I followed the sun

The Learning Futures Festival Online 2011 was titled, “Follow the Sun,” and billed as, “Three countries, three time zones, a non-stop global e-learning conference.” It was hosted by the Beyond Distance Research Alliance of the University of Leicester and the Australian Digital Futures Institute of the University of Southern Queensland.

The format was a different approach. Starting in the UK at 09:00 (British Summer Time) and running for 8 hours, moderation was then handed over for another 8 hours to the North American Team in Seattle, and then for a further 8 hours to the team in Toowoomba, Australia. The cycle then repeated for another 24-hour period. From Canada, my plan was to catch as much as I could with naps along the way. Looking back at the programme, I attended more in the UK and North American sessions, finding other demands for my time and a need for sleep in our evening hours while Australia was on. Fortunately, the sessions were recorded, and I can return to those I missed or wish to re-watch.

The good news for many whom could not participate is that the recorded sessions are now available to watch without charge, through the “Follow the Sun” link above.

Having attended many conferences, physically and online, this was the first at which I presented. I had the pleasure of working with PhD student colleagues from the BDRA, Brenda, Ali, and Natalia, to deliver, “PhD Students Following the Sun: How PhD Students Use and Perceive Technologies.” Hopefully this will be there first of many more, whether personally or in a group. While my part was about how I, and others, use Twitter for a weekly ‘phdchat’ discussion, I look forward to sharing about my research area in future presentations.

A special thanks to all whom made the conference come together and run smoothly. Next year will be my turn to step up and assist.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA

Introducing the Six `Follow the Sun´ Keynote Speakers

Beyond Distance’s sixth annual international conference, the Learning Futures Festival Online 2011, will soon be upon this, entitled and themed “Follow the Sun.” This year, Beyond Distance will be joined as hosts by the Australian Digital Futures Institute of the University of Queensland. Beginning at 9:00 am BST on 13th April 2011, the conference will run continuously until 9:00 am BST on 15th April, 2011, entirely online, in platforms including Adobe Connect Pro 8, Second Life, and Moodle.

We’d like to introduce you to the six keynote speakers:

1. Sugata Mitra Professor of Educational Technology, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University, UK One of the world’s most invited keynote speakers on education, Sugata Mitra is best known for his Hole in the Wall experiment, in which a computer was installed in the wall of a public building in Kalkaji, Delhi, and was used by local children to teach themselves a variety of topics and skills to unexpectedly high levels.
2. Charles JenningsFormer Chief Learning Officer for Reuters and Thomas Reuters, currently Managing Director of Duntroon Associates In his role at Reuters, Charles Jennings was responsible for the training and development of over 18,000 employees worldwide, developing managerial effectiveness through innovative online training with measurable benefits to the company’s bottom-line.
3. Terry AndersonProfessor and Canada Research Chair in Distance Education, Athabasca University – “Canada’s Open University” Terry has published widely in the area of distance education and educational technology and is active in provincial, national, and international distance education associations. He is also the director of the Canadian Institute for Distance Education Research, as well as Editor of the International Review of Research on Distance and Open Learning.
4. Gardner Campbell – Director, Academy for Teaching and Learning, and Associate Professor of Literature, Media, and Learning, Honors College, Baylor University, USA As written in the Chronicle of Higher Education ProfHacker blog: “… Baylor’s Gardner Campbell… is so electrically inspiring in conversation that he should be tattooed with a warning label.” With a background in Renaissance literature and film, Gardner Campbell is a leading authority of the use of technology in higher education.
5. Ron Oliver -Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia Ron was an early winner of the Australian Award for University Teaching, and is an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Fellow. His particular interests include authentic learning and task-based learning and the sharing and reuse of technology-facilitated learning activities. Among his research outputs are the National Flexible Toolbox Project and the Technology-Supported Learning Database.
6. Gilly SalmonProfessor of Learning Futures and Executive Director of the Australian Digital Futures Institute at the University of Southern Queensland Until the end of 2010, Gilly was Professor of E-learning and Learning Technologies at the University of Leicester and head of the Beyond Distance Research Alliance and the Media Zoos. Gilly’s research interests span strategies for enhancing learning with and through new technologies, the future for learning in Higher Education and innovation through learning design. She is a Senior Fellow and a National Teaching Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy, Trustee of EDEN, and chair of the UK’s Association of Learning Technologies. 

Registration is open – don’t miss ‘Follow the Sun!’

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

Online Seminars: Better than being there…

On 3 March 2010, Beyond Distance (funded by the Higher Education Academy) hosted a Podcasting in Assessment Seminar (PANTHER) which was both face-to-face and online. 35 delegates gathered at the University of Leicester to share experience and evidence gathered in the use of podcasts for assessment. 31 delegates from around the world joined in by means of the web classroom software ‘Wimba.’ The blended nature of this seminar gave us the opportunity for some comparison between its face-to-face and online  experiences.

Before the seminar started, people came into the room pretty much on time, spoke politely to those sitting nearby, sat down and individually quietly prepared for the seminar. In the Wimba online room, people logged in as much as 45 minutes early, and, using the chat, introduced themselves and talked to each. The online chat was easy-going and often informal. Everyone online could see what every other e-delegate typed into the chatbox, allowing for integrated communication. Pre-seminar communication was therefore more plentiful and inclusive amongst online participants than among face-to-face participants.

During the seminar, people in the physical university room were quiet until invited to submit questions. Online participants, however, were able to comment immediately and ask questions at anytime. Our e-moderator gathered up and submitted questions to the panel at the question time. In the morning session, there were more questions from the online participants than from those face-to-face; in the afternoon, there were more face-to-face questions. However, online participants constantly discussed with each other throughout the seminar, using Wimba chat facility as their ‘back channel’.  A few of the participants in the University room had laptops with them and took part online too. These dual-mode delegates acted as bridges between the two environments and engaged in discussion with both groupings. Our impression is that face-to-face participants took more time to get warmed up and inducted into the nature of the sessions, whereas the online participants jumped right in. Also, online participants benefited from the freedom to constantly comment and discuss during the seminar.

At one point in the seminar, participants in the live session were divided into groups and asked to work together to plan and record a podcast episode, and to share it with everyone. Online participants did the same – some in groups, some individually.  The resulting files were emailed to us. We received files in a variety of languages and formats including some enhanced podcasts (podcasts with added visuals). It was fascinating to see how varied, creative, and resourceful these submissions were. Once we received these files, we played them for the face-to-face participants and made sure Wimba transmitted them as well, so all participants could hear and see what everyone else had produced.

I would not suggest that all face-to-face, physically based conferences should be replaced by online or virtual conferences.  But we have demonstrated that e-conferencing offers special benefits: more and freer discussion, faster engagement with the presentations; access to all other computer- and internet-based resources close at hand during the session, and money, time and carbon saved from avoiding travel.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, Beyond Distance Research Alliance


Is it polite to tweet during lectures?

This past ALT-C was the first conference I’ve attended at which I decided to tweet the proceedings. I wanted to see if tweeting at a conference would help me, would it help other people, does it make sense to do at all? I could not attend all of the conference days, so I figured I could follow via Twitter what I could not attend. And on a related note, following ALT-C via Twitter would give me a flavour of  experiencing an online conference rather than a face-to-face conference. Since we at Beyond Distance are holding our Learning Futures Festival 2010 online only, I thought I would try and see for myself what an online conference is like. And finally, if nothing else, my own tweets could serve as online notes for the conference, reminding me of what I learned.

I found that tweeting during keynote and other presentations helped me to digest what was being said. Perhaps the practice of distilling what I heard into 140-character tweets was forcing me to boil down the presentations into a series of take-home messages which I could retain more easily. Moreover, while I am excellent at losing pens and little notebooks, I can’t lose Twitter, so I can go back onto Twitter and re-read the notes I took at ALT-C.

But I found that the most valuable aspect of using Twitter was the social one. I was reading other delegates’ tweets, and could direct message them and thus establish a more direct connection with elearning practitioners who are definitely knowledgeable. I’m reaping the benefits now, continuing and building on Twitter some of the conversations begun during ALT-C.

I did not faithfully follow the Twitter backchannel during presentations. For myself, I felt I would miss too much of the presentation if I did, although I believe other users who claim they are so used to Twitter that they can tweet and read whilst still paying attention to the presenter. I’m also not so sure it’s always a good thing to post up the twitter feed at the front so everyone can follow it during the presentation.”I may not agree with what you tweet but will defend to the death your right to tweet it,” yet I don’t like it when backchannels get nasty as I don’t think it helps anyone.

What about lectures -are students tweeting during lectures? Some certainly are; I have read the “Can’t stay awake in this lecture, out too late last night” sort of tweet coming from a student or two. However, natural-born-students-who-tweet seem to be in the minority. As social networking sites go, Twitter is unusual in that it is not a “young” phenomenon; comScore and Nielsen report that most Twitter users are between 45 and 54 years old.

However, I think it is only a matter of time before students realise the learning and social power of Twitter. Instructors seem to be slightly ahead of the students this time: I’ve recently read of higher ed lecturers who are actively encouraging students to use Twitter, especially during lectures. For example Professor Monica Rankin at University of Texas at Dallas “uses a weekly hashtag to organize comments, questions and feedback posted by students to Twitter during class. Some of the students have downloaded Tweetdeck to their computers, others post by SMS or by writing questions on a piece of paper. Rankin then projects a giant image of live Tweets in the front of the class for discussion and suggests that students refer back to the messages later when studying.” Martin Hawksey blogs here about how to combine Twitter with Yahoo Pipes to approximate an audience response system – the students’ mobile phones are their “clickers.”

Tweet during lectures? It would be impolite not to!

(And no jokes about my surname, either!)

Terese Bird

Online Conferences: Why waste a good economic crisis?

From 7th through 14th January, 2010, Beyond Distance will hold its 5th Annual Learning Futures Festival. This year, for the first time, the festival will be completely and only online.

Is it good to have a conference in a completely online format? How can sitting in one’s office in front of a computer monitor, clicking, typing, discussing, watching and listening to something taking place many miles away be preferable to actually traveling to that distant city, booking in for the nights, sitting amongst rows and rows of participants all listening to a single speaker on the podium, standing in a queue for the finger food – to say nothing of the expense? The fact is that online conferences are beginning to look more attractive, especially in these days of economic challenge.

But saving money is not the only benefit. Participants report other benefits, such as: more in-depth, more detailed, and more inclusive discussions; participation from delegates further afield; time flexibility; and having a permanent record of proceedings. Online conferences tend to challenge the sage-on-the-stage model of presentation by offering every delegate more direct access to the speaker as well as to every other delegate – in real time and in his own time.

I had an interesting online conference experience this week. I assisted as my colleague Gabi Witthaus served as a keynote speaker for the National Association of Distance Education and Open Learning in South Africa (NADEOSA) annual conference. (See Gabi’s OTTER project blog post about this.) This conference, while not an online conference, was online for me and Gabi – the conference took place in Pretoria, but Gabi and I were in the Media Zoo at University of Leicester.

Gabi had sent a good-quality video file of her presentation to South African colleagues, using filemail, so as not to disappoint if a live presentation connection to South Africa did not work. It was a good thing Gabi decided on a belt-and-braces approach. The first difficulty was that filemail, though always rock-solid, proved problematic for South African colleagues; in the end they settled for a low-resolution version of the file. The second issue arose with the live question-and-answer session; we tried various conferencing software, but all proved unstable. We had hoped to at least connect via a phone landline, but there was no landline in the auditorium where the keynote was to take place. Finally we settled on Skype – with video in the Media Zoo so that Gabi could be seen and heard in Pretoria, but with sound only in the auditorium so that Gabi could hear, but not see, the delegates.

In the end, the keynote presentation, though not without its difficulties (Skype dropped the call several times but we quickly reconnected), was a great success. We wondered if the audience, simply watching a movie of a presentation, would feel engaged enough. The many in-depth and insightful questions revealed that they had engaged. We were indeed at a very lively and thought-provoking conference with an auditorium full of academics, even though it was only two of us in the Media Zoo with a laptop, thousands of miles away. The fact that we fruitfully participated with colleagues with much less access to technology than we have underlined the need to continue exploring online conferencing in higher education. Please watch this space for upcoming information on our own Beyond Distance Learning Futures Festival Online – and plan to join us!

Terese Bird

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