Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Jux - Blogging for Visual Students

What is Jux?

It's amazing what you can find when you go onto social networking. I was browsing some of the posts on twitter and came across a little gem. Jux is a blog tool that has some really great features. It is fully centred around the visual approach to blogs. It is possible to create highly attractive blog posts very quickly with a really easy to follow user interface and different styling options. One thing I have learned in my role as E-Learning Developer is that teachers don't want to spend a lot of time learning complicated processes to complete a task and Jux will deliver the results they want with an extremely easy to use tool set.

The Jux user interface is a simple pick-and-click approach.

How it Works

You can see changes as you edit the pre-made template.
When you sign up for a Jux account for the first time you are immediately asked what type of content you want to create. Each element has a template already attached so you can instantly see what it will look like as you work through the design.
There is a floating edit box with simple options to help you create your post and the changes you make are kept within a set design approach that is designed to always look good.
What this does mean is that you can't make dramatic edits to set it exactly as you want it to look. However, as I said earlier, this is designed for ease of use and now as a professional image and text editor.

Creating a Post

Post creation is done through the floating editor. The editor is divided into different sections. The first section deals with the content. Here you can write any text you want to appear and select the image/s you want to include on the post. The next section deals with the style of the elements including some simple picture effects and text effects. Finally there are the set options which allow you to choose what extra information is included on the page including author and the large Jux icon.

Changing the Layout

You can easily change the position of the image and text within the blog using the simple interface. Changing the photo size and article position makes dramatic changes to the way your post will look. For example, when you place the article in the centre the image is placed in line with the text underneath the title. Selecting a large image places the text within a floating box.

Editing Text

The selection of fonts are designed to be complementary to the style, so header fonts are different from body text fonts. These fonts are also more varied than standard web fonts and you can make some really professional looking designs by selecting the appropriate fonts. There are also other options such as 3D text and blur effects, as well as neon glow, which can help to make the style you want. Of course this is still not the same as a professional editor, but the results can look great.

Photo Effects

There are also several effects that you can apply to your pictures to give them a different look or feel. Many of these are fairly standard, although I am surprised that there is not a sepia option. Multiple effects can be selected for a single photo and this gives you quite a few options to change the way your image appears. (I haven't yet managed to get Mustachify to work and I assume you need a portrait for best results).

Images within the Text

It is possible to put images within the text you write using HTML code. In fact you can use HTML and CSS to design your text area the way you want. I haven't tested this fully but I don't get the impression that this is a full HTML editor; simply another way to design your content the way you want.

Your Posts

Posts are grouped together in creation order. This process is done by the website and editing options are very limited.
Once your posts are complete they are added to your home screen. You have limited editing options for this screen and the site decides where it places your posts. However, the layout actually looks really nice. You end up with a very visual front page with the option to click on a post and see it full screen.

Sharing Your Posts

You also have the option to share your posts through many different options. On an open post it is possible for viewers to share to Twitter, Facebook or via Email. I haven't worked out if it is possible to turn this option off, but I am sure most people want their blogs to be public and viewed by as many people as possible. This could cause a problem if you are planning to use this to upload work that is for grading privately. It is worth informing students of this and perhaps writing a disclaimer or adding copyright information to each post.

You can also share through the edit screen and this has Facebook, Twitter and Email options but there is also an embed option. This means you can create a post and then embed it into another website or your VLE. This makes the creation of highly visual and rich content extremely simple and negates the need to learn HTML and CSS coding to make something that looks beautiful in your courses on your VLE.


I am fairly impressed with the results you can get from this blog tool. It is very easy to use and does a lot of the hard work for you. I would like to see more options to customise the size of embedded content. I also feel that having the ability to create link only access to a blog post would allow you to do more with embedded content. I could see this being used as a simple way to create a scrolling banner for a web page.
Despite this wishlist I feel it is going to be an excellent way for people to share their visual work. I wasn't very impressed with the results I saw from the general public as most of it was low quality with quotes that weren't well thought out, but I can imagine that visual students with imagination could create some wonderful content to share.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Potential of Google Plus for Education

The Fear of Social Networking

Many educational institutions would be worried about the use of social networking in education. Often there are strict policies about adding students to a social networking site if you are a teacher. This is a safe bet to avoid the dangers of potential allegations of misconduct or grooming. Yet it seems a shame that some of the greatest e-learning tools we have ever had access to are dismissed outright due to issues of e-safety.

I have been investigating e-safety a lot recently and since researching the subject I now have a much greater understanding of the potential dangers of social networking and how to avoid them. One of the first things I did after attending a recent e-safety conference was to change the privacy settings on my Facebook account.

This simple act got me thinking. Suddenly I had a way to control who saw different elements of my account and who could contact me. In theory this means it would be possible to use social networking as a collaborative learning tool in which information could be shared selectively with different groups of students.

Why Google Plus?

Upon looking for a social networking tool for this purpose I found I preferred Google plus as the best contender. The main reason for this is that friend organisation is much clearer. When dealing with students it is essential that they are grouped correctly. The grouping of friends on Facebook is a little difficult compared to Google plus with its circles.

Students can be put into separate groups from friends.

I also found the sharing of posts with a single group was slightly clearer with Google.

Posts can be shared with just the people you choose.

How Can it be Used?

There are many ways that Google plus could be adopted as a learning tool. It is possible to create a page for a particular course element and students can become followers of this page. This can then be populated with posts with any kind of subject material you can imagine. Couple this with extremely simple image uploads and YouTube integration and the possibilities are limitless.

Sharing YouTube videos is extremely easy.
However, this is only the beginning. Students can also comment on the posts and these comments can be commented upon. Imagine the whole class discussing the contents of a video, or helping each other with a particular problem set in a post. Even simply asking the teacher for help and the whole class being able to see the question and the response. It is also possible to set up to 50 managers for a page. This means that other teachers could manage the content on the page and act as moderators.
If you couple this with the sharing an collaboration capabilities of Google docs you have a mind blowing tool set for learning.

Dealing with E-Safety Issues

So let's come back to this issue of e-safety. The danger to teachers comes when the have potential communication opportunities with students. But wait, surely teachers have this with emails. Also, this means that teachers shouldn't collaborate with students through shared documents on Google docs. There isn't much difference.

My belief is that, with careful setup of privacy settings, it should be possible to safely add anybody to Facebook and Google plus. Grouping students into categories that are limited in what they can see and only communicating through open pages set up with learning in mind.  They wouldn't even need to be on personal friends lists. Simply by following the page they can communicate with the tutor in a semi-public setting through comments.

The final hurdle comes from the need for moderation. The fact that students would not be anonymous would make it unlikely they would make inappropriate comments, but the possibility of pages being public means that it is possible that anybody could make a comment on the page. This means it is important to set up the page settings so that only people in the page's circles can comment or send notifications.


The ability to lock down the way these social networks are used in an educational environment allows for some extremely exciting possibilities in collaborative work in education and e-learning.  It would require testing in controlled environments before many institutions would feel safe adopting this learning approach due to the fear of social networking, but I do believe that it is possible to adopt this approach safely if the correct safety precautions are implemented.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Good Looking Content on Blackboard

Good Looking Content on Blackboard Learn 

Trying to make good looking content on a VLE is a difficult thing to do. On Blackboard Learn the HTML is strange because Blackboard replaces your text with, so called, smart text. The CSS is completely crazy and relies on in line CSS that doesn't always work. I managed to get a table cell to be yellow but when I tried it with a div it just didn't work.

So what are we to do about this?

Well the first thing I did was to take a step backwards and work purely with tables. In the good old days of web design we didn't have CSS. I agree that CSS is amazing and totally allows speedy web design. But I also know that the staff I work with as E-Learning Developer just wouldn't understand CSS. But we all work with tables in Microsoft Word.

It is therefore much more likely that the staff in my institution will understand the use of tables more than designing divs using CSS. It makes more sense to a teacher's mind to  use a table to position elements on a page. Although even this can be beyond some less IT literate members of staff.

I found that the best approach for me was to use a different table for each row that I wanted different cell divisions in. For example:


I prefer this approach as it allows me to create table templates for staff to use within their design on the VLE. I realise that a member of staff could use the add table function of the Blackboard text editor but this is very difficult to use when you have no table borders as it is invisible.

Using my approach, a teacher could copy the code from notepad and paste it into the HTML editor on Blackboard. They can then go back to the standard text editor and highlight the text to replace. So to add a picture they highlight the Picture text and click "add picture" on the text editor.

This template based approach should make it easier for staff as long as they are taught how to use it properly.

Using this approach it is possible to begin to make good looking VLE elements. However, the difficulty comes from background images and textures. This is a real problem and does require CSS. My advice regarding this would be to create template styles and include the necessary CSS within the template.

The only way to get a consistent image throughout is to use a nested table but this causes some issues when making a template. The example would be:
  <td style="background-image:url(https://yourbackgroundurl.jpg);">


As you can see, making this as an easy to use template for teachers is a difficult problem as they have to paste the template elements inside the encompassing table. This, again, would require training to enable the teacher to know where to paste which element within the HTML editor.

Lets not forget that the HTML editor on Blackboard is a difficult beast in itself. Once the teacher has pasted the templates and pressed submit, the whole HTML code will be made into single line code.
This means that editing an item can become a nightmare once it has been submitted. I am still considering how to deal with this issue. One consideration is to create the content layout within the HTML editor, add the images and text using the text editor, then go back to the HTML editor to copy and paste the results into N