eLearning@ed 2017

Today I am at the eLearning@ed Conference 2017, our annual day-long event for the eLearning community across the University of Edinburgh – including learning technologies, academic staff and some post graduate students. As I’m convener of the community I’m also chairing some sessions today so the notes won’t be at quite my normal pace!

As usual comments, additions and corrections are very welcome. 

For the first two sections I’m afraid I was chairing so there were no notes… But huge thanks to Anne Marie for her excellent quick run through exciting stuff to come… 

Welcome – Nicola Osborne, elearning@ed Convenor

Forthcoming Attractions – Anne Marie Scott, Head of Digital Learning Applications and Media

And with that it was over to our wonderful opening keynote… 

Opening Keynote: Prof. Nicola Whitton, Professor of Professional Learning, Manchester Metropolitan University: Inevitable Failure Assessment? Rethinking higher education through play (Chair: Dr Jill MacKay)

Although I am in education now, my background is as a computer scientist… So I grew up with failure. Do you remember the ZX Spectrum? Loading games there was extremely hit and miss. But the games there – all text based – were brilliant, they worked, they took you on adventures. I played all the games but I don’t think I ever finished one… I’d get a certain way through and then we’d have that idea of catastrophic failure…

And then I met a handsome man… It was unrequited… But he was a bit pixellated… Here was Guybush Threepwood of the Monkey Island series. And that game changed everything – you couldn’t catastrophically fail, it was almost impossible. But in this game you can take risks, you can try things, you can be innovative… And that’s important for me… That space for failure…

The way that we and our students think about failure in Higher Education, and deal with failure in Higher Education. If we think that going through life and never failing, we will be set for disappointment. We don’t laud the failures. J.K. Rowling, biggest author, rejected 12 times. The Beatles, biggest band of the 20th Century, were rejected by record labels many many time. The lightbulb failed hundreds of times! Thomas Edison said he didn’t fail 100 times, he succeeded in lots of stages…

So, to laud failure… Here are some of mine:

  1. Primary 5 junior mastermind – I’m still angry! I chose horses as my specialist subject so, a tip, don’t do that!
  2. My driving test – that was a real resiliance moment… I’ll do it again… I’ll have more lessons with my creepy driving instructor, but I’ll do it again.
  3. First year university exams – failed one exam, by one mark… It was borderline and they said “but we thought you need to fail” – I had already been told off for not attending lectures. So I gave up my summer job, spent the summer re-sitting. I learned that there is only so far you can push things… You have to take things seriously…
  4. Keeping control of a moped – in Thailand, with no training… Driving into walls… And learning when to give up… (we then went by walking and bus)
  5. Funding proposals and article submissions, regularly, too numerous to count – failure is inevitable… As academics we tend not to tell you about all the times we fail… We are going to fail… So we have to be fine to fail and learn from it. I was involved in a Jisc project in 2009… I’ve published most on it… It really didn’t work… And when it didn’t work they funded us to write about that. And I was very lucky, one of the Innovation Programme Managers who had funded us said “hey, if some of our innovation funding isn’t failing, then we aren’t being innovative”. But that’s not what we talk about.

For us, for our students… We have to understand that failure is inevitable. Things are currently set up as failure being a bad outcome, rather than an integral part of the learning process… And learning from failure is really important. I have read something – though I’ve not been able to find it again – that those who pass their driving test on the second attempt are better drives. Failure is about learning. I have small children… They spent their first few years failing to talk then failing to walk… That’s not failure though, it’s how we learn…

Just a little bit of theory. I want to talk a bit about the concept of the magic circle… The Magic Circle came from game theory, from the 1950s. Picked up by ? Zimmerman in early 2000s… The idea is that when you play with someone, you enter this other space, this safe space, where normal rules don’t apply… Like when you see animals playfighting… There is mutual agreement that this doesn’t count, that there are rules and safety… In Chess you don’t just randomly grab the king. Pub banter can be that safe space with different rules applying…

This happens in games, this happens in physical play… How can we create magic circles in learning… So what is that:

  • Freedom to fail – if you won right away, there’s no point in playing it. That freedom to fail and not be constrained by the failure… How we look at failure in games is really different from how we look at failure in Higher Education.
  • Lusory attitude – this is about a willingness to engage in play, to forget about the rules of the real world, to abide by the rules of this new situation. To park real life… To experiment, that is powerful. And that idea came from Leonard Suits whose book, The Grasshopper, is a great Playful Learning read.
  • Intrinsic motivation – this is the key area of magic circle for higher education. The idea that learning can be and should be intrinsically motivating is really really important.

So, how many of you have been in an academic reading group? OK, how many have lasted more than a year? Yeah, they rarely last long… People don’t get round to reading the book… We’ve set up a book group with special rules: you either HAVE To read the book, or your HAVE TO PRETEND that you read the book. We’ve had great turn out, no idea if they all read the books… But we have great discussion… Reframing that book group just a small bit makes a huge difference.

That sort of tiny change can be very powerful for integrating playfulness. We don’t think twice about doing this with children… Part of the issue with play, especially with adults, is what matters about play… About that space to fail. But also the idea of play as a socialised bonding space, for experimentation, for exploration, for possibilities, for doing something else, for being someone else. And the link with motivation is quite well established… I think we need to understand that different kind of play has different potential, but it’s about play and people, and safe play…

This is my theory heavy slide… This is from a paper I’ve just completed with colleagues in Denmark. We wanted to think “what is playful learning”… We talk about Higher Education and playful learning in that context… So what actually is it?

Well there is signature pedagogy for playful learning in higher education, under which we have surface (game) structures; deep (play) structures; implicit (playful) structures. Signature pedagogy could be architecture or engineering…

This came out of work on what students respond to…

So Surface (game) structures includes: ease of entry and explicit progression; appropriate and flexible levels of challenge; engaging game mechanics; physical or digital artefacts. Those are often based around games and digital games… But you can be playful without games…

Deep (play) structures is about: active and physical engagement; collaboration with diversity; imagining possibilities; novelty and surprises.

Implicit (playful) structures: lusory attitude; democratice values and openness; acceptance of risk-taking and failure; intrinsic motivation. That is so important for us in higher education…

So, rant alert…

Higher Education is broken. And that is because schools are broken. I live in Manchester (I know things aren’t as bad in Scotland) and we have assessment all over the place… My daughter is 7 sitting exams. Two weeks of them. They are talking about exams for reception kids – 4 year olds! We have a performative culture of “you will be assessed, you will be assessed”. And then we are surprised when that’s how our students respond… And have the TEF appearing… The golds, silvers, and bronze… Based on fairly random metrics… And then we are surprised when people work to the metrics. I think that assessment is a great way to suck out all the creativity!

So, some questions my kids have recently asked:

  • Are there good viruses? I asked an expert… apparently there are for treating people.. (But they often mutate.)
  • Do mermaids lay eggs? Well they are part fish…
  • Do Snow Leopards eat tomatoes? Where did this question come from? Who knows? Apparently they do eat monkeys… What?!

But contrast that to what my students ask:

  • Will I need to know this for the exam?
  • Are we going to be assessed on that?

That’s what happens when we work to the metrics…

We are running a course where there were two assessments. One was formative… And students got angry that it wasn’t worth credit… So I started to think about what was important about assessment? So I plotted the feedback from low to high, and consequence from low to high… So low consequence, low feedback…

We have the idea of the Trivial Fail – we all do those and it doesn’t matter (e.g. forgetting to signal at a roundabout), and lots of opportunity to fail like that.

We also have the Critical Fail – High Consequence and Low Feedback – kids exams and quite a lot of university assessment fits there.

We also have Serious Fail – High Consequence and High Feedback – I’d put PhD Vivas there… consequences matter… But there is feedback and can be opportunity to manage that.

What we need to focus on in Higher Education is the Micro Fail – low consequence with high feedback. We need students to have that experience, and to value that failure, to value failure without consequence…

So… How on earth do we actually do this? How about we “Level Up” assessment… With bosses at the end of levels… And you keep going until you reach as far as you need to go, and have feedback filled in…

Or the Monkey Island assessment. There is a goal but it doesn’t matter how you get there… You integrate learning and assessment completely, and ask people to be creative…

Easter Egg assessment… Not to do with chocolate but “Easter Eggs” – suprises… You don’t know how you’ll be assessed… Or when you’ll be assessed… But you will be! And it might be fun! So you have to go to lectures… Real life works like that… You can’t know which days will count ahead of time.

Inevitable Failure assessment… You WILL fail first time, maybe second time, third time… But eventually pass… Or even maybe you can’t ever succeed and that’s part of the point.

The point is that failure is inevitable and you need to be able to cope with that and learn from that. On which note… Here is my favourite journal, the Journal of Universal Rejection… This is quite a cathartic experience, they reject everything!

So I wanted to talk about a project that we are doing with some support from the HEA… Eduscapes… Have you played Escape Rooms? They are so addictive! There are lots of people creating educational Escape Rooms… This project is a bit different… So there are three parts… You start by understanding what the Escape Room is, how they work; then some training; and then design a game. But they have to trial them again and again and again. We’ve done this with students, and with high school students three times now. There is inevitable failure built in here… And the project can run over days or weeks or months… But you start with something and try and fail and learn…

This is collaborative, it is creative – there is so much scope to play with, sometimes props, sometimes budget, sometimes what they can find… In the schools case they were maths and Comp Sci students so there was a link to the curriculum. It is not assessed… But other people will see it – that’s quite a powerful motivator… We have done this with reflection/portfolio assessment… That resource is now available, there’s a link, and it’s a really simple way to engage in something that doesn’t really matter…

And while I’m here I have to plug our conference, Playful Learning, now in its second year. We were all about thinking differently about conferences… But always presenting at traditional conferences. So our conference is different… Most of it is hands on, all different stuff, a space to do something different – we had a storytelling in a tent as one of these… Lots of space but nothing really went wrong. But we need something to fail. Applications are closed this year… But there will be a call next year… So play more, be creative, fail!

So, to finish… I’m playful, play has massive potential… But we also have to think about diversity of play, the resilience to play… A lot of the research on playful learning, and assessment doesn’t recognise the importance of gender, race, context, etc… And the importance of the language we use in play… It has nuance, and comes with distinctions… We have to encourage people to play ad get involved. And we really have to re-think assessment – for ourselves, of universities, of students, of school pupils… Until we rethink this, it will be hard to have any real impact for playful learning…

Jill: Thank you so much, that was absolutely brilliant. And that Star Trek reference is “Kobayashi Maru”!


Q1) In terms of playful learning and assessment, I was wondering how self-assessment can work?

A1) That brings me back to previous work I have done around reflection… And I think that’s about bringing that reflection into playful assessment… But it’s a hard question… More space and time for reflection, possibly more space for support… But otherwise not that different from other assessment.

Q2) I run a research methods course for an MSc… We tried to invoke playfulness with a fake data set with dragons and princesses… Any other examples of that?

A2) I think that that idea of it being playful, rather than games, is really important. Can use playful images, or data that makes rude shapes when you graph is!

Q3) Nic knows that I don’t play games… I was interested in that difference between gaming and play and playfulness… There is something about games that don’t entice me at all… But that Lusory attitude did feel familiar and appealing… That suspension of disbelief and creativity… And that connection with gendered discussion of play and games.

A3) We are working on a taxonomy of play. That’s quite complex… Some things are clearly play… A game, messing with LEGO… Some things are not play, but can be playful… Crochet… Jigsaw puzzles… They don’t have to be creative… But you can apply that attitude to almost anything. So there is play and there is a playful attitude… That latter part is the key thing, the being prepared to fail…

Q4) Not all games are fun… Easy to think playfulness and games… A lot of games are work… Competitive gaming… Or things like World of Warcraft – your wizard chores. And intensity there… Failure can be quite problematic if working with 25 people in a raid – everyone is tired and angry… That’s not a space where failure is ok… So in terms of what we can learn from games it is important to remember that games aren’t always fun or playful…

A4) Indeed, and not all play is fun… I hate performative play – improv, people touching me… It’s about understanding… It’s really nuanced. It used to be that “students love games because they are fun” and now “students love play because it’s fun” and that’s still missing the point…

Q5) I don’t think you are advocating this but… Thinking about spoonful of sugar making assessment go down… Tricking students into assessment??

A5) No. It’s taking away the consequences in how we think about assessment. I don’t have a problem with exams, but the weight on that, the consequences of failure. It is inevitable in HE that we grade students at different levels… So we have to think about how important assessment is in the real world… We don’t have equivelents of University assessments in the real world… Lets say I do a bid, lots of work, not funded… In real world I try again. If you fail your finals, you don’t get to try again… So it’s about not making it “one go and it’s over”… That’s hard but a big change and important.

Q6) I started in behavioural science in animals… Play there is “you’ll know it when you see it” – we have clear ideas of what other behaviours look like, but play is hard to describe but you know it when you see it… How does that work in your taxonomy…

A6) I have a colleague who is a physical science teacher trainer… And he’s gotten to “you’ll know it when you see it”… Sometimes that is how you perceive that difference… But that’s hard when you apply for grants! It’s a bit of an artificial exercise…

Q7) Can you tell us more about play and cultural diversity, and how we need to think about that in HE?

A7) At the moment we are at the point that people understand and value play in different way. I have a colleague looking at diversity in play… A lot of research previously is on men, and privileged white men… So partly it’s about explaining why you are doing, what you are doing, in the way you are doing it… You have to think beyond that, to appropriateness, to have play in your toolkit…

Q8) You talk about physical spaces and playfulness… How much impact does that have?

A8) It’s not my specialist area but yes, the physical space matters… And you have to think about how to make your space more playful..

Introductions to Break Out Sessions: Playful Learning & Experimentation (Nicola Osborne)

  • Playful Learning – Michael Boyd (10 min)

We are here today with the UCreate Studio… I am the manager of the space, we have student assistants. We also have high school students supporting us too. This pilot runs to the end of July and provides a central Maker Space… To create things, to make things, to generate ideas… This is mixture of the maker movement, we are a space for playful learning through making. There are about 1400 maker spaces world wide, many in Universities in the UK too… Why do they pop up in Universities? They are great creative spaces to learn.

You can get hands on with technology… It is about peer based learning… And project learning… It’s a safe space to fail – it’s non assessed stuff…

Why is it good for learning? Well for instance the World Economic Forum predict that 35% of core professional skills will change from 2015 to 2020. Complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, judgement and decision making, cognitive flexibility… These are things that can’t be automated… And can be supported by making and creating…

So, what do we do? We use new technologies, we use technologies that are emerging but not yet widely adopted. And we are educational… That first few months is the hard bit… We don’t lecture much, we are there to help and guide and scaffold. Students can feel confident that they have support if they need it.

And, we are open source! Anyone in the University can use the space, be supported in the space, for free as long as they openly share and license whatever they make. Part of that bigger open ethos.

So, what gets made? Includes academic stuff… Someone made a holder for his spectrometer and 3D printed it. He’s now looking to augment this with his chemistry to improve that design; we have Josie in archeology scanning artefacts and then using that to engage people – using VR; Dimitra in medicine, following a poster project for a cancer monitoring chip, she started prototyping; Hayden in Geosciences is using 3D scanning to see the density of plant matter to understand climate change.

But it’s not just that. Also other stuff… Henry studies architecture, but has a grandfather who needs meds and his family worries if he takes his medicine.. So he’s designed a system that connects a display of that. Then Greg on ECA is looking at projecting memories on people… To see how that helps…

So, I wanted to flag some ideas we can discuss… One of he first projects when I arrived, Fiona Hale and Chris Speed (ECA) ran “Maker Go” had product design students, across the years, to come up with a mobile maker space project… Results were fantastic – a bike to use to scan a space… A way to follow and make paths with paint, to a coffee machine powered by failed crits etc. Brilliant stuff. And afterwards there was a self-organised (first they can remember) exhibtion, Velodrama…

Next up was Edinburgh IoT challenge… Students and academics came together to address challenges set by Council, Uni, etc. Designers, Engineers, Scientists… Led to a really special project, 2 UG students approached us to set yp the new Embedded adn Robotics Society – they run sessions every two weeks. And going strength to strength.

Last but not least… Digital manufacturing IP session trialled last term with Dr Stema Kieria, to explore 3D scanning and printing and the impact on IPs… Huge areas… Echos of taping songs off the radio. Took something real, showed it hands on, learned about technologies, scanned copyright materials, and explored this. They taught me stuff! And that led to a Law and Artificial Intelligence Hackathon in March. This was law and informatics working together, huge ideas… We hope to see them back in the studio soon!

  • Near Future Teaching Vox Pops – Sian Bayne (5 mins)

I am Assistant Vice Principal for Digital Education and I was very keen to look at designing the future of digital education at Edinburgh. I am really excited to be here today… We want you to answer some questions on what teaching will look like in this university in 20 or 30 years time:

  • will students come to campus?
  • will we come to campus?
  • will we have AI tutors?
  • How will teaching change?
  • Will learning analytics trigger new things?
  • How will we work with partner organisations?
  • Will peers accredit each other?
  • Will MOOCs stull exist?
  • Will performance enhancement be routine?
  • Will lectures still exist?
  • Will exams exist?
  • Will essays be marked by software?
  • Will essays exist?
  • Will discipline still exist?
  • Will the VLE still exist?
  • Will we teach in VR?
  • Will the campus be smart? And what does eg IoT to monitor spaces mean socially?
  • Will we be smarter through technology?
  • What values should shape how we change? How we use these technologies?

Come be interviewed for our voxpops! We will be videoing… If you feel brave, come see us!

And now to a break… and our breakout sessions, which were… 

Morning Break Out Sessions

  • Playful Learning Mini Maker Space (Michael Boyd)
  • 23 Things (Stephanie (Charlie) Farley)
  • DIY Film School (Gear and Gadgets) (Stephen Donnelly)
  • World of Warcraft (download/set up information here) (Hamish MacLeod & Clara O’Shea)
  • Near Future Teaching Vox Pops (Sian Bayne)

Presentations: Fun and Games and Learning (Chair: Ruby Rennie, Lecturer, Institute for Education, Teaching and Leadership (Moray House School of Education))

  • Teaching with Dungeons & Dragons – Tom Boylston

I am based in Anthropology and we’ve been running a course on the anthropology of games. And I just wanted to talk about that experience of creating playful teaching and learning. So, Dungeons and Dragons was designed in the 1970s… You wake up, your chained up in a dungeon, you are surrounded by aggressive warriors… And as a player you choose what to do – fight them, talk to them, etc… And you can roll a dice to decide an action, to make the next play. It is always a little bit improvisational, and that’s where the fun comes in!

There are some stigmas around D&D as the last bastion of the nerdy white bloke… But… The situation we had was a 2 hour lecture slot, and I wanted to split that in two. To engage with a reading on the creative opportunities of imagination. I wanted them to make a character, alsmot like creative writing classes, to play that character and see what that felt like, how that changed that… Because part of the fun of role playing is getting to be someone else. Now these games do raise identity issues – gender, race, sexuality… That can be great but it’s not what you want in a big group with people you don’t yet have trust with… But there is something special about being in a space with others, where you don’t know what could happen… It is not a simple thing to take a traditional teaching setting and make it playful… One of the first things we look at when we think about play is people needing to consent to play… And if you impose that on a room, that’s hard…

So early in the course we looked at Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis, and we used Pictionary cards… We looked at the social cues from the space, the placement of seats, microphones, etc. And then the social cues of play… Some of the foundational work of animal play asks us how you know dogs are playfighting… It’s the half-bite, playful rather than painful… So how do I invite a room full of people to play? I commanded people to play Pictionary, to come up and play… Eventually someone came up… Eventually the room accepted that and the atmosphere changed. It really helped that we had been reading about framing. And I asked what had changed and there were able to think and talk about that…

But D&D… People were sceptical. We started with students making me a character. They made me Englebert, a 5 year old lizard creature… To display the playful situation, a bit silly, to model and frame the situation… Sent them comedy D&D podcasts to listen to and asked them to come back a week later… I promised that we wouldn’t do it every week but… I shared some creative writing approaches to writing a back story, to understand what would matter about this character… Only having done this preparatory work, thought about framing… Only then did I try out my adventure on them… It’s about a masquerade in Camaroon, and children try on others’ masks… I didn’t want to appropriate that. But just to take some cues and ideas and tone from that. And when we got to the role playing, the students were up for it… And we did this either as individual students, or they could pair up…

And then we had a debrief – crucial for a playful experience like this. People said there was more negotiation than they expected as they set up the scene and created. They were surprised how people took care of their characters…

The concluding thing was… At the end of the course I had probably shared more that I cared about. Students interrupted me more – with really great ideas! And students really engaged.


Q1) Would you say that D&D would be a better medium than an online role playing game… Exemporisation rather than structured compunction?

A1) We did talk about that… We created a WoW character… There really is a lot of space, unexpected situations you can create in D&D… Lots of improvisation… More happened in that than in the WoW stuff that we did… It was surprisingly great.

Q2) Is that partly about sharing and revealing you, rather than the playfulness per se?

A2) Maybe a bit… But I would have found that hard in another context. The discussion of games really brought that stuff out… It was great and unexpected… Play is the creation of unexpected things…

Q3) There’s a trust thing there… We can’t expect students to trust us and the process, unless we show our trust ourselves…

A3) There was a fair bit of background effort… Thinking about signalling a playful space, and how that changes the space… The playful situations did that without me intending to or trying to!

Digital Game Based Learning in China – Sihan Zhou

I have been finding this event really inspiring… There is so much to think around playfulness. I am from China, and the concept of playful learning is quite new in China so I’m pleased to talk to you about the platform we are creating – Tornado English…

On this platform we have four components – a bilingual animation, a game, and a bilingual chat bot… If the user clicks on the game, they can download it… So far we have created two games: Word Pop – vocabulary learning and Run Rabbit – syntactic learning, both based around Mayer’s model (2011).

The games mechanics are usually understood but comparing user skills and level of challenge – too easy and users will get bored, but if it’s too challenging then users will be frustrated and demotivated. So for apps in China, many of the educational products tend to be more challenging than fun – more educational apps than educational games. So in our games use timing and scoring to make things more playful and interactions like popping bubbles, clicking on moles popping out of holes in the ground. In Word Smash students have to match images to vocab as quickly as possible… In Run Rabbit… The student has to speak a phrase in order get the rabbit to run to the right word in the game and placing it…

When we designed the game, we considered how we could ensure that the game is educationally effective, and to integrate it with the English curriculum in school. We tie to the 2011 English Curriculum Standards for Compulsory Education in China. Students have to complete a sequence of levels to reach the next level of learning – autonomous learning in a systematic way.

So, we piloted this app in China, working with 6 primary schools in Harbin, China. Data has been collected from interviews with teachers, classroom observation, and questionnaires with parents.

This work is a KTP – a Knowledge Transfer Partnership – project and the KTP research is looking at Chinese primary school teachers’ attitudes towards game-based learning. And there is also an MSc TESOL Dissertation looking at teachers attitudes towards game based learning… For instance they may or may not be able to actually use these tools in the classroom because of the way teaching is planned and run. The results of this work will be presented soon – do get in touch.

Our future game development will focus more on a communicative model, task-based learning, and learner autonomy. So the character lands on a new planet, have to find their way, repair their rocket, and return to earth… To complete those task the learner has to develop the appropriate language to do well… But this is all exploratory so do talk to me and to inspire me.


Q1) I had some fantastic Chinese students in my playful anthropology course and they were explaining quite mixed attitudes to these approaches in China. Clearly there is that challenge to get authorities to accept it… But what’s the compromise between learning and fun.

A1) The game has features designed for fun… I met with education bureu and teachers, to talk about how this is eduationally effective… Then when I get into classrooms to talk to the students, I focus more on gaming features, why you play it, how you progress and unlock new levels. Emphasis has to be quite different depending on the audience. One has to understand the context.

Q2) How have the kids responded?

A2) They have been really inspired and want to try it out. The kids are 8 or 9 years old… They were keen but also knew that their parents weren’t going to be as happy about playing games in the week when they are supposed to do “homework”. We get data on how this used… We see good use on week days, but huge use on weekends, and longer play time too!

Q3) In terms of changing attitudes to game based learning in China… If you are wanting to test it in Taiwan the attitude was different, we were expected to build playful approaches in…

A3) There is “teaching reform” taking place… And more games and playfulness in the classrooms. But digital games was the problem in terms of triggering a mentality and caution. The new generation uses more elearning… But there is a need to demonstrate that usefulness and take it out to others.

VR in Education – Cinzia Pusceddu-Gangarosa

I am manager of learning technology in the School of Biological Sciences, and also a student on the wonderful MS in Digital Education. I’m going to talk about Virtual Reality in Education.

I wanted to start by defining VR. The definition I like best is from Mirriam Webster. It includes key ideas… the idea of “simulated world” and the ways one engaging with it. VR technologies include headsets like Oculus Rift (high end) through to Google Cardboard (low end) that let you engage… But there is more interesting stuff there too… There are VR “Cave” spaces – where you enter and are surrounded by screens. There are gloves, there are other kinds of experience.

Part of virtual reality is about an intense idea of presence, of being there, of being immersed in the world, fully engaged – so much so that the interface disappears, you forget you are using technologies.

In education VR is not anything new. The first applications were in the 1990s…. But in 200s desktop VR becomes more common – spaces such as Second Life – more acceptable and less costly to engage with.

I want to show you a few examples here… One of the first experiments was from the Institute for Simulation and Training, PA, where students could play “noseball” to play with a virtual ball in a set of wearables. You can see they still use headsets, similar to now but not particularly sophisticated… I also wanted to touch on some other university experiments with VR… The first one is Google Expeditions. This is not a product that has been looked at in universities – it has been trialled in schools a lot… It’s a way to travel in time and space through Google Cardboard… Through the use of apps and tools… And Google supports teachers to use this.

A more interesting experiment is an experiment at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, looking at cognitive effects on students behaviour, and perspective-taking in these spaces, looking at empathy – how VR promotes and encourages empathy. Students impersonating a tree, are more cautious wasting paper. Or impersonating a person has more connection and thoughtfulness about their behaviour to that person… Even an experiment on being a cow and whether that might make them more likely to make them a vegetarian.

Another interesting experiment is at Boston University who are engaging with Ulysses – based on a book but not in a literal way. At Penn State they have been experimenting with VR and tactile experiences.

So, to conclude, what are the strengths of VR in education? Well it is about experience what its not possible – cost, distance, time, size, safety. Also non-symbolic learning (maths, chemistry, etc); learning by doing; and engaging experiences. But there are weaknesses too: it is hard to find a VR designer; it requires technical support; and sometimes VR may not be the right technology – maybe we want to replicate the wrong thing, maybe not innovative enough…


Q1) Art Gallery/use in your area?

A1) I would like to do a VR project. It’s hard to understand until you try it out… Most of what I’ve presented is based on what I’ve read and researched, but I would love to explore the topic in a real project.

Q2) With all these technologies, I was wondering if a story is an important accompaniment to the technology and the experience?

A2) I think we do need a story. I don’t think any technology adds value unless we have a vision, and an understanding of full potential of the technology – and what it does differently, and what it really adds to the situation and the story…

Coming up…

Afternoon Keynote: Dr Hamish MacLeod, Senior Lecturer in Digital Education, Institute for Education, Community and Society, Moray House School of Education: Learning with and through Ambiguity (Chair: Cinzia Pusceddu-Gangarosa)

Afternoon Break Out Sessions

  • Playful Learning Mini Maker Space – Michael Boyd)
  • 23 Things – Stephanie (Charlie) Farley
  • DIY Film School (Gear and Gadgets) – Stephen Donnelly
  • Gamifying Wikpedia – Ewan McAndrew
  • Near Future Teaching Vox Pops – Sian Bayne


Short 10 minute presentations with 5 minutes for Q&A

  • Learning to Code: A Playful Approach – Areti Manataki
  • Enriched engagement with recorded lectures – John Lee
  • DIY Filmschool and Media Hopper (MoJo) – Stephen Donnelly

Chair: Ross Ward, Learning Technology Advisor (ISG Learning, Teaching & Web Services)

Closing Remarks – Prof. Sian Bayne, Moray House School of Education


Behind the scenes at the Digital Footprint MOOC

Last Monday we launched the new Digital Footprint MOOC, a free three week online course (running on Coursera) led by myself and Louise Connelly (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies). The course builds upon our work on the Managing Your Digital Footprints research project, campaign and also draws on some of the work I’ve been doing in piloting a Digital Footprint training and consultancy service at EDINA.

It has been a really interesting and demanding process working with the University of Edinburgh MOOCs team to create this course, particularly focusing in on the most essential parts of our Digital Footprints work. Our intention for this MOOC is to provide an introduction to the issues and equip participants with appropriate skills and understanding to manage their own digital tracks and traces. Most of all we wanted to provide a space for reflection and for participants to think deeply about what their digital footprint means to them and how they want to manage it in the future. We don’t have a prescriptive stance – Louise and I manage our own digital footprints quite differently but both of us see huge value in public online presence – but we do think that understanding and considering your online presence and the meaning of the traces you leave behind online is an essential modern life skill and want to contribute something to that wider understanding and debate.

Since MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – are courses which people tend to take in their own time for pleasure and interest but also as part of their CPD and personal development so that fit of format and digital footprint skills and reflection seemed like a good fit, along with some of the theory and emerging trends from our research work. We also think the course has potential to be used in supporting digital literacy programmes and activities, and those looking for skills for transitioning into and out of education, and in developing their careers. On that note we were delighted to see the All Aboard: Digital Skills in Higher Education‘s 2017 event programme running last week – their website, created to support digital skills in Ireland, is a great complementary resource to our course which we made a (small) contribution to during their development phase.

Over the last week it has been wonderful to see our participants engaging with the Digital Footprint course, sharing their reflections on the #DFMOOC hashtag, and really starting to think about what their digital footprint means for them. From the discussion so far the concept of the “Uncontainable Self” (Barbour & Marshall 2012) seems to have struck a particular chord for many of our participants, which is perhaps not surprising given the degree to which our digital tracks and traces can propagate through others posts, tags, listings, etc. whether or not we are sharing content ourselves.

When we were building the MOOC we were keen to reflect the fact that our own work sits in a context of, and benefits from, the work of many researchers and social media experts both in our own local context and the wider field. We were delighted to be able to include guest contributors including Karen Gregory (University of Edinburgh), Rachel Buchanan (University of Newcastle, Australia), Lilian Edwards (Strathclyde University), Ben Marder (University of Edinburgh), and David Brake (author of Sharing Our Lives Online).

The usefulness of making these connections across disciplines and across the wider debate on digital identity seems particularly pertinent given recent developments that emphasise how fast things are changing around us, and how our own agency in managing our digital footprints and digital identities is being challenged by policy, commercial and social factors. Those notable recent developments include…

On 28th March the US Government voted to remove restrictions on the sale of data by ISPs (Internet Service Providers), potentially allowing them to sell an incredibly rich picture of browsing, search, behavioural and intimate details without further consultation (you can read the full measure here). This came as the UK Government mooted the banning of encryption technologies – essential for private messaging, financial transactions, access management and authentication – claiming that terror threats justified such a wide ranging loss of privacy. Whilst that does not seem likely to come to fruition given the economic and practical implications of such a measure, we do already have the  Investigatory Powers Act 2016 in place which requires web and communications companies to retain full records of activity for 12 months and allows police and security forces significant powers to access and collect personal communications data and records in bulk.

On 30th March, a group of influential privacy researchers, including danah boyd and Kate Crawford, published Ten simple rules for responsible big data research in PLoSOne. The article/manifesto is an accessible and well argued guide to the core issues in responsible big data research. In many ways it summarises the core issues highlight in the excellent (but much more academic and comprehensive) AoIR ethics guidance. The PLoSOne article is notably directed to academia as well as industry and government, since big data research is at least as much a part of commercial activity (particularly social media and data driven start ups, see e.g. Uber’s recent attention for profiling and manipulating drivers) as traditional academic research contexts. Whilst academic research does usually build ethical approval processes (albeit conducted with varying degrees of digital savvy) and peer review into research processes, industry is not typically structured in that way and often not held to the same standards particularly around privacy and boundary crossing (see, e.g. Michael Zimmers work on both academic and commercial use of Facebook data).

The Ten simple rules… are also particularly timely given the current discussion of Cambridge Analytica and it’s role in the 2016 US Election, and the UK’s EU Referendum. An article published in Das Magazin in December 2016, and a subsequent English language version published on Vice’s Motherboard have been widely circulated on social media over recent weeks. These articles suggest that the company’s large scale psychometrics analysis of social media data essentially handed victory to Trump and the Leave/Brexit campaigns, which naturally raises personal data and privacy concerns as well as influence, regulation and governance issues. There remains some skepticism about just how influential this work was… I tend to agree with Aleks Krotoski (social psychologist and host of BBC’s The Digital Human) who – speaking with Pat Kane at an Edinburgh Science Festival event last night on digital identity and authenticity – commented that she thought the Cambridge Analytica work was probably a mix of significant hyperbole but also some genuine impact.

These developments focus attention on access, use and reuse of personal data and personal tracks and traces, and that is something we we hope our MOOC participants will have opportunity to pause and reflect on as they think about what they leave behind online when they share, tag, delete, and particularly when they consider terms and conditions, privacy settings and how they curate what is available and to whom.

So, the Digital Footprint course is launched and open to anyone in the world to join for free (although Coursera will also prompt you with the – very optional – possibility of paying a small fee for a certificate), and we are just starting to get a sense of how our videos and content are being received. We’ll be sharing more highlights from the course, retweeting interesting comments, etc. throughout this run (which began on Monday 3rd April), but also future runs since this is an “on demand” MOOC which will run regularly every four weeks. If you do decide to take a look then I would love to hear your comments and feedback – join the conversation on #DFMOOC, or leave a comment here or email me.

And if you’d like to find out more about our digital footprint consultancy, or would be interested in working with the digital footprints research team on future work, do also get in touch. Although I’ve been working in this space for a while this whole area of privacy, identity and our social spaces seems to continue to grow in interest, relevance, and importance in our day to day (digital) lives.



Last chance to submit for the “Social Media in Education” Mini Track for the 4th European Conference on Social Media (ECSM) 2017

This summer I will be co-chairing, with Stefania Manca (from The Institute of Educational Technology of the National Research Council of Italy) “Social Media in Education”, a Mini Track of the European Conference on Social Median (#ECSM17) in Vilnius, Lithuania. As the call for papers has been out for a while (deadline for abstracts: 12th December 2016) I wanted to remind and encourage you to consider submitting to the conference and, particularly, for our Mini Track, which we hope will highlight exciting social media and education research.

You can download the Mini Track Call for Papers on Social Media in Education here. And, from the website, here is the summary of what we are looking for:

An expanding amount of social media content is generated every day, yet organisations are facing increasing difficulties in both collecting and analysing the content related to their operations. This mini track on Big Social Data Analytics aims to explore the models, methods and tools that help organisations in gaining actionable insight from social media content and turning that to business or other value. The mini track also welcomes papers addressing the Big Social Data Analytics challenges, such as, security, privacy and ethical issues related to social media content. The mini track is an important part of ECSM 2017 dealing with all aspects of social media and big data analytics.

Topics of the mini track include but are not limited to:

  • Reflective and conceptual studies of social media for teaching and scholarly purposes in higher education.
  • Innovative experience or research around social media and the future university.
  • Issues of social media identity and engagement in higher education, e.g: digital footprints of staff, students or organisations; professional and scholarly communications; and engagement with academia and wider audiences.
  • Social media as a facilitator of changing relationships between formal and informal learning in higher education.
  • The role of hidden media and backchannels (e.g. SnapChat and YikYak) in teaching, learning.
  • Social media and the student experience.

The conference, the 4th European Conference on Social Media (ECSM) will be taking place at the Business and Media School of the Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) in Vilnius, Lithuania on the 3-4 July 2017. Having seen the presentation on the city and venue at this year’s event I feel confident it will be lovely setting and should be a really good conference. (I also hear Vilnius has exceptional internet connectivity, which is always useful).

I would also encourage anyone working in social media to consider applying for the Social Media in Practice Excellence Awards, which ECSM is hosting this year. The competition will be showcasing innovative social media applications in business and the public sector, and they are particularly looking for ways in which academia have been working with business around social media. You can read more – and apply to the competition (deadline for entries: 17th January 2017)- here.

This is a really interdisciplinary conference with a real range of speakers and topics so a great place to showcase interesting applications of and research into social media. The papers presented at the conference are published in the conference proceedings, widely indexed, and will also be considered for publication in: Online Information Review (Emerald Insight, ISSN: 1468-4527); International Journal of Social Media and Interactive Learning Environments (Inderscience, ISSN 2050-3962); International Journal of Web-Based Communities (Inderscience); Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society (Emerald Insight, ISSN 1477-996X).

So, get applying to the conference  and/or to the competition! If you have any questions or comments about the Social Media in Education track, do let me know.