Running, VLEs, e-learning and democratisation

Warning – this post is a desperate attempt to combine all my interests in one posting.

I took part in my first half-marathon on Sunday (Cardiff, naturally). Like many runners I have come to it relatively late in life (I started last year in earnest). One of the many things I like about running is its very democratic nature. It really is a sport for everyone. All you need is a pair of trainers (in theory that is, I also find an ipod, GPS tracker and hi tech fabrics essential also, so I resemble some form of cyborg, but these are really just luxuries). It encompasses all manner of ability, ages, backgrounds and motivations.

It struck me that this notion of democratisation is something of an underlying theme in my interests, almost by accident. I work at the Open University, the aim of which was to democratise higher education. I was part of the team responsible for the OU course,  T171 You your computer and the Net in 1999, which had around 15,000 students and arguably did a lot to open up understanding of the internet. Next week I am giving a keynote in Barcelona entitled ‘VLEs and the democratisation of e-learning’, in which I will argue that although VLEs are  not the most exciting or innovative technology around, they have done a lot to democratise e-learning for many academics, in the same way that Microsoft products are often not the best, but the end-result is that they have brought computing to a much wider audience.

However, I think I am guilty of a lazy shorthand here, whereby I drop the word ‘democratisation’, with the assumption that it is necessarily  a good thing. This is not so – one could view terrorism for example as the democratisation of warfare. Some things are not, or should not, be susceptible to democratisation – talent is a good example. The plethora of reality TV shows (such as X-Factor, Pop Idol, Big Brother etc) can be presented as a democratisation of talent, or celebrity. But they rarely produce anything of quality. Talent, is by its nature, exclusive and undemocratic.

Blufr – an example

As a small example of what I was saying in my earlier post about letting the technology lead, take a look at a fun site called Blufr. The idea is simple – you are given a statement which could or could not be true and you have to state whether you believe it or not. But it’s given a web 2.0 twist by showing how many people have been bluffed by this statement, and then you are given a score for each one you get correct. They’re being coy about their scoring mechanism, but let us imagine that it is based on the number of people who have been bluffed, ie the more people who are fooled by a statement then the higher the score you get if you are correct.

Now, let’s play the ‘how could I use that in my course?’ game. You could take the technology and create a database of your own statements in your subject area. Then you add them in to your VLE, and students get to informally test their knowledge, taking as many questions as they want. You can cash in and get your score whenever you want, so like in blufr, maybe you have a score board to throw in a bit of motivation. And now maybe you extend it out so that students can add their own bluff statements (maybe you make it part of an assessment that they have to create one). Again, you can make a bit of a lighthearted competition of it by assigning a score to the one that bluffs most people. Perhaps you could extend it again, so groups have to do the tests, and the scores are based on how few people get it wrong, so the incentive is to increase the overall understanding of the group, not the individual.

In e-learning terms it’s got some potential – it promotes that informal, periodic testing of knowledge that both improves understanding and provides impetus, it has some inbuilt motivation to take part, it creates a social dynamic, and it’s kinda fun.

Now it’s not going to be a killer app or anything, just one of many tools. But my point is it would be reasonably useful, and I can make an educational justification for using it, but until this morning I didn’t know I wanted a tool that could do this.


Tony Hirst pointed me to Slideshare – in short it’s a Flickr for Powerpoint presentations. It’s only in beta at the moment. You might think ‘so what?’ but I think they might be on to something. They make the pitch that lots of presentations are lost, or we end up emailing them around. But equally it could be a great resource. Much of MIT’s opencourseware is in the form of powerpoint files. If every educator put their presentations up here, it would represent a really good repository for students and fellow educators. Now, I know Powerpoint files are limited, and having them without the context is often near useless, but they do represent a kind of lingua franca of dissemination – not the best, but a reasonable base level.

You can also embed your Slideshare presentation in a blog, so here’s my trial with my presentation from Monday on research directions in VLEs.

Love technology more

One of the common arguments I hear when discussing e-learning is that ‘pedagogy should come first’, and ‘we shouldn’t be enamoured by technology.’ This is difficult to disagree with and everyone nods sagely when its said. However one of three responses occur to me when it’s said:

i) "If I hear that again, I’ll effing scream."

ii)"It’s an excuse not to engage with technology, by claiming the higher ground of pedagogy."

iii) "No, no, no – we need to be enamoured by technology more. I don’t sit around with a pile of pedagogies waiting for a technological breakthrough. Rather what happens is that I see a good technology and I think – I could use that to do X. For instance, I didn’t know I wanted social bookmarking until I saw delicious, and then I instantly saw the educational possibilities."

Just to be contrary – Instead of creating a course by starting with learning objectives, or pedagogy, I wonder what it would be like to ask ‘what are the ten coolest technologies?’ and then construct a course around them. My guess is that it would be as pedagogically sound as the more worthy approaches and maybe a bit more fun. So, my new slogan is ‘do the technology, the pedagogy will follow’. Expect to see it on t-shirts soon…

Broadcast review workshop

I hosted a workshop yesterday at the OU on the broadcast strategy, looking at how it relates to courses and pedagogy. A couple of things that came out:

i) I’ve been saying for a while that the boundary between content and technology has become blurred. I became more convinced of this today. Would you regard Google as a technology or a content company? This has implications for what we (the OU) think of as broadcast – it is as much about developing a tool as commissioning a piece of content.

ii) The whole long tail phenomenon is relevant here. The traditional broadcast model relies on a lot of people consuming the same thing, but as broadcast is reshaped by the net, it is more about a few people consuming a wider range of resources. There is an obvious trade-off here with the production quality of that resource and the applicability to you as an individual.

iii) The OU has partly defined itself by its relationship with broadcast – in many ways the personality of the institution was embodied in broadcast programmes and summer schools. The latter have declined dramatically and the former has undergone a serious change because of the internet. I think this is an exciting time to be around and shaping a new personality, but not everyone will feel the same.

iv) The traditional broadcast (and to an extent educational) model is built on a hierarchical, centralised relationship with one to many information. Much of internet activity is built around one to one, or one to some, interaction and is a more dynamic, interactive medium. In addition the web 2.0 developments have emphasised the democratisation of tools and content, with users adapting and creating their own resources. As well as utilising such technologies institutions that have been constructed around a hierarchical model need to rethink many of their practices, for instance a VLE is very much an institutional response to e-learning, but it may not be the only, or the best way, to meet the needs of learners.

Less is more (again)

I was at a meeting of our research group, TLRG, today. I presented on future research directions for VLEs (rather like Elizabeth Taylor and marriage, I can’t resist doing these crytsal ball gazing exercises, even though I know something always comes along and makes them redundant). Talking to my colleague Adam Joinson, he mentioned he was doing research on social software looking at issues of privacy and trust. One point in particular interested me and that was a degree of ambiguity is preferable in such systems. For instance, when creating avatars, it helps if the avatar doesn’t resemble the individual too closely, as this frees up behaviour online, and also in location systems, users feel as though their privacy is invaded with excessive detail. Saying ‘I’m in Cardiff’ is okay, but not ‘I’m at this address…’

This goes somewhat counter to the natural instincts of developers and designers, which is always to make systems more detailed, more precise. It is a brave piece of design that specifies a level of ambiguity in a system. Like many things though it seems that less is often more.

Blackboard – a personal boycott

At the risk of being something of a dog with a bone over this, yesterday I surprised myself – I have some research money to spend and was going to attend a conference. I thought of going to online educa in Berlin. I’ve  been before, it’s an excellent conference, and very good for networking with the European e-learning people. But I noticed that Blackboard was one of the sponsors. My personal view is that the Blackboard patent is anti-competitive, stifles innovation and goes against all that higher education holds dear. So I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, go to a conference that was sponsored by them, and by implication endorsed their actions. So, I decided against going, and have sent the conference organisers a message to this effect. In the same way that writers boycotted the Hay Festival when Nestle were sponsors, this seems to me a reasonable response to take.

I had no intention of boycotting the event, and that is what surprised me – when I saw the BB logo on the side, my immediate reaction was one of discomfort. I think it demonstrated to myself the strength of feeling I had about the whole patent thing. Instead I may spend that research money going to the LAMS conference (okay, I confess, being in Sydney is an attraction too).

Is WebCT the best case against Blackboard

I’m not sure I’ve fully thought this through, and it comes with all the usual caveats about legal ignorance, but here goes….

Could, ironically, WebCT be used as a defence against the Blackboard patent? When Blackboard acquired (or merged with) WebCT they gained a lot of WebCT staff. When they were different companies, their products didn’t differ much, and if WebCT was still a separate entity it would be as subject to a law suit as Desire2Learn. So, if I were the Desire2Learn lawyers I would be asking some of the WebCT staff who moved over to Blackboard to testify. For instance, Chris Vento the chief technical officer at WebCT and now Blackboard, is a very smart guy – could he realistically get up and say that when he worked at WebCT they were (knowingly or otherwise) copying Blackboard and not working from more general principles and meeting the demands of their customers? I think this would surely highlight the case for excessive generality in their patent.

Blackboard – a dangerous friend

Continuing on the Blackboard patent front…

I have to say it strikes me as a commercially dumb move. I’ve had dealings with people at Blackboard and WebCT and always found them to be a smart bunch. They have often pitched the idea that they are partners. The patent is such an antagonistic act however, that any such notion of being a strategic partner must seem dubious. If I worked at an institution that ran one of their products and it was coming up for review, the patent would be a major factor in going elsewhere, for a number of reasons:

  1. It might prevent any additions or innovation I wanted to implement on my campus without finding myself either handing these over, or in court, or having to pay BB to use tools I had invented.
  2. It shows a lack of understanding, or at least a lack of concern, with the values of higher education that make partnering difficult to sustain.
  3. It has a whiff of desperation about it that is never reassuring to detect in a strategic and central supplier.

I remember when I was a teenager, this chap hung around with us who was a bit rough, and had been in trouble. He seemed a reformed character though and we liked having him around. However, one Saturday night after a few drinks a situation escalated and he ended up being carted off by the police. The patent kind of reminds me of this – when the going gets tough they revert to the behaviour they know best – aggression.

At a recent IMS discussion Blackboard did stress that they would not go after open source products, and I doubt they would be successful if they did. Indeed the patent is unlikely to be successful in Europe where software patents are generally frowned upon (copyright is considered a good enough protection I understand), and maybe in the US too. The issue of prior exposure would seem on any logical grounds to rule out most of the patent, since these are such general ideas that most of us could find examples of prior exposure. However, I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of patents is not great, although I do know a thing or two about VLEs, and any suggestion that Blackboard invented the concept is ridiculous. The trouble is lawyers and software don’t make a good mix, so anything might happen. My point, regardless of whether it is actually successful or not, its presence is enough to raise mistrust. If you were part of a project on standards or interoperability, you would be very unlikely to have Blackboard as a partner.