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25 Years of EdTech: 2009 – Twitter

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 13/06/2018 - 15:52

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

If the VLE was the big cheese of ed tech, then Twitter is the behemoth of third party tech that has been adopted in education. There’s probably too much that can be said about Twitter to do the subject justice, but it would be remiss to leave it out of my 25 years account. Founded in 2006, Twitter had moved well beyond the tech-enthusiast bubble by 2009 but had yet to become what we know it as today: a tool for wreaking political mayhem. With the trolls, bots, nazis, daily outrages, and generally toxic behaviour not only on Twitter but also on Facebook and other social media, it’s difficult to recall the optimism that we once held for these technologies. In 2009, though, the ability to make global connections, to easily cross disciplines, and to engage in meaningful discussion all before breakfast was revolutionary.

There was also a democratizing effect: formal academic status was not significant, since users were judged on the value of their contributions to the network. In educational terms, social media has done much to change the nature of the relationship between academics, students, and the institution. Even though the negative aspects are now undeniable, some of that early promise remains. What we are now wrestling with is the paradox of social media: the fact that its negatives and its positives exist simultaneously.

In education, much of the attention has focused on its use by educators to develop online identities. Step forward George Veletsianos, Bonnie Stewart, Katy Jordan, Catherine Cronin and Cristina Costa amongst many others who have made this a really rich area of research. The paradoxes are evident in much of this work also: educators use it to enhance their work, share resources, gain information, develop networks, but also feel stress, uncertainty and pressure relating to its use.

The use of Twitter to teach is perhaps less well documented. At the OU my colleague Andrew Smith does some interesting work in using it to create a community for distance ed students, and the very successful #PhDchat hashtag has been used to create a global, informal community. It is now part of the mainstream of university communication channels, and often integrated into support functions also. But it’s effective use in education is still often an isolated practice – and given its issues maybe that’s a good thing, as mandating or privileging any use comes with myriad issues.

As with Facebook, one of the issues students found in using a social media platform where they combine their personal and academic identity, they suffer from ‘context collapse‘. One minute you’re discussing the best place to get cheap lager, and the next your professor has popped up saying ‘here’s an interesting article on Derrida’. It’s disconcerting. But this is a reflection of what Twitter does for education as a whole – the context between the university and the rest of society is collapsed. That may be no bad thing generally, but when it means flat earthers arrive in your geology discussion to insist the world is not, you know, round, it raises problems which we are still incapable of solving. Twitter context collapse is like one of those black hole visualisations – cat pictures, sports discussion, funny memes, feminist movements, supportive communities, nazi trolls, conspiracy theorists – they’re all collapsing in and in this academia is one small part. Regaining and retaining its own sense of identity and values while deriving some of the benefits of context collapse – that’s the challenge.

Models of online & flexible learning

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 12/06/2018 - 11:01

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been doing some work with Dominic Orr and Rob Farrow in behalf of the ICDE, looking at various models of open, online and flexible technology enhanced learning (what we labelled OOFAT). The full report is out now, and I humbly suggest it is the best (OOFAT) report you will ever read.

When ICDE set out this work they were very clear about two principles: it should address the range of how open, online and flexible models are being used, and every institution should be able to recognise themselves in the model. So, in contrast to many types of ed tech analysis it is not proposing one perfect solution which all should aspire, nor is it based on some uber high tech start-up in California. The intention was to be disgustingly practical.

With this in mind we developed a conceptual model, and an in depth survey. From this, we devised six OOFAT models, which represented how institutions globally were adopting aspects of OOFAT:

  • OOFAT at the centre, where OOFAT is not implemented for one specific purpose, or market, but as an integral part of the institution’s overall mission
  • OOFAT for organisational flexibility, where OOFAT supports flexibility of higher education provision across all aspects of the conceptual model
  • content-focused OOFAT model, where providers concentrate on the element of content development and delivery specifically
  • access-focused OOFAT model, where access to content and support is set as the focus of OOFAT implementation
  • OOFAT for a specific purpose, where OOFAT implementation is developed for one very specific function or market and not right across the institution
  • OOFAT for multiple-projects, where very different initiatives are undertaken by the provider experimenting with different aspects of the OOFAT model and not as part of a unified strategy

Allied with what providers were doing was their business model underlying it. We identified five of these:

  • Fixed core model, where providers maintain a legacy approach to their products and services and to their target market, although they may be innovating in other areas
  • Outreach model, where providers maintain the same products and services, but are innovating in the dimensions of target group recruitment and utilising new communication channels
  • Service-provider model, where providers maintain a focus on their target group whilst particularly innovating in the areas of product and service and communication channels
  • Entrepreneurial model, where providers adopt innovative strategies for the areas product and service, target group and communication channel, i.e. they aim to be transformative in their services and provision
  • Entrepreneurial model with fixed core, where providers maintain a legacy focus to their core services (teaching and learning), but focus on being innovative in all other areas

For me the key to the report is section 9, which combines the theoretical model and findings to offer a step by step guide for any institution to review their own strategy. This starts by reviewing their current approach (ie which of the 6 OOFAT models is the best fit), then asks them to consider which model they would like to move to (using a database of the case studies to help). Finally the appropriate business model is selected to realise this. I think the most important aspect in this is not that our models are exhaustive (they’re not) or the only representation, but rather that the model itself and this way step by step guide surfaces conversations about the practical adoption of technology and open models which are not value laden. It is not that one model is ‘better’ but rather in order to best meet the needs of any institution and its learners there are different approaches. Having a framework within which you can have these conversations which is devoid of silicon valley economics and digital buzzwords is the real takeaway from the report.

Emotions, artefacts and education

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 04/06/2018 - 13:40

I’ve been having bits of this conversation with various people, so I’m going to try blogging it as a way of clarifying the mess in my head (a little).

During the recent OU Crisis™ one of the elements that kept arising on twitter discussions was students and staff saying the shift to online was flawed, and there was a strong preference for books. Similarly, in nearly all of our student surveys the components of a course that score the highest satisfaction are printed units. As one of the early proponents of online education at the OU, I used to resist this narrative, dismissing it as people sticking with what they know. But I have come to rethink that over the years.

The argument is often couched in terms of pedagogy, and the big benefit touted for print was being able to study on the move (the “OU student studying on the bus” became something of an overworked cliche). But with fairly pervasive mobile devices and access, that argument doesn’t carry as much weight now (there are some groups, eg learners in prisons for whom print if often beneficial). And yes, many students find reading off screen difficult. But that is partly habit and partly poor design if we are creating courses that are the equivalent of printed units online. Generally, the pedagogic benefits of online and digital for distance ed students are superior. I’m not making a claim about face to face campus education here, but a similar fondness for face to face tutorials over online ones can also be found as for print over online. The problem is attendance at online is far higher than face to face – so what people say they like and their behaviour are not necessarily the same thing. It’s a bit like opera – I like the fact that it exists, but I’m going to be found watching Netflix.

But I think these sorts of arguments, while valid, dismiss a very significant factor of being a (distance ed) student – namely the emotive element. As I’ve mentioned before, I started re-collecting vinyl recently. I could make an argument that it is about audio quality, which would be analogous to the pedagogy argument for print, but let’s be honest, it is an entirely emotional attachment to an artefact. I like having the physical object, just as some people need to have a physical book in order to feel they have read it. We should not dismiss or underplay the importance of this in education.

To consider the role of this emotional aspect, let’s look at just one issue, namely student retention, although we might think of performance, satisfaction or skills also. We know for instance, that students who form social bonds with others are more likely to complete their studies. We also know that student retention is lower for online courses as compared to courses utilising traditional methods of delivery. Chyung, Winiecki & Fenner found that the main factor which contributed to the decision on whether to continue or withdraw was the student’s level of satisfaction with the first or second course in the programme. Specific reasons for withdrawal included:

  1. dissatisfaction with the learning environment
  2. divergence between professional and personal interest and the structure of the course
  3. low confidence in distance learning
  4. hesitations about successfully communicating online
  5. lack of competence in utilising distance education software
  6. feeling overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge and information

Now a text book or printed unit that a student feels a connection to could help address 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 in that list. A text is something students feel familiar with already, and by establishing an emotional connection with the content of the course, they might overcome any subsequent issues.

It’s not the case that we should shift to print, and for instance, it might be different at Masters level than at level 1. Online probably _is_ better to realise many of the pedagogic benefits of distance learning, but the emotional attachment, comfort, security and manifestness of a physical object can usefully help support the online aspect. This might be the most important benefit that open textbooks could offer – making high quality, adapted textbooks economically viable to provide the benefits of the physical artefact, even if most of the actual teaching and learning then takes place online.

25 Years of EdTech: 2008 – eportfolios

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 04/06/2018 - 11:03

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Like learning objects, e-portfolios were backed by a sound idea. The e-portfolio was a place to store all the evidence a learner gathered to exhibit learning, both formal and informal, in order to support lifelong learning and career development. It is an idea that has significant impact for education – instead of recognising education at the level of qualification, ie that it is a degree in Chemistry, say, it allows a more granular recognition of specific skills, linked to evidence.

But like learning objects — and despite academic interest and a lot of investment in technology and standards — e-portfolios did not become the standard form of assessment as proposed, although in some areas their uptake has gained significance. Many of their problems were similar to those that beleaguered learning objects, including overcomplicated software, an institutional rather than a user focus, and a lack of accompanying pedagogical change. I went on a rant about them in 2011, and I think these issues still remain:

Over-complication – because we are developing software to suit a range of stakeholders, feature creep becomes inevitable. The question of ‘how simple can we make it’ is not one that is usually asked. So for eportfolios we find we need new standards to export and move between institutions, ways of locking down items so they can be verified, means of providing different views for different audiences, etc. In a blog the answers to these problems are already in place.

Institutional, not user focus – a related point is that we end up developing solutions that are sold or selected by institutions (see also VLEs). An institution has a very different set of requirements to an individual. However, if you want eportfolios to work, then it’s individuals that need to like them and be motivated to use them. This emanates from an institutional tic, which is the need to own and control systems and data.

Focus on the tool, not the skills – having developed our overly complex, institutionally focused tool, it now requires a good deal of training for students to use it, since it isn’t very intuitive, and they didn’t know they wanted it anyway. So it becomes a tool that is focused around a particular course, often with credit attached to it. In short it becomes a tool used inside education only. There is little focus on the more general skills which are actually the main benefits: sharing content, gathering and annotating resources as you go, becoming part of a network, reflecting on work, commenting on others, etc. In short, the sort of skills that make for a good blogger.

Lack of social element – the eportfolio often becomes institutionally branded and focused, and because it is has been designed by educational technologists who are probably a bit sniffy about all this social software business, doesn’t allow for much of the easy social elements found elsewhere. This can be functional (eg is embedding easy), but more often it is cultural – the culture of blogging is one of openness and reciprocity, whereas eportfolios are tied into a more academic culture of individualism, plagiarism and copyright. In this environment the social element does not flourish.

Educational arrogance – maybe arrogance is too strong a term, but eportfolios demonstrate a common mistake (in my view) in educational technology, which goes something like “Here’s some interesting software/tool/service which does most of what we want. But it’s not quite good enough for higher education, let’s develop our own version with features X and Y”. In adding features X and Y though they lose what was good about the initial tool, and take a long time. Blogs are good enough for eportfolios, if what you want from an eportfolio is for people to actually, you know, use them.

Although e-portfolio tools remain pertinent for many subjects, particularly vocational ones, for many students owning their own domain and blog remains a better route to establishing a lifelong digital identity. It is perhaps telling that although many practitioners in higher education maintain blogs, asking to see a colleague’s e-portfolio is likely to be met with a blank response, whereas we can all find colleagues with active blogs. But if we consider eportfolios as an instantiation of a more general approach of rethinking assessment and recognition, and then reimagining courses and pedagogy to take utilise this, then they are more interesting.

[If you want a different 2008 take, Jim Groom offers up edupunk for that year].

25 Years of EdTech: 2007 – SecondLife

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 21/05/2018 - 13:16

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Online virtual worlds and Second Life had been around for some time, with Second Life launching in 2003, but they begin to see an upsurge in popularity around 2007. Colleges and universities began creating their own islands, and whole courses were delivered through Second Life. While the virtual worlds had strong devotees, they didn’t gain as much traction with students as envisaged, and most Second Life campuses are now deserted. Partly this was a result of a lack of imagination: they were often used to re-create an online lecture. The professor may have been represented by a seven-foot-tall purple cat in that lecture, but it was a lecture nonetheless. Virtual worlds also didn’t manage to shrug off their nerdy, role-playing origins, and many users felt an aversion to this. Interestingly these Dungeons & Dragons roots for ed tech keep recurring, when CMC was new, we had MUDs and MOOs. I’m not disparaging this, I’ve read as much Gary Gygax as the next nerd. But when these roots are so evident, it can be a barrier to those who aren’t so inclined. What this raises is the question of scalability – does every ed tech have to be suitable for everyone? Does it matter if some people feel put off by it? Does this advantage some groups and disadvantage others? These are genuine questions, and SecondLife is not special in facing them.

The technology could be glitchy as well, which meant that many people never made it off Orientation Island in Second Life. The problem here then is that the technology becomes a focus, the predominant topic of conversation. That is fun to explore if ed tech is your interest, but do the technology issues and the nature of the different environment get in the way when you’re teaching calculus, say?

However, with the success of virtual and augmented reality such as Minecraft and Pokémon Go, more robust technology, and more widespread familiarity with avatars and gaming, virtual worlds for learning may be one of those technologies due for a comeback. Like many other applications of ed tech, the pattern may be one of over-enthusiastic initial adoption, when it is applied as a universal tool, to more selective appropriate application now that enough general familiarity with the technology has be acquired.

The stuff ain’t enough

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 17/05/2018 - 10:17

UNESCO have a call out for responses to their Draft OER Recommendations. I will post something there, but when I was considering it, the recommendations touched on a bigger problem that I feel is repeatedly overlooked in OER, which is that the resources are a necessary starting point, but they are not an end point. Particularly if your goal is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education
and promote lifelong opportunities for all”, then it is the learner support that goes around the content that is vital.

And on this, the recommendations are largely silent. There is a recommendation to develop “supportive policy” but this is focused on supporting the creation of OER, not the learners. Similarly the “Sustainability models for OER” are aimed at finding ways to fund the creation of OER. I think we need to move beyond this now. Obviously having the resources is important, and I’d rather have OER than nothing, but unless we start recognising, and promoting, the need for models that will support learners, then there is a danger of perpetuating a false narrative around OER – that content is all you need to ensure equity. It’s not, because people are starting from different places. The sorts of learners you might envisage using OER in an equitable, lifelong learning scenario often lack the confidence or necessary learning skills to make effective use of them. I’ve blogged about costs in relation to MOOCs, but it bears repeating for OER – supporting students is by far the most expensive part of open education. But it is also the most impactful. So, if UNESCO really want to realise their aim of equitable education, they should foreground the need for support to accompany OER, otherwise it’s more of the ‘build it and they will learn’ fallacy.

25 Years of Edtech: 2006 – Web 2.0

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 15/05/2018 - 10:10


(All you needed for a web 2.0 business was a logo, a disregard for users’ data, an aversion to vowels and a business plan that ended with “Get bought out”)

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

The “web 2.0” tag gained popularity from Tim O’Reilly’s use in 2005, but not until around 2006 did the term begin to penetrate in educational usage, for example, this piece by Bryan Alexander highlighting the relevance of social and open aspects of its application. From one perspective it was simply a practical term to group together the user-generated content services, including YouTube, Flickr, and blogs. But it was also more than just a useful term for a set of technologies; it seemed to capture a new mindset in our relation to the internet. In his essay, O’Reilly set out the seven principles of web 2.0, which some took to be commandments handed down in stone (2.0) and the web 2.0 boom took off—followed by the consequent bust (it transpired that you did need a business plan after all).

Just as the fascination with e-learning had seen every possible term prefixed with “e,” so the addition of “2.0” to any educational term in the late 2000s made it fashionable. The collapse of the web 2.0 boom, and problems with some of the core concepts meant that by 2009 it was being declared dead. Inherent in much of the web 2.0 approach was a free service, which inevitably led to data being the key source for revenue, and gave rise to the oft quoted line that if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. As web 2.0 morphed into social media, the inherent issues around free speech and offensive behaviour came to the fore. In educational terms this raises issues about duty of care for students, recognising academic labor and marginalised groups. In the ‘anyone can make a web 2.0 business’ rush, the privileged Bro culture of Silicon Valley was reinforced. The utopia of web 2.0 turned out to be one with scant regard for employment laws, diversity or social responsibility. Get big numbers of users quickly and get bought out by Google was the only business model that really survived, and in that case, you don’t care about building long term relationships with a community.

Nevertheless, at the time, web 2.0 posed a fundamental question as to how education conducts many of its cherished processes. I wrote a rather pretentious paper on the weller web2 (what was I on with phrases like “the Topography of Formality”?), but some of the questions raised here are still relevant. Peer review, publishing, ascribing quality — all of these were founded on what David Weinberger referred to as filtering on the way in rather than on the way out. While the quality of much online content was poor, there was always an aspect of what was “good enough” for any learner. With the demise of the optimism around web 2.0, many of the accompanying issues it raised for higher education have largely been forgotten. But they were never really addressed, for instance while the open repository for physics publications, arXiv, and open access methods to publication became mainstream, the journal system is still dominant, and largely based on double blind, anonymous peer review.

Everyone (including me) is rather embarrassed now by the enthusiasm they felt for web 2.0 at the time, like one of those films that loads of people froth over and then a year later, deny ever liking (I’m looking at you La La Land). While this is understandable given the ridiculous hype that accompanied it, and the more we’ve come to appreciate the associated problems, there are still some core issues in terms of practice that education could benefit from, if they were stripped of the venture capital context. Integrating the participatory culture that web 2.0 brought to the fore is still a challenge and an opportunity for higher education.

25 Years of EdTech – 2005: Video

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 08/05/2018 - 10:36

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

YouTube was founded in 2005, which already seems surprisingly recent, so much has it become a part of the cultural landscape. As internet access began to improve and compression techniques along with it, the viability of streaming video reached a realistic point for many by 2005. YouTube and other video sharing services flourished, and the realisation that you could make your own video and share easily was the next step in the democratisation of broadcast that had begun with the web. While its use in education was often restricted to broadcast, this was instantiation probably comes closest to the original learning objects concept. As the success of the Khan Academy illustrates, simple video explanations of key concepts that can be shared and embedded easily met a great educational demand.

However, the use of video by students in higher education is still not a standard assessment form. This may be one area where secondary education performs better, with group video projects common place. In some disciplines such as the arts it is more common, but in 2018, it is still the case that text is the dominant communication form in education. While courses such as DS106 have innovated in this area, many students will go through their education without being required to produce a video as a form of assessment, and we have not fully developed the critical structures for this medium that are accepted for text. We know what a good essay looks like, but are less sure on what constitutes a good video (perhaps we need someone to reclaim it). But it remains an area that allows for creativity and fun for students.

For academics, the ability to be a broadcaster was appealing. Unfortunately, talking head videos are rarely exciting, and once the novelty had worn off, it was clear that skills relating to video production were required. But even so, the threshold to entry was dramatically lowered. You could now produce nice videos to accompany a paper, which might reach different audiences, or live stream conferences to amplify the event, or embed video teaching content in your course, or create video blogs. The use of video is still done poorly more often than it is done well, and for your own sanity never look at the comments on YouTube, but it has become a valuable additional tool for educators, learners and researchers since its democratisation in 2005. Except this one, which is rubbish:

Sensible Ed Tech

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 03/05/2018 - 08:57

Following the OU’s recent tribulations I have reflected that, as an ed tech academic, much of it was related to the implementation, or the perception of, technology in teaching. In this the OU is not alone – increasingly the strategy of any HEI is determined in part (sometimes a very large part) by its relationship with technology. And herein lies a problem. Most VCs, Principals, Rectors, and senior managers are not well grounded in ed tech. It is also an area which is subject to extreme views (for and against), often based on emotion, romance, and appeals to ego. I would like to therefore propose a new role: Sensible Ed Tech Advisor. Job role is as follows:

  • Ability to offer practical advice on adoption of ed tech that will benefit learners
  • Strong BS detector for ed tech hype
  • Interpreter of developing trends for particular context
  • Understanding of the intersection of tech and academic culture
  • Communicating benefits of any particular tech in terms that are valuable to educators and learners
  • Appreciation of ethical and social impact of ed tech

(Lest that sound like I’m creating a job description for myself, I didn’t add “interest in ice hockey” at the end, so you can tell that it isn’t)

An example of this came by way of a post from Tony Bates after a keynote at the OU. I respect Tony a lot, and I think many MOOC providers would be well served to read his work, particularly on costs of elearning. But I think he got this wrong, and it captures some of the reason why the Sensible Ed Tech role is required. Tony talks about a ‘fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology’. This seems a very outdated view of an institution which has a large Moodle developer community, supports over 100,000 online learners, has all courses online, has won awards for it’s OpenStem Lab, has millions of visitors a year to OpenLearn, etc. I would also add that the OU has a team model for course production, so whilst any academic may be print focussed, their views will be mitigated by other academics, the learning design team, and learning technology specialists, which means a course does not end up as just the embodiment of one perspective.

This isn’t (just) me being huffy about not acknowledging this, but rather this mischaracterisation of the problem itself becomes part of the problem. The previous VC kept talking about digital by design, as if in contrast to an analogue by design approach currently. That simply wasn’t the case (as someone who has studied 2 OU masters, and worked across all faculties with the Learning Design project, print isn’t as foregrounded as this attitude makes out). It is certainly true that some disciplines do have a print preference, and Tony is correct to say that often a print mentality is transferred to online. But what this outdated view (it was probably true 10-15 years ago) suggests is a ‘get digital or else’ mentality. Rather, I would argue, we need to acknowledge the very good digital foundation we have, but find ways to innovate on top of this.

If you are fighting an imaginary analogue beast, then this becomes difficult. For instance, Tony does rightly highlight how we don’t make enough use of social media to support students, but then ignores that there are pockets of very good practice, for example the OU PG Education account and the use of social media in the Cisco courses. Rolling these out across the university is not simple, but it is the type of project that we know how to realise. But by framing the problem as one of wholesale structural, cultural change starting from a zero base, it makes achieving practical, implementable projects difficult. You can’t do that small(ish) thing until we’ve done these twenty big things. And those big things (or big shifts if you like) are much more appealing to the ego of senior management (and cynically, look better on a CV). So, step forward Sensible Ed Tech Advisor, who whispers, rather like John Le Mesurier in Dad’s Army “do you think that’s wise?” (do I win most up to date cultural reference with that?).

I would also suggest that the sort of “get on the ed tech bus or else” argument that Tony puts forward is outdated, and ineffective (I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past). And as Audrey Watters highlights tirelessly, an unsceptical approach to ed tech is problematic for many reasons. Far more useful is to focus on specific problems staff have, or things they want to realise, than suggest they just ‘don’t get it’. Having an appreciation for this intersection between ed tech (coming from outside the institution and discipline often) and the internal values and culture is also an essential ingredient in implementing any technology successfully.

25 Years of EdTech – 2004: VLE

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 01/05/2018 - 09:57

It’s 2004 and the big cheese of Ed Tech is finally here – the VLE (or if you’re American – pants, I mean, LMS). Like many practitioners in ed tech, I have an ambiguous relationship with VLEs. They are a bit like the boring, faithful hound when a new puppy arrives. Everyone is excited by the new thing, and the old dog is in the corner with its flatulence wondering why no-one is making a fuss.

The VLE provided an enterprise solution for elearning for providers. It stands as the central elearning technology, despite frequent proclamations of its demise. Prior to the VLE, elearning provision was realised through a variety of tools, for instance a bulletin board for communications, a content management system and home created web pages. The quality of these solutions was variable, often relying on the enthusiasm of one particular devotee. The combination of tools would also vary across any one university, with the Medical School adopting a different set of tools to engineering, which varied again from Humanities, and so on. As elearning became more central to the provision, both for blended learning and fully online, this variety and reliability became more of an issue. The VLE offered a neat collection of the most popular tools, any one of which might not be as good as the best of breed specific tool, but good enough (the good enough wins out being a recurring theme in ed tech). It allowed for a single, enterprise solution with associated training, technical support and helpdesk to be implemented. The advantage of this was that elearning could be progressed more quickly across an entire institution. However, over time this has come to seem something of a Faustian pact, with institutions finding themselves locked into contracts with vendors, and famously providers such as Blackboard attempting to file restrictive patents. More problematically, the VLE has come to be the only route to delivering elearning in many institutions, with a consequent loss of expertise and innovation.

In 2004 I became the OU’s first (and some might say, worst) VLE Director. We had precisely the issue of diverse provision, with an in-house system for course content, the FirstClass conference system and a variety of other tools. Advocates of these will insist they are better than any VLE, but after a review, we opted for the Moodle platform. This permitted enough customisation while providing an agreed infrastructure. The OU has been a great contributor to the Moodle community, and the adoption of a VLE really accelerated our uptake of elearning (I don’t want to hark on about this, but we were a digital university long ago, if people cared to look). But, like many universities, the effort in developing, maintaining, training on the VLE is a large drain on resources, which is often related to the associated structures and admin around it. It’s an unsexy role often, making sure stuff works for thousands of students, and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves in ed tech circles. But there is a balance to be struck between allowing freedom, innovation and experimentation and the core functions. It may be a question of time – education moves slowly, and now that we are at a level of stability with the VLE, more experimentation can happen around the fringes. It’s not trendy, but we should give the VLE respect, and a little love.

Feel the l-OER-ve

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Sat, 21/04/2018 - 19:02


(The sun always shines for OER)

OER18 was held in Bristol this year, superbly chaired by David Kernohan & Viv Rolfe, and once again organised and managed with care, efficiency and joy by the team at ALT. I found it stimulating, challenging and enjoyable as always, but I’m not going to comment on the content so much here, (Sheila and Maren have some excellent posts amongst many others) but rather on what are the characteristics of it as an event that make it probably my favourite regular conference. These are entirely personal, so I don’t offer them up as a ‘how to’ but just what I like.

Size – it is a fairly small scale, intimate conference, probably around 200. Whilst it would be great for the OER movement and ALT if it had an attendance of 10,000 like some of the mega-conferences, it would lose its charm. Whilst I do enjoy the feeling of reuniting with familiar faces, I also think it is small enough that it can be welcoming to new people, and every year I come away having made new contacts.

Venue – the past few years it has been held in venues that are not completely academic (this year was the Watershed, an arthouse cinema in Bristol quay). This is partly a function of the smallish scale – you don’t need one of those anonymous large conference hotels. These venues send a signal, which is that open ed is accessible. It also helps create…

Atmosphere – as Russ Abbot so poetically put, I love a party with a happy atmosphere. There is a good ‘vibe’ to the OER conference. People can be critical, but equally they’re not snooty about more straightforward OER presentations. There is a sense of community and willingness to listen. It feels like the place you could try out a leftfield type presentation, but equally you won’t be sneered at by the cool kids if you go with bulleted lists in Powerpoint.

Criticality – I like that I am presented with reflections, insights and criticality around OER, and openness. But this is not done in a dismissive manner, but rather constructive and exploratory. It’s not cheerleading but equally it’s not ironic. All of the keynotes this year asked us to question our relationship to open practice and also offered inspiration.

Evolving nature – each year seems to build on and adapt from the previous OER conference, whether in terms of theme, international representation or innovative presentations, whilst still maintaining the core appeal of the conference.

Like so many things when they’re done right, they seem simple, but it takes a lot of hard work, consultation and reflection to make it work this smoothly. For that I salute the ALT team.

Love, Faith, Hope & Charity – the future of the OU

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 13/04/2018 - 12:44

I’ve had a draft of this post kicking around for a while now, but after today’s news that Open University Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks has resigned, it seems now is the time to publish it. I won’t go into specific suggestions about policy or strategy (but, hey, I have lots of those!) because that is too internally focused and not of interest to most people outside the OU. Instead I want to focus on more cultural, generic issues which, while brought to a very public head at the OU, are pertinent to many in higher ed I believe. I’m going to couch these in terms of Love, Faith, Hope and Charity. If the OU senior management can make steps to addressing these more fundamental (dare I say, emotional) issues, then the OU will return to be a functioning, forward looking institution at the heart of the UK higher education system. But, if it’s permissible, I do offer a general recommendation for each (all this for considerably less than £2.5 million).

First of all, many people will interpret his resignation as confirmation of their own beliefs. It’s not my intention to tell anyone what the ‘correct’ interpretation is, but for me, I feel it would be a mistake to argue that it means change is not needed, and we shouldn’t do more online provision. We are not returning to bearded men wearing kipper ties on BBC2 at 3am anytime soon. But while I expect there will be a big inquisition now as to which parts of the transformation project continue, here is my take on the more high level issues that will create the culture for the OU to realise that.

Love – one positive outcome of the recent public crisis has been the outpouring of support for the OU from students, staff and the wider public. This in itself represents an opportunity. But I want specifically to focus on the devotion staff feel to the organisation. In our staff survey, affiliation with the mission of the OU and its role is always very high. It is trust in senior management that has plummeted in these surveys to an all time low. Working at the OU over recent months has felt like being trapped inside an episode of W1A directed by Franz Kafka. We have had repeated reorganisations, strategic directives, consultancies and reallocation of priorities. No-one knows what they are doing anymore or where it is heading. It has led to complete paralysis. Ironically, the press has occasionally framed this as a pro vs anti-change struggle, but for many the frustration is more that the obsession with managerialism has led to no change.
To put this in terms that finance managers might appreciate – the devotion of staff to the organisation is a valuable resource. It is literally worth millions to the OU in terms of extra labour, free publicity, innovative ideas. This resource has largely been squandered on initiatives that have produced no discernible benefit. You don’t get to put Students First by putting Staff Last.
Recommendation: The priority for a new regime is to win back that love and trust, and to treat it like the precious resource it is.

Faith – I have moaned before how higher education seems to hate itself. Too often the OU has been bedazzled by the opinions and views of those outside higher ed. We spent millions on consultants who knew little about higher education and less about the OU to tell us how to be a better Open University. Not only is this wasteful, but the message it sends is that we don’t trust our own staff to know what is required. Whilst there are some OU staff who will always resist change, most are keen to embrace it and understand the financial situation that the introduction of fees have created. In the second of our major strategic directives 13 Big Shifts were identified (needless to say, everyone immediately started referring to them as the Big Shits. That no-one in senior management could have predicted this was telling in itself). The first of these talked about focusing on the “Business to Student (B2C)” market. Firstly, what did they think we had been doing all this time? Secondly, this reveals a lack of understanding of higher education. No-one enters academia because they want to focus on a “B2C market”. This was the opening line – not students, education, or mission. Compare this with the opening of the Athabasca University review (conducted by a third party academic):

The university has significant problems,… Change is necessary, in my view, but the path forward that I envisage builds on the university’s history and original mandate. The AU community of scholars, students, staff members and community stakeholders is passionate about their institution and its role in Alberta society. There is considerable appetite for constructive change.

This recognises the need for change, builds on the university’s history, offers hope and speaks in a language all staff can buy into. I bet it cost a lot less too. Senior management need to trust their staff and to demonstrate that trust for any large scale change to occur.
Recommendation: Engage with staff and students on clear, practical changes and communicate in language that is appropriate for a university.

Hope – The introduction of fees has hit part time students hard. It has caused a dramatic drop in OU registrations, no organisation can accommodate that drop in income and maintain business as usual. This has created the climate for the much vaunted change. The financial situation was not as dire as depicted however. The amount the OU was below the break even line was pretty near to what we were investing in FutureLearn. If you took that out then the narrative would be less about the need for complete overhaul, and more about introducing some strategic, and deliverable projects. Staff are willing to sign up for change when presented with evidence, but there needs to be a definite end point to it, and some early results. Simply rearranging the words “digital”, “disruption”, “revolution” and “cloud” in various sentences doesn’t offer that. You can only go to the “major change” well so many times, so like staff devotion, be sure when you want to do it, and have clear, manageable deliverables.
Recommendation: Implement no more than three major practical projects simultaneously, all with clearly defined goals, and realisable within 1 year.

Charity – The OU is a registered charity but at times it seems to really want to be an edtech business, to be the Facebook of learning. We have poured millions into FutureLearn, which increasingly looks like a vanity project, while closing regional centres. As mentioned previously, we prioritise managerial expertise in other sectors over higher education knowledge. We need to stop viewing (or listening to people who view) Higher Education as a problem that needs to be fixed, as if it is the same as increasing the sale of baked beans. Instead of trying to be something it’s not, the OU should get back to being the wonderful thing it is. This is best done by letting staff get on with teaching, and the managerialism being as much in the background as possible, instead of being foregrounded in every single functioning unit.
Recommendation: Focus on improving core university functions in an incremental manner.

I don’t know what the future of the OU holds, or if I’ll have a part in it. But I do think the current crisis has given us a renewed focus on retaining our position and mission in UK and global higher education. With some understanding management it can easily assure it’s next 50 years, and be in a good place from this current situation.

25 Years of EdTech – 2003: Blogs

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 10/04/2018 - 17:39


Whatever happened to blogs eh? What kind of poor, deluded, stuck in the past has-been would still keep a blog? In my 25 Years of EdTech series we’re now at 2003. Elearning is A Serious Thing, with standards, platforms, policies and strategies. Blogging developed alongside these more education specific developments, and was then co-opted into ed tech. In this it foreshadowed much of the web 2.0 developments, which it is often bundled in with.

Blogging was really just a very obvious extension of the web. Once anyone could publish, they would inevitably start to publish diaries. This speaks more to the immutability of human communication than new technology – give people a communication medium and they’ll start writing diaries. Blogging emerged from just a simple version “here’s my online diary” with the advent of feeds, and particularly the universal standard RSS. RSS meant you could subscribe to anyone’s blog and get regular updates. This was as revolutionary as the liberation that web publishing initially provided. If the web made everyone a publisher then RSS made everyone a distributor also. And if you ever picked up hand printed Socialist Worker leaflets outside a Billy Bragg concert on a rainy Wednesday in Hammersmith, then you understood that distribution was where the real power lay.

Once this was in place, then people swiftly moved beyond diaries. What area (from news about newts to racist conspiracy theories) isn’t impacted by the ability to create content freely whenever you want and have it immediately distributed to your audience? Blogs and RSS type distribution were akin to everyone being given superhero powers. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – they’re all the brattish, ungrateful children of blogs. It’s not really surprising that in 2018 we’re wrestling with the implications of this. Imagine if Superman had a zombie virus and passed on his powers – it’d cause a lot of shit to happen, good and bad.

In 2003 I think I tried my first abortive attempt at blogging – it would take another couple of attempts before it stuck in 2006. John Naughton was my blogging father – in 1999 he had shown me a homemade system he’d developed to do a daily online HTML journal, and it was through him that I became aware of the work of Dave Winer and the nascent Radio UserLand blogging platform.

If I had a desert island EdTech, it would be blogging, and that is not just in a nostalgic sense. No other educational technology has continued to develop, as the proliferation of WordPress sites attests, and also remain so full of potential. I’ve waxed lyrical about academic blogging many times before, but for almost every ed tech that comes along, I find myself thinking that a blog version would be better: e-portfolios, VLEs, MOOCs, OERs, social networks. Sometimes it’s like Jim Groom and Alan Levine have taken over my brain, and I don’t even mind. I still harbour dreams of making students effective bloggers will be a prime aspect of graduateness. Nothing develops and anchors your online identity quite like a blog.

When is widening participation not widening participation?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 05/04/2018 - 09:57

The Higher Education Policy Institute released a study today that ranked universities by their widening participation stats. You’d expect Russell group unis to do poorly in this, but I bet the Open University, a provider set up to specifically address WP will do well, right? Except, they didn’t include it. I got into an exchange (HEPI Twitter is feisty!) on this, where they defended their methodology. But this was itself revealing, they replied to my criticism about the OU’s exclusion saying:

“To be clear, there is not a valid way of including it in this study as Polar focuses on young people, the data was sourced from UCAS etc etc etc. Much dodgier to wrench an institution in just because we think it might do well. You’ll find lots about the OU on our site elsewhere.”

POLAR as a measure of recording WP is flawed, particularly if you want to measure mature students. The TEF recognised this by including IMD data this year (this also has issues, particularly for inner city where postcode can include widely varying incomes, hence they include both). The message from HEPI seems to be that it’s your fault if you don’t fit their methodology. But inherent in the methodology are assumptions that undermine the very point of the study I think (I should note that HEPI strongly disagree with me, saying that was not the intention of this study).

This report focuses on traditional universities (Birkbeck is similarly noticeable by its absence), and traditional students (young, campus based). If your aim is to argue that widening participation is an important metric (they are sort of promoting a WP league table), then that message is entirely undermined if your definition of WP is, ironically, too narrow. A study that showed how providers who focus on WP perform would be more powerful. This one seems designed to get headlines (it succeeded in that), over making a valuable contribution to the WP agenda. If your methodology is excluding institutions that everyone thinks should be included, maybe it’s worth looking at that method? That’s what I’d be telling a PhD student embarking on this study. The report is titled “Benchmarking Widening Participation”. This has the intention then to become a useful metric, and if so, the exclusion of widening participation institutions from the outset is not just annoying, it’s potentially damaging.

25 Years of EdTech – 2002: Open licences & OER

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 04/04/2018 - 22:21


(As much as I love OER, this is a crap logo)

This is part of the ongoing 25 Years of Ed Tech series

Now that the foundations of modern ed tech had been laid with the web, CMC, elearning, wikis, etc. the more interesting developments could commence. For 2002 I’m going with Open Educational Resources (OER). In the preceding year MIT announced its OpenCourseWare initiative which marks the real initiation of the OER movement, but it was in 2002 that the first OERs were released, and people began to understand licences (MIT would adopt Creative Commons in 2004). MIT’s goal was to make all the learning materials used by their 1800 courses available via the internet, where the resources could be used and repurposed as desired by others, without charge. At the time it caused a real stir, and lots of unis wished they’d got there first.

I covered the idea of Learning Objects earlier, and how they had taken their inspiration from reusability in software coding. The software approach, and in particular open source software also provides the roots for OER. The open source movement can be seen as creating the context within which open education could flourish, partly by analogy, and partly by establishing a precedent. But there is also a very direct link. David Wiley cropped up in the piece on Learning Objects, and he provides the bridge to OER through the development of licences. In 1998 he became interested in developing an open licence for educational content and contacted pioneers in the open source world directly. Out of this came the open content licence, which he developed with publishers to establish the Open Publication Licence (OPL).

The OPL proved to be one of the key components, along with the Free Software Foundation’s GNU licence, in developing the Creative Commons licences, by Larry Lessig and others in 2002. These went on to become essential in the open education movement. The simple licences in Creative Commons allow users to easily share resources, and wasn’t restricted to software code. Key to the Creative Commons licences are that they are permissive rather than restrictive. They allow the user to do what the licence permits without seeking permission. These licences have been a very practical requirement for the OER movement to persuade institutions and individuals to release content openly, with the knowledge that their intellectual property is still maintained.

OER has become a global movement since these early days. It has not transformed education in quite the way we envisaged back then, and many projects have floundered once funding ends, but through open textbooks and open educational practice (OEP) it continues to adapt and be relevant. I keep waiting for it to be the next major breakthrough, and I sometimes wonder what could have been achieved if OER had the funding that MOOCs received. But then it is a very different beast, embedded less in the silicon valley approach to education and more grounded in teacher practice. OERs are Mr Darcy to MOOCs George Wickham.

The general lessons from OER are that they succeeded where Learning Objects failed because they tapped into existing practice (and open textbooks doubly so). The concept of sharing educational content with a licence that doesn’t restrict this is alien enough, without all the accompanying standards and concepts associated with LOs. You need the component parts to slot into place: in this case the digital platform, open licences and the concept of sharing educational content. Also, you need patience, educational transformation is a slow burn. And get yourself a David Wiley if you can.

Social media, the academic & the university

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 27/03/2018 - 09:41

If you follow me on Twitter you may be aware that it’s been an eventful weekend. The Vice Chancellor of the Open University made some injudicious remarks dismissing what OU academics did as “not teaching”. He has since apologised, and suggests he was trying to make a different point (that OU academics used to have direct contact with students through summer schools but now don’t, and a more online focus could reinstate that contact. This I agree with and have been promoting the benefits of online events since making the annual OU conference open and online in 2010). The point of this post is not to discuss the statement, but rather to reflect on the relationship between the online academic and their institution.

I am, in general, stupidly loyal to the OU, which means I don’t criticise it publicly, although I fully understand why colleagues do (and arguably, their public criticism is being more loyal as it seeks to protect the integrity of the institution). But as these comments had been made in a semi-public forum (an online webcast to students which was put on the intranet), and my interpretation was that they were a dismissal of my, my colleagues and the OU’s entire history (although I should stress the apology seeks to rectify this interpretation), I felt justified in making a public announcement on Twitter:

So here is a transcript of what @PeterHorrocks said in an online forum to @OpenUniversity students 1/n pic.twitter.com/oNYGscSPd8

— Martin Weller (@mweller) March 25, 2018

So I transcribed the comments and set out a thread detailing my objections to the comments. That thread went semi-viral (around 50,000 views), and was picked up by the Times Higher.

Which brings me onto the delicate relationship between a university and the academic with an online profile. The OU has been very positive in promoting and encouraging academics to develop online profiles. It recognises the power and value of these to the institution. I am generally happy to retweet OU news, job adverts, promote research findings of colleagues and cheer awards we receive. But it’s a double edged sword for an institution, as the events over the weekend demonstrate that a story can quickly escalate.

I would like to acknowledge that the VC and the OU comms team behaved impeccably, despite this being a story they could have done without. They have not asked me to amend my post, or placed any pressure on me to withdraw it, or threatened me with sanctions (as one hears at other institutions). They have respected the freedom of expression by academics.

On a personal note it has also been rather double-edged also. The comments in replies and many others via email and DM expressing support, and admiration for the OU have been truly powerful. I had a big dose of self pity on Sunday, and the support from my network was important. This may sound sentimental and like an old hippy but I view the OU like a close family member. When it’s in trouble, I feel that acutely and on a personal level. At the same time each retweet is a little dagger to my heart as it spreads a negative image of the institution I love. And some responses have interpreted it in a manner I didn’t intend (who knew such a thing could happen on Twitter, right?). For instance, this is not saying online education is bad, or that central academics don’t respect associate lecturers. And these misinterpretations increase in likelihood the more the tweet spreads.

I don’t have an easy take-away from this, and that is the take away in itself. The relationship between staff and the university is altered by social media. This has benefits for both, but also potential hazards, so both sides need to be careful how they negotiate it. A tweet is like setting a dog loose in a shopping mall – it might go to sleep quietly in the corner, it might be cute and get adopted, it might make people happy, perhaps it poops in the Ann Summers shop, or it might go on a rampage and bite someone. It’s a strange and unpredictable power.

25 Years of EdTech – 2001: e-learning standards

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 26/03/2018 - 19:01

This post effectively brings together two preceding ones, namely elearning and learning objects. By the turn of the millennium, elearning was everywhere. The internet was no longer dismissed as a fad, and you could make yourself a guru by spouting a few homilies about the death of distance and the like. After the initial flurry of activity, typified by a wild west approach to creating your own website (I’d like to say that academics have a flair for website design, but, erm, we really don’t), there was a necessary, if slightly less fun, concentration of efforts. This meant developing platforms which could be easily set up and run elearning (oh, yes, we’ll come to VLEs later), a more professional approach to the creation of elearning content, the establishment of evidence (which generally found there was no significant difference), and initiatives to describe and share tools and content.

Enter elearning standards, and in particularly IMS. This was the body that set about developing standards to describe content, assessment tools, courses and more ambitiously, learning design. Perhaps the most significant standard was SCORM, which went on to become an industry standard in specifying content that could be played in VLEs. Prior to this there was a lot of overhead in switching content from one platform to another.

Perhaps the standard that brings any ed tech people out in a sweat is that of metadata, and particularly the Dublin Core. This was used to describe a piece of content (such as a learning object) so that it could be discovered and deployed easily, and hopefully automatically. The reason that mention of Dublin Core still induces wry chuckles is that at the time it was largely human derived (the always prescient Erik Duval used to preach “electronic forms must die”). You spent ages crafting a nice activity and were then presented with 27 fields of metadata to describe it, which often required more effort than the initial content. This was obviously not an approach that would scale. And some of the fields remain a mystery to this day (semantic density anyone?). As well as simply being a pain, this level of description also became restrictive, in that it seemed to define exactly how the content should be used.

As a nostalgic aside – if you currently bemoan your VLE usability, tender me your sympathy when around this time I was developing one of the pilot courses for the ill-fated UK eUniversity. This built a whole new platform, based around learning objects. Every object needed to have metadata entered by hand. If you made a change to the content, for example correcting a typo, the nascent platform lost all the metadata and you had to enter it all again. So don’t come crying to me about your Blackboard!

Elearning standards are an interesting case study in edtech. I must admit that after being quite heavily involved around this period, I lost track of them. But that in a sense is a sign of their success. Good standards retreat into the background and just help things work. But it’s also the case that they failed in some of their ambition to have easily assembled, discoverable plug-n-play content. The dream was that you’d type in “Course on Burt Bacharach” and it would automatically assemble the best content, with some automated assessment at the end. This wildly underestimated the complexity of learning (and overestimated the good quality Burt Bacharach learning objects). So while the standards community works away effectively, it was surpassed in popular usage by the less specific, but more human approach to description and sharing that underlined the web 2.0 explosion. But (as they used to say at the end of Tales of the Riverbank), that is another story.

25 Years of EdTech – 2000: Learning objects

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 20/03/2018 - 12:57


(In 2000 these diagrams were Hot Stuff)

In my last post in this series, I focused on elearning, and its shift into the mainstream at the end of the 90s. This was accompanied by new approaches, often derived from computer science. One of these that gained prominence was learning objects. The concept can be seen as arising from programming – object oriented programming had demonstrated the benefits of reusable, clearly defined pieces of functional code that could be implemented across multiple programmes.

Learning objects seemed like a logical step in applying this model to elearning. As Stephen Downes argued:

“there are thousands of colleges and universities, each of which teaches, for example, a course in introductory trigonometry. Each such trigonometry course in each of these institutions describes, for example, the sine wave function. Moreover, because the properties of sine wave functions remains constant from institution to institution, we can assume that each institution’s description of sine wave functions is more or less the same as other institutions’. What we have, then, are thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions. …
Now for the premise: the world does not need thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions available online. Rather, what the world needs is one, or maybe a dozen at most, descriptions of sine wave functions available online. The reasons are manifest. If some educational content, such as a description of sine wave functions, is available online, then it is available worldwide.

This made a lot of sense then, and it still makes a lot of sense today. Step forward then, the idea of learning objects, with a rough definition of “a digitized entity which can be used, reused or referenced during technology supported learning” (more on definitions later). A lot of work accompanied the learning object gold rush: standards were developed to make them reusable, platforms were built to deploy them, content was produced in their style, and papers were written about them.

But they never really took off, despite the compelling rationale for their existence, that Downes and others set out. Their (or our) failure to make them a reality is instructive for all ed tech I feel, and they are something I frequently reference when we’re discussing new technologies. So, here is my list for why learning objects failed (although, to be honest, this video interview with Brian Lamb is a better account):

Overengineering – I’ll cover standards in another post, so won’t say much here, but in order for LOs to work like software objects, they needed to be tightly standardised. This version of the LO dream went beyond Downes’ sine wave simulation, and had as its dream courses that were automatically assembled on the fly from a pool of LOs for a personalised, just in time learning experience. For this to be reality you really needed to make those LOs machine friendly, and so they became so overengineered and full of accompanying metadata, that no-one would create them, and they lost any sense of being an interesting subject for educators to engage with.

Definition debates – related to the above, the ed tech field debated endlessly what a learning object was. I mean, every paper started with their own definition. It was exhausting. For some it was ‘anything that could be used in a learning context’. This could be a photo, but it didn’t even have to be digital, it could be a stone. Which is fine, but doesn’t really get you anywhere. Other definitions were more general but specific to digital, and others had tight definitions around having a learning objective or meeting a specific standard. The problem this highlighted was twofold: Firstly, it highlighted the academic obsession with definitions to the point where most discussions degenerated into two men (it nearly always was men) shouting definitions at each other across a conference hall until everyone left and went to look for doughnuts. Secondly, the more specific definitions helped you decide what an LO was but ended up excluding too much, while the general ones included too much. The definition problem hinted at a more fundamental issue with LOs, which is next on the list.

The reusability paradox – David Wiley (it was through learning objects that I first encountered David, so they’re not all bad) got to the heart of the problem with LOs, and particularly the vision of automated assembly with the reusability paradox. He argued that context is what makes learning meaningful for people, so the more context a learning object has, the more useful it is for a learner. But while learners want context, machines don’t – in order for them to be reusable, learning objects should have as little context as possible, as this reduces the opportunities for their reuse. This leads to Wiley’s paradox, which he summarises as, ‘It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another.’

An unfamiliarity threshold – we wanted LOs to be like reusable code, but the concept of sharing chunks of code was already familiar before it got formalised in object-oriented programming. And even then you learnt the concept as part of the language. LOs never achieved this for education, so the very idea seemed quite alien to many teachers, and particularly in terms of digital content. It began to look less like an ed thing and more like a tech thing. And you’ll never reach critical mass if that is the case.

The world wasn’t ready – you could argue, that like so many things, it takes more than one go at these concepts, each one building a bit on the momentum of the previous one. LOs didn’t take off, but OER did (to a greater extent anyway), and open textbooks more so. It’s possible LOs are ripe for a revival (or because ed tech only does year zero, rediscovery).

Education is too messy – this is probably just reiterating Wiley’s point about reusability, but in coding the boundaries are fairly well delineated (queue laughter from software developer friends). But education doesn’t break down so neatly. Particularly once you get beyond neatly defined concepts. To take Downes’s example, a sine wave LO might be easily reusable, but pretty soon the way I describe and illustrate even a shared concept will differ for PhD psychology students to first year undergrad engineers, partly because you know what they want to do with it (Wiley’s context again).

Reluctance from educators – as well as being unfamiliar, there was also a reluctance to share their carefully crafted material. This persists with OER – there simply isn’t the same culture of sharing for teaching as there is for research. This is largely to do with reward structures – you get promoted for getting your research paper cited by 1000 people, you get sacked for giving away intellectual copyright relating to teaching (I’m overstating, but you get the point).

They didn’t fail – while LO repositories may not be competing with Google for web traffic, you could make the argument that they didn’t fail. As mentioned above, they sort of morphed into OER, which sort of gave rise to MOOCs, and a lot of the LO work fed into standardisation around platforms, assessment, and content transfer. Publishers (shhhh) probably took the LO idea to heart more than others and have a large number of subscribers who pay for elearning content that can be redeployed in their context. LOs may be a successful failure after all.

PS – I tweeted that I was going to post on this, and Brian Lamb pointed me to a recent post of his, which sets out the LO lessons better than I managed, but I can’t abandon this post now.

25 Years of EdTech – 1999: Elearning

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 15/03/2018 - 15:32


(Look how happy elearning can make you!)

In truth, 1999 is getting a bit late to focus on elearning in my 25 Years of Edtech series. It had certainly been in use as a term for some time, but it was with the rise of the web, and the prefix of ‘e’ to everything that saw it come to prominence. By 1999 elearning was knocking on the door, if not already part of, the mainstream. In a typical academic fashion we argued what we meant by it, and it was obligatory for one person at every conference to say in a rather self-satisfied manner “there’s already an e in learning”. But it was a useful term, as it highlighted the profile of online components (and as a previous post suggested, exploration of accompanying pedagogies).

I’m also making it the focus of 1999 because this was the year we developed T171 at the OU. I’ve talked about this before, but just to rehash, it wasn’t our first online course, but it was the first major online one. We wanted to explore what it would be like to deliver a course entirely online. No printed units, no accompanying material. We were frequently told that no-one would study this way. And of course, it turned out lots of people wanted to. The success of this course (some 12,000 students) almost overwhelmed the OU’s systems and we had to invent a whole new set of digital infrastructures and procedures to cope.

The point of this is that these students were keen to study this way and saw it as liberating, whereas most academics were reticent about its use, and frequently hid this behind concerns about students. I also raise it because a) the OU has been digital for a long time and b) large scale online courses weren’t invented in 2012. You will forgive me an excessive eye roll at the BBC breathlessly reporting that the University of London is going to offer a degree online. In 2018!

One of the interesting aspects of elearning was the consideration of costs. The belief was that it would be cheaper than traditional distance ed courses. It wasn’t, but it did see a shift in costs. You could maybe spend less in production (because you’re not making physical resources, and can reuse material) but you end up spending more in presentation (because you have support costs and more rapid updating cycle). This cost argument keeps reoccurring though, and was a big driver for MOOCs. It came as no surprise to those who had any history in elearning that this did not come to pass.

Elearning really set the framework for the next decade, most of which I’ll cover in subsequent posts, in terms of technology, standards and approaches. This period might be seen as the golden age of elearning in some respects, so sit back and enjoy the next ten posts or so.

PS – I would like to nominate “elearning” as the worst category for stock photos.

25 years of EdTech – 1998: Wikis

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 09/03/2018 - 13:02

I think of wikis sometimes and it makes me a bit sorrowful. Perhaps more than any other tech they embody the spirit of optimism and philosophy of the open web. The wiki, a web page that could be jointly edited by anyone, was a fundamental shift in how we related to the net. The web democratised publication and the wiki made it a collaborative, shared enterprise. In 1998 wikis were just breaking through. Ward Cunningham is credited with inventing them (and the term) in 1994. I heard of them in 97 at an ed tech conference. I came back from that all enthused, I would accost people in corridors like the ancient mariner and shout “let’s make all our courses wikis!” People would mutter things like “quality control” or “we don’t have any online courses yet”. I should have persisted – we could’ve been the digital university 20 years ago.

Anyway, enough about me and the OU. Wikis were a hot topic for a few years, and were really groundbreaking. Remember at the time Encarta was a revolutionary take on the encyclopedia. Wikis had their own markup language which made them a bit techie to use, although later implementations such as Wikispaces made it easier (that Wikispaces closed a couple of weeks ago speaks to my sorrowful theme). With Wikipedia now the default knowledge source globally with over 5.5 millions articles (in English), it would seem churlish to bemoan that wikis didn’t fulfil their potential, but that is how I feel in terms of teaching. Wikis encapsulate the promise of a dynamic, shared, respectful space. I get sad just writing that now, thinking of the lack of those values in social media. With wikis this was partly the ethos behind them (named after the Hawaiian word for quick after all, I mean duuuuuude), but also their technical infrastructure. You can track edits, rollback versions, monitor contributions – there is accountability and transparency built in. Wikipedia has become something of a bro-culture but it’s less of a dumpster fire than Twitter.

But they didn’t really transform education to their potential, for instance, why aren’t MOOCs in wikis? It’s not necessarily that wikis as a technology have not quite fully realised their potential, but rather that the approach to ed tech they represent, has been replaced by a more broadcast, commercial, publisher model than a cooperative, process oriented one. Maybe education wasn’t ready to let go of control after all. Credit to OERu for persisting in the potential of wikis, and people like Mike Caulfield for advancing the thinking around federated wikis.

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