Beyond Theory

Beyond TheoryBeyond TheoryBeyond Theory

BeyondTheoryConference 2003


Keynote Speakers:

Round Table Discussion:

The influence of educational best practice on ICT in teaching and learning.

Round Table Discussion Transcript (Secondary Discussion)

The impetus behind the development of ICT material and major national projects is always one of two things � advances in technology or economic necessity � is it true that the needs of education always come a poor third?

Formal Debate:

Formal Debate Transcript

Professor Angela McFarlane, University of Bristol

Keynote Speaker: 'Alone Together - Learning in Higher Education'

Thank you Paul, and thank you very much for asking me to speak to-day � I think. I was trying to remember when I was last forced to speak without any kind of visual aid at all, and apart from the nightmares of being the President of the school debating society, the only other place I was forced to do it was in a Select Committee Room in the House of Lords. It occurred to me that the Oxford Union and the House of Lords may be the two remaining bastions that Howard Gardner has yet to penetrate. The other thing which I personally find even more daunting is to try and say something fresh, new, or even interesting to an audience most of whom, and certainly many of whom, have been at this game considerably longer than I have and have written some of the sources on which I am going to draw. So having recklessly taken up this challenge, I will try not to send you to sleep for the next 20 minutes, but rather to offer a few questions and thoughts that might help feed into the later debate.

Arguments around the use of learning technology in H.E. often begin with justifications that are based on notions of widening participation and a cost effectiveness agenda. Obviously I am not going to suggest that those debates are not important, but I would like to set those to one side and rather consider learning technologies in terms of models of learning effectiveness. Also I�d like to question some of the practices that we currently tend to view as unproblematic and idealised when we compare the alternatives that are not technology supported. In order to do that I have decided to draw on the five rules of virtuality which came out of the Virtual Society? research programme directed by Stephen Woolgar, who is now at Oxford Said Business School. It was an ESRC funded programme from 1997 to 2001 to look at the uptake and use of new technology in a whole range of contexts, including Higher Education, from a social scientific prospective. If you haven�t seen it I recommend the book that resulted from it called Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality which is quite thought provoking.

These five rules, which are really more like themes, or principals, begin with the notion that the uptake and use of new technologies depend crucially on local social contexts, and also, this is my sub-text, on local cultures as a result.

Rule 1: The uptake and use of new technologies depend crucially on local social contexts.

It was Crooke and Light who looked at uptake in Higher Education and they came up with some interesting patterns of study, which they used as an alternative term to learning, based on student diaries - and at this point I would have loved to have shown you a very interesting graph that would have saved me the next two minutes explanation, but as I can�t do that you will have to do with my verbal explanation. On this graph they plotted a diurnal rhythm, if you like, of what students characterised as personal study, class based activity and social study; and you saw the sort of pattern you would expect. Classes, and that meant any kind of group formal context from a laboratory to a lecture to a tutorial, tended to happen between 9 and 5 predominantly. Personal study tended to follow that pattern between 9 and 5 and also there was some personal study outside those hours. Social study was low throughout compared to the other two forms and most of it took place in a class context and there was very little study, which was considered social by the students outside a formal context.

My interpretation of that graph and those data is that they represent a model with which we are familiar, which again I could illustrate very nicely with a diagram, which is essentially that students may spend a lot of time in a highly social context if they are working in an H.E. context; because even distance learning courses tend to have some face-to-face components. But even if they spend this time in a social context, in other words they are together, most of their learning, and most of their study, takes place alone and hence my title to-day �Alone Together�, and this is based on a model of the learning as an individual within the context of Higher Education, and that model is implicit, if not explicit, in most of the ways we tend to teach.

Now when you move into a computer mediated communication environment the emphasis changes as most of the effective practice we see spoken about and promoted in relation to these particular uses of learning technology have as a basis a socio- cultural, constructivist model of learning. It is easy to forget that the move to the technology is possibly the lowest barrier in that trajectory from current models of learning in Higher Education to technology based models of learning in Higher Education. Because simply learning to use technology is a piece of cake compared to changing your entire mindset from being an individual, who will be individually assessed and individually accredited as a learner in a context, into a situation where you become one of a group of learners, who learn socially and who are, therefore, prepared to share, to expose themselves, to expose their thinking to others. And not only to do that in the relatively ephemeral way you do when you have a discussion in a face to face tutorial, but to do it in a way that creates a semi-permanent record on a discussion board, or some other technological interface. So my first point is that the social and cultural implications of learning technologies are far greater than any of the technological implications of the move to the effective use of virtual learning environments, and unless we begin to address those social and cultural issues in terms of our models of learning and our approaches to learning we haven�t really got a hope of imbedding effective VLE style practice in H.E. So that�s the first point that should keep you talking for a little while.

A second rule that Woolgar and colleagues came up with was that:

The fears and risks associated with new technology are unevenly socially distributed.

Now as they themselves have said none of these rules are rocket science. Clearly different people have very different approaches and I hear a lot of discourse around the notion that teachers in Higher Education can be very resistant to the adoption of learning technologies, but we mustn�t lose sight of the fact that learners can be even more, or at least equally, resistant and as evidence of that point I would refer you to the recent problem at Bath. When Bath made a unilateral declaration that they were going to reduce face to face lectures by 20%, they had students with banners marching up and down the streets in protest. It's been very interesting talking to the student representatives from the various consultative fora and committees that we have at Bristol. There is a lot of resistance amongst students, who see a move to technology-based learning as a cheap, impoverished model, and that they are somehow being cheated of a high quality face to face experience and that going to a lecture is bound to be a better experience for them than having material posted on a VLE. So there is a large question around learner expectations and the other point, which never seems to go away, is that whilst they like to have material available electronically they really resent having to take up the print costs associated with having to print materials themselves instead of having handouts given to them. So my second point is that as part of that social culture quilt, we have to look at the squares that relate to learner expectations and whilst we have at the back of people�s minds the notion that somebody standing up and telling you something is the most effective way of learning it we have a serious barrier to the uptake of technology based learning, and its not only good lecturers who feel that way its also many members of our student bodies.

The third point that Woolgar and colleagues came up with was that if you look at patterns of adoption virtual technology supplements rather than substitute for real activities, and this won�t be a surprise to anyone here because we know from the research that we have into the use of learning technologies that blended approaches to teaching and learning, that have the right combination of face to face and virtual experiences, time and again prove to be the most successful and the most effective. Its very difficult, not impossible, but its very difficult to run an educational course as opposed to a training-based course that is purely virtual, and people who assume that a move from a distance educational model to an E-distance educational model will be straight forward should have a look at the work of Sheena Banks and Vic Lally up at Sheffield. They gave a very interesting paper at the CAL 03Conference, pointing out that it is just as difficult to move colleagues to a virtual method of teaching their research methods course from a distance module - incidentally in I think a Masters programme - as it has been to move colleagues from face to face teaching. The idea that you can move to an entirely virtual model and do away with the real experiences entirely, is not unique to education but proves to be difficult to implement which should be no surprise to us.

The fourth of their rules is an interesting one, which they characterised as the more virtual, the more real. Looking at patterns of technology adoption they find that people who tend to embrace virtual versions of an activity tend at the same time to ramp up their use of the real experiences. One of the most obvious examples of this is that people who visit on-line museum sites apparently are more likely to visit physically off-line museum sites as a result. So putting things like the British Museum collection on-line has actually increased visitors to the British Museum, as a feed through, rather than replace them. Now that has some very interesting consequences for us in Higher Education, where I think the same principal applies and I think it is one of the areas where we have to be extremely careful about the cost effectiveness argument. It is very dangerous, if any of you have done this you will know, to try and sell learning technology to colleagues as something that will be time saving. Because certainly in the early stages it is anything but time saving to move elements of your course into a virtual environment, but there is also the risk that you increase student demand of your own time by doing this.

I will share with you an anonymised snippet of conversation from the last few days. It was in the context of a discussion of on-line assessment where someone made the rather interesting observation that this particular person taught a very assessment intensive course, which happened to be in engineering, where they give the students tests every few weeks and they have hundreds and hundreds of students. It�s very very intensive, and moving the assessment on-line clearly seemed to be an obvious way of making this process more efficient, and that�s what they did. But they discovered that by doing this what actually happened was they got more students coming knocking on their doors wanting to know why they got certain items wrong. They now had a printed record of their test, which they hung on to, and they found that whilst the lectures might have saved marking time they were spending more time actually discussing the results with their students, and they didn�t think necessarily that was a good thing. I have to say my unspoken response was �Yes I think its called teaching�. What was interesting was that this scenario was illustrating something that those of us who suspect that technologies can do rather a lot to help H.E. be more effective, would want to promote; instead of spending valuable academic teaching time marking scripts of tests you actually spend that time talking with students about why they are not getting some of these test items right. Surely that has to be a good thing. But, of course, if you don�t anticipate that demand and you don�t manage the use of your time � perhaps with a group feedback session -and you end up with students coming and knocking on your door all hours of the day, then clearly that�s not necessarily a step in the right direction. It is important to understand that you are unlikely to reduce student demand on academic time simply by putting virtual systems in place unless you then manage the changed behaviours that are likely to result in such a way that students are not coming one to one to the lecturer wanting the explanation of the outcomes. So you clearly need to anticipate the changes in behaviour and to manage those, but you can�t assume that by simply moving some of the material into a virtual environment you will reduce the need for academic time.

The fifth and final point that emerged was an interesting one which they characterised as the more global the more local, and the way that I see this happening in my own use of technologies is that I may go on the internet to find out what is happening in Australia but as a result I end up e-mailing my secretary who is in the next room. Which may, or may not, be a good thing. It is interesting that in the patterns of use and uptake of technologies that Virtual Society? looked at in detail, they did find that rather than making individuals more remote from their local context, which is one of the hypothetical outcomes one might anticipate, in fact what happened was that people tended to become part of more global communities but also more active and embedded in their local community through the use of technologies, and I thought that was an encouraging notion. So just to reflect on that again in relation to the title that I selected to-day, this notion of being alone together, I think there are some interesting notions that we might find useful, and interesting to think about, in relation to how people learn in when in groups. Much of the exemplification I have been drawing on today does come from a model of students who have a lot of face to face contact and probably are in a campus context. But I think they apply to any students who have any face to face element.

Think about the notion that, for example, simply because you are all sitting here in this room that you are having some kind of collective experience as you might if you were a group of students listening to a lecturer - well, clearly that�s not true. What is actually happening is that you are having 217 individual experiences good, or bad, and there is no opportunity in this particular context for any kind of collaboration, or co-operation. Obviously today has been constructed in a way that you will have ample opportunities for those, and there is an assumption that you have come with both the preparedness and the skill set to engage in those collective activities, so that whilst you will go away with some kind of personally constructed knowledge as a result of the day you will have done that in a social context. That is in marked contrast to what tends to happen when you give people the opportunity to do the equivalent in a virtual environment, and I don�t need to say very much about that because amongst others Gilly Salmon, our speaker this afternoon, has written extensively about this phenomenon. You have to work much harder to get those kinds of interactions happening on-line than you do to get them happening in a physical environment. Or do you? Think about the way in which you have physical groups together, how many individuals will actually speak to-day? How many people will contribute? Will there really be 217 unique points to be made in this afternoon�s debate? It would be nice if there were, but there probably won�t be. But you were all here � and would appear on the attendance register which might be the only recorded criterion in a face to face context.

So what do you do about the students who don�t actually contribute to the on-line discussion, who don�t have something to say which is unique in response to a posting on a discussion board because someone else has already said it? Have they satisfied the attendance requirement, and how would you know? How do we begin to actually monitor and credit the kinds of contribution that people make to virtual communities, and what does it actually mean to be part of a �community�? This word gets used so often and used in so many different ways. How do you know if someone is part of a virtual community or simply happens to have a user id and password? I think we have to go back to some of the social and cultural measures and ways of looking at things if we are going to re-conceptualise the learner in the virtual context. So whilst I don�t want to depress anybody even further about how difficult it is to actually adopt learning technologies in a meaningful way in Higher Education, I do think we still have an enormous amount to learn about how to use these technologies to best support learning, and the reason that I persist with this is that I do actually believe that socially constructed knowledge is more powerful and more durable and, more importantly, that the mechanisms for learning how to learn that way really are what underpins this notion of life-long learning. If we allow our students to leave us only with strategies for constructing knowledge as recipients in a transmissive model we really have seriously undersold them and I think ourselves. Thank you.

Question: I�m quite new to this area but you did mention about the attitude that is a challenge to overcome that lecturing face to face is better than online learning. I had always thought that. I always have to, even if it is on-line as a resource, print it out which is very wasteful but I do find that traditional learning is easier because maybe that was the way I was brought up. I didn�t learn from computers as a child. I just wondered if there is evidence to say that that is changing � that it is not a major problem in terms of learning verbally and orally, as we are today. Is that actually changing - is there any evidence for that?

Angela: There is evidence from the teaching and learning technology programme, which many people in this room have been involved in, that - the particular instance I am thinking of is chemistry, but I think it illustrates the point - they looked at retention of information in groups of students that had received lectures and groups of students who had been given videos of the same lectures and they found that the retention of the students that had had the videos was very much higher. The reasons for that seem to have been two fold - one that you could watch the video when you were in a receptive mood rather than turning up to a nine o�clock lecture when you are, perhaps, not quite ready for a nine o�clock lecture. And the other point, which is more important, that they could stop the video and replay elements if they hadn�t entirely grasped what was being said or the point that was being made. This is such a complex issue to try and paraphrase but I do think it is fascinating particularly in the sciences, which is my own background, that we still believe that telling people complex information is a good way of giving that information to them and, of course, you know the joke about lectures �the information that passes from the page of the lecturer to the page of the student without passing through the mind of either�. But you go away with those notes and you have that security - �I�ve got my lecture notes � I�m fine on this � I can learn these for the exam and everything will be fine�. Its easy to go to a lecture and sit and listen and take the handouts away but the converse of that is that a lot of student recognise that it is not an effective way of learning. It is very interesting talking to my medical colleagues about this. Some are extremely loathe to consider alternative ways of teaching and they complain in the same breath that they have to keep lecturing as it is so effective but, of course, the students don�t turn up. I think that as we see students become more discerning learners actually they vote with their feet.

Question: I think we have to be very careful in these debates not to take extreme views. You are taking a very particular, I think, now caricature view of a lecturer and contrasting that, and I think there has been many changes in education over the last few years and they have also changed dramatically some of the practising of traditional formats and there are many lecture formats where it isn�t a question of someone standing at the front and delivering information � there is a community, there is interaction, so I think we have to be careful in these debates not actually to set extremes against each other, but to look at the changes that are taking place in what you might see to be a traditional teaching format.

Angela: Yes I think that�s right � in my defence my brief was to be provocative, but obviously I am certainly not suggesting there is no place for the lectured event and if I really believed that I would have no right to stand here would I? But I do think we have to use the lecture format judiciously and sensibly and there are still an awful lot of people out there who want to give their 20 hour lecture courses, and they are very happy doing it thank you very much, and they stand there and talk at people for 20 hours so whilst there are many people who do much more interesting and innovative things with that time that practice is still, I think, fairly embedded in many areas.

Follow-up: I agree with you, but I think sometimes if you are looking for change it�s easier to get someone to change a format they feel comfortable with than to move to a completely different format. There are many ways of encouraging change.

Back to Top.

Gilly Salmon, Open University Business School

Keynote Speaker: 'Reclaiming the Teritory'

Before I start my talk, I need to tell you about a strange thing that happened to me on my way across the OU campus yesterday. I was walking over the bridge by the river and heard what I thought was a faint cry from a clump of daffodils near the path. On going to investigate, to my amazement, I found this.

I took a cautious look, of course, and found that the foundling had a note, it reads �My Name is BlaCT. Please look after my password. My license expires in 28 days.� Clearly it�s a rather odd baby, a real pup, and seems starved of proper feeding and attention. As my foundling is a baby, (well all VLEs are still in their infancy aren�t they??) I thought I really ought to try and find its real parents. Maybe its ancestors were from Computer Based Training and more closely though I could discern the powerful Northern American instructivist nose.

I carried it to the IT Centre, not far away, and asked them if they knew anything about it. They said �oh no, it doesn�t seem to belong to our family and we can�t touch anything that�s off the pathway� but it looks quite cool so you can leave it with us to play with for a while if you like�. However, they soon got tired of it, as it was demanding of attention. They said �we�re really worried about its interoperability when it grows up. We need the academics to take responsibility for it, they said they wanted it�. I couldn�t see any academics around at that time. Well it was only 10.30 am.

So I wandered back towards my office and passed by the library. The information officers always seem such helpful friendly people, perhaps they would know what to do with BlaCT. They said they had to operate 24 by 7 so couldn�t really help me but could loan me some clothes and toys for it. They also agreed to start a search for its origins as soon as I returned some books.

Well I took it along to the administrators in my school. They were quite sweet with it really. They gave it a security badge clearly marked �Visitor� they said they�d seen all this kind of thing before and knew what to do about it. They said there were various forms I had to fill in about VLE foundlings and then they would put my request it to the committee for funding, and if successful for adoption. They told me that it�s only hope is that it�s cheap to keep and is prepared to be centralised. However they did warn me it would be number 36 on the agenda, and there were a number of other candidates.

By this time, I was getting quite fond of BlaCT and had a sudden thought�what about the development fund�after all doesn�t that offer us a wonderful opportunity for piloting and creativity?

I put the foundling on my desk while I downloaded the Development Fund papers. The baby shuffled around a bit and had a good chew on my FirstClass CD ROM and a major sniff at my Blackboard users manual. A couple of post grad students passed by and were absolutely delighted with it, saying �it�s a real any time any place kind of dog, better than lectures any day YES WICKED !!�. The development fund objectives looked pretty hopeless. It was clear that they thought VLE�s too good to leave in the tender care of academics� for example did it have a daddy to provide matched external funding?

By then my academic colleagues in my Centre had arrived to take a look, and were saying �Well we could�, or why don�t you�hey my students would love that�can I take a closer look and evaluate it�I�ve got an idea�let�s check out its communication tools before we feed it�wow it has a slight Socratean look about it�.. One gave it a search for a fast forward to promotion button but no luck! I said, "Who will help me with parenting this child?" They said. We�d love to Gilly, but you know we�ve no time at all this semester�,�

I thought I�d try taking it to the Senior Executive Committee. They said I should define my terms against the university�s global mission and explain, with much why I had brought this unplanned resource to them. They asked in what way adopting foundling VLEs would help create better access to more students at lower costs and/or ensure greater competitiveness. I suggested that with nurturing it might grow up to take over Microsoft but they said that do gooders like me should be most careful, since the child might suffer from rampant featurism in the future, for which there is no cure. They told me that there were a number of more serious siblings who were likely to be supported and they had to make their mistakes, maybe many times over, before any new approach could considered. I persisted but they said they said they were sorry but if they let me keep the foundling other teachers might want them too and there was no proof it is cost effective or even, horrors, scalable. I got out fairly quickly before it went the way of other unsupported ideas in the School, and me with it. I left them having a strategic discussion about the risk of clumps of daffodils on campus.

Finally I realised I needed to rely on my own resources, and that if I wanted this baby to thrive, or even survive, I would need to be its champion. Perhaps I should build a shrine called Foundlingblog and become its missionary. And so we come to my idea of reclaiming the territory of online learning environments.

I am influenced by the ideas of Tony Becher and Paul Trowler in their preface to the 2nd edition of Academic Tribes & Territories. They highlight the impact of a decade of profound changes in education across the world and the proliferation of the complexity and strengths of forces acting upon us. As a result, the territories that academics and teachers thought were their own have altered and adapted. The features of the landscape of our universities and colleges have changed, and over the land hang the star of new technologies. So who roams this strange new panorama, what fiefdoms prevail, who or what has a right to cast a shadow across the vista?

I�m going to just consider two possibilities in a little more depth.

First that students have the right to define the territory within a new relationship between HE & FE and in partnership with new media. For example, let�s examine the idea that flexible learning, enhanced, promoted or enabled by the use of learning technologies, equals student-centred learning. And that�s more that learners and receivers of our offerings can define the core centre of their learning needs and then somehow succeed if such needs are appropriately met. Is this the new quality?

In the OU Business School, I chair a large open entry course called the Professional Certificate in Management. . It attracts, around 7000 students a year in Western and Eastern Europe. The course is a highly modular and customisable with a range of choices including 4 start dates each year, study breaks and completely online versions.

Recently 184 randomly selected students were surveyed on a �Forward Look� Study. We particularly wanted to know what their attitudes were to flexibility in learning provision,, what they saw as flexible, what else they needed, what they were prepared to pay for flexibility and whether technology was helping.

First, to our horror, they defined �flexibility� in 73 different ways, only 40 of which we had thought of. Worse still, many of the aspects of flexibility already provided to them, often at considerable cost to the course team and the university they seemed unaware of. Some of the flexibility wish-list could be provided through a VLE, such as improved provision of searchable course material on the web site for travelling. They also needed much more help with routes through the material and help with their use of time, but without impinging on when and where they studied. I couldn�t see the VLE was really much help with those. To me that suggests deploying devices for learning and support that they use in their every day life as well as a special learning environment. Maybe a return to the now maligned idea of �push�?

They also wanted flexible online assessment. They hated having to physically attend for exams and wanted any time anywhere exams. They wanted much more choice of submission date for assignments. One student wrote �For all its innovation, I was so surprised at how important this particular exam format is to the OU�. They wanted feedback on their exams of the same quality provided on assignments (which currently personalised and individually crafted by their tutors). I suspect the first VLE to offer any of these will have a great strength in the market and earn the right of passage to the territory.

Certificate in Management students also wanted to easily be able to find like-minded others. Perhaps those who speak the same mother tongue, those from the same industry, those living in a similar location. Clearly since all students are online this should be easy, but the dividing of students into manageable groups, a requirement of the VLE, online cuts through the flexibility aim! This is clearly a technological challenge rather than a conceptual one!

We also asked our students how much they would be prepared to pay for 7 aspects increased flexibility for them. We explained that each involves increased costs to the university. Nearly a half would be prepared to pay nothing at all for flexibility in start date with over a third being unwilling to pay for flexible pace, study breaks, individualised programmes. The selection of study methods proved to be the most appealing, with half of the students prepared to pay �100 or more. For me this suggests that the costs of providing flexibility through technology must drop if we are to afford it. There was one comment though that stood out for me

�Quality will always be remembered long after cost is forgotten�. So it seems to me our best hope is to provide high quality alternative study approaches online. So in the end, quality is more important than flexibility, good course materials and contact with others especially online, and the ability to alignment assessment with teaching methods more important than a particular technology. Is this a basis for defining technologies for the future and to what extent can students lay a legitimate claim to such territory?

Finally, though, in terms of their �wish list� for flexibility most involved increased access, not to technology but to a tutor, either face to face or electronically. There were a wide range of complaints about face to face tutorials from students opting for those. The timing and location of them seemed to suit few, some complained about the content or the leadership and yet every student wanted more of them. However, their expectations here were demanding�an �always on, broadband tutor� for responding to questions for example. �Often students are up into the small hours working on the course, we need a tutor online at this time for our sanity�. The issue of access to a tutor seemed to be not only a key aspect of making the course more flexible, friendlier, more motivating, more achievable and also more satisfying. And they need to be online. One student said

�Online tutorials are better because they are more flexible. I would not have taken the course if I had to attend for group work�.

We wondered why more didn�t opt for the online versions which are always available and asynchronous. One answer was the quality of the conference on poor and old fashioned bulletin boards that show little evidence of understanding teaching and learning requirements. it�s, one student said � why do questions and answers mix up on here?, Custom, practice , expectation and the lack of user friendliness of the VLE, we think.

So my 2nd feature of the territory is the role of human intervention in the use of new technologies.

Our culture of teaching in HE has been created largely through apprenticeship in our disciplines and consists of complex sets of values, attitudes and behaviours. The slight decline in the dominions previously created by the significance of disciplinary knowledge has left a little bit of territory for the role of teaching itself, and some bridges between disciplines and the exploration of pedagogy and androgogy, often promoted by the introduction of learning technologies. I�m not someone who believes that �pedagogy� is a dirty word and should be banned from our vocabulary forthwith.

I�ve noticed a wide variety of reactions from colleagues in universities and colleges around the world to the introduction of VLEs and other new technologies ranging from wild enthusiasm from some and strategic undermining by others. I�m sure you have too. Firstly as a member of faculty, I look in vain for any kind of contractual position regards the use of Information & Communication Technologies, despite much increased accountability and surveillance. So our good will and willingness to reskill must be relied upon. Does the energy and effort we must put in to shift our horizons as academics and teachers create a passport to this territory � a right to entry?

Many of the most enthusiastic and successful online teachers are those �gypsy scholars� working in a portfolio way, and those who have experienced and seen the benefits of leading and constructing knowledge with virtual learning groups. In other words they have acquired their skills and understanding in the idiosyncratic online world itself, learning to teach online through the medium.

Whatever our position on the nature of knowledge and our associated role in relationship to its transmission, promotion or construction with others, few of us would completely challenge the role of social interaction between groups of learners and their facilitator or leader. Essentially my argument is that attempts to change the way that anyone in HE or Fe teaches or enables learning, if you prefer, that are not informed by the way the black art of online teaching is acquired, that does not acknowledge the power of the discipline and believes that ICT can be wrapped around academics like a cuddly cot blanket are doomed to failure.

There are many people who are admirably trying to offer to others the chance to be �trained in new technologies for teaching and learning�. The subjects or participants of VLE training however, jump straight into their usual trusty vehicles, framed by a complex world view acquired mainly through their formal education topped up by sprinkles of advice from people they admire and their own good and bad learning experience. They then believe if they learn about the menu items on Blackboard (which is easy for instructors after all) and maybe revisit the learning styles and teaching techniques and haul all this online, that all will be well. It�s not.

Such attempts to address the reskilling of academic staff through half day workshops in WebCT and the like clearly are hardly likely to do more than scratch the surface, as well as convincing faculty that teaching online is about learning to use a computer programme. Focussing training on use on the features of the VLE is unlikely to do more than enable the slightest dent in the long apprenticeship in practical and theoretical knowledge or competence in the teaching profession, much of which is acquired rather mysteriously, or at least informally. The innovators and the early adopters persist with more or less grace and with blanded learning at best. For most of the others, for want of a nail the battle is lost and they can become convinced that satisfactory knowledge transmission and construction has to happen face to face.

Downgrading the human role, and upgrading the technological impact by suggesting that we now need to consider the �human factors� is spitting in the wind. What we know of learning is that if we want people to change what they actually do, then, we need to shuttle backwards and forwards between what they already know, and what they are prepared to develop, between specific details and their implications in wider contexts and between practice and reflection (Harvey and Knight 1996). First new skills must be acquired to enable teachers, new and experienced and at all levels to be able to create, manage and successfully promote participation in interactive conferencing online. These are more important but harder to acquire skills than posting power point slides online. Secondly, key attention needs to be given on how they can gain confidence and professionalism and continue to develop and keep up to date.

The mechanism for acquiring and continuing to develop should be through the medium itself and depend on the role of experienced facilitators. This is how we reclaim the territory and ultimately create technologies through knowledge and dialogue that truly serve the new geo and cyber learning spaces of the 21st Century.

�Finding the time� is a continuous theme. My recent study into the use of time online, revealed time as a social construct, and not something that can be �managed. We�re so used to living our lives in cycles and working online disrupts our carefully constructed if tentative feeling of control of our lives. This is not a plea for clocks on the home page. Although the Certificate in management is well paced, the VLE in use offered no real help in providing rhythm, enticement and pace to the study. . It also offered no help to beleaguered lecturers who need quick and easy ways of completing weaving, summaries archiving and effective presentation of plenary results.

Just one word about the importance of stable, reliable and appropriate technologies in the support, training and development of faculty and tutors, at least beyond the natural innovators. Just as with infants, sensitization to a potential allergen early in their development may lead to major and sometimes incurable problems later on. Converseley too santistised an environment and lack of exposure to a little dirt also may be a precursor to problems. Such is the impact of foisting a poor platform or a weakly supported technology on an unsuspecting audience. At the slightest inclining of trouble later, they�ll be convinced that �e-learning doesn�t work!�. All stakeholders and users rely on exceptionally good technical development and the support of those who must ensure that the platform is strong, fully supported and integrated. In my view, this gives them a passport to enter the territory without being viewed as invaders.

So will my foundling VLE grow up to reclaim the territory in the future? It will certain need far more than me as a champion and parent. It�ll need to be exercised by the students, licenses by administrators and spend its holidays at least in the It department. Ultimately though it needs loving adopting by the pedagogists and rather more than magic tricks and the hand of fate from the Technologists

During the Foundling VLE�s education and development it will need:

  • Very much better communication tools put together with a strong understanding of pedagogy rather than bland multiple flexibility.
  • Ways of running online group work creatively.
  • Muitable threading of asynchronous and synchronous discussions for teaching purposes.
  • Multi media and streaming capacity.
  • Much better ways creating cycles and pacing for teaching and learning for all users.
  • Proper online assessment (beyond the quiz), links to the Student Record System and rapidly publication of results.

And academics and teachers will need:

  • The oppertunity to be an online learner.
  • The chance, and the time, to immerse themselves through the VLE in the role of the online teacher, with others, in their discipline and through the medium itself.
  • Now I�m more willing to use the VLE to do this.
  • You say your VLE is not up to it? I have a child here in need of a loving home!

Back to Top.

Round Table Discussion

Andrew Ravencroft, London Metropolitan University

Round Table Discussion

Its very nice to be here to-day, and its particularly interesting and enjoyable for me, as I have been in this game for over 10 years or so and I can see many of the usual suspects around here to-day. And, during the previous talk, that made me in certain ways think about the film �The Usual Suspects�. As there is, in a somewhat circumspect sense, an analogy between this sort of film and the history of learning technology research. It�s been by no means a Hollywood blockbuster with a happy ending, instead it has been more like a David Lynch sort of screenplay, with lots of ambiguous interpretations and complex plots, and a lot of argument about what things mean. Also, interestingly, in some ways, what I am going to speak about is going to echo some of Angela�s statements and sentiments. And testament to how well Stuart has structured the actual day is that we (myself and Angela) have had no conversations about these issues, even though we are both on the CAL conference committee. So I think it is quite telling that I am going to echo some of her notions without having any direct communication about them. So, perhaps there are some relatively consensual and fundamental issues at play here.

So the title of this session is �The Influence of Best Practice in ICT in Teaching and Learning�. The take I am going to give you on this is to give a brief selective review of E-Learning or ICT and Learning innovations. I will use the term E-Learning, I am not particularly fond of the phrase but it just sounds a lot more manageable that ICT in Teaching and Learning. I will give this brief selective review of E-Learning Innovations from a historical and thematic prospective with an emphasis on the role of theory in this respect. So to give you a more detailed overview of what I am going to cover. I will first give you some context and frame of reference for why I am going to be talking about this sort of thing. I will then give this brief review of some key E-learning innovations and then I would like to move on to a synthesis. What can we conclude from the history of research in this area? And maybe we can then follow on from that by considering where we are now and maybe we can then draw some conclusions.

So what I am not going to talk about, I am not going to focus on current institutional practices. I will consider them, but instead what I would like us to do really is to step back to consider eLearning in terms of the underlying learning processes and interactions that are stimulated, supported or favoured by new educational media. In order to do that I will conduct this review, a very selective review of research from the past 50 years that has linked pedagogical or learning theory to the design of innovative eLearning systems. And then after conducting this review, hopefully, we can consider how this sort of history of research can help us design near future eLearning or ICT for learning in both traditional and emerging educational contexts (such as open and distance learning and informal learning etc.)

So the first point I would like to get across, and I think it is a common misconception, but that might be too strong a way of putting it, is that many people think eLearning started with the Internet. Well it didn�t, arguably eLearning started in the 1950s and was then closely linked to Skinner�s behaviourist conceptions of learning. Within the scheme of programmed instruction, teaching machines implemented Skinner�s notions of operant conditioning through reinforcement schedules. Practically what this meant was that an external environment was designed which shaped the learners behaviour through learner-system interactions. So what this meant practically, was things like immediate feedback reinforced correct responses. The problems that were found with this approach, well the interaction was too limited, incorrect answers, or even mistakes, could not be dealt with in this scheme and more significantly there was no opportunity for experimentation, dialogue, reflection and initiative (or intervention) on the part of the student. The lesson here is, as I guess we all here know, is that learners aren�t tabula rasa and therefore the knowledge and processes that they bring to an educational interaction has a significant bearing on what, and how they learn from these interchanges. And although we found that out 50 years ago, I think that many hypertext and conventional courseware systems still don�t take that on board to-day.

However, other work did recognise the need to consider and address individual learner differences. For example in the 1970s Gordon Pak and his colleagues at the UK Open University followed a more cognitive oriented and learner centred approach to eLearning design. They had a scheme where they identified two distinct learning styles � they identified serial, step-by-step learners, and more holist, or global learning styles. Pask then developed what he called the CASTE system, which accommodated both, by giving students control over the curriculum navigation and the types of material used whilst some guidance and structure was enforced through the use of constraints on the curriculum paths. So in many ways this was more sophisticated than many recent hypertext systems. The reason why this is important is because Pask and his colleagues recognised that an eLearning system had to facilitate learners with different cognitive features. They also demonstrated that we need to achieve a balance between learner freedom and tutoring guidance in the design of eLearning activities. Specifically he found that conversational guidance was needed to match teaching strategies to students learning styles and competencies. But there was still a drawback with this approach in the sense that students still, essentially, interacted with a prescribed knowledge base. So all the knowledge to be learnt had to be predefined, and once again there was limited opportunity for more creative ideation and things like knowledge creation and construction.

In contrast, a focus on knowledge construction and creative ideation is the focus of what we tend to call cognitive constructivism, which has been quite popular in recent years. For example, in the 1980s this more extremely individualistic and cognitive approach was pursued by Seymour Papert, who emphasised the role of the computer as �the learners machine for knowledge construction and discovery of learning�. He was inspired by the work of Jean Piaget, which led him to develop the Logo Programming language that allowed learners to create and run their own mental models and micro worlds. So within this scheme the technology was conceived as a cognitive tool that allowed students to develop their own knowledge and understanding in a principled manner, but without the involvement of a tutor. A key issue here, which is critical particularly in science education but also other disciplines as well, was to raise the level of abstraction of the learner descriptions and explanations. Producing powerful cognitive changes that hopefully improved reasoning skills. However, most evaluations showed that, to be effective, there still needed to be some discursive guidance provided by the tutor, which sort of breaks the pure philosophy of discovery learning. In fact one way to articulate the findings from the Logo studies is that the Logo activity itself had to be situated within the discursive activity of a learning community.

This emphasis on the situated nature of learning was particularly emphasised in the work of Lave & Wenger. They emphasised that learning had to be pursued in authentic, real learning situations and activities - rather than being placed in more abstract learning contexts. I think a lot of work with computer simulations � where students interact with analogues of the real world - exemplify this approach. However, work that we conducted with computer simulations at Leeds has shown that, to be truly effective, this sort of situated activity has to be integrated with more conceptual activity, such as processes of reflection, abstraction and generalisation. In particular in all the studies we did at Leeds we found that this type of conceptual activity was stimulated through questioning and challenging learners' beliefs and ideas within a scheme of what we came to call collaborative argumentation. What we found across a number of projects was that an instructional and more conceptual dialogue was required to release the meaning and power of situated activity. Practically that meant we had to ask students �what if� questions and prompt cross context comparisons etc. In other words, dialogue around the simulation was just as important as interacting with the simulation itself.

This emphasis on a conceptual level dialogue is particularly emphasised in the work that is called, broadly, the field of social constructivism � that is represented by the work of Lev Vygotsky and the like. The primacy of dialogue in learning was emphasised by Vygotsky, in the 1900s actually, who suggested that higher mental processes resulted from internalising dialogical processes that occurred in the social. What this means practically, is that Vygotsky would argue that we develop critical reasoning skills through internalising processes such as dialogical argumentation.

Work that treated this tutoring dialogue, or intelligent tutoring dialogue, as essential in learning is represented by research into the development of intelligent tutoring systems, which has been conducted from the 1970s onwards. Now the field of intelligent tutoring systems is really a discipline in its own right with many approaches being essentially dialogical. Within this scheme the computer is conceived as a computer based tutor. These systems used AI techniques to provide instruction that was tailored to the knowledge of individual learners. Sounds great doesn�t it? The main problem with intelligent tutoring systems is that they are a fantastic idea that hasn�t really worked yet, in my opinion. One of the reasons for this is that modelling the complexities of tutoring dialogue, sufficient to provide an effective educational partner let�s say is simply too difficult and complex. In particular, this research pointed out the educational importance of things like pragmatic level or contextual dialogue features - that can be difficult to model or anticipate in interactions. By this I mean features like the goals, strategies, roles and tactics of the interlocutors and rules of the �dialogue games� that were being followed. Nevertheless, these were the sort of dialogue features that we studied at the UK Open University, that were incorporated into formally specified dialogue games and implemented as cognitive tools. Although we showed these structured and mediated dialogues to be effective, we also found that we needed to more carefully consider the socio-cultural context for learning and in particular the role of the learning community in which these dialogue games and cognitive tools are used. Which I think brings us prety much to where we are now.

There seems to be a current emphasis on developing and managing collaborative eLearning activity in online learning communities, and I am sure that Gilly Salmon is going to be speaking quite eloquently about that this afternoon. Within this scheme there tends to be a greater emphasis, and this fits partly with what Angela was saying, on social conditions and social relations in communities of practice. However, I still think that we currently overlook many complexities associated with on-line learning communities. For example, can we really be sufficiently social on-line to support the often dialectical discourse that seems to support learning? Also I think that once we move beyond on-line courses to more informal communities, problems of insufficient participation and interaction tend to surface. So there is a significant problem here of how to encourage interaction as well as guiding and structuring dialogue along the lines we would like. I think there is essentially a big question at the moment about: how can we conceptualise and develop highly communicative learning communities? And we have a research theme at the Learning Technology Research Institute in London, which is devoted to that question.

To start drawing some conclusions about where we are now. It seems to me, looking at the history of Educational Technology Research, eLearning, or whatever we want to call it, that we have never really settled on a particular relation between learning or pedagogical theory and eLearning design. In fact the field is characterised by a developing dialectical discourse where new approaches tend to come along to address shortcomings and existing ones. Leading to an increasing diversification and accumulation in approaches. There have been no quick fixes, but I don�t think that this is necessarily negative if you view these findings in a different way. Because what each of these initiatives in eLearning has forced us to consider is �what it actually takes to learn�. I would argue that the consideration of this issue is a valuable contribution in itself. And what I would also argue, which is relevant to us to-day, is that an active participation in this discourse, rather than adhering to any particular theoretical stance, is the best way to inform eLearning design. The implications of this point are particularly salient when we consider the main thrust of current operational developments and activities, which typically use generic VLEs that predispose rather narrow and didactic pedagogies which support a rather inflexible �transmission� model of learning. These developments are undeniably driven by the available technology, which provides the sort of facilities (e.g. online content, CMC, student management & tracking, online assessment etc.) that integrate with existing practice rather than support innovation. So, despite this history of relevant research, within most current institutional practice there is a paucity of innovative pedagogies that support more dialogical, dialectical and conceptual learning processes that a critique of previous work suggests is necessary.

However, I also think that we can move beyond this rather vague notion of �participation in a discourse about learning technology�. That sounds a bit woolly doesn�t it? I think we can capture some of the insights and findings from this ongoing debate in learning technology, if we think in terms of a more holistic framework for eLearning design. What I am arguing for here is that we need to move towards a more socio-cultural framework for cognitive change - that includes features of these more particular approaches, that have been considered in the past. What this means practically, if I can flesh this out a bit, is that we need to think about the cognitive changes that represent learning. We need to think about the links between those cognitive changes and the communicative processes that lead to those changes, and we also need to think about the communities or contexts that support these favoured modes of communication. If I can make this point simply, by referring to some contemporary work, this might help to get across what I am trying to say. Many researchers are following a communities of practice position these days, epitomised by Lave & Wenger�s classic quote that �learning is a process that takes place within a participation framework, not an individual mind�. The point I am making here, is precisely: surely it occurs in both � learning occurs within a participation framework and an individual mind. Its not an either/or situation.

So coming to some of my conclusions now � if I was asked to provide a prognosis to this sort of audience, which is a mixture of practitioners and researchers. Given that we researchers, practitioners and administrators who are involved with eLearning are all working within this developing discourse. I would argue that we need to work collaboratively, using action research type approaches - including all the relevant stakeholders. A corollary of this is the challenge to make eLearning research valid, useful and yet suitably sophisticated. In terms of practical design and development activities I would argue that the most valuable resource, which is probably the most elusive at the moment, is having time to think about, and pursue these collaborative activities. So if I was to put it bluntly, I would say more money and investment should be focussed on supporting these �mindful collaborations� on eLearning design, with a lesser emphasis on the technology itself. Thank you.

Back to Top.

Bill Olivier, Director of the Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards (CETIS)

Round Table Discussion

I am going to approach the question of whether learning technology meets our pedagogical needs from the viewpoint of learning technology standards and specifications, and will give you a personal view of what�s been going on in that area, particularly with respect to IMS as I have been to most of their meetings since May 1998.

Before I started on it, I thought developing specifications would be a bit dry - necessary and worthy, and somebody has to go out and get agreements with others on what is needed and hammer out appropriate exchange formats and protocols. Not having been involved in specifications and standards before, what I found was an eye opener - it was really more a big political bun fight. It was also far more entertaining than I expected and every time I went, I also found I was learning more about eLearning and in particular where the main participants were coming from, their agendas and glimpses of their future plans.

Just to step back and look at the some of the background history, eLearning started to grow significantly in the �80s when the prevailing technologies were CD-ROMs and stand alone PCs and, as has been mentioned by other speakers, some of this early approach to eLearning was influenced by behaviourism. Fundamentally, the model used was one of the individual learner presented with content on which they might get tested, and they might, in response, get some variation based on a programmed learning approach. The main thing that the CD-ROM offered, over and above what had happened before, was multi-media in a cheap and readily obtained format. So there was a big focus on content but underlying that was a model of an individual learner confronted with a PC. What we found to our cost was that each of these PC operating systems, and seemingly each version of the operating system needed to have its own peculiar formats, which content had to be written for, and we then had all sorts of problems trying to shift material from one system to another.

The big breakthrough, as it seemed at the time, was the arrival of the Web, when all of a sudden we had a common format and the same content could be presented on different platforms � Yes! Here we go! We have got a standard! Previous efforts had failed to take off and we hadn�t even asked for this one, but it�s arrived and being widely supported. Everyone was very excited and what�s more, it made the resources available via the Internet, which universities were quite familiar with, being already wired up and using it by that time.

But� although it looked like a good way forward, almost as soon as the Web started to be used for learning, then all the old questions came back. How, for example, do you do tests on the web? How do we do it in a way that preserves the Web�s cross-platform portability? Not so easy. Many other questions arose: How do you track where learners are at? How is this information to be exchanged? Basic question also arose over the Web�s �stateless� browsers, particularly if we are to take seriously support for lifelong learners � if we do gather information about the their progress, it all ends up on the server-side, seemingly owned by the institution, and the learner is left with nothing. More profound questions, such as how we support learning processes and how we describe different pedagogies, looked as if they would have to wait until new or adapted pedagogies arose that took advantage of the new medium as well as took account of its differing constraints.

So, for the simplest level of online learning, we needed ways to track learners and present them with the next step when they re-log on, to provide tests and get results back, and to record their outcomes. The early online learning environments started to build in support for this kind of stuff, and of course they developed proprietary ways of doing it, but then we straight away lost the benefit of portability across systems that Web had just provided. Once vendors had started to put proprietary elements back again, there was a big counter-push to start having open specifications and standards that would make the content, and other learning related information, portable again.

IMS was originally set up in late �97 by what was then Educom, a universities organisation in the States (its name is since changed to Educause). The founders of IMS, to their credit, saw that if just they, as a bunch of universities, created a set of specifications, there was no guarantee that any commercial vendor would implement them. So they decided they needed to involve commercial vendors from the very start and also governments, and they also started to look internationally for further members. The JISC, and further credit is due here, took an early plunge at the beginning of �98, joined IMS and set up what was originally the UK IMS Centre to represent it on IMS and to disseminate information about specifications being produced back to the JISC community. This later became CETIS as its remit broadened when further standards bodies also became involved in the learning technology space.

IMS had initially carried out a big requirements gathering exercise about �97-�98, just before we joined, and they came up with some seven areas of requirements. It included things like the ability to describe content, the ability to exchange contents between systems, ability to exchange tests, and information about learners, but further, the users they consulted also wanted support for groups of learners and they support for collaboration.

Between �96 and �98 I had been working on a distributed, peer-to-peer, learning management system which supports the use of content in a conversational and collaborative context. We saw the need to be able to support collaboration across systems and to be able to move learner information between systems as the lifelong learner moved between different learning institutions and providers over their lifetime. Those were our drivers and we saw all those things included in the early IMS requirements documents, so it seemed they were addressing the right issues and hence a sensible body to get involved in.

For the first year or so, IMS had very few formal procedures. As a result, early on IMS made a big mistake by starting to build a reference implementation of their draft specification before they had explicit agreement on it, paying something like $700,000 to the fledgling Blackboard Inc. to develop it. IMS had been sending information out to their fee paying members about what they were doing but they hadn�t got any response back, either positive or negative, certainly not from vendors, and proceeded on the basis that no objections voiced meant it was OK. Then finally, when it got to the point where IMS was starting to deliver these big specifications and the reference model was getting to a useable, or at least workable state (you could go on-line to it, set up courses, post content to them assign groups of learners who could then log in, access the course and use the content), the vendors woke up, looked at what was being produced, turned around and said �We don�t like it - we are not going to implement this�� causing considerable turmoil in IMS.

In response, IMS got into a huddle with the vendors and asked: �Well what do you want?� and suddenly, in the process of a few months in the summer of �98, a completely new approach was agreed with the vendors, based on XML. It was very content focussed and more than that, the requirements, laboriously arrived at, were, without any discussion with those involved, reduced: of the seven or so original main requirement categories, two had disappeared. One of these was the support for the exchange of group information and the other was the support for collaborative learning. These �disappeared� requirements, as well as forming part of my own personal motivation for getting involved, also reflected important aspects of how universities operate and the kind of learning they provide. Implicitly the new model was �you log on to the learning provider via the Internet, do your learning, and then go away again� - a distance training-oriented model and underlying it, the same old single learner model, but now transferred to the Web.

It seemed to the universities involved as if the vendors had hijacked the show and battle was engaged to get these requirements restored. It turned out that the vendors weren�t uniform; there were certainly some vendors who were aiming at the HE sector and education more broadly, and they were more supportive of the kind of things that we were talking about. Although we did manage to get Scope documents for Collaboration and for Messaging approved in early �99, IMS then started to serialise their production of specifications, rather than try to put their specifications out all together in a large single release. The reason for starting to produce them one at a time was because they were getting desperate to deliver something a year and a half after they had started. Metadata came out in August �99, Enterprise came out November �99, Content Packaging in early 2000 and somehow the Collaboration and Messaging work just disappeared off the agenda. So it seemed that the commercial companies were still driving the agenda.

Trying to understand this is interesting.

Why were they fighting? - they were fighting very hard against the collaborative eLearning approach and I puzzled about this. I was getting the message from them �we know the market � we have done all our eLearning surveys. 75% of projected multi-billion dollar eLearning sales (this was 97-98!) are going to be in the commercial and government training sectors, perhaps, 17% will be schools � that leaves you universities at about 8% of the market. You are therefore irrelevant.� This was what the representative of a large N.W. coast vendor was saying, and others where saying similar things. The reply of course was that such projections were based on existing purchasing patterns and there were no systems available that met university needs. It was one of the purposes in setting up IMS to facilitate the development of such systems and when they were available, a significant change in university buying patterns, and hence market share, would be likely. For evidence of the unreliability of market projections then the large N.W. Coast vendor only had to go back to those provided to them for the growth (or projected lack if it) of the Internet user base. But they �knew their customers and there was no demand for multi-user, let alone collaborative learning�.

The next major development was that IMS separated off from Educause and became an independent operation at the start of 2000. It stopped being a university run thing and became a pure membership consortium. By then, I had begun to accept the situation: "O.K., this is going to be a long drawn out thing, but we will eventually get specifications for the approaches to learning that we need". I was therefore very surprised to see in May 2000 that the whole of the special issue of the ASTD�s (American Society For Training And Development) on-line journal was focussed on collaborative eLearning. A key issue being discussed was not whether there should be collaborative or individual learning, not whether it should be client/server based, but whether the client for collaborative eLearning should be a fat client, or a thin client. It seemed streets ahead of the discussions in IMS and this jangled in my head enormously. I was going �hold on � this is the professional body of the people, that the commercial vendors in IMS are supposed to be selling to, and these people are talking about collaborative eLearning in depth. Why is there such a gap between this and the refusal of the vendors to engage with it in IMS?"

That forced me to reflect on a new question, why weren�t the vendors and users of these collaborative approaches to training involved in IMS? It seemed to come down to the fact that the vendors who get engaged in standards are quite long standing, as they have to be pushed by their customers: there has to be a demand for open standards, and that only builds up when you have been active for several years. So the commercial players MacroMedia, Asymetrix, NetG et al - all grew to maturity in eLearning during the period of the CD-ROM. They grew up with the model that was prior to the Internet and even before the ubiquity of local area networks: the model of the stand alone PC with the individual, independent learner. All their software and all their systems therefore had no way of handling anything like a group, let alone their communication and interactions. That was the reason they were pushing it out - they would have to change all their systems and they weren�t ready to do that. Needless to say when commercial training organisations wanted collaborative tools, they didn�t go to the MacroMedias and Asymetrices, they went to newer start up companies instead, and hence these older companies were not seeing the new demand. The commercial vendors are starting to address this now, I think, but we are talking about a couple of years further down the line, and more of a push, before we see collaborative learning more commonly used online. Even then, it is likely to come from specialist products that can be integrated, through open standards naturally, with existing more content-oriented products.

Coming from left of field a year later, was something called EML (The Education Modelling Language) that had been under development for three years at the Open University of the Netherlands. There they had made a judgement in 1997 that the future of distance learning lay in the use of the Internet and that they made a strategic decision to prepare themselves to use eLearning as their main track. The team set up quickly recognised the fact that there were very many pedagogies already in use at the OU Netherlands and the question was how on earth were they going to support them all? They did a three year development programme starting in 1997, about the same time as IMS started. What they did first was to carry out a huge desk research on as many pedagogical approaches that they could get their hands on, over a hundred, and then abstracted what they called a �meta- language for describing pedagogies� � all pedagogies. The intent was that you could take any pedagogy and translate it into this language, the core of which is that �people� engage in �activities� with �resources� (where �resources� can be either traditional learning content, tests and tools, or else learning services such as chat conferencing, collaboration services, etc.), to achieve a given �learning objective� or outcome. This went through three major iterations of specification, trial implementation and revision, and was finally released as EML 1.0 in December of 2000. So this three year effort had started about the same time as IMS and had been running in parallel

I was initially sceptical, but the more I read it, the more I realised that here was the specification that I had been wanting to see, but already done and more thoroughly thought through, and developed than anything else I had seen. It was also clear that EML was complementary to the specs that IMS had produced: while IMS had produced specs for describing learning (Metadata), transporting it (Content Packaging), testing it (Question & Test Interoperability), handling enrolments and results (Enterprise), and describing information about learners (Learner Information Package), the OUNL had produced EML which described the pedagogies of the learning process itself.

At about the same time as EML was released; IMS had launched an Instructional Design Working Group (its members subsequently changed the name to Learning Design). Its aims were extremely ambitious and it became clear that there was no way that they could actually do what they wanted without building on something that was already there. So the Working Group decided to adopt EML as a submitted starting point. It was interesting that again we had all the rear-guard action of the traditional vendors against Learning Design. It was initially quite a struggle, and the Learning Design Working Group spent much of its early life threatened with being closed down, either by failed vote at one of the stages or for taking too long. But over a period of a 18 months or so, this started to change. There are more people coming into IMS who are from the training sector itself (rather than vendors to it) and there were more members from the educational sector, and their views were more supportive of the approach in Learning Design.

To cut a long story short IMS approved the Final 1.0 version of Learning Design specification in February this year. As a specification, Learning Design is completely driven by pedagogical requirements and needs.

A major difficulty, with respect to specifications in general and so with respect to Learning Design also, is the big gap that lies between �here�s the specification� and �here�s the ability to use it effectively in practice�: we need to bridge that gap. It means implementing authoring and runtime systems that make the Learning Design language easy to use, helping people to translate their pedagogies into that language using and evolving the available tools and then going out and trying it with real world learners. It�s a very big claim that they are making � a single, general language in which a wide variety of quite different pedagogies can be expressed � and it will be a very interesting challenge to see how far that can be realised in practice.

I think technology is going to force us to adapt and evolve our pedagogical approaches. We are going to have to adapt what we do to the technology as well as adapt the technology to pedagogy. This raises the further possibilities of exploring the extent to which completely new pedagogical approaches can also be expressed in this meta-language � but it would take a lot more time to go into that issue.

Up to now most learning technology specifications have been at a low level, beneath the horizon of pedagogy, but new specifications are now moving into that space. What we need to start, and its one of the things we are aiming to do within CETIS, in particular through the Pedagogy Forum that we are currently setting up, is to develop communities of practice that will support those working on authoring and runtime tools for the Learning Design specification, those exploring its potential for enabling a wide diversity of pedagogical approaches, and those practitioners who want to use these to provide enhanced forms of online learning. On all these fronts we need to develop new practices and understandings.

So, while it�s true to say that the early learning technology specifications did have a pedagogical approach; it was a limited one and was one that didn�t reflect our needs. While there is still a lot of work to do to put in place the systems and in particular the good practices needed to take advantage of them, we are now hopefully moving into a new phase where our pedagogical approaches and aspirations, both old and new, are going to be better supported.

Thank you very much.

Back to Top.

Vijay Kumar, Assistant Provost and Director of Computing, MIT

Round Table Discussion

My challenge is to make sure that you don�t fall off to sleep and that I don�t fall off to sleep, but hopefully you will help me with that. This might be contra-culture but I�ll do the American thing � the show of hands � how many people have heard about the Open Course Ware - and how about the Open Knowledge Initiative. I am going to draw upon that and what I have experienced in the past few years, which has been quite dramatic. The question is how much influence do educational best practice and the needs of teachers and lecturers have on the development and implementation of ICT for teaching and learning. If I look at what I have seen in the past few years at MIT, and what I have participated in, a quick answer is - a lot. But perhaps, a more useful response would be to tell you about the unprecedented engagement in technology based education that MIT has seen in the past few years. Open Course Ware and the Open Knowledge Initiatives are certainly notable examples, but there are other very interesting cases. OCW and OKI are not isolated events. In fact they have been preceded by deep reflection � by the MIT Council on Education Technology, which I had the good fortune in participating in-- which did a lot of thinking about what MITs education value proposition really was and how technology could be used to amplify that value and extend it to different communities.

Let me give you a few examples of projects other than OCW and OKI: Last winter - not this horrible one, the one before - students from MIT were traipsing all over New Zealand and Australia and they were collecting data for soil and water samples through sensors studying the data, making computations in the field best for the data and displaying the data. These students were part of the ENVIT programme, a group formed with the goal of creating mobile field data collection software. Now the central piece of technology as you might have guessed is a PDA, but it has all kinds of stuff around it. It is integrated with other hardware and software modified for mobility: GPS sensors, GIS software etc. This innovation has moved sampling and measurement, which is still largely dependent in the field on pencil and paper, and made it much more accurate and efficient. It has wonderful implications for mobile learners, field engineers and scientists, who have lacked the appropriate technology so far to carry out their work in this efficient and accurate manner.

Another example in the last two years, well the last year particularly, has to do with students at Singapore. (MIT has this alliance with Singapore) who are actually participating in laboratory experiments at MIT. They were able to use lab equipment at MIT - MIT's network analyser equipment for instance, which is used for microelectronics for measuring character transistors. Now the i-Lab experiment, as it is called, (and this was done as part of i-Campus, the MIT- Microsoft alliance programme), enables students to actually control and use Lab equipment through a web interface. These are not simulations; this is actual control of experiments and right now we have iLabs being set up for not just microelectronic experiments but for chemical reactors, wind tunnel experiments etc,. In fact there are students at the other institutes, in Cambridge for instance, who are actually using these experiments. But iLabs is not just about setting up this five or six discreet experiments and web enabling them, but about creating a framework so that experiments of this sort can be just rigged up anywhere in the world and students anywhere in the world can actually be controlling and using these.

You may ask what are the current educational cuts and educational practices that are being surfaced in these experiments and these technologies. The dominant theme is Active Learning and that�s a significant characteristic of the projects that I have been describing. These projects, ILabs, the ENVIT project, enable active learning in flexible-location-independent ways and in contextually relevant ways, which really add richness to the E-Learning experience. Now, promoting active learning, the hands-on theme, has been a large part of MIT's educational strategy, but there is another dimension to this - these kinds of experiments really induce a lot of different kinds of proximities in the education practice: proximities between the teacher and the learner, proximities between the learner and the materials as well as proximities between the learner and community.

So what about MITs Open Course Ware? How are educational needs being met through that initiative. The idea behind OCW (MITs CourseWare) is to make course material from all MIT�s graduate and undergraduate courses available on the Internet for free to everyone in the world; but . The idea is to provide free searchable coherent access to MIT�s course materials for educators. The idea is also to create an efficient standards based model that universities may emulate to publish to their own course materials. OCW will advance technology-enhanced education at MIT; it will also serve as a model for university for dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age. Now besides meeting the needs of education for providing this wonderful access to course content from MIT; the lectures, the assignments, the discussions and the reference materials, what is actually being presented through the materials is the structural relationship between all these transactions that are happening on the course, which actually model the pedagogy that�s been used.. Without making claims of whether that�s the best way of teaching a particular subject what it does provide is a good view on is a way to deal with that topic that subject at hand. In that sense it really shines a light on the kind of education practices that are being employed, in all the courses at MIT leading to, hopefully we believe, communities which will be discussing the pedagogy; communities which will add to the content, and communities which will try to improve teaching and learning in those areas. Professor Shigeru Miagawa, who teaches Japanese, actually had a very interesting observation which has been captured on the OCW website also: He talks about places like MIT, i.e. research-intensive institutions where we know how to exchange materials in the research area and make it visible. According to Shigeru, OCW provides an opportunity to actually make instructional practice at MIT very visible and if anything it will at least raise questions about the value and veracity of education practices being employed.

Which brings us to OKI. Now what does OKI have to do with all of this? OKI is the Open Knowledge Initiative � it is an MIT led collaborative project for which I�m the PI. There are seven core collaborators, and a lot of institutions who have contributed wonderfully to defining specifications and developing the service based architecture for educational applications. What OKI does is provide exciting projects like the ones I have talked about, with a general framework that allows technology innovation to be safely incorporated into real Learning environments. So that people developing these projects can actually share resources, they can share projects and products with other educators and other innovators. The idea is to extend the value of these experiments in meaningful ways: by making then integrate in the infrastructures that we work in; by making sure that educational resources that are created, as part of these projects, can be portable, can be used in other environments, can be incorporated without significant difficulty in other environments. How does OKI do this? Well a little look at the genesis of OKI might help. When we started OKI we had an important but modest ambition of creating applications of an application, an extensible application which provided the traditional learning management system functionalities. We have not abandoned that ambition, only we started thinking deeply about what that means, and what that quickly led us to do was to rescope the project and to building an architecture and infrastructure for all kinds of educational applications including those that provided learning management functionalities. At the time we started OKI we looked at the LMS� (Learning Management Systems) available, the commercial LMS�, and some home grown ones, and we found that a lot of these while they professed to, and indeed some did, create a low threshold for entry for educators to post course materials and so on, they presented a very high barrier to exit, meaning you couldn�t get out and you couldn�t customize. Technical design aspects have limited the portability and interoperability of learning resources and consequently inhibited the kind of flexibility that leads to greater use and sharing of learning materials. For example, the tight coupling of User Interface to learning components (as in a monolithic learning system) constrains the ability for objects moved from one system to the other and to be used in different contexts or address different learning goals.

The inability of existing learning management systems to support a component approach for varying levels of functionality and integration has also been problematic Essentially while teaching, an instructor might use a very sophisticated simulation engine, a pretty ordinary discussion board and some paper and pencil things, and the idea is that you want to be able to mix and match, and move between these environments, rather than have one fixed system that allowed you to use systems in only particular ways.

What did OKI do to address this? It essentially looked at a layered component based approach where there was explicit separation between layers � infrastructural services, educational services, and user interfaces. It also componentised and what we did was actually pull out some common infrastructural services that belonged to these applications. We codified them, and some of them were appearing as specifications, and we defined interfaces so that these common services could be accessed by a variety of applications - which is essentially OKI software architecture in a nutshell.

So this is where we are, and I will summarise. What guided us in thinking about OKI was the simple fact that educational value, and we know this in our educational institutions, is derived in multiple ways through multiple modalities. We also know that the technologies that we build these tools on are bound to change and what we want to make sure is, and somebody mentioned sustainability, that the educational value that we have to derive is not disrupted because of choices in technologies.

So here are two summary comments based on our experiences: When we went through a strategic planning exercise, we carefully looked at what was unique about MIT education and how that could be amplified. What we realised was that MIT�s value proposition was derived from a very high bandwidth of interaction between teacher and learner and therefore whatever technology we brought in had to amplify that value proposition and extend it to different communities. The closing comment I�d make is aligned with what Bill had said namely that that OKI�s products, specifications and standards and frameworks may appear to be dull and boring, but its precisely these specifications and standards that allow learning content and learning technology to be shared by diverse educational institutions. Its really hard work, but somebody has to do it. Thank you.

Back to Top.

Round Table Discussion Transcript (Secondary Discussion)

The impetus behind the development of ICT material and major national projects is always one of two things � advances in technology or economic necessity � is it true that the needs of education always come a poor third?

Stuart Lee: To get to the second part of the Round Table I�m going to pose a question to each of the speakers and give them one minute to answer and then we are going to turn it over to you and you can reply to the question, the theme of the Round Table, or ask them specific questions. Now the question I am going to put to the speakers and give them a minute to reply is �The impetus behind the development of ICT material and major national projects is always one of two things � advances in technology or economic necessity � is it true that the needs of education always come a poor third? I am going to start with Andrew.

Andrew Ravenscroft: I think an instant response is probably �Yes�. If you can pass the remuneration that I came up with this morning about research and what VLE has typically provided at the moment, we have E-Learning content, student tracking. It does really support this transmission model of learning, which we all claim we don�t really want and I think there is really a paucity of examples of people using VLE in more innovative ways that really support what I would call the more conceptional learning processes that we all want. We all want better reasons, intellectual debate, comparing, contrasting, engaging at high level argumentative type of discourse. It seems to me we are getting further and further away from that. You could even possibly argue that things are no better now, perhaps, than we were 50 years ago when Skinner started off with his teaching machines.

David Unwin: Oh dear I was not expecting to come on after that. I have reasonable experience in major National projects. I think I understand what is meant by advances in technology. I possibly understand economic necessity, but I don�t think I understand the needs of education, and I think that�s really my problem. My first comment would be �Yes� again, but I would say I think it is totally unrealistic to decouple what we do in education from what is happening in the great wild world out there. I have a problem with this notion of best practice that�s cropped up time and time again here in that I think almost everyone in this room grew up in an education system that was very contingent in space and time, and most of us don�t realise quite how contingent it was based upon the post Robbin�s reforms in Britain. It is based on a notion of education that is fundamentally driven by an Oxbridge model, that in turn emphasises active E-Learning but active E-Learning of a particular, and in my view, a pernicious kind � I�ve been longing to say that in this room. Oxbridge is the most pernicious thing to happen in higher education in Britain - discuss. The second point I would make is actually don�t forget the people, certainly in my experience in CTI and all the other initiatives, is that actually whatever the drivers the people who are actually behind the wheel were first and foremost educationalists and long may it remain so.

Bill Olivier: Perhaps, to take up the point that was just made, there is another way at looking at it. It is that the ideal situation for teaching is where you are one on one � a learner and a teacher together, and you could say that Oxford comes closest to that with their tutorial system. You do get the ability to discuss and have direct teaching. Now you could say that what then happens is that we can�t all afford that and economic necessity comes in and so what happens we have to find ways of amplifying the teacher so we have lecture halls and we talk to lots of people, or you have a tutorial with, perhaps, 15 people instead. But what happens is that you have different technologies to enable you to amplify. The lecture hall is a technology, the library is a way of amplifying a speaker who speaks for a very long time with a whole book but, perhaps, you only listen to a bit of it. You can say that all the contents and technologies, the technology of writing, is a way of amplifying the teacher, but to use those technologies effectively we start to develop pedagogies. So once we have those kinds of technologies and pedagogies you have to support it with an organisation of some description, so we have institutions like universities, or schools or whatever training places. What I want to do now is just abstract those three factors there that if you can think of it as a system � a co-developing system that takes place. You have technologies, you have pedagogies and organisations, or if you like society, economic, those kinds of factors, but those things mutually influence each other. The whole thing is to some extent being driven by the new possibilities that technology opens up and if we want to exploit those we are going to have to develop our pedagogies. Obviously the pedagogies will influence the development of the technology. Currently you are constrained by an organisation that is geared to supporting a different technology and pedagogies, so the organisation is going to have to change, but I think those three mutually influencing factors, mutually evolving elements in the system.

Vijay Kumar: Well as I was pointing out our own experience with OCW and OKI suggest that technology and economics are not always the primary driver. That said I am going to say that good economics is not necessarily orthogonal to good education. Clayton Christeneson�s book �The Innovator�s Dilemma� talks about the separation between invention and adoption and the difference is one of scale and impact. In fact all these kinds of things we talk about have to do with considerations for moving - inventions to innovation.. When you take an invention (a technological invention or experiment) and subject different communities and contexts to it, there are issues of adaptation, context, adoption by larger communities, and subsequent adoption by even larger communities to consider. I see two dimensions in this span, all of which look like economic considerations but really speak to educational transformations that have substance and scale.

Discussion moved to the floor:

Question: I would like to pick up on a point that David made, almost certainly tongue in cheek, about people being sneerey about sticking your lecture notes on the web. It strikes me that yes, of course, students like it � we know that students like it because students like lectures because they don�t have to do any work in them, and they like the notes being stuck on the web because it means that they have to do even less work in them, and the information passes straight from screen to ring binder without involving anyone at all. It also means that, of course, they lose the ability to even develop note-making skills. It confirms teaching staff in this transmission model and I think in particular because of that it�s confirming us in, if you like, emphasising the worst parts of traditional practice we are using the technologies. Overall I think that what is happening, if we are not careful, mainstream the VLEs is actually compounding our culture change problem for us.

David Unwin: I�ve got nothing against lectures in context. They are a very good way of transmitting information if that is what you wish to do, and as someone else has pointed out, there are many things you can do with lectures. My assertion has nothing to do with lectures it has got everything to do with learners at the other end. There is security in lecture notes on the web, I taught for many years at Birkbeck College, I taught two part-time mature students, and I repeat what I said, the security of knowing that they can miss a week, the kids are ill or whatever, this massive ability to take the information at the speed that suits them, and not the deliverer, the ability to time shift to Sunday afternoon rather than 9.30 on a Monday morning. All of those are massive gains in flexibility, that�s my reasons. It is to do with learners and is nothing to do with technology.

Follow-up: I accept that point but I think that the point that needs to be emphasised is � that�s fine and dandy, but only if it is done in the context of the pedagogy that enables people to do that in an effective way. But if it is merely being used as a means of duplicating traditional practice in its most bland form then we are losing an awful lot.

Question: Each of the speakers have argued that things like academics, that students, technology and standards are all barriers to uptake of learning technology. But how much is also about poor leadership, devolved financial management and insufficient central support in institutions to support academic staff and encourage new practices?

Vijay Kumar: First of all I am going to acknowledge that all those things you mentioned are equally important. When you are talking about systemic change it is not going to happen by point applications or through separate applications of change inputs. One of the things we have done, unfortunately, in America is that we have spent an enormous amount of resources in administrative applications, ERPs , and no (honourable) institution, or institution of excellence is ever going to be applauded for the quality of its administrative systems but is certainly going to be known for the quality of its pedagogy and I believe, we have to start diverting resources to where it really matters to where the core purposes are.

Can I defend academic managers just for a second, having been one. I think the issue is actually to do with risk and the world is littered with stupid initiatives, which at the time probably felt like a good idea to the managers concerned. If you work as a senior manager in a UK university then the only thing that motivates you is keeping the funding council off your back, making sure that the funding council auditors don�t come in and sack 10% of your staff tomorrow because, to put it crudely you �ballsed up� on some investment. So there is a whole issue to do with risk there that we have to take on board and this is just one of the risks that you may have to take. There are many, many others that our lords and master have to take.

Question: The comment I would like to make, being a kindred spirit with Mr Olivier, there is the fact that having come into IT, particularly IT for HE and FE education very recently, one of the things that struck me, having worked many years in the commercial sector, is how difficult it was to actually establish standards and the methods. The IMS is a specification, it is not yet a standard and we are in the situation, much as they did with engineering until they actually developed a standard thread, without these standards you cannot have an interchange ability. We cannot build component-based systems until we have that interchange ability. Also the process of teaching - I am yet struggling with how that happens - pedagogy � different ways of actually doing it, Sean has been showing me the ins and outs of it, but until such point the education can actually describe what it is they are trying to do we are going to have difficulty building systems to support it.

Bill Olivier: I think I�d try and make a distinction, people talk about specifications and standards and one way of distinguishing between them is that standards are from an officially recognised body, which tend to mean that they are recognised by a national government. So BSI is a standards body, ITO is a standard body but W3C, IETF and IMS are all examples of specifications bodies strictly speaking, but obviously we use standards in a loose way as well where it tends to cover all these things. I think it is perfectly possible for a specification to become well established and to be effectively used to gain inter operability without ever going to a standard body that is not necessary. But there is a big gap between producing a specification or even a standard and having it used effectively. So if you think about 802 11 wireless, when they first came out you bought them from the same vendor because they didn�t work with others, now that�s changing and that market is taking off. We see the same thing with Bluetooth, you buy those things and they don�t work together unless they come from the same vendor and they all have to go and tweak and adjust and get the things to actually work and we are just in that process with learning technology standards. Only the people who are using it in a big way in the UK will tell you what a pain it is to get consistency and that, I think, is the real challenge, which is facing us at the moment is to establish interoperability and we are working on that within the UK. It is not automatic, it does take a lot of work and it will take a number of years, but that will depend on the effort you put into it.

Vijay Kumar: A very quick comment � this is something I have learned through hard experience - specifications are very easy to talk about, specifications get tied on by a lot of people. Standards are always on reflection. A lot of people do that and look back and say �Oh my God this has worked in ever so many instances maybe this is a standard� and then you go through all the rigmarole of proposing it to ICC etc., but the challenge is really getting community consensus. Getting community arrangements and community agreements to try a bunch of things that look good and then you can reflect on it and go through the onerous process of making them into standards.

Question: Going back to the issue of pedagogy and how it relates to the other issues that were discussed. Pedagogy is an abstraction of what people actually do. There is a great craft in teaching whether its very performed, a lot of it is not as explicit as pedagogy might make out. If you do things through technology, the technology generally has to be much more explicit, its based around structures and so on. So there is often a real problem about people even knowing what they are doing or being able to express that and actually then remediating that in some technological format so that although the business and other aspects may be fairly well known, they are in balance sheets, and they are fairly well expressed. Pedagogy, particularly in terms of learning technology, is still very abstract and it's in a glass darkly, its only a pale reflection of what people actually do, and until people know what it is they are actually doing and are able to make that implicit/explicit, there is still going to be a gulf between what they intend, what they think they can do and what they are actually able to do with any given technology.

Question: I was picking up something that was mentioned in passing by Angela McFarlane in her talk which was the thing about time, and I think that the real problem for academics is that all of these things are added to the other pressures and the hardest thing is actually finding the evidence moving on-line, particularly for face to face teaching will actually lead to any demonstrable improvement. Going back to all the things that one doesn�t realise one�s doing when one�s teaching, a lot of the problem is that the educational research doesn�t speak in the language of the people who actually teach and there is a real gulf there and at the moment it is very hard to persuade people that the extra time is going to be worthwhile except for real enthusiasts.

Vijay Kumar: I want to say �yes, but�. There are two things � what is the outcome you are looking for � you have active E-Learning environments where how students fared in a test might not be an assessment of how much they have learnt, but to see what kinds of horizontal engagements are happening, what are the kinds of relationships between the students and the technology. Those are the kinds of things that you would be measuring, but if its strictly outcomes based in your traditional teaching/learning environment you don�t really care how you got there you don�t try to assess the two � why be different.

Question: Just thinking about Stuart�s original question about drivers, technology, economics and education, I�d like to offer a different analysis and suggest that actually what is going on now is being driven by people who are interested in education who are innovators and some of these innovators have sought to use modern technologies. What they have discovered is that technology is very expensive and whenever anything is very expensive there is a rapid follow-up with economic justifications. So I would argue that that is a process driven by innovators and technology and there are other innovations in education going on that don�t involve technology and we could all be very irrelevant someday.

Bill Olivier: I think that�s right, the economic case is quite difficult with technology, partly because there is usually a big upfront investment, not just in buying the stuff, but in training the people how to use it and evaluating it, and even then our practices are evolving and the technology is evolving so it may not just be buying your system and getting everybody to use it, but buying another system, and another system, and getting everybody to use those. So it might be 10 years of heavy upfront investment and there isn�t a source of investment from that so the case �has to be made�, but taking that into account there are changes going on in teaching practice shall we say, that people are exploring and the question is can the technology support that without it continuing to cost. The things that people are doing in teaching practice, like engaging people and more actively engaging more senses, and getting people to move around all that is negated by sitting in front of the computer and your maximum action is waving your fingers and looking at a screen. There are some dissenters there, which I think is interesting.

Question: Bill I�d like to pick up on the relationship you made between pedagogy, technology, and organisation; and we think of pedagogy as essentially encapsulating the need, technology the means of meeting that, and we expect innovation in all those, but without really focussed on innovation or the tool sets and methodology. We need for organisational change in managing that change and it seems to me to be crucial if we are engineering an environment with more E-Learning activities, courses curriculum in varied ways that strikes me as something missing at the moment � the emphasis on that.

Bill Olivier: Yes I think our organisations are set up to support the current teaching practices and the current technologies that we use. There are libraries, lecture halls and that kind of stuff, and things are set up to support that. It is very difficult to start introducing technology changes which may mean you don�t need lecture halls any more, for instance, without having a big impact on the organisation. The organisation tends to resist that so there is a change there.

Question: Is there the potential though for a tool set methodology that looks across commonalities in HE and FE, to look at how you might better introduce or formulate new pedagogies and coupled with technology? There are lessons to be learnt about how to introduce these things into organisations sometime.

Bill Olivier: Just a polemic I�ll throw out on that is that we are all organisations for learning, but we are not learning organisations, and a lot of the development of learning organisations in the business world, or in the commercial world, is how do you adopt this technology and use it effectively and I think that�s the same thing. So we are going to have to start to learn from what is happening in the commercial world as far as learning organisations are concerned and start to consider how we evolve and adapt as institutions if we are going to use the technology, maybe we don�t. The University of Berkeley Faculty there have said we don�t need this technology we don�t have any shortage of people trying to get here. They are all very high level, they all come out with good degrees, they are well qualified � what good is this technology going to do us. You could say that if something is working well do you need to change it and so there is still a question.

Stuart Lee: I think I probably should add, bearing in mind the sponsorship of to-day that, of course, the JISC are developing their MLE Developers pack which will be looking at some of those examples and one of the editors is sitting over there staring at me. Oleg will be speaking this afternoon.

David Unwin: Can I make a distinction again. Coming back to the implicit and the explicit and having held grants from just about every JISC initiative except the TLTP I think I understand motivations. There is a motivation that is presented from JISC to the funding council and thence to the Government, and there is a motivation within JISC. I am reasonably convinced with good evidence that JISC's motivation has by and large been to improve teaching and learning in UK higher education using technology as the lever to do that, and I think that has been very much an implicit motive, certainly from my experience of the last 15 years. Give the chiefs up their credit for what the chiefs really think rather than what they tell the minister.

Question: I am going to pick up on something Angela brought up this morning in terms of blended learning. I think that is something we have always done in terms of using technology. Would people class the OHP as a piece of technology, a video recorder and television? These are things we have always used and when they were brought into teaching and learning there wasn�t a big issue made of them. They weren�t going to cost me my job because they were going to take over and what was the pedagogy involved in terms of what they influenced. Have we just mis-sold what we are trying to do to the curriculum staff that they are now running scared in the terms that we put this over? Do you need to rethink how we are packaging this in terms of the staff we are trying to get on board with some of these issues?

Stuart Lee: My own view � I am still wheeled out to give talks to people who teach English Literature on how they can use a video recorder in the teaching. Anyway I will let the panel reply.

Bill Olivier: I think the first assumption actually is wrong I have got books somewhere on how to use a video recorder and I have certainly been to a workshops on how to use an OHP. Back to the point that someone else made these things are all imbedded together very deeply I think the difference in a computer � my model of a computer is a communication device it has nothing to do with calculations whatsoever, the difference is universality of digital media, I think that does, perhaps, give it a different ballpark. Would we have been in this building 600 years ago debating the introduction of the book? I don�t know. Perhaps we might have been.

To some extent I think it also depends on your model of what the E-Learning and teaching process is. If it is a content delivery or information delivery model, then yes you might well feel threatened because this technology can deliver content � that�s obviously one of things it can do � obviously it can do more. But more than that I get more and more suspicious of, I think, if you see teaching as identifying a mental block somebody has got in understanding some concepts, finding what�s the route of that saying the things lead to them going �ah I get it�. I don�t see a computer doing that for a very long time so I think that the use of the technology has to be to maximise the ability of humans to do what they do well which is to address that kind of thing and not spend a lot of time doing things that computers can do well, and that means a re-adjustment. I don�t think in any way computers are going to replace people in teaching. On the other hand certainly in the States a few years ago there was almost a revolution against E-Learning because administrators were saying we�ll get everyone to do a �brain dump� and we can sack them and just put this stuff up and that was perceived as a threat, but I think that was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the teaching process was, but maybe it was just content delivery in those universities � I don�t know.

Follow-up: But I honestly think there is still, certainly in FE, there is still that element of running scared; if they put everything on a VLE or put the notes on-line they will be made redundant or we can just bring an instructor in as opposed to a lecturer to deliver that course. That is still there and that is a problem.

I think you have to emphasise is what is the unique human value added, if you want to use those kind of commercial terms. But what is it that humans can do uniquely that computers are useless at? That�s interact with other human beings and understand what�s happening and I think just say that�s what we want people to do � computers can do the admin.

Andrew Ravenscroft: I think that�s a valid point because there are some suspicious metaphors floating about. People talk about delivery work etc., I think we all know, all a computer can do is mediate human processing which leads to learning. We often have knowledge management to support learning but which is actually called E-Learning, and I think that�s a great mistake and no indication that if we give anybody access to a computer with all this fantastic content on then they go on to become the next Einstein. Which, of course, is not the case it is what is done with the technology and knowledge human processing that act around or are stimulated by the technology that leads to learning not the actual content or the computer itself.

Vijay Kumar: This is mindful of all the conversations that we were having that proceeded OCW. I think it is extremely important to recognise context and what the value proposition of a particular context is. It was very clear that we had a vigorous process of selecting students of a particular kind, a faculty of a particular kind, and that interaction has worked. Therefore, it was O.K. to take out this other stuff, called course content, and commoditise that because the unique differentiation was in that interaction. The other thing, which has to do with some organisation and impact. This scale of impact � you change the class size that is an innovation it has limited impact when we are talking about E-Learning, national initiatives they are of the scale of a national crusade � do you recognise that? I think it is more important to talk, just like in the case of OKI, about the organisation architecture rather than the organisation itself, because we walk in knowing that different contexts even within an institution deliver educational value in different ways. Heterogeneity is what we all live by and in academia that�s a good thing, therefore, you create an architecture that allows different kinds of organisations to be created and to co-exist and I think that�s the challenge we have.

Back to Top.

Formal Debate: 'This house believes that commercial Virtual Learning Environments (LMS) provide sufficient facilities for the teaching and learning needs of Higher and Further Education'

Tom Franklin , TechLearn

Formal Debate (For)

I am going to take the motion as referring to e-learning and e-teaching because clearly VLEs do not apply where computers are not being used.

So I think that we need to consider what a VLE is for and then we can look at whether commercial systems provide for our needs sufficiently well. I am not arguing that they are the best in all circumstances and certainly not that they will do everything that we want, only that they provide sufficient facilities for what we want to do.

A VLE is at its simplest a way of organising and presenting the tools and materials which students and staff will interact with. It can be thought of as an electronic campus � a point that I will come back to later. It offers tools for organising learning materials, tools for managing a variety of learning opportunities including studying content, discussions, researching issues and tools for assessing students (diagnostic, formative and summative) and for managing learning (from enrolment to collection of results).

Do commercial VLEs offer sufficient resources to do this? Clearly the answer is yes. Equally, there are things that we would like (not need) them to do which they cannot do at the moment. These are facilities which we will see available in the better commercial VLEs in the medium term.

I think that at this point it is worth asking the question what are the things that will make e-learning work and what are the inhibitors that are currently preventing it from working.

I think that it is fair to say that the chief thing preventing a more rapid uptake of e-learning is the need for greater staff development and the second is the lack of suitable resources (so called learning objects). These apply whatever VLE one chooses. However there are clearly significant advantages to using commercial VLEs:

Firstly there is considerably more training and training material available for the commercial VLEs allowing institutions to select and adapt courses that are of high quality and meet their staff development needs. As an example Netskills produce materials for Blackboard and WebCT but not for any of the non-commercial systems. This means that the cost of developing and the greater cost of maintaining the material will fall on the much smaller number of users.

Secondly, staff are likely to have encountered the commercial systems in use in their institution elsewhere so that new staff may well be familiar with the VLE and staff from the institution will see what other people are doing elsewhere. This can be highly important in achieving acceptance among the staff that will be using the system

Looking at available resources there are standards which are supposed to ensure that learning objects will work properly in whatever VLE they are used. However experience shows that this is rarely the case in reality. Content will be devised with one or two systems in mind and will take advantage of their particular features. They therefore may not work as well (or at all) in other systems, thus severely limiting the available content.

So if you want staff to be able to use the VLE and have material they can use in it then choosing a commercial system gives the greatest variety and availability and will appeal to staff as the skills they develop will be more transferable.

There are some reasons that are frequently cited for not relying on commercial systems and I want to address these now.

The two main reasons that one hears are that the commercial systems are too inflexible (especially in pedagogic terms) and that different subjects work in different ways and so need different systems. I think that are really different arguments on the same point that commercial VLEs do not allow one to absolutely everything that one might want to. That either by developing a system for the university or college or by using several one achieves greater flexibility.

I think that the argument is not valid. Firstly, if we look at the situation with physical spaces we have seen many universities move from each department having their own teaching space to central timetabling and room allocation systems. This was fiercely opposed for exactly the same reasons, but apart from the inevitable teething troubles associated with moving to a new system it has made very little difference to teaching practice. Pushing the analogy a little further teaching spaces are used in remarkably few formats. General teaching rooms are typically used in one of three layouts � rows facing the front, horseshoe and circles. Further, even when a room is capable of being flexible it is rare for the teacher or lecturer to re-arrange the room for classes (unless dictated by the size of the class not the pedagogy). There are of course other types of teaching spaces, notably labs. However, remove the equipment and one would be hard pressed to tell a physics from a chemistry or biology lab. It is not the physical space that determines what, or even how teaching and learning take place it is the teaching itself. The same is equally true of a VLE.

I contend that even where a VLE is capable of being used in a wide variety of different ways most teaching staff will only use a very small number of these that reflect what it is they want to do. Further, these few ways are actually very similar across disciplines as what we are trying to achieve is students who gain understanding, acquire knowledge and language of their discipline and behave as professionals of that discipline. Of course, the proportions with which particular methods and tools are used within a VLE will vary from teacher to teacher and discipline to discipline. But the key real point is the old 80 / 20 rule. 80% of the benefit comes from just 20% of the facilities. Few staff will use the other facilities and fewer still will use them effectively. This has been clearly demonstrated with PowerPoint where besides the happy arguments over its effect on teaching and learning generally it is clear that there are many lecturers who have spent happy (or perhaps unhappy) hours making some obscure feature do some amazing thing which lasts a few seconds and has very little effect on learning outcomes.

I think that this is a critical point in this debate, as the question is not can commercial VLEs meet all our wants, but do they offer sufficient to meet our needs? Who wants these extra facilities? Do they need them? I think that there are two groups who want them. There are the experts in e-learning who can do what they want in almost any system, but find it easier to do in some than in others and there are people who want to replicate what they have been doing in real spaces in VLEs. I have some sympathy with each of these. The former because there are features that they would like to have and could make use of the latter because this may be the easiest way to get to grips with the new technology. However, in neither case is it essential.

Those who are new to e-learning need the maximum possible support and the greater resources provided by and for commercial VLEs will provide this to the majority of teaching staff who are not e-learning gurus in the vanguard but ordinary teachers trying to do the best for their many students.

It is worth pausing here to consider what the alternatives to commercial VLEs actually are. Realistically there are two alternatives:

Non-commercial systems, such as Colloquia and Nathan-Boddington produced by the speakers opposite. They are great systems and I am not knocking them. I am not even arguing whether they are better or worse than commercial systems because that is not the subject of this debate. I am arguing that commercial systems offer sufficient for our needs.

The other alternative that is sometime quoted is a portal now this is slightly different from a VLE and provides features not found in a VLE without offering all the facilities that VLEs offer. This is recognised for instance in the a strategic alliance that WebCT has formed with Campus Pipeline showing that they do in fact have complementary not competing roles.

I would now like to turn to the real issues facing higher education and look at whether commercial VLEs offer sufficient facilities to meet these.

The critical issues have been laid out in the recent white paper "The future of higher education" and they include Professionalisation of teaching, Widening participation and Employability and student choice.

I think that the issue is only relevant for the last of these issues � student choice. Students who wish to take courses from several departments, or increasingly from several institutions, will want to be able to move their work between them. I am thinking among other things of consortia running foundation degrees. If each institution (or department even) is running whatever VLE they believe best the student will at best be confronted by a confusing array of VLEs (not something that the tutor will suffer from as they will typically only work with one of them) or more likely and worse on top of their confusion there will be incompatibilities preventing their moving their work between them. Again, yes there are standards but they do not guarantee things actually working on the ground as the various MLE projects have clearly demonstrated. Having all the systems using the same standard is not sufficient for them to work together.

The small number of commercial vendors recognise this issue and will be working hard to resolve it, and will achieve it in a pair wise fashion. The chances of any two random VLEs being able to successfully do it is very very low and will cause serious problems for students.

There is an essential role for non-commercial systems in that they provide excellent platforms for experimenting with new models, methods, techniques etc. Their creators have complete freedom to do what they want, and when they do indeed demonstrate some sound new idea you can be sure that the commercial vendors will pick it up and implement it in a future version if there is demand for it.

And that is one of the key reasons for going with a commercial system � the continued support and development. How many pieces of software developed for a particular group or institution that is not commercially supported have fallen by the wayside? Well over 90% Once the original developer leaves, retires, moves on or just gets bored the system will ossify and die. All the development, much of the staff development and content may also be lost.

So although some wonderful system may seem better in the short term you would be ill-advised to go with it for the long term.

That leads me to support costs. Either one goes for a generic system or a series of specialised ones that meet different communities wants. The latter comes with a huge additional support cost with several pieces of software to support (and all their interfaces into the other systems which make up an institution's MLE) together with the greater staff development and student support costs which could better be devoted to other things.

This then leads to the question behind the question: Are there things which a commercial VLE will not do in a reasonable timeframe which are essential to quality teaching and learning and can be done in other VLEs? The answer to this is clearly NO therefore commercial VLEs provide sufficient facilities for the teaching and learning needs of higher and further education.

Thank you.

Back to Top.

Andy Syson, Coventry University

Formal Debate (For)

I have been involved with virtual learning environments since 1997, when I was part of the team that was charged with looking into what the 21st century university should look like. In 1997, the Internet and the World Wide Web were still new and virtual learning environments were very much in their infancy.

Basically, there were three options. The first option was to build a virtual learning environment ourselves. The second was to join a consortium to build a virtual learning environment and the third was to buy a virtual learning environment.

Right from the start option one was not a good idea. The university had just finished building its own student records system, and no one had the stomach of going through that again. Actually, the student records system was quite good. And now six years on, it's even better, but the time it took to develop it initially, and the number of people needed to keep it going, meant that it was impossible to put a similar resource into developing and maintaining a virtual learning environment.

Option two looked very attractive. There was an invitation to join a consortium of other universities, and it offered the potential toinfluence the development of the VLE at a reasonable cost. In the event, we chose not to join, as we were worried that it would not be ready for the start of the academic year beginning September 1999.

Option three, buying a virtual learning environment, turned out to be the one we chose. In 1997 and 1998 there was little choice. Most of the virtual learning environments on offer were in fact based on training CD-ROM concepts, and quite unsuitable for the sort of applications we envisaged.

We chose WebCT for a variety of reasons. First of all it met all our criteria that we had developed over the previous months. Second it existed. It worked. It could be tried before purchase, and furthermore, it was even cheaper than the option to join a consortium. Other factors influenced our choice of WebCT, it closely modelled the modular scheme that the university runs, its customisable, and it was relatively easy to use.

WebCT has piloted in the business School from September 1998 and was launched university wide in September 1999. All the 2000 plus modules, and all the 15,000 plus students were able to use WebCT from day one. Staff were encouraged to use WebCT butthe take-up of it was entirely voluntary, and by the end of the first year over 10% of the modules were actively using WebCT. Now, at the end of the fourth year, we have over 40% of our modules actively using WebCT to enhance student learning. Because of the way our modular scheme works, each student studying eight modules a year, it actually means about 80% of our students use WebCT for some part of their studies.

Over the last 4 years we've had hundreds of staff and thousands of students using WebCT on a regular basis. Certainly, there are things that could be done better, these we hope will be addressed in later versions of the product. But time and time again, the single most common complaint we get from our students, is that the virtual learning environment is not being used enough by the lecturers.

So, does a commercial virtual learning environment provide sufficient facilities for the teaching and learning needs of higher and further education. Well the answer, for our university, is yes.

Let's now summarise the main points that Tom put forward in proposing the motion. First of all, he highlighted the word sufficient. It doesn't necessarily mean the best. It doesn't necessarily mean everything we want. Only that commercial VLEs provide sufficient facilities for what we want to do, which in terms of a virtual learning environment, involves managing students, organising content, communication and assessment.

The advantages of commercial virtual learning environments were highlighted as being the availability of training materials and the existence of a wider community of users with the consequent development of transferable skills. Our experience at Coventry has been that these advantages are indeed very significant.

Whilst a great deal of in-house small group and one-to-one training was provided by ourselves. It would not have been possible to embark upon such a large-scale launch of a virtual learning environment had it not been for the wealth of good-quality training materials already available, both from the supplier and from other higher education institutions.

Similarly, the development of a wider community of users, has had a major impact on the continuing success of the virtual learning environment. Even the most optimistic counting of the number of staff that have received formal training in the use of WebCT at the university would only produce a number about half of that actually using WebCT on a regular basis. Clearly, a large number of staff are learning to use the system from their colleagues or directly from the online training materials. This has been made easier for staff by the decision, early on in the project, to adopt a standard template for all modules. This template enables staff to manage the students, to organise content, to communicate with the students and to assess them.

Having a standard template, upon which all modules are based greatly assists the students in their use of WebCT. Skills acquired learning how to navigate the content in one module are immediately applicable to navigation through the content of another module. The same is true, for the use of the module�s discussion forum and assessment tools.

At Coventry, all-new first-year students have a two hour, hands on, introduction to WebCT during the induction week. They have a detailed, step-by-step guide that covers all the important aspects of using a virtual learning environment, and they do this using a training module, which is based on the standard module template.

A disadvantage of commercial virtual learning environments was seen to be their supposed inflexibility and an analogy was made by Tom with the way in which lecturers use real space in teaching rooms. Even when rooms are capable of being used in a variety of ways, in practice, the majority of lecturers rarely if ever make any changes to the teaching rooms.

While I am sure this is true in the case of moving the furniture around in a classroom. I have found it not to the case as regards moving the furniture around in a virtual learning environment. The furniture in this case, of course, being the various tools that belong to the VLE. Staff are asked not to change the module homepage from that supplied by the standard template so that the students experiencea common look and feel across all their modules allowing them easy access to the content, communication and assessment tools. For the most part, this is indeed the case. On the other hand staff are encouraged to customise the resources and the student pages to suit the needs of their particular module, and the teaching style they wish to adopt. Very rarely do we get complaints from the staff that the VLE is limiting their ability to use online learning in the way they desire.

Now, let's look at the lecturer, why are they doing the job? Are they all the same? Clearly not, at one end of the spectrum you have lecturers who are doing the job because of the love of the subject, at the other end of the spectrum, you have lecturers that are doing the job because of the love of teaching. The former has a desire to teach their subject in the best possible way, while the latter has a desire to teach in the best possible way.

The subject specialist tends to see the commercial virtual learning environment as another tool to be used and exploited. They are more interested in what a virtual learning environment can do to make their teaching and the student learning more effective. They want to know how to use the tool. They might not think that the way it works is the best possible solution, but they see the advantages, adapt to it, adapt it and press on.

The educator on the other hand, will see the virtual learning environment as another tool to be developed. They are more interested in what a commercial virtual learning environment can't do. They are not prepared to compromise. If they do not like the way it works. They will either in dump it completely and abandon e-learning altogether or put in a lot of effort and money to develop their own virtual learning environment that fully meets their needs.

Those of us that do use commercial virtual learning environments have a lot to thank those that develop their own systems for. They are the ones that are pushing back the frontiers of e-learning on both the technical and pedagogic fronts. However, you can be pretty sure that whatever significant advances are made by those developing their own systems will be quickly copied and incorporated into the future releases of the commercial virtual learning environments.

Finally I'd like to leave you with another analogy, that is. That is people who like to listen to music, music lovers and hi-fi buffs.

They go out and buy a music centre. These days it would incorporate a radio, a CD player, a Minidisk a record deck, an amplifier and of course two or more speakers.

They might read the instructions, but it is very likely that they will not, because the system they have bought is familiar to them. And all the bits fit together to make a complete music system.

In all probability, they will just plug it in, switch it on, and listen to the music. They are happy.

No one music system has all the facilities and qualities that they desire so they build their own system. They go out and buy the best radio, the best CD player, the best Minidisk, the best record deck, the best amplifier, the best speakers (at least 5) and lots and lots of wire.

They don't read the instructions, they don't need to, they built the system. However, they do write some instructions on the back of an envelope, so that their wives can use the system when they're out. But then they hide the envelope, just to be safe. They don�t want anyone else, fiddling with system when they're not there.

After carrying out exhaustive testing to check that all components work, they switch it on and listen to the music. Or rather, they listen to the sound of the music. Decided it's not perfect, and go out and buy a bigger and better amplifier and a lot more wire.

They are not as happy as they would like to be, but they have a cracking good music system that they won�t sell.

Commercial VLEs = Music centre

Non- commercial VLEs = Hi-Fi System

Back to Top.

Oleg Liber, Bolton Institute

Formal Debate (Against)

I think we saw a sign of Tom�s desperation at the beginning when he tried to define VLEs as just about any tool that exists on the Internet that could possibly be used for learning. We know those things are not VLEs. We all know what VLEs are � they are systems which integrate a number of tools to try and provide something which is comprehensive and attempt to provide for all learning needs. We know what commercial VLEs are and that there are quite a lot of them. I think there were 200 systems reviewed on Bruce Landon�s site the last time that I looked. So I really can�t allow Tom to make the motion so broad to make it possible for him to successfully propose it.

I want to take us all back one step and remind you of something that you all know, about why learners come to your classrooms in the first place. I think they come to your classrooms because they want, in a sense, to become like you. Not in every way of course, but they do want to understand the subject in the way that you understand the subject. What goes on in classrooms is learners attempting to find out how to understand something, and for this you are their model. So the teacher�s job, your job, if you follow this line of argument, is to explore ways in which you can reveal your understanding to the learners. Now that�s a difficult task, and I think we have all struggled with learners who haven�t understood, trying to find the ways first to understand ourselves, to understand our own understanding, and then to find ways of expressing that understanding � we have all done this. Now think of VLEs. Can you express your understanding easily in a virtual learning environment? I think there are tools that are around on the Internet that can help you to express your understanding, but I don�t believe that commercial VLEs provide those resources yet. They may sometime, but at the moment they don�t, and since the motion is written in the present tense I have to assume we are talking about current VLEs. Now, of course, just expressing your understanding isn�t sufficient. You can express your understanding and the student still may not understand because they have a different history to you, they have a different background, the path that�s brought them to where they are now is different to the path that you took. So they need the opportunity to interrogate you, to say �Now, I know that you have explained it, but I still don�t understand. Can you tell me something about this aspect?� So they need to be able to interrogate the teacher. Now again the question I would ask is �Can learners easily interrogate the teacher in current virtual learning environments�? Again there are some tools there that allow some discussion, but the kind of in-depth interrogation of understanding I�m implying? I don�t think so. One of the things I find really interesting with virtual learning environments is that despite the fact that there has been lots of work in the development of discursive tools since the seventies - I think that was alluded to this morning - if you look at the discursive tools in virtual learning environments they are extremely crude. Why is that? It�s an interesting question. I think the reason is that commercial VLEs focus primarily on content delivery, and the assumption is that you can develop perfect understanding in the learners through the provision of content. You know, people have been struggling with this idea of learning just through content for a long time and basically it simply doesn�t work, in my view. So we need rich discursive tools. Can we achieve perfect understanding in learners by delivering content, having a little bit of discussion to support it, then a multiple choice test and there you go? Then certify the learner as having understood what you understand? Well, I don�t think so. That�s my first point: current VLEs are pedagogically weak.

The second point I would like to make is to do with innovation. Teaching and learning has always been constrained by technology. We are constrained by technology in this room, the structure of the classroom, the structure of the timetable, the one hour lesson. All these sorts of things constrain what is possible to do, but because teachers have mastery over this existing technology, they can bend it and shape it to suit their particular needs. Tom made the point that people don�t move chairs around. I saw lots of people shake their heads; people do move chairs around in classrooms, they do say (for example) �go into small groups and discuss this question�. People bend the technology that they are given if they have the mastery of it to suit what they want to do. The trouble with VLEs is they are very hard for people who don�t have that kind of mastery to bend to their needs. I have to say, and I am sure you will agree with me on this, trying to bend commercial VLEs to support different and interesting pedagogies is extremely difficult for even those of us who have mastery and more so for those poor lecturers who are coming to it afresh, who think there is a �proper� way of using a VLE. (I have had people come to me saying �I am sorry but I am only using the discussion bit - I am not using this VLE properly�). So in a sense the VLE is controlling the teacher, instead of the teacher being able to bend the VLE to their purposes.

Another point I would like to make is that I don�t think commercial VLEs actually can provide the things that we want. What we require at the moment I think is massive innovation in E-Learning - this is a young technology. But the problem with commercial VLEs is that they need to sell their systems now, and they need to sell lots of them. So inevitably if you want to sell lots of them you have to convince the people who have purchasing power, i.e. institutional management, that they want to buy their system, that it is safe, that they will be secure having the system and so on. To do this they have to provide a lowest common denominator solution, one that your Vice Chancellor, your Registrar, and other people will recognise. �Present this material, have a discussion and do a test? Yes, I can understand that�. This is why commercial VLEs tend to be lowest common denominator and if they were to provide radically different and interesting tools that you can do exciting things, these people would be rather frightened by those. So I think by the very fact of being commercial, they are prevented of being innovative. Despite all the things we are told about capitalism and innovation, I think there is a real problem here. The place where you see innovation happening in E-Learning is in the open source world, and so we need to have a thriving open source community - I am very glad we have Vijay Kumar here because that is essentially what MIT is also saying. So there is a problem with commercial VLEs and innovation - and we need innovation.

The third point I want to make is concerned with ethical questions. The best thing about university, as far as I was concerned when I was a student, was all the stuff that happened outside of the classroom. We provide spaces in universities - coffee bars, corridors - and we provide time in universities for students to do other things than attend formal sessions. The result of doing these other, informal, things is that they begin to develop learning communities. I know some research was presented earlier to-day saying that students don�t do informal learning, but I�d actually like to challenge that. I think students do use the spaces that are given to them outside of the formal situation to enrich their ability to engage in the discourse of the subject they are trying to learn. But more importantly, the act of giving them space provides a sign of respect from the institution � we say to them �we value your privacy and your autonomy by giving you these spaces and we value the fact that you are able to organise yourselves; we think that this is an important thing for you to do�. Has anyone seen a commercial VLE where students can engage in that kind of self-organising activity? Would an institution give a student the right to set up a private unmonitored activity within a learning environment? People would throw their hand up in horror, fearing they would be swapping pornography and doing all sorts of terrible things. So we don�t permit that and what message does this give them? First of all we give them a message that says that �we don�t value your privacy, we don�t trust you�. That�s the situation that commercial VLEs put us in and, even worse than that, I think in the same way that Illich used to argue that the form of schooling prepared children for factory life, I think this perpetually monitored on-line existence is preparing people for a perpetually monitored existence in life beyond education. I think that is very worrying. I think that there are all sorts of dangers associated with commercial VLEs. From the arguments I have made, I do not believe that commercial VLEs provide sufficient facilities for the teaching and learning needs of higher and further education and for these reasons I invite to support me in opposing this motion.

Back to Top.

Andrew Booth, Leeds University

Formal Debate (Against)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Chairman. The motion - let�s go back to the motion- �This house believes that commercial virtual learning environments provide sufficient facilities for teaching and learning needs of higher and further education�. I don�t think I really need to say anything more, if that statement is true then it�s a damning indictment of higher education and further education in this country. How on earth can these things prove sufficient for what we want? We are intelligent people, we are imaginative people, what we do today is different from what we do tomorrow. We are innovative, that�s why we are here. If we were just interested in plugging away using the same old product we wouldn�t be academics and we wouldn�t be trying to convey the enthusiasm for our subject to our students, and that�s why they come to us. So let's just concentrate on the difference between the commercial VLEs and the VLEs that many of us in this room have spent a lot of time putting together. How did these things arise? If you look at the commercial VLEs there are hundreds of them, but you know, and I know that there are only two of them that count. Because there are only two of them represented in any great number across higher education in this country. Those two environments, although they arose out of higher education across the Atlantic, actually really have their roots in training systems. They were designed to give people information and then test whether or not they had assimilated that information. They are essentially content-based.

How did things arise over here? Well those of us who had been working on these were actually probably working on them at about the same time that the people in Canada and the States were working on theirs. We didn�t know what a VLE was at the time, but we were looking at the needs that we had, and in particular the needs that our students had, and those needs were not about content. Those needs were how do we support our students in times when our universities are changing? How do we support our students when student numbers are going through the roof? How do we support our students when our ways of organising our courses are changing � we are moving from whole year courses through to semesterised courses, to modularised courses to pasteurised courses and any other �ised� courses which seems sexy at the senior management level at the time. This looks good from their level but from our point of view how on earth do you find out about the students who are having problems? How do you find out what those problems are, and how do you do something about it before they have gone on to another of these modular courses? What we were looking for were on-line systems for student support, for getting students to work together, to work in groups. What we were not looking at were systems that would actually allow us to shovel content to them. So we have come at it at a really very different way and there are quite clear difference between these and the non-commercial VLEs that have arisen in this country.

If you look at the way that we like to use our systems we are looking at ways to teach our students that really don�t depend on content. I don�t know whether you remember when George Bush, the other George Bush, left power and Bill Clinton was elected people were running around in T-shirts, which said �It�s the economy stupid!�. I think we should be running around with T-shirts saying �It's not about content stupid!� - it's about looking after our students. It�s about supporting student leaning. We need systems, which allow us to break free of the idea that you shovel some content at a student and then test to see if they have understood it. We need systems that allow us to use ways of learning that don�t fit into that mould. How do you do peer tutoring? How do you get senior undergraduates to tutor junior undergraduates? In an environment where the unit is the course.

If you look at most of the commercial VLEs the unit is the course. You set up a course, you set up the resources and away you go. How do you get the sort of things we want to do, where you get students helping other students to learn, set up in those environments? Well having had a look at them for the life of me I can�t work it out. We need some flexibility of roles; if you look at most of the commercial environments the number of roles are limited. There is usually somebody who is called the teacher, or the tutor, who has a certain level of privilege, there is, of course, the student who has less privilege. Sometimes there is the developer, who has some other privilege and possibly the system administrator, who can do everything, but what happens when your student is the teacher? Do you have to put this person into the system twice, and what happens when you run courses where the teachers are the students? Gilly said that you should never really use a VLE unless you have actually used it as a student, and I couldn�t agree with her more. So how do you get your students set up? How do your tutors set up as students if you have only got a rigid set of roles? The non-commercial environments allow you to do this.

Once you have got a VLE the next thing you want to do is change the �V� to an �M� and move to an MLE, because the last thing you want is for your teachers to have to tangle with student data. You don�t want them to have to handle class lists, you don�t want them to handle user names and passwords. How are you going to integrate your VLE onto your student information system? Well if you have got Web CT, Pipeline and Banner you may be able to do it. If you have got Banner you may be able to get it onto one of the other VLEs, but many of us don�t have standard student information systems, for the simple reason that they don�t reflect the way that our universities are run . The only sensible way to get a student information system integrated onto a VLE is to write a bit of code, and if you are going to write a bit of code then you need access to the source code, and if you need access to the source code you need an open source e-Learning environment, simple as that. If we have got open source environments then we can share them. Not only can we share the environments themselves but we can share the development. Instead of having a few people beavering away developing a learning environment we can get together, share the development, spread it over several universities, and that is starting to occur and its great to see it happening. Once we can share development then we can start thinking about setting up shared authentication systems. We can start thinking about students in one university logging on to their learning environment and accessing course modules at another. We can start thinking about sharing the development of on-line courses. It is starting to happen, but it won�t happen as long as people stick to the commercial products.

A little tale to tell you about accessibility. Tom Franklin and I were despatched to Educause 2000. It's an event that is seared in my memory for several reasons, one is Tom�s rather interesting approach to taking a car up an up ramp on an American Interstate. I am still on medication. If you want a piece of advice to take home with you � never, never go on a foreign trip with Tom Franklin, but the other thing was that there at Educause we found the stands of the major commercial VLEs, and I forget whether it was Tom or me that went up to one of them, who shall be nameless, and said �what are you doing about accessibility?� and there was a short pause followed by �Oh yeah, we�re on top of that - accessibility yeah. Every student gets a user name and password and they are straight in� Yeah OK Right. Accessibility is important and if you speak to the commercial VLE people they have actually moved on from there and they will tell you that their products are now completely accessible. They can be used with screen readers, if you have got yours no problem you are straight in � it will tell you everything you need to know. That assumes, of course, that the disability that we are dealing with is blindness or visual impairment. But if you go to your disability unit and, of course, I am sure you all have them now, and say �what is the major disability you find on campus� it is not blindness or visual impairment it is dyslexia. Dyslexia outnumbers other disabilities combined and if you look at the commercial offerings what provision do they make for dyslexia? Very, very little, yet amongst the non-commercial ones developed over here that is a major issue. People are developing bindings, which allow people who produce content to plug into the VLE so that individual students can change the way the content appears. It is not a difficult issue but its just one that you need to give a little thought to. Now we have said that things that happen in the non-commercial world will eventually appear in the commercial world, I am sure you are right, but what�s the time scale? If we own the e-Learning environment then we can implement features when we want and not have to wait until it eventually reaches the top of the job list of somebody else over on the other side of the Atlantic.

Now then one last point � we heard from Andy from Derby how inexpensive it was to start off with WebCT. Two words came to my mind as he said that � and those two words were 'cocaine dealer'. The first one�s free, the second one�s quite cheap, but three years down the line... I investigated the cost of setting up Web CT and Blackboard for the University of Leeds. The University of Leeds is a reasonable sized university, its got about 27,000 on-campus students, and a total student population about 80,000 - we�re looking at about half a million pounds. That is not cheap. Now what has that got to do with providing sufficient facilities for the e-Learning and teaching needs � it�s got everything to do with it because where does that money come from? Money doesn�t just get generated, money gets moved around and if half a million pounds gets moved into the purchasing of a commercial VLE, a half a million pounds has come from somewhere else. What learning or teaching activity has had to be shut down to provide half a million pounds? This acquisition is not supporting learning and teaching - it is having exactly the opposite effect. So I urge you it is time that the UK Higher Education and Further Education community took the development and management of the VLEs into their own hands and I urge you to oppose this motion.

Back to Top.

Formal Debate Transcript

[Contributions from the floor have been anonymised and listed simply as either 'For' or 'Against']

For: I speak as someone who has designed a VLE and now administers and supports a commercial VLE, in this case Blackboard. I think it is folly for any institution to even think of taking of their own bespoke system. There is just no way down the line they will be able to support it, support the students in its use, support the academic staff in its use and ultimately provide all the functions that a commercial VLE can do. To take up one of Andrew�s points, I think the cost of setting up a bespoke system is ultimately failure.

Against: I�d like to make just a few points � first of all the concept of our sufficiency - a lot of people have actually done well out of Web CT because it kind of provides the nursery slope; its actually somewhere to start from, but once you have been on the nursery slopes you have learnt how to do things then it is no longer sufficient, you actually both need and want to do things. Also tied into that is the idea that technology changes our own value systems, we don�t stay unmoved by having technology present with us by using something, we then see something else is possible, but also the way we value things changes so the whole concept of sufficiency is a very partial concept and it depends on where you are coming from. There are issues of process against content, certainly if education is based on a process model, I am taking more vocational education in particular here, we are not so much worried that students know things in terms of facts because they can get access to facts quickly, we need them to be able to problem solve, to act, to think, to actually work on process and certainly the systems that are commercially available are not based on this, they are based on content � it is shoving things down people�s throats, not taking them through problem solving and thinking. Issues of granularity that were touched on as well. Not only granularity in terms of how many roles are supported, but how you put your course together. If you are coming from a modular prospective where each of your modules is just an independent part of learning that�s fine. In medicine we have to have integrated courses, the GMC says our courses must be integrated not just a little bit but utterly. Systems that are out there don�t allow that; each bit is parcelled up and actually kept discreet from the other and we need say 50 different kinds of user roles � we haven�t got that � there all those kinds of issues. There is also the issue of the fact when you say the VLE system, the VLE is not apart from the rest of the E-Learning environment. If it is going to be any use at all its fundamentally part of the broader system, and if we are going to say that our systems are generic then we have one UK University. We should just as well give up on having diversity and local style. The last point � are we saying its sufficient because say 70% of us find it sufficient and that�s enough to pass the motion, or are we saying that the UK HE is actually divers; not necessarily everything is totally different from everything else but there are parts, like medicine, which are significantly different so, therefore, is the motion going to be the majority or are we actually taking it as a totality? Are we prepared to drive a homogenising debate and see the value and diversity in HE being erased?

Against: I'm proposing the revolution verses evolution sort of approach and that if you are taking on board these commercial systems you are talking about organisational change to fit that solution. If you are talking about building in-house you can at least tailor and fit the organisational change, perhaps, looking beyond learning and teaching to find the best solution to fit where your organisation is and adopt a long term prospective.

Against: I�m against it by agreeing with Tom; well to a certain extent at least. Obviously it�s inaccessible to a large percentage of our students so, therefore, obviously it can�t work. I agree with Tom, yes, it can do all the things we want. I have been using such a technology for at last 10 years or more � its called e-mail, everything we want.

Against: I am open to be won over by argument. I would like to ask a question and qualify that with a comment and that is �If we do adopt what we might call commercial VLEs what would be the implications be in say 10 years time for the intelligent culture society in which we live�? In a sense I agree with Tom and Andy I think VLEs optimise existing practice, but the key question must be is existing practice the sort of thing that we want and instead should we be using new technologies to release different and more innovative pedagogies, which then might lead to a different sort of mass intelligence in the future. Just to qualify that a bit more I studied at Leeds, which is very much a poor man�s Oxbridge, we had the tutorial system. The interesting thing about tutorial systems, the students bring their knowledge and the tutor orchestrates interactions with that knowledge and through that process you develop what I think is a sophisticated understanding of the subject in question and I am arguing that is almost impossible with Virtual Learning Environments. But can we speculate on in 10 years time if we did adopt them what might happen?

Andy Syson: I will be very brief. They won�t look like anything they do to-day. Word 2000 or XP or whatever version now looks very, very little like Word 1, the same will be true of VLEs. So 10 years down the line there will be completely different systems and that doesn�t matter if it�s a commercial system or a non-commercial system, which you choose it, will look completely different.

Against: First of all a small observation, I am intrigued because I sent Alison Littlejohn a paper a two weeks ago opening with the line � its not about the content � stupid�. To me the idea that a single system can meet the teaching needs of an institution is fatuous. We have quite rightly at our institution one MIS system, because you want a large organisation organised and managed in one way. But I do move the furniture about, in fact I even change rooms, move walls or buildings to get the environment I want and the idea that a single system can meet the pedagogic needs of something as diverse as a UK university strikes me as really quite strange. I do agree with Tom that things will not look the same in 10 years that we won�t recognise them, but we have maintained a policy at Staffordshire of having 2 VLEs. We have currently just gone through the process of replacing our one mainstream VLE with a different mainstream VLE, and we have at the same time kept our own now open source product going as well, and we have moved our own product from commercial to open source because we wanted to try and get innovation to happen faster.

For: We bought Blackboard 5 Semesters ago. Points that I would like to take up is that Tom Franklin listed all the tools and Oleg Liber correctly picked him up and said �you have just picked up all the tools that can be used�, but then Oleg Liber went on to say that it was pedagogically weak to use a commercial VLE. I presume that he means pedagogically weak to use whether it�s a commercial or non-commercial VLE. You should have attended some of the operational research lectures that I did 30 years ago and you would understand what pedagogically weak was really about. It is not about the system it is about the people, it is about the people who use and how they use it and the students, but primarily it�s about the staff. When we bought Blackboard on 12th June 2000, and the licence is coming up soon, and we will pay it again, we were asked why did you buy it? We bought it because it was a change agent it was to allow academic staff to investigate the use of on-line E-Learning as another tool within their system of teaching, be that an overhead projector, be it whiteboard, be it blackboard or any other type of board, it is simply another tool supporting the teaching of the student by the academic staff, and I think it has to be addressed that it is the people we are dealing with here. The need for the academic staff to change from the lecture theatre delivery only, and nobody is going to tell me that that is the best way of teaching students because I have suffered it and I have delivered it to suffer to other people as well, there are other tools out there particularly VLEs that augment the tools that can give us, and these commercial tools are very valuable to us to ease the transition, as the lady from Edinburgh said, ease the transition into using these tools, if we wait and bespoke tools will never go anywhere. Therefore, I support the motion that commercially available tools will support the teaching and learning agenda.

Undecided (For?): My name is John and I am a WebCT-aholic. I have a couple of points really relating to the idea that environment such as WebCT are pedagogically weak and content driven. The environments themselves are neither pedagogically weak, nor strong, surely it�s the uses they are put to, which is a significant factor there. Clearly that relates also to staff development, the development of skills in mediating learning in the on-line context. Also with regards to the content drivenness of the VLE such as Web CT, they are empty boxes, you put in what you want and actually you are provided with a whole range of communication tools within all of these commercially available environments, which allow you to move way from the content driven model.

Undecided: The reason I am undecided is because our University doesn�t yet have an E-Learning strategy and until I know what that strategy is I can�t tell if the virtual learning environment that we are already using and in fact expanding and going up to the next version of, is sufficient to meet our needs. I don�t know how many other institutions represented here have an E-Learning strategy, we are actually working on them but it is a kind of chicken and egg situation � it�s a comment.

For: I am speaking for the motion for two reasons � one the commercial VLEs give us a way of easily and quickly introducing status, some novel ideas. An event we organised recently introducing Blackboard, generated such an interest in group work that you went away thinking its got to be a good idea if people are starting thinking about new ways of teaching not just using the technology. So it gives us a quick, easy, short, and medium-term solution. The other reason that I suggest we support it is because the people who are working on the bespoke VLEs for their own institutions will be so annoyed by us supporting this motion that they will go away and create something even better that we can use in the future. So please support the motion.

Against: Picking up on our friend at the back who was a WebCT-aholic I would like to suggest that we are all in denial. Think about what we are doing now I imagine all of us are going to leave here having learnt something we haven�t done that with a virtual learning environment. We have done it with an old, not as old as it pretends to be, a relatively old and untechnologically facilitated environment. And the way we are E-Learning is by listening and engaging in internal discourse and engaging in interactions. Some of us are actually speaking and some of us are lurking, but we are all participating here. The tradition of Oxford is one of debate, discussion, dialogue and pushing people to the barriers, pushing people to question ideas. What have we got in a virtual learning environment that does that? We are talking about a box, it supplies us with something, but it has implicit pedagogy. Tom argued very succinctly against his argument - he said we don�t move the furniture around. That�s the whole problem. Yes, some of us do move the furniture around the one�s of us who don�t, miss out by not moving the furniture around. Its easier not to push the barriers that means our learners get a worse experience than they could have done. There is a whole load of stuff we need to think about, about improving learning by introducing the benefits of a face-to-face individualistic learning experience into large groups. I would like to see the money invested in these commercial learning environments going into the development of good educational practice throughout the UK higher education system. That is where we need things and I think the stuff that people like Oleg, Mark and Aggie are doing in terms of open-sources is one of the ways that we will definitely get there so I am definitely against the motion.

For: As I understand it the motion is contrasting commercial against non-commercial virtual learning environments. I have got two questions for those who are against the motion. What is the cost of developing their bespoke systems and could they clarify exactly what facilities these bespoke systems have which aren�t present in good commercial systems?

Andrew Booth: The first thing is that is not the argument � the motion is that commercial systems provides sufficient facilities for HEs not that they are better or worse than current open source. Actually I don�t think there is any current VLE that would do that job. However, I do think there is more hope in the open source community to have the kind of innovation that we need to perpetually develop the kinds of learning experiences that we develop in further and higher education. The debate isn�t that open source is better or worse, that�s a separate debate, and I have a view on that obviously, but that is not what to-day�s debate is about.

Against: Partly in response to the last point, but also to the point about commercial VLEs being not content centred. I think it is important to look at how systems organise themselves. When you look at certainly the leading VLEs you find that you create your course and then you put the students on it. Now hang on what are you creating? You are creating an aggregation of content. Now the sort of systems that Oleg has created, and indeed I have, a course is a group of people. You put a group of people together and then you give them things to do, now that reveals a very different emphasis educationally.

Andy Syson: We have got many hundreds of modules running in Web CT and the accusation that they are content driven is not born out by the fact. We have to do lots of reports back to various people and one of the tools that we use to determine how the module is being used � how the Web CT is being used � is how much space on the disk is being taken up by a particular module and we can determine there�s a content area, there�s a discussion area, communication area and there�s an assessment area, and of the 600 active modules that we have got I will accept that in 300 of those modules the content area is by far the largest area. Of the 300 remaining we have got many, many modules where there is zero content at all, but an enormous discussion area, it�s a communication vehicle, and there are about 70 or 80 modules where the content and discussion is very limited. They have an enormous assessment area, and there are a few, we are talking here probably about 50 or 60, where there is a very even spread of content, discussion and assessment. So the idea that just because it�s a commercial VLE you have got to stuff it full of something before it will go, and it�s a content delivery thing isn�t born out by the facts. I would agree that the majority do, about half of them, but there is a growing and increasing use of the vehicle in its totality and often used just in the communication areas.

Against: I accept that you can do that I was actually making a point about the underlying philosophical organisation of the system which is true even if you do decide not to put the content in but use the discussion groups.

Against: The question is whether current commercial systems meet the needs of teaching and learning, and I think we haven�t really looked at the needs, but they are very diverse. I think that all of the arguments I have heard in favour are yes, we are using them, we are using them with lots and lots of students, but the question is what does that mean � sufficient - and the only arguments I have heard so far this afternoon is its blended learning and therefore, we are using it for certain kinds of facilities or for certain purposes to meet certain needs but not all needs.

Now it doesn�t say here to meet some of the needs of higher and further education � it says the teaching and learning needs. So I think that anyone who has argued in favour so far, as far as I have heard, has just said well its good for delivering content and we have got discussion groups. But I think there are different types of learning which require more than just those things, so if you contrast in medicine for instance, bedside manner against learning anatomy. Well you may use it for learning anatomy, but I can�t quite see yet how you use a VLE to help people developing good bedside manner. In philosophy courses where you might want people to engage in ideas and you want to help them integrate new concepts in their own thinking, the current VLEs are not very well tuned to do that. You can do it, but it�s an effort.

I think this is another issue that is not really raised. How much does the teacher have to put in order to do it, how much furniture moving or how much do they have to write to set that up. How easy is it to set the thing up whereas, perhaps teaching statistics might be easier in a current VLE . So I think we have to look at the range of needs and then also if we think about the number of users � there are certain amount of learning by individuals, you have to sit down and do it by yourself, but a lot of it as we have all been saying also requires multiple people engaging together, and what really happens in learning is that those interwoven and quite complicated ways, you don�t say either do this discussion or do the content. We do some E-Learning on our own then come together and then you might want to engage in different kinds of activities, which are more than just discussion. What about a virtual design environment for architects or for civil engineers � there�s that kind of stuff. What about role-playing for business students for instance, it�s not so easy to support complex role-plays with current systems. So I think there are a number of needs that are clearly not being met and it�s not sufficient just to say well we are using them for certain needs.

I think the point was well made by somebody from Edinburgh that it�s very good for getting you going. Yes, it�s like the nursery slopes, but very quickly you want to get beyond that and that very fact of just saying this means they don�t meet our needs. I think another factor to consider is that we are at a fairly early stage in the development of learning technology. It�s going to develop for sure, and its not just going to be just the user interface; it�s not just going to look different. Its going to be able to do and support different things, and anyone who thinks they are sufficient now is basically saying �full stop, these systems don�t need to develop any more � thank you very much they meet our needs�. I think that is completely wrong.

My prediction is that the current VLE is going to explode into lots of little pieces, and the reason is that currently they are the jack-of-all-trade. Yes they have a discussion group, but its not a very good one, there are better specialised systems. Yes it has mail, but its not a very good one, there are better e-mail systems around. Yes, it has content management systems, but most of them are terrible and you can have a lot better ones. Yes, it has some sort of learning profile, but it�s not a very good one. Yes, it has some test capabilities, but it is not a very good one. So that�s what you get it�s a jack-of-all-trades and a master of nothing usually, so we then get to see that some of the commercial systems like Blackboard are providing the building blocks. You can go and plug in a test engine � QuestionMark � and there are various other ones, and yes you can plug in a content management system because there is a better one. So what are we beginning to see? We are beginning to see the current VLE beginning to shrink and shrink and shrink because more and more plug-ins from specialist providers start to put in their components and ,therefore, we are coming down again to the interfaces. At the moment we have a proprietary interface, but here I would put in a plug for the OKI approach, lets get some open interfaces and we see all these things as services. Once you get that you can start to blend - we have been having this debate between commercial and open source. I think it�s a bogus debate. Actually what you want is the ability to mix and match the best and typically the commercial people will go for the most common ones � content management probably will be commercial because its very widely used. But something like a virtual design studio might be something you have too cook up yourself to begin with before that gets a wide enough thing. So we can begin to target our efforts, open source efforts, and they all have to come together through agreed open interfaces and I think the open interfaces then allow commercial and open source to work together. But I would say absolutely it is not the case that any system, open source or commercial, meets our needs we have a long way to go.

For (?): There are two points I world like to make; the first is to take a slight issue with the last speaker. I have, as a student, been presented with some excellent opportunities to learn which involved role play, for example, actually within a commercial VLE and I do actually think, and I come from medicine, that you can teach bedside manner using a commercial VLE if you have discussion groups, role plays in those discussion groups. There are very interesting things you can do with a VLE be it commercial or non-commercial. My other point is that I have had the misfortune as well to work within a non-commercial VLE, which unfortunately was not very good, and I put in a plea for commercial VLEs in that at least you knew that they work and they work properly. They may be limited, but what you get will work.

Against: I believe that the non-commercial product has been developed looking specifically at the student needs and support, and I believe that the students are often the driving force in their spread of a VLE throughout a university and that is why I would be against the motion.

Undecided: I would like to make two points against the motion and one for it. I don�t believe in coherence for I think that�s how people learn and I notice at the moment that the buzz word at the DFES is �coherence�, and one thing I have learnt at working in the public sector is that if the DFES agree on something they are almost certainly wrong. So the first point I would like to make is that I have worked on on-line initiatives to do with community learning, adult learning, community groups for learning, learning materials on formal learning and informal learning - all of which you have ignored, and for which I am very grateful. Thank you for that it gives me some freedom. The second point is there is a weird and dangerous group loose in this country who are trying to undermine education and they are called the Treasury. Because the Treasury only knows how to do one thing and that is to fund things, or to fund products, they completely ignore process. So I am writing papers called Information Ecologies For Community Groups For Learning and they are saying �no, we would like to fund something�. So they got the DFES to fund the buildings and the New Opportunities Fund to fund the teachers, or lecturers, or support workers. At the end of the first round we noticed that there was no connectivity cost properly factored into this so we advised that connectivity is a revenue issue but the New Opportunities Fund said �no it�s a capital issue� the DFES said �no, its actually a revenue issue� so we went to the Treasury and said �there is no funding for connectivity for it is an on-line initiative. Can you find some funding for the connectivity?� Three months later the Treasury said �Connectivity is not an asset we are not going to fund it�.

So this is a point which is for the motion, which is that if you actually want some money to do some things then buy a VLE because the Treasury will understand that because it�s a thing that you can fund and actually if you take Hazel Henderson�s quote which is �technology is the essence of politics� then what you get is this nice big fat thing that gets thrown into the middle of things that becomes a change agent and you can start doing stuff with it. So that�s the point for it.

The final point is that, like the guy that was confessing at the back, I am a learning technologist, which I think is a wonderful thing to be and I love doing this, but you know in this country which is full of technophobes it is not a comfortable thing to be as we are not very keen on learning either. Being a learning technologist is slightly above being a Satanist, but we don�t have any cool clubs to go to. What I have got to do in my sector is work with people who are demotivated from learning because they have had bad educational experiences and we have no infrastructure. So a VLE is actually not a really good process to be involved in, but what we are doing is working on a number of interesting initiatives, and I like a lot of the stuff that Bill has being saying about how to put stuff on-line and we are actually part of a new initiative from the National Learning Network. The first thing that we are doing is doing road shows talking to people on the ground, who are using this stuff, to try and involve them in the design of the processes that we are involved in. One of the things that I am aware with VLEs is that they don�t have the metadata to map to the kind of pedagogic approaches that we are taking. They are very limited in the terms of the pedagogy, but one of the things we are trying to do is involve the people that are going to use the systems in the design of the systems so I would support the motion of having an open source of this and developing it that way. So what we say in our sector is actually context is King, because its about how you do it and who you do it with, not what you are using to do it.

Undecided: I am undecided because I am fairly new to this so I actually have a question and this partly relates to what the gentleman was just saying. Surely if the motion is about meeting users needs has there been any formal studies to see whether these products actually do meet users� needs and how the students are using them, and if they are being successful? If the product is going to be developed in the future surely some sort of a formal checking of what they are doing at the moment is necessary before they can be developed.

Tom Franklin: There are a vast number of studies many of them inconclusive. There are two websites, which I can�t quite get, but if you look for �not significantly different� and �significantly different� in your favourite search engine you will find a vast number of papers, I can�t remember the guy�s name, its classified under those two headings. So there is a lot of work being done, a lot of it very core by the person who has actually developed the course with �I had 12 students and ���� so a lot of it is a bit dicey, but there�s a lot of stuff in there and some of it is quite good.

Follow-up: Is there a conclusion either way?

Tom Franklin: More research is needed.

Follow-up: So I am still undecided then

Against: I just want to remind everyone that this not a debate as to whether you like an open-source product better than a commercial product. I support much of what has said by those people who are against the motion. I myself am against the motion, and I want to remind you that we have been told already that there are needs identified in this room for HE and FE, which are not being met by the present crop of commercial VLEs. It is not a question of whether there are opensource VLEs that do meet those; the point is there are VLEs out there, which are commercial, which do not meet these needs. It used to be that way as well because the majority of the commercial VLEs come from the CBT philosophy in terms of their design structure, so there are collaborative E-Learning needs that are starting to be built into the present generation of VLEs that were identified by researchers, academics, educationalists, who came to conferences, wrote papers and said �oh well there are a whole bunch of needs that you are not meeting in your VLEs. They are bad because of this�. So what happened? The commercial vendors started building in some collaborative features like discussion and said �Oooh look our products now supports collaborative E-Learning� They don�t - but at least they are shifting. The real point is that because there are needs being identified here and in other foru that they are meeting, you must be against the motion.

Undecided: Because I have been doing research and learning technology for over 10 years now I am suspicious of any initiative in learning technology, and what I sense here is that there seems to be an underlying argument that we seem to be dis-satisfied with VLEs, but open-source E-Learning standards is somehow going to be the answer. So I am going back to the question I really posed this morning. So what sort of initiative, empowering learning activities are better than what�s going on in current practice be facilitated by these movements in open-source. Can we have some concrete examples of novel and interesting or empowering learning activities, which will be produced, by the open- source E-Learning standards sort of school?

Oleg Liber: I think a lot of the things you talked about this morning you can�t do in VLEs. Now I think that is interesting � lots of things that have been around for a long time can�t be done in VLEs. Yet on the other hand you can still do those things. You can download LOGO from the Internet and use it, but you can�t do it in a VLE. So my view is that there are lots of tools around that people could use creatively but because I suppose we have integrated too early and we have gone for the bog standard, as Bill described the basic tools, which aren�t themselves very good examples of what they are trying to do, we assembled them and said �look this represents learning�. I don�t think there is currently anything that you can do in VLEs, which is very interesting, it�s rather boring. Now is it sufficient to be boring in higher and further education or maybe up to now it has been, but my view is it shouldn�t be?

For: We introduced a VLE a few years ago - a commercial one that is. Now we see that because they have eased down the nursery slopes of the VLE have helped them identify in fact the failings in their current practices and it is helping them realise that there are better ways of teaching even if they don�t use the VLE to do that and we would not have moved staff. We have got 86% of the staff at the University of Paisley using Blackboard. They are not stupid people, they have been teaching for 20 years they know what is the relative advantage in a teaching tool. If you look at Huddersfield, if you look at Durham, if you look at Newcastle, if you look at Hull, you will find the same pattern. Andy could tell us, the staff, that the percentages, I am not very familiar with WebCT, but I am quite sure that he has got similar percentages of people, professional academics who see relative advantage to their teaching and supporting of the student. To come back to the gentleman over here who agreed that it was impossible for this motion to ever fit the needs of any need we have in teaching and learning, but it does fit the need for where we as academics are to-day. It allows us to then to move on and that is the really important thing about commercial VLEs it allows academic staff to move from their current position on in terms of staff development particularly in pedagogic terms.

Against (?): The course I am involved with is a 100% on-line BA in Enterprise and my thought about commercial VLEs is that without VLEs we wouldn�t have a course, first of all, and we wouldn�t be able to give the E-Learning and teaching we do to non-traditional learners with disabilities, people with dependents who can�t get on campus to learn the way they would. But without the development team, without the extra facilities we have on top of the commercial VLE we use we wouldn�t be able to deliver our course. Commercial VLEs give us very basic communication systems, but we need to able to create courses which adapt the needs of that course so we create on-line games, we create chat rooms which just don�t have the ability to talk to each other but also have information which updates as people are talking so they can see on-line information coming in and can share this and talk about it too. The other problem too with commercial VLEs is that it�s about robust technology and unfortunately commercial VLEs often give us this.

Oleg Liber Summing up by the opponents of the motion:

I hope I didn�t give the impression that I thought that commercial VLEs were utterly useless, because I don�t think they are. I think they have their place and the passionate argument from Paisley that it helps the transitional process I think is a good one. However, I don�t think that argument is sufficient to say that commercial VLEs provide sufficient facilities for all the teaching and learning needs of our further and higher education � so they have their place. I think we should use them as long as they don�t cost us too much but I certainly, however, have great concerns about the great rush at the moment for institutions to say �we have decided what our VLE for all of our courses is�. I think that is a little bit previous. I think we need to take some time over this major decision. What I think we need to consider is that if you look at what is happening on the Internet, what people do on the Internet, it is actually very exciting. There are all sorts of new things emerging all the time. You actually engage with the kinds of practices that are springing up, the stuff that�s going on in chat rooms, some of it you may disapprove of, but in the terms of process there is exciting engagement happening on the Internet. Compare a VLE to the Internet and it is very boring. Now why is that the case? Is it simply because we have always done that, that we have always taken education and said �Right your life is very interesting but education has got to be a bit serious and boring� and so we have simply replicated that with virtual learning environments. I think if we do that that�s a tragedy. We are failing to benefit from the exciting potential that the Internet offers, and I look at commercial VLEs and I don�t see things, which are very exciting. I think a telling remark came from Andy Syson when he used the metaphor of listening to music. Now I think that�s a very weak metaphor, or a very revealing metaphor if you like, because if that�s what learning is about that you are sitting there and absorbing, just being completely passive and not interested in the technology just enjoying the music � I don�t think that�s what learning is about. I think learning is more like playing an instrument and I think people who play instruments spend a lot of time thinking about what instrument and so on and so forth. So I think that was rather a weak, and revealing, metaphor. There are two kinds of worlds that sort of emerge out of the arguments we have been having, one is this kind of homogenised world where everyone is using a kind of virtual learning environment There�s a designer who has made it look properly because lecturers don�t do good design so it all looks kind of pretty, the content is there, its sort of interesting, but not very interesting, there�s a rather boring debate despite of the best efforts of the moderator, this is a curriculum centred model. On the other hand you have got rather a messy world. A messy world where E-Learning is a struggle, where the exchange of ideas, where the development of new thoughts in people�s minds is a struggle between people it requires flexible tools, it requires things that don�t exist in current VLEs, maybe don�t exist at all as yet, but things that lecturers can get hold of and use to try and create that kind of engagement and excitement in learning. That�s messy. I am for the messy world of the internet because I think that�s where real learning happens and I think we have these two paradigms where we know what learning is we will do it fairly predictably we�ll deliver our courses, we�ll stamp the certificate and say �off you go next course�. Then there�s the other world where E-Learning is a struggle and we will want to develop new ideas and get people actively engaged in the E-Learning process, not in absorbing content but actually learning to learn and engaging with new ideas. I can�t believe that anyone in this room can possibly think that current commercial VLEs can represent that second world. So again I strongly urge you to oppose the motion.

Tom Franklin summing up for the motion:

Quite a lot of interesting points made, but I guess one of the ones that worried me was this Maoist view that so many people have espoused from both over there and from the floor of �let a thousand flowers bloom and we will have wonderful VLEs'. But look at the open source systems that we have got actually what you end up with is one version. You actually end up with less variety. You get different flavours of line that�s assured, but you end up with one. You don�t end up with 37 different operating systems, or 37 different open source office systems, or 37 open source VLEs. You will end up with one, and it will probably be less good, and certainly less popular than the commercial ones so you have got a big problem there I think that you have to start worrying about now. People also seem to want to have a different a VLE here and a different VLE there so historians have one, and geographers have another and an English department has another perhaps. That�s fine for the teacher it puts them in control, its hell for the student because how do they actually link what they are doing in English with what they are doing in History, its compartmentalised. You have stuffed it in a compartment, this is your History VLE and you now can�t do English. So having lots of VLEs is going to cause you all sorts of problems there. I want to pick up on this homogenisation as well that has been harped on by one or two other people. Yea Word means that all papers that we produced read the same; all documents that we produced on our Word Processor are the same because we are using the same tool � no. All lectures are the same because we are all using lecture theatres � no. We can do whatever we want in an enabling technology not a limiting technology. What about cost? We have had a complaint about cost from Andy Booth, who clearly thinks we should actually do all our teaching in some cheap booth because you shouldn�t spend a lot of money on it � whether that�s a building or a VLE. �20 per student is too much and in fact I had a whisper from the left that they are paying something around a tenth of that, so either he�s a very bad negotiator or because he has his own home grown system he was desperate to get them to push the price up as much as possible to achieve his own things. But don�t say this building is the cheapest building, therefore, it will be fine. We have seen what happens with those, we have seen crumbling buildings, ones put up in the 50s and 60s as cheaply as possible, but really if you want to go as cheaply as possible please do all your teaching in a garden shed. I don�t know how many students you can get in a garden shed but it�s cheap. Finally lets come back to this motion �This house believes that commercial VLEs provide sufficient facilities for our teaching needs�. Not all commercial VLEs, but there are commercial VLEs out there that do, and clearly there are. I don�t think they are necessarily the most popular but there are some out there that will provide sufficient facilities, and it is only sufficient it is not to do absolutely everything you want, nor I hope will you do all your teaching with a VLE, but that the VLE is sufficient to meet your needs. Therefore, please vote for the motion.

On the show of hands the motion was lost.






Written by IT Services. Latest revision 26 February 2015