We had our summer graduation ceremonies a couple of weeks ago which we in Web and Learning Technology Services live streamed. The live streaming service is something that we developed in-house at the back end of last year and was first piloted at the winter graduation ceremonies in December. The system was put together by members of the Web Team, who did all the back-end work, and the AV specialist in Learning Technology who arranged the hardware and helped to get the integration with our streaming media server working.
As well as being streamed live the cameras also record to their memory cards for us to edit and post to the media server after the event. This is normally done by our AV guy, but, immediately following graduation week, he went off work for nearly a month to get married. The priorities of some people, eh? So I volunteered to do the editing and uploading. A bit of a mundane task, but I actually enjoyed watching the little bits of the ceremonies I did and I got to get some hands-on experience with Adobe Premiere Pro. To date all of the movie editing I have done has been in iMovie, basically because I am a Mac user and it’s just there, and it has always done what I needed of it. It wasn’t good enough for this job however, as I wanted to manually specify the file format, the size and the bit rate used for encoding for compatibility with Helix and to control file sizes, features that Apple has simplified out of existence in the latest versions of iMovie. I almost wrote ‘inexplicably’ there to describe Apple’s foolishness, but the reason is perfectly clear, to make it easy for end users. There is no getting away from the complexity of export options in Premiere, but sometimes you need that complexity and Apple don’t seem to be interested in that segment anymore. It’s not just iMovie, they haven’t been getting the balance right between ease of use and power features in their software for a number of years now and I don’t see that trend getting better.
But I digress. As well as trimming the videos I also had to flatten the audio to make them mono as the left sound channel picked up almost nothing for some reason. I don’t know if this is something I can do in iMovie, I’ve never had the need before, but it was simple to do in Premiere. All of the recordings are now available here and you can see more videos and photos by following the Twitter hashtag #hawaythegrads.
In a separate query, while I was busy doing this work I picked up a job for a customer who wanted a colleague at a partner institution in Malaysia to share some recorded lectures with them and of course I recommended the streaming server as the best tool for the job. Normally we would get people in to the office to give them a quick run-through of how the system works, but Malaysia is a long way to travel, so I ended up having to put together a short help guide on how to do this as we didn’t have any documentation.
Our second series of Technology Bytes has just completed. This time, with the benefit of more time to plan and a longer semester, we ran twelve sessions from February to July at roughly fortnightly intervals. The programme of sessions were as follows:
Student Engagement in SunSpace
Engaging Distance Learning Students
Collaborative Learning Material Development and Deployment
Online Assignment Submission, Marking and Feedback
Using Self-Reflection to Improve Student Engagement and Outcomes
Increase Student Collaboration Using Discussion Tools
Improve Feedback for Students by Using Audio and Video
Use Video to Enrich Your Learning Materials
Smart Use of SMART Boards in Your Lectures
Death by PowerPoint? How to Keep Your Students Awake in Lectures
Teaching and Learning on the Move
Preparing Your SunSpace Sites for 2015/16
The big difference from last time round was a change in focus from ‘the tool’ to some problem we could help resolve. This worked better and is more apparent for some than others. I found writing succinct titles with this goal in mind difficult, but it was better achieved in the accompanying descriptions and in our advertisements. Another change was the explicit focus on one thing only per session, though again I tried to theme this around pedagogy or some problem we could help with rather than a specific system.
In spite of these changes attendance remained poorer than I would like and around half way through I modified our advertisements to make people aware that they could also use these sessions to ask us about any related matters. A barrier we face, and one that is difficult to resolve, is that our academics are quite tightly time constrained through the use of a workload planning system that doesn’t allow a lot of free time to attend extraneous activities. Nevertheless there were particularly popular sessions – ‘Death by PowerPoint’ had to be run twice. (One of the sessions I taught, but I’m sure that had nothing to do with it!) Finally, on the back of Technology Bytes, we delivered a number of sessions down at London Campus which were very well received.
Feedback has been very positive overall and outweighs, I think, the relatively poor attendance. As I keep having to remind the team, even sessions that run with only one person can have a huge impact as they propagate what they have learned to their students and colleagues. Informally, I have had many people tell me that the team is now more visible and they are more aware of the work we do thanks in part to these sessions. For all of these reasons I would very much like to keep them going next year, though with changes. One idea I am working on with Academic Development is joint drop-in surgeries, not just the two of us but also including other services such as the Library.
For the University Library’s SMT meeting this morning I was asked to deliver a short 30 minute talk about the work and accomplishments of the team over the past year, and to look forward to what is coming for us next year. Notes and thoughts which I started putting together yesterday morning morphed into the presentation below which was very well received. Indeed, I ended up talking for around an hour thanks to a really good Q&A session. Many people at the meeting have asked to either disseminate this presentation to their colleagues or for me to attend other meetings to deliver this again. That’s a very satisfying feeling, a job well done. Following this reception I have gone on to publish the presentation on our website and on a ‘Show and Tell’ module on SunSpace that we use for this kind of thing.
Back in late September / early October I was asked by a colleague in our Academic Development Unit to develop a series of sessions on learning technology to plug into their CPD plan, the result was Technology Bytes! Six sessions running every week starting in late October covering:
SunSpace and ClassLive
Solar (Equella) and Articulate Storyline
Turnitin and Prezi
ePortfolio (Mahara) and Thing Link
Streaming Service (Helix Media Library) and PowToon
SMART Boards and Audio / Video Feedback and Marking
My intention had been for each session to briefly demonstrate one of the University’s core learning technology tools alongside something new, funky and maybe even just a little bit sexy, then to have a discussion on what has been demonstrated and an open Q&A. Once the sessions were going however, I quickly learned that our academic community were expecting more formal planned training which went into depth on each topic.
Now, as I am busy planning the second series to run throughout semester 2, this is a key lesson which I am taking on board and will stick to one system or tool in each session, but will be including a dedicated session on external presentation tools which will cover Storyline, Prezi, PowToon and Thing Link together, and another new one dedicated to mobile apps. Audio and video feedback and marking I want to expand out to a session on its own as there is a great deal of potential here to enhance the student experience and some of the work I have seen where this has been used has had fantastic results.
A further improvement which I will be making is to re-word the titles and descriptions to bring the pedagogy to the fore, rather than the tool itself, in an attempt to reach more people and increase participation in the sessions.
I am reliably informed that the programme as a whole has been very well received by ‘higher-ups’ and that they feature prominently in all of the new Faculty development plans, with strong encouragement for staff to attend. Very encouraging.
Something which surprised me about WaLTS when I started was the lack of management information on the work we do to support our customers. There has been a few spot audits to analyse busy periods, but nothing coherent or consistent, so I asked the team to start recording resolved work using a simple form and then presented the results in a report for the benefit of our senior management. Those graphs will take a little time to fill out, but we’re off to a good start.
I feel like I don’t post as much as I used to, and part of the reason why is because a lot of my work is now either collaborative or of a project management nature. The new version of Mahara is a case in point. The old version was 1.4, a three year old release, and hadn’t been updated since. A project to upgrade or install a new version had begun before I started which became one for me to push through. The new version, set up as a completely new system because the database on the old one was Postgres and we couldn’t easily migrate it to MySQL, is now available thanks to a team effort from many people in WaLTS and IT Services. Now there is just the small matter of manually exporting 8,000 user accounts to the new one. That’ll keep us busy for a while.
Another good piece of work I have been involved in is the imminent deployment of a new integration of Turnitin, another stalled project which I had picked up, which included writing a fairly comprehensive report for our service director who had her doubts. We just need to do some final quality assurance testing on this and write some new help guides for staff and students and then it will be good to release.
Now that WaLTS are on Twitter, we found out on the grapevine that the University’s Marketing department had a tool called SoDash for collating all of our various accounts across different departments and social media outlets. We asked for a demonstration to see how it could be of use to us and this session was the result.
SoDash collates both incoming and outgoing social media activity on Twitter, FaceBook, Linkedin, YouTube and Instagram. The ability to include Google+ was mentioned too, but I didn’t see it in any of the dashboard and it’s dying anyway. SoDash has some really useful functionality such as the ability to tag and add notes to posts and people, create live activity dashboards, and most useful for us it can do wide-ranging searches for keywords to help catch posts which are for our attention but which don’t mention our handles directly. Many students won’t necessarily know ‘Web and Learning Technology Services’, or ‘UoS_WaLTS’, but they will tweet about SunSpace and My Sunderland problems which we may miss.
Attended the New Lecturers Programme as an interloper, or mole, in order to meet the latest batch of academics and to try and inculcate a close working relationship between themselves and WaLTS. Also, still being new, it was a useful opportunity for me to learn more about the academic side of the university. Particularly enlightening was Iain Rowan and Fiona Jackson’s session which covered a broad range of academic policies and procedures including valid grounds of appeal for students and how honours degrees are calculated (more complex, if possible, than the OU’s with which I am well versed!). The course carried over to Friday morning which was given over to Student and Learning Support, my directorate. Familiar territory, though I still learned about some services the Library and Sunderland Futures offer that I wasn’t aware of. There is always something new to learn!
One pithy definition of madness is that it is the act of repeating the same action over and over and expecting different results. So it was that back in April I was asked to create a Twitter account for the team which, having done so, was promptly ignored and left to languish. To this day all six glorious tweets from that account were made by your humble author. Today, or rather spread over the past couple of days as a ‘bitty’ job, I have resurrected the old ‘LDS’* Twitter account and renamed, revamped and brought it back into use.
So, am I mad? My intention behind this is to have a more informal avenue of communication between the team and our customers, but to be a success it will require active engagement and relevant content. UoS_WaLTS has one thing going for it that NorthumbriaTEL didn’t: me, enthusiastic and not going anywhere anytime soon this time.
Another little job I’ve been doing for similar reasons of engagement is improving the announcements page on SunSpace, which was just dull black on white text, trying to make it look nice and keeping the content current so that it isn’t reduced to just annoying wallpaper which people scroll over to get to their courses, to which end I have also embedded a widget for our Twitter feed into the announcements for all users section.
* Learning Development Services, the old name for my team before merging with Web Services.
Well, it is now officially official. Everyone who needs to know now knows so I am free to tell the world. After six and a half years, next month I will be leaving Northumbria University to join Web and Learning Technology Services at the University of Sunderland as a Senior Learning Technologist. Happy days.