June 22, 2018

Report on SFU’s experiences of teaching with technology

Simon Fraser University (on a rare day when it wasn't raining)

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus (on a rare day when it wasn’t raining)

I always enjoy going to a university or college and seeing how they are using learning technologies. I am always a little surprised and I am also usually intrigued by some unexpected application, and today’s DemoFest at Simon Fraser University was no exception.

About Simon Fraser University

SFU has just over 35,000 students with campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver downtown, and Surrey, all in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

For a long time it has had the largest distance education program in British Columbia, but the rapid development of fully online and blended learning in other BC and Canadian institutions means that other institutions are rapidly gaining ground. It is also the academic base for Linda Harasim, who is a Professor of Communications at SFU.

As with many Canadian universities, most of the DE programs are run out of the Centre for Online and Distance Learning in Continuing Studies at SFU. However, the university also has a large Teaching and Learning Centre, which provides a range of services including learning technology support to the faculty on campus.

The university recently adopted Canvas as its main LMS.

I was spending most of the day at SFU for two reasons:

  • to identify possible cases for Contact North’s ‘pockets of innovation’ project
  • to report on the survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

I will be giving more information on both these projects in separate blog posts coming shortly.

The DemoFest

DEMOfest 2016 is about how instructors are using ….technologies in ways that produce exciting and original educational experiences leading to student engagement and strong learning outcomes.

Making lectures interactive

Not surprisingly, several of the short, 10 minute presentations were focused on tools used in classroom teaching or lecturing. In particular, the tools are going mobile, in the form of apps that students can use on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops. I was particularly impressed with TopHat, which incorporates online quizzes and tests, attendance checks, and  discussion. REEF Polling is a similar development developed by iClicker, which is effectively a mobile app version of iClicker. Both provide students and instructors with an online record of their classroom activity on the app.

There was also a couple of sessions on lecture theatre technologies. As in other universities, lecturers can find a range of different interfaces for managing lecture theatre facilities. SFU has a project that will result in a common, simple interface that will be available throughout the different campuses of the universities, much to the relief of faculty and visiting speakers who at the moment have no idea what to expect when entering an unfamiliar lecture theatre or classroom.. There was also another session on the limits of lecture capture and how to use video to make learning more engaging.

Online learning development

However, I found nothing here (or anywhere else, for that matter) that has convinced me that there is a future in the large lecture class. Most of the technology enhancements, although improvements on the straight ‘talk’ lecture, are still just lipstick on a pig.

The online learning developments were much more interesting:

  • online proctoring: Proctorio. This was a demonstration of the ingenuity of students in cheating in online assessment and even greater ingenuity in preventing them from doing it. Proctorio is a powerful web-based automated proctoring system that basically takes control of whatever device the student is using to do an online assessment and records their entire online activity during the exam. Instructors/exam supervisors though have options as to exactly what features they can control, such as locked screens, blocking use of other urls, etc.. Students just sign in and take the exam at any time set by the instructor. Proctorio provides the instructor with a complete record of students’ online activity during the exam, including a rating of the ‘suspiciousness’ of the student’s online exam activity.
  • peer evaluation and team-based learning: SFU has a graduate diploma in business where students are required to work in teams, specifically to build team approaches to problem-solving and business solutions. Although the instructor assesses both the individual and group assignments, students evaluate each other on their contribution to the team activities. The demonstration also showed how peer assessment was handled within the Canvas LMS. It was a good example of best practices in peer-to-peer assessment.
  • Dialectical Map: an argument visualization tool developed at SFU. Joan Sharp, Professor of Biological Sciences, and her research colleague, Hui Niu, have developed a simple, interactive, web-based tool that facilitates the development of argumentation for science students. Somewhat to my surprise, research evidence shows that science students are often poor at argumentation, even in the upper years of an undergraduate program. This tool enables a question to be posed by an instructor at the tope of the map, such as ‘Should the BC government allow fracking for oil?’ or ‘Should the BC government stop the culling of wolves to protect caribou?’ The online map is split into two parts, ‘pro’ and ‘con’, with boxes for the rationale, and linked boxes for the evidence to support each rationale offered. Students type in their answers to the boxes (both pro and con) and have a box at the bottom to write their conclusion(s) from the argument. Students can rate the strength of each rationale. All the boxes in a map can be printed out, giving a detailed record of the arguments for and against, the evidence in support of the arguments and the student’s conclusion.  Hui Niu has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the tool, and has found that the use of the tool has substantially increased students’ performance on argument-based assignments/assessment.

General comments

I was very grateful for the invitation and enjoyed nearly all the presentations. The Teaching and Learning Centre is encouraging research into learning technologies, particularly developing a support infrastructure for OERs and looking at ways to use big data for the analysis and support of learning. This practical, applied research is being led by Lynda Williams, the Manager of the Learn tech team, and is being done in collaboration with both faculty and graduate students from different departments.

Students and a professor of computer science worked with the IT division and Ancillary Services to develop a student app for the university called SFU Snap, as part of a computer science course. This not only provides details of the bus services to and from SFU at any time, but also provides students with an interactive map so they can find their classrooms. Anyone who has tried to find their way around SFU (built at multi-levels into a mountain) will understand how valuable such an app must be, not just to students but also to visitors.

So thank you, everyone at the Teaching and Learning Centre at SFU for a very interesting and useful day.

 

Lessons about researching technology-enhanced instruction

Meiori, Amalfi Coast

Meiori, Amalfi Coast – when it’s not raining

Lopes, V. and Dion, N. (2105) Pitfalls and Potential: Lessons from HEQCO-Funded Research on Technology-Enhanced Instruction Toronto ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Since it’s raining heavily here on the Amalfi Coast today for the first time in months, I might as well do another blog post.

What this report is about

HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) is an independent advisory agency funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities to provide recommendations for improving quality, accessibility, inter-institutional transfer, system planning, and effectiveness in higher education in Ontario. In 2011, HEQCO:

issued a call for research projects related to technology-enhanced instruction…. Now that the technology studies have concluded and that most have been published, this report draws some broader conclusions from their methods and findings.

What are the main conclusions?

1. There is no clear definition of what ‘technology’ means or what it refers to in many studies that investigate its impact on learning:

One assumes that the nature of the tools under investigation would have an impact on research design and on the metrics being measured. Yet little attention is paid to this problem, which in turns creates challenges when interpreting study findings.

2. There is no clear definition of blended or hybrid learning:

The proportion of online to face-to-face time, as well as the nature of the resources presented online, can both differ considerably. In a policy context, where we may wish to discuss issues across institutions or at a system level, the lack of consensus definitions can be particularly disruptive. In this respect, a universal definition of blended learning, applied consistently to guide practice across all colleges and universities, would be helpful.

3. Students need orientation to/training in the use of the technologies used in their teaching: they are not digital natives in the sense of being intuitively able to use technology for study purposes.

4. Instructors and teaching assistants should also be trained on the use and implementation of technology.

5. The simple presence of technology will rarely enhance a classroom. Instead, some thought has to go into integrating it effectively.

6. New technologies should be implemented not for their own sake but with a specific goal or learning outcome in mind.

7. Many of the HEQCO-funded studies, including several of those with complex study designs and rigorous methodologies, concluded that the technology being assessed had no significant effect on student learning.

8. Researchers in the HEQCO-funded studies faced challenges encouraging student participation, which often led to small sample sizes in situations where classroom-based interventions already limited the potential pool of participants.

9. The integration of technology in postsecondary education has progressed to such a point that we no longer need to ask whether we should use technology in the classroom, but rather which tool to use and how.

10. There is no single, unified, universally accepted model or theory that could be applied to ensure optimal learning in all educational settings.

Comment

I need to be careful in my comments, not because I’m ticked off with the weather here (hey, I live in Vancouver – we know all about rain), but because I’ve spent most of my working life researching technology-enhanced instruction, so what appears blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. So I don’t really know where to start in commenting on this report, except to say I found it immensely depressing.

Let me start by saying that there is really nothing in this report that was not known before the research was done (in other words, if they had asked me, I could have told HEQCO what to expect). I am a great supporter of action or participant research, because the person doing the research learns a great deal. But it is almost impossible to generalise such results, because they are so context-specific, and because the instructor is not usually trained in educational research, there are often – as with these studies – serious methodological flaws.

Second, trying to define technology is like trying to catch a moonbeam. The whole concept of defining a fixed state so that generalisations can be made to the same fixed state is entirely the wrong kind of framework for researching technology influences, because the technology is constantly changing. (This is just another version of the objectivist vs constructivist debate.)

So one major problem with this research is HEQCO’s expectations that the studies would lead to generalisations that could be applied across the system. If HEQCO wants that, it needs to use independent researchers and fund the interventions on a large enough scale – which of course means putting much more money into educational research than most governments are willing to risk. It also means sophisticated design that moves away from matched, controlled comparisons to in-depth case studies, using though rigorous qualitative research methodology.

This illustrates a basic problem with most educational research. It is done on such a small scale that the interventions are unlikely to lead to significant results. If you tweak just a little bit of a complex environment, any change is likely to be swamped by changes in other variables.

The second problem in most of the studies appears to be the failure to link technology-based interventions to changes in learning outcomes. In other words, did the use of technology lead to a different kind of learning? For instance, did the application of the technology lead students to think more critically or manage information well rather than reproduce or memorize what was being taught before? So another lesson is that you have to ask the right kind of research questions that focus on different kinds of learning outcomes.

Thus it is pointless to ask whether technology-based interventions lead to better learning outcomes than classroom teaching. There are too many other variables than technology to provide a definitive answer. The question to ask instead is: what are the required conditions for successful blended or hybrid learning, and what counts as success? The last part of the question means being clear on what different learning outcomes are being sought.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that it may be better not to set firm outcomes before the intervention, but to provide enough flexibility in the teaching context to see what happens when instructors and students have choices to make about technology use. This might mean looking backwards rather than forwards by identifying what most would deem highly successful technology interventions, then working back to see what conditions enabled this success.

But fiddling with the research methods won’t produce much if the intervention is too small scale. Nineteen little, independent studies are great for the instructors, but if we are to learn things than can be generalized, we need fewer but larger, more sophisticated, and more integrated studies. In the meantime, we are no further in being able to improve the design of blended or hybrid learning than before these research studies were done, which is why I am depressed.

Instructional design: the times they are a’changing

 

The Barber Learning Centre, UBC

Last week I attended a very interesting workshop, called Just ID,  at the University of British Columbia. The workshop was organized with the support of BCCampus and the Educational Technology Users Group of British Columbia. This was the same group that organized a similar workshop in Victoria last year.

This year’s event was attended by about 50 people with interests or jobs in instructional design from around the province. The meeting was organized as a set of rotating discussion groups, with 5 themes, and 2 tables per theme, with 20 minutes discussion at each table.

I had the honour of trying to capture and report on the discussions. Although I was able to observe and participate in discussions on each of the five topics, I covered only half the tables, so this summary captures less than half what was discussed. However, groups did leave summary points on paper sheets on each table, and I incorporated some of these comments from other groups. I have coloured those comments that I really liked.

Theme 1: Innovation/creativity and instructional design

This was interpreted in two ways:

•     the need to teach creativity as a skill: how do you do that?

•     the need to develop innovative or creative teaching: how do you do that?

On teaching innovation and creativity as skills, it was recognized that these are often now learning goals in many subject domains, not just in the creative arts (e.g. being innovative or creative in business of engineering). However, it was also recognized that creativity in particular not an easy thing to teach. Creativity by nature is not predictable and often emerges as a reaction against ‘conformity’; thus to foster creativity means sometimes approaching it indirectly, by creating learning environments that encourage critical thinking and new ways of looking at issues. Nevertheless, instructional designers should be thinking of how to foster innovation and creativity as learning objectives in all subject areas.

In terms of fostering innovative and creative teaching, it was recognized that focusing on innovation in teaching usually acts as a motivator for instructors. They are likely to respond to the challenge of doing something new or different from their colleagues.

There was some discussion around whether learning management systems inhibited creativity or innovation in teaching. Some felt LMSs inhibited innovation by providing a ‘standard’ approach to teaching; others believed that LMSs were flexible enough to enable or even foster innovative teaching. It was recognized though that some technologies tend to reinforce conventional teaching (e.g. clickers) while others fostered more innovative teaching (e.g. smart phones). The idea of a fixed course structure was also considered another factor inhibiting innovation in teaching.

It was also pointed out that innovation in teaching is not always necessary for good teaching. There are many tried and trusted ways of teaching that work well within well defined contexts and these should not be abandoned because they are not new or different.

Often instructors thought that just using a new technology was ‘innovative.’ but it was argued that innovation is not necessarily about using new technologies, but developing new ways of teaching, or thinking about learning. There was a tendency when focusing on new technologies to re-invent the wheel, by ignoring research and experience with similar earlier technologies. For example, many of the mistakes identified with using audio cassettes were often repeated with podcasting.  Successful innovation depends on building on what we already know as well as doing something different.

CORE MESSAGE FROM THIS THEME:

BECAUSE OF THE CHALLENGES OF MASS HIGHER EDUCATION, INNOVATION IN TEACHING IS ESSENTIAL, AND SHOULD BE A CORE STRATEGY/OBJECTIVE IN EVERY INSTITUTIONAL ACADEMIC PLAN. HOWEVER IT HAS TO BE APPROPRIATE INNOVATION (i.e. leading to better learning), NOT INNOVATION FOR ITS OWN SAKE.

Theme 2: Web 2.0, Social media and instructional design

The question was asked: are social media different from other technologies in education? One answer was yes: social media exist outside the control of the instructor. They exist independently of the formal learning process.

The question then becomes: as an instructor or instructional designer, can you take advantage of social media by encouraging your students to enter that ‘separate’ world; or can you ‘bring in’ the world of social media to your teaching? Most seemed to agree that there was certainly value in fostering authentic learning through social media.

However,a  distinction needs to be made between formal and informal learning. We could do more as instructors/designers to foster informal as well as formal learning, through encouraging/facilitating communities of practice. It was pointed out that (as with other technologies), the issue was how much direction should students be given by an instructor, and how much should they just ‘roam free’.

Nevertheless, some felt that social media should be optional for students – for security and privacy issues you can’t require students to work in such spaces. Also the value and appropriateness of using social media will depend on the needs and the age of learners.

There was also some discussion about whether web 2.0 embodied more than just social media. Tools such as mobile phones and iPads, e-portfolios and blogs were somewhat different from social media such as Facebook and could more directly be used for formal learning, and indeed allowed for more learner-centered teaching and more learner control within a formal learning environment.

Some concern was also expressed about web 3.0, where information collected through the use of web 2.0 tools is aggregated to give individually focused ‘directions’ or pointers, such as identifying your preferences for hotels, holidays or shops. Privacy and security are becoming more rather than less of an issue through the use of these tools, even or especially in education.

CORE MESSAGE FROM THIS THEME:

SOCIAL MEDIA RAISE THE ISSUE OF THE EXTENT TO WHICH LEARNING SHOULD BE UNDER THE CONTROL OF A TEACHER AND HOW MUCH UNDER THE CONTROL OF THE LEARNER. AS INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNERS WE SHOULD BE FOCUSING ON HOW THESE DECISIONS SHOULD BE MADE IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE LEARNER.

Theme 3: Mobile learning and instructional design

As with social media, participants showed some caution or reservations about mobile learning, not so much the principle, but the current practicalities. For instance some participants recognized its value for informal or vocational learning, but questioned its value for higher education, where some thought it would remain an ancillary rather than a primary form of teaching.

There were also concerns that tools such as the iPad did not currently have sufficient functions to make it a core technology for teaching and learning (although the larger screen made it more appropriate for education than the small screens on smart phones), and the lack of common technical standards and interoperability made it expensive to develop educational apps that would be universally available on all makes of phones/pads, and that the simpler, low-cost first generation phones available to the majority were limited for educational use.

These arguments suggest that we need to focus particularly on the specific affordances of mobile devices. They are valuable for quick access to small chunks of information, e.g. contacts and procedures at an emergency scene. It was important to look at mobile devices’ value for two-way, instant, and media rich communication, allowing the learner to collect local data and communicate with a central ‘expert’ for immediate or quick feedback (one example was the use in Africa of mobile phones by farmers to provide data such as photos of bugs and soil samples for analysis to a  faculty of agriculture in the capital city). Indeed it was pointed out that much of the innovation in mobile learning is taking place in Africa, driven by necessity [see: Arnquist, S. (2009) In rural Africa, a fertile market for mobile phones New York Times, October 5].

It was also pointed out though that it was not instructional designers driving the use of mobile phones for learning but the IT and mobile phone industry, who were developing apps usually without educational input. Most instructional designers are operating without a theoretical framework for the design of educational applications for mobile learning, although David Porter pointed out that the GSMA Development fund has developed such a framework (see http://www.gsmworld.com/documents/mLearning_Report_Final_Dec2010.pdf)

Although some of the institutions represented at the meeting were doing small scale pilots in mobile learning, some participants felt that we needed to do much more experimentation and research in this area, but institutions were reluctant to free up resources for this.

CORE MESSAGE FROM THIS THEME:

THE TREND IS TOWARDS CONSOLIDATION ON MOBILE DEVICES. ALL DESIGNERS SHOULD BE THINKING OF HOW NEW COURSES AND PROGRAMS CAN WORK ON MOBILE DEVICES. INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNERS NEED TO TAKE MORE CONTROL OVER THE DESIGN OF EDUCATIONAL APPLICATIONS AND DEVELOP A SET OF COHERENT DESIGN FRAMEWORKS FOR MOBILE LEARNING BASED ON SOUND EDUCATIONAL PRINCIPLES AND THE UNQIUE AFFORDANCES OF MOBILE DEVICES. IN PARTICULAR WE NEED MUCH MORE EXPERIMENTATION, EVALUATION AND THEORY DEVELOPMENT IN THIS AREA.

Theme 4: Learning environments that aren’t courses

This is an interesting topic that could have covered a number of areas, such as open educational resources, personal learning environments, the integration of virtual informal learning within formal education, new forms of assessment (e.g. assessment by learner-managed e-portfolios or by challenge). However, the focus of the group that I attended was on communities of practice, and questions were again being raised about the factors that lead to the success or failure  of communities of practice.

There seemed to be general agreement in the group that people just forming a group around an area of common interest does not necessarily lead to a successful or sustainable community. The discussion then focused on factors that seemed to make a difference. One was that participants should not wait for others but should jump in with their own ‘passion’ about the area of common interest. This is likely to provoke a good response from others.

There was also quite a bit of discussion about process. There was agreement that usually a moderator was needed, and some structure, such as a regular sharing of information from all participants and a focal point or topic that might lead to action of some kind by the group. It was also important that there are people within the community that have knowledge and expertise that is of value to other members of the community. It was also agreed that many communities of practice serve a useful purpose then just die; this should not be construed as a failure.

Most of the discussion though focused on the evaluation of learning in communities of practice. Several felt that self-evaluation of learning was often unsatisfactory and that participants in communities of practice often needed some way of independently assessing and accrediting the knowledge they have gained. It was argued that better tools for self- or peer-evaluation are needed that go beyond multiple choice questions or automated testing. However, no solutions were suggested.

CORE MESSAGE FROM THIS THEME:

COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE MAY BENEFIT FROM DISCUSSING AND IDENTIFYING CLEAR GOALS OR OBJECTIVES FOR THE COMMUNITY AND SHOULD MAKE SURE THAT THERE ARE EFFECTIVE PROCESSES FOR MODERATING AND MANAGING THE COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE. MORE FOCUS NEEDS TO BE PUT INTO IDENTIFYING APPROPRIATE MEANS OF ASSESSING OR EVALUATING KNOWLEDGE GAINED WITHIN COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE

Theme 5: the future of instructional design

For some in the training sector, the demand is for whatever is cheap and fast, e.g. rapid prototyping. In the post-secondary sector, the future lies in developing sustainable and cost-effective methods of designing teaching and learning. One participant indicated that little innovation based on sound instructional design principles was taking place in the k-12 area. In all areas, more rapid and more flexible design models are needed.

In the group I attended there seemed to be general agreement that although it has served education well, the old systems-based ADDIE model needs to be replaced with something lighter and more adaptable to a much wider range of learning contexts. What that instructional design model would be was less clear. However, creating frameworks or environments that support learning, and a focus on identifying and making explicit the underlying structures and sequencing of knowledge in different domains will remain important tasks for instructional designers.

Developing appropriate means of assessing learning, especially in an increasingly connectivist world where content is open and of variable quality, and where learners have increasing control over their own learning, remains a key challenge and responsibility for instructional designers. Building new design models or frameworks for this new world of learning remains a work in progress.

Lastly, I was interested in what was not discussed. For me the elephant in the room is the design of campus-based learning experiences when much can now be done online. For what kinds of students, and for what areas of a subject domain, is online learning appropriate or when would it be best to use the campus, and for what? Are we really fully exploiting the campus experience in a world of online learning? What theoretical frameworks or design models do instructional designers have that will help with such decisions?

CORE MESSAGE FROM THIS THEME:

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING. WE NEED NEW THEORIES, MODELS AND FRAMEWORKS TO MEET THE CHALLENGES OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND NEW ATTITUDES TO LEARNING.

A personal summary

I came away from the discussions with five main conclusions:

  • education is rapidly opening up into a wide range of different learning environments, all of which are inter-related and are interacting with each other, e.g. formal and informal, teacher controlled and learner-controlled, place-based and virtual, static and dynamic, content and skills, and above all a continuously developing set of technologies that open up ever more opportunities and challenges for learning
  • recent technology developments allow for much more learner-centered teaching, with learners able to demonstrate learning through powerful multimedia; we have not harnessed fully this potential yet
  • we need more flexible design models for teaching and learning that allow for ‘design on the fly’, meet the needs of increasingly diverse learners and hence allow for greater individualization of learning, and offer greater productivity (more learning at less cost)
  • quality and the assessment of learning remain important challenges, even though the context of learning is rapidly changing
  • we need better theories and models for teaching and learning to help us navigate through a post-systems world where teachers and institutions have less and less control over the learning experience (acknowledging that there ARE already models and theories out there, but they are either not generally known or are not yet accepted in the mainstream of education)

All these issues were resolved in the pub after the meeting, but unfortunately no record was kept.

The state of e-learning 2009

It’s that time of year again. Here’s a personal look back at e-learning in 2009 (I will do another blog on priorities for Canadian e-learning in 2010, and a third blog on international trends to watch in 2010).

What I did

This year I worked in Alberta, Cuba, Mexico, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, and taught online briefly (but twice) for the University of Maryland/Oldenburg University’s joint Masters in Distance Education. I also visited UBC several times to see what they were doing, which included attending the excellent Canadian e-learning conference in June.

Meeting with the Distance Education people, University of Havana

Meeting with the Distance Education people, University of Havana

My major work was for the Government of Alberta, helping them develop strategic directions for the use of information and communications technologies for the whole post-secondary system. This will eventually see the light of day next year.

I’m currently writing a book (with Albert Sangra) on the governance and management of information and communications technologies in post-secondary educational institutions, to be published at the end of 2010 by Jossey-Bass/John Wiley. I also have another book in the pipeline, a (third) complete re-write of Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education, due in 2011.

2008

In my blog, the State of e-Learning, 2008, I argued that although e-learning continues to grow and expand, there was a lack of innovation and change, with efforts concentrated on using technology to re-inforce the classroom teaching model, while I on the other hand believe that e-learning should be used to re-design teaching and learning for the digital age.

I have very mixed feelings about e-learning in 2009.

Good developments in 2009

The technology gets better

First, the developments in technology are very exciting. In particular, the developments in mobile technology are moving forward in ways that are really valuable for education: greater bandwidth, greater functionality, improved user interfaces, many more apps, greater access, lower costs (especially for Canada in 2010). Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are beginning to penetrate even formal education, if only in limited ways. The uptake of e-portfolios is increasing. The first steps in open source administrative systems, with the launch of the Kuali Project, offers potentially huge savings for universities and colleges. Cloud computing also offers potentially large savings and greater flexibility for educational applications. Technology continues its rapid development, ever more interesting and exciting, with huge potential for education.

E-learning outside ‘the system’

Outside of the formal education system, great things are happening in e-learning. Communities of practice, sharing of experiences, and self-learning are growing rapidly. For instance, Supercool School, which uses Facebook to link those who want to learn with those who want to teach, is taking off in a big way, with contracts with some of the larger IT corporations, such as Google, for in-house training. Open publishing now enables many people who want to share ideas in a limited market that traditional publishers wouldn’t touch can now get their ideas out. More importantly for the formal educational system, open publishing is dramatically cutting the costs of textbooks for students. For the general public, and especially for small Internet-based companies, ranging from advice on beauty spas to advising parents on how deal with their children’s difficulties at school to independent advice on banking services, e-learning is taking off around the world.

Disappointments in 2009

Then we look at the public sector, and in particular the big research universities, and what do we see? Clickers, lecture capture, multiple screens in the classroom, learning management systems with Powerpoint slides and pdf files loaded, and a total lack of recognition that the current formal higher education system is failing, and a total lack of vision of what is needed for the future, and the role that information and communications technologies can play in formal learning.

As always, I will bracket my comments by noting that many individual lecturers and instructors are doing great work, being innovative and doing great things. Also, there are a lot of colleges and universities with excellent support units and staff, who are doing great work in helping instructors and faculty do the best they can with new technologies. Fully online learning, i.e. online distance learning, continues to grow at a rapid pace – but not as fast as market demand, and often institutions or instructors moving into fully online courses are often not applying best practices so the quality is not always as high as it should be.

Open educational resources

First, some specifics. My biggest disappointment this year (apart from the disastrous Canadian Council of Learning report on e-learning, which in any case is an irrelevance) has been with open educational resources. Yes, we have seen more initiatives, not just in North America but also in Europe and Africa. But what are we getting? Digitally recorded 50 minute classroom lectures and digital textbooks. What we are not getting are materials designed from scratch for multiple use, with learning objectives, contextual materials (such as links to other open source materials and possible assessment questions), student activities, and guides for instructors. There is one exception to this statement and that is Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, which I welcome, but which I fear is too much in the other direction of whole packaged courses.

And there is still so little of it. What I would like to see are many thousands of short modules with contextual materials that allow instructors to mix and mash – yes, remashing for education. So when a new course is being planned, thought needs to be given at the design stage not only to the ‘in-course’ design of materials for students enrolled in the course, but to how the materials could best be used as open source materials. We also need some educational design models for using open source materials that would help both in their development and their application.

Mobile learning

Now mobile learning. Although the technology is rapidly developing, and some of the existing apps could be (and are being) adapted for educational purposes (such as RSS feeds), we need specifically educational apps for mobile learning that make it easy to organise and create learning materials, and integrate them with materials located elsewhere, without having to come out of the mobile environment. However, this is just a matter of time. What we then will need will be again appropriate design models for mobile learning that make full use of mobility, audio-visual collection and analysis of data, and geo-spatial location.

Virtual worlds

Educational applications of virtual worlds also seem to have been on hold this year. The reality is that creating educational virtual worlds is expensive. Again, it is also necessary to develop appropriate design models as well as creating the virtual environment, so that the skills and competencies afforded by virtual worlds are achieved. I wouldn’t write them off, but I had hoped for more developments in 2009.

Institutional vision and the management of e-learning

This is the area of greatest disappointment for me in 2009. Where are the exciting new developments in hybrid learning in universities? What institutions are making the break with traditional classroom and laboratory-based teaching and looking to develop a digital learning environment where face-to-face teaching has a specific but limited role? How are institutions responding to the fact that they have more students now who are over 24, in reality working at least part-time, with families, and many returning for a second or third degree, than they have young, full-time students? I look at UBC’s latest strategic plan (Place and Promise) and there is nothing in it that refers to the the needs of learners in a post-industrial society, the changing profiles of our students, or the role of technology (even though UBC has probably more innovative e-learning projects than most institutions in North America).

The problem is that there cannot be real change in our post-secondary institutions without strong leadership and vision, but it seems that for the leadership of most North American post-secondary education systems, technology is so 1990s – been there, done that. The funding crisis doesn’t help, at least in the short term (more on that in my future trends blog).

However, our public post-secondary institutions are far too complacent about the current classroom-based teaching model, which is not serving our students well, in terms of giving them personal interaction with highly qualified and expert teachers and developing the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century. Too many institutions pay lip service to the use of technology for teaching, (‘a cutting edge university in the use of technology for teaching’ referring to the introduction of clickers, for instance), seeing it as a marketing tool or a way of winning government funding, rather than addressing the needs of learners in fundamentally different ways. There are no real incentives for change, especially with respect to the essential need for instructors to be properly trained to teach, which would include pedagogy as well as training in the use of technologies.

Conclusions

So in summary, the technology continues to develop and improve, e-learning is developing incredibly well outside the public system, there are many individuals and units working very hard within formal education to make e-learning succeed, but there are still deep systemic issues in the public post-secondary system that are severely limiting the application and usefulness of e-learning.

Your comments

However, I am now on the outside of the system looking in, which of course is both a strength and a weakness. What is the reaction of those of you inside the system to my review of 2009? What excited or disappointed you? Have you got examples that contradict my very subjective conclusions?

Clickers: Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments

Bruff, D. (2009) Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Publishers blurb: ‘This book is filled with illustrative examples of questions and teaching activities that use classroom response systems from a variety of disciplines (with a discipline index). The book also incorporates results from research on the effectiveness of the technology for teaching. Written for instructional designers and re-designers as well as faculty across disciplines.’

For an interview with the author, and some interesting discussion of the value of clickers, see Jaschik, S. (2009) Writing the Book on Clickers, Inside Higher Education, Feb 24