April 19, 2014

The role of information sciences in online learning: a review of IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

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An overview of the papers

IRRODL (the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning) has once again produced a fascinating themed edition, this time about the application of information science approaches to online learning. The issue has been promoted, reviewed, and edited by a skilled team of researchers led by editors Dr. Maiga Chang (Athabasca University, Canada), Dr. Rita Kuo (Knowledge Square Inc., Taiwan), Dr. Gene Loeb (Center for Technology and Mental Health of Elderly, USA), and Dr. Bolanle Olaniran (Texas Tech University, USA).

I provide at the end of this post a very brief summary of the papers, to give some indication of the range of topics. As Terry Anderson, the journal editor in chief, says: ‘The issue is a bit more techie than our usual offering’, and the articles certainly warrant careful reading, but are well worth it. I will provide here my personal reflections on what the articles, taken as a whole, suggest for future developments in online learning, although it should be pointed out that although all the articles are looking at computer-based approaches to issues in online learning, within them they reflect a wide variety of positions on the role of computers.

Computers and teachers

First I should lay out my inbuilt bias or prejudice. I am very skeptical about claims that computers can replace teachers. However, if computers can – and can do a better job – they should. We should always be looking for ways to improve not only the quality of post-secondary education, but also its cost-effectiveness. One can argue about the level of investment needed, but given the challenges on a global basis, we should not ignore opportunities to stretch scarce resources – and in particular skilled teachers – further.

These articles in fact are very interesting in that between them they lay out different roles for (human) teachers and computers. In most of the papers, the role of computers or software is to enhance or make more effective the role of teachers, rather than replacing them; in other words, the information science approaches here are providing additional tools for instructors.

There are several reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is that many of the tools or approaches described here are still in the early stages of development. They are partly developing definitions, theories and new approaches, and partly testing them as prototypes. Teachers are still needed, to provide input, to validate and to test the prototypes. We don’t know if some of the approaches set out in these papers will eventually be feasible or will work when scaled up. Even if the tools do turn out to be effective and scalable, the authors often see these tools as requiring additional intervention or control by teachers, and this is likely to hold for a long time.

Another reason is the still very strong limitations of computing in dealing with semantics, meaning, context and complexity. Despite huge advances in computing power, developing ontologies or protocols that apply to the extraordinarily wide range of contexts and variables in which most learning occurs is extremely challenging. One way this is done is to break the challenge into sub-sets, with the rest left to the training, experience and intuition of ‘live’ teachers. Reading these papers, it seems that the sub-sets being dealt with, while helpful, are still somewhat on the fringes of the challenges faced in most learning contexts. However, they are a start, and several (for instance recommendation systems for identifying papers most helpful for a particular learning task) seem extremely promising.

The third reason why this remains such a challenge (although one that is the easiest to deal with) is the very narrow view of learning often held by the computer scientists who work in this field, who tend to focus (not surprisingly) on teaching as information transmission and retrieval, rather than on teaching as cognitive, personal and social development. One reason of course is that it is easier to develop ontologies for the former and extremely difficult for the latter. Too narrow a view of learning is an easier challenge to overcome because it should not be difficult to ensure that computer scientists and educators work together as equals in approaching the challenge of teaching and learning. While most of the papers in this edition did seem to embrace this broader approach to learning, some did not.

Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate IRRODL’s decision to focus on this area, because we do need to bridge the world of computer scientists and educators if the power of computing is to be wisely applied to education and training.

Implications of the papers – especially for MOOCs

Once some of these approaches are established and validated, their main value is that they can be scaled up. This is of particular significance to MOOCs. Currently the main challenge for MOOCs is to:

  • find ways of automating learner interaction with materials beyond the level of checking that information has been retained
  • provide contextually rich feedback on learning
  • improve unsupervised peer interaction to ensure knowledge construction,
  • avoid, detect and deal with plagiarism
  • provide secure forms of authentic and valid assessment of learning,

all on a massive scale.

In these papers, we did see some of the ways in which these problems might be resolved, or at least a more general approach to dealing with large blocks of learners with few instructors. I suspect that over the next year or so, we will see similar developments being applied to the design of MOOCs. How effective such approaches will be remains to be seen, but there is promise and it certainly seems worth trying. I just hope though that those responsible for MOOCs will apply as rigorous evaluation protocols as are found in the papers in this edition. Let’s hope that this is at least combined with independence in the evaluation of MOOCs.

Which way for online learning?

Lastly, I’m wondering whether we will see two very divergent approaches to online learning, one based on very low cost or free teaching to massive numbers, drawing heavily on a computer science approach to teaching and learning, and another based on a more humanistic approach to teaching and learning, with smaller numbers and greater involvement of human teachers, and hence much more expensive, but still with greater focus than at present on hybrid and fully online delivery.

In my mind, I think (or rather hope) that it will be neither such extremes, but a mix of the two approaches. Good quality education is never going to be free for most people; there will always be costs. The human approach will also remain a core component for most education. But a judicious combination of computer science and humanistic designs and flexible delivery should enable high quality education to be delivered much more cost-effectively than it is at present. These articles are important milestones on this journey.

Summary of papers in this edition

Butakov, S. et al. (2012) Protecting Students’ Intellectual Property in the Web Plagiarism Detection Process IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

This article suggests an architecture for plagiarism detection that protects the student IP by sending a randomized selection of content to a third party plagiarism detector.

Yu, P-T. et al. (2012) A Rapid Auto-Indexing Technology for Designing Readable E-Learning Content IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

This paper presents an automatic method for detecting the changes in a PowerPoint based videoed lecture, and embedding this technology in an online course as an interactive component.

The fastest and easiest way to provide an adequate amount of e-learning content is to record teachers’ presentations in a classroom or studio and then directly put those recordings into a learning management system (LMS)’…..However, this kind of streaming data lacks flexibility and interactive capability. Therefore, a user-friendly interface is required to let students easily capture any segment of the recorded instructional videos’

The authors designed a mechanism of regular testing which requires learners to answer questions corresponding to pop-up information triggered when they click on an access point found by the indexing mechanism. Changes in the powerpoint slides in this case acted as the trigger for the access point.

Cheng, J.-S., Huang, E. and Lin, C-L.  (2012) An E-Book Hub Service Based on a Cloud Platform IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

This research project developed an e-book hub service on a cloud computing platform in order to overcome the limitations of computing capability and storage capacity that are inherent in many mobile devices. The e-book hub service also allows users to automatically adjust the rendering of multimedia pages at different resolutions on terminal units such as smartphones, tablets, PCs, and so forth.

Winoto, P., Ya, T, and McCalla, G. (2012) Contexts in a Paper Recommendation System with Collaborative Filtering IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

The authors designed, developed and evaluated a recommender system (RS) that enables students to recommend papers that will facilitate other students in their learning. The RS was tried out on both ‘novice’ (undergraduate) and ‘experienced’ (post-graduate) students. The authors found that a multi-dimensional system that took account of different pedagogical factors worked better than a unidimensional RS based on ‘liking’.

Baldiris, S. et al. (2012) Searching for and Positioning of Contextualized Learning Objects, IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

This paper focuses on two ways to increase the re-usability of learning objects (LO). The paper

promotes LO reuse by encouraging instructors to access distributed learning object repositories (DLOR) as sources of LO with diverse granularity that could be elements in a generated learning design. [The] proposal consists of two different parts: the distributed learning object metadata searching process (LORSE) and the micro-context-based positioning process (LOOK).

The authors found that to achieve a viable solution with these repositories, the object metadata (in the LO depositories investigated) needs to be refined. Metadata available in the involved repositories currently has limited information. This inhibits identifying the contextual relevance of a learning object for re-use in a learning design.

Wen, D., Cuzzola, J., Brown, L. and Kinshuk (2012) Instructor-Aided Asynchronous Question Answering System for Online Education and Distance Learning IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

This paper introduces a question answering (QA) system particularly suited for delayed-answered questions that are typical in certain asynchronous online and distance learning settings. The authors propose a solution that integrates into an organization’s existing learning management system. They present how their system fits into an online and distance learning situation and how it can better assist supporting students.

Wong, W-K., Yin, S-K, and Yang, C-Z (2012) Drawing Dynamic Geometry Figures Online with Natural Language for Junior High School Geometry IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

This paper presents a tool for drawing dynamic geometric figures by understanding the texts of geometry problems. With the tool, teachers and students can construct dynamic geometric figures on a web page by inputting a geometry problem in natural language. A preliminary evaluation of the tool showed that it produced correct dynamic geometric figures for over 90% of problems from textbooks. With such high accuracy, the system produced by this study can support distance learning for geometry students as well as distance learning in producing geometry content for instructors.

Nguyen, B-A., and  Yang, D-L. (2012) A Semi-Automatic Approach to Construct Vietnamese Ontology from Online Text IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

An ontology is an effective formal representation of knowledge used commonly in artificial intelligence, semantic web, software engineering, and information retrieval. The authors present a support system for Vietnamese ontology construction using pattern-based mechanisms to discover Vietnamese concepts and conceptual relations from Vietnamese text documents. The approach provides a feasible solution to build Vietnamese ontologies used for supporting systems in education.

Tierney, P. (2012) A Qualitative Analysis Framework Using Natural Language Processing and Graph Theory IRRODL, Vol. 13, No. 5

This paper introduces a method of extending natural language-based processing of qualitative data analysis with the use of a very quantitative tool—graph theory. It is not an attempt to convert qualitative research to a positivist approach with a mathematical black box, nor is it a “graphical solution”. Rather, it is a method to help qualitative researchers, especially those with limited experience, to discover and tease out what lies within the data.

Survey of the digital lives of professors

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Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2012) Digital Faculty: Professors, Teaching and Technology 2012  Inside Higher Ed, Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.

Kolowich, S. (2012) Digital Faculty: Professors and Technology 2012, Inside Higher Education, August 24

This is a report of a survey of 4,564 faculty members, composing a nationally representative sample spanning various types of institutions; and 591 administrators who are responsible for academic technology at their institutions. An earlier report focused on faculty views of online education. This survey focuses on how digital technology is affecting the lives of faculty in more general terms. The Kolowich article is a fairly extensive summary of the report.

The report suggests that in general, faculty are fairly positive towards many of the digital developments in academia, such as ‘flipped’ classrooms which allow for more in-class discussion, and the growth of learning analytics (although not described as such in this report). There was also general support for the move towards e-publishing and e-textbooks.

One finding that struck me is that administrators consistently over-estimate faculty engagement with digital technologies such as an LMS.

Another finding that struck me is how relatively few e-mails faculty received from students, even when teaching online courses – rarely more than 25 a day.

There’s a lot of data in the original report and it is worth reading in full.

Do we learn less from e-books?

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Szalavitz, M. (2012) Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read? Time Healthland, March 14

This excellent article looks at research done at the University of Leicester, and also draws on experience from a number of people, that suggests that ‘physical books are best when you want to study complex ideas and concepts that you wish to integrate deeply into your memory……This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for e-text books or computerized courseware, however. Different media have different strengths.’


As someone who has recently switched to the Kobo e-reader for reading novels, I found this article really resonated with me. It seems that ‘deep’ remembering is very strongly associated with spatial cues and a wider visual context than just the written words. You don’t get that broader visual context with simple e-readers such as Kobo. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy using my Kobo – it’s great when travelling, especially on planes (except that I often have to wait between taxiing and after take-off, until the seat belt signs come on, as it’s an electrical device.) However, I frequently lose the plot!

First, it must be acknowledged that much more research needs to be done on whether printed texts are better for ‘deep’ memory. However, this needs to be done before the printed textbook becomes a dodo. More likely, we need to look more carefully at the interface of electronic readers, and pay much more attention as to the design of digital text for different kinds of appliances. In this context, I suspect iPads rule, and Blackberry’s and other mobile phones are poor devices for ‘deep’ knowing.

Thanks to Jim Ellis’s excellent eLC Digest No. 93 for directing me to this.

Apps or web sites for publishing on mobile devices?

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Pontin, J. (2010) Why publishers don’t like apps, Technology Review, May 7

This article is sub-titled: The future of media on mobile devices isn’t with applications but with the Web. Although focused on ‘traditional’ publishing such as magazines and newspapers, there may be lessons here for academic institutions that have online programs with large amounts of text and graphics.


It could be argued that in education we should no longer be designing large quantities of text and graphics, but  instead should consider the design of online courses from the outset with mobile devices in mind that take advantage not just of the ‘linkyness’ of mobile devices, but also their unique technological ‘affordances’ that may well include special apps.

On the other hand most institutions have ‘legacy’ text-based courses that cannot be redesigned from scratch for cost reasons. This article may be highly relevant for making such courses available on mobile devices.

Well worth a read, but I’m not altogether convinced by Pontin’s argument (except for his criticism of Apple’s digital publishing system) – what’s your experience in porting online courses to mobile devices?

Thanks to Matt Bury for directing me to this via LinkedIn

A project using e-readers in Africa

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The WorldReader project in Ghana © Wired Magazine, 2010

Trucano, M. (2012) An update on the use of e-readers in Africa EduTech, March 16

Michael Trucano’s excellent World Bank blog here reports on the use of e-readers in Africa, based mainly on a Kindle-based project from an NGO called WorldReader.

Dust and breakage were a problem. Most low cost e-readers are just not robust enough for climatic and usage challenges by children in Africa. (Incidentally, this is a problem the very lost Aakash tablet has run into in India).

However, WorldBreaker has a number of other lessons that it has learned from this project, some of which are in fact recurring themes in many ICT projects in developing countries:

  • lack of cheap content: not enough African-originated material; traditional book publishers are not willing to make texts available for free; need for a rights business model that allows for low cost use ($1 a book?) – to date only 250 African books are available for this project
  • need for support from local education officials
  • need for  support from teachers
  • a need to give reading a higher social currency in many  local cultures, especially those that have very strong oral traditions
  • dedicated ‘face time’ in schools
  • buy in from local support structures at the community level
  • funding to scale up from a pilot to a mid-sized project that can transferred eventually on a larger scale across countries.

Despite these difficulties, there are signs that the project is encouraging greater reading, especially in Grades 4-5.

This project also reminds me of Professor Fred Litto’s project, ‘Escola do Futuro‘ in Brazil in the late 1990s, where he created one of the first open source models for books in Portuguese for Brazilian schools. This project is still running successfully almost 20 years later.

Thanks to Stephen Downes for directing me to this. See also:

Sorrel, C. (2010) Kindle comes to classroom in Ghana Wired Gadget Lab, March 16

Bertelsmann Stiftung (2011) Worldreader brings e-readers to Ghanaian classrooms Future Challenges, July 11

Sniderman, Z. (2011) E-Readers in Africa: Non-Profit Brings Thousands of Books to Ghanaian Children Mashable Social Media, January 26