Experience of a Visiting Scholar

The Sino-British Trust provided me with a perfect opportunity for my research. I have been given the opportunity to participate in the Beyond Distance Research Alliance (BDRA, now Institute of Learning Innovation) of the University of Leicester (UoL) as a visiting scholar from October 2012 to February 2013. My visit to the University of Leicester was an excellent and rewarding opportunity to work in a lively, critical and highly international environment, which contributed to expanding my horizons as a researcher. Personally, this four-month visit allowed me to get additional energy that will help me to carry on with my research in the fields of E-learning and critical studies on Project Based Learning (PBL). This was indeed an extremely intellectually challenging and productive period.

At BDRA I was provided with excellent research facilities. Further, the academic environment was of extreme importance. The frequent engagement and discussions with the colleagues of BDRA and the researchers from UoL are a key element. All the events gave me an excellent opportunity to discuss my research project in detail, hear about other fellow scholars and researchers and their fields of study, and exchange views and experience. I also invited some of my colleagues and students to take part in a survey on iTunes U.

During my time at BDRA, I was able to study in depth some central aspects of PBL and its realization through online scenarios, especially those pertaining to the theoretical basis of my research. Profiting from the broad collection of books, journals and current articles available in the university’s libraries, and from the chance to meet and exchange ideas with professional colleagues working on e-learning and technology enhanced learning, I managed to improve my research report and to strengthen its main ideas, which focus  on the topic of “ E-tivities embedded in Projected Based Learning scenario used in online vocational education”. I also had the opportunity to learn from a European Commission-funded project on Problem-Based Learning called SCENE during my stay at here.

Hengjun giving a presentation at BDRA

Hengjun giving a presentation at BDRA

In addition to completing the research report for which the fellowship was granted and building a framework of Project Based Learning scenarios used in online vocational education, during my stay I attended the following events taking place within the University:

  • Distance learning and technology workshop for the delegates from the Open University of China (OUC), in Leicester, 23 Nov, 2012.
  • Workshop: changing conceptions of online distance education for the 21st century, in Open University, 27 Nov, 2012.
  • Internal conference: Learning and Teaching Conference, 10 Jan, 2013.
  •  Leading & Motivation others workshop, 14 Jan, 2013.
  • Writing for Business workshop, 22 Jan, 2013.
  • The Ethics of: Ethics and Online Research workshop, 23 Jan, 2013.
  • Blackboard Content Creation workshop, 30 Jan, 2013.
  • BDRA’s doctoral research group meetings

My visit to the BDRA gave a significant boost to the development of my research. I will share my work with my colleagues in China. And I will continue my research on E-learning and its application in vocational education. I intend to finish my work as follows:

  • Submit a piece of journal paper focus on Project Based Learning and its application in vocational education, in collaboration with Dr. Palitha Edirisingha.
  •  Finish a piece of conference article concerns the E-learning and Project Based learning.
  • Build an online PBL scenario about logistic information collection.

Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues of BDRA for allowing me to work in such an interesting, inter-disciplinary and transnational environment. I am truly grateful to everyone and in particular, to my tutor – Dr. Palitha Edirisingha. I am so grateful for his hospitality, support and advice on my research. I also learned from Professor David Hawkridge, a visiting professor at BDRA, who has been involved in setting up CRTVU in China. A word of appreciation is also due to Dr Ming Nie, Dr Paul Rudman, Gabi Witthaus, Terese Bird, PhD students and other unnamed colleagues for your hospitable assistance. I enjoyed our discussions, and the intellectually rich and friendly times we shared.

 Thank you all.

– Dr.   Hengjun Zhao

Attended Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series

Familiar in the UK, but not so much in North America, I’m in a ‘research’ programme toward a PhD rather than a ‘taught’ programme with formal courses. However, the absence of courses does not mean an absence of work and learning. A personal research plan is essential, and areas identified for further knowledge require it be obtained in some way. I certainly have a lot to learn. This means I have a choice, but I need to respond to learning opportunities. For one, the Centre for Labour Market Studies, under which the Beyond Distance Research Alliance is located, provides three modules to students. Each can be considered a self study course: Introduction to Ph.D. Research, Qualitative Methods and Analysis, and Quantitative Methods and Analysis. I still have to spend time with the latter two.

The Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series came to my attention. It was being offered in my home city of Edmonton, Canada, where the  International Institute for Qualitative Methodology is located at the University of Alberta, June 20–24, 2011. While I initially thought to wait until 2012 to attend, I was encouraged by a Ph.D. student colleague whom had attended before, and by a former professor. Reflecting on the week, I am thankful that I listened to their advice and registered. Three of the days were half-day workshops, and two days were full-day workshops, with choices of topics. I understand that a total of about 184 participants represented 14 different countries: Australia, Sweden, South Africa, Ghana, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Jamaica, The Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, UK, USA, and Canada.

I attended the following sessions:

  • Introduction to principles of qualitative enquiry (Maria Mayan)
  • An introduction to thinking about questions in qualitative research (Billy Strean)
  • Approaches to qualitative analysis (Maria Mayan & Sarah Wall)
  • Writing your dissertation (Linda Ogivlie)
  • A critical lens as a qualitative method (Jane Sumner)
  • Issues in observational research (Belinda Parke)
  • Introduction to qualitative interviewing (Gina Higginbotttom & Jennifer Pillay)
  • Panel discussion space–space rating proposals for qualitative research (Nick Holt, Kim Raine, Wendy Rodgers & Cam Wild)

My task now is to review my notes and the materials provided in each session, reflecting and determining how each fits with my future research. I know I now have a greater understanding of qualitative research, and I have potential avenues to explore while information is fresh in my mind. This is also a time to open the university research modules and read in greater depth, as I’ve started to do this week.

Unfortunately, the weather and resulting river conditions forced cancellation of our social event, the Edmonton Queen River Boat Dinner Cruise. Perhaps we can try this again, as I am sure to return. The time was right to attend, and next year will offer more including intermediate and advanced sessions.

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

Reflections from our research day

On Thursday 24 February we held our second research day at BDRA. It involved Natalia, Ali, Brenda and Tony, plus several BDRA staff including David Hawkridge, Palitha Edirisingha, Simon Kear, Ming Nie and I. The day was organised as part of our doctoral programme and had the following intended learning outcomes for participants:

1.  Gain further experience in presenting work in progress and having it critiqued by peers and tutors

2.  Benefit from opportunities to critique the research of others and relate that critique to own work

3.  A shared understanding of key issues and concerns in relation to:

            a) the literature review

            b) chosen research design

            c) writing, including habits, sustained motivation and quality outputs

4.  Be in a stronger position to tackle research-related tasks, and

5.  Build stronger links with peers, tutors and the wider BDRA community.

It was rewarding to see how our students have progressed in the last few months – and in Tony’s case, his motivation to get started on his research. Tony joined us less that 4 weeks ago and joined the full-day session from Edmonton, Canada, via Skype! We had excellent presentations and ran a series of activities with input from students and tutors alike.

Perhaps one of the key messages that once again became clear to all is the need for sufficient amounts of protected quality time to conduct our research. We all appreciate how difficult this can be, especially for part-time students studying at a distance. Life does get in the way sometimes. Honest procrastination confessions were made too (though it was also argued that part-time students don’t even get time for that!) However, without a sustained commitment, motivation and enough periods of ring-fenced time for research, a PhD is not achievable.

We very much look forward to the next PhD research day, scheduled for 8 June.

Dr A Armellini
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

OER Programme Meeting, 19 January 2011

Yesterday 19 January was the Programme Meeting for the OER Phase 2 projects in Birmingham. At Beyond Distance, we are participating in TIGER (new release project) and OSTRICH (cascade project).

We started with a few generic sessions relevant to all strands, including those led by:

  • Terry McAndrew (TechDis) on accessibility, and
  • David White (Oxford) on how OERs are being used – an interesting diagram available from his project blog, not too different from a 2×2 matrix currently being developed by OSTRICH.

Vic Jenkins (University of Bath, OSTRICH project partner) and I then joined the cascade strand discussions, where topics included working with partners, institutional embedding of OER in learning and teaching strategies and shared repositories. Highlights from these discussions included:

  • ‘Evaluation’. At BDRA, over the years, we have taken the view that in order to generate robust evidence that academics and others in the Higher Education sector can relate to, you need research. ‘Evaluation’ is useful and sometimes appropriate, but to foster meaningful and evidence-based change, you need more than that. The collection, analysis and presentation of research evidence (beyond sets of interesting quotations) may help to provide answers to the many questions we discussed (e.g. practice change, development and release, organisational and cultural issues, impact). Some of the questions overlap with TIGER’s research questions. It is no coincidence that the TIGER project has a full-time researcher in the team – this is precisely to generate robust and reliable evidence.
  • Innovative platforms for OERs, which perform highly visible marketing and a T&L functions, such as iTunesU. 30 million downloads of the Open University’s iTunesU resources, 2.5 million of Coventry’s in 2010 alone. We discussed how some HE Marketing Departments do not seem to realise the power of these platforms and the OERs on them. Even a relatively small presence, consisting of some frankly tedious resources, are of significant value to many prospective students, at a marginal cost to the university.
  • Single project repositories for OERs, as opposed to institutional, branded repositories. Are we saving or wasting our time by having ‘sanitised’, project repositories? Will institutions use these repositories after the end of the projects or will they generate their own fully branded ones?

A lot of ideas to think about as our projects develop.

Alejandro Armellini
20 January 2011

PhD research day

On 22 October the Media Zoo hosted a research day for our PhD students. The intended learning outcomes for the day were:

1.  to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of a range of research methodologies and methods
2.  to make informed choices of methodologies and methods to suit each student’s research project
3.  to gain practice in presenting work-in-progress to others for critical comments, and
4.  to provide critical and constructive feedback on peers’ work in so far.

In the morning, there was input from Palitha Edirisingha, David Hawkridge and myself. In the afternoon, there were presentations by each student, while the audience (comprising the other students and a number of Beyond Distance colleagues) used a protocol to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

We all benefited from this research day and students have since indicated how useful the experience was for them – not just because of the day itself, but the preparation that had to go into it. We are planning another research day in February-March.

Dr A Armellini
4 November 2010

BDRA and Janus

Janus, the Roman god who gave his name to January, looked in two directions at once. The same is true, in more than one respect, of BDRA.

First, although it is a research alliance and has a particularly strong research record, BDRA is also a teaching group, through its Carpe Diem workshops and dissemination of its research findings. Its teaching activities, based in part on its research, will be very much enhanced by the MIET programme soon to be launched.

Second, BDRA faces both into the University of Leicester and outwards, well beyond it. Through its staff collaborating with other departments and units in carrying out research and teaching, BDRA has a greater impact internally than is usual for groups of its size and character. Beyond the university, BDRA has become well-known through bidding successfully for research funds from national bodies such as JISC and the HEA, as well as through conferences and publications. But it has also entered into partnerships involving other universities keen to upgrade their students’ e-learning.

As a Visiting Professor in BDRA, I’m aware of the wide range of BDRA’s activities and the heavy workload of its staff. This blog displays some of what’s going on, but there is more, much more, if you visit BDRA’s web site.

Janus is sometimes regarded as the god who looks forwards as well as backwards. BDRA staff can look back with pride at their achievements. As for the future, BDRA is at the forefront: it looks ahead, like Janus.

David Hawkridge

Small Scale Experimental Machine

Almost three years to the day I took up a short-term contract with the Beyond Distance Research Alliance at the University of Leicester. I left a full-time, well paid job, moved my family from Sheffield to Leicester to take up the challenge of implementing what was then just the concept of the Media Zoo. What sold this position to me was not only the opportunity of working in a high class research-led institution; but more importantly for me was the idea of exploring the Exotics House and the future adoption of educational technologies for teaching and learning.

In my tenure as the Keeper of the Media Zoo I have been fortunate to be part of the explosion of podcasts in education, the use of hand-held mobile devices and more recently the immersion opportunities provided by Second Life. I have worked with some amazing people and organisations during this time which would take me too long to mention! I said recently at a conference in Poland that in the last three years I have learnt more than at any other point of my life – and I meant it! But where did this idea of technology futurism begin – well that is a debate for another day but maybe it started with the Baby?

60 years to the day the Small Scale Experimental Machine, or “Baby”, was the first computer to contain memory which could store a program. The room-sized computer’s ability to carry out different tasks, without having to be rebuilt, has led some to describe it as the “first modern PC”. Using just 128 bytes of memory, it successfully ran its first set of instructions to determine the highest factor of a number on 21 June 1948.

“We were extremely excited,” Geoff Tootill, one of the builders of Baby told BBC News. “We congratulated each other and then went and had lunch in the canteen.” I like their style!

It may be time for me to move onto pastures new, but I’m certain the Beyond Distance Research Alliance, the Media Zoo and the University of Leicester will continue to undertake cutting-edge, innovate research for the good of education. I’m just pleased to have played a small part in the process of innovating education through research.

Thank you to everyone I have had the pleasure of working with and I look forward to seeing you all on the circuit soon when I start my new job with Pebble Learning.


Talking tombstones in 2020

A friend of mine used to walk on the Greek islands. Cemeteries there have many photos on the tombstones of the dear departed. He decided he would like to have a tape-recording instead on his, but so far as I know he has never made up his mind about what he would say.*

During a 1995 Computer-Assisted Learning conference after-dinner speech, in New College Cambridge, I pointed to the portraits round the dining hall. In future, I suggested, these would be holograms of distinguished professors, and from beyond the grave they would answer your questions (using artificial intelligence of course). Among the diners, I picked out Tim O’Shea, now Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University, as likely to become worthy of a hologram – and a seat in the House of Lords. He liked that idea.

Cast your mind forward to 2020. Among e-learning researchers of the early 21st century, a few may deserve hologram recognition. In the Fourth Dimension Virtual Hall of Fame you will find those who contributed to theory and practice in our field. Here are three questions I would like to ask them:

1.     Which outstanding pieces of research do you recall and who were they by?

2.     What were the major barriers to adoption of e-learning?

3.     Did you make any major mistakes and what did you learn from them?

Perhaps you already have an inkling of the answers. If so, why not publish them in this blog?



*Gumpert, Gary (1987) Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age. New York: Oxford University Press.

Collaboration is key

Last Thursday, I attended a one-day workshop along with other members of BDRA and the University of Leicester’s IT Services.

It was great to see some old colleagues and put faces to the names of new ones. We divided ourselves into tables consisting of roughly equal numbers of ITS and BDRA personnel.

The morning session was led by Mary and Nevin from ITS. Within the context of the four-quadrant model that formed the basis of the UoL’s 2005 eLearning Strategy, we categorised existing and emerging technologies, considered the implications of maintaining critical services, and examined the decision-making process that precedes any new additions to the technology stable.

The afternoon session was led by Gilly for BDRA. Ale, Sahm and Palitha gave brief presentations on some of the BDRA projects: MOOSE, WoLF, ADELIE, IMPALA and our brand new addition, OTTER. We then separated into our teams to break down – in terms of innovation to practice – a number of case studies provided by Gilly.

I find a workshop of this nature to be very useful. For example, I learned a great deal about the priorities of ITS in ensuring critical services continue to run. The loss of email functions for even an hour can have considerable productivity, and therefore cost, implications for the university. Equally useful was seeing how decisions that affect IT at UoL are made.

I think it was useful for our ITS colleagues too, based on the questions asked of the BDRA presenters about the various research projects, and the request for the presentations to continue, despite time constraints!

But there is value in a workshop like this that goes beyond simple information absorption. Because of the face-to-face contact, I know I can confidently phone my new contact in ITS and she me; we have a relationship based on the shared experience of the workshop.

And there is collaboration. Our practical exercises during the day allowed us to assess each other in terms of how we would all work together. Based on our table, and the output of the other tables, I feel very confident that UoL will benefit considerably from any collaboration between the practical of ITS and the research of BDRA.

I look forward to our next workshop.

Simon Kear
Learning Technologist

A worship of writers

Writing is taken seriously at BDRA, as one would expect in a research unit. We understand the key role of  writing and publishing in our work and take concrete steps towards improving the quality and quantity of what we write and towards writing more for our specific audiences.

We have formal and informal processes in place to enhance our writing output. The Friday morning Writing Group, coordinated by my colleague Palitha, is a very good example of a regular, formal arrangement in which colleagues discuss and critique their writing ‘homework’ in an informal, mutually supportive setting (which includes chocolate, biscuits and sometimes cake). We also organise more formal sessions, such as the one led by Martin Oliver last week, aimed at writing for academic journals. But just as important are the many informal chats between colleagues (both face to face and electronic) that keep the feedback loop alive, the writing flame glowing and the motivation high. Sometimes those formal and informal encounters benefit from the participation and expertise of more experienced writers, such as David Hawkridge and Gilly Salmon, who not only share their skills but enable others to acquire them.

The team’s understanding of the importance of good writing, the writing enhancement processes described above and the evidence base generated through BDRA’s research projects have resulted in valuable published output, in the form of journal articles, conference papers and book chapters. We have, however, much more to share with the academic community than our publications to date suggest. Plus, new projects are starting all the time, so more evidence will be produced – and subsequently more will be shared through writing.

Alejandro Armellini
3 May 2009

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