ALT-C 2008

I am at the Association for Learning Technology conference (ALT-C 2008) until Thursday. It’s the main UK conference for my area of work and the first time I have attended. I went to two pre-conference sessions today, as well as the F-ALT08 evening planning and discussion.

There’s a CrowdVine site for the conference, which is working very well to connect people both before and at the conference and the F-ALT08 wiki has been useful for pulling people together. I am proud to wear the official fringe badge.

This morning, I attended the Experiencing Mobile Learning and Assessment workshop at Leeds Metropolitan University. Three people spoke, really just introducing the themes for the afternoon sessions and giving a largely predicatable overview of the issues surrounding mobile learning and assessment. The afternoon sesssions looked good, but I left to attend the OpenSim, a pre-Second Life taster workshop. This was worthwhile as I’ve not really engaged with Second Life and we were able to trial some basic features of virtual worlds by using OpenSim running on the desktop machines rather than over the net.  Using Second Life still doesn’t appeal to me personally, but I can see that it has some useful applications for role-playing different situations which are otherwise difficult to emulate in real life.  I was mostly interested in OpenSim itself as an open source response to Linden Lab’s Second Life and will install it when I get back to work for other colleagues to test a Second Life-like environment prior to jumping into Second Life itself.

After registration and checking into the accomodation, I had some food and a wander around the sponsoring organisation’s stalls in the main hall. There were a couple of useful finds, notably that Learning Objects, Inc. are extending their wiki plugin, Teams LX,  for use outside of the Blackboard VLE, basically providing a wiki-farm tool with fine access controls, including fully public. I’m currently on the look out for a wiki that’s as good as WordPressMU is for blogging. Confluence is currently my favourite, having used it extensively over the last few years. If anyone has any other suggestions, please let me know.

Finally, the F-ALT08 gathering in the student union bar was a decent way to end the day. Good to meet people, get a badge and talk loosely about the work we do. The session this evening was about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), namely the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course which started today with over 1600 registered ‘participants’.

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge is a twelve week course that will explore the concepts of connectivism and connective knowledge and explore their application as a framework for theories of teaching and learning. It will outline a connectivist understanding of educational systems of the future. This course will help participants make sense of the transformative impact of technology in teaching and learning over the last decade. The voices calling for reform do so from many perspectives, with some suggesting ‘new learners’ require different learning models, others suggesting reform is needed due to globalization and increased competition, and still others suggesting technology is the salvation for the shortfalls evident in the system today. While each of these views tell us about the need for change, they overlook the primary reasons why change is required.

Apparently only about 15 people are registered for credit.  George Siemens, one of the two facilitators of the course is attending the conference, so I expect we’ll hear more about the MOOC over the next day or so. On the whole, most F-ALT attendees were sceptical about the value and longevity of MOOCs although I think it’s an interesting idea and hope it is a success, though how that is measured, I’m not sure. On an individual level, I think that with some effort, a lot could be gained from the 12 weeks of participation and reflective assignments. From my own experience of the Linux community over the last few years, I’m convinced of the benefits that can arise from participating in large, distributed, open and focused communities. Hopefully, these characteristics can also be developed in an educational context like the MOOC.

Web 2.0 in the workplace

David, who works in the University Research Office, posted this 26 minute video on his blog. It’s a useful overview of how online social media might be used in the workplace (and, by extension, within the HE institution).

I can attest to some of the benefits outlined in the video. In my previous work at Amnesty International, we used Confluence, an open source enterprise wiki that also includes blogging tools, tagging, commenting and meta-searching across disparate wiki spaces.

I used Confluence for managing formal project documentation, updating team members on the outcomes from meetings, providing online help and support documentation, note-taking and bookmarking useful external resources. As a wiki, it was useful for drafting documentation and inviting others (from around the world) to contribute and comment. Other staff could also subscribe to RSS feeds and receive email alerts when pages they were interested in were updated. As a result, I’m currently looking at how Confluence might be useful to project teams here at the university.

One of the difficulties staff had with using the wiki was the transition from writing in MS Word to writing directly to the wiki. To begin with, staff would write in Word and then upload documents to the wiki, which is a very unproductive way of working. Fortunately, Confluence can export to Word, PDF and other formats, so that documents created in Confluence could be ‘taken’ from the wiki and used elsewhere. The only other issue I recall was that the wiki was seen as yet another application to login to, but this problem eased as more staff used Confluence and other Intranet applications for their own work and were permanently logged into the Intranet each day, anyway.

Open Educational Resources

This list of open courseware resources came up on a delicious news feed this morning. It’s quite a comprehensive list and usefully laid out.  If that leaves you hungry for more, try ZaidLearn’s page which lists many more resources.

But wait! If you’re looking for something specific and just want to search for that lesson on “Python programming“, then you’ll want to use Tony Hirst’s customised search, which searches over ZaidLearn’s collection of links.

Even better, Scott Leslie has created the Open Educational Resources Dynamic Search Engine. The OER search engine uses Google’s Custom Search widget to search all of ZaidLearn’s links and because it’s a wiki, anyone can add to the links which the widget searches.  It’s an inspired use of a wiki and it works well. Comparing the two with my ‘Python programming’ search I get more results back from Tony Hirst’s search page. Maybe Scott stripped some of the links? I don’t know.

UPDATE: I have just found, via Twitter, ccLearn, “a division of Creative Commons which is dedicated to realizing the full potential of the Internet to support open learning and open educational resources (OER).” They have a Universal Education Search project and search engine.

Session 2: Social Networking

Carrying on from the morning’s Web 2.0 session, in the afternoon I attended a session on how social networking tools are being developed for and integrated into repositories.

Jane Hunter, from the University of Queensland, discussed the HarvANA project, a system which supports and exploits repository users’ tags, comments and other annotations through the development of separate collections of user contributed metadata. It seems like an interesting and ultimately useful idea, acknowledging the ‘added value’ that user annotations can make to repository objects. Significantly,users can annotate sections of text, images and other media, allowing annotations to be created for parts of the repository object, rather than just the whole.

David Millard, from The University of Southampton, presented the Faroes project, a development of EPrints for teachers wishing to deposit learning resources. He said that their experience on previous projects had shown that users were not interested in nor required content packaging standards and that repository user interfaces needed to provide similar functionality to other repositories such as Flickr and YouTube. Their project aims to provide a simple, attractive interface to EPrints (called ‘PuffinShare’) aimed at teachers sharing documents, images and other single files (or ‘learning assets’), rather than packages of learning objects. It looked like a great project, highlighting some of the challenges we’ve faced on the LIROLEM project and one which I think we would be interested in trying. A public beta is due this summer. He pointed out that the growth of Web 2.0 is due to the popularity of personal services (Flickr, YouTube, Delicious), which also have an optional, additional social value to them, too.

Carol Minton, from the National Science Digital Library, discussed the work they have done on embedding Web 2.0 applications such as MediaWiki and WordPress, into their repository service. Essentially, they have created services that link blog articles and wiki pages to repository objects, enriching the objects with these community ‘annotations’.