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Lazy writing … or pressures of deadlines? May 3, 2015

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, research.
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flickr photo by Patty Marvel http://flickr.com/photos/pattymarvel/16304315951 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I’m not sure when I started becoming a much more critical reader/consumer of information delivered through the Internet, or whether being ‘picky’ is just a personality trait, but recently one particular stream of information has become an itch I need to scratch.

For some while I’ve found Edudemic to be a helpful source of inspiration and information; its RSS feed has always found a regular place in my reader. From interesting and helpful ideas, emerging educational technologies and provocative articles, I’ve regularly found something to stimulate my thinking. Recently though, my spidey-sense has started to tingle when reading some of the articles. If someone writes

Although 80% of K-12 teachers do have social media accounts, such as Twitter for personal or professional use, most of them don’t integrate them into classroom lessons.

that figure makes me sit up and take notice. 80%? As much as that?! I don’t get the impression from colleagues that it’s as high as that, but maybe I’m missing something. First thing then is to check the source of that figure; the link was, as you can see, helpfully provided.

The survey from which the data arose was undertaken by the University of Phoenix and the article helpfully provided a brief overview of its survey methodology. As an ‘online survey’ wouldn’t it be fair to say that it drew from a skewed population? So rather than 80% of teachers, we’re already at 80% of teachers who would complete an online survey. What we don’t know is how the survey respondents were recruited; it could have been through social media sites and if it was, then how is the 80% figure now looking in terms of being reflective of the whole teaching profession? (The University of Phoenix article did provide contact details for anyone who wanted more details on the methodology, so we could doubtless find our answers)

Having spotted one instance of data perhaps not telling the whole story, other examples started to become apparent. In “Teachers Guide to Polling in the Classroom” we’re told that

Research has shown that students absorb new information into chunks, with 20 minutes being the limit for that information to go from short-term to long-term memory.

Which seems somewhat familiar, but rather than take it on face value, we can follow the helpful link. This take us to a brief article on “Use It, or Lose It! Retaining New Knowledge with E-Polling” within the Colorado State University website. This actually cites what sounds like an academic article (Orlando, 2010) and in the references provides a link … to another brief article on polling technologies. This casually mentions

… it’s been proven that most people can only retain about 20 minutes of content in our short-term memory before we have to reflect on it in order to move it to our long-term memory …

yet fails to tell us where the evidence for this claim can be found. So research may indeed have shown that ‘students absorb new information into chunks,’ but at least do us the courtesy of providing a specific citation for the actual source, rather than bouncing us around a couple of other articles, neither of which provide a foundation for the claim.

A final example (The Four Negative Sides of Technology) offered up plenty of threads at which to pick, including

More than a third of children under the age of two use mobile media.

Whereas what the report actually said was “38% of all children under 2 have ever used a smartphone, tablet, or similar device.” ‘Use’ as opposed to ‘have ever used’ might seem to matter little, but I’d argue there is quite a significant shift in emphasis by changing the phrasing slightly. In the same article there’s

A report from the United Kingdom revealed that kids who use computer games …

where the link doesn’t actually go to a report, but to a Telegraph article about the report, which inevitably includes journalistic license. Why not simply link directly to, and quote from the report itself?

I suppose I’m simply being pedantic, expecting authors who are trying to convey a particular message and who might be on tight deadlines, to be completely rigorous and accurate in their referencing. Or with the impending election here in the UK, perhaps my cynicism filter needs recalibrating. And yet with the ease with which headlines can be quickly bounced around the Internet these days, if people don’t take the time to verify for themselves the claims that are being made within an article and simply take a headline Tweeted out at face value, groupspeak and the echo chamber become the norm. That’s beginning to bother me.

Beyond the Book October 14, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings.
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Yesterday I had the great pleasure to attend a talk by Kate Pullinger entitled ‘Beyond the Book,’ part of the Digital Fiction strand of the ‘Off the Shelf’ Sheffield Literary Festival. Kate is the power behind Inanimate Alice, an online transmedia story; the networked novel ‘Flight Paths‘ and the 14-18 Now project ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier.’ In her talk Kate provided more detail on each of the aforementioned projects, outlining how digital technologies have enabled hybrid forms of literature and facilitated a greater degree of participation and collaboration.

kate pullinger talk

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by ianguest: http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/14917070024

I found what Kate had to say fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. Fascinating because of my interest in the different ways we are appropriating technologies, specifically in learning, but also in creative endeavours. I guess I was unsettled due to the three different ways in which literature affects me: as Head of eLearning and someone who promotes and supports the use of digital technologies; as a writer, albeit not one of fiction; and as a reader of fiction. Clearly then I lean towards the notions Kate outlined and am keen to learn from those who use technologies in new ways, so that I am better informed when advising and supporting colleagues and students. As a writer of non-fiction, I’m often trying to convey a message; sometimes that’s in support materials for others, project proposals, evaluations or reflective pieces. Whenever appropriate and where it enhances the message, I try to employ different media, but here is where the tension begins to emerge. If I know who my audience will be, then that may constrain me in serving their needs. For example, in providing an introductory guide to a new software application, a five-minute video screencast might make the most sense, for all sorts of reasons. Yet if my audience prefers paper-based, ‘recipe’-style guidance, then that is what I’m obliged to provide. In producing a report of a particular project, whilst I might feel audio interviews with some of the participants provides a rich narrative, the readers of the report might be more predisposed to plain textual summaries. As a writer then, I’m constrained creatively to some extent by the boundaries imposed on me by my audience. I wonder if writers of fiction are similarly hobbled.

The tension becomes heightened when I reflect on my preferences as a reader. I’m now on the other side of the fence and become the recipient of literature written by others. How do I feel when given the choice of opting for stories delivered in different ways through different media? As Kate introduced samples of Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths, despite being impressed by how they had been produced and the ways in which they were being used and enjoyed, I couldn’t help but feel some degree of conflict. In an attempt to establish why, I thought about how I read and what my expectations are from a story, which is doubtless a rather personal thing for each reader. For me, good fiction should transport me (or my mind?) somewhere else and whilst it might not be quite what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow,’ when immersed in a story, the passage of time melts away. I feel part of the story, either as observer or participant. I control the pace, re-read when necessary or even skip forward a line or two! The words on the page act as a bridge between me and my vicarious participation in the story through the characters. I’m able to do that because I have become familiar (and comfortable) with the linear way in which text is presented in the pages of a book. Images might supplement the story, though should be used in such a way that they don’t conflict with those the reader has generated within their imagination. One example might be the maps that Tolkien included to help the reader appreciate the geography of Middle. At least that’s what I first thought, but then my mind went back to my younger years and my enjoyment of children’s and superhero comics. I felt no less immersed then where the text was an equal partner of the imagery, though even those texts observed the same conventions of linear flow. Although Inanimate Alice for example, flows in a linear fashion, I am required to relinquish some element of control of pace to the writer, only able to move forward when the media have finished their display. Perhaps it’s that, for me, the media add nothing to the story and may even detract from it? Whilst I’m trying to conjure mental pictures of Alice, her surroundings, her relationships with her family and so on, I’m being distracted by background music, flashing images and split screen displays. I wonder if there’s a link here with gaming environments, or at least those with a clear narrative, characters and plot. Gameplay often allows progress through the narrative as a result of exploration, theory testing, experimentation and repetition. I’m not a gamer at all, so have no experience of navigating through different forms of narrative, so I wonder if someone who enjoys gaming might be more inclined towards digital fiction than I? So many questions!

Perhaps my problem has been that I’ve tried too hard to see digital fiction as a subset of traditional, textual fiction, whereas they’re actually different subsets of the parent set, fiction? I think I can resolve this internally by seeing two different branches of storytelling; one which conforms to my preconceived expectations and another, which I can allow to be free to be what it will and enjoy it for what it is.

Intercontinental research and collaboration April 27, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in research.
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[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!

Anyone have a Web elf to spare? November 17, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings.
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I’m not sure precisely when I responded to Julia’s (Julia Skinner, @TheHeadsOffice) request for volunteers for Team 100WC; I guess it’ll soon be a year? Which means that I’ll have posted in excess of five hundred comments on blog posts made by pupils undertaking the 100 Word Challenge. But in turn, that got me thinking about the comments I’ve added to posts and articles from other educators; how many of them have I made … and where are they?


cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Gioia De Antoniis: http://flickr.com/photos/jox1989/5327951306/

As a blogger, all my words are right here (or in one of my other blogs) which means that at any time I can refer back to them, either to use the information to illustrate a point I’m currently making, or to reflect on what I wrote a while ago. Is the opinion I held then still valid? Have things moved on since that previous reflection and if so how? But the comments I’ve made on other blogs have all gone … or to be more accurate, I have no idea where they are. Now that seems like an awful shame.

When I feel moved to reply to a blog post, it’s because I’ve been prompted to think; to consider a point someone’s made and respond, either to extend their assertion, or to disagree and offer an alternative view. The evidence of the personal learning and potential readjustment of my beliefs or standpoint, important though they may be, unfortunately become lost in the ether. Now I’m sure it wouldn’t take a great deal of effort for me to bookmark those contributions, but wouldn’t it be so much better if there was an automagic way of doing it? (If Tony and Darrel (The Edtech Crew) are reading, guys this is what I think we need1.) Not so much for trawling the Web for my meagre offerings, but for those of others … in particular our students. Many of the pupils who contribute to 100WC also provide feedback to each other by commenting on posts. Although they’re for the most part early in their development of this particular skill, as they get older and more sophisticated in what they post, how do we/they track and reveal their progression? How do we find their contributions so we can offer feedback and guidance on what they’re writing? How can they add the comments or observations of which they’re particularly proud into their eportfolio? Well they can I suppose, but like me, it would take more effort than we would perhaps prefer.

So what I think we need is an application capable of trawling the Web for posts made from a particular profile and aggregating those contributions into a readable form. Or maybe you know of one already?

1When the guys have a guest on their podcast, one of the regular questions they close with is to ask “what tool or application that’s not currently available would you like to have built and why?”

Let’s Git Goin’ November 1, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, Resources, Teaching Idea.
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cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Irish Typepad: http://flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/8420312876/

I’ve known about GitHub for some while, but little more than it was a place ‘coders’ seemed to use to conduct the black arts.  Then whilst at the 2013 eAssessment Conference in Dundee, I attended a session on interactive fiction as mechanism for assessment. Intrigued, I investigated further and unearthed a bunch of tools to support the writing of interactive fiction. During these explorations however, I also came across a number of blog posts by writers who saw potential in using GitHub for the writing process, especially where that writing might be collaborative in nature. Just try a search for ‘writing using github’ and see what interest there is. One post by Loren extolling the virtues of GitHub, but bemoaning how off-putting it is for non-techies, described a tool she was designing to make the whole process easier – Penflip, a collaborative writing platform. At that point (having wrestled with writing using Choicescript connected with GitHub) I began to sit up and take notice, because we were now into the realm of something manageable by most people. But, to return to the opening line, why the interest in GitHub?

GitHub: The Basics

Together this TechCrunch article and Loren’s post provide a useful summary and overview, but the principle of GitHub hangs on four basic principles:

  • A repository where projects are held. A coder/writer works on their project, saving the various iterations as they go, allowing them at any point to return to a previous version should they have pursued a dead end.
  • Forking or branching which allows another person to break off from the main project and develop a separate branch, building on what has gone before. When satisfied that their new branch has something to offer, they can submit a
  • Pull request. Now the originator of the project can consider this new branch and if s/he feels it adds to the project, they can approve the request which
  • Merges that into the master, thereby improving or extending the original.

Clearly this is incredibly powerful for writing complex computer applications, drawing on the principle of many hands making light work, but also guarding against too many cooks spoiling the broth. The forking allows different people to work on different aspects, or different ways of addressing the same aspect, yet their alterations/additions needn’t contaminate the original until approved and merged. If on the other hand, their fork leads into a completely new area, but away from the original, the open nature of the platform and the principles which underpin it allow them to pursue that new avenue.

GitHub For Teachers

Marc wrote at length about how to use GitHub, particularly within the context of developing resources as a member of a team within school, though with a background in computing, he’s not perhaps the average teacher. As Loren also recognised, the technical jargon which surrounds GitHub presents a considerable barrier to non-techies, which is why she was prompted to develop Penflip. Perhaps then this might offer an easier entry point to teams wishing to collaborate to build resources together. But why stop at individual resources? There are other tools which have recently surfaced like Activate, OpenCurriculum and others which allow teachers to build upon the work peers have already undertaken, enabling resources to be gathered, marshaled, re-purposed, distributed and deployed to students. However these don’t specifically address the development and writing of the schemes of work which provide the structures within which those resources need to be organised.

The next level

You don’t have to have been in school long to hear the phrase “I’d really like to do that, but I just don’t have the time.” Now whilst there’s a whole other discussion to be had around that, perhaps one of the contributory factors is that we rarely work ‘smart.’ The new National Curriculum is almost upon us here in the UK, so once more we rewrite our schemes of work. We do that in response to changes in the curricula that exam boards provide or to address new initiatives that our schools are exploring, but most of all we do it to make the learning we lead our students through more enriching, more effective and more enjoyable. But it’s incredibly time consuming! Time consuming for an individual yes, but collectively across the profession ….!

The question has to be asked why we don’t work in a more unified or concerted way to undertake that development work? I posed a similar question when thinking about the text books which we use to support our students’ studies. Why then shouldn’t we crowd-source curriculum development? And why shouldn’t a GitHub-like tool enable that to happen? I’m not the first to ask the question; Peps McCrea already has, and has even gone a stage further in building OpenPlan, a more friendly and appropriate tool specifically for curriculum planning and to build on the gains that will unquestionably come from teachers planning together, rather than in isolation.

It’s not just about the time-saving and increase in efficiency, but also about the improvements in quality as more minds and experience can be bent to the task. The principle of forking allows you branch off from the main stem and develop the core project to suit your circumstances and students more closely. You’ve saved time in that the foundations were already laid; you just had to tweak things, but in doing that you might also have saved time for someone else down the line with similar needs. Win-win. You might instead have an interest in contributing to the main stem, feel you have ideas to offer, and subsequently offer a pull request for your fork to contribute to the main flow. You made a difference and contributed to your peers’ community and we all know how fulfilling that can be.

I hope OpenPlan gets to fruition and enjoys a wide usership. I’m sure there are technical hurdles yet to overcome, but suspect they will be as nothing in comparison with encouraging people to adopt an entirely new, GitHub-style workflow. It makes perfect sense to me, but as I’m often reminded, I’m not ‘normal.’