The art of Course Concept Mapping

This year there’s been a massive focus on the complexities of hybrid delivery and the use of EdTech tools…both on this blog and the internet in general. Whilst this is right and necessary, it would be foolish to assume that hybrid delivery is the only thing on our minds. The harsh reality is that the non-teaching aspects of the day job have continued with minimal consideration for the pandemic.

Two such aspects that I’m directly involved in this year are recruitment and course development. As part of our recruitment activities, earlier this week I took part in a fantastic initiative to provide university applicants with an impartial introduction to different courses – Uni Taster Tuesdays. I gave an academic’s view of Chemical Engineering, and a representative of Swansea University provided useful application tips and career prospects. You can watch the recording of the webinar below (my bit is from 1:04 to 15:17):

What I presented isn’t anything new to ChemEng at Teesside – it’s something I developed about 3 years ago, and has since been adopted by other similar disciplines with positive feedback from many #humblebrag. Obviously I didn’t have a blog when I originally developed it but now that I do, and we’re currently preparing for our Periodic Programme Review…I figured now would be a good time to bring it back.

So around 2017 there was a lot of discussion about Concept Mapping and its usefulness to students, primarily as a study aid to help visualise the relationships between complex concepts. At the same time, a lot of the student feedback I was seeing as a Course Leader related to “why am I learning this?” or “when am I ever going to use this?“…and I needed a convenient way to show them how everything fit together. So I decided to take the concept of the Concept Map (heh) and adapt it to this specific need.

The purpose of the Course Concept Map is twofold:

  • Demonstrate to a student (current or prospective) how the course structure relates to the skills required for the profession they’re mostly likely to join after graduation.
  • Enable an academic (internal or external) to ensure that the course structure is fit for purpose.

If you’d like to develop a Course Concept Map yourself, here’s a step-by-step:

  1. Devise a sentence that encapsulates the profession as best as possible.

    So from the example in the video, the sentence I’ve used for Chemical Engineering is:

    A Chemical Engineer is a professional who exploits physical and chemical properties to design, operate and modify reactive and non-reactive processes that are safe, reliable, economical and sustainable, for various industries.

    A bit of a mouthful, I know…but I’d like to think it summarises what we’re about pretty neatly.

  2. Break the sentence up into nodes and arrows.

    You can see I’ve used bold and italics to highlight different portions of the sentence above. The nodes are in bold and the arrows are in italics. The idea is that the arrows form the connectors between the nodes.

  3. Identify the skills required to achieve each of the nodes.

    So in the video I’ve presented the skills list for each node in turn but if you’re making the map a static image, you can have them ‘floating’ around the nodes.

  4. Map the modules on the course to the different nodes.

    This is probably less relevant to prospective students (so I didn’t include it in the webinar) but it’s the most important part for current students and academics. The idea is to identify which nodes are serviced by each module, so that the purpose of each module is clear and you can make sure that each node is covered.

  5. List the modules in table form by node and year.

    In order to demonstrate how the skills are developed year on year, you can group the modules by year.

  6. Arrange the map and table side by side so that students can see how each node is covered from year to year.

    So if you line up the table alongside the map, the rows correspond to the nodes and the columns correspond to the year in which the modules are taken.

And voilà! An easy way to demonstrate your course structure and its purpose all on one page. There may be similar tools elsewhere but I can’t say I’ve seen any that serve the exact same purpose.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite movie musicals. Yes it’s so over the top it’s ridiculous, but oh how I love it!

Lights, camera…can you see my screen?

My last post covered the cognitive load of hybrid sessions on tutors but the reality is, that’s only half of it. When discussing the ins and outs of these sessions with colleagues, one recurring topic has been the difficulty of knowing what tool to use when – it’s great that there are a lot of options, but not so much when you spend most of your time trying to choose between them!

With this in mind, I set out to write a little something with my tips for screen recordings. I initially thought I’d do a summary of each platform but then it struck me that a lot of the time, I combine a couple of tools to get the result I want. So instead, I’ve gone for a different approach…focusing on what you might want to do with your screen recordings, and how you might go about doing it. I’m limiting my tips to the following platforms:

    • Panopto
    • Microsoft Stream
    • Microsoft Teams
    • Microsoft PowerPoint
    • Windows 10 Video Editor

So here’s my non-exhaustive list (click on the links below to jump ahead)…

    1. Record a full lecture
    2. Record a mini lecture
    3. Record a little snippet
    4. Edit a recording
    5. Share a recording
Record a full lecture

Nine times out of ten, my preferred option for this is Panopto. If you turn the webcam on, it records it as a different source stream – this means it’ll appear as a picture-in-picture in the embedded viewer, and as a separate item in the Panopto player. The latter option allows the speaker to be a bit more animated on screen, making it feel a little closer to an in-person session (or maybe I just like waving my arms about a lot). Another advantage is that you can set up a Table of Contents pretty easily.

The downside is that sometimes it all feels a bit overkill. If you record the PowerPoint presentation (as opposed to the screen), Panopto appears to generate an automatic Table of Contents that’s linked to the actual animations…which is a bit of a nuisance if you’ve got a lot of them. And if you want to switch from the screen to the iPad, creates multiple source streams…like I said, overkill.

One solution to this is to record the lecture as a Microsoft Teams meeting. You can start a meeting with yourself (less pathetic than it sounds, honest) and join the same meeting from your iPad (or alternative) – then all you have to do is share the appropriate screen when you need to. The meeting recording will be automatically uploaded to Microsoft Stream and then you can do the post-processing there (more details below).

Note that I wouldn’t use PowerPoint to record a lecture, for the reasons laid out in the Teesside LTE blog.

Record a mini lecture (< 15 mins)

So if your recording is less than 15 minutes, I’d recommend the Screen Recording feature in Microsoft Stream. The advantage is that unlike Panopto, you don’t need to download and install anything, and there’s a lot less faff (yes, technical term). A recent improvement to Stream is that you can create a Table of Contents in the description by just entering the time in the correct format – even easier than Panopto!

The limitations of Stream (other than the 15 min cut-off) are with regards to editing and sharing, but more on that later.

Record a little snippet

What if you want to just record a little video clip to be embedded on another platform? Well you could use the same methods I’ve described above, and then use one of the techniques I’ve listed below. However if you’re trying to embed the clip into a PowerPoint presentation, you can record directly in PowerPoint. Simply use the Screen Recording feature to select the area of the screen you want to record, and that’s it. PowerPoint will automatically load the clip onto the slide you were working on, and then you can proceed to edit it there – or you can save the clip as a media file and edit it elsewhere.

Edit a recording

OK so you’ve recorded your lecture/snippet and now you need to get rid of the part of the video where you sneezed, or where you switched between screens and showed off your Avengers Endgame wallpaper. What you do depends on the platform you used.

If you used Panopto, the inbuilt editor allows you to trim the ends or cut out portions at any point in the recording. It hides the cuts so if you change your mind later, you can just get restore them as required.

If your video is stored in Microsoft Stream, it’s a bit more complicated. You can trim the ends within Stream itself, but there’s currently no functionality to cut out sections of the video. If this is what needs to be done, then this is what I typically do:

    1. Trim the ends of the video within Stream
    2. Download the video (whenever I’ve tried to download without trimming, the file has been in a .webm format that I can’t do anything with; when I download after trimming, it downloads as .mp4 …go figure!)
    3. Open the Windows 10 Video Editor and load the .mp4 file as a new project
    4. Trim, split or cut as required

The Windows 10 Video Editor is great. It can be a bit sluggish at times, but a quick restart usually gets it back on track. The extra advantage that gives it an edge over Panopto is that you can change the speed of certain portions. Once you’ve perfected your video, you can export it as an .mp4 and then upload to Panopto or Stream (or wherever else you want to).

Share a recording

If you’re going to share your recording, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

Panopto: By default, it’s accessible to anyone who has access to the Blackboard module in which it was created (module and year). If you want it to be accessible to the same module year in year out, you can move the recording into its parent folder. If you want it to share it beyond the module, you can change the permissions – you can even make it accessible to individuals outside the institution if you want.

Stream: When publishing the video, you can choose if you want the entire organisation to see the video. If you want it to be visible to specific people only, you can create a group and share with that group only; so for instance I’ve created a group for a particular module and I make sure to give that group access to all the relevant recordings – any student I’ve added to the group will be able to see those videos. If your video is a recording of a Teams meeting, anyone with access to that meeting (confirmed attendees, Team members) will be able to see the video.

It’s important to note that whilst you can embed a Panopto video in Blackboard, you can’t embed it anywhere else. And whilst you can embed a Stream video anywhere (including OneNote, which is really useful), it can’t be seen by anyone outside the organisation. So if you have external guests in a Team, they won’t be able to see the meeting recordings by default (you can, however, download the video files from Stream and upload them to the Team).

So that’s it…my tips for recording sessions. I’m sure there are better ways of doing all these things, and other software (e.g. Camtasia, OBS) that have much more functionality…but what I’ve described above works for me, and I hope you find my tips useful.

I haven’t been listening to much music lately because I’ve been more than a little stressed (or maybe it’s the other way around?) but yesterday marked 9 whole years since I started working at Teesside, so let’s end with a bit of celebration, and a performance that always makes me happy.


The hybrid session checklist(s)

Yeah yeah I’m alive…barely. Sorry that’s probably not the best way to start a blog post, is it? But I’ve had the type of day where I know I sat at the computer for almost 9 hours at a stretch (I don’t consider getting up to put the oven on a ‘break’) and I know I was busy for all of those 9 hours…but if you asked me what I accomplished during that time, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m tired and despondent and I just want it to be Christmas already…but then I think what’s the point, since I can’t see my family and I can’t see my friends and that’s the joy of the season for me…so yeah. Bah humbug.

OK…now I’ve got that out of my system, let’s go back to being positive!

I’ve been teaching for a few weeks now, and next week I’ll be starting sessions on another module. It’s taken a bit of getting used to but I think I’m slowly getting there (with apologies to all my lovely students). Last year I was the type who walked into the lecture room / IT lab and just started talking. Don’t get me wrong, I’d done all the preparation…but my approach to lecturing had the familiarity of a theatre performer after a week’s worth of shows – I’d hit my stride, I felt confident, and I could just get on with it. Not this year. I’ve already talked about the first time I did an online lecture and all those issues are still there but there’s a slightly different feel to it now. In March, we were responding to a sudden global catastrophe. Now? This is how we’re doing things. There’s an expectation of order, professionalism, familiarity…and I’ll admit it’s not been easy.

So I’ve come up with some checklists. My sessions seem to have fallen into three categories of hybrid learning (are there more?) so I’ve made a checklist for each. And since I’m feeling generous, I’m presenting them here, in case you find it useful.

The live online lecture
  1. Close Outlook (so you don’t get distracted)
  2. Change your Teams presence to ‘Do Not Disturb’ (so you don’t get distracted)
  3. Close any other apps, files, folders etc. (so you don’t get distr…you get the picture)
  4. Open PowerPoint and start the presentation (on the second screen)
  5. Start the Teams meeting on the desktop (from the main screen)
  6. Share the second screen in the Teams meeting
  7. Join the Teams meeting from your iPad and keep that in front of you (the iPad will show you what the students see, so it’s a good check that you’re sharing the right thing)
  8. Switch your camera on (and remember it’s not a mirror so you shouldn’t use it to fix your hair)
  9. Start recording
  10. Pray that the students turn up, and smile when they do (you’re on camera!)
  11. Start the lecture
  12. Every so often, check the meeting on the iPad to see if anyone’s raised their hand or put something in the chat (it’s easier than checking it on the desktop)
  13. When you finish, stop the recording
  14. Download the attendance report
  15. ‘End meeting’ for all
  16. When the recording is complete, add it to the appropriate channel in your MS Stream group
  17. Set MS Stream to generate automatic captions for the video
  18. Reset your Teams presence.
The on-campus IT lab session with a live simulcast
  1. Sanitise your workstation (and remind students to do the same)
  2. Open Microsoft Edge (yes yes I know, but it’s way better than ie and logs you into Office 365 automatically)
  3. Open Blackboard, Teams, OneNote and your software
  4. Change your Teams presence to ‘Do Not Disturb’ (so no one bothers you)
  5. Start the Teams meeting on the desktop
  6. Join the Teams meeting from your iPad and keep that with you
  7. Start recording
  8. Give the attendance code to the students in the room with you
  9. Remind the students in the room to join the Teams meeting
  10. Mute the desktop mic so that student banter doesn’t get recorded
  11. Give the students time to get to a certain point in the simulation on their own
  12. Share the screen from the desktop and work through up to that point for everyone to see (remember to unmute!)
  13. Stop sharing so that any student who needs help can share their screen
  14. Every so often, check the meeting on the iPad to see if anyone’s raised their hand or put something in the chat
  15. Every so often, check up on the students who are engaging remotely
  16. Repeat #10-15 throughout session as required
  17. When you finish, stop the recording
  18. Remind students to log out of their computers and sanitise their workstations
  19. ‘End meeting’ for all
  20. When the recording is complete, add it to the appropriate channel in your MS Stream group and share on the OneNote Class Notebook
  21. On the Class Notebook, include some information about the timestamps for your demo sections in the meeting
  22. Reset your Teams presence.
The pre-recorded lecture with live Q&A

OK this one I haven’t actually tried yet, so this is my proposed checklist.

  1. Plan how you want the students to watch the videos
  2. Make sure the first slide is an overview with rough durations of each section (so they can plan their viewing)
  3. Structure your slides so there’s a natural break between sections
  4. Check that the slide content won’t be hidden by the webcam window in the corner
  5. Close Outlook
  6. Change your Teams presence to ‘Do Not Disturb’
  7. Record! Try and do it in one go…if you make a mistake, so be it (long live the edit button!)
  8. Upload the recording to Panopto / MS Stream (I’ll do a comparison in a future post)
  9. Set the platform to generate automatic captions
  10. Check and correct the automatic captions!
  11. Try not to cringe when you hear how weird your voice sounds
  12. Set up the Blackboard post so that there are clear instructions about what the students need to do
  13. Prepare some questions for the Q&A (they’re probably not going to ask you questions until you ask them some)
  14. At the time of the Q&A, follow all the steps for the online lecture (minus the presentation bit)

OK I’ve embellished a teeny weeny bit for marginally comedic effect (can’t blame me for trying) and some might say a few of the items are overkill, but I don’t think I’m too far off what all academics are currently doing (possibly subconsciously) for each of their sessions. The cognitive (over)load of hybrid sessions on learners is widely acknowledged but it’s important to note that it affects tutors too…we’re all just trying to do right by our students.

Anyway, I think that’s a reasonably positive post, don’t you? I could have a right ol’ whinge about everything I’ve been dealing with over the past few months but I think this is a far better use of my time and effort. And now I’ve accomplished something, hooray!

I’ll close with my new obsession. One of the benefits of Netflix is the wealth of non-English content available, and I’ve been really getting into Coisa Mais Linda…feminism and bossa nova, what more could a girl ask for? And so I went down the bossa nova rabbit hole, and I’ve been swaying to Joao Gilberto ever since. Enjoy!

A sign of things to come

I mentioned in my last post that I submitted my application to be a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIE-Expert) for the coming year. So as emails go, this was a nice one to see yesterday!

Excerpt of email confirming MIE Expert status for 2020/21

In case you haven’t come across the MIE-Expert programme before, it’s a professional learning community that focuses on the use of Microsoft EdTech tools (and other connected apps) at school, college and university level. Applicants must submit a self-nomination each year (you can see mine on my MIE-E page) and if successful you keep MIE-Expert status for the entire year, even if you don’t do anything with it…but I really think it’s one of those “the more you put in, the more you get out” things.

I spent a lot of my 2019/20 MIE-Expert stint observing the way other academics were using the various Microsoft tools. It was a great learning experience but this year I want to go a bit further. One of the areas I want to look into more is accessibility.

When I was a student, accessibility wasn’t something that was considered at all. When I started working in HE, it seemed to me that accessibility was considered when a student’s support plan indicated it but not otherwise. However in the past few years, I’ve noticed an increased emphasis on incorporating accessibility into our regular operations. Microsoft has introduced a number of features to help with this, and I’m starting to learn more about them. So here are a few that I’ve come across already.

Immersive Reader

Can you remember the ‘Microsoft Sam‘ text-to-speech function? It was so mechanical and artificial that I was too busy laughing to actually listen to what it was reading. By contrast, the Immersive Reader sounds incredibly natural. And not only does it read out the text, it helps the user focus on the text (by removing background images and using accessible fonts) and allows them to choose how they’d like the text to be read (line by line, translated into another language etc.).

You can test it out via the Microsoft Learning Tools website.

Whilst looking at the site in research for this blog post I discovered that Immersive Reader can read mathematical notation as well! I’m yet to see how it’ll cope with all the differential equations in my 3rd year Reactors module but what I have seen so far is pretty good.

The benefit of this feature for students with learning differences is obvious but I’m also wondering if it can be used as a proofreading tool for final year project students. All too often they write a sentence that goes on for a paragraph and by the time you get to the end, you’re none the wiser. Using the Immersive Reader may be an easy way to help students improve the readability of their reports.


The Dictate feature in Word and OneNote is the Immersive Reader in reverse, i.e. speech-to-text. It’s great for students who struggle with homophones (e.g. they’re/there/their) or students who lack confidence in their general spelling (perhaps if English is not their native language). And my experience has been pretty positive so far…

The unforeseen advantage of this feature (and the reason I tried it out in the first place) is that it’s also a good way to stave off the ol’ RSI!

Now there are a couple of tricky things about this – for one, it’s only available in Office 365 (so OneNote for Windows 10 ✅ but OneNote 2016 ❎). And I think it’s only available on the desktop apps and the browser version. Mobiles and tablets / iPads have their own dictate function but I believe they send the data to whoever’s made the operating system (so mostly Google/Apple) rather than Microsoft, and I’m not sure how that works in terms of GDPR compliance. I found a Windows 10 & Privacy Compliance document for Microsoft but if you’re going to use an android/iOS-based mobile device for speech-to-text, it might be worth checking the GDPR compliance first.

PowerPoint Subtitles

My last pick (for now) is the real time subtitle feature in PowerPoint. I first came across it during the year-end MIE-Expert celebration event, when I noticed how naturally (and accurately) the speaker’s presentation captions appeared. I haven’t done a live run of it myself yet but I’ve played around with it on the presentations I’ve created and I love it! I can speak naturally and it picks up and interprets pretty much everything in real time. I don’t think I have a particularly strong accent (a side effect of growing up all over the place) so I’m yet to see how much it can handle but I’m hopeful.

The only thing I worry about is that sometimes half of the audience may want subtitles and the other half might not. I’m sure there are ways around this (I have a feeling the ‘live presentations’ feature is the way to go) and that’s going to be something I look into.

So that’s a taster of what I’ll be looking at on the accessibility front. I’ll come back to this topic in the future to look at more of the features in depth but hopefully that’s whetted your appetite!

I’m currently obsessed with the new Taylor Swift album so I’ll leave you with one of its lesser known gems. Adios!

You lecturer types are all free during the summer, yeah?

Er…no. 😒

It’s been over six weeks since my last post, and you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d fallen off the face of the earth. Fortunately (I hope) that’s not the case; I’m alive and well, and I have been busy (sort of), honest! I’ve spent a lot of time supporting students, supporting colleagues and preparing for next semester’s hybrid delivery. However, everyone on the internet is talking about the hybrid delivery so I won’t bore you with my inconsequential 2 cents. Instead, here’s the highlights package of everything else I’ve been doing…

Sharing is caring Pt. 1

Every year I really look forward to Teesside University’s Learning & Teaching Enhancement Conference. It’s a chance for me to share what I’ve been doing, and an opportunity for me to pick up some tips from colleagues in other subject areas. Thanks to you-know-who (is a virus a who or a what?), this year’s conference couldn’t go ahead. However, all was not lost as our School decided to hold a Teams-based mini L&T conference instead.

I decided to share what I’d been doing on formative feedback in OneNote Class Notebooks (a big shout out to Helen Carney – @SciKnit – for introducing me to its wonders in that staff CPD session a year and bit ago!). Colleagues from across the School, from Graduate Tutors to Heads of Departments, shared their own good practice using Teams, Office Lens and even bespoke applications to support students. It was great to see the innovative practice in the different departments and to be able to share our work with so many colleagues in the School.

Staycation time!

If you follow me on twitter, you may have seen this from a few weeks back:

I’m normally a huge fan of the staycation – at Christmas, I love crawling out of bed and onto the sofa and watching far too many mediocre Christmas movies. But when all I’d been doing for the past three months was crawling out of bed and onto the laptop and responding to far too many emails, the idea of ‘more of the same-ish’ really wasn’t that appealing.

Unfortunately, I had no other option. Well I did, thanks to some kind invitations from nearby colleagues to get some exercise…but physical exertion and I have something of a love-hate relationship. I love to walk; I hate to start walking. “The inertia is strong with this one!” I hear you say. Indeed.

I don’t like cricket…I love it!

Whilst I may not be a fan of physical exertion myself, observing others being all sporty is a past time I enjoy immensely (cue all the jokes about cricket not requiring physical exertion). When I was writing up my PhD thesis during the UK’s coldest December on record, one thing that kept me going was the gentle chat on BBC’s Test Match Special’s Ashes coverage. I’ve been a loyal TMS follower since then, so it was only natural that I tuned in for the post-covid return to cricket in the form of the West Indies tour. It was really impressive to see how all the various bio-bubbles had been established and maintained, with a view to keeping everyone safe and making sure the game could proceed.

Sharing is Caring Pt. 2

Aside from the OneNote Class Notebook, I’ve also done a fair bit of work using Teams this year (some of which I’ve mentioned elsewhere). Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to present this work alongside Esther Ventura-Medina (@evm_SkIL) and Daniel Beneroso (@DanielBeneroso) as part of an IChemE webinar: Online collaborative learning – working with teams remotely. It was my first time presenting outside the Teesside audience, and I think it went really well, if I do say so myself!

Please pick M(IE-)E!

Last, but definitely not least, I submitted an application to maintain my Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert status for the coming year. Now the nervous waiting begins!

So yes, that’s it. Not inundated I guess but definitely not ‘free’! I’ve got some other projects in the pipeline so I’ll try to post more regularly from now on.

In the midst of all this, I almost forgot that last week marked 9 years since my PhD graduation. Sadly that happy day coincided with the untimely passing of the musical gem that was Amy Winehouse. And so I’ll leave you with one of my favourites of her’s. Until next time.

Lessons to be learned

Oof, it’s been a tough few weeks, hasn’t it? We thought that worldwide lockdown and 100,000s of deaths were the worst 2020 could throw at us – what fools us mortals be! I’d originally planned to write a post about the trials and tribulations of exam marking but that seems inconsequential now.

I am well aware of my privilege as a member of the majority community in Sri Lanka, and I cannot begin to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of centuries of systemic racism and discrimination. I am however a first generation immigrant in the UK and I have many tales of the microaggressions I have experienced over the years. I have seen many others sharing their own experiences but I’m wary of doing the same; it would feel a bit ‘all lives matter’-esque to me, and this is primarily an L&T blog after all.

So what I’m going to do is share two more of my L&T observations based on situations in my life. Both have implications for equality and inclusivity in Higher Education but only one of them relates to the experiences I’ve mentioned above. The UK HE landscape has students from a variety of backgrounds (educational, geo-political and socio-economic) and it’s important that we, as academics, take the time to reflect on any microaggressions that we’re guilty of and try and be better.

Observation #4: Every student in your class is one of YOUR students

I spent some of my primary school years in Oxford and being a brown kid in an English state school in the ’80s/’90s was no walk in the park. That said, I was well-behaved, quiet and hardworking, and my teachers seemed to like me (even if my classmates didn’t). I remember we had a weekly spelling test, and thanks to my mother’s home tuition and Ronald Ridout, I topped the class every time. This went on for a while, until one week another classmate also got full marks. That afternoon my class teacher gleefully told my mother:

Today one of OUR kids was the champion!

I may be paraphrasing  (it was a long time ago) but that was the gist of it. Never mind the fact that they were wrong (joint champions, thankyouverymuch), ‘our’ kids? Was it because of my skin colour? Was it because I’d only arrived in the UK a year prior? We’ll never know. All I knew was that I didn’t belong.

We talk a lot about ‘building cohort identity’ amongst our students, especially for the freshers joining us this September, with a lot of non-critical activities being moved online. Whilst activities and initiatives are great at instilling a sense of community, we must take care to be as inclusive in our day-to-day interactions with students.

Observation #5: Everyone has the capacity to learn

The second case study is far more recent, and by contrast extremely positive…because goodness knows we need some positivity right now. Earlier in the week, this happened:

Now without divulging too much personal information, I can say that my father is a retired surgeon, currently in his second career – management. He’s roughly twice my age, and we got our first computer when I was a teenager…so it’s safe to say he’s not a digital native.

We had our IT lab session yesterday. It took about two hours, and we went through the following:

      1. Creating a Team in MS Teams
      2. Adding a guest (i.e. me) to a Team
      3. Sharing the screen in MS Teams
      4. Using the Read Mode in MS Word
      5. What is MS Forms?
      6. Creating a Form
      7. Copying a Form
      8. Adjusting settings on a Form
      9. Displaying real-time responses in MS Forms
      10. Sharing a Form

It was fascinating to see how quickly he picked it up. Of course that’s partly due to the way Microsoft has designed its platforms, but I’d say a lot of it is due to my father’s willingness to experiment and learn. I had to be careful not to overwhelm him with information, and I made sure the workshop was set up the way he’d want to run it (I resisted the urge to teach him how to embed forms in a Stream video and create break-out groups in Teams!). The true test will be when the workshop takes place next week but I’m confident that he’s got it in the bag.

All too often we give up before we’ve even reached the starting line. Students start the lesson saying “oh this is too hard, I’m no good at it”, and academics start using EdTech tools with “oh I’m too old for this technology malarkey”. What are we so afraid of? The world won’t stop spinning if we make a mistake in the classroom, it’s all part of the learning process.

At the same time, as educators we need to recognise the different learning styles of our students. If I’d run the same session with students straight out of school, I would’ve taken a different approach (and we’d definitely try out the break-out groups!). It’s important to bear in mind that the whole point of me teaching is so that my students learn…every single one of them.

I will close with the Queen’s performance of Freedom at the 2016 BET Awards. Because…well, no explanation necessary, surely?



A balancing act

I grew up in a very traditional educational set up, where the student-teacher relationship was extremely formal. I got a real culture shock when I came to the UK for university and my tutors were happy to be addressed by their first names (I still remember feeling extremely awkward when I bumped into one of them at Nando’s). Over the years I’ve developed my own style – I remember a new student once asked how they should address me, and I just said “I don’t really mind, as long as you’re respectful”. So I get Sam, Dr Gooneratne, and everything in between (even the dreaded ‘Miss’, which I do try and discourage).

In terms of my interactions with students, I try to set the expectations at the start and over time they ‘earn the right’ to engage in a bit of banter. I try to be friendly, but I am not their friend. As one student put it:

You’re great until we do something stupid, then you give us that death stare.

I’d like to think it looks something like this

All those lines have got a bit blurred since using Teams. I’m not sure which letter my generation belongs to, but I am reasonably comfortable with internet vernacular and I use it quite a bit when chatting with friends. I’m also partial to the occasional emoji, and you’ve already seen my gif game! The chat feature in Teams is great but now my brain is really confused. Do I maintain proper sentence structure? Do I avoid using emojis for fear of not being taken seriously? Is it OK to type ‘lol’? I try to maintain professional email etiquette at all times but professional chat etiquette is a new one for me. I want my students to feel that I’m approachable but work is work…right?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a very private person, and I like to keep my work and non-work lives separate (lockdown is making that extremely difficult). I also mentioned in a previous post that I was really missing singing. So yesterday, this happened:

I agonised for days (maybe weeks) about whether to record it at all, and if so, what to do with that recording. Once I recorded and uploaded it, I agonised about whether to share the link online, or just leave it there for anyone (or no one) to watch. Once I decided the share the link online, I agonised about what people might say, whether it was inappropriate (are academics allowed to have hobbies?)…yes there was a LOT of agonising.

Producing the video for me was as much about the process as the product – I worked out all the harmonies myself, and I combined the videos using PowerPoint – I know there are fancy apps that’ll do all that for you, but this is partly about teaching myself a skill. So yes it’s not perfect (trimming videos is really hard in PowerPoint!) but it’s all mine…and I’m pretty proud of my first attempt. In the end, I decided to post the link on twitter, as you can see (although I did try to sneak it in late at night when I thought no one I knew would be awake!). Thankfully it seems to have been received well, which is nice!

I think at the end of the day, it’s a balancing act (“ah now the title makes sense!”, I hear you say): between being casual and professional, between having a clear line between work and non-work and being an open book, and between quietly indulging in a hobby and being a fame-hungry YouTube star (ahem). I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

Until then, I’ll leave you with…no, not Kacey Musgraves (although you can be amazed by the original ‘Rainbow’ on YouTube). How about some glorious Tom Odell (with Alice Merton) instead? Enjoy.

The kids are alright but are we?

Observation #3: Academics are human too

Yes it’s been almost a month since my last post, and that’s not entirely down to laziness. It’s absolutely right that a number of adjustments have been made to student assessment deadlines etc. to allow for the fact that their lives have been turned upside down but it’s important to recognise that academics’ lives have also been affected in exactly the same way.

Rather than list all the ways in which our lives have been impacted (I’m not feeling sufficiently “woe is me” for that right now), I thought I’d highlight the ways in which we’ve been working together in my department to support colleagues. We’ve primarily been using MS Teams and OneNote and whilst they’re not perfect, they’re pretty close to what we need right now.

Platform: MS Teams

We’re very lucky that MS Teams had been rolled out across the institution long before the issue of COVID-19 arose. We already had a departmental team, and there had been a number of semi-successful attempts to make it a hub for information. That idea has really taken flight now, and as departmental management we’re trying to limit the amount of attachments that are sent via email. We’ve set up channels for topics as well as private channels for subject areas and with time I’m hoping that more colleagues will treat the space as their ‘go-to’ for all things departmental.

Highlight: Social Chat

I’m not 100% sure whose idea this was but it’s worked better than I’d ever imagined. We have a recurring Teams meeting at the end of the traditional working day, a few times a week. It’s an opportunity for colleagues to have a casual chat, share any thoughts or concerns, and see some friendly faces before logging off for the day. When it started, the meeting would be initiated by one of the team leaders and the format was similar to a departmental meeting without an agenda. But now…most days a colleague will start the meeting just a few minutes before the scheduled start time (always makes me smile)! We don’t get everyone on there (which is fine) but there’s a strong core group eager to have some interesting discussions. There’s still a bit of ‘business talk’ (again, absolutely fine) but there’s also a lot of sharing good EdTech practice, as well as a bit of general chat (mostly about the weather and how we’re all missing sport).

And the latest trend (for which I take full responsibility, as indicated in the tweet below) is to use a holiday pic as a custom background and then get the others to guess where it’s from!

It’s just a bit of silliness but anything that helps us connect, right? I’m normally a very private person (strange, given how much I talk) but I’m quite enjoying sharing these (heavily curated) titbits of my life with my colleagues.

Platform: MS OneNote

The departmental Staff Notebook is another resource that we had set up before the lockdown. Hasn’t necessarily grown in the same way that the Team has but I think it’s found its purpose as a repository for ‘how to’ guides. Its strength is in the capability to host different types of sources (weblinks, files, images, my chicken scratch handwriting) on the same page.

Highlight: EdTech Tool Tips

Now this is what I’m really proud of! Soon after lockdown it became apparent that whilst all of us had received training on various EdTech tools, not all of us felt confident enough to use those tools with our students. Rather than force each person to go hunting around the internet for their own solutions, we decided to pool our resources and develop a collaborative database of information for the different EdTech tools being used. I asked around and realised that our collective skill set is actually quite substantial, but no one else knows about it…and so the Collaborative section of the Staff Notebook was born. It’s essentially a wiki but as I said earlier, OneNote has the benefit of supporting a variety of sources so we’ve got links, screenshots and videos with step-by-step instructions for the most used features of different tools, curated by the departmental ‘experts’.

It’s been well received by colleagues (I think/hope) and it’s great to see them experimenting with the different tools and providing their own tips and tricks. Now we just need more students to engage!

I know I sound like a Microsoft advert and like I said I know it’s not perfect…but for the most part we can do what we need to do and that’s the most important thing right now. I’ve switched on the comments for this post so if anyone reading this has any tips of their own, I’d be interested to read about it.

I’ll close with the new UK #1…partly because it’s absolutely lovely, and partly because Paloma Faith looking that glamorous whilst standing at her ironing board just makes me laugh.

The Internet is for everyone

Remember back in the day (i.e. last year) when everyone was sharing photos like this and feeling oh so smug?

[Photo by Hold my ARK from Pexels]
I never did like those signs. Especially since most of my wifi use is to speak to my mother! As I posted on Twitter last week:

Anyway now we’re treating the internet as a basic human right, and the naysayers of old are starting to realise what a powerful tool it can be. There’s no better example of this than the Zoom meeting I’ve just come out of. A little background…

My parents (who have become quite spiritual post-retirement) normally attend a weekly meditation class at their local meditation centre in Sri Lanka. I don’t have the same opportunity here (or more likely I’m just too lazy to seek one out) but whenever I visit them, I tag along. Whilst the classes attract practitioners from various backgrounds, it’s probably safe to say that a significant proportion are in their golden years and very much in the “kids these days with their phones and their internet…are you also on The Facebook?” camp.

In an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy and support his patrons’ mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19, the meditation centre’s chief incumbent monk has started using Zoom to run his meditation classes online. This week’s session had ~30 participants – mostly from Sri Lanka but also from Indonesia, Russia and the UK. It was great for me personally to be able to engage in some directed mindfulness meditation to manage my own wellbeing (highly recommended by pretty much everyone!), but it was also great to see people who normally wouldn’t engage with technology embracing it so readily.

And I’ve noticed that at work as well. Colleagues have been trying out different platforms and really getting into the spirit of using EdTech tools to collaborate with staff and students alike. For all the complaining we like to do about the difficulty in getting people to engage with advances in L&T, it’s been extremely encouraging to see everyone getting on board. I hope this mood continues beyond COVID-19.

Anyway I hope your ‘non-work’ day is going well. I’ll close with a shout-out to all those people who feel that the good weather is an excuse to ignore social distancing rules. Please please please do the next right thing and stay at home.

In the words of the Dowager Countess…

What is a weekend?

There is daylight (a lot of it now), and there is darkness…everything else is a blur of Blackboard, Outlook, Teams and WhatsApp. When I decide to stop working and try and think of something else to do, the laptop sits on the dining table, judging me for not being productive enough. When I do try to get some work done, my eyes scream at me, begging to focus on something other than a computer screen (Er…how about a phone screen? Or a TV screen?).

Yesterday (Wednesday, if you believe the internet) I realised it had been a week since I had seen another human being in the flesh…I’ve been so ‘hyper-connected’ with everyone online that I hadn’t even noticed. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing! What I have noticed is that I’m missing choir. There is something magical about singing together – and it’s well documented – that really lifts me up. And it’s the one thing that you can’t really do in isolation – yes I know there are all these videos on YouTube and TikTok (btw what IS that?!) of choirs singing via Zoom but dodgy internet connections will always ruin the best laid plans.

So then I think, maybe I should open Audacity and create my own choir. Upload a few videos…like EVERYONE. ELSE. ON. THE. INTERNET. I used to, back in my student days…but I’m far less self-indulgent now (she says, on her blog that’s all about her). Actually scrap that – I’m far too lazy now.

And so you will only hear my voice on Panopto screencasts extolling the virtues of Excel as part of my ‘general coursework feedback’…for now at least. Who knows what will happen as time goes on (and I get more restless).

Since signing off with a song appears to be a ‘thing’ on this blog now, here’s one for today. It was the last song on this morning’s BBC Radio UK Singalong, courtesy the Asian Network, and it had me bouncing all over the house!