this is the reconceptualization of the Learning Spaces. The Learning Development Centre (LDC) is working closely with City’s Property and Facilities to ensure that pedagogical principles are considered in the redesigning of City University’s learning spaces. This is a very positive development, as learning spaces  is a combination of pedagogy and environmental psychology.

Students and staff can directly connect to the lecture room projector without the need of wires.

As part of the Learning Spaces stategy, City University London has created the Learning Spaces Group (LSG), led by Annemarie Cancienne and comprising City University staff with variety of roles including academics, students, researchers and professional staff . In LSG’s September meeting, I put this idea forward to the group; I suggested that by adopting Apple TV in our learning spaces it would benefit City University  students and staff.

This is because, I argued that although Apple TV is made to be used for more than just the lecture room (for example to download material from the iTunes store and connect to the internet) the Airplay feature of Apple TV makes it a great learning technology. Airplay gives the user the ability to project/ mirror their device in a classroom setting wireless and without the need to of restricting movement around the projector system.

Mirroring – puts your audience in the palm of the presenters’ hand.

Here are my top eight advantages for implementing Apple TV at City University London:

  1. Standard wireless set up across all rooms, sites and even between Universities. This is important as the user will find it easier to ‘just come in and hook up’.
  2. All Apple devices feature iTunes and the implementation of  Airplay allows users to stream music in a room without having to connect with a wire.
  3. Potentially, a group of students can come together in a learning space, use their Apple devices to project their work and should they wish, they can have their own personalised music playing in the background.
  4. Just by connecting the device and Apple TV to the same Wi-Fi network, the AirPlay icon automatically appears. Then the user simply taps the AirPlay icon in a specific app — Photos, Videos, Music, Safari, or any AirPlay-enabled app — and everything streams to the projector via Apple TV. It’s a simple way that allows students and staff to play material on the bigger screen and the lecture rooms sound system.
  5. Students can have better group discussions by being able to simply share any discussion related content straight from their Apple devices.
  6. All staff and students can use Apple TV to project their presentations straight from their Apple device, giving them more control and flexibility in their presentation. They do not need to worry about transferring their presentation slides to the projector computer as they can connect their Apple device directly. Also, they will no longer be restricted to one location, and instead they can walk around with their device at hand. Finally, they can control their slides seamlessly and if they use the Apple Keynote, they will have the ability to see their up coming slides.
  7. Furthermore, academic staff can use it as an effective tool for for lecturing. It can be used like a presentation tool (as outlined above) or it can be used in more creative ways to engage students with the material. One creative method is to use subject related apps on the Apple Device and project it to the students. This is great because there are many high quality educational apps in the App Store that can be used to demonstrate to students. In addition, the lecture could ask the students to connect to the projector with their device and to then demonstrate their own work. Please note that although the above examples are from schools, I think that the application of the technology is applicable in HE.
  8. I was recently in a meeting that desperately needed this technology. The speaker wanted to demonstrate the document he was referring to via his iPad but could not do this easily with the current provisions. So instead, after many failed attempts to connect the iPad with the projector system, he gave up and instead downloaded a copy of his presentation and opened it via PowerPoint. If Apple TV was present in that room, then it could have been used to allow speakers to demonstrate without the need to leave their seat or fiddle with wires.

I also recognise the limitations that come with using Apple TV as a learning technology. The three significant challenges are:

  1. Although Apple products are not the sole technology used at City University by staff and students, they are nonetheless very common. Recent research at City University (Reader, Lindsay, Sultany, 2012) shows that Apple devices account for 35% of many of the mobile devices our students us. This research is one year old and I believe this number has only increased recently, due to the launch of new apple products in 2012, including new range of Macbook Pro, iPhone 5 and iPad mini.
  2. The ability of City University’s wireless network to handle the potential new network traffic. AirPlay lets you wireless stream what’s on your iOS device to an external device and speakers via Apple TV, but this comes with the cost of more pressure on the wireless network. City University London is currently in the process of upgrading it’s network so this may no longer be an issue.
  3. Another limitation is the need for the projector system, or in the case of City University the “lecture pods” need to have an HDMI port. However, if the pods do not have this capability, a quick solution is to purchase the relevant converter (in City’s case, a HDMI to VGA converter).

The Learning Development Centre (LDC) at City University London is currently leading on a new learning space located at its new home, Goswell Place. This will act as a pilot space to develop our ideas further about our educational provisions, namely the further development of learning spaces. This space would be the perfect environment to pilot Apple TV and the Airplay capabilities.

Reference

MEETING THEM WHERE THEY?RE AT? ? EXPLORING STUDENT PERSPECTIVES OF MOBILE LEARNING IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Kate Reader, Sian Lindsay, Ajmal Sultany. Proceedings of the IADIS International Conference Mobile Learning. Berlin, Germany 11-13 March 2012.  Edited by Inmaculada Arnedillo Sánchez and Pedro IsaíasISBN (Book): 978-972-8939-66-3. http://www.iadisportal.org/mobile-learning-2012-proceedings

The rise of the still camera for film making

October 2, 2012 2 comments

Despite both using light to record images, until recently the worlds of video-making and photography were distinct entities, requiring separate equipment and facilities. If you wanted to take professional-looking photographs, you’d buy a SLR camera with a couple of good lenses. If you wanted to make quality videos, you’d buy a video camera: one with a decent flip out screen and professional microphone inputs. With the transition to digital over the past 15 years, the two worlds have become entwined and still cameras have become so proficient at recording video, the term ‘still’ is now a little misleading. We’re heading to the age of the hybrid – a camera that can shoot both photos and videos in superb quality.

Until recently, the only digital still cameras that would shoot video were small compacts. The video mode was a bit of a novelty; if you were out and about and wanted to grab a bit of video, then you’ll turn the dial, point and shoot. The quality wasn’t particularly inspiring but it was good enough. The big change came when Nikon decided to place high definition video onto one of its digital SLR cameras – the D90. With its large sensor and the ability to take a range of lenses, a whole assortment of creative possibilities were unleashed. HD video meant crisp, detailed visuals. A large sensor meant video could now be shot at night or in low light with great results. Zoom and wide angle lenses would lead to interesting shots and angles. And most importantly, the large sensor and flexible aperture could give a very narrow depth of field, enabling blurred backgrounds for truly cinematic shots. The man on the street now had a camera that was capable of true cinema.

Blurred backgrounds resulting from a large sensor and open iris on the lens

Canon soon released their version and pretty soon every camera manufacturer followed suit. We now have a range of dSLR cameras that can shoot stunning video and the quality is improving all the time. Canon recently released the EOS-1D, a camera capable of shooting 4K (ultra high def) video – the quality we see projected at the cinema. And something not to forgot – these are predominately still cameras, designed for taking beautiful photos.

It sounds like a winning combination – a still camera that can take great video. But it isn’t all positive: there are several limitations.

Firstly, despite being small and easy to carry, the shape of a dSLR isn’t always practical for shooting videos, especially over several hours. In response, some manufactures have produced rigs for carrying dSLRs on your shoulder or in more comfort. They also produce monitors, focusing systems and a range of other ingenious accessories.

A dSLR camera rig

Secondly, although they can record sound, many have poor setups for external microphones meaning the sound has to be recorded on a separate unit and later matched to the recorded footage. This is how it’s done in the movies, but it makes editing a little more time consuming. And, it’s very easy to forget to press record on the audio recorder!

Thirdly, the exclusions of important assist functions – like zebra lines indicating overly bright areas – make setting up a little trickier.

Most dSLRs also have slow & noisy autofocusing, can only record short clips at a time and suffer from moiré (distracting patterns on areas of small detail). One would think these limitations would be a huge burden and get in the way. They do, but if you work around them, the quality of the footage is so good it more than makes up for the pain.

As cameras develop, these limitations (especially the length of clip and quality of autofocus) are successfully being addressed. Some cameras have even been ‘hacked’ – users have written their own computer software that give them extra features and functions. One of the most popular is the Magic Lantern software for Canon cameras. Video quality can be vastly improved together with enhanced features for audio recording onto the camera itself. A hack for the Panasonic GH2 – the dSLR owned by The MILL – can raise its video quality so high, it can match the footage from a movie camera costing ten times as much.

So, if still cameras are becoming so good at taking video, what about the dedicated video camera? These still exist of course and many are great at what they do. They do have fast, silent autofocus and better setups for sound. And some even take stills photos! But most have built-in lenses and small sensors, which in my opinion will ultimately lead to their downfall. We are heading towards the hybrid super camera capable of all things visual: photos; video – maybe even ultra slow motion. The Panasonic AF-100 is probably the closest thing to it – a reasonably small video camera which takes dSLR camera lenses, and is capable of stunning results. It’s expensive at £5,000 but the size, weight and price of these cameras will come down over time.

Panasonic AF-100

This is a very exciting time for digital movie making and cameras in general. We now have cameras that can send their images and footage wirelessly to a laptop, cameras with such good shake reduction that they can iron out any wobble or jolts by the user. The new Apple iPhone has a fantastic camera for shooting hi-def video. Not only that, you can edit the video on the phone and upload it to a hosting site without the need for a separate PC. I’m looking forward to a camera that can do that to. Maybe the future of the camera is a pair of spectacles you wear on your head that records exactly what you see!

We’ve shot a couple of videos with a dSLR in the MILL with great results and have some exciting projects in the pipeline where good visuals are a must. Many amateur and independent film makers use dSLRs to make their films and many are showcased on Vimeo, which is always worth a visit. As an example, below is a short video I shot in July 2012 for a competition. It was filmed in a darkened room with my dSLR, the Canon 550D. A normal video camera would have had great difficulty bringing out the level of detail in such low light or providing the depth of field I ultimately achieved. Enjoy.

 

Recommended dSLR cameras: Canon EOS 5D Mk II or Mk III (expensive but industry standard), Panasonic GH2 (cheaper camera but capable of equal or better results)

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