Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: Moodle2 for Teaching 4-9 Year Olds

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Nicholas Freear's book "Moodle2 for Teaching 4-9 Year Olds" published by Packt Publishing. I was pretty excited upon reading the title as I have often grappled with the issue of how to make Moodle relevant for the younger years of K-12 education. Moodle is a LMS which has a deep history in third level education. It is a LMS designed by academics for academics making it pretty hard to customise Moodle so that it is suitable for K-12 teaching and learning.

So what's in the book? The book essentially looks at how different Moodle activities can be applied to educational contexts that are relevant to 4-9 year olds. For example using quiz to test basic maths and numeracy, the database activity for getting students searching and cataloging images on the web, using the lesson module for spot the difference games.  The book also looks at a selection of third party developed Moodle modules from the SIMILE timeline widget to range of simple word games to Scratch a programming language learning developed my MIT for teaching and learning. To aid the teacher the book also looks at how third party, opensource tools can be used for content creation such as Audacity for sound recording and Inkscape for  image editing.

The book takes step-by-step through the installation and usage of some of Moodle's greatest activities. It goes into great technical detail describing how to set up things like filters, how to add stylesheets and javascript using code and I suppose this is my first criticism of the book. I know plenty of teachers that are currently teaching kids between four and nine and this book is would be slighly beyond their technical skill level. There is an assumption in this book of a high level of technical competency, which I would question.

I did like the way the book gave examples of how to use Moodle activities for kids between four and nine but I thought they were, at times, forced. In some of the examples I felt like the author was taking the wrong approach trying to fit pedagogy around the technology affordances rather than moulding the technology around the pedagogy.

Finally, the author made no attempt to deal with the elephant in the room - Moodle's user interface. I can't see a child being motivated and engaged by Moodle's current user interface (no matter what the theme is). A complete rethink of the UI/UX needs to be done for this special user group to find Moodle as fun to use as something like .

So in summary an interesting read but to be honest I was left a bit disappointed. Perhaps teaching four to nine year olds using Moodle is an issue that is too big for just one book.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stellar - Meeting of Young Minds

Last week I spent Monday and Tuesday at the Stellar Meeting of Young Minds in Leuven, Belgium. The point of the meeting was to get twelve leading young thinkers in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) together to consider where the research is going and what should be funded through future European Commission funding calls. I was very lucky to be one of those twelve selected.

The instrument used in this meeting to consider what the future of TEL was scenario building. The JRC define a scenario as:
A scenario is a "story" illustrating visions of possible future or aspects of possible future. It is perhaps the most emblematic Foresight or future studies method. Scenarios are not predictions about the future but rather similar to simulations of some possible futures. They are used both as an exploratory method or a tool for decision-making, mainly to highlight the discontinuities from the present and to reveal the choices available and their potential consequences.

You can find more details on scenarios on the JRC website - or on the Foresight Horizon Planning Toolkit -

To begin before even arriving in Leuven we were asked to come up with some trends that we believe are going to have a big impact on TEL and learning in general over the next 10-20 years. In a later post I will give more details on the trends identified. In this post I wanted to just outline my experience in Leuven using the Future Scenarios methodology. 

During the future scenario buliding we were split into three groups of four. The group I was in concentrated on the uncertainity of the future and how it is widely held that we are educating young people for jobs that do not even exist yet. What does this mean? We need to essentially equip people now with the skills and knowledge to allow them to adapt and remould themselves in the future. In essence to react to the needs of the world they live in, in a timely fashion. We need to train people to train themselves.

As a group we were transfixed on the backwardness of standardised eduction. We make kids conform to a norm so that we can measure them against their peers. This in essense supresses their individuality and their uniqueness. Granted there are skills that need to be taught to allow an individuals mould themselves to fit with the needs of a changing world but these skills can be taught through a medium that interests and motivates the individual.

We looked at how a more personalised curriculum could be achieved - where people learn about the things that excite in a way that motivates them to want to learn. In this environement a teacher facilitates the student by making sure the student has the right learning resources and experiences they need in a timely fashion. The teacher also facilitates, through technology, matching students with common interests and also matching students with experts in the subject area that motivates them. In this environment students are no longer assessed according to standardised tests, each student is assessed as to the how he or she has developed and the knowledge and skills he or she has mastered in the their chosen domain.

Our group also looked at whether we should still have compulsory subjects - perhaps language wont be an issue in the future, but maybe we should all have a basic grounding in things like history, science, maths, civics and world culture. This would be the responsibility of primary education, whereas secondary education allows the student to explore their own interests in a structure fashion. Secondary education would see students take progressively more ownership of their own education setting their own goals and development plans.

This was a very interesting and thought provoking session that I really enjoyed. Afterwards I was asked what three most relevant trends for the future, after some consideration I came up with:
  1. Training will be personalised to personal interest - you can set what you are interested and work towards your own goals
  2. There will be a need to train people to train themselves
  3. People will need to be skilled in a variety of core skills that will allow them to adapt to the needs of a changing world
We were also asked if we could get the commission to fund one research are what would it be, to which I replied:
Facilitating personalised learning using the abundant information available to people. Also look at how assessment could work if everyone had their own curriculum. I think we will move away from the standardised test to one that celebrates individuality.
I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rethinking Pedagogy - First four chapters

As I mentioned in a previous post the publishers of the Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age have asked me to give suggestions on changes for the second edition. This is the first proper post looking at this.

In this post I am briefly going to look that the first four chapters. So here goes:

Learning and e-learning - The role of theory by Terry Mayes and Sara de Freitas 
This chapter looks at the place of learning theory in e-learning. It introduces the reader to three perspectives on learning theory - assocationist, cognitive, situative - which is useful. I think perhaps more on this is warranted as a lot of e-learning researchers find it hard to understand all the various learning theories and how they sit with each other. The authors introduce the idea that each perspective has its place in the learning cycle. It would be great if there could be a diagram included to depict the learning theory perspectives. Also a diagram on the learning cycle would be good in the second edition. 

An Approach to Learning Activity Design by Helen Beetham
This chapter considers the design of learning activities. A learning activity can be defined in terms of learning outcomes, learners, digital resources and technology, and interaction with others. This is a good concise chapter that captures the key aspects of a learning activity.

Designing Courses for e-Learning by Rhona Sharpe and Martin Oliver
This chapter takes a macro view of course design whereas the previous chapter takes the micro view looking at learning activity design. The chapter begins with looking at approaches to course design and the problems with using learning outcomes and constructive alignment where 'assessment always defines the curriculum' and learning outcomes become essentially a straight jacket for the learner. The chapter then looks at models for course design. To be honest I would have liked a lot more detail here - each model could be a chapter on its own. This chapter also notes that its not by virtue of any pedagogical affordances that technology is integrated into course design - its by necessity to deal with some of the challenges in the classroom like growing class sizes. The chapter finishes with a brief outline of how to go about course redesign. This chapter is a key one for me and I would like to see a lot more detail in two areas - the models for course design and on the process of course redesign - perhaps new chapters for the second edition?

Practices and Processes of Design for Learning by Liz Masterman and Mira Vogel
This chapter looks at what e-learning designers are actually doing in the field in designing courseware and learning activities. The chapter draws on 3 JISC funded projects one of which is centered around the tool support provided by LAMS. The chapter looks at how learning designs can be represented. The goal of this should be the sharing of good learning design, which the authors look at in one of the final sections. I think if this chapter was more generic, not discussing LAMS so much, it would be much improved.

That's it for the first four chapters. I should have the next four in a week or so. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Meeting of Young Minds - Belgium

I have been invited to the Meeting of Young Minds in Belgium at the end of the month. The idea behind this meeting is stated on the invitation as follows:

The idea of this meeting is to gather 12 young minds (below 35) to discuss the future of TEL research during two days (Nov. 28-29) in Leuven.
We will then send a white paper to the Commission to help them to shape future call in Technology enhanced learning. 
In preparation for this I have been asked for an informal introduction on myself and how I got involved in Technology Enhanced Learning - I decided to share what I wrote for this here:
How I came to be involved in TEL: When I read this statement, “how I came to be involved in TEL”, I really had to think - how did I get here? My interest and involvement in TEL was by no means planned, it was really an accident.  
I have always been interested in computers. As far back as I can remember I have been tinkering with (or breaking, depends on who you ask) a computer. After finishing school I did a degree in Software Systems. During my degree I liked to think of myself as a very technical person, only interested in hard-core technology issues. After my degree I wanted to get into more technical web issues and managed to get onto a research project that was investigating semantic web technologies. It just so happened that the domain that this project was looking at was TEL. To be honest, I can remember thinking that perhaps this project wasn’t for me, it was investigating TEL and not really important issues, I was pretty naive wasn’t I?  

During this project I tried very hard to stay away from TEL and concentrate on pure semantic web issues but it was no use as soon as I started to contemplate some of the big TEL questions, like ‘will what we are doing really help people learn?’, leading to bigger questions like ‘How do we learn anyway?’, I was hooked. My research in semantic web soon became a means to an end. At the end of this project we received additional funding for a longer term project to look at commercialising the technology we were developing. It was at this point that I considered myself a TEL researcher. I was now looking at how technology could help people to learn and teach. This was what now excited me. It was during this project I also completed my PhD, which looked at using software modelling technologies in designing good courseware.  

After completing my PhD. I had two loves TEL and, after working on a commercialisation project, entrepreneurship. I moved to Canada and worked in a start-up e-learning company that was spinning out of the University of  Toronto’s Psychology Dept. During this time we were looking at how we could use assessments to test knowledge fluency. We worked with all sorts of people from pilots to ice hockey officials to academics. This was a great time, very exciting and innovative. Unfortunately it was short lived - as the cash dried up and the revenue didn't come in quite fast enough.   

After completing my PhD. I had two loves TEL and, after working on a commercialisation project, entrepreneurship. I moved to Canada and worked in a start-up e-learning company that was spinning out of the University of  Toronto’s Psychology Dept. During this time we were looking at how we could use assessments to test knowledge fluency. We worked with all sorts of people from pilots to ice hockey officials to academics. This was a great time, very exciting and innovative. Unfortunately it was short lived - as the cash dried up and the revenue didn't come in quite fast enough.   

After my time in Canada I came back to Ireland and joined a company that specialises in providing professional services for e-learning Open Source Software (OSS) (mainly Moodle). This is were I am now and finding it very interesting work - helping mould OSS around clients e-learning needs. There I am in mainly a consultancy role but do like to get my hands into the code every now and again.  

I will of course blog about the meeting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age - Feedback for 2nd Ed.

I received an email from the Routledge, the publishers of Beetham and Sharpe's Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age.
We are beginning work on a 2nd edition of Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age and I’m interested in getting your opinion on the need for and ideal scope of such a book.  I noticed you had reviewed the 1st edition on your blog and we wanted to give readers the chance to informally provide feedback on the planned 2ndedition.  Which chapters would you most like to see revised and which do you think should be dropped entirely?  What new topics do you feel should be added for a book that needs to be cutting-edge in 2013?  Any thoughts you wish to share will be appreciated. 
I have to say I applaud Routledge for looking to the readers and asking them what they want. Its been a while since I read the book but hey thats a good reason to revisit it and in doing so maybe I can give some feedback that Beetham and Sharpe can use for the second edition.

To do this I decided to maybe look briefly at each chapter and give my thoughts on that chapter. After reviewing each chapter I will go into what topics should be covered in the next edition that were not covered in the first edition.

The book is quite neatly divided into 16 chapters in two parts - Models of Learning and The practice of design. There is a third part containing resources that can be used by practitioners. Each resource is  covered in a chapter. In my whistle-stop review I will cover four chapters in each blog post and then another blog post will go into the cutting edge topics that I think the 2nd edition should look at.

If you have read the book it would be great if you could give your feedback on the appropriate posts I am going to pass on the posts to the publisher along with any comments that the posts receive.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Percolate Project

Over the past year I have been working on a really interesting research project called Percolate ( Percolate is a collaboration between various multinational companies in Ireland that develop e-learning solutions, indigenous Irish e-learning companies (including Enovation Solutions) and academic partners, namely Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Dublin (UCD), Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) DERI in NUI Galway.

The aim of the percolate project is to examine the very innovative bleeding edge technology that has been developed through research conducted by the academic partners over the last decade and make use of them in a commercial space by the industrial partners. Just to give you an idea of the technologies that have been developed:

  • Personalised learning engine (APeLs) developed by TCD
  • Semantic search from DERI
  • Social search from UCD - check out for the commercial application of UCD's social search
  • Learning metrics developed by TSSG in WIT

To push these technologies to their limits the industrial partners have come up with various use-cases. It is up to the academic partners to show how these technologies can be used in the various use cases. The use cases include:

  • K-12 use case - looking at how technology can be used for kids that are struggling at school and also kids that are shooting ahead, keeping them interested. 
  • Third Level use case - Looking at how a Learning Object Repository such as the NDLR ( can be used to give Just-In-Time guidance and support to students engaged in Problem Based Learning activities. 
  • Corporate use case - Looking at how tacit knowledge can be more readily externalised and how corporates can make better use of social learning and quantify learner engagement with social learning. 

The aim of this post is really to give you a little taster of what is going on in the Percolate project. Over the next few posts I hope to expand on each of the projects and perhaps go into a bit of detail about the technologies that are being exploited as part of this project.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Representing learning designs - chapter review

"Learning Design" versus "learning design" key distinctions need to be made in chapter 7 and 8 of Beetham and Sharpe's book - " Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age". Learning Design refers to the IMS Learning Design specification which, according to Britain in Chapter 8 of the book, is an interoperability specification, an educational modelling language and a design methodology with associated tools. Learning design on the other hand refers to the instructional design generally.

Chapter 7, representing practioner experiences through learning design and patterns (McAndrew and Goodyear), looks at how we can express instructional design. It looks at the IMS LD specification at first but then looks to abstract on this using educational practice patterns.

Britain's chapter, chapter 8, goes into a bit more detail about the IMS LD specification and looks at the type of tool support it has, which is quite sparse and very much in an embryonic stage. All the tools are basically designed by the research community for the research community. The chapter does mention some more mainstream VLEs and tools will be looking to adopt IMS LD, but I am not sure this is the case - the chapter mentions that IMS LD is on the Moodle development roadmap but I have never seen that and there is no citation for this claim - perhaps someone can point me in the right direction?

This is another chicken and egg scenario in that we wont understand the potential of LD until we have good tool support but tool support for LD wont be built until the potential is understood.

Nice quote to finish the post:
Successful teaching involves a variety of strategies and techniques for engaging, motivating and energizing student over and above merely presenting them with well-designed learning materials. (Britain, 2007)