Reconciling VLE Minimum Standards

Judges Gavel

I am torn by VLE standards. On the one hand, I see their purpose and utility and on the other, I see a tool of management implemented primarily for the purpose of compliance. It is with this in mind that I titled this post ‘Reconciling VLE Minimum Standards’. Yesterday, I took part in a UCISA Digital Education Group webinar discussion on VLE Minimum Standards. An hour is not enough time to discuss the complexities of this subject, so this post is an attempt to answer the questions we didn’t get time to cover and to reconcile my internal conflict.

A recording of the webinar VLE Minimum Standards – Lessons from the Sector and Padlet containing the questions and resources are available.

For context, the University of Warwick does not have a VLE minimum standard. It is the direction we are moving in but are yet to begin. Our VLE is still young, having been in ‘pilot’ around five years ago. We’re at a stage now where its importance is recognised by the ‘University’ and an appetite is growing for increased consistency. The answers to the questions below are based on my experience of implementing minimum standards at my previous institution.

How do you monitor and measure compliance with the standard? Are there any automated ways of doing this? What, if any are the consequences or sanctions for non-compliance? What flexibility do your standards offer?

Monitoring – We took a sample across the faculties.

Automation – Can data gained through automaton be meaningful? We can automatically trawl the database and say module x contains a forum, x number of files, a quiz etc. But what can’t be measured through automated means is whether those things were meaningful or successful. Is having a forum with nothing in it enough to pass the standard? Often, it is. But that’s a tick box measure, not something that will change practice. There are too many variables, too much context and too much open to interpretation to automatically to measure whether a module page has met the standard.

Consequences – We thought it best to allow each department to decide how they enforced the standards. It was their decision to determine what the consequences would be for non-compliance. We wanted to position ourselves as a source of support, as the carrot, not the stick.

Flexibility – We used lots of phrases such as “as appropriate” and “where necessary” to enable staff to apply only what was relevant to their teaching context. There were standards that were not optional that were applicable to the institution regardless of context.

How have you evaluated the impact of the standards?

This is where standards fall down. What is the measure of success? What is the desired impact? This needs to be clear early. Is impact to be measured by looking at the measures of student satisfaction? Is 80% of the modules meet the standard success? We hadn’t got that far and I’m not sure we really had this clear either. Sadly, standards are often something we have to do so thinking about this stuff can become a lower priority than delivering a standard.

How have your standards evolved over time? What would you change about them now?

I think minimum VLE standards have to be part of a wider holistic approach to improving the student experience. All VLE standards do is improve one small aspect of the experience. The VLE is a small part of a big picture, if you’re clinging on to the hope that improving the VLE will fix the student experience, I fear you’ll be disappointed. I like this description from Reed and Watmough.

If these are truly hygiene factors in Herzberg’s use of the word, they will not necessarily make students’ HE experience completely satisfactory; rather, they will reduce the likelihood students will be dissatisfied in a preventative sense. These factors could be present but other aspects central (or intrinsic) to the teaching and learning experience could be missing, thus preventing students from extreme satisfaction. Reed, P. Watmough, S. 2015

I found a dichotomy between compliance and use which I still find difficult to reconcile. I found the more time I spent developing and auditing the standards the more I felt they needed to be broader to suit different disciplines. BUT whilst auditing them, I thought they were too open to interpretation and needed to be more specific. How do you measure for example “Appropriate learning content available through a structured content organisation”? My interpretation was different to my colleague.

What sort of approaches to reporting on the standards have you done?

We performed an audit from a sample of modules across all faculties. We created an infographic that showed 3 positive areas and 3 areas for improvement which was visible to the whole University. We also sent the raw data to the Head of Department. We felt it was important for departments to decide on the best approach for monitoring and taking action.

What have institutions found successful in raising adoption of the standards, including staff development and communication approaches? Do staff really understand the impact of meeting/not meeting the standards on students?

How can they understand the impact of not meeting them if there are no consequences? If we want compliance then there should be a compliance mechanism and we should be honest that they will be measured and reported on. We can use the student experience as a motivator but without seeing that surface or demonstrated in a tangible way, e.g. module evaluations or NSS (by which time it’s too late) where are they going to see the impact? So we’re back to someone policing them and there being clearly articulated consequences.

Have you updated your standards? Do you have a schedule as to when they will be updated?

I didn’t get that far at my previous institution but I would expect any that we develop would be reviewed and updated annually. Technologies, policy and focus may change from year to year and the standards should reflect where the institution wants to go, not where it is now.

What balance have you taken in producing minimum standards for your VLE between functional standards e.g. put up the handbook and broader pedagogic or principle base standards e.g. accessibility

This is a question that has stuck with me. I want to create a standard, baseline or whatever you want to call it that changes behaviour and practice whilst improving consistency, student experience and use of the VLE. I don’t want to create a tick list of things to do to avoid getting scrutiny from the institution. Would a standard be more successful if it was focussed on the change in practices we want to achieve than just a tick box list of things that should be on the module page?

It can still be linked to specific measurable criteria and further guidance but the emphasis would be on pedagogy and practice first. The platform, features and functions are immaterial. For example “Teach inclusively – Ensure your materials follow accessibility guidelines. Ensure a variety of assessment types and materials etc.”. We can combine VLE compliance with pedagogical practice. I’m thinking along the lines of nudge theory. So watch this space, the University of Warwick VLE minimum standard might be a little different.

Ultimately I want to support good teaching whether that is through the VLE or not. Online practice can be beneficial to the face to face and vice versa. We want to get people thinking about practice not about ticking a compliance box.

 


Reed, P. Watmough, S. 2015 Hygiene factors: Using VLE minimum standards to avoid student dissatisfaction. E-Learning and Digital Media
Vol 12, Issue 1, pp. 68 – 89. First Published January 29, 2015.

I am not your enemy

I am not your enemy. I’m the mug who has been thrown into the lion’s den covered in rump steak, to demonstrate the VLE. I don’t know what I’m walking in to. I do not make decisions. I do not create policy. Frankly, there are times I don’t care if you use the VLE. I’m just here to show you. I am not the enemy.

I should be clear that strong anger and hostility is rare.

VLEs are a bit disappointing

To be fair VLEs are a bit of a disappointment. Actually, let me qualify that. Technology is a bit of a disappointment. As David White says “if you go to technology to be the solution…everyone will be disappointed”.

I think we all hope that technology will just work with very little/no interference from human beings. At least sometimes that’s how I think academics hope it works. I may be being unfair here but there are times I see the “oh I have to do something with this to make it worthwhile” look in their eyes. Sadly the VLE does not know what you want to teach. It cannot absorb your teaching materials through osmosis and organize them correctly for you. It cannot create a quiz for you. It can’t facilitate a forum for you.  It can’t decide the best way to present your learning materials and activities to best aid student learning. Unfortunately, like all technology, it requires some human intervention. More importantly, it requires human intervention to make it meaningful. Technology on its own is meaningless.

Technology gives the impression that anything is possible. That’s true to an extent. Technology has opened up endless possibilities. In a way that is a blessing and a curse. Reality does not always live up to expectation. I hear “surely it can do this”, “surely they can do that” but the reality is there is a LOT of work behind even the simplest idea. You don’t see that, perhaps we ought to show you more?

VLEs are designed to do a job. You might be able to plug stuff into it. You might be able to adapt it but on the whole, it does what it does. Can they be better? Oh of course. But they serve a purpose and do that adequately. I hold out for something better but I can guarantee no matter what comes I’ll still be asked: “can it do this”.

Can it do…

Whenever I demo the VLE it get’s compared to other systems. Can it do x? Can it do y? Can students see z in here? I find myself saying no a lot in these situations. Usually because rather than looking at the VLE for what it is and what it can offer, it’s compared to existing systems, some wholly incomparable. I sometimes wish I had that device on Men in Black so I could remove their memories of whatever system they were using previously so they could look at the VLE with fresh unprejudiced eyes. I don’t have that.

I should add that I always want to hear these questions, as they feed into ongoing developments.

We’re doing everything we can…

Sometimes I feel like people assume the reason it can’t do something is that we can’t be bothered to make it do that. We can. We want to. But what they don’t see is the huge amount of thought and work that goes into every decision around the VLE. Even seemingly simple things like turning on plugins. Although sometimes the functionality just isn’t possible or doesn’t exist. We have to consider each request on its merits. It’s not like switching on a light switch. I wish it were quicker. I wish it were simpler but NOTHING about technology is simple (despite what the marketing people would have us believe).

I promise you it’s added to the list. We’re trying to get through the list but it only gets longer. That’s the problem with technology the work never stops. Everyone wants something, because “surely it can be done”.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Unfortunately, we often become the focus of anger for decisions that we have nothing to do with, made by people we have nothing to do with over which we have absolutely no power. Do I think you should use the VLE? Yes because it can do great things when used well and consistency is something students want and deserve. Do I care if you use it? Ultimately no, that’s your choice but you’re missing out on something. Or more accurately your students are.

I didn’t say you had to use the VLE. Someone else did. Sorry. I’m just here to show you. Am I really the person you should be angry with? Do you really think I can do anything about what’s happening to you? Do you think making me feel uncomfortable will help? Do you think talking down to me will help? Do you think it will help to make me feel small?

No. It won’t help.

Why are people still hostile?

The world of ed tech seems to believe that everyone wants to use technology. That it’s obvious that people should and those who don’t are Luddites and dullards. Often anyone who dares questions the use of technology in education is met with much belligerent, disapproving responses. They are an enemy of the state who must be indoctrinated.

The reality is there is still resistance. People do not believe in the use of technology without question. Unlike the majority in the Ed Tech world, they look at it with a critical mind.  There is legitimate criticism of the VLE (not that anyone can agree on the perfect alternative). They are bloated and feature heavy. They never quite work how people want them to. There’s always something missing. Put enough academics in a room and they will find a reason to dislike it. I believe there is legitimate criticism of the use of technology in education. In fact, I think we are obliged to consider every aspect of technology positive or negative.

I suppose we need to change our sales pitch from “you can do a quiz” to “you can scaffold student learning by creating a formative test each week and displaying feedback and content based on their results. The data can also be used as an indicator to show which concepts are proving difficult to understand and may need to be covered again the following week”. There’s a longer blog post in the “can do, should do vain”.

So what do we do?

We grit our teeth and we bear it. If there was universal acceptance they wouldn’t need people like us. Try to always be their champion. Listen, really listen. Respond when they ask you a question. Remind them that you’re here to support them, not get in their way. Smile. Respond kindly. Be patient. You don’t know what might be driving their behaviour, it could be wholly unconnected with you or what you’re there to talk to them about.

Always, always remember:

The trouble with Moodle…

I ought to have called this post ‘The trouble with VLEs’ as everything here applies to the VLEs I have experienced. This post has arisen from my moving institutions, and VLEs as a consequence, and attending MoodleMoot last week. It was my first Moot and an ‘interesting’ experience.

MoodleMoot 2017

This was my first visit to MoodleMoot. The conference does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a 3 day festival of Moodle. There has always been a ‘those who use Moodle and those who don’t’ mentality in VLEs. If I had a pound for every time I heard Moodle is better I would be a millionaire. I used Moodle for several years, used Blackboard for two and am now back with Moodle again. I expected MoodleMoot to convince me of the superiority of Moodle. I expected to be indoctrinated in to the Moodle cult.

Was I indoctrinated? No. If anything MoodleMoot served only to highlight the issues inherent in Moodle (and other VLEs). I saw people doing interesting things, clever things but I saw nothing that wowed me or anything ‘new’. Nothing persuaded me of its superiority (I know this is not the aim of the conference but that’s the culture that seems to surround Moodle in my experience). It struck me that much of what was presented at MoodleMoot was the work people had done to get Moodle to do what they needed it to do.

We are the wrong people

There were no students and very few teachers at MoodleMoot. I know we technologists are an important community to engage with but I can’t help feeling we are the wrong people.

I can see when something doesn’t work. I can see where things can be improved but I spend my time telling people how to use Moodle. I know how it works and I tell people how to work within the system. I don’t use it in earnest. I don’t teach. I don’t set up and manage multiple sites. I don’t support hundreds of students. I don’t use it along side my other duties (it is my job). I don’t submit assignments. I don’t mark assignments. I am not a real user.

I know how to use the system so it’s quirks make sense to me. I know ‘that’s just how it works’ so I don’t always consider how it could be improved. I don’t do the same processes over and over again so I don’t see the ways it could be made more efficient. Our students and our teaching staff do. Perhaps they are the people we should be speaking to?

The Learning Enhancement and Development team from City, University of London did a very interesting presentation on their review of Moodle with staff and students. They ended up with 95 recommendations on a variety of improvements to their Moodle which included changes to the theme amongst others. They have made their slides available here. You can look at that number in two ways, one ‘they just don’t know how to use it’ or two ‘there are still a lot of usability issues in Moodle’. I look at it as the latter. Yes there is something to be said for training but isn’t there even more to be gained from getting it right the first time, rather than training people around the problem?

A review is time-consuming, it’ll throw up things we can do nothing about whilst inadvertently raising expectations. So we don’t do them. I wonder whether the answer would be for MoodleHQ to arrange a review with users from different institutions (not technologists, actual teachers and students) and listen to the right people. Something to assist in the focus on usability of existing features promised for 3.4 perhaps?

Held to ransom

A lot of the presentations were about developments institutions had made to their Moodle installations. Lots about improving assessment processes and grading for example. One presentation talked about syncing Moodle with SITS the student record system, something we’d all like to do. So if it’s a problematic area for so many then why are we all doing our own thing? When asked whether people were able to share (a principle on which Moodle is based) they couldn’t because it was so highly customised to their own environment. We are duplicating efforts! MoodleHQ these are issues can they not be fixed at source?

Moodle survives largely because of a community of selfless and dedicated developers who maintain it. It is a free, open source VLE but free never really means free. Someone has to sacrifice something. So developers create plugins, fix bugs etc. but they have no responsibility to do it. So many things go unfixed and undeveloped. MoodleHQ has added more and more functions (like badges and competencies) without improving the fundamental tools. This is not intended as a criticism of the developers who contribute to Moodle, I am grateful for their work and I contribute nothing, but we are held to ransom by the way Moodle is developed.

If MoodleHQ don’t see something as important then nothing is done. If the community of developers don’t have time to maintain Moodle and plugins then nothing is done. That’s not to say a paid for service is any better. Having used Blackboard I can confirm they are not better. You have to wait for the next update for things to be fixed and the ‘support’ is flaky at best. Usually problems will be fixed in the next update, by which point you have 100s of helpdesk tickets, annoyed staff and students, or you fobbed off with ‘it’s your configuration’. It wasn’t quick or responsive either. So I assure you that support and maintenance are not just a problem in ‘free’ tools.

There are attempts to make the way developments are dealt with more joined up through initiatives like the Moodle User Association but MoodleMoot seemed to be more of a celebration of the things Moodle isn’t doing than what it is doing well. So MoodleHQ ought to look at MoodleMoot as their opportunity to identify and prioritise issues. Adopt developments other people have made in to core. Come on MoodleHQ there’s a pool of stuff out there already being done, stop introducing new features and make the ones we have better! Other people are doing it! To the Moodle community, let’s work together to get those major issues fixed, let’s stop working in isolation and only coming together once a year. Let’s share.

Core vs plugin

Moodle, for those that don’t know, is made up of core tools and plugins. This flexibility is lauded by the community but it has its disadvantages as mentioned above. Many very useful plugins that are highly used should be part of core but aren’t. A lot of plugins are no longer being developed. A lot don’t quite integrate with core. MoodleHQ need to develop a ‘plugin to core’ development life cycle so those plugins that are found to be useful can be adopted and developed as part of core.

Blackboard vs. Moodle

I think this argument is a little redundant now. The issue goes beyond this silly rivalry. That’s why Jisc started the #ngdle discussions and a debate at Digifest17. The problem is not about which one has the best features, we need to talk about what we want from our VLEs. Do we even want them anymore? Do they still serve a purpose? Are they supporting and enhancing learning?

I can assure you they both have their advantages and disadvantages. I used to long for Moodle. Now I find myself occasionally longing for Blackboard.

The VLE works just fine

But just because it does the job, doesn’t mean we can’t seek something better. Should discussions about next-gen digital learning environments be restricted by a “what we have now works” mentality?

The conversation so far

Jisc recently began a Co-design consultation which seeks the next big ideas on their six challenge areas. Details of the challenges and rationale behind the consultation can be found on the Jisc Co-design consultation 2016-17 page. The 2nd of the six challenges asks

What should the next generation of digital learning environments do? Jisc 2016

In response I wrote a blog post Why won’t the VLE die? in which I question why we still have VLEs despite the dissatisfaction that often surrounds them. I took part in a live debate, (I daren’t watch it back to see how much I waffled incoherently or the unflattering angle it was filmed from) which you can catch up on YouTube #codesign16 Learning Environments and Intelligent Campus. There have been lots of blogs on the subject of next-gen digital environments, my colleague Marcus Elliott puts forth his thought-provoking proposal for student centred systems in his blog Next generation digital learning environment – my thoughts.

Let’s put the student in the centre of our system. In fact, let’s put the student’s learning at the centre. Marcus Elliott 2016

Lawrie Phipps (Jisc) has collected some of the best posts in his blog #Codesign16: The story so far – Next Gen Digital Learning Environments.

I took part in a tweetchat today that encouraged me to write this follow-up blog. You can see the tweets under the #codesign16 hashtag. It lead me to respond to something that troubled me. The conversation seems to be in a loop. We keep returning to tech bashing, being restricted by the possibilities available to us now and not seeing a problem with what we have now. To me, we are missing the possibilities that bringing together so many great minds to discuss could offer.

We need a problem to solve

Do we? Where will “there’s nothing wrong with what we have now” get us? Well it’ll keep us exactly where we are now. There may not be a problem with the VLE, although the amount of dislike for them suggests otherwise, but do we really need a problem to solve to improve it? There’s no denying the VLE does a job, how well and what job it’s there to do is debatable.  Whilst I strongly believe technology should always be led by pedagogy there is an opportunity for technology to open up new ways of working and interacting. Donna summed it up nicely:

We need to free ourselves from problem = solution thinking. We are looking in to the future, what’s next, how do we prepare for that? What does that future look like for learning and teaching? We need to think big, dream big, otherwise we may as well not think at all. VLEs have remained largely unchanged since their inception. Clearly, they must be doing something right or it’s just we don’t know what the alternative is. I strongly believe we can and should strive for something better.

We’re stuck in the ‘what we have’ loop

Discussion keeps getting caught up in the ‘what we have’ loop. We are stuck in what we can do now. We shouldn’t limit our thinking just because what we want might not be technically possible now. I believe if you have the idea the tech will follow, to steal a phrase from a Kevin Costner classic “if you build it they will come”.

The features we have now are not important. What we want is important. It may be that what we want looks very similar to what we have now. There’s nothing wrong with that but lets not start out with that mentality. Forget what we have now, put it aside, think about what you could have if there were no barriers. That is what we are doing in this discussion, we are escaping the realm of possibility. It’s hard to think beyond what we have now, but to do anything meaningful, it must be done.

Tech bashing achieves nothing

Look a lot of us don’t like the VLE. A lot of us are frustrated by its shortcomings. But lamenting over its failings is not what this discussion is about. We can go over all the things that are wrong or right with the VLE but that ain’t gonna get us anywhere. It helps to think about shortcomings but only when followed by a solution. If you see something is wrong, what would you like to see instead? How would you solve it? How would you make it better? We can keep bashing the tech all day long but we need to get on with the job in hand.

What is it we think the VLE does?

I think we need to go back and think about this. Marcus does so nicely in his recent post Next generation digital learning environment – my thoughts. Here Marcus tries to go back to the essence of what a VLE should be for and he rethinks its focus and design to be student centred.

The next generation digital learning environment should be an enabler, not a service. It should allow us to join all these things together. The walls we built to keep our students in our existing VLEs need to be taken down – not just made a bit more porous. Marcus Elliott 2016

I would argue current VLEs do nothing more than replicate what we do in ‘real life’. Tests in class can be done online, papers handed in to an office are submitted online and conversations had face to face in class can be done in online discussion forums. Is this what we want? A replication of what we do? Or something that helps us think of new ways?

The VLE is essentially a piece of software nothing more, it has features, links to other services, internal and external, but it has somehow become a feature of the institution. One so powerful it should not be questioned. Some of us like it, some hate it, others tolerate it but we all (academics anyway) have to use it. Just because according to the ICT feature list it does the job, does not mean it can live in our universe unquestioned. We are held to ransom by its size and it’s power over us but that does not mean we should comply to its whims. We shouldn’t have to bend our teaching and learning strategies because “that’s the way the VLE works”. Perhaps the VLE should start bending to our whims and our needs. It can do better. It can do more. It can do what it does already better. So let’s stop having the same old conversation and start looking forward. What do you want it to become?

Digital = People

To find the next-gen learning environment we must focus on people. Not technology. Let’s look at what people want to do, how they want to interact with their students and how technology can support and facilitate that. If you want a problem concentrate on finding out what is stopping people from using tech and what is restricting their use. People are key. They use the tech. They are the priority.

Why won’t the VLE die?

Ever since the inception of the VLE it feels like we have been asking ourselves this question. We await the next generation, the technology that will save us all from the tyranny of the VLE. VLE (or LMS for my American friends) systems are a divisive technology in education. Some people hate them, others love them, most tolerate them. The benefits of their use are still questioned and explored. So if we’re not convinced that they are beneficial, why won’t they die?

If you haven’t read this post, titled Christ, I hate Blackboard written by user Davenoon please do.  Not only is it hilarious, it demonstrates the level of loathing the VLE can produce.

“These are the words, if I could shit them into being, that I would use to catalogue the depth of my loathing for Blackboard.” Davenoon 2014

The comments that follow the article demonstrate the dichotomy of feeling that surrounds the VLE. This post will not debate the virtues of Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle. What I am interested in is why we are still using them. How, given the speed of technical innovation in all other areas, the VLE remains very much unchanged from where it began.

We are asking the wrong question

We constantly ask what the next generation of each technology we use should do. Therein lies my issue, what it should do. What features it should have, what functionality we expect. But this narrows our thinking. Boils learning to a series of tasks and processes. Learning is much more complex than that.

So the question ought not to be why won’t the VLE die, what the next generation should do; rather what do we want to explore. What pedagogies? What teaching methods and strategies? How will technology support or enhance those things?

We allow ourselves to be technology lead

This point really relates to the one above. We spend so much time worrying about the technology, why it doesn’t work, why we hate it, what we want to see, what’s next, that we miss the most fundamental thing.

Technology use is about people. Technology would be nothing if we didn’t use it. It is that interaction between teacher, technology and student that we should be concentrating on. How can technology help to facilitate this interaction, how can it support or enhance it? We should ensure that the technology enhances, not detracts, from the humanity of the learning process.

Technology is created the wrong way

We are feature focused. Probably because that is the way our minds work. We think about activities, “I want students to do x”, because really most technologies just replicate what we do. They rarely fundamentally change our activities, they might make something easier, sometimes technology even enhances an activity but it’s rare that it replaces it entirely.

It’s hard to escape this way of thinking and I’m not smart enough to suggest how we can do it. It is easier to think about features, “I want to be able to do x”, as that is how we are conditioned. Imagine if we could. If our ideas were unbound from reality, to what currently exists and what is currently possible.

When VLEs were first created I’m sure they were answering a teaching need, chiefly the ease of access to materials for students, sadly since then ‘the problem’ appears to have been forgotten and what has been created seems to be a feature heavy unusable beast. Lots of features are being added without rationalisation or thought about how people actually use them or how they interact with ‘real world’ teaching.

We like things that reproduce what we already do.

VLEs were supposed to be a revolution. According to many the VLE would replace the lecture and, in the opinion of many doom mongers, the lecturer too. Students would all learn online without once meeting face to face and the University would crumble in to oblivion. That hasn’t happened (yet) and I can’t see any evidence of an appetite for that amongst the majority of the student body.

Neil Selwyn, in his 2013 book Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitization, describes technology as replicating what we do in the real world. The thought had never occurred to me but as I reflected I realised how true that is. We do in class tests, now we do them online. We used to hand in paper assignments, now we do that online. We ask students to discuss topics in class, now we use online discussion boards. We carry out our lectures and seminars online using video conferencing but we’re still largely following the same format as a face to face session, it’s just online. Yes in all of these examples the technology may have brought some efficiency or flexibility but it has made little fundamental change to our processes.

Change is easiest accepted when it’s incremental and I have always found explaining the use of technology easiest when I relate it to something people are already doing. I’m not entirely sure we are ready for a revolution.

Adoption is a matter of culture change

Even if we had something different. We would need to change the existing culture and processes. If you’ve ever introduced something new in to HE, you’ll feel the pain of this process. It is not quick, it’s not painless and it certainly isn’t easy.

Because we will never win

Even IF we could think of something different, some incredible revolutionary environment, I can absolutely guarantee someone would say it doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t suit their needs or their teaching style. So what we end up with is a bloated, mangled, customised behemoth to make sure that everyone is catered for. Then we receive complaints that it’s bloated, mangled and customised and no-one wants to use it.

In my experience, when it comes to technology, we are never going to win.

ICT dictate what we do

Related to the points below, ICT in my experience largely dictate what we can and can’t have. Rightly so, they need to make sure it works with their infrastructure, is sustainable and reliable. But why should we be shackled by their infrastructure? Should we be held back because they do not have the staff with the necessary skills?

Controversial I am sure but it has to be asked. Why do ICT think that they are experts on the learning process? On teaching? On students? They are the experts on technology, on infrastructure, networks etc. but they have limited experience in any other area. If this is what we need to move forward why should they be allowed to hold us back?

Other technologies hold us to ransom

Related to the point above the existing infrastructure will often not allow us to explore what we need to. We are limited by student management systems, timetable systems etc. that we want to plug-in to our environments but won’t work with one another. This is the ICT departments headache and one of the reasons they can be dictatorial about what we adopt.

Our processes hold us to ransom

Neil Selwyn describes the VLE as a tool of management and surveillance. Another way for management to keep an eye on teaching staff. Again, I had never thought of it that way. It helps to explain the scepticism and mistrust that surrounds it. As the VLE has become part of management it has resulted in a high number of processes being integrated with the VLE. In many instances the VLE has become an absolute necessity for these processes to be completed. Once a technology is part of a process it’s very difficult to remove it and even more difficult to persuade people that they can change it. We are creatures of habit.

We don’t like change

And mostly because…

change

 

Losing my ALTc virginity

I have just returned from my first Association of Learning Technologists conference, so I thought I’d write a little blog about the experience. There was a lot of choice and I saw a lot of presentations so forgive some of the vague descriptions.

As an aside, I loved ALTc. I genuinely enjoyed it. Although the amount of choice was baffling and I can’t say I learnt anything ‘revolutionary’. I met lots of lovely people, saw some interesting practice and listened to thought-provoking keynotes.

In the Valley of the Trolls

Josie Fraser

Josie started us off with a timely keynote about trolling. There is an increasing amount in the news about incidents of trolling and having spoken to a few attendees the talk reflected a number of personal experiences.

Josie showed us some recent examples. Take for example Microsoft Tay, the artificial intelligence Twitter robot, who was targeted by internet users and descended swiftly in to posting vile racist, homophobic and outrageous views. Josie cited the book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. Look at Tay and Boaty McBoatface, when we put stuff on the internet people love to ruin it. WE are the reason we can’t have nice things. The internet is not the problem. We are.

The media, Josie says, is part of the problem. They ‘feed the trolls’ by publishing articles about them, by paying them attention. They make light of something serious. They use it to fill their pages with sensationalism that makes, those of a certain generation, tut loudly at the ‘yoots’ (youths) of today. The media likes to make out that the internet or video games or music is the problem. It’s not. We are.

Josie talked about the motivations of the troll. Seemingly simple – power, notoriety and just plain old bigotry, but also somehow complex. A world of anonymity where lines are blurred and there are more shades of grey than black and white. James Clay asked whether there is a scale or spectrum of trolling. It’s definitely not simply you’re a troll or you’re not a troll. Like bullying and harassment it can be subtle, almost imperceptible. Who knows what is or isn’t trolling. I suppose it’s in the eye of the ‘trollee’.

When we use the word troll we legitimise bullying, harassment, threats, bigotry and racism and reduce it serious behaviours in to something seen as acceptable. It’s not as bad because it’s on the internet. It’s what you deserve if you put stuff on the internet. No. No-one deserves to be trolled. But let’s start calling it what it really is. Trolling is bullying and harassment and it should not be trivialised.

Open and flexible learning opportunities for all? Findings from the 2016 UCISA TEL Survey on learning technology developments across the UK higher education sector

Richard Walker, Julie Voce, Martin Jenkins, Jebar Ahmed, Elaine Swift, and Phil Vincent

UCISA released the findings from their 2016 Technology Enhanced Learning Survey to which 110 UK HEIs responded. The full report can be found here:

UCISA 2016 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK

From the discussion we had in the room uptake of open and flexible practices seem low, with limited increase in MOOCs and open badges, but I haven’t read the full report yet to fully understand the results.

Disruptive Technology Enhanced Learning

Michael Flavin

This was a fascinating talk. I wish it was recorded because I’d like to go over it again. Michael talked about disruptive innovation amongst other theories. To poorly paraphrase, sustaining technologies are those that improve the performance of existing technologies. Disruptive technologies bring something not seen before. Michaels talk showed how few disruptive technologies have, in reality, existed in educational technology. The VLE wasn’t despite what everyone said at the time. To be honest I think we’re using much the same technolgy as we always have done just lsightly differently or more than before.

Disruption is a feature of practice not product. So essentially, the reason educational technologies have not been disruptive is because, the underlying practuce of teaching, has not changed. Or at least that was my interpretation.

Can WordPress function as a VLE?

David Read

Short answer is yes it can. There are lots of things that can be used as a VLE. However, each comes with a list of challenges and limitations, just like our current VLEs. They are none of them perfect.

Some time ago we haled the death of the VLE. But oh look, they’re still alive and kicking. I’m going to do some work around ‘Why won’t the VLE die’.

Education and Neuroscience: Issues and Opportunities

Lia Commissar

Another brilliant end to the day. Lia talked about the fascinating field of neuroscience and, to everyones delight, blew apart some of the myths that surround how we learn. So you know how people will tell you your brain shrinks without enough water, well, nope that’s wrong. Only using 90% of our brains? Nope. Learning styles? Nope.

If incorrect beliefs were ice cream then this picture sums up Lias presentation nicely:

nope

Code Create Collaborate

Ian Livingstone

Another brilliant keynote. If you don’t know Ian he founded Games Workshop, had European distribution rights for Dungeon and Dragons, wrote the Fighting Fantasy role play book series and even founded the company that created Lara Croft. That is to name but a few of his accomplishments. There was lots of nostalgia watching old video games and remembering the fun we had as children.

Children should be enjoying themselves while they are learning – Ian Livingston

Ian’s keynote showed the power of games. Games are his passion and he champions them whenever he can. Video games get a lot of bad press but he espoused so many of their virtues in education. The problem solving, continuous assessment and contextualises the real world. He also talked about his horror at the marginalisation of the arts and creative industries. We should not underestimate their power he says, I couldn’t agree more.

Building digital capability through mapping and collaboration 

James Clay, and Lawrie Phipps

I could be described as a James and Lawrie groupie, for which I am not ashamed. James and Lawrie are incredibly generous with their time, expertise and advice in support of our work at Lincoln and I always feel I should return the favour. If I can contribute to their sessions then I will.

We began with their usual double act, explaining the work Jisc has been doing around digital capability. The framework,  discovery tool and their online offer. They talked about the importance of digital capability and how it underpins everything that we do. We all completed visitor and residents exercises that helps us to map, and better understand, our digital practice. There wasn’t really time in an hour to do that properly, which was a real shame. Here’s our V and R.

vandr

I will write a post about my digital capabilities journey soon.

Flipping heck! Be careful what you wish for

Andrew Raistrick, and Steven Bentley

Andrew and Steven talked about their approach to CPD. They flipped the classroom by asking participants to watch a video before attending the CPD session. By doing this they were able to shorten their sessions to an hour and run them over lunch time. The videos detailed the pedagogy of the TEL tool whilst the face to face session did all the ‘where to click stuff’.

I would suggest this is the wrong way round. Andrew said doing the clicking training was both boring and tiring because the most interesting part was the pedagogical conversations. I would argue you should do the pedagogical exploration face to face and the click training via video. The pedagogy is, after all, the most important bit.

ALT Learning Technologist of the Year Awards

We were highly commended in the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year Team Awards. We were very touched and honoured to have been recognised. There were very worthy winners and I was honoured to stand on the same stage us as.

Copyright and e-learning: understanding our privileges and freedoms

Jane Secker

Jane talked to us about copyright. Yawn I hear you say? Well Jane made it very interesting. Copyright is important. It’s the law. It’s our responsibility to stick to it. Jane talked about its origins and the various types of copyright laws and exceptions. A very complex subject.

Technology causes us a problem as breaking copyright has become very easy. She described the sense of injustice that surrounds copyright, the feeling that we are somehow being limited by it. But at its essence copyright is about respect. Respecting other people’s ideas and hard work. Copyright is seen as someone elses problem.

Jane tells us to look at copyright from an emotional perspective. Consider the owners feelings. Imagine yourself in that position. Put yourself in their shoes. No-one likes to have their ideas stolen. So why is it OK just because you go it from the internet?

We insist students reference work in their assignments. Why should staff be the exception?

How best should a VLE be designed to enhance learners’ experience? 

Emmanuel Isibor

In short the research shows that students want to be able to adapt the VLE to their needs. Do VLEs allow that? Not really. They are controlled by the tutor and content is consumed as they see fit rather than how it will work best for the student.

Evaluating Webinars as a Tool for Delivering Lectures and Seminars at Distance in a Healthcare Setting 

Daniel Metcalfe

Some very useful tips here from Daniels research on students feelings on webinars as replacements for lectures and seminars. Students on the whole reacted positively and surprisingly, felt the level of interaction with staff was much the same as in face to face sessions. His advice on running online sessions:

  • Don’t run lectures as traditional lectures
  • Be interactive
  • Add activities
  • Familiarise the students with the technology as early as possible
  • Have a colleague to help

Designing for Flow

Leonard Houx

Clutter is a barrier to learning. Clutter makes your learning less attractive, less credible, and more difficult to engage. Clutter is a disruption to flow. Poor flow leads to students feeling distraction, discontinuation, disengagement, dissatisfaction, dislike, distrust & disputation. It leads to staff site hacking, jazzing up (poorly), tragic resignation and antagonism with IT. Leonard has rebuilt parts of his VLE and it looks fab. A shame we didn’t get to see more really.

Strategies for supporting effective student engagement with lecture recordings

Matt Cornock

Matt talked about his research in to the ways students connect live lectures with lecture capture content. Matt suggested one of the biggest barriers to the effective use of captures is the timetable. That students do not have the time between lectures to use the captures. He said students in lectures thought they were supposed to take notes, whilst staff felt they should listen and get a holistic overview of the content then use the capture to explore the detail. He questioned whether we should continue to see the lecture as central to everything. Another barrier to students embedding captures in their practice is that not all lecturers use captures, let alone use them in the same way.

An experiment in open-access, micro-learning for educational technology training

Kate Soper, Catherine Wasiuk, Colin Mcallister-Gibson, and Christopher Meadows

If you don’t follow @1minutcpd on Twitter or haven’t visited their website, then you should. Their approach to CPD is so refreshing. 1 minute  CPD videos tweeted out and hosted on their blog. It’s beauty is its simplicity. The number of participants, views etc.

Using Microlearning to Drive the Adoption and Mainstreaming of Technology Enhanced Learning Tools in Higher Education

Shane Cronin, Darragh Coakley, Roisin Garvey, and Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

Here is another brilliant CPD resource you should check out: telu.me

TELU is a high quality collection of free online micro-courses designed to help staff use technology to support their teaching and learning.

Keynote: Donna Lanclos and David White – Being Human is Your Problem

I always love to see Donna and Dave present. (Although Dave wears awful shoes) I find their partnership very refreshing as they don’t always agree, so often we see presenters who, to borrow a phrase from Donna, spend the entire presentation blowing smoke up each others arses. Donna and Dave do not do that. In fact they quite openly bicker, disagree and argue with each other on stage. They are yet to draw blood but we all wait with bated breath.

What I love most about their talks is that they always challenge me,they always say something that blows my mind and yesterday was no exception.

Digital technologies will no more solve the ‘crisis in education’ than airbags will stop drivers from having accidents. David Price – OPEN

In a sense I feel ALTc can sometimes support the kind of thinking described above. Let’s be frank here, ALTc is full of people whose jobs rely on such nonsensical thinking. I am going to write a blog post on what will happen to us when the technology bubble bursts. Donna and Dave do not believe in this rhetoric and I am so glad they don’t. Technology will not fix anything. It can support, it can create efficiency and it can sometimes enhance but it is not a panacea for all ills. It is not a sticky plaster to cover the cracks. As Peter Bryant says:

There simply isn’t a single out of the box solution for the challenges we face. We can’t rely on growth through systems support and development. There are significant and intractable tensions between the dynamic epistemological shifts that are fundamentally changing the way media is consumed, knowledge is constructed and learning engaged with. Peter Bryant ‘I don’t want to change the world’ – a call for a personal revolution’

They talked about responsibility. It is EVERYONE’S responsibility to talk and think about teaching and learning. I still find it ridiculous that teaching and learning is at the bottom of priority lists in HEIs. It is fundamental to what we do.

Digital is people. Digital is not a salvation from our problems as humans. Donna Lanclos

There was a strong link to the earlier trolling keynote. In that our behaviours online are simply an amplification of offline behaviours. We need to fix people. Technology won’t fix anything.

They won’t let us is not legitimate. Donna Lanclos

That sentence came like a metaphorical kick in the balls. We find it easier, to channel all of our challenges in to an ‘other’, a shadowy figure who stops us from doing all the things we want to do. ALTc was full of lamentations along these lines. As Dave and Donna said, there’s nothing stopping us really. We can do what we need to do, and as a community, should stop making excuses. It was a wonderful call to arms to end the day on.

Venue

warwick

University of Warwick is beautiful, miles away from anywhere but full of lush green spaces. I was quite enamoured. Everything basic need you have is catered for there are banks, a cinema, hairdressers and eateries and cafés off all kinds. The accommodation, eatery’s and main venue were all in easy distance of one another. It all flowed really well and didn’t feel stilted or hard work moving around.

Food

The make or break of some conferences, the food, was not great. Fine if you like brown food, bad, if you like vegetation or green food. The Pimms at the drinks reception was fab though!

“I didn’t know Blackboard could do so much!”

Every time I train staff on Blackboard someone will say something along the lines of “I didn’t know Blackboard could do so much”. In accomplishing day to day tasks we forget to explore. We miss all the opportunities technology can afford.

Reflective practice

one effective way to develop self-regulation in students is to provide them with opportunities to practice regulating aspects of their own learning and to reflect on that practice. (Nicol and MacFarlane-Dick, 2006)

Journal

Journals allow students to communicate directly with you. Private journals are an ideal tool for reflective journals. Students are able to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions in private with you. Students could use a journal to:

  • Reflect on the results of their assessment
  • Tell you about their progress on a project
  • Share difficulties they are having with group work

Blog

Blogs allow students to express their ideas and opinions in a social learning space. Blogs are public and allow students to comment on each others posts. Students could blog about:

  • The development of an idea for a project
  • Record the progress of a project
  • Resources they have found

Collaboration

Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers (Boud et al., 2001).

Wikis

Think of a Wikipedia for your subject. Students can collaborate by creating pages, adding content and editing existing content to create a course resource. Students could create a Wiki on:

  • Topics that are covered in the course
  • Create a Wiki in a group
  • Sharing ideas
  • Collecting useful resources

Discussion Board

Discussions boards allow students to communicate asynchronously. Students can discuss course topics, pose questions and share resources.

  • Create a question and answer forum for assessments
  • Ask students to debate a topic
  • Ask students to share useful articles

Peer Review

Students indicated that completing a structured, comprehensive review for someone else is an illuminating way of becoming aware of areas that require attention in their own work. (Mulder et al., 2014)

Turnitin PeerMark

Students can read, review, and evaluate work submitted by their peers. Reviews can be anonymous and instructors can assign a student specific papers to review. Instructors can provide marking criteria and questions on which each paper is to be reviewed.

 


 

Boud, D. Cohen, R. and Sampson, J. (2001) Peer learning in higher education. [online] London:Kogan Page. Available from https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dHN9AwAAQBAJ [Accessed 8 April 2016].

Mulder, R. Pearce, J. and Baik, C. (2014) Peer review in higher education: Student perceptions before and after participation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 15 (2) 157–171.

Nicol, D. and MacFarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31 (2) 199-218.