Living in the E-Zoo - Gilly Salmon and Matthew Wheeler

University of Leicester,

The Media Zoo at the University of Leicester is:

  • a physical and virtual arena to promote and enable engagement of staff in the complex issues of enhancing student learning through new technologies and pedagogies.
  • a key dissemination facility for Leicester’s e-learning research programmes.
  • an open, online and on-campus attraction where staff from within the University of Leicester and colleagues from the Beyond Distance Research Alliance  are able to experience, interact and understand the collection of ‘technological wildlife’ on display in a safe environment
  • based on a Four Quadrant Model (Salmon 2005) consisting of axes of New & Existing Technologies and New & Existing Learning Processes.
  • one process emerging from the adoption of Leicester’s e-learning strategy in July 2005.

E-learning and pedagogical innovation is important for the University of Leicester for market focus & position, utilising capabilities and capacities in new ways and creating an architecture for future success. Its e-learning strategy is based on government e-learning policies and strategies, a direct link with research funding and publishing and the quality of student learning across both campus and distance programmes. The strategy from which the Zoo process has emerged focuses on accommodating the  existing strengths within the university but also fostering  innovation and responsiveness, building on capabilities and capacities related to learners’ requirements and focussing on preparing for the future. The plan is achieve all of these within existing resources through staff engagement and capacity building, reposition and reuse and income generating or funded projects. 

Within the University of Leicester, ‘lone rangers’ with special energy often achieved many of the more entrepreneurial actions including the development of distance learning.  Commitment and organizational processes have grown up around these accordingly. These are not easily transferable or scalable to others.  The Zoo approach acknowledges that the early focus on technological infrastructure has given way to emphasis on pedagogy, connectedness and in blending newer and older approaches to learning.  The new buzz word is ‘blend’. However this cannot be seen as a panacea: choices of pedagogy and technology are complex. If students are offered regular teaching and learning processes (books, lectures, face-to-face seminars) together with somewhat uncertainly presented e-learning, it is inevitable that they will prefer the familiar.  Living in the zoo, we decided that everything that moves must be related to student learning, as a mission and as a process!

Leicester’s E-learning Strategy

The e-learning strategy is based on a 4 quadrant approach to e-learning (Salmon 2005).  The 4 areas can be seen reflected in the ‘Zoo map’:

pets corner  Quadrant 1 enhances and promotes campus based and distance learning through innovation, research, development and sharing of good practice at Leicester;
breeding area Quadrant 2 uses developed and understood good e-learning practice to promote partnerships across the world and develop new missions and markets;
safari park Quadrant 3 researches and develops student-facing learning pedagogies with technologies not originally intended for learning e.g. mobile devices;
exotics   Quadrant 4 scans the external environment and looks for ‘weaker’ signals that might offer approaches to meeting students’ learning needs and expectations.

The four quadrants which construct the Media Zoo are Pets’ Corner, a Breeding Area, a Safari Park and an Exotics House; each with its own ‘technological wildlife’ in the form of pedagogies and learning technologies.

The activities within the Media Zoo are underpinned by current innovative research undertaken within the Beyond Distance Research Alliance. The underlying concept behind the Media Zoo is to facilitate the knowledge and experiences gained from such research and disseminate it across the wider academic community. Conversely, wide spectrums of subject disciplines feed new ideas back into the whole research cycle.

The research projects currently being supported by the Media Zoo include: IMPALA which  investigates the use of Podcasting learning and support material to students; PROWE is a collaborative project with the Open University researching the use of Wikis and Blogs to support distance tutors; ADELIE is approaching the advanced design of eLearning and the institutional embedding of such findings.

The Media Zoo is not content with relying upon existing research but instead the staff members are actively engaging in an exercise to scan the technological and eLearning environments to bring forward weaker signals and new concepts to test, trial and implement across both on-campus and distance learning programmes.

Zoo Principles for Living:

Our approach to working with staff within the Zoo is coloured by two key principles:

1. Core Capabilities

The framework for the Zoo takes a ‘resource-based’ definition of the match that we can make between our internal resources and skills, and the opportunities and risks created by our external environment.  Such a framework both implies identifying what core capabilities and existing strengths (what are we good at, what makes us special?), and how a strategy can take advantage of these in a competitive world (what can we do well and differently?). We believe development strategy based on our strengths will be more durable, and harder to imitate than ‘off-the-shelf’ strategies (Hamel and Valikangas 2003) or those based on traditional marketing approaches.

The core capabilities that are obvious or we most enjoy or admire, may not be strategically relevant. Instead they need to be those that our wide range of ‘stakeholders’ (students, clients, partners, funding bodies) both perceive and value. Choices of where to be innovative, and where to increase the development of e-learning should not be based on a bland view of ‘market’ but a more complex view of the value of e-learning meeting mission and objectives.

2. Differentiation of Technologies

We can distinguish between core technologies and peripheral technologies.  The core forms the basis of current activities that must be maintained, and since effort and investment have been put into them, they do not present a high risk (Salaman and Asch 2003).  For the purposes of this Zoo we consider the use of commercial Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), and the e-resources provided by the library to be core technologies.  Nearly all universities are currently adapting to using VLEs, so in the medium term these core capabilities will no longer be innovative. Peripheral technology is on the ‘edge’ and offers more choice. However some peripherals will become mainstream over time so the strategy needs ways of including potential new technologies and preparing for new capabilities. Hence, it is also important to focus on building increased capacity and capability for e-learning innovation and on looking ahead to potential and new learning technologies and their applications in our context.

Rationale for the Media Zoo approach

Research into the technology is now robust enough for attention to turn to business development, pedagogical innovation and away from technical ‘solutions’ and ‘fixes’.  Research into distance learning over more than 30 years identified what works, what does not, what constitutes excellence and what adds real value to student experiences. Most is relevant to distributed e-learning. Such knowledge is of no value if it cannot be used in a flexible and contextualized manner and in particular if it is not embedded into the everyday teaching processes of the University. 

There are two main ways in which e-learning can be introduced into traditional teaching, whether on campus or at a distance.  One is through large scale centralisation and provision of professional services. The second is more incremental, perhaps a little slower and more challenging, but gradually involving all members of staff to make their contribution. This involves the choice of easy to use technologies and investment in personal, course and departmental learning. The latter has the advantages of developing capabilities for the longer term and keeping ‘ownership’ with the academic departments.  It is this model we chose as most appropriate for Leicester

The strategy was benchmarked as part of the Higher Education Academy pilot in early 2006 ( It is now entering the 2nd year of implementation. Our presentation at the conference will report on successes (and otherwise) so far from Living in the E-Zoo.


Hamel, G and Valikangas, L 2003 The Quest for Resilience Harvard Business Review September pp 52-63 

Salaman, G and Asch, D (2003) Strategy and Capability: Sustaining Organizational Change, Blackwell, Oxford. 

Salmon, G. (2005). Flying not flapping: a strategic framework for e-learning and pedagogical innovation in higher education institutions. ALT-J Research in Learning Technology, 13(3), Oct 2005, 201-218

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The Institute of Learning Innovation (formerly the Beyond Distance Research Alliance) has now closed.

This website preserves an archive of the projects we worked on.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the BDRA/ILI over the years.