online learning

When You Ask The Question, “Are Learning Technologies Fit For Purpose?” #digifest15

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

Lawrie Phipps made the point as he finished chairing a debate over, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?”

It may sound dull, but his point was the best way to sum up the session between Dave White and Donna Lanclos at the Jisc Digifest 2015.

Earlier in the day, Anna Notaro told me that she doesn’t like either/or questions. While it does help me write short and punchy tweets, I do agree.

So, are learning technologies fit for purpose?

It’s an impossible question, as it involves individual decisions as much as it does group decisions. It involves education providers and administrators as much as it does learners.

Do learning technologies fit YOUR purpose? Can these tools give you what you want? And if you don’t know what you want, is this method working for you?

Dave White said that learning technologists and other professionals forget how experienced and confident they are. He suggested that if you could go back to when you were 18–just starting out at university–you would be far less likely to have the same drive to make your point. The nervewracking experience of speaking in a lecture or seminar consisted mainly of trying not to make a fool out of yourself. Newbies to the system don’t want to fall at the first hurdle. There’s so much at stake, or so it feels anyway.

One solution is to provide safe spaces so that students can build their confidence. This requires a somewhat locked-in approach using internal systems, rather than pointing toward online services that can publish work for all the world to see.

key

Use a VLE or use WordPress? Donna Lanclos explained that institutions have made a promise to educate their students. Learning and subsequent application of publicly used resources will provide the best opportunity for students to develop worthwhile skills. Using a VLE, she argued, doesn’t provide the same learning opportunity. Lanclos expressed difficulty in seeing why it’s so difficult to assist students in confident use of open web tools and to invest money saved from ditching VLEs on hiring more staff instead.

Questions from the audience were useful, as they looked at the flaws in the either/or questioning:

  • Something isn’t fit for purpose, but what is it? Is it the technology, is it the institution, is it something else? This needs assessing.
  • Why are we talking about a choice? You can have both a VLE and an open web.
  • We need to equip people to be competent in the open web. This requires a continuum model. Not just about knowledge in terms of content, but which technologies to use and when?
  • The reason we have VLEs is due to standards issues. Until you can bring diversity together in a reasonable format, a VLE is a practical necessity.
  • What IS the purpose of learning technologies? They are fit for purpose only if you identify what their purpose is.
  • You may want to use a social service for personal reasons, but that doesn’t mean you wish to use it as part of your course.

Lanclos said that it’s important to take responsibility for students’ learning when they do not have the understanding or experience of necessary tools. So, she continued, why is that different via the open web than through a VLE? Her closing argument stated that university is a much more holistic project than VLEs allow for. The fact they are locked in ends up sheltering students from the outside world and more practical learning.

White closed by explaining that learning technologies reflect the purpose our institutions have chosen to take. They provide a platform to frame learning around the course, rather than the individual. People can be helped through the process of education.

This takes us back to the remark Lawrie Phipps made to close the session:

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

I saw neither Lanclos nor White as particularly wrong in their assertions. Such an ambiguous and open question is important because it shows how diverse the student population has become over the decades. And yet, as one audience member remarked, pedagogy over the last 20 years hasn’t been particularly transformed.

Asking the question, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?” is a great way to continue exploring transformation that requires technology. But rather than focus on the technology at the centre, focus on the learner, on society, and on the future.

Do Standardised Online Classes Have A Place In Higher Education?

Laptop and Books - Standardised Classes

I saw a CCAP piece on Forbes which looked at standardising classes and replacing the need for some teaching staff. The piece asked, “…what is the point of having instructors in the classroom if a computer can teach everything?

Does this computer-based format constitute higher education? By standardising classes, you deliberately restrict what can be gained through the class. Not the best start when we’re talking higher education.

However, there is a place for this type of learning. Some examples:

  • Helps promote some aspects of lifelong learning;
  • Useful for already standardised practices and areas that do not require multiple avenues of thought until further down the line;
  • Allows access to those who do not have access any other way than this.

The CCAP article goes on to say that not all classes can be standardised like this and some will struggle in any online format. But for those classes that can be amended to suit a standardised, online format, the decreased teaching costs could help students through smaller tuition costs and/or better services.

Standardisation could also pave the way for recognised qualifications. A new HEA report on MOOCs in the UK states that online learning could play a bigger part if courses were officially recognised:

“Accreditation of learning that attracts UCAS points is necessary if MOOCs are to become part of the landscape of higher education and provide a route to the full range of higher level learning. HE providers should work at putting this into place.” – p.9

The report, by Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield and Hugh Davis, warns that the current lack of academic recognition does not allow MOOCs to play a part in widening access to higher education. Once you bridge that gap, there may be greater acceptance of this pathway to learning in the beginning stages of higher education. It could also form the basis to introduce qualifications that support higher education but do not form an entire degree programme. Standardised classes may play a part here.

Finding new routes to learning

This is clearly not an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Online learning can work in ways that face-to-face might not. MOOCs can take on both a standardised and an exploratory framework. In order to support diversity and widening participation, there should be multiple ways to keep the learning arena open.

For now, there is no easy way to support this to such a large extent. A report to the European Commission on new modes of learning and teaching in HE laments the many difficulties surrounding new methods of provision, but stresses how important it is to pursue their potential, “…given the opportunities that they offer for lifelong learning, continuing professional development and internationalisation“.

Their plea is for greater support and less derision. Solutions are not yet clear cut, but a dismissive attitude at this stage may stop us from finding out whether or not anything is feasible.

The UUK Student Funding Panel is currently seeking evidence on how they can “ensure the higher education system is sufficiently diverse and flexible to deliver an outstanding learning experience to all students“. The recent decline in part-time students, coupled with the lack of incentive to offer alternative routes to HE, means that some people will be locked out, despite a desire to continue learning. Perhaps there is a place for standardised classes and accredited online learning here.

UUK certainly sees the possibility, even before the funding panel evidence is through. The 2014 Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education, states that the decline in part-time and distance learning enrolments does not paint the full picture:

“Online courses such as MOOCs also represent more informal and accessible forms of distance learning being offered by universities that are not recorded in distance learning statistics.”

So there’s still a long way to come, but potential is there. While the limited reporting on MOOC participation currently suggests that these courses are most likely to be taken by those who are already graduates, the future for widening participation may still have a place.

MOOCs and “exaggerated promises”

Don’t expect things to move too quickly though. Very little in this sense manages to come from overnight change.

The hype and rhetoric around MOOCs that reached national and international press resulted in anti-climax and many an EdTech ‘told-you-so’, but a calmer long-term approach should be more useful for all involved.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we also take into account the fantastic opportunities available online that are deliberately not standardised? Courses that triumph community and collaboration over qualifications and careers? Lee Skallerup Bessette wasn’t keen on her MOOC experiences, yet she has found much to like (and learn) elsewhere online:

“From the Maker Movement to Learning to Code from Scratch, there are communities out there to support learners, rather than just transmit information to them. We can learn from each other, support one another, and share our trials and triumphs. Professional development doesn’t have to be expensive, didactic, and a chore anymore. It can be an opportunity to help your faculty, school, and students open up to the world.” [Source – Educating Modern Learners, “14 posts from 2014”]

There is room for all sorts of initiatives. And if both universities and students can benefit from online learning of whatever appearance, this is cause for celebration.

But, as Martin Weller states in his new book, “The Battle For Open“, most discussion around MOOCs has been within a framework of replacing university altogether. He explains that this “exaggerated promise” has led to resistance, rather than an interest in “the more nuanced reality they may offer”.

Online learning is just one part of higher education. It is growing and it is changing as it grows. If a computer can teach everything in one area, let it do the teaching. If it requires a vast and diverse community, host it online and let people explore.

Just make sure that focus is not lost on the areas that can or should thrive through face-to-face interaction. The idea isn’t simply to replace, since learning constitutes everything around us. Online isn’t the only way, just as face-to-face isn’t either. There are countless possibilities.

We are still working out what can be done and how to facilitate learning for the benefit of students and tutors. I can’t imagine innovations and ideas ever coming to a halt. Martin Weller warns that we must not abdicate responsibility and ownership. It is crucial that we continue to explore new learning opportunities rather than concede them to others.

That, for me, is the most important point. We’re learning how to learn to learn. It may get messy and meta. And that’s marvellous.

opportunities