Thursday, April 15, 2010

Real Challenges in a virtual world

Philippa Sheail gave a fascinating insight into the challenges of information provision in the virtual world as a part-time (16 hours a week outside work) student on the postgraduate MSc in E-Learning at the University of Edinburgh.

The course is taught completely online and she is particularly interested in the debate surrounding ‘e-learning’. Because it’s a huge variety of different things, there needs to be further discussion about what e-learning is and isn’t, she said, and referred to the 2007 and 2009 JISC reports on the subject.

Philippa talked about the different interfaces she uses (VLEs; online discussion boards, Second Life etc) and talked the audience through how she (and fellow students) use them. Students can see who else is online when they need help at any give time, which is useful as students are based globally and work in different time zones. Discussion boards can be a bit intimidating to students not confidence with their level of subject knowledge but can be really useful. For some modules on the course students have to keep a blog which is assessed. Tutorials and virtual corridor chat is via SKYPE and Second Life. Students really appreciate the feeling of being together virtually even when not together in the ‘real’ world. Different University Schools (Management, Education etc) have buildings in Second Life and Graduation ceremonies take place in Second Life and real life simultaneously with the latter filmed and streamed into the virtual environment. Students can talk to each in Second Life with microphones but prefer to send text messages as easier to refer back to earlier ‘conversations’ and keep track of online discussion.

On one particular module of the course, ‘E-Learning and Digital Cultures’ public Twitter feeds are used and generally students are increasingly following academics ‘live’ as a way of developing a greater awareness of the subject and discovering what the academics are particularly interested in. The trail can lead to other academics in the subject area and creates a wider teaching group to students. Zotero is used to see what others are reading too…both peers and tutors.

Advice from the library is to ‘use the advanced search on Google’ at the least but Philippa says she uses Google for cross search all the time (sometimes Google Scholar) and interestingly said that sometimes Google Scholar doesn’t take her to the article she wants but Google will via a link on the author’s blog for example as a ‘free to download’ pdf from their book. She complained that it can be problematic to access journal content sometimes as she needs to remember to log in first or think about where she is trying to access it from first. Is the content in a journal or a database; is an abstract enough of does she need the full article? Often she just needs to get to the full text quickly and doesn’t care how.

‘I love e-books’ she said and highlighted Dawsons and NetLibrary in particular and said that she uses Amazon all the time as a quick and easy interface for finding what exists before going to library to do further research.

All in all, Philippa’s session was very interesting…so much so that I asked her if she would come and visit us at SAGE. I’m sure others would be interested to hear her views too.

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