All 13 entries tagged E-Learning

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February 20, 2006

Michael Feldstein on iTunes U

Michael Feldstein recently paid a visit to Apple to learn about iTunes U, Apple's system for allowing universities to distribute content using iTunes as the infrastructure. He wrote six blog posts on the subject, and collectively they're interesting and insightful:-

What caught my attention about his posts is the idea that iTunes U need not be just about podcast distribution, but could in principle replace an entire VLE (or an LMS - Learning Management System – as they're known in the US):-

If you think about how the majority of classes in the majority of colleges use an LMS, itís primarily as a file sharing utility. Share the syllabus, share the handouts, share the assignments. iTunes U can serve this same purpose better than the typical LMS. You donít have to go through logins and click through multiple screens to find what you want. The content is organized in an easy-to-use, hierarchical offline tool. And if you use RSS feeds, students donít even have to explicitly log in to check for new documents; content is pushed right to their desktops whenever they are online and iTunes is open. As I noted in my last post, iTunes U supports PDFs, so teachers can send text documents as well as sound and video files. iTunes U even has a drop box and a sharing folder, so students can submit content to the teacher or to the class. If you supplement this capability with a discussion board and maybe a shared calendar, then youíve provided pretty much everything that the majority of web-enhanced classes use today. Youíve also greatly diminished the value of licensing a traditional LMS to cover the entire campus.

There's much more there about both the current limitations of Apple's system, and the possibilities it may offer for the future if Apple expand its functionality. Food for thought.

February 08, 2006

E–learning predictions

So, two reports containing predictions about e-learning futures. Do they agree, differ or cover completely different ground?

Report one is from the New Media Consortium, an international group of about 200 colleges, universities, museums and corporations who, they say, are "dedicated to the exploration and use of new media and new technologies". What do they predict?

The New Media Consortium

  • Social computing tools and processes are becoming more widespread and accepted. As the tools have matured, the practice of online communication and collaboration has increased.

  • Mobile technology, specifically MP3 players and mobile phones, as a delivery platform for services of all kinds.

  • Consumers are increasingly expecting personalised services, tools, and experiences, and open access to media, knowledge, information, and learning.

  • Collaboration is increasingly seen as critical across the range of educational activities. As the ways in which researchers, students and teachers can collaborate with each other increase, knowledge is becoming a community property, and the construction of knowledge is becoming a community activity.
  • Peer review and other academic processes, such as promotion and tenure reviews, increasingly do not reflect the ways scholarship actually is conducted.

  • Information literacy should not be considered a given, even among "net-gen" students. The skills of critical thinking, research, and evaluation of content, not to mention creative demonstration of mastery or knowledge, are needed more than ever; yet these very skills are underdeveloped in many students.

  • Intellectual property concerns and the management of digital rights and assets continue to loom as largely unaddressed issues.

  • The typical approach of experimentally deploying new technologies on campuses does not include processes to quickly scale them up to broad usage when they work, and often creates its own obstacles to full deployment.

  • The phenomenon of technological "churn" is bringing new kinds of support challenges. Clearly support needs are increasing; each new technology comes with its own requirements for support, of course, while the support needs of established technologies also remain.

Hmm. How about report number two? The Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness (isn't an alliance to foster competition a contradiction in terms?) have produced a report called What's next in Learning Technology in Higher Education?.

What's next in Learning Technology in Higher Education?

Their predictions include:-

  • Continued growth in Course Management Systems such as Blackboard and WebCT, in distance learning platforms, and more Internet technology on campus and in classrooms. (I'm hazy as to what's meant by "internet technology" or "distance learning platforms".

  • Tools intended to help students be more productive, such as note-taking aids, course materials organisational aids, aids to interacting with academic staff, e-portfolio tools to capture student accomplishments, and search engines optimised for academic content.

  • Pedagogical tools for faculty that can be used by the majority who do not wish to be "e-learning course developers", since taking the time to acquire specialised skills to deliver e-learning makes no sense for academics given their tight time constraints, their interests, or expertise.

  • Tools which assume that classroom or lecture theatre delivery will remain at the centre of the higher educational experience, and seek to provide benefits within that context.

  • Ways to better link students, faculty, and the administration. For example, tools to help faculty to monitor student study interactions to determine which materials are most difficult and why, tools that help faculty to self-assess their teaching, tools that help determine which courses, under what conditions, are having retention or other problems, and tools that allow students' attainment of learning objectives to be better tracked within the context of a course or a curriculum.

So our two predictors are really working different sides of the street. One of them is thinking about devices and technology, the other is thinking about ways to support the educational process. Of course these two things blur into each other, but the emphasis is clearly different. If this is your area, both reports are well worth a read.

December 13, 2005

Compulsory online learning

Writing about web page

According to this article in the Chronicle, the Michigan State Board of Education will approve a new graduation requirement today requiring every high-school student in the state to take at least one online course before receiving their diploma. Not because online learning necessarily offers a richer or better way to study, though:-

Mike Flanagan, the Michigan state superintendent of public instruction, said he proposed the online-course requirement, along with other general requirements, to make sure students were prepared for college and for jobs, which are becoming more technology-focused. "We don't want our kids left in the global dust," Mr. Flanagan said. "It's an experience we need to have."

Interesting idea. Online learning not because it's a better way to learn geography or chemistry or whatever, but because you need to know how to do things online.

November 28, 2005

Free online physics textbook

Writing about web page

While I applaud the intentions behind this project, I'm curious about the value of a 1,200 page PDF of a physics textbook.

This site publishes a free physics textbook that tells the story of how it became possible, after 2500 years of exploration, to answer such questions. The book is written to be entertaining, surprising and challenging on every page. With little mathematics, the text explores the most fascinating parts of mechanics, thermodynamics, special and general relativity, electrodynamics, quantum theory and modern attempts at unification. The essence of these fields is summarized in the most simple terms: it is shown how they are based on the notions of minimum entropy, maximum speed, maximum force, minimum change of charge and minimum action.

If it has little mathematics in it, then my presumption is that it wouldn't be hugely useful for degree-level physics, though I'd love to hear from any physics students on whether it seems to them to have value. I gather that A-levels don't have so much maths in them these days, so perhaps it would be helpful there. But I'm presuming that the real target audience is the interested layman; I just don't know how many readers there are who will discover this, want the information it contains, and either read it onscreen or print out the relevant chapters. I wonder how many readers there have been of this resource, as opposed to, say, people who bought a copy of "Physics for Dummies" or some equivalent.

November 21, 2005

Still Life with Chair Caning

Writing about web page

This is an interesting approach to the online presentation of learning materials. It's a recording of three people discussing a painting by Picasso, while at the same time they have the painting on screen and can use the cursor to move around it. As the discussion goes on, the image changes to show different aspects of the painting and different images and objects to compare parts of the painting to.

It's technically very simple; it was made with Camtasia which is a piece of software designed to record everything that happens on your PC's screen and let you overlay the recording with an audio commentary. So all that the authors had to do to prepare was to make sure they had a series of images lined up, then gather round the screen and talk, pointing things out on the images and moving between the images as they went along. But even though it's technically not complex, it's surprisingly effective. The authors talk about the project on their blog.

I wonder whether there are other disciplines where recording a discussion on top of a series of images would work well. And I also wonder how long it will be before you can download such image/audio combinations straight to your iPod or other media player.

November 01, 2005

Recording lectures

Writing about web page

Recording lectures is one of those topics which comes around and goes around regularly. When walkman tape players first became popular, it was all about audio recording; when home VCRs took off it was video recording; now it's streaming media on the web, or delivery to 3G phones, or podcasts.

But an interesting question to ask is, what are the parts of the lecture that you really want to capture? (Actually, the other interesting question to ask is "What do you want to record the lecture for?", but that's a different topic.) Generally, the assumption has been that the more you can capture the better. But I was interested in this article about a professor at Stanford who takes the view that he doesn't need to be in the picture at all:-

Actually we've been recording our lectures for quite a while. We would fix a video camera on the professor and on the overhead projector. What we ended up with was an extremely bandwidth intensive solution, actually a waste of bandwidth. They ended up with basically a video of my head. Technically speaking, it just wasn't realistic. The overhead quality of my annotations, which are most important, was poor and it meant I couldn't leave the podium, or for that matter, that particular lecture hall.

What he does now instead is use some software which records everything that happens in PowerPoint – slides, transitions, animations, annotations – and the audio of him talking. No in-class video at all. He uses a tablet PC, scribbles on his slides to show equations, graphs, etc. and captures just the on-screen activity plus his voiceover. He says:-

Now I bring up PowerPoint slides on my Tablet. My Tablet screen is displayed by the LCD overhead projectors we have in most lecture halls on campus. Lastly, I wear a microphone headset so all my audio is recorded along with the slides and whatever I write on the slides. It's very efficient and it's great to be portable. I can teach in any lecture hall on campus this way. When a student asks a question, I just repeat the question before I answer so it to is saved with the recording.

So he doesn't have to stick to a script, he can talk about and write about whatever he wants, and it's all recorded on to his laptop. When he gets back to his office, he just saves the resulting WMV file (though it could also be a Flash file using this particular piece of screen-recording software) to a web server, and that's the entire publishing process. I wonder if there are lecturers here who would be comfortable enough working in PowerPoint on a Tablet PC using the stylus for annotations (and wearing a microphone) to give this a go?

October 24, 2005

iTunes at Stanford

Writing about web page

Stanford University has done a deal with Apple to host a collection of audio files at the Apple iTunes store. Here's what the Stanford home page looks like in iTunes:-

You can look for yourself if you have iTunes installed by following this link. It's not entirely surprising that Stanford would be doing this, since they're located close to Apple headquarters, and historically they have worked with Apple on other projects. And in fact, they're not the only, or even the first, university to do this; Apple mentions Duke and Brown universities as other institutions which are distributing content via the iTunes store. And quite a few individual academics have created podcasts and distributed them via the iTunes store (try going to the Podcasts page of the store and then searching for "university").

So what kind of content are Stanford distributing? Here's a screen-grab of the lectures that are currently available:-

It's a mixed bag, but there's some reasonably heavyweight stuff in there as well as some more general-interest oriented content. So why would Stanford – or any HE institution – want to distribute content in this way? I think there are pros and cons:-

  • At the moment, they're clearly trying to reach not just current students, but alumni and anyone with an interest in the institution. But it would be perfectly possible to deliver content which is restricted to a smaller audience such as current students or just students taking a particular module.
  • Right now it's just audio. But as iPod screens get bgger and better, I bet that future iterations will include images such as PowerPoint slides or photos, or even video.
  • But isn't it a bit risky to distribute on such a locked-down platform? The iTunes store only works if you use the iTunes client and the client in turn only syncs with an iPod. So these aren't podcasts which just anyone can use; only iTunes using, iPod owning students can play. Bought a Sony MP3 player? Tough.
  • Set against that, though, is the beautiful end-to-end experience that using the iTunes store gets you; students will be able to subscribe to series of podcasts (eg. all the lectures in a course) and whenever iTunes starts up it'll go and look for new episodes and download them automatically, and when they plug their iPod in, the content will immediately be synced.
  • Plus they'll get the benefits of Apple's very well-distributed network to serve their content; Apple use Akamai to make sure that iTunes content is replicated at lots of servers around the world, so Stanford's content will presumably be similarly replicated.
  • It's not clear to me whether the content that's being created is being recorded specifically for distribution in this way, or whether they're just recording ordinary lectures and other teaching events. If it's the latter, then I wonder whether the absence of the blackboard or the OHP or the PowerPoint will matter. If it's the former then I wonder how easy it will be in the long term to keep academics enthusiastic about this additional task of creating iTunes content.

So I'm not sure whether it's a smart choice or not. The same content could have been delivered as podcasts from Stanford's own servers almost as easily, and then there wouldn't be this iTunes/iPod lock-in. But they've had some good press about the deal; more than any of the many institutions who make audio files of lectures available for download in the boring old-fashioned way. The test, I guess, will be in a year or so, if they're still going strong and have grown the library as much as they currently say they plan to.

October 13, 2005

Blackboard and WebCT to merge

According to this press release the two VLE vendors Blackboard and WebCT intend to merge. Hard to overstate what a big deal this is in the e-learning space; it's the equivalent of Microsoft and Apple merging, or Adobe and Macromedia… oh, wait.

Then again, how much difference will moving from two vendors to one really make? Institutions which switch from WebCT to Blackboard or vice-versa are very rare, because the cost and effort involved in migrating content is so great as to discourage the change in all but the most extreme scenarios. But it does mean that institutions considering a VLE for the first time will have essentially one commercial product available to them, without even the current possibility of weighing up the pros and cons of two competing systems, and perhaps using the existence of one as a bargaining tool with the other.

It also means, of course, that the arms race that exists when there are two companies competing with similar products in the same market will just disappear. The incentive to innovate will be gone, because there'll be no pressure to invent new features that the other guy doesn't have. And the next obvious consequence of that, I think, is that institutions should get ready, in a year or two, for some well-above-inflation rises in the annual subscription rates. If Monty Burns was CEO of Blackboard right now, he'd be rubbing his hands togther and saying "Eeeeeeexcellent…".

Slashdot has a thread on this which is interesting because there appears to be nobody who has used either system who has a good word to say about it, either in terms of its features and interface, or in terms of the engineering quality of the application.

September 12, 2005

VLE woes

Writing about web page

This is an amusing, if cautionary, tale about the fate of a home-grown VLE (presumably the Boddington system) at Leeds University. It starts out happily enough, with people doing local development work that met their own needs and the needs of their colleagues, but then descends into a mire of power struggles, takeover bids, and the eventual replacement of the local system with a commercial package - allegedly at a huge cost increase over the local package. It's a useful reminder that building tools which are useful and which users like is not necessarily enough; you have to build tools which are politically acceptable, and, as important but perhaps trickier, you have to build them in a way which is politically acceptable.

In some universities if you look at factors that affect the decision
making about software selection for VLEs, educational, technical and
practical factors are less significant than considerations of career
progression of the big players, rivalry between departments and the
constant drive for change – not for the benefits that change might bring
but to provide change managers with a steady stream of things to change
and take credit for. Nowadays a manager that manages steady evolution
of success based on success gains no kudos – change is required to show
off their skills and so they all want to be change managers. Discrete
periods of dramatic change can be neatly written up for a CV because
they have distinct beginnings, action packed middles and definite ends.
It's all the better if there is resistance to the change because it just
provides opportunities for the exercise of higher level change
management skills.

June 13, 2005

3G lectures

According to, er, the Daily Mirror, Coventry University are planning to send lecture videos to students' 3G phones.

Lessons are filmed using digital cameras, edited down into 15-minute segments, then sent to students with 3G phones.

I wonder whether the lectures are specially designed to work well in 15 minute segments, or whether they're just ordinary ~55 minute lectures that you watch in four sequential parts. I wonder whether the lecturers need to do anything special to make themselves filmable – stay in one place, wear a mic, don't wave your arms about, ease off on the herringbone jackets, that sort of thing. But more than anything, I want to know what the whiteboard looks like on a 2 inch diagonal phone at, what, about 240×170 pixels or so.

Mr Fricker, of Coventry University, added: "We are running our first pilot and results are stunning. Students are thrilled at receiving up-to-date information that keeps them in touch. Hopefully this technology will be developed not only at a national level but internationally as well.

Ha. Students are thrilled not to have to get out of bed, more like. I wonder if there'll be a follow-up story in about a month's time: "Students go into coronary arrest when they open their phone bills".

August 16, 2004

The seats are bolted to the floor

Writing about web page

My new favourite analogy for VLEs:-

The analogy I often make with Blackboard is to a classroom where all the seats are bolted to the floor. How the room is arranged matters. If students are going to be having a class discussion, maybe you put the chairs in a circle. If they will be doing groupwork, maybe you put them in groups. If they are doing lab work, you put them around lab tables. A good room set-up canít make a class succeed by itself, but a bad room set-up can make it fail.

That's dead right. You can change the appearance of BlackBoard, you can turn its various functions on or off. But you can't escape the fact that it's got a pedagogy built right into it, and the pedagogy is US-based and centred around the role of the instructor (and I say instructor rather than teacher or academic deliberately).

Student autonomy

Writing about web page

Content is the seed crystal on which interactions accumulate…

(and by interactions the author is describing the ways in students can learn collaboratively with each other rather than in a traditional, teacher-led style.)

That's an elegant description, I think, of the way we are starting to think about the tools we would like to provide to support e-learning. We aren't, or shouldn't be, in the business of trying to create online content which mimics, or duplicates, materials which are already well-delivered via a textbook or a lecture. Content online needs to serve different purposes, to trigger other processes, rather than being an end in itself.

July 14, 2004

E–learning is the VLE!

Writing about web page

A thoughtful article from the always-reliable Auricle e-learning blog.

Select a senior member of faculty or the executive and ask them to tell you about e-learning in the institution. The chances are that early in the response will come back the name of whatever VLE; "Of course we've got e-learning – we've got product xyz to prove it!"

And a related point which I've personally observed to be true at various institutions:-

How much so called e-learning is really a proprietary VLE being used as a convenient content repository? If so, such services should surely be provided by simpler systems not attracting annual licensing fees?

It's a delicate balance between politics and pedagogy. Sometimes it could actually be politically advantageous to be able to simplify the e-learning equation down to "E-learning = VLE". But you'd have to be pretty indifferent to the actual costs, needs and benefits involved in e-learning to regard that as a factor which could override actually implementing the right tool(s) for the job.

Footnote: Referenced in the article is an absolutely excellent paper called "A technical framework to support e-learning". It's a Word document and can be found here; it's insightful, well worth a look and makes me revise my previously hardline "JISC don't do anything useful" stance. More on the paper later.

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