Forums for learning — how hard can it be?

Why can’t the developers of educational platforms create a decent forum? You’d think that there’d be several decades of experience of what works and what doesn’t to call on. However, like most of the (Managed/Virtual) Learning Environments I’ve had to use, and MOOCs that I’ve tried, the edX forum which being used for the Data, Analatics and Learning MOOC (#DALMOOC) is broken.

The particular issues that I have are 1) that there’s no mark all items as read button and 2) no way to edit your own posts. The former is an essential way to catch up and ignore all the posts you don’t have time to read (essential if you want to avoid going mad in a MOOC). The latter is useful when you spot that typo that you should have corrected before you posted.

Given that discussion is considered such an essential ingredient of technology enhanced learning toolkit, you’d think that it would be a problem that has been solved! But it hasn’t.

Free and Easy Web App Development in the Cloud

Cloud9 is a cloud-based interactive development environment (IDE) with some killer features. Amongst these is the possibility of creating and hosting a WordPress blog completely free. The blog runs in a Ubuntu instance on Docker and you have complete access to the WordPress’s PHP files using the very capable browser-based IDE. No need for virtual hosting, FTP, or any of that arcane stuff. The IDE provides terminal access to the Docker instance over ssh through the browser and there’s a MySQL database, Git support and built-in support for Bitbucket and GitHub. Because it runs in a Docker instance, once your blog grows to need more services or more space, you can [presumably] export the docker file and import it into another cloud service. You can also use the WordPress export tools or git to export your blog to another hosting service.

Even better, the partnership with Bitbucket, which offers free unlimited private git repositories for anyone who signs up with an academic email address, makes Cloud9 a potential killer app for institutions which teach coding. No tools to install, just a modern web browser and an internet connection.

Cloud9 comes with Docker images that can get you started quickly with many different web app frameworks. Django, Ruby on Rails, PHP, Drupal, Node and Angular.js are listed in the create workspace feature. And provided your app is open source, there is no limit to how many workspaces you can have. The pricing policy is similar to GitHub’s in that respect.

My thanks to Michael Hartl who is using the Cloud9 infrastructure for the 3rd edition of the Ruby on Rails Tutorial for the impetus to try Cloud9 out. I’m looking forward to getting my Group Design students signed up and building their micromouse blogs on it!

Connecting to Connected Courses

So, yesterday I was browsing my twitter feed and favourited a post from Helen Keegan tagged #whyIteach accompanied by the #ccourses hashtag. Today I noticed a tweet from DML Research Hub “Channelling Engelbart: Augmenting Human Education” in which Howard Rheingold interviews Gardner Campbell — also tagged #ccourses. Digging a little deeper I find that #ccourses refers to the Connected Courses course and realised that it’s another connected MOOC-like thing facilitated by some of the usual suspects. It’s been running two weeks already.

But, hey! It’s never to late to dive into a cMOOC.

Like many open courses of this nature, you join by registering a your blog. (Indeed some of the facilitators might insist on you having first registered a domain of your own first). There has to be a post to make that registration valid. And this is that post.

As to properly engaging … I’ve got a little orientation and catching up to do first.

Smallest Federated Wiki

I am very excited by Smallest Federated Wiki (SFW) – the latest project from Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki. I’ve been watching the videos and playing with the software most of yesterday and today. I’ve also been inspired by Mike Caulfeild‘s explorations of the teaching and learning applications of SFW on his blog and on YouTube.

Follow up

After a bit of a struggle, I have managed to install my own copy of SFW as a node app, backed by a MongoHQ database on Heroku.

You’ll find it by following the link to My Wiki and in the site links below.

I’ll post some installation instructions.

Software Carpentry and Teaching

I’ve watched and found two videos the week by Greg Wilson to have been very instructive. The first, presented and recorded (slides) at PyCon 2014, introduces lessons learned in developing the Software Carpentry (teaching lab skills for scientific computing) movement. This was slightly revised and presented again at SciPy 2014 (the videos have just gone up on YouTube). I’ve embedded the recording of the latter talk here.

Greg’s talks are not really about programming or software carpentry but rather are about teaching and the fact that very little of the large body of research about teaching actually informs what goes on in the class or training room. Ideas and approaches that have been occupying my thoughts recently, like peer instruction, the flipped classroom, collaborative work, inquiry based learning, open educational resources, open access and open source all feature and I may have more to say as I digest the background materials over the summer.

Well worth a look!

#GEUG14 @ The University of York

There is a Google Apps for Education User Group running today at the University of York. There are live hangouts to be found on YouTube (search for GEUG14) and here is the Twitter feed for: #GEUG14 Tweets!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+”://”;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document,”script”,”twitter-wjs”);

#ocTEL 2014: Activity 0.1: Big and little questions

I’ve just joined the 2014 (second) run of the Open Course on Technology Enhanced Learning that is being supported by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT). You should expect to see the hashtag #ocTEL in my posts on this site until mid June, but hopefully that will be compensated for by an increase in activity and reflection.

Amongst the Week 0 (induction) activities we are asked to

reflect on your work experience and ambitions for developing your teaching


Can you identify the most important question about TEL that matters to you?

Here is my answer.

I consider myself an early-adopter of technology enhanced learning (TEL) technologies and I am always trying new things: but my weakness is that I am very bad at evaluating the technologies that I use. I tend to favour those technologies that make my life easier as a teacher but am aware that these may not be the ones that are most effective for my learners.

I have yet to find an effective way of reflecting on and evaluating the technologies that I use. As a lecturer rather than a learning technologist, I suppose that I give myself the excuse that I’m too busy creating course activities, delivering courses, assessing students and giving feedback, to be reflective during the module delivery. The student evaluation systems we have at my institution are not tuned to give me feedback on our uses of the technology, and the only real metrics we can reliably gather are the statistics around module outcomes. Frustratingly, in the off-time between sessions, more and more time seems to be spent with the administration processes around annual module and programme monitoring, module and programme maintenance, timetabling etc. So time and space to reflect on even this limited data is inadequate.

I would reinforce Sue Beckingham’s question

How do we get to a point where staff development is something time planned in and achievements are recognised?

by stating that my institution’s processes do not provide support for this either in its somewhat mythical staff loading models nor in its professional development processes.

Like most institutions, we are being driven by student experience so the little questions I have are around effective feedback and assessment methods, particularly in large group contexts, student engagement, and metrics.

Assignment submission links

In Blackboard, the title of an assignment submission is black and it looks like an ordinary heading. When you mouse over it, the underline appears and it looks like a link. But if you just look at it, it’s not obvious that it is a link! In response to feedback, I’ve now changed the colour of my assignments to dark blue. (See example).

Colour assignment title so It Looks More Like a Link
Colour assignment title so It Looks More Like a Link

I’ve also added a textual note below the link to make it extra clear and I’ve provide a web link to the Blackboard help page on Assignment Submissions for students.

The blue in my link is a bit too light when compared to the attachments on the item, so if anyone knows what the CSS colour code for a link should be, I’d be grateful if you could add it to the comments.

Supporting the Seven Principles with Blackboard Learn

I attended a Blackboard Innovative Teaching Series webinar on Monday which discussed how Blackboard Learn can be used to support Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education [1]. This was a very nice presentation from Ronald Scott Wennerdahl and Crystal Sheu of the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And there are some good ideas that I will need to think about in relation to my own teaching coming up next semester. The video has just been published on YouTube.


[1] Chickering, Arthur W. and Gamson, Zelda F, “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education” American Association of Higher Education Bulletin vol.39 no.7 pp.3-7 1987. URL:

The Course Description

Having dealt with the reading list, my next consideration was the course description. This has been published in the course catalogue so I have to stick to the sense if not the letter of the published description.

Here’s what the catalogue entry currently says.

EG-247 Signals and Systems

Module Aims

To develop further methods of representing and analysing dynamic systems, to extend these concepts to sampled-data systems, to introduce concepts in signal processing and to use computer-aided methods for modelling and analysis.

Module Content

  • Review of signal representations and transform concepts.
  • Harmonic responses, parametric plots, logarithmic measures for linear systems.
  • Laplace domain representations and corresponding time responses.
  • Fundamentals of Fourier series, DFT from FT.
  • Fundamentals of Sampled data signals, digital systems, z-transforms, responses and FIR digital filters.
  • Implementations of IIR and FIR pulse transfer functions.


Lectures, Matlab practicals and examples classes.

Intended Learning Outcomes

After completing this module you should be able to: • Construct harmonic response diagrams in standard form

  • Construct pole-zero diagrams and derive associated responses
  • Determine system responses for given standard inputs
  • Discuss the nature of analogue and digital signals and systems
  • Describe the different forms of Fourier representations
  • Derive the Fourier representations of simple signals
  • Apply the DFT to simple sequences
  • Determine the response of digital systems to standard inputs
  • Design FIR digital filters and describe their implementation

Transferrable Skills

On successful completion of the module, students should be able to show experience and enhancement of the following key skills:

  • Independent learning
  • Problem solving and design skills based on mathematical modelling and analytical approaches


  1. Examination (80%)
  2. Continuous Assessment (20%)

As I am taking over the course, this has to be my starting point. If I was developing a new course, I’d have gone through a process of development and module approval within my Board of Studies and Committee and College Learning and Teaching committee, and the programme description would still be my starting point.

This information is automatically added to the Blackboard site for my module by my institution. It is extracted from the course catalogue and automatically populates the Module Information page. Therefore, if I need to make changes, I have to do it on the Course Catalogue.