About Pete Roberts

By day I work as a learning technologist in GLEU - that's the Learning enhancement unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. By night I'm an electronic musician. Views expressed here are my own.

BETT 2014

I went to the BETT exhibition and conference a couple of Fridays ago in the cosy, intimate surroundings of the Excel exhibition centre. It was huge. Surreal almost.

Some of the people I met had come a long way (Sweden for example). I’d walked and crossed the river from Greenwich – having finally found a reason to take the strangely pointless dangleway. I’m not good with heights.

So what to make of BETT? There was a massive amount of stuff on display covering all age ranges. Not surprisingly, lots of tablet stuff (mostly iPads). Had a chat with the people from Urkund too – an alternative to the seemingly ubiquitous Turnitin.

If nothing else, it drove home that if kids are increasingly growing up and being educated with all this tech, then at HE level we should be aware of it and not perceived to be stuck in the dark ages when they get here.

What was most interesting to me were the sessions. Students from Plymouth Uni talked eloquently about their use of social media and similar ‘cloud -based’ web tools. Ironically this was on the day when Gmail when down for a while – so always have a plan B. This brought to mind an exercise I had to do a couple of years back, mapping out my Personal Learning Environment. About the only thing I used that I think  wasn’t mentioned was Zotero. I was interested in their experiences of blogging too. Initially maybe a bit daunting but a great reflective tool and of course good for networking and developing a professional online persona. Or just rambling like I do.

I enjoyed Doug Belshaw’s Masterclass on Digital Literacies – food for thought there and I’ll blog about that when I’ve got some sensible thoughts together. Also on a similar theme was a talk from UAL about their ambitious communities of practice approach to engaging students and staff with digital technologies.

Resources from these that were new to me (or slipped my mind in the past) included:

So would I go next year? Hmm.

You wait ages for a conference then two come along at once – mobile learning

Mobile learning: How mobile technologies can enhance the learning experience

On Friday I attended BETT 2014, which I think needs its own post. On Thursday I went to a small UCISA session at Imperial College on mobile learning, introduced by John Traxler who was also at BETT. It was basically a day of recent case studies.

He made some interesting points. For example, although case studies are valuable, things are moving so quickly that they soon become dated. Also, the idea of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is more complex than simply coping with the hardware people have – people are bringing their own services too – and expectations with them. Facebook or Gmail for example.

Mobile devices can be used to reach out not just to the geographically distant – but the socially distant too. And, say, a smartphone that knows where you are standing in an art gallery AND a system that knows a little about your history and interests could deliver information that is about the painting you are looking at – but also relevant to you.

There was some discussion through the day about students who can’t afford them – or maybe don’t want them – and the choice of device. Most of the projects were based around iPads. Some of the challenges were interesting – how do you make an iPad ‘lab proof’ for example.

Some of the themes were echoed at BETT the day after, so I’ll return to those in my next post.

You can see the case studies here: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/bestpractice/Copy_of_publications/effective_use.aspx

Getting Appy

M’colleague Tina and I downloaded a couple of apps that were featured during the day. My personal favourite is Fieldtrip GB, which allows you to log a variety of data sources from an IOS or Android device. You can store and tag photos, audio or even text data in custom forms. I particularly like the maps that you can download in advance in case there turns out to be no signal at your destination. Afterwards you can upload your data to Dropbox – although truth be told I haven’t got that bit working yet. I’m looking forward to analysing the data we gathered afterwards in the pub.

Anyway – Fieldtrip GB is definitely my APP OF THE WEEK.

Fieldtrip GB app

Fieldtrip GB app

Season’s greetings

This year I took it upon myself to furnish the office with a Christmas tree.

festive tree

Festive tree

Impressive I’m sure you’ll agree. Two pounds from the Dig This shop in New Cross (nursery, farmers market, records and art exhibition). Assuming it survives the year, I can use it again next year, thus being green as well as Scrooge-like.

Season’s Greetings. Bah humbug etc.


Turnitin experiencing problems

Turnitin UK seems to be unwell again. At the moment it’s either very slow or not responding at all. If you’re at Goldsmiths trying to use it, best to try again after a few minutes and keep an eye on learn.gold’s site home page for news. It can take hours sometimes to resolve. (Turnitin is a third party system so it’s not something we can fix in GLEU).

You can follow @TurnitinStatus on Twitter for up to date news. Their last tweet was: TurnitinUK continues to experience a service disruption. We are working to resolve this and will provide an update.

Quizzes aren’t just for STEM subjects…

One of the things I want to look more deeply into are quizzes in learn.gold (which runs Moodle 2.5). I think there’s a general view that multiple choice quizzes are good for science subjects but not for areas like English literature.

Here’s an interesting blog post from the commercial company Questionmark. English Literature students were required to answer a multiple choice quiz before lectures and the questions were made as search-proof as possible by using different words to those in the text. Students had to read and understand the text in order to answer, so no Googling and cheating. Students reported that the quizzes motivated them to complete assigned reading before lectures.

Learn.gold has quizzes built in of course. This year our Centre for English Language and Academic Writing (CELAW) devised a quiz to help students write academic essays. An example paragraph for an assignment was supplied and the students were asked to read it and respond to several questions (a series of statements rather than YES/NO).

For example, if it was an opening paragraph, they were asked if it introduced the essay clearly, whether it provided a clear context to the discussion that followed and so on.  Students were then given immediate feedback. I tried it out and found it quite challenging.

Any other interesting example of quizzes welcome!

Here’s something you’d never get in a MOOC

I’ve been a student on a couple of MOOCs recently and I do intend to blog about them, tho’ I think much has already been said. They might well have their place, but they’re just one part of the jigsaw.

Yesterday, I experienced again a quite special event that could only happen at a ‘real’ institution. I attended a seminar, hosted by Goldsmiths’ Centre for Identities and Social Justice, where Shami Chakrabarti spoke about the importance of fundamental rights and freedoms. It was fascinating. There was a brief history lesson in the formation of the National Council of Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty from 1934 to the present day. The issues that lead to its formation seem strangely resonant today.

There were some excellent questions and observations from the audience – and that’s the nice thing – this was more a seminar than a lecture. There is something much more engaging about a live event where you don’t know what will happen next – and indeed where you can ask a question if it occurs to you. I learned a lot. For example, I wasn’t aware that Winston Churchill played such a major role in establishing the European Court of Human Rights. I’d no idea quite how disturbing some of the new legislation coming in actually is – far worse than I realised. It was thought provoking stuff, but it was also a nice atmosphere – interested people and searching questions.

And I suppose my point is obvious – this kind of opportunity is part of the experience of going to a university. Let’s not take it for granted but celebrate it more.

The event page on the website has this quote -

Shami said: “When fear of poverty and terrorism stalks the land, it is so easy to see our human rights as luxuries we can ill-afford. In truth they are the precious treasures that protect humanity, bind society together and which were left to us by previous generations to hold on trust for those yet to come. Goldsmiths College is world famous as a place of creativity and culture as well as learning and logic. I cannot think of a better place to discuss how our rights and freedoms reflect and protect everything that makes life worth living.”

Absolute gold!

Yesterday evening m’colleague Bridget from GLEU and myself wandered down to the South Bank for the PureGold launch event. Thanks to some train shenanigins we arrived fashionably late but I managed to meet up with the people I’d invited along, hoping they’d like it.

Based in the Queen Elizabeth hall and spread over three spaces, it was an evening showcasing the music that is created and performed at Goldsmiths. I think it’s fair to say we liked it. We were all pretty much bowled over by the energy, talent and creativity. And the performers didn’t seem at all phased by playing in one of Europe’s top venues. They rose to the occasion.

There aren’t many events where you can listen to a madrigal, then pop next door for some experimental electronica. As someone commented, it was unusual to see me being so positive and smiling (no idea what they meant by that)  and they added they loved seeing such a diverse bunch of people doing such a diverse range of interesting stuff. Very Goldsmiths, I thought.

PureGold continues for some time – so catch an event – details here: http://www.gold.ac.uk/puregold/

Moodle: the joy of stats

We’re looking at moving learn.gold (our Moodle VLE) to a new server infrastructure over the summer, so I’ve been working with colleagues from IT Services to look at usage levels for capacity planning and load testing.

The first thing to do is find out how the service is used at present. There are broadly speaking three approaches.

  • Google analytics
  • Web server log analysis
  • Moodle’s own built-in statistics

Google analytics

I know some people find this useful, but the downside is you have to modify your themes and remember to remove it from any test instances you have. It can only start analysing from the date you set it up and of course it depends how you feel about Google. We don’t currently use it.

Web server access logs

These are just a list of every request that has been made to the server, a typical day will have hundreds of thousands of lines of text. Depending how your server is set up, it will contain the IP address of the requester, date and time, item requested, referring page and possibly the type of browser and client operating system.

To make sense of them you need to put them through a web log analysis package. For example – web expert. This will create a multi-page report of charts and tables. It’s useful to get a broad brushstroke feel for overall levels and can also be handy for spotting suspicious activity, but it does get a bit flummoxed by Moodle, as we’ll see.

So – here are some of the things it can tell us about learn.gold.

Graph of activity by hour of day

Activity by hour of day

The chart above is the average activity by hour of day. It’s clear from this that it’s used 24 hours a day but peak times are early afternoon.

graph of weekly pattern of use

Weekly pattern of use

The chart above shows the most popular pages over the week. You can see the activity drops off at the weekend. You can also see the flaw with this approach – the most popular pages look a bit odd – they are actually theme and javascript files.

This is because a typical Moodle page also requests these other files too and they look like extra page views to the analyser. It therefore tends to inflate the overall figures and confuse matters. There are probably workarounds for this but I find the report is fine as it is, especially combined with Moodle’s own stats.

Pie chart of Operating Systems 2013

Operating Systems 2013

This I thought was useful. This gives an idea of how people are accessing learn.gold. The Mac is by far the largest with Windows 7 second. The iPhone is also quite a chunk. Interesting to compare this to the chart I produced a couple of years back (below).

Pie chart of Operating Systems 2011

Operating Systems 2011


Pie chart of web browsers 2013

Web browsers 2013

This was a surprise to me – Google Chrome is the second biggest chunk of the graph. Compare it with two years ago (below).

Pie chart of web browsers 2011

Web browsers 2011

Finally – it seems people are still using IE!  What versions though?

Pie chart of Internet Explorer versions

Internet Explorer versions

Version 9 predominates. Alarming to see someone is still using IE6! Don’t!

So how is this useful? Well, it helps to know what the most used browsers are when testing new versions of Moodle or tweaking the theme – or indeed running sessions for staff. It’s also useful to know that increasingly people are accessing the VLE from their smartphones. When I did my PGCERT in ODE with the OU (lots of letters)!, I found their Moodle mobile offering really good for staying in touch via forums. On learn.gold we have the Mobile theme enabled, but as phones get bigger again and tablets smaller – it may be that the normal desktop theme works better.

I’ll take a look at the built in stats some other time. In the meantime, if you’ve any tricks you use to look at usage – add a comment!