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Impressions of Durham #1

January 10, 2011

blurred image of Durham CathedralI have just returned from Durham where I was attending the 11th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference.

This was my third visit in four years and the conference lived up to its usual high standards in terms of content, organisation, and the opportunity to network with other Blackboard users.

This year the conference theme was Location, Location, Location – exploring the challenges of location: a barrier, an irrelevance or added value?

full conference programme (PDF)

Here’s the first of two or three reports from the Conference.

The keynote presentation on Thursday 6th January was from Carl Smith of the Learning Technology Research Institute at London Metropolitan University.

He gave examples of work with which he’s been involved using digital technologies to enhance our understanding of historical and archaeological sites. For instance

  • using a mixture of digital models and live action video to recreate historical scenes, to enhance the understanding of visitors to a museum of industrial archaeology.
  • creating digital models of ruined mediaeval abbeys such as Rievaulx in order to recreate a 3D digital image of how the building would have looked when complete.

In the latter case he contrasted the digital approach to the traditional approach used by scholars, who might publish detailed 2D images of the components of gothic  architecture in an article or book. 3D digital models allow scholars to reuse and manipulate the information in a variety of ways – focusing on individual components, or  combining components in new ways – thus increasing their understanding of the form.

Whilst looking at high-tech examples of augmented reality, he also looked at much more accessible cases using the location-aware capabilities of modern phones. For example apps which overlay text and multimedia data on Google Maps , so that learners can walk around a site and pick up site-specific information on their portable device, as their location changes. This enables the learner to access information on site which previously they would only have been able to access in the classroom or from a PC.

One of Carl’s current research projects involves him working with a neuroscientist to see how different parts of the brain can be used to control sounds. Given that we already have consumer products like the X-box Kinect where the user controls the game using only their body, can it be too long before the user can control on-screen actions through thought alone?

Friday’s keynote was from John Traxler Professor of Mobile Learning (as the programme noted, probably the world’s first) and Director of the Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton.

He looked at the use of mobile devices

  • in widening participation in the UK (learners make use of their own familiar devices when entering  the unfamiliar environment of Higher Education); to aid learners in developing countries where mobile phones are widely available but internet-enabled PCs may not be; allowing learners to make use of “dead time” (e.g. at bus stops, on the train) to access short chunks of learning.
  • to enable learning “on location” – e.g. field trips (in the past geography students might have to record their observations in the rain using pen and paper then type them up at the end of the day,  now they can enter the data directly on screen as they go along);  work placements (nursing and medical students are an obvious example).
  • mashing up geographical location and data provided by the institution or elsewhere e.g. Mobile Oxford or similar services from Ombiel – see
  • enhancing the visitor experience e.g. in museums (similar to the Google Maps app shown by Carl Smith)

He then considered the use of mobile devices  in the real world and the resultant changes  to how people live their lives

  • Ordinary people are able to generate content (e.g. photos taken on phones then uploaded to the web). This content may be re-used by the professional news media, or may challenge the established media and/or authority.
  • there are communities in cyberspace (social networks, but also networks of gamers e.g. World of Warcraft devotees) – these may not have a geographical basis but in practice can be considered as locations.Malcolm Murray’s introductory remarks on Thursday had mentioned the ideas of geographer Torsten Hägerstrand mapping location against time (see for an example). In the digital age Hägerstrand’s map would need a new axis – location in cyberspace, showing individuals’ digital connections – although this would complicate the map to the extent that it became unusable.
  • changes in the division between public and private space
    e.g. use of iPods in public (you can shut yourself off from where you are)
    use of mobiles in public areas (other people can hear your conversation, and are having to develop the ability not to listen – or at least pretend not to)
    individuals making private information available on the web – and effectively losing control over who can access and reuse the information
    using devices (including laptops) in lectures – are they paying attention to the lecture? 

    an aside: if location doesn’t matter any more, why do people still say “I’m on the train”?

  • changes in our perception of time
    “slipperiness of time” – previously time would be measured in fairly large chunks, and meetings would have a fixed time. But if you’re in mobile contact, you can make vague plans then firm then up as you get nearer to the event.

Concluding, he said that the car is one of the great icons of 20th century mobility. But car ownership doesn’t entirely  free the user – need to top up fuel, pay congestion charge, plan route etc.

Same with mobile devices. They can be liberating, but users worry – will there be coverage, will I run out of battery, can I sync my data?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Benedikt Orlowski permalink
    January 10, 2011 10:59 pm

    The Idea of adding “virtual” locations to the Hägerstrand-Concept is not new. In a very early paper of Hägerstrand “What about people in Regional Science” you’ll find a time-space graph that shows the timespace path of an individual fixed to his working place – he calls a meeting group via phone and “exists” simultaneously in two locations.

  2. Andy Turner permalink
    January 19, 2011 11:59 am

    Other people’s reflections on the Conference – particularly the keynotes :

    Matt Cornock

    Alex Spiers


  1. From a distance: Blackboard UK User Group (Durham 2011) | BPP University College Virtual Learning News
  2. Impressions of Durham #2 « TVU eLearning Blog

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