Thursday, August 07, 2008

Three Years On!!

Yes it has been three years (there abouts) since my last posting to this Blog and a great deal has happened in the elearning world.
Web 2.0 is now common parlance; Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) are now being promoted by some as an alternative to traditional education; YouTube has exploded and spawned a plethora of look alike sites offering similar services; podcasting is now incredibly popular and used by virtually every radio and television provider; image repository like Flickr and image manipulation products like Picink have revolutionised the way we store and share images; video had morphed into a variety of formats and even easier to edit, store and distribute; SecondLife has captured a massive audience of players and pretenders; free WIKIs and social networking software; MySpace and FaceBook engaging a whole generation of children and young adults; Google earth now offers animated and current views of the planet; we now have alternatives to video like SlideShare that provide small bandwidth footprint media with audio and images and Mashups and re-packaging are common with the application of some media re-purposed for another audience.

The pace of Web 2.0 innovation and development is staggering and shows no sign of slowing--if anything, the rate of change is faster than ever.

So what about the uptake of these technologies by schools and Universities in Australia? Australian Universities are by enlarge conservative institutions that are slow to adopt new ways of learning.

Despite the strong body of evidence of what constitutes effective learning, many universities persist with lectures and reading as their dominant approach. In choosing the two least effective methodologies (lectures 5%; reading 10%).
There are of course some notable exceptions to the norm with some universities experimenting with SecondLife Islands, RSS feeds, media rich and authentic learning environments. However, change is slow and patchy and the uptake and exploitation of these new and exciting learning technologies is poor at best.

Australian University Learning
Ironically, even though Australian Universities are relatively (or completely) free of Web censorship there is little interest in leveraging the strengths of the technology to engage learners and enrich their educational experience. Much of the reason rests with how academic staff are rewarded and employed. The easiest performance indicator to measure is that of research quanta. The number of conference papers, journal articles and book chapters is easy to quantify and reward. Teaching and learning effectiveness is much more difficult with uncontrollable variables such as personal circumstances, entry scores, competing assessment from other courses, family crises and student over commitment.
Exactly what effective teaching and learning is is also a challenging term to define and measure and so universities most often defer to the quanta of research publications as a guide for promotion and progression.
Often what attracts academics to academe is not the teaching, but the ability to engage in research and this is encouraged by the need to achieve a research higher degree such as a PhD.

Traditionally, universities have been a place where students come to study face to face. While distance education was available from some institutions, it was considered a poor substitute for the "real" university learning experience. As a student who has done the vast majority of my tertiary study by distance I can but agree with this analysis. Studying using poorly designed print-based study guides, sometimes illegible photocopied readings, and without the ability to make effective contact with a lecturer is a lonely and unpleasant experience.
The ability to study online with well designed courseware and flexible and authentic assessment, combined with the ability to make regular contact with your tutor/lecturer is a quantum leap from the old distance education materials of the past.
The challenge is for universities to encourage, support and reward academics engaged in the design and delivery of high quality interactive learning environments. Once Australian Universities understand this imperative the education world is there for the taking.

Australian Schools & ICTs (elearning)
The basic design of schooling has changed little in the past 40 years, but society and the students have changed a great deal. What use to work 40 years ago no longer meets students' needs. In Australia, the numbers of students lagging their year level in literacy and numeracy have ballooned over the last ten years and the trend is upwards

The results in the 2005 National Report on Schooling reports the performance of Australian students in Years 3, 5, and 7 against nationally agreed benchmarks in reading, writing and numeracy. The results of testing across Australia in 2005 show that around 20% of children in Year 7 do not meet the benchmarks for numeracy, and around 10% do not meet the reading and writing benchmarks. Indigenous children were worse, with more than a 33% of Indigenous children in Year 7 failing to meet reading benchmarks, and more
than 50% failing to meet numeracy benchmarks.
In 2002, the first year where Year 7 testing was initiated 10% of students did not achieve the benchmark level in reading and writing. In numeracy, more than 12% of students failed to reach the benchmark level. Again, the proportion of Indigenous year 7 students achieving at or above the benchmark level is significantly below the proportions for non-Indigenous students.
These data suggest that despite the continued emphasis on literacy and numeracy in Australian Schools, and the extraordinary practice in schools of suspending normal classes to practice the tests for two weeks or so, year 7 literacy and numeracy performance is either showing no improvement or going backwards, particularly in numeracy with a 100% increase in students failing to reach the benchmarks.
In low socio-economic areas the results are dramatically worse than the national data and this trend offers little hope for the generational poverty suffered in these areas.

If we look at the reasons for these results a strong component relates to a lack of engagement in all years of schooling, but particularly in the early years where the basics of language and numeracy are taught. School no longer meets the needs of students who are use to a digital world and who expect teachers to earn their respect. Often teachers will draw on the research that suggests a close correlation between low-socioeconomic background and academic performance. This they might suggest is grounds for poor performance and something that they will having difficulty addressing in their classrooms. However, there is also strong data that suggests that the teacher makes the most significant difference in a child's educational performance. Much more than the school itself.

So how do we engage modern students, these digital natives, and earn their respect? The answer to these questions is complex and interactional. Let's start with looking at what Keirsley and Shneiderman say about learning engagement and what engages a digital native. Learning engagement theory asserts that students need to work together in small teams to RELATE to complex real-world problem tasks, CREATE workable solutions/products and then DONATE these back into the real world. Keirsley and Shneiderman suggest that this authentic learning and the product are the key to engaging learners in what the students believe are worthwhile tasks--not one developed for the edification of teachers. So how does this relate to earning respect? Perhaps the fact that the students' perceive their learning to be meaningful and applicable in the real world that they develop a respect and admiration for their teacher. Could this also be influenced by a student-centred learning environment where student views and values are respected? Could it also be connected to the students' sense of achievement and understanding, no longer believing that they are "dumb" just because the schooling system does not suit them? Interesting questions to ponder?

So let's get back to elearning or ICTs in the learning environment, and actually how you describe just what a student's learning environment actually is. We know that the vast majority of today's students are digitally literate and that their world is one where digital technologies are integral to them. Imagine how they feel when they are denied the technologies they can already use to apply to a learning situation? Let's also consider what a student's learning environment is? From a traditional teaching perspective we may suggest that the classroom is the learning environment and that the majority of learning takes place there. What then of the other times of the day? Is this a learning free part of life? I don't think so!
Okay, so what might effectively the classroom to the rest of the students' lives in ways that are accessible and real?

If indeed technology is a critical part of the key towards meaningful and authentic learning that happens inside and outside of a formal learning environment, imagine the students' consternation when they find that access to their most popular tools are blocked by the school/education institution? Unfortunately, this is the case in most Australian schools because there is an underlying belief that students will attempt to access inappropriate material and/or be exposed to cyber danger. Now these fears are not unfounded and indeed even with all of the many security measures some students do obtain access to inappropriate and sometimes explicit material by exploiting weaknesses in the school's information technology (IT) security. Likewise, there are significant dangers posed to children by adults and other children who may wish to do them harm.
The possibility of having the press reporting any of these instances is enough to frighten even the bravest of school principals. So what is the answer? Do these same students have in filtered access to the same material outside of the school environment and IT infrastructure? Is there a need to educate students on the dangers and exploitation offered buy some of the content and communication tools available online. Who should bear this responsibility and who is best placed to organise this learning? If children are properly and effectively informed will they make better online decisions? Do the downside risks of better access to online tools override the learning opportunities offered by this technology? How might schools manage the risks posed by the provision of more Web 2.0 technologies?

Interesting questions indeed and perhaps the topic for some interesting problem solving.

More soon.


VRBones said...

After our conversation yesterday and re-reading this article I can clearly see how to answer the question of school internet security; build a WebQuest!

I have started the design for a lateral thinking webquest, but it's not coming together as I had hoped. As soon as I re-read this I could easily see all of the components required and the anticipated output to be submitted to the school's IT department. With your consent can I build this into a WebQuest or were you thinking the same thing?

Tony Bowes, GDLT

Scot said...

Hi Tony,

I'm happy for you to use my posting as a basis for a WebQuest.
You are correct, it would make a great WebQuest for teachers and students.