Do we need a term for ‘Learning Technology’?

Over the years, there have been many terms used to describe the use of technology within education. If I go back to my early teaching days in the late 1990s – schools referred to it as ‘ICT’, Colleges called it ‘ILT’ and Universities called it ‘eLearning’. Since then we have also used (amongst others) the terms ‘Learning Technology’ and ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’.

The terms ICT, ILT, eLearning and Learning Technology make no quality judgements about the use of technology (e.g. the use could be good, bad or indifferent), whereas the term Technology Enhanced Learning does make a judgment (e.g. it only refers to the uses that actually enhance the learning) – and this was discussed in my last blog post – Does Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) actually enhance learning?

So if using the term TEL, has in essence filtered out the bad and indifferent uses if technology – could we go one step further and remove the term altogether, and simply refer to this as teaching and learning? This is an ideological and philosophical question that is often asked – and the short answer is that yes, at some point in the future, hopefully the use of learning technology will be so well embedded that it won’t need its own name or definition, it will be just part and parcel of teaching and learning. However we are not there yet, and the rest of this post will explore why.

When I first became the ILT coordinator at a college, one of the first decisions that I made, was to scrap the College’s ILT strategy (the very document that had actually created my post) – my argument being that for ILT to be successful it has to be embedded fully and not seen as a ‘bolt-on’, so I scrapped the strategy and subsumed the useful bits of it into other college strategies – mainly the teaching, learning and assessment strategy, but also the IT strategy and a few others. This proved to be very useful, and I think was a key factor in the college’s successful progression in this area of work. We did have problems at the time, in that we were often bidding for pots of money for projects from the myriad of external agencies, who often required that we submitted a copy of our ILT strategy as part of the bid. I would send in the teaching and learning strategy, which was often rejected, so we did have to recreate a sort of ILT strategy, just so we had something to submit as part of this bid process. This annoyed me somewhat, that the external agencies were forcing us to take a step backwards.

Square root of 2 triangleA few years later I was attending a conference, where the night before there was a pre-conference dinner with guest speakers and an ‘ask the experts’ panel, and the question about whether we need a term to describe this area of work was raised there. Most of the panel members, (who clearly struggled with the question) waffled on a bit about something and nothing, and then concluded that we could get rid of the term, until the last person to answer spoke, and his background was actually the history of mathematics, and he used the analogy of irrational numbers (e.g. the square root of 2, pi, and various others) – which although first identified in ancient Greek times, it wasn’t given a name until much later. People that understand mathematics to a high level* understand the concept of irrational numbers, and therefore don’t need a name to conceptualise or use it – but most people don’t understand it, and partly because it is an abstract concept, they have difficulty conceptualising something that doesn’t have a name and therefore (in their eyes) ‘doesn’t exist’. The introduction of the term irrational numbers wasn’t for the benefit of mathematicians, but for the benefit of the average user.

He argued that the main purpose of terms to describe ‘learning technology’ is to make the concept of it more real and less abstract, which is essential for the understanding of the average person, and is essential for its adoption of propagation within education.

This answer from the mathematician, resonated with me – as I had often ideologically been trying to drop the term, but realised that we aren’t ready yet for such a move.

So – my argument is that there is a need for a term – and I don’t really care what the term is, along as it is universally understood within the organisation or situation, it could be ILT, Learning Technology, eLearning, TEL, or Geoffrey – it doesn’t matter as long as its use is consistent. What is important is that there are active steps taken to make sure that over time this area of work is truly embedded into practice, and doesn’t become further detached from the core business of teaching and learning (and assessment). Something that I am slightly concerned about at the moment, is this area of work has expanded rapidly in recent years, with many organisations now having dedicated ‘Learning technology’ teams, and there is now a recognised career path for someone to become a learning technologist – and there is a risk that this could actually move further away from the core practice, rather than closer to.


*Please note that I am not a mathematician by background, so apologies in advance to any mathematicians if my analogy hasn’t been articulated 100% accurately.

Does Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) actually enhance learning?

A few weeks ago, someone posted the following request to the ALT Mailing list that I am on:

‘…who on the list could point me to evidence of TEL enhancing learning/teaching.’

Women using a laptop, with chalkboard behindThe request kick started a very good debate and discussion about the weaknesses of research in this area, the merits of learning technology, and various other asides, and without taking this blog post down the same direction as the discussion, I want to focus purely on the wording used, and its strategic significance.

The term TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) has a clue in it’s name – in that it is where the use of technology has enhanced learning – and therefore the simple answer to the title of this blog post is ‘Yes – TEL, enhances learning’. The problem is that people use the term TEL, to describe any use of technology within education – not just the uses that enhance the learning. People that are anti progress in this area, often cite examples of negative impacts of using technology: ‘I used the interactive whiteboard, but it wasn’t calibrated, so nothing worked, I would have been better off with a whiteboard and pens’, ‘I uploaded my PowerPoints to the VLE, but no students accessed them’ etc. But these are not examples of Technology Enhanced Learning, these are simply examples of bad learning (or bad teaching if being technically correct).

Some may accuse me of getting hung up on simple semantics, or even being flippant here, but I can assure you that this post is written in up-most sincerity, and is an issue that I feel very strongly about. If we are going to use the term TEL – then we have to be prepared to differentiate the difference between good use and bad use. Yes there is a retort that ‘how can one make the judgement without empirical evidence based on academic research’ – but at the simplest level, if a tutor has used technology, and they know that it hasn’t improved the learning experience, then it wasn’t TEL – it doesn’t require research to determine that. Yes there is another possible scenario, where they think the use of technology has enhanced the learning, but in fact it hasn’t, and this is where research does come in – but the research has to avoid getting itself warped by only looking at TEL – instead it has to look at all uses of technology.

There are two main morals to this story:

  1. If organisations are going to use the term TEL as part of their strategies, objectives, etc. are they somehow able to differentiate the genuine TEL from just bad practice?
  2. If people are going to research what evidence there is that technology enhances learning/teaching – then they have to look at the wider use of technology, not just the ‘Enhancing’ use.

As usual, I expect my blog post to upset or unease a few people, but I think there is value in posts like this, which if nothing else, will make people think a little bit about the language used, and its significance.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/learn-school-student-mathematics-1996845/

Will blended learning end in tiers?

Regular followers of this blog, or my work in general, will be aware that blended learning is probably my main focus of work at the moment, and has been for the last few years. As I have conversations with people about blended learning both in FE and HE, I am starting to realise that a 2-tier approach to this area of work is forming, as I will try to explain here.

Image of a tiered cakeTier 1:

Within FE in particular, as a consequence of FELTAG, many providers are now starting to do more blended learning, but in most cases this is taking the form of taking existing face to face provision, and introducing bits of online, to create the blend. There is no problem with this approach per se, however quite often we are experiencing a simple replacement mechanism, where a face to face activity is replaced with an online activity.

Tier 2:

In contrast there are some providers across the spectrum, who rather than taking existing courses and replacing bits of it, are designing (or totally redesigning) courses as blended learning courses, to take the full advantages that Blended learning offers. This means that the face to face elements and the online elements are designed to both go hand in hand with the other (rather than one being a subservient bolt on of the other), and we aren’t just replacing face to face activities with electronic equivalents.

Conclusion

This second approach often requires reasonable up front investment, so is currently mainly in the realms of HE, private training, and (interestingly) some voluntary sector provides – but it is clear that the quality of these products is far greater than the tier 1 approach. In FE at the moment the tier 1 approach works best in the short term, as cheaper to develop, and many FE learners don’t have the skills and discipline to cope with the higher quality tier 2 type courses, but the problem that I foresee is it isn’t a case that people can start on tier 1, and then over time they gradually morph into tier 2 – in order to move from tier 1 to tier 2, there has to be a major shake up and redesign of the course, and I don’t think that people are aware of this.

This makes me wonder whether FE organisations (and to a lesser extent HE), as well as (or even instead of) trying to manage the mass migration that is taking place to force all courses to have some online bits in it – should they be prioritising a few key areas or courses, ideally the ones that they are strong in and have a good potential captive audiences for, and trying to get those to go for a tier 2 approach. Yes this requires an upfront investment, that is an issue – but is not doing this a risk that organisations will have a problem down the line that in four or five years, we will end up in a similar place to where we are now, trying to manage a mass migration from tier 1 to tier 2?

Image Source: Source: https://morguefile.com/p/846201

The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).


Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.

Automatically pull an entire sheet of data between google spreadsheets

In November 2011, I wrote a blog post titled ‘How to automatically pull data between different Google Spreadsheets‘ – which was based on a feature called ‘ImportRange’. Although nearly 5 years old, this particular blog post is one of my most frequented and certainly the most commented on post that I have ever written.

I have recently been introduced to a new add on feature called ‘Import Sheet’ – which can be found at https://importsheet.com/ – and this does exactly what it says on the tin. It allows you to easily import (or export) a sheet from one file to another. So for example, I use google sheets to log the work that I do for each of my clients, with each client having a separate workbook (this means that I can share that workbook with them, without them seeing other contracts that I work on). I can then have a master dashboard, which imports copies of these sheets into a single location, and using simple functions such as the = function, I can then pull key data out of each of the sheets into my dashboard. Using Importsheet rather than the ImportRange feature is much easier, quicker and less likely to have problems.

The add on is a commercial tool, that does have a pricing plan, however the free version does what most people will want. Obviously I have no idea how the pricing plan may change in the future – they may choose to get rid, or reduce the functionality of the free version, so I wouldn’t suggest that people invest lots of time creating high stakes activity with this add on (unless they are prepared to pay in the future) – but certainly for the moment, this looks rather neat.

The importance of Leadership vs Management in FE when implementing #FELTAG

FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) has been around now for about three years, and in some areas there has been significant progress, in other areas the progress has been slower. One thing that has become apparent to me in my travels around the country and numerous organisations, is the ‘elephant in the room’ that is recognising the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is about have vision, ideas and long term objectives; then inspiring people to follow those visions and ideas. A good leader will (usually) be an inspirational speaker/presenter, will be someone that is prepared to challenge the norm, and will seek new ways to achieve the goals they have set.

Management is about making sure that steps required to realise the vision and objectives are followed correctly. A good manager is someone that is organised, can break big problems down into more manageable steps, follows and applies protocols, and makes sure that things get done.

Image of a duck leading other ducks.

A leader, and many managers

So the skills and personality requirements of the two are completely different to each other – and herein lies the problem. Further Education in the UK is not very good at separating the two out. Quite often the principal (or equivalent) in an organisation, will be a ‘leader’ – but they will be supported by a SLT (Senior Leader Team) made up of managers. We then get managers making leadership decisions or leaders trying to manage projects – neither of which working well, due to the wrong personality types doing the wrong things. In larger organisations such as universities, or in the private sector – it is much clearer that some people are employed as leaders and some are employed as managers – but that clarity is lacked in FE, where the terms leadership and management are often used interchangeably to describe the same people.

From my perspective, I am often brought into organisations to run staff development in the area of blended learning. I always try to identify the organisations position, and then deliver a bespoke session based on this. Quite often the SLT has identified some totally arbitrary objective for all teaching teams e.g. they have to make 20% of their provision online. There is often no consideration of what that actually means, or why they are doing it, or what is in it for the teachers (or students). Sometimes it is obvious, that there isn’t a clear understanding of what the SLT want, which is problematic. In other situations, the SLT are clear what they want (or they think they are clear), but they haven’t articulated this down to the team leaders and teaching staff who have to implement this.

One of the things that I try to ascertain when working with clients, is ‘which model(s) of blended learning are you working towards?’, the response often being ‘blah blah 20% online blah blah’. There are many different models in which blended learning can be applied, and to be successful, the starting point for any organisation has to be identifying which model(s) are to be used for which situations (and a one size fits all/none approach isn’t a good model) – each subject area, and different courses within that subject area will have different ‘best’ models that they could use, but sadly I am often running training sessions for teachers, where they don’t know what model they are working towards, which makes the chances of success very remote.

And so back to the title of this post. I cannot pretend that I have a magic answer to this situation, but if there is a recognition that there is a difference between leadership and management – and the leaders do the leading and managers do the managing, then this is certainly a step forwards. From a blended learning perspective – the key is that the leaders have a clear long term vision for the organisation that they articulate well, and the managers have the autonomy and confidence to identify and implement the different models of blended learning in the teams that they support.

On the 6th December 2016, I am running a session titled ‘Effective development and management of blended learning‘ at EMFEC in Nottingham. A large part of the session will be looking at some of the different models of blended learning, and how the development of these can be strategically managed by an organisation.

Creating equations in online environments

I am currently working on a project, where I am creating web based resources (using Moodle) to teach maths. As part of this process, I need to create properly laid out formulas (or formulae if you prefer the alternate acceptable plural of formula). We are using what is becoming a widely accepted standard of MathJax which in turn supports the use of something called LaTex to create the desired formulas. So for example if I wanted to create something that looked like:

y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}

I would enter this into the editor using the code:

$$y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}$$

or

\[y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}\]

At first I started to learn the exact syntax and would translate what I wanted into either of the codes above. This proved to be both time consuming and prone to mistakes. Then I discovered an excellent website that helps me do this:

https://www.codecogs.com/latex/eqneditor.php

This website gives me a box into which I construct the equation that I want – above the box is a huge suite of grey buttons which each represent a different mathematical function or options. These take a bit of time to learn, but quite quickly one gets the hang of this, and using the buttons and adding the numbers / letters that you require you can quite quickly create the desired formula that you want. Underneath the white box, your formula is displayed as it will appear, so it is possible to see what you are doing, and check that this is correct.

Once you are happy with what you have created, at the bottom of the screen (in a cream coloured box) is the option to choose the export style that you want – so if you need LaTex, you choose that, if embedding into WordPress, you choose WordPress etc. You then copy the code beneath this, and paste into the editor of whatever you are using.

One of the facilities within the editor, is to create correctly aligned equations:

Image of an inline equation

Which in LaTex is created with the code:

\[\begin{align*} x+3 &= 7\\ x &= 7-3\\ x &= 4 \end{align*}\]

This is very hard to manually write out, but quite easy using the codecogs website. The button for this, is the bottom right button on toolbar (letters n and r in brackets) – then under that is a button that has “y=…” as the text, and when you hover over it, it tells you that it is the align tool.

For anyone who is using mathematical formulas regularly this is a really neat tool.