February 25, 2017

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads

Image: Applift

Image: AppLift, 2015

You are probably, like me, getting tired of the different predictions for 2016. So I’m not going to do my usual look forward for the year for individual developments in online learning. Instead, I want to raise a fundamental question about which direction online learning should be heading in the future, because the next year could turn out to be very significant in determining the future of online learning.

The key question we face is whether online learning should aim to replace teachers and instructors through automation, or whether technology should be used to empower not only teachers but also learners. Of course, the answer will always be a mix of both, but getting the balance right is critical.

An old but increasingly important question

This question, automation or human empowerment, is not new. It was raised by B.F. Skinner (1968) when he developed teaching machines in the early 1960s. He thought teaching machines would eventually replace teachers. On the other hand, Seymour Papert (1980) wanted computing to empower learners, not to teach them directly. In the early 1980s Papert got children to write computer code to improve the way they think and to solve problems. Papert was strongly influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in particular that children constructed rather than absorbed knowledge.

In the 1980s, as personal computers became more common, computer-assisted learning (CAL or CAD) became popular, using computer-marked tests and early forms of adaptive learning. Also in the 1980s the first developments in artificial intelligence were applied, in the form of intelligent math tutoring. Great predictions were made then, as now, about the potential of AI to replace teachers.

Then along came the Internet. Following my first introduction to the Internet in a friend’s basement in Vancouver, I published an article in the first edition of the Journal of Distance Education, entitled ‘Computer-assisted learning or communications: which way for IT in distance education?’ (1986). In this paper I argued that the real value of the Internet and computing was to enable asynchronous interaction and communication between teacher and learners, and between learners themselves, rather than as teaching machines. This push towards a more constructivist approach to the use of computing in education was encapsulated in Mason and Kaye’s book, Mindweave (1989). Linda Harasim has since argued that online collaborative learning is an important theory of learning in its own right (Harasim, 2012).

In the 1990s, David Noble of York University attacked online learning in particular for turning universities into ‘Digital Diploma Mills’:

‘universities are not only undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education.’

Noble (1998) argued that

‘high technology, at these universities, is often used not to ……improve teaching and research, but to replace the visions and voices of less-prestigious faculty with the second-hand and reified product of academic “superstars”.

However, contrary to Noble’s warnings, for fifteen years most university online courses followed more the route of interaction and communication between teachers and students than computer-assisted learning or video lectures, and Noble’s arguments were easily dismissed or forgotten.

Then along came lecture capture and with it, in 2011, Massive Open Online Courses (xMOOCs) from Coursera, Udacity and edX, driven by elite, highly selective universities, with their claims of making the best professors in the world available to everyone for free. Noble’s nightmare suddenly became very real. At the same time, these MOOCs have resulted in much more interest in big data, learning analytics, a revival of adaptive learning, and claims that artificial intelligence will revolutionize education, since automation is essential for managing such massive courses.

Thus we are now seeing a big swing back to the automation of learning, driven by powerful computing developments, Silicon Valley start-up thinking, and a sustained political push from those that want to commercialize education (more on this later). Underlying these developments is a fundamental conflict of philosophies and pedagogies, with automation being driven by an objectivist/behaviourist view of the world, compared with the constructivist approaches of online collaborative learning.

In other words, there are increasingly stark choices to be made about the future of online learning. Indeed, it is almost too late – I fear the forces of automation are winning – which is why 2016 will be such a pivotal year in this debate.

Automation and the commercialization of education

These developments in technology are being accompanied by a big push in the United States, China, India and other countries towards the commercialization of online learning. In other words, education is being seen increasingly as a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is not through the previous and largely discredited digital diploma mills of the for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix that David Noble feared, but rather through the encouragement and support of commercial computer companies moving into the education field, companies such as Coursera, Lynda.com and Udacity.

Audrey Watters and EdSurge both produced lists of EdTech ‘deals’ in 2015 totalling between $1-$2 billion. Yes, that’s right, that’s $1-$2 billion in investment in private ed tech companies in the USA (and China) in one year alone. At the same time, entrepreneurs are struggling to develop sustainable business models for ed tech investment, because with education funded publicly, a ‘true’ market is restricted. Politicians, entrepreneurs and policy makers on the right in the USA increasingly see a move to automation as a way of reducing government expenditure on education, and one means by which to ‘free up the market’.

Another development that threatens the public education model is the move by very rich entrepreneurs such as the Gates, the Hewletts and the Zuckerbergs to move their massive personal wealth into ‘charitable’ foundations or corporations and use this money for their pet ‘educational’ initiatives that also have indirect benefits for their businesses. Ian McGugan (2015) in the Globe and Mail newspaper estimates that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is worth potentially $45 billion, and one of its purposes is to promote the personalization of learning (another name hi-jacked by computer scientists; it’s a more human way of describing adaptive learning). Since one way Facebook makes its money is by selling personal data, forgive my suspicions that the Zuckerberg initiative is a not-so-obvious way of collecting data on future high earners. At the same time, the Chang Zuckerberg initiative enables the Zuckerberg’s to avoid paying tax on their profits from Facebook. Instead then of paying taxes that could be used to support public education, these immensely rich foundations enable a few entrepreneurs to set the agenda for how computing will be used in education.

Why not?

Technology is disrupting nearly every other business and profession, so why not education? Higher education in particular requires a huge amount of money, mostly raised through taxes and tuition fees, and it is difficult to tie results directly to investment. Surely we should be looking at ways in which technology can change higher education so that it is more accessible, more affordable and more effective in developing the knowledge and skills required in today’s and tomorrow’s society?

Absolutely. It is not so much the need for change that I am challenging, but the means by which this change is being promoted. In essence, a move to automated learning, while saving costs, will not improve the learning that matters, and particularly the outcomes needed in a digital age, namely, the high level intellectual skills of critical thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, problem-solving , high-level multimedia communication, and above all, effective knowledge management.

To understand why automated approaches to learning are inappropriate to the needs of the 21st century we need to look particularly at the tools and methods being proposed.

The problems with automating learning

The main challenge for computer-directed learning such as information transmission and management through Internet-distributed video lectures, computer-marked assessments, adaptive learning, learning analytics, and artificial intelligence is that they are based on a model of learning that has limited applications. Behaviourism works well in assisting rote memory and basic levels of comprehension, but does not enable or facilitate deep learning, critical thinking and the other skills that are essential for learners in a digital age.

R. and D. Susskind (2015) in particular argue that there is a new age in artificial intelligence and adaptive learning driven primarily by what they call the brute force of more powerful computing. Why AI failed so dramatically in the 1980s, they argue, was because computer scientists tried to mimic the way that humans think, and computers then did not have the capacity to handle information in the way they do now. When however we use the power of today’s computing, it can solve previously intractable problems through analysis of massive amounts of data in ways that humans had not considered.

There are several problems with this argument. The first is that the Susskinds are correct in that computers operate differently from humans. Computers are mechanical and work basically on a binary operating system. Humans are biological and operate in a far more sophisticated way, capable of language creation as well as language interpretation, and use intuition as well as deductive thinking. Emotion as well as memory drives human behaviour, including learning. Furthermore humans are social animals, and depend heavily on social contact with other humans for learning. In essence humans learn differently from the way machine automation operates.

Unfortunately, computer scientists frequently ignore or are unaware of the research into human learning. In particular they are unaware that learning is largely developmental and constructed, and instead impose an old and less appropriate method of teaching based on behaviourism and an objectivist epistemology. If though we want to develop the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, we need a more constructivist approach to learning.

Supporters of automation also make another mistake in over-estimating or misunderstanding how AI and learning analytics operate in education. These tools reflect a highly objectivist approach to teaching, where procedures can be analysed and systematised in advance. However, although we know a great deal about learning in general, we still know very little about how thinking and decision-making operate biologically in individual cases. At the same time, although brain research is promising to unlock some of these secrets, most brain scientists argue that while we are beginning to understand the relationship between brain activity and very specific forms of behaviour, there is a huge distance to travel before we can explain how these mechanisms affect learning in general or how an individual learns in particular. There are too many variables (such as emotion, memory, perception, communication, as well as neural activity) at play to find an isomorphic fit between the firing of neurons and computer ‘intelligence’.

The danger then with automation is that we drive humans to learn in ways that best suit how machines operate, and thus deny humans the potential of developing the higher levels of thinking that make humans different from machines. For instance, humans are better than machines at dealing with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations, which is where we find ourselves in today’s society.

Lastly, both AI and adaptive learning depend on algorithms that predict or direct human behaviour. These algorithms though are not transparent to the end users. To give an example, learning analytics are being used to identify students at high risk of failure, based on correlations of previous behaviour online by previous students. However, for an individual, should a software program be making the decision as to whether that person is suitable for higher education or a particular course? If so, should that person know the grounds on which they are considered unsuitable and be able to challenge the algorithm or at least the principles on which that algorithm is based? Who makes the decision about these algorithms – a computer scientist using correlated data, or an educator concerned with equitable access? The more we try to automate learning, the greater the danger of unintended consequences, and the more need for educators rather than computer scientists to control the decision-making.

The way forward

In the past, I used to think of computer scientists as colleagues and friends in designing and delivering online learning. I am now increasingly seeing at least some of them as the enemy. This is largely to do with the hubris of Silicon Valley, which believes that computer scientists can solve any problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. MOOCs based on recorded lectures are a perfect example of this, being developed primarily by a few computer scientists from Stanford (and unfortunately blindly copied by many people in universities who should have known better.)

We need to start with the problem, which is how do we prepare learners for the knowledge and skills they will need in today’s society. I have argued (Bates, 2015) that we need to develop, in very large numbers of people, high level intellectual and practical skills that require the construction and development of knowledge, and that enable learners to find, analyse, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately.

This requires a constructivist approach to learning which cannot be appropriately automated, as it depends on high quality interaction between knowledge experts and learners. There are many ways to accomplish this, and technology can play a leading role, by enabling easy access to knowledge, providing opportunities for practice in experientially-based learning environments, linking communities of scholars and learners together, providing open access to unlimited learning resources, and above all by enabling students to use technology to access, organise and demonstrate their knowledge appropriately.

These activities and approaches do not easily lend themselves to massive economies of scale through automation, although they do enable more effective outcomes and possibly some smaller economies of scale. Automation can be helpful in developing some of the foundations of learning, such as basic comprehension or language acquisition. But at the heart of developing the knowledge and skills needed in today’s society, the role of a human teacher, instructor or guide will remain absolutely essential. Certainly, the roles of teachers and instructors will need to change quite dramatically, teacher training and faculty development will be critical for success, and we need to use technology to enable students to take more responsibility for their own learning, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that automation is the solution to learning in the 21st century.

Protecting the future

There are several practical steps that need to be taken to prevent the automation of teaching.

  1. Educators – and in particular university presidents and senior civil servants with responsibility for education – need to speak out clearly about the dangers of automation, and the technology alternatives available that still exploit its potential and will lead to greater cost-effectiveness. This is not an argument against the use of technology in education, but the need to use it wisely so we get the kind of educated population we need in the 21st century.
  2. Computer scientists need to show more respect to educators and be less arrogant. This means working collaboratively with educators, and treating them as equals.
  3. We – teachers and educational technologists – need to apply in our own work and disseminate better to those outside education what we already know about effective learning and teaching.
  4. Faculty and teachers need to develop compelling technology alternatives to automation that focus on the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, such as:
    • experiential learning through virtual reality (e.g. Loyalist College’s training of border service agents)
    • networking learners online with working professionals, to solve real world problems (e.g. by developing a program similar to McMaster’s integrated science program for online/blended delivery)
    • building strong communities of practice through connectivist MOOCs (e.g. on climate change or mental health) to solve global problems
    • empowering students to use social media to research and demonstrate their knowledge through multimedia e-portfolios (e.g. UBC’s ETEC 522)
    • designing openly accessible high quality, student-activated simulations and games but designed and monitored by experts in the subject area.
  5. Governments need to put as much money into research into learning and educational technology as they do into innovation in industry. Without better and more defensible theories of learning suitable for a digital age, we are open to any quack or opportunist who believes he or she has the best snake oil. More importantly, with better theory and knowledge of learning disseminated and applied appropriately, we can have a much more competitive workforce and a more just society.
  6. We need to educate our politicians about the dangers of commercialization in education through the automation of learning and fight for a more equal society where the financial returns on technology applications are more equally shared.
  7. Become edupunks and take back the web from powerful commercial interests by using open source, low cost, easy to use tools in education that protect our privacy and enable learners and teachers to control how they are used.

That should keep you busy in 2016.

Your views are of course welcome – unless you are a bot.


Bates, A. (1986) Computer assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education Vol. 1, No. 1

Bates, A. (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age Victoria BC: BCcampus

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Mason, R. and Kaye, A (Eds).(1989)  Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education. Oxford: Pergamon

McGugan, I. (2015)Why the Zuckerberg donation is not a bundle of joy, Globe and Mail, December 2

Noble, D. (1998) Digital Diploma Mills, Monthly Review http://monthlyreview.org/product/digital_diploma_mills/

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas New York: Basic Books

Skinner, B. (1968)  The Technology of Teaching, 1968 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Change the Work of Human Experts Oxford UK: Oxford University Press

Watters, A. (2015) The Business of EdTech, Hack Edu, undated http://2015trends.hackeducation.com/business.html

Winters, M. (2015) Christmas Bonus! US Edtech Sets Record With $1.85 Billion Raised in 2015 EdSurge, December 21 https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-12-21-christmas-bonus-us-edtech-sets-record-with-1-85-billion-raised-in-2015

Book review: A History of the Open University

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.

Last chapter of Teaching in a Digital Age now published

Books lots! 2

Chapter 12, Supporting teachers and instructors in a digital age, the last chapter of my online, open textbook for teachers and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age, is now published. It covers the following:



Section 12.7 is really a summary of the main points in the book, which I reproduce below as the key takeaways from the book.

I will do a separate post on Scenario G, which provides a possible future scenario for teaching in a digital age.

The book is by no means finished. I need to do some serious editing, but the book now exists in a form that can be used immediately for supporting faculty development, or for teachers and instructors interested in improving their teaching.


Key Takeaways

1. There is increasing pressure from employers, the business community, learners themselves, and also from  a significant number of educators, for learners to develop the type of knowledge and the kinds of skills that they will need in a digital age.

2. The knowledge and skills needed in a digital age, where all ‘content’ will be increasingly and freely available over the Internet, requires graduates with expertise in:

  • knowledge management (the ability to find, evaluate and appropriately apply knowledge),
  • IT knowledge and skills,
  • inter-personal communication skills, including the appropriate use of social media
  • independent and lifelong learning skills
  • a range of intellectual skills, including
    • knowledge construction
    • reasoning
    • critical analysis,
    • problem-solving,
    • creativity
  • collaborative learning and teamwork
  • multi-tasking and flexibility.

These are all skills that are relevant to any subject domain, and need to be embedded within that domain. With such skills, graduates will be better prepared for a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

3. To develop such knowledge and skills, teachers and instructors need to set clear learning outcomes and select teaching methods  that will support the development of such knowledge and skills, and, since all skills require practice and feedback to develop, learners must be given ample opportunity to practice such skills. This requires moving away from a model of information transmission to greater student engagement, more learner-centred teaching, and new methods of assessment that measure skills as well as mastery of content.

4. Because of the increased diversity of students, from full-time campus-based learners to lifelong learners already with high levels of post-secondary education to learners who have slipped through the formal school system and need second-chance opportunities, and because of the capacity of new information technologies to provide learning at any time and any place, a much wider range of modes of delivery are needed, such as campus-based teaching, blended or hybrid learning and fully online courses and programs, both in formal and in non-formal settings.

5. The move to blended, hybrid and online learning and a greater use of learning technologies offers more options and choices for teachers and instructors. In order to use these technologies well, teachers and instructors require not only to know the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of technology, but also need to have a good grasp of how students learn best. This requires knowing about

  • the research into teaching and learning,
  • different theories of learning related to different concepts of knowledge (epistemology),
  • different methods of teaching and their strengths and weaknesses.

Without this basic foundation, it is difficult for teachers and instructors to move away from the only model that many are familiar with, namely the lecture and discussion model, which is limited in terms of developing the knowledge and skills required in a digital age.

6. The challenge is particularly acute in universities. There is no requirement to have any training or qualification in teaching to work in a university in most Western countries. Nevertheless teaching will take up a minimum of 40 per cent of a faculty member’s time, and much more for many adjunct or contract faculty or full time college instructors. However, the same challenge remains, to a lesser degree, for school teachers and college instructors: how to ensure that already experienced professionals have the knowledge and skills required to teach well in a digital age.

7. Institutions can do much to facilitate or impede the development of the knowledge and skills required in a digital age. They need to

  • ensure that all levels of teaching and instructional staff have adequate training in the new technologies and methods of teaching necessary for the development of the knowledge and skills required in a digital age
  • ensure that there is adequate learning technology support for teachers and instructors
  • ensure that conditions of employment and in particular class size enable teaching and instructional staff to teach in the ways that will develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age
  • develop a practical and coherent institutional strategy to support he kind of teaching needed in a digital age.

8. Although governments, institutions and learners themselves can do a great deal to ensure success in teaching and learning, in the end the responsibility and to some extent the power to change lies within teachers and instructors themselves.

9. It will be the imagination of teachers inventing new ways of teaching that will eventually result in the kinds of graduates the world will need in the future

 Your turn

I’m now in the final editing stages. The book will be available for review and I will be approaching some of the leading experts in this area to do a full critique and suggestions for improvement. But now is your chance. If you have:

  • criticisms of what I’ve written
  • suggestions for adding things that I missed
  • suggestions for improvements to content
  • suggestions for improvements to the open textbook format
  • any other comments, negative or positive

about the whole book, please let me know.







































Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of social media

Figure Image: swilmarth (via Flickr)

Figure Image: swilmarth (via Flickr)

Social media are still in a very volatile state of development, and many faculty worry about the negative aspects of students who are continually ‘on’ or obsessed with social media. At the same time, there are exciting developments and future possibilities for the intelligent use of social media in education, which are explored in this post.

Although social media are mainly Internet-based and hence a sub-category of computing, there are enough significant differences between educational social media use and computer-based learning or online collaborative learning to justify treating social media as a separate medium, although of course they are dependent and often fully integrated with other forms of computing. We shall see that the main difference is in the extent of control over learning that social media offer to learners. What are social media?

Around 2005, a new range of web tools began to find their way into general use, and increasingly into educational use. These can be loosely described as social media, as they reflect a different culture of web use from the former “centre-to-periphery” push of institutional web sites.

Here are some of the tools and their uses (there are many more possible examples: click on each example for an educational application):

Type of tool  Example  Application
Blogs Stephen’s WebOnline Learning and Distance Education Resources  Allows an individual to make regular postings to the web, e.g. a personal diary or an analysis of current events
Wikis WikipediaUBC’s Math Exam Resources  An “open” collective publication, allowing people to contribute or create a body of information
Social networking FaceBookLinkedIn  A social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and interact with them
Multi-media archives PodcastsYou-TubeFlikriTunes U


MIT Open CourseWare

 Allows end users to access, store, download and share audio recordings, photographs, and videos
Virtual worlds Second Life  Real-time semi-random connection/ communication with virtual sites and people
Multi-player games Lord of the Rings Online  Enables players to compete or collaborate against each other or a third party/parties represented by the computer, usually in real time
Mobile learning Mobile phones and apps  Enables users to access multiple information formats (voice, text, video, etc.) at any time, any place

 Figure Examples of social media (adapted from Bates, 2011, p.25)

The main feature of social media is that they empower the end user to access, create, disseminate and share information easily in a user-friendly, open environment. Usually the only cost is the time of the end-user. There are often few controls over content, other than those normally imposed by a state or government (such as libel or pornography), or where there are controls, they are imposed by the users themselves. One feature of such tools is to empower the end-user – the learner or customer – to self-access and manage data (such as online banking) and to form personal networks (for example through FaceBook). For these reasons, some have called social media the “democratization” of the web.

In general social media tools are based on very simple software, in that they have relatively few lines of code. As a result, new tools and applications (‘apps’) are constantly emerging, and their use is either free or very low cost. For a good overview of the use of social media in education, see Lee and McCoughlin (2011). The affordances of social media

Commentators on social media have in particular pushed the concept of affordances. McLoughlin & Lee (2011) identify the following categories of  general ‘affordances’ associated with social media (although they use the term web 2.0):

  • Connectivity and social rapport
  • Collaborative information discovery and sharing
  • Content creation
  • Knowledge and information aggregation and content modification (Burden and Atkinson)

However, we need to specify more directly the unique pedagogical characteristics of social media: Presentational characteristics

Social media enable:

  • networked multimedia communication between self-organising groups of learners
  • access to rich, multimedia content available over the Internet at any time or place (with Internet connection)
  • learner-generated multimedia materials
  • opportunities to expand learning beyond ‘closed’ courses and institutional boundaries Skills development

Social media,when well designed within an educational framework, can help with the development of the following skills (click on each to see examples):

It can be seen that social media can be extremely useful for developing some of the key skills needed in a digital age. Strengths and weaknesses of social media

Figure presents a diagrammatic analysis of various e-learning tools. I have arranged them primarily by where they fit along an epistemological continuum of objectivist, constructivist and connectivist (colour coded), but also I have used two other dimensions, teacher control/learner control, and credit/non-credit. Note that this figure also enables traditional teaching modes, such as lectures and seminars, to be included and compared.

Figure Analysis of social media from an educational perspective (adapted from Bates, 2011)

Figure Analysis of social media from an educational perspective (adapted from Bates, 2011)

Figure represents a personal interpretation of the tools, and other teachers or instructors may well re-arrange the diagram differently, depending on their particular applications of these tools. The position of any particular tool in the diagram will depend on its actual use. Learning management systems can be used in a constructivist way, and blogs can be very teacher-controlled, if the teacher is the only one permitted to use a blog on a course. However, the aim here is not to provide a cast-iron categorization of e-learning tools, but to provide a framework for teachers in deciding which tools are most likely to suit a particular teaching approach. Indeed, other teachers may prefer a different set of pedagogical values as a framework for analysis of the different tools.

However, to give an example from Figure, a teacher may use an LMS to organize a set of resources, guidelines, procedures and deadlines for students, who then may use several of the social media, such as photos from mobile phones to collect data. The teacher provides a space and structure on the LMS for students’ learning materials in the form of an e-portfolio, to which students can load their work. Students in small groups can use discussion forums or FaceBook to work on projects together.

It can be seen that social media now enable teachers to set online group work, based on cases or projects, and students can collect data in the field, without any need for direct face-to-face contact with either the teacher or other students. Learners can access learning materials through open content, and also access other experts on a topic through the experts’ web sites, and learners can post media-rich assignments either individually or as a group. These assignments when assessed can be loaded by the learner into their own personal learning environment for later use when seeking employment or transfer to graduate school.

The example above is in the framework of a course for credit, but the framework would also fit the non-institutional or informal approach to the use of social media for learning, with a focus on tools such as FaceBook, blogs and YouTube. These applications would be much more learner driven, with the learner deciding on the tools and their uses. The most powerful examples are connectivist or cMOOCs, as we saw in Chapter 7.

However, many students are not, at least initially, independent learners (see Candy, 1991). Many students come to a learning task without the necessary skills or confidence to study independently from scratch (Moore and Thompson, 1990). They need structured support, structured and selected content, and recognized accreditation. The advent of new tools that give students more control over their learning will not necessarily change their need for a structured educational experience. However, learners can be taught the skills needed to become independent learners (Moore, 1973; Marshall and Rowland, 1993). The new tools will make this learning of how to learn much more effective but still only in most cases within an initially structured environment.

The use of social media raises the inevitable issue of quality. How can learners differentiate between reliable, accurate, authoritative information, and inaccurate, biased or unsubstantiated information, if they are encouraged to roam free? What are the implications for expertise and specialist knowledge, when everyone has a view on everything? As Andrew Keen (2007) has commented, ‘we are replacing the tyranny of experts with the tyranny of idiots.’ Not all information is equal, nor are all opinions. Many students look for structure and guidance, and it is the responsibility of teachers to provide it. We therefore need a middle ground between the total authority and control of the teacher, and the complete anarchy of the children roaming free on a desert island in the novel “Lord of the Flies” (Golding, 1954). Social media allow for such a middle ground, but only if as teachers we have a clear pedagogy or educational philosophy to guide our choices and use of the technology. Summary

In summary:

  • learners now have powerful tools through social media for creating their own learning materials or for demonstrating their knowledge.
  • courses can be structured around individual students’ interests, allowing them to seek appropriate content and resources to support the development of negotiated competencies or learning outcomes.
  • content is now increasingly open and freely available over the Internet; as a result learners can seek, use and apply information beyond the bounds of what a professor or teacher may dictate.
  • students can create their own online personal learning environments
  • many students will still need a structured approach that guides their learning
  • teacher presence and guidance is likely to be necessary to ensure high quality learning via social media
  • there is though a middle ground between complete freedom and overdirection that can enable the development of the key skills needed in a digital age.

The use of social media for learning thus represents a major power shift from teachers to learners.

Activity 9.5.5

1. Take one of your courses, and analyse how social media could be used in your course. In particular:

  • What new learning outcomes could the use of social media help develop?
  • Would it be better just to add social media to the course or to re-design it around social media?

2. I have offered only a cursory list of the unique pedagogical characteristics of social media. Can you think of others that have not already been covered in other parts of this chapter?

3. How does this chapter influence your views on students bringing their own device to class?

4. Are you (still) skeptical about the value of social media in education? What do you see as its downsides?

Please use the comment box to share your answers.

This is the last of five posts on the unique pedagogical characteristics of different media. The other four posts were:

This post will be followed by a short section on deciding about media.


Comments again will be most welcome. In particular:

  • can you suggest other unique characteristics of social media?
  • does Figure work for you? How would you ‘place’ social media in context with other media?
  • examples, please: I’m looking for good examples that illustrate these unique features – or other unique characteristics I haven’t considered
  • is this the place to discuss personal learning environments? (Probably!).  However, it seems to me they deserve a section of their own, maybe under design. Any thoughts on this would be welcome
  • lastly, does it make any sense to differentiate between media these days? After all, isn’t everything multimedia now?


Bates, T. (2011) ‘Understanding Web 2.0 and Its Implications for e-Learning’ in Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds.) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning Hershey NY: Information Science Reference

Candy, P. (1991) Self-direction for lifelong learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Golding, W. (1954) The Lord of the Flies London: Faber and Faber

Keen, A. (2007) The Cult of the Amateur: how Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture New York/London: Doubleday

Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds.) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning Hershey NY: Information Science Reference

Marshall, L and Rowland, F. (1993) A Guide to learning independently Buckingham UK: Open University Press

McCoughlin, C. and Lee, M. (2011) ‘Pedagogy 2.0: Critical Challenges and Responses to Web 2.0 and Social Software in Tertiary Teaching’, in Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds.) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning Hershey NY: Information Science Reference

Moore, M. and Thompson, M. (1990) The Effects of Distance Education: A Summary of the Literature University Park, PA: American Center for Distance Education, Pennsylvania State University

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of video

Figure 9. The Open University on iTunesU

Figure 9. The Open University on iTunesU

This is the third post on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Although it will be seen that there are good pedagogical reasons for using video, it presents much more of a challenge to faculty than the use of text or audio. Producing video that exploits the unique characteristics of video is not something that most faculty have the time or ability to do themselves, and adds substantial cost to a course.

The alternative of course is video available as an open educational resources, and good luck with that. I had great difficulty in finding suitable open educational resources to use as examples (although there are talking heads in abundance). If anything, the availability of good quality video OERs has declined recently, with much of the material previously available through Open Learn and other sources such as iTunesU and even YouTube now removed. Copyright of good quality educational video is still pretty restricted, probably because of the high cost of producing it.

Reliability of OERs is becoming a critically important issue. If an instructor cannot rely on an OER being available in a year or two after incorporation into their teaching, OERs won’t get used. Maybe this is after all a good reason for learning object repositories.

Ideally, I would like to be able to link each one of these unique features to an open source video example. After two days trawling, I’ve come up with one (thank you, University of Nottingham, and Clint Lalonde for suggesting it!) So any suggestions for ‘open’ videos that provide examples for each of the characteristics below would be really appreciated. (Yes, I know I should ask a librarian, but I’m working on my own these days).

More power, more complexity

Although there have been massive changes in video technology over the last 25 years, resulting in dramatic reductions in the costs of both creating and distributing video, the unique educational characteristics are largely unaffected. (More recent computer-generated media such as simulations, will be analysed under ‘Computing’, in Section 9.5.4).

Video is a much richer medium than either text or audio, as in addition to its ability to offer text and sound, it can also offer dynamic or moving pictures. Thus while it can offer all the affordances of audio, and some of text, it also has unique pedagogical characteristics of its own. Once again, there has been considerable research on the use of video in education, and again I will be drawing on research from the Open University (Bates, 1985 2005; Koumi, 2006) as well as from Mayer (2009).

Presentational features

Video can be used to:

  • demonstrate experiments or experimental situations, particularly:
  • illustrate principles involving dynamic change or movement
  • illustrate abstract principles through the use of specially constructed physical models
  • illustrate principles involving three-dimensional space
  • demonstrate changes over time through the use of animation, slow-motion, or speeded-up video
  • substitute for a field visit, by:
    • providing students with an accurate, comprehensive visual picture of a site, in order to place the topic under study in context
    • demonstrating the relationship between different elements of a system under study (e.g. production processes, ecological balance)
    • by identifying and distinguishing between different classes or categories of phenomena at the site (e.g. in forest ecology)
    • to observe differences in scale and process between laboratory and mass-production techniques
    • through the use of models, animations or simulations, to teach certain advanced scientific or technological concepts (such as theories of relativity or quantum physics) without students having to master highly advanced mathematical techniques,
  • bring students primary resource or case-study material, i.e. recording of naturally occurring events which, through editing and selection, demonstrate or illustrate principles covered elsewhere in a course
  • demonstrate ways in which abstract principles or concepts developed elsewhere in the course have been applied to real-world problems
  • synthesise a wide range of variables into a single recorded event, e.g. to suggest how real world problems can be resolved
  • demonstrate decision-making processes or decisions ‘in action’ (e.g. triage in an emergency situation) by:
    • recording the decision-making process as it occurs in real contexts
    • recording ‘staged’ simulations, dramatisation or role-playing
  • demonstrate correct procedures in using tools or equipment (including safety procedures)
  • demonstrate methods or techniques of performance (e.g. mechanical skills such as stripping and re-assembling a carburetor, sketching, drawing or painting techniques, or dance)
  • record and archive events that are crucial to topics in a course, but which may disappear or be destroyed in the near future, such as, for instance, street graffiti or condemned buildings
  • demonstrate practical activities to be carried out by students, on their own.

Skills development

This usually requires the video to be integrated with student activities. The ability to stop, rewind and replay video becomes crucial for skills development, as student activity usually takes place separately from the actual viewing of the video. This may mean thinking through carefully activities for students related to the use of video.

If video is not used directly for lecturing, research clearly indicates that students generally need to be guided as to what to look for in video, at least initially in their use of video for learning. There are various techniques for relating concrete events with abstract principles, such as through audio narration, using a still frame to highlight the observation, or repeating a small section of the program. Bates and Gallagher (1977) found that using video for developing higher order analysis or evaluation was a teachable skill that needs to be built into the development of a course or program, to get the best results.

Typical uses of video for skills development include:

  • enabling students to recognize naturally occurring phenomena or classifications (e.g. teaching strategies, symptoms of mental illness, classroom behaviour) in context
  • enabling students to analyse a situation, using principles either introduced in the video recording or covered elsewhere in the course, such as a textbook or lecture
  • interpreting artistic performance (e.g. drama, spoken poetry, movies, paintings, sculpture, or other works of art)
  • analysis of music composition, through the use of musical performance, narration and graphics
  • testing the applicability or relevance of abstract concepts or generalisations in real world contexts
  • looking for alternative explanations for real world phenomena.

Strengths and weaknesses of video as a teaching medium

One factor that makes video powerful for learning is its ability to show the relationship between concrete examples and abstract principles, with usually the sound track relating the abstract principles to concrete events shown in the video. Video is particularly useful for recording events or situations where it would be too difficult, dangerous, expensive or impractical to bring students to such events.

Thus its main strengths are as follows:

  • linking concrete events and phenomena to abstract principles and vice versa
  • the ability of students to stop and start, so they can integrate activities with video
  • provides alternative approaches that can help students having difficulties in learning abstract concepts
  • adds substantial interest to a course by linking it to real world issues
  • a growing amount of freely available, high quality academic videos
  • good for developing some of the higher level intellectual skills and some of the more practical skills needed in a digital age
  • the use of low cost cameras and free editing software enables some forms of video to be cheaply produced.

The main weaknesses of video are:

  • many faculty have no knowledge or experience in using video other than for recording lecturing
  • there is currently a very limited amount of high quality educational video free for downloading, because the cost of developing high quality educational video that exploits the unique characteristics of the medium is still relatively high. Links also often go dead after a while, affecting the reliability of outsourced video. The availability of free material for educational use will improve over time, but currently finding appropriate and free videos that meet the specific needs of a teacher or instructor can be time-consuming or such material may just not be available or reliable
  • creating original material that exploits the unique characteristics of video is time-consuming, and still relatively expensive, because it usually needs professional video production
  • to get the most out of educational video, students need specially designed activities that sit outside the video itself
  • students often reject videos that require them to do analysis or interpretation; they often prefer direct instruction that focuses primarily on comprehension. Such students need to be trained to use video differently, which requires time to be devoted to developing such skills.

For these reasons, video is not being used enough education. When used it is often an afterthought or an ‘extra’, rather than an integral part of the design, or is used merely to replicate a classroom lecture, rather than exploiting the unique characteristics of video.


If video is being used to develop the skills outlined in Section, then it is essential that these skills are assessed and count for grading. Indeed, one possible means of assessment might be to ask students to analyse or interpret a selected video, or even to develop their own media project, using video they themselves have collected or produced, using their own devices.

Activity 9.4

1. Take one of the courses you are teaching. What key presentational aspects of video could be important for this course?

2. Look at the skills listed in Section 1.3 of this book. Which of these skills would best be developed through the use of video rather than other media? How would you do this using video-based teaching?

3. Under what conditions would it be more appropriate for students to be assessed by asking them to analyse or make their own video recording? How could this be done under assessment conditions?

4. Type in the name of your topic + video into Google.

  • How many videos come up?
  • What’s their quality like?
  • Could you use any of them in your teaching?
  • If so, how would you integrate them into your course?
  • Could you make a better video on the topic?
  • What would enable you to do this?

Here are some criteria I would apply to what you find:

  • it is relevant to what you want to teach
  • it demonstrates clearly a particular topic or subject and links it to what the student is intended to learn
  • it is short and to the point
  • the example is well produced (clear camera work, good presenter, clear audio)
  • it provides something that I could not do easily myself
  • it is freely available for non-commercial use

I have to say that most of the examples I found on the Internet do NOT meet all of these criteria! The videos I have linked to in this section do, but then some are produced for the Open University. Can traditional university in-house media departments meet this standard?


1. Are there other characteristics unique to video that I’ve missed?

2. Is this the best way to approach this topic? (I accept I need lots more examples in video format). Will this approach to choosing/ using video be helpful for faculty?

3. Any examples of using video for assessment?

4. What do you think of the principles I suggested for selecting video OERs in the activity?  Can traditional university in-house media departments meet this standard in producing OERs, or is it just too expensive to make these kinds of video?

5. Any other suggested references?


Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Koumi, J. (2006). Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning. London: Routledge.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.