jump to navigation

Intercontinental research and collaboration April 27, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in research.
Tags: ,

[This post provides my views on how two teachers in different countries and time zones have teamed up to research and publish academic writing. It provides an insight into what has been done, how it was done and the benefits of working this way.]


Creative Commons licensed (BY) Flickr photo by photosteve101: http://flickr.com/photos/42931449@N07/5418402840

I never really enjoyed writing in depth, whatever form that writing took. From school, through university to the world of work, it was always a chore to be overcome. I think it was during my first Masters that that changed. At first it was incredibly tough; plan, research, draft, redraft … redraft again! But at some point I began to enjoy and revel in the combination of intellectual challenge and creative endeavour involved in crafting a written description, explanation or analysis related to technology, learning or both.

Considering the effort that was expended in writing my first dissertation, I always felt it was a bit of a shame that only two or three people ever read it … though I’m sure the copy that went into the university stacks is now so well-thumbed it’ll be in need of replacement … or maybe not. I wonder if that’s how our students feel when they produce a superb piece of writing for an audience of one? So when I wrote my second dissertation, in addition to the ‘treeware’ version, I also elected to post it online. Maybe others would take a peek; maybe not, but at least there was the possibility that others might scrutinise, comment on or challenge my thoughts.

I felt however, that I still needed to go that little bit further, to push myself that little bit harder and produce a piece that would be formally published … and require rigorous review. Which was around the time that Nick Jackson (@largerama) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. In response to wider curriculum developments, Nick had produced a set of resources to support the teaching of Computer Science at Key Stage 3, then shared them online with anyone who might find them useful. Interested in the value others extracted from them, Nick was keen to research and publish his explorations, and for some reason asked me to help with the project. Though our pathways in education have been somewhat different, I guess we share similar views and perspectives … most of the time! From exchanges on each other’s blogs, it was also clear that we challenge each other’s thinking, so maybe they were some of the reasons Nick invited me on board. I was delighted to accept.

Since the data informing the project was based on work Nick had undertaken, he would clearly need to take the lead and provide the scope and sense of direction. My role was to provide critique, suggest alternative ways of forming arguments or conveying messages and sourcing research which underpinned some of the propositions.

The practicalities threw up what might initially be perceived as problems, but I feel actually became strengths. Traditionally a collaborative venture of this nature would involve multiple back and forth exchanges of a document as drafts and revisions move forward. This is fraught with potential problems like getting different versions out of step, not working on the right revision, having to wait until a particular draft was complete and sent on before being able to see additions or amendments. We’re now of course in a place with the Internet, where any of a number of tools which facilitate multiple concurrent authors shimmies past those issues. We settled on working in a Google doc, which brought a number of welcome advantages. A second but significant practical issue was that we live on opposite sides of the world, so are only able to connect for short periods. This actually proved to be a strength since we had brief times where we could work in the document concurrently and exchange thoughts and ideas, but the reality is when you’re trying to write at length, you need to time to compose thoughts, turn them into written English and if you’re anything like me, re-jig words and sentences as your fingers peck away at the keyboard. So the fact that Nick might produce something in isolation, whilst I might be at work or asleep, meant that I had the chance to see a revised section in its entirety and be able to reflect on it, comment in the document and suggest amendments whilst he was away from the keyboard. The notion of turn-taking in the writing process, with occasional brief spells of interaction seemed to be quite potent for this type of composition. I guess it’s not unlike chess matches which take place by correspondence, with the added facility for ‘live’ intervention … but with the emphasis shifted from competition to collaboration.

Nick and I have now written two papers using this approach (one published and the other recently submitted), so we clearly feel the process works for us. Now it’s my turn to take the lead and work on a project with which I have a greater degree of intimacy, with the roles switched and Nick providing the counterbalance. I’m amazed that I’m looking forward to doing the heavy lifting and laying down a few words which someone else might adjust, replace or extend. I don’t think that’s something I’d have felt comfortable doing a few years ago, but I do think it’s a capability our young people will be increasingly required to develop in the near future, with an increased likelihood of them working in geographically separate, international communities.

What will the theme be I hear you ask? Suffice it to say, there’s more than one iron in the fire!

‘Free’ textbooks? Why not? December 4, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Musings.
Tags: , , ,

Listening to recent Hack Education podcasts by Steve Hargadon and Audrey Waters, one theme which keeps popping up is that of educational book publishing. I guess the burgeoning ebook market linked with the proliferation of ebook readers makes this a timely topic.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by herzogbr: http://flickr.com/photos/herzogbr/3955153817/

In recent years, changes to our National Curriculum and Exam Board specifications seem to come around more regularly than the number 120 bus. The textbooks we have in school struggle to keep up with that frequency of refinement of content and given their cost (a GCSE Physics textbook will be anything between £15 and £20), even if they could, the majority of schools couldn’t afford to replace them with any degree of regularity. I remember it being tough as a Head of Physics when it came to the point where we needed to replace our standard textbook; it involved me and my colleagues spending a considerable time reviewing what was on offer from the various publishers to find the one which best suited the course we were delivering … and hopefully future iterations of it! With 500+ students studying GCSE, the cost was and still is phenomenal.

Maybe ebooks offer a route forward since their content can (in theory!) be updated more swiftly, though I suspect that will be at a cost. However, this newly emerging market is not without its problems: distribution platform, file type, digital rights management, cost recuperation when the student leaves the course. Suffice it to say there’s still some way to go.

But maybe there’s a third way? Given the blossoming notion of crowdsourcing and the increasing comfort and confidence with information from sites like Wikipedia, perhaps there’s an opportunity to be seized here. With over 3000 secondary schools in the UK, there must be around 10 000 Physics teachers. Even allowing for some who might lack experience and others who lack the will, with a page count in a textbook at around the 300 mark, it’s surely not beyond the realm of possibility that there would be enough willing contributors to ‘pen’ a single page each? Yes, for most teachers the time or inclination to write an entire textbook simply isn’t there … but if it was possible to collaborate with a group of like-minded individuals … Surely the Web has now provided us with both the communication channels and the tools to create the product?

Once we accept the possibility, the advantages of crowdsourcing an online Physics textbook start to appear:

  • from start to finish the process should be more rapid than a traditional publishing route
  • any alterations and additions can be made instantly
  • living online enables ‘live’ linking out to other resources
  • the digital format means rich media are easily incorporated
  • end of section questions (if appropriate) could have auto-response/auto-marking included to provide rapid feedback for students
  • social features could be included to enable commenting and discussion on each topic, section or paragraph
  • through the right choice of platform(s), the ‘book’ could be distributed in a variety of different ways – printed, mobile-enabled, ebook, etc.

If an open platform was chosen with storage or distribution in open formats, users would still be able to  amend any aspects of the ‘book’ to better suit the needs of their students or local circumstances, rather than choose a textbook which meets the average needs of an average student. Perhaps we might even have students authoring sections?!

There are also other potential wider benefits. Teachers and schools in developing nations invariably lack the financial resources to buy textbooks at the price we in more developed economies are able to afford. Worthy organisations like Book Aid repurpose the books which have reached the end of one life, for a new one in another land. Without any experience of how the recipients actually feel, I can only imagine that they have equal degrees of gratitude, tinged with regret that they have to rely on cast-offs? But given the increased connectivity that many peoples are now beginning to benefit from, an open textbook model would mean they too could enjoy the latest version of any book, perhaps in a format and with content that lend themselves to their local circumstances. And needless to say, it need not be one more handout since they would hopefully be in a position to be co-authors. To return to my comfort zone of Physics, the textbooks we use have content which (hopefully) reflects our everyday experience, so in a section on motion, there might be exemplars which draw on a passenger jet or an Olympic swimmer. I wonder how the same section might be written for a learner on the savannah in Africa or tropical rainforest of Borneo? And how might sections written to reflect those peoples’ experiences be used here to help our students better understand and appreciate the lives of friends around the world?

Free textbooks could be ‘free’ in so many ways.

free the textbook

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by opensourceway: http://flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5538035556/

And it appears things are already under way.

What do you think? A flight of fancy or exciting opportunity? What have I missed?

#TwitterBookRead September 1, 2010

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Inspiration, research.
Tags: , , , , ,

Well that proved a really interesting experiment . . . but did I gain anything from it?

Read a book

from bethan on Twitter

If you missed the tweets, yesterday I tried using Twitter to record my progress and any points of interest as I read a book – Curriculum 21 by Heidi Hayes Jacobs.  There’s a little more about it here.  I guess I wanted to find out whether it added anything to the process of reading, reading for academic purposes that is, as opposed to reading for pleasure.  Had I been reading the book sans Twitter, I’d have made notes as I went.  If you want to pick up the record of what took place, there’s a Twapper Keeper archive here, but because a few Tweets didn’t have the hashtag, I scanned back through the stream and pulled them into the document below:

View this document on Scribd

On the ‘upside’ then:

  1. 140 characters meant I had to really focus on the contents and structure of the ‘notes’ I was taking, so that they still carried meaning.
  2. The ‘chronology’ of the stream means the notes follow the order of the book.
  3. Having occasional comments from other tweeple challenged me to revisit some of my notes and rephrase them, or think more deeply about what I’d noted.
  4. It’s very encouraging when others are taking an interest in what you’re studying (a very important point methinks!)

On the ‘downside’:

  1. I perhaps wasn’t as prolific in my notetaking as I would normally have been, conscious of not wishing to pollute the Twitterstream too much with my ramblings (folks can get very tetchy!)
  2. Sometimes squeezed a little too hard to fit the message into 140 characters and consequently may have lost meaning.
  3. The ‘linear’ nature of the stream meant that cross-linking ideas and concepts wasn’t really possible; I’ll often take notes in the form of a mind map, if I think I can gain something.
  4. Although the stream is linear, some of the additional comments and follow-up replies come out of order.  This can make the archive a little hard to follow.

So weighing the balance of the above, the obvious question I guess is ‘what next?’  How (or should) I take it any further?  Well it’s a start and having done it once, repeating the process with another book would enable some of the wrinkles to be ironed out.  I certainly think I’d like to be on the receiving end; watching someone else take the lead and contributing as an observer.  With that in mind, earlier today John Pallister made a couple of interesting comments by way of follow up:

Tweets from John Pallister

Now there’s an idea!  If other people undertook the task when they’re reading, we could begin to form a library of summaries of interesting literature.  Better than simple summaries though because they would have the additional layer of comments from others who had joined in.  #TwitterBookRead as John termed it.  It’s a win-win-win endeavour surely:

  1. the reader is perhaps encouraged to think more carefully about the ‘notes’ s/he is making, in the same way creating a blog post often makes us think twice before hitting the keys
  2. collaborators/observers can dip in and out as they are able, enjoying the opportunity to contribute to the final product
  3. all get access to a swelling archive of summarised books, enabling them to make a more informed choice before parting with their hard-earned on the full version . . . or maybe find inspiration and pointers to books they might have otherwise missed.

Anyone up for taking this further?

And perhaps this doesn’t have to be restricted just to the edtech community in Twitter.  Surely there are potential benefits for our learners, whether they be students in higher ed or primary or secondary for that matter.  Working together to review/summarise/précis books or longer articles using the 140 character format could involve a host of different skills.  In a single activity, there are opportunities to work up through the levels in Bloom’s taxonomy, undertaking increasingly complex tasks, leading to a higher levels of understanding surely than just reading an article/book sitting at a desk or lounging on a couch?  Reading with a purpose surely?

Just needs fleshing out a little.  Anyone?

(Footnote:  If you want to see a much more elegant and thorough summary of the book itself, then check out this post from Silvia Tolisano (@langwitches) – it’s what inspired me to buy the book)

Maths Maps . . . but across the curriculum? December 22, 2009

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Teaching Idea.
Tags: , , ,

I’m lucky to work in a school that’s a member of a wider partnership, a sisterhood, a community.  If there’s an issue I’m struggling with and no-one here who is in a position to help, I know I’ve colleagues in that wider network to whom I can turn.  Other colleagues here in school however, don’t recognise that they could do that too and bemoan the fact that they feel isolated . . . but then they haven’t

  • had the chance to meet other colleagues from our community in the same way I have
  • yet begun to establish a PLN to which they can turn.

When @tombarrett produced his first Maths Map (do check it out; Tom explains the principle so well) ) and invited his PLN to contribute, I wondered whether this might be a way to open links between colleagues in our partnership?  I began to envisage a project where I’d take interested colleagues here through the principles of setting up a Google Map along the same lines as Tom’s Maths Maps, but from any curriculum area.  Once they’ve initiated their map, they would then contact colleagues in sister schools and invite them to join (we have a global address list which should make that easy).

Now I know that some colleagues may struggle to see how they can get started i.e. they just can’t spot a topic that they can ‘ground’ (pardon pun!) in a map.  I had no problems in the area with which I’m most familiar and was able to initiate this Physics map on the topic of Energy Resources:

. . . but what about other topics in other curriculum areas?  Can anyone help?  What topic from your curriculum area could use a Google Map to provoke, stimulate or open a discussion and provide a backdrop for a Maths Map-like exercise?  If you have an idea and can spare a moment, could you pop it into this form and we’ll see where it goes.  (Will post a follow-up and feedback on how the project went, together links to any maps we create)


Thanks to @bevevans22 for a couple of great ideas:

BevEvan's ideas

Inspiration from @bevevans22

Castles & Digital storytelling

#TMETRU09 – A world first? December 8, 2009

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Inspiration, TELIC.
Tags: , , , ,

tmetru09 logo

Last night I had the privilege of taking part in something truly remarkable, spending around three hours in the (virtual) company of around 100 supportive, innovative and inspirational educationalists – teachers for the most part.  TeachMeet EdTechRoundUp09 was an online ‘unconference,’ a sharing of minds and good ideas . . . but a description would take too long and since the wiki provides all the details (including the recording of the session + Twitter backchannel), there’s no point in repeating what’s already been said.

Participants from across the UK and around the globe have been lavish in their praise of the smörgåsbord assembled and delivered with panache by @dajbelshaw and @daibarnes, in collaboration with all the evening’s presenters.  Here are just a few comments:

Doug explains how it was all set up here, so I don’t need to cover that ground.  So what do I blog about that’s not already been said?  Well I thought I might pick up on a point Zoe (and others) made about TMETRU09 not being a ‘course’ but a fanatastic professional development opportunity – how true!  There can be no question in my mind that TeachMeets develop me professionally . . . but what do others think about that?  Well I’ve cast around t’InterWeb and whadya know?

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) list five dimensions to be found in professional growth:

1. Building a knowledge base
2. Observing models and cases
3. Reflecting on practice
4. Changing practice
5. Gaining and sharing experience

#TMETRU09 provided 2 to enable us to do 1, whilst encouraging 3.  The follow up comments and chat from the session suggested that 4 quickly took place, whilst 5 is the foundation on which the sessionwas built.  Just check the feedback for evidence of each of these.

Cathy Grant tells us that:
“The goal of professional development for technology should be to help teachers become more productive professionals, and to empower them to make sense of how mastery of technologies can be useful to them, in their teaching and as a tool for professional growth. What teachers learn about technology should be personally valuable for the things they need to do. And learning about technology should be exciting and exhilarating.”
Again the feedback and this visible collation of the comments from the backchannel provide ample evidence that #TMETRU09 delivered the elements of this goal.

And what about the TDA:
“Continuing professional development (CPD) consists of reflective activity designed to improve an individual’s attributes, knowledge, understanding and skills. It supports individual needs and improves professional practice.”

So yes I think that’s score 1 for #TMETRU09.  Professional development?  Absolutely!


Grant, C.M., 1996. Professional Development in a Technological Age: New Definitions, Old Challenges, New Resources. Technology Infusion & School Change. Available at: http://lsc-net.terc.edu/do.cfm/paper/8089/show/use_set-tech [Accessed December 7, 2009].

The Training and Development Agency for Schools, 2008. Continuing professional development (CPD) in practice. Available at: http://www.tda.gov.uk/teachers/continuingprofessionaldevelopment/cpd_in_practice.aspx [Accessed December 8, 2009].