Milestones or millstones?

Creating learning experiences shouldn’t be about ‘us’ vs ‘them’ – developers vs management – but too often it is. In some ways, it’s not surprising. Contemporary educational development will often use approaches and technology which are well out of the conceptual frame of our (often non-practising) managers. Of course, we do (should?) use our people-management skills to promote understanding, manage dissonance and to convince our minders that what we are doing works, and works well.

Most of us manage the ‘what’ of design and development with relative ease.What is frustrating is that the ‘how’ of eLearning development is being stymied by a corporate addiction to project management methodology. You know the deal – “start here, hit the milestones, stay on budget, finish on time here. Now, your next project is …” 

This rigid and linear progression might work for corporations, but is death for education development. Think boa constrictor …

So are we heading for a destructive disconnect between project-focused managers and the practitioners?  Has education has become so corporatised that business methodologies are being applied to learning development even when they don’t work?

The process of building a learning environment is dynamic and iterative. It happens in simultaneous domains. It is holographic in nature, both in its creation and implementation. The whole activity is more akin to an act of creative design followed by conceptual and practical prototyping. It is never really finished; when we do approach ‘perfection’, it is at best asymptotic.

Above all, educational development is a *process*, not a project. To manage its complex dynamics successfully requires a different form of process management, not the inadequate constraints and guidelines of project management.

I’d love to know what works for you: in your own work – do you get to manage the project, or are you permitted to manage the process?

Web 2.0 Attention Deficit Disorder Epidemic Strikes Educators!


It’s getting to be all too much!

Follow more than 40 educationalists on Twitter and the sheer volume of tweets about new Web 2.0 apps you have to try, decry and maybe buy is overwhelming. The thousands of onomatopoeic and/or cutely-named little tools jostling for market share means that we can do no more than scratch the surface of each before charging off to the next seductive offering, quickly forgetting all about the one we just left behind.

We’re suffering from a collective Web 2.0 Attention Deficit Disorder, and there’s no Ritalin in sight …

We once called these apps and gadgets ‘disruptive technologies’ – a term soundly roasted by John C. Dvorak in and revisited in Allison Kipta’s blog.  Dvorak defines a disruptive technology as

“a low-performance, less expensive technology that enters a heated-up scene where the established technology is outpacing people’s ability to adapt to it. The new technology gains a foothold, continues to improve, and then bumps the older, once-better technology into oblivion. Sounds good. The problem is that there is not one example of this ever happening. When boiled down, the notion is essentially a rewrite of the adage Adam Osborne devised to explain the mediocrity of the Osborne 1: ‘Adequacy is sufficient.'”

Dvorak goes on to say:

“There is no such thing as a disruptive technology. There are inventions and new ideas, many of which fail while others succeed. That’s it.”

The thing is, there are so many so-called ‘disruptive technologies’ around now that we can’t apply the label to individual tools anymore. Regardless of Dvorak’s dislike of the term, it may still have a place, but in a more generic sense. Perhaps Web 2.0 itself is now the dominant disruptive technology, not its constituent parts. All our favourite shiny tools have become merely transitional technologies.

So our main challenge may be to start using a bit of intellectual rigour when evaluating what’s out there – and perhaps to become agents of evolution. We can ensure the survival of the fittest by actually using ‘good’ stuff and junking ‘bad’ stuff, instead of just being drawn to ‘cool’ stuff.

Osborne’s adage might describe some of the offerings I’ve seen lately, but for me, Sturgeon’s Law – “Ninety percent of everything is crap” is usually more relevant in trying to find an overarching strategy to deal with the flood.  🙂

I would be most interested in comments about how you deal with the deluge!

“What can I build with this chisel?”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we keep wanting to do things backwards.

Only today another one of the staff for whom I provide educational design support said: “How can I use this Second Life thingy in my online course? Or that new Google thing?” My face fell and a sense of deja vu swept through me yet again. In the last six months I have been asked this question, with slight variations, perhaps 30 times, i.e. “how can I use [insert your favourite educational technology/social software application here] in my courses?” 

There has to be a way to reverse this epidemic of looking for problems to solve with the formidable range of educational tools we have in our arsenal. Unfortunately, I suspect it will be through a long, painstaking process of convincing each practitioner individually.

At least I got through to the person today (I think …) but it took a simplistic parable to do it. I posed them a hypothetical :

Me: What if you decided to build a bookshelf, had drawn up a plan and had bought the materials. Now, standing in your workshop, what is the next thing you’re going to do?
Them:  “… Umm, get out the tools I need?”
Me: Very good, And then?
Them:  “… Use the tools to build the shelf, of course!”
Me: Exactly. So, how would you react if someone came to you with a chisel and said “What can I build with this?”
Them: (Long silence) ” … ahhhhhh … r i  g   h    t …”
Me: (sotto voce) Very good, grasshopper …

It’s not rocket science. If you are working with an educational designer/technologist, please, please, please don’t bring us the tools and ask what we can build with them. Just tell us what it is that you want to build, and we’ll help you choose, understand and use the best tools for the job.

You mightn’t need that chisel after all.

It’s time to retire Web 2.0

I’m over it. Everywhere you look, it’s Web 2.0, Web 2.0 … Some of the staff at my place of work didn’t even know there was a Web 1.0 and I don’t have the heart to tell them that there wasn’t until Web 2.0 came along.

Now, just as they’re coming to grips with Web 2.0, they’ve learnt from Google University that Web 3.0 is just around the corner. I don’t have the heart to tell them that so far, it’s actually just Web 2.1, but everyone inflates their version numbers to fool you into thinking that their thing is bigger than it really is …

Maybe we hang on to our labels way past their shelf life. We don’t say ‘Distance Education’ all that much because on the web, it’s all distance education. But we still use ‘Flexible Learning’, when it’s all flexible learning – apart from the odd Boot Camp here and there.

And we still talk about ‘Web 2.0’ in a web world richly populated with collaborative, interactive, media-rich, multi-user experiences. Why? Once it might have been  appropriate to highlight the unique benefits of a small, new sector of the web experience by giving it a special label. But now, when the unique has become ubiquitous, what’s the point?

Let’s retire Web 2.0 as a label. If it’s not all Web 2.0 now, it soon will be.

eLearning: Communities of Practice and the Quarantining of Knowledge

Where I work we have lots of enthusiastic staff who are exploring eLearning/Web 2.0 technologies – some for the first time. We offer professional development workshops and webinars which do a great job of providing required knowledge, but little opportunity for sustained immersive learning within the actual collaborative environment.

OK, I thought – what we need to do is to set up an online community of practice for staff to share resources and discuss issues using forums, blogs, podcasts and wikis and the rest of the Web 2.0 paraphernalia that we all know and love. After all, for teachers, there is nothing like actually using this stuff  to develop a feel for how it might work with students.

Being a member of several such communities, I thought that the best solution for us would be a Ning-powered site and this was duly set up. It was deliberately left open, because my view is that external input is highly desirable for any community of practice – even when that community’s primary focus lies within a more narrow institution-based environment.

And the response from management? Oh my. But it’s on an external site! That means we are at the mercy of an outside provider! What if they go broke? No, no – we have to create a private site on our own in-house system (which incidentally has very few ‘features’, is not accessible outside the institution’s network and is still in beta!) And (gasp) what about our IP? You put this on Ning and other people will be able to read our thoughts and ideas!


The Citadel of Knowledge

So after this shining example of institutional scotoma, I calmed down (just a tad) and got to thinking about what a ‘Community of Practice’ ideally should be, what it is in practice, and what it is seen to be in the eyes of institutional managers. I can see that IP issues can be important where sensitive commercial matters are involved, or where knowledge inadvertently released into the public domain might give a competitor a strategic advantage. I can see that management might have a preference for in-house systems when time and money has been spent to develop them. But I can’t see the point of an in-house re-invention of the wheel when outside providers have products which are free (or very inexpensive), are loaded with features, talk to each other – and actually work.

I fail to see how quarantining collaborative conversations about learning can have any outcome other than the creation of an insular and counter-productive educational climate. Such avoidance of external scrutiny means that we end up with a dearth of critical friends, whose input is vital to the healthy growth of a robust eLearning philosophy. How else can we develop operational fluency with learning technologies if not for the input of a large experienced user base outside our own borders? How can we make valid generalisations about strategies, techniques and technologies when our sample is restricted to those within our walls?

Jay Cross got it in one in a recent blog post:

“If your learning plans don’t embrace the power of networks, go back to the drawing board for another look. Learning occurs in conversations, collaboration, knowledge transfer, focused news, and other network phenomena … In learning, being authentic means admitting that we don’t have all the answers. It’s hooking people up so they may learn from and with one another.”

A community of practice for teachers is no different to one for learners. We are “hooking people up so they may learn from and with one another.” The more people, the more diversity. The more differing viewpoints which enter the conversation, the more learning that will take place. That, to me, is a community of practice.

Anything less is a committee.


Lectures – meatspace or online?

I’ve been following the simmering debate about the relative merits of face-to-face vs VLE-mediated/recorded lectures.  The thing I don’t get is why these arguments about educational modalities become so polarised.  Proponents of both sides (as if there should be ‘sides’, right?) seem to happily adopt an ‘either-or’ mentality when in fact the variety of teaching approaches should at least be equal in number to the variety of learning styles.

I don’t believe it’s a case of choosing either face-to-face lectures, or choosing a VLE to wrap up goodies such as recorded lectures for delivery to students. Learning doesn’t take place because we provide a particular type of information stream; it occurs because the student interacts with all available material and a desirable change of state occurs. 

So what do students prefer? Swee Kit Alan Soong et al []
surveyed 1165 students with interesting results.

Single modality preferences
7.93% of students preferred lectures in lecture theatre (LT) only
3.21% of students preferred video recorded lectures only
2.19% of students preferred uploaded course documents in Blackboard only

Dual modality preferences
10.30% of students preferred lectures in LT, with uploaded course documents on Blackboard
4.56% of students preferred lectures in LT, with video recorded lectures
4.98% of students preferred video recorded lectures, with uploaded course documents on Blackboard

Multiple modality preferences
 And a whopping 66.84% of students preferred lectures in LT, with video recorded lectures, plus uploaded course documents on Blackboard. 

It’s clear that students like lectures, but only in conjunction with other enabling technologies. As the authors say, students “prefer ‘whole package’ … of instructional modes.” They like the online accessibility of Blackboard materials, and 48.3% (N=1134) of them like video recordings of LT lectures so they can repeatedly watch selected parts until they understand them.

So if students like – and presumably benefit from – a smorgasboard of educational activities, surely our challenge is to manage their educational landscape instead of merely providing it on an ad hoc basis. Perhaps we need a new institutional role – the Learning Manager – to take responsibility for facilitating the whole spectrum of learning strategies used to engage students? With the increasing complexity of the learning landscape, perhaps the course coordinator or lecturer is no longer the person to fill this role.  So who is?

Early work, such as that by McPherson and Nunes (2004)[] recognises the critical role of tutors in online learning support, a view supported later by Sulčič and Sulčič (2007) [] and many others.

Could it be then that our humble tutors are destined to sit at the centre of the web – with a pivotal learning management role – in our emerging eLearning 2.0 world? Wouldn’t that shake up the establishment!

Microblogging with Twitter

At first I thought the whole microblogging thing was a weirdly fragmented perversion of real communication – I mean, come on people! Meaningful posts in 140 characters? And yet in the grand new Web 2.0 tradition of abbreviated literary forms (such as the cell-phone novel in 7000 characters) we have a new contender in the form of Twitter. ( Is it microblogging? Is it non-synchronous chat? A literary art form? I don’t really know, but I know it works!

Haiku without the rules.

And you know, despite my initial skepticism, it’s addictive. Even as a newbie Twitterer, I am finding that following the right people reveals a rich vein of ideas in which to fossick, a more focused source of links than, an opportunity to build networks, expand horizons and engage in reflective practice which is NOT limited to educational technologies.

Not bad for posts limited to 140 characters …

I just set up a wiki to act as a dynamic, user-updatable FAQ for staff using WebCT at our uni ( – and because I happened to mention it on Twitter, the very first person to contribute a writer post was not one of our home-grown early adopters, but someone from London! Thanks Twitter!

I’ts a great tool – and I suspect its little beak and claws will soon reach everywhere …

Web 2.0 – are we intruding?

 I originally posted this on the LTUG site (see links) on 30 April 2008

So, let me get this straight – we all accept that the Web 2.0 matrix of social software has entangled a willing Gen Y in its sticky filaments – or at least those of them who are our current crop of students. But where did we make the non-logical leap that has brought us to the conviction that this same matrix will therefore be accepted by them as an educative medium?

Goerke and Oliver1 recently tested the widely-held premise that students who “equip themselves with convergent and mobile devices, and are heavy users of Web 2.0 social software … can be persuaded to use both not only to socialise, but to enhance their learning experiences in higher education.”

Their research showed that, when given the opportunity to use PDAs for learning experiences and collaboration, students eschewed these handheld devices in favour of laptops and desktops. They also found that “students were unlikely to use social software applications for learning purposes.” Their conclusion was that there is “little transference of social behaviours to learning behaviours”.
“This research also confirms recent international reports that students of the Net Generation are sending clear messages about their resistance to attempts by educationalists to ‘muscle into’ their virtual socialising spaces.”

Leaver2 goes further, saying that students have started “to take matters into their own hands”. Where they believe that universities are not being open enough with teacher evaluation data, students use sites such as to deliver grass-roots evaluations themselves.

Students are certainly using social software, but on their own terms. Leaver observes that last year in Australia, “over 7500 students joined the UWA (University of Western Australia) network … Facebook. One of the largest groups joined by students in this network was called ‘WebCT is the biggest piece of shit ever invented’ and had over 500 members, many venting their anger at what they saw as failures of the WebCT learning management system.”

Is Barrie Clark3, Swansea University’s UK recruitment manager correct when he claims that “potential students, being very media-savvy, would see universities’ use of social networking and text messaging as intrusion into what they use as a recreational space” ? Will we alienate a generation of students by going too far, too fast by virtually hijacking an innately user-driven technology to achieve a top-down, teacher-driven educational reform?

I hope not. I think we are perhaps seeing the beginnings of a student revolt – emergent behaviour that is signalling an unwillingness to be told how and when their social communication systems are to be used. And that is perfectly understandable.

So let’s employ social software in the way it was designed to be used. Instead of pushing students into those parts of the social web that we feel is educationally desirable, let’s pull them in. As educators, researchers and subject matter experts, perhaps we are the ones who should be authoring more blogs and contributing to wikis in our own fields – with posts that intrigue, challenge, inspire and offend students’ intuition to the degree that they choose to follow what we have to say by willingly becoming part of our social networks. We could earn the right to be respected.

We keep saying that we want our students to construct their own learning experiences, but we don’t quite seem to trust them to do it ‘properly’. We may be micromanaging their learning until they can’t breathe. If we take a step back and provide them with high quality materials that they can use for constructing learning in their own way, chances are that they will be drawn to them like ants to a picnic.

If student perceptions are that we are intruding on their spaces, they might just go away. Baseball’s Yogi Berra is reputed to have said about a popular restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” It would be sad if our social spaces suffered the same fate.

1Veronica Goerke and Beverley Oliver, Will the Net Generation use personal devices and social software for supplementary learning experiences?

2Tama Leaver, Putting windows in the ivory tower: Challenges and changes to university practice in the face of Web 2.0 tool use by students.

[TL Forum (2008). Preparing for the graduate of 2015. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2008. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

3Education Guardian: MySpace – The final frontier,,2067053,00.html

The eLearning designer/developer – a dinosaur?

 I originally posted this on the LTUG site (see links) on 29 April 2008

 I am becoming a dinosaur. Some of my colleagues have unkindly intimated that the term ‘becoming’ may have been true a decade ago; and have suggested I delete it and just leave the “am” … OK. I am a dinosaur.

Why? Because I used to I like my job. Now I’m turning into a miserable curmudgeon who bitches and moans about the way things were because I don’t like the way things are going. I guess the dinosaurs felt the same way about the asteroid or whatever it was that blew their cosy reign apart as well.

I’m an instructional designer cum developer cum educational technologist cum LMS administrator. (Multitasking rules in today’s institutional mindset – besides, it’s cheaper than hiring four people). What I used to do was help staff crystallise their ideas as to how their courses could achieve desired learning outcomes more effectively. Using an arcane blend of instructional design modalities, commonsense pedagogical frameworks, engaging activities and interesting assessment strategies, I could work with subject matter experts to develop a robust framework for their courses. As a bonus, I could throw in a navigation system that was reasonably intuitive and worked for students regardless of their learning styles.

Then of course it had to look good, so a bit of DHTML pizzazz, a dash of Spry stuff, some Flash interactivity, embedded Web 2.0 collaborative tools, good graphic design and some customised icons helped to put some tinsel on an already functional Christmas tree. Oh yes, and built-in evaluation opportunities for students to let us know when we were becoming overly precious and forgetting their needs …

And now? The emphasis is changing (at least at my place of work). New policy now dictates a “minimum presence” in eLearning. That is arguably a Good Thing. One would naturally think that learning support services would be boosted to provide the necessary increase in, er, learning support. But the trend that seems to be developing is that designers/developers are increasingly encouraged to turn their energies to talking about their core activities rather than actually performing them.

So now, we run workshops. In just a few hours per staff group we get to introduce overworked teachers, lecturers and trainers to the joys of being an instructional designer cum developer cum educational technologist as well. And we get to mention to them (in passing) that it would be helpful if, in their spare time, they familiarised themselves with WebCT/Blackboard, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Flash, Articulate, Captivate, Respondus, Wimba Create/Course Genie, Web 2.0 technologies and any other new stuff which may happen to be useful.

My colleagues are right. I am a dinosaur. I believe passionately that specialist support services are essential for quality learning. And I believe that any erosion of those services is a retrograde step that has the potential to reduce quality and unfairly burden teaching staff.

Maybe that’s why going back to private eLearning design consultancy work is starting to look sooooo attractive!

Where are we heading with eLearning?

I originally posted this on the LTUG site (see links) on 28 April 2008
With the vast array of learning technologies now available, do we run the risk of confusing the medium with the message? Or more accurately, with the purpose?

New technologies can be engaging in themselves, but do not necessarily translate into desirable learner engagement. We often describe them as ‘enabling technologies’ – and then forget to specify just what it is that they are supposed to ‘enable’. Or we seize upon the label ‘disruptive technologies’ as if the mere potential of disrupting older paradigms of learning will automatically replace them with new (and better) ones. And don’t forget ‘social software’, with its implicit assumption that all the lone wolf learners out there will magically be transformed into a happily collaborating learning community by the mere availability of the technology …

Don’t get me wrong – I love this stuff, but much of it might be attractive and seductive only because of its novelty. It may be being adopted for the all the wrong reasons – it’s new, it’s got the bling factor and it’s cool. It’s easy to overlook the fact that it might be presenting ‘solutions’ to as yet unidentified problems.

How many designer/developers recognize this little (actual) scenario?

Course coordinator: OK, we’ve got all the notes and guides and quizzes ready to put online – can we have a blog as well? Developer: Sure. What would you like to achieve with this blog?

Course coordinator: ??!! Umm, well … we don’t know yet. We want to something that the students think is cool …maybe we could have a wiki instead … ?

In the case above I did eventually set up something – but only after gaining a lot more clarity about the actual problem that the Web 2.0 technology was supposed to solve. Just because this stuff is cool doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply the same rigour in its learning design and deployment as we do with our other learning experiences.

I’m seeing support staff at institutions are becoming more operationally fluent in a wider range of learning technologies and their practical application. But a parallel challenge is to develop a greater awareness of the whole process – the interrelated flow of design, development, production, evaluation and review stages. By doing this, we are more likely to identify the desired outcomes and the nature of any barriers to learning first, and then to deploy the most appropriate solutions from the arsenal of learning technologies at our disposal.

Hopefully, this will result in better learning experiences, greater student engagement and better outcomes – which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?