At Monday’s Mobile Learning conference, I had little idea of what to expect from a session entitled “Even august” by Melissa Highton from the Learning Technologies Group at the University of Oxford. However, since I visited Adam Marshall at the same institution for some VLE research I was carrying out this year, I’ve been very intrigued by the adoption of learning technologies at Oxford.
The title, in fact, came from this brief excerpt from the Demos Edgeless University report, which I blogged about here.
“Even august institutions such as University of Oxford now produce podcasts.”
Melissa speculated briefly on the sentiments that might lie behind such a statement (is the very idea of Open Oxford an oxymoron?) before turning her attention to the complexities of the relationship between mobile learning and a 900 year old university that is almost defined by its physical estate. The quads; the punts; the Bodleian… all of this combines to form an environment that students have deliberately chosen, and they don’t want Oxford to mess with it.
And yet, once you start delving into the learning technology initiatives underway there, you start having to re-examine your preconceptions of what Oxford University really is. For a start, 15,000 people a year participate in one of Oxford’s Continuing Education courses. Whilst the commercial VLEs can’t be adopted by an institution where the underpinning concept of a module has no meaning (this was one of the findings of my conversation with Adam Marshall), Oxford is instead making good use of collaborative data environments and academics and students work together in them. It shouldn’t be surprising, as Melissa pointed out, that world-class academics and students researching in a world-class institution should be making use of world-class technologies.
For me though, the real surprises lie in the fundamentals of the institution and how eminently suitable they are to a model for elearning. As Melissa explained, at Oxford the pedagogy is based largely on small group teaching plus extensive one-to-one contact. Lectures are entirely optional at Oxford, negotiated with your tutor on the basis of your individual learning life. In this intensive environment, as many as half of the students may be publishing in peer review journals by their final undergraduate year. Meanwhile, dozens of research lectures, open to all, take place every evening, as Oxford’s researchers communicate their latest findings.
As Melissa underlined her mission of ensuring that Oxford’s students are free range and find their own paths through the immersive learning environment, it became clear to me that Oxford is the template for Education 2.0. If online learning could replicate that model, it would attain its own ideal, in my opinion.
To reinforce the idea of Oxford as an institution that really gets the whole 2.0 thing, Melissa outlined four projects currently underway:
iTunes U: 200 of Oxford academics are willingly recording their free talks onto podcasts, 500 of which, covering all disciplines, are now freely available on iTunes U as well as on a non-proprietary portal. They hit one million downloads after 44 weeks. The academics readily understand that tthis is an appropriate way of communicating their knowledge. Meanwhile the Centre adds value in terms of metadata, technical standards, legal sign-off and workflows.
Erewhon: Using geo data, around 1300 locations have been mapped in Oxford. As a result, students can now identify, using their mobile device, the nearest available copy of a book on their reading list, bearing mind the user entitlement to and opening hours of the library, and also the distance between the student’s current location and specific libraries.
Steeple Project: An aggregated podcast fed around the big questions and topics.
Open Spires: Large chunks of Oxford content, licensed as Open Educational Resources, thus facilitating reuse.
What you get, then, is mobile learning, personalised but not isolated, in the context of a vibrant learning community. So all in all, Oxford University may be set in its physical location, but there’s a recognition that its content and learners are mobile, informed by a sense of place, as Melissa summarised.