• The Ecstasy and Agony of Primitive Learning Analytics

    I’m awake and trying to be productive (for me) early in the day. I’m technically on a medical leave of absence but I’m not very good at doing nothing. I therefore promised to coordinate and edit the efforts of four moderators to produce a cohesive TT284 moderators’ report and I have some work ahead contributing my share to one for T320 too. This led to some musing about the primitive learning analytics I like to collect based on forum participation and the difficulties in obtaining them.

    Forum Statistics for OU Courses

    One thing I like to do is track forum usage statistics, a primitive form of learning analytics. Since we changed to Moodle from FirstClass, I don’t find this very easy. In FirstClass, not only could you do standard types of search on message data, but the read history of each message was also searchable. Combine that with a built-in way to restrict the search to specific conferences, sort the output by conference, user, or date, and group by conference or user, and you could determine all kinds of things. Some of my favourites were:

    • Total # of messages posted.
    • Total # of unique posters.
    • Total # of unique readers contrasted with enrolled students.
    • Percentage of posts that were moderators/course news versus students.
    • Top ten student posters and % of overall posts they contributed.
    • A breakdown of posting activity by logical parts and subparts, e.g. “Block 1″ overall but also “Block 1: Software Support” and “Block 1: Discussion”.

    The last one was useful to examine between different presentations when combined with knowledge of total number of students enrolled. It permitted me to see where students had the most problems and collect evidence if, when changes had been made for the following presentation, changes were having a positive effect. You could also see the trends in posting behaviour across cohorts.

    Getting at the Data

    In theory, some of this information is available in the Moodle logs. I just downloaded the log for one of my past courses I chaired and was surprised to note I could see “add reply” buried amongst the many “view forumng” entries. It’s downloadable as a CSV, so you’d have to roll your own data analysis tools to pull out the relevant bits. There are built-in statistics analysis facilities but they always seemed to be disabled on my courses, making download logs the only real option.

    The problem is access to those logs isn’t always available. As a course chair on Moodle 1.x, if the course was “editable”, then the admin tools were visible and the logs could be accessed. My last presentation (2012B, ending May 2012) somehow got into LTS’s update loop and the status/workflow changed back to needing to request access, so the admin links aren’t visible. I was able to hack the URL based on access to another course and get at it but that’s a bit of a pain.

    On my Moodle 2.x version course, I can see “Reports” but not a link to logs anywhere. I could edit the course site and back up the content, but perhaps I don’t have the permissions to access the logs. Certainly a typical moderator likely wouldn’t.

    What I Do in Moodle

    My approach generally in Moodle, regardless of the version, has therefore been very simplistic. I discovered that if I used Safari (but not Firefox) and copied the table listing the threads in a given forum and then pasted that into a spreadsheet, the HTML table’s columns were preserved. I could then have it sum the total number of messages per forum as one of the columns was number of thread posts. This isn’t very automated. I have to do it per forum and copy the totals into an appropriate place and most forums have multiple pages, each of which has to be handled separately.

    To Automate Or Not

    This is ripe for automation because certain actions are predictable, repeatable, and tedious. It’s the classic story though: do I spend the time trying to write something to automate it or just do it? Which will take less time? In the long run, if you do this yearly and across many courses, then automating it will save you time but there’s that up-front cost.

    A tool would also need to have a settings file, probably listing the module’s base URL and containing a list of the forum ID numbers/URLs and names. These are required because every presentation has a different ID and every forum has its own unique ID used to access it. Most modules don’t maintain a page that solely lists only the forums and the number/structure of those forums would vary between different modules. I suggested including names—or at least names I’d like to use to refer to them in reports—because otherwise you have to scrape that off the forum pages too and I’d find shorter ones more useful than the full, formal names.

    Another issue to contend with is authentication. I don’t already have code that can sign into the OU and maintain authentication for the session, although I know some people must. Before we had the “Dashboard”, one T320 AL wrote a tool to scrape metadata from the VLE and stored it in a local MySQL database. He then had an interface producing a dashboard for him that was something more than just a list of forums per course with an unread message indicator. I’ve recently heard, however, he gave up on his tool because VLE changes kept breaking it.


    Here I am writing about what I should be doing rather than doing it, but the process of thinking about it is always useful. Perhaps someone’s already done some of or all of this? My bet would be on Tony Hirst, but LTS colleagues may have some tools and I just don’t know about them.

  • Wanted: TT381 Café Moderator. Pay Peanuts. Prestige Priceless.

    Open Source Initiative's Open Source 'O' logo with the chunk taken out of it to make it open
    Credit: Open Source Initiative

    Image: The Open Source Initiative’s Open Source logo.

    One of my jobs at The Open University is chairing TT381, the course on Open Source philosophies and PHP development.  T381 is the fifth of the Web Apps Development (WAD) courses.  I’ve been involved with the presentation and development of the course since its launch.

    Although TT381 doesn’t start again until February, I’m forced to remember that the brilliant Keith Evetts has resigned as the Student Café moderator.  I need to make some recommendations for a replacement.  I’m therefore soliciting expressions of interest from former students for the paid position of Café moderator.  In theory, the Café moderator is responsible for overseeing the social forum, which means making the atmosphere fun and inviting.  He or she should also work together with the course team to deal with any issues that are raised in the Café.   Keith Evetts, of course, went far beyond this.  He also actively participated in all of the course forums and ran a series of optional coding exercises where you can never have too many parrots.  He’s set the bar high!

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  • E-Mail in the Cloud: An Open University Survey

    Windows Live Mail mailbox in Redmond, WA

    Windows Live Mail mailbox in Redmond, WA

    I joined the Open University (OU) as an Associate Lecturer (AL) back in May 2000 to teach the university’s T171: You, Your Computer and the Net course, the university’s first large-scale foray into online teaching. As one of hundreds of new ALs, I was thrown into the world of FirstClass, the university’s chosen platform for collaboration and discussion in its courses, and among its students and associate lecturers. If you haven’t already heard, the death knell for FirstClass has been sounded. I believe the transition away from FirstClass for courses is expected to be complete by October 2010. As part of that transition, our e-mail accounts need to go somewhere, but where?

    Sample Google Mail Spam Folder

    Sample Google Mail Spam Folder

    If you’re a student, you may already be using your own personal, non-OU e-mail address at the university. If you’re an associate lecturer or other academic/support staff, having a .open.ac.uk e-mail address is an important part of your professional identity. According to David Wilson, director of strategic planning in LTS, a choice is being considered between Google Apps Education Edition and Microsoft Live@edu and should be made shortly (in Snowball 36 – November 2009). It will definitely be put into place for students, but it may extend further than that. The decision has not yet been made, so we have a very small window of opportunity to provide some input as to our preferences. I’ve constructed a very small, unofficial survey at SurveyMonkey to do that.

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  • OER and a Pedagogy of Abundance

    Martin Weller gave a 30-minute presentation last week for George Siemens’s CCK09 course on an idea he called “the pedagogy of abundance.” The key idea was that teaching in the past had been based on a scarcity model. I interpreted this as meaning knowledge was scarce (or closely guarded) and educators (the “talent”) were the scarce high priests on high–classic sage on the stage. He likened it to the music industry, which doesn’t strike me as too far off-base.

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  • What Do I Know? A Reflection on Influences

    For the first time in years, I’m taking a postgraduate course myself: H812: Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, which I’m doing both for personal development and to provide theoretical groundwork in educational pedagogy for my Ph.D. work in educational technology.

    A recent activity asked us to reflect on influences on our teaching practices, considering: practices arising from personal experiences as a student; practices from our departments; and practices we can attribute to other sources. In addition, we were asked to consider aspects of our workplace that favoured or hindered good practice. I starting making notes on the 14th of October. I did not post them to my group because I felt this was a really important activity. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, it can be difficult to move ahead in a purposeful fashion. I wanted this activity to serve as a good baseline, so I invested a substantial amount of effort into thinking about it and writing it up in a coherent, cohesive fashion.

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  • The 2008 H810 Interview Presentation

    Title Slide

    These are my slides for my August 19th interview presentation. I was given the remit of presenting a five- to ten-minute presentation on the “Challenges Affecting Disabled in E-Learning”. The interview was for an associate lecturer position on the new H810: Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students postgraduate course, part of the M.A. in online distance education. Each slide has been annotated based on my presentation preparation notes. A downloadable version is available.

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  • Using OmniDazzle in Apple Keynote Presentations

    I was recently recording a narrated Keynote presentation for display on the web and found myself wanting to use the OmniGroup’s very cool OmniDazzle screen effects program in conjunction with Apple’s Keynote presentation package. Unfortunately, by default, Keynote doesn’t play well with other applications, as it intercepts all the keyboard commands. You can, however, convince it to play nicely very easily. Here’s what you need to do.

    1. Open the Keynote preferences. This is in the program menu (or Apple/Cmd ,).

    2. Go to the “Slideshow” tab.

    3. Ensure that “Allow Exposé, Dashboard and others to use screen” is enabled with a checkmark beside it.

    That’s it! Now you can use OmniDazzle in your Keynote presentations.

  • In progress!

    I’m currently working on my HEA accreditation again. I told the facilitator that this would be the year I would succeed. Unfortunately, I’m rapidly running out of time. I need to make a huge push next weekend to get the bulk of it done and out the door. It’s been so low-priority that it keeps falling off my radar.