Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Benefitting from Web 2.0 technologies

I've been really grateful for the reaction I've had to my blog post of last week. I wrote the post first and foremost as a means of getting a few things off my chest and trying to articulate in my own mind why I felt the way I did. I posted a link to the blog in the tutor group forum and I also 'tweeted' a link, which is something I very rarely do. I've had responses through comments directly on the blog, through the tutor group forum, and even as a result of Twitter.

I'm beginning to appreciate the value of building up networks through the use of Web 2.0 technologies. Most people on the H800 course are, I think, quite experienced and self-motivated learners. Generally, we will all be capable of learning independently and thus we are able to operate successfully as distance learners. However, most people it would seem do go through low patches and it is at these times that we miss the mutual support that would traditionally be provided through face-to-face contact with other learners.

I've been following a hashtag (#H800) on Twitter for the past couple of weeks, which means I see all the Twitter postings that include the #H800 hashtag. It has been interesting to see the range of 'tweets' from students from all tutor groups. Some provide links to interesting resources, some are moans, some are lighthearted comments, but all help to reveal a picture of a diverse group of people coping in different ways with a demanding course of study.

All this has helped me to realise that I'm not on my own, and that lots of others are struggling along with me. Indeed other students are probably having to cope with the demands of the course in more difficult circumstances than myself. I wouldn't say that my enthusiasm has yet been reinvigorated, but at least I now feel a little bit more confident that I can get through the remainder of the course.

Thank you very much to everyone who responded with comments.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Week 24 and really struggling

I think I've reached a bit of a low point with H800. Throughout most of the course since February I have managed to maintain a high level of enthusiasm, even when I've found the workload very high and had particularly busy periods at work. Over the past week or two however, I've noticed a significant drop in my enthusiasm and I'm finding it difficult to motivate myself to devote time to H800.

It's possibly something to do with being really busy at work, despite the fact that that it's the end of the academic year. Normally around the end of July things ease off considerably and one's mind inevitably starts to turn to holidays, reflecting on the year past and thinking about how things could be better next year. Whilst most of my colleagues at work definitely seem to be in wind-down mode, I've been involved in trying to recruit some new academic staff to replace colleagues retiring or moving on. It's been incredibly time-consuming and extremely frustrating, and despite making several offers we still have not filled all vacancies. Consequently, all the things I normally do at this time of year haven't been done, and I seem to have even less time than normal to devote to H800.

Added to this though, I have to admit to finding the content of course at the moment rather tedious. I have always endeavoured to approach the activities in H800 with an open mind, even when I haven't found the subject matter particularly interesting. Currently, try as I might, I just can't get interested in the material. I'm starting to think that the core content of H800 could really have been covered in a shorter period than 32 weeks, and that we are now just stretching the material out unneccessarily.

I'm also very conscious of the fact that I haven't yet done any work at all on TMA04, which is due to be submitted in a little over two weeks' time. Reluctantly therefore, I think I'm going to have to become a 'strategic learner' (Remember Richardson (2005) – Week 12) and focus on the assessed work. I will look at the course material, but I don't think I will be contributing much to the forum unless something really interesting comes up.

Friday, 23 July 2010

H800: Week 23 - A5: Reading Jones

Article: Jones (2004) Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks.

Just posted a rather tetchy forum post in response to this activity:

"I'm afraid that when I read papers like this I get rather cross. I'm sure such papers have their place amongst philosophers and intellectuals, but personally I am just trying to make sense of the issues surrounding technology-enhanced learning. To me, the paper does not identify very clear objectives, nor does it seem to reach any meaningful conclusions. It seems to be another example of "musings in the bath" in which the author gathers together the thoughts of various different authors but doesn't manage to present a coherent argument.

Apologies if that sounds rather cynical, but I'm struggling to get the motivation to complete the H800 activities. The course seems to have reached a point where we are thrashing around looking for another angle to examine the same issues from.

Perhaps things may become clearer with subsequent activities.

Jones' article really bugged me for some reason. As I was reading it I couldn't help thinking of Basil Fawlty's famous line about "stating the bleeding obvious"!


Thursday, 22 July 2010

H800: Week 23 – A3: Thinking about my own learning

Prior to starting the H800 course it was over 10 years since I was involved in a formal course of education leading to an award. Obviously there have been countless learning experiences associated with my work through preparation for lectures, scholarly activity and research, plus numerous training courses, staff development and so on. Nevertheless, H800 has been the first structured course of education I have taken for some considerable time. Earlier courses I have taken at undergraduate and postgraduate levels were largely before the widespread use of learning technologies, and were quite traditional in their delivery and assessment.

I have made quite extensive use of technologies in my role as a lecturer, and I have generally been enthusiastic about them. However, the experience of being a learner on H800 has helped me to understand the role of technologies in the learning process. Whilst my views about the effectiveness and suitability of various technologies have changed, my overall perception of them remains largely positive.

As a learner I make extensive use of a VLE (the H800 course site), the tutor group forum, and my own personal blog. I also use the virtual classroom (Elluminate) but less regularly. I have gained a great deal from using these technologies and feel that my experience on the course (from a 'learning' perspective) has been as good, and probably better, than earlier face-to-face courses. In some respects I feel that the use of asynchronous learning technologies such as the tutor group forum has positively helped me to learn more from a discussion than the equivalent face-to-face discussion. I am by nature quite a shy person. In face-to-face discussion I am quite conscious of what I say and how it will be perceived by other people. Consequently, if I am not confident that what I have to say will be appropriate then I will probably not say it. The benefit with the tutor group forum is that you don't need to respond immediately. You can reflect on other contributions, check up on some basic facts, and then make your contribution when you are ready. I have found this process to be quite liberating, insofar as it has allowed me to make contributions with some confidence.

The example of a poor experience with a technology which springs to mind is the use of wikis. By coincidence, I have just left a comment on a fellow student's blog expressing my disappointment with the use of wikis on this course. I really don't think I have gained anything from the use of wikis. Here's the comment I made:

Personally I don't think the use of wikis on this course has been particularly conducive to collaborative learning. In most cases the wikis have consisted of little more than a table to which we have added various bits of information. There never seems to be any tangible outcomes from the wikis. Perhaps this is due to my own lack of enthusiasm, but I really struggle to see the point of them.

I think wikis might be more appropriate when small groups (of say 4 or 5) are required to produce something with a very clear set of objectives. Ideally the individuals within the group would each be tasked with dealing with a specific element of the exercise. They each upload their contributions to the wiki and allow fellow group members to edit them and supplement them. In this way the output of the group could be more than the sum of the individual contributions.

Unfortunately, the way we have used wikis doesn't seem (to me at least) to facilitate these synergies.



Thursday, 15 July 2010

How the internet is changing the way we think

Wonderful piece picked up from John Naughton's blog (Memex 1.1). He cites George Dyson, a science historian, who uses the analogy of different approaches to boatbuilding by tribes in the North Pacific to consider how the internet has changed the way we gather information:

In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results — maximum boat / minimum material — by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don't will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Monday, 12 July 2010

H800: Weeks 21/22 – Activity 2 – VLEs & PLEs


• Sclater (2008a) ‘Large-scale Open Source E-Learning Systems at The Open University UK’.

• Martin Weller’s blog posting about his own ‘PLE’.

• Sclater (2008b) ‘Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems’.

These readings covered the issues which need to be considered by educational institutions and by academic staff in deciding on the most appropriate online learning support environment. The readings basically distinguish between virtual learning environments (VLEs) and personal learning environments (PLEs). It was apparent that there are clear advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. A VLE is usually an off-the-shelf product such as Blackboard which provides a fairly standard structure for online support to courses. Other models include Moodle which is an open source system that can be customised to an institution’s own requirements.

As I have indicated in earlier postings, I am a regular user of Blackboard at my University to support the delivery of my modules. I believe that students do value a well organised online facility which can be accessed at any time. I don’t believe that VLEs and PLEs should be seen as alternatives. There is no reason why they cannot complement each other. The VLE can provide the centralised framework for delivery, but there is nothing to stop individual students developing their own PLEs to suit their particular needs.

I am enthusiastic about the idea of PLEs, and the diagram below indicates how I have mapped out my own PLE. I decided to distinguish between the various resources which I use for work, for H800 and for my personal life, though obviously there are some overlaps between these. I have also added in a separate aspect for mobile learning on my smartphone, since I find myself increasingly using this when I am away from a PC.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

H800: Weeks 21/22 – Activity 1d – The impact of technologies on organisations

Undoubtedly, Web 2.0 technologies have had a significant impact on me personally since I have been working in higher education. The most obvious example is the use of the Blackboard VLE. There is an expectation that every module at the University of Westminster is supported by a Blackboard site but, as I think I have mentioned on several previous occasions, the extent to which Blackboard is used by academic staff varies considerably.
I have a Blackboard site for each of the modules which I teach. For example, here's a screenshot from the Blackboard site for one of my final year undergraduate modules: Building Adaptation & Conservation.

The Blackboard site is first and foremost a repository for all the learning materials associated with the module. This includes the module handbook, copies of lecture presentations, handouts, links to relevant websites and so on. I also use it for the digital submission of coursework, and for maintaining assessment records. I think students value a well organised Blackboard site and appreciate having access to course materials online. However, I would be the first to acknowledge that, up to now, I have not exploited the full potential of Blackboard in supporting my modules, since I have not made sufficient use of collaborative tools such wikis or discussion boards, nor have I made full use of some of the other tools available.
The use of Blackboard has in some ways caused my workload to increase, because in addition to preparing for lectures each week I now have to ensure that weekly module materials are uploaded on to Blackboard. This can be a tedious process, since Blackboard is a bit 'clunky' to use and does not allow bulk uploading. Nevertheless, I think it is worth it for the benefits which students gain, and it does save me having to deal with queries from students who have missed lectures, because I can simply refer them to the Blackboard site.
From an institutional perspective, my perception is that the University did not have a very clear rationale or strategy when it introduced Blackboard. I strongly suspect that it was introduced mainly just to keep up with other universities. I don't believe that the University fully thought through the implications in terms of student expectations, server space requirements and a long term approach to dealing with Web 2.0. Now the University finds itself rather stuck with Blackboard, and is looking around at the options available.
There is certainly resistance amongst some staff to more widespread use of technologies. This is driven in part by the factors that Conole (2009) identifies, including lack of time, a focus on research and concerns over the diminution in the role of the teacher. Despite this, there are plenty of academic staff within the institution who are experimenting with new technologies and trying out innovative approaches in their teaching. This was evidenced at the end of last month when the University held its annual Learning & Teaching Symposium at which many of the presentations were concerned with the use of new technologies. In addition, the University has a good (if small) team of learning technologists who are very willing to help staff develop new initiatives. However I think it would be fair to say that, for the most part, the use of new technologies is being driven by the enthusiasm of individual members of staff rather than any coordinated strategy on the part of the University.
Reference: Conole, G. (2009) 'Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education' in Lee, M.J.W. and McLoughlin, C. (eds) Web 2.0-based E-learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching, Hershey, PA, IGI Global.

H800: Weeks 21/22 – Activity A1c: Examples of Web 2.0 innovations

I spent way too long on this activity, because I kept getting sidetracked by interesting ideas and possibilities. Anyway, the three innovations I have selected are as follows:

  1. Using Twitter in the Classroom.

In recent weeks I've developed a bit of a fascination with Twitter, and though I rarely 'tweet' myself, I have been actively following other tweeters. I am trying to establish whether or not it is feasible (and indeed desirable) to make use of Twitter in my teaching. This example (the Twitter Experiment) demonstrates how one history professor in Dallas uses Twitter as a way of involving her students during (and after) her classes. She has a separate screen running during the class with shows Tweets from students who want to ask a question or make a point. It seems to be an effective way of enabling students to be involved who might otherwise be shy about speaking in front of the whole class. It also helps in identifying queries that many students might have in common. Furthermore, the tweet stream can continue after the class is over.

I think this is a great idea, but I notice that she has a graduate teaching assistant to run this for her during the class. Much as I would like to give this a try, I would not have the luxury of such assistance. Nevertheless, I may consider experimenting.

  1. Using online photo-sharing services (e.g. Flickr) as part of students' coursework

There are several online photo-sharing services available now, including Flickr and Picasa. Most of these offer a free service which can provide online storage of photos and sharing facilities, together with options to tag photos and search public albums. This example from Educause describes how the use of Flickr was incorporated into a project which architecture students were required to undertake. The students were asked to identify examples of buildings of buildings which displayed certain architectural styles and then take photographs of them. This is a fairly common requirement for students studying building styles, but what was interesting was the additional requirement to upload their photographs to Flickr and to provide brief descriptive comments. Thus, a simple coursework exercise becomes a great way of sharing findings with fellow students and learning from each other through building up an online resource.

  1. Using free online screen capture services to provide verbal feedback to students

Professional screen capture software (such as Camtasia) is expensive and takes some time to learn if it is to be used effectively. There are a couple of basic screen capture services available free including Screenjelly and Jing. These allow you to record short screen captures with a voiceover and store them online. You can then embed the videos in a website or email them directly to someone. This has potential to provide a means of giving verbal feedback to students on a piece of work which has been submitted digitally.


By the way, if anyone is struggling to find examples of Web 2.0 innovations, you might be interested in having a look at Russell Stannard's Teacher Training Videos website, which gives loads of step-by-step training screencasts on various learning technologies. Russell is a lecturer at the University of Westminster, and although most of his work nowadays is in the field of multimedia / ICT, his background is in ELT / ESOL.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

H800: Weeks 21 & 22: A1 a & b: Reading Conole (2009)

Read the first half of the chapter by Conole, 'Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education'; just up to the section entitled 'Making sense of the complexity'.

I found the first part of the paper a little tedious, since it essentially presented points which have been made adequately elsewhere, though I accept that this was necessary to 'set the scene'. The examples of the use of Web 2.0 in Table 2 were rather irritating as some of the web addresses were either wrong or the material no longer existed. Furthermore, those links which did work were basically not very interesting.

I thought Table 3 (characteristics of new technologies) provided quite a good summary of the positive and negative impacts of various aspects of Web 2.0.

From around Page 9 onwards, the paper presents some very interesting points, and I felt that the issues raised were very relevant to my own experience in a University department where the 'take-up' of new technologies varies considerably between different members of staff. In particular, I found the following points significant:

  • (p9) The suggestion that students have become used to "small, bite-size chunks of information" and that they learn through "experiential interaction rather than through guided, step-by-step instruction".
  • (p10) Teachers have little incentive to explore new technologies because of other demands on their time, particularly the expectation to conduct research. Research is privileged over teaching, so applying new technologies is low priority.
  • (p10) There is a "disjuncture between student use of technologies and academic use".
  • (p10) Some academics feel intimidated by the possibility that new technologies will "require a fundamental change in their role as teacher and associated loss of authority"
  • (p10) Those academics who are enthusiastic about new technologies struggle to convince colleagues and find themselves up against "outdated arguments" which relate to the way things used to be.

I can relate strongly to all of those points, and I was looking forward to reading the rest of the paper to discover suggestions as to how they might be addressed. Unfortunately, having just had a quick glance at the second half of the paper, I have realised that the paper proposes Cloudworks and Compendium as ways of 'making sense' of the complexity. Sadly, neither of these tools really 'do it' for me, so I'm a little disappointed.

A new smartphone

A week's leave for me this week. Even though I'm not going anywhere I just feel I need to get away from the University for a few days. I got TMA03 in on time yesterday. I found it hard to get motivated to put a huge amount of effort into it, given that the marks don't count for the final assessment, but nevertheless I found it useful in focussing the mind for the ECA.

Once that was submitted I had time to play with my new toy – a new smartphone. The contract on my iPhone finished at the end of June which meant I had the option of upgrading or simply moving on. I looked at the iPhone 4, but I found it hard to justify the expense of getting it (around £200) and O2's new tariffs mean that you have to pay an additional fee for 3G internet access – what a rip off! This caused me to look at alternatives and I decided to consider some of the iPhone's competitors. Although I've really loved the iPhone since I've had it, there are a few things about it that really niggle me. The refusal of Apple to support Flash player is one thing, and I was also getting fed up with the whole Apple approach which ties you into the Apple brand.

So – I went for an Android phone – the HTC Desire - and I'm really delighted with it. What's more, my new contract with Orange costs £5 a month less than my previous contract, gives me unlimited internet access, miles more minutes and texts, AND there was no charge for the phone!

The interface is slightly different to the iPhone but I'll soon get used to it, and there are loads more features on it. I set it up easily for the Exchange server at work, so I had access to my emails, contacts and calendar within about 10 minutes of switching the phone on. It also runs Googlemail automatically, as well as Facebook and Twitter. The internet is much faster than on the iPhone and it's got a much better camera (5MP) with a flash, which also records video. You can set up RSS feeds and it's even got a SatNav. Although there aren't as many apps available as for the iPhone, the Android Market does have thousands of apps and I've already found most of the ones I had previously on my iPhone, and so far they've all been free!

I feel like a kid with a new toy at Christmas, and I know everyone will be getting annoyed with me now as I go on about it. Hopefully it should provide lots of opportunities for m-learning!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

H800: Starting to think about TMA03 / ECA

TMA03 is due in less than a week, and I haven't really given it too much thought so far. The first thing we need to do is to identify the two digital technologies we are proposing to use as the basis for the end-of-course assessment (ECA). The precise requirement (from the ECA brief) is to "Choose two digital technologies you have used this year as a learner."

As a first step I have had a scan of various sources to seek a bit of inspiration. I've looked back through the H800 course material and I've looked at the tutor group forum and the course wiki (both for my own group and for other tutor groups). I've even been keeping an eye on Twitter, having set up a search on "H800". I also had a quick look on Cloudworks, but couldn't really see any relevant threads.

Anyway, with thanks to all other H800 students who have indicated their initial choices, here's a preliminary list of technologies which people seem to be considering:

  • Discussion forums / tutor group forums (asynchronous)
  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • Audio / video conferencing (e.g. using Skype)
  • Virtual classrooms (e.g. Elluminate / Wimba)
  • Instant messaging (synchronous)
  • Podcasts
  • Online videos (e.g. YouTube or course-related videos)
  • Screencasts
  • Micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter)
  • Social networking (e.g. Facebook)
  • Social bookmarking (e.g. Delicious)
  • Second life
  • RSS feeds (and associated readers such as Google reader)
  • Compendium

Obviously this list is not comprehensive, and there may well be other technologies that are appropriate, but they seem to be the ones which most people are thinking about.

I can't make my mind up at the moment. I was thinking about choosing blogs, but I'm a bit concerned because the brief for the ECA states that material which was submitted for any previous TMA must not be used again, and I selected blogging for one of the activities in TMA02.

I'll need to think a bit more about this.

Finally, a note about Twitter. I have started a new Twitter account specifically for use on this course. My new username is TonyB_H800

Monday, 28 June 2010

Using Twitter

I have really mixed feelings about Twitter. On the one hand, in a strange way, I am excited by the immediacy of it and I love the idea of building a network of people and sharing ideas. I also feel that there must be a way in which I can use the power of this service in my teaching and for the benefit of my students.

And yet ..... I can't get away from the negative feelings I have about Twitter. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of 'tweets' are at best, banal, and at worst, utter nonsense. Why would anyone be remotely interested in what I am doing? As for using it in my teaching – every example I have seen seems to be of limited value to me and I wonder whether it's really worth the effort.

And yet ..... here I am having played around with it so much over the weekend that I have ended up with three separate Twitter accounts: one for work, one for H800, and personal one. And what's more I've discovered a brilliant tool which allows me to manage all three accounts, plus a Facebook account, plus any searches I want to add. It's called TweetDeck and it's free to download. There's also a version for the iPhone available as a free app. Although it takes a bit of setting up it seems a great way to manage everything from a single place.

Now all I need are some friends to follow and a few ideas for tweets that anyone would be interested in!

......I'm still not convinced, but I'm open to persuasion!

Friday, 25 June 2010

Using a tablet instead of a mouse

I've just got a Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch. It's basically an alternative to a mouse as an input device for the computer. It consist of a small tablet measuring about 250x180mm which connects via USB. You can use your fingers on the surface of the tablet to navigate around the screen, or there is a 'pen' with which you can write on the tablet and the writing appears as digital ink on the screen.
I thought this would be a brilliant way of providing feedback on students' coursework electronically. I thought if students could submit their work digitally, then I could open the document, and simple write my feedback in digital ink, rather than having to type in comments.
So what's the verdict? Well my initial reaction is that I'm a little disappointed. Firstly the original document needs to be 'sent' to another package such OneNote. That's a bit fiddly but I can live with it. A bigger disappointment for me is that it's not very easy to write small neat notes in a document. The image below is a partial screenshot showing my handwriting using the pen. I really took my time with this, but as you can see it's still not very neat. I normally have quite neat writing. If I was quickly writing comments I think it would be illegible.

I'll persevere for a while to see if things get better, but as I say – I'm disappointed.

H800: Week 19 – A7: Adopting a smartphone

Reading Do Smart Devices Make Smart Learners? (Pettit & Kukulska-Hulme, 2008)

  1. Given what you know about your colleagues, students or friends, what role would you take if you were introducing them to a new device? Would you see yourself as a teacher/tutor or as a friend?
  2. Would you go for the approach of the Qtek Clubs described in the paper?
  3. How would you support your colleagues/students/friends in their learning? Would you create learning activities and, if so, of what kind?

In linking this activity to the broader themes of H800, you may like to consider whether, in your view, Qtek Clubs and similar forums are instances of learning by acquisition or learning by participation. Or a hybrid?

Before addressing the main questions related to this activity – a couple of quick points on the research paper. Firstly, I thought it was quite a weak piece of research. The paper devotes quite a lot of space to aspects that are unique to the particular device used in the research, which in my view is largely irrelevant to the broader aspects of smartphone use. Do we really need to know what the phone signal was like, or that make-up smears got on the screen when using it as a phone? Secondly, it is quite marked just how quickly a piece of research like this can become almost completely obsolete. The latest generation of smartphones are so superior to the one in this study that most of the findings have limited application in the context of the modern devices.

As for introducing colleagues, friends or students to new devices, I think the important thing is that people tend to use them in different ways. We need to discover what works best for us and the only way to do that is to play around with it yourself. Yes – of course it helps to be made aware of the potential of the devices, and new applications and so on, but ultimately these are personal devices and we have to use them ourselves. There is a vast amount of guidance online these days, and a simple YouTube search for any device would almost certainly yield a wide range of user-created videos which will show you how to do just about anything. I don't think I'd be particularly interested in the 'Qtek Club' approach.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The internet: everything you need to know

There's a very interesting piece written by John Naughton in this week's Observer.

I picked up on it from John Naughton's blog, and it seems to touch on several issues which we've been discussing in recent weeks.

Friday, 18 June 2010

H800: Week 18 – A3: The Observatory Report

Reading Web 2.0 for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, by Tom Franklin and Mark van Harmelen on behalf of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education

Just a very quick post on this activity as I find myself pressed for time and I want to get stuck into the social networking tools in subsequent activities.

The key things I took from this reading are that some universities clearly are addressing the challenges posed and opportunities afforded by Web 2.0. Certainly the universities referred to seem to have a clearer strategy and be much more advanced in their preparations than my own institution. There does seem to be a shift away from the centralised VLEs towards a more open, decentralised approach. I think John has previously referred to Elgg, but it is not a service that I am familiar with. It is interesting that several of the universities referred to in the report are adopting Elgg at University level and are reporting an enthusiastic take up amongst staff and students. I just wonder how much of this reporting is representative of the true picture. At Westminster a service known as CONNECT was introduced a couple of years ago, and this was actually referred to in the TLRP/TEL report (p20) which we read in Activity 2 this week. Anyone reading the report would get the impression that the service had been a fantastic success, but the reality is that I am not aware of anyone (staff or students) using it. I had a quick check this morning on the Connect homepage and the most recent post was a week ago, and prior to that the last post was two months ago!

I'm not suggesting that the same applies at other universities such as those adopting Elgg, but I am saying that the take-up figures published by universities need to be treated with some caution. Just because someone registers with a service does not necessarily mean that they are a regular user.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

H800: Week 18 – A2 – The researcher’s perspective

Various readings from: TLRP-TEL 2008 Report, Education 2.0? Designing the Web for Teaching and Learning

Crook: What are Web 2.0 technologies, and why do they matter?

The meaning of "virtualisation of exchange practices": In a face-to-face / physical context, exchange practices involve the direct, verbal and paper-based exchange of information, ideas and money between parties. In a Web 2.0 environment the practices are 'virtual' and there are infinite possibilities.

Selwyn: Educational hopes and fears for Web 2.0

I think the fears which some educators have are understandable. Some educators will have spent their entire lives learning and teaching in a traditional educational environment. Web 2.0 may seem like an alien world in which the educator has to effectively give up a lot of the controls which they have traditionally held. It is perfectly natural that this will be greeted with some fear. This may include fear for the learning process, fear for the loss of traditional skills, and the loss of students' ability to think critically, and fear for the loss of the respect which scholarly activity is traditionally afforded.

I appreciate the need for caution in these matters and I would be concerned about blindly embracing Web 2.0, but personally I am more excited about the potential benefits than I am fearful of the downsides.

Carr: Learning and virtual world

Despite my general enthusiasm for Web 2.0, I must confess that I find the whole idea of Second Life somewhat strange. I have never experienced Second Life so I am loathe to be too dismissive of something I have never tried. Nevertheless, I cannot get away from feeling uncomfortable with the concept. I find it somehow false and I associate it with weirdos and sci-fi fanatics. Having said that, the examples of its use which are described seem to be perfectly reasonable. I understand that we will be exploring second life in more detail in Week 25, so perhaps I should reserve judgement.

Selwyn: Learning and social networking

As I think I may have mentioned when we looked at SNSs in an earlier week, whenever I have raised the issue of using Facebook and similar services with my students they have indicated that they see these services very much as part of their social lives rather than their education. They seemed uncomfortable with the idea of using Facebook in relation to their course and wanted to maintain a separate identity. Nevertheless, I still feel there is potential for these types of services (not necessarily Facebook) to be used in education, though I am not altogether sure of how.

Selwyn, Cook, Noss & Laurillard: Education 2.0? Towards an educational web 2.0

I think this is the most interesting of al the articles and I like the underlying theme. It is cautious yet positive and suggests that, rather than just worrying about what might happen, or dismissing Web 2.0 as irrelevant, educators should seize the initiative and reconfigure roles to exploit the power of Web 2.0 to good effect.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A learning episode!

I want to describe a learning episode that has occurred today, not because it was particularly profound, but simply because I think it is a good example of how online networks can promote a deeper understanding of something in a way which may even be more effective than an equivalent face-to-face context.
Last week (Week 17) on the tutor group forum there was a discussion about a paper written by Noble which raised various concerns about the way in which online learning is being used in higher education. One of the concerns related to the commercial nature of established VLEs in higher education. I mentioned in my post that I could recall reading an article which proposed doing away with established VLEs and simply using the freely available online tools instead.
Both Andy and John responded to my post. Andy suggested that I might be referring to personal learning environments (PLEs) and John suggested that the article I had read may have been written by Martin Weller. I was not familiar with the concept of PLEs so I resolved to try to find out more about them. John's suggestion of Martin Weller's blog contained a link to a paper entitled "The Centralisation Dilemma in Educational IT" which also discussed in some detail the relative advantages and disadvantages of centralised VLEs and decentralised PLEs.
By coincidence this week (Week 18) the very first reading we looked at was by Martin Weller, and covered broadly similar issues to those in the paper which above. I posted my thoughts on the reading on my blog, and on the forum, and Andy kindly responded again and drew my attention to another article (Roder and Brown) which also dealt with PLEs but covered them primarily from the perspective of e-portfolios. Now whilst I hadn't previously come across PLEs, I was familiar (or so I thought) with e-portfolios. All our students produce e-portfolios as part of their personal development planning (PDP) but in most cases they are little more than online CVs and for the most part students do not like doing them because they feel that they get very little out of them. What I learned from this article (and from the context provided by the other papers) was that e-portfolios could actually be used as the basis for quite a sophisticated PLE which could provide students with a framework for maintaining their personal development long after they have graduated and moved on.
I know it may seem ridiculously simple, but something has really struck me about the way in which all these various sources have come together in the space of a few days from a variety of sources, and the result is that something has actually clicked for me. I recall a comment in one of the readings we have had recently that learning is all about making connections, and I think that is exactly what has happened here for me.

H800: Week 18 - A1: The challenge for educational institutions

Reading Weller (2009) ‘Using learning environments as a metaphor for educational change’, in On the Horizon.

I actually thought this article was really interesting and thought provoking. I realise that the world which Weller envisages may be some way off at the moment, and I accept that Universities (and consequently their employees) will have to go through a considerable amount of pain and discomfort, but I do think he presents quite a strong argument. He articulates something which I have felt as a gut feeling for some time, namely that Web 2.0 will have a dramatic impact on HE. Currently, most universities, when they develop online provision, simply replicate traditional delivery in an online environment. Hence, VLEs effectively deliver material in a linear sequence, replicating the centralised approach of the physical learning environment.

Weller's simple example of referencing is a very pertinent one. The referencing method we require students to use (e.g. Harvard) will have been designed for "physically located resources" and is by no means the most appropriate method for referencing web-based resources, where hyperlinks would be much more effective.

I agree with Weller that universities must face up to the challenge, and this will require the development and acceptance of new pedagogical approaches. However, it seems to me that universities are in a very difficult position here. How can they plan for something which is by its vey nature independent of central controls? I actually quite like the concept of the personal learning environment (PLE) which he sets out, and the potential for lots of different tools to become inter-connected. But such a de-centralised approach will require a whole new way of operating on the part of universities, and that's not going to happen overnight.

Friday, 11 June 2010

H800: Week 17 – Activity 6 – Administering knowledge

Reading Brabazon (2001) 'Internet teaching and the administration of knowledge'.


When I first read this article I felt somewhat depressed, because I can recognise nearly all the issues which Brabazon raises. For a while it forced me to question my enthusiasm for technology-enhanced learning. Then I started to think about it and I realised that, much like the Hara and Kling article in Activity 2 of this week, Brabazon appears to lay the blame for many of the problems with higher education today at the door of technology, when in fact the true cause of the problems is much more complex.

I would like to highlight some of the issues which Brabazon raises, and to argue that that the problems are not necessarily derived from the technology, but are sadly part and parcel of modern higher education:

Internet-based learning is a response to consumerism in which ideas are crushed into modules, criteria and bullet points, and rendered consistent and predictable.

Yes – sadly the prevailing approach in HE is to reduce everything to bite-sized modules. But this is nothing to do with web-based delivery – it is a product of the modularisation of courses, a system which most universities nowadays adopt.

The role of the teacher is changing, and the expectations of teachers are increasing.

Yes – but again, this has much more to do with the managerialist culture which now prevails in universities as corporate organisations than with the increasing use technology.

Staff have heavy administrative workloads.

Yes – but yet again I don't see this is directly a result of web-based delivery. Even for traditionally delivered courses the administrative burden is incredibly high nowadays.

Staff are expected to be contactable all the time.

I accept that this is definitely an issue. Electronic communications mean that staff can easily fall into the trap of being a slave to emails. However, I would flip this issue on its head and say that electronic communications can also be used to one's advantage. For example, I might respond to emails from students from home in the evening or at weekends, or even from my iPhone when I'm out and about. However, if this means I can free up large chunks of time during the week to devote to this course, then I am using the flexibility afforded by electronic communications to my own advantage.

The 'powerpointing of knowledge'

I will also concede that PowerPoint can be incredibly tedious as a delivery medium. However, in my experience this is because it is not used properly. If lecturers fill slides with text then proceed to read the text then of course it's going to be tedious. But you will not convince me that a chalk board, a white board or an overhead projector are better tools. I have used all of these in my time in education and none come close to PowerPoint, which enables me to incorporate images, animations, video clips and also allows me to have much more control over the way the information is presented. Yes – PowerPoint can be mind-numbingly boring when poorly used, but this is generally down to the incompetence / ignorance / laziness of the lecturer rather than an inherent problem with PowerPoint.

H800: Week 17 – Activity 4- Oversold and underused?

Reading Cuban (2001) Chapter 4, 'New technologies in old universities'.

This chapter referred to the use of technology at Stanford University in California. Stanford is one of the top five US universities and may be described as an elite institution. It receives huge endowments and is undoubtedly a very wealthy institution. It has always invested heavily in technology and has made available high quality technological resources for teaching, research and administration since the 1960s. The basic message of the chapter is that, despite the availability of cutting-edge technology throughout the period described, the basic method of teaching remains largely unchanged, i.e. the lecture.

The description is set against a background in which the following factors are clearly relevant:

  • Large and increasing undergraduate student numbers, which means that lectures are widely viewed as the most cost-effective way of conveying information to the students.
  • Academic staff who see research (and associated publications) rather than teaching, as the main driver for career progression
  • The use of postgraduate students as teaching assistants involved in both the delivery of the course and assessment of students.

These factors (or at least the first two) will be familiar to many people working in HE.

Despite the dominance of the lecture, the chapter did describe various examples of more innovative approaches to teaching which sought to avoid large group sizes and exploit the possibilities offered by technologies. These included such approaches as problem-base learning.


The first point to note is that the chapter was published nine years ago, and was therefore probably based on the situation as it existed at least ten years ago. Since that time at my own University, I have certainly seen the technologies associated with teaching move from the margins to the mainstream. Around the year 2000 we were experimenting with student intranets, and it was possible to book a data projector and PC to show a PowerPoint presentation. Within a few years every single teaching room on the campus was equipped with a networked computer console and ceiling-mounted projector, and every module is supported (to a greater or lesser extent) by a VLE (Blackboard).

So - is this an indication that things have actually changed in the decade since this chapter was published? Well – not necessarily. Firstly I would say that, despite the widespread access to technologies, the lecture remains the basic approach used for the delivery of a course. Admittedly, the lecture will now be delivered using PowerPoint rather than a chalkboard/whiteboard or overhead projector, but we can hardly claim that we are utilising the available technologies to improve the quality of the student experience. Secondly, as I think I've mentioned before, many Blackboard sites are little more than an online location in which to store the module handbook.

H800: Week 17 – Activity 2 – Students’ frustrations

Reading the article by Hara and Kling (1999) 'Students' frustrations with a web-based distance education course'.

General thoughts

As a piece of research I thought this was quite weak. I accept that this was published over 10 years ago, so web-based courses were very much in their infancy, but even so – the basis on which the research was undertaken seems a little shaky. First of all the class which they studied consisted of six students, which is hardly a representative sample. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, five out of the six students were essentially campus-based students who were taking one of their courses online. It seems odd that the title refers to a "web-based distance education course" because although it is web-based, it doesn't seem to be distance education. Thirdly, I got the impression from the tone of the paper right from the start, that the authors were not being entirely objective. I felt that they set out with the deliberate intention of challenging the hype about web-based education, and that they focused on the negative aspects. Finally, I felt that far too much of the paper was based on conjecture, drawing rather tentative conclusions from individual comments made by students.

I'm not suggesting that the findings were false. Quite clearly the students did experience frustrations. They felt isolated at times, they felt that they should have received more and better feedback from the instructor, they didn't think the tutor's instructions were very clear, and they also reported technological problems. However, the authors seemed to imply that such frustrations would not occur in a traditional face to face course. In my experience, all these problems occur just as much 'on campus'. Students entering higher education nowadays find themselves in huge classes which are very impersonal. The old saying about loneliness in crowds is certainly true, and many students feel very intimidated and remote from tutors. Many students find it difficult to make contact with staff and even when they try to do so they find restricted access or very limited 'surgery hours'.

With regard to feedback from tutors, I would say that one of the most common complaints from students at universities (as evidenced by the National Student Survey) is the lack of good quality feedback and the long time they have to wait to receive it. As for clarity of instructions, just because a course is delivered face-to-face does not mean that the clarity of instructions will be any better. Technological problems are also not limited to web-based course. A vast number of (justifiable) gripes from students at our course committees relate to campus based IT problems, whether it is technical support, network problems, printing problems or whatever.

One last comment I would make about the findings of the paper is that some of the difficulties experienced by the students in the study would perhaps be less of an issue today because of advances in technologies. In particular, I would have thought that their difficulties with internet searching wouldn't be a concern today, and also the poor experiences of asynchronous communication (for which they used email) would be overcome by discussion forums and the like.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

H800: Week 17 - A1b: Digital diploma mills

Article by Noble (1998) 'Digital diploma mills: the automation of higher education'.

General thoughts

My comments are from the perspective of an academic in a vocational subject area in a 'new' (i.e. post 1992) University in the UK.

I can relate to some of Noble's concerns, and I have reservations about the growing culture of 'managerialism' in HE and the increasing influence of administrators who dictate just about everything to do with the delivery of courses without any apparent appreciation of what is actually involved in teaching and learning.

However, I don't think Noble's concerns have really been borne out in the years since he published his paper. Certainly I haven't experienced any direct pressure from the management of my university to transfer my courses online for commercial or cost-saving purposes. Staff are encouraged (and to some extent even required) to provide online material on the VLE to support their courses, but so far at least I have never felt that there was a hidden agenda to convert to online delivery and sack all the staff.

Noble talks about the transformation being "implemented from the top down" but in my experience most of the initiatives I have seen which exploit the online environment have actually arisen out of the enthusiasm of academic staff themselves and have been motivated by a desire to improve the experience of the students.

With regard to the increasing involvement of industry in education, I think one's views on this will inevitably be influenced by how one sees the role of education in society. Those who adopt a pure 'liberal' view of education in which the cultivation of the intellect is the primary objective, would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with any influence from industry. On the other hand, those who take a more 'instrumentalist' view of education would see its primary purpose as producing skilled graduates for the workplace, and therefore might accept industrial influence as inevitable. Personally, I feel that there is a balance between these two extremes. Since I work in a vocational area I have to recognise the role of industry, but do not want to feel constrained by undue influence from industry. I can see Noble's point about research, and the way in which University resources are allocated to research at the expense of the educational function. However, I do think that in recent years (in the UK at least) there has been some re-balancing and that the importance of teaching has been recognised and valued more so than previously.

Noble was writing at a time when Web 2.0 technologies were not really available, and he could not therefore appreciate many of the potential benefits. Things have moved on since Noble wrote this paper. He claims that there was no demand amongst students for online content, but nowadays I think students would be very disappointed if they didn't have online facilities. Noble also claims that students want the "genuine face-to-face education they paid for" but in many cases this desire does not manifest itself in students actually turning up! As we saw in Wesch's video, face-to-face lectures are not necessarily the best way to promote learning.

Noble does make some rather sweeping claims that transferring material online will result in the "knowledge and course design skill" being taken out of the possession of faculty and "placed in the hands of the administration". Perhaps I'm being naive, but I don't see this as necessarily being the case. Why can't faculty retain control of it even when it is placed online? Furthermore, there must still be a role for well-designed assessment and, apart from multiple choice tests, I am not aware of any software which can make judgements on the standard of assessed work.

Finally, I feel I have to make a slightly contentious comment. A good deal of Noble's polemic appears to defend the role of faculty against any intrusion from the outside world. I'm sorry – but get real. Many of the criticisms levelled at academic staff are actually quite justified, and I say that as an academic myself. Academics do have a tendency to use the cloak of free-thinking, intellectual idealism to hide their basic recalcitrance.

Sorry – that last comment is borne out of the frustration of trying to organise an assessment board and prepare for a visit from our external examiners (tomorrow) when some colleagues are just so uncooperative.

H800: Week 17 – Activity 1a – What kind of vision for students?

Watching the Mike Wesch video – "A Vision of Students Today" (again)

Having watched this video several times I now feel quite familiar with it. I posted my overall impressions on the video on my blog on 12th May.

Message from the first minute:
The message to me is that the traditional lecture, in a lecture theatre, was a system of teaching which came to the fore in the nineteenth century and has remained there since then. The scribbles on the walls and chairs imply that lectures do not fulfil their intended purpose, and probably haven't done so for many years. Lecture theatres tend to promote a didactic form of teaching in which students are talked at, and are often not actively involved in the learning process.

Message from the middle section:
The students holding up the statements indicate that, in an age when information is so freely available, the lecture is even less relevant. In the past perhaps the lecture was an efficient way of conveying information to a large group of people at one time, but as a means of communicating it is far less significant today. I can well believe the statistics presented. Students are less inclined to read set texts today, and it is incredibly difficult to maintain their attention in a lecture. The main message I take from the sequence is that, unless the lecture is really well designed with lots of opportunities for student engagement, then there are far more effective ways of communicating information and promoting student understanding.

Message from the conclusion:
The implication seems to be that, since students appear to embrace technology (Facebooking through classes, and using the laptop for things other than the lecture) then why not try to harness these technologies to promote studying.
I was slightly confused by Mike Wesch's section at the end. He indicates that the by using a chalkboard we are missing out on photos, videos, animations etc, but then he also indicates that writing on the chalkboard forces (then challenges) a teacher to move. I'm not sure what point he is trying to make here. Firstly, is he actually defending the use of the chalkboard (surely not?), and secondly, who actually uses a chalkboard these days? In my university we don't even have them anymore.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

H800: Week 16 – David Boud’s Lecture

Due to time constraints I only watched the brief extract of this lecture, but I hope to find time to watch the whole thing, because David Boud is (I think) one of the leading authorities on problem-based learning, and I would like to hear what he's got to say.

This short extract was about assessment, and I think there were some interesting issues raised. I can certainly relate to his points about universities' assessment policies and the emphasis they place on "protecting our backs".

I liked his idea of 'sustainable assessment' which he defined as:

"Assessment which meets the needs of the present (certification, formative assessment, etc.) without compromising the ability of students to meet their own future learning needs."

He says that we need to create assessments which not only serve the immediate purpose but also make a significant contribution to students' learning after they leave us, i.e. it builds something over and above the immediate task.

As I am currently in the midst of preparing for end of year assessment boards which begin next week, this seems strangely pertinent. Having spent quite a lot of time over the past few weeks marking exams and wondering what on earth some of my students have actually learnt, I really start to question some of the traditional assessment processes. I've never been a big fan of exams as an assessment method, and I think well-designed coursework assignments can come much closer to Boud's ideal, but unfortunately 'the system' does tend to expect a certain proportion of assessment in which students do not have the opportunity to simply copy and paste material from other sources.

I had hoped we might explore the issue of assessment in greater detail at some stage in the course, but looking at the programme I don't think we do.

Monday, 31 May 2010

TMA02 – Finished at last!

I've just finished TMA02 and I'm so relieved. I found it a really difficult assignment and it's taken me much longer than I was expecting. I've spent most of the weekend on it, and probably a total of two or three days' research and preparatory work prior to that. I think the biggest difficulty I've had is that it really required a lot of personal reflection. I suppose I'm just not used to this type of assignment. In all my previous studies there has never really been this type of work, even in my MSc course which I did about 12 years ago.

I thought TMA01 was challenging but this was one was much harder. I hope that doesn't mean that the remaining assignments are going to be tougher still!

Anyway – now I'm way behind with everything else. I've got exams to mark, and I'm on a job interview panel for three days this week. I haven't even looked at the material for Week 16 yet. The joys of part time study!

Time to mow the lawn now and enjoy what's left of a grey Bank Holiday weekend.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

H800: Weeks 13/14 – Activity 4a – Reading Selwyn (2008)

Selwyn, N. (2008) 'An investigation of differences in undergraduates' academic use of the internet',
Active Learning in Higher Education, vol.9, no.11, pp.11–22; also available online at http://learn.open.ac.uk/local/libezproxylink.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fdx.doi.org%2F10.1177%2F1469787407086744

Key points:
  • The present generation of undergraduate students are digital natives and are completely at ease with the internet.
  • A lot of the literature relating to internet usage in HE is concerned with the potential of the WWW. There is limited research into actual usage patterns.
  • This study was based on a sample of 1222 students, mainly at Cardiff University.
  • The predominant usage of the internet by students is email, social networking, instant messaging, chat etc.
  • Nevertheless, 90% of respondents use the internet some/all of the time for searching information in relation to their studies.
  • There is a small (but not significant) difference between the level of internet usage for studies amongst students who consider themselves expert users and those who consider themselves less competent / novice users.
  • Those students who had private access to a computer were more likely to use the internet for their studies.
  • Female students were more likely to use the internet for their studies
  • There were no significant differences in internet usage for studies in terms of ethnic background, age, educational background or year of study.
  • There were significant differences in terms of subject discipline. The students using the internet least for their studies were those from the creative arts, and from architecture/building/planning
The findings in general are not altogether surprising, though a few points deserve closer attention and comment:
  1. Although the paper was published in 2008, the survey was actually carried out during the 2006/7 academic year. It is possible (and even likely) that the same survey carried out now would yield different results. Things are changing very rapidly.
  2. In particular, one of the findings was students who had private access to a computer and internet connection were more likely to use the internet for their studies. I have noticed a significant increase in the number of students who have their own laptop over the past couple of years. One of the reasons for this I think is the major expansion in wireless networking. Students can bring their laptops into university and log on to the university's network wirelessly, and therefore don't have to rely on having access to the university's fixed computing facilities (which has always been a major bone of contention amongst students).
  3. I don't find it surprising that students from the creative arts make less use of the internet for their studies, because much of their output relies on their creativity rather than pure information. Similarly, architecture students, who devote much of their efforts to their design work. It is unfortunate that 'building' gets lumped in with architecture and planning, because building courses are fundamentally different to architecture courses, and rely much more on hard information. I suspect that a more detailed analysis would show that building students' use of the internet is far greater than architecture students. (Incidentally, the subject groupings are based on the categories used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, so I am not suggesting the author is at fault here).
  4. One final point – Selwyn refers in his discussion to 'subject-based barriers' to students' use of the internet. However, I don't necessarily think there are any barriers as such. If students studying the creative arts don't actually need to use the internet in their studies then this isn't a barrier.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Initial thoughts about TMA02

Although I'm not really up to date with all the activities for Weeks 13 & 14, I'm conscious of the fact that TMA02 is due in on 1st June, which is now just over two weeks away. As I'm going to be really busy at work (mainly marking exams) and I'm going on a field trip for four days from 23rd May, I feel that I really must start thinking about the TMA.

The brief is quite confusing:

From Block 2, choose three activities that have helped you to develop your understanding of:

  • choices that practitioners make about ways of applying technologies for their learners
  • choices that learners make about their own learning, in terms of which technologies they use, why and how.

From my initial look back through Block 2 it's quite hard to select activities that fit the brief and provide sufficient scope to be able to write something worthwhile.

The guidance notes accompanying the brief suggest looking at the learning outcomes at the end of each week and identifying the activities that relate to the relevant learning outcomes, so here are the main options:


Relevant Learning Outcomes


"Choices that practitioners make about ways of applying technologies...."

"Choices that learners make about their own learning...."

8 and 9

You have explored a range of resources and cases studies; you have looked at how the Cloudworks website might be used to find and share learning and teaching ideas and designs.



The OER websites you visited present different learning designs and tools.

The activity exploring students' use of blogs.



Reading the articles by Price et al. (2007) and Richardson (2009) should have encouraged you to think about why different students chose to take courses with online tuition or courses with face-to-face tuition.

13 and 14


In Activities 1 and 3 you saw examples of students using particular ICT tools in the context of courses teaching ICT skills. You also saw diverse experiences and personal responses to the challenges of technology as an integral part of course study.

NB: All text in the table is taken from the relevant weeks of the H800 course pages: https://msds.open.ac.uk/students/course.aspx?c=H800_2010B

H800: Weeks 13 & 14 – Activity 3a – Reading vignettes

Vignette A: Student studying an OU Technology Course – CISCO Networking

Vignette B: Student studying a Social Work course – Foundations for Social Practice

In both cases the students are part time and are studying towards a qualification linked directly to their careers.

In Vignette A the student is working in IT so the content of the course is core to his working practice and the way in which the course is delivered requires the student to undertake activities which will specifically develop skills which he will need to carry out his job in the workplace. It is therefore understandable that the student values both the content and the method of delivery.

In Vignette B the student is a social worker. The IT skills she is studying are not the core part of the course – they are generic skills which are considered necessary for her to undertake her role more effectively, and indeed to use in her studies. It is understandable that, even if she recognises the importance of these skills, she will attach a lower value to them than to the core content of the course. She has obviously joined a social work course to develop her career in social work, not to become proficient in IT. Nevertheless, it is clear from the vignette that she does recognise the importance of the skills she has learned, and has appreciated the benefits of doing the course.

In my view there is no longer a debate about whether or not students on courses in higher education should develop IT skills. There is an expectation that all graduates will have highly developed higher education and career management skills, including things like teamworking, communication, presentation, problem-solving and information technology skills. Universities are required to develop skills strategies and each course will be expected to demonstrate how the skills policy is implemented.

I think the overwhelming majority of students would expect their IT skills to be developed as a result of studying at HE level, and would be highly disappointed if they weren't. On the courses I'm involved with about two thirds of the students are part time (day release) students who are all working in the construction industry and its associated professions. Although IT is not their core function they clearly could not function in the workplace without IT skills. Depending on their specific roles these skills will include basic word processing, internet and email, spreadsheets, CAD, project management software, as well as highly specialised packages for cost planning, facilities management, building information modelling and so on. Obviously therefore, our courses have to embed quite significant levels of IT and this will impact on both the design and the delivery of the courses.



H800: Weeks 13 & 14 – Activities 2b & 2c – LXP/LEX

Based on: Slide presentation
LEX Project Video Clips
I have to confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by the slide presentation, the audio logs (transcripts) and the video clips.

From a data collection point of view the use of recorded audio in itself is hardly an innovation. Qualitative researchers have used voice recordings for decades to gain an insight into peoples' perceptions. It did seem like a good idea to set up a system whereby students could call in and record their views at critical points, but this also raises the question of how representative such views are. As I understand it, students were asked to phone in at intervals with their audio logs. Having had some experience of trying to encourage students to provide feedback through various means, I can imagine how difficult it would be to get regular and reliable data.

Presenting findings in the form of a video clip makes it a bit more engaging than simply reading text, but we have to recognise that the clips are highly edited and obviously professionally produced, so they come across as being more like TV content than credible research findings.

However, the thing which struck me more than anything about this whole research project was that it must have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to reach a conclusion that students make use of technology in their studies!! In the slide presentation we are provided with a so-called "lovely example" of a student (Jack) using technologies and social networking in new ways which we might never have envisaged. What was this referring to? Jack using his mobile phone to call his friend and ask where the coursework submission sheet could be found on the University's intranet. Wow – earth shattering!! Even the video clips seem to make a big deal about things which are, in reality, the norm for most students at most universities nowadays.

Excuse my cynicism – it's Friday and it's been a long week.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

H800: Weeks 13 & 14 – Activity 2a – Reading Conole et al (2008)

Reference: Conole, G., de Laat, M., Dillon, T. and Darby, J. (2008) 'Disruptive technologies', 'pedagogical innovation': What's new? Findings from an in-depth study of students' use and perception of technology', Computers and Education, vol.50, no.2, pp.511–24; also available online at http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/ login?url=http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1016/ j.compedu.2007.09.009

When I started reading this paper I think I was expecting it to be about students' perceptions of e-learning in the sense of courses delivered wholly or partially online, or course which make use of cutting-edge technologies. Indeed the introduction to the paper actually makes the point that "the emergence of new forms of mobile, internet and social software technologies, which enable distributed collaboration suggests we are reaching a turning point in the way technology is used for learning."

As it turns out the research is basically concerned with students' use and perceptions of technology in relation to their studies. As such, the focus is largely on fairly well-established technologies including internet searches, word processing, PowerPoint, email, VLEs, instant messaging and so on. There is little consideration of Web 2.0 and social networking.
I didn't really think the findings were surprising. The students who participated in the research were all studying on traditional courses where they would be expected to use the various technologies as tools to help them in their studies. I would expect all students entering HE to have basic competences in the use of these technologies, and I think it is not unreasonable to expect students to use them as an integral part of their studies.

The following points stood out for me:
  • It was apparent from the paper that in most of the courses studied, technology was used as a supplement to a traditional course, rather than as a core part of the course. There were references to e-portfolios on the medical courses, but it seemed that in most cases a VLE was used to store course materials, and students were expected to produce their work using Word and / or PowerPoint. The paper did not therefore consider the perceptions of students who were experiencing a course being delivered wholly or partly online.
  • The benefits in terms of accessibility were highlighted. I think this is a really important aspect of technology – the way in which online access can enable students to engage with course materials at a time and place to suit themselves.
  • It is apparent that students entering HE have different levels of competence in using basic tools such as Word and PowerPoint. Virtually all students will have basic competence but some students will have much more advanced levels of competence. Universities need to consider how they can provide support to those students who need to enhance their skills in these areas. I actually think this is something which can be delivered very easily online, so that those students who need help can follow some basic tutorials, whilst students who are already competent need not undertake the tutorials.
  • Virtually all students who enter HE consider themselves competent in using internet search facilities. However this study (along with other research we have covered previously, such as the CIBER/UCL study) indicates that many students' information skills are not quite as sophisticated as they might think. Again, I think this is something that Universities need to address right at the start of a course by providing support. Online tutorials could also be used for this. (Some of the OpenLearn OER materials could be ideal)

H800: Weeks 13 & 14 – Activity 1b: Reading Salaway et al (2008) and Kennedy et al (2006)

On the face of it both of these studies appear to be looking into similar areas, i.e. the use of ICTs by undergraduate students. However, they are actually quite different in nature and approach.

The Salaway et al. paper seems to be part of an ongoing longitudinal study of undergraduate students' use of IT undertaken by the Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR). This particular paper presents the findings of the 2008 study. It is based on a large sample (>27,000) of students at American universities and community colleges. Each year the ECAR study gives particular attention to a particular aspect of students' use of ICTs, and the 2008 study focused on social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook.

The Kennedy et al. paper describes a proposal for a project to investigate how various ICTs can be successfully used within higher education. The proposal recognises that most students entering higher education are very familiar with a whole range of tools but suggests that many universities are not necessarily equipped to deliver courses in a way which exploits this. The study is based at various institutions in Australia.

A key distinction is that the Salaway paper is part of a large ongoing study, whereas the Kennedy paper is just a proposal. Therefore, the former is obviously able to present lots of findings based on hard data, whereas the latter refers mainly to an intended approach. Another obvious difference is location, but the context for both studies is similar, i.e. undergraduate students in Universities in 'Western' countries. One would expect the ICT experience and competence of students entering HE in both countries to be broadly similar. Both studies recognise that for students of the 'Net Generation' these ICTs are ubiquitous. Students don't necessarily view them with wonder and they are not in awe of them. They are part of everyday life, both for their social lives and for their studies.

There is recognition in both studies that SNSs are actively embraced by students. However, the findings highlighted in the Salaway et al paper seem to suggest that the primary use of Facebook and the like is for communication with friends and family ("staying in touch") and that although there clearly are examples of students using Facebook to communicate with other students about their studies, these tend to be in the minority. Furthermore, this use of Facebook tends to be outside the requirements of the course.

I suppose that the question which emerges from this is whether the power of Facebook can be harnessed to greater effect within education. I think there are at least two reasons why Facebook is not more widely used. In the first instance, it could be argued that some of the tools which are already widely used in education (such as VLEs, discussion forums and other platforms) provide the main facilities offered by Facebook. If that's the case then it is understandable that educational institutions won't rush to embrace Facebook when everything is already available. Another relevant point relates to control. Young people use Facebook so widely because they have complete control over who they connect with, what they say, how they present themselves, and so on. Any attempt by a University to hijack Facebook as a study tool could actually backfire, because students might view it as an institution encroaching on their personal domain. I only have conjectural evidence to support this view, having occasionally discussed this matter with my students and with my own teenage children.

Having said that I feel that there must be ways of exploiting the potential of SNSs to greater effect in education, and I'm sure that with a bit of imagination, an effective approach could be found.

H800: Week 13 & 14 Activity A1a: A vision of students today

Mike Wesch's VideoA vision of students today

I have seen this video before – I think someone posted a link to it in a discussion forum back in Week 5, when we considered Wesch's other videos.

Personally I think the video is excellent, and I have previously emailed the link to several colleagues. I think it contains a very powerful message and is presented in a succinct way. It certainly has more impact in this format than it would in a purely text-based presentation.

The central message I take from the video is that students do engage with learning materials in different ways nowadays whether teachers like it or not. They have access to information from a much wider range of sources and they communicate using different networks. Teachers cannot ignore this, no matter how they might feel personally about it. Some exceptional teachers might be able to engage students using a traditional approach, but in my experience such teachers are actually quite rare. Prior to the widespread availability of ICTs students had little choice but to persevere with traditional learning approaches if they wanted to get through their courses, but nowadays they do have a choice.

I can relate quite strongly to the message of the video. I see students in my own lectures, and in those of colleagues who I observe. I notice that students might be in the lecture room, but they are not 'there'. They have their laptops, their iPhones and so on, and they can be anywhere. The messages from students in the video about buying text books that they never read, and about spending far more time reading Facebook than they do reading course materials also rang true for me.

Deep down, I don't think the attitudes of students have changed fundamentally. The environment of higher education has certainly changed (in the UK at least) so that it has become a mass system as opposed to an elite system. But students have always been reluctant to do anything more than they need to. The big difference is that we do now have these ICTs which provide an opportunity. As a teacher I think the challenge I have is how to harness the potential of the ICTs so that students can engage more effectively with the course. In my view I think the key is flexibility – i.e. that students are not constrained by lecture theatres, timetables, library opening hours, part time jobs and so on.

Monday, 10 May 2010

H800: Week 12 - Activity 5- Technology in your context

Note: This was originally posted in my OU Course Blog on 6th May 2010

The technology I have selected is Wimba Classroom which is a very similar product to Elluminate. It enables synchronous communication between staff and students (or between students and students) so that online tutorials can be run in real time. My university is currently trialing Wimba and has integrated it within our VLE (Blackboard). Thus it is possible to set up Wimba for use within a module's existing Blackboard site. Students therefore do not need to download specialist software in order to use Wimba.

The interface is not dissimilar to Elluminate. There is a 'whiteboard' area in the middle of the screen which can be used to display slides or can be used for sketching. There is a 'chat' area and an area listing all the participants.

We experimented with Wimba on our postgraduate courses because the students on these courses are all part time (evening only) students who have demanding jobs and other commitments. We felt that offering online tutorials would provide an attractive alternative to having to come into the University for a tutorial. Much to our surprise there was an initial negative reaction to the use of Wimba. Some students clearly felt they were being short-changed, and they indicated that they would prefer a traditional face-to-face class. After much discussion with the students a compromise agreement was reached whereby a class would be delivered in a combined mode, so that those students who wanted to attend in person could do so, but the delivery in the classroom would be via Wimba, so that students could also access the session remotely. Although this may seem like a rather messy approach, it actually worked rather well. The tutor leads the classroom discussion and presents any material (such as PowerPoint slides) to the students via the Wimba interface which is projected on to a screen in the room. A microphone is connected to the computer at the front of the room, so students who choose not to attend can hear the proceedings via Wimba. If non-attending students want to ask a question, they can use the 'chat' facility in Wimba. The 'archive' facility in Wimba means that the whole session can be recorded (audio and slides) and is accessible to all students (whether they attended or not) immediately after the tutorial.

Despite what seems like a somewhat clumsy arrangement, this has actually proved quite popular with students. Even those students who were initially quite negative about Wimba have now recognized the value of it, and indeed they have even set up their own Wimba sessions to communicate with one another.

It must be stressed that this approach has not been adopted by all staff on the course, and indeed some members of the team have expressed deep reservations about it. They tend to voice their objections in terms which relate to the quality of the learning experience, but I suspect in some cases their concerns may be simply a manifestation of their discomfort with the technology.

Overall, I think students will come to realize that the use of tools such as Wimba need not mean a diminution in the quality of the experience. I think that once they appreciate the way in which Wimba can provide a flexible means of engaging with the course and with fellow students, they will value it more. It is very early days in our experiment with Wimba but I have quite positive feelings about how its use will develop, particularly for part time students.

H800: Week 12 - Activity 4 - Reading Richardson (2009)

Note: This was originally posted in my OU Course Blog on 6th May 2010

One of the things which stands out in Richardson's 2009 article is that, from quite early on in the paper, he effectively holds up the findings of Price et al (2007) as the starting point for his own research and, by implication sets out to contest those findings. Price et al found that students who received online tutorial support reported poorer experiences than those receiving face-to-face tuition. Richardson concludes that there were no significant differences in students' perceptions of the quality of their academic tuition, regardless of whether they had received online tuition or face-to-face tuition.

Firstly, a minor, and possibly irrelevant point, but nevertheless an interesting one. Richardson was actually a co-author in the Price et al paper, so despite the fact that he appears to distance himself from the 2007 findings, he was jointly responsible for producing them.

On p82 of the Richardson paper he suggests that Price et al's findings were influenced by the fact that the students who participated in the study were on a multi-disciplinary course. Earlier in the paper (p71) he suggests that such students have to "grasp concepts, methods and theories from several different academic disciplines". However, there is no real explanation of why or how this influences students' perceptions, other than an un-referenced claim (p82) that this is "borne out by the results of as-yet unpublished studies carried out in other disciplines". This seems to me to be a rather weak basis on which to question Price et al's findings.

On p76 of Richardson's paper he outlines why students chose their respective modes of study. The most common reason for choosing face-to-face tuition was that the students preferred face-to-face tuition, and similarly the most common reason for choosing online tuition was that students preferred that mode. Whilst Richardson acknowledges this point (on p82) I don't think he gives due weight to it. I personally think that this is a highly relevant factor and offers a strong possible explanation as to why there was no significant difference in students' perceptions of the quality of their tuition. If they had a pre-existing preference for one mode of tuition then it is highly likely that their views are going to be 'coloured' by that preference. In Price et al's study there was no consideration of why students opted for a particular mode of study.