Can Learning Innovations be Embedded and Sustained?

On 28 April, 2010, Gabi Witthaus and Terese Bird attended a CAMEL meeting sponsored by JISC and which took place at Middlesex University, the theme of which was to examine whether the developments of the DUCKLING project can be embedded and sustained. Once the project is over, can teaching teams continue to use the technologies, findings and deliverables?

In this meeting, Gabi and Terese looked at the sustainability of each of the three technologies implented in the DUCKLING project — ebook readers, podcasting, and Second Life — as well as the pedagogy underpinning the use of each. Since the project is a joint effort amongst the Schools of Psychology and Education, and Beyond Distance, it was helpful to consider how each of the Schools implemented each innovation.

Psychology used Second Life as a forum for role-playing and simulation, to give students a taste of the experience of living and working on an oil rig with its dangers and isolation, as preparation for their assignment to write a health and safety training manual for oil rig workers. Beyond Distance techies supported this work. However, the actual role playing and leading of the sessions was done by Psychology academics and could continue that way, with some tech support. To watch a YouTube video capturing some of the action of the students’ experience on the oil rig, click here.

Education sent their students into existing language class forums in Second Life, where students observed and could participate in the classes. This was a very flexible way of making use of Second Life — students simply went in and signed up for classes already taking place pretty much 24/7. Observing language classes in Second Life has now been embedded into themodule as an optional activity. As long as there are such forums in Second Life, this activity is sustainable.

Podcasts have been fully embedded into the Psychology curriculum for the masters programme in DUCKLING — especially as part of the dissertation-writing process. These podcasts been rolled out to all cohorts on that module. Psychology academics have been making and distributing (via the University VLE, Blackboard) podcasts without any help from Beyond Distance for months now. Education has especially recently begun to record podcasts for its Masters TESOL students, and again the work of recording and posting onto the VLE is straightforward enough to continue without difficulty after DUCKLING’s conclusion.

With the ebook readers, we learned from interviews with students that using the ebook reader is changing their study habits. To quote one student: “I now study more in my workdays using the e-reader. I’ve been putting it in my bag every day and taking it to work and after lunch reading a few pages. I’ve found that way it keeps the content fresh in my mind. Before with the paper version, I’d allocate my weekends for study.”  Another student commented, “I think that the e-book reader changed my way of keeping notes and makes my study more effective. Before, I used my laptop to write a lot of notes because I felt that I would forget the whole thing if I didn’t take them down. But taking notes is time-consuming and not that effective because I never really use the notes. With the e-book reader, it’s not very inconvenient to go back to the material on the e-reader and I can remember where the material was and go back to the module on the e-reader and look through it. As a result of that, I didn’t take a lot of notes and I don’t think it (not taking notes) makes a difference to my study.”

A further aspect of the continuing use of ebook readers can be viewed from the point of view of finance. One department saw savings over printing and shipping stacks of handouts to students, by instead shipping to the students fully-loaded ebook readers. In some cases the students themselves experienced the savings, realising that they did not have to purchase hard copies of notes and choosing instead to simply read these on their ebook readers. Converting module handouts from Word format into format suitable for ebook readers (epub format in the case of the Sony ebook readers we are using) is not a very difficult process — click here for our instructions to do this. The fact that the iPad supports epub documents, public libraries are beginning to offer ebooks for download in epub format, and students are looking for reading material compatible with smartphones, presses the point that the use of this technology will only increase in future. We predict it will be sustained by popular demand.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

eBooks and eReaders: Advancing at Warp Speed

The DUCKLING project, a collaborative effort between University of Leicester’s Beyond Distance, the School of Psychology and the School of Education has been examining the impact on distance students’ learning of three technologies: podcasts, ebook readers, and the use of Second Life. Back in autumn 2009, we loaded learning materials onto ebook readers and shipped them out to distance students around the world, in lieu of the stacks of printed material shipped in years past and at greater cost. (For  a simple guide to change Word documents to epub documents suitable for most ebook readers, click here to download from the DUCKLING website.) As one of the learning technologists working on the project, I provided subsequent support to the students, mostly by answering their questions on a Blackboard discussion board.

In March of 2010, we shipped ebook readers to a new cohort of distance students, and I have again been providing technical support by discussion on Blackboard. I observed an interesting development in the kinds of questions being asked.

The September 2009 cohort asked questions about the different software required by the ereader (Sony Reader Library, Calibre) and what platforms these run on,  whether PDF documents display on ereaders (answer: they do, but line breaks are rigid so the document does not “flow”). Students also commented that they appreciated carrying all reading material in one package especially while travelling, and the fact that their ereader was a conversation-starter on their morning commute. Some students commented that they wished their ereader had facilities for note-taking (the Sony PRS-505 used in this project does not have this facility).

The March 2010 cohort asked fewer tech-help questions. They had many more technical comments, having already gotten to grips with many of the usability issues. Comments such as “I wish I could organise the documents according to my own design” were quickly answered by other students who had already figured it out. They downloaded their own material onto ereaders and discussed how that worked. Most interestingly to me, they compared reading documents on the ereader not with reading on paper, but with reading on other devices – laptop, iPod Touch, iPhone.  I found myself scrambling to keep up with the suggestions for software to try, sites to visit, apps to purchase. One student looked forward to the ease with which ereaders could make educational material available to students: “…education is the perfect market for ebooks I think. The amount of reading is so wide-ranging, and personally there is a desire to read tonnes of material. The access we have through Leicester for journals is immense; having the same access to the reading lists would just be good for education full stop. It will change, when is the only question.”

In January 2010 the Consumer Electronics Association predicted ereader sales will double in 2010, as Amazon announced the Kindle was “the most gifted item ever from its website” according to Dan Nystedt, IDG News Service. The Apple iPad has every possibility of being a game-changer in this field. Our students’ comments illustrate the speed at which the ebooks and ereaders market is advancing. For students looking for a convenient and cost-effective way of accessing academic material, the change cannot happen too soon.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

Visiting language teaching classes in Second Life – an e-tivity for MA TESOL students

An e-tivity designed for DUCKLING MA TESOL students was officially launched on Monday 12 October 2009 on Blackboard.

The e-tivity was designed by my colleague Gabi based on Salmon’s 5-stage model. Although the e-tivity is designed for students to participate in and contribute to mainly on the Blackboard discussion board, activities in SL including in-world training, visiting language teaching classes, reporting, discussing and sharing SL experiences are key elements of this e-tivity. An outline of this e-tivity was reported in Gabi’s blog.

There are four phases in this e-tivity, and each phase contains one or two mini-e-tivities.

Phase 1: Preparation

  • Mini-e-tivity 1: Introduce yourself on the Blackboard discussion board (Where are you located? What do you do? Why are you interested in Second Life?)
  • Mini-e-tivity 2: Sharing links and useful resources on Second Life on the Blackboard discussion board.
  • Mini-e-tivity 3: Getting started in Second Life (learning how to use SL individually, using a SL training guide).

Phase 2: Training in Second Life

  • Mini-e-tivity 4: In-world training for groups of participants, led by a BDRA learning technologist.

Phase 3: Visiting and observing language teaching classes in Second Life

  • Mini-e-tivity 5: Participants visit language teaching classes in Second Life and each reports back on the Blackboard discussion board to the group what class he/she visited and what he/she observed.

Phase 4: Discussion/reflection

  • Mini-e-tivity 6: Participants share thoughts and feelings on the use of Second Life for EFL teaching, reflecting on the implications for their own teaching contexts, and discussing what’s next.

The TESOL students responded enthusiastically to this e-tivity. So far, 13 participants including one tutor on the distance learning programme have registered their interest. The participants have already started sharing comments and useful resources on the Blackboard discussion board.

The evidence will be collected in several ways including a personal interview with each participant at the end of this e-tivity, students’ comments and feedback on the Blackboard discussion board, transcripts of student discussion in Second Life, and observations in Second Life. I will update my research findings in my later blogs.


Ming Nie

14 October 2009


Inspired by Scott Leslie’s PLE Diagrams wiki, I just had a bash at illustrating my own PLE, organised according to the things I want to do in it:

My personal learning environment (Click on the image for better resolution.)

My personal learning environment (Click on the image for better resolution.)

Then I asked myself:

How many of the functions listed in red, that I currently carry out using the Web 2.0 tools noted in green, could I carry out as effectively in a VLE using the VLE tools? (I was thinking particularly of the virtual learning environment used at our institution – Blackboard 7.)

The answer? Strictly speaking, none – although with a more generous definition of “effectively”, the networking and sharing ones might be addressed. That’s two out of 14, at a stretch.

PLE or VLE? No contest.

Gabi Witthaus

Looking at Blackboard V 9.0

Several days ago, I attended an IT Services campus presentation on Blackboard 9, as the University will be moving from V 7.3 to V 9.0 later in the summer.

If given a choice, I much prefer to watch an experienced user demonstrate software before I dive in myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure the most useful PC stuff I’ve learned (e.g. alt+Tab in Windows) has been while looking over someone’s shoulder.

This presentation was no different, as Richard – who’s forgotten more about learning technologies than I’ll ever know – took several hundred of us (developers, academics, administrators) on a whistle-stop tour of the main features of 9.0.

V 9.0 does look significantly better. I’ve never seen V 8.0, but our V 7.3 has always seemed a little constricted to me, especially from a designer’s viewpoint, and – to put it bluntly – pretty ugly. (Think of the illegitimate love child of a website circa 1998 and an uninspiring accounting package. It even has the option of chunky menu buttons!)

V 9.0 is far more customisable, has plenty of drag and drop functionality, and, overall, is far better looking; it definitely has a ‘Web 2.0’ thing going on.

More importantly, the addition of blogs and journals allows students to be more than passive recipients of content pushed at them by the tutor. They can now generate content of their own, plus BB9 provides a central area where all this can be accessed by tutors and students alike. ‘Inclusiveness’ seems to have been at the forefront of designing this upgrade. Assessment capabilities and control in BB9 also seem much stronger.

Because he was talking to an experienced Blackboard audience, Richard was able to focus on areas of change that will affect how all of us do certain things on campus, about which he has detailed knowledge. The talk was snappy, clear and directly relevant: it was a great shoulder over which to look.

I’m looking forward to getting my BB9 test account next week.

Simon Kear

Learning Technologist

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