Shortening attention span

I took part in this year’s JTEL Summer School as one of the students. The venue was organised in a beautiful city of Ohrid in Macedonia with the hotel situated directly on the deep-blue Ohrid lake. To me the place was a perfect choice for the event like this. The beautiful landscape and fresh air gave us the opportunity to relax and refresh our minds between the subsequent sessions. One of the PhD students, Ramon Ovelar, provided a nice report of the event. I’m not going to repeat that. I truly recommend Ramon’s blogpost to anyone interested in the JTEL Summer School 2010 topics, presentations and discussions.

What I want to tell you about is something that came up during the very last session of this year’s event. This was a student-led session dedicated to the engineering of the next Summer School. One of the suggestions coming from the audience and supported by many other participants was to ban laptops from some of the next year’s Summer School sessions and workshops.

Does that mean that we tend to experience social media rather as a disturbance than an enhancement of our learning during the events such as summer schools, conferences or workshops?

The common practice in the TEL community is to set up a Twitter communication channel for any conference or other events being organized. We also had one during the Summer School 2010. We also shared a Flickr channel to upload all the photos related to the event, and a collaboration space on TELeurope platform for all the activities to be accomplished prior, during and after the event. Of course, in addition to this set of media, every participant had her own set of tools, applications and services under the label of social media, which required her constant attention. As a result, and this applies not only to the JTEL Summer School 2010 but generally to the events such as conferences, workshops or even project meetings organised in the TEL area, the attention of the most of the participants was constantly split between being here and now and there and now.

I had a very interesting conversation about this issue with Ambjörn Naeve – one of the Summer School lecturers and organisers. Ambjörn said that we are living in an interrupt-driven society and what we are experiencing as a result of being a part of this society is a phenomenon of shortening attention span. He pointed out that our cognitive capacity is limited: we can either concentrate on a couple of selected issues giving them some in-depth thought and going to the core of the problem, or we can stay on the surface and know little something about everything.

We still lack successful strategies to deal with all the attention spam we are being exposed to on an everyday basis. Finding such strategies is probably going to be one of our major endeavours in the years to come.

Will we start banning laptops from the project meetings and conferences to get the full attention of the participants on the issues at the table? I don’t think so. But the simple fact that such solutions are already being suggested (what’s even more interesting, they are being suggested by the technology-savvy members of the TEL research community itself!) means that we definitely should give this issue some closer attention.

REVIVE workshop at the EDEN 2010 conference

This year’s EDEN conference takes place in Valencia in Spain, the city that I truly fell in love with last summer.  It is a fascinating city full of life, cultural heritage, beautiful beaches and green parks, tasty olives and sardines, and awe-inspiring Santiagio Calatrava’s architecture.

But telling you about the city is not the reason I am writing this post. If you are planning to participate in the EDEN 2010 conference I would like to draw your attention to a workshop which is going to be organised by the REVIVE project consortium.

If you are interested in social software and how it can be used in vocational education & training and higher education institutions, if you are looking into Personal Learning Environments and how they can help you and/or your students to put some structure into the unstructured world of social networks, learning tools, and educational resources, than you really shouldn’t miss our workshop. The workshop will address the following issues:

  • How have learning and teaching strategies at vocational education & training (VET) and higher education (HE) institutions changed since the advent of new learning tools and Personal Learning Environments (PLE)? How can success stories be identified?
  • What challenges do teachers and trainers, as well as curriculum authors face in relation to this shift in learning and teaching tools?
  • What key competences teachers and learners require and develop when learning with social software, new learning tools and Personal Learning Environments?

You will listen to some short introductory presentations, you will work in groups, express your ideas, listen to the ideas of others, discuss, comment, present the results… and first of all, you will meet researches, teachers, students, and course designers from different institutions all over the world who are interested in the same things that you are. I hope to see you there!

Google calendar – a usage scenario

In my post Google Apps fo the OU students – will other follow? I promissed to put on my blog the two usage scenarios that I had written some time ago for the iCamp handbook. Last post was about Google Docs and how it can be used by university students. This post is about Google calendar:   

Google Calendar

While effective time management is a very important element of self-organising and self-regulatory processes in any learning context, it becomes even more of an issue when you have to work in groups, especially if those groups are geographically distributed and collaboration can only take place within a virtual learning environment.

Imagine you are working in an international, geographically distributed team on a common project. Apart from this project, your team-mates are studying different courses at their universities, which means that all of you have different deadlines to be met and different meetings to attend.  Also, some of your colleagues work in different time zones. Together, you have to come up with and agree upon a realistic study plan that will have to be followed for the duration of the project life span in order to get all your tasks accomplished in time. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a group calendar that is designed in a user-friendly way, can be embedded in your blog or web site and that automatically adapts to the various time zones in order to prevent misunderstandings?

Below we describe how Google Calendar  can be used for educational purposes. We focus on those features of the calendar that can effectively support collaboration and workflows within geographically distributed learning groups.

Practical use in e-learning course

Google Calendar allows you to keep track of all the important events and deadlines related to your studies and your personal life. In a learning situation, it can also be used as a group calendar for students working on the same project, assignment, or task. The members of the group share viewing and/or editing rights to their calendars. If students are geographically distributed over different time zones, calendar entries are displayed in accordance with the time zone of the currently logged in student (this option can be defined in the calendar settings). Each of the group members can decide if and when he or she should be notified about an event. Group members can also embed a graphical version of the calendar into their group blog or web site. All of this functionality, together with some additional features that are described in the tutorial below, permits efficient time management within distributed learning groups.

Usage scenario

Joanna, who is affiliated with AGH- University of Science and Technology in Krakow, has been chosen to lead an international and geographically distributed group of sociology students working together on a small project. Within the project, several milestones must be achieved and the group has already agreed upon the first deadlines to be meet and meetings to attend in the upcoming weeks. Thanks to Doodle (see section 5.5 in this chapter) this task proved to be quite easy. Now, it is important for the group to have all the deadlines and milestones stored somewhere in the virtual space where they can be easily accessed and managed by each member of the group. For this purpose, Joanna decides to set up a group calendar within Google Calendar, which she already uses to track important events related to her sociology studies and private life. She assigns all her group members with ‘edit’ rights to the group calendar that she has created and with ‘view’ rights to her personal calendar with deadlines for other courses.

One of the group members, Max, affiliated to University of Leicester also uses Google Calendar for his studies and he simply adds the group calendar created by Joanna to his existing Google Calendar. He also decides to give Joanna the rights to ‘view’ his other calendar, which he uses for other courses. In this way it will be easier for both of them to set up meetings that do not clash with obligations related to the other courses they are taking.

Unlike Joanna and Max, Fridolin from Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration does not use Google Calendar but Microsoft Outlook Calendar. He synchronises the two calendars with one another using the Google Calendar Sync function.

Finally, the group members decide to link the graphical version of the calendar to the blog they are running. In this way, the calendar becomes also visible to the course facilitator and the other students involved in the project.


In this tutorial we describe the steps that Joanna has to take in order to carry out some of the actions described in the scenario above.

First of all, Joanna logs in to Google Calendar using her Google account details. Once logged in, she accesses the page for creating a new calendar by clicking on the link next to the ‘My calendars’ menu (a). She decides on the calendar name, and specifies the calendar time zone. In the last section of the page she decides who she is going to share this calendar with and what kind of rights this person will be granted. She types Max’s email address (b) and gives him the rights to make changes and manage sharing (c). She repeats this action for all the members of her group and saves the changes. The new calendar now appears in the menu ‘My calendars’ and all group members can access and edit it.

In the second step, Joanna creates a new event within the group calendar. There are a number of ways in which she can do this: by clicking on a selected day in the calendar, by using the ‘Create Event’ or ‘Quick Add’ links in the left-hand column of the calendar (a) or by clicking on the down-arrow button next to the calendar (b) and selecting ‘Create event on this calendar’. Joanna enters detailed information about the event into a special form (c). She decides that she wants to be reminded about the event via email ten minutes in advance (d). As the group members decided to invite the project facilitator to the event, Joanna sends the invitation by simply entering the facilitator’s email address in the right-hand column of the page (e). The facilitator’s response will also appear in this box. Finally, she saves the changes.

Joanna also added Max’s calendar to her list of calendars. To do this she only had to carry out the three following steps: click on ‘Add’ in the ‘Other calendars’ menu, select the option ‘Add a friend’s calendar’, and enter Max’s e-mail address. As Max has already assigned Joanna with ‘view’ rights to his calendar, the calendar automatically appeared in ‘Other calendars’ menu (a). If Joanna decides to take a look at Max’s events, other than those related to the project they are involved in together, she only needs to highlight his calendar by clicking on it and his events will appear in her agenda (b). To make sure that the events from the different calendars are easy to tell apart, those from each calendar appear in different colour.

Joanna can now link the graphical version of the calendar to any website. The group has decided to make the calendar public on their blog so that the course facilitator and the other students can access it. Joanna clicks on the down-arrow button next to the group calendar (a) and selects ‘Calendar settings’. Next, she clicks on the HTML icon (b) shown in the ‘Calendar Address’ section. She then uses the URL to include the calendar in the blogroll.

While carrying out all of the actions described above, Joanna sometimes clicks on the ‘Help’ link located in the upper right-hand corner of her Google Calendar to find out more about the calendar features she wants to use.

Google docs – a usage scenario

So, as promissed in the post Google Apps fo the OU students – will other follow?,  here comes the usage scenario on Google Docs. The original text is included into the iCamp handbook

Google Docs

If you are fifty years old now and you think back to your studies you certainly remember having to work with one or two of your colleagues on a common document using a piece of paper and a pen, or maybe a typewriter. If you are thirty, you probably know nothing about what a pain it can be to have to write collaboratively using only pan and paper. When you were studying, you were already using a computer with a word processor to prepare your assignments and e-mail to share the documents with other members of your group. This is still the way the most people work. One person prepares the first version of the document and sends it as an e-mail attachment to the rest of the members of the group. Next, each person who receives the document turns on the ‘track changes’ option in the word processor and starts to edit the text. Once it’s ready, he or she sends the document back to its owner. And this is the precise moment in which the problems can start. The owner of the document receives several versions of the same text. He or she has to go through all of them, read comments, accept or reject changes and consolidate everything into one single file again. This is a very time consuming process, and is one, which often has to be repeated several times before the final version of a document is arrived and can be published.

Contemporary approaches to teaching and learning that emphasise the importance of collaborative knowledge construction require tools that facilitate collective production of knowledge artefacts in real time and from different locations. In this chapter we describe how Google Docs (see Appendix A for source information) can help you and other people in your group deal with the difficulties of handling multiple versions of the same file being send back and forth between the group members until the final version of the document is produced.

Practical use in e-learning course

In a learning situation Google Docs can be used by a group of students working together on a project which involves the creation of one or more of the most common knowledge artefacts: word documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. In the Google Docs online environment a group of students can share the editing rights to several documents, which they either uploaded from the hard drives of their computers or create from scratch. All the group members can work on the same document from different locations. A history of revisions helps not only to track the changes that have been made, but also provides information about their authors and allows any of the earlier versions of the document to be reverted back to. Once a document is ready, it can be saved to a student’s local computer in a variety of different file types, published as a web page, or posted to a blog.

Usage scenario

Karolina, Sebastian and Barbara study pedagogy at the Bata University in Zlin in the Czech Republic. For one of the courses they have decided to work together on a scientific paper, which they are going to present at an upcoming conference in Prague. As Karolina has joined the ERASMUS programme this year, she is currently at the University of Leicester in the UK, taking some of her courses there. Karolina, Sebastian, and Barbara decide to use the Google Docs tool in order to both write and prepare their presentation for the conference collaboratively. Within the Google Docs environment Karolina creates a new document and grants Sebastian and Barbara with permission to edit it. Karolina does not have access to the Internet from home. Fortunately, Google Docs allows her to make changes to the document when she is offline. In order to be able to do this she only has to install a small add-on named Google Gears. When she gets to the university and connects her laptop to the Internet, the changes will be automatically applied to the online version of the document and they will become visible to Sebastian and Barbara. Once the paper is ready and reviewed by the course facilitator, Karolina, Barbara, and Sebastian start to prepare the presentation for the conference. They choose one of the Google Docs presentation templates and start editing. Finally they set up several online meetings to view and discuss the presentation together. They do this either using chat feature provided by Google Docs or a VoIP application. They invite the course facilitator to the last of these meetings. While Sebastian does the presentation, the others listen, and make comments.


In the tutorial below we describe the steps that Karolina, Sebastian and Barbara have to take in order to carry out the actions describe in the above scenario.

In the first step, Karolina logs in to Google Docs using her Google Account. Once logged in, she selects the type of the file she wants to create by clicking on ‘New’ (a) in the menu bar.  Next, she renames her new document (b). Now she has to grant Sebastian and Barbara edit rights to the document. To do this she selects the document she wants to share (c) and clicks on the ‘Share’ link in the menu bar (d).

Karolina sets Sebastian and Barbara and the course facilitator as collaborators by entering their e-mail addresses into the field in the ‘Invite people’ section  (a). She also wants her new collaborators to be informed via email that a new document has been created (b). All the new collaborators receive a secure link to the newly created file.

Now each one of the collaborators – Karolina, Sebastian, and Barbara – can work on the article. Occasionally, their facilitator will also access the document to check on their progress and give advice to the young researchers

As Karolina cannot access the Internet from home, she wants to work on the document using the offline mode. To do so, all she needs to do is install a small add-on named Google Gears. She clicks on the “Offline” link in the upper right-hand corner of the Google Docs window and installs the program

Once their paper is ready, Sebastian saves it to the hard drive of his computer as a PDF file. To do so, he chooses the ‘More Actions’ menu at the top of the window and selects ‘Save as PDF’.

The next step is to prepare a presentation for the conference. The group decides to use one of the templates made available in the Google Templates Gallery, in the Students & Teachers category. Barbara opens ‘New’ menu and clicks on the ‘From template’ link. She is automatically directed to the Gallery where she can select an appropriate template. She renames the document and grants the rest of the group and the facilitator with edit rights to the document. Preparing a presentation in a collaborative way requires several real-time meetings. Each time that the group decides to meet in a virtual environment to discuss the presentation, one of its members clicks on the ‘Start presentation’ button in the upper right-hand corner of the interface (a).

Once the presentation is ready, the group members must brush up on their presenting skills. Taking the initiative Sebastian assumes the role of a presenter (a). Karolina, Barbara and the group facilitator are his audience. Sebastian also invites some other students to join this virtual meeting by sending them its URL (b). All the participants use Skype to listen to and discuss presentation made by Sebastian. They also use the chat feature (c) to give any comments or suggestions.

Google Apps for the OU stundents – will other follow?

Last week, I read in Martin Weller’s blog that OU had decided to adopt Google Apps for its students. Martin Weller names a couple of reasons why it is a significant move, one of them is:

„It puts powerful collaborative tools in the hands of students – I commented on twitter that Google Docs might end being the most significant educational technology around. Not because it’s fantastic, but because it’s there and it’s easy to use. Or maybe it’ll be chat. Or large email storage. Whatever it is, I think students (and tutors) will start to use the technology in ways that we don’t predict or demand, but because it makes their lives easier. We have struggled to crack collaborative learning for distance students for ages – maybe Google Apps will do it in one move“

Martin is right. Students will definitely find their own ways in using these new tools. I directly experienced it during the trials organised within the iCamp project to check the feasibility of cross-cultural collaboration (trial 1)  + self-directed learning (trail 2) + social networking (trial 3) in the context of iCamp Space.

Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google group and Google sites were among some other social software tools that students were encouraged to use in order to carry out different group assignments (work on a project, design a questionnaire, design an e-learning course).  Generally, the students took different approaches towards the selection and the use of those tools. Some decisions were deliberate (fitness for purpose, based on the review of the tool functionality), some were made rather spontaneously (quick decision, followed by the use of the tool for some time, followed by the discovery that it didn’t fit the purpose, followed by the decision to change to another tool), while others can be described as instruction-driven (let’s work with email and put the final outcome into the Google docs, because it was one of the tools required).

I took part in the trial 1 as a local coordinator (my task was to give support to the Polish facilitator). It was very interesting to see how students were coping with this messy learning environment, trying (trial by error) to find the best solution for their group given its unique characteristics and context.  So the outcome was that students (and here I relate again to Martin Weller’s words): used the technology in ways that we didn’t predict or demanded, but because it made their lives easier. For instance, we didn’t predict that while designing a questionnaire in Google Docs, some students would also start communicating (or even chatting) within this tool!

I definitely recommend, to those who are interested in using Google Apps and other social software tools for education, to read the reports on the trials and the iCamp handbook: ‘How to use social software in higher education’.

I also have my contribution to the handbook. Within the chapter on collaboration I wrote to scenarios for using Google Docs and Google calendar for educational purposes.

I decided to put the scenarios on my blog (the next two posts). If Martin is right and other universities will follow the OU in adopting Google Appls for their students, the scenarios can be of use to those responsible for the implementation.