Taking action.

Actionable provides tips to academics on how to use technology for teaching and research

So from a teaching perspective, last year was an interesting year – I won another Student Led Teaching award and I am currently short-listed for ‘Most Innovative Teacher in Higher Education’ by the THE …which is nice. 

However it has been pointed out to me that I’m not great at sharing practice so I’ve set up actionable simply to share tips on using technology to save time and enhance teaching (and I’ve been asked to do some tips for research so will do). A new tip will appear every week and every single tip can be put into action immediately. The first four weeks are already up and available. Actionable isn’t intended for navel-gazing or long diatribes about practice – its presented on a take or all leave it basis. It’s also partly to do with my frustrating with a lot of #Edtech conversations at the moment which are so high-level as to worthless to someone wanting to try out something new. There is a place for that, it’s just not at Actionable. 

Enjoy.

Charles

Academic Toolkit: ThinkPad x260

Why I recommend the Thinkpad x260 for academic work.

If, in an alternative dimension, I did product reviews, I’d think they’d look like this. 

There are a lot of general consumer review sites so I will not replicate what they do.  Instead I am going to review my new Lenovo Thinkpad X260 in terms of how it fits an academic life-style and working habits. The ThinkPad range is Lenovo’s business aimed line and not to be confused with their cheaper laptops.

Black is the new black - if you want sleek good looks then you are looking in the wrong place.
Black is the new black – if you want sleek good looks then you are looking in the wrong place.

As a management academic, I tend to live in MS office, Nvivo and also light use of Android Studio and Lightroom. I have a desktop machine at home and this is my portable solution. If you do want to consider this as a sole device, you can get a dock for it so that at home it instantly connects to a monitor, external keyboard etc. 

For academic purposes, I think the key reason you should consider this laptop (and why I picked it over a macbook) are:

* Excellent battery life – I get about 15 hours on medium brightness with the six cell battery. Yes you read that right, 15 hours. This is because the ThinkPad has a swappable external battery and an internal battery. I don’t charge it for two or three days at a time. If I am going away for a weekend break, I don’t bother with the charger at all. For conferences, this means that when out and about, I’m not searching for power or having to carry the extra weight. During term, I can go from class to class with no worries about power. In two years or so if needed, I can simply replace the external battery. 

The battery life is fantastic.
The battery life is fantastic.

* Good keyboard – the keyboard on this device is excellent with a good range of travel. Yes the Macbook is thinner but the trade-off is in the feel of the keyboard. I can type for hours on this beast. I should also point out that due to the design of the x260 if you spill anything on the keyboard, it drains straight through. The keyboard also lights up if you like that sort of thing. 

The keyboard has a lovely feel to it - I can write for hours on it with no problems. 
The keyboard has a lovely feel to it – I can write for hours on it with no problems. 

* Ports – yes,yes I know you can get an adaptor for the Macbook but this thing has three USBs (one you can use to charge other devices – handy at the airport), Ethernet, SD, HDMI, Display port and has a VGA adaptor in the box. VGA is an old standard but you just know that when you rock up to give a talk, the one connection will be a VGA one. My university is slowing moving more and more rooms to HDMI but I think it will be a while until VGA completely dies out in the sector. 

* Fingerprint reader – I initially didn’t think this would be much of a benefit but academics are ‘corridor warriors’ going from meeting to meeting. This is really useful because I open the lid, slide my finger over the reader and away we go. It’s a little thing but on a daily basis is a neat little touch.

* Connectivity – You might not want or need this but I can put a data simcard in this device and use it with no other devices or without wifi. If you are using this on wifi, you can turn it into a hotspot for other devices to connect to.

* Upgradability – I don’t actually plan to do this for the moment but it’s fairly easy for the user to upgrade the RAM, hard-drive etc – something that a lot of thinner laptops have made harder if not impossible…

* Toughness – I throw my laptops around, the Lenovo is designed to meet Milspec – for academic purposes this thing will take a beating (and a glass of wine on the keyboard – see below). People who buy Thinkpads tend to stick to them for that reason.

 

So when considering a new laptop, I’d certainly recommend looking at the Thinkpad – with academic discounts and a few voucher codes I got it for £770 with a three year onsite (they come to me) warranty. I went for a midrange spec but many people could get away with the base spec. Now you might be reacting to the price but find that the reason that people have such terrible experiences with Windows Laptops is that they spend £250 on a consumer grade laptop and wonder why the experience isn’t as good as a £1000 macbook…  

The specification of my device for people who care is:

– Intel Core i5-6200U Processor (3MB Cache, up to 2.80GHz)
– Windows 10 Home 64
– 12.5 FHD IPS (1920 x 1080) Non-Touch
– 8GB DDR4-2133 SODIMM
– Intel HD Graphics 520
– Software TPM & Hardware dTPM
– Keyboard Backlit – English UK
– UltraNav (TrackPoint and ClickPad) with Fingerprint Reader
– Software TPM Enabled
– 720p HD Camera
– 192 GB Solid State Drive, SATA3
– 3 Cell Li-Ion Battery 23.2WH Front
– 6 Cell Li-Ion Battery 72WH Cylindrical Rear
– 45W AC Adapter – UK(3pin)
– Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC(2×2) 8260, Bluetooth Version 4.1
– Integrated Mobile Broadband
– Mini DP/VGA Adapter
– Think 3 Year On-site

 

 

We all got bored of lecturing.

Due to various facts I forgot to post some conclusions to my attempts to teach digital skills by killing off lectures and seminars for my project management module. Part 1 and 2 discussed in detail how it worked. 

This post is a following up to:

Part 1): I got bored of lecturing so I quit.

Part 2): I got bored of lecturing so the students quit me

Go and read the previous posts or this makes little sense. 

So how did it all end? 

Student activity and interest remained high all the way through the module and the feedback was excellent (which is always good to hear). Not a single student asked in their feedback for lectures to return. 

  • The group tasked to produce an Enterprise App turned into a solid report and a demo that we are now taking forward as a University to produce a full-blown app which we hope to have ready for September 2017. 
  • The group who were asked to produce a OER textbook also did an excellent job and I plan to use their text with my finalist strategy class in the 2016/2017 academic year. 

If I was going to make a tweak to the module, I might actually break the two larger groups down into two smaller groups so students have more choice in projects. I might also see if I can get some of this year’s class to come back and spend a few hours as advisers for the next class to take the module. 

In fact the whole thing has been so successful that I don’t plan to have any significant changes for the next year and indeed am currently looking at ways to spin out the student think-tank into a ongoing social enterprise. The module would act as the ‘training’ for the social enterprise and students would then work for external clients on larger scale projects. 

All the way through the biggest challenge has been for me to simply stand back and let the students get on with it and make their own decisions. I ended up making a lot of tea, eating a lot of biscuits but never had to step in to ‘save’ a failing project.  My key aim therefore of skills and academic development via getting out of the way has been achieved. 

Besides the specific module goals there has been a good mixture of digital skills development in here. 

Jisc talk about developing digital literacy to support digital practices and we can see it below in this diagram:

Digital capabilities needed to work and live in a digital society - taken from: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-students-digital-literacy This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND
Digital capabilities needed to work and live in a digital society – taken from: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-students-digital-literacy This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

 

So how did the students develop in any of these areas? 

Communication and collaboration

I had actually paid for some professional project management software. Both groups of students quickly established that it wasn’t fit for purpose for the management of their projects. Independently, they assessed different options and settled on a mixture of google docs (production), slack and some Facebook (co-ordination/collaboration). Most communication moved from email to the use of real-time editing using google documents. 

Digital creation innovation and scholarship

One of the hot topics in digital creation is the small matter of IPR. I did have to give both student groups a little prompt about the various levels of copyright protection a work might or might not have. As a result of this, the student groups for both the enterprise app and the textbook had to start thinking carefully – what are the resource and time implications of gathering and remixing content under a creative commons or other license or simply creating bespoke content. 

Digital learning and Self-development

This in many respects was the most interesting aspect of their digital skills development. In both groups, students self-organised into vital roles – roles that the students themselves had never occupied before but identified as vital. For example – who was going to manage and allocate project hours? Who’s job was in a group to check the copyright status of material that could used? 

Overall – I think the fundamental message I took from this is the same idea I started with – provide a solid framework but get out of the way. 

 

Winning teaching awards (why I think I do)

Had an interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday about student nominated teaching awards that was prompted by this tweet. 

One of the problems with teaching awards is that people don’t generally talk about why they think they won them and the article mentioned in the tweet said that winning is a source of embarrassment for some and others think that it’s down to being ‘cool with the kidz’ or funny – both of these are likely true. There is an argument that white straight men are more likely to win by default because of privilege and that’s unconditionally a factor so I’m not even going to get into it or dispute that is an influence.  I freely admit (and other white straight dudes hate I do this) that I’ve benefited from privilege,  even if you know about it and acknowledge it, it’s really hard not to – it’s built into every level of the academy.

Since I joined Edge Hill in 2012, I’ve been nominated for student led teaching awards every year and won in 2013 and 2015 (#humblebrag). So even with the caveats mentioned above, I think it’s useful for people who win teaching awards to discuss *why* they think they won them because even if we factor in popularity and privilege, there might be some useful themes that occur from such discussions about what we do as academics.  I run a debrief every year with my students, look at my feedback and ask students who’ve nominated me if they are happy to talk to me about why they do so.

I’d love to say that the feedback from students was that is because I am inspiring figure but the most consistent comments are structural and about process not content (although some do common on content – my assignments are largely open ended with a high degree of student choice). As far as I can determine a lot of students vote for me because my modules are well structured and it is clear from week one where we are going and why and I don’t blow deadlines.

This is (based on what the students have said to me) what they like: 

  • All of my module handbooks outline the module assignment and dates before the course starts – students hate with a passion assignment deadlines given late or assignments that are poorly communicated. My module handbooks are really short, I don’t have a detailed syllabus, just themes in maybe two paragraphs, no student has any complained or commented upon this.
  • All of my module content follows a consistent structure from naming conventions to style – a seminar handout has a style that is consistent from week to week, presentations styles don’t randomly change from week to week. 
  • Ever assignment is handed out for consultancy to check that it is free from error or there are no confusing elements before official release
  • Every assignment has clear assignment criteria that is given in advice to the students and clearly outlines boundaries all the way to hundreds (I’ve seen assignments that uses boundaries that are 70-100% – just no). 
  • My blackboard site follows a clearly logical structure – things aren’t hidden in a mishmash of folders
  • Lecture slides are provided in advance in a PDF note form – students really like this because generally it helps structure their own notes and how their organise their folders.
  • Students really like that my office hours are bookable online so they aren’t wasting their time emailing me
  • I don’t blow deadlines – if say X will happen on this date, X happens on this date.

Fundamentally students seem to like if you run a module as if you aren’t making it up as you go along

 

 

 

 

 

How I mark (not with a pen)

I’m deep in marking so I thought it might be worthwhile covering how I try and trade off getting the best marking experience against time spent. 

I never accept paper submissions under any circumstances nor do I accept them via email or any other means except for our VLE (which is blackboard). This is for a number of reasons:

1) I mark once there and this also informs the student of grade and comments plus it populates the spreadsheet of marks and informs the students of their progress without emails from me. For example if a student is undertaking three assessments, they will know after the first assessment how much of the module they have already passed. This saves hours if it is a big module (100+). Especially at the end of the module where I simply download the mark spreadsheet for entry on our system. 

2) I can mark on the go if needed via the turnitin ipad app (you can sync assessments to it). The iPad app is also the quickest way to check what needs marking and if I am working with colleagues I can see where they are upto and also quickly second mark as and when needed. It also means if a student wants to talk to me about their assessment, I can bring it up on my ipad in seconds.

3) It creates an audit trail – all of the data about when submitted etc is collected in one place. More importantly if there is a problem later where work is lost etc, it’s an institutional problem not mine. 

4) I can make use of rubrics to provide a lot of very quick feedback besides my bespoke comments – this is important because although (paradoxically) I provide a lot of feedback I actually think it’s a waste of time because it occurs at the wrong time (I was an assessment post-doc and all the literature I read said the same thing).

5) Over time I’ve built an extensive collection of ‘quick-marks’ – customise comments that I can drag and drop over an assessment. 

Now when I’m at my desk, the quickest way I find to do it is… Dual-monitor – now a dual-monitor is useful for lots of things but I find it’s a massive time-saver for marking. 

Assessment  on the left, rubric on the right.
Assessment  on the left, rubric on the right.

All taken together I find that this cuts many many hours from the marking process, I couldn’t see any circumstance under which I’d return to paper.