How will teachers make a living in the future?

When I was ten years old, I had a brilliant, inspiring teacher. She used to ask us: “Why do you go to school?” After a series of answers, she would give hers: “To learn how to learn”. I knew Miss Blencow (I don’t know the spelling) was a good teacher, because I liked her and we did all sorts of interesting, creative activities. It took me until somewhere around the start of my PhD though to understand fully what she was telling us.

I was reminded of this today when I read a blog post by Damien Walter entitled “How will writers make a living in the future?”. The basic premise is that the increasing availability of free information on the internet is devaluing the written work to a possible future where writers will not earn money from writing anymore, with a comparison to the Dark Ages where reading aloud was a good career for “…the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation.”

As more and more information fills the internet a proportion of that is well presented and easily used for self-directed learning. It is becoming less and less necessary to go somewhere and be “taught”. Learning how to learn – the new learning to read.

So what future for teaching? The future, surely, must lie in teaching children how to be self-directed learners, and in inspiring, motivating and supporting them as they learn.

I do hope that Miss Blencow, once of Stimpson Avenue Junior School, is around to see the future she helped create.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Out with the old, in with the new?

I was recently asked to add a Follow us on Facebook and a Follow us on Twitter icon to the Media Zoo website. Not a problem I thought, both websites provide brand guidelines, logos and html to easily insert these features into your website. Unfortunately I hadn’t counted on Plone (the Content Management System controlling the Univesity website) and its portlets.

I wanted to horizontally align the two images within a portlet and have URLs on both images. Unfortunately after many attempts I couldn’t get this to work. After talking to the web team my options were:

  1. Include text saying ‘follow us’ after each icon. For me this defeated the purpose of the icons.
  2. Use an image map. This is an image where you can click on different areas of the image and they will have different URLs.
  3. Use a table. No, no and no. A table is for tabular data only, not layout. These icons would not fall into that category.

So an image map it was, which while better than a table is quite an old-fashioned approach to web design. But it worked:

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Now I do completely understand why CMS are necessary on a large website to introduce consistency and an easy to use approach for its editors. but without knowledge of best practice, by its editors, a CMS can still have its issues.

But it makes me wonder: do outdated techniques impact negatively on innovation? To quote Sex and the City: can you get to the future with your past still present?

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

The Hybrid: A new species for the Media Zoo

Here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance we have hosted and attended many online conferences, Learning Futures Festival Online 2010 and Panther to name but two. Yesterday we hosted a hybrid presentation which involved both offline and online participants. It was a presentation by Professor Phil Candy of the University of South Queensland about the Four+ Scholarships in the Digital Age.

The presentation itself was extremely interesting and I’m sure one of my colleagues will talk about it in my detail in a future blog post. However, what I’d like to focus on is how we actually managed to successfully host such an event. We’ve had a lot of practice in putting something like this together and I feel that we have ironed out the majority of the kinks of previous sessions.

One of the issues we have had previously is recording and broadcasting the sound of the presenter and being able to easily record any questions from the audience. We’ve got a number of microphones and have found that some of them can be a bit temperamental to say the least! But with our most recent purchase, the Samson C03U, and a bit of googling to find more detailed instructions and an overview of audio gain, we managed to capture our presenter and all questions from the audience through Adobe Connect.

What this success means is that we have a fully functioning conference set up in our Media Zoo that can host offline, online and hybrid presentations, workshops and conferences. If you’re a member of the University of Leicester, you are welcome to host an event within the Zoo and receive the technical support of our Learning Technologists (myself included). If you are interested in this contact our ZooKeeper:

Finally if you aren’t at the University of Leicester don’t worry about missing out. We will have more online events coming up in the future, including our OER Symposium on Monday 5th July, so make sure to look at our Twitter feed – BDMediaZoo – and our website for more details.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist

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

Finnish academics visiting Beyond Distance

Ten Finnish academics from Laurea University of Applied Sciences are visiting Beyond Distance this week. Their overall purpose is to learn about our research in e-learning and learning technologies, our projects and our approaches to learning design. A two-day Carpe Diem workshop has been organised as part of their visit.

Our visitors come from a range of disciplines including health care, business and management, tourism, safety and security management, languages and of course, learning technology. They have engaged with our work very enthusiastically, and they have gelled very well as a group – most of them didn’t know each other prior to their trip to Leicester.

Although I was expecting this, I am still surprised by how competent and knowledgeable our Finnish colleagues are in the field of learning technology. For example, all of them were familiar with Second Life, knew what wikis were and how they can be used (in fact, many of them have been using wikis with their learners for some time), and none of them was put off by the ‘complexities’ associated with using learning technology. All fluent users of their VLE (Optima) and very relaxed about Web 2.0… this compares very favourably to my experiences with academics elsewhere, including my colleagues at Leicester.

We’re half-way through the week and we’ve all learned a lot from each other. A fantastic opportunity for mutual development and future collaborative work.

Dr A Armellini
11 November 2009

Reflections on the Report of Committee of Enquiry into the Changing Learner Experience.

Melville, D. (2009) Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World: Report of Committee of Enquiry into the Changing Learner Experience, Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2009].

I have been reading the recently published final report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Changing Learner Experience, and thought it would be worth sharing some of the key messages from the report. The Committee has been established and supported by ten principal bodies responsible for UK Higher Education (HE) and headed by Prof Sir David Melville.

The report identifies the crucial issue of undergraduate students’ lack of information literacy and web awareness skills that are needed in a digital age. Students are active users of social web tools and services (generally referred to as Web 2.0 tools); for example, 90% are regular users of social networking sites. However, these students lack the analysis and critical skills for effective use of web-based resources: ‘Students tend to go no further than the first page or so of a website and, if they don’t find what they are looking for there, they move on to another.’ The Report stresses that HE students need help and support both in identifying and in evaluating information on the web, and in ‘understanding and application of good practice in constructing searches, establishing the validity of sources, and by extension, attributing them when appropriate’ (p. 23).
Based on the evidence gathered, the Committee concludes that HE students lack the skills required to make appropriate and ethical use of information available from the Web, and recommended that HEIs should ‘treat information literacies as a priority area and support all students so that they are able to identify, search, locate, retrieve and, especially, critically evaluate information from the range of appropriate sources… and organise and use it effectively, attributed as necessary, in an appropriate medium’ (Melville, 2009, p. 10).

One of the key recommendations of the report is that the HE institutions have responsibility for helping their students to learn information literacies ‘in an age when information is readily available from a multiplicity of [web-based] sources and in a wide range of formats.’

Palitha Edirisingha


I thought it would be nice to reflect on a project that is a little further from home but which still has some tenuous links to Beyond Distance (thanks to our adopted researcher Ricardo Torres Kompen).

Seniorlab, a collaboration between Citilab, Universitat de Barcelona, Universitat de la Gent Gran and the i2Cat Foundation in Spain, is a project to promote the use of ICTs among senior citizens in order to explore their capacity for innovation towards the design and development of the digital society.

The objective of Seniorlab has been to put senior citizens at the centre of the knowledge society, with the belief that senior citizens should not have to adapt to new technologies, but rather these technologies should be adaptable to senior citizens’ needs, and it should also be taken into account what they can provide to society. The projects have shown that a user-driven community focus has improved in the senior citizens’ quality of life through these open innovations.

This got me thinking about lifelong learning and personalised learning environments and how some of the latest Web 2.0 tools can be easily adapted to our needs and requirements – but do these technologies actually learn our preferences or do we have to continually inform them?

Matthew Wheeler

Keeper of the Media Zoo

What are you doing about TWITTER and learning?

Twitter enables social networking, live searching and link-sharing that appeals to many young people and those at work because it has a ‘right now’ feel to it. In 12 months (between April 2008-09) user numbers increased by 1,298% and now stands at 17.1 million users.

Twitter is a free, readily accessible, very easy to use, web 2.0 platform that limits each message to brief posts (‘tweets’), i.e. maximum 140 characters long. They can be received and sent by computer or mobile.

These tweets are received only by those who have chosen to receive them (called ‘followers’) or by those in a Twitter ‘group’. They are used for reporting on activity, exchanging ideas by people who are not together but also to provide a ‘back channel’ during more formal proceedings such as a conference.

Now where is the use for learning. Isn’t tweeting knowledge sharing???

This week’s issue of TIME magazine addressed the Twitter issue – demonstrating embryonic uses in wide scale news sharing, the growing value of searching, and advertising.

At Leicester, we’re planning to have a go and test out tweeting as a pedagogical process.

What are you doing about it right now?

Gilly Salmon

Looking at Blackboard V 9.0

Several days ago, I attended an IT Services campus presentation on Blackboard 9, as the University will be moving from V 7.3 to V 9.0 later in the summer.

If given a choice, I much prefer to watch an experienced user demonstrate software before I dive in myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure the most useful PC stuff I’ve learned (e.g. alt+Tab in Windows) has been while looking over someone’s shoulder.

This presentation was no different, as Richard – who’s forgotten more about learning technologies than I’ll ever know – took several hundred of us (developers, academics, administrators) on a whistle-stop tour of the main features of 9.0.

V 9.0 does look significantly better. I’ve never seen V 8.0, but our V 7.3 has always seemed a little constricted to me, especially from a designer’s viewpoint, and – to put it bluntly – pretty ugly. (Think of the illegitimate love child of a website circa 1998 and an uninspiring accounting package. It even has the option of chunky menu buttons!)

V 9.0 is far more customisable, has plenty of drag and drop functionality, and, overall, is far better looking; it definitely has a ‘Web 2.0’ thing going on.

More importantly, the addition of blogs and journals allows students to be more than passive recipients of content pushed at them by the tutor. They can now generate content of their own, plus BB9 provides a central area where all this can be accessed by tutors and students alike. ‘Inclusiveness’ seems to have been at the forefront of designing this upgrade. Assessment capabilities and control in BB9 also seem much stronger.

Because he was talking to an experienced Blackboard audience, Richard was able to focus on areas of change that will affect how all of us do certain things on campus, about which he has detailed knowledge. The talk was snappy, clear and directly relevant: it was a great shoulder over which to look.

I’m looking forward to getting my BB9 test account next week.

Simon Kear

Learning Technologist

The weebly, the wiki and the webquest: an experiment in rapid, collaborative e-learning authoring

One way to create e-learning courses is to appoint armies of instructional designers, Flash scripters, Java programmers, graphic designers, audio-visual experts and quality testers, and have them monitored and chivvied along by Gantt-chart-wielding project managers as they churn out high-level specs, low-level specs , scripts, storyboards, prototypes and so on. In many cases, this is the way to go. Sometimes, however, something a bit simpler, faster and cheaper is needed. As Thiagi (my favourite rapid-instructional-design guru) points out: ‘There is a built-in bias toward overkill in the conventional [instructional design] process. The obsession – for doing it right the first time through painstaking analysis and planning, for pleasing all the people all the time through incorporating everyone’s inputs and feedback, and for attempting perfection through several rounds of testing, revision, and retesting – violates the Pareto principle. Much time (and other resources) can be saved by focusing on critical content and key steps and producing a lean instructional package. Improvements to this core package can be added gradually after it is implemented.’

Last weekend, with my student hat on, I stumbled upon the simplest, fastest, cheapest way I know to do collaborative e-learning authoring. In the context of a course on creating educational web environments which I am doing through USQ, a motley team of three of us (in Fiji, Kuwait and England) produced a very useable, 40-hour online course in the space of a week, with most of the work being done over the period of a single weekend. A process model emerged, which can be summarised as: get a couple of writers (maybe an instructional designer and a subject matter expert), have them go straight to the Web with the first draft, and then have them collaboratively build the learning programme ‘live’. That’s it. Simple. Fast. Cheap. Effective if your writers know what they’re doing. Several Web 2.0 tools make this scenario possible now – even desirable… but more about that in a moment.

First, a bit of background on how the model arose: Our task was to collaboratively create a WebQuest, which is ‘an inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web’. (See The concept of the WebQuest was popularised by Bernie Dodge from San Diego State University in the mid-90’s, and is even more relevant today in view of the increasing availability of open educational resources on the Web, allowing course designers to focus on designing the learning process rather than creating the content. It can be used at all levels of education and training – our focus was on work-based training.

My WebQuest team started the assignment late and so we were forced by necessity to come up with a process for rapid design and development of our WebQuest site. This is how we did it:

1. Through our initial discussions on USQ’s Moodle discussion forum, we agreed on the basic parameters for our WebQuest – the target audience (health and safety officers in a company), the topic (instructional design – how to create a health and safety induction course for employees) and the task (learners were to produce a report for the Board of Directors outlining how they proposed to develop the health and safety course). We also agreed on the stages and steps that the WebQuest would be divided into.

2. Having recently discovered the wondrous, WYSIWYG, free weebly programme for website building, I decided to create a weebly site for our WebQuest, with page headings reflecting the learning stages and steps we had agreed on. By going straight to the Web with only the most tenuous outline of the course we were developing, we were implementing the notion of rapid instructional design in the extreme. If there are any Gantt-chart wielding project managers out there, they might be throwing up their hands in horror at this scenario, arguing that you can’t build the house before you’ve built the foundation. But Web 2.0 tools such as the weebly are so sophisticated now that you can add and remove web pages or completely alter the navigational structure of the site with just a few clicks and no knowledge of html at all (although you can view and tweak the html if you want to) – almost like modifying the foundation of your house after you’ve started building it, if you decide to move a wall or change the angle of your roof.

3. To organise the work of the WebQuest design team, we set up a work-allocation-wiki in the USQ Moodle forum, with a table indicating all the pages that needed to be developed for the WebQuest site, and who was planning to do which ones, along with a short ‘status report’ for each page. We updated this frequently – sometimes several times a day.

4. All three of us in the WebQuest design team had the password to access the weebly, so we could take turns to go in and add content to the sections we had committed ourselves to completing. This worked particularly well with the person in Fiji being in a different time zone – it was always exciting to see what she had added while I was sleeping!

5. We used the blog within the weebly to summarise the changes we had made, keeping this updated on a regular basis, so that the rest of the authoring team was continuously informed of developments. (Bearing in mind that the weebly can go into the public domain from day one, and can be viewed by anyone who has the URL, this has significant implications for participation and collaboration by stakeholders. The blog could also be used for commentators to add their feedback as the work progresses.) The blog would probably be deleted or hidden when the WebQuest was piloted with learners, although the transparency of the authors’ process might be of interest to some learners – especially as in our case, the subject of the WebQuest was instructional design.

6. In addition to the weebly, we created a wiki using the free pbwiki, to enable our WebQuest learners to summarise key points as they worked through the WebQuest. The wiki was also to be the main point of reference and collaboration for learners in the final stage of their WebQuest, when they were required to jointly produce a report to the Board of Directors, reflecting how they would apply their knowledge of instructional design in an authentic context.

The final product was a website containing a very structured process for learners to learn about instructional design by exploring selected resources that are freely available on the Web, with the help of some carefully scaffolded questions. Trainers’ notes were also provided. It’s not perfect and there are plenty of ways in which it could be improved with the addition of more time and resources, but in the hands of a capable online facilitator/ trainer, it could provide a stimulating and useful learning experience for the learners. Much more so, I suspect, than some of those content-heavy, ‘electronic page-turner’ type courses that some commercial companies spend fortunes, and many months, on producing.

By Gabi Witthaus

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