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    Archive for the 'Technology blogs' Category

    99p Virtual Reality and the implications for video in HE

    By Matt Jenner, on 16 November 2015

    Consumer-ready virtual reality is just around the corner

    Next year is touted as a potential for the ‘year of VR’ and as a wonderful precursor, people are already selling the hardware  required for only 99p. Some are even giving it away. This will ripple into higher education with video being a likely contender for early adopters. But what is VR and how does one get it for 99p (or free)? Well you need a smartphone and around 10-15 minutes of your life…

    What is VR?

    Virtual reality was resting firmly in the ‘cold’ part of the ‘what’s hot’ spectrum for about 20 years; but over the last 18-24 months it has leaped from the ice to the fire in a rapid way. It is now so cheap you can have it for 99p; which smacks the technology depreciation/throw-away market so hard in the face it may have to reinvent itself too (some people already talk of throwaway tablets). But what does it mean, and why does higher education care?

    If you want to find out about VR I’d point you back to a previous post, or you should search around the internet a little bit. It’s an emerging technology which places screens very close to your head, and sensors to know where you’re looking, to simulate you being in another environment. It also needs a computer to power the images you see, and the movements you make to look/move around it.

    Oculus Touch - Coming Q1 2016

    Oculus Touch – Coming Q1 2016

    Oculus Rift is a simple example of a complex tech landscape. Popularised when bought by Facebook for $lots the technology plugs into your computer and can provide you with an experience which some say is immersive, and others say is nauseating or induces cybersickness. But please remember, these are developer units; they’re not consumer friendly (yet – Q1 2016 isn’t far off). This sickness is as close as you may ever want to get to experiencing a software bug!

    Oculus, and many others, share a similar trait – they need a powerful computer to use them. I’ve tried it on my Macbook Air – I had forgot the machine had a fan; it became too hot to touch (near the back). The lagginess from the ultraportable didn’t help the sickness. All in all, eww & gross. Some other laptops are better, but it’s still a little off-putting when you’re new toy needs to be put away and you need to go lie down as recovery.

    Enter: the smartphone.

    Google Cardboard was a mini-revolution in the VR field. Being provocative, ‘not evil’ and generally idiosyncratic in their approach, Google released what seemed like the most basic VR product possible – Cardboard. This was a few years ago now but it enabled anyone with a smartphone to start playing/developing. Developers, techies and big children started buying these and exploring a new world.

    Smartphone + Video = one way to VR

    Your smartphone is insanely powerful for the size of it. It has a tiny display, a powerful CPU and GPU, motion sensors, location awareness, it is personalised and portable. Slotting it into a Google Cardboard now makes it a Virtual Reality device; as it can show content and sense your every movement. It’s also low-threshold, in some sense, because you are already comfortable with it. Video on smartphones is already mainstream. So what about 360, spherical or immersive video?

    Waves over Grace - vrse.works. Src: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-09/01/waves-of-grace-ebola-virtual-reality-film/viewgallery/539671

    Waves over Grace – vrse.works. Source

    One example is vrse.works who released two documentaries; Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace. These two UN-backed ‘films’ were two, touching, compelling and utterly enthralling pieces of cinematic content. Watchers in a UN building, somewhere nice and safe, watched in Clouds Over Sidra how Sidra, a young girl in the Za’atari Refugee Camp and having fled from Syria, would offer a chance to explore her world. Chris Milk, Director at vrse.works commented in a TED talk how VR can be a bridge to empathy for the experiences of others.

    99p VR

    Google Cardboard wasn’t technically doing too much; it’s a complex puzzle the first time but you’re folding cardboard, adding lenses and sticking on a magnet. Children can do this; and many will this Christmas. The reason why? Cheap manufacturing has taken the cheap Google Cardboard and made it as cheap as the market can go; 99p! I have hunted on eBay and bought four of the rival offerings. I’ll report back with which is best, but from experience I am sure they’re all the same.

    Free VR

    NYT- Free VR Kit

    NYT- Free VR Kit

    Just to kick it to everyone – on Sunday 8th November 2015 the New York Times gave a free Cardboard VR kit to every reader.  Just to make a point? At this stage it doesn’t really matter; it got VR into another new audience, NYT readers (or their family/friends). You might even know someone with an unused voucher from their digital subscription, or willing to share theirs. NYT also released an App to share content and introduce their first documentary shot for the giveaway. Maybe, just maybe, they know it’s a part of the future landscape of journalism (like VICE News knows already) and want to break their readers in gently…

    Back to the content – video first

    Google Cardboard is also an app for Android and iOS. It has a video player which links to YouTube, which now supports 360 and VR video. If that doesn’t mean anything to you – STOP – and load this link (on your smartphone is best)

    Welcome back to 2015

    People are already making this content and there is a whole YouTube channel dedicated to it. There are also an increasing amount of apps for games, simulations, experiences, stories, social networking, explorable environments and more.

    So what about higher education?

    Video is the first logical step for changing HE. Who has not tried, or considered, lecture capture yet? Obiquity is likely but not so for VR, not yet anyway. To make 360/VR/spherical video you’ll need at least a 360 degree camera, which are also still quite expensive. But with this you’ll be able to capture any environment, action or event that is taking place. The trick isn’t necessarily in the editing, it’s in the experience you’re trying to capture. Imagine a researcher on a field trip; taking the watcher to a place they simply couldn’t go. Lab experiments can capture multiple synchronous events. How about an event that is so hard to replicate that you’ve only really got one shot – a rocket launching, blue moon Panda birth-type thing. The kind of event you want to capture but can’t even predict what should be in the frame, and what shouldn’t. VR video offers the playback of the whole environment, the viewer choses what to watch. It’s experimental now; but the power shifts towards the experience of viewing. Additionally; cameras can go when you can’t send a person; a volcano, to Mars or into the body – all quite tricky.

    Proper VR needs a powerful amount of hardware; 99p VR does not. Video is a way in.

    Limitation, there are still a few:

    • You need a smartphone. The cardboard on it’s own is only going to distort the back of a pice of cardboard – very real, not very virtual.
    • The official Google Cardboard app is for Android and iOS and it has a load of great content already (and more coming).
    • It’s 99p. It will not feel comfortable, it’ll break, get dirty easily and probably not hold all types of smartphone.
    • The really cheap ones don’t come with a strap for your head, so it’s hands-up to hold it.
    • They are not shaped to any head.
    • You’ve still got to put a thing on your head. Daftness points++


    Throw it around, take it places and share it with people. It’s so cheap that 99p cardboard VR is worth the experiment if you have a smartphone. Also once used (or you’ve got bored of it) pass it on. Someone else can try it.


    VR is nauseating but it also bring people right into an experience. Bugs will be fixed, hardware will improve, but this lack of gap between cheap and professional is similar to disposable cameras and SLRs. Say what you will about the smartphone requirement but it’s ever-more true that the world is connected via these devices. If they can also deliver a VR experience (and soon, capture them), imagine what’ll it be like when we’re all making the content too. It’s unlikely to become an immediate new must-have, but VR is coming and lodging itself in.

    Closing thought on distance learning and virtual reality

    I am learning, but the power of giving cheap VR to distance learners is certainly something to keep an eye on. This is one of my topics for exploration during 2016. I think it offers a unique and unchallenged method for connecting remote people to important things. We’ll see where it goes.

    Mahara Hui UK 2015

    By Domi C Sinclair, on 12 November 2015

    Earlier this week I attended the Mahara Hui UK 2015 which took place down in Southampton between the 9th and 10th November 2015. Mahara Hui UK is the title of the official UK Mahara conference – Mahara being the software that is used for MyPortfolio at UCL. To honour Mahara’s New Zealand roots the conference is referred to as a ‘Hui’, which is a Maori term for a social gathering or assembly. The conference is held annually in different locations around the UK and features a variety of talks and workshops on all aspects of Mahara.
    There is also a lot of Twitter activity during the conference and you can review post with the hash-tag #maharauk15 to see what people were tweeting.
    As with most conferences, there were some key themes that seemed to emerge and repeat over the 2 days of the conference. The key themes were learner control and learning versus studying. Let me explain these in more detail. The first subject, of learner control, seems like a natural topic of conversation for an online portfolio tool, and it has a few strands. Firstly there is the tension and apprehension that can occur for both tutors and students in allowing them (the learner) to have complete control over their content and use of the MyPortfolio system. This can often mean increased freedom of expression, and a change in dynamic to give the student ownership of their work. This tension seems to occur more for first year undergraduate students, and can be an important part of the transition from the FE mindset to a HE one. The second strand of this discussion of learner control is more what can happen when you move past the apprehension and successfully hand over the reins. Once this dynamic shift occurs we can start to explore the benefits of huetagogy (self directed learning). As well as having immediate benefits this approach can help set students up to be successful life learners – particularly useful if they decide to continue a passion for academia/ knowledge as a researcher.
    As for the second main theme, learning versus studying, this also comes back to the concept of huetagogy in many ways. It is about allowing students to undertake tasks and activities (which could be assessed) that encourage them to learn, perhaps through practical application, rather than simply studying by memorising the necessary information to pass tests. Learning involves engagement with the subject matter and is likely to be perceived as more fun and enjoyable – as well as installing retained knowledge into the learners mind. Online portfolio tools, such as MyPortfolio can be really useful in facilitating this, either by being the vessel on which the learning occurs, or by acting as a portfolio to collect and curate examples and evidence of learning – which may include videos of practical techniques being performed correctly, in lab selfies or copies of artefacts produced. Curation was another important topic. It is important to teach students how to curate work, so that the portfolio does not become a scrapbook of ‘everything’ but is a thoughtfully selected collection of examples of work/ evidence that has value and demonstrates the best of the students abilities.
    There were many examples of use of Mahara (MyPortfolio), a number of which seemed to focus on transferring a traditional paper portfolio, which may be bulky and heavy to carry around, into the electronic system. Two examples of this that were presented were from Colin Bright, a lecturer in Social Work at Southampton Solent University and Jaye Ryan, a lecturer on a nursing course at Birmingham City University.
    Finally, another benefit of the conference was the ability to hear about new features in both the latest version of Mahara (MyPortfolio) version 15.10 (which UCL will be upgrading to later this month) and the next version, planned for April 2016 – version 16.04.
    New features for Mahara 15.10 include:
    • Responsive design – so that it works on all devices
    • An edit button on each group homepage – so that it is no longer necessary to go into the pages section and edit from there
    • Group journals – rather than journals being unique to individual portfolios
    • Next and previous buttons in collections
    • A drop down menu for collections, which replaces the tab navigation

    More developments are planned for version 16.04, although at the moment nothing is confirmed and these are just idea. Some of the ideas include:

    • The ability to have a single page in multiple collections
    • Combining the page & collection interface (to make it simpler to use)
    • A revamp of  navigation – this would aim to make it simpler to find different functions/ sections
    • The inclusion of CSS for HTML export – this would mean that exported pages/ collections would retain their theme and look the same as they do online
    • Quicker editing of pages

    There is also a planned revamp of the mobile app MaharaDroid to make it work on multiple platforms including Android, iOS and Windows phones. This is planned for release in April 2016 and will see a rename of the product (to match the multiple platform capabilities).

    Compared: MyPortfolio and Campus Pack

    By Domi C Sinclair, on 9 November 2015

    Having a lot of tools to use can be a mixed blessing. On one hand it is great to have such a selection to choose from, whereas on the other it can be confusing and overwhelming. In E-Learning Environments (ELE) we aim to help you navigate the myriad of tools and find the one that’s right for you. In this post we will be looking at MyPortfolio, Campus Pack and Moodle. If you haven’t heard of some of these tools before, then don’t worry I will start by introducing them so you can get a better idea. You will see that although they have some similar functionality they can serve different purposes.


    MyPortfolio is our online portfolio platform at UCL, it is based off of Mahara open-source software. Originally this was billed as an employability tool, due to it’s CV builder function, however it has evolved and can do a lot more than just online CVs. At it’s core MyPortfolio is an individually owned space, that gives students a place to work and control their own content. This can be done privately and then shared at various different levels, from public, to groups or just a single user. MyPortfolio is available to everyone with a UCL username and password, and can be used independently or as part of studies and assessment.

    Some of the key functionality it contains are journals, ability to upload files and embed external content.

    MyPortfolio is great for allowing students to create their own portfolio of content, whilst working with the flexible layout and using images to create their own design. Within MyPortfolio it is possible to create a ‘Collection’ which forms a mini website, with tab or side bar based navigation. In the past students have relished the opportunity to let their creativity flow and created impressive pages which really utilise the flexibility MyPortfolio affords.

    Groups are another popular feature, allowing students to collaborate on pages and communicate using a forum. If there is any nervousness about creating shared work, then it is possible to create pages in a personal portfolio space and then share a copy with the group – ensuring the student retains an original as evidence of work.

    Most pages and collections in MyPortfolio can be exported as either HTML or LEAP2A (which is a specialised portfolio format), so that they can be stored or transferred to other hosting locations. It is also possible for students to maintain access to MyPortfolio if they ensure after graduation that they continue to update their password as required.

    You can access MyPortfolio directly through the web address https://myportfolio.ucl.ac.uk


    Most people will be familiar with Moodle, this is UCL’s virtual learning environment (or VLE) it is our core online learning tool. If you are still unfamiliar with Moodle then you can learn more, and get to grips with the basics by taking our Getting Started with Moodle online course.

    Although Moodle does have the ability to run blogs, it is not as good as the MyPortfolio journals, or the Campus Pack blogs (which we will talk about in the next section). Another feature you can find in both Campus Pack and Moodle is the wiki. This offers a collaborative space for students to work together to create a document or shared resource. It offers some tracking capabilities, so that you can track changes and see what each students has contributed. The UCL Moodle Resource Centre has more information about the Moodle blogs and wiki.

    As well as the above, it is possible for external services to be embedded or linked into Moodle via LTI  (Learning Tools Interoperability) using the External tools feature. You can read more about this in the UCL Moodle Resource Centre wiki.

    Campus Pack

    Campus Pack is a set of tools that work through Moodle. This makes them useful as they can be used from within a Moodle course, rather than having to go to a separate website. You can find all of the Campus Pack tools under the ‘add a resource or activity’ menu in Moodle.

    There are a series of tools available through the Campus Pack integration with Moodle and these include; wiki, blog, journal, podcast and LTI. The wiki tool is a nice collaborative space where students can work together as a class or in groups to create content. It has nice tracking features so that you can see who has done what work and when, which may be useful when grading group work. Unlike MyPortfolio, where blogs and journals are basically the same tool (the journal) in Campus Pack there is a distinction. Blogs are designed to be more open and shared, they can be set up on a course, individual or group basis. Journals within Campus Pack are intended as private reflective spaces, where only tutors can see what students have written.

    The podcast tool is the most unique within Campus Pack as it’s functionality is not replicated elsewhere. The podcast tool will allow you to record audio directly in to Moodle, rather than having to record on an external device/ program and upload it. This makes it very quick and easy to create and share sound files with a course.

    Finally the LTI tools allows you to embed external content that is LTI compliant. As mentioned above this functionality is also available in Moodle via the External tools function, and is probably easier to use this.

    You can find out more about Campus Pack on the UCL Moodle Resource Centre wiki.

    Additionally you can learn more about Campus Pack through Unit 3 of UCL Arena Digital titled, “How can we involve students with Campus Pack blogs, wikis and podcasts?” This unit has just finished but remains open for access. Participants can watch video tutorials, see (and still take part in) a Campus Pack wiki activity, read (and contribute to) a Campus Pack blog, and see a recording of a webinar where Tim Neumann (Campus Pack expert) discusses ways of using the tools for collaboration and assessment with UCL colleagues.

    As well as the tools mentioned above, which as looked after by the E-Learning Environments team UCL also offer a number of other spaces such as the UCL wiki and UCL Personal Web Service.

    If you are interested in any of the above services and think that you could utilise them in your teaching and learning please contact the ISD Service Desk for more information.



    Turnitin UK User Group – October 2015

    By Domi C Sinclair, on 30 October 2015

    Last week I attended the annual Turnitin UK User Group, which this time was hosted in Westminster, London. The user group gave me (and by extension E-Learning Environments/ UCL) an opportunity to ask questions directly to Turnitin and to learn more about up-coming developments to the system.
    A focus of the day was the large amount of restructuring and staff changes Turnitin have gone through over the last year. This means they have now created a dedicated team for Moodle and have moved to an agile product development framework called Scrum. Hopefully this will mean that any required bug fixes or feature changes can be carried out much more quickly than in the past (when they were using the Waterfall framework), however only time shall tell. They were also keen to emphasise that the huge scale of the changes is still sinking in and it could take a bit more time for them to fully adjust.
    What’s new?
    One of the much anticipated features that has been added to Turnitin version 2 (V2) is the ability to email non-submitters. This means that even in anonymous marking mode, you can easily email a reminder to all students who have not submitted.
    Unfortunately it looks like it will still be a while until the highly requested ability to carry out double blind marking is available. Turnitin currently estimate it won’t be available until 2017. Apparently this is due to very localised demand for such a feature, with the UK & Australia being the only places that require it. As Turnitin is a global service they often have to dedicate their resources to enhancements that will benefit all of their customers. At least it is still in their plans, and we will continue to pressure them to make the feature available as soon as possible.
    Accuracy was mentioned as one of the companies key priorities, which you would hope it would be as they market themselves as a ‘plagiarism detection’ service. In light of this they are working to expand and improve their database, which student submissions are matched against. Currently the database includes:
    • 57 billion web pages
    • 143 million STM journals
    • 570 million essays
    • 26 million students

    They are aiming to improve this with a new deeper crawler called ‘Walker’, which not only goes deeper into webpages and documents but also has the ability to crawl Java script links.

    Turnitin Next
    After the version 1 and version 2 plugins will come Turnitin Next, which should offer a better experience for both staff and students. UCL are signed up to the beta programme so that we (ELE) can get our hands on this new product first and make sure that it is suitable for use with the rest the UCL community before releasing it live on Moodle. As we start to learn more about this new product and review it within the team we will be sure to keep you all updated.
    The new integration leads to a re-vamped document viewer and grading interface that looks in, the promotional videos, like it will be a lot easier to use. Everything is controlled by a single side panel, rather than having to switch between tabs as in the current document viewer. This new viewer also includes features such as:
    • Formatting for bubble comments
    • Context menu when adding an in-line comment
    • Rubrics represented as sliders
    • Thumbnail view to navigate document
    What else?
    Some of the other items on Turnitin’s tentative roadmap (which they stressed is subject to change) are:
    • Non integer grades – estimated to arrive in  Q3 2016
    • Individual extensions – estimated to arrive in Q1/2 2016

    They also said that they were planning to launch a research project into how group work might be facilitated in Turnitin. As this is only at the very initial stages I would caution it will be a while until anything is produced (if ever depending on the outcome of the research). For group submissions I would still recommend Moodle assignments, you can find out more about how this works in the UCL Moodle Resource Centre wiki.

    On the box

    By Jessica Gramp, on 6 October 2015

    At the University of Leicester students are helping to find TV and radio clips that help students learn.
    Those involved in this programme review clips or entire episodes available via Box of Broadcasts.
    Box of Broadcasts TVThe Box of Broadcasts (BoB) service is available to UCL staff and students and allows them to view shows recorded from  free to air channels, including everything broadcast on the BBC (TV and radio) since 2007 (800,000+ programmes). Programmes aired in the last 30 days can be recorded by an user and then remain available to anyone else who wants to access them.
    At the University of Leicester students are helping integrate these resources into their modules, by blogging reviews for others to read and comment on. There are also plans to develop viewing lists of useful programmes for particular subjects. Each blog post is tagged with relevant keywords to make it easier for others to find relevant resources. Staff involved in the pilot also link to the blog from their online course pages.
    Students at Leicester received training and support in writing for the web and were also paid for their contributions once they blogged a minimum of 5 posts.
    One limitation these students encountered with Box of Broadcasts is that the search is difficult to use. University of Leicester students have begun using a service called TRILT to search and set alerts for deeper/future searches: http://bufvc.ac.uk/tvandradio/trilt/
    You can see some examples of these blogs here:

    The first example above (Biology on the Box) was run with tutors amending the tags on the 50 posts to fit with their teaching. Subsequently, these are better tagged than the posts in the English on the Box, where students led the entire process, including tagging. For ‘English on the Box’, 4 students contributed 35 posts and half of these were radio programmes. These students explained that they found it difficult to tag the posts with accurate keywords that were relevant to their modules, therefore it is important to involve the module tutors in this process. 

    There were may positive outcomes for this project, including:
    • Students who participated improved their written communication skills and developed their digital footprint, which will help them to demonstrate their skills to future employers.
    • Students used knowledge obtained from these media clips within their exam answers, so it had a positive impact on their learning.
    • Academic staff could easily incorporate rich media into their modules.
    This project was presented at the recent ALT-C conference in Manchester, UK.

    UCL is developing a similar, student-led project and is calling for both staff and students to take part.
    • We need students to volunteer to become bloggers and approach their tutors to incorporate their blog posts into their Moodle courses – E-Learning Environments can help with the technicalities.
    • We need tutors to volunteer to promote this to their student;  incorporate the ‘viewing lists’ into their Moodle courses and help with tagging.

    Find out more and sign up here…

    UCL Arena Digital Unit 3: How can we involve students with Campus Pack blogs, wikis and podcasts?

    By Clive Young, on 5 October 2015

    A new unit of UCL Arena Digital is coming!


    There will be some new additions to UCL Moodle from September 2015. Campus Pack will provide a suite of tools comprising blogs, journals, wikis and podcasts that can be used to support students’ reflective, social learning and collaboration, as well as enabling tutors and students to record audio directly into Moodle.

    This unit will guide you through these new Moodle tools, and discuss ways of using them in your teaching.

    The unit will last two weeks, taking 1-2 hours of your time, culminating in an interactive webinar which will allow you to explore advanced features and take a look at what colleagues are already doing with the tools.

    UCL Arena Digital Unit 3 will run October 19th – 30th 2015.

    Live webinar Wednesday 28st October 2015 2 – 3 pm.

    Go to the course.