Friday, 15 March 2013

Event Report - MELSIG special focus event: Smart Devices for Learning, Sheffield Hallam University, February 8th 2013

A few weeks ago I was very fortunate to help organise and run the latest of our events from the Media Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group, MELSIG. The event was titled “Smart Devices for Learning and took place at Sheffield Hallam on February 8th. Before discussing the event itself, I should provide a bit more background info about MELSIG.
Around 2007, I was tasked with looking into developing the use of podcasting as an educational technology within the University here at Sheffield. In early 2008, I became aware of the formation of a new special interest group funded by the Higher Education Academy, entitled Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes (PPP), and I was able to attend their inaugural meeting. As a result of this I joined the steering group  and so have been involved in running the group ever since. One of the main thrusts of our activity over the last four years has been the running of events at Institutions around the UK, and this last one was our 15th so far.

Typically our events will have some core elements, which are based around the fundamentals of the use of media (particularly audio) in learning and teaching, and are presented as a day long series of workshops and presentations. These would include a basic introduction to the pedagogical concepts and opportunities afforded by the use of audio, and then would be followed up by some more specific workshop type sessions focusing on pedagogical principles that can be used in designing podcasts, and some more practical guidance on how to create them, often with some hands on training being provided in Audacity by our colleague Alan Carr from the University of Chester.  We would also feature a keynote, addressing a particular theme.

One area in which we have been particularly active is in promoting the use of audio (and media more generally) as a means of providing effective and meaningful feedback to students.  With feedback being a sector wide issue, this has been a recurrent theme in a number of our events as well as being the specific focus of a couple of events too, including the “A Word in Your Ear” conference in December 2009. A list of links to more information about these events, and the resources that arisen from them is provided below.

February’s event has marked a slight change in focus for MELSIG.  The link between the use of podcasts and the broader field of mobile learning has been implicit in my mind since I first became involved in it. What has changed enormously in this relatively short time period however, is the nature of the devices with which we envisage students will be learning, in increasingly more diverse times and spaces.  So *all the way back* back in 2008 (a whole five years ago) we were focusing on students downloading and transferring audio to personal media players - there had been no massive convergence of devices that has led to the almost ubiquitous smartphone we see today, and certainly no really credible attempt at producing tablet devices. So for this event we decided to turn our attention to these amazing portable devices, and to start to really look at some of the affordances they can offer......

After our welcome and introduction to the day, given by Andrew Middleton from Sheffield Hallam, who is also the Chair of MELSIG, we had our first keynote session - “Focus on Fieldwork- Opportunities, problems and solutions”, delivered by Professor Brian Whalley (Universities of Belfast and Sheffield) and Vicky Powell (University of Chester).  Coming from a field based disciplines myself (biology and archaeology), this is a topic very close to my heart, and we’ve made some significant investment in developing mobile resources to support archaeology students here at the University (more about below).  

Brian and Vicky talked us through a number of different fieldwork projects, and discussed how they had made use of different type of mobile technologies over a number of years.  In their first iterations they were using netbooks, which would allow the use of fully featured Geographical Information Systems software such as ArcGIS, and Open Office. Although these devices were offered much functionality, the students didn’t always appreciate the choice of software and disliked sharing the devices with peers. They also used LiveScribe pens to assist their students in note taking, which seemed popular.

After these earlier preambles, they moved over to using the iPad2, and one of the particular areas in which Brian was interested was to determine how exactly these potential game-changers could match up to using a traditional field notebook, and to provide a personalised learning environment for the students It may sound a  bit self evident that of course one of the most revolutionary aspects of the new revolution in mobile devices is the ready availability of cheap apps that support a huge range of activities. This point is significant though because it means that we can very effectively support students in the field using these devices without necessarily having to develop large quantities of content ourselves, instead enabling the students to work more effectively with certain tools that allow greater ease of note taking, data recording and communicating amongst the group, via a few inexpensive Apps. Fieldwork is a very expensive resource so any intervention that makes it more productive is worthwhile.

Some of the Apps mentioned were:

Notability - a note taking app that allows a great combination of sketching, handwriting, typing and pdf annotating tools. It also allows audio recording and the ability to link recordings to objects on screen, which would make it very powerful in classroom settings.

Skitch - from the famous Evernote stable, Skitch is another drawing and annotation tool. It allows you to take a photo from the devices camera and very easily annotate it. Like Evernote it automatically syncs to the cloud, and has desktop computer versions of the software too (PC and Mac). This App was cited as being particularly useful for helping doing field sketches, which are very important to aid students’ understanding of the geographical features they study.

GeoID - those who have ever had the need to use a Compass-Clinometer will be on familiar ground with this. It is an App version of a physical device used to measure angles of slope, and is very useful for mapping geomorphological structures.

GPS Log - this App uses the device’s GPS to enable the creation of geo tagged images, which can then be tagged, annotated and shared out to services such as Google Earth.

Twitter (assorted clients thereof) - this old faithfull (see again how we refer historically to something that dates all the way back to July 2006) was used by students to communicate rapidly to the whole group - something again that is a real challenge in conventional fieldwork.

Brian and Vicky also discussed a few broader issues, which would be relevant in supporting fieldwork with mobile technologies in any discipline. Generally speaking, certainly the iPads were a great success and seemed very popular with the students - in particular the ability to capture images and video and use them either for reflection, or to assist in their note taking. Not surprisingly for field work uses, it may be necessary to consider some protective cases for the devices, although sometimes these may provide a bit of a barrier to their use (for example accessing the camera). Quite surprisingly it seems that a carrier bag provides  fairly effective waterproofing for an iPad through which one can write with a stylus...... 

Even the apparent complexity of playing the harp can be vastly simplified using Skitch. Copyright Graham McElearney 2013

Another significant issue addressed was that of device ownership - with much attention being given to the notion of “Bring Your Own Device” recently, Brian was keen to find out his students’ attitudes towards this. Many indicated that they would like to use their own devices as they feel they are personalised to them, easier to handle, and that they are less apprehensive about damaging their own device rather than an University owned one. It does seem that there would be management issues involved though - students would need access to the Apps and the devices would need to be set up in advance. This could also raise issues such as age of the devices and available storage. So there’s probably more to the debate than the simple issue of cost, and whether having a BYOD policy would disadvantage certain learners.

The next session presented another broad scale use of mobile devices in a specific context - with Robin Gissing and Tom Jolley  showing us a range of projects from the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing at Sheffield Hallam University.  Their broad approach was to evaluate the potential of these devices in supporting learning in the faculty, and they explored the use of Motorola Xooms. Apple iPod Touch and iPad2 devices as part of this, so as to explore the experience of using both platforms. The devices were all owned and managed by the Faculty, and there interesting lessons to be learned here. The Motorola Xooms seemed to present some management problems due to the way that they needed to be linked to specific Google accounts, and some difficulties were also encountered ob getting onto the Google Play app store via the campus network.

Seemingly more successful were the experiments in using the iPads. They went from an original collection of 6, to over 30, which they issued to staff on a loan basis as part of their trial. Management of these loan devices, also used by students in classes, was more easily achieved using the Apple Configurator, in conjunction with an iPad “cart”. The Configurator software allows multiple devices to be managed in terms of Apps and user data, as well as other important profile information such as WiFi settings, and the cart allows up to 30 to be connected, charged and configured at once.  Procuring bulk copies of Apps that may be required (such as those mentioned by Brian above) is now in theory quite simple using the Volume Purchasing Plan (VPP). The VPP enables multiple copies of the same App or iBook to be purchased via Redeem codes (not dissimilar to the gift voucher idea), and the Configurator software handles mapping the Redeem codes for the individual Apps to the individual devices.  Robin and Tom are also looking to apply the same principles with Nexus devices, although on the surface there appears to be a smaller number of Apps available for these.

Robin and Tom then showcased some of the specific initiatives they had been working on across the Faculty. The first example featured videos that had been made by some of the students, along with their lecturer Mel Lindley, on teaching techniques to physiotherapists. They had focused on quite a specialist topic, cardio and respiratory treatment, which is an area students don’t often get to practice on placement. Some of the students who had worked with Mel were able to come and relate to us how positive their experience of making the videos had been, and served as a very potent reminder as to what a great contribution our students can make to events ostensibly aimed at staff. This example was also the first one I had seen created in TED Ed, and looks something well worth pursuing further.

Also demonstrated was an Augmented Reality (AR) App they had developed to enhance the use of their SimMen - these are mannequin like simulated patients used extensively in nursing education. Whilst the SimMen are excellent at replicating various life signs that can be monitored with authentic bedside equipment (pulse, blood pressure, respiration etc), they do less well at representing an authentic experience of interacting with a real patient/ The AR App, created using Aurasma, superimposes the head of a real person over that of the simulated patient, and is able to give the students their patient history. Early evaluation shows that the students engaged with the “patients” far more, being able to remember their names and conditions weeks apart between classes, which hadn’t happened previously.

A final case study demoed the use of Coach’s Eye. This App, which they used with student teachers studying physical education, allows for very simple annotation of videos filmed within the App. Videos can be viewed in slow motion or reverse, along with the annotations. Students were very engaged by using the App and requested its use more and more. Although ostensibly designed with sports coaching in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine using it with many other forms of content such as experimental lab phenomena or animal behaviour. As the videos can be exported it’s also possible to see how they could be used within a TED-Ed or AR environment.

In the final part of the session, Robin and Tom unveiled their “101 Ideas” project - an compendium of 101 potential use cases for iPads in learning and teaching. All in all the session was an excellent review of how an initiative could be pursued across a whole faculty. Examples of the AR App, and

After lunch it was over to Alex Spiers and Chrissie Nerantzi for the Killer Apps Workout joint session. In this session the whole group divided up into two groups in separate rooms for an interactive workshop challenge. This workshop used an ingenious  combination of Twitter, with the World Cafe format. Divided up into 6 groups, each group was allocated a pedagogical theme to discuss, and then choose which Apps, from the members’ experience, could be used to facilitate these. The themes were communicating, collaborating, sharing, creating, staying safe, and curating. The group in which was working had collaboration as the theme.  Some of the Apps we listed were perhaps quite obvious choices - Google Drive, Google + Hangouts, Blackboard Collaborate, Dropbox, Facebook and a host of Twitter clients. But of course the great thing about a gathering such as this were what new things we learned from each other. So new ones to me were Woices (a geo referenced audio recording and hosting service), Pearl Trees (a visual social bookmarking tool), Linoit (a social post-it note sharing tool), and Nearpod (a collaborative presentation tool).  And in tracking down some of these Apps in writing this I also found a great Pinterest page looking at educational Apps at A list of Apps in the other categories is provided by the series of links at the bottom of this article.

The rest of my day at the event was taken up by delivering a couple of presentations myself. In the first of these Andrew Middleton and I described our recent experiences in producing our first eBook. One of the medium term deliverables that we’ve been working on at MELSIG central has been the production of an edited volume, looking at a range of various aspects around educational podcasting, ranging from infrastructural issues through to the use of audio feedback, and many points in between.  We are going to produce another article about this before long, but in summary, it was an exploration for us both into the issues in taking existing content and delivering via eBook format. Andrew opted for getting the book prepared in standard epub and Kindle formats (which are now available - see details below), whilst I went down the Apple iBooks route, as it was related to some other work I’ve been doing on delivering video based content to mobile devices.  The one take home message we can share here is that given that most people will create their text using Microsoft Word, keeping the formatting simple, and sticking to the use of basic Word “styles” is the key to a relatively painless migration to all three formats.

The final presentation of the day for me was to do a quick demonstration of creating a simple App using the Buzztouch framework. I will again make this the subject of its own post soon, but will still summarise here. Some of you may have seen a discussion of Buzztouch in a post about the White Rose Learning Technologists’ Forum in April last year, where we reported on a fairly mind blowing development from Robin Gissing and Peter Walder from Sheffield Hallam. In essence. Buzztouch is a framework that facilitates the development of native Apps (for both IOS and Android), and after seeing the Robin and Peter’s presentation I’ve been looking at producing some myself. These have largely been motivated by my need to get a way of getting some video rich content onto a mobile device for use in teaching archaeology field techniques, which often take place in locations where there is no Internet connectivity. Sadly I missed a couple of the presentations that were being conducted in parallel, although my colleague Neil Everill reported very positively back from the Post PC - Shift Happens session in which the student voice was represented again, from the perspective of which Apps they had found most useful.

In conclusion I find myself reflecting again on what a fantastic experience being involved with MELSIG has been. It has been so influential on my current thinking and practices, especially those around student creativity and media production, and has seen me take a complete journey away from viewing students as consumers of media we produce. through to being producers of a wide range of media as tools for constructing their own knowledge and understanding.

We are also now looking at repeating this event and so if you would be interested in hosting a similar event at your own Institution, do please contact either myself (g.mcelearney@sheffield,ac,uk) or Andrew Middleton (

Useful Links and appendices.

Presentations from the day can be found at

Be sure to check out the activities as part of the Swap Shop, and also the Twitter narrative as captured on Storify (also available at

An edited list of Apps that he group identified in Alex and Chrissi’s session has been put together at

More information about our book, Digital Voices, which we announced at the event, edited by Andrew Middleton and the MELSIG Steering Group, can be found here:

Sales of the book will go towards funding future events

An emerging body of Apps from Robin and Tom’s “101 Ideas...” can be found here

The Physiotherapy resources can be found here:



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