Saying goodbye to our new Finnish friends

Ale wrote several days ago about our ten visitors from Finland. At that stage, we were mid way through  their four-day schedule, which finished officially yesterday afternoon, but unofficially yesterday evening after a pleasant meal in a local pub.

As this was the first time I’d taken part in such a visit  – which included a  two-day Carpe Diem –  in my new role as Keeper of the Media Zoo, I thought it useful to reflect on the experience.

Overall, I believe it was a success for both sides. Our Finnish colleagues assured us that they took away with them a clear idea of what Beyond Distance does, and they certainly seemed to be fizzing with the way they could incorporate what they learned about podcasts, OERs and learning design.

There were also highly appreciative of and complimentary about the project presentations made on Day 1 and Day 4, espcially those by our institutional partners in Psychology and Education.

And as Ale said, we certainly were impressed with both their understanding of pedagogy and what works in teaching, and their comfort with technology. (Within five minutes of opening their laptops on Monday, all ten were happily eating up our wireless network bandwidth with no help from myself or Terese.) It also appears that Finnish HE students are similar to ours in one important respect: they don’t read any of the printed handouts either!

Our new physical Media Zoo stood up well to the task. At one point, it held 18 people very comfortably, with all interaction at a conversational level. The new murals – inspired by the graphics in the Second Life Media Zoo Island – drew warm praise.

But we will be rethinking our proposed layout and the positioning of the technical equipment. In a sense, we were very fortunate to have such a rigorous test of the room prior to any major purchasing decisions being made.

And of course, we made some great new friends. So cheerio for now to Eva, Kristina, Matti, Ritva, Taina, Tuula, Elina, Tiina, TK and of course Irma, who organised the trip so effeciently.

Simon Kear
Keeper of the Media Zoo
13 November 09


Delivering training in Second Life using audio and voice

In my recent blog, I talked about a training session to our DUCKLING TESOL (Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages) students in Second Life (SL). We provided another SL training session to TESOL students on Monday 09 November 2009. The trainer leading this session was my colleague Terese Bird (SL username: Aallyah Kruyschek).  Two distance students from Canada and Japan joined the training in-world.

This time, Aallyah decided to use audio and voice to deliver the training, whereas in the first session, we had mainly used text. We had guided students to set up the audio and voice preferences on their computers, but we hadn’t had the chance to communicate with them through audio and voice in that session.

One of the students had already got the audio and voice system set up properly on his computer, so he didn’t have any problems to hear us and speak to us at all. Another student could hear us but could not talk back on audio, so she typed to interact with Aallyah at the beginning.  Aallyah gave her some tips on how to set up audio and voice preference on her computer, and a few minutes later, she managed to get it to work!

When compared with text-based communication, I think voice worked really well for this session because:

  • Participants could exchange information faster and more easily
  • Participants  could make  timely and seamless conversations
  •  The trainer could obtain immediate responses or feedback from students, and be assured that they were on track. For example, I could hear students constantly saying, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting’ or  ‘Ok’ and  ‘Yeah, I found it’

There are challenges or restrictions of using voice in SL and some of these are:

  • The audio settings are calibrated differently from one participant’s computer to another, so some may communicate loud and clear, while others would appear really quiet or muted.
  • In SL, the voice can get across within a certain distance between avatars , so when avatars are at a distance from each other, you might not hear him or her clearly
  • Trying to have a conversation while flying is difficult unless you can keep close together , or hover more or less at the same height
  • Voice worked out really well for small groups of participants, but with a larger group (say 5-6 upwards) , you might easily lose control when all the avatars try and speak at the same time.

Our training of TESOL students is now complete. A total of 6 students participated in our in-world training sessions. Our next step is for these students to visit and observe language teaching classes there. When they have completed their observations, they will tell us about what they have observed and learnt.

Ming Nie              11 November 2009

Finnish academics visiting Beyond Distance

Ten Finnish academics from Laurea University of Applied Sciences are visiting Beyond Distance this week. Their overall purpose is to learn about our research in e-learning and learning technologies, our projects and our approaches to learning design. A two-day Carpe Diem workshop has been organised as part of their visit.

Our visitors come from a range of disciplines including health care, business and management, tourism, safety and security management, languages and of course, learning technology. They have engaged with our work very enthusiastically, and they have gelled very well as a group – most of them didn’t know each other prior to their trip to Leicester.

Although I was expecting this, I am still surprised by how competent and knowledgeable our Finnish colleagues are in the field of learning technology. For example, all of them were familiar with Second Life, knew what wikis were and how they can be used (in fact, many of them have been using wikis with their learners for some time), and none of them was put off by the ‘complexities’ associated with using learning technology. All fluent users of their VLE (Optima) and very relaxed about Web 2.0… this compares very favourably to my experiences with academics elsewhere, including my colleagues at Leicester.

We’re half-way through the week and we’ve all learned a lot from each other. A fantastic opportunity for mutual development and future collaborative work.

Dr A Armellini
11 November 2009

Edutainment – making it work

The idea of educating through entertainment is appealing, but it’s tricky to get the balance just right. As Terese has noted, Sesame Street got it right in the USA. The BBC got it right with The Archers in the UK. And it has worked in South Africa for Soul City – a multimedia health programme that I was privileged to work on in the nineties.

Soul City was the brainchild of a young doctor, Garth Japhet, who  had seen babies dying unnecessarily of dehydration, abused women who were too ashamed to tell the doctor the real reasons for their injuries, and patients who had contracted HIV through ignorance. Believing that if information could be put across in an emotionally engaging way, people would be moved to change their behaviour, Japhet and his colleagues set up Soul City as a non-governmental organisation. At the heart of their programme was a television soap opera, with each episode containing a well-crafted health message skillfully embedded within a highly dramatic script. The TV show is backed up by newspaper inserts in national newspapers as well as radio shows in nine languages, and pamphlets and posters distributed via clinics around the country.

Today Soul City has over 35 million viewers in eight countries, and the organisation has gathered an impressive body of evidence through ongoing evaluations to show that the programme has caused behaviour change on a significant scale. Its founder, Japhet, recently won the USA-based Everett M. Rogers Award for Achievement in Entertainment Education.

What is it that has made Soul City such a successful example of the edutainment genre? There are at least four factors, I think.

Firstly, the Soul City developers go to great lengths to understand honestly the needs and views of the audience – many of whom will recognise their own stories in the serial. So for example,  they dealt with the domestic violence story in a highly nuanced and sensitive way, showing Matlakala as a sophisticated professional woman (not the stereotype abused working-class woman), and showing how the drama is played out between both families, and not just the couple.

Secondly, Soul City uses a cross-disciplinary team to develop the content. I participated in workshops with social workers, medical doctors, police officers, counsellors and religious leaders, to develop the primary health messages. Educational people were in the minority at these workshops.

Thirdly, the Soul City television show has consistently used the best actors, directors and producers in the country. The show is worth watching in its own right, and the viewer engages with the “messages” primarily on an emotional level. (This is perhaps where the medium is at its most powerful.)

Finally, Soul City and their funders have a commitment to building in evaluation to every stage in every cycle of the programme. The evaluation carried out amongst Soul City’s viewers, listeners and readers is rigorous, and feedback obtained in this way is literally fed back into the programme to enhance further its impact.

So if anyone out there thinks education and entertainment don’t go together, I hope I have persuaded you otherwise!

Gabi Witthaus

Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!

Sesame Street is 40 years old this week. It was a surprise to me that Sesame Street was “born” in the same week as the internet. While I would not try to make the case that Sesame Street was as much of a world-changing force as the internet (please comment if you think it is), it certainly had impact on learning and teaching thought and practice.

What were the principles of Sesame Street? Noting that television commercials were very good at catching and holding children’s attention, producers of the programme decided to apply some of the same techniques for educational purpose: good music, easy-to-remember phrases, attractive images, and short film segments. While the programme was consequently blamed for contributing to children’s short attention spans, one can hardly fault the eminently practical approach. After all, little songs and rhymes have been a learning and teaching technique ever since anyone can remember. I still say to myself “I before E, except after C, or as sounded like AY as in neighbour or weigh” when spelling tricky words.

Another principle was the promotion of social values such as getting along with people different from yourself. Sesame Street was set in a multi-ethnic, friendly neighbourhood which did not look as affluent as did the settings of many American television shows. While much has been said and written about the political correctness of Sesame Street for good or ill, it was a refreshing challenge to television stereotypes and was therefore, if nothing else, a worthwhile experiment in encouraging children to think about such issues. I recently came across “The educational impact of Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim: A Sesame Street television series to promote respect and understanding among children living in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza” in the International Journal of Behavioral Development. To quote the abstract, “Exposure to the programme was linked to an increase in children’s use of both prosocial justifications to resolve conflicts and positive attributes to describe members of the other group.”  So the Middle East’s version of Sesame Street, which started airing in 1998, is seen as a positive influence, and while it has undergone various format changes, it is still on television.

But the most important principle of Sesame Street was FUN! Jim Henson’s Muppets were funny and clever and quickly became cultural icons. The little cartoons featuring the letter M were fun, as were the songs about “Chickens in the Trees.” I was already in primary school when Sesame Street made it to the airwaves in my hometown, and did not need it to teach me the alphabet or numbers. But I still remember rushing home after school to see it, and all my classmates seemed to be doing the same. We hadn’t seen anything like it before — it was educational and fun. What a shocking combination!

Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!

Terese Bird

Beyond Distance Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

What’s my learning future?

Here at Beyond Distance we’re currently working hard on our Learning Futures Festival Online and if you haven’t already registered please pop along to our website and sign up:

All this talk about learning futures got me thinking about my learning past. Picking up on Terese’s earlier post about ‘Digital Native, Digital Assumptions?’ it seems I fall into the digital native/Net-gen age group.  As I worry I’m getting old this seems very flattering! As a Digital Native or Net-gen I experienced in my learning past a single computer in my classroom from my very first lesson at infant school. By the time I left university virtually everyone had a mobile phone, easy access to the internet and their own computer.

All this does mean that I feel very at ease with new technology be it a new mobile phone or a new web application.  I might not necessarily be an expert straight away but going ahead and trying these things (and sometimes trying to break them just to be awkward) is all part of how I tend to use technology.   For my own learning which tends to be learning new and improving existing multimedia skills I find that I can pick and choose what works best for me.  For instance I tend to use a text based tutorial to learn about CSS (CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets which is used in web design) rather than a video tutorial. I find it easier to flick between screens, or have a dual screen, rather than have to sit and watch a video and pause it where appropriate.

The learning future for myself and others only seems, at present, to take advantage of further innovation, both in technology and learning.  The future, at present, could seem quite overwhelming, fast-paced and challenging.  For me personally it seems quite exciting and while I’m looking forward to getting there, I’m also enjoying the present and making the most out of it.  They say you shouldn’t look back too much as it can stop you living your life. I think it’s equally important to not forget where you are now and not constantly look to the future in case you miss the things right under your feet.

I realise that this might sound like a contradiction to a Learning Futures Festival Online but I don’t think it is.  Without an understanding of where I am now I can’t begin to understand my future.  I’m hoping you’ll all bring your learning present to our Learning Futures Festival Online and help us all discover the learning future.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

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