Washing machine

We keep our washing machine and dryer in a small room at the end of our entrance corridor. We call this our utility room. At one time, the corridor would have been a gap between the garage and the house but someone, a long time ago, brought it into the house by covering the gap and making the garage become ‘attached’. Where there used to be steps down to the back of the house (when the corridor was a gap!) there is now a utility room! Before that, when we moved in, it was a WC.

Why am I telling you this? Well, despite its convenience (we just have to pop out of what was the original main door and into the corridor and there we are) it’s still outside the main house. It has no central heating and by extension of the corridor, has a flat roof. For most of the year, it’s cold enough to store vegetables, beer and soft drinks in there. Brilliant. But occasionally this is not a good thing!

Yesterday the pipes froze.

It’s not the first time this has happened, although in January last, when it happened for the first time, we thought we’d fixed it by lagging the pipes in the garage (which feed this room) and doing whatever we needed to keep the flow flowing. However, I’d forgotten that part of the solution was to close the utility room window. With temperatures reaching lows not experienced in almost 50 years [Huddersfield Examiner] and the corridor radiator doing its best to melt the snow on the flat roof directly above it, the worst was bound to happen.

So I had to light the calor gas fire in the garage to warm those pipe through (the lagging didn’t help this process) and then I had to try and find a way of defrosting the 40 centimetres of pipe in the utility room that feed the washing machine. This was tricky because I don’t have any manly plumbing tools like a blow-torch (I used to have, but only used it for browning crème brulee). What I did find however was a 1200 watt patio/garage heater. We’d never used this before because when Sharon bought it, she thought it was a light. When I’d seen the ‘1200 watt’ on the box my wallet clenched! So it has never been used. Until yesterday.

You’re supposed to mount these things and keep them away from all living or inflammable tissue. I tried it in the garage first, balanced on an old vice (the only metal/steel thing I could find in my garage that might fit the bill!) and it certainly threw out more heat than the calor gas fire but was party to melting a plastic foot stand which Sharon uses in there (she’s only tiny). Whoops. So now, when I brought it into the house (the utility room) I was extra careful. This time I caused no damage but made all the room smell like I’d been stripping paint from the doors.

Apparently it’s the coldest start to winter in almost 50 years. [Huddersfield Examiner] I remember 1963 and for a child it was great fun with lots of snow and ice to slide on. Some drivers at that time (I suspect it was the milk float but can’t remember) had snow chains on their wheel. Whatever happened to snow chains?

For winter to come this early, before my birthday in December, is very unusual, so I suppose we’d better knuckle down and keep as warm as we can. But what about those who can’t? People still have to work – will our infrastructure we robust enough to support those who need to work? What about the elderly? My parents will still try to go out every day, partly because they always have and partly because they don’t have to turn their heating on if they are out. And: what about the footpaths – who clears those? When we were sliding down the footpaths in 1963 the house owners (the tenants really, no one owned council houses back then) would come out and spread ashes on the public path. This made our young lives pretty miserable but made sure that the footpaths were safe for everyone (workers, the elderly, young mums etc.) else to walk on.

But we have no ashes any more.

And councils are in the middle of laying off a good percentage of their staff.

Ideas?

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Stop Motion Animation

This week, I created my first stop-motion animation. I’m really proud of my end product despite the fact that it only runs for 8 seconds and that it took me over three hours to make.  My real reward was that the (salutary) learning curve was fun, rewarding and worthwhile.

The reason for it taking this length of time to create can be attributed to my cocky incompetence. In my eagerness to complete the task I completely disregarded all the rules of planning, storyboarding and good practice. Here’s the animation – then let me explain

I’d been asked to deliver someone else’s PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘New Technology in the Classroom’ to groups of school teachers in Salford: Five repeated one-hour sessions. One of those technologies was ‘animation’. As I’ve demonstrated examples of stop-motion in workshops before and I do get the theory behind it, I didn’t feel that there would be a problem doing the same thing again. However, because the presentation was very much based on what my employer for that day (RM) was offering to this particular school I felt the need to take a little ownership of the slideshow and decided that I would also further my own CPD at the same time: I would make my own animation to show the teachers. So far so good.

Take-1:
I quickly decided that the subject matter wasn’t important and that it would be the process that counted. I fetched my Panasonic Lumix TZ10 (camera) from my backpack, selected a few tools on my desktop (my real desktop – not the computer desktop), turned on all my lights and set to work. I took the photos (the snaps) and decided to make the animation on iMovie. What could be hard about that?

Take-1 reflection: Putting theory into practice isn’t as straightforward as it seems. First of all: lighting – I turned on my two desk lamps and my ceiling light (in my eyrie, the ceiling is less than 4” above my head and way behind me) and I felt confident that the light would be ok. It wasn’t, but I’ll come back to this. The next problem was the way I held the camera – which was the problem – I HELD THE CAMERA. As I moved each item (actor?) on my stage I also inadvertently moved the camera so the resulting snaps were taken from different angles. Those were the two main problems with Take-1, although I also had to overcome iMovie’s default 4-second timing for individual images too.

Take-2:
I went and retrieved my camera tripod from the boot of my car, where it had been since the last lot of Pathfinder videos I managed to film for RSC-YH. I set up my camera on this and planned what each of my actors would do on stage. The rudimentary beginnings of a ‘story’board can be seen here. However, this was another failed attempt!

Take-2 reflection: I was taking 20-30 photographs at a time and moving my actors around 1-2 centimetres for each shot. Then, when I’d loaded the photos into iMovie and repeated my changes to the default image timing I played it back and found the camera angles were still changing. I’d reduced the default image time to 0.4secs so the 20-30 images would make a movie/animation of around 8-12 seconds. But it was still rubbish. Back to the drawing board.

Take-3:
I double checked the tripod and I checked all the camera settings to make sure that the photos were getting as much light as possible, that the flash wasn’t working (flash throws shadows) and that it was set on manual. I even planned a more believable ‘story’.

Take-3 reflection: I’d realised by now that I should have planned this better and earlier. The resulting iMovie animation was no better than the previous two and I was left scratching my head.

So, why did Take-4 work (at least) as well as it did?

  • I’d investigated iMovie’s defaults a little further and realised that it puts a Burns Effect onto each image! Doh – that’s why the camera angles on Take-2 and Take-3 were so erratic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Burns_effect I had to highlight all of the snaps and make sure that they had no attributes added to them by iMovie. 0.4secs seemed to be a good length of time though.
  • I’d moved things around on the desktop so that the light was pretty even (again, I’ll come back to this).
  • By now, I’d actually scripted an activity where the pot cat would chase a startled computer mouse from the desk mat. Similarly startled pens would also run away in the background.
  • I didn’t plan to take 20 snaps, but that’s what turned out.

I am probably lucky that the distance moved between each shot was about right and the ‘jumps’ between frames are not too big.  The end product is a bit short (20 frames @ 0.4 seconds each has turned out to be 8 seconds) but good enough for a first publication 🙂

Lighting

I said that I’d come back to lighting. If you watch the animation you’ll see light coming and going from the top left of the screen – the laptop! Well, that was something I’d overlooked. The mouse (actor) was a Gyro-mouse and I’d neglected to remove the receiver from the laptop. Therefore, every time I moved the mouse, something changed on the laptop screen – which was half closed and which I therefore didn’t notice until the final product was rendered.

Also, because I had (what I now realise was) too little light, different shadows were thrown each time I moved an actor. This doesn’t distress my clip too much, but it might be an important consideration for others making animations.

Then of course, I looked at the product being supported by RM in the school: I Can Animate. This does all the hard work for you! Grrrr. Thanks too to James Clay for introducing me to iMotion for iPad and iPhone.

User Centred Design

Way back in 2001, I started to study usability as part of my MSc Multimedia and Education. I found it as fascinating as anything else I was studying at the time and in many ways more so. However, just like accessibility and inclusion, usability is often overlooked when planning learning activities and episodes that include any kind of technological intervention. Yet, it is essential to the ultimate success of any process that has an end user.

Of course, way back in 2001 web design was in it’s infancy and mistakes had to be made before usability was properly understood. In fact the process is only now becoming a feature of large organisation web design. One of my ‘good reads’ at the time was Ben Shneidermanhttp://www.cs.umd.edu/~ben/ – for example: http://faculty.washington.edu/jtenenbg/courses/360/f04/sessions/schneidermanGoldenRules.html

Today, I travelled to Coventry where I had been invited by LSIS to attend a short workshop on User-Centred Design (UCD). LSIS are re-visiting the Excellence Gateway (EG) and I’m leading a small focus group of practitioners to advise (or otherwise inform) them on the use of social media (Web 2.0). The UCD workshop is part of their preparation for the future.

Andrew Lamb from DirectGov was speaking when I got there (delayed train!) and straight away I understood exactly where he was coming from. He was showing an example of a large ‘exemplar’ web site’s analytics (I missed which site it was), which showed how visitors to to the site moved around it. He suggested that although six pages had been ready for launch, they actually launched just two to start with. The analytics showed that these two pages had a 68% drop out by page two. This suggested that the design was wrong and that these and the further four pages needed a huge overall before launch. And this was despite the site being regarded as a great success. Andrew went on to show some other figures of how planned efficiencies can be lost if web sites lose just 1% of their predicted visitors.

We then had an input from the team that created Next Step from various other provisions. Vanessa Clynes told us how they had first built linked wire-frame versions (but not linked to live databases) for users to try before anyone in the ‘development’ side of the website became involved. The wire-frames were then user tested with knowledgeable practitioners, in this case careers advisors, to help take the design through to the next stage. As this pre-beta website developed, real users were invited to ‘use’ the site and comment before it was finally ready to be passed on to the web development team. Andrew Lamb intervened here to say that the knowledgeable practitioners (my description) often brought their own bias to the process and that the only real test should be with real users. This was accepted throughout the room and is I suppose where my small focus group comes in – to act as proxies for the real user evaluation until such a time as the new site is ready (a long way off). Having said that, we are not involved in design – just content.

Now of course, we are talking here about sites which have the potential to be visited by millions of users, but the fundamental message to be heard is ‘listen to your users’. We should all do this when building our VLEs, creating our presentations (PPT v Prezzi maybe) and more generally, when simply teaching. Vanessa also told us how they brainstormed six ‘types’ of user for their site. Each type represented a ‘segment’ of their audience and as a result, because there really is no ‘average’ user they had to develop a persona for each segment. The persona had an image, a job (or not), wife, kids etc., so that they could realise what each aspect of their audience required.

Could we do that same thing when planning to use technology in our teaching? Could we provide different ways for our users (learners) to access our teaching?

Could we?

Should we?

Evaluation of e-Learning

I was recently asked how I might evaluate the use of e-Learning. To be fair the question took me by surprise, as it wasn’t something I’d given any thought to for a number of years. To me, the answer is self-evident.

I suggested that we couldn’t evaluate e-Learning in any quantitative way and that differentiating it from good teaching and learning was a folly.

I did suggest that if we took ‘it’ all away and then measured the gap that was left in modern teaching practice it might quantitatively answer the question of how much ‘e’ was used, but not how well or how badly it was used, which I think was the questioner’s point.

The problem we have today is that e-Learning tools, techniques and technologies are used all of the time and in every school, college, workplace and university. All teachers now embrace the use of email; many of them use it with learners. All teachers expect access to some form of computer in their staff room, whether that is a personal laptop or shared PC. They might also expect to see a LCD projector in their room. Fairly often, they will use a PowerPoint Slideshow as the backbone of their lesson; this might even be made available to learners via a VLE or less so but increasingly via some sort of Web 2.0 provision. But how do you evaluate all that use and more importantly, how would you separate its use from every other teaching and learning tool or technique used? And would we assess the learners’ use or the teacher’s?

Without going into the use of emerging or mobile technologies how many current classroom activities are 100% e-Learning? And, how many of those e-Learning tools, techniques and technologies employed are well thought out, user friendly, accessible and pedagogically sound? Some may say that this is the reason for undertaking an evaluation, but my reply still stands – how do you separate ‘e’ from the rest?

Let us work towards a universal understanding of how learners learn (and this changes much slower than the technology changes) and then how to choose advantageous tools and techniques which address those learner needs: in and out of the classroom. Then, let us evaluate the whole caboodle – not just ‘e’.

After all, who ever evaluated the use of pens and pencils when slates became outdated?

See this .pdf file.