Monday, 28 February 2011

Troubleshooting technology, its all about understanding the terminology

Thought I would inject a little fun into this blog post today, a very funny video sent to me by a work colleague. Learning technologists often find themselves trying to explain all the different terminologies related to technologies and I think the following comedy sketch really sums this up. Of course they are talking about Blackberry mobile devices, among others, but you can really see how confusing our lives have become especially with the growing tend of companies naming their brands, products and services after everyday fruits... Enjoy, the blackberry sketch :)

P.S. also available on YouTube

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Peer Assisted learning using PDAs moves to Coverack geology fieldtrip

View Coverack (PDAs) in a larger map - N.B. a few icons have photos (select to view)

I have been working on another project (similar to the Kingsands geology fieldwork) with Dr Meriel Fitzpatrick and Dr Mark Anderson utilising GPS enabled PDAs, its a mobile assisted teaching resource for geology students. This time the location is a coastal village called Coverack in Cornwall (UK), unlike Kingsands which was a small section of beach north of Kingsands. This location covers over half a mile, as shown on the map from point 1 to 7. A few of the site locations have images of the PDAs being tested, click to show. A larger map view is recommended in order to view these photos. The blue line is where I was wandering between sites 3 and 7 during some opportune testing, but give some idea of how the devices are used as participants move between the sites.

This project received a teaching and learning fellowship in 2010, and is now flourishing into a working educational resource. Thanks also go to Tom Shelmerdine who also helped to gather a construct a lot of the data used in this resource.

This noble fieldwork resource will be tested with students in the latter part of March 2011.

More details available on the PedRIO database

Monday, 21 February 2011

Learning technologies for the Hydrographic Academy: thoughts on initial approaches

I thought it would be useful to talk about my thoughts and considerations for the newly formed Hydrographic Academy (brain child and project lead of Dr Richard Thain from BRNC Dartmouth/Plymouth University and collaborative partners from the Royal Navy, CENORE and Fugro). Learning technologists provide advice and guidance on approaches to any given technology, be it a simple portable device or a complete on-line/offline learning environment. What is tricky about the Hydrographic Academy is that the student base is very likely to be varied and distributed throughout the globe. These are the sort of comments I'm picking up on from the steering group meetings, mainly from our industrial partner and Royal Navy. Our learner base is very much likely to be those already working in some form of hydrographic surveying, therefore they are likely to be on board ship and away from appropriate internet connections. Granted, there is satellite broadband systems on their ships, but these can become strained (and availability very limited), especially when their systems are being used to send back important surveying data.

The solution to me seems to be very much to create an offline learning environment (Possibly a bespoke HTML interface as I see this as having greatest flexibility and longevity), we can utilise all the electronic learning goodies, but without the need to be constantly connected. Granted with this comes an increased burden on content development, as content cannot be continuously uploaded or updated to an internet based learning environment, like some would probably expect. For this to work properly, each potential module needs to be complete when leaving the University (e.g. DVD). It also must contain everything that is required for the course, so as not disadvantage those without a usable internet connection.

Here are a few considerations:
  • Internet connection speed
  • Access to internet
  • Access to PC
  • Work from home or while at sea
  • access to email
  • location and ability to send out digital content (e.g. DVD)
  • a lack of human interactivity (isolation)
  • ability to upload coursework (from time to time)
  • Tutoring
  • Will existing University administration fit with a modular approach?
  • Course construction
  • Who will be the content developers?
To elaborate on the above. It actually gets to a point that requirements dictate we should not rule out completely or consider it unreasonable for us to expect students to have access to 'some form of usable internet connection during the course' (particularly for tutoring), even if speeds are very slow for the majority of the time. However, what this does mean is that more commonly used technologies, the simple things, such as streaming video or interactive content on-line becomes a real issue, these can actually become a barrier to learning, rather than a help!

Other institutions such as Open University or the Robert Gordon utilise either a combination of pre-packaged or online content or both. With this brings the advantages of progressive release of content. However, online content for the Hydrographic Academy needs to be cut back for it to work for their usergroup.

Exceptions have to be made, particularly where it involves submission of marked coursework. Postal costs across the globe and the uncertainty of delivery (dependant on country) means that digital is probably the most reliable candidate (we will have to see from future trials if this is effective on not!) Perhaps using Plymouth University's existing system of SCOLAR, as I discuss previously, with its ability to set deadlines and allow students to submit coursework in an 'official' capacity, could be a solution. There is no point reinventing the wheel.

What about student motivation? It's bound to be lonely studying on a ship form time to time, and any learning technologist worth their salt has to consider the very real tendency for students to get side tracked (and tutoring...!) . Therefore to encourage student interaction and debate, there has to be some form of discussion group or forum available, which also allows them to feel a part of the University. Initial thoughts are to housed these again within the Tulip module area (Plymouth University's learning environment), with the premise that student would benefit from accessing this whenever a decent broadband connection or equivalent is available. Of course there is nothing wrong with emails, so something may have to be devised for this to work effectively! I reiterate, that coursework has to be all offline for this to be effective...

Administration concerns will be discuss in later posts, however, the real issue is the content development and how best for this to be achieved. Fugro have already kindly offered Mohive an elearning based learning system, which allows a considerable amount of formative testing and learning materials to be housed. Mohive is Flash based so with this comes concerns for some mobile devices ability to use these. The final solution may be that a decent laptop is the minimum so as to ensure students can read and interact appropriately.

What about the Human touch? Considering that these students will be missing out on lectures, the obvious approach is to package a structured lecture system in some form of vodcast/podcast using PowerPoint 2010's features, as I described back in November 2010. For me this approach leads itself well to academic empowerment and ownership, with the ability to use existing content. Equally, students get to hear and see simultaneously what their tutors are describing, something very important for their overall learning experience.

One thing is for sure, this is not going to be quick fix. There is a majority of 'potential learning technology users', that think of e-learning as a simple case of throwing a few slides and PDFs onto an intranet. This may lend itself well to campus based students, but we have to remember this does not suit all situations; consider this, how can we ensure the study plan happens as expected if content is just thrown onto the interface and they are 2000 miles away onboard a ship? In this situation, initial setup can take longer, with the biggest part being content development, and integrating this into different digital environments appropriately. The advantages come later, when modules are complete, and we find maintenance is very low. If we as Learning Technologists have done our jobs properly, academics should be able to make content changes themselves more rapidly (this is where the expectations of 'quick fix' actually happens). Now no longer having to worry about the content, tutors can concentrate on ensuring their students are happy in their studies.

Im currently only assigned 1.25 days a week on this project, so I have to ensure my work is extremely focused! Interesting times ahead. Time to start working on the user interface, all good fun with HTML. Need to consider how it will look graphically too!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Hydrographic Academy logo development

Dr Richard Thain came to me with his idea for the 'Hydrographic Academy', he felt that an academy needs a logo to give it a proper identity. Ok so what do we do... I personally felt that the key to logo design is ensuring that it says something about the organisation or what the organisation can do. I'm thinking back to one of my old business study courses: 'Design in Business' for which my main project was looking at logo designs. Funny how these things come in handy. I digress...

We brain-stormed several ideas for the Hydrographic Academy, but the key element was that of a connection with water, its about hydrographic surveying and related subjects after all. Richard leaves it with us...

Ok, so I had to think about what angle to go for...Inspiration comes in many forms, but before diving in, we really need to do our market research, what is already out there? Equally, we don't want to come across as copycats. Looking around at companies and competitors there are a plethora of formats, some do indeed have a watery theme, but they tended to reflect the surveying parts, and or the geographical elements. For an academic theme I felt there was scope for this to be much broader. I also had a chat with my wife (yes, I know cheesy as this sounds), she has a very good eye for detail and has done a few logos herself for work. She said that she generally favours simplification for a few reasons, which I also agree:

1) its easier to reproduce the logo when printed in colour and or black and white (go for as few colours as possible).
2) simpler designs can actually have a greater impact and appeal visually. If it's too complicated people don't always make the association of a logo with an organisation.
3) you are less likely to get colour clashes when used in online materials.

So, Im happy with the simplification approach, now onto the concept map. I decided it must have waves, because waves are used to represent both sound (ultrasound) and water. There is also a scientific element to this, light 'can' travel in waves... The first ideas I had was of putting the wave behind the lettering of 'Hydrographic Academy' using a mask, giving it a wordy water tank feel, but I found this looked very busy and not professional. The wave was good, but what about the rest? I also felt we should use some black, its a neutral colour, and in many fields it is associated with authority and respect. Look at Police or Naval officer uniforms as examples.

Right, so I have two concepts that would fit well, the wave theme, the black to represent authority (e.g. the Navy) plus the hidden deep ocean waters often surveyed. All I needed was the simplicity part, using black and white was staring me in the face. White representing light (ideas) and the sky, it also gives a fantastic contrast. I juggled with various examples of ordering and placement of the wording, but the complete word 'Hydrographic Academy' does not lend itself well to manipulation. Although, I also felt we needed the full description for it to work properly.

What about using 'HA' on top of the the 'Hyrographic Academy'? Could work, people often abbreviate organisations in conversation, even the University of Plymouth is often referred to as 'UoP' in informal conversations. To make sure that there is no difficulty in reproducing fonts and to avoided usability and accessibility, its always best to go for the San Serif ones. Yes you have guessed it, versions of San Serif has been with us since the late 18th century (giving it an established feel), what better way to reflect the marine history with the University of Plymouth.

After numerous versions thrown out, I arrived with the logo you see. In this design it comfortably takes 'hydrographic academy' underneath the main lettering of the HA, thus providing additional information about what it means and also provides that 'underlined' effect. I finally put the 'THE' at the bottom of the 'H' as if it had sunk to the ocean floor waiting to be discovered, its a bit of a fun twist to the overall visuals.

After firing off this design to Richard, I was happy to get a positive response, he felt it should goto the next steering group meeting for comment, where it was accepted. Hence this post you are reading now.

The Hydrographic Academy and related logos are the copyright of Plymouth University