All 46 entries tagged Ideation

Well ordered conceptualisations forming prototype arguments and solutions to be tested against real world situations.

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September 16, 2011

Extended Learning Ecology versus Virtual Learning Environment

As part of the Open-space Learning in Real World Contexts project I developed the idea of the Extended Learning Ecology (ELE). It's not really a new idea. Rather I'm naming and providing a conceptual back story to the strategy that we have adopted at the University of Warwick (since 2002). Today I will be giving a presentation to a group of academics who teach politics. I was asked to talk about Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), but of course I want to show how an ELE is more appropriate to their discipline and aims. So how do I explain the difference in a single one minute slide?


The VLE is motivated by the wish to put the individual into a more controlled, more predictable, pre-structured, artificial environment in which they will grow according to the desired pattern. They are browser-based web sites with limited configurability and limited inter-operability with real-life activities. VLEs have several obvious advantages: students don't have to think as much, they don't have to understand or contribute to the design of the tools that we use for thinking-acting-evaluating, they don't have to worry about the collective negotiation of practices, it's all done for them. And the disadvantages: students don't have to think, they don't have to understand or contribute, they don't have to collectively negotiate practices etc.

The ELE is motivated by the wish to enhance a collective ability to operate in complex and uncertain conditions. To get connected technology out into the field, into physical classrooms and the many other places where learning happens. It demands a designerly, reflective, collective attitude to the tools that we use for thinking-acting-evaluating. Students have to: adopt and adapt custom assemblages of concepts, practices and technologies, suited to current challenges and transferable to future challenges (beyond the host institution). Assemblages that work collectively and appropriately.

Here's an example. Imagine students undertaking an activity that is both research-based (in the traditional academic sense), community-oriented and socially innovative. The students will have to think about what technologies they should use to support their project - meaning that they will have to think harder about the project, and in this case, especially about the community participants. They might decide to create a web site, perhaps with a blog that will be used to report news, events, progress, ideas. Will they allow people from outside of the institution to contribute to this? What will be the process? Many important design decisions have to be made, all of which force the students to think hard about their project, and to create an appropriate response. They might use a shared notebook system into which they all collect useful and interesting information. Do they allow the latest updates from the notebook to appear on their public site? Perhaps the use of collaborative notetaking tools will result in a useful evolution in their intellectual practices. Maybe these practices will stay with them for life, proving to be a vital adaption to the challenges of 21st century working and living. Perhaps they might cascade out amongst other students and academics. There are many further design issues to be addressed: How will they manage getting feedback from the community on their report? How will they ensure that their report doesn't just disapear into the depths of the internet? And how will they connect all of this back to their course and the requirements of assessment?


August 11, 2011

Key learning actions – some examples

As part of my project to develop a more systematic and creative methodology for learning technology support, I am using the concept of "key learning actions". They are well-defined, demonstrable actions that may be observed in student behaviour, and which significantly contribute to and enable student success.

It should be possible, for each action, to investigate how they are being achieved by students across different contexts, and to quantify success. We can consider if technology (and its use) is enabling or hindering performance. We can identify actions undertaken by other actors (teachers, administrators) that impact on success. We can then optimise or re-design the technology-enhanced practice and the services (people, hardware, software) that are used. These improvements can be undertaken with a clear sense of how to measure the impact of changes.

We can also use the key actions to evaluate technologies - for example, asking how a specific VLE might enhance success with each action (and producing a SWOT analysis). In some cases this will be directly afforded (or constrained) by the technology itself. In other cases, we must consider the technology and the way in which it is used.

My list of key actions will be developed through a widespread conversation over the coming term. Here are some examples to provide a starting point:

1. Effective admin: understanding, feeling confident about, trusting in and effectively using academic-administrative processes (e.g. assignment management).

2. Feed-forwards using feedback: improving essay performance by using feedback on previous essays (feed forwards).

3. Engaging with research: engaging with the current research activities of the academic department.

4. Developing academic identity: developing personal academic interests and specialisms within the academic context of the course.

5. Project work: successfully designing, managing and completing an academic project, using a variety of appropriate resources and methods, combining distinct activities and phases.

6. Academic writing: writing a good academic text within the parameters, styles and values of the department, course and module.

7. Making academia relevant to me: understanding how academic experiences are relevant to and can be used to further future career goals.

8. Collecting and using experiences: recording rich information and experiences from the wide range of sources encountered, including live personal experiences; organising recordings, reflecting on them, using them to enhance academic work.

9. Understanding assessment: understanding the assessment regime for the course and individual modules.

10. Writing with sources: using academic sources when creating personal, original texts, with correct citation methods and avoiding plagiarism.

11. Choosing modules: choose the most appropriate optional modules to undertake.

12. Academic sources: finding and using a good range of suitable academic texts (and other media).

13. Inspiring discourse: using digital media to spark discourse (in seminars etc).

14. Building to think: prototyping and testing ideas.

15. Telling a story: creating and communicating a narrative.

16. Reflecting: representing, thinking about and planning my own development.

17. Knowing people and resources that I can use: finding out about and accessing the available resources.

18. Identifying and developing a career.

19. Using data: recording, organising, analysing data (text, numerical etc).

20. Accessing teaching: getting access to lectures etc regardless of barriers (e.g. disability, physical location)

My strategy then is to identify a small number of priority actions (most important or those most in need of enhancement), investigate them, work out how technology might help, and make a plan for change (might be a matter of user education, or might mean a formal projet to change a service or to create a new service). Key Action 1 (academic-administrative processes) is already being addressed in a significant way by the Assignment Management project.

August 10, 2011

What is a digital magazine? What role might it have in HE?

On the small table next to my bed there's a copy of Scientific American. It's been there for a few months now. I've read most of it. I haven't yet discarded it. Eventually I'll move it to some dust-gathering position in my library. But even then it will not be forgotten. Next time we are discussing the evolution of the mammoth, I'll retrieve it to reference some interesting point. In terms of time and space, it's actually been quite significant to me - remarkably so considering it's physical form. I think I paid around £3 for it. That's a good deal. Sometimes I buy the Harvard Business Review, another of my favourite occasional magazines. The HBR is considerably more expensive. I did have a subscription. I probably will get a subscription again in the future, when I can get time to organise it. Interestingly, I have free access to all of the HBR's articles online through our institutional subscription. I use that for research purposes. But I don't really read it online in the same way as I do in print. It's an entirely different entity, with a very different phenomenological presence.

Why does this matter? Why is it important for us to reflect upon the magazine format and its role? The Apple iPad has something to do with it. We are starting to see devices that come close to replicating the magazine-reading/owning experience. Developers are just now starting to explore how digital and connected features might enhance the magazine format further. But there's more - I'm starting to hear educators saying that they "want to publish a magazine". Just a fad? Jumping on the iPad bandwagon? Maybe. But if we think more about the magazine format and experience, I argue that it in fact has a much closer fit with what many people are trying to achieve more broadly with their HE teaching. I suspect that for some time there has been an unexpressed desire to work in this format, and that much of what gets published in blogs and browser-tree based info sites (e.g. department web sites) is better suited to the extended digital magazine format. Over the last decade university IT departments have provided sophisticated and well supported tools for publishing in two formats: the info site and the blog. Perhaps there needs to be a third option: the digital magazine.

Let's imagine a scenario that illustrates how the digital magazine format might be used in HE. In many universities it's a real example - but not that common, or easy to do (the point is that it's about to become a lot easier). Consider a university service department whose role includes:

  • facilitating academics in improving teaching (choosing the best methods, developing the required skills and resources, optimising practice, being better coordinated etc);
  • getting academics to undertake training and development;
  • promoting teaching quality improvement as a worthwhile, valuable, feasible activity for academics;
  • getting academics to take responsibility for improving teaching quality;
  • facilitating debate and new thinking about teaching and the institution;
  • developing its own provisions to meet the changing needs of the institution.

The department publishes a periodical digital magazine to subscribers (anyone can subscribe). When a new edition of the magazine is published, the subscribers are alerted and can download their own copy in their favourite format. Each edition contains a collection of articles written by teachers from the institution and other invited experts (an editor with journalism skills might help with writing the articles). When the reader downloads their copy, they first see the front cover - in true magazine style, giving the edition a unique identity and sense of "newness". The cover image and teasers give a sense of what the edition has to offer - topics covered, themes, people etc. The reader might jump to a specific article, or they might use a simple interactive tool to browse through the pages looking for a starting point. The edition begins with an editorial, summing-up the articles and giving a sense of why they matter (at that particular point in time). Importantly, the articles are related but different, pursuing diverse aspects and perspectives in an interconnected way with a shared methodology or interest - just like a good HE course. The articles have been commissioned by an editorial panel (perhaps some are selected from projects undertaken as part of one of the department's training courses). The selectiveness and finality of the edition format (with a specified number of articles each edition), enhance the value of the content (as opposed to an info site or a blog which can be added to and edited indefinitely). The readers can respond to articles, or the whole edition through the good-old-fashioned Letters to the Editor page - giving guidance to the editorial commissioning, and helping to direct wider development activity - in this case informing the redeveloment of training provision, as well as feeding into key debates (e.g. on interdisciplinarity). Most importantly, the reading experience is enjoyable, quick and flowing, with articles of just the right length and style to maintain the magazine aesthetic. But at the same time, the reader needs to feel that they are getting something significantly important, substantial and trusted. This is the balance that magazines like HBR and Scientific American achieve so well.

If this is all done well enough, the magazine will become an influential, desirable, long-lasting and substantial entity. People will literally love it and what it has to say. They will look forwards to the date of publication. They think back to great articles from past editions. They will let it fill gaps in their day, perhaps set aside time to read an article with more depth, and even use it as a platform to develop their own ideas and views. The articles might suggest things to try out, workshops to attend (perhaps listed in a digest of events and news), people to talk to, books to read. But the impact will be social as well as individual. Articles will get talked about, editions shared (perhaps globally) in a way that rarely if ever happens with the less tangible and more dispersed content that appears in blogs and info sites. That's why people are starting to think about making magazines rather than web sites. That's why we might see the format used innovatively in other HE contexts. For example, what if we present an academic course as a magazine (rather than through a VLE or a department info site)? The articles could introduce topics, themes, issues in an engaging and interesting way, inspiring the students to find out more, to question, challenge etc. And perhaps the students could then contribute articles on their own research - following the example set by the academics? The discursive element of the magazine could provide better feedback from students to academics. It could help the course to evolve and adapt over time, or to make interdisciplinary connections. Like a text book, but more unique, local, special. Maybe this is even a good route to take from being a campus university to being an online distance learning provider? Perhaps its a way of getting to a bigger global audience without losing what is special about the local (glocalizing is what Immelt calls it).

Is it a realistic option? Are we actually being quite naive? After all, few have experience of this kind of publishing. What are the risks? What is the gap between current skills and those needed to do a successful magazine? How might technology help? Technically, the barriers to publishing a digital magazine are disappearing fast. We already have effective systems for collaboratively creating digital content (Sitebuilder, Sharepoint etc). If we can add features that give guidance to the writing process (word counts, media libraries, document templates, publishing workflow), the challenge of writing good content is alleviated - perhaps enough to lower the entry-level sufficiently. And there is already plenty of good stuff to write about. It's a university, it's full of fascinating stories. Two big challenges remain:

  1. Visuals - getting access to good quality, relevant, (sufficiently) original, copyright-cleared images is still a challenge. Services like iStockPhoto helps. Having access to a good camera and photographic skills helps. That is becoming easier. Cameras are becoming smaller and more convenient. Having a media library that indicates if and how each item has been used might also help (so that authors can get images that seem fresh and new).
  2. Presentation - the magazine format is very different to the kinds of digital publishing that we have become used to - the front cover, the ease with which we can move through the magazine, seamless integration of video and audio, and to make all this work on a variety of devices - that's still not straightforward.

These challenges are predominantly technical in nature, and perhaps worth addressing if we think that the magazine format is as important as blogs and info sites.

More considerations:

Might the digital format work seamlessly with print-on-demand services? So for example, a student could get a hard copy of a course magazine (having something tangible to put on your bookshelf and point to, saying "that's my degree").

Should they be branded as journals or magazines? Or some new type of publication?

To be investigated further!