All 33 entries tagged E-Learning

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May 07, 2008

Online discussion privacy

Writing about web page

Interesting observation from David Escalante, director of computer policy and security at Boston College, made at the Educause conference on campus security last week:-

If online discussions had been around when today’s presidential candidates were in college, he suggested, their words might be dredged up and used against them now by political enemies. “Can you make a statement in an online forum and not worry that someone’s going to whack you with it later?” asked Mr. Escalante. He said that many class discussions take place using course-management systems, and that the discussions are usually archived — and sometimes even made public online. Making discussions public that have traditionally happened behind closed classroom doors could hamper freewheeling debate, he said. He suggested that colleges make sure that online discussions can only be seen by students taking the course. Or that if discussions are made public, that students be allowed to remain anonymous (except to the professor). Even so, however, there’s nothing stopping students in a course from saving all class discussion to their own drives and making it public later.

When NAGTY closed up shop, we were asked not just to archive all the messages which had been posted by its students on our discussion forums system, but to delete them completely and put them beyond the reach of recovery. But we certainly see cases of students asking us after they’ve left the university whether it’s possible to go back and remove their messages in discussion forums, or their comments on Warwick Blogs. Both institutions and students need to think carefully about the long-term implications of student comments being digitally preserved.

December 11, 2007

Facebook and courses

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I was interested to read this report which notes that although there is a variety of tools designed to let students embed information about the courses they are studying into their Facebook page, none of those tools have been even a little bit successful. The most popular of them has only 3,300 or so active daily users, a drop in the ocean compared with more socially oriented tools for sharing and interacting with others. Does this mean that users would generally rather keep their Facebook and their study separate?

December 10, 2007

Too much of an online thing?

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Here’s a fascinating article by a student at the University of Missouri at St Louis in the US. Money quote:-

This semester, 75 percent of my classes are online and 100 percent of that is not by choice. There are classes which are only offered online and if I want my degree, I have to take these classes. I did not come to UMSL to stay at home and take classes. I came to this university to be part of a university.

Food for thought as we mull over more and better ways to digitise the audio and video from an event and make it available for download.

December 06, 2007

Facebook friending fun

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Most faculty members on Facebook keep their profiles professional — nothing racier than would be posted, say, on an office door. The consensus on friending seems to be: Accept students’ requests but don’t initiate any. That’s one of the guidelines for “Faculty Ethics on Facebook,” a group started by Mark A. Clague, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “Since there’s an uneven power dynamic, giving the power to the students to control the relationship” is good policy, he says.

It’s an interesting point. If you as an academic invited students to become your friends, what message would that be sending? Would it be different if you were explicitly using Facebook as a sort of hipper-than-thou VLE, or if you just had a personal page? The very fact that an institution has created an ethics handbook on the subject shows how important the issue is becoming – and it’s not just Facebook, of course; it’s Facebook today but it’s any and all social networking sites in general. (More amusingly, I’m also tickled by the student who was supposedly going to a family funeral, but whose Facebook page revealed him in reality to be cavorting on the beach. Friending is fraught with risk, it seems!)

November 28, 2007


Writing about web page

Golly. From the Utah State University Student Newspaper

Due to corrupt data in the statewide database Blackboard Vista, the system shut down, causing thousands of faculty and students at USU to lose all information submitted between Tuesday, Nov. 13 and Friday, Nov. 16.

This data is apparently irrecoverable, and at least one academic there is quoted as saying that he will have to re-mark (and his students will have to resubmit) several hundred papers, and he will have to resubmit thousands of grades into Blackboard. The system administrators plan to have a mirror server in place “by the spring term”.

Additionally, the Chronicle reports that administrators believe that the crash was caused by “a problem with a network port”. Yikes.

November 27, 2007


Writing about web page

Podcasting in universities is going mainstream, it would seem. Berkeley are leading an initiative called OpenCast

A community centered around open, scalable, and sustainable podcast/webcast solutions and best practices for higher education.

What this actually entails seems to be that Berkeley are developing podcasting software, or at least trying to find ways to glue together existing systems such as Apple’s Podcast Producer and e-learning frameworks such as Sakai. However they also note that they don’t intend to end up with a system which has dependencies on Sakia, and so whatever they make should therefore be capable of being integrated with other VLEs and systems.

There are lots of US universities listed as being partner institutions, but only three UK ones: Oxford and Cambridge, unsurprisingly, and more interestingly, Leeds Met. I wonder whether this is something we’d be interested in joining (though it’s not absolutely clear what “joining” entails or entitles you to) or whether our own work with Wowza/FMS as a back end and SiteBuilder as a delivery platform is sufficiently advanced that we wouldn’t be able to take meaningful advantage of OpenCast anyway.

November 22, 2007


Writing about web page

This is clever: if you want to publish teaching materials on the web, there’s a fair chance that it might involve audio and PowerPoint slides. Say for example that you’ve got an MP3 recording of a lecture you gave, and you’ve also got the PowerPoint slides you used during the lecture. What’s the best way to publish them? You could just upload them both to your site and leave it to your audience to figure out which slide goes with which part of the audio. Or you could use Captivate or Camtasia or whatever to create a narrated presentation.

But Slidehare have a neat tool they call Slidecasts where you upload a PowerPoint file and an MP3 file and then use a little tool they provide to synchronise the audio with the slides. It’s dead easy to use and the results can then be embedded on your blog or module page. Smart.

November 21, 2007

Top ten tools for learning

Writing about web page

Now this is interesting: a survey from September 2007 asking 100 or so people working in e-learning to nominate their favourite (IT) tools for learning. What kinds of programs or applications do you think would make the cut? Here’s the top ten:-

  • 1 Firefox
  • 2
  • 3= Skype / Google Search
  • 5 PowerPoint
  • 6 WordPress
  • 7= Gmail / Google Reader
  • 9 Blogger
  • 10 Word

Further down the list, we see more specialised tools such as Audacity and Captivate, and other collaboration tools such as Google Docs and Wikispaces. Almost all the social software sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, etc. appear, and almost all flavours of productivity software are represented somewhere in the list. Interestingly, Blackboard, which is e-learning and nothing but, didn’t even make the top hundred. Hell, Subversion got more votes than Blackboard! Tools to make stuff and to share stuff are clearly today’s e-learning apps of choice.

August 24, 2006

Traditional lectures are over. Again.

In the Times Higher on 11th Aug (p5) there's another piece about the use of audio, video, iPods and mobile phones in university teaching. If you're being charitable, it's an optimistic, excited piece; if you're not, it's a little bit hyperbolic.

"The days of traditional lectures are over," predicts Carl Senior, a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at Aston University. [...] "Universities are essentially service providers, and we are defined by the consumer. Our consumers are going to want to watch vodcasts and listen to podcasts in their pyjamas. We believe that what we are doing in Aston is pretty unique and at the absolute cutting edge of modern teaching methods."

What they are doing, in fact, is creating short audio and video clips which can be sent to mobile phones, though the article is curiously contradictory about what the purpose of these clips is. It says "they will, for example, summarise lectures and offer a digest of the following week's reading material". That would be the same lectures whose days are over, then, would it?

I'm particularly tickled by this suggestion:–

Physics undergradates might, for example, receive a text explaining Ohm's law

I would love to see an explanation (as opposed to just a statement) of Ohm's law in 160 characters. Any physicists out there care to have a bash?

As I've said before, I'm not persuaded of this assertion that video or audio on portable devices or home computers is likely to displace lectures. I can believe that they might usefully augment traditional teaching, but if you were offered a course predicated on the exciting idea that there would be no lectures, just vodcasts for you to watch in your pyjamas, would you really regard it as an improvment? Is this actually what our consumers (bleurgh) want?

Elsewhere in the article, Gilly Salmon at Leicester university is more cautious about the effect that podcasting may have had on a course. She says:–

[The podcasting pilot] helped to raise the pass rate for an engineering module by between 2 and 3 per cent.

Enquiring scientific minds might wonder how this figure was measured. Professor Salmon wisely includes the phrase "helped to", implying presumably that the effect was actually somewhere between zero and 3 per cent. But was there a control group? What other factors might also have helped? Is this data based on repeated trials, or just a one–time change between last year and this year? What's the average change in the pass rate from one year to the next over the last few years?

I'm being a bit harsh on people whose enthusiasm and commitment to trying new things is something I admire. But I do wonder what the best way to evangelise new and interesting approaches to teaching is, and where on the continuum from caution to hyperbole one should aim for. The THES, of course, wants stories which are dramatic and full of bold assertions, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that they've cherry–picked the best quotes from much longer, more measured observations that their subjects provided.

July 26, 2006

Wireless PCs motivate students, says wireless PC maker

Writing about web page

My title is perhaps overly cynical.

About 23,000 students and 1,500 teachers in 100 Michigan school districts are participating in the program. Students get their own wireless HP notebook PCs and are allowed to learn at their own pace. Teachers, meanwhile, receive comprehensive training and curriculum guidance through a centralized learning portal. The report is backed by HP.

But if these notebooks are effectively free at the point of use for the students, and the teachers get a rich, well–supported infrastructure to help them, then it's hardly surprising that the participants regard the program as beneficial. What would be more interesting is to know whether the benefits are worth the costs of providing the program or whether the same sum spent on other activities (books? laboratories? more teachers?) would have produced equivalent or greater benefits.

July 17, 2006

Digital natives

Writing about web page,,2101-2256968,00.html

This article in the Sunday Times is an interesting discussion of the concept of being "digitally native" or a "digital immigrant". Emily, who's 20, is a digital native:–

Technology is an essential part of my everyday social and academic life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

But her mum, who's 55, isn't:–

Though 55–year–old Christine happily shops online and e–mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre — downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending e–mails. It’s nonstop,” she says with bemusement. “They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring. I can’t imagine many kids indulging in one particular hobby, such as birdwatching, like they used to.”

The interesting question is whether this distinction between people who have grown up with and always had access to some technologies and who use it continuously, ubiquitously and in a multi–tasking way, and people who are IT literate but not dependent in the same way signifies anything. Are twenty year olds in some significant sense different to 50 year olds because they're more dependent on their mobiles and they surf the web, email, text and IM, sometimes all at once? The article quotes people who think that the answer is "yes", but they mostly seem to be stating without proof:–

Something as massive as our — for many people — daily interaction with computers and video players is bound to have a significant effect.

And another suggestion is that being digitally native implies an acceptance of rapid change which is less apparent in older people. But I don't think this is anything to do with technology per se; it's just that when you're younger, you're more accepting of or enthusiastic about change than when you're older. Since technology is changing quickly, young people are more comfortable with it than older people, but it's not the technology that's significant, it's the change; you could argue exactly the same thing about fashion.

So I don't know. There's nothing in this article, interesting though it is, that seems to offer any kind of convincing evidence that digital natives are different in any substantive way to digital immigrants except in the observable sense of how they use technology. Whether it's made them more intelligent, or shortened their attention span, or made them better at responding to certain stimuli seems to be an open question. I wonder what an academic who has been teaching for many years would think? Arguments about whether the work students do at school prepares them for university as well as it used to are well rehearsed, but if you were to try and control for that in some way, would students today be observably different to how they were twenty years ago? And if they were, would the difference be plausibly attributable to their being digitally native?

July 12, 2006

VLEs in decline?

Writing about web page

Just read an interesting article by Michael Feldstein in which he considers the implications of a new report on VLE usage in UK higher education between 2001 and 2005. (You can find the report here if you'd like to take a look; it's a PDF, but it's only 8 pages long plus some appendices.)

The first point which Michael draws out from the report is that commercial VLE usage is in fairly sharp decline:–

… total market share for proprietary VLE’s dropped from 93% to 57% from 2001 to 2005. That’s a decline of nearly 10% a year, with the combination of Open Source and homegrown VLE's now commanding over 40% of the total market.

The second point is that home–grown solutions are on the rise:–

But the real shocker is that the number of homegrown VLE's jumped from 7% in 2001 to an eye–popping 30% in 2005. There are close to three times as many homegrown systems as there are Open Source systems and the growth in market share is more than twice as fast.

Michael speculates that this may be because it's become pretty easy to find open source packages which let you replicate most of what most people do within a VLE:–

Give me a discussion board (eg, JForum) and a system for sharing files (eg, Alfresco), and you’ve given me almost everything that 70%+ of university instructors currently use in their VLE.

And he observes, correctly, I think, that the growth in home–grown solutions may also imply that more institutions are identifying requirements which they don't believe will be met by a commercial VLE. But I think there are other factors at work here too: I think that universities in some cases are becoming uneasy about their dependency on proprietary software. This point isn't necessarily specific to VLE's; it's just as possible to be dependent on your finance system supplier, or the company who manage and trouble–shoot your network, and it exposes the institution to financial risks, availability risks and fitness–for–purpose risks.

I wodner too if another factor at work here might be ethos: certainly our decision to pursue a build rather than buy approach for the web architecture here at Warwick was informed in part by a belief that the adverserial relationship between vendor and customer was less desirable than a collaborative process of development which allowed users, designers and developers all to participate in the process of creating a set of tools. It's not just about whether you can implement feature X or Y, it's the idea that everyone is better off in terms of their involvement, engagement, even enjoyment, if it's possible to have a participative, collaborative process.

And finally, I think the decline in VLE take–up may be due to a realisation that in the end they may be just not very fit for purpose. This isn't just a case of individual universities having their own specific needs, but a more general sense that the fairly rich set of features that VLEs generally provide may not in fact be especially useful in supporting teaching and learning. Paying a lot for a big monolithic system only makes sense if you think it does what you need, or might need in the future. It'll be interesting to see what the equivalent set of statistics in 2010 looks like.

July 04, 2006

Compulsory Tablet PCs

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Tablet PCAccording to this news item Virginia Tech Polytechnic in the US intends to make the use of Tablet PCs in class compulsory from Autumn 2006.

As part of a new partnership with Fujitsu Computer Systems and Microsoft, Virginia Tech will be using new Fujitsu LifeBook T4000 computers to change the way its engineering classes are taught, particularly at the introductory level, the school said.

The bitter pill of compulsory use will be sweetened somewhat by the fact that the institution will be giving these devices to its students, not requiring them to buy them for themselves, though it's not absolutely clear whether it's a permanent or a temporary arrangement where the students will have to return the device at the end of the year or the course.

Either way, though, the interesting question is, what will the tablets be used for? What's so compelling about these devices that it's worth going to what presumably will be quite a lot of trouble and expense to get one into the hands of every student? The article hints at the sorts of uses being envisaged:–

Students will be able to take notes and construct designs on their LifeBooks, which are intended to make it easier for students to collaborate with each other and share their work with instructors electronically.
[The institution] will be providing training this summer so that faculty can adjust to using the machines in classroom presentations, the school said. The software that will be used includes Microsoft Office OneNote, SketchUp and Classroom Presenter.

I can see that engineering students could in principle benefit from software designed to let them draw and sketch as part of their note–taking process. And collaboration and sharing are the motherhood and apple pie of education these days, so it's hard to argue with anything which supports that. But I remain slightly unclear about how exactly this will work when next autumn rolls around. Will students be turned away from class if they turn up without their tablet? Will the institution fit power outlets to every seat in all the lecture theatres and other teaching spaces where these devices are to be used? (Tablets tend to have a battery life of about three or four hours, so you couldn't go a whole day without recharging it somewhere.)

And if one were being ruthlessly cost–benefit about it, is sharing sketches and notes wirelessly from one tablet PC to another really thousands of pounds better than sharing (higher resolution!) notes and sketches made on paper, using a photocopier and some shoe leather? I watch with interest to see if Virginia Tech report back on the value of the program after the first semester is done.

June 12, 2006

Academic blogs at Penn

Writing about web page

Fascinating article from about a plan at the University of Pennsylvania College of Arts and Science to give every student a blog – not just give, in fact, but require them to use. The system seems to include some similar features to our own suggestions about ways of using blogs, with students asked to use their blog as a way to introduce themselves even before they arrive at university, and faculty posting questions to students' blogs to prompt them to write on certain topics at certain times (like our own "blog prompts" idea).

What makes this system strikingly different from any others that I'm aware of is that:–

  1. The blogs are exclusively private, viewable only by the student, an academic advisor and some administrators. Students can't change that.
  2. What the students write on their blog is part of their academic record. They can't go back and change entries after they've published them.

As the comments to the article suggest, a private, uneditable record isn't really a blog at all – it's more like an e–portfolio or a transcript document. But it's an interesting idea nonetheless.

June 07, 2006

More laptops in lectures

Follow-up to Laptops in lectures from Autology: John Dale's blog

A month ago, I wrote about the use of laptops in lectures, prompted by reports of American academics who have decided to ban them. I wondered whether the problem was really the laptop, or the internet access that often goes along with it, and I've been interested to read that some US institutions are giving lecturers the ability to disable internet access in the lecture theatre if they wish.

Since then there's been more debate on the subject, including an article in the Times Higher from June 2nd which rather disconcertingly quoted my previous blog entry. It's an odd sensation to see yourself quoted in print when you aren't expecting it. But much more entertainingly, they also reported that:–

New students at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California are told of the perils of digital distraction. Earlier this year, the campus installed a parabolic mirror at the back of a new classroom and plans to put in more. The mirror allows lecturers to keep tabs on students, but "it also makes the subtle statement that [lecturers] can see who's on email", says John Clarke, assistant dean and chief information officer.

I'm not sure why, but I find that faintly comic. If you don't want students to use laptops, you could ask them not to, or you could disable internet access if you're worried about web browsing (as the University of Virginia has done). But a giant mirror? What do lecturers do, call out people if they spot web sites they don't like? "You, near the back, reading the Onion: Out!".

In studies cited in the article, though, the problem does seem to be a real one: students allowed the use of laptops in a test group performed significantly less well in retention tests than students who weren't.

But not everyone sees the problem the same way: I was also struck by these quotes in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the US version of the THES) where this topic has been discussed on their forums:–

I figure it is my job to make what I do in the classroom more interesting and more pressing to the students than their friends' MySpace profiles. I tell students that laptops are fine for taking notes. Also that if they open a laptop, I am going to call on them, repeatedly, to summarize something I just said. This method works and is not very hard. And yet here we have people wishing for a mechanical control to make up for their not running their classroom sensibly?
Many of us are crackerjack lecturers— and that's what my ratings say, too. But the web, IM, and e–mail are like visual heroin — best left out of lecture.

And best of all:–

I make my students strip down to their skivvies before they enter my classroom. Inside, they have to take notes with lumps of charcoal on flat rocks (though in upper level classes I allow home made quill pens and birch bark). We speak to another in Old English. I mean, why should I have to change my pedagogy to keep up with information technology? What do you think I am, someone in the information business? Traditions so sacred as ours are not to be questioned.

June 02, 2006

Podcasting at Bradford

From the front page of the THES on 26th May:–

A Bradford University lecturer claims to be the first UK academic to abolish lectures completely in favour of podcasts. First year students taking Bill Ashraf's biochemistry course next year won't have to go to a lecture theatre. Instead they'll watch or listen to virtual lectures on their MP3 players, phones or computers in their own time.

It's intriguing if true. Most academics who've been experimenting with podcasting thus far have been using as a supplement to, rather than replacement for, traditional lectures. They've either recorded the lecture itself, or recorded an alternative reading of the lecture material, but either way the lecture still takes place. If there were no lectures, would students really be motivated to listen to a series of (presumably) hour–long audio sessions? Experience generally suggests that it's awfully difficult to make an hour–long audio recording which holds the listener's attention effectively (though of course the same could be said of hour–long lectures). Will it matter that there won't be slides or a blackboard or an OHP? Will students miss the social elements (and to some extent the peer pressure) of convening for lectures?

And why does Dr Ashraf want to do this?

Dr Ashraf said the move would free time for more small–group teaching, and would better suit the needs of distance learners, part–time students and those balancing study with work. He said "Some lecture classes have 250 students, so I question the effectiveness of a didactic lecture for an hour".

No problem with any of that, although I'm not absolutely clear that the didactic value of a podcast intended to replace a lecture would necessarily be any better than the lecture itself – though I suppose it need only be no worse. Next week I think I might try and contact Dr Ashraf and find out more about what form his podcasts will take and how he might be planning to measure their effectiveness during the year.

May 07, 2006

Laptops in lectures

Writing about web page

I was interested to read this article about more lecturers (in the US) deciding to ban student use of laptops during lectures. The argument is simple enough: laptops, at best, turn students into stenographers; at worst, students are playing online poker, IMing their friends, emailing, blogging, anything except engaging with the lecture itself.

At the University of Pennsylvania, law professor Charles Mooney banned laptops from his classes two years ago. Around that time, said Mooney, he was serving as an expert witness in a lawsuit. During a break in his deposition, he recalled asking the stenographer if she found the case interesting. She replied that she didn't remember anything she had taken down, Mooney said. "I thought, 'That's what my students are doing,'".

To me the interesting question is what laptops in lectures are actually good for. Taking notes faster, on the basis that most people nowadays can type faster than they can write? Getting notes in electronic form straightaway rather than having to copy–type them later, so that they can be more effectively searched and cross–referenced? Easier inter–mingling of the lecturer's handout materials with the student's own notes (assuming that the handout is already on the laptop when the lecture takes place)?

I notice that none of these uses require an internet connection. It's possible in principle, I suppose, that a wifi–equipped laptop could be useful in allowing the student to look up additional content relating to the lecture via Google or whatever. But I bet nobody actually does this effectively; it would be too difficult to multi–task the searching, the listening and the note–taking. So if internet–equipped laptops in lectures serve no useful purpose, then rather than penalising students who find laptops a better way to take notes, would it be a better strategy just not to provide wired/wireless networking in lecture theatres?

March 14, 2006

OU goes free

Writing about web page

The OU has announced a plan to spend almost six million pounds to provide e-learning content freely on the internet. Half of the money is being provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. From the press release:-

The Open University will draw on its experience in supported open learning to provide an environment which contains both high quality learning materials and a range of learning support and informal community building tools. There will be one site that is primarily for learners, where material with suggested learning pathways will be offered. A second site will be primarily for other course creators; it will foster the concept of sharing and re-use of materials. Through the development of both sites the University plans to take open content delivery on to a new level.

In principle, nobody is better placed to do this than the OU. But there have been similar initiatives before, notably MIT's OpenCourseware project, and it's hard to deny that there's a pretty serious gulf between providing content and, if you will, meta-content about how to use the materials, and the actual process of delivering learning. It's not clear to me who the teachers using this content will be and who the students will be. The press release says:-

the University will select and make available educational resources from all study levels from access to postgraduate and from a full range of subject themes: arts and history, business and management, health and lifestyle, languages, science and nature, society and technology. Learners will also be able to benefit from a range of study skills development material.

which sounds great, but are materials such as these educationally valuable outside the context of a university in which to deliver them? The text mentions some pre-existing OU intiatives to help support learning in sub-Saharan and other African institutions; perhaps the rationale is purely about helping other HE institutions which might otherwise struggle with the costs associated with providing learning materials. An interesting project to watch.

March 12, 2006

The Sims teach programming

Writing about web page

According to this article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Carnegie Mellon University's Comp Sci dept is to collaborate with Electronic Arts in order to use assets from the Sims video game series to help teach programming.

Carnegie Mellon University is to announce a collaboration today with Electronic Arts Inc. that will take the popular Sims video game characters into the university's free software used to teach programming skills to high school and college students. The idea is to make the lessons livelier and less confusing for all students — including making them more interesting to girls.

I thought the whole idea of the Sims characters was that they did interesting things.

March 11, 2006

Video Literacy

Writing about web page

So the video of the iPod packaging being redesigned in Microsoft style has been all over the web recently, and deservedly so – it's hilarious.

But Michael Feldstein offers an additional insight about it; it's a stellar example of a good answer to the question "When or why does video enhance learning?" You could imagine somebody writing an essay about the differences between Microsoft's branding compared with Apple's, and the core concepts would probably be communicated to the reader satisfactorily. But not in anything like the same way that the video shows it.

Video is a fantastic medium for expressing temporal progression. And interestingly, the narrative is constructive rather than deconstructive in nature. Academic writing tends to encourage students to take things apart but doesn’t show them how to put them back together again. The creator of this video, in contrast, had to dissect the differences between Apple’s and Microsoft’s marketing and then wrap the Microsoft marketing mindset around an existing Apple product.

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