September 20, 2018

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

Why lectures are dead (or soon will be)

Artist: Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 1233

Artist: Laurentius de Voltolina;
Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 1233

As part of my open textbook on Teaching in a Digital Age, I am working my way through theories of learning and methods of teaching. I will post shortly my initial draft on theories of learning and their relevance for a digital age. In this post I want to discuss the lecture and its relevance for a digital age. Comments as always are more than welcome.


‘[Lectures] are more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants the audience to learn something.’

Bligh, 2000


Lectures go back as far as ancient Greece and Roman times, and certainly from at least the start of the European university, in the 13th century. The term ‘lecture’ comes from the Latin to read. This was because in the 13th century, most books were extremely rare. They were painstakingly handcrafted and illustrated by monks, often from fragments or collections of earlier and exceedingly rare and valuable scrolls remaining from more than 1,000 years earlier from ancient Greek or Roman times, or were translated from Arabic sources, as much documentation was destroyed in Europe during the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman empire. As a result, a university would often have only one copy of a book, and it may have been the only copy available in the world. The library and its collection therefore became critical to the reputation of a university, and professors had to borrow the only text from the library and literally read from it to the students, who dutifully wrote down their own version of the lecture.

The illustration at the head of this post from a thirteenth-century manuscript shows Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, Italy, in 1233. What is striking is how similar the whole context is to lectures today, with students taking notes, some talking at the back, and one clearly asleep. Certainly, if Rip Van Winkle awoke in a modern lecture theatre from his 800 years of sleeping, he would know exactly where he was and what was happening.

Lectures themselves belong to an even longer oral tradition of learning, where knowledge is passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. In such contexts, accuracy and authority (or power in controlling access to knowledge) are critical for ‘accepted’ knowledge to be successfully transmitted. Thus accurate memory, repetition and a reference to authoritative sources become exceedingly important in terms of validating the information transmitted. The great sagas of the ancient Greeks and much later, of the Vikings, and even today,the oral myths and legends of many indigenous communities, are examples of the power of the oral transmission of knowledge.

Nevertheless, the lecture format has been questioned for many years. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) long ago produced his own straightforward critique of lectures:

People have nowadays…got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken…Lectures were once useful, but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary.’

What is remarkable is that even after the invention of the printing press, radio, television, and the Internet, the lecture, characterised by the authoritative instructor talking to a group of students, still remains the dominant methodology for teaching in many institutions, even in a digital age, where information is available at a click of a button.

It could be argued that anything that has lasted this long must have something going for it. On the other hand, we need to question whether the lecture is still the most appropriate means of teaching, given all the changes that have taken place in recent years, and in particular given the kinds of knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.

What does research tell us about the effectiveness of lectures?

Whatever you may think of Samuel Johnson’s opinion, there has indeed been a great deal of research into the effectiveness of lectures, going back to the 1960s, and continued through until today. The most authoritative analysis of the research on the effectiveness of lectures remains Bligh’s (2000). He summarized a wide range of meta-analyses and studies of the effectiveness of lectures compared with other teaching methods and found consistent results:

  1. The lecture is as effective as other methods for transmitting information (the corollary of course is that other methods – such as video, reading, independent study – are just as effective as lecturing for transmitting information)
  2. Most lectures are not as effective as discussion for promoting thought
  3. Lectures are generally ineffective for changing attitudes or values or for inspiring interest in a subject
  4. Lectures are relatively ineffective for teaching behavioural skills.

It should be noted that are are also many studies that suggest that it makes little difference to the learning effectiveness of a lecture if it is live (with the lecturer and the audience together at the same place and time), if it is transmitted in real time across distance (such as via a webcast or video-conference) or is viewed once on a recording as a continuous event. Thus merely by transmitting a MOOC in the form of a video lecture makes it no more or less effective in terms of an individual’s learning than if it was delivered in a classroom (although of course the MOOC will reach a lot more learners). Thus the medium of transmission makes no difference to an individual’s learning if the form of the lecture remains the same.

However, my research colleagues and I at the U.K. Open University, as early as 1984, established that making a lecture available in a recorded format (either on video or audio) increased the learning effectiveness, because it increased students’ time on task, by enabling them to review and repeat the material. We also found that recorded video or audio was even more effective than a recorded lecture if the program was re-designed to break the transmission of information into small chunks, and if the stop-start facility of recordings was used to build in student activities and feedback following each chunk of information. Proponents of Coursera-style MOOCs are just beginning to rediscover this thirty years later.

Bligh also examined research on student attention, on memorizing, and on motivation, and concluded (p.56):

We see evidence… once again to suppose that lectures should not be longer than twenty to thirty minutes – at least without techniques to vary stimulation.’

These research studies have shown that in order to understand, analyze, apply, and commit information to long-term memory, the learner must actively engage with the material. In order for a lecture to be effective, it must include activities that compel the student to mentally manipulate the information. Many lecturers of course do this, by stopping and asking for comments or questions throughout the lecture – but many do not.

Again, although these findings have been available for a long time, and You Tube videos now last approximately eight minutes and TED talks 20 minutes at a maximum, teaching in many educational institutions is still organized around a standard 50 minute lecture session, with, if students are lucky, a few minutes at the end for questions or discussion. Indeed in some institutions it is not uncommon to find even longer lecture sessions.

There are two important conclusions from the research:

1. Even for the sole purpose for which lectures may be effective – the transmission of information – the 50 minute lecture needs to be well organized, with frequent opportunities for student questions and discussion. (Bligh provides excellent suggestions on how to do this in his book.)

2. For all other important learning activities, such as developing critical thinking, deep understanding, and application of knowledge – the kind of skills needed in a digital age – lectures are ineffective. Other forms of teaching and learning – such as opportunities for discussion and student activities – are necessary.

Does new technology make lectures more relevant?

Over the years, institutions have made massive investments in ‘technologising’ the lecture. Powerpoint presentations, multiple projectors and screens, clickers for recording student responses, even ‘back-chat’ channels on Twitter, enabling students to comment on a lecture – or more often, the lecturer – in real time (surely the worse form of torture), have all been tried. Students have been asked to bring tablets or lap-tops to class, and universities in particular have invested millions of dollars in state of the art lecture theatres.

Nevertheless, all this is just lipstick on a pig. The essence of a lecture remains the transmission of information, all of which is now readily and, in most cases, freely available in other media and in more learner-friendly formats.

I worked in a college where in one program all students had to bring laptops to class. At least in these classes, there were some activities to do related to the lecture that required the students to use the laptops during class time. However, in most classes this took less than 25 per cent of the lesson time. Most of the other time, students were talked at, and as a result used their laptops for other, mainly non-academic activities, especially playing online poker.

Faculty often complain about students use of technology such as mobile phones or tablets, for ‘non-relevant’ multitasking in class, but this misses the point. If most students have mobile phones or laptops, why are they still having physically to come to a lecture hall? Why can’t they get a podcast of the lecture? Second, if they are coming, why are the lecturers not requiring them to use their mobile phones, tablets, or laptops for study? Why not break them into small groups and get them to do some online research then come back with group answers to share with the rest of the class? If lectures are to be offered, the aim should be to make the lecture engaging in its own right, so the students are not distracted by their online activity. If lecturers can’t do this, perhaps they should give up lecturing and find more interactive ways of engaging students.

Is there then no role for lectures in a digital age?

I do believe that lectures have their uses. As an example, I have attended an inaugural lecture for a newly appointed research professor. In this lecture, he summarised all the research he and his team had done, resulting in treatments for several cancers and other diseases. This was a public lecture, so he had to satisfy not only other leading researchers in the area, but also a lay public with often no science background. He did this by using excellent visuals and analogies. The lecture was followed by a small wine and cheese reception for the audience.

The lecture worked for several reasons:

  • first of all, it was a celebratory occasion bring together family, colleagues and friends.
  • second, it was an opportunity to pull together nearly 20 years of research into a single, coherent narrative or story.
  • third, the lecture was well supported by an appropriate use of graphics and video.
  • lastly, he put a great deal of work into preparing this lecture and thinking about who would be in the audience – much more preparation than would be the case if this was just one of many lectures in a course.

More importantly, though, that lecture is now publicly available via You Tube for anyone to view.

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, p. 58) believe that lecturing is best used for:

  • providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source
  • summarizing material found in a variety of sources.
  • adapting material to the interests of a particular group.
  • initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas
  • modelling expert thinking.

The last point is important. Faculty often argue that the real value of a lecture is to model for students how the faculty member, as an expert, approaches a topic or problem. Thus the important point of the lecture is not the transmission of content (facts, principles, ideas), which the students could get from just reading, but an expert way of thinking about the topic. The trouble with this argument for lectures is three-fold:

  • students are rarely aware that this is the purpose of the lecture, and therefore focus on memorizing the content, rather than the ‘modelling’ of expert thinking
  • faculty themselves are not explicit about how they are doing the modelling (or fail to offer other ways in which modelling could be used, so students can compare and contrast)
  • students get no practice themselves in modelling this skill, even if they are aware of the modelling.

So, yes, there are a few occasions when lectures work very well. But they should not be the default model for regular teaching. There are much better ways to teach that will result in better learning over the length of a course or program, and that lectures, whether live, or on MOOCs, YouTube videos or TED talks, are a poor way to prepare learners for a digital age.

Why are lectures still the main form of educational delivery?

Given all of the above, some explanation needs to be offered for the persistence of the lecture into the 21st century. Here are my suggestions

  1. in fact, in many areas of education, the lecture has been replaced, particularly in many elementary or primary schools (although parents often are unhappy about this, because a lecture represents their understanding of what teaching is all about); online learning (usually avoiding recorded lectures) and open education is also increasing more rapidly than classroom based learning
  2. a false assumption that the lecture is economically efficient. It is true it is efficient in the use of an instructor’s time, in that increasing student numbers in a lecture is no more work for the instructor for each student added to a class. However, efficiency needs to take into account output. If the output is to transfer information both less effectively per individual learner and in terms of providing the knowledge and skills in demand, then large lecture classes are a false efficiency;
  3. architectural inertia: a huge investment has been made by institutions in facilities that support the lecture model. What is to happen to all that real estate if it is not used?
  4. the Carnegie unit of teaching, which is based on a notion of one hour per week of classroom time per credit over a 13 week period. It is easy then to divide a three credit course into 39 one hour lectures over which the curriculum for the course must be covered. It is on this basis that teaching load and resources are decided.
  5. faculty in post-secondary education have no other model for teaching. This is the model they are used to, and because appointment is based on training in research or work experience, and not on qualifications in teaching, they have no knowledge of how students learn or confidence or experience in other methods of teaching.
  6. many experts prefer the oral tradition of teaching and learning, because it enhances their status as an expert and source of knowledge: being allowed an hour of other people’s time to hear your ideas without major interruption is very satisfying on a personal level (at least for me).

Is there a future for lectures in a digital age?

That depends on how far into the future one wants to look. Given the inertia in the system, I suspect that lectures will still predominate for another ten years, but after that, in most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this.

  • the first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost.
  • second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media.
  • third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures.
  • lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. A lecture will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.

 In the meantime, institutions should be looking at their building plans, and deciding if the money they are thinking of in terms of classrooms and lecture theatres may not be better spent on digitizing the curriculum and making it openly available.


Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation. London: Constable

Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Boswell, James (1986), Hibbert, Christopher, ed., The Life of Samuel Johnson, New York: Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-043116-0.

McKeachie, W. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 13th Edition Independence KY: Cengage

Book review: Clark Quinn’s ‘The Mobile Academy’

© Anthony's Blog, 2009-2011

Quinn, C. (2012) The Mobile Academy: mLearning for Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley, 120 pp

The author points out that 90% of the world’s population now has access to mobile networks, yet less than a quarter of post-secondary educational institutions in North America have mobile learning or administrative activities. As the author states: ‘Mobile has matured and stabilized to the point where it now makes sense to understand, plan and start developing mobile solutions….What we have on tap is the opportunity to revisit the fundamentals of the learning experience and use technology to come closer to the ideals we would like to achieve.‘ The book sets out in a straightforward, non-technical way a set of strategies for mobile learning so as ‘to optimize the learner experience‘.

From the preface:

Who the book is for

This book is for the higher education instructor and folks that support them as instructional designers or in administrative services.


The book provides the background information necessary to successfully design mobile learning solutions


1. The Mobile Revolution: no, this is not directly about the Arab Spring, but a brief introduction, focusing particularly on why higher education needs to pay attention to mobile learning.

2. Foundations: mobile: a brief introduction to the underlying technology behind mobile devices.

3. Foundations: learning: another brief but well-founded introduction to the principles/theories of learning relevant to mobile learning

4. Administration to go: an introduction to learner support focused on issues that are not directly associated with teaching and learning: What needs do students have for information and transactions on campus? Can they be provided any time and anywhere via mobile communications?

5. Content is king: this chapter focuses on using mobiles for delivering or accessing content in its various forms; it includes a useful summary of the status of various LMSs in supporting mobile at the time of writing.

6. Practice: interactivity and assessment deals with learner activities, practice/applications of learning and various forms of assessment available through or facilitated by mobile devices

7. Going social examines the various ways mobile devices can support social learning

8 Going beyond discusses the ‘cutting edge’ of mobile applications, including augmented reality, alternate reality and adaptive delivery

9. Getting going: organizational issues focuses on the organizational context needed to support mobile learning, such as design, development, implementation and policies, and the chapter ends with a brief conclusion to the book


I really liked this book. It’s probably no co-incidence that a book on mobile learning is short and simple (critical design features for mobile applications). However, it is not trivial. It is based on sound pedagogical principles. It focuses not only on what’s involved in the general transfer of digital learning from desktops or laptops to digital devices, but also focuses on the special ‘affordances’ of mobile learning. In particular, Quinn organizes the book around his four ‘C’s of mobile learning: content; capture; compute; and communicate.

This book is squarely aimed at faculty and instructors. It is not intended for IT specialists and probably won’t satisfy the more experienced users of mobile learning. But it is an excellent introduction to mobile learning for instructors in the 75% of institutions that do not have a mobile strategy yet, and for those instructors in the other institutions who are still hesitating about committing to mobile applications.

However, reading the book on its own is unlikely to be enough for many instructors. They will need to work with IT and media support staff and instructional designers if they are to avoid overwork and poor quality applications. A lot of the value from mobile learning requires fairly sophisticated media production, for instance, that is likely to beyond the scope of most instructors, working alone. Above all, institutions need to be committed to supporting mobile learning as a key strategy and to put in place the organization and support needed to make it a success. But this book will be a great start for many instructors, and I hope also that this will be read by senior managers in the 75% of institutions without a mobile strategy.


The image at the head of this post is from an excellent case study of mobile learning at St Edmund’s Catholic School, Wolverhampton, UK, in Anthony’s Blog in, February 25, 2011

See also: Sharples, M., Corlett, D., & Westmancott, O.  (2002)  The design and implementation of a mobile learning resource. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing Vol. 6, No. 3 pp. 220-234.

Book review: The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

Davidson, C and Goldberg, D. (2010) The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age Chicago: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The book itself is an attempt at collaborative, digital publishing, with early drafts made public for comment and suggestions, using ‘a new digital tool, called CommentPress, [that] allowed readers to open a comment box for any paragraph of the text and to type in a response, and then allowed subsequent readers to add additional comments’.

The authors (academics from Duke University and the University of California at Irvine) state (p.49) that:

This book advocates institutional change because our current formal educational institutions are not taking enough advantage of the modes of digital and participatory learning available to students today. 

The book is organized as follows:

1   Introduction and Overview: The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

2    Customized and Participatory Learning

3    Our Digital Age: Implications for Learning and Its (Online) Institutions

4    FLIDA 101: A Pedagogical Allegory

5   Institutions as Mobilizing Networks

6    HASTAC: A Case Study of a Virtual Learning Institution as a Mobilizing Network

7    (In)Conclusive: Thinking the Future of Digital Thinking

Over the first three chapters the authors make a powerful argument as to why digital technology requires fundamental shifts in post-secondary teaching and institutional organization. They dissect the weakness of the current dominant paradigm of learning based on ‘lockstep national standards and standardized testing,’ and argue for learning based on collaboration, networking, and self-learning.

Chapter 4 presents a fictional scenario of a collaborative, cross-institutional, inter-disciplinary program on – guess what – ‘The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age’, delivered via Second Life, and then proceed to demonstrate why it would be impossible to implement this program in the current university context.

In Chapter 5, the authors provide a new perspective on institutions which they define as follows:

Institutions are mobilizing networks. They aggregate, coordinate, disperse, balance, and adjudicate complex flows of resources. Institutions are also social, political, and economic structures prompting a culture of their own. They embody protocols of governance and varying degrees of control over their members. Institutions validate and impose norms, practices, and beliefs, seeking to ensure orderly interchange through normative interactions…..Institutions may occupy a primary site and exercise jurisdiction over constituents. Institutional sites may be concrete or virtual, and jurisdiction may be legal or social and ideological… This working definition has been especially useful in thinking through the full implications of what a peer-to-peer institution might look like. Of key importance is its motivational premise pointing to the institution’s role as a mobilizing network.

They then give some examples of such ‘mobilizing networks’: the Urban Education Institute (a partnership between the Chicago public school system and the University of Chicago); the Sustainable South Bronx project in New York City; the Waag Society in Amsterdam, the Hayden planetarium of New York’s Museum of Natural History, plus a whole chapter on HASTAC  (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.) ‘In all of these institutional instances, a form of learning radiates outward from traditional institutions and inward from other less-usual kinds, mobilizing and invigorating both in such creative ways that it is difficult to define the borders of one or another.’ 

The book ends with 10 principles for the future of learning organizations:

  • self-learning
  • horizontal structures
  • from presumed authority to collective credibility
  • a decentered pedagogy
  • networked learning
  • open source and open accessed education
  • learning as connectivity and interactivity
  • lifelong learning
  • learning institutions as mobilizing networks


This is a publication that I approached with enormous anticipation. Indeed it does have a number of strengths, but also some very serious weaknesses.

The publication is almost a bible or primer on the importance and necessity of digital learning. There are interesting discussions around authorship, intellectual property, the dominant educational paradigm and its unsuitability for a digital age, and many other issues that are the consequence of the digital age.

None of their arguments I would disagree with, but like many such treatises, it does go on and on (200 pages of it). There is an enormous amount of repetition and preaching to the converted. At times it reads more like a political pamphlet for the net generation.  In particular, it is very verbose, which I hate to say is the likely result of the additional comments and contributions from many different sources resulting from ‘opening up’ the draft for general comment.

While I would support the authors’ arguments in general, I can’t see this publication being read by those who don’t see the need for change, and if they do read it, it’s unlikely to convince them. What isn’t tackled in this publication is the difficult issue of the difference between academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Unless that challenge is accepted, traditional academics are unlikely to buy into the forms of learning that are often associated with social media and other aspects of digital learning. (I’m not arguing that social media are inappropriate for academic learning, but the case wasn’t made here.)

What was most disappointing for me was the failure to take the ideas of digital learning and show how institutions we know as universities or colleges could change. Allegories are all very well, but not when the authors admit they would be impossible to implement in today’s university. The issue is never really addressed as to whether something we would still recognize as a university could be organized, restructured or re-designed to not just accommodate but be the very essence of digital learning. All the examples given are really partnerships between traditional institutions and non-traditional institutions. These are valuable in their own right, but do not define at least a higher education institution in the digital age. In the end, I felt the authors couldn’t really let go of the traditional institution.

In summary then, the authors provide a framework or philosophy for digital learning, which in itself is valuable, but not the architecture or the engineering that would enable institutions fully to embrace digital learning. But then, that would be a daunting task for anyone (or network).

Book review: Changing Cultures in Higher Education

Book cover

Ehlers, U-D. and Schneckenberg, D. (eds. ) Changing Cultures in Higher Education: Moving Ahead to Future Learning Heidelberg/London/New York: Springer, 610 pp, US$129.00

What the book is about

The fundamental premise behind this book is that universities need radical change, and the authors contributing to the book offer analysis and strategies to bring about that change. The editors argue in the opening chapter that there will be ‘a … shift toward a new paradigm of organizational and individual learning’, and that ‘such a strategic shift requires a more strategic approach to institutional change.’ They argue that ‘changing cultures require the liberation of creative resources that are currently bound in often too large and inflexible institutional hierarchies. Universities have to push for a change of long-standing values, habits, beliefs, at both management and faculty level.’ In particular, the book examines the impact of technology on the university and aims to be a handbook for strategic innovation in higher education to enable universities to better meet future challenges.

The contributors

The editors have brought together over 50 contributors, the majority of whom are European, although there are also authors from the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Brief bios are provided for each of the contributors.

The content

The book is organized into four main sections:

  1. Setting the Scene
  2. New strategies for a culture of change and innovation in universities
  3. e-Competence and faculty engagement for e-learning
  4. Innovation and quality through e-learning in universities.

Within each section there are one or two ‘case studies’ called ‘Stories of Change’ which provide examples of how universities are changing.

Setting the Scene

There are five chapters in this section, including the introductory chapter by the editors, and chapters from Tony Bates, Gilly Salmon, Jay Cross and Roberto Carneiro.

The editors in their introductory chapter identify seven areas where ‘deep changes’ are taking place in universities (learners, learning outcomes geared towards competence and innovation, the role of faculty, diverse teaching methods, strategic directions, leadership and management, and external relations), and identify a further eight ‘cornerstones of change’, such as lifelong learning, use of technology, ubiquitous learning, affordable education, collaborative learning, diversity, internationalization, and new forms and patterns of educational delivery.

I provide a chapter on why universities must change, setting out both the pressures for and the barriers to change, and suggest three key strategies for change: increased incentives for institutional change from funding agencies; compulsory training of all instructors in modern methods of teaching; and better training for senior managers/administrators.

Gilly Salmon, drawing on the University of Leicester’s learning innovation strategy, focuses on the changing needs of learners and the opportunities that are available to meet such needs, and on pragmatic ways to innovate, both incrementally and radically.

With the neat title of ‘They Had People Called Professors’, Jay Cross argues that universities have to pay much more attention to supporting informal as well as formal learning, and provides an excellent analysis and discussion of informal learning at a higher education level.

Roberto Carneiro draws on management and organizational theory to propose a theory of change for the transformation of modern universities.

I found this section particularly useful in addressing both the reasons for change, and key strategies for bringing about change, in universities.

New strategies for a culture of change and innovation in universities

This section, which contains 12 relatively short chapters from different authors, presents a range of strategic approaches to support sustainable innovation in today’s universities. The section begins with a case study of innovation at a large European research university, the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and also includes another case study of change, the National University of Ireland.

Other chapters cover:

  • defining and shaping learning cultures,
  • the role of faculty development in changing learning cultures,
  • using wikis and blogs for developing more informal and self-directed learning
  • an overview of open educational resources and a blueprint for adoption,
  • an analysis of drivers of change and the role of leadership and strategic planning for change implementation,
  • making user-generated content approaches work,
  • strategic issues in information management in universities,
  • developing leadership capacity and skills,
  • the use of Appreciative Inquiry for supporting a change to e-learning,
  • the implementation of e-learning at four different institutions in the UK using different approaches and a comparison of results.

This section covers a wide variety of approaches to innovation, most of which are embedded in actual examples.

e-Competence and Faculty Engagement for e-Learning

This section outlines the main components of the concept of e-Competence, which is defines as ‘the ability of faculty and students to adequately use technologies for teaching, learning and research in higher education’.

This section contains 11 chapters, this time with three case studies, one from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, one from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and one from the Finnish Virtual University. The other chapters cover:

  • a conceptual framework for the concept of e-Competence
  • learning in communities
  • the use of online conferencing to build professional communities in Africa
  • the difference between conveying informational knowledge and the development of competences
  • a case-study comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of e-learning and face-to-face teaching
  • the competences of the network generation (Homo Zappiens)
  • an educational ICT competency framework for university teachers: roles and domains
  • building e-learning teaching competences through collaborative learning.

This section covers the issue of faculty development and training in e-learning in several different but complementary ways, again with many examples of ‘best practice’.

Innovation and quality through e-learning in Universities

In this section, the editors argue that ‘there is a strong need for a common concept of quality improvement that is theoretically sound and at the same time meets the expectations of stakeholders…This [section] outlines, on the basis of a comprehensive analysis of established quality management strategies, the challenges for an innovative approach to quality development in universities.’

This section contains nine chapters, one of which, The Ruhr University of Bochum, is a case study in quality management. The other chapters cover:

  • moving from control to culture in quality management
  • quality for global knowledge-intensive organizations
  • quality development for e-Learning 2.0
  • new ways to measure the quality of Web 2.0 learning
  • a theoretically sound concept of quality criteria: the EFMD-CEL model
  • changing e-learning practice: the MedidaPrix Award
  • the UNIQUe accreditation model; supporting innovation and quality in e-learning
  • the organizational impact of open educational resources.

The section provides a number of different approaches to quality development and management, and the relationship between e-learning, quality and innovation are explored in some depth.


First, a declaration of interest and a note of caution. I wrote both the forward and a chapter for this book, and I already had a great respect for the work of the editors of this book before reading it. I have not had the time yet (if I ever will) to read all the chapters in depth, so this is a first impression of a very large book.

The good

Nevertheless, it is clear to me that this is an extremely important book which goes to the heart of the current condition of universities in economically developed countries. The editors have collected together an impressive range of authors, cases and ideas within a single volume. The structure of the book works well, with coherence within and between the sections. The editors have pulled together many of the leading thinkers about and practitioners in e-learning in European universities and from elsewhere, and the book gives an excellent overview of current innovations in European universities. Despite the wide range of authors and the large number of chapters, there is relatively little duplication or redundancy in the book. Indeed, there are really no weak or unconvincing chapters.

The book provides senior managers in universities with both a conceptual analysis of the way that university teaching and learning is changing, and how it needs to change further, and a raft of ideas and strategies for supporting such changes, while maintaining and indeed improving quality. It should be essential reading for every university administrator and manager, as well as faculty.

Although this is a field in which I claim some expertise, I was continually surprised and delighted to find new ideas and approaches that seemed to be a good fit for the challenges universities are facing. Different readers will have different preferences, but I particularly enjoyed all the other chapters (besides mine) in setting the scene, because they establish very clearly why universities need to change, and to change more quickly than they are doing at the moment. (This perhaps should not be given too much attention, as we all like to hear from people whose views we agree with!).

I also particularly liked Chapter 17 , which described the implementation of e-learning at four different institutions in the UK using different approaches and a comparison of results. I liked this chapter because in the four institutions an evidence-based approach to innovation was used, and the chapter provided a list of ten practical tips for cross-institutional collaboration in institutional change management.

I also was impressed by John Erpenbeck’s Chapter 22 on conspiracies and competences, which compares what actually happens in university classrooms to what is claimed to happen. Another chapter that was very revealing is J.A. Boon’s Chapter 23, which looks at the strengths and weaknesses both of face-to-face and online learning. We need many more studies that try to identify the unique roles of each in different contexts.

Despite my inherent antipathy to quality assurance measures as generally practiced in higher education, I also enjoyed Ulf-Daniel Ehler’s Chapter 30, which argues the case for developing a culture of quality, rather than a set of controls, and particularly the last chapter in the book, Nial Sclater’s, on the organizational implications of open educational resources, a critical element that I have rarely seen discussed. However, it is, as they say, invidious to pick on some chapter and not others. I just wanted to give a reflection though of the range and quality of the chapters.

The bad

It’s too long. At over 600 pages in length, what busy university president or vice-chancellor is going to read it thoroughly? A thorough read is really necessary, because the book is about changing people’s behaviour, and this does not come easily. The value of the book is its detailed approach to institutional change management. It says much about university management today that it is almost impossible to sit down a university president and get 20 minutes uninterrupted time, but that’s the way it is. This book requires a three month vacation – and I have other ideas about what to do when on holiday. It would have been better to have produced three or four shorter books within a series. This would have kept the length down, reduced the price, and made the work much more accessible.

Second, despite its length, in some ways the book’s focus is too narrow. It focuses particularly on e-learning, but really the challenge is to university teaching and learning as a whole. There is a danger in just focusing on the technological aspects. I will discuss in another blog the need to engage other stakeholders, such as government, parents and students, in university reform. In the meantime, see Innovate or Die, an earlier post that discusses the need for institutions to innovate and change.

I also felt that what was lacking were alternative views from the more traditional university teachers. There are many good things about the ‘old’ model of teaching which should not be ignored. How can these be carried over and strengthened in the ‘new’ university? Lastly, some of the chapters were highly rhetorical or speculative. Nothing wrong with that, but they do lay themselves open to the charge: ‘Where’s the evidence’? I felt this particularly about Veen and van Staalduinen’s Chapter 24 on Homo Zappiens.


Despite these criticisms, this is an excellent book, with pragmatic suggestions for reforming and improving university teaching. I just fear that it will be preaching to the converted, though. The best strategy is to get the library to order the book, give it to the Vice Chancellor as he goes on holiday, and insist he pays the fine when he is late returning it to the library.