Thursday, May 10, 2007

Project report

Project team

Eamon O'Donnell, Head of Business Department
Somewhat sceptical of the real benefits of technology and comparatively new to IT other than in using Word and the internet. Has achieved consistently good results using traditional methods.

Dorothy Tozer, Library Team Manager
As the main source of requests for help in providing old-style resources, she liked the opportunity to develop ILT links and modernise the Library's own approach. Very exprienced and trusted by staff, and whose views would be recognised as sound by everyone.

Andrew Hill, ILT Co-ordinator
Enthusiastic supporter of simple solutions for staff new to ILT techniques but frustrated by lack of funds or access to resources - so needed to find easy-to-grasp solutions.Business Department and Library staff

Subject area

The initial focus was on the business Department but later broadened in view of the Library team's recognition of the opportunities to offer pages of links to all departments.

Whilst the actual output available here has Business features prominent, the tools provide methods for development opportunities anywhere.

Reasons for starting this project

The Business Department is part of the Continuing Professional Development curriculum area which also includes Teacher Training. neither department have any individual practitioners who use ILT in other than pretty basic ways but both recognise the need to change. The staff are mostly not very well ICT-qualified and tend to resist change. Both departments have good reason for setting a better example: Business becuase of the impact that technology is having in commerce and managment these days and Teacher Training so that new entrants to the profession experience the modern training they will be expected to utilise.

As the project developed it became clear that the modest amount of time and funding available would be best spent on providing simple guides and examples for the areas where there had been little use to date of the official College VLE and to ensure that the Library team's ideas were incorporated to make the tools readily accessible too.

Contribution to excellent teaching

Home environmentf
Few First or National Diploma-type students do much in class. They like the social aspect of college and tend to pick up assignments, check what's required with tutors and their actual work is largely produced at home. Often they have better equipment there too! Being able to view presentations, notes, recommended links and samples is reagrded as a big advantage.

Tutors have little time in College. They too appreciate being able to access work and put ideas into practice at home when the thoughts occur to them. Attendance 9 to 5 may still be the expected norm but that's not when inspirations always come. Many staff were also interested in the personal development of web sites and blogs etc.

Learner motivation
The web demands better presentation so is no place for the tired old documents of old or, of course, OHT slides! This has to be beneficial and if the tutpr makes an effort students do notice and respect that.

Staff training
A key element of the end product is to be able to show attractive results that are achievable without specialised skills or ostly applications. For example, a blog can be created or edited anywhere and, indeed, a tutor was observed duting the project editing one on the fly in order to make some new notes available to syudents over the half term break.

How can the project benefit staff and colleagues?

It was found that several staff were using similar resources and duplicating, literally, materials. Even those who had begun to use the traditional College VLE were unable to grasp the less than straightforward matter of linking to another 'VLE course' whereas the combined effect of a deaprtment resources page in an area that they were familar with and the simplicity of the tools for publishing highlighted made sharing simpler.

As well as having the opportunity to utilise the actual resources provided and to view the guidance notes describing how to set about creating them in their own area of activity, others will benefit from the staff professional development structure that was created into as part of the project output. Many organisations will be concentrating on recording professional development now and the approach adopted of putting e-CPD into a broader professional development framework may appeal.

What similar resources are available elsewhere?

Whilst VLE development in the sector has continued apace with WebCT, Blackboard and now, increasingly, Moodle, the team were not aware of any development in terms of using the new web applications considered in this project. There was quite a bit of use of web logs by students to record activity but not so much by tutors to publish material, probably because, until recently, most web logs, whilst easy to add content to, were quite difficult to edit in terms of editing templates, making lists of links to other materials or in changing appearance.

The main advantage of this project's approach is the simplicity of publishing things in an attractive and accessible form, which, combined with the low level of ICT skills needed and zero expenditure on software licences, makes this worth considering.

It is recognised that research as to what others are doing in the field of new web applications was not very intensive, however, and it may be the case that similar developments are happening elsewhere. The team have liaised with the Eastern Region E-learning Forum in this respect where future activities along these lines may be co-ordinated.

ICT considerations

ICT skills
All tutors in the Business Department completed an ICT Skills Assessment. A key feature of what was produced is the fact that people do not need to have high levels of ICT skills. Basic training in folder management, using the internet and short cuts for selecting, copying and pasting items was still found to be necessary for some staff who had not been using a computer other than for e-mail and the occasional Word document, or just viewing items received. All participants needed some training in managing images.

Two findings from our research were particularly interesting: those with low-level ICT skills were very keen to get to use video in their teaching as well as images. This has led to Microsoft PhotoStory and the very new SplashCast tools, also free, being incorporated in our planned staff development. The other was the very limited use of fonts generally. Most seemed unaware of the 217 fonts available on their computers and used almost solely Times New Roman or Arial! This had the unexpected benefit of not requiring the usual 'debriefing' for web authors whilst browsers remain capable of managing only a restricted design range.

ICT resources
No specific brands of hardware are involved in this project. The software applications used were Pageflakes, Blogger and Google products and it is for these that guidance notes and illustrations have been produced. These are all freely available at the time of writing, with no licence restrictions for normal use as described. There are alternatives available in all cases but it is beyond the scope of this report to make comparisons.

The project in practice

Individual observations on various aspects of the project and its output are available, with comments from both tutors and students. It is too early to say whether there will be any impact on success statistics but the feedback received so far has been excellent.

What would we change

The original idea was to put tutors through a structured staff development programme based on units from the eCPD framework. The pressure on staff, however, is really to demonstrate overall professional development, not just in the field of using technology, so we changed things to reflect this and decided that their training should be focused on the particular tasks that were required, in a practical manner, rather than theory. This would then form part of an overall CPD Framework which the College is developing. That then led to the idea of creating a structure to contain not only Business links or web pages that tutors could use but something that could hold links to, or summaries of, evidence gathered by staff generally in professional development.

It became very clear at an early stage that there was little real enthusiasm for any 'framework' which lacked a qualification aim. Especially amongst the audience involved there was mistrust of 'initiatives' and training that might have appeared to be ticking inspection boxes. We felt that some time was wasted on explaining the 'framework' and trying to put 'e-CPD' into some context. What staff wanted were simple 1-2-3 guides, examples to see finished products and we quickly realised that large group training or events were virtually pointless. One-to-one training at their desks or small groups in a real classroom would have been much better from the start.

Further development

During the project staff were issued plastic folders with card and paper content bearing the title Staff Development. This was an attempt to help staff generate a CPD portfolio independent of our activity.

It was immediately recognised that the tools we were demonstrating could be utilised quite easily in the development of an on-line portfolio with notes, guides, links to resources and practical work created by staff being included, or linked in, a web site or web log.

This does require that those delivering staff development sessions do themselves maintain modern technology standards in e-learning in the way the make resources available but, if more can be persuaded to do so as a result of the work we are doing then this may be more readily achievable.

The original project has, therefore, inspired others to look further into both the way they deliver staff training and the more general (and currently pertinent) topic of the e-portfolio.

Watch this, or rather another web-, space!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Web blogs

Web logs, or Blogs as they are commonly called these days, provide a brilliant way to publish chunks of text, headings and links on the web. They can also feature pictures. There are several tools available to help with this but probably the simplest to get to grips with is Blogger, a member of the Google stable, and once it's set up, you can just type what you want or paste in text from existing documents. The particular advantage of this type of tool is that you need no web skills at all and all the design and linking is taken care of for you.


Go to the Blogger start page which has a nice 1-2-3 guide to creating your blog. You need to provide a name for it. This is quite important as it will feature prominently so use something like the course title or topic name. As it can cover several sessions or topics you probably won't want to be too specific. Another important name is the text that will become part of the blog url or address. This takes the form You may be lucky and choose a title that is also available as a web address but it's likely that you'll need to come up with a different one here. As you'll need to use the address for links (and maybe recall it for other use fairly readily) try and use something like course-initials, college-course or course-2007 if you find that others have already nabbed your first preferences. Spaces and most special characters are not a good idea, most will be rejected anyway. You'll find it may take a few tries to get an address but a bit of invention and creativity should get you over that hurdle.

Most of the questions you are then asked are either pretty obvious or have default answers you can just accept at this stage - but for the time zone and date display it is recommended that you set GMT and UK format. Once you have chosen a template and answered these initial set-up questions your blog is ready for your entries. It is called 'posting' so you'd use 'new post' for each article, set or section of notes.

Order of appearance

If you are publishing a series of notes that you'd like read in sequence then, as Blogger lists them with the most recent at the top, it can be a good idea to publish them in reverse, i.e. last one first, assuming you have them all ready! If you forget, or add things later, you can cheat the system by changing the date or time of your post before publishing it. Most templates include an Archive that lists them too and that does have a reverse list option. Go to Dashboard, Layout and Edit the Archive panel (or add one if it's missing).


To add a link to another web site within a post, highlight the text to be clicked and use the Hyperlink button. In the panel that appears enter the full site address. If you want to add a side panel with a list of links available wherever people are you can add a special panel. Go to Dashboard, select Layout. Add a Links panel then drag it into place.


Publishing is just a matter of putting a title in the box provided and then text in the big space below. There are wp-like buttons available on the toolbar but you shouldn't need them, except for highlighting certain text in bold or italic. Avoid underlining if you can as this can make text look like a link. The template you chose when setting it up will control the colours and font size and style for you so it's usually best not to fiddle.

Adding text

If you already have notes in Word or want to use text from elsewhere that you can highlight and copy then you can paste this into the text area. (you may have to use Ctr+V to do the paste bit.) There is a useful extra tool that can enable you to publish straight from Word to Blogger. It's the Blogger toolbar for word and is available from this link. This creates an extra item on the Word toolbar menu and works very well. You may not even have to leave your safe Office environment at all once it's set up!

Adding pictures

The other way to add pictures is to insert a picture rather like you would in Word. Use the Insert picture icon on the text area toolbar and hit 'Browse' to locate your image on your computer. Choose a size for the image and Blogger will do the uploading, positioning and resizing for you so that it loads as quickly as most users will prefer, maintaining the best balance of speed and quality. That process, in itself, would have taken quite a few separate steps (and skills) if you'd had to do it yourself every time!

RSS: what is it?

At this point it's worth explaining what RSS is. Now that you have pages of notes and material available on line wouldn't it be nice if students could see a list of headings either on their own sites or at a central point (like the one you'll create if you use the ideas in this project)? Headings and a short intro too, even? Well, Really Simple Syndication, which is what RSS stands for, does just that.Using Blogger means you get the tools automatically. On your blog dashboard (there'll be a link to that when you log in) click on the publishing tab for your blog. Tick the box to enable RSS feeds. Make a note of the url.