Tool users, research, hammers and the law of instrument

The following quote is from (Hirschheim, 1992) and is questioning the practice of research/the scientific method

Within this context the researcher should be viewed as a craftsman or a tool builder – one who builds tools, as separate from and in addition to, the researcher as tool users. Unfortunately, it is apparent that the common conception of researchers/scientists is different. They are people who use a particular tool (or a set of tools). This, to my mind, is undesirable because if scientists are viewed in terms of tool users rather than tool builders then we run the risk of distorted knowledge acquisition techniques. As an old proverb states: ‘For he who has but one tool, the hammer, the whole world looks like a nail’. We certainly need to guard against such a view, yet the way we practice ‘science’ leads us directly to that view.

Using a hammer to make an omelete

I’ve used this image in a recent presentation as a background to an important point that I’ve hammered again and again and again. “If all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail”.

Apparently this is called the law of instrument and came from Abraham Kaplan’s The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioural science. Apparently first published in 1964.

Information technology

There is a false dichotomy often trotted out in the practice of information technology: buy versus build. The impression being that “building” (being a tool builder) is a bad thing as it is wasteful. It’s seen as cheaper and more appropriate for the organisation to be a tool user.

As the “buy” option increasingly wins over the “build” option I believe I am increasingly seeing the law of instrument raise its ugly head within organisations. The most obviously bad example of this I’ve seen is folk wanting to use a WebCT/Blackboard course site for a publicity website. But there are many, many others.


You can see this in the group of staff (and institutions) who have “grown up” in e-learning with learning management systems. Their hammer is the LMS. The LMS is used to beat up on every learning problem because it is seen as a nail.

This is especially true of LMS support staff who do not have a good foundation knowledge in technology and learning and teaching. Every problem becomes a question of how to solve it with in the LMS. Even though the LMS may be the worst possible tool – like making an omelette with a hammer.

Asking tool users what they’d like to do

A common research method around new types of technology in learning and teaching sees the researcher developing a survey or running focus groups. These are targetted at group of people who are current tool users. For example, students and staff of a university currently using an LMS. The research aim is to ask these “tool users” what they would like to do with a brand new tool, often one based on completely different assumptions or models from the tool they are using.

This approach is a bit like giving stone age people a battery powered (was going to use electric knife, but no electricity – the point is the knife is powered and cuts “by itself”) knife. They’d simply end up using it like they use their stone axes (they would bang what they are cutting). They have been shaped by their tool use. They will find it difficult to imagine the different affordances that the new tool provides until they’ve used it.


I believe this was the context in which Kaplan first originated the law of instrument. Folk who get so caught up in a particular research methodology that they continue to apply it in situations where it no longer works.

The model underpinning blackboard and how ACCT19064 uses it

As proposed earlier this post is the first step in attempting to evaluate the differences between three learning management systems. This post attempts to understand and describe the model underpinning Blackboard version 6.3.


Blackboard like most web-based systems of a certain vintage (mid-1990s to early/mid 2000s) tend to structure websites as a hierarchical collection of documents and folders (files and directories for those of us from the pre-desktop metaphor based interface days). This approach has its source in a number of places, but most directly it comes from computer file systems

Webopedia has a half way decent page explaining the concept. The mathematicians amongst you could talk on in great detail about the plusses and minuses of this approach over other structures.

In it’s simplest form a hierarchical structure starts with

  • A single root document or node.
    Underneath this will be a sequence of other collections/folders/drawers.

    • Like this one
    • And yet another one
      Each of these collections can in turn contain other collections.

      • Like this sub-collection.
      • And this one.
        This hierarchical structure can continue for quite some time. Getting deeper and deeper as you go.
    • And probably another one.
      Best practice guidlines are that each collection should never contain much more the 7+/-2 elements as this is a known limitation of short term memory.

Blackboard’s idea of hierachy

One of the problems with Blackboard is that it’s underpinning models don’t always match what people assume from their what they see in the interface. This applies somewhat to the hierarchical model underpinning Blackboard.

Normally in a hierarchical structure there is one root document or node that is at the “top” of the pyramid of content. What Blackboard does is that each course site has a collection of content areas and then you nominate one of those as the “home” page. i.e. the one that appears when people first login. It’s not really the top of the pyramid.

Let’s get to an example, the image is the home page for the ACCT19064 course.

ACCT19064 home page

Note: I currently have “admin” access on this installation of Blackboard. Some of what appears in the interface is based on that access and is not normally seen by student or other staff users.

The links in the course menu on the left hand side of the image are (mostly) the top levels of the hierarchical structure of the Blackboard course. There are 13 main areas

  • Machinimas
  • Hird & Co
  • Feedback
  • Notice Board
  • Discussion Board
  • Group Space
  • Resources Room
  • Assessment Room
  • Instructor Resources
  • Teaching Team
  • External Links
  • Library
  • Helpdesk

The “home page” in the large right hand frame, which would be at the top of the hierarchy if Blackboard followed this practice, is the Announcements page. The link to the announcements page in ACCT19064 is provided by the “Notice board” course menu link.

The other complicating factor is that the course menu links for Helpdesk and Library aren’t really part of the Blackboard course site. They are links to other resources.

Feature: Blackboard allows top level folders to be links to external resources and also ad hoc elements within the course site.

The bit above is a new strategy. Everytime I come to something that I think is somewhat strange/unique or a feature of Blackboard I am going to record it in the text and also on this page.

Feature: The course home page can be set to a selection of “pages” within the site.

Other bits that don’t fit

Underneath the course menu links there are a couple of panels. The content of some of these can be controlled by the coordinator. In the example above the designer has removed as many of the links on these panels as possible. Normally, there would be two links

  • Communication; and
    Links to a page of the default communication tools Blackboard provides each course including: announcements, collaboration, discussion board, group pages, email and class roster.
  • Course tools
    Links to a page of the default course tools (not communication tools) Blackboard provides including: address book, calendar, journal, dictionary, dropbox, glossary….. This list can be supplemented.

The links to these tools are not part of the hierarchical structure of the course. They are always there, though the designer can remove the links. Confusingly, most staff leave these links and so students waste time checking the tools out, even if they aren’t used in the course (and most aren’t).

Feature: Blackboard does not maintain the hierarchy metaphor at all well. Confuses it with “tools” which sit outside the hierarchy.

The course map feature

To really reinforce the hierarchical nature of a Blackboard course site, Blackboard provides a course map feature which provides a very familiar “Windows explorer” link representation of the structure of a course website. The following image is of a part of the course map for the ACCT19064 course site.

Blackboard course map for the ACCT19064 site

What’s do the course menu links point to?

The links in the course menu can point to the following items

  • Content area
    This is the default content holder in Blackboard. If the designers wants to create a collection of content (HTML, uploaded files, tools etc.) they create a content area. More on these below.
  • Tool link
    This is a link to one of the communication or course tools mentioned above.
  • Course link
    A link to some other page/item within the course, usually within a content area.
  • External link
    A URL to some external resource.

The course menu link for ACCT19064 points the following

  • Machinimas – content area with 5 elements
  • Hird & Co – content area with 3 elements
  • Feedback – content area with 3 elements
  • Notice Board – link to the announcements tool
  • Discussion Board – direct link to the course level discussion conference
  • Group Space – a content area with 5 elements
  • Resources Room – a content area with 15 or so elements
  • Assessment Room – a content area with 6 elements
  • Instructor Resources – a content area with 1 element (see below)
  • Teaching Team – a link to the “Staff Information” tools
  • External Links – a content area with a number of links
  • Library – a direct link to the Library website.
  • Helpdesk – a mailto: link for the helpdesk

The number of elements I mention in each content area might be wrong. Blackboard supports the controlled release of content in a content area. Some people may not be able to see all of the content in a content area – explained more in the “Controlling Access” section below.

What’s in a content area?

A content area consists of a number of items. The items are displayed one under the other. The following image is of the Assessment Room in the ACCT19064 course site. It has 6 items. Not the alternating background colour to identify different items.

ACCT19064 assessment room

The edit view link in the top right hand corner appears when the user has permission to edit the content area. This is how you add, modify or remove an item from the content area.

An item in a content area can be one of the following

  • A “content” item
    i.e. something that contains some text, perhaps links to an uploaded file.
  • A folder
    This is how you get the hierarchical structure. A folder creates another level in the hierarchy within/underneath the current content area. This folder contains another content area.
  • An external link.
  • A course link.
  • A link to various tools or services.
    e.g. to tests or a range of different services and tools provided by Blackboard and its add ons.

Each item is associated with a particular “icon”. A folder item will have a small folder icon. A content item will have a simple document.

Feature: The icon associated with each item cannot easily be changed, especially for an individual course. It can also not be made invisible (easily) and causes problems for designers.

For example, the following image is from what was intended to be the home page for a Blackboard course. A nice image and text ruined by the document icon in the top left hand corner.

Controlling access

Blackboard provides a facility to limit who can see and access items within a content area and also what links can be seen in the course menu. However, it’s done consistently.

Feature: Different approaches with different functionality is available to restrict access/viewing of the course menu links (very simple) and individual items in content areas (very complex and featured). Restrictions on discussion forums also appear some what limited.

The following image is of the “Instructor Resources” content area of the ACCT19064 course site. It is being viewed as a user who is not a member of the staff for this course. Actually not a member of the blackboard group “Teaching Staff”.

ACCT19064 - Instructor Resources - not staff

What follows is the same page with the same content area. However, it is now viewed as a user who is a member of the “Teaching staff” group.

ACCT19064 Instructors Resources - as staff

Access to items can be restricted in the following ways

  • Visible or not
    A simple switch which says everyone can see it, or they can’t.
  • Date based ranges
    Specify a date/time range in which it is visible.
  • Group based membership
    You can see it if you are part of the right group or in a specified list of users.
  • Assessment related
    You can only see if if you have attempted a piece of assessment or achieved a grade within a specific range.

The specification of rules to restrict access can be combined.

Feature: Access to items can be restricted based on simple on/off, date, group membership, assessment.

A description of the ACCT19064 site

At initial look the course site is designed as a container for the content and tools used within the course. The design of the course site itself does not inherently provide any guidance to what the students are meant to do. i.e. there is no study schedule or similar showing up in the course menu links.

However, looking at the announcements for the course. It appears that this type of guidance and support for the students is given by an announcement from the course coordinator on the Sunday at the start of each week. This announcement is very specific. It outlines the individual and team-based tasks which the on-campus and off-campus students are meant to complete. There is also some additional comments, sometimes errata and sometimes the odd big of advice.

Interestingly, these guidance announcements didn’t link students directly to the tasks.

Breaking down the content of the site

The following describes in more detail the content within each of the course menu links, at least those that point to content areas.

  • Machinimas – content area with 5 elements. There is no adaptive release.
    • Description of the machinimas and their purpose.
    • Four external links to web pages that contain video of the machinima.

    Feature: Blackboard uses breadcrumbs for navigation. Including external web pages can be made more transparent if the breadcrumbs can be re-created on those external pages.

    The machinima pages, with the video playing, look like the following image

    ACCT19064 machinima page

  • Hird & Co – content area with 3 elements. No adaptive release
    This is meant to represent the imaginary audit company used throughout the course

    • External link to a “intranet” site for an imaginary audit company.
    • External link to an external discussion forum used by AIC campuses for discussion about questions prior to face-to-face classes.
    • A link to a Blackboard discussion forum used by the Audit Partner (the coordinator)
  • Feedback – content area with 3 elements
    Actually it’s 4 elements. One is not visible due to adaptive release. The missing element is a course experience survey. This section is entirely set aside to getting feedback from students about the course. I’m guessing it was added late in the term.

    • Content item linking to an information sheet
    • Content item linking to a consent form
    • A link to survey tool for the actual survey
    • An external link with help on an issue with the survey.
  • Notice Board – link to the announcements tool
  • Discussion Board – direct link to the course level discussion conference
  • Group Space – a content area with 5 elements
    • Link to a folder for the “Group Space for Audit Teams” – content area with 3 elements
      • Link to the groups page for the course
        This is one of the Blackboard communication tools that is supported by a group allocation/management system. It allows each group to have a collection of pages/tools which are unique and only accessible by members of the group.

        Typically this includes a group discussion conference, collaboration, file exchange and email.

      • Content item containing an announcement about groups
      • Content item containing details of group allocation – group names and student members
    • Content item linking to a document explaining problems faced by Vista users
    • Link to the Blackboard drop box tool
    • Folder containing feedback for submitted tasks
    • Folder containing declarations for each quiz
  • Resources Room – a content area with 15 or so elements
    Apart from a content item describing solutions to problems for users of Vista, this content area consists entirely of folders used to group resources associated with a particular week or activity. There are

    • 12 folders for each week of term
      These are a collection of folders and content items providing access to various weekly materials such as: eLectures, powerpoint lecture slides, activity sheets as Word docs, weekly quizzes and solutions (available only after a specified time).
    • one containing feedback and facts from previous students,
      A simple collection of content items with pass results and qualitative student feedback.
    • one containing general course materials (e.g. course profile and study guide),
      Two external links to the course profile and study guide.
    • one on auditing standards
      Two external links to the auditing standards applicable to the course.
    • One containing a course revision presentation
  • Assessment Room – a content area with 6 elements
    • Team membership – content item links to a word doc that students must complete and return
    • Personal journal – link to Blackboard journal tool that is used for personal reflection and integrated into assessment and weekly activities.
    • Resources for assessment items 1, 2a and 2b
      Each contains a range of content items, folders and external links pointing to resources specific to each assessement item.
    • Exam information – collection of information about the exam
  • Instructor Resources – a content area with 7 elements, a number under adaptive release
    • Staff discussion forum – external link to an external discussion forum
    • Snapshots for teaching team – collection of word documents explainining activities/tasks for the various weeks.
    • Teaching materials for lectures – collection of materials for staff to give lectures
    • Teaching materials for the tutorials – ditto for tutorials
    • Teaching materials for the workshops – ditto for workshops
    • Information on Assessment item 2a – misc additional background on assessment item
    • Information on assessment item 2b
  • Teaching Team – a link to the “Staff Information” tools
  • External Links – a content area with a number of links
  • Library – a direct link to the Library website.
  • Helpdesk – a mailto: link for the helpdesk


A fairly traditional hierarchical design for a course website. Students receive direction on what tasks to do from weekly announcements, not from some fixed “schedule” page.

Heavy use is made of groups.

There are some significant differences between tasks/activities for on-campus versus off-campus students. While educationally appropriate this does tend to make things more difficult for the coordinator and students. i.e. there has to be two sets of instructions created by the coordinator and students have to discern which they should follow.

Some use of external discussion forums. Probably due to the limitation in how Blackboard allows discussion forums to be configured. i.e. one discussion conference per course and one discussion conference per group.

Staff information not integrated with CQU systems, require duplication of effort. Same applies for the provision of links to course profile and to some extent lectures.

Evaluating an LMS by understanding the underpinning “model”

Currently, CQUni is undertaking an evaluation of Sakai and Moodle as a replacement for Blackboard as the organisation’s Learning Management System. The evaluation process includes many of the standard activities including

  • Developing a long list of criteria/requirements and comparing each LMS against that criteria.
  • Getting groups of staff and students together to examine/port courses to each system and compare/contrast.

Personally, I feel that while both approaches are worthwhile they fail to be sufficient to provide the organisation with enough detail to inform the decision. The main limitation is that neither approach tends to develop a deep understanding of the affordances and limitations of the systems. They always lead to the situation that after a few months/years of use people can sit back and say, “We didn’t know it would do X”.

A few months, at least, of using these systems in real life courses would provide better insight but is also prohibitively expensive. This post is the start of an attempt to try another approach, which might improve a bit on the existing approaches.

What is the approach?

The approach is based somewhat on some previous ramblings and is based on the assumption that an LMS is a piece of information technology. Consequently, it has a set of data structures, algorithms and interfaces that either make it hard or easy to perform tasks. The idea is that if you engage with and understand the model, you can get some idea about what tasks are hard or difficult.

Now there is an awful lot of distance between saying that and actually doing it. I’m claiming that the following posts are going to achieve anywhere near what is possible to make this work effectively. My existing current context doesn’t allow it.

At best this approach is going to start developing some ideas of what needs to be done and which I didn’t do. Hopefully it might “light” the way, a bit.

Using the concept elsewhere

We’ve actually been working on this approach as a basis for staff development in using an LMS. Based on the assumption that understanding the basics of the model will make things work somewhat easier for folk to use. The first attempt at this is the slidecast prepared by Col Beer and shown below.

Blackboard@CQ Uni

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own.

What will be done?

Given time constraints I can only work with a single course, from a single designer. More courses, especially those that are different would be better. But I have to live with one. I’ve tried to choose one that is likely to test a broader range of features of the LMSes to minise this. But the approach is still inherently limited by this small sample set.

The chosen course is the T2, 2008 offering of ACCT19064, Auditing and Professional Practice. For 2008 this course underwent a complete re-design driven by two talented and committed members of staff – Nona Muldoon (an instructional designer) and Jenny Kofoed (an accounting academic). As part of this re-design they made use of machinima produced in Second Life. The re-design was found to be particularly successful and has been written about.

The basic steps will be

  1. Explain the model underpinning Blackboard and how it is used within the course.
  2. Seek to understand and explain the model underpinning Moodle and then Sakai.
  3. Identify and differences between the models and how that might impact course design.

Hopefully, all things being equal, you should see a list of posts describing these steps linked below.

The dissonance gap in systems and LMS evaluations

Ania Lian writes in the paper Knowledge transfer and technology in education: toward a complete learning environment

It is argued that technology itself is neither liberating, empowering nor enabling one to be with other people but that it will serve whichever goals motivate its incorporation.

In a couple of papers (e.g. this one) I’ve paraphrased this as

Technology is not, of itself, liberating or empowering but serves the goals of those who guide its design and use (Lian, 2000).

This posts tries to explain why this is the case and also to explain what relevance this has to an institution when it attempts to evaluate and select a new learning management system.

Why is this the case?

A learning management system is a piece of information technology. As a piece of information technology it has been designed by a small group of expert designers. Typically a company or open source community (individual).

This group of expert designers analyse the problem, identify some sort of solution and then turn that solution into code. They do not do this is a purely sequential nor objective manner. Their past experiences, lessons learned and new knowledge all impact on this process.

However, at some stage they must eventually design and implement algorithms, data structures and interfaces. These artifacts will all embody the view of the world they have formed during the above process. This view of the world will impact upon the final system.

For example, a system designed with an emphasis on being “enterprise ready”, on being “scalable” will have a very different set of facilities, structure and “feel” than a system designed with an emphasis on a particular educational approach.

This influence of the world view of the designers is present at all levels in a system. Not just the high level perspective of the system. For example, the Peoplesoft ERP had its origins as a human resource management system. As such one of the early and important identifiers for that system was “EMPLID” i.e. employee identifier. In a HR system you have employees.

Later on Peoplesoft entered the field of providing ERPs to universities. As part of this they had to add a student records database. In part, to record things like which courses a student was enrolled in.

To achieve this you have to have some form of unique identifier for each student. Most universities do this through a unique student number. I’ve seen other student records system give the student number labels like STUD, STUD_NUM etc.

Guess what label Peoplesoft uses? (Remember it’s origins and the impact of the original designers). Yep, that’s right. EMPLID – employee id.

What relevance does this pose?

When a university is seeking to select a new learning management system it is selecting an enterprise information system. As such any selection will have embedded in it a certain world view. Even the notion of an LMS embodies a certain world view. That of the “big” system. This world view brings certain positives and negatives. The impact of the original designers will play a part in how effective the choice is, it will limit or enable what learning and teaching can occur, what staff and students can do.

Discussion forums in Blackboard

As one example, let’s take the Blackboard LMS (version 6.3). Like any LMS it provides support for discussion forums. The model, or at least my current understanding of the model, is that a course website can have

  • One “Course Conference” for the course.
    A course conference can consist of many separate discussion forums. This “course course conference” is usually used for everyone in the course. For many CQU courses, this is the only course conference used.
  • Each group of students/staff can have a course conference.
    Blackboard allows you to create groups of students and staff. Each of these groups can have a single course conference. Again the single course conference can contain many different discussion forums, but they are all located in the single course conference.

So what are the limitations of this approach? Essentially, it doesn’t support each group having multiple course conferences.

One of the designs by an instructional designer at CQU had each group having a part of the blackboard course site that contained a number of rooms. Sections of their group site set aside specifically for different activities, topics or times during the term. Each room might include a number of services including a discussion forum, a wiki, sharing of resources etc.

The design made sense from the perspective of keeping everything associated with a particular activity in the one place.

This could not be done with Blackboard. The discussion forums would have had to be within the single course conference allowed for each group. Taking students out of the activity into another part of the course site.

Assignment submission in Blackboard

The assignment submission process in Blackboard 6.3 allows students to submit any type of file, performs no checking of the files and provides only ad hoc support for marking staff.

Conseqently, it is well known that you would be really stupid to use the Blackboard assignment submission system for a class with more than about 20 students. To do so is opening you up for a huge amount of extra work.


A dissonance between the needs of a systems users and its embedded world view lead to a number of problems. The dissonance becomes a gap between the users and the system. A gap that prevents the adoption of certain approaches or which creates additional workload as people attempt to work around the gap.

Eventually, this dissonance gap will lead users to attempting to use alternate means. Of creating shadow systems.

Understand the gap as part of the valuation

Consequently, it seems to be sensible for any evaluation of new systems would include an attempt to actively identify the models and purpose underpinning the different systems and attempting to understand the size of the dissonance gap.

All things being equal (and there’s a real good chance that they won’t be), this is something we’ll be attempting over the next few days as CQU attempts to move from Blackboard to either Sakai or Moodle.

“Big” systems – another assumption “PLEs” overthrow

This is a continuation of my attempt to develop a list of the assumptions underpinning existing practice around learning and teaching at universities which the concepts surrounding the Personal Learning Environments (PLE) term bring into question. The list started with this post and is continuing (all the posts should be linked from the bottom of the original post).

“Big” systems

Since the mid to late 1990s most higher education institutions have been adopting the “big” system fad. The “big” system fad is the adoption of really expensive information systems that do everything. What I call the “one ring to rule them all” approach.

The positive spin on these systems is that they are “enterprise” systems. They embody best practice. They promise a single system to unite all required tasks. It’s all neat and tidy and a load of crap.

Most of this came out of interest in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems which grew out of systems to manage planning for manufacturing systems. These morphed into systems to manage the entire operations of organisations.

Around the mid-1990s these started being applied to universities. Around the same time learning management systems (LMS) arrived on the seen. They were soon sold as “enterprise” learning management systems. Single systems to manage all of the “e-learning” of an organisation.

Senior management like these big systems because of the promise. Buy the “big” systems and all your problems will be over. You won’t have to do anything else. You will be able to get the entire organisation using this system. Everything will be consistent. You will be able to understand it, because it is simple, and subsequently manage and control it.

Information Technology units like “big” systems, at least at the beginning, because, for various reasons, it gives IT control. They are given the power to require people to comply and use the big system because it is so expensive everyone must use it.

Because it is expensive it is important. Because it is an IT system that is important, the IT unit is then important to the business.

Problems with big systems

The Wikipedia page on ERPs offers a good list of the disadvantages of these systems. Many of these become hugely problematic when a “big” system is applied to contexts outside of its sweet spot. i.e. contexts similar to manufacturing. Contexts which are not standardised in process, components or outputs (e.g. learning and teaching) suffer under the weight of a “big” system.

Some examples, drawing on the disadvantages listed on the wikipedia page

  • Customisation of the ERP software is limited
    Standard best practice advice with “big” systems is do not customise. This means your organisation and everyone in it must use the system in exactly the same way as everyone else. It is almost impossible to customise the system for local contextual needs.
  • Loss of competitive advantage
    This means your organisation cannot differentiate itself from any other competitor that is using the same “big” system.
  • Once established, switching costs are very high
    They cost so much to implement you can’t easily change. This leads to “stable systems” drag (Truex, Baskerville and Klein, 1999) where the organisation struggles against the problems of an inappropriate system because it is too expensive/difficult to change. Eventually the huge investment of resources is made and the change is made. Usually to another “big” system and the problem starts all over again.

    Supposedly open source “big” systems is the solution to this problem. Sorry, no it isn’t. The cost of the actual software, which is the bit which is “free” with open source software, is the smallest part of the cost of a “big” system. You end up saving this very minor portion of the cost and still retain all the other problems of a “big” system.

  • The system may be too complex for the needs of the customer
    A University I know of selected Peoplesoft as its ERP. The Peoplesoft ERP system grew out of human resource management. It was, I’m told, known for being a good HRM system. From there it grew to have a number of other components added – finance, student administration etc. Guess which part of the ERP this university did not implement – the HRM system. It was too hard given existing contextual constraints.

    How much of the functionality of an “enterprise” LMS is actually used by the staff and students of a university? If my experience is anything to go by, bugger all.

The biggest problem with these systems is that they attempt to do everything. This means that a single supplier, or in the case of open source – a single community, must provide all of the necessary functionality. If you want a kerfuffle widget for your “big” system you have to wait for the vendor/community to develop a kerfuffle widget

Small pieces, loosely joined

The PLE concept builds on the concept of small pieces loosely joined. That is, there are lots of different Web 2.0 tools, all (most?) of them concentrate on doing on thing, providing one service. Flickr helps folk share photos, WordPress helps folk blog etc. Each of these systems is loosely joined through a combination of feeds and open APIs.

Take a look at the home page of my blog. Down the right hand column you will see two collections of photos. One collection taken by me and another containing those photos on Flickr that I’ve used in my presentations. How do I get these into my blog?

  • Upload them into my account on Flickr/tag them as a favourite in Flickr.
  • Use FlickrRiver to create two HTML badges of random photos. One with my the most interesting photos I’ve taken, the other from my favourites.
  • Use WordPress’ features to add the HTML for these two badges to my blog.

Each of these tools do one thing well. They are loosely joined via an open API (Flickr to FlickrRiver) and HTML/”API” (FlickrRiver to WordPress).

Imagine how much effort, how much expense and how long you would have to wait for the vendor/community of a “big” system to provide that functionality. Does anyone think that such a tool would be easier to use and have more functionality than Flickr, FlickrRiver and WordPress?

Moving beyond the expert designer

Big Ben

Another major advantage of this approach is that it enables the “death of the expert designer”. Adding the FlickrRiver HTML badge to get my random collection of Flickr photos did not require me to go to the software designers of WordPress and ask them to add the ability to add random photos to my blog.

I could do it myself.

This removes a bottleneck within organisations.

Not without its problems

As others have pointed out the idea of small pieces loosely joined is not without its problems. These have to be looked at and worked out. Based on the work I’ve done I don’t see the potential problems as unsolvable and I certainly see the benefits far outweighing the problems.


Truex, D., Baskerville, R., & Klein, H. (1999). Growing systems in emergent organizations. Communications of the ACM, 42(8), 117-123.

Expert designer: Another assumption PLEs question

In a serious of blog posts (starting with this one) I’ve been trying to develop a list of fundamental assumptions about learning and teaching at Universities which the various concepts associated with personal learning environments (PLEs) bring into question.

This post attempts to add another.

The expert designer

Experts only

Within the practice of learning and teaching at universities there are a number of levels that assume the need for an expert designer (or a small group thereof). These include:

  • Senior management (and their consultants);
    Any important decision must be made by the small group of senior managers. Typically they will draw on “experts” to provide analysis and recommendations and then the senior management (or manager) will make the decision.

    Senior management is difficult and requires great skills and foresight and subsequently couldn’t just be left to normal people to make the decision. They don’t have the skill.

  • Learning design; and
    The design a university course is performed by the academic (or small group thereof) with demonstrable discipline expertise in the form of PhDs. They might be aided by their consultants, the instructional designers and other technical staff, but in the end it is the academic staff who make the decisions.

    After all, learning all about a discipline area is difficult. It requires great depth and breadth of knowledge to understand how best to do this. You couldn’t leave this sort of thing up to the learners. They don’t have the knowledge to do this.

  • Provision of information technology systems.
    Information technology is complex and complicated. There is a broad chasm of difference between looking after your home PC and managing large, complex and important enterprise systems. Such a task requires enterprise IT experts, and their consultants, to make these difficult decision and ensure that the organisation isn’t losing money.

    You can’t simply leave information technology decisions up to the end-user. They don’t have this breadth and depth of knowledge. They would make mistakes. It would waste resources.

And the list could go on for each of the professional groups or divisions that infest a modern university. Ordering textbooks, booking travel, looking after gardens and buildings, all of these activities, as implemented in a modern organisation, assume that there is a need for the experts to take control.

Problems with this approach

The main problem with this tendency is “one size fits all”. The central, small group of designers can never fully understand the diversity of all of their clients and in many cases could never efficiently provide a customised service to each of them. For example, a university course is never customised for an individual student’s pre-existing knowledge – even though this is one of the things we know is important for learning.

Web 2.0, social media and other advances in technology are bringing this practice into question. Increasingly there are abundant, inexpensive and simple to use tools which users can adopt, and more importantly, adapt to their own preferences. These tools, through the use of standards, can be used to access organisational services (if they are configured appropriately).

It’s becoming possible for the end-user to use the tools they already know. Rather than being forced to use the tools selected by the central IT folk of the organisation they now work for or are studying at.

Related to this is that this approach assumes that the “non-experts” actually need the input of the experts. Increasingly with IT you don’t. Similarly, many folk can learn things quite effectively all of the time through informal learning without the need for the discipline expert. The need and supposed rise of lifelong learning means that this trend should only increase.

Following on from this is the assumption that the experts really are experts. I’m sure anyone that has worked within an organisation can point to organisational decisions which demonstrably suggest that the experts weren’t so expert.

PLEs@CQUni: Origins, rationale and outcomes so far

Yesterday I gave a presentation on the PLEs@CQUni project. It was a 30 minute presentation designed to give a quick overview of the origins of the project, why it is being run the way it is and what some of the outcomes have been so far. At a very brief, higher level. There are numerous talks in various aspects of this presentation.

The video should be available in a couple of days. Sadly, with various contextual factors playing a role the talk is somewhat sarcastic, not that this is something really new. The slides are on slideshare.

Perhaps the only thing that is truly new is an attempt to identify some of the fundamental assumptions about the practice of university learning and teaching which concepts we place under the PLEs bring into serious question. This is a topic I’ve blogged about and will probably continue adding a few more. You can see the start of that conversation on this post and should see links to subsequent posts at the end.

While the ideas within these are not new, the attempt to get them into a coherent whole for use at my host institution is somewhat new. Though perhaps not all that valuable.

PLEs@CQUni – VoiceThread for Research Posters

Last night the PLEs@CQUni project helped support a public session titled “Psychology and Public Health Infotainment”. The purpose was to show the relevant local community practitioners research posters prepared by students in CQUni course – PSYCH13021, Special Topic in Psychology.

Our involvement was to help in the use of VoiceThread as a means to present the students’ posters and enable visitors to make comments on the research posters.

The complete list of all the posters is available.

Overall the experience of the whole project has been positive and proven how, with a bit of help, that many of the growing number of available services on the web can help improve learning and teaching at universities.

This small scale and very simple project was simply investigating how it would work, gathering some more knowledge. Based on the experience, it would be pretty easy to leverage this and similar tools to make a dramatic impact.

Another assumption which PLEs over throws

In a previous post I started developing some ideas about the current assumptions associated with university learning and teaching which the concepts surrounding the nebulous term of PLEs bring into question. This post struggles with suggesting another one – consistency.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative


As I travel through my working life within universities I am bombarded with this idea of consistency. Some examples of how it crops up:

  • All course websites should have the same structure and appearance.
    The idea here is that students are confused, and are complaining about being confused, because the course websites for their courses are all different. They don’t know where to find things.
  • All text-based material produced by the university should use the same template.
    This is a hang over from the old print-based distance education days and I first wrote about it back in 1996.
  • Consistency of course delivery and student participation.
    The Australian Universities Quality Agency in its audit report of CQUni wrote

    As a University with multiple teaching sites, CQU has developed a system for ensuring the consistency of course delivery and student participation which may be amongst best practice in the Australian sector.

    When agencies tasked with auditing and reporting on quality assurance speak, institutions listen. Consistency of course delivery is important.

Problems with calls for consistency

Personally I find this emphasis on consistency simplistic, limited, likely to enshrine problems and essentially a complete and utter mismatch with the nature of learning and teaching, of people and the diversity between and within disciplines. Some of the problems I see with consistency follow.

Solving the wrong problem

When it comes to students not being able to find material on course websites, I would suggest that it is not lack of consistency that is the problem. It’s the lack of quality.

There are well established principles for the design of the structure and appearance of websites to maximise findability. Most of course websites are designed by people who aren’t aware of these principles using systems that actually make it really difficult to make use of those principles.

That’s the old style solution, good design.

The new style solution is to make use of a good search engine. The majority of folk don’t find things on the web by navigating through a course design. They “google it”. If the systems used by universities were able to provide a good search engine, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Often the call for consistency is an attempt to achieve quality through consistency. Which is essentially a cop out. What is needed is the much harder task of achieving quality through quality.

Remember, the prime example of quality through consistency is McDonalds. They are the same everywhere. I wonder how many universities want to be known as the McDonalds of higher education.

Diversity is a key component of innovation

It’s well known within the realm of innovation that one of the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for innovation is diversity. Aiming for consistency will kill off innovation and open up an organisation to the threat of being unable to respond to changes in the market.

I’ve written about this previously and given some pointers to some related thinking.

Everything is not the same

Back in 1996 I wrote about a problem with consistency. The rules to keep consistency didn’t recognise an instance where the content was really different. Applying the rules broke the meaning. The rules of consistency didn’t apply in every case. There is inherent diversity.

Everyone is not the same

At the beginning of this week I attended a video-conference session by George Siemens. He started the session with an overview of what we know about learning from the research. One of the 6 points he mentioned was “Incorporates prior learning“.

This means that learning should aim to start with and be tailored to actively engage with the knowledge which each learner brings to an experience. It would be very, very rare to find any two learners with the same prior learning.

Another of the 6 points he made was “Is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional“. In that it treats the whole person. It engages with them and their situation. It is different.

What is it important for CQUni

I currently work for CQUniversity. This discussion is especially important given the recent push for the university to be associated with the brand/slogan “Be what you want to be”. As outlined here