In June of this year it was twenty years since I set up my first web server for delivering e-learning courses. I’m using this anniversary to reflect on my experiences in educational technology over the last 20 years. I’ll have a look at some of the things we got right and some of the things we got wrong and why, after all these years, I’m still an optimist.
What did we get right?
Well a lot of people have done many good things. There has been a huge amount of innovation at the edges of higher education. We’ve found out a lot about how people learn in higher education and the technology has allowed us to try things that just weren’t possible before.
For me the highlights have been in following the work of George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Bonnie Stewart, Alec Couros, Steve Wheeler, Audrey Watters, Jim Groom, Catherine Cronin, Tony Bates, David Wiley, Doug Belshaw, Keith Hampson and in Australia and New Zealand Leigh Blackall, Joyce Seitzinger, Tim Klapdor, Sarah Thorneycroft, Dean Groom, David Jones and Kate Bowles. There are many others as well that I could mention.
I’ve been able to work with the ideas of these thinkers and relate them to my own thoughts and practices. Sometimes they’re reinforcements, sometimes they take me down a completely new direction. Either way, they’ve constantly surprised and delighted me over the years.
Other highlights of the last twenty years are the growth of open education, open courses, connected, social and rhizomatic learning. All of these have been enabled by advances in technology that allow people to communicate, share and build much more easily than ever before.
What did we get wrong?
We expected too much (and too little) from academic staff and we still do.
In the mid 90’s I’d set up a web server and was using a WYSIWIG editor to create static web pages. I thought it was easy. I was wrong. I thought every academic would be able to do this and would want to do this. I was wrong. Only a very small proportion wanted to do it and could do it.
In the late 90’s, learning management systems came along and universities said great, now academics don’t need to know any of that technical stuff, they can just use the web interface in the LMS. They’ll produce stuff. We might just need to provide a bit of training. They were wrong. Only a small proportion either wanted to do it or could do it. For many, this was (and still is) a viewed as a technical process that they have no interest in.
And so it has continued. Universities upgrade their LMS with the newer web technology (although generally significantly behind the UX of mainstream web sites) in the hope that this will make it super easy for academics to create online courses. But it doesn’t happen. Universities buy digital repositories, collaboration tools, eportfolios, lecture capture tools, anti-plagiarism tools and all manner of online stuff that promises a beautiful user interface that will allow content to be created quickly and easily. Only it doesn’t. Mostly.
Of course I have so say that a small proportion of academic staff have done exceptional things with the technologies provided. But these are isolated examples. Islands of innovation in a sea of tradition.
So when you look at the bigger picture you see a smorgasbord of technologies acquired by universities with the fairly random hope that it will somehow trickle across the institution. Note that this is not even trickle down. It’s trickle across. It’s no wonder there is no widespread adoption of e-learning and edtech across the institution. Academics have been expected to absorb the techniques skills and understanding necessary to design and deliver online and blended learning as well as everything else they do. And the everything else bit is rated much higher in terms of career progression.
So my position has changed completely. Originally I thought the academic staff member should be the creator and designer of online learning for their subjects. Now I disagree. It’s simply too complicated. When I started as an academic life was easy. I was expected to lecture, give tutorials and maybe seminars or laboratories depending on the topic. I didn’t have to wonder whether I should used a wiki or a blog or a journal with my students. I didn’t have to worry about online collaboration, synchronous web based communications, maker spaces or even the degree of blend between online and offline learning.
As an aside, I think we have massively overcomplicated online learning. But even a simplified approach is complex and requires much more thought and care than was ever the case when I started.
One of my favourite quotes is:
Perfection (in design) is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This is actually very hard to do.
The complexity of online and blended course design and delivery has huge implications for course quality and efforts to mainstream e-learning delivery. We can’t expect academic staff to do this. Let alone do it well.
This means that the role of academic staff in online course design and delivery has to change. The role of the academic staff member should be as the subject matter expert and to provide ‘teaching’ into an online space. But they should not be expected to design and run the course themselves. They are a critical member of a team that produces online learning. They provide raw content and expertise. Everything else needs to come from the remaining members of the course team; that is learner experience designer, learning designer, developer, media production etc.
Once the course is running the academic member of the course delivery team should interact with the learners through the design channels and provide the required feedback and guidance. That is to say, they should teach online. These are the skills that we should expect modern academic staff to possess and these are the areas that should be the focus of staff development efforts. Not withstanding the clear resource implications of this approach it remains a difficult change to get right. I’ve worked with several organisations in tertiary education that have sought to implement this sort of model with varying degrees of success. I won’t discuss their different approaches now but I am convinced that it can succeed if implemented correctly.
We didn’t think about the learner experience.
What I mean by this is that we haven’t had a consistent view of what learners should expect from their experience. It is only recently that learner experience design is starting to become identified as a distinct area of practice through the work of people like Joyce Seitzinger and Jess Knott at http://lxdesign.co and others.
This is not surprising. Higher education has traditionally not offered a great learner experience when you consider the complete lifecyle of interactions that a learner has with the higher education organisation. For universities it has traditionally been a sink or swim approach where the learner is expected to navigate the hurdles of administration and learning with little input or guidance. There are without doubt some great individual learner experiences but these are left to the individual academic or tutor.
The argument has been that learners in higher education are adults and can work it out for themselves. To do otherwise is sometimes seen as tantamount to spoon feeding. It’s almost as if it’s some sort of Spartan ritual that has to be endured as part of the initiation to being a graduate.
I don’t agree with this view. Learners in higher education clearly need to be responsible for their own learning but this does not abrogate responsibility for designing a learner experience that allows for that whilst minimising the friction that typifies many current learner interactions. By so doing the learner is allowed to focus on their learning and not on the frustrations of poorly designed interactions.
Nowhere is this more true than in online interactions. We have not done a good job of creating a learner experience that allows most learners to engage with confidence in an online environment and we’ve done an appalling job of allowing learners to take control of their own learning. This is typified by the attempts to constrain the learning environments within which learners are expected to engage with each other. No wonder they go and create their own Facebook groups.
Over the last few years we have started to see the role of Learning Designer evolve in higher education. Although I’ve been working with people with that title for a number of years I still find the term ill defined and highly variable in the expectations that people have of the role.
As the profession evolves, learning designers will become more important in creating great learning opportunities but they will need to work with learner experience designers who will take a wider view and ensure that every aspect of a learner’s journey is as delightful as possible.
We allowed people that want everything to be closed to get their way.We shouldn’t have.
When we built our first set of online courses in the late 90’s, before we used an LMS, our colleagues asked if the content would be protected. Personally I didn’t mind if my own content was open access but others were concerned that their material would be ‘stolen’ or that learners would be able to get something for nothing. It was difficult to argue against at that time and I still see many academic staff struggling with the concept today.
There remains a misconception about what a higher education constitutes. Even in an age of abundant information many still see the course content as being the ‘product’ that is being provided to learners. It’s not. What you get from higher education is curated content (that can come from anywhere), interactions with experts and peers and some form of credential. Sadly the credential has traditionally been based on a time served model coupled with a an assessment of knowledge and understanding.
Some problems with a closed model are that:
- We spend a huge amount of time and effort making things closed.
- The quality of open material is undoubtedly better than for closed content.
- We replicate things over and over again in closed silos instead of building, forking and sharing.
- We lose an opportunity to recognise and reward individuals and organisations on scholarly activity that’s not based on research publications or grant success.
There are many proponents of openness in higher education and many great initiatives. I think that the trend is moving to increased openness but it is slow moving.
We overemphasised tech solutions to try and get widespread adoption of digital technologies in higher education.
Developing staff is hard. I’ve already spoken about it earlier. Unfortunately many higher education organisations have been reluctant to invest in new kinds of roles. The casualisation of the workforce is an important issue across the sector. There has been a tendency to invest in technology and not in staff.
What the sector should have done was invest in learning technology educators. Instead what many did was invest in, what they hoped where, magic technology bullets. They weren’t.
The LMS is a case in point. It was seen as a magic bullet but the LMS needs skill to use and its difficult to get consistently high quality in using them. Large scale lecture capture is another magic bullet. I’ve written about their use before. The idea was that all staff would have to do would be record their lectures and then they’d automatically be put on line. Brilliant right? Well that assumes that your academic gives a good lectures that don’t contain huge amounts of copyright infringing material and that, pedagogically, you are happy about perpetuating a sage on the stage approach of passive ‘learning’.
You get my point about higher education prioritising technology over either staff development or new staff roles.
I think that might be finally changing but we’ll see.
We simply transferred traditional delivery to digital and expected it to work.
This skuomorphic approach to educational technology was inevitable I guess but it has been problematic nonetheless. Take BlackBoard (the name says it all) or any other LMS which simply replicates the structure and format of traditional courses but in an online environment.
The arguments for skuomorphism are that familiarity encourages adoption. I think there is something to be said for this but what happened was that the limitations of traditional delivery such as timetabling, semesters (a scheduling device based on medieval agriculture patterns) have been allowed to establish themselves as the norm for online delivery.
The cumulative effect was to minimize one of the great benefits of online learning – it’s inherent flexibility. It was only when the large MOOCS arrived and shook up the university administrators that they collectively lifted their heads from the sand. This is probably one of the few good things that has resulted from the rise of the xMOOCs.
As a result we’ve started to see any change in the way courses are organised online in terms of delivery. Things like rolling enrolments, self paced courses, short courses, trimesters mean that we can start to provide learning much more flexibly to those that want it.
We didn’t apply what we learned and then we allowed elite universities to reinvent everything we had already learned.
A lot of clever people have done of a lot of research and innovation in e-learning and educational technology over the last 20 years. We know what works and what doesn’t. Many of these findings have been ignored, even by the institutions that have traditionally had a higher focus on learning and teaching.
Recently high profile, research intensive institutions have decided that they should invent e-learning for themselves without any consideration of the work that has been done by others. Tony Bates has made this point several times on his blog including here – MIT and German research on the [appalling] use of video in xMOOCs.
The end result is that we have lost a decade in thinking about e-learning in higher education. We collectively slipped back into a simplified model of video, quiz, video, quiz for serving basic e-learning. In actual fact both of those techniques, whilst valuable in their own right, are not the only (or indeed in many cases the best) way of structuring learning online.
Why I’m still an optimist.
Despite all of the things that we got wrong I am still an optimist. I am hopeful that, as things become more open and interoperable and users take more control over their online identity we will reach a position where learners can, similarly, take control over their own learning. At the same time I think that universities are finally starting to respond to the challenges. After years of paying lip service to the internet we are finally seeing structural modifications and investment in the provision of high level online learning capabilities.
Initiatives appear to more focused and well resourced. New semi autonomous organisational units are being created to design and develop e-learning. New appointments at senior level indicate that higher education administrators are acting. I sense a new attitude to openness, sharing, distributing learning and allowing learners to take control.
There is a long way to go yet and I’ve no doubt that many frustrations lie ahead but I’m feeling more excited about the future of e-learning in higher education than I have for many years.
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