SOLSTICE Conference 2010

Today was my fourth (2007, 2008/p2, 2009) SOLSTICE conference held here at Edge Hill University, this time in the Faculty of Health building (also the home to SOLSTICE itself).

Once again this year I live-tweeted the conference using my @MikeNolanLive account which seemed quite successful – certainly avoided dozens of people unfollowing me!  As with last year I’ll do a brief summary of each of the sessions I attended.

Professor Gilly Salmon: Pathways to Learning Futures

Gilly Salmon

Good start to the conference with Gilly introducing some of the experiences the University of Leicester have had with promoting and embedding technologies. Of particular interest is the Media Zoo and its presence online, in the real world, in second life and for students:

Media Zoo

It’s an interesting concept (although I think some of their acronyms are a little forced because of it – PANTHER, CALF, DUCKLING, SWIFT…) and has made them, through this matrix, consider a broader range of technical levels and audiences:

University of Leicester: Learning Innovation Strategy

Paul Lowe: OPEN-i – Building a Virtual Community of Practice for Photojournalism


Paul’s fast-paced talk was a great blend of some of the background behind Communities of Practice combined with some details of what they’ve created around photojournalism courses.  They have used Ning as the basis of the community combined with Wimba for live seminars which are recorded and made available for later viewing.

It was interesting that they have had less success with asynchronous communication tools like forums with the suggestion that they were already served well elsewhere and people liked the real-time content they offered.

Partnering with other organisations has been successful in building critical mass around events.  Academics acting as the “critical friend” to the sector has also been well received with them offering something and not just being seen to use professionals for their free experience.

Jim Turner: Review on LJMU Innovative and Technologically Enhanced Learning Spaces

Jim Turner: Review on LJMU Innovative and Technologically Enhanced Learning Spaces

First of two sessions by Jim today. This one was a bit of a whistle-stop tour of different types of learning space at LJMU. Sometimes at Edge Hill it seems space is such a premium that it’s not possible to innovate as much as we could or should.

Shirley Hunter-Barnett: Embedded Audio Feedback

Shirley Hunter-Barnett: Embedded Audio Feedback

Building on research from last year, Shirley is looking at whether the use of audio feedback can help make students feel less isolated.  Results appeared a bit inconclusive and an increasing resistance from tutors to use audio feedback. Reasons given included worries about giving one student someone else’s feedback, concern about the extra time it takes and not liking the sound of their voice.

Jim Turner: Stitching the Web Together with Yahoo! Pipes

Jim Turner: Stitching the Web Together with Yahoo! Pipes

After lunch and skipping back to the office to work on a few things (which unfortunately meant I missed Peter Hartley’s keynote) I went down to the SOLSTICE Red Room for Jim’s second session of the day.

I must admit I’ve heard everything he said before having attended several of Tony Hirst’s talks but what I found very useful was the beginner’s approach and I’d be more comfortable now telling someone else how to get started with Pipes through some basic examples.

Julie Swain and Sue Atkinson: “Meeting Employers’ Needs”

Sue Atkinson and Julie Swain from Plymouth talk ePortfolios

I sometimes struggle to really get electronic portfolios and how they’re any more than just a website where you put stuff but what they’re doing with the University of Plymouth and Colleges seems to be well received by students and employers. They’re using PebblePad but there was some discussion afterwards about alternative products.

Dr Mary Dean: Take hundreds of eDocuments Wherever You Go

Forgot to take a photo of this session but readers at Edge Hill can go and see Mary in person!

Mary gave a summary of the initial progress on Edge Hill’s JISC funded project looking into the use of eReaders for university committees. They are looking at two meetings the members of which are supplied with Sony Touch eReaders that can be loaded with PDFs of the papers.

Some challenges have been found in the way people prepare for meetings and how tables, diagrams and images in PDFs appear on the smaller screen.

I have one concern with these kinds of projects which time didn’t allow me to raise during the session and that’s one that was made at the Eduserv Symposium last month.  There, John Traxler said something along the lines of:

We run the risk of proving that spending money on education improves education.

In this context, supplying devices to groups of people should, with the right support, enable them to do things more efficiently but that simply doesn’t scale.  Without significant investment in hardware and training it isn’t possible to turn every meeting held in the University into a (near) paperless one.  Perhaps, as someone in the session was suggesting, we should be looking at how we can better enable individuals to use the devices they already own or will be buying in the next six to twelve months for university work.



Overall another good conference. The backchannel had a similar level of engagement to last year and you can see more about it over on Twapper Keeper and Summarizr.  I managed to improve my workflow somewhat by using an Eye-Fi card in my camera to automagically upload photos to Flickr from where I could tweet them straight out.  I’ve tagged all my photos with solstice2010 so you should be able to see them alongside others from the conference.

No ducklings this year but maybe these two are some of the ones I spotted a year ago:


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!


Live Tweeting Events

Last weekend I attended BarCamp Leeds at Old Broadcasting House.  I’m not going to talk about the sessions – I hope to cover that on my personal blog sometime this week, but I was trying out a new Twittering technique.

I’ve said before that one of the best uses of microblogging services like Twitter is at conferences and I’ve got quite a few on this year so I’ve been thinking about how best to use the service during live events. I have quite a varied set of followers – everything from geeks to journalists (who I’ve come to realise are actually just another set of geeks!) – so a large proportion of what I tweet about won’t be of interest to everybody.

The solution I tried out last weekend, and plan to continue is to split my Twitter accounts. Many people separate their professional and personal lives, but I’ve not been keen on doing that. My work influences who I am and vice versa. I came across an alternative solution employed by Martin Belam where he maintains two accounts – @currybet for regular use and @currybet_live for use during events. It seems to have worked well – one place to see everything about an event without annoying followers who aren’t interested.

So for BarCamp Leeds I created @MikeNolanLive and used it to post messages, photos and video from the event. I mentioned it a couple of times throughout the day from my main account to remind people where I was and at the end of the day I signed off and pointed people back to @MikeNolan:

MikeNolanLive on Twitter during BarCamp Leeds

It seemed to go pretty well so I plan to repeat the exercise at tomorrow’s SOLSTICE Conference and other conferences during the summer.

EeePC one; Michael nil

My attempt yesterday to semi-live blog was scuppered by an obscure problem with my laptop so you’ll have to survive with my four-day-old memories of the conference!

Picking up from where I left off – after welcomes from Mark Flinn and Alison Mackenzie and an introduction from Mark Schofield we went into the first keynote talk.

Les Watson from the Glasgow Caledonian University began:

There is, as yet, no paradigm for the 21st Century University

Saltire Centre - Norma Desmond - Creative Commons LicenceThe talk built up to what they’re doing at the Saltire Centre, an impressive learning space by the look of the photos and a million miles away from what I had at my University.

I’m not going to go over everything in the talk – you can find a copy of the slides from a very similar presentation online – but I’ll do my brain dump here:

  • Be unhappy (with the way things are)
  • The truly successful businessman is essentially a dissenter
  • Michael Wesch’s “If these walls could talk” (in case you’ve not seen it already)
  • Decreasing creativity with age. 2% at 25
  • Barcodes

My first breakout session was “How can we make our online content interesting?” by Edge Hill’s Lindsey Martin and Mark Roche, now at MMU talking about how they structured an online module to make the content as engaging as possible. The challenges are similar to those we have when designing for public facing websites – how to put across a lot of information in a way that people can understand and absorb when reading online. A lot of effort is spent editing text, choosing photos and coming up with innovative ways of navigating content for the web, and we’re not there yet. We can probably learn from the way teaching resources are provided and maybe some of the techniques we try to promote to staff with a responsibility for supplying content for the corporate site can also be applied to course content.

After the break was the chaired session – three presentations with a linked topic, in my case “embedding eLearning”

Helen Bell and Rachel Bury (of this Parish) presented the steps being taken here towards a baseline entitlement for the VLE. The exact baseline varies slightly between faculties but by September every first year undergraduate starting at Edge Hill will have access to some core information through Blackboard.

Ryan Bird from the University of Reading gave details of their Pathfnder project.

Third session was Peter Reed (Edge Hill University) and Richard Hall (De Montfort University) talking about their Pathfinder projects. Both gave an interesting insight into the work they’re doing. Lawrie Phipps asked a question about whether the work being done at DMU could be seen as an exit strategy for their VLE. DMU’s approach seems to be more about upskilling staff to allow them to make better use of all technologies whether they be part of an institutional VLE or third party web applications.

Final part of the day for me (before sneaking back to the office) was the second keynote from Eric Hamilton. I attended his workshop last year and some of the same issues were raised then but it was good to see some of the ideas expressed in a new way. The concept of sightlines in a teaching setting always interests me, as does the baseball model of statistics – give everything to the user and let them figure out what they want.

I’m going to leave it at that for now – if you’ve got any questions or want me to expand on anything please leave a comment. The conference overall was very useful and has given me much to think about over the coming months.

My experiment with live blogging however leaves much to be desired. I’m not going to give up though – I shall try again at IWMW 2008!

SOLSTICE Conference 2008

Today I’m at SOLSTICE’s third annual conference, subtitled eLearning and Learning Environments for the Future. Mark Schofield introduced the conference:

The key aim today is to collectively contribute to the rowing agenda and generation of knowledge at this University and in the international community.

I’m going to attempt some semi-live blogging so check back for more over the day.

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.