Pervasive Media Studios

The studios are a collaboration between the Universities of Bristol and West of England managed by the Watershed. Walking in to the studio in the loft space of the Watershed you are instantly struck by what an amazing space they occupy. The studio is a community centred around technology consisting of artists, academics, creative companies and technologists.

Working in the studio comes with an ethos and I think this is the one that should be taken on much more widely (and having a making corner!). Everyone working there is interuptable (professionally speaking) to help and answer questions from the community and in return you can ask the questions you have in mind. This simple measure changes an environment which could be very introspective in to one that encourages inquisitive creative learning.

Each Friday afternoon as an extension to the lunch time talks the studio is ‘open’ to visitors to come and chat and share ideas and experiences. The afternoon starts with a short tour of the studio which involves lots of interruptions of the people working there at the time. From Dancing cranes to neurogastronomy experiences an hour felt like we had only scratched the surface of the work being undertaken there.

The most interesting project for me was an app which allows users to synchronise filming from a number of mobile phones using one phone to rule them all. This app has been used on a project funded by the Arts Council and led by the University of Lincoln to mark the anniversary of the Magna Carter called Time for Rights.


Making Movies With Your Mobile

Pete and Martin visited Pervasive Media in the Watershed for one of their Friday Lunchtime talks last week to hear Jack Edwards talk on Making Movies With Your Mobile. During the talk, part of PMs Open Studio Friday initiative, Jack introduced the simple concept that almost all of us are carrying around a device capable of filming great quality footage. Aimed at those wanting to produce footage for creative or activist purposes, a lot of the advice covered was useful for more general filming.

Whilst in education we may not be in the market for creating the next Cannes sensation, there’s a lot we can take away from a more professional approach. You no longer need to have expensive video cameras, microphones, lights, and tripods to create good quality footage. WIth a bit of stage management and some relatively cheap equipment that fits in a pocket you can easily create your own high quality video.

One of the main take home points was the use of sound, confirming something I’ve said time and time again – you can watch quite poor quality footage if the sound is good, but if the sound is awful even the most beautifully shot HD video will quickly become jarring and unwatchable. With a mobile phone you have a microphone optimised for close up use but may not perform particularly well over a small distance. The good news is by plugging in a cheap clip on tie-mic (around £2-3 on ebay or £5 in Maplin) you instantly get better quality sound. Some of these have quite lengthy leads which could be useful if you’re trying to film more than just a talking head. A top tip is to use a bit of furry fabric to cover a mic outside to mimic the ‘dead cat’ style microphone covers professionals use to muffle wind sound.

Lighting and exposure can be another issue when filming on mobile, so getting you know your settings can give far better results. By turning off auto-exposure in your phone’s video app you can ensure you don’t get that fading in and out effect that can ruin so many indoor shots as you phone desperately tries to get the best levels and fails miserably. A subsequent online search found loads of guides for my phone telling me how to turn off auto-exposure both for the native app and a few of the video apps I’ve downloaded.

Composition – setting up scenes/stage management was also briefly discussed. This is often overlooked but making sure you’ve got a scene set up and everything ready before shooting makes for a more watchable clip. For example using a tripod – these days you can pick up mobile phone adaptors for both large and small desktop tripods. Having a stable shot over shaky-cam is usually far preferable for a viewer (most of us don’t set out to induce motion sickness). You can pick up cheap adaptors, some of which double as hand held ‘stabilisers’ – giving a more ergonomic handle rather than grasping a phone hopefully resulting in a smoother video (£5-25 on Amazon and ebay). Jack illustrated this DIY approach with the fact that when CNN can’t get a full crew to a news story their local reporters will use a ‘Selfie Stick’ and tie mic to film themselves – if that’s good enough for Nationwide broadcast then it’s probably good enough for us. [Note: Please don’t buy a selfie stick]

As far as which mobile apps to use Jack recommended the native iOS video app or Cinema FV 5 for Android. I’ve had a play with the latter and it certainly gives you a lot of manual control over things like focus and exposure.

Jack encouraged us to think about editing as a cut and paste exercise, just a case of grabbing clips, snipping out bits we don’t need and pasting them into the order we need. There are lots of options for giving your footage a bit of editorial polish directly on your phone or tablet these days, this guide gives lots of options for both Android and iOS – – I personally recommend Cyberlink Powerdirector for Android – the cut and paste approach works well with this app.

The talk was followed by a screening of Tangerine, a movie shot entirely on an iPhone with a specially adapted clip on anamorphic lens. The total cost of the equipment ran to around £1000, whilst the movie has gained critical praise both at Sundance and in the mainstream media. Unfortunately we had to get back to work, but the film trailer looks great and I’ll definitely be watching it a later date.

Evidence in teaching – notes from the reading group

Suzi read Why “what works” won’t work: evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research, Biesta, G 2007 and a chapter by Alberto Masala from the forthcoming book From Personality to Virtue: Essays in the Philosophy of Character, ed Alberto Masala and Jonathan Webber, OUP, 2015

Biesta gives what is broadly an argument against deprofessionalisation in the context of government literacy and numeracy initiatives at primary school level. I found the main argument somewhat unclear. It was most convincing talking about the difficulty in defining what education is for, making it difficult to test whether an intervention has worked. Talks at length about John Dewey and his description of education as a moral practice and learning as reflective experimental problem solving.

“A democratic society is precisely one in which the purpose of education is not given but is a constant topic for discussion and deliberation.”

Masala’s paper is on virtue/character education but is of wider interest as it talks very clearly about educational theory. I found particularly useful in this context the distinction between skill as a competence (defined by performance, so easily testable) and skill as mastery (defined by a search for superior understanding and less easily tested), and the danger of emphasising competence.

Hilary read Version Two: Revising a MOOC on Undergraduate STEM Teaching, which briefly outlined some key approaches and intended developments in a Coursera MOOC aimed at STEM graduates and post docs interested in developing their teaching.

The author of the blog post is Derek Bruff (director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, and senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics with interests in agile learning, social media and SRS – amongst other things: see

Two key points:

  1. MOOC centred learning communities – the MOOC adopted a facilitated blended approach, building on the physical groupings of graduate student participants by facilitating 42 learning communities across the US, UK and Australia to use face to face activities to augment the course materials, and improve completion rates.
  2. Red Pill: Blue Pill – adopting the metaphor used by George Siemens in the Data, Learning and Analytics MOOC to give two ways to complete the course – either an instructor-led approach which was more didactic and focussed on the ability to understand and apply a broad spectrum of knowledge OR a student-directed approach which used peer graded assignments and gave the students the opportunity to pick the materials which most interested them, and so focus on gaining a deeper but less comprehensive understanding of the topic.

Final take away – networked learning is hard, as would be the logistics of offering staff / student development opportunities as online and face-to-face modules, with different pathways through the materials, but interesting …

Steve read Building evidence into education, 2013 report by Ben Goldacre for the UK government

Very accessible summary of the case for evidence-based pedagogy in the form of large-scale randomised controlled trials. Compares current ‘anecdote/authority’ edu research with past medical work – lots of interesting analogies. Focused on primary/secondary education but some ideas can transfer to higher – although would be more challenging.

Presents counterarguments to a number of common arguments against the RCT approach – it IS ethical if comparing methods where you don’t know which is best (and if you do know, why bother trialling?!). Difficulty in measuring is not a reason to discount, RCTs are a way to remove noise. Talks about importance of being aware of context and applicability. Uses some good medical examples to illustrate points.

Sketches out an initial framework – teachers don’t need to be research experts (doctors aren’t), should be research-focused team leading and guiding with stats/trials experts etc.

Got me thinking – definitely worth a read.

Roger read “Using technology for teaching and learning in higher education: a critical review of the role of evidence in informing practice, (2014) by Price and Kirkwood

This study explores the extent to which evidence informs teachers’ use of TEL in Higher Education. It involved a literature review, online questionnaire and focus groups. The authors found that there are differing views on what constitutes evidence which reflect differing views on learning and may be characteristic of particular disciplines. As an example they suggest a preference for large-scale quantitative studies in medical education.
In general evidence is under-used by teachers in HE, with staff influenced more by their colleagues and more concerned about what works rather than why. Educational development teams have an important role as mediators of evidence.

This was a very readable and engaging piece, although the conclusions didn’t come as much of a surprise!  The evidence framework they used (page 6) was interesting, with impact categorised as micro (e.g. individual teacher), meso (e.g. within a department) or Macro (across multiple institutions).

Mike read Evidence-based education: is it really that straightforward?, 2013, Marc Smith, Guardian Education response to Ben Goldacre

This is a thoughtful and well argued response to Goldacre’s call for educational research to learn from medical research, particularly in the form of randomised controlled trials. Smith is not against RCTs, but suggests they are not a silver bullet.

Smith applauds the idea that we need teachers to drive the research agenda and that we do need more evidence. His argument that it will be challenging to change the culture of teaching to achieve this, seems valid, but is not necessarily a reason not to try. The thrust of his argument is that  RCTs, whilst effective in medicine, are harder to apply to education due to the complexity of teaching and learning. He believes (and I tend to agree) that cause and effect are harder to determine in the educational context. Smith argues  that in medicine  there is a specific problem (an illness or condition) and a predefined intended outcome (change to that condition). This can be problematic in the medical context, but is even harder to measure in education. I would add that the environment as a whole is harder to control and interventions more difficult to replicate. Different teachers could attempt to deliver the same set of interventions, but actually deliver radically different sessions to learners who will interact with the learning in a variety of ways. Can education be thought of as a change of state caused by an intervention in the same way we would prescribe a drug for a specific ailment?

All this is not to say that RCTs cannot play a role, but that you have to think about what you are trying to research before choosing your methodology (some of the interventions Goldacre addressed related to specific quantitative measurable things like teenage pregnancy rates, or criminal activity). Perhaps it is my social scientist bias, bit I woudl still want to triangulate using a range of methods (quantitative and qualitative).

From a personal perspective, I sometimes think that ideas translated from science to a more social scientific context can lose some scientific validity in the process (though this is maybe most true at the level of theory than scientific practice. For example Dwarkins translated selfish genes into the concept of cultural memes, suggesting cultural traits are transmitted in the same way as genetic code. Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point is a metaphor from epidemiology which he applies to the spreading of ideas, bringing much metaphorical baggage in the process. Perhaps random control trials could provide better evidence for the validity of these theories too?