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An Agile Hypothesis Sprint: what do we know about learner performance?

The structure for the research for OER Reserach Hub is built around 11 hypotheses that we are testing through our work with collaborating organisations, fellowships and background studies. We are now at a stage where the collaborations are well underway and surveys are producing data and we want to bring together the views from the team around the hypotheses and reflecting on our research.

On an away day at the beginning of June we took some lessons from Agile Programming to become Agile Researchers and carried out an Hypothesis Sprint, involving Sprint Boards, T-shirt sized tasks, burndown velocity and mini-scrums!

Guided by Martin we picked one of our hypotheses and focused in on achievable tasks, reporting quick progress and then getting a reasonable result all in one morning. The method appears to work well and if it does give us more of what we need then expect we will expand…

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Starting out with MITx 6.002x

I have finally become a student again! What is more I am now enrolled with MIT(x) and it did not take a huge fee or any tough entry requirements. I am one of the 90,000 people who clicked the enroll button and signed in. For me there are several motivations:

  • I work on Open Educational Resources and feel I should experience what it is like to learn from them (I nearly did this with Sebastian Thrum’s AI course and regretted not going through when I spoke to an enthusiastic Seb Schmoller about his experience on the AI course).
  • I know some MIT folk and they come up with some interesting directions that it would be good to see in more detail. So this could feel like going in undercover and this way I needn’t feel bad about not doing the assignements but …
  • I nearly set out to do a course like this as an undergraduate. In the end I took Maths but always wondered if I should have taken electronic/physics. So I would like to do this for real.

So what has it been like? Well actually it has been quite hard! The level is fairly high and I have found in the first week that I have been integrating trig functions, differentiating using the product rule and writing rather a lot of symbols on pieces of paper! I have also found it quite rewarding – a bit like suduko on steroids. Puzzles that I really have to work at – and then carry on working on late at night. So far I have managed to come out the other side ok as luckily the “homeworks” all multiple attempts, I have a feeling that I have yet to get anything completely right on the first attempt.

The course itself has:

  • Videos to watch – these are sequenced and mixed with exercises. They are captioned but as Brandon Muramatsu points out in his post 6.002x Video: First Impressions they could have done this a bit better. Proper captioning would make quite a difference for me as I find I would rather read the words than listen and set things at 1.5x to help speed things up. (I think the team are listening though as it now remembers that I like video at 1.5x and I think at first I had to keep resetting that.
  • A huge textbook. This is a commercial book that you could buy but is available free. But in the free form it is quite annoying only page by page access and no downloading it all. I would really like this on my kindle and that is not possible, and I think actually the conditions would say that I cannot engineer it myself.
  • Discussions and a wiki with hints and feedbacks. The discussions are using a system that I think is called Askbot and so is based on Q&A rather than discussions as such. This might limit the chance for the community itself to form and is getting a bit unwieldy. There are also groups on other places such as facebook – but I have not explored those.
  • Exercises to work through. These typically ask questions and then you enter responses which are judged. Then you can look at the answers if you want or try again. The answers are often numeric.
  • Tutorials running through in videos worked examples. I have not watched many of these and it is quite hard to know what they will cover without watching them through.
  • Homework. These are similar to the exercises but you do not get the option to see the answer, These are fine – but they are quite challenging. Typically they extend well beyond the work covered in the videos and are difficult to match to the textbook as well.
  • Labs. These use a circuit simulator where you build up circuit diagrams and then calculate values or run a trace.

For me the homework has become the driver – quite revealing in itself though not a surprise to find assessment is taking over. The time I have spent was probably not far off the 10 hours in the first week but then a bit less as too much else has been going on in the second week.

I am enjoying doing the course though if the difficulty scales up I might fall by the wayside. I am not seeking to be critical in this post but I do agree with Brandon that a bit more effort to get the accessibility working better is needed. For the learning process I would normally expect stronger alignment between the materials and what is tested as well but actually having the homework as puzzles in themselves is quite interesting. I can then carry out a treasure hunt to see where the clues are hidden (in texts, videos, other exercises, discussions and out there in google search land).

I am not sure 6.002x should count as “Open Educational Resource” (OER), it is built on some materials already released on MIT’s OpenCourseWare site. But the addition of the textbook, the closed access to the course itself and that nothing in the design encourages transfer to another site make it more a free course than an open one.

At this point there is just time to sign up (first homework closes 18 March). So if you like mathematical puzzles, wonder if you should have done/should do electronics, and are interested in how open learning works this could be just the thing!

iBook Author – is it OER incompatible?

Important update (20 February 2012): Apple acted to change the End User License Agreement on 3 February 2012 with release 1.0.1 of iBook Author. This modified the restriction on commercial use to say “and includes files in the .ibooks format generated using iBooks Author” so it only applies to the iBook version of the text. As long as iBooks is the only platform to support that format this is no problem. So I hope it fixes most of the issues I mention. Though I must admit it still leaves me a little uncomfortable and probably still needs checking out a bit further.

Original post (20 January 2012): Following today’s Apple Education announcement I was intrigued by the CNET live blog having the comment that it was HyperCard reborn so I thought it might be worth a download. (Though still not an iPad owner.) The interface looks fine and my first thoughts were positive – this could be a way to finally knock Word off its undeserved position as the default way to pass documents around. But then just before I got going to have a play with actually doing something I noticed this:

The iBooks Author Export Dialogue

So this says that I can only sell by Book through the iBookstore. Fine I have no intention of selling anything… BUT I think this is the first time I have come across an application that says that I can only use the output – the thing I make – in a particular way. I then went investigating into the licence that I would be signing up for if I used the software.

Pressing on the License Agreement button gave me this:

Then reading down to the small print I find this explanation of what I can do:

So condition (ii) clearly says that if you are making any money from the iBook then it must be distributed through Apple. But what about condition (i)  – that sounds ok but I feel there could be a couple of catches.

Catch 1: the file format is .iba (not sure you can do much with that other than put it it iBooks I guess) but you can also get a PDF so maybe that is not so bad.

Catch 2: if I produce something I want to but a Creative Commons licence on it. In fact if I am producing something for a couple of projects that I work on I am contractually required to produce it using CC-BY. But then CC-BY allows anyone else to republish AND they may do so for commercial gain.

So either I have found a loophole – release with CC-BY then anyone else (which typically include you) can reuse your work in anyway they wish provided they attribute it to you. OR I have found a barrier – you cannot stick a CC-BY licence on anything made with iBook Author. The terms imply this is true even if you export it as PDF (or strictly probably even if you export as text).

This needs the usual health warning – I am not a legal expert, what is more I can just be plain wrong :-). Anyway I don’t like this condition and I have written this blog instead of playing with the software.

How to (do) AVOID planning

AIM, VISION, OPTIONS, ITINERARY, DO

I have long been a fan of the GTD approach and have recently been rereading David Allen’s book on Getting Things Done. Indeed I bought 10 copies and passed them out to colleagues working on the OLnet project as I believe his ideas and methods can only help people. BUT in reading his book I have had some difficulty in getting the match between PROJECTS and ACTIONS. The focus is on action but unless these make sense in terms of projects then it is hard to get going and decide what to do. GTD offers good advice compressed into about a few pages (p62-p81 in my UK edition) yet somehow I could not make that advice stick or pass on the ideas to other people. Until the beginning of the summer when I came up with a variant: AVOID planning!

In AVOID planning you focus on five elements:

  • AIMS: What you need to achieve
  • VISION: The impact and hopes you have for what you will achieve
  • OPTIONS: The ideas and choices you have for things you might do
  • ITINERARY: The outputs you are after and the deadlines to do them by
  • DO: The next actions that need to happen to move forward (and then the next and so on ….)

Notice the split between aims and vision. I have found that people are often asking for what is the vision behind a project – but then treating the result as if it was the guide to what has to be done. Splitting this into an aim and a separate vision has solved this dilemma for me.

The AIM is then something that might be relatively straightforward such as to “write a blog post about the AVOID planning”. The aim should in general something you would be happy to be held to. In effect the promise you are making yourself that you can deliver on.

The VISION is where you let yourself imagine the other side of success. In the vision think about impact and everything working out. So the vision might be “Blogging about AVOID planning helps those I work with to be more efficient and know what each other are doing and then it gets picked up as an approach for the unit, the university, the world … leading to a new role as an efficiency guru.” Visions, including this one :-), may contain aspects that you might not expect to achieve but if you miss spotting them may rein in what you do and the connections that can be made.

OPTIONS is where ideas should flow. Gathering all the things that you might do. In this section remain in brainstorm mode without being too critical about the ideas generated. Options are optional so record each idea without thinking of them as commitments. So can have options such as “Make a Powerpoint presentation about AVOID/Put an animated podcast together with voiceover on YouTube/Blog onto my personal openpad site/Link the method to olnet.org/Run a session at the next team meeting/Write an AVOID planning book/….”.

In ITINERARY is the chance to pause and put in a reality check. What actually has to be done and when by. If there are hard deadlines then they go here. This would be a good place to link up with any more traditional planning that is going on. E.g. if you want to make a Gantt chart or spreadsheet then put it here. This can also be where to describe deliverables if that is what the driver is for the outputs. For the blogging example the hard deadlines were initially missing but having now said that I will run a mini session at a meeting I have an Itinerary of “Blog post/Put slides together/Team meeting (October 12)”. [Of the letters in AVOID the I is the one I am least sure about – for a while it was Inventory but I found Itinerary fits better but is a bit tricky to spell. I would consider other options.]

Finally DO. At the planning level too much effort can go on trying to get the list of things to do right and to be sure about the options that have been selected. Rather the DO section is really a hand over to however you track your actions. What does need to be identified is the Next Action level. A project without any Next Action is one that is not going anywhere. So again in my self-referencing example the Next Action was “Set a date to talk about AVOID” and now is “Draft a blog post about AVOID”.

How to AVOID plan

I have now been running AVOID planning myself for about 3 months and shared the method with 5 or 6 other people. I have found two key ways to apply it. First as a solo activity, second as small group planning/brainstorming. The process is similar in each case but in the solo version it can be carried out fairly quickly with worthwhile results in 15-30minutes while as a group activity it will take a bit longer but combine very well with other techniques to draw out the options (for example with think-pair-share). I will describe what I do when working this through with myself of perhaps one other person:

Think about something you are working on that is perhaps just getting going or a bit stuck. E.g. writing a report. This should be viewed as a project with steps along the way. Create a document call it e.g. [project]-AVOID-[date] with headings:

AIM:

VISION:

OPTIONS:

ITINERARY

DO:

Now work your way down the list as quickly as is feasible. Write the commitment under AIM (you might find at first you need to list some alternatives and refine) then let your ambitions loose and write out all that might happen when you succeed under VISION.

In independent brainstorming mode then fill in the OPTIONS. I find this can be quite liberating and make you realise that you have ideas that you need to get down before you let them go – even if you cannot see them as feasible or even necessarily good ideas. In this category for me are the ones that would be good if they happened but might cause everyone far too much work! But record it without being too critical.

Then the ITINERARY pause – what is really pressing and has to be done soon. What is the eventual target. It is often the case that there is no real end date imposed in which case put in best guesses. This can also provide the section that is a checklist of progress. If there need to be visible outputs such as progress reports, final reports etc. then note here. Treat this section as grounding after the options section but do not over plan.

Under DO it might be that there is not very much to record at this stage but there should be for yourself at least a clear Next thing to do.

Working with Toodledo

I find Toodledo a great help in running a GTD style ToDo list. Now that they have added notes it is also a good platform for organising projects and a home for AVOID plans. I won’t go into the details here but do advise signing up for a free account (following this link with note that I recommended you or just go direct).

Credits

I think most of what I have written here can be found in David Allen’s GTD book. What I have done is pick out the section that matters when planning and also come up with the AVOID acronym. Whether this makes a difference for others I don’t know; it has helped me remember and adopt this five stage approach to planning and to bring a few others on board without just saying “read the book”!

No thank you for iPad

iPad

Recently at work we bought a couple of iPads. These are in the hands of Martin Weller and Karen Cropper both of whom are now keen users. Last week Karen let me have her iPad to use for a week and I expected it to hook me as well. There certainly are some nice things about the iPad – it feels good to browse with it, Flipboard is a great way to follow streams, reading books in iBooks feels slick, and playing iBubble on its large touch screen is addictive. BUT in the end it was not for me and I was able to give it back into Karen’s eager hands without any great wrench.

The reasons for this I feel fall into two parts. First there was just too much that did not feel as if it worked as well as it could. This is exactly where the strengths of Apple normally lie, but on the iPad the wi-fi was too flaky and the missing camera limits possibilities. For me the disappointing capabilities of two add-ons flag up that this machine is not as good as it could be: the VGA adapter only works for some programs, and the SD card reader only allows thumbnail views.

This brings me to my second point that the iPad underperforms as a work machine. I had thought it would be great to use the touch features for collaborative brainstorming; but I could not project to the large screen. And I expected to take photos and instantly put the camera card in to show them off; but to do this I had to slowly pick and transfer the files first. In particular I thought the iPad would be great for having PDF documents loaded to replace paper in meetings; but too cumbersome to switch between the documents so I was better off with my laptop (and best off with paper!). I also was in a meeting where five other people had iPads – the effect was of looking at the top of people’s heads as they found documents or made notes. I felt more part of the meeting behind my laptop screen.

Throughout my week I kept putting the iPad to one side and using my Macbook Pro instead. The one win at work was when I had to carry out workplan approvals – a job where I needed to bring up page after page and click a button, this was much more satisfying with the touch screen rather than a mouse.

The iPad does feel like a first generation – I remember feeling just the same when I got an early model iPod Touch. That has been transformed by software upgrades and hardware improvements so that I am now a constant user of the iPhone 3GS I have (though notably it is not my phone – that remains an ancient Nokia).

At the moment then  no iPad for openpad, but I suspect I will waver in the future – though whether this time Apple has gone too far with its gradual upgrading approach and will allow others too leap ahead remains to be seen. Philosophically an openish Android would better match my views than the proprietary iPad so my colleague Liam Green Hughes may yet win in this argument!

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