Please note: this older content has been archived and is no longer fully linked into the site. Please go to the current home page for up-to-date content.

And so ALT-C 2011 draws to a close. I followed online last year and the year before, but it’s been my first chance to attend in person, which has been a great experience. I’ve met lots of people who I’ve been following online for some time, and plenty more who are completely new to me. I also seem to have come up with a new job title and a bit of a mission, on which more at some future time. For now, here are my first thoughts on this final day of the conference.

Project results

I was up bright and early again, this time to hear some of the results from three small learning technology projects.

Lyn Greaves (UWL) and Claire Bradley (London Met) told us about their development of open educational resources to support students’ digital literacy and general academic practice.

Cheryl Middleton and Steve Brierley (Sheffield Hallam) presented their experiences in using enquiry-based learning methods instead of conventional lectures to deliver a course to their Information Systems undergraduates. They were inspired by Donald Clark’s keynote at last year’s ALT-C, and it’s great to see lecturers attending the conference and sharing their own practice from the front lines.

Finally, Vicki McGarvey and Anna Armstrong (Nottingham Trent University) shared with us their project to encourage lecturers to share their learning objects with each other.

Great work all three groups!

Making the case

My next session of the morning was run by freelancer Sarah Chesney, who recently carried out research commissioned by PebblePad to find how individuals and small teams were convincing senior management to roll out successfully concluded small-scale projects on a wider basis.

Sarah did a good job of getting us talking together over a couple of example scenarios, and gave us some useful pointers. For example, she pointed us towards the Sloan-C Quality Framework as a useful tool to help structure thinking around the quality of a initiative.

I think my main takeaway from this session will be to always be paying attention to data on costs of particular ways of doing things, especially for the period before and after making a change. Gathering data to convince management is not always at the front of your mind when you’re not sure yourself whether a particular change will work.

The elusive technological future

Invited speaker John Naughton closed the conference with a thought-provoking talk on the impossibility of predicting the pace and direction of technological change. This is another talk that I doubt I can do justice with a summary, so I encourage you to take a look at the online recording when it becomes available on the ALT YouTube channel.

One aspect which caused a bit of a stir, on Twitter at least, was Naughton’s presentation style: just him, a microphone and a script on his iPad. It sounds like a recipe for all that is bad about the lecture as a format, but in fact it was riveting.

There was a certain amount of frustration that he wouldn’t be drawn on what the implications were for education, but my own feeling is that he was quite sensibly avoiding speaking about something when he didn’t feel qualified to do so — the whole gist of his argument was that it is futile to try and predict what technology will do to our society in the future.

Anyway, I hope you’ve found my small slice of ALT-C useful and interesting. I certainly enjoyed it! It’s sparked off a few different trains of thought which may well develop into blog posts in the coming weeks and months, so watch this space!


Home on the range
Continuing with the task I began yesterday, here are my initial thoughts on
today’s talks and workshops at ALT-C 2011.

Social media and professional identity

I began the day with Anne-Marie
talk on
professional identity in the context of medical education. Anne-Marie herself
has a complex identity, as practitioner, educator, researcher and student, and
when she began blogging and tweeting in order to combat the isolation she
sometimes felt as a GP she found that identity challenged in some interesting

Following Anne-Marie’s talk was a poorly disguised sales pitch from some guy
who works for Blackboard — the least said about that the better, I think.

Led by the “Knows”

Next up, Doug Belshaw and John
gave me a refreshing change: a
workshop which was actually a workshop. They’d chosen a couple of collections
of elearning-related case-studies, and split us into groups to critically
analyse the case-studies therein. We got a really good debate going, trying to
decide what the purpose of a case study should be and what it should contain to
be valid/useful.

For my part, I think that a lot of the weaknesses we identified could be
mitigated by the inclusion of references to the sources of the data quoted, so
that if you choose you can verify the conclusions for yourself.

I did like John Traxler’s comment that we need to be wary of policy-based
evidence replacing evidence-based policy.

Are we in Open Country?

The last session before lunch was a bit of fun, but with a serious message too.
Amber Thomas, David
, David
and Helen
got dressed up as characters from
the Wild West to talk about issues related to OER. There was even bonus banjo
music from Dave Kernohan!

Some of the most interesting points for me came up in the extended discussion
that followed their introductory presentation. In particular, it’s very
important when thinking about OER to not get sidetracked by the content. Making
content open has some value, but it does not democratise access to education
per se; in some ways it can have the opposite effect. It’s important to
be able to associate the pedagogical context with a given open resource.
Similar arguments seem to apply to other forms of openness as well.

Transforming American Education

After lunch we had a keynote speech from Karen
, Director of the Office
of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She told us a
bit about the Obama government’s plans for educational technology, which does
indeed sound quite impressive!

She described technology as a “force multiplier” — not a replacement for
teachers but a way of making teachers more effective, which I think is the
only attitude that can work in the long term. As part of that, they’re making
an effort to make educational research more transparent and accessible to
educators so that they have more opportunities to learn about
evidence-supported good practice.

She also talked about making learning more like a game, something which I’m
currently a bit sceptical about. I can see the advantages, but there’s always
the danger that as you incentivise one group you end up disincentivising or
even alienating another. It has to be implemented in a sufficiently fool-proof
way to avoid that situation occurring.

Effective web conferencing

My final session of the day was a workshop on web conferencing with a guy from
collaborATE, who provide support for Adobe Connect
in the UK. I’ll admit, I was a bit wary of this after the earlier Blackboard
sales pitch, but actually the presenter did a great job of providing us with
some useful tips for running a successful webcast.

I took a lot of notes from this session, so I’ll probably save them for another
post, perhaps when I’ve had chance to try them out. The key message, though,
was this: preparation, preparation, preparation. Like all forms of
communication, webcasting works best when you’re confident, well practiced and
in control of your environment.

In a little bit it will be time to relax a bit and have a good old chinwag with
some old and new friends at the gala buffet, so I’ll wrap it up for now.

PS. If you’re wondering where all my tweets about the conference have gone, I’m
experimenting with a separate conference account,
@jezconf to avoid spamming my regular followers
with lots of ALT-C tweets. If you’re interested, please follow that account, or
you can just follow the conference hashtag,


Plan Ceibal

After a short introduction from the Lord Mayor of Leeds, conference chair John Cook handed over to Miguel Brechner from Uruguay to talk about the inspiring Plan Ceibal.

This project started in 2006 and tapped into the One Laptop Per Child programme to provide every schoolchild in Uruguay with a laptop and Internet access. I can’t really do it justice here, but I encourage you to watch the recording of his talk and the questions afterwards.

By focusing on users and usability, rather than on the technology, and not just letting vendors taking the lead, Plan Ceibal has made a reall cultural and social difference in Uruguay. Kids are now eager to get to school, parents are getting online with the help of their children.

It raises serious questions about how we do technology in our schools. I don’t have the statistics to hand, but it sounds rather like a developing country has more schoolchildren with Internet access than we do, which is worrying. If they can teach programming and robotics in primary school, why are we still having computer classes (and qualifications, such as ECDL) that focus on word processing and spreadsheets?

Cloud Learning with Google Apps

My first parallel session was about Google Apps in education. I had high hopes of this, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I learnt very much from it.

The guy from Google did wave a Chromebook around, which looks like a very useful device, but possibly a bit hamstrung without a network connection until HTML5 offline web apps become a bit more commonplace. There were also rumours of being able to run virtualised desktop apps in the browser thanks to a partnership with Citrix, but no demonstration of how at might work.

The one thing that did show some promise was the brief mention of Manish Malik’s work to use Google App Engine to start building a VLE integrated with Google Apps, which he calls a Cloud Learning Environment. I’ll be looking into that in a bit more detail when I get a chance.

Collaborative technology

After lunch it was three short papers on the general theme of collaboration with technology. Jill Fresen of the University of Oxford gave a nice overview of the mobile interface, Mobile Oxford, to their Sakai-based VLE, WebLearn. They’ve done some really interesting work with it, especially integrating with the Sakai Polls tool to make a cheap, mobile audience response system.

Jak Radice and Maureen Readle had some interesting stories to tell about
digital story telling. They’ve done some really interesting work (with their
colleague at the University of Bradford, Caroline Plews) bringing the stories
of real health service users into the classroom. If you’re interested in
learning more about that, take a look at their fictional town of

Finally, Chris Turnock talked about his work with Erik Bohemia at Northumbria
University setting up tools to help students collaborate with each other and
with external partners. I really like they way they focused on open source
solutions and managed to ensure they were as integrated as possible into the
university systems.

Pecha Kucha!

Next up, I’m afraid I wasn’t paying as much attention as it was my turn to
speak. You can see my poster and slides about our Virtual Research Environment
in my earlier post
, and if I get round to it
I’ll add some words to the slideshare presentation so you can all understand
what it was all about!

Also in the same session, Alan Cann from the
University of Leicester asked some interesting questions about reading lists
for students, which came out of his attempts to get his own students reading
around the subject more

Finally, Philip Wane from Nottingham Trent University had some useful thoughts
on his experiments providing feedback to his students via video. Not only did
most students watch their own feedback, they also watched each others, and
watching the videos made them much more likely to collect the paper versions of
their assignments from the office and read the feedback in the margins too.
Great work!


I suppose I should mention that the dinner tonight was pretty impressive. I’m
sure James Clay will have tweeted
photos of it, but it’s a bit late at night to go searching for the link now so
I’ll leave it there.

Looking forward to tomorrows session, especially Anne-Marie Cunningham’s
invited talk on professional identity and some intriguing-sounding banjo
playing from Dave Kernohan in “Are we in open
. Bye for now…


About twelve months ago, I started a new job in the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath, with the somewhat vague title of ICT Project Manager. I intended at the time to write a blog post about what I was expecting to do, but never really found the time.

One year on (and half way through my contract), I thought it would be a good time to look back on what I’ve achieved so far and what’s on the horizon. Plus, it’s at least possible that people who meet me or see my Pecha Kucha presentation at ALT-C 2011 might want to know a bit more a out me.

First, the elevator pitch: I help researchers and research students (mostly chemists and chemical engineers) to use technology to communicate, collaborate and work more effectively.

In order to do that, I have to wear a number of hats, and liaise between several of the university’s central services, such as computer services (BUCS), web services, e-learning, researcher development and the library.

iSusLab: a Virtual Research Environment

My primary responsibility has been to set up a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) for our users in the CSCT, but what exactly is a VRE?

Well, it’s a somewhat more vaguely-defined concept than the VLE, as the needs of researchers in different fields are so diverse. Essentially, though, we’re talking about a set of online tools. Common functionality includes access to supercomputing clusters, research data management, workflow reuse and sharing, and general communication and collaboration tools.

Our VRE, named iSusLab, falls mainly into that last category. We have 25 students and 30+ academics spread across 4 departments, along with 12 industrial partners and 2 international partners institutions, and they all have to stay in touch somehow.

iSusLab provides a safe, secure, flexible online space for our researchers and partners to work together. It’s based on a platform called Sakai, which began life as a VLE in the US but has since grown into a very comprehensive and flexible collaboration system.

It provides a number of tools, including wikis, forums, email lists, file sharing and calendars and let’s you pick and choose from them on a project-by-project basis. Everything is password protected by default, though it’s possible to make things public if need be, and we have complete control over who has access to which project site.

The Connected Researcher: new media training

The customised tools that we can provide our researchers are only part of the story, however. Freely available social media tools on the web can do an excellent job of supporting many core academic activities, including networking, information discovery, collaboration, outreach and teaching.

Geraldine Jones, e-learning support officer in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and I ran a series of social media workshops for research students entitled “Connected Rearcher @ Bath”. You can read more about that in our recent article on the subject in Ariadne.

Website maintenance

Web Services’ introduction of a new design for the University of Bath site gave me an excellent opportunity to revamp the CSCT web pages. I’ve rewritten a lot of the content into more web-friendly language, cleaned up the navigation and started bugging academics for more regular news items (that last with mixed success, as you might expect!).

Other stuff

Over the last academic year, Julian Prior and Marie Salter from the central e-learning team have been piloting use of Elluminate (now BlackBoard Collaborate) to support distance learning. As we have a course in sustainable development for our doctoral students which is run by two external trainers who live a long way from Bath, we were able to provide Julian and Marie with a test case for this technology.

In a way, we used the software backwards: we had remote lecturers teaching local students rather than the other way about. It worked fairly well, and though we had a few problems (especially avoiding that scourge of videoconferencing, feedback) we got quite polished by the end of the course.

The future

I’ve currently got my eye on better support for research data management and how we might build it into researchers’ workflows. In particular, integrating our institutional digital repository with Sakai to enable straightforward depositing of data is a very attractive idea.

Building on their success from this year, Julian and Marie are continuing to investigate videoconferencing, and I’m looking forward to getting to help them test some other interesting tools in that space.

Geraldine and I are hoping to run Connected Researcher @ Bath again next year, and in the meantime there may be opportunities to provide similar training for researchers through Bath’s Knowledge Transfer Account.

I also have a few thoughts about how we can develop the use of iSusLab, particularly in the direction of an e-lab-notebook (ELN).

But right now we’re approaching the start of a new year and getting ready for the start of the new cohort and all the challenges that will bring!


I’ve been looking over the programme for ALT-C to try and decide which bits I want to attend, so I thought I’d write a short post about what I want to get from the conference.

I’m currently interested in the following:

  • Research student development;
  • Virtual Research Environments;
  • Open scholarship;
  • Digital literacy;
  • Cloud computing;
  • Generally any overlap between teaching and research, especially in STEM subjects.

As well as attending plenty of interesting talks, I’m also looking forward to meeting lots of new people too! Feel free to come and say hi if you see me — you can see what I look like from the photo on my work homepage.

As an aside, this is also the first test of my mobile posting process for the new site…


It’s been available for a few weeks now, but I just thought I’d draw some
attention to the fact that my article with Geraldine Jones from Humanities &
Social Sciences about our Connected Researcher at Bath project
now been published in UKOLN’s web magazine for information professionals,

In case you haven’t read my earlier post
on the subject, this was a series of workshops we’ve run (and are hoping to run
again next year) encouraging postgraduate research students to try out new
media tools and think about how they could support their research and careers.
We ran workshops on:

  • Twitter;
  • Feed readers;
  • Blogging; and
  • Social bookmarking.

Printable versions (Word and PDF) are available from our institutional repository,


Next week I’ll be presenting an ePoster and short presentation at ALT-C
. I’ve intentionally made the slides with very few words so without any
video they’re just a tantalising hint, but here they are, along with the

I’m planning to follow the Chris Sexton model of blogging as I go along at
the conference — I guess we’ll see how that works out next week!



Virtual Research Environments: Supporting research and researcher development

You can follow my posts about ALT-C 2011 using this dedicated


Well here it is: the new look. I hope you like it. I’ve decided to publish it
with the minimum possible functionality so that I can start publishing with it
straight away, and I’ll be adding a few features here and there over the next
few weeks.

I’ve aimed to make the look as simple and clean as possible so that there’s
just you, me and the content. It really still needs a splash of colour, and
there are a few other little features that I’d like to add, but otherwise this
is the new eRambler.

By the way, I apologise if the changes to the RSS feed mean that you get a lot
of old posts in your RSS reader. This should only happen once.

As I write this, I haven’t yet decided whether or not to have comments enabled
before I publish it, but if not then they’ll be here soon. All
comments/feedback/flames welcome!

Over the next few days and weeks (or months — we'll see how it goes) I'll be updating the theme of this blog to something cleaner, and without the enormous background image (lovely though it is). In the process, I'll be migrating it to a new system and I though it was worth talking briefly about why. ## What's wrong with WordPress? Don't get me wrong — I really like WordPress. Over the last few years it's matured into a full-featured and very easy to use CMS. The plugin system allows you to do a lot of clever things without a lot of technical knowledge. But recently I got to thinking: how much of what my blog does needs to be generated on the server each time someone visits? Answer: none of it! WordPress has a lot of power, and that power is only used when something changes — when I publish a post or someone adds a comment. The only thing that really needs some clever stuff behind it is the comments, because visitors need to be able to add comments without editing the page source directly. But there are services like [Disqus]( which can deal with that. The main reason I use WordPress, in the end, is because I can cleanly separate content (posts and pages) from design (themes). But there are other ways of doing that. ## What's the new system? The software I'm moving to is called [nanoc]( and here are a few cool things about it: - It generates static HTML, so my web server ([Nginx]( can just focus on serving up content (and I can save a little bit by downsizing because I'm not having to run a whole RDBMS). - It does this by processing a folder full of plain text files formatted with (for example) [Markdown]( That means that I can write with whatever tools I have available, whether that's [Vim]( on the desktop, one of many iPad/iPhone text editors or even an SSH connection to the server. - It's based on Ruby, my current favourite programming language. I love the way Ruby lets you express what you want to do clearly and concisely without compromising on power. There's less code and it does more. - Though it's easy to maintain, it's quite technical (though not difficult) to set up, which gives me a lovely warm geeky feeling inside without anyone else having to put up with it! I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's gone through the same process, or have been thinking along the same lines. There are a few who've [done it already](, and their experiences are proving handy.

I had an idea for a post. I could feel it growing in some ill-defined region inside my skull. I’ll just bash it out in half and hour and hit publish — I could do with getting a few more posts up. So I started to write.

Half an hour came and went. And still it grew.

I wanted to be able to do my thoughts justice, to bring the world some insight. It wanted to be lucid, well-researched, a valid contribution to society that could hold it’s head up high.

So I kept writing for a while, but it still wasn’t ready. I had to take a break. I’ll get back to it tomorrow.

And so I did, for a few days at least. Then other things became important and I couldn’t quite remember what my point was and the whole thing lay half-finished like some simile I can’t quite think of right now.

Sorry for inflicting that lump of stream of consciousness on you — I wanted, for reasons which are probably apparent, to get in some practice writing what I thought and then publishing it. A lot of my posts seem to go that way

It’s tricky overcoming perfectionism. It feels like everything I do should be a work of unmitigated genius before I can expect anyone to read it but it also feels like sheer arrogance to think that anything I do might be considered genius!

There’s a balance to be found between expressing your ideas with clarity and wit and grace and just getting them out there. We all get the balance wrong some of the time, but it’s by recognising this and correcting it that we get better at it.

I’m glad I got that out of my system. If you’re still here, congratulations for making it this far.

Here’s to having faith that my ideas will stand on their own. I’m not an idiot you know. :)