Thursday, 10 May 2012

Event Report: White Rose Learning Technologists' Forum

Vortex surfer
Image from arte_molto_brutta_2, under a
CC BY NC-SA 2.0 license
A couple of weeks ago we held another meeting of the White Rose Learning Technologists’ Forum, this time at Sheffield Hallam University.  We first set the Forum up in April last year (2011) in conjunction with the Association for Learning Technology. The aim of setting up the Forum was to try and create an informal network of learning technologists in the Yorkshire and Humberside area, with a view to being able to share ideas, resources, solutions to problems, and also to try and establish our own identity as learning technologists. In short -  to create a regional community of practice.

This was the fourth meeting we have held so far, and was very kindly organised by Robin Gissing from Hallam. Turnout was good - with approximately 30 colleagues from across the region attending, and happily we also had a couple of guests from Edgehill in Merseyside who came to find out a bit more about the group.  Being an informal group  the emphasis is on getting the membership to decide the nature and agenda of the meetings. This has so far been done via shared Google docs, where Forum members can write in suggested sessions and/or volunteer to do these, as well as indicate their intentions to attend. 

At this meeting we had three main presentations. The first of these was given by Nick Jeans from SERO Consulting. Nick presented us with a report on a marvelous project he had been involved in called “Making IT Personal” that had recently been conducted in South Yorkshire . The scheme was funded by the European Union to address a broad remit - to help people understand the opportunities that modern technology has to offer them in their day to lives. The scheme was run by recruiting a group of Digital Outreach Trainers, or DOTs. The DOTs were volunteers from the community, who were themselves comfortable using the technology without being experts, and who were willing to go out and help others. DOTs can become accredited through their participation, with Sheffield College and the Open College Network, which can ultimately lead to taking part in a foundation degree at the College, and a number have gone on to study for degrees at Sheffield Hallam and Leeds Metropolitan Universities, Not only is it a worthy and rewarding scheme, but it also shows an interesting model of peer mentoring.

Next up was James Little, from our School of Nursing and Midwifery.  James outlined an initiative the School had recently embarked upon - to develop a blended learning approach to delivering clinical skills training to practicing nurses. Although a necessary task, conducting the training in the traditional way of holding all-day intensive study days was a highly resource intensive exercise. In addition to being able to offer more study opportunities with the same level of staff resource, they also wished to make a pedagogical shift towards more  student led learning. The way they tackled the problem was to breakdown the two main components of the day - theoretical versus the practical training, and adopt a blended approach whereby the introductory theoretical learning could be undertaken via online learning, offering the nurses the opportunity to work at their own pace, and also identify their own study needs. This in turn enabled the time spent attending actual classroom practical sessions to be better used. James was able to share some of the challenges and issues encountered along the way, but also some very positive feedback from the students. I think the challenge in moving from a traditional to blended type delivery is one that was relevant to many of us in the learning technology discipline, and it was interesting to note that although in the first instance this initiative was prompted by apparent external pressures, it clearly demonstrated that the same pressures provided an excellent opportunity for real pedagogical change too.

The third presentation was by Robin Gissing and Peter Walder, from Sheffield Hallam University.  Peter’s presentation was about something that is quite close to my heart - mobile learning and mobile app development.  There’s lots of reasons why mobile learning can be described as a good thing - the increasing power of mobile devices, the ongoing convergence of ubiquitous computing with the pedagogical drive to provide students with flexible learning opportunities being two of them. But I need to share a moment of candid honesty with you all here - that’s only part of it.... I was brought up in a world and at a time when once a week, several bold crew members of the USS Enterprise would beam down  to an alien planet’s surface, and equipped with such fantastic devices as the Tricorder, would perform various scientific analyses normally under the supervision of Mr Spock - who was of course at the heart of all the best Star Trek episodes. So, as a bit of a closet Trekkie, the idea of going to a strange place, and waving around some portable devices that perform some kind of magic holds great appeal. Dovetailed with this has been my long term interest in the use of e-learning in archaeology, where the requirements and opportunities to provide learning in bizarre alien planet-like fieldwork settings are many. And whilst the ideas behind technology enhanced fieldwork learning on one hand, and mobile devices in the form of PDAs have been around for sometime,  it really  feels like the advent and proliferation of the IOS and Android devices is finally providing the ability to bring both of the above together.

Like many others I suspect, the idea of tapping into this magic was very compelling, and a little while ago I purchased one of those “learn iPhone app development in x hours” books, where in each book hour actually equates to  about 30 earth hours, and whilst it was fascinating, it quite quickly found itself on the “too difficult for now/come back to later” pile.  And it’s at this point my preamble meanders back to Peter’s presentation: Peter had asked himself just how practical and realistic would it be for an academic interested in delivering  some content via a mobile device to actually create a native phone app without having to learn something along the lines of Objective C or some other heavyweight development language. What Peter was able to demonstrate to us was exactly that - Buzztouch. Buzztouch is a web based environment in which by using what are analogous to a series of functional templates and widgets, one can design a native IOS or Android app without recourse to writing any code. And here’s another admission - I actually quite like writing code, but the learning curves encountered above just seemed too steep to negotiate without devoting a very significant amount of time to it. As Peter continued to demonstrate his work, using a case study of a sports medicine learning resource he had created with Robin Gissing and colleagues, the wonderment and amazement around the room was positively palpable - which of itself is quite an achievement amongst an audience of 30 or so experienced learning technologists.

The meeting ended with an announcement from Danny Monaghan from the Learning Technologies Team about the new North of England Blackboard User Group he has been working with colleagues to set up. The first meeting of the group will take place here, at The University of Sheffield, on May 31st, 11 am - 3 pm. 

If anyone is interested in joining the group or finding out more about it, do please feel free to subscribe to the White Rose Learning Technologists JISCMail list. The next meeting will take place on July the 6th, at an as of yet unconfirmed venue, should anyone choose to offer.......



  1. Thanks for sharing the review, Graham - it always sounds like a really useful event for sharing ideas / practice. Great stuff!

  2. Cheers Sarah. It was a great meeting and I'm really looking forward to the next one on 6th July! G



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