I’m off…

Leargan August 2010

Originally uploaded by Enda P

Time for a little closure.

As of last week, I’m no longer formally involved in academia. A week ago I submitted my final assignment for the Open University so fingers crossed I’ll shortly have a Higher Diploma in Online and Distance Education.

Just a year ago, I took special incentivised leave from NUI Maynooth for a whopping three years and this allowed me to be in London full time.

When I began here, blogging was the way to reach out to peers, experts and those who just appeared through serendipity. I think it has, for my purposes, been very much superseded by Twitter.

So, time to put this poor neglected blog out of its misery.

For the next couple of years I’ll be exploring some creative pursuits. I’ll probably not stray a million miles away from learning, particularly technology-enhanced learning (not that I could seeing as so many fellow tech travellers are with me on Twitter!).

To all who commented, shared and encouraged, thank you very much.

You can find me at my popculture blog as Daddy or Chips? or join me on Twitter.

File Management (NUIM Student+)

Finally putting Slideshare to proper use. I’m involved in a study skills course in NUI Maynooth called Student+ and this is part of the learners’ materials. I’m not particularly enamoured of my vocals, but there’s only one way to try out the tools!

Upload the presentation, upload an mp3, sync them up with a visual slider-like tool and that’s it. It even gives you the WordPress code for embedding as I’ve done here.

Not long now…

After a nice hiatus from academia and suchlike, I’ll be back to blogging on technology-enhanced learning and connected matters from February. And I’m looking forward to it.

(While I’ve been absent from here, I’ve been all over Twitter, Facebook and my popculture blog.)

“Developing an online identity is a crucial part of being an academic”?

 Jump on the social media bandwagon www.flickr.com/photos/73532212@N00/2945559128

'Jump on the social media bandwagon' http://www.flickr.com/photos/73532212@N00/2945559128

I always find something valuable in Martin Weller‘s postings, and taken as a whole, they represent the academic embrace of 2.0: enthusiastic, tentative, exploratory, playful and somewhat laden with tension.

He is particularly good at reflection on academic identity, something I (and proably many of us) have been/are grappling with. His post celebrating his third year of blogging is an excellently concise examination of how blogging has not only informed his academic practice but also his academic identity.

This is interesting, particularly when we consider the validity of this new medium, Arguably, posts such as The VLE/LMS is dead will be (are being) referenced as much or more than the peer-reviewed journal articles that will appear 12-15 months from now at the earliest.

All of which makes me reflect on my own practice here, and I feel somewhat split. I (more) actively blog elsewhere on utterly frivolous matters; I have prescences on Twitter, YouTube, flickr, Last.fm, delicious, etc etc, but I have parallel versions of many of these that are more professional/academic. Yet these are less fun (see how infrequently I have updated this blog?).

Should I merge my identities? My Twitter account is already somewhat merged with a mishmash of professionals, personal friends, popstars and random spamladies following me. Each time I tweet, I consider how this looks to all of these groups (except the random spamladies). That tension is a little uncomfortable, even if it is part of the value of Twitter.

Martin says

But I would argue that developing an online identity is a crucial part of being an academic (or maybe just being a citizen) – there is an online identity for you out there somewhere, you just need to find it. And when you do, nothing will be the same again.

As I contemplate my online identity (and that of those that connect with me), I wonder if I need to ‘merge and dilute’ or maintain distinct personas. Whatever the choice, nothing indeed is the same.

A Different Kind of University (Kaplan University)

Slightly OTT to these cynical European eyes (!), but this spot does get its point across effectively about the myriad ways learners expect to engage with curricula outside of the traditional lecture theatre.

Replacing human readers in examinations

We have completed phase 1 of investigating the possibility of replacing human readers in examinations. This involved analysing past exam papers for suitability with text-to-speech applications (i.e. TextHelp).

  • Some subjects are unproblematic for TextHelp.These subjects are Anthrolopogy, Applied Social Studies, Business & Law, Education, English, Philosophy, Politics and Sociology. A couple have minor issues as a result of formatting (e.g tables reading down instead of across).
  • Some are completely unsuitable (e.g. scientific formulae, computer-language syntax, language not English). These subjects are Nua Ghaeilge, Chemistry, German, Electronic Engineering, French, Computer Science, Mathematics, Experimental Physics, Maths Physics and Spanish.

I suggest that with both of these sets of subjects, no further investigation or testing is required. Several subjects show potential and need to be further examined: History, Media Studies, Ancient Classics, Geography, Biology, Finance, Economics and Music. These subjects are ambiguous for several reasons;

  • Some comprises of unproblematic papers and problematic papers (e.g. Music – text-based papers OK, papers with musical notation unsuitable).
  • Some have a mix of text with significant use of mathematical or other symbols within questions (e.g. Economics, Biology).
  • Some have heavy use of Latin words both within questions and as part of other parts of questions (Ancient Classics).

Our next move is to work out what risks are associated with using technology to read the papers? We will need to consult both the departments and student-users on this. For example, if a candidate uses TextHelp to read a question with, say, the symbol for infinity, the software won’t read that symbol correctly. We need to establish whether this is a serious issue for the candidate on two fronts:

1. Exam integrity: Could a misunderstanding occur which would result in a candidate making a avoidable error in the exam. How would it be different if a (non-specialist) human reader was present? (Academic Dept/Exams Office)

2. Effect of SLD/disability. Can we reasonably say that a candidate with an SLD would be aware that he/she would need to pay special attention to items such as these, but yet benefit from the technology with the remaining text in the paper which is unproblematic? Could awareness of the limitations of the software be part of the training they receive from us? Are there issues around exam stress/anxiety that need to be considered? (Yes, I’d imagine)

Interesting times!  As we have a site licence for TextHelp, we need to go with that (and PDFAloud as it helpfully pops itself into Acrobat) until we are able to consider others software combinations.

Fill-the-Gaps Abstract. {Ouch.}

Zing. More over at PhD Comics.

Supporting students with disabilities in university examinations


by dullhunk on flickr

by dullhunk on flickr

It’s exam time at NUIM, and so thoughts go to supporting candidates with disabilities in their examinations.


We currently have about 40 different configurations of examination accommodations in our system. These include

  • Extra Time: The vast majority of candidates require additional time only, generally 10 minutes per hour. These students are generally those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
  • Smaller Venue: Many candidates benefit from taking their examinations in smaller rooms as opposed to the large exam halls. This group can include those who are easily distracted, require rest breaks or use computers.
  • Readers and Scribes: A reader is someone who reads the paper and script to the candidate. A scribe writes down what a candidate dictates. I’ll come back to these later.
  • Use of a PC: Candidates with visual difficulties, specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyspraxia) or physical conditions that make writing by hand impractical can use a computer to write their answers.
  • Other supports include enlarged papers, coloured papers, different furniture, separate venues. 

With almost three hundred candidates to accommodate, you can appreciate that there needs to be a good relationship between the Disability Office, Computer Services and most importantly, the Examinations Office. This solid relationship is in place now, but some years ago, it wasn’t the case. Some years ago, NUIM was faced with rising numbers of students with disabilities who needed to be supported in their examinations. The need to have additional rooms, invigilators, computers and support for these candidates puts strain on existing services and the three offices found they needed to communicate more much earlier.

While it seems very obvious in retrospect, having the three offices talking, sharing expertise and solutions has rsulted in a successful and suatainable model of supporting students in examinations.

  • The Disability Office with the student identifies what accomodations are required. An accomodation (or more likely a combination of accomodations) is represented by a code, and the candidate is tagged with this code on our University system. The student signs off on this accommodation.
  • The Examinations Office can read this code in the system and they run off a report by an agreed date. The Disability Office and the student need to have signed off on the supports by that date. This allows the Examinations Office to begin thinking about the resources (buildings, staff etc) that will be needed. Note that the Disability Office does not provide or organise resources for the examinations; this is squarely the remit of the Examinations Office. After all, the Examinations Office are best-placed to ensure the integrity of the examinations.
  • If computer equipment is needed, the Computer Centre makes arrangements for this. They configure, test and support candidates using standard equipment and software throughout the examinations. If a candidate needs assistive technology such as JAWS or ZoomText, the Disability Office works with the Computer Centre to ensure that this is available and functioning on the exam setup. The Disability Office are on call when assistive technology is being used.

All of this is achieved through early and open conversation. Now in our third year, I’m pleased to report that we have had no ‘crisis calls’ on the BatPhone (so far) this January. The system is working.

Our next step is to see if we can replace human readers and scribes with technology. But that’s a whole other post…

And let’s not get started on promoting alternative forms of assessment (yet).

Ira Socol’s 2009: The Year of Universal Access

We could do away with 90% of “special needs” today, and instead make all those tools and resources available to every child to use every time “this way” would make education work better than “the old way.” Stigmas would drop away, as would the self-limits of low-expectations. Student interests would create groupings rather than measurements of single abilities.

…we don’t call those wearing eyeglasses “special needs.” […] we let just about anyone take elevators in tall buildings – not just those who have documentation proving that they can not climb stairs. Students need to be shown the tools available, and they should be helped in learning how to pick the best tool for their specific situation.

Ira has a fantastic couple of posts over at SpeEdChange at the moment on Universal Access {part 1 and part 2}. 

In the Disability Office here, our mantra is that we are trying to make ourselves redundant by making the university environment inclusive to all from the outset, effectively making the category of ‘special needs’ redundant.

Ira explains it far better than I could, so the posts are very much worth your time if you are involved at any level in the delivery or consumption of content in education. Staff at NUIM might like to take a look at some of the resources in our staff area or have a look through our links in delicious.


September and October are the busiest times for those of us in Disability services in higher education establishments, and these months have been B.U.S.Y.

This is a very positive thing of course and the intake of students is wonderful, getting us ever-closer to the levels we should be at.

On the downside, I’ve got no time to blog about the less-pressing matters!

Normal service shall be restored as soon as all these needs assessments, form-filling, box-ticking, rationale creating, everything in triplicate stuff is done with.

But maybe then I’ll want a holiday!

PS: The winner of the name our new home competition was Ann O’Brien, my boss, whose suggestion ‘MAP Lodge’ emerged victorious from an intriguing selection! Thanks to all who made suggestions!