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 3 – Widening participation?

This is my third entry in my series on the notion of the ‘flipped classroom’. There are many other sources of information on the pedagogical benefits that this model may bring (and similarly there are many posts that counter these benefits), but in this post I want to look at one area that hasn’t been covered in as much detail, and that is using the idea of the flipped classroom to widen participation.

I mentioned in my first post that this model of teaching does not reduce costs by reducing the teachers hours – however there is a potential time saving for the learners. Let’s think of a ‘possible’ taught session running from 9.00am to 10.00am in the morning. You get into the classroom, the students drift in, a few are late due to buses being held up, queues on the ring road, etc. You turn on the computer and projector – it takes a few minutes to warm up and login. You locate your PowerPoint presentation…..10 minutes into the lesson you take the register, you then start the teaching proper at 9.15, but because so many missed last weeks session you have to recap more than planned….During the session you set tasks and activities, and you have to give the students time to do these. Some students are quicker than others so finish and then get bored, others are slower so don’t get to finish in time….. you spend time dealing with classroom management issues rather than the teaching and learning… and then start to wind up at 9.50 so you can be out of the room in time to get to your next lesson across the campus that starts at 10.00am!

In my opinion, when you deliver face to face teaching, if you can get a ratio of more than 60% quality teaching and learning time you are doing well. If we then take into account the fact that students often have ‘wasted’ time in between lessons, and if they are reliant on public transport or lifts from others, they may have dead time at the start and of the day as well. All in all – if we look critically at the model of classroom based education – it isn’t a very efficient model. In the past this didn’t matter – but with the cost of education increasing, and the need for people to work alongside their study this is becoming an influencing factor.

Bethnal Green Town Hall

So where does the ‘flipped classroom’ come into this. I believe that the same 1 hour lecture that I described earlier could be repackaged so the delivery element of it, could probably be delivered in about 15 – 20 minutes. If the students accessed say 3 or 4 of these before coming into the organisation for a quality seminar type session, where the tutor could unpick some of the more complex issues, the skills could be applied, and managed discussion takes place – you then have a model that is far more time efficient for the learner, as well as making it cost effective for learners from further afield, who want to study at your organisation, but previously couldn’t because of the daily travel or accommodation costs.

Another area where the flipped classroom could widen participation is for learners with disabilities – I will unpick this element in another blog post just on this topic.

Many organisations that are seriously looking into the use of the ‘flipped classroom’ are going down the road of changing their current teaching models to this idea. There are 2 possibilities here (and excuse my gross over simplification here)

  • The organisation is already providing high quality provision – in which case why change, and is there a risk that the quality may drop?
  • The organisation is currently providing low quality provision, and they see this as a way of resolving these issues – in which case I would expect the quality of the flipped outcome to be equally low.

So here is my idea. Rather than organisations completely changing the way that they deliver existing courses – instead take one of their courses that is currently being successfully run, and look to run an additional cohort via the ‘flipped classroom’ ideology alongside their existing provision, thus allowing learners to choose which model they want to follow. As well as potentially widening the customer base of ones provision, you also end up with potential lessons that can be used if there is an unforeseen closure of the building due to snow, flooding, swine flu, Icelandic volcanoes etc. You also would have a wider pool of resources that the face to face lecturer could call upon in their teaching, and if a learner misses a few weeks due to illness, then there is a potential catch up mechanism in place to get them back on track.

The arguments that I am presenting here, sound very similar to the discussions that I have been having for the last 12 or so years around the benefits of e-learning – the difference is, that with e-learning, organisations seemed to get stuck with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset – in other words, the belief that if a learner chose to learn via e-learning they were doing so because they wanted all of their learning in that way with no or minimal face to face contact with the tutors. What the flipped classroom model is doing is creating a better mixed mode of delivery – which has always been my preferred methodology.

To some the ‘flipped classroom’ is just a fancy new term for things that people have done before – and many think that it is a passing ‘fad’ that will soon to be replaced with the next big buzz word. Both options I think are possible – but whilst it does have currency and is being discussed by people, I hope that it creates an opportunity for organisations to look critically at what they do, to start to act more like businesses and think about their customer (and future customer) base and if we get it right, there is a huge potential that we can improve the quality of our provision, just by widening the participation.

Putting the fun back into ‘fundamental’ learning

Later this month I will be contributing to an LSIS Learning fair in the East Midlands where I am running a session titled ‘Putting the fun back into fundamental’. The session will focus around changes to the Common Inspection Framework, and the fact that inspectors are now looking at whether the learners are ‘enjoying’ their learning experience. I have worked with a few providers where this is proving problematic. Some teachers quite simply do not have the skill to provide enjoyable learning, and others have the skills but are afraid of the culture change, and afraid that if the learners start to have ‘fun’ whilst learning then the lessons will become rowdy, they will lose control, and the learners will stop respecting them as the pillars of wisdom and knowledge that they as the tutor obviously are.

During the session that I am running on this topic, I will be providing short examples into 9 different examples of how technology can be used to easily bring in an element of fun into the learning environment,  in a way that enhances learning. Theses can be used at the end of a session to reinforce the learning that has taken place, they can be used as additional ‘stretch’ type activities, or in some cases can be used as the main method of teaching and learning of the subject.

I will blog about each different idea over the coming days, and the links below will become live as each post is published. The blog posts on this topic will all be tagged with the word ‘fun’ so all the posts within the series will be located at https://davefoord.wordpress.com/tag/fun/

The ideas that I will cover are:-

ILT breakfast club


Tasty Pastries

Originally uploaded by lu_lu

One of my most successful ventures in the area of ILT (e-learning) was the idea of an ILT breakfast club. The college I was working at (like many others) had limited parking so many staff were choosing to arrive early each day to get a parking space, so I used this feature to my advantage.

The model was quite simple. 1 morning a week I ran an ILT training session between 8.00am and 8.55am. I provided coffee and croissants which people consumed whilst I did a quick demo, we then got onto the computers to practice the skills. The sessions were punchy and to the point, and all teaching and learning focussed. I would repeat each session 5 times (over 5 weeks) each time on a different day of the week so as to not disadvantage part timers, and it then fitted nicely to run a set of sessions each half term.

The sessions were very popular, people liked the punchyness of them, some said it was a good start to the day a bit like a pre-work gym session but for the brain not body and some just came for the coffee, croissants and company. I covered many topics over the 2 years I ran the sessions, I trained lots of people (and got to meet people I had never heard off) and it made a huge difference to the skill set of the college. the food and drink provided was a key part of the process (and relatively cheap) and the pace of the sessions also important. This is a model that I think other organisations could replicate (if you have a trainer who can do early starts), for relatively little cost.