Technology and ideology

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article by Alan Amory. ((Amory, 2010) Education Technology and Hidden Ideological Contradictions. Educational Technology & Society, 13 (1) 69-79 for those of you who like references.)  His argument is that educational technology, as we use it in higher education is driven by a distinctively neo-liberal mindset that reinforces the status quo, rather then doing anything to promote radical change, or indeed doing very much to promote learning. While acknowledging that learning technologies need not be used this way, he describes reusable learning objects as being based on “totalitarian ideologies of instruction”. I think what he means by this is that they present learning as a sort of “jigsaw” that can be assembled into a picture, which itself has been defined by the status quo. In other words they don’t easily allow for re-interpretation into a new picture. He describes learning management systems (like Blackboard) as “observation and control systems” and blended learning as “perpetuating the past” by simply bringing technologies into existing courses without making any pedagogical change.  On the whole, I’m inclined to agree, although I’m not sure I blame the technologies for the way they’re being used.


To steal his rather nice phrase, it promotes learning from technology, rather than learning with technology.  He goes on to argue for a much more social approach to learning – that we should see technologies as tools rather than objects, and use them to encourage students to work collaboratively to produce new learning, which of course sits quite comfortably with the Student as Producer project here at Lincoln. We certainly don’t want to see students as consumers of a rather ill-defined “educational product” that they pay £9000 (or whatever) for? I’m not going to get into the question of exactly what the cost of a degree covers, since I can’t see that you can buy something that you do yourself, such as learning. But Amory’s argument suggests that universities should principally be providing a space where people can learn socially, a space which may or may not be digital, although these days I would expect it to have quite a significant digital component.


The problem is of course that LMS’s aren’t often used to support social learning. Many would say, rightly, that they’re not designed to, but most of them do have some features which could be used to encourage it. Blackboard has wiki tools, and discussion groups for example, but these are still usually tutor led. Amory suggests creating learning spaces in virtual worlds, where students and tutors can work together to identify and resolve problems related to the discipline, I can see how that might work in theory, although I haven’t seen any virtual world software that is nearly accessible (or robust) enough to be deployed on an institutional scale, (although I  suppose they don’t need to be 3D worlds like Second Life – they could just as well be text based). The theory is, and I admit to over-simplifying here, that students and tutors form social networks, based on a shared interest in the subject. The members of the network then work together to identify and resolve problems of importance to the discipline. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t get us away from education as a commodity. Marks are a commodity which are exchanged for another, academic work. How do we measure individual student’s contributions for assessment purposes in this kind of learning? Does it matter? More to the point of this post, how can we get the kind of social networking Amory describes inside an LMS or VLE?


Lecture capture, and other e-learning issues

ELESIG, or the evaluation of E-learners Experience of Learning Special Interest Group has a Midlands Group, which met at Loughborough University on Friday 17th September, which I attended. The main topic was a discussion of “Lecture Capture” software, which is now being used quite extensively at Loughborough. However, before we got onto that there was a general discussion of the future of the group, and some of the issues that we are concerned with. Firstly, and anyone from Lincoln who is reading this should take note, ELESIG needs more committee members and more people to attend its meetings. They also offer mall grants – up to £500 for literature reviews and case studies for example, and it is well worth putting in a bid for these. The Loughborough meeting was of the regional group, but there is a national group meeting in London on 6th October. If you’re interested you can find out more about the group at

As is often the case there was quite a wide ranging discussion of issues that members were interested in. First we got on to formal methods of evaluation that were being used. This provoked quite a lot of debate including considerable scepticism about what are sometimes called happy sheets, since these usually end up in a drawer, on their short but inevitable journey to the paper recycling bin. Members described interesting projects using video, Twitter, and mobile phones, the informality implicit in small devices in general being thought to be better at engaging students in completing them, and in some ways delivering more impact to staff. Video was thought to very useful for delivering evaluation reports to senior managers

The second issue was around the accessibility and the question of how to change VLEs. What do dyslexic students think about their experience of their learning on Blackboard. was highlighted as a useful resource. Some colleagues exporte a blackboard course onto a disc, so that partially sighted, or people with low/no speed connection can access it. (needs some software, but a good idea)

There was a brief discussion of a product called Xerte and it’s ability, or not, to produce accessible materials. Loughborough reported problems with running it, that had, eventually led them to abandon it. Camtasia was also discussed, but users had found that there was a need to produce multiple versions to maintain accessibility.

Discussions on LinkedIn about various alternatives to Xerte (e.g. My Udutu) were mentioned, but I haven’t had time to follow these up yet, which was also true of, which apparently contains lots of reviews of tools for creating learning materials, and apparently something called Clive Shepherd’s 60 minute Masters is worth looking at

A slightly left of field idea was that of having standards for Blackboard sites. One institution has bronze, (absolute minimum) silver and gold standards for BB sites (However, they haven’t yet succeeded in getting any sites above Bronze!)

Lecture Capture at Loughborough

Origninally, there was quite a lot of resistance but now it’s fairly mainstream in that most people experimenting with it. They have 10 fixed and 5 mobile installations, the latter being entirely software based. They’re using a product called ECHO 360. It’s expensive at £3,000 p.a. for a single installation (Plus £1750 one off cost for the fixed boxes), but their may be a way to reduce that, which I’ll get to later. There are alternatives. Some open source products were mentioned one called Matterhorn was singled out as being particularly worth a look. Essentially the system shows a thumbnail gallery of the slides with the time each is displayed. Captures are normally ready 5-6 minutes after lecture completed. Lectures are editable – so you can choose where slides are displayed within the lecture, and of course you can paste the URL into the VLE, so it’s easily accessible. Students can click on the slide and go directly to that section of the lecture. An incidental benefit was (apparently) that the system has dramatically improved academic sartorial standards at Loughborough!

It’s not without disadvantages, of course. Installations have to have duct tape on floor to indicate to the lecturer where to stand, although, apparently the space is quite generous. There is still a rather murky understanding of IP and particularly, performer’s rights, which hasn’t been fully resolved. Newcastle apparently has a policy of no reuse except to cohorts other than that to which it was originally delivered. Most of the members thought that was unduly cautious, but it did provoke a question about how long a captured lecture might last.

Initally it was hard to engage staff with it, for fear of students not attending, the argument that it perpetuates an outdated delivery mode and of course, the suspicion that it’s a way of replacing lecturers. Further, you do need to be very careful what you say! One way of dealing with the non-attendance issue was to rebrand it as ReView (emphasis on the first syllable) to stress that it’s not an alternative to attending, rather it’s a revision tool. Loughborough’s evaluations suggest that this has proved very popular with students.

Finally, and related to the rights issue, is the question of what to do with lectures once they’ve been captured. A few universities are signing up with iTunesU. It was suggested that Apple may be persuaded to contribute to the cost of lecture capture systems if people prepared to post content thereon, although, of course that will not cover the cost of the ongoing licenses.

All in all a very useful and interesting meeting, and I’d certainly recommend ELESIG to colleagues.

Blackboard Midlands User Group meet. Part 2: The assessment handler.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Blackboard have developed a plug in to handle assessments based on institutional procedures for managing assessments, as opposed to a system that handles assessments the way Blackboard thinks they should be handled. It was designed in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University, partly in response to the NSS findings about student dissatisfaction with the rate at which they received feedback on their assessments. The tool is an “add on” to versions 7, 8 and 9 so we could use it, were we prepared to pay for it.

The procedure for creating the assessment is much the same as it is now, except that there is another option in the drop down list on the action bar – in the demo version this was called SHU assessment, although if we were to use it we could call it what we liked. “Lincoln Assessment would seem favourite!  (This was in version 8 which we use – they didn’t show it in the new interface for version 9). Once  you have clicked the go button, you add the title, brief and attach any files much as you do now, but there are some additional features. You can describe the assignment as a “group” or an “individual” assignment, although I didn’t see that this gave any additional functionality beyond a description (Could be that they didn’t demo it). You also have the opportunity to designate a physical hand in point, so the tool can be used to record and publicise assignments, but you don’t have to submit them on-line. Quite why you couldn’t just write that in the description field wasn’t made clear. The really interesting bit was in a feature called the “file rename pattern”. Essentially this allows you to change the way the grade centre records the submissions. Most obviously it facilitates anonymous marking because you are asked if you want to alter the students name to say, an enrolment number. Of course anonymity here does depend rather on the institutional definition of anonymity, and there is an option to generate a random string of numbers. I asked if you could turn anonymity on and off at will, which would be a rather obvious weakness, but I have to say that my question was deflected (OK, they didn’t answer) and I didn’t get chance to pursue it as there were many other questions.  That’s an important issue though. The Turnitin Grademark feature offers a similar level of anonymity, but if an instructor attempts to turn it off, it does allow it, but they have to enter a reason why they’re turning it off, and they can’t then turn it back on again.

An additional feature, although one I didn’t quite see the point of was that you could set limits to the number of files that a student uploaded to any assessment, and you could also set a maximum disk size for assessments. I suppose that it would be useful if you’re trying to teach students to manage file sized properly (Which would be no bad thing, come to think of it), but I couldn’t help thinking you’d be making a bit of a rod for your own back if you have plenty of space.

Completing (i.e. submitting) the assignment is much as it is now, except that students now get a digital receipt for their submission via e-mail, which provoked a debate among delegates about how worthwhile this is. My own view is that it’s fine, provided students have the option to turn it off if they don’t want it.  There are a few extra tools for grading the assignment now. An instructor has the option to select files and download them into a zip file which also includes a spreadsheet with all the students’s details. Once the work has been marked the instructor can zip them back up, along with the spreadsheet, (into which marks have been entered) and re-upload them into the gradebook.  This sounds pretty much like what our computing department have been asking for for a while, so it may be worth investigating this tool further. (I wouldn’t put too much trust in a demonstration).

Academic identity and e-learning.

Being at a bit of a loose end this morning, I wandered into the University Library and picked up the Times Higher Education Supplement. (No, I don’t have a life!) Anyway. There was an interesting article describing a paper about academics’ reluctance to engage with e-learning, something that most of us working in educational development units can tell one or two stories about, and does get the odd mention in the thesis I’m working on. I am not saying that all academics are completely technophobic. Far from it. In my experience most are not, and I don’t think the author of the paper is saying that either.

But she does pick on something I found in my own research – that e-learning (and indeed wider attempts at “educational development”) can be seen as undermining academic identity. I think it was Ray Land who first described educational development as a “modernist project” which of course carries with it modernist notions of “improvement” and doing things “better” which implies that things are currently not being done very well. It’s hardly surprising then that it isn’t welcomed with open arms. The problem is that technology isn’t going to go away, and I think, “academic identities” are inevitably going to change. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. It’s easy to be sniffy about students doing Google searches instead of “proper” research but the fact is that, like it or not, the Internet contains more facts and arguments about them than we can carry in our crania no matter how exalted they may be. (and, yes, I know there’s more to the Internet than a Google search, and I also know that there’s as much crap out there as there is good stuff!)

I’m not saying academic identities will disappear, just that they’ll change. I think we’ll see much more openness in terms of learning resources being made available, but the most radical change may well come in assessment. I think, as I’ve probably blogged about before (and Stephen Downes certainly has), that the degree classification will in a few years be seen as much less important than the students’ blog, e-portfolio, and publicly available work. The challenge for academic staff will be ensuring that the student’s public persona is critically and disciplinary sound.

(Mind you I suspect that if and when that happens employers will start to complain that they have too much information, and wouldn’t it be better if universities summarised a student’s achievement, by oh I don’t know, describing an excellent student as “first class” and, shall we say, a less (but still very good ) student as “upper second class” student, a reasonably competent one as “lower second”…)

Henry VIII

What, you might ask has he got to do with e-learning, web 2.0, or the sort of stuff I usually blog about. Well, nothing, but bear with me a  bit. On Saturday, acting on an impulse I decided to go to London and see the British Library’s  current exhibition on the old devil.



If you haven’t seen it and have any interest at all in British or European History, I suggest you go at once. Apart from making me realise just how important the events of Henry’s reign were for the future of Europe there really is something quite strange in looking at a document bearing the handwriting of Henry himself. Makes him real in a way that no amount of pictures, or written history can do. Probably the eeriest document was a page of Thomas Cromwell’s “Remembraunces” (What we would call a to do list!) which listed “Discover his (i.e. Henry’s) pleasure regarding Sir Thomas More” as one of the little jobs for a day in the spring of 1536. Not, a matter that I would have thought something Cromwell would have been likely to forget about as More was executed in July of that year.  I was also struck by a contemporary illustration of a man writing in his study by on open window, with his dog curled up at his feet. It was a completely familiar scene, and yet it’s age gave it a weirdly alien feel. Reminded me a bit of Douglas Adams’s crack: “The past is a foreign country, they do things exactly the same there!”

Aside from the history there was some interest from an e-learning perspective. Firstly they include an audio guide in the price of admission. (Which, might I add here, I thought steep at £9.00) Mine was faulty and seemed to deliver incomprehensible gibberish after about the first three sections. You got a few words, then a long silence, followed by a few more words. I guess the recording had been interfered with somehow. I find these things distract me from looking at the exhibits anyway so I was more than happy to turn it off. (Would have been nice to have a choice about paying for it though!)  But it did set me wondering about whether such a thing could actually form a useful part of an exhibition by making them interact with the artefacts on display somehow. They’d have to be a bit more reliable though. Secondly there were also some quite nice flash based interactive exhibits of the actual documents, where you could look in detail at Henry’s annotations, usually where he was trying to find support for his case in his “Great Matter” (Getting his divorce from Katherine of Aragon).  Some of them have been posted on the web at . There was a bit of local interest too in that some of the books he needed for evidence came from St Katherine’s priory in Lincoln. (I wonder where that was). I must confess I hadn’t realised he himself was so deeply involved in making his case.

So the exhibition format may have some value as a learning tool. Of course as I was already interested in the first place, I can’t read too much into that, but given what I’ve been thinking about e-portfolios, there might be some value in concentrating a little more on the presentation side of e-portfolios.

Reality Check: Do you know how good your Blackboard modules are

Kate Boardman, University of Teeside


Looked at what Teeside’s staff were actually doing with Blackboard in the light of minimum standards that they had set up, their e-learning framework and they found that the results were in fact “quite scary”.


She started by asking the rhetorical question “If you were asked by one of your Pro Vice Chancellors about the state of e-learning across the campus, what would you say?”  You might, um and ah and say, well we’ve got so many modules on Blackboard – for example, at Teeside  80% of modules have a Blackboard site. But of course, “having a Blackboard site” doesn’t necessarily mean that e-learning is taking place. If this hypothetical PVC was to then ask you to be more candid about the exact nature of the e-learning that was taking place, how would you describe that?  Kate mentioned a survey that had been done that said 98% of students said the most useful thing that could happen with Blackboard would be if their other lectures used it. That suggests to me that the students do actually use Blackboard, but that not many of the modules are actually used.



Teeside have set up minimum criteria for their Blackboard sites. They must have


  • A clear navigation menu
  • Staff details
  • A module guide
  • An overview of how the module will be delivered
  • Content organised in folder
  • No empty areas
  • Delivery schedule
  • Assessment information
  • Submission instructions
  • Assessment feedback
  • Copies of all teaching materials
  • Regular announcements
  • Link to current reading lists


Setting minimum standards is to invite the obvious question of whether modules actually meet them. It was time for a reality check. The evaluation team employed a Peer observation and review methodology, which basically employed 20-25 students in each school to review the modules with a brief to look at e-quality (which I imagine means whether the sites meet the minimum standards) across schools, levels, subject groups, and staff. Kate also suggested that presentation is important creating and interesting online module presence and reported a finding that students frequently comment adversely on sites that are difficult to navigate, This makes some sense because presentation is part of the communication process with students. She reported that only 26% of Teeside’s sites had changed from the default appearance provided by the University. It would be quite interesting to conduct a similar survey here, although I’m not convinced that this is quite as important as Kate seemed to think. If the default appearance provides adequate navigation, then there seems to be little value in changing it for the sake of aesthetics. Another aspect  of communication is the obvious one of how many announcements have been made in the site? Over 60% of Teeside’s module had none.


More significant , I thought, was the issue of construction – in  a higher level module it is not unreasonable to expect students to demonstrate a higher level of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter by constructing relevant information. Blackboard provides tools such as blogs, but the trick is to ask what students are doing, not whether or not the Blackboard site has a wiki.  Although, again according to Kate, 89% of the sites at Teeside did not provide any opportunity for students to produce or publish the results of their own work.  


I suspect that a similar review conducted at Lincoln, or pretty much any university  would probably produce similar results. On the plus side, any intervention makes people think about their teaching. Kate echoed Andy Ramsden’s keynote with her suggestions about how Teeside proposed to tackle the situation. She basically advocated a return to sound principles, including the encouragement of contact between students and teaching staff, the development of on-line activities, the production of self test assessments, which importantly provide the students with feedback, and the provision of media rich content. That of course raises the question of how you do this. The old idea of providing staff development workshops, she thought, (and I agree) doesn’t work, because they are not immediately relevant to most people’s needs. (Which actually raises the question of why we still think the lecture meets students’ needs, but I digress). Instead we should be focussing on small steps taken by individuals. When people do raise an issue we should be working with them, on a one-to-one, and just-in-time  basis if necessary. We should then write up the case study and publicise it as widely as possible. The more case studies we have, the stronger our understanding of what e-learning is going on in the University.


Mobile learning – ALT workshop

We started with a presentation from Cecile Tshcirhart, Chris O’Reilly, about the E – Packs developed by London Metropolitan University for Language Learners. These provide students with an interactive self-study mode. Unfortunately, the demonstration was marred by the fact that the technology wasn’t able to cope with demonstrating what they could do, which was a pity, as what we did see looked very interesting.One point that the presenters made that we might want to think about if we go down this road, was that they had planned for students working alone, so they had designed in interactivity, but didn’t allow for students communicating with each other. This turned out to be a mistake in hindsight as communicating with each other was precisely what their students wanted to do. Their reasons for adopting this technology ought to give us pause for thought as well.
There are 3 times more mobiles than PCs in existence and they have achieved 75-100% penetration among young people. Also of course, you don’t need wires and their appears to be a consensus among practitioners that the future is wireless. So, there’s no real reason why we should not be getting involved. Some of the other benefits of m-learning that they identified are that it is available, anywhere anytime, portability and space saving, connectivity (no wires, but you do need a network), it can be context sensitive (again, more below) and it’s cheap. Students provide their own technology for a start, and even where they don’t, a mobile device is usually cheaper than a fully-fledged PC. It is also consistent with socio-constructivist theories, supports problem solving and exploratory learning, contextualised independent and collaborative learning, can provide scaffolding and it offers a form of personalised learning which has been found to enhance learner motivation

It’s not a panacea of course. A big problem is the small size of the screen. It really mandates many more pages than a conventional RLO and also needs a fairly linear structure. Navigation is also a big issue. They tried to keep everything controlled by the phone’s navigation button. No arrows on screen for example because there isn’t space. Also the question of whether you’re doing the same kind of activity when you are mobile that you are doing when you are on a PC was raised. (Actually, I think that depends on the configuration of the device – I’m sitting on the train writing this on my PDA/Bluetooth keyboard combination which isn’t that different from a PC – but you can bet I wouldn’t be texting it!)

They then talked about some of the M-learning applications they had developed. These included mobile phone quizzes, collaborative learning involving camera phones and multimedia messaging, using iPods to access audiobooks and lectures, developing personalised guided tours using hand-held augmented reality guides (about which, much more later!) They also described how they were using what they called MILOs – Mobile interactive learning objects using graphics, animation, text, video and audio clips. The presenters attempted to demonstrate an interactive language for the mobile phone course that they had developed, but they struggled a bit here with the technology which didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

Nevertheless they were able to show us some screenshots from their mobile learning objects. One was what we would call a “hot spot” question in Blackboard. But the image has to be movable if it is a bigger than the screen which seemed a little clunky to me. Another feature was a grammar lecture, which was to all intents and purposes a mini-PowerPoint although with the addition of a 3-4 minute audio to the slides. Finally they have designed what they called a game, which students could play (It was a sort of a French “Who wants to be a millionaire?” and I couldn’t help thinking – “So, a multiple choice quiz, then?”)

When it came to evaluation the found that students were positive about m-learning, and about the e-packs, (and interestingly they did the evaluation through the mobiles, although they were only able to involve 8 students in the study.) it appeared that the students preferred the more academic type of object rather than the games. The French lecturer thought that they rather liked to have a little lecture rather than having to think, which they did need to do with the games. So, of course the idea is to offer both lectures and interactive objectives. (Another game they designed was a wordsearch with audio to help pronunciation) Students seemed quite happy to use their own mobiles. They found it handy to have them available when they were in down time (on the bus, for example) Students also saw them as time saving and allowed them to learn wherever they were, and that they always had access. Mobile learners do not need convincing, unlike online learners. But there is a need to keep up with the technologies.
They stressed again the importance of bearing in mind the screen size – London Met had developed their objects for the Nokia N95 which has screen dimensions of 320 x 40 pixels and it would need revisiting for other devices. In fact designing for the Phone is a bit of an issue. Apart from the software they had used (Flash lite, J2ME, C++) there is the question of what phones to design for. But technology is changing a great deal. Flash lite may disappear – some of the newer phones may have better browsers. They ended by warning us not to spend too much time developing stuff. It did cross my mind that this kind of technology was a bit restrictive in that very few lecturers would be able to use this kind of technology though. Or have the time. The London Met team had started by transferring existing on-line learning objects. Which was easier for them.
Carl Smith – Potential of M-learning – Latest developments
This turned out to be one of those presentations that revealed some quite eye-opening potential of the technology, (although that might be a side effect of living in Lincolnshire! For all I know these things are ten a penny in the civilized world.) and made the whole day worth the money. Carl, who is an e-learning developer at London Met started quite conventionally by reiterating the benefits that the earlier presenters had outlined. Students are familiar with them. It’s a preferred learning device. It allows communication and group work. It’s part of the blend for most students. He then gave us a fairly restrained view of what is being done at present, while pointing out some of the drawbacks. It is quite hard work to transfer material to the mobile medium but becoming easier. It’s only suitable for certain subjects. There are inevitable questions about accessibility. But there are fascinating developments. The implications of the iPhone style touch screen haven’t been fully explored. Adobe Air will replace flash lite as the development medium and will be interoperable with different phones – The software will be able to identify the device it is working on and adjust itself accordingly.

He also found that students liked the mobile for reinforcing what they learnt on the web, rather than as a first contact tool, and noted the phenomenon that mobile learning creates a learning bubble – you can’t have 15 windows open on a phone – forces concentration

But then he got onto the software that might be beneficial for mobiles. Sea Dragon gets rid of the idea that screen real estate is limited. Just look at this.  
The next step is what Carl referred to as mixed reality. This means that learners are augmenting their reality by participating in different media, and are reshaping it. Yes, I know “Oh, come on, now” is pretty much what I thought too. But, consider. With GPS we can automatically provide context to a mobile phone. It knows where it is. There are also things called QR codes – tags attached to real world objects – take a picture of the object with your camera phone and get multimedia info about it. Essentially you’re barcoding the real world by sticking one of these on it. But, here’s the thing. Because the phone knows where it is, and can use pattern recognition to recognize the subject of a picture is, taking a picture, can also automatically give you information about it. Or, to superimpose a reconstruction of a ruined building over your photo of the buildings (and you are standing in it!) We’re moving to the idea that everything in the real world will be clickable.

Which should give the Data protection Registrar something to think about.

All links will be made available

He also told us about Google Android – an Open Source mobile operating system that will run on many phones. Because it’s OS people can write their own applications and Google are running competitions for developers – here are their top 50 applications –  It’s also completely free has rich Graphical powers, can use touch sensitive screens, and we even got a short demo of it’s 3-D capabilities using quake (A computer game I believe.) There was also a demonstration of how you could touch maps to pan around the city and go straight to “street view” (i.e. photographs of what was shown on the map) And zoom in considerable detail

Returning to the second half of the video mentioned again the spatial arrangement of images on screen can be meaningful. The second half of the video was about photosynth technology, which when you think about is even more astonishing than the potential of the QR codes. They reconstructed Notre Dame Cathedral from a set of images in Flickr. But because we can take data from everyone, and link them together there is a huge volume of public metadata. They were able to take a detail of the cathedral from one window, in one photograph and reconstruct the entire building from that.

After that we came back down to earth with a group discussion about the extent to which mobile learning could be blended effectively in the teaching and learning environment. A couple of very useful suggestions were made. I like the idea of using it for induction. It is possible to text news students with userids so they can log into VLEs prior to arrival. Another suggestion was to have a glossary that can be interrogated by text message. This uses a simple rule based system “if this word is received then reply with this definition”. This was all offered by a company called EDUTXT who seemed to be very well thought of by delegates. London Met had just had their symposium and had used it for their evaluation of their teaching and learning conference.
One case reported of a student declaring a disability via this method, as he had not felt comfortable doing this in class. The data can be exported to Excel which one delegate claimed took it close to an audience response system. I doubt it actually, because you don’t get the instant response.
In the afternoon we had a presentation about an FE project called MoLeNET

This was a collaborative approach to promoting and supporting mobile learning – FE colleges had been funded to buy mobile devices to be used in any way they see fit. The Learning and Skills Network provided training, ideas on how to use the devices and are producing a full report on the project. It involved 32 colleges, some in partnerships with colleges, or to put it another way 1200 teachers, and 10,000 learners.

It wasn’t limited by subject area, and a wide range of equipment – smartphones, PDAs, MP3 players, handheld gaming devices, ASUS laptops had been bought although there had been some supply problems.

In practice it seemed that the devices had been used as a substitute teacher. EEPC laptops had been used to show videos of how to do a hairstyle for hairdressing students when teachers were unavailable. We also saw a video of students using ASUS laptops for portfolio building in an engineering workshop. Students very much liked them on the grounds that they were small and went into their bags very easily. Also they could type things up as they were doing those things

Keith Tellum from Joseph Priestley College (JPC) in Leeds remarked that MoLeNET seems to have provoked considerable interest in mobile learning across the whole college, and also noted that central IT staff tend to be very concerned about (i.e. resistant to) new technology (Actually, on reflection this was a recurrent theme throughout the day) About three quarters of mobile learners felt it had helped them to learn – further research was planned into the 25% although they already had evidence that some were worried about the loss of the social aspect in the class.

Examples and tools can be downloaded from above. All of which are freely available.

But we got to play with one, such tool. We all did a little quiz using our mobile phones. Which worked very well, although my neighbour didn’t get a response to his text.

He noted that M-learning had really taken off at JPC. They even market the college through texting and 40% of enquiries came through texting

He then started to tell us about a couple of other projects, the Learning for Living and Work Project for learners with disabilities, and the QIA digitisation project. Which was about using learners own devices a very attractive way of moving towards sustainability. He was explaining about how the college can be taken to learners, and conventional phoning in doesn’t really work, because it was hard to get through and how the texting system had improved things when the speakers exploded! (No, really – they did. )

We then got to play with some “old” PDAs which had some very interesting software albeit a bit FE oriented loaded on them from a company called Tribal Education. A lot of it was “matching” and “snap” type games but there were some nice drag and drop applications There was also some very good quality video running on them.

The day finished off with a traditional plenary session. Some of the issues discussed:

Nintendo Wii – disabled students using it to make an e-portfolio – possible to make a jigsaw out of photographs, and these can be put into portfolios

A new version of the Wii is to be released which will be “mind-controlled”. The panel were a bit hazy about this, but suggested that users would be able to control virtual avatars with their minds

I asked about using the QR codes will and was reassured that this will be very practical – we’ll be able to do this for ourselves quite easily. Carl promised to send me a link to a download for all the tools.

Question asked about evaluation. We didn’t really talk about how effective these tools, exciting as they were, might be in improving learning.

Quite a lot of debate about the methods of evaluation. One issue from one of the FE colleges was that TXT language might appear in assignments, but in reality there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that this Is happening.

MoLeNET are doing a research project that would generate much further data. They’re doing quite a lot of qualitative data collection at the moment. They expect to put quite a lot of this information on their web site, along with their research questions.

No HEIs had been involved in MoLeNET, although there was some possibility that Universities could act as a partner in a consortium.
And that was it. Except for filling in the evaluation form, which required a pen and paper. How very Twentieth Century!

HEFCE E-Learning Benchmarking

E-learning Benchmarking evaluation day

Programme contexts and outcomes

The day started with a brief outline of the programme from Derek Morrison & Terry Mayes, who have been very active in managing the programme. Derek started by giving us a bit of history. The benchmarking programme started in 2005 amid some concern, and even anger about about centralised initiatives. HEFCE attempted to listen to this and the programme was one result and the feeling was that the programme had made something of a difference since 2005. The irony in the fact that the UKEU collapse had facilitated the pathfinder processes did not go unnoticed
77 institutions participated
37 pathfinder projects
27 in phase 2

The aim had been to make available opportunities for participation across the wider sector, and that was still going on. We want to move away from the idea that HEFCE does things for us – we are the people who do it. The sector offers itself advice and support. A key part of the programme had been the idea of critical friends, for example offering consultancy on the bemchmarking process, or in the projects They had been a little nervous about the idea of critical friends but in fact this had gone down extremely well in general. There had been rigorous institutional reflection and analysis of e-learning provision and practice across the sector and the emphasis on ownership by the institutions rather than prescription by the centre had guaranteed confidentiality and trust . A drawback though is that this makes it rather difficult to extract sector level messages that national bodies such as HEFCE and QAA can take on


Reports will be published on the Pathfinder web site. Terry didn’t tell us where this was, and an admittedly superficial Google search didn’t find it either. (Nor could I find it by searching the HEFCE site!) He did say that reading them you could not help but be struck by how different they seem from ordinary project reports. They seemed to be genuinely about capacity building abd often built on weaknesses as strengths. Derek had noted that they had found the model of using critical friends for projects a bit worrying, but they had been able to bring a lot of critical support to the projects – and this is one of the most important outcomes

Finally a model of collaboration between institutions (like CAMEL – ) was another output and this too emerges from the reports.
Institutional Perspectives

Next up we had brief presentations from six of the institutions who did get pathfinder funding on the theme of how benchmarking helped in the preparation for subsequent institutional developments?
University of Chester – Jethro Newton

The approach at Chester was that they took quite a strategic approach. In 2005 at the start of the programme there was a low level of embededness. Some engagement with technology but not much on pedagogy. Jethro pointed out, quite rightly I think that context is important – you never start from a blank sheet. And you’ve got to remember that content and pedagogy more important than technology. Interestingly one of their outcomes was that they developed a learning technology unit, along with a group of E-learning coordinators. I wasn’t quite clear whether these were based in faculties or in the unit itself, and unfortunately there was very little time for questions at the end. Their actual project was around podcasting and rather than talk about it, here’s the web link.

They felt that their outcomes were that they had achieve clearer targets in faculty business planning, and they were managing to offer better staff development through the Learning Technology Unit.

University of Glamorgan – Virendra Mistry

This project seemed to be at quite a strategic level too. They started with a statement from their vice chancellor that the university aimed for highest standard of e-learning, tutor facilitation and cutting edge learning facilities.

Their outcomes were based around engendering design, Measurement, data collection, collegial spirit, mapping, changing practice, informing policy and they now have a statement about what students can expect in terms of e-learning. They now have much more of a focus on learning and teaching, and are conducting an institutional review. Interestingly they were the only university who is talking about developing the scholarship of Benchmarking. For example they planned to take some of the data collection into journals

Barbara Newland
Bournemouth University

Bournemouth had produced an institutional Review document, which had helped them focus on where they were at that point in time, and this had helped them to produce actions , provided an opportunity to Benchmark with other institutions, developed and understanding of how they were using Blackboard and helped them understand senior management perspectives. They had found the timescale a bit of a challenge as well as the need to develop a single response.

The programme helped develop staff support and e-resources. They’d developed something called E-res. It was about E-learning with quality e-resources – using web 2.0

They felt that it would be useful to revisit pathfinder although a little bit of extra funding would be nice. One of their aims was to recognise the experience of implementing, supporting and researching e-learning within their central services

Maria Lee – Queens University Belfast

Pretty much what Barbara said. Their pathfinder had been mainly used to support campus based learning. Participation was timely for them, coinciding with development of new education strategy and assessment policy. It had confirmed the approach of embedding e-learning and provided an emerging vision of how e-learning will support their goals. Having said that blurring boundaries between campus based e-learning and distance learning are changing the concept of blended learning and they are planning to develop an e-learning policy in 2008-9

Sue Timmis
University of Bristol

This was a very interesting presentation in that Bristol was a university that had Very strong disciplnary cultures. They had had a central e-learning unit since early 1990s, a strong tradition of innovation ,and were an early adopter of Blackboard (Since 2000). But, they didn’t have an educational development unit. E-learning requires differentiated strategies based on cultural contexts and knowledge fields. They wanted to find a way of giving faculties more say in how e-learning is embedded and already had a framework called ELTI – Embedding learning technologies institutionally. They adapted this framework to look specifically about what was happening in each of their departments which provided a real drive towards faculty based support for e-learning, although it was probably true to say that faculties were not thinking about e-learning or teaching and learning in any strategic way. So their project was to support faculties in embedding e-learning. They had created a distributed model by providing satellite areas of expertise in all the faculties. Their pathfinder project had been based around a set of faculty focussed strategic projects? One, for example was using Tablet PCs and evaluating their use, another around maths support in the science faculty. Students were coming in with poor level of maths – so e-learning materials being developed to deal with this. The Faculty of Arts had been looking at use of Turnitin/Blackboard plug in at a strategic level. They had also just formed an Education Support Unit – includes e-learning. (This is something that may be worth following up for my own research)

Brian Sayer,
University of London External

They took a structured approach to reviewing teaching and learning in a research led institute. Already quite deeply immersed in mainstream e-learning. Rather than take an institutional perspective they went straight in at programme level. Interestingly they said they wanted to take an Open Source approach. They provided the opportunity for programmes to take a wholly owned perspective of their teaching and learning activity. Institutionally the exercise provided a useful reminder of their strengths in this area, and areas for improvement, helped them to clarify institutional responsibility for policy and processes, and to actively collaborate in dissemination of best practice, and to improve awareness and understanding of their e-learning strategy, planning and infrastructure. They were also considering minimum standards for eLearning.
HEFCE Perspectives

Next up we had a talk from Dr. John Selby from HEFCE. I couldn’t help noticing the onteresting equation of “Educational developer” with “people who do the technical development” at the beginning of the talk. Anyway he felt that the challenge is to get those people who were reaching out to academic staff (i.e. educational developers) realise that they had new ways to do it. But also there is a need for the developers to ask what their target audience needed and why.

He also had some reservations about the programme’s title. They were not pathfinders but trailblazers. However, they had had an important impact on HEFCE ‘s thinking. But that thinking is also influenced by the external context, with issues like differential fees, questions about value for money and different modes of delivery being important. It’s important to assess how the work that is going on in e-learning connects to the wider environment, and how what we are doing is perceived outside higher education. There is a risk that eLearning seen by outsiders as a way of cutting costs (and reducing contact hours)

He reminded us that we are a very diverse sector and suggested that benchmarking was one way of addressing this. There remains a need for a comprehensive view of the e-learning landscape in the sector with markers that enable institutions to position themselves and plan their development in particular directions. He qualified this by pointing out that HEFCE needs to be careful what it says and bear in mind how it will be heard. And the sector should not read too much into what they say. (In some circumstances anyway)

He then made an interesting observation about students use of technology. For all we talk about the Google Generation, there is actually quite a limited use of anything beyond the basic technology Virtually all students use Word processing and the Internet, but for other important technologies, the figures were something like Presentation development 65%, Spreadsheets 63%, Graphics 49%, Creating web pages 25%. Which raises the questions of whether investment yields interest and if it does what kind of return does it produce. The most fundamental point to come out of all the case studies is that the appropriate use of technology is leading to improved satisfaction, retention and achievement. It facilitate increases in the size of the operation without corresponding increases in the estate. He also pointed out that in fact we are e-mature in the sense that it is no longer possible to work as we do without technology. In a while we’ll be able to stop talking about e-learning (Arguably we’re already there) Technologies are embedded in social structures and systems and the technology needs to take account of them.

How do we connect the work we do into the senior management of institutions? Many quite senior people who don’t know what we do, and think of us as a cost rather than a benefit.
The afternoon consisted of breakout sessions and a panel discussion. The first one I attended was entitled “Learner experience and the student voice.”

First there was a presentation from the University of Bradford, who started from the premise that there are high levels of technology ownership and concomitant social expectations of technology. This raises all sorts of issues about for example staff training, rules and regulations, security, communication, establishing contacts, networking and student perceptions of e-assessment

Their project was about developing the extended student, and based around social networking, skills development activities. links with academic programmes and providing integrated support, around a social site called “Ning”. – you can see the site at and there is background information Outcomes of this is that they have created a social network, improved their PDP processes, embedded student voice into their institutional Strategy. They’ve also provided a sort of digital storytelling area, building on current you tube content – Bradford students will be telling their story – what’s it like to be a student in the C21

Next we heard about Pathfinder at Wolverhampton

This was about embedding the concept of the e-portfolio at level 1. They were using PebblePad, to do this, but their challenge was how to move past “champions” and getting staff to support e-learning and specifically e-portfolios. They created teams of mentors, and used the e-portfolio through the system. But they did acknowledge that it was important to assess the question of whether PDP was culturally desirable, or feasible? They built in 3 retreats for staff involved and used them to explain the desirability and feasibility but they also felt it was very important to get in with the students and talk to them.

Staff and students see things as chunks of learning – modularity tends to work against students and staff seeing a holistic experience. So modularity can be a bit of a problem

1) Change takes time.
2) Listen to the learner voice
3) Listen to the staff too.

But be careful “I don’t like Pebble Pad” might actually mean that “The member of staff didn’t tell me what to do” Big measure of success was an “improved student experience” I asked how they knew how they’d improved the student experience and they said that they had conducted a variety of evaluations which had had very positive feedback, but that they also had quantitative data that suggested a considerable improvement in student grades.
Then we heard from Rhona Sharpe from Oxford Brookes whose project was also based around evaluation of the learner experience, looking particularly at patterns and preferences in online media use and at experiences of social software as part of the curriculum. They found that local data was much more powerful in communicating with colleagues (Interesting that most on-campus students study at home with their own laptops and that there was a relatively low use of VLEs at Oxford Brookes.) Their findings had led them to shift their course design to a much more learner centred view. – From VLE to PLE (personal learning environment) – they had a nice graphic of a dashboard for the student – although I suppose if you think about it the concept isn’t all that different from Blackboard’s “My sites” “My PDP” and “My timetable” They’re also using Ning.

The second breakout session was about the in class use of mobile technologies to support formative assessment and feedback

Tim Linsey from Kingston University described how they had used a variety of mobile technologies in the classroom, supporting members of staff with mentors to discuss how to use it. The staff and mentors met up every few weeks to exchange experience and both parties found this useful. Among the technologies used were electronic voting systems, inbound text messages, (to a mobile phone). Tablet PCs & wireless data projectors (This was effectively taking the interactive whiteboard a bit further as the lecturer could move around and students could interact with the presentation. They also tried to use interactive pads (whatever they might be!) But they found them too finicky and no-one used them in anger.

Students reported that they were able to focus their learning on areas of weakness, and diminish misunderstandings, that it was easier to give responses, and it was possible to discuss a wider range of interactions. They also felt a greater sense of involvement from because they could see group feedback in real time.

Staff, found the process useful for identifying misconceptions and challenges, adapting their teaching practices, enhanced and assessment and feedback, and delivering enhanced teaching.

The project also provided information about the most appropriate conditions in which can each technology be used, the impact they have on learning and on teaching practices. Curiously only 1 person used the text messaging which surprised the project team as this was the simplest to set up

Some of the other findings were that the time to set up this kind of technology can be an issue
Very positive about the role of mentors. But students also responded very positively. 84% would like other lecturers to use it. 89.3% wanted their current lecturer to continue to use it and the general feedback from students was that they wanted even more of this kind interaction.
Then we heard from Phil Gravestock – University of Worcestershire whose project was about digital storytelling. They don’t hang about with this, getting their students to start three days after arrival! The benefits were that it was low tech, easy to learn, accessible. Students don’t have to work at learning technology to get started. There was a nice quote from one of the students “Story without digital works, but digital without story doesn’t”. The point is that technology not important, narrative is

We were then shown a couple of the stories – they were very simple audio-visual presentations in which the students told us something about themselves. The images were often crude and the text hard to read, but the narratives were quite powerful.

But the point here is that students need help with the story not the technology. They can do the technology anyway.

Finally we heard from Richard Hall of De Montfort University
Their project was about making institutional sense of web 2.0. But they too were clear that this was not about technology, but about empowerment. They had developed podcasts that move face to face sessions forward, and provided synchronous classrooms related to social networking tools, and were using wikis for variouys activities. Their philosophy seemed to be based on the premise that we’re using 21st century technology in a 19th century pedagogical context. I think they may have a point, even if there’s some hyperbole in that remark

He also raised an interesting question “Do we assess the affective side of education, do we even engage with it?” He used sound clips too in his presentation and s one of the students said (sounding quite surprised) “I was doing more, getting more involved in it, and actually started enjoying it”

Students seemed to enjoy the flexibility. They want academic staff to make savvy decisions For example if you do use web 2.0 what’s your strategy if it stops being available.