education technology

Using email as a learning management system

First of all, we should stop calling things like Moodle and Canvas “learning management systems”. At best they’re content, or student management systems. Pet peeve out the way? Tick.

I’ve been advocating for low-tech solutions to the problem of remote teaching and learning ever since I noticed how many people seemed to be pushing for things like synchronous, video-based lectures during the current crisis. Usually, I’m a fan of technology-based learning and teaching but that’s with the assumption that everyone has good access to the internet and appropriate devices. Now, with students and educators working from home, and acknowledging that we’re all reacting to a crisis – rather than implementing a carefully planned, coordinated, coherent strategy – I think that the only ethical option is to use as little technology as possible.

I honestly think that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email.

I’ve posted what I think a set of universal principles would look like in this situation, which disadvantages the fewest students as little as possible. And the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching has shared their list of low tech principles for remote teaching, which is a great resource. And during the process of reviewing these principles I started wondering what the simplest solution might look like, assuming that at least some form of internet access is a minimum requirement (our students are at home and can’t travel). And I honestly think that email could substitute as a learning/content management system.

Some of the features of an LMS that most educators would consider to be core to its purpose include being able to do the following:

  • Upload and store content in a variety of formats e.g. text, slideshows, video, audio, etc. You can attach anything to an email.
  • Access materials anytime, from everywhere. There are email clients for virtually every device and operating system, all of which enable offline access. Email never “goes down” and is one of the most reliable systems on the internet.
  • Provide asynchronous access to all of the relevant content and communication for a module. Email doesn’t require that you interact in real time.
  • Teachers can modify the content, and students can see the updated material. Email is sorted by date, so new content is presented first, which means that updated attachments appear at the top of the filtered list.
  • Students and teachers can re-use the material any time they need. Offline access means that attachments are available all the time (or students can download them onto their local storage).
  • Students can learn collaboratively. The ability to have threaded conversations in a mailing list means that collaborative discussion is possible (it may be awkward, but it’s possible).
  • Assessments can be completed by students within the LMS. You can include any questions or tasks you want students to complete within email.
  • Should be simple to use. No-one needs training on how to use email.

There is also a well-documented disadvantage of the LMS; it requires a technology infrastructure that is non-trivial to manage. In fact, we have higher education institutions here in South Africa that simply don’t have the technical infrastructure and ability to maintain an LMS. But they all have email.

So it seems that email as a technology satisfies all of the requirements of a learning management system. But how would you use it? I think that with a few basic naming and organising conventions, you could ensure that all students across a programme could be up and running with this system in a few minutes.

Basically, educators within a programme would need to agree on a Subject line naming convention e.g. Module name – Type of email – Title/content. For the module that I teach, it might look something like this: PHT402 – Announcement – Submission dates, PHT402 – Assessment – Quiz no. 2, or PHT402 – Notes – Health and human rights. Students could filter their emails by the module code (“PHT402”) which would only display emails for that module, as well as by Type (“Announcement” or “Notes”). Everything relevant for those search terms would be presented in reverse chronological order (most recent first) making it very easy for students to find whatever they’re looking for.

You can see how it’s possible for students and lecturers to do the following:

  • Search and filter their system for the content they need, when they need it.
  • Communicate privately with the lecturer, or with a learning group (3-5 peers), or with everyone in the class.
  • Threaded email discussions look a lot like discussion forums, which are often touted as an important feature of the LMS, and which would work perfectly well by email.
  • Write an essay that includes links to sources, embedded images, complex formatting, etc. for an assignment, directly within the email client.
  • Embed Google Form-type quizzes directly into the email so that students can complete them without leaving the email client.

Since email provides offline access students could connect to the internet, download everything they need, and disconnect. Then they’d review the work and communication while offline, compose responses and any questions they might have, reconnect, upload it all, and then disconnect again. This would all happen without having to “go” anywhere (no browsers, links, logins, or apps other than the email client) or do anything. I honestly that that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email. Everything else might just be more of a distraction.

education technology

Resource: Low Tech Remote Teaching Principles

  1. Keep it simple and low tech.
  2. Accessibility is core, not optional.
  3. Provide structure.
  4. Use what is available.
  5. Keep learning active.
  6. Scaffold learning by chunking content.
  7. Have a clear course outline.
  8. Be visible and contactable.
  9. Help keep students on track.
  10. Be kind to yourself and empathic to your students.

This collection of Low-tech remote teaching principles is a 3 page Google Doc produced by the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching. It’s a fantastic resource that starts with the 10 principles listed above before moving on to a list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to remote teaching, and finishes with a helpful checklist for teachers moving online. I think that every educator would be well-served by downloading this document and keeping it pinned up somewhere prominent. I know I will.

Note: If you find this resource useful you may also like my post on Universal principles of learning task design.


Open source: Jitsi Meet as an alternative to Zoom

Jitsi is a set of open-source projects that allows you to easily build and deploy secure videoconferencing solutions. At the heart of Jitsi are Jitsi Videobridge and Jitsi Meet, which let you have conferences on the internet, while other projects in the community enable other features such as audio, dial-in, recording, and simulcasting.

What is Jitsi?

As everyone on the planet is trying to figure out how to move work, learning and socialising online, there are a few platforms that have come to dominate the videoconferencing space, with Zoom being the biggest winner so far. But there are important problems that have emerged as more and more people have started using Zoom, including privacy, security and encryption concerns. And it looks ugly IMO. In addition, Google has made it clear that their enterprise video conferencing platform, Google Meet, is only free until June. While this might be extended for a bit longer it’s eventually going to go away. Taking this into account, now is the perfect time to start using an alternative i.e. before you absolutely have to.

Jitsi Meet is a free and open-source videoconferencing tool that’s easy to use, is encrypted by default, and doesn’t sell your data. You don’t need an account and you don’t need to download anything to start or join a meeting. You can do pretty much anything that both Zoom and Google Meet can do, including recording, live-streaming to YouTube, password-protection, background blur, it supports up to 75 participants and has no time limit. And obviously there are iOS and Android apps as well.

If you want to try it out, click here to start your own meeting. You’ll see a screen like the one below. Once you set the meeting up you’ll be able to share the URL with anyone you’d like to join. Here is a useful introduction to using Jitsi.

education technology

Comment: Please Don’t Require Synchronous Work in Your Remote Classes

Asynchronous work is the standard in undergraduate courses that are designed as fully online courses. In a high-stress situation in which faculty who typically teach F2F classes now have to teach remotely, they are necessary.It’s tempting to think that our students ought to be able to synch up to our classes remotely just as they were able to come to class in person. But that’s not reality.

Barrett-Fox, R. (2020). Please Don’t Require Synchronous Work in Your Remote Classes. Any Good Thing blog.

Another great post from Rebecca Barrett-Fox where she presents an argument for avoiding synchronous discussions entirely during the move to remote teaching and learning. Considering the additional pressure it adds to both teachers and students, and the potential to establish a two-tiered system (where some have access and some don’t), it’s simply not worth the effort it takes.

The reality of our students’ lives is that many of them will also be dealing with other challenges at home right now, and expecting them to all be available, connected, focused, and healthy at the same time isn’t reasonable (and probably unethical as well).

There are plenty of (asynchronous) alternatives that enable students to learn when it suits them, using low-bandwidth options, that allows you to achieve the outcomes we care about.

See also my comment on videoconferencing alternatives.

education teaching technology

Resource: Creating an online community, class or conference – A tech guide

Are you creating an online course, event or conference? If you’re not a programmer, and if you don’t have a lot of money to spend, this guide will get you started. Read it from top to bottom to get a step-by-step guide to what you can do to set up your course or event. Then check the links to find free or cheap and easy tools that will get the job done for you.

Downes, S. (2020). Creating an online community, class or conference – A tech guide. Google Docs.

There are rules for adding resources to this list:

  • Cloud only – if you have to set up a web server, it doesn’t belong on the list. If you are required to download an application, it doesn’t belong.
  • No apps (no Play Store, Apple Store, etc., even if they’re free).
  • Free (or Nearly Free) – ideally, the tool has a free tier that lets you try it out. Your total costs to do everything should be less than $100/month (and free for students).
  • No credit cards – doesn’t ask you for a credit card unless you’re actually paying them money .
  • No adjectives; just say what it does, and keep everything brief.

I think that the list of services, platforms and tools in this document will be more useful if you already have an idea of what you want to do but are less certain about how to go about it, or what technology would be most appropriate to use. On the other hand, you could also go through the list as a way of generating ideas around what’s possible for your own course or class. If this is your aim then make sure that you don’t try everything on the list.

Either way, go into with a reason. The danger of reading the list without a plan is that there’s a risk you’ll try to implement things simply because they’re there, rather than considering whether or not they solve a real problem you have.

If in doubt, remember that simpler is always better.

education technology

Comment: Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All

When we try to replicate classroom experiences in an online environment, it’s easy to think of video conferencing as our go-to tool for all sorts of learning objectives—and for good reason. Most of us have participated in a video conference at work or had a video chat with friends or family at some point. We like the idea of being able to see and hear our students while interacting with them in real time just like we do when teaching face to face. But there are two key factors that make this approach problematic. Bandwidth and Immediacy.

Stanford, D. (2020). Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All. IDDblog.

I’ve seen lots of people promoting video-based, real-time (synchronous) meetings as a way to replace normal lectures as part of the global move to online teaching. While I think that face-to-face meetings with small groups of students has value (for example, one-on-one meetings with students, or a small research group), I don’t think that having a live lecture with 50-60 students is a good use of anyones’ time. It’s high bandwidth, assumes that everyone is available at the same time, that everyone can concentrate on what’s going on, that everyone is comfortable with the technology, etc.

When it comes to teaching and learning online and remotely there’s nothing wrong with text. There’s nothing wrong with email. Now is not the time to be introducing the New Shiny Thing and adding more complexity and pressure to students’ learning. If we want students to keep reading, reflecting, and articulating their understanding, then there’s no reason to think that video is the optimal way to get them to do that. Video definitely has it’s place but asking everyone to sit in front of computer for 30 minutes to watch a talking head probably isn’t the best way to use their – or your – time.

The author not only provides useful alternatives to the videoconference but also gives a matrix (see below) that can help us reflect on the purpose of our teaching and what options we might consider in order to achieve that purpose. In other words, use the technology to achieve the outcomes you want. In other, other words, reflect on the outcomes first.

The article also includes examples of specific platforms and services that might be useful, depending on which of the quadrants in the matrix you find yourself. For example, email for low bandwidth and low immediacy, or Google Docs for low bandwidth and relatively high immediacy. We don’t have to try and get all of our students into real-time video lectures but should rather explore using different options to achieve different outcomes, taking into considerations the challenges that our students will face during their remote learning.

Science technology

PSA: The bomb.

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Fred Kaplan about the ever-present threat of nuclear war. They discuss the history of nuclear deterrence, U.S. first-strike policy, preventive war, limited nuclear war, tactical vs. strategic weapons, Trump’s beliefs about nuclear weapons, the details of command and control, and other topics.

Harris, S. & Kaplan, F. (2020). The Bomb. Making sense podcast.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m quite interested in the existential risk posed by nuclear weapons, as it’s a topic that’s well-covered by two sources that I listen to and read a lot: the Future of Life Institute section on nuclear weapons, and 80 000 hours on nuclear security. Obviously I’m not an expert but I have found myself covering a fair amount of mainstream content on the threat of nuclear war and subsequent challenges we’d face as a species.

But I was still surprised at being confronted with how unconcerned I am in the face of these risks. This episode of the Making Sense podcast really emphasises the insanity of how we’ve become oddly comfortable with the fact that there are two countries who are constantly on the brink of annihilating a significant percentage of people on earth, and sending everyone else back to the stone age. How is it possible that the rest of us haven’t stopped and asked, “Hang on. That doesn’t seem reasonable.”

If you’re haven’t spent much time exploring the existential risk posed by the existence of nuclear weapons, this is a podcast well worth listening to.

research Science technology

Open Source: Zotero (reference manager)

Zotero is a free and open-source reference management software to manage bibliographic data and related research materials (such as PDF files). Notable features include web browser integration, online syncing, generation of in-text citations, footnotes, and bibliographies, as well as integration with the word processors Microsoft Word, LibreOffice Writer, and Google Docs. It is produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, January 8). Zotero. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Now that Mendeley is encrypting all of your libraries on your own computer, it might be worth looking for an alternative reference manager. Zotero has everything that you’d expect from a reference manager:

  • Importing of all kinds of resources (not just PDFs) via a browser plugin.
  • Automated extraction of resource metadata during import.
  • Notes and tags for resources.
  • Exporting of libraries in multiple formats.
  • Citation management in MS Word, Google Docs, and LibreOffice Writer.
  • Cross-platform (i.e. it runs on different operating systems) with the ability to sync between devices.
  • A browser-based version of your library that you can access when you’re not at your computer.

In addition to the standard features listed above, Zotero also has the following:

  • It’s open-source, which means that you’ll always have a version available for you to use, regardless of what happens to the current developers.
  • A plugin database that enables developers to create custom features that most users probably won’t need but which might be valuable for some.
  • It supports more than 30 languages.
  • Ability to create relationships between resources.
  • The developers are always working to figure out how to make your life easier as an academic and researcher (see Tweet below).

Here is a more comprehensive overview of what Zotero offers (including some of the main differences with competing software), here’s the blog where you can stay updated with development of the programme, and the Wikipedia page with some additional background and context.

If you use Mendeley, Paperpile, Endnote or any other reference manager and aren’t quite happy with any aspect of it, you might consider giving Zotero a go.

Note: This is a new experiment on the blog where I’ll share some of the open-source software that I use. Partly because I believe in the idealogy that drives open-source project development but mostly because I actually think that the open-source alternatives are better and would love for more people to use them.

education technology

Podcast: Are the kids alright?

In this anxious era of bullying, teen depression, and school shootings, tech companies are selling software to schools and parents that make big promises about keeping kids secure by monitoring what they say and write online. But these apps demand disturbing trade-offs in the name of safety.

This is a great episode of the Rework podcast looking at the dangers of using increasingly sophisticated technology in schools as part of programmes to “protect” children. What they really amount to are very superficial surveillance systems that can do a lot less than what the venture-backed companies say they can. If you’re a teacher or if you have kids at a school using these systems, this is a topic worth learning more about.

The show notes include a ton of links to excellent resources and also a complete transcript of the episode.

clinical mobile technology

Article: Recommendations For Implementing a Longitudinal Study Using Wearable and Environmental Sensors in a Health Care Organization

This study gives examples for implementing technology-facilitated approaches and provides the following recommendations for conducting such longitudinal, sensor-based research, with both environmental and wearable sensors in a health care setting: pilot test sensors and software early and often; build trust with key stakeholders and with potential participants who may be wary of sensor-based data collection and concerned about privacy; generate excitement for novel, new technology during recruitment; monitor incoming sensor data to troubleshoot sensor issues; and consider the logistical constraints of sensor-based research.

L’Hommedieu M, L’Hommedieu J, Begay C, Schenone A, Dimitropoulou L, Margolin G, Falk T, Ferrara E, Lerman K, Narayanan S. (2019). Lessons Learned: Recommendations For Implementing a Longitudinal Study Using Wearable and Environmental Sensors in a Health Care Organization. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth, 7(12):e13305.

We’re going to be seeing more and more of this type of research in healthcare organisations, which I think is a good thing, given the following caveats (I’m sure that there are many more):

  • We still need to be critical about how sensors record data, what kind of data they record, and what kinds of questions are prioritised with this type of research.
  • Knowing more about how bodies work at the physiological level doesn’t say anything about the social, political, ethical, etc. factors that are responsible for the bigger health issues of our time e.g. chronic diseases of life.
  • Behaviour can be tracked but the underlying beliefs that drive behaviour are still opaque. We need to be careful not to confuse behaviour with reasons for that behaviour.

Using sensors for data collection allows us to overcome the limitations of traditional data collection tools, such as surveys, as sensor data are considered to be more objective and accurate.

The reason I think that sensor-based research is, in general, a good thing is because the questions that you’re likely to ask in these kinds of studies are the same questions that we currently use observation and participant self-report to answer. We know that these forms of data collection are inherently unreliable so it’s interesting to see people trying to address this.

However, even assuming that sensor-based studies are more reliable (and we would first need to ask, reliable against what outcomes?), having more reliable data says little about whether the questions and corresponding data are valid. In other words, we need to be careful that that date being collected is appropriate for answering the types questions we’re asking.

Finally, it stands to reason that once we have the data on the behaviour (the easy part) we still need to do the hard research that gets at the underlying reasons for why people behave in the way that they do. Simply knowing that people tend to do X is only the first step. Understanding why they do X and not Y is another step (possibly determined by interviews for FGDs), and then presumably trying to get them to change their behaviour may be the hardest part of all.