Learning technologies – should the tail wag the dog?

I’ve been well chuffed to see the amount of discussion that last week’s blog post on using reflection as a central concept in training people how to use the Mahara ePortfolio system – really didn’t think it would be something people would be overly interested in.

What made me particularly happy was to hear a completely dissenting view from mine. I’ve always liked it when that happens, as it makes me think through the assumptions I’m basing my argument on.

In this case, long time ePortfolio user Ian Knox made the following comment as a retort to my ideas on reflection:

If reflection is the main reason for ePortfolios I think they would already be dead in the water

Now although this wasn’t something that necessarily agreed with the training session I’d just delivered (which was about as good as I’ve done by the way), it was food for thought. It made me go back and connect with Mark Smithers’ post on the quality of online content in Higher Ed in particular, where Mark lamented many existing LMS practices, and certainly got a response from his readers – but fell short of getting lynched, which was good :)

It also made me think about the raft of responses I’ve had to my post on Moodle 2’s file management paradigm – without a doubt the change which has caused the most angst for many long term Moodle users, and made me realise, or possibly re-realise, that there is a big gap between the philosophical underpinnings of some online learning tools and what many educators want to use a learning tool for.

It is with tongue firmly planted in cheek that I then introduce a short, sweet presentation on a couple of the gaps that I see regularly, and that I think sums up Ian’s frustrations in how people use Mahara.

So what?

I wonder if the tensions between the theoretical need and the brutal reality will mean that we are heading for a significant showdown in tools like Moodle between where teaching practice should (according to Those Who Know Better) be heading, particularly in Higher Education, and where many would prefer it to remain. I wonder how much of the current user-base were previously attracted mainly by how well it managed files, and now that this feature has been degraded (or vastly improved depending on who you talk to) if we’ll see people starting to look elsewhere for a place to ‘do online learning’ (read: manage files online). Perhaps in the ePortfolio space with Mahara is less of an issue, since Mahara still does allow individuals to manage their files neatly and keep them all private, even if they don’t engage with any reflective thought at all.

Which all begs the question with any learning management tool (open source or otherwise) – should popularity rule over progressive teaching practice?

Should the tail wag the dog?

14 comments on “Learning technologies – should the tail wag the dog?

  1. I think it is dangerous to let people think they’re engaging in elearning if all they’re doing is puking files into a Moodle course and pelting readers with quizzes and assignments.

    If a teacher just threw books at students and told them to go away and read then come back to submit a paper and take a quiz – would we call that teaching?

  2. Mark, not sure there will be a showdown (most of the power around institutional e-learning now resides with senior managers who constrain what can be admitted within institutions) but I do think the gap you’ve identified is an important one.

    I don’t think any academic is going to improve their conception of learning and teaching by being told “You are doing what? You silly person, you should know better. You need to do this?” Which is what is happening in many universities and it is not a sound educational way to improve things.

    I expanded a bit on this in a post (http://bit.ly/ieW78Q) inspired by yours.

    • Hey David,
      Thanks for your thoughts on this – as expected you’ve taken my crude scrawlings and put a much stronger theoretical structure behind them, which is appreciated :)
      Agree about attempting to bridge that gap too – much cajoling, inspiring and selling to be done without threatening or demeaning is how I try and play it. Additionally tricky for me is working for a vendor, which means that often my opinions are discounted since I’m not embedded within a University T&L environment ;)
      Thanks again,
      Mark.

  3. It’s hard though for new users of the systems to think about “new technology” at the same time as “new teaching styles”

    You have to have a certain level of comfort with the basic tools (and for most people that does indeed mean “bunging files on there”) before you have the free mental capacity to start thinking more creatively and using a broader range of collaborative features etc.

    And it takes TIME. Lots of time.

    I’ve been using Moodle and Mahara some years now, willingly, with off-timetable time allowed for it regularly, as a capable, enthusiastic IT bod, and I’m still only just starting to get my head around using features like forums, wikis and collaborative glossaries to teach and assess…

    So what if the ‘bung the files on and slap up a few quizzes to save me some marking’ approach is just a bribe to get people using it in the first place, as long as you keep pressing for further development once they can do that bit in their sleep…

  4. Hi Leia,

    I think there needs to be an understanding of the why and how behind the use of any tool – otherwise, why bother to use it?

    There are easy to use tools in Moodle that allow for good practice and I think you’re right on when you say you need to start with some basics.

    But I can’t agree with thinking it’s okay for it to be used poorly as a way of getting teachers to use it at all because learners deserve a quality experience from the start.

    New teaching styles and new technologies have to go hand in hand. It’s not about denigrating someone’s practice – it’s about empowering them to be effective in a new environment.

    Cheers

    KerryJ

  5. @KerryJ
    Part of the problem from my perspective is that the tools are static. They don’t adapt in response to the context and the needs of the teachers and the learners. It’s very difficult to feel empowered when the tool doesn’t change.

    Especially when it is obvious that the tool needs to change. I’m pretty sure Mark and most folk who have spent a long time in training and support around a tool can point to aspects of the tool that just don’t work as well as they could. With Moodle, many of these are probably in tracker. But it’s not just about Moodle.

    One institution I know has for almost 10 years now had a web-based results upload system. It’s used by teaching staff at the end of term to upload the final results for students. In the last year or so the institution has adopted Moodle. Many staff are using the Moodle gradebook to track student results during term. How do you suppose the teaching staff are expected to get results out of Moodle into the results upload system?

    It’s a manual process of export from Moodle to spreadsheet, use vlookups and other steps to match the student number (username) from Moodle with other student information to combine a final spreadsheet that is uploaded into the results system. As part of this the teacher has to deal with problems such as there being three types of student numbers. For two types of student numbers the Moodle username is not the full student number, it’s the student number minus the last digit. Making vlookups somewhat ineffective.

    It would take a couple of days at most to implement an automated extraction from Moodle into the results upload system. But the institution hasn’t done it. The manual process has gone on for 3 or 4 terms now. It’s gotten to a stage where some schools are creating their own PDF documentation to explain how it is done.

    When teaching staff see this complete and utter lack of response to their experience, it hits their motivation to learn new ways of doing things. And as is well known, motivation is a major success factor for effective learning.

    A system the changes in response to the lived experience of the teachers and learners creates a transformation. Rather than feeling that change is being done to them, they start feeling that change is being done with them.

    No amount of training, of showing how the tool works, can provide that.

  6. @mark.drechsler
    Thanks again for sparking the discussion. It has resonated strongly with my interests. Which are basically, how do you bridge the gap? I think I have a partial answer in the context of those embedded within an institutional context, but how you might help this process from within a vendor context, is yet another question.

    It appears, that to some extent, you work for an outsourcer. Institutions are outsourcing the business of keeping the LMS (and other tools) to your company. From the information systems research the suggestion is that the vendor makes money by having the scale to implement well-known practices very efficiently. The difficulty from a “gap-breaching” perspective is that the tendency of these well-known practices is toward setting features and services in stone. They are the perfect practice of what I call techno-rational practices in my post.

    So, given that the vendor has to make money, how can they modify those techno-rational practices to help bridge the gap? I think that using the vendor’s experiences with clients to feedback through to Moodle central, Tracker etc. is an aspect of that. I do wonder what else can be done?

    I think it’s important that it happens, because in the longer term I think it makes for a richer tool, happier user community, more innovation etc. A lot of nice advantages that come with the problem of being very difficult to objectively measure, especially in comparison to a balance sheet.

    Another barrier is the point about being embedded. If bridging the gap is based on interaction and negotiation, not being embedded in the institutional context can make it difficult. Both in learning about what type of change might be needed but also in terms of getting buy in to make the changes. e.g. I’m not sure traditional governance works well with a more interactive approach.

    How you get around these problems and limitations is difficult, but really interesting.

  7. I suppose I should weigh in on this one too. And fortunately or unfortunately (never quite sure), I tend to look at the gap issue with three hats on.

    First hat – academic developer hat. This hat completely agrees with Kerry and David, in that there is far too much poor e-learning proliferating around the place, and something needs to be done to address that. Generally, e-learning is run mostly as ‘distance learning online’ in that the format echoes the old mail-based distance ed system, it just happens online instead of in an envelope (Jodie Christ has an interesting post on this too – http://www.rantolotl.com/?p=167). It’s the M in LMS that does the damage here – us on the instructional design side of things are focused on teaching and learning, whereas to most it’s a management tool.

    Second hat – sympathetic wife hat. My husband is a casual academic and has been teaching online for years. While he by no means is a dump-and-run PDFer, he experiences e-learning from the point of view of a ‘normal’ academic staff member. His issue is that, back in the DE-by-post days, academics wrote your unit materials, then sent them off to despatch and the magical wizards did everything else for you (formatting, packaging, sending etc). Then when distance ed went online, suddenly the academic was responsible for everything – with no reduction in their workload to accommodate this. They had to learn a new system (which quite frankly broke most of the time) and do all of the administration. Plus, people suddenly started talking at them about effective teaching and student engagement – and they had no training in education to have a clue what that meant. My husband, like all casual academics (now the majority), also never knows from one semester (or sometimes even term) to the next if his contract will be renewed so there’s little motivation to innovate. This is the hat that understands what Leia is saying.

    Third hat – student hat. This hat doesn’t really care if you provide files in an LMS (as long as they are in intelligent file formats – .doc is not one of these). This hat *really* cares if you make no effort to interact with or engage with me online. It doesn’t worry me if you’re not running peer assessment workshops and assigning collaborative database work and assessing me via my Mahara portfolio. I don’t mind if you’re only using discussion forums, as long as they are used in dynamic and interesting ways. And it would be an extra bonus if you didn’t mind the odd irritating student asking if maybe it would be more efficient to do collaborative annotated bibliographies in Diigo not Word.

    In short – I don’t know what the solution is. There are many and varied issues at play here, many of which can’t be solved by you or I (I think it was Dean Groom who recently tweeted that it’s policy that really changes things – I won’t go into teaching-based promotion or time release or any of the other seemingly obvious policy decisions that would actually make a difference here). My take on it is to do the best I can to encourage educators to become self-directed learners who are proactive about their own teaching quality, and I think most who have commented here thus far are doing similarly. Apologies for the essay (and possible lack of coherence – it *is* Friday…), and thanks Mark for making us think again.

  8. if I’m precariously balanced half-way up a ladder, holding a nail in one hand, and the hammer is just out of reach, I’ll use the spanner in my pocket to hit that nail. Come on, you’ve all done it.

    Perhaps we should move that “Add a Resource” option in the LMS a little further out of reach and the “Add an activity” option a bit closer? Moodle 2’s file picker might just achieve that :)

  9. Sarah Thorneycroft :
    His issue is that, back in the DE-by-post days, academics wrote your unit materials, then sent them off to despatch and the magical wizards did everything else for you (formatting, packaging, sending etc). Then when distance ed went online, suddenly the academic was responsible for everything – with no reduction in their workload to accommodate this.

    This describes the experience at my previous institution and why we made the decision that academics shouldn’t have to manually create course websites. This is part of the thesis so there is much more detail which connects with the point about “magical wizards”

    To some extent the assumption was if you make the stuff they will want to do really easy, they may have time to focus on the important stuff.

  10. @DavidJones

    When you refer to issues with exporting student results and the like, it is a an additional issue to the effective use of an LMS for effective teaching and learning but one that can certainly add to the burden of frustration. I think Moodle could, should and will do much more to improve this and in the interim, organisations need to provide clear direction/policies on how to handle things.

    Addressing your point of the tool being static – I’d argue that Moodle isn’t static in all aspects. The fact that it’s FOSS with a community of passionate developers means that there are plug-ins developed that help people customise some aspects to it. Features are not set in stone – they can be added and customised.

    There is never going to be an out of the box solution that will do EXACTLY what anyone person thinks it should. I’ve been providing training and support for Moodle, Second Life and a range of e-learning tools for more than 5 years (and various CMS packages as a web developer) and know this to be true. Unless there are showstoppers in how one conducts online learning, perfect is the enemy of good.

    @SarahThorneycraft

    Extremely coherent contribution!

    It speaks volumes that the shift from mail to online was not deemed significant enough to warrant additional training or support. That speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding at the very top.

    Without support that encompasses both the nuts and bolts AND the pedagogy, we are going to continue to see

    isolated pockets of e-learning excellence
    students getting a less than stellar online learning experiences and
    instructors who resent all this e-learning stuff being imposed upon them.

  11. What a fantastic conversation!

    Thanks Mark x 2 & David for sparking this, some outstanding thoughts. While you guys were happily replying here, I cobbled together a reply of my own, all invited to see at http://tomazlasic.net/2011/03/ed-tech-ferrari-in-first-gear-why-change/ but perhaps continue conversation here where there is already a thread of replies (by all means feel free to comment ‘over at my place’ too if you feel like it) ;-)
    Take care, regards to all.
    Tomaz

  12. KerryJ :
    @DavidJones
    When you refer to issues with exporting student results and the like, it is a an additional issue to the effective use of an LMS for effective teaching and learning but one that can certainly add to the burden of frustration. I think Moodle could, should and will do much more to improve this and in the interim, organisations need to provide clear direction/policies on how to handle things.

    The results uploading system was meant as an example of how academics can get the perception that the institutional L&T systems aren’t responsive to their needs. For academics, they really don’t make the distinction between Moodle, the institutional ERP, the timetable system etc. It’s all just a collection of tools they use. They want them to work well.

    Addressing your point of the tool being static – I’d argue that Moodle isn’t static in all aspects. The fact that it’s FOSS with a community of passionate developers means that there are plug-ins developed that help people customise some aspects to it. Features are not set in stone – they can be added and customised.

    I agree that Moodle and similar open source tools are more flexible than some. However, the nature of Moodle as an integrated system used by large numbers of institutions across an increasingly diverse array of educational systems and levels significantly limits its ability to be part of the “interaction and negotiation” that you would want if you were treating academics learning how to do good e-learning from a constructivist perspective.

    I’m not suggesting that there is an easy answer.

    Unless there are showstoppers in how one conducts online learning, perfect is the enemy of good.

    I agree entirely about perfect being the enemy of good. I also agree that you will never have perfect. But that’s no reason not to be trying to get better. I’d argue that the way most universities are implementing e-learning systems like Moodle does not provide sufficient capacity to get better. It assumes it is as good as it gets. This is where I think improvements can be made.

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