Greasing the wheels of progress

For the past eight years we have been dealing with assignments submitted online through a locally developed system, EASE (Electronic Assignment Submission Environment), which was originally planned in response to perceived deficiencies in WebCT Vista, our LMS from 2003 until around 2008. By the time EASE was ready we were in transition to Moodle as our LMS but EASE offered enough that most classes used it in preference to the native Moodle submission system, which was available to those who wanted it.

This semester, as part of the Grand Unification Theory of Everything that decreed consistency via a single interface, EASE was suddenly deprecated in favour of a revamped and slightly adapted Moodle module that was expected to offer facilities equivalent to EASE. The new system actually includes some facilities that are better than anything EASE offered. Most notable is the facility to zip up a set of files with feedback to students, upload the archive and have the files distributed to students. That is vastly preferable to selecting and uploading a file for each of up to several hundred students.

Unfortunately those responsible for promoting the change inexplicably chose not to publicise such benefits and instead simply told people that the familiar system, EASE, would no longer be used. There was no real training offered and very limited documentation. The response from staff required to make the transition was less than universally positive and is probably intensifying now that we are near mid-semester and most courses are dealing with assignment submissions.

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SITE 2015 – Las Vegas

I spent the first week of March (1 – 6) attending the 26th annual conference of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) in Las Vegas. That was also the first week of semester so, when I was not at the conference, I was kept busy responding to students in the course discussion forums. I’m grateful for the support of my School and Faculty to attend, including partial financial support. I’ve attended SITE each year since I first attended in 1998 and have always found that it is the most useful conference for me in terms of interest in the papers presented and connections with colleagues. This year was no exception.

I had booked my travel in mid-2014 and expected to arrive in Las Vegas on the morning of Saturday, 28 February, before we left Brisbane according to the clock and calendar. As it happened there was freezing weather in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and our 9:20 am flight from LAX to Las Vegas finally departed at 5:30 pm after the plane was thawed and able to depart DFW. I had hoped to use the time on Saturday to arrange an excursion to the Grand Canyon on Sunday but that didn’t happen. Instead we spent Sunday exploring The Strip and I eventually booked for a conference excursion to Red Rock Canyon on Monday. That trip did yield some interesting landscape photos to complement some from Las Vegas itself.

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Can I walk the walk? Project-based design challenge in EDP4130

With interruptions it has taken longer than I’d hoped to revise the assessment package for the 2015 offer of EDP4130 Technologies Curriculum and Pedagogy. I do now have what I think is a complete draft sitting on my own site for testing and review. I still need to think about how to integrate that into the LMS and tie in other material that might be needed but I think the major work is done.

While I’ve been thinking about the course and working on the details of the assessment enrolments have crept up from 130 when I began the year to 154 (23, 15 & 30 on the campuses and 85 online). That should not affect the way the course is taught or assessed but will increase the volume of work to be managed.

I began the assignment design with the intent of preserving (and enhancing where possible) the focus on collaboration and sharing of resources that have been a feature of the course in the past while moving toward a project-based learning approach that would use methods we recommend to students for teaching technologies. That resulted in the outline I described previously. This post describes some of the work toward the more detailed description for students.

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Assessing some options

A bit more than a week into the new year and the beginning of semester is inching closer. It’s time to get some work done on the courses I’ll be teaching. Content will need to be updated but I tend to begin most times by thinking about assessment and how that will enable students to demonstrate (or not) their learning.

The larger of the two courses I’ll be teaching is EDP4130 Technology Curriculum and Pedagogy with 130 students enrolled at present, 55 on one or other of 3 campuses (16, 9 & 30 respectively) and the balance online. All students will have access to the online material and, based on past experience, attendance at classes will vary according to students’ other commitments. I’ll be dealing personally with the online group and 16 (so far) on campus. A colleague on another campus will deal with the 30 and the 9 will be serviced by a casual staff member. We will need assessments that can be managed through the LMS (Moodle) by that mixed group of students and staff.
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Tantalising Turnitin toolset for assessment

As is usual at this time of year I’m ‘spring cleaning’ and ‘renovating’ the course(s) that I will be teaching in Semester 1 (begins 2 March). I’ve been working on the assessment for EDP4130 and hope to say more about that soon but, in the process, I was thinking about submission, marking, and managing results using our new systems. That’s my subject here.

For the past several years most of the work I have had submitted for marking has come in the form of Word files submitted through EASE (Electronic Assignment Submission Environment). When EASE was introduced in 2008 for use in conjunction with our LMS (Moodle) it was an advance on the previous arrangements using WebCT Vista or Moodle. EASE provided for allocation of items to markers (originally manual by selection from a list) and for bulk download of submissions in a zip archive that expanded to a set of folders, one per submission. It lacked any automated way of allocating to markers and had no facility for bulk uploading of marked work with marks and feedback. With a bit of AppleScript and JavaScript in combination I was able to build a method for allocating items to markers according to a list in a spreadsheet and to automatically upload marked work from a suitably configured folder. The latter is something I would not give up lightly if the alternative is uploading marks and feedback individually for up to 100 or more students at a time.
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Dogged optimist?

Being an optimist sometimes seems to require a degree of dogged determination. It can be necessary to hang on, sometimes for years, in the hope that things will be right in the end. Those of a more pessimistic persuasion would probably describe it as delusion rather than hope but that’s the core of the difference between the half-full and half-empty views of the world.

USQ has been offering fully online courses for almost 20 years. Unlike the early online offerings in some places that required attendance at face-to-face class meetings at beginning and end, and sometimes in between, USQ dived in at the deep end. Online courses had no required face-to-face meetings, no printed or optical media materials through the post, and mostly no required synchronous connections. An online or WEB course was just that. It all happened on the web.
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Australian Computers in Education Conference 2014

This time last week I was in Adelaide to attend the Australian Computers in Education Conference (ACEC2014), the once annual but now biennial conference of the Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE). ACCE is the peak national professional group for those interested in ICT in education. It brings together state associations like the Queensland Society for Information Technology in Education (QSITE) and EdTechSA, which was the host on this occasion, and is the national affiliate for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). The members of these associations are predominantly K-12 teachers but also include teacher educators with interest in the field. That makes their conferences, and especially ACEC, interesting as sites where academics and teachers come together with research papers mixed with presentations with a strong classroom focus. ACEC is a rare opportunity for interactions across the school-university spectrum.
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23 tweets?

USQ 23 Things is into its second week and the topic is Twitter. The post for this week provides a basic description of Twitter, suggests ways that it might be used for academic work, and explains how to get started. Our task is to join Twitter (done some years and 6000+ tweets ago), follow some new people from the 23 Things group (done), send a tweet with the #usq23things hashtag (done), find an interesting article and tweet a link to it (done), comment on the USQ 23 Things blog post with my handle (done), and reflect in my blog about the activities (doing that here).

I confess I was a Twitter sceptic when I first signed up to use it during the SITE conference in 2009. There was limited Twitter activity at the conference that year and it was a while before I discovered how useful Twitter could be for turning up resources for teaching and research. I’m now a regular user and Twitter is a major source of material to feed my professional and general news interests.

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SITE International Symposium – University of Canterbury

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I attended the SITE International Symposium 2014
Future focussed teacher education: Inspiring with digital technologies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I am grateful for support of SoTEEC and FoBELA for financial and logistical support for my attendance.

This was a small symposium with just 2 keynotes, 17 refereed presentations, and some posters and panel sessions. The proceedings will be available soon in EdITLib. My own immediate reflections on various presentations are recorded in my Twitter stream with the #SITENZ hashtag.

Most of the attendees were from New Zealand but there were 3 from Australia, and one each from Fiji, USA and UK. The small attendance made for focused conversation around the various presentations.

I presented a refereed paper, Pre-service Teachers’ TPACK Confidence in a Regional Australian University, which was an updated version of one that I had presented at SITE in 2012 using data from the first national survey conducted as part of the Teaching Teachers for the Future (TTF) project. This paper was able to include data from the second national survey conducted as part of TTF. The instrument used for TTF was based in part on one developed by Romina Jamieson-Proctor that was used by USQ and Griffith to collect data in 2009 and 2010. That allowed for longer term comparisons of USQ student responses on some sub-scales. On the first national administration in 2011, USQ students scored significantly higher than the national average on the measures of TPACK confidence and it was clear that there had been significant increases across the period from 2009 to 2011. As happened nationally, USQ had a further increase between the two administrations of the survey in 2011attributable to the TTF intervention but the major increase for USQ students had occurred prior to TTF implementation. The most likely explanation for the difference is the restoration of the ICT Pedagogy course (EDC3100) beginning in 2010 and the cross-program adoption of online and blended approaches from 2009. Exposure of students to explicit teaching about pedagogy with ICT and to its frequent application in their own learning appears to have increased their confidence for working with ICT in their own professional practice.

The first keynote on Monday morning was presented by Dorothy Burt, who is the eLearning team leader at Pt England School in Auckland and the facilitator of the Manaiakalani cluster of schools. The schools in that locality are mostly decile 1, that is, they fall in the 10% of NZ schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. A large proportion of students are from Maori and Pacifika background and average household income is as low as $19000 pa. Despite the challenges the schools have embraced a 1:1 digital technologies program following work that established $3.50 per week as an affordable cost for devices. The use of social networking and other approaches that open up learning to the community have been a good match for the cultural background and there have been substantial gains in learning for students in the schools. As the NZ assessment authority plans to move toward digital administration of tests the students from these schools may be ahead of the trend for once. Among the issues raised by Dorothy was the challenge of finding teachers with the appropriate preparation to work in the digital environment especially with students who have been working that way for a couple of years. Current approaches to teacher education are not ensuring that all graduates are prepared for working in that mode. The same challenge exists for us at USQ as more schools move toward 1:1 programs for younger children.

The second keynote on Tuesday morning was presented by David Gibson who is Director Learning Engagement at Curtin University. David is founder of simSchool, a simulation for teacher preparation, and spoke about games and simulations in teacher preparation. He began by presenting some material about the work he is doing at Curtin using cluster analysis with large data sets brought together from various university systems to investigate patterns with the immediate aim of reducing student attrition. That provided a basis for discussing the value of computer based games and simulations for collecting data that can be used to guide learning and teaching. There are certainly possibilities worth investigating in our programs, both for use directly in teacher education and for preparing our graduates to work effectively with games and simulations as they become more common in classrooms.

The other sessions also provided insights into how teacher preparation is being approached in New Zealand and prompted thoughts about what might be applied here and how.

A piece of news that may be of interest to colleagues is that the 17th Biennial ISATT Conference will be held at the University of Auckland from 13-17 July 2015.

Digital paradoxes around openness

I just got back from from listening to Penny Carnaby from Lincoln University in New Zealand talking about Embracing the Digital Paradox! Exploring the impact of the Canterbury Earthquakes (a natural disaster) on scholarship, learning and teaching. That was mostly about the aftermath of the Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes, the roles played by digital media in providing support for people immediately and more long term, and the role of the National Library of New Zealand and other agencies collaborating to ensure that documentary records were preserved. One major project that arose is CEISMIC which is a digital archive of the events. 

Discussion in response to her presentation ranged across a variety of topics but eventually highlighted what I thought were some interesting paradoxes.

Penny talked about the challenges in moving academic publication toward openness which runs against the tradition of tightly control refereed journals that are held in university libraries and are not widely available to the public. She also mentioned the roles of elite gatekeepers in controlling access to those publication venues and effectively determining what is of most value. It struck me that those positions were paradoxical.

The pecking order of academic journals is typically determined by measures like the Impact Factor based on citations which imply wider readership if they are higher. On that basis I’d expect open publications to be more widely read and cited and therefore potentially rated as more valuable than closed.

When it comes to elites determining what is valued there is something of a mystery involved in academics, who are often iconoclastic and known for contrariness, accepting such verdicts rather than determining the value of something for themselves. True there may be something of the club involved but it’s strange nonetheless.

Another member of the audience asked a question about the reluctance of students to engage in online discussions in courses despite their propensity for using social media in daily life. That seems paradoxical but the answer may lie in another paradox that we tell students that online discussion is desirable but we assess them on individual, rather than cooperative, work thus according no particular value to engaging in discussions. In fact, we discourage cooperation when it matters most, around assessment, and tend to punish collusion as serious misconduct.

If we really are moving to a more open academic world we may have some work to do lining up various aspects of our work for consistency. Various inconsistencies may become more apparent as we open up. That might not be a bad thing.