January 23, 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.


Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of computing

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

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

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

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

A volatile and comprehensive medium

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

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

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

Presentational features

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

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

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

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

Thus in presentational terms computing can be used to:

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

Skills development

Loyalist College's virtual border crossing

Loyalist College’s virtual border crossing

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

Thus computing can be used (uniquely) to:

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

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

Strengths and weaknesses of computing as a teaching medium

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

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

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

On the other hand, the disadvantages of computing are:

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

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


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

Activity 9.5.4

1. Take one of the courses you are teaching. What key presentational aspects of computing could be important for this course?

2. Look at the skills listed in Section 1.3 of this book. Which of these skills would best be developed through the use of computing rather than other media? How would you do this using computer-based teaching?

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

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

Over to you

OK, let me have it on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up

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

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


Ease of use as a criterion for technology selection in online learning

Image: © Daily Express, 2012

Reliability is important! Image: © Daily Express, 2012

I felt myself cringing as I wrote this section for my book on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. Talk about do what I say and not what I do, especially the part about spending a small amount of time in properly learning about a technology before using it. I was almost half way through writing this book, before I worked out that ‘Parts’ were in fact introductions to ‘Chapters’ and ‘Chapters’ really were sections of chapters, in Pressbook terminology. I also didn’t work out until this week how to actually publish it once it was available in html format.  Oh, that’s what this button is for!

However, ease of use is a critical criterion for media selection. Who wants to spend hours fiddling with the technology when teaching or learning, unless you’re a geek or a computer scientist? ‘Transparency’ is the key word. So here’s my contribution, under the letter ‘E’ in the SECTIONS model.

9.3 The SECTIONS Model: Ease of Use

In most cases, the use of technology in teaching is a means, not an end. Therefore it is important that students and teachers do not have to spend a great deal of time on learning how to use educational technologies, or on making the technologies work. The exceptions of course are where technology is the area of study, such as computer science or engineering, or where learning the use of software tools is critical for some aspects of the curriculum, for instance computer-aided design in architecture, spreadsheets in business studies, and geographical information systems in geology. In most cases, though, the aim of the study is not to learn how to use a particular piece of educational technology, but the study of history, mathematics, or biology.

Computer and information literacy

If a great deal of time has to be spent by the students and teachers in learning how to use for instance software for the development or delivery of course material, this distracts from the learning and teaching. Of course, there is a basic set of literacy skills that will be required, such as the ability to read and write, to use a keyboard, to use word processing software, to navigate the Internet and use Internet software, and increasingly to use mobile devices. These generic skills though could be considered pre-requisites. If students have not adequately developed these skills in school, then an institution might provide preparatory courses for students on these topics.

It will make life a lot easier for both teachers and students if an institution has strategies for supporting students’ use of digital media. For instance, at the University of British Columbia, the Digital Tattoo project prepares students for learning online in a number of ways:

  • introducing students to a range of technologies that could be used for their learning, such as learning management systems, open educational resources, MOOCs and e-portfolios
  • explaining what’s involved in studying online or at a distance
  • setting out the opportunities and risks of social media
  • advice on how to protect their privacy
  • advice on how to make the most of connecting, networking and online searching
  • how to prevent cyberbullying
  • maintaining a professional online presence.

If your institution does not have something similar, then you could direct your students to the Digital Tattoo site, which is fully open and available to anyone to use.

It is not only students though who may need prior preparation. Technology can be too seductive. You can start using it without fully understanding its structure or how it works. Even a short period of training – an hour or less – on how to use common technologies such as a learning management system or lecture capture could save you a lot of time and more importantly, enable you to see the potential value of all features and not just those that you stumble across.


A useful standard or criterion for the selection of course media or software is that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on. This 20 minutes may be needed to work out some of the key functions of the software that may be unfamiliar, or to work out how the course Web site is organized and navigated. This is more of an orientation period though than learning new skills of computing.

If we do need to introduce new software that may take a little time to learn, for instance, a synchronous ‘chat’ facility, or video streaming, it should be introduced at the point where it is needed. It is important though to provide time within the course for the students to learn how to do this.

Interface design

The critical factor in making technology transparent is the design of the interface between the user and the machine. Thus an educational program or indeed any Web site should be well structured, intuitive for the user to use, and easy to navigate.

Interface design is a highly skilled profession, and is based on a combination of scientific research into how humans learn, an understanding of how operating software works, and good training in graphic design. This is one reason why it is often wise to use software or tools that have been well established in education, because these have been tested and been found to work well.

The traditional generic interface of computers – a keyboard, mouse, and graphic user interface of windows and pull-down menus and pop-up instructions – is still extremely crude, and not isomorphic with most people’s preferences for processing information. It places very heavy emphasis on literacy skills and a preference for visual learning. This can cause major difficulties for students with certain disabilities, such as dyslexia or poor eyesight. However, in recent years, interfaces have started to become more user friendly, with touch screen and voice activated interfaces.

Nevertheless a great deal of effort often has to go into the adaptation of existing computer or mobile interfaces to make them easy to use in an educational context. The Web is just as much a prisoner of the general computer interface as any other software environment, and the educational potential of any Web site is also restricted by its algorithmic or tree-like structure. For instance, it does not always suit the inherent structure of some subject areas, or the preferred way of learning of some students.

There are several consequences of these interface limitations for teachers in higher education:

  • it is really important to choose teaching software or other technologies that are intuitively easy to use, both by the students in particular, but also for the teacher in creating materials and interacting with students;
  • when creating materials for teaching, the teacher needs to be aware of the issues concerning navigation of the materials and screen lay-out and graphics. While it is possible to add stimulating features such as audio and animated graphics, this comes at the cost of bandwidth. Such features should be added only where they serve a useful educational function, as slow delivery of materials is extremely frustrating for learners, who will normally have slower Internet access that the teacher creating the materials. Furthermore, web-based layout on desktop or laptop computers does not automatically transfer to the same dimensions or configurations on mobile devices, and mobile devices have a wide range of standards, depending on the device. Given that the design of Web-based materials requires a high level of specialized interface design skill, it is preferable to seek specialist help, especially if you want to use software or media that are not standard, institutionally supported tools. This is particularly important when thinking of using new mobile apps, for instance;
  • third, we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices. Changes in basic computer interface design could have as profound an impact on the use of technology in teaching as the Internet has.


The reliability and robustness of the technology is also critical. Most of us will have had the frustration of losing work when our word programming software crashes or working ‘in the cloud’ and being logged off in the middle of a piece of writing. The last thing you want as a teacher or instructor is lots of calls from students saying they cannot get online access, or that their computer keeps crashing (if the software locks up one machine, it will probably lock up all the others!). Technical support can be a huge cost, not just in paying technical staff to deal with service calls, but also in lost time of students and teachers.

This means that you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology, if it is to be used in any significant and regular form of teaching. It is best to wait for at least a year for new apps or software to be fully tested before adopting them. It is wise then not to rush in and buy the latest software up-date or new product – wait for the bugs to be ironed out.  Also if you plan to use a new app or technology that is not generally supported by the institution, check first with IT services to ensure there are not security, privacy or institutional bandwidth issues.

A feature of online learning is that peak use tends to fall outside normal office hours. Thus it is really important that your course materials sit on a reliable server with high-speed access and 24 hour, seven days a week reliability, with automatic back-up on a separate, independent server located in a different building. Ideally, the servers should be in a secure area (with for instance emergency electricity supply) with 24 hour technical support, which probably means locating your servers with central IT services. Increasingly online learning materials and courses are being located ‘in the cloud’, which means it is all the more important to ensure that materials are safely and independently backed up.

However, the good news is that most commercial educational software products such as learning management systems and lecture capture, as well as servers, are very reliable. Open source software too is usually reliable but probably slightly more at risk of technical failure or security breaches. If you have good IT support, you should receive very few calls from students on technical matters. The main technical issue that faculty face these days appears to be software up-grades to learning management systems. This often means moving course materials from one version of the software to the new version. This can be costly and time-consuming, particularly if the new version is substantially different from the previous version. Overall, though, reliability should not be an issue.

In summary, ease of use requires professionally designed commercial or open source course software, specialized help in graphics, navigation and screen design for your course materials, and strong technical support for server and software management and maintenance. Certainly in North America, most institutions now provide IT and other services focused specifically on supporting technology-based teaching. However, without such professional support, a great deal of your time as a teacher will be spent on technical issues, and to be blunt, if you do not have easy and convenient access to such support, you would be wise not to get heavily committed to technology-based teaching until that support is available.

Questions for consideration

Some of the questions then that you need to consider are:

  1. How intuitively easy to use is the technology you are considering, both by students and by yourself?
  1. How reliable is the technology?
  1. How easy is it to maintain and up-grade the technology?
  1. The company that is providing the critical hardware or software you are using: is it a stable company that is not likely to go out of business in the next year or two, or is it a new start-up? What strategies are in place to secure any digital teaching materials you create should the organisation providing the software or service cease to exist?
  1. Do you have adequate technical and professional support, both in terms of the technology and with respect to the design of materials?


  1. I guess my main concern with this section is whether it is still needed these days. Most institutions, at least in Canadian post-secondary education, have moved in recent years to make sure there is professional IT support for technology for teaching as well as for communications and administration. Much of the newer technologies, such as apps, use relatively simple programming and hence tend to be much more reliable. Some advances have been made in interface design. Faculty themselves have become more tech savvy and learners of course have grown up using digital technologies. Does this all make ‘Ease of Use’ as a criterion redundant now? If not, is this section far too cautious? Should I be encouraging faculty to take more risks?
  2. Is the criterion that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on a valid and useful criterion when selecting a platform for teaching and learning?
  3. I actually wrote ‘we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices‘ in 2003 (Bates and Poole, 2003). Here we are 11 years later. Will things still be the same in another 11 years time – or will real progress be made in the next few years in interface design? Is Siri the future?
  4. you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology’. Do you agree?
  5. Any other comments? In particular do you have examples of good practice that could strengthen this section that I could use?

Up next

Cost as a criterion for media selection. This one will be fun.

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

Open textbooks free 2

I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.


I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.


From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.


Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.

No. 5 aha moment: the Web as a universal standard

This is the sixth in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

4. Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

What was the discovery? (1995) 

Like most people in education, I was caught cold by the World Wide Web. In 1995, I published a book: ‘Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education.’ There is not a single mention of the World Wide Web in the book. Nor was I alone. Two other books, more influential than mine, came out that year, Moore and Kearsley’s ‘Distance Education: A Systems View‘ and Linda Harasim and colleagues’ ‘Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching & Learning Online ‘ both of which also failed to mentioned the Web. It is really difficult to realise that the Web was not invented until around 1990, and by 1994 (when the books went to press) there were hardly any web-based online courses..

So, until 1995, I was still using non-web technology for teaching online. That was the year I moved from the Open Learning Agency to the University of British Columbia. My task was to help the university innovate in its use of learning technologies, and in particular to move the university’s print-based distance education courses online. Almost on the day I started work at UBC, I was approached by Tec de Monterrey in Mexico. They wanted me to help them develop a joint graduate program with UBC for teachers on educational technology. We started by developing five courses for a certificate in technology-based distributed learning (now known as online learning!).

At that time there were no learning management systems, so we used html to create web pages and a separate piece of software for online discussion forums. This meant having our webmaster work with the course authors (myself, and three colleagues who were also instructional designers) to manually transform Word-based documents into html. Fortunately, at the same time, Murray Goldberg, a young computer science professor at UBC, was developing the first version of WebCT, which made loading content much simpler. We started to use WebCT for our online courses in 1996 (after it had been thoroughly beta-tested elsewhere).

Why is this significant?

The web allows rich multimedia material to be transmitted to any computer, any software system, anywhere in the world, with an Internet connection. This has had profound implications for the design of online teaching which we still have by no means fully understood or exploited.

The main reason for the significance of the WWW for online learning is that by using a browser and a standard mark up language, materials on the Web can be used by anyone with any kind of computer and Internet access. Until that point, different versions of courses had to be created for different kinds of operating systems (at that time, mainly Mac and Microsoft OS). The development of learning management systems such as WebCT made the creation of online material much simpler, with authors able to directly input material without having to go through a specialist programmer (although even today, I would recommend authors to work with a good web designer, at least to set up a template or framework for a course).

The implications for online learning

For the certificate in technology-based distributed learning, and also for the first credit online courses being developed with UBC faculty, we developed what is now considered ‘standard’ e-learning 1.0 online courses. We took ‘best practice’ from print-based course design and applied and adapted it to online courses. Thus we created a framework that set out the overall structure of the course, mainly in weekly segments, with clearly defined learning objectives for each week’s work, readings online sometimes supplemented with printed textbooks and increasingly urls to other online materials (although in those days there wasn’t a great deal of academically suitable material online). We built in regular student online activities, online discussion forums, and regular monthly essay-type assignments in the form of attached Word documents that were marked and assessed online.

The important point was that because we came from a (print-based) distance education background, we either created new online courses from scratch, or re-designed campus-based courses to meet the needs of distance learners. We did not try to move lectures online through video recordings, or use audio-conferencing over the web, not just because at that time there was insufficient bandwidth to download videos, but also because we felt this was not the right pedagogy for online learners. In particular:

  • We placed a strong emphasis on student interaction and discussion, or in the more quantitative subjects on computer-marked assignments, with a quick turn-round in marking and feedback on all the online courses.
  • We tried always to have a tenured faculty member responsible for an online course, although we also relied heavily on adjunct professors for the online delivery and extra sections of courses, to keep the ratio of instructors to students below 1:30.
  •  Strong emphasis was put on the need for regular and timely interaction between the online structor and the students.
  • Using a team approach of a faculty member working with an instructional designer, we were also able to control faculty workload.

The goal incidentally at that time was not to reduce costs but to demonstrate that learning could be just as effective online as in the classroom (which I believe has now been achieved.)

How this affects online learning today

This ‘e-learning 1.0’ approach has been very successful, and not just at UBC. We had strong enrollments in online courses, high course completion rates (above 80%),  and high student satisfaction ratings. This approach to online learning worked well for the first 10-15 years or so from 1995, and it is only with the development of web 2.0 tools that new approaches to online course design have become necessary and possible, although many of the principles of e-learning 1.0, such as a strong course structure, regular student activities, and interaction between students, and between students and instructor, apply just as strongly to the effective application of web 2.0 tools. Thus the e-learning 1.0 approach has set best practice standards for online learning.

However, e-learning 1.0 is very much controlled by the instructor, who decides the content, the structure and the student learning activities as well as the assessment. Web 2.0 tools allow learners to find, analyse, create, adapt, and apply knowledge, thus enabling the development of 21st century skills of knowledge management. Nevertheless, many of the lessons learned from e-learning 1.0 are still relevant, even in this new, more learner-centered web 2.0 approach. The need then is to carry forward from e-learning 1.0 what still has value, while using the new web 2.0 tools to enable more relevant and more learner-centered approaches to teaching.

In conclusion

New technologies have a direct affect on pedagogy. New technologies enable new approaches to teaching and a changing emphasis on different kinds of learning outcomes. We take the World Wide Web for granted these days, but it is a relatively new technology. Further developments in Internet-based technologies could easily disrupt our current models of online teaching, just as we are now only just exploring the significance of web 2.0.

Nevertheless, despite these changes, we need to be guided by clear principles that underly good teaching, such as clarity of objectives, good course structure, relevant student activities that lead to skills development, interaction and feedback between a skilled instructor and students, and social and collaborative learning. New technologies that strengthen these approaches and enable higher levels of learning to be achieved will continue to add value to education, but they will still need to be embedded within a strong pedagogical framework.