Monday, 15 September 2014

The VLE vs 'Whatever'...

Sheila MacNeil's recent post 'Living with the VLE Dictator' really got me thinking and questioning the role of the VLE and the different narratives bounding around HE at the moment. From her post, I came across D'Arcy Norman's post: 'On the false binary of LMS Vs. open', and via a twitter discussion between Sheila and Martin Weller, to this post by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb on Reclaiming Innovation.

For quite some time it's felt like everyone is against the VLE. The cool thing to do is to rip it apart and be 'disruptive' (a term in itself which I hate). Remember 'the VLE is Dead' debate? These go beyond Blackboard Vs Moodle Vs Whatever. Often the debate is about the actual presence of any restrictive, centralised, corporate, closed, VLE. But I have many issues with these debates and as Sheila points out, getting rid of the VLE would cause mayhem.

The reality of higher education today is that some mechanism is needed to support learning, teaching and assessment (and its administration, etc). We have the VLE. Yes we know VLEs are not the most innovative products in the tech industry, but do they really need to be? My work in surveying students to attend to VLE Minimum Standards / Baseline suggests what they're asking for is relatively basic stuff - access to information (contact details, etc), notes/slides or even recordings of lectures, and to be able to submit their work online. So just because students practically live in Facebook, it doesn't mean we have to be there. And just because they'll create groups and discuss work there it doesn't mean we should control it. Or even replicate it.

Now I don't mean to pick apart Jim and Brian's post here as I respect both of them massively, but there are just too many points that I disagree with - so what I have to say here is less about me disagreeing with them in particular, but more with these popular debates that have been circling for a while.

The notion that the closed VLE encourages silos is hugely false. Yes I'm an advocate of openness as well but the culture within HEIs is not all that open. Yes there are certain places doing good stuff and some wonderful people doing amazing work, but by and large the 4 HEIs I've worked at over the past 10 years balk at the idea of putting their content 'out there' (and even more so at level 7 where content == CPD income). I've worked on funded OER projects but beyond the scope of the project and its funding period, rolling that innovation out wider is unbelievably difficult. So no, the VLE doesn't encourage silos, it is the modularisation of education which is inherently silo based, and thus is reflected in the system which serves and supports it. A drastic change to the structure, administration and teaching of higher education will be followed by a more reflective/reflecting system.

Something else I disagree with is the view of doing everything possible to 'minimise reliance on an enterprise VLE'. This is awful advice, not least because generally, the institutional support is there to ensure the system is available and working. Those free and open services you might come to rely on could start to charge (as we've seen many times) or even worse, close shop all together. That would also be relying on academic staff to be skilled enough to find and use an open site to publish on, and then confident enough to be able to migrate content to a new platform when shit hits the fan.

On a related point, I kind of recognise that VLEs don't encourage wider digital literacies or web skills, they only develop skills that are useful to that setting and irrelevant when the student leaves. Well, to some degree this is true, but navigating a 'clunky' VLE is not a million miles away from navigation a clunky web, and the practice of communicating in a VLE forum is not a million miles away from interacting on some other platform. So there is some transferability there, but that situation wouldn't be any different if we used Wordpress or anything else out there - we'd be conditioning people to a particular system. Furthermore, D'Arcy highlights his 'Law of eLearning Tool Convergence' which is relevant, in that: "Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached". I believe this is true. The very nature of education and its accountability and quality processes demand control. Going off piste just wouldn't work!

The reality of 'disruption' in education is not what many commentators suggest. Yes MOOCs have got the attention of the media and of many VCs, etc, but to think that they will completely transform education is a huge falsity. What was the last thing to truly disrupt education - and I mean to disrupt it so much that it fundamentally changes learning, teaching and assessment? The web as a whole, yes. An individual system, not so much.

I think many commentators have to be either utopian or dystopian about technology in HE. Considering those at either end of a continuum, you'll find 'Reality' somewhere in the middle. Technological advances will seldom have a truly disruptive effect on higher education because it is not a tech industry. It's a people industry. And as such, the success of any technology will ultimately depend on a) how it's implemented and b) how it's received by the people that use it (students and staff). That's not to say technology doesn't or won't have an impact, but we're talking about higher education here. Things take waaayyy toooooo long to change!


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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Thoughts on eFeedback

CC BY-NC-SA flickr photo by giulia.forsythe 
I know every now and again there’s a discussion about why we include the ‘e’ in eLearning. Or maybe even eAssessment. Surely after all this time it can be taken for granted that technology plays a part in our daily workflows and subsequently has a role in assessment and feedback?

I’ve been giving some thought to the ‘e’ in Feedback lately and wondered, does it even matter? What role does technology - the ‘e’ - have upon the student experience of receiving (good) feedback? What proportion of students are really all that bothered about the feedback in the first place? Some literature suggests up to 20% of students don’t collect their feedback. Other literature suggests students only access feedback if their mark differed from what they expected. I’m also pretty sure I read something about students not returning to ‘old’ feedback e.g. last year’s work. [I'll try to dig out these links/papers again].

For those students that are concerned with feedback, what actually constitutes ‘good’ feedback? I think ‘good’ feedback has to boil down to scaffolding students to achieve the set learning outcomes e.g. improving performance and perhaps feed into future assessments. Literature might tell us there can be a trade off between quality and timeliness of feedback. For example brief but timely feedback might be of more value than more detailed feedback provided 4 weeks down the line. So there’s a balance to be had here. Time Vs Detail.

So where does the ‘e’ fit in here? Beyond the obvious benefits of reduced paper and travel, does it matter?

To muddy the water further, I wonder what students evaluate as being good. Is it the same as what we think, pedagogically, is good? I’ve seen some work that suggests students liked receiving audio feedback as it was something they could return to easily or that it was more personal and had more of a human touch to it. However, my own work showed that less than half of students in my survey (n=860) were interested in receiving audio feedback - is that because they may never have experienced it? Other work has suggested formative audio feedback did not improve student performance in summative work (in comparison with written feedback sample). So I think questioning the impact of the 'e' here is valid so that we can really introduce systems, processes and procedures that are fit-for-purpose.

I think ultimately, students would accept good/useful paper based feedback over poor eFeedback. But moreover, I wonder if we might reach a point where what we think is good from a pedagogical perspective doesn’t align with how students evaluate it/us in the NSS. What will happen then? Do we change our practice so students really are customers or consumers or do we stick to our pedagogic argument? With the invasion of silicon valley into the education landscapes, this could be an area to watch.


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Monday, 8 September 2014

eAssessment Scotland Conference #eas14 (inc. slides)

Keynote Selfie with @glynnmark at #EAS14
So last week was a bit hectic for me - getting back from the #VegasWedding, and after a little sleep heading straight down to Warwick for #ALTC. Then on Thursday I travelled up to the eAssessment Scotland Conference in Dundee as I was delivering a keynote presentation (and inherited a few other tasks, namely a 2nd Keynote and chairing a discussion panel with familiar faces such as Peter Hartley and Mark Glynn).

I’ve come across the eAssessment Scotland conference in the past and really fancied attending given some of the great names they’ve attracted in recent years - much of which has been down to the hard work of David Walker and Kenji Lamb (yes, no jokes here about it going downhill this year!).

So my morning keynote kicked the conference off and I used Brookfield’s lenses of reflection as the key focus, which encourages reflection through 4 lenses: self-reflection, students, literature and peers. I joked that this just was just an excuse to enable me to flit from one thing to another, but those that know me probably know this was true :-) One of the things I was conscious of was that I didn’t want to deliver some high level, political and philosophical keynote, partly because I knew I was seeing excellent keynotes from Catherine Cronin and Audrey Watters that week at ALT and well, why even bother trying to live up to those standards (you should check those keynotes out by the way). So what I hoped to deliver was a blend of theory and some practical stuff that colleagues could go away and implement. I think (read hope) I achieved this. Some of the key examples I gave related to:
the need to integrate digital technologies into the curriculum (with a nod to the student as producer) to prepare students for the world of work. This was then contrasted with the comparison of how we typically see a range of devices used in learning and teaching, mismatched against traditional assessment practices such as written essays/exams.
the need to consider other people when planning assessments, made tangible by assessment timelines. I've blogged the need to move away from typical high stakes essays at the end of the module, and shared the timelines I produced for a draft version of our medical curriculum. I got inspiration for the actual drawings from the ESCAPE project at Hertfordshire, and was pointed towards the Map My Programme Tool that came from Greenwich. 

The second keynote of the day was from Mark Glynn of Dublin City University. He spent some time introducing learning analytics and assessment analytics, and shared some extremely interesting work they’d done with Moodle in identifying and sharing a student’s relative position in a cohort based on their assessment grades. This looked great and something I think a lot of people would be interested in. It all aligned well with a presentation I’d seen earlier in the week at ALT that had demonstrated a Moodle block that enabled academic staff to see a student’s previous grades/feedback/submission even if they were not enrolled on those other modules.

Anyway, Mark and I had planned it quite well so that my second keynote (the third of the day) would pick up on assessment analytics a bit more. I shared some information about LIFTUPP (a project from our Dental School at Liverpool) and shared data from a pilot we’ve run on using Grademark to provide grades/feedback to students. I’ll blog this soon but essentially, we can reasonably easily gather data on student (and potential staff) performance in written works using Tii/Grademark, such as the amount of quick marks left, average marks awarded, etc). This led nicely into asking the audience to consider a range of questions, many related to ethical issues in the collection and sharing of such data, which fed into the panel discussion which I was supposed to chair, but couldn’t escape being asked for, or just offering, my opinion.

Overall it was a great day. I can honestly say that other than the traveling aspect, it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to (even if I was run ragged for most of the day). I also find it amazing that they have managed to keep this conference absolutely free for delegates (yes, even English delegates).

So I’ll very much consider attending the conference next year, and would definitely recommend you consider it too! Massive props to Kenji Lamb (and David Walker even though he’s moved on from Dundee), Lynn Boyle (@Boyledsweetie), Mark Glynn (@glynnmark), Lorraine Anderson, Monica Matthews and the rest of the fabulous team that made the day so great.

Slides from the day

Keynote Part 1

Keynote Part 2


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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Slides & info from #ALTC Hygiene factors & VLE minimum standards

So another #ALTC conference has come and gone rather quickly. I presented this afternoon on my work around Hygiene Factors and VLE minimum standards for student (dis)satisfaction. I had quite a few positive comments and requests for more info and/or slides, so thought I'd pull them together.

Firstly, the slides from the session are on slideshare (well, slides I've used previously are embedded below).
Secondly, I've blogged much of this work already, so those that are interested can head over to the following brain dumps of mine :-) Of course if you need any more info or just want to comment, please do.


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Thursday, 14 August 2014

My tech habits & routines

I was giving some thought the other day to the plethora of devices available these days, as well as the vast range of apps and tools on those devices that people are using on a daily basis. And then as I thought back to my top 11 tools of 2011 from my old blog, I realised that my habits and the tech and tools I rely heavily upon haven't changed. At all.

I continue to rely on the iOS ecosystem because I find the old chiche is true - it just works. And it works well. The mail and calendar apps are critical for me, and the upcoming 'handoff' feature looks to be a treat too so I can easily transfer stuff from my Mac and my iPad! Other than that there aren't many specific reasons why I would use a Mac at work [iMac] and at home [MBP], other than the fact it's just a much nicer experience. I have discovered the Memory Clean app which is useful to remind me when I have too many things going on which slows down my machine.

I continue to rely on the same old tools. Evernote and dropbox are the hub of my productivity. Chrome is my portal to the web (I quite like the Google tools) even though I do really like the Apple-ness of Safari. Twitter is where to find me online despite my presence (but limited activity) on LinkedIn and G+ - still don't use Facebook a great deal.

I tried to use Apple Pages and Keynote, and whilst I do really like them, it's often more hassle to convert the outputs into .docx and .pptx files so others can access the files. They always require a touch of editing and actually, the drawing tools in Powerpoint are better than those in Keynote anyway.

In the past couple of years I have had to move away from Google Reader for obvious reasons. I loved the Reader App for iOS and having paid for them once, I was reasonably miffed that the upgrade required purchasing all over again. They are nice apps and I bought the iOS version but wasn't paying the £5+ for the desktop version, largely because I've managed reasonably well using Feedly (free).

So what?

So my habits and tools/tech haven't really changed in the last few years.

What does this all mean? It possibly says more about me than it does the technology. But it does pose the questions - do we need the abundance of technology we have at our fingertips, and is there an optimum number of tools/apps for us?? Is there a lull in innovative new developments in software and apps? 

Monday, 11 August 2014

My Top Tips to New Learning Technologists

CC BY:NC:ND flickr photo by Tiger Pixel

I had the thought of writing this post last week, but to be honest it feels a bit funny writing it. I've gained a lot of experience over the last 10 years working in HE - much of which could form good advice to younger/newer players to the game like, for example, the TEL technicians we have in our Faculty at Liverpool.

The strange thing is that in many ways I don't feel greatly experienced - I'm still relatively less experienced in research - something my PhD will hopefully address, and of course technologies are changing so there's always more to learn about - from advances in the open (or not so open) education such as MOOCs through to things like Augmented Reality. This kind of links back to a discussion I had with @hopkinsdavid last week around the Learning Technologist as Jack (or Jane) of All Trades - that is, we know a bit about a lot, but there's always more to learn...

But more than anything with people new to a role, I'd much rather than a proactive person with little experience than someone with more experience but doesn't actually do much. So what advice do/would I give to those less experienced in learning technology? Here are my top pointers....
  1. Actually think about what it is you're doing, and make sure you're doing it right! If you make a mistake, that's ok. Just learn from it and try not to do it again and that way, a mistake is never a mistake - it's always a learning curve.
  2. Say Yes to every opportunity - whether it's meetings, working groups or projects, it will serve you well to get involved. You'll learn new things and see things from different and new perspectives (which can never hurt, even if you disagree or just identify certain people as being 'all talk'). At the same time, know what things to say 'No' to. When I started out I was clear what my job included and what it didn't. I found it was important to set my stall out on this from the very beginning.
  3. If you are keen to progress in your career, try to think back on your day/week/month/year. How did it go? What things do you like doing? Pursue those opportunities more. What are you weak at? Pursue that too. What's your knowledge base or understanding of topics that are discussed in meetings or amongst colleagues? Go and read up on them - just enough so that you know what's going on in that area and know where to go if and when you need to find out more. 
  4. If there's something you don't know the answer to, don't just pass the buck on (or even worse turn people away). Make it your mission to find out the answer. If the root of the problem sits with another department, either make the necessary introductions or provide suitable redirection.
  5. Be proactive. The nature of the role means there can be quite times, say, in the summer. Use that time to seek out new and exciting projects or use that time for personal development.
  6. Although this one is cliched I have always lived by it - dress for the job you want, not the job you've got. Even in my first helpdesk job I got fresh out of Uni I made an effort to wear a shirt and trousers, and often a tie. Don't be concerned with how other people dress - You're a professional so dress like one..
  7. I'm also very relaxed and informal in conversation with other people. Sometimes to a fault I think - speaking before I think. But people see the real me and I've certainly found that building relationships with colleagues is something that comes quite natural to me and being personable is a critical aspect of the role of the learning technologist.
  8. Get out the confines of your office and meet people. This can be tricky. Whilst colleagues I've worked with often think I'm some super networker, I'm actually not. I tend to put myself about to share the work I'm doing rather than purely go along to network at things. There's definitely a balance to be found here. I find this way, people can judge me for my work and they'll know that I know what I'm talking about (if indeed, I know what I'm talking about :-) ).
  9. When you get worn down by bureaucracy or unhappy with the boring tasks you're dumped with, do whatever you can to take on more (and a wider range of) work. This is obviously tough when you're already super overworked, but the experience will serve you well when you apply for new jobs :-)
Hopefully that doesn't sound too much like a self-help guide and I'd love to hear from others to see what your top tips would be.


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Friday, 8 August 2014

Impact of technology on the libraries of tomorrow

A colleague of mine, Andrew Barker (@andcarebarker) recently asked me to write an editorial piece for the UKSG eNews Newsletter, albeit with a tight deadline (thanks Andrew) :-).

So of course I obliged, and decided to write something about the impact of technology on the libraries of tomorrow. It is me writing, so of course it's no utopian prophecy.

I start with making the point how difficult it is to predict the future using MOOCs as an example, but the article also considers spaces, as well as the way we understand our students today i.e. Visitors/Residents and how that might impact on libraries and their staff. So I guess it's not solely about technology, but the issues of contemporary education. I think...

Anyways, you should be able to access the full article via the UKSG eNews page here.


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