Category Archives: Students

10 ways your e-portfolio sucks

Hmm these ’10 things…’, ’20 top…’ type blogs are very popular these days. This one is directly inspired by a former student (anonymous for their own protection) whose e-portfolio site was sent my way by a games industry recruiter.

Universities love e-portfolios and all sorts of personal development planning (PDP) stuff. E-portfolio systems such as Mahara are often integrated into LMS/VLE software allowing students to populate their portfolios with all their university work and reflective thoughts. However, this might not result in a portfolio that an employer actually wants to read – or that will help someone get a job. Having had my eyes almost burnt out from reading one portfolio, here are some thoughts on a top ten things not to do in your e-portfolio…

… and feel free to comment below if you know of other portfolio sins and must-dos or must-don’ts.
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Urban Legends in Education

A recent article in Educational Psychologist sets out to debunk three urban legends in education: Digital Natives, Learning Styles and Self-Educators. This takes me back to the early days of this blog – which was started in no small part because I had a bad feeling about the idea of ‘Digital Natives’ as presented by Marc Prensky and similar ideas from others.

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MIT follows Stanford: Certificates for external students

Now MIT will follow Stanford in offering certificates to external students who complete online courses based around free materials. Like Stanford the exact financial details are yet to be revealed – but students wanting certificates will be paying. More at the Chronicle, here. Off hand, this seems different to the AI-Class model which implies (but may change) that the class will be offered to institutions who then enroll their students and allow the credits to be used towards local degree awards.

Meanwhile, a quieter way that Stanford appear to be commercializing their free offering… by inviting top performers to submit CVs, which Stanford then forward to companies looking for talented employees. Recruitment agencies generally make their money when they provide CVs of people who end up being hired – and here Stanford might make a small, but no doubt useful, pot of cash based on their free offering.

I think few UK universities seem to be institutionally aware of what is going on here – most are still focussing primarily on the campus based student (where the campus may not actually be in the UK…) and trying to get the maximum in fees for students attending courses. Meanwhile the US based private universities are looking at the margins available on extending offerings to massive numbers home based students at low individual costs, exploiting systems that remove much of the costs associated with teaching and supporting those students. Automate the testing and evaluation and support self-organising study groups, removing the burden on the tutor altogether.

I think universities are going to have to face this head on, acknowledge what is going on and work out exactly what their strategy is to survive the next few decades: When education is free, and certification costs are marginal, what are people getting for their money when they attend university? But I don’t currently see this happening – at least not in the UK, where everyone is too distracted over current issues surrounding fees.

But perhaps the most interesting point about the MIT offering is at the very end of the Chronicle’s article:

The core idea of OpenCourseWare—free online content—spread far beyond MIT. The institute hopes this project will also catch on elsewhere. To help make that happen, it will release the MITx open-learning software at no charge, so other educational institutions can adopt it.

Depending on what the software does, and how adaptable it is, other universities will be able to follow suit – but few have the MIT brand to attract students.

UWS Degree show – Digital Futures 2011

The annual degree show for UWS animation, games, and music technology students will be taking place at the University’s Paisley campus on the 14th of June. There should be some interesting work on show – hopefully including some of the fun stuff students have been doing with Kinect, and possibly including some degree year work alongside the honours projects.

The current schedule for the day is as follows:

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The Students Are Revolting

Off topic for this blog, and a bit delayed – but better late than never. This is my attempt at a round up of the major changes to university funding in the UK, the raising of student fees, and the protests themselves…

The big protests against the raising of student fees resulted in some vandalism and violence – with plenty of coverage online. The Guardian has fairly extensive coverage, generally sympathetic to the plight of students and prospective students, and a good collection of images (with generally sympathetic comments) at

Ben Goldacre posted about the student protest Google Map – a clever use of free technology to allow protesters to keep tabs on current events and policing. It was from this that I discovered that around a thousand protesters were still being kettled (or ‘contained’) on Westminster Bridge while politicians were discussing the days events on Newsnight as if it was all over already. Of these, many had tried to leave earlier in the day but had been prevented from leaving. Children as young as 14 were prevented by Police from leaving Parliament Square for many hours – which left them exposed to significant risk when violence did erupt.

Gabriel Lukes, 14, left Dunraven school in south London on his own to join in the march. He was kettled in Parliament Square before being moved to Westminster Bridge just after 9pm. He stood alone for two hours before being allowed off at 11pm. His father Peter was waiting for him. “It was cold, cramped, you had like half a metre to yourself,” he said. “It was just terrible.” (From The Guardian – Police Tactics Questioned)

Several letter writers who were kettled themselves – or whose children were – shared their feelings in letters:

When did we endorse the police holding our children for hours in freezing weather and preventing our presence, despite them having committed no crime? Why are we accepting that the police can trample on the rights of thousands because of the behaviour of a few?

About 10 police officers were injured along with at least 38 protesters - including one who needed brain surgery after being hit by a police truncheon. This is clearly a very inappropriate form of policing in a liberal democracy. Not that the liberal democrats have made much comment on the policing that I have noticed…

And now it appears that anti-terrorism laws are being applied to bully even younger children from engaging in lawful protest:

[12 year old] Wishart said that after the school was contacted by anti-terrorist officers, he was taken out of his English class on Tuesday afternoon and interviewed by a Thames Valley officer at the school in the presence of his head of year.

But all of this it seems has been overshadowed by a single act of thuggery – an attack on the Prince of Wales’ car, that has been the focal point for many of the headlines. Allowing David Cameron to act with indignation, almost as if he’d never been involved in acts of vandalism or thuggery… despite his time in the Bullingdon Club, infamous at Oxford for trashing restaurants. There is a quote oft found on twitter is”Things got out of hand & we’d had a few drinks. We smashed the place up and Boris set fire to the toilets”, purportedly by David Cameron, recalling his time at Oxford university – but I haven’t found the source of this and cannot say whether it is at all authentic, though I’m a bit dubious. But it did allow Ed Miliband to respond to pointedly to a jibe from David Cameron about being a student politician:

“I was a student politician but I wasn’t hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants.”

Politically, the real losers may be the Liberal Democrats, who appear to have under-estimated how personally people would take their breaking of a pre-election pledge to vote against increases in fees. Signing the pledge is something that Liberal Democrat Evan Harris now realises was a mistake. Damage has been done – time will tell how the party recovers. More here, here, here, and here. There is even speculation over a possible split of the party along right/left lines.

Less well covered in the media is the removal of Education Maintenance Allowance – used by many poor students to support themselves at sixth form school or at college to get the qualifications to go to university. This was removed in the tuition fees bill, but was not in the manifesto of any political party:

When the education secretary, Michael Gove, was interviewed by Education Guardian readers before the general election, he flatly denied that the education maintenance allowance (EMA) was for the chop, saying: “Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won’t.”

Well, you just did Michael, you just did.

The new fees structure has been welcomed by some university leadersless so by others. Little of the recent coverage has pointed out that the high levels of fees being sought are largely the result of the 79% cut to university teaching budgets inflicted by the government – against more typical cuts of 30% in other sectors. Given that some consider that many universities are at risk of closure due to the cuts (though no institution wishes to admit to being at risk), it is hardly surprising that Universities UK had problems in presenting a united front. Especially when this is coming as the first step in a Conservative programme to reduce the number of research universities in the UK and the percentage of school leavers going to university. And that the Conservatives already have ideas about which universities they’d like to close or re-brand as teaching only institutions. See here for the Conservative view of new universities and here for an annotated David Willets speech to Universities UK just an few months old. The annotator notes:

…that could be called one of the great betrayals of modern times. The new universities were promised by an earlier Conservative government access to research funds in return for breaking the old universities’ cartel on undergraduate teaching. The post-1992 institutions agreed to take lots more students at low cost and that is what enabled the expansion of undergraduate numbers from 1992 onwards. Since then the new entrants have steadily built up their research activity. Now the rug is to be pulled from under them.

And in the background to all of this is the debate over whether education to degree level is a privilege or a right, whether a degree should be viewed purely in terms of training for a future career and enhanced earnings or as a benefit to societyas viewed by some of our European near-neighbours. Perhaps children should be given loans for attending school, so that today’s taxpayers can dodge their responsibilities to the next generation? If this is OK at degree level, why not apply the same thinking to all education?

At times the government is arguing that arts and social subjects should not be supported by public funds as they don’t provide economic benefits to the nation – which is clearly nonsense, as a knowledge economy can have limited value without knowledge. Only heirs to the throne, or others with suitable endowments, will be able to afford to study History of Art in the future it seems. This also ignores (as has most of the media)  that the protected funding for STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – doesn’t actually protect all STEM courses, with the vast majority of Computing, IT and Maths courses losing all government support. More discussion here, but it is only in the comments that the elimination of funds for IT is raised.

Of course, I’m writing this while the net effect these changes on the Scottish University system are as yet unknown – these changes only affect English Universities. For Scottish students studying in Scotland, our devolved government is currently determined to avoid tuition fees. For our top universities, this probably raises worries over how their level of funding may drop in comparison to English universities. For the ‘widening participation’ institutions this is more likely to be reassuring, however. But the Scottish Government’s budget has been cut and next year is an election year… the reprieve may only be temporary, and this could just be an electioneering political game.

With all of this going on, its a real shame that the single incident which seems to grabbing most headlines and media coverage in the UK is one that happened on the periphery of Thursday’s protests – someone got poked with a stick, and a tin of paint was thrown at a car.

Reward Systems that Drive Engagement

Over the summer I’ve been ‘running’ UNversity – an online choose-your-own-project summer un-school for UWS game technology and game development students. A key feature of this was that it had to require minimal investment of time from myself (other stuff to do!), but I wanted to try to engage students, and encourage regular participation. Using a custom Moodle site, with some minor hacks, we have a points system and a leader board. We also have a basic badge system  – though I haven’t been able to spend the time to award badges, and they aren’t automatically awarded – so students have to self track their badges until UNversity wraps up and I’ll give out certificates and prizes.

The system has kind of worked – it has engaged some folk, and once folk have got into it, they have indeed kept up regular participation. But a number of students started, and quickly stopped – while others never really got started.

I’ve just watched a video of a presentation on by Amy Jo Kim from GDC 2010 that might have helped me better design my points and badge system – MetaGame Design: Reward Systems that Drive Engagement. This has given me food for thought, and I can see a couple of ways I went wrong – particularly on the need to provide more ‘early’ rewards for people getting started, and making those more visible. (A way to automatically tweet or send a Facebook message  from Moodle would be nice to make this easier!)

Overall, I think I’d have been limited by what I had time to implement though, so I’m not going to beat myself up too much about it… but perhaps there is a good student project in this – building the system I need to do this better next year.

More for Less: The Challenges of Games Education

I’ve finally uploaded the screencast of my keynote from Games:EDU, back in May. Actually, the majority of this relates to any undergraduate teaching in a typical university. Inappropriate strategic goals, growing mountains of paperwork, innovation prevention, the bare pass student and traditional lectures all pop up as challenges – encouraging students to form effective communities of practice and exploiting technology to extend the reach of the university pop up as part of the solution.

See it here, or on

Academies and Free Schools

Every so often something happens which makes me extra glad that I live in Scotland. Currently its the ConDem government rushing ahead with their plans to take schools out of local authority control (and into the control of anybody else who wants to run them, including for-profit companies).

First up, Becta was summarily dismissed. This has had a mixed reception amongst teachers – with reports of the agency wasting some of its money, or some of its services not being used by all schools. A good collation of responses here, courtesy of OLDaily. (The British Journal of Education Technology is owned by Becta currently – I presume and hope that arrangements will be made to transfer ownership before Becta closes for good)

Whereas in Scotland, LTS is not being closed. I doubt very much that every spending decision made by LTS is the best decision possible – but there is a lot of good work coming out of LTS, and some very dedicated people who work hard on making schools better, supporting teachers and supporting a forward looking curriculum.

Michael Gove outlined plans to encourage the best schools in England and Wales to leave local authority control (as a first step to taking all schools outside of local authority control), and to make it easier for parents and companies to start new schools. The BBC’s initial coverage of both didn’t delve too deep into the possible problems – with naysayers given relatively small soundbits on pieces about new academies and free schools. Schools (such as the new academies) which have been rated as ‘outstanding’ will also be free from future inspections. Even though there is now an example of an outstanding school turned academy failing a subsequent inspection.

Mike Baker finally provided some analysis on Saturday, which includes some worthwhile observations.

On local authority control over schools:

Perhaps the most misleading, and frequently repeated, claim is that becoming an academy allows schools to “escape local authority control”.

This is ridiculous because local councils no longer have “control” of schools.

… Town halls no longer determine how schools spend their money, what or how they teach, or how they are held accountable.

Schools are constrained in many ways. But these constraints come from national government or national bodies, be it the national curriculum, national tests, Ofsted, or government legislation on issues such as safeguarding or Every Child Matters.

What do local authorities do?

Their last remaining influence is in the provision of school places, organisation of the school admissions process, and as the stretcher-bearers when schools fail. …

They provide vital services such as educational psychologists and special educational need support and more humdrum, but essential, functions such as payroll management and legal advice.

And with local authorities having little actual control over schools, there is really one reason driving the academy agenda – money:

… academy status brings a cash uplift of 10% or more.

This is the money otherwise held back by town halls for central education services. For a large secondary school that could be £400,000 a year.

Many heads believe they can make better use of that money themselves, even though they may continue to purchase some services from the local authority.

This hints at one way in which academies will be able to save money. Limiting their use of central psychological services and special needs support. Cutting back on support for the most expensive pupils – i.e. those with the greatest need – will free up more money for prestige facilities (to attract better students) and better pay (to take the best teachers away from other schools). And even to allow companies running schools to profit from the public purse and parent contributions.

As Mike Baker’s analysis points out, there will be little in terms of academic freedom or control over allocated budget to distinguish a local authority school and a new academy or free school. All that is left is whether or not the school contributes to a local fund for specialist services to support the most needy (academies won’t), whether the people running the school can make a profit (yes for academies), and whether voters actually have any power to effect change in their local schools (academies “unlike local councils … cannot be turfed out by parents and local voters.”).

As I say, every so often something happens that makes me glad that I live in Scotland.


The Guardian asks head teachers if they will opt for academy status. Not all are in a hurry – those that are tempted are tempted by the extra money.

The Independent reviews the free schools policy:

“The Tories have misrepresented the case for free schools by only quoting the good part of some very mixed evidence from the US and Sweden,” says McNally. “There are serious issues here. It might raise standards but I’m concerned about social mobility. Will the pupil premium for disadvantaged children be big enough to attract people to run schools in poor areas? If not, non-free schools will have to pick up all the social problems and will struggle to get teachers because they won’t be able to pay as much as other schools.”

Games:EDU 2010

Next Thursday I’ll be giving the Academic Keynote at Games:EDU at Abertay University up in Dundee. There is a packed programme, and some great speakers lined up. I should be sharing my own talk with one or two of my former students now working in Dundee at Cohort Studios – they’ve been working on The Shoot for the forthcoming PS3 Move controller.

While the former students will be talking about the transition from student to working in the games industry, I was asked to talk about the current challenges in delivering games technology courses. Excuse me while I yawn… So I’ll be working hard till then on turning this into a more lively reflection on the state of (games technology) education in what is just the start of some troubled times for the education sector – with looming cuts and a general squeeze on funding. The title for the talk is “More for Less: The Hidden Challenges of Games Education” – where hidden mainly refers to the aspects of university that are hidden from students and outside bodies.

The working title was a bit more direct – but I had to agree with the conference organisers that it perhaps sounded a little too cynical. So I’ll not be delivering the talk “Bums on Seats: The Hidden Challenges of Games Education” after all.

EDIT: ps it turns out that there already is a University of Bums on Seats.

Future of the Textbook

One of my current interests is the area of Open Education Resources (OER). I’ve got Opening Up Education sitting on bookshelf within easy reach of my desk for when I have time spare to read it. Though of course I can also read it online, as the whole book is also available in PDF format for free from the MIT Press website.

Via Ewan McIntosh I found Seth Godin’s Textbook Rant on why he thinks the textbook industry has to die. As a fan of OER, I think he has some valid points. Indeed, one of my hopes is that I’ll find some time to produce some of my own notes online and make them available under a creative commons licence. If I find the time, that is. Doing so is not part of my job description despite Seth’s assertion that:

Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?)

No it isn’t Seth. Unless they are being paid to do so specifically as part of some OER project – of which there are at least an increasing amount. This UK project, for example, from JISC will “make the equivalent of 5,000 undergraduate modules of existing learning resources freely available online.

Academic textbooks are generally overpriced – something I won’t argue with. This is related, I think, to how university study is funded through very large loans in the US. Textbooks in the UK used to be significantly cheaper in the UK than in the US. Once Amazon and other online retailers arrived this discrepancy became quickly apparent – with the unfortunate effect that many textbook prices in the UK rose rather significantly so publishers could protect their US margins. (One book I have on a list of recommended texts went from £15 to £25 from one year to the next – a rise of 66%). While most textbook authors only make fairly modest amounts of money (despite Seth’s comments), I would agree with Seth that most academic publishers have been exploiting their audience and overcharging.

As to the value of a textbook, I must disagree. Not all textbooks are made equal, and perhaps marketing textbooks are just less equal than others. There are some very good (and many mediocre) computing textbooks. I have no reservations in recommending Michael Dawson’s “Beginning C++ Game Programming” to prospective and current students – even while I don’t require it as a text in any of my classes. It has a good narrative, excellent selection of content, strong examples, well thought out exercises… well I like it. And so did most of the buyers who took time to review the book on Amazon. While I don’t care too much which C++ book students have, I do feel quite strongly that students trying to learn C++ should try and get a decent C++ textbook and really use it to support their learning. There is far more to be learned that we can teach in the hours we have with students.

As for OpenGL programming, for my 3D graphics class I’m in something of a bind. There are a lot of very good books out there – but none that really work for my course, taking my students from where they start the module to where I hope they’ll be at the end. As a result, I recommend a few texts and ask students to take time to look at the various texts and choose one – in the knowledge that A is expensive and is heavy on the theory, but light on practical, B is cheaper and all practical but quite limited, C has good coverage but very limited tutorial style support, and so on. But I do think that a student that spends time using one of the books to support their own learning will benefit greatly – and I don’t have the time to write a book on the subject myself. Naturally, I also point students to a good range of free web-based resources.

Seth ends his rant with an update from the email he received:

Update: got more mail about this post than any other post ever. … and so far, more than 94% of the letters aggressively agree with me. …  I also heard from a handful of people who said that I was jealous, that the union won’t permit the system to change, that textbooks are really good, that professors are underpaid, that professors are too busy or (possibly and) that I’m delusional. I’ll note that not one of these letters came from a textbook user.

Seth’s blog doesn’t carry comments, but perhaps he should read the comments he got on Digg – which includes a number of comments from textbook users:

  • One user notes that some books are better than others: “The discussion that came out of Lencioni’s book was incredibly more significant than a text book. Plus it was cheap to buy and it was practical.
  • One user points to a list of text books with very positive Amazon reviews. “In nearly every discipline, there is a market-leading textbook that is trusted, learned from, and even treasured by the people who know and use it—i.e., students and teachers.
  • Another points out some of the positive features of textbooks and suggests that “Maybe rather than get rid of textbooks, we just advocate that they become a little more affordable.
  • And a couple of marketing profs ask whether Seth is willing for his own books to be given away free in class (to put up or shut up, basically): “We’re using Seth Godins book Permission Marketing as our textbook in my summer school class. Are you saying we can reprint this book for free or is it just chapters? Can you please post authorization for students to do this. Thanks this is great news to be able to now get your books for free.

If I ever do manage to produce my own OER course on Real Time 3D graphics, I’ll be sure to post some updates here. Sadly, it’ll be a while. Meantime, I’ll continue to point students to a range of textbooks, and recommending that they get at least one of them (or borrow it from the university library).