Report on the Heads of e-Learning Forum meeting 7th March 2012

I attended the HeLF (Heads of eLearning Forum) meeting on 7th March at Glasgow Caledonian University (who came to the rescue and provided a venue after a fire at the original location of University of Strathclyde meant we couldn’t meet there). HeLF is a national group with representation from 120 Higher Education institutions.

The focus of the meeting was on ‘Driving External Change‘ and contributes to HeLF’s theme for 2011/12 on Leading our institutions through change: change in external and internal environments. How do we work with students and get their involvement?

The meeting began with a presentation by Professor Phillipa Levy who is the Deputy Chief Executive (Academic) of the Higher Education Academy. Prof Levy described their new Strategic Plan, how they are focusing on putting students at the centre as ‘producers’ rather than consumers and how students are becoming agents of change. They also recognise that there are ‘e-challenges’ with the role of digital technologies, e.g. how to engage more staff in digital activities, that students may have differential access to technology and how to encourage a culture of shared learning design and and content. The HEA’s terminology for e-learning is now shifting to ‘flexible learning’ with a recognition that technology and e-learning is (or should be) embedded in the L&T experience rather than something separate.

The second presention was from Paul Bailey who is the programme manager in the JISC e-Learning team. Paul gave an overview of how JISC will change after the Wilson review to become a ‘company limited by guarantee’ from 1st August 2012.  JISC are working on a new strategy but the 5 strategic objectives are likely to be the same as before. Paul described how JISC are also focusing on students as change agents, similar to HEA.

David Beards from the Scottish Funding Council talked about their approach to e-learning and how the changes to JISC will affect them.

Andy Ramsden who is on the Steering Group of the MELSIG (Media Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group)  asked us to think about how MELSIG could be useful in our own insitution. This is an excellent SIG (Dan Roberts blogged about the MELSIG event he recently attended) and I think the general feeling around the group was that this is worth continuing.

Dr Neil Ringan from MMU gave an overview of an e-reader pilot project that started in September 2011 in the Department of English. 35 members of staff were given a Kindle e-reader (including the current Poet Laureate) though some members of staff already owned an iPad so it was possible to compare to some extent what staff thought of each. The aim of the pilot was to look at how the e-reader could be used

  • to support professional practice as producers and consumers of creative materials (using the e-reader as an e-reader) and
  • to support academic practice, particularly in relation to assessment and feedback (using the e-reader for reading & annotating assignments).

Positive aspects of the Kindle were the size, quality, battery life, that it is easy to store lots of text, the accessibility, price and quick access to the book store. Negative aspects were that PDF documents were not intuitive, creating e-books is clunky, annotation tools are too slow and primitive, the proprietary amazon e-book format lock in, limited internet capability and the speed and refresh rate.

Positive aspects of the iPad were the ease of importing PDF documents, PDF reading and annotation, that there was full internet access, that it was a more viable netbook replacement and the battery life. The negative aspects were the size and weight (in comparison to the Kindle), the Apple and iTunes propriety issues, the price and that there was no physical transfer.

In summary:

  • the Kindle was considered to be an excellent e-reader but not much more.
  • The iPad is a good e-reader (not as good as the Kindle) but it was also a lot more besides.
  • Staff were enthusiastic about using the Kindle as a reading tool but there was no enthusiasm to use it for assessment and feedback purposes.
  • The view across the department is that tablets, rather than netbooks, are the best way forward. Staff wanted the pros of the iPad but cheaper, and the pros of the Kindle, but more flexibility in what it can do and for it to be easier to use (this evaluation pre-dates apples latest developments with ibooks). It may be worth looking at the Kindle fire.

The rest of the meeting covered more general HeLF business. These are useful meetings as it is important to find out how colleagues in other institutions are addressing similar issues.

Debbie Prescott

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