Educational Technology (Non) Adoption

Oh dear, I have been lax haven’t I? My last blog post was September 21st. Tut tut.

Anyway, as the University is closed for the day, and I’ve actually practiced what I preach for once and put today’s PGCE session on the VLE, and given the students some virtual discussion topics to get their teeth into, I find myself with a little free time again.  Anyway, what’s got me going is a post from Joss about a paper by one N.Selwyn (2010). Now, don’t get me wrong here. I like the paper, and broadly agree with the sentiments expressed in it – the argument is essentially that research into educational technology is too often uncritical, focussing on idealised cases. Rather it should focus on studies of what is actually happening in the world of ed. tech., and explaining why things are as they are. No argument from me there.

Well, all right. Just a little one. I think there’s actually quite a lot of critical research into educational technology out there, and it has been quite helpful to me in preparing teaching sessions on technology. Just one example for now though, Masterman & Vogel’s chapter (Practices and processes for learning design)  in Beetham & Sharpe (eds) (2007 “Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age”  discusses the influence of the academic department on individual’s  choices about whether or not to adopt technology and goes on to show that there is quite a complex network of influences at work when academics design of digital learning activities. Admittedly it is largely theoretical, but that section of my session on technology in learning usually draws nods of recognition from PGCE colleagues.

Which leads me to my point. It is sometimes argues that technology changes working practices. (e.g. Cornford & Pollock, Putting the University online (2003). I sort of agree, but one of the things that I’ve always found quite interesting in my role in supporting the university’s VLE (We use  Blackboard, but I don’t suppose any other VLE would be any different)  is how much effort some colleagues (a minority, but enough to be interesting) will put into making it work in a particular way that suits their existing practice. Where this can’t be done, they’ll abandon the VLE, complaining that “the university” shouldn’t have bought something that doesn’t work. They may then either not use the tool at all, continuing with a pre-technological practice or, much more rarely, use a different tool, such as one of the web 2.0 tools. (Or occasionally using something within Blackboard that wasn’t designed for what they want to do, but sort of fits their purpose.)   It wouldn’t be appropriate to give examples, here since to do so would identify individuals, and I am not suggesting that anyone is short changing students, or indeed that my impressions are anything other than subjective at this stage.   Nor should this be read as making any assumptions of the sort that academics are inherently resistant to adopting technology, or insufficiently skilled to adopt it. (Although those might be dimensions that could be considered in a potential research project). Other dimensions would include; –

  • Social pressures – if your head of department doesn’t show any interest, why should you?
  • Student pressures – “My mate’s got his course on this thing – why haven’t you?
  • Management pressure – We spent a lot of money on this. Why aren’t you using it?

I’m sure there are plenty of other dimensions. And, from a crudely Marxist perspective can we see this as the proletariat resisting Capitalist exploitation?

Hmm. Anyone got a research grant going spare?

Technology for public teaching again

Still haven’t sorted out my theme – but that’s not my text for today. I’ve been reading  “The e-revolution and post compulsory education: Using e-business to deliver quality education” edited by Jos Boys and Peter Ford, and I wanted to make a couple of brief notes about chapter 2, which portrays scenarios of the “e-university” from the perspectives of students, researchers, teachers, administrators, and senior managers. The scenarios are designed to be provocative, rather than predictive, so I’m not going to take issue with their accuracy.  Clearly technology changes, all the time, and speculation always reflects the era in which it takes place.

I think there are three problems identified by the scenarios which are more problematic than might appear at first. One is data interoperability. In the chapter, Ford seems to assume that data will be easily interoperable between different systems, and I’d agree that is a pre-requisite. Yet it seems to be proving very difficult for large corporations, who are still big players in the sector (like Blackboard) to share data. I can understand the desire to protect intellectual property, but it seems to me that what is most likely to happen is that those organisations that do expose their APIs will increase their market share. (Look at the various apps that work with Twitter, Flicker, YouTube and so on, and there are some very interesting uses of WordPress in the international sector).  Those that don’t share data will become increasingly isolated.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t share the view that the VLE is dead. At least, not yet. For now Blackboard clearly meets a need, that open source tools don’t, (although I have very little experience of Moodle, and I’m sure users will rush to assure me that it is wonderful).

That brings me to my second problem, which can be summarised as “Human nature”. My colleague, Sue Watling frequently blogs about how the rush to technology often excludes as many people as it includes. Some people are physically unable to read on a screen, some do not have the appropriate infrastructure available to them, some do not have sufficient economic power, and some do not want to work on line. In a free society, as Philip Ramsey has argued is that that is a choice that must be respected.  So even if you get the data interoperability right, you have to find ways of supporting different human needs.

Finally, and emerging from the first two points is the rather institutional nature of the technologies described in the scenarios. This is admittedly a bit more problematic for any institution. There are quite proper concerns over student privacy, so clearly students’ (and staff’s) personal information needs to be protected. At the same time though there is a persuasive argument that getting students to write for a public audience actually improves the quality of their writing.  There’s also the issue that different institutions, and different organisations have different ways of doing things that have evolved out of their own particular circumstances. It can also be argued, quite plausibly,  that technology tends to mandate particular ways of doing things, that require a significant effort on the part of those using systems, because it obliges them to rethink their practice. One might conclude that from that, the best approach for institutions that want to become e-institutions is for them to develop their own systems that reflect their way of doing things. That of course is expensive, but if institutions begin to develop particular ways of doing things, and share their data and procedures than it may be that other institutions will be able to build on this work.  That doesn’t really address the issue of digital exclusion of course, but the concept of sharing can be extended to ideas in that field too.

Blackboard Midlands User Group report. 24th June, 2010

De Montfort University Leicester
A machine to make you think

I find these meetings quite useful, partly because they’re a good way of keeping up to date with what colleagues are doing across the region (and to tell others what we’re doing), partly because there are often demonstrations of useful new technologies, and partly because Blackboard themselves come in and tell us what they’re up to. So I took myself off to De Montfort University, Leicester where I was delighted to find this dot matrix screen urging worthy thoughts on passers by. Actually I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t turned down the wrong road.  There may be a lesson in that.

Image credit

Anyway. Among the highlights of the meeting were a demonstration of Blackboard 9.1 which De Montfort, Northhampton and Dudley College are going for. Most others there seemed to share our view that the new interface was too big a change, for their staff. That said it is a bullet we are going to have to bite soon enough, and there is some quite attractive new functionality in 9.1. It supports anonymous marking which is something that there is a lot of local interest in at Lincoln. I do have some reservations about their interpretation of “anonymous”. You can certainly hide the students’ names in the gradebook, but as you can turn this feature on and off at will, it doesn’t seem to me to be all that anonymous. Compared with the same feature in the Turnitin Gradebook, where if you turn anonymity off , you can’t turn it back on. (And it records the user identification of the user who has turned it off, who has to enter a reason for turning it off before it actually turns it off. (I hope you’re paying attention. There’ll be a test later).  There was also a nice link between the gradebook and the wiki feature. Now you can go straight to a user’s contributions to a wiki from the gradebook entry, whereas before you had to use the wiki’s page history to see who had contributed what.  Finally we were shown what Blackboard call a “mashup”. Data purists will point out that it isn’t a mashup at all, but is simply a way of integrating  material on Flickr, You Tube, and other social networking sites (and acknowledging it’s provenance) into a Blackboard item.  It’s actually quite a slick feature, and technically doesn’t breach anyone’s copyright, although I still think it would be wiser to restrict your use of such materials to those with a creative commons license.

An interesting feature was that the demonstration was streamed live from Dudley College using Elluminate which seemed to work quite well, and may be a useful way of delivering lectures and other teaching interventions remotely.

The other big product that was demonstrated was Echo 360,  a lecture capture system. Essentially this works by the lecturer walking into the room, switching it on, and it records everything that happens. (audio, video, and even co-ordinates any slides that might be displayed) As it records a “thumbnail” is created every minute, (it looks a bit like the “scene” menu on a DVD) so it is easy for students to navigate through the lecture to any particular scence they are interested in. As you might have expected there was some scepticism that such a tool would deter students from attending, but in fact those who had attended claimed that they found the reverse was true.  If anything, recorded lectures had a slightly higher attendance than non-recorded lectures, possibly because if it was thought worth recording, that sent the message that it was worth attending.  And as one colleague pointed out, the lecturer always has the option of saying…

“And the questions on the exam will be….” (Presses pause). (Presses play). “…Oh, you’re watching the recording are you? Oh dear!”

Although that is perhaps a little cynical.  The point is that the recordings can be integrated into a Blackboard course thus providing a service for students who are genuinely unable to attend, or need to revise the finer points of a lecture.  Neither there is much of an issue in terms of data storage as Echo host all the data, although the university or the authors of the data retain full intellectual property rights in it.

Of course I couldn’t get the sales people to admit how much it would cost. All they would say  was that they had a wide range of licensing models. We’d also have to consider which rooms we’d want to equip with the service, but an increasing number of universities are offering this type of facility, so if we want to remain competitive, it is perhaps something we should investigate further.

Let’s all blame computers for everything bad. Again.

Picked up an interesting tweet that led to an article by Susan Greenfield about how computers may not be the most appropriate intervention in schools. Her critique  is that the way we use computers, essentially to graze for bits of information, is damaging our ability to think at length and in detail about a topic. You might be surprised to hear me say this but I think she has a point.  I’m largely unimpressed by claims that children and young people can “multi-task” much better than adults. All the evidence I’ve seen points to the fact that they are actually pretty rubbish at multi-tasking, if by multi-tasking you mean the simultaneous achievement of multiple and complex objectives. (That’s not a dig at the younger generation. I freely admit I’m rubbish at it too, but that is because it is an extremely difficult thing to do. In fact I don’t think I know of anyone who can do it)

Where I disagree with the article is that I don’t think its “computers” per se that are causing this rewiring of our brain. The key phrase in the above paragraph is “The way we use…”. I think it’s what we assess in schools, and what we value as a society that are at the root of the problem. In education we are forced to focus on the product, rather than the process of learning.  (Look at the press hysteria about ‘dumbing down’ that comes out every time the A level results are published for example.) It’s symptomatic of an obsession with “productivity”, which is  certainly not exclusive to education. If all we do is reward people for ‘producing’   then I suspect that “product” is all  we’ll get, irrespective of whether it’s any good, or any use to anyone. And if that’s all you want, then information grazing is a pretty good way to get it.

I blame the protestant work ethic! Work of the Devil if you ask me!

Putting stuff online not as simple as it looks

Ignore The Onion style headline. I just thought it seemed appropriate for the topic. Which is about a very interesting blog post from Derek Morrison which I found this morning which was largely about the attempts of the Newspaper industry to find ways of monetising the on-line news experience. There’s a lot of relevance for those of use working in learning technology.  I’ve taken a few quotations that piqued my interest and tried to see what relevance there might be for us in education. First up there’s a quote which really shows how  important it is to think differently when preparing on-line material for students.

Because the download of the Guardian is based on the printed version and because the specialist section is no longer in the printed version it’s only available in the online version! This is the same Guardian newspaper that trumpets its iPhone app and makes a charge for it. Some rapid rethinking of the business model is perhaps necessary here.

Well, yes. The lecture notes from a PowerPoint slide are not a lecture. (There I go making unconstructive remarks about PowerPoint again. Actually I think PP is a very  good presentation tool, but that’s all it is.)  My point is that just shoving such slides onto a VLE without any contextual information is largely unhelpful. We have to make an effort know what the students are failing to understand and tailor our material to correcting those misunderstandings.

If the press media wants to start charging for online content then it first of all needs to make it easy for us to know it exists and then make it easy for us to read it.

Oh Yes. Naming every link on the VLE  lecture 1, lecture 2, or worse “lecture notes from last week” is a very bad idea. Blackboard  certainly offers the opportunity to add metadata to virtually every content item, and if you’re using an open source tool like WordPressMU as a primary VLE, I’d urge that you familiarise yourself with tags.

We the end-users, the newspaper industry, and those developing smartphones would really benefit from some standards based approach to downloading such media content similar to what MP3 enables with audio.

Wouldn’t we though? Let’s face it, it took quite a long time for Universities to reconcile PCs and Macs on a single network. With students (not to mention staff)  turning up with all sorts of weird and wonderful devices I can see us looking fondly back on the Mac/PC thing as being but a minor skirmish.

my reading behaviour changed when using the iPhone in comparison to the paper product. By that I mean it was different rather than better or worse. One of the key advantages of the paper versions of newspapers and magazines is the ability to rapidly scan a relatively large information landscape and then focus on an item or article of interest. The visual real estate of a smartphone or device like the iPhone/iTouch is tiny by comparison.

Now that’s interesting. I used to  wonder if there is a difference between browsing a library shelf and searching a database. You could certainly pick up things from the books that were next to the book you were looking for. Yet, no library could possibly hold all the material a researcher needs, so you scan. If you do that with books and journals, I guess you probably do it with the documents themselves. So is there scope here for making documents scannable at a micro level. Is there something to be said for producing educational documents using some of the same principles that newspapers use to drag their readers’eyes to relevant parts of the page.

We should perhaps take note that when the majority of consumers are faced with such uncertainty their risk management strategies include “do nothing”.

Students too, I suspect!

Natives, immigrants, visitors or residents?

Digital, I mean.

I found a very interesting and thought provoking blog post from Dave White at Oxford today about the digital immigrants debate we hear so much of. I won’t rehash his post, which you can read here, but I thought there was much to be said for the distinction he makes. I have one further refinement to suggest though, because I don’t believe we can classify people so easily. I would argue that when I’m at work, I’m much closer to a resident in his terms because I spend most of my time on-line and do much of my job on the web. But at home, I’m much closer to a “visitor” (although I do “resident-like” things, such as booking holidays, on-line shopping and a little Internet banking from home.)

So perhaps the distinction isn’t that clear cut. I think most of our on-line activity is situated, that is determined by what we want or need to do, more so than by our personal preferences. (That’s probably true of most activity, come to think of it.) The implications for educational development are that we should perhaps think more about the learning situations we’re placing our learners in, rather than the affordances provided by technology. And, importantly we shouldn’t make assumptions about what “students” want.

Now comes the acid test!

I’ve been banging on about the virtues of e-portfolios for some time, and now I find myself in a situation where I might need them because all of a sudden I am under threat of redundancy. That is a little bit scary, as realistically I’m not the sort of age where a new job is going to be easy to find. But there is little value in panicking. While I might hope for the best, I shall certainly prepare for the worst and that’s where the e-portfolio comes in. I’ve been reviewing the three e-portfolios I’ve been using, Pebble Pad, Mahara and Linkedin and trying to make the decision as to which would be the best to help in my present situation. They all have their virtues. Pebble Pad is great at linking claims to evidence, and producing nicely printable CVs (Some employers, amazingly enough still want those!) Mahara is nice, user friendly and free, but I do think it needs a bit of development work yet. Linked in is good because of the social network it offers, and actually the public profile is rather good. (Don’t like the adverts when you’re editing it though! Perhaps I should shell out for an upgrade!) You can see my public Mahara profile by clicking the green icon in the “Web 2.0 portfolio” on the left. The Linkedin profile is here: –

View Julian Beckton's profile on LinkedIn

In a way the portfolios are working as a sort of comfort blanket, because faced with a job application, it’s relatively easy to mine the portfolio for data to fill in the application. Of course you still have to tailor your application to the post being advertised, but I think the e-portfolio does take out some of the grunt work of applications. Well, as I say in the header, now is when the theory gets put to the test! I shall keep you posted.

The other side of preparing for the worst is of course working out what you can cut from the household budget. Now that really is a depressing exercise!