The Lecture is… ALT-C Reflections

September 11, 2010

The ALT Conference is always a good conference to challenge your assumptions, make new discoveries and question your practice.

This year’s conference was no exception, there was plenty to make you think, question, challenge and importantly learn from others. As with many conferences the discussions outside the sessions (either on the back channel or over coffee) are just as valuable as the content of the sessions themselves. However they can’t exist in isolation, the presentations and discussions are important and complement each other.

Last year, the VLE was a dominant theme, this year the lecture came under the spotlight. Donald Clark who opened the conference with his keynote riled people and annoyed them with a blanket attack on the lecture.

There are reasons to question practice, it is often too easy to fall back on what we have always done, because we have always done it that way. However while I think Donald was right to question the validity of the lecture, his approach was to attack, dismiss and offer no serious alternatives to the current lecture format. Donald’s only serious suggestion was to produce online learning packages. Yes there are historical reasons why we have lectures in the form that they are, however this isn’t necessarily an accident of history, it could be the evolution of a useful and efficient teaching process.

Having said that I do recall from my undergraduate days one lecturer whose lectures were word for word taken from his book. I bought the book and never went to the lectures. I guess at least I had a choice, though the book was very expensive as I recall! Though that was some time ago and you should never rely on personal experiences to reflect what is happening now across the whole sector.

After Donald’s keynote I was part of a session that gave delegates at ALT-C an opportunity to discuss and debate the keynote. One of the issues we did discuss was the impact learning spaces have. If we have lecture theatres then we have lectures and lecture theatres make it challenging to do other kinds of activities. So we hear lecturers saying they do want to do different kinds of stuff, but the space prevents it. Though it was interesting to hear from others that had created new types of learning spaces, lecturers complaining and wanting lecture theatres back. Sometimes it’s the space, sometimes it’s the practitioner.

The following day, Dave White, from TALL, gave a passionate defence of the lecture.

Dave with his extensive experience with TALL is certainly well qualified to understand the benefits and limitations of online delivery. However he discussed during his talk the importance of the social benefit that physical lectures provide for a community of learners. This is though not impossible to recreate online, is very challenging. Dave demonstrated through his delivery and content that the lecture in itself can be a useful way to stimulate discussion and debate.

I should also at this point congratulate Dave and the TALL team on winning the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year team award.

In my opinion for some learners the lecture can be a useful method of learning. The problem arises when you start to rely heavily on the lecture as your main method of delivery. Using a lecture can be great for learners, only using lectures is not. It’s the same with any kind of learning activity, just using one type of process is not going to be effective, for most learners it will become boring and tedious.

There are other challenges facing the sector with the question of whether universities should focus on research or teaching and whether we should split the sector up into research universities and teaching universities along models found elsewhere in the world.

Another challenge is obviously funding and the inevitable cuts we are facing over the next few years. It will be seen as easy and “efficient” to give lectures to hundreds of undergraduates rather than break them down into small groups for other activities in order to save money.

Overall the conference did succeed in getting the delegates taking about the issues, the challenges and the possible future role of the lecture. I do believe as learning technologists we should question the effectiveness of not only what we do, but also look at existing practices to see if they are still valid and useful.

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The Hierarchy Of Digital Distractions

April 17, 2010

I was introduced to the amusing diagram by Dave White during his excellent keynote at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference.

See the full version.

Have a look and see whether it fits your life, not sure about the linking to video of kitten frolicking. Is that distracting? Possibly!


PELC10 – Day 2

April 9, 2010

It’s day two of the Plymouth e-Learning Conference.

I am looking forward to Dave White’s keynote.

The education sector is constantly chasing the tail of the latest technology. Innovation ‘out there’ on the web generates paranoia that we might be missing the latest opportunity and the suspicion that our students are experts in everything. We create profiles on every new platform just in case they become ‘the next big thing’, collecting solutions-looking-for- problems and losing our focus on what students and staff might actually need.

Having seen him speak at the ALT-C Fringe I am expecting to enjoy his presentation.

After the coffee break, it will be time for the debate session I am taking part in, Floods? Snow? Swine flu? Terrorist threats? ‘Keep calm and carry on’.

Culturally, most institutions do not incorporate online or virtual learning into everyday working cultures, at any level: management, staff or students. Those who do not routinely use digital options can’t see that closing the physical institution need not have a significant impact on the business of the institution, if that business can be carried out at home or online. The issue is not to focus upon contingency planning, but to focus on changing the way people work when there isn’t snow and changing the way people think when there is. A

Also read my original blog post on the snow in January and my more recent post, “million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten”.

After lunch I am chairing another debate, the great debate.

This forum will explore methods for categorising learners approach to online platforms and how this can influence edtech/pedagogic strategies. It will focus on Marc Prensky’s famous ‘Digital Native & Digital Immigrants’ trope and the more recent ‘Visitors & Residents’ idea proposed by David White.

Following the infamous Devon Cream Tea it will be the closing session and the prize draw! Overall a busy second day.


“million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten”

March 29, 2010

One of my favourite quotes from Terry Pratchett is that “million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten”. When something awful happens, or freakish, we hear news reporters say “it was a million-to-one chance that this would happen”.

In February 2009 we had the worst snow for twenty years. Across the UK many schools, colleges and universities closed for a few days as travel made it impossible (and unsafe) for learners to get to their lessons and classes.

As it was the worst snow for twenty years, any idea of planning to use the VLE or similar to support learning from home was thrown out of the window, as it was obvious that such bad snow probably wouldn’t happen again for another twenty years…

Of course less than twelve months later, we had even worse snow. We saw even more closures and for even longer!

What were the chances of that happening?

What are the chances of it happening again?

Probably less than a million-to-one!

Even if it doesn’t snow really badly next year, other things may happen that result in the physical closure of the educational institution. It could be floods, high winds (remember 1987), flu or similar viral infections, transport strikes, fuel crisis, anything…

So how should educational institutions be responding? How should they prepare?

Personally I think that it is not about preparation, but having the staff and learners in the right frame of mind about using online and digital tools before any such million-to-one chance happens.

We are going to discuss these issues and more on day two of the Plymouth e-Learning Conference, April 9th, between 11.15 and 12.45.

Culturally, most institutions do not incorporate online or virtual learning into everyday working cultures, at any level: management, staff or students. Those who do not routinely use digital options can’t see that closing the physical institution need not have a significant impact on the business of the institution, if that business can be carried out at home or online. The issue is not to focus upon contingency planning, but to focus on changing the way people work when there isn’t snow and changing the way people think when there is. Although this debate will centre largely upon Web 2.0 methods, it will take an outcomes-focused approach, rather than a tools focused approach, in line with William Morris’s quote “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. We consider what is necessary, not just in times of crisis, but in implementing everyday e- practice to meet learning and teaching needs.

With a focus upon communities rather than machines, and a recognition that no tool offers “one size fits all”, each panellist will focus upon a specific relationship, specifically ‘Institutional Representation’, ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Teaching Purposes’. What institutional cultural factors will need to be addressed? What do electronic communications approaches offer that previous methods haven’t? What drawbacks are acknowledged in the use of each with regards to the outcomes required? Which tool is most appropriate for the outcome required, and what are its pedagogical purposes?

It also links in nicely with Dave White’s keynote that happens immediately before our panel discussion.

The education sector is constantly chasing the tail of the latest technology. Innovation ‘out there’ on the web generates paranoia that we might be missing the latest opportunity and the suspicion that our students are experts in everything. We create profiles on every new platform just in case they become ‘the next big thing’, collecting solutions-looking-for- problems and losing our focus on what students and staff might actually need.

How can we change the culture of our organisations when we sometimes focus too much on the new tools that appear in our Twitter stream?

Changing the culture is going to take time, having access to the right tools can help, but attitude towards those tools is just as important. Culturally we have some way to go I think before snow or any other “disaster” only closes the physical location and doesn’t close the institution.

Is your institution prepared?

Further reading:


Digital Natives: The Great Debate

March 28, 2010

So do you consider the concept of digital natives and digital immigrants relevant to the work that you do?

The 8th and 9th April at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference there will be a (great) debate on digital natives.

This forum will explore methods for categorising learners approach to online platforms and how this can influence edtech/pedagogic strategies. It will focus on Marc Prensky’s famous ‘Digital Native & Digital Immigrants’ trope and the more recent ‘Visitors & Residents’ idea proposed by David White.

Questions the forum will consider:

  • Which of these systems is a more effective guide when attempting to provide appropriate technologies in configurations which encourage participation?
  • Is it possible to see ‘generational’ or age based trends in approaches to the web or is this an over simplification?
  • Does categorising learners along these lines act as a useful guide for edtechs/learning techs or are they just conceptual toys?

The two systems will be promoted by members of the panel after which the discussion will be opened to the audience.

The forum panel will be Tara Alexander (Lecturer, Health and Social Work, University of Plymouth), David White (Manager/Researcher, University of Oxford) and Steve Wheeler (Senior Lecturer in Education and Information Technology, University of Plymouth).

I have the task of chairing this session. There are some great speakers and the topic is controversial, people have many varied views on it. Should be both fun and stimulating.


Snow

January 10, 2010

From BBC News

The coldest snap for 20 years shows no sign of letting up, with the freezing weather expected to last all weekend and into next week.

Then we read this

Thousands of children are affected by school closures in England, Wales and Scotland after more heavy snowfalls.

Oh these stories are not from last week, but from last February!

Last February we had some of the worst winter weather for twenty years, unprecedented and somewhat unexpected. As a result many schools, colleges and universities closed their doors to learners and students and staff got a “free” holiday.

Sound familiar, well last week we had even worse weather, something not seen since 1963 in some places. Lots of snow, freezing temperatures and once more many more schools, colleges and universities closing due to the snow.

John Popham in his blog does ask the question

Why, in 2010, we are not making more use of the Internet to cope with these conditions. As in many areas of British life, you will probably tell me that the UK has such extreme weather conditions so infrequently that it is not worth the cost of preparing for them, but, as this is now the second consecutive winter where we have had significant snow fall, and it appears likely that climate change may well make this a regular event, surely we should seriously think about how we prepare for such occasions. And, in this context, as we are supposed to be moving increasingly towards both delivering more education online, and adopting more flexible working practices, surely these should come into their own at these times, shouldn’t they?

I agree with him.

Part of the issue in my view is the culture of snow closures.

Look at this tweet from the University of Bath.

Part of a co-ordnated effort as described on Brian Kelly’s blog how the University of Bath used a range of communication channels and technologies to inform their staff and students that they were closed.

Just to note it’s interesting to see that the University is closed, isn’t it just that the physical site is closed? Can’t at least some of the University continue virtually? However by using the language “closed” it implies that no activity will take place, well no formal activity will take place.

Culturally is it because those not involved online can’t see that closing a physical location need not have a significant impact on the business of the University, if that business can be carried out at home or online?

Using the word “closed” also sends the message to staff that the University is closed and that they do not need to go to work, or even do any work – even if they could.

The University of Bath is not alone, many other educational institutions followed a similar line and message to their learners and staff.

The statement from my college initially to all staff was that the college was closed. Obviously the site was closed, but the VLE was still operational. It wasn’t until a few days later that a message about the VLE was put on the website. However I wonder how many staff are “using” the VLE and how many are taking advantage of the closure to have a bit of a break from work.

David Sugden also brings in another institution in his blog post on the snow, he wrote

With no contingency in place, my wife sent texts to her learners and told them that ideas for work would be posted on the Moodle and that she would be there – on chat – during the class time. But no one came. There is no culture amongst the learners (in Sharon’s case full time nursery workers/managers who were probably too busy with extra children anyway) to visit online learning activities at times like these.

He also asks the question

So, how do we change that culture? How do we prepare our colleagues AND our learners for ‘snow time’?

A good question. At the moment staff and learners see snow as an excuse for a break and won’t even think about let alone consider the possibilities that technology allows them to continue despite the snow and site closures.

David also says

I believe that we have to get them all thinking about the use of audio and video for instruction and assessment as a matter of course and to use online collaboration tools as part of their day-to-day college, school (whatever) life.

Last February we recorded a podcast on this topic and it is still relevant this winter.

David continues

We need to wear the technologies and associated techniques like comfortable coats!

This view is also echoed in an Audioboo by Graham Attwell who brings in David White’s excellent Digital Residents and Digital Visitors model. Those of us who are digital residents didn’t see the snow as an issue, those of us who are digital visitors probably didn’t even think about the possibility!

If all staff and learners were familiar with the technologies then snow closures wouldn’t be such an issue. However if the snow in February 2009 and again in January 2010 has shown anything, it has shown that there is there still a long way to go before educational institutions really are making best use of the internet and digital technologies to enhance and enrich learning.

What about those staff who did work from home? Will they get any benefit or overtime for the day that they worked, but others made snowmen and went sledging? Why should I work from home (because I know how and can) when everyone else is not?

Yes snow makes it dangerous to travel, but with the internet and mobile technologies, does it mean that learners need to stop learning just because the decision is taken to close the physical location?

So what if this snow is unprecedented? What if we are now not going to have bad snow for another twenty years? Well even if you ignore the possible impact that climate change can have on our winters, making them colder and with more snow, institutions can still close for other reasons. My own college was closed in 2007 because of the floods in Gloucestershire. Schools in 2009 were closed because of swine flu. Closures happen a lot, time to start thinking about how an educational institution can make best use of the fantastic tools that are available to it for learning. Though the first thing to do will be to change the culture. It’s not just about contingency planning, it’s about changing the way people work when there isn’t snow and changing the way people think when there is.

Last year we had the “worst snow” for twenty years, here we are less than twelve months later and the snow is not only back it’s even worse! Culturally we have some way to go I think before snow only closes the physical location and doesn’t close the institution.


Visitors and Residents

October 14, 2009

When I was at FOTE 09 a few weeks ago I stayed overnight and went out for a meal at a terrible Italian restaurant; one of the problems I have visiting different parts of London is that I am merely a visitor and unlike the local residents do not know the best places to eat. I remember visiting London a few years ago and my sister-in-law who lived in London at the time (a resident) took me to a wonderful local pub with fantastic food. The more I visit London the more confident I get with getting about (on foot and on the tube) and knowing which places to avoid and when and which places to seek out and try. First time visitors to London know it differently to those that visit more often and likewise people who live in London will know some places better than others. Visitors and residents know London in different ways and the same can be said for those who use digital and online tools and services. I really don’t want to use the term digital world as I don’t think it is a useful term.

Last year we discussed the concept coined by Dave White of Visitors and Residents and how this relates to how people interact and use the online and digital tools and services out there.

Dave has made a video of the presentation he gave at ALT-C 2009 and it makes for interesting viewing.

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2733992&dest=-1]

You can read more on his blog.

Most people should by now realise that the age demarcation of the digital native and digital immigrant is a flawed concept and should not be relied upon. Projects and research have again shown that young learners are not digital natives and often have issues with digital and online technologies.

From the MoLeNET programme for example.

The experiences of several MoLeNET projects suggests that not all young people are the “digital natives”…

“We came to this project with an unspoken belief that young learners would innately understand how these devices worked, we quickly came to understand that, while they can use them well on a superficial level, more demanding tasks stretched their knowledge of the technology”.

The key lessons to remember is that you can’t assume that younger learners will be confident in how to use new technologies, likewise also don’t assume that older learners will not know how to use technologies.

If you are an online resident it can sometimes be difficult to remember that a lot of people are merely visitors and that they may not fully undertstand the local customs, practices or best places to go.