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

RE: A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education

Thanks to multiple-retweeting, I recently discovered the Higher Education Academy (who fund SWIFT)-commissioned “A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education” and it has an interesting section on Virtual Worlds (VWs).

Overall, the report [pg. 40, somewhat reworded] sums up the challenge of benefiting from VWs as:

1. Understanding that “traditional” pedagogic approaches are not always the best

The thing is, university teaching could be much more effective if we were to design it from scratch (see Laurillard, 2002). The VW environments have features that the real world does not have and allow more teaching approaches, but given that we are not utilising much of what we already have, it’s not surprising that too many projects have simply taken traditional teaching and replicated it in VWs. So, when people ask “What’s the point of a lecture hall in a VW?”, my reply tends to be “What’s the point of a lecture hall in real life?”.

2. Finding the most effective way to use this new tool

Virtual worlds are a physical environment that can provide a practical learning experience in context. With reference to my last post, the learner can interact with modelled real world spaces (e.g. Genetics Island, 1920’s Berlin), explore social situations (role play) in the context of those spaces (e.g. virtual hospital, language school) and learn directly from experience (e.g. virtual hallucinations).

3. Developing new VWs

Moodle and Blackboard both benefit from having the other as competitor. The VW of Second Life has benefitted from others such as OpenSim, and vice versa. This should, and will, continue. But really, I see a different type of VW emerging. It needs to be more iPad app style.

4. Removing technical and social barriers to VW use

In 1995, I was studying Psychology and the AI tutor announced that “There’s something new in the library that you should go and see. It will be important. It’s called the World Wide Web.” 15 years later, we can all have that in our pockets. The same, I’m sure, will happen for VWs.

5. Adjusting institutional policies to allow teaching with VWs to be as mainstream as VLEs like Blackboard and Moodle

VWs are easily dismissed as “just a game”, because they look like that at first glance, and first glance is all that some people give them. The technology will always be inferior to the real world that we are used to. Yet what we have in VWs is quite capable of doing what we need. It’s like being used to a bus, wanting a car, and being dismissive of the offer of a bike, when the task is visiting the corner shop on a sunny day.

Institutional policies do not usually change easily. In fact, it may take until we change the way Universities teach in real life before it suddenly becomes helpful to teach with VWs. Maybe the painful process of budget cuts will have this change as a silver lining. Or maybe it won’t. But there are better ways of teaching than simply standing on a stage and lecturing. Sooner or later, change will come.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: a conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Rupert gets rattled

Backstage at the World’s Got Talent show, the tension was palpable. Rupert’s parents were anxiously whispering to one another in Japanese, in between making encouraging comments to Rupert in an effort to bolster his confidence, and showing a brave face to the camera. Their main concern was the little upstart competitor, Ivy. Even younger than Rupert, she was already set to be an international celebrity. She came from a family of stars in the American tradition, and neither she nor her parents seemed to feel the slightest hint of self-doubt about her ability to win over the audience. Rupert’s mother noted that there was something almost obscene about her: so small and innocent and yet somehow sleek and seductive. And multi-talented – she could perform almost every trick in the book. Rupert, on the other hand, being an avid reader and having absorbed an encyclopaedic range of knowledge at his tender age, seemed rather intellectual and nerdy in comparison. Perhaps he would appeal to the older, more sensible members of the audience?

But the real wild card was Ivy’s younger brother, Ivan, who had, only weeks before, emerged into the public eye. His developmental years had been shrouded in secrecy, and this was to be his first public appearance. Leaked reports from journalists and bloggers in-the-know indicated that Ivan was a rather simple fellow, and was never likely to be able to perform a great range of tricks, or even to do more than one thing at a time. But his stunning good looks and irresistible charm were said to have swept even the most sensible and mature observers off their feet.

[to be continued]


15 May 2010


Rupert had felt neglected ever since he was born. Even if he was widely regarded as faster, lighter and cheaper than his predecessors, Rupert knew he’d never be a high flyer. He was aware that chances were that before he reached maturity (or even puberty), others might snatch the floor and he would have no further meaningful role to play. Rupert was born in a fast-moving world, which was both a blessing and a tragedy for him.

The mere thought of being left out and forgotten devastated Rupert. He really thought he had a lot to offer, that he could change people’s lives for the long term. He really believed there was a future for him, and others like him, during the difficult times ahead. He struggled to make the most of now -when he was in the spotlight- while debating with himself what to do. His survival was at stake.

[to be continued]

14 May 2010

Pianos – New Facebook? A Story About Non-Digital Disruptive Innovation and Bishops Itchington

It is hot, hot, hot, isn’t it? And with everyone trying to make the best out of the British summer while it lasts, people are crowding the Great Outdoors – i.e. any horizontal patch of grass they can spot.
Take Leicester Square in London. On Tuesday it contained hoards of people, certainly equivalent in numbers to the population of Bishops Itchington (I have no idea what that number actually is, and if you insist, yes, I did choose it as example because of the name, and yes, it is a real place.)
There were people sitting on the benches, lying on the grass, splashing in the fountain, presumably some were pick-pocketing while others were buying ice-cream, smudging ice-cream on their clothes, removing ice-cream smudges from their clothes – the usual pastimes. And then, there was someone playing the piano. Only in this case, it was not the usual street performer. It was a young guy, looking a bit shy and a bit like a tourist and playing a bit out of tune a Rihanna tune. And yet, he was surrounded by people, listening intently, smiling, applauding him encouragingly, some recording his performance on their phones. Passers-by stopped, joined the little crowd surrounding the piano, listened and started conversations with other people. When the player finished, he got up and his place was taken by a girl who had been standing in the audience, until her friends pushed her forward. She played beautiful classical music, attracting more people to the little crowd. What was going on?
It was all part of an art project – Piano in The Street – by the artist Luke Jerram. The project involves placing 30 pianos in open public places. Anyone can play them. On his website the artist says that the pianos in the street are meant to be an interconnected resource for people to express themselves, and like Facebook, to connect and to create. This is what Luke Jerram says on his website:
“Why is it that when I go to the laundrette I see the same people each week and yet nobody talks to one another? Why don’t I know the names of the people who live opposite my house? Play Me, I’m Yours was designed to act as a catalyst for strangers who regularly occupy the same space, to talk and connect with one another. ..Disrupting people’s negotiation of their city, the pianos are also aimed to provoke people into engaging, activating and claiming ownership of their urban landscape.”

In Leicester Square it was fascinating to watch how a piece of technology without a single computer chip in it, a technology which has existed for the past 300 years can be re-invented to bring people together in an innovative and creative way. Especially as the little old piano, covered in stickers and graffiti, was surrounded by the big billboards of the cinemas in Leicester Square, with the images of the super-tech, overpowering Transformers 3 and Terminator 4 staring down coldly at the busy chattering human crowd. I couldn’t help but connect the little piano’s magnetism to the playfulness, inquisitiveness and social learning in human beings, beautifully illustrated by Prof. Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall. And it made me think – how much space is there in the pedagogies of today for curiosity, experimentation and creativity by the learners? How much do we want it to be tomorrow?

02/07/09 University of Leicester BDRA
Sandra Romenska

Crime Scene Investigation in the Garden of EDEN

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is an American TV series which follows the investigations of a team of Las Vegas forensic scientists, trying to solve mysterious and unusual murders. EDEN is the European Distance and E-Learning Network whose annual conference took place last week in Gdansk, Poland. The link between the two? I found it in a presentation during the EDEN conference, which felt as an inverse “Eureka” moment. And by an inverse “Eureka” I mean the experience of one of the protagonists in the latest Terminator movie when he discovered he was not human as he believed but a machine, programmed to believe it was human (apologies for the spoiler). A lot of pieces fall into place and make sense but you are none the happier.

The presentation that brought all of these analogies was called “Using Multiple Online Security Measures to Deliver Secure Course Exams to Distance Education Students” by a team from Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus. After two days of discussions and demonstrations at EDEN of the power of new technologies to unlock learners and teachers’ creativity, the promise of new and exciting ways for collaboration and discovery for the future of learning, of openness and freedom, the presentation from Penn State suddenly brought home the fact that there exists a very real and very different possible future for learning – that of the CSI approach I mentioned in the beginning.

The security measures in question were brought in at Penn State University in response to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, effective August 14, 2008 in the USA, that requires institutions to authenticate the identity of distance education students. An excerpt from the Act goes like this:

“The agency or association [i.e., the accreditor] requires an institution [i.e., a college] that offers distance education or correspondence education to have processes through which the institution establishes that the student who registers in a distance education or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit.”

While this sounds very sensible and necessary, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with the set of measures that Pennsylvania University was advocating for the implementation of this requirement, or as they called it The Proctored Exam. It involves biometric authentification (the students are supplied with a device that collects biometric data, a bit like the equipment Border Police use); Real-Time Data Forensics (apparently the typing pattern of each of us is unique, like fingerprints and the Proctoring Exam software requires the examinee to type randomly generated text until enough data is collected to validate their identity); constant live webcam feed, capturing the room in which the student is taking the exam; a piece of software which record every key stroke during the exam and takes control over the students computer, blocking access to the machine’s web browser and all other programmes apart from the exam software. All of those. The reason I keep referring to movies in this blog post is that it is only in movies that I have seen so much technological control over an activity – be it Crime Scene Investigation or Terminator. It made me think that the abundance of fast accessible open knowledge and innumerable possibilities to do things with this knowledge will not necessarily lead to a future of freedom, trust and creativity. Learners in the future may well be faced with a choice. To attend and graduate from an institution where learning is assessed and consequently certified on the basis of what they can do, what they can create and how they can collaborate in an environment of freely accessible knowledge, where identity is established by unique skills and outcomes of learning (for example assessment tasks may be based on individually tailored continuous monitoring of the development of the unique combination of skills and knowledge of individual students). Or, perhaps employers and state authorities will press for uniformity and certification of learning outcomes based on comparisons among students and rankings, where indeed validation of identity will be done through the methods of CSI.

The future will tell… However, taking into account the defeat of the powerful music industry in trying to impose control over what people do with their music through technological means (which is what Penn State University is hoping to do but for learning rather than music), I would place my bets for a future where technology is enabling, individual and supportive, rather than forensic and policing. After all, the founder of Pirate Bay just got elected for an European Parliament MP

Sandra Romenska


The beckoning Wave

‘You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment’, wrote Henry David Thoreau.

Though really torn about using Thoreau’s name and that of Google in the same piece, I could not think of a more meaningful quotation with the term ‘wave’ in it.

Not happy with just being the undisputed leaders in online searching, Google has unveiled Google Wave, a system aimed at improving online collaboration. Perhaps I should say ‘revolutionising  online collaboration’.

Beware Microsoft and Apple. Google, whose company mission is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ has just hit a home run!

Like the legendary Macworld Expo, where the Applemeister Steve Jobs has annually held court, Google launched the Wave to developers at the Google I/O Conference in San Francisco.

With the unveiling of one piece of groundbreaking technology after another at this humdrum convention venue, the Moscone Centre, has become the choice of site for ‘revolutionary stagings’ –  not unlike a Runnymede or a Bretton Woods of the technological age! 

After displacing the AOLs and the Yahoos of the ‘search world’, and then emerging from the shadow of the Apple vs. Microsoft struggle for ‘net-world domination’, the not-so-subtle message now is that ‘Google has arrived’ and it appeared to be received loud and clear.

Maybe Google staffers are just hitting back because Google was nudged from the top spot (sliding to number 4 in the rankings) of Fortune Magazine’s list of the 100 best companies to work for!!

Google software engineering manager and the man behind Google Maps, Lars Rasmussen pointed to previous communications advances such as email and instant messaging as the starting point for Google Wave – essentially, posing the question: What would email look like if we developed it today? Read it here in his own words.

With Wave, Google are proposing a new communications model, and appear keen to find out what the world might think. Though Google don’t have a specific timeframe for public release, they are  planning to continue working on Google Wave for a number of months more as a developer preview. If you’d like to be notified when Google launches Wave as a public product, you can sign up here.

Just a scan of the available reviews from the blogsphere reveals generally gushing praise – with terms like ‘how frighteningly integrated’ and ‘an absolute game changer’ liberally used to greet the Wave.

Google hopes Wave will cause a rethink about what a single communications platform might look like and be able to support when it is built from scratch, but with access to the online technologies most users take for granted in this day and age.

Wave will allow multiple users to exchange real-time dialogue, photos, videos, maps, documents and other information forms within a single, shared communications space known as a wave.

Users of the system should be able to see instantly what fellow collaborators are typing and even publish a wave to a blog or web site, where the content will update instantly as the wave changes.

Google said the aim is to allow people to communicate and work together in an infinitely richer, more instant and integrated way.

Google Wave will introduce features such as concurrent rich text editing, whereby users will be able to see, ‘almost instantly, letter-by-letter, what fellow collaborators are typing into a message or document in a wave,’ according to Rasmussen

There will also be a playback feature, and Google said the technology can integrate with the rest of the web. And supporters of ‘open sourcing’ need not fret as Google also said it was planning to open source Google Wave in the coming months. ‘Developers can build extensions to Google Wave using our open APIs, embed waves in other sites, or build applications that interoperate with Google Wave,’ said Rasmussen.

Among other things, online teaching and collaborative learning potentially stands to be revolutionised in ways we only imagined before. How long before a system incorporating Google Wave gets adapted as a VLE, with opportunities for online collaboration that other VLE platforms can only wonder about?

– Jai Mukherjee (3 June 2009)

With inputs from online news sites and print news publications … since Google invited neither Thoreau nor me to the launch!

Collaboration is key

Last Thursday, I attended a one-day workshop along with other members of BDRA and the University of Leicester’s IT Services.

It was great to see some old colleagues and put faces to the names of new ones. We divided ourselves into tables consisting of roughly equal numbers of ITS and BDRA personnel.

The morning session was led by Mary and Nevin from ITS. Within the context of the four-quadrant model that formed the basis of the UoL’s 2005 eLearning Strategy, we categorised existing and emerging technologies, considered the implications of maintaining critical services, and examined the decision-making process that precedes any new additions to the technology stable.

The afternoon session was led by Gilly for BDRA. Ale, Sahm and Palitha gave brief presentations on some of the BDRA projects: MOOSE, WoLF, ADELIE, IMPALA and our brand new addition, OTTER. We then separated into our teams to break down – in terms of innovation to practice – a number of case studies provided by Gilly.

I find a workshop of this nature to be very useful. For example, I learned a great deal about the priorities of ITS in ensuring critical services continue to run. The loss of email functions for even an hour can have considerable productivity, and therefore cost, implications for the university. Equally useful was seeing how decisions that affect IT at UoL are made.

I think it was useful for our ITS colleagues too, based on the questions asked of the BDRA presenters about the various research projects, and the request for the presentations to continue, despite time constraints!

But there is value in a workshop like this that goes beyond simple information absorption. Because of the face-to-face contact, I know I can confidently phone my new contact in ITS and she me; we have a relationship based on the shared experience of the workshop.

And there is collaboration. Our practical exercises during the day allowed us to assess each other in terms of how we would all work together. Based on our table, and the output of the other tables, I feel very confident that UoL will benefit considerably from any collaboration between the practical of ITS and the research of BDRA.

I look forward to our next workshop.

Simon Kear
Learning Technologist

Where are we so far? A summary

After over a month of intense collective blogging and critical friending, I thought it useful to capture some ‘highlights’, in the order in which they were contributed. The topics are varied. The tag cloud only gives a partial view of the richness of this blog.

The purpose here is to offer, on a single page, an overview of some of the key ideas that colleagues have contributed so far, in a way that the tag cloud does not capture. Maybe another contributor can select some of these highlights and weave them into a meaningful post? Or perhaps categorise them (with significant areas of overlap, I’m sure) in a way that -again- the tag cloud cannot do?

Learning 2.0,, Turnitin… but academics are unconvinced (Gilly)

Graduating from the Learning Futures Academy (M Mobbs)

Change through research – the Animal Kingdom (Ale)

Mushrooming of e-book readers (Pal)

Tactile thinking & tips to use stiftables in SL (M Wheeler)

Changing teaching through trial and error with learning technologies (Jai)

‘The future’ according to the London Tech Summit 2009 (Sandra)

Sustainability of education: will e-learning be essential? (David)

Learning, teaching, the environment and space (Sahm)

Podcasting is normalised… but hot still (Ming)

Remote applications for editing graphics and photos (Sandra)

Cloud computing and access to resources after graduation (M Mobbs)

The value of good teaching – are we too obsessed with learning (and political correctness?) (Ale)

Domesticating iPods – what do our learners use to listen to their course audio files? (Pal)

Free content, open educational resources and hidden agendas (Sandra)

Saving penalties, training goalkeepers: let’s use video footage on our iPods (Jai)

Infectious disease: using iPhones can seriously change your behaviours (M Wheeler)

Teamwork, communication, roles and collaboration post our National Space Centre visit (Sahm)

Being naked in Second Life (Ming)

Centralising BDRA resources (David)

Success factors of Web 2.0 (Roger)

The significance of rocks: past, present and future (Gilly)

Cool, useful web-based resources (Sandra)

BDRA’s knowledge store: the way forward (David)

Using an iPhone and being a puppet master (or being a puppet oneself?) (Jai)

Disruptive technologies, unexpected changes… and even benefits (M Wheeler)

Wiki-ing a podcast: can we really annotate an audio file in a usable format? (Pal)

Teaching memories with old and stable technologies + impact on today’s practices and on the self (Roger)

Detox yourself – give up technology for a bit! (Sahm)

Text’n’talk: what what works and what not in Second Life (Ming)

The Media Zoo today and in the future (M Wheeler)

Street view on Google – Earth-tivities are next! (Gilly)

In sum, a wide variety of contributions, reflecting the interests and thoughts of each member of our team, as well as some collective understanding around key concepts. Let this journey continue!

Alejandro Armellini
22 March 2009

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