A course launch?

RachmaninoffsCape

Rachmaninoff’s Cape: A Nostalgia Memoir

Last week, I was at the launch of George Rousseau’s book Rachmaninoff’s Cape: A Nostalgia Memoir (Why? I had a small part to play in the design of the book’s typography and cover). A book launch is an interesting event. A small group of people gather to hear the author in conversation, giving an insight into the ideas and themes that gave rise to the work, with the aim of ‘Getting the book out there’. At the end of the event, my mind wandered during the questions from the audience, and it occurred to me that we never have a course launch.

I mused that a book is very different to a course (although, now I come to write that statement, I’m not so sure it is true), and so perhaps a launch is inappropriate. The logistics would be difficult and the audience hard to define, and even harder to motivate them to come along. So, what can we do instead?

Two courses that didn’t ‘sell’ last term were about Google Tag Manager; an extremely versatile and useful (and free!) tool, which should be really popular with the web publishing community. This coming term, we will be trying again. This time supported by two short videos explaining what Google Tag Manager is – the course tutor in conversation about the ideas and themes behind the course design. A course launch?

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Our favourite sources

Keeping up to date across a broad spectrum of teaching commitments is not always easy! Time is hard to come by for us all so curated lists from reputable sources often fill gaps in news provision whether we filter Twitter lists or have our own specialized directory of sources.

Creative Bloq is a site that always has something interesting to offer for me and the list of open source web based projects gave me a couple of new leads:

11 open source web projects

What are some of your favourite sources – feel free to share in the comments section!

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Simul-casting made painless

This term, we are trialling a lecture capture system. When a speaker comes along to the IT Learning Programme to give an interesting talk or course, it seems a shame that people miss out because they can’t be in the audience in person for the event. So we are trying out a system for recording and web‑casting.

We talk to each speaker about it, beforehand (and they do need to sign a permission form), and for some the idea of being recorded is daunting. But in practice it’s not so hard.

The Panopto software (http://panopto.com/) turns out to be easy to use and not intrusive. Our technician, Mark, queues up the recording session in advance, and he has found that it’s efficient to set up a whole batch of events well beforehand. This generates a unique web address that I can cite in each event’s publicity and support literature. If anyone happens to follow the link in advance of the actual event, they see a polite message with a link to see other related videos.

A discreet microphone sits on the desk, so the person speaking doesn’t need to wear extra technology pinned onto them. The good news is that there are no cameras watching the speaker or the audience. The slides are captured, along with anything else the presenter chooses to show on the front computer, and their sound is captured as a voice-over.

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While the event is in progress, the sound and visual channels are bundled together and simultaneously “webcast”. This means that anyone who can’t be with us in the room can follow along in real time. They can view and listen using their own computer, laptop or hand-held device.

As soon as the event finishes, the bundled video with voice-over is available as a recording for anyone who missed the date.

Mark, our diligent tech, likes to review each recording shortly after the event, and he tidies up the start and finish, but he says the editing is usually minimal.

So this has turned out to be a low-stress way of capturing events and talks. Administration is simple and quick. The process of recording is not intrusive at the live event, and it provides opportunities for people who cannot be with us in person to take part, either at the same time or later.

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We are always looking for ways to broaden the scope of the IT Learning Programme, and it’s great to offer colleagues from all over the University this opportunity to give a talk or demonstration.

This benefits us – it brings in a breadth of material and perspective that our own team couldn’t hope to provide – and it provides a way for people to develop their presentation and teaching skills. Researchers aiming for a career in academia need to show that they have teaching experience, and almost anyone’s PDR is enhanced by good presentation skills. When their event has been recorded, the speaker can include the recording as part of their personal portfolio.

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Of course there is no substitute for live teaching by an experienced practitioner, and for many of our courses “you just had to be there” to participate fully. But “webcasting” in this way extends the reach of a talk or event, both by time and by distance.

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But… Is it art?

Understanding Comics: The invisible art book cover

Understanding Comics: The invisible art

I have always had an interest in comics, but possibly not given the art form its due regard as a serious storytelling medium. A friend suggested I read one of the most highly regarded analyses of the genre: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. It is in comic form – of course – and a fascinating read. I thoroughly recommend it.

McCloud makes the case for comics as a serious art form for many reasons, but for me the most compelling is that its creation follows a path common to all works of art:

1. Idea/purpose
“The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies of the work”

2. Form
“Will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A pot holder? A comic book?”

3. Idiom
“The ‘school ‘of art, the vocabulary of gestures or subject matter. The genre that the work belongs to.”

4. Structure
“Putting it all together … What to include, what to leave out… How to arrange, how to compose the work.”

5. Craft
“Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the ‘job’ done.”

6. Surface
“Production values, finishing. The aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work.”

Does that strike any chords with you teachers out there? It should – we are all artists.

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Slideshare and Pinterest in academia

Slideshare and Pinterest are gaining interest in academia in the way they allow us to present ideas visually – sometimes in ways that allow us to breathe new air into a subject. Doing subject specific searches in these online tools can reveal a surprising depth of knowledge and information about things we are passionate about in our working life. He are a couple of examples from these tools that offer insights into my main professional interests; teaching and music.

This Slideshare presentation is a good example of some of the key issues we deal with as reflective teachers:

Pinterest is a very popular social media tool generally but there are some excellent academic boards too:
Steve Eyre Feb 06 2015
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A robotic spider dress!

I have always taken an interest in the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas.  The show is an internationally renowned electronics and technology trade show attracting major companies and industry professionals worldwide.  The annual show is held every year in January at the Las Vegas Convention Centre.

One item that really took my interest was the Robotic Spider Dress, it was designed by Intel.  This dress has been designed to take into account our personal space and how we do not like it to be invaded – at least wearing this you could guarantee yourself a good seat on the bus, however not sure it will take off.

The link below will take you to a preview of the dress as well as well as an introduction to motion sensing games for patients with injuries that need to undergo intense rehab due to serious injuries.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gv5jg

Traci Huggins, Jan 2015

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“There And Back Again” or: Adding Value Before and After Our Lectures

The Hilary Term series of lunchtime talks are coming together nicely, under the banner do: . So do have a look at http://blogs.it.ox.ac.uk/do/, and find out what’s in store.

It’s great to have a real variety of experts and colleagues from all over the University contributing talks, showcasing ways they have found of using technology to help with their admin work – all the business and processes that go to keep our complex institution running smoothly.

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We like to record these talks where possible, so that people who can’t make the date can catch up later. And we often webcast them – meaning that the event is streamed live online, simultaneously with the physical event.

This raises the question that teachers and lecturers ask from time to time: “If I put my talk/lecture/event online as a podcast, won’t people opt to view that instead of attending live?” In other words: “Is YouTube killing the teacher?”

Now you may detect here a lurking prejudice that students, in particular, will prefer to stay in bed rather than turn up for lectures. (“Shurely not” – Ed.)

Experienced lecturers in a range of disciplines tell me this is not how it works out in practice: recording a lecture does not negatively impact on attendance. This may be for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly, as one jaded lecturer pointed out, the student who is too idle to turn up at lectures probably also CBA[1] to follow the podcast carefully.
  • Some students – especially those for whom English is an additional language – really appreciate the chance to review the material in advance, so they have got the main points clear and can make best use of their live encounter with the teacher.
  • Some rewind a talk afterwards at their own speed, checking over parts they missed or didn’t follow.
  • Some, for perfectly good reasons not involving the dog eating their homework, can’t be present on the day and they do value another opportunity to catch up on what was said.

So we are adding value to live talks & lectures by giving our learners several bites at the cherry, and providing chances for them to chew over the material and make the most of the learning opportunity.

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Of course, it’s not going to be realistic to record or simul-cast every talk, but even providing copies of our slides in advance can be a real aid to learning. An undergrad at Another University was telling me that she routinely downloads her lecturers’ slides (a PowerPoint show as a PDF, for example) and prints them out on actual paper before her lectures; then she takes notes by writing, scribbling and drawing all over them. She is still – half way through her 2nd year – surprised at how many of her friends spend their lectures frantically copying out the content of the lecturer’s slides rather than capturing the essence of her/his explanations and, of course, all those interesting remarks aside. It’s a great use of her university’s virtual learning environment, affectionately known as “Ellie” [2], which costs her lecturers almost no extra effort.

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Similarly, the teachers in Oxford’s IT Learning Programme provide online as many as possible of our learning materials – course handbooks as well as slides and exercise files. These are freely available for download from the ITLP Portfolio at http://portfolio.it.ox.ac.uk .

It’s one way of trying to escape from the well-known definition of a lecture: “Where the contents of the lecturer’s notebook are transferred into the student’s notebook, without passing through the mind of either” [3].

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[1]   “CBA” : your usual search engine will translate
[2]   I wonder whether our VLE, WebLearn, has an affectionate nickname among students?
[3]   If it wasn’t Mark Twain, it should have been http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/08/17/lecture-minds/ .

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The Golden Rule

50 Phiosophy Ideas book cover

50 Phiosophy Ideas, Ben Dupre

Browsing a book on pop-philosophy (at least that’s what my fully trained Philosophy friend called it!), I came across the Golden Rule. No matter what your cultural background, you might be familiar with:

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you“, as a familiar way of expressing it.

It set me thinking (it’s philosophy after all…); is that what we do as teachers? My learning style is very visual. I like diagrams, I draw mind maps, I sketch on the board, I will spend (too many) hours searching for the perfect image to support a concept I’m teaching. And there’s the rub: I often catch myself imposing my learning style on my classes, when we all know that one of the most common ways of classifying learning styles allows for two others: kinesthetic and auditory.

Now, according to my pop-philosophy book, in 1945 Karl Popper suggested a restating of the Golden Rule:

Where possible, do unto others as they would want to be done by

Much more student friendly; let’s teach in the way our students want to learn. And, to be fair, that is what I and my colleagues endeavour to do in the IT Learning Programme courses.

And then my wife volunteered her version of the Golden Rule:

She who has the gold, makes the rules!

Which is also, up to a point, true in teaching too. Here in the ITLP we are often approached by a department willing to fund us for developing and delivering a closed course. Something we like to do, but we do sometimes spend time convincing them that the best way to teach the topic is not the way they would want us to do it…

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Nuclear Fusion research, Lego and some lessons for the IT Learning Programme

I was recently lucky enough to have dinner with a leading physicist whose speciality is smashing atoms together at very high speed and looking at what happens – in one of the great memes of the internet this process has of course been translated into a lego format so that the rest of us can get the basic idea

During our discussion, conducted over the remnants of an excellent Sunday Dinner it became very clear that far from knowledge about fusion being a barrier to progress (though it IS a barrier I am told -something akin to us being able to build a Wright brothers aircraft rather than the necessary Boeing 747) it is the problem of innovative, problem solving scientists working within a bureaucratic system they feel stifles them. This is not particularly surprising; many of us sometimes find ourselves frustrated by processes and ‘project management’ requirements. Often this seems to be a tiresome exercise in box ticking for no benefit. At the same time however, most of us also appreciate the need to plan and organise our activities and manage resources carefully. This led me to think about my own team’s work . How we can support people to build their Lego sets  and innovate successfully within the constraints of a large organisation where budgets are tight and time is at a premium?

One thing we have done is provide a range of times and formats for classes; from one hour lunchtime talks to 5 day courses delivered on site we manage to adapt ourselves to the needs of our course participants. What we are also working on is improving access to materials and resources through as many platforms as possible. Our introduction to Python course for example is a blended approach of classroom and online learning and we are currently exploring how to make better use of Bring Your Own Device approaches to taught classes. Our job is to provide people with access to learning opportunities that support them in their work, so another thing we are doing is adapting our courses. We now like to introduce people to new areas of knowledge such as database design rather than focusing on training in a particular version of software packages. This has proved extremely popular in areas such as digital media, coding and data analysis and I hope we keep moving in that direction.

My discussion with a nuclear physicist reminded me that as a service provider to the university the ITLP always needs to ensure it helps, and doesn’t hinder, peoples’ ability to develop their technology skills and keep the university moving forward as the world’s best (I may be biased). It also reminded me that now my daughter is five it’s time to buy some Lego Mindstorms kit and a Raspberry Pi so we can start smashing stuff together too.

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“But how do I know what I don’t know?”

That’s a question we often hear from new research students around this time of year. Life as a postgrad is so much less structured than when you were an undergrad with lectures to attend, text books to study, essays to write. Somehow as a postgrad you are expected to ferret out the resources you need, wherever they may be buried around the University.

The Research Skills Toolkit project aims to help with this:

penknife The live workshops are run jointly by the teachers of the IT Learning Programme and our colleagues in the Bodleian Libraries. Groups of research students are invited to try out a selection of IT and library tools and online services with hands-on activities, and to talk to specialist IT teachers and Libraries staff.
The supporting website is at www.skillstoolkit.ox.ac.uk and this summer the site has had a radical rebuild – so if you haven’t visited, or if you already knew about its predecessor, now is the time to visit and explore the resources on offer.

There are articles to read, hands-on tasks to try out, videos to watch and websites to visit: it’s a great way to explore the range of software and online tools that are out there, and to start thinking about which will be useful in supporting your research.

Toolkit home page screenshot

… And if you’re wondering about that grey wheel diagram that has crept onto the home page – well that’s the subject of another blog.

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