Skip navigation

Category Archives: technology

I was very pleased to be at the launch of LITEbox today; a new initiative from the University of Bath that is  ‘…aiming to provide opportunities for staff and students to learn, share, explore and develop new and existing technologies for learning, teaching and research.’

It is doing this in three ways:

  • space and technology development
  • skills development
  • knowledge exchange

We were given demonstrations of how the newly equipped teaching spaces (of which there will be more) are being used to help support collaborative learning, and how VIA Collage can be used to support students on group projects share their work when using different devices.

We also saw examples of apps for teaching and learning, created by staff and students with the App Factory and the ease of their production.

LITEbox will be bringing  to light more examples of the use of technology in teaching, learning and research very soon, and also supporting new developments, so watch this space*!



I’ll admit to being a digital badge sceptic when I first encountered them.

But being in turn a student and later a support tutor on non credit-bearing online courses where badges were awarded, I’ve seen them act as rewards and also motivators (at least anecdotally) and find my mind changing.

I believe my initial scepticism was due to my thinking of digital badges only in the context of credit-bearing courses where they appeared to be irrelevant; credits count for something, what is a badge worth? Of course, credits, badges, certificates of attendance all have the value ascribed to them (by the issuer and the recipient): we have fixed the exchange rate for university credit, but badges are still negotiable, they will be worth as much as we make them worth. Could digital badges do something that credit can’t? Can badges go where credit doesn’t? My own institution has a plethora of activity for staff and students that are not and probably never will be credit bearing. Do badges have a place there: rewarding, encouraging, signposting opportunities, building a sense of community…?

Bath Digital Badges - purpose

Would it be wrong to get a badge simply for turning up? But is turning up more than it looks, not trivial but the first step in that journey of a thousand miles, without which we go nowhere. Or do we need to receive that first badge in order to experience what it’s like which, if positive, might then prompt us to look for opportunities to repeat the experience? Perhaps they are useful external motivators when ‘the joy of learning’ seems elusive and we find it hard to appreciate our own progress.

Possible problems are if digital badges distract from what is important (but the same can be said of any reward, including credit) or if they are time-consuming to set up and administer. Though this can done in many ways, my experience of digital badges awarded through WordPress and Moodle is that they are quite straightforward to set up, certainly not a great technical challenge, and can be awarded automatically without tutor intervention if required.

Though I don’t have a direct use for digital badges at the moment, I shall be following their uptake, particularly in UK HE, and how they are implemented.

If you have made a decision to use an e-portfolio or only to investigate if an e-portfolio is the right tool for your purpose, the first step is answer these questions:

  • what do you need?
  • what do you have?

What do you need?

The more precisely you can answer this question, the easier it will be to eliminate unsuitable tools and be confident that you have made an informed choice, so time invested here will be saved later.

Firstly, what exactly is the tool to be used for? Possibilities (which are not mutually exclusive) include:

  • showcase (displaying best work)
  • development (CPD or PDP)
  • assessment
  • reflection
  • CV

Knowing this will enable you to anticipate what you need in terms of such aspects as:

  • content (What will learners want to add to their e-portfolio – formats, file size etc.?)
  • access (Who needs access? For how long? Who has control over this?)
  • accessibility (important for both students and staff)
  • ownership (Is this a feature of the tool? Does it match you anticipated use of the tool?)
  • security (Where is the data kept? What are the backup arrangements?)

What do you have?

This will generally fall into the categories of:

  • knowledge (theoretical research; prior experience)
  • skills (to support technical needs and the people involved)
  • time
  • budget

To some degree, these can be traded off against one another; for instance, having more time can be used to conduct research to gain knowledge; a budget can be used to buy expertise to train users in the necessary skills. Knowledge is at the top of a list as it is probably your biggest asset; take the opportunity to make use of the experience of staff (and students!) and what you can find out about the experience at other institutions; don’t waste precious time finding out the hard way what someone already knew and would have told you (re-inventing wheels, and all that).

making a choice

Making a choice (click to enlarge)

Making a comparison

From this you can draw up a comparison table of those tools available, identifying those that give you what you need, and require no more than that which you are able to provide.

A presentation from Meredith Henson, Business Development Manager of Catalyst IT, brought us details of the latest on Mahara, as Bath have updated to Version 1.10.2.

The new capacity to integrate social networking and digital badges is very welcome, as is the ability to create Collections: groupings of Pages, so enabling the user to form multiple page presentations.

It looks like and feels like Moodle, which is natural given Mahara’s roots. So if you are happy with Moodle and comfortable with its use, Mahara would make a natural companion, especially as they can be integrated allowing data to flow between them.

Examples of Mahara in use can be found at:

Day 1
Jeff Haywood (Edinburgh) talked much about online education and the future of this at Edinburgh. We were encouraged to be cautious about ‘new’ things as they tended not to be truly revolutionary in an educational sense (probably something a lot of us can relate to) and that change in education is slow (ditto). Not surprisingly, MOOCs were discussed: a theme that ran throughout the conference. Haywood cautioned us that whatever we think about MOOCs they are having an effect on the business of universities and cannot be ignored. He also contrasted the type and level of marketing of MOOCs compared with other courses from the same university.

Bryan Mathers spoke of needing a culture that learnt from everything it does, not just its successes, and also measuring properly what it does.

Fiona Harvey (Southampton) summarised what the ALT MOOC SIG has been doing over the past year, forthcoming events (e.g. webinars), and shared her (very useful) collection of links A meeting of the SIG later in the day enabled it to start planning future work.

Day 2
The DigiLit Leicester project, from Lucy Atkins, Josie Fraser and Richard Hall, includes the city council, DMU and all 23 secondary schools in Leicester, on developing teachers’ digital literacy skills. We heard about how teachers were involved from the start in developing a framework which would help them to assess their competency.

Catherine Cronin’s (Galway) talk ‘Navigating the marvellous: openness in education’ inspired much comment and conversation. Her key themes were: open, divide, spaces and identity. With thought provoking quotes on openness from Michael Apple (‘Education is inherently an ethical and political act’) and Jim Groom (‘…openness is an ethos not a licence…’) we were encouraged to see openness to include using open resources, sharing materials and thoughts, and enabling students to do the same. The divide included that which is suggested as being between formal and informal learning, with the latter being invalid. Spaces were real/online, open bounded and experienced: were we ever in a space where we felt so ‘other’ we couldn’t breathe? We were also reminded that a learning space (e.g. VLE, classroom) is not the learning space.

Andrew Smith (OU) gave an example of using Twitter to make his active courses visible to a wider audience, raising awareness of the courses and enabling those outside the student cohort to interact with the material.

David White (U for the Arts) looked into pupils’ expectation of technology in the classroom. Pupils have little expectation of technology being incorporated into pedagogy in HE, perhaps because of way they saw teachers use technology in school. Whereas pupils believe themselves to be digitally literate they perhaps are overestimating their true ability. Telling pupils not to Google is ineffective as often it appears to work! Better to help them to refine their search techniques.

Graeme Pate (Glasgow) gave an example of using Twitter with student teachers. Their Tweets were either: reinforcing, questioning (including students answering questions of other students ahead of the tutor) and linking. Though students were keen to use twitter (including in other modules) there were practical issues such as recharging mobile devices (insufficient points), Wi-Fi overload, BYOD disparity (did this disadvantage some?), multitasking challenges etc.

Day 3

Audrey Watters explained that she was a folklorist. Her keynote: ‘Ed-tech, Frankenstein’s monster and teacher machines’ challenged us to examine both our distrust of technology and our fascination. She urged us to love and care for our machine lest they become monsters, and to engage with them not just be mesmerised by the shiny.

Martin Hawksey (ALT) reported on the ocTEL 2014 course, particularly on the use of open badges. Different kinds of badges were made available, ranging in the amount and type of engagement that was needed to be awarded them, from simply checking in (which showed who was ‘there’ that week), through commenting, blogging etc.

In ‘Hygiene factors: using VLE minimum standards to avoid student dissatisfaction’, Peter Reed (Liverpool) asked us, what is the opposite of satisfaction? Herzberg suggests ‘no satisfaction’ rather than dissatisfaction, and this session looked at what students wanted expected from the VLE and hence what absences caused dissatisfaction. It was found that staff were largely predicting what students wanted on the VLE (e.g. lecture notes, past exam papers, further reading lists, timetables, contact details etc.) but greatly underestimating how much they wanted them.


Thanks to everyone who put made this year’s conference possible. Next year’s ALT-C with be ‘Shaping the future of learning together’, September 8-10, 2015, held at the University of Manchester.

See you there!

Having been part of designing a MOOC and a learner on several, this is my first experience of acting in an online support role on one.

Four weeks in and I am having to give myself the same advice I hand out to participants ‘Don’t try to do it all’ (or ‘Keep calm in the face of abundance‘ as it is put in ocTEL.) There are (gratifyingly!) so many forum posts, blog posts and Tweets, it’s tempting to try to keep up with everything, and I’m sure participants feel much the same.

I like being able to use a variety of tools to engage with the material and interact with other ocTEL-ers, but when I was reviewing the material initially, I wondered how participants would be able to follow all the different communication streams that would be created. Fortunately, the Course Reader has made easy work of this, and thanks to some clever tech-enabled coordination being the scenes (Thanks, Martin), Tutors and Support Tutors can make sure we keep up with posts and comments as a team.

This is our Study Week currently and I’m looking forward to the remainder of the course and hopefully a continuation of the what we gain through ocTEL (resources found, associations made) into the future.

ocTEL 2014:

I’ve recently completed a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) from Oxford Brookes University called TOOC (Teaching Online Open Course.) Students were taking TOOC for credit or as a ‘free’ course (I was in the latter group.)

It’s not my first MOOC or even the first one I have completed; I’ve lost count of the number of online courses of various types I have taken over the years.

For some this may not qualify as a MOOC as the numbers are kept deliberately modest (for a MOOC) but it still had a relatively large cohort when we consider supported online courses in general.

What stood out was that it had a very high level (time and quality) of engagement of participating staff (teachers and teaching assistants) and this, for me, proved to be the most important part of the course.

The high level of engagement of staff was obviously encouraging the same of many students (yes, a fraction of the cohort were seen to be present but not everyone is going to post to forums on any course, just as few students ask questions in lectures.) In fact, the importance of building and maintaining presence was something that was introduced early on and I know many of us were seeing a practical demonstration of this and its effects.

This isn’t to disparage the quality of the resources but I doubt they alone would have had me engage with the topics each week and keep going to the end, and I doubt if they would have made me think so deeply.

I would urge anyone to take part in TOOC when it runs again to be a part of such a course, to take away a very positive experience of online learning and meet many wonderful people into the bargain.

I actually miss turning up online each week.

I’ve recently become involved with ebooks on both a personal and professional level. As a keen reader I’ve been considering whether ebooks were for me and whether I should consider a dedicated ebook reader (ereader). We are also considering ebooks and ereaders, for our distance learners, as an alternative to supplying them with traditional textbooks.

A little research reveals that ebooks are produced in different formats but not all ebooks are available in all formats… and not all readers can display ebooks in all formats. There are extremely detailed comparison tables of ereaders (this one, for instance) and unless ebooks can always be converted into a format of choice, the user is left making a decision on their choice of ereader based on what format of ebook they foresee wishing to use. A less than optimal situation.

As well as dedicated ereaders there are of course other options for reading ebooks, including tablets/PCs/laptops/netbooks and mobile phones. The first group offers the greater flexibility in formats that can be displayed, but possibly a less comfortable reading experience than with a device with an e-ink screen and less mobility some cases. Mobile phones offer the greatest access when it comes to mobility, but the small screen size brings issues of its own along with limited memory size.

Attending the very well attended JISC Digital Media online surgery ‘Getting Started with ebooks’ this week we learnt more about creating ebooks including multimedia, insuring accessibility and copyright.

Those producing ebooks have obvious responsibilities (eg accessibility and copyright) but many options with the technology they choose to use. Recognising that readers may be using one (or more) of many possible devices to access the ebook must be the first consideration, because it determines:

  • what formats of ebook can be accessed (and therefore what titles)
  • the screen size which could affect how well the pages can be displayed (eg large tables or detailed diagrams)
  • whether colour can be seen (coloured diagrams rendered in B/W may be much less useful)
  • memory size (if the ebooks are intended to be stored on the device)


Possible solutions to this for ebook producers are:

  • produce ebooks that can be viewed fully on  the lowest specification device (eg smallest screen, B/W, lowest memory)
  • produce ebooks in all the major formats


Those wanting their students to access available ebooks could:

  • prescribe a device that the student would need to provide for themselves
  • provide a device for each student (could be a loan)


I would be interested to hear if anyone has succeeded in making what they feel is a successful choice of ereader/other device for students to access academic texts.

Since moving to Bath I’ve been privileged to be able to attend Bathcamp meetings ( I’d picked up on these events via Twitter before I moved here, even before I knew I was moving here, and at the time couldn’t help wishing that I could somehow have the opportunity of attending. And here I am in Bath… which is how life works sometimes.

The theme of Bathcamp 29 was design.

Richard Caddick (@richardcaddick) kicked the evening off with a presentation entitled The Value of Imagination which touched on the importance of the interplay between differing fields (eg artist and scientific approaches to cooking). It’s not the first time this has been pointed out and it always makes me think of the lack of design for (almost design-against) cross-fertilisation in organisations; but I digress…

Many interesting points about form design in Forms are Boring from Joe Leech (@mrjoe) based on his experience of designing them and, perhaps more importantly, seeing the user experience test data when forms are trialled. Just as I’m convinced you can’t effectively proof your own writing, it’s got to be just as important to get someone else (preferably a member of the target audience or at least a real person*) to try using a form you have designed. Tips included dropping the asterisk next to mandatory  fields and just putting ‘optional’ next to the others (since real people tend not to look for the meaning of the asterisk, and ‘optional’ is a term real people understand). For the slides that accompanied the talk see: which proved that forms are not boring and there really is no excuse for a badly designed form.

Last but not least was Jon Waring on Designing Recognisable Sites that have an Agenda, a really inspiring look at how a creative organisation looks at design when they work with clients. Slides for this talk can be found here:

*if you’ve scrolled down here to look for the meaning of the asterisk this may mean you are not a ‘real person’. Don’t worry, I would have scrolled down too, and yet I still find I am able to live a full and active life.

This was the title of the presentation given by Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI). Dr Bowyer is best known for the RepRap (replicating rapid prototyper), a 3D printer capable, of amongst other things, of reproducing its own composite parts. However, rather than focus on that, this talk comprised a number of ‘problems’ (or at least, situations) where Dr Bowyer offers his particular insights and possible solutions based on currently available technology or understood principles.

Ideas on which he elaborated including translating glasses (based on holography); explosive-metabolising microbes; robots that created photovoltaic cells from desert sand (laying them as they were produced and powering the robots to continue);  shoes with inbuilt bellows for cooling and a chemical name capitalisation convention to aid pronunciation.

For those who haven’t yet seen it, Darwin, the first machine released by the RepRap project, is currently on show in BRLSI (Queens Square, Bath):

More information on the RepRap project can be found here: