Can Learning Innovations be Embedded and Sustained?

On 28 April, 2010, Gabi Witthaus and Terese Bird attended a CAMEL meeting sponsored by JISC and which took place at Middlesex University, the theme of which was to examine whether the developments of the DUCKLING project can be embedded and sustained. Once the project is over, can teaching teams continue to use the technologies, findings and deliverables?

In this meeting, Gabi and Terese looked at the sustainability of each of the three technologies implented in the DUCKLING project — ebook readers, podcasting, and Second Life — as well as the pedagogy underpinning the use of each. Since the project is a joint effort amongst the Schools of Psychology and Education, and Beyond Distance, it was helpful to consider how each of the Schools implemented each innovation.

Psychology used Second Life as a forum for role-playing and simulation, to give students a taste of the experience of living and working on an oil rig with its dangers and isolation, as preparation for their assignment to write a health and safety training manual for oil rig workers. Beyond Distance techies supported this work. However, the actual role playing and leading of the sessions was done by Psychology academics and could continue that way, with some tech support. To watch a YouTube video capturing some of the action of the students’ experience on the oil rig, click here.

Education sent their students into existing language class forums in Second Life, where students observed and could participate in the classes. This was a very flexible way of making use of Second Life — students simply went in and signed up for classes already taking place pretty much 24/7. Observing language classes in Second Life has now been embedded into themodule as an optional activity. As long as there are such forums in Second Life, this activity is sustainable.

Podcasts have been fully embedded into the Psychology curriculum for the masters programme in DUCKLING — especially as part of the dissertation-writing process. These podcasts been rolled out to all cohorts on that module. Psychology academics have been making and distributing (via the University VLE, Blackboard) podcasts without any help from Beyond Distance for months now. Education has especially recently begun to record podcasts for its Masters TESOL students, and again the work of recording and posting onto the VLE is straightforward enough to continue without difficulty after DUCKLING’s conclusion.

With the ebook readers, we learned from interviews with students that using the ebook reader is changing their study habits. To quote one student: “I now study more in my workdays using the e-reader. I’ve been putting it in my bag every day and taking it to work and after lunch reading a few pages. I’ve found that way it keeps the content fresh in my mind. Before with the paper version, I’d allocate my weekends for study.”  Another student commented, “I think that the e-book reader changed my way of keeping notes and makes my study more effective. Before, I used my laptop to write a lot of notes because I felt that I would forget the whole thing if I didn’t take them down. But taking notes is time-consuming and not that effective because I never really use the notes. With the e-book reader, it’s not very inconvenient to go back to the material on the e-reader and I can remember where the material was and go back to the module on the e-reader and look through it. As a result of that, I didn’t take a lot of notes and I don’t think it (not taking notes) makes a difference to my study.”

A further aspect of the continuing use of ebook readers can be viewed from the point of view of finance. One department saw savings over printing and shipping stacks of handouts to students, by instead shipping to the students fully-loaded ebook readers. In some cases the students themselves experienced the savings, realising that they did not have to purchase hard copies of notes and choosing instead to simply read these on their ebook readers. Converting module handouts from Word format into format suitable for ebook readers (epub format in the case of the Sony ebook readers we are using) is not a very difficult process — click here for our instructions to do this. The fact that the iPad supports epub documents, public libraries are beginning to offer ebooks for download in epub format, and students are looking for reading material compatible with smartphones, presses the point that the use of this technology will only increase in future. We predict it will be sustained by popular demand.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

Running the first oil rig evacuation

Last month, we ran our first evacuation from the oil rig. This was built around a scenario written by Dr Andrew Shepherd (AKA Dr Darcy Mint and Mr Quentin Harcourt).

Our student volunteers – now morphed into the ACME Occupational Psychology Consultancy Team – were required to visit the rig at the behest of the New Walks Oil Exploration Company and assess any potential health & safety issues. (The oil rig was for this purpose an ‘experimental platform’ to be tested prior to 35 full oil rigs being built in order to exploit the discovery of oil in SL.)

Following a short briefing in the Media Zoo boat house, the ACME consultants – now identified by their blue safety helmets –  were ferried out to the platform in one of the numerous motorboats. They were given a full tour of the platform by Johnson and Aallyah.

The consultants were then required to familiarise themselves with the platform, and several days later present to Dr Darcy, Mr Harcourt and everyone else on specific aspects of H&S. This presentation was done on the helipad using slides uploaded by Johnson. Both Aallyah and Johnson were very pleased to see that all smoking cigarettes and booze bottles had been identified! In addition to H&S, the consultants were asked to include a suitable evacuation plan.

The platform supervisor, Mr Harcourt, a misery at the best of times, assigned the consultants certain tasks around the rig. It was at this stage that Dr Kelly Barklamb (AKA Doreen Mint) put in a performance worthy of Oscar recognition, as she played to perfection the distracting and obstropolous administrator unwilling to do anything the consultants asked of her.

While all this was going on, Johnson flitted around the rig laying fires, before setting off the first klaxon and starting the evacuation. Although one stairwell was blocked off, eventually all the consultants made it to the waiting boats and headed for the shore. No lives were lost!

So apart from being great fun, how useful was the scenario? As outlined in Kelly’s post from the summer, the occupational psychology team already had a good idea of how to ‘assess’ the students. And I think it’s useful to make the following observations:

  • As shown by the high quality of the presentation, SL offered these distance learning students an excellent environment in which to collaborate;
  • Most of the participants were new to SL , yet only required a one-hour training session (although it was important that this training was focused);
  • Despite the training, some found it hard to manoeuvre within the tight confines of the rig;
  • All participants acknowledged the realism of the evacuation, made more so by the noise of the klaxons.

The scenario will become more refined the more we run it. But for a first attempt, we were overall very pleased with the way it went. And certainly the participants/students/avatars/consultants tell us they found it very useful.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Measuring the Impact of the Oil Rig SL-tivity for Occupational Psychology MSc Students

Following Simon’s recent blog  about the oil rig task that is currently being produced for the Occupational Psychology team, I have been thinking about how we will measure the potential benefits for the students, and how we might expect this SL-tivity to impact the learning experiences of the students on our MSc courses.

Because of the specific nature of the oil rig task, not all students on the course will be required to use Second Life to complete the unit assignment for this module, which means that it will be possible to conduct a between-subjects comparison: How does the learning experience of students using Second Life differ to the learning experiences of those who are not using Second Life?

One way of exploring this will be through interviewing the students, asking them to evaluate their experiences. A more indirect measure might involve looking at students’ performance against particular learning outcomes (for example, perhaps looking at whether Second Life usage is related to better marks in this unit assignment).

While I was thinking about this, I came across an interesting case study  from the Loyalist College in Canada. The task has been created for Customs and Immigrations students who are training to become guards on the US-Canadian border. Because of changes to security regulations after September 11, students were no longer able to train with actual border guards. Therefore, a virtual border crossing simulation was created in Second Life.

Since the simulation was created, students’ scores on critical skills tests were reported to have increased from 56% success in 2007 to 95% by the end of 2008. In addition to this, increased numbers of students and faculty staff were reported to have explored Second Life for “mixed purposes” since the simulation was implemented.

Ken Hudson, Managing Director of the Virtual World Design Centre at the Loyalist College, described the impact of this SL intervention as “amazing and unprecedented.” In the report written about this intervention, the following quote from Ken Hodges was included:

“No single technological addition has ever impacted grades at the college in such a positive way. The affordable tools of Second Life allowed us to explore potential applications for education. Loyalist College believes strongly that were it not for Second Life, we would not be involved in virtual worlds whatsoever. The learning in these spaces is amazing, and when we are working with 30% increases in success, there is nothing more memorable than that.”

Although the task involved and the context of this case study is very different to our ‘oil rig’ task within Occupational Psychology, the basic underlying principles behind what we are trying to achieve are clearly comparable. I hope that, in time, once we have the SL-tivity up and running, we will also begin to see similar benefits for our students. Watch this space…

Kelly Barklamb

How does employer engagement contribute to improvements in courses delivered for work-based learners?

In the Duckling project, we collaborate with three distance learning work-based Masters’ programmes in two disciplines within the University of Leicester: MSc in Occupational Psychology and Psychology of Work at the School of Psychology, and MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL at the School of Education. In Psychology, students are practising psychologists studying towards chartered psychologist status. In Education, learners are practising language teachers seeking enhanced professional competence.

One of the research questions in Duckling is, ‘How does employer engagement contribute to improvements in the delivery of the three curricula and in student learning?’ To address this question, I interviewed some employers from Psychology and Language teaching fields.

The three employers in the Psychology field that I interviewed are all based in the UK. They are all chartered psychologists and have plenty of experience working in business, public sectors and academia. The three employers from Language teaching field are based in South America. They are all practising English teachers and work for an English teaching or exam centre.

Their interviews mainly covered two themes:

  • Their perceptions of the professional development needs of the employees in their organisations.
  • Their ideas and insights on how a Masters course in Occupational Psychology or Applied Linguistics can help practising psychologists or language teachers meet their professional development needs.

In Psychology, employers identified a number of professional development needs faced by practising psychologists:

  • To become chartered psychologists
  • To enhance quantitative and qualitative research skills
  • To develop consultancy skills
  • To understand the key business strategy of the organisation that they work with.

The three employers offered ideas or insights on how the current MSc courses can be improved to meet the professional development needs of work-based learners:

  • To integrate the chartership model into the course delivery
  • To enhance practical aspects of the course delivery by:
    • providing students with opportunities to work with practising psychologists
    • establishing relationships with the employers
    • covering practical topics such as interventions in depth within the course
    • involving external practising psychologists as contributors to the course delivery, such as case studies or supplement material.

In Education, the three employers identified two professional development needs faced by the practising language teachers in their organisations:

  • How to incorporate technologies into the design and delivery of a language course
  • How to transfer theory into practice

They also offered ideas on how the MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL course can be improved to meet the professional development needs of practising language teachers:

  • Offer an optional module focusing on technology-supported course design and delivery
  • Add more practical elements into the current course by incorporating project-based activities, reflective accounts and critical thinking
  • Add practical components from the beginning modules

In Duckling, the employers’ voices will be incorporated into the curricula delivery to improve the learning experience of work-based distance learners. The outcomes from employer interviews will be fed back to the two course teams for consideration.

Ming      09 July 2009

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