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TEL Sonya Posts

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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CanvasCon 2020

CanvasCon had to go online this year due to the pandemic, but the (very small) silver lining, is that it meant I got to attend. Some things worked very well in the new format, others not so much, but the content of the sessions was very high. I attended all of the keynote addresses from both Instructure and the guest speakers, a handful of the partner sessions, and a number of HE admin and Faculty led sessions which were presented by colleagues at institutions using Canvas.

The day began with a keynote and welcome address from Instructure which was the standard corporate fare of how well they are doing and how great Canvas is, but one slide really stood out for me (first screenshot above), on how they have managed capacity during the pivot to online learning. To paraphrase, all usage records have been broken, but not Canvas. Can confirm: we’ve had no significant outages or degradation of service at Sunderland. Interestingly they saw this coming in February when the impact of the pandemic was starting to be felt in Asia, and took pre-emptive action before lockdowns were implemented in the US and Europe.

‘Education makes you dangerous’ is a quote I’ll remember from LeVar Burton, the first guest keynote speaker who talked about his passion for education, storytelling, and his work with Reading Rainbow. Another nugget which struck a chord was the ‘right to define your own destiny’. It was a good speech, invigorating, a reminder of the purpose of education and why I have chosen this career.

Instructure’s Chief Product Officer, Mitch Benson, gave a presentation on their focus on innovation, and how they are going to continue to respond and adapt to the changing needs institutions have as a result of the pandemic, such as integrating more options for online tutoring and pastoral care. This segment was delivered as a newscast, and I have to say they absolutely nailed it. This could have been really cringy, but the mix of content and professionalism of the delivery was spot on. Bonus points for the panda co-host.

I then attended a couple of user-led sessions in the HE Admin conference strand. First, on how instructors are really using Canvas by Bob Edmison at Virginia Tech, who developed a ‘depth of use’ metric of data points indicating how, and how well, staff are using the VLE. I say VLE, because they started this work prior to migrating to Canvas from Sakai, and the metric was designed to be platform agnostic. It was a really interesting talk which will feed into the VLE usage standards project which is ongoing at Sunderland. The second session was Jim Federico at Microsoft who talked about how they are working with Instructure to build deeper integrations with Microsoft products, particularly Teams. It was a little hush-hush, I’m not sure how much I can say about this, but what they showed looked really good, and I’m looking forward to seeing these features rolled out over the coming year. Jim win’s my Pun of the Conference award for including a photo in his presentation of ‘On-Lawn Learning’.

I also jumped into some of the partner sessions which replaced the usual conference stalls where partner companies can showcase their wares. One good one I looked at was Qwickly which allows tutors to make batch changes to things like announcements and adjusting assignment settings. The partner sessions were delivered on a platform called Remo which attempts to replicate the boardroom style aesthetic of conferences. You can see this in one of my screenshots which I’ve posted above. I get what they are trying to do with this, but for me it absolutely did not work. I found it artificial and annoying. Rooms which had a presentation had an unnecessarily small thumbnail for it at the top where a stage would be, and the table metaphor was awful. To interact with anyone, you had to join a table and then you could only chat with people at that table. But it’s so artificial, and then it didn’t even work within its own context, as you can see in the screenshot, despite the ‘tables’ having six ‘chairs’, I couldn’t join a table with an open spot because it was actually limited to 5 for some reason. I have a feeling a lot of people shared my experience, as there was little interaction or evidence of any significant use in any of the rooms I entered, and I quickly lost interest in trying to engage with them.

That was it for me on the live day of the conference, as I wasn’t able to engage with any sessions running in the afternoon as, despite my boss instructing us to treat this like we were going away to a conference and keep our calendars free for it, people still put meetings in for me that I couldn’t decline, so that was something else that didn’t work. Not a failing of the conference itself, but of culture. I note it because it is something to be aware of when planning or attending online conferences. The flip side success is that Instructure recorded all of the presentations, so I was able to watch a few more things that I had missed out on in the following days.

The big one was the second guest keynote from Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. This took the form of an interview which was a nice break, another example of doing something different from the usual format which worked well. Sal talked about how he founded and grew Khan Academy, from teaching maths skills to his immediate family, to 110 million users today. I enjoyed seeing Sal’s humanity, and humility; the extent of his sci-fi book collection which you could see behind him, and the need for a human touch was a theme that came up throughout the interview, and a key factor he attributes to the success of the Academy.

I also watched a few more end-user led sessions, including from Kona Jones on ‘Designing for Kindness’ in which the theme was something that goes that little bit beyond accessibility, to making content which induces students to learn by being helpful, friendly, and well-structured. It wasn’t so much the ‘tips and tricks’ that I got from this session, as I was pleased to note we’re pretty much doing everything that Kona recommended, but the emphasis on why. Checking the quality of your captions, for example, is not a chore we should do for the sake of legislative compliance, but an act of kindness towards students who may need to use them. That did resonate, and will inform how I deliver accessibility staff development in future. Finally, I watched the ‘Owning Your Data’ session from a couple of the techies at Instructure which talked about changes and improvements to the Canvas Data Portal and related planned changes to simplify the database structure.

Finally, finally, my coveted Bookcase of the Conference Award! If there is one big positive that has come of pandemic home working, it’s getting to nose at people’s bookcases. And judge them. Both LeVar Burton and Sal Khan gave their keynotes in front of some impressive collections, but they both lose points for having haphazard stacks. LeVar’s collection appears the more elegant and classy, very important considerations, but ruined by a TV right in the middle of them! For shame. Therefore, the award must go to Sal Khan and his impressive sci-fi. Well done Sal, and well done Instructure for managing to deliver an engaging and useful online conference which had some genuinely innovative ideas and experiments.

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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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