Does institutional e-learning have a TPACK problem?

The following is the first attempt to expand upon an idea that’s been bubbling along for the last few weeks. It arises from a combination of recent experiences, including

  • Working through the institutional processes to get BIM installed on the institutional Moodle.
  • Using BIM in my own teaching and the resulting changes (and maybe something along these lines) that will be made.
  • Talking about TPACK to students in the ICTs and Pedagogy course.
  • On-going observations of what passes for institutional e-learning within some Australian Universities (and which is likely fairly common across the sector).

Note: the focus here is on the practice of e-learning within Universities and the institutionally provided systems and processes.

The problem(s)

A couple of problems that spark this thinking

  1. How people and institutions identify the tools available/required.
  2. How the tools provide appropriate support, especially pedagogical, to the people using it.

Which tools?

One of the questions I was asked to address in my presentation to ask for BIM to be installed on the institutional LMS was something along the lines “Why would other people want to use this tool? We can’t install a tool just for one peson.”

Well one answer was that a quick Google search of the institution’s course specifications that revealed 30+ 2012 courses using reflective journals of varying types. BIM is a tool designed primarily to support the use of reflective learning journals by students via individual blogs.

I was quite surprised to find 30+ courses already doing this. This generated some questions

  • How are they managing the workload and the limitations of traditional approaches?
    The origins of BIM go back to when I took over a course that was using a reflective journal assessment task. Implemented by students keeping them as Word documents and submitting at the end of semester. There were problems.
  • I wonder how many of the IT and central L&T people knew that there were 30+ courses already using this approach?
    In this context, it would be quite easy to draw the conclusion that the IT and central L&T folk are there to help people with the existing tools and keep their own workload to a minimum by controlling what new tools are added to the mix. Rather than look for opportunities for innovation within the institution. Which leads to..
  • I wonder why the institution wasn’t already actively looking for tools to help these folk?
    Especially given that reflective learning journals (diaries etc) are “recognised as a significant tool in promoting active learning” (Thorpe, 2004, p. 327) but at the same time the are also “demanding and time-consuming for both students and educators” (Thorpe, 2004, p. 339)

A combination of those questions/factors seem to contribute to recent findings about the workloads faced by academics in terms of e-learning (Tynan et al, 2012)

have increased both the number and type of teaching tasks undertaken by staff, with a consequent increase in their work hours

and (Bright, 2012, n.p)

Lecturers who move into the online learning environment often discover that the workload involved not only changes, but can be overwhelming as they cope with using digital technologies. Questions arise, given the dissatisfaction of lecturers with lowering morale and increasing workload, whether future expansion of this teaching component in tertiary institutions is sustainable.

How the tools provide support?

One of the problems I’m facing with BIM is that the pedagogical approach I originally used and which drove the design of BIM is not the pedagogical approach I’m using now. The features and functions in BIM currently, don’t match what I want to do pedagogically. I’m lucky, I can change the system. But not many folk are in this boat.

And this isn’t the first time we’ve faced this problem. Reaburn et al (2009) used BIM’s predecessor in a “work integrated learning” course where the students were working in a professional context. They got by, but this pedagogical approach had yet again different requirements.

TPACK

“Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) is a framework that identifies the knowledge teachers need to teach effectively with technology” (Koehler, n.d.). i.e. it identifies a range of different types of knowledge that are useful, perhaps required, for the effective use of technology in teaching and learning. While it has it’s detractors, I believe that TPACK can provide a useful lens for examining the problems with institutional e-learning and perhaps identify some suggestions for how institutional e-learning (and e-learning tools) can be better designed.

To start, TPACK proposes that successful e-learning (I’m going to use that as short-hand for the use of technology in learning and teaching) requires the following types of knowledge (with my very brief descriptions)

  • Technological knowledge (TK) – how to use technologies.
  • Pedagogical knowledge (PK) – how to teach.
  • Content knowledge (CK) – knowledge of what the students are meant to be learning.

Within institutional e-learning you can see this separation in organisational structures and also the assumptions of some of the folk involved. i.e.

  • Technological knowledge – is housed in the institutional IT division.
  • Pedagogical knowledge – is housed in the central L&T division.
  • Content knowledge – academics and faculties are the silos of content knowledge.

Obviously there is overlap. Most academics have some form of TK, PK and CK. But when it comes to the source of expertise around TK, it’s the IT division. etc.

TPACK proposes that there are combinations of these three types of knowledge that offer important insights

  • Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) – the idea that certain types of content is best taught using certain types of pedagogy.
  • Technological Pedagogical Knowledge (TPK) – the knowledge that certain types of technologies work well with certain types of pedagogy (e.g. teaching critical analysis using a calculator probably isn’t a good combination)
  • Technological Content Knowledge (TCK) – that content areas draw on technologies in unique ways (e.g. mathematicians use certain types of technologies that aren’t used by historians)

Lastly, TPACK suggests that there is a type of knowledge in which all of the above is combined and when used effectively this is where the best examples of e-learning arise.  i.e. TPACK – Technological, Pedagogical and Content Knowledge.

The problem I see is that institutional e-learning, its tools, its processes and its organisational structures are getting in the way of allowing the generation and application of effective TPACK.

Some Implications

Running out of time, so some quick implications that I take from the above and want to explore some more. These are going to be framed mostly around my work with BIM, but there are potentially some implications for broader institutional e-learning systems which I’ll briefly touch on.

BIM’s evolution is best when I’m teaching with it

Assuming that I have the time, the best insights for the future development of BIM have arisen when I’m using BIM in my teaching. When I’m able to apply the TPACK that I have to identify ways the tool can help me. When I’m not using BIM in my teaching I don’t have the same experience.

At this very moment, however, I’m only really able to apply this TPACK because I’m running BIM on my laptop (and using a bit of data munging to bridge the gap between it and the institutional systems). This means I am able to modify BIM in response to a need, test it out and use it almost immediately. When/if I begin using BIM on the institutional version of Moodle, I won’t have this ability. At best, I might hope for the opportunity for a new version of BIM to be installed at the end of the semester.

There are reasons why institutional systems have these constraints. The problem is that these constraints get in the way of generating and applying TPACK and thus limit the quality of the institutional e-learning.

I also wonder if there’s a connection here and the adoption of Web 2.0 and other non-institutional tools by academics. i.e. do they find it easier to generate and apply TPACK to these external tools because they don’t have the same problems and constraints as the institutional e-learning tools?

BIM and multiple pedagogies

Arising from the above point is the recognition that BIM needs to be able to support multiple pedagogical approaches. i.e. the PK around reflective learning journals reveals many different pedagogical approaches. If BIM as an e-learning tool is going to effectively support these pedagogies then new forms of TPK need to be produced. i.e. BIM itself needs to know about and support the different reflective journal pedagogies.

There’s a lot of talk about how various systems are designed to support a particular pedagogical approach. However, I wonder just how many of these systems actually provide real TPK assistance? For example, the design of Moodle “is guided by a ‘social constructionist pedagogy’” but it’s pretty easy to see examples of how it’s not used that way when course sites are designed.

There are a range of reasons for this. Not the least of which is that the focus of teachers and academics creating course sites is often focused on more pragmatic tasks. But part of the problem is also, I propose, the level of TPK provided by Moodle. The level of technological support it provides for people to recognise, understand and apply that pedagogical approach.

There’s a two-edged sword here. Providing more TPK may help people adopt this approach, but it can also close off opportunities for different approaches. Scaffolding can quickly become a cage. Too much focus on a particular approach also closes off opportunities for adoption.

But on the other hand, the limited amount of specific TPK provided by the e-learning tools is, I propose, a major contributing factor to the workload issues around institutional e-learning. The tools aren’t providing enough direct support for what teachers want to achieve. So the people have to bridge the gap. They have to do more work.

BIM and distributed cognition – generating TPACK

One of the concerns raised in the committee that had to approve the adoption of BIM was about the level of support. How is the institution going to support academics who want to use BIM? The assumption being that we can’t provide the tool without some level of support and training.

This is a valid concern. But I believe there are two asumptions underpinning it which I’d like to question and explore alternatives. The observations are

  1. You can’t learn how to use the tool, simply by using the tool.
    If you buy a good computer/console game, you don’t need to read the instructions. Stick it in and play. The games are designed to scaffold your entry into the game. I haven’t yet met an institutional e-learning tool that can claim the same. Some of this arises, I believe, from the limited amount of TPK most tools provide. But it’s also how the tool is designed. How can BIM be designed to support this?
  2. The introduction of anything new has to be accompanied by professional development and other forms of formal support.
    This arises from the previous point but it also connected to a previous post titled “Professional development is created, not provided”. In part, this is because the IT folk and the central L&T folk see their job as (and some have their effectiveness measured by) providing professional development sessions or the number of helpdesk calls they process.

It’s difficult to generate TPACK

I believe that the current practices, processes and tools used by institutional e-learning systems make it difficult for the individuals and organisations involved to develop TPACK. Consequently the quality of institutional e-learning suffers. This contributes to the poor quality of most institutional e-learning, the limited adoption of features beyond content distribution and forums, and is part of the reason behind the perceptions of increasing workload around e-learning.

If this is the case, then can it be addressed? How?

References

Bright, S. (2012). eLearning lecturer workload: working smarter or working harder? In M. Brown, M. Hartnett, & T. Stewart (Eds.), ASCILITE’2012. Wellington, NZ.

Reaburn, P., Muldoon, N., & Bookallil, C. (2009). <a href=”“>Blended spaces, work based learning and constructive alignment: Impacts on student engagement. Same places, different spaces. Proceedings ascilite Auckland 2009 (pp. 820–831). Auckland, NZ.

Thorpe, K. (2004). Reflective learning journals : From concept to practice. Reflective practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 5(3), 327–343.

Tynan, B., Ryan, Y., Hinton, L., & Mills, L. (2012). Out of hours Final Report of the project e-Teaching leadership: planning and implementing a benefits-oriented costs model for technology-enhanced learning. Strawberry Hills, Australia.

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6 thoughts on “Does institutional e-learning have a TPACK problem?

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