January 26, 2015

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of social media

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Figure 5.5.5.1 Image: swilmarth (via Flickr)

Figure 5.5.5.1 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.

9.5.5.1 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

e-portfolios

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 9.5.5.1 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).

9.5.5.2 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:

9.5.5.3 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

9.5.5.4 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.

9.5.5.5 Strengths and weaknesses of social media

Figure 9.5.5.5 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 9.5.5.5 Analysis of social media from an educational perspective (adapted from Bates, 2011)

Figure 9.5.5.5 Analysis of social media from an educational perspective (adapted from Bates, 2011)

Figure 9.5.5.5 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 9.5.5.5, 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.

9.5.5.6 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.

Feedback

Comments again will be most welcome. In particular:

  • can you suggest other unique characteristics of social media?
  • does Figure 9.5.5.5 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?

References

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 text and print

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There's nothing like a good book - or is there?

There’s nothing like a good book – or is there?

This is the first of several posts on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. I’m starting with text, because it is – or perhaps more accurately, has been – fundamental to the development of academic knowledge. However, writing about its unique pedagogical features is rather like asking a fish to describe water. We are so immersed in text in academia that it is hard to imagine studying without texts to read and learn from.

However, with the increasing availability of other media, what is so special about text? How does it differ from other media? I have found writing about this particularly difficult. I have lots of empirical evidence on the pedagogical influences of audio, video and computing, but almost nothing on text, because in a sense it is the default medium for academic learning, the base against which other media tend to be judged. Now much has been published on what makes for good writing, and even what makes for good academic writing, but that is different from asking what can text do for learning that is unique from other media.

As a result, the following section strikes me as being rather unacademic, more of an opinion piece than an empirically supported and theoretically based account of the strengths and weaknesses of text as a teaching medium. So please bear this in mind when reading it, and if you have suggestions for improving it, or other work of which I should be aware, please provide feedback.

The unique pedagogical features of text

Ever since the invention of the Gutenberg press, print has been a dominant teaching technology, arguably at least as influential as the spoken word of the teacher. Even today, textbooks, mainly in printed format, but increasingly also in digital format, still play a major role in formal education, training and distance education. Many fully online courses still make extensive use of text-based learning management systems and online asynchronous discussion forums.

Why is this? What makes text such a powerful teaching medium, and will it remain so, given the latest developments in information technology?

In essence, I am arguing that the unique pedagogical characteristics of text are as follows:

  • text is particularly good at handling abstraction and generalisation, mainly through written language
  • text enables the linear sequencing of information in a structured format
  • text can present and separate empirical evidence or data from the abstractions, conclusions or generalisations derived from the empirical evidence
  • text’s linear structure enables the development of coherent, sequential argument or discussion
  • at the same time text can relate evidence to argument and vice versa
  • text’s recorded and permanent nature enables independent analysis and critique of its content

There is some overlap of each of these features with other media, but no other medium combines all these characteristics, or is as powerful as text with respect to these characteristics.

Text can come in many formats, including printed textbooks, text messages, novels, magazines, newspapers, scribbled notes, journal articles, essays, novels, online asynchronous discussions and so on. I want to focus particularly on the role of the book, because of its centrality in academic learning.

The book and knowledge

Earlier (Chapter 2, Section 2.4,) I argued that academic knowledge is a specific form of knowledge that has characteristics that differentiate it from other kinds of knowledge, and particularly from knowledge or beliefs based solely on direct personal experience. Academic knowledge is a second-order form of knowledge that seeks abstractions and generalizations based on reasoning and evidence.

Fundamental components of academic knowledge are:

  • codification: knowledge can be consistently represented in some form (words, symbols, video)
  • transparency: the source of the knowledge can be traced and verified
  • reproduction: knowledge can be reproduced or have multiple copies
  • communicability: knowledge must be in a form such that it can be communicated and challenged by others.

The book has proved to be a remarkably powerful medium for the development and transmission of academic knowledge, since it meets all four criteria above, but to what extent can new media such as blogs, wikis, multimedia, and social media replace the book in academic knowledge? New media can in fact handle just as well some of these criteria, and provide indeed added value, such as speed of reproduction and ubiquity, but the book still has some unique qualities. A key advantage of a book is that it allows for the development of a sustained, coherent, and comprehensive argument with evidence to support the argument. Blogs can do this only to a limited extent (otherwise they cease to be blogs and become articles or a digital book).

Quantity is important sometimes and books allow for the collection of a great deal of evidence and supporting argument, and allow for a wider exploration of an issue or theme, within a relatively condensed and portable format. A consistent and well supported argument, with evidence, alternative explanations or even counter positions, requires the extra ‘space’ of a book. Above all, books can provide coherence or a sustained, particular position or approach to a problem or issue, a necessary balance to the chaos and confusion of the many new forms of digital media that constantly compete for our attention, but in much smaller ‘chunks’ that are overall more difficult to integrate and digest.

Another important academic feature of text is that it can be carefully scrutinised, analysed and constantly checked, partly because it is largely linear, and also permanent once published, enabling more rigorous challenge or testing in terms of evidence, rationality, and consistency. Multimedia in recorded format can come close to meeting these criteria, but text can also provide more convenience and in media terms, more simplicity. For instance I repeatedly find analysing video, which incorporates many variables and symbol systems, more complex than analysing a linear text, even if both contain equally rigorous (or equally sloppy) arguments.

Form and function

Does the form or technological representation of a book matter any more? Is a book still a book if downloaded and read on an iPad or Kindle, rather than as printed text?

For the purposes of knowledge acquisition, it probably isn’t any different. Indeed, for study purposes, a digital version is probably more convenient because carrying an iPad around with maybe hundreds of books downloaded on it is certainly preferable to carrying around the printed versions of the same books. There are still complaints by students about the difficulties of annotating e-books, but this will almost certainly become a standard feature available for e-books in the future.

If the whole book is downloaded, then the function of a book doesn’t change much just because it is available digitally. However, there are some subtle changes. Some would argue that scanning is still easier with a printed version. Have you ever had the difficulty of finding a particular quotation in a digital book compared with the printed version? Sure, you can use the search facility, but that means knowing exactly the correct words or the name of the person being quoted. With a printed book, I can often find a quotation just by flicking the pages, because I am using context and rapid eye scanning to locate the source, even when I don’t know exactly what I am looking for. On the other hand, searching when you do know what you are looking for (e.g. a reference by a particular author) is much easier digitally.

The other thing that happens when books are digitally available is that often, users can download only the selected chapters that are of interest to them. This is valuable if you know just what you want, but there are also dangers. For instance in my book on the strategic management of technology, the last chapter summarizes the rest of the book. If the book had been digital, the temptation then would be to just download the final chapter. You’d have all the important messages in the book, right? Well, no. What you would be missing is the evidence for the conclusions. Now the book on strategic management is based on case studies, so it would be really important to check back with how the case studies were interpreted to get to the conclusions, as this will affect the confidence you would have as a reader in the conclusions that were drawn. If just the digital version of only the last chapter is downloaded, you also lose the context of the whole book. Having the whole book gives readers more freedom to interpret and add their own conclusions than just having a summary chapter.

In conclusion, then, there are advantages and disadvantages of digitizing a book, but the essence of a book is not greatly changed when it becomes digital rather than printed.

A new niche for books in academia

We have seen historically that new media often do not entirely replace an older medium, but the old medium finds a new ‘niche’. Thus television did not lead to the complete demise of radio. Similarly, I suspect that there will be a continued role for the book in academic knowledge, enabling the book (whether digital or printed) to thrive alongside new media and formats in academia.

However, books that retain their value academically will likely need to be much more specific in their format and their purpose than has been the case to date. For instance, I see the end of books consisting mainly of a collection of loosely connected but semi-independent chapters from different authors, unless there is a strong cohesion and edited presence that provides an integrated argument or consistent set of data across all the chapters. Most of all, books may need to change some of their features, to allow for more interaction and input from readers, and more links to the outside world. It is much more unlikely though that books will survive in a printed format, because digital publication allows for many more features to be added, reduces the environmental footprint, and is much more portable and transferable.

Lastly, this is not an argument for ignoring the academic benefits of new media. The value of graphics, video and animation for representing knowledge, the ability to interact asynchronously with other learners, and the value of social networks, are all under-exploited in academia. But text and books are still important.

For another perspective on this, see Clive Shepherd’s blog: Weighing up the benefits of traditional book publishing

Text and other forms of knowledge

I have focused particularly on text and academic knowledge, because of the traditional importance of text and printed knowledge in academia. The unique pedagogical characteristics of text though may be less for other forms of knowledge. Indeed, multimedia may have many more advantages in vocational and technical education, as we shall see.

In the k-12 or school sector, text and print are likely to remain important, because reading and writing are likely to remain important – perhaps even more important – in a digital age, so the study of text (digital and printed) will remain important if only for developing literacy skills.

More evidence, please

Although there has been extensive research on the pedagogical features of other media such as audio, video and computing, text has generally been treated as the default mode, the base against which other media are compared. As a result print in particular is largely taken for granted in academia. We are now though at the stage where we need to pay much more attention to the unique characteristics of text in its various formats, in relation to other media. Until though we have more empirical studies on the unique characteristics of text and print, it would be unwise to reject the value of text for academic learning.

Feedback

I am so unsure about this section I am tempted to publish it as ‘Still under construction.’ Ideally, I’d like to link this section to a better source, as I feel it is so inadequate. So if you are in a position to offer any help or suggestions, I will be extremely grateful, as will readers of the book.

Up next

The unique pedagogical characteristics of audio.

Are rich media better than single media in online learning?

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Armando Hasudungan's Bacteria (Structure) YouTube video

Armando Hasudungan’s Bacteria (Structure) YouTube video

First of all, a happy New Year to everyone from almost the last place on earth to come into 2015. This is a discussion of the last characteristic or dimension of media and technology that influence teaching and learning for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. It is also an important characteristic, more easy to define than the previous one (interactivity).

The historical development of media richness

In Section 8.2, ‘A short history of educational technology’, the development of different media in education was outlined, beginning with oral teaching and learning, moving on to written or textual communication, then to video, and finally computing. Each of these means of communication have usually been accompanied by an increase in the richness of the medium, in terms of how many senses and interpretative abilities are needed to process information. Another way of defining the richness of media is by the symbol systems employed to communicate through the medium. Thus textual material from an early stage incorporated graphics and drawings as well as words. Television or video incorporates audio as well as still and moving images. Computing now can incorporate text, audio, video, animations, simulations, computing, and networking, all through the Internet.

The continuum of media richness

Figure 8.  The continuum of media richness

Figure 8. The continuum of media richness

Once again then there is a continuum in terms of media richness, as illustrated in Figure 8. above. Also once again, design of a particular medium can influence where on the continuum it would be placed. For instance in Figure 8.1, different forms of teaching using video are represented in blue. Ted Talks are usually mainly talking heads, a televised lecture, as are often xMOOCs (but not all). The Khan Academy uses dynamic graphics as well as voice over commentary, and Armando Hasudungan’s You Tube video on the structure of bacteria uses hand drawings as well as voice over commentary. Educational TV broadcasts are likely to use an even wider range of video techniques.

However, although the richness of video can be increased or decreased by the way it is used, video is always going to be richer in media terms than radio or textbooks. Radio is never going to be a rich medium in terms of its symbols systems, and even talking head video is richer symbolically than radio. Again, there is no normative or evaluative judgment here. Radio can be ‘rich’ in the sense of fully exploiting the characteristics or symbol systems of the medium. A well produced radio program is more likely to be educationally effective than a badly produced video. But in terms of representation of knowledge, the possibilities of radio in terms of media richness will always be less than the possibilities of video.

The educational value of media richness

But how rich should media be for teaching and learning? From a teaching perspective, rich media have advantages over a single medium of communication, because rich media enable the teacher to do more. For example, many activities that previously required learners to be present at a particular time and place to observe processes or procedures such as demonstrating mathematical reasoning, experiments, medical procedures, or stripping a carburetor, can now be recorded and made available to learners to view at any time. Sometimes, phenomena that are too expensive or too difficult to show in a classroom can be shown through animation, simulations, video recordings or virtual reality. Furthermore, each learner can get the same view as all the other learners, and can view the process many times until they have mastery. Good preparation before recording can ensure that the processes are demonstrated correctly and clearly. The combination of voice over video enables learning through multiple senses. Even simple combinations, such as the use of audio over a sequence of still frames in a text, have been found more effective than learning through a single medium of communication (see for instance, Durbridge, 1984). The Khan Academy videos have exploited very effectively the power of audio combined with dynamic graphics. Computing adds another element of richness, in the ability to network learners or to respond to learner input.

From a learner’s perspective, though, some caution is needed with rich media. Two particularly important concepts are cognitive overload and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Cognitive overload results when students are presented with too much information at too complex a level or too quickly for them to properly absorb it (Sweller, 1988). Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what can be done with help. Rich media may contain a great deal of information compressed into a very short time period and its value will depend to a large extent on the learner’s level of preparation for interpreting it. For instance, a documentary video may be valuable for demonstrating the complexity of human behaviour or complex industrial systems, but learners may need either preparation in terms of what to look for, or to identify concepts or principles that may be illustrated within the documentary. On the other hand, interpretation of rich media is a skill that can be explicitly taught through demonstration and examples (Bates and Gallagher, 1977). Although YouTube videos are limited in length to around eight minutes mainly for technical reasons, they are also more easily absorbed than a continuous video of 50 minutes. Thus again design is important for helping learners to make full educational use of rich media.

Simple or rich media?

It is a natural tendency when choosing media for teaching to opt for the ‘richest’ or most powerful medium. Why would I use a podcast rather than a video? There are in fact several reasons:

  • cost and ease of use: it may just be quicker and simpler to use a podcast, especially if it can achieve the same learning objective
  • there may be too many distractions in a rich medium for students to grasp the essential point of the teaching. For instance, video recording a busy intersection to look at traffic flow may include all kinds of distractions for the viewer from the actual observation of traffic patterns. A simple diagram or an animation that focuses only on the phenomenon to be observed might be better
  • the rich medium may be inappropriate for the learning task. For instance, if students are to follow and critique a particular argument or chain of reasoning, text may work better than a video of a lecturer talking about the chain of reasoning.

In general, it is usually a useful guideline always to look for the simplest medium first then only opt for a more complex or richer medium if the simple medium can’t deliver the learning goals as adequately. However, consideration needs to be given to media richness as a criterion when making choices about media or technology.

This is the last of the characteristics of media and technology that can influence decisions about teaching and learning. The next section will provide an overview and summary.

References

Bates, A. and Gallagher, M. (1977) Improving the Effectiveness of Open University Television Case-Studies and Documentaries Milton Keynes: The Open University (I.E.T. Papers on Broadcasting, No. 77)

Durbridge, N. (1984) Audio cassettes, in Bates, A. (ed.) The Role of Technology in Distance Education London: Routledge (re-published in 2014)

Sweller, J. (1988) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, Vol. 12,

Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton (eds.), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky, Volume 1: Problems of general psychology. New York: Plenum Press. (Original work published 1934.)

Over to you

1. Do you agree that: ‘it is a useful guideline always to look for the simplest medium first‘.

2. How important do you think the richness of medium is when making decisions about the use of media and technology?

3. Do you agree with the placement of different media on this continuum. If not, why not?

4. Any other comments on media richness?

Next

The next section will try to pull together the chapter on Understanding Technology in Education into some sort of overview or conclusion, with a special emphasis on how to use these characteristics of media in decision-making. The next chapter will be on the pedagogical affordances of different media, which will be more concrete and less theoretical than the current chapter.

Are you broadcasting or networking when teaching online?

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Broadcast or communicative? 2

My next three or so posts will be looking at key characteristics of media and technologies, again as part of Chapter 8 on ‘Understanding Technology in Education’ for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘. In this post, I look at how media and technologies can be classified along the broadcast/communicative dimension.

Key technology characteristics

Understanding the characteristics or affordances of each medium or technology that influence its usefulness for education will help clarify our thinking of the possible benefits or weaknesses of each medium or technology. This will also allow us to see where technologies have common or different features.

There is a wide range of characteristics that we could look at, but I will focus on five that I think are particularly important for education:

  • broadcast (one-way) or communicative (two way) media
  • synchronous or asynchronous technologies
  • live (transient) or recorded (permanent) media
  • single or rich media
  • passive or interactive.

We shall see that these characteristics are more dimensional than discrete states, and media or technologies will fit at different points on these dimensions, depending on the way they are designed or used.

Broadcast or communicative technologies

A major structural distinction is between ‘broadcast’ technologies that are primarily one-to-many and one-way, and those technologies that are primarily many-to-many or ‘communicative’, allowing for two-way or multiple communication connections. Communicative technologies include those that give equal ‘power’ of communication between multiple end users.

Broadcast media and technologies

Television, radio and print for example are primarily broadcast or one-way media, as end users or ‘recipients’ cannot change the ‘message’ (although they may interpret it differently or choose to ignore it). Note that it does not matter really what delivery technology (terrestrial broadcast, satellite, cable, DVD, Internet) is used for television, it remains a ‘broadcast’ or one-way medium. Some Internet technologies are also primarily one way. For instance, an institutional web site is primarily a one-way technology.

One advantage of broadcast media and technologies is that they ensure a common standard of learning materials for all students. This is particularly important in countries where teachers are poorly qualified or of variable quality. Also one-way broadcast technologies allow for the organization to control and manage the information that is being transmitted, allowing for quality control. Broadcasting media and technologies are more likely to be favoured by those with an ‘objectivist’ approach to teaching and learning, since the ‘correct’ knowledge can be transmitted to everyone receiving the instruction. One disadvantage is that additional resources are needed to provide interaction with teachers or other learners.

Communicative media and technologies

The telephone, video-conferencing, e-mail, online discussion forums, most social media and the Internet are examples of communicative media or technologies, in that all users can communicate and interact with each other, and in theory at least have equal power in technology terms. The educational significance of communicative technologies is that they allow for interaction between learners and teachers, and perhaps even more significantly, between a learner and other learners, without the participants needing to be present in the same place.

Which is which?

This dimension is not a rigid one, with necessarily clear or unambiguous classifications. Increasingly, technologies are becoming more complex, and able to serve a wide range of functions. In particular the Internet is not so much a single medium as an integrating framework for many different media and technologies with different and often opposite characteristics. Furthermore, most technologies are somewhat flexible in that they can be used in different ways. However, if we stretch a technology too far, for instance trying to make a broadcast medium such as an xMOOC also more communicative, stresses are likely to occur. So I find the dimension still useful, so long as we are not dogmatic about the characteristics of individual media or technologies. This means though looking at each case separately.

Thus I see a learning management system as primarily a broadcast or one-way technology, although it has features such as discussion forums that allow for some forms of multi-way communication. However, it could be argued that the communication functions in an LMS require additional technologies, such as a discussion forum, that just happen to be plugged in to or embedded within the LMS, which is primarily a database with a cool interface. We shall see that in practice we often have to combine technologies if we want the full range of functions required in education, and this adds cost and complexity.

Web sites can vary on where they are placed on this dimension, depending on their design. For instance, an airline web site, while under the full control of the company, has interactive features that allow you to find flights, book flights, reserve seats, and hence, while you may not be able to ‘communicate’ or change the site, you can at least interact with it and to some extent personalize it. However, you cannot change the page showing the choice of flights. This is why I prefer to talk about dimensions. An airline web site that allows end user interaction is less of a broadcast technology. However it is not a ‘pure’ communicative technology either. The power is not equal between the airline and the customer, because the airline controls the site.

It should be noted too that some web 2.0 tools (e.g. YouTube and blogs) are also more of a broadcast than a communicative technology, whereas other social media use mainly communicative technologies with some broadcast features (e.g. personal information on a Facebook page). A wiki is clearly more of a ‘communicative’ medium. Again though it needs to be emphasized that intentional intervention by teachers, designers or users of a technology can influence where on the dimension some technologies will be, although there comes a point where the characteristic is so strong that it is difficult to change significantly without introducing other technologies.

The role of the teacher or instructor also tends to be very different when using broadcast or communicative media. In broadcast media, the role of the teacher is central, in that content is chosen and often delivered by the instructor. xMOOCs are an excellent example. However, in communicative media, while the instructor’s role may still be central, as in online collaborative learning or seminars, there are learning contexts where there may be no identified ‘central’ teacher, with contributions coming from all or many members of the community, as in communities of practice or cMOOCs.

Thus it can be seen that ‘power’ is an important aspect of this dimension. What ‘power’ does the end-user or student have in controlling a particular technology? If we look at this from an historical perspective, we have seen a great expansion of technologies in recent years that give increasing power to the end user. The move towards more communicative technologies and away from broadcast technologies then has profound implications for education (as for society at large).

Applying the dimension to educational media

We can also apply this analysis to non-technological means of communication, or ‘media’, such as classroom teaching. Lectures have broadcast characteristics, whereas a small seminar group has communicative characteristics. In Figure 8.7, I have placed some common technologies, classroom media and online media along the broadcast/communicative continuum.

Figure 8.6

Figure 8.7

When doing this exercise, it is important to note that:

  • there is no general normative or evaluative judgement about the continuum. Broadcasting is an excellent way of getting information in a consistent form to a large number of people; interactive communication works well when all members of  a group have something equal to contribute to the process of knowledge development and dissemination. The judgement of the appropriateness of the medium or technology will very much depend on the context, and in particular the resources available and the general philosophy of teaching to be applied;
  • where a particular medium or technology is placed on the continuum will depend to some extent on the actual design, use or application. For instance, if the lecturer talks for 45 minutes and allows 10 minutes for discussion, an interactive lecture might be further towards broadcasting than if the lecture session is more of a question and answer session;
  • the important decision from a teaching perspective is deciding on the desired balance between ‘broadcasting’ and ‘discussion’ or communication. That should then be one factor in driving decisions about the choice of appropriate technologies;
  • thus the continuum is a heuristic device to enable a teacher to think about what medium or technology will be most appropriate within any given context, and not a firm analysis of where different types of educational media or technology belong on the continuum.

You will note that I have placed ‘computers’ in the middle of the continuum. They can be used as a broadcast medium, such as for programmed learning, or they can be used to support communicative uses, such as online discussion. Their actual placement on the continuum therefore will depend on how we choose to use computers in education.

Thus where a medium or technology ‘fits’ best on a continuum of broadcast vs communicative is one factor to be considered when making decisions about media or technology for teaching and learning.

Comments, please

I find these media characteristics increasingly difficult to maintain as technology develops. It used to be easy to separate ‘broadcast’ technologies such as print, radio and television, from ‘communicative’ technologies such as mail, the telephone, and conferencing. However, as we increasingly digitalise technology and more importantly services, these distinctions tend to break down. Nevertheless we still see these distinctions appear even in the latest technology applications, such as xMOOCs and cMOOCs. My view then that it is important to be aware of these differences in technology, because trying to force an essentially broadcast technology to be communicative is, I believe, likely to lead to all kinds of problems for learners (as we have seen with peer assessment in xMOOCs).

So: what do you think? Is this still a useful distinction? Can it help in media and technology selection?

Also: some feedback on the graphics, particularly Figure 8.7. Does this work for you? How would you present this (apart from hiring a professional graphics designer!)?

Next

Synchronous vs asynchronous

Live vs recorded

Passive vs active

Any other dimension that I’ve missed?

 

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

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I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.

Background

I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.

Challenges

From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.

Conclusions

Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.