Thursday, 22 December 2011

My Top 11 L&T Tools from 2011

Quite a few people on the ed-tech scene share their views on the top tools for the year - Jane Hart being one of the more popular. I thought I'd follow suit with a post of my top 11 free tools.
I use each of these tools on a daily basis, and think they are great for students, researchers and lecturers.
See what you think....

 1. Twitter

As some readers will already know, I have encouraged my students to use Twitter this term. My motivation has been threefoldfold: help build a sense of community; share useful information and links; and to generally improve communication between learners and teaching staff. To aid this, I have introduced a hashtag for my unit (#MM5362) and used the Twitter APIs to easily embed a search widget in my Moodle unit.
On the whole, I think this has been a massive success - of course not all of my students had used it before but I have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students. Ian Kay (Healthcare Science) and I are looking to do a small research project on using Twitter in L&T, so watch this space.

I also use Twitter to keep up-to-speed with emerging technologies and participate in ed-tech discussions. If you're interested in seeing what Twitter is all about, why not make @reedyreedles the first person you follow, and even download a desktop or mobile app?

Some other sites focus on the potential uses of Twitter in the classroom.

2. YouTube

I have used YouTube for various reasons over the years: I have video blogged experiences of being an Everton football fan with some commentary and discussions on our plight - I was amazed that people were watching my videos in the hundreds. Thousands. So to this end, YouTube is an amazing platform to self publish video content like this.
Due to the resilience and robustness of the service (thanks to Google), YouTube is a reliable source for video storage and delivery. Lecturers can record short videos to discuss concepts or demonstrate practical skills, and students can create video presentations or group demonstrations.
Not only can these videos be discussed amongst the class, they are open for discussion and peer review for anyone who's interested. Anywhere. Anytime.

3. Blogger

As you can see from this blog, I really like Google's Blogger platform. Having said that, I think WordPress is equally as effective for blogging purposes, and Posterous Spaces provides an interesting twist to the basic blog.
I use blogger personally as a communication channel for issues pertinent to eLearning, but that's not the only purpose of a blog; Blogs can provide the means for structured reflection for learners, or even provide a platform for an ePortfolio.

Blogger also has some really nice analytics tools, so I can quickly see how many view each post has had, as well as some information on who is viewing my blog and from where.

This presentation discusses 11 Benefits of using blogs for teaching.

4. Google 

This is a biggie, because is comprises of so much. Many HEIs actually subscribe to Google Apps for Education, to provide these resources in a more formal setting.

As I like to follow a range of blogs, I find Google Reader essential for collating the myriad of posts each day. Through the power of RSS, whenever a new post has been added to one of the blogs I have subscribed to, Google automatically keeps track for me. I've even got a little add-on for my browsers to tell me how many unread posts I have.
If you don't do this already, why not set it up and make this blog your first feed?

Google Scholar and Google Books are the easiest method of searching for journal articles and books that I have come across. Of course, what we have access to on campus (due to what the University subscrines to, and restricted by IP address) may be different to what we can access when at home. Nevertheless, the easiest method of finding literature.

This also leads on naturally to Google Search, which many people think is the gateway to the World Wide Web itself. Although other search engines (Bing) or 'Computational Knowledge Engines' (WolframAlpha) exist, Google still dominates the search arena, especially with users with less Internet experience.

It would also be amiss to not mention Google Docs - free web-based alternatives to Microsoft Office that encourages sharing and collaboration. As it's cloud-based you have access to all of your files from any Internet enabled computer.

5. Dropbox

I literally couldn't live without Dropbox - I can save a file into a folder, and have it almost immediately available on my iPhone, iPad or other computer. I can even log in online to access all my files.

Users are given a basic 2Gb of storage space, but there are a few things you can do to gain more space.

MMU staff and students may be aware of SkyDrive, a similar project from Microsoft. Feel free to contact me if you need more information about this.

6. Wikipedia & Wikis

Many academic staff groan at the thought of students using Wikipedia, but this view is becoming increasingly outdated. Wikipedia hosts millions of articles in dozens of languages, many of which are populated by experts in their respective fields. I agree that Wikipedia should not be student's only source of research and data collection, however as a starting point for research into a topic, there are few better alternatives.

Wikis in general, have also gained increasing attention as they provide a user-friendly environment to encourage collaboration amongst students. If you are looking for a suitable platform your group collaboration in your units, why not look at MediaWiki (which powers Wikipedia) or PBWorks.

7. Evernote

I have been using Evernote for a few years now, and have apps installed on my Laptop, iPhone and iPad. I can take notes in meetings or classes, and they are synced to my other devices automatically. I can easily search the tags I have applied to various notes and can even take photographs on my phone and quickly add them to specific notes.

If you need a note taking application, you're sure to love Evernote. The promotional material also highlights the ability to understand text from within photographs, but this is something I haven't tested.

Evernote have recently acquired Skitch, which is a fantastic tool for taking and annotating screen grabs. Skitch has also announced an iPad app.

8. Instapaper

I find Instapaper a critical tool in my daily worklflow. Basically, whenever I come across a site or article that I want to read, but don't have time, I click the little 'send to Instapaper' button, which saves all my pages for reading later. Again, there are apps for my iPad and iPhone.

9. Flickr

Flickr is the YouTube of photographs! Users can easily upload the photographs they take and share on the web. Most smartphones have a dedicated app, and the iPhone is the most popular camera used for the millions of photographs available on Flickr.

It's ease of use makes Flickr an obvious choice when asking students to take photographs from field work, and upload and share.

Users can attach creative commons licenses to make photos freely available for others to reuse (as long as they attribute the owner).

10. Screenr

Again, regular viewers of this blog will have noticed I like to record short screencasts to demonstrate certain 'how-to' tasks around Moodle, but many staff do similar recordings to demonstrate particular things in programming and web development. In fact, a screencast is an excellent means to demonstrate anything that goes on on a computer.

Screenr is free and has built in Twitter functionality, but it only allows you to record 5 minute screencasts. Other free tools exist such as Jing and CamStudio, but I just prefer the ease of Screenr.

Colleagues may also be aware of BB Flashback, which is installed on all MMU machines.

11. Mendeley

I have only just discovered Mendeley, a free reference manager, hence it's low position on my top 11 tools list, however I can see how it can be an important tool for any learner and researcher.

You can drag and drop a bunch of pdf files and it will automatically pull out the reference materials (author, date, title, etc, etc). You can then install the plugin for your word processor of choice, so that you can easily insert citations and a bibliography.

The online site also has some social networking features, so you can discuss articles with peers and even invite groups of students to discuss articles, etc.

One to Watch


There has been, and still is so much hype about using mobile devices across the sector, with most students having access to some type of smartphone (iPhone/Blackberry/Android). Increasing attention is also being paid to tablet devices such as the iPad.

Whilst there are some local initiatives (in HLSS and MMUBS) for using such devices, we need to ensure that we have a clear vision for how these will be embedded within teaching and learning activities, opposed to simply buying students a device in hope of raising NSS scores.

Nevertheless, there are some innovative uses of these devices, such as Geo Caching and the delivery of audio and video materials, and not to forget the gizillion apps available from Apple's App Store. The JISC 'Innovative Practice in eLearning' Guide discusses some interesting uses. 

As these devices (and the innovative ways we make use of them) increase and become even more pervasive, I'm sure we will start to think of them as essential to our learning and teaching.

Over to you

So that's my top tools. If you are attached to any particular tools why not use the comments to share. Or if you have any feelings about the tools I have mentioned here, why not share that too.

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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Moodle Backups aren't just for Christmas

We've all done it - Pressed the Delete button by mistake and watched our files disappear.

Unfortunately Moodle doesn't have a recycle bin where we can just go back in and recover those files. When you delete things in Moodle, they're gone forever!
That's why it's important to keep regular backups of your Moodle areas, so if the worst happens, you can always restore your units.

Creating a backup and restoring to a unit is relatively easy to do. The following video runs through the process:

Other recommended tips include;
  • Download the backup file from Moodle and keep on your hard drive
  • Remove the the file from Moodle (in order to keep the size of Moodle areas as low as possible)
  • Create a recurring event in your calendar to remind you to make regular backups

Backup image take from Flickr User 'Tacker' - CC-BY-ND

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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The WebCT Archive

As you will all know, WebCT was completely switched off in August, with no way of accessing any of the old content. However, colleagues in LRT along with our Moodle hosting providers ULCC, have worked to do something about this very problem.

Using a third-party tool, they managed to take a backup of WebCT (at the end of August) and convert it into something that Moodle understands. It is by no means a perfect translation and so not suitable for transferring courses from one system to another, however it does enable staff to dip back in and access content that they may not have had chance to backup.

The archive is available at and the following short video demonstrates how you can log in (with your normal MMU details), access an old course and download files. For those members of staff that used quizzes in WebCT, it might be worthwhile checking to see if your questions have been translated effectively enough to reuse...

As you will have seen, the video recommends filtering the files to pick out only the most useful, to avoid clogging up disk space by transferring redundant files to Moodle. For this reason it is not recommended using the backup and restore functions, as this will inevitably cause problems, however the export option is particularly useful for transferring quiz questions.

Once you have downloaded files and filtered through them, the easiest way to make them available in Moodle is to upload a compressed zip folder to Moodle - you can either make the zip folder itself available, or make the contents of the folder available using the 'Display a Directory' option. The following video runs through these options.

As always, if you have any problems or questions, feel free to get in touch.


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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Moodle Grades (Part ii)

Further to last week's post about 'Returning Grades and Feedback through Moodle', we came across some confusing elements in how Moodle displays grades by default.

The problem...

Basically, if you have both formative and summative assessment work in Moodle, the Gradebook will automatically combine the different elements and provide a mean grade in the 'Course Total' column. This can obviously be a little confusing as students might take the overall grade as a real grade for their unit, when in actual fact it's not. In some cases, students have been allowed to retake practice quizzes so they achieve 100%, then achieve a much lower figure in the real test. This can display a massively skewed overall grade.

There are two solutions to overcome this problem:

1) Communication -  Explain to students that the 'overall grade' in Moodle combines formative work and actually not their 'real grade' for the unit - instead refer to the individual assessment for more accurate figures.
2) Fix it - Go into Grades and edit the weighting of each of the assessments in Moodle to ensure proper weighting is attributed, and an accurate overall grade is displayed. This can be done in about 2 minutes...

How do I do it?

If you like the sound of the latter option, the following screencast demonstrates how you can edit the weightings in Moodle Grades in just about 2 minutes.

If you have any further queries, don't hesitate to get in touch.

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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Moodle Training in December

Although it is the season to be jolly, it is also the season where student engagement with the VLE increases - largely due to assessment periods. The training sessions in the run up to Christmas focus on three areas;

The use of level Forums in Programme Areas: this session has resulted from recent positive student feedback concerning Programme and Level forums in the 'Computing and Digital Technology Network' area. This session is primarily aimed at Programme/Network Leaders, Level Tutors and Heads of Departments (although other staff can still attend).
Dates: Tuesday 13th December & Tuesday 20th December

Options for Online Submission, Marking and Feedback: although we have run different sessions on Moodle assignments and Turnitin in the past, this session will take a broad approach and discuss the various options available for academic staff to manage the assessment and feedback process online.
Dates: Wednesday 14th December

Returning Feedback and Grades to Students Through Moodle: this session picks up on this blog post about returning feedback and grades to students through Moodle, even if the assessment did not take place online. Although the blog post covers the 'how to' elements, this is an opportunity for staff to come along, practice and ask questions while I'm in the room.
Dates: Thursday 15th December

As always, it would be great if you could confirm your attendance using the Eventbrite booking system below, and if you have any particular requests for training, feel free to get in touch.

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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Returning Grades and Feedback through Moodle

Many units across the Faculty are using some of the native Moodle tools such as quizzes and assignment drop-boxes to enable assessment and provide a channel for feedback and grades. But how can we return grades and feedback electronically for those assessments that were not facilitated through Moodle?

Before we delve in to this topic further, it is worth highlighting the University position, in that grades must be entered into Agresso at the earliest convenience. Further to this, additional work (expected implementation in Jan) is attempting to pull out those grades from Agresso and feed them directly into the Assessments block in Moodle units.

Having said that, there are obvious benefits of providing detailed feedback to students through Moodle's Grades tool, and there are a range of methods that allow us to do this. Here I will pick up on two of the most straightforward approaches;

1) Offline Activity
The 'Offline Activity' is available from the 'Add an Activity' menu, and is really straightforward. It easily creates an extra Grades column to enable you to provide a grade and some basic feedback.

2) Advanced Uploading of Files 
Whilst you may or may not use this to manage online submission, this tool still enables staff to leave a grade and upload a detailed feedback file to students.

With both methods, a link to the assessment appears on the Moodle unit page. Students can click on the link to view their feedback and grades, as well as being able to check through the Grades link.

How to....

Both processes are reasonably straightforward to set up and use, but the following screencast runs through the steps anyway.

As always, please do leave a comment if you have any questions or to share how you are using electronic methods to aid the assessment and feedback processes.

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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.