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.

What got me started in online learning

Earlier in the summer I was running some staff development, and a reluctant attendee asked how a sport science lecturer (as I was) ended up getting into online learning, so I told them about my first foray into this area of work.

In my first full year of teaching (1998), one of my units was a level 3 ‘diet and nutrition’ and one of the assignments was to carry out a basic analysis of a week’s diet, compare this to energy expenditure and then make suggestions of how to improve the diet. Or in other words the assignment from hell for a Level 3 sport student. Even though this should have been completed earlier in the year, I hardly had any work handed in on time as most students tactically worked out they were only ever going to get a pass, therefore there was no point in doing the assignment on time, instead they would wait until the end of the year and finish the assignment once teaching had finished. The problem was that I had about 40 students, and every single one came to see me for help with the assignment, and although I willingly helped them, if I spent 30 minutes with each student, that equated to 20 hours of my time – and I was still teaching on other courses – so for about 2 weeks at the end of term, if I wasn’t teaching I had a permanent queue of students outside the office waiting to see me (and I was part-time so wasn’t get paid for all this extra work).

I realised that the help that I was giving the learners was effectively the same over and over again, so the following year (and I now had 3 groups to teach, so 60+ students) I decided to create some information and instructions on how to complete the assignment. This included a worked example (Excel), a template diary they could use (Excel), an animated presentation that explained the steps that were needed (PowerPoint) and an instruction sheet (Word) which hyperlinked to the other files and a few useful websites as well. I didn’t have a VLE at my disposal, but we did have a shared network drive that I could upload files to and the students could access. So I uploaded the work to there, created a simple printed instruction sheet of how to locate this shared drive which I gave to the learners when the assignment was handed out. The result was that a larger percentage completed the assignments on time, some even got merit and distinction grades. Those that still waited until the end of term, when they came to see me, I gave them the instruction sheet again, sent them away to find a computer and come back if still not clear, most were able to follow the online support so I only had about 2 students to work with 1:1.

So my first foray into online learning (even though many would argue this isn’t online learning) was motivated by time saving potential for me. It took me about 2 or 3 hours to set up, but saved probably 30 hours (of my unpaid time!) in student support, and the quality of the work was significantly better.

Having created the folder structure on the joint drive I realised that there was potential in this way of working, and I uploaded more and more resources throughout the year, and started to create a resource bank to support the subjects I was teaching.

In my next blog post I will continue the story of how this behaviour evolved into me using (and creating) a VLE to support my classroom delivery, in what would now be identified as blended learning with elements of flipped classroom – but over 14 years ago and about 10 years before these 2 terms became fashionable!

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/8258/8671894359_891da1da8b_b.jpg on 2013-9-13
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/50251161@N08/8671894359/ created on 2013-04-21 12:50:39
Orin BlombergCC BY-NC 2.0

Adding subtitles to YouTube videos using CaptionTube

YouTube is a wonderful resource, it works on just about all internet enabled devices, it hardly ever goes wrong, it is easy to use and although there is a lot of low quality rubbish on there (in my opinion), there is also huge amounts of really useful high quality videos that we can use in education to enhance our teaching and learning practices.

A feature of YouTube that many don’t know about, is the auto-captioning option – in other words YouTube creates a transcript of the video without you having to do anything. If you are watching a video on the YouTube page and you want to see the captions, then there is a button below the video (currently to the right of the where it says ‘add to’) which is the transcript button – this brings up the transcript as a timeline below the videos and automatically advances with the video. This can be great for learners that have a disability (e.g. are deaf), but can also be really useful to find a key point within a video.

For example I often use short sections of the excellent TED talk video of Ken Robinson talking about schools killing creativity. If I want to locate a certain section within that video, I use the automatic captions that appear below it to locate the section that I want.

Because the transcripts are computer generated, they do contain errors – and depending on the clarity of the voice and the background noise of the video will determine the accuracy of the transcript. For some reason my voice never does well with automated speech to text systems, including YouTube.

However if you do want to override the automatic captions that YouTube creates with your own ones, then this is very easy to do – and for this I use a service called CaptionTube This is a simple system where you sign in (using a Google Account) you locate the video you want to caption (which could be your own or someone elses) and then you play the video pausing it at intervals to add your captions. If the video is your own, then you can add the captions to it there and then, if it isn’t your video then you can send the transcript to them to see if they want to upload it.

The following video (by John Skidgel) introduces the basics of CaptionTube.

Here is a video of mine that I captioned using this method. This took me 12 minutes in total from opening the page to my captions appearing on the video on YouTube.

Adding Captions to a video is a simple way to increase the accessibility of a resource, as well as potentially increasing the number of people that see your video, as the contents of the captions will get picked up by search engines (if the video is set to being public and listed).

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 5 – Making it happen

This is the 5th and final post in my series on the notion of the flipped classroom. So far the previous posts have been:-

So if  an organisation wants to start using the flipped classroom, what are the considerations?

To me the most important point, is to think this through strategically. This is not something that can be taken on lightly or whimsically and without proper planning. We have to think about which courses this would be suitable for. As I mentioned in the second post in this series – not all learners will want this mode of delivery and especially if students are paying to study (at HE) if a course is going to be taught this way, I think it should be upfront and advertised so they can consciously choose (or not choose) to study there. In the past Universities in particular have had the freedom and mindset to change the way that they deliver without consulting with the students, and without any real comeback. Now that the fees are so high, we have to treat the student more as a customer, so cannot do this.

If a course decides to use this model of learning, we have to think, do we do this for all units or modules, or just some. Or do we experiment with one term or half term first and see how it goes. The key here is that students have to be clear what is going on – we cannot keep chopping and changing as we go along, and for the idea of the flipped classroom to work, it has to become embedded within the students experience – so we cannot just do an odd session here or there – we do need to give this a significant amount of time for the students to settle into it. This area is where the process needs to be closely managed, and is where I think the biggest risk of failure lies. If for example students are studying say 6 units at one point in time, and 1 of the 6 wants to use the flipped classroom ideology. The process will need to be managed to ensure that the students have the time to be able to do the preparatory work required. The problem lies in (typically) week 7 of the semester when 3 of the remaining 5 units have submission deadlines – and the students spend their ‘free-time’ working on this rather than the other units, they then turn up to the ‘flipped’ seminar not fully prepared and the seminar makes no sense.

Another issue is how do we create (or locate) the content that the students will be accessing. One option is for the tutor to create these as they go along – which as long as they stay 1 or 2 weeks ahead of the learners is OK. Many don’t like this idea as they see it as risky, but from my experience it was no different to how many face to face lecturers work, so is an option – as long as the tutor recognises the time required and can factor this into their weekly schedule. The other option is to create everything up front – which requires a bigger amount of initial investment, and is seen by many as less risky but if you choose a style of content packaging, that when you use it with the learners doesn’t work very well, your initial investment will have been wasted, as the packaging will need to be retrospectively changed.

Another issue to consider is the quality issue. When we watch video we tend to judge the quality of the video against the quality that we see on TV, which is professionally produced (at huge cost), and delivered in HD onto your expensive 40″ flat screen – as a result most videos that an educational organisation produces to support teaching and learning will be inferior quality, but this is OK, and we are lucky that videos that apear on the Khan Academy has set a benchmark for us. For years we have talked about elearning or ILT as a method of getting away from ‘chalk and talk’ – and yet ironically the Khan Academy videos are basically just that (they even have a black background – like a chalk board), and although not everyone likes them – we cannot deny that they have had a huge impact on many people.

So if a tutor is creating video clips as part of the flipped classroom process – we can use screen casting software – some of the free ones being perfectly adequate. It doesn’t matter if we occasionally cough in the audio, or things aren’t really slick, as the Khan Academy has shown. If we want to use handwritten notes, then I would be inclined to invest in a digital tablet that allows you to write with a pen rather than the mouse, or if we know exactly what we are going to write then we can prepare these as typed boxes that we just drag into view during the process e.g. like in this video, where I have created a revision activity.

When I created this, my kids (and 2 others) were in the house making noise – I didn’t realise how much noise as I had my headset on – but you can hear them in the video. My initial instinct when I played it back was to re-record it, but I didn’t because I wanted to show that for teaching and learning purposes, this would be OK – we need to concentrate on the quality of the content and the way that it is presented – rather than spending hours and hours making the very little tweaks that although improve the quality doesn’t justify the time.

I have worked with a few organisations recently which seem to want to go for a wholesale blanket change of delivery to this new ideology – which worries me somewhat, especially as they seem to be doing this because there are problems with the quality of teaching and learning and they see this as a way out of trouble – however I am concerned that the current problems with teaching and learning will only be exaggerated by this process not solved.

Another problem is the support needed. Most organisations will have some form of central team that can help with the production of elearning content or videos, but it is highly unlikely that any could fully support an entire organisation switching in one go. If the flipped classroom is ever going to be a long running success, it will require tutors to be given the tools, time and support for them to create the bulk of the content themselves, with the central teams working in a support capacity, rather than a doing capacity.

And as I end many of these blog posts – the need for good quality CPD (and strategically delivered) is paramount. This isn’t just a 2 hour session in July to introduce them to the ideas – we need to learn about the differences between online delivery and face to face delivery, where and how to find appropriate images, how to capture effective videos, and probably even little bits of html so that we can put this together within the VLE.

If we get it right it could be great. If we get it wrong, it will be a disaster. The flipped classroom is definitely not a short term cost saving practice. If we are serious then we need to think it through strategically and carefully, and not just jump on the bandwagon because it is passing….then next one is probably just round the corner.

The importance of good web design for e-learning courses

My wife is currently carrying out her AAT training, and this year has decided that it would be easier for her to study via distance learning rather than spending time at the local collage, due to the flexibility (especially as my work patterns means I am often away in the evenings, and the school run messes up half the afternoon) and cost wise it is very similar (if not cheaper).

So the other night she sat down with a computer to choose which provider to use (and there are lots of them) by doing the usual Google searches, and then trawling through the options. When choosing her course, she started with a simple criteria – if their web page isn’t very good then it would be fair to assume that their e-learning content won’t be very good so she will pass on that one and look at another. Unfortunately though she went through the list and subsequently removed all of the options from the list, so she had to go through again with slightly lower standards and expectations.

The next criteria was then cost – but again, the way that the different providers display their costings was completely different. Some give a total cost, others do it per unit (but don’t tell you how many units there are) others are clearly trying to hide some of the costs (e.g. books, exam fees etc.), which again eliminated them from the selection pool.

The third criteria was the location where exams could be sat, as she wants somewhere near home rather than having to travel to London or Birmingham to sit the exams, and again this simple information was not forth coming on most of the sites. All in all she spent 2 hours searching, getting very frustrated and still not being sure who to use.

So the question is, how much trade have these providers lost through their badly designed websites, and how many other educational providers are losing potential customers through badly designed or thought through sites. Especially for providers whose primary business is face to face learning, which in the case of FE colleges is within the local community – the main provider website, may not work if people do branch into other markets (such as online learning for overseas students). Big companies such as Amazon, Tescos, Ebay etc, spend millions of pounds constantly refining their websites in order to make the person accessing the site have a better experience, which in turns will hopefully lead to additional sales, and although education providers don’t have this sort of revenue, I think in this current economic climate, where competition will become more prevalent, there has to be merit in investing time into looking at your own marketing materials and websites and seeing if they are fit for purpose – and remembering that the purpose may be changing, and may need to do different things for different people.

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!)