Archive for October, 2008

Where next with cloudworks?

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

We are just embarking on the next phase of technical developments for our Cloudworks site. The aim is to create a social networking site for the sharing of learning and teaching ideas and designs. To date we have focused on initially seeding the site with some example content, we are shifting now to looking at building in more functionality on the community engagement aspects of the site. Would really welcome comments! A presentation on this is available here, the audio to go along with this presentation is here. A pre-print of the Ascilite paper related to this is here.

Online/e-learning, TEL, web 2.0….

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

I’m currently writing an article for one of the subject centres and so thought i would post a draft of my thinking so far here. Comments welcome!

What’s is a name? The title of this article alludes to the fact that there are now a plethora of confusing, overlapping terms to describe one particular ‘type’ of learning; essentially learning that is mediated in some way by the use of technology. The range of terms that are use is indicative of the fact that research and development activities in this area are fast moving; as new technologies emerge and start to impact on education, as new ideas and ways of using them get developed and shared. The fast pace of this area of research makes it a fascinating area to work in.

I have been involved with ‘e-learning’ (just to plump for one of the terms for the stake of consistency) since the early nineties. I got involved as a lecturer in Chemistry, by creating interactive computer-aided tutorials for my students and also through dabbling with the early Internet. Before I know where I was, I was hooked. It was great to get positive feedback from the students on how these technologies were helping their studies, but also the introduction of these technologies raised lots of issues. Was the university’s technical infrastructure adequate to cope with an increase in the use of technologies? What implications were there for making lecture materials freely available on the web? Were there any ethical issues with doing students feedback evaluation forms on the web? And many, many other questions and issues. I became increasingly interested with looking at elearning not just from a teaching perspective, but also in terms of it as a genuine area of research inquiry – in terms of appropriate research methodologies and evaluation techniques to better understand how students might use technologies and how the design and use of technology-mediated activities could be improved.

So here I am more than fifteen years on very much immersed in elearning research, nonetheless those early aspirations are still with me. I think it is imperative that there is a very close relationship between elearning research and development activities and actual practice. I find it valuable to be both a researcher and a teacher and to see the impact of introduction of technologies within my own context. Perhaps therefore it is not surprising that four of my current areas of interest in terms of the research work I am doing are around i) better understanding how teachers go about designing learning activities using new technologies (through the work we are doing as part of the OU Learning Design Initiative –, ii) exploration and understanding of students’ use of and experience of technologies (see Conole et al. (2008)[1] for a recent article on aspects of this work, and join the ELESIG special interest group[2] if you are interested in this area), iii) fundamental questions about research methodological issues in e-learning research (we have a masters module about this H809 – ‘Practice-based research in educational technology’),[3] and finally, iv) issues to do with the impact on individuals and organisational structures and policies).

 What fascinates me about this area is that it seems to be dominated by a series of ‘fads’ or ‘crazes’; a wave of enthusiasm for a particular set of technologies that sweeps across the education sector. In the eighties there was an obsession with the production of multi-media content. The nineties saw the arrival of the Internet, with individuals and organisations coming to terms with how ‘web 1.0’ technologies could be used both to directly support student learning experiences, as well as providing an infrastructure for the operational aspects of organisations and external promotion marketing. Email replaced the good old memo, marketing departments became obsessed with the creation of structured web sites adhering to the institutional ‘market brand’. The next key fad in my view was the emergence of Virtual Learning Environments. I remember seeing an early prototype of WebCT and being really excited about its potential and in particular the ability for me as a teacher to have easy hands-on control of a digital learning environment for my students. In recent years of course we have seen the dramatic impact of web 2.0 technologies – the rise of social networking and the ability to communicate and connect in multifaceted ways. This has raised implications for the tension between institutionally owned technical infrastructures and student controlled use of freely available tools – an argument nicely trigger in the Internet last year by Martin Weller’s controversial post ‘The VLE/LMS is dead’ and subsequent postings and counter arguments. Twitter and related micro-blogging services seem to have taken off recently;  in contrast some are arguing that MySpace and Facebook are old hat and email is for ‘oldies’ apparently. Then of course there is second life…

It’s also interesting within all this to reflect on my own recent experience of being a student and using technologies. I have just completed a beginnings Spanish course with the Open University. Overall I really enjoyed the course and have learnt a lot. The materials and activities have been excellent. It’s great to have the paper-based books, but I also wanted all the text and audio digitally so I could put them on my computer and iPOD. I was never able to access the audio-conferencing systems used for the course, which meant I didn’t have any contact with the other students, which was a definite drawback. In addition to the ‘official’ course I supplemented it with my own ways of learning – by choosing to go to Spain in the summer with the kids, by attending an additional face-to-face summer school (which was excellent and gave me the direct contact with other students I badly missed), through get peer support and help via Twitter and other social networking channels. In my mind my ‘Spanish Learning Experience’ is a combination of all of these things – both the ‘official’ course and my own personalised, learning environment. Ask any student and I bet they will give you a similar story – of how they appropriate technologies to create an individual, personalised learning environment. Understanding this to me is one of the keys to of harnessing new technologies.

So what does all this tell us and what can we surmise in terms of future directions? The fundamental point is that I think none of us can deny that technologies are now having a dramatic impact on educational institutions and that impact is likely to continue, and indeed increase. It raises huge implications for organisations - for strategy and policy, for organisational systems and processes, for individual roles and identities. We can’t predict future directions, but we can at least prepare ourselves for a changing and dynamic context. I think it’s a really exciting time to be working in education as a consequence of all of this; the possibilities of new technologies are truly amazing. However how we manage this change process, how we design to take best effect of the potential of technologies is key. As such I think e-learning research has a profound role to play in helping us better understand the changes, and better harness the technologies.

1.     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, Volume 50, Issue 2, February 2008, Pages 511-524.