Goodbye TREE

It’s sad to close a service, especially one that you were involved in developing – but it is also a chance to reflect on what was learned from the process.

TREE was conceived in 2014, when our website was still using the somewhat clunky Polopoly content management system (CMS). The original vision was to develop an interactive tool aimed at teaching staff, to help them find out about the technology tools we offer and how these can be used for teaching and learning. We had ambitions to develop an interactive system that allowed people to rate our services add comments. We used extensive user consultation to develop requirements for this tool which I wrote about in a previous blog post – Setting out on an Agile project journey: Part 1, User Stories and Poker Chips.

Interface for TREE (Technology Resources for Educational Enhancement)
Interface for TREE (Technology Resources for Educational Enhancement)

TREE went live in summer of 2014. It was developed in Drupal – and its appearance was much cleaner than our webpages at the time. However, even with very limited content we had issues with the available search options.

Our main stumbling block however was with encouraging people to author content, and in keeping this content up to date. This required duplication of their effort as they were often already maintaining very similar content on service webpages.

We soon realised that there is too much overlap between TREE and our university webpages. Also, in 2015 our university website content management system changed from polopoly to Drupal. This has made it more user friendly to maintain webpages and offers better functionality than the previous CMS.

By creating a different web tool we were creating another place to direct staff too, this required an effort to promote, when staff were already going to our well recognised website in search of similar information.

We experimented with different channels for promotion – I set up the TREE Twitter account. I now see that I only posted 34 tweets – but I’m sure at least an hour of agony went into each composition! This was on top of email correspondence, print articles and some of my earliest blog posts. This experience introduced me to digital marketing and promotion and I learned that this requires a clear focus and vision and time to devote to development.

Screenshot of the TREE Twitter account
The TREE Twitter account, which the University of Edinburgh subscribed to last year, has several courses that look useful for those interested in this area

What we did right:

We learned from users – through comprehensive requirements gathering and later usability testing. People don’t all use websites in the way you think they will or that you do. Taking the time to consult with users on requirements and to sit with users during testing provides amazing insights.

We built relationships through requirements gathering and consultation and from this developed large mailing list.

What we learned:

If you can, put information where people are already looking for it – publicising a new website is hard! It’s much easier to improve content in the place people were going to look.

2016 Digital Day of Ideas (#DigScholEd) – Workshop – Make Your Own Chat Bot

A picture of a lego robot
Clockwork Robot by Adeel Zubair by Brickset CC BY 2.0

It was pleasure to spend an inspiring day at the University of Edinburgh on 18th May 16 for the fifth annual Digital Day of Ideas (#DigScholEd).

The day was gently paced, with three thoughtful keynote presentations from Karen Gregory, Lorna Hughes & Ted Underwood (videos are online) and ample breaks for refreshments and conversation.

In the afternoon I took part in a workshop to Make Your Own Chat Bot with Siân Bayne , Kathrin Haag and Stewart Cromar.

Sian started the session by giving an overview of ‘Twitter bots’ – programmes that produce automated posts on Twitter. She pointed us to some interesting examples:


Screen shot from the Dear Assistant Twitter Bot account
Screen shot from the Dear Assistant Twitter Bot account

DEAR Assistant – I am a Twitter bot and I’ll try to answer your questions just like Siri, Google Now or Cortana.

Screen Shot from the LA QuakeBot Twitter Bot
Screen Shot from the LA QuakeBot Twitter Bot account

LA QuakeBot – I am a robot that tells you about earthquakes in Los Angeles as they happen

Screen Shot from Restroom Genderator Twitter Bot account
Screen Shot from Restroom Genderator Twitter Bot account

Restroom Genderator – random restroom gender sign generator. extant (and not so extant) genders with random symbols.

Siân questioned the idea that teaching jobs will be taken over my robots, referring us to the Oxford Martin Project – and the ‘Will a robot take your job?’ tool. In the 2016 Manifesto for teaching online she and colleagues say “Automation need not impoverish education: we welcome our new robot colleagues.”

Siân then talked about the ‘teacherbot’ project, which the teaching team developed for E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. The teaching team programmed the Teacherbot to respond to questions from students on this massive open online course. To do so the project developed a Graphical User Interface (GUI) for teachers with no code experience to use.

After this introduction we had some hands on experience – using PandoraBots (Information Services have a subscription) which uses AIML Artificial Intelligence Mark-up Language – it can be used with Twitter but could also be used in other platforms. The team talked us through setting up a PandoraBots playground creating a bot and adding and editing responses. At the end of the session these were uploaded into the Teacherbot test account so we could test them on Twitter. It was really satisfying to see how easily this can be achieved.

This has left me considering… How could we use this? Could we offer service support for learning technology services? Do staff and students want to find out their answers on Twitter? Would it be useful for promotion or engagement activities?

Is this fun or practical? Or maybe a bit of both?

If you are interested in finding out more, take a look at Teacherbot – A Twitterbot pilot service.

Adventures in IDEL

A picture of my Second Life Avatar (a wolf) admiring the work of Jilla Lamar in Second Life
Sunday afternoon at the Art Gallery – My Avatar admiring the work of Jilla Lamar in Second Life

Last year I had the privilege of being a student on the Introduction to Digital Environments for Learning (IDEL) course which is the foundation course for the MSC in Digital Education. This was funded by a the Institute for Academic Development (IAD) who as part of their support for the Online Distance Learning (ODL) community offer bursaries to staff who are working on or considering developing an ODL programme.

I work as a Learning Technology Advisor in the Educational Design and Engagement team within Learning Teaching & Web Services (part of Information Services). I applied for the bursary as I am increasingly supporting staff working on fully distance online programmes and as the number of ODL programmes increase this is becoming a bigger part of my job. For example as service lead on QuestionMark Perception assessment system I support several ODL programmes in the creation and delivery of assessments.

What did I get from taking part in IDEL?

It was really interesting to get a student’s perspective on the institution I work for. I expected to get this by being a participant, and to an extent I did, but the most interesting insights came from getting to know the other students on the course. Despite it being fully online I had plenty of opportunities to talk with other students through online tutorials, in Skype, Collaborate and Second Life and also from the discussion forums in Moodle.

A photograph of My collection of IDEL readings
My collection of IDEL readings

Each week we were given a range of readings, some core and also recommendations for further reading, a proportion of these were in alternative formats like videos, but the majority are journal articles. Not only did it make an impressive pile by the end, but also allowed me to explore the technology around reading. I had a go with Mendeley (reference manager and PDF organizer) and tried reading and marking up text electronically, After that experiment I quickly opted for printing out documents on paper – I have to admit that having access to a laser printer did help! Before finally considering screen reading software (TextHelp Read and Write 10 – for which the University has a site licence), as it turned out from a tutorial discussion several other students did their reading this way. Studying for IDEL was a great way to make the space and time to read and I enjoyed some thought provoking articles regardless of how I read them.

IDEL activities offer its students opportunities to use a wide range of tools, thanks to this I was able to re-evaluate applications I thought I already knew such as Twitter and Second Life and also to explore/play with new tools such as Powtoon Cartoon creator and thinglink to make interactive images.

A screen shot of the themes  from my blog posts over the IDEL course
Themes that emerged from my blog posts over the IDEL course – appearing a Word Press Widget

One of the course requirements was regular blogging. I really enjoyed the reflective space of the blog and the encouragement to share my written reflection frequently, which was helped by the frequent feedback I received.  We used WordPress and I like the fact that I was building up confidence in an openly available tool which I can continue to use for work or private projects in future.

The blog activity formed 60% of the assessment and the other 40% was a piece of work on a subject you selected, related to one (or more) of the course themes. I chose to create an Open Education Resource (OER) about OERS in HE – using the free website building tool Weebly. Completing it was hard, with the hand in date is just after the Christmas break, but-all-in-all a really useful experience. Choosing to create something ‘publicly viewable’ really did focus my mind and I think made me work harder!

Would I recommend IDEL to other Learning Technologists?

Absolutely. It’s a fantastic introduction to the possibilities of online education and the IAD bursary offers a great opportunity to take part in a highly regarded online master’s programme.

And if you do enjoy your IDEL experience, you can apply for a further bursary for a 20-credit course, which means you can leave with a PG Cert in Digital Education which is a great addition to your CV.


IAD – Online distance learning Community (Bursary details on this page)

Introduction to Digital Environments for Learning (IDEL)

IAD Case Studies: IAD Bursaries

MELSIG – Social Media for Learning #1 at Liverpool John Moores University 3rd June 2014

I took a day trip to Liverpool for an event from the Media Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group (MELSIG) called ‘Social Media for Learning #1: promoting participation and engagement with social and digital media in higher education’. ‘That’s a long way in a day’ my colleague said, but how could I miss the opportunity of an event so relevant to the Social and Cloud Based Learning and Teaching Service that I support?

Photograph of a seagull looking inquisitively into a windowng inquisitvly to a window
I photographed this seagull who was very interested in joining the session on Pinterest, no doubt already an expert tweeter.

The full programme offered multiple streams of presentations and in this post I’m sharing brief notes of my highlights of the day.

I arrived part way through the key note from Sue Beckingham (from Sheffield Hallam University) but did manage to catch some useful links giving advice for students :

The Sheffield Hallam Social Media Guidance Leaflets

Professional online presences for Students, Podcasts

Also a useful resource for staff, from Professor Andy Miah (University of the West of Scotland) The A to Z of Social Media for Academia, which lists platforms used by acedemics in their professional lives (you can contribute to this by email or follow the hash tag #socialmediaHE)

Professor Miah also contributed a very watchable YouTube video on Social Media in Teaching and Learning

Twitter in Journalism

Steve Harrison (@newsnumeracy) from Liverpool Hallam University gave an interesting presentation about Twitter as a tool for teaching and learning in the context of an undergraduate Journalism course. He explained that in Journalism Twitter is part of the professional repertoire. When I questioned this later he explained that using Twitter cannot be optional for Journalism students as they would not be able to get a job without being able to use it. So expertise with Twitter is threaded through the three years of the course in increased levels of complexity. In first year students learn to write news tweets in 140 characters, in the second year students use protected Twitter accounts as part of an assessed piece of work and in the third year the students use public Twitter as a source which they use to research and distribute live news stories.

Facebook Groups

Several speakers were talking about the use of Facebook. Mark Feltham (@MarkFeltham666) from Liverpool John Moores University shared his approaches to teaching 1st year students a core module in fundamentals of science, which offered several challenges including large amounts of statistics and a Monday 9am teaching slot. His approach included an innovative mix of: flexible pedagogies; student choice; and the ‘maker ethos’; and utilised Facebook groups. Marks presentation offered 10 reasons why you should use Social media in your teaching including several which focus on Facebook as a familiar place for students (he found 99% of students are already on it) which is quick and easy to use. He also found it easy and more creative to set work in Facebook, for example posting videos or using tools like Bitstrips. It was found to be a great way to manage group work because it gave evidence of contribution and he could ‘scrape posts’ to document this.

Anne Nortcliffe from Sheffield Hallam University also spoke about using Facebook to manage a computing course on which she taught. The students volunteered to set up and manage the closed group and also came with Anne to MELSIG to talk about their experiences. It was interesting to hear from the students directly and they spoke enthusiastically about this approach. They liked being able to see who had seen what was posted and that you could ‘tag’ people to draw their attention to things , features they don’t have in their VLE. They liked it because no one got left out of events if they were organised in Facebook. They also found it the easiest way to contact someone and worked out that tagging their tutor Anne was the best way to get her to contribute to a discussion. They described Facebook as ‘second nature for students’.

LinkedIn advice for Students

Charlotte Cork,  World of Work Team manager, Liverpool John Moores University offered advice on LinkedIn from the context of advising students, but much of which is applicable also to staff profiles. For example I now know that I can change my ‘professional headline’ rather than leaving it at its default setting of my current job title. She suggests that part of the value of LinkedIn for students is the insights that can be gained from looking at the profiles of people working in your field, their skills and career paths.

LinkedIn Advice for Students in Higher Education

Using Pinterest to bridge theoretical gaps

Oli Young of Sheffield Hallam University, described his use of Pinterest as a tool to bridge theoretical gaps. He is teaching subjects such as Business Management, Hospitality, Finance and Legislation to students at level 4, 5 & 6 with little work experience. The students have a task to plan an international conference, and use Pinterest as a board to collect resources, such as venues and destinations. This means that when students move on to further aspects of the process they already have developed a context for the project and so it is more meaningful and less abstract.


As you might anticipate there was a lot of Twitter activity for this event which you can see ‘storified’ here:

The focus of the day was on use of social media tools but I was interested to note that most speakers also talked about using the institutional VLE alongside these for other aspects on the course such as core content or assignment drop boxes. It interests me to see how the pieces such as core supported systems, external tools and service integrations  fit together in different institutions.


The presentations from this event can be found here.

MELSIG has a forthcoming event BYOD4L Bring Your Own Devices for Learning an open (registration free) learning event for students & teachers (facilitated, stand-alone, for other groups/courses) running online 14th – 18th July 2014.

Reflections from the Ninth International Conference on Networked Learning 2014 7th, 8th and 9th April 2014

Earlier this week I was able to attend the International Conference on Networked Learning when it was held in my home city of Edinburgh. I’ve not been to any of the previous conferences and was pleased to find this to be a very friendly and welcoming conference attended by an interesting group of delegates. It was also a very well organised event (and I’m not just saying this as much of this was so ably arranged by colleagues at the University of Edinburgh).


The conference hashtag was #nlc2014 and there was lots of twitter activity. I’m not yet experienced enough at multitasking to contribute to twitter during the sessions, but I could see that plenty of people around me where doing so. Interesting slides where photographed and on the twitter stream before I’d thought to take a photo. It also allowed me to get an idea of the sessions I’d not been able to attend. Tweets and retweets were coming from people not attending and it was clear that people were following the conference from elsewhere which really added to the buzz of the event and feeling of connecting to a wider community. I’m now following many people from this event which should give my Twitter account a new lease of life!

During the three day event I attended two key notes, two symposia and 17 full papers presentations/pecha kucha presentations and it appears (now that I am back in the office) that I wrote 18 pages of notes. Leaving me with the dilemma of how to distil this experience into a coherent blog post! I’m also aware that this is a very active group so much of the conference has already been blogged and tweeted (I’ve added some links at the end of the post).

For this post I’ll briefly talk about the two plenary speeches which were definite highlights for me. I think these have been recorded so should be available for others to enjoy, I’ll add the links when they are available.

Neil Selwyn: Why it is crucial to be critical

The first was from Neil Selwyn, Professor from Faculty of Education, Monash University in Australia. He gave a thought provoking opening plenary on ‘Why it is crucial to be critical’ in which he suggested that ‘Being critical is not in the ed-tech DNA’. He encouraged us (as educational technologists) to ask awkward questions:

Ask awkward questions – Selwyn

Q. what underlying values/agendas are implicit?

Q. in whose interests does this work? Who benefits?

Q. what is new here?

Q what are the un-intended consequences…what are the second-order effects?

Q. what are the potential gains…what are the potential losses?

Q. what are the social problems being addressed?


He also suggested 5 things for educational technologists to do:

  1. Need to de-personalise how we perceive ed-tech
  2. Need to be nasty (but after some debate downgraded this to snarky)
  3. Need to do this with humour and good grace
  4. Need to be contrary, contradictory, uncertain
  5. Need to be persistent and prominent

Followed by the call to: write often, publish often and publish widely.

I’m greatly looking forward to reading his book Distrusting Educational technology.

Steve Fuller: The lecture 2.0 or why the future of the University depends on brand

The second plenary speaker on the second day was Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology University of Warwick who gave a talk ‘The lecture 2.0 or why the future of the University depends on brand.‘

He started by asking: What difference do Universities make? Are they past their sell by date? Going against the current trends he states that lectures are very important. What is valuable about the lecture is not that it provides reliable transmission of information. Lecturers should exemplify ‘daring to know’, not be someone who can be reduced to their PowerPoint.

He made the case that since the Enlightenment the value of a University education was to teach individuals to learn for themselves and to make judgements for themselves. The right for free expression came along with this. Academic freedom was a guild right, because they had developed the skills to make judgements.

He proposed Lecturing as an art form of the University. Other providers can produce materials to transmit information and there are other accreditation bodies. Writing was made to come alive in the lecture. It is/was a branding medium, great Universities had the great lectures. They understood the difference between speaking and writing as mediums. The importance of improvisation, saying much more than is in the notes. For Steve Fuller being a good performer is important for an academic.

This was a great conference and I’m aware this post doesn’t really do justice to the breadth of the work presented. I’ve been privileged to meet fascinating people undertaking interesting work and I’m going to think further about how this impacts on my job, particularly around the development of the Social and Cloud based learning and teaching consultancy service which I am currently supporting and developing.

The first Networked Learning Conference was held in 1998, and has been held every two years since. The 10th conference will be in 2016, with the venue to be decided. Even if I can’t be there in person I’ll be following it on twitter.



The Networked Learning Conference Website:

Nicola Osbourne’s Live blog from Networked Learning 2014 gives lots more details of the sessions she was able to attend:

Peter J Evans blog post about Steve Fuller Keynote:


Digital Scholarship: Day of Ideas 2, 2nd May 2013

In May I had the pleasure of attending this excellent event with two of my colleagues from Learning Services , Fiona Littleton and Stuart Nicol.  Here I am sharing my highlights from a thought provoking day.

Big Data – In her Keynote presentation Tara McPherson spoke about how Big Data sets could be harnessed for research in humanities but emphasized that Humanities scholars should engage with the creation of tools that suit their needs.  She shared the example of Mukurtu which is a platform for cultural heritage that is controlled by the people who own the information.

Tara also introduced the Vectors Journal which she edits and which offers some very different options for academic outputs than a standard text journal article:

From a social media perspective I enjoyed the presentation of Professor James Loxley and Dr Anna Groundwater from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology talking about Ben Jonson’s Walk (, on foot from London to Edinburgh, and which was chronicled by an anonymous companion in a recently discovered manuscript.  I like the idea that as they have not been able to physically make the journey they will reenact it virtually on Twitter this July.

Aristotle latin manuscript
Aristotle latin manuscript. Image used with thanks under a creative commons licence from From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Dr Eyal Poleg made some interesting observations in his talk ‘Old Light on New Media: Medieval Practices in the digital age’ where he showed that medieval texts had more in common with digital texts than you might imagine.  I particularly appreciated his observation that as a WIKI is designed for co-creation, a medieval book was also a communal object belonging to a group or family. Annotations were encouraged by wide margins and spaces between the lines. Additional annotations were seen to add value to the text.  This is very different from the attitude to books I was raised with where books were not to be drawn in or marked!  It seems that the belief that a book is in itself the repository of truth and therefore not to be amended, is a more modern phenomenon.

A link to the videos of the two keynote speeches at this year’s Day of Ideas:

Digital Scholarship website: