Tel Tales

Adventures in Technology Enhanced Learning @ UoP

Category: Uncategorized

Preparing students for university

Marie Kendall-Waters

The transition from further education to higher education can be a daunting experience for students. Being away from home for the first time, studying independently in an online environment, returning to education after raising a family or meeting new people from different backgrounds and cultures – these are all situations where students can feel out of their comfort zones. All can be equally terrifying and exciting!

Within DCQE we have always tried to bridge the gap between FE and HE, tried to support students from various backgrounds joining university for the first time, and tried to help students to prepare for life at university.

PrepUP

In June 2008 the eLearning Centre (now the TEL team), designed and developed a website specifically aimed at new students that were yet to join the University of Portsmouth, but had applied and had a place on a course. The site contained information about the students’ courses they had registered on, information such as ‘a typical week’, ‘recommended reading’ – guidance about reading lists and short videos from previous students talking about the course and tutor videos.

Over the years the site grew, from being aimed just at campus-taught courses to include distance learning courses; later, specific sections for postgraduate and international students were featured. PrepUP grew to include information about life at university, finance, accommodation and support facilities and it also contained interactive resources about lectures, seminars and a virtual tour around the university library. Competitions too became part of the PrepUP experience: students could win prizes such as hoodies donated by departments around the university and goodie bags tailored with course books and vouchers by the local bookshop, tickets up the Spinnaker Tower and tickets to visit Portsmouth Historical Dockyard.

Some of the designs of PrepUP over the years

Why was this important?

PrepUP helped new students receive information about their course and the University in a fun and engaging way, before they arrived. At the time, this facility wasn’t being provided by anyone else within the University. With the inclusion of Facebook groups, which provided a way for new students to get to know their peers before starting, PrepUP became an essential resource for all new students. From feedback the students told us that it helped them feel connected; it reassured them that university wasn’t so scary and that they’ll know people on their first day. Some of them even thanked us, as they had found a ‘best friend’ through PrepUP!

PrepUP in 2017

From 2008-2016 PrepUP remained popular for new students. However, during that time several other departments within the University started providing their own social media groups and pages for new students, and they began publishing information on the University website. This organic growth meant that students were now receiving mixed communications, duplicated information, and numerous email notifications about which social media groups to ‘like’ or ‘join’!  As part of a wider, University-wide rethink on the whole induction process, DCQE looked again at PrepUP and it’s purpose for new students in 2017. This year the delivery of course-related information has been pushed back to faculty and department level: Course Leaders and their teams, rather than DCQE, are the best people to provide information about their course and what students can do to prepare before joining. We have provided support to CLs by creating “welcome” videos and helping them to develop Google Sites as a way of providing information to students.

Example welcome video – Forensic Psychology UoP

The delivery of more general University-related material has been facilitated by a landing page for new students, created by the UoP Marketing team, called ‘Information for new students’. This page provides support for international and EU students; help with applications; assistance with finding somewhere to live; guidance on money and finance; information about the Students’ Union … and a link to a new site that DCQE has put together called Learning at Portsmouth.

Learning at Portsmouth

The Learning at Portsmouth site brings the focus back onto the services and support that DCQE offers as a whole, which is something we couldn’t do before with PrepUP. The site includes information about learning and studying at university, understanding digital literacy and learning how to work with learning technologies and looking at how our personal beliefs and mindsets impact on our learning. Our aim for Learning at Portsmouth is for the site to be a resource that all students can dip in and out of throughout their time at university, not just at the beginning!

What can I be doing to help new students experience?

We hope that the Learning at Portsmouth site will continue to develop, and that students will provide us with feedback about what is useful for them in preparing for and continuing with their university journey. If you are a Course Leader, and are thinking of the best ways to communicate with new students, perhaps this year or next, then we would recommend providing students with at least a welcome video to your course, so that 1) they can put a face to a name and know who you are from the offset, and 2) find out the ways to best prepare for your course by the expert – you!

If you have any questions regarding PrepUP/Learning at Portsmouth, or if you are a Course Leader who would like some support with resources for your new students, then please get in touch with me (marie.kendall-waters@port.ac.uk) or the TEL team (elearn@port.ac.uk) – we will be happy to help you!

 

Open source repositories

Alana Aldred

Okay, so this post isn’t really about whether cats are cuter than dogs… rather, it’s about open source repositories, and how they can help you easily access copyright free images and open source content!

We all know that using strong visuals and resources are a really important element in creating engaging paper-based and online course content to enhance the student learning experience.

And we also know that the internet is rich with photos, illustrations, graphic elements, fonts and videos… just a quick Google search and you can find thousands of hits right at your fingertips. But how do we know what is legally allowed to be used without restrictions? It’s fair to say that copyright law can be a bit of a minefield!

So to make life just a little easier, next time you are thinking about revamping old course materials, or creating some new ones, why not take a look at, for example, Wikimedia Commons. The site holds hundreds of thousands of media files, which can be freely used for educational purposes.

Another example of a lesser known repository is NYPL Digital Collections. This site holds a vast array of research collections featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video and much, much more!

The following websites have curated links to dozens of free and open source resources (and offer more than just cute pictures of cats and dogs!), which can be used with either little or no restrictions. You can also find tools that can be used to help deliver course content in a more engaging way.

 

The Amazon menu is magical

Tom Cripps I’m somebody who gets distracted easily. Sometimes this can get in the way of what I need to do, but sometimes, just sometimes, it pays off. This is one of those times.

I’m sure all of you have heard of amazon.co.uk the online purveyor of anything imaginable. What I noticed while I was browsing their site the other day totally distracted me from what I was searching for, to the point that I’m still not sure what it was I was trying to buy! Their product menu is so well thought out it’s almost magical, real Harry Potter level stuff:

amazon_menu_gif

Simply put, it’s just good design, and something you wouldn’t normally notice – when you hover over the main menu on the left-hand side, it changes content in the panel on the sub-menu on the right-hand side.

A potential problem arises when you need to get your cursor from the bottom of the left-hand list to the top of the right-hand list. Your most direct path takes you over some of the other items in the main menu, which should then change the content in the right-hand list you are aiming for – but this is where the magic comes in!

The menu detects which direction your cursor is travelling and prevents the main-menu, and in turn the sub-menu, from switching. If however you pause, or change the direction your cursor is travelling, it ‘unlocks’ the main menu again and allows it to change. You can watch this in action above (and maybe even have a go yourself!).

 

Accessible documents – How easy it is to read your digital document?

What sort of question is that that you might ask – but to someone who is visually impaired and possibly using screen reader technology, documents can vary significantly in their usability. By creating documents with a few small changes it is possible to improve their usability for everyone.

When we download a file from a web page or receive an email attachment, the majority of us can do a quick visual scan of a document to find the information we want. However, if there is no structure (where a larger font size and bold text has been used for headings), those using a screen reader will need to read the whole document to find the relevant parts – a time consuming process with a long document. Searching for a particular word/words could also miss relevant information. Adding structure will make the whole document navigable – easily done by using styles to construct a hierarchy of headings that can then be used to create a table of contents.

It might seem a chore to have to set up styles before starting to write your document, but spending a few extra minutes creating styles for documents longer than a few pages could assist all readers, whether or not they are visually impaired. Once you have set up styles or modified existing default styles, you will then be able to save time in the future and use this file as a template for further documents.

Here are some of the most basic things you could do to make a document more accessible:

  • Use a clear sans serif font of at least 12 point such as Arial, Calibri or Helvetica
  • Use a hierarchy of heading styles to add structure to your document that will also enable easy creation of a table of contents:
    • heading 1 – title
    • heading 2 – chapters
    • heading 3 – sections
    • heading 4 – sub-sections
  • Create a table of contents for longer documents with sections
  • Avoiding adding a blank line at the end of paragraphs using a hard return on your keyboard – incorporate space after a paragraph using paragraph styles instead
  • Insert a page break at the bottom of a page rather than adding a few blank lines
  • Text that is aligned left and not justified is easier to read
  • Use high contrasting colours between text and the background
  • Reverse text (a light colour text on a dark background) is difficult to read so is best avoided
  • Busy backgrounds cause problems reading text so using a plain one is preferable
  • Use Alt Text (alternative text) for any images in your document to describe the feature for those using screen readers

Bearing these points in mind when creating a document should only take you a little extra time and just doing these few simple things could make a big difference in usability for the reader.

Some helpful links:

Ways to make your Word document more accessible:
http://webaim.org/techniques/word/

The Accessibility Color Wheel allows you to try out different text and background colours:
http://gmazzocato.altervista.org/colorwheel/wheel.php

Adding Alt Text to your Microsoft document:
https://support.office.com/en-gb/article/Add-alternative-text-to-a-shape-picture-chart-table-SmartArt-graphic-or-other-object-44989b2a-903c-4d9a-b742-6a75b451c669

Suggestions for creating accessible PDF documents:
www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-publish-on-gov-uk/accessible-pdfs
https://helpx.adobe.com/acrobat/using/creating-accessible-pdfs.html

So, next time you start a new document, why not think about making it easier to read!

 

Online essay-based exams?

Students in some subjects are still required to sit traditional, essay-based, three-hour examinations. Those students are thus required to do something they are increasingly ill-prepared for: write by hand for an extended length of time.

Most people nowadays use a keyboard to write. I recently tried to write a longish letter using a pen, and my hand quickly tired – legibility soon dropped. The same decrease in legibility happens to many students – in some cases to the extent that markers cannot read exam scripts. It’s entirely possible some students fail simply because they cannot write legibly for a long period.

There’s another problem with getting students to write essays by hand: it requires them to use a method of composition with which they might have little familiarity. When someone uses a keyboard to write they are likely to get material on screen quickly and then edit individual words for spelling and whole sentences for meaning. When someone handwrites they have fewer editing options; the writing process instead requires that sentences are thought out in their entirety before pen touches paper.

Wouldn’t it be better to permit students to use a computer – or perhaps even allow them to use their own device – to sit essay-based exams? Students could then concentrate on the content of their answer rather than worry about the legibility of their handwriting; markers would no longer have to worry about trying to decipher illegible scripts.

Moodle is already being used to deliver some exams, but these tend to be MCQ-based. Moodle itself is not an ideal platform for delivering essay-type exams. However, a number of companies are exploring options for conducting highly secure, written exams in an online context. Two options we’ve looked at recently are DigiExam and TestReach. If you are interested in the possibility of delivering online exams, please get in touch the the TEL team (elearn@port.ac.uk).

 

A plan for the visual revamp of Moodle

Moodle is based on open source technology which along with it’s thriving support community is one of the big reasons it’s so successful. It’s relatively straight-forward to mould Moodle to fit the organisation delivering it. In our case Moodle is branded inline with the University style guide but we go further than that and include usability customisations and features to improve the overall user experience and accessibility of the site, with the aim of making it a useful tool for all.

Our Moodle site is due a visual revamp. The University is currently in the middle of a re-brand consultation which will produce a new logo and visual identity to our websites. Moodle HQ are also re-working the user interface to make it more modern and user friendly. The TEL team are working with IS to migrate Moodle to a new POSTGRES database system to keep pace with increased usage of our site. We’d also like to include some handy new features in our Moodle theme (the theme is where we customise the look and feel of our Moodle site).

We’re taking a staggered approach to the visual revamp of Moodle, here’s our rough road map.

  • June 2017 – Moodle 3.3 environment available to staff with helpful new features
  • August 2017 – New UoP logo is incorporated into the UoP Bootstrap theme design along with re-worked unit header
  • September 2017 – Work starts on our new Boost based Moodle theme
  • January 2018 – Student and staff usability testing of the new UoP Boost theme
  • April 2018 – Advance preview of the UoP Boost theme is available to staff
  • June 2018 – UoP boost theme in Moodle available to staff for 2018/19 

So what are these handy new unit features for 2017/18 and how will they help students and staff?

Re-worked unit header

Online Course Developers in UoP Faculties have come up with some great ideas to give Moodle units a common look and feel for each department and provide easy access to individual topics. We’d like to make this process easier and lessen the need for customisation on a unit-by-unit basis which can be very time consuming. The new unit header will allow staff to upload a cover image quickly and easily. There will be a ‘jump to’ box allowing users to skip straight to a topic further down the page and a filter box to help track down an activity hidden amongst the unit content. We’re also going to make accessibility options more visible and improve editing features for staff with a simple editing on/off switch.

At the top of this post you’ll see a mock-up of what we’re working on. It’s worth mentioning that the new header layout will only be invoked if a member of staff uploads a cover image, if not the existing unit header layout will remain, meaning customisations created by OCDs will be left intact.

Bootstrap elements front and centre

Degree Apprenticeship programmes are on the way. They will mean a lot more of our learning content is delivered online and students will likely be studying units from multiple University faculties at once. It’s important that these units have a unified look and feel along with common sign-posting. A quick an efficient way to achieve this is to make a library of common element templates available within the Moodle text editor. A member of staff will be able to add a styled text box to highlight further reading, an assessment brief or an accordion of categorised content which is styled in a way which makes it easy to spot whichever unit a student is on. Tom Cripps in TEL is hard at work putting together the library of common elements which should prove to be a really useful tool.

My Home (Dashboard)

Moodle 3.3 features a new ‘My Overview’ block which was developed to give students and staff a better view of their upcoming activities, and course progress and completion. We’re currently investigation whether the new block will be useful as a central part of the My Home page alongside or as a replacement for the current ‘My Sites’ block.

Inspiration from Snap

I was really lucky to be able to attend Moodle Moot UK in London in April. One session that really inspired me was on the Snap theme. Snap has some great ideas for modernising the Moodle interface. It’s probably fair to say that some of the features are too much of a departure from the existing user experience but we’ll certainly be looking at some of the clever features in Snap as inspiration for our own theme.

Big stuff for summer 2018

The navigation within Moodle is changing, blocks are being limited to dashboard and unit pages and the Moodle interface is generally moving closer to the Moodle mobile app. A nav draw on the left of the site will be introduced with only the most important navigation elements of units displayed. The course administration block is becoming a cog with drop-down menu, freeing-up screen real-estate and standardising where you go to make changes to units or resources. In summer 2018 Moodle should ship with a much improved dashboard (My Home page) which focusses on activity, course and assessment completion. This should become a useful tool for helping students and staff keep on track.

We hope this gives you a flavour of what’s to come in Moodle from an interface point of view (we’ll blog again with new Moodle 3.3 features coming to our Moodle site this summer). As always we’re all ears if you have ideas about how Moodle can be improved (feel free to leave a comment below or give us a call). We’ll also be looking for staff and student volunteers for theme usability testing early next year so if you’d like to be involved please get in touch.