Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Do we need Credentials?

So far in this Blog we have discussed the need to create authentic learning environments to engage our learners and deepen their level of learning. We have looked a number of ways to synthesise this authenticity and to design learning space that will interest the learner.

But why do learners seek to join this learning environment? In my experience few do so for an outright love of learning. Most do so to gain a credentialed award that they can use to further their career, and often with the expectation of enduring some unpleasant learning experiences along the way.

In Australian Universities the average age of our students is rising with many of our local students seeing credentials as their way to improve their job prospects. In my university approximately 75% of our students are mature-aged learners, many of whom have full or part-time work commitments.
The vast majority of these mature-aged learners have had substantial experience in the workforce and bring extensive life experiences to their learning environment.
With these life experiences come expectations that the learning experiences will be fit for purpose and appropriate to the professional duties required within the workforce.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the workforce rates the possession of generic skills and attributes as highly as professional content knowledge. The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) “insight” journal discusses the need for this kind of skill and attribute development in it’s Issue 10.

But, have you ever met a person who seems to have an extraordinary level of knowledge and experience, but no formal qualifications? I know quite a few. How did they achieve this with out the guidance and gate-keeping offered by an educational institution? What do you think might happen if industry began to value knowledge and experience as highly as qualifications?
So where is credentialism going? Is it an artefact of the times where institutions were custodians of knowledge and the only ones capable of judging learning and professional competence?

Today, anyone with a computer and access to the Internet has more information available to them that any single university can offer. While many of these institutions claim that it is the learning design inherent in their courses and programs that makes them an essential part of the learning, very few of these claims stand up to any level of scrutiny. Universities survive because professional bodies insist on employing graduates and universities have for some time held a monopoly in the area of conferring degrees. These days, however, Australia government universities are facing competition from private universities and private organisations who have sought and gained accreditation to confer undergraduate degrees in specific discipline areas. Qantm is one such organisation who pitch to a multimedia niche for full-fee paying students. The monopoly universities once had is already being eroded, the question is; how far will this erosion go and will it lead to a more performance/portfolio-based approach to employment?

To remain competitive universities will most likely need to concentrate on offering very high quality learning experiences and a great deal less on the gate-keeping of professional employment.

More soon,

Scot.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Who owns the Learning Space?

One of the reasons we provide communication tools in learning environments is to encourage our students to play around with ideas and re-conceptualise the knowledge artefacts they encounter.

In a learner-centred environment we expect students to accept a great deal more ownership of their learning activities and to feel safe within the learning group. Indeed, in more contemporary e-learning environments like simulations, or WebQuests, we ask the students to assume a role and to argue a case from that role’s perspective.

As we move away from the idea of a teacher-centred model we shift the power and control towards the learner. Learners, encouraged by this power shift, begin to test their ideas and assert their view of the world in what they then perceive to be a safe environment—one where they can take risks without being exposed to all of the consequences. Online role-play simulation is one of the best examples of this kind of e-learning environment.

But what if that trust is compromised by those outside the learning space? How sacred are the students’ ideas and thoughts, and what of the learning facilitator?

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend across the world to view the virtual world as one that, because of ease of access, requires a lower level of ethical capital. Where most of us would feel violated if our personal mail was routinely opened and read by postal officers or colleagues at work, a different set of ethical values seem to apply to email. It is common practice now for supervisors and IT managers to have access to your email account—perhaps because it is easier and less detectable than physically opening one of your letters!

But what about the private learning spaces within online courses? You know, that sacred area where you students have come to trust you and their peers. Should that communication be open to the scrutiny by others? Would you as a teacher, be happy with full-time scrutiny of your face-to-face classes? Would you allow video cameras and microphones in your classroom to document yours and your student’s actions? I think not.

So what of others monitoring and perhaps assessing your course online interactions? What if this is covert? How would you be able to build the level of trust required for effective interaction if students and teachers suspected that their interactions would be logged and examined by a third party?

As is often the case, new communication technology raises critical ethical questions that take time and a willingness to address.

More soon,

Scot.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

What's Wrong with Group Work?

The contemporary e-learning research continually points to the importance of small group/team collaboration in order to ensure effective constructivist learning environments and higher order learning (see Dale’s Cone & Learning Pyramid), but group work doesn’t always work.
Often group or teamwork fails because either the participants haven’t gained the requisite skills and knowledge like netiquette, brainstorming or an understanding of group dynamics; or they become resentful of a perceived lack of effort from their fellow group members.
The latter is common where there are few mechanisms for peer review and reflection. However, peer review in a distributed, or online learning environment can be complex and time consuming for the teacher/facilitator.

Thankfully, some colleagues of mine from Sydney University of Technology put their heads together and came up with an innovative automated product that allows students to continually self and peer assess themselves throughout the course of a subject. The modifier factor produced is then applied differentially to the marks attributed to group assessment products/deliverables.
They call the product SPARK, Self And Peer-assessment Resource Kit.
Apart from providing a better level of fairness with mark distribution, the approach develops and enhances generic graduate attributes (see generic graduate attribute listed in my paper) such as inter-personal skills, communication and teamwork.
It also permits a more streamlined marking approach where a single group deliverable is marked with SPARK automatically attributing that mark according to the peer review score.

The news is even better now as UTS have just undertaken, in a joint venture with a number of other Australian universities, to move the SPARK to a BlackBoard (and perhaps a WebCT) Building Block. This will mean that universities using these mainstream learning management systems will be able to integrate the use of SPARK seamlessly into their LMS courses.

Congratulations to UTS for this initiative.

Stay tuned more to come soon.

Best,

Scot.

Learning Organisations: how do universities rate?

Have you ever stopped to think about what a “learning organisation” should look like? While a learning organisation is not necessarily a place that offers a range of educational products, it is generally what comes to mind.

The post war reconstruction of Japan saw the US provision of management expertise to re-start the Japanese economy. Part of that assistance involved providing expertise in quality management and systems. Edward Demming was without doubt the best known of these consultants and the results of he and his colleagues and now doubt responsible for the outstanding success of this venture.
Ironically, it has taken many years for the Japanese solution to filter into most Western industries. Discounted as a cultural phenomena by some, the West trailed the success of the Japanese and then later the Koreans.

Nowadays Western businesses are embracing the quality management model with some outstanding successes.
Key to the success is the way in which staff view the organisation. Older and more traditional approaches assume a top down or hierarchical approach. This means that the most important person in the organisation is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) followed by their second level managers and all the way down to the workers with little or no management role.
More contemporary and successful approaches offer an alternative view that defines the most important staff as those who are directly involved with doing the core business of the organisations. Diagrammatically, this can be explained with the use of an Ishikawa diagram. Demming and Scholtes expand on this model by declaring that those not directly involved with the core business should view those who are as customers—a support role if you like. This approach is generally referred to as Total Quality Management (TQM).

So what has this got to do with learning organisations like Universities? Well quite a lot really! Western universities have a complex and hierarchical structure with the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor viewed as the organisation’s most important person. So in this sense they are an artefact of the past and somewhat unwieldy with their decision-making.
It is often very difficult for senior managers to have sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions. By the time the information has passed through the excessive layers of management the story is rarely as was told at the beginning.
Also, Universities are political organisations that allow for deliberate distortions of fact to be promulgated for personal gain with few safeguards in place to prevent this from occurring.

In his article on TQM, Amsden suggests that there is a need for a paradigm shift to be able to embrace this approach to management and this is indeed a difficult thing to achieve in organisations steeped in tradition and relatively low levels of financial accountability.
The hierarchical and political nature of these organisations discourages risk-taking and re-enforces mediocrity because of the culture of blame engendered.
So while universities are delivers of education, they are rarely learning organisations.

The ramifications for e-learning are enormous—low levels of risk-taking result in corresponding levels of innovation. Without innovation in e-learning, universities are likely to fall well behind the emerging commercial education organisations.
Already in Australia private companies like Qantm are delivering targeted undergraduate degree programs using state of the art technologies and pedagogical approaches. The same in happening in the US with companies like Thompson Education Direct offering similar educational products.

So how do our traditional universities make the required paradigm shift? I’m not sure, but it needs to happen soon.

More soon,

Scot.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

WebQuests: learning design with purpose

WebQuests are a Web-based learning activity that develops a number of “soft” skills as well as developing deep understanding and higher order thinking. The WebQuest model was originally developed in 1995 by Bernie Dodge from San Diego State University (SDSU). Tom March, who worked with Bernie at SDSU has also developed a variation on the original model that involves intra group role-play.

WebQuests are problem-based learning activities and are initiated by a messy ill-structured problem after some initial background information examination. They are a brilliant example of high quality e-learning that is very engaging.

You can learn more about WebQuests at the WebQuest Page, the WebQuest Portal, or at Ozline.

To date I’ve been involved with the design and development of two WebQuests that have been based on the approach adopted by Tom March for “Searching for China”.
My first WebQuest, “Antarctic Ice to Water Australia” was developed for years 9 to 12 and has been rated as one of the best WebQuests developed.
The second WebQuest I developed, “A Quest for a safer and healthier workplace” was designed by Yvonne Toft from Central Queensland University and posed a question that looked at the case for a convergence of workplace health and safety legislation to bring the mining industry under the same legislative framework as other Australian industry.

The WebQuest provides an interdisciplinary approach to learning and requires its participants to work together to develop possible solutions that are the best fit for the perspectives of the stakeholders involved.

As yet there are few engines that will assist an html novice to publish a sophisticated WebQuest—Tom March’s "Web and Flow" Website and engine are well worth the look however.

Try your hand at developing a WebQuest today—they’re fun and the students love them.

Best,

Scot.

Monday, October 11, 2004

e-learning Amateurs & Professionals: a community of practice?

In education we always seem to be looking for the “killer” application or media.
Ron Oliver et. al. from Australia’s Edith Cowan University suggest that “..The speed with which education embraces new technologies is matched only by the speeds with which old technologies are dropped.”
Stephen Downs in his recent presentations in Australia has said that he believes that the concept of a killer application in education from an enterprise solution perspective is “broken technology”.
So are we as educators ‘barking up the wrong tree’?

My experience with enterprise systems tends to support Stephen Downes contention.
In my organisation we have gone through two implementations of enterprise Learning Management Systems (LMS) with two of the major players in this market.
Both systems were expensive and problematic to implement and maintain.
They both adopt a metaphor for learning that is not much more than content delivery page-turners.
Yes I know that with clever learning designs you can make the learning environment into something more than this, but the majority academic staff use the enterprise LMS is to deliver content with a couple of tools included for good measure.

Our experience with enterprise systems shows a poor level of reliability and our reputation has suffered because of this. It only takes one of our four Web-servers to fail and the LMS is no longer available to students.
Also, some of the synchronous communication tools download java applications to the users computer. This creates issues if ISP bandwidth, browser setup, platform differences and firewall problems. While the LMS is operating correctly, the users are not able to use the designed functionality of the learning environment.

For some years now educators and librarians have been attempting to define, categorise and re-use what they have been calling learning objects. The rationale behind this movement is to somehow re-package and make available existing learning resources for new learning experiences in an attempt to save money and development time.
There have, however, been some major problems with this initiative; in particular with the time taken to record the metadata required, and to de-contextualise or re-contextualise the learning objects. To some extent the later issue has been addressed by adopting Ron Oliver’s approach to ICT learning design, where the emphasis is on the undertaking of meaningful and authentic learning tasks that are supported by learning resources (re-useable learning objects) and supports.
The advantage of this approach lies in the requirement for learners to adapt the learning object to the new context of their learning task/s. In terms of Blooms Taxonomy, the learning is pitched into the top levels of evaluation and synthesis.
But who owns the learning objects? And do you need to pay for their use?

For many years publishers and universities have had a monopoly on intellectual property. Recent legislation in the US and Australia have sought to strengthen and broaden the strangle hold publishers have on all kinds of content by enacting and expanding copyright legislation.
Universities have since medieval times been custodians of knowledge and conferrers of qualifications. They have sought to certify students to particular levels of proficiency and educate the world intelligentsia.
This occurred in times where knowledge was finite and manageable, but now with the information age well and truly upon us, the quanta knowledge is growing at an unprecedented rate and its distribution is growing in a similar fashion.
We now have the situation where it is impossible to know all that there is to know about a specific discipline and many students will have more knowledge than their educators in some areas.
At the same time some, like Lave and Wenger are suggesting that true knowledge resides in “communities of practice” where learning and knowledge are developed through social discourse of like minded people.
This assertion offers a significant challenge to both publishers and universities as it seeks to undermine status quo in education.

OK, so if we suggest that universities and publishers are losing their monopoly on knowledge, who will create and distribute it?
Could we suggest that amateurs and their colleagues might give freely of their own time to generate and distribute information and ideas?
This suggestion seems unlikely, but it is happening already. Many communities of practice make information available publicly and do not ask for money.
Wikipedia now has in excess of a million articles publicly available and free of charge. The information in this online encyclopedia is written and maintained by anyone who wishes to contribute—amateurs if you like.
But is it reliable? It would appear that it is with a number of studies conducted that suggest reliablility equivalence with other publisher owned encyclopedias.
Another confounding issue with Wikipedia is that no person can claim authorship of the information, but people continue to donate and maintain the information without charge and for the common good.

So what does this mean for e-learning? If publishers and educational institutions are losing their monopoly, what will e-learning look like and how will we be able to determine the effectiveness of the options?
Who will make money from education?
Will there be more of a portfolio requirement when applying for employment?
These are tough questions with few obvious answers.

More soon,

Scot.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Simulating Authentic Learning

In my last posting I advocated the design of learning tasks that were real and authentic in order to engage learners in their learning environment. Kearsley also indicated this as an important factor in their “Engagement Theory”.
But what if it is too difficult or costly to design the learning tasks this way?
One way around this is to create a simulated learning environment where students can “pretend” that they are actually encountering and undertaking real authentic tasks.
Ron Oliver from Edith Cowan University of Technology and his colleagues have done a great deal of work on creating these kinds of learning environments and have found that not only are they more engaging than a content driven model, but the depth of learning can be significantly increased.
Ron delivered a paper (.pdf) last year at the ASCILITE conference held in Adelaide Australia where he presented an analysis of learning designs using these environments and demonstrated the increased level of learning in these designs.

You can find examples of this approach to learning design in the Australian National Training Authority Toolbox.

Online role-play simulations are another example of how we can simulate the level of reality in the learning environment. This kind of approach to learning design is not widespread, but those who have used it quickly become true believers.
This approach is based on presenting a scenario that requires students to assume a particular role that they are required to play faithfully to the character assumed.
The role-play has contextual information supplied to the learner so that they fully understand the situation and act/react accordingly.
The information, and the communication channels available to the roles is differential as it would be in real life. However, participants have the ability to share information outside of normal channels and can use this to progress their roles agenda.

There are a couple of high profile examples of this approach to learning design: Mekong e-sim and the Fablusi suite of simulations
There a number of excellent examples of Fablusi simulations including one known as “Needle Stick”.

So where’s the catch? Why aren’t we all designing using the above approaches?
Well there is a couple of reasons. Firstly, some learners have difficulty is “suspending belief”. Jan Herrington, Ron Oliver and Thomas Reeves discuss this phenomena in a journal article published in the Australian Journal of Education Technology.

My own observations suggest that some learners have initial difficulties getting past this hurdle. You can think of it as analogous to going to the movies—we know that the film Titanic is not real, but we suspend our disbelief for the performance.
Some people, however, find this very difficult for particular genres of film—my wife cannot “ get into” Science Fiction.

The same can be true of your learners and this can pose difficulties if the learning design doesn’t provide for enculturation time and activities.
Role-play simulation seems to overcome this problem and I’ve not heard of any learners that, once engaged with the learning environment, have not been able to overcome the suspension of disbelief.

The second reason for a reluctance to create these kinds of learning environments is the ability to move from a traditional educational paradigm to a more contemporary approach. When you need to think differently and plan an alternate approach to what you are use to, it takes time and effort.
It is my belief that once you have designed an authentic learning experience, the next time is easier and quicker and ultimately, once familiar with the new approach, there is no discernable difference between the traditional and the new.

Best,

Scot.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

But what about Learning Engagement??

Yes it’s time to get back to what this Blog is about, learning engagement and just how we achieve it.

The vast majority of the literature on learning engagement comes from the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education. I guess that this comes from the need to engage students at a distance with their courseware.
It is much easier for a good face-to-face teacher to engage and influence their students with their physical presence and ability to read body language.
When students are remote and have a multitude of other competing time pressures in their lives, we need to find ways that engage them and make them want to give a high priority to their studies.
The techniques for engaging students are, however, equally applicable to the classroom with often stunning results. Think about the way in which your students’ eyes light up when they are working together on real and meaningful learning tasks, or when they become involved in a role-play. But this is jumping the gun a bit here—let’s go back to just how we can engage our students.

In 1999 Greg Kearsley and Ben Shneiderman developed a framework for engaging students in technology-based teaching and learning—they called it engagement theory.
They suggested that to be truly engaging learning tasks should be project based, occur in collaborative teams and have an outside authentic focus. They also suggested that the learning should be structured the following way: Relate—Create—Donate.
Initially, students in small groups relate to the problem/project, create a solution and donate this to the outside world.
They believe that students become engaged when they see meaning and purpose in what they are doing.
Authenticity provides that meaning and purpose.
While elements of this approach have been used before it offers a unique approach to learning that has tremendous possibilities. It is kind of like an authentic problem-based learning.

Recently, a colleague and I designed an authentic WebQuest based around Occupational Health and Safety for the Australian mining industry.
While the scenario is presented by an actor (as the Minister), the problem/question presented is authentic and the groups actually submitted their reports and presentations to the Minister for his comment.

A previous WebQuest of mine, modelled on the same approach, has achieved the maximum rating in “Best WebQuests University"

Tomorrow I’ll discuss more contrived learning environments where learning engagement can still flourish. I’ll also discuss why some student’s have difficulties in these.

Best,

Scot.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Constructivism, Objectivism or Chaos

As we move to a more learner-centred paradigm in education we seek to design & develop learning opportunities that are consistent with a constructivist view of learning with the idea that learners will make their own sense of the material presented. While there is strong evidence to show that this approach develops a deeper level of higher order learning, much of the literature paints constructivism and objectivism (behavioralism) as being at opposite ends of a single continuum.
Cronje (2000) suggests that educators consider objectivism and constructivism not as a continuum, but as being axies placed at 90 degrees to each other. Within these axies there are then four quadrants Cronje notes as:
  • "construction" (high in constructivism, low in objectivism)
  • "instruction" (high in objectivism, low in constructivism)
  • "integration" (high in constructivism, high in objectivism)
  • "chaos" (low in constructivism, low in objectivism)
Cronje claims that "integration" is the realm of the instructional designer where objectives/learning outcomes can be demonstrably met and true constructivist learning takes place.
Ironically, Cronje claims that in learning environments that are low in objectivism and constructivism ("chaos") more learning takes place than in any of the other quadrants.

So what does this mean for educators? Should we forget about designing learning tasks and just provide a bunch of resources that our students can explore for their own edification?
While I don't believe that this is a workable approach, some of what Cronje is suggesting matches with our own experience in learning engagement. Students are more likely to become interested (engaged) in what they are learning if the performance goals (assessment) matches their own personal learning goals.

So how do we achieve this crossover? We know that in a learner-centred environment that students who are able to negotiate aspects of their assessment have higher levels of commitment and buy-in with these tasks. We also observe that assessment, which is integrated into the learning tasks, is seen as more relevant to the learning environment.

It is my view that when you integrate assessment and design learning tasks that are authentic and flexible, the likely hood of students buying in to, and becoming engaged in, their learning is high.

For those who are interested in a challenge Ron Lubensky from Click Craft is hosting an e-learning challenge Blog that provides an opportunity to share ideas on e-learning design--you can even submit your own design challenge and have the e-learning community of practice provide some ideas and feedback. This Blog is a seriously good idea and one that I can recommend as an excellent way of developing a strong e-learning community.

More tomorrow,

Scot.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Cultural change in e-learning

It is normal for us to find change challenging. Most of us are prepared to accept incremental, or first order change as a normal part of our lives--we don't always like it, but we accept it.
However, every now and then we are asked to make major or second order change and many of us actively object to this. This objection can constitute anything from ignoring the issues, all the way through to active sabotage and undermining.

Successful e-learning presents us with second order change and although many learning institutions espouse the paradigm shift required, they often fail to convince their teachers to come along for the ride.
Last year I presented a paper at AUSWEB03 that looked at these issues in my organisation. My paper presented a blueprint for facilitating change through effective change management.

We are now a year down the track and many of our academic staff still see teaching and learning as an administrative task. As with all busy staff, they prioritise their commitments and unfortunately still see staff development in teaching and learning as a low priority when compared with their other duties.

So how do we change this perception? Well I believe that the change required is linked to rewards--promotion, $$, prestige, release time, acknowledgement. Our current rewards system provides these for research and consultancy, but not for T&L. A staff member told me last week that being innovative in his teaching took substantial time and that there were no rewards--there was nothing in it for him! Some of our teachers are very innovative and their rewards are intrinsic rather than the extrinsic ones mentioned above.

Producing the required cultural change is surprisingly simple. Introduce additional rewards for T&L; publicise and support them. While this is the first step there is another one that is equally important--change from a culture of blame to one of support for risk-taking.
Without the confidence to take risks, few of your teachers will be prepared to innovate and think outside of the traditional box.

Stay tuned--more next Monday

Scot.