Pebble power

Pebble Learning, an innovative business based at the University’s Telford Campus, was recently named Shropshire Company of the Year. The business has a long and successful relationship with the University, which is continuing to develop through the employment of talented graduates and a Knowledge Transfer Partnership.


In the last ten years, the way students learn has transformed. While books and written exams still have their place in the lecture theatres of a modern university or college, online learning has a central role in the teaching and assessment process.

Pebble Learning, based in the University’s e-Innovation Centre, has been at the forefront of developments in this field. In 2004, the company identified a gap in the market for an e-portfolio tool and developed the online personal system PebblePad that allows individuals to record and plan activities and create presentations. Principally used by the education sector, the business has the capacity to expand into other markets, and is already making significant in-roads internationally.

Award-winners

This success story was recognised recently when Pebble Learning won the Shropshire Company of the Year Award. The company was also a finalist in the Technology, Enterprise and Innovation category of the awards, organised by Shropshire Chamber of Commerce. This achievement follows on from a highly prestigious platinum award at the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Learning Impact Awards in California last year, as a result of a joint submission with the University’s Blended Learning Unit.

“We were excited and elated to win the Shropshire Company of the Year Award. It was a surprise as we were up against stiff competition from big organisations so we were genuinely delighted to pick up the top prize,” says Colin Dalziel, co-founder and Operations Director of Pebble Learning.

A great product

The Company of the Year award recognised all-round performance, and Colin believes that contributing factors to its success are a quality product that meets the needs of customers combined with a focus on providing a high level of service.

He adds: “We have a great product and good relationships with our customers. We also have a sound strategy for moving forward with the company and a good financial track record despite the recession. PebblePad is principally used in education but can be used in business and professional organisations. We still have lots of potential for the future and I think the judges liked that. I also think they were impressed with our range of marketing activities and the way we have worked with our customers to develop our product. Internationally we have already expanded into Australia as a market, picking up 15 customers and we now have an employee there, so they saw the global potential.”

PebblePad is an online personal system that allows people to record and plan their activities, put them together on a structured website and create presentations. For example, if a student has a 3,000 word essay, the tutor could ask for an action plan about what they are planning to write and then record how they have reacted to feedback. The lecturer may then see a first draft of the essay and give feedback before the student submits the final version. As well as universities, PebblePad is used by professional bodies for continuous professional development (CPD) which requires participants to record aspects such as the time spent on CPD.

Benefits

The benefits for students are clear, as Colin explains: “By recording and reflecting on activities, individuals develop a deeper level of understanding. Learners often say that only by stepping back can they fully understand the bigger picture of what they are learning.

"With PebblePad being an internet-based system, students can access it from anywhere and on a range of devices such as mobile phones. It also lasts the whole time the student is at the institution and beyond so individuals can develop a rich picture of their learning and see the journey they have made. We often hear of students creating a portfolio of themselves to send to potential employers to support their job applications.”

A long relationship

Pebble Learning has had a long relationship with the University. Colin and co-founder and Development Director Shane Sutherland both worked at the University previously, and the first version of PebblePad was piloted at Wolverhampton during 2005/06. This pilot allowed the company to gain valuable feedback to help develop it into a commercial product. Pebble Learning also has strong recruitment links with the University. Of the 17 people currently working at the firm, 13 are Wolverhampton graduates, and Colin stresses this is because of the high calibre of students at the University. They also work closely with the Blended Learning Unit and IT Services to continue to develop PebblePad so it can meet the educational needs of students at Wolverhampton and beyond.

In addition, the company is based at the Telford Campus, located in a grow on space at the e-Innovation Centre. The Centre provides start-up and growing businesses with state-ofthe- art accommodation in a modern building with hi-tech support. As Pebble Learning has grown, the company has taken on more and more space within the landmark building.

“We are a technology company so a fundamental requirement is for a computer infrastructure that works, as is having a modern, comfortable working environment. Having a University address was particularly helpful when we were starting as it gave us credibility with potential customers.”

Partnership

The relationship has developed further through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with the University. KTPs are a threeway partnership between a company, a In the last ten years, the way students learn has transformed. While books and highly qualified graduate (or ‘Associate’) and University academics to work on a strategic project for the business. For Pebble Learning, the two-year project involves Associate Konstantinos Kourmpoglou investigating cloud technology and how this could support the company’s development, alongside academic Steve Garner from the School of Technology.

Colin explains: “One of the services we offer is for Pebblepad to be supplied as a fully hosted and managed service. The role of the KTP Associate is to reseach how we provide this service better by researching server technologies. The aim is to make recommendations for improving our current provision as well as investigating options for the future.

“Traditionally our model is to own and manage our own servers, but now cloud computing is increasingly popular, where the server is provided by a collection of servers usually made available by a large specialist organisation.

“Part of the role of the KTP is to look at how PebblePad could take advantage of this technology. There may be a cost benefit, but what is more likely is that we can capitalise on higher capacity and improve resilience. For example if a server we are using reaches capacity because of heavy load, rather than the system slowing down, it switches over to the cloud and uses capacity outside the normal Pebblepad. This would be particularly useful at peak times, for example when 10,000 students are all trying to submit assignments on the same day.”

Although it is early days for the KTP, Colin says the benefits include accessing the rich resources of skills and facilities at the University. It also enables them to dedicate someone to a potential area of growth for the business.

Looking ahead, the company is working on redesigning the system to enable organisations to create bespoke forms for their learners in any learning situation and expanding into other sectors. The international market offers areas for growth, and the new version of PebblePad will provide multi-language support to enable local versions anywhere in the world. With the support of the University of Wolverhampton, Pebble Learning is looking forward to continued growth.

For more information about Pebble Learning, please visit www.pebblepad.co.uk.