Thursday, 22 September 2016

Perseverance. Following the steps.

We have had a new system installed and at the moment it doesn't work every time as well as we would have hoped. With room setups being different for the same system it can get a little bothersome however I am not as yet here to disparage the product.

What I am here to talk about is perseverance and trouble shooting.

Today we were trying to find why a microphone levels were low and getting the balance between internal and external inputs.

The ceiling mic was quite low (in volume) and it went into one box that is basically a noise gate and compressor. The next in line is a USB pre-amp to get the mic into the computer.

It was a question of setting levels to a set position and recording a test, then retrying it with the levels changed higher or lower on each device to find the best sounding option. Then it was a look at the levels the compressor and gate were set to, and while the noise gate worked really well to tune out the room noise while the presenter was not speaking, it does sound quite strange having a harsh stop after a presenter stops talking. It sounded like the presenter was being cut off as there was no ramp down or up from the background noise to the speech.

It's this process of following the wires through each connection to make sure each step is working, and if there is no sound, where is the fault. Is it one of the boxes or maybe a wire. You keep chasing and this gets infuriating.

This can be applied to learning about anything. Find the process and stick to it. Follow the steps through the research process and find the weak point in the chain. Test that point and make sure it fits to what you need. That sounds a little less like learning there and more like rhetoric, where you change the facts to fit the theory, but that is not what I mean. If the weakest point is causing problems, then don't just ignore but look at the why. If it needs to be removed but the final out come you were hoping to get to also has to change so be it.

From my audio example, it is a little more fixed in a right or wrong position. If a wire is broken replace the wire as the end goal is sound on the recording. The bit where a changeable mind set might apply is the Noise gate and compressor here. They either make too much difference so need to be removed, or not enough difference to warrant being there in the first place. If it is removed, what conclusions can be drawn and how can the final product be improved after this. Maybe a new device, but that costs money. Maybe a new approach, that takes time. That is the factor here, especially in teaching spaces at this time of year. Room availability limits how much we can "play" around with the system, so a methodical look at what you need will be the best option.

Today I have drawn new conclusions that I want to test, but I need again to persevere in that to make sure what I think will be the best option and what the actual end result are are yet to be tested. If that doesn't work, I will have to talk to others and get new ideas and information to make sure what we are doing is adding value to the teaching and learning as a final product.

Have an idea, test it, retest it and keep looking at how it can be improved.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Customer Service in IT

At this time of year the University is busy! It's freshers week and people are settling into their new life as a student or lecturer.

It's a busy time for us here as the TEL and eLearning team as we try to help those eager students get onto their courses and units.

We help as best we can and answer as much as we can. I am not normally required to do this as there is a very capable team who manage it all year round, but when it gets busy I have no problem throwing my hat and hand into the ring and doing what is needed.

It is our job to make the students feel like there is a support structure that they can rely on. In many ways we have to make the academics feel the same, we want to keep engagement high, and poor support will not help that. Making the student feel as though they can turn to the central team will only reinforce to them they made the correct choice in the university.

However, you do get some odd questions.

I was asked about a students induction lecture that they had missed not 10 minutes before. I had to pass them off to their admin team and hope they could help.

This just highlights that when you phone a help like or support center, the person on the other end of the phone may not know everything you think they do.

I have to admit, I am one of the worst for this. It's natural to assume that they know more than you, and should know everything you are asking. Unfortunately this won't be the case. As I found, I knew that inductions were under way, but a specific one for that student is nothing to do with what we offer.

Providing customer service while not working as in a direct customer service role is tricky. While trying to assist a variety of people, there are so many facets to the university. It can be hard to try to find the right place to forward the call to, and then you get into that large organisational hole of being pushed about. You want to make sure that the person is not too lost, but sometimes it can happen and you have no follow up unless they eventually get pushed back to you.

We are lucky we don't function like many "call centers" and we get very, very few "angry" customers as we are more an information hub to the VLE and learning systems than we are call center.

With my training I try to help the academics before they get these problems, but occasionally they get the concepts and then need help again (which is fine!) so we are the after care as well.

This time of year us fun, and helps you get a good idea of problems that people are having. It is a good day when you help more people than can't!


Friday, 16 September 2016

Webcam testing

So for the last few days, Shaun and I have been developing a new training session regarding Digital Tools in Distance Learning. At the moment that has been playing about with webcams.

I am going to do full reviews of the cameras in terms of use and ease of use, quality and features. For today however I want to mention it's not as easy as I had thought it might be.

I will clarify. It was easy to plug them all in and get them working for a conference call. That was fine. Which is a good base line start.

The problem comes when trying to record them do something like a video blog. Now I understand that actually a mobile phone these days is actually the easiest and best way to do it. The problem comes when you know you should be able to do something, so you persevere just to prove you can.

With Windows 7 there is no built in application, although for Windows 8 and 10 I seem to think that changed. I downloaded Windows Movie Maker for free and it worked but the output quality was not great.

You can use the default camera software which is fine for the Logitech and the Microsoft cameras but for the cheaper unbranded cameras there is no option.

I tried VLC which is meant to work, however even following all the "simple" instructions on how to do it, I kept getting issues and it turns out it was recording it but not to where I expected and the quality was not great.

The two that we found worked best are VirtualDub and  OBS Studio (Which stands for Open Broadcast Software). OBS is used mostly by people who are streaming games on services like Twitch but will also allow for just a recording of a webcam.

VirtualDub is my favourite of the two, once you get in it is simple and while it might take a little bit of poking around to get all the settings correct, it is a quick solution to the problem and so far has worked with the two webcams I tried without issue.

I will, as I say review each camera independently and put up videos of the quality, but just to start it was a great step into the session and what I need to know. It's the sort of thing that seems easy enough to do on the day, but this shows all the problems that might come up and it's good to have them now to make sure the academics are prepared for what might happen. As I have mentioned before, any barrier can sometimes be the smallest excuse to stop trying, but we did that leg work this time so that we got frustrated on their behalf.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Slack

It's that time of year where it gets busy. I may have to admit defeat with the daily posts, but try to put out quality over quantity.

That being said, a short thought for the day is around Slack. A group messaging and work flow tool. A colleague suggested it and today is my first day trying it out.

I have felt more productive already! It allows me to dip in and out of projects I am working on and get a group involved or at least informed straight away.

I will do more on it later to see if the day one high keeps on going, but I can really see this helping our little team on track of some projects where we might have been working separately before.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Getting academics on board with Technology

This is a short one, but I have just been playing with our range of webcams in preparation for a new training session and a few web videos on the particular kit we have.

Trying to record the webcams using a Windows 7 machine has proved  more problematic that I first anticipated. I downloaded a few free options (as YouTube has pulled this feature of recording direct to itself).

In the end I was able to use the software from the camera to do it.

Trying other options either were very complicated (I'm looking at you VLC Media player) or just a very poor quality output file.

This brings me to the title. I need to find the easiest and simplest way for an academic to use this kit (depending on their use case).

If it is hard to do, they switch off and dis-engage from even attempting it. I know this is a gross generalisation, but I was getting frustrated and if I did not enjoy this sort of problem and academic (or really any other normal human being) would have just given up.

Kit needs to be easy and simple to use, setup and provide no barrier to production. It is my job to try to find that fastest route and depending on budget find the right solution.

Until I have been through all the kit properly I have no more to add today, but I want to win and find a few options to recording a webcam that I can then add to YouTube in the hope more people can use it both in and out of an educational environment.


Friday, 9 September 2016

Inspired by...

Who inspired you?

Inspiration can come from everywhere and anyone. Are you inspired by a famous person, a friend or relative. If it is a famous person, do they know they are famous? That sounds odd to say, but there are gradients of fame. I used to work in radio a long time ago, and people will have known my name (my 15 minutes are up!) but I would never have said I was famous (and I'm not). Other people may have thought that because I was on that medium, I was. (Still, really not).

With YouTube becoming essentially a range of TV channels all of its own, people are finding fame on the web through "non-traditional" methods. They did not have to get network approval or fight for funding from studio bosses. Many start as podcasters who have turned on a camera. Other people are still making a living from Podcasting. Some Podcasters like Kevin Smith, have left behind the life of film making fame to have a much more open and free form of art that they alone control.

This is all very tangential to the title, I get that. However it plays to my inspirations. Having started in Radio I now see podcasting as a much more free outlet to that side of me. The problem I have is wanting a co-host but finding a friend who has the same rotational time frame that I have to do it. Although it works for the Bugle with John Oliver based in NY and Andy Zaltzman based in the UK.

It's easy to be inspired by famous people as they are more directly "in front" of us but sometimes the personna that inspires is not the real life person behind the mask. This can be a problem, but not one for today, or this blog.

I am writing this looking at educational inspiration and people like Sir Ken Robinson who delivers key note speeches that are engaging and funny. Some border on stand up routines (part of that comes from the confidence to just talk to people), but each has a strong message surrounding education and what can be done to improve it.

There are people driving forward educational technology and I am trying to find my place in that market. I know I have confidence to talk to most people and don't mind public speaking. It's really looking at how to focus myself on a technology that I can deliver and expand for others. What can I do to help you? That is what I need to ask, and I try to on a regular basis for the academics (and others) around me. It's at times not getting scared of people that inspire you, because if you send most people an email they will reply and may even work with you on developing your question.

It is good to be inspired by friends and family, because they are around you the most and are your support structure and motivation to do better in your life. I am constantly in awe of my family for so many different reasons (on so many levels) but it is the hard work you see some people put into making your little part of the world a better place.

I think that is a good place to start. If you can try to make something around you better in even a small way, then you may inspire someone else to try something that may exceed your original act, and if they do, don't get jealous, look at how you can improve yourself again. It's amazing how programmers who are given 2 days off real work  to work on anything they like, can sometimes surpass the original long term project they are working on. A persons creativity is a driving force to improvement and if they are inspired in what they do it will only improve the work they do.

Allowing students to push their own learning goals because you inspire them is a great idea. So I would suggest we all look at who inspires us and why, and then look at how that inspiration can be passed on to others. You never know where it might lead.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Nearpod

This post is to look at Nearpod, a service that is used to enhance the current teaching model.

Firstly I must put that I am not employed by Nearpod and have no affiliation, other than being a point of call to them for our licences within the university.

The reason I put this in, is because whenever I deliver a session involving Nearpod it comes across less like training and more like a sales pitch. It is easy to talk positively about something that you actually believe has benefits.

The reason I like Nearpod is it changes the focus of the presentation of a traditional PowerPoint from the big screen at the front, to that of the presenter and the device you have in front of you. The presenter can become a part of the audience, and move around but still lead and direct the session without being tied to a PC at the front of the class.

Nearpod has 4 licences that start at nothing for a Silver licence right up to a District the larger organisation licence.

(Click the image to get the full page).

There is quite a jump between each level, however that relates mostly to class sizes and storage of each presentation. I think that the basic interactions that you are able to use are great for getting information from the student and making the class interactive. 

The basic features for this are a text fill response box, quiz, poll and draw tool. The features that are available over this allow for video and web content, a few other game interactions and note taking on each slide for the student. 




From this Nearpod, you can see that I had an existing PowerPoint that I have added a few interactions to, allowing the presenter to get information about the class, as well as testing the understanding for the lesson. This is a very quick example, but as you progress in a lesson you can really push the learners to think about what you are talking about and get them to demonstrate understanding quickly. It can be used to test and examine understanding from a previous lesson and allows the academic/teacher to then examine what has been missed before leading the class further into new material.

With the Gold licence (and above) you receive the ability to set "homework" (like the embedded presentation above). This gives the student the chance to explore the presentation at their own pace and either be prepared before a lecture, or revisit the previous lectures materials. A presentation could be set up as an interaction before the one that is delivered in class.

Nearpod also has a marketplace that has a range of subject specific presentation lessons that range from free to a few dollars (usually about $2.99). The market place is very school heavy and the materials are not as advanced as would be needed within the HE sector (it is also quite US-centric as they are a US company). However this is still a fantastic service.

I find that this is particularly useful tool for academics who are trying to get the students to engage and take and active role in class. Where once people would not put up their hands for fear of a wrong answer, Nearpod makes the sharing of answers anonymous. Although the teacher knows who has replied and with what answer the student is never focused on and made to feel stupid because although the teacher may share a wrong answer, this will be shown to demonstrate common misunderstandings or areas that need work and the specific student is not the center of attention, it is the answer that is important.

If you are curious about Nearpod, I would suggest you sign up (you can do it with Microsoft and Google accounts so you don't even need to fill in any forms). Give the free version a go and you may even find that it alone will be enough to suit your needs. If not, they are very helpful in sorting your specific needs out and are constantly developing the service in terms of reporting and classroom features.


Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Gamification - Part 2

OK so this post isn't from me, however watching Ian Livingstone talk at the AltC conference about learning and his experiences creating analog interactive games that then helped engage students. The development of critical thinking through game play and applying that into game design and game making.


Monday, 5 September 2016

Holidays

It's nice to get away. Depending on your job, it can be nice to come back. I mean I know no one really wants to come back to work, but it's good to come back to a place you enjoy.

I have had a week off. As you may notice from the lack of blog posts for the week. So my head at the moment is just getting back into work mode. I have a report to write, a training session to develop and the fun task of deleting all the spam from my inbox.

I will then for the rest of this week be chasing my tail to produce a series of blog posts. I am going to get into the podcast series a little more and look into copyright.

So for today, this short post is just to remind myself what it is I do here. Try to get back into the flow of writing (nearly) every day and then looking at how I can best plan to be prepared for this!

I think this is the future challenge. Getting myself organised on a more daily basis for content. Making sure I know what each day will bring and write accordingly. Research a few key subjects and start to more focused in the writing.

This is the second start in to my blogging journey but I have a glimmer of light at the end of my tunnel as I have another holiday booked in two weeks time....