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A new world of study

Lucy Tobin

From video marking to Second Life, technology is transforming the options for online students.

There’s not a red pen in sight when Russell Stannard marks his master’s students’ essays—but it’s not because they never make mistakes.

Stannard doesn’t use a pen to give his students feedback. Instead—and in keeping with his role as principal lecturer in multimedia and Information & Communication Technology (ICT)—he turns on his computer, records himself marking the work on-screen, then emails his students the video.

When students open the video they can hear Stannard’s voice commentary as well as watch him going through the process of marking. The resulting feedback is more comprehensive than the more conventional notes scrawled in the margin, and Stannard, who works at the University of Westminster in London, now believes it has the potential to revolutionise distance learning.

‘It started when I began to realise how useful technology can be for teaching,” he says. ‘I wanted to help other teachers, as well as computer-users, to learn how to use tools like podcasting, PowerPoint and Black- Board, software that allows teachers to provide course material and communicate with students online.”

So he set up a site to teach people how to use the technology, providing video tutorials where users watch his mouse pointing out how to use the software, with his voice providing commentary. He uses screen-videoing software Camtasia, and the site took off: it receives more than 10 000 hits a month.

Then he started considering integrating the teaching style into his university work. ‘I was mainly teaching students on master’s courses in media and technology, and I realised that while I was talking about the benefits of new technology, I should be making the most of the opportunity to use it,” says Stannard. ‘That’s when I had the idea of video marking. Students receive both aural and visual feedback—and while we always talk about different learning styles, there are also benefits to receiving feedback in different ways.”

Stannard says the technology is particularly useful for dyslexic students, who appreciate the spoken commentary, and students learning English as a foreign language. ‘I started my teaching career in language learning, so I quickly realised that students learning English would benefit from video marking.

They learn more about reasons for their mistakes.” Stannard also believes video marking is ‘perfect” for distance-learning students. ‘They can listen, see and understand how the teacher is marking their piece, why specific comments have been made, and so on.”

The technology is used for informal distance learning, as Stannard uploads the videos he makes for his lectures at Westminster to multimedia trainingvideos. com. Now 60 000 people a month view the videos.

Online marking is part of a package of new technology that is transforming the face of distance education, from postal services-reliant correspondence courses to online, interactive learning. This is evident on Second Life, the virtual world where users create personalised avatars (characters) to interact, which is home to scores of UK universities, with some teaching entire distance-learning modules through the site.

Kingston University in south-west London has developed a virtual courtroom for law students to practise on the site, while e-learning specialists at St George’s, University of London, have come up with a program code enabling Second Life users to create training scenarios.

While the technology is currently being used in-house at St George’s the developers have made the code available for other universities or individuals. The code, Pivote, can be freely downloaded from Google Code, where techie types can use it to create virtual worlds to run other courses.

Dr Terry Poulton, head of the Second Life-academia link-up at the university, says the code has potential applications beyond single disciplines. ‘The technology could enhance any course with a focus on solving real-life problems, such as architecture, law, or engineering,” he says.

Other academics are already using technology to make university courses more accessible to working professionals. At Bournemouth University a part-time master’s in creative media practice, launched in 2005, is run entirely online.

Recruits are working people who want to undertake further study but cannot commit to a face-toface course. The students use blogs, podcasts and Skype, the internet telephone service, to study. The first time the students and their tutors meet is normally at graduation.

Jon Wardle, associate dean of the media school at Bournemouth, says the course represents a changing mood in academia. ‘Higher education has recognised the need to provide opportunities for lifelong learning for a long time, but the early work in the area was poor.

Now, because of sites like YouTube, Facebook and Skype, these courses are really able to hit the spot and meet learner needs. ‘Lecturers and students are both starting to understand that online learning doesn’t have to be a poor alternative to traditional campus-based courses.”

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