Heads of e-Learning Forum meeting report – 13th June 2012 – University of Kent

Effectively navigating the cloud and the impact of externally hosted learning spaces in our institutions

The latest Heads of e-Learning Forum event (HeLF) was hosted by the University of Kent, with Cloud computing as its focus. Speakers and discussions ranged over the many and varied experiences, strategies and responses in this rapidly emergent area, and the real need for institutions to engage with ‘Cloud’. As the first keynote speaker highlighted, staff and students in every institution will already be using Cloud services in some form, for research, for learning and teaching, and for administration purposes for a variety of reasons. An institution’s first reaction might be to wish to control or contain ‘it’ but as was explored on the day, this response might not really be compatible with Cloud concepts.

For some introductory and background materials on what Cloud is, two good starting points include:

I was surprised to find out over the day that a number of UK institutions represented at the event had already moved some of their previously internally-hosted IT services over to Cloud-based services, such as adopting Googlemail or Microsoft for student email accounts, or utilising Google Apps for learning and teaching activities, or running externally hosted media servers. There are also examples of hybrid models such as externally-hosted installations of institutional VLEs (Blackboard and Moodle). These kinds of migrations are often not seen in cost-saving terms but rather, as an example, to free up highly-skilled staff from routine systems administration to engage instead with institutional priority developments. However, concerns are voiced about security, data privacy and the persistence/reliability of Cloud services and the day’s event did an excellent job of identifying the foundations, the realities and some of the misconceptions that make up these worries.

Welcome and opening remarks. Jane Carne, Curriculum and Educational Development Manager at the University of Kent, welcomed us to the day’s proceedings and mapped out some of the learning technology landscape at her institution. It was particularly useful to hear how they had developed an e-learning strategy in 2007 which clearly supported the curriculum aims of the University. Another major initiative is their MaLT project (contact Jane for more information) which is designed to facilitate ‘cross-silo’ working and communication, so that services like computing, library and educational development, who often have very different working cultures, can collaborate and ensure that the learning technology offer at the institution is coherent, fully considered from all points of view, and best suits the learning and teaching needs of the University. This emphasised the role of learning technologists as being ‘third-space professionals’, people in the University who are comfortable working between many different sections of the institution and who can see solutions and strategies from multiple points of view and with a range of foci.

Moving on to the first keynote presentation, “A sunny outlook…”,  a  good, balanced state-of-play look at  institutional engagement with Cloud computing from Peter Tinson, executive secretary of the Universities and Colleges Information System Association (UCISA). It was particularly useful to learn about the ways in which contracts and End-User License Agreements can (and sometimes can’t) be negotiated to suit institutional security and privacy requirements, for example, when adopting a cloud-based service, and how the processes for doing this in the HE sector were developing quite quickly and successfully. Peter outlined why some institutions might want to utilise Cloud services, from the escalating  cost (and reliability concerns) of the physical power requirements for in-house services, to obtaining a much-needed service such as a media server for the institution without having to worry about specialist staff, software purchase and scalability. UCISA last year published a briefing paper for senior managers which is an excellent starting point for anyone.

A small group discussion followed with each group discussing what kinds of externally hosted/managed/cloud-based services were being used, or considered, what processes and needs had led to their adoption (and even discontinuation).

Lightning Strike sessions were the next part of the day, where speakers have a maximum of 10 minutes and 10 slides for their talk, followed by any questions. A brief summary of each ‘strike’ is given below and please do get in touch if you are interested in finding out more detail on any of these.

The University and the Cloud: a health warning?“, Richard Hall – De Montfort University. Richard highlighted a number of important questions an institution might want to pose when considering engagement with Cloud services. These were questions concerning ethics, political issues and of governance. What levels of corporate governance are required? Do we understand what data  is being transferred to these services, what are our responsibilities here, what are the levels of risk? Is the cloud another tool for the further marketisation of higher education? How do institutions develop the digital fluencies of their staff and students in this new space?

“The Bloomsbury Learning Environment in the Cloud”, Sarah Sherman – The Bloomsbury Colleges.  Sarah described some of the Cloud services they are utilising and in particular how their adoption of such services has grown organically rather than their being centrally directed. They are migrating to a hosted instance of Moodle and have a media server, the Bloomsbury Media Cloud, hosted on Amazon S3. They utilise GMail for students and some departments are using an arranged, educational instance of GoogleApps as a part of their learning and teaching activities.

“Embedding Constellations of Clouds”, Neil Ringan – Manchester Metropolitan University. Neil detailed how their formal model of technology support (click to see the diagram below) from a Core level (the fully-integrated and supported VLE) through levels described as ‘Arranged’, ‘Recommended’ and ‘Recognised’ was designed to enable staff to work at a level that is appropriate to their confidence and their needs as much as to support innovative practice across the spectrum of emergent technologies. One of the benefits of Cloud computing for their e-learning team has been allowing them to concentrate their resources on evaluation and pedagogy, as an example of freeing-up personnel from systems administration and support tasks.

“Apps: from email to learning tools”, Brian Irwin – Sheffield Hallam University. Brian talked over their experiences of using GoogleMail for their student email systems and building on this to explore an educational instance of GoogleApps, in particular whether tools in GoogleApps could meet the use case scenarios of particular learning and teaching requirements, for example, students collaboratively creating a shared document.

After an excellent lunch some time was given over to HeLF business. This included reports on the developing relationships with bodies such as the HEA (with whom a joint event on e-assessment had just been delivered at Manchester) and to set out some general planning for the coming year, including a call for anyone interested in hosting the HeLF meeting. The  working theme for next year’s events will be ‘personalisation’.

Barbara Newland, University of Brighton, then invited everyone to contribute examples and case studies, identified through small-group discussions, of the extent to which learning technology is a part of institutional PG Certs, and the ways in which PG Certs are encouraging the appropriate use of learning technology. These identified examples were to be submitted as a part of a HeLF contribution to current work on a professional associations guide to implementing the UKSPF in the Digital University.

The second keynote 2 of the day from Mick Kahn of the  University of London Computer Centre (ULCC), “Hosting Moodle: an open source shared service”, was an in-detail look at the hosted Moodle and associated services that ULCC offer.

A second group discussion took as starting points the themes “strategies for embedding into mainstream” and “when to let technologies go” (which my own group focussed on).

Invited Speaker. The final session of the day was given over to Will Murray from the European arm of iParadigms, the company behind Turnitin (itself an externally-hosted service). He was attending in response to a range of questions recently asked of Turnitin by HeLF. Will outlined some of the new support that Turnitin are putting in place over the next few months, including 7 day a week, 24 hour support, as well as questions on the future direction of the Turnitin suite.

To sum up the day, we looked at many of the issues that might trouble institutions and the extent to which some of these issues are chimeric and so obscure the potential benefits of adopting cloud-based services, such as freeing highly skilled staff from routine system administration and management. We looked at successful institutional adoptions of and strategic responses to Cloud computing. We also explored some of the reasons why individuals in an institution use Cloud services (gaps in  institutional provision, agility, rapid scalability) and some of the tensions this can cause where an institution is unsure of itself in this area. Attempts centrally to control or prohibit Cloud computing in an institution often miss the point of why Cloud is being used in the first place and this day provided many important examples, pointers and pathways by which more sophisticated strategic responses and engagement can be achieved.

Many of the presentations from the day will be made available on the HeLF pages here. Past meetings covered topics such as digital literacies, PG Certs, learning spaces, and social software.

(For a report on the previous March 7th HeLF meeting please read this earlier blog post.)

Dan Roberts

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

Report on the Heads of eLearning Forum meeting 14th March 2011

I attended the HeLF (Heads of eLearning Forum) meeting on 14th March at the Council Chambers at MMU. This is a national group with representation from almost every institution within the UK.

The meeting started with a series of 10 minute “Lightning strikes” presentations about how PG Certs in Learning and Teaching in HE are using e-learning. These PG Certs are often the way that staff find out about good practice with teaching (and therefore e-learning opportunities for teaching) so an overview of how other institutions are supporting their PG Cert with e-learning is useful.  We had presentations from

  • Roger Emery from Solent University on how they work with others in institution with respect to effectively supporting and delivering the PG Cert.
  • Rod Cullen from MMU and also Nicole from Kipar, Heriot Watt on how they have implemented creative and effective assessment models to support PG Certs and how they have used innovative technologies (e.g. Web 2.0)
  • Pam Parker from City on how they ensure overall sustainability of the innovative LTA models implemented within your PG Cert and of the technologies which are shown and showcased and how are staff encouraged and facilitated to adopt these practices day to day.
  • Jane O’Neill from Leeds on how they support the continuum of academic practice – pre-PGCert (GTAs, etc) and post-PGCert (MAs, etc), links to CPD generally, links to staff personal development planning, links to promotion based on learning and teaching rather than research.

These presentations demonstrated the range of different ways that e-learning can be used to support PG Certs, and importantly, the benefits of using them strategically as an exemplar to staff of the possibilities with e-learning. I can access these presentations if anyone is interested in finding out more.

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

Debbie Prescott