Online learning – getting it right

In a few weeks time (14th November 2012) I will be presenting at a conference organised by Sector Training on ‘‘The Future of Blended and Distance Learning in Further Education and Training’. This conference really excites me, as the target audience for this are the senior decision makers in FE organisations. One of the problems with my area of work (learning technologies) is when events or training is arranged – you often get the in house learning technologist attending, who often know the key points of the message being presented, or aren’t high enough up the decision making food chain to get the strategic and financial backing that is required. Hopefully this conference will be different, as Sector Training (and Beej Kaczmarczyk in particular) is so well respected with the higher echelons of FE organisation management structures, that we will get some of the people that I have so desperately wanted to present to on this topic attending.

So why am I so keen?

learning technology (also known as ILT, eLearning, ICT, TEL……) has been around for many years, and within FE there has been some really impressive work (often on low budgets) to make huge differences to the learning experience of lots of traditional face to face learners, however in the main FE hasn’t engaged with the online learning market as much as HE has. In recent years though FE is starting to talk about this more and more, as the realisation that financially there is a very strong case for online delivery. Ideologically I would rather that organisations engaged with online learning because of the potential benefits to the learner, but I know realistically the purse strings always present the stronger case, and this is where my worry creeps in. Some organisations that I have worked with see online learning as a ‘cheap’ form of delivery, and many are jumping on the notion of ‘the flipped classroom’ as a way of ‘selling’ this to their staff. From my experience online learning is not a cheap solution – in the first year of running it will almost certainly make a loss, probably a loss in the second year, and then on the third time of running it may start to make a profit. The financial benefits come from attracting different markets (e.g. learners not able to attend face to face provision), economies of scale, and reducing the cost of providing buildings that are only used for 20% of the time.

If organisations try to do this ‘on the cheap’ they will probably run some very low quality provision, which won’t help recruit future learners and won’t reap positive returns overall (as well as letting down the learners involved). Saying this, it doesn’t have to be overly expensive – if you do it right. Here are my 5 top tips to ‘getting this right’.

1 – Get external help early and regularly
If an organisation is starting in this area of work, then it is unlikely that they will have the level of expertise in house to get this right first time, and a lot of time and money can be saved not making the same mistakes of others. This area requires full senior management support and commitment and often they will listen to an outside voice better than an internal one, especially if a few uncomfortable home truths need addressing. This external help does not have to be expensive – start with a single day, if the consultant hired is good then use them again and again as and when needed.

2 – Clearly identify your target market(s)
Not all subject areas or courses will work with this method of delivery. It is important that the people working on the courses, know who the learners are going to be and why they will be learning by this method, and what the unique selling point is. Research to see who else is running similar courses as there is no point competing with an established provider unless you do something significantly different.

3 – Invest in staff not technology
A mistake made by many, is there is often huge investment in tools but no or little investment in the person (e.g. the tutor) using them, which results in poor returns on investment. Staff need to be given high quality, appropriate and timely training. They then need time to practice and hone their skills and a supportive CPD mechanism. This again doesn’t have to be expensive it just needs to be strategically and carefully planned into the process.

4 – Online learning is not about content but interaction
During the dot com boom about 12 years ago, some HE organisations thought eLearning was going to be this wonderful cash cow where they could create content, and then sit back whilst the computer taught, assessed and supported the thousands of students with minimal involvement of an expensive human being. This wasn’t the case; education is not about content or resources (otherwise we would just read books) but is about interaction between tutor & student, and student & student, and this is still the case with online learning. Students need to be taught by a (human) teacher, not a computer or a (cheaper) assessor. The teaching staff need to be given proper time to carry out this teaching. It would be better for a teacher to have more time and less resources than full blown resources and no time. The Internet is full of useable resources. A good teacher can just guide and signpost learners to these resources, asking challenging questions and providing good feedback as part of the learning experience.

5 – Get the infra-structure right
Running online provision means that learners need to have access to content 24/7 and 365 days a year, and the access has to be reliable. Having system that fall over regularly isn’t an option, and we lose the ability to switch everything off for 6 weeks over the summer whilst servers and systems are upgraded. This doesn’t just refer to technical infra-structure, we also have to think about things like the enrolment processes, learner support, exams, authentication of evidence, internal observations etc. many in house systems need tweaking slightly to work with online learners.

I hope that these points provide some food for thought to organisations, and I can help people to realise the potential that online learning offers, without wasting huge amounts of money, or delivering sub-standard cheap education.

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Can we stop using the term ’21st Century Learning’?

In the late 1990s as I was starting my career in teaching and my work in learning technologies, I often used the term 21st century learning as a reference to the future, which I think worked well as we were approaching the excitement of a new millennium which I saw as an opportunity to challenge the norms and look at the potential that technology offered. However, when Big Ben struck midnight on the 31st December 1999, and the millennium bug turned out to have not been the issue many feared, I instantly stopped using the term 21st Century learning, as that was no longer the future but the present.

Big Ben (b&w)

It slightly worries me that in 2012, people (and this includes lots of high profile conference titles) are still using the term as prevalently as they are. We are more than 12 years into this century, that’s an eighth of the way through. Things are very different now to what they were 12 years ago, and nobody knows what the next 80 odd years will look like (realistically no-one knows what the next 5 years will bring), so how can we sensibly use a term that covers 100 years, and refers to the past, present, and future all at the same time.

In general I am not interested in working in the past, I am interested in the present and the future (and roughly only the next 5 years of the future) – so why can’t we use a term that reflects this, rather than the blanket ’21st century learning’.

After playing around with various combinations I would like to propose the term ‘teaching and learning’ as an alternative.

I expect a few people to disagree with me here, but thought this post would be good food for thought!

Making use of statistics from YouTube

A few years ago YouTube was seen by many in education as a source of evil that had to be blocked. banned and banished at all costs -because of the nasty things that learners may see there. This was a shame as alongside some possibly undesirable content is some excellent content, and the YouTube’s streaming capability is better than any others as works on all devices, is quick to load and in short just works.

Luckily the number of organisations blocking YouTube has reduced, especially within FE and HE, and even many schools. This pleases me as I have posted many videos to YouTube – most of which can be used by others, as they give simple clear step by step instructions on various elements of learning technology.

Something that I also find interesting, is the statistics that I get back – I can see how many people have viewed each video, where they are from, what sort fo device they have used and how they have found the videos. This helps me to plan future videos to meet my audiences needs, and if I was using these videos to support teaching and learning, I could use the analytical information to quickly see how effectively my learners are accessing these videos.

When I upload videos on behalf of one of the organisations that I work for, I almost always have the settings of making it public but unlisted. This means that the videos cannot be found by someone else searching for it – they can only be found if someone knows the link to it. If I embed one of these videos into an area the VLE to support a particular session or topic, a week or so later I can see how many people have viewed the video – (and when). Although not an exact science, this gives me a useful insight into the user behaviour – especially if I compare this with the usage data from the VLE.

In one instance I found that lots of learners had visited the area on the VLE but hadn’t played the video – which made me realise that I had embedded the video too far down the page – so I changed it’s position. On another occasion the video had been played many more times than the VLE area had been accessed, which I assume meant that the learners had watched the video multiple times – which as the video was directly related to the assignment task, I assume means they were using it to aid their completion of the task (which was its intention).

I appreciate that most teaching staff won’t have the time or inclination to look at things this way – I was mainly just looking out of interest – but if people do have the time/interest then this could be very useful information to confirm that they are doing things right, or give them pointers as to where they need to change things slightly.

Whilst looking at my own videos, I discovered that my most viewed video of all time is the one about adding countdown timers to PowerPoint.

This has had over 45000 views in 2 years, and currently gets viewed over 3000 times per month. This single video accounts for more than 65% of all views of the 67 videos on my channel. This video shows to me the power of YouTube – the fact that this attracts so many views means that it must be doing something right, and what a shame that there are still many educational organisations that are depriving their learners of this resource.