OU China visit to University of Leicester

A delegation of 28 scholars from the Open University of China are currently visiting the University of Leicester. They are spending one week with us at the Institute of Learning Innovation before moving on to the Open University UK in Milton Keynes. Below are some recordings from the sessions.

A group from OU China explains their course storyboard for their English language course entitled "This is English"

A group from OU China explains their course storyboard for their English language course entitled “This is English”

Day 1

Bernard Nkuyubwatsi – OER History from Media Zoo on Vimeo.

A brief history of distance learning from Media Zoo on Vimeo.

Day 2

1) Introduction to 7Cs of Learning Design:

2) Course Features:

3) Tools to Capture, Collaborate, & Communicate:

4) Course Map Introduction and Explanation

5) Introduction to the Storyboard

Day 3:
1) John Bond Forensic Science

2) Jeremy Turner – Making ePubs for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)

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

eBooks and eReaders: Advancing at Warp Speed

The DUCKLING project, a collaborative effort between University of Leicester’s Beyond Distance, the School of Psychology and the School of Education has been examining the impact on distance students’ learning of three technologies: podcasts, ebook readers, and the use of Second Life. Back in autumn 2009, we loaded learning materials onto ebook readers and shipped them out to distance students around the world, in lieu of the stacks of printed material shipped in years past and at greater cost. (For  a simple guide to change Word documents to epub documents suitable for most ebook readers, click here to download from the DUCKLING website.) As one of the learning technologists working on the project, I provided subsequent support to the students, mostly by answering their questions on a Blackboard discussion board.

In March of 2010, we shipped ebook readers to a new cohort of distance students, and I have again been providing technical support by discussion on Blackboard. I observed an interesting development in the kinds of questions being asked.

The September 2009 cohort asked questions about the different software required by the ereader (Sony Reader Library, Calibre) and what platforms these run on,  whether PDF documents display on ereaders (answer: they do, but line breaks are rigid so the document does not “flow”). Students also commented that they appreciated carrying all reading material in one package especially while travelling, and the fact that their ereader was a conversation-starter on their morning commute. Some students commented that they wished their ereader had facilities for note-taking (the Sony PRS-505 used in this project does not have this facility).

The March 2010 cohort asked fewer tech-help questions. They had many more technical comments, having already gotten to grips with many of the usability issues. Comments such as “I wish I could organise the documents according to my own design” were quickly answered by other students who had already figured it out. They downloaded their own material onto ereaders and discussed how that worked. Most interestingly to me, they compared reading documents on the ereader not with reading on paper, but with reading on other devices – laptop, iPod Touch, iPhone.  I found myself scrambling to keep up with the suggestions for software to try, sites to visit, apps to purchase. One student looked forward to the ease with which ereaders could make educational material available to students: “…education is the perfect market for ebooks I think. The amount of reading is so wide-ranging, and personally there is a desire to read tonnes of material. The access we have through Leicester for journals is immense; having the same access to the reading lists would just be good for education full stop. It will change, when is the only question.”

In January 2010 the Consumer Electronics Association predicted ereader sales will double in 2010, as Amazon announced the Kindle was “the most gifted item ever from its website” according to Dan Nystedt, IDG News Service. The Apple iPad has every possibility of being a game-changer in this field. Our students’ comments illustrate the speed at which the ebooks and ereaders market is advancing. For students looking for a convenient and cost-effective way of accessing academic material, the change cannot happen too soon.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

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


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

Podcasts for feed forward

Using podcasts for feedback has been discussed a lot recently. Findings indicate the benefits of being able to deliver clearer and more detailed information, and make feedback feel more personalised, interactive and connected through voice. Another type of podcast – podcasts providing feed forward information – is understudied. In DUCKLING, Psychology has produced dissertation podcasts providing instructions in guiding students through the dissertation process and assignment podcasts explaining module assignment, both types of podcasts are to provide feed forward information.

I talked to a small number of Psychology students and they reflected on what was considered beneficial to their learning by using feed forward podcasts.

1.       Thinking ahead

Feed forward podcasts are particularly useful for students to plan and think ahead. As one student said about assignment podcasts,

“I think it was easier because you have it before you start doing anything [rather than leaving it to] the most panicking stage…”

The dissertation podcasts have a similar impact. Students can listen to it and start developing ideas even though they haven’t started their dissertation process. This is particularly beneficial to distance students as they can think ahead in an organised way, as one student pointed out,

 “I haven’t started developing ideas, and [I’m] hoping to start in the next few weeks, and that’s why I listen to the podcasts… A has broken down the different types of dissertation. I find that very useful. It’s kind of giving you an idea what kind of areas you can look at. It’s kind of making you think in an organised way. It’s just starting to think how I’m gonna approach it and where I should start thinking about this.”

2.       Reassuring

Students also find feed forward podcasts reassuring. As they pointed out in the interviews, ‘They set you at the right direction’, ‘They reconfirmed a lot of what I had read already’, ‘They reassured that I was on the right lines’, and ‘I feel comfortable that I’m on the right track’.

I’ve only spoken to a few students so far; the research is still in its early days. One of my colleagues, Roger Dence, provided similar types of podcasts explaining module assignments to his distance students studying for an MBA. He has already collected some evidence from students. It would be very interesting if we can compare and contrast our findings from different studies.


Ming Nie              20 August 2009

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