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Education for Free?

CC Flickr, matthileo

I attended JISC’s Open for Education conference today in Edinburgh. The event focussed on free and open source educational tools, which is certainly very pertinent with the recent and forthcoming cuts in education budgets.

There was a variety of presentations and keynotes covering a range of topics including Google Apps, Mahara E-portfolios and Moodle.

Zoe Ross’s opening keynote on Google Apps offered a superb live demonstration of combining Google Forms, spreadsheets and Google Maps. The audience was invited to send data via their mobile phones and other devices to a Google Form which collated the data in a spreadsheet, and the some of the data was then visualised in a Google Map. Outstanding, and a great start to the day.

After the keynote I presented two back-to-back sessions. The  first session was a Blender workshop where we built a simple 3D car and made it drivable with Blender’s logic bricks and game engine. I think the group were quite excited by how easy it was to create interactive objects, and several delegates asked me about accessing resources to take their learning further.

My second session before lunch was about using Facebook as an alternative to a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). It’s a presentation I’ve done before, but this time there seemed to be more people open to the idea of social networking tools in colleges, and several people asked to speak to me about it after the conference. I think our usage of Facebook at Carnegie College has been successful this past year, with most of our students participating in discussion, peer support and other online activities on the social network.

After lunch Miles Berry of Roehampton University offered a keynote which covered a huge amount of open source and free tools, many of which I’d never heard of, but am keen to investigate. Although I’ve dabbled in Linux and Open Source software in the past, I often found it difficult to install or use, but many of these systems seem to have matured in their stability and usability to the extent that they are now accessible to most users.

The afternoon session that I attended covered two different e-portfolio systems – Mahara and MyShowcase. Both systems are available as add-ins for the Moodle VLE, but have different functionality. Mahara is probably one of the best known open source e-portfolio systems around, and as my college are currently investigating it I was keen to learn more about it. It seems like a well-featured and reasonably usable system, but I have some reservations about the portability of the material that may be added to it. Although it offers an ‘export as website’ option I’d like to see this in action before deciding if it’s truly a system I’d invest time in. My Showcase was a smaller, probably simpler system, and was more about linking disparate materials together rather than providing a repository for them. MyShowcase was developed with funding from JISC and seemed like a nice way of collating material held in Cloud services.

Wrapping up the day was a final keynote from Professor Frank Rennie of Lews Castle College who continued on the them of utilising Open Educational Resources (OER’s). He proposed the idea of making more educational resources freely available to anyone, and cited examples such as MIT’s repository and the Open University’s free materials. In a time of austerity he suggested that reinventing the wheel in each educational establishment was a drain on resources and that greater sharing of learning materials would result in better cost savings for everyone involved. Indeed, he went on to suggest that the creation of course materials should start with locating free resources before investing time and money in creating bespoke materials.

It was an informative and interesting conference, and although I only managed to attend a few sessions myself I’ve come away with several ideas and areas to investigate further.

Session feedback

Thanks for all the tweets about my workshop and seminar!


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