Author Archives: sdiamond

Envisioning future learning platforms

By Susannah Diamond and Stuart Hepplestone, Academic Innovation.

Change is inevitable for the e-learning platforms and tools we constantly use.  For example, students are increasing familiar with a range of Web 2.0 tools, businesses expect interns and graduates to have a certain level of preparedness and digital fluency, and staff are becoming aware of the new requirements for digital fluency.  However, web 2.0 tools are not the only changes becoming possible alternative tools to the commercial Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).  There is debate among leading voices about the future of the VLE in education (see for example, Steve Wheeler’s post: The VLE Sucks). Models proposed include replacing the commercial VLE with freely available Web 2.0 tools, with Open Source VLE software created by the educational sector, or with externally hosted applications (see Cloud Computing made simple).  

Enticing alternatives beyond the chains of the VLE?

Enticing alternatives beyond the chains of the VLE? Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Whatever happens, it’s important for us to be aware of the possibilities for and implications of change.  Whilst such alternatives may seem enticing in comparison to the restrictions of commercial VLEs, these alternatives need to be brought into critical focus and evaluated.  Here is a shortlist of issues:

  • Inclusivity and diversity. There will always be a range of preferences, trends and expectations among students from those comfortable in embracing and remixing with their online personalities across both their social, working and academic lives, as compared to those who welcome the safety and transparency represented by the institutional VLE. Likewise we cannot expect staff to be familiar with all the different tools, so there needs to be a compromise position that allows flexibility for students but does not put undue expectations on staff.
  • Practicalities. In practical terms, the institutional VLE requires large investment of staff support time, but provides a consistent service and set of tools available to all staff and students. At the same time the online tools and mobile technologies are overtaking the VLE in their attractiveness, ease of use and functionality. These provide powerful incentives for allowing flexibility where appropriate. However the use of Web 2.0 tools raises further issues of privacy, reliability of the service, backup of information and security and authentication. And we need to consider access for those students in placement settings where access to social software is restricted.
  • Cost. This will potentially be the major driver for change. In an age of budget cuts, large investment in commercial software will come under increasing scrutiny. The possibilities of using cheaper alternatives such as Web 2.0 and Open Source software seem alluring but have uncertain funding models and hidden costs in terms of support. Also, there are likely costs for staff and students in the time taken in evaluating and choosing from a diverse range of options. 

Final thoughts: Surely there’s the possibility of an optimal compromise here, taking the best elements from commercial, open source, Web 2.0 options. We need the reliability of locked down software for mission-critical aspects of enrolment and accreditation. If, as seems likely, cost becomes an overriding issue for the sector, the major Open Source players seem to have achieved maturity as affordable and well-supported options. And in terms of flexibility, staff and students will use 3rd party software on the web as and when they feel confident and competent to do so. As educational developers, we’ll continue to encourage staff and students towards digital fluency, maintain awareness of the evolving landscapes of options, and be ready to recommend change if we spot a tipping point.


Challenges to media advocacy

By Susannah Diamond and Andrew Middleton, Academic Innovation

Media in their hands: Over the last five years digital media has become easy to produce using everyday gadgets and software, and is easy to share through YouTube and similar sites – in the outside world at least. Staff and students at Sheffield Hallam and beyond, as ‘user-generators’ of media, are demonstrating the benefits that media-enhanced approaches can bring to teaching and learning.  Audio feedback and student podcast assignments are two of many techniques being used here.

Intervention required: However, our ongoing work in this area leads us to believe that universities and colleges are struggling to make the most of the opportunity because their infrastructures still present too many barriers to most staff and students.  The problem is that in comparison to the days when academics were dependent upon specialist production units, user-generation of media places quite different demands on the institution. For example, technologies inside university for user-generation of media should be as click-and-play as the tools that many now experience at home when they are not studying. Institution-wide support for user-generated, media-enhanced approaches to learning needs to be underpinned by a wide range of organisational, technological, and cultural elements, and the opportunities and associated requirements need to be understood by all the people responsible for these elements. Otherwise the danger is that investment in obsolete approaches or services may continue.

Challenged:  Having identified the issues, our next step is to become advocates for change – both in our internal strategic roles, and externally across the sector.  We have been working together on the topic of ‘Media Infrastructures’ for some time, consulting others in the HE sector, and writing and presenting on the topic.  As a result of a workshop at Alt-C 2009, we were recently asked to run something similar at a JISC regional event.  This seemed like a good opportunity to push our ideas forward, particularly as we’d been set a challenge to create a tool that could make the issues explicit for senior management across the sector after leadership and co-ordination was identified as an important stumbling block at a meeting of the Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes Special Interest Group at the University of Leicester last year.

A cartoon about the difficulties of sharing media within the university.

Outcomes: In the process of preparing for the workshop we tried to find a good way of communicating the challenge facing institutions using various visualisation techniques including diagrams, a grid-based matrix, and even a cartoon. We concluded that face to face conversations are the most useful way to communicate the issues, but that a briefing doc and an evaluation tool could be used by others to assess their own institutional context and press for change.  The workshop (see presentation) was a waymarker in producing this briefing doc, and provided positive feedback on its usefulness as an effective communication tool on which to base further work.

Learning about learning

Categorisation of survey responses

At an Ideas Exchange event on 25th Nov 09 in the Health and Wellbeing (HWB) Faculty, the Creative Development Team conducted an informal survey. We asked staff and students at the event to identify a memorably successful learning (or teaching) experience, and tell us why it was valuable. Continue reading

Do we want sustainability in education?

‘The main problem is not knowing what to do, it is mustering the desire to do it.’
(Jonathon Rowe, 2000)

responsible coffeeSustainability seems to crop up everywhere these days: sustainability of student recruitment; sustainability in digital curation; sustainability of economic growth. As the UK flounders in recession, and universities consider job cuts, the idea of sustainability suddenly seems appealing. Indeed, irrespective of economic factors, there is arguably more need than ever to change society to a more sustainable footing, and education is beginning to shape up to the challenge. Although momentum towards ‘greening’ of campus infrastructure and processes is evident (e.g. Green League Table and Transition Universities), progress towards embedding sustainability in the Higher Education (HE) curriculum and learning experience remains patchy and contentious. See for example, the article entitled Keep the green moral agenda off campus. I’ll return to Butcher’s opinions at various points, but first I’ll introduce some of the concepts and consider some of the factors affecting staff attitudes across the board. I’ll begin with myself though: Continue reading