Introducing: “Getting Started With BoB”

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented focus on the value of online teaching resources. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am a long-standing enthusiast for a variety of digital tools for University education. In particular, I have been a champion for “BoB”, sometimes known as Box of Broadcasts. This tremendous collection of more than 2 million copyright-cleared TV and radio recordings for educational use has never quite achieved the levels of awareness and acclaim that i deserves.

Following a recent presentation about use of BoB for final year dissertations, I was invited to write a one-page “How to” guide. This is something I will certainly do in the near future. However, that invitation galvanised me into doing something I had thought about for a while, namely producing some introductory videos on using BoB. I have therefore made an initial set of four videos under the title Getting Started with BoB. The videos, available on my YouTube channel are:

  1. Unlocking the potential of TV and radio broadcasts in education looks at logging in, and offers a quick tour around the main features of BoB, including the interactive programme guide.
  2. Using the search tool does pretty much what it says on the tin. Use of a search tool may seem pretty self-explanatory, but there are one or two specifics of searching in BoB that I felt would benefit from clearer explanation.
  3. Making clips one of the great features of BoB is the ability to pick out the extract that is most important for your teaching, learning or research. This video shows how to do that.
  4. Adding clips to your playlists finally (in this first set of videos) an introduction to the “playlist” facility within BoB – helping you, and others, find those nuggets of gold again next time you need them.


UPDATE: It turns out there are also a set of official BoB “how to” videos available via this link. The two sets have slightly different emphases and are complementary.

7 things I learnt from running my first Collaborate session

collaborate logoYesterday I ran my first session using the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra tool (hereafter Collaborate). Here I share some initial reflections on the the experience. I should point out that I hadn’t read any “How to” guides in advance, so I can offer no promises that what follows has any originality.

  1. Collaborate is a good tool. Running any teaching that relies on technology always runs the risk of being fraught. However, I came away from the session with a sense that we’d all shared a really worthwhile hour or so together.
  2. Students will drift in and out of the session (and not by design). A slight caveat to the first point, not so much Collaborate itself, but the fact that online sessions in general are partially dependent on the Wifi capability of the students. At various points students “left” the meeting only to return a few moments later. Helpfully Collaborate logs the number of times someone has been in the meeting, so congratulations to the student who fought with her limited signal and came back to the session nine times.
  3. Upload any material you are going to share as a PDF not a PowerPoint file. I was glad that a colleague and I had logged in to check the system before the session as my the formatting on my PowerPoint slides was bastardised by the tool. The PDF worked fine (but bear in mind you will lose any animations that you had – so if you want a sequential “reveal” (eg posing a question before revealing the answers) then this will need to be on different slides.
  4. Using the chat window for interactivity works really well. I was keen that the session was not a lecture from me, it was to be – as far as possible – a tutorial with input from the other participants. There is a “raise hands” feature for someone to indicate that they want to offer an oral answer, but we found that the chat feature worked rather more smoothly. We actually had contributions from several of the students, but I can envisage that you need to be careful, as with any face-to-face tutorial that you don’t allow any one person to dominate (may need a sensitively phrased “Fred, please give someone else a chance to answer the next one”) or making sure that everyone is actively involved (eg by targeting questions to named students).
  5. Having a moderator/co-tutor is really valuable. We had one member of staff monitoring the chat stream (and coordinating the “breakout rooms”, see points 6) whilst I led the discussion. I managed to keep a reasonable track of the comments, but she was able to add encouraging responses there, and occasionally interrupt if there was something I’d clearly missed.
  6. Breaking out into smaller groups for Q&A allowed more people to speak up. Having praised the chatbox feed as a feature, it is also good to give participants the opportunity to verbalise and questions. We subdivided the meeting into groups of about 10 participants. Clearly if you are going to do this, you need to have multiple tutors present so they can be shared across the groups.
  7. Arrive early, but give some advance thought to your “small talk”. I know there are two schools of thought about how you start an online meeting – for example some people advocate intentional use of the “waiting room” in Zoom to bring everyone into the meeting at the same time. I elected to arrive early and had some fairly natural greetings conversations with other early arrivals. However, these tended to be repeated by co-tutors and other staff arriving later. So [and I’m still ruminating on the rights and wrongs of this], if there are going to be several staff present, it may be worth deciding in advance who might pick up different areas of conversation . Clearly this won’t be quite so spontaneous, but it does avoid four people asking Miriam where she’s from.

Adjusting “exams” as they move online

Universities across the world are having to adjust to the fact that rooms full of students sitting exams is not an appropriate assessment format for May and June this year. As a consequence, teaching teams are needing to think laterally about how to interrogate students about the learning they have gained from their modules.

celebrity squares

Online meetings have started to look like episodes of the old “Celebrity Squares” gameshow

I am sure many places are way ahead of us on this one, but a few reflections on a recent teaching and learning committee meeting (held via zoom) may be of benefit to those who are just getting going in their thinking about this.


  1. Duration of tests and the length of time they are accessible. The amount of time that a test is “live” and the time for which an individual student can respond are not necessarily the same thing. A defined two hour period is not applicable for a number of reasons – including potential timezone differences and connectivity problems. My institution has mandated a “24 hour window” for assessments and it is our understanding at the chalkface (as it was) that this means that they are live throughout that time.
  2. Factual recall questions aren’t going to work. There has, of course, been a long-standing debate about the educational merits of an over-reliance of questions that reward regurgitation of factoids rather than probing higher learning skills. However, a move to remote (ie unsupervised) assessment of students who have ready access to Google* makes this format of question entirely redundant (*other browsers are available).
  3. Students need examples of any new style of questions. A decision that MCQs are not going to be appropriate is only half of the story. Introduction of radically different types of questions is going to require not only production of the actual paper but also additional specimen questions for students who will not be able to draw on past papers for guidance.
  4. Clear and timely instruction. Students are going to need clear guidance before the day of an exam, reiterated in the “instructions” section of the assessment itself. There will be all sorts of practicalities about submission as well as the questions themselves about which students will need advice.
  5. Essay questions will need word limits. For all manner of reasons the standard “three essays in two hours” format is not going to work. More time is inevitably going to mean more words. We all hope that essays represent carefully constructed and reasoned arguments in response to a specific question. Sadly the reality can sometimes be “brain dumps”, in which any material matching identifiable keywords in the title is served up for academics to sift through. A longer time will just allow for more of this unstructured stream of consciousness.
    Even taking a less jaundiced view, a good student is going to be tempted to offer far more material in support of their answer than they would realistically have managed in the typical exam scenario. If we cannot restrict the available time, then another option is to impose a word limit. Having looked at past answers, a suggestion of 1200 words for a 40 minute question (i.e. 30 words per minute) has been floated. The emphasis on “quality over quantity” needs to be emphasised – more is not necessarily better. Of course there may be a minority of student who would have written a longer essay that this, but even they will benefit from tailoring their material as a response to the specifics of the question.
  6. Plagiarism detection, and other “course essay” regulations, are back in play. The kind of measures being considered as “reasonable adjustments” in this unprecedented scenario are much more akin to coursework essays. We aspire to have novel synthesis presented in exam essays, but in the past we would not have penalised faithful regurgitation of material from lectures and other sources. Now, however, there is the very real danger of copy and paste plagiarism from lecture notes, from books and articles, or indeed of collusion between students. The requirement to use plagiarism detection tools is therefore going to be essential. Similarly, students will be able to drop in images taken from sources. Whereas in a constrained exam format we might not have worried about their origins, appropriate citation will need to be factored into marking criteria.
  7. Practicalities about format of paper set and submission requirements also need to be clear. It is not just the content of the questions that need addressing, but also aspects of the delivery of the paper and the safeguards students need to put in place regarding submission. For example it is likely that a paper will be distributed as a Word document, which is actually more accessible than many other potential formats. We know, however, that some elements of layout can be altered during the submission of word documents (eg positioning of images) and so we would probably recommend saving as a PDF before submission (much as we would usually for coursework).

This is not an exhaustive list, and you may instantly spot the flaws in the observations made – if so then do please let me know. I am very conscious that this is prepared in the context of a science program and that other disciplines may see things differently. But I hope these notes will be helpful for at least one or two of you.



Time to call on BoB for help?

[Post updated April 24th, see additional notes at bottom – including details of new playlists, and free trials of BoB]

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has forced a radical rethink regarding so much of “normal life”. The cessation of face-to-face teaching at universities is just one of the areas in which people are having to investigate workarounds to usual practice. One of the interesting observations over this past week has been the sudden adoption of technologies which have been around for a while, but have never quite found the level of engagement that they deserved.

bobhomeIf you are a UK academic or student, I would like to add another example into the mix – the online TV and Radio repository BoB ( sometimes known as “Box of Broadcasts”).

BoB has been around in a variety of formats for about a decade. It currently has over 2.2 million copyright-cleared broadcast programmes available to stream, and over 120 universities and colleges are subscribed – if you are at a UK university you probably have access already but never knew it!

I am a massive enthusiast for BoB, and for the related Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT). For full disclosure I am a Trustee of Learning on Screen, the organisation that runs both resources – but that role stems from my enthusiasm for their potential not vice versa!

I have written several articles and run workshops about ways BoB can be used in teaching. Rather than repeat myself now, here are a couple of pertinent links:

  1. An article Boxing clever in Times Higher Education from 2014 (link)
  2. A seminar Do you know Bob? Adventures with technology-based resources for teaching (and beyond) which I ran in in April 2019 (link)
  3. Another talk As seen on TV: Using broadcast media in university teaching from December 2018 (link) – there are inevitable overlaps between this and (2) but they were tailored for different audiences, so probably worth looking past the initial similarities – the “back end” of the two talks are rather more diverse.
  4. My work in this area was also written up as a case study (link)

In the recent past, Learning on Screen have started to develop subject-specific playlists. A few of us have also tried to co-ordinate disciplinary blogs, which allow for more description of the content and discussion of potential applications. As an example, see our Biology on the Box site.

These are tricky and uncertain time, but I’m hoping that when we get a chance to look back after the storm, the appropriate rise of online tools for pedagogy will be one of the plus points to emerge from the tragedy.

UPDATED (24th April): As the lockdown has continued and with the increasing realisation that emphasis on online teaching will persist for a much longer period afterwards, Learning on Screen have started a series of disciplinary playlists as the cornerstone of the development of more teaching resources. The lists themselves are within the members-only site (via this link).

I was asked to curate a Biology in Broadcast Media list (see this link, again within the members area I’m afraid). Learning on Screen made a promotional video (open access) about the playlist (see and they also asked me to host a two-hour “takeover” of their Twitter account. I have make the latter thread into a PDF file, which can be accessed via this link.

Introduction to the other playlists can be found on the Learning on Screen Vimeo account (here). Where you can also find a video (here) about other current developments, including free trials of BoB until July 2020.

Why I use Capitals in Hashtags

nowthatchersdeadI’m a big fan of hashtags on Twitter.
A judicious tag:

  • can be a useful way to highlight key content in a linked story
  • can facilitate searches across multiple tweets, including those of people you do not regularly follow
  • are integral to the use of Storify to aggregate and capture tweets on a particular theme, such as commentary on a conference (and I know that’s a contentious habit in its own right)

Care needs to be employed, however, in the choice of hashtag. This issue was brought into sharp relief in April 2013 with the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The hashtag #nowthatchersdead using only lower case letters was misconstrued by fans of songstress Cher as an indication that their idol had died – see story here. (There was another unfortunate misunderstanding regarding a tag used to advertise the launch of a new album by Britain’s Got Talent winner Susan Boyle, but I’m not going to unpack that one here.)

For these reasons I like to employ appropriate capitalisation within hashtags; it doesn’t add to the overall length of the tweet, but reduces the likelihood that the meaning will be mistaken.

Chris is @cjrw on Twitter.

Introducing BiologyOnTheBox

Today I am officially launching my latest project. BiologyOnTheBox is a website for sharing recommendations regarding broadcast media programmes and clips that might be useful in the teaching of bioscience. The majority of links and reviews relate to TV shows in the UK, though some relate to radio. is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience

Recommendations on BiologyOnTheBox can, in principle, be used by anyone with access to copies of the original programmes. It is, however, intended to dovetail particularly closely with the fantastic Box of Broadcasts resource. I’ve enthused previously about Box of Broadcasts (BoB), including here (TES Opinion) and here (this blog). However having had a lunchtime conversation recently with a number of colleagues who had no idea what BoB was, here’s a brief intro. If you are already familiar with BoB feel free to jump down to the section on BiologyOnTheBox. Continue reading

To Whom It May Concern: Some advice for students seeking references

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

A number of recent events have prompted me to reflect again on the subject of reference writing.

Offering a letter of recommendation, or completing one of the myriad different online forms, is not a trivial task, either in terms of the labour involved or the potential significance of the resultant document. In this post I want to make some suggestions for any students seeking a reference from an academic, regardless of their discipline, which I hope will make the process more effective (and less fraught) for all parties.

1. Ask. Firstly, do ask a potential referee before you offer their name to the organisation seeking the reference. On one level this is common courtesy. However it also does two things to the benefit of the applicant: it forewarns the academic that they need to budget some time for writing a reference and gathering the relevant information (see 3, below); it also gives them the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate referee for the specific job. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the first person you should ask for a reference is your personal tutor. For finalists or graduates requiring a second academic commendation the next person to ask is usually your project supervisor. Continue reading

Television as a teaching tool

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

Regular readers of The Journal of the Left-Handed Biochemist will know of my enthusiasm for exploiting multimedia in teaching. Back in January 2014 I hosted a conference on the theme, and it is also the raison d’être for two other blogs that I run Bioethicsbytes and the new Biology on the Box.

In August, Times Higher Education magazine published an opinion piece in which I discussed some of the ways that TV footage can be used in teaching and to try to dispel reservations that might be stopping colleagues from making more of this rich resource. The article can be freely accessed, so rather than repeating myself here can I encourage you to read the original piece via this link.

Discussing pedagogic research in Edinburgh

Freshly returned from the excellent Effective Learning in the Biosciences event at Edinburgh, I include below a poster that Jon Scott and I presented about our monthly Bioscience PedR meetings. Click on image to see larger version.

Preparing for Med School interviews

The following are notes written for a session I was asked to run with sixth form students about preparing for Med School interviews. I am quite sure there are lots of sensible suggestions that I have inadvertently omitted – please feel free to use the Comments facility to offer your additional advice.


Your personal statement: You’ve got an interview! Apart from anything else, that means you must have done something right in your personal statement. Even though it may be months since you wrote it, it is important that you re-read it thoroughly about a week before the interview to remind yourself what you said and then reflect on what questions this may lead onto. In particular, think about: Continue reading