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Month: November 2004

Renegade Blogging

I’ve had some difficulty with the separation between weblog and discussion board, and the new desire that Collette talked about at the first e-learning lecture, for students to want to self-publish, self-criticise, and receive feedback from the whole world. While the discussion board isn’t assessed, it still seems a very valuable mechanism to explore ideas, as in a tutorial, to then take back and formalise in a blog entry. This is a duplication of data and can make the blog feel a little introverted; is there a sense that students are ‘saving the best stuff’ for the blog, which fellow learners never get to see?

What would have been the reaction, both from assessors and tutors, if a student had shunned the WebCT weblog entirely, set up their own blog on an external website (from the many available packages) which allowed full open access, and full commenting from students on the course and the world at large? In effect, the student’s only official blog entry then being a URL pointer to the real one?

Does this create a conflict in its rebellion, or is it an acceptable enhancement in the use of technology to support their learning experience?

Is it beneficial for the student themselves to be able to define the audience parameters, so that depending on their attitude toward VLEs, they could choose (per the whole blog, or perhaps even per post) whether only they and tutors see; only students on the same course see; only UofE students/staff see; or the entire world sees?
It seems to me that the writing style and depth of meaning would change dramatically depending on how far the horizon extends. A closed blog might confidently consist of very short entries, with no real structure but a fluid and frequent posting style; a global blog might likely turn posts into essays, and adopt a formal approach of inviting comments to reuse in future posts.

Feasibly the student could start their own discussion boards too! One powerful feature of currently blogging tools is the concept of multiple users: extending this into a course context, with group blogs of 3/4 people, could be another viable form of assessment, and might provide a more restrained posting style in order to prevent division between the group…?

Once the course content has been downloaded, it is effectively possible, from a technical stance, to do without WebCT entirely, creating your own environment elsewhere on the web, stylised and flavoured to your tastes. Conceivably other students could be ‘poached’ from WebCT and you end up with a very real and difficult division; as though one group of students refuses to be taught with the others. What would the strategy of the tutors need to be? Trying to close down the offending website could be a serious PR disaster and cause lasting damage to the course and institution. It’s likely that this situation would only arise if the student(s) felt that the VL environment was lacking significantly in some way, and so would it then be time to accede the decline in effectiveness of that VLE and evolve into something new?
How do you provide quality assurance for something which changes every year, ostensibly for the better? Does it matter, so long as the students are happy?

Still have a conflict…

Perpetually shift back and forth between Course Talk and Weblog depending on the value I apply to my own discourse. There’s a moral impact in taking ‘away’ something from the community and using it to ‘further’ your own marks because you know the weblog is part of the assessment. Do I stand defiant and post nothing in the blog, and rely on the tutors to assess my group discussion contributions instead? What if I were to delete it all now…?

More seriously, this was part of my motivation for annexing the course sofa: fair enough, it hasn’t been used at all, but when the tutors are omnipresent, as already discussed, everything becomes plastic and superficial.

Is there justification in copy/pasting everything I say about topics in the forums, into the blog? Is there an expectation to come up with something different, or a different phrasing every time? Am I then plagiarising myself? (not to mention diluting my thoughts, which is counterproductive to academia and pummels us further into the ‘process’ which Charles spoke of last week)

I acknowledge that the university requires a formal assessment; however, I find myself asking, what is it? The entire course is structured around interaction, yet the two components which are assessed consist of a solitary diary and a two-person essay. Why bother with the rest?

My WebCT Course

OK, so I eventually got around to playing with WebCT in a course creation role. I was exceptionally cruel and condescending, but there again, it goes to show how easily and quickly it is to discriminate against all sorts of aesthetic likings, as well as people with disabilities.

I actually feel aghast as to how difficult WebCT is to use when creating a course – absolutely no part of it seemed intuitive to me at all. Whether that’s because I have a background in HTML/CSS, maybe, but I don’t think the aesthetic design of it can go that wrong unless you really try; it seems very difficult to even get an idea of how the hierarchy works. I simply wanted to add a new “webpage” as you would normally, and found it to be utterly impossible unless you went into an option that seemed to have a different semantic meaning than what you were really after.

Is that really how you need to work WebCT? You just delude it into thinking everything’s OK?

Is that education?

Obstacles and isolation

I think what really struck me today was something that I’ve (had to) take for granted for several years now; the optimistic assumption that other people are up-to-speed with technologies and the internet.

I say “had to” because it’s a truism – in terms of work, and of advising friends and family, after a few years experience I now believe it is impossible to develop technology and counsel and train colleagues on technology at the same time. I believe it’s a problem that all developers face, and something which the open-source movement has yet to tackle (namely, it doesn’t have the money to try). But in order to develop a meaningful product, you have to have users who are able, willing, and likely to experiment with and use it to its potential. Therefore you cannot offer beta technology to an unknown audience, and expect results.

The fact that Alex got trapped in the CCCP room – Denise’s phrase “became quite tense” is absolutely spot on, however irrational – is testament to the fact that learners operate on many different levels. When I first entered the environment I too was concerned that something was wrong, because the doors wouldn’t open. Turns out all you need to do is disregard the laws of physics and it’ll all be OK. But while these unintuitive aspects quickly become playful – slamming at speed into the ground just for spectacle – they are serious flaws in presenting a virtual world to the wide range of students that can be expected to study at University.

Mature students are one army with a different line of reasoning from the current undergrads; disabled students too occupy a different stance. Following the social model of disability, Alex was disabled by the environment – the walls were too restrictive and the doors didn’t open as you expected. This is exactly the same physical division you see with wheelchair users and other people with mobility impairments, and it exists even in a purely electronic world.

Even excluding the physical barriers, the moon is a huge landscape with no radar; people with learning difficulties or lacking in confidence would easily give up long before they discovered where the rest of the group where; would they even try to contact by chat or would they go it alone? A student with Aspergers probably would opt for the latter – and notably may get more from the course in experiencing the solitude than if they’d been restricted. But the dislocation is profound, and I can easily see how easy it is to be lost, both in the environment and in the user interface itself: throughout the entire time that Alex was lost, nobody suggested clicking the Teleport To Home button that would’ve resolved the entire crisis. Again I chose not to do so because it defeats the purpose of defying the obstacle; that the easy way out exists doesn’t entail it should be chosen.

And yet no classified disability is necessary to encounter obstacles; that’s what I have suddenly re-learned from today (and in other areas over the past few months with computer security crises and the fact that broadband internet is a warzone suitable only for the well-equipped). Every user who embarks on a new venture requires a helping hand, and it is empowering to see a community spirit developing where there is no precursor; there is no relationship between any of us other than an entry in a Registry database tying us into this one course, and there is no requirement for us a collaborate and communicate (yet) in order to benefit our marks. Yet it still happens. So long as humanity itself does not wane, there may be hope for such immersive VLEs!


Is it dangerous for learning to be addictive? Maybe it’s just because it’s Friday afternoon, but I do wonder whether anything would’ve got done in Active Worlds had there not been the “imposing tutor presence”. 🙂 More so than textual chat, there is a relaxed feeling in 3D environments where time flies and nothing gets done.

There is also the danger that the environment overtakes the course; that everything becomes centred around the student’s perceptions of how things should look, and starts to customise/filter out parts of the learning experience to suit their own purposes, rather than actually being “taught”. This is part of a much wider discussion on whether students should be taught in the first place, but it does remind me somewhat of the Better Than Life total immersion video game in Red Dwarf, where everything is chosen and reflected on in the first person only, and everything other than the game is irrelevant. If 3D environments were used to a greater extent than in this course, as an illustrative and imaginative tool, then more care would need to be taken in asserting more clearly the aims and purposes for which the tool is to be used.

Virtual Universes

As a continuation of comments posted in Moon Group 2, my interactions with the group this afternoon which I wasn’t supposed to be in felt somewhat like a violation of privacy. It’s great fun but if a group is trying to work, and someone – whether part of the group or an outsider – just can’t be bothered and wants to lark around, then who has jurisdiction for removing/warning them? It seems to involve a far more complex set of moderation issues than with a simple chat program, since there are multiple ways of expressing oneself, and I could have a significant negative and disruptive impact on the class without saying a word.

The opposite is of course true; the opportunity to express oneself in a more expansive way was the reason why smileys came around, and 3D environments it could be argued are simply an extension of this. Instead of posting URLs to people you direct them to locations/coordinates – perhaps there’s nothing fundamentally different about the baseline of the environments apart from the visual distinction.

It’d be interesting to see research into the ways students with specific learning difficulties cope with these kinds of environments. It occurred to me in Colleen’s talk that the map of the mansion, guiding you around the website, may work better than a list of textual links for some students, but may throw up false associations for others (e.g. subconsciously, the lounge should contain less formal discussion than the drawing room; the bedroom should be more “fun” than the study, and so on) and that particularly if someone has poor spacial awareness and processing difficulties, it could be immensely daunting to be plunged into something like Active Worlds.

Dangers in room 2

Some of the thoughts expressed in Hypertext, and particularly illustrated by ‘This is a test’ are of grave concern when considering cognitive organisation and its implications on navigation. In a traditional learning environment there are three stages where information is gathered: direct presentation (lectures/handouts); required reading; and secondary reading / student’s own independent research.

For a student lacking in confidence, or with learning difficulties, even stage 1 can be difficult to attain. In a science based course, for example, if the course documentation doesn’t sufficiently illustrate the semester plan, or provide a synopsis in advance of the lecture plan, then when the student attends the lecture, and misses one key point in the introduction, the entire hour can be wasted, never to be repeated. Attempting to then revisit the lecture, even by recording it or with notes, can be time consuming and often fruitless. It’s in the student’s interest to prepare for the lecture, but the tutors must also work to provide a clear and solid framework, including as much detail as possible.

(NB: this works well with this course, particularly in that the course content section contains several layers of complexity that the student can ‘drill down’ through depending on need, and so isn’t swamped with information).

Stage 2 is particularly difficult for students with dyslexia or a visual impairment, since it typically covers vast swathes of reading which even the most competent student can find ‘enough’ to manage for a week. Given that the reading is required and will be reflected on, there is little lee-way in class for skipping readings. Notably online this isn’t so much of a problem, with this blog being a case in point (it certainly isn’t week 4). However, I’ve felt confident enough in re-organising the course to suit my own needs, partly because it doesn’t have a vast impact on my life; a ‘proper’ UG or PG degree does have significant impact and one wonders to what extent students will be comfortable attacking materials in their own way; for many, the rigid structure is a help rather than a hindrance in that it prevents them going off track.

Stage 3 never existed for me as an undergraduate, for various social reasons (!) and also because I never knew where to start. There was no information immediately available to hint at what would be more useful to a particular line of questionning – granted this could be obtained by consultation with the tutor, but tutor time is at a premium and this was before the widespread adoption of email. So it just never happened. This was fine, but imagine having ‘This is a test’ as a suggested reading, only amplified and complexified. In essence, you have the internet, with the aid of Google et al. A student who was already a little flumoxed by stages 1 and 2 will either shun the internet entirely and go into denial about the whole week, or will embrace the internet and go off on completely the wrong track. Neither is good. The lack of a hierarchical and consistent navigation in ‘This is a test’, and subsequently in the internet, is confusing and daunting when you are mining for information. As a game and a bit of fun, it’s all fine, but good websites are familiar websites, and that means you know your way around instinctively. With more and more of the web evolving into user interfaces, and WebCT etc. already existing often as a double layer interface (the surround of WebCT itself, plus the structure the tutor has decided to implement, good or bad) mean that throwing things up on the web without due consideration of all the consequences, and particularly hyperlinking to as many relevant items as possible, will only confuse and add concern to students already feeling out of their depth. Observe the Wikipedia entry for ‘internet’ as an indicator of how overlinking can destroy meaning and value. A student reading course material, religiously opening links provided in the background, who then finds they’ve opened 15 more browser windows, will give up and go to the pub. Can’t blame them!

One particular pet-hate is recursive linking in an infinite loop – in ‘This is a test’, hyper-text links to reading which links to hyper-text which links to reading, seemingly for no other purpose but for the hell of it. That’s an unhelpful guiding hand and eternally frustrating when the student thinks they’re just beginning to get somewhere.

Blended learning and environment generations

The issues raised in the Garrison article in part 3, on the benefits provided by asyncronous discussion as opposed to real-time face to face are significant. Positively, in that it enables students with less confidence, or processing/learning difficulties, the period of time required to provide a competent response with which they are happy. In a face to face setting this can be immensely troubling, especially if the student feels that the encounter may affect their course marks; if marks decline, regardless of whether it’s related to the student’s inhibitions, the student may steadily withdraw altogether from complex discussion scenarios and play a safer card, which lessens the learning experience for all involved. The ability to prepare responses beforehand can be valuable.

However, there can be a tension between formality and informality here too. When essays are augmented with performance in tutorials, it’s obviously in the student’s interest to excel in both. With the informality of discussion forums though, students may feel a swing towards devoting their thoughts to the marked work, and ‘save’ relevant insights for their essays. I’ve certainly felt this occur at times when considering posts in the discussion forums; the more you write and think about something, the more relevant it becomes to the assessed work (the blog) and the likelihood of actually posting it in public becomes proportionally less.

Presumably this tendency exists far more in Humanities subjects than sciences/medicine, and seems related to confidence as well – the balshier students will just go ahead and post the same thing in both blog and forum, and there’ll be nothing wrong with that. But the students are justified in being sceptical as to how far tutors will read into the informal segments of any generation of learning environments, including blended learning, simply because it’s a new horizon for all concerned. In my undergraduate degree I was accused of plagiarism and found the idea preposterous; turns out I just wrote prose in a style that the tutor found to be unexpected. The accusation was worthwhile; had I not been consulted, the given mark could conceivably have been artificially lowered, through no fault of my own other than indulging in study and the task too deeply.


Now back from Kenya and attempting to catch up, likely in reverse chronological order and so making this blog somewhat non-linear. Might be a good thing!

The problems encountered organising and connecting to online chat bring up various questions:

  1. the chat applet, though I haven’t tested it, probably isn’t very accessible, nor intuitive, to a disabled user.
  2. the applet is also proprietary and as experienced personally, may not work under certain circumstances
  3. the WebCT applet isn’t as passive as might be desired; most instant messaging tools sit in the background, permanently logged on but doing nothing, until something happens. This can be done with WebCT but require multiple web browsers to be open and is a little cluttered. Notifications are also limited, meaning you can sit on the chatroom for hours of quiet, be doing something else, then suddenly miss an entire conversation, coming back to find everyone gone.
  4. regardless of the method used, finding common times that suit all people is nigh on impossible
  5. the concept of organised chat harks back to traditional tutorial structures and may be less suitable/less necessary with new elearning courses (it’s very necessary here as an experiment)

1 and 2 could perhaps be avoided by using a more common and widely recognisable chat system: IRC or MSN Messenger / Yahoo Messenger are mature and work better with the operating system, and hence with assistive technologies. IRC in particular allows for different clients to connect to the same server architecture/chatroom, meaning cross-platform problems (e.g. Mac) can be easily resolved.

4 is in part resolved by the production of a chat transcript, which is very helpful for those who simply couldn’t attend for whatever reason. This would also be aided by having several chat sessions staged at different parts throughout the course; this would lead into point 5, preventing the rigid traditional course structure from interfering too much with the experimental side of the syllabus.

Casual chatroom conversations may be few and far between because of the problems point 3, and defecting to a more common system of communication may be the resolution here.