Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 16 May 2009   Monday, May 11, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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Stairway to online collaboration: The APT STAIRS project
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Stairway to online collaboration: The APT STAIRS project
by Sarah Sherman

Introduction
There is no doubt that next generation web technologies and practices (e.g. Web 2.0 tools) present exciting opportunities to enrich teaching, learning and research in Higher and Further Education. However, this potential has not been fully realised beyond those users known as the early adopters. To get the majority of users signed up to using these innovative tools effectively, there is a need for a more user-focused approach to their implementation. This is the premise that led the Bloomsbury Colleges to promote Appropriate and Practical Technologies (APT), to encourage all users to be sufficiently competent and confident in adopting new approaches to their working practices. Through JISC-funding, the Colleges were able to implement a cross-Bloomsbury initiative to improve staff and students’ ICT skills and encourage collaboration.
 
Background
The Bloomsbury Colleges comprise six internationally renowned HE institutions within the University of London: Birkbeck; Institute of Education (IOE); London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM); Royal Veterinary College (RVC); School of Pharmacy; and School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). The colleges collectively teach over 15,000 undergraduate and 14,000 postgraduate students (HESA 2005/05). They work together as a consortium on a number of projects; one of the most successful being the Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE).
 
The BLE is a shared Blackboard environment and the first example of a cross-institutional implementation of the Blackboard Academic Suite in the UK. Each of the five colleges involved in this partnership has its own unique BLE interface, but the consortium is managed under one licence. The joint collaboration provides many benefits including sharing technical support, pedagogical expertise, cost efficiencies on licence fees and collaborative funding opportunities. The colleges also share costs for the remote hosting of Blackboard, freeing up their dependency on IT infrastructures and support.
 
The APT STAIRS model
In the summer of 2008, a Bloomsbury-wide survey was conducted involving students and staff (both academic and non-academic), to gauge the use of web-based technologies. Although the opportunities offered by technology have grown significantly, it was observed across the colleges that the average lecturer or researcher struggles to keep up with these developments. Lectures delivered by PowerPoint and learning materials uploaded to Blackboard are about as innovative as it gets for the majority of staff. Meanwhile many of the Bloomsbury learners, identified as "digital natives" by Marc Prensky (2001), are often fully conversant with the social applications of technology. However, their confident use of the technology, including multi-tasking, flexible and independent working, often does not sit comfortably with the lecturers’ more limited technical abilities. This has resulted in a perceived “mismatch” between the different stakeholders, reducing the benefit that could be derived from effective use of Web 2.0 and other technologies.

Figure 1: Cartoon showing the Technology Gap between Lecturer and Student

Figure 1: The 'Technology Gap'

As Figure 1 illustrates, the lecturer and student are separated by a 'technology gap'. Whilst each might be happy using some forms of technology (the lecturer may be familiar with Microsoft PowerPoint for example, while the student is accustomed to using Facebook), these different tools do not allow them to benefit from the potential to coordinate efforts, collaborate or communicate.
 
In order to respond to the barriers in the adoption of new technology, the colleges secured funding from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), through the Users and Innovation programme, to implement scalable and practical solutions that addressed the collective needs of their user groups. Due to the wide variety of backgrounds of their staff and student population, the colleges can be said to represent a microcosm of the educational sector. For example, there are young, technology-aware researchers; large numbers of international students;and mature, part-time and evening students. From the data collected in the survey, three Bloomsbury "personas" were developed to describe a generic academic, administrator and researcher – these can be downloaded from the project website.
 
The project
The project, APT STAIRS (Appropriate & Practical Technologies for Students, Teachers, Administrators and Researchers), applied a simple step-by-step model to introduce new technologies that were agile, inclusive, rapid and relevant. The team used Google Docs as a first step to bridging the technological gap between lecturer and student. Google Docs is an online collaborative word processing and spreadsheet software application. It resides on Google's infrastructure, is freely available, well developed and has a user-friendly interface. It was selected because of its potential to both extend the lecturers’ use of ICT and to develop the students’ collaborative skills (Figure 2).

  Figure 2: Cartoon demonstrating how Google docs could be a first step to bridging the technological gap between lecturer and student
Figure 2: Google Docs as a first step to bridging the technological gap between lecturer and student
 
Demonstrator projects
With support from Google, the first phase of the project examined seven exemplars of using Google Docs to support and enhance the work of stakeholder groups. For example, the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has a library at each of its two campuses, which are 20 miles apart. Staff at each library experimented with Google Docs forms and spreadsheets to create a new database for library book suggestions and orders. A book suggestion form (Figure 3) was placed on the RVC intranet for all students and staff to complete. This fed into a spreadsheet shared amongst the RVC library team across both campuses. The exercise worked well and the libraries have continued to use the tools since the end of the project.  
 

Figure 3: New library book suggestions form at the Royal Vetinerary College

Figure 3: New library book suggestions form at the Royal Vetinerary College

 
A second project at the RVC enabled first year veterinary students, who have to organise a total of six farm placements throughout the year, to share their experiences using the word processing application in Google Docs. This information was edited and shared amongst the participating students to help them reflect on their experiences and plan their next placements.
 
A lecturer from Birkbeck College arranged for his Practical Biology students to enter the results of their lab experiments into a shared Google Doc spreadsheet (Figure 4), using Eee Pc's bought especially for the purpose. Previously, the students in this lab class wrote down their results on paper which the lecturer then had to collate prior to the next class. This project demonstrated the value of collaboration and showed the benefits of academics and students working together. Instead of waiting to review the results with students the following week, the lecturer was able to stop the class, review the results and discuss the findings then and there. This made the learning experience for students more immediate and real. 
 

Figure 4: Google Doc spreadsheet used in Practical Biology class at Birkbeck College.

Figure 4: Google Doc spreadsheet used in practical biology class at Birkbeck College

 
The London International Development Centre (LIDC) is a collaborative initiative bringing together social and natural scientists from across the Bloomsbury Colleges.  LIDC undertakes original interdisciplinary research and training to tackle complex problems in international development. LIDC uses a dedicated area in Blackboard to store documents, materials and podcasts for members’ use only.  In order to collect membership information, a Google Docs form was created and distributed as the registration form for members. The associated Google Docs spreadsheet housed all membership data fed directly in from the form.  APT STAIRS supported the set-up of this project, which has become part of the LIDC’s business process.
 
Technical developments
The second phase of the APT STAIRS project was to enhance Google Docs, based on user-needs, by introducing new technical developments that the open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in Google applications allow. A search-engine was developed for the LIDC enabling members to search the membership database to find common research interests. The LIDC search engine was placed within Blackboard, so its use was restricted to members. The search engine is now available as a stand-alone tool for the whole educational community.
 
 
At the time of writing, the APT STAIRS project team is currently developing several Google Docs templates that can be used in an education setting. These are hoped to be the first to be added to Google’s template database once it is opened up for contributions from users.
 
APT STAIRS was funded by JISC for 15 months, but the Bloomsbury Colleges view the successful project as the start of a climb towards progressive use of new technologies. For further information about the project, please visit the project website.
 
 
Sarah Sherman
APT STAIRS Project Manager
s.sherman@bloomsbury.ac.uk
 
References
Prensky, M (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants On the Horizon. NCB University Press, 9(5)
 

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