Beware of distractions

In our recent Learning Futures Festival 2011: Follow the Sun presentation (click here for Adobe Connect recording), one of my colleagues, Alison Ewing, raised “healthy question” about technologies (starting at 32 minutes into the recording). One comment, tied directly to my section, included Twitter. She spoke of the potential of Twitter and other technologies to “lead me [her] down avenues which are interesting but distracting, and take me away from actually what I want to be doing, what I should be doing….” Well, Ali, that makes a lot of sense.

The hours in a day are finite, and there are competing demands. Ali finds that Twitter and other technologies can be helpful, as I wholeheartedly agree, but we concur we must be careful to avoid the drain on time. It is easy to follow a link and delve into a new direction. Also, I’m not sure how many times I have seen a question asked that has caused me to do a little searching to provide an answer, be it education, community, or work related. It is good to do, and others respond to our questions or discussions. But, there are times to turn off and focus.

Working on my master’s degree a number of years ago (late 90s), the very early hours of the morning were best for uninterrupted study. With family sleeping and the telephone silent, I was assured that the only thing coming between me and the readings was the desire to nap. True, I had a computer and online communications, but the level of social media that we have today was not happening.

Now, while I still love the early morning studies, I can be sure that emails or other messages await me, and there is someone online with whom to connect. An outstanding question may await an answer or comment. Of course, this continues throughout the day and distractions are magnified when others are up, the telephone rings, and family asks for attention because I am working and studying from home. Some seem to do well with constant switching between activities, but that is not me.

I often crave more time to read, and I know I must make concerted efforts to have uninterrupted hours. Perhaps this means letting a call or two go to voice mail or posting a sign indicating I am busy. I have removed the data from my mobile telephone, so I no longer see constant emails.

Getting away from email, sometimes for hours, I have discovered something. There is never a message needing a response that could not wait. If something is really urgent, I have my telephone with call display. If I am away from my home office for any length of time, I likely have my computer and mobile Internet for when I do need/want to ‘check in.’  My (slightly) adult son says I shouldn’t spend so much time at home if I want to reduce his calls for attention, so more mobile I will be if it will allow more focus!

If you are studying, what do you do to manage your reading or time for other assignments? Are you finding enough hours to do the amount of reading you plan?

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA

I followed the sun

The Learning Futures Festival Online 2011 was titled, “Follow the Sun,” and billed as, “Three countries, three time zones, a non-stop global e-learning conference.” It was hosted by the Beyond Distance Research Alliance of the University of Leicester and the Australian Digital Futures Institute of the University of Southern Queensland.

The format was a different approach. Starting in the UK at 09:00 (British Summer Time) and running for 8 hours, moderation was then handed over for another 8 hours to the North American Team in Seattle, and then for a further 8 hours to the team in Toowoomba, Australia. The cycle then repeated for another 24-hour period. From Canada, my plan was to catch as much as I could with naps along the way. Looking back at the programme, I attended more in the UK and North American sessions, finding other demands for my time and a need for sleep in our evening hours while Australia was on. Fortunately, the sessions were recorded, and I can return to those I missed or wish to re-watch.

The good news for many whom could not participate is that the recorded sessions are now available to watch without charge, through the “Follow the Sun” link above.

Having attended many conferences, physically and online, this was the first at which I presented. I had the pleasure of working with PhD student colleagues from the BDRA, Brenda, Ali, and Natalia, to deliver, “PhD Students Following the Sun: How PhD Students Use and Perceive Technologies.” Hopefully this will be there first of many more, whether personally or in a group. While my part was about how I, and others, use Twitter for a weekly ‘phdchat’ discussion, I look forward to sharing about my research area in future presentations.

A special thanks to all whom made the conference come together and run smoothly. Next year will be my turn to step up and assist.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA

The sun sets on our successful e-learning conference

Our Learning Futures Festival 2011, entitled Follow the Sun, was a 48 hour global e-learning conference that was co-hosted by the Australian Digital Futures Institute and presented consecutively from three countries: UK (Leicester), USA (Seattle) and Australia (Toowoomba).

Screenshot of Adobe Connect 8
Terry Anderson delivering his keynote during North America Day 1

Watch the recording

The conference had over 280 delegates and speakers from more than 25 countries. Keynotes, papers, workshops and debates were streamed through the online conferencing platform Adobe Connect 8, provided by sponsors CollaborATE UK

Screenshot of debate about the lecture

With Gabi moderating, Donald Clark, Jim Morrison and Stephen Downes debate the usefulness of the traditional lecture in higher education during North America Day 2

Watch the recording of Donald Clark and Jim Morrison

Watch the recording of Stephen Downes

Events were also held in the 3D environment of Second Life. These sessions were beamed – with full sound capability – into the Adobe Connect platform by sponsors Let’s Talk Online. This allowed delegates who were new to Second Life to see the environment in real time and engage through transferred text chat with the avatar delegates.

Screenshot of Second Life projected into Adobe Connect
Scott Diener looks at virtual worlds during Australia Day 1

Watch the recording

The conference Moodle site for delegates was hosted by USQ Communities (University of Southern Queensland, Australia). This site hosted a successful gallery of posters submitted by delegates, and gave delegates the opportunity to engage in asynchronous discussion around the sessions.

More than 25 hours of live events were generated by Follow the Sun. As well as the very significant financial savings and a tiny carbon footprint, a key advantage of this kind of online conferencing is the ability to record all streamed events.

Within two-and-a-half hours of the conference finishing, the recordings of all sessions were made available on the festival’s public site:

We worked very hard to give our delegates an enriching experience, and are very grateful for their appreciative comments, which included the following:

“I found the conference an eye opener and I want to be in the frontline in being a practitioner and champion of the power of e-learning in my career as a teacher and have decided to proceed to study for Masters degree in e-learning. I hope to integrate these trends in e-learning in creating powerful and rich environment to learn almost anything that is simple or complex.”

“I heard about these conferences last year when visiting the BDRA. Despite the obvious excitement people felt I had no idea just how fantastic it could be. This has been extraordinary and probably the best single experience in my 10 years in HE. So much breadth and depth and such a sense of connectedness. Congrat’s to all for conceiving and delivering this event. I’ll spend the next 6 months processing it and pointing our people to the content.”

[On Twitter] “@lff11 The technical aspects were handled expertly and the level of engagement impressive. Well done one and all you rock! Bring on lff12”

“I was particularly impressed by the programme and how you and the moderators succeeded in drawing in farflung contributors. All in all, LFF was a credit to all involved.”

“The conference was fantastic!”

The Media Zoo
PhD students Brenda and Ali (with Natalia in Denmark and Tony in Canada) deliver their paper from the Media Zoo during UK Day 2

Watch the recording

I plan to blog in greater detail in the coming months about how this innovative and exciting conference was planned and executed.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Welcoming 2011

This new year sees a number of changes in Beyond Distance, the most significant being the departure of Gilly to take up her new post as Professor of Learning Futures and Executive Director of the Australian Digital Futures Institute at University of Southern Queensland.

(As an aside, Gilly is now living in flood-hit Towoomba, but has reported in safely, as has her new team.)

While we are sorry to see Gilly go, one silver lining to this particular cloud is the collaboration now underway between our two  institutions on the Learning Futures Festival Online 2011, Follow the Sun. With its non-stop, 48-hour, global format, I’m certain this conference will further cement the institutions’ reputations as technology innovators.

Beyond Distance also continues its main work of researching new technologies and pedagogies. Just yesterday, a research pilot project called PELICANS was placed in the Breeding Area of the Media Zoo, and existing projects CALF, SPIDERSWIFTOSTRICH and TIGER progress well.

The Media Zoo continues to disseminate colleagues’ research and, importantly for University of Leicester colleagues, offer hands-on technical advice. The Friday Workshop, a new series of learning technology workshops held every Friday morning 10-12, has just been launched.

Our own Media Zoo will also be collaborating more with the Graduate School Media Zoo (based in the library on the main campus). With its focus on postgraduate students, the GSMZ offers us a chance to bring academics and PhD students together in a single environment  to learn as much from each other as from the Zookeepers.

I’m always amazed by the achievements and knowledge of my colleagues, so I remain certain that 2011 will see everyone build upon Gilly’s hard work to keep Beyond Distance at the forefront of e-learning research in higher education.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Global society: creating learning foresight?

A start to developing and sustaining learning foresight.

Of course , we now know that we now all live in a global society – some say a global ‘village’ – that distances have much less meaning and impact than even a decade or so ago, and emphasis is shifting towards the power for good of global communities on the huge challenges of the world in 21st century. What’s more some say that the 21st Century is a ‘make or break’ time for humanity (Slaughter 2006).

In the academic world, meaningful dialogue has always crossed the world, but perhaps we still have to understand and then exploit the full impact.  Perhaps the true power is only just now being recognised and is moving into the direction of preparation and policy.  The challenge of communicating and collaborating on a vast scale is at the heart of the success of releasing the enormous human  potential …freedom, justice and not the least education.

What we now know is that the world is NOT controllable, predictable and rationale (Ormerod 2010). Communities of practice, networks, and their enablers are slipping to the fore…let’s whisper…Web 2.0

Big corporations are already tapping into two way communications with their customers – a wave of corporate ‘friendship’ is coming our way  via Twitter, Facebook and like.  Education should also be THERE!

Working with others on a global scale is nothing less than creating new viable and desirable pathways to the future for learning.  Sharing and constructing knowledge in this way influences, both directly and subliminally, thoughts and feelings and ultimately life chances, attitudes and actions.  Working on a huge scale relies ultimately on viral communications (the ‘wow-wee’ so often heard about  when fairly non-descript lectures  on YouTube or I TunesU log a   million downloads!) .  In short social networks have the power to create a big impact for little input! Even though their power is a little unpredictable and more complex than old style transmissive approaches.

Professor Wellman and his colleague Keith Hampton at the University of Toronto have explored the relationship between online networks and civic participation (Krotoski 2010). Where is the understanding how networks within education are creating (rather than standing by and watching) productive and viable futures?  We already know that a conceptual sense of belonging drives community more than a tangible location (e.g. Goffman and Oldenburg’s work).

In practice, the Internet’s potential is to raise awareness; in the ‘weak ties’ between infrequent contacts or acquaintances, which, let’s face it, masquerade as ‘friends’ online.   Once a connection is made it requires proactive action to remove it (have you tried to ‘defriend’ people on Facebook?).  So essentially information – of whatever probity and quality – is broadcast to a much much wider network than ever before.

So…how can our community- education and technology combined in new and amazing ways – tap into these new networks to develop preferred and viable new insights and create positive social capital and directions for the learning of the future?

I say we need to work with new others on a global basis.  Not just by publishing a paper on it, not just by developing some better software, not just by monetising something we’ve found that ‘works’. No, we need to work together, learn from each other on a global scale and build quite new alliances.

So about ‘Follow the Sun’ – on   the basis that it’s much better to light a candle than curse the darkness – with the University I am leaving in December 2010, and the University I am joining in January 2011. We are running an across-the-world conference on the future for learning to test out full global networks in the service of learning futures …

Gilly Salmon


Ormerod, P. (2010) ‘Nudge plus networks’. RSA Journal Autumn

Slaughter, R. (2006) Pathways and Impediments to Social Foresight Swinburne Institute of Technology

Learning Futures Festival Online 2011, “Follow the Sun”, 13-15 April 2011, three countries, three time zones, a non-stop global conference

Boo to blend

Blended learning. The term became very fashionable in the learning technology community and beyond. The idea is that combining activities, media or face to face and online might be better for learning. There’s even one or two professors of Blended Learning and there are loads of conferences and books about it. Blending learning was thought to be a transition towards something different, exciting and productive. Not sure I’ve really seen it like that though.

I’ve been wondering – are we complicating everything so so much? Suppose we say, we’re going to put EVERYTHING on line – media, communication, learning resources, assessment. We could scaffold, pace and support without worrying about people turning up to class, whether they’ve missed anything, the weather, the carbon footprint. Would it not be better to focus on fantastic online experiences than worry about blending?

Beyond Distance has been experimenting with academic conferences like this. It’s still blended – in a way – well, diverse and mixed anyway. All different kinds of people,  different platforms and approaches, and it’s just not that difficult.  Really.

We’re doing another next year called Follow the Sun

Why blend when you can do simples? Comments on blend please!

Gilly Salmon

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