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June 26, 2019

New Warwick interdisciplinarity hub for students

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/students/opportunities/interdisciplinarity/

We've got lots of interdisciplinarity opportunities for students at Warwick. This is so important for their ability to cope with and succeed in the modern world. Bo Kelestyn and the WIHEA Interdisciplinarity group have created a brilliant new web site that tells students every thing they need to know.

Warwick Interdisciplinarity Hub

December 02, 2012

This blog has moved to http://www.inspireslearning.com

From December 2012 I will be writing about my PhD at http://www.inspireslearning.com

August 21, 2012

Interview topic 1: manufacturing, art, design

The production of objects and events takes three forms (which may be more or less mixed up in reality): manufacturing, art, and design.

Manufacturing: sometimes we produce new instances of a familiar pattern or template - manufacturing, either on a craft-workshop basis or on an industrial scale, subject to incremental optimisation but essentially standardised.

Art: other times we produce something that is unique and that "breaks the mould" - artistic creativity being distinguished by some irreducible difference, by a challenge to conventional sense, non-standard and unique to the artwork.

Design: finally, we might produce a new pattern, breaking the mould and creating a new mould - design seeks the best of both worlds, offering something distinctive and new, but also feasible, scalable, durable, usable, accessible, valuable. Design is a compromise between the prevailing conditions and a new future, arrived at by observation, inspiration, experimentation and negotiation (between affordances, constraints, time, money, attention etc).

How do you relate to these three activities?

June 08, 2012

Interview topic 4: negotiating between strategy (design ideals) and reality

The outcomes of projects are often compromises between strategic intentions (or design ideals) and practical realities. For example, an institution might aim to reduce the number of different IT systems in use. That is the strategic aim. In reality people might have real or imagined reasons to use different systems. If we undertake a project that needs to involve these people, we might need to find a compromise between the strategic aim and the practical reality.

Can you think of cases where your projects have encountered a conflict between strategic aims and practical reality? What was the result? What were the negative and positive effects? How does this work out over time? How does the strategy, its detail or its significance, get altered? What methods do you use to negotiate between strategy and practice?

June 04, 2012

Interview topic 3: finding and developing design ideas

A successful design project creates a product based upon one or more significant and distinctive "design ideas". For example, the Dyson vacuum cleaner uses an innovative mechanism to ensure constant suction. The Apple iPad combines a large touch screen with light weight to give a new haptic and visual user experience. Events are also defined by their design idea. Speed dating uses an unusual format and rules to create a different interpersonal experience and opportunities.

What distinctive design ideas have you used in your projects? How did they help to achieve the project brief - creating new possibilities for people?

At what point in the project did you find your idea? Was it complete right away, or did it take time to refine? How did you arrive at these design ideas? What strategies, tools and techniques did you employ to find/create them? Did you develop your ideas as a sketch, diagram, narrative, or some other form? Did your idea cause other ideas to emerge and form around it? Did it seem a certain winner right away, or did your confidence in it build over time? Where there other competing ideas that were discarded? How did you reject or choose ideas? Will your idea be of use elsewhere?

Will your experience of developing a design idea be of use in other aspects of what you do?

Interview topic 2: developing a brief

The "brief" defines and directs the project, outlining the difference that the project is expected to make. It might specify, in more or less detail: aims, indicators and measures of success, limitations, risks, deadlines, resources, budgets, users, partners - whatever is necessary to give the project the definition and direction that it needs.

  1. In some cases projects are commissioned with a brief that is clear, complete and uncontested.
  2. Sometimes, during a project, the brief is found to be problematic and in need of revisions. This additional work might be easily undertaken. At other times the brief might be contested by the various project participants. This could lead to conflict and disruption. It might add productively to the development of the project.
  3. In other cases we undertake a project knowing that the brief will need to be developed as we proceed.
  4. And sometimes we are personally responsible for developing a brief from scratch to initiate a new project.

Have you worked on projects where the brief is incomplete, unclear and/or contested? Or have you developed a brief to initiate a new project? How did this proceed? In what ways was it negative and positive? At what point (if at all) did you settle on a well defined brief? What strategies, tools and techniques did you use to get a better defined brief?

Will your experience of developing a brief be of use in other aspects of what you do?

Extensive and intensive production

There are two dimensions to this productivity: extensive and intensive.

When we create a new item following an established pattern, then production is extensive (literally adding a new item to a set of identical items). Extensive production is, historically, of varying degrees of sophistication. When we take a material and work it into a product following a template, we can be said to be doing craftwork. Guilds and their standards are produced when craft products need to be reliably interchanged between locations. Industrial production takes this one step further by introducing controls over the input of raw materials and components, standardising every element of production. And then beyond the industrial, we find the controlled production of standardised consumer desires and qualitative judgements. All of these elements are present in higher education, often uneasily assembled.

Whereas extensive production aims towards repetition, intensive production is the production of difference.

Design is the co-mediation of art, craft, industry and commerce.

Design thinking and the university

The university is the location for (and product of) millions of individual projects of construction - a constant industry creating new artefacts and events: essays, seminars, lectures, modules, programmes, conferences, web sites, portfolios, eportfolios, marking schemes, reading groups, meeting agendas, research networks, communities of practice, collaborations with industry, technical services...things tangible and quantifiable, as well as elusive but ineliminable intangibles: values, personal agendas, hidden agendas, subjectivity, reflexivity, identities, allegiances, journeys, futures...everywhere production and the production of production.

Throughout these productions, an uneasy tension recurs between standardisation and a desire for the unique, for difference. A sophisticated design capability should help us to deal with these opposing forces. How common is such a design capability? This question is of three-fold importance:

  1. design capability enhances innovative production within the university;
  2. graduates with a well developed design capability are better placed for working in a world where most people at some point will be involved in design-led projects - in business, education and social innovation.
  3. where academic activity interfaces with the world beyond the institution, design is essential.

What is design thinking?

The production of objects and events takes three forms (which may be more or less mixed up in reality): manufacturing, art, and design.

Manufacturing: sometimes we produce new instances of a familiar pattern or template - manufacturing, either on a craft-workshop basis or on an industrial scale, subject to incremental optimisation but essentially standardised.

Art: other times we produce something that is unique and that "breaks the mould" - artistic creativity being distinguished by some irreducible difference, by a challenge to conventional sense, non-standard and unique to the artwork.

Design: finally, we might produce a new pattern, breaking the mould and creating a new mould - design seeks the best of both worlds, offering something distinctive and new, but also feasible, scalable, durable, usable, accessible, valuable. Design is a compromise between the prevailing conditions and a new future, arrived at by observation, inspiration, experimentation and negotiation (between affordances, constraints, time, money, attention etc).

Designerly projects will typically involve activities like:

  • forming a "brief" that serves people with a purpose but which opens new grounds for innovation;
  • observing prevailing conditions, getting to know where people are at and what holds them back;
  • framing and reframing problems, switching perspectives, dimensions and timescales;
  • organising problems into hierarchies and networks, identifying strategic priorities;
  • getting inspired by materials, processes, and analogies (from other fields, e.g nature, art, literature);
  • finding initial strategies and features that might act to generate more detailed ideas;
  • forming design ideas and proposals;
  • creating and testing prototypes (physical and imaginary);
  • thinking critically about efficient and sustainable production (now and in the future);
  • iteratively developing solutions, in cooperation with users and producers.

Along side these activities there is a "designerly reflexivity" through which the designer actively monitors the balance between artistic and manufacturing tendencies and requirements. Taken together, these aims, strategies and reflexivity are what has recently become known as "design thinking".

January 23, 2012

How to evaluate a VLE

I was recently asked if I could recommend a clear-cut evaluation of the use of VLEs in higher education.

The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe.

The research has been poor concerning VLEs in HE. However, I remembered a paper from ALT-J that used a new methodology to evaluate a custom built VLE at Edinburgh. It tentatively established that where there exists a cohesive and strong 'community of practice', and a VLE is used that fits well with the community and its practices, then it can help students with becoming effective operators within that community. So for example, a VLE that fits with the professional practices of medical education helps students to become practitioners. Which is obvious really. But the more significant message is that where communities of practice are less well defined, or more varied and numerous (as is the case in humanities), a VLE is less likely to be a simple fit, and less likely to help students with becoming practitioners (or multi-disciplinary operators). Which is also obvious!

My own research into designerly thinking and practice in humanities education takes a similar approach, but with an emphasis upon much deeper differences between epistemic-agentic assemblages (more than communities of practice, more like paradigms or Foucault's epistemes). I take a radically pluralistic stance on epistemic diversity. But this paper is still very interesting and really worth reading. It's available free from the new open access ALT site.

Ellaway, Dewhurst, Mcleod, "Evaluating a virtual learning environment in the context of its community of practice", Alt-J, Research in Learning Technology, Volume 12, No. 2, June 2004

Here are a few first impressions...

The authors report on one of the first attempts at evaluating a virtual learning environment in use, considering its impact on a community of practice (learners, teachers and others). In surveying previous research, they conclude that:

"...because VLEs can be used in many different ways, and because much that was implicit in the traditional learning environment becomes explicit in its online equivalent, the evaluation of VLEs has proved to be a particularly complex problem. Furthermore, because of the sheer scale, complexity and cost of VLEs, their adoption and use is increasingly undertaken at an institutional level and any subsequent evaluation, if it is not done at the level of the individual learner, is most often also undertaken at this institutional level." P.126

They argue that:

"Although there has been much published on evaluative work on VLEs, this has until recently rarely gone further than analysing their various features and functions...In presuming that a VLE has intrinsic properties, that the context into which a VLE will be deployed is neutral and that any given VLE will automatically deliver predictable benefits (or otherwise) into that context, the predictive approach is significantly limited in providing a useful perspective of a VLE in a grounded course context. It is important to note that most of these approaches have been directed towards a novit-iate audience looking for the best evidence or advice available to help them select a suitable system to meet their needs." P.126

The authors take an alternative approach, more suited to higher education: Wenger's community of practice model, in which the aim of learning is to induct learners fully into a cohesive and fully functional "community of practice", in which they may eventually become equals (whether that be a professional community, or an academic community of researchers). A complex analysis is used to evaluate the fit between a VLE and the Edinburgh University medical education programme for which it was developed. Unsurprisingly, it is a good fit and contributes to the goal of becoming part of the community of practice (although this does not indicate that the students will be well placed to join the wider community of practice of the medical profession). In this case, the VLE was developed specifically for a large, cohesive, rigid, pre-existing community of practice.

However, such well-formed communities might be the exception in HE.

"It is important to emphasise that this is a theory-based approach, which is predicated on a pre-existing course community of practice. In those situations where this is a valid assumption, for instance in subjects such as medicine, then it has immediate relevance and utility. For other situations, for instance in modular programmes of study, where communities of practice may not equate to a course (or even exist coherently at all) then there may be less relevance in such a study, although a module may in some cases retain a degree of internal coherence as a community of practice." P.142

Humanities disciplines, for example, are much more fragmentory and individualistic. There are significant differences between departments, and even between modules within departments, and sometimes between different tutor groups within modules. For example, in the English Department, creative writing is practised in a significantly different way to The European Novel. One could successfully argue that the value for the students lies in the opportunity to partake in radically different communities of practice.

January 07, 2012

Upad on iPad – a commonplace book for the digital age

Some of my friends in the English Department are keen on reviving the practice known as "commonplacing". It's an approach to studying, creating and living that uses a single "common place book" into which experiences of all kinds are recorded, and allowed to transversally interact. A kind of scrap book for containing the divers range of interesting and unusual experiences that might be encountered by the early-modern scholar. Importantly, its more than just a book, its an approach or attitude to being in the world, and a catalyst for generating ideas and experiments in a more free-form fashion. Wikipedia has a good short history, going back to the early-modern period, and disappearing in the early 20th century.

So why, if its so good, aren't we all busy commonplacing all the time? There are probably many reasons why the practice became less popular. But perhaps a better question would be: what would it take to get an early-21st century student commonplacing? What might the practice be competing against? Personally (speaking as a grad student), i've always been discouraged by my own inability to make engaging, aesthetically satisfying, and legible scribbles. Perhaps its the case that digital technology & visual design, makes us all feel a bit inferior. Certainly my old moleskin notebook (used sporadically) seems to lack colour and expressiveness. The other big challenge with which paper-based technologies cannot cope is the multi-mediality of experience today - we are constantly engaged in a rich world of analogue and digital channels. I sit at home reading the news on my iPad, listening to the radio, and talking with people all at the same time. I have access to and use a huge range of digital texts in many forms and from many sources. Its both more intense and more complex. And to add a further level of complexity, sometimes I do this in collaboration with other people, even other people that I've never actually met.

But I have started commonplacing again. A simple technology has made the difference by addressing these problems. And I'm really profiting from it. All of a sudden my personal workflow has changed, with the commonplace at its core, capturing and developing my stream of experience, inspirations and ideation. I'm using the Upad app on my iPad. It's a beautifully designed user interface for scribbling using a variety of pens and colours (I draw onto the iPad using a Just Mobile stylus). Most importantly, its easy to combine neatly hand written text (through a magnified text entry box) with smart typed notes (in a wide variety of fonts and colours), and images. So I can, for example, take a screenshot of a page from a book in the Kindle app, add it to a note book page, annotate it with arrows and hand written text, add a photo from the internet or from the iPad camera, and add neatly typed notes.

Here's a screenshot of some of my notes in Upad:


You can see some typical pages in the lightbox. One of them is a handwritten "writing experiment", the next is a page from a Kindle book, and finally a complicated diagram combining hand drawn and typed elements. In fact, that diagram is a representation of my research workflow (shown in full below). At the centre of the workflow is Upad. Sometimes I create notes that seem particularly important and relevant. I use the email option in Upad to send them to an online Evernote notebook (for example, I have notebook for collecting workflow diagrams, and another for reading notes). The Evernote notes are then replicated onto my laptop and desktop computers, so that I can use them in my writing. For example, this blog entry uses images drawn in Upad, sent to Evernote and then accessed on my MacBook AIR. Storing notes in Evernote has the further advantage of making them searchable - even when they are handwritten (it has a good recognition engine built into its search engine). I can also send pages from my commonplace book to Twitter (or Facebook if you use it).

Here's the workflow diagram in full:


December 23, 2011

Everything as PDF?

Follow-up to 3 essential elements for an e–learning strategy from Inspires Learning - Robert O'Toole

My new found enthusiasm for the PDF format is a consequence of using iAnnotate on the iPad. Here's an example illustrating why I think every event should be accompanied by at least an overview PDF (at least until the tools to create a PDF from any format on the iPad become more effective). Last week I attended a conference at DeMontfort University on the Democratic Learning Conversation (great conference).

I received the agenda as a Word file, imported it into iAnnotate which converted it into PDF. I was then able to add notes to the agenda during the sessions. However, I quickly discovered another very effective trick. During some of the sessions I was inspired to create Keynote slides (the Apple equivalent of Powerpoint) and a Mindjet mind map developing some of my own ideas in response to the speakers. I was able to take image snapshots of these and embed them at the appropriate point in the PDF. So I left the conference with a single PDF document containing rich annotations.

That's good. But the longer term effect is particularly impressive. I lead quite a busy life. Lots of meetings, lots to remember and learn. Annotating the PDF helped me to remember the details of the conference (just in the act of writing the notes down I can remember them better) and to keep alive the thinking that it inspired. If a student were to ask me for a recommendation as to a learning technology that could make a big difference to their capabilities, this would be it: PDF + iAnnotate + iPad.

Here is a snapshot of the PDF that I annotated. You can see a thumbnail of one of the Keynote slides. The slide can be viewed as full screen in the PDF file. Audio annotations may also be added. So for example I could have interviewed another attendee, or perhaps even recorded a whole session.

iAnnotate example

One additional feature would be useful - to be able to add extra space in the margins of the PDF, or an additional blank page to contain my notes. CORRECTION - ADDING BLANK PAGES IS POSSIBLE IN iAnnotate

December 21, 2011

3 essential elements for an e–learning strategy

I had a meeting this morning with someone who is planning to write an e-learning strategy for their department. He asked me for recommendations. I have three essential points:

  1. As a policy, provide lecture notes (not necessarily detailed), summaries, agendas etc for every event (lectures, seminars, assignments) in a form that can be owned/curated by each individual student, and annotated and extended. Digital course packs are only the start. As a rule, provide supporting material for everything. And get students to create similar material for the things that they do (ie seminar presentations). Whatever learning, communications and admin platforms are used, make sure they produce these outputs. Format? PDF - there are many great PDF annotation tools. Packaging? Not so sure. Evernote notebooks provide a good model. They can be zipped and distributed. But whatever, make sure that everyone is doing this all of the time!
  2. Try to define the kinds of behavior, techniques and supporting technologies that students can use to get the most out of the experience. Perhaps create a set of accounts explaining how a student might work with technology to optimise their performance. For example, describe how digital coursepacks and other PDFs can be accessed, used and annotated, and organised. Don't treat this as isolated gadgetry and skills, but rather as joined-up workflows.
  3. Get academics more involved by giving them technologies that they can trust and which give them assured and instant access to all of the resources that they might need when teaching and (important and) doing research. A mobile device with a well organised store of images, videos, texts etc AND some means of displaying (eg an iPad with a VGA connector). Reduce dependencies on networks and systems. Make them more robust and self-reliant.

Document and image collaborative annotation with iversity

Follow-up to iAnnotate for iPad, annotate PDFs, mark essays on screen from Inspires Learning - Robert O'Toole

iversity is an open-access VLE/VRE in which anyone can assemble a course or a conference (interesting to see the parallels between an academic course and a conference). It is explicitly aimed at higher education. The "stripped-down" nature of the feature-set and the interface is significant. After all, what is really needed for successful academic collaboration? You get a calendar, the ability to upload files and discuss them, and a report on all user actions related to the course.

It's all actually very clear and simple. Which is what most people want most of the time - with the addition of one more sophisticated feature, perhaps the only area of complex interaction that academic work needs (outside of subject specific technologies such as lab equipment): what iversity call 'social reading'. Annotating texts and images with comments.

I'm not claiming that this is a perfect solution. It is browser based. It is very much an old-fashioned web site plus collaboration. Increasingly (thanks to Kindle, iTunes, iAnnotate etc) we expect to be building our own personal collections of owned/curated objects. That's a very different design pattern, user experience and ideology. When I work on an academic aretfact I want to have my own copy of it. That comes first (whether in the classroom or online). I then want to be able to annotate and extend my copy. In some circumstances I want to share those annotations and extensions, or incorporate the ideas of others in my own copy. But at the end of the day I want my own artfact to own containing my own work.

Here's a video demonstrating their implementation:

December 12, 2011

Mindjet Mindmanager on the iPad for teaching, research and consultancy

I've been using iPads for around 6 months, in my teaching, consultancy work and as an essential part of my "research workflow". I have my own personal iPad, and 6 iPads that are part of the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning equipment for loan (Warwick staff can use them in teaching sessions). I'm now reporting on some of the tools that I find to be of great use (in fact I would say revolutionary).

Mindjet Mindmanager (called Mindjet on the App Store). This has always been the best mind/concept mapping tool for the dekstop (we have a site license for Windows and Mac). The iPhone version was good, but the size of the iPad screen, its convenience and its touch interface makes it the perfect platform. I have used Mindjet in all aspects of my work. Its user interface is simple, intuitive and flows perfectly with teh development of ideas.

In teaching, I have got small groups of students to create maps in response to a text or a brief, and show them through a projector (using an Apple iPad VGA convertor plugged into the projector). The students have been able to navigate around the map on screen, closing and opening nodes and talking about their ideas as presented through the map. Adding additional information is easy. And quite often they have used colour to emphasise different ideas. Here is an example from French Studies with some of the nodes opened and some closed:


Click the image to enlarge.

Personally, I will often start working on a document, project or consultancy by creating a map that delineates the important questions or key areas to investigate. I then add detail to these nodes as I discuss and think with people. It's easy to share the map visually with participants, or via email and Dropbox. I find this to be a good way to ensure that I am following a sound methodology, but with the ability to be flexible where required. Often these maps will become fully developed, for example into a text. I write the text on my iMac with the iPad sitting on a stand next to it (I have a TeckNet leather case with built in stand). Ideas seem to flow more freely and constructively.

Here is an example of a structured map used for a consultancy and design session:

consultancy map

Click to enlarge.

I've also started to use this approach with students, giving them a template map structure to develop their ideas from. This can be used to scaffold the investigative or creative process.

Mindjet Mindmanager is free from the App Store. It inter-operates with the PC and Mac versions, available to Warwick staff and students for free as part of the site license. iPads can be borrowed for use in teaching from the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning at Warwick.

iAnnotate for iPad, annotate PDFs, mark essays on screen

iAnnotate is a sophisticated iPad app for managing, reading and annotating PD aF files. As I'm an active researcher, I have to read many such files, often downloaded from journals (as text PDFs). I have also sometimes scanned chapters from books (as image PDFs) allowing me to read them on screen. I have a large collection of PDFs in Apple's own iBooks app, and am now slowly moving them into the much more sophisticated iAnnotate.

Here is a screen shot to illustrate what I am talking about. It is a page from an image based PDF of a chapter by Bruno Latour (from his web site).

Latour page

You can see the annotation tools on the right. This toolbar can be reconfigured with many more options, including different coloured highlighters, pencils, typed text (the typrewriter icon). On this page I have scribled some annotations, typed some more detailed annotations and highlighted some text. I used an AluPen stylus to write the annotations (£20 from the Apple shop in Leamington, also good for general typing and usein the iPad interface). When working with text based PDF files (of the kind usually available from journals), the text itself may be selected and annotated more precisely. It can also be copied and pasted into other programs (like Pages the word processor). In this example you can also see that I have two documents open, displayed in tabs along the top. I can switch between them easily, or tap on the currently displayed article to go full screen with no tool box or menus.

Two further tools that I haven't used: using the iPad's built in mic I can add audio comments; the PDF can be sent by email, including a summary of all of the annotations. These features suggest a particularly important use - on screen marking of essays. Most academics I have talked to about this have said that they sit in a relaxed chair when marking, not at a desk. So marking on an iPad might fit. It is also known that audio feedback can make a significant difference to some students.

More about iAnnotate and a link to the app store ($9.99).

November 15, 2011

Arts Faculty Learning Technology Newsletter November 2011

Dear Colleagues

Here is a summary of news about learning, teaching and research technology support in the Arts Faculty (including a new interest group dealing with research and impact technologies).

Drop-in sessions with your e-learning advisor - I will be available every Wednesday between 12:00 and 13:30 in the Graduate Space. For staff and students. At other times I can often be found in the IATL Media Suite. Appointments to discuss any aspect of technology or planned projects - just email me at r.b.o-toole@warwick.ac.uk and we can arrange to meet.

Video production in the IATL Media Suite - simple, supported video production and editing facilities. I can do individual or group training for staff and students, enabling the creation of good quality online films, and converting PowerPoint based presentations to online video. Book at http://go.warwick.ac.uk/iatl/resources

Videoconferencing - using the excellent WebEx software, I can bring videoconferencing directly into your office, lecture, workshop or seminar. See this great example with Nick Monk (Warwick), his students and Sarah McDonald (Monash): http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/inspireslearning/entry/using_webex_desktop/

Using iPads in teaching and research - we have a set of 6 iPads which can be booked as a set to be used in seminars and workshops. I've been trialling this with Catherine Hampton in French Studies and in my own teaching, with great results. Mind mapping on the iPads has proved to be particularly good a small group activity. I now also have much experience of using an iPad as part of my own research process. Come to the iPadology event in the Teaching Grid to find out more and to have a go. Wednesday 30th November, 12.45 to 14.45 (with food).

Using Sitebuilder – along with the new ID6 look, Sitebuilder now includes many features that turn it into a good platform for hosting learning activities, including student research contributions and multimedia. When combined with forums, blogs and podcasts, you can create a comprehensive approach to student-engaged and productive learning. Contact me for more information, design support and training.

You might also like to join one of these interest groups, working on identifying new IT requirements and best practice. Send me an email telling me which you wish to join.

Arts & Humanities research technology - including impact, engagement, Virtual Research Environments, visual media archives, databases, undergraduate research.

E-portfolios and personal development - including new work on e-portfolios for undergraduates.

Extended Learning Ecologies (ELE) - thinking about the future, post-VLE learning technologies and how they fit better with arts and humanities education.



November 07, 2011

Using and supporting Apple computers

For University of Warwick staff, I have created a list of links to pages that detail the support that is currently available at Warwick. This includes information on purchasing, how to get site licensed software (Office 2010, Mindmanager, maths and stats software, Endnote and more), and security. See the list here.

I have a small collection of Apple computers, both at Warwick and at home. Some of them are in quite regular use, as part of the IATL Media Suite. As a result, I'm widely known as someone who can give advice on Apple computers. On a few occasions recently I have been asked: what kind of support is needed for people using Apple? My answer is: not much, although until recently Apple users in HE have either been:

  • People who care more about their hardware and software, who buy their own equipment, and are prepared to put more time into getting to know it and getting the most out of it.
  • People who have specific requirements, best met by Apple (especially video editing).

That's starting to change, with many non-geeky people getting Apple machines, as a result of positive experiences with other Apple equipment (iPod, iPhone), negative experiences with Windows, and the growing "network effect" with Apple users recommending and supporting their friends.

So what support might be needed if Apple use were to grow further?

Most commonly asked questions

Simply: are we allowed to buy Apple (yes)? what should I buy? how can it be paid for through the university (link on the purchasing site)? how do we get the academic discount (a bit complicated)? how do I get my email (wait until you move to the Live@Edu system, use web interface for now)? how do I get Microsoft Office (we have a site license)? Do I need anti-virus software? (the consensus is still NO).

I help people to get started with iMovie, Keynote etc. But usually it only takes a little bit of help (I can do iMovie easily in 30 minutes max).

Hardware problems

I've got or look after 6 iMacs (now over 3 years old), 2 Mac Minis, 5 MacBooks and 1 MacBook AIR (over 3 years old). I have only the basic 1 year warranty. Given that the 3 year Apple Care is available at a much lower cost to HE, in future I will get that. I've come across 3 hardware faults:

  1. MacBook battery failure - replacement £80 on an out of warranty machine. Apple recommend that laptops are used as much as possible running off the battery (not mains), and that using the battery almost to empty will prolong its life. That does work.
  2. Headphone socket failure on an iMac - I've not fixed this, but suspect it might have been caused by ugrading to OSX Lion.
  3. Wifi card failure on a Mac Mini - I added an external wifi card through usb.

I've hear of other people having problems fixed quite quickly under Apple Care.

Apple Mice are a bit rubbish! Some people like them. Many hate them. I recommend using the Apple Magic Trackpad instead.

Operating System

Never had a problem with a machine running on the version of OSX that it was designed to run (most of mine are older, and run Snow Leopard). However, upgrading an older machine using the very latest OSX is a problem. Best avoided if possible.

Auto-updating is relatively simple.

Back-up is handled by Time Machine, perhaps the best and most intuitive system available. A big hard disk (1TB+), formatted in the Apple format, makes it work well. However, the online backup through iCloud also offers a simple alternative (although the 5GB limit will cause problems).

Software applications

Most people are happy with iMovie, Office for Mac etc. I also introduce them to Evernote (free), Mindmanager (site license) and Screenflow (£60 with educational discount). Keynote is a much more stylish alternative to Powerpoint - for some people that matters. We have a license for Endnote Mac, but so far no one has asked me about that.

Cisco Webex (our videoconferencing software) works best on the Safari browser (not Firefox).

Access and NVivo aren't available on the Mac. For some people, that's an issue, and they need to think about it before purchasing one. I have helped a couple of people to use Parallels (one of the ways of running Windows on a Mac) for this reason. Personally, I have a small Windows machine that I can access remotely from the Mac, using the Remote Desktop client that comes with Office 2010.

The new iCloud sync and backup system seems to be causing some confusion and issues with people using older equipment (it currently only works on the latest OSX Lion). That could be a big concern. Most people will hit the 5GB limit right away if they try to replcicate videos and photos onto iCloud. After that they have to pay for extra space.

Otherwise, software on Apple is always delight to use!

November 04, 2011

Using Webex desktop video conferencing in a seminar with Monash

Earlier in the week I helped Nick Monk of IATL to include a video conference with Sarah McDonald (Monash) in a seminar for his Forms of Identity module. This was Nick's first use of video conferencing in teaching. We began with a simple approach, with Sarah giving a presentation and answering questions. However, we are going to integrate video conferencing into Nick's open-space learning workshop approach. That's why we held this session in the CAPITAL Studio (a large black box theatre studio). The module will soon be taught jointly by Warwick and Monash.

Sarah joined the Webex conference at 8am GMT (7pm in Australia). I had two 24" iMacs set up, one running the video conference (with its excellent built in camera and mic), the other playing the video clips to accompany Sarah's presentation. It's best to avoid playing videos over a video conference link, so I got Sarah to upload them in advance using files.warwick.ac.uk. Sarah used her own Mac Book in her office (most straight forwards). I've since realised that a good approach would be to use two screens for the video conference, running from one computer. The slides could be displayed full size on one screen, with the speaker on another.

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The sound quality was very good, with just the occassional squelchiness and echo. The students did have to make an effort to speak loudly and clearly when asking questions. There was only a slight delay in the transmission. Sarah displayed a visually interesting Keynote based slide show. We had the slides taking up most of the screen, and Sarah's face in a small inset. When showing the slides, Webex noticeably drops the refresh rate on the video of the speaker, but that's not a problem. I played the videos as required, and found that I didn't have to mute the mic on the conferencing iMac.

At the end of the session (I think it was over 1 1/2 hours), the students reported that it was really good. The technology was "brilliant" and having an expert from Australia in their seminar was great.

As an experiment, I also joined the conference using the Webex app on an iPad. The quality was superb, and I moved around with the iPad camera to get a different perspective on the Warwick participants. For the OSL integrated video conferencing, we will use the iMacs, Macbooks and the iPads to get closer to the action as it happens in small groups around the CAPITAL Studio. The next step is to set up a trial run for that configuration.

This is a screenshot of the iPad app. It will by default display an inset of the person who is currently speaking. Webex detects when someone else starts to speak and displays their video instead. It's possible to hide the video inset to see the slides fully, or to expand it and see a strip containing all of the participants (and to use the touch interface to skim through it).

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Adopting and embedding Sharepoint in higher education

In November 2011, I visited City College in Coventry to look at how they use Sharepoint (with Chris Coe and Rob Batterbee from Theatre Studies, a Sharepoint user). Rob Talbot gave us a good overview of their quite substantial achievements. They have made significant progress in four years (having been an early adopter of Sharepoint, they stepped-up their use of it in 2007).

I had two principle questions in mind:

  1. What have they achieved by using Sharepoint?
  2. What has been the secret of their success?

Here are my answers.

Sharepoint is commonly described as a “collaboration tool”. So one might say that they have achieved “better collaboration”. But that is far too vague and hence unhelpful (as are many descriptions of IT enhancement projects). We need to get more precision if we are to understand their achievements and the role of Sharepoint in their work.

Here’s a more helpful headline:

City College have used Sharepoint for more effectively working with information, using the best possible means for constructing and using information, individually and collectively.

That’s still very much at a high level. But it does helpfully name a virtue that may or may not be present in an institution (or individual), and suggests a broad project of improvement to which Sharepoint might contribute.

To get little more precision we should operationalize that virtue into a range of significant technology-practices. What might we mean by “constructing and using information”? Here are some patterns and examples:

Pattern Example
1. Adding a new object to a collection of similar objects. Complete a form to create a new record in a list of records.
2. Completing a series of distinct stages in a sequence, each building on the last. A workflow in which person A completes a form, person B reviews the information and adds to it, person C reviews and adds to it (perhaps making a decision).
3. Composing an object by adding and positioning parts of the object (in no particular order). Several people, over time, add text to a document.
4. Creating distinct components of the product according to a plan and assembling them together, with an additional process of integrating the parts. Writing the distinct sections of a funding application and then constructing the finished application from the parts.
5. Adding a distinct layer of commentary to an object. Reading and reviewing a document as it is read.
6. Creating and comparing alternate versions of an object. Each person reviews and annotates their own copy of a document. They then meet, compare and discuss their notes.

Many other patterns and examples are possible. This is just a sample of the kinds of behavior that would be enhanced by the project to More Effectively Use Information.

Some variation is introduced by various forms of collaboration. The construction process might be a collective act (with conscious collaboration between a group of people), multi-user (without the participants consciously co-operating as a group) or individual. The construction process will often happen over a distinct set of engagements (for example, several people adding contributions at different points in time). Individuals might collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, from the same location or remotely.

At City College we looked at a range of cases in which these technology-behaviours had been enhanced through the use of Sharepoint. The platform, when combined with the right kind of design, implementation, support and skills infrastructure, is capable of all of this and more.

The behaviours were enhanced along three dimensions:

A. Management Dimension

Sharepoint is used to optimize existing practices: repeatable and regular, quicker, more reliable, traceable etc. For example, purchasing data is entered by several people onto a single table, using a form that includes drop-down lists of suppliers. Reports can be automatically generated and people notified, thus guaranteeing that the right people get the right information as quickly as possible.

B. Creative Dimension

Entirely new ways of working are made possible. An aspect of the organization is redesigned to meet otherwise un-achievable objectives. For example, teachers create lesson plans, course specifications etc as part of their usual work. Sharepoint has been configured so that they can select some of their plans for inclusion in the audit process. Each individual teacher contributes to the assembly of their department’s auditable selection.

C. Networking Dimension

People work together better, share skills, using common practices and protocols. Where appropriate, they adapt the common practice for their own local requirements. For example, teaching materials are defined globally as a specific “content type” with a set of appropriate meta-data fields. This is used and understood across the whole institution. Departments and other groups can adapt this, adding additional fields and descriptors that make sense in their own area.

To achieve these enhancements, basic design values must be applied. The process of construction should be orderly, clearly stated and visible, signifying progress and other key indicators, manageable, efficient (in design and implementation) and not requiring more effort than is justified by the end product. Participants shouldn’t have to acquire new skills and understandings unless they will easily transfer and reapply to other cases.

Sharepoint is far from perfect on these terms. Very few actions are possible using Sharepoint without either context-specific training or an ability to understand and to think-through its particular interface and workflow logic. At City College this has been a challenge but not a barrier. IT skills, and more specifically Microsoft Office skills, are relatively well developed across the board. All members of staff are expected to undertake formal training in Office and Sharepoint. The similarities between the two have also been exploited.

As an approximate benchmark guide to how easy Sharepoint adoption would be for an organization, we can use comparable Microsoft Office skills. On this basis, City College were able to adopt Sharepoint at a fairly high level of sophistication, across the whole college.

A more fundamental design question must also be addressed. Does the pattern of construction afford all of the necessary attention to detail, considerations, variations and opportunities to differentiate and extend the product to the best possible or best required result? For example, when adding a record to a list of records, is there an opportunity to create additional new fields or accommodate additional and potentially useful information in other ways? Constraints are important for the sake of clarity and efficiency, but in some cases opportunities for more free-form work are also essential. The pattern must be designed so that the desired result is achieved. And it must therefore be possible to adapt the platform to meet these needs. The consequence of failure in design is that people will just stick to their existing habitual practices.

How well does Sharepoint do on this consideration? Again it’s not simply a technical matter. We need to consider the full platform: Sharepoint + design + implementation + support + skills + development.

There are 7 common levels of sophistication, all of which are possible with Sharepoint as a starting point:

  1. The participants use a familiar, habitual, un-examined approach to a new problem.
  2. They make ad-hoc adaptions, modifying a familiar approach as required.
  3. They select the most appropriate approach from a range of possibilities.
  4. They choose from a range of pre-existing approaches and make ad-hoc modifications.
  5. An expert designer makes the required modifications.
  6. An expert designer creates a new approach to meet the new needs.
  7. The participants themselves are able to create a new approach to meet their own needs.

In an ideal world, more effectively working with information, levels 3, 4 and 7 would occur most frequently. The habitual unexamined adoption of a pattern of working is avoided. Experts (5, 6) are required only for very difficult cases.

On its own, Sharepoint does not do well at helping people to make good informed choices (level 3). An additional supportive and guiding environment must be created. Sharepoint can be modified (by an expert) to make the options more explicit and meaningful (along with help materials). Or consultancy services can be made readily available in person. City College has chosen the latter option, with 3 people supporting an institution of equivalent size to one of Warwick’s faculties. Network effects also play a part once that a growing number of people have made choices and successfully used the system.

In addition, more advanced Office skills (for example creating Access databases) transfer across to some extent, meaning that advanced Office users can become advanced Sharepoint users at level 4, 5, 6 and perhaps even 7. City College has benefitted from this, along with providing an expert design, implementation and support team to work at levels 5 and 6.

Recommendations for Warwick

Good or advanced Microsoft Office skills are less evenly distributed amongst staff at Warwick. There is less likelihood that we can train all staff to this level. There is less commonality in the activities that could be enhanced with Sharepoint. The success of City College would therefore be harder to replicate. However, we could:

  • Initially target groups who are proficient in Office and do share a commonality (across the university, so as to build a distributed embedded user community).
  • Create a few useful Sharepoint based applications to significantly improve common practices for many people. Extra customization could be done to make the interface and workflow more intuitive and less dependent upon advanced skills, understanding or time spent in training.
  • Over time introduce more sophisticated functionality, depending more upon user-skills and effort.
  • Provide more local support (and customization).
  • Create an easy access, low cost (time and money) training channel for basic Office and Sharepoint skills.
  • Create a larger scale project to More Effectively Use Information across the university.