Zhang Meilan，Associate Professor，Head of the Teaching and Research Section，The Open University of China (OUC)
Overseas Based University: the Open University
Advisor: Dr. Hossein Zand
Study Area: ICT application in distance education
Many thanks to the Sino-British Fellowship Trust! Without their generous sponsorship, it would have been impossible for me to have this wonderful opportunity to study in Britain. Many thanks to China Scholarship Council they sponsored my return tickets from Beijing to Britain. And many thanks to the Education Section of Embassy of P. R. China, they gave me all kinds of assistance and support in my life and study.
At the same time, I'd like to say thanks to my supervisor, Dr. Hossein Zand, and a lot of colleagues in the Institute of Educational Technology of the Open University where I had studied. They provided me convenient and a great study and research environment. That ensured my academic visits and study to be fruitful and successful.
Main Academic Activities
As an academic of educational technology, the main objective of my visit was to explore the teaching and learning system in the Open University, course material development, the application of latest educational technology in distance education, and especially e-Learning environment and online instructional design. To achieve my objectives, from the first of April to the end of July I did the following activities:
1. Interviewed experts of IET
IET is at the heart of the Open University, which has an international reputation for its excellence in educational research, content and course development and design principles. So I interviewed some experts in IET, asked some questions about the latest trends in educational technology research, the application of the latest technology and learning theories in online course, and course development process, course design etc.
As microchip-based information and communication technologies have developed, so members of IET had increasingly investigated e-learning. Around 2004, there were four "hard" technologies which had interested IET: Broadband technology, mobile devices, digital video and synchronous on-line voice conferencing system. In addition to these four "hard" technologies, there were three "soft" technologies that IET thought were going to be very important in the next decade. These were: "learning objects", personalizing electronic systems – Knowledge Network software, and assessment of student learning. These research projects revealed the developing trends of educational technology of the world. That would enhance my thought about the research issues in our university. The project of "learning objects" was very useful for us to reuse the components of a course which we had produced.
2. Attended staff training and seminars
To improve my teaching and research skills' development, I attended a series of sessions about Professional Development for Teaching and Learning Staff, and Information Literacy Skill Sessions, and statistic software training, and a variety of seminars about education and educational technology.
"Creating Quality Courses" within IET's Continuing Professional Development programme had been designed to help teaching and learning staff (academics or otherwise) to develop quality courses that make effective use of media. The contents of the series of training seminar included: ICT use in Courses, students and media, choosing media, online conferencing and Lyceum, how do we make courses more accessible for everyone, and a new way of working – designing courses for the future. This training met my needs and aspiration for knowing and learning how to design and produce course materials in pedagogical approaches, and how to use media and how to be linked to the assessment strategy. In the seminars the group activity were very interesting, effective and very grateful. The activities encouraged the link between original experiences and existing knowledge.
To improve the quality of the staffs' work of the OU, the library run a series of sessions about "information literacy skills". Information Literacy describes the set of essential skills which individuals need to function confidently in today's information-oriented society. These sessions were: battling with bibliographies, finding encyclopaedias and dictionaries online, finding full text articles and using e-journals, finding news information, finding references to journal articles-web of knowledge, keeping your research up to date, statistical information sources, and unlocking information for education-BEI and ERIC, etc. These sessions were all involved in electronic resource online. I attended all of these sessions except two of them. My skills of collecting all kinds of information online had been greatly strengthened. That would be of great benefit to my future academic research.
I took a training course about a statistic software's-N6 and got a certificate to certify my successfully study. AACS (Academic and Administrative Computing Service) in the Open University provide a variety of training technical courses about ICT from the Word Fundamentals up to Advanced Software Developer, from Project Management to Database, from Analytical Software to Desktop Publishing and Presentation, from Internet to Workshop, and etc. The pity was that I could not be trained more due to the schedule. But I had downloaded some courses information around my interested.
These sessions and seminars anyway had widened my horizons on academic research, enlarged and renewed my views of knowledge, strengthened my research foundations and enhanced my professional teaching skills.
3. Joined Course Teams
As an academic I am interested in the course development which is the academics' mainly work in our university. The Open University was ranked amongst the top UK universities for the quality of its teaching. The excellence learning material is its one of distinctive capabilities. Through these learning materials the OU had delivered and provided high quality teaching supported for distance learning in the United Kingdom and in the international arena.
I joined three course teams' activities as an observer. These courses were T306 (Managing Complexity: a Systems Approach), AA308 (Thought and Experience: Themes in the Philosophy of Mind) and E301 (The Art of English) which came from three different faculties. Through talking with course chairs, course managers and attended their meetings, I learned the team approach, the process, the policies in developing and producing materials, and the issues they focus on recently in open teaching and learning. All kinds of problems about the course were discussed by the core number of course team together. All the decisions came from the team rather than just only one person, the course chair. Before I went there I never thought about that the issues what they discussed were so much particular and the every person in these course teams was so serious and engaged in. I was impressive with their work attitude. It inspires me to work more hard.
4. Surfed the Open University's Intranet site and visited the OU library
The web-based teaching and learning environment was my most interest. At the Open University I got this great opportunity to explore its e-Learning environment. The intranet of the OU is a window to unwrap its e-Learning and all of the university. The Knowledge Network Homepage in all of its websites was my favorite. The website enables OU staff to explore, share and build knowledge and experience of teaching and learning. Its easy publishing system made me to build up my homepage in it, and published my comments about hot topics in e-Learning. I found and was familiar with the colleagues and experts in IET. What they were doing, what they were focus on, how they did research, and so on. In conclusion, I had got a lot of useful and valuable information from the website.
The OU library was another good place I'd love to go and visit, especial its website. In the library there were a lot of books and currently issues about education and educational technology which I could not read in China. On the homepage of OU library I downloaded and copied many articles which were provided in the database, e-Journals and other digital information.
Main Visiting Activities
1. Visited two regional centers of the Open University in Cambridge and Nottingham
To understand the Open University's tutorial system, I visited the regional centers of the OU in the East of England and in the East Midlands. These surveys made me understand why the OU had become the most successful distance educational organization in the world. The comprehensive and elaborate tutorial system played a very important role.
2. Visited the summer school of the Open University in Bath
In the summer school of the OU in Bath I had recognized the excellent learning support services that the OU offered students, was aware of the necessary that the tutorial way of face to face is one of important assistant methods for open and independence learning.
3. Attended graduate ceremony
I attended the graduate ceremony of the Regional Center of the OU in the East of England, experienced the impressive sight and was much aware of its impact on the retention of student population in the Open University.
In addition, beside these studies and academic activities, I visited London, Cambridge, Nottingham, and Scotland, and went to churches, concerts and some music festivals and so on. These activities made me enjoy amazing traditional and modern history and cultures appreciate the outstanding natural scene of British.
I made many friends who helped me to improve my English, enjoy all kinds of foods and fade my loneliness. I cherished this friendship and would kept on touch with them. That had enhanced my English and increased us understand each other after I go back home.
Through this visiting study I got more confidences and believed that the distance education would play important roles in helping people fulfil their potential and realise their ambitions. So I felt very lucky to visit the Open University. The Open University was ranked amongst the top UK universities for the quality of its teaching. Of the 23 subjects assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency, 17 have been placed in the top "Excellent" category. The OU is an excellent example of an open and distance learning in all over the world that has become an indispensable part of mainstream educational systems. The study experience in the OU had improved my teaching and research work in the OUC.
In the end, the most important to me, I had been improving my English in four months. But frankly, I had to say my English still needs to sharpen a lot so that I can communicate with the native speaker efficiently. But the four and half month was a very short time. So I wished next time the visiting scholars could stay more time so that they could make much more progress.
In a word, my visiting study and research were very successful.
Many thanks again!