Wednesday 23 April 2008

Coding data the tagcloud way

Health warning for research methods purists: THERE IS VERY LITTLE SCIENCE IN THIS POST (though there is a healthy dose of pragmatic common sense)

Since we introduced a personalised online space for students 3 years ago, we have been undertaking an annual survey to ensure that the student voice is central in informing future developments. With approximately 2000 responses each year and a mix of 20 quantitative and qualitative questions the exercise is highly valued. I have to admit that I personally look forward to getting my hands on the data and getting a feel for what students value. I am also a closet (or not so closet some might say) data freak, but it is a double edged sword - sleep is often sacrificed for the greater good of coding the data and it can take over chunks of my life.

Sooooo, on the bus on the way home to get stuck into coding more data, a strange thought crossed my mind. If I input the responses to a tagcloud generator would it do some useful coding for me? Obviously this is not the same a reading the full comment, and full qualitative quotes are the most useful in how we disseminate that data, on the other hand, could it give me a quick overview of the response to a particular question. So I resolved nothing ventured nothing gained.
I decided to use the free-text service in tweetclouds (mostly cos tweetclouds, for me, is aestheically pleasing and it lists them in alphabetical order - useful for next performing search on the words in Excel that catch my interest to check context)

I chose my favourite question on the survey that asked:
How would you describe shuspace to a prospective student?

and this is what I got:

(click on image to see larger size)

But look! look! - cloud created in 20.6341 seconds (my coding exercise will take considerably longer) and I now know that "information" occurs 421 times, "useful" and "easy" feature highly (though without checking, of course, I can't testify to whether they are prefaced with "not very" but a quick check into the data can tell me that) Similies are also easier to identify as are things that might seem surprising.

In the interests of science I will code the question and see what that tells me, but if I compare and, as I suspect, the trends are similar then the 20 second coding clouds may well entice me further ;-)

Saturday 12 April 2008

Engaging senior management with e-learning

It is an absolute truism that the best curriculum innovations emerge when academic staff are enthused and driven to change their current practice. However, this is rarely (if ever?) enough in its own right. Back in the mists of time (2000ish) we asked staff what were the main barriers to change, in this case, to make greater use of technology in LTA design. They gave us five "wishes": time (of course), confidence in a robust and reliable infrastructure, institution provide appropriate support ie put money where mouth is, provide technology that they can "own" (putting the door back on the classroom and putting the emphasis on their relationship with the students) and, very importantly validation that this is a valid thing to spend time on ie clear executive sponsorship. There are so many conflicting demands on staff time and we needed to make it clear that this wasn't something you were expected to do in your own time as your hobby but was a legitimate..(maybe some day soon even essential) part of academic life. One of the things I really like about my own institution is the high level commitment to supporting innovation.

Fast forward seven years and we are experiencing a lot of success in e-learning and the senior managers are still supportive but asking questions like "what's it all about?", "where are the benefits", "is it value for money?" "what will the future look like?" It's easy to see the dilemma - governors ask questions about costs...and benefits, students really like it and expect it, but are also wanting more contact time, staff are all progressing at a different pace. The, not soultion...our approach was to run a "future of e-learning engagement" for the senior management group - a traditional discussion paper, a 6 week Bb course and a highly participative workshop. There is a LOT more information about this at

Was it worth it - definitely - it enabled us to get a few things back on the radar at the senior level as well as a commitment to support growth rather than cut back. The important message (not rocket science for people reading this, I'm sure) was that to get the best out of the technology it isn't the technology that needs the investment but the people... the birth of our digital fluency initative. Other follow-ons have included the importance of expectations (students and staff), the tower and the cloud debates and how we might better join up e-supported LTA and how technology supports the broader student experience. Solutions? no. Challenges? yes....but at least something to get our teeth into ;-)

Friday 4 April 2008

Using twitter as a research data collection tool

One of the Academic Innovation team at Sheffield Hallam (and expert in learning spaces - recently described as the "voice of reality" - scarily for her), Liz Aspden is experimenting with using twitter as a tool for data collection. Liz's note below explains, please email her if you want to find out more.

Liz writes:

Hi all

We're about to start a data generation exercise looking at students' use of learning spaces, which I thought might be of interest to people on this list. It forms part of a project looking at informal learning preferences, activities, and the spaces students use to support these, which is designed to help us inform future space planning at the institution.

For this phase of the project, we've recruited 15 students to send us regular (average 3 per day) updates via Twitter telling us a little bit about where they're learning - well, as much as they can fit into 140 characters! A few of us will be monitoring and facilitating the study - possibly asking additional questions, providing commentary along the way, or generally just lurking and being distracted from our day to day work. Of course, this being the first time we've tried collecting data via Twitter, it could all go horribly wrong - but if you'd like to watch, lurk, or participate anyway as it unfolds (or unravels...) you're more than welcome.

We're hoping that the study will begin around mid-April so if you are interested, or if you have any queries about what we're up to, please drop me a line and I'll send you further details nearer the time.

Best wishes

Liz Aspden
Senior Lecturer - Curriculum Innovation (Learning Environments)
Learning & Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield
S1 1WB