I've been to the Zoo! At the University of Leicester: April 26/27 
Hmmm, the Media Zoo that is! Well, that's the bait to catch a whole menagerie of animals that when encountered, turn out to be fascinating, challenging and inspirational projects.

About six years ago a unit called the Beyond Distance Research Alliance was established at Leicester headed by Gilly (pron. 'Jilly') Salmon, Professor of E-learning and Learning Technologies. This was set up essentially as an R & D unit by the Vice-Chancellor (Bob Burgess) who decided that Leicester needed to dramatically engage with 'online' as a strategic direction. Gilly was given a very free hand to shape the unit and it was located outside any existing organisational units at Leicester.

One of the first outputs was a Learning Innovation Strategy. This was updated (as of July 2009) and I'm bringing a copy back with me.

The key principles of the Unit revolve around research into the use of technologies in learning and teaching and, from a strong evidence base, working to see those embedded into practice.

The unit operates on the basis of a small core group of positions funded by the University and a larger group of researchers employed through projects funded by JISC and the HEA. This makes for a very dynamic and challenging environment, in which researchers are typically working against short timeframes and both competing with other institutions for funding and in other cases collaborating on joint projects. This includes some with USQ in Australia and Massey in NZ, amongst others.

The Zoo metaphor has been adopted to demystify much of the hype around technology. The projects follow that theme with animal names, indicating a remarkable capacity to generate acronyms. (I've promoted the concept of a Wombat project at some point, possibly in partnership with UB.)

There is a physical Zoo to which academics are welcome to come to explore and play with new technologies. The idea of play is significant to remove some of the barriers and expectations that may limit people approaching technology. There is a Zookeepeer (Simon) and and Assistant Zookeper (Terese) who facilitate activity in both structured and unstructured sessions. In the Library there is a postgraduate study space and another Zookeeper, Emma, supports that space. (Emma and Simon, below.)

The Projects

Of course, the Beyond Distance Research Alliance is much more than the Media Zoo. There is an impressive array of research projects both completed and active.

You can see the list at

http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond ... e/projects

The projects cover a wide range of technologies and approaches including Second Life, (yes I'm now a convert), podcasting, exploring learning futures, Open Educational Resources, and heaps more.

Each day at 10am there's a brief Creative Meeting to which all staff come when available. It's a quick catch up. Madelaine walks the halls ringing a bell. Here's a pic of one of the meetings (with Sam in full flight) - it also proves I was actually there and not making all this up. (Thanks to Pal for taking the pic.)

I was particularly struck by how the research has been processed into practical advice and strategies. The project outcomes typically cover both theoretical outcomes and strategies for adoption and dissemination of the research findings in ways that would enable academics to fairly readily adopt new or enhanced approaches.

I must admit I've become a reluctant convert to Second Life. Some of the work I saw at Leicester convinced me that there's a valuable role for Second Life and its equivalents. The significance of simulation has been long understood and valued in education but I think SL et al now make it feasible and relatively sustainable in general education. There are still obstacles in development and getting users up to speed but they are not necessarily show stoppers.

This has been a great experience and I've got many ideas to bring back to UB.

The main BDRA website is available at:

http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond ... h-alliance

Have a look.

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University of Nottingham - Food, hard-nosed research, energy: April 22/23 
Flight delays behind me and not much change to my schedule

The outcome of the delays has meant I will only miss one visit of a single day. I've been able to reschedule one of my first meetings to a writing day at the end of the trip. Very good outcome under the circumstances.

Thursday 22 April

Learning Spaces Workshop

The morning was spent at a workshop being held as a University-wide event to begin a discussion toward the development of a whole-of-university approach to the planning of learning spaces. A diverse group were brought together from central units and schools to discuss their current requirements, to do some future gazing and to flag the need for a coordinated and transparent process in designing and implementing spaces and technologies.

The workshop consisted of presentations and working sessions. It moved briskly and generated a lot of good discussion. There were some striking contrasts with UB - e.g. Nursing has 3000 students, Medicine uses e-assessment but requires space for 400 students to simultaneously sit a PC based exam under exam conditions. The tensions between ideal teaching spaces and the occasional requirements for such large spaces are obvious.

Learning Sciences Research Institute

After lunch I met with Mike Sharples, Director of this centre to talk about their activity and to look at a couple of projects in detail. Mike also showed me their experimental spaces where they can configure various technologies in order to conduct research into various applications of technology in classroom/meeting spaces. They can also undertake usability testing. These are sophisticated facilities and have been designed to minimise the intrusion of the technologies into the space.

The scale and sophistication of the activity of the LSRI demonstrates why they have such a high reputation.

Their website is at http://www.lsri.nottingham.ac.uk/

Visual Learning Laboratory

Following my meeting with Mike, Brett Bligh gave me a demonstration of the Visual Learning Lab. This is a fascinating space loosely set up as a classroom but with six screens around the walls. The main PC can drive the six projectors simultaneously and the room is used to explore the pedagogy of visually enriched enriched environments.

Friday 23 April

IS Learning Team

I spent a rich couple of hours with Andy Beggan of the IS Learning Team. They are located on the Kings Meadow campus in a former ITV television studio. (Eammon will be impressed when I show him the studio pic.) Interestingly, the IS Learning Team does pretty much the same range of activities as LEWS but on a much larger scale, with more organisational maturity and with some additional project development. (Xerte, Xpert etc.) This was a dynamic time with Andy and I've come away with lots of ideas and stimulation.

Hallward Library - Hallward Learning Hub

Finally, I met with Neil Smyth in the Hallward Library where he gave me a tour of the building. This library is an interesting blend of the old and new with very traditional collections including microfiche, combined with flexible student and workshop spaces. It houses the Centre for Integrated Learning. They don't call the facilities a Learning Commons but have open spaces, many around technology such as large screens the students can project work onto. The partitions are also whiteboard marker friendly and students do collaborative work in these spaces.

Inevitably, I've skimmed over much of what I've seen and experienced in this update. The University of Nottingham has a very strong research focus and hosts four of the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) which I understand is more than any other uni.

The University of Nottingham main campus, on University Park, is quite spacious and very pretty. Built on land donated by Boots they have the benefit of room to grow and lovely natural spaces. The other two campuses I visited were at Kings Meadow (the former TV studio) and Jubilee Park where the LSRI is based.

Great visit, lovely people. Oh yes, lunch at the workshop included mini pork pies, scotch eggs and other English delicacies. As my colleagues would no doubt observe, I'd go to the opening of an envelope if food was on offer so I was impressed.

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Here I am in Nottingham 
After a 22 hour day yesterday, I'm in Nottingham. About to head off to University of Nottingham for my first commitment - a planning workshop on a big development they're doing here involving learning spaces. Bit like our SciEng project but quite a bit bigger. Then a visit to the Learning Sciences Research Institute. Tomorrow meetings with a couple of practitioners.

Was on the first Emirates flight into Heathrow after volcanic shutdown - Airbus A380-800 - big mother! Great cheering and clapping when it landed. Record passage through passport, customs and my bag on carousel within minutes. Off plane and out of Heathrow in about 20 minutes and into taxi. Then bus (3hrs) to Nottingham. I think I deserved a drink in England's oldest pub after that.

OK, this will be the end of the travelogue - after this my entries will focus on why I'm here.

Great to be back on track.

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I'm Off! 
Woken at 3.10am by phone call. Be at Reception at 4am for bus to airport. "You're booked for Heathrow".

Sorry, must dash!

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Maybe, maybe not! Ahhhh, not! 
UPDATE: Flying today looks pretty unlikely. More ash on the way. Confirmed, not today, Josť.

Emirates flights have now started to locations in Europe and possibly Scotland. The flight I was originally scheduled to go on, at 1.35pm local time, is still marked as possible. What I don't know is if I'll be on today's (if it goes ahead) or a later day. Hopefully, given that I arrived just as the drama started, I'll be on one of the first flights out.

The other complication is whether the new ash cloud will once again close UK airspace. The news via Skynews and the BBC is a bit pessimistic so it's a waiting game even more than before.

The advice here is to hang around the hotel and if a flight is to go, passengers here will be contacted and will need to get moving.

A balmy 32c here today in Dubai.

Five free nights now courtesy of Emirates Airlines.

Some facts (?) courtesy of taxi drivers and other dubious sources
- There are 195 different nationalities here
- There are about 300k local people with the rest being workers from elsewhere
- Taxi drivers are pretty much all from Pakistan
- Hospitality staff are typically from Malaysia or Indonesia
- There's a strong UK presence - power is 250v and sockets are UK
- English gets you by more or less - the Asian hospitality staff have good English, the taxi drivers very variable
- The city as we see it now (and there are a number of conglomerations of high rises around the Dubai landscape) have been built in about the last 15-20 years
- I've seen both Rip Curl and Billabong outlets in the big malls
- There are immaculately turned out security guys all over the malls and there is a sense that this is a safe community

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Uncertainty continues 
Another day in sunny Dubai. Still no clear word on when flights might resume but it appears the European airlines are getting antsy and their test flights are showing positive signs. It's always an interesting process watching the transition from outright safety concerns to pragmatism as the cost and social impact of these events grows. There has been criticism in Europe that the safety concerns were primarily based on a single computer model in the UK and no actual air sampling was done using meteorological balloons. I don't have a particular view but would rather be on the ground in Dubai than heading for the ground in a big, fat plane with no engines.

Producing a video workshop resource

I've started working on a video to use in my workshops. Essentially I'm interviewing a number of people about an effective/memorable learning experience in their university experience and what they thought made it effective. The goal is to unpack their key points (in the workshops) and look at how they can or do translate into the online environment as significant pointers for online pedagogy.

These are just short pieces edited into one conversation starter. I've done three interviews and will do a couple more today to complete it. I'm also going for a culturally diverse mix - have a German, an Austrian and an English person. Have a South African lined up for today and would like to find an Asian participant. It's turning out to be fascinating, lots of fun and makes the time here productive.

When it's done, I'll put it online.

I've now had to cancel/postpone my first two visits and the third to Nottingham late this week is in doubt. It is a rich program so I'll be very disappointed if it doesn't go ahead. If the delays look like continuing into next week then I'll consider cancelling the whole trip and rescheduling it for later in the year. I don't have much flexibility to extend the trip this time but will explore that option too.

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Ahhh, the Old Dubai 
Today I got in touch with the old Dubai. I went to the Creek and visited many of the traditional souks (markets). This also involved a ride over the Creek in an open water taxi. Wonderfully simple and functional. Journey each way cost 1 Dirham (about 35c Australian).

Here's a montage of some of my pic's. The bloke on the top left made me a beautiful cup of tea in the classic Indian way, with condensed milk. It was so good I had two.

This has made the unscheduled stay in Dubai all worthwhile. I'm not sure it has a lot to do with eLearning but I certainly saw a lot of evidence of learned sales techniques from the vendors who all but drag you into their shops. I did succumb once but was quite happy with the outcome.

Travel still unclear - still no flights into the UK at time of writing. Tomorrow I'll need to get refocussed on my work and may spend a day in the virtual office unless the skies clear and the travelling begins.

Probably worth noting Emirates Airlines' response to the crisis. All their passengers have been given three nights free accommodation with all meals included. That's pretty remarkable. They've completely redeemed themselves in my eyes after my early baggage glitch.

I've set up a Flickr account but Dubai has Internet censorship and Flickr is blocked so I haven't been able to upload pic's there. I've only ever seen innocuous stuff on Flickr so that intrigues me a bit. When I've got something up I'll post the link here.

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Dubai, Dubai, how I've grown to love you 
Well folks, still in Dubai. The heading may overstate things but it does grow on one.

It seems unlikely that planes will begin flying into the UK today (Saturday) or not until late in the day. There are probably thousands of passengers waiting here so getting a flight will be tricky. I understand Emirates are going to try and do it in some sort of order emulating arrivals and the previous schedule but time will tell.

Went into the shopping part of Dubai yesterday. A bit overwhelming and not to my taste. Heading for the Old Dubai today which sounds much more my cup of tea.

There's a sense here of assertively moderating the reality of the desert's harshness. In a very large mall, I came across this aquarium. It's the same mall that has an ice skating rink and some stunning water features.

For the record, United Arab Emirates are six hours behind Australian time. As I write this it's 9.30am here and 3.30pm at home.

Have managed to reschedule my Monday appointment to the end of my trip. If things get tight will try and do that with my second, LSE, scheduled for Tuesday.

Oh yeah, my bag turned up so now I'm a happy, sweet smelling camper.

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On the Way (with a slight hiccup) 
Left Melbourne on the 2.40am flight to London via KL and Dubai. Went well (if slowly) until arriving at Dubai we were informed that connecting flights on to London had been cancelled. The volcanic eruption in Iceland had formed a large ash cloud that was drifting toward the UK and represented a hazard to aircraft.

So now I'm staying for at least one night in Dubai.

Here's a pic of the queues waiting at passport control.

Oh, and did I mention my luggage wasn't on the carousel? I was assured it will be delivered to the motel 'later'. After 40 hours on the go I think a shower would be the socially responsible thing to do and of course, all my toiletries are in the checked luggage.

Update: Luggage found and being delivered tonight.

Well, that turned out to be loosely. Then 6am this morning (it's now the next day) and it's 8am and still the phantom luggage proves elusive. Emirates assures us they have it - just that gap between airport and motel proves to be a problem!

Doesn't look hopeful for leaving today either, UK airspace closed until at least 5pm Friday (local UK time).

Traveller's Tip #1: Don't fly when a strategically located volcano is about to erupt.

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Final Itinerary 
I've now finalised my itinerary. The detailed schedules for each visit are still being developed but I now have all my institutional visits locked in.

You can see the Itinerary at this direct link to my Itinerary (pdf, 31K).

I'm also trying to keep some flexibility for ad hoc visits but this is quite limited.

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