Virtual Pompeii

I’ve just been reading about the Sydenham Crystal Palace project, a JISC funded project to recreate the Pompeii Court in Second Life. Now it’s been a while since I looked at Second Life, having decided that the requirements for high spec graphics cards, the requirement for users to learn to operate in the world and the (let’s face it) naff quality of the animation made it pretty much a non starter for educational purposes.  It’s quite telling that the project page tells potential users to access the world through a non standard Second Life viewer.

Still, things move on, and I was interested  to see that JISC thought this project worth funding.  Here’s what the project team say they’re trying to do:

The aim of our project has to build a digitised collection of the material that was in the Pompeii Court and to create an interactive online space to house it. Visitors will be able to tour the Court and interact with us, other visitors and the objects on display. In the upcoming phases of the project, we want to compare further how the social and educational experiences offered by our Model compare with the successes and failures of the original Court, which itself was a Victorian experiment in education and reconstruction.

Well, I can see the rationale behind that. The original was a reconstruction, so it makes a sort of sense to reconstruct it again to see if the digital world can offer the same experience. But I don’t see how it can be the same. Virtual Worlds aren’t really 3D experiences, but 2D representations of a 3D world.

What is more problematic though is the experience of being a student. If you accept Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework model, there needs to be an opportunity set out your own conceptions first,  to interact with your teachers so that you can modify your conceptions and then to restate them. Laurillard also points out, rightly I think that academic knowledge is second order, that is, it consists of knowledge of others’ descriptions of the world, rather than of the world itself. A reconstruction tries for first order knowledge – that is to allow students to perceive the world. But actually it’s all based on others’ precepts.

For those reasons, I ‘m not sure that the project will be all that helpful in teaching students about classical civilisation. I do realise that this isn’t exactly what the project is about. There’s quite a lot about art, perception and philosophy built into it, and that’s important, but I’m interested in the pedagogical value of the project, so I am going to talk about that aspect anyway. I’ve never done any formal learning about Roman civilisation myself, (other than  school Latin) but a visit I made  to the real Herculaneum  some years ago did really change my conception of what a Roman town might have been like. I remember being very surprised to discover the atmosphere and the architecture put me much more in mind of a Middle Eastern village, than the classical structures we generally associate with Rome.  Equally, reading Mary Beard’s Pompeii (Which, incidentally is the best non fiction book I’ve read in some time.) made me see Roman life in a different way.  Of course had I been able to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii in, say, AD 78 I would probably have a different set of conceptions again.

My point is that I think claims for the kind of environment that the project is trying to claim are a little overblown. Second Life is not immersive, in the way that a visit to a site, or even reading a book is. Certainly students could be asked to discuss the value of this kind of representation before visiting the simulation, and again after a visit. Expert avatars could be provided at regular times to talk to visitors about these cities, or about the other aspects of the project.  I do wonder about the accessibility issues though – there’s quite a lot of evidence in the literature of students who are using technological applications focusing on operational issues, how to work the thing and so on, rather than learning the content. And how users with disabilities will cope remains to be seen.

Still, I look forward to seeing the evaluation report. Should make for interesting reading.

Repositories Meeting – reflections

I thought it might be useful to try and pick out a few themes from last weeks JISC repositories programme meeting and have a little think about what the programme has achieved, and what implications it might have for the use of the repository at Lincoln.

First there is little doubt that the programme succeeded in creating lots of new repositories of which ours is one. It also brought together a lot of people with a technical background, a lot of people with library backgrounds and even the odd educational developer. (That would be me I suppose!)   But a new phenomenon comes with a new set of problems and the most urgent one facing the meeting was the question of converting the repository from a “project” into a “service.”  From our perspective the question is how do we change the Lincoln Repository (Not its formal name – we’re still working on that at the time of writing) from something that is the concern of a few people meeting together in a room to something that impinges on the institutional consciousness on a scale that, say, Blackboard, does.  How do we ensure that researchers have the confidence to use it. How, for that matter, do we define what research is? 

One potential solution, broadening its constituency to include learning objects was discussed at the meeting,  although not without any conclusion. I have slightly mixed feelings about this, and did raise the question of quality of the learning objects that might be included. Although I know not everyone agrees with me I am not sure that the repository is the appropriate place for a short lived set of Powerpoint slides. The more of this kind of stuff is in the repository, the more “poor results” are going to be turned up by searchers and that might have consequenses for the reputation of the repository. On the other hand, who is going to make decisions about what is of suitable quality? We don’t want to discourage people from using the repository, and if storing a handout or two in it encourages people to deposit their research alongside their teaching materials I can live with it. I’m also sceptical of having multiple collections. When I worked in libraries I could never see the point of having “special collections” separate from the main sequence of books.  All it meant was that things got shelved in the wrong place and nobody could find them.  Anyway  the discussion at the meeting didn’t really resolve the issue, possibly because it isn’t resolvable in a way that will satisfy everyone.  Perhaps the answer lies in the way we manage metadata. Maybe we could hide LOs from Google, limiting them to user only access.

Secondly, and just focussing on research there is the issue of discipline based versus institutional repositories. We had a very interesting presentation on a crystallography repository at Southampton. One of the ways that this had promoted interest among users was by offering subject specific metadata that addressed particular needs within the crystallography community. That of course raises the rather obvious question of why a Southampton based crystallographer would want to use Southampton’s Institutional repository rather than the subject one and I suppose the answer is that the Institutional repository should offer services that the subject one doesn’t. 

That raises the third point – what exactly are the services that an institutional repository can or should offer to its clients. Among the suggestions were easy deposit of material, simple metadata creation, statistical and analytic services, rss and other feeds  – for example, information about who looks at the material in your repository. Of course we already offer some of these and any other ideas would be very welcome!  But really there is another client that we should not ignore, and that is the institution itself. Why should an institution bother with a repository? The real challenge is to produce legible products and evidenced outcomes from the whole programme that sell the idea of the repository to the senior management of the institution. There’s an inevitable chicken and egg air to this though because the repository won’t achieve any tangible outcomes until it gets a critical mass of content. But it won’t get that without a reason for people to use it. So if there’s any lesson to take from the two days it that’s we have (as a community) done a tremendous amount of hard work, and achieved a great deal. Only thing is…

… the REALLY hard work begins now.

Oh, and as a mildly amusing aside did you know that there is actually a Repository Road in London SE18. Apparently it leads to HaHa road. Not sure what to make of that!  (I’m not making this up – check out David Flander’s blog for proof!)

Plugged into the mains again!

My laptop, that is, not me! Just had three very interesting sessions about working with the repository community, working with repository developers and working with repository stakeholders, followed by two very interesting round table discussions about a) the role of learning objects repositories and b) longer term sustainability of repositories. Fortunately for me, everyone has been gaily twittering away, all afternoon, so if you want to get a picture of the event search twitter for the #rpmeet tag. And I don’t have to write it all up from memory. Isn’t Twitter a wonderful thing?

Repository Advocacy

Just returned from an interesting day about repository advocacy hosted by Bradford University. This is relevant to us, because having set up a repository, (at considerable time and effort and expense) we want people to use it. I’m not going to regale readers with a long account of the day, rather to pick up on some useful themes that emerged.

If you want more details the slides from the presentations and notes from the breakout session are now available.

Firstly, what constitutes a successful repository? Well, one with a lot of stuff in it, obviously, but it also needs to meet user requirements which will of course vary according to who is using the repository. One of the presentations was from Julie Allinson and described how the repository software in use at York was meeting a very specific need, in this case, effectively digitising their slide library. Not every repository meets a specific need and one measure of success might be that there are more people using it and in doing so generating more funding. The challenge here is that researchers may be using content in the repository to generate bids, but not really acknowledging it, or even understanding that’s what they are doing. Ideally a successful repository should be deeply embedded in university structure. Another presentation from Shirley Yearwood Jackman explained how Liverpool University had created a role of repository editor and given this to fairly senior academic staff in the various departments. She admitted that this hadn’t worked everywhere, but where it had it had certainly raised the profile of the repository.

We will return to what constitutes effective advocacy later, but there was quite an interesting theme running throughout the day about what the barriers to a successful repository might be. Most of those present thought the very word “repository” itself was unhelpful, and were changing the name of their repository to something like “digital library” Personally I’m not totally convinced by this argument. I think pretending something is something other than it is can be counter productive in the long term. I do agree that the word repository isn’t all that familiar to many users (and sounds slightly medical) but “digital library” can have lots of other meanings, and in any case Lincoln already has an E-library. So if anyone’s got a better name, I’m listening. I suppose the main difference is that the repository is more a library of material produced by the University, whereas the e-library (at least at Lincoln) is mostly made up of things we’ve bought in.

But, that’s perhaps the least important barrier. Rather more to the point is the perennial lack of time, money and staff. There is a continuing need for the repository team to ramp up its efforts, be more structured for example be realistic about the resource that is likely to be required. Rachel Proudfoot from the White Rose Project (a collaboration between three Yorkshire Universities) reminded us that advocacy is much bigger than the project. So, what can we do to get started. One common approach is to mandate deposit, which essentially means that the University makes it a condition of research that material is deposited in the Repository. Rachel thought that this might have some benefit but a there was a danger in setting up a mandate before the university was ready for it. Mandates needs foundations or as she put it you have to have a mandate ready landscape. And you can expect some harrumphing. (At Leeds university about only about 70% of academic staff agreed that they would comply willingly, but equally only 8.5% said they would flatly refuse. A mandate might not lead to a huge rush of deposits, but she gave the example of Glasgow university where it has led to more demand for advocacy work – explaining what it’s all about.

The recommended strategy is to develop as many allies as possible, continue to use multiple routes, be clear about the benefits the repository will bring. Having some sort of demonstration package is worth a great deal. The key seems to be to finding evidence of the repository’s potential and using that to sell it to stakeholders (e.g. the repository as a marketing tool) Find out what pushes the stakeholders buttons. For example, it’s widely accepted that departments within a university have different needs, but so do researchers themselves. End of career researchers might be expected to be less interested than beginning researchers although there is some evidence that some see the repository as an excellent place for storing their academic legacy! But it is a good idea to work on the research students, and find ways to embed the repository into the research management process, even if this does fall short of a full mandate.

Finally there are some technical issues to consider. Metadata is essential to a successful repository but is not something that grabs the attention of many researchers. As Julie said, many academics believe they don’t need or want it but THEY DO! There was some discussion of commercial products such as Symplectic, but nobody present had actually implemented them (I have to admit I hadn’t actually heard of them before, but their web site does look interesting).Another issue that few of those present had been able to address was interoperability with other Campus systems. Ideally, a researcher should be able to add something to the repository from Blackboard with a single click but we are some way away from that yet. Finally, there is the issue of preservation. Most of us are happily using PDFs for our documents but there’s no guarantee that this format will last any longer than any other digital format has done, so although we claim that the repository is a permanent home, for research materials we need to ensure that we have addressed this issue if our advocacy is going to be credible. There was some inconclusive discussion about whether we should adopt the PDF/A format which is designed for longer term archiving.

A very useful day, which if it didn’t provide any instant solutions, probably on account of there not being any, did focus my mind on the fact that while we might have completed the JISC project, the work is really only just beginning.

Great Expectations of ICT – JISC report 2008

Just read this very interesting report on what students expect in terms of ICT provision when they arrive at university.  I did think the methodology was a little questionable in that an on line survey and discussion groups is, by default, going to pick up on students who are inherently more enthusiastic about IT, but bearing that in mind there were some intriguing findings. Not least that

  • Students are fine with Web 2.0 tools as long as they are in control of the environment – they don’t in general want lecturers leading their use of these tools.
  • Students generally are very comfortable with VLEs which do pretty much what is expected of them.
  • There is not much apparent interest in mobile learning
  • Students place very little value on virtual worlds (so my trip to Nottingham last week might have been a bit of a waste of time!)
  • There seems to be a desire for universities to provide training in thinking about the implications of different technologies, than just providing access to different technologies, and training in how to use them.

None of which is all that surprising I suppose. In some ways I think the first finding is the most interesting because it raises some issues about control of the learning environment. When you think about it it fits with the way of thinking that argues that learning is better when the students produce their own learning, rather than consume it.  Although another interesting finding was that relatively few students knew what a wiki was, let alone how to use it, which rather supports the argument that there is a need to think about what you do with information, rather than just how to retrieve it. Haven’t got time to write a longer post about this now, but I might well return to this topic – For the time being the full report is at

Click to access jiscgreatexpectationsfinalreportjune08.pdf

JISC Innovation forum – Some conclusions (part 5)

Now, Sarah Porter is offering some conclusions about the event

The keywords, she thought were

  • Energy
  • Engagement
  • Breadth and Depth Activity
  • Huge Potential for links, sharing findings, knowledge, approaches
  • Conversations

And I think I’m inclined to agree with those.

Points that were raised

How can JISC help

  • institutions embed e-learning
  • Ensure the place of technology in the overall practice/development – scaleability of practice
  • Staff in their changing roles,
  • people to be effective
  • How to make repositories more compelling
  • Balance between deliver an IT service that works and innovation
  • understand the institutional barriers to change and innovations
  • Set standards in terms of mobile, web 2.0
  • provide better access an opportunities
  • institutions achieve sustainability


More on Supporting and understanding user needs

  • Impact of changing demographics
  • digital literacy
  • inclusivity
  • Academics as providers


Some useful stuff about how JISC can help projectts

  • Expert Registry
  • Jisc’s Funding models – are there more imaginative ones
  • Sharing good practice in a competitive environemt
  • Need to engage more institutions
  • Embedding projects – what happens when they finisn
  • Recruiting project staff for JISC funded projects – Pool of CVs>
  • Technical project resumes to help collaboration
  • Address time gap between implementation of technology and what happens when its used

Finally infrastructure issues

  • Joining up with national data sharing initiatives
  • data curation
  • Need to understand and develop shared service modeks
  • Open source and open standards
  • How do we develop a sense of technical authority. What other models exist?
  • How can we make the e-framework more accessible

Finally supporting communities and collaboration issues

  • Break down barriers between e-research
  • What can JISC do to help engage senior managers
  • Sustainability and business models

(Phew!) This was a bit of a gallop through what had come out of the conference. In the short term the web site will be kept open, and people will be able to contribute to the blog. Longer term, there will be some other form of communication structure, but it was suggested that the web sites blogs and wikis (blikis?) might be a good place for this.

And the battery really is fading fast now, so I’m about to sign off.  I plan to add a more reflective post, possibly even with pictures later in the week.


JISC innovation forum, Keele University (part 4)

More liveblogging. The  final Keynote  is from Jason Da Ponte, managing editor, BBC Mobile Platforms, who is talking to us about the BBC and its use of mobile technology.

BBc define mobile as any interaction between the BBC and its audience over a portable device and within a mobile situation

Mobile devices are:-

Personal, immediate and location aware.  Jason thought that there was a lot of untapped potential. He asked how many of us had more than one mobile and how many had used the BBC’s mobile provision.

The BBC are interested in streaming live television to mobiles – technology already available. Should be here in about 2010

But already things like mobile browser service – BBC have recently relaunched their mobile platform making their services more geo-aware. They have over 3 million users

Mobile Rich Media and Broadcasting. This is where they see their future. BBC iPlayer on iPhone and IPod Touch. They’re also doing 3G TV (Whatever that might be!) trials with network operators, and they are really looking forward to a mobile broadcasting future.

Messaging – Admitted that this was a bit rich after the scandals of the previous year, and they’re setting up a new compliance unit. They working on new programme formats, more than just voting, for example, offering alert services which they’re planning to try at the Olympics this year so people will know when events will be taking place

The final platform is the “Out of Home”. This includes the Big screens in cities like Hull and Manchester. They were talking about Bluetooth and wi-fi and QR codes to promote interactivity (although he called QR codes “semacodes” – apologies if this is something different)

Then he raised the matter of web 2.0. He sees this as a way of thinking about how you can build services that get taken up. They identified some fundamental principles between FlickR, You Tube and so on. These are basically –  Straightforward, Functional, Gregarious, Open, Evolving. Web 2.0 apps “invite you in” – which is not how we usually build technology.  How can we apply these principles to what we do in edudcation?

Also, what do we need to have in there? Participation seems important. We want to get people to participate. So is distinctive. If there’s something else that does a similar thing why should they use ours? (Plethora of Blackboard sites, anyone?) Does it do what it says it is going to do? and How personal is the experience.  And if you are part of the web, why do you need to bring things in. Why not just link out to what’s there. Jason thinks this it the most important barrier to innovation that the BBC has faced – people are reluctant to cross this boundaryFinally he’s referring us to this paper about co design

The UK education sector doesn’t score well in collaborating with its users in design. (There’s a theme that is emerging from all these sessions) Co-design is a trial and error style of working, a collaboration, a developmental process, and outcome based. Only the last one of these is particularly comfortable sitting in an institutional context though. (Blackboard, and VLEs generally ring a few bells here). But if there’s any message here it’s “Please Remember Your Users”). His contact details are: –  

One questioner invited Jason to speculate where we might be in 2020. He thought there might be some application specific devices. Apparently every taxi in New York now has a touch screen (although I’m not clear what for, something taxi related no doubt!) and he speculated about things like umbrellas which could deliver weather reports (Again, though, I couldn’t help thinking you’d probably notice if it was raining!) The point is your interaction with this technology would be fleeting. I suppose I could imagine a library shelf end that indicated where related material might be stored for example.

Final question was about whether the BBC had any plans to get involved in mobile learning.  Unfortunately the BBC is in the middle of revising its e-learning strategy and Jason wasn’t really able to answer this. But GCSE Bitesize is available on mobile


We’re currently working on a bid under the recent JISC circular inviting calls for proposals to improve curriculum design processes and the reading around for this is throwing up some interesting material. 

When you start thinking about a higher education curriculum, you realise that the design process has been hijacked into a highly normative and deontic process. You must do this, tick that quality box, get your design validated by some external worthy at a day long meeting in preparation for which several kilograms of paper has been distributed. It’s not that quality assurance is a bad thing. Manifestly, it isn’t. But, I do think we’ve lost sight of why we have curricula in the first place.

Reading around for the bid I was very taken by some blog posts talking about the notion of “edupunk”. This is essentially the idea that education should be designed primarily for learners, not for institutions, and most certainly not for vote seeking politicians. This post in particular was quite thought provoking, (and has given me a nice suggestion for my next book to read)  –

Let’s not get carried away though. Not everyone is impressed. –

But, I do think that there is a danger of focussing so much on technology in HE, whether there for curriculum design or anything else that we lose sight of what it’s for.  And by “technology”, I don’t just mean computers – I mean techniques, processes, and procedures.