Tag Archives: elearning

A Different Kind of University (Kaplan University)

Slightly OTT to these cynical European eyes (!), but this spot does get its point across effectively about the myriad ways learners expect to engage with curricula outside of the traditional lecture theatre.

Blindness & Responsibility

I was reading the healthcare supplement in today’s Guardian which was about looking after one’s eyes when I came across some articles about the impact of blindness/visual impairment on employment prospects. Apparently two thirds of people with severe visual impairments are unemployed and the same number again have no formal qualifications, and this is in a country (the UK) with quite robust disability legislation. I must admit I was a little shocked at those figures. Why should I be shocked? Well, I work as Assistive Technology Advisor in NUI Maynooth, one of seven Irish universities and one that is rapidly establishing a reputation for excellence in accommodating learners with disabilities. On Tuesday, I was in UCC, my alma mater, to attend a meeting of people in the sector involved in the production and distribution of material in alternative formats. 

Alternative format (AF), as you may know, involves ensuring that text is easily available and accessible to those who have difficulty with printed material. AF may include Braille, audio or PDF, but the consensus is that material in simple text or HTML gives users the most flexibility.

At the meeting were representatives from various Irish universities, many of whom gave presentations on the work they do to help ensure that the ‘print disabled’ have access to core and other texts. It was a fascinating morning and I was struck (and heartened) by the passion shown by these people in the various ways they chose to facilitate learners in their academic pursuits.Image of student with visual impairment on flim set at NUI Maynooth

At NUIM, we have only had one student who was blind (so far). we currently have three students with visual impairments but the bulk of students registered with the Disability Office are those with dyslexia, who also benefit hugely from having easy access to material in accessible digital format. From September we will text-to-speech software available on all PCs across campus, which will greatly benefit many students with milder forms of dyslexia. This, along with the increasing use of Moodle by faculty and moves to encourage good practice in the creation of digital documents, is helping to make the environment at the university conducive to many with print disabilities. But not all.


Some 66% of blind or partially sighted people of working age are unemployed, and nearly the same number again (67%) have no formal qualifications, according to latest figures.

So, despite all the good work and the availablity of technological solutions, a shockingly high number of people are not getting any formal qualifications in the UK. What’s going wrong?

As people involved in education/technology in education, we need to push the accessibility agenda as much as possible. If a new tool or elearning strategy is being promoted, we need to question its accessibility to all. Last year, a company approached NUIM with an essay writing module that could be added to Moodle. Luckily, the university approached te Disability Office for our opinion on it before they agreed to purchase. It turned out that, while the content was excellent and the interface was pretty, it was Flash-based and caused unnecessary difficulties for learners using screenreaders such as JAWS. We recommended that the company provide a HTML or text-based accessible version or else we could not purchase (interestingly, we cannot by law purchase inaccessible services!). 

There have been situations alas, where institutions have not consulted others about the accessibility of services and gone ahead, putting themselves at legal risk but also excluding the needs of learners. And often needlessly, sometimes all it takes is a little rewrite, a little consideration in formatting, to ensure greater inclusivity. No great sacrifice.

If we are vigilant here, we can encourage good practice in the creation of accessible elearning strategies which benefit all.

And we can get that shocking statistic down to something more reasonable.


‘Push that rock, Sisyphus!’ or ‘The Futility of the MAODE’?


Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hillThe potential of the technology to serve a different kind of learning cannot be exploited by an academic community that clings only to what it knows. The academy, with respect to the professional practice of teaching, is not a reflective practicum. There is no progress, therefore, in how we teach, despite what might be possible with the new technology. Laurillard, 2002

Research, not teaching, is rewarded in universities. Therefore, little energy is invested by academics in their teaching as there is little incentive to do so. This remains the true today despite various efforts to promote Teaching & Learning. The implication for the implementation then of ‘elearning’ technologies is somewhat bleak.

Translation: Laurillard reckons that we are wasting our time with technology or whatever in terms of T&L, but those of us in H809 might be spared!

(I found this article a very good way to put some context on Laurillard’s Conversational Framework, which until tonight, was a very abstract thing lost in a sea of many other abstract things.)

H809: Reading 4: Laurillard

Frustrated woman at computerThis article captured my attention as I’ve just finished writing a paper on the failure of an elearning initiative between my university and a post-primary school. (In fact, many of the articles have hit a sore point since I finished writing, as I grimace when I read the criticism of papers with flimsy premises or so-small-it’s-meaningless test groups!)

I agree with Laurillard’s assertion that the ability of elaerning to improve learning is pretty much beyond discussion at this stage. In fact, the term ‘elearning’ itself is pretty redundant. Is it not just ‘learning’ at this stage? Aren’t books technology?  She laments the inability to build an ‘optimal infrastructure’ that ultimately restrains educators/innovators to be able to report success. There is a certain sense of frustration in her article that if only we could accept the obvious, that elearning works, then we might take the ‘leap of faith’ to provide proper infrastructure.

The word ‘improve’ rather than ‘support’ or ‘change’  implies that it is already well-established that elearning enhances learning. The author provides a comprehensive survey of the ways in which elearning appears to improve learning in various contexts. The suggestion is that the topic is not in question, but her point is about how the inability to support this successful endeavor is letting the whole project down.

3.2 Examining impact – Mason reviews OECD

[I’m engaging in a risky gambit at the moment of trying to compress 30 hours of study into about half the time. Basically, I don’t wish to continue playing catch up as the course progresses and the TMA appears rapidly on my horizon. I toyed briefly with dropping out and getting a refund, but hey, we’re built of sterner stuff round here. Or we just have unrealistic expectations. You choose.]OECD logoA few points in Mason’s review struck me. It seems that based on the data, or rather this data [Mason’s italics], ‘e-learning has failed to emerge as a significant activity or market, although there is evidence that online learning is growing’ (287). Also, elearning has not had the predicted ‘revolutionary’ effect many had predicted. Being familiar with Mason from H808 and indeed the findings of the OECD report is very pertinent to that course, I was surprised to find myself reading her review with a H809 hat on. Essentially, I wasn’t so interested in the findings, I was more interested in her critique of the methodology, that italicised ‘this‘.Learning about questioning and learning to question research is core to the course thus far. From this review, we learn that Mason has doubts about the efficacy of the questionnaire approach to gathering data employed by the OECD because this method ‘would probably never capture the subtleties of slow, personal changes in the processes of teaching and learning’ (287). That does raise the question if these slow, personal changes can be captured and if so can anything meaningful be extracted to be applied in a general way (back to the quandry Wegerif and Mercer hoped to overcome).Mason also makes a point of telling us that the survey has produced findings that she also found: 15 years ago.  So, she reminds us that elearning is best suited to motivated postgraduates who need flexible delivery, and certain courses (Business Studies, Management, IT and Education) use elearning more. Does this indicate that certain characteristics of elearning remain regardless of the changes and developments over the years?We also learn that while elearning is broadly viewed as positive, little ‘substantive internal research evidence’ (288) was presented to support this belief. One could (as I did) see this as a potential weakness were one to attempt to promote elearning, but Mason correctly asks if similar evidence be presented for the efficacy of lecturing?Ultimately, she chimes in with the assertion that governments should cultivate patience and resist the urge to micro-manage change. Given her earlier comment about the difficulty of quantifying the slow nature of change in education, perhaps it suits her to urge patience? Given that the report proffers 15 year old findings, perhaps things should speed up a little? But those comments are more suited to H808, so I’ll move along…   [Edited 7 March 08  on learning that Robin Mason is a woman]

H809 begins

Back to the grindstone with the OU. With H808 put to bed, I had hoped for a less frantic run of things. Alas NUIM got in the way and I had to write up a presentation I gave in Greece a couple of years ago at the European Access Network‘s Annual Conference in gorgeous Thessaloniki.

H809 has, of course, been busily getting about its business for the last three weeks and I’ve not been able to engage as I had wanted to. The first week was OK as it was largely making ourselves familiar with the technology as well as one reading. Happily all the struggle with H808 was at least worth it as one was already au fait with FirstClass, wikis, blogs and podcasts etc.

H809 seems to based around a weekly reading, each illustrating some important aspect of research that us budding research professionals should know. The first reading, by Hiltz and Meinke, dates back to 1989 and tests the merits of using a ‘virtual classroom’ to teach Sociology. I was struck less by the outcomes of the research (both virtual and physical are pretty much the same with some benefits to one over the other here and there) than by the fact that these discussions are still taking place twenty years on. “Is elearning as effective as face-to-face learning?” is the contemporary language, but the song remains the same (especially in my institution).

Anyway, I’m on a major catch up these next few days, so expect a glut of blog entries! Another feature of this module is the expectation that we keep a blog and interact with those of others before bringing our observations back to FirstClass. H809 is a first run module, so it will be interesting if this system works. In H808, when faced with the pressures of the TMAs and the ECA, learners abandoned any optional activities very quickly, so we’ll see how this module copes!

Pesky Podcasts

podcast iconI decided to use ‘Enhanced Podcasts’ as my new technology for Core Activity 8.1 in the H808. I took an audio podcast that I made last year which was aimed at students with disabilities deciding which university to choose. These potential students often have many concerns about receiving the appropriate supports and there are some (convoluted) alternative admissions routes which need to be understood. We felt that as many of these students have issues with text, presenting some of the information in audio form might be beneficial. Similarly, we had feedback that hearing the voices of the staff potential students would be meeting was reassuring.


Since then I’ve given workshops on creating podcasts to various groups, so I felt pretty confident about my technical skills regarding audio. I was aware of enhanced podcasts, but these are not the widely-used mp3 format, but (at the time) lesser-known AAC or m4a format. This format is now supported by many popular devices (iPod, iPhone, Playstation 3, Wii, as well as phones from Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Blackberry) so I decided to revisit a podcast with a view to converting one into an enhanced podcast with images and hyperlinks.


I used Garageband, an Apple application available as part of the OSX operation system. This allowed me to import the existing recording and add chapter markers, images and URLs very easily. The images had to be imported first into iPhoto (an image management application, again native to the Mac). These could be accessed then from within Garageband, along with other media such as sound effects or other audio items.


Non-Mac users are not well served when it comes to creating enhanced podcasts but it can be done. Jake Ludington gives a tutorial using Windows Media Player.


I appreciate (see below) that not everyone will readily be able to listen/view the podcast attached, but iTunes is a free download, Miro works well and VLC claims to. Feedback on the technical issues would be welcome.




Key features


  1. Ability to augment audio with appropriate images. This could be useful to display an image of a person or item being discussed. Diagrams or screenshots could also be included, or just an image with text (e.g. a URL). Institutions may welcome the ability to include logos or other branding. Images are also very useful for visual learners, some people with disabilities or younger listeners.
  2. Hyperlinks can be embedded. If a listener is playing the podcast on a device with a web connection, they could be directed to sites with hyperlinks embedded in the podcast at appropriate times.
  3. Chapter markers. Longer podcasts can be organised into chapters and these can be given meaningful titles.
  4. Format more widespread. While not as pervasive as mp3, the AAC/m4a format can now be played on a very wide range of popular devices (all Apple players, Sony Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Nokia N-series and most Sony Ericsson phones, Blackberry, Creative Zen players etc). Free cross-platform media players such as VLC and Miro claim to be able to handle enhanced podcasts (although I (surprisingly) had problems with VLC).
  5. All of the benefits of audio-only podcasts.


Potential issues


  1. Software. As mentioned above, it is relatively easy to create an enhanced podcast if you have access to a Mac. The process is more convoluted if using Windows or Linux.
  2. Time and effort. The process of choosing appropriate images, resizing, ensuring that the correct balance between size of image and clarity of image is achieved, deciding and creating chapter markers, including hyperlinks, compressing and exporting and testing – these all have to considered and undertaking with an enhanced podcast.
  3. Access. While AAC/m4a is supported by a wide range of devices and applications, it could not be considered a standard in the way that mp3 could be.
  4. All of the limitations of podcasts (unsuitable for those with hearing impairments, limited bandwidth, slow connections, older equipment)