Wednesday, 7 October 2015

 Student Perceptions of ‘useful’ Digital Technology

“Now, what I want is, Facts….Facts alone are wanted in life” (Mr Gradgrind)
A recent Australian study by Henderson, Selwyn and Aston (2015) found that students use digital technologies to support the logistical aspects of their learning: time-saving; finding out about and fulfilling course requirements; mobile and remote access; researching information; getting organised.

Where students use  technology for ‘learning’ it tends to be at a surface or strategic level. For example, reviewing course materials and revising; completing assignments and learning tasks in the most expedient manner. They use technology for the monotonous and mundane aspects of student life. This is a depressing finding for the learning technology community, who champion the innovative and transformative potential of digital technologies. However, there are lessons here for the way in which we advocate and implement digital technology, and there is a reason why these students use technology in the way they do.
It’s the context, stupid….
The authors suggest that it is the contexts in which students are situated that shapes their use of technologies. What ‘digital technology’ is, is framed by assessment, evaluation, and the design and delivery of content. If the institution offers limited structures and expectations of teaching and learning then why should the uses and types of digital technology be any different?
Then a miracle occurs….
cartoon a miracle occursSo while students find technology beneficial, their practices are not the
"creative, collaborative, participatory and hyper-connected practices that tend to be foregrounded in discussions of digital education and learning technology".
There is a gap between the often rarefied discussions among the learning technology community about ‘technology enhanced learning’, and students’ actual use of technologies. We can’t expect that gap to be filled, and for students to adopt these creative and collaborative uses of technology unless they have a good reason to do so.
 What is to be done?
Institutions need to support the logistical and strategic uses of technology.  This includes the development of VLEs to make them more user friendly - or providing accessible and reliable alternatives, as well as improving the accessibility of other core systems. But using digital technologies in more creative and empowering ways requires rethinking broader institutional practices, including the culture of teaching and learning. The authors conclude by suggesting that:
“If higher educators wish to see students move beyond the largely ‘safe’, bounded and outcome-focused uses of digital technology reported in this paper, then alternate contexts of teaching and learning need to be legitimized where alternate (perhaps more active, more participatory or more creative) uses of digital technology will be of genuine ‘use’ and ‘help’.”


Henderson, M., Selwyn, N., & Aston, R. (2015). What works and why? Student perceptions of ‘useful’ digital technology in university teaching and learning. Studies in Higher Education, 1–13.

Using Screencasts for Teaching and Learning

header image

Last week I ran a workshop on Using Screencasts to Enhance Teaching and Learning. This is a summary of what we covered.

What is screencasting?
  • A screencast is a digital video recording that captures actions taking place on a computer desktop.
  • Screencasts, which often contain voice-over narration, are useful for demonstrating how to use specific operating systems, software applications or website features.


Examples of screencasting:

Here’s an example of a 'how-to' guide from the university library: which is on their YouTube channel along with many others.

You can also use screencasting to provide summaries of your lectures, such as this example from Dr Paul Reilly of the Department of Media and Communications:

Dr Reilly has carried out research into the effectiveness of screencasting, and you can see the details of his research, further research, some examples, and guides to screencasting on the Screencasting in Media Studies project blog.

Screencasting can also be used to provide feedback on assessments to students. Such as in this example from Jodi Whitehurst at Arkansas State University:

She describes the process of creating her screencasts here:

Why should you use screencasting?

Because students like it, basically. The research shows that:
  • students think it enhances their learning
  • they can learn at their own pace
  • they can catch up on missed classes
  • summaries of lectures are useful for students for whom English is not their first language.
You can also use it for a ‘flipped classroom’ approach - providing discussion materials before a lecture or seminar so students have already thought about the issues before they arrive.

One research study found that it leads to improved achievement on assignment marks: Quantifying the benefits of narrated screen capture videos.

How do you create screencasts?
The university provides some software via the Programme Installer:

Captivate also enables you to create interactive content such as tests and quizzes, in addition to screencasting.

Presenter works within PowerPoint to create narrated presentations. However, it also comes with Video Creator, which is a stand-alone programme that allows you to record anything on your screen. You can add narration if you wish. It also allows you to create ‘talking head’ style videos via your webcam.

Screencasts with Panopto
You can use the Panopto lecture capture software to do screencasts - it will record whatever is on your screen, not just your PowerPoint presentations and lectures. At the moment the software is limited to those members of staff involved in the pilot study, but you can request access to it via IT services.

Free online screencasting tools
Screencast-O-Matic is an easy to use free application that records anything on your screen
You can save your videos to your PC, or upload them directly to YouTube. The free version places a small ‘screencast-o-matic' logo at the bottom of your video. The Premium version (paid for) removes the logo and gives you some editing tools.

Screenr is another free web based application. It allows you to create screencasts up to five minutes long.

Snagit for Chrome is a free app and extension for the Chrome browser. It's a version of Snagit screen capture software. Download both the app and the extension, and you can create screencasts, capture still images, and create gifs via the Chrome browser.

Snagit is a very good screencasting application. You will have to pay for it, but it’s quite cheap. Try a trial version first. It allows you to create screencapture videos, and images which you can then annotate. A single licence costs about £30. There are volume discounts for educational purposes if you want to buy licences for your department.

Photo credit: James Vaughan 1963 television eyeglasses (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Using Blogs to Promote Writing and Student Interaction

I have had an increase in enquiries from staff in the college recently about using collaborative tools for learning. The fact that people are beginning to see the benefits of these collaborative spaces is a welcome development.

With that in mind, this is a timely research paper from Miriam Sullivan and Nancy Longnecker from the University of Western Australia:

The study looked at the use of class blogs in four science communication classes. The students felt that the benefits of blogging to them included:
  • improvements in their writing,
  • intellectual exchange with other students, and
  • motivation to write better.
They also benefitted from reading what other students had written. Making a weekly contribution mandatory increased involvement and the students saw the assignment as having greater value. Where blogging counts towards assessment, even if it's only a small percentage, contributions increase (JISC 2009), and if blogs are not integrated with other assessments then they can be ‘underutilized’. Other problems that teachers may find are an increase in marking and large differences in the quality and quantity of posts from students.
Blogging can prepare students for a class, having already thought about the issues and expressed a view. This allows the teacher to move quickly to deeper learning rather than having to coax contributions out of students who are staring at their feet because they haven’t done the reading! It also allows quieter or less confident students the opportunity to compose their contributions and to have their voice heard.

Sullivan and Longnecker believe that group blogging “fits squarely within current pedagogical recommendations for authentic learning in web 2.0 environments. It provides real-world context; requires sustained activity; allows multiple perspectives; collaboration; and articulation of knowledge.”

JISC (2009) Engaging Learners in Critical Reflection - University of Edinburgh in Effective Practice in a Digital Age, JISC (2009) retrieved October 2014.

Sullivan, M., & Longnecker, N. (2014). Class blogs as a teaching tool to promote writing and student interaction. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology30(4).

Learning from the Early Adopters

Recent research by Liz Bennett (2014) looks at the drivers that motivate educators to use technology in their teaching. She took a framework (Beetham and Sharpe 2011) used to model students’ digital literacies and applied it to lecturers’ digital literacy practices. The intention was to examine the motivations for lecturers in adopting Technology Enhanced Learning.

Bennett found that lecturers were mainly motivated by a desire to achieve pedagogical goals and to support improved outcomes for their students in their learning, rather than by a desire to become digital practitioners and ‘self-actualising as digital pedagogues’.

Bennet’s Digital Practitioner Framework (DPF) has four levels:

the digital practitioner framework

At the top is the Attribute level, which relates to aspects of the lecturer’s personality that enable them to make use of technology. The ways of working with technology become assimilated into their ways of operating, and become normalised ways of doing things. This assimilation is different from merely identifying a skill set, it is ‘embedded into the lecturers’ values and beliefs’.

At the Practice level, lecturers were using technology to address pedagogical needs, not using technology for its own sake.

At the Skills level lecturers reported a detailed knowledge of how technologies operated, but there were some who felt that their level of skill was not up to that of their students. However, this was not a worry because while their skills may have been lacking, their relationship with students could counteract this. The lecturer’s role is one of teacher and researcher, and they have the subject area expertise. This is what the students expected of them for their part of the relationship. Lecturers could admit to students that they have a lack of technical knowledge, because they are not technologists. This allows them the space to explore and try out technologies with their students who understood that it was being done for the enhancement of their learning.

The deficit model is often used to explain the lack of engagement with technology - it is the lack of skills that is the barrier. However, in this research skills did not seem to be the main barrier to the uptake of technology, rather it was the perceived usefulness of the technology.

At the Access level lecturers acknowledged that there was need to invest time in learning about new technologies, and that it meant new ways of working. There was an acceptance of a blurring of boundaries between between home and work. This was dealt with by strategies to manage the expectations of students about when they would be available online.

The implication of this research (caveats about the small scale aside) for the way in which digital technologies are promoted and developed in education is that it emphasises the need to concentrate on how technology can enhance teaching and learning rather than on technology for its own sake. The Digital Practitioner Framework provides a way to begin to engage lecturers who are not using technology or who are sceptical - encouraging and supporting practices builds confidence and skills in using technology and develops attributes.

Beetham, H. & Sharpe, R. (2011) ‘Digital literacies workshop’, Paper presented at the JISC Learning Literacies Workshop, Birmingham [online], Available at: Digital Literacy Workshop materials

The Problem with plagiarism detection software

turnitin logo                   
  photo credit: Jisc via photopin cc

Here’s a discussion between two students ‘from a prestigious university’, reported by McKenna and Hughes (2013): 

Don: what is the extent to which we’re allowed to plagiarise, 17% or something?

 Mark: No, it’s just like 20%, but I mean that’s all with just the bibliography or literally a couple of words which they highlight and you just ignore that, but obviously if you’ve got a paragraph then….

What is the role of plagiarism detection software (PDS) in creating this sort of misunderstanding? McKenna and Hughes suggest that PDS has the following effects:

1. It potentially changes the relationship between student and teacher, especially in terms of academic trust. There is already a difficult power relationship to be negotiated between student and teacher, and student and university. PDS has the effect of grounding that relationship in mistrust from the outset. It suggests that students are not to  be trusted, that they are not partners in scholarship - their learning is individualised - they are lone dynamic individuals, responsible for their own actions, rather than participants in a cooperative and collaborative exercise. Processing of assignments via PDS  “lends an air of objectivity and neutrality to what is actually a system with implicit issues of trust, control and surveillance. PDS is seen as a routine part of assessment with no debate about what values are being communicated to students and indeed teachers.”

2. It increases the sense of writing as a product. In routinely processing assignments through third party PDS the students are further removed from the connection they have with their departments. Assignments become digital artefacts, uploaded to the PDS which becomes the sole arbiter of of what is ‘allowable’ when it comes to plagiarism. Instead of using drafts and ‘process-oriented’ writing, which encourages peer- and self-review, process and drafts are subjugated to the technology. Students are creating a product - a commodity to be judged.

3. A loss of the understanding of plagiarism With PDS ‘plagiarism’ becomes simply about copying text, and about percentages. This is not helped by, for example, the colour coding system in Turnitin. The  ‘similarity index’’ is either blue (no matching words); green (up to 24% similarity); yellow (25-49%); orange (50-74%); or red (75-100%). So, you can plagiarise up to 24% and you get a green light! And green means good to go, right? Discussions of plagiarism are fraught at the best of times, but PDS adds more weight to the discourse of plagiarism as  ‘fraud, transgression, control, immorality, and dishonesty’. It ignores the complexities that are involved when people are novices, when they are writing in a new language, or educational context, or subject. It ignores the nuances of scholarly discussion, or of different disciplinary and linguistic contexts.

4. It promotes a view of writing which demonstrates little awareness of the potential of digital technology for multimodality, and new ways of presenting academic texts. PDS are premised on an increasingly outmoded ‘print literacy paradigm’. This fails to acknowledge the potential for digital technology to be used for multimodal and hyperlinked texts. PDS is based on matching text (it is actually text matching software, not plagiarism detection software), so cannot assess ‘images, animation, colour, or other modes of meaning-making’. PDS may have the effect of discouraging such novel forms of scholarship and expression.

What can be done? It’s not all bad. In an age of massive amounts of online material, PDS obviously helps to spot potential plagiarism quickly and efficiently. Simple practical measures to address misunderstanding plagiarism would include teaching students what the ‘similarity index’ in Turnitin actually means, and how the index can be interpreted. Turnitin has a feature which allows drafts. The similarity index can then be used as an aid to teaching about plagiarism before the final draft is submitted - that it’s not just about copying and percentages, or how much plagiarism is ‘allowed’. Encourage students to reflect on the processes of their own learning by discussing the sorts of political and moral arguments about educational technology that McKenna and Hughes have highlighted. Each social science subject area should be able to contextualise the arguments about the uses of educational technology in this way.

Reference McKenna, C, Hughes, J. (2013) Values, digital texts, and open practices - a changing scholarly landscape in higher education In Literacy in the Digital University. Critical Perspectives on Learning, Scholarship, and Technology R. Goodfellow and M. Lea (eds) (pp. 173–184). London: Routledge.