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When you hear about an educational technology project that’s described as being inspired by Treasure Hunt, ‘… but without the helicopter’ then you know that it’s probably something slightly out of the ordinary.  And ‘Out There and In Here’ is certainly an interesting experiment in making use of educational technology in some innovative ways.  This week’s Coffee Morning session from Anne Adams and Tim Coughlan from the Institute of Educational Technology certainly demonstrated a fascinating approach to carrying out geology field trips, talking about the ‘Out There and In Here’ project which was a collaboration between IET, KMi, the Pervasive Lab, the Science Faculty, Microsoft and OOKL.

Out Here and In There project http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/otih/

Out Here and In There project http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/otih/

Essentially the project ‘Out There and In Here’ looked at carrying out a geology field trip with two teams of postgrad students and instructors.  One team located back at base (the ‘In Here’ team), the other out in the field (‘Out There’).   In part the project was aiming to look at alternatives to field trips, which can be expensive, logistically difficult and not suitable for all students.  But it was also looking at the way the teams interacted, how the dynamics of the learning experience was changed, and how technology can support the learning.

Using laptops, phones and video cameras the teams tried to work together to establish and test several hypotheses.  The ‘Out There’ team used cameras and laptops to record images and data that could be accessed by the team back at base. The ‘In Here’ team used projectors, resources tables and an interactive tabletop to keep track of what was going on.    It was interesting to see how the groups worked together and the dynamics at play.  Both teams seemed to find the exercise challenging and it led to a very different learning experience, particularly in the way that it forced the participants to reflect on what they were doing.  It was interesting that there seemed to be considerable potential for misunderstandings and miscommunication and the project team are looking at how other technologies can help support this type of exercise.

It was a fascinating approach and it’s interesting the way that mobile technology now has the ability to allow this real-time interaction to take place.  I suppose that the most obvious  exponent of this type of real-time interaction now is the military, where video-surveillance, radio and global positionning systems are increasingly being used to allow commanders to direct military operations remotely.  While geology field trips aren’t going to have the range of technology that the military has access to at their disposal, I wonder if  some of the experience the military has with these systems may have any lessons for this type of project in the education sector.

I also started to think about how this type of technology might connect with the work that academic libraries do.  There’s a couple of areas that come to mind – firstly around the management of the data that is being created by the exercise – and secondly around facilitating access to data or information that might be of use to either of the teams.  Is it too much of a stretch to envisage this sort of exercise being supported by a remote librarian who can help with the stream of data coming from and going to the teams?  Ensuring that data is being curated appropriately and connections are made with other data that may be of use to the teams?  All-in-all a fascinating and thought-provoking session.

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I was intrigued earlier this week to find that when asked to report back on a few things that were going on – that the response was an expression of concern by a couple of people that they hadn’t heard about some of these things.  As I recall it was the information that http://data.open.ac.uk had released course materials as linked data.  That information came out via twitter from various people associated with the Lucero project late on Friday.  Just as the Open Bibliographic Data JISC website came out in the same way (via tweets from people, often Re-tweeted) late last week.

I must admit to being surprised at the reaction, and thinking about it there was a subtext of why isn’t this information being released properly, through proper channels. But the more I think about it, and think about how I use twitter, which is particularly to find out what is going on in universities, and university libraries and JISC and the general HE domain, then it’s increasingly the way that I find out about what is going on.  People I follow tweet links to new things they think will be interesting often because it interested them, or tweet what they are working on or have done.   Twitter gives me that information much more so than emails or mailing lists these days, and I don’t use facebook (which I guess I’ve pigeon-holed as being personal rather than professional), and although I’m on LinkedIn that’s more ‘professional’ than informational.

But as these types of activities move to micro-blogging there are people who are put off twitter because of the ‘what I had for lunch’ tweets (and worse).  But I’ve always thought that to be a strange approach – like saying that I’m not going to watch TV ever because ITV broadcasts ‘X Factor’, or never use a phone because people use it to talk about trivial things.  Twitter is a communications tool used by humans – so all human life is there – just as there is everywhere else.  If it works for you fine, if not that’s also fine – but if you want to know what’s happening now and is important to people who are doing interesting things, then it’s a very useful tool

So with the deadline out of the way and the funding bid finished off and submitted it’s time for a touch of reflection about how I’ve gone about the process and some thoughts about the whole exercise.  I’m finding it interesting that there have been a few blog posts, such as this one from Chris Keene, about the process, so there are a few people reflecting on bid writing.

Getting beyond the concept and towards an actual bid
Thinking about the preparation steps I’ve gone through – I seem to have covered four distinct areas: identifying funding opportunities; some user requirements gathering; getting management approval to commit to a bid; and then understanding what is going on in that area already

  • I’d had some ideas about the areas that might potentially form the subject of a funding bid, and the germ of the idea included things that we hoped to do anyway (but maybe in a slightly different way or with a different emphasis).  By this time of year we have mapped out our strategic priorities for the year and developed our implementation plans so have a good feel for the areas we are interested in.   We routinely check the funding opportunities such as the JISC Future Grant Calls website.  So we have an idea about what might come up, although don’t always know how our ideas might fit with the funding opportunity.
  • A key part of the early stage is to refine the ideas.  So for this bid I did some preparation by putting together some suggestions about things we could do and then asking for feedback from learning and teaching librarians to reality check the concepts.  How useful would doing x be?, would y be useful to students?.  That process was really helpful in deciding on the focus – what data would we look at?, how would we use it?, what would we build?  This was a really useful stage as it meant that we could refine the scope of the work and quickly get down to the detail of what we wanted to do in discussion with the technical team.  As well as helping to refine the ideas it also got that learning and teaching group engaged with the potential project so helped with the next stage.
  • Getting approval to actually go ahead with the bid was a mix of informal and formal processes.  From informally meeting with, emailing and talking to stakeholders to get them engaged with the idea and agreeing to time from staff in principle, through to a formal business case that had to be approved internally.  Initially we worked with a two page project outline to give people an idea of what was being proposed.  That document helped as a focus for people to look at and ideas changed as we went along.  The business case process has the advantage of making you assemble costs, ideas and justifications so you have them well-refined by the time you come to write the bid document.  On the positive side it does challenge how it fits with service priorities and can it or should it be done.  But on the negative side it is an extra step when time is short and it concentrates much more on the internal benefits rather than the wider benefits.
  • Finally, there’s the critical stage of understanding the context.  What else is going on in this area?  How does what you are planning fit with that?  Do you know enough about the other work?  Can you see the connections?  Have you talked to potential partners and related projects?  Helpfully in the case of this funding bid there has been a range of work taking place over the last couple of years, with other projects and seminars on the subject, so there’s been a wealth of information available.  The funders also made available a briefing document with more information about related work, and ran a briefing day to help with making connections and understanding what they wanted from the bids.

Preparing the bid
Strangely, for me at least, the actual writing of the bid document wasn’t as daunting as I’d expected.  By the time I’d got to the stage of putting everything together in the right format the ideas and concepts had been well-rehearsed and refined.  Putting it in the final format and cross-checking the bid documentation was helpful in picking up where there were any gaps that needed to be addressed.  Writing and re-writing to keep it within the page limit while trying to make sure that you’d covered everything that needed to be in the bid was a bit of a challenge.   What was useful was to send out drafts of the document to people for them to comment on it.  A whole raft of useful suggestions and challenges came back to improve the document.

The final step was getting institutional approval to submit.  Unlike some institutions it’s a formal process here and that has to be planned into the schedule so it means that you need to be ready with all your documentation well before the funding bid deadline.  That’s useful in itself as it means that everything isn’t left to the last minute to complete the bid.

Final thoughts
I suppose the key lessons learnt were:

  • Plan in advance topics that might be suitable for funding bids
  • Keep up to date with what opportunities are out there
  • Make sure you align what you want to do with service and institutional priorities (as well as obviously fitting the bid criteria)
  • Get internal stakeholders on board with the ideas
  • Make sure you understand the context for the funding call
  • You’re reliant on a lot of people doing things for you at short notice and with short deadlines
  • There’s never enough time – and your document won’t ever be perfect – next week it would have been better or different – but just make it as good as you can
  • Go to any briefing days, read all the paperwork, talk to people about it
  • Overall the process is helpful in refining ideas – so even with bids that don’t get completed – they help in moving other ideas forward

My thanks go to everyone who helped with putting our bid together.  I haven’t counted them up but it’s probably over 25-30 people who contributed to the document, handled the various components such as the budget, approval forms etc, or made suggestions or provided information.  

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