Making sense of e-learning strategy

Also published on the Educational Technology and Change Journal

It's very common for the message to get confused or diluted when you try to introduce and encourage the use of learning technologies/VLEs into the Higher Education world. The main reason for this is that the message is inherently confusing. Ask two people tasked with encouraging their use and you'll get two different answers. There isn't a dominant reasoning across the sector. I have mine, but I know it's at odds with what others say. For me, there is a belief in collaborative pedagogies over the transformative/didactic mode. The learning is simply better, the teaching is simply better and the resulting graduate is a person better equipped to keep learning throughout their career. The problem with this is that I can't prove it and it would be fruitless to try. I just believe it and certainly it's true for my learning.

I'm not convinced that many of those who are prevalent deliverers of lectures with little or no interaction necessarily believe that this is the best way - although certainly there are some. It's just that lecturing and passive learning are, in the short run, the easiest options for both faculty and students. It's just easier, take less effort. They prepare the content and just speak it. I tweeted the other day "If you don’t ask questions, learners aren’t doing anything. Lots of questions, variety of questions." to advertise the blog post Key Steps to Preparing Great Synchronous Interactions. I don't think it's as stark as that but the sentiment is true.

Back to the confusing message. The pedagogy argument is difficult to make and obviously confrontational. Far easier to talk in terms of efficiency saving and money saving. So this is often where we end up and, for many, this is all we should legitimately seek to use learning technologies for. On this path, the result is often a simple case of e-administration.

So you have these two schools of thought. But what often happens is a illogical blending of the two. It doesn't work and it doesn't make any sense. One challenges the status quo, the other enforces it. They don't fit together. It's a tough one when you think about it because by exposing this tension I make my job harder. On the other hand, I'm not doing my job properly if I don't. And on a third hand, who am I to try and influence pedagogy!

Casual community building

Casual community building is something that I've encountered a lot over the years. Often people come to me wanting help in starting something online where a particular group of people can exchange views and share resources. Now this is a core activity of social media and one that can work well in a work related special interest group. However, mostly they end up being empty spaces of little or no activity, sometimes after great expense and frustration.

I've been reflecting on the issues behind this after reading Don't blame the technology on the excellent Learning Journey blog. The following extract rings true with me:

Sometimes I hear people saying: “I created a blog, but no one joined in”. Or “ I have just set up this network site…seemed to go well at first as some people joined, but now no one is doing anything in there”.

My first reaction is to ask, why did you set it up in the first place? What was the purpose? The answer usually is: for people to come together… to create the community! That’s fantastic…but then as we analyse the situation a bit further I am usually tempted to ask if they intend ‘to join the communal activity’ too or if their role was just to offer the space?!!! It always puzzles me!

What I still see most often is individuals creating a space in the hope it will just take off by itself – as if people would adhere to their brilliant ideas for no reason. The fact is that there isn’t lack of brilliant ideas in this world… we all think we have them! Creating spaces for people to congregate is definitely one of them…(we are always complaining about the lack of opportunity to network and share stuff, or that we don’t know what other people are doing and how much we would benefit from it… so it must be a terrific idea…!) but what makes brilliant ideas materialize in something really meaningful is the effort we ourselves put into it for it to develop and grow coherently.

The most important point here is the issue of devoting time yourself to the endeavour. It's something that nearly always isn't thought through or put into action and is the biggest single factor affecting community participation. Without a driving force, no social network or online community will take off. It doesn't matter how appropriate the space is to the needs of the group - it won't run by itself.

Unfortunately, I can predict all too easily whether such an online space will work or not and it's sad when people have spent time, effort and sometimes money setting something up only for it to fail. Even with this time and effort, there is no guarantee that a particular group of people will engage with it as there are a miraid of other factors to take into consideration. But it's safe to say without it there is no chance.

Teaching with technology isn't easy to arrange

It's been a while since I posted to this blog. Largely, this is due to moving house and not having the internet until today but also things have been more hectic than usual at my work. It would be impossible to capture all the learning I've been doing here but an important teaching experience I had recently need attention on this blog.

I guess the biggest challenge I faced recently was delivering a session where the working title I got was Delivering Content with technology. It was an important learning experience and one that deserves reflection here.

I'm working as part of a team charged with teaching all things e-learning to a particular set of trainers. Delivering half of the first day, my aim was not to challenge their pedagogy but showing tools (Web 2.0 or otherwise) which allows them to present content in different ways to the norm of powerpoint slides and talking.

As with other similiar teaching I've done, the preparation centred around what to include and what to leave out. This involves updating myself in what's out there and making informed decisions on where to focus my attention. What's important is giving the right context and provide intensive and reasoning to take any alternative provided seriously. As always, there's a bit of soft-sell marketing to be done. This might seem wrong but it's a fact of life with Learning Technologies. One of the things I showed prezi and that went down well especially as we could do some practical work on this. The other big winner was screencasting where Jing was demonstrated, unfortunately we couldn't do anything practical with this. So that it wasn't just showing different tools, I used the excellent Onlignment document Media Chemistry which presents checklists of pros and cons for each media element. This provided context for the session.

As well as the content, the other major learning point was all the issues around negotiating the room setup and equipment/software availability. Knowing exactly what I can and can't do it vital for teaching of the kind I do and it's always a challenge in a new venue getting what you want. To some extent, the quality gets diluted when you can't do what you want and I need to think about how best to deal with this. Certainly, when you try to do anything requiring audio devices and software installation things get complicated very quickly.

The important issue thing about this isn't that you often have/don't have a particular bit of equipments or software but that most training facilities aren't set up for using learning technologies in anything more than a symbolic way. This symbol often takes the form of a computer room - mostly kept locked and hidden away and usable in special, carefully controlled sessions. They are viewed more like a security risk rather than a learning aid. I think this is generalisable statement for much of education and shows we are still, as a sector, missing the point.

Largely, this particular experience was a positive one. It's always tough when we got to a new facility and teach to a new audience as you are never quite sure what to expect. But this is part of the challenge.