July 3rd, 2014


Over the last few months we have been developing a new tool for Moodle which we have dubbed the InfoMap. This tool allows students to use a map interface to share information which they have attached to a location, thus collectively creating a shared map resource for the course. The initial idea for the tool came from Dr Martin Ruhs, who among his many other academic roles in the University acts as academic director for the Department’s portfolio of online economics courses. Whilst writing his new course  International Labour Migration: Economics, Politics and Ethics , Martin came up with several activities that build on the benefits of having an international student cohort for a course looking at global issues. For example a task that asks students to research public attitudes to immigration in their country allied to the InfoMap interface results in a visual representation of the attitudes to immigration worldwide, allowing students and tutors to see trends geographically represented in a way not previously possible.



The options that the InfoMap provides to create new types of learning activities are already being explored as we design other new courses. For example, we might use it to explore the legacy of European occupation in non-European countries in our new course People, Society and Globalization, or to compare architectural features in great churches in our new course on Medieval Cathedral.  If you are interested in either of these both courses will be availble later in 2015.



Awards season

June 19th, 2014


It is that time of year where Trinity (ok summer) term is drawing to an end, and thoughts turn to Awards ceremonies.   Yesterday at Oxford University we apparently had two sets in one night.  I am sure the other awards were fabulous, but of course we attended OxTALENT, Oxford’s awards for teaching and learning enhanced with technology.

As usual it was great chance to find out about cool things going on in the University with IT, teaching and learning, from academic staff, librarians, support staff, students and more.   Some interesting themes emerged – clearly physicists are the best podcasters here in Oxford (and  if you want to study a course co-written by one of the winners check out our fabulous  Exploring the Universe course). There is also a lot of really great work being done to facilitate transition to university.  The Maths Bridging course we developed with MPLS was a runner up in this category, an indication of strong field with some excellent work from the Bodleian Libraries.

The day after that event it is worth noting Oxford is also doing well in external awards, with a Hoey Lee winning a grant as part of the JISC Summer of Student Innovation for his project to develop a University Proofreading Exchange. That this entered and won, is  no surprise when you see the quality of work in all the student categories at OxTALENT – so congratulations to everyone and I look forward to meeting the winners at future OxTALENT committee meetings.


Psychology and Modern Architecture

February 27th, 2014

This term we are launch two great courses, Psychology: an introduction and Western Architecture: The Modern Era.

Psychology is probably the most requested new online course topic for the Department so we are really excited to have our first course in this subject area.  This is a really great introduction if you know nothing about the subject, but also lets you explore topics in more depth if you are really interested.  Any course with units titled, “Why do we conform and whom do we obey?” and “Why do fools fall in love?” has to be worth some of your time.

However if psychology is not your thing I would also recommend our new course in Modern Architecture. This amazingly visual course lets you explore all the architects you would expect from Le Cobusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright to those you may not have heard of such as Philip Johnson and Rober Venturi.  I promise after studying this you will never look at the (modern) buildings around you in quite the same way again.

So if you want to step into spring with new opinions on everything from Brutalism to theories of reward and punishment you could not come to a better place.


What exactly are your students up to online?

January 6th, 2014

This is probably not a question you want a comprehensive answer to but it would be handy to know how they are using the Web to engage with the learning challenges you are setting.

I’m currently leading a project with the Higher Education Academy which uses the ‘Visitors and Residents’ mapping process to help teaching staff to gain a better understanding of how their students are using the Web for their learning. Successful applicants will receive £1500 to attend two workshops (12 Feb and 7 May 2014). The first workshop will teach you how map your own online practice to set you up to run the process with a group of your students. The second workshop will review the maps generated by your students and provides an opportunity to explore how you might evolve your teaching practice to engage them in new ways online.

V&R map

Simple Visitor & Resident map

The pilot version of this workshop format proved very successful, with a number of institutions going on to run further mapping sessions at their institutions to get an holistic, high level, sense of how the Web is being using in teaching and learning by both staff and students (with the view to informing overall teaching and learning strategy/policy).

Obviously I’m biased but I like to think that the mapping is a pragmatic way of understanding online learning practices which often go undiscussed in education. It has proved to be a good starting point for reflecting on overall approaches to teaching and for informing how best to work with students online: for example, negotiating the complexities of connecting with students in platforms which are based on a ‘friendship’ paradigm.

It’s only a 500 word application process so if you are part of a higher education teaching team in the UK please take a look at the form on the HEA website. The deadline for applications is the 20th of January. Perhaps I will see you at the workshops? 🙂

Glorious Art for the New Year

November 14th, 2013
La station art nouveau de la porte Dauphine (Hector Guimard)

La station art nouveau de la porte Dauphine (Hector Guimard)

This term I am really excited to let you know about two of our most gorgeous new courses ever, Art Nouveau Across Europe and The Impressionists: Painting Modern Life, launching in Hillary term (January)  2014.  Both these courses are full of wonderful images and a chance to immerse yourself in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century world from which they emerged. In each case you are given a chance to explore the topic in depth, engaging with contemporary sources as well as more recent  academic debate. Find out everything you ever wanted to know about  Gaudi, Horta, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and come to your own conclusion on the strange death of Art Nouveau.  Alternatively explore the world of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cassat from the origins of the Impressionism  to its evolution with Gaugin and Van Gogh. In either case you  will be stimulated intellectually (as in all our courses) and  especially visually.

Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago

Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago: Monet


Image credits:La station art nouveau de la porte Dauphine (Hector Guimard) / /by/2.0/ and Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago /

Climate modelling for a global audience

October 17th, 2013

As the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment Report is released, it is a good time to find out more about the science behind it. Over the last few years we have developed two courses through a project in conjunction with the Met Office Precis team and climate scientists here in Oxford, that gaims to encourage the sharing of high quality information about climate science, modelling and the interpretation of climate change modelling experiments.  This project has used online learning explicitly to target students in the developing world, aiming to reach areas where face to face training has not been able to make a widespread impact – although being online they are available to anyone anywhere so everyone can benefit.

To do this we developed a free course ‘An introduction to the science of climate and climate change‘  so far this has see just under 4000 students enrol, and this number is growing all the time. When last analysed we had students from 171 different countries and about 45%  of these were from the developing world.  This has been followed up by a second course ‘Constructing and Applying High Resolution Climate Scenarios‘ which enables small cohorts of fee paying students to learn more advanced content in small groups supported by a tutor. This again has achieved a truly global audience with students from Eritrea to Nepal, definitely reaching people who could never come to Oxford for a face to face course.  With so much of the scientific understanding on climate based around modelling, understanding how this actually works is information everyone can benefit from – and with our second course due to run next  on the 28th October, there is still time to sign up.

Mapping online engagement

October 11th, 2013

Back in June I wrote a post about the Visitors and Residents mapping process. Since that posting I have run mapping sessions with people in various roles from a range of institutions.  This has helped me to refine and simplify the process.

During those sessions I got requests to produce a V&R mapping kit that people could use to run the process with groups at their institution. I haven’t got as far as I would like with that yet but in the meantime I have extracted the most relevant 10 minute segment from the original mapping video. I’m hoping that anyone who watches this extract will have all the info they need to create their own map.

A single engagement map is all that is required for an individual and should drive a useful discussion if the mapping is done in a group situation. It should also be useful to then create a map of your department/library/project/group. This way you can assess the digital footprint (The character and visibility of your group online) of your section of your institution and the various modes of engagement you may, or may not, be using. It’s worth noting that if you are mapping with students some of them may relate better to the word ‘course’ instead of  ‘institutional’ on the vertical axis of the map.

I have collated a few maps from various people (including my own from the video) on this Padlet wall so you can get a sense of how varied the process can be depending on the context of the individual:

Created with Padlet

The maps on the wall have no commentary attached to them to preserve anonymity.

The mapping process originates from research funded by Jisc

Social Anthropology and World Religions

July 19th, 2013

This Michaelmas term (as well as offering well over 60 courses you have had a chance to study already) we launch two totally new courses, Social Anthropology: an introduction and Introduction to World Religions.

Boys taking part in a ritual to mark the transition to manhood, Malawi Licensed by Steve Evans under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence

Boys taking part in a ritual to mark the transition to manhood, Malawi
Licensed by Steve Evans under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence

The titles of the units in the social anthropology course alone are enough to make anyone with an enquiring mind consider studying it.  Among them – “Kinship: given or made?” “Witchcraft: is a belief in science any more rational than a belief in witches?” “Gift exchange: is there such a thing as a free gift?” “Ethnicity and globalisation: understanding hyperdiversity”.  I am not sure you will ever see the world in the same way again once you have been exposed to thinking anthropologically.

Our world religions course introduces you to a subject where even the term “world religions” can be controversial. Looking at the major faiths of both the east and west it will help you understand both insider and outsider perspectives and the ways that religions have adapted and changed to meet the challenges of the modern world.

Both courses have some great resources and activities which will really stimulate you, challenging you to work out what you believe and why – if from very different perspectives!


Maths Bridging

July 4th, 2013
Mathematical Bridge, Iffley Lock, Oxford

Mathematical Bridge, Iffley Lock, Oxford

We are currently working on a new course with Oxford’s MPLS division to help students coming to Oxford to study Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences and Materials ensure their maths is up to scratch.

This has been an interesting project for us in many ways, pushing the boundaries of our expertise in many directions, from Moodle’s handling of maths notation, to online assessment design, to embedding of externally hosted cc licensed videos in our materials.

We have updated our handling of mathematical equation rendering, enabling MathJax in Moodle 2.5 which allows us to include maths notation without rendering all maths formula as inaccessible images or requiring our students to download special plugins to use MathMl. This is a big win for us, as in the past pretty much every option for handling this kind of notation had significant downsides.

In terms of assessment design we have finally included some really useful feedback loops between diagnostic, formative tests, basic course materials and reinforcement and extension materials.  Depending on a student’s answer to individual questions they are directed to materials that should give them a basic overview of a concept, help them study it in more depth, and if they want to, explore the topic beyond the basic requirements.  Each section also finishes with  a short quiz so students can check their mastery and again revisit content if need be. Crucially this supports students who need lots of help, but also lets those who don’t establish they are up to speed and ready to begin their course, without requiring them to sit through lots of unnecessary material. This has been possible due to the excellent efforts of our author in MPLS who has done an amazing job writing content and authoring questions and, more significantly, feedback for the quizzes.  This is not a revolutionary approach, and we have had elements of this in our courses before, but the consistent and thorough application of this across all the materials is really gratifying and something that should result in a much more personalised and targeted learning experience for the students.

Lastly this is also a project that has benefited hugely from OER, in particular the wonderful resource sets developed by mathcentre and mathtutor. These have allowed us to produce a much richer course than we would have otherwise managed, by giving students choices about how they study specific concepts while removing the burden from a single author of writing multiple alternative explanations for each topic.  We are also able to present materials in a wider  mixture of formats than we have the resource to develop alone,  e.g. video, text etc so that students can choose the type they prefer.

From a learning design/OER research  perspective this has been a particularly gratifying experience as it has taken concepts we have discussed and modeled in theory for years, such as diagnostic testing with content linked to results and using  OER to enable greater personalisation for students, and actually implemented them in practice. Which I guess means we had better start measuring impact!

Image: bridge /

OxTALENT Awards 2013

June 21st, 2013


Each year, the University of Oxford holds its OxTALENT Awards ceremony to recognise and reward excellence in teaching and learning supported by IT. This year’s event, hosted by Anne Trefethen, Melissa Highton and Dave Walters, was held on 18 June 2013.

It is always a pleasure to meet up with colleagues from learning technology teams around the University and to get the opportunity to see examples of how academic staff, researchers and students from across the University are making innovative use of technology and to have the opportunity to discuss their work with them. This year’s competition was no exception and saw prizes offered in the following categories:

Use of Technology for Outreach and Engagement
Use of WebLearn (the University’s VLE) to Support a Course or Programme of Study
Research Poster
Digital Image
Open Education Initiative
Use of IT in the Classroom
Student IT Innovation

We would like to pass on our congratulations to all the 2013 OxTALENT award winners and mention in particular the part-time tutors of the Department for Continuing Education’s Weekly Classes Programme and our colleagues in the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Centre who both won prizes.

The Weekly Classes tutors were runners up in the Open Education Initiatives category for their contribution to the Jisc-funded Sesame project. This project, which was led by TALL, saw over 150 part-time tutors learn about open educational resources (OER) for teaching and learning and the creation of the site, which contains a growing collection of over 2,000 online resources. The CPD Centre was runner up in the Use of WebLearn to Support a Course or Programme of Study category for their innovative use of the VLE to allow students to interact as peer reviewers on each other’s essay assignments.

For further information about all the 2013 winners and runners up, take a look at the OxTALENT blog.