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Oxford University 2.0

CILIP logoAt 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.

Mobile learning: The bigger picture

CILIP logoIf anyone ever delivered the bigger picture at a conference, it was John Traxler from University of Wolverhampton. The insights came so thick and fast at one point that I struggled to take them in.

Traxler’s opening point was that mobile learning can enable us to take learning to communities that are out of reach in any one of a number of ways. This can be geographical – there are parts of Southern Africa where there is only infrequent mains electricity, for example. But constituents such as NEETs (disengaged 18-24 year olds who are in neither the formal education system or employment) are closer to home.

With such users, though, there’s a risk of what Traxler calls the “deficit model” or using technology to make up for something not there. Whereas we want to use technologies to transform enrich and extend the education experience. In a PDA pilot study, supporting fieldwork in the Lake District, the immediate value of preserving data when it rains (no soaking wet paper) were overshadowed by more transformational benefits – on the same field study, data was collected, and because mobile devices were in use, analysis on the fly was enabled, and as a result, participants were able to take more measurements in situ on the basis of findings thus far.

Traxler also gave a very realistic picture of the challenges that mobile learning faces at the current juncture. Adoption has not scaled. Instead, all we’ve seen over the past few years is small projects, with small groups of enthusiasts. Not all projects receiving funding have proven sustainable, and in the new funding climate, we need to be measured and stop throwing money at education in the vague hope that it will get better.

He also made some very interesting observations about the nature of mobile devices themselves. One problem, Traxler explains, is that mobile devices are (paradoxically) fixed in nature – you can’t plug things into them. What this means is that iPods, PlayStation consoles, SatNav devices and so on all have a dedicated purpose. You can’t turn a sat nav into an MP3 player, for example. Contrast that with the multi-purpose PC. This is very problematic for elearning. Related to this, mobile technology currently lacks the stability of PC platforms, and so we can’t build onto the device in the same way that we can with a PC.

Andy Powell from Eduserv noted that with the iPhone, the application store is the plug-in. So in this instance, it is software that is providing the plugability rather than hardware. He added that larger devices are now browser-enabled, so that may turn out to be the universal element that transforms the possibilities for mobile devices in education.

The past present and future of mobile learning

CILIP logoJohn Trinder from University of Glasgow rattled through some key historical developments in mobile technology from Apple’s Newton MessagePad in 1993 onwards, but once he’d listed some of the array of mobile devices available in 2009, it was time for a second key message of the CILIP Multimedia and Technology Group Annual Conference – namely, that there’s no “best” mobile technology; there’s only the best one for a specific context.

He spoke about a recent project at University of Glasgow, evaluating students’ use of mobile devices through automatic logging. He reinforced a point that many of us are aware of – students aren’t as techno-savvy as they may appear or claim. They also have limited pocket space (I’m assuming that this applies only to male students) and this can be a problem if the institution gives a mobile device to its students for learning purposes, because if some other mobile device comes into fashion, then the institutional device can find itself relegated into oblivion. This is what happened on this project when the iPod came along.

John spoke engagingly about a number of emerging technologies that are impacting the use of mobile devices, including QR codes, RFID, GPS and Augmented Reality. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in going home and trying out Augmented Reality technology on the web for myself. John believes that Augmented Reality in particular will give mobile devices a kick, and get many more people interested in them.

He also had some harsh words to say about the obstacles to widespread adoption of mobile learning in Higher Education. He believes that development by committee is endemic in the sector, but in reality, there’s just not the time for this. He also asked the audience whether they had an Innovation Prevention department in their institution. A number of people shouted out “Yes! IT!”

On the other hand, he advised sensitivity towards the possibility that fear of technology may drive students away immediately and possibly permanently. Today’s student body is very much a diverse one, and we have to take into account varying degrees of comfort with mobile devices.

Mobile learning: What exactly is it?

CILIP logoThe CILIP Multimedia & Technology Group Annual Conference, which took place yesterday at Aston University (a 10 minute train journey for me – just what the doctor ordered on a Monday morning), posed the question “Mobile learning: what exactly is it?”. And Mike Sharples from University of Nottingham, the man who wrote the definition on Wikipedia, was on hand with an immediate answer:

Any sort of learning that happens when the learner is not at a fixed, predetermined location, or learning that happens when the learner takes advantage of the learning opportunities offered by mobile technologies.

But thankfully we didn’t simply pack our bags at that point, as Mike (and the speakers who followed) had a lot more value to deliver.

For a start, as Mike elaborated, mobile learning is a lot older than you think. There have been exemplars of hand-held devices in classrooms for decades now, and according to Mike, mobile learning is in its third phase of development, which is characterised as “ambient learning”, or taking the every day world and enhancing it. The application of augmented reality technologies to the learning environment is a good example of this.

My important take-away from Mike’s session, though, was the need to focus on new types of learning experiences, and not just enhance current experiences. This was one of those uber-messages that subsequent speakers and contributors from the floor build on throughout an event.

By way of example, Mike outlined a series of classroom scenarios. In the first, three students are engaged in a face-to-face group activity. It’s difficult to coordinate the collaboration, and there’s a strong possibility (almost an inevitability) that one person will dominate the group. This certainly resonates with me. In the second scenario, the same group now has one computer at its disposal. The group is now becoming more manageable. But invariably there’ll be one person driving, so genuine team dynamics remain elusive. In the final scenario, though, the three students all have their own mobile devices, and that’s where the fun begins…

The teacher now sets a problem, and the problem goes onto all the devices. The individual thinks for a while, formulates an answer on a strictly individual basis, and once OK is pressed, everyone can see everyone else’s answer. The group dynamic now kicks in, and everyone comes together and agrees on a shared answer. This could be one of the individual answers, or could be a new group one. The group proposal is sent to the teacher. The teacher may ask anyone to defend the group answer (just in case any one team member is tempted to take a back seat at this point).

From the audience came a very valid answer, namely, what advantage does this mobile device approach have over pen and paper? Apparently, it’s more motivating, but actually a comparative study has been carried out around this very scenario, and apparently the problem with paper was essentially one of lack of coordination – getting everyone to complete the task. The orchestration element makes the difference. Iteration is also powerful – the teacher gets a full record of the interaction.

As someone who has consistently found group work to be alternately de-energising and frustrating, I was very interested to hear about the application of technologies to tackle the sapping passivity that group work can so easily engender.

It’s also worth noting that at ALT-C earlier this month, Terry Anderson made the valuable point that group work in its current form in academia in no way replicates real-world interactions.

Considering the academic library at the 2009 JISC conference

I was pleased to see that JISC had put most of the content of last week’s JISC Conference 2009 onto their website. I’ve spent some time this week listening to the content and there’s quite a lot in there for university libraries, if you, like me, were unable to get to Edinburgh for the event itself.

Obviously, I selected the session entitled Towards the academic library of the future first. Sarah Porter from JISC introduced the session, sharing her perception that academic libraries have now reached a tipping point in terms of many of the pressures and issues we’ve all been aware of for some time. So bearing in mind the pressures she itemised, namely:
* the challenge to scholarly publishing that is Open Access.
* How to support research in the data deluge.
* The changing demographics and how to support the teacher in that.
… the question is, how can the academic library support the academic endeavour in a positive way?

With this in mind, Mark Brown from University of Southampton explored potential roles for the academic library, noting that increasingly they are acting as trusted curators of content as individuals and institutions collaborate. This gives the library a publishing role, around institutional repositories, curation of digital content and involvement with open content. David Kay from Project TILE pointed out in the same session that the library has some amazing business intelligence around activities on the network, and wondered whether it could perform a role of aggregating that intelligence. This is a vision that Talis certainly shares, with our developers working at optimising the value of user transactional data for applications such as Prism 3.

However, Mark Brown questioned whether the prevalence of information exchange made the role of the library problematic even if the traditional mediating role remained intact. There are so much activities and data that is now bypassing the library (and not just the old bête noire Google).
It was cheering to hear that Professor Derek Law, who has been working on the Libraries Horizon Scan, thinks that libraries have never been better managed, funded or staffed than at present. And yet, academic libraries are not engaging with the academy as much as they need to. Going back to the pressures that Sarah Porter identified, we can see that there are layers to this engagement – the lecturer, the researcher as well as the student. Law noted that the academy continues to build libraries, spending millions, almost as an act of faith, and it’s worth pondering why, taking into account the sheer weight of evidence about changing user demands.

The session Mind the gap: understanding the tensions between the institution and the learner provided a useful summary of the characteristics of today’s student. Rhona Sharpe from Oxford Brookes University described the complex lives that many learners are living. One student she spoke to has 3 part-time jobs and is only a full-time students for 2 days a week. So visible robust reliable resources are needed to enable them to access stuff any time they like and students are critical of complex applications that are difficult to navigate. Time is a huge restraint in their lives, and is particularly problematic for students with disabilities.

Going back to the Towards the academic library of the future session, listening to Professor Hector MacQueen from Edinburgh Law School served as a powerful reminder of the amount of change to which the university library has succeeded in adapting in the past few decades. Describing research at the start of his career as “very physical”, he recalled being highly dependent on the library, and indeed on a multitude of libraries around the country. He needed to get himself to far-flung libraries on a fairly regularly basis to access material that wasn’t available via inter-library loans. This was frustrating, expensive and tiring. We surely wouldn’t want to go back to subjecting our researchers to those experiences.

And yet, even though the imperative to manage those scarce resources has now gone away, we are still spending a lot of time managing legacy systems, as David Kay remarked. This reflects the fact that the local model of delivery has not adjusted to that change.

It was definitely useful to catch up on the adoption of eBooks in higher education in the JISC e-Books observatory project session. The project, as many of you will be aware, has been exploring in real time what students are doing now with eBooks and many of the findings are extremely interesting with regard to the academic library. 61% of students said they’d used an eBook at some point, but only 47% had used on that had been provided by their library. As Ian Rowlings himself pointed out, that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt because people don’t necessarily realise where stuff comes from.

Librarians were found to be very positive in a measured way, and the overwhelming consensus was characterised as being one of “cautious optimism”. The most cited benefits of eBooks were the need to support part-time / distance learners, and the ability to manage intense peaks of demand for materials, which has long been a problem for libraries and students alike.

The project found, for example, that male undergrads felt much less dependent on the library but happier with their own ability to go out and buy stuff. This reflects a broader reality – namely that printed and electronic books are currently enjoying a complementary relationship. There was no impact on circulation statistics with the availability of eBooks, and neither was there any impact on sales of printed books.

Another interesting outcome was that deep log analysis showed that the majority of users went through the library website and the OPAC to access eBooks.

The conference also had a session on Making the most of your physical learning spaces. Les Watson from JISC highlighted the importance of student opinion, wondering whether it will be more important one day than a visit from the QAA. It’s all about student satisfaction and happiness, and buildings and spaces are an important part of that. I recently visited University of Bradford, where I studied for my first degree. As is the case with many universities, extensive work has been carried out on the main university foyer. To the right of the foyer, back in the day, there used to be a carpark. However that has now been replaced by a gorgeous looking atrium. What really makes that space, which is used by many students as an informal learning space, is the quality of light. The roof is basically made of the same material as the Eden Project in Cornwall, and this gives a great feel not just of light but also of space. The provision of this space was seen as a priority by a university that has large numbers of muslim students for whom social spaces based on alcohol are wholly inappropriate. It’s a very popular space for all students, and even attracts students from Bradford College.

So although this session wasn’t library-specific, it said things that are useful for libraries to take on board. Brett Bligh from University of Nottingham warned against the tyranny of heavy use. These spaces are expensive so often usage is seen as the key justification. But we need to look more closely at how they’re being used. He said that we need to move from a top down approach to learning spaces, where people at the top spend vast amounts of money on learning spaces and students are expected to say how good they are. And we need to transition to a situation in which students might have some scope to design that space for themselves. From the floor, Penny Charlish-Jackson, Head of Learning Resource Centres and Teaching Accommodation at University of Hertfordshire, made the point that students, at the end of the day, will decide how to use that space, and so we should avoid over-evaluating. Brett qualified this, by saying that the less formal the space, the harder the evaluation gets.

In the same session, John Tuck, Director of Library Services at Royal Holloway described their newly transformed library space. The vision had been “a pilot development of a 21st century social learning, café-style space”, with a range of group learning environments from open plan to private (accommodating different styles from conversational to group learning)plus some silent study spaces, with varied seating, giving students the ability to shape their own environment as they work.
Students were invited to join a Facebook group called “Love your library” and were encouraged to post their likes and dislikes of the current library service. This generated significant interest and impacted plans e.g. led to a scaling down of the café element.

They were delighted to see that students moved in with immediate effect and adopted it as their space, which was wonderful, but formal evaluative mechanisms were put in place as well.
Students have mixed feelings about the change, although footfall has increased significantly at varying times of day and there is apparently a palpable buzz about the place at all times. Qualitative feedback is very interesting. One student said “If I were at a library in the future, I imagine that this is what it would feel like.” But others are less enthusiastic. There’s a feeling in some quarters that investment should be focused on provision of 24/7 ubiquitous good quality information resources, for example.

Derek Law had a powerful if painful message for academic librarians when he spoke of the need to move up to the macro level and stop navel-gazing. This resonated, sadly, as there had been much more focus on the library role than on the difference that libraries could make to the external environment. His statement “I’d rather channel the change than simply measure it” is something that we should all be taking on board. He recommended greater advocacy activities – talking to vice-chancellors and the other stakeholders who set the budgets, and asking them what they want to get out of libraries. I remember how hard this was when I myself was a Head of Library Services (in the special libraries sector). But if I’m going to be honest, I also remember one occasion missing a crucial point when presenting a business case for a new library system to the Managing Director. And this happened because I’d become over-preoccupied with internal library considerations, and the big picture (as well as my view of the impact of change on other parts of the organisation) had become skewed as a result.

Google Analytics to analyse student course activity – Tony Hirst Talks with Talis

Tony Hirst Tony Hirst, of the Open University Department of Communications and Systems, was recognised at the Online Information Conference 2008 for his work promoting new technologies in education by being presented with a commendation in the IWR Information Professional of the Year Award.

The award took place at the end of the first day of the Online Information Conference 2008.  Earlier in the day Tony delivered a presentation entitled “Course Analytics – using Google Analytics to understand student behaviour in an online Open University course”

I caught up with Tony just after his award  and we retired to a side room to discuss what he had learnt from work with Google Analytics.


Picture of Tony published on Flickr by MrGluSniffer

Vendors respond robustly to critical HE LMS report

20080603113327194.pdf Vendors respond robustly to critical HE LMS report is the headline on the front of the latest issue of the CILIP Gazette.  What follows is the second in a two-part feature on the JISC/SCONUL study, which I have discussed in Panlibus previously, by Gazette contributor Tim Buckley Owen.

In preparation for this second article on the subject, Tim contacted the four vendors (Ex Libris, Innovative, SirsDynix, Talis) who between them provide over 90% of the UK higher education Library Systems, and asked them to comment on the report.

I would have linked to the article if it been available on line.  Unfortunately the Gazette’s web page only shows an out of date thumbnail of the latest issue.  So, here are some snippets from Tim’s article:

[the vendors] acknowledge that things need to change in university libraries, and are starting to develop new systems as a result – but it’s not always clear yet what those changes actually need to be.

‘We agree that the library management system, with its “traditional” scope and functionality, does not adequately address the expectations of end users,’ says Tamar Sadeh of ExLibris, which has developed its Primo discovery and delivery solution in response.  ‘If the LMS does not interoperate with other institutional systems and resources, it deserves to be bypassed and become irrelevant,’ agrees Talis’s Richard Wallis

‘There is no disagreement that users’ demand for information is morphing in new and exciting ways and that the library (and library systems) need to change to meet those needs,’ agrees Gene Shimshock of Innovative.  ‘However, interoperability is but a part of a rather complicated puzzle, a means to an end, and is not the sole factor in determining libraries’ relevancy.’

Stephen Abram of SirsiDynix shares this view.  ‘You can build all this stuff but you actually have to align it with the way the users are behaving… there is no one right answer right now – and that no one right answer is the challenge for librarians.’

So what’s the solution?  Open application programming interfaces (API), says SirsiDynix’s Abram, with the vendor providing the toolkit and the librarians choosing the tools to meet their clients variegated needs.

‘Can we as vendors create appropriate solutions?  No,’ he declares.  ‘Can our clients, in a collaboration environment, using our tools, create them?  Yes.’

Talis’s Wallis agrees that open systems are the way forward.  ‘The current monolithic model and a lack of web based APIs and standards has led to an effective vendor lock-in… a lack of real competition, thus a lack of innovation and inevitably frustrated customers.’

The study proposes that JISC & SCONUL are best placed to ensure that the libraries and vendors agree on priorities.  As Tim says:

– and vendors are hardly likely to disagree.

‘Any initiative that moves our understanding of the problems (and opportunities) for the library forward in a meaningful way is always welcomed,’ says Innovative’s Shimshock, citing his own company’s work on the emerging Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative (SUSHI).  ‘We would welcome the ability to engage at a consortial level with important and influential organizations such as JISC and SCONUL that can work with their constituent members,’ agrees ExLibris’s Sadeh.

But there are some caveats.  ‘Looking at the programmes of the recent JISC and upcoming SCONUL conferences the role of vendors seems to be viewed by organizers as sponsors of drinks receptions rather than active participants in the debate,’ declares Richard Wallis of Talis.  ‘Our hope is that representative bodies as JISC and SCONUL find a way to constructively and openly collaborate with all stakeholders.’

Libraries, bodies such as JISC & SCONUL, the system vendors, and I would include the open source community, are all important stakeholders in the way libraries and the technologies and services they use develop over the next few years.  It is for all these stakeholders to agree in a conversation of equals as to the way forward.  The old ways of either libraries broadcasting requirements, or vendors individually coming up with ‘the new way to do things’ in the hope that everyone will move to their systems, did not and even more will not move us forward.  What is needed is a requirements, solutions, innovation sharing, and visionary, but also focused on practicalities, conversation – let’s hope it emerges from burst of activity following the publishing of this study.

The vendors, the type of library, and their issues, are not limited to the UK HE community.  They are replicated on a global scale.  Libraries and other interested parties outside of the UK, should be watching this closely – it could well save time and repetition in their own conversations with the same stakeholders in their locations – hopefully leading to a global conversation.

Egotistical note:  Those of you with sharp eyes may have noticed a picture of yours truly on the front cover of this issue of the Gazette.  Through a happy coincidence of editorial deadlines, I am not only quoted in Tim’s headline article on page one, but I am also to be found on page two introducing the Library 2.0 Gang.  I suppose they will have to name this one the Wallis issue!

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Libraries are the Future


Libraries are the Future, or that is the implication of the the new JISC initiative – Libraries of the Future. The initiative was trumpeted at the JISC 2008 Conference in Birmingham last week, which I commented about previously.  There was some good stuff that came out of the conference, not least this.  Checking out the Libraries of the Future site you get this overview of where they are coming from.

In an information world in which Google apparently offers us everything, what place is there for the traditional, and even the digital, library? In a library environment which is increasingly moving to the delivery of online rather than print resources, what of the academic library’s traditional place at the heart of campus life?

What about the impact of repositories and open access on the delivery of library resources? And the need to digitise and make more widely accessible key scholarly resources? And what of the calls for libraries to play a central role in the promotion of ‘information literacy’?

Through ‘Libraries of the Future’, JISC is hoping to explore these and many other questions, to open up – with partner organisations and librarians themselves – a debate about the future of the academic and research library.

To coincide with the launch, yesterday’s Guardian contains an eight page supplement Libraries unleashed, produced in association with JISC.  The print version has lots of nice pictures in addition to all the text in the online version.

Lots of good reading in here, not just about technology, the articles on buildings and spaces are interesting as well.  One particular paragraph caught my eye, quoting Dr Ian Rowlands from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (Ciber), in Wendy Wallace’s article Information Alert.

"There is a clear message that young people have not been taught to construct a proper search and evaluate the results. Libraries are spending a fortune on premium content, but fundamental skills are lacking."

Surely we should be investing in the development of the discovery and delivery tools for this premium content, so that you don’t need training to use it.  If you need to train users to use your system, you have probably failed the usability test.

The Libraries are the future theme is something I picked up on whilst at the JISC 2008 conference.  I get the feeling that the drift away from libraries providing and guiding access to information that serves the scholar and the researcher – Learning Management Systems/eLearning, archives, repositories etc., being set up and run away from the library – may well start to be reversed as folks realise the need for information management and librarian skills in these areas.

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