The university monopoly and my barcelona talk

Rather late in the day, here is my Powerpoint file from the keynote at Barcelona. I’m putting the file up here as Slideshare struggles with the animation and some slide transitions. Incidentally the animation was created using Pivot – it took me an embarrassingly long time to create something so basic.

The talk went well, afterwards Stephen Downes asked a question about what would happen if universities lost their accreditation monopoly. I suggested the analogy of newspapers (mainly because I was reading Michael Frayn’s excellent Towards the End of Morning) and I said it would make higher education a less pleasant place to work in, since the margins become so narrow, but it would probably push innovation. Stephen argued, quite rightly, that while the change in culture for newspapers may have been bad for employees, it has been good for readers (the Guardian online being an excellent example). I didn’t answer this particularly well, mainly because it is a big issue with no simple answer.

Sometimes it does feel that because universities do the accreditation, and this is the recognised stamp in society, then there is no need to change For example teaching practices can carry on being the same old lecture because universities have the monopoly. If other bodies performed accreditation, then perhaps it would encourage greater innovation. But universities perform a greater role in society than just accreditation, and perhaps some of the subtler benefits would be swept away in a radical reform (or am I just thinking my life would become less comfortable?).

Anyway, here is the presentation, it contains bits from some previous ones, so probably no big surprises for those I’ve spoken to recently – Download barcelona_presentation2.ppt 

Bottom-up quality metrics

I’m at the EDEN research workshop in Barcelona at the moment, where I’m giving a keynote (on VLEs you won’t be surprised to hear). In the sessions so far the issue of quality has come up a lot. Without intending to I have rather found myself cast in the role of sceptic for the formal, hierarchical models such as benchmarking and advocate for a more bottom-up web 2.0 approach.

In this world quality is measured by a number of emergent metrics – for example the popularity of a resource, the number of times it is referenced or quoted, the number of times it is linked to, and for dynamic resources (e.g. blogs) the number of repeat visitors. These will be quite different from the formal benchmarks of quality and esteem indicators that are predetermined in academia.

Put simply – are blogs, wikis, etc as valuable resources as formal articles that have been through the rigorous academic process? My feeling is that if they meet the need then yes. There seems to be some resistance, snobbery, even towards these types of resources. I think this is partly rooted in defence, a kind of job preservation – many academics want to be the holders of content and feel threatened by this more open approach, and thus wave the quality flag to try and hold back the development.

The tricky issue of book covers

I have been asked by my publisher for some suggestions for images for my VLE book. I really struggle with this because a) I’m not a very visual kind of person and b) the IT/Educational Technology area doesn’t really lend itself to photographs very easily.

I wrote a piece for the Times Higher once and they sent a photographer to my house to take a picture to accompany the piece. He was very disappointed when he turned up. ‘Do you have a bank of computers?’ he asked hopefully. I shook my head, indicating my sole laptop. We tried various poses – me grinning over the top of the screen, me looking pensive as I type, me cuddling up to the keyboard… well you get the idea. Needless to say none of them would have been candidates for the National Portrait Gallery, so in the end they just went with a (rather scary) close-up of my face. Which I think demonstrates the problem, even with a professional, experienced photographer, the best we could come up with was my mug.

Here is the cover of my last book – not bad, but there are only so many keyboard close-ups you can get away with. In the end I sent them a list of key words and concepts in the hope that someone there will be more adept at finding such images. Watch this space for the results.


One day matters

I posted an entry at the HistoryMatters site today which is trying to record one normal day in history (today), by creating a mass blog. I’ve always been a fan of those books that record the minutiae of life, over one day (e.g. Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Ian McEwan’s Saturday), so I like the idea of this social history of just an ordinary day. I think my entry ended up with too many big points, and not enough of the mundane (what did I have for breakfast?* What clothes am I wearing? Who did I talk to?, What was on the radio?). It’ll be interesting to review this in even a year’s time.

* Crumpets, since you ask.

OpenLearn launch – a mild regret

The OpenLearn project was launched internally today – the official launch is October 25th. It looks very impressive, particularly when you know the problems of taking legacy material and getting it in suitable chunks and up online. I also think they’ve done some good things with the tools in the labspace area (I like the non-client based messenger particularly – I always wanted a tool like this where I could join in an informal real-time chat around a piece of content).

I was part of the team that worked on the bid last year to the Hewlett Foundation to get the project. In January I had a choice – either go full time on the project, or write my VLE book. I’m not particularly good at multitasking so couldn’t do both. I felt that the VLE book wouldn’t really wait – like many educational technology books, it feels as though it’s obsolescing as you type. So my literary pretensions won out and I opted to spend four months writing the book. But sitting there today I would have to admit to a mild sense of regret at not being part of such an exciting project. One of those ‘I need a parallel life’ moments, when both routes are pretty good. Still, having said that, it probably wouldn’t have been so successful if I’d been on board…

Web 2.0 presentation

I gave a presentation with Patrick McAndrew today to IET Committee on the implications of web 2.0 for higher education. Apart from all the fun technologies, one of the key principles to me is that of openness and a letting go of control. I think the instinct of many of us in higher education is to try and control the student experience. This may come from good intentions relating to ensuring quality, promoting a caring environment, getting students to understand the key concepts and gain the key skills, etc., but I think it becomes a habit, a default action. It doesn’t sit well in a web 2.0 world and I do find myself having to pull back from the initial reaction of defining exactly what should happen, and perhaps allowing things to be a bit more unstructured and unpredictable. This is probably one of those characteristics that marks out us digital immigrants as having an accent. Our instinct is to try and hold on to things whereas children raised in a web 2.0 world (and maybe there is already a web 1.0 generation who are slightly immigrant to this) will find the notion of not making everything open kind of weird. It reminds me of my parents’ attitude to debt and credit. It was something mildly distasteful, and if they did need a loan they would dress up in their best clothes and feel very privileged if the bank manager deemed to let them have some money on credit. Now I can fill out ten application forms before finishing my muesli in the morning and still have companies begging me to take more.

Anyway, presentation is below, courtesy of Slideshare again (some of the transitions particularly with images don’t work that smoothly, but in the spirit of web 2.0 I thought I’d stick with using it).

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…