• Dave Foord
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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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Changing attitudes towards learner owned devices

Last week I presented at an ‘Arts and Media’ Conference in Chester organised by Sector Training.

I presented at the same conference last year, running a session on Mobile Learning (amongst other things), and in the session mentioned (in passing) that at some point in the future the norm would be that learners would turn up to lectures with their own devices – a suggestion which caused a bit of a stir amongst the delegates as they identified all sorts of reasons why this wouldn’t happen, and why it would be a bad thing if it did happen, and how I was such a heretic for suggesting something so completely outrageous…..anyway…..

….fast forward 12 months, an at the same conference with a similar set of attendees, I run another session alongside Ian Wilson. Ian was introducing the use of the iPad within this area of work, and the discussion moved onto the logistics of equipping every learner with an iPad, and the attendees completely bought into this idea – amazing the magnitude of the attitude shift in just 12 months.
Meet Junior.

I think embracing learner owned devices is the only viable option for organisations for the future. A large college may spend many hundreds of thousands of pounds per year to update the computers that are more than 3 years old – this is a huge expense just to stand still, and when you look at the stats in terms of usage – you cannot find an empty IT suite on the room booking system for love nor money, yet the computers are used for probably less than 10% of the time – so we have a huge investment in technology that sits idle for most of the day.

Embracing learner owned devices does present some problems, but all of which can be managed. The single biggest issue (and in my opinion where investment should be going) is getting a good, reliable and robust wireless network that students can connect into. A few years ago I was saying that electricity was going to be a big issue as people power up their laptops etc. But if the iPad does prevail, then this has ample battery to get through the day negating this problem.

Podcast on Inclusion, conferences, and lesson planning

The last few months I have rather busy so have be unavailable for the e-learning stuff podcasts series, but last week could find the time to join one of these casts, which as usual took a meandering wandering through various topics, starting with the idea of an unconference, then onto do we need big name keynote speakers at events, a bit on inclusion, and then finally our views on lesson planning (which I think could be a podcast in its own right).

The podcast can be found here

The use of M-learning in the delivery of ESOL

I have just presented at a conference organised by sector training on the use of m-learning in the delivery of ESOL. The session focussed on ways that students mobile phones can be used to support learning, as well as podcasting, voting pads and of course my favourite tool – the wireless mouse and keyboard. Session went very well, I was concerned that the wireless network at the venue was going to let me down, as it kept dropping the signal, but luckily held up during my bit. All in all was a very good session, lots of different techniques, lots of audience interaction, and lots of good feedback from people. It looks like there is lots of confusion over funding issues within ESOL, and this is causing concerns for the teaching staff who fear for their jobs. Being aware of this, I pitched my presentation very much at things that supporting the teachers, rather than ideologies that could be interpreted as being a threat to their jobs (e.g. replacing them).

Lunch was also rather good.