Academic Learning Futures: E-Vacuating Oil Rigs

Gilly Salmon

Dramatic actions such as saving workers from a blazing oil rig are all in a day’s work for Gilly Salmon. Only they take place online – in the virtual environment of ‘Second Life’. As a Professor of E-Learning and Learning Technologies at the University of Leicester in the UK, Salmon and her team create “academic learning futures“. In several talks and workshops at OEB, Salmon will discuss the latest trends in working with a new generation of learners, as well as how to vision future scenarios for higher education.

by Andrea Marshall

How do you evacuate an oil rig in the event of a fire? At the University of Leicester, it was the students of psychology who had to deal with this question. As an authentic simulation of the situation is impossible in reality, they tried virtual simulation. Now it can be ’e-vacuated‘ – over and over again. Time and space do not play a role.

“We are harnessing the power of this technology “, says Gilly Salmon. “At low cost, but with very high value for learning. In 10 years’ time, this will be a regular way of working in education.“

Another example which exploits the potential of ’Second Life‘(SL) is the simulation of societies and environments that no longer exist, for students of archaeology and ancient history. “This is the great value of low cost virtual worlds – to do what we cannot do in real life.” she says.

From E-Tivities to Wiki-Tivitiesc

The use of ‘Second Life’ is one way of maximising learning opportunities, both in Leicester and elsewhere. Gilly Salmon calls this a “SL-tivity“. She originally created a framework for text-based asynchronous group work in online environments which she called ‘E-tivities’. Meanwhile, new delivery formats arrived on the campus. Apart from E- and SL-tivities, academic online learning now also includes audio and video podcasting (Pod-tivities) and collaborative websites (Wiki-tivities).

The latest idea is using e-book readers to enhance the experience of distance learning. Originally developed for leisure use, Salmon and her team have recently arranged for university-owned material to be put onto e-readers. “The obvious advantage is that e-book readers and digital content are much lighter to send to distance learners. No more heavy boxes of books. And costs are dramatically reduced“, Salmon points out. The experiment is just beginning, but at OEB she will report on its reception so far.

“Living It Forwards, Understanding It Backwards“

Asked how she identifies potential trends, Salmon states that engaging with the learners themselves is the key to understanding and preparing for the future. One method to help envisage what will come next in education is by looking back into the past. In an open workshop (“The Future Is Not What It Used To Be“), Salmon’s team recently offered to extend “the process of historical thinking into the domain of the future“. One activity was to create “virtual histories“ using Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia.

At OEB, Salmon will take part in a plenary session entitled “Hindsight, Insight, Foresight, Oversight…: A Call for Learning Futures“. She will explain how they involve historians to find out which trends are predictive, and which will peter out. “This is an unusual perspective for historians but it is worthwhile“, she says. Salmon will be seconded by Aaron Porter, who will present the view from the learners’ perspective. After starting out as a student at Leicester University, he is now the vice-president of Britain’s National Union of Students.

Taming Wild Technologies at the ’Media Zoo’

However, these unusual perspectives and the use of new technologies can be very challenging for universities which have a formal learning tradition can go back 1000 years. Hence Salmon and her team have established the ’Media Zoo‘: physical as well as virtual spaces in which they promote innovative learning technologies across the university.

Why a ‘zoo’? “It is about taming wild technologies“, Salmon says. “It helps to engage with all staff at the university and turn research into practice.“ The ‘Media Zoo’ is fun, easily accessible and safe, and it caters for different needs: “Some people might be adventurous and go on a safari to look at the wilder opportunities and evidence. Others prefer to stay in the ‘pets corner’ with the established, safe technologies such as virtual learning environments and digital libraries.“ Salmon will present the achievements of the project in a practical hands-on Learning Café at the OEB: “Research to Practice, Pilot to Mainstream: The Media Zoo Approach“.

Strategic Approach to the Big Questions

However, Gilly Salmon’s work goes far beyond just spotting trends and carrying out projects. Drawing on 15 years of experience at the Open University Business School and holding research degrees in both online training and change in education, she develops strategies and policies to deal with the complex changes emerging from “knowledge-technology-society transformations“.

The University of Leicester has just introduced such a strategy: a new comprehensive concept for learning innovation. “Everyone is involved, from the senior management to the students“, Salmon explains. It is everyone’s responsibility to initiate change: “All citizens need to address the big problems of the 21st century – climate change, health, poverty and economics. They cannot be dealt with if people sit through lectures getting bored. Who is going to start the change if not higher education?“

At OEB 2009, Gilly Salmon will share her knowledge in a workshop, learning café session and plenary discussion:
Pre-Conference Workshop “Creating Academic Learning Futures“, Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 14:00 – 18:00.
“Research to Practice, Pilot to Mainstream: The Media Zoo Approach“, December 3, 2009, 12:00 – 13:30.
Keynote presentation with Aaron Porter “Learning: Living It Forwards, Understanding It Backwards” in the Plenary “Hindsight, Insight, Foresight, Oversight…: A Call for Learning Futures“, December 4, 2009, 09:15 – 11:00.

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