Tech awards are rewarding - especially for the judges


NET RESULTS:Judging a competition gives you the opportunity to see someone else’s thought processes, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

ONE OF the best parts of judging competitions is getting to see the intriguing ideas people come up with. Generally judges are looking at a shortlist of finalists, so you have the pleasure of seeing all the really good stuff that has made it through to the top.

I really enjoy the opportunity judging gives to look at someone else’s thought processes. There can be beautiful complexity but also brilliant simplicity. Innovation takes many forms.

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to judge competitions in a wide range of categories. Last summer, I was one of the judges for the Irish section of the James Dyson Award for innovation. That kept me busy for days, reading up on people’s ideas and viewing the presentations and videos they had made.

The James Dyson Award is open again for 2010, with July 1st the deadline for submissions. An Irish winner will go forward for the international award, which brings with it an inspiring £10,000 (€11,500) in cash for the student.

Third-level design engineers can check out or the James Dyson Award Ireland page on Facebook for more information – and I look forward to checking out this year’s submissions during the summer.

In the “sheer stamina” category of awards judging, I have to mention The Irish Times’ recent Innovation Awards. The newspaper’s Innovationmagazine editor, Michael McAleer, and his team winnowed out a shortlist from well over 100 entries, a daunting feat in its own right.

But that still left 17 finalist companies for our judging panel, all of which made presentations over a single day. It was a terrifying prospect at the outset but ended up being an exhilarating, if exhausting, experience. So many great companies with great ideas; indeed, I expect many of them will become well-known national names in the future.

For sheer fun, the competition I attended at Dublin City University last week has to take pride of place.

The Jennifer Burke Award for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, sponsored by the Irish Learning Technology Association, truly comes from the heart.

Named in memory of a DCU colleague who died in 2007, the award is organised by friends passionate about commemorating Burke’s teaching creativity and commitment to students, as well as her interest in blending technology and learning.

This is the second year of the award, which is already showing wonderful scope, not just for recognising teaching excellence, but for becoming an online storehouse of great ideas for educators.

The organisers plan to set up an online library of the finalist projects for each year, enabling them to become inspirations for other teachers.

The scope of the five projects I heard about last week was impressive.

A University of Ulster team had come up with a “skills wheel of life” that allows first-year students to assess their skills in areas such as communication, problem-solving and working with others. These are the “spokes” on the skills wheel. Students self-assess on a scale of one to 10, while also assessing their satisfaction with those skills.

They can click to materials to help improve skills areas and use their assessment for discussions with their adviser. It is simple but smart and extremely useful for students and advisers.

DCU’s Intergenerational Learning Project brings together DCU students and people aged 60 and over, with each taking the role of tutor and learner.

On paper it looks flat, but the participants were wonderfully inspiring and clearly loved the project. The older participants spoke with great excitement about discovering a whole new world online, especially via social networking technologies. Their grandkids must think they are the coolest grandparents going.

The certificate in music and dance developed by the Nomad project at University of Limerick is an extremely thoughtful and well-developed programme to bring non-traditional learners into third-level education.

The course blends written materials with access technologies, as many students are distance learners, including several from the Travelling community.

From Cork Institute of Technology, Dr Siobhán O’Sullivan is teaching biomedical science students using an extraordinary range of web 2.0 technologies.

She brings together blogs, wikis, newsletters, e-portfolios and podcasts, and regularly engages with her students through their blogs.

A great aspect of this project is that first-year students are supported by second years, whose blogs and digital projects from the previous year help signpost the way on a complex course.

And finally, the winning project: a virtual environment for art and design learning set up in the online virtual world Second Life by Dublin Institute of Technology.

It was difficult to choose a single winner from these five excellent projects, but in the end our judging panel felt this project took an innovative approach to bringing distance learners into a creative environment that enabled challenging and encouraging group and self-assessment.

The real winners, though, are the students, who benefit from such creative projects and teaching approaches.