What if…?

I recently attended a workshop on the use of comics to communicate research findings. Images can reach a wider audience and explain complex concepts in a simple way. Thinking about my work from such a different perspective helped me create the following comic (I barely know how to draw).

What if… we decided to get out of the box? What if… we used everyday technologies for learning purposes? What if… we moved away from online courses that look like content repositories and we designed collaborative activities? What if… we accepted the challenge of innovating? Education could be so different…

What if Comic

This comic is also available in Spanish.

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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

What’s my learning future?

Here at Beyond Distance we’re currently working hard on our Learning Futures Festival Online and if you haven’t already registered please pop along to our website and sign up: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond-distance-research-alliance/festival/registration.

All this talk about learning futures got me thinking about my learning past. Picking up on Terese’s earlier post about ‘Digital Native, Digital Assumptions?’ it seems I fall into the digital native/Net-gen age group.  As I worry I’m getting old this seems very flattering! As a Digital Native or Net-gen I experienced in my learning past a single computer in my classroom from my very first lesson at infant school. By the time I left university virtually everyone had a mobile phone, easy access to the internet and their own computer.

All this does mean that I feel very at ease with new technology be it a new mobile phone or a new web application.  I might not necessarily be an expert straight away but going ahead and trying these things (and sometimes trying to break them just to be awkward) is all part of how I tend to use technology.   For my own learning which tends to be learning new and improving existing multimedia skills I find that I can pick and choose what works best for me.  For instance I tend to use a text based tutorial to learn about CSS (CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets which is used in web design) rather than a video tutorial. I find it easier to flick between screens, or have a dual screen, rather than have to sit and watch a video and pause it where appropriate.

The learning future for myself and others only seems, at present, to take advantage of further innovation, both in technology and learning.  The future, at present, could seem quite overwhelming, fast-paced and challenging.  For me personally it seems quite exciting and while I’m looking forward to getting there, I’m also enjoying the present and making the most out of it.  They say you shouldn’t look back too much as it can stop you living your life. I think it’s equally important to not forget where you are now and not constantly look to the future in case you miss the things right under your feet.

I realise that this might sound like a contradiction to a Learning Futures Festival Online but I don’t think it is.  Without an understanding of where I am now I can’t begin to understand my future.  I’m hoping you’ll all bring your learning present to our Learning Futures Festival Online and help us all discover the learning future.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

We’re tweeting! Follow us: #uolbdra, #otteroer, #lff10

Happy Birthday, Internet!

Yesterday, 29 October 2009, marked forty years since the first pieces of data travelled via a computer connection between the University of California in Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute. The BBC published an insightful account of the fascinating early years of the internet, which by 1971 was already connecting universities on the East and the West Coast of USA. Looking at the two solitary lines on the map illustrating the early net I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the speed of the change which has thrown us into the super-connected super-fast world of today. And I wonder if in 2050 there might be someone, writing a blog or whatever the communication channel of the day is, reviewing technology from 2010 and thinking “If they only knew what was coming at them…”

Following the links on the BBC website I listened to the oldest computer music recording – Baa Baa Black Sheep – played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer at the University of Manchester in 1951. Below is a photo of the “Player” followed by a photo of a music player of today. Can you spot the 7 differences?

 Manchester's Baby

ipod_shuffle3

In coverage of the other astonishing talents of the machine, a BBC reporter breathless with excitement revealed that “the electronic brain” could tell you whether 2 to the power of 127 is a prime number in 25 minutes, compared to the 6 months it would take for the human brain to make the calculation.

Every time that I get reminded of the amazing progress that has been achieved since these early days of computer technology, I ask myself – what could possibly come next? Can a music player become even smaller? Or bigger? Or disappear completely and leave the music streaming through the air? Sometimes I discover I sympathise more than I would have liked with Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of the US Office of Patents who said in 1899 that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

 Any trip down history lane would be wasted if one comes back without a lesson or two for the future. One of the comments in the BBC material on the early net could turn out to be just that. It is about the initial reaction to the idea for a computer network – “A horrible idea” people thought. Larry Roberts, the MIT scientist who was working on the project said that institutions were opposing the concept because they wanted to keep control of their resources. Now that objection suddenly does not come across as outdated and archaic as the Ba Ba Black Sheep music player, does it? Blackboard, anyone? Are there ground-breaking, rule-bending, mind-blowing innovations at the door step of higher education institutions today that are being shunned because people want to keep control of their resources?  What can we do about it?

Sandra Romenska

30/10/2009

BDRA

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

BDRA

How Many Students In University After The Recession?

Almost half of British industries have no intentions of employing any of the hundreds of thousands of new graduates who will flood the job market in the next three months, according to a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and KPMG, reported in today’s Independent.

Gerwyn Davis, public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said:  “It is going to be a long, hot summer for many of this year’s graduates and school leavers, as they sweat over their chances of finding work. Employers have for a long time had doubts about the employability skills of those leaving education, and this year’s crop face employers in a more choosey mood than ever before. Against this backdrop, graduates and school leavers need to sharpen their case for being picked ahead of their classmates – and fast.”

The question is, what will be the lesson learnt for those who are still in high school, but who observe what is happening to their older peers after graduation. In all likelihood they will take it into account when deciding whether to go into higher education when their time comes.

What will be the outcome for universities in the future, when government targets of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education are weighed against consideration that the average graduate today, who is likely to be leaving university owing £16,000 for tuition fees, is considered for employment by only 50% of employers? And given that bodies like the very Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, mentioned above, come forward with advice like “Employers have for a long time had doubts about the employability skills of those leaving education… students need to get work experience, demonstrate a broad range of non-study related skills…” A university degree is no longer the surest way to a good job. In fact, the winner of the “Best Job in the World”, (care-taker of a tropical island with a salary of 70 000 UKP) advertised by the Australian Board of Tourism landed the job in tough global competition, after an innovative marketing campaign that highlighted the power of social media, rather than qualifications and diplomas (you can see some of the applications on Youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=islandreefjob&view=videos&start=40).

The first universities were institutional innovation centres which emerged in the 12th to 14th century Europe as a result of the need to consolidate and expand intellectual resources in response to increasing demands for knowledge and skills in the economy and society. Despite debates whether universities have remained these “medieval organisations,” unchanged over the 700-800 years of their existence or have been transformed by major changes, consensus seems to prevail about intensifying pressures for reform in higher education institutions today. It is important that planning and management are not dominated by short-term thinking about immediate problems and maintaining established practices. Neglect of the long term is increasingly problematic in meeting the challenges of complexity and change in higher education. In order to be able to look beyond the constraints of the present, especially when the investment of significant resources is concerned, higher education institutions need to sharpen their capacity to systematically explore and connect together various driving forces, trends, and conditioning factors so as to envisage alternative futures for themselves and for higher education.

Sandra Romenska

BDRA, 26 May 2009

Learning through off-the-wall conversations

The Open University hosted a ‘CAMEL’ workshop last week for a cluster of participants in JISC-funded projects. (CAMEL is a great community of practice model for e-learning management. See Theo’s blog for a nice succinct description or the CAMEL website for more info on this.) Ming and I attended from Beyond Distance in our capacity as researchers on the Beyond Distance DUCKLING project.

It was a hugely inspiring day for me – there was a kind of energy and warmth in this group of people who had been thrown together for the day that is usually only found amongst friends who have known each other for years. Full marks to Peter Chatterton and Steve Garner for setting up this wonderfully nourishing event. (And the Chinese dinner afterwards played no small part in the day’s success!)

Andy Bardill and Bob Fields from Middlesex University set the scene for the day by telling us about a fascinating project they are doing with their Interaction Design students. Imagine a design studio in a well-equipped university, with a lecturer and six to eight students sitting around a large table, and one student showing his or her photos or drawings to the group for critique. The conventional way to do this is to have each student projecting his or her work onto the wall using a data projector, while the rest of the students comment and take notes.

Andy and Bob are not conventional teachers, though, and they felt frustrated at the limited interaction, as most of the students sat with their heads bowed taking notes on their laptops. Their solution was to ban laptops from the classroom (an initially unpopular decision), and to project each student’s work from a ceiling-mounted projector onto the table (an accidental, but very exciting discovery, as it happened) instead of the wall… They covered the table with flipchart paper to provide a sort of screen for the projected image.

The side-effect (literally!) was that students started writing their notes on the table around the edges of the projected image, instead of typing on their disallowed laptops. This immediately had the effect of making previously private notes public, and catapulted the group into deeper conversation. At the end of each session, students started spontaneously taking photos of the conversation on the table as a record of their ‘notes’. You can see some of these intriguing photos on Andy Bardill’s Flickr page.
(http://www.flickr.com/photos/mdxinteractiondesign/)

The next development was to video the unfolding conversation on the table with a ceiling-mounted video camera, in order to have a record for later analysis of the learning process. No doubt we’ll hear more from Andy and Bob about what they’ve learnt from this as the project progresses.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that the simple act of moving the focus from the wall (‘out there/ away from us’) to the table (‘in here/ amongst us’) resulted in a change of perspective for the whole group. It enabled people to physically move around the image. Their interactions became focused on the centre of the table, as they gestured towards the central image while discussing it. A bit like the hub of a wheel that keeps the spokes together, this central point kept the participants connected in a way that a projected image on a wall cannot easily do. The popular literature from neurolinguistic programming also tells us that when we look down, we are drawing more on the emotional part of our brain. Perhaps there’s something in that too.

Thanks, Bob and Andy, for reminding us that technology on the sidelines (and on the ceiling) can sometimes be much more effective than technology on our laps or in-our-faces. We’ll be watching this space for more off-the-wall inspiration. (Just let us know which space, so we don’t get left behind staring at the table while you’ve moved onto the floor… or underground…)

Gabi Witthaus

Weaving A Web of Stories

For today’s blog I want to share some examples of innovative uses of new media for learning and story-telling that I find inspiring and with potential for learning and creativity.

First, there is the edition of Hamlet as a Facebook newsfeed.

My personal favourites here are Hamlet’s status updates:

“ Polonius thinks this curtain is a good thing to hide behind” followed by “Polonius is no longer online” as well as “Hamlet became a fan of daggers.”

Is there any educational value in this approach to story-telling? I think yes – for some. A student whom I interviewed today said that she saw Second Life’s value for education in that it is “fun.”  She used “fun” 5 times in the 3 sentences of her reply. When I asked why fun would be educational she answered that fun to her was to discover new ways of doing things and that education was also about new things.

Then, there is Flightpaths, the networked novel on Netvibes:

It tells the story of “the story of Yacub, the man who fell from the sky, and Harriet, the woman who witnesses his fall.  It’s a tale of refugees and migrants, consumers and cities, the desperate journey of one man and the bored isolation of one woman.”

It is a project which uses Netvibes capabilities as an aggregator to pull together images, audio, video and narrative from contributors all over the web to build a powerful, innovative way of interacting with content. Perhaps this model can be used by students on collaborative assignments, conveying ideas along a channel where there is something for everyone’s interest, both updated in real time and containing an archive of previously published information.

Finally, there is 21 Steps – a novel , told over a Google Map of the world.  The narrative is put in the little bubbles that signify locations on any Google map and starts remarkably like something written by Raymond Chandler – “I was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time”, unfolding over further 14 chapters. Using the Google maps tool the author has transformed the metaphor of the story as a journey from a figure of speech into a real application with a strong visual component.

Why would these examples have pedagogical value? Because, I believe, they can facilitate thoughtful, engaging learning activities in novel “fun” ways, and can be adapted to work in support of educational goals. They can encourage students to think about the structure of narrative, the ways to experiment with the structure of a story, the importance of building characters, the fun that comes with being creative and innovative.

Sandra Romenska

BDRA

Brainteaser “Guess the Time”

Hello again!

I hope you had good time over the holidays and any Easter eggs sugar rush is starting to wear off. As the weather these past few days here in Leicester was as glorious as it always is on Bank Holidays, i.e. overcast and rainy, I seem to not have done much apart from reading and eating. So, with the choice to report on these two activities, I will be briefing you on the reading, starting with a little brain-teaser. Below I have listed the features of a computer operating environment – can you guess when this environment dates from? Is it a description of a promising future start-up, which a bunch of clever IT wizzard kids hope to attract venture capital to and repeat the success of Facebook? Or is it out there now, competing with Windows, Firefox, Facebook, Illuminate and the rest? Advertising how ingeniously and innovatively it integrates features facilitating collaboration, social networking, cloud computing and hypermedia publishing? Or, is it a blast from the past? Read and try to guess:

The NLS features:

  • 2-dimensional display editing
  • in-file object addressing, linking
  • hypermedia
  • outline processing
  • flexible view control
  • multiple windows
  • cross-file editing
  • integrated hypermedia email
  • hypermedia publishing
  • shared-screen teleconferencing
  • computer-aided meetings
  • context-sensitive help
  • distributed client-server architecture
  • universal “user interface” front-end module
  • multi-tool integration
  • protocols for virtual terminals
  • remote procedure call protocols
  • compilable “Command Meta Language”

Ready with your estimates? Check your guess here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_(computer_system)

What does this example bring to a discussion of the future? The future of technology, the future of technology-enhanced learning and the future of learning? Let’s discuss… Next time I will tell you more about the system described above and a challenging conference that we attended with some BDRA colleagues in Oxford, called The Shock of the Old.

Sandra Romenska, BDRA

15th April 2009

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