October 07, 2009

On wanting to see more daring institutions challenge their users

Taking risks
We invest millions in "technologies for learning" and often bypass those which are not explicitly designed for that "learning market", especially if this general purpose technology also happens to be free. iTunes U exists not because the iTunes Store itself is so terrible at attracting and sharing learning content - it's actually more successful - but because traditional institutions and those working in them want educational stuff to be labeled educational. Give us a tin that says it'll be good for us and we'll eat it, even if the contents are as sugary as the stuff sold in the other tins.

No, we prefer in eduland to use technologies which are slow-moving (the slower the better), costly and not interoperable with the 'realworld' technologies we use outside the institution (I'm still looking for the Virtual Learning Environment that bites the bullet and allows cross-postings to and from a kid's Bebo or Facebook profile).

Martin Weller sums up what we have settled for with most Virtual Learning Environments: they are to learning what PowerPoint has been to presention. In the hands of a (rare) maestro either tool adds value. In the hands of the rest of us, they tend to bore young people, relative to the other technological wonders to which they are used. Moreover,when an educator starts using either technology they stand a real risk of getting hooked on this low-grade drug of connectivity, without ever finding the high quality, more complex and engaging stuff that lies beyond:

I think what the VLE and Powerpoint have in common is that they are in the first wave of digital democratization tools.

Such tools can’t be too far removed from traditional practice, otherwise people simple won’t use them. So they provide a useful stepping stone onto a more digitally enhanced future (where it’s always sunny and everyone loves each other).

The danger with both of them is that they represent not a potential stage on a journey for many, but the endpoint. Their ease of use and similarity to existing practice is seductive in this sense, you don’t really have to change what you do much.

"We're boring the kids" is, unfortunately, an argument which, despite its powerful and valid reasoning, is too easily dismissed by beancounters and risk-averse compliance-obsessed decision-makers as something for which we can strive but never quite attain given the multitude of other, far more important concerns (two of which will always be the security and safety scapegoats, arguments for which they also strive, believe to have attained but actually never can).

Most Virtual Learning Environments would, in a consumer-led market (i.e. student-led market) not make it past the beta, and wouldn't interest any Angel or VC investor in further support - the market wouldn't bite when there are so many other ways of engaging with content and people online which are fun in so many other ways. They succeed largely down to, at worst, a laziness on the part of institutions, at best a reluctance to challenge their 'customers' or users to see the world differently.

Brian Kelly presents a compelling argument for not sticking to this Microsoft- and institution-led status quo in which we find ourselves. Brian is nervous about a world of institutionalised users using institutional equipment, software and services which are operated, developed, run and molded by faceless corporations, themselves happy with the ignorance of the user base in what lies beyond the current offerings from technology.

...If the initial evidence reflects a more general trend, we seem to be living in a world in which most users use an MS Windows platform to access institutional resources – they’re not interested in Linux, for example, despite many years of evangelism from the open source community. A computer’s a computer, just like a fax machine is a fax machine – only nerds care about what goes on underneath the bonnet.

But if this is true, what are the implications for accepting that we are in a postdigital age?  Don’t we then accept that our IT environment will be owned by the mega-corporations – Google and Microsoft. And let’s forget debates about device independence and interoperability – unless the mega-corporations feel such issues may provide a competitive edge.

It strikes me that the postdigital agenda is a conservative one, in which we are asked to accept that we (in our institutions and in our working environment) cannot shape our digital environment. And for me that is a worrying point of view which I don’t accept.

Update: There's another interesting, pedagogical aside, which shows not only that there might be 'postdigital' reasons like Brian's not to let Learning Management Systems or Course Management Systems (CMS) run over us willynilly, but that there are teaching and learning reasons, too. New research shows that by accepting the defaults of a CMS educators can find their pedagogy affected negatively, too, moving towards a more administrative bent:

The defaults of the CMS therefore tend to determine the way Web–novice faculty teach online, encouraging methods based on posting of material and engendering usage that focuses on administrative tasks.

Quite literally, teaching by checkbox?

Pic by James Jordan

Comments

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As an educationalist, I have often wondered what is more important? ‘what’ students should learn or ‘how’ they learn. Basics needs to be learned, there is no question about it. This is taught in the school and colleges. In addition, we need to teach the student the process of learning also. The chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." is very apt in explaining this. We need to help our students to develop an effective learning process and this will increase 'what' the students are learning.I am currently looking to create an collaborative environment students and teachers. To motivate a student to learn, we have to get him to like to learn.To get his interest we have to implement innovative learning processes in his learning routine like using quizzes, flash cards ,videos and photos to make learning more of a fun activity,in this way the child will be interested in learning and will memorize details also easily.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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