Unisa visitors

We’re privileged to be hosting a visit by five South African colleagues this week.

Paul, Peter, Jason, Mpine and Leoni from Unisa are taking part in a series of activities in the Media Zoo, including a ‘compressed’ Carpe Diem and a variety of presentations and workshops led by Beyond Distance colleagues.

Our South African colleagues are planning major changes in their e-learning provision, including developing capacity and exploiting the affordances of new learning technologies. They might even create their own version of the Media Zoo! 

We hope that they take maximim benefit from their visit to Leicester, which has given us the opportunity to learn from the experience of Unisa, one of the largest providers of higher education in the world.

Alejandro Armellini

5 October 2010


Austerity measures

We’re going to run out of prims.

Our little Media Zoo Island may not be “real”, in the original sense of the word, but it has always managed to have real effects on its visitors. Interest, inspiration, acquiring information, learning, even fun. But with every silver lining comes a cloud, a real effect we could do without – limited resources.

In the physical world, the talk is of “credit crunch” (a dated term already?), economic crisis, cuts. In the virtual world of our Media Zoo Island the limits are much more self-inflicted. We have embarked on a major project, SWIFT, and it’s testing the virtual world of Second Life to its limits. We want to display information in ways this virtual world was never designed for, we want animations that directly support each student’s learning needs at critical moments, and we want a virtual genetics laboratory where 30 students can each have all the equipment they need to practice screening genetic material for inherited diseases. That’s 30 sets of equipment, all in use at the same time.

New SWIFT lab in development

In a physical laboratory, one wouldn’t imagine trying this (at least, not without a multi-millionaire benefactor), but the virtual world is different. Not having to work within the laws of physics – such as time, gravity and cause-and-effect – makes it much easier to create machines than in the physical world. Of course, they only give the illusion of working, but that can be quite sufficient to generate an effective learning experience.

Yet even in the virtual world, there is a cost. Machines and other objects are created using “prims” – malleable building blocks that can be used to create surprisingly effective virtual objects. Even though something like a PCR Thermocycler takes only 44 of these prims, we need twenty such devices, thirty 12-prim UV Transilluminators – the list is long. With everything else on the island, it soon adds up to the 15,000 prim limit.

So, as everywhere, it seems that our virtual world will need some “austerity measures”. We’ve already found enough unused objects to release half the shortfall, and will redesign others to use less resources.

Reaching the limit of virtual resources is certainly not the biggest challenge for the SWIFT team, but it is, perhaps, one of the most contemporary.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Out with the old, in with the new?

I was recently asked to add a Follow us on Facebook and a Follow us on Twitter icon to the Media Zoo website. Not a problem I thought, both websites provide brand guidelines, logos and html to easily insert these features into your website. Unfortunately I hadn’t counted on Plone (the Content Management System controlling the Univesity website) and its portlets.

I wanted to horizontally align the two images within a portlet and have URLs on both images. Unfortunately after many attempts I couldn’t get this to work. After talking to the web team my options were:

  1. Include text saying ‘follow us’ after each icon. For me this defeated the purpose of the icons.
  2. Use an image map. This is an image where you can click on different areas of the image and they will have different URLs.
  3. Use a table. No, no and no. A table is for tabular data only, not layout. These icons would not fall into that category.

So an image map it was, which while better than a table is quite an old-fashioned approach to web design. But it worked:

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Now I do completely understand why CMS are necessary on a large website to introduce consistency and an easy to use approach for its editors. but without knowledge of best practice, by its editors, a CMS can still have its issues.

But it makes me wonder: do outdated techniques impact negatively on innovation? To quote Sex and the City: can you get to the future with your past still present?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Media Zoo hosts new CEO of the Higher Education Academy

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Media Zoo shortlisted for Times Higher Education Award

The Media Zoo has been shortlisted under the category Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2010.

Candidates on the shortlist are selected on the basis of their impact on and benefit to the host institution. There were almost 500 entries across the 18 categories of the awards, and the Media Zoo joins a group of five others in this category.

The winner of the award will be announced on 25 November.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Research to Practice with the Media Zoo

The Media Zoo is both  a dissemination forum for the projects of Beyond Distance, and a safe environment in which our University colleagues can encounter and experiment with the learning technologies researched.

Over this summer, I have been migrating the old HTML website (the Online Media Zoo) to the University’s content management system, Plone. In addition to our Media Zoo quadrant map, I’ve added a choice of five pathways into the site depending on whether a visitor is a researcher, or a teacher, and so on.

While Plone may offer less flexibility in terms of individual artistic style, it allows for much easier expansion of the site over the long term.

The URL for the Media Zoo remains the same:


With the move, I’ve taken to opportunity to beef up the second of the Zoo’s functions. Under Engaging with Learning Technologies, University colleagues will find a number of ways to draw upon the skills and experience of Beyond Distance, whether through scheduled or custom workshops in the Physical Media Zoo, or a visit from the Mobile Media Zoo.  

In addition, since we moved to our new premises last year, we have been developing a number of facilities – hybrid presentation technology, online conferencing and a podcasting studio– that are now available for University colleagues to use, with or without Zookeeper involvement.

There is also a drop-in Open Zoo every Wednesday afternoon, when colleagues can engage with the Zoo without a prior appointment. 

As with any website, it remains a work in progress. A new Visitor Centre will be launched soon that will keep all our visitors abreast of developments at the Media Zoo via regular Zoonews, Zoocasts and a Zooblog.

Redevelopment work also continues on Media Zoo Island in Second Life. Our avatars – Johnson, PD, Allyah  and of course the tireless Media Scientist – have been busy adapting and terraforming the island in line with its Phase 2 requirements, based now around the needs of several highly successful projects, SWIFT and DUCKLING.

In terms of research dissemination (the first function), I have given increasing numbers of internal and external Zoo Tours, most recently at the Institute of Cancer Research in London and a meeting of the Network of Geotechnical Teachers at Queens University Belfast. I am also fortunate enough to be presenting a paper on The Future for Academic Conferencing at this year’s Online Educa Berlin.

As a key part of the University’s 2009-12 Learning Innovation Strategy, the Media Zoo continues to offer colleagues creativity and support in the use of learning technologies and innovative learning design.

And of course, all this is built upon the rock-solid foundation of research evidence.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Disseminate from Day One

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

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

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

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

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant Media ZooKeeper

Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Seizing more days

The Beyond Distance team has delivered a number of successful two-day Carpe Diems in recent weeks. Three of them have taken place at Liverpool John Moores University, where over 60 colleagues in three disciplines (Health, Psychology and Built Environment) have taken a proactive approach to designing for effective learning and assessment. They explored creative ways of designing e-tivities that capitalise on the affordances of a range of learning technologies. Many of the designs made use of wikis and will be incorporated into the delivery of these programmes from September. In some cases, the new designs are already in use, as part of LJMU’s summer schools.

 At Leicester, colleagues from the Greenwood Institute of Child Health are planning a new distance learning programme in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. They joined us in the Media Zoo for a very productive two days. The Inter-Professional Education team, including colleagues from De Montfort, Northampton and Leicester, also took part in a Carpe Diem to prepare their new Diabetes online module.

Carpe Diem and other Media Zoo activities enable academic teams to design effectively and to deliver smarter. Colleagues learn to maximise the impact of stable and new technologies and ensure that students benefit from these innovations. As more colleagues continue to seize the day, Carpe Diems and Media Zoo activities will continue to ensure sustained enhancement to the learner experience.

Dr A Armellini
Beyond Distance Research Alliance
12 July 2010

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: mediazoo@le.ac.uk.

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

A Media Zoo for University of Leicester Postgraduates

The Beyond Distance Research Alliance Media Zoo is a place where members of staff from University of Leicester can learn about new technologies for teaching and learning and try them for themselves. Now, the University’s postgraduate students will have a Media Zoo of their own. Wednesday 25th November 2009, 2pm, sees the launch of the Graduate School Media Zoo in the Graduate School Reading Room, first floor of the University’s David Wilson Library.

This new Zoo is a joint endeavour of the University Library, the Graduate School and Beyond Distance. Daily on-site drop-in or prearranged support will be provided by my able and enthusiastic colleague Emma Kimberley who rejoices in the title of Research Forum Facilitator.

 A series of workshops will be on offer over at the Zoo, geared to help postgraduate students explore time-saving and innovative technologies for their research work. Workshop topics will include “Blogging for Research” and “Social Networking in the Research World.” Additionally, the Graduate School Media Zoo has a growing and interactive web presence, including a Facebook group and a blog, so that postgraduate students who are studying at a distance can also benefit.

The Zoo will be formally inaugurated by Dr Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary of JISC, which has funded many of Beyond Distance’s research projects, followed by a workshop on “Keeping ahead of research in your field using RSS feeds”  led by Information Librarian Sarah Whittaker.  There will also be opportunities to test-run one of several eBook readers, podcasting methods, and Second Life, in the new Zoo.

Postgraduate students are perpetually busy and hard-pressed by the demands of both research and part-time teaching. Finding the time to learn about innovations and technologies which can facilitate networking and collaboration with others in their field can be a challenge. We hope that by virtue of its accessibility in the library and its web presence, the new Graduate School Media Zoo will help meet this challenge, and will equip Leicester’s postgraduates with research tools to enable them to achieve more not only as researchers but as academics of the future.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist & Assistant Media ZooKeeper

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