All 32 entries tagged Implementation

Real world examples of the implementation of learning designs, spaces and technologies, reported on and reflectively examined.

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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:


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 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.