Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Social Software Use in Projects

I'm looking for examples of projects that have made good use of social software such as wikis, blogs, photo/video sharing, social networking.

Projects should be work-related rather than personal and public sector rather than private, particularly the education sector. But good practice is good practice so if you have examples from other work sectors then please get in touch either through the comments here or to j.burke[at]northumbria.ac.uk

Anything I use will be credited.

I'm particularly interested in examples of collaborative planning and/or problem solving using wikis/networks or engagement activity.

Over to you...

Friday, 9 November 2007

Innovative College Library

Yesterday I had the pleasure of looking around the recently refurbished library and learning resources centre at Blackpool & The Fylde College.

I visited shortly before work began 14 months ago and the library now is almost unrecogniseable as the same place.

Perhaps I shouldn't say the library anymore because Blackpool asked students to come up with a name for the new combined library and learning resources centre from a list of alternatives. The new resource is now named The Loop which allows the college to display signs such as 'Get in the Loop' and the term library is almost forgotten now even though The Loop has only recently opened for business in its new guise.

'I overheard two students talking', my guide and project manager for the refurbishment, Christine McAllister said, 'and one said "I'll meet you later in the Library."
"Where?" said the other, "Oh - do you mean The Loop?"'

Some of the refurbishment caught my eye - bookshelves with inbuilt concealed lighting has been used which certainly makes the books stand out and looks attractive and draws you towards them.

Blackpool could be the first Further Education college to install and use these self-service machines which allow students to book out or return books using their student card.

Any outstanding fines can be paid into the machine which issues a receipt for any payments.

The touch screen interface looked easy to use and students can also use the machines for reserving library books that are currently unavailable through being out on loan.

Social areas for networking or single study in more comfortable surroundings has been included with use of swivel panels to reveal power outlets for laptops.

As I was being shown around, students were using the facilities both for informal social meetings whilst on the next block of seating a student was sitting with her laptop, surrounded by a collection of open notebooks and text books.

Even before all of the graphics had been delivered and installed, the place had a buzz about it that was both friendly, vibrant and yet conducive to study.

For students without their own IT equipment there was a mixture of both sit-down bookable PCs and stand-up short-term machines where students could quickly download and send emails, check out blogs and network on sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Blackpool believe in encouraging use of Web2.0 facilities, which is a refreshing change to them being seen as a threat because students might 'diss the teachers' as one IT manager explained the 'risks' to me. He wasn't from Blackpool. I suspect Blackpool & The Fylde may have the right approach!

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Acceptance Criteria

I've been writing some materials updating JISC infoNet's Project Management infoKit and had given some examples of user or customer acceptance criteria:

● target date
● functions required
● performance levels
● capacity
● downtime / availability
● running cost
● security levels
● level of skill required to operate
The above may, at first glance, appear very IT systems based. But consider the installation of a lift in a new build project. The lift needs to be installed by a certain date, a specific function may be that it should only go down to the basement if a key is used to turn a lock to a certain position. It has performance levels - eg speed, it has a capacity in weight and number of people carried safely, it will require servicing at times, it will use electricity, and whilst it may not require any security levels for normal use (though we have mentioned one possible level already), there will need to be security of access to the operating machinery and a level of skill required for servicing personnel.

Then I applied them to producing a new range of paint. Target date becomes shipping date, functions required seems fairly simple, but capable of being thinned and by what or whether undercoat is required, performance levels as in opacity, how many coats required, can it be washed down without coming off a wall, capacity as in what area will one litre of paint cover, let's forget "downtime"(!) but availability is certainly an issue, how much can be produced, how many retail outlets are we aiming for to stock it, how much will it cost, will we need notices about storing out of children's reach, is it suitable for brushing, spraying, rolling, sponging...

For some projects your users or potential customers will be able to specify some, perhaps the majority of the acceptance criteria, but quite often they need some assistance with this.

Many users have an idea of what it is they want from a project but can totally lack the ability to put it into words or at least into enough detail so that you have a clear view of what is required. Specifying the acceptance criteria may need to be an iterative process, but one which needs to be finalised as early as possible.

Making changes before you start is cheaper than making changes once you've finished...

Monday, 1 October 2007

Workshop Writing

I'm about to start writing JISC infoNet's new workshop - Project Management Masterclass.

This takes the Project Management techniques delivered in our original Project Management Workshop into senior management territory and explores in depth, things like turning strategy into projects, portfolio management, management by exception etc.

We have always used the same tool for putting workshops together and it's a very simple one. We take a flip chart (or a wall) and cover it in post-it notes.

The different colours represent different delivery tools or activities during the workshop.

The blue notes are for "TALK" (not "TRUC", yes I know it looks a bit like that at the bottom...)

The yellow notes represent a shout-out session, where delegates are asked to give answers to a question, opinions on a point, or feedback.

The pink notes represent an activity that the delegates will undertake either singly or in groups.

Ensuring that there is not a whole bunch blue notes together can help your lesson or workshop motor along without risking delegates or students getting bored.

Quite often during the shout-out sessions I will write down any delegate points on-screen using Word. This can be minimised afterwards but then contains a record if I want to come back to a point someone made during the workshop or we can put the delegates' feedback online afterwards where they can compare it with previous groups' feedback.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Writing the Manual

I suppose this entry takes the thought processes from my earlier entry Black & White Computing a little further, but forgive me if I repeat myself slightly.

I've had the pleasure of a new PC on my desk and have spent much of the morning installing a well known security product. Let's call it "Not-On"...

Not-On comes with a huge box, a normal-sized CD and an A5 sized 48 page User Guide, 1 page of which is the title, 1 page the copyright notice, 1 page the contents, 1 page blank, 9 pages of guidance (2 of which help you to find help elsewhere), 12 pages about the support you can get from Not-On and their associates, 2/3 page about upgrades and subscriptions, 1 1/3 pages about worldwide support, 2 pages of index and 14 blank pages for you to make your own notes.

Nowhere in the 2 pages of the guidance that are devoted to installation is there a diagram of a screen shot. Nowhere does it say:

"The Not-On program will open and start to work before it has finished installing. It will recognise there are bits missing and initial tasks undone and therefore will open a warning page giving dire messages about the state of your machine's security"
I mean, come on! It's not hard is it? If this happens every time and I assume it must, then might it not be an idea for the installation manual to at least mention it?

Nick Langley, writing in Computer Weekly this week has an article headed "Technical writing provides career path with creativity" in which he says "Technical writers take complicated technical information and present it in a way that is understandable to users..."

Not at Not-On...

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Change Control - Quick Tip

If you have workmen on site, ensure that they (and your staff!) know who is allowed to request changes to specification.

Otherwise someone on your staff will say something like 'That trunking should be thicker - we might want to add video cable at some point...'

Whether or not you intend to add cable, the change will be made, the additional time and materials will be added to your bill and your project may also slip in time whilst the larger trunking is sourced and delivered.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Black & White Computing

I've always thought computers were black and white. No shades of grey at all.

I don't really mean colours; I mean in how easy they are to use. You either know how to do something - in which case it's easy... or you don't - in which case it's almost always impossible. To use the Help facility of most software packages, you have to know the correct keywords to search for. Very few software packages allow you to ask "How do I...?"

The problem with asking for help from a co-worker is that even if they know, they are more likely to take over your mouse and keyboard, undertaking a series of actions in zero seconds flat whilst saying impatiently "You just do this...".

Even those people designated as "computer angels" or "IT Friends" or "Helpdesk" have an annoying tendency to say in response to a question "Oh, it's easy that..." Yes it is. To them...

So if anyone asks you to show them how to do something, please bear in mind they are already frustrated. You don't need to do that for them!

Take your time, one keyboard or mouse action at a time, preferably explaining what each does and giving enough time for them to write it down, so they will be able to do it again next time without having to ask someone else. (Because they won't ask you again will they - waste of time...!)

Project Management Workshop

Clive and I ran a JISC infoNet Project Management Workshop in Glasgow yesterday. The delegates were mostly from libraries and I'd amended our usual scenario that activities for the day are based on to one concerning a library moving premises.

We had some interesting moments with the venue's ceiling mounted data projector overheating and turning itself off every half hour, but we tried to time it so that we could start an activity when it was due to go off and there was only one awkward moment.

The delegates seemed to appreciate the day - lots of comments on the feedback forms of which these are a representative sample:

Future projects will undoubtedly be governed by today's presentation. Invaluable.

One of the most worthwhile courses I've ever been to.

The delegate pack of materials was excellent, one of the best I've seen.

Very useful and informative. Made projects and their organisation much less frightening.


JISC infoNet offers a range of one-day workshops to the Further and Higher Education sectors in the UK.

Check our web pages via the above links for more details or email jiscinfonet@northumbria.ac.uk

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Construction Projects Tip

I was talking to a colleague, Benita Wiseman, who works for the JISC Regional Support Centre Northwest.

She said, "It would be good to have just short simple tips perhaps on your blog for people involved in projects." We had been talking about new-build and refurbishment projects for learning spaces and she added, "Like, if you're having building work done, keep your own log of the weather so that you can check it if the builders say delays were caused by bad weather."

Tip number one!

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Annual Leave Spreadsheet

This is something I did years ago and the other day someone asked if I still had a copy I could let them have.

I think it's fun sometimes to understand how something works (I draw the line at cars - I just drive them!) and therefore...

Click the images for a larger view.

This is the spreadsheet as seen for a single user. The blue squares representing a day's leave have a value of 1, but you could make the text colour the same as the background so all you see is a square. Equations in the columns to the right add up the number of coloured squares for the month and then deduct it from your allocation.

For a manager to keep track of a team's annual leave it's a case of adding more rows for each month (a different colour for each team member can be good) and ensuring the equations match the relevant line as leave is taken month by month.


Equations

B16: =B5
Then copy that down to B17:B25, B27:B36 etc. You will only have to enter staff names once now as it will automatically copy down from the first month into all other months.

AI5: =SUM(C5:AG5)
Then copy that down to AI6:AI14, AI16:AI25 etc. It adds all the taken leave for the row.

AJ5: =AK5+AL5-AI5
Then copy down to AJ6:AJ14 only. It adds the initial leave allocation (AK5) plus any leave brought forward from the previous year (AL5) and then takes off any leave taken during the current month (AI5)

AJ16: =AJ5-AI16
Then copy down to AJ17:AJ25, AJ27:AJ36 etc. It ensures that each month's remaining leave is based on the remaining allocation from the end of the preceding month.

Using the Spreadsheet

That's it! Fairly simple. Note that the coloured square in C1 has a value of 1 and the coloured and patterned square in C2 has a value of 0.5 to enable half day leave to be calculated.

When you add leave for anyone, copy and paste from either C1 or C2, rather than change the colour of cells to match - as that would not give them a value to be included in the calculations.

The coloured boxes for Sick Leave and Allowed Leave of Absence do not have a value as they would not be counted against annual leave allocations.

Every year you have to create a new blank and move the weekends (grey boxes) to match the dates of the new year.

Have a go!

Please note that as I am now retired this spreadsheet is no longer available as an attachment or emailed copy.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

JISC Inquiry into Learner Experiences

JISC have announced a Committee of Inquiry into the changing experiences and expectations of learners coming up to the age where they may enter Higher Education.

Young people's perceptions and expectectations of what HE might be like can sometimes be at odds with what they experience once they walk through the door.

Today's 17-year-olds have never known a world without the Internet. They were born in 1990, so their perception even of the Millenium is "something that happened when I was a kid"... "Star Wars" means Ewan McGregor, not Alec Guinness; for many of them TV will have always meant dozens of channels, vinyl records are antiques, even CDs are in danger of becoming quaint. They may have never had to take a film in to be processed.

Their experience of Information Technology, encompasses a far wider remit than just computers. Digital TV, digital cameras, mobile phones that take photographs, video, record audio and playback music in high quality. Internet use that includes new Social Software like MySpace and Facebook allowing groups of friends to share ideas and create networks globally, other web 2.0 sites such as Flickr and YouTube where photographs and videos can be stored, shared and accessed, blogging sites that allow anyone to be an author, a diarist, a philsopher, a critic.

The natural tendency is for youngsters to use these sites for friendship and other informal uses. It is important to understand the uses made of them in the more formal settings of schools and sixth forms.

The potential is huge for craft workers, or tradesmen such as carpenters to use a blog and perhaps Flickr to showcase work, to hold references from satisfied customers.

Do youngsters recognise this type of use for social software sites? Do schools make use of such technological advances? Is the demand for use so strong that the networks and connection capacity of schools and colleges become swamped and unable to cope with demand? Do institutions see only the negative aspects to such sites and ban their use?

Do youngsters see access to IT as a right? Will they want to bring and use their own laptops on the university network, disdaining the institution's own computers? Will they want to store their work and have it assessed on the university Virtual Learning Environment, or on an Internet-based wiki? Where will they want to store things like e-Portfolios, so that they can access them during work interviews from employers' premises and showcase both university achievements and other non-university achievements?

The Committee of Inquiry will be asking these and many more questions I am sure. They are currently seeking members from the Education Sector and Employers. The JISC announcement, by Dr Malcolm Read, JISC's Executive Secretary, is given below.
JISC will be running a Committee of Inquiry into the changing learner experience. The Inquiry is to address the implications for Higher Education Institutions of the experience and expectations of learners approaching full-time higher education both in the light of their increasing use of Web 2.0 technologies and other factors affecting the student experience. The focus is to be on young learners since their experience and expectation is immediate and also indicative of that of future entry cohorts. The consequences for other learners who may not be as familiar with new technologies will also be considered. The Inquiry is to extend over a period of approximately 9 months from autumn 2007, and its findings are intended to inform senior management discussions at the strategic level will and provide advise to universities and colleges about how they might wish to respond to the issues raised.

The committee is likely to comprise a group of perhaps 12 members in order to accommodate a spread of perspectives - senior management in HEIs and FECs, institutional technical services staff, schools, student as well as the research community and employers. The Inquiry and its committee will be supported and facilitated by a small secretariat

The Inquiry and committee will be headed by a Chair. The Chair will need to be credible in context, effective in that capacity and, ideally, prepared to be involved in the work and process of the Inquiry. Rather than being, for instance, an e-learning expert the chair should ideally be interested in the widest possible issues relating to the student experience and able to direct the Inquiry on this basis

Suggestions of potential candidates for the role of Chair are invited, as are suggestions of possible members for the committee itself. Suggestions should be emailed to Robert Haymon-Collins, JISC Director of Communications and Marketing,
r.haymon-collins@jisc.ac.uk, and copied to Emma Charlick, e.charlick@jisc.ac.uk as soon as possible and in any case by 24 August 2007.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Untangling Two Different Copies of the Same Excel Spreadsheet

The other week I was on the JISC infoNet stand at a regional conference and one of the delegates who came over to see what was new, said, “What happened to all those technical articles you used to write for NILTA News? Ages since we had one of them!”

Well, yes, I have to admit that I haven’t done an awful lot of programming over the last few years and any knowledge of database language that I have is probably a little outdated now. Database products seem to be updated regularly! However, not long after that conversation, I had a phone call from an ex-colleague who was now working for a local government organisation. She had been put in charge of some records that were stored on an Excel spreadsheet.

The problem was that two clerks had copies of this spreadsheet, held separately on their PC hard drives and at some point both of them had made update amendments to the data and she wanted some way of comparing the two files and sorting out the most up-to-date information.

I was able to help by suggesting a way forward, but unfortunately in a case like this there is no way of automatically determining which of two different records within a larger file holds the correct information. The solution I suggested would eliminate all those records that were the same in both files and allow her to concentrate a manual checking of the data on those that didn’t match.

By far the easiest way of matching records is to have both sets within the same spreadsheet, but I wanted to ensure that neither of the two copies were compromised. Therefore step one was to make a copy of spreadsheet “A”, leave a blank column to the right of all the data, then paste in all the data from spreadsheet “B”.


We now had two sets of data side by side – but of course not necessarily with data records in the same order as perhaps some rows had been deleted, some had been added, maybe in both but probably only in one of the sheets.

So we couldn’t be certain that any record in sheet “A” would be on the same row as a corresponding record in sheet “B”. We needed a way of highlighting which records existed in both sheets with all the same data in each of the fields. They were the only records that she could trust and she would then have to take the rest and make enquiries to ascertain which record was current.

To make things easier we created a new field for both sheet “A” records and sheet “B” records that held all the data from every field. This was fairly easy using the “&” sign to concatenate one field with another.


Using &" "& allows us to include a text space character between the two – not necessary for our purposes but it looks better! The formula =A4&B4&C4 would have produced the result “FredBloggs52 Sonder Avenue”.

The next step is to insert another field into sheet “A” and use that to compare each row to any row from sheet “B”. Remember that the corresponding record to row 4 in sheet “A” could be absolutely anywhere in sheet “B” so comparing row 4 in sheet "A" only to row 4 in the sheet "B" would likely cause disaster!

What we did was to compare the new field that held every bit of data in sheet “A” to the corresponding new field in sheet “B” but checking the entire column in sheet “B” by using a range. J4:J1025 would check each row from 4 to 1025 for a match. The syntax for the check is – persons of a nervous disposition look away now…

=ISNA(MATCH(D4,$J$4:$J$1025,FALSE))


This is the formula as given (if you are able to find it!) using Excel’s Help facility. It’s not the best solution for reasons I’ll explain later, but before I add to this already complicated formula, let's break it down step by step to see what it is doing.

To understand any formula, start within the brackets and work outwards. So, bit by bit…

“MATCH” is the innermost command and means what it says. In the inner brackets are the bits that tell it what to match.

“D4” means compare or match the contents of cell D4

“$J$4:$J$1025” means compare against the range J4 to J1025. The $ signs are there so that as we copy the formula down, although D4 will change to D5, D6 and so on, the range will stay constant. We don’t want to compare D1025 to a range of J1025:J2042, we want the range to stay constant.

“FALSE” …I’m not really sure what this does at this point! By default if the formula finds a match it will show the row number from the range in which it found the match. From the RANGE – not the spreadsheet! In our example with the range starting in row 4, if it returned 26 we would find the matching record on row 29 of the spreadsheet! If it doesn’t find a match it displays a “Value Not Found” error.

That’s fine but it’s not elegant. Far better to display the word “TRUE” if it finds a match and “FALSE” if it doesn’t. So that is what the ISNA(…) bit does. Except that it does it in reverse – it displays “TRUE” if a match is NOT found and “FALSE” if it does find a match. That is the Microsoft solution. You could head your column “Missing from sheet B” and there’s a job done. You need now to compare sheet B to sheet A of course, because new rows may have been added so now we add a new field to the far right and enter the formula:

=ISNA(MATCH(J4,$D$4:$D$1025,FALSE))

which does the same thing only the other way around! It matches row by row sheet “B” to a range in sheet “A”.


I said the solution wasn’t elegant. It’s still not. That’s simply because we have that double negative. We are looking for matching fields but the results of the formula shows “FALSE” if we find one!

So let’s add a simple command and another set of brackets to turn it round.

=NOT(ISNA(MATCH(D4,$J$4:$J$1025,FALSE)))

Now the “TRUE” and “FALSE” are the more logical way round and we can head the column “Match Found”.


There’s still a lot to do here because the results only tell us whether the whole data was found or not. The matching record could exist but may have some amended data – a different address field for instance. It is obvious to a human that Fred Bloggs living at the same address as Frederick Bloggs in the other sheet should be a match. It will not be a match to a computer!

We have an entry for Marie Stokes in each sheet. They may or may not be the same person as the entries have different addresses. Even if it is the same person there is no way of telling which address is correct! So from each side we know that all the records that show “TRUE” are common to both spreadsheets but now need to manually examine all other rows to see if the same name exists with a different address or whether the name appears only in one sheet or the other.

So now we can sort the records based on column D and then copy all the records labelled "True", from Spreadsheet "A" only, into a new worksheet. We can then delete those records from Spreadsheet "A" leaving only those records which are unique to Spreadsheet "A".

Next we can sort records based on column J and delete all the records labelled "True" from Spreadsheet "B" as, being previously matched in Spreadsheet "A", they have already been copied to the new worksheet.

This leaves only those records in either sheet that need to be manually examined for any similarities such as the Fred/Frederick Bloggs. Where there are two different addresses for what seems to be the same person, you will have to do some research as it is impossible to say which is the most up-to-date address, or even whether it is the same person.

These records can be added to the new worksheet as and when they are verified. The new worksheet now becomes the master copy and should be labelled and treated as such. Spreadsheets "A" and "B" should now be made read-only and archived or destroyed in accordance with your Records Retention Policy. You do have one...don't you?

Moral of the tale - don't ever have more than one updateable copy of anything, whether it is a database, spreadsheet or even a set of minutes. Use Records Management techniques to version control documents and if multiple copies are needed in electronic format designate a master copy and make all others read-only.

JISC infoNet has a number of online resources available on the subject of Records Management at http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/records-management

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

The Three Project Variables

I see from this article on the BBC News web site that MPs are worried about the London Olympics Project.

It has a fixed deadline of course that cannot be moved so there are only two of the three project variables left to play with.

Ah - but wait! They are also worried because the budget has soared; "the Games' cost had at first been underestimated and private sector funding 'seriously overestimated'." Olympics Minister (It has a Minister!!!) Tessa Jowell has pledged to keep an "iron grip" on the budget.

So that's two out of the only three project variables either fixed or compromised. That leaves just one to play with, Tessa...

Oh no...! The Public Accounts Committee have voiced concerns that the organisers may forced to "accepting lower standards, to get the job finished."

Well that is the only variable left...

Adjusting any one of the variables affects the other two. If any variable is fixed then adjusting one of the others affects the remaining third variable dramatically. If your original costings or estimates or perception of what is achievable has not been realistic in the first place, then you are left with a nightmare.

In this case, it appears there was a rather optimistic view of how much contribution would come from the Business Sector. Also the Public Accounts Committee has warned that Risk Control is not being applied all that well. Risks need to be managed with an "iron hand" they say.

Managing Risk well does not come at zero cost, as you have to spend money on mitigating some risks, on insuring against others, on work to identify and monitor them. It does, or should, however, cost less than if no risks are identified at all.

Ignoring risks does not make them go away. So when they do turn into issues and there have been no mitigating activities to reduce their impact and no "Plan B" to swing into action, project managers are forced to manage them in crisis mode. The same managers who accused you of "worrying about things that haven't happened yet" are now the same ones saying angrily "why didn't you think of that???"

JISC infoNet has a number of free resources aimed at the Higher and Further Education sectors mainly, but equally applicable to most others. The resources include Project Management and Risk Management

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint

I keep saying - there's no such thing. There are either good or bad presentations but Microsoft are not to blame!

So how can you prepare and present the killer presentation? What should you do and what should you not do?

I've written about this before in the days of overhead projectors (OHPs) in the pages of the National CMIS Board's newsletter but there is obviously still such a need. Someone prompted me to update the article in an attempt to save conference audiences everywhere from depression and intense boredom.

So let's cover everything - the presentation itself - what should it look like, how fast should it move, should it have sound, video, special effects? Speaking - what should you say, how should you say it, using microphones without fear. The way you act - where should you stand, where should you look, can you read a script, should you stay still or move about?

Oh... that's the first lesson - tell them what you are going to tell them first... then tell them!


The PowerPoint Presentation

This should be simple and not fussy. Don't try to put too much text on screen. A presentation is not an essay.

Use a simple easy-to-read font such as Arial or Verdana. Not a font that tries to look clever but can't be read easily. Not a script (joined-up-writing) or anything with flambouyant curls or even stuff that looks informal like Comic Sans. Arial is wonderful.

Keep jargon to an absolute minimum!

Use a large font. 28 is good, 24 should be a minimum. The acid test is this. Put the presentation on your desktop screen. Now hold your hand up in front of you at arm's length as though you were signalling someone to stop. Then move away from the screen until the width of your hand just covers the width of the screen.

That's how big the presentation will look to people at the back. Some of them will have worse eyesight than you have. You should be able to read the screen easily and look away, then easily find the line you were reading when you look back.

This means that you should have no more than ten lines of writing at the very most. Aim for no more than eight. Space is good!

Yooz a spel chekker!!! Nothing looks worse than someone, who the audience thinks should know better, having spelling mistakes littered all over their presentation. If you are not sure, paste it into Word and spell check it.


It's a Rainbow!

Pick two simple colours that contrast sharply with each other and that won't cause anyone with colour blindness a problem. One for the background and one for the text. Now stick with them. Use a third colour for headings or emphasis if you must but don't have so many colours that the audience is tempted to psychoanalyse you to see if they can understand why...

Having a pastel shade as a background can be good, as it will reduce any glare that you can sometimes get from a totally white background. If you are going to have a shaded background don't have it from very light to very dark as the text will disappear at some point on the screen. Have it from very light to light, or from dark to very dark if you have white or very light text.

It helps if all slides have the same colour combinations. It is tiring to the eyes if your presentation looks like a 1970s Top of the Pops programme.


You'll Believe a Word can Fly

Keep special effects to a minimum if you use them at all. If you really must, then use them for lines of text not individual words or (worst case scenario) each letter! I once sat through a presentation where each letter appeared seperately to the sound of an old typewriter. It was funny for the first word but after ten slides of tightly packed writing, half the audience were discussing methods of suicide...

The safest is to have lines of text fly on from right to left. That way they appear in the direction you would read them. Having text fly from the left jars at the audience. The words come on screen in the wrong order and they cannot read it until the effect has stopped.

Use of special effects makes the size of your presentation file grow enormously. Limit your use of them to images and even then use the same one rather than have lots of different effects.


Sound Effects

Are naff. Don't. Not even for... Not ever.

Use sound only if you have a sound file that adds to the presentation. An interview; the sound recorded at the spot where you took the photo that is on screen, eg, to illustrate how noisy a factory is; to let the audience hear a birdsong or a piece of music being discussed or something like that. No whooshing noises. No typewriter sounds (unless a picture of a typewriter is on screen because you are teaching journalists). No ray guns or aircraft etc.


Video

Can be very good as long as it is relevant. Video can make jaded audiences sit up and take notice. They don't have to be part of the PowerPoint file. You can switch to them by having them open behind the PowerPoint window and then use the Alt-Tab key combination (hold down Alt like you would the Shift key whilst tapping Tab) to bring the video to the front. If you are using Windows Media Player, once you have started the video running use the Alt-Enter key combination to maximise the video. The video will be shown full screen without any controls being visible. Use Alt-Enter again after it ends to close the window. Then Alt-Tab back to the presentation.


Speaking

Give yourself something to say. It should not all be written on screen. Reading aloud what people can read for themselves is annoying for an audience, especially if the speaker does not add anything other than the words off the screen. If needs be, write up your presentation and then cut out two screens from every three. The two that have gone become the things you say whilst the other one is on screen!

Use diagrams on screen and talk over them. Use bullet points so that you can expand on them. Use images to illustrate what you are saying. If you can't think of any image then whilst PowerPoint is running you can press the [B] key to just blank the screen. It will go black. You can even use it as a joke and say "Whoops - well never mind I'll just talk for a bit..."

An audience will find that impressive that you are not phased by an apparent equipment malfunction. When you are ready to resume the slide show just press [B] again. Spooky! But it gives you the appearance that you know what you are talking about and are confident enough not to let a mishap bother you.

Use a script if needs be. But keep looking up - don't stay head down, ignoring the audience. And read your script aloud beforehand to "test" it. We use slightly different language and syntax for writing that can sometimes sound strange when spoken aloud.

Remember to speak clearly and (worst "crime" of all presenters) do not mumble or talk in a monotone. Your voice should go up and down, you should practice this if you talk normally in a bit of a monotone. More of this under "How do I Act" later.

If it is a large room you may need to project your voice. There's nothing worse than a presenter you cannot hear properly. If you have a quiet voice or a large room, make sure you have a microphone. It doesn't need to be an expensive bit of kit - plug a cheap one into your PC and turn up the speakers!

To do this you need to make sure the mute is not on. Go through the menus - Start > All Programs > Accessories > Entertainment and open the Volume Control. Then make sure to uncheck the box for mute in the microphone column.


Microphone Techniques

Amazingly, a microphone can turn the most fearless person into a nervous wreck. Why, I have never been able to fathom out.

So here is the John Burke easy guide to showing off with a microphone. This does not entail striking any "Elvis" poses...

Ok, now breathe... No honestly... the mic will not pick up your breathing, making it sound like an old-fashioned steam engine roaring out of a tunnel. Breath normally.

In fact do everything normally! You don't have to talk in any special way, put on a "posh" voice or feel the need to point the microphone at the audience yelling "Lemme hear ya!". Just...act...normally.

Microphones do just one thing. They make any noise coming from directly in front of them come from speakers. That's all. But that is what most presenters forget. So I'll repeat it. ...any noise coming from directly in front of them...

Microphones in conference rooms whether hand-held or fixed are directional. Stand to one side and it won't pick you up. If you have a fixed mic, on a lectern for instance, then stand still behind it. Still - not rigid. You don't have to look like a corpse that's been propped up.

If you have a hand-held mic then don't act as though it's going to explode at any moment. It won't. Neither will it give you an electric shock, turn into a death ray or anything like that. It needs to point at your mouth, not at the sky or the audience. It needs to be fairly close to your mouth too - not held down at waist height. The normal recommendation is to rest the head of the mic on the front of your chin. Then it will always remain at the same distance away so you don't sound like a fly zooming past your ear - quiet, loud, quiet - and it will be pointing more or less the right way no matter what you do. The advantage to a hand-held mic is that you can turn your head to look at the screen from a lectern, to look at the audience, to look at your notes and it still works.

With a fixed mic, if you turn your head to the side your voice is no longer heading for the mic, it is heading across the screen and you will go a lot quieter. Avoid.


How do I Act?

There are not a lot of points to make here - you can act however you want, depending on how extrovert you are, but there are some basics so let's mention those.

It's amazing how many people act as if they are giving the presentation for themselves instead of the audience. Turning your back on an audience to read from the screen is - despite all the people who do it - not a good thing. If you need to refresh your memory of what's on the screen and don't have a monitor in front of you then step to the side and turn your head whilst leaving your body pointing at no less than half the audience.

Try not to stand where you would block anyone's view of the screen. People craning their necks sideways is a clue. If you cannot avoid blocking someone's view then move about a bit. Block everyone's view but not for long. Make sure that everyone gets time to read the screen.

Here's a basic that only about half of presenters seem to get right. Enjoy yourself! Be happy. Smile. That's not a joke it's a tip. Smiling makes your voice sound far more interesting and alive. I'm not saying grin at your audience like an idiot in search of a village, just try to relax and sound interested yourself in what you are saying. If something excites you, allow yourself to sound excited. You'll start to get feedback that mentions your "enthusiasm". There's no better compliment! If you as a presenter are obviously bored by your subject, how do you think the audience will react?

Obviously you will need to choose the right moment to get excited. If teaching health and safety and about to show a video of a car accident, it's not the time to say "Watch this - this is great...!"


Relax

I can't say that enough. It is the absolute key. Giving presentations is a skill that you get better at the more you do them.

A lot of people worry that their audience might know more than they do. So here are a few tips.

The audience understand that you are speaking. Therefore they assume you have knowledge. If you say just one thing that they didn't know you have proved it. If they already knew most of what you said then their reaction will be to feel good about themselves. Not too disappointed in you. If someone asks a question that you cannot answer then be upfront and say so. Tell them you'll find out and come back to them. Make sure you get contact details if it's a conference rather than a class.

Another ploy is to ask them right back - "What do you think it means?" Involve others in the discussion. The answer may well come out. Otherwise you can again say, "well I think we've covered a lot of ground there but I'll check my own understanding tonight and we'll come back to it at the next class."

Use the same ploy, by the way, to the person who asks you the meaning to something totally obvious just to make themselves look big in front of their mates. It will soon deflate them and as long as you remain innocent, asking the rest of the class if anyone else has a problem or can explain the answer, it won't come off as being a deliberate put-down.

Discussion is now open! Leave comments here or get in touch with me directly. How did you learn to love presenting?

Friday, 29 June 2007

RSC NW Annual Conference 2007

I've been on the JISC infoNet conference stand today at the RSC NW Annual Conference in Blackpool - a rare chance for me to attend an event in my home town! The theme was Personalised Learning.

There were two keynote speakers and a number of breakout sessions, although I was busy on the exhibition stand whilst the latter sessions took place. The wireless network enabled me to allow delegates to drill down into some of the online resources at JISC infoNet.

A lot of interest in our resources for Planning & Designing Technology-Rich Learning Spaces, our Social Software and e-Portfolio resources, and our more traditional core infoKits such as Project Management and Change Management.

First keynote was by Dr Cheryl A. Jones, an HMI, whose session I think a few of the audience were itching to grade... I'm not a fan of lots of "what" without "how" which is how this presentation came over to me.

"We need to get students to recognise the skills they have," she said, quoting a Jamie Oliver programme where student chefs thought they had no skills at the start of the programme, but who were taught to bake a loaf of bread and went home proud of the achievement.

All very good, but it didn't bring out the skills they had - it described a skill they were taught on the day. I remember a similar conversation I had with Carolynne Cotton, a lecturer now at Blackpool & The Fylde College, but then at Preston who had once had a waiter tell her that he had no skills.

"Do you take orders from diners?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied.
"So you have some skills in answering questions about the menu, listening skills in taking the orders, the skill to note orders down and relate them to the kitchen," she said. "Do you serve the meals?" Again the answer was yes. "So you have organisational skills in remembering who ordered what and in carrying meals in a way that allows you to serve without walking to and fro around the table. Do suggest options for sweets or ask if they want wine?"
"Yes," came the reply, now in a slightly wondering tone.
"Then you have some experience of sales and knowledge of what to suggest..."

I'm sure Carolynne could remember (or recreate) that conversation from several years ago in much more detail. I was spellbound at just how many skills she drew out of that waiter who thought he had none.

There was a nugget from Dr Jones' talk that I heartily agreed with. "The notion of contribution should be introduced to learners at the earliest opportunity with a view to developing individuals who are 'givers' as well as 'takers'," she said.

The second keynote at the end of the day was from Bill Pollard of Cheadle & Marple Sixth Form College. Bill gave an excellent talk, with video of learners relating their experiences of how personalised learning and placing learners in charge of how they learned had made a great impact on those who had been disaffected at school.

"We have operated on a 60/40 basis, where learners have control over 60% of what they will do and how they will do it in a lesson," he said. "This approach is not however popular with Ofsted, who want to see a lesson plan and can't cope with the fact that the learners will write it at the start of a lesson! It can also be rather scary for the lecturer!"

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

AoC NILTA CIS Conference 2007

Monday was probably not the best day to be in Sheffield, but as the rain fell incessantly and floodwaters rose in the city's northern areas, at the Sheffield Park Hotel, we settled in for NILTA's annual CIS Conference.

John Bolt and Pete Ashton from the LSC are always on hand to give the latest news from the funding body and John announced his imminant retirement (at the end of the week). The photograph shows John in 1994, on a stand at the forerunner to the NILTA CIS Conferences - a conference run by the National CMIS Board. At the time he was author of the CovTech System, which was later taken over, eventually becoming part of the Dolphin and Capita empires. His approach and rock steady common sense will be missed I am sure.

Jean McAllister, the Principal of Shipley College and AoC NILTA Vice Chair gave the Principal's view of what was needed from a college information service. "We are building a cosmopolitan UK", she said. "At its best an MIS deepens our understanding of our college. Its essential function is to make sure the organisation is coached to aim for World Class.

"FE (Further Education) at its best promotes diversity. We enable people to perform at their best and therefore enable national goals to be achieved."

Colleges' use of their MIS have come a long way since the early days of the late 1980s. "We need to ensure the final 'S' stands for 'Service' and not for 'System'," Jean continued. "It has to work for the Learner. Learners must know what they have achieved and what is still to be achieved."

Ray Dowd, an ex-Principal of Hopwood Hall College in Rochdale, now acting as an Adviser to the FE Sector, spoke about the MIAP (Managing Information Across Partners) Project.

"We need to make sure we identify who and what information is for," he said, adding that there is a triangle of stakeholders requiring information from colleges; national government, employers and learners themselves. "Between each of the three main stakeholders there are tensions and there is still too much focus of our data on national needs - measuring and monitoring what we are doing, leaving too little time for fulfilling the information needs of employers and learners."

It was time, Ray said, "...to stop tuning the car and think instead about the passengers. What does data look like from a learner's or an employer's point of view? Data is at the heart of effective leadership."

The FE Sector has to be seen as:

  • strategically responsive

  • high-performing

  • relevant - ie customer-focussed

  • financially viable and

  • effective

"Data is crucial", Ray concluded, "but not just for the plethora of bodies around FE."

Helen Ashton, a Policy Adviser for FE with Becta, gave a talk on Getting the Most from your MIS. She had surveyed a number of colleges looking at MIS and VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments or Learning Platforms) and said she had "...found little money allocated internally by colleges to these functions, but where it had been there were obvious benefits."

The research was carried out as part of the ICT Test Bed Evaluation and results can be seen in full at the ICT Test Bed web site.

As always, the CIS Conference had a choice of small workshops for delegates to choose from. I was involved in running three of them, two on Risk Management and one, with my colleague from JISC infoNet, Andrew Stewart, on the use of Social Software in colleges where we asked delegates to think of the possible uses for collaborative Wikis both internally within their college and externally with partners.

They came up with the following, to which I have added any of our own suggestions that did not come up in the discussions.

Internal Use for Wikis:

  • Team discussions

  • Curriculum planning

  • Training – inc. feedback

  • Links to other resources

  • Cross team projects

  • Cross site projects

  • Technical forum

  • Data Entry Staff forum

  • Admin/Support forum

  • Academic Staff forum

  • As a platform for student work and collaboration

External Use for Wikis
  • Other college partners

  • Consortium projects

  • LSC

  • Surveys

  • Employer/employee

  • Software Suppliers

  • AoC NILTA

  • JISC Services

  • Regional User Groups

The weather situation cut the conference short a little as people were understandably anxious to get away early due to the weather, although at that time we had no idea just how bad it was getting in other parts of Sheffield.

Graham Mort, Chair for the conference, announced that the conference would return in June 2008 and that AoC NILTA main annual conference would take place in March 2008, venue to be announced in both cases.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

EEP Discussion Conference on Interoperability

Yesterday I was in London at the Royal Geographical Society for an E.E.P. Discussion Conference: Interoperability of ICT in Education - Will it serve the needs of National Initiatives?

I found it an excellent day, although with a very ambitious scope and the discussion sometimes wandered a little bit off the interoperability topic onto topics that interoperability could help facilitate, but it made for a varied and interesting day.

Inevitably the subject of the proposed Unique Learner Number came up. An identifier to be given to pupils still at school which will follow them through their learning career would be essential if students, colleges, universities etc. were to be able to access their educational records for purposes of verifying qualifications and easing transition between institutions. It would facilitate the enrolment of students, their ability to access college/university IT networks, online learning materials and library systems.

A proof of concept pilot has already been undertaken in Birmingham with data being passed both horizontally, between student record systems and online or virtual learning environments and vertically between institutions and Local Education Authorities and DfES.

The ability to pass data between organisations becomes of great importance when you consider the fact that a student aged 15 may spend two days a week in a school, two days a week in a college and the other day in a working environment at a local firm. Wherever they are they will need access to technology and the learning materials hosted either by the school, the college and maybe elsewhere.

Other topics covered included identity management - it sounds, but isn't quite the same thing. What we are talking about here is the ability of students to use a single user name and password to themselves access many systems, materials or data sets.

The safety of students and pupils online was discussed. The findings of research seem to point towards the fact that the children likely to be most vulnerable through technology are those who are likely to be most vulnerable through personal (non-technological) interaction with others.

The risk averse approaches to new technology were discussed. In France "Happy Slapping" has been criminalised. Assault has always been a criminal act anyway... In Italy the use of mobile phones has been banned in schools. It was argued that such actions fail to recognise social and economic change, the pace of change and the "enormous educational potential of technologies".

I, myself, have been perturbed to see colleges and others using the withdrawal of access to IT technology as a preferred punitive approach to either misbehaviour or to address quality issues. A few examples that have crossed my desk in the past few months:

  • A college has banned access to blogging sites because students were publishing anonymous articles criticising lecturers.
  • A college banned all access to video site YouTube because a student was filmed in an identifiable part of the college, baring his bottom for others to throw darts at...
  • A college banned the use of Microsoft PowerPoint by staff because of the poor quality of some presentations.
  • A college bans students from the IT network for periods of a fortnight for trying to access prohibited types of materials.

Now to my mind all of these smack of either ignoring the real problem or taking the easiest option or both. Let's take them in order:

Blogging is now accepted in many institutions as an excellent way of students being able to set down thoughts and opinions, open to peer review, open to their lecturer's review and with the facility for comments to be made against original articles. The anonymous slagging off of lecturers, peers or anyone is a cowardly or malicious act and the college should probably use the opportunity to highlight this. The college should also be questioning whether their lecturers are falling short and why students feel unable to raise this through normal channels.

Lots of educational content is now appearing on YouTube and the case given above cries out for disciplinary action against individuals and/or closer policing by staff of the social area (a bar staffed by college employees) in which the incident took place, rather than a blanket ban of a potentially useful (though bandwidth-challenging!) web site.

The banning of PowerPoint is almost unbelievable. I wonder if the same college banned use of Overhead Transparencies in the days before computers took over, because a lot of the use of OHPs in those days was abysmal. One of my bug-bears is the phrase "Death by PowerPoint". There's no such thing. We take the easy route of ignoring bad presentation skills, blaming it on the software because that way we don't "upset anyone". This example cries out for staff development on presentation skills and there isn't an educational organisation (or any other organisation for that matter) that couldn't benefit from some of that. I was at a conference in Wales the other week when a presenter turned his back on the audience to read from the screen... That is not the fault of Microsoft's software.

And lastly - a real life conversation between a student and myself...
"Sir, Sir - I've been banned from the Network, Sir!" (this with a huge grin)
"Really? Why is that?"
"I was looking at porn Sir!"
"Well you shouldn't be doing that on college computers should you?"
"No Sir."
"So how are you going to do your work now? Do you have to work on the network with a member of staff with you?"
"No, I've been using my mate's password..."

Moral of the stories - IT staff are not there to carry out discipline of students or staff.

The best reason for allowing and encouraging students to use blogs that I have ever heard came from speaker Josie Fraser of Childnet. I know we were encouraged at the start of the conference to report without attributing but this deserves the credit. She said, "I would much rather employ a plumber whose blog is full of comments from satisfied customers than I would a complete unknown from Yellow Pages."

The EEP is the European Education Partnership.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Project Management Workshop

I was at the University of Hertfordshire one day last week, delivering a Project Management workshop for some of the university's administrative staff. A familiar face walked in the room and was a touch surprised to hear me recount meeting him 20 years ago on a BTEC Higher in Public Administration at what was then Preston Polytechnic! Obviously he must have made a bigger impression on me than I did on him! :-)

Feedback was good - we have a 3-point scoring system so it's either "poor", "satisfactory", or "excellent" and of 90 possible marks I got 74 "excellent" plus 16 "satisfactory".

Some individual comments under the headings on our feedback form:

Organisation of workshop - order, pace, time spent on each topic
"Felt a bit rushed - a lot to take in"

Appropriateness of content - tailoring of session to audience
"Very good fit to our requirements"

Presentation - style, use of visual aids
"Excellent presentation, made the subject very interesting"
"Lively, funny, and very useful"
"Excellent presentation"
"Very good"

Activities - interactive elements of the workshop
"Liked the small group work"

Additional comments
"Lively, great examples and illustrations. Many thanks"
"Very useful as had an HE (Higher Education) flavour"
"At times felt like a hard sell of infoKits" (our free online resources)
"Good overview of Project Management, good to point to the website for more in-depth stuff"
"John's style, subject knowledge and delivery was excellent"

Many thanks to the delegates for so many comments - one of my colleagues from another organisation was talking to me about feedback sheets the other day and said "Isn't it strange how you can knock yourself out putting on a good workshop and all the comments are about the food or how hot or cold it was...!" I think the University of Hertfordshire staff gave the lie to that one then!

Welcome

Welcome to John Burke's Education Project. So called because it's a project that will never end, there's always something to learn and increasingly in new ways.

I've worked in Post-16 Education since 1985, in both Further Education and Higher Education. I currently work as a Senior Adviser with JISC infoNet, one of JISC's Advisory Services.

My background is in Information Systems, mainly Student Records systems, and I am currently involved in writing materials and running workshops for JISC infoNet in Project Management, Risk Management, Change Management, Process Review and other related topics.

I have an interest in all things e-Learning related and in the use of technology in education and learning.

That's me - the door is open to dialogue!