Evaluating Coursera for Blended and Online Learning (Part 1)

Evaluating Coursera for Blended and Online Learning (Part 1)

Adjusting back to the heat of Milan in August is taking a little time for the family and this means broken sleep all round. Add a fantastic thundstorm right overhead at 3am and you have the perfect recipe for an early start to your day!

Inspired by some of my notes from reading Jay Ashcroft’s The Tablet Revolution (see review) I decided to investigate alternative MOOC platforms to iTunesU. I love iTunesU but the iOS app is a far superior experience than a student gets using iTunes on a MacBook. I flitted between Coursera and Udemy for a while not really finding a suitable course for comparison before stumbling upon an old article related to e-Learning: Most Popular Online Courses for eLearning Professionals. It seemed familiar and my Evernote concurred that I’d been here before.

While many of the courses listed are now long gone I found that Georgia Tech had just begun running a course titled K12 Blended and Online Learning. I decided enrolling would be useful on two fronts:

  1. Allow me to evaluate the Coursera platform
  2. Further my own professional development in the area of blended learning

Week one concentrates on the standards and documents from iNACOL. For anyone interested in deepening their understanding  of blended learning I highly recommend visiting their site. Of course Georgia Tech have linked all the required reading into their MOOC for you.


The instructional videos were clear, less than 8mins each in length and punctuated with short multiple choice quizzes. I do however wonder if Coursera allows different types of questioning similar to EdPuzzle (which I love). The iOS app reminded me of iTunesU a little, especially the ability to download videos for offline viewing.


I do wonder what the extra space is for in the video player… Might have been nice to have a transcript here.


I realise that students might be accessing Coursera on their MacBook so their experience will probably be different.

I completed the pre-assessment you can see linked in the screenshot earlier and found it very useful in helping to focus my targets. I’m comfortable with policy, online tools and classroom teaching, but want to delve deeper into intervention strategies that will enhance the learning of my online students. As the pre-assessment was a spreadsheet (also a PDF option) I would have liked the ability to upload an image or type some notes to myself and link it to my current stage in the course. I couldn’t find a way of doing this outside of the discussion forums so will have to rely on Evernote instead. On reflection it is probably good to have my notes outside of my MOOC, just in case.

Supplemental information appears to be text-only with hyperlinks and this is fine. One of the pages had embedded PDF and XLSX files that opened in Coursera’s own browser. Clicking on a world icon then opened it in Safari so documents could then be opened in other applications or saved. It would have been nice to select between Safari and Chrome as the default.

The discussion forums were basic but easy to navigate. Nothing I’d want to add there, there’s a reply and an upvote button for each post. Not sure how you are notified of new posts but will find out soon I hope!

In summary this is a good start. I’ve not tried creating a unit in Coursera yet but as a user I’m finding it easy to learn and navigate. I’m also enjoying the course and picking up new tips along the way which I intend to share with you, dear reader, in another instalment.

Book review: The Tablet Revolution by Jay Ashcroft @LearnMakeruk

The Tablet Revolution by Jay Ashcroft (amazon paperback & kindle)

The Tablet Revolution Cover

As someone involved in the planning, design and implementation of a large scale iPad rollout project a few years ago I found this book a fascinating read that echoed much of my own school’s experience. Each of the chapters cover a particular area that a school or education authority must consider before putting devices into the hands of teachers and students with nuggets of wisdom from the other side of the fence: that of the sales or support team wanting to part you from your funds!

The case studies peppered throughout the book highlight the pitfalls of poor planning or vague vision as well as the better-known success stories. I found this refreshing as many articles and books tend to make it seem like every project has been a success whereas anyone involved in an IT project in education or commerce will know this is just not the case!

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 18.12.35

I highly recommend this book to those who are planning a roll out of devices to students, those who are in the midst of the roll out and definitely to those who have been through the highs and lows already. I took the opportunity to reflect on my own approach, assumptions and practice as I read this book and think that Jay has given me insights in how to improve the learning and teaching outcomes of those using devices in the future.

Thank you for sharing this Jay!

Rating: 5 stars

As posted on Amazon.co.uk

You can read an interview with Jay Ashcroft here: http://www.ipadeducators.com/single-post/2015/04/03/INTERVIEW-Jay-Ashcroft

Cryptography #iGCSE #ComputerScience

One of the nice and not-so-nice things about vague arrangements documents is that you have to work out how to best fill the gap.

Encryption methods are part of the Computer Security section of the course – symmetric and asymmetric encryption to be exact – and, while I could simply put two slides up on the screen and move on, I saw this as an opportunity to break away from exam style questions and have a little bit of practical fun with the students.

I introduced my Year 10 students to the Caesar cipher this week, surprised that very few of them had even heard of it. They caught on quickly though and were soon manually translating coded messages back into plaintext.

But as the lesson progressed the messages got longer and the students began to find translation very time consuming. So, after a bit of discussion, we decided it might be best to ask a computer to do the translation for us. We would still provide the ciper-text and shift key, and it would do the rest.

This allowed us (imagine that) to then recap on relevant pre-defined functions to translate characters into ASCII codes and then build an algorithm to apply the shift key to these ASCII codes. Once the codes were converted back to characters they were ready to display on the screen! Most students managed to get to this point, with some even working on alternatives (more on that later).

The next day the students returned and were given a tougher challenge: decryption without the shift key! We discussed the letter frequency graph shown above and tried to create an algorithm to accurately calculate the shift key.

The open-endedness of this task challenged everyone and the variety of solutions suggested touched on some of the actual decryption methods utilised.

A few students suggested a brute force decryption of a digest of the entire message, looking for a small number of short English words before comparing the calculated shift key to the frequency analysis graph. When challenged further they explained that this would decrease the processing time of the decryption algorithm as it wouldn’t have to translate as many characters. Some students had even had researched further to find out which were the most used English words in written text!

The students rounded off the lesson by creating a list of advantages and disadvantages of symmetric encryption. While students took longer on the concepts it gave them the opportunity to understand some of the ideas and issues with this type of encryption.

Next week we tackle asymmetric encryption. I can’t wait!

Mail merge in Google Docs

Until recently I’ve not needed to use mail merge style functionality in Google Drive however I am keen to build a way of generating individualised revision questions for students based upon their self-reflection. I already collect this via Google Forms so wanted to create a script that parses student responses automatically or at a set time.

The first piece of the solution was to use autoCrat – a Google Sheets Add-In which can be found here . This script allows you to create individual Google Docs or PDF documents built from individual rows in a Google Sheet. It was very easy to use once installed, but there is a great “how to” guide written by Krista Moroder .

Adding mail merge tags to a Google Doc is easy. Simply use <<tag name>> and make sure there are no numbers inside the tag. Then, in the Google Sheet, open autoCrat and set up your mail merge. Once you connect to your template document it will automatically pick up the mail merge tags and let you match them up to the columns in your Google Sheet.

What I really love about autoCrat is that you can then use the merge tags in an email. So you can send automatic responses to users in a GAFE domain simply by requiring them to be logged in before completing the form. Alternatively you can send yourself an email so that you know when a student has completed the feedback form and then forward it on to them.

Next I want to parse the individual responses and replace their areas of development with related revision questions. If anyone has any pointers to plugins or scripts that can do this, please let me know!

The blogger shuffle

Earlier this month I received a bit of sad news. Postach.io was going premium only and my intermittent online presence was going to disappear.

I really like Postach.io but wasn’t willing to commit to an annual fee quite yet. I wish them all the best with their service and may – one day – rejoin the ranks…. but for now it’s back to WordPress!

This time the move was easier. I moved my Evernote blog posts from the Postach.io notebook into a new one called Caffeinetangent (for my own clarity if nothing else) and synchronised. Then I set up a Zapier account and used their recipe to create a WordPress post for every new note than appeared in the Caffeinetangent notebook in Evernote.

One downside I’ve noted is that images from Evernote don’t feed into the WordPress post. Has anyone had any experience with this and can offer a solution?

Technology in Education: Making a difference to pupil learning (#SCSSA Annual Conference 2014)

[Ollie’s website](http://olliebray.typepad.com)

“Technology is not going to make teaching easier, it’s going to make it different” – Chris Kennedy, West Vancouver School District

New usage models in everyday life

Who would think that Twitter – essentially a digital post it note – could be so disruptive.

Technology is changing how we interact:

New tools, old tricks?

How could we leverage technology to meet in a different way?

Technology for Learning

The investment in technology in classroom hasn’t really paid off. Why?

– infrastructure

– worked well for enthusiastic early adopters, not so much for the rest

Technology IN learning

Take the learning first, how can technology improve it?

Feedback has impact – Dylan Williams, John Hattie

How can we use technology to give feedback digitally?

Model for student engagement

Learning is interesting or engaging. Learning through good pedagogy.

Ollie’s components for exciting learning:

– cultural relevance

– real time interaction

– different learning pathways

– authentic audience

– accessible

This has got teachers talking (and sometimes worried) in his school.

I. Culture

If we invest in digital it has to be really good digital.

Ollie found that games had a calming influence directly after break. Students played Wall-E for five minutes, then updated a Google Doc to lead into a numeracy task.

Google Doodle’s cultural relevance. It is a great opportunity for people to dive into learning about different, but relevant topics around the world.

Choice is important

Each person is engaging with text in some form of another.

Allowing students to access the text in differnt way:

– PDFs or graphic novels?

II. Real time learning

Dumfries and Galloway – delivering music tuition via video conferencing.

[Skype in the classroom](http://education.skype.com)

– mystery skype: guess where the other school is

Google Earth

– can superimpose real time weather maps

– webcam view of other time zones

We shouldn’t just be planning to develop documents, we should also think about collaborative working with 1:1 devices

We are not talking about 1:1 anymore, it is really 2:1 though using mobile phones AND laptops / tablets in class.

Voice is very important: Students use voice search more than adults. This can change classroom culture.

Social media – history event anniversaries, links with NASA. Golden moments.

If we want children to improve their writing, create digital assets to develop skills before returning to traditional forms (e.g. Pixton comics)

IV. Audience

Turn work around to show the public during holidays.

YouTube channels can facilitate formative and summative assessment.

Trust and respect – youtube is unblocked for students

EPortfolios leads to students publishing to Wikipedia. Enables discussion about bias and validity of information.

V. Accessibility

Young people are being prevented from using technology because we don’t teach them the skills they need.

Susan greenfield – “the most important skill is framing the right question”

Develop appropriate skills.

GLOW evolution (#SCSSA Annual Conference 2014)

Ian Stuart was a fierce critic of the original Glow. He is now GLOW product owner working with the Scottish Government.

I haven’t used Glow in anger for a long time. I say anger because I used to absolutely loathe it.

I also had issue with how the Local Authorities banned anything other than Glow in an attempt to force teachers to use it. The theme underpinning the entire conference has been that any initiative that is forced upon teachers is doomed to fail.

This is the first time I’ve logged into the new Glow.

The new apps look good but I feel – and my table agree – that because we moved away from Glow in search of a better, more reliable product, many of us have found a better, reliable product and so don’t need to move back.

Ian is keen for front line practitioners to get in touch with issues.

If your local authority has a Microsoft agreement you can download the full version of Office onto your personal devices. Currently 27/32 of the local authorities in Scotland have this agreement.

Uploading class lists from Seemis will be available in the next two weeks through the Management Console.

Formatting and filtering a Google Spreadsheet using Google Visualization API

Previously posted on Postach.io

Quick blog post from the iPad where I have extended the functionality of the spreadsheet I created earlier. I found it very easy to complete all the functions on the iPad **except for the spreadsheet formatting function** (how do you reduce the number of decimal places for a number column on the iPad?). I used [Textastic](http://www.textasticapp.com) to edit the HTML, [GDrive](https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/gdrive-for-google-drive/id531569865?mt=8) to upload the file (the Google Drive app crashed a lot) and the full desktop view of Google Drive within Chrome to get the necessary URL for the image file.

My first aim was to get the URL to become a hyperlink. I found a [blog post](http://www.webopius.com/content/706/google-visualization-api-html-links-in-table-cells) which quickly helped solve this issue.

Next I wanted to turn the hyperlink into a button which opened the URL in a new window. The CONCATENATE function in Google Sheets helped here.

Then I wanted to hide the preURL column from the view. This took a little while because I forgot I was dealing with a spreadsheet and used the column headers as field names!

Finally I build a simple filter which allowed me to limit the results displayed to the user.

I’m now ready to design and populate a single spreadsheet containing all the training material – YouTube videos, webinars, iTunesU courses, articles, blog posts and files – which will be automatically limited depending on which page the user visits (beginner, intermediate or advanced). This should reduce the time it currently takes to manually edit the HTML in Google Sites.

Does anyone else use Google Sites within their educational establishment to help deliver staff training or CPD? I’d love to hear from you.

Querying a Google Spreadsheet with Google Visualization API

Previously posted on Postach.io

I’m adding to my school training website and want a quick and easy way of categorising the training materials available. I wanted to create a relational database and query it in some way but, to the best of my knowledge, Google Sites doesn’t allow this. I’m tied to Google Sites because the school are using Google Apps for Education and I actually like the security features it offers in keeping the web content restricted to those with school email addresses only.

Yesterday I found a website that suggested a way that I could [display a Google Spreadsheet via the Google Visualization API](http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/?p=4001). A few hours later I was able to recreate the examples where dataTables were created within the Javascript however I could not find a decent **complete** example that showed how to link to an existing spreadsheet.

Searching through the forums it became apparent that this method did not work in Google Sites – even when embedded in an HTML box – the problem being that you can’t add the jsapi library in scripts. So I started again, using another domain to ensure that the code worked. It did after a little experimentation (and you can [grab the example here](https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/42287593/GoogleSpreadsheet_Viz_template.html) if you are interested) where I removed the query and [encoded it into the URL](http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/dencoder/) instead.

I then found that, if I saved the working HTML to Google Drive, I could [publish a folder as a website](https://developers.google.com/drive/web/publish-site). So I made the Google Drive folder public on the web and grabbed the googledrive.com link from the details pane. From there I found the file I wanted (imaginatively titled test2.html!) and embedded it in my Google Site using iFrame.

It worked!!

But so much effort to combine three Google technologies!!

Vector graphic experiments in Photoshop CS5

Previously posted on Postach.io

Today I found myself in a gift shop in Stonehaven looking at wonderful vector images of some of the town landmarks and I wondered if I could recreate them in the right proportions for a frame we want to put up in our hall.

I decided to use Photoshop CS5 and the pen tool which, until today, I’d never really used.

Finding a similar image in Flickr was quite quick and easy and I used this as the guide layer in photoshop.

Once I had reduced the opacity I began to build up layers of colours and created layer masks for each to quickly build up the shapes.

I added a gradient layer for the sky as I thought it was a bit flat.

It’s not finished because, after an hour of [moving pen points around](http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-edit-paths-in-photoshop-cs6.html), I realised that **good** vector graphics take a lot more time and skill. I learned a lot about a small bit of Photoshop today and now I’m wondering about vector-based iOS drawing apps and their suitability for the classroom.