Online Learning: Some Advice from the Alumni

NL has a long history of success with k-12 online learning. Much has been learned along the way. We are not starting from scratch. With that in mind some of the “CDLI Online Learning Alumni” gathered virtually and put together a few words of advice to our colleagues who are working hard to adapt.

Asking Better Questions: Ends and Means in eLearning

In a previous post I considered the possibility that much of what is presented as “Innovation” is anything but that. With access to some fairly new and attractive or otherwise popular products and armed with even a slight grasp of how to operate them it’s relatively easy to create an appearance of innovation. Simply put, if you can get your hands on some new gear, in even a short while you can present quite a convincing front.

Worse again, it is equally easy to generate what passes for proof; to an untrained eye you can make it look like your so-called innovation is creating some real differences. Any of these strategies can give you reams of what looks like convincing evidence:

  • Deliberately pick enthusiastic students or teachers and pile on the anecdotes that endorse the desired point of view. People who rely on system-one (more or less intuitive) reasoning are easily swayed by stories so it won’t be hard to capitalize on that to get some people talking about how innovative the project is.
  • Stage the project in a relatively well-off school or class and then compare the results from this highly-biased “treatment” group to the population in general. Very few will dig deep enough to see that the superior achievement results predated, and were independent of, the treatment.
  • Rely on manufacturer or vendor supplied “research” when crafting reports, proposals and press releases.
  • Bluff; just preface your claims with clauses like “decades of research shows…” and leave it at that. You might be surprised to see how few—if anyone—will call you out. Besides it will be relatively easy to portray those that do as kooks or curmudgeons.

That said, you could instead opt to take the more difficult path and strive for some real gains.

Notwithstanding the cynical tone of the opening of this post, it needs to be emphasized that emerging technologies should be welcomed, albeit guardedly, in all places of learning. I’ve come by this knowledge the hard way with ample personal experience in doing it both the right AND the wrong way. Lessons learned well generally involve first-hand experience and I have it, having done things for both the right and the wrong reasons–but generally having benefited from the experience in either case. It can be summed up succinctly: it’s best when you develop and refine an appropriate match between the technologies and the desired learning outcomes. This means, in particular, to start with the right sort of question:

  • Bad Question: How can (insert gadget name here) be used in the (insert subject name) classroom?
  • Better Question: What combination of equipment and methodology will foster better achievement in (insert subject name/outcome area)?

Notice the difference? Instead of placing the focus on the tools, place it on the learning.

right-questions-01

You might say that, in the end, the two are the same. Yes, in both cases the goal is to do a better job. Take a closer look, though. Notice that the bad question is, in fact all wrong. First, by selecting a particular device it sets serious limits on what can be done. This can even lead to the selection of inferior methods. Consider this: A teacher wants to see if physics achievement can be improved through the use of tablets in the class after noticing that there are some good simulations available and asks, “how can I use tablets in the classroom?” With the best of intentions the approach is changed, replacing hands on activities with simulations. Now, while simulations are an excellent way to introduce topics, especially ones that cannot be done cheaply or safely, it makes little sense, when you think about it, to replace hands on activities involving motion, sound, electricity and light with simulations in which the only physical interaction is sliding a finger along a glass screen! After all, physics is all about interacting with the physical world! How ironic! If, instead the right question had been asked, no doubt the simulations would have been used but their use would have been balanced with follow up real-world interactions.

Second, the selection of a particular device sets in place a condition in which demonstrable improvements are expected. That’s nice, but what if it’s the case that the new technology is in fact inferior? You might suggest, “no problem, the report will show this.” Think about it, though, and be careful to layer in some human nature.

Consider again the previous case involving tablets and physics. Suppose that the unit of study was about current electricity and the tablets were used to explore the topic through simulations in which students constructed virtual circuits involving batteries, resistors, lamps, switches and meters to measure voltage and current instead of doing the same with the real thing. At the end of the unit the evaluation would be based on what could be measured, either online or using pencil and paper, and NOT on actually constructing the circuits.

How likely would it be that students would be able to do the same with real circuits? Not likely.

How likely is it that they would do about the same on a test? Very likely.

What’s the difference? In which class would it be more likely that you would find someone who could help you wire your basement? If, on the other hand, the right question had been asked, again, in all likelihood the simulations would have been utilized but their user would be balanced, blended with hands-on activities too.

Focusing instead on the learning will have two likely outcomes:

  • You will likely not get famous as “it’s” clearly about learning and not about you.
  • The project will show modest but useful results.

Whenever embarking on any effort to improve results in education it’s important to bear in mind one simple truth: you are not starting from scratch. The “traditional” methods that self-nominated reformers (most of whom have only limited classroom experience, other than the imagined stuff) so love to mock are in fact reasonably effective. The huge majority of people–those who’ve not been the beneficiaries of their enlightened practice but who have still managed to thrive nonetheless bear testament to that. Existing methods are, perhaps, not as good as they could be but are still nonetheless effective. Reformers should bear in mind that the traditional methods they so distain have several important advantages over proposed new ones. First, they are understood since, in all likelihood, existing practitioners not only use them now but will likely have been taught using them. More importantly, though, traditional methods have been refined from extensive classroom use. Proposed methods, by contrast are not well understood, raw and untested.

Far too often reformers boldly charge into classrooms armed with little more than vague ideas, shiny new equipment and an unhealthy combination of ignorance and arrogance. Students, parents, colleagues and administrators generally tolerate the ensuing activity since (a) it probably doesn’t interfere with them too much and (b) there is always the chance that some good might come of it. The proponent will usually get a little something—a write up in a journal, perhaps a trip to a conference, maybe even an award—but in the end the students will likely be left no better off and the effect on general classroom practice will be negligible.

It does not need to be that way, though. If, instead, the proponents asked the right question, one that focused on making some real improvement in student learning, then wins would be had all around. That is, better teaching and learning would result and, who knows, maybe the innovator’s career would get a boost anyway.

Managing the Distractions

I came across something like this “unhelpful high school teacher” meme the other day and it got me thinking about the distracted landscape our students occupy.

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All too often the opinions you encounter on the web and in other parts of everyday life are one-sided; normally the work of someone with an axe to grind; someone wishing to provide just one side of a rather complicated issue and this is no exception. There are very valid reasons why educators have to be skeptical about the unrestricted use of electronic devices such as laptops and tablets in class.

In my previous job my office was located on campus at a fairly large university. It gave ample opportunity to view the electronic habits of typical students and was a never-ending source of amazement—both the good and the bad kinds.

One incident in particular stands out. I wished to confer briefly with a colleague who was, at the time, teaching a large class (around 160+ senior education students) in one of two large lecture theatres located in the basement of the building we both inhabited. I decided to just head over to the class and chat with him before it started. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I was briefly distracted, and, by the time I arrived at the door the class had already started. Out of curiosity I looked in. My vantage point was from the centre back and, as the lecture theatre slopes toward the front, I had an excellent view of exactly what the students were doing.

Almost all of them had either a laptop or a tablet device open and active. What was interesting was the fact that the majority of the students were not just taking notes on the machines but also had a web browser open. Well over half of the students would periodically switch from the note taking application (typically a word processor) to the browser. The browsers had the usual suspects, of course (Facebook, Twitter and other social media applications) but a surprising number of students were also shopping online during class time. I’d estimate now that somewhere between 10 and 20 of the approximately 150 students were doing this! Only a very small fraction—I’d estimate now around 20 to 25%–seemed to be totally focused on the lecture; at least as evidenced by their keeping the notes application open throughout the five minutes or so I was watching.

meme-buzz-woody-01

I recall the moment quite well as it was one of those times when something became quite clear to me; a time that has sparked a considerable number of subsequent informal observations. Right then and there I decided to also take a look at the other lecture theatre. This one had a 2nd semester calculus class going on and, unlike the former one, was one in which electronic devices were not that well suited to taking notes (unless, of course, you had a touch screen or some stylus such as a Wacom device in which you could render back handwriting. After all, typing calculus notes is not something anyone can do on the fly!). Guess what? Same thing! Once again I saw a sea of laptops and tablets. Not quite so many, of course—I’d estimate around 50% of the students had them open as opposed to over 90% as was the case in the education class. Once again, though, the screens were dominated by not just social media but also online shopping!

Just a thought—maybe someone should run their own set of observations and verify this. At any rate, this short anecdote lends a bit (yes, I know “piling on the anecdotes” is a very flawed form of research) of credibility to the notion that we all have of how distracted our students really are.

meme-spock

Which brings us to the point: as educators it is in our best interests, and those of our students, if we find effective ways of managing the many distractions that electronic gadgets bring to our classrooms. While it is certainly true that electronic devices hold incredible promise for all aspects of education it must also be acknowledged that the devices are equally effective at pulling students away from the tasks that should be at hand. The same conduit that brings research, information and activities right to the students’ foregrounds is equally adept at bringing in distractions such as off-topic interactions, irrelevant information and other distractions, particularly games that have nothing to do with learning.

Blocking unrelated content is a strategy that will never work. Go ahead and block Facebook at the Wi-Fi router. The students will hardly be slowed at all. Some will switch back to getting it through their phones, which you cannot block. Others will switch to a different social media platform—new ones pop up almost weekly, and still others will just connect through a proxy server which will just circumvent the router and firewall rules. It’s a losing game of cat and mouse.

Blocking the use of electronic devices is equally counterproductive. First of all, it drags instruction back to the 19th century—and we cannot afford to do that. More importantly, though, the whole practice of “blocking” or “banning” is anathema to the whole idea of schools as places of learning.

So what, then? What is the magic bullet? As expected, because it’s nearly always the case, there is no one simple solution. There are, however general strategies that can be applied and which will be found effective. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make a personal contact with the students: When students turn to the web browser they are turning away from you, the instructor. The less personal you are to the students the more they will do this.
  • Communicate your values clearly: Typically around 80% of people will respect your wishes so make sure they know what your wishes are. Make it clear to the students that you do value the use of electronic equipment but that they must also make the best use of their class time. To do this they should minimize distractions and, in particular, save the social networking and shopping for some other time. It’s also worth noting that of the remaining 20%, around three-quarters of them can be convinced to follow along too especially if you ensure that you move around the room to make it apparent that you are checking to see If students are engaged. It should also be noted that the small remainder—around 5% of the total—will do what they please regardless of what you do and you would be well advised that this small group may be regarded as “beyond the point of diminishing returns” so long as they do not distract others with their off-topic pursuits.
  • Find ways to leverage the potentially-distracting technology: You can always find ways to put the devices to some good use. Examples include: (1) getting the students to install “clicker” applications and build in “instant response” activities to your classes (2) provide electronic versions of partial notes (sometimes referred to as “gap notes”) that the students can complete online if they have annotation software (3) make effective use of simulations in class time if appropriate (4) use appropriate application software for in-class activities.

meme-what-if-told-u

Four Forms of Innovation

The word Innovation is one that is tossed around so much that it’s lost much of its impact. In some ways it’s like “awesome,” isn’t it? Once awesome meant something that literally took your breath away. These days it’s just a tired expression of assent; something that is deemed awesome is more likely just socially acceptable. Similarly, in a world where corporate press releases are grinded out in volumes that rival unit sales neither “innovation” nor “innovative” catch the readers’ attention much.

Add to that the point, already made, that scant few resources exist, whether in the form of HR or money, to engage in the various activities that one might immediately recognize as innovative. Besides in today’s busy, distracted world it’s often hard to spot it when it does occur.

That’s not to say it does not exist—it’s just generally buried under mounds of impressive looking but essentially shallow efforts. A recent journey to the Unemployed Philosopher’s blog reminded me that most of the important work happens far away from fanfare. Day after day, professionals of all kinds, including educators, toil away developing the small but significant things that make practice just a bit better. It is a shame, really. Much of the attention is given to things that appear significant but are really not once you take the time to peer beneath the surface; stuff designed to grab the attention and maybe further some goal, just not the goals one would associate with positive change for all. Sure it may look and sound great but in the end, you’re often left with the professional equivalent of election promises. The real innovations often lie elsewhere, often buried among the many other details that take up our days. They do, nonetheless exist and can be seen if you look hard enough, in one of these four forms.

1. Structured Engineering: The kinds of planned changes that take place in a more-or-less orderly fashion. You have identified a problem to be solved, planned a solution that involves more-or-less standardized equipment & procedures then will implement and test a solution.

For example, suppose you develop an online visual art course. You will carry out a procedure roughly like this:

  • review with the curriculum guide and outline the general instructional strategies, including the method by which they will be developed or acquired;
  • assemble the development and implementation team; formulate the overall plan;
  • select and assemble a system of effective tools and methods by which you will carry out the plan;
  • field test the course and revise as necessary.

Pros:

  • Good fit between need and response.
  • Robust system once implemented.

Cons:

  • Significant up-front cost.
  • Often significant resistance to system-wide change and adaptation.
  • Possibility of large scale failure if wrong choices are made.

2. Structured Deepening: This involves extending an existing system in a purposeful way. As an example, perhaps you chose to modify the aforementioned system by which you are teaching visual art so that you can now teach music online too.

Pros:

  • Significantly less costly than starting from scratch.
  • Less likelihood of large-scale failure.

Cons:

  • Less than optimal fit between need and response since you are modifying an existing system rather than building one to meet specifications.

3. Radically novel: Every so often completely new approaches are developed. It can be argued that before “Star Trek: The Next Generation” nobody thought very seriously about the use of multipurpose digital tablets such as Apple’s iPad or Google’s Nexus Tablet. Now, however these multipurpose devices are changing the way people interact with the Internet, with audio and video and, most importantly, with one another.

Pros:

  • Often based on new devices; carries a shink & new “wow” sense of interest;

Cons:

  • Teaching and Learning sometimes becomes a secondary activity;
  • New devices often lack institutional tech support and have a short lifespan.

4. Entirely new bodies of knowledge and practice: Radically new devices lead, in turn, to entirely new ways of doing things. Consider English Language Arts. In the pre-digital age the focus was on reading, writing, listening and speaking. Now, with so many modes by which we can communicate an additional focus—Representing—is becoming very important. The mobile devices, mentioned above, are also changing the way we interact. Who knows what’s coming!

Pros:

  • Generally a good fit for those who have had the benefit of the events that led to the new development.
  • Often well-suited to the time and place in which they occur; “ products of their times.”

Cons:

  • Often adopted by evangelicals who assume (incorrectly) that the new way is the best way for all.

Through it all, though, it remains as important as ever to maintain a focus on teaching and learning. While the new devices and methods are exciting, if the end result is not a strategically significant improvement in an identified area of concern in education, most notably increased achievement or cost savings, then the innovation is pointless.

Structured Integration vs. Cost Savings

How many times do you see “cost saving” being touted as a reason for increased use of educational technology, and most especially distance education? Time and again you will see the adoption of new technology being explained away as cost savings. All you can really do, most of the time, is roll your eyes as you know, beyond doubt, that one of two things will happen. Either (1-not bad) the new technology will wind up costing somewhat more than budgeted—owing to the training costs and other unanticipated costs associated with the adoption and integration process or (2-BAD) it will eventually be abandoned and left to lie, mostly unused, right next to all of the other money wasters that have been purchased through the years.

This does not need to be the case. Properly done, new technologies can be more effective and cheaper; just not that much cheaper. Look around at the cellphones, fuel-injected engines, “green” heating systems and such that have made our lives that much better. The same can happen in our classrooms too but we need to take a much longer view of what comprises cost saving and just plain get over the fool’s quest for that elusive magic bullet.

Cost saving should not be NOT the slashing of departmental budgets and subsequent placement of course notes online just so deficits can be handled in the short term. (Although, admittedly, here in the real world that does have to happen from time to time regardless of how high-minded we would like to be.)That helps nobody as the result will only be a degradation of services, followed by corresponding loss in enrolment. Cost savings might be better framed as the deliberate employment of suitable technologies so that, over time, better outcomes can be achieved at lower cost.

Examples include:

  • Joining classes at separate campuses or schools using videoconference or, even better, a combination of videoconferencing and web conferencing such that smaller student cohorts can be aggregated. In those instances, though, care must be taken such that the host site or the instructor site does not become the “main” site with the remote ones getting the scraps from the educational table.
  • The replacement of non-interactive lectures with series of multimedia-based presentations, preferably with interactive components, such as embedded quizzes or simulations.
  • The gradual replacement of some media types with others but only after a piloting process which (a) shows the worth of the new technology and (b) refines the methodology before full deployment. For example, it may be feasible to replace the printed materials used in a course with online versions, perhaps multimedia or eBooks.

How often has it happened—a new device and its associated procedures shows up unannounced? Perhaps it’s a new set of chromebooks, maybe its clickers, a handheld computer algebra system or a new, shiny, computer numerical control (CNC) machine for the shop class. Whatever. In it comes and with it comes a feeling that you are expected, all of a sudden, to just change everything.

Before proceeding too far it needs to be said that the expectation that you need to change right away if often imagined. It’s been my experience that those responsible for high level decisions do tend to also have a healthy sense of what everyone is up against. After all, the funding that permits that sort of upgrade, itself takes years to put together. The problem is that the expectations that led to the upgrade are often not well understood by those who are expected to implement the change; there’s often a disconnect. Nonetheless, those on the front lines tend to be confronted by a somewhat intimidating set of equipment and feel a corresponding sense of stress on account of what they know needs to happen.

Of course that is just a bit silly. Change does not happen that way. Yes, we are all intelligent and capable of change but none of us is foolish enough to react to every new thing that comes our way, whether invited or not. The change and integration process happens in stages. Assuming that the technology is not another blind alley (and they do happen) it usually plays out something like this:

  1. Familiarization: You have to learn how the equipment works at the most basic level. What’s it for? What do the controls/menus do? What options do you have? In situations like this it’s good to have access to an expert. A demo followed by hands-on activities can be quite useful at this stage.
  2. Utilization: You have to become comfortable with using it. It’s not enough to know what each component does but you have to become adept in its use. Nobody wants to make clumsy or false moves in front of an audience so you need time to practice. If, for example, the device in question is a handheld computer algebra device then use it for your own purposes for a semester or so before even attempting to build lessons around it. If it’s an IWB then you need to take some time to engage in unstructured use—play—with the device in a non-threatening environment. Just close the classroom door and fly solo or, better still, gather a small posse of like-minded colleagues and have a collaborative session.
  3. Integration: Bit by bit you make the use of the technology a part of the natural routine. While you can bring it in all at once it’s much less stressful to layer its use in here and there. If, for example the device is an IWB, instead of ditching your existing lesson plans, try instead to catch the low hanging fruit; that is to redo some of the lessons than lend themselves best to an IWB approach. If it works well, try another and so on.
  4. Reorientation: In time you may find that the “new” equipment and associated methodology becomes your standard approach. That set of chromebooks that you used to despise may, in time, become treasured additions to your classroom; perhaps even indispensable. This will not happen overnight and the stages are likely measured best in semesters, maybe even years.
  5.   Evolution: With new standards come new horizons. You may find unexpected applications of the once-unfamiliar technology. Perhaps you even spot yet another—and for now unfamiliar—set of methodologies that bears promise.

Of course equipment will still arrive unexpectedly and instructors will, to some extent, have to sort it out as best they can. The best advice is to realize that regardless of what else happens the integration process will come in stages, so act accordingly.

Learning Resources: Where’s the REAL Commons?

Have you ever wondered why, over thirty years after personal computers became affordable, and over twenty years after the widespread adoption of the Internet, digital technologies have still not reached their full potential? There are some generally good reasons why this is so and it’s not primarily due to resistance to change. Let’s examine a typical course.

The Setting

Consider a reasonably popular and somewhat universal course of study: First-year University Physics. This course is taken by students primarily interested in pursuing careers for which a knowledge of that discipline is a necessity—all jokes aside, that is it is manly a course people take because they need to. It is a gateway to a career in oil & gas, mining, engineering, aviation and, yes, the very few who wish to become physicists also take it but they must be considered a minority. The students who sign up are typified by a wide range of interest and ability. Some of them have studied physics in high school and come to the course with a solid background—that is, well-developed laboratory/inquiry skills, mathematics skills and a decent grasp of the fundamentals. Still others have next to no experience in the area, a weak grasp of mathematics and, sadly an interest level that leans more in the direction of “Mom/Dad wanted me to do this,” rather than “This is cool.” The majority, as you would expect, find themselves clustered closer to the middle of these extremes, that is, they have some background and experience as well as enough motivation to make them show up for class and put at least some effort into performing the various required activities (being attentive during class, performing the lab work and making their way through the written assignments as best they can). Overall, to a few the course is pain to be tolerated, to another few it is a total joy; the essence of their existence, but to the majority it is a right of passage; a series of tasks to be done with care but not necessarily with the burning love and passion felt by the instructors and other members of the faculty. Simply put, the audience is reasonably competent and serious but by no means a young version of the faculty

The content of the course is a wide-scale survey of the discipline as a whole. To the extent that it can it tries to provide an overview of the various areas in which the discipline has stepped into. Over two semesters–two courses actually–it includes:

  • A non-matrix approach to statics (forces at rest).
  • A non-calculus approach to mechanics, including potential and kinetic energy, impulse and momentum as well as Newton’s Laws of motion (and maybe Universal Gravitation) with a particular focus on the 2nd.
  • Static electricity including the concepts of fields ( but without the use of field equations), charge and electric potential.
  • Current electricity including Ohm’s Law and Kirchoff’s rules but with a focus on DC circuits and a serious limitation in terms of complexity—the circuit analysis rarely involves the use of simultaneous equations.
  • An introduction to waves, including basic coverage of sound and light. Wave phenomena such as the Doppler effect, diffraction and interference are introduced with a minimum of mathematics.
  • Perhaps: An introduction to special relativity and quantum mechanics, fluid mechanics and geometric optics.

The course endeavours to serve as a bridge in many ways. It tries as best it can to be accessible to students who do not have a previous background while, at the same time, not boring those who do. It does try to impart a fair degree of disciplined thinking while at the same time, encouraging further study. All in all the managing of the course can be described as quite a balancing act.

But here’s the thing: like most (but not all) scientific disciplines it is reasonably universal. That is, the background required by students does not tend to vary much by geography. Unlike, say, history which is impossible to separate from the local culture, first-year physics can be assumed to be more or less the same just about anywhere.

The Issue

This brings us to the big issue: even though there is the potential for a large audience for it, there does not exist a high quality integrated set of digital teaching and learning resources for that course. There are, rather, collections of good efforts that must be assembled and then put to use at each institution, each doing as best they can despite limited human resources and budgets. All things considered this is a great loss.

The same is just as true in other subject areas including Pre-Calculus and Introductory Calculus, Chemistry, Biology and Earth Science, along with possibly Psychology.

Now, before this gets too far let me hasten to explain why this discussion is dwelling on just STEM. It is solely because those disciplines are reasonably global in nature, that is, there is more-or-less worldwide uniformity on what is taught and how it is taught. This is simply not the case for other first year courses such as English (or whatever you wish to call the study that centres on the most popular language in the region), any of the fine arts, liberal arts or social studies. In all of those disciplines the local context matters far too much for anyone to get very serious about talking about a global approach to learning resources. But let us leave that for another time and just return to the ones for which it is the case.

So what is the extent of available learning resources for STEM? Here’s a partial list.

  • Commercially available print-based resources including textbooks and self-study guides. These tend to cost in the range of around $200 each and are generally of good quality. They are logically organized, well-illustrated, complete and correct (contain modes of thinking in-keeping with the established canon). For the motivated student who reads well they serve as excellent and compete resources. For those less motivated they often lie unused, as evidenced by the many so-called “used” (Irony, yes) books out there with unblemished spines.
  • Instructors’ notes and personal websites. Once something you could only get if you could afford the photocopying fee, thanks to scanners, word-processors and most importantly electronic Learning Management Systems these are becoming increasingly accessible. The quality varies widely, owing to the lack of formal peer-review processes that typifies other areas of academic life, but at least in my experience leans toward “very good” more often than “lackluster.” Notes tend to be short-form representations, lacking in the commentary and elaboration available in books. They also tend to be more to the point and, unlike the texts, do tend to be carefully read by students.
  • Communitarian resources such as Wikipedia. Over the past decade these have significantly improved both in terms of scope and quality. For any given topic that one would find in a first-year STEM course the entries tend to be complete and useful. There is no guarantee, though, that the depth of treatment is the same as is expected in the course. Instructor guidance is definitely a must if Wikipedia is used as a source.
  • Other web-based resources. A significant number of piecemeal efforts exist. These do an excellent job on portions of a course but do not try to be a single point of contact. A good example of this is the University of Colorado’s Phet site, which has developed a huge array of Java-based science simulations. Taken one by one any of the Phet resources does an excellent job of exploring the topic it intends to but it has to be left to the instructor to decide which ones to use, how to use them and how to link them in with the rest of the course resources.

So a wide variety of useful resources does exist so what, then, is the big deal.

A Simple Vision

Let’s think for a moment what it could be like online when a student accesses the course.

The course home provides an overview of what’s in the course along with a summary of progress to date. This includes a list of tasks completed, along with appropriate achievement indicators (grades, etc.), upcoming events and deadlines as well as uncompleted tasks, along with suggested resources and activities. It’s worth noting that just about any online Learning Management System (LMS) such as Desire2Learn, Blackboard or Moodle can do this right now.

For any given course organizer (whether it be lesson, topic or learning outcome, for example) course resources are provided in a variety of formats including:

 

  • Print Materials, and preferably in a format that lends itself well to display using either paper or an electronic reader such as an eBook reader or tablet device.
  • Multimedia presentations—that is, an electronic version of an in-class presentation, complete with visuals and audio—that could be created with software such as Adobe Captivate.
  • Interactive simulations (where applicable) in which students could investigate topics of study. These should be similar to the ones already available from Phet but with the added value of having guidance on what you are looking for; the simulation has a built-in lesson plan. In some, but not all, cases (investigating DC circuits, for example) these could replace activities generally done in the lab.
  • Laboratory resources in the form of videos, analysis software and handouts that would be used in conjunction with lab activities. Students would still be expected to go to the lab but because these would replace the lab manuals and demos from the front of the room. Students would have more autonomy, meaning that at any given time various activities could be managed at once in the same location.

 

For any given course organizer the course would also host a variety of assessment/evaluation tools including these:

 

  • Traditional written assignments. These could be printed off, completed on pencil and paper, scanned, and then uploaded to the assignment drop-box for that item, where they would be graded, probably by a TA.
  • Online assignments, similar to the above but with the submissions and solutions done online. This is similar in form to the existing open source LON CAPA program currently used worldwide but with several important additions: (1) integration with the LMS instead of just stand-alone (2) provision for viewing of solutions, not just answers.
  • Interactive, Simulation based assessments. Instead of just working in pencil and paper the student would perform actual tasks online and be assessed on them. For example, the student could use an interface to work through an exercise traditionally done with paper and pencil or could use a drag and drop interface to assemble, test and analyze a circuit. These tasks could be done, for example by tweaking existing java based simulations or built from scratch using the simulation features in software such as Adobe Captivate.

 

Overall, you may notice that none of the items mentioned are too far-fetched. While this could have been listed: “The development of a completely immersive online lab based learning environment for physics,” it was not, owing to the extremely prohibitive cost (probably in excess of $50M).

The course assemblage mentioned has a much more modest cost, probably in the vicinity of $1M or so, with the majority of it going to the programming efforts of getting the interactive pieces up to a sufficient quality. While it is unlikely that any given institution could be expected to foot this sort of development bill, when you consider the fact, already mentioned, that this course is one that would have worldwide appeal it is rather amazing that it does not already exist.

The Barrier

Think about the numbers for a moment. Consider just doing the course in English and thus limiting it to primarily English – speaking countries (of course we really want this done in all popular languages but lets look at a limited, simple case here, just to make a point). This would potentially give a market in which millions of students would wish to access it. Currently those students are expected to purchase either new (at around $200/copy) or used (at around $100/copy) traditional textbooks for the course. What if, instead, this money which, at a conservative count would be around $50M per year (assuming that only half the students purchase the text and most of them buy used) were instead invested to the development of online resources? If the figures given were correct, the development costs would be recouped in such a short while as to be insignificant!

This, of course, makes no sense. Commercial publishers are not stupid enough to pass up such a lucrative cash cow so why has this not been done? I would suggest it is the sum of three interacting causes.

Educational institutions are unable or unwilling to fund the development of high-quality course content. It costs money—lots of it, and in these times when all institutions are facing increasing pressure to keep costs down any requests for additional funding are unlikely to be met with anything other than skepticism. To develop course content requires (1) time for the subject matter expert—likely an already over-burdened instructor (2) time for an instructional designer as well as (3) various multimedia/programming professionals who assemble the content into the various types mentioned in previous posts. Generally there is little or no money available to put the IDs and multimedia specialists on the projects and requests from the instructor for release time are met with the response, “we are already paying you your salary and we assume that the development if class-related materials is included in that already.” Simply put, the administration does not have the extra funds to pay the people and the instructors do not have the extra time to prepare the content that would be needed to take it to the next level.

Educational institutions do not cooperate to share the development burden. It has already been suggested that, while individual institutions are likely unable to fund the development of high-quality materials, collectively, the human and monetary resources exist when you consider that, at least for the courses mentioned, most institutions are, in effect, teaching much the same courses. If instead of each institution doing its own thing, they cooperated and jointly developed the materials it would apportion to very little.

The fact is, though, that this is one of those things easier said than done. To pursue a joint venture there must be (1) an overall plan (2) formal coordination and management of the project and (3) buy-in. The fiercely competitive atmosphere that exists between institutions coupled with the absence of a formal unifying body means that it’s hard to get this done, especially when you realize that this whole topic is nowhere near the top of most educational administrators’ lists of priorities. Still, it is a shame as the Internet has already demonstrated how well it is suited to cooperative development projects, as evidenced through successful development projects such as Mozilla as well as more communitarian development such as has been done with Wikipedia.

Commercial educational publishers are unable to implement an effective business model. Ask just about any administrator that holds the educational purse strings for education this question, “Why don’t you allocate money towards the funding of teaching and learning resources?” Chances are this will be the response: “Because that is the job of the educational publishers. We can’t afford to do it ourselves but they can because they can access a much larger market.”

Fine; after all, why waste taxpayers’ money when there’s a much better way?

Now go ask any executive with any of the major publishers the same question. Chances are, this will be the response: “Because we cannot recoup the development costs. Not only are institutions unwilling to pay the license fee, even though it is significantly less than they used to pay for textbooks, but, worse, our experience has been that people will always find a way to obtain and use our materials, regardless of copyright. We just can’t win, no matter what we do.”

Put the three together and you get the situation we face today. Despite the huge potential that Internet-based resources hold for improved teaching and learning in first year courses much—not all, mind you, but still the majority—of that potential remains untapped, with little sign of any widespread, sustained effort to do much of anything about it.

Suggested Solutions

This is not to suggest that the appropriate response is to just accept that things are the way they are for good reasons and the best that we should all do is to learn to accept the status quo. While it is unlikely that any revolutionary change is likely to happen in the short-term, significant benefits can still be realized from some straightforward actions. If sustained, some of the items below are likely to go a long way towards realizing the dream of much more optimal usage of digital technologies in service to teaching and learning. Here are three items which, taken together, hold every possibility of resulting in widespread improvements.

Existing and prospective faculty need to continue to work toward positive change. Large scale changes take time. Not only do materials need to be developed but, more importantly the two book-ending sets of activities need to be done right. (1) The preliminary work of understanding the current problems and planning appropriate responses need to be done well. Likewise (2) the follow-up activities of fine-tuning introduced measures and modifying them in light of unexpected contingencies is something that cannot be forgotten. In situations where the general consensus is that things are just fine as they are, the general response is not just one of stagnation but even worse, is one of gradual decline. Things break. Things change. If there is no response, what’s broken remains broken and sustained change brings the reality increasingly further and further from the classroom. If, on the other hand, the general consensus is “We need to make things better” then the meaningful improvements—that is the ones forged from REAL need—will slowly be realized in a spirit of collegiality.

Leaders (Deans, Directors and College Presidents and perhaps government officials) should move for more inter-agency cooperation. While there are few formal opportunities for collaboration, the academic world is rife with opportunities for informal exchanges: presentations, conferences and such. If, at those occasions the topic was, brought around to the whole idea of cooperatively developing teaching and learning resources, in time the interest would build and, along with it, the ways and means of getting it done. People who acknowledge a need tend to see the opportunities for finding the means by which to solve the problem—a positive off-shoot of the generally unhelpful confirmation bias. In short, talk about it and a way generally tends to be found for getting it done in a way that everyone can live with.

Publishers need to work more closely with institutions. Despite the fact that they work closely with some faculty members—after all most current texts are authored by faculty—publishers tend not to have good two-way relationships with the learning institutions their whole business model is built upon. Generally the only formal relationship is through the bookstore and the general attitude is one of client service, that is, the university states a requirement, generally in the form of a syllabus and then evaluates the available resources. This activity is generally muddied somewhat by the publisher’s efforts to sharpen their competitive edge through either the provision of some free goodies or through the haranguing of either the dean or the individual committee members. Often the relationship shakes out something like this: Faculty view the publishers as greedy & grasping and publishers view the institutions as needy & cold-hearted. All in all not a great atmosphere in which anyone can be expected to thrive.

It does not need to be that way. Institutions have great need for improved resources, especially as students gravitate more and more toward the Internet and away from print-based materials. Likewise the publishers are faced with an ever-diminishing pool of revenue as more and more of the old-style core business of just feeding the thirst for basic knowledge is met more and more through existing resources such as Instructors’ own websites and Wikipedia. What’s needed, then is a more sincere and productive dialog in which the publishers gain a better understanding of how to meet current needs while universities find better ways in which to ensure that the publishers’ financial expectations are met.

Overall, the situation is far from desperate. Despite the many shrill cries of doom and gloom our modern educational institutions are by no means in a sorry state; far from it. First year students do as well as they always have—in many cases even better. Enrolments, overall, tend to be strong, and the product—students who achieve and thrive—tends to be good, as evidenced by the continued relative success that all still seem to enjoy.

That said, the situation as always can be improved. The great potential that the Internet holds for education is far from being realized. An overall attitude that is conducive toward positive improvement coupled with a willingness to strive collectively, achieving the small gains that, measured together will result in great strides is just what we all need.

ELTM17: Empty Vessels and the Babbling Rabble

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.

HTML5

By using JavaScript to handle animation, this format offers, perhaps, the most hope for the future. Like SWF, HTML5 handles text, graphics, animations, audio and video very well but unlike SWF if does not necessarily require an external player and is not proprietary. It also runs on IOS based devices. Unfortunately it, too, suffers from serious flaws. (1) While it does not require a separate player it does require a modern, up-to-date browser. This means it will not run on older systems or on ones that, for corporate reasons, cannot use updated browsers. (2) HTML5 is not a “current” standard in that the project is still incomplete and will be in that state for several years to come. It short, HTML5 is still very much a moving target which brings us to (3) there is currently a lack of sophisticated, affordable development tools that can prepare content for this environment. It’s still very much limited to those who can either afford the expensive tools or who have programming skills and do not need them.

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.
OR
(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.

In summary

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.

ELTM16: The (Not So) Connected World

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.

ELTM15: Technology–The Rapture

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

ELTM14: Corporate History or Digital Amnesia?

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.