Shall we read?

I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
Woody Allen

Reading is time consuming. When it involves unfamiliar terminology on novel topics it can also be hard intellectual labour. Worse still, some academic writing seems deliberately obtuse. No surprise then that a colleague who had been collecting feedback from learners following an online course reported they had objected to the amount of required reading.

However the students’ gripe was that the online nature of the course and the assessment tasks involved (evaluating what they had read on discussion boards) had required them to actually read the readings.

One of the students observed that in a traditional seminar style course you can pick up the gist of the readings from other people, particularly from the teacher. In fact, just attending the seminar and bluffing some acquaintance with the literature is sufficient engagement, as long as you pass the exam or whatever the assessment tool happens to me.

Given that a great deal of the material students have to read is online and that writing about your reading requires a deeper level of processing that talking about it (or nodding sagely while others discuss it – a favourite ploy of my own back in the day) this is maybe an argument in favour of a wider application of blended approaches with on-campus learners. This would need to be balanced with more formative assessment and perhaps less ambitious reading lists?

Does this sound familiar or have we found an anomalous group of learners?

Technology for learning; technology for teaching

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

–W.B. Yeats

If you ask ‘why use technology in learning?’ You get a lot of obvious and interesting answers e.g.:

  • the right tool for the job: twenty first century learners must use twenty first century tools,
  • the explosion of information in every subject area means teacher telling the kids how it is is less valuable than previously
  • lifelong learning. More than ever education is about learning to (re-and un-)learn, to adapt, to make decisions.
  • the knowledge economy: the skills kids (and not just kids) are going to need are handling the masses of information they are subject to.
  • the range of stimulating media and activities available through technology
  • personalisation: the ability to fashion your own route through content when and as it suits you
  • collaboration may not necessarily be easier online, but it can be more multifaceted, involve more people and go on over a longer hours, days even weeks.

Indeed, most teachers assume that learners will be using technology, particularly the internet, as part of their studies be it looking at online journals, wikipedia, or Google. My Y7 daughter regularly gets homework which requires creative use of search engines, word processors, graphics editors and occasionally spreadsheets. She does this while managing a stream of interactions on Bebo and MSN, occasionally with other kids doing the same homework.

Why? Because it’s fun.

Most teachers would characterise these as being solitary, remote activities best done at home or in the Learning Centre/ITC suite/information commons or whatever the institution calls the place that learners can access the internet. Interaction between learners in these real and virtual spaces may sweeten the pill, but the tasks aren’t seen primarily as collaborative.

Overseeing net-research isn’t part of the teacher’s role. To return to Yeats, you’re unlikely to light the educational fire while the students are variously checking their email, looking at wikipedia and messaging their friends.

So what is it that teachers do and where might technology fit in? Teachers are typically engaged in (off the topic of my head);

  • assessment
  • control/management of learner behaviour
  • ‘modeling’ behaviours, attitudes and values
  • selecting what will be learned, in which ways, for how long, in which contexts and to what ends
  • giving feedback on performance/learning
  • enthusing, cajoling, entertaining, challenging
  • ‘making it real’: giving context to learning

Technology will be used by teachers to the extent that they enhance their performance of these tasks by making them easier, quicker and more effective. So far technology has largely been used to give jazzier presentations (multimedia on the IWB etc.) and perhaps quicker feedback. Teachers who place a premium on student-to-student interaction have pointed out that technology is being used to enhance teacher ‘delivery’, not student participation.

This is partly to do with a scarcity of technology in the classroom: there is usually only one computer (if that) which the teacher controls. But this isn’t the case when it comes to homework, in which solitary ‘research and report’ use of the internet remains the most common technological scenario.

It’s not too difficult to come up with a reasonable list of reasons for teachers not to use technology:

  • it’s hard to keep up with pace of change
  • lack of institutional support (technical, pedagogic, even legal)
  • hard to find acceptable models of assessment that align with e.g. use of web2.0 tools,
  • inevitable technical glitches
  • long track record of failed ‘elearning’ projects,
  • supervising online interaction extends teachers’ hours which isn’t reflected in current working arrangements

If teachers are going to have to change the way they teach because of technology and if this change is not well supported by institutions then it is not going to happen. It will be interesting to see how far the vision of open lifelong learning fuelled by technology is able to enter mainstream educational culture.

Successful study versus web2.0?

Interesting guide from the university of Illinois for prospective online learners.:

What Makes a Successful Online Student?

I was struck by the emphasis on careful consideration of contributions. Weighing your words before committing: “Be able to think ideas through before responding”. In many respects this stands in contrast to a certain style of interaction, particularly in web2.0 and possibly 3D environments, where the spontaneity of interaction leads to a more speculative type of discourse with a more informal register. A recent article on the American Society of Training and Developments’ website entitled “All aboard, the web3D train is leaving the station” carried the following advice:

The hard part about Web 2.0– and Web 3D–powered training isn’t technology—it’s attitude. You have to loosen up, lighten up, and shut up. Don’t join the party wearing your faculty cloak. Join as a participant. […]

Let them teach each other. No one has better credibility than a successful peer. Your approach will be more productive if it’s more fun, more interactive, more conversational, and more like the computer games, blogs, and podcasts that the iPod generation is already interacting with in its spare time.

It’s worth bearing in mind that ASTD’s audience is perhaps more in the domain of corporate training than HE, but it’s interesting to speculate how far the emphasis on participation can go in terms of loosening register.

Have wikis had their day?

It looks like wikis are not worth shouting about any more. PBwiki (so called because it makes setting up a wiki easier than making a peanut butter sandwich) is changing its name to better project the uses of its product: it offers a cross between a content management system, VLE and, erm, wiki. I have always thought that pbwiki didn’t look or feel like a wiki, so the name change makes sense.

One of the other free wiki providers: wetpaint went down this route some time ago. In fact, even the page titled ‘Create your own wetpaint wiki’ contains no reference whatever to wikis!

Maybe when collaborating online is so easy with Google docs, Ning et al, wikis just aren’t sexy any more.

This is probably a good thing, wikimania led people to try and shoe-horn all kind of activities onto a wiki regardless of whether it was an appropriate tool, whether students liked it and whether it served any purpose other than keeping up with the virtual Joneses.

Perhaps now wikis can rest easy in the online instructors toolbox along with email, discussion boards and powerpoint. It seems that there’s no commercial angle to wikis any more.

In the meantime, all aboard Twitter!

Thomas Frey’s Future of Learning

Really interesting article by futurologist Thomas Frey called ‘The future of Education’. It seems to be a combination between a wish-list and a prediction. It was written nearly 2 years ago and already seems in some respects a little dated (for example cites MySpace as the stand-out social networking site).

There’s a lot to think about here, including a (for me) timely reminder about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the part that really grabbed me was his vision of a ‘standard courseware unit’ (an hour’s study) and a standard ‘courseware builder’.

So far, so similar to what we have already: a desire to produce standardised ‘learning objects’ using standardised courseware tools. Frey envisions these standards and tools emerging by the action of the market ‘gravitating’ towards particular tools and formats(probably online course authoring sites) in much the same way as youtube and iTunes have become ubiquitous. I’m not sure if this analogy holds water.

Beyond this, Frey’s vision of learning is one which takes place primarily beyond the bounds of educational institution in terms of space, time and organisation.