Registration opens for Follow the Sun 2012

This morning saw the opening of registration for Follow the Sun 2012, our annual 48 hour global online conference.

In a bold and innovative move, registration is free for all delegates.

We also welcome a new partner to FTS in the form of Athabasca University, who will join Beyond Distance Research Alliance and Australian Digital Futures Institute as co-hosts and specifically provide the North American anchor.

With George Siemens, Terry Anderson, Grainne Conole and Gilly Salmon on the organising committee, FTS12 moves beyond educational technology to examine the futures for knowledge across a range of disciplines that includes Engineering, Law, Physics and Astronomy, Sociology as well as many others.

The conference format will see keynote speakers and discipline practioners outline the priorities for their subjects.

What will individual disciplines look like in 2025? What are the priorities that need to be taught to students in the years to come? What can we learn from current use of technology in teaching, and what lies over the horizon?

Then we will move onto further elaboration in moderated discussions and technological showcases.

Conference format

So please join us in our learning futures festival, and take an active part in exploring the futures for knowledge.

Simon Kear
Senior Learning Technologist

New Project: Manufacturing Pasts

Manufacturing Pasts is a new JISC-funded project with the aim of creating open educational resources (OER) from artefacts of twentieth century British industrial history. Wow! This is a new sort of endeavour for Beyond Distance on a number of fronts. First, no animal acronym! Second, we are the junior partner, supporting our University of Leicester Library, the Centre for Urban History, and the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland as they head up the project. And third, while creating OER is not new to me, this is the first time I am considering issues of creating OER from material originating in the private sector.

Ghost sign for Fashion Hire on Belgrave Gate, Leicester, by Dennis Duggan
This project is particularly exciting for me because I will get to help decide on and configure the distribution channel of these materials from the ground up. D-Space? JorumOpen? Merlot, perhaps? Humbox! All of the above! Maybe even iTunes U!
Some of the resources to be turned into OER are already available on the My Leicestershire History website which has lots of interesting materials but which are not all licensed to allow for reuse. So that’s the job of this new project. Also, these materials will be incorporated into modules here at University of Leicester, and the educational value of the OER evaluated, so there should be some very interesting outputs from the project. (The photograph above is taken from the My Leicestershire History collection).
Finally, the whole project team, myself included, will be blogging about this as go along on the Manufacturing Pasts blog. We’ll be tweeting with the hashtag #manufacturingpasts. Follow us as we trace and share the industrial past of Leicestershire with Manufacturing Pasts!
Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

PiLC 1

With my colleague Denise Sweeney of the Academic Practice Unit here at Leicester, I was recently awarded a small sum of money to run an internal project called Pilot  in Lecture Capture (PiLC).

My interest in this area comes directly from my membership of the ViTAL SIG  and the excellent one-day conference on lecture capture (LC) organised by ALT in June 2011. Returning inspired, I was surprised to find there were no facilities for LC here at Leicester. Talking with colleagues in AV, it was clear there was a need for more institutional information about this simple use of technology.

PiLC looks at two LC technologies: Adobe Connect (the 2007 version) and OpenEYA. Leicester has a Connect server, although this technology is greatly underutilised on campus. OpenEYA is an open source LC platform developed for the International Centre for Theoretical Physics that runs on Linux.

Screenshot of captured Connect lecture

Connect allows you to record a full screen capture (i.e. whatever is happening on the lecture theatre PC) and webcam (if used). It’s simple and stable, and the link to the recording can be added to a Blackboard course site.

Screenshot of captured OpenEYA lecture

OpenEYA can also do screen capture, but its real strength lies in being able to direct a webcam onto a traditional blackboard (which physicists love), taking a snapshot (jpg) every few seconds and then using the Java-driven zoom applet to focus on specific parts of the image.

This recording shows the LC strengths of OpenEYA (it works best in Internet Explorer).  Move along a few minutes and try the zoom – it’s amazing.

Two academics kindly agreed to take part in PiLC, but I could’ve have recruited many more, such is the interest in LC. I have started capturing 5 postgraduate lectures in Media and Communication (40 students) and 5 undergraduate lectures in Chemistry (100 students).

Thus far, I have used only Connect as OpenEYA on my laptop seems to have a glitch with the external mic. The developers are working with me to resolve this. One avenue might be that the software needs upgrading to work with the new version of the Linux OS, Ubuntu 11.10. (If anyone else has encountered this problem, please get in touch.)

As I’m already in the theatre recording through Connect, I also capture the audio on a small digital voice recorder, which I then edit and upload to Blackboard as an independent podcast. Simple audio recording is the easiest LC technology, and important for any institution like ours considering an iTunes U presence. (Please see the comprehensive work of my colleague Terese Bird on this topic.)

The second part of PiLC will happen in semester 2. This involves using focus groups, questionnaires and semi-structured interviews to ask the students what they thought of the captured lectures, how they used them, and so on. The two lecturers will also be interviewed about how LC affected their courses (better marks, lower attendance levels, etc.). Denise will take the lead in this part of the project.

So why lecture capture in the first place? Well, my reasoning – which is far from original – is that anything that benefits the student learning experience is important for a university, especially in the new HE world of very high fees. And if that university continues to use the traditional lecture as the mainstay of its teaching programme, how can it justify NOT making those lectures available throughout the length of a student’s course. Once the lecturer has finished and left the theatre, that learning resource leaves with her.

The technology is simple and not a barrier, although clearly other barriers exist (e.g. cost). I’ve seen no evidence that attendance levels at lectures will fall.

Simon Kear

Senior Learning Technologist

Steve Jobs: Star of Informal Learning

The sad news today of the passing of Steve Jobs brings a deserved flurry of tributes and perspectives on his work. This morning, close to one-fifth of all Twitter comments had to do with Steve Jobs. American president Obama described Jobs as being “among the greatest of American innovators.” Besides the immense consumer appeal of the  iPad, iPod, and iPhone, there is the multi-faceted impact of Mac computers, and Jobs’ reinvention of film animation at Pixar. I would like to relate a personal story of how Jobs’ innovation both affected an industry and reveals the power of informal learning.

Steve Jobs in an early Stanford computer lab of Macs. Courtesy of The Seb on Flickr

When I studied computer programming in the 1980s, I worked on an IBM 360/370 with terminals. After graduation, I took a job with a printing company in Chicago and tried my hand at typesetting. My father was a printer; he used to set type the ancient way, with little pieces of metal held together in a mold. At my company, we used a new-fangled method called phototypesetting, a combination of computer tech and photography. I typed commands (which were strangely similar to html) at a terminal, pressed a few buttons, and out came the imprinted photographic paper dripping with fixing fluid, ready to be hung up to dry.

My husband was also from a family of printers. Once on a visit to their company, my mother-in-law showed me this little computer called a Macintosh. She demonstrated how she could set type in a wysiwyg environment, using both a keyboard and a mouse (which I could not get my head around). When I saw how simply I could select fonts and sizes and see the piece laid out on the screen, I had a feeling that everything was about to change. Indeed, the desktop publishing revolution was right around the corner, and everything did change.

The Mac was the first computer to pay any attention to typefaces. If you watch Jobs unveil the Mac in 1984 (worth a watch for many reasons), you can see how important he felt it was to get typefaces right. Jobs learned about typefaces in a college calligraphy class, which he attended after he dropped out of college. Without a degree yet with academic instinct, Jobs applied what he learnt and made it integral to the Macintosh. He famously insisted on quality design and beauty at every hidden level of all of Apple’s innovations.

First Macintosh showing off typefaces - from the demo video on YouTube

My current SCORE project about iTunes U as a channel of free learning resources ( has let me appreciate this public platform given to universities and educational institutions. It’s not all philanthropy; of course iTunes U shows off how nice multimedia looks on the various i-gadgets. And yet, my research into how iTunes U materials are used by ordinary folks has revealed their importance as informal learning resources. It’s almost as if Steve Jobs brought his academic experience full-circle, allowing lots of people to ‘audit classes’ even if they are dropouts or never accessed higher education.

Thanks, Steve, for a lifetime of innovation and inspiration.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

Openness and learning design

In the last three years or so, the Carpe Diem learning design process has evolved – not only as a result of our own better understanding of it, but also as a consequence of the open educational resources (OER) agenda.

Carpe Diem is a creative, hands-on learning design process for academic course teams. It builds institutional capacity in learning design. It is not a ‘techie’ workshop on how to use certain tools. It has proven to be effective in the design and redesign of face-to-face, online and hybrid programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at over 15 UK universities and internationally. Carpe Diem delivers a blueprint and a storyboard for the course, a set of peer-reviewed and reality-checked e-tivities running online, a model for further development and an action plan. The planner used during the two days is available as an OER under a Creative Commons licence.

Developing a storyboard is at the heart of the Carpe Diem process – it’s collaborative, productive and fun. When we populate the storyboard with content (‘content’ is never our starting point!), participants usually refer to two ‘default sources’ of materials: previous versions of the course and new materials that the course team will have to ‘write’. We then introduce the concept of OER and show a few examples. While some colleagues are now more familiar with OER than three years ago, many have not heard of these resources, the repositories they are stored in or the licences they can be used under. They are often surprised by the amount and quality of open, free material they can access and incorporate into the course, with and without adaptation.

I usually invite course teams to conduct a resource audit under five headings: 1. course materials they already have and wish to reuse (such as materials from previous versions of the course), 2. material from OER repositories ready to use as is, 3. OER they can use with minimal changes, 4. OER that need repurposing before inclusion in the course, and 5. what they need to create from scratch.

The figure below maps curriculum design against OER design and shows the types of enhancement that can be achieved during the planning, development and delivery stages of a course. The top-right quadrant requires significant effort (and delivers accordingly), while the bottom-left one constitutes rapid, ‘opportunistic’ enhancement at a minimal cost.

Designing for openness

Figure 1: enhancing the curriculum with open educational resources

The development of a critical mass of OER worldwide and the awareness that the OER agenda has raised across the higher education sector have been critical levers in the evolution of Carpe Diem as a learning design intervention. Thus, Carpe Diem today does not only meet its original collaborative learning design objectives cost-effectively, but raises awareness of and disseminates OER and open practices across disciplines and institutions.

Dr Alejandro Armellini
Senior Learning Designer
Beyond Distance Research Alliance
University of Leicester

Virtual world training in 30 minutes

An interesting quesion arose from my ALT-C talk last week. It was basically “How can you use Second Life for teaching when it takes two hours to learn how to use it?”
Which isn’t really a question, of course. It’s a statement. Along the lines of “It takes my students two hours to learn to use Second Life”.

So, here’s a question in reply: Do you expect your students to be able to use MS Word? Yes? Including MailMerge? Macro programming? I suspect not. They probably just need basic formatting. Maybe headings. An index for the really advanced. And it’s the same with learning to use Second Life. Thirty minutes training is all that’s needed for most learners in Higher Education.

The key is to consider training as part of the overall design. Here’s what we did for SWIFT.
1) Define the Learning Objectives. For our second lab it was to practice evaluating experimental results and to learn the connection between theory and practice.

2) Design activities that will best support those Learning Objectives. In our second lab, the activity was to work through a sequence of experimental steps and results, answering quesions about procedure, interpreting results and seeing animations of molecular processes at critical moments.

SWIFT learner's avatar showing virtual lab and HUD and animation

3) Design the environment necessary for those activities. We created individual lab benches with replica equipment, and a Head-Up Display that acted as the automated guide.

4) Define the SL competencies necessary to accomplish those activities. So,

a) Walk – well enough to position the avatar in one place
b) Close the sidebar
c) Touch (click on) objects
d Chat
e) Zoom the camera in on one spot
f) Put on / remove a lab coat
g) Attach the HUD

Now, most of these only need to be done  once, and some will already be understood (like clicking on things) so there’s no need for lots of practice. All that learners really need to be good at is zooming the camera. So the 30 minutes is something like 10 minutes for the easy things, 10 minutes for the lab coat and 10 minutes for the camera.

Visitors in the SWIFT training area

5) Create or adapt a training area suitable for learning and practicing those skills (and only those skills, so the training area may need adjusting for different groups). There are many training areas in SL, some better than others. Ours is here. Basically, the avatar needs to be constrained until they can walk properly, instructions must be very clear to all, and tasks must be in a logical progression. We have adjusted our training area over the last 12 months using observation and in-world interviews and questionnaires.

And that’s it! We don’t teach them how to run, fly, IM, search, teleport, build, offer friendship, use weapons, drive vehicles … there’s quite a list, and if they choose to continue using SL in their own time and outside of the University island they will probably want to use many of these. And they may need MailMerge in MS Word for running their own business…

So, ask learners new to SL to sign up for an SL account on the web site in advance. Then in the class, when they first use SL, ask them to enter the location of your training area at the SL login screen (so they don’t wander round some public place) and the half-hour training will pretty much run itself. (Yes, really, you just need someone hovering to help the occasional student who uses existing knowledge or expectation in place of the instructions.) We would expect similar success with OpenSim implementations, but can’t speak from experience with these.

How well the actual lesson goes depends on many things, from what’s to be learned and how that’s represented in the virtual world, to how well the environment is built and how motivated the students (and teacher) are. Some things can be learned well in virtual spaces, others not. Some virtual world use is embarked upon with enthusiasm, some not. What we can say with some certainty though, is that SL training need not be a problem.

Paul Rudman,

Learning about Unisa and South Africa

My colleagues and I are currently in Pretoria, South Africa, to attend Unisa’s Teaching and Learning Festival 2011. We have been asked to put on a week of workshops, due to start tomorrow (Monday) morning.

Me at Unisa

Standing outside the festival venue

Last Thursday and Friday we attended the festival symposium, which had excellent keynote papers from George Siemens, Gilly Salmon, Catherina Ngugi and Ormond Simpson. The Unisa delegates appeared to take a lot from these talks, judging from the questions raised and comments made in the concluding panel session.

Like so many HE institutions, Unisa, an open distance learning university, is facing a crossroads.  Burgeoning student numbers (374,000 for 2011) has meant current structures are no longer able to cope. It is hoped new technology and new approaches may provide the means by which the staff can continue to offer an education with a national and international reputation (Nelson Mandela is a Unisa graduate). BDRA may pay a small part in this change.

Perhaps the memory of the cynical and depressing summer riots in the UK has coloured my thinking, but I feel South Africa is going places. The people seem pragmatic about the significant current problems (primarily based around inequality and poverty) yet optimistic about the future.

And there’s no question about the talent available here. On Saturday, Gabi and I, with mercurial South African educational technologist Maggie Verster, delivered a workshop on using OERs and social media for teaching and learning at Kliptown Secondary School in Soweto.

Maggie in full flow

The participants, both teachers and schoolchildren, were engaged, articulate and, especially in the case of the latter, more than capable of harnessing the new opportunities for social interaction and learning (accessed mainly through cell phones) offered by technology.

The Representative Council of Learners and workshop participants. Future Unisa graduates?

We’ve got a very hard week ahead, but I know we’re all looking forward to it.

Follow us and everyone else at the festival on Twitter: #unisa2011.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Why using virtual worlds for teaching just got easier

One of the Frequently Asked Questions about using virtual worlds as a teaching and learning environment is: “How much does it cost to prepare a learning environment?” )

Last week, Linden Labs (makers of the Second Life virtual world software (SL) ) added a new feature: “Mesh”. On the face of it, this could lower the cost of building suitable teaching environments within SL, but like most new features it’s hard to predict just how useful they will be. So I decided to try it out. . .

We are in the process of setting up the third SWIFT experiment in SL, and we need to create a simple building with some visual interest. We settled on an Egyptian-style pyramid. Until now, the standard (and almost only) way to build in SL was using “prims” – simple shapes one materialised (or “rezzed”) and manipulated within SL. Creating our pyramid with prims would look something like this (you add the “texture” – image of stone blocks or whatever – later):

With Mesh, you design objects first using a number of free or commercial programs and then import them as objects into SL. Apart from now having a choice of tools to use, there is one huge advantage: because the object is built out of lines rather than 3D objects, you only need think in terms of what you see, not component shapes that you have to imagine.

For example, in the picture above, I’m creating a pyramid out of triangular things. For a Mesh object, I can create it with lines, like this:

I’m using the free Google Sketchup program (that character is not an avatar, it’s just a 2D drawing, there to – I assume – give a sense of scale). Other programs are available, such as Blender  (better but not so easy to learn) and Maya (if you have a big budget!) Sketchup took a few hours to learn, but now I could recreate the pyramid in a few minutes – much quicker than using the building tools in SL.

Then, it’s a simple matter to export the shape as a file and import into SL. . . and, voila! A 3D pyramid in SL.

For the first SWIFT experiment I created a virtual PCR machine which, as I recall, took a whole afternoon to create out of textured prims. Even though much of the time was taken in preparing the textures (images taken in the real lab), drawing it using lines would definitely have been easier than shaping individual blocks, and the level of detail possible would have been greater too.

Mesh is still new, and there will be drawbacks for a while (there seems to be a bug that doesn’t let me walk to the far corner inside the pyramid, for example). Nonetheless, I’m really very impressed by the possibilities Mesh has to offer. I’m sure it won’t be so long before all the OpenSim grids support Mesh too.

So, if you were thinking of using virtual worlds for teaching and learning, things just got easier!

Paul Rudman,

The EduApps Collections

The blog post is a shameless plug for one of my favourite JISC project outputs, EduApps. I hope it will direct readers to these terrific resources (if they haven’t already encountered them).

Developed by the JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland North & East , EduApps are free-to-use programs that can be run off a USB stick. Many are portable versions of existing mainstream technologies such as Skype and Firefox, or scaled-down alternatives to large, expensive packages (e.g. Portable-Artweaver instead of Photoshop).  

EduApps listing

Some of the EduApps on my USB stick

For anyone who has ever had to request a software installation from an IT department,  running programs from a stick is a fantastic idea. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have used my EduApps to make a call on Skype, quickly edit a sound file with Audacity,  or unzip an archive with 7-ZipPortable. I always include a selection of EduApps on the Media Zoo USB sticks I give to participants in our Carpe Diem workshops.

The programs are divided into eight collections that focus on specific needs. TeachApps, for example, is a collection of software specifically designed for teachers or lecturers, while the LearnApps  collection is specifically designed for learners.

A recent addition has been the Create&Convert collection for Word and OpenOffice, which “brings together in one neat package a range of open source programs that can quickly and capably translate electronic documents into an accessible alternative format, such as audio or a talking book. All of the tools are the outputs of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium, and are therefore completely free to use and distribute.”

All EduApps have been tested and copyright-cleared by the RSC team, and are ready to go.

So excuse this plug, and please use these wonderful tools. And let me know if there are other free (and stable!) programs not included in the EduApps collections.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Are Tablets and E-Readers Now Educational Requirements?

I read a very informative blog post today, “Tablets and E-Readers in Education”. The post discusses a recent Pearson Foundation Survey on Students and Tablets.  The survey is a real eye-opener. USA college and university students and high school students soon to enter college or university were questioned on the use of tablets such as the iPad. While the numbers of surveyed students who actually own tablets is low, 73% of those who do own tablets prefer digital format over print for reading textbooks. And 86% of all in the survey believe that tablets help students to study more efficiently. While it has been clear that the number of ebook sales of novels on Amazon is outstripping the sales of paper novels, there has not been much data regarding educational ebooks and e-textbooks.  It is worth knowing that Pearson has launched an e-textbook  initiative aimed at the iPad, entitled Inkling, and therefore has a special interest in looking for evidence of pro-e-textbook attitudes amongst students.

It is also eye-opening that the author of the blog post states that the use of an e-reader is now required in his college course. I recall an event reported this past July, in which a Chinese professor Weibo-messaged his students to basically say, ‘Get an iPad or get out of my class.’ It was no surprise that this demand attracted a huge amount of controversy, especially because the iPad is not a cheap item, and students everywhere struggle to afford one.

Inkling Textbook on iPad. Photo courtesy of mikecogh on Flickr

In our DUCKLING project, which ran from October 2008 through October 2010, we loaded several modules’ worth of learning material onto Sony e-readers and posted them out to masters-level distance students, for use in Occupational Psychology and TESOL-Linguistics courses. Students reported they found the e-readers a very convenient way to manage course readings, and enabled them to make use of any spare time during the day to continue with their readings. Some commented that they found the inability to take notes on the e-reader a hindrance, although a subset of these later concluded that they did not miss the lack of note-taking capability. This last comment brings me back to the the”Tablets and E-Readers in Education” article, which notes a useful iPad app for textbooks, ‘Kno’ which apparently facilitates note-taking. I will have to try Kno, maybe in time for our next University of Leicester Tablet Users’ Group meeting.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

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