Jo Richardson and Mo Pamplin from LEAD attended the JISC Digifest in March 2015, which featured a range of exhibitions, case studies, presentations and workshops themed around educational technologies in further and higher education.

The event was well-attended by educational technologists, IT professionals and academics, and generously funded by JISC themselves. It was a great opportunity to get some new perspectives on some issues which have been been under discussion in educational technology for some time, such as learning analytics, student/staff partnerships, and digital literacy. However (from our point of view at least), there were also some exciting new areas which we hope to investigate further.

Learning analytics
As more and more institutions begin to seriously consider learning analytics JISC presented on their work to develop a tool which will collect, house, analyse, and present data on students’ behaviour. The tool will include a mobile app to allow students to access their own data, as well as a staff interface. A student app will go some way towards answering concerns about data protection and transparency, but for me the discussion raised more questions than it answered. While the need to make learning analytics transparent was stressed, the question remains of whether it is the algorithms processing data into analytics, or the human processes of how the analytics themselves are acted on, which need to be transparent. Further, the idea of monitoring lecturers’ performance by spotting trends in students’ data was hinted at, but the discussion (rightly in my view) criticised this idea. I expanded on this in a video blog:

Students as partners in learning
Encouraging and facilitating the inclusion of student partners in institutional change projects remains a key focus for JISC and there were a number of sessions around this topic. One of these workshops shared case studies demonstrating the impact that students can have, including University of Southampton’s iChamps project, and Blackburn College’s Digipals with the students themselves involved in presenting their work. Another session on ‘Student expectations of entering higher education’ included a student panel answering questions about how they use technology in their studies. The session discussed the challenge of supporting student needs and expectations around their personal learning environment, institutionally-supported tools and specialist software required for particular subjects. The key message was that ongoing conversations with our students is essential to ensure expectations and reality are aligned.

Augmented and virtual reality
AR and VR have really come on apace recently, as both are now exploiting the ubiquity of smartphones and mobile devices to create and experience reality in new ways. Some of the augmented reality devices demonstrated at Digifest allow the user to scan in 3D objects or associate triggered content with real objects which can be triggered by human touch. Epson also now produce a wearable headset which takes away the need to use a handheld device to access AR content. Developments such as these appear to surmount the hurdles that AR has so far faced in widespread adoption: it has so far been limited to recognition of 2D images rather than of objects themselves, and also by the use of a phone or tablet as a mediator between the user and the AR content.

3D imaging
There appeared to be an interesting overlap between AR and 3D imaging in a fascinating demonstration of new, cheap and widely-available technology which enables 3D imaging of objects and environments. On our return from the conference, we tried out some of the apps and online tools demonstrated by Matt Ramirez of JISC and created this 3D model of one of our offices. While far from perfect it was created for free, using nothing more than a standard DSLR camera, a free account on www.123dapp.com, and the free app 123D Catch, in around half an hour.

JISC Fab Lab
Finally, there was an exciting chance to try out some freely- or cheaply-available VR tools, such asĀ Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Oculus headset. My video blog on some of the gadgets available is below:

These gadgets and other demos at the conference provided some interesting ideas and inspiration for setting up the Educational Technology Team’s own Fab Lab. Those of you who have used The Mill will know that we already have great facilities for filming video and audio resources, editing and web conferencing. In the future we hope to expand to include some of the developments outlined here including 3D scanning and modelling, virtual reality creation and animation, providing a one-stop-shop for the creation of innovative educational multimedia.

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