A newcomer, from across the pond

It is a pleasure to join the BDRA as a PhD research student, having started less than one month ago. Living in Edmonton, Canada, I am registered part-time and for distance studies. There are two questions I am already receiving, and I’m sure they will continue: Why distance, and why BDRA?

My formal distance studies began with my undergrad at a time when it was called ‘correspondence.’ Fortunately, we had excellent telephone tutors that aided the learning process. I later completed a Master of Distance Education (MDE), studying about distance learning while at a distance, with online conferencing in addition to the readings, papers, and projects. As I contemplated doctoral studies at several times in the past years, it became obvious that I should build from the MDE, and a distance programme was the natural choice. It was time to look beyond my alma mater for a varied experience.

I became familiar with the University of Leicester a number of years ago, in relation to the subject area in which I was teaching. The university’s reputation for research was strong and respected, and I talked to a couple of Canadians whom had completed degrees by distance or in residence. When serious about postgrad training, I was pleased to find the PhD in E-learning and Learning Technologies available through the BDRA. My discussion with Dr Armellini commenced in the latter part of 2009. While other avenues were considered, my comfort with the BDRA remained. I visited in October 2010, following which I confirmed my interest with an application. Drs Armellini and Edirisingha agreed to be my supervisors.

My field of study is e-learning and learning technologies in informal and self-directed work-based learning. I will share more as I settle in and progress in my development as a researcher. Asked what one of my challenges will be, I have to say it will be developing the theoretical framework and methodologies for the study. This will come through extensive reading and critical analysis.

Perhaps worthy of note, I am British, but I had not returned prior to October since my early childhood when my family emigrated from England to Canada. It feels good to be connected though a UK programme, and I look forward to visits in addition to the ongoing contact with my supervisors, student colleagues, researchers, and others in the BDRA.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe

How I became a PhD student at the BDRA

Finding a PhD program in e-learning is not an easy task. In 2009, when I decided to continue my graduate studies, I discovered that while lots of online programs were available, few focused on elearning. At that time, there were about 90 PhD programs in e-learning… in the world. Considering that only in my hometown (Monterrey, Mexico) there are over 80 institutions of higher education, 90 programs didn’t seem much.

I looked at the options, and the PhD offered by the BDRA caught my eye. I liked that the departmental team includes people from all around the world: South Africa, Uruguay, United States, China, and more. I liked that they are involved in lots of e-learning projects (17 back then, 24 now), and I have to admit, I also liked that they are in Leicester, which is a small city but with a great location for travelling around.

And so I emailed the program coordinator. After writing a research proposal, participating in a couple of interviews and fulfilling all the requirements, I finally got in. Being here has been an enriching experience.  I used to consider myself highly technological. I now know that I still have so much to learn! In my eight months here I have joined Twitter and Second Life, I discovered e-readers and OERs, I participated in workshops with government institutions, I learned about methodologies whose existence I wasn’t aware of, and I got a bunch of techno tips! Even more, now I am blogging!! I am looking forward to discovering the next steps in my journey towards the PhD.

— Brenda Padilla

SWIFT moves forward

It’s been a busy time for SWIFT lately. Our student volunteers have been taking part in the second of our experiments for this project, using a virtual genetics laboratory to learn about genetic screening techniques.

Over the summer, we built this laboratory using the Second Life virtual world software, along with a Second Life training area.  Our volunteers had two sessions in the virtual world, the first to become familiar with the software, the second to use the virtual laboratory.

SWIFT in the computer lab

SWIFT in the computer lab

The picture shows the system running in the University’s computer lab. The “head-up display” (the overlaid windows at the top) provided a dynamically changing guide. Our student volunteers followed this guide, making decisions about how the genetic screening should proceed, watching representations of the molecular changes taking place and interpreting results.

We were delighted that the system operated just as we had hoped – a testament to the work and care put in by the team here at the University of Leicester, who designed and built the lab, and our commercial partners Daden Ltd. who incorporated the PIVOTE authoring system for us.

The experiment is still in progress, so we can’t say anything about results just yet, but watch this space, as they say…

Paul Rudman, BDRA

iTunes U in UK Universities

I was surprised to read – in the listserv used by members of the Association of Learning Technology, a British-based but international organisation – an animated discussion of iTunes U in UK universities.

What surprised me was the deep concern felt by some correspondents about relying on a huge American company, Apple, to provide the vehicle for accessing albums containing British academic material.

Admittedly, my own view of Apple is coloured by long and valuable use of the company’s products. And my view of iTunes U is particularly favourable because of its outstanding success at the Open University, where a very wide public continues to download over a million ‘albums’ a month, about 27 million to date.

To some extent, I suppose, I have an inside view of iTunes U at the OU, because one of my family is a leading member of the team there. I’ve seen the care that goes into selecting material and presenting it.

Recently, with four BDRA colleagues, I wrote a paper* about OERs and we included a section about iTunes U at the OU. I wanted that because I see quite a few parallels between the albums and OERs being offered now by many UK universities. All of them are free to users. Creating them requires fairly similar processing and rights clearance. Few of them consist of a complete course or even a large part of one, yet all offer opportunities to get acquainted with a field of study.

Now the University of Leicester is thinking about moving into iTunes U as part of its educational mission. Without the OU’s huge resource of multi-media material to draw on, Leicester may think twice before committing resources to the creation of more than a fairly small number of albums, enough to establish a presence. Perhaps it will draw on OTTER’s products. Leicester may look for more evidence to emerge first about the benefits it would gain in the new higher education marketplace about to be established in the UK following the Browne Report and news of the government’s cuts in university budgets. If Leicester looks for ways of advertising more widely its academic products, iTunes U may be a channel it turns to, one that Martin Bean, the OU’s Vice-Chancellor, certainly rates very highly.

Yes, an American company hosts iTunes U, and very well too, without charge. Amazing, isn’t it, that such a company enables UK universities, as well as American ones and some others, to promote themselves worldwide? No wonder a recent report in The Guardian stated that the UK exports a great deal via the Internet: doubtless that includes a lot of higher education: 89% of the downloads from the OU’s iTunes U are by people living abroad.

David Hawkridge

* Hawkridge, D., Armellini, A., Nikoi, S., Rowlett, T. and Witthaus, G. (in press). Curriculum, intellectual property rights and open educational resources in British universities — and beyond. Journal of Computing in Higher Education.

You say goodbye….

My time at Beyond Distance is coming to an end and I felt this was a good time to look back at some achievements during my work with DUCKLING, OTTER and the entire Beyond Distance team that I value most.

  • DUCKLING in an eggshell.   This poster an attempt to crack out of the typical ‘research project-poster’ style and is one of the deliverables of the DUCKLING project.
  • Being an award winning OTTER. I previously blogged about this but winning the virtual poster competition, but the chance to caricature all the OTTER team stands out for me. One team member even used his picture in his Facebook profile picture!
  • Producing 438 credits worth of OERs (with the OTTER team).  The team went above and beyond the call of duty (i.e funder’s requirements) by producing such an impressive amount of credits.  Take a look through our repository and let us know what you think!
  • A new Media Zoo banner and logo.  The Media Zoo website has moved into Plone (our content management system) and with it comes a new banner and logo.  I’m pleased with my attempt at capturing the feel of the physical zoo with the array animals that ‘live’ there.
  • Learning Futures Festival Online 2010.  To be part of an 8 day 24/7 online conference was a huge achievement during a snowy January that brought the UK to a standstill.  What makes this an even greater achievement is that we released over 75% of the keynotes, workshops and paper presentations as OERs.

And one more thing that I’m proud of is the small amount of photos of me that exist during my time here, to which my colleagues can testify!  As someone who does npot enjoy getting their photo taken this is definitely an achievement.

Finally could I take this opportunity to wish everyone at Beyond Distance and other colleagues at the University of Leicester the very best for the future while I (hopefully) say ‘hello’ to new opportunities.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

The Professors Profess… The Future of British HE in 2020

As everyone is uneasily waiting for the nearly £4 billion cuts to the budget for higher education in the 2010 Spending Review to be announced today, EducationGuardian pre-emptively published the predictions of UK academics about the impact of the funding cuts for the next ten years. Below is a selection of what they thought was coming.

The rise of the “black arts” of enrolment management
Prof. Claire Callender from the Institute of Education in London thinks that universities will be at the core of a quickly developing industry of enrolment management, calculating the number of students that can be recruited at different price rates, rates of discounts for different groups of students, etc. If Tesco can do it, why not universities? Buy one degree in chemistry, get one free in history, anyone?

Socrates in the local chippy
Prof. Gillian Evans from the University of Cambridge was concerned with the recommendation of the Browne’s report to end public funding for all subjects not considered priority, i.e., courses other than science, technology or courses not deemed to be providing “significant social returns.” In her scenario subjects such as palaeography or philosophy will have to vacate the publicly funded buildings and go back to the Aristotelian peripatetic method in the streets.

RyanAir Universities
Roger Brown from the Centre of Higher Education Research Development forecasts the emergence of a tiered system like the one in the USA. At the top there will be a small group of elite institutions which will be charging the highest fees. Then there will be the vast majority of “no-frills” universities, teaching mainly applied courses.

What I found surprising in the scenarios discussed by the Guardian was the lack of mention of learning technologies as a factor which will play a crucial role in helping universities pull through what without a doubt will be a very difficult shake up. A scenario by the BBC did foresee an increase in the provision of online courses, describing the mobile learning experiences of fictional students of the future.

Disturbingly, however, instead of drawing upon the advances in innovative learning and teaching for distance learners for which there are numerous examples amongst British universities (the University of Leicester for example has more than 8000 distance learners, the Open University would be another excellent example), the report seemed to promote the work of a private, for-profit, non-university provider, which “is positioning itself in this market and has already made the content of some courses wholly accessible via mobile phone.”

I think in the climate to come it will be more important than ever for institutions to be able and willing to share their experiences in using learning technologies to offer no-cost or low-cost solutions for learners and teachers, especially those that have been peer-reviewed.

20/10/2010 Sandra Romenska
Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project

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


Yesterday we started the entirely online learning Futures Festival, (www.le.ac.uk/beyonddistance/festival) (there’s still time to take part) with 218 delegates.
It led me to do a few amateur calculations about the environmental impact of academic conferences.
Here’s some brief conclusions for comment:
Suppose 200 delegates drove to Leicester for a conference. Perhaps they shared cars and there were 2 in a car = 100 journeys. Say an average 100 kms each way = 200 kms per return travel. They are all in a Ford Focus petrol engine which uses 222 grams of CO2 per km.
222 x 200 x 100 = 4.44 metric tons of CO2.
Of course instead they will be using their computers. A standard PC consumes around 32 kilograms per year (electricity) if on 8 hours per day (less for laptops).
So…15.4 grammes of CO2 per hour.
15.4 grams x 200 delegates = 3.08 kilos of CO2 per conference hour.
Say our 200 delegates stayed online for 8 hours a day for all 8 days of the conference (we hope!!) that would consume , 3.08 x 8 x 8 = 0.197 metric tonnes.
Balancing the equation : it’s 22 times CO2 less for conferencing online for 8 days compared to driving for 1 day! I know that there will be carbon involved in the manufacture of the PCs but it surely won’t be 22 times more.
• 42 of our delegates are outside the UK (from 21 countries across the globe)
• Say an average journey of 2400 kms to come to Leicester…
• If they had flown here (in a 747) the carbon cost would is around 97 kilograms of fuel per passenger, 302 kilograms of CO2 per passenger
• 302 kilograms of CO2 x 42 delegates = 12.68 metric tonnes.
Taking part online = 42 X 3.08 x 8 x 8 = .0083
Gilly Salmon

Breaking the spell

Today is a big day for one of our Media Zoos. We have three, one in the physical world, one on the web and one in Second Life (SL). It’s the physical zoo that’s having its big day. It moved with us to this lovely Victorian house just off-campus, but in the process changed from its former glory as a media-enabled conference and working space to a rather haphazard combination of temporary features. Soon, our real-life Media Zoo will be re-transformed into the working space we are used to. Today is the big day. The painters are in.

I know the painters are in, because the house is slowly acquiring a pervasive “Eau de Magnolia”. And it set me thinking. How could that be represented in SL? Precedents have been set. In a Japanese garden I like to visit, incense burners very effectively give off small translucent particles that drift slowly upwards before fading into nothingness. Somehow, they visually give the impression of scent, not just visible smoke. It’s interesting how a few simple cues can invoke a whole experience.

This can work in our favour when building learning spaces in SL. Often, it’s not necessary to build an accurate copy of something. A tree can be two two-dimentional images at right angles; a texture can replace a three-dimensional surface; a sound can replace a detailed movement.

But. And it’s a BIG BUT. Sometimes lack of detail can break the spell. SL designers must always remember that they are asking the learner to create missing detail in their head, using the cues available. If there’s not enough detail to allow this, the illusion of reality will be broken and the whole experience can unravel, leaving the learner feeling disoriented and distracted from the learning task.

My favourite example is a particular medical simulation (that should perhaps remain nameless). The building, beds, equipment etc. look good. Objects behave sensibly. Walking around gives a good impression of a real-life clinic. There’s just one problem. Patients are represented by two-dimensional body-shaped objects with the image of a person painted on. Noooo!

The patients are the focal point of the learning task. The patients need to look authentic. The designers would have been better spending their time on this and skipping the elaborate reception area!

Designing learning spaces in Second Life is not difficult, but it does have its pitfalls and they are not all obvious. One objective of the SWIFT project here at Leicester University is to investigate laboratory learning within Second Life using a virtual genetics lab – what works, best practice, and what is best kept to real life. It’s an exciting new area. Watch this space!

Dr. Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:

A contemplation on realism in virtual learning spaces

This is my first blog entry since joining the SWIFT project here at Beyond Distance. SWIFT is about helping Genetics students learn laboratory skills, and we are designing and building a virtual Genetics lab in the virtual world of Second Life (SL) so that students can have a broader lab experience than is possible in the physical labs (for reasons such as the real labs requiring supervision to ensure health and safety is maintained).

An interesting question came up about the need – or otherwise – for realism in this sort of project. Currently, the virtual Genetics lab in SL is in a “pretty” translucent dome with trees outside, while the real Genetics labs at the University of Leicester are, well, traditional labs.

Does it matter? Should we make the virtual one more like the real one? I thought I would share my initial thoughts based on my own experience in SL:

I have two memories of surfing with friends. One includes sunshine, palm trees and giant waves while the other has grey skies and a cold wind. Both experiences included learning, or reinforcing, the views that a) surfing is fun, b) timing is critical, c) shared experiences are priceless. The cold wind was in Cornwall, UK, and the palm trees were in Hawaii, Second Life.

In terms of motivation to want to surf again, the SL experience was superior. In terms of a shared experience with friends, both experiences are memorable. In terms of learning to use a surf-board, only the real life (RL) experience was able to do that BUT SL did make me aware of the principles (or remind me, since RL preceded SL). The question is, what part did the sunshine and palm trees play in the experience?

Had I been surfing first in the real Hawaii and then in SL without a beautiful environment one could assume that the environment was crucial to the experience. But it was the other way around. Cornwall in spring is cold, and a wet suit is, as the name suggests, wet! Yet I did feel I’d “been surfing”. Adding sunshine and trees in SL did make the experience more pleasurable in one way. Indeed, I would prefer my next surfing experience to be in the RL Hawaii (if only). However, it’s clear that the sunshine and trees are not critical to the experience of “surfing”.

So, applying this to the question of whether a lab experience in SL remains valid if the lab is unfeasibly “pretty”. When I first walked into the RL Genetics lab my reaction was not entirely positive. Looking back on that experience the phrases that spring to mind are “clinical”; “alien”; “authority”; “danger” – the sort of feeling one may have going to hospital for some tests one suspects may be unpleasant. Of course, many people have a different experience! Maybe they think along the lines of “professional”; “exciting”; “cutting-edge”; “medical breakthroughs” – the kind of feeling a child might have when they first sit in the driver’s seat of a parent’s car.

But would replacing some visual elements (low ceiling, bounding walls) with others (translucent walls, pleasant view) remove anything critical to learning? Students in the virtual lab must still wear their lab coat, tie their hair back and wash their hands in the correct sink. In fact, a pleasant virtual lab experience may help some students to overcome any fears they may have.

There are some specific things that may need greater realism. For example, at present the lab has no door (it seems that routines around doors, handles and gloves are important) and having a distinct boundary to the SL lab may be necessary.

Overall, SL is not (and is not intended to be) a replica of RL, it’s a simulation, in the same way that a painting may represent the real world. It’s true that a photograph is a clearer representation of the world than a painting, but a painting has the advantage of being able to add or enhance meaning that a photograph cannot show. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is not a photograph of the night sky – it deliberately distorts reality to make a point.

So the translucent lab walls are staying, for now at least. In creating a virtual representation of the physical world, we may sometimes be better considering a Picasso, or even a Salvador Dali, than assuming a Constable will always be the best solution.

Dr. Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:


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