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TEL Sonya Posts

The CELT Top +-10 Tools, Mostly “Free”(ish)

Padlet Map Example
Experiments with the new map board in Padlet

I recently delivered a staff development session for our Instructional Design team, as part of which I was asked to cover what fun and exotic external tools we particularly use or recommend. I have an extremely comprehensive list in my browser bookmarks, and have a small handful of “go to’s”, but to put together a proper list I consulted with my CELT colleagues and put together our Top 10. Which had 12 things on it. Or 14 really if you include what I put on another slide to get more ideas. Whatever, counting is over rated, just ask the Republican Party. I thought it would be useful to share, so, in no particular order, here they are:

Kahoot
An audience, or student response system. It’s bright, loud, fun, and people seem to like it, though it’s not my preference as I think it’s a tad unprofessional for HE. Like most of the things on this list it works on a freemium model, with the free version limited to two question types – MCQ and True/False – and 50 players. Staff wanting to use it will need to create an account which requires an email address, but students do not have to sign-up to use it and can submit responses via a website or mobile app.

Poll Everywhere
This is my go-to student response system. Works on the same model as Kahoot, but looks a lot more professional. Less intuitive to set up, and only 40 responses per poll with the free account, but many more questions types (23, I think). Students can also respond by SMS, getting around the problem of ‘I don’t have a smartphone / data’ which can still be an issue sometimes.

ThingLink
An old favourite. Upload any image or photo to ThingLink, then make it interactive by adding hot spots that can include text, audio, video, or links to other content. Free version limits the amount of hot spot icons which are available to you, and each image has a viewing cap of 1,000. For an example of use, here is an interactive world map I created for a Sociology module showing country health profiles created by students: Country Health Profiles.

Piktochart
Infographics have become an increasingly popular way of showing a lot of data in a very simple, visually striking format, and Piktochart is an excellent and easy to use tool that lets you create these. Free accounts are limited to 5 charts, and export quality is limited, though still very good. Images can be exported as flat PNG files, or embedded with a bit of iframe code if you use interactive elements. In relation to the aforementioned Sociology project, here is an example I created in Piktochart using facts I totally made up about Wakanda (Black Panther was in cinemas when I ran this with the first cohort): Wakanda Health Profile.

Prezi
An online presentation tool, an alternative to PowerPoint or Keynote which breaks the ‘slide’ paradigm and allows you to move through a presentation in interesting ways. The free version only works online and has limited templates and editing options.

Padlet
Have you ever done any activities where you get students to stick post-its to a whiteboard, or add or move contributions to a board in some other way? Padlet is a way of doing that online. Free account is limited to 3 ‘pads’. I want to say this has been updated quite recently, as I remember it as just having variations of a whiteboard style layout, but when I’ve used it recently there are lots of new template options, including maps which I’ve been experimenting with. For EDPM10 I got students to annotate a map with a book, novel, philosopher or thinker which has influenced them. EDPM10 Exercise.

Canva
Not to be confused with Canvas! Canva is an online image editor with a very low barrier of entry as it provides around 100 design types to get started with, e.g. posters, flyers, banners, icons, and 250,000 template images and widgets.

Twine
An open source tool for creating interactive stories, think create your own adventure books.

Unsplash
I love Unsplash, I’ve been raving about it for years to anyone who’ll listen to me, and you’ll see Unsplash photos all over this blog. It’s a stock photography site, like Shutterstock, but everything on Unsplash is free to download and use for any non-commercial purpose. Very high quality and pretty comprehensive, and you don’t even need an account to use this one. All you have to do, as a matter of honour, is give credit and a link back to the original photographer. A pro-tip for Mac users – they have an app which gives you fresh new wallpaper on your desktop every day.

Creative Commons Image Search
And when Unsplash can’t do the job, or it’s images you need rather than photos, I recommend people use the Creative Commons image search instead of Google to ensure that you only get results that can be reused with a Creative Commons license. Also Google is evil.

Open Culture
I’m not sure if Open Culture bills itself as an open education repository (OER), but that is essentially what it is, or at least it’s a huge part of it. A massive collection of resources in the public domain, either because copyright has expired or been waived. Includes entire courses, books, art, photos, music, movies, etc.

Trello
Possibly the black sheep of this list, but included for the value I get from it. Trello is a super-powered to-do list using Kanban methodology that I use for organising my workload and, with mixed success, corralling my team! A big empty board that you populate with lists and cards, and each card can have a range of content within it, a detailed description, a task sub-list, due date, etc., and these can be moved around between lists and boards, and assigned to other team members. I’ve experimented with Trello a lot over the past couple of years, changing how I use it to try and get the best format that works for me. Currently I have a Work Board for the year, with lists categorising my typical work and any specific projects which need their own special management. I hesitated a little to include this one. It annoyed me earlier in the year when they changed how accounts work, now you need to use at Atlassian ID which doesn’t work as well, especially on the iOS app, and it seems to have been generally buggy of late. The quality and long-term trend is worrying me, and I am intermittently looking at alternatives.

Class Tools
This first of two items on my ‘also’ slide, Class Tools is a collection of little web apps, widgets and templates. There’s a random name pickers, an on-screen timer, lots of templates for creating fake but real(ish) looking social media posts, and lots of little games and quiz tools like a crossword generator. There are a couple of items on here that are premium, but most are free to use (with ads).

Top Tools for Learning
And finally, if this list isn’t long enough, the Top Tools 4 Learning site lists the top 200 tools for learning, as voted for by learning technologists, educators and other interested parties. Categorised for easy searching, ranked, and showing how tools have changed position which is great for spotting trends.

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Game Boy Refurb

If you’ll indulge a rare non-work related post (though it is about technology and I did learn a lot, tenuous I know), I recently refurbished a Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP as a little lockdown project.

The whole Covid / lockdown situation hit me pretty hard back in March and April when it began, as I lost pretty much all of my hobbies – gigging, karate, cinema, travels – and then one by one everything fun I had booked in throughout the year, from a big once in a decade holiday, to new tattoo appointments, were all cancelled. Still, I am safe and well, my job is as secure as one can be in this age, and my loved ones are all pretty safe, so overall I’m not doing too bad and I pulled myself together. One of the hobbies which has grown to fill the void has been gaming, especially retro gaming, and my partner and I stumbled into a YouTube hole of people refurbishing Game Boys (this one by Odd Tinkering was the start!) So I thought I would have a little crack at that.

I chose the Advance SP because I wanted one system that would play all Game Boy games, plus I like small things. I was also hoping that the lighted display would be good, though I was mistaken on that. The starting point was a beat-up but functioning unit from eBay that I took apart, cleaned up all of the electronics with isopropyl alcohol, and then put back together in a new shell along with a new battery. I did make things somewhat complicated by deciding on a two-colour design with echoes of the original Game Boy and NES, which meant that I actually had to buy two new shells and, separately, two sets of button to get the red and black. But everything worked! And it was beautiful, until I turned it on and had to deal with the reality of that screen…

The model I purchased was the AGS-001 with a front-lit screen. There is a later model with a backlit screen, the AGS-101, but this only had a limited release in Europe and they go for about 100 quid on eBay, which was more than I wanted to spend (lol). Now, I had a Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, and the original Advance back in the day, and none of those had lighting of any kind, and I don’t recall being particularly unhappy with any of them. But how time and technology move on. That front lit screen is just absolutely unacceptable today. Pale, washed-out, terrible contrast. I wonder at how young Sonya coped!? Furthermore, there were a few blemishes on the screen, micro-scratches and dust motes that had gotten in between laters. So my refurb project ended up having a second, considerably more expensive phase – adding a modern IPS screen.

Replacing screens with IPS panels, or adding a backlight to the original DMG and Pocket models is very common in the community, but it does require a bit more work and expense. First of all the panels are typically about £60-70, then you need to make some hacks to the inside of the new plastic shells to make room for the larger components, and finally there is often some soldering work required too. In the case of the Advance SP, this is optional to add a brightness control to the panel, but of course that would be very nice. These are all things I didn’t want to do, least of all because I haven’t soldered anything since high school. Luckily for me, my most wonderful partner not only has mad soldering skillz, but a Dremel that made modding the shell so much easier. Once installed and reassembled for the second time it was gorgeous. The final step was adding a dodgy flash cart which lets me load any and all ROMS my heart desires – legally obtained of course, *cough, cough*. I was worried about battery life – that IPS and flash cart are big power draws, but I have stress tested it and got about 5 hours of life which is comparable to my 3DS.

And finally, my eBay purchase came with four games that I didn’t really care about, except for the mysterious Pokemon Green cartridge, a game that wasn’t released outside of Japan. A rare import? A dodgy cart? I was curious, but that along with two of the other four games didn’t work upon arrival, so it was back out with the screwdrivers and the trusty bottle of IPA. A little bit of scrubbing later and all of the carts came back to life. The inside of that Pokemon Green cartridge was a mess, cheaply put together and with no Nintendo or official branding anywhere, so definitely a fake. Playing the game revealed it to be a ROM dump of Pokemon Blue, with the word ‘blue’ on the title screen replaced with ‘green’. Nevertheless, it works. A very successful wee project all in all, even though it did end up being a tad pricey!

A shoutout to RetroSix and ZedLabz who between them supplied all of the new bits and bobs I needed, I can highly recommend them both.

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PG Cert Changes

The Fun Stuff Slide
Oh yes, I absolutely use animated GIFs and memes in my teaching

I’ve lost a module! And I don’t mean down the back of the sofa. A few years ago the University decided to reorganise how it delivers post-graduate courses, making all modules either 60 or 30 credits. As a result, the PG Cert in Academic Development had to undergo revalidation last year and my 20 credit Introduction to Digital Learning and Assessment module (EDPM08) has been discontinued, with much of it’s content and my teaching responsibilities being integrated into the new 60 credit module, EDPM10. I completed teaching with my fourth and final cohort of students on 08 back in July, and they have all now submitted and passed, though I still have three students from other cohorts with deferred or resubmissions to help through to completion over the next couple of months.

I’m going to miss my Module Leader role, but it’s been an invaluable experience that will serve me in good stead: two years, four cohorts, 41 students. And of course I do still have teaching on the new version, I just don’t get to do any of the fun admin stuff. I’ve actually just finished teaching my bit of EDPM10, which is what has prompted me to write this. I have three sessions on EDPM10, a theory-heavy contextual session about the role of digital technology in teaching, learning and assessment, and two practical workshops giving students guided hands-on experience with a range of what we hope are fun, easy to use, and useful tools.

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DSE Training and Assessment 2020

DSE Training Screenshot - Software can make you stressed!
Anyone who makes us use iTrent should be hung, drawn and quartered

After nine months of home working, the University has decided to mock me by making me do my display screen equipment training again. It even had a self-assessment section at the end which it made me complete on the basis of the equipment in the office I haven’t set foot in since March. As an act of rebellion I completed this training sprawled on the sofa with a laptop precariously balanced on my torso with a hot cup of tea to hand. This training stole 36 minutes of my life that could have been spent prepping for teaching next week, or playing Zelda.

I know, it’s serious and I shouldn’t be mocking it, but I’ve done this training so many times! And I’ll be honest, I did learn something new today – static electric shocks can be an indicator of low humidity. I got a question wrong for skimming over this in the training. I’m not sure I need to know this, but the factoid is now firmly embedded in my brain.

I guess I can look forward to my fire safety eLearning sometime soon now, and being thoroughly rebuked for not having multiple types of fire extinguisher in my apartment.

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Moodle Munch: Nov. 2020


Recording of the two case studies from today

I’ve signed up for the winter series of Moodle Munches as I have taken on the admin of a Moodle install for a small charity I’m involved with, and I need to refresh my Moodle mojo! Moodle Munch is a series of monthly webinars which presents case studies on innovative use of Moodle, coordinated by Dublin City University.

The first presentation today was on extending the use of H5P to include student content production. H5P is a rich content creation tool, typically used by academics to create content for students to ‘consume’, but this project within a French language programme, wanted to involve students with creation and achieved this by first tasking them with updating content within a video provided by the programme leader, and then by sourcing their own video and annotating it using H5P. Students for the most part reported this being a positive experience, which included side benefits of improving digital and analytic skills. Going forward they are going to try changing the user interface of H5P to French, so that all work and instructions are conducted in French, as students from this cohort reported that switching from their work and the instructions, French, to the UI of H5P, English, was incongruent. All of this work was facilitated through the university’s Moodle and Mahara integration where H5P content was hosted and student work submitted.

The second presentation highlighted three different ways that content written in Word can be easily imported to Moodle via a couple of plugins which convert the Word content to HTML Moodle pages. First, a simple Word document was imported using the Atto text editor, Moodle’s default. The second was the same or similar process but imported a full 250 page ‘book’ written in Word which Moodle converted to a series of structured pages with navigation – very impressive! And finally importing a Word document to the Moodle quiz tool, with all question options and feedback in a structured table. Word templates to facilitate all of these imports are available online at Moodle2Word.net. All three of these demonstrations seemed to work really well, but of course are reliant on well structured Word documents as the input source. This approach benefits academics as it is often easier to work in Word to create material, and benefits students as the resulting HTML pages in Moodle are more easily accessible and navigable.

Both presentations were recorded and you can watch them in the embedded YouTube video.

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Accessibility Shorts: Page Layout


The Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, one of my favourite arias (see? I’m not just a metal-head!)

Today’s accessibility session covered the importance of using properly nested headings to improve page structure and navigation, especially for people using screen readers who particularly rely on structure for navigation. Also discussed was using a table of contents with links to the content in Word / PDF documents, again to improve navigation. And finally, which was fairly new to me, the WAI-ARIA guidelines – that’s Web Accessibility Initiative, Accessible Rich Internet Applications, for the acronym averse. This is a set of standards for marking up HTML5 web content to improve accessibility, especially web apps.

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Gender Based Violence

Silhouetted Peace SignsSilhouetted peace signs. Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Today I attended an Advance HE webinar on gender based violence, not directly related to my core work, but something which everyone should have some education on. This was a panel discussion led by colleagues in Scotland, where the approach to education and prevention of GBV in HE and FE institutions is tackled more holistically than in England, where it tends only to be seen through a criminal justice lens.

The session began with a definition of gender based violence from James Lang, as “any form of violence used to establish, enforce or perpetuate gender inequalities and keep in place the gendered order. Gender based violence is a policing mechanism.” A good definition which is inclusive of the violence which can be directed towards the LGBT+ community who face particular forms of violence such as outing and being denied access to medical treatment. There was a good comment about the LGBT+ community being targets of violence because we are “doing gender wrong”.

The discussion moved on to talk about the Equally Safe in Higher Education initiative which is being piloted at the University of Strathclyde. This is a toolkit of resources designed for HE and FE institutions to help approach and address the issue, including things such as how to educate staff and students, and how to design inclusive and supportive policies. The website is well worth a good read, and contains numerous helpline and links out to other organisations that can help.

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Flexible Working

Summary of flexible working optionsA summary of Sunderland’s flexible working schemes

Attending some HR training today on the University’s new Flex Select work scheme, but which also covered flexible working in general. Flex Select is a new scheme that has been launched to – and everyone’s being very honest about this – save money in these hard Covid times, and is set to run for the next 12 months. The scheme is designed to enable staff to request more flexible working, such as reducing their hours, without having to go through the old, more formal flexible working policy which was drafted with flexible working legislation in mind. Given the workload of myself and the team, I doubt there will be anyone who can work fewer hours! But in pre-Covid times I did have one of my team move onto compressed hours, 37 over 4, which had to be managed carefully within the team.

Nevertheless, it’s good to be up to speed with these things, and I got a lot from the session. It’s good that the University is trying to change its culture a little. Of course practically the whole university was forced into a remote working when the lockdown began in March, and now with some people going back on a hybrid model, managers are being asked to have a ‘default yes’ position to requests under Flex Select, and to consider all requests with an open mind, considering other options where appropriate. I did not know, for example, that buying extra annual leave is often a better option than reducing hours because it doesn’t affect your pension and no contract changes are required.

Apart from Flex Select, I learned a lot more about the differences between our other various options, including buying annual leave, job sharing, career breaks, and phased retirement (popular with academics). I also learned, to the surprise of no-one, that flexible working is vastly more popular with women and people on lower salary bands. (Grumble, destroy the patriarchy.)

It’ll be interesting to see how many of these changes are kept, and how much of a cultural shift will be permanent when we get on top of the pandemic; a very big question a lot of people will be asking.

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Accessibility Shorts: Colour Contrast

This website with 'blurry vision' enabled in ChromeScreen capture of this blog in ‘Blurred Vision’ mode

Our accessibility webinar this week was really useful. They demonstrated the Color Contrast Checker I mentioned last time in more detail and showed how it can be used across applications and web content, and then explained a bit about the science behind contrasting colours and how the W3C derived the contrast ratios which we use.

Most strikingly impressive though was a demonstration of Chrome’s ‘Emulate Visual Deficiencies’ tool which is somewhat buried in their Developer Tools. I had to DuckDuckGo for a guide on how to find it, but you can just click this link. In the screenshot I’ve posted here you can see what my website looks like with ‘Blurred vision’ emulated, and the tool can also emulate various types of colour blindness.

Don’t forget that Chrome and Google are still evil and don’t care about your privacy though. Firefox also has a developer tool for accessibility called the Accessibility Inspector, it’s just not as striking and impressive as Chrome’s emulator. Hopefully they’ll steal the idea.

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Accessibility Shorts: Office Documents

Photo of a Microsoft Office BuildingMods are asleep, post actual Microsoft Offices. Photo by Matthew Manuel on Unsplash

The latest accessibility webinar from Little Forest on Microsoft Office documents was pretty useful, especially with regards to PowerPoint and Excel, and I picked up many tips.

Good practice commonality included filling in all of the properties for author, title, etc., adding alt text for images (of course), and using the Check Accessibility report which, to be fair, though I knew it existed, I haven’t used it a great deal, tucked away in the Review tab of the ribbon as it is. On tables we were advised to keep them as simple as possible, avoiding use of merging or splitting cells.

With regards to PowerPoint we were recommended to always use slides with a Title section and to manually check the reading order as it doesn’t always get this right automatically. A third party tool was demonstrated called Color Contrast Checker from The Paciello Group which does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s free for Windows and Mac OS, though I couldn’t tell if it was open source or not, and works with any application.

Finally on Excel, we were advised to always use the Table tool, rather than relying on the assumption that everyone can see the structure of Excel’s default layout. Stick to one table per worksheet, avoid blank rows and cells, and provide headings and names for each table and worksheet. A colleague asked a question about charts and they advised that these are hard to make accessible, so it’s best to provide a description explaining the data trends to complement any charts you use.

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