March 24, 2017

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.


My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)


  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

What I learned at Drexel University in National Distance Learning Week

A street protester in Philadelphia on election day

A street artist in Philadelphia on election day

Fear and loathing in Philadelphia

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, I found myself in Philadelphia on U.S. Presidential Election day, and even more importantly, the day after, as the results became known. I was there, not to ‘rig’ the election, as some have rumoured, but to visit one of the leaders in online learning in the USA, Drexel University.

I’m not going to say much more about the election, except to note that as in the rest of the country, Pennsylvania was deeply split, with cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburg voting strongly for Clinton, and suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas voting in sufficiently large enough numbers for Trump to just about win the state and its electoral votes. So the election results have caused a certain amount of fear and loathing in Philadelphia, particularly among the university community.

Why Drexel?

Drexel University is a private, nonprofit university ranked among the top 100 universities in the USA. In 2016 it was ranked the 8th most innovative university in the USA by US News and World Report. It has about 26,000 students.

Drexel University was founded in 1891 as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, by Philadelphia financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel. The original mission of the institution was to provide educational opportunities in the “practical arts and sciences” for women and men of all backgrounds. It is famed for its co-op education program and its close links to local industry and businesses, and in the past for its acceptance and encouragement of low income students. However in recent years its focus has changed, partly driven by the perceived need to increase its ranking. Today it has very high student tuition fees and a highly selective admission process.

I was there to visit Drexel University Online (DUO), an internal division within the university that serves those students at Drexel taking online courses and programs.

Drexel Online

Drexel University has more than 7,000 online students from all 50 states and more than 20 countries. It offers 140 fully accredited master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs in a wide range of disciplines. Nursing in particular has a very strong set of online programs. Drexel was an early pioneer of online learning, offering its first fully online master’s degree in 1996.

Drexel University founded National Distance Learning Week, in conjunction with the United States Distance Learning Association, in 2007, and has won several national awards for institution-wide excellence in online education.

As part of Drexel’s contribution to National Distance Learning Week, I was invited as a guest speaker, to talk about ’21st century knowledge and online learning: re-designing teaching for a digital age.’ While at Drexel, I also took the opportunity to see what Drexel is doing with advanced learning technologies.

Advanced use of technologies at Drexel Online

DUO offers faculty a technology lending library, where faculty can try out new devices and evaluate their potential for teaching. This includes an augmented reality headset that combines a cheap ($10-$15), easily assembled cardboard frame into which a mobile phone can be inserted in front of the eyes, enabling augmented reality programs to be delivered at very low cost to the student (provided they already have a mobile phone).

DUO has also developed a very interesting web site, called, which showcases a number of innovations in online learning from institutions across North America and around the world.

Here I will describe briefly just a few of Drexel’s own innovative projects, which I hope will inspire you to look in more detail at the VirtuallyInspired web site.

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina is an avatar of a 28 year old woman in a virtual world who not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated. The teaching around Tina is broken down into 10 modules, each of which correlate with a body system that students learn about in class. The program serves not only as reinforcement for the principles taught in the course, but also to develop interpersonal skills needed by clinical professionals. Professors are able to view the type of questions asked by the student and how the student reacts to Tina’s responses. They are then able to give the student advice and make recommendations for interpersonal skill improvement.

Synchronous online teaching

Drexel is experimenting with the use of low-cost (US$450) robots (Kubi) combined with iPads to improve the ‘telepresence’ of students in online webinars. In the classroom where the instructor is located, there is an iPad for each remote student locked into a robot that each student can remotely move around the instructor’s classroom. Using Skype and the camera on the student’s computer, the student’s face appears on the iPad. In this way the instructor can see the faces and hear each individual student via the iPad, and the students at home can also see on their screen not only the instructor but also the iPad images of all the other students in the class. This system is already in use at the Michigan State University.

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Forensic investigation

Students taking a course on forensic investigation can use a branching video sequence to search for clues at a crime scene. Students can do a virtual walk around and inside a house and are asked to observe and interpret what they see, followed by a debriefing afterwards.

These are just a few of the several innovations that Drexel is experimenting with. Others include the use of video simulations in law and nursing, dealing with critical incidents in practice.

Innovation and operations

Drexel University is to be congratulated for two reasons: it has an extensive, ongoing online program that delivers a wide range of courses on a daily basis to over 7,000 students. For most of these courses, the challenges are common to all online post-secondary programs: ensuring that the programs are of high quality and that students succeed. This means applying well known best practices and procedures, using standard tools such as a learning management system, and ensuring that students are well supported by instructors.

At the same time, DUO is investing some of its energy and resources to investigating new ways of designing and delivering online teaching. This means finding like-minded faculty partners who can see the potential of new technologies and who are willing to put in the time and effort to do something different. The challenge here is to evaluate each innovation, to integrate such innovations into regular teaching, and then to ensure the diffusion of successful innovations into a wider range of courses and programs.

Getting the right balance between on-going operations and innovation is a challenge but one that Drexel Online seems more than able to handle.

And lastly, I cannot express enough my appreciation for the kindness and attention paid to me by Susan Aldridge, the Director of DUO, and all her staff during my visit. Elections may come and go, but American hospitality continues for ever.

Problems with the use of images in open textbooks

If you have downloaded my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ in pdf or Modi format for the iPad or Kobo, you may have noticed that many of the images I have liberally used throughout the book do not fit on the page or have become separated from their ‘frame’ (the green and black lines before and after the images), in the downloaded versions.

The problem

Here is an example (I have reduced the size of both images):

This is the html version that you would read by going to the book site (

Original html web version

Original html web version

Nice, isn’t it? And this is how it appears in the pdf version:

pdf version

pdf version

You can see the image has been removed from the frame and dropped into the next page.

The same kind of thing happens in the iPad and Kindle versions, only worse, because the screen size is smaller. I realise this is not a unique problem and one faced every day when moving materials to mobile devices.

The reason

This happens primarily because the html version read on computer screens or laptops scrolls, while the pdf and mobile device versions are paginated. What fits nicely on a scrolled screen does not always fit a paginated version because the image is too large to fit within the remaining page space, so it is bounced to the next page. This is made worse by my having artistically framed the images. The frames are independent objects from the image though so do not move with the image when it is ‘bounced’.


OK, I should have known this would happen, but I didn’t until after I finished the book. (This is one form of experiential learning that I don’t recommend). One way to minimise (but not eliminate by any means) the problem would be to avoid putting in frames for the images (the frames were suggested by a highly professional graphic designer) and keeping the in-text images much smaller. However, reducing the size of the images is not always desirable, especially with complex or detailed images.

In the end, it is a software problem needing a software solution, such as the ability to integrate frames around images, and to resize images to fit the pagination or to move paragraphs around the image until it fits the page.

The dilemma

So what should I do now? The html version works beautifully, but even reducing the size of graphics and moving them won’t solve the problem for the exported versions, because each exported version is different in the way it handles the lay-out. I could go through the whole book and remove the frames but there are over 100 images and graphics throughout the book.

Should I leave the frames? I can’t leave them on the html version and remove them from the other versions because the other versions are direct and complete exports of the html version. I also can’t edit the pdf version independently of the html version without creating a whole shadow site.

Is there a way to ‘fit’ frames to images in WordPress? if there is please let me know!

Does it matter?

This is where I really need your advice. OK, so it isn’t perfect as a pdf or on an iPad, but is it good enough? My wife says I’m crazy to worry about this (‘It’s the content that matters’), and my best friend accused me of being a compulsive-obsessive personality (that’s what good friends are there for, to tell you the truth), and he said if people don’t like it, they can use their laptop, but my wife and my friend are not the audience for this book. You are, and if this is a problem for you, I need to know.

So what’s your advice on this? Don’t worry about it, or find a solution, and if so, what?

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 computing

Figure 9.5.1 A computer-marked assignment form (University of Western Australia)

Figure 9.5.1 A computer-marked assignment form (University of Western Australia)

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

This was a fun one to do, mainly because I ignored any previous research on this topic, because I rarely, to my shame, read articles in journals on computing and education. When I have done, the articles seem to be about another world of education in which I don’t – or didn’t – work. So I deserve your criticisms of this post, and, if I’m honest, I would welcome direction to any references that I ought to take account of, so long as they will enable me to help faculty in their teaching.

A volatile and comprehensive medium

It is debatable whether computing should be considered a medium, but I am using the term broadly, and not in the technical sense of writing code. The Internet in particular is an all-embracing medium that accommodates text, audio, video and computing, as well as providing other elements such as distributed communication and access to educational opportunities. Computing is also still an area that is fast developing, with new products and services emerging all the time. Indeed, I will treat recent developments in social media separately from computing, although technically they are a sub-category. Once again, though, social media contain affordances that are not so prevalent in more conventional computing-based learning environments.

In such a volatile medium, it would be foolish to be dogmatic about unique media characteristics, but once again, the purpose of this chapter is not to provide a definitive analysis, but a way of thinking about technology that will facilitate an instructor’s choice and use of technology. The focus is: what are the pedagogical affordances of computing that are different from those of other media (other than the important fact that it can embrace all the other media characteristics)?

Although there has been a great deal of research into computers in education, there has been less focus on the specifics of its pedagogical media characteristics, although a great deal of interesting research and development has taken place and continues in human-machine interaction and to a lesser extent (in terms of interesting) in artificial intelligence. Thus I am relying more on analysis and experience than research in this section.

Presentational features

Figure 9.5 'Screen size can be a real presentational limitation with smaller, mobile devices'

Figure 9.5 ‘Screen size can be a real presentational limitation with smaller, mobile devices’

This is not really where the educational strength of computing lies. Computing can represent text and audio reasonably well, and video less well, because of the limited size of the screen (which video often has to share with text) and the bandwidth/pixels/download time required. Screen size can be a real presentational limitation with smaller, mobile devices, although tablets such as the iPad are a major advance in screen quality. The traditional user interface for computing, such as pull-down menus, cursor screen navigation, and an algorithmic-based filing or storage system, while all very functional, are not intuitive and can be quite restricting from an educational point of view.

However, unlike the other media, computing enables the end user to interact directly with the medium, to the extent that the end user (in education, the student) can add to, change or interact with the content, at least to a certain extent. In this sense, computing comes closer to a complete, if virtual, learning environment.

Thus in presentational terms computing can be used to:

  • create and present (original) teaching content in a rich and varied way (using a combination of text, audio, video and webinars)
  • enable access to other sources of (secondary) ‘rich’ content through the Internet
  • create and present computer-based animations and simulations
  • structure and manage content through the use of web sites, learning management systems and other similar technologies
  • with adaptive learning, offer learners alternative routes through learning materials, providing an element of personalisation
  • enable students to communicate both synchronously and asynchronously with the instructor and other students
  • set multiple-choice tests, automatically mark such tests, and provide immediate feedback to learners
  • enable learners digitally to submit written (essay-type), or multimedia (project-based) assignments through the use of e-portfolios
  • create virtual worlds or virtual environments/contexts through technology such as Second Life

Skills development

Loyalist College's virtual border crossing

Loyalist College’s virtual border crossing

Skills development in a computing environment will once again depend very much on the epistemological approach to teaching. Computing can be used to focus on comprehension and understanding, through a behaviourist approach to computer-based learning. However, the communications element of computing also enables more constructivist approaches, through online student discussion and student-created multimedia work.

Thus computing can be used (uniquely) to:

  • develop and test student comprehension of content through computer-based learning/testing
  • develop computer coding and other ICT knowledge and skills
  • develop decision-making skills through the use of simulations and/or virtual worlds
  • develop skills of reasoning, evidence-based argument, and collaboration through instructor-moderated online discussion forums
  • enable students to create their own artefacts/online multimedia work through the use of e-portfolios, thus improving their digital communication skills as well as assessing their knowledge
  • develop skills of experimental design, through the use of simulations, virtual laboratory equipment and remote labs
  • develop skills of knowledge management and problem-solving, by requiring students to find, analyse, evaluate and apply content accessed through the Internet to real world problems
  • develop spoken and written language skills through both presentation of language and through communication with other students and/or native language speakers via the Internet.

These skills of course are in addition to the skills that other media can support within a broader computing environment.

Strengths and weaknesses of computing as a teaching medium

Many teachers and instructors avoid the use of computing because they fear it may be used to replace them, or because they believe it results in a very mechanical approach to teaching and learning. This is not helped by misinformed computer scientists, politicians and industry leaders who argue that computers can replace or reduce the need for humans in teaching. Both viewpoints show a misunderstanding of both the sophistication and complexity of teaching and learning, and the flexibility and advantages that computing can bring to teaching.

So here are some of the advantages of computing as a teaching medium:

  • it is a very powerful teaching medium in terms of its unique pedagogical characteristics, in that it can combine the pedagogical characteristics of text, audio, video and computing in an integrated manner
  • its unique pedagogical characteristics are useful for teaching many of the skills learners need in a digital age
  • computing enables learners to have more power and choice in accessing and creating their own learning and learning contexts
  • computing enables learners to interact directly with learning materials and receive immediate feedback, thus, when well designed, increasing the speed and depth of their learning
  • computing enables anyone with Internet access and a computing device to study or learn at any time or place
  • computing enables regular and frequent communication between student, instructors and other students
  • computing is flexible enough to be used to support a wide range of teaching philosophies and approaches
  • computing can help with some of the ‘grunt’ work in assessment and tracking of student performance, freeing up an instructor to focus on the more complex forms of assessment and interaction with students.

On the other hand, the disadvantages of computing are:

  • many teachers and instructors often have no training in or awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of computing as a teaching medium
  • computing is too often oversold as a panacea for education; it is a powerful teaching medium, but it needs to be managed and controlled by educators
  • there is a tendency for computer scientists and engineers to adopt behaviourist approaches to the use of computing, which not only alienates constructivist-oriented teachers and learners, but also underestimates or underuses the true power of computing for teaching and learning
  • despite computing’s power as a teaching medium, there are other aspects of teaching and learning that require the personal interaction of a student and teacher (this will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 10). These aspects are probably less than many teachers believe, but more than many advocates of computer learning understand.
  • computing needs the input and management of teachers and educators, and to some extent learners, to determine the conditions under which computing can best operate as a teaching medium; and teachers need to be in control of the decisions on when and how to use computing for teaching and learning
  • to use computing well, teachers need to work closely with other specialists, such as instructional designers and IT staff.

The issue around the value of computing as a medium for teaching is less about its pedagogical value and more about control. Because of the complexity of teaching and learning, it is essential that the use of computing for teaching and learning is controlled and managed by educators. As long as teachers and instructors have control, and have the necessary knowledge and training about the pedagogical advantages and limitations of computing, then computing is an essential medium for teaching in a digital age.


There is a tendency to focus assessment in computing on multiple choice questions and ‘correct’ answers. Although this form of assessment has its value in assessing comprehension, and ability in a limited range of mechanical procedures, computing allows for a wider range of assessment techniques, from learner-created blogs and wikis to e-portfolios. These more flexible forms of computer-based assessment are more in alignment with measuring the knowledge and skills that many learners will need in a digital age.

Activity 9.5.4

1. Take one of the courses you are teaching. What key presentational aspects of computing 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 computing rather than other media? How would you do this using computer-based teaching?

3. Under what conditions would it be more appropriate in any of your courses for students to be assessed by asking them to create their own multimedia project portfolios rather than through a written exam? What assessment conditions would be necessary to ensure the authenticity of a student’s work? Would this form of assessment be extra work for you?

4. What are the main barriers to your using computing more in your teaching? Philosophical? Practical? Lack of training or confidence in technology use? Or lack of institutional support? What could be done to remove some of these barriers?

Over to you

OK, let me have it on this.

1. Is it OK to think of computing as an educational medium, in the sense in which I have used it?

2. What key pedagogical characteristics of computing have I missed (remember, though: there’s a whole section on social media coming next)?

3. Do you agree with my criticism of the limitations of computer screens in terms of representing knowledge and poor user interfaces? Or am I just jaded from too much time spent trying to get my computer to do what I want it to do?

4. I have to add examples for each of the presentational and skills development characteristics. Suggestions (with links if possible) would be welcome.

5. You can see I have a love/hate relationship with computing as an educational medium. Has this unduly influenced my analysis? If so, which side has won – love or hate? Is it too personal and not objective enough? (In answering this question, please state whether you are a behaviourist, constructivist or connectivist).

6. Do you think this post would be of any assistance or help to a faculty member? If no, why not? How would you approach this issue of deciding on appropriate media for teaching?

Next up

The unique pedagogical characteristics of social media – this will be my last on pedagogical affordances. I will discuss the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching in Chapter 10, which is on modes of delivery.

After social media, there will be a brief section on design issues in multimedia, a concluding section on Teaching Functions, then short sections on the ONS of the SECTIONS model. I know: the book is getting more like a marathon than a sprint.