SOLSTICE Conference 2009

Last Thursday was SOLSTICE’s fourth – and my third – Annual Conference, held here in Edge Hill University’s Faculty of Education.  Following last year’s epic failure at live blogging, this year I was determined to do things right.

Live blogging the event means I don’t have to write up anything – you can just read the transcript, right? Unfortunately not.  While all the twittering gives you a nice insight into the event, 140 characters isn’t enough to draw meaningful conclusions from  the topics discussed, so I’ll have to give some follow up.  I’ll cover a little about each of the sessions I attended followed by some more general thoughts about the event and covering it live online.

The Impact of Learner Experience Research Dr Rhona Sharpe, Oxford Brookes University

First keynote from Rhona was about researching the learner experience. Very interesting talk including a couple of video clips of students. Two really interesting points were the methods of evaluating learner experiences – things like talking walls, audio logs and telephone interviewing – and the access enablers and barriers – things like single sign on and restrictions on access to social networks. We do pretty well for some of these, but always more work to do.

The Use of Social Networking Sites: two practical examples, Anthony Wall, University of Ulster

Our Hi applicant website has been running for over two years now and I think it’s been pretty successful. When it launched it was pretty unique in the UK but the growth of social networks within universities has led others to look at what they offer. The University of Ulster have adopted third party social networks – in this case Bebo – to engage students before they come to university. The two examples were at a department level which meant fewer users but I imagine it’s easier to provide targeted information. There was an 11-32% engagement level.

One of the more surprising comments from Anthony was that students aren’t interested in “talking heads” videos. This has been something we’ve been keen to do more of on our corporate website, and something I think prospective students get a lot out of. My suspicion is that Ulster’s social networks were aimed at people at a different point in the application cycle and that since they’ve already applied they are less interested in the “sales pitch” type videos that are better sited along side course information.

The session ended with a couple of predictions for the future: Mobile and real Networking. I think both are correct – an increasing amount of casual browsing of sites like Facebook is happening on mobile phones – I know of many people who mainly use the mobile versions – and better quality mobile browsers combined with affordable data packages means this is a real growth area.

Reflections on Using the Blackboard E-portfolio, Alex Spiers, Liverpool John Moores University

Standing room only for the chaired panel session I attended. Arriving late, I was stood at the front to one side trying not to be noticed while blogging and taking the odd photo.

ePortfolios “take the CV into the modern era”, apparently. They’re not something I’ve had too much to do with but I can see their potential. Liverpool John Moores are using the one built into Blackboard. Users had a range of experience levels but it was generally found to be easy to use. Unsurprisingly, when marks are awarded, uptake is increased.

Loaded question of the day came from Phil Christopher:

PC: Have you seen Blackboard 9?
AS: Yes.
PC: Does the word “clunky” still apply?
AS: It’s no Facebook, but it’s pretty slick.

From the little I’ve seen of BB9/NG, it’s much improved but it still wouldn’t hurt for Blackboard to hire a few more UI designers!

Higher Education Study Skills – Delivering and supporting HE Study Skills across a dispersed partnership, Julie Swain, Claire Gray, University of Plymouth & Hazel English, City of Bristol College

Interesting and quite different setup compared to most HEIs. They’re delivering information through Sharepoint to a number of partner colleges. Staff development for remote sites is increasingly through the VLE or video conferencing.

Bending the Blend: re-creating good practice in an online induction, Denise Turner & Sue Myer, University of Teesside

Final talk in the chaired panel session gave me another quote likely-to-get-me-into-trouble:

Librarians are not natural risk takers 😉

A few bullet points taken from my Twitter feed:

  • Visual context is important, e.g. compare ebooks to a physical library
  • Use a tripod when recording video
  • Camtasia for online induction materials
  • Contemplated using Netvibes but decided against it

We’ve Spent Too Much Money To Go Back Now Professor Tara Brabazon, University of Brighton

Tara BrabazonI went to Tara Brabazon’s session at the CASE Europe Annual Conference last year so I had an idea what to expect (don’t sit at the front; don’t make eye contact!) and looking through the tweets, her talk was for many the highlight of the conference. The OHP was out and the visualizer was in – there was even ghetto blaster for pumping out some tunes. The topic of the keynote was about student literacy.

With biting attacks on Marc Prensky’s digital immigrant/digital native terms, the Daily Mail, Baroness Greenfield (oh dear, my Dad will be disappointed!) and of course Wikipedia, I can’t really do the talk justice so I hope that video will be made available soon.

Connecting Transitions and Independent Learning: an evaluation of read/write web approach, Dr Richard Hall, De Montfort University

For me, a session of two halves with Richard first setting a series of questions to discuss in groups. A little too academic-focused for me, or maybe I was just slow understanding what was being asked for. Picked up during the second half of the session with some Richard explaining some of the experiences of peer mentoring at De Montfort.

Learning 2.0@JMU, Leo Appleton & Alex Spiers, Liverpool John Moores University

photoMy second session from Alex Spiers of the day, this time joined by Leo Appleton (formerly of this Parish) to talk about introducing a range of Web 2.0 sites and services to Learning Services staff. Staff were split into groups and set tasks through the VLE over a period of 12 weeks. The aim was to get staff up to speed to allow them to support students in using the VLE and other technologies they might encounter.

Lots of Common Craft videos were used to demonstrate principles of services such as blogs, social networks and Delicious social bookmarks. Range of feedback from “I’m not joining moron Facebook” and “I can’t see what this has got to do with my job” to “great opportunity – wouldn’t have learned it otherwise”.

To finish off there was a battle of the Web 2.0 geeks with myself, AM_Doherty and one other person lasting until the last question – “are you active in Second Life” – I’m glad I got knocked out at that point!

Close facilitated by Professor Peter Hartley, University of Bradford

A short summary session covering some of the key topics discussed during the conference finished things off. I suspect Peter was on commission for Flip Cameras – he seemed quite taken to them (I really must put an order in for one).

Finished off with a vote for what topics should be covered in the next conference. Mobile technologies, student use of technology and the changing role of lecturers came high.


A few final points from me before I call time on SOLSTICE 2009. Live tweeting was fun and gets easier the more you practice. I used Twitterfall to monitor tweets from other people using the #solstice2009 hashtag. This is really really easy to follow in one browser tab and because it automatically refreshes you don’t need to pay too much attention to it. It would also have been nice to have some screens up showing live tweets, either in the lecture theatre, or possible in the reception or Water’s Edge. I used my dedicated @MikeNolanLive account for posts to keep it away from my main account. I also had the online conference schedule loaded up so that I could copy and paste the session titles into Twitter.

Twitter seemed to work well as a backchannel. Over 30 people tweeted using #solstice2009 throughout the conference – some more than others – including a few that didn’t attend IRL. Twitter Search appeared to fail for about an hour between 12:40 and 13:59 where messages weren’t being indexed and still aren’t available through search. People were tweeting however and messages are available through individual users’ timelines. There’s also the question of preserving tweets long term as Twitter Search only makes messages available for a month or so (anyone know exact details of this – some seem to say you can search back further using the API).

So inspired by Tony Hirst, I’ve munged tweets into a spreadsheet on Google Docs. I’ve attempted to add in which session each tweet relates to. If you know any that are missing, contact me and I’ll give you edit access. It would also be nice to add in missing messages from lunchtime.

One possible use for this data is to combine timestamped tweets with audio/video streams to subtitle a talk with the live tweets. Probably not something I’ve got the time to do but let me know if you try it!

I took photos using two cameras – high(er) quality pics using my digital SLR and some using my iPhone for direct upload to Twitpic. I’ve subsequently uploaded all my photos to Flickr and tagged them solstice2009. No one else has yet uploaded photos from the conference to Flickr, but there are some from another “solstice2009”!

That’s all for this time. I’ll leave you with a picture of some ducklings. See you next year!