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I should make it clear before getting into this that it’s my fiancee who watches Strictly, not me. My fiancee. I just happened to catch it out of the corner of my eye while I was doing something manly, like DIY. Anyway…

If you live in the UK, you’ll probably not have managed to avoid at least hearing about Strictly Come Dancing, a reality TV show in which professional dancers teach celebrities to dance (in the US and Australia it’s called Dancing with the Stars).

In recent years the big Saturday show has been supported by a half-hour gossip show every weekday evening, going by the name Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two.

In case you were starting to wonder where I was going with this, the first little bit of yesterday’s It Takes Two saw the professionals talking about the approach they take to teaching their celebs, and it makes for quite interesting watching. If you’re in the UK, you can watch it on BBC iPlayer, around 1:10.

What’s interesting is that all of the celebrities think that their pro is a great teacher, but from a dispassionate point of view there are differences. I think Brian sums it up nicely when he says “a really good teacher is a teacher who learns to adapt their teaching style to different types of student.” It’s noticeable that the professionals who have consistently done well across series have been the ones who adapted well to their celebrities.

And as Erin points out: “‘World Champions’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good teacher.”

Just a little something to think about.

Margin Notes by Peter Lindberg

Margin Notes by Peter Lindberg

For a long time, I’ve been the sort of person who tends to read and absorb information, without really wanting or needing to scribble notes down. This is probably because my background has been maths and computing, and the elegance of mathematics as a language is in its ability to express big ideas and small in a concise way: no annotation needed if everything you need is there.

More recently, though, I’ve been reading things with, well, more words in them.

Learning how to teach has been an education (pun fully intended) — I’ve started reading a much broader range of material, and a lot of it is quite social-sciencey. This stuff is necessarily quite verbose, and I find I need to take notes and rephrase things in my own way to get the most out of them.

Now, with library books, people seem to get a bit upset if you start scribbling in the margins. I have to keep a notebook in which to jot down thoughts.

Out on the web, the situation used to be much the same: unless a web page specifically included features for commenting, any annotation had to be kept in a notebook or a separate file, leaving you searching through to find what notes go with which page or dreaming up an ingenious indexing system.

No longer!

A while back, Mark Morley pointed me in the direction of Diigo. I’d variously been using Delicious and Magnolia (now defunct, but replaced by the intriguing gnolia) for storing bookmarks, so I thought I’d give this rival service a try.

For a while, I used it just as a bookmarking service, but it wasn’t long before I cottoned on to the real power of Diigo: highlighting and sticky notes.

Using the Diigo plugin for Firefox, or the diigolet (a rather clever little bookmarklet) you can:

  • highlight any part of any web page, in a variety of colours;
  • add comments to your highlightings;
  • add sticky notes to the page.

Now, I can take all the notes I want, and keep them right next to the page they refer to. Great for getting the most learning out of what I read.

But the really exciting thing is that I can choose to make my comments public. And so can other people. And when we do that, it becomes a conversation. I can talk and debate with people all over the world on any website, whether or not that site allows it or not.

And that’s pretty cool. If you want to learn more, check out this video guide or take a look at an annotated blog post.

Now, a few weeks ago, Google got in on the act with their new Sidewiki project, and it’s caused a bit of a stir. It’s not as flexible as as Diigo — it’s a very simple sidebar-type affair — but it does a similar job in terms of turning the web into a conversation.

The big advantage it has is the Google brand behind it. It’s built into a special version of the Google Toolbar and I think we can expect it to make it into the standard version before long; it’ll also be working its way into Google’s new browser, Chrome. There’s an open API too, which means that if you don’t want to use Google Toolbar, there’s this standalone client for Firefox.

So now, I can scribble all over your web page. What are you going to do about it?

On a semi-related note, I’m still looking for ideas and opinions about using a portfolio to record professional development, so please drop by that post and join in the conversation.

Room 800: Police Evidence Room by Sam Teigen

Room 800: Police Evidence Room by Sam Teigen

One of my favourite posts so far has been my first Ask the Readers post, so I’ve decided it’s time to continue the series with another request for ideas. I’ve written before about how I kept a digital portfolio as part of my Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education qualification. It’s something that I learned a lot from, particularly in conjunction with learning about learning, and I’ve continued the reflective ethos of that portfolio here on the blog.

But as I’ve come to the end of my current stint of volunteering at the National Trust (on which more in a later post), I’ve been feeling that I want something a bit more than just the shouting into the void that I do here.

I have two difficult tasks ahead:

  1. Find a challenging and rewarding job in a very competitive marketplace;
  2. Continue to learn and grow outside the structures of formal education.

What I really want, then, is somewhere I can:

  • Continue to reflect and learn, even when said reflections aren’t suitable for public consumption;
  • Gather a base of evidence for my skills, to draw on when applying for jobs, and to identify gaps for me to work on;
  • Access online, from work, home, conferences, etc.;
  • Keep private but make available to individuals for PDRs, professional qualifications, etc.;
  • Retain control of and keep regular backups of (this stuff’s valuable).

It seems to me like it’s time to resurrect a full portfolio, but as I’m new to this I thought I’d ask for some advice. My question to you is this: Do you keep a professional portfolio and if so, what are your top tips for doing so?

To get the ball rolling, this is where I am at the moment:

  • I’ve set up a new blog on my trusty self-hosted Wordpress MU installation;
  • For advice I have this advice from the University of Sheffield careers service, the course guide from the PCHE and my other half’s copy of Building Your Portfolio (aimed at qualified librarians seeking chartership).

I look forward to reading your comments and I’ll be sure to summarise them in a blog post next month and continue to keep you informed about my progress.


Someone recently asked me a very interesting question: what two techniques would you use to enable academic staff to make the most of new technology for teaching?

A number of thoughts ran through my mind at this point:

  • Ooh, interesting question…
  • Hmm, that depends…
  • That sounds like a blog post in the making…
  • What! Only two?!

But I like the idea of narrowing it down to just the two most important; a bit like some weird and geeky version of Desert Island Discs. Plus, to keep my analytical side happy, there’s plenty of scope for categorising loads of specific ideas under two broad techniques.

So, on with the game. After some thought, I think that my two favourite techniques are:

  1. Talking to people; and
  2. Leading by example.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Talking to people

Well, when I say talking to people, I don’t really mean talking all the time so much as listening. I may not know everything there is to know about technology, but I know more than a little about how it can support teaching; I know plenty about how it’s useful for teaching for me.

But I’m not you. I’m not him over there. And I’m certainly not a busy academic with half a dozen research grants on the go trying to teach my students as best I can alongside the myriad other commitments of life in HE.

And when I say listening, it’s not just about listening. It’s about caring. If I knew the right techniques, I could probably convince you that I was listening, but if I didn’t actually care what you were saying, you’d probably guess pretty quickly.

I don’t know much about neurolinguistic programming or anything like that, but what I do know is that when I take a genuine interest in what someone’s saying then I really get a lot out of it. That’s not something you can fake, but I’ve found that you can actively take an interest in pretty much anything or anyone if you make a bit of effort.

Why is this important? The only way I can help you (or him over there) to make the best of technology is to get a clear picture of what your needs are. I need to understand you. It’s no use me patronising you with information you already know; neither is it helpful to force-feed you information that you just have no use for.

Only if I understand your unique situation can I provide the advice that will help you improve your teaching, or leave well alone if that’s the best option.

Teaching by example

This is something I try to do all the time, in everything I do. I won’t claim that I succeed all of the time, but I’m getting better at it the more I do.

A little while back I read Postman & Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (and I recommend you do to if you’re interested in improving the quality of education). One of the big messages I took away from it was that we learn what we do.

In other words, how we teach (and thus how students learn) is just as important, if not more so, than what we teach.

So, if I want to help you understand how technology can improve your teaching and make life easier for both you and your students (“Why should we make life easy on our students?” I hear them cry) it won’t help if I stand up in front you and your colleagues and give a 45 minute death-by-Powerpoint presentation on how to use Facebook.

Instead (and having listened to you I’ll have an idea of what fits the way you work) I’ll use a whole range of techniques. By giving you a 2-minute online video of tips on how to facilitate online discussions, I can show you how effective YouTube is for teaching. By encouraging you to take part in an online discussion about teaching with video, I can help you see what does and doesn’t help people learn from forums. I might even give you a 45-minute presentation on the theoretical pedagogies of Facebook, if that’s what works for you.

This technique does at least two useful things. First, it gives you an opportunity to get first-hand experience of what tools are out there and what they’re like to use. Secondly, it demonstrates that when it comes to e-learning I have a good enough idea of what’s going on to give you advice that you can trust.

In the end…

…it mostly comes down to trust. If you trust that I both care about you (and your students) and know what I’m talking about, how much more likely are you to consider listening to me?


I have several reasons for writing this post. Chief among them is curiosity: I like pulling the universe to bits and poking it to see what happens, and I’m genuinely interested in finding out how readers of this blog actually keep up to date with the blogosphere. Second, I’ve spent a lot of time in academia, where evidence is a key part of life; I’m aware that a lot of what I say on here is just my opinion so it’ll be nice to make a change to that (self-selecting samples aside). Third, it’s useful from a promotion perspective to know how people are getting here: Feedburner and Google Analytics stats only tell part of the story. Finally, the PollDaddy plugin for Wordpress has been around for a while now and I really want to try it out.

Update 17 May 2015: I’m doing some cleanup and this poll is no longer accessible.

Down House (Darwins House) by yours truly

Down House (Darwin's House) by yours truly

Today’s blog post was inspired by a trip to Down House in Kent, where Charles Darwin spent the latter years of his life with his wife and family, and where he wrote, amongst many other works, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

It was a fascinating day out, and I thoroughly recommend it, but what prompted me to write was their wonderful new multimedia guides. On arrival we (my mum, my fiancée and myself) were each handed a fairly ruggedly built little PDA with headphones attached. Having arrived too early to see the house (the gardens open at 10am, but the house doesn’t open until 11) we set off into the garden, shown around by our multimedia guides.

Audio guides to exhibitions and historical sites aren’t particularly new, and I have vague recollections of having been using them for some years, but it seems that the people responsible for setting these things up are getting a lot more creative. Additionally, the technology is becoming better and cheaper: not long ago handing every visitor a PDA would have been out of the question, but English Heritage have found funding from somewhere and I think it’s worth every penny.

Although the guide is set up to take you round in a specified order by default, you can also bring up a map, labelled with all the locations that have audio content so that you can skip bits out or make up your own tour of the grounds. After the main narration for each location, given by Andrew Marr in the garden and Sir David Attenborough in the house, there is a menu of other short bits of relevant information, taken from interviews with various experts. We were each able to customise our tour and include only the information we were interested in: very useful when we moved onto the house and time was starting to run a bit short. There is also a small interactive game for each section, which should help to keep the kids entertained.

Laudioguidage de lexposition Anselm Kiefer au Grand Palais by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

L'audioguidage de l'exposition Anselm Kiefer au Grand Palais by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

It’s very freeing having a well-written audio guide to an English Heritage property. The best part is that you can look around at whatever is being described without having to constantly shift attention between it and an information plaque. Also having the full-colour screen on the device meant that photos and videos could be shown, which added an extra dimension to the tour.

There were a few minor shortcomings with the guides. The headphone cables were very long and got caught up occasionally. The visual aspects of the guide occasionally felt like they were needlessly distracting from what I was looking at. Also, having an audio guide did dampen down conversation within our little group, but reading text on displays often has the same effect so there probably wasn’t much lost. All in all though, it was a very well designed package.

The whole thing put me in mind of another, very different but equally enjoyable, audio tour. This one was at the Commandery in Worcester. The Commandery is a very old building indeed and has been repurposed many times through its history. It’s recently been refurbished, and it’s been done in quite a wonderful way.

The whole place has been fully redecorated but left almost empty. On arrival you’re given an audio guide and you then choose one of the periods of history (I think there were five). You then take a tour of the whole building from the perspective of that period. Because the decoration is so sparse, it’s necessary to imagine how it would have been in days gone by, and the narration, dramatisation and atmospheric sounds on the audio guide really bring the period to life. Because we chose different periods for our tours, we were able to compare notes and it turns out that there are some nice links between the different narrations.

I really enjoyed both of these audio tours. The Commandery, in particular, I would love to revisit and spend the whole day doing the tours for each of the different periods of history. But the experience has really reminded me that putting control of learning into the learner’s hands can sometimes quite literally mean just that, and that it can work very well indeed. I felt that I was able to really get a handle on Darwin’s life and work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible by just walking round the garden or reading a display: the experience made use of all of my senses.

What’s your take on audio/multimedia guides? When do they work and when do they detract from the experience? Leave me a comment below.

Posterous welcome email

Posterous welcome email

Followers of my twitter stream will have noticed that over the last few days I’ve been posting to my Posterous account from Shrewsbury Folk Festival.

I first signed up for Posterous after seeing Joseph Tame using it to post photos (though I don’t think he has recently). I played briefly then left it alone for a while because, already having a blog, I didn’t really see a place for it for me. Then a few months ago I finally got email working properly on my (now fairly dated) Sony-Ericsson phone. Last week, I remembered about Posterous again and thought I’d try it out.

I had two reasons for testing it out in more detail. First, I have a relative whose views I admire and want to get blogging; being able to blog by email might lower the barrier to entry for him. Second, I wanted to see whether mobile blogging worked for me and in what way. So, I set to work trying out what features I could from my mobile, using the festival to provide a motive for posting.


The first thing you notice about Posterous is how easy it is to set up. And I mean really easy. You send an email with your first post to, and you get an almost immediate response with a link to your new blog. That’s all you need to do to have a presence on the web. No forms to fill in, no special software, nothing.

Now, of course, you probably won’t leave it there. To start off with, you’re assigned a randomly-generated subdomain of (mine was originally which isn’t too easy to tell people about. Although an indecipherable blog address might have its uses, most people will want to customise this, which you can do by logging into your new Posterous through the link in the welcome email. This also provides you with the opportunity to set a password for your account, which I thoroughly recommend even if you do nothing else.

You can also customise a number of other aspects, such as the title and subtitle and privacy settings. You can use your own domain name for your blog instead of a subdomain. You can even integrate Google Analytics and a Feedburner feed to track traffic to your new blog.

Now, being able to set up a blog so easily is all very well, but where Posterous really comes into its own is in its handling of the content of your emails. Rich text formatted emails keep their formatting, and any URLs are automatically turned into links. If you include the URL of a video in a supported service, the video itself is embedded. If you attach a file that Posterous knows how to handle, that too will be embedded in the post. Over the course of the weekend I’ve posted photos, video and audio content; multiple photos are turned into a clever gallery.

Last, but by no means least, is the AutoPost feature. This allows you to link in accounts from a whole load of social networking sites so that every time you post to Posterous, it gets sent out to them as well. It currently supports Facebook and Twitter, will post your photos to Flickr or Picasa, can send videos to YouTube or Vimeo and will save URLs to Delicious. You can also set it up to post to most major blog platforms, so even if your own blog doesn’t have a post-by-email option, you can use Posterous to replicate that feature.


My overwhelming impression of Posterous is how easy it is to use. Being based on email meant that I could post almost as easily from the middle of a field as I can from my desk at home (though my poor aching thumbs might beg to differ). Knowing that it could take pretty much any media I threw at it and do something useful with it made the experience even more pleasing. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to start blogging but has so far been put off by a lack of familiarity with the technology: if you can send email you can start a blog.

I quite enjoyed being able to blog while out and about: it was a good way of recording my thoughts on the day and sharing them with others at the same time. The material was probably of minimal interest to most of my followers (although Google Analytics shows that a surprising number of my Twitter and Facebook followers clicked through to view my posts), but it would make a good tool for covering, say, a conference in which many of my followers had an interest. I will note that my fianceé did complain once or twice that she was becoming a social media widow, but she didn’t really seem to mind and I didn’t actually spend more than a few minutes each day blogging.

Will I carry on using it? You bet. It’s instantly replaced TwitPic as my photo-tweeting tool of choice, especially as I can use it to post video, audio and text as well. Just the ticket when I want to post a thought that’s more than 140 characters but doesn’t fit on my main blog here. I suspect that my Posterous will turn into a bit of a scrapbook, but I’m OK with that and it’ll be interesting to be able to look back in a few years time and see what I’ve been posting. I probably won’t be posting as regularly as I have done over the bank holiday weekend though!

I’m also tempted to set up a second Posterous (yes, you can set up a second, third or more through the website once you’ve set up your first) to use purely as a conduit for posting to this blog. If I give that a go I’ll let you know how well it works.

For more info, and lots of useful tips and tricks, check out the
Official Posterous Posterous (i.e. their blog).

Do you have a blog? If so, what platform do you use to host it. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


Some while ago, now, I asked for answers to the question Why use technology in teaching? I was preparing to run an afternoon workshop for some fellow students on a HE teaching course and wanted to present them with some convincing reasons to consider technology in their teaching, so I turned to twitter and the blogosphere. At the time I promised a follow-up post summarising the discussion, so here it is.

I put together the slides for the initial presentation using SlideRocket, and you can flip through them here:

Becka Currant kicked off the discussion by pointing out that “too many assumptions are made about digital fluency.” This is something that I’ve since come to agree with: it’s all too easy to assume that because young people appear comfortable with technology, they are completely turned on to the consequences of its use. Becka also pointed me in the direction of this typology from JISC’s Enhancing Learner Progression project which does a great job of explaining the separation between students’ level of technological experience and its contribution to education.

Doug Belshaw pointed out Ben Grey’s post from Tech & Learning and his crowdsourced followup, along with Doug’s own response. All three are worth a read, so go ahead and check them out.

Tomaz Lasic made an insightful comment that many the skills we were looking to achieve with technology (or education in general) are far from new:

“2nd century BC” skills that even some of the old Greek wise heads were talking about — democracy, participation, freedom of expression & thought, active citizenship — you know those pesky old things that never seemed to go out of fashion with thoughtful people.

Tomaz followed up with a thought-provoking post on his own blog, which underscored the point that I was trying to make originally: that it’s vital to consider what we want to achieve with technology, not just how cool it is.

Catherine Werst suggested that one of the best reasons for using technology to teach is that it pushes us out of our comfort zones, forcing us to question our assumptions about what it means to teach:

Technology presents opportunities and challenges that stretch us to become better teachers.

Jenny Evans drew on her work with Wolverhampton City Council interviewing kids for an e-learning promotional video (the site seems to have some odd certificate problems, but you can view the video there). She summarised her experience thus:

We got loads of interviews with kids about what they got from from technology — a really strong theme of improving life chances emerged.

Finally, Paul Jinks suggested that teachers tend to use technology when it makes their lives easier and students use it when it’s necessary for their assessments: a paraphrasing of his earlier blog post. Although I agree with this in part, I think this overgeneralises a complex situation. I also live in hope that some, if not all, teachers can be persuaded that improving their own teaching practice and using technology is one (though not the only) way to do this.

In summary, this post turned up some really useful opinions on why we use technology in teaching. Indeed, it’s worked so well that I’m going to try to keep up the theme of “Ask the Readers”, as it fits in well with my desire to learn from this blog and help others to do the same. I hope you’ve found the responses as interesting as I did, and encourage you to continually ask the question “Why use technology?”

This is the first time I’ve summarised a discussion from a previous post. Did it work? Did I add enough value to justify the new post? What could I have done better? Please let me know in the comments below.


I’ve got Radio 4 on while I do the washing up, and I’m listening to It’s My Story: Accepting Jack - Six Years On. It follows a number of families with kids who have special needs, and about 20 minutes in, there’s a wonderful moment when a sibling is describing the benefits of having a brother with disabilities. In between not having to walk far to school and getting to skip the queue at the theme park, this young boy announces that he’s had “a lot of learning experiences”, having had to learn sign language which he might need later in life.

Kids have a natural ability and desire to learn, and given the opportunity they can understand this and grow. How can we keep that going into adulthood?


There’s been an interesting debate going on in the blogosphere over the last week about the future of the VLE. It all kicked off with Steve Wheeler’s (intentionally over-polarised) post suggesting we should stick two fingers up at the centralised VLE. Posts from James Clay, Matt Lingard, Lindsay Jordan and many others swiftly followed.

I thoroughly recommend you read their opinions before reading on. Go on, I’ll wait…

Right then. My take on the whole thing is heavily coloured by my use of Unix-based computers over the last 10 years or so. To cut a long story short, it’s long been common on these systems to have lots of small separate tools which each do one job very well; you can then do more complex tasks by combining them in various ways through well-defined interfaces.

Compare this with, for example, Windows. Each piece of software is fighting with all the others to include every feature the user could possibly want, which results in big, heavy programs which take ages to load and are often full of bugs. I accept that I’m overgeneralising here, but I hope you understand what I’m aiming at.

So, one of the big problems that I see with the current generation of VLEs is that they try to do everything all in one package. The result is a textbook illustration of the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

WordPress, Blogger and others do blogging better. MediaWiki, WetPaint et al are better for wikis. Facebook and friends connect people much more easily.

I agree with James, Matt and Lindsay (and, I suspect, Steve as well, despite the stance in his post) that there’s still a place for the centrally-run VLE. But it should be more flexible. The word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘agile’. We should be following good software engineering principles and providing tools that are best-of-breed and put the effort instead into making them play nicely together. And we should give learners and teachers the option of using something else if they prefer.

This is where the idea of the personal web/personal learning environment comes into play. By providing a diverse toolset instead of insisting on one monolithic solution our learners and teachers can choose what works best for them. The VLE can evolve into a framework to help coax these tools to play together nicely, and to join them into a coherent whole for those who lack either the time or the inclination to choose their own.

Open standards will help with this. Open source will be a big help too, particularly if a community of developers with educational experience start to contribute. But above all, we need to start trying it out. We’ve got the tools already, all we need to do is persuade our institutions to use them.

What’s your take on all of this? Do you think the VLE should lay down quietly to die? Or should we bravely resurrect it and bring it back to its former glory? Leave your opinion in the comments below, or by linking here from your own blog.