Do you have a favourite piece of technology?

I was inspired by this article in the Guardian: to ask two of my fellow learning technologists what their favourite pieces of technology were.  One answer was the 13″ MacBook Pro, the other was a label making machine.  These two different answers seem to be at different ends of the spectrum of technology although both have their uses. 

But without a clear purpose for technology new inventions can fall by the wayside.  Just a quick Google (one technology that hasn’t failed) and I can pull up a list by Computer World which interestingly includes e-Readers as a failed technology:

E-Readers are one of the technologies used within DUCKLING and it’s safe to say that we have explored, researched and developed the content and approaches to using these e-readers with our students with success.  Beyond Distance have had a clear aim and purpose with e-readers, including increasing flexibility and mobility for students, and have been able to convert the uninitiated. While it might not become everyone’s favourite piece of technology we’ve been able to successfully highlight the benefits of e-Readers to students, lecturers and colleagues (particularly in Education and Psychology)

Your favourite piece of technology might be one that satisfies a certain purpose for you whether that’s reading an e-book or even labelling something.  You might find that if you explore other technologies and their uses more, like we did with e-Readers, that you will find another piece of technology that becomes one of your favourites.

What’s my favourite piece of technology? Running through some of the different technologies that I own and use: Blackberry, Laptop, iPod Nano, DVD Recorder, Dreamweaver, Adobe Photoshop, Twitter, Digital Camera; I think that my favourite piece of technology would have to be my trustworthy Canon a1.  Slightly old school (it’s older than I am) but it’s stood the test of time (hopefully I will too!) and I still aspire to create my own darkroom so I can process the film myself.

Do you have a favourite piece of technology?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Missed LFF10? Coming soon: LFF10 OERs as a download for you…

It’s been just over two weeks since the end of our Learning Futures Festival 2010 and I’m still riding high on the experiences and achievements of the festival, and also still working hard on the follow up to LFF10. 

As one of the Learning Technologists I was involved in the day to day running of the conference primarily keeping our conference environment up and running: and I owe a huge amount of thanks to the team who supplied us with this environment for all their help.  It was my first experience of creating an online conference and I tried to make things easy to use but balance this with providing the necessary information.  The responses from the survey have provided areas for me to look at for LFF11 and to try and improve the navigation and layout of this environment, but for a first attempt I think it worked well and ran a lot more smoothly than I anticipated! If you would still like to provide feedback about the Festival and the Festival environment please fill out our survey:

As mentioned during the Festival we’re planning on turning as many live sessions as possible into OERs as part of our OTTER project:  I’m currently transforming the sessions into video and audio files. How the sessions will be split e.g. presentation and questions into separate video will be decided on a session-by-session basis. As each session will be transformed into a reusable and repurposeable OER, you will be able to download and then, if you wish, edit the OER for your own preferred personal viewing and listening. This will provide delegates and anyone else who wishes to download the OERs with a chance to catch up with missed sessions and hopefully maximise the impact of LFF10 while still keeping costs and CO2 emissions to a minimum.

We’re still tweeting about the festival and our other upcoming events with the following hashtags:

  • #lff10
  • #uolbdra
  • #otteroer
  • #uolinsl
  • #uolmz

You might have noticed a recent tweet about one of our newest animals to the zoo, PANTHER. This might just be a fleeting visit, so make the most of it while you can!  PANTHER (Podcasting in Assessment: New Technology in Higher Education Research) is holding a workshop on the 3rd March 2010.  This will be both a physical and online event which you can register for here:

Keep an eye out for my tweets ( about the LFF10 OERs due for release in the next month and I look forwarding to seeing you all at LFF11.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

What you missed if you missed Online Educa Berlin

Last week the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin was descended upon by 2,000+ motley e-learning types, all attending the annual Online Educa Berlin (OEB) conference. It was an extremely well-run conference (just as you’d expect in Germany), and had some memorable moments (just as you’d expect in a gathering of that size with people from over 90 countries present, all of whom are doing interesting things in e-learning). So I thought I’d share my potted list of highlights – bearing in mind that it was only possible for one person to attend a fraction of the sessions, so the list may appear a bit random.

The keynote addresses were without exception stimulating. On Thursday, David Puttnam showed us some moving extracts from a recently released film, We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For, and made a plea for educators to use moving images in their teaching, and to encourage their students to create moving images. Brian Durrant gave an impressive overview of how the schools in London are all linked up on a single, streamlined platform, which is enabling collaboration amongst teachers and students, as well as giving students the opportunity to access more materials from home. The system has been enthusiastically received by students and teachers, and the combined platform has been a huge cost saver for individual districts. Zenna Atkins spoke entertainingly and persuasively about the need to recognise both the needs and contributions of children who have grown up ‘digital’. With deliberate and delicious irony, she contrasted her experience as a mother with that as Chairman of Ofsted, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the limitations of the school inspection body in effecting meaningful change in the education system.

On Friday, the University of Leicester’s Gilly Salmon gave the first keynote address, along with student representative, Aaron Porter. Gilly’s metaphoric ‘tree of learning’ showed beautifully the long way that education has come since our forefathers made cave paintings, and she had the audience twittering about her question as to the two great wonders of education… (Answers anyone? The famous library at Alexandria and… the Internet.) Artur Dyro, from Young Digital Planet in Poland, successfully resisted the temptation give a sales spiel, and spoke engagingly about what the publishing industry can learn from today’s learners. (And it wasn’t what your run-of-the-mill, copyright-defending commercial publisher would want to hear…) Lizbeth Goodman then showed some intriguing footage of people in wheelchairs dancing with able-bodied people, demonstrating how technology can empower disabled people. This went down well, although her decision to read a rather sentimental voice-over, apparently for atmospheric effect, caused some mutters on twitter. (Twutters?)

The Beyond Distance team from the University of Leicester had a rather visible presence at OEB. Apart from Gilly’s keynote address, she also led a half-day pre-conference workshop with Sandra Romenska, in which delegates looked into crystal balls to glimpse some insights into learning futures, guided by preliminary findings from the CALF project. The Beyond Distance team also led a Learning Café, in which several of our research projects were described, giving audience members a brief taste of everything from the use of e-book readers in higher education, to what Psychology students can learn from evacuating a burning oil rig in the virtual world, Second Life. Finally, the OTTER project (putting the University of Leicester’s teaching materials on the web under open licences) and IMPALA (podcasting) project were described in more detail in longer presentations. All the slides from these sessions are available here.

The most provocative session of the three days was the Big Debate, in which Aric Sigman zealously warned the audience against the harmful consequences of too much social networking on children’s brains, and was capably countered by Donald Clark, who identified numerous points of false logic in Aric’s argument. I think the defining moment was when Aric, with some pomp and ceremony, showed us photos of some kids at school in North Korea and Bhutan (the latter playing with guns) and held them up as example of “well disciplined” school children, supposedly better off than kids who have easy access to the Web. This really doesn’t warrant any comment here, but if you’re interested, you can read Donald’s detailed version of the debate or an abridged account (written with feeling) by another OEB-attendee, Iain.

A couple of other highlights were Clive Shepherd talking about the nonsensical way in which many corporations have implemented e-learning for so-called ‘compliance training’, and Inge de Waard talking about the value of Web 2.0 applications that exist outside the ‘walled gardens’ of our institutional VLEs. (I heartily agreed – and was particularly excited to meet Inge, being a long-time follower of her blog.) Another exciting session was the one on breaking down intercultural barriers in e-learning. I was particularly impressed by Thorsten Randel‘s description of the ambitious Scoyo project, in which a virtual team comprising members from India to Germany to South America, and many countries in between, worked for a year to produce 12,000 hours’ worth of language teaching materials for children. Randel’s project management process included solving 60,000 ‘issues’ during this time!

Unfortunately I missed the Battle of the Bloggers session, which promised to be interesting, but I see Clive Shepherd has already blogged on it here.

Apart from the sessions described, my main take-home from the conference was a new understanding of the role that twitter can play at such a massive gathering. I found myself getting quite hooked on the twitter stream (when I was able to get a connection, which wasn’t all the time), both to read the running commentary on the session I was in, and also to see what I was missing in the other sessions. There was one attempt at getting the audience to use a separate back channel (Cover It Live) – presumably to prevent the distraction of tweets from other sessions, but it was only used by a handful of people, and when audience members wanted to write less-than-positive comments in this session, they reverted to twitter (which I found interesting!) I gathered via twitter that at least one conference member was sitting in one session and watching a second session that was being streamed live, simultaneously. That kind of thing does my head in, just thinking about it… Oh, and one last thing: twitter lived up to its reputation as a subversive element, being used to recruit people to a more interesting session after they had tweeted their dissatisfaction with the sessions they were in…

Gabi Witthaus / 7 December 2009

It’s a colourful life

Colour.  Something the majority of us take for granted, but do you remember the days when there were only 256 colours?  Like me, you’ve probably not noticed that we’ve moved on from this limited palette. I was talking about web design today and in particular web safe colours and whether or not these were still relevant today. summarises this issue far better than I can here: The site also gives you a bit of background as to why web safe colours were first introduced.  We’re now enjoying far more colourful days in front of our screens, 16 million colours to be precise.  16384 of which most modern monitors are capable of displaying according to the w3c:

You might be wondering why I’m talking so much about colour and what relevance it has on a blog about elearning.  There are a few reasons why and the relevance it has on this blog:

  1. My job.  I’m a Learning Technologist, I enjoy the technical side of things and regularly use colour tools to find hex codes in order to produce web graphics.
  2. Accessibility.  Colour, and more specifically colour contrast, can play a huge part in making text accessible to people with visual impairments.
  3. Openness.  The articles I’ve looked at to gather more information about this topic all speak for the Western world.  Not everyone in the world will have access to a modern monitor and being too colourful might reduce the openness of materials released.
  4. Technology.  Technology is changing and evolving.  Designing in 256 colours might, at one stage, have been an advantage for mobile technology with its limited colour screens. But at the rate this is evolving, mobiles will also become increasing colourful.

Along with the resources mentioned previously you might also find this resource useful:

Use colour wisely, it’s easy to get carried away with an entire rainbow at the end of your mouse but keeping it simple will help focus a user’s attention and not overwhelm or distract from what you really want them to focus on, whether it’s a link, email address or text.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Registration is still open for our Learning Futures Festival

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

We’re tweeting! Follow us: #uolbdra, #otteroer, #lff10

Breaking out of the blog

Why do I want to break out of the blog? Simple reason:  because I can!

Well to be more detailed about the reason and to explain in more detail might be useful and might assure you that I haven’t lost it completely.  It came to me when I was sat in a meeting yesterday where we were talking about the use of technology to design and delivery curriculum. There was nothing wrong with the meeting, there were some very useful ideas that I picked up, but the use of the technology in the meeting was limited to a laptop and projector and you were invited to twitter if you had the technology.

It gave me the idea that maybe a text based blog might not always be the best way of communicating and that there are other web based applications that might be more beneficial to communicate my thoughts.  So in order to break out of the confines of the blog I’m inviting you to view the following:

What I’ve been thinking about this week – Flickr stream

My recent bookmarks – Delicious

Follow me on Twitter (yes I’ve finally taken the plunge!)

If you choose not to view any of the above that is your preference.  I just want to know whether the ideas we produce in this blog are presented in the most beneficial way to communicate the ideas or whether the ideas suffer from the constraints of the blog. Can I, and you, break out of the blog?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Clouds and trees and micropipettes

Yesterday, I spent some time in the countryside. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was sitting in a lovely country garden. I could feel the grass beneath my feet, see the blue sky and white wispy clouds, smell the flowers growing all around. What a wonderful way to relax.

I was also sitting in a darkened meeting room in Oxford.

This ability to engage in two experiences at once has been explored throughout history, from cavemen painting their hunting exploits on stone walls, though the early travelling story tellers and court entertainers, to classic novels like Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and now today’s sophisticated entertainment industry. Watching a great movie, for example, brings us experiences sufficiently real to use in everyday life – to vicariously experience the world in ways not readily available and use that as a learning experience.

It’s not the technology. It is an innate ability of the human mind to imagine other possibilities, other realities. To experience without the actual. In a technological age we of course use our technology to assist us, but the concept – the fundamental idea of escaping from the immediate – is, and has always been, within us.

And so it was that we needed no clever technology in our darkened meeting room last night. The guided meditation that I ran saw twenty people each transported to their own personal country retreat, to relax, to still the immediacy of the chattering conscious mind and to seek an inner wisdom easily ignored in the rush of everyday busyness.

The previous time I ran this guided meditation, things were a little more complex. Again, I was in a country garden; again I was in a darkened room, but I was also in a third place – a Buddhist temple, with incense, rare orchids and singing bowls. The temple was in Second Life.

It’s a testament to the power of the human imagination that it can adapt so easily from two simultaneous experiences to three. Yet it can, and it works well. A child can build a fort from a cardboard box; an adult can expand their social life into a few web pages; a great movie can feel like a lifetime on another world, and technology you will find in museums in 10 years’ time can invoke experiences real enough to be seriously useful.

That’s why the Beyond Distance Research Alliance has several projects investigating the effectiveness of virtual world technology in providing a learning experience. One such project – SWIFT – will use this technology, in the form of Second Life, to transport students to a genetics laboratory, in which they will collaboratively conduct experiments and solve problems. Some of this is not possible in a real-life lab, because each experiment may take hours and use a great deal of (expensively supervised) lab space and equipment.

It’s a long way from that idyllic country garden, but should be no less real, and previous work investigating learning within these computer-generated virtual worlds suggests that, if done properly, time in the virtual world can translate to real, measurable learning and expand the student experience beyond that which is currently possible.

They don’t even need to be in a darkened room.


Dr. Paul Rudman

Beyond Distance Research Alliance


SWIFT is a collaboration with GENIE, the Centre for Excellence within the Department of Genetics here at the University of Leicester.


Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:

To tweet or not to tweet?

That is the question. I was talking with my fellow learning technologists Simon and Terese yesterday about the benefits of Twitter. I’m still yet to succumb to the lure of Twitter partly because I don’t think anybody wants to listen to what I do.  I can see the benefit of tweeting if you are at a conference or an event and have a purpose to your message but I’m not sure that I can include a purpose to my message in general day-to-day activities.  Nobody wants to know that I’m running late for the train!

In particular we were discussing the merits of hashtags.  Simply put, hashtags are a way of categorising tweets; if a group of people tweet using #beyonddistance you are then able to search and find all tweets within that category.  It’s a good way to start promoting your brand, your company or your organisation, but to be successful the more people that tweet using your hashtag the better.  When myself, Simon and Terese were discussing this I felt that we would need to get everyone on board within our team to really make this a success.  Which then brought me back to thinking: do I want to tweet?

It could simply be that Twitter isn’t the web 2.0 technology for me.  Not every technology will suit everyone.  But finding the benefits of Twitter for e-learning and how Beyond Distance can utilise these benefits does interest me as a learning technologist.  I read an article in .net magazine yesterday about ‘The pros and cons of Twitter marketing’.  One of the points that I picked up on, that I think could be an avenue for Beyond Distance to explore, is the idea of customer feedback.  Some of our ‘customers’, or students as we tend to call them, are distance learners and we can’t always receive face to face or verbal feedback from them.  Having short, succinct messages or tweets as feedback could be the way forward.  Twitter is a personal communication tool after all.

One other key point that I’ll be taking with me from that article is the need for planning. ‘Have a plan before diving in head-first.  Who has overall responsibility of the Twitter account? Are you prepared to respond and act on a moment’s notice (timing is key)?’ When it comes to web design and development I’m a big fan of planning. Obviously in unknown waters issues can arise that are difficult to plan for but an overall aim and objective and how these will be implemented can only help you to succeed.

Does this mean I’ve convinced myself to start tweeting?  Maybe not on a personal level but as part of an organisation with a wider reach and a shared vision amongst the team you might just see me tweeting in the future, with a proper plan in place first of course.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Breaking the spell

Today is a big day for one of our Media Zoos. We have three, one in the physical world, one on the web and one in Second Life (SL). It’s the physical zoo that’s having its big day. It moved with us to this lovely Victorian house just off-campus, but in the process changed from its former glory as a media-enabled conference and working space to a rather haphazard combination of temporary features. Soon, our real-life Media Zoo will be re-transformed into the working space we are used to. Today is the big day. The painters are in.

I know the painters are in, because the house is slowly acquiring a pervasive “Eau de Magnolia”. And it set me thinking. How could that be represented in SL? Precedents have been set. In a Japanese garden I like to visit, incense burners very effectively give off small translucent particles that drift slowly upwards before fading into nothingness. Somehow, they visually give the impression of scent, not just visible smoke. It’s interesting how a few simple cues can invoke a whole experience.

This can work in our favour when building learning spaces in SL. Often, it’s not necessary to build an accurate copy of something. A tree can be two two-dimentional images at right angles; a texture can replace a three-dimensional surface; a sound can replace a detailed movement.

But. And it’s a BIG BUT. Sometimes lack of detail can break the spell. SL designers must always remember that they are asking the learner to create missing detail in their head, using the cues available. If there’s not enough detail to allow this, the illusion of reality will be broken and the whole experience can unravel, leaving the learner feeling disoriented and distracted from the learning task.

My favourite example is a particular medical simulation (that should perhaps remain nameless). The building, beds, equipment etc. look good. Objects behave sensibly. Walking around gives a good impression of a real-life clinic. There’s just one problem. Patients are represented by two-dimensional body-shaped objects with the image of a person painted on. Noooo!

The patients are the focal point of the learning task. The patients need to look authentic. The designers would have been better spending their time on this and skipping the elaborate reception area!

Designing learning spaces in Second Life is not difficult, but it does have its pitfalls and they are not all obvious. One objective of the SWIFT project here at Leicester University is to investigate laboratory learning within Second Life using a virtual genetics lab – what works, best practice, and what is best kept to real life. It’s an exciting new area. Watch this space!

Dr. Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:

A tale of two sides?

I read Kelly’s recent post about a new e-reader joining the market place with interest.  I’ve been at Beyond Distance for over a month now and while getting to grips with the Sony E-reader I feel like I’ve been seeing, reading and hearing about e-readers everywhere, including seeing my first e-reader out and about being used by a man on the train.   Not that I’m complaining, to be able to figure out the details of how best to create an e-book and what works and what doesn’t and more importantly why not is something that could occupy me for hours.

To see another article in the Metro on the 16th September about e-readers made me realise that it wasn’t just me seeing e-readers everywhere it really is an emerging market and waiting to be embraced fully.  In my last post I mentioned a previous Metro article about Sony E-readers and while you might think I’m being commissioned by them to promote the Metro and E-readers I’m really not it’s just that a free paper to read on the train is hard to resist.

One of the points in the article that caught my attention was ‘Has publishing, a conservative industry learned its lesson from the music industry’s slowness in moving from selling CDs to selling online?’. The music industry is still adapting to selling online and issues of file sharing are likely to rage on for some time to come.  It seems that the publishing industry is trying to move forward but is also getting bogged down in some similar problems. You only have to look back at the article and within the first paragraph it mentions that ‘British licensing restrictions mean users here will only have access to 500,000 titles rather than the whole 2 million’.  Google as one of the driving forces in the online e-book shop market are still struggling with restrictions and are currently facing more legal action.

But with the technology already out there and being developed by the day the other side of the tale is that the demand for e-books is there and will carry on increasing and to refer back to the Metro article again if the price is right people will buy this technology and further increase its market.  According to the Guardian 52% of US print publishers are distributing content on mobile devices which again suggests that the demand is there, but will the demand overtake the ability to distribute books without any restrictions?  Obviously there are a great deal of e-books out there already that can be distributed but if a buyer of e-books has restricted choice due to licensing how long will it be before they want a solution? Creating your own e-books from online material is a possibility but with this process, at present, being one for the more technical people will it lead to a diminished uptake of what could arguably be the next big thing?

Emma Davies

Learning Technologist

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