The size of education

I had the final award board for a short course I created yesterday, T186 An Introduction to e-learning. It was a short (10 point) course, created as part of the short course programme in the Technology Faculty here. The course has gone along okay, but I think the short course programme hasn’t quite been the success we thought it might be. There was a feeling in distance education, particularly with the advent of e-learning, that perhaps the full 32 week, 60 point course was the wrong size of course, and shorter, more up to date courses might be the way to go. The jury is still out (there is a good argument that they haven’t been marketed particularly well), but the student numbers haven’t been what we had hoped. Maybe there is an effort threshold – if you’re going to sign up for a course it may as well be a full 30 or 60 point one.

What T186 is a good example of is reuse (actually despite all the talk of reuse there are very few real examples of it) – I created it from the Masters level course H806 Learning in the Connected Economy. H806 consists of about 120 Learning Objects (it was designed around learning objects from scratch), and I took about 30 of these and reversioned them so they were suitable for level 1 students. This usually involved simplifying the task a bit, removing some of the readings and altering the assessment strategy. Although it was never a case of simply reusing an object, they all needed reversioning to some extent, it greatly simplified the task of creating a new course.

H806 objects have also cropped in a couple of other courses and been reversioned for some internal staff development courses, demonstrating that if you preversion (ie design with reuse in mind) then the opportunities do arise. If we had done all our courses like this five years ago, imagine the stock of reusable material we’d have now…

Corporate sympathy

I had to renew my car tax the other day. I can’t tell you how impressed I was that I could do this online now. Gone are the days of lining up in post office queues sandwiched between chainsmoking alcoholics, only to find the document you have entitled ‘Insurance Certificate’ is not in fact a certificate of insurance, and being told curtly to come back and enjoy the experience again tomorrow.

I am always impressed when these things actually work because working for a large institution I have an appreciation of systemic complexity. One of the (many) problems with modern media is that they simply cannot understand complexity – they always seek to find an individual to blame and having done this, they feel the problem is solved. But in large organisations dealing with complex tasks it can be the case that everyone is working perfectly well but things can still go wrong. That’s the nature of complexity. For this reason I always find myself rather siding with the corporate spokesperson who is called on to a consumer rights programme such as Watchdog and is given a grilling by the unsympathetic presenter who prides themselves on being the people’s champion.

So, when things like the tax renewal work, I am pleasantly surprised because I have an understanding of the complexity of the problem – imagine having to coordinate all those databases, get agreement from the insurance agencies, create the appropriate software, check with the MOT database, and so on.

Learning Design project

Had a meeting yesterday with the people from JISC, who are funding the D4LD project which I am project director for. Our colleagues from Liverpool Hope also came along and we had the OUNL on the telephone.

The main aim of the project is to improve our Learning Design player, SLED, and the underlying Coppercore Learning design engine from the OUNL. We are doing this in the light of feedback from Liverpool Hope who are using the system on real live students on four courses.

The improvements tend to fall in to three categories:

  • Performance – this really degrades with a few users. We have found a few bottlenecks, probably in the database, but we are still unsure whether the performance issues come down to a fundamental architectural issue.
  • Usability – there are a number of interface issues we need to address, but at the moment the performance one overshadows these.
  • Bug fixes – the usual.

Apart from the LAMS system (which is not pure Learning Design, but is very usable) there aren’t really any other Learning Design players around (the effort seems to have gone into authoring systems). In trying to promote the Learning Design approach the barrier one often faces is its relative immaturity, and thus lack of good examples. Having a usable system, with learning designs from an actual course will make this job easier.

This is our third iteration of the SLED project, and it is still not clear that Learning Design is the way to go. I think a second strand of evaluation in this project is that of the specification itself. While I remain convinced that tools and a methodology that is focused around pedagogy and allows the exchange of designs is necessary in e-learning I am less sure that the formal IMS Learning Design spec is the way forward. I admire the very pragmatic approach taken by the James Dalziel and the LAMS team. In the Learning Design community the debate is often characterised as that between Learning Design with a capital L and D (Ie the specification) and learning design with a small l and d (ie a learning design type approach).

Is everything an urban myth?

When I was doing the post yesterday about the wisdom of crowds, I was going to use the example of the mob that attacked a paediatrician, confusing them for a paedophile, as an example of the dumbness of crowds. I was sure that this actually happened on an estate in Portsmouth, and many well informed people have used it as an example of the dangers of hysterical crowds.

Turns out it is something of an urban myth, and the truth is more about the dumbness of an individual than a cautionary tale about mobs, as the BBC reports.

I always flattered myself for having a reasonably good nose for urban myths, but it goes to show that you can always get fooled. I mean, next they’ll be telling me the Kentucky fried rat isn’t real.

The Granularity of Ideas

I’ve finally got around to reading The Wisdom of Crowds. It’s enjoyable, and while I know lots of bloggers have retaliated with tales of the dumbness of crowds, but I think that misses the point. We know that crowds can be dumb, and become mobs, but what is interesting is when they become smarter than the smartest individual. Suriowecki claims that conditions need to be right for this to happen.

What had put me off reading it though was that the title, or maybe the introduction, kind of told you all you needed to know. This is true of many popular business books that cross over to a general audience – for example the Tipping Point or The Innovator’s Dilemma are both neat ideas that can be pretty much encapsulated in a paragraph, or at least an article. The popular writer is in a dilemma here – in order for their book to be popular it needs to promote one good idea that could be conveyed in the typical Hollywood/elevator pitch. But the currency for such ideas is the book, so the idea has to be stretched over 80,000 words.

It would be nice if the blog post became the granularity for ideas wouldn’t it and then we could save all that time reading and writing books which aren’t really required. Not sure how you’d get rich in this model though…

The book manuscript leaves home

Today I finally managed to get the manuscript for my VLE book in the post. Well when I say manuscript what I actually mean is:

  • 2 printed copies of manuscript
  • Author questionnaire
  • 2 compact discs containing files
  • Folder containing 2 copies of all artwork
  • Disc overview sheet
  • Manuscript checklist

It has probably taken me as long to do all the post-writing stuff as it did to write the thing in the first place. You appreciate that academic publishing operates on fine margins so a lot of the mundane work is pushed back to the author. I bet Dan Brown doesn’t have to do all this extra work.

There is a short Martin Amis story, Career Move, which is set in a parallel universe where poets command huge advances and are media celebrities, and screenplay writers are struggling, unrecognised artists. So ‘Offensive from Quasar 13’ is struggling to be published in a little known journal, while ‘Sonnet’ is being fought over by agents. I like to imagine there is a similar alternative world where academic text books are sold in airports and read on holiday, while trashy thrillers are read by a select, niche audience…

It’s a strangely anti-climactic feeling getting the book off. I guess it’s because you know it isn’t the end, so it doesn’t have a cathartic quality. There will be corrections and queries to come back, and then the cover to be determined, and then, finally a printed copy in my hand. I suppose that is the point at which you should feel the sense of achievment, but it is so far removed, both temporally and psychologically, from the process of writing that it doesn’t seem to have any bearing on what you did. And by that time you’re doing something else anyway.

Guardian Online

I was up in London yesterday to have a meeting with Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Online. This was part of the broadcast review we are conducting at the OU. She had lots of interesting things to say, but perhaps what most struck me were the similarities between our organisations. For reluctant academics read entrenched journalists. There are concerns about maintaining a traditional market while reaching out for a new one, and the different quality demands in an online and print world, and also different styles of writing and working online. The Guardian solved some of these by setting up their online division as a separate business. I don’t think this is an option for the OU though, and the differences between our situations are as illuminating as the similarities.

Why you should love Zidane

Watched the world cup final last night which was of course marred/made memorable by Zidane’s headbutt and red card. I’ve been puzzling about this. He was about ten minutes away from being remembered as the greatest French player ever, probably overtaking Platini. And I think that is the key to his action. He could see the endless smug after dinner speeches, the fawning chat show appearances, the publicity work with Blatter and Chirac. It was a frightening epiphany. So he committed reputation suicide. Now he can enjoy his retirement in peace. You’ve got to admire that. More people should do it I think and save themselves from a kind of self-congratulatory purgatory.

The A word

I was looking at the draft theses of two of my PhD students last week. One is in the area of theoretical artificial intelligence, and particularly non-conceptual content. The other is in the area of learner experience and decision making. Two very different fields, but both had made use of the concept of affordances. This  demonstrates one of two things:

i) Affordances are such a powerful concept that they have application in multiple domains.

ii) It has become so meaningless that you can apply them to any domain

I have used the term myself quite a bit, and it crops up in my new book. Personally I find it a useful way of thinking about how technologies influence behaviour. But it is a loaded term and you can blithely stick it on a PowerPoint slide and then find yourself spending your entire talk defining the term and justifying your use of it. I accept that its usage has become a bit slippery, and decidedly post-Gibsonian, but I think it does get at something which we instinctively feel about objects. Something about the way they suggest, or promote, a certain use. It becomes particularly tricky (but also particularly useful) when you talk about affordances of higher level cognitive functions. For instance you can say that instant messaging affords a certain type of communication. Now it can be argued that this is nothing to do with affordances and more to do with social norms. In some ways I don’t think the distinction is important. One could relabel it ‘technological compliance’ if you wanted (although affordance is a nicer term). Put simply it goes something like – if you put someone in a Ferrari, they drive faster. This could be an affordance of the car, or it could be that they have a social model of behaviour for people driving Ferrari’s. From a psychological perspective the underlying mechanism may be significant, but from an educational technology one, I suspect it is not.

Mind you, I do have some sympathy with those who bemoan its over-use. Hutto for example argues that "Affordance at its best is explanatorily superfluous and metaphysically extravagant".

As an aside, look at that quote – don’t you just love arguments between philosophers? Personally I think the next reality TV show should be ‘Get me out of here, I’m an intellectual’. Lots of bearded white men in a jungle strutting around saying ‘My dear man, you’re just being metaphysically extravagant".

Death of broadcast?

I am part of the Broadcast Strategy Review group at the OU at the moment. This is currently realised through our relationship with the BBC, with the general audience programmes and the excellent stuff. But in an e-learning, internet age the very definition of broadcast needs to be re-examined.  The OU needs to reexamine what it means from pedagogic value and return on investment perspectives. To put it crudely, is it better to have 10 high quality programmes or 10,000 lower quality podcasts/feeds. There are a number of issues here:

Quality – generally people are prepared lower quality on a lot of internet media, e.g. podcasts, video clips, etc because they are getting material closer to their needs. There is a trade off here between appropriateness and production quality.

Integration with courses – the traditional OU model was to make programmes for specific courses (you get minus ten points if you mention kipper ties here). The last agreement was focused around more general interest programmes, fulfilling an outreach function. An internet focused model has the potential to be course, or subject area specific.

New models of outreach – TV is the broadcast medium par excellence, and much has been made of the difficult to market things on the net. However, there are effective models, and also initiatives like the Open Content project have the possibility of fulfilling the outreach function.

Range of providers – put bluntly, if you want to make TV programmes then the BBC are your best bet of partner, and there is a pretty limited pool to choose from. If you want internet content (be it regular feeds, multimedia, podcasts, articles, etc) then the choice of providers is much broader (although BBC online is probably amongst the best here too).

This will be a consultative review, and I don’t know what the conclusions will be, but it strikes me as one of those zeitgeist projects, so I’m quite excited about it.