The look of the Irish

Last week I was fortunate to be invited to the Society for General Microbiology spring conference in Dublin to present in the e-learning strand – I rather cheekily expanded the original brief to ‘Open Educational Practice with Accessible Open Education resources – from Wikis to Webconferences’. This gave me the opportunity to migrate for Subject Centre for Bioscience work to my role in TechDis. I described some of our phase 1 and 2 OER projects from the Subject Centre, and how Open Educational Practice could develop from more release of suitably licenced materials (using some of our OER microbiology examples), and how the simple step of seeking to apply Creative Commons licences on appropriate learning and teaching material could gradually change the landscape. This would lead to a better learning experience for the students but not without proper recognition for those tutors who ‘play the game’ more effectively.

Awareness of the Creative Commons movement for sharing learning and teaching resources was far less than I anticipated, although I did not suspect it would be high. Obviously the focus of the SGM is towards research, where ‘Open’ tends to mean ‘Open Access’ journal publishing to maximise the potential audience for research to circulate output further and faster – but I did expect more familiarity with repositories like JORUM, XPERT the NDLR and Merlot. The advantages of circulation through the repositories network and thereby attracting more partners for constructing learning materials in the same discipline are not obvious – it appears there is more concern over the time it takes to embed another’s material and the lack of credit for doing so. Awareness of repositories exchanging metadata automatically was apparently non-existent, so depositors are not aware of the potential audience they could be syndicated to.  If the design of the resources also optimises accessibility then the resource can travel far further and persist in the community much longer.

I followed two presenters (Brian Rash a.k.a @drbrianrash and Peter Miller – see blog link) who illustrated the potential for virtual worlds (SecondLife and OpenSim).

Brian Rash showed how students with little or no previous Microbiology experience could obtain a realistic lab session which not only saved lab facilities but also was far more convenient for students to attend. There are concerns over providing virtual worlds alone for students with disabilities but there are also advantages – a blend and balance needs to be planned though, rather than on a case by case basis.

Peter Miller guided us through the advantages of the open-source OpenSim environment and the ‘steampunk’ worlds which provide a rich experience which may be equivalent for all students. His blog tells far more:

Finally, I met with Michelle Garvey and Declan Treanor to hear about the Inclusive Curriculum developments at Trinity College Dublin. Their ‘Towards the Inclusive Curriculum’ (a.k.a Trinity Inclusive Curriculum – ) site offers tools, guidelines and templates to create an inclusive academic environment, help follow good practice when planning teaching and assessment, and provides advice on developing information resources benefits all students. This merits a separate blog post itself in the very near future.

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Accessible courses need an accessibilty-friendly schema standard

OER is a social problem, not a technical one. Oops. That’s what I said at the recent CETIS conference when I made a bit of a plea for accessibility-friendly approaches to the adoption of the Learning Registry. Ok, so its an oversimplification but the gains to OER need the busy non-techie to be able to engage with the technology to share and trade better content. When Google does what appears to be enough, why struggle with repository interfaces that still return mismatched results, with no better apparent risk about the IPR? It does not seem that there is any extra credit for utilising repositories effectively to find better content over ‘Googling’ – the student feedback scores would probably be the only external measurable difference and that may be small: the time spent mining these repositories and networks could be put into writing the courses better albeit with slightly weaker materials. How do busy programme managers know how well their academics tend to this craft anyway, unless they are teaching it to each other to find better content?

But what if all courses were written to the same logical schema, and we had tools to mine them? Tony Hirst has blogged on some of the work he has recently carried out with Open University courses which sensibly have XML at the base. He illustrates how different views or ‘secondary products’ can be generated if the course has an XML structure underneath.

If all the courses were structured similarly then searching and isolating all their components for new purposes would be a doddle (with the right tools). This would be an ideal way to collaborate and share the workload in specific disciplines across multiple institutions. Imagine being able to scan all the course materials for courses no longer current i.e. out of IPR and publically archived, that were produced to the same structure (schema), and browsing the images, graphics, videos across a discipline across institutions. So, work on this beyond the confines of my old alma-mater, the OU, must exist somewhere but all I could find initially was the XCRI projects to share course metadata.

It appears there are pedagogical mark-up standards available (LD, PCML, e-LML) but I am not familiar with them, or familiar with participants in the disciplines or communities I have worked in. I do not hear any discussion about the benefits of using them in OER circles – is it too complex?

 Which comes first, the tools to simplify the markup for editing, or the demand from the community who need to discover/combine materials to encourage the standard to be created. However, it could come about if suitable plug-ins were available to simplify markup in an organisation collaborating with another in the same discipline. The mark-up would enable the routing of content independent of provider.

Lovers of MS-Word could use a common template for course metadata admin and one for the course itself (both have potential XML capable outputs) so the institution would soon generate an archive of its courses. This would be attractive to staff to take with them and very attractive to users with disabilities to obtain seperate views and routes of the materials. Each time the course gets refreshed the old one could be released into a public archive to attract the next influx of students.

If you know of an instutution undertaking this type of initiative, especially for accessibility advantages, please let me know. If you are already doing it and want some resources/tools to improve the accessibility of your materials then please comment or contact me.

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That big catch-up blog posting

Well, why no blog for ages? Apart from faffing about with my insulin (more later) there has been so much going off I did not get into the habit of public professional reflection in this blog, I did a little OER with the old one and then I dipped into instead as I thought this new social aggregator was gaining more attention. I thought ScoopIt looked like a quick and useful mechanism to highlight a few topics and save me blogtime. Anyway, the Scoops are here and are based on my filters for key stories on A&I technologies (my colleague Lisa has scooped  similarly). I have found these filters themselves to be very informative and so one reads up on what the network is doing rather than writing about it, especially when fairly new to the community. I’ll confess to some newbie cowardice (but I’ll also confess I’m not missing teaching statistics!) and not wishing to show my ignorance of the world outside HE and the Biosciences.

So, what’s going on that I’m involved with in this incredibly busy place called TechDis? Well, I was recently reading over the OER final reports before the OER3 startup. These OER projects so far, including mine, have usually addressed accessibility matters generally but few specifically (some notable exceptions). When reviewing them I felt they could sometimes accidentally bury the issues and successes within all the other aspects of the project as there is so much work involved, so we are looking at ways to boost accessibility reporting: current OER projects will have clearer direction on how to do this for reporting in 2012. We are also looking to gather some tools to help future OERs clear barriers more easiliy in another TechDis project (subject to final agreement).

The JISC Assessment and Feedback programme should offer lots of opportunities to make assessment more accessible. We are working with them to pick out the accessibility stories and share them as we go – Project blogs included. As I introduced the first campus-wide assessment server in my own Leeds campus long ago, I have always been keen to see how this can be successfully technologised as it has so much “low hanging fruit” to offer. Given the success that Nottingham have had with XERTE for accessible e-learning with Techdis, I would expect their ROGO project to be equally strong to provide accessible e-assessment through open-source code.

Having spent all my working life (~35 years) in mostly one corner of the University of Leeds Campus and in the Centre for Bioscience, it’s been very educational to finally step outside (if only part time) to the Academy’s offices in York, where TechDis are based. I’m seeing another facet of education which only confirms how myopic my own view has been within my constraints. The enormous breadth of Accessibility and Inclusion, in all disciplines, of the post-16 sector was a revelation in many ways, even though I have been working with disabilities within my own family for almost 30 years. In this last 14 months I have seen a different world and some remarkable people within it.

We have also initiated a Special Interest Group to look into how we can make better use of Web2.0 to share accessibility and inclusion work with the practitioners in the ALT. More on this will be posted in due course but we have started the ball rolling and began to develop a new network called ILSIG.

Finally, that remark about insulin at the start. I’ll bore you to death with this on request but suffice to say it has given me an insight, however temporary, with how one’s biochemistry can affect one’s concentration. I suggest a tape-recorder analogy: If you consider that full insulin=full conciousness, and very low insulin=unconciousness (you’re dead if you have none!), to waver around on the scale in-between during the working day affects the ‘tape-head’ i.e. the capacity to recall with clarity at a moment’s notice, or record the names of the seven people you are currently being introduced to (yes, you’ve had that too!) and the attention you can pay to the reams of text you are trying to understand (it starts to read as clear as a crossword). So I had occasional phases of knowing what a type of learning difficulty might feel like for periods of the day while my diabetes was being tackled. This experience is now an asset because I know first-hand how useful it is to access information at my own pace, what a difference the quality of accessible information can make, and how frustrating it can be when it isn’t. This also illustrates the fact that disabilities are often acquired – if you don’t have one now then you probably will have one day and it will be for ~12% of your life. So, the moral is to make other’s lives more accessible now and you will probably do so for your own future too.

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New Space

As many of you will know, I have recently joined Techdis as an advisor for 50% my time. I still have my UK Centre for Bioscience roles as a C&IT manager and OER project manager, but instead of the other 50-30% teaching data handling, C&IT and statistics (and all sorts of other odds and sods) I now have a mainly HE oriented role at TechDis. What a good move – I have joined a really nice crew who have a huge portfolio of resources, projects and activities to engage with across HE, FE and specialist colleges. It’s important,  busy and interesting and I thank them for their warm welcome. I will be covering some of the work done by Simon Ball as he is seconded for part of his time to the EIFL project for leading work on free and open source solutions (FOSS). One of the first useful FOSS solutions I met was the accessapps collection (which can run from a memory stick without installation). Brilliant!

So what have I learned so far? Well, my first impression is that HE can learn lots from FE and the specialist colleges as I always suspected. HE does not appear to have a habit of looking in the prior levels to find innovative solutions to the new student challenges – I thought I was fairly clued up and even  I struggled. This should diminish though as I get more familiar with the duties in the post and the new website, but it is clear already that there are new ways to promote ideas with the Web 2.0 environments by engaging better with the communities that are building within them.  A work blog is a good start. If you are working with technologies for improving accessibility please send me a link to your blog.

It has been really refreshing to see a bold sense of adventure as FE and specialist colleges engage with the ‘cloud’ of new solutions outside the institutional provision of IT. I have attended a number of events so far and met some interesting approaches. A recent NASS event intoduced me to David Sugden and Lillian Soon (Techdis Accredited trainers), demonstrating new approaches through presentations and blogs. I attended the Mobile Learning Network ‘MoleNet‘ this week and saw many of these technologies in action.  People outside HE are just as inventive and enthusiatic about these affordances, and possibly less constrained by institutional  habits and provision. They think on their feet and engage with what their students engage with and are experienced at innovation with small budgets – something we all will have to get used to again. I would guess that the proportion of students with diverse disabilities is slightly higher outside HE so inclusive practice appears to be more embedded and natural to the inventive tutor. These are all first impressions of course but it would not be much of a blog if it did not share a path of discovery.

Also, the scope of the work here in TechDis is enormous. So are the opportunities. I have the advantage of relative ignorance to discover lots of issues and ask questions – including a few daft ones. You know me – I will. Accessibility is important for all disciplines so I will welcome opportunities to explore areas outside the biosciences and perhaps bridge ideas between them) . The delivery of well designed material into an accessible curriculum is essential for any institution to be able to show how it is providing an inclusive environment where all students are properly provided for. The arrival of the Single Equality Duty today may see attention here being refreshed.

I have worked with quite a few academic staff and other colleagues  over the years who have had insufficient time to provide the most accessible material, including myself, and ‘made-do’ with the most pragmatic solution at the time. We know its not good enough if its not the best that can be offered but like others I have on occasion hid behind the excuse that I did not have time to do it any other way. We had to be ‘realistic’. But now this sinner has reached the convent so I will lose that habit (npi) and discover just how much effort is really required to finish the job properly. I suspect it is far less than I feared once armed with more case studies, techniques and tools – not to cope better, but to prepare better. What I used to be reasonably good though at was bending the scope of the modules to bring in new technologies and make the teaching sessions more interesting. I taught statistics for God’s sake – here we need all the help we can get. Many of these technologies can improve accessibility too.

In these first couple of weeks at TechDis I have seen lots of new uses for common kit like PSPs, Wii, MP3 players, video cameras, audio recorders,  peripherals and mobile phones. The MoleNet conference this week presented lots of innovative use of mobiles in work-based learning using ‘cloud’ solutions like DropBox, EvernoteSkype, Posterous, iPadio and many more. If you are in HE and haven’t a  clue what these are then I have probably made my point.

I’ll blog soon about my Techdis brief about resources for Assessment; Support and Guidance for OER; Management Strategies for Technology Change for Inclusion; more inclusive e-Portfolios and HEAT projects; but for now I have the feeling that far more doors have opened than closed, and I am looking forward to the challenges and opportunities beyond them and sharing these with you. Sharing back would be welcomed.

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