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Category: course: introduction to digital environments

Final Thoughts: Is education necessary?

This may have little relevance to this course and even less to do with the goals I’m supposed to pursue, but this is an experimental course, so…

What is the purpose of e-learning? Most of the materials in an online course – and any course – can be found either on the web or in journals. A traditional course is attractive for a couple of reasons:

  • Social interaction – people go to the “University of Life” etc. and enjoy 3 years of fun
  • Qualifications
  • “something to do”
  • To learn.

… with the dawn of the web and the continuing influx of information and usage by academics, the last two points seem less significant – anyone who has a machine connected to the web, or at least access to one, now has plenty to do and learn.

Social interactions? For an undergraduate these are perhaps the most important factor of any university experience – but they aren’t anything that can be controlled by the academic environment.

So is it all about qualifications? Perhaps not, because I’m being unfair with my choice of traditional course rationale. But it’s easy to see a future without e-learning, because everything is already there on the web to begin with. Why pay ?1,500 tution fees per year when you can just Google it? Why be forced into sticking to a rigid course structure when you can develop in your own time, at your own pace, with your own skills, without feeling you’ve been left behind?

Of course, we know why – people don’t motivate themselves past the initial application form. The majority of people like the web for its other uses and can’t focus down on the wealth of information out there – indeed, the fact that there is so much is a good reason for e-courses to exists, in that they can provide order from the chaos, but that doesn’t mean that e-learning is any better than self-learning.

However, I have fallen into the same trap as many of the writers hence. e-learning for me, is this course. It has been delivered well and encouraged much thought and enjoyment; but it is today, and not tomorrow. It is a pioneering force in an institution which is too much of a juggernaut to really latch on. God forbid I try to look at MVM’s LTS without Flash, or choose the wrong option when I visit Architecture’s website. And I’m only trying to choose the course I go on – not actually enrol on it.

Tools must be used wisely, and no job can be done with only one tool, unless it’s an Ikea job. We can produce Ikea learning experiences, but we must remember that while the end result is simple and easy to complete, that the production of simplicity comes at great cost, and requires more than one tool. Whether this warrants the end-gains for the student depends on whether the student expects, or even realises them.

Education is the communication of knowledge. If two people find it easier to stand in a room together than post on forums, or prefer it the other way round, then they should have that choice. The institution cannot dictate the learning style of the student.

Access: Ensuring and Assuring #2

E-learning might be both a solution and a problem. Widening participation is a great idea that will fail in its implementation. There are pre-requisites to any university education – notably, linguistic skills of some type, some experience in lower education, and the ability to attend the classes. Some of these are difficult for some gifted students, and have been overcome with appropriate support. E-learning requires yet another skill, or at least significant support – computing/technical ability. In this it may be far easier for experienced users to appear to excel far more easily, and to give the illusion that they are better learners because they can effectively ‘talk the talk’.

This can be subtle – it can be the difference between a student who gives an established and cohesive blog commentary throughout the whole course, as compared to someone who gives a burbled “getting to grips with it all” mumbling and proffes a profound final essay within the blog, despite the fact that the tool “shouldn’t” be used that way. But who is to determine how to use a tool – evolution is about adaptation and reutilisation. It’s about outcomes as opposed to process, education as opposed to enthusiasm. The student will eventually be the one who assesses their own performance and evolution in every course, and it has taken centuries for their tutors to be guided into a place where they are comfortable with constructive criticism and setting milestones where they are allowed to intrude.

The relationships in an educational setting are now more complex than ever, with different adjustments and “compensations” required for all sorts of reasons, emotional and disability-related, and it becomes easily to become sceptical that the tutor can no longer act as a mentor or as a companion, as in the long-lost days of Socrates and Plato, in that they become a computational device, aware they are offering some sort of constructive input into a system which eventually dilutes it such that both tutor and student can be equally confounded to realise the eventual outcome.

So there is a question…

Is it conceivable to offer e-learning as an “alternative format” for disabled learners?

When we talk of traditional course materials and disabled students, we come across the need to translate paper materials into other formats – electronic, braille, audio tape, and so on. This is time consuming but necessary, for otherwise the learner cannot engage with the course.

There are other adjustments required for different disabilities; sign language interpreters for lectures, putting handouts on the web, and so on. Eventually though, you will end up with a student for whom reasonable adjustments aren’t enough to make the course come to life, perhaps due to mobility difficulties and the hassle involved in attending classes/lectures.

So is e-learning the answer? For some people, certainly. A wheelchair user may well be more comfortable in their own home, able to use different hours of the day and apply themselves to the course as and when they feel possible. For an autistic/aspergers student, and for disorganised dyslexic students, it may be a perfect solution to the complex discussions and extremely fast responses that go on in lectures, allowing consumption of material at leisure.

But for many disabled students it will be a separation too far; another barrier, perhaps technical, perhaps social, to be placed in front of them by an institution too eager to keep up with the world. Hate to say it (!) but maybe Hamish is right; this isn’t a revolution, and maybe not even an evolution – it’s just a different way of teaching, to be presented alongside the others. What’s important, is that the student gets to choose.

Continuous assessment as a hindrance to certain student groups

…even though it should be easy.

See post of October 4th. I and perhaps others now frantically aware that the blog deadline is approaching, fire off all the thoughts that have been swimming around for the past 10 weeks that never got the chance to be formulated properly.

This shouldn’t be the case – it’s exactly how students operate when faced with essays, typically written with coffee or beer at 3am on the day of submission. But this blog is equivalent to weekly short submissions or multiple choice tests, so it shouldn’t have been so much of a problem.

This is perhaps symptomatic of the type of student and the way they process and organise; even though the blog is continually updatable and available at all times, it is still seen as a block – one of the two marks in the course, and something which develops to, at the end of the day, become a singular entity.

With that in mind, it is difficult for less confident thinkers, perfectionists, or disorganised people (students with specific learning difficulties are indeed one group, but many people may fall into this trap) to be self-critical of earlier thoughts, because they’re aware that it is inevitable.

When any education starts with beginner lectures and beginner essays in 1st year, the student is forced to respond in order to progress – they will undoubtedly feel out of their depth and ill-equipped. As they progress until reaching 4th year (“expert” level), they will become more confident with the subject matter and begin to overreach in terms of thinking and independent research. They can then look back on their first year essays with scorn and ridicule. That’s how it is supposed to be.

However, a 4 year undergraduate degree programme is 10 times longer than this course. With the linear mode of learning and with so much compressed into a short space of time, it is more tempting for the student to want to wait until they have some familiarity with each aspect of the course – even if the in depth knowledge comes with a ‘second pass’: skimming/scanning the course for the first time, with in depth reading following an overview understanding.
If that’s seen as a problem it can be easily remedied by the student, as they can dip in and out of all the materials readily. But they won’t be doing it at the same time as the class – it would seem discomforting for some students who’re posting in the week 1 forum to find that another student is already spamming weeks 8 and 9, looking for small progressions to facilitate their understanding of the whole.

So as I’ve already mentioned it may be helpful to suggest multiple approaches to virtual courses, depending on the learning style of the student. This is particularly useful when the course has a fairly common theme – an introduction to Political theory course, for example, needs to be linear: you can’t learn Machiavelli, Marx, and FDR simultaneously.
However, perhaps this is only a problem if the student perceives there to be a conflict in assessing the work done; if they can be assured that 30 posts in the final week is no different than 3 posts each week…

Access: Ensuring and Assuring #1

It is now quite clear that producing a distance/e-learning course can only be possible if traditional support mechanisms are also in place. Particularly with reference to the electronic side of things, technology issues and assistive technology vs. inaccessible websites creates a definite need for telephone/real life interaction. For a screen reader user who is having difficulties getting through to WebCT to begin with, let alone reach the course, there must be an assured point of contact who is readily available. Presently in University structures this is only possible during business-hours. If we are to view e-learning as expanding beyond old-style norms then this no longer becomes satisfactory. Most students who pursue part-time study will do so out of hours, and so the support structures are required to adapt to provide this service. The alternative is students with particular needs ending up being at the end of a delayed and asychronous support process, which impacts on studies and is perhaps discriminatory (regardless of whether disability is involved).

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!

Immersion

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.