Saturday, April 06, 2013

ocTEL: Some rambling thoughts and questions about my experience of "Technology Enhanced Learning"

I recently signed up to the ocTEL MOOC after hearing about it during a webinar presented by Diana Laurillard. I signed up partly to get a feeling of how MOOCs work, and partly to keep my knowledge of 'Technology Enhanced Learning' up-to-date. The first activity I have to do is to reflect on my relevant experience and ambitions, and come up with my "big question" about TEL. Looking at the posts that have already been sent to the course mailing list, it is clear that there are a wide variety of people signed up to this course, many with huge experience, so I expect that much of the learning will come from my fellow students rather than from the course material, though the amount of material been posted to the list is rather overwhelming. This rather long and rambling blog post is my attempt to reflect on my experience, and come up with some form of questions.

I never entirely sure at what point one draws the line between ordinary technology used in teaching and learning, and the technology that makes it "Technology Enhanced Learning". After all, a blackboard is a form of technology, and if it enhances learning surely that is Technology Enhanced Learning. So, I first encountered learning technology at the age of four when I started school, and later experienced technology enhanced learning when, at the age of 10, I got a pair of spectacles which allowed me to read the blackboard. However, the blackboard has never been my favourite piece of technology, and on the handful of occasions when I have been teaching in a lecture theater I have always experimented with other technology.

If one assumes that what we are really interested in is technology which is outside the mainstream of its time, then my first experiments with technology enhanced learning would be when I wrote a simple simulation to illustrate Nyquist's theory (and common misconceptions about sample rates and resolution) to use when I was invited to fill in for one lecture on biomedical instrumentation. In the same lecture, I discovered that I cannot write on blackboards when a class of students is watching me. That was in 1989, and the most advanced piece of technology that was normally available during a lecture was an overhead projector. In 1995 I got another opportunity to give a lecture, this time on arthropod biomechanics. By this time the best equipped lecture theatres, including the one I was in had data projectors, and I was able to use animations written using Authorware to illustrate my talk. That made it much easier to explain some of the points in a lecture, and probably also made a lecture on a somewhat peripheral and obscure branch of biology slightly interesting to the students. Two and a half years later, when I got my third opportunity to give a lecture, networked computers and lecture theatres were not unusual. It seemed appropriate, given that I was lecturing on Internet technology, to use webpages rather than a more conventional Harvard Graphics (remember that?) presentation. Unfortunately I had a complete technology fail, and the computer in the lecture theatre was unable to connect to the Internet. From the students viewpoint that must've been one of the dullest lectures ever, as I tried to describe network communications protocols without diagrams or example text. With hindsight, I should have had a backup plan, all it would have needed was a floppy disk with a copy of my webpages.

Of course, giving three lecturers over a period of almost 10 years, even in such widely separated subjects as I covered, is hardly a full-time career, and in between these lectures I was involved in the development of courseware as well as small-group teaching both in laboratories and outdoors. Initially my main focus was on teaching software that combined illustrated text, animations and simulations, and also these more advanced simulation software. These packages, some developed by me and others bought in, allowed students to carry out multiple simulated experiments in a short period of time, allowing them to explore complex topics in a way which would normally be allowed with both time and skill constraints of an undergraduate. These labs were run as a mixture of experimental work and tutorial, very much following Laurillard's conversational model. Other software I developed, mixing courseware and simulations, allowed students to learn more basic skills, such as the use of oscilloscopes in their own time. Later I worked on a large project creating online anatomy tutorials - effectively just textbooks on the web, but taking advantage of the ability to provide large quantities of colour illustrations without incurring large printing costs. These were also intended to be backed up with simple self test quizzes, although by the end of the project very few quiz questions had been written.

More recently my work is concentrated in interoperability standards for educational material. Then he little of the material I wrote in the early part of my career could be reused now, because content and delivery were tightly integrated, courseware was written using proprietary authoring systems, and computer technology has moved on to the extent that most of these pieces of software will no longer run. Had I developed the content in standard interoperable formats its lifespan would have been much better. Of course standard content formats do not solve everything. The web material that I was involved in the creation of in the late 90s is still largely functional and available online, but computer screen technology has improved meaning that the illustrations that once seemed excellent now appear tiny.

Interoperability specifications that I have worked on either the development of or implemented include IMS QTI (all versions from 1.2 onwards), IMS Common Cartridge, IMS LTI and Leap2a. I also spent quite a lot of time thinking about the future of online delivery of teaching material, whether in support of traditional teaching or as part of an online course, and writing some experimental software for exploring ideas relating to this.

My most recent piece of classroom teaching was an open access course on PHP programming which I taught two or three years ago. For that class I went for a fairly conventional approach, preparing PowerPoint slides covering the material that I plan to teach each week, and putting these along with exercises for the students to carry out onto Moodle, as well as using them to deliver a lesson at the beginning of each classroom session. However, I also had a smart board available in the classroom I was using, and I find that an invaluable piece of technology for teaching programming - more on this at the end of the next paragraph.

I have never been involved teaching an online or distance course, though as an Open University student I have considerable experience of studying on distance courses. I have however taken part in a number of webinars, both as a presenter and an attendee, and for many years have been a regular participant in international specifications working groups which use online meeting systems. This has got me thinking a lot about the best ways to communicate conceptually difficult information to a remote audience. My own experience with the Open University has been that I find it much easier to learn from books than from online material, although I often made use of PDF copies of the book at the same time as using the physical copy to get the advantage of rapid searching. This really leads onto a lot of thoughts about the differing benefits and problems of printed, electronic printed equivalent (i.e. PDF) and web pages as a means of delivering text and pictures, which probably should go into a separate blog post… A couple of other things that I have noticed while studying with the Open University is that for forums to be an effective part of the learning process it is essential that are not either too many or too few people sharing the same forum, and that group work can be very problematic when the participants have very different experience, availability and priorities. Invariably it seems that only a few people manage to fully participate.

I've also been thinking recently about how I would set about converting my introductory PHP programming course into a self-paced online learning resource. As I just mentioned, I found the smart board invaluable when teaching a class about programming, as I could highlight sections of source code as I talked about them. Now my immediate question (though not my "big question") is how I can efficiently get this facility for online teaching. It seems quite obvious to me that a slick piece of software for creating an effective real-time presentation in a video sized screen area is essential for creating good online lessons, but so far I've not come across anything that really does this well. (I'll be blogging more about this very soon, though probably not in a post with a #ocTEL tag.)

So, my "Big Question(s)"?

It's quite easy to think of questions about learning technology, and particularly about current ideas like open educational resources and MOOCs, a few that I've thought of are:
  • Should we be differentiating between "Technology Supported Learning" and "Technology Enhanced Learning", where the technology actually add something to the learning experience which could not be achieved in a different manner?
  • How do we ensure that our technology is actually enhancing learning, rather than just making us feel good, or providing work for learning technologists?
  • When we do see an apparent improvement in learning as a result of the addition of learning technology to a course, how do we know that it is not just a form of "Hawthorne effect" that we are seeing.
  • Wherever we actually going with online resources like MOOCs? Can they actually ever be as useful as online knowledge sharing resources such as, or are they just the academic equivalent of the venture capital funded web business disasters of the early 2000s?
  • How are we going to get the cost of creating provably useful electronic teaching resources (such as simulations) down, and how are we going to make sure that generic low-cost resources are genuinely useful in all the courses where they are used?

However, because I'm a geek and use technology for everything, my one big question:
  • How do we decide what is ordinary learning and what is technology enhanced learning?