E-learning (dis)traction

I think the start of my teaching career coincided with the rise of the VLE. Early on, I remember being told about these new learning environments and the array of tools that would help student learning. Encouraged, in the nicest possible way, to upload material and use the institution’s expensive new toy, many lecturers complied and uploaded course materials, support papers, practice questions and so on. In this ideal world, the students couldn’t have had more learning resources at their fingertips. Learning was going to happen.

In reality, this has not been the case. The DRHEA e-learning audit (2009) reveals some disappointing figures across the Dublin region. Students regularly log into their VLE, but mostly access it to access course materials (lecture notes). This makes VLEs a very expensive version of Dropbox or other online repository.

This is also reflected in the UK. In my own subject (chemistry) and in physics, the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre review of student learning experience showed that e-learning came bottom of the pile when students were asked to say which teaching method was most effective and most enjoyable.

A Distraction

For most lecturers, e-learning is not part of their day to day practice, perhaps because of lack of confidence, probably because of lack of awareness. Mention e-learning, and the discussion quickly moves to whether to use PowerPoint and whether those notes should go online.There may also be subtle fears of replacement – that if learning can happen online, perhaps it can happen without lecturers at all! (Of course, anyone who has taught online knows the truth here!). And as the DRHEA survey shows, if academics engage with the VLE, it tends to be in the form of mimicking what they do in lectures, rather than supporting what is done in lectures.

Institutions, bless them, are concerned with e-learning from a perspective of usage and branding – how does their toy compare with next door. There have also been subtle and not so subtle undertones about how e-learning can provide cost-savings in the future, which is a naive viewpoint. Institutions need to be protected from themselves. If, as a community, we don’t consider valuable uses for incorporating into our practice, institutions will want to fill the vacuum, just as was done previously with pushing content online. Lecture capture, a spectacular waste of tax-payers money, is looming large and is already catching on in the UK. It looks good, makes for good PR and students “love” it. The fact that there is little or no evidence to show that it helps with learning is disregarded. As a community of educators, we should be concerned about this “innovation” being pushed on us [I recommend reading this for a fuller discussion of lecture capture]

Students, well bless them too. Students are clever, articulate, funny and they are our future. But they are also sometimes a bit stupid. Students will always want more – more notes online, more resources, more quizzes, self-study questions, more more and more! In the relaxed days several months before exams, they mean well and plan to engage with all of this material. But all the evidence points to the fact that students rarely engage with the material until it is too late, just before exams. At this stage, they find the nature of the content, often not even re-purposed for an online environment (substitution of what they have rather than supplemental to help them understand what they have), useless for their learning.

Finally, we have my very good friends, the learning development officers, who try various strategies, sometimes against all the odds, to assist lecturers in incorporating e-learning into their teaching. Locally, their help has been of great value to me, but reading about e-learning on blogs and on The Twitter Machine, there is a sense that the ideas and conversations within the learning development community does not reflect what is happening on the ground. There is perhaps a false sense of advancement, buffered from the great unwashed of PowerPoint debaters by early adopters and innovations in the literature. This can lead to a disconnect in language – acronyms, gadgets and tech jargon which results in the lack of confidence among lecturers who may wish to change. The term “learning technologist” does not help, as it immediately imposes a (false) divide between learning and e-learning.

Gaining traction?

So, what to do? The high participation rates in VLEs indicate that this is a place where learning opportunities can be provided. Students are hungry to engage, if material is there. One of my favourite authors in the literature on e-learning for practitioners is Gilly Salmon (Gill-e-Salmon?). A core component of her approach is for practitioners to ask themselves: “What is the pedagogic rationale for implementing any proposed change?“. I think  this is a very powerful position – it speaks in language all perspectives can understand, or at least appreciate (institutions I am looking at you). Lecturers, identifying problems or issues in some teaching practices can consider how to integrate a change, perhaps harnessing technology, into their teaching. Because there is a need; an underlying rationale even; the implementation has a value and a role to play in the module delivery. Lecturers may refer to it, and better still integrate it into their class work. Students are now presented with specific, often bespoke learning materials with specific purpose of supporting their learning at a particular stage of their learning in the module. Instead of just representing lecture information all over again, there is a reason at particular stages in the module, to interact with these reasons – they have a value. Learning development officers can offer their considerable expertise in supporting lecturers in developing the resources, so that they are fit for a purpose. And institutions are happy because students are happy and access statistics look good. In our own work here at DIT, we have enjoyed some success at the micro-level employing this approach – moving away from mass content upload (“shovelware”) towards specific learning resources tailored for and incorporated into specific modules. It takes time and is harder work, but the value of what is produced is greater for all.

Now, I feel better after that.

6 thoughts on “E-learning (dis)traction

  1. This is a thought-provoking post, Michael — obviously based on experience, research and serious reflection. As you know, I also struggle with the limitations and conflicting objectives of “VLE-ware”. Your last paragraph is excellent — I agree that this is the key point: any changes (technology-based or otherwise) should be based on a pedagogic rationale. As we discussed at EdTech11, I recently changed the format of my lecture materials & student notes, and recorded audio podcasts, only after student feedback and my own reflection on how learning materials (and learning!) could be more effective. It’s not an easy process, but can be very rewarding — especially when the changes are well-received and evidently enhance learning. Instrumental to the process, in my opinion, is the ready advice and support of learning development officers, as well as sharing ideas and practice (good, bad or otherwise) with peers. In that spirit, I look forward to continuing our discussions on this!

  2. Thanks Catherine.

    I think the example you presented at EdTech11* is exactly the kind of thing we should be advocating in considering how to harness technology. It’s not something you can buy off the shelf, or apply en masse, but builds on yours and your students’ own experiences in their lecture at that time. It has value at that time in that moment, because it helps students build on their learning for the next phase.

    I suppose we need to be honest though and say that there is a spectrum of innovation between blanket generic stuff that we can use technology for (same PowerPoints gathering dust each year) on the one side right through to the very bespoke resources made for and capturing a moment on students’ learning on the other. While aiming for everything to be bespoke is probably too ideal, pushing in that direction is probably a good start.

    Thanks again for comment. I’m still teasing it all out in my head to be honest, and a rant seems to help me clear my thoughts a bit more.


    *Catherine’s presentation at EdTech11 discussed how she uses after lecture podcasts, published on that day, to gather together some of the main issues presented in class but brings in various contributions from students, so that a shared understanding can be arrived at. In this “digital story”, students have the opportunity to place their own understanding in the context of this synopsis before the next class. It is beautifully simple (and relatively easy!), but so powerful as its consequences mean that the nature of the lecture changes to incorporate more discussion and the resources produced have real value to both the lecturer and to the student at a particular point in the module journey, as both voices are represented. (I hope I have summarised this fairly!)

  3. Thanks, Michael. Clearly it is time to write a blog post on this work! After great discussions at EdTech11 and NAIRTL11 (last week), I’m ready to do that… plan to post by the end of the week. 🙂

    Again, it is of great value to discuss this with people like yourself who are wrestling with similar issues. Thanks again for your honest feedback on my work, as well as your post above on the bigger issues surrounding this.

  4. Great post, and lots to think about. Our VLE provisions sit uneasily with me and I constantly find myself trying something different. I struggle between the desire to providing supplementary materials that can be accessed flexibly (with or without associated text messaging!) and the time producing such materials requires. To me the time spent on development is the key issue and will only be widely accepted as a good use of time once people realise that access stats and page hits aren’t a satisfactory measure of engagement, but rather an increase in the understanding of the topic is. Until then, developing such materials will come at the expense of something else that someone, somewhere would rather I spent my time on!
    The links on lecture capture are particularly useful – thanks for those.

  5. Thanks a million for comment, Katherine. I’ve gone through a struggle now for a few years about VLEs. While I have my problem with them, I have come to accept that (1) they represent what most of my colleagues consider the place where e-learning happens and (2) for the convenience of students doing 12 modules a year, it is undoubtedly convenient to have everything at least starting in one place.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about time! I suppose, just thinking more about it now, the best bet is for us as a community to move more towards the kind of developments you mention, accepting that during the transition there will be a mixture of quality across the spectrum of supplemental resources (I don’t mean quality in the production sense, more pedagogic sense). Overall I guess this post was borne out of a frustration that this movement is very slow so far!

    There is movement though. Only today I saw a great presentation by someone involved in examining how technology is being implemented in four different (Irish) institutions [Hi Mark]. The message was that fit for purpose resources with a reason behind them worked very well indeed, thanks very much!

    Re lecture capture links 0 I just couldn’t believe it during the week when I saw a link supporting lecture capture being seriously considered when the link was coming from a lecture capture company!

    Thanks again for comment – constantly reappraising my opinions on this based on the feedback.

  6. @catherine – yes, blog post please. I’ve been singing the praises of your talk to anyone who’ll listen (and more besides!)

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