You say goodbye….

My time at Beyond Distance is coming to an end and I felt this was a good time to look back at some achievements during my work with DUCKLING, OTTER and the entire Beyond Distance team that I value most.

  • DUCKLING in an eggshell.   This poster an attempt to crack out of the typical ‘research project-poster’ style and is one of the deliverables of the DUCKLING project.
  • Being an award winning OTTER. I previously blogged about this but winning the virtual poster competition, but the chance to caricature all the OTTER team stands out for me. One team member even used his picture in his Facebook profile picture!
  • Producing 438 credits worth of OERs (with the OTTER team).  The team went above and beyond the call of duty (i.e funder’s requirements) by producing such an impressive amount of credits.  Take a look through our repository and let us know what you think!
  • A new Media Zoo banner and logo.  The Media Zoo website has moved into Plone (our content management system) and with it comes a new banner and logo.  I’m pleased with my attempt at capturing the feel of the physical zoo with the array animals that ‘live’ there.
  • Learning Futures Festival Online 2010.  To be part of an 8 day 24/7 online conference was a huge achievement during a snowy January that brought the UK to a standstill.  What makes this an even greater achievement is that we released over 75% of the keynotes, workshops and paper presentations as OERs.

And one more thing that I’m proud of is the small amount of photos of me that exist during my time here, to which my colleagues can testify!  As someone who does npot enjoy getting their photo taken this is definitely an achievement.

Finally could I take this opportunity to wish everyone at Beyond Distance and other colleagues at the University of Leicester the very best for the future while I (hopefully) say ‘hello’ to new opportunities.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

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

Follow the Sun with Sugata Mitra

One of the highlights of the ALT-C conference this year was the keynote by Sugata Mitra, whose famous ‘hole-in-the-wall’ projects in India, Cambodia and Africa have provided astounding evidence of how children can teach themselves, given access to a computer with an internet connection and little or no structured guidance from any adults. Children, it seems, have a remarkable ability to transcend language barriers and lack of technical know-how, in their desire to satisfy their curiosity.

Beyond Distance's very own Highly Commended Terese Bird with Sugata Mitra

Beyond Distance's very own highly commended Terese Bird with Sugata Mitra at ALT-C

One of the most interesting aspects of Sugata’s research into how children teach themselves is his focus on ‘self-organising systems’, particularly the systems that emerge when children are left to their own devices to find information to solve a problem – for example, how the labour is divided up, and how each child’s strengths are brought into play. He has found that, whether in rural India or suburban England, optimal results are obtained when children work in groups of four around a single computer.

We at Beyond Distance are thrilled that Sugata has accepted our invitation to be a keynote speaker at our next Learning Futures Festival (13-15 April 2011), ‘Follow the Sun’. As Emma has mentioned, this non-stop 48-hour online conference, hosted in collaboration with our colleagues in USQ, promises to be a great opportunity for knowledge sharing across the globe. It will be organised and managed along the same lines as the hugely successful LFF 2010, one of the projects for which our colleague Terese Bird was Highly Commended in the ALT-C Learning Technologist awards last week.

Thanks to Mark Gregory for the picture. (More ALT-C photos available here.)

Gabi Witthaus, 16 Sept 2010

Bits and Pieces

It’s my turn to blog today and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think and focus on one topic to blog about.  With OTTER finishing and the DUCKLING project drawing to a close, its been an eventful few months for me at Beyond Distance Research Alliance and I’ve been busy (along with the rest of the team) wrapping up bits and pieces.  So rather than focus on one topic, I’ve decided to share some of the things I’ve been working on as part of these projects and what I’ve found useful:

    This is an online, cloud based video-editing software.  You can upload video, audio and picture files and edit them using a simple timeline.  The files can then either be published online either to JayCut or to Youtube or downloaded as mp4 files.
  • The anatomy of an infographic
    I created a leaflet for OTTER and decided to attempt an infographic to easily show the outputs of OTTER.  After researching what makes a good infographic I gave it a go and I am happy with my first attempt:

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

The Hybrid: A new species for the Media Zoo

Here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance we have hosted and attended many online conferences, Learning Futures Festival Online 2010 and Panther to name but two. Yesterday we hosted a hybrid presentation which involved both offline and online participants. It was a presentation by Professor Phil Candy of the University of South Queensland about the Four+ Scholarships in the Digital Age.

The presentation itself was extremely interesting and I’m sure one of my colleagues will talk about it in my detail in a future blog post. However, what I’d like to focus on is how we actually managed to successfully host such an event. We’ve had a lot of practice in putting something like this together and I feel that we have ironed out the majority of the kinks of previous sessions.

One of the issues we have had previously is recording and broadcasting the sound of the presenter and being able to easily record any questions from the audience. We’ve got a number of microphones and have found that some of them can be a bit temperamental to say the least! But with our most recent purchase, the Samson C03U, and a bit of googling to find more detailed instructions and an overview of audio gain, we managed to capture our presenter and all questions from the audience through Adobe Connect.

What this success means is that we have a fully functioning conference set up in our Media Zoo that can host offline, online and hybrid presentations, workshops and conferences. If you’re a member of the University of Leicester, you are welcome to host an event within the Zoo and receive the technical support of our Learning Technologists (myself included). If you are interested in this contact our ZooKeeper:

Finally if you aren’t at the University of Leicester don’t worry about missing out. We will have more online events coming up in the future, including our OER Symposium on Monday 5th July, so make sure to look at our Twitter feed – BDMediaZoo – and our website for more details.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

On the increase: Online conferences & e-books

BDRA’s very successful annual Learning Futures Festival 2010 for a week in January was online for the first time, and I notice that the Open University’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference will also be online for the first time, June 22-23. BDRA’s was truly international. The OU one may turn out to be so too, with its title: ‘’How does openness affect learning/content/access/teaching?’

The trend to go online for conferences is likely to accelerate in the face of cost-cutting measures in many universities here and abroad. There will always be those who prefer face-to-face meetings, but there’s no doubt that online conferences offer plenty of excellent opportunities to learn and to make new contacts, besides being less costly.

E-books are on the increase too, according to the JISC national e-books observatory project. Because of research I did years ago on IT for learners with disabilities, I took a look at a new practical guide from TechDis (JISC’s agency for such matters), entitled ‘Towards accessible e-book platforms.’ It advises on matters such as magnification, colour change, keyboard access and text to speech

Research at the University of Washington has called in question the large-screen Kindle DX e-book reader. At the University of Virginia, 80% of MBA respondents said they wouldn’t recommend it.

According to Stephen Downes, that inveterate blogger, however, Sony is more optimistic.  Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading business division claims:  “Within five years there will be more digital content sold than physical content”.

It’s going to be interesting to see how students taking BDRA’s new MSc in Innovative Education and Training offered through supported distance learning, make use and take advantage of e-books and e-book readers. If you haven’t already seen the details of this new programme, have a look at

David Hawkridge

The Learning Futures Festival 2010 and OERs

It’s been roughly six months since our very successful (even if I do say so myself!) Learning Futures Festival. Since then, as part of our OTTER project, I’ve been busy beavering (ottering?) away on converting the presentations into OERs (open educational resources).

The OTTER team have taken a while to make sure as many presentations as possible fall under the Creative Commons licence; this has meant replacing slides or editing audio so that there isn’t any infringement. I’ve blogged more about editing video here:

It’s been great to learn how to edit video, however basic, and I’m still on a quest to find the perfect open source cross-platform software.

With copyright cleared and the video edited and uploaded we been able to release over 35 out of approximately 50 keynotes, workshops, presentations and daily addresses. That’s a staggering 70% of all presentations out of our festival which are available for you to download and listen to again.

Now for the really important bit; you can find and download the presentations here:

This is just one way we are helping to contribute to an open future. In addition, publicly releasing these presentations helps make the Learning Futures Festival 2010 a year long event, continually impacting and benefiting new people every day.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

The Good

It’s been one of those weeks where I have initially despaired of being able to find the open source software that ticks all the boxes of what I am trying to do.  I’ve been looking for free, easy to use video editing software that allows you to overlay either an image or another video.  Naively I thought this would be easy to find.  Turns out there is a lot of great free photo editing software out there (GIMP anyone?), but video editing software is thin on the ground. Finally I found the answer in VideoSpin, which is free open source video editing software from Pinnacle.  Pinnacle are part of the Avid family and I’ve seen their programs used in professional video editing suites so felt that VideoSpin could be a little gem of a program.  It is incredibly good as it makes editing video a lot easier but also means that with the videos from LFF10 we can overlay new images to block out any that infringe copyright or, if necessary, block out entire frames of video. 

The Bad

While editing these videos has become an enjoyable challenge (thanks to the discovery of VideoSpin, and honestly I’m not working on commission), there is the matter that an hour’s worth of video means a large file size.  Not necessary a problem if you are planning on keeping these files to yourself but when trying to place these files in an OER repository it can become a not-so-enjoyable challenge and one that we are still working on.  While using a friendly file format (MP4) and a smaller screen size (320 x 288) helps reduce the amount of megabytes in the video files we are still looking at 40-60MB worth of footage. But the finished video files are well worth a watch and will help us extend the impact of LFF10 so file size and storage remain high on my (and the other learning technologists) to-do list.

The Ugly?

I was going to use this heading to make unnecessary jokes at the Zookeeper’s Skoda, but since I’ve driven this beast myself I do have a new found respect for it. So I have decided to pick up on a news item that has been around for a while: broadband connection speeds.  The BBC has a couple of current news stories about this:

With the amount of photos, audio and video that are uploaded, downloaded and shared on the Internet, the need or want for everything to be faster to keep up to date with all the new developments in browser-based technologies, e.g. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, could become a real problem.  The first news story highlights some innovative ways of getting broadband, but it looks like maintaining and improving these speeds and connecting the entire UK could be tricky.  Perhaps this is an ‘ugly’ future?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Universities and the Pioneering of the Internet

A brief discussion amongst Beyond Distance colleagues regarding the BBC television programme “The Virtual Revolution,” raised the question of what role was played by education in the pioneering of the internet. “The Virtual Revolution” made only a very brief mention that it was four universities, linked together as ARPANET, which comprised the forerunner of the internet. In fact, universities, research and education were the shaping, driving force behind the entire development of the internet.

J. C. R. Licklider, whilst working as a Professor of  Psychology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960, published a paper entitled “Man-Computer Symbiosis” in which he wrote, “The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”

Licklider, J.C.R., “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, vol. HFE-1, 4-11, Mar 1960. Eprint

In 1962, Licklider wrote memos detailing his idea of a “Galactic Network,” a globally-connected set of nodes through which users could access documents and data from any other node. Later that year, when he was appointed head of computer research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he managed to convince his teammates and successors of the value of the idea of the computer network. It was DARPA which realised Licklider’s vision, bringing ARPANET online with the four universities in late 1969. The idea was for researchers to be able to share data and information with each other, regardless of location.

Other internet developments occurred at research institutions and universities. Packet switching was developed by both Donald Davies of the UK National Physical Laboratory and Leonard Kleinrock at MIT; the Domain Name System (DNS) at University of Wisconsin, Mosaic (the predecessor to the Netscape browser) at University of Illinois. And of course, Sir Tim Berners Lee first proposed the idea of hypertext whilst working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

Not only has research and learning shaped the internet, but consequently the impact of the internet on research and learning cannot be overstated. Distance learning, in the past only carried out on paper and by snail mail, has been revolutionised by e-tivities and multimedia material delivered via the internet. Distance and on-campus students alike benefit from podcasts and other materials organised and offered 24/7 to anywhere by means of virtual and personal learning environments. Here at Beyond Distance in January 2010, while snow paralysed much of the UK, we were able to virtually gather dozens of participants from every continent except Antarctica to study and discuss learning futures through our completely-online Learning Futures Festival. Even if television misses this side of the story, we will continue to develop the education side of the internet story.

Terese Bird

Latest: the future of learning’s coming along (CALF)

BDRA’s Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project, in collaboration with the University of Falmouth, is looking at the future of learning. If you’d like to know more, there’s a blog for the project, videos and a wiki.

Last December Sandra Romenska blogged about CALF at Online Educa in Berlin. She mentioned Lord Puttnam (Chancellor of the Open University), one of those behind an initiative to change how we think about education. There’s a We Are the People Weve Been Waiting For website. There’s also a 77-minute documentary. I watched it recently: it’s thought provoking but has too many of the great and good, as well as five children who speak up well about what they haven’t had.

For contrast, you may like to look at George Siemens’ 9-minute video, asking is it possible to de-school society? Across the water, Stephen Downes says that according to the New York Times, “an American kid drops out of high school at an average rate of one every 26 seconds. In some large urban districts, only half of the students ever graduate. Of the kids who manage to get through high school, only about a third are ready to move on to a four-year college.”

Efforts to use IT to upgrade education still fail catastrophically sometimes: in South Korea the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology thought it saw the future and spent about US$250 million to install 65-inch electronic blackboards in 256 middle and high school classrooms across the country, only to find they are little used. For 2010, Lev Gonick considers IT in Higher Education.

Maybe Harvard has a better idea for influencing the future of learning. Stephen Downes notes that to create a new generation of educational leaders, Harvard is launching a three year, tuition-free doctorate which will include a final year field placement. It will initially offer places on the Ed.L.D to just 25 candidates.

Have a look  at the Educause Magazine for January-February Innovation: Rethinking the Future of Higher Education.

The best news is that BDRA is aiming to launch an MSc in Innovative Education and Training (Learning Futures). More details soon.

David Hawkridge

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