Learning through off-the-wall conversations

The Open University hosted a ‘CAMEL’ workshop last week for a cluster of participants in JISC-funded projects. (CAMEL is a great community of practice model for e-learning management. See Theo’s blog for a nice succinct description or the CAMEL website for more info on this.) Ming and I attended from Beyond Distance in our capacity as researchers on the Beyond Distance DUCKLING project.

It was a hugely inspiring day for me – there was a kind of energy and warmth in this group of people who had been thrown together for the day that is usually only found amongst friends who have known each other for years. Full marks to Peter Chatterton and Steve Garner for setting up this wonderfully nourishing event. (And the Chinese dinner afterwards played no small part in the day’s success!)

Andy Bardill and Bob Fields from Middlesex University set the scene for the day by telling us about a fascinating project they are doing with their Interaction Design students. Imagine a design studio in a well-equipped university, with a lecturer and six to eight students sitting around a large table, and one student showing his or her photos or drawings to the group for critique. The conventional way to do this is to have each student projecting his or her work onto the wall using a data projector, while the rest of the students comment and take notes.

Andy and Bob are not conventional teachers, though, and they felt frustrated at the limited interaction, as most of the students sat with their heads bowed taking notes on their laptops. Their solution was to ban laptops from the classroom (an initially unpopular decision), and to project each student’s work from a ceiling-mounted projector onto the table (an accidental, but very exciting discovery, as it happened) instead of the wall… They covered the table with flipchart paper to provide a sort of screen for the projected image.

The side-effect (literally!) was that students started writing their notes on the table around the edges of the projected image, instead of typing on their disallowed laptops. This immediately had the effect of making previously private notes public, and catapulted the group into deeper conversation. At the end of each session, students started spontaneously taking photos of the conversation on the table as a record of their ‘notes’. You can see some of these intriguing photos on Andy Bardill’s Flickr page.

The next development was to video the unfolding conversation on the table with a ceiling-mounted video camera, in order to have a record for later analysis of the learning process. No doubt we’ll hear more from Andy and Bob about what they’ve learnt from this as the project progresses.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that the simple act of moving the focus from the wall (‘out there/ away from us’) to the table (‘in here/ amongst us’) resulted in a change of perspective for the whole group. It enabled people to physically move around the image. Their interactions became focused on the centre of the table, as they gestured towards the central image while discussing it. A bit like the hub of a wheel that keeps the spokes together, this central point kept the participants connected in a way that a projected image on a wall cannot easily do. The popular literature from neurolinguistic programming also tells us that when we look down, we are drawing more on the emotional part of our brain. Perhaps there’s something in that too.

Thanks, Bob and Andy, for reminding us that technology on the sidelines (and on the ceiling) can sometimes be much more effective than technology on our laps or in-our-faces. We’ll be watching this space for more off-the-wall inspiration. (Just let us know which space, so we don’t get left behind staring at the table while you’ve moved onto the floor… or underground…)

Gabi Witthaus

A short book review: provisional version

I decided to write a provisional version of this book review for the blog, because I’m hoping to ask a colleague to read the book too and help me to write a better grounded review.
Wei, Runfang. China’s Radio and TV Universities and the British Open University: a comparative study. Nanjing, Yilin Press, 2008. 394pp.

Anyone who wants to read an English-language account of why and how China’s radio and television universities (RTVUs) came into being and prospered should turn to this book. Wei has been associated with the Jiangsu (Province) RTVU, one of the major partners in the system of RTVUs, more or less since it was first established in the late 1970s. She wrote this comparative study following research over several years, though with access to only a fairly small range of English-language documents about the Open University.

Wei explains how, after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the disastrous wrecking of China’s institutions of higher education, the RTVUs were created to educate very large numbers of students to college level in the shortest possible time. She describes the system, which initially used TV and radio broadcasts via national and provincial transmitters covering most main population centres, as well as rural areas in the eastern half of China. The programmes reached hundreds of thousands of students in classes set up at workplaces, community halls and other ‘borrowed’ premises, where relatively under-qualified teachers supervised the students’ progress.

My own acquaintance with the RTVUs began in 1982, but ended in 1990 when my work there was finished. I led an international panel established by the Ministry of Education in Beijing to monitor the impact of a $100 million World Bank loan, most of which was for the RTVUs. I therefore read Wei’s book with great interest, not least because she portrays events and policy changes in the system since I was last there.

Wei faced a gargantuan task, however, in grappling with two very large systems (the RTVUs and the OU), both included by John Daniel in his book on ‘megauniversities’. I cannot be certain that she grasped all the many aspects of the RTVUs as they evolved, but I do know that she under-estimated the pace of change at the OU which today is somewhat different from her description. I would prefer a Chinese scholar to give an opinion on what she has written about the RTVUs. Meantime, Wei’s book stands as the most accessible English-language account of them. She aimed it at students of distance education: they will gain from reading it.


Toujours la change: new champagne in new bottles

While I was still working in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University in the 1990s, I led the development of the Institute’s distance-taught MA in Open and Distance Education. It was an exciting time, as the university was trying to go more global: we had students on the MA from many countries. And the programme was going online: the first courses for the MA were not entirely online but did incorporate email, discussion fora, use of web sites and electronic submission and return of assignments. The development created quite a few problems for the university’s systems. I was not very popular as I ‘pushed at the envelope’, as the Americans say. Could my students in Ulaan Bator (Outer Mongolia) and Argentina pay in sterling? With great difficulty. What if the Internet ‘lost’ a student’s assignment en route from Japan? Could the final exam be sat, offline, in Hong Kong? How should we handle students who wrote pages and pages for the primitive blog, and others who never surfaced because they were totally daunted?

I chaired the course team for H801 Foundations of open and distance education, a 60-point nine-month course first presented in 1997 with about 40 students guided by three tutors. The team drew quite heavily on existing text material, including some from the University of South Australia, with which we had a materials exchange agreement. In fact, we soon discovered the course was seriously overloaded. Our estimates of time needed by students were too low. We made the necessary changes for the second presentation. In fact, we may have been learning more about distance education than some of our students! They were drawn from many institutions, mostly ones teaching on campus.

You may be interested to hear that last February a very different MA course team and tutors launched the first presentation of H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates. H800, another 60-point nine-month course, has exceeded its target recruitment by more than 20, with a record number of over 120 students beginning a packed programme of activities and interaction. One distinctive feature of the design is the use of Elluminate – a new tool for most tutors and students. Elluminate tutorials play a major role early in the course, and students also have the option to use the tool for their own study groups. Early feedback has brought largely positive reports on the Elluminate tutorials, and has commended the clarity of the H800 activities – which enable students to explore key issues and practices in the field of technology-enhanced learning. Later in the course, students will use social networking tools such as Delicious and Twitter.

Doubtless the university’s systems are being stretched again as H800 brings new challenges, but that is how innovation goes ahead. Toujours la change (have I remembered the right French saying?): this is new champagne in new bottles.


%d bloggers like this: