Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fun on Friday #73: Meet the Sloths

Meet the sloths. That's it. It doesn't get much more fun than this:

Meet the sloths from Amphibian Avenger on Vimeo.

It was a Twitter contact that directed me to this video. I can't remember who it was... but thank you whoever you were.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sing For Your Education

I have long been an advocate of setting things to music to help you remember them. For example, I was never very good at French but can still (just about) sing Alouette and Sur le pont d'Avignon which I was first taught about forty years ago. More recently, I learned the Four Capacities thanks to a song written by one of my students:

Therefore, I was interested to hear on the radio this morning, that children were going to be taught songs to help them memorise "crucial historical facts". To be honest, I'm not sure what constitutes a "crucial" historical fact but more information can be found on the BBC news site and examples are posted on Sing Up's School Trip Singalong page.

No Scottish attractions so far though. Do you have any suggestions of Scottish historical songs that already exist or any you'd like to see written?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fun on Friday #72: Pac-man

It can hardly have escaped people's notice that the Google Doodle is currently a playable version of Pac-man. This is to celebrate Pac-man's 30th birthday (see the post on the official Google blog).

Originally uploaded by Txanoduna

You may find that you get addicted to this game, so if you suffer withdrawal symptoms when Google revert to their normal logo, you can always play Free Pacman. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Online Learning

I've been asked to contribute to a research project by answering questions about online learning. I'm not sure yet how much I'll be able to add to the sum of human knowledge by taking part but I'm willing to contribute as best I can and I must admit to being curious as to what they'll ask about.

Crossville Treehouse
Originally uploaded by Chris Shiflett
It is an Higher Education focussed project, so I wouldn't be surprised if they concentrate on Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Blackboard and Moodle. Now, I may be being unfair here but it seems to me that universities are comfortable with VLEs like that because there is a good fit with the content delivery model that is (probably) still the dominant teaching model in Higher Education.

As I was thinking about it, I realised that, although I have some experience of teaching using "traditional" VLEs, I have never been a learner in that kind of environment. A bit more thought lead me to consider that most of the online learning I have experienced has been through informal online networks formed around tools like blogs, wikis and, most recently, Twitter. For me, it is these informal, conversational, learning networks that currently seem the most interesting from a learning and teaching perspective.

However, I wonder how well informal tools lend themselves to formal learning? If universities adopt social networking, do they end up creating creepy treehouses instead of places of useful learning? It may be that universities don't even get VLEs and content delivery right. For example, I heard of one group of students who were so disgruntled with the university system, they wrote their own!

Therefore, I'd be really interested in your opinions: especially if you have experience of formal, online learning in a university setting.


What makes an online learning environment successful and/or useful? Can you describe good examples of the use of either VLEs or social networks in Higher Education? Can universities adopt or adapt social networking tools without creating creepy treehouses?

Answers to these questions, or any thoughts in this area will be greatly appreciated.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fun on Friday #71: Word Game

I've been slightly obsessed with a word game on my iPhone. So, the this week's Fun on Friday is about:

letter W IMG_5555_3 Letter R Cimetière des Batignolles
letter G letter A letter M Caslon metal type letter E letter S

I can't find an online equivalent to my iPhone game but the anagram game Eight Letters... is reasonably addictive. It is a Flash game and your challenge is to form as many words as possible with eight letters in a set time. A simple idea that I find surprisingly addictive.

And since this week's Fun On Friday is late, here's a second - a two for one. The graphic used above was created at the Spell With Flickr site. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

MP For A Week

This is a long promised review of the MP For A Week Game. As the dust settles (sort of) after the General Election and the new Cabinet meets, it seemed like a reasonable time to consider what an MP does.

Before I go any further, I should declare an interest because my sister was involved in the creation and promotion of this game. I hope I'll give an honest review but you should be aware that I'm writing it with virtual big sister looking over my shoulder!

I have already told a number of people about this game and put together a Prezi on it but without typing up a bit more about what I said, or recording some audio, the presentation probably wont help you much. A better introduction would be to watch Tom Oleary's presentation from the bectax conference:

Now that you have an idea of what the game's about, the question is: "Is it any good?". Is it any good as a game and is it any good as an educational resource? I would give a qualified yes to the first question and a more positive yes to the second.

As a game

Essentially, it is a simulation game where you have to juggle limited resources (mostly your time) in an effort to influence the outcome of the game. It suffers from the limitations of this style of game where random elements can make it seem unfair (does anyone else remember Kingdom on the BBC Micro?) or where choices given are too limiting and it is too easy to predict the "correct" answer. I would say this games falls more foul of the second problem where, on occasion, the choices are too obvious. For example, on the Easy level, you are given the choice of asking the Secretary of Industry: "Who invented the telephone?" or "What are you doing to help youth unemployment?" Guess which one gets you the better score! Although, to be fair, this was a choice given on the "Easy" level. It is not as straightforward on the harder levels and there are some nice touches where decisions you make earlier can come back and bite you. For example, you may decide that you should be in the House, taking part in a debate, rather than meeting a foreign dignitary. This may get you a good result immediately after the debate but when you find out that the person you declined to meet has been in discussion with your opposition, you may regret you decision not to meet.

My only other gripe about it as a game is that there is no way to save it. Particularly in Secondary schools, where your life is ruled by a bell, this is a major omission. It would be really frustrating for a pupil to get to Thursday only to have the bell ring and all their good work would be lost.

On the positive side, it looks brilliant. Lots of high quality photographs, cartoon style graphics, sound clips, and video material. I don't know that it's the type of game you'd want to play over and over again but I don't think it's intended to be. It kept my attention, there's enough incentive that it made me want to complete it successfully and it does the job it was designed to do: to engage and inform.

As an educational resource

The stated educational aims are:
MP For A Week aims to help 11-16 year olds develop their political literacy, though it’s suitable for older students as well. The game has been designed with teachers in mind, and we hope you will find it an engaging and useful resource that forms the useful basis for discussing the democratic process.
I think it probably meets theses aims. It helps pupils understand not only what an MP does but also gives an insight into how Parliament works. It also provides a great resource for teachers. There is a Teacher Controls section that gives direct access to many (all?) of the in game activities/resources such as the videos, sound clips, etc. There are a fairly good set of teacher's notes with suggested activities and extension material and there are clear links to relevant curricular documents. (Although the Scottish section refers to 5-14 and should probably be updated to refer to Curriculum for Excellence instead.)

It could be accused of being too simplistic and giving too positive a view of what an MP does but given the origin and aim of the game, this is hardly surprising and probably gives some balance to the "all MPs are liars and cheats" views that pupils are all too likely to encounter elsewhere.

A more subtle criticism could be that it pushes a particular line that may not reflect reality. For example, does the game reward you too highly for following scientific advice? This may reflect an ideal or an aspiration but political, historical and economic considerations may carry more weight in the real world of politics. Also, does it reward you for following the party line? It could be argued that there are times where it may be more important to defy the party whip and make a stand on a matter of principle.

I don't see these as major problems though, since it is a simulation game and inevitably has to simplify some aspects. Also, if it is used in a school setting, I suspect a good teacher would challenge pupils to question the underlying assumptions in the game.


As an educational resource, it may not be perfect; but what resource is? It gives pupils and teachers a great tool that could easily provide opportunities for discussion and activity while being entertaining and informative in its own right.

Let me know what you think.


Apparently my sister is taking a bit of stick from colleagues because of this review. My work as a wee brother is done!

Friday, May 07, 2010

Fun on Friday #70: Bloxorz

Hard to pronounce but addictive to play. Bloxorz - guide a block through various levels, pressing buttons, crossing bridges and most important, not falling off the edge!

Originally uploaded by Craig A Rodway

Great for problem solving and encouraging 3D thinking.

University Attendance

I noticed that an American university was planning to use RFID tags to track student attendance at lectures: Arizona college to position sensors to check class attendance.

A full lecture hall!
Originally uploaded by DavidDMuir
I sympathise with the university to an extent. I find it frustrating that attendance is poor at lectures. Also, I get all grumpy old man when students say, "Why didn't you tell us about [insert topic here]?". Often we have covered the issue the student is asking about, so it is frustrating that, possibly because of non-attendance, the student missed it. Students say (we do ask!) that often they stay away because they don't see the value of the lecture. My frustration comes from not understanding the criteria they use to judge "value" - how do they decided what is valuable and what is not? Often all they have to go on is the title in the timetable and therefore their decision is based on minimal evidence. My suspicion is that the real reasons for poor attendance are different from the stated reasons. It is a reasonable guess that the timing of the lecture has an effect (Friday afternoon lectures are particularly poorly attended) and past experience of lectures is another possible factor (if previous lectures in a slot have been of minimal value, students may be less inclined to attend future lectures).

Universities have to take at least some of the blame for poor attendance. If they use a lecture format because it's cheap rather than because it is effective, students may vote with their feet. If I fail to engage students, and fail to convince them of the value and relevance of what I'm talking about, poor attendance at subsequent lectures may be the consequence.

Therefore, I also have some sympathy for the students. The university in Arizona is encouraging lecturers " have attendance be a part of students’ grades". That seems a particularly odd suggestion to me. Part of being a university student is making decisions about your learning for yourself and suffering the consequences if those decisions are bad. Surely, if attendance at the lecture is valuable, it will be reflected in the grades the students get anyway? Having said that, there is an argument that attendance has a value beyond the grades achieved. In particular, in a professional course like teacher education, I would argue that being with fellow students and then discussing the lecture afterwards (in the cafe, student bar, bus home...) is an important part of a student's development. Interaction with other teachers will remain an key part of their continuing professional development and establishing good habits during initial training seems like a good idea.

So while I sympathise with the universities frustration, I feel they are taking Big Brother's sledgehammer to crack a nut. And while I sympathise with the students, I think that they are missing out on something important by staying away lectures and that their overall experience of the course will be poorer as a result.

But I would say that wouldn't I? What do current students think? What do former students think?