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  1. Functional requirements of social media

    November 12, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    When I met with Fiona Handley to discuss plans for the “Social Media in Learning” session that ran today, the focus was very much on pedagogy behind using social media in teaching, the strengths and weaknesses of various social media for engaging students in learning.
    Equally as important is some form of sustainable infrastructure to support these uses. With many social media platforms it is not clear where their revenue comes from… and thus their longevity and sustainability are called into question. These issues may not be a concern in personal use, as you can switch from using say Google Buzz to using Google Wave etc..

    XKCD on social media

    XKCD on social media

    I thought it worth looking at the functional requirements for a social learning platform, which aren’t that different from any other learning technology, including those I worked on back in the Becta days: Functional Requirements for ICT Infrastructure.

    From this source, I cobbled together a set of objective considerations for the comparison of social media platforms. It should be noted that non-functional requirements such as platform popularity may ultimately be the key influencer in choice.

    There are two general approaches to the use of social media:
    One is to use existing services which will benefit from large user base, with a dynamic developer ecosystem (eg twitter clients for phones, tablets, desktop web)

    The other is to provide a social media toolset in-house, which may be more secure.

    Using social media services to support learners, educators, managers and administrators requires a level of inbuilt flexibility so that users have a range of ways and locations in which they can interact.

    Social media services need to be efficient resources which take care of managing data on behalf of the user, and which are supportive yet unobtrusive.

    The user needs to have confidence in the social media platform to deliver a fast and reliable service.

    Reliability: the social media platform and services must be reliable. An unreliable infrastructure is likely to detract from the learning experience and obstruct the educator. It will become a frustration to learners, educators, managers and administrators alike if devices, applications and services cannot be relied upon.

    Coherence: With the variety of competing platfoms, it is important that an institution ensures coherence by implementing platforms that work together and fit with the overall ICT strategy. eg Yammer integrates with students O365 offering.

    Accessibility: on-screen text cannot be seen by those with serious visual impairment; it may be hard to interpret for those with dyslexia, learning or language difficulties; and users with physical or neurological problems may be unable to use a keyboard or mouse or touch screen.
    This lack of equality can be mitigated by the use of ‘assistive technology’ eg
    Users who are unable to use a keyboard can be supported by voice-activated software, so they control it by speech,
    and a screen-reader can read text aloud for users who cannot see it IF the social media client provides access to assistive technology.
    The Equality Act outlines duties on educational institutions with respect to the provision they offer to learners with special educational needs and/or disabilities. This requires ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that these learners are not put at a substantial disadvantage in using any facilities or resources.

    Affordability and sustainability: All services need to support energy conservation and wider environmental sustainability. They should be energy efficient in themselves by offering a range of devices, applications and services that incorporate energy-saving technology, management and other measures. Learners, educators and administrators should have a clear understanding of the impact the technology has on the environment, in particular carbon emissions.

    While institutions can often identify the immediate costs of a new ICT resource, the total cost of ownership (TCO) must be considered in order for the institution to be able to sustain a resource. Consideration should therefore be given not just to purchase price and running costs but also decommission and transition costs to future services.
    The cheapest solution may not always be the most cost effective when taking these into consideration.

    Ideally a social media user should be able to communicate with other staff and learners and be confident that they will be protected from access to or distribution of inappropriate content and from unsolicited contacts.
    The platform would allow sharing and exchange information in different formats and with different people – other staff, learners and colleagues.

  2. 65 tweets per hour

    November 12, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    I’ve just been helping out in a session on social media in learning…

    I was tweeting the session, which seemed appropriate, and you can read the story here:


    You can look at the Twitter hashtag archive visualisation here:
    You can view the searchable twitter hashtag archive here:
    and a try out the sentiment analysis using the NCSU tool … just search on the hashtag: #uobbl1

  3. Pragmatic Learning Analytics

    November 11, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    I was due to join a discussion on Learning Analytics with some Jisc folk last week but the internet conspired against us, so I recorded my bit and stuck it on our Relay server.

    I’ve got a lovely chesty cold, so apologise for the sound quality… I think I managed not to sniff in the video.










    The links I mention are here:

    link to Guardian article…
    SOAP dodging
    Actionable Insights

  4. Introduction to Robotics – an exercise in thinking

    November 6, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    A long time ago in a galaxy far far away I used to get paid for designing robots. I had a hand in designing Mr Psyches, Growler and Cassisus Chrome for Robotwars, worked on the look and feel of the Destructoids for the tv series “Mechanoids”, and made a comic to pitch the idea for an ITV series called Rescue Robots.

    Cassius Chrome

    With my then youthful children I was also a competitor in RW S5,6 and 7 with our Robot Killer Carrot.

    Today I got the chance to revisit the area of Robot Design when I taught a class of 17 University of Brighton D&T and Computing teacher trainees about elementary robotics.
    We aimed to cover some of the key areas in the National Curriculum for D&T and computing, and managed to hit most … with more or less success.


    KS3 Technical Knowledge -understand and use the properties of materials and the performance of structural elements to achieve functioning solutions -understand how more advanced mechanical systems used in their products enable changes in movement and force

    -understand how more advanced electrical and electronic systems can be powered and used in their products [for example, circuits with heat, light, sound and movement as inputs and outputs] -apply computing and use electronics to embed intelligence in products that respond to inputs [for example, sensors], and control outputs [for example, actuators], using programmable components [for example, microcontrollers].


    We started by discussing inputs, logic and outputs – looked at discrete components – reed switches, thermsistors, LDRs, LEDs, Is LEDs, and thought about how various systems might work by creating top trumps cards detailing:
    logic, inputs, outputs, cost, reliability, speed
    for – a garage door opener, a plant waterer,a burglar alarm, a cat feeder, a lunar lander and a mars orbiter… and discovered that whilst there may be differences in costs and reliability, the inputs and outputs and logic are pretty similar for each of these setups.
    As a group we then looked at a simple PICAXE BOT120  running a line follower program, and drew a flowchart for the processes and worked how they mapped to the actual code.

    '## Adapted from the Bot120 manual by: Willem van Heerden ##
    '## bugfixes and alterations by Rob Englebright##
    '## initial sensor calibration setup white = 10 black tape = 67
    Init: 'Initiation Label
     Symbol Left_Bumper = pinC.1 'Left Bumper Input Pin
     Symbol Right_Bumper = pinC.3 'Right Bumper Input Pin
     Symbol Line_Tracker = 8 'Line Tracker Input Pin
     Symbol Mid_Level = 30 'Custom Calibrated
     Symbol Track_Value = b0 'Line Tracker reading
     If Left_Bumper=1 or Right_Bumper=1 then 'If it bumps then...
     halt A 'Stop Motor A
     halt B 'Stop Motor B
     readadc Line_Tracker, Track_Value 'Read Value
     If Track_Value > Mid_Level Then 'Evaluate Reading 
     Forward A 'Run Motor A forward
     Halt B 'Stop Motor B
     Halt A 'Stop Motor A
     Forward B 'Run Motor B forward
     End If
     End If
     Goto Main

    We then tried to run the flowchart application, and the fancy logicator and everything went horribly wrong.

    So we switched to the ever reliable LEGO NXT,  and started looking at how we could decompose a problem – in this case the rules for SUMO ROBOTS – and build functional SUMO bots.

     “Lego Sumo unlimited height, 15.0 cm width, 15.0 cm length,  1,000 g weight.

    Any method of control may be used, as long as it is fully contained within the robot and recieves no external signals or directions (human, machine, or otherwise). Autonomous robot operation must begin automatically no less than five seconds after being started by the user. Robots starting before the five second mark forfeit that Yuhkoh point.

    We had four working NXT units (mine died gracefully after demonstrating the variation on the line follower code) so the students worked in groups of about 4 to analyse the challenge, design a strategy – draw a flowchart and then write the code… or drag and drop the icons in the Mindstorms application.

    I gave the teams a starter code based on the line follower code, but switching the “dark detector” for a “light detector” to match the black Sumo ring arena and it’s white boundary line.


    Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 19.34.55

    ….and the teams went at it, looping through the code, testing and re-testing adding “hair” and labels and extending their weapons with taped on pens.

    The debugging of code was frantic, and the pressure grew as we approached the contest.
    We ran 2 heats, a final and 3 rd place heat which resulted in real excitement and shouting and cheering… a fitting end to the day.


     Learning technology isn’t just VLE’s and commercial software, sometimes it’s a cute little robot.

    If you are interested in using microelectronics in your teaching there are plenty of places that can help… At UoB contact me… elsewhere:

    STEM ambassadors – Based at UoB –
    First Lego League- International –
    (FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).)
    CodeClub (9-11-
    CoderDojo (7-17
    NodeBots- Javascipt for robots

    and don’t forget you local Hackspace… I can of course reccomend BuildBrighton … but there are others all across the UK… and indeed the world:

  5. iOS8 on the move

    November 4, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    What’s new in iOS8?

    There are a few things about new iOS that may be useful for the University employee on the move.

    Widgets are now available in the Notification Centre. Notification centre is the thing that slides down over the screen if you drag your finger from the area off the top of the screen toward the bottom.

    Notifications centre widgetsYou can find out if you have any apps installed that can show useful data by clicking on “Edit”.
    I’ve got the standard “Today Summary” widget (which is very much like the “Google Now” feature on my Nexus phone. It shows what the weather is upto and how long it’d take to get home if I left right now.)
    The Calendar widget shows today’s events, the dropbox widget shows recently amended files…
    As a quick glance overview tool it’s ok, but probably the best feature is that I can delete the useless (for me) Stocks widget.

    So what does adding these little helper services do your battery life? Well you can check to see which apps are draining your precious battery under Settings > General > Usage then Battery Usage.
    Obviously I use the iPlayer waaay too much.

    way too much player

    So your phone may not last the day on one charge, which is a bit of a pickle, but even more so if you lose it, as the “find my phone” feature can’t find a dead phone… Luckily there is now a send last location before your battery dies setting… – This can be set through Settings>iCloud>Find my Phone then Send Last Location.






    All of this is fine and dandy but probably the most useful new feature is the ability to use 3rd party keyboards.
    On my Nexus 4 I use swiftkey, which offers good predictive text, and importantly for someone who uses the bumpy train network, a feature called flow.

    flowFlow lets you draw a line between letters rather than pecking out individual letters in a word. Whe you are stuck on a packed commuter train this is a boon.
    Finally the new keyboards feature also includes a set of Emoji characters – like a grown up version of the old 🙂 smiley face.





  6. #Learning Analytics – It’s not what you’ve got it’s what you do with it that counts.

    July 15, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    This is the first in a series of posts on Learning Analytics, which has in part has been prompted by a session at the CETIS conference which investigated the creation of an HE learning analytics policy. 

    The session aimed at a practical approach whilst recognising that does *not* mean that “ethical, cultural, epistemological, or pedagogical concerns will be brushed to one side, as these are surely essential considerations for an effective strategy.”

    considerations when planning an HE Learning Analytics policy

    To my mind “Learning Analytics” and “Big Data” go hand in hand.
    I’m not interested in whether you believe the data we now have such easy access to is truly “Big”, I think that’s a red herring introduced by statisticians who are miffed at folk trampling over their turf.
    Regardless of how big it is, there is defintely “More” data, more readily available to tutors and students.

    Neither am I interested in the aspect of learning analytics, that uses data to justify questionable business practices, focussed on making courses financially efficient.

    I *am* interested in ways that technology can be applied to gather relevant emergent metadata, paradata etc, and provide tools to analyse the data and identify “Actionable Insights” that improve learning.
    “Actionable Insights” [as defined by Adam Cooper: ] are what make learning analytics a practical and pragmatic activity rather than a bit of self indulgent graph making.

    When I was at JISC the collective brain power of the old Innovation directorate identified 9 areas which would inform any activity in learning analytics. I acted as a graphic facilitator in these sessions (I drew pictures about stuff folk said)
    I’m going to use these 9 areas to review opportunities to implement some practical LA tools here at Brighton.

    learning analytics

    It’s not what you’ve got it’s what you do with it that counts.

    So what data have we got?

    We run a hosted version of Blackboard Learn 9.1.April2014 (catchy name) which like all VLEs is basically a bunch of webpages that are fed from a database, or databases.
    In this case it’s hoofing great Oracle stack.
    Direct access to live data isn’t allowed so we have to use the ASR- (Advanced Statistics Reporting) or “stats”,  potentially useful for looking at historic data, although limited to just 180 days making long term reports infeasible. Short term reporting isn’t much better unfortunately as this data gets refreshed only nightly so is always out of date, a source of frustration for colleagues who need to be able to quickly lookup student/course information to act in a timely manner.

    There are other routes to the data:

    Directly through the web interface blackboard provides, these include the tools for ‘instructors’ like System reports, like the “Course Activity Overview” which displays overall activity within a single course, sorted by student and date, including total and average time spent per user and the total amount of activity the user had in the course. There are also new tools like the retention centre, which applies rules based on student performance to provide ‘instuctors’ with indicators as to likley concerns.

    Using BIRT “An open source technology platform used to create data visualizations and reports that can be embedded into rich client and web applications.” I’ve installed the BIRT Eclipse variation but as yet haven’t had time to look at it. In theory it builds queries which can be packaged as .WAR files and plopped into Blackboard as Building Blocks.

    Through webservices, but they look SOAPy… and try as I might I can’t find many redeeming features for SOAP, it all seems needlessly complex and arcane. However there seem to be some helpful posts out there, mainly from Bruce Lawson so I will persevere.

    What do we do with it?
    Not as much as we could. We do run reports, and have a number of scripts that lookup stuff, but my experience is that much of the use is admin and end of year board reports.
    We have plenty of data, and a number of tools, so the time is pretty ripe to explore the opportunities to use data in a more timely manner.

    Next time I’ll look a little closer at the Access to the data,and the types of data.

    For more information on Cetis’ work in learning analytics consider investigating the Learning Analytics Community Exchange project [] in association with partners Open University (UK) and Oslo and Akershus University College.

  7. Make them fail

    June 26, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    If you wanted your students to fail, what would you do?
    If you wanted to trip them on their learning journey what insights does your job give you in terms of what is the critical support, information and services you provide?
    On Tuesday 24th Jason Bailey (@jason_lta) and I ran a short session at the University of Brighton Information Services Staff Conference, where we asked folk these very questions.

    The set-up was that we work for the “Evil Learning” team, and were looking for opportunities to disrupt our excellent processes.
    The reverse psychology employed in techniques like this is really very freeing, people find it quite easy to think of loads of examples of how systems can be disrupted, whereas if you asked for ways to improve a system, the responses tend not to be so enthusiastic.
    The idea isn’t mine, I nicked it from a session run as part of the Jisc Effective Assessment in the Digital Age Programme.
    What we added was a little more “skylarking”, (which I’ve recently discovered is a naval term, indeed a naval offence) with Jason donning a pair of devil horns and a cape, to try an offset and negativity caused by thinking of all the ways of systems could fail.

    Evil Jason

    The session broke the room up into 6 groups of about 20, each tasked with identifying ways in which their area could disrupt a particular step in a learners journey:

    #1 Get Assignment
    #2 Study for Assignment
    #3 Write Assignment
    #4 Hand in Assignment
    #5 Get Feedback
    #6 Get qualification

    The delegates were given post it notes and asked to work in pairs or threes to think of ways to disrupt the student, the post its got stuck on flipcharts, and then the delegates voted for the best (or worst) idea.

    The results were quite interesting.
    When we trialled the process on folk they identified specific items that could cause disruption.
    Our much missed, globe trotting librarian Emma Illiglesworth (@wigglesweets) suggested that any tampering with the “blue chip machine” close to an assessment deadline might cause disaster. The blue chip machine is what students use to top up their print credits. For audit reasons library staff can’t attempt to fix the machine, so any failures mean a maintenance call… which takes time.
    In the sessions our ISConf14 delegates produced more generic suggestions, and indeed the winning (or more evil) idea as voted at the end of the session was “redirect studentcentral (our VLE) traffic to the One Direction website”.
    This could have been a result of making people talk to each other, instead of focussing on their areas of expertise. Whatever, the session did stimulate a lot of discussion, and drawing the delegates back to share their findings at the end required amplification.


    In your day job, helping students to achieve their potential… what would you do if you wanted them to fail?
    Assuming you want them to succeed what are you doing to prevent that failure?

  8. Teaching Technology Timeline

    June 20, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    At the #Cetis14 conference the final keynote by Audrey Watters @audreywatters looked at the history of learning technology, and how it is shaped by folk to tell their point of view.
    It reminded me of a session I ran at the 2012 Jisc Online Conference called “Looking back to shape the future: The History of learning technology in 100 objects…” which managed to riff on both the popular 80’s film AND a (then) popular BBC series. The setup for the session was that sometimes technology changes the way we can work, and the way we can learn.
    The session aimed to record some of the landmarks in teaching technology by creating a collaborative teaching technology timeline using timeline.js (a fantastic bit of scripting).
    I tweeted a link to the timeline and several folk seemed interested so I thought it might be useful to share the link to the timeline, and the google form, and a recording of the presentation.
    We had a number of submissions and in the conference session we discussed what it was that made the difference.
    You can add to the timeline using this Google form.

  9. Power complex

    May 13, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    At our app swap cafe today we shared some top tips for iOS devices, Beth previously shared a tip that charging your iPhone in Airplane mode made it charge faster… However at the event Beth had a bit of follow up – that the tip might have been an urban myth.

    Later the topic of closing apps on iPads as a way of prolonging battery life came up, which I was pretty sure didn’t make much difference.

    So I thought I’d investigate and maybe find the truth.

    An iPhone 5S has a 3.8v 1560 mAh Lithium ion battery, and can charge at up-to 1 amp, limited by the charge control circuits in the phone, battery condition, battery temperature and the rating of the charger attached… so the very fastest it could charge is about 1.5hrs (1.56 aH/ 1 A) However we probably won’t have optimal conditions, so for our example lets assume we can charge the device in two hours.

    Now the question becomes can we significantly drain the battery over two hours?

    Obviously if you sit around watching Netflix on the phone during the two hours the battery won’t charge as fast, and I’m assuming putting the device in airplane mode isn’t just a way of preventing user activity, so to test a likely situation I rashly assume that the phone won’t be used when charging.

    In this case the draw on the battery will come from active apps, and those running in the background, which touches on our second “myth” that closing apps will prolong battery life.

    The developer guidelines for iOS indicate there are 5 states for an app, of these two have potential to use power.
    If the app is “Active”, it’s in the foreground AND recieving events,


    If the app is executing code in the “Background”.

    Apps usually only briefly pass through the Background activity state to close threads when switching between apps, unless they have permission to run in the background.

    However iOS is dead smart at managing its resources and is happy to move inactive apps to a suspended state, which keeps them in memory but not executing any code, and if memory runs low the system may close suspended apps to provide resources to the foreground app.

    The upshot of this automatic app management is that iOS will suspend apps that aren’t actively being used, so the power draw from these apps is negligible.

    The only apps that may be drawing power are active Background apps, and the only ones affected by switching to airplane mode are those that use the the wireless, carrier connection and bluetooth.

    The behaviour of apps in Background can be set in:

    Settings > General > Background App Refresh.

    and indeed here it does state that turning off background refresh may help preserve battery life. I was a bit surprised to find I had 25 apps using background refresh.

    iPhone Background app settings

    So in summary switching to airplane mode may well make your device charge faster if you have lots of apps set to Background refresh, but probably not by much.

    Closing apps manually is going to free up memory, but if they are suspended will not change power consumption.

  10. What’s on your Homescreen?

    April 29, 2014 by Robin Englebright


    I recently joined Fiona and Beth at an app swap Breakfast planning meeting, and at one point we discussed the “Homescreens” idea that David Sparks runs as a regular feature on his blog MacSparky.
    He talks to folk about what’s on their iPhone home screen, and asks the same few questions each time:






    These questions turn up some fascinating apps, tips and points of view, like the recent entry by the teacher Robert McGinley Myers where I first heard about the Command-C app which allows copy and paste sharing across devices. It seemed likely that UoB folk might be interested  in what’s on the home screens of colleagues, so I changed the questions slightly to reflect a learning technology slant and to encompass iPads and android devices, and wrote a list of folk to question.

    To test this out, I thought I’d best subject myself to the questions first:

    Who are you, and what do you do?

    I’m Rob, and I’m a Learning Technology Advisor/Developer at the University of Brighton Falmer Campus. I’m new here and have mainly been working on the migration of StudentCentral.

    What’s on your homescreen:


    Turns out not very much of interest. This is a new iPad, and I haven’t downloaded all my apps, but rather am gradually addding things when I need them, this has resulted in a pretty sparse collection. Everything I frequently use is on the homescreen, and everything else is in folders on the second screen, but I actually use the finder to launch apps… except when I can’t remember what they’re called.

    Which three apps couldn’t you live without?

    1. Probably 1Password, which syncs up all my passwords across all my devices, so I can have good strong unique passwords for all the sites that need them… Just looked and that’s 318 passwords!
      If you’ve ever tried typing complex strong passwords using the iPhone keyboard this will be a revelation, use ONE strong password to access the app, and then use the built in browser to automatically populate the username and password fields.


    2. Evernote allows me to capture stuff quickly, sync it across all my devices and has a good search function. I use it to take notes in meetings (really useful share function) snap snots of presentations, record audio clips and add them to the note, and even set alerts to email notes on certain times and dates.
      The downside of the free app is that it doesn’t allow access to your notes when not connected (wifi) which was a bit of a shock the first time I used it.

    3. Evernote1
      Evernote links well with services like IFTTT, which means you can use it do cool things like archive hastagged tweets. Evernote is gradually adding functionality, and their acquisition of Skitch makes it really simple to take a photo, or screenshot, annotate and add to a notebook.
    4. Twitter gives me instant access to collaeagues across the globe. The basic twitter app does a fair job as a reader, no fancy scheduling, or columns, just a timeline with previews of the images.


    What app are you still searching for?

    A version of iPlayer Radio that goes straight to 6music…

    What’s your top tip?

    Aside from using the search bar to find and launch apps (drag down anywhere on the screen and type your search) … I’d suggest using the “add to reading list” feature in Safari, which syncs with Safari on my mac and phone  (Sync seems to be my essential feature)

    Screenshot of add to reading list feature in Safari

    So that’s my homescreen.

    If  you have any comments, suggestions, or fancy sharing your home screen with the Uni, and the world drop me a line.

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