Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 11 January 2008   Friday, January 25, 2008

ISSN 1748-3603

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by Mark Toole

Seattle, venue for the 2007 EDUCAUSE conference, is mainly known for three things: Microsoft, coffee and rain. Surely no where else would include an umbrella in the conference bag of goodies? By the end of the week the weather had cleared to reveal glorious lakes, islands and mountains and we were supping coffee like the natives. EDUCAUSE is a microcosm of the US: big (over 7,000 delegates); diverse (often there were a dozen or so sessions in parallel); and busy (the first sessions started just after 8am, the last finished after 6pm). A report such as this can only give a flavour of the event from one perspective.

Figure 1: Delegates at the EDUCAUSE conference

One recurring theme throughout was reference to the recent EDUCAUSE Centre for Applied Research (ECAR) survey of US undergraduates’ use of IT and how it might inform the development of services. As befits any modern conference, 'Net generation' or 'millennial' students were phrases which spiced almost every session and discussion. Another widely used phrase was 'authentic learning experiences'; that is, the use of technology to provide a learning environment that relates to real world problems and solutions.

Figure 2: Brian Hawkins, outgoing EDUCAUSE President

I heard lots of talk about integrating learning and teaching materials with Facebook, but it the extent to which this is actually taking place is less clear, and there appears to be little evidence of success or otherwise in improving the learning experience. Podcasting appears to be widespread and growing in Higher Education (HE) (although still mainly as audio versions of lectures). Most of the use of web 2.0 tools and services to support learning and teaching seems to be at the level of an individual academic using externally hosted tools. However, Marist College is gaining a national reputation for developing and supporting teaching activities using web 2.0 at an institutional level. Their 'learning interactions framework' is essentially a method to try and ensure that projects are educationally, rather than technologically driven. The controversial element of their approach is their 'production' stage. After a successful pilot, the aim is only to roll out software or services that are reliable and scaleable across the institution; this can result in some projects which look good during pilot being rejected or different tools being adopted. Two key elements here are that any new tool must properly integrate into the existing college learning environment and data privacy must be protected by ensuring that the college retains control of any personal data used. Often, they will 'take the tool inhouse', which means hosting the service at the college. 
Education development staff at McGill University in Montreal made the intersting observation that while most education development staff strongly believe in the social constructivist model of learning, most staff development programmes consist of workshops and handouts in 'traditional HE teaching style'. At McGill they have completely revised their staff development with a cross-functional team of pedagogic and technical staff. Their aim is to provide individualised, flexible, competency-based learning, varying the methodology and with a view that staff development is not a series of 'one off' events but a long term partnership between support staff and individual academics. 'Most appropriate and effective use of technology' is the strap line.


Figure 3: Bruce Schneier

Some US universities are experimenting with using social bookmarking. Many early adopters (at the institutional level) are working Blackboard Scholar in particular.  Potential academic use of social bookmarks include: highlighting library resources specific to a course or discipline; supporting collaborative projects; and professional development (sharing of resources). Echoing research from Teeside University in a session that I attended at ALT-C, it seems that few students use social bookmark tools in their general use of the web, so awareness and focus on the benefits are important before asking students to use them.
A phrase that I had not come across before is 'Digital Field Assignments'; these are defined as 'research assignments in which students collect and analyse data using digital technologies'. They are used to introduce undergraduates to research techniques and methodologies and to ensure that students get an opportunity to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom. I attended a presentation by representatives at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore which described a number of case studies. All involved students capturing multimedia material in the local area (e.g. photos and sounds of wildlife on campus, photos of public art work in the city centre, audio and video interviews with local experts) and these being deposited electronically for other students to critique as well as the academic staff; in one project the work of a number of cohorts over the years is used to form the basis of longitudinal analysis. The feedback from these project is positive: the students were very engaged, this appears to be a good method of handling large class sizes and good examples of teamwork were observed.
Apparently there were five or six sessions during the conference looking at various aspects of 'virtual worlds' (in all cases, I believe, Second Life); these sessions were all full to capacity. I went to one of these hosted by 'experienced' teachers in this area. It appears we can categorise the current learning and teaching uses so far in Second Life into three areas. The first is courses where there is a 'natural fit' (e.g. those on emerging technologies, gaming or virtual worlds). The second is where the use of virtual worlds as a communication medium are explored. The third is for simulation of activities that are difficult, expensive or dangerous for the untrained to undertake in the real world  (e.g.  using equipment such as a hospital operating theatre, exploring processes (e.g. how a heart works and what happens when stimuli change), urban design & planning and business (starting and managing)). There are virtual worlds other than Second Life; the panellists thought that there is likely to be an emerging “niche virtual world market” rather than a lot of general virtual worlds. Someone categorised the opportunity of using virtual worlds as a good tool to allow students to work in a different environment which will help them to take a fresh look at their own real world environment.
Ah yes, Microsoft. I attended a one day pre-conference symposium at Microsoft’s HQ at Redmond with 400 other HE delegates. Microsoft spent a lot of time saying how much they valued HE and that their organisation was turning into a listening and partnering one ('customer driven innovation'). I have to say that this did not quite square with the format of the day which consisted of seven hours of lectures with no question & answer or feedback opportunities!
Microsoft are now deploying a twin strategy for HE. For the institution and staff they are promoting software hosted on institutional servers. The major tools they are expecting institutions to use here are Office, Exchange, Outlook (now including voice mail, video conferencing and Instant Messaging (IM) integration) and SharePoint. 'I’ve seen the future and it’s called SharePoint' was pretty much the theme of the day; SharePoint was promoted as the tool for supporting collaboration across the institution and beyond. At the end of the day they even showed a mock up of SharePoint forms made to look, and behave, like a VLE.
The second arm of Microsoft’s strategy for HE is the provision of hosted services mainly focused on (peripatetic) students under the umbrella of 'Microsoft Live @ edu' suite which was formally launched at the symposium. This is effectively an integration of a number of other Microsoft hosted services which are available from any Internet connected device: email (with 5Gb inboxes); password protected storage accessible anywhere (a 'virtual USB drive'); calendaring; instant messaging; and 'Workspace'. The latter is aimed at collaboration between students and enables sharing of documents with version control and access controls using the familiar Office tools.
I came away from my week in Seattle with much to ponder. A major dilemma over the next few years will be how best to manage the mix of institutionally hosted services and tools and those hosted by external organisations so as to enhance learning and teaching without creating undue risks and inequalities. The protection and privacy of student and staff data is an important element in this new world which appears to have received little publicity or discussion to date. I still do not “get” the application of Second Life in learning and teaching except in niche cases and I am worrying whether I should! Are student expectations changing as much and as rapidly as many suggest and, if so, have we got organisations and the people that can make that transition?
Mark Toole
University of Brighton

Pictures courtesy of Gardner Campbell

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