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Speakers a drawcard to the 2014 Digital Rural Futures Conference

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014
Digital Classroom Speakers: Centre -  Dr Wendy Craik AM. Clockwise from top-left: Dr  Alison McCarthy, Professor John Traxler, Mark Gardyne, Janelle Reimann, Neil Gardyne, Professor Snow Barlow

Digital Rural Futures Conference Speakers: Centre – Dr Wendy Craik AM. Clockwise from top-left – Dr Alison McCarthy, Professor John Traxler, Mark Gardyne, Janelle Reimann, Neil Gardyne, Professor Snow Barlow

Associate Professor Shirley Reushle writes:

This year’s Digital Rural Futures conference to be held at USQ’s Toowoomba campus from the 25th-27th of June, promises to be a significant event.

Key speakers will travel from across Australia, the UK and New Zealand to share, with conference delegates, their insights, new ideas, and their passion for invention and innovation.

Dr Wendy Craik is a Commissioner of the Productivity Commission. Wendy is currently heading up an inquiry into Childcare and Early Childhood Learning. Wendy was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia in 2007 for service to the natural resource sector of the economy, particularly in the areas of fisheries, marine ecology and management of water reform, and for contributions to policies affecting rural and regional Australia.

Neil Gardyne and his son, Mark, will talk about their activities on their sheep/beef and cropping farms in Southland, New Zealand, particularly the use of “digital aerial eyes” to keep track of their stock. The two farms, operated by Neil and his wife Phillipa, are in the top 2% for their class of farming.

Neil won the Australasian Rabobank Executive Development programme in 2010 and was a finalist in the Lincoln south island farmer of the year. Mark, their 13-year-old son, is the technologist who suggested turning to technology to monitor stock movements and potential issues through the use of remote-controlled drones.

Professor John Traxler, the University of Wolverhampton’s Professor of Mobile Learning, will travel from the UK to share his insights into the use of mobile technologies to benefit communities and economies across the globe, particularly those in developing countries.

John has co-written a guide to mobile learning in developing countries and is co-editor of the definitive book, Mobile learning: A handbook for educators and trainers, with Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme.

Dr Alison McCarthy is an irrigation and mechatronic research engineer within the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture at USQ. She has been involved with research projects in the cotton industry for seven years and her research has led to the development of real-time adaptive irrigation control and plant-based sensing systems.

In March 2014, Alison received two major awards, including the top honour at the Federal Government’s 2014 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture.

Janelle Reimann is Principal of Willunga High School, situated in the McLaren Vale wine growing area of South Australia. Willunga High School became the first government secondary school connected to the NBN on mainland Australia.

The school is involved in two National programs: a virtual classroom about astrophysics and nanotechnology operating in a shared environment with other students across Australia and a “Mars Lab”, where students manipulate the Mars Rover, learning about space exploration through hands-on experiences. Janelle has been described by students as “an awesome principal”!

Professor Snow Barlow is a plant physiologist and agricultural scientist, whose research interests include plant water use efficiency, viticulture and the impacts of climate change on agriculture, water management and global food security.

Based at the Melbourne School of Land and Environment, he chairs the Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge and Innovation, the Expert Advisory Panel of the Department of Agriculture, Carbon Farming Futures RDE program and is a board member of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation.

Together with his partner Winsome McCaughey, Snow operates a vineyard in the Strathbogie Ranges in North Eastern Victoria and markets premium wine under the Baddaginnie Run label.

Join us at the Digital Rural Futures conference in Toowoomba! For more information about the Conference, visit the website.

Earlybird registrations are available until 30 April 2014!

Making the Connection

Friday, April 4th, 2014
From Access to Succes

The ‘Making the Connection’ project will develop a complete higher education pathway aimed at widening access for Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarcerated students.

Sharron Dove writes:

ADFI has recently been successful in the grant for the Making the connection: Improving Access to Higher Education for Low Socio-Economic Status Students with ICT Limitations (‘Making the Connection’) project. This project is funded through a Commonwealth Government grant for the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP).

HEPPP aims to ensure that Australians from low socio-economic backgrounds who have the ability to study at university get the opportunity to do so. The ‘Making the Connection’ project will develop a complete higher education pathway aimed at widening access for Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarcerated students. The university’s Indigenous Higher Education Pathways Program (IHEPP), Tertiary Preparation Program (TPP), a Diploma of Arts and a Bachelor of General Studies will be adapted so that students do not require access to the internet to undertake their studies, as internet access is unavailable to incarcerated students.

The University of Southern Queensland (USQ), in collaboration with Bendigo TAFE, OERu (Open Educational Resources University), Queensland Corrective Services (QCS), Serco Asia Pacific, the Careers Employment Australia (CEA) Group and Salvation Army Employment Plus, is proposing to develop a complete higher education pathway aimed at widening access for Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarcerated students.

In addition to the USQ courses listed above, the Mumgu-dhal tyama-tiyt Certificates I, II and II at Bendigo TAFE, which is for Indigenous students who have not completed secondary school, will be similarly adapted.

This project will also facilitate continued participation in education or transition into the workplace after release from custody through programs developed by the CEA Group and the Salvation Army. These students will have access to ongoing support through specially developed social media channels. The programs will be delivered using an innovative learning management system (LMS) called Stand-Alone Moodle (SAM) that is able to operate without internet access.

SAM will provide these students with similar course materials and activities to those available to traditional students, thereby improving the quality of incarcerated student learning experiences. In addition, mobile devices will be supplied preloaded with course materials that will enable incarcerated students to study even without access to computer labs.

These technologies will help to foster the digital literacy skills needed in future study or in the workplace. The project will be developed and implemented in a staged manner over a three year period in correctional centres across Australia. In the final stage of the project, resources will be developed to enable these programs and technologies to be deployed to communities in rural, regional and remote areas, including Indigenous communities, without access to the internet.

What 3D Printing Brings to Education

Monday, March 24th, 2014
3D printer parts manufactured from a 3D printer

3D printer parts manufactured from a 3D printer

Dr Xiang Ren writes:

Last week I attended a workshop in Dalby with Prof Mike Keppell entitled “Find out what 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing could do for your business?”

Organized by QMI Solutions, the workshop was very informative and interesting. It provided people with an opportunity to see 3D printing machines working and to touch and feel the amazing stuff that was printed.

Although I’ve watched videos on 3D printing before, standing beside the magic machines and touching the real products with your fingers was still a fresh experience and it was amazing to witness this technological revolution first-hand.

In addition to the exhibition, the presentation by Dr Sara Eastwood was impressive; it gave audiences insightful ideas about the development of 3D Printing and its potential impact on a variety of industries.

Although the term “3D Printing” is widely used, “additive manufacturing” is a more accurate concept for the emerging, revolutionary technology.

The definition is “the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies”.  Focusing on the technological development and industrial adoption of “additive manufacturing”, Sara’s presentation widened audiences’ sights on what could be produced, from engineering to fashion, from small components to huge vehicles, from arts to functional instruments. Personally, it’s far beyond my previous understanding and imagination of what could be achieved with a “printer”.

3D Printing machines are becoming more affordable with a starting price of around $500. They can also use various cheap common materials like plastic, metal, chocolate, and even recycled materials like wasted paper.

These factors have resulted in the fast growth of the application in many fields. Sara introduced some interesting case studies of additive manufacturing all over the world as well as in Queensland; for example, Centor, SIDC, Henrob, and Joinlox.

The case of Toowoomba Clubhouse is especially inspiring. It gives people with a mental illness the opportunity to engage with 3D printing technology and provides them with opportunities for employment, education, creativity, design, and entrepreneurialism by learning about and using 3D printers and software.

3D printing has provided new affordances and advantages that may revolutionise education. 3D printing is useful to demonstrate principles and abstract models in almost all subjects, for instance, 3D math equations, 3D art sculpture, 3D cells and viruses for Biology.

In disciplines like engineering design, creative arts, architecture, medical and life sciences, 3D printing is becoming essential in teaching and learning. 3D printing technology helps students to visualise a design and easily test their aesthetic and functional ideas.

The technology also reduces the cost of modelling, modifying, and representing a design in various contexts. A local school exhibited the artistic stuffs designed by the students and printed by 3D printers.

The teacher believes that the educational interface of “What You See Is What You Get” offers novel advantages to engage students and fulfils requirements for a productive and enjoyable educational experience.

One focus of the workshop was the adoption of additive manufacturing by regional manufacturing industries. However, it is still challenging. Low awareness of the capabilities of additive manufacturing, lack of training, consultancy, and after sale services for industrial users, and the absence of supportive governmental policies are just some of the key challenges. In regional areas like Dalby, it is even more challenging for local industries to adopt ground-breaking technology due to limited access to resources.

For Higher Education institutions, in addition to utilizing 3D printers in teaching and learning, they could play an important role in building a supportive learning community and a shared knowledge base on additive manufacturing.

The face-to-face training, research, and consultancy services are necessary. Harnessing digital and networked technologies, the institutions with expertise in educational technologies will also be able to help build online communities and networks that widely connect knowledge, experts, and industries effectively. Such an open flow of knowledge and information is essential for the adoption of emerging technologies like additive manufacturing.

Book Review: Interface Design for Learning

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Interface Design for Learning by Dorian Peters (Published December 2013 by New Riders)

Interface design for learning book cover

Dorian Peters tackles learning interface design

Neil Martin writes:

Designing effective interfaces is one of the biggest challenges facing online learning.  How do we know that the interface is complementing learning? What strategies can we use to improve the learning experience?

In her book, Interface Design for Learning, Dorian Peters offers evidence-based strategies to improve the design of learning interfaces. It is an enlightening book that will be helpful to teachers and academics, learning technologists and learning designers. The author always puts the learner at the centre of design strategy but perhaps, more importantly, focuses on learning contexts.

Early chapters introduce the concept of learning interface design and also give a whistle-stop tour of learning theory from early theorists like Edward Thorndike right up to the present such as the internet-dependant connectivist approaches developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.

Dorian Peters differentiates learning interface design from learning design or instructional design by describing it as “User interface design intended to support learning objectives”. I was pleased to see a strong focus on User Experience Design (UX), which is so pervasive in the web design industry, and recognition that learning interface design is a special case.

The book gives a quick overview of the online learning landscape and includes learning management systems, Web 2.0 technologies, and new paradigms such as OERs and MOOCs. It includes multiple strategies that, if successful, can improve the learning experience. These include strategies for:

  • Visual design
  • Social design
  • Emotional design
  • Situational contexts such as mobile design and use of multimedia
  • Learning spaces

Visual design

The visual design chapter talks about why aesthetics are important. The author shows that the aim of the designer is to create an online environment in which learning can potentially take place.

The designer, through knowledge of good practice, should avoid adding elements that may detract from learning.  This can include poor use of fonts, incorrect colour choices and inappropriate use of motion or other distractions. The chapter also shows good examples of information layouts, data visualisation, and communicating complexity in a simple fashion (if that’s not an oxymoron!).

Social design

Tools that harness learning through collaboration, group activity and a sense of connectedness can create a rich and dynamic learning environment.

In her chapter on social learning, Dorian Peters looks at strategies to encourage collaboration and create a participatory culture. I like the fact that she recognises that this is not an easy thing to achieve. However, she offers some excellent strategies on how the learning interface can help. For example, making usability a priority seems obvious.

Many digital learning environments do not make it easy for learners to build and sustain their presence, so designing for different learner roles in a community and having interface cues to scaffold those roles is vital.

Emotional design

The considered use of emotional elements within the design of an interface has the potential to improve engagement with that interface and the learning that takes place. Dorian Peters refers to the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and their Self Determination Theory in the importance of creating autonomous, competent and related learners. Using elements that will surprise or delight learners is a possible strategy; however, the professional or cultural context of the learner is important and close attention should always be paid to this factor.

Multimedia and mobile considerations

The last few chapters of the book focus on specific technologies and what contexts they can effectively implemented in. The chapter on multimedia design shows how  audio, video and animation can be harnessed as powerful learning tools.  However, it is imperative to keep the content relevant, optimised and with effective controls to allow the learner to set their own learning pace.

A further chapter looks at mobile interface design. Given that this area is subject to a great deal of change, the author has shared strategies at quite a general level.

Designing for mobile is particularly tricky as contexts can be so varied. For example, the interface could be designed for location based learning (such as fieldwork) or, alternatively, a mobile friendly skin for an LMS. A takeaway from this chapter is that mobile learning tends to be relatively brief but intensive and interface designers should keep this in mind when designing learning activities in this context.

Learning spaces

The final chapter of the book examines strategies for interface design when online learning is treated as a learning space. One point that resonated with me is that the interface is not just the screen; it involves other hardware inputs such as keyboard, mouse, external lighting and so on. Once again, it is crucial to think about the context.

To conclude

Interface Design for Learning is an accessible book that will offer practical help in designing online learning experiences. Its consistent message —the importance of paying attention to detail when considering the learning experience and corresponding contexts— is a real winner.

About the Author

Dorian Peters is a creative lead and web and learning interface designer at the University of Sydney. She has written two books: one on on e-learning interface design and the other on positive computing. Dorian also blogs regularly on UX design in relation to learning environments.

Visit her website  for more information.

Innovation and distributing determination of quality

Monday, March 10th, 2014
Spiders web

Indra’s net

Dr Nick Kelly writes:

An image drawn from Buddhist philosophy is of a spider’s web covered with dew-drops. The significance of the image is that its beauty comes from the way in which each dew drop reflects all other drops. The droplets are interconnected in this complex way, and their beauty comes from these connections.

The image is a powerful one to introduce the theme of how we determine quality (of resources, people, information) in a society that increasingly relies upon the internet. The internet has changed and will continue to change many sectors of society by making it cheap (trivially so) and accessible (we all know how to do it) to duplicate and communicate data anywhere in the world. As a society we are still exploring the effects and potential of this.

This blog post is about one idea within this context; that much of the disruptive innovation driven by the internet has come about not simply through increased inclusivity but, rather, through innovation in ways to distribute the determination of quality.

Whilst it is often simple to ‘scale things up’ with the internet and get more people involved in something, the hard part is finding a way to similarly scale up the way that quality is determined. (For a subjective definition of quality we adopt the notion of ‘fit for purpose’)

Some examples are helpful for introducing the idea and distilling a common narrative (Kelly, Sie, & Suwer, In press):

  • In the 90′s anybody could create a web page with HTML, and many people did. However, judging the usefulness of a given site was a difficult problem. Google changed all that with their use of eigenvector centrality (within the ‘PageRank’ algorithm) to quantify quality based upon the interconnected network of web page links (Page, Brin, Motwani, & Winograd, 1999). A site’s value is judged based upon the links to it from other sites, and these links are weighted based upon their respective value. By mining the graph of connections the value of each site can be determined. (A fantastic intuitive understanding of the complex nature of this calculation can be gained through this NetLogo simulation of PageRank).
  • In research administration there is a desire to ‘manage’ the quality of research and hence to measure it. Many academics publish many articles, but which ones can be judged as high quality? The field of bibliometrics attempts to respond to this problem through content and citation analysis. Some of most popular metrics (e.g. the SCIMago Journal Rank or SJR as it is commonly known) utilise applications of the same eigenvector centrality measure used in Google’s PageRank.
  • The company AirBnB has provided a platform such that anybody can open up their house for guests, thus allowing individuals to compete with hotels to provide accommodation. The difficulty in setting up this platform was not so much the ability to list their house (increasing inclusivity), but rather the challenge of ensuring quality in the listings – people wanting to stay in accommodation register by uploading ID documents, people listing houses need to provide accurate photos, and ratings and reviews play a part in providing constant community feedback.
  • A new company Uber allows for anybody to use their car to provide ‘taxi’ services to others using the platform that requires this service. The online platform removes barriers to entry (inclusivity) allowing anyone with a car to compete in providing taxi services and it maintains quality in a way that is similar to AirBnB.
  • eBay similarly allowed for increased inclusivity in online trading, allowing anybody to turn their home into a warehouse for selling goods. The challenge of ensuring quality involves legal protections, reviews, ratings and metrics such as number of goods sold.

These few cherry-picked examples have a common narrative: the internet makes it possible to implement processes on a grand scale. Wherever this occurs, a need is created to distinguish quality. The above examples can all be seen as disruptive innovations within their sector. It can be argued that the significant innovation in each case is the way in which quality is determined within the large-scale community.

The current fashion for MOOCs (the acronym for which is increasingly irrelevant) in higher education provides a useful case study. The model of students being taught by a lecturer and tutors on campus has been around for centuries and is difficult to scale. Putting digital course content online and making it open has been around in various forms for a long time but offered a different kind of education. Downes and Siemens introduced the term MOOC to emphasise the way that online courses designed in a specific way could be massive, open and, in this way, fulfil the aims of connectivist pedagogy (what are now known as cMOOCs). However, determining the quality of students within MOOCS (both formative to aid the students and summative for the ‘gatekeeping’ role of university education) is difficult within this expanded context. Innovations such as automated marking and peer-assessment have been used within the MOOC context but, as the two links show, also strongly criticised.

Recent work has begun developing a collection of ways in which quality is assured online and organising them into a taxonomy:

  • Implicit measures: Users of a service to do what they would normally do. Quality is measured using implicit metrics, such as Eigenvalue analysis and content analysis (e.g. PageRank) or indicators of behaviours (e.g. seller ratings of eBay based upon volume sold, and measures of contributions on StackOverflow)
  • Explicit measures: Users of a service or paid professionals take specific actions to ensure quality. Examples include paid staff rating contributions to the OER commons, ebay members rating their experiences, or Amazon buyers reviewing books.

A theory for quality in connected systems?

It is useful to identify and describe these measures of quality, but a more profound question is: Can we identify a technique that could aid this kind of innovation for determining quality?

An inspiring example is Shannon’s work in developing information theory (Shannon, 2001). Shannon saw that engineers were coming up with ways of sending and receiving signals with greater or less bandwidths and in the presence of noise (interference). Rather than contribute to ad-hoc, domain specific solutions, Shannon was able to develop a mathematical representation for the problem and consequent implications of this representation that make up the basis for much of the cryptography and communications that we use today.

What could such a representation, abstracted away from eigenvector centrality or specific measures look like? Or perhaps, at the very least, a general formulation of an approach that could be used in determining quality regardless of the medium or context.

This blog post is much more about questions than answers. The spiders’ web remains a beautiful symbol for our ever more connected world. Within recent centuries we have moved from a philosophy of the whole-in-the-parts to mathematical and applied representations of it. We propose that this way of thinking is particularly useful for distributing the determination of quality – there remains much more to be uncovered in applying this type of thinking.

If you would like to be involved in this research as a collaborator or higher degree research student, contact Dr Nick Kelly.

Image credit: Dewy Spider Web by User:Fir0002  Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

References

Kelly, N., Sie, R., & Suwer, R. (In press). Innovating processes to determine quality alongside increased inclusivity in higher education. In M. Keppell, S. Reushle & A. Antonio (Eds.), Open Learning and Formal Credentialing in Higher Education: Curriculum Models and Institutional Policies: IGI Global.

Page, L., Brin, S., Motwani, R., & Winograd, T. (1999). The PageRank citation ranking: bringing order to the web.

Shannon, C. E. (2001). A mathematical theory of communication. ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review, 5(1), 3-55.

Telling stories about our everyday digital lives

Friday, March 7th, 2014
People use technology to capture experiences and tell stories later

People use technology to capture experiences and tell stories later

Dr Jenny Ostini writes:

The term “digital literacy” or sometimes “digital literacies” is frequently used in education and research settings. There has been a lot of work around defining digital literacy but less around the actual practices of digital literacy and the meanings that people create in their everyday lives.

Stories are a powerful way of accessing people’s understanding of the world in which they live. Not only what people say, but how they say it, the words they choose to use and the importance placed on different aspects of the story all reveal the meaning they are creating for themselves and others. To understand what digital literacy means in practice, it is important to examine people’s stories — their narratives — of their digital experience and what they see as the essential components of their digital literacy or otherwise.

Irving Seidman (1998) talks about “understanding the experience of other people and the meaning they make of that experience.” Susan Kirtley (2012) talks about the “power and persuasion in stories and storytelling” and argues that the great strength of technological literacy narratives is “that the responsibility for shaping, crafting, and analysing the narrative rests with the student, not the researcher.”

Using the literacy narrative method is about asking the research participant to reflect on their experiences, to draw conclusions about the importance of different aspects of their experience and to provide the context in which their literacies were fostered. While the researcher can direct the narratives through the questions asked in the interview and draw conclusions from the narrative content, the story belongs to the research participant.

The project on which I am working will study what digital literacy means in practice by asking people to share their stories about using technology. Click here to listen to a sample from my personal digital literacy narrative.

This project has several stages. In each, digital literacy narratives will be collected and analysed. These narratives will take the form of audio recordings, still photographs and transcriptions of the stories that will be collected and archived on a website accessible to the public. The archive will be a multi-media resource with the narratives displayed in a map based on the location of their earliest computer use experience. It is hoped that as the project progresses, other people, including the general public, will begin to contribute narratives to the archive.

Project outputs will include the multi-media resource of digital narratives and transcripts that will form the basis of analysis of the narratives. The project will contribute to academic research on digital literacy, provide information for education practitioners to work better with students’ concepts of digital literacy, and a community resource of digital literacy narratives that can be used by other researchers.

Image credit: Sharp Lynx 3d Camera phone by Andrew Hyde used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

References

Kirtley, S. (2012). “Rendering technology visible: The technological literacy narrative.” Computers and Composition 29: 191-204.

Seidman, I. (1998). Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences. New York, Teachers College Press.

ACCERTing the Importance of Teaching and Research for Aged Care

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
ACCERT delivers a unique teaching, research and service delivery learning environment for aged care students and staff

ACCERT delivers a unique teaching, research and service delivery learning environment for aged care students and staff

Joanne Doyle writes:

Since June 2012, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) and Anglicare Southern Queensland (ASQ) have been working in partnership to deliver a unique teaching, research and service delivery learning environment for aged care students and staff.

The aged care sector presents a largely untapped source of clinical training opportunities for students across a range of disciplines. Aged care models that combine teaching, research and service delivery in one location are found to be the most effective in providing training that meets the complex and diverse needs of older people.

Professor Mike Keppell from the Australian Digital Futures Institute (ADFI) is the Director of the Aged Care Community Education Research and Training (ACCERT) project and Dr Clint Moloney from the School of Nursing and Midwifery is the Chief Investigator. Funds for the project have been provided through a Teaching and Research Aged Care Services (TRACS) program grant from the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA).

Partnering with ASQ ensures that clinical training and research is better tailored to suit industry needs and relevant career pathways are being developed to help address issues relating to recruitment and retention of nursing staff.

The ACCERT project is scheduled for completion in June 2014. Plans are underway to extend the project’s outcomes by establishing an ongoing research centre supported by the JBI in Adelaide. The research centre will build research utilisation capacity, enrich aged care clinical education, increase engagement and active involvement in aged care research, and sustain relationships and partnerships beyond the ACCERT project.

Image credit: A woman’s 78th birthday on 4th December 2005. Ardencraig Care Home (Glasgow) by I Craig used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Boom then bust: what’s happened to education in Second Life?

Monday, March 3rd, 2014
Second life view

Second Life has lost popularity as a platform for education

Dr Helen Farley writes:

In 2007, US information technology research and advisory firm, Gartner, predicted that 80% of active internet users would have an avatar in a virtual world by 2011. Educators welcomed the news and flocked to Second Life to set up their virtual classrooms, amphitheatres and lecture halls. Many saw virtual worlds as low cost environments that could afford authentic learning for students. Yet others saw it as a training ground for those activities too expensive or too dangerous to replicate in the real world. Many universities, USQ among them, bought up virtual land to host conferences, tutorials for geographically dispersed students, career fairs and all manner of learning activities.

Well, 2011 has come and gone and Gartner’s optimistic prediction has failed to materialise. With the suspension of the 50% educators’ discount in Second Life, many educational institutions simply left the virtual world. A few set up in other virtual worlds such as various hosted Open Sim environments, but most just chalked the enterprise up to experience and left virtual worlds behind them once and for all.

So, what went wrong? Why didn’t virtual worlds such as Second Life realise their enormous potential for education? I joined with a group of researchers, themselves experienced virtual world educators, to see just what the issues were. I have joined forces with Chris Newman (Queensland University of Technology), Sue Gregory (University of New England), Lisa Jacka (Southern Cross University), Sheila Scutter (University of South Australia) and Marcus McDonald (RMIT University) to investigate just what happened. We began by reflecting on and documenting our own experiences. And we came up with a range of issues that we’ve broadly grouped into the following four categories:

1. Issues relating to the institution

Deploying and supporting any new technology in an educational environment takes a considerable commitment from the institution. Invariably, there is a direct cost associated with purchasing or securing access to the technology. But it doesn’t stop there: educators need technological and pedagogical support. They need release from other duties to accommodate the extra time needed to design meaningful learning experiences and to just get their head around the new technology. Deploying virtual worlds into an institution requires the same kind of commitment and sadly, many institutions failed to adequately support virtual world initiatives.

2. Issues relating to staff

Under this heading we placed a whole grab bag of issues from educators failing to cope with the steep learning curves associated with the environment to lack of knowledge about the technology. Add to this, sensationalist media overemphasising the sordid, sexual side of Second Life, sensitivity to ambivalent student feedback about the virtual world, and spiralling teaching workloads and it becomes easy to understand how the barriers of entry into Second Life might become insurmountable for all but the most determined educators.

3. Issues relating to students

Of course, negative student attitudes to learning in a virtual world could potentially derail even the most well-planned and well-resourced virtual world initiative. There’s been endless discussion, and I’m not going to go over it again here, as to whether today’s students are really digital natives. Certainly, the experiences of the research team threw doubt on the idea, finding that many students just didn’t possess the necessary digital literacies to readily cope with and flourish in the virtual world environment. Additionally, many students didn’t recognise education in these environments as being genuinely educative. And, as mentioned above, when academic promotion is so often dependent on positive student evaluations, educators are very sensitive to negative comments from students.

4. Issues relating to virtual world environments

No discussion of deployment of virtual worlds would be complete without considering the vagaries of the technologies themselves. The research team, along with a myriad of educators right around the world, jumped in feet first to use Second Life for learning and teaching. We were the early adopters and we patiently built our mastery over the environment in the belief that the technology would keep getting better. Well, the technology didn’t keep improving: the lag, sub-optimal graphics, lack of stability and voracious need for bandwidth didn’t abate. In the meantime, gaming engines have continued to improve, making the Second Life environment look and feel like a poor cousin. Additionally, there are severe limits on the scalability of nearly all virtual world environments. For those disciplines characterised by class sizes in the 100s or 1000s, virtual worlds were simply not viable as an alternative venue for learning.

Where to from here …

It’s naïve to believe that we have considered all of the reasons why educators have left virtual worlds in droves. To further plumb the depths of educator experience, we have deployed a survey through social media, mailing lists and also to our virtual world buddies. We want to look at why educators entered virtual worlds initially, what were their experiences and why they left. We’re looking at all sorts of factors that have potentially impacted on their decisions. And it’s not just Second Life we’re looking at but Jibe, Open Sim, Kitely and others. I promise to report back with our findings. In the meantime, take a look at our paper we presented at the recent ascilite Conference in Sydney and see you inworld!

Enabling educators conference

Monday, February 17th, 2014
Winding path

The conference theme was “flexible pathways to participation”

Dr Ann Starasts writes:

Towards the end of last year I was fortunate enough to attend the inaugural conference of the new National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia (NAEEA) in Melbourne. The Association, which was officially launched under the Chairmanship of President, USQ’s Director, Open Access College David Bull, is a group of professionals and institutions who are collaborating in the area of enabling participation in education, sharing research, and promoting events and activities.

The theme of the conference was ‘Flexible pathways to participation’ and most of the attendees were from Australian tertiary institutions developing and running programs that facilitate entry into University.

I found a number of the presenters and presentations inspiring, especially Professor Bronwyn Fredericks of Central Queensland University who spoke about indigenous engagement and Professor Eleanor Ramsay from the University of Tasmania who spoke of research challenges in enabling education.

Professor Richard James (Equity and Student Engagement) from Melbourne University talked about how patterns of Higher Education participation were changing and becoming more fragmented. He also spoke about the blurring of boundaries between study, work and life, and the ways in which online learning was contributing to this.

The concepts of active and passive learning emerged in a number of presentations as contributing to success and retention in study programs. Dr Tasman Bedford from the University of Southern Queensland spoke about his research into students’ learning strategies, orientations and concepts and that curriculum might be adapted to help transform these into more active dimensions. These concepts also emerged in a presentation from Ms Annika Westrenius from the University of Newcastle and Mr George Morrison from the University of Southern Queensland spoke about building persistence in University preparation programs.

The need for online orientation and to build community and connections early (and even prior to) commencement of programs was highlighted.  Ms Elizabeth Goode of the University of Newcastle spoke of dummy assignment submissions, weekly study guides and ‘drip feeding’ students into the online learning system using blogs, videos and flyers. Newcastle Universities fully online Foundation program includes a ‘Week Zero’ online orientation, which reported significant increases in access to and posts in the Blackboard learning system, consultations with help staff, and increases in first assignment submission rates.

A panel of students who had progressed to Undergraduate study from Foundation or Preparation programs each bravely spoke of their experiences. Difficulties studying online after long breaks from study, difficulties using learning systems, and distractions and lack of support at home were key drawbacks to study. They unanimously spoke of the beneficial roles of collaborations and contact between teachers and students, support networks and local study spaces.

Image credit: Pathway by ManoharD. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.

Making the Connection

Monday, February 10th, 2014
The Making the Connection project launched on February 7 2014

The Making the Connection project launched on February 7, 2014

Dr Amy Antonio writes:

The launch of the exhibition Making the Connection took place on Friday 7th February 2014 at USQ Toowoomba. This exhibition gives prisoners from the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre (SQCC) the opportunity to showcase their artwork to the public.

The exhibition signifies the launch of the Making the Connection project, which aims to help students without internet access, such as incarcerated students, to develop the digital literacies they need to live, learn and work in the technological age.

Opportunities and Challenges

In an increasingly digital society, the ability to use technology for study and in the workplace is essential. Higher Education institutions are taking advantage of the digital age by putting more and more study materials and resources online.

This is a growing concern for incarcerated students or students living in rural or remote areas who are without internet access. This creates a barrier in terms of both access to Higher Education and, more profoundly, their ability to develop digital literacy skills.

The Australian Digital Futures Institute (ADFI) at USQ is leading a project to develop a version of USQ’s online study desk that does not require an internet connection. This has been deployed at the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre and will now be rolled out to two correctional centres in Western Australia and other centres around Australia.

The Making the Connection project aims to break down the barriers to access to Higher Education for students with little or no internet access. The project has great potential for the rest of Australia and other countries around the world with limited ICT infrastructure.

The art exhibition is at the USQ Art Gallery, A Block, USQ Toowomba campus and runs until 27 February 2014