Latest news from the Virtual Training Suite

October 8th, 2010

Here is a round-up of news items about information literacy, e-learning and the Virtual Training Suite as picked out by @VTStutorials on Twitter.

  1. RT @jiscdigital Our 10th and final document in our latest series of advice is using multimedia in a PDF
  2. RT @AJCann: Literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education
  3. why not celebrate National Poetry day by finding out more about the Internet for English
  4. A Comment on Comments “…designing for social interaction is not just a matter of slapping comments on everything…”
  5. Despite Rumors, MIT OpenCourseWare Insists “No Paywall” via @RWW but costs $3.7 million a year to run
  6. Looking back on FOTE10
  7. RT: @mattlingard: Watching @daveowhite #altc2010 talk on online distance learning
  8. Learn the mechanics of blogging with WordPress at
  9. RT: @JSTOR: Searching For Better Research Habits. Teaching conceptual rather than technical approaches to search skills.
  10. academic video aggregator @uchannel to cease operation in Nov. enjoy the archive while you still can
  11. Good or bad language
  12. RT @jiscdigital Today sees the launch of the first of 10 new JISC Digital Media advice docs starting with an Introduction to e-Learning
October 4th, 2010

On 1st October 2010, I attended the Future of Technology in Education conference, hosted by ULCC in London. This was the first time I’d attended FOTE (pronounced ‘footy’, it seems), and the first conference I’d learned about via Twitter. It was a free conference (if you ignore the astronomical cost of travelling to London from Bristol at far-too-early-o’clock), and with the tickets being snapped up in a Glastonbury-like frenzy some months back, I was hoping for good things.

The agenda for the day is available, but in this post I will summarise some of the talks which I found most interesting.

The talks

Starting things off in the morning, was a slick presentation from Ray Flemming of Microsoft, who introduced the issues of how hard it is to actually predict the future, before showing a video full of ‘Minority Report’ style futurisms, complete with fancy mobile technology, digital paper and an apparent complete lack of work/life division. What was scary, is that much of what was shown in the video (which is not so long off the editing suite) is already here (pico projection, touch screen interfaces, geo-location/personalisation, augmented reality etc) albeit in not such a glossy, integrated way. Despite some traditional Microsoft-baiting on the #fote10 Twitter back-channel this was a good appetite-whetter for the rest of the conference.

Next up, Jeremy Speller of UCL challenged us with presentation entitled “The Mobile University: last year’s model?“. His key thrust as I understood it was that mobile technology in education is something that’s talked about a lot and primarily driven by researchers and educational technologists; “something that the geeks want” fuelled by endless arguments about which is the right way to do something (e.g. native vs. web apps) and that the vendors are keen to promote. But it’s not yet here, or what we think of as the mobile university changes under our feet and what we thought of as the mobile university has already passed through, and we’re on to the next definition. He also described how technology is not just about smartphones and cool stuff, but also infrastructure. In retrospect, it’s obvious to think how expensive ethernet provision in new build lecture theatres has been made redundant by the faster uptake of wireless technology, with the same looking likely for power outlets as battery management becomes more efficient in new devices. WAP was seen as the future, and millions were invested in it, but where is it now? A stark warning of how it’s hard how to judge what will last and evolve, and which technologies will be trampled along the way.

James Alliban of Skive gave what I felt was the talk closest to the conference theme of “showcasing the hottest technology related trends and challenges impacting the academic sector over the next 1-3 years.” His talk on augmented reality was great, and as a techie I was sat there wanting to get home and find out more about this subject and have a play. It was also interesting that some of the demonstrations he showed were from work several years old, so perhaps AR is not so far off from being taken up more widely.

I’d love to be able to give you a précis of Miles Metcalfe’s talk, but for the life of me I can’t really remember much of it. It was deliciously cynical, that much I do remember, and I suspect that everyone came away with his quote of the day “Uncritical neophilia of the digerati“ tattooed in their minds. And the swearing…

For me, the post-lunch sessions were less interesting. James Clay’s attempt to convince us that “The iPad is the future of reading!” didn’t work for me, but possibly for the reasons James was presenting. I (think!) I understood what he was trying so hard to say, in that the iPad is a tool which enables us to find a new way to read, and does not provide just a new form of book (as the Amazon Kindle does), and that we’ve currently not exploited this. Personally, I would consider buying a Kindle, but would not just buy an iPad to experience a new way of reading (unless the price was less of a barrier to entry). Plus I just like books, to have, and to hold, so the future of reading better be pretty spectacular to get me to upgrade.

Joe Dale’s session on how to use Twitter to maintain a network of like-minded individuals was fine, but as an avid Twitter user, I found nothing new in what he had to say, although I can understand how for those uninitiated would have found it a valuable summation of the power of Twitter to be much more than a catalogue of the banal.

Possibly the most interesting talk of the day for me was Matt Lingard’s session entitled “We have the technology. We have the capability, all we need is love.” which concentrated on why, if we have all this lovely technology, and the skills to use it in an educational context, how do we successfully embed it in learning and teaching? For me, this is a key question. With the technology pretty much readily available, why is it not more widely utilised? Matt was great at making his talk (and I’ll grudgingly use the word) “interactive” giving us time to chat amongst ourselves to discuss questions he asked, and then take part in a real-time poll asking “Why don’t teachers love educational technologies?”. The results from this poll are available. Some interesting answers, such as “fear”, “don’t need it”, “failure of technology”. It was a shame this talk was not in its advertised slot at the end of the day, as I think it gave a nice counterpoint to a lot of the issues raised in other talks (some of which came after Matt’s).

In general, I thought the programme was full (possibly a little too so, leading to rushing some presentations and little time for questions) and varied, featuring speakers from a wide range of institutions and backgrounds. As a university techie who keeps well away from students and has only limited access to teaching staff, some of the talks were useful in terms of getting me thinking whether I could make use of the subject matter in my day job. I’ve spent the following weekend thinking about the day and trying to work out if I thought it was a conference I’d attend again – an answer I’ve yet to come up with.


One thing was new to me. This was the first non-geek conference I’ve attended since Twitter has gone properly ‘mainstream’. I was amazed at the number of tweets being sent, from those in the room, and those watching either through the virtual conference in Second Life or just monitoring the Twitter hashtag. This does put a whole new complexion on presenting at conferences, and one that would certainly make me think twice about presenting myself. I like the idea of a separate channel of discussions going on during the presentations, but I did find that some of the discussion skirted quite closely with harsh criticism of the speaker – it sometimes worth remembering that what you write will not just be seen by those on the channel at the time, but is a permanent record which once released is almost impossible to reign in – perhaps another reason why teachers/lecturers may be wary of committing themselves to recordings of their lectures?

Overall though, the conference was a success in challenging my ideas and preconceptions of education needs and practises in areas of which I have no direct experience. If nothing else, I’ve added to my Personal Learning Network on Twitter, and I’m going to look for some ESRC funding into the relation between television size and income. Ask James Clay if you’re not sure why I might be doing that.

September 28th, 2010

An online survey about the future of the Virtual Training Suite is available from:

As you may be aware, central funding for both Informs and the Virtual Training Suite will be coming to an end in 2011.

This survey is part of a consultation programme aimed at finding out whether those who currently use and recommend these products (as well as potential users) value them and whether there might be an opportunity to develop both products within subscription or membership models, possibly with new or enhanced features.

Mindset Research, an independent market research organisation, has been asked to undertake this consultation and we would very much appreciate a few minutes of your time to respond to this brief survey.

The survey covers both Informs and the Virtual Training Suite. You can choose to answer questions about one or both of these products.

The survey will be open until midnight on Friday 8th October 2010.

September 27th, 2010

Can the Internet help with language learning? Although language is primarily about humans communicating, the Internet can help a lot too.  More and more great resources are coming online, to join old favourites like the BBC Languages pages with their courses, teachers’ homepages and foreign language TV links to channels. Nowadays you find dictionaries, online language cafes, chat forums and video clips to help you practice or talk to other speakers.

And it’s not just better known languages – there are websites devoted to pidgins such as Tok Pisin, the pidgin which is one of three official languages of Papua New Guinea.  Endangered languages, which have few speakers and may die out, also feature online:  National Geographic has a hotspots map  called Disappearing Languages.

For those who want to brush up their German, French, Spanish, Mandarin or similar, there are some inspiring resources out there.  It’s not just a question  of language, either.  Language learning introduces speakers to other cultures, as the Think German campaign says.  Celebrities such as Stephen Fry,  Nick Clegg and John Cleese extoll the virtues of many things German on the Think German Facebook page.  A good way to find more language resources is from the Tour pages of the Virtual Training Suite’s tutorial Internet for Modern Languages. It guides users to sites like LiveMocha, a worldwide language learning community where you can practice with other speakers.  Or to YouTube, where there are countless video clips on speaking languages – although the standard varies!  Internet for Modern Languages also lists all types of academic and quality resources, with essentials such as Le Monde newspaper, Modern Language Association Bibliography and British Library Catalogues on the Web.  Most importantly, the tutorial shows users how to judge the quality of what they find online.

Finally, the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies mustn’t be forgotten – this is the key support centre  for teachers and lecturers., with activities, resources, and events all round the UK.  A final resource for fans of Germanic studies – the Dach blog is written by  experts at the British Library and is a wonderful mix of academic, entertaining and unusual materials.

Some German conversation from YouTube

September 23rd, 2010

The shortlisted candidates for the Times Higher Education Awards 2010 have been unveiled for various categories including the Outstanding ICT Initiative that will be judged by JISC.

If you have not heard about all the six contenders, they are listed below with a few words on some of the innovative work that they have been doing.

Chemlabs logo

The University of Bristol ChemLabS is a CETL that also provides e-learning tools for chemistry and science subjects. They produce resources for individuals, schools and universities, via their LabSkills software and Dynamic Laboratory Manual.

iSpot logo

The Open University iSpot is a website aimed at helping anyone identify anything in nature. You can add an observation to the website and suggest an identification yourself or see if anyone else can identify it for you, as explained by Chris Packham.

Open Fields logo

The Harper Adams University College  Open Fields site is an internet library designed “to meet practitioner and student demand for knowledge that supports and stimulates the development of land-based industries”.

The University of the West of England  SHE (Simulations in Higher Education) initiative enables students to experience simulations of events and situations that are difficult or impossible to organise, before they put their skills into practice in the real world, by using Second Life.


The University of Ulster SLOODLE initiative is an Open Source project which integrates the multi-user virtual environment of Second Life with the Moodle learning-management system. It connects the two environments via chatrooms, quizzes, voting mechanisms, note writing tools and presentations.

Media Zoo screenshot

The University of Leicester Media Zoo is a research dissemination forum and a supportive, experimental environment for staff to understand the design of learning activities using learning technologies. It has physical, online and 3D manifestations, as well as someone with a very cool job title.

Good luck to all the nominated initiatives for awards night!