Category Archives: Articles

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.


Approaches to staff development

By Brian Irwin

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

I recently attended the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference in Swansea. One thing that I paid special attention to at the conference was the approaches to staff development in e-learning used at other institutions.

The University of Twente was migrating from one virtual learning environment (VLE) to Blackboard, and they wanted a staff development programme which would give lots of personal attention for academics and help them master the necessary skills. The solution they had was to employ part-time a group of 20+ students to meet individually with academics. These students taught them how to use the new software and helped them migrate content from the old VLE to the new one. This proved an effective strategy for their migration, but they had only 400 staff members that needed this level of support. This suggests there might be problems with scaling this approach to a larger university such as Sheffield Hallam. In addition the professional development tended to focus on technical matters. While this is important as a first step, advice on using the technology for effective teaching is probably beyond the natural intuition of most student employees.

The University of Alberta faced the challenge of low attendance at staff development events around e-learning. They tried many approaches to making them more attractive and convenient such as making sessions shorter and providing online resources. However, they decided to experiment recently with the opposite approach – making it a bigger commitment. By running an ‘e-learning academy’ for a week in the summer, with a required commitment to participate all week, they were able to get. Activities in the academy allowed staff to apply conceptual frameworks for e-learning to their own practice, then experiment hands-on with the tools in a supported environment towards the end of the week. Having this larger commitment which you got more out of was appealing to many staff, and they filled up all the places they offered. This sounds an interesting prospect, but I wonder about how transferable it is away from North America. In North American universities lecturers finish teaching responsibilities much earlier and as a result have more free time in the summer. Many actually aren’t employed officially all summer. In the UK there is a smaller period where staff have few scheduled responsibilities, and many will take annual leave during that time. However, there is a possibility worth exploring around a part-online academy concept to offer flexibility for staff members if they cannot commit to a whole week worth of staff development.

Another approach was taken by the Southwest Wales Partnership, which included three institutions. Each institution has only one or two staff members supporting e-learning. So they have a partnership and share some of their staff development programmes across the staff at all three institutions. At Sheffield Hallam the faculties employ their own staff to support e-learning. If they work together it could extend the opportunities for our staff beyond the resources of each faculty, but there are issues around cost and equity which would need to be resolved.

In the Southwest Wales Partnership the e-learning staff joined-up activities were paid for from a central fund rather than by each institution. One final approach that was highlighted was at Aberystwyth University. They have been pulling together case studies of various uses of e-learning. They are available at The case studies they have are in different formats, but we have been working on creating case studies with a consistent level of information. I’m not sure which is best, as it is probably quicker to get inconsistent case studies, but there is a question of if they provide all the information needed when inconsistent.

So this raises the question of if we should try any of these approaches or other new ones inspired by these at Hallam.

How would I, as a student, want academic innovation to affect my studies?

As a student I didn’t really know much about the Learning and Teaching Institute (LTI) and even less about Academic Innovation. However, after spending the placement year of my Computer Networks course working in the Academic Innovation team I’ve come to realise just how important it is for producing employable and informed graduates.

Academic Innovation seems to be based around several key themes: e-learning, digital fluency, and new and emerging technology and pedagogy. Creativity is also an important strand to the work of the Academic Innovation team.

Take digital fluency as an example. This isn’t just being able to use technology; it’s about being able to critically decide how to trust information, when to use technology and what technology is appropriate. Since many employers rely on their graduates to help them decide on the best way to make use of technology, the ability to critically evaluate technology is a valuable graduate skill.

Developing an awareness of new and emerging technologies is essential for most graduates, particularly those on my type of course. If lecturers make use of new and emerging technology in their modules, and provide students with the opportunity to do the same, then students will be better prepared for careers where they need to always be on the cutting edge of technology. Not only that, but courses that make use of new and emerging technology can add variety and depth to the way students are taught and assessed.

Courses that support and use e-learning are often more engaging than those that don’t. Students can learn when they want, where they want, and fairly recent developments in technology have opened up whole new ways to be assessed and learn, one example of which would be wikis. Knowing that there are many ways to learn, students can find the approach that suits them best, and take that knowledge with them through life.

Creative thinking leads to innovation and is a key theme throughout all of these topics. I feel that if a course helps to prepare a student to be creative academically they will have a strong foundation for creativity in the world of work, which can only be a good thing.

Charles – LTI Placement Student

Challenging the media curriculum

By Keith Radley
Keith is currently on a part-time secondment teaching Journalism

The 21st century continues to question new concepts and impose demands on the way higher education curricula is delivered. In 2001 Prensky wrote about how the needs of today’s student learner have radically changed, demanding more emphasis on the use of digital technology within the curriculum. Traditionally in media and journalism subjects, theory takes priority over practice, with the view that theory plays a fundamental role in underpinning the learning. However, in the developing world of digital communication for students to be successful in their future chosen subjects, as well as understanding the related theories, they must be able to master the technologies that enable the creation and publishing of digital formats. Continue reading

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

Encouraging innovation

By Brian Irwin, Academic Innovation

Recently I came across this article about innovation on CNN –

Though it focuses on business innovators and inventors, it made me think what can we take away from it and apply to our context in terms of innovation in teaching and learning practices.

Firstly it talks about innovators putting things together in new and different ways that other people have not thought about.  However, it strikes me that innovation in teaching practice is a much more personal and practical thing in terms of context.  For instance, if you do something that you have never done before but lots of other people have done, then that is still innovation for you.  I don’t think it should be every teacher’s goal to do things that no one has ever tried before, but instead to try things that make sense for their situation.

Later it says that innovators think outside the box and try to challenge themselves by learning new things from outside their area.  This seems counter to some beliefs that teaching ideas should be tailored to the specific needs of a subject group or course team.  Ideas that are tailored might receive the warmest welcome from a group, but other ideas which are from completely different areas might help spark creativity more.

Next in the article it discusses the idea that creativity is learned – if you practice being creative, you will be more creative.  How often do many of us do the sorts of activities they recommend, like writing lots of different questions about a particular problem over time to get the best questions about it?  This is something I am going to try soon.

Finally the article talks about the need for talking to different people outside of your usual circle.  They are the most likely people to help inspire new ideas as they may be doing different things or have another way of looking at problems.  This should help remind us that during events and workshops we need to encourage cross-fertilisation between areas instead of just focusing on one department or faculty.  Of course, there is a need for balance in the types of engagement that are held in order to help encourage relevance and participation.  It also highlights the need for discussion as part of whatever we do – encouraging folks to talk together and share ideas rather than having a one-to-many type of dissemination model.

I’d welcome others’ thoughts on how we can encourage this type of creative and innovative approach to working.

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