Evidence: Higher Education’s USP

I came to work at the University of Leicester last February, after having spent most of my career in corporate training and the NGO sector. Some of my friends and colleagues from the world outside of Higher Education expressed their scepticism about my new role in the world of academia, based on those widely held stereotypes of academics as self-indulgent, head-in-the-clouds kind of people, who waste tax-payers’ money in obscure and useless research. I found it difficult to defend my new position at the time, although I felt sure there was more to it than that.

I have since become convinced, from seeing the way our research is conducted here at Beyond Distance, and at other institutions involved in similar JISC– and HEA-funded research projects, that the stereotype is unfounded. The one undeniable factor in common with all our research work is that we are committed to generating knowledge based on rigorously-gathered, relevant and transparently-interpreted evidence.

The commitment to evidence-based practice is what separates out Higher Education from other sectors of professional practice, or to put it in marketing lingo, it is HE’s USP (Unique Selling Point). In recognition of this, the UK’s Higher Education Academy has created EvidenceNet, “a free, open-access service to promote and support evidence-informed practice in learning and teaching in higher education”. EvidenceNet contains thousands of resources, mainly submitted by the UK subject centres, covering a range of disciplines. They have an events list, links to various  Special Interest Groups, a Ning social network and a wiki for academics to post work in progress. They are also seeking contributions from academics, such as case studies, that contain themes dealing with evidence related to teaching and learning, and are offering to post links from their site to relevant external websites.

EvidenceNet seems like a worthy contribution – not only to the Higher Education sector, but to all groups and organisations involved in teaching and learning.

Gabi Witthaus

Media Zoo hosts new CEO of the Higher Education Academy

The Media Zoo at 103 Princess Road East was pleased to host the visit of Professor Craig Mahoney, the new CEO of the Higher Education Academy.

Professor Mahoney took an hour out of his busy schedule to meet the animals and learn about the four Zoos in the three environments.

I was happy to explain some the ways in which the Zoo helps colleagues at the University in their teaching, primarily through the introduction of learning technologies into their courses.

Using the four quadrants of the Zoo, Professor Mahoney was able to see how innovation researched at Beyond Distance becomes embedded in the institution, especially as the Media Zoo is a central component of the  University’s Learning Innovation Strategy.

We’ve been promised another visit from the new CEO soon!

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Disseminate from Day One

I recently attended the ALT-C conference “Into something rich and strange – making sense of the sea-change” (7-9 September in Nottingham). As usual, it was a really good conference; I felt that every session was packed full of information on good practice, experimentation, research, and innovation in learning technology. Although I heard a most inspiring keynote from Sugata Mitra on his life’s work beginning with the installation of ‘hole-in-the-wall’ computers for children in rural India, and although I heard the winning research paper about 5 years of data-gathering on students’ use and purchase of mobile devices, probably the most practical take-home message I received was from a ‘graveyard-shift’ session by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on the importance of dissemination and sharing our findings. The HEA was asking us, “What else can we do to get the word out regarding some of the great work that is being done?” They pointed out that many funded projects treat dissemination as something done only at the end of the project, when a paper is written and presented at a conference. In fact, there is so much lost with that approach, so much discussion that is forfeited, so much networking and reflection which could enhance and improve and extend the reach of the study. Dissemination should be done from day one.

This resonates with the drip-drip theory of publicity — that if you often, even daily, put out little drips of information about a project or event, it is more effective than just a few big informational outputs.

I’ve had opportunity to discuss these issues with postgraduate students, especially those working on PhDs.  I often hear them say that they don’t think they should talk about their work at all with anyone outside their team. I can understand not wanting to reveal one’s research secrets in advance of publication. However, I think this reticence denies them valuable opportunities to bounce ideas off other experts and receive support from others.

I for one left ALT-C realising that I need to approach each of my projects with the willingness to ‘disseminate from day one.’ We at Beyond Distance are pretty good at disseminating our findings, with this blog and blogs for each of our research projects as well as workshops and other activities, but we can always improve. I need to be much more faithful in my blogging. A little bit, and more often is better than stressing over fewer, bigger communications. Twitter, of which I am already an avid user (I am tbirdcymru and the Beyond Distance Media Zoo is BDMediaZoo), is built for exactly this. Because the bottom line is: if we do great work but don’t effectively communicate it, have we actually completed the great work?

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant Media ZooKeeper

Beyond Distance Research Alliance

BDRA and Janus

Janus, the Roman god who gave his name to January, looked in two directions at once. The same is true, in more than one respect, of BDRA.

First, although it is a research alliance and has a particularly strong research record, BDRA is also a teaching group, through its Carpe Diem workshops and dissemination of its research findings. Its teaching activities, based in part on its research, will be very much enhanced by the MIET programme soon to be launched.

Second, BDRA faces both into the University of Leicester and outwards, well beyond it. Through its staff collaborating with other departments and units in carrying out research and teaching, BDRA has a greater impact internally than is usual for groups of its size and character. Beyond the university, BDRA has become well-known through bidding successfully for research funds from national bodies such as JISC and the HEA, as well as through conferences and publications. But it has also entered into partnerships involving other universities keen to upgrade their students’ e-learning.

As a Visiting Professor in BDRA, I’m aware of the wide range of BDRA’s activities and the heavy workload of its staff. This blog displays some of what’s going on, but there is more, much more, if you visit BDRA’s web site.

Janus is sometimes regarded as the god who looks forwards as well as backwards. BDRA staff can look back with pride at their achievements. As for the future, BDRA is at the forefront: it looks ahead, like Janus.

David Hawkridge

OTTERs at the OER10 Conference

Sahm (aka Samuel Nikoi) and I visited the beautiful city of Cambridge for the first time ever on Monday, although sadly we didn’t have time to be tourists as we were giving a paper at the UKs first big Open Educational Resources conference, OER10.  With more than 100 delegates from the UK and overseas, it was a great gathering of people with varying degrees of knowledge and experiences relating to the OER movement.

The keynote lecture from Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary of JISC, was extremely encouraging to those of us coming to the end of our one-year OER pilot projects in that it is clear JISC and the HEA wish to develop the OER agenda further, with a focus on researching the discoverability of OER, the user experience, and the attainment of a low cost, sustainable production and release model.

Sahm and I both attended a variety of sessions from the three parallel streams, and it is clear there is already some work going on which would address the issues on which JISC is proposing to focus:

Dr Momna Hejmadi from the University of Bath and Pangiota Alevizou from the Open University had both carried out some initial research into potential OER users, with Dr Hejmadi highlighting the differing viewpoints between junior and senior staff towards producing and using OER.  (The former being more enthusiastic but seeing the lack of incentives as a major barrier; the latter indicating that use of OER could be viewed as the lazy option, reducing the quality of and thereby diluting, degrees).  Pangiota’s initial results from her, admitted small, research sample, identified a distinction between Institutional and Community OER, whereby one feeds into the other, as well as six types of OER audience.  She also highlighted a developing preference for the creation of genres of learning, which linked in with Malcolm’s ‘aggregation of materials around certain themes’.

I was interested to hear Rowan Wilson reporting on the University of Oxford’s OpenSpires project, where, rather than reinvent the wheel, they had taken their iTunes U content production workflow and adapted it to create an OER workflow, whereas it is likely here at Leicester we will be going the other way.

Tom Browne from the University of Exeter struck a chord with many of us on the OER pilot projects, when he described his efforts to engage Senior Management in a discussion on creating a sustainable output of OER.

Alan Leeder from the University of Cambridge gave a great post-lunch presentation on GLO-maker 2.1 (I now know how to make a great vodka martini!) and I was interested to hear that they are working on creating a mobile front end  which will allow you to upload podcasts directly from your phone.  The technical theme was maintained by Loughborough’s Rob Pearce talking about their efforts to create an ‘OER supersearch’ facility using API’s.  They have not yet achieved perfection and feel it will be difficult to do so until ‘the internet becomes a fully global network with standardised protocols’.

And last but definitely not least, Sahm and I presented on the OTTER project’s CORRE workflow model for creating OERs. Our presentation (available at www.le.ac.uk/otter/otter-dissemination) led to an interesting discussion around how quality is monitored in OER development.

The main conclusion we drew from our attendance at Day 1 of OER10 was that it is clear that the OER movement will not be allowed to wither and die.  Time and money needs to be spent on making resources more searchable, on getting feedback from the users (lecturers, students, informal learners), and on identifying the best sustainable production, output and hosting model.

Tania Rowlett

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