Two hours at the museum

Here at the University of Leicester, we have a beautiful museum. It has brand new wood panelling, glass, artworks on the walls, helpful, friendly staff, computer terminals to help with interpreting the exhibits, spaces to sit and think, work, take stock.

Yes, it’s truly lovely. And in some ways, I enjoyed my two hours there this morning.

Unfortunately, in terms of productivity, a museum full of fifteenth Century technology is really not ideal. If the information in those museum pieces had been stored with twenty-first Century technology, I would have found what I wanted in two minutes, instead of two hours, and could have gotten on with something more useful.

I’m talking, of course, about the library – and the books therein. An anachronistic throw-back to the days when part of the point of academia was to limit access to knowledge.

Books are a lovely technology for reading a novel by the pool in Ibiza.

I’m trying to get some work done.

Paul Rudman


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

The Travelator Paradox

Educators, have you got a travelator under your belt?

A travelator is an automated moving walkway. If you think you have never seen one, think again – at some point one must have carried you and your luggage from one departure gate to another at an airport or a train station. There is one at the Bank Tube Station in London and at a number of other locations around the world. The fact is, however, that they feature more in old science-fiction visions of the future than in present day reality. H.G. Wells imagined moving walkways in his 1897 novel A Story of the Days To Come, and Fritz Lang put them in his dystopian 1927 film Metropolis. So did Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel and Arthur C Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night. Why did the “rolling pavement” from the retro futurist stories never really catch on and remained a feature of a handful of airports and train stations?

Two separate studies, reported last week by the BBC, set out in 2009 to look for an answer. What the researchers at Princeton and Ohio State universities found out was quite interesting. It turns out that travelator passengers tend to slow their pace or stop walking altogether once they step on the machines, defeating the purpose which the travelators are supposed to achieve – to save time.

People standing on a travellator instead of walking

I think of this as the travelator paradox and the story fascinates me. It has prompted me to think of the possibility of similar travelator paradoxes hidden in our arsenal of learning and teaching practices which we expect to carry us into the future of learning and teaching. It seems to me that part of the reason for the “rolling pavement” to fail is that it changes the role of people from travellers-navigators to passengers. Once they get onto the machine, people are guaranteed to reach their destination, even if they remain passive and put no effort. They do not need to interact with the others around them or even notice them. Also, the destination is unexciting, because the route is predetermined, obvious and uniform for everyone on the travelator – there is neither mystery nor adventure so again, there is no reason for people to be alert or take action.

Once I extended the analogy into the domain of education, travelators started emerging. An e-learning course, for example, can turn into a travelator if all it contains is text, posted online in a way in which learners can go through it without having to engage with the material or with each other, with only a single route leading them to the planned learning outcomes. Students, coming in for a lecture, knowing that their lecturer is going to tell them exactly what he or she has been saying to the students in the previous year and the year before, and exactly in the same way, are in for a travelator – they will get to their destination, but the journey will be one of boredom and dullness.


Students in a boring VLE or passengers on the trottoire roulant at the 1900 Paris Expo?

If I were to find myself 20 years in the future from now, I would want to see which of the learning technologies of great promise today will have remained sidelined like travelators, instead of changing the world of learning. Whichever these learning technologies turn out to be, I think their failure will brought by a lack of supporting pedagogies which could have helped learners to create their own learning journey rather than just be there for the ride.

Sandra Romenska

Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) Project

BDRA, 7 October 2010

Don’t know your ePub from your JPEG?

I was talking with one of my fellow Learning Technologists the other day and mentioned that I’d ‘googled’ something. Technically I’m not sure whether ‘googling’ and ‘googled’ are actually words but it did get me to thinking about some of the technical jargon that I use in my daily work. I’ve made a list below of some of the common words (and their definitions) that I use regularly:

  • CSS – Cascading StyleSheets. This can be applied to HTML to define the appearance of a website.
  • ePub – Electronic Publication. This file format is the industry standard for creating e-books. It can be used across a range of devices and formatted to display accurately to that device.
  • GIF – Graphics Interface Format. Web friendly file format suitable for graphics only and can support limited animation.
    HTML– HyperText Markup Language. The language used to create websites.
  • JPEG (JPG) – Joint Photographic Experts Group. Web and print friendly file format most commonly used for photographic images.
  • MP3 – Common audio file format. This file format is designed to reduce file size while retaining audio quality.
  • MP4 – Common video file format. It can also be used for audio, still images and subtitles. MP4s tend to produce a smaller file size than other formats while retaining quality making it suitable for Internet streaming.
  • PDF – Portable Document File. This is the standard file format for downloadable, printable documents on the web. This file format can contain text, images or both, as well as hyperlinks. PDFs cannot be easily edited but can be annotated either through a PDF viewer such as Adobe Acrobat or through other open source software.
  • RSS – Commonly known as Really Simple Syndication. This is a web feed which publishes updated information from blogs, news headlines, video and audio in a format that can be easily read through an RSS reader. An RSS feed is constructed using XML (Extensible Markup Language).
  • TIFF -Tagged Image File Format. Print friendly due to its lossless compression which enables it to retain a high quality when edited and then resaved.
  • WAV – Waveform Audio File Format. Windows based file format for audio, tends to produce larger file sizes making it unsuitable for Internet streaming.

This is just a handful of the jargon that I and my fellow Learning Technologists use, and it’s by no means complete! Feel free to comment if you would like a file format, code, or any other jargon briefly explaining or if you’d like to provide an alternative definition for any of the words above.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Looking into volcanoes

Volcanic ash is causing trouble again. Last week I came across some e-learning about volcanoes. Made by the BBC a few years ago, it’s aimed at Scottish secondary schoolchildren, but could be valuable to anyone trying to understand what happens when volcanoes erupt.

You probably recall that in July 1995 the Caribbean island of Montserrat experienced horrendous eruptions, with little warning, of its Soufrière (sulphur) Hills volcano. The BBC (Scotland) put together an online multimedia ‘tutorial’, including text, web sites, audio and video, to explain what caused such disaster, in which 19 people lost their lives and the economy of the island was destroyed.  Have a look at it here.

You’ll see that it is one of two tutorials under the heading ‘Environmental Hazards’, the other being about floods.  It opens with a dramatic photo of the volcano erupting and offers students the means to answer four questions:

What caused the volcano to erupt?

What impact did the eruption have?

Was the eruption predicted?

What action was taken before, during and after the eruption?

As a geography teacher in an earlier life, I was curious about the pedagogical approach. It had a dated feel of  ‘Give the kids the resources and make them work’. But of course the web site was originally intended to serve the needs of classroom teachers and their students (in Scotland). I think it does provide opportunities for group discussion, and there’s a list (needing some updating) of other useful web sites.

How would you update this tutorial for the BBC, given your knowledge and expertise in e-learning? I would want far larger images, for a start, because the small thumbnail newsreel videos really tell learners very little.  The teachers’ notes mention two TV programmes, but I couldn’t discover whether those are still broadcast or downloadable. I would also want to introduce greater opportunities for interactivity online, perhaps between students in different schools, perhaps even between them and people in Montserrat today.

You could call this web site an early example of an open educational resource (OER), though the BBC does state, in full legal language, the terms of use.

The most devastating eruption to date started at 11:27 pm local time on Monday, 28 July 2008, without any precursory activity. And on 11 February 2010, a partial collapse of the lava dome sent large ash clouds over sections of several nearby islands (says Wikipedia, not one of the suggested sources). Poor Montserrat…

David Hawkridge

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

Virtually Futuristic – Attention, Spoilers Ahead…

In line with IMDB’s message board etiquette  I need to warn you that you may find spoilers in the remainder of this post – “remarks or pieces of information which reveal important plot elements, thus ‘spoiling’ a surprise and robbing the viewer of the suspense and enjoyment.” The Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance is all about spoilers. It is attempting to get a glimpse of possible futures of learning and teaching, and “to reveal important elements of the plot” for higher education with the help of students.

All scenarios that students participating in the project have created so far envisage some form of teaching and learning in virtual worlds in the future. Even students, who did not know of Second Life prior to their participation in CALF, believed that in the future people will learn in “worlds in the computer” as one student put it, as much as they do today in the physical world. Is this shared anticipation a spoiler, a signal of a very possible future? I consider it to be.

Recently there has been a wave of big budget Hollywood films about virtual worlds. There was the premiere of the trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar (it will be the most expensive film ever made, apparently) and this week in theatres on is Surrogates with Bruce Willis. Both films are set in futures where humans live their lives through representations of themselves.  Could these movies be the “spoilers” of possible futures?

 If they are, it will not be the first time that something predicted in a sci-fi movie has come true. In Johnny Mnemonic  humans could have their memories removed to free up space within their brains or so that data can be locked in the brain with codes to protect it and only last week the CNN posted a story about a researcher at Microsoft who is converting his brain into e-memory. In Surrogates people live confined in their rooms while controlling through the nerves of their eyes their robot representations in the outside world – recently it was reported that MIT has developed technology that can help blind people see again by projecting visual input directly onto the brain.

 Perhaps the question then is not “If” there will be teaching and learning in virtual worlds, but instead “What if” there is, how will the world change? In getting me to think about this “ripple” effect of new technologies, I found the Surrogates movie to be well worth the £5.50 I paid for my ticket and I recommend it to anyone who is working on virtual worlds. In the future of Surrogates mortality of contactable diseases had dropped with 90% – because people were not in contact with each other anymore. So had mortality of accidents and crime – everyone was safe in their fortified homes. Birth rates had also fallen for obvious reasons and that had solved the overpopulation problem which would have otherwise loomed because of the increased longevity. The movie focused a great deal on the issues to do with identity and identity theft and while these diversions into causes, consequences and possibilities may have diluted the plot, they made for a very inspiring experience from a futurist perspective.

 In the CALF project, analogy has proven a powerful tool for idea generation for “spoilers” for the possible futures ahead. Encouraging students to seek analogies with things they are familiar with, including science fiction movies, in order to generate and ground ideas about possible futures, has yielded scenarios that are structured and easier and quicker to communicate.

I guess what I am trying to say is – It is Friday today, treat yourself to a movie. And do put a comment here if what you see inspires you to think of a possible future…

Sandra Romenska

Beyond Distance Research Alliance, 2 October 2009

Standing on the shoulders of a giant

Prof David Hawkridge

Prof David Hawkridge

Our team, and the work we do, has recently been recognised by our peers in the form of a prize and a small amount of prize money.

A more profound success for us though, is the recent acknowledgment of the career of Professor David Hawkridge, Visiting Professor (University of Leicester) and Emeritus Professor of Applied Educational Sciences (The Open University), who was recently honoured by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) at its annual conference in Manchester (8-10 September 2009) with an honorary life membership.

Since 2007, he has been Visiting Professor at Leicester, working closely with research teams at Beyond Distance and other academics at the University.

David brings to bear a lifetime of experience to challenge us in our research and he steers the diverse flotilla of our projects with a benign, guiding hand.  Readers of this blog would be familiar with some of David’s recent thinking via his posts, which bear his hallmark of wit and brevity, as well as being  thought-provoking.

David is a graduate of the University of Cape Town (BA 1952, MA 1953, BEd and STD 1954) and subsequently read for his PhD (1963) at the University of London.

Among several prestigious academic appointments, David served as the Director of the Institute of Educational Technology – an academic group chiefly charged with educational research, design, development and evaluation work for the OU (1970-88).

He was also associated with the development of the OU’s television programming for the BBC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in recognition of which he was awarded the Eastman Kodak Gold Medal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers in 1994. The citation for which noted his pioneering work, which provided the research foundation and model for the integration of television and other learning technologies in Great Britain’s Open University.

David contributed extensively to educational policy development, in the UK and abroad, through his work with governments in several Asian, African nations and the EU, the British Council, the World Bank and UNESCO. He takes keen interest in multimedia education initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa, through his work with the University of Cape Town.

His recent research and mentoring of researchers at Leicester has focussed on podcasting for pedagogic purposes, using 3D Multi-User Virtual Environments, learning design and e-book readers.

Among senior academics he has mentored are Professors Diana Laurillard (Institute of Education) and Gilly Salmon (University of Leicester). Prof Salmon was later instrumental in his joining the Beyond Distance team at Leicester, and they recently co-edited a special issue of the British Journal for Educational Technology.

Several generations of David’s doctoral students now hold key positions in higher education, for whom he remains a mentor, an inspiration and an obliging, but eagle-eyed, editor of ‘drafts’.

An aficionado of all things Apple, David usually sports a sharp line in corduroy jackets and, for those in the know, is the voice behind some of the most charming answer-phone messages ever. He resides in the South Bedfordshire village of Heath and Reach, and keenly follows the fluctuating fortunes of England’s cricket teams.

–        Jai Mukherjee / 21 September 2009

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

The future is here to stay

The influential think tank Demos launched The Edgeless University, a new pamphlet exploring the impact of technological and social change on universities on 23 June 2009. ‘The Economist’ had earlier explored this from the learners’ perspective in an article on colleges without borders in December 2008.

These ideas come at an opportune moment, when despite the doom and gloom of the prevailing social and economic climate, the perceived wisdom – according to rankings and studies, at least – is that the HE sector currently is in rude health.

As institutions, universities contribute to the local communities around them, to the national economy and to the vibrant cultural and intellectual life of the UK. Nonetheless, the Demos report suggests that universities find themselves in a fragile state.

The huge public investment that most of the sector relies on is said to be insecure. As a result, universities are being asked to adapt and do more for less, from meeting the needs of a larger and more diverse student population to withstanding increased international competition.

According to the report, technology and innovation should be placed at the heart of this adaptation, but not in the sense of building a room full of computers. Rather, they need to be driving the narrative of institutional change.

The report cites numerous examples of technology making research and learning possible in new places, often outside of institutions. Far from undermining the institutions, this is creating exciting opportunities for universities to demonstrate and capitalise on their value.

Universities provide spaces for developing expertise, validating learning and they bring prestige to those affiliated to them. This is not going to change.

Instead they will have to start to open up continued learning and innovation to a wider population. Giving more people more ways to learn and research will be the only way to reconcile aspirations to maintain a world-class education system with high participation rates and moves towards equality of access as well as equivalence of experience.

Giving access to a large volume of content can give a high profile to the quality of the institution’s work. It can contribute to the wider academic and learning commons. Several HEIs are already committed to publish all research online, with free access. The vast resources of globally ranked universities will be available to anyone with an Internet connection.

In the competitive environment of a global HE market, Open Access repositories provide a platform through which a university can showcase its research. Open Access helps prospective students make a judgement about which university to choose, shares blue-skies research with the widest possible audience and supports outreach activity to open up HE to new communities.

But it does raise questions about how the knowledge is sorted, and how we filter such quantities of information. When it comes to knowledge how does one sort out the wheat from the chaff? This is where a university’s values can reassert themselves. As more content is available, guidance and expertise in sorting and assessing it become more valuable.

As more people seek flexible and informal learning, they will need the accreditation and support of established institutions. As researchers and learners try to acquire the skills of searching, analysing and sorting information, the expertise of academics will be invaluable. As learners look to assert the value of their learning, and researchers their work, affiliation to established institutions will signal valuable quality.

It is also essential to get the relationship between the institution and the technology correctly aligned. Technology can help universities move from where they are now to where they need to be.

This might, for instance, necessitate a commitment to open content and shared resources, and investment in the management and curatorship of vast amounts of data and knowledge.

It will also mean re-skilling current and future staff and upgrading access, alongside offering new kinds of courses, accreditation and affiliation that use informal learning and research networks and aligning them to the existing, formal system.

Updating policy to keep pace with technological change is also a key challenge. The report quotes an education policy analyst as suggesting that the current predicament of the HE sector is similar to that faced by the music industry at the turn of the century, where technology – and particularly those clustered around sharing – undermined the existing business models and forced them to change their ways.

Building upon the HE investment in technology driven by enterprising academics and advocates within institutions, the next stage of technological investment has to be far more considered. The sector currently lacks a coherent narrative of how institutions will look in the future, or of the role that technology will play in the transition to new learning and research cultures.

Taking advantage of these opportunities will take strategic leadership from inside institutions, new connections with a growing world of informal learning, and a commitment to openness and collaboration. Only by adapting can universities continue to meet the vital public policy aim of creating more access to HE.

Working within a university R&D unit entrusted with developing the learning innovation agenda, the challenge is to ensure that our research to practice approach with learning technologies will continue to bring innovation to the mainstream.

Jai Mukherjee / 25 June 2009

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