Learning from E books

I love to travel. I spend most of my spare time heading off somewhere fun/exotic/hot/cold/downright scary. The rest of my time is spent planning such trips. One of my favourite books is Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel and some of my favourite gadgets are those which make travel easier and more enjoyable.

My top five in reverse order:

5. Solar powered phone charger – very useful when spending 7 weeks living in a tent looking after baby monkeys on a sanctuary in South Africa. Not so useful when mountain walking in North Wales…

4. Wind-up torch. Not very techy but very useful in countries where 24 hour electricity is sometimes a luxury.

3. Blackberry/smartphone – if only I could afford the data charges to actually use it.

2. Ipod – mainly used for playing soothing tunes on scary flights and hairy road trips.

1. My Kindle*, what else…

Second after travelling I love reading and also just owning books. As I sit writing I am surrounded by over a 1000 ‘proper’ books (1213 to be precise – I counted while I was waiting for blog inspiration). I love buying books and get quite protective over the books I lend out to people, issuing a set of rules as I smile and say ‘Keep it as long as you like’ through slightly gritted teeth. I therefore resisted an e-reader for ages, feeling I was being unfaithful to the book. But long journeys and meagre luggage allowances eventually got the better of me and I finally succumbed.

So I like reading novels on my Kindle. I like the convenience and portability and the ease of book purchase. But can I study on it?

As with many questions the answer it seems is ‘it depends’. The word study can mean many different things from skimming a document, detailed reading, making notes, to researching concepts, answering questions and discussing problems.  Some of these activities lend themselves to an e-book more than others.

Simple reading of a text is obviously possible on a Kindle but that is not necessarily the most effective method of learning. When I study from a text I like to scribble over the book, make notes in the margin and summarise my thoughts in a notebook. The latest Kindles allow me to do these things but I still like to have a sheaf of paper tucked into my Kindle case to make ‘proper’ notes on. Kindles are also getting better at allowing easy look ups of articles etc whilst reading a document. That said I still generally use my smartphone to do this whilst reading on my Kindle.

The better the technology available for downloading electronic study texts, the cleverer I expect those study texts to be. Embedded question practice, links to discussion forums and the ability to share comments and notes with other readers would all be in my wish list.

Cognitive mapping

This is the one thing that might put me off e-texts.

A definition of cognitive mapping is given by Downs and Stea in Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior:

“A process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, codes, stores, recalls, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday spatial environment.”

One basic application of this is the idea of a photographic memory. I don’t have such a memory although I am able to remember names, numbers and facts quite easily. Certainly when I was studying for professional exams I was often able to recall something by picturing it on the page. This doesn’t really work on a Kindle.

To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’ (sorry…)

In terms of effectiveness, a study by Jakob Nielsen in 2010 suggested that users read 10.7% slower on a Kindle than a paper document. I can’t help thinking this may be missing the point. If I am studying at home or at school I am likely to still study from a paper textbook. What I am looking for in an e-text is the portability that a Kindle offers. I want to be able to fill up all that wasted time I spend on trains, the tube, waiting in queues, lunch breaks etc. So if I am using previously wasted time I don’t mind that I am reading a bit slower than normal – it is still a more effective use of my time than playing about with my phone (although I normally chalk that up to technology ‘research’ anyway…). I also don’t mind that I may not remember everything I read on a mobile device. I am using these devices as a means of supplementing and enhancing my paper based study rather than replacing it.


*Other e-reader devices are available…


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What do students want from a virtual learning environment?

I used to have a fancy bank account. All bells and whistles. I paid the equivalent of four pints a month (everyone has their own measure of the value of money) and for that I got loads of free stuff. Well sort of free. As free as four pints of lager. The list of extras was impressive – travel insurance, concierge service, etc. And for the two years I had the account (many pints worth) I used the sum total of none of these benefits. But I could. If I wanted to. I also have a big gas barbecue which I rarely use (blame the English summer weather) but would not want to be without. And yes I do need that bold red lipstick in my make up bag – despite never, ever wearing it. Its a comfort thing. I like the idea of these things, the security of them being available. I don’t have to actually use them to appreciate their importance.

The resources we have on our virtual learning environment (VLE) are fantastic – really, really useful. The students love the idea of them. When we ask if they like the fact that they can access recorded lectures there is a resoundingly positive answer. When we tell them there are short bitesize tutorials on key topics which they find difficult their eyes light up. But when we analyse usage statistics the results don’t always tell the same story. So is it that students want the security of these additional resources without actually ever using them? Would they miss them if they weren’t there? Or is it that we aren’t giving them the right resources?

The resources we provide cut across a whole range of activities and points in the students journey – from pre course information, through content delivery in various forms, tricky topics tutorials, testing and exam guidance. I am convinced that these resources are the ones which will best assist in guiding students through their studies and achieve exam success. So content is probably not the problem.

It seems a large part of it is that the VLE provides one huge virtual comfort blanket which wraps up the students in its snugly warmth (much needed as the weather is really turning). They do dip in and out when they need to but the majority of study is still done in the classroom and with a nice big heavy textbook. I am attempting to move towards paperless teaching by storing notes and materials on my tablet and taking this into class rather than my big heavy files and books. But it is a wrench to not have a proper book made from proper paper which I can scribble all over and stick post-it notes on every other page when I’m prepping my classes. I imagine many students feel the same.

I teach adults – the youngest students in my classes are 18 and that is quite rare. (I often get quite upset that I have a tattoo older than these students…). But the average age of my students is late 20s. I don’t think we are yet teaching classes full of Gen Y and so although students are quite interested in the option of learning online it is not what they are used to. They see the VLE as support to the main study manuals rather than a replacement. We are likely to see significant changes in the coming years as we welcome more and more students into our classrooms who have always used digital resources as the main focus in their learning. Maybe then there will be more reliance on the VLE.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The flipped classroom

This is a fab infographic courtesy of http://www.knewton.com/flipped-classroom/ via Edudemic

Leave a comment

September 14, 2012 · 3:02 pm

Can the little blue bird help me out?? (or Twitter as a mechanism for driving student engagement if you want to be techy…)

There never seems to be enough time to do what I want in class (or life generally) and inevitably something has to give. I always worry whether I am focusing on value added activities and this is where the concept of a flipped classroom comes in. The idea being that content is delivered online while learning at home, allowing classroom time to be spent on more interactive pursuits. This is a pretty radical shift and it will take some time to move to a pure flip concept.


So what alternatives are there to ensure there is still time for engagement with students? Something I have been experimenting with is using Twitter to interact with students and provide opportunities for discussion outside of the classroom. Forums have been used for this purpose for a long time and are great for providing detailed discussion but sometimes there just isn’t the time or motivation for this level of engagement. It seems that more and more students want bitesize content so why not bitesize discussion? No need to reinvent the wheel here – Twitter should be perfect. So let’s get the little bird involved.


So I duly set up a new student-focused Twitter account (with restricted access to try and keep an element of control over this) and got started. About 75% of my students eventually followed me through the duration of the course. There were the early adopters who were on Twitter on their smartphone before I had finished explaining how I was going to use it. There were also the laggards who felt like they were missing out on something towards the end of course and succumbed. But what did I tweet?


Well for the majority of the course I was posting useful links to articles and quick facts that were relevant to the case study we were working on. Nearer to the exam I also tweeted some exam tips and advice on technique. Did it add value? Well it certainly made their industry research a bit easier. But that wasn’t really the point of the exercise and I am desperately trying to get away from the frustrations of spoon feeding students. The experiment was about engagement and that didn’t seem to work so well.


The stats:


  • 34 students followed me
  • None of them retweeted anything I said – which I expected  
  • Only once did I get a reply to something I’d posted.
  • One student mentioned me in a tweet after the exam asking me what I thought of the exam paper
  • Three direct messages asking me questions about homework and access to the VLE.


So whilst it shows that students see some value in using Twitter to communicate with their tutor it didn’t necessarily improve engagement. I tried asking questions but no responses. So is it that students don’t want to engage, don’t want to engage in this way or need a different kind of encouragement to utilise Twitter? I am working through this list: http://edudemic.com/2012/04/100-ways-to-use-twitter-in-education-by-degree-of-difficulty/ … via@edudemic and will hopefully see some improvements next term.


To be fair at least half of my students created accounts just to follow me so maybe some of them need time to get use to the concept of Twitter? And in that sense maybe I have added value in terms of introducing students to the world of tweeting – so an interesting and useful experiment anyway.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Playing catch up

And so the Olympics arrived. And with it the promise of massive disruption on public transport, streets teeming with visiting tourists and struggles through crowds to get to work. So we were all told to avoid work. Work from home said TFL. Plan alternative routes. Take the summer off and enjoy the British weather was another optimistic suggestion. The reality of course has been, and it pains me to say thanks to an incredible effort by the train operating companies, that none of this doom and gloom has really hit.

But we weren’t to know this and so plans were made by many London based organisations to minimise the impact of the games on staff and customers alike.

Of course when you work for a training organisation, when most of the staff are lecturers and the customers are students who want to attend classroom based courses, the option of telling everyone to stay at home carries little weight. So it was business as usual for us all. But what to do about the poor student who missed class having spent an hour queuing for a tube, another 30 minutes queuing to get OUT of the station and then had to trudge halfway across London due to road closures and diversions (this was the prophecy rather than the reality). ‘Let’s record the lectures as we deliver them’ was the solution of one tech savvy tutor. And so we did.

A few minor adjustments had to be made when delivering these lectures. I had to remember to turn the recording software on for each segment of the lecture. More importantly, particularly when having a more informal discussion with students over break, I had to remember to turn the recording off… I also hovered around the front of the room a bit more in order to maximise the sound quality. And there was the odd moment when I self-edited the odd, potentially controversial comment. Throwaway comments are fine. Not so throwaway when they are recorded for all to hear…Forever.

So I started the first lecture with this group of ‘guinea pigs’. We had a bit of a general whinge about the disruption the Olympics was going to cause and the fact that most of us had not managed to get tickets (and some of us – me – have still not managed it). I explained to them that they were still expected to attend class where possible but that we understand this would sometimes be difficult and so we were going to record the lectures. The general response seemed to be a very positive ‘What a great idea’.

So I duly pressed record. And pause. And record and stop. We split the day into four sessions, creating a new recorded session after each break.

So the technology worked. I am pleased with myself. The students are happy that they have this opportunity. All good. A success right?

Fast forward 10 days. I receive an email from another part of the business asking me to attend a web based seminar. Its on a day when I am teaching all day so I will not be able to attend ‘live’ but that’s fine as I will have access to a recording of the seminar – its only 80 minutes long. About the same length as each of the recorded lectures I have created. And here’s the thing. I never watched it. Who has a spare 80 minutes in the day? To be fair I have a 90 minute commute each way. But if I watched it on the way in when would I clear my inbox and reply to all of the previous days less urgent emails? And the way home? Well I have to read the paper at some point – it’s important to be up to date for my job. During my lunch hour? Who has a lunch hour these days? Let alone a lunch 80 minutes.

So what is the solution here? We could restructure our teaching days into more than four sessions. Chunking of content in this way is definitely something that interests me but this is not a quick solution and would require a lot of reworking of teaching programmes. I could press record and pause a bit more often. This would create shorter chunks of recorded content but they would seem a bit disjointed unless they had been planned out in advance.

I asked my class if any of them had watched the recordings. Admittedly this wasn’t a perfect sample as I was asking the students who were actually IN class. However one of them had missed a lecture and had used the recordings to catch up. I asked her what she thought and she was very positive. Grateful is probably the best way to describe her response. Grateful at the chance to catch up without the need to read a book. She insists she watched two 90 minute sessions, back to back, and took in every word. Maybe I have misjudged the students’ motivation to pass their exams. This is their final exam after all. Although I sometimes think we overestimate the role our students desire to pass their exams plays in their motivation to work hard. Technology’s role in student motivation…? Now that is something to ponder.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Finding my voice

Once upon a time there was a business and finance lecturer called Helen. She enjoyed her job, loved the teaching and her chosen tool was the Overhead Projector. Times, though, were a-changing and after the OHP came the computer, Powerpoint and then Starboard. Gradually Helen got used to this technology and using it has become second nature. But the world doesn’t stand still and Helen has started to realise that these are not just tools she uses to do her job. No, they signal a change (a revolution??) in the world of education and how knowledge is conveyed. But what Helen really wants to know is does this technology truly enhance the learning experience? Or are we just dealing with fancy gadgetry?

Watch this space as she attempts to find out…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized