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Reflections and Tools

I just finished the teaching bit of the past semester (I still have to do some marking and tot all those wonderful marks up, stuff like that, but the big bit is done. I don’t do exams (I never liked them and I’m unconvinced they actually do what they are intended to do, and that’s even before the issues they raise online) and so I’m basically free to experiment with how to help my students learn and demonstrate their learning in different, often wonderful ways. I teach from home. I’m lucky enough to be able to work at a university that sees the value in this, and I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated space to do it from (I’m sitting in it now). It has screens, iPads, iPhones, my Lightboard, things like that scattered all around it and I can use many of the tools and techniques I have mastered over the past while at will. It’s rather fun. It also suits me particularly well because, whist I love my students and really enjoy my time with them, I’m also by nature a bit of a hermit and I really need my time alone, especially after teaching sessions. It’s not so much a matter of recharging as rebuilding at those times, if I’m honest. But I got into the job because I wanted to challenge myself in this direction (amongst others) so here I am. I’ve had a great semester actually. I got to teach an introductory management course to around 350 students in two sections. I made recorded lectures, audio lectures, different movies, all kinds of fun things about all kinds of topics from what businesses are, through IT security and privacy to entrepreneurship and on to blockchains. It is a very varied topic list and it was created to give the students an overview of all the things they might see in the course of their (university and beyond) careers. I consider it a special privilege to have been able to craft the course as I like it and to teach to some really very engaged students.

I Draw Blockchains!

I have learnt a lot this past couple of years, building on experience I had before the pandemic of hybrid and online teaching and presenting, and I have to say that the tools that are available to create great things are brilliant, exactly at the right time for when we needed them. I’ve had the privilege of being able to use many of them, from universe, where this site is created, to the last 2 years’ Apple App Store winners, as I create the experience for my students that I would like to have if I was one. So I thought I’d go through some of the things I use and have learnt, what they do and how they have done it for me. Apologies for the length text! We can start with obvious ones, like video conferencing. Our university uses Google Meet but I have also bought myself a Zoom account so I can teach using it if I want to (I like it better, but it’s really a matter of personal preference as well as an ingrained google-phobia, since I care a bit about things like personal privacy). They all take you and put you in front of other people on big to little screens, and that’s enough said. It’s about how you use them that actually matters. For me, I run my synchronous sessions a bit like this… Start with being online early, around 30 minutes or so, and play music. If students turn up early, chat about whatever comes to their mind, which could be the latest assignment through to group work in other courses or cars and pets. Anything is good and it builds community and rapport even if you’re miles away from each other. For the session itself, I use things like Mentimeter to create fun, interactive and summative learning experiences for the students. I turn it into a bit of a competition, and share out bonus marks for the winners of that particular week – the winner also gets to choose the playlist for the following week’s pre-session music hangout if they wish (this semester that worked out particularly well as one of my students is a gifted musician and composer in their own right and I got to hear some wonderful music). There is quite often a bit of banter around the quiz. Shade is definitely thrown at me and by me… Also in the session I put aside time for questions and answers. The questions can be about anything – why limit it, after all? But generally they come down to questions about assignments, tests, things like that. Occasionally there are other things and I try to answer honestly. This bit is important – there is no substitution for being a human being and vulnerability is part of the thing that helps students feel valued. Heaven knows we all need a bit of that. I don’t do much else in those sessions. I certainly don’t lecture. In some of the sessions we play serious games for experiential learning (of SAP tools) and occasionally I talk a bit about things of interest, like for instance blockchains (for which I also use Anders Brownworth’s excellent demo). That’s it. I like to say that I channel a bit of my inner Patch Adams here because learning should be fun. Really, if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. I have very negative feelings toward teachers who discourage gentle humour.

I sketchnote too…
No, I’m not fantastic at it!

I also create things, like recorded lectures (somewhere on this site you’ll see examples of those I post to my YouTube channel for the course). But I consider slide shows to be egregiously boring. Far too many words to read at the same time as one is listening and truly, we’re all rubbish at that kind of multitasking. So this is what I create… 1. Lecture slides (I use Keynote on my Mac) because they provide an avenue for learners who do like them to get the information they need. I post these as google slides, powerpoint slides and PDFs. Recently I’ve been able to incorporate live video into my Keynote presentations, which I’ve used on occasion to increase engagement by sharing my own surroundings in different ways. 2. An OER (Open Educational Resource) textbook, because education is expensive anyway so why, if you can help it, have students buy books? This is houses on pressbooks.pub through the Ontario Virtual Campus (I’ve got 2 books on there right now, one of which I wrote myself, and another on the way). The site also allows you to download books as ePubs and publish to Apple Books and more, which I will be doing with my Trust Systems book shortly. 3. I record myself on top of the slides because, although I consider it boring, others like it. It also gives me the opportunity to save the recording as an audio file so that people can listen to it without watching, or perhaps whilst following along and making notes. I can incorporate these things into the OER books too, as well as Perusall (see point 8). 4. I create explainer videos. I use Explain Everything for these a lot of the time. It’s a fantastic tool that gives me an infinite canvas to create on, allows me to record animations and more, and offers shared notebooks and whiteboards if needed. I would be lost without it. 5. I also use LumaFusion to master the videos and lecture recordings, being able to slot in new things after finishing a lecture, like demos or screenshots or bits of the explainer videos, and more. 6. I use Affinity Publisher to create most of the other documents used in the class. If you’re going as the students to be creative it would be churlish not to be creative yourself. 7. I use Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer to edit and incorporate images and icons and more into the materials I create. 8. I have just begun to use Perusall, a social annotation tool, to allow students to engage with the material (from videos to images and texts), commenting, questioning, answering each others’ questions and more. It also allows me to give grades for things like interaction and quality of comments, which helps engage the students in the material in ways I would never have imagined. 9. I built my own Lightboard and I use it in both live sessions and recorded sessions. I’m currently developing a design for a reverse hybrid mode where the teacher can be anywhere and the students can be in one place if they wish, interacting with a life-size projection of the live teacher. I hope it works out because the concept is brilliant. 10. I post my videos to YouTube. 11. I have begun, thanks to an amazing colleague’s demonstrations, to completely tailor the ways students see the course content in the LMS (Canvas for us) - no longer do they see a big list of files, now why have engaging, accessible views on the content. 12. I use melodyloops for music, StoryBlocks for effects and music, freepik for images, calligraphr to create fun fonts, and I pay for each of those services so that the creators of the material are properly recompensed. 13. I release all of my material (my own material) under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, in other words as free cultural material. Use it if you want it. 14. I use OBS for mixing in video, sound and more to my synchronous and recorded sessions. 15. I’m beginning to blog on this site and I’m working on creating a podcast. Every single one of those tools and techniques is amazingly useful, and I’m not sure I could do what I do without them. Without LumaFusion I would make boring videos. Without melodyloops I’d produce stuff in silence, without Explain Everything I’d be stuck with plain old boring slides or talking heads. I do all this stuff with two iPads, an M1 MacBook Air, two old iPhones for cameras (seriously, they have much better cameras than even amazing webcams). WIth a green screen behind me I can use OBS or LumaFusion to put me anywhere in the world or in front of any material I choose. And I make all my own clamps and stands for the physical tools using my 3D printer (thanks Prusa!)

Explain stuff in fun ways…
Always listen to your students!
Make things free!
It’s been an incredible learning experience and I have discovered much creativity in myself. There’s only more to come as I try to make the stuff I do more accessible, better, and more worthwhile for my students. Onwards and upwards, etc… I’ll be adding to this page as I go on with experiences and thoughts.
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