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Issue 10 October 2007   Friday, October 19, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

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Binoculars and sandpits
A strategy for e-learning
by John Fothergill

When my son was four and I was teaching him to write (and type), he used to complain that this was a waste of time. "By the time I grow up", he would moan, "I'll be able to talk to computers and they will write it for me." He's now 28 and his prophecy hasn't really been realised. OK, so voice recognition software is a hell of a lot better than it was, but it's still not popular. Perhaps it's because those of us who use computers a reasonable amount are not bad typists. And perhaps I type at about the speed that I think. (I think therefore I type?) I'm also typing this on a flight to Copenhagen, and I'm not sure I'd be popular with my fellow passengers if I started to dictate it.

The free British Airways magazine has an article about the office of the future – apparently it will be "populated by hot-desking employees able to control their individual, sustainable environments at the touch of a button" [1]. Now I don't want to sound too backward here, but I wonder how they know that. My son's prediction seemed perfectly reasonable – and it'll probably happen one day – but perhaps not just yet.

Trying to predict the future of e-learning is not too easy either. There's a lot around the world who equate e-learning and 'distance learning' (or whatever you call it) and perhaps don't realise that you probably should be using it on campus too. But why? Just because it's there? If that's the only reason then there's going to be a lot of resistance – there are many academics who think it's difficult and it that it takes a lot of time to prepare new courses (and probably, for some, it is and it does). Why use it then? Is it better?

Well it certainly has it benefits. When I became a Pro-Vice-Chancellor – responsible for learning and teaching across the University of Leicester – I didn't really want to give up teaching altogether; I like to lead from the front. But I didn't have a diary that would allow me to turn up for the 20 lecture slots that I'd been allocated. This wasn't a good reason for considering teaching my course by e-learning – but it gave me a chance to experience this methodology at first hand and then speak about it with a little more authority to my colleagues. I teach about optical fibre communications – the backbone of the world-wide web – to engineering undergraduates. The framework that I used was Blackboard, the learning environment. (I don't really see why it's virtual.) The course has developed into quite a rich environment. Typical of many engineering and science courses there's quite a lot to 'learn', which, together with engineering skills, enables them to 'understand' in the sense that they can develop solutions to design problems they've not previously met. Since they were used to learning through lectures, I used quite a number of mini-lectures – typically intense 10-minute productions, made using Macromedia Breeze (or whatever Adobe call it nowadays).  This allows them to pause, rewind and replay to their heart's content, they see PowerPoint type slides and they can also view the text of the lecture rolling past.  Surprisingly, our UK students like this as well as our many students from overseas. There are also videos and animations and web-links.  Using Prof. Gilly Salmon's "e-tivity" ideas, they work together in groups to extract useful, and probably more up-to-date, information from the web and elsewhere. Indeed their final assignment is a group activity to produce a report – it'll probably be a Wiki next year. To test that they understand as they go along there are loads of formative 'quizzes' and, at the end of each of the first three sections, there's an on-line summative assessment – taken under examination conditions in a computer lab.  There are the usual discussion boards and other methods of interactive learning and working.

There's also a weekly 'podcast' – a radio-type broadcast – that they can listen to online or download to their mp3 player. This requires a bit more effort on my part – but I feel it keeps the course alive and stimulates the students' interest. The summative assessments tend to pace the students but the podcasts motivate them.  These podcasts typically start off with a discussion of some new use of optical fibre technology or development, continue with a discussion of how the students are getting on (in their group work, assignments etc) and what they need to do "this week" and finish with a joke (or even a rap in one case) – to encourage them to listen to the end.  I like a bit of humour in the course – I even put a fresh cartoon on the front page every day to encourage them to log on in the hope that they might do some work whilst they're there. Of course there are lots of other uses of podcasts and some of these are described in the Impala project. And look out for a book next year (to be published by McGraw-Hill) with the Impala research stories.

The students seem to like it and the results they get are a great improvement on what they were getting before: 

"The good thing about podcasts is you can sit in your room and play and listen to them. He is saying things about the module. It is good to listen to them. … You don’t have to do it at the same time as others. Go home and listen to them. …It is really good when he relates information in the lecture to real life. It helps you to understand things… If you are interested in the way the module is taught, then you sit down and study. But if the module is boring or the lecturer is boring you think 'oh, I have to study this. But I don’t want to'. The way the module is taught is interesting. It makes people interested in the module. …It is different. It is like, 'let’s see what joke he has got in this one!' Also there is a lot of information as well….Professor talks about the course, example, topic for the week and explanations relating to the topic studied.  I learn other things which sometimes aren't related to the course. It is quite useful, it is just general feedback. He points out where students make mistakes."

Figure 1 shows how the examination results have improved using on-line e-learning methods.

Figure 1: Distribution of Examination Results for the same course with traditional delivery (1998 – 2000) and on-line (2004-2007)

So, yes – I do think that e-learning has its place in improving the methodology of learning and teaching. But no, that's not the only reason for using it.

You see the 'desired learning outcomes' of my course are not just about learning about optical fibres – useful and interesting though that might be! It's about learning to work on-line.  About working together on-line. About finding things out on-line – and being critical of what you find.  Indeed it's about preparing students for their lives in – and yes I know it's corny – the digital age. Have you seen 'Did you know?' on YouTube? This probably makes the point better than I can in this article.  It seems to me that the nature of information and knowledge (at least in the sense of "what you know") is changing fast. Information used to be expensive and worth selling. You probably remember encyclopaedia salesmen.  Academics guard their lecture notes. And of course, confidential intellectual property and 'know how' is valuable. To find 'things out' used to require trawling through books and journals in a library. Much of want you want to know can now be found out quickly at the click of a button. Which is just as well if 'Did you know?' is to be believed – the total amount of technical information in the world is, apparently, doubling every 2 years and, incredibly, by 2010, will be doubling every 72 hours. Three thousand books are published each day.  And, unsurprisingly, there are billions of Google searches every day. We still need to be take care of the provenance of the information, but it's probably out there… and free.

I've argued for some time – at least for the more 'vocational' university courses – that students should learn, as far as possible, in a similar way to how they're going to work or otherwise use the knowledge, skills and understanding that they obtain.  I'd therefore argue that, in this digital age, they ought to learn using digital means – at least to some extent –  whether they're on campus or off campus.

So what should our strategy be for developing e-learning? It seems to me that's rather difficult – and has problems in common with developing a strategy for IT generally. When developing a strategy, you can normally do an audit to find out where you are now, then you take some advice (or not) and decide where you want to be. You then plot a route from the former to the latter.  However, the problem with the e-area is that everything keeps changing. So half-way through your well-thought-out journey, you can find that you're going the wrong way. 

The approach we take at Leicester, developed by our Professor of e-learning and learning technologies, Gilly Salmon, is based (so she tells me) on the "Ansoff matrix" [2]. We need to consider both current technologies and future technologies and how they could be used with both our current students and future students. So this gives you the matrix with four quadrants. Quadrant 1 contains current technologies applied to current students. So that's virtual learning environments and other "tried and tested" technologies – generally the sort that you probably already have available on your computer network. Not everybody's using it – or using it well – but it's there and so are your students.  So this is, for the purposes of your strategy, where you are now. You can apply these technologies to your new offerings and this puts you in quadrant 2. Thinking carefully how you can apply current technologies in the most efficacious way can revolutionise what you do, the quality of your courses and how much they cost you to run. It can transform your offerings as well as the bottom line. Of course you need a strategy to do this – but that's not too difficult since you know about current technologies and the subjects of new courses are often determinable by the marketers. Convincing the "powers that be" to implement courses in this way can be problematic if they don't understand the potential. You might need somewhere that they can "play" with the technologies, observe the methods used by others and discuss what's available and appropriate for them.

So then we come to the 'new technologies'. Podcasts were new technologies a couple of years ago. I tried them on my current students and they seemed to work. To me, then, they're working their way from quadrant 3 over to quadrant 1.  The point of quadrant 3 is that you need to either try out the new technologies for yourself or you need to keep up to date with the latest developments and apply it in your own situation. Of course, some things don’t work, or at least not for your students on your course.  So be prepared to throw some ideas out.

Quadrant 4 is the most exciting area! (Isn't there a Confucius curse: "May you live in interesting times"?) This is where you're trying to predict the future – what's going to be available and possible, and what's going to be useful and appropriate. Often the technologies in quadrants 3 and 4, are those that are not so easily available on your computer network. They're often freely available, though. I'm thinking of things like YouTube, FaceBook and Second Life.  I was using Audacity for my podcasts. These so-called peripheral technologies are often looking for new uses.

So your strategy needs to contain a way of playing with the technologies – especially the peripheral technologies. This play area – or sandpit – also needs to contain the current technologies for those who have been shy about using them. Our Leicester sandpit is called the Media Zoo. It's a real laboratory on the first floor of the Attenborough Building. But it's also available on the web and in Second Life at co-ordinates 128-128-0. Note that the four areas – from Pet's Corner that contains your best loved technologies in quadrant 1 to the Exotics House in quadrant 4 – may not appeal to all, some of the technology might seem frightening, but you don't have to be scared – it's a zoo, you're not in any danger.

Your strategy also needs to consider the possibility that your destination might change. You need to continually scan the horizon to check that you're going in the right direction. A big pair of binoculars is in order – ours is called the Professor of e-learning.

Perhaps the next generation of technology will have learnt from the next generation of people how to take dictation. But the next generation of people will certainly be learning from the technology.

Prof. John Fothergill
Pro-VC, University of Leicester

[1] Benji Wilson, "Quiet, Flexible and Green: Is this the office of the future?", Business Life 2007, 50 - 52
[2] Ansoff, I., Strategies for Diversification, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 35 Issue 5, Sep-Oct 1957, pp.113-124

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