Dr Frances Clynes

Ancient Knowledge
Modern Technology

Dr Frances Clynes

The MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology operates from the Sophia Centre at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David's Lampeter Campus, and is taught by distance learning, with Dr. Nicholas Campion as its Director. Our students and alumni, however, are based in all corners of the globe: from South America to Japan, from Russia to Australia and New Zealand, and many places in-between. While in the past, the distance learning student may have suffered a sense of isolation, with the use of technology the MA in Cultural Astronomy is, as stated on our website, 'a global community of students and scholars who connect on the web'.[1]

The MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology was officially started in October 2002 at Bath Spa University, where it remained for five years. After we had been there a couple of years the University introduced a virtual learning environment called Blackboard, which allowed students to download course material and upload assignments. At the time Blackboard was top of the range and Bath Spa University was one of the first into the field. The University even gave introductory seminars to staff at other universities on how to use it. By 2004 we also had access to the new online databases of academic material, such as JSTOR. This was the extent of our use of the virtual world for the MA during that time. In Bath Spa the MA was delivered in the traditional offline classroom where students physically gathered each week during the semester, so the lack of a virtual world did not pose a problem at this stage.

The campus at Lampeter

The campus at Lampeter. All images supplied by Dr Frances Clynes

In 2007 the MA moved to Lampeter and began to teach in distance learning mode, which necessitated an investigation of how we could best use technology for the benefit of our students. At that stage the university did not have an online learning environment, but we considered it was a necessity. Nick took the decision to move away from proprietary brands to open source and had the then, little-known application, Moodle, installed on the college servers for Sophia Centre students. This proved so successful a move that within a few years Moodle was rolled out across the university. This was the first, but not the last, time that the university would seek the advice of the Sophia Centre in the adoption of new technologies. The University's use of IT has been transformed in the last few years, but the Sophia Centre is still keeping up with the latest developments.

Most studies of distance learning programmes propose the creation of a virtual learning community as a solution to the problem of isolation among distance learning students. Sophia students are spread out all over the world and may live thousands of miles from their nearest class mate. Nicholas Croft, Alice Dalton, and Marcus Grant studied the problem of distance learning, and recommended that the learning environment support not just interaction between students and tutors, but also interaction between students. [2]

Dr Nicholas Campion online

Dr Nicholas Campion online

One of the earliest tasks when we moved to Lampeter was finding software to facilitate the running of online seminars. The early Lampeter MA students will no doubt remember Cloud Meeting - the first such application that we used. While not perfect, it meant that each module could include weekly online seminars where students could virtually meet and interact with their tutors and each other. The students were able to see each other, communicate online if needed, and, when they all met for the first time at the traditional gathering in All Bar One in Bath, the night before our annual Summer School, they immediately recognised each other. With all its imperfections, Cloud Meeting had created the Sophia Centre community of students. Technologies like Cloud Meeting were rapidly improving at that stage, and within a few years we moved to the greater functionality of Cisco WebEx, which we still use today. We run up to four MA seminars a week as well as alumni lectures and occasional public lectures.

preparing to open an online seminar

Dr Darrelyn Gunzburg preparing to open an online seminar.

The explosion of Social Media brought new opportunities for the Sophia Centre to connect with students, alumni and friends. In addition to the closed Facebook groups for students, tutors and alumni, we also have a public Facebook page where people can learn about events and developments. Our Facebook pages and our Twitter account are managed by our Social Media Organiser, Hanne Skagen, an alumni of the MA and a member of the Alumni Steering Committee. Another alumni, Gaia Somasca, has for several years, been the Sophia Centre photographer. Some of Gaia's stunning work can be seen on the Gallery section of the Sophia Centre website, and in the Sophia Centre's Flickr account.

During the MA's years in Bath Spa, becoming a student required that the person could be physically present in a classroom at our evening seminars. While this was a wonderful experience for most of the students, for many people it made studying at the Sophia Centre an impossible dream. Today the MA has a thriving Alumni Association, managed by a committee of graduates and lead by Dr. Darrelyn Gunzburg. This has been brought about by our move to Lampeter and the support of UWTSD, and has been facilitated by the use of Internet technology. Watch this space for more innovations in the near future.

Dr Bernadette Brady checking audio, prior to WebEx meeting

Anon. "Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture." http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/sophia/. Croft, Nicholas, Alice Dalton, and Marcus Grant. "Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space." Journal for Education in the Built Environment 5, no. 1 (2010/07/01 2010): 27-64.

[1]Anon, "Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture," http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/sophia/. [2]Nicholas Croft, Alice Dalton, and Marcus Grant, "Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space," Journal for Education in the Built Environment 5, no. 1 (2010): 28.

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