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April 27, 2009

PhD proposal latest version – Learning is Designed

I've been overwhelmed by the response to my planned PhD research project. On this basis, if it were a published book I could have already sold over 20 copies, just to the people to whom I have briefly outlined it. Lots of good advice and encouragement. Thanks.

Here's the latest version:

Learning is Designed

This is a time of rapid change in all sectors of formal education and informal learning (for example, within businesses). Some of this change is deliberate and managed, but much of it is un-planned and ad-hoc. Even when an institution introduces a new centrally supported provision, little may be known in advance of its effects and uses. This is particularly true of the introduction of new technologies that enable an un-precedented degree of user-configurability and personalisation - both in virtual and physical space. Teachers and learners are now able to assemble a diversity of learning spaces and tools from an ever increasing range of components (including 'free' general purpose tools such as Facebook). Diversity has been the result, with positive and negative effects. For example, different students following a common course may find themselves using wildly varying tools and approaches. A single undergraduate student might be faced with a confusing degree of variation between approaches used by different tutors. Students from different educational backgrounds, even different schools within the same background, may come to university with very different experiences and skills. And because of the pace of change, a student might find things shifting over their three years as an undergraduate. And to what end? The result could be disruptive. Or alternatively, it might promote a more flexible and adaptive attitude to learning, teaching, research and future employment. It could even provoke an un-foreseen creative response.

Are teachers and learners equipped to cope with this change? What effect is it having? Are there tools and techniques that will help them to become more in control? What can we do to help teachers and students to get the most out of these new possibilities? How might we help them to become more agile? What can we do to bring on the 'creative' response?

This project seeks to address these questions with research activities focused on a leading research university as well as schools, businesses and other places where learners learn and teachers teach. A range of research methods will be employed, including surveys and experimental teaching. In particular, software and techniques drawn from the design and creative industries will be tested to see if they can make a significant difference. The core hypothesis being: adding 'design literacy' to 'information literacy' and 'digital literacy' enables students and teachers to more effectively design their own learning and to harness the true potential of new user-configurable physical and virtual learning spaces and tools.

The project will be undertaken in three phases, each with a distinct methodology:

1. Surveying the current situation and its historical precedents (literature reviews, surveys of students and teachers, interviews).
2. Experimentation with new design-led pedagogies.
3. How to meet the challenge of bringing design-led pedagogies into various educational institutions and curricula, and how to ensure good practice is adopted widely.

The author has well established contacts with several HE institutions at which research will be undertaken (including Warwick, Oxford, Oxford Brookes and Worcester), as well as through the Higher Education Academy (National Teaching Fellowship, subject centres), the CAPITAL Centre and the Reinvention Centre, the Learning Grid and Teaching Grid (user-configurable spaces at Warwick), schools (in the Coventry area) and businesses.

A suite of Apple iMac computers and video cameras has already been assembled for use in the project.

In the second year, substantial funding (up to £200,000) will be sought from the Higher Education Academy to support the use of design-led pedagogies as widely as possible.

About the author:

Robert O'Toole is a PGCE qualified Information and Communication Technology teacher, with 15 years of experience in learning technology and learning design. He has taught at all levels, and is currently the Arts Faculty E-learning Advisor at the University of Warwick.

Robert presents his work to a local, national and international audience, and has strong links with the University of Oxford. He is the recipient of a Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence and the prestigious Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellowship

He has an MSc in Knowledge Based Systems, and attained a first class degree in Philosophy at Warwick.

December 28, 2008

Project plan: future platforms for mobile, blended, research based learning

Follow-up to Abstract for a presentation on future development in support of mobile research based learners from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

IDCM MA is the International Design and Communication MA on which I have been teaching, and which has given me opportunities to try new teaching techniques. It is also the driver behind many of my new ideas.

Click to enlarge...

Future platforms project plan

November 27, 2008

Abstract for a presentation on future development in support of mobile research based learners

An ideal:

Self-directed independent learners. Following divergent paths in creatively responding to a brief. Developing and applying a range of research, technology and communication skills. Finding and using many resources, drawn from an extensive and rich range of sources, and precisely identifying their meaning and context. Scrupulously citing authorship and attributing intellectual property where deserved. Negotiating, evaluating and recording varying roles and contributions within collaborative student-student working arrangements. Convincingly communicating the end result within required formats, styles and conventions. Guided throughout by a firm sense of purpose and value. And furthermore, earnestly reflecting upon their own abilities, progress, weaknesses and plans.


Sometimes, when working with my own students, I do encounter some of the ideal behaviours listed above. They are, after all, very capable students, having already achieved good results at an undergraduate level. Consequently, my expectations are high. I set them difficult objectives. Achieving those objectives will always necessarily require a combination of several high-level abilities, independently executed as far as possible. The result, when all goes well, is excellence, living up to the ideal described above. Often excellence that goes beyond my own abilities – we’re asking a lot more of our students today.

But more often, reality is not that perfect. We work hard to equip our students with the required toolset, to demonstrate the use and relevance of each tool, and providing guidance on applying them with precision. But the results are inconsistent. Often, as each student heads off along their own divergent path, we only notice their errors when it is already too late. And hence there is little opportunity for raising quality. The trade-off between independence and timely intervention is a difficult one to resolve.

Developing A Support Platform:

I am investigating how a convergence of technological developments may enable the construction of a platform that can help students to develop and more consistently apply key ‘research based learning’ skills. In this presentation we will consider the pedagogical workings of such a system, specifically in supporting history, archaeology and classics. I will explain how new technologies may make such a pedagogy possible. And most importantly, we will critically assess a set of goals that I consider to be essential for such a system:

  1. Connects offline events, objects and contexts with their online relations.
  2. Provides a cognitive-behavioural scaffold that can be sustained in the absence of the core technological platform.
  3. Encourages self-awareness and reflection by students and tutors.
  4. Is timely and efficient, but not intrusive or over-bearing.
  5. Supports the investigation and evaluation of student activities by student peers and tutors in the context in which the occur.

About the Presenter:

Robert O’Toole, a HEA National Teaching Fellow, is the Arts Faculty E-learning Advisor at the University of Warwick. He is part of the E-lab team responsible for developing and supporting a successful suite of advanced web based systems supporting research and research based learning. Robert has worked closely with the History and Classics departments at Warwick.

January 02, 2008

TQEF project: The Arts E–Squad, digitally native students supporting digitally immigrant staff

A project funded by the TQEF. The newly established Arts Faculty E-Squad team of students will be expanded to support the whole faculty. A viable model will be developed for continuing the E-Squad as a self-funding service. The benefits of this approach will be demonstrated to the participating departments and the rest of the university. A research project will be undertaken to study issues arising when students support and develop staff use of e-learning.

Main aims and objectives of the project:

  • Establish the Arts Faculty E-Squad as a permanent fixture within the faculty, funded by participating departments (and other funds where appropriate).
  • Extend the E-Squad with at least one student from each department.
  • Research and report on the issues involved in students (digital natives) transferring skills and understanding to staff. A report will be submitted to the ALT-J journal, and a paper proposed for the Shock of the Old 7 conference at Oxford University (in 2008 the conference will focus on the concept of ‘digital natives’).
  • Develop a transferable model for such student-staff support teams, so that they may easily be established by other faculties, departments and services. This will be presented at showcasing events throughout the university.
  • Develop a training programme, delivered online and in class, to enable future students to quickly obtain the required skills (technical, communicational, pedagogical etc).
  • Develop a means for recording and reporting upon the personal development and work experience of each E-Squad member.

Description of the project

The Arts Faculty has established a team of nine students, able to support staff across the faculty in basic to intermediate level e-learning technologies: the Arts E-Squad. Four of these students are funded through WUAP work/study, and five through Unitemps (paid by individual departments). We hope to extend the technical capabilities of these students throughout the year, with training and mentoring provided by the Arts Faculty E-learning Advisor (a PGCE qualified IT teacher). As such, they provide a human resource capable of responding to tasks specified by staff through an online request form. Feedback from current E-Squad activities has highlighted the usefulness of this model, but also that it is often advantageous for the staff member to be supported by a student from their own department. Furthermore, many departments already have their own WUAP and Unitemp students who would benefit from the support and training offered by the E-Squad. However, such an expansion of the current E-Squad will require some time spent upon developing systems and support to ensure scalability is possible, hence the need for extra funding to allow this development to occur while the E-Squad is in operation (with an administrator from one of the departments temporarily running the day-to-day activities).

The initiative also has a more ambitious intention: to see a transfer of skills and understanding from E-Squad students to the staff that they support. This is in part a response to the very considerable challenge of encouraging and enabling the uptake of new technologies across the whole faculty, with every member of staff, at every point in the IT capability scale, advancing.

In this way, we hope to enable digitally immigrant staff to consider using IT in ways that are closer to the patterns of use already prevalent amongst the digitally native students that they teach. For example, when creating an online learning activity, the E-Squad provides the capability to test and evaluate that activity from a student perspective. This second strand of the project would seem more difficult than simply providing a team to complete tasks as they arise. We are proposing to undertake a research project alongside the running of the E-Squad, in order to understand and adapt to the issues implicated in this student to staff support model. This research project will contribute to the development of the E-Squad, the description of a transferable model for other faculties, as well as our wider understanding of task of bringing staff into the digital-online world. Again this will require administrative assistance to run the E-Squad alongside the completion of the research strand.