The tale of Ada Lovelace, a 7 year old boy and a Tweet

I tweeted this last week and it went proverbially viral.
Vincent_tweet_May2018
At the time of writing it is heading towards 90,000 impressions on Twitter. It feels a bit odd that it’s got so much traction, but as a wise friend commented, people like a nice story. So here is a little more about it. I tweeted it because it brings together a number of things I’m think are important and I wanted to show the impact institutions, practices and tools can have on one child. I’m not an advocate for universal coding education, as I discuss here, but here’s what happened in the instance of this little boy.

When my twin sons were 6 we got them books on inventions and computers and coding. When we read through the inventions book together, I’ll admit, I editorialised a bit on why so many inventors seemed to be men. One of my sons took a lot of interest in binary code, unicode and algorithms. Underneath one of the lift-the-flaps in the computing book, was Ada Lovelace.

Later that year I attended a fantastic Ada Lovelace day at the University of Edinburgh and when I got home I showed my photos of the Lego Ada set to my children. This peaked their interest and they began to join the dots in the information they had. Meanwhile they were getting amazing support in learning to read at school and had been benefiting from the Scottish Book Trust’s Bookbug bags with free CDs and books since they were babies. Without reading skills as a foundation, none of this would have happened. To encourage my son who appeared to have interest in code, we got him a Raspberry Pi for Christmas. Our local library in Newington provided a supply of books on Scratch, drawn from libraries across Edinburgh and he worked his way through them. They have no overdue fines for children’s books, thankfully.

Then after Easter he was assigned a project at school to give a short Powerpoint presentation on someone who inspires him. He, quite logically, worked out that as he loves to code and coding exists because of Ada Lovelace, therefore she should be his person. He searched for some images and read up on her some more. He included screenshots (see image below) of Scratch, to demonstrate to his classmates how an algorithm works. scratchcode_2He practised, standing tall with a clear voice – something he would never have been able to do a few years ago. I have to credit the school with this as he has consistently been given support to develop his confidence in public, even when this was difficult for him.

Afterwards he was happy with how it went and his classmates wanted to know more about Scratch. A day later when he came out of school, he whispered to me that at school assembly he’d been made ‘star of the week’. On further probing I discovered he had been asked to get up and speak more about his presentation and to explain what Twitter is – that Tweet had been around the world a few ten-thousand times by stage. The school has asked him to participate in the school fair showing other children how to use Scratch. He is learning that what started as a solitary pursuit is something he can share and even teach. For someone who has times where he struggles with the emotional ups and downs of life, this is a massive boost. It doesn’t solve everything, but it is something that is all his.

His twin brother has different pursuits and aptitudes, equally interesting and inspiring. Just different. He might explore coding more at another time, or maybe not. Interestingly, they get on better with each other the more they carve out their own niches. They are privileged to have access to the skills, support and tools so they can pursue these interests. While are still young enough to pay attention to me, I try to point this out to them and the responsibilities that go with that privilege. Just as one demonstrated that it is perfectly normal for a boy to have a role model who happens to be female, the other insisted his piano teacher edited a piece of music thus, to “make it fair”:
oznor

They continue to surprise me.

What I learned working on an e-learning helpline for students and lecturers

Life ring

‘Help’ by Neil Turner CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/b9JrVF

After I completed my PhD I took a six-month contract in a large, well-resourced university doing ‘e-learning support’. The work was very similar to parts of my previous learning technologist roles elsewhere, but the scale of everything was much bigger. Additionally, it was my first time working within a department with no academic or teaching remit and the culture and language around the use of technology reflected that.

The university provides and supports an impressive array of digital products for teaching and learning: VLEs (more than one), assessment tools (including text matching and peer assessment), classroom polling, digital exams, lecture capture, video streaming, virtual classrooms, digital reading lists and eportfolios, to name a few. For each tool there was a named individual in my team with the expertise and vendor relationship to deal with unusual problems. I was impressed with the commitment my colleagues showed for providing the best possible service to the end users. Requests for support came to me through the call management software, so all my communication with people who needed help was through typed messages. It functioned as a very efficient, transparent system where the busy-ness  of the queue could be seen at a glance and calls passed between individuals as needed.

I can’t put an accurate figure on it, but would appear that the majority of lecturers were using these tools by rote. Courses were rolled over from semester to semester, assessment dropboxes set up as they were previously and, if there were discussions about why certain tools were being used, there weren’t happening within my earshot. What’s more, courses all had named secretaries who were responsible for student enrolments and administration of assessments. So, for example, a course secretary would follow a checklist of how to set-up a Turnitin dropbox. Again, a highly efficient process which frees up the time of the academic, but for every box ticked or not ticked within the set-up screen there are pedagogical implications, yet the lecturer has no input and probably little or no awareness that there are such choices available. And this is before any discussions take place about whether Turnitin is actually an appropriate tool to be using for assessment.

The increasing ease-of-use of software makes it more accessible and efficient to use if there is little or no learning curve. However, this very ease-of-use means that we don’t have to think about it much and this can be a problem. Teaching with digital technologies should be a considered and constantly re-evaluated process. Indeed, my PhD research found that the majority of lecturers were constantly balancing the costs and benefits to them and their students when they used digital tools. But if the the tools are practically friction-free to use, or someone else is there to do the legwork of setting things up or solve the problems, then the educator is at a remove from the consequences of using them, and therefore from thinking about deeper implications.

I believe that education in all disciplines should explicitly incorporate pedagogy into the curriculum. I also believe that this should include directly addressing digital citizenship, starting with educators role-modelling appropriate digital citizenship. This can be a simple as an announcement outlining why they made choices to use (or not to use) certain digital tools for teaching and learning. In doing so, they would be encouraging their learners to think about the choices that we make about technology every day. It could even be the first step to becoming an open education practitioner.

My PhD Digital Toolkit

 

As a technologist, I’m always on the look out for tools to make my life easier. I particularly like using ‘dead time’ like travelling productive. Before starting the PhD I looked at how I worked best and tried to eliminate excuses for getting on with things. With me excuses like “This chair isn’t comfortable” or “I can’t find information fast enough to hold an idea in my head” can be destructive to productivity.

In terms of hardware, I bought a new desktop 6 months ago. I even ripped out the CPU and case fans and replaced them with silent ones to reduce noise. And I bought a laptop tray to make working on comfortable chairs/sofas more feasible when I get sick of sitting at a desk. Actually, I’ve been experimenting with standing at my desk, but that’s probably another blog post. I also bought a handheld scanner for £30 which I’ve already used to scan selected pages from library books and documents that have been given to me in hard copy.
But it has mostly been software. Some of it is for my tablet (Google Nexus 7 inch), my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S3) and for my desktop and laptop (both Windows 7 64). Being an Android and Chrome user, Play store apps and Chrome apps work well with my general Google ecosystem. Most of which are free but I did spend money on the following:
  • Evernote premium: no limit on uploads, offline notes, search with PDFs and no distracting flashing ads. £35 per year
  • Scrivener: Writing tool for structuring, writing and revising. I haven’t used it that much yet, but I know I’m going to need this for a thesis. £29
  • ezPDF Reader: A very flexible PDF reader for Android with good annotating functionality, night mode and voice reading. £2.50
  • Simplemind Pro: A mindmapping (desktop and Android app) which can sync to Dropbox. £3.76 (app) £31.55 (desktop software)
Everything else is free or a trial version.
Dropbox is a no brainer. It sync files across computers and devices and makes the USB stick redundant.  I have 50gb space, most of which came for free with my Android devices but I’ll probably shell out when that space expires. It’s become too useful to me. I also use it in conjunction with other applications. For example, Mendeley. Although I will be watching it like a hawk since it was bought by Elsevier, I can’t get over the usefulness of Mendeley sorting out my mess of articles into neat folders and renamed files. I have set up a system whereby I store both my PDFs and the Mendeley database files in Dropbox which allows for me to access the up-to-date files on any device. It was very important to me that any annotations I made on my tablet synced back seamlessly. It can be very frustrating searching for the version of an article where you’ve made annotations. This system can get unstuck if I accidentally have Mendeley open on two devices and Dropbox starts to create conflicting versions. It can take a while to sort out and I know I’m using Mendeley in a way which is not supported by the company. For me, the benefits outweigh the risks. Let me know if you’d like more information on doing this (it involves doing a little bit of register editing).
Reading is a big part of any PhD so I’ve got a few tools which help me reduce my excuses not to do it. On the desktop I use Adobe Acrobat Pro (an old version) and use highlighting and commenting tools. For my full note taking I use Evernote with the name of the article/book for title and ‘reading notes’ for a tag. You could just use the free Adobe Reader for highlighting and commenting but I like being able to use the character recognition tools for my scanned documents. Having all text searchable is invaluable.
I’ve experimented with some fast reading apps (both Chrome and Android). These  flash one word at a time at a pre-defined pace in order to train you out of ‘sub-vocalising’ and therefore, in theory, you can read more quickly. While I find them good for light reading like blog posts or news, I don’t think I’ll be using them for scholarly reading. I am quite a fast reader already and sometimes I find myself re-reading academic texts because I’ve read too quickly to completely understand. To slow down my reading (and to drown out the noise of the driver’s radio on the bus to Glasgow), I sometimes read while simultaneously listening to the text being read. I’d recommend trying Ivona TTS (text to speech) which can be installed on a smartphone. It can read back any text in a compatible app (such as ezPDF Reader) in a reasonably human voice.
For task management, I have been using Nozbe task management Android app and desktop app. It’s got a nice interface but my trial has expired and I’ll probably not pay a subscription. I’ll think I will return to Google Tasks and use 3rd party apps to access them on my mobile devices. I’ve never completely nailed using task managers. Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a bunch of tasks at the bottom of my list that never get done which does my self esteem no good. On my desktop I use Sticky Notes to have small chunk of info readily accessible. I’ve been using them for my Athens login for the past month.
For time management and motivation I’ve been using Rescue Time which is both a desktop and mobile app. It monitors what you are doing. You can categorise activities (Mendeley = v.productive, Facebook=v.distracting) and you get a score at the end of the day, overall time and a breakdown of how you spent you time. You can compare days and try gaming yourself to do better. There’s a premium version but I’m finding the freebie does enough for me. So far today I’ve been online for nearly 8 hours, 76% which was productive, which is pretty good going for me. For the times I need to get my head down, I use the Clockwork Tomato Pomodoro app on my phone which switches it to airplane mode for 25 minutes, then rings a bell for a 5 minute break. It has a lovely interface and records your stats. It’s quite satisfying to see those purple bars add up on my weekly calendar. As with all these things though, it’s only useful if you use it honestly.
Finally, there have been a few reports lately about the effect of using a screen before going to sleep at night and how exposure to blue light is detrimental to falling asleep. Coincidently I have been using f.lux for a few years on my desktop. I used it originally because I dislike having a bright white screen when using artificial light. But it turns out that f.lux is perfect for warming up those harsh blue tones. It changes the colour on your screen subtly at sunrise and sunset. I heard a review for Twilight for Android and realised it did the same thing, so I have that running on my phone and tablet. It has a distinct red hue but it’s easy to turn off if I wanted to see something in truer colours. It’s a shame I can’t scientifically prove that they’ve helped me get to sleep quicker, as I think I’m pretty tired most nights anyway.
And on the subject of getting to sleep there is one other digital tool, though not directly related to doing the PhD, it helps me relax: audio books. I subscribe to Audible and fall asleep every night listening to a book. I don’t really feel I can afford to pick up a book for pleasure time-wise any more but I find audio books a great way to fill in some dead ‘pre-sleep’ time and it takes my mind away from all the things I need to do. I’d recommend Proust’s In Remberence of Time Past, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Joyce’s Ulysses.
I’d love to hear about any other tools people use to help with their studies.

How can you know what’s worth researching in technology enhanced learning?

By this stage I have learnt by experience that hitching your wagon to the latest shiny new technology as an opportunity for technology enhanced learning can leave me with egg on my face. I’ll spare my blushes and won’t name here what, in the past, I’ve championed as the next big thing. In recent years I have even become sceptical about the merits of most new innovations and new products as I have seen those around me get caught up in what I perceive as fashion trends. I remember watching the launch of the iPad live online and was dubious about its merits. Later other, wiser than me, people articulated how it was essentially a device for consuming rather than creating content, so it was limited as device for learning. The addition of a camera and improved text input has changed this a little. I still watch the debate about tablets for learning with interest but I’m not sure I am ready to jump in.
So what are the areas of specialization in technology-enhanced learning am I interested in? What is worth researching in depth that won’t be out of fashion next year? Here’s my list for today (it will, of course, be different next week):
  • Curriculum design for online learning – How can lecturers design, develop, teach and assess fully online courses? How can theory and research inform instructional design?
  • Supporting student reflection and independent learning – How can TEL help students become reflective learners and can social networking support this? (By the way, I haven’t come across the term “independent learning” in a while – is it out of fashion?)
  • Social tools for researchers – Has the uptake of social networking increased at all for researchers and research students? Can these tools help increase collaboration, sharing and impact on isolation?
  • Institutions’ responses to disruptive innovations such as MOOCs – Can this breakdown of higher education’s “marketplace” be an opportunity to reassess and refocus the purpose of university education?
And yes, I am aware of the zeitgeist-yness of MOOCs as a topic but open access to information has been around for a while now and MOOCs appear to be the next step in a ongoing push for open access.

The role of resistance in learning

I’m reading Contemporary Theories of Learning (2009), edited by Knud Illeris which is a series of essays about learning by theorists. As usual with a stimulating book like this I have to put it down every few pages and sort out my own thoughts.

In Illeris’ own chapter, he talks about barriers to learning which break-down essentially into those barriers which are a defence and those which are resistance. It is the latter that I am most interested in i.e those which is caused by the learning situation itself because “often when one does not just accept something, the possibility of learning something significantly new emerges.”

As an advisor to lecturing staff on the use of technology-enhanced learning, I have had experiences where colleagues have resisted or even rejected changing their approach to teaching. But now I come to think of it, some of those who had the most defensive reactions are the ones who have travelled furthest in adopting technology. I know the theory that involving emotions can aid learning, but negative emotions? I had only thought before that antithetical reactions to my training or advice would lead to entrenched views but maybe together with staff who react badly we can create, synthesise, something new?

So would it be possible to deliberately manufacture resistance in, say, a staff training session and what would that look like? How about asking them to discuss a provocative statement such as “In the future teachers will be obsolete”. Perhaps this is a bit loose but it has a challenging emotion connection for most lecturers.