January 23, 2018

Five old educational technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scary tales of online learning and educational technology

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG) of British Columbia held an appropriately Halloween-themed get together today called ‘The Little Workshop of Horrors’ at which participants were encouraged to share tales of failure and horror stories in the use of learning technologies.

This seemed to me a somewhat risky strategy but it actually worked really well. First the workshop was held in ‘the Hangar’, a large, covered space in (or rather beside) the Centre for Digital Media, a shared building used by UBC, Simon Fraser University, BCIT and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The Centre itself is a good example of collaboration and sharing in developing media-based programs, such as its Master of Digital Media. The Hangar lent itself to a somewhat spooky atmosphere, enhanced by a DJ who often accompanied presenters with ghoulish music.

Audrey’s Monsters

The workshop got off to an excellent start with a brilliant keynote from Audrey Watters on the Monsters of Educational Technology (The link will take you to her book on the subject). She identified a range of monsters (the examples are partly Audrey’s, partly mine):

  • Frankenstein’s monster that went wrong because its (hir?) master failed to provide it (em?) with love or social company (teaching machines?): in Audrey’s word’s ‘a misbegotten creature of a misbegotten science’,
  • vampires that suck the blood of students, e.g. by using their personal data (learning analytics?),
  • zombies, i.e. technologies or ed tech ideas that rise and die then rise again (e.g. technology will remove the need for schools, an idea that goes back to the early 1900s),
  • giants that become obsolete and die (Skinner, Merrill)
  • the Blob, which grows bigger and bigger and invades every nook and cranny (MOOCs?)
  • and the dragons, are the libertarian, free-market, Silicon-valley types that preach the ‘destruction’ and ‘re-invention’ of education.

Audrey Watters’ larger point is that if we are not careful, educational technology easily turns itself into a monster that drives out all humanity in the teaching and learning process. We need to be on constant watch, and, whenever we can, we need to take control away from large technology corporations whose ultimate purpose is not educational.

Not only was it a great, on topic, presentation, but it was also such a pleasure to meet at last Audrey in person, as I am a huge fan of her blog.

He was a monster, not because he was a machine, but because he wasn't loved


Then came the confessional, at which a series of speakers confessed their sins – or rather, classic failures – about educational technology, often in very funny ways. What was interesting though about most of the tales was that although there was a disaster, in most cases out of the disaster came a lot of good things. (As one speaker said, ‘Success is failing many times without losing your optimism’; or ‘ A sailor gets to know the sea only after he has waded ashore.’).

One presenter reported going to a university to ‘sell’ Blackboard but was so nervous that her presentation was so bad they ended up going with Canvas (you see what I mean about some good coming out of these disasters!) Another described how over 20 years she has been trying to move faculty into more interactive and engaging technology than learning management systems, yet here she is still spending most of her time supporting faculty using an LMS.

One talked about spending years trying to promote IMS-based learning objects, only to find that Google’s search engine made meta-data identification redundant. Revealingly, he felt he knew at the time that the meta-data approach to learning objects was too complex to work, but he had to do it because that was the only way he could get funding. More than one speaker noted that Canada in the past has spent millions of dollars on programs that focused heavily on software solutions (anyone remember EduSource?) but almost nothing on evaluating the educational applications of technology or on research on new or even old pedagogies.

Another spoke about the demise of a new university, the Technical University of British Columbia, that was a purpose-built, new university deliberately built around an “integrated learning” approach, combining heavy use of on-line learning with mixed face-to-face course structures – in 1999. However, by 2002 it had only about 800 FTEs, and a new incoming provincial government, desperate to save money and eager to diminish the previous government’s legacy, closed the university and transferred the students (but not the programs) to Simon Fraser University. Nevertheless, the legacy did live on, with many of the learning technology staff moving later into senior positions within the Canadian higher education system.

I see instructional designers, educational technologists or learning ecology consultants (which was a new title for me) as the Marine Corps of the educational world. They have seen many battles and have (mostly) survived. They have even learned how to occasionally win battles. That’s the kind of wisdom of which academic leaders and faculty and instructors should make much better use.

One participant had such a bad experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as 'the haunted house on the hill.'

One participant had such a bad ed tech experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as ‘the haunted house on the hill.’

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Educational technology 30 years on: why hasn’t education changed much?

Apple's 1984 Superbowl advert launching the Macintosh. (This will amuse only Mac users.)

Apple’s 1984 Superbowl advert launching the Macintosh. (This will amuse only Mac users.)

Bates, A.W. (ed.) (1984) The Role of Technology in Distance Education London/New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis

For some inexplicable reason, Routledge, of the publishing group Taylor and Francis, has decided to revive this book I edited in 1984. As a result a copy landed on my desk recently. It is easy to forget how much has happened in educational technology over the last 30 years, and in particular how far the technology has advanced. At the same time, how little has changed in terms of the challenges of using technology to improve the quality of post-secondary education.

How the technology has changed

In 1984, specially designed and printed texts, or ‘course units’, were still the predominant medium of communication with distance education students. However, the process of print production was cumbersome. Word-processing was possible on personal computers, but many faculty preferred to type their drafts on typewriters, and text then had to be type-set manually from paper copies before printing. Making changes after the units were published was incredibly expensive.

Although the U.K.’s Open University was also still using broadcast television and radio in 1984, its use had actually declined from when it opened in 1971, so by 1984 broadcasting was occupying less than 10 per cent of student study time. Students were flocking to audio and video cassette recordings, because they were able to be played at the student’s own pace and accessed at any time.

Computer assisted learning (CAL) was just beginning to be experimented with at the Open University, in the form of ‘tutorial’ CAL and some simulations in chemistry. However, in 1984 most students could access computers only at local study centres (less than 30 per cent had a computer at home, and none had Internet access). A typical ‘micro’-computer used MS-DOS, weighed 45 lb, and cost between £1,500 – £2,000 or $2,500 – $3,500. Indeed it was in 1984 that Apple introduced its first Macintosh computer (click on the video to see its striking Superbowl advertisement, where presumably Microsoft’s Personal Computer was Big Brother.) The Internet, although in existence, was just in its infancy in the USA and available only to research universities and the military. It would be another four years before the Internet first became available as a public service, and of course the World Wide Web didn’t come into existence for another seven years.

Nevertheless, elements of the future were present in 1984. Teaching by telephone, or telephone tutoring, was becoming widespread, in most cases supporting other media such as printed texts, but also in some cases for delivering interactive lectures. Particularly in the USA, some states had built dedicated private telephone systems for educational purposes, such as the Wisconsin Educational Telephone Network and in Canada, Memorial University in Newfoundland had built an educational telephone network that it shared with 40 other institutions. On public telephone networks, bridge technology was being introduced, enabling between three to nine people to participate at the same time, but most institutions using telephone teaching delivered them through local centres or multi-campuses. The U.K Open University, working with British Telecom, was using an early form of multimedia teleconferencing called CYCLOPS, which enabled two way communication of both voice and graphics over the public telephone network, but again using local study centres. Unfortunately the OU decided not to patent the technology, which it must be regretting today. However, long distance charges were expensive and the quality of sound was often variable, but the educational context was not dissimilar to webinars today.

Cable TV and satellites were being used quite heavily in education in 1984, with dedicated educational cable networks such as TVOntario and Knowledge Network in Canada (which are still in existence today, although they are more like specialty documentary channels than educational service providers). But it was satellite broadcasting that was going to do what has been claimed for MOOCs today – lectures from the world’s best professors being delivered for free into poor developing countries, and we know what happened to that. Video discs were also big in 1984, and had a lot of educational promise but the technology turned out to be too expensive for general educational use. Many other technologies that were discussed in the book faded away completely. Anyone remember teletext technology such as Telidon (Canada), Minitel (France), and Prestel (U.K.)?

So, yes, looking back, it is clear that the Internet – free, readily accessible, and multimedia – and low cost personal computers and social media have revolutionized educational technology in ways that were unimaginable in 1984 (except perhaps by Steve Jobs).

So why hasn’t education changed?

If the technology is so much better and cheaper today, why does post-secondary education still cost as much if not more per student as 30 years ago? Are the learning outcomes any better? It would be hard to make the case that the quality of education has improved over the last 30 years, at least on campus. Class sizes are much larger now, and teaching methods haven’t really changed that much. What has changed is that we have many more students in post-secondary education (and many more students studying online) but the unit costs haven’t dropped.

It’s the system, stupid

Both the cost of creating and delivering content has dropped dramatically and will continue to do so as open content rapidly expands through open textbooks, open research and open educational resources. But I have to admit to being conflicted over the issue as to why costs are the same or indeed somewhat higher than they were 30 years ago.

What’s keeping up the cost is the need for learner support – facilitating learning through discourse and dialogue. Technology in fact is still a relatively small cost within the overall cost of teaching. Faculty salaries constitute at least two thirds of all costs and while we still require an instructor:student ratio of roughly 1:25 in higher education, costs will not come down significantly. However, I am not convinced that we can effectively substitute that instructor:learner interaction by technology alone without losing quality.

But we could still be doing more to reduce costs, and/or improve quality, as follows:

  • implementing open textbooks more widely, saving roughly $1,000 per student per year
  • making savings of up to 10 per cent on the total cost of teaching by greater use of open educational resources and sharing content. For instance, in a large system like Ontario or Quebec, do we need 50 different introductory psychology courses? Would it not be better to develop say four or five really excellent online courses, and share that content across the system, freeing up instructors from delivering content via lectures, and enabling them to spend more time or cover more students in discussion and dialogue? Also with open content instructors could choose different approaches to fit their approach to the topic, again without extra costs. This would ensure that there were different approaches to psychology, and maybe improve the quality of the learning at the same time. For this to happen though institutions need to work together collaboratively rather than competitively (hence it’s a systemic problem that probably only government can fix)
  • get faculty to teach more. Over the last 30 years, the average teaching load for full-time university faculty members, in Canada at least, has actually dropped, so many faculty have a teaching load of roughly four to five courses a year compared with six or more 30 years ago. In other words any possible gains from the implementation of technology for teaching has been more than gobbled up by faculty spending less time teaching. (It may feel like more teaching though if you are teaching larger classes.)
  • re-organise the teaching of large classes, with a senior faculty member responsible for overall design and assessment methods, but with a team of lesser paid but still highly qualified (adjunct) faculty supported by lower cost teaching assistants to ensure that every student has adequate learner support and quality assessment.
  • this of course requires major re-design of teaching, but without changing teaching methods there will be no cost benefits from technology. Instead, technology just adds cost to doing the same things, but with more technology
  • build new institutions for the 21st century and beyond: instead of cramming even more students into existing institutions, why not create some new institutions from scratch designed around the cost-effective use of technology, as the UK government did in 1969, and the Catalan government did in 1995. Start by building the institution at 50% of the capital cost of a traditional university and 75% of the average operating cost per student, with modern course design to maintain or improve quality standards.

None of this can happen without serious systemic change. This is a major challenge for senior administrators, institutional governing boards, and above all government. The aim also has to be clear. It is not to cut costs alone, but to improve the quality of the output – better qualified students fit for a digital age. But it is no longer acceptable to continue to invest in technology without demanding at the same time better results.





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

A good question

I get asked a lot of questions about online learning, educational technology and distance education, but recently I was asked one that really stumped me, and forced me to reflect on the whole history of educational technology, at least as it has affected me.

The question was simple:

‘You’ve been working in the field now for 44 years. What have been your most seminal moments in terms of what you’ve learned?’

I’ve been able to boil the answer down into seven seminal moments.  Here I merely summarize these ‘aha’ moments. I will do a different post on each that will describe both the circumstances that led to the ‘aha’ moment, and the consequent heuristic implications for making more effective decisions about the use of technology.

1. 1970: Media are different

By this, I mean different media have different educational effects or affordances. If you just transfer the same teaching to a different media, you fail to exploit the unique characteristics of that medium. Put more positively, you can do different and often better teaching by adapting it to the medium. That way students will learn more deeply and effectively.

2. 1974: God helps those who help themselves

This stems from my experience of working in developing countries. Ever since I started working in this field, people have argued that ‘Western’ technology is the solution to educational problems in developing countries. This is hubris, and just plain wrong. Progress in education in developing countries has to start at home. Western technology can help, but only as long as it is adapted and transformed locally.

3. 1978: Asynchronous is better

Everyone learns better from media and technologies that allow them to study anywhere, at any time. In particular the ability to repeat and revise recorded material makes learning much more effective than live, synchronous teaching. This ‘insight’ stemmed originally from research on the effectiveness of audio-cassettes compared to broadcast radio, but has subsequently been found true also for television and the Internet.

4. 1986: Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

Until 1986, I had always been skeptical of computers as an effective teaching medium, especially in distance education. Up to then, I had seen them as ‘teaching machines’, attempting, ineffectively to replace teachers. The Internet changed that. In 1986, I realised that computers could allow learners and teachers to  communicate effectively over space and time. This fits much better with my philosophy of teaching and learning. Despite developments since then in artificial intelligence, this seminal moment still holds true today.

5. 1995: WWW: a universal standard

Like most people in education, I was caught cold by the World Wide Web. Until 1995, I was still using non-web technology for teaching online. 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.

6. 1995: Convergence of online learning

This was the year I moved from a distance teaching organization to a campus-based university. The move was partly driven by a growing realization that the technologies being introduced into distance education would eventually transform campus-based teaching as well. This is just beginning to be fully realised 18 years later, through developments such as hybrid learning. The challenge now is to identify what is best done on campus, and what online, when students have the choice of both.

7. 1997: Strategy matters

Having worked as a manager by this time for 7 years, I was beginning to understand the bigger picture regarding the planning and management of learning technologies, and it wasn’t pretty. For educational technology to be used effectively, it has to be planned and managed well, and there were almost no specific guidelines at the time. Almost everything was left to the IT people. This had to change. Academics had to get involved as well.  This also is now beginning to happen but we still have a long way to go to be better planners and managers, despite my two books on the subject.

The time perspective

Why nothing in the last 16 years? Well, the further back in time you go, the clearer becomes the signal from the noise. Also, if something is universally true, you are likely to recognize it earlier than later. And in the educational technology field, I doubt if many things are universally true, because it is an area that is still rapidly developing.

The one exception though I might make (an eighth aha) is 2008 when I realised the importance of web 2.0 for enabling more learner-centered teaching and learning, but I still need more time to see the real significance.

In the meantime, I will develop each of these seven themes further in later posts.


What are your ‘seminal,’ aha moments in educational technology? Why?

The governance of educational technology

© Paul Stacey, 2010

Stacey, P. (2010) Archtecting EdTech Musings on the edtech frontier, June 7

Paul Stacey gave a fascinating presentation at the ETUG conference in Victoria last week, based on the blog above. Paul ‘thought it might be interesting to map out some of the major structural components, differentiate between elements of the architecture that are the responsibility of the institution vs. those that (potentially) are not, and assess the pros and cons of hosting in-house vs sourcing elsewhere.’

He presents a ‘macro view of educational technology with all of the major structural components shown together as a comprehensive and complementary suite of technologies’. In particular he focuses on:

  • what technologies learners bring within their personal learning environments,
  • what the institution might provide (such as learning management and student information systems),
  • what might be provided on a state or provincial wide basis (such as student admission systems or state-wide software licenses)
  • what might be provided through cloud computing (such as e-mail systems).

Although this was not the main purpose of Paul’s musings, they raise some critical questions about the governance of educational technology. Governance of IT generally is gaining a lot of attention recently, particularly regarding responsibilities for security and privacy of data. However, there are other equally important reasons for institutions to have a clear governance structure for educational technology.

In our recent study of eleven institutions, Albert Sangra and I found that the organizational management of learning technologies in most of the institutions was – what’s the kindest word? – loose. There was overlap of responsibilities between different units, and responsibilities and mandates were often vague and inconsistent. Just think of responsibilities for your LMS – who makes the decisions about choice, purchase, maintenance, technical support, access, and security?

Or take another example. If a professor wants his students to do a project in a virtual world such as ‘Second Life’, what protections would there be to ensure student data is secure, that students are not harassed (as the space is public), and so on, especially since the virtual world software may well be on a server in a country with different privacy laws? Some institutions have indeed banned the use of web 2.0 technologies that operate on servers outside the control of the institution. Others have preferred to educate faculty in the risks, and how to reduce risk. Who should decide such policies and how should they be enforced? How can decisions be made without killing any form of innovation or experimentation with new technologies? These are the kinds of question a technology governance structure would deal with.

The old way of thinking about this is that this is something for the IT department to worry about. However, information and communications technologies are now integral components of all core activities of a modern university or college. Therefore the ‘traditional’ model of decision-making, of leaving it to the techies, is not going to work in organizations where everyone is making decisions about technology.

Paul’s musings raise key questions as to where different technologies belong, in terms of management: the student, the institution, the province or state, or out there in the cloud? A governance structure would help by ensuring that all those who should be involved in decision-making are ‘at the table’ and responsible for implementing and following policies regarding the use of technology – or at least are educated to know where responsibilities lie. Paul’s musings provide very useful tools for thinking about governance.

I believe that a clear and coherent governance structure for technology is required in every institution. Although this will be a continually evolving structure, it needs to be codified in some way, with responsibilities clearly defined against the committees or individuals responsible for implementation and compliance. Education about issues will be more useful than a long list of bureaucratic rules and procedures, but someone needs to be responsible for ensuring that the education takes place, that the people who need the education receive it, and where policies are needed, they are clear, well communicated, and enforced when necessary.

Michelle Lamberson and Kele Fleming at UBC have also written a paper that could form the basis of a formal governance structure:

Lamberson, M. and Fleming, K. (2008) Aligning institutional culture and practice: The University of British Columbia’s e-Learning Framework Tokyo: NIME International Symposium

I don’t think this paper is available online, but if you would like a copy contact Kele Fleming or Michelle Lamberson

Lastly, some questions for you:

  • Does your institution have a clearly codified/written-down governance structure for technology management? Does it work?
  • Do you think it is necessary to have a technology governance structure?