Tag Archives: online

The iPad: a tool for teachers

When the iPad was first announced I posted some brief thoughts about its potential for education. Since then, it’s been released and I’ve had the chance to spend some time playing with one. It’s been an opportunity to see to what extent the device itself and the software available would be a useful tool for supporting the work of teachers and lecturers.

My initial impressions that the iPad functionally resembles a giant iPod Touch have been confirmed. Still, I use my iPod Touch all the time, so all the advantages of a bigger display are very attractive. The key question for me is to what extent the bigger display makes the iPad a great device not just for consuming media but also for generating content.

The iPad is a great device to view content – it’s fast and the display quality is impressive. And of course there is a huge number of apps available for it,  given that it’ll run existing iPhone / iPod Touch apps as well as apps developed just for the iPad.

But as a working teacher I also want to generate content. And it has limitations here:

  • Want to edit online content such as Moodle or mediawiki pages? Results vary – you’ll almost certainly need to use HTML or wiki markup since the iPad is unlikely to work with wysiswyg editors. I don’t mind that – in fact I prefer to use HTML or wiki markup – but many teachers will find this a real drawback. And things are worse if you’re one of the many educators using the PBWorks wiki- at the time of writing it was impossible to edit a page with the iPad.
  • You can’t print. So you’ll need to rely on a desktop or laptop computer for this.
  • Using Google Docs? At the time of writing you can view but not edit using an iPad.
  • Want to create media resources?  There are useful apps becoming available, but the lack of native support for accessing the iPad file system and the use of proprietary file formats is likely to be a barrier. My two-year-old grandson loved using the built-in mike to make that cursed animated cat speak funny – but there is no obvious way just yet to record audio to standard file formats that can be moved easily to a desktop, edited in other applications and published.

In my mind, Apple has focused too much on the entertainment aspect of its portable devices and neglected their use for real-world work. I’d like to see both, and I don’t believe they need to be mutually exclusive. The iPad is not quite ready to meet my needs as a working teacher – can’t wait to see the next version.

Image: Glenn Fleishman

Six tips for setting up a small-scale e-learning site

Rodin's ThinkerI often hear from educators and others wanting to set up a simple, small-scale e-learning platform to support their activities. While such a site has the potential to be more flexible and adaptable than a large institutional setup, it’s important to start it off on a sound footing to avoid wasting time and money.

My suggestions:

  1. Start with and maintain a strong focus on using the web to support learning, not to merely publish information. This should underlie all the decisions you make on technical matters.
  2. Don’t spend any money on arranging hosting until you have made decisions about the software platform (eg LMS or CMS) that will best meet your needs. Some platforms require much more robust hosting than others do.
  3. Don’t spend any money on a software platform until you have made some decisions about exactly how you are going to use the site to support learning. In fact, once you have done this it’s very likely that you can identify free and open source software (FOSS) that will be very suitable.
  4. Get help to identify your needs and make decisions. Not just because you may not have all the knowledge required, but also because an outside perspective is invaluable.
  5. Seek out independent help and advice. Talk to lots of people, but be aware that many of the people who will offer advice may not  have an objective understanding of what you want to achieve.
  6. Spend money on what matters – apart from ongoing payments for hosting, you probably have a small budget for initial set up. Since it’s very likely you won’t need to spend anything on software (see point 3 above), set aside at least some of your budget for buying the time of someone independent to help you identify needs and make decisions.

8 tips for online learning community activities

Augustin Théodule Ribot: The ConversationIn a purely social community, collaboration and communication can be very open and unstructured. But when incorporating online community approaches into courses, we normally need to adopt a more structured approach to meet needs of the curriculum and the learners.

Here are some tips for this situation:

  1. The start of the activity is important – so welcome people and set a positive tone. Don’t overload people with information – start gently!
  2. Focus on participant needs – so exploring and sharing existing knowledge is often a great place to start.
  3. Give clear instructions and information about the activity – break the activity into digestible chunks so participants can focus on one thing at a time. Move supplementary information (ie info which is not key to the activity) to subsidiary pages.
  4. Use triggers to build engagement – eg provide a video or a link to an online survey, then follow with a directly-related question.
  5. Use open questions – eg ‘why do you think…?‘ These are more likely to generate higher-level thinking and in-depth discussion.
  6. Be a bit provocative – a trigger or question which is controversial is likely to generate engagement. But avoid topics which are too risky as these can lead to dangerous conflict – if you’re inexperienced as a facilitator this can be hard to deal with.
  7. Consider the flow of the activity – it is often preferable to deal with one question at a time, allowing participants to focus on one question at a time. You can start with prior experience or knowledge, then move in a developmental sequence to more in-depth questions. If you pose multiple questions from the beginning, especially with smaller groups, the community focus can be easily dissipated and lose momentum.
  8. The end of the activity is important – you should at least farewell participants and thank them for taking part. Consider also how the key points that arose can be summarised and published – true collaboration is not just discussing but generating new and powerful knowledge that should not be lost. You might ask for a volunteer to do this.

Image: Augustin Théodule Ribot: The Conversation

Evaluating online community activities

The purpose of evaluation

A key question for anyone managing or facilitating an online community is how to make it sustainable. Sustainable communities need to maintain (and grow) an active and engaged membership. Structured online events or activities can play a very important role in engaging community members and ensuring their regular and active involvement. However, these events must be effective – badly planned and/or facilitated events can turn members off and lead to the failure of the community.

The facilitator’s overall impression of whether an event is effective or not is useful. But without a more rigorous evaluation, we can miss underlying issues which have the potential to damage members’ ongoing engagement in the community. So some kind of evaluation process is vital to its ongoing success and sustainability.

This article focuses on evaluating community events: not to check that they meet a minimum standard, but as a way of engaging in a process of ‘continuous improvement’.

The evaluation process

Many educational and management approaches employ cyclical models involving reflection or evaluation – eg Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and the action research cycle. The PDSA Cycle shown here represents the stages of Deming’s approach to quality improvement in business, but can be adapted to provide a model useful in relation to online community events and activities:

  1. PLAN: plan the community event
  2. DO: facilitate the community event
  3. STUDY: evaluate the event
  4. ACT: feed the evaluation results back into further community development

Carrying out the evaluation

Most of the evaluation will take place as part of the STUDY phase. But during the event (the DO phase) the facilitator should keep notes on what’s going well and what isn’t. If it’s not too big a group, it can also be really helpful to keep notes on the level of engagement of each member – not as a form of assessment, but as data that may be useful later.

During the STUDY phase:

Decide how you will gather feedback

Without its members, the community does not exist. So feedback from participants in an event is an essential component of evaluation:

  • Online tools such as surveymonkey or polldaddy are quick to complete, so community members are usually happy to complete a survey. But make the survey brief, and tell them how long it’ll take.
  • Individual interviews: you may get much more meaningful information about the event’s effectiveness if you personally approach participants. This may be a phone call or skype, or using an asynchronous method such as email. Ideally, a neutral 3rd party will gather the data, since participants may be unwilling to open up to the facilitator. You may be able to set up a reciprocal arrangement with another facilitator to gather data from each other’s participants.
  • Collaborative feedback: you could set up a wiki that participants can use to record their feedback. Or you could set up a forum or a synchronous discussion space that participants use to discuss the event. Ideally this would be anonymous, so you may appoint one member to gather the raw data and provide you with a summary. Again, you may be able to arrange with another facilitator to manage this and gather feedback.

Develop evaluation questions and tools

  • Communicate clearly what you are evaluating – point the participants back to the activity if possible so they can reflect on it. Be specific – make sure the questions clearly identify aspects of the activity that you want feedback on.
  • Focus on how well the activity met their needs, not just on how much they enjoyed the process. If possible, ask for feedback at the higher levels of Kirkpatrick’s model – eg has the activity had a positive result, has it made a difference, have they been able to apply what they learned during the activity?
  • Focus separately on the design of the activity and its facilitation: they are distinct, and the effectiveness of each is essential.
  • Include questions that are open and qualitative so you can find out why things happened the way they did.

Gather feedback from community members.

  • Tell participants how you will make use of the feedback: if you focus on improvement and they believe you are sincerely interested in making things better next time, they are more likely to engage in the evaluation process.
  • Gather feedback not just from those that took part in the event, but also from those who chose not to. Asking those who didn’t take part why they didn’t can tell you a lot about the design of the event and the way it was communicated to community members!

Reflect and evaluate
Feedback from participants is just one form of information on which to base the evaluation. Your own reflection is another essential component.

  • You may want to reflect on the activity before you gather data from participants – that way your own thoughts won’t be overly influenced by feedback. But once you have gathered the data, that’s a chance to reflect on and learn from the feedback from participants.
  • In your reflection, avoid placing blame on participants. Assume you can do better and learn from mistakes. If people go wrong, ask yourself how could I have communicated more clearly?
  • Use your own recollections and notes from during the activity to triangulate – compare them with what participants have told you about the activity, what happened and why.
  • Focus on improvement – even where you think the activity was effective, try to identify specific things you could do to make it better next time.
  • Share your evaluation with the participants – it’s a community, right? Sharing the evaluation means it becomes part of the larger community collaboration and conversation, and can enhance member commitment. But… if there are comments or conclusions that you feel are private or could offend members, leave them out of the published version.

Image: A Midnight Modern Conversation by William Hogarth.


Davies, C (nd). Kolb Learning Cycle Tutorial. Downloaded 30 May 2010 from http://www.ldu.leeds.ac.uk/ldu/sddu_multimedia/kolb/static_version.php

Unknown author, Business Performance Ltd (nd). Why Measure Training Effectiveness? Downloaded 30 May 2010 from http://www.businessperform.com/workplace-training/evaluating_training_effectiven.html

Unknown author, Carpenter group (nd). The Deming Cycle. Downloaded 30 May 2010 from http://www.quality-improvement-matters.com/deming-cycle.html

Unknown author, Warwick University (2008). Action Research. Downloaded 30 May 2010 from http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ldc/resource/evaluation/tools/action/

Assessing what’s important in online discussion

One of the problems with assessment is common to all forms of measurement: ”what is easy to measure may not be important, what is important is often hard to measure.” This is true of online assessment as well as more traditional forms.

The assessment dilemma

This dilemma can cause assessment developers to assess what is less important: they focus on easily quantifiable criteria or standards but neglect to include more important criteria because they are not so easily quantified or measured.

In assessment of online discussion, we see the effects of this dilemma when assessment criteria call for a quantifiable contribution from learners: ‘At least 3 contributions to the forum’ or ‘One forum thread started and responses to at least three others’. This can lead to lightweight discussion as learners post superficial responses to achieve their tally. And this of course is contagious – every lightweight posting says to everyone else: ‘Look, this is all you need to do’. Even worse, genuinely thoughtful postings can get lost in the tide of mediocre ones.

To avoid this, we need to focus on what really is important: usually, what we’d like to see each learner achieve is something like ‘Make a significant contribution to the development of ideas through the discussion forum‘. But since that is clearly more subjective and harder to measure, we need to spell out how this might occur and what it might look like:

  • Contributes original ideas which are relevant and well-developed
  • Provides significant insights into the existing body of literature
  • Helps synthesise ideas and concepts
  • Contributes detailed and relevant examples from their own practice
  • Helps others to explore ideas in depth

Of course, such a list is still relatively subjective – but it does start to establish what is important to me as an educator. And since I’d rather see one ‘significant’ posting than ten which don’t really add anything substantial, I prefer to avoid the use of quantitative measures when developing rubrics and other assessment tools.