Having the craic in Belfast, a busman’s holiday

With project deadlines looming and two final reports due on JISC’s desk in a matter of weeks, some might consider a visit to our Regional University Network partner in the Emerald Isle to be, well, a bit late in the day. As a RUN partner with whom we enjoy close links, Belfast Met was identified as a potential evaluation environment early in the project. My only regret is that it has taken us until the 11th hour to finally get there – although we almost didn’t make it at all, grounded by a technical problem on a prop plane that had us stranded for 4 hours at Leeds Bradford airport.

Belfast Met is an FE college with an innovative culture of technology enhanced learning from which Leeds Met and, I suspect, UK HE as a whole, could learn a great deal.

I have been to Ireland once before (well twice but I’m not counting a lost stag weekend in Dublin) and can categorically say that céad míle fáilte is not just a marketing slogan dreamt up by the Gaelic tourist board along with shamrocks on Guinness and fluffy leprechaun headgear; the people really do make you feel welcome and display an openness that puts the English to shame. When the plane finally takes off I’m immediately engaged in conversation by Seamus who works for British Heritage – and, incidentally, studied Fine Art at Leeds Polytechnic – we have the craic until well inside the terminal building, covering, amongst other things, Cathedral building in the middle ages (and their contemporary restoration), authentic thatching materials and, finally, the geography of Northern Ireland as we come in to land over the famously green coast-line with Bangor away to the South. Seamus has even shown a genuine interest in repositories and has experience of distance learning in the context of traditional building practices.

Pat and Paul, who we have already met by video link, are waiting to greet us at George Best airport. I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of the Troubles is limited and I’m fascinated by Paul’s potted history as he drives us through the streets of Belfast pointing out the old military viewpoints atop residential high-rise flats where British soldiers watched for snipers. We arrive at the Dirty Duck and enjoy a steaming bowl of seafood chowder before heading to the college to meet Joe, the boss, who makes us feel even more welcome and is keen to show us round the old Belfast Institute, an extraordinary building that celebrated its centenary in 2006. Our hosts’ enthusiasm, for their city and their building (not to mention technology enhanced learning – more on that in a minute!) is contagious and we are given a guided tour including the clanking steam engine that still powers the central heating – no doubt a learning object in its own right for generations of engineers – though the information that the Institute is where the draftsmen were trained that worked on the Titanic probably isn’t its best advertisement! We are shown the stained glass windows in the main hall – each of them dedicated to a different field of learning with names and dates of intellectual luminaries and apposite quotes; daylight through tinted panes colours great names from Literature, Art, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences, the latter illustrated by a quote from Emerson that our hosts have evidently taken to heart: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

Then it’s down to business and Pat and Paul give us an overview of TEL support at Belfast Met. The VLE is Blackboard and the general message is that teachers in FE simply do not have the time to develop sophisticated digital learning objects – no surprise there of course, nor do lecturers in HE, but with up to 26 contact hours per week for an FE teacher and potentially less well motivated students than their HE counterparts this is an issue that is being tackled here in a particular way; similar to the minimum expectation policy for the use of X-stream at Leeds Met, there is a requirement for teachers to use the VLE – in practice, of course, some use it much more effectively than others for whom it is little more than a digital filing cabinet – once again, sounds familiar. Training, therefore, initially focuses on getting staff to really think about using interactive digital materials with a quiz designed to highlight different learning styles. Though not diagnostic in the way that the Honey & Mumford learning style questionnaire is designed to be, it promotes discussion about differences in individual learning styles – text and PowerPoint slides are  most effective for those with a more visual learning style, but what about auditory or tactile learners? Now follows a demonstration of some more sophisticated learning objects tailored to the audience, so for maths teachers, perhaps, a wild west game, whereby the player is asked to convert a number, say 27, to binary code by positioning a catapult to fire a stone at one of five bottles – hitting a bottle showing a 0 changes it to a 1 and vice versa. An embarrassingly slow 4 stone volley gets me to the right answer 11011. Next question. 18, um, 10010. Quicker this time, but slowed down by hitting two bottles at once. 24. 11000.

Play the game here (Note:  Copyright Belfast Metropolitan College)

OK, it’s hardly Halo 3 but it’s a hell of a lot more fun than ploughing through a textual resource dutifully filling in 1s and 0s!

Though we didn’t get to see Pat and Paul in action delivering their training to staff, they led us through each stage of their process to the point where, hopefully, their audience have become convinced of the benefit of more sophisticated digital learning objects and to appreciate that there are alternatives to static PowerPoint slides; though we also learned that, in the right hands, even PowerPoint can be used to create engaging interactive teaching resources in the form of quiz templates based on the TV shows Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and A Question of Sport. The templates look exactly like the real thing and are extremely easy to use, allowing staff to create an entertaining, interactive quiz on any subject in minutes.

(Note:  Copyright Belfast Metropolitan College – BMC have indicated that third parties may reuse these resources free of charge as long as appropriate acknowledgement is made.)

So far so good but, if he can tear himself away from firing stones at virtual bottles, the teacher might reasonably ask where he can find such resources; the stumbling block that Pat and Paul have clearly identified and gone some way to overcoming, is that, despite increasingly sophisticated tools and technology that facilitate digital creativity with unprecedented ease (relatively speaking), the simple fact is that most of us do not have the artistic or creative flair to produce learning resources to anything like the standard of these examples, much less the time to invest whatever modest skills we may possess into reinventing and refining the wheel. Their solution is several fold:

• Resource banks:

o FENC – http://www.fenc.org.uk/ – In order to use FENC, an FE college must pay a fairly substantial subscription fee but it contains all manner of learning objects that are rated bronze, silver and gold. As I understand it, FENC started life as a repository of paper based resources which were subsequently digitised – not terribly interactive, these are the bronze resources. Silver and gold, however, are professionally developed interactive resources using Flash, audio and video; when they have identified a suitable resource, the teacher can simply drop the URL into Blackboard.

o NLN – http://www.nln.ac.uk/ – Anyone can browse the site to find NLN Materials, but to view or download them – as well as many other functions – you will need to register and log-in. Registration is available to most practitioners of Post-16 education in the UK.  Apparently.  Though the only university that I have been able to find registered in Yorkshire is Huddersfield.

o GOAL – http://www.belfastmet.ac.uk/goal/ – GOAL (Generating Online Adult Learning) is an innovative Grundtvig Project, led by BMC; it is a broadly based European Partnership representing the formal, non-formal and informal education and training sectors.  It has developed numerous e-learning resources that are freely available to all.

These are all fantastic resource banks that I don’t think really have an equivalent in HE – though we are certainly moving in the right direction with Jorum.

• In house development and resource audit:

Later in the week we met Roisin, the artist and wizz kid behind the Flash based binary bottle game, the interactive PowerPoint templates and some of the GOAL materials (which actually comprise some of Roisin’s templates).  Roisin’s role is to work with teaching staff to help them produce high quality resources.  However, a request for support first goes through Pat and Paul who perform a resource audit of FENC, NLN, GOAL and the wider web in order to source an appropriate resource.  If they are unable to find anything to fulfil the particular requirement then Roisin is commissioned to produce a bespoke learning object.

We also met Robert, the Multimedia Services Manager and Paula, the Senior Video Production Officer who led us through the process of developing video and multimedia resources.  Staff are trained and encouraged to produce their own video podcasts using Flip and Robert and Paula are available to develop more sophisticated multimedia which can include broadcast quality video.  Paula is also working on interractive resources, for example putting html rollovers into web based video to create interractive video quizzes.  Once again resources go directly into a Blackboard course.

• Wimba Create (formerly Course Genie):

All staff are also trained in the use of Wimba Create which facilitates conversion of Microsoft Word documents into content for online courses.  From one Word document you can generate a set of webpages that includes navigation and interactive features that are easily uploaded to a course in Blackboard.

What No Metadata?

The purpose of our visit was to undertake  formal analysis for  Streamline and PERSoNA.  It soon became apparent, however, that metadata is not a priority at BMC and resources simply go directly into a course in the VLE.  My interpretation is that this is currently viable for a number of reasons:

• The process (workflow) that has been adopted is well supported by specialised staff.

• Unlike LeedsMet the VLE is focussed on courses rather than individual staff sites which makes it relatively easy to manage (a feature of FE as opposed to HE perhaps?)

• There are not (yet) enough resources to make it impractical.

Having said this, we did discuss the potential benefits of collecting resources in a centralised and searchable repository with appropriate metadata and will certainly be exploring the possibility of working closely with BMC in the future.

We spent a morning with senior library staff and Dawn demonstrated the automatic metadata generator; they were interested in its potential but we did not have as much time with them as we would have liked.  We would also have liked the opportunity to speak with front line library staff to get their perspectives but simply didn’t have time.  Nevertheless, I think Dawn has been able to develop some use-cases; I’m sure she will have some interesting perspectives and I expect she will post to Streamline News in due course.

With respect to PERSoNA, systemic lock-down in an FE environment means that social networking isn’t terribly high on the agenda, nevertheless, we had some productive discussion around widget technology and I’ve been thinking more about how personalised environments might facilitate an individual workflow both in respect to resource discovery/deposit and social networking.  Currently gestating; I’m still waiting for that spontanious insight to flash across my cerebellum when I’m in the bath.

By way of a post-script, a public “thank you” to Joe, Pat, Paul and all the staff at Belfast Met who made us so welcome during our stay.  The extra-curricula highlight of our week, though no less educational, was Joe’s historical tour of Belfast which took us off the tourist trail to Shankhill and the Falls road – the Berlin-wall-like peace line and beautiful protest murals given extra poignancy by recent events in Ulster.


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