Love, Faith, Hope & Charity – the future of the OU

I’ve had a draft of this post kicking around for a while now, but after today’s news that Open University Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks has resigned, it seems now is the time to publish it. I won’t go into specific suggestions about policy or strategy (but, hey, I have lots of those!) because that is too internally focused and not of interest to most people outside the OU. Instead I want to focus on more cultural, generic issues which, while brought to a very public head at the OU, are pertinent to many in higher ed I believe. I’m going to couch these in terms of Love, Faith, Hope and Charity. If the OU senior management can make steps to addressing these more fundamental (dare I say, emotional) issues, then the OU will return to be a functioning, forward looking institution at the heart of the UK higher education system. But, if it’s permissible, I do offer a general recommendation for each (all this for considerably less than £2.5 million).

First of all, many people will interpret his resignation as confirmation of their own beliefs. It’s not my intention to tell anyone what the ‘correct’ interpretation is, but for me, I feel it would be a mistake to argue that it means change is not needed, and we shouldn’t do more online provision. We are not returning to bearded men wearing kipper ties on BBC2 at 3am anytime soon. But while I expect there will be a big inquisition now as to which parts of the transformation project continue, here is my take on the more high level issues that will create the culture for the OU to realise that.

Love – one positive outcome of the recent public crisis has been the outpouring of support for the OU from students, staff and the wider public. This in itself represents an opportunity. But I want specifically to focus on the devotion staff feel to the organisation. In our staff survey, affiliation with the mission of the OU and its role is always very high. It is trust in senior management that has plummeted in these surveys to an all time low. Working at the OU over recent months has felt like being trapped inside an episode of W1A directed by Franz Kafka. We have had repeated reorganisations, strategic directives, consultancies and reallocation of priorities. No-one knows what they are doing anymore or where it is heading. It has led to complete paralysis. Ironically, the press has occasionally framed this as a pro vs anti-change struggle, but for many the frustration is more that the obsession with managerialism has led to no change.
To put this in terms that finance managers might appreciate – the devotion of staff to the organisation is a valuable resource. It is literally worth millions to the OU in terms of extra labour, free publicity, innovative ideas. This resource has largely been squandered on initiatives that have produced no discernible benefit. You don’t get to put Students First by putting Staff Last.
Recommendation: The priority for a new regime is to win back that love and trust, and to treat it like the precious resource it is.

Faith – I have moaned before how higher education seems to hate itself. Too often the OU has been bedazzled by the opinions and views of those outside higher ed. We spent millions on consultants who knew little about higher education and less about the OU to tell us how to be a better Open University. Not only is this wasteful, but the message it sends is that we don’t trust our own staff to know what is required. Whilst there are some OU staff who will always resist change, most are keen to embrace it and understand the financial situation that the introduction of fees have created. In the second of our major strategic directives 13 Big Shifts were identified (needless to say, everyone immediately started referring to them as the Big Shits. That no-one in senior management could have predicted this was telling in itself). The first of these talked about focusing on the “Business to Student (B2C)” market. Firstly, what did they think we had been doing all this time? Secondly, this reveals a lack of understanding of higher education. No-one enters academia because they want to focus on a “B2C market”. This was the opening line – not students, education, or mission. Compare this with the opening of the Athabasca University review (conducted by a third party academic):

The university has significant problems,… Change is necessary, in my view, but the path forward that I envisage builds on the university’s history and original mandate. The AU community of scholars, students, staff members and community stakeholders is passionate about their institution and its role in Alberta society. There is considerable appetite for constructive change.

This recognises the need for change, builds on the university’s history, offers hope and speaks in a language all staff can buy into. I bet it cost a lot less too. Senior management need to trust their staff and to demonstrate that trust for any large scale change to occur.
Recommendation: Engage with staff and students on clear, practical changes and communicate in language that is appropriate for a university.

Hope – The introduction of fees has hit part time students hard. It has caused a dramatic drop in OU registrations, no organisation can accommodate that drop in income and maintain business as usual. This has created the climate for the much vaunted change. The financial situation was not as dire as depicted however. The amount the OU was below the break even line was pretty near to what we were investing in FutureLearn. If you took that out then the narrative would be less about the need for complete overhaul, and more about introducing some strategic, and deliverable projects. Staff are willing to sign up for change when presented with evidence, but there needs to be a definite end point to it, and some early results. Simply rearranging the words “digital”, “disruption”, “revolution” and “cloud” in various sentences doesn’t offer that. You can only go to the “major change” well so many times, so like staff devotion, be sure when you want to do it, and have clear, manageable deliverables.
Recommendation: Implement no more than three major practical projects simultaneously, all with clearly defined goals, and realisable within 1 year.

Charity – The OU is a registered charity but at times it seems to really want to be an edtech business, to be the Facebook of learning. We have poured millions into FutureLearn, which increasingly looks like a vanity project, while closing regional centres. As mentioned previously, we prioritise managerial expertise in other sectors over higher education knowledge. We need to stop viewing (or listening to people who view) Higher Education as a problem that needs to be fixed, as if it is the same as increasing the sale of baked beans. Instead of trying to be something it’s not, the OU should get back to being the wonderful thing it is. This is best done by letting staff get on with teaching, and the managerialism being as much in the background as possible, instead of being foregrounded in every single functioning unit.
Recommendation: Focus on improving core university functions in an incremental manner.

I don’t know what the future of the OU holds, or if I’ll have a part in it. But I do think the current crisis has given us a renewed focus on retaining our position and mission in UK and global higher education. With some understanding management it can easily assure it’s next 50 years, and be in a good place from this current situation.

25 Years of EdTech – 2003: Blogs

Whatever happened to blogs eh? What kind of poor, deluded, stuck in the past has-been would still keep a blog? In my 25 Years of EdTech series we’re now at 2003. Elearning is A Serious Thing, with standards, platforms, policies and strategies. Blogging developed alongside these more education specific developments, and was then co-opted into ed tech. In this it foreshadowed much of the web 2.0 developments, which it is often bundled in with.

Blogging was really just a very obvious extension of the web. Once anyone could publish, they would inevitably start to publish diaries. This speaks more to the immutability of human communication than new technology – give people a communication medium and they’ll start writing diaries. Blogging emerged from just a simple version “here’s my online diary” with the advent of feeds, and particularly the universal standard RSS. RSS meant you could subscribe to anyone’s blog and get regular updates. This was as revolutionary as the liberation that web publishing initially provided. If the web made everyone a publisher then RSS made everyone a distributor also. And if you ever picked up hand printed Socialist Worker leaflets outside a Billy Bragg concert on a rainy Wednesday in Hammersmith, then you understood that distribution was where the real power lay.

Once this was in place, then people swiftly moved beyond diaries. What area (from news about newts to racist conspiracy theories) isn’t impacted by the ability to create content freely whenever you want and have it immediately distributed to your audience? Blogs and RSS type distribution were akin to everyone being given superhero powers. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – they’re all the brattish, ungrateful children of blogs. It’s not really surprising that in 2018 we’re wrestling with the implications of this. Imagine if Superman had a zombie virus and passed on his powers – it’d cause a lot of shit to happen, good and bad.

In 2003 I think I tried my first abortive attempt at blogging – it would take another couple of attempts before it stuck in 2006. John Naughton was my blogging father – in 1999 he had shown me a homemade system he’d developed to do a daily online HTML journal, and it was through him that I became aware of the work of Dave Winer and the nascent Radio UserLand blogging platform.

If I had a desert island EdTech, it would be blogging, and that is not just in a nostalgic sense. No other educational technology has continued to develop, as the proliferation of WordPress sites attests, and also remain so full of potential. I’ve waxed lyrical about academic blogging many times before, but for almost every ed tech that comes along, I find myself thinking that a blog version would be better: e-portfolios, VLEs, MOOCs, OERs, social networks. Sometimes it’s like Jim Groom and Alan Levine have taken over my brain, and I don’t even mind. I still harbour dreams of making students effective bloggers will be a prime aspect of graduateness. Nothing develops and anchors your online identity quite like a blog.

When is widening participation not widening participation?


The Higher Education Policy Institute released a study today that ranked universities by their widening participation stats. You’d expect Russell group unis to do poorly in this, but I bet the Open University, a provider set up to specifically address WP will do well, right? Except, they didn’t include it. I got into an exchange (HEPI Twitter is feisty!) on this, where they defended their methodology. But this was itself revealing, they replied to my criticism about the OU’s exclusion saying:

“To be clear, there is not a valid way of including it in this study as Polar focuses on young people, the data was sourced from UCAS etc etc etc. Much dodgier to wrench an institution in just because we think it might do well. You’ll find lots about the OU on our site elsewhere.”

POLAR as a measure of recording WP is flawed, particularly if you want to measure mature students. The TEF recognised this by including IMD data this year (this also has issues, particularly for inner city where postcode can include widely varying incomes, hence they include both). The message from HEPI seems to be that it’s your fault if you don’t fit their methodology. But inherent in the methodology are assumptions that undermine the very point of the study I think (I should note that HEPI strongly disagree with me, saying that was not the intention of this study).

This report focuses on traditional universities (Birkbeck is similarly noticeable by its absence), and traditional students (young, campus based). If your aim is to argue that widening participation is an important metric (they are sort of promoting a WP league table), then that message is entirely undermined if your definition of WP is, ironically, too narrow. A study that showed how providers who focus on WP perform would be more powerful. This one seems designed to get headlines (it succeeded in that), over making a valuable contribution to the WP agenda. If your methodology is excluding institutions that everyone thinks should be included, maybe it’s worth looking at that method? That’s what I’d be telling a PhD student embarking on this study. The report is titled “Benchmarking Widening Participation”. This has the intention then to become a useful metric, and if so, the exclusion of widening participation institutions from the outset is not just annoying, it’s potentially damaging.

[UPDATE – I extended this post for an article in Wonkhe]

25 Years of EdTech – 2002: Open licences & OER

(As much as I love OER, this is a crap logo)

This is part of the ongoing 25 Years of Ed Tech series

Now that the foundations of modern ed tech had been laid with the web, CMC, elearning, wikis, etc. the more interesting developments could commence. For 2002 I’m going with Open Educational Resources (OER). In the preceding year MIT announced its OpenCourseWare initiative which marks the real initiation of the OER movement, but it was in 2002 that the first OERs were released, and people began to understand licences (MIT would adopt Creative Commons in 2004). MIT’s goal was to make all the learning materials used by their 1800 courses available via the internet, where the resources could be used and repurposed as desired by others, without charge. At the time it caused a real stir, and lots of unis wished they’d got there first.

I covered the idea of Learning Objects earlier, and how they had taken their inspiration from reusability in software coding. The software approach, and in particular open source software also provides the roots for OER. The open source movement can be seen as creating the context within which open education could flourish, partly by analogy, and partly by establishing a precedent. But there is also a very direct link. David Wiley cropped up in the piece on Learning Objects, and he provides the bridge to OER through the development of licences. In 1998 he became interested in developing an open licence for educational content and contacted pioneers in the open source world directly. Out of this came the open content licence, which he developed with publishers to establish the Open Publication Licence (OPL).

The OPL proved to be one of the key components, along with the Free Software Foundation’s GNU licence, in developing the Creative Commons licences, by Larry Lessig and others in 2002. These went on to become essential in the open education movement. The simple licences in Creative Commons allow users to easily share resources, and wasn’t restricted to software code. Key to the Creative Commons licences are that they are permissive rather than restrictive. They allow the user to do what the licence permits without seeking permission. These licences have been a very practical requirement for the OER movement to persuade institutions and individuals to release content openly, with the knowledge that their intellectual property is still maintained.

OER has become a global movement since these early days. It has not transformed education in quite the way we envisaged back then, and many projects have floundered once funding ends, but through open textbooks and open educational practice (OEP) it continues to adapt and be relevant. I keep waiting for it to be the next major breakthrough, and I sometimes wonder what could have been achieved if OER had the funding that MOOCs received. But then it is a very different beast, embedded less in the silicon valley approach to education and more grounded in teacher practice. OERs are Mr Darcy to MOOCs George Wickham.

The general lessons from OER are that they succeeded where Learning Objects failed because they tapped into existing practice (and open textbooks doubly so). The concept of sharing educational content with a licence that doesn’t restrict this is alien enough, without all the accompanying standards and concepts associated with LOs. You need the component parts to slot into place: in this case the digital platform, open licences and the concept of sharing educational content. Also, you need patience, educational transformation is a slow burn. And get yourself a David Wiley if you can.

Social media, the academic & the university

If you follow me on Twitter you may be aware that it’s been an eventful weekend. The Vice Chancellor of the Open University made some injudicious remarks dismissing what OU academics did as “not teaching”. He has since apologised, and suggests he was trying to make a different point (that OU academics used to have direct contact with students through summer schools but now don’t, and a more online focus could reinstate that contact. This I agree with and have been promoting the benefits of online events since making the annual OU conference open and online in 2010). The point of this post is not to discuss the statement, but rather to reflect on the relationship between the online academic and their institution.

I am, in general, stupidly loyal to the OU, which means I don’t criticise it publicly, although I fully understand why colleagues do (and arguably, their public criticism is being more loyal as it seeks to protect the integrity of the institution). But as these comments had been made in a semi-public forum (an online webcast to students which was put on the intranet), and my interpretation was that they were a dismissal of my, my colleagues and the OU’s entire history (although I should stress the apology seeks to rectify this interpretation), I felt justified in making a public announcement on Twitter:

So I transcribed the comments and set out a thread detailing my objections to the comments. That thread went semi-viral (around 50,000 views), and was picked up by the Times Higher.

Which brings me onto the delicate relationship between a university and the academic with an online profile. The OU has been very positive in promoting and encouraging academics to develop online profiles. It recognises the power and value of these to the institution. I am generally happy to retweet OU news, job adverts, promote research findings of colleagues and cheer awards we receive. But it’s a double edged sword for an institution, as the events over the weekend demonstrate that a story can quickly escalate.

I would like to acknowledge that the VC and the OU comms team behaved impeccably, despite this being a story they could have done without. They have not asked me to amend my post, or placed any pressure on me to withdraw it, or threatened me with sanctions (as one hears at other institutions). They have respected the freedom of expression by academics.

On a personal note it has also been rather double-edged also. The comments in replies and many others via email and DM expressing support, and admiration for the OU have been truly powerful. I had a big dose of self pity on Sunday, and the support from my network was important. This may sound sentimental and like an old hippy but I view the OU like a close family member. When it’s in trouble, I feel that acutely and on a personal level. At the same time each retweet is a little dagger to my heart as it spreads a negative image of the institution I love. And some responses have interpreted it in a manner I didn’t intend (who knew such a thing could happen on Twitter, right?). For instance, this is not saying online education is bad, or that central academics don’t respect associate lecturers. And these misinterpretations increase in likelihood the more the tweet spreads.

I don’t have an easy take-away from this, and that is the take away in itself. The relationship between staff and the university is altered by social media. This has benefits for both, but also potential hazards, so both sides need to be careful how they negotiate it. A tweet is like setting a dog loose in a shopping mall – it might go to sleep quietly in the corner, it might be cute and get adopted, it might make people happy, perhaps it poops in the Ann Summers shop, or it might go on a rampage and bite someone. It’s a strange and unpredictable power.

25 Years of EdTech – 2001: e-learning standards

This post effectively brings together two preceding ones, namely elearning and learning objects. By the turn of the millennium, elearning was everywhere. The internet was no longer dismissed as a fad, and you could make yourself a guru by spouting a few homilies about the death of distance and the like. After the initial flurry of activity, typified by a wild west approach to creating your own website (I’d like to say that academics have a flair for website design, but, erm, we really don’t), there was a necessary, if slightly less fun, concentration of efforts. This meant developing platforms which could be easily set up and run elearning (oh, yes, we’ll come to VLEs later), a more professional approach to the creation of elearning content, the establishment of evidence (which generally found there was no significant difference), and initiatives to describe and share tools and content.

Enter elearning standards, and in particularly IMS. This was the body that set about developing standards to describe content, assessment tools, courses and more ambitiously, learning design. Perhaps the most significant standard was SCORM, which went on to become an industry standard in specifying content that could be played in VLEs. Prior to this there was a lot of overhead in switching content from one platform to another.

Perhaps the standard that brings any ed tech people out in a sweat is that of metadata, and particularly the Dublin Core. This was used to describe a piece of content (such as a learning object) so that it could be discovered and deployed easily, and hopefully automatically. The reason that mention of Dublin Core still induces wry chuckles is that at the time it was largely human derived (the always prescient Erik Duval used to preach “electronic forms must die”). You spent ages crafting a nice activity and were then presented with 27 fields of metadata to describe it, which often required more effort than the initial content. This was obviously not an approach that would scale. And some of the fields remain a mystery to this day (semantic density anyone?). As well as simply being a pain, this level of description also became restrictive, in that it seemed to define exactly how the content should be used.

As a nostalgic aside – if you currently bemoan your VLE usability, tender me your sympathy when around this time I was developing one of the pilot courses for the ill-fated UK eUniversity. This built a whole new platform, based around learning objects. Every object needed to have metadata entered by hand. If you made a change to the content, for example correcting a typo, the nascent platform lost all the metadata and you had to enter it all again. So don’t come crying to me about your Blackboard!

Elearning standards are an interesting case study in edtech. I must admit that after being quite heavily involved around this period, I lost track of them. But that in a sense is a sign of their success. Good standards retreat into the background and just help things work. But it’s also the case that they failed in some of their ambition to have easily assembled, discoverable plug-n-play content. The dream was that you’d type in “Course on Burt Bacharach” and it would automatically assemble the best content, with some automated assessment at the end. This wildly underestimated the complexity of learning (and overestimated the good quality Burt Bacharach learning objects). So while the standards community works away effectively, it was surpassed in popular usage by the less specific, but more human approach to description and sharing that underlined the web 2.0 explosion. But (as they used to say at the end of Tales of the Riverbank), that is another story.

25 Years of EdTech – 2000: Learning objects

(In 2000 these diagrams were Hot Stuff)

In my previous 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.