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Writing when teaching remotely

Steve Rowett22 April 2020

Updated 21 October 2020 to include graphics tablets and webcam options

We start this blog post with a short exercise for the reader: search Google Images or an image library for the word teacher.

I hope that you see a range of diverse people in the pictures. But I bet that most of them will have a pen or chalk in their hand, and a board or surface at their side. The act of writing and talking as a form of instruction is perhaps the most commonly perceived characteristic of who a teacher is and what they do.

The move to remote teaching has made writing as a form of teaching more difficult. A mouse may be great for controlling a computer, but it’s hard to use it to write smoothly on screen.

So in this post, we will look at how we might continue to use writing as a form of teaching, even from home.

Before we start, a note on accessibility. Whilst we teach remotely, so of the facilities that our students might have relied upon (like captions, transcripts, note-takers or signers) might not be available, so we may need to make alternative accommodations. Please do think about this before you plan your teaching and contact Digital Education if you would like advice.

Using a visualiser at home

In the classroom or lecture hall, many rooms will have a visualiser (also called a document camera) for showing writing and objects. These are typically hooked up to a projection screen through the AV system and are also captured by lecture capture. UCL uses a mix of table-top visualisers and ceiling mounted visualisers from a company called Wolfvision.

You can also buy more consumer-level products in this category. At home I use an IPEZO VZ-R camera, which costs about £200.

The IPEVO VZ-R visualiser - a sturdy base with a webcam mounted on a flexible hinge.

IPEVO VZ-R Visualiser (source: ipevo.com)

The camera connects via USB and can be used in two ways:

Either method works well, but I’d recommend the latter as webcam video is often heavily compressed. This method works well with all our supported platforms, including Lecturecast (Echo 360) Universal Capture Personal, Blackboard Collaborate and Microsoft Teams.

The camera is compact but sturdy. It has an in-built light, and facilities such as zoom and autofocus, and can capture a surface slightly less than A3. It also has an inbuilt microphone which is likely to be closer to you when you are speaking than one in a laptop.

Control buttons on the IPEVO VZ-R including power, zoom and focus

Control buttons on the IPEVO VZ-R (source: ipevo.com)

The software can control the features of the camera, and can make recordings that you could upload to Lecturecast, for example. The controls neatly get out of the way when they aren’t being used, so that you can focus on the content. The image below shows the auto-focus in operation, clearly capturing a book cover.

IPEVO Visualizer software showing controls and a picture of a book under the camera

IPEVO Visualizer software showing controls

The Visualizer application can easily be shared in a Blackboard Collaborate room, and you can then move the window out of the way and focus on the participants. The image below shows me writing some simple maths on a notepad, captured by the camera, using the screen sharing feature of Collaborate to show this to other participants.

Writing equations which are shared within a Blackboard Collaborate room

Writing equations which are shared within a Blackboard Collaborate room.

IPEVO offer another model, the V4K, for £100, which has a lower resolution sensor (but still good) and no light. Of course other companies are available, and I’ve heard recommendations of Genee and Aver models. These types of visualisers are often used in secondary schools, so any teachers you know may be able to give suitable advice.

One thing I particularly like about the IPEVO models is the design. The one I have folds fairly flat, so is easy to store away, so my living room doesn’t have to look like a lecture theatre. Here’s a comparison of its size when folded compared to a bottle of wine. And yes, it does fit in a wine rack.

An IPEVO VZ-R is about the size of a bottle of wine when folded

The IPEVO VZ-R folds down to the size of a bottle of wine.


Writing on an iPad or other tablet

Using an Apple Pencil on an iPad or a stylus for other devices, you can use a notes or sketch app to write on an iPad. This works fine as a standalone process, but you can also use software such as Reflector or Airserver to mirror your device to your PC or Mac and screen share it as part of a call using Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom etc., or to record it from your screen using Lecturecast Personal Capture. If you have a Mac, you can also plug in your USB to Lightning cable and use Quicktime to mirror your screen by selecting your iPad as the camera source (thanks to Dr Steven Schofield from UCL Physics and Astronomy for that tip).

The short clip below shows Steven leading a revision lecture with his students. He reports that “I gave a two hour live revision lecture today; I was able to use the screen mirroring software to share my iPad Mini screen with the class via Blackboard Collaborate. It went really well and I had good feedback from the students. I think the overall experience is so much better than just talking to prepared slides. ”


Using a webcam

If you have a webcam that isn’t built in to your computer, you can use this too. We’ve tried a couple of webcams and it can work well, but may not have the full controls or handy features like the light that the VZ-R has.

If you have a laptop webcam above the screen, there’s  further option using a mirror to give you a whiteboard surface. Again IPEVO has an option for this, or you can look at making your own using a 3D printer or just cardboard cutouts. John Umekubo has blogged about this, and John Mitchell from UCL has put it into practice. The much lower cost means it could be a great option for students to show their workings.


Using a graphics tablet

Graphics tablets are often associated with drawing and more artistic work, but can also be used for writing. It can be less natural as your writing is preserved only on screen rather than on the tablet itself, a difference between writing on paper. Wacom are the brand leader with many higher end products for artists, but for simple writing tasks more modest brands are also suitable. We’ve had good reports of the XP-Pen and Viekk brands. Feedback suggests that the size of the graphics tablet is more important than features like number of levels of pressure sensitivity for writing tasks.


Using a mobile phone or tablet

You may have seen tweets where inventive teachers have rigged up their phones to use as cameras. But how do you do this?

Well, IPEVO provide an app for that too. To make this work, you need three things:

  • An Apple or Android phone on the same network as your computer (PC, Mac, Chromebook and Linux supported)
  • An installation of IPEVO iDocCam on your phone
  • An installation of IPEVO Visualizer on your computer

Launch the app on your phone, and then the Visualizer software on your computer, and your phone will appear in the list of available cameras.

The phone can be selected from the list of cameras available in the IPEVO Visualizer software

Your phone shows as a camera in the IPEVO Visualizer software

And here is an example of it in use, with my old IPhone SE acting as the camera:

The final bit is to rig the phone up in a secure way, about 40cm above your desk. You might use a desk mount, or a pile of books, or some blu tack and string. How  you do this is up to you, but this tweet from UCL’s Matt Whyndham might give you some inspiration.

Learning to Teach Online [LinkedIn Learning course]

Clive Young6 April 2020

As you may know, UCL has access to LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com), a huge range of video tutorials supporting learning in software, creative and business skills – all free to UCL staff and currently enrolled students.

One of these is Learning to Teach Online, a recently-updated 48 minute long introduction to help instructors and teachers to understand the approaches and skills required to teach effectively online. 

As we are going through what is likely to be a significant shift to online learning at UCL, would I recommend it? Yes, I would. Although some of the ideas should already be familiar to UCL colleagues, the course provides a practical (and quick) overview. Most of the main points you need to know to get started are covered, and the course neatly highlights the difference between face-to-face, blended and online methods.

The emphasis on online organisation and communication, ensuring teacher presence, fostering collaboration, accessibility and so on are all particularity sound, and align with UCL’s E-learning Baseline. Much of the advice is in bullet-pointed checklists and only two theoretical frameworks are mentioned, the familiar Bloom’s taxonomy for learning outcomes and the rather useful SAMR model to help us think about technology integration.

I’d obviously suggest ABC to help structure the course, too, but all in all a worthwhile use of 48 minutes (or much less if you speed up the video, as I do!).

Learning Design in an Emergency Part 1

Clive Young2 April 2020

Our teachers are being forced into moving their teaching online very quickly. The initial focus for academics is inevitably be on access, getting themselves and their students online and doing what they can immediately with the institutional tools provided. For most teachers this will be far from full, integrated ‘online learning’ but more an initial digitisation of their existing face-to-face methods.

UCL is mainly focusing on Moodle (already used for resource distribution and to a lesser extent communication), Blackboard Collaborate (for online ‘tutorials’) and Lecturecast (Echo) Universal Personal Capture (short video recordings to replace lectures). The term we use at UCL is Teaching Continuity, emphasising the ‘business as usual’ elements for both teachers and students. Similarly, current assessment plans largely focus on digitising existing time-limited exam practices, although finding alternatives is always recommended.

We might consider this a ‘first stage’ in moving online, the analogy being with the well-known JISC model of stages in development of digital literacies (see image on right). In this model, academics may soon move on from issues of access to tools and simple how-to skills guides. The next stage is likely to how to enhance their online teaching and learning practice and towards attributes such as their role as online teachers. In parallel, our students and staff may soon demand a more sophisticated ‘next stage’ learning experience.

As we progress, learning design becomes especially important. In order to develop true ‘online learning’ in even a simple form, courses will have to be redesigned around online activities. This is likely to be an opportunity to create richer learning designs, and for academics to consider a wider range of practices. Although academics may now have a motivation (albeit external) and focus, colleagues will still be stressed and time-limited, so any (re)design will require very simple workflows, step-by-step guides, checklists and so on.

At UCL and across the HE sector, the ABC ’sprint’ method of learning design has proved a well-evaluated, simple, engaging and productive practical framework to guide academic colleagues this process. The method is built around a collaborative and quite intensive 90’ workshop in which modules teams work together to produce a paper-based storyboard describing the student journey. The key pedagogical core of ABC is an operationalisation the six Learning Types framework of Prof Diana Laurillard (UCL Institute of Education). Using Learning Types has proved a remarkably robust and accessible route into teaching and learning discussion and reflection and shows how pedagogically-informed rapid development learning design is achievable.

The main issue is that ABC was designed as a social, face to face, group-based activity, so we have to rethink how the pedagogic ideas might be presented. The UCL ABC team, working with our ABCtoVLE Erasmus+ project partners are currently investigating online alternatives, with an aim to producing a Toolkit that institutions can localise and use in their own context. Some practicalities will be discussed in the next blog post, but from our experience in the European project we believe ABC should be considered not in isolation but as part of a process of institutional engagement. The full toolkit will most likely comprise three parts,

Pedagogy – Present the Learning Types to academic colleagues as a common language. As we can’t do this as a workshop, we are working on different approaches (see next post).

Technology – What tools are available to teachers? The Tool Wheel is a quick visual approach, linking pedagogy to technology. There are two stages for institutional support teams that can be can be done in either order,

  • Sketch a ‘snapshot’ of supported technologies, comprising the VLE, videoconferencing/virtual classroom, media tools etc. using the App wheel template, the ‘wheel of opportunities’.
  • Make a list of the tools identified and link to local support documentation (videos, web sites, tool guides, ‘how-to’s etc) – can also link to external guides from Canvas, Moodle etc.

Practice – What is effective pedagogic practice using these tools? We want to make use of the guides etc produced by the domain. We are redeveloping the Erasmus+ project site to represent good practice in the six learning types. The project team will list any resources we find that address each of the types. The first stage is to curate, we may be able to write something more definitive in the final report. More information to follow.