It’s got to be perfect, almost

I’m going to let you into a little secret. For a long while I’ve harboured a secret desire to be a film director. There. I’ve said it. It’s in the open. And, I feel better for having come out of the closet on this.
But, despite my secret ambition, a few things have gotten in the way of realising my dream. If anybody said “lack of talent” shame on you. No, indeed, talent may be an issue, but budget has always preceded that. And, a lack of technical prowess, perhaps doesn’t help either.
So, when I discovered screencasting a couple of years ago, I thought to myself ‘got to give that a go’.
My first screencast, aimed at showing students how to use a course wiki was created using the free Techsmith programme Jing.
I loved Jing, partly because it was free (come on who doesn’t love free stuff), but also because it is so easy to use. Basically, you go to the website, click download, the programme instals on your desktop, you click on the little sun, wait for the countdown (1-2-3 ACTION!) and start talking as you move your mouse around the screen. At the end of your 5 minutes, you save or start again. What could be simpler?
Now, the simplicity makes this really appealing and straight away I could think of lots of ways this technology could be useful. From creating a short introduction to a tutor or a course, to explaining a difficult concept, or to summarising a tutorial for those unable to attend, it seemed to me that I could become a cottage industry. No budget needed, no particular technical prowess required. Just me, my computer and a microphone, and I was set to become the next Steven Spielberg.
But despite making a couple of short videos using Jing, I was quickly frustrated at the length, the lack of editing the programme allowed and the fact that all I could do was talk over the screen. My inner Tarantino demanded more. Which is when I discovered Camtasia Studio, another Techsmith product that was Jing but with bells and whistles. Or, to be more precise, editing facilities. I discovered the joy of panning and zooming, of using transitions, of adding text and images and of importing music and video – George Lucas step aside, there’s a new kid in town!
To be honest editing is a step up from simply capturing the screen, but as I produced more and more short videos, I realised that with a little bit of effort I could get some reasonably good results. The students to whom the videos were shown seemed appreciative, even if some of the Open University tutors I roped in to help were less than enthused.
So why video in education? First, in my view we are still largely wedded to pages of text to get our message across – why? The idea that a 5 minute video can replace a textbook seems to me to be a desirable outcome. Second, the short video is ubiquitous these days. Most young people spend an inordinate amount of time on You Tube (admittedly looking at cats playing the piano etc.), but shouldn’t educators use a technology young people are already very comfortable with? Third, they call for a level of creativity that is sometimes missing in lectures, despite what some lecturers might think. It is a fantastic discipline to condense a complex idea into a short video, and in doing so, makes us think about what are the essential elements of that complex idea. Finally, it is great fun to do. And, to return to the title of this post, it does not have to be perfect.


A change is gonna come, (or maybe it’s here)

Everything changes. After all evolution seems to be hard wired into us, yet for all sorts of reasons we cling to our old behaviours. This seems as true in education as it is in other parts of our lives. Some people, take a bow Mr Gove, fetishize the past to such an extent that the only explanation is that they must have been born in a previous century, accidentally frozen and then thawed out in time to visit misery on the rest of us.
Most academics are, and here’s a shocker, quite good at passing exams. For us, lectures, seminar papers and final exams worked. So, if they worked for us, they should work for everybody, right? Well, no actually. The notion that because something worked in the past, it is fit for the present is, frankly, a nonsense. That modern students should be forced to sit in rows listening to the sage on the sage says much about the sage and little about the needs of the student.
A recent paper in ELiSS (Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences) argued that social tools, such as blogs or wikis, “allow the expression of learners’ thought, opinions, and ideas, enabling the construction of an online presence that arches over many spaces.” The authors, Monica Aresta, Luis Pedro, Antonio Moreira and Carlos Santos report on the use of what they call ‘personal learning environments’. These are online spaces where students can build and enhance their digital presence.
It is probably worth pointing out that their sample was 22 students taking a Masters in Multimedia Communication. One would, no doubt, expect such students to have a higher than average digital literacy, and to be open to this kind of experimentation. But, what of the rest of us? Indeed, for those of us teaching in the more ‘traditional’ social sciences or arts/humanities, what lessons?
I may be mistaken but I don’t think our students are as wedded to, so-called traditional pedagogies as many academics remain. But, and I believe this is a myth needing busting, neither are all young people digitally connected.
The key point about the Aresta et al study is a recognition that almost all of us now have an online identity, and that this has become as real as our other identities. By failing to acknowledge and nurture the online identities of our students, we do not just do them a disservice, but put ourselves into the position of evolutionary throwbacks.

If you were in my movie

Okay, if you a regular reader of these pages or a follower of my occasional Twitter (@OUSocSciCymru) you’ll know that I have over the past couple of weeks been working on a video production. Now, I should say right at the outset, that the easiest way to get a video made is to pay a professional to do it for you. But, where’s the fun in that? Besides I haven’t got the budget, so embracing the D-I-Y ethic seems the best option.
Besides, how hard can it be to make a video? It’s just a matter of pointing a camera and clicking record, isn’t it? In fact, these days who needs a camera, you can just record some footage on your phone and then edit it in i-Movie or Windows Film Maker, right? Well, yes, but then again, probably no.
What kind of kit you use does depend on what you are trying to achieve. If you are a student trying to use video as part of an assignment, you might well use your phone as a camera. After all, nobody’s going to be overly worried that the footage is a little shaky (adds authenticity, apparently), or that the sound is a bit tinny and difficult to hear. And, for sure, nobody is going to insist every scene is ‘properly lit’, for which read expensively/professionally lit.
But if, like me, you are an academic in an organisation with an almost fetishistic obsession with quality you are going to need to think a little more technically if your mini masterpiece is ever going to see the light of day. Immediately, enthusiastic amateurs are up against that old perception thing. You know, people have already labelled you as one thing, but you are determined to be something else.

20130617-204944.jpg Here’s the camera I use. Not professional, but at the higher end of the prosumer end. It’s a Sony NXR-70E for those of you who care about such things.
A good camera, actually even a bad one, needs good sound. So, if you are on a tight budget ( and who isn’t these days? Thanks Mr Osborne), spending a decent amount on a mic is worth it. But, the thing that really ruins your movie is something over which you have the least control – light. This is especially true, I’ve found, if you are filming outside.
In my opinion, video offers a great resource for educators and students. Making videos, much like writing blogs, makes you think carefully about how to get your message across. In the next few weeks I’m hoping to provide some insight to all the mistakes I’ve been making, so that you won’t have to. But, if you are using video as part of your teaching I really would love you to make contact and swap stories.

Tommy, can you hear me

If you’ve ever done an online tutorial, you’ll likely have experienced a point where you have asked a question, and all you get back is a deafening silence. It is tempting to think, paraphrasing The Who, that nobody can hear you. The temptation is to blame being online, as though our face-to-face seminars and tutorials are overflowing with chatter-boxes.
What is happening, then, in these online sessions where students refuse to speak? One simple explanation is that it is something to do with the artificiality of using a microphone. This is plausible until we consider that the majority of our students seem to have a piece of technology welded to their ears most of the time and it does not hinder their ability to speak.
In an evaluative survey of 300 Open University students which I carried out last year, I tested the hypothesis that students did not like using a microphone. In an array of attitudinal statements 38% agreed that they did not like using a microphone. However, as a control, I also asked about whether they disliked talking in tutorials. Guess what? The figures agreeing that they were anxious about talking in tutorials was 38%, and when I correlated these two questions, it turned out that it was, more or less, the same people.
Now, we always need to keep some perspective when comparing face-to-face teaching with online as battle lines can easily be drawn and rather than a discussion we have an argument which neither side wants to lose.
My figures suggest that about 4 in 10 students are uncomfortable speaking – in any environment. I suspect that in the face-to-face setting we have tried and tested strategies for overcoming this. Putting students into pairs for example, or just doing all the talking for them. In the online environment, however, instead of thinking creatively we too often fall back on the old ‘the technology is to blame’ excuse.
Online tutorials are still relatively novel both for tutors and students, and as we feel our way into making them more mainstream we need to be bold in developing strategies for coping with things that we may have glossed over in our face-to-face experiences. The non-talking student is nothing new, but whereas in a classroom that student has the option to speak or not; in the online classroom built- in chat functions and interactive whiteboards provide an opportunity to engage students in ways that classroom teachers can only dream about.
So, is the problem of non-talking students overcome in the online classroom?

What’s the Storify

I’ve always loved the use of moving images to bring a subject to life. In the past the skills and equipment necessary made this really difficult to achieve without hiring professional film makers. With the advent of cheap camcorders and the range of apps available, the game has changed. Using a combination of Flickr, You Tube, Twitter (follow me @OUSocSciCymru) and Storify. it is possible to create a permanent record of an event as it happens. And, throw in a video camera, and a digital camera (which could be an iPad or smartphone) and the ability to tell stories of all types is near endless.
What’s more the technical skills required are low to medium whilst you are in the experimental stage, rising to high only if you are concerned to maintain very high production values. In truth, for most web based work, the high production values aspired to are simply a legacy of a past when only a select few could engage in these activities at all.
Perhaps what we are seeing is the democratisation of what was once a very privileged activity. Whether that is a good thing likely depends which side of the divide you were on to start with. This makes me wonder why more people are not using the available technologies. I guess it is that like Sisyphus all they see stretching before them is a huge learning curve to climb.
Whilst I can tell you that the learning curve really isn’t that steep, you’ll only believe that if you never thought it was to start with. That is one reason why I am currently engaged in a project to develop some short videos aimed at tutors who want to use video, but are worried that they do not have the skills.
The story of our first day’s filming is here.

A Day In The Life (of an inspired academic)

This time last week I really had no idea what was about to happen. I knew that I was going to attend an event organised by @documentally in Cardiff. I knew it was called multimedia storymaking. I suspected that I might be a little inspired. Honestly, I had no idea.
I also knew that I was committed to a video film shoot in West Wales on Thursday. More of that in a future post.
The event on Monday has been documented on Storify. I think my picture is in there somewhere, not saying which one though! The Storify aspect gave me the idea to produce a Storify on the videos we are making, and which we started shooting on Thursday.
But, before that happened, I had what was something of a Damascan moment (is that the right word?) It occurred to me as I was listening to the brilliant @Documentally, that my online presence was really little more than a Twitter account (@OUSocSciCymru).

For me, and I am primarily an educator, technology is good if it helps in the process of teaching and learning. So, as I wandered through Cardiff on Monday, my main concern was not creating a story there and then, but rather how to use all these apps to increase my ability to teach.
Now, a little confession. I have blogged before. In fact I blogged regularly for almost a year for tutors in Wales. That blog kinda died through inertia. So on Monday I thought why restrict the blog to a few people? Why not blog to the World?
And, with that thought and no more than a half hour spent, Thinking Socially was born.
My conclusions are: 1. Blogs are easy to set up 2. They are, relatively, easy to write, and 3. Why are they not more common amongst academics? After all, most (all?) academics have plenty to say, why not do so in the risk free environment of a blog?

The revolution will not be televised but it will be on social media

With apologies to Gil Scott-Heron, but I had to start somewhere.
I have a few colleagues who proudly declare that they ‘would never use PowerPoint’, or that you would never find them on Twitter or Facebook. It’s fine by me if people don’t want to play, but what strikes me is that the people who make these pronouncements do so “proudly”. For them, it seems, ignoring technology is a badge of honour to be shown at every opportunity.
I don’t quite understand this antipathy. These same people use mobile phones (‘but only for making phone calls, oh and the occasional photie’), and drive cars (‘but only if they come with a starting handle’). Alright, I might have made some of that up. My point is that even those who claim to be technophobes make daily use of technology and even accept that their car might need to go to the garage occasionally, or their subscription to a favourite channel might not work everytime.
But, when it comes to educational technology, they are having none of it. No ipad (only some of the most technophobic people I know do have ipads), no Twitter or Facebook accounts to contact their students and no PowerPoint in their lecture rooms.
I am not a technology evangelist, I am happy for people to stick their heads in the sand if that is their wont (provides somewhere to park your bike at least), but if something is likely to make you better at doing your job, why would you refuse to use it? I am puzzled, not so much by people’s refusal to use specific social media (after all it can be pretty daunting keeping up with it all even for those of us who are relatively enthusiastic), but their refusal to use all social media as if it, and by extension technology itself, was evil personified (or robotised, I suppose).
It’s my view that the time for asking whether we should use technology is gone, the only questions worth asking now are which technologies and how best to make use of them?

PS This is my first blog on WordPress, I quite like it, and, learning from past errors I am committing to blogging often, but in fewer words.