Please can we stop e-learning…

I tried a little experiment as I walked back from the Beyond Distance Research Alliance to the Department of Engineering the other day.  You could try it for yourself.

Walk around the university campus – or shopping centre – or another public place and count the number of people using mobile devices. Estimate the proportion of people using mobile devices – iPods, phones, whatever. Of the 48 people I counted, 20 were using mobile devices (most of them phones) – so about 40%.

Now try the same experiment at home. My wife, my son and I were sitting down supposedly watching television last night.  However, my wife was playing scrabble on her iPod with my son on his iPhone (in between both text messaging.)  I was emailing and generally browsing on my laptop.  So that’s more than 100%. And of course we were interacting in the real world too (if you count Eastenders as the real world …)

Slightly changing the subject – I’ve just acquired an iPhone – having had more conventional PDAs for as long as I can remember – certainly 20 years.  Of course it’s not a phone really.  Indeed, I’m not really sure how to make phone calls on it but I’m sure it’s quite easy if ever the need arises.  I use it for emails, social networking, running apps to tell me the tides in Teddington, entertaining my granddaughter …

I “attended” the Follow the Sun conference just before Easter.  I say “attended” as I was attending another conference in Canterbury at the time.  But I joined in and found myself talking to my laptop in a crowded junior common room – utilising the free WiFi there.  Ten years ago, people would have stopped and stared.  I don’t think anyone batted an eye lid – there’s nothing more usual than talking to your computer.

So can we really talk about the “virtual worlds” – about “online learning” – as if they’re something different to reality?  This is the world in which we live.  One which is densely interconnected. One in which the physical world that you observe is just one of several windows on the real world that you interact with.

So I hope we can stop talking about e-learning soon.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking about it – and I like writing about it and being a part of BDRA.  But I hope that we’ll just take it for granted that this is normal – why would we want to teach and learn in any other way?

Professor John Fothergill

Head of Engineering, University of Leicester

Talking of iPads and Learning

Well, Steve Jobs and iPad 2 may make these comments seem obsolete! Just as I am writing my blog, he unexpectedly appears on stage…

All the same, I am fascinated by the online conversations among members of the Association for Learning Technology about using Apple iPads for elearning. In part this fascination is because I now have daily access to an iPad, but it’s also because these ALT members are well-informed and adventurous.  

I start with Seb Schmoller’s suggestion: Educause’s “7 Things You Should Know About iPad Apps for Learning” That gives me a quick overview, including a few examples of institutions trying them out.  

Our own Terese Bird notes a US college’s one-iPad-per-student programme and a New York Times article on use of iPads in American schools. 

Terese Bird also says she heard about a paperless course created in Switzerland with iPads that paid for themselves by saving printing costs. 

Simon Brookes sends this report on Reed College’s apparently successful use of iPads. He also mentions Stanford Medical School requiring first year students to have them. Elearning in hospital? 

Then of course there are techie views galore. I shall skip them.

Whether iPad or iPad 2, I still have the same question uppermost in my mind: what educational benefits are there? Or, to put it another way, can I think up ways of helping students who use iPads to learn more from, to understand better, to think critically about – their courses?

If Stanford, Reed and Seton Hill, just to mention three higher education institutions, have found out how to make it worthwhile for students to own iPads, shouldn’t the University of Leicester know about that? I think so. It sounds like a timely small-scale study for the Beyond Distance Research Alliance, possibly one funded by the university itself

David Hawkridge

No longer a technology sceptic!

I am a PhD student at BDRA and have been invited to join the regular BDRA blog where this is my first attempt. I chose to come to BDRA to study as I had the opportunity to be involved in the Carpe Diem process initially as part of the ADELIE project and following on from this my employing university became a partner in the ADDER project giving me further opportunity to be involved in Carpe Diem (Armellini and Aiyegbayo 2010).

At my first Carpe Diem it is fair to say I was something of a technology sceptic unconvinced that there was a place for e-learning within Interprofessional Education as I felt it is important for students to meet and interact face to face. I also had failed to recognise how much technology had already crept into me and my family’s life. The Carpe Diem experience really taught me how to develop effective educational resources using an integrated team approach, with skilled facilitators and more surprisingly it helped me learn that technology could be appropriated very effectively not just to deliver learning differently but sometimes more effectively as well.

I am now immersed in the development of educational resources, in helping subject teams develop effective educational resources and in particular Open Educational Resources (OERs) and the impact that these will have on academics, students and communities of health practice. In delivering effective education today it is no longer acceptable to be a technology sceptic and I am excited to be studying in an environment which helps me to understand and add to the knowledge of how technology can be a positive force for future health education.

Ali Ewing

Armellini, A. and Aiyegbayo, O. (2010). Learning design and assessment with e-tivities. British Journal of Education Technology. Vol 41, No 6, p922-935.

European Apple Leadership Summit – Part 1

On 11 January 2011 I attended the European Apple Leadership Summit at the Mayfair Hotel in London. This was a by-invitation-only event; my invitation was based on a few things, one of which is my work on the SPIDER project, looking at iTunes U as a distribution channel of open educational resources (OER). This meeting was Apple’s chance to make the case to those in leadership in European higher education that Apple software and hardware should play a role in educational technology. They mostly let case studies do the talking.

A Paperless Conference

This meeting was a one-day conference — keynote, invited speakers, and individual workshops. Apple did not hand out any papers nor post any charts in the lobby listing where each workshop would take place and who was signed up where. Rather, they gave all attendants an iPad for the day. I actually received an iPad for Christmas, and said to the nice Apple lady, “I have my own.” She said, “You’ll want ours, because it’s pre-loaded with conference stuff.” Indeed it was. There was a custom-made app for the conference, showing the Twitter stream, a little movie welcoming me to the event, bios of all the speakers, agenda for the day, list of delegates’ institutions, and an interactive survey to be filled in at the end. Because I signed into the app, with the same email address by which I registered for the conference, it knew who I was and which workshop(s) I signed up for, so it gave me a pop-up window telling me I had 10 minutes to get to my next session and displayed a little map showing me which room to go to. It did not work perfectly, but it was pretty close, and therefore pretty impressive. Of course I used the iPad throughout the conference especially to tweet. It was also a good chance to check out some of the new apps created by featured educators and speakers; while speakers were describing how they made these apps, I could check them out on my iPad. A couple of negatives about giving me an iPad: I had planned to take notes on my own iPad. If the Evernote app had been installed on the iPad they gave me, I would have been sorted; as it was, I quickly decided to take notes by liberal tweeting and a few paper scribbles. Another negative was that I would have liked a list of other delegates’ emails, or at least the emails of the speakers. But I handed in the iPad at the end of the day and had no list of delegates; of course I made contacts on my own, but it’s nice to have a list of delegates’ emails given to you. If this had been a proper academic conference, I would have thought the app should be tweaked to send a delegates’ list if desired.



'Globe' iPad app. Photo by kenco on Flickr.


News from Pearson Publishers

A very senior person from Pearson described how they are producing their textbooks in format suitable for all e-book reader devices: Kindle, epub for most e-readers, and media-rich epub for the iPad. She identified the iPad as the best vehicle for textbooks, because one can have colour photos and embedded movies and sound. The Open University, for example, has produced many free e-books (available on their iTunes U site) with embedded audio and (I believe) embedded video as well. The question I have here is: yes, iBooks displays multimedia-rich e-books beautifully. iBooks is Apple-only. Will there be an iBooks-type software for Windows computers and for nonApple handheld devices– how long will it take for something like this to appear?

There is more to report from this event. I shall write more in a future blog post.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

How I became a PhD student at the BDRA

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

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

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

— Brenda Padilla

Is the Pad a Fad?

The only Apple device I own and use (reluctantly) is a very old iPod. When my mobile phone contract expired last month, I spent a whole weekend researching alternatives to the ubiquitous to the iPhone, so popular in Beyond Distance. My post today, therefore, is not meant to add another voice to the chorus of adoration for Steve Jobs’ toys. Rather, it is about the technological promise for learning which his latest device, the oh-so-discussed iPad brought. The Economist dubbed it the Tablet of Hope, Twitter is teeming with jokes about its name. In the midst of it all I came across two accounts which felt like glimpses into a fortune teller’s crystal ball – the future….:

Here they are, two generations firmly outside the scope of formal learning, discovering new information, using it in novel ways, creating and communicating, in one word – learning. And learning intuitively, seamlessly and enthusiastically. Now when the learning technology for learning technophobes seems to have arrived, we need to create and adapt pedagogical frameworks which will make its use meaningful and efficient. As to what exactly the windows for learning opened up by the iPad might be, my guess is to do with tactile learning. After the revival of voice, brought in by podcasting, learning by touch may be another of the very primal and early ways in which human beings learn to be rediscovered as a learning technology. Tactile learning will be more object oriented, with smaller elements, with a closer blend of content and collaboration and increased use of video stories and images. The two and a half year-old and the ninety-nine year-old from the videos above are happy enough to learn using a tablet. When enough research evidence accumulates, perhaps academics will be happy to teach using a tablet. Only the future will tell…

Sandra Romenska, 04 May 2010

Online Seminars: Better than being there…

On 3 March 2010, Beyond Distance (funded by the Higher Education Academy) hosted a Podcasting in Assessment Seminar (PANTHER) which was both face-to-face and online. 35 delegates gathered at the University of Leicester to share experience and evidence gathered in the use of podcasts for assessment. 31 delegates from around the world joined in by means of the web classroom software ‘Wimba.’ The blended nature of this seminar gave us the opportunity for some comparison between its face-to-face and online  experiences.

Before the seminar started, people came into the room pretty much on time, spoke politely to those sitting nearby, sat down and individually quietly prepared for the seminar. In the Wimba online room, people logged in as much as 45 minutes early, and, using the chat, introduced themselves and talked to each. The online chat was easy-going and often informal. Everyone online could see what every other e-delegate typed into the chatbox, allowing for integrated communication. Pre-seminar communication was therefore more plentiful and inclusive amongst online participants than among face-to-face participants.

During the seminar, people in the physical university room were quiet until invited to submit questions. Online participants, however, were able to comment immediately and ask questions at anytime. Our e-moderator gathered up and submitted questions to the panel at the question time. In the morning session, there were more questions from the online participants than from those face-to-face; in the afternoon, there were more face-to-face questions. However, online participants constantly discussed with each other throughout the seminar, using Wimba chat facility as their ‘back channel’.  A few of the participants in the University room had laptops with them and took part online too. These dual-mode delegates acted as bridges between the two environments and engaged in discussion with both groupings. Our impression is that face-to-face participants took more time to get warmed up and inducted into the nature of the sessions, whereas the online participants jumped right in. Also, online participants benefited from the freedom to constantly comment and discuss during the seminar.

At one point in the seminar, participants in the live session were divided into groups and asked to work together to plan and record a podcast episode, and to share it with everyone. Online participants did the same – some in groups, some individually.  The resulting files were emailed to us. We received files in a variety of languages and formats including some enhanced podcasts (podcasts with added visuals). It was fascinating to see how varied, creative, and resourceful these submissions were. Once we received these files, we played them for the face-to-face participants and made sure Wimba transmitted them as well, so all participants could hear and see what everyone else had produced.

I would not suggest that all face-to-face, physically based conferences should be replaced by online or virtual conferences.  But we have demonstrated that e-conferencing offers special benefits: more and freer discussion, faster engagement with the presentations; access to all other computer- and internet-based resources close at hand during the session, and money, time and carbon saved from avoiding travel.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, Beyond Distance Research Alliance


Learning Futures Festival (LFF) 2010 on Sunday the 10th

Yesterday (10th Jan) was the fourth day of the Beyond Distance’s Learning Futures Festival.

Delegates joined the conference via a mixture of modes: in Second Life, on-line on Ellumiante and via the conference website.

The keynote speech and other presentations were delivered from different geographical locations reflecting the truly international flavour of the LFF 2010. Dr Stephen Downes who delivered the keynote came online from his hotel room in Las Vegas (at 5am!).

About forty participants joined the keynote session from around the world: from Sao Paulo (Brazil); Victoria, British Columbia; Denmark, Connecticut, Egypt, South Africa, and of course many parts of England where snow was in some cases gradually melting! (Leicester, Bath, Kent, Welingborough, London). This was a satisfactory number of participants for a session on a Sunday, especially including the international delegates.

The keynote was very engaging and interactive, in a very relaxed atmosphere on Elluminate. Stephen joined Elluminate’s live seminar room half an hour before the session, and participants had a chance to introduce themselves to Stephen and to each other before the keynote started.

In his keynote, Stephen argued that recent developments in educational technology have centred round the concept of personal learning environments (PLEs). He considered PLEs as a replacement for virtual learning environments (VLEs). PLEs focus on the individual learners while VLEs focus on the class or the institution. He stressed the need to examine the pedagogy in personal learning. The key questions for teachers were: how are we to understand learning outcomes, shared understandings, or social construction of meaning and understandings?

Stephen argued that a shift form VLE to PLE is not only a shift in technology but also a shift in how we view learning itself. A PLE is a software environment where we can manage our connections online. A recording of his keynote will be available at the conference website.

In the afternoon participants listened to Rod Angood’s presentation entitled’ Baths, Drains and Web 2.0: Why Waste a Perfectly Good Crisis’. His presentation was on building a resilient and cost effective internet service for university students. Questions for Rod included: cost of proving internet access through an optical line, institutional issues of providing 24/7 service, resilient access to internet, and management-related barriers that need to be overcome.

Then, Lucy de Mello from Brazil presented her work on Educommunication. As her session was scheduled for Sunday morning time in Brazil, Luci had recorded her session prior to the conference, but she had enjoyed the earlier live sessions so much so that she wanted to speak live to a live audience! Delegates listened to Luci talking about the use of dialogue in distance education in Brazil. Luci’s work is drawn from several theoretical traditions: cultural studies, mediation theory and communication theory, in addition to recent models from distance education.

Participants had great fun learning in Second Life events in both the morning and afternoon. In the morning, newbies to Second Life had great fun refining their walking skills (very useful when it snows!); they learned how to see themselves face to face; learned how to attach and detach objects, including recovering lost hair – I wish I could do that in real life too!!. In the late afternoon, participants gathered around the Second Life campfire and discussed their Google-Opoly tasks.

In addition to taking part in live sessions on Elluminate and in Second Life, participants were also busy doing asynchronous activities on the conference website. Googlo-Opoly needs a special mention, as you can see from feedback from the participants:

“Really enjoying the game and can see that it’s helping with tools, but also with more imaginative ways of writing blogs, and with design of e-tivities…”

” “Brilliant use of technology/google etc as a learning tool thanks for all your hard work”

” “Thanks for that, it was fun and challenging”

” “Back from pub lunch to tackle more of my Google-Opoly adventure. Will try to catch up on PLE session at some point too #lff10″ – (from Twitter)”

“ “….Then at 6pm I signed in to Eluminate to do the orientation briefing. Unfortunately I missed most of this as I was cooking dinner at the time and had two screaming children. However I understood that I’d receive an email and a link to a Google Map and would be able to do the session later that night / the following day….”

Someone else had two kids and had to cook in between Google-Opoly, Another delegate had a cold and was happy to be sent to sunnier places on the Google map. Someone else had a sick child at home and was pleased to be able to take part nevertheless.

So … the Learning Futures Festival continues until the 14th of January. Return to this space for more blog entries…

Palitha Edirisingha
11 Jan 2010

Mixed Messages about Elearning

Do we know what’s happening to elearning out in the wide world? I’ve been getting mixed messages. Here are three US ones for us to reflect on, and another from South Africa.

The US market for self-paced elearning will reach $16.7 billion in 2009 according to a new report by Ambient Insight*. The demand for online training is growing by 7.4% annually and revenues will reach $23.8 billion by 2014. “We see the highest growth rate in the healthcare segment, followed by Pre-K-12 and higher education,” comments CEO Tyson Greer.

The EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research in Boulder, Colorado, has an annual report on US undergraduate IT use*. It is in its fifth year and now includes some data on mobile technology use. Students “consistently report that they prefer only a moderate amount of IT when it comes to their courses”.

Here’s a summary of a report on the 21st-Century Campus*, based on a survey of 1017 US students. This finds that only 38% of students indicated that their instructors “understand technology and fully integrate it into their classes” although, in contrast, the higher education instructor view was that 74% “incorporate technology into every class or nearly every class”. 52% of students said they use social networking tools for education, but only 14% of faculty members said they use social networking for teaching purposes.

I can’t say I’m at all surprised to hear these statistics: while IT producers and sellers push their wares, staff and students in higher education live in the real world of widely varying provision and have to get by with what they’ve got. And more isn’t always better.

I was pleased to have news, however, from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Educational Technology of Facilitating Online*. It is a course written to train educators as online facilitators of fully online and mixed mode courses . It comprises a Course Leader’s Guide and a specimen website. The guide contains the course model, week-by-week learning activities, general guidance to the course leader on how to implement and customise the course and specific guidelines on each learning activity. Tony Carr, who has visited BDRA, is one of the originators of this course.

And a forthcoming internal event at the Open University will showcase very interesting uses of Google Earth, iTunes, image galleries, Elluminate, structured content and interactive DVDs, all in the Arts Faculty, not always the one that first comes to my mind. By the way, iTunes U for the OU has just recorded its 10 millionth download since launch 75 weeks ago: now that’s mass elearning for you! Have a listen for yourself.

David Hawkridge

PS I need more training in inserting URLs into blogs, but if you want any of these, just email me at, please.

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

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