A Learning Technologist in 2009 in Higher Education

I've just read an interesting post which has helped move my thinking on a bit. It's "Training" faculty to teach online by Lisa Lane and is about the nature of the usual offerings of "training" on teaching online. She distinguishes between Technical training, which is the mechanics of how to work and navigate a particular tool/artefact, and professional development for effective online teaching where the pedagogies behind them are explored. She says:

The misconceptions about the validity of online teaching are only encouraged by using the word “training”. It implies a false proposition: that instructors need to learn the tools first, and that once they have done so they will develop good online classes. Neither of these is true. Instead, instructors should be encouraged to examine their pedagogy as they begin to teach online, and be provided with extensive technical support as they develop courses based on their chosen pedagogy. And powers-that-be (accrediting agencies, Chancellor’s Offices, and our own colleagues) should be aware that the need is for creating a good environment for encouraging such practices, instead of certifying “training in teaching online”.

The weakness is one of understanding on the part of colleagues and administrators, and, in some cases, lack of meta-cognitive pedagogy (whether online or on-site) among faculty.

There's lots of good points here. Knowledge of pedagogy is lacking, knowledge of the values behind any Learning Technology is lacking, knowledge of Web 2.0 is lacking and personal ICT skills are lacking. These issues are just so huge! Where do you start? Well, the place most people is with the technical training. The problem is this is mostly where it ends. As Lisa argues in her post, perception of online training is often only about how to use a tool. We need more! But this is recognised. Not by the users or the employers.

Thinking about my practice and what goes on in Higher Education, things could be better. A lot of what I do ends up with showing how a tool work (technical training) and we often don't get beyond this. Mostly, people don't want me to go beyond this. Or if they are interested, there isn't the time. Should I force the issue? This depends on what type of Learning Technologist you are. If you are happy reinforcing the status quo, then trying to effect the way they teach isn't on the agenda. If you believe in the spirit of Web 2.0 and think that pedagogies and values behind it can have a positive impact on education then you MUST force the issue.

I think I'm shouting this word at myself more than anyone else. But it's hard. Hard to force the issue, hard to challenge how someone teaches, hard to annoy someone, hard to make your worklife more complex and more difficult than it needs to be.

So being a Learning Technologist in Higher Education in 2009 is all about challenging the status quo. But to do this properly feathers will be ruffled. I need to lie down for a bit!

Didactic Teachers are expendable

The title of this post doesn't really tell the whole story, but I'm hooked on trying to have catchy, short titles (maybe twitter is effecting me too much)....

After reading Free Online Higher Education Courses?, I reflected on the whole principle of OER. In the posting, Robert Hughes argues that watching a lecture isn't as good as taking the course (in a critique of another article). This is true where the course is well run. But what about a large lecture where the didactic rules. Wouldn't watching a video or listening to an audio in the comfort of your own home be just as good. No, it would be better. So I agree that taking a course which uses a variety of pedagogical approaches can't be matched by OER. But a course where your only involvement is scribbling notes at the back of a lecture theatre can, and is, matched by an OER on the same subject. And if you get your friend to go to the lecture for you and record it, then you win any way you look at it.

In some ways, OER exposes educators who clings to the didactic as the only form of teaching. The logical step from the above scenario is that they are expendable. If it's all about the content, then the employee can produce this in cheaper ways than the expensive face-to-face model currently used. Sure, we'll still need experts. But not as many and not for the same amount of time. I don't want this. The teacher is vital to formal education - if they teach well. Hopefully, this can cause some realisation that we need to provide more than just the facts, delivered in broadcast fashion.

So educators, make yourself indispensable - design your learning incorporating collaborative and personalised pedagogies. We need you for that. So, if you think that Learning Technologies threatens your existence, you're wrong - they are your saviour.

Web 2.0 tools in VLEs - Just not that good

I found this great slideshow.

Thanks David Hopkins for your post - Presentation: Moodle; an alternative to Blackboard for Web 2.0. (not that it's likely he will see this). The learning point for me is the around the question of using free standing Web 2.0 tools or a VLE with its own tools that could be characterised as Web 2.0. The slideshow stated, quite rightly, that an integrated tool offers less quality in terms of features but offers greater control and less risk.

The first to say is that, almost entirely, there is no choice for most higher educational institutions. They get a VLE - control and integration is a given. It's viewed mostly from a content viewpoint. Tools, web 2.0 or whatever, come secondary. I think if the learning opportunities presented by the tools were the priority there would be more consideration paid to the choice being discussed.

Moving on from that slightly depressed footnote, back to the issues of pure Web 2.0 and those integrated in VLEs. Here's the tension: Web 2.0, by definition, has a spirit of openness and sharing. VLEs are about control and walling the learning behind closed doors. You can take the mechanics of a tool like blogging, but walling it in away from the blogosphere changes its essence. The social side chopped off at the edge of the institution. This is far more of a difference that just having a few less features in the VLE version. By taking the social almost organic nature away from the concept it becomes an altogether inferior representation.

And what about the risk. Risk is always the first thing people think of - often becoming the reason for not using something. These risks are always overstated. But what is the risk in this context? I think this is what the slideshow is referring to is the risk of things breaking down or disappearing. Yes, this is true. Websites can shut down and you have no control over how they develop. However, this is rarely down without warning and there are always equivalent tools to use. Also, in the Web 2.0 world websites die for a reason - mostly because they just aren't that good. Moving to different version is probably a better option anyway. Certainly what you don't get is 90s looking interfaces and navigation that some VLEs possess (BLACKBOARD!!!!). In any case, costly VLEs with costly hosting have been known to fail. One of the ones I work on took a week off at the start of term a couple of years ago.

For any educational institutions, there's also the issue of ownership. A VLE is owned and not simply customised. A manifestation of the controlled, walled physical environment. So when I introduce an educator to a Web 2.0 tool outside the VLE, I'm chipping away at this notion. Well, I tell myself that anyway!

Introducing Learning Technologies - the Utopia, the Reality

I've was asked the below question on the Educational Technology and Change Journal. I thought I'd post my response here as well as on there.

What would you suggest for helping teachers move beyond this passive use to the more active use that VLEs are capable of?

That's a good question. My utopian answer approaches the issue from a pedagogical point of view - promoting a collaborative and personalised approach. I would use the phrase teaching methods instead of pedagogy to keep things simple and talk in terms of allowing the learner to be creative and involved in the learning process – active rather than passive. I don’t think many educators would disagree that these techniques have a positive impact in principle. Once this is established, the idea that a particular Learning Technology artefacts or tool can be used to achieve such an approach, can be introduced. It’s important the Learning Technology itself isn’t seen as what’s valuable or important but the value or particular pedagogical stance behind it. That’s the utopia. The reality is different.

In Higher Education, for a standard lecturer in my context the standard way of teaching is lecturing with a bit of group discussion. It’s all face-to-face even though a VLE exists. It’s a tough sell to challenge both the delivery and the pedagogy that lies behind this. Where we are at in my institution is challenging the delivery by introducing the VLE as a tool for file repository and maybe assignment submission and grade management. This is seen as an important first step. However, we seem to have been on this first step for quite a while now. I have been talking about the other tools available both within and outside our VLE but they fall, largely, on deaf ears.

So the main barrier is promoting the collaborative and personalised approaches to learning mentioned earlier. Promoting them challenges the way an educator teaches. Who am I to challenge this? People will reject such an advance for a variety of natural human reasons. You could also argue that this isn’t my job. I’m a Learning Technologist not a pedagogical adviser (not that such a thing exists). The problem is that I think that changing the way we teach is at the heart of what a Learning Technologist is trying to do. So what can I do? My goal is to build up enough of an educator base so that an element of peer pressure exists. This would also give validity the Learning Technologies. Apart from that, keep chipping away.

I’d be interested to hear what others think.

Personal Learning Environments - Concept not Tool

The educational response to the concept of Personal Learning Environment has been to try and create a tool and present it as a ready made Personal Learning Environment. Well, this misses the point. Also, it is symptomatic of educational institutions desire to control. So they create walled, narrow tools (usually something like an e-portfolio system) and pass it off as a Personal Learning Environment. My Personal Learning spills over a number of different tool. I would say that igoogle is the major gateway but google reader and blogger are key elements (at the moment). Maybe by having the word "environment", the concept is given a false representative quality that it shouldn't have.

I've been prompted to reflect on this whilst reading Exploring Personal Learning Environment by Graham Atwell. Amongst this resource I found the following useful quote:

"Another approach is to consider the PLE not as a specific tool, but rather as a concept, a way of organizing a variety of Web 2.0 technologies. The PLE would be unique to each user, and would change according to the user’s needs and experiences." [Kompen R, Edirisingha P & Monguet J (2009) Using Web 2.0 applications as supporting tools for Personal Learning Environments]

Sums it up nicely I think.

Choose your own path and collaborate!

I read Graham Atwell’s post Cartoon Planet – A Pedagogy of Change a few days ago. I set it aside to study later because I knew there was lots to reflect on. I’ve now found time to do this and there has been one major learning point. Prompted from the quotes below, I’ve been able to think through the two major themes of Web 2.0 learning – Personal Learning and Collaborative Learning in a more coherent way.

The below 4 quotes give insight on this:

“Whilst young learners in the 21st century are seen as being increasingly independent, simultaneously group skills are more important than ever before.”
“The ‘educational shift’, grounded on social and personalised pedagogies, as advocated by most of the literature, is still in progress (Williamson and Payto, 2009).”
“The construction of new knowledge through collaborative and cooperative activities, which are personally meaningful to the learners, are core to a pedagogy of change (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2007).”
“Learning relies both on granting the individual an active voice and creating an environment for collective listening and mutual support (UNESCO, 2002).”

These quotes crystallises the issue for me. Everyone can pick and choose their collaborative path. Look at how social networking works, everyone chooses their friends on facebook, they each join the groups they want and communicate with each set of people separately. The choice is entirely theirs and everyone has different connections. Groups can be subject specific or a particular social context or grouping. I think network is a more helpful word here than community. But what’s most important is that the learner is creating their network for themselves.

Let’s think about education. Well, let’s face it, it’s not set up to cater for this type of freedom. Any group work is strictly controlled and limited, be it physical or virtual. With this control, you can compromise achieving what’s “personally meaningful to the learners”. This has the best chance of coming when you give a level of independence. The learner creates and chooses their own path. Downes’ and Siemens connectivism course delivery shows what can be done (it’s a pity I’ve pretty much dropped off this (next year maybe)). I think control is at the heart of what education is all about so this is tough nut to crack. But it’s worth recognising that by controlling how students learn, you can inhibit their ability to learn – both now and in the future.

This has ended somewhere different to where I expected. I had intended to highlight how important the personal and collaborative elements are to my ‘informal’ learning in the blogosphere. I have created my own bloglist which gets refined all the time; I study them, as well as the odd article; I do my job and learn things; I collaborate by talking to a couple of key colleagues; I collaborate in the comments of blogs; I reflect on all this and blog myself. The most important part of this for me is the reflection. Previously, I never found time to reflect and this is the missing elements for lots of people. The other things can happen naturally, if you are lucky, but standing back and reflecting often gets lost.

Blackboard reinforcing the Status Quo

Originally published on the Educational Technology and Change Journal

I discovered the article Insidious pedagogy: how course management systems impact teaching by Lisa M. Lane thanks to the WISE Pedagogy blog. It's one of those gems that you find every so often. And I'm going to do my usual quotes with comments blog posts to make sure I get the full reflection and learning benefit from it. The subject area is the implied pedagogy of standard LMS'/VLEs.

"Course management systems (CMSs), used throughout colleges and universities for presenting online or technology-enhanced classes, are not pedagogically neutral shells for course content. They influence pedagogy by presenting default formats designed to guide the instructor toward creating a course in a certain way. This is particularly true of integrated systems (such as Blackboard/WebCT)... Blackboard "tends to encourage a linear pathway through the content", and its default is to support easy uploading and text entry to achieve that goal."

I've always approached this from the opposite angle and said that VLEs are designed for the current education market rather than to improve or change in any way. So it's file repositories and grading books all the way. Remember, unlike Web 2.0, many of these VLEs are commercial products and in business you give the customer what they want and the customer doesn't want their pedagogy challenged. You also have to remember that a lot of the collaborative tools have been added on as VLEs react to what going on out in the real world. But when they are addons they don't really impact on the intrinsic design or structure. They could redesign as new versions come out - but they don't. Certainly, each new version of blackboard is so simliar to the last that it's almost indistinguishable. Maybe the consistency is important to them but it's a real missed opportunity. By the way, I'm quoting Lisa's use of CMS but I use LMS/VLE. I steer clear of CMS because it can get mixed up with Content Management System.

"a CMS must be designed around a central pedagogy: consistency of interface relies on consistency of approach. It is only important to recognize that the interface of any software reflects its intent."

I'd not thought about it in these terms before. Although I agree with this, I'm not sure that blackboard is designed with any particular pedagogy in mind. I think it's more a case of designing around the prevailing perception of what teaching is. Moodle is deliberately different. The collobarative tools are much more prominent and the grading system is rubbish, probably deliberately so (only joking).

Lisa then characterises most educators as "web novices". She says:

"These users were trying to reduce their cognitive load by limiting their use of the software, while Web experts were able to keep their goal in mind easily while searching more deeply."


"When faced with a different interface or online environment, novices are inclined to utilize only the aspects they understand from a non-Web context."

It's a double-whammy. First, you have a majority who's personal ICT skills don't allow them to easily explore and experiment with the full range of what a VLE has to offer. Second, you have a majority who are content, if not happy, with the prevailing pedagogy of current teaching. Thus, there is no desire or compulsion to embrace/explore/experiment with software that challenges this. I also feel the knowledge of pedagogy within education is pretty limited but I don't base this on any hard facts. Anyway, both these issues are massive barriers to the adoption and use of Web 2.0 type tools . If you've read this blog before you'll know how sad that makes me.

Some more attacks on the blackboard functionality:

"Most professors think in terms of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved wtithin the context of time, rather than space... Blackboard's default organization accepts neither of these approaches in its initial interface."

You can, of course, change this which is what I often advise my academics to do. But why have it like this? What it does is validate and reinforce the notion that content, course news and grading is all the VLE is good for. It's not for teaching or learning, but to get things from. It's a passive rather than active relationship, Web 1.0 not Web 2.0.

She continues:

"There is more satisfaction in mastering a few elements than in experimenting. Instructors move very slowly into features of the CMS that support less-instructivist models, and experience with the CMS over time does not necessarily lead to more creative pedagogy, or even to more expanive use of system features."

So we have a situation where educators struggle to get to grips with what a VLE can do AND they don't really want to anyway. That's not good.

Structuring Web 2.0

Web 2.0

As a follow-up to Clarifying Informal Learning & Web 2.0, I've been reflecting further on a Web 2.0 classification system and resolved to do my own one. One which tried to simple and clear. The stimulus for this has been the need to design some Web 2.0 training. Previously, I've used the classification from the document Education 2.0? Designing the web for teaching and learning which aligned web 2.0 with four typically human dispositions:

Socialising the playful: games and virtual worlds
Socialising the expressive: media design, sharing, and publication
Socialising the reflective: blogs, social networks, and wikis
Socialising the exploratory: syndication, recommenders, folksonomies

However, I wanted something simpler and came across the Make, Share, Find classification in The CU Online Handbook. However, I think this misses out some of the key messages. So, I have come up with what's at the top of this post.
The idea is that everything fits into 1 of the 3 categories. I seperated the social element because it should run through everything. Overall, it serves a purpose for myself and is hopefully presentable enough for others to understand. However, I'm not crazy about the shape and there might be more reflective to be done on the details so things may change.
Anyway, it certainly fits into the category of Learning Technology Learning so it's worth posting here.

Question from John Traxler - 'Education - Fit for purpose?'

John Traxler commented on my post from last Saturday Review of Traxler’s ‘Students and Mobile Devices’ and stated that the following question was his overriding concern for the article:

My over-riding question... is something like 'do the social changes associated with universal connectedness and mobility mean major aspects of the education system are bust and not 'fit-for-purpose'? or will technical/tactical fixes (maybe 'mobile learning' is one of these) and compromises continue to see us thro?'

It took a while for me to get my head around what this is asking, but once I did I could see that it was worth reflecting on. In essence, what John is asking is:

Does the social media/Web 2.o mean that the education system isn't 'fit for purpose?' Or can we compromise the protect what we have?

The short answer is YES. And we will compromise but in my utopia we shouldn't.

The first thing to consider is what has Web 2.0 taught us about learning? Most importantly, it's taught us that humans are SOCIAL. We are social beings, we want to communicate, share and network with eachother. It this wasn't true facebook and twitter wouldn't have exploded or we wouldn't keep inventing new and better ways to communicate with eachother. So what does this have to do with learning and changes to our educational system? I guess this has to do with how important you think these things are to learning. For me, communicating, sharing and networking are a fundamental of it. What Web 2.0 does it give this 'social learning' a massive outlet. An outlet that grows and develops all the time. Why not utilise this? By the way, I've deliberately stayed away from talking about pedagogy here. Partly because I'm no expert on this and partly because I try to keep things non-academic on this blog.

So to put this issue simply, the education system isn't social enough and, by using the social media (amongst other things), we should make it more so. All this threatens is the didactic, transmissive model of teaching which for many IS teaching.

Other things Web 2.0 has taught us? There's the whole area of formal vs informal learning which I'm going to link here to the issue of why have a physical entity that is the school or university. These areas are both challenging the notion that you can compartmentalise learning. That you can give learning a elite status that can only be accessed through formal educational institutions when and where they deam to convey it. This is just rubbish. Learning happen all the time, or it can do if you believe and recognise this. Web 2.0 allows us to believe and recognise this. It's been called 'informal' learning which is useful when you want to distinguish it from 'formal' learning but really it's just learning. Of course, you can and do learn in the specialise learning environment, but there is an artificial exclusiveness about it which programmes us the wrong way.

The final area I'm going to raise is the issue of personal choice. Personal choice doesn't exist much in the learning journey through education at the moment. Well it can now! The main reason here is the access to information, access to others to learn from has exploded through Web 2.o - OER, OET, social networking, blogging, micro-blogging etc.

So what about the compromise. I said that we will compromise but shouldn't. Iit's probably better to say dilute instead of compromise. This is because currently any tool adopted gets diluted as we seek to fit it neatly into what we have. By diluting, we lose the essence. For example, sticking a blog tool in an LMS closes it in and thus loses it's social, open nature. This cuts it off from the blogosphere which is the lifeblood of any blog (in my view). So why the compromise? It's because education is run by the educational institutions for the educational institutions. New ideas and tools are fine as long as they don't threatens their existence. In these circumstances they will, of course, defend their patch. You have to think about it in terms of what's most important - if it's the educational institutions then you dilute anything new to fit in what you've got; if it's the learners or the learning there interests come first. The best learning experience is debatable but it would be an easier debate if you took out the inhibiting factors of the rights and interests of the educational institutions.

Interestingly, what links the 3 areas I raised above is CONTROL. Educational institutions will resist them because they cannot control them. In some ways, current education is about control.

Anyway, these are some thoughts on this question which you could probably write a book about. If you have any comments on this, I'd be interested to hear them because there are lots of angles you could come at it from.