New Institute of Learning Innovation papers at ALT-C 2013

The Institute of Learning Innovation will be well-represented at ALT-C 2013 conference: Building new cultures for learning.

Brenda Padilla’s full paper was accepted, with the title ‘Student engagement with a content-based learning design.’ Brenda summarises her paper: ‘While learning is commonly conceptualised as a social, collaborative process, in corporate organisations, online courses often provide limited opportunities for communication between people. How do students engage with content-based courses? How do they find answers to their questions? How do they achieve the learning outcomes? This paper aims to answer these questions by focusing on students’ experiences in an online content-based course delivered in a large Mexican organisation.’

A short paper by Terese Bird was accepted with the title ‘China is harvesting your
iTunes U – and other findings from researching how overseas students engage
with open learning materials.’ This paper will share findings from the HEA-funded iTunesUReach project in which the use of open educational resources (OER) by overseas students was researched. This project was represented at OER13 with the poster below.

A short paper by Ming Nie was accepted with the title ‘iPads in distance learning:
learning design, digital literacy, transformation.’ This paper will share findings from the JISC-funded Places project which is evaluating the use of iPads in two University of Leicester distance learning Masters courses.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow, Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester

Online learning and research – sharing in South Africa

Grainne Conole surrounded by art collected and created by Paul Prinsloo of Unisa

A team from Beyond Distance is visiting Unisa in South Africa for a three-day series of workshops and seminars about research and online learning. It’s wonderful to be back here among friends in Pretoria less than a year after our last visit. The team of six of us from Leicester is split between the Pretoria and Florida campuses. A few links to the presentations that have been given so far follow:

An overview of technology-enhanced learning (Grainne Conole)

Research methodology in technology-enhanced learning (Grainne Conole)

Audio recordings: Research Methodology in TEL Part 1

and Research Methodology in TEL Part 2 (Grainne Conole)

Sharing: from research to practice (Grainne Conole)

Harnessing the power of new media for learning, teaching and research (Grainne Conole)

Audio recording: Harnessing the power of new media for learning, teaching and research part 1

Harnessing the power of new media for learning, teaching and research part 2

Going open: the implications for learning, teaching and research (Grainne Conole)

Optimising the research possibilities in online teaching and learning (Ming Nie and Gabi Witthaus)

Questions for future e-learning research: can we plug the gaps? (Ale Armellini)

New Technologies and 21st century learners and their impact on teaching and learning at Unisa (Palitha Edirisingha, Ming Nie)

Ethical considerations in learning and teaching (Palitha Edirisingha, Ming Nie)

OER-based design for learning and its impact on research (Ming Nie, Gabi Witthaus,Terese Bird)

What works and what doesn’t work in research dissemination (Terese Bird)

The twitter stream from the three-day event (using hashtag #unisa12), captured on Storify:

Announcing the Beyond Distance MSc in Innovative Education and Training

Beyond Distance Research Alliance is very pleased and excited to announce its first degree programme: MSc in Innovative Education and Training. This exciting new course will be conducted by collaborative distance learning. Students will benefit from the tutorial support of our own Professor Gilly Salmon, Dr Alejandro Armellini, and Dr Palitha Edirisingha. The programme will begin October 2010, and can be completed in only 22 months. Study will pursue the themes of learning design, technology, innovation, change, research, and futures. Planned modules include

  1. Learning Innovation
  2. Research to Practice
  3. Looking Back for Moving Forward: Hindsight and Insight
  4. Creating the Future for Learning: Foresight and Oversight
  5. Proposal Preparation and Pilot
  6. Learning Futures Project

Above image is a collage created as an online e-tivity by the international delegates to the Beyond Distance Learning Futures Festival Online 2010

Our goal in this course is to enhance practice and professional development in technology-rich educational environments, giving students the opportunity to consider and critique the developments, likely trajectory and implications of digital technologies for learning. Participants will be encouraged to identify, formulate and debate theoretical and practical insights into education and training at any level and in any country and sector.

If you have been looking for a masters programme that will not only prepare you for the future of learning and training but also to be a leader in this field, this is the course for you!

For more information and to inquire further, visit

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist

The expanding (job) market in e-learning

If you’ve been wondering, perhaps gloomily on the day after the Budget, whether cutbacks in university funding will affect your own job in e-learning, you may want to read some good news about the expanding market in e-learning elsewhere in the world.

The global market for e-learning reached US$27.1 billion in 2009, according to Ambient Insight. The Worldwide Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2009-2014 predicts a five-year compound annual growth rate of 12.8% overall, but an impressive 33.5% for Asia. Key findings from this report include: a resistance to content that has been translated from another language but not truly localized for specific countries, and a boom in global demand for courses offered by for-profit international virtual education providers. SkillSoft is one of the world’s largest commercial e-learning suppliers, having absorbed Smartforce, CBT Systems and NETg over the years. It has now been acquired by a group of private equity firms for approximately $1.1 billion. Or you may like to read a recent Sloan Consortium report – Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009

Meantime, 48.3% of Korean internet users  took some form of e-learning in 2009, according to the Korea Times. Those under 19 years old made the most use (72%) while those aged 50 or more made much less use (18%) of e-learning.

If you’re interested in the flourishing state of e-learning in 39 countries across Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia, turn to the comprehensive two volume set of PDFs edited by Turkey’s Prof Ugur Demiray.

True, you might have to leave the UK to take advantage of the job opportunities in these markets, and you might even have to learn another language or two. Strange that, when you think of how much is being done online, globally… and in English.

It isn’t surprising that registrations for the MA in Online and Distance Education at the Open University have risen sharply in the last couple of years. The expanding market in e-learning augurs well for BDRA’s own proposed MSc in Innovative Education and Training, to be launched worldwide later this year.

David Hawkridge

Audio feedforward for distance-learning assessment support

Recently my BDRA colleague Ming Nie posted an item about the use of audio files or podcasts for feedforward. This was based on work with distance-learning psychology students in the DUCKLING research project, providing dissertation and module assignment support. She highlighted two key benefits in terms of encouraging students to ‘think ahead’ and also providing them with reassurance about being ‘on the right track’.

For the past six months, I have been an online module tutor on a distance-learning course supporting master’s-level management students. As a relative novice in the podcasting arena, this provided a good opportunity to see how audio files could be used to support students’ work on their assignments, coupled with the VLE Discussion Board for assignment and other questions related to the course materials. Some students have access to local tutor support, but others do not. However, for distance learners the assignment is always a potential source of anxiety. So providing resources to complement both the assignment brief and the facility to post discussion board questions seemed likely to be received positively.

The approach comprised three separate audio files, one on assignment process issues and one on each of two assignment questions. At 10 to 14 minutes in length, these would be classified as ‘long’ using the 10-factor model for podcast development (1) derived from the IMPALA research project. However, given the ‘distance’ aspect involved and likely levels of discussion board traffic, providing fewer if longer audio files was a ‘justified compromise’.

It is still early days, but the following observations can be made:

  • The relevance of audio files for non-native English-speaking/English as a study language students, who are able to ‘rewind’ and listen repeatedly to help develop their understanding of the language and of the assessment requirements.
  • The ability to ‘start-stop’ and make notes while listening and then to refer back and use the notes as a reference source or checklist when developing the assignment.
  • The more personal nature of listening to a spoken commentary, compared with reading course materials or asynchronous discussion board Q&A episodes, thus increasing the diversity of teaching media available to students.
  • Students identifying aspects of academic research and writing that their professional background and previous work experience have not highlighted, thus cultivating a different outlook and learning from the study experience rather than from the course materials as such.
  • The use of audio files as vehicles for student discussion in locally-based face-to-face study groups or via ‘closed’ social networking sites set-up by students at the start of the course.

To date, the investment made in interpreting the assignment brief and reflecting on what might be helpful for students seems warranted. Conceptually, this feels no different from preparing personal notes in advance for a class or workshop teaching session where assignment questions might arise, but instead recording the thoughts for wider distribution and remote access.

Roger Dence / 20th November 2009

(1) Edirisingha P, Salmon G and Nie M (2008) “Developing pedagogical podcasts” in Salmon G and Edirisingha P (eds) (2008) Podcasting for learning in universities, SRHE and Open University Press/McGraw-Hill, Maidenhead, 222pp.

Welcome to Wednesday

What do you do on Tuesday evenings? When I can, there’s a roundtable discussion on (and in) Second Life. This week I was talking with a teacher in New Zealand about her subject – language teaching in SL (my Tuesday evening was her Wednesday lunchtime so the conversation included one of those SL-surreal phrases: “Welcome to Wednesday”).

We were speculating on why people would run a language class in Second Life in a sterile classroom, rather than a relevant environment – a Parisienne café, German railway station, Mexican “Day of the Dead” festival for example. One possibility is that they are so enthused about the opportunities for distance learning in Second Life that they don’t consider all the possibilities.

In fact, I’m coming to a tentative conclusion that there may be an institutional learning process that everyone goes through with Second Life (and probably virtual worlds in general). It would run something like this:

1)      Get excited about being able to fly, be with people from anywhere in the real world, create anything you can imagine and interact with it as though it was real

2)       Recreate the real-world institution one belongs to using Second Life, only better (minus rust, potholes and mess, plus trees, classrooms in the sky and quacking ducks)

3)      Recreate real-world teaching – lectures, tutorials, group work

4)      Suddenly realise that teaching could be lots better if the unique environment were fully utilised

5)      Start building environments to support field trips, context for learning and experiences

The switched-on institutions go through this process as a thought exercise and begin their Second Life work further down the list.

It’s good to be switched on!

Dr Paul Rudman
19th November 2009

(See the Second Life group Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable)

A contemplation on realism in virtual learning spaces

This is my first blog entry since joining the SWIFT project here at Beyond Distance. SWIFT is about helping Genetics students learn laboratory skills, and we are designing and building a virtual Genetics lab in the virtual world of Second Life (SL) so that students can have a broader lab experience than is possible in the physical labs (for reasons such as the real labs requiring supervision to ensure health and safety is maintained).

An interesting question came up about the need – or otherwise – for realism in this sort of project. Currently, the virtual Genetics lab in SL is in a “pretty” translucent dome with trees outside, while the real Genetics labs at the University of Leicester are, well, traditional labs.

Does it matter? Should we make the virtual one more like the real one? I thought I would share my initial thoughts based on my own experience in SL:

I have two memories of surfing with friends. One includes sunshine, palm trees and giant waves while the other has grey skies and a cold wind. Both experiences included learning, or reinforcing, the views that a) surfing is fun, b) timing is critical, c) shared experiences are priceless. The cold wind was in Cornwall, UK, and the palm trees were in Hawaii, Second Life.

In terms of motivation to want to surf again, the SL experience was superior. In terms of a shared experience with friends, both experiences are memorable. In terms of learning to use a surf-board, only the real life (RL) experience was able to do that BUT SL did make me aware of the principles (or remind me, since RL preceded SL). The question is, what part did the sunshine and palm trees play in the experience?

Had I been surfing first in the real Hawaii and then in SL without a beautiful environment one could assume that the environment was crucial to the experience. But it was the other way around. Cornwall in spring is cold, and a wet suit is, as the name suggests, wet! Yet I did feel I’d “been surfing”. Adding sunshine and trees in SL did make the experience more pleasurable in one way. Indeed, I would prefer my next surfing experience to be in the RL Hawaii (if only). However, it’s clear that the sunshine and trees are not critical to the experience of “surfing”.

So, applying this to the question of whether a lab experience in SL remains valid if the lab is unfeasibly “pretty”. When I first walked into the RL Genetics lab my reaction was not entirely positive. Looking back on that experience the phrases that spring to mind are “clinical”; “alien”; “authority”; “danger” – the sort of feeling one may have going to hospital for some tests one suspects may be unpleasant. Of course, many people have a different experience! Maybe they think along the lines of “professional”; “exciting”; “cutting-edge”; “medical breakthroughs” – the kind of feeling a child might have when they first sit in the driver’s seat of a parent’s car.

But would replacing some visual elements (low ceiling, bounding walls) with others (translucent walls, pleasant view) remove anything critical to learning? Students in the virtual lab must still wear their lab coat, tie their hair back and wash their hands in the correct sink. In fact, a pleasant virtual lab experience may help some students to overcome any fears they may have.

There are some specific things that may need greater realism. For example, at present the lab has no door (it seems that routines around doors, handles and gloves are important) and having a distinct boundary to the SL lab may be necessary.

Overall, SL is not (and is not intended to be) a replica of RL, it’s a simulation, in the same way that a painting may represent the real world. It’s true that a photograph is a clearer representation of the world than a painting, but a painting has the advantage of being able to add or enhance meaning that a photograph cannot show. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is not a photograph of the night sky – it deliberately distorts reality to make a point.

So the translucent lab walls are staying, for now at least. In creating a virtual representation of the physical world, we may sometimes be better considering a Picasso, or even a Salvador Dali, than assuming a Constable will always be the best solution.

Dr. Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:


Online Conferences: Why waste a good economic crisis?

From 7th through 14th January, 2010, Beyond Distance will hold its 5th Annual Learning Futures Festival. This year, for the first time, the festival will be completely and only online.

Is it good to have a conference in a completely online format? How can sitting in one’s office in front of a computer monitor, clicking, typing, discussing, watching and listening to something taking place many miles away be preferable to actually traveling to that distant city, booking in for the nights, sitting amongst rows and rows of participants all listening to a single speaker on the podium, standing in a queue for the finger food – to say nothing of the expense? The fact is that online conferences are beginning to look more attractive, especially in these days of economic challenge.

But saving money is not the only benefit. Participants report other benefits, such as: more in-depth, more detailed, and more inclusive discussions; participation from delegates further afield; time flexibility; and having a permanent record of proceedings. Online conferences tend to challenge the sage-on-the-stage model of presentation by offering every delegate more direct access to the speaker as well as to every other delegate – in real time and in his own time.

I had an interesting online conference experience this week. I assisted as my colleague Gabi Witthaus served as a keynote speaker for the National Association of Distance Education and Open Learning in South Africa (NADEOSA) annual conference. (See Gabi’s OTTER project blog post about this.) This conference, while not an online conference, was online for me and Gabi – the conference took place in Pretoria, but Gabi and I were in the Media Zoo at University of Leicester.

Gabi had sent a good-quality video file of her presentation to South African colleagues, using filemail, so as not to disappoint if a live presentation connection to South Africa did not work. It was a good thing Gabi decided on a belt-and-braces approach. The first difficulty was that filemail, though always rock-solid, proved problematic for South African colleagues; in the end they settled for a low-resolution version of the file. The second issue arose with the live question-and-answer session; we tried various conferencing software, but all proved unstable. We had hoped to at least connect via a phone landline, but there was no landline in the auditorium where the keynote was to take place. Finally we settled on Skype – with video in the Media Zoo so that Gabi could be seen and heard in Pretoria, but with sound only in the auditorium so that Gabi could hear, but not see, the delegates.

In the end, the keynote presentation, though not without its difficulties (Skype dropped the call several times but we quickly reconnected), was a great success. We wondered if the audience, simply watching a movie of a presentation, would feel engaged enough. The many in-depth and insightful questions revealed that they had engaged. We were indeed at a very lively and thought-provoking conference with an auditorium full of academics, even though it was only two of us in the Media Zoo with a laptop, thousands of miles away. The fact that we fruitfully participated with colleagues with much less access to technology than we have underlined the need to continue exploring online conferencing in higher education. Please watch this space for upcoming information on our own Beyond Distance Learning Futures Festival Online – and plan to join us!

Terese Bird

E-book readers and the life style of distance learners

I recently interviewed a student who is studying a distance learning MA course in Applied Linguistics and TESOL offered by the University of Leicester. This student works in a private language school in Vancouver as an English teacher.

Interestingly, he told me that he owned a SONY PRS-505 e-book reader since the product came out into the market 18 months ago. He has already downloaded all the course materials and some recommended journal articles from Blackboard onto his e-book reader, and reads them quite often.

He found issues to do with formatting, for example, sometimes there is one word displayed on one page. This is expected as we haven’t edited any of the course documents on Blackboard into appropriate format for the e-book reader.

Nevertheless, he finds his e-book reader extremely useful, particularly with regard to his life style. He travels a lot. The e-book reader allows him to keep up with the learning without carrying the readings with him. He’s also very actively involved in out-door activities, such as camping. The e-book reader allows him to read in places where there is no electricity. Fortunately the battery of an e-book reader lasts a lot longer than that of a laptop.

I’ve talked to several distance learning students by now. They seem to share a similar life style – having a demanding life, trying to balance work, study and family, struggling to find a suitable time or place to read, multi-tasking, last-minute work, etc.

One of the students that I talked to is self-employed. He works as a consultant and a large part of his job is to visit clients. During the day, he always carries lots of readings with him, and if he finds a gap between two meetings, he finds a café or hotel, has a cup of coffee and reads.

Another student travels regularly between France and England. She always carries a big file folder containing all the course materials with her. The file folder adds a lot of weight to her luggage, and she feels that she’s disturbing the passenger sitting next to her on the plane every time she opens that big folder. An e-book reader could ease all these problems. It’s a device that fits in nicely with the life style of our distance learners.

Having said those wonderful things, the student found a drawback with his SONY 505 – it will not allow him to annotate. Interestingly, having experimented with e-book readers for several months among ourselves, some colleagues of mine have also found this to be the problem. They found the e-book reader quite limited without the ability to annotate.

Another colleague of mine mentioned the other day how wonderful her iLiad e-book reader is, by allowing her to highlight, take notes, and annotate while she’s flying on a plane, and allowing her to merge the annotation with the original document and display them together on a computer screen later on.

The higher model SONY e-book readers (PRS-700) offer functions such as touch screen and annotation. However, it comes at a price. The SONY 505 costs about £180-190, whereas the SONY 700 costs about £350-400, much more expensive. It seems there is a decision to be made on whether to comprise on function because of the price.

Ming Nie              4 June 2009

Shared pedagogic research interests and the sustainability of learning and teaching

Oxford Brookes University has a CETL called the Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Network (HLSTN). In 2007 the CETL published a special edition of its LINK newsletter. It was on small projects completed up to 2006 that had received support from the HLSTN’s pedagogic research fund. I worked with the authors to produce 27 edited summaries for the newsletter.

The projects reflect interests of HLST staff across the country: e-learning, employability, sustainability, assessment and feedback, work-based learning, PDP and key skills, interdisciplinarity, student motivation, internationalisation and cultural values, reflective practice, research methods, student retention, problem-based learning, the first-year student experience, foundation degree delivery, learning styles, widening participation, student performance, academic writing and quality assurance.

Although these projects were all embedded in the HLST sector, I could not help noticing when I re-read them recently that the University of Leicester – and Beyond Distance  in particular – share many of these interests. Some of them are national themes.

Sustainability is a concept with many angles, including green ones, but I’ve just read the report published by HEFCE nearly six months ago about the sustainability of learning and teaching in English higher education.* Its message is that this learning and teaching is unsustainable at current funding levels and with current student numbers. Staffing, buildings and equipment are inadequate now and will become more so. Our international standing and competitiveness are at stake. This finding surprised me, because under Labour education has experienced relative plenty.

In a recession, with a huge national debt, how can financial sustainability be attained? In 2007/08, says the report, the higher education sector delivered efficiencies of at least £202m; figures for 2008/09 are not yet available. Further efficiencies will no doubt be demanded. The sector may lose, not gain, government funding.

I don’t know the answer, except that economies of scale must be found, possibly through increased use of e-learning. But to date e-learning has been seen as an add-on cost. A couple of years ago a paper** made the case for distance learning (not e-learning as such) systems offering substantial savings in carbon emissions over campus systems. That’s another kind of sustainability.


*JM Consulting (2008) The sustainability of learning and teaching in English higher education. A report prepared for the (HEFCE) Financial Sustainability Strategy Group.

**Roy, Robin, Potter, Stephen and Yarrow, Karen (2007) ‘Designing low carbon higher education systems: environmental impacts of campus and distance learning systems’. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9, 2, 116-129.

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