Accessing professional development

Graduate and postgraduate students include personal/professional development in their training plans. One disadvantage doing a PhD from overseas is missing researcher training sessions on campus. I do participate in Research Days through videoconferencing, but there are no provisions for other sessions restricted to physical attendance at the university. There are, however, different ways to make up for this, taking advantage of events in my local community. I am a research student in the Beyond Distance Research Alliance (BDRA) at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, and I reside in Edmonton, Canada. There are a few examples of opportunities, including one just attended.

Last year I participated in the Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series, delivered here in Edmonton by the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology. I will attend this June for a second time. I am also on the distribution list for professional development opportunities from the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) at one local institution, the University of Alberta. Through it, I was able to attend free sessions preparing grad students for teaching. Also, I responded to a call for (paid) volunteers to work at a technology conference. While paid a little, it was an opportunity to give back, especially with unfilled slots.

The latest in my development, was the 2012 Alberta Graduate Conference, held at the University of Alberta, May 3 to 5, 2012, and concluded this afternoon. The Alberta Graduate Council, representing students of four member associations, organised the conference. I heard about it from the FGSR distribution list and through my alma mater, Athabasca University. I checked and learned they welcomed a percentage of attendees from other institutions, so I registered and attended.

My point with this post is to identify one reason we need not feel isolated at a distance. I’ve been able to extend my network at the same time as adding to my development. This is not a one-way street. For example, the BDRA has welcomed external participants in online seminars and at its February Research Day. I was also able to introduce a number of students to informal networking on Twitter through #phdchat. It goes without saying that sharing within the academic community has benefits for all.

I would like to extend my thanks to the organising committee and generous sponsors for an excellent conference and for opening the doors to non-member students. It was a pleasure to participate.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA
May 5, 2012

Beware of distractions

In our recent Learning Futures Festival 2011: Follow the Sun presentation (click here for Adobe Connect recording), one of my colleagues, Alison Ewing, raised “healthy question” about technologies (starting at 32 minutes into the recording). One comment, tied directly to my section, included Twitter. She spoke of the potential of Twitter and other technologies to “lead me [her] down avenues which are interesting but distracting, and take me away from actually what I want to be doing, what I should be doing….” Well, Ali, that makes a lot of sense.

The hours in a day are finite, and there are competing demands. Ali finds that Twitter and other technologies can be helpful, as I wholeheartedly agree, but we concur we must be careful to avoid the drain on time. It is easy to follow a link and delve into a new direction. Also, I’m not sure how many times I have seen a question asked that has caused me to do a little searching to provide an answer, be it education, community, or work related. It is good to do, and others respond to our questions or discussions. But, there are times to turn off and focus.

Working on my master’s degree a number of years ago (late 90s), the very early hours of the morning were best for uninterrupted study. With family sleeping and the telephone silent, I was assured that the only thing coming between me and the readings was the desire to nap. True, I had a computer and online communications, but the level of social media that we have today was not happening.

Now, while I still love the early morning studies, I can be sure that emails or other messages await me, and there is someone online with whom to connect. An outstanding question may await an answer or comment. Of course, this continues throughout the day and distractions are magnified when others are up, the telephone rings, and family asks for attention because I am working and studying from home. Some seem to do well with constant switching between activities, but that is not me.

I often crave more time to read, and I know I must make concerted efforts to have uninterrupted hours. Perhaps this means letting a call or two go to voice mail or posting a sign indicating I am busy. I have removed the data from my mobile telephone, so I no longer see constant emails.

Getting away from email, sometimes for hours, I have discovered something. There is never a message needing a response that could not wait. If something is really urgent, I have my telephone with call display. If I am away from my home office for any length of time, I likely have my computer and mobile Internet for when I do need/want to ‘check in.’  My (slightly) adult son says I shouldn’t spend so much time at home if I want to reduce his calls for attention, so more mobile I will be if it will allow more focus!

If you are studying, what do you do to manage your reading or time for other assignments? Are you finding enough hours to do the amount of reading you plan?

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA

A day with ‘Northampton Tigers’

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day with our TIGER (see note below for a description) project partners at the University of Northampton. I took part in their course development event.

Our Northampton Tigers are currently developing teaching and learning resources that can be released as OERs (Open Educational Resources) for the benefit of the wider academic and practitioner community. The subject area covered within the TIGER project is Interprofessional Education (IPE) – a Higher Education level programme of studies undertaken by professionals that you and I meet when we are in need of health and other forms of care (nurses, care professionals, paramedics – just to name a few). The focus of Interprofessional Education is for these different professionals to learn about each other’s roles and develop efective collaborative practices.

I observed many interesting aspects of course development that were unique to developing OERs and especially for OERs for Interprofessional Studies.

An obvious, but often under-rated point that needs due attention is that developing OERs is a much more complex and sophisticated process than that used in developing course material for distance and e-learning. This is especially the case, as Northampton Tigers showed me, in a subject area such as IPE where the course development team includes both interprofessional academics from universities and practicing professionals from hospitals and other communities gathering together to develop a set of teaching resources that are relevant for both national and international academic and practitioner communities. Copyright issues and ethical considerations of using images and other media are just two of the many aspects to consider in OER development.

As we are involved in the TIGER project in the next coming months, we will be able to report on the actual processes involved in developing OERs from scratch and from existing traditional e-learning courses. So, watch this space!

Meanwhile you can visit the project website at to learn more about it….

Note: TIGER (Transforming Interprofessional Groups through Educational Resources) is an Open Educational Research project funded by the UK Joint Information Systems Committee and led by the University of Northapmton in partnership with De Montfort and Leicester Universities.

Palitha Edirisingha
2 Feb 2011

How I became a PhD student at the BDRA

Finding a PhD program in e-learning is not an easy task. In 2009, when I decided to continue my graduate studies, I discovered that while lots of online programs were available, few focused on elearning. At that time, there were about 90 PhD programs in e-learning… in the world. Considering that only in my hometown (Monterrey, Mexico) there are over 80 institutions of higher education, 90 programs didn’t seem much.

I looked at the options, and the PhD offered by the BDRA caught my eye. I liked that the departmental team includes people from all around the world: South Africa, Uruguay, United States, China, and more. I liked that they are involved in lots of e-learning projects (17 back then, 24 now), and I have to admit, I also liked that they are in Leicester, which is a small city but with a great location for travelling around.

And so I emailed the program coordinator. After writing a research proposal, participating in a couple of interviews and fulfilling all the requirements, I finally got in. Being here has been an enriching experience.  I used to consider myself highly technological. I now know that I still have so much to learn! In my eight months here I have joined Twitter and Second Life, I discovered e-readers and OERs, I participated in workshops with government institutions, I learned about methodologies whose existence I wasn’t aware of, and I got a bunch of techno tips! Even more, now I am blogging!! I am looking forward to discovering the next steps in my journey towards the PhD.

— Brenda Padilla

A researcherʼs guide to social media

Last Thursday, I took part in a SkillsCamp at the School of Museum Studies. The SkillsCamp was called A researcher’s guide to social media and cultural heritage.

The day-long workshop brought together supervisors, PhD students and researchers interested in how social media (this was given a very broad definition) impacts upon research on cultural heritage.

Following an extremely useful – and illuminating – mapping exercise in the morning, the rest of the day was divided into three main areas: the researcher’s online profile; the Internet and especially the Web as data resource; and finally the methodological frameworks and ethical considerations of ‘researching on the Internet’. Fictitious case studies were use to highlight issues in each area.

The workshop was funded by the Collections Trust, and eight 10,000 word units produced as part of this collaborative project (the universities of Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow were also involved) will be available as fully repurposable OERs from their site early in 2011. These units, which cover topics such as Finding and using digital images and Using your mobile phone as a research tool, also contain teacher plans and notes.

Because the workshop brought together researchers of all ages and with a wide range of experiences (and attitudes), I found the sessions invaluable, even though I was attending as a representative of a research unit rather than as a  researcher. It was clear that the workshop brought to light issues that are prevalent throughout research in higher education.

I intend – with the help of my colleagues – to adapt this SkillsCamp as a Media Zoo offering, to sit alongside the Zoo’s traditional technology workshops and  Ale’s Carpe Diem. In addition to the projects housed in the Zoo (which are focused on new technologies and pedagogies), Beyond Distance also contains the experience of my research colleagues operating within this online environment.

But I don’t see this solely as participants coming the the Zoo to learn new skills from Beyond Distance staff. What really made last Thursday’s workshop useful was that everyone bought something along to the discussion, with debates ranging from the ethics of whether one should carry out an online participant observation study in forums (i.e. starting new threads, etc.) without revealing the motives for participating, to the importance of maintaining a good online research profile for future employment purposes.

Regardless of the discipline, the same questions are being asked, and a workshop such as this is ideal for those still uncertain about the value of the online research environment.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

SWIFT moves forward

It’s been a busy time for SWIFT lately. Our student volunteers have been taking part in the second of our experiments for this project, using a virtual genetics laboratory to learn about genetic screening techniques.

Over the summer, we built this laboratory using the Second Life virtual world software, along with a Second Life training area.  Our volunteers had two sessions in the virtual world, the first to become familiar with the software, the second to use the virtual laboratory.

SWIFT in the computer lab

SWIFT in the computer lab

The picture shows the system running in the University’s computer lab. The “head-up display” (the overlaid windows at the top) provided a dynamically changing guide. Our student volunteers followed this guide, making decisions about how the genetic screening should proceed, watching representations of the molecular changes taking place and interpreting results.

We were delighted that the system operated just as we had hoped – a testament to the work and care put in by the team here at the University of Leicester, who designed and built the lab, and our commercial partners Daden Ltd. who incorporated the PIVOTE authoring system for us.

The experiment is still in progress, so we can’t say anything about results just yet, but watch this space, as they say…

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Updates on TIGER activities

Three animals joined the Media Zoo this year: TIGER, OSTRICH and SPIDER. All three projects are to do with Open Educational Resources (OERs).

In TIGER (Transforming Interprofessional Groups through Educational Resources) three institutions: the University of Northampton, De Montfort University, and the University of Leicester work collaboratively to develop, create and release reusable and customisable OERs for Interprofessional Education (IPE) in Health and Social Care. TIGER will evaluate the impact of OERs on academics and students of three institutions, and IPE practitioners working in hospitals.

I’m about to take my first step into TIGER research. From next week, there is an opportunity for me to observe some face-to-face teaching sessions that introduce students into Interprofessional working at Leicester.  Also next week, there is an opportunity for me to visit a local hospital where medical students join students from nursing, social work, and speech and language therapy from Leicester University to attend a 4-day Interprofessional Education programme. The students will be placed in small groups to learn together in ward for care of the elderly. They will explore the roles and responsibilities of each profession relating to care planning.

These events will help me understand the current teaching practice in IPE. They will also provide opportunities to identify how OERs can be used to influence the current practice and support student practical-based learning in workplace.

Ming Nie              7 November 2010

PhD research day

On 22 October the Media Zoo hosted a research day for our PhD students. The intended learning outcomes for the day were:

1.  to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of a range of research methodologies and methods
2.  to make informed choices of methodologies and methods to suit each student’s research project
3.  to gain practice in presenting work-in-progress to others for critical comments, and
4.  to provide critical and constructive feedback on peers’ work in so far.

In the morning, there was input from Palitha Edirisingha, David Hawkridge and myself. In the afternoon, there were presentations by each student, while the audience (comprising the other students and a number of Beyond Distance colleagues) used a protocol to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

We all benefited from this research day and students have since indicated how useful the experience was for them – not just because of the day itself, but the preparation that had to go into it. We are planning another research day in February-March.

Dr A Armellini
4 November 2010

The Professors Profess… The Future of British HE in 2020

As everyone is uneasily waiting for the nearly £4 billion cuts to the budget for higher education in the 2010 Spending Review to be announced today, EducationGuardian pre-emptively published the predictions of UK academics about the impact of the funding cuts for the next ten years. Below is a selection of what they thought was coming.

The rise of the “black arts” of enrolment management
Prof. Claire Callender from the Institute of Education in London thinks that universities will be at the core of a quickly developing industry of enrolment management, calculating the number of students that can be recruited at different price rates, rates of discounts for different groups of students, etc. If Tesco can do it, why not universities? Buy one degree in chemistry, get one free in history, anyone?

Socrates in the local chippy
Prof. Gillian Evans from the University of Cambridge was concerned with the recommendation of the Browne’s report to end public funding for all subjects not considered priority, i.e., courses other than science, technology or courses not deemed to be providing “significant social returns.” In her scenario subjects such as palaeography or philosophy will have to vacate the publicly funded buildings and go back to the Aristotelian peripatetic method in the streets.

RyanAir Universities
Roger Brown from the Centre of Higher Education Research Development forecasts the emergence of a tiered system like the one in the USA. At the top there will be a small group of elite institutions which will be charging the highest fees. Then there will be the vast majority of “no-frills” universities, teaching mainly applied courses.

What I found surprising in the scenarios discussed by the Guardian was the lack of mention of learning technologies as a factor which will play a crucial role in helping universities pull through what without a doubt will be a very difficult shake up. A scenario by the BBC did foresee an increase in the provision of online courses, describing the mobile learning experiences of fictional students of the future.

Disturbingly, however, instead of drawing upon the advances in innovative learning and teaching for distance learners for which there are numerous examples amongst British universities (the University of Leicester for example has more than 8000 distance learners, the Open University would be another excellent example), the report seemed to promote the work of a private, for-profit, non-university provider, which “is positioning itself in this market and has already made the content of some courses wholly accessible via mobile phone.”

I think in the climate to come it will be more important than ever for institutions to be able and willing to share their experiences in using learning technologies to offer no-cost or low-cost solutions for learners and teachers, especially those that have been peer-reviewed.

20/10/2010 Sandra Romenska
Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project

The Travelator Paradox

Educators, have you got a travelator under your belt?

A travelator is an automated moving walkway. If you think you have never seen one, think again – at some point one must have carried you and your luggage from one departure gate to another at an airport or a train station. There is one at the Bank Tube Station in London and at a number of other locations around the world. The fact is, however, that they feature more in old science-fiction visions of the future than in present day reality. H.G. Wells imagined moving walkways in his 1897 novel A Story of the Days To Come, and Fritz Lang put them in his dystopian 1927 film Metropolis. So did Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel and Arthur C Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night. Why did the “rolling pavement” from the retro futurist stories never really catch on and remained a feature of a handful of airports and train stations?

Two separate studies, reported last week by the BBC, set out in 2009 to look for an answer. What the researchers at Princeton and Ohio State universities found out was quite interesting. It turns out that travelator passengers tend to slow their pace or stop walking altogether once they step on the machines, defeating the purpose which the travelators are supposed to achieve – to save time.

People standing on a travellator instead of walking

I think of this as the travelator paradox and the story fascinates me. It has prompted me to think of the possibility of similar travelator paradoxes hidden in our arsenal of learning and teaching practices which we expect to carry us into the future of learning and teaching. It seems to me that part of the reason for the “rolling pavement” to fail is that it changes the role of people from travellers-navigators to passengers. Once they get onto the machine, people are guaranteed to reach their destination, even if they remain passive and put no effort. They do not need to interact with the others around them or even notice them. Also, the destination is unexciting, because the route is predetermined, obvious and uniform for everyone on the travelator – there is neither mystery nor adventure so again, there is no reason for people to be alert or take action.

Once I extended the analogy into the domain of education, travelators started emerging. An e-learning course, for example, can turn into a travelator if all it contains is text, posted online in a way in which learners can go through it without having to engage with the material or with each other, with only a single route leading them to the planned learning outcomes. Students, coming in for a lecture, knowing that their lecturer is going to tell them exactly what he or she has been saying to the students in the previous year and the year before, and exactly in the same way, are in for a travelator – they will get to their destination, but the journey will be one of boredom and dullness.


Students in a boring VLE or passengers on the trottoire roulant at the 1900 Paris Expo?

If I were to find myself 20 years in the future from now, I would want to see which of the learning technologies of great promise today will have remained sidelined like travelators, instead of changing the world of learning. Whichever these learning technologies turn out to be, I think their failure will brought by a lack of supporting pedagogies which could have helped learners to create their own learning journey rather than just be there for the ride.

Sandra Romenska

Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) Project

BDRA, 7 October 2010

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