Archive for the 'pilots' Category

Maths Bridging

Thursday, July 4th, 2013
Mathematical Bridge, Iffley Lock, Oxford

Mathematical Bridge, Iffley Lock, Oxford

We are currently working on a new course with Oxford’s MPLS division to help students coming to Oxford to study Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences and Materials ensure their maths is up to scratch.

This has been an interesting project for us in many ways, pushing the boundaries of our expertise in many directions, from Moodle’s handling of maths notation, to online assessment design, to embedding of externally hosted cc licensed videos in our materials.

We have updated our handling of mathematical equation rendering, enabling MathJax in Moodle 2.5 which allows us to include maths notation without rendering all maths formula as inaccessible images or requiring our students to download special plugins to use MathMl. This is a big win for us, as in the past pretty much every option for handling this kind of notation had significant downsides.

In terms of assessment design we have finally included some really useful feedback loops between diagnostic, formative tests, basic course materials and reinforcement and extension materials.  Depending on a student’s answer to individual questions they are directed to materials that should give them a basic overview of a concept, help them study it in more depth, and if they want to, explore the topic beyond the basic requirements.  Each section also finishes with  a short quiz so students can check their mastery and again revisit content if need be. Crucially this supports students who need lots of help, but also lets those who don’t establish they are up to speed and ready to begin their course, without requiring them to sit through lots of unnecessary material. This has been possible due to the excellent efforts of our author in MPLS who has done an amazing job writing content and authoring questions and, more significantly, feedback for the quizzes.  This is not a revolutionary approach, and we have had elements of this in our courses before, but the consistent and thorough application of this across all the materials is really gratifying and something that should result in a much more personalised and targeted learning experience for the students.

Lastly this is also a project that has benefited hugely from OER, in particular the wonderful resource sets developed by mathcentre and mathtutor. These have allowed us to produce a much richer course than we would have otherwise managed, by giving students choices about how they study specific concepts while removing the burden from a single author of writing multiple alternative explanations for each topic.  We are also able to present materials in a wider  mixture of formats than we have the resource to develop alone,  e.g. video, text etc so that students can choose the type they prefer.

From a learning design/OER research  perspective this has been a particularly gratifying experience as it has taken concepts we have discussed and modeled in theory for years, such as diagnostic testing with content linked to results and using  OER to enable greater personalisation for students, and actually implemented them in practice. Which I guess means we had better start measuring impact!

Image: bridge /

MOOC: Self-Service Education?

Monday, February 18th, 2013

As the IT director for Sainsburys pointed out at BETT a couple of weeks ago ‘self-service’ caused a revolution in retail during the 20th century. It allowed for greater choice, efficiency and of course scale. It put the ‘super’ in supermarket in the same way that the web has put the (potential) ‘massive’ into MOOC.

At first glance the current wave of publicity-garnering MOOCs appear to be the equivalent of self-service education. Big out-of-town locations for education with an increasing range of products that you are free to browse at leisure.

Pick a product and pay for accreditation as you pass through the tills…

Lost in the supermarket


This perhaps is a little disingenuous though as there is more effort required than simply putting a course in your basket to gain validation. Automated testing and peer assessment are legitimate ways of assessing levels of knowledge and, if properly designed, increasing understanding. This is the real challenge for MOOCs, as it is for any course; how can we encourage students to think? How do we best mix the ingredients we have available to increase the chances that those engaging with our courses will finish them with *both* increased knowledge and increased understanding? – I hope we can all agree that teaching with a view to increasing understanding is a large part of what higher education institutions are for(?)

I have heard teaching described as ‘what you have to do because there are more of them than there are of you’, it’s inherently about dealing with scale. In this sense many of the pedagogical challenges faced by the designers of MOOCs are the same as those to be found in face-to-face or non-massive courses. The danger though is that xMOOC style self-service education favours those who already equipped with the intellectual and academic techniques required to interrogate a subject. How do we encourage those who don’t have the necessary higher-education ‘literacies’ to wade through swathes of video lectures and online resources? One answer is already hiding in the MOOC format: the ‘event’.

MOOCs generally have a start and finish date which makes them a form of slow-burn event. Even though the web has an always-on, always-connected, constant-flow paradigm it is still largely event driven. We are drawn to specific moments in time which act as way-points in the ceaseless river of information and social noise. MOOCs are useful island in this river with a beginning, middle and end, a simple narrative we can organise around and hopefully contribute to even if we don’t choose to listen to the whole story. The principle of the event can be taken further though as I believe it is highly compelling, especially in an online context. This is what I’m focusing on with the new Oxford Connect format.

Educators and technologists have become adept at putting-the-curriculum-online but we have yet to master the nuances of the live event outside of the lecture theatre. Pi Day Live, the pilot event for Oxford Connect, is designed to be a moment in time where hundreds of participants gather online to take part in collective activity. It will be highly ‘Evented’ (an idea originally attached to ‘virtual worlds’ but which is broadly applicable), encouraging participants to be as Resident as possible for a short period. My hope is that in time this live format will become a valuable way of communicating ideas, concepts and research from Oxford. I envisage this format being used as part of large-scale online courses, incorporating the fellowship of live events to support communities of learners and to act as milestones in a larger pedagogical structure.

Perhaps the live event is what is missing from xMOOCs and the expertise of the connectivists is what’s needed to counter a self-service mentality which disenfranchises those without with the literacies required to go-it-alone in online learning?


The importance of piloting for real

Monday, July 12th, 2010

We are currently in the middle of piloting our new online assignment handling system as part of the Cascade project.  While we are finding out all the usual technical glitches, more than anything what testing this with real students, real course directors and real tutors, submitting real assignments has revealed is:

  • how generous people can be in trying a new system for something which is so important to them.
  • how you can think you have thoroughly mapped all processes in abstract but there will always be some aspect which nobody mentioned until it happens in practice.
  • how completely random people can be.

While we certainly did not think our documentation and support assumptions were going to be perfect, with a lot of testing on trial assignments we thought we were probably on the right track, and for most of the process and the vast majority of  students and tutors we were.

However where things did deviate from our expected norms, they did so in unanticipated ways.  I won’t go into the minutiae here but it is certainly making us think about what are the issues you can plan for and design out, and what is going to happen no matter what you do.


Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Following on from my ‘That Was an Interesting Experience’ post I got to thinking about how to define what makes MUVEs distinct from other online spaces. The diagram below is my attempted answer, a diagram which I ‘trailed’ in my presentation at the Eduserv+JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event last Friday. (slidecast of the presentation at the end of this post)

Eventedness and Co-presence

During the JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project we piloted Second Life with art & design undergrads and with lifelong distance learners studying philosophy. The axes of the diagram represent two of the major effects we saw across the pilots that are central to what an MUVE provides.

Eventedness: This goes beyond a shared experience which could be aimless in activity terms and assumes that everyone involved is heading towards a particular goal even if this goal does not involve close collaboration. For example, a themed philosophical discussion which, if it goes well, should have a shared direction as the learning moves forwards.

Co-presence: As well as the Co-presence that comes from being embodied as avatars this definition includes what is experienced when an individual is certain that their contribution (usually in text form) will be read and responded to by others. For example it is possible to get a strong sense of the presence of others when microblogging because the exchanges are often frequent, they often reference each other and the response time can be a matter of seconds. Messages are linked to the particular point in time and their value erodes over time. There is a relationship between the speed in which the value of nodes of communication erode within a technology and the potential for Co-presence. In addition the individuals’ level of trust that their contribution will be understood and responded to within a particular technology has a large bearing on both Co-presence and Eventedness. It is of note that there is very little latent social presence in MUVEs. When you log-off your presence all but evaporates leaving almost no trace of your identity or that fact that you were in the MUVE. This is in contrast to social networking sites which are designed to extend your presence after you log-off. (See my ‘Visitors – Residents‘ post which discusses why this form of latent social presence is an important issue)

So, the green areas are not a quantative mapping of a range of functionalities but the qualitative potential of a technologies ability to provide a certain type of experience. The greater the chance of Co-presence the greater the chance of Eventedness and vice versa which is why the green areas have diagonal tops.

I should point out that the relative mapping of the technologies in the diagram could be debated until the cows come home because the axes are dealing with subjective terms. Individuals encounters with these technologies will vary greatly in the context of these terms hence the use of ‘potential’ which allows for a latitude in experiences.

A key point here is that the MUVE has the potential to support a huge range of experiences. This is partiality because of the effect of avatars but also because an MUVE is not a single technology but a cluster of tools gathered around a 3D environment. To tie this down a bit I will run through the types of experience that I think take place at points ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ on the diagram.

‘a’: At this point an individual feels isolated from others and alienated by the environment. They are directionless and have not discovered the ‘point’ of the environment for themselves. This sense of isolation and alienation is amplified by the knowledge that there are others in the MUVE who are enjoying being part of a social group that they are excluded from (either socially or because of a lack of technical skills). It is also amplified because they can see other avatars who appear to be much better looking, better dressed and with more elaborate hairstyles. They begin to fell anonymous, unskilled and lacking in a definable persona (they are part of the homogenous ‘n00b’ category). All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to ‘lurk’ in an MUVE. There a few opportunities to learn the in world culture(s) and mode(s) of communication that don’t involve social engagement. This is in contrast to other successful online social platforms have functionality such as an open chat channels (World of Warcraft) or the ability to see the flow of communication (Twitter) giving new users the opportunity to absorb the culture of that space before making their voice heard.

‘b’: At this point the individual feels like they are contributing to a shared endeavour, that they are part of a relevant activity. They have come to know and trust the other participants in their group and enjoy both the learning and the social aspects of the experience. This is only likely to take place if a member of that community has organised an activity. Or, to put it another way, the tutor has planned a relevant session. (The implication here being that the tutor needs to be part of a community of learners not above it in the MUVE space)

‘c’: At this point the individual is probably spending time with people they know and trust. They are socialising within the MUVE but are not attempting to achieve anything beyond simply being together. They are likely to feel part of a community but not that they are communally working towards a goal.

In terms of teaching and learning this huge breath of potential experience is what makes using MUVEs a high risk option. The better designed a session and the more responsive the tutor the higher it will map against Eventedness but a strong sense of Co-presence will only grow over time. Initially this happens as people get to grips with the technology then increasingly as they form relationships and trust grows. This breath of potential is in my opinion why a bad session in an MUVE leads to the suspicion that it would have been more satisfying and more effective to have simply used a straight text chat format or in some cases a traditional forum. This is compounded by the fact that MUVEs really lock you in and if a session breaks down it is complex and disruptive to sidestep to another format. Nevertheless, some of the most engaging and exciting online teaching and learning I have experienced has taken place in an MUVE.

As the diagram makes clear MUVEs do have the potential to outstrip many other technologies in their ability to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. However, if you don’t feel that words such as ‘belonging’, ‘communal’ or ‘experience’ are relevant to your practice then MUVE are probably not for you. Even for those of us that do think these aspects of learning are important MUVEs are a high risk option which require teaching sessions that are both well organised and highly reactive. We hope that the guidance and advice that comes from our experiences in the ‘Open Habitat’ project (to be published in March) will reduce this risk but it is like so many things in life MUVEs will remain a challenging option with the potential of great rewards.

Below is a slidecast of the my presentation at the Eduserv + JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event on 16/01/09 in Glasgow. Thanks to Rowin Young for providing the slidecast.

Phase 2 plans for our Philosophers

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

We learnt a few things in the first phase of the Open Habitat project which have informed the set-up of our next pilots. I’m currently planning the pilot that will run with philosophy students in Second Life. The main challenge with the first pilot was the sheer speed of debate in SL. The experienced philosophy students are used to being able to gather their thoughts, write a paragraph or two and pop it into a forum.

Taking the time to reflect is important in any educational process but it is especially precious to the discipline of philosophy. Having said this, the students loved the vibrant, social feeling of SL and the sense of presence being embodied in an avatar brought. In fact they liked it so much they have continued to run non-tutored sessions in SL once a week managed via a facebook group. (This included giving the students building rights so that they could rearrange the environment each week to fit the topic under discussion)

For phase 2 it was clear that we needed to balance the reflective and the dynamic which we are planning to do by ‘bookending’ the SL session with Moodle. Here is a draft of how the pilot will flow:

Stage One (framing the debate):

  1. Marianne (the tutor) to post briefing page on Moodle
  2. students to post kneejerk response in blog
  3. Marianne to respond one to one
  4. students to reconsider in light of Marianne’s comments and prepare second kneejerk
  5. second kneejerk to be posted on Moodle
  6. all students to read, think and prepare third kneejerk for posting on whiteboard in second life
  7. third kneejerk to be sent to Dave for posting in world

Stage two (dynamic in world discussion):

  1. Everyone arrives in second life to find third kneejerk responses on board
  2. People read these and reflect as everyone arrives
  3. Marianne asks each student in turn to comment
  4. after everyone has responded people go into groups (arranged in advance), go to their ‘stations’ and prepare jointly a ‘final statement’
  5. final statements to be sent to Dave
  6. Marianne reconvenes students and the session ends with a final discussion.

Stage three (reflection):

  1. Marianne to annotate final statements, and add comments
  2. Dave to post final statements and the chat log on Moodle
  3. Students free to discuss final statements and Marianne’s comments by themselves.

It’s not rocket science but I think this really takes advantage of what SL is good for and is a genuine answer to the ‘user needs’ that came out of phase 1. We will then run this cycle a second time either continuing the same philosophical theme or starting a new on depending on how well it runs!

The other significant change to the pilot will be the use of edu-gestures which should allow for more non-verbal communication whilst the group is deep in discussion. We have a nice set (agree, confused, yes, no, I’m thinking etc) of gestures that the students can use during the sessions using a ‘lite’ version of the Sloodle toolbar generously created for us by the Sloodle project. I’m planning to introduce these gestures as a key part of the orientation session so that their use is seen as a ‘basic’ skill. In this way I hope we get the benefits of embodiment/presence as well as the benefits of non-verbal communication which is so important in RL but has not really developed in detail within SL.

It’s odd to think that an environment that renders you as an avatar (face, head, arms, legs etc) does not rely very heavily on non-verbal cues (apart from where you are standing and the biggie: what you look like). I’m hoping that this aspect of Multi-User Virtual Environments will develop as the language of communication (text, voice, visual) within virtual worlds becomes more sophisticated.

Most importantly the pilot has been designed in conjunction with the students who are going to advise on the layout of the in world environment and are enthusiastic about the changes to the format.

Philosophers Philosophise in Second Life

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

What happens when you take 6 online philosophy students with and average age of about 50* and attempt to run a discussion session on ‘identity’ in Second Life after only two short orientation sessions that not everyone could attend?

Well against my expectations they actually spend the majority of the time ‘really doing philosophy’ (to quote the tutor) and then 4 of them arrange to continue the discussions on a regular basis after the official ‘Open Habitat’ project pilot has finished. General enthusiasm all round and many constructive comments on how future sessions could be organised and formatted.

So the initial question I ask myself is not “why did this work?” but “why did I think it wasn’t going to work?” The answer can probably contains an number of things that I didn’t consider until it was clear that the sessions were going ok.

  1. The majority of the participants were experienced philosophers. They did not have to grapple with the environment AND the subject. Once they had learnt how to text chat, move and sit down (an activity they all seemed to enjoy) the rest was home territory.
  2. The tutor involved was enthusiastic, had experience of teaching online distant students via a VLE and had a clear understanding that Second Life was going to be different and required a new approach.
  3. I was on hand through the sessions to IM anyone in difficulties and more importantly I was in the same RL room as the tutor who was also new to Second Life.
  4. We were flexible with the teaching format and adjusted activities to fit the flow of the discussion and the speed of response from the students.
  5. The participants who signed up for the pilot self selected as those willing to investigate a possible new format. This was not a mandatory part of a course. In other words they were open to a new experience.

Philosophising as the sun sets

The debate begins

One of the most successful aspects of the sessions was breaking into small groups. We had placed simple breakout areas within view of each other but just out of the 20 meter range of local chat to avoid cross talk. The tutor could wander between groups much in the same way she would in RL. It was a format that the participants could relate to and it utilised the socio-spatial nature of the environment.

Small groups

The ‘red’ group with the ‘blue’ group in the background.

Another interesting technique was circulating a transcript of the chat after the session with annotations from the tutor. I could see this working very well for a rolling discussion over a number of sessions.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, some of the participants found the flow of the text chat too fast and too ‘bitty’. By the time they had formulated their thoughts things had moved on and a paragraph of text in the flow of a text chat can appear self indulgent. Of course this is a problem inherent in text chats as a format rather than an SL specific issue. The other major challenge seems to be facing in the right direction when sitting down or, at one point, sitting in a seat that has not already been taken.

Have we met?

Have we met?

We now have a lot of data to sift through and many more questions to answer but my initial reaction is that this could become a very effective part of a distance programme blended between VLE and SL. The SL part providing a social underpinning to students who never get the chance to meet face-to-face.

Sunset discussion

The setting lends a noble atmosphere to the discussion

As to ‘technological barriers’ and ‘SL pain barriers’ it’s true to say that one of the perspective participants simply could not get into SL at all (a victim of SL graphics card brutality). However, with a little hand-holding the participants who could get in didn’t have too much trouble using the environment to philosophise and did not seem to get tied down by the platform as a technology.


*This is not meant as an ageist comment as I think the Prensky-esque notions of the digital native generation are a misnomer (by that I mean “completely wrong”). My point is that these participants are not ‘high tech’ nor are they ‘tech geeks’. They will only use a technology if it aids them in moving their learning forwards.

Initial Impressions from the first Open Habitat Pilot

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

As the first Open Habitat pilot with Art & Design students draws to a close it’s worth reflecting on how the process has gone before we dive into the formal analysis of interview transcripts, surveys and building work in Second Life.

After 3 weeks of working infrequently in OpenSim and Second Life some of the Art and Design students seem to have got to that self motivating stage at which their creativity and their curiosity combine and the tutor facilitates when needed rather than leads by the nose. The atmosphere in the computer room and in Second Life (3 of the students were working from home) was relaxed and chatty. Not too much sign of the noob paranoia that could have bloomed from the first couple of teaching days.

A few informal impressions that I have come away with are:

1. Maybe ‘collaboration’ in these MUVE environments is more about discussion than construction. When people collaborate in world they are rarely to be found wrestling over the same polygons/prims. It’s more likely that one will be building while the other muses over what direction the build should take. In this way students can use the specific skill they are best at in a larger build (modelling, texturing, scripting etc) not unlike the RL equivalent of the trades.

2. Just how much of a motivator is knowing that there is a potential audience for your work in world? Does seeing those little green dots on the map inspire an individual to create or simply make them feel a little lonely? I can’t say that I have ever felt lonely using Adobe Photoshop (no map, no green dots) but as some of the students alluded to it’s an odd feeling knowing that there are people in world who have chosen not to talk to you.

3. If the students that have been inspired can produce work like the example below in three weeks, what could they achieve in three years? It’s the length of a degree after all and it’s worth remembering that even the most experienced Second Lifers (the penal inference here may be apposite) have only been in world for about this length of time.

PART III by Mark O’Brien

Part III by Mark O’Brien. Work produced as part of the Open Habitat pilot with Leeds Metropolitan Art and Design students.

Making the transition from the practical to the social.

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

There were two significant transition points for the Art & Design students involved in the first 2 days of Open Habitat’s first pilot. Take a look at Ian’s post for a description of what happened from a teaching practitioner’s point of view.

Here is my perspective on events with my researcher hat on:

This sequence of events slowly expanded the amount of technical and social options available to the students. They started in a safe, private, stand alone OpenSim environment in which they could learn building skills without getting tangled up with issues of identity and communication. The first transition point came when we paired the students onto OpenSim islands (i.e. each student was on an island with one other student). There was a distinct shift in atmosphere as they experienced the effect of being co-present in world and the real life room suddenly had a buzz in it as the students ‘met’ each other in the virtual world. This was amplified when a game of hide and seek was suggested and avatars started to dash around the screens in XY and Z dimensions (an excellent ‘quest’). The students flicked between real world and in world chat as the games progressed. One pair discovered that they could throw objects around in world and appeared to be attempting to trap each other inside large spheres in what looked like a surrealist version of a fight between two super heroes. This was transition point one, when the activity shifted from simply learning a piece of software to co-habiting the same virtual space with all the attendant social effects.

The second, less satisfying transition came when the students moved into Second Life. The ‘gateway’ of orientation island jarred the movement through the planned activities. The pilots suddenly became more about Linden Labs Second Life platform and a lot less about Art & Design. This is not to say that the students floundered, in Second Life terms their OpenSim experience had pushed them past the ‘Second Life pain barrier’. In fact one of the students started to give a new Second Lifer advice after being in world for about 2 minutes! The problem was that the Art & Design focus had lost its flow. Later on in day 2 of the pilot, once all of the students had been grouped and found their way to LeedsMet island, the Art & Design angle re-emerged. The students took-up plots of land and started to build. 

So the pilot had created a smooth expansion of possibilities by initially separating the creative aspects of the MUVE from the social aspects. We do of course hope that these two areas will become intertwined as the pilot progresses but like most siblings it would seem that it can be healthy to separate them at times. The question that is hanging in the air after the first 2 days of the pilot is: once OpenSim has reached version 1.0 (currently 0.6) why use Second Life? Or in more constructive terms: maybe the educational institution should use OpenSim to control the flow of options to the students and provide a jumping off point which they can use to go into Second Life if they choose to?

Clearly there are advantages to being part of the wider community of Second Life but we need to develop methods of making the transition to the big complex world of a public MUVE smoother. At the top of the list of possible solutions is finding ways of getting into Second Life without going via orientation island.