What if…?

I recently attended a workshop on the use of comics to communicate research findings. Images can reach a wider audience and explain complex concepts in a simple way. Thinking about my work from such a different perspective helped me create the following comic (I barely know how to draw).

What if… we decided to get out of the box? What if… we used everyday technologies for learning purposes? What if… we moved away from online courses that look like content repositories and we designed collaborative activities? What if… we accepted the challenge of innovating? Education could be so different…

What if Comic

This comic is also available in Spanish.

Don’t know your ePub from your JPEG?

I was talking with one of my fellow Learning Technologists the other day and mentioned that I’d ‘googled’ something. Technically I’m not sure whether ‘googling’ and ‘googled’ are actually words but it did get me to thinking about some of the technical jargon that I use in my daily work. I’ve made a list below of some of the common words (and their definitions) that I use regularly:

  • CSS – Cascading StyleSheets. This can be applied to HTML to define the appearance of a website.
  • ePub – Electronic Publication. This file format is the industry standard for creating e-books. It can be used across a range of devices and formatted to display accurately to that device.
  • GIF – Graphics Interface Format. Web friendly file format suitable for graphics only and can support limited animation.
    HTML– HyperText Markup Language. The language used to create websites.
  • JPEG (JPG) – Joint Photographic Experts Group. Web and print friendly file format most commonly used for photographic images.
  • MP3 – Common audio file format. This file format is designed to reduce file size while retaining audio quality.
  • MP4 – Common video file format. It can also be used for audio, still images and subtitles. MP4s tend to produce a smaller file size than other formats while retaining quality making it suitable for Internet streaming.
  • PDF – Portable Document File. This is the standard file format for downloadable, printable documents on the web. This file format can contain text, images or both, as well as hyperlinks. PDFs cannot be easily edited but can be annotated either through a PDF viewer such as Adobe Acrobat or through other open source software.
  • RSS – Commonly known as Really Simple Syndication. This is a web feed which publishes updated information from blogs, news headlines, video and audio in a format that can be easily read through an RSS reader. An RSS feed is constructed using XML (Extensible Markup Language).
  • TIFF -Tagged Image File Format. Print friendly due to its lossless compression which enables it to retain a high quality when edited and then resaved.
  • WAV – Waveform Audio File Format. Windows based file format for audio, tends to produce larger file sizes making it unsuitable for Internet streaming.

This is just a handful of the jargon that I and my fellow Learning Technologists use, and it’s by no means complete! Feel free to comment if you would like a file format, code, or any other jargon briefly explaining or if you’d like to provide an alternative definition for any of the words above.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Do you have a favourite piece of technology?

I was inspired by this article in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/mar/28/martin-freeman-celebrity-squares to ask two of my fellow learning technologists what their favourite pieces of technology were.  One answer was the 13″ MacBook Pro, the other was a label making machine.  These two different answers seem to be at different ends of the spectrum of technology although both have their uses. 

But without a clear purpose for technology new inventions can fall by the wayside.  Just a quick Google (one technology that hasn’t failed) and I can pull up a list by Computer World which interestingly includes e-Readers as a failed technology: http://tinyurl.com/yftpb3j.

E-Readers are one of the technologies used within DUCKLING and it’s safe to say that we have explored, researched and developed the content and approaches to using these e-readers with our students with success.  Beyond Distance have had a clear aim and purpose with e-readers, including increasing flexibility and mobility for students, and have been able to convert the uninitiated. While it might not become everyone’s favourite piece of technology we’ve been able to successfully highlight the benefits of e-Readers to students, lecturers and colleagues (particularly in Education and Psychology)

Your favourite piece of technology might be one that satisfies a certain purpose for you whether that’s reading an e-book or even labelling something.  You might find that if you explore other technologies and their uses more, like we did with e-Readers, that you will find another piece of technology that becomes one of your favourites.

What’s my favourite piece of technology? Running through some of the different technologies that I own and use: Blackberry, Laptop, iPod Nano, DVD Recorder, Dreamweaver, Adobe Photoshop, Twitter, Digital Camera; I think that my favourite piece of technology would have to be my trustworthy Canon a1.  Slightly old school (it’s older than I am) but it’s stood the test of time (hopefully I will too!) and I still aspire to create my own darkroom so I can process the film myself.

Do you have a favourite piece of technology?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Dear Father Christmas…..

As always I’ve been a good girl and decided that a seasonal approach to my final blog entry of the year would be appropriate.  Below is a (short) list of some technology that I’d like to find wrapped up for me on Christmas day:

  • Sony PRS-600
    This is the latest version of the Sony e-reader, we’ve been using the Sony PRS-505 as part of our DUCKLING project (http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond-distance-research-alliance/projects/duckling), but this latest version features a touch screen which I think will make it more intuitive and easier to use based on how I’ve seen people try to initially use the PRS-505.  The Kindle is reported to be the ‘most wished for’ Christmas present (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/dec/02/technology-gadgets-for-christmas), we might be seeing students coming back with e-readers after the holidays ready for University produced e-books?
  • Universal Solar Phone Charger
    I’m forever running out of battery on my phone and on my iPod, very annoying when you’re expecting a phone call, listening to music on a long car journey, or tweeting during a conference.  This handy little gadget will enable me (hopefully) to keep my technology charged, or at least until I can get back home.  With our culture seemingly becoming more dependent on technology this means we never have to face the panic of being without.
  • Microsoft Surface
    Because a girl can dream that she can afford these things! Microsoft Surface lets you touch the surface of a screen which is on a horizontal surface to move files, edit video, even ripple water!  If you can afford it, this could revolutionise the way you interact and collaborate in education and business.  
  • High Definition Eyes
    This might not be on my Christmas list quite yet (I still have 20-20 vision), but I’ve included it to show the advances in technology and that advances will always be made.  This news story is about an ‘artificial lens’ made from light sensitive silicone which can be fine tuned to each individuals prescription.  Reading a brief history of cataract surgery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cataract_surgery#History) people have always been curious and felt the need to advance, and it makes me wonder what will be next? 
  • Etre Touchy Gloves
    Why are these on the list?  Basically because they’re fun! These are gloves with the tip of the thumb and index finger missing to enable you to keep your hands warm in winter while still being able to press the buttons on your mp3 player, phone or whatever device you are using.

Hopefully you’ve seen something that you like and can see how some of these gifts would be used for education, I’ve given a brief reason how and why I think they can be used.  I used the Guardians Christmas Gift Guide for inspiration: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2009/nov/27/christmas-gift-guide-gadgets?picture=356240049 and I hope that you all get everything you want for Christmas (if you’ve been good that is)!

One last thing to add to the list that will improve your New Year: Registration to our Learning Futures Festival Online – registration closes the 23rd December.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

It’s a colourful life

Colour.  Something the majority of us take for granted, but do you remember the days when there were only 256 colours?  Like me, you’ve probably not noticed that we’ve moved on from this limited palette. I was talking about web design today and in particular web safe colours and whether or not these were still relevant today.  Lynda.com summarises this issue far better than I can here: http://www.lynda.com/resources/webpalette.aspx The site also gives you a bit of background as to why web safe colours were first introduced.  We’re now enjoying far more colourful days in front of our screens, 16 million colours to be precise.  16384 of which most modern monitors are capable of displaying according to the w3c: http://www.w3schools.com/html/html_colors.asp.

You might be wondering why I’m talking so much about colour and what relevance it has on a blog about elearning.  There are a few reasons why and the relevance it has on this blog:

  1. My job.  I’m a Learning Technologist, I enjoy the technical side of things and regularly use colour tools to find hex codes in order to produce web graphics.
  2. Accessibility.  Colour, and more specifically colour contrast, can play a huge part in making text accessible to people with visual impairments.
  3. Openness.  The articles I’ve looked at to gather more information about this topic all speak for the Western world.  Not everyone in the world will have access to a modern monitor and being too colourful might reduce the openness of materials released.
  4. Technology.  Technology is changing and evolving.  Designing in 256 colours might, at one stage, have been an advantage for mobile technology with its limited colour screens. But at the rate this is evolving, mobiles will also become increasing colourful.

Along with the resources mentioned previously you might also find this resource useful:


Use colour wisely, it’s easy to get carried away with an entire rainbow at the end of your mouse but keeping it simple will help focus a user’s attention and not overwhelm or distract from what you really want them to focus on, whether it’s a link, email address or text.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Registration is still open for our Learning Futures Festival Onlinewww.le.ac.uk/beyonddistance/festival

What’s my learning future?

Here at Beyond Distance we’re currently working hard on our Learning Futures Festival Online and if you haven’t already registered please pop along to our website and sign up: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond-distance-research-alliance/festival/registration.

All this talk about learning futures got me thinking about my learning past. Picking up on Terese’s earlier post about ‘Digital Native, Digital Assumptions?’ it seems I fall into the digital native/Net-gen age group.  As I worry I’m getting old this seems very flattering! As a Digital Native or Net-gen I experienced in my learning past a single computer in my classroom from my very first lesson at infant school. By the time I left university virtually everyone had a mobile phone, easy access to the internet and their own computer.

All this does mean that I feel very at ease with new technology be it a new mobile phone or a new web application.  I might not necessarily be an expert straight away but going ahead and trying these things (and sometimes trying to break them just to be awkward) is all part of how I tend to use technology.   For my own learning which tends to be learning new and improving existing multimedia skills I find that I can pick and choose what works best for me.  For instance I tend to use a text based tutorial to learn about CSS (CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets which is used in web design) rather than a video tutorial. I find it easier to flick between screens, or have a dual screen, rather than have to sit and watch a video and pause it where appropriate.

The learning future for myself and others only seems, at present, to take advantage of further innovation, both in technology and learning.  The future, at present, could seem quite overwhelming, fast-paced and challenging.  For me personally it seems quite exciting and while I’m looking forward to getting there, I’m also enjoying the present and making the most out of it.  They say you shouldn’t look back too much as it can stop you living your life. I think it’s equally important to not forget where you are now and not constantly look to the future in case you miss the things right under your feet.

I realise that this might sound like a contradiction to a Learning Futures Festival Online but I don’t think it is.  Without an understanding of where I am now I can’t begin to understand my future.  I’m hoping you’ll all bring your learning present to our Learning Futures Festival Online and help us all discover the learning future.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

We’re tweeting! Follow us: #uolbdra, #otteroer, #lff10

Breaking out of the blog

Why do I want to break out of the blog? Simple reason:  because I can!

Well to be more detailed about the reason and to explain in more detail might be useful and might assure you that I haven’t lost it completely.  It came to me when I was sat in a meeting yesterday where we were talking about the use of technology to design and delivery curriculum. There was nothing wrong with the meeting, there were some very useful ideas that I picked up, but the use of the technology in the meeting was limited to a laptop and projector and you were invited to twitter if you had the technology.

It gave me the idea that maybe a text based blog might not always be the best way of communicating and that there are other web based applications that might be more beneficial to communicate my thoughts.  So in order to break out of the confines of the blog I’m inviting you to view the following:

What I’ve been thinking about this week – Flickr stream

My recent bookmarks – Delicious

Follow me on Twitter (yes I’ve finally taken the plunge!)

If you choose not to view any of the above that is your preference.  I just want to know whether the ideas we produce in this blog are presented in the most beneficial way to communicate the ideas or whether the ideas suffer from the constraints of the blog. Can I, and you, break out of the blog?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

Performance artists feel the fear (of technology) and do it anyway

A dedicated group of choreography and dance students at University College Falmouth in Dartington gave thought-provoking performances illustrating their take on technology and learning futures earlier this week, as part of the CALF project. It was a pleasure to watch them in action, and to join in the discussion afterwards.

The world of performance arts does not, at first sight, appear to have much to do with the world of technology. The dancers confirmed that they were ‘wary of technology’ and ‘scared of technology taking over’. These themes were palpable in the dance by Jessie and Ruth, who literally wrestled with heavy typewriters and film projectors, and led their curious audience down a beautiful grassy pathway through a row of magnificent Dartington Estate trees, to end their dance surrounded by nature. They commented that technology was like a ‘third collaborator’ in their dance, and they felt they had to play by its ‘rules’, such as not using the projector outside.

Kuldip, on the other hand, did a one-man performance in which he interacted with an electronic image of himself that responded to his movements, with the help of a sensor. His jerky, mechanistic dance actions illustrated ‘bodily malfunction’, perhaps prompted by his interactions with the software.

Both performances appeared to reflect rather darkly on the dancers’ views of technology; however, the discussion between performers and their audience afterwards showed a much more optimistic spirit. There was a realisation that as performance artists, the group as a whole did not know enough about emerging technologies to know what was possible, and that a space for playing with technology was needed, as was dialogue with ‘techie’ people.

The conversation was littered with weird words like ‘haptic’ and ‘somatic’, as well as frequent references to plain old ‘bodies’, with lashings of ‘feelings’ and ‘art’, and healthy doses of ‘interaction’ and ‘conversation’. The mood lightened every time someone saw a little window of opportunity for technology of any kind to enhance these valued qualities. I suspect they were speaking for all of us, not just for performance artists.

By Gabi Witthaus

Mice and Creativity

Given it’s April 1st, I woke up this morning with the powerful urge to post a BDRA version of Orson Welles’ radio show of 1938:


Now, after having played a few pranks to relatives, friends and colleagues, the practical joke impulse has been subdued somewhat. Still, it is Fool’s Day and one needs a lot of inspiration and creativity to come up with amusing (for one) and believable (for one’s victim) pranks, I decided that my post will be about bright ideas, creativity and insight.

I read yesterday the story of the invention and evolution of the computer mouse. It all started in the 1970s with the Xerox PARC mouse that cost 400$ to which an extra 300$ needed to be added for the interface connecting the mouse to the computer. A picture can say more than a thousand words, so just take a look at the image below and you will see why people were eager to improve the technology.


 Then, Steve Jobs from Apple contracted two young designers to come up with something 90% cheaper (he wanted the manufacturing costs to be no more than 25-30$), sturdier and more functional. This is where the story becomes fascinating. The two designers – Dean Hovey and David Kelley, found inspiration for the prototype of the mice we use today from the design of roll-on deodorants. In Hovey’s words:

“The first place I went was to Walgreens, and I bought all the roll-on deodorants I could find on the shelves. They had these plastic balls in them that roll around. Then I went over to the housewares area and bought some butter dishes and plastic things that were about the size I might need to prototype something. Over the weekend I hacked together a simple spatial prototype of what this thing might be, with Teflon and a ball. The first mouse had a Ban Roll-On ball.”


 I have been reading lots and lots of scenarios about the future lately. When discussing change in the future and where it may come from, very often the authors of these scenarios seem to believe that the more extraordinary, “unthinkable” and unusual the sources of change and its consequences are, the more authentic and believable and “expert” their scenarios will be. And yet, to me, the story of the invention of the mouse shows how often ground-breaking change happens when little, unnoticeable, everyday things are arranged by people or by chance into novel combinations, or used for innovative purposes.

Happy Fool’s Day!

Sandra Romenska, BDRA


Ja well no fine

As I’m relatively new to the BDRA, I will use this post to tell you a little bit about myself. I’m from South Africa, which means that I say ‘Ja’ (pronounced ‘Ya’) rather a lot. (South Africans almost never say ‘Yes’, although we’re known to say ‘Yeeees’ when adding special emphasis to the affirmative.) I also come from that generation of South Africans whose vocabulary irritatingly includes the phrase ‘Ja well no fine!’, which means roughly the same as the Indian head nod (I learnt this by spending most of last year in India and frequently getting into trouble for misinterpreting this vital but cryptic bit of body language) – which, depending on context and accompanying clues such as a smile or a twinkle in the eye, can mean yes, no or maybe. (And in India, a twinkle in the eye can just as easily mean ‘No’ as it can ‘Yes’, as if things weren’t confusing enough already.) ‘Ja well no fine’ has the added advantage though, that it can stand in for ‘Well then!’ or ‘Oh!’ or any other English conversation filler that you might use when you don’t know what else to say. I’m pretty sure it was the writer Robin Malan, better known in South Africa by the phonetically spelt version of his name, Rawbone Malong, who popularized the phrase in the early seventies with the publication of his book Ah Big Yaws? A Guard to Sow Theffricun Innglissh, which, roughly translated into standard English, means ‘I beg your pardon? A Guide to South African English’, and which instantly became the definitive, if merciless, guide to white South African English pronunciation – even being used as a reference by the BBC’s drama department at the time.

Of course things have changed since then, and so-called Black English has taken its rightful place in the annals of our nation’s linguistic history. There was that great story some years back, of how Nelson Mandela once asked a member of the South African Airways crew for the black pepper, and she returned with that day’s edition of The Sowetan newspaper. (Those were the days when our national carrier crew’s fame revolved around more innocent things than facilitating South Africa’s international trade in dagga. Um, ja well no fine…)

That whole, rambling preamble was just to say that my interest in joining the BDRA’s DUCKLING team, specifically to work with the School of Education on the MA in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, has a few of its roots in my lifelong interest in regional dialects and world languages, living and dead. Apart from laughing deliriously at Malan’s exquisitely accurate transcription of our local idioms in my teens, I also studied Latin at school (while my friends were doing more sensible subjects like Science or Accountancy), after which I learnt a bizarre mixture of German, Swiss German and French on an exchange student year in Switzerland, which only my host family, in particular my ‘Mami’, who expended many hours teaching me her native French through the medium of our shared but totally butchered version of Swiss German, could ever fully understand.

Back in South Africa, I immersed myself in the anti-apartheid struggle in the eighties, majoring in Zulu while engaging in the deliberately subversive project of teaching literacy to black adults who had been denied an education by the evil Verwoerdian policies established in the fifties, all the while losing friends and colleagues for various periods of time to detention without trial, solitary confinement and other forms of institutional abuse in the political cauldron that was South Africa at the time. My postgraduate studies in Applied Linguistics provided welcome light relief.

A year in Spain in the early nineties, just before South Africa was due to undergo its peaceful transition to democracy (although we all feared that the Bothas and De Klerks were going to lead us into the bloodiest of civil wars) helped to calm my frantic spirit, while simultaneously adding to the linguistic muddle in my head – the murkiest depths of the latter being reached when I was commissioned to translate a novel from the Galician dialect into English, with the help of a hastily scribbled German translation that the (German-born) author had written for her mother. Learning Spanish was not without its mishaps. I think I will forever be remembered by my Spanish flatmates for casually remarking over lunch one day, ‘No me gusta nada la comida que tiene preservativos’, which translates as ‘ I can’t stand food with condoms in it.’ (I was only trying to say I don’t like preservatives…)

Subsequent attempts to learn Arabic while on a working stint in the Middle East yielded frustratingly little fruit: I got blindsided by the Arabs’ utterly inconsiderate convention of writing from right to left, in squiggles that represent only consonants, leaving the vowels almost entirely up to the reader’s imagination. And as the old Zen saying goes, in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities… (But seriously, on the subject of different alphabets, there is a fascinating account of the development of writing systems in Maryanne Wolf’s book, ‘Proust and the Squid’. Frustratingly though, her wonderful historical descriptions are somewhat marred by her rather apocryphal views on the emerging culture of what she calls the ‘Google universe’, in which ‘continuous partial attention and multitasking’ are the norm. She fears (but does not substantiate) that this will lead to huge compromises in the human race’s ability to conduct the ‘deep examination of thoughts, words and reality’ which is characteristic of literate societies. Ja well… she hasn’t convinced me. More about that in a later blog, perhaps – in which I promise I will focus on matters related to learning and technology…

My recent stay in India immersed me in the quaint and colourful world of ‘Indlish’ (Indian English) – part charming old English from the Raj era, and part off-the-wall linguistic idiosyncrasy. The owner of the travel agency I used in Bangalore had the distinction of being called the ‘Proprietrix’ on her business card, store rooms were called ‘godowns’ (even if you had to go upstairs to get to them), and shopfronts frequently displayed beautifully calligraphed notices advising customers to ‘Enter from the backside only’ – a surprisingly common linguistic quirk, which was immortalised by author Binoo John, in the title for his book on Indlish. Perhaps the most memorable example from his book is the supposedly popular opening line in official letters: ‘Dear Sir, with reference to your above see my below.’ Ja well…!

And now, here I am in England, where all manner of Innglisshes are spoken by the local tribes – some of them completely incomprehensible to the untrained ear. No fine… it seems my journey into linguistics has only just begun!

By Gabi

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