SOLSTICE Conference 2007

On Friday I attended the SOLSTICE Conference 2007. Some very interesting workshops and talks and I’ll go through a couple now.

E-mpowerment – estrategies in performing arts

Whodathought that performing arts wasn’t just about singing and dancing?! Phil Christopher (Edge Hill University) spoke about some of the work they’ve been doing over there and it was very useful to get an idea of what goes on in the department considering one of our current projects is developing their website.

From Text to Screen: challenging approaches to creating learning in an online environment

Catherine Naamani (University of Glamorgan) shared her experiences of creating elearning materials including some quite frank admissions of problems in obtaining and converting content. One thing that surprised me a little was a mention that the time to convert a particular module was five months. I don’t know the exact numbers of people involved but there was a dedicated team, and I can appreciate that development takes time (the work I did on the Education Partnership website for example took six months), but I wonder whether there are better ways to manage roll out of materials which don’t have such a heavy up front development effort.

While “Just In Time” is often a phrase used when you forgot to do something when you were supposed to, is there something to be gained from developing elearning materials in this way? By delivering materials only shortly before they are to be used and by adapting what you roll out according to progress in the module so far can the resources be more relevant to the students’ needs? I’m sure that this approach is already being used either by accident or design and I don’t have the answer as to whether it’s better, but it does seem to be a more Web 2.0 way of doing things.

Constructing a personal learning environment the free and easy way

Some very interesting demonstrations of how technologies fit together from Derek Harding (University of Teesside). Some of the mind mappings that were done showed very clearly how traditionally university owned resources play only a small part in our online experiences. He then showed how he had built his own “Personal Learning Environment” using iGoogle to bring information and resources into a single place of choice.

iGoogle has many excellent features but it’s not perfect, for purely personal use and certainly not to rely on it in a university environment. But it is still under development. There are other competing products too and Derek mooted the idea of some kind of wish list from the HE sector for what these services should offer. That would be good but it doesn’t address my main concern – over reliance on third party hosted solutions. While I’m not claiming that Google are likely to go under any time soon, should we be relying on them or others to provide essential services? Brian Kelly gave a talk entitled Content Creation: Web 2.0 Is Providing The Solution which addressed some of the issues but it’s for each institution to balance the risks and rewards involved.

My other main concern about pushing PLEs of this sort is that currently we have nothing to bring to the party. While all manner of things are available to plug into iGoogle as widgets, currently content from the University is not available in a form which is easily reusable.

The good news is that there are plans within Web Services to address both these issues. Firstly, many of our services are being redeveloped and part of that is including things like RSS and other ways of syndicating content. The GO portal will also benefit from a significant amount of development between now and September which will make it much more personalised and able to take advantage of the ways staff and students interact with the wider internet, and if the end result is that people take the feeds and move to another portal system then that’s fine too.

What do our users look like? Myths and Facts

Lawrie Phipps from JISC gave the second keynote and discussed a few case study users – what kinds of technologies they use. The answer is that they use a lot more than most staff in Universities. Facebook, MySpace, Flickr,, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, the list goes on. Students also use such solutions as part of their study, often in preference to institutional tools. Why wait for hours for a reply to a forum post when you can send one of your friends an instant message and get the answer straight away? Most VLEs are way behind social communities in terms of ease of use, features, and perhaps most importantly, the preference of students.

Future Learning Environments

Visiting Professor Eric Hamilton from the US Air Force Academy spoke about some interesting work they’re doing over there. The idea of increasing the interactional “bandwidth” of a classroom by allowing students to learn from each other and providing better ways for teachers to constantly monitor the progress of students. They’re testing systems where each student has an agent which can help them out by pointing them to resources or by brokering time with other students who have found the solution or with the teacher. It’s like an extension of copying off the people sat next to you 🙂

While I’m not a baseball fan (ice hockey is pretty cool though!) I can see how their obsession with stats is a useful inspiration for other work that they’re doing at USAFA. Most sports these days have massive amounts of information available to commentators, and often directly to the viewer yet teachers are expected to extrapolate student progress from a simple table of grades, published once every couple of months at best. If some of the innovation that business is able to make can be applied to teaching and learning then it will be a Good Thing.

Engaging with Mobile Technologies for Learning and Assessment

There’s 60 million mobile phones in the UK – virtually every student starting university will have one and it’s long been acknowledged that mobile access to the web is just around the corner. I think we’re finally getting close to that corner! Gareth Frith and another guy who’s not listed on the programme from ALPS CETL demonstrated their progress so far on a project to develop mobile learning and assessment in Health departments and faculties at a number of institutions. They were the first to admit that the way they’ve had to go about the project isn’t ideal – buy the technology first then find ways of using it – but it probably means they’re pushing the technology more than they otherwise would have done.

Concerns had been raised by some over cost and quality of network connectivity but these seem to be excuses – costs will come down and bandwidth improve before these systems are rolled out on a large scale. The more difficult obstacle to overcome is changing the way of working and methods of assessment within institutions – reducing the reliance on paper and complex rules about who has to sign off work and evaluations. Changing this could take years.

Okay, that’s enough I think! Overall the conference was very well organised with very good speakers and I look forward to following developments in the future.

1 thought on “SOLSTICE Conference 2007

Comments are closed.