May 25, 2016

Culture and effective online learning environments

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Learning environment 2

Figure A 1 from the original version of ‘Teaching at a Distance’

Over the last two months I have done a couple of workshops on building an effective learning environment, based on Appendix 1 of my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. I identified the following as critical components of an effective learning environment:

  • learner characteristics
  • content
  • skills
  • learner support
  • resources
  • assessment

These workshops have reinforced my feeling that I originally excluded a critical component.

The importance of culture

Within every learning environment there is a prevailing culture that influences all the other components. In most learning environments, culture is often taken for granted or may be even beyond the consciousness of learners or even teachers. I will try to show why faculty, instructors and teachers should pay special attention to cultural factors, so that they can make conscious decisions about how the different components of a learning environment are implemented. Although the concept of culture may seem a little abstract at this stage, I will show how critical it is for designing an effective online learning environment,

Defining culture

I define culture as

the dominant values and beliefs that influence decision-making.

The choice of content, the skills and attitudes that are promoted, the relationship between instructors and students, and many other aspects of a learning environment, will all be deeply influenced by the prevailing culture of an institution or class (used to mean any grouping of students and a teacher). Thus in a learning environment, every one of the components I described will be influenced by the dominant culture.

For instance, parents tend to place their children in schools that reflect their owns values and beliefs, and so the characteristics of learners in that school will also often be influenced by the culture not only of their parents but also of their school. This is one of the many ways that culture can be self-reinforcing.

Identifying cultures

I first noticed the impact of different cultures many years ago, when I was doing research in the U.K. on the administration of large comprehensive (high) schools. Given that these schools had deliberately been created by a left-of-centre government in Britain in the 1960s to provide equal access to secondary education for all, and that these schools had many things in common (their size, their curricula, the idea that every student should have the same educational opportunities) one would have expected that they all would have had a similar prevailing culture. However, I visited over 50 such schools to collect information on the how they were managed and the key issues they faced, and every one was different.

Some were created from formerly highly selective grammar schools, and operated on a strict system of sorting students by tests, so that successful students would go up a level and the weakest students would drop down a level, in order to identify the best prospects for university. Here the dominant value was academic excellence.

Some schools were single sex (I am still puzzled by how a school segregated by sex could be considered ‘comprehensive’). One of the key objectives of a girls’ school I visited was to teach girls about ‘poise’. (This led to a very confused miscommunication between me and the headmistress, as I thought she had said ‘boys’.) Here the dominant value was on developing  ‘ladylike qualities’.

Others were inner city schools, where the focus was often on bringing the best out of each child, whatever their abilities. In such schools, each class would contain children with as wide a range of abilities as possible, but they were often rowdy, raucous places in comparison to the more elite-oriented institutions. Here the emphasis was on inclusiveness and equal opportunity.

The differing cultures of each of these schools was so strong I could sometimes detect it just by walking in the door, by the way students reacted with staff and each other in the corridors, or even by the way the students walked (or ran).

Culture and learning environments

Whether you consider culture to be a good or bad influence in a learning environment will depend on whether you share or reject the underlying values and beliefs of the dominant culture. Residential schools in Canada into which aboriginal children were often forcibly placed are a prime example of how culture drives the way schools operate.

The main purpose of such schools was deliberately to destroy aboriginal cultures and replace them with a religious-influenced Western culture. In these schools children were punished for being what they were. In such schools, all the other components of their learning environment were used to reinforce the dominant culture that was being imposed.

Although the outcomes for most children that attended these schools have turned out to be disastrous, those responsible (state and church working together) truly believed they were doing the right thing. We are still struggling in Canada to ‘do the right thing’ for aboriginal education, but any successful solution must take into account aboriginal cultures, as well as the surrounding predominant ‘Western’ culture.

Culture is perhaps more nebulous in higher education institutions, but it is still a powerful influence, differing not just between institutions but often between academic departments within the same institution.

Culture and new learning environments

Because prevailing cultures are often so dominant, they are very difficult to change. It is particularly difficult for a single individual to change a dominant culture. Even charismatic leaders will struggle, as many university presidents have found.

However, as new technologies allow us to develop new learning environments, instructors now have a rare opportunity consciously to create a culture that can support those values and beliefs that they consider to be important for today’s learners.

For instance, in an online learning environment, I consciously attempt to create a culture that reflects the following:

  • mutual respect (between instructor and students, and especially between students)
  • open-ness to differing views and opinions
  • evidence-based argument and reasoning
  • making learning engaging and fun
  • making explicit and encouraging the underlying values and epistemology of a subject discipline
  • transparency in assessment (e.g. rubrics and criteria)
  • recognition of and respect for the personalities of each student in the class
  • collaboration and mutual support.

The above cultural elements of course reflect my beliefs and values; yours may well be different. However, it is important that you are aware of your beliefs and values, so that you can design the learning environment in a way that best supports them.

You may also consider these cultural elements to be more like learning outcomes but I disagree. These cultural elements are broader and more general, and reflect what I believe are really necessary conditions for building an effective learning environment in a digital age.

Lastly you may question the right of an instructor to impose their personal cultural conditions on a learning environment. For myself, I have no problems with this. As a subject expert or professional in teaching, you are usually in a better position than learners to know the learning requirements and the cultural elements that will best achieve these. In any case, if you believe that learners should have more say in determining the culture in which they learn, that too is your choice and could be accommodated within the culture.

Summary

Culture is a critical component of any learning environment. It is important to be aware of the influence of culture within any particular learning context, and to try and shape that culture as much as possible towards supporting the kind of learning environment that you believe will be most effective. However, changing a pre-existing, dominant culture is very difficult. Nevertheless, new technologies enable new learning environments to be developed, and thus provide an opportunity to develop the kind of culture within that learning environment that will best serve your learners.

However, in every learning environment there will be cultural elements that prevail through all components, which is why I have added culture as a background to all the components of a learning environment in the graphic below.

Slide15

Questions

  1. Do you agree with my definition of ‘culture’ as used in describing an effective learning environment? If not, how would you define it? Would you use another term for what I am discussing?
  2. Can you describe the culture of the institution in which you work? What are its prime characteristics or goals? Or are there many cultures?
  3. Can you describe the culture within your own class or classes? What do you ‘inherit’ and what can you create or change?
  4. Do you share my views on the importance of understanding the culture within a learning environment? Or is culture something a teacher should/can ignore?
  5. What would be the ideal culture for your classes/teaching? How could you foster or create such a culture?

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion

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Edvard Munch's The Scream (public domain) Location: National Gallery, Norway

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (public domain)
Location: National Gallery, Norway

This is the second post on the topic of technology, alienation and the role of education, with a particular focus on the consequences for teaching and learning. The first post was a general introduction to the topic. This post focuses on how technology can lead to alienation, and provides a framework for discussing the possibility of technology alienation in online learning and how to deal with it.

What do I mean by ‘alienation’?

Alienation is a term that has been around for some time. Karl Marx described alienation as the perception by people that they are becoming increasingly unable to control the social forces that shape their lives. Ultimately, highly alienated workers come to lose the sense that they can control any aspect of their lives, whether at work or at home, and become highly self-estranged. Such people are profoundly discontent, prone to alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, violence, and the support of extreme social and political movements (Macionis and Plummer, 2012). Although Marx had an industrial society in mind, the definition works equally well to describe some of the negative effects of a digital society, as we shall see.

Causes

There are of course many different but related causes of alienation today:

  • the increasing inequality in wealth and in particular the perception by unemployed or low paid workers that they are being ‘passed by’ or not included in the wealth-generating economy. The feeling is particularly strong among workers who previously had well paid jobs (or expectations of well paid jobs) in manufacturing but have seen those jobs disappear in their lifetime. However, there are now also growing numbers of well educated younger people struggling to find well paid work while at the same time carrying a large debt as a result of increasingly expensive higher education;
  • one reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs is the effect of globalization: jobs going abroad to countries where the cost of labour is lower;
  • dysfunctional political systems are another factor, where people feel that they have little or no control over decisions made by government, that government is controlled by those with power and money, and political power is used to protect the ‘elites’;
  • lastly, and the main consideration in these posts, the role of technology, which operates in a number of ways that create alienation:
    • the most immediate is its role in replacing workers, originally in manufacturing, but now increasingly in service or even professional areas of work, including education;
    • a more subtle but nevertheless very powerful way in which technology leads to alienation is in controlling what we do, and in particular removing choice or decision-making from individuals. I will give some examples later;
    • lastly, many people are feeling increasingly exploited by technology companies collecting personal data and using it for commercial purposes or even to deny services such as insurance; in particular, the benefits to the end-user of technology seem very small compared to the large profits made by the companies that provide the services.

Symptoms

Here are some examples of how technology leads to alienation.

There have been several cases where intimate images of people have been posted on the Internet, without permission, and yet it has been impossible for the victims to get the images removed, at least until well after the damage has been done. The Erin Andrews case is the most recent, and the suicide of the 15 year old Amanda Todd is another example. These are extreme cases, but illustrate the perception that we have less and less control over social media and its potentially negative impact on their lives.

Sometimes the alienation comes from decisions made by engineers that pre-empt or deny human decision-making. I have always driven BMWs. Even when I had little money, I would buy a second hand BMW, mainly because of its superb engineering. However, I am driven crazy by my latest purchase. The ignition switches off automatically when I stop the car and automatically switches on again when I take my foot off the brake. One day I drove into my garage. I had stopped the car, and turned round to get something off the back seat. I took my foot off the brake and the car lurched forward and hit the freezer we have in the garage. If I had been on the street and done that, I could well have hit another car or even a pedestrian. The car also automatically locks the passenger doors. I have parked the car and started to walk away only to see my passengers pounding on the window to get out. I could cite nearly a hundred instances from this one car of decisions made by engineers that I don’t want made for me. In most cases (but not all) these default conditions can be changed, but that requires going through a 600 page printed manual. Furthermore these ‘features’ all cost money to install, money I would rather not pay if I had a choice.

We are just starting to see similar decisions by engineers creeping into online learning. One of the most popular uses of data analytics is to identify students ‘at risk’ of non-completion. As with the features in a car, there are potential benefits in this. However, the danger is that decisions based on correlations of other students’ previous behaviour with course completion may end up denying access to a program for a student considered ‘at risk’ but who may nevertheless might well succeed. In particular it could negatively profile black students in the USA, aboriginal students in Canada, or students from low income families.

A framework for discussion

I am dealing here with a highly emotive issue, and one where there will be many different and often contradictory perspectives. Let’s start with the ‘moral’ or ‘value’ issues. I start from the position that alienation is to be avoided if at all possible. It leads to destructive forces. In education in particular, alienation is the opposite of engagement, and for me, engagement is critical for student success. On the other hand, if people are really suffering, then alienation may well be a necessary starting point on the road to change or revolution. So it is difficult to adopt an objective stance to this topic. I want therefore to focus the discussion around the following issues:

  • what are the main developments in online learning that are occurring or will occur over the next few years?
  • who are the main drivers of change in this area?
  • what is the main value proposition? Why is this area being promoted? Who stands to benefit most from this development?
  • what are the risks or what is the downside of these developments? In particular, what is the risk that such developments may actually increase alienation in learners?

I will look at each of the following developments in the next series of blog posts within this framework, developments in online learning that have great promise but at the same time could, if not carefully managed, end up increasing alienation:

  • competency-based learning;
  • personalised and adaptive learning;
  • learning analytics;
  • online assessment methods (badges, machine marking, e-proctoring, e-portfolios, etc.);
  • unbundling of educational services

I will then end this series of posts with a discussion of ‘defensive’ strategies for learners and educators to deal with the negative impact of technology in a digital age.

References

Macionis, J. and Plummer, K. (2012) Sociology: A Global Introduction Don Mills ON: Pearson Education

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction

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One definition of alienation Image: Reuters

One definition of alienation
Image: Reuters

Is there a problem here?

I live a 30 minute drive from the U.S. border, and like many of my fellow Canadians (and many U.S. colleagues) I have been watching with a mixture of disgust and horror the Donald Trump presidential campaign gathering increasing momentum. However unlike most Canadians, I am not surprised at Trump’s growing success (nor is Canada immune – Rob Ford’s support also comes from the same origins). Trump derives his support from an ever expanding body of people who feel alienated and marginalized by technology, globalization and the growing gap between rich and poor.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the supporters of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the anti-austerity movements in Europe, are also driven by increasing alienation due to perceived failures of the capitalist/’democratic’ system to meet the interests of ordinary people. Both sides see government as having been captured by special interest groups, especially but not exclusively financial establishments and the major media and Internet companies.

There is of course no single reason for this growing alienation, but the way technology, and particularly digital technology, has been moving recently is one major cause of this alienation. People feel they are losing control to forces they do not understand. In particular, there is a growing sense that the benefits of technology are going to an increasingly smaller and richer group of people. The public, the end users of technology, increasingly feel that they are being exploited for the benefit of those that control the technology. People are losing jobs and those that have jobs are working harder or longer to stand still.

Dealing with the problem (or challenge)

I plan to explore this issue further in several blog posts that focus particularly on the role of education, and how we deal with technology, both as a field of study, and with its use for teaching and learning. I will argue that educators have a special responsibility to prepare students better for this rapidly changing and increasingly threatening digital world, so students can try to wrest some control and make technology work better for them in the future. I will also be arguing that some potential developments in the use of technology in education could be more harmful than beneficial, and will further increase feelings of alienation, if we are not careful.

This is very much an exploratory journey on my part. I will outline a series of topics for discussion in different blog posts, but this may well change as we get into it. In particular, I am looking for discussion and interaction, an exchange of views, and different perspectives on what I see as an increasingly important topic. The focus will always be on the implications for teaching and learning.

Here is my initial breakdown of topics:

  • introduction (this post)
  • technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (next post)
  • skills development and the labour market: are we fighting the last war? (This will include a discussion of competency-based learning, and the difference between skills and competencies – or competences, if you are European), with the goal of better preparing learners for an increasingly hostile digital age;
  • automation vs empowerment in educational technology (already done; maybe some revisions)
  • unbundling of educational services: who benefits; alternative models; privatisation versus state funding; risk management
  • the myth of the autonomous learner: the changing relationship between teachers and learners; creating effective learning environments (partly done); how to personalise learning to the benefit of the learner
  • teaching ‘defensive’ skills: protecting privacy, avoiding monopolies, citizen engagement, understanding and controlling the technology
  • globalization and online learning: think/learn globally, act/do locally; ways to open the curriculum; building bridges with other cultures
  • wrap-up.

Help!

This is starting to look like a mini-course, maybe even a cMOOC, but my thinking is so unformed at this stage that I want to keep the topic and approach as open as possible, and in particular I want to clarify my own thoughts through the process of writing (yes, that does work sometimes). So:

  • do you believe that alienation is increasing/a serious problem, due to the way technology is being managed and controlled? Or am I being paranoid?
  • what topics would you add to this list? Is there anything essential in discussing the topic of technology-based alienation and the role of education that needs to be included that I have missed?
  • can education really make a difference? Can it help prevent alienation – or should it encourage it? Or are we already stitched up?
  • would you be interesting in contributing to this discussion; if so how? (e.g. guest posts; comments; suggested readings/videos)
  • are you thinking: ‘Don’t even go there, Tony – it’s a waste of time!’?

Building an effective learning environment

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Learning environment 2

I was asked by the Chang School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University to do a master class on this topic at their ChangSchoolTalks on February 17, based on Appendix 1 in my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

I was a little surprised by the request. I had moved what had originally been the second chapter of the book to an appendix, as I thought it was rather obvious and most instructors would already be aware of the key factors in an effective learning environment, so I was somewhat nervous about doing a master class for faculty and instructors on this topic.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. The master class was the first to be fully booked and the way the master class developed suggested that participants found the topic both stimulating and challenging. I think the reason for this is that my approach to building an effective learning environment is driven by a particular philosophy of education that is not always understood in post-secondary education. For this reason I thought I would share with you my thoughts on this in this post.

Learning as a ‘natural’ human activity

One premise behind building an effective learning environment is that it is inbuilt in humans to learn. If we had not been reasonably good at learning, we would have been killed off early in the earth’s history by faster, bigger and more ferocious animals. The ability not only to learn, but to learn in abstract and conscious ways, is therefore part of human nature.

If that is the case, a teacher’s job is not to do the learning for the student, but to build a rich environment that facilitates the kind of learning that will benefit the learner. It is not a question of pouring knowledge into a student’s head, but enabling the learner to develop concepts, think critically, and apply and evaluate what they have learned, by providing opportunities and experiences that are relevant to such goals.

Learning as development

A second premise is that knowledge is not fixed or static, but is continually developing. Our concept of heat changes and becomes richer as we grow older and become more educated, from understanding heat through touch, to providing a quantitative way of measuring it, to understanding its physical properties, to being able to apply that knowledge to solving problems, such as designing refrigerators. In a knowledge-based society, knowledge is constantly developing and growing, and our understanding is always developing.

This is one reason why I believe that one negative aspect of competency-based education is its attempt to measure competencies in terms of ‘mastery’ and limiting them to competencies required by employers. The difference between a skill and a competency is that there is no limit to a skill. You can continually improve a skill. We should be enabling students to develop skills that will carry them through maybe multiple employers, and enable them to adapt to changing market requirements, for instance.

If then we want students to develop knowledge and skills, we need to provide the right kind of learning environments  that encourage and support such development. Although analogies have their limitations, I like to think of education as gardening, where the learners are the plants. Plants know how to grow; they just need the right environment, the right balance of sun and shadow, the right soil conditions, enough water, etc. Our job as teachers is to make sure we are providing learners with those elements that will allow them to grow and learn. (The analogy breaks down though if we think of learners as having consciousness and free will, which adds an important element to developing an effective learning environment.)

There are many possible effective learning environments

Teaching is incredibly context-specific so the learning environment must be suitable to the context. For this reason, every teacher or instructor needs to think about and build their own learning environment that is appropriate to the context in which they are working. Here are some examples of different learning environments:

  • a school or college campus
  • an online course
  • military training
  • friends, family and work
  • nature
  • personal, technology-based, learning environments
A personal learning environment Image: jason Hews, Flikr

A personal learning environment
Image: jason Hews, Flikr

Nevertheless I will argue that despite the differences in context, there are certain elements or components that will be found in most effective learning environments.

In developing an effective learning environment, there are two issues I need to address up front:

  • First, it is the learner who has to do the learning.
  • Second, any learning environment is much more than the technology used to support it.

With regard to the first, teachers cannot do the learning for the learner. All they can do is to create and manage an environment that enables and encourages learning. My focus then in terms of building an effective learning environment is on what the  teacher can do, because in the end that is all they can control. However, the focus of what the teacher does should be on the learner, and what the learner needs. That of course will require good communication between the learners and the teacher.

Second, many technology-based personal learning environments are bereft of some of the key components that make an effective learning environment. The technology may be necessary but it is not sufficient. I suggest below what some of those components are.

Key components

These will vary somewhat, depending on the context. I will give examples below, but it is important for every individual teacher to think about what components may be necessary within their own context and then on how best to ensure these components are effectively present and used. (There is a much fuller discussion of this in Appendix 1 of my book)

Learner characteristics

This is probably the most important of all the components: the learners themselves. Some of the key characteristics are listed below:

  • what are their goals and motivation to learn what I am teaching them?
  • in what contexts (home, campus, online) will they prefer to learn?
  • how diverse are they in terms of language, culture, and prior knowledge?
  • how digitally capable are they?

Given these characteristics, what are the implications for providing an effective learning environment for these specific learners?

Content

  • what content do students need to cover? What are the goals in covering this content?
  • what sources of content are necessary? Who should find, evaluate, and apply these sources: me or the students? If the learners, what do I need to provide to enable them to do this?
  • how should the content be structured? Who should do this structuring: me or the learners? If learners, what do I need to provide to help them?
  • what is the right balance between breadth and depth of content for the learners in this specific context?
  • what activities will learners need in order to acquire and manage this content?

Skills

  • what skills do students need to develop?
  • what activities will enable learners to develop and apply these skills? (e.g. thinking, doing, discussing)
  • what is the goal in skill development? Mastery? A minimal level of performance? How will learners know this?

Learner support

  • what counselling and/or mentoring will learners need to succeed?
  • how will learners get feedback (particularly on skills development)?
  • how will learners relate to other learners so they are mutually supporting?

Resources

  • how much time can I devote to each of the components of a learning environment? What’s the best way to split my time?
  • what help will I get from other teaching staff, e.g. teaching assistants, librarians? What is the best way to use them?
  • what facilities will the learners have available (e.g. learning spaces, online resources)?
  • what technology can the learners use; how should this be managed and organized?

Assessment

  • what types of assessment should be used? (formative, essays, e-portfolios, projects)?
  • how will these measure the content and skills that learners are expected to master?

These questions are meant mainly as examples. Each teacher needs to develop and think about what components will be necessary in their context and how best to provide those components.

For instance, I did not include culture as a component. In some contexts, cultural change is one of the most important goals of education. Negative examples of this might include the culture of privilege encouraged in private British boarding schools, or the attempt to replace indigenous cultures with a western culture, as practiced in Canada with aboriginal residential schools. More positive cultural components may be to encourage inclusivity or ethical behaviour. Again, each teacher should decide on what components are important for their learners.

Necessary but not sufficient

Thinking about and implementing these components may be necessary, but they are not sufficient in themselves to ensure quality teaching and learning. In addition effective teaching still needs:

  • good design
  • empathy for the learners
  • teacher competence (e.g. subject knowledge)
  • imagination to create an effective learning environment.

Conclusions

The learners must do the learning. We need to make sure that learners are able to work within an environment that helps them do this. In other words, our job as teachers is to create the conditions for success.

There are no right or wrong ways to build an effective learning environment. It needs to fit the context in which students will learn. However, before even beginning to design a course or program, we should be thinking of what this learning environment could look like.

Technology now enables us to build a wide variety of effective learning environments. But technology alone is not enough; it needs to include other components for learner success. This is not to say that self-managing learners cannot build their own effective, personal learning environments, but they need to consider the other components as well as the technology.

Questions

  1. What other components would you add to a successful learning environment?
  2. Could you now design a different and hopefully better learning environment for your courses or programs? If so, what would it look like?
  3. Is this a helpful way to approach the design of online learning or indeed any other form of learning?

 

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies

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A typical Webex interface

A typical Webex interface

Last week was a week of synchronous online sessions for me. I did ‘virtual’ keynotes into conferences in Tehran, Iran, and Beirut, the Lebanon, as well as a Contact North webinar.

The presentations

The topics were as follows:

The technologies

Each was done using a different combination of technologies:

  • Contact North’s was done using Cisco’s Webex, involving Powerpoint slides with my voice over in real time, and questions and comments submitted as text through the Webex chat facility; in this case there were fifty students from 16 different countries scattered around the world attending live. In addition there were about another fifty signed up who could later access a recording of the webinar;
  • the Iranian conference used a YouTube recording of a session I gave face-to-face at York University in 2012, which staff at York had recorded and uploaded to YouTube. The video presentation in the lecture hall was followed by an audio question and answer session from people in the conference hall using VOIP (voice over the Internet) through an American telecommunications company, Webco;
  • the Beirut conference used Citrix’s GoToMeeting web conferencing. This time, I ran the Powerpoint slides on my own computer, which then used GoToMeeting’s shared screen facility to deliver the slides (and my voice) into the lecture theatre in Beirut. Questions and comments were both sent by audio over the Internet and as text through the GoToMeeting chat facility.

In all three cases, as a presenter I was dependent on using the technology solution chosen by the client.

The results: technology

I haven’t seen any formal evaluation yet from participants. I would really like to hear from any participants about what their experience was of the technology. I am conscious then that I can report only from my perspective.

Technically, the smoothest by far was the Contact North webinar, even though the webinar was delivered to many different locations around the world using standard desktop computing and the Internet. The sound quality in particular was excellent. It is not surprising that the technical quality was high, as Contact North has a long history and great experience in audio conferencing. I had the services of an exceptionally high quality moderator provided by Contact North with lots of experience of moderating webinars. This is important, as he was able to pick up the text-based questions and comments that were arriving via the chat facility while I was presenting, and thus he was able to choose the order of questions and comments. (Contact North prefers not to use the audio for comments from participants when there are as many as fifty online different locations.) Also if there were unanswered questions during the session I could answer them later by e-mail, which Contact North would then distribute to those that had signed up.

With the Iranian conference, the use of a pre-existing video of one of my keynotes enabled a high quality technical presentation via local video and sound. However, the big problem for me was the quality of the sound coming back from the lecture theatre in Tehran when it came to the Q and A session. While I was responding to questions, I could hear my voice coming back from the lecture theatre speakers (with about a half second delay), even though I was using a headset and microphone, which meant I had to focus really hard on what I was saying. Also it was impossible for me to hear the questions being asked in Tehran, due to the poor quality of the audio by the time it reached me. I think this had more to do with the acoustics of a traditional lecture theatre and the use of hand-held microphones than the quality of the audio link over the Internet. However, the questions were converted into text via the chat facility, so I was able to respond to them verbally. Nevertheless, given that the presentation and the Q and A session was delivered in a foreign language, I suspect that it must have been difficult for many of the participants.

Language would not have been such a problem at the American University of Beirut, where the teaching is mainly in English. I can’t comment on the quality of the video and sound at the other end. Again, though, it was difficult for me to hear the questions from Beirut and again the chat facility was essential. However, in this case there was not much time for questions in any case.

Overall, audio quality is often the weakest link, especially if people are in an open lecture theatre. The technical problems interfered a little but not enough to prevent my getting across the main points of what I wanted to talk about. The Q and A sessions were not as smooth though as I would like on the conference presentations.

The results: pedagogical

This is more difficult to assess. The issues are general to all keynotes or presentations. Even though some technology systems allow the presenter to see at least a small group of the audience via video, I feel I am always talking into a vacuum when doing webinars or online presentations. Provided the technology is working this is not usually a major problem, but I have in the past been in a situation where I was talking for 15 minutes or more after a connection had been dropped before I became aware that I was talking to myself. Over time, though, the technology has become more reliable, although the basic design (a space for slides with voice over, and chat for questions and comments) has changed very little over the last 20 years.

The bigger issue is that it’s still a lecture and although I do my best to break it up with a few questions or opportunities for comment every ten minutes or so, I am deeply conscious that I am working in a way that is contrary to the message I am usually trying to get across.

Another limitation is that while there is plenty of opportunity for questions and comment, it is very difficult to get a genuine discussion going amongst the participants in the way that you can with an asynchronous discussion forum.

The real benefits

The real benefits of web conferencing are really to do with convenience, economics and ecology.

For participants, the advantage of being able to log on from home or the office rather than travel long distances to a conference or lecture theatre is considerable. For those in a conference, being able to access speakers at a distance enables a wider range of perspectives and approaches to be covered within the conference than would otherwise have been possible. This was particularly important for the people in Tehran who are really anxious to establish better contact with other specialists in online learning now that sanctions are being removed.

For presenters such as myself, the convenience is enormous. I get increasingly jet lagged by international travel, and being able to work from home is also very nice. (However, time differences can be a problem: my presentation into Beirut at 10.00 am their time meant I had to do the presentation between midnight and 1.00 am my time in Vancouver. It was not helped by having a dinner party that ended just before the presentation.) If I had travelled to Beirut or Tehran, it would have been a week out of my life, just for 40 minutes to one hour. Indeed, it wouldn’t have happened because I just don’t want to do that any more (when I was younger, it was different).

And of course there is the cost. Even without a speaker fee and flying economy, you are looking at something like $3,000 to bring a speaker from North America to the Middle East, by the time you have covered meals, hotel, taxis and air fare.

And lastly, there is the environment. The cost in greenhouse gases in flying such long distances is huge. Anything we can do to lower greenhouse gases these days is really worthwhile.

Nevertheless, there is a loss. I was in Tehran many years ago, but I would like to visit Beirut one day. You don’t get the close social interaction and networking that physical presence at a conference can provide, and these are often the most valuable parts of a conference for me. The technology is still a little awkward and clumsy and could be designed better to encourage more interaction. But the advantages so much outweigh the disadvantages.

Now I’m off to Toronto for the ChangTalks at Ryerson. This time I will be talking about building an effective teaching environment. It’s more about gardening though than technology. I’ll explain later.