Learning about Unisa and South Africa

My colleagues and I are currently in Pretoria, South Africa, to attend Unisa’s Teaching and Learning Festival 2011. We have been asked to put on a week of workshops, due to start tomorrow (Monday) morning.

Me at Unisa

Standing outside the festival venue

Last Thursday and Friday we attended the festival symposium, which had excellent keynote papers from George Siemens, Gilly Salmon, Catherina Ngugi and Ormond Simpson. The Unisa delegates appeared to take a lot from these talks, judging from the questions raised and comments made in the concluding panel session.

Like so many HE institutions, Unisa, an open distance learning university, is facing a crossroads.  Burgeoning student numbers (374,000 for 2011) has meant current structures are no longer able to cope. It is hoped new technology and new approaches may provide the means by which the staff can continue to offer an education with a national and international reputation (Nelson Mandela is a Unisa graduate). BDRA may pay a small part in this change.

Perhaps the memory of the cynical and depressing summer riots in the UK has coloured my thinking, but I feel South Africa is going places. The people seem pragmatic about the significant current problems (primarily based around inequality and poverty) yet optimistic about the future.

And there’s no question about the talent available here. On Saturday, Gabi and I, with mercurial South African educational technologist Maggie Verster, delivered a workshop on using OERs and social media for teaching and learning at Kliptown Secondary School in Soweto.

Maggie in full flow

The participants, both teachers and schoolchildren, were engaged, articulate and, especially in the case of the latter, more than capable of harnessing the new opportunities for social interaction and learning (accessed mainly through cell phones) offered by technology.

The Representative Council of Learners and workshop participants. Future Unisa graduates?

We’ve got a very hard week ahead, but I know we’re all looking forward to it.

Follow us and everyone else at the festival on Twitter: #unisa2011.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Introducing PELICANS

Participatory learning cultures: a pilot study into digital literacy amongst HE students

PELICANS (Participatory E-Learning: Interactivity, Community And Networking Spaces) is a recent addition to the Media Zoo at Leicester.

pelicans ebsite

PELICANS website

PELICANS is a pilot research project that investigates the level of use and participation by university students in web 2.0 platforms as part of their formal and informal learning in Higher Education (HE). The research project is funded by the College of Social Science Research Development Fund.

Through interviews, questionnaires and simulated recall and observations, the project aims is to identify HE students’ patterns of web use, and their level of web literacy, awareness and skills in using online information resources.

PELICANS will propose recommendations on ways of addressing skills gaps in terms of web literacy, and develop guidelines for supporting the further development of students’ competencies with on-line literacy.

Palitha Edirisingha

17 January 2011

Welcoming 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

A researcherʼs guide to social media

Last Thursday, I took part in a SkillsCamp at the School of Museum Studies. The SkillsCamp was called A researcher’s guide to social media and cultural heritage.

The day-long workshop brought together supervisors, PhD students and researchers interested in how social media (this was given a very broad definition) impacts upon research on cultural heritage.

Following an extremely useful – and illuminating – mapping exercise in the morning, the rest of the day was divided into three main areas: the researcher’s online profile; the Internet and especially the Web as data resource; and finally the methodological frameworks and ethical considerations of ‘researching on the Internet’. Fictitious case studies were use to highlight issues in each area.

The workshop was funded by the Collections Trust, and eight 10,000 word units produced as part of this collaborative project (the universities of Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow were also involved) will be available as fully repurposable OERs from their site early in 2011. These units, which cover topics such as Finding and using digital images and Using your mobile phone as a research tool, also contain teacher plans and notes.

Because the workshop brought together researchers of all ages and with a wide range of experiences (and attitudes), I found the sessions invaluable, even though I was attending as a representative of a research unit rather than as a  researcher. It was clear that the workshop brought to light issues that are prevalent throughout research in higher education.

I intend – with the help of my colleagues – to adapt this SkillsCamp as a Media Zoo offering, to sit alongside the Zoo’s traditional technology workshops and  Ale’s Carpe Diem. In addition to the projects housed in the Zoo (which are focused on new technologies and pedagogies), Beyond Distance also contains the experience of my research colleagues operating within this online environment.

But I don’t see this solely as participants coming the the Zoo to learn new skills from Beyond Distance staff. What really made last Thursday’s workshop useful was that everyone bought something along to the discussion, with debates ranging from the ethics of whether one should carry out an online participant observation study in forums (i.e. starting new threads, etc.) without revealing the motives for participating, to the importance of maintaining a good online research profile for future employment purposes.

Regardless of the discipline, the same questions are being asked, and a workshop such as this is ideal for those still uncertain about the value of the online research environment.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

A wonderful night out in London

Last Thursday, Gilly, Ale, Jai and I attended the glittering Times Higher Education Awards in Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London. The Media Zoo had been shortlisted under Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year.

Simon, Jai and Ale

We didn’t win, and I was surprised at just how disapointed I was. It appeared that we had come so close and then left with nothing.

But after a weekend spent at a Final Cut Pro workshop – thereby having little time to dwell on this result – I realise now just how much credit the department can take from being nominated in the first place.

The Media Zoo is a very important part of what we do here, and to have this recognised in these awards is a huge achievement. Of course, it’s always better to win, but solace can be taken from the fact that the nomination recognises the role the Zoo plays both here at the University and to the sector generally.

I think this is where we were sitting!

So congratulations to worthy winners ChemLabS at Bristol, and look out for the Media Zoo in the 2011 nominations!

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Michael Portillo was compere

PhD research day

On 22 October the Media Zoo hosted a research day for our PhD students. The intended learning outcomes for the day were:

1.  to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of a range of research methodologies and methods
2.  to make informed choices of methodologies and methods to suit each student’s research project
3.  to gain practice in presenting work-in-progress to others for critical comments, and
4.  to provide critical and constructive feedback on peers’ work in so far.

In the morning, there was input from Palitha Edirisingha, David Hawkridge and myself. In the afternoon, there were presentations by each student, while the audience (comprising the other students and a number of Beyond Distance colleagues) used a protocol to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

We all benefited from this research day and students have since indicated how useful the experience was for them – not just because of the day itself, but the preparation that had to go into it. We are planning another research day in February-March.

Dr A Armellini
4 November 2010

Google, and the mysterious case of the disappearing maze

Google has been in the news recently. When they sent cars around the UK to take photos for the rather handy Street View project, not only did they make a note of everybody’s wireless network, but, it seems, they stored some of the data being sent across the networks as well. Data like passwords and emails.

Yesterday, something unusual happened in our virtual Media Zoo that brought this to mind. Later this year, we will be running our second major study for the SWIFT project. This will see dozens of students use a virtual genetics lab to add to their learning of practical laboratory skills. Recently, I have been creating a self-directed training area where our participants will be able to go to learn the basics of participating in this virtual world – provided in this case by Second Life.

Self-directed training area for SWIFT

Self-directed training area for SWIFT

I wanted some sort of path, to guide visitors through a series of tasks, and ended up buying a garden maze for 25 linden Dollars (about 6p here, or 10 US cents). I set that out with a number of information boards, each one describing a particular skill, such as walking, talking to others, putting on a lab coat etc., the idea being to take the visitor through all the skills they will need to participate in the study. Yesterday, I was putting the finishing touches on this induction area, and needed to move the maze half a pace East.

Except I couldn’t edit the maze. On further inspection, it seemed I no longer owned the maze – it now belonged to some random avatar! How strange. How come?

So I bought another maze and “returned” the original to its new owner, then set about figuring out what went wrong. It seems that the maker of this maze set it up rather strangely. Firstly – and this is normal enough – the maze I bought was copy protected: I could give it away or sell it if I wished, but my one copy would be transferred to the new owner and I would lose it. Secondly – and this is the strange part –my maze had been set to “For Sale” with a price of zero dollars. (Usually, the maker leaves this field blank for the new owner to set if they ever wish to resell it). So, my maze was on sale for free without me knowing it, and it seems that some enterprising avatar had snapped it up!

Well, so, who is to blame? Is it a) the maze-maker for leaving their product set to allow anyone to walk off with it, b) myself for not checking every setting on everything I purchase, or c) the other avatar for taking something that was being given away?

Then I remembered Google. They took information that was left lying around because the security wasn’t switched on, on people’s wireless networks – like pasting pages from a personal diary on your garden gate for all to see. So, same question. Who’s at fault? Is it a) the manufacturer of the wifi boxes, b) the owner who’s using the box or c) Google for taking something that was being given away?

I shall be bold here and supply an answer. I don’t think you can blame Google or the visiting avatar. It seems reasonable to me that if something is being given away, and there’s no apparent harm to be done in taking it, and it’s not being taken for any malicious purpose, then by all means take it. (Of course, it has to be legal too, and this is where Google may possibly have a problem).

And I don’t think you can blame the owner. When you buy something, you expect it to just work. Safely.

No, I think it’s down to the manufacturer to think about how their customers will use the object and do their best to make it usable. How many people buy something and want anybody to be able to buy it for free? How many people buy a wifi box and want the whole world to use it?

The same principle needs to apply to our virtual genetics lab. As the “manufacturer”, we have made a lot of effort to ensure that the lab is realistic, effective,  and easy to use. November 24th will be the big day, when we let our student volunteers loose in the lab, and find out just how successful we have been.

Paul Rudman, BDRA


Try our new training area yourself; download Second Life and follow this link

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

What do a TIGER and an OSTRICH have in common?

As mentioned by Ale last week, the Beyond Distance Research Alliance at the University of Leicester has received further funding from JISC and the HEA to continue spearheading the creation and release of learning materials as open educational resources (OERs) via the OSTRICH (OER Sustainability through Teaching & Research Innovation: Cascading across HEIs) project. There is also the TIGER (Transforming Interprofessional Groups through Educational Resources) project – more about that below.

Beyond Distance established a reputation for its work in OERs through the OTTER (Open, Transferable, Technology-enhanced Educational Resources) project from May 2009 to April 2010, in which over 430 credits’ worth of learning materials were published as OERs, in 13 subject areas ranging from Politics through Law to Genetics. (See www.le.ac.uk/oer.) A major outcome of the OTTER project was a workflow and quality framework called CORRE, which includes step-by-step procedures for ensuring that there is no breach of third-party copyright, and transforming and formatting materials to make them reusable and customisable by other academics and students in different contexts. Beyond Distance is now leading the way for other institutions to apply the knowledge gained from piloting CORRE at the University of Leicester during the OTTER project.

In the OSTRICH project, the University of Leicester is supporting the Universities of Bath and Derby in creating and publishing at least 100 credits’ worth of OERs each, in a range of subject areas, following procedures based on the CORRE framework from OTTER. The OSTRICH project is also developing and testing a model for cascading knowledge about OERs and OER processes, enabling other higher education institutions to gain from the knowledge learnt during OTTER. Apart from the OERs themselves, all workflow templates and draft policy guidelines produced in the project will be made available for other institutions to customise to their contexts.

TIGER is a collaborative project between the University of Northampton, De Montfort University (DMU) and the University of Leicester, and will release teaching resources amounting to at least 360 credits into Jorum Open, the main repository for UK Higher Education, and TIGER’s own repository. The three institutions will collect, develop and share OERs designed for Interprofessional Education (IPE) in Health and Social Care. IPE is an emerging field within Health and Social Care curricula, in which students learn about each others’ professional practice to enable more effective collaboration and improve health outcomes. The TIGER project aims to dramatically benefit IPE in Health and Social Care and to solve ongoing challenges in cross-professional collaboration. TIGER OERs will address topic areas for which there is a great and ongoing need, and will be easily accessible to clinical teams in their workplaces via the Web. The OERs will ultimately benefit patients, because they focus on improving the quality of care delivery.

Beyond Distance is proud to be one of the institutions at the forefront of the OER movement in the UK, raising the profile of not only the University of Leicester but also of UK Higher Education in general, in the international Higher Education market.

Gabi Witthaus and Ming Nie, 25 Oct 2010

Redevelopment of the Media Zoo Island in Second Life

In line with the launch of the new Media Zoo website, now with a great new banner designed by Emma, I have started work on redeveloping the Media Zoo Island in Second Life – with help from Paul, of course.

The island was built originally to serve as a place to showcase all the projects of Beyond Distance, as well as specifically to run the Second Life MOOSE project. As we move into 2011, and especially because of the requirements of SWIFT, the time has come to move the island into what I’ve called Phase II of its existence.

Part of the DUCKLING project, the oil rig has proved an popular artefact and simulation, and will be part of the 2010 JISC online conference. It is the main feature in the lagoon and, because it wasn’t needed for Phase II, we removed the boat house. The pier has been kept, and the motor launches used to ferry visitors and students to the rig will moored along it.

boat house

Selecting and removing the boat house

Another significant change in the lagoon has been to move and reshape the beach that formed such an important part of our 2010 Learning Futures Festival. The beach now forms part of the penininsula that contains the Saami tent.


The new beach

The main work, however, will come with readapting what were the Safari Park and Breeding Area domes. One will be used to  showcase the projects from all four quadrants of the Media Zoo while the other – at the moment – is likely to become an auditorium/lecture hall/gathering place.

Phase II, which builds upon the success of Phase I, is partly about adapting the island to current needs, but also preparing it for future work and projects.

Join us on Media Zoo Island at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Media%20Zoo/171/102/25.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

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