altMeng Xianglai, Associate Professor, Deputy Director of the Technology Center, Tianjin Open University
Overseas Based University: the Open University
Advisor: Dr. Hossein Zand
Study Area: Educational Technology Research and Application in Distance Education and Design & Development of Online Learning Materials Design


Research in Applying Educational Technology of The Open University

—A Brief Report about my Academic Study at The OU



As a visiting Scholar, I study in the Institute of Educational Technology (IET) of the Open University from 19th July 2006 to 20th Nov. 2006. In my study of these months, many people in the OU gave me so much help on my studies and visits. I would express my thanks to Dr Hossein Zand, of my supervisor, who offered me much care and conveniences on my studies, Mrs. Anne Howells, Madelaine Paterson, David Wilson, Pete Mitton, Jason Cole, David Wardell, and Sophie Gudgion of the Learning & Teaching Solution(LTS). They gave so much help and made my studies at the UK fruitful and successful.

As a visiting Scholar, I study in the Institute of Educational Technology (IET) of the Open University from 19th July 2006 to 20th Nov. 2006. In my study of these months, many people in the OU gave me so much help on my studies and visits. I would express my thanks to Dr Hossein Zand, of my supervisor, who offered me much care and conveniences on my studies, Mrs. Anne Howells, Madelaine Paterson, David Wilson, Pete Mitton, Jason Cole, David Wardell, and Sophie Gudgion of the Learning & Teaching Solution(LTS). They gave so much help and made my studies at the UK fruitful and successful.


During my studies in the UK, I was invited to the Institute of Educational Technology of Open University (IET) and I also visited the Learning & Teaching Solution(LTS), the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) and The Open University in London. My interests of studying mainly include:

  • Adopting information technology(IT) to instruction
  • The way of study support service
  • How to produce teaching materials(Video & Audio, the methods of Computer Aid Learning and so on )? and
  • How to evaluate these teaching materials
  • Mobile Human-Computer Interaction
  • Refining our understanding of the effectiveness of traditional and "new" media mixes to facilitate learning
  • Ways of training staff in effective uses of learning technologies.

What I Have Done Here
My colleagues, Mr. Du, Mr. Yuan and I, a group of three persons, visited 5 institutes, regional center of OU and university. We attended about 11 meetings or seminars. We met more than 20 persons including professors, senior lectures, technicians, managers, PHD student and son on.
The University has pioneered methods for large-scale delivery of educational opportunities through supported open learning:

  •  It delivers at scale by servicing a quarter of a million students and users of its course materials each year;
  •  It has taught two million people and awarded 325,000 degrees since 1971; and
  •  It has a prodigious international reach.

The excellence of The Open University's learning materials and their delivery is recognized nationally and internationally. This is evident in:

  •  The award to the University of Middle States Accreditation in the USA;
  •  The most recent assessment of the UK Quality Assurance Agency, which placed 17 of the 23 subjects reviewed at the University in the "Excellent" category; and
  •  The outstanding feedback from students received in the UK National Students Survey in 2005.

The Latest Educational Technical Developments at The OU

The University has over 200,000 registered students who have access to its on-line content. It has established a sophisticated asynchronous conferencing system and has undertaken considerable research on the pedagogic uses of this system. A synchronous audio tool has been built which works over simple modems and on a many-to-many principle. File sharing and concept mapping tools have also been developed and standard web services for use by the University's course teams, such as instant messaging, blogging and wickis, are being deployed. The University has also developed a forms-based, content managed system for producing websites for any course. Three hundred University courses currently use this system for specifying web content and student on-line interaction.

Many forms of interactive software are produced for deployment on CD and DVD ROM. Just one example is a virtual field-trip system for a second level environment course which won the adult interactive learning category at the Society for Screen-Based Learning on Screen awards in 2003.

As well as the innovative technologies detailed above, the University also makes a considerable contribution to international educational standards bodies such as OKI and IMS. The current head of the strategic technology department of The Open University is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the European IMS Network. The University is actively involved with the UK Joint Information Systems Committee's (JISC) E-Learning Framework, which seeks to develop a set of open source tools that can be assembled within an open architecture. Two projects in the area of Learning Design have been completed successfully.

Main Institute about Modern Educational Technology Study

  1. Institute of Educational Technology
    The Institute of Educational Technology (IET) at The Open University provides advice on the use of information, communication and other modern technologies to support effective learning in higher education, particularly in distance learning and e-learning. The IET works collaboratively with leading scholars in the UK and internationally, and promotes continued professional educational development among higher education practitioners. It seeks knowledge and understanding, both inside and outside the University, which it shares with course teams, designers and policy-makers so that they are in a position to act on the basis of solid research evidence. Over 100 people work in the Institute based in one of three centres:
    the Centre for Educational Development (CED), the Centre for Institutional Research (CIR), and
    the Centre for the Study of Educational Technologies (CSET).
  2. Knowledge Media Institute(KMI)
    The University’s Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) is a 60-person research laboratory devoted to both basic research and applied development at the convergence of the internet, learning,
    collaboration, and knowledge management. KMi develops "next generation" tools for the University, focusing on better ways to work with ideas and improved means of collaborating over the internet. The laboratory hosts internationally leading researchers in the Semantic Web, Argument Mapping, Internet Peer Review, Digital Presence, and Web Collaboration Media. Since its launch in 1995, KMi has established itself as a paradigmatic example of a creative, forward-looking laboratory, which is now being replicated in other institutions.
  3. Learning & Teaching Solutions (LTS)
    Learning & Teaching Solutions (LTS) is the media production centre of The Open University. Their core clients are the University's Central academic Units and Their core business is producing learning materials. Specialists, covering the full range of media, work closely with academic colleagues to develop, produce and deliver effective, integrated and increasingly interactive materials.
    In an increasingly competitive and complex environment, LTS provides responsive and focused
    professional leadership in the application of media to supported open learning. Media professionals collaborate with academic specialists to develop, produce and deliver integrated, effective and engaging materials that confirm The Open University's position as a world leader in higher education.
    Their studios accommodate teams of specialists working together to exploit the benefits of digital
    technology in the evolving media landscape. They offer coherent packages of text, sounds, pictures and interactive experiences through appropriate media, delivering the best learning outcomes for students.

Main Learning-Support Tools for the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

  1. Open Content Initiative (OCI)
    The Open University announced a £5.65 million (US $9.9 million) Open Content Initiative (OCI) to make a selection of its learning materials available free of charge to educators and learners around the world. Supported by a grant of US $4.45 million from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation the University will launch the OCI website in October 2006. OCI will make educational resources freely available on the Internet, with state of the art learning support and collaboration tools to connect students and educators. Drawing on its long experience of innovating and delivering supported learning to a mass market, both in the UK and increasingly abroad, the University expects to make a significant impact on both the quality and reach of open content delivery at an international level, as well as a major contribution to the electronic delivery of learning resources worldwide. One of the primary aims in doing so is to meet the learning needs of a wide range of people with differing levels of educational achievement, skills and confidence.
    The deployment of learning media and technologies on a large scale is core to the University's work and has resulted in the development of high-quality content and learning support delivered through innovative open and distance learning modes. The current proposal to build on this experience in the open content environment is, therefore, an obvious extension of the University's educational mission.

    Stage 1 Planning and preparation (Oct 05 to Mar 06)
    Stage 2 Implementation, research and evaluation (Apr 06 to Mar 08)
  • Utilise Moodle as the VLE platform;
  • Develop two complementary sites:
    the Learning Space
    the Lab Space
  • Have 900 learning hours in the Learning Space for initial launch in October 2006 rising to 5400 hours at the end of two years;
  • Make a further 8100 hours of material available within the Lab Space at the end of two years.
  • Add a range of open source collaborative learning tools to the Lab Space devised by our Knowledge Media Institute.

    Stage 3 Sustained development (Apr 08 - ?)

    Technically, we're looking at an exciting convergence of the OU's open source Virtual Learning Environment (Moodle), with KMi's Web 2.0 Social Software building on the BuddySpace project, Internet video conferencing building on FlashMeeting, and hypermedia mapping of resources, ideas and arguments building on Compendium.
  1. FirstClass
    The Open University uses FirstClass for email and conferencing. Over 370,000 students and Associate Lecturers have access to FirstClass and make use of the online community that can be found there. FirstClass provides access to your OU mailbox and discussion conferences; there are two methods for connecting to FirstClass: via your OU home page or using the client, which is a piece of software installed on to your computer (available on the Online Applications CD-ROM).
    Many courses provide specific conferences for course discussions and you may also have access to a conference for just your tutor group.
  2. Lyceum
    Lyceum is the Open University's synchronous audio-based conferencing software. This software allows you to talk to your tutors and fellow students over the internet.There are visual tools like the Whiteboard, Concept map, Documents and Text chat to help you to collaborate with others in the OU community. Over 5,000 students and Associate Lecturers have access to Lyceum as part of their course.
    With Lyceum you can:
  • participate in online real-time discussions
  • interact with other users on the Whiteboard module
  • interact with other users on the Concept map module
  • interact with other users on the Document module
  • participate in online text chat
  • navigate to various rooms.
  1. FlashMeeting
    The FlashMeeting Live application is a simple browser-based applet that allows halfduplex, large-scale meetings, with text chat, voting, and URL sharing. The snapshot below (left) shows the tool being used by a group of 25 live attendees to discuss issues around Web 2.0 and video blogging. The system requires only the Macromedia-Adobe Flash™ browser plug-in and one user to generate the unique URL for each unique meeting for that community. The focus of this work is on instant accessibility and ease of use. Live meeting attendees raise a hand to speak and take turns in the interaction.
    FlashMeeting is not only an effective tool for us to further our learning, but by allowing us to bring people from all over the world together with real-time audio/video, it helps further build a sense of community that is difficult to achieve online with only text chat, forums or email as a means of communication.
  2. MSG
    MSG is a Web 2.0 application that allows you to access basic Instant Messaging functionality within a standard web browser. This makes it ideal for use in environments where software can not be installed, or on networks where Internet access is restricted by firewalls and proxy servers, or where performing the installation is just cumbersome. MSG is open source, and is built upon the popular "Jabber/XMPP" protocol used by Google Talk and many others.


I think my achievements about four-months at OU are fruitful, exciting, enjoyable and, which are vital to my future work in China. What I have gained is as follows:

  1. Widened my professional insights, enriched my practical experience, and got some inspiration on how to improve our work
  2. My research ability, study skills and capability of academic exchanges, especially my English language level are improved observably.
  3. I have generally learnt about the latest educational technical developments at the OU and some learning-support tools for the Virtual Learning Environment. I have also collected many technology materials related to distance learning.
  4. I have established friendships with some experts.