January 23, 2018

Five old educational technologies

Etherington, C. (2018) Five educational technologies, circa 1918 ELearning inside news, January 1

Despite rumours, I was not around in 1918, but this article is a very nice reminder of what was happening 100 years ago with educational technologies. The five technologies are:

  • magic lanterns
  • chalkboards
  • ink pens
  • abacuses
  • radio

When I started teaching, in 1965, in my school it was still compulsory for students to use ink pens (not ‘nasty Biros’, which were available then). This was a real problem for left-handed pupils, who tended to drag their hand across the wet ink when writing from left to right. I fought hard to get an exemption but my headmistress was adamant – no exceptions were allowed. We have made at least some advances since then regarding accessibility and accommodation to the needs of minorities.

As the article points out, radio was still a couple of years away from actually being used for instructional purposes, although it was increasingly available by 1918. The first BBC adult educational radio program was broadcast in 1924 and was about fleas: a talk on Insects in Relation to Man.

Nevertheless, these old technologies also illustrate how little has changed in many classrooms in terms of pedagogy. PowerPoint is nothing more than a merger of a magic lantern and a chalkboard, but the form of teaching remains the same.

It is much easier to identify technology changes then over 100 years but far less progress has been made on improving teaching methods –  or do you disagree?

French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ now available

French version 2

The French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, L’enseignement a l’ère numerique‘, is now available from here.

I am very grateful to Contact North|Contact Nord for providing this professional translation.

There is now also a version in Vietnamese, ‘Dạy học trong kỷ nguyên số‘, translated by Lê Trung Nghĩa of the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, available through Dropbox here.

Spanish version, translated by staff in the Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de Buenos Aires, is almost complete and will be available from the BCcampus open textbook site (as will all the translations). I will provide an announcement containing the url when it is available.

A Chinese version, translated by staff at the Beijing Open University, will be available in August, 2016.

A Portuguese version, being translated by ABED, the Brazilian Association of Distance Education, will be available in time for its Annual Congress in September, 2016.

Turkish version is currently under consideration. I am awaiting more details.

Please note: under the Creative Commons license of the book, anyone is free to translate all or any part of the book, provided it is not used for commercial purposes and I am acknowledged as the author. I am sure that without this license, the book would not have become available so quickly in so many languages. However, if you do decide to translate the book, please let me know, so I can track its use and provide updates.

 

An excellent guide to multimedia course design

© University of Waterloo, 2016

© University of Waterloo, 2016

Centre for Extended Learning (2016) How do we create useful online learning experiences? Waterloo ON: University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning has combined Peter Morville’s user experience (UX) honeycomb and Richard Mayer’s theory and research on the use of multimedia for learning, to create a well-designed set of guidelines for online course design. This should be compulsory reading/viewing for all instructors moving into online learning.

Thanks to Naza Djafarova, Director, Digital Education Strategies, The Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, for directing me to this invaluable resource.

Average speed 2

 

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies

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.

 

 

 

Book review: A History of the Open University

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.