25 Years of EdTech – 2000: Learning objects

(In 2000 these diagrams were Hot Stuff)

In my last post in this series, I focused on elearning, and its shift into the mainstream at the end of the 90s. This was accompanied by new approaches, often derived from computer science. One of these that gained prominence was learning objects. The concept can be seen as arising from programming – object oriented programming had demonstrated the benefits of reusable, clearly defined pieces of functional code that could be implemented across multiple programmes.

Learning objects seemed like a logical step in applying this model to elearning. As Stephen Downes argued:

“there are thousands of colleges and universities, each of which teaches, for example, a course in introductory trigonometry. Each such trigonometry course in each of these institutions describes, for example, the sine wave function. Moreover, because the properties of sine wave functions remains constant from institution to institution, we can assume that each institution’s description of sine wave functions is more or less the same as other institutions’. What we have, then, are thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions. …
Now for the premise: the world does not need thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions available online. Rather, what the world needs is one, or maybe a dozen at most, descriptions of sine wave functions available online. The reasons are manifest. If some educational content, such as a description of sine wave functions, is available online, then it is available worldwide.

This made a lot of sense then, and it still makes a lot of sense today. Step forward then, the idea of learning objects, with a rough definition of “a digitized entity which can be used, reused or referenced during technology supported learning” (more on definitions later). A lot of work accompanied the learning object gold rush: standards were developed to make them reusable, platforms were built to deploy them, content was produced in their style, and papers were written about them.

But they never really took off, despite the compelling rationale for their existence, that Downes and others set out. Their (or our) failure to make them a reality is instructive for all ed tech I feel, and they are something I frequently reference when we’re discussing new technologies. So, here is my list for why learning objects failed (although, to be honest, this video interview with Brian Lamb is a better account):

Overengineering – I’ll cover standards in another post, so won’t say much here, but in order for LOs to work like software objects, they needed to be tightly standardised. This version of the LO dream went beyond Downes’ sine wave simulation, and had as its dream courses that were automatically assembled on the fly from a pool of LOs for a personalised, just in time learning experience. For this to be reality you really needed to make those LOs machine friendly, and so they became so overengineered and full of accompanying metadata, that no-one would create them, and they lost any sense of being an interesting subject for educators to engage with.

Definition debates – related to the above, the ed tech field debated endlessly what a learning object was. I mean, every paper started with their own definition. It was exhausting. For some it was ‘anything that could be used in a learning context’. This could be a photo, but it didn’t even have to be digital, it could be a stone. Which is fine, but doesn’t really get you anywhere. Other definitions were more general but specific to digital, and others had tight definitions around having a learning objective or meeting a specific standard. The problem this highlighted was twofold: Firstly, it highlighted the academic obsession with definitions to the point where most discussions degenerated into two men (it nearly always was men) shouting definitions at each other across a conference hall until everyone left and went to look for doughnuts. Secondly, the more specific definitions helped you decide what an LO was but ended up excluding too much, while the general ones included too much. The definition problem hinted at a more fundamental issue with LOs, which is next on the list.

The reusability paradox – David Wiley (it was through learning objects that I first encountered David, so they’re not all bad) got to the heart of the problem with LOs, and particularly the vision of automated assembly with the reusability paradox. He argued that context is what makes learning meaningful for people, so the more context a learning object has, the more useful it is for a learner. But while learners want context, machines don’t – in order for them to be reusable, learning objects should have as little context as possible, as this reduces the opportunities for their reuse. This leads to Wiley’s paradox, which he summarises as, ‘It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another.’

An unfamiliarity threshold – we wanted LOs to be like reusable code, but the concept of sharing chunks of code was already familiar before it got formalised in object-oriented programming. And even then you learnt the concept as part of the language. LOs never achieved this for education, so the very idea seemed quite alien to many teachers, and particularly in terms of digital content. It began to look less like an ed thing and more like a tech thing. And you’ll never reach critical mass if that is the case.

The world wasn’t ready – you could argue, that like so many things, it takes more than one go at these concepts, each one building a bit on the momentum of the previous one. LOs didn’t take off, but OER did (to a greater extent anyway), and open textbooks more so. It’s possible LOs are ripe for a revival (or because ed tech only does year zero, rediscovery).

Education is too messy – this is probably just reiterating Wiley’s point about reusability, but in coding the boundaries are fairly well delineated (cue laughter from software developer friends). But education doesn’t break down so neatly. Particularly once you get beyond neatly defined concepts. To take Downes’s example, a sine wave LO might be easily reusable, but pretty soon the way I describe and illustrate even a shared concept will differ for PhD psychology students to first year undergrad engineers, partly because you know what they want to do with it (Wiley’s context again).

Reluctance from educators – as well as being unfamiliar, there was also a reluctance to share their carefully crafted material. This persists with OER – there simply isn’t the same culture of sharing for teaching as there is for research. This is largely to do with reward structures – you get promoted for getting your research paper cited by 1000 people, you get sacked for giving away intellectual copyright relating to teaching (I’m overstating, but you get the point).

They didn’t fail – while LO repositories may not be competing with Google for web traffic, you could make the argument that they didn’t fail. As mentioned above, they sort of morphed into OER, which sort of gave rise to MOOCs, and a lot of the LO work fed into standardisation around platforms, assessment, and content transfer. Publishers (shhhh) probably took the LO idea to heart more than others and have a large number of subscribers who pay for elearning content that can be redeployed in their context. LOs may be a successful failure after all.

PS – I tweeted that I was going to post on this, and Brian Lamb pointed me to a recent post of his, which sets out the LO lessons better than I managed, but I can’t abandon this post now.

25 Years of EdTech – 1999: Elearning

(Look how happy elearning can make you!)

In truth, 1999 is getting a bit late to focus on elearning in my 25 Years of Edtech series. It had certainly been in use as a term for some time, but it was with the rise of the web, and the prefix of ‘e’ to everything that saw it come to prominence. By 1999 elearning was knocking on the door, if not already part of, the mainstream. In a typical academic fashion we argued what we meant by it, and it was obligatory for one person at every conference to say in a rather self-satisfied manner “there’s already an e in learning”. But it was a useful term, as it highlighted the profile of online components (and as a previous post suggested, exploration of accompanying pedagogies).

I’m also making it the focus of 1999 because this was the year we developed T171 at the OU. I’ve talked about this before, but just to rehash, it wasn’t our first online course, but it was the first major online one. We wanted to explore what it would be like to deliver a course entirely online. No printed units, no accompanying material. We were frequently told that no-one would study this way. And of course, it turned out lots of people wanted to. The success of this course (some 12,000 students) almost overwhelmed the OU’s systems and we had to invent a whole new set of digital infrastructures and procedures to cope.

The point of this is that these students were keen to study this way and saw it as liberating, whereas most academics were reticent about its use, and frequently hid this behind concerns about students. I also raise it because a) the OU has been digital for a long time and b) large scale online courses weren’t invented in 2012. You will forgive me an excessive eye roll at the BBC breathlessly reporting that the University of London is going to offer a degree online. In 2018!

One of the interesting aspects of elearning was the consideration of costs. The belief was that it would be cheaper than traditional distance ed courses. It wasn’t, but it did see a shift in costs. You could maybe spend less in production (because you’re not making physical resources, and can reuse material) but you end up spending more in presentation (because you have support costs and more rapid updating cycle). This cost argument keeps reoccurring though, and was a big driver for MOOCs. It came as no surprise to those who had any history in elearning that this did not come to pass.

Elearning really set the framework for the next decade, most of which I’ll cover in subsequent posts, in terms of technology, standards and approaches. This period might be seen as the golden age of elearning in some respects, so sit back and enjoy the next ten posts or so.

PS – I would like to nominate “elearning” as the worst category for stock photos.

25 years of EdTech – 1998: Wikis

I think of wikis sometimes and it makes me a bit sorrowful. Perhaps more than any other tech they embody the spirit of optimism and philosophy of the open web. The wiki, a web page that could be jointly edited by anyone, was a fundamental shift in how we related to the net. The web democratised publication and the wiki made it a collaborative, shared enterprise. In 1998 wikis were just breaking through. Ward Cunningham is credited with inventing them (and the term) in 1994. I heard of them in 97 at an ed tech conference. I came back from that all enthused, I would accost people in corridors like the ancient mariner and shout “let’s make all our courses wikis!” People would mutter things like “quality control” or “we don’t have any online courses yet”. I should have persisted – we could’ve been the digital university 20 years ago.

Anyway, enough about me and the OU. Wikis were a hot topic for a few years, and were really groundbreaking. Remember at the time Encarta was a revolutionary take on the encyclopedia. Wikis had their own markup language which made them a bit techie to use, although later implementations such as Wikispaces made it easier (that Wikispaces closed a couple of weeks ago speaks to my sorrowful theme). With Wikipedia now the default knowledge source globally with over 5.5 millions articles (in English), it would seem churlish to bemoan that wikis didn’t fulfil their potential, but that is how I feel in terms of teaching. Wikis encapsulate the promise of a dynamic, shared, respectful space. I get sad just writing that now, thinking of the lack of those values in social media. With wikis this was partly the ethos behind them (named after the Hawaiian word for quick after all, I mean duuuuuude), but also their technical infrastructure. You can track edits, rollback versions, monitor contributions – there is accountability and transparency built in. Wikipedia has become something of a bro-culture but it’s less of a dumpster fire than Twitter.

But they didn’t really transform education to their potential, for instance, why aren’t MOOCs in wikis? It’s not necessarily that wikis as a technology have not quite fully realised their potential, but rather that the approach to ed tech they represent, has been replaced by a more broadcast, commercial, publisher model than a cooperative, process oriented one. Maybe education wasn’t ready to let go of control after all. Credit to OERu for persisting in the potential of wikis, and people like Mike Caulfield for advancing the thinking around federated wikis.

25 years of EdTech – 1997: Constructivism


In 1997 web based learning was getting a lot of traction, and with it people began to look around for new models of teaching. So for 1997 I’m not focusing on a technology, but rather an educational theory because there’s education in educational technology after all.

Constructivism was by no means new, dating back to Piaget, Vygostky and Bruner. The principal concept of constructivism is that learners construct their own knowledge, based on their experience and relationship with concepts. It’s a (sometimes vague) learning theory rather than a specific pedagogy, so how it is implemented varies. It was often put into practice by active learning, or discovery based approaches. The appeal of this for online learning was the sense that the web gave agency to learners. They could create, collaborate, discover for themselves, freed from the conventions of time and distance. When people can learn anywhere and anytime then the pedagogy designed for a lecture hall seemed limiting.

Just about every conference paper at the time opened with a piece on ‘student centred’ learning, and their constructivist approach. In reality this often equated to little more than ‘we gave them a forum’. And sometimes it could be an excuse for poor design, a reason for the educator to absent themselves from creating content because, hey, everyone had to construct their own interpretation. It also doesn’t work well for a lot of disciplines, quantum physics for example is almost entirely theoretical (and bloody bizarre), so bringing your own experience of quarks isn’t going to help. There was also a sense of snobbery about it, constructivism was the new kid, and all your old fashioned instructivist approaches are plain wrong.

But, even with these reservations, constructivism was significant because it showed educators engaging with technology in a meaningful, conceptual manner. It wasn’t about just the tech, but rather the possibilities it opened up for new pedagogy. It also marked the first time many educators engaged with educational theory – this was true for me certainly, I had come from an AI background, and although I had done psychology and knew my Piaget from my Bandura, these hadn’t really applied to adult education. It took technology to cause that reflection on practice. As the OER Hub found with the use of OER, this reflection on practice by educators is often one of the main, but unspoken, benefits of a new tech.

Why does education hate itself?

Idiot starts with a J :)

Here’s a news story that doesn’t happen: A bank has appointed a former university Vice Chancellor as their new CEO, because they feel the expertise in running an institution with longevity and stability is what’s required.

Ludicrous, right? And yet, the opposite occurs regularly. Higher education has an inferiority complex. It always feels like it needs to change, to be more like something else, to take radical lessons from elsewhere. But here’s the thing – education is not like newspapers, music, content industry, banking, software development or selling cars. It’s fucking odd, and unique. I mean, there are definitely things to be learnt from other sectors, just as every sector can learn from outside its domain. But books and music are more similar than education and entertainment, say, and even they are very different.

The point is, education has a lot to learn about operating in a digital age. But it seems to ignore learning from its own past (see my previous whinges about forgetting open education’s past), and prioritise what is perceived as more valuable, relevant knowledge from elsewhere. What this does is send a message that we in education don’t value it highly. Expertise in education can be picked up in a few weeks, it’s not like it’s important. The culture of higher ed is posited as a problem that needs to be fixed rather than something that has value. Guess what? I’m fed up with it. Here’s my new consultancy business pitch for higher ed: Education is different from other sectors. Education should trust itself.

25 years of EdTech – 1996: CMC

I’m revisiting the previous post on Bulletin Board Systems slightly here. One of the interesting things about this series is the way others are bringing great stuff to my attention. For instance, David Kernohan has covered much of this in better detail than I can (sometimes I hate that guy with all his knowledge stuff).

The reason I’m revisiting Bulletin Board Systems with the concept of Computer Mediated Communication is that it’s a good example of how a technology develops into a more generic educational approach. CMC became a popular phrase around this time and represents higher ed really beginning to engage with online tools in a theoretical, conceptual manner, comparable to the way they had with early developments in open education. CMC was, as David notes, particularly driven by a shift from text based systems to graphical interfaces. When I joined the OU we were using the FirstClass system. It allowed us to automatically allocate students to groups, set up groups with different permissions, sync offline, thread and structure conversations and allow a high degree of personalisation to users.

Such systems were forerunners to VLEs, both technically and socially. CMC systems made ease of use simple enough that the pedagogic benefits could be realised. This is again a recurrent ed tech theme – when the barriers to use of a particular tech become low enough (and in the case of smart phones, say, almost invisible), that its use can be generalised. From CMC we got online tutor groups, e-moderation, forums, conferences, and so on. For a long time these were the issues that concerned ed tech academics. It was online tutor groups for the OU that was particularly relevant. There were a number of courses that experimented with this before I got there. I tried implementing one on an existing course, which was an indication the software was becoming easy enough to use to expand to broader application, and that there was an appetite from some students for an all online experience. Gradually the viability of it as an approach gained credibility until it would be the norm (some 15 or so years later – we don’t like to rush these things).

If the benefit of the web was the removal of barriers to broadcast and publishing, then what CMC delivered was the ability to collaborate at a distance. This is arguably more powerful in education than the democratisation of broadcast, but it gets to the heart of different views about education. The use of the web to disseminate info cheaply (see also MOOCs) is the infinite lecture hall model. The use of the net to facilitate collaboration and discussion in groups at a distance speaks to a more student focused, less industrial model. In this we see another common theme – technology brings underlying beliefs regarding education into focus, and then gives them steroids.

Social media and the academic (through the medium of dog pictures)

Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash

I’m giving a presentation to OU staff on the use of social media. This was part of a broader social media training day, and they were interested in the potential impact of using social media. I chose to present it as a series of hypotheses. For many of these there is some evidence, but for a lot it is either very indirect, or we haven’t really gathered it yet. And just for the sake of it, I limited myself to only using pictures of dogs in the slidedeck. Because dogs.

The hypotheses (some are more just statements if I’m honest), were as follows:

  • Soc Med increases student recruitment
  • Soc Med increases student engagement
  • Soc Med increases student retention
  • Online identity is vital part of graduateness
  • We have a duty to develop expertise in fake news, etc
  • Soc med helps lead development of new pedagogy
  • Soc Med increases research impact
  • Soc Med reaches different audiences for your research
  • Soc Med is a valuable research tool/method
  • Soc Med is complementary to traditional scholarship
  • Soc Med gives new opportunities for ECRs
  • Online profile leads to collaboration
  • Soc Med is (relatively) cheap
  • Soc Med is fun?

I do then have a section on the dangers and downsides, lest the above seem a bit cheerleady. Framing it as hypotheses is a potentially useful way to approach for it academics. They can select from these which is most relevant for them and view their use almost as action research.

My presentation with all the dog pics you could want, is here:

25 years of EdTech – 1995: the Web

Before someone jumps in and says “actually the web was invented in 1989”, this series isn’t about when they were invented, but when I feel they became relevant in ed tech. So don’t be that guy. It’s now 1995, in my personal history this is the year I joined the Open University. At the interview I said “so have you thought about using the web to deliver courses?” I think they interpreted this as me knowing more about it than I did, but hey, I got the job. The web browser was becoming reasonably common now, with Netscape (*sniff*) dominating.

I won’t go all nostalgic about the early promise of the web, at this stage it was still techie and awkward to use. People regularly made proclamations that no-one would shop online, or that it was the equivalent of CB radio. Even at the time these seemed ridiculous, even if we couldn’t predict smart phones and ubiquitous wifi, being able to dial up and connect to information sources anywhere was always going to be revolutionary. And particularly for education. What the web browser provided (although it would take a few years to materialise) was a common tool so that specific software wasn’t required for every function. In this the browser was like HTML that underpinned it – it wasn’t as good as bespoke versions for any specific function but its generality made it good enough. I had this argument repeatedly with tech people at the OU, who would always point out the superior functionality of their favoured software tool. Good enough always wins out in popularity if you can make it universal (Facebook is another example of this).

Learning HTML was always going to be a barrier and web publishing tools such as FrontPage came along, before we all switched to Facebook pages or WordPress sites. But I recall the magic of running OU summer schools (which, ironically I and the web would help make redundant) where we taught people HTML, and got them to publish a page online. The realisation that anyone in the world could now see their page was a revelation. In this are the important aspects of what the web gave education – the freedom to publish, communicate and share. For distance education which had previously relied on expensive broadcast (the much loved OU BBC programmes for instance) or shipping physical copies of books, video and CDs, this was a game changer. It not only altered how single function institutions such as the OU operated, but it significantly lowered the cost of entry into the distance education market, so suddenly all other universities could now become distance ed providers. Of all the technologies I will look at in this series, the web is the one we are still feeling the impact of most keenly.

Now, excuse me, I’m off to listen to some modem dial up noises:

25 Years of EdTech – 1994: Bulletin Board Systems

Continuing my 25 years of Ed Tech reflections, it’s now 1994. The web is just about to break in a big way, and the internet is gaining more interest. One of the technologies that old ed tech hacks like me go all misty eyed over is the Bulletin Board System. These were popular for the nascent discussion forums online, and mark the first real awareness of education to the possibility of the internet. They often required specialist software at this stage, were text based and because we were all using expensive dial-up, the ability to synch offline was important.

At the OU (I was yet to join) they were experimenting with a couple of systems. While people such as Robin Mason could see their potential, they were still viewed as a very niche application. At the time the university needed to help people with the whole getting online process, dealing with unfamiliar software and advice on how to communicate online. That is a lot of academic real estate to use up in a course about, Shakespeare, say. So their application was reserved for subjects where the medium was the message. For distance education though the possibilities were revolutionary – they had the potential to remove the distance element. The only way students communicated with each other previously was at summer school and face to face tutorials. If we want to talk about the OU becoming a university of the cloud, then this is where it started.

The lessons from BBS are that some technologies have very specific applications, some die out, and others morph to a universal application. BBS did the latter, but in 1994, most people thought they would be in one of the first two categories. What was required for them to become a mainstream part of the educational technology landscape was the technical and social infrastructure that removed the high technical barrier to implementation. More of that in later posts.

[UPDATE – Will Woods reminded me that the early OU BBS was called CoSy]

The Digital Scholar – ebook file

I’ve been doing some writing on revisiting my 2011 book The Digital Scholar. I’ve also got a couple of presentations planned around it. But on checking I note that the imprint of Bloomsbury that published it, Bloomsbury Academic, is no longer functioning and the titles have been rolled into the main Bloomsbury catalogue. My previous links to the free version don’t work any more, and you have to dig pretty hard to find the free version on their site. I think open access publishing was something they experimented with when Frances Pinter was there, but now she has moved on to Knowledge Unlatched, they’ve quietly abandoned it.

Of course, the benefit of open access is that the destiny of my book is in my own hands, and needn’t die when a publisher changes tack. I own it. It’s strange that this is not the norm, I know. So, this post is really just a means of archiving my own book (on my own domain) for future reference. And of course, a reminder to read it if you haven’t done so.

Here it is then (only PDF & epub I’m afraid):
The Digital Scholar PDF

Digital Scholar Epub