Edutechie - the adventures of a learning technologist

Eli Appleby-Donald's views of educational technology

Tag: syndicated-feed


Not sure if blogging is your thing? Here’s why it should be…

Blogging seems to have reared its head at work again, with a new centrally supported platform being launched, but it’s one of those weird things that I take for granted and yet I’m amazed at how many folk who surround me can’t imagine why they would or even how they would, start blogging.

I guess it’s because we connect a couple of things in our heads:

  1.  academics need to write a certain way and publish in a certain place otherwise it’s not “real” or respected.
  2. blogging is not respectable, it’s something people do to talk about cooking and make up, not research.

Well, both of these are kind of right, if you want to be published in an academic journal you have to write to and meet certain standards, but that doesn’t mean you may not also benefit from writing in a different way and publishing somewhere else, like blogging.  Afterall, you don’t spend your career only being published on one journal?

Put it this way, not every inspirational thought you have will end up in a journal, you could still share them as blog posts though, rather than let them drop off the face of the earth 🙂

Also, lots of people read blogs, and yes lots of those people work in academia too, so it can also help you reach a wider audience and build stronger networks. You can even blog to talk about journal articles you’ve written, it’s all impact.

How to get started blogging in academia (regardless of your role in academia)

Blogging versus academic writing

Most academic writing involves time, blood, sweat and tears. Blogging is the opposite of that, not that you still shouldn’t take this seriously, after all it’s still your name out there, but, aim to create a more relaxed writing style that’s interesting to both other academics and the general public at large.  Use first person, it’s personal and easy to connect to and makes your readers feel like you are speaking directly to them. Letting your personality shine through is a good thing.

I should also point out, another key thing is word count. With a blog post, you should be aiming to keep it short and sweet, about 800 – 1000 words. That can be a real challenge, ask the students currently trying to write 1000 word position pieces,  but if you remember this is a conversation between you and your readers about something you find interesting, it might seem more managable.

5 tips to help you write that first blog post

1. How big: the average blog post should be roughly 500-1000 words.

2. First paragraph: the first paragraph is what hooks your readers, make it interesting but also use it to say what that post is about. Often when you share blogs, it’s that first paragraph that people see as a “teaser”.

3. Titles: this is your headline, treat it as such. Keep it short but make it interesting and avoid anything generic.  So “Not sure if blogging is your thing? Here’s why it should be…”  not “Blogging for academics”.

4. Visual: blogs are a visual medium so include appropriate videos, graphics and photos to help get your point across, but remember you will be responsible for abiding by copyright law on these images.

5. Keep your blog active. You don’t have to produce a post every week, but don’t let your blog sit unloved for months at a time either and if you allow your readers to comment, respond in a timely manner. Remember I said it was a conversation?

My last tip is that if you are struggling to shake off the cloak of academic writing and get into your blogging flow… try writing it on your mobile phone. It’s much harder to write an academic piece with autocorrect ruining things, and it might just switch your brain from work mode into communication guru mode. Try it.

Photo by: Paul Dodds 2016

Standardisation, safe and comforting or driving out creativity in teaching?

The higher education sector is vast and in many instances the institutions themselves are trying to find the best ways to cope with extraordinarily large class sizes and student volumes, but obviously without wishing to recruit vast numbers of staff or create an endless loop of administrative burden onto those staff. It’s in this area that the latest learning technology project I’ve become aware of has appeared and got me thinking. It set me thinking about a student paper I wrote specifically about VLEs (virtual learning environments) and to ask questions about creativity in teaching whilst using VLEs as a standard university tool.

I focussed on the thoughts of our digital age and the fact that we have the seemingly limitless resource of the internet at our finger tips and of how it is seen as a highly valuable resource for learning and is heavily used by the current and coming student population who were raised in a world of accessible, digital technology.  But there are concerns that these very students are experiencing digital dissonance in educational institutions (Chattie and Jarke, 2007) where these views are not necessarily shared for learning in an educational setting. Some studies have gone so far as to suggest that students have difficulty setting boundaries between formal or informal learning even when the institutions they attend try to enforce them, and that web 2.0 applications are therefore a necessary part of the 21st-century student toolkit (Clark et al., 2009) where today’s students have a wealth of experience with blogging, podcasting, sharing and collaborating over the internet in every day life and therefore it’s much more likely that they will adopt a social (web 2.0) driven practice based on collaboration and networking to their studies naturally.

With this in mind, how does the drive in our institutions of standardised platforms, controlled by administration and policy fair against this culture of social learning?  Again I think it’s important to acknowledge that regardless of our opinions on standardisation of learning tools, there are reasons behind it, reasons of administrative burden, controlling the quality of students experience (to ensure a consistently good experience). As I mentioned, I chose to explore this thought in a much more formal setting of higher education for myself.  I examined the affordances of web 2.0 as a tool to create social learning, by looking at its value as an open technology, the amount of control afforded to the creator of content and at the potential outcomes of using the tool. Then turn this same examination onto the virtual learning environments I use both as a student and an employee of higher education, to ask if the homogeneity of education technology is helpful or hindering? Did the good outweigh the bad?

Web 2.0

Web 2.0 is defined broadly as the more communicative, personal and participatory form of the world-wide-web, emphasising active participation, collaboration and connectivity to share knowledge and ideas and to actively contribute content. It’s also sometimes referred to as the “Read-Write Web” (Price 2006; Richardson 2006) as it offers more than the read-only, passivity of the original web. Web 2.0 applications have received growing interest from the educational sector over the last ten years (Alexander 2006) as they are seen to hold potential for addressing the needs of today’s millennial student population, enhancing the learning experiences through networking, collaboration and community (Bryant 2006).  This then reinforces constructivist pedagogies popular in teaching (Gillani 2000; Jonassen 1995; Jonassen & Land 2000; Relan & Gillani 1996).

Web 2.0 contains software or applications which support social learning through community and group interaction, although we could argue that the previous form of the web supported social interaction through email, chat rooms and discussion boards, the tools available through web 2.0 not only offer social interaction, feedback and networking, but are more flexible and collaborative allowing media to be shared, combined and built on to create new ideas, concepts, and mashups. Social networking applications like facebook and twitter now also offer users the possibility to interact in real time using webcams and microphones.  Web 2.0 is not radically different from the previous version of the web; rather it is the affordances offered by the applications available which have changed.

It is these affordances which offer the opportunity to use web 2.0 as an open tool for education. Blogs, wikis, social networking, and video sharing applications all have potential as a pedagogical tool to offer the opportunity to increase communication, interaction and co-creation, supporting learning which occurs in a social, collaborative form when students use these tools to create collective activity.

Being web-based and created with communication in mind, there are little boundaries for the opportunity to communicate and share globally with other users.


Web 2.0 collaborative tools and their benefits are widely recognised within our higher education institutions, and the implementation of single point of access technology platforms incorporating these tools are now widespread and known as virtual learning environments (VLE). These systems are mostly propriety in nature created specifically for the purpose of managing,  specifically managing learners, teaching materials, student work and access in an educational setting.

Accessibility to education, control of overheads and quality control are the three most commonly given reasons for the shift in delivery modes to that of technology-driven delivery (Daniel 2003). It’s ability to meet these needs means the adoption of VLEs has been swift (Oblinger and Kidwell, 2000), with ninety-five percent of UK universities now using them (Lonn and Teasley, 2009).  These platforms also combine a range of course management and pedagogical tools to provide a method of designing, building and delivering teaching. Those tools do include the afore mentioned blogs, wikis and discussion forums.

The greatest potential of the VLE to the university is that they are scalable systems able to support a class cohort of hundreds as easily as ten thereby offering the opportunity to enroll and teach a larger volume of students offering an economy of scale. They can also be used to provide administrative support to an entire university’s teaching programmes or to house the entire catalogue of teaching materials but are creating a battle over control of teaching and pedagogy (Chattie and Jarke 2007). The key to the use of these technologies by the University, however, is the enrollment of students. These systems are locked down only allowing access to the materials and tools within to those who are enrolled as users, meaning the university dictates the community within.

Web 2.0 technologies in general, are seen to reinforce constructivist pedagogies (Gillani 2000; Jonassen 1995; Relan & Gillani 1996). Theorists claim that the internet can improve learning by giving learners access to an infinite library of resources. Arguing that internet technologies can be used to make course contents more cognitively accessible ( Coates et al., 2005) to the individual by encouraging interaction with a richer, more diverse knowledge network.

Some VLEs do offer tools for pedagogical functions including; synchronous and asynchronous communication like email, blogging, announcement pages, and discussion forums content development and delivery by hosting learning resources in repositories, offering links to resources and text-based information areas choice tests and group work and feedback tools, as well as course or student management from enrollment to managing student activities, But the network connections of these are restricted within the “safe” confines of the institution’s systems, reducing the potential for the creation of communities of learning or collaboration outwith that student’s class cohort. VLEs, therefore, suggest a closed classroom approach to learning at a time when some scholars are calling for the increased use of open, community technologies to be brought into effective learning and teaching for the twenty-first century (Brown and Adler 2008).


In contrast to the restriction of community and locking of design, web 2.0 applications like blogs allow infinite customisation options to users through both editable “skins” and access to the underlying code for those who are more skilled. The content users generate on these can also then be shared publicly through the platform used to create the content or by sharing with other platforms and application.

VLEs offer “universities a hitherto undreamt-of capacity to control and regulate teaching” (Coates et al., 2005, p.p. 25). The built-in functionality within each system allows for easy customisation of the look and feel of the student experience, within limits, without the need for web development skills. Many institutions provide a ready to use standardised template or guides for such customisation to ensure quality control and to help reduce the administrative workload placed on staff. This allows course owners to make use of customised headers and graphics to identify their course from others but limits the ability to alter structure or tool performance, essentially forcing conformity. VLEs can also be seen to conform to a classroom metaphor, encouraging didactic teaching (Sheely, 2006) rather than creativity and by “locking down” the system elements, transfer the control of teaching material design from the teacher and onto the institution itself reducing the influence of the teacher over the teaching of her class.


“VLEs are not pedagogically neutral technologies” (Coates et al., 2005, 27),  instead, through their design, they can and do influence teaching. As the VLE and other learning technologies become part of everyday teaching practice, they will invisibly influence and may even define teachers’ creativity, expectations, and behaviours. This may be particularly the case for newer academics with less experience (Frand 2000). The inclusion of VLEs into universities makes it likely that new teachers will gain a great deal of their experience in design and delivery of teaching through these systems (Coates et al., 2005). These are important considerations given the possibility that, increasingly, VLEs will play the major role in how teachers learn to teach.  Currently, there has been a lack, if any studies on the pedagogical effects of VLEs and this must be corrected.The hyperbole of technology being an educational remedy often stalls critical discussion of educational technology as a tool for teaching and learning (McLoughlin and Lee, 2008a). Therefore research tends to focus on implementation rather than pedagogy with regard to VLEs (Lonn and Teasley 2009) meaning more investigation is needed into pedagogy and learning to allow implementation decisions to focus on these rather than administrative wins.

Although web 2.0 applications can offer increased community of learning opportunities and personal control over the student’s own work, it must be remembered that these too come with potential outcomes for the student and teaching. Access to a great library of content to use and share must be respected, and web 2.0 and its sharing abilities for learning and teaching should go hand in hand with teaching about responsibilities and rights regarding the work of others. Because the ability to share everything that is available, means students must be taught about when it is and isn’t appropriate to share.


Educational technology can only raise the levels of learning and teaching if we allow it to be fully part of the process of both rather than merely an administrative tool clothed as pedagogy. Web 2.0 applications allow users choice and control as well as learning opportunities through rich, global, communities of knowledge rather than passive and solitary learning. However by restricting the ability of the student to access these tools, for the teacher to design how to incorporate these tools, or by simple restricting the community students can access, we are offering no more than the didactic or cartesian classrooms of the industrial era. Learning management systems offer much in the way of cost reduction and quality assurance for institutions, but aside from being a single point of entry, offer little to improve student learning and can shackle the creativity of the teacher.


Alexander, B., 2006. A New Wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning? Educause Review, 42(2), pp.32–44. Available at:

Brown, J. S. & Adler, R. P. 2008. Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. Educause Review, 43(1), pp.16–32. Available at:

Bryant, T. 2006. Social software in academia, Educause Quarterly, 29(2), 61-64.

Chatti, M.A., Jarke, M. & Frosch-Wilke, D. 2007. The future of e-learning: a shift to knowledge networking and social software. International Journal of Knowledge and Learning, 3(4-5), pp.404–420. Available at:

Clark, W. et al., 2009. Beyond Web 2.0: mapping the technology landscapes of young learners. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25(1), pp.56–69. Available at:

Coates, H., James, R. & Baldwin, G., 2005. A critical examination of the effects of learning management systems on university teaching and learning. Tertiary Education and Management, 11(1), pp.19–36. Available at:

Daniel, J., Kanwar, A. & Uvalić-Trumbić, S. 2009. Breaking Higher Education’s Iron Triangle: Access, Cost, and Quality. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(2), pp.30–35. Available at:

Downes, S. 2005. E-learning 2.0. eLearn Magazine, an ACM Publication. Available at:

Frand, J.L. 2000. The Information Age Mindset:Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education. Educause Review 35(5),14-24. Available at:

Gillani, B.B. 2000. Using the Web to Create Student Centred Curriculum. In R.A.Cole(ed.), Issues in Web Based Pedagogy. London:Greenwood Press.

Jonassen,D.H.1995.Constructivism: Implications for Designs and Delivery of Instruction. New York:Scholastics.

Lonn, S. & Teasley, S.D. 2009, “Saving time or innovating practice: investigating perceptions and uses of learning management systems”, Computers and Education, Vol. 53 No. 3, pp. 686-94. Available at:

McLoughlin, C. and Lee, M.J.W. 2008. The three P’s of pedagogy for the networked society: personalization,participation,and productivity, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 10-27. Available at:

Oblinger, D. & Kidwell, J. 2000.Distance Learning:Are we being Realistic? Educause Review 35(3), 30-39. Available at:

Price, K. 2006. Web 2.0 and education: What it means for us all. Paper presented at the 2006 Australian Computers in Education Conference, 2-4 October, Cairns, Australia.

Relan, A. & Gillani, B.B. 1996. Web Based Instruction and the Traditional Classroom:Similarities and Differences.In B.H.Khan(ed.),Web Based Instruction. Englewood Cliffs: Educational Technology Publications.

Richardson, W. 2006. Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other powerful tools for classrooms. Thousand Oaks,CA: Sage.

Sheely, S. 2006. Persistent technologies: Why can’t we stop lecturing online? In L. Markauskaite, P.Goodyear & P. Reimann (Eds), Who’s learning? Whose technology? Proceedings of the 23rd ASCILITE Conference (pp. 769-774). Sydney, NSW: CoCo, University of Sydney.

Sclater, N. 2008. Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems. Available at:

Photo: Eli Appleby-Donald 2018

Thank you for taking the time to say thank you: EUSA Teaching Award

It has been a very, very long time since I blogged here and I am royally ashamed of this. I just let things get in the way and stopped taking time to sit down and actively share. Today, however, something happened which gave me a bit of a jolt and reminded me that a small gesture can make a big difference and I just want to take the chance to say thank you to that person.

Today I received a badge in the university’s internal mail. It doesn’t sound like much, but this little badge to me, is the equivalent of a Blue Peter badge, but for work. Today I found out that a student had taken the time to email into the student’s union and nominate me for a teaching award. It is a small thing, and to most folk, students and staff alike, it probably feels too small and like it won’t make much difference. I want to just take a moment to correct that thought and tell you that it does. It makes a HUGE difference.

The fact that someone thought the work I do is important enough that it made a difference to them. That I somehow helped them in their studies the way people have helped me, feels amazing and is exactly why I do this job.

I am proudly wearing my badge and showing it to everyone I can stop for 20 seconds. So to whoever that student is, thank you. I really appreciate the time and effort you made to write in and explain why you think I deserved recognition.

Accessible documentation: why and how

It’s that time of year where those of us working in education are preparing for the coming academic year and one of these jobs is creating the new administration and learning material needed. This is a good time to have a review of the materials you have and update or replace things, especially if they have been created in a hurry to fill a gap and maybe haven’t had time taken to ensure the are “accessible”. I am so guilty of this hurried approach and it usually means more work in the long run as I have to revisit things and essentially redo them.

The Student Support Team here are currently working on one of their new students tomes and had contacted me for advice on how to make this mammoth document more accessible for our students. I thought it might be a good move to share some of this info. Also though, to show that things don’t have to be overly complicated.

What does accessible mean and why do it?

Accessible really just means easier to use, particularly for someone who has difficulties, but generally, for everyone.

Many people find electronic documents better than printed material. They may just find it more convenient or it may actually be easier for them to use a keyboard or other device to navigate through pages on a screen rather than turning paper pages, they may even use a computer to read documents or magnify them. Making your documents accessible means a little bit of extra time and attention but it could make a huge difference, not just for users with specific difficulties though, making your documents more accessible also makes them more usable for everyone so it’s good practice.

Hints & tips on making a document accessible

Ok then here are a few simple things that you can do when you create a document which will make it easier everyone. I am specifically talking about using MS Word but the same principles can be transferred to the other two main accessible formats: HTML pages or PDF files. And… even your blog pages.

My most important guidelines are:

  • Use styles and headings instead of direct formatting
  • Construct tables correctly
  • treat text appropriately
  • white space is your friend

Styles & Formatting

Appropriate layout and formatting help any user to understand the structure of a long document.  Headings are a great indicator of each section, for people and screen readers, and subsections and bullet lists help emphasise important points. I mentioned screen readers, well following some basic rules about headers makes it a much better experience for folk using screen readers too. It helps to make navigation consistent.

You can use direct formatting to achieve the same visual result, for example making a line of text bold and increasing its size. This would make it look like a heading, but it wouldn’t appear in a document map and a screen reader wouldn’t interpret it as a useful navigation item. So it’s good to remember that visually, you are sometimes interpreting what’s there rather than seeing what is actually there.


  • Use title style for the document title
  • Use headings for major sections such as chapters
  • Start with heading 1 for the most important headings
  • Continue with heading 2 and heading 3 etc.
  • Don’t skip from heading 1 to heading 3 or 4 if you can possibly avoid it


If you want to display an ordered item, use the appropriate list formatting rather than manually typing it yourself. Screen reader programs can announce the beginning and end of a list that is styled in this way. Some will also announce the number of items in the list.


  • apples
  • oranges
  • strawberries
  1. Cars
  2. trucks
  3. buses


Another important thing to think about is tables and how you use them.

Please don’t use tables to display lists. Remember that it may make the document look pretty, but it won’t behave as expected when someone is using a screen reader. Tables should only be used to display tabular information. This goes for using tables to layout a document. A screen reader will read out the tables of the cell in order from top left to right and then downwards, regardless of how you want the document to be read.

Be careful using tables to show text, make sure that all the text which should be read together is in one cell.

Do it like this

Don’t create a table this way

Otherwise, a screen reader will read the text as:

Jack and Jill Old King Cole
Went up the hill Was a merry old soul
To fetch a pail of water. And a merry old soul was he.
Jack fell down He called for his pipe
And broke his crown And he called for his bowl
And Jill came tumbling after. And he called for his fiddlers three.


It’s a good idea to keep fonts to around a size 14 but definitely no smaller than 12. This will help users with visual impairments.  It is also good to avoid what’s called a non-serif font like Times New Roman. The little tails on the letters make it harder for some people to read. Think of it as the more ornate the font, the more people will find it harder to read.

I tend to stick to:

  • Arial
  • Verdana
  • Calibri
  • Tahoma
  • Helvetica

Use dark text against a pale background, this is best for users with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, but it’s good to know that a dark grey works better for most people than black. Black text on a white background is a very dramatic contrast and can cause blurriness for some people. However, just to contradict myself, some users with visual impairments may find a pale font on a dark background easier to read. The importance is that there is sufficient contrast between the text colour and the background colour. For example, black font on a cream or buff background is a good contrast and is usually popular amongst those with difficulties s is dark grey text on white. I use purple paper with black text.

Backgrounds should always be plain.

Some individuals may require printed documents on different coloured paper as this can assist those with Irlen Syndrome (Scotopic Sensitivity Disorder), Dyslexia, and other specific learning difficulties. See my aforementioned need for purple paper.

When aligning font, don’t justify text as this makes the spaces between the words uneven and difficult to read. The spacing it creates is called rivers and can pull the readers’ focus away from the text.

Always align left.

This was a very brief tour of some accessibility hints for your documents, but you could go investigate if you’d like to get into this in more detail. Speak to your disability officer and ask for their advice for your particular workplace or institution.


Shared under Creative Commons:

Wikipedia – for teaching and learning

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.

That is the vision statement of the world’s largest open educational resource Wikipedia. Just in case there is anyone out there who hasn’t heard of Wikipedia, it’s a massive free online encyclopedia which is written and edited by internet users.  It has long had a reputation of not being reliable, of being a repository of information that is neither credible nor peer-reviewed simple because it is written and edited by internet users, but is this still the case? Should we continue to discourage students from using Wikipedia to access information?

I have to hold my hand up and admit that I have long discouraged the use of Wikipedia, citing it as unreliable but I will now admit my mistake and retract that statement. I’ve learned just how much work and collaboration and peer review goes into every article on Wikipedia. How an article will not be accepted if it does not have academically acceptable sources to support its information and I’ve learned all this because this past year has seen me in a fantastic journey of discovery.

The University has taken on a Wikipedian in Residence, meaning we now have an expert in using Wikipedia for teaching available to all of us who’d like to learn more or start using this fantastic OER.  He has helped to run some outstanding events around the use of Wikipedia and more importantly about making sure the information on Wikipedia is top-notch and he’s also pushing to correct the gender balance which exists amongst both editors. Only 15% of people who edit Wiki articles are female meaning there is a slant towards biographies and articles about men and those about women are woefully under represented.

So far this year there have been loads of events or editathons where students and staff have come together to update or create new articles, just a few to mention are;

and there are still a lot more to come.

But the purpose of these has not just been about updating the Open Educational Resource of Wikipedia, it’s been about teaching the people involved digital skills, research skills, how to use citations and collaboration skills.

The process engages students, and in some cases engages with students who had perhaps been less confident when working on traditional assignments, in researching the topic and applying the digital literacy skills required to achieve the creation of an article. The end result is not an essay that could potentially be filed away and forgotten but instead something that adds to “the sum of human knowledge” and is discoverable by other readers and editors all over the world so that they, in turn, can add more to it.

This is a massive topic and I’m conscious of not producing a huge and unwieldy blog post so if you are interested in learning more about the use of Wikipedia in teaching, here are some starter for ten links to get your research groove on.

And watch out for an update when New College hosts its very own editathon in November where I’ll be joining in and putting my newly learned wikipedian skills to the test.

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