Author: Paul Jinks

Tasks and online learning

On the online journey to learning, tasks are both milestones indicating progress and road stops allowing the information-wearied traveller to check bearings, compare experiences with other itinerants and generally pause for breath before continuing.

An online course with no tasks is a long road to a distant destination you eventually cease to care about.

Long Road
ong Road by Army Man Chaz:

At present I’m working on materials for an online masters module for next semester and I’m struck by the number and variety of tasks used. Reviewing them has led me to wonder what kind of guidance I should be giving to academic colleagues who accept the importance of tasks but are unsure exactly how to approach them.

What kind of tasks should we have, and how many? If one task is good, are two tasks better? Notionally these students are spending ten hours a week studying on this module. Should we be directing that study closely, or giving them room to explore the literature? How about a different task for every learning outcome so we and students can be sure they’re hitting the mark? Should we aim for variety: a blog post, a quiz, a webquest, a discussion, a wiki? Or should some tasks be largely social in purpose, creating a context for contact among learners and between learners and tutors. Should we have interactive tasks for which tutors are absent entirely. Doest this create learner independence or foster resentment at absentee academics?

These are important questions and I’m surprised to find that I have few answers beyond a feel for what’s right based on many years of classroom teaching and designing learning materials. In forthcoming posts I will explore these issues.


What if we give it away?

The scale and ambition of free online courses is about to go up a notch. Big name US universities are teaming up to offer online learning for free.  Harvard will be joining MIT on the EdX platform and Stanford, Princeton and others are offering their content for nothing on the Coursera platform. Here in the UK the Open University has been offering free courses on its “OpenLearn” platform for some time and its iTunesU downloads numbered 44,225,000 in October 2011 [1. iTunes U » Impact. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2012, from

EdX’s PR boasts their reach will extend to a billion people with their free content.

That’s nice

Maybe MIT/Harvard’s intention in sharing their no doubt excellent learning materials (though some of MITs offerings could use a little QA) is to create a knowledge commons for the betterment of all. However, a $60 million dollar investment [2.  Weigel, M. (n.d.). Margaret Weigel: 5 Ideas for EdX, Harvard and MIT’s New Online Initiative. Retrieved May 6, 2012, from  suggests other motivations.

Harvard have stated that they believe their face to face courses will benefit from the online offering. This is partly a marketing stance, people pay handsomely to attend Harvard, however since the on-campus students have access to the new materials and new platform, there is clearly something in this. More and more teaching is blended these days: few face to face courses lack some kind of online support and many teachers use online interaction to extend engagement with topics beyond face to face sessions.

Beyond this, large student numbers brings a mass of data on all manner of things, from pedagogy and instructional design to marketing. As Phil Bradley observed of Google: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. MIT and Harvard are oversubscribed but their recommendation to other education providers could be invaluable. Other HEIs might use the courses as gateway qualifications for admissions.  This might be seen by government as a convenient excuse to cut funding to community colleges in the US and further afield.

Blackboard Collaborate and Connect

I always had a soft spot for Elluminate, having attended some engaging and memorable webinars with it over the years. The interface icons had a goofy clip art look about them but it was a very usable educational tool supported by excellent technical support. So I was disappointed when the behemoth Blackboard bought the company and rebranded the software “Blackboard Collaborate”. Now surely it was going to get exciting sounding but not very functional features, bewildering layers of settings and all the other things we know and love from Bb Learn.

So what does this have to do with Blackboard connect?

Well, I wanted to have a look at Collaborate and apparently getting a room to play in is not all that easy (Elluminate gave everyone a free “v-room” for the asking by comparison), so when the invitation came round to attend a webinar on Blackboard’s SMS tool set (not altogether irrelevant to my work) I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone.

Here’s what I learned:

  • The interface is tidier
  • It still runs off a java applet
  • VOIP works fine, at least where you have beefy bandwidth
  • Communicating with students is a really good thing, helping student “resilience” and connections by fortifying them. Who knew?

HE in a networked world

George Siemens draws an illuminating contrast between what goes on in
most VLEs for example and the way most people interact in web-based
environments. I’m not sure if he’s right that education will or even
should ‘mirror’ the networked world, it’s more likely that educators
will find ways to introduce social or networked elements to courses. I
don’t really believe that HE is ‘broken’, but it certainly has to
change to adapt to the world around us.

Towards the end of the presentation Siemens argues that:

“Current generation of learning tools mirror a priori content and
planned conversations. Next generation tools will mirror the
information,power relationships, and fluid social structure of

HE still works very much along the lines of students being told or finding out what the teacher already knows. Assessment requires students to prove that either they

  • a. have found this information
  • b. can remember it
  • c. can apply it
  • d. can critique it
  • e. any or all of the above.

Is this not enough?

Gove on learning in a digital age

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education talking about “digital networks” in a speech on 2 December. Interesting emphasis on supporting digital pedagogy rather than setting up expensive infrastructure, which nobody was suggesting anyway.

“One of the greatest changes can be seen in the lives of children and young people, who are at ease with the world of technology and who communicate, socialise and participate online effortlessly. Two-thirds of five- to seven-year-olds use the internet at home, rising to 82 per cent for 8- to 11-year-olds and 90 per cent for 12- to 15-year-olds. Over a third of 12- to 15-year-olds own a smartphone, and typically use the internet for 15.6 hours every week. Children are increasingly embracing technology at a younger age: for example, 23 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds now use social networking sites.” “Yet the classrooms of today don’t reflect these changes. Indeed, many of our classrooms would be very recognisable to someone from a century ago. While there has been significant investment in technology in education, it has certainly not transformed the way that education is delivered.”

“Part of the problem has been that investment has focused on hardware. My fear is that, in the past, too much emphasis has been placed on machines that quickly become obsolete, rather than on training individuals to be technologically as literate and adept as they need to be. What’s more, fixating on expensive, soon-to-be out-of-date kit represents a failure to understand the fundamental changes taking place”.

“One major change concerns content. Technology is having a huge impact on the way educational material can be delivered. iTunesU now gives everybody access to the world’s best lectures. The Khan Academy provides 2700 high-quality micro tutorials on the web, so that anyone, anywhere can access them for free. Brilliant scientific publications like Science are building their own ecosystems of educational content. And by definition, as we move to a world where we expect every child will have a tablet, the nature and range and type of content that can be delivered will be all the greater”.

“Educational gaming, for example, is a booming area – and ripe for even further development. Games developed by Marcus Du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, are helping children engage with complex maths problems that would hitherto have been thought too advanced. And the Department for Education is currently working with the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the highly respected Stanford Research Institute on a pilot programme to use computer programmes to teach maths. We have not developed the programme – we are just helping them run a pilot. Stanford say it is one of the most successful educational projects they have seen”.

“These exciting advances are the sort of thing that a central government department could never hope to produce and maintain. And nor should it seek to: Whitehall must enable these innovations but not attempt to micromanage them. Such content is being created daily, and the vast majority is free to anyone with an internet connection. Our role is to help bring schools and these developments together.” “To be absolutely clear: this isn’t about replacing teachers with YouTube videos – of course it isn’t. But it would be negligent of us not to look at how we can harness these developments for the benefit of all pupils. In Singapore, for example, I was lucky enough to witness how a superb lesson can be delivered through a mixture of online and teacher-led instruction. We can do it here too – and in the coming months we’ll be setting out how.”

“Another way in which technology is changing education is through its potential to create sharper assessment systems. Computer lab management software is now so sophisticated that an individual teacher can monitor how each student is doing simultaneously and then – without singling out that child in front of others – provide them with the direct amount of support that they need, accelerating the rate at which some children can learn and providing additional help for others. Problems can be picked up earlier. Students can be stretched when they’re ready. It’s the next step towards truly personalised learning – and it will also enable parents to have a better understanding of the level at which their children are operating.”

“Thirdly, technological advances can have a huge impact on teacher training. Teachers can more easily observe other teachers and learn more about the craft. Professional development content can be delivered in more accessible, engaging, and cost effective ways. Individual teachers can use the latest developments to refine their lessons to precision. As Michael Nielsen points out in his excellent new book, ‘Reinventing Discovery’, new developments allow teachers to get better feedback about how their lessons are being received. So not only does the spread of innovations like the Khan Academy mean there is more great teaching material on the web, but new tools like Google Analytics allow anyone to analyse video for attention, second-by-second, in a way that used to be very expensive and complex. All these are welcome developments.”

“Of course, in stressing the importance of digital content, I’m not saying we should neglect hardware altogether – far from it. But hardware means more than just the latest desktop – especially when many pupils are increasingly likely to have access to superior technology at home – or even in their pockets – than in their school’s computer lab. That’s why we need to think about how to give more children the chance to engage with truly cutting edge hardware, like 3D printers, or learn the fundamentals of programming with their own single-board computers, like the Raspberry Pi.”

“The challenge for us is this: how we can harness the many exciting technological leaps that are constantly being made? We will be saying much more early in the new year. Make no mistake: this is a priority for me. I believe we need to take a serious, intelligent approach to educational technology if our children are not to be left behind. As John Chubb and Terry Moe put it in their excellent book on the subject, a genuine engagement with the wondrous world of technological innovation will see children’s learning ‘liberated from the dead hand of the past.’ We owe it to pupils across the country to take this issue seriously.”


Blackboard 9.1 learning modules


I like learning modules for distance learning. One unit, one module. Everything neat and tidy with a clear sequential path that students can follow without too much trouble and then come back and access the material anyway they like. 

One problem with Bb9.1 learning modules is that they force discussion boards to open in a new window (there's no alternative, though discussion boards will open in the same window from e.g. a content page). I really don't like this, but Terry Gray of Palomar college doesn't see a problem with it. Anyway, I enjoyed and found useful his video about learning modules. 

Postmodernity, meaning, identity, globalisation, technology, the narcissism of youth, moral panics and PBL.

A few notes on Mike Wesch’s article “1991: Who we were and who we need to be”. [1. Wesch, M. (2011). 1991: Who we were and Who we need to be. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from]

It pulls the interesting trick of looking back before the present era and finding that many of the concerns people were expressing then were the same as those we have now: young people disengaged with education, having short attention spans, being constantly called into ‘incoherence’ or other social domains by the omnipresence of technology (TV, telephones), education being run on an industrial model for an information age, identity being no longer a social given but the core project of the individual and the individual itself being increasingly set apart from communities.

Wesch could have gone back 50 years or 100 years and found many of these themes: the spur to the fathers of modern sociology was in to explore social change characterised by: alienation, atomism, the place of the individual in mass society, technology defining activities, social relations being obscured.

The Industrial Age is joining the pre-Industrial Age in holding the certainties and securities, the connectedness that we feel we feel we lack now. I wonder to what extent Wesch describes the Human Condition, particularly that of the academic for whom big questions are particularly enticing.

Technology does not define relationships and social processes, but offers affordances to directions that already there. And these directions don’t always run the same way – the picture is complex. We see the Internet also being used to connect people; it facilitates previously existing social forms of thinking and behaving that required you to leave your home and maybe go to a big city. The personal commitment required to join such processes is reduced slightly (it was always possible to buy a book and wear a t-shirt after all), but the connections to other people, though superficial and ephemeral for most are far easier to establish. Twitter exemplifies this. Ultimately what matters will be what lasts, for us as individuals and for the world at large, what is difficult is to know what this will be. The future is unwritten. Twas ever thus.