Friday, November 24, 2006

Last conference of the year - HELTASA 2006

I know it is almost Christmas when the last conference that I will attend this year finally arrives.

Finally I have a moment to write a post. On Sunday we are leaving for the 2006 HELTASA Conference in Pretoria, South Africa. HELTASA is the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa. This is an annual conference and each year it is hosted by one of the tertiary institutions in South Africa. I will post more information about the association later.

Next year we will be hosting the conference and I am the conference convener. The past month setting up the website, printing the promotional material, making the launch video has kept me busy almost 24 hours a day. But now it's done and all I have to still worry about is my presentation.

I bought some great new Olympus stereo mp3 recorders yesterday and I will be recording as many talks as possible at this year's conference. The plan is to make them available on our conference website and then distribute them through a podcast feed. I think this would be of great value.

One of the features of next years conference is that we will be hosting a number of online workshops with some international speakers giving presentations online. There are so many educational specialists around the world and knowing who to ask won't be easy, recommendations are more than welcome. We are still deciding on the platform that we will be using for these online presentations, so if you have any suggestions please let me know.

I love al the social networking tools available online today and I am trying to incorporate them into the online portion of the conference. I must admit that there are so many great tools available these days that it really is hard to decide which ones to use and which ones to ignore.

Through these online tools I believe that the conference can be changed into a year long experience and a learning experience for educators and academics that has not really been available before. I will let you know as we add each of these online tools and I would love everybody to join in the discussions, add to the wiki and join in all the other online activities.

Please watch this space as we try to put together a great conference in 2007.

We would love it if there were loads of international delegates who would come and attend and also present papers so please send us your abstracts. Information will be available on the website in the next few days. If you need to know anything that you can't find on the website just send me an email at

(in two weeks you will be able to download and print the 2007 Heltasa conference calendar. I think it came out quite nice and will look great on your office wall)

Hope to hear from you soon!

Nico Baird

Friday, October 13, 2006

Libraries - Alive and well beyond 2010

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the AGM of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) here in Bloemfontein. The talk centered around the future of libraries and if they will still be around after 2010 (2010 being the year that South Africa will be hosting the Soccer World Cup) There is a fear that technology will make libraries obsolete in the future.

Our world is changing at an incredible rate, libraries used to be seen as a place where books are kept. But this has changed and these days a library is a place where you can access knowledge.

This is an important thing to remember gone are the days that all knowledge was accessed in books. Technology has made it possible for us to absorb knowledge from various sources. In my view the library is not only there to store all this information or give access to this information but librarians are there to help us work through all this knowledge. The role of the librarian is a lot like that of a teacher. Someone to help make sense of it all, and teach you how to identify relevant and good information.

Our society is still to realise just what a vital role the library has in our daily lives. The library should be seen as a “knowledge hub”. To achieve this, the library should also be able to give access to information/ knowledge in each form that it can be obtained. Here I can mention books, magazines, newspapers but we should remember that through the Internet there are millions of resources from around the world that can be accessed quickly and easily. In my view one of the main resources that each and every library should have is an Internet connection.

When looking at a computer so many people see it as an evil machine, there just to make your life a living hell. We say that technology is making our lives harder but we forget that a book, is also a technological wonder. When we say that technology will kill books we are so wrong because again, books are technology! Remember also that books are more than just a few pieces of paper put together with a cover. There is a whole tactile experience when you read a book, the smell the feel everything makes reading a book a wonderful experience.

The Internet is there just to give people more access to information and knowledge and we need to use it in each and every library to get people to become writers themselves. Each one of us has a story in us. Well at least one good story. We need to get people to the point where they start to write about their lives and experiences. Getting people to write their own history is vital as history books are written about so many things but very seldom it is a reflection of the people in the communities.

A 90 year old grandmother who had more live experience than most of us now has the opportunity and the means to tell her life story and share it with the world. This can be done with a blog, it is free it is easy and it quick. As more and more people start to know about blogs and more of them start to write we are also increasing our resources. The knowledge of the community is more powerful than all the books in a single library.

The important part of course is that blogs can be created in any language. Often I hear people complain that there are nothing online in their own language. I then quickly ask them if they are writing a blog online and if they are writing in their own language. Most often than not they tell me that they are not doing anything online. Now my question is; “Who’s job do we think it is to create content in our own languages online?” Is it not our responsibility? Should we not take the lead and get people online, get them writing in their own languages? Will that not solve the problem?

There are so many free technologies available online that could change the lives of so many people. All we have to do is teach our communities how to use it and inspire them to start.

The library is the only place where this will be possible, so let’s get started. Let’s give our communities a voice and a presence online, and let’s build our communities. The future of our country depends on our people having access to the internet, and they need to be taught.

Libraries will be alive and well past 2010, but we need to realise that this can only be achieved through technology, and our willingness to become educators as that is what we are here for.

But what do you think?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Uses for Podcasting at Tertiary Institutions

Most tertiary institutions are faced with basic problems they must solve or requirements they must meet, including:

*Student instruction
*Staff development
*Communication from management
*Research development
*Community training and development (short courses and other projects)

Here I concentrate on student instruction through the use of podcasting.

With the expansion and wider accessibility of the internet, students are exposed to a vast amount of information on a daily basis. This has been the case for a number of years now, and students have adapted to be more tech savvy than we tend to think. Lecturers are often still trapped in the notion that the classroom is the place where students gain access to knowledge. The whole “sage on stage” mentality has not yet disappeared. Through the use of podcasting, lectures can be made available to students prior to the classroom phase of the learning experience. The student listens to the lecture before the class and is therefore prepared for class. The class now transforms into a student-centred discussion session and the lecturer into a guide helping the students work through all the knowledge that has been gained and in some cases not quite understood as yet. The work is discussed and if at the end of the lecture the student has not yet made the new knowledge his/her own, the lecture can always be reviewed again after class. In other words, the “sage on stage” becomes a “guide on the side”.

Because audio devices players have become part of our daily lives, whether in the form of mp3 players, iPods, or in many cases cellphones with these features built in, we are moving towards a mobile learning (mlearning) setup. In the mlearning world students can access education anywhere. It is pure learning on the go or learning on demand. Whenever a student has time to gain knowledge, the source is always at hand – be it at the gym while busy with a workout or while lounging by the pool. Students can now study and acquire knowledge on their terms and therefore tend to devote more time to their studies.

Due to the automatic nature of the content being delivered to students, notes on tests and discussions before tests can easily be distributed to students a few days before the test or even the examination.

In the period leading up to tests and examinations, lecturers are often overwhelmed by students who for one reason or another are still experiencing problems with certain parts of their courses. This is extremely time-consuming and often the result is that the lecturer has
to explain the same work to several students, one student at a time. One solution is to divide the class into groups of about eight or ten students and to ask each of these groups to compile a list of questions they would like the lecturer to answer or explain. One person from each group then presents these questions to the lecturer and, through a process of elimination, students can start answering one another’s questions, thereby stimulating truly effective group discussion. The students will probably discuss most of the problems and solve them in the group. After this discussion the nominated student makes an appointment with the lecturer and asks all the questions as formulated by the group. This conversation is recorded and at the end of the session is placed online for all members of the class to listen to. As with all other recorded lectures, this file would also be downloaded to the students’ computers automatically. Each student would receive all the sessions from all the participating groups, and it is quite possible
that problems not discussed in group context would also be effectively addressed.

After a year or two of preparing a podcast-enhanced education model, all lectures could be given to the students at the beginning of the year. As it is such a convenient medium and students enjoy the empowerment they gain by taking control of their studies, it is quite possible that students will be preparing for lectures weeks before the scheduled class session. Students will therefore have more time to think about the work and also to make the new knowledge that was gained their own.

In almost all study fields, one will find that every year there are quite a number of conferences taking place around the world. Conferences are valuable resources, as papers relevant to the study field are presented, and usually there are many new resources and information to be gained by attending such events. Unfortunately students and lecturers do not have enough time – and definitely not enough money – to attend all these conferences around the world. Again this problem is solved by podcasting. Many conferences have already begun podcasting the papers presented there, thus giving listeners access to all the knowledge and experience conveyed by the presenters. Some conferences make these resources available within a week of the conference, but quite often the presentation is available within hours of the time the paper was delivered.

Inviting guest speakers to institutions has become a very costly exercise. It cannot be denied that the advantages of having such a speaker or subject specialist visit the institution and share his/her knowledge far outweighs the cost, but what if such a subject specialist could be interviewed telephonically and the discussion distributed to everybody automatically? Not only that, but any conference attendee could use an mp3 recorder to record a conversation with the subject specialist on any relevant topic and subsequently place the file online for automatic distribution to students or any other interested parties. It is not always easy to gain access to such subject specialists, but anybody who manages to do so will now have the ability to share the knowledge effectively with everybody in the field. Imagine a class where the students decide on questions that should be asked of the subject specialist, and the lecturer then has an interview with this individual telephonically or maybe even over a cup of coffee! This discussion / interview can then be distributed to all the students, and valuable knowledge can be shared. Again, this has the purpose of stimulating group discussion in that the group has to work together to decide on the questions to be asked.

One can only imagine the value of such technology if it had been available in years past when Einstein was still alive, for instance. The value of recordings of his responses to students’ questions would be immense.

Often students are so busy taking notes of what the lecturer is saying in class that they may as well read through the work and make notes from the book. However, if the lecture is available before class, the students can make notes at their own pace and in their own time and then concentrate on the content and the information shared by the lecturer in class rather than trying to keep up with note-taking. The same is true if the lecture is made available after class, when note-taking can serve as a form of revision.

The assessment process can also gain from podcasting technology, especially in courses where students are at some stage or another required to hold some form of presentation. The lecturer can then record the live presentation or give an assignment whereby a group must record a short segment on a specific field of study. When presentations are recorded, students tend to make more effort when preparing, as they feel that if they are going to be recorded then they need to know the facts. The recordings of the different groups can then be reviewed and assessed by the lecturer before being distributed to all students for peer assessment. By means of this peer assessment, students are again exposed to the information and tend to listen more carefully if they are required to assess the content. A valuable course-related library of content can be built up over a few years, created by students for students.

Students are often required to do practical work as part of their courses. Usually it is necessary for lectures to be suspended during this period, as students are placed in jobs around the country and sometimes the world. Using podcasting as a method of content distribution, students can either receive the content before leaving for their practical training or, if they have access to an internet connection, can receive the lectures while on location. Free time can then be utilised more productively by reviewing lectures or listening to other course content.

As the end of the year approaches it is time for students to start reviewing their work and begin studying for examinations. Going through notes written in haste is not always the most effective way of reviewing course content, but with podcasting the student actually has the option of “attending” each and every class again. This not only renews the knowledge gained in class, but if there are still areas that the student finds unclear, he/she now has the option of reviewing the lecture a number of times or even discussing the problem with the lecturer.

These are just a few applications and advantages of using podcasting as a delivery and support mechanism for educators and students.

We want our students to be lifelong learners, and in some cases they are required to be such in terms of programmes like “continued professional development” in the medical field, where doctors have to attend a certain number of hours’ worth of information sessions in their field to be able to continue practising. Consider the advantages of delivering these sessions in the form of a podcast – not only would it cut down on travel expenses, but it would also be more accessible, as doctors can listen to the sessions at their own convenience.

Supplemental instruction now has a new and more effective medium of delivery. Not only can greater numbers of students gain access to such instruction, but it can also be accessed repeatedly. Sometimes, identifying students as candidates to receive supplemental instruction
and informing them of this fact can do more harm than good due to the stigma attached to it. Making the resources available for all students to access and work through would make it a less-embarrassing experience for students who are in need of a little extra. Also, by adding supplemental resources that are at an advanced level, lecturers can also assist the more proficient students to gain more knowledge and not grow bored.

The possibilities and applications of podcasting are limited only by one’s imagination, and even more value is added when implementing podcasting in staff development, internal/institutional communication, marketing, and the expansion of the institution’s reach for the presentation of short courses and open learning into sub-Sahara Africa.

By means of podcasting, courses can be presented to thousands of students across the globe, and they have the option and ability to access these courses at their own convenience, empowering them to take control of their own learning.

Podcasting in Higher Education

The past several years have seen little change in education and the methods used to educate. One of the most natural and acceptable methods of education – audio conveyance – has been with us always, and although we tend to take it for granted and forget about it all too easily, all that is set to change. Throughout history children have been taught by means of stories told by their parents, and for many centuries this was the primary method of transferring knowledge and information. As time progressed, we started spending less and less time listening to these stories, although to this day storytelling is used as an educational tool.

People have always been educated by means of information received in an audio format. It is natural for us to absorb information through an auditory medium, and since such information transfer takes place on such a personal level, we tend to form a personal relationship with radio presenters. They become like family members who visit when one turns on the radio.

The value of audio recordings in education has been known for years, yet for some reason it has been neglected as we have all become more computer literate. The year 2003 saw the development of a new technology known as Really Simple Syndication or RSS.

Through this technology the user could subscribe to a feed that would enable him/her to receive information that was added to that specific feed automatically. This made accessing the worldwide web and sharing information significantly easier, because if one were subscribed to the feed of a specific website one would automatically receive all updates to that website in a freely available feed aggregator. (A feed aggregator is a software program that can mostly be downloaded free of charge.) The feed information would then be entered into the aggregator to allow the user to subscribe to that specific feed.

This technology has been the driving force behind the emergence of weblogs (blogs) and also the development and growth of podcasting. Podcasting has not yet moved to the forefront in South Africa due to various broadband issues and costs that will not be discussed in this paper; but if the trends in other countries are anything to go by, it will become highly popular in a very short period of time.