Applying the distributed learning environment models to an online course with China

My colleagues Sheila and Wilbert have developed  five conceptual models of Distributed Learning Environment (DLE) for institutions. In the briefing paper, they discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each model and provide some examples of current applications. This timely work should be really valuable in helping institutions and educators to rethink how VLE and social software tools could be used effectively to support teaching and learning within institutions. For example, my colleague, Stephen and I in the IEC at the University of Bolton are developing a course for students who are studying a Masters degree in Educational Technology in universities in China. Both our Chinese partners and colleagues in IEC would like to explore new ways of teaching and learning in a technology enabled environment and the possibilities of developing online learning programmes collaboratively between institutions in the UK and China. At the moment, the University of Bolton is running a new Moodle elearning site and exploring how to integrate the Wookie server for plugging in various widget applications into the institutional VLE. This fits well with the “Model 1” of DLE which is illustrated in the briefing. For our Chinese online course, there are several aspects in relation to the course design and delivery and how this could be implemented through a variety of available technology:

  1. The course will be co-designed and co-delivered by the IEC team and our partners in China, therefore Moodle will be used to prepare and develop course material collaboratively and monitor teaching and learning process and carry out assessment.
  2. The course will be published online so that anyone can follow the course and join in the activities (in China or elsewhere), but only students from the partner university will be able to gain credits after successfully completing the course.
  3. Learners will be encouraged to critically evaluate and use social software tools outside the institution VLE to build their personal learning environments. For example, they can post their blogs on WordPress, create group collaboration sites on Wiki and build shared resource collections with Delicious.
  4. Presentations from lecturers will be pre-recorded with subtitles so that learners can watch wherever and whenever they want and hotseat sessions will be held online by using conferencing software or virtual classrooms to discuss issues with experts.
  5. Widgets will be used to add additional functionality to the existing VLE to enhance teaching and learning experiences online. Furthermore, some specific widget applications will be developed to support learning activities which are designed to meet particular educational purposes for the course.

To me, this course provides a good case study for exploring how an institutional VLE can be extended to provide an open and shared learning space and a protected private space for preparing the course itself and carrying out the assessment. It also presents opportunities to investigate how widgets and web-based tools can be used to support both personalised learning and collaborative teaching and learning within and beyond institutions.

Widgets meetup in London

The Widgets Working Group gathered in London last week to share ideas and their work on developing widgets infrastructure for teaching and learning. Following the  introduction to the day by Wilbert Kraan, our first speaker, Ross Gardler from the JISC OSS watch and Apache Software Foundation gave a brief overview of the Foundation’s developments and the strategy and mechanism they have adopted to support the developer community in engaging with open sources software. This was echoed by Scott Wilson, from a project perspective, shared his own experience, of community building and open sources projects management (audio) within the Apache Software Foundation. He then updated us on his recent work on the Apache Wookie widget engine and the progress on plug-in to LAMS, MOODLE, WORDPRESS and Elgg 1.0 through Wookie. He also demonstrated the new widgets he has developed and indicated the future directions of the work.

Wilbert followed up with a talk on the newly realised Google Wave preview and Wookie (audio). In his presentation, he discussed the similarities and differences between wookie and wave as widget platforms, as well as the different levels of interoperability between them. He also demonstrated how to input widgets from Wookie to Wave and the other way round. Finally, Ross McLarnon and Alan Brown from Youth Media, showed the Youthwire desktop widget platform that has been adopted by many universities and colleges. They have recently developed a prototype Wookie integration that enables users to select and use Wookie widgets within the Youthwire platform (audio). Lastly, Andrew Savory from the LiMo Foundation talk about developments in widgets in a range of Linux based mobile phones, and particularly how the BONDI specification improves interoperability and functionality in that area. An important part of that work is the open source, Eclipse based BONDI Software Development Kit that is enabling widget development (audio here).

In the afternoon, the participants were divided into two groups: one focusing on widget development and application, the other one on widget engines and plug-in. A number of issues were raised during the discussion, such as communication between widgets and how widgets could be developed to support content distribution.

One of the most important outcomes of this meeting was that the group agreed that we shouldn’t only think about widget server and plug-in development, but that we need to shift our focus to teaching and learning use cases and think about what educators and learners really want from widgets. Therefore, it is necessary to involve some lecturers who are interested in using Widgets in their teaching into the conversation. Ideally, they can bring some use cases and cooperate with widget developers to explore what types of educational practice is enabled by widgets so that widgets developers can then write widgets to meet appropriate educational purposes.

If you are interested in this work and would like to join the Widgets Working Group, more information is available on the CETIS wiki.

Using Widgets to create and share open educational resources

After the widgets working group meeting last week, I started to look at how widgets have been or might be used by educators and learners to support teaching and learning practices. Unsurprisingly, initial searching via Google brought me a number of articles and web links about using widgets in education. What was most interesting to me was Mark Marino’s work; a lecturer in the writing program at the University of Southern California, he and his colleagues have developed the Topoi Pageflake, a webpage containing a series of modular “widgets” that allows visitors to “rip, share or repurpose any of its content”. According to Marino, the idea is

to create pages around particular learning tasks built of widgets that target different learning styles (text, video, interactivity). Then, users can copy, cut, or change whatever doesn’t work for them. Each student and faculty member can create his or her own lesson plan based on the tools they find most useful.

In his presentation entitled “Widgets: The Slicing and Dicing (and Splicing) of Sharable Learning Content” at the Educause Webinar, Marino shared how the production of portable course content in widgets has opened up his writing course. I think this is definitely worth looking at and further exploring by educators who are interested in making their course content open for free access and sharing teaching and learning resources with others.