Suppose that you wish to put an advanced mathematics class online. Let’s stay out of the very common ones such as first-year Math, or any of the sciences. They have issues that will be dealt with later on. Let’s suppose that your faculty has developed a course in solving ordinary differential equations (ODIs for short). This is a course that needs to be taken by math, physics and chemistry majors as well as by engineers, generally in the second or third year of the program. The course is somewhat universal but not really, is somewhat popular, but not really. This means it is in most regards a typical course; a good case-study.
The course design is straightforward. Students will be presented with 12 methods by which to solve differential equations. The 12 methods will comprise 12 lessons. Each lesson will consist of these components:
- Presentation of the theory behind the method.
- Three worked examples, in increasing order of complexity.
- Exercises for the student, which shall be submitted for grading.
- Three exams.
The student will receive a grade out if a possible 100 points. Each of the three quizzes shall be graded out of 30 points and each lesson assignment shall be graded out of 10 points. The final grade will be the sum of: the average of the lesson assignments plus the total from the three quizzes.
Let’s assume that the course has been run in a face-to-face mode for many years but is now to be run as an online course. A previous attempt which consisted of class notes posted online and an evaluation based on two 50 point exams which were taken at several regional centres, did not work out. The students did not access the class notes frequently and said that it was next to impossible to get answers through the course email system. They also noted that it was extremely inconvenient driving to the regional centres to write the exam.
Let’s redesign it. We don’t have to redesign the curriculum. The twelve methods for solving ODIs remains the basis of the course.
Start with the evaluation methodology since this will have an impact on how the rest of the course is delivered. We know how important it is for the students to complete work assignments so we have allocated some grade points to them. It must also be convenient for students to get feedback on them. For simplicity’s sake then we will construct, for each lesson, a five-question assignment. To ensure that each student does not get exactly the same assignment, for each of the five questions we will put in 3 versions. For each student, then, question 1 will be randomly chosen from the 3 available, question 2 will be randomly chosen from the 3 available and so on. These will be presented as a series of multiple choice and with 10 possible answers. The students will get three attempts at each question. After either the successful entry or after the third unsuccessful attempt the solution will be displayed. This continues until all five questions are done. In this way, the student gets a reasonable chance at getting t the answer themselves but, if necessary, they will get the full response.
Of course any student could just “game” this and ask others for help. This may happen but, in the end, it is the student who will lose out since the development of facility with the solution methods is contingent on trying the practice exercises. To keep possible cheating from heavily skewing the grades, overall, we are limiting the weight to ten percent of the total—enough so that people should take it seriously but not enough to render the scheme invalid should cheating occur.
A different tack will be taken for the exams. These will no longer need to be taken at a regional centre because we will purchase into one of several available online exam proctoring services. To take the exam the student logs in from their local PC and its webcam is turned on to pan the room and ensure that only the student is taking the exam. The screen is then “locked down” to only display the exam and the student takes the exam, in view of the camera using pencil and paper. When finished the student scans the exam using an ordinary scanner, as a PDF file. This file is then placed in the exam drop box that is also on the locked-down screen. With this done the screen is released.
The instructor will then either print off the exam as normal or open it onscreen using Adobe Acrobat and mark it onscreen using a Wacom pen. The marked up exam is then (rescanned if marked old-school and) placed back in the exam drop box.
Content Design and Preparation
Recall that a previous effort based on placing class notes online had not worked out. This is to be expected for several reasons:
- Instructors’ own class notes tend to be somewhat cryptic. They are the distilled version of the instruction, generally minus the many prompts and explanations that are given live. The instructor has crafted these to be part of the delivery system, not all of it.
- Notes are often idiosyncratic, based on one particular view and often with unspoken assumptions that are not at all evident to the outside reader.
- At best, mathematics is hard work to read so most students tend to procrastinate and not read texts or notes unless forced to.
- Instruction goes better when students are challenged; encouraged to predict what should happen next. This is most of what makes live classes so effective when done well. You cannot do this effectively through notes.
We could videotape the instructor. In fact this is routinely done in university campuses everywhere through “lecture capture” technology. Let’s be frank, though: it amounts to boring, badly produced TV. Instructors are not paid performers and, as such, make frequent missteps, often have distracting habits (such as excessive pacing about, saying “ah” often and such). While this is perfectly acceptable in a live classroom, for recorded media it falls far short.
You could, of course, train an actor to deliver the course but, practically speaking, given the nature of the subject, the budget is just not there.
We shall do a cost effective compromise. We will begin with the course notes. Since the course has been offered for many years live we know we have access to a perfectly valid set. They are hand-written so we will enlist a senior math student, nominated by the math department, to redo them as PowerPoint slides. An Instructional designer (ID) will work with the draft slides to clean them up somewhat. In particular an effort will be made to make them far less busy and only display onscreen what is necessary.
A live class, based on the notes, is then videotaped. The same math student then transcribes the class lecture and the ID goes through the transcript to clean it up. Only that which is necessary remains. We are then left with a script that matches the PowerPoints, slide by slide.
The course instructor is then enlisted to read the script in a sound booth. This leaves us with a clean vocal track for each slide.
The PowerPoint slides are loaded into Adobe Captivate. The audio track for each slide is then layered in. The result is then produced as HTML5 and SWF which can be viewed on a desktop, notebook or mobile device.
For each lesson, then 5 multimedia files are produced.
- A audiovisual presentation of theory that ends with three multiple choice questions for understanding.
- Two audiovisual presentations. One for each of the first two worked examples.
- Two interactive audiovisual presentations. These will be like the first two but at each step the student will be asked what should happen next and will need to choose correctly before proceeding.
All of this is loaded into an LMS such as Desire2Learn. Students can log in at any time. The LMS will track and document their progress. In theory the course can be run on an as-needed basis but we will offer ours on a schedule. Why? So we can assign an instructor who can maintain the course pace, offer extra insight and respond to student questions.
So what does this mean for the instructor? Does it mean that we can build a system in which instructors are no longer necessary?
Let’s get real, shall we…
First let’s not forget for a second that learning is as much a social activity as it is an intellectual one. Most (yes, not all but still most) students want to feel as if they are a part of something; that their actions are noticed, even rewarded. If we leave the class instructorless it will not work; it’s like leaving a ship “captainless.” Sure it will float but it will get nowhere. In time, some students may finish but most will not, eventually choosing to just bail out.
The course will have an instructor. The duties we be these:
- Respond promptly to student questions.
- Post periodically to ensure that the pace is maintained.
- Provide feedback in the form of grades and comments.
- Continue to improve on the course content: develop better examples, provide more examples for students who need them, or, do the existing examples several times, using different language; different prompts, convert some of the presentation examples to interactive ones, update the assessment sets. The list is endless.
There. One case sort of closed. Not perfect, but then again not meant to be. It was, rather, meant to be serviceable and affordable. As such this was by no means the only way in which it could have been done. Alternatives include:
- Making parts of the assignment such that they were scanned and submitted like the tests.
- Making parts of the test objective using multiple choice items if valid items were found to exist (frankly I can’t really see that being the case for this course).
- Using produced video instead of the method described.
- Writing simulations in which the students interactively solve the equations. Mind you, this would be a major project and a significant cost item but maybe a worthwhile one if the budget permitted.
- Adding some “gamified” elements to reward success or the completion of extra exercises or to enable group completion of items.
- Adding a live tutorial component using synchronous tools such as Blackboard Collaborate.
With the last bullet stated it should also me noted that there’s really nothing stopping the math department from making a complete switch from using the lecture hall to, instead, moving the instructor to a Blackboard collaborate environment. Instead of going to the lecture theatre, students and instructors would just log in to Blackboard Collaborate and the instructor would do what (s)he has always done, as would the students.
All of this kind of makes you wonder why this is not already the case, doesn’t it? Let’s address that. Here are a few reasons:
- Existing methods work very well and faculties do not have the resources to make wholesale shifts in short periods of time.
- Not all faculty and students wish to do this. Not only is “Live” instruction something many, many students and instructors thrive on but also, the converse is very true: for those same individuals the quiet confines of the office or home is anathema to effective learning.
- Audiovisual presentations can place a distance between the student and instructor, making both reluctant to interact with one another, even when absolutely necessary.
That said, think of the advantages: Students get more freedom regarding when they take classes. They also get to redo the examples when necessary. Finally, instructional quality is assured through a deliberate process. Instructors are also freed from the “routine” instruction tasks and are freer to deal with individual issues and, maybe, even have a bit more time for research.
Content formats? Where should one start?
(As an aside, you may have noticed that the original blog has undergone mitosis with the eLearning content remaining at this URL and everything else moved over to the new Duck? Starfish? …But23 site. If you are a current follower of this blog and your interest is not primarily eLearning then you might consider switching your “follow” to the alter-ego site.)
Maybe a good first stop would be the Tower of Babel. Recall the story recorded in Genesis of how the ancient people’s arrogance in constructing a tower intended to reach the heavens themselves so angered the deity that he scrambled their speech, de-unifying the single language they once spoke so that, forevermore, they were destined to be scattered upon the face of the earth, never able to properly communicate.
How true that rings in the world of eLearning, but now it’s not so much about language but, rather about standards or more to the point, the lack of them. Years ago it was mainly about application-specific files. Remember the Word/WordPerfect/WordStar/etc. fun from the eighties and nineties? The dominant word processors never seemed too worried about making files that were inter-operable. It almost seemed that each gain was offered grudgingly, “we don’t really want you working with the other guy’s files but if you must we’ll get them to open but you can forget about the formatting being very useful.”
So, too, with eLearning; file formats, it seems, still have not really come very far. They all have their strengths but none, unfortunately, is an ideal for eLearning.
HTML and embedded graphics
This combination is fine for general usage but it has serious limitations. You can get it to depict anything that can be read on paper but there are always compromises. Math notation is particularly problematic. While there are solutions, most notably MathML, you still cannot get math notation, or for that matter anything besides text, to display consistently across browsers.
Besides, today’s consumers of online content have been conditioned to express extreme displeasure whenever they are confronted with something that does not allow interaction, show moving pictures or otherwise do things that move, distort or otherwise amuse. Complex prose, when subject to the whims of the semi- and fully-fledged-trolls who love to fill in the comment fields will ultimately fall victim to reams of complaints, most of which contain something like, “Holy wall of text, Batman!” or some other phrase they figure is unique and witty (which it is not; it is, more often, a pathetic admission of inability to grapple with complex thought).
Perhaps it’s best to consider this combination format as a good general purpose tool. A consideration of the audience is probably a good distinction point. For school-aged learners you need to acknowledge that (1) the reading ability and (2) the attention span have serious age-dependent limits. Limit both the length and depth of any given learning object paying particular attention to the age of the audience. Keep it as short as possible while still creating an age-appropriate degree of challenge. That is, strike a balance between easy & trivial and difficult & extended.
If this is a format you use often, be sure to obtain or create an appropriate css file and stick to it to ensure that the visual presentation is effective and consistent.
Video Formats such as MP4
Once shied away from, in general, owing to bandwidth restrictions it’s safe to say that these are now just fine for all but a very few applications, where even consumer-grade high-speed is unavailable. What’s more, even the most inexpensive hardware is now more than capable of doing the background work required to produce decent quality video-based learning objects. You can do a good enough job with even at $400 laptop or a smartphone, and using the software that typically comes free with any camera capable of doing video.
That said, there are still considerations that need to be attended to. Chief among these is the fact that there are few things more unpleasant than having to endure bad video. A video production using any combination of these flaws: shaky camera work, poor quality audio, choppy splicing and, most importantly, a poorly prepared storyboard and/or script is a total disaster.
Besides, those who read well can do so significantly faster than they can listen, so if the content does not expressly require the use of moving pictures you should consider at least supplementing the video presentation with either a transcript that can be quickly read or an audio file that can be listened to while exercising or commuting.
As a last comment it’s worth stating that while self-produced video now has every possibility of being of good quality there’s still no substitute for the degree of excellence that can come from a team-based approach. If you can find any way of funding the production using a professional crew go for it.
Adobe Flash (SWF)
This format is Compact and versatile and is, at least in theory, an ideal format for eLearning as it handles text, images, animation as well as sound and video. It does it all very well. Unfortunately it suffers from three fatal flaws: (1) it is proprietary, owned by Adobe and, as such, is subject to the whims of its owner; it requires an external plug-in/player. (2) SWF is inherently vulnerable, despite continuing efforts on behalf of its owner to plug the numerous security leaks and exploits, once discovered. And (3) Apple’s decision not to support the SWF on its IOS based (iPads, iPhones, IPods) devices means that use of this format in eLearning means it cannot be used by some of the most popular devices around; one step away from being a non-starter in public education if not private industry.
Notwithstanding the above complaints SWF continues to be a reliable workhorse (albeit something of an aging one). Adobe’s Flash product is still, hands down, the most versatile development platform from which to create powerful and creative interactive learning objects on a budget, assuming you have access to an appropriately trained multimedia professional. Yes, it is possible to learn how to “do it yourself” inasmuch as you can learn to play your own cello piece for your class introduction video. Just as most would find it much more efficient and, in the end, cheaper, to briefly engage a suitably trained musician for that task most instructors and instructional designers would judge it wise to do something similar.
But it turns out that if you choose to use Adobe Flash you don’t have to do that at all. Flash is not the only product that produces SWF files. Articulate’s Storyline and Studio (Around $1400 US each) as well as Adobe’s own Captivate ($20 US/month – subscription) can create SWF files either based on original content or from pre-existing content created in PowerPoint. All of these products are relatively easy to use by just about anyone—they can be learned in about a day of training and practice. In either case you can go as far as your current expertise and comfort level let you go. That is, after a couple of hours of training you can easily convert a PowerPoint presentation into a stand-alone presentation, including animations and narration, that a student can experience at a time of their choosing. With just a bit more training you can learn to add interactions (embedded questions, opportunities to do sorting and matching exercises and such) to the presentation.
The end result can be very professional and effective. In general, the result is as good as the content you have for it. For an experienced instructor, this is indeed a good option.
But there’s one big catch: SWF content cannot be properly viewed with iPhones and iPads. There are various web-based services that convert the SWF files, on the fly, to video which can be played but you generally lose the interactions—why you used SWF and not video in the first place—and the work-arounds are often sluggish and buggy. Still, if IOS compatibility is not an issue than SWF is an excellent choice.
The aforementioned Articulate tools as well as Adobe Captivate, for example, do support HTML5. That is, they can produce HTML5 output. Unfortunately, at the time this was written (Feb. 2014) neither product fully supported the standard, Many of the interactions that the products supported could only be implemented when you output the file as SWF. If you choose, instead, to output your project as HTML5 you will only get a crippled version, one missing some of the interactions you designed in because the software cannot handle them yet in HTML5 format. In practical terms this means if you use those products you have to say either:
(1) Never mind HTML5, I will stick to SWF for now but may go back and republish as HTML5 if a later version supports what I need.
(2) Never mind the complex interactions. I will remove them from the design and stick with a simpler, less interactive version of my design; one that is currently supported by the software.
In short, as I see it right now here is the situation with HTML5: There is a lot of hype and promise, both from the technical community developing the HTML5 standard and from the community of product providers, all anxious to be able to say, “our product does a GREAT job on HTML5.” Unfortunately, when you drill down and try do get some serious work done with it you will realize that to do the work properly either you will have to engage the services of highly trained professionals who can work with the expensive and complex tools that currently exist or you can dumb down your project to make it fit with the constraints that currently exist within the few user-friendly and affordable tools that currently exist.
Or you could wait 5 to 7 years for the technology to catch up. Just kidding.
So, where does that leave the instructor and developer? Unfortunately the answer is, “still very much up in the air.” No matter which way you turn you are faced with a world of compromises. The best advice is the following:
- As always, focus first on the outcomes and on the learners. Take good stock of what it is you need the learners to be able to do at the end of the process.
- Take a good hard look at the current content and strategies you have.
- Make a judgment on how best to rework them for your online learners, given the constraints that have already been elaborated for each format, as well as the money, time and skills you can bring to the table.
- Go ahead and develop with your best effort knowing full-well that we all live in a world of compromises. You can never do a perfect job—in fact; striving for perfection is an excellent way to stall completely in the here and now.
- Put a mental time-stamp on your work. Give it a “best before” date. If you do that as you produce it you will be prepared—cognitively, emotionally and strategically—for the changes that will need to be made at some time in the future.
Where I live, connectivity is still far from ideal. My home (Newfoundland Labrador, CA) is twice the size of Great Britain, in area at least. The population is something else. At a little over a half-million people it doesn’t stack up very well against the 60 million that live in Great Britain. Think about it: less than one percent of the population lives in an area twice the size. That means lots of: almost impassable mountains, deep Fjords with no roads, wide open spaces between tiny communities, inhospitable coastlines, bogs, rivers and forests. My home is truly beautiful; a mostly unspoiled place where both flora and fauna are left to live away from the destructive meddlesome hand of humanity. We have a joke here: Q—How do you spot a Newfoundlander or Labradorian in heaven? A—they are the ones trying to get back home.
That’s just fine until you try to connect all of the communities with a single contiguous fibre –based digital network—essential infrastructure for a 21st century society and economy. Those mountains, rocks, bogs and rivers, coupled with the huge distances between subscribers don’t make for easy fibre-deployment. More importantly the relatively small number of subscribers could never hope to pay, straight up, for the cost. It doesn’t add up. Just take a look at two estimates, one worse than the other:
A conservative estimate for the cost of a said provincial network would be around $500 million just to build it, never mind run and maintain it. I’d estimate that the province would have around 100,000 subscribers so that’s a $5000 up-front cost for every subscriber if it’s to be a fee-for-service funding model. It gets worse, though. Roughly 350,000 of the people in the province live in cities or communities of a size where a provider might just be able to put together a business model for broadband, fibre-based connectivity. While it will not happen overnight it is reasonable to expect that it will happen in these places at roughly the same speed as it will happen in the rest of the rural sections of the developed world. That leaves roughly 150,000 people or roughly 35000 subscribers. Taking out the part of the build (roughly $100M) that is covered by the business case in the larger centres this means that the cost for the hard-to-reach subscribers now climbs to roughly $11,000 each. Amortized over 10 years, that would mean $140/mo per subscriber; significant;y more than the typical $50/mo charged! Expensive connectivity!
Granted, this is a simplistic model assuming a planned approach with few building compromises—a fast efficient network built for the long haul. We are not starting from scratch, though. All of the major internet Service Providers (ISPs) have partial fibre networks so if you wanted to get fibre everywhere you’d only have to concentrate on where it currently is not and work out an arrangement with the existing providers.
The ISPs also don’t have to structure their income in the way presented. Business customers have different needs from home consumers and can be expected to pay more for more. Besides there’s always an argument that the information highway is a vital piece of public infrastructure to there’s a valid argument for tapping into our collective wealth—namely tax money—to subsidize this build and help make a proper business case.
There are, as I see it, several barriers to this. First, those in the larger centres already have access to fibre-based Internet at reasonable cost and do not want to subsidize the costs for those living in smaller, isolated communities. They don’t care that their fellow citizens have less access. “Why don’t they live here like I do?” they ask. Fair enough but those same people need to consider that many of the jobs in the larger centres do not grow the economy. Since they are retail and government based they (a) recycle existing wealth and (b) depend on those outport communities for the majority of their economy anyway. They also should consider that the jobs in the outports are, by contrast, ones that bring new money into the local economy. People in smaller centres either sell fish on the world market, work in mining, oil & gas which also exports to the world economy or commute to oil& gas jobs in places like Alberta, again bringing new money in to the province. Simply put, outport dollars are net contributors, not money recyclers. As such the people who live there deserve some sort of break.
Second, those in a position to do something about it (senior provincial and federal government officials and senior management at the ISPs) generally do not fully comprehend the real problem. Their blackberries work—that is they deliver voice and email—so the holders assume that all is, in fact, good enough. What’s more, the majority of them rarely, if ever, spend significant time in the communities where the problem exists. Here’s what they do not see: (a) just because you can get email does not mean that you have decent Internet—after all, you can get email over low-speed dialup (b) they’re not playing the right game anyway. Internet is not about downloading. Can I say that again? Internet is not about downloading.
Just the other day I had a conversation with a friend who is fairly influential and knowledgeable. (To my former colleagues—no this is not any of you nor is it about any of you.) (S)he said that things were looking up and that many of the more challenging schools and businesses would soon be guaranteed 5 megs (5 MBps)
I almost fell back. My cellphone gets around 50 megs on a bad day! My house has a 70 meg fibre line running into it and I often find it slow. There’s no way that 5 lousy megs can do what a school needs to be doing in this century.
It’s not about downloading. Get out of 1993! Sure, back then, people dialed in, downloaded their email and “surfed the web.” In both cases, here’s how that happened: the browser sent out a few small data packets containing your IP address and the URL of the “page” you wanted. It want to your ISPs centre where first the URL was looked-up and matched with its IP address and then it was routed (via a few hops; routers pass the packets along until they get to the right place) to the serving address. There, the server read your packets and assembled a few packets containing its IP, your IP and the data that comprised the page you wanted and then sent them back the same way. Simply put: you initiated a tiny burst of data packets and the server responded with another short burst. That was it. The two bursts only took a short time—sort of like automatic gunfire; you fired a couple of rounds and the opponent fired a few back. The majority—the VAST majority—of the time was silence. Yes you were connected for an hour or so but for the most of the time your computer would just periodically say “I’m still here” and the ISP’s server would respond “acknowledged.”
That’s not how it is now. When people connect now they have multiple channels open: Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, Pinterest, one or two online stores, a game or two and some sort of video-conference (Skype or Hangouts, maybe); probably multiple windows. It’s no longer a few bursts of packets. It’s more like a huge spray from a fire hose; a constant HUGE stream of data packets going to multiple destinations, both upstream and downstream.
And that’s just one user.
Look at the school situation. Ideally every single student is connected in this way all of the time. Perhaps it’s on a PC but it’s much more likely to be on multiple machines at the same time. The student is on a laptop but there’s also a cellphone or tablet nearby. At lunch time you can be sure that those devices will be joined by a slew of gaming machines (Sony PS/P and PS Vitas, Nintendo DSs, 3DSs and such) too.
And the oft-stated response? Either “They should not be doing that anyway,” or “There’s nothing we can do.”
Let’s be clear: this is not going away nor will it get any better. Students will not magically slack back on using digital equipment just because somebody says they should. Some—the rich ones—may find other ways: huge data plans, home based satellite systems and such. The less-well-off will, one supposes, be expected to just continue to exist in some decision-makers idea of how the Internet should be, namely the way in was in the 1990s when things were simply something else.
And that’s the way it is in my home province, a safe, secure and relatively prosperous place. I can only imagine how it is elsewhere.
So what should be done? Sadly, there is no simple solution. That’s fine, though, we should expect that complex problems should have equally complex solutions. A combination of these should help:
- Smaller communities should band together, combine financial resources, hire consultants and apply for the provincial and federal grants that are available. They do exist at both levels but are not really utilized to the fullest potential. Both provincial and federal governments do have money available that can be used to upgrade local digital infrastructure.
- As citizens we should continue to lobby politicians at all levels. While support is available it is still insufficient, especially for those in the most isolated regions such as Newfoundland’s south coast, and Northern Peninsula and most of Labrador.
- Individuals should make themselves aware of other options that also exist. Perhaps it’s not possible to string fibre throughout a small community right now but if a single high-speed line could be brought in, perhaps a community-based Wi-Fi could be set up as a stop-gap until a full community build is feasible.
- Finally, it’s high time that some of the larger providers and their shareholders stopped sanding all of the money away to the Caymans and, instead put some of it back to the communities from which it came.
As we roll further and further into the 21st Century we are becoming increasingly dependent on broadband services. The Internet is not an add-on, but, rather a vital part of everyday life, especially for our young people. Serious challenges posed by geography need to be met head-on with thoughtful deliberate efforts that balance equity with economy. Failure to do this will, in the end spell the death of the productive aspects of rural living. People will, in general, not settle for less than adequate connectivity and will, instead, choose to take their skills along with their social and economic contributions elsewhere.
Colloquially, we say, “people sometimes approach it arse-foremost.”
Shortly after iPads were introduced to the market it began: people from all over k-12 started writing proposals to raise money so they could purchase them for their classrooms. Just before that it’s was Interactive White Boards (IWBs). They were it seems the next best thing…at the time at least. About ten years prior to this people were going wild putting Palm handhelds in classrooms. Laptop projects: yes, we’ve seen quite a few of those come, and go. More examples could be listed but you probably get the idea.
Have you ever seem a horse-and-buggy setup that placed the cart in front so that it would be the thing that moved the horse around? Of course not! Everyone knows you do not put the cart before the horse! Why, then, does this blindingly obvious truth not apply to education? Why is it that people get caught up on the rapture associated with the use of shiny electronic toys and devise project after project in which they purchase a slew of them and then foist them off on the classroom without thought of what really is supposed to be happening?
How about this:
- The companies that make the devices market them very hard to education, knowing the large potential sales volume that could result. They therefore make it so that a body of evidence exists to justify the purchase. Research? It is incredibly easy to devise a situation that looks good enough. Here’s an example: Pick a bunch of students from a school in a reasonably well-off neighbourhood. Test them in some given domain, say, “the ability to do operations with fractions.” Supply them with the equipment you want to market and then subject them to an intensive treatment using it, along with a well-trained and motivated teacher. Subject them, along with classmates at another school who did not have the equipment to a post test. Of course they first group will do better, primarily because of the hype, interest and enthusiasm that has been expended. Nobody needs to know that, though. The one thing that’s obviously different is the presence of the equipment so attribute all of the difference to it. Bang! Research that “proves” the worthiness of the new equipment.
- The classroom can be a frustrating place in which to work. Teaching and learning and very difficult to do well and the rewards for both are pretty intangible for the majority of teachers and students. Face it—both are expected to do their jobs well so there’ll be no trophies, no parties and no bonuses when the job is done. Couple this with the fact that budgets are tight and the result can be somewhat humdrum when you think about it. Day after day of hard work with little to show for it at the end except (for students) the possibility of maybe achieving grades a bit better than their parents expect and (for teachers) nothing more than relief that, hopefully, the students don’t perform below the district mean and, therefore, they don’t face the accusatory finger of blame from disgruntled parents/guardians, school/district administrators, politicians and local media. So, then, into this environment comes the promise of something better: a shiny gadget that, if put in place not only offers hope of better achievement but, maybe because students actually want to use it, the promise of relief from the daily grind.
Small wonder, then, that the system falls, time after time, into the clutches of “The Rapture,” the worship of “exciting” new equipment for its own sake.
It’s such a waste of resources—all of them, time, energy and, most importantly, effort put in the right direction. Here’s an example of how anyone could make themselves—and their school—look really good while, in the end, achieving nothing. Let’s say I am a bored math teacher, in need of a new challenge. One day I spy, in a shop window, a fancy new gizmo. For the sake of argument, let’s not pick on any existing device. How about a pair of spectacles that, when worn, will layer everything in front of you with extra information? If, for example, you are looking at a restaurant, then you will see the menu. If you are looking at a map, you’ll see extra information about whatever part of it you happen to be focused on at the moment.
Suppose that I decide to write an application that pops up a set of math tools whenever you look at a mathematical sentence, whether it is an open expression, a function, or an equation, whatever. If you look at an equation, for example, it will offer tools with which you can solve it numerically, graphically and, maybe symbolically. There’s just one catch—the app I designed doesn’t actually show you how it’s done, it just does it for you. Look at an equation, pick “solve” then pick from “graphical”, “symbolic” or “numeric” and—BOOM—there it is.
Now, armed with this app I go after my administrator and convince her/him that I’m on to something big; something that will change not only how math is taught but also how it is done. In turn we go after the district admin, then the department of education people. In the end I carve off for myself a nice piece of money to develop a product I can sell to make even more. I also get lots of time to play around with the toy in my class, to cavort in front of the media (along with the big shots of course) to show them how innovative my—sorry, “our”—school is.
This, in turn creates something of an expectation. In light of the great things that are evidently happening at “our” school an expectation starts to grow that this is something that needs to happen everywhere and others start to feel pressure to join in the movement. Of course it’s unlikely that anyone will figure it out at the time. The students are not really doing or learning math. They are just messing around with a cool little interface to some clever math tools when they should be learning about the underlying theory and practice that made those tools work in the first place.
Now, lest this post be perceived as entirely too cynical, let’s make two things perfectly clear. First, though the case presented may be interpreted as casting teaching in a negative light, understand that this is by no means describes mainstream activity. Typical teachers are not the type to willfully deceive others. While some enter the teaching force perhaps little like this—you know, the self-aggrandizing types who seek nothing other than to be worshiped by their colleagues and students, the fact remains that these types do not last. Teaching is a tough job, suited only to those with resilient, healthy personalities and the self-centered “look at me” types soon depart. In the end, the more-or-less nonsensical projects and movements, too, are similarly weeded out as the vast majority of teachers, who are focused on real results will put them to an honest test, and on finding them useless, will subsequently deposit these flawed devices and associated practices on the technological scrap heap, along with a lot of other useless garbage that has gathered there over the years. In the meantime, though, some damage is done, in the form of wasted time and resources.
Second it has to be emphasized that it does not have to be that way at all. Many devices, including the ones mentioned not-too-kindly just above are, in fact, truly useful. The thing is, though, it cannot be about the devices. Instead, it has to be about the learning. In particular it has to be based on how we can somehow improve the system from where it currently is. Without doubt things like tablets, IWBs and yes, devices like the magic spectacles lampooned above can be put to good use in a learning setting. But the learning must come first. Here’s the way it should work:
- Think about just what it is you wish to improve. Be as specific as you can.
- Look at the current system whereby the current outcomes are attained.
- Collaboratively plan for a better approach. Now is the time to look, with eyes wide-open, at all available technologies because they are out there.
- Test it out then make the changes that become obvious through the piloting process.
- Pass it on to everyone else; implement it.
And while doing this, bear in mind that the “it” in question is not just a device. It is, rather the combination of the device as well and the theory and practice related to its best use.
After all, what we are about is the achievement of outcomes. The technology (most of the time—there are exceptions) is a means to an end, not necessarily and end in itself.
Next: The (not so) connected world
Are you a fan of Pixar movies? I am (except for “Cars”). One of my favourites was “Finding Nemo” a story of a journey home. Along the way, the main character is accompanied by his friend “Dory” a friendly Paracanthurus Hepatus, whose primary character trait, it seems, is that of an extremely short memory.
Last August I retired from the k-12 public school system in my province. Along with personal belongings I left, not only with skills learned through long practice but, more importantly, with the only complete set of memories of the entire k-12 distance education program. Of course that’s not unusual. After all everyone retires at some point, and with all of them goes a piece of the overall history of the various organizations they have belonged to.
While that’s not necessarily a big problem, it can be, especially when you consider all of the decisions that have been made along the way. Each one received the proper amount of diligence and that has meant that, over time, a reasonably cogent set of guidelines and theory has been built up. In short, “oldsters” have a good idea of what to do and how to do it. They also have a good idea of what not to do. But, now it’s to no avail as they’re no longer around to lend a hand where they can.
So what? People move in, out of, and through organizations all the time and, on balance (a) the ability to intelligently match skills with jobs and (b) the spread of new and innovative ideas that results from this far outweighs the small losses that occur with the departure of a colleague. That said, this concern, which we can term “digital amnesia” still is something to be considered. Valuable employees possess not only the skills needed in the moment, but, more importantly, a clearer sense of purpose. This broader vision tends to keep the organization on the best track and, more importantly away from the small pitfalls and dead ends because, in all likelihood, they’ve experienced them before.
Perhaps, with that in mind, it is a useful suggestion for eLearning institutions to follow the lead of others and maybe establish a volunteer panel of advisers of all ages who can meet—virtually, of course—periodically and offer whatever wisdom and advice that may be needed at the time.
Next: technology–the rapture.
There are those who seek to define; to “make sense of things” by clearly delineating what they do, and more importantly, what they do not. For them, control brings comfort. Then, on the other hand, there are those who approach life with both eyes wide open, always looking for new opportunities; new ways of doing things. For them the excitement of growth trumps comfort any day.
When it comes to leaders, neither type is exactly desirable, especially when taken to extremes. Who, after all, wants either a control freak or an impulsive child to be in charge? Fortunately it is rare (and generally disastrous) when an impulsive child gets to be in charge, now, control freaks are another matter, and they come in varying degrees. The moderates tend to do well in this world, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
How often have you been faced with an issue that a similar agency could help out with only to be told by either your own administration or that of the other agency that they could not help, even though both were being funded by the same body (often the taxpayers)? It’s bad enough when you know the inability is due to some lack of resources. You can accept that the other party is at capacity and, despite the fact that they have the expertise or equipment they simply cannot spare the use of it or the personnel. That’s fine. What really grinds you, though, is when you know that the lack of help is because either (a) their administration did not want to see your organization advance or, worse, (b) your own administration did not want to ask for help either because they would be under compliment to the other or because the decision makers, personally, would feel somehow weak.
What a waste! To have the resources available—elsewhere—and not draw upon them is not just wasteful but, perhaps, almost criminal as it results in either needed work being left undone or, perhaps, needless duplication of capacity.
Is this just an academic argument? Ask yourselves this about other organizations also funded by the same body as yours, specifically the public purse in your province, state or country—whatever funds your level of education:
- Is there a particular piece of equipment already in existence that is not already at full capacity? A network storage device? A video switcher? An editing suite? Large-format printers? Vehicles?
- Is there a surplus of physical infrastructure not at full capacity? Unused office space? Meeting, teaching or conference space?
This is not to say that we should all be prepared to turn into overbearing white knights, eager to fight not just our own battles but also those of others. Nor is it to say that we should all take it upon ourselves to write our own mission statements, to decide unilaterally just what it is we should take on regardless of what the stakeholders and bill payers say.
But we should remind ourselves that one of the responsibilities that comes with calling ourselves professionals is the requirement to render sound judgments regarding the things that are not addressed specifically in “the manual.” Every now and then the opportunity arises when we can assist other organizations whose mission and values, and most importantly capacities, sometimes align with ours. When those times occur perhaps we should consider it wise to lend a helping hand. It’s not just about reciprocity, although that’s certainly a consideration. It is, rather, about being more attuned to the big picture and recognizing situations in which synergies created by partnering organizations can radically increase the extent to which they effect needed change to the betterment of all.
And not being controlling, lazy, dull and stingy.
In a previous career I was an administrator with the K-12 Distance Education System in my province (NL, CA). You can read about that if you like; the blog page “Rendering Distance Transparent” is devoted to it. In that role I would often be contacted by irate parents who did not want their child “taught by a computer.” In each and every case I would speak to the people and would explain just how the system worked, how students were taught, what resources and supports were available and, finally what the expectations were. Guess what: in every case we parted on a good note. Once the parents understood how it worked and saw for themselves how things went on they were satisfied.
It’s not always like that with the use of technology in education and primarily because either (a) the proponent did not do an adequate job of explaining the items noted above or (b) a stakeholder (parent/guardian, student, teacher or administrator) closed her/his mind to the whole idea.
Have you ever heard any of the stories that try to explain the “Luddite” movement? There are various myths and, as far as I know, none are truly authoritative but my personal favourite is that in England, around the time that revolutionary developments in mechanization transformed the garment industry there was a social backlash from those negatively affected; that is those skilled workers who were now redundant. The story goes that a young lad—Ned Lud—organized a violent resistance against the movement. His followers—the luddites—would forcibly enter factories and wreck the machines.
It was, in the end, to no avail. The new technology produced far more cloth and, to a consistently decent quality. Most importantly it was cheaper and the financiers behind it found ready markets that permitted tremendous expansion. In time, this became the accepted way, despite the protests from those whose skills, traditions and livelihood were no longer needed on the same scale.
(As an aside, the whole popular account of the Luddite affair, including mine, is rather mis-represented. If you are interested, a decent story can be found here.)
And this brings us to the next two considerations.
The first is this: from time to time new technology—and this means all the components: devices, methods and theory—emerge and it becomes apparent that they do tasks in ways that are far superior to the ways in which they were done previously. In their time chaulkboards and hand-held slates were amazing. They were cheap, relatively safe—as long as you didn’t mind the dust in your lungs, hair & clothing—and effective. Now, though, with IWBs and with computer-projection screens, why bother? In fact, once you put a tablet in every hand, perhaps the big screen isn’t needed at all (I don’t believe this; group activities are fun and effective.). Fight it if you want, but in the end the new way is better.
The second is this: People will resist change, even when it is demonstrably better. Recall the few notes on Kuhn and Revolutionary science for a minute. This resistance to new ideas is not necessarily rational. It is, rather, rooted in a deep level of acceptance of, and dependence on, a pre-existing technology. The old-guard spent a lifetime becoming very adept at doing “it” a particular way and now new technology has not only changed the way of doing “it” but, perhaps just as important, the nature of “it” has changed. The old guard does not see the value for them in going through all the work involved in making the new change. They have to learn now skills, and don’t forget for a minute that they were expert at the old ones. What’s more, after a lifetime of making perfect sense of something, they must tear down the previous, and very strong, cognitive frameworks that supported the original concepts and build anew. For them, that rebuilding will take too much time and will likely never achieve the strength of the old one. They have judged, probably correctly, that it’s not worth the effort.
So they respond in the same way we all do. Recall the old story of the fox and the grapes? After trying and trying to reach the perfectly tasty grapes he finally had to give up. As he walked away, recall that he said, “No bother. They’re sour anyway.”
Now STOP for a second. Please.
Just revisit what the fox said. It’s far more profound than you probably realize. Not only did the fox say the grapes were sour, but after a short time he also believed they were. The story is not just about a low-bred creature responding in a dumbass way. No. It’s about a perfectly normal creature, and that includes human creatures, responding in a perfectly normal way. When we are forced to do something or forcibly prevented from doing something, in time we come to accept the turn of events as the right thing. It’s human nature.
Ok so back to the “old guard” for a second. Whenever skilled practitioners are faced with a change they rationally conclude is not feasible for them they quickly put in place a solid justification as to why the course of action they chose is the right one. Unfortunately, by extension, they then often persuade themselves that that same course of action is also the right one for everyone else and that’s where things get ugly. This is not about the welcome resistance against something that is not necessarily a good idea. That is welcome. Whenever a new ideas comes in, people should perform an honest evaluation as there’s always a real, and quite high, probability that the next big thing is, in fact, a stupid sham being foisted upon, a public deemed by the proponent to be either too stupid or docile to resist. Yes, resistance is often a good thing but this is not about that. This is, rather, about the blind, stubborn resistance to change in spite of god evidence that change is needed. We, as practitioners face both items daily, good and bad change, but what’s perhaps most frustrating is being led around by some who refuse to accept change even when it’s obviously for the better.
So what do we do about it? If you are expecting a neat, magic bullet, style of answer, I’m afraid you are about to be disappointed. Those resistant to change are not likely to do so easily in spite of the evidence, so don’t expect a logical rationalization to work. Expect, rather, for many to remain as they are. Some will not budge, no matter what and the best any of us can do is help them as best we can, within the limits they let us have. Still others may change a bit with time, especially when they see valued colleagues reaping benefits so perhaps that’s the best strategy of all: work with those who are open to it.
In the meantime, the best advice for all is to maintain an open mind. Some change is good and some is not but wise actions can generally be divined from logical, reasoned discourse.