I have seen the eLearning future…

In my elearning career I have seen two ed technologies appear that have transformed learning* in my particular areas of interest (web based video and interactive web maps).  On Friday, I saw a third:  True AI marking via the Gallito tool which was presented by some colleagues from UNED, a Spanish university.

How it works:  If you set up an open self assessment question in a course, you can define what the student should answer in terms of topics they should cover.  This is then fed into a model which is transferred into an algorithm.   Any answer the students give is analysed by the algorithm, it breaks down the text into grammar and then compares this to the answer it has.  It gives the students a graph showing how they scored against various criteria.  I had lots of questions for the presenters about how this actually works technically, unfortunately the programmers weren’t there to help their education colleagues so I didn’t get very far in understanding it.  What they did make clear was that this isn’t a ‘black box’, they haven’t fed in a load of answers to the same questions with a tutors marks and used that to train a marking tool, the algorithm is designed from the ground up.

Testing it:  The presenters then went on to show various ways they’ve tested this.  UNED (the parent university) is a distance learning university in Spain that is publically funded, they put the algorithm to work assessing students formative work on a business course.  Students could try a self assessment question and get immediate feedback:  a mark and a graphical representation of where they’re answer was good or bad with respect to the marking criteria was given.   Students liked the feedback and were prepared to answer  the same question multiple times in order to improve their marks and to develop their understanding.  UNED also used the tool to mark pre-exisiting assignments, they found  that the tool marked close to the average of a group of makers who also marked the assignments.  The human markers on the module varied between them, the tool was  marking higher than the hard markers and lower than high markers (on average).

Applications:  My description above has been fairly sketchy because it was a quick presentation.  However, I believe that they’ve achieved a tool that can semantically break down a student answer and give pretty reasonable feedback.  What is immediately obvious is that this is fantastic for formative marking:  students building up to an assignment can practice their writing over and over before they attempt the actual assignment without having to involve a tutor at all.  That could be a game changer for MOOCs who currently have to rely on multiple choice questions that are poor tools to test high level understanding.

Of course if Gallito does do what is claimed for it, it could also be used to mark students assignments.  This area is much more contensious with lots of potential issues brewing.  I suspect it will affect this area at some point in the future, just not for now.

Trialling it at the Open University:  Along with a colleague, I’m very interested in seeing what the tool can do close up so we’re pushing to get a programme together to investigate it.  Our colleagues at UNED are keen we do this.

The rise and rise of AI:  I’ve read in the news about AI taking over all kinds of work.  I didn’t think it would appear in teaching for a long while, years or even decades.   However, it seems its here already.  Is this is a disruptive technology that utterly changes education as we know it?  I just don’t know.  However, I am sure that if the tool proves itself it will be very significant.

*IMHO of course, you may have a different list.


HEPI report on Technology Enhanced Learning

So a think tank has been considering how to ‘Reboot learning for the digital age’.  It came up with some recommendations:

  • Recommendation 1: Higher education institutions should ensure that the effective use of technology for learning and teaching is built into curriculum design processes. This should include consideration of win-win methods, which offer both improved outcomes and lower costs.
  • Recommendation 2: To support this, the UK higher education sector should develop an evidence and knowledge base on what works in technology-enhanced learning to help universities, faculties and course teams make informed decisions. Mechanisms to share, discuss and disseminate these insights to the rest of the sector will also be required.
  • Recommendation 3: Institutions that do not currently have learning analytics in place should give consideration to adopting it at the earliest opportunity.
  • Recommendation 4: Education researchers should consider how the learning analytics big dataset can be harnessed to provide new insights into teaching and learning.
  • Recommendation 5: Digital technology should be recognised as a key tool for higher education institutions responding to the TEF. Providers should be expected to include information on how they are improving teaching through the use of digital technology in their submissions to the TEF. The Department for Education (DfE) and the TEF panel must ensure the TEF does not act as a barrier against institutions innovating with technology-enhanced approaches.
  • Recommendation 6: Higher education institutions should ensure the digital agenda is being led at senior levels – and should embed digital capabilities into recruitment, staff development, appraisal, reward and recognition.
  • Recommendation 7: Academic leads for learning and teaching should embrace technology-enhanced learning and the digital environment and recognise the relationship with other aspects of learning and teaching.

My new employer, the Open University (UK) is doing all of these (and I have responsibility, along with my new team colleagues, for promoting 1 to 4).

I wonder how many other HEIs can say the same?

The power of little data in Learning Analytics

This post was originally posted on the closed ALT members list, it seemed to generate interest so I’ve reproduced it here.

The power of little data

Most of what I’ve come across in terms of Learning Analytics is thinking in terms of big data, an example problem:  We’re tracking our 300 first years, given the hundreds of measures we have on the VLE and hundreds of thousands of data points, can we produce an algorithm that uses that big data to identify those in danger of dropping out and how should we best intervene to support them.  Fine, a worthy project.  

However, it isn’t the only way of tackling the problem.  Could we visualize key milestones, say a count of how many of the key course readings a student has accessed each week so that the tutor can easily scan the students’ progress? It would look a bit like this:


At a glance, the tutor can identify non progressing students, she should then be able to drill down for more data (e.g. how much an individual student has been posting in forums) and intervene with the students in whatever way they think best.

The problem becomes one of deciding what key measures should be used (you could even make it customizable at the tutor level so THEY choose the key measures) and how to visualize it successfully.  I haven’t seen any VLE learning analytics dashboard that is up to the job IMHO (although I haven’t done a proper search).  When compared to big data LA I think this ‘little data’ approach is:

– more achievable, 

– has less ethical implications and 

– neatly side steps the algorithm transparency problem: its the tutor’s expertise that is being used and that’s been going since teaching was introduced.

The screenshot comes from a prototype system I built to help track progress on a flipped learning course I used to deliver at Southampton Uni, I found that telling the students I was tracking their progress proved an excellent motivator for them to keep up with the out of class activities.  Little data and flipped learning was the topic of a  talk I did in 2014 at Southampton Uni.

Google Hangouts for Tutorials

I am responsible for a set of online tutorials (video and audio) and I’ve found Skype unsatisfactory, problems include:

  • not connecting students who are online to a multiuser call
  • difficult to understand interface

I’ve done some research and hangouts seems to work well on all the common browsers and mobile devices.  My Geo-Google colleagues all swear by it and its also more intuitive which is a common characteristic of Google software IMHO.

So we’re piloting a tutorial using Hangouts.  I’ve prepared some notes for students to run through prior to coming on the call which I thought might be useful for someone thinking of trying out hangouts instead of Skype.

ELESIG meeting about learning analtyics

ELESIG = elearning evaluation special interest group.

I’ve just been to this meeting at the Royal Veternary college in Camden, London.  The talks were interesting and there was some interesting discussion.

Problems engaging staff and students with Learning Analytics:  It generally seemed as if Learning Technologists as a group are interested in what I call ‘small data’ i.e. Real time Learning Analytics for tutors and students as opposed to ‘Big data’ which tends to be of interest to management and is often not real time.  However, not many people have projects producing results that can be discussed.  There are barriers to the use of small data from :

  • students (not that interested),
  • tutors (this is too much like Big Brother for me and/or not interested)
  • Institutions (no clear leadership, not producing drivers to implement little data

Office Mix:  I was surprised to find that my implementation of Office Mix (earlier post on Recording a presentation using PowerPoint Mix and see ‘training‘ for details of my teaching on use of Office Mix) as a way of introducing small data to students in the flipped MSc I’m supporting was actually advanced to where a lot of other people were.  As I said to the group, the analytics of Office Mix promises much but I have yet to see it in action.

 Michelle Milner of UEL:  Michelle presented work that UEL has been doing around producing dashboards showing little data to students and tutors.  She also explained how they had been using Kontext to track students’ use of Ebooks.  One interesting fact she said was that they had done focus groups with students and that by discussing learning analytics students got more interested in the topic!  To me this suggests a point made on a JISC podcast about learning analytics I heard recently:  reports need to be delivered by a tutor as part of a one on one discussion if at all possible.  Michelle noted that in the real world that’s a big ask for a tutor already pushed for time.

Andy Kons:  Presented about an excel based program he’d produced to show analytics from Moodle.

Thoughts on Accessibility in HE

I went to some of the training sessions on accessibility run by JISC organised by University of Hertfordshire on 8/6/16.  I thought I’d write up some notes to share.

Legal Motivation

Universities have a duty of care to ‘make all reasonable accommodations’ to our teaching and teaching materials to make them accessible. It is advisable to be anticipatory about this, if an organisation has a paper trail of embedding accessibility that creates a better defence in case we are taken to court and have done nothing. Different Universities have done more or less, in general, the more effort made the lower the risks are.  Risks are low but the impact of them is potentially high especially to our reputation.

Range of users

There are a range of users of teaching materials, some are disabled but don’t want to admit it, some are on a scale that means they could benefit from accessibility but who wouldn’t explicitly ask for it.  Most students will avoid using usability tools if they can avoid it – they don’t like being seen as different.

What could be done by tutors

There are a range of easy actions that could increase accessibility of materials with low cost in terms of time and culture change.  A lot of these include good pedagogic practice anyway and can give rise to productivity benefits to all students. Examples:

  • Any word document should have headings and sub headings marked using heading styles (HI, H2 etc. as has been done with this report). This creates a structure that is easy to navigate around using a screen reader and can create a navigation bar for all students (View > Side Bar > Document map pane)
  • When transferring from word to PDF, there is a tick box to save the structure so adobe reader will act the same as word for screen readers.
  • Add a caption to all images so that screen readers can get a version of the image.
  • When adding a link, these should be named something meaningful like ‘Treves report 2016’ rather than ‘click here’ as screen readers scan through links sometimes converting the text to words.
  • When discussing accessibility with students, term it ‘productivity’ as this is more attractive to students.


What could be done in induction for students

There are a number of things that could be offered to students in induction e.g.:

  • Encourage them to install and use screen reader for word/chrome if needed
  • Encourage them to add contrast plugins for chrome if they need it.


Harder Goals

Producing text versions of video and audio content is benefitial but clearly involves a big investment of time. Ebooks vary widely in their accessibility for students, PDF based images of text are impossible for screen readers to scan.  What format are our ebooks in and what can we do about it if they aren’t in an accessible format?



A number of aspects of accessibility struck me. Inviting tutors to accessibility training is liable to be unpopular, why would they want to solve a problem they didn’t know they had?   Better if we drip bits of accessibility into other training and support given to tutors.

The big take away that occurred to me is the link between flipped learning and accessibility.   Students with common issues such as dyslexia, blindness and mental issues are all helped if they can access text versions of materials that that form the backbone of the course rather than have to learn by being sat in lectures.  Flipped learning can help them by providing the out of class work in text form which can then be read by screen readers or read at students speed rather than listened to at ‘lecture delivery speed’.  The class sessions of flipped learning are flexible so it also allows tutors to accomodate students needing more support.

Flipped learning often uses video, to be truly accessible, text versions of these need to be produced.  A quick and dirty way of doing this is by uploading to YouTube, you can enhance the experience further by use of synote which allows a transcript to be synced with the video. 


Useful Links

Paper writing workflow via Mind Maps

Intro: So I’ve been busy writing papers recently and, after a lot of experimenting, I’ve come up with a workflow which I like using mind maps to collate the literature and plan the paper’s structure.  It would probably work well for other spatial thinkers so I thought I’d write it out:

1] Work out the topic area you want to write about.  Start gathering relevant papers as PDFs.

2] For each paper, go through it highlighting the relevant parts to the paper you’re thinking of writing (I use Acrobat Pro).

3] Create a mind map, Xmind free version is the one I use.   For each paper, create a new node on the left* side of the mind map.  Branching out from the node, summarise the paper relevant to your planned paper in a series of points.

4]  When you’ve got a fair few papers noted in this way, start planning the structure of the paper on the right side of the mind map.  Each major section, (introduction, conclusion, methods etc.) gets a node of its own.

5] Branching out from each of the section nodes, write notes on what you will write.  Don’t write actual text at this point.

6] Now start populating the right hand side with references from the left hand side.  This will drive you to rewrite the detail on the right hand side.

7] Now iterate adding new papers as needed, incorporating them in the paper structure on the right and editing the paper structure.

8]  When you’re mostly happy with the structure run through all the papers one by one reviewing their relevance and seeing where they could be fitted on the right where they haven’t already been added.

9] Now repeat but run through the structure on the right hand side reviewing every branch.  You should be moving structure nodes around in the structure, deleting them or adding detail as necessary.

10]  The paper writing is now just a matter of execution, write it starting at the introduction using the structure on the mind map as a guide.   The abstract should wait until last.

Structure first:  The advantage of this is that it encourages you to fix the large scale structure of the paper before getting into the actual sentences that make up the paper.  If you can decide a node is not needed and delete it in the mind map then you’ve saved yourself the work of writing it out in full and then having to delete it.

Map of your paper: I also like the process of panning around a mind map editing things, it appeals to me to work spatially in this way rather than the more ‘linear’ scrolling up and down a long document.

Short study times on the train: A final advantage was that I used iAnnotate to highlight papers (step 2) on my iPad writing notes on apple notes.  This can be done on a short journey such as a half an hour train trip.  I’d later import the notes into the mind map.   

*or the right, if you prefer.  You’d just switch the structure over to the left as well.

Goodbye eXe elearning, hello OneNote class

So for a while I have been interested in finding software that allows tutors with low IT skills to author web based material.  The tools within VLEs such as Blackboard and Moodle are clunky to say the least and leave a lot to be desired in terms of navigation design.

For a long time I advocated eXe, it allowed tutors to:

  • Create text, embed images easily
  • Create and manage structure of the pages (move page up or down, become a child page of a parent)
  • Export as html
  • Responsive design (looks good on a mobile device)

in a usable way while hiding the CSS and HTML code away from tutors.   However, it was limited because it wasn’t online:  tutors couldn’t collaborate on materials easily.

junkOver the last few days I’ve been playing around with OneNote class which is part of Education Office 365 and I’m really impressed with what it can do.  Basically it does all of the things eXe does but its a cloud service so course materials can be shared with a team who can work on it at the same time.  It allows course content to be viewed by students but not edited but also includes a wiki space where students can collaborate (pretending its a forum for example) on tasks.

VLE lite:  In fact, with One Note you have most of the ingredients of a VLE.  What its lacking is:

  • Analytics:  E.g. what have students looked at in the content
  • History:  There is no way to roll back changes to a previous version

but definitely worth considering.

Screencasting: why and how


Screencasting is a technique where the screen is recorded with an added audio channel.  There are a number of reasons to use it in an educational setting I can think of:

  • Record lectures to use as pre-session learning in a flipped learning style
  • Mark students formative work as a screencast, look at their word document or similar and ‘ink’ onto the screen as you talk them through how they did
  • Walk students through a tricky software problem, i.e. howto submit an assignment.

Here’s an example from Khan academy which I think works really well



The how I’ve covered in a recent post, my favoured tool (for non-techies) is office mix, an add-on to powerpoint (another howto tutorial).  I have recently found out that it doesn’t work on the Mac version of PowerPoint (Microsoft, please get a grip) and of course, you may not use PowerPoint.  If this is the case I have had good experiences of Screencast-o-matic with whatever the presentation software is that you want to use.

Recording a presentation using PowerPoint Mix

Office Mix is an excellent tool for none specialists to record screencast presentations.  The howto instructions below describes how to use it in this way with an output to video.

1      Install Mix

1.1] go to


and click ‘Get Office Mix’ top right.  Follow instructions to install the addon to PowerPoint.

2      Prepare Powerpoint

2.1]  Prepare your powerpoint talk in a number of slides in the usual way.

3      Set up audio and camera

3.1]  Now go back to your first slide.  On the Mix tab, select ‘Slide Recording Record’ (far left)

3.2]  The screen will now redraw with a black top and right border.  Firstly we need to set up the microphone and cameara.

3.3] on the right column select ‘No camera’ and also on the microphone pull down menu, select your microphone.

3.4] As a check, when you speak the volume will appear as a bar animation above ‘Microphone Options…’

4      begin recording

4.1] Click the red ‘Record’ button.  The screen will acquire a dotted red line border.  Start talking.

4.2] When you are finished with the audio that goes with the slide, click the red square ‘stop’ button

4.3]  Preview your recording using the blue triangle ‘Preview Slide Recording’ button.  Your audio and slide should play back.

4.4]  If you are happy, click the ‘Next Slide’ arrow button to proceed to the next slide.  Repeat the steps from [4.1]

4.5] If you are not happy with your recording, simply repeat the steps from [4.1] and when PowerPoint prompts you ‘Would you like to overwrite this recording?’ choose ‘Yes’.

5      Processing the finished powerpoint

5.1]  When you have added audio to all slides, click the ‘Close’ cross button top right.

5.2]  Click ‘File’ > ‘Save as’ to save your powerpoint slides and audio recordings.

5.3]  Under the Mix tab > export to video.

5.4] Select (720p) as the Video size and click next.

5.5] Save your Presentation with a sensible name.

5.6]  You should be able to play your created presentation and it work.

6      Advanced features

Office Mix has several advanced features which you may wish to use.  These are:

  • using animations within slides
  • inking
  • uploading to Office 365 for easy sharing

to investigate these see tutorial videos at https://mix.office.com/en-us/Home