Crowd sourcing questions as a student-staff partnership activity

Yesterday we had a great lecture yesterday by Prof Sue Rigby of Lincoln University. It was a rich and complex talk, with lots of good examples and ideas. Sue talked about students creating questions, which should be equal in importance with answering questions, if not more important. That is a good way of explaining what higher education is about, why it is a developmental, character building, intellectual capacity building activity. There was much more in her lecture, but the point about students creating questions reminded me of a design idea I sketched out many years ago – a system that would allow students and staff to collectively create, use and review good questions. Participants can find relevant questions by others, try them out and review them, thus helping us to find questions that work especially well in all kinds of contexts – academic and personal development.

Here’s the design that I came up with at the time:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

What are the pedagogic challenges facing teachers in HE today?

Yesterday I wanted to run a simple demo of Turning Point ResponseWare in a drop-in session at our new Oculus teaching and learning building. I left a single question active for the whole session, and just invited anyone present to have a go. My aim was to illustrate the mechanics of the system, but also to show a useful technique – an open survey that could be used to trigger dialogue with a diverse range of participants.

Earlier in the week I had noticed this entirely unofficial sign appearing outside of many of our lecture theatres:


Clearly someone is having a bit of a struggle to hold their students’ attention. It is a divisive issue, with pro and anti phone views amongst staff and students – but also many who just don’t know what all the fuss is about. This got me wondering if my assumptions about the issues that staff worry about in HE teaching are accurate. So I started a simple list. And during the drop-in session I put that list on as a ResponseWare question, inviting participants to say which of the issues they want to address. This was very much a trial, not proper research, just to see who recognises these issues and the terms used to describe them. Here’s my list:

  1. Students using shallow learning strategies.
  2. Poor lecture attendance.
  3. Students inattentive in lectures.
  4. Disengaged students.
  5. Achieving a balance between coverage and depth.
  6. Inappropriate, misaligned, assessment methods.

And here’s the completely unrepresentative results:


I don’t think these results mean very much. More importantly, every respondent recognised the issues, and understood the meaning of the terms, with the exception of “shallow learning” – that was a surprise.

I had a few more suggestions for issues to add to the list, and no doubt it will grow much bigger as I dig deeper.

More issues to be added here:

  • Overcrowding.
  • Illness and exhaustion (teacher and student).
  • Too much time spend manicuring the VLE, too little time to spend engaging with students.
  • Too little contact time.
  • Risk averse students.
  • Risk averse teachers.
  • Seemingly good students not achieving as expected in assessments.
  • Lack of or poor access to learning materials and facilities.

Calm designs for rich co-presence in crowded learning spaces: countering the fragmentation of the learning community

Here’s the overview for a paper (or possibly a chapter) that I am working on.

Acceleration and the centrifuge

2015 marked the 50th birthday of the University of Warwick. It has been, in that time, one of the world’s fastest growing institutions – in terms of size, capability, reputation and global reach. In the last ten years of especially intensive change we have seen the campus transformed from parkland with buildings to a fully urban space. A crowded space. Student numbers have increased, pushed by government policy and pulled by economic and social demands. Everywhere is busy. Everyone is overloaded. And at the same time the ubiquitous computing revolution has amplified this complexity and intensity many times over. A student is no longer ever truly alone. Few in the present generation will know what it is to be on an empty top floor of the Library with only books – paper books – for company. Or in a lecture where the lecturer commands attention easily by virtue of being the only voice present. No, today we are, it seems, inescapably hyper connected, 24/7, 365 days a year, and in every kind of space and social situation.

University of Warwick Library, 1965.

University of Warwick Library, 1965.

This is not exactly what Yeats meant when he wrote of the end of western civilization:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

But there are doomsayers in the University who might recast these apocalyptic words as foretelling the present day post-modern condition facing every lecturer – or falconer.

Warwick University Library 2016

University of Warwick Library, 2016.

In this first section I draw upon accounts of the student experience from across the 50 years of the University to illustrate the effects of over-crowding and acceleration. Fundamental changes have occurred in the being and becoming of students. I address the question: if this goes any further, will we still find space for learning together? As our mental and physical matter becomes ever more accelerated, are we inevitably thrown away from each other, with stronger and deeper bonds broken by the centrifugal forces of a crowded network, what will survive? And more worryingly, what unconscious cognitive biases are brought into play? Does acceleration and the centrifuge, for example, increase the likelihood of political violence on campus?

My answer is: yes, it is real, and it is having a damaging impact. But also: no, we are not yet doomed – we can design platforms and practices that help us to thrive in and on the chaos.

In the second part of the paper, I look for inspiration in two places:

1. How some people cope brilliantly but many others do not
The sociologist Margaret Archer has undertaken of studies investigating how students cope with these changes, how they are developing new ways of being and becoming, mediated through novel forms of “reflexivity” and “internal conversation”. Some people do this in a way that fits easily with the world today. Others use different methods with unhappy results. I have extended Archer’s work with insights from cognitive science showing how people use spaces and technologies to extend their reflexive strategies. We can look to these cases for inspiration as to the design of learning spaces and technologies that help people to cope with and benefit from the crowded conditions of today’s university.

2. Calm designs enable rich co-presence within the crowd
It is not too outrageous a claim to say that John Seely Brown, Mark Weisser and their colleagues at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) invented the modern world. The world of ubiquitous computing was their vision. They prototyped the classroom of 2015 back in the 80s. But more importantly, they studied and theorized the impacts of such technologies on people – socially and cognitively – working alongside anthropologists including Lucy Suchman. Seely Brown and Weisser described a set of design principles that would much later inform Apple’s mobile devices, including the Apple Watch. They aimed not simply to give maximum connectivity, but to find ways in which people, technology and the network would co-adapt so as to enrich our capabilities and lives, rather than overwhelm them. They invented the terms “ubiquitous computing” and “ubiquitous learning” but accompanied these powerful ideas with “calm technologies” – based upon design techniques that aim to maintain the optimal state for human attention, concentration and distraction, putting technology into the periphery of attention, but maintaining channels through which we can swiftly shift our focus without disruption.

Designing for calmness and rich co-presence in Higher Education

Finally, in the third part of the paper I return to the crowded University environment, and the over-crowded student experience, of today. I illustrate ways in which some designers, often people who do not even consider themselves to be designer, are creating physical, digital and blended platforms that implement calm design principles. Not only does the modern world demand better designing, but its platforms are intentionally more designable. Thinking back to Archer’s work, it seems that some people are rising to the challenge, exploiting the “magic of the platform” (as one of my colleagues calls it), so as to help themselves and others to succeed under these accelerated and hyper connected conditions. The paper ends with some simple recommendations for every student and every teacher – easy ways in which we can all start to apply calm design principles.

Connecting badges earned in Moodle with Open Badges Backpack

I am now using Moodle badges as a core part of our innovation-design strategy. Students and staff earn badges that indicate they have achieved a level of awareness, that they are active in adopting-adapting a new approach, and that they are working to help others in the community and feeding into the organisational learning and design loop.

Now that our Moodle platform has been upgraded to version 3 badge recipients can export their achievements to the Mozilla Backpack, create collections (including badges from other providers) and share their collated achievements with the outside world. I’ve created this video for our badge winners, and for potential badge awarders, to explain the value and mechanics of doing this.

Observations on avoiding skeuomorphic thinking (Will Self) and the post-MOOC paradigm shift

There’s been a couple of really useful articles in the Times Higher this week.

First is a two part piece by Will Self (the author and journalist) and his academic colleague William Watkin (Professor of Contemporary Literature) about adapting teaching and learning to the digital world. It shows how, if sufficiently brave and reflective, conventional academics can adopt radically different teaching methods (in this case assessed blogs and flipped classroom). The key idea from Self is that skeuomorphic thinking about learning technology (the idea that new media mirrors old media) might help ease people into new tech, but it is deceptive and misleading. The important thing is to understand how all of these new technologies, concepts and practices interact together to form an entirely different paradigm that cannot be safely represented through the concepts of the past (if you know about Foucault’s philosophy of history, that’s where he is coming from). Self and Watkin seem to have done a good job of doing this with the design of their course. Aside from the philosophical aspect, there’s some good practical advice in this as well.

“How a course about violence changed the way students are taught and assessed – A literature module developed at Brunel University London has moved away from the traditional essay format and embraced the digital age”

And secondly another good “MOOCS? the hype was wrong” article, but with a genuine recognition that teaching, learning and students are complex things, and that the real challenge for HE is to adapt to complexity and diversity:

“Moocs can transform education – but not yet – Whether or not Moocs live up to the hype, technology’s impact on universities is real and growing, Stanford University’s John Hennessy tells Ellie Bothwell”

Worth considering both of these in the Warwick Uni context – how can we move from a “transmission of content” paradigm (and the over abundance of teaching spaces designed for that model) to a “facilitated student as producer/researcher/designer/creator” approach that fits more effectively with the global, creative, agile, networked economy? And what part does digital infrastructure and capability play in that?

My argument (developed from my PhD) is that success in the new paradigm depends upon the provision of spaces that can be occupied by ad hoc associations of people to undertake projects together. However, they work best if they can occupy such spaces uninterrupted over longer periods of time (days, weeks, months and sometimes longer). It’s hard for a university of the scale of (for example) Warwick to provide such space for all students. We might use digital tools and spaces to compensate for that, but digital capability in that area is seriously underdeveloped in HE.

Evaluating H5P interactive online learning content creation

I have been very impressed by H5P, and have seen just how effective it can be. Perhaps most importantly, many different people, of all ages and in all roles, really enjoy using it – both as learners and as content authors.

What is H5P?

H5P was originally developed by the Norwegian company Joubel (in Tromsø) for the National Digital Learning Arena, a Norwegian publicly funded learning portal. Its development was motivated by the need to move away from Flash based content. It is an “MIT licensed community development project”.

H5P provides 26 types of self-contained HTML5 interactive content. All very slick, stylish and compatible with the full range of web browsers and devices – with touch interfaces enabled for phones and tablets.

Here is an example created with my son Alex (5 years old). It is a Course Presentation with questions and a Twitter feed at the end (from the SANCCOB penguin rehabilitation centre in Cape Town) – this is embedded into the page so you can have a go and test your knowledge of penguins. As with many of the H5P content types, it looks especially good when displayed at full screen (there is a button at the bottom right of its frame to go full screen):

There are 26 types of content that can be embedded into web pages, and which are useful for learning – but have wider applications as well. For example, a nicely designed multiple choice quiz, an interactive timeline, flashcards. Two of the content types are more complex, allowing some of the other kinds of content to be embedded into “interactive videos” and “course presentations”. Along with “timeline”, these more complex content types can also include videos, images and (in the case of timeline) embedded PDFs and audio. In this way they can act as wrappers for “open educational resources” drawn from other sources (e.g. videos from YouTube). We can therefore create many different activities that draw upon the same set of generic resources. For example, a course presentation that takes a set of generic videos in a way that makes them meaningful for a specific course. Or we could provide the same video to a group of students and get each one of them to turn it into an interactive video, presenting their own interpretation.

In this example I have wrapped a set of generic videos in a Course Presentation for a year abroad project in languages (more info here). It has text, videos, quizzes and a Twitter feed that will show examples of students work  – again this is embedded here into the page, so you can try it out for real:

This article by Bryan Ollendyke demonstrates how the smaller, faster, more granular content types (like multiple choice question) can be used to consistently deploy a smaller set of micro-activities across many different locations. In Bryan’s example, shown in his video, he has a single multiple choice question used repeatedly to gather student feedback from many different locations in the website and VLE – a just-in-time context aware micro-feedback mechanism. As he is using H5P’s xAPI mechanism to write the date into Learning Locker, each individual record (or “statement” in xAPI speak) records the time and web location that it was made. So it is possible to analyse the data as a whole and as originating from different deployment locations.

Each content type is accompanied by a simple wizard and wysiwyg drag-and-drop system for creating content.

Activities may be created, hosted and used in the web site. Or we can install a plugin for Drupal and WordPress web sites that adds the same set of creation and hosting tools to those systems. I have had some problems with the WordPress plugin, affecting editing but not playback. I traced them to being caused by a combination of: 1) the very inefficient implementation of asynchronous data loading in WordPress; 2) the low VM memory limit imposed by my hosting company (Fasthosts). My solution is now to create activities on the site and then copy them across to my WordPress site. These problems should not occur if you are using WordPress on a better hosting solution.  A Moodle plugin is now available (launched July 15th 2016) and should be in widespread use soon. That will accelerate adoption significantly.

This is what the interface for editing a Course Presentation looks like in WordPress (almost identical to the interface in, meaning authors can transfer their skills between platforms):


Once H5P activities have been created in WordPress they appear in a site library. The WordPress plugin also adds an additional option to the post and page editing interface, allowing for H5P items to be selected and added into the post/page:

wordpress edit bar

By default two content sharing options are enabled: download and embed – appearing as small buttons below the content frame. Clicking on embed reveals the html embed code, allowing the content to be embedded in other web pages (through copying the code into the raw HTML). We have tested this with Moodle and Mahara, and it works nicely.


A content item created on the web site, or in another H5P host, may be downloaded as an archived package (.h5p) and uploaded into a different H5P enabled host. This works perfectly, and allows H5P to work as an excellent open educational resource format.

In addition to the embed and download buttons, you might also sometimes notice a third button for digital rights. If an image, video or other asset is added to an activity, and the author specified copyright information for the asset, H5P automatically creates a list of rights information and displays the Rights of Use button.

The activities include detailed user tracking. So for example the results of quizzes may be recorded. The WordPress plugin includes a system for storing and using this data. H5P may also used with Experience API (xAPI) enabled activity tracking systems (for example Learning Locker) into which other such learning activity tools share data. Many people in learning tech argue that xAPI stores are essential for complex, diverse institutions that value creativity and independent learning – just like Warwick University. So it is good to see tools like H5P making use of them. This means that activities that are distributed across multiple systems can write student progress data into a single canonical location (to be used by the students themselves, by teachers, and in learning analytics).

Where does it fit?

So as to get a sense of its fit, I have supported a wide range of people in creating H5P activities. This has included medics learning to teach (doctors, nurses, paramedics), languages teachers, social science researchers (the timeline is especially useful), learning technologists and children. Pleasingly, my help has been required mostly in the process of forming design ideas – choosing which content type and seeing how the content type and the aims of the author may co-adapt to produce a worthwhile output.

H5P does not present major technical challenges to authors – nothing greater than they might experience in using PowerPoint for example. The creative-pedagogic challenge of applying it is more demanding, and does require more sophisticated capabilities. This should alleviate as it gets used more and people are exposed to examples of its use (especially in HE).

The content types themselves divide into two camps, with perhaps different likely areas of fit. The simpler content types probably have less of a clear fit in HE, and perhaps are more suited to schools. Although one can imagine their integration into a well designed web site as a coherent learning experience. The more complex composite types of content have great potential as OER wrappers, or for building immersive learning experiences – more coherent, flowing and hence immersive than we can easily achieve with conventional Moodle activities (for example).

However, for universities that encourage students to be creative, to be researchers, then perhaps the most exciting area of fit will be where students create H5P content. This might, for example, be a project in which they annotate a sequence from a movie from a philosophical perspective (we might have a project doing that soon). Or they create a timeline as an assessed activity. For example, we have an interdisciplinary social science project that is getting students, and then members of the public, to create socio-economic personal histories as timelines.

I’ve discussed the timeline with careers and skills development professionals, and they agree that it has great potential as an alternative means for getting students and staff to record, reflect and present their achievements. I had intended to create a simple demo of this, but enjoyed it so much I got carried away and created my whole CV as an interactive timeline with embedded images, video and PDFs (of my research publications and conference presentations):

As for other aspects of fit, I can see no major barriers. In the HE context, the fact that it is an “MIT licensed community project” is a bonus. Openness is built in to the core. And of course people will always assume that something from Norway has sound ethical values!

Will it stick?

Calculating potential stickiness is a complicated business (see this article for a breakdown of my approach). We want to know if it will “stick for a reasonable length of time, justifying the effort and cost of adopting it and adapting to it” (to paraphrase my PhD). Is it sustainable for individuals and institutions? Will it endure?

For the individual author it looks good. When we come to author a H5P activity for the first time, or we revisit creating a content type some time after having first learned to do it, content creation is sufficiently intuitive and recognisable. There is low extraneous cognitive load in the task. And we can get value out of it quite quickly. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is in knowing which content type to use and how to use it. For example, when creating course presentations I still struggle in deciding which of the types of multiple choice activity I should use for which purpose. Fortunately the authoring interface makes it easy to try one out and then change it.

Long term hosting of content is more of a worry. We shouldn’t be relying on the web site to host content that may be needed again in the future. It does often go offline for ten minute periods.  Institutions should develop their own hosting arrangements. What should they be like? The Drupal plugin looks to be the best of the options available (it looks like is Drupal). I have found the WordPress plugin to be unreliable, due to the inefficient way in which WordPress does data loading in Javascript (it is rubbish, especially if your host VM has a low limit on memory availability). Moodle will be a better option for institutions, but then limits the openness of content. A better approach would be to host and serve H5P from an OER repository.

How far and fast will it spread?

And that brings us on to the question of spreadability. I’ve seen how fast awareness of H5P spreads, and how quickly people (especially those with intermediate level tech skills) can develop sufficient understanding so as to move to adopt-adapt. New users can sign up for an account on within a minute, create content, share it and use it. It is very vert spreadable. The embed and download options will accelerate the network effect further. But ultimately this will depend upon the availability of H5P hosts beyond that provided by The final release of the Moodle plugin (possibly by the Autumn [UK] of 2016) will accelerate spread significantly. If that all goes OK, we should see H5P becoming ubiquitous.

One further feature ensures even wider range – it has built-in translations for its interface text, supporting many different languages.

What kind of growth will it enable?

This is the really exciting question. How will it transform design capability? – the ability of individuals and (better) collectives to reflect on and formulate their needs (their challenges and their ambitions), to imagine solutions, to discover and adapt patterns, to prototype and develop ideas, to move to implementation, continuation, further critical-creative reflection and then more designing.

H5P has many of the key properties – we can prototype and share ideas fast, collaborate with people near and far, deploy, get feedback, modify. The design patterns it supports are visual and instantly recognisable. My own enthusiasm for it is based upon seeing how it opens up the possibility of learning design thinking in a context (my university) where such thinking and acting is under developed. And most importantly, people enjoy using it. I’ve seen that it has the special but hard to pin down holistic feel that makes people click with it instantly.

Finally, something I haven’t had time to investigate – the H5P platform is designed to allow other people to develop new content types, either from scratch or as customisations of existing types. The specification for .h5p packages is online, with definitions in the form of json text files. There’s plenty of support info on the H5P web site, plus a lively forum (our medical educators had great help from the H5P team). I just wish I had time to have a go at developing my own content types – I’ve got some great ideas.

How to start using it

First of all have a look through the examples. They are compelling and effective for getting an idea of what it can do. Then sign up for an account and you can get started making things in a couple of minutes.

You might even end up making some strawberry and blueberry smoothies (we did and they are great):

Evaluating the potential stickiness of a technology

How do we know if a new technology, deployed in a specific context, will “stick for a reasonable length of time”? What factors allow it to remain in use? When evaluating a technology, there are four interlinked dimensions we need to consider.

  1. First dimension – how much extraneous cognitive load?
    1. There are some technologies that we can understand and operate immediately, they have excellent interaction design, expressing easily understood or instantly familiar design patterns, we can engage with them and know what they can do for us and how we can get them to do what we want.
    2. And then there’s a continuum of difficulty levels spreading away from that ideal. Some technologies require a higher degree of cognitive effort to get to grips with each time we revisit them. They need to be relearned. This is extraneous cognitive load beyond the higher purpose to which we are striving.
  2. Second dimension – how often do we revisit the technology?
    1. Some technologies may be in use continually.
    2. And then there’s a continuum of frequency away from that, all the way out to technologies that we might use once a year or even less often (for example, tools used to set up a course space once a year).
    3. More frequent use presents more opportunity and greater motivation to learn the foibles of the technology.
    4. Technologies that are low on the first dimension (need to be relearned each time we revisit) are not suited in cases where they are revisited less often, unless there is the possibility that they will be subject to deep and permanent learning.
  3. Third dimension – how much time, money, opportunity, motivation is available to spend time learning a technology?
    1. Will people put in effort to become permanently accustomed to a technology even if it is poor on the first dimension (with high extraneous cognitive load)?
    2. Does the value of knowing the technology permanently outweigh the time, money and effort required to learning it?
  4. Fourth dimension – what’s the true value of being able to use the technology?
    1. Is it essential? Is it essential that it is used effectively, accurately? Is it essential that it is used quickly?
    2. Or is it merely a nice additional feature?
    3. How close to the critical path?
    4. Can it be replaced, exactly or approximately, by some technology (analogue or digital) that is “lower cost”?
    5. Technologies that are essential, but which require deep learning, may provoke negative attitudes.

Adopt a Class interactive presentation

I am helping with a project in our School of Modern Languages that will get Warwick students, on their year abroad in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, to create digital resources and activities to be used in schools teaching in Britain. Each of the students will “adopt a class”. But the intention is that they create resources that can be shared and used widely. Each student has a blog (in Warwick Blogs) in which they will create their resources (they also use the blog for documenting their year abroad experiences). They will create videos as well as H5P based interactive learning activities.

To support this I have made a tutorial in H5P with a series if short videos and some quizzes. It also uses some videos from other sources (via YouTube). This illustrates H5Ps potential as a wrapper of Open Educational Resources. Videos made for generic use (e.g. to illustrate a technique) can be wrapped in a H5P Course Presentation that contextualised them for a specific use (e.g. a course).

There will also be a Twitter feed showcasing the best of the students’ work (coming from a Facebook page). The feed will appear near the end of the tutorial. Here is the latest version. Best viewed full screen (use the icon at the bottom right of the presentation):

Extended Classroom interactive presentation

I’ve been trying out the Course Presentation tool provided by h5p. Here is an example developed for the Extended Classroom project. It has an intro video, the 12 cards, a quiz, Twitter feed for updates, and text areas into which you can add notes and build up a downloadable record of your ideas.

It is best viewed at full screen. Click in the expand icon at the bottom right of the presentation frame.