The joys of teaching the teachers

earlier this week I ran some training sessions for Abingdon and Witney college on using turnitin software to help reduce plagiarism. this is a topic that I love working with and have a lot of experience in. Today I recieved an email of thanks from one of the attendees which read

“Please would you pass on my thanks to Dave for his brilliant training session that he gave earlier this week for Turnitin. I really enjoyed what he was teaching us and appreciated hearing his own experiences of using this software. I can’t think of anything more challenging than teaching a group of lecturers, but he was absolutely fantastic!”

so quite a nice bit of feedback there but I particularly like the big about how challenging it is to teach lecturers(or teachers). This again is how I make a living. i have over the last 10 years delivered well over 1100 training sessions to teaching staff and although they often turn up late and then do all the things they tell their learners off for doing, I couldn’t think of a better way to earn a crust.

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Why are paint tins round? (and what has that got to do with e-learning?)

I have recently decorated a bedroom at my house, and as part of the process we visited the local DIY store to choose and buy paint. something that I noticed whilst doing this was most of the tins of paint were in traditional round tins but about 20% are available in rectangular containers. This made me think, and I realised that a rectangular container is far more sensible than a round one – they stack more efficiently on a shelf so easier for the shop to store and display; they will occupy less room on a lorry so better for the environment; for the user like me if I am using a roller I can dip this straight into the can if I want so all in all a far more sensible vessel than a round tin. so why is it 80% of the paint on offer still comes in round tins? well it is probably the old situation of human beings not liking change ‘it has always been in a round tin so should stay in a round tin’.


Paints

Originally uploaded by Abhisek Sarda

So what is the point of this tale. Well when we look at e-learning, there are a small percentage of people that are prepared to challenge the norms and this is essential for progress to be made especially whilst the technology is changing so rapidly, but there are still a lot of people who are not keen on change and whilst these are in the majority then their behaviour will remain the norm (like the 80% of round paint tins) and although not deliberate they are in effect stifling progress. so what is the solution? as we enter more difficult financial times most senior managers will tighten their financial belts and restrict anything that isn’t proven but a few (possibly through financial necessity) may create a culture in their organisations where risk is not just allowed but rewarded, and in these places the norm may be to ‘challenge the norm’ and then real progress can be made.

So although recession is a bad thing for everyone I do genuinely believe that some educational good may come out of it.

Why it doesn’t actually matter if the VLE is dead, undead, or alive?

In the last 12 months there have been a few high profile debates and conference presentations on the VLE being dead, or being undead or being alive, and this will culminate in another debate on this topic in Wolverhampton on the 16th December 2009.

So what is my opinion on this debate? First we have to think about the history of the VLE. VLEs primary role in the early days was to allow a tutor to make learning materials available to learners via the internet without the tutor (or learner) having to know anything about html, dreamweaver, FTP etc. VLEs then quickly introduced other collaborative features to take them just beyond being used for file transfer, and in the early days they worked very well with some being very easy to use for tutors with low or average IT skills. What has happened in the last 10 years or so, is tutors IT skills (and confidence) have increased and learners expectations have increased, so some of the VLEs in circulation – although still easy to use, do not have the functionality that some tutors want, and the VLE rather than enabling learning is for some actually restricting learning.

If I returned to a college or university tomorrow as a lecturer, and they said ‘we don’t have a VLE to support your teaching’ then I would be quite happy supporting my learners using a combination of free web based tools, and I could probably do my job better than having a VLE imposed onto me. So does this mean that the VLE is dead, well no – I am not an average lecturer – so I could work in this way, most lecturers could not, and for them the VLE still has a place.

If I then put my strategic hat on, I have spent most of the last decade encouraging (often reluctant) people to engage in learning technology to enhance the learning experience, and the VLE has been a pivotal part of that process, so if I were to advocate that this pivotal tool of the last decade is now defunct this would send a negative message to the masses, and give them an easy get out clause to not engage in new technologies, so I don’t think that is a wise stance to take. What is more important, is to recognise that as tutors become significantly confident and skilled they may need additional tools (or freedom to use external ones) to allow them to move forwards outside of the restrictions of the VLE.

So to conclude:-

  • I think that the debate on this topic is and has been a healthy one, as the worst thing that people could do is to use a tool and not question its merit.
  • It doesn’t matter what personal conclusions one reaches – the VLE will still be here for years to come and it is strategically right that it is still here
  • Don’t tarnish all VLEs with the same brush – some are better than others.

(Note – I have composed this entry over the last 10 days or so on my phone when I have had a few minutes spare – and notice that my sentiments are very similar to that of James Clay in his blog posting of http://elearningstuff.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/don%E2%80%99t-kill-off-the-vle/ – even though our posts were created independantly of each other – great minds obvioulsy do think alike!)

Google does a u-turn over Etherpad

On Friday I posted an entry to my blog about the sad news that Etherpad would be no more thanks to being acquired by Google, but less than 48 hours later I am pleased to report that Google have u-turned on the decision so it looks like Etherpad will survive – http://mashable.com/2009/12/05/etherpad-user-victory/

so what has been learnt through this little incident:-

we cannot rely fully on web 2 services. in the last 2 years I have used and promoted many services (Jaiku, veotag, Gabcast etc) only for them to die or start charging. now when I use and promote free tools I try to think about how the founding company is going to make money and work out the likelihood of the tool surviving. with Etherpad I thought it was a good bet, but the way that we so very nearly lost it shows if nearly wasn’t.

however from a bigger perspective this has shown how the power of the social web can be used by the masses to challenge the big boys like Google. this should make all companies (in any area of work) take note as some may have to rethink their customer service strategies. Also this fills me with confidence that as and when other sites are acquired by Google, Yahoo or Microsoft etc. the power of the people will stop them slipping into oblivion (like Jaiku did).

anyway glad to have Etherpad back up and running.

Oh no! Etherpad is going to go

one of the most useful of web tools in the last few months has been etherpad, but alas it’s success means that if has been acquired by google and the service will end in march 2010. this is a real shame as I used it loads. the full story can be found http://etherpad.com/ep/blog/posts/google-acquires-appjet