A turning point

I am unsure whether or not I believe in specific turning points. Perhaps life is a bit more complex. The metaphor of life as a road with specific forks which mark the turning points, seems a bit simplistic. But today does feel like a turning point due to two events:

  1. reaching closure on the PhD; and
    I’ve just sent off a complete draft of the thesis to ANU for a couple of folk to reading and the provision of pre-submission feedback. The thesis is no longer some Sword of Damocles hanging over my head, demanding attention and effort. Instead, I sit back, have a life, enjoy the family and think about what I might do (hence this post).
  2. acceptance as a University student.
    Today I received acceptance into the Graduate Diploma of Learning and Teaching at CQUniversity.

Changes in the blog and my PLN?

This turning point also marks, I think, a turning point in this blog. It’s going to take on a more educational/high school focus. The IT side of things will remain, but there will also be an increase in mathematics since I’ll be a math/IT teacher, probably. You are warned.

I’m also wondering how this will and should influence my PLN. I’m already feeling that some of the uni folk I follow are becoming slightly less relevant to my learning needs. Though they do remain interesting and insightful. I’m beginning to wonder if I prune and what I’d miss if I did.

Ideas and suggestions

You may want to skip the whinging diatribe about university L&T and jump to the more future looking perspective. This is where I outline what I’m doing to prepare for the future and would love some ideas and suggestions about “what should a novice high school teacher be thinking about?”.

Turning away?

To some extent I am turning away from being a part of the technologists alliance as described by Geoghegan (1994)

The last decade has seen the formation of an alliance between “technologist” populations concerned with instructional computing. Those involved include faculty innovators and early adopters, campus IT support organizations, and information technology vendors with products for the instructional market. Ironically, while this alliance has fostered development of many instructional applications that clearly illustrate the benefits that technology can bring to teaching and learning, it has also unknowingly worked to prevent the dissemination of these benefits into the much larger mainstream population.

In particularly, I was part of a group within a university charged with helping improve the quality of teaching. Increasingly, most universities have such a group or groups.

I am incredibly happy to be leaving this type of group. Not that there aren’t some great people (not to mention some silly and downright dishonest and hurtful) doing some great work. But the technologists alliance within universities, as a whole, is going the wrong way and most of the senior leaders of this alliance are actively enabling that trend. They seem to be actively creating systems that don’t value teaching. What’s worse, I see a system that is increasingly hurting the members of the alliance that work at the coal face. The type of frustration reported by Mike Bogle is more prevalent than those in leadership positions understand.

The fundamental problem here, at least for me, is the insidious growth of techno-rational approaches to “leadership” within universities. An approach that assumes that the leaders can identify what is required and then tell their staff to implement those solutions. This can never work because Universities and teaching and learning are much more complex than simple solutions. The trouble is that when those solutions fail, it’s never because the leadership identified the wrong solutions. It because their staff didn’t implement it well enough. The staff carry the can.

To make matters worse, by this time a new VC or other leadership have arrived at the institution. Leadership on a short-term contract determined to make a mark so that they can receive another short-term contract, preferably one step up the ladder. To make their mark, they need to argue for radical change. They need to hold up prior work as somehow flawed, identify some scape goats, identify some new solutions and implement them, preferably minus the scape goats who were suposed to implement the previous solutions.

I suggest that you can see some evidence of this process in the summary of the report of an ALTC project. This project was titled “Strategic Leadership for Institutional Teaching and Learning Centres: Developing a Model for the 21st Century”. The report looks at the findings from a survey of 31 of the 38 Directors of Teaching and Learning Centres at Australian universities. It’s first finding was that the average centre “would have been restructured sometime in the previous one to three years”.

The triumph of the techno-rational approaches to leadership has resulted in a university sector that is increasingly trying to improve the quality of learning and teaching by fiat. By telling academics you will do X, complete GradCert Y, use LMS Z, be guided by principles L. And at the same time ignoring the context within which academics operate and what those academics already know and are doing.

A few months ago I was interviewed for a position as the head of a group of educational developers. We were asked to provide a vision of the enhancement of learning and teaching. I provided one that focused on creating an environment that helped academics (and the broader institution) reflect on what was happening and struggling to improve. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

Based on the questions I was asked, both before and during the interview, the strong message was that they wanted someone who would manage the group as a service provider. I have some qualms about the impact of using the client/server metaphor, but lets leave those aside. The impression I received was not that the client in this relationship was not the teaching academics. The client was the Dean of the faculty. The service to be provided, was whatever the Dean thought was appropriate. See above points.

Needless to say, I am incredibly happy not to have gotten the job.

Turning toward?

Looking forward. In the short term, it looks like I’ll be a Math and Information Technology high school teacher. At least that is what I’ll be studying next year. I’ve already started reading and listening to more high school related resources. I’m increasingly interested in being more directly responsible for teaching and being able to experiment with all the insights, tools and practices which I think are important. At the same time, I’m also realistic enough to know that the school system has its own problems. It too has been invaded by techno-rationalist approaches to management. There are bugger all resources. Aspects of the system are as buggered, if not more so, than the university sector. But importantly, I’m hoping that there will be possibilities for taking some control of what I do in the classroom and subsequently what is inflicted upon students.

In preparation, I’ve been

  • listening more to the Future of Education podcasts and looking for more of the same;
  • purchased a bunch of books on mathematics in order to (re-)discover my inner math nerd;
  • joined the AAMT mailing list;
    And in a few days have already discovered that I have far to go before being a math nerd.
  • begun collecting online resources and sources related to teaching; and
  • beginning to reflect upon my thoughts on teaching and learning.
    George Siemens recent post is an interesting spring board, as is much of the above.

Either way, it’s a damn good feeling to be finally completing one chapter and moving onto another.

If you have ideas or suggestions that can help me be better prepared for this next chapter, fire away.

Initial plans for BIM 2.0

I’m slowly getting out from under the thesis, which means I am starting to have some time to think about the next version of BIM. The following is an attempt to lay out some of the ideas I have for the next version of BIM. Beyond helping me gather my thoughts, I’m hoping it will generate some comments and ideas from others. I doubt I will be able to implement all of the suggestions, so I’m hoping to get a sense for what others think is most important.

Currently, I can think of the following categories of potential BIM improvements:

  1. Work with Moodle 2.0;
    This is the main driver for an upgrade. Moodle 2.0 will be out real soon now, and BIM will have to be modified to work with Moodle 2.0.
  2. Maintaining BIM 1.0;
    Not sure that everyone will be moving directly to Moodle 2.0. Suggests a need to maintain BIM 1.0 for a bit.
  3. Get BIM into CONTRIB;
    Good practice would see BIM in the Moodle contrib area.
  4. Miscellaneous improvements;
    Various ideas for how BIM can be improved have arisen from use of the current version. Would be good to action some of these.
  5. Improving the code design; and
    I’m shocked by just how spaghetti like the procedural code used in some of the Moodle modules (including BIM). It’s so inflexible, gets in the way of reuse, and just basically ugly and error prone. Surely there are nicer ways to code a Moodle module. A MVC framework?
  6. Scaffolding conglomerations.
    This is perhaps where my main research interest resides. The interest comes from the thesis and the idea that e-learning systems need to improve. One suggestion for how this might be done is scaffolding conglomerations. Borrowing ideas from distributed cognition to move these systems from simple configuration interfaces into scaffolding that helps teachers and students teach/learn.

Work with Moodle 2.0

Moodle 2.0 brings with it numerous changes to the various APIs which BIM relies upon. According to release notes, looks like the changes that will need to happen include: database queries, file handling, and perhaps some display code.

There are also other sections of Moodle that BIM does (or could) rely upon which have also undergone changes. This may also suggest a need for updates. Possible areas of interest include:

  • Plagiarism prevention;
    Adding this support is one of the existing issues for BIM and it appears that Moodle 2.0 might provide this service.
  • Backup and restore;
    Apparently there is an entirely new format, improved interface etc. Suggests a need to update.
  • blogs;
    Now includes support for external blog feeds. From scuttlebutt it sounds like this is done with SimplePie, which means BIM 2.0 probably won’t need to include it. For some this native support within Moodle raises questions about the requirement for BIM. The difference is (I think) what BIM does with the feeds in terms of management and marking support. Something I don’t think is done with Moodle 2.0, but should check.
  • Comments;
    Am wondering if this might offer an opportunity for students to comment within Moodle on other blog posts. Alternatively, as a way for staff to comment (mark) student blog posts, rather than BIM maintain its own record. This is probably the most questionable idea so far.

Installing and playing with Moodle 2.0

Much of the above is based on a skim of the Moodle 2.0 release notes. I’m sure to have missed important changes/additions and/or misunderstood the implications of other additions. Feel free to point out implications I’ve missed or misunderstood.

To remedy this I need to install Moodle 2.0 and start playing. Seems I already meet the system requirements. One less thing to do.

Maintaining BIM 1.0

I’m guessing that at least some universities will be a bit slow in moving to 2.0. The final release of Moodle 2.0 is not yet out, it’s supposed to be any day now. At least in Australia, that means most IT departments won’t seriously consider it until March or April next year since most Australian Universities essentially shut down for summer and then rush to get the first term going. Which suggests for some, it will be June/July before any decision about running a Moodle 2.0 trial, perhaps over summer term 2011. So it is likely to be 2012 before some move to Moodle 2.0.

Which suggests a need to maintain and evolve BIM v1.0. Actually, this is somewhat connected to improving the code design. If done well, an improved BIM code design could make it much less effort to maintain the two different versions. But it still means extra work.

At the moment, I’m leaning towards minimising updates to BIM 1.0 and focusing development on v2.0. If you think otherwise, let me know.


All the best Moodle plugins are in contrib. For various reasons I haven’t followed through on getting BIM into contrib. This needs to change.

However, I’m going to lean towards producing code first. i.e. I plan to use the BIM github area for development, work on getting v2.0 out, and along the way start the process of moving BIM into contrib.

Are there negative implications of not being in CONTRIB that I’m unaware of? Should I push this a little harder?

Miscellaneous improvements

There are currently 13 open issues (there is a 14th one which is migrate BIM to Moodle 2.0) associated with BIM v1.0. Most of these are ideas for improvement from folk using BIM or solutions to problems experienced. The following is a quick and dirty attempt at ranking/grouping those issues. Feel free to express dismay at the mis-categorisation of your favourite issue.

Improving the code design

The BIM code is ugly. This is partially (mostly?) due to me learning both PHP and “Moodle coding” during the implementation of BIM. But it is also due to the primitive procedural coding approach used by most Moodle plugins. Even for someone coming from using a somewhat limited, home-grown MVC framework, it was depressing and frustrating to have to step back to what I now see as the dark ages. Surely there has to be a better way?

It looks like it has been talked about briefly and not always well within the Moodle community. I recognise the difficulty of adopting such a radically different approach for Moodle as a whole. But I am wondering if anyone has done this within a plugin. I played around with this earlier on and it seems to go okay. I guess performance would be one issue.

Will have to look at this further, but am likely to use an MVC approach within BIM v2.0. Is this a good idea? A bad one? What have I missed in the Moodle community?

Scaffolding conglomerations

If I had to be doing more research, this is the area in which I’d be doing it. Just finished another blog post trying to re-explain the ideas behind scaffolding conglomerations. I’d really like to try and incorporate these ideas into BIM v2.0. What follows are some concrete ideas. Sadly, they are still early ideas and need to be thought through a bit more.

Making BIM help collaborative

One of the principles for scaffolding conglomerations is

Embed opportunities for collaboration and interaction into conglomerations

In the context of BIM, this doesn’t mean what BIM already does in terms of blog posts etc. It has to do with how academics and students access help around using BIM.

BIM v1.0, like most Moodle plugins, includes some canned help pages. There are links to these pages in the BIM interface. Essentially these pages provide definitions/explanations (written by me) of basic BIM constructs and operations. These are not very good since I often write them as an after-thought and also because my familiarity with BIM (since I am its designer) almost certainly means that I see BIM very differently from other people. Nor do these help files enable any form of collaboration. They don’t leverage the collection of people using BIM.

I’d like to expand/extend the help pages into some sort of collection of services that enables the complete collection of BIM users to collaborate. And by complete, I don’t mean just within a Moodle instance. I mean across all Moodle instances that are using BIM.

Some possible examples:

  • Replace help pages with external wiki/blog;
    A wiki would allow anyone to edit the help pages or perhaps add comments. For some, going external might be seen as a problem. Might also confuse some people who are used to the standard process of using the institutional helpdesk.
  • Integrate the issues page from github;
    Provide some visible connection within the BIM interface to the BIM issues list. There’s a problem here of balancing local institutional problem solving and assistance (being directed to an institutional helpdesk service) with the global BIM community.
  • Supplement help pages with RSS feeds;
    Rather than replace the institutional/Moodle help processes, supplement them with the addition of feeds from more global collaboration areas.
  • Sharing designs; and
    I wonder if it would be possible to implement an approach were BIM designs could be shared. Currently, this would be limited to just the questions. But later versions could include other configuration options. Not sure how useful this would be.
  • Incorporate related literature.
    There’s a growing body of literature around the use of blogs in higher education. Would be useful to include links to this literature and reflections upon it within BIM. However, rather than hard-code this and make it something only I or some other technician can change. It would be more appropriate for it to be something people could collaborate around. Perhaps using functionality from Mendeley or del.icio.us.

So, not easy. More thought given. What other strategies are there for making the BIM help services more collaborative.

Pro-active help

An existing BIM issue gives a concrete example. There are times when not all students using a BIM activity have been allocated a marker. BIM doesn’t highlight this at the moment. If BIM were more pro-active, it would raise a warning or show a summary of the total number of students and the number that are allocated markers. This could be done via email or via the web interface. There are numerous other examples of similar common problems, including: students who haven’t registered their blog, or posted a required post, or Markers who haven’t used BIM yet.

A more complete approach might involve some type of Moodle wizard. A step by step process that guides the designer of the BIM activity through the decisions and trade-offs they have to make when setting up the activity.


It looks like analytics (of some description) will play an increasing part in e-learning, especially in large classes. Analytics could form the basis for some form of scaffolding in BIM and not just for teachers. For example, some form of analytics that shows how the student is going with the BIM activity compared with other students. Potentially as some form of encouragement. e.g. the progress bar block.

Conglomerations and conglomerations

This raises the question of how much should BIM do itself? Short answer is that BIM shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. Where possible it should integrate with existing tools, like the progress bar. And this brings up the other aspect of conglomerations. A conglomeration is not meant to be just something like BIM. It’s conceptualised as a combination of different services that are designed to act together.

So, someone who decides to use BIM, may not be aware of the progress bar block. BIM should perhaps actively inform them of that block (or other useful tools) and be able to work both with and without the progress bar block. Which raises the question of how/if BIM might use services provided by the progress bar block to provide scaffolding.

I think this is getting close to a problem I have with stepwise refinement and which somewhat arises from the modular design of Moodle. If I focus too much on BIM, I miss the overall whole of Moodle. I miss the opportunities to work with the progress bar block.

However, it’s more than me being aware of the whole of Moodle. It’s the assumptions within the APIs etc of Moodle and the mindsets of the other plugin developers. If they are focused too much on stepwise refinement, they focus too much on what their module does. Not on what might be possible by enabling different plugins to leverage off each other.

This is an idea that needs further thought.

Scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations – v2.0

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the thesis. It’s a re-do of an earlier post, I’m a bit happier with it than v1.0. I’m posting it here because it connects with some work I’m doing preparing to work on BIM v2.0 and also because it summarises what I think may areas of further research in e-learning would be, if I were to do any.

First, there is a definition of what I mean by scaffolding conglomerations, then there is some brief justificatory knowledge on which this very early, rough idea is based.

The last sentence in the following, summarises why I think this idea has some value. To put it another way, I’d probably argue the following:

  • The vast majority of university e-learning is not very good.
  • The common response is based on a deficit model of the academic.
    i.e. the academic doesn’t know enough about learning and teaching, so let’s force them to do a formal education qualification and all will be good. Alternatively, lets send them on some LMS training or require them to complete checklists. At best, let’s employ educational developers to work with the academics to design their courses and course sites.
  • This type of approach fails to connect with academics and their intrinsic motivation and subsequently is very unlikely to work.
  • This type of approach fails to recognise that much of the deficit in the university e-learning system arises not from the academic, but from the information systems used to implement it and the general university environment.
  • The proposition is that adding well-designed scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations addresses the limitations in the information systems and improves the level of knowledge within the system in a way that may be more effective.
  • However, adding the conglomerations is only one step. Fixing the limitations in the university environment (e.g. research is more important than teaching; bad management robbing academics of their passion etc.) is also required.

What are scaffolding conglomerations?

The design of e-learning in universities requires the combination of skills from a variety of different professions (e.g. instructional design, web design etc), and yet is often most performed by academics with limited knowledge of any of these professions. This limited knowledge creates significant workload for the academics and contributes to the limited quality of much e-learning. Adding experts in these fields to help course design is expensive and somewhat counter to the traditional practice of learning and teaching within universities. This suggests that e-learning in universities has a need for approaches that allow the effective capture and re-use of expertise in a form that can be re-used by non-experts without repeated direct interaction with experts. Such an approach could aim to reduce perceived workload and increase the quality of e-learning.

An emergent university e-learning information system should:

  • Provide the ability to easily develop, including end user development, larger conglomerations of packaged services.
    A conglomeration is not simply an e-learning service such as a discussion forum. Instead it provides additional scaffolding around such services, possibly combining multiple services, to achieve a higher-level task. The scaffolding should generally embody and provide easy access to forms of expert knowledge that help encourage and enable effective use of the service. On the other hand, while many conglomerations would be expert designed and developed, offering support for end-user development would increase system flexibility and serve to embody and enable the re-use of contextual knowledge. The Webfuse default course site approach (Section 5.3.5) is one example of a conglomeration. A default course site combines a number of separate page types (services), specific graphical and instructional designs, and existing institutional content into a course website with a minimum of human input. Another form of conglomeration that developed with Webfuse was Staff MyCQU. This “portal” grew to become a conglomeration of integrated Wf applications designed to package a range of services academics required for learning and teaching.
  • Design conglomerations to provide a range of scaffolding to aid users, increase adoption and increase quality.
    There is likely to be some distance between the knowledge of the user and that required to effectively use e-learning services. Scaffolding provided by the conglomerations should seek to bridge this distance, encourage good practice, and help the user develop additional skills. For example, over time an “outstanding tasks” element was added to Staff MyCQU to remind staff of unfinished work in a range of Wf applications. The BAM Wf application was designed to support the workload involved in tracking and marking individual student reflective journals (Jones & Luck, 2009). A more recent example focused more on instructional design is the instructional design wizard included in the new version of the Desire2Learn LMS. This wizard guides academics through course creation via course objectives.
  • Embed opportunities for collaboration and interaction into conglomerations.
    An essential aim of scaffolding conglomerations is enabling and encouraging academics to learn more about how to effectively use e-learning. While the importance of community and social interaction to learning is widely recognised, most professional development opportunities occur in isolation (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Conglomerations should aim to provide opportunities for academics to observe, question and discuss use of the technology. Examples from Webfuse are limited to the ability to observe. For example, all Webfuse course sites were, by default, open for all to see. The CourseHistory Wf application allowed staff to see the grade breakdown for all offerings of any course. A better example would have been if the CourseHistory application encouraged and enabled discussions about grade breakdowns.
  • Encourage and support conglomerations that are context-sensitive.
    Effective integration with the specific institutional context enables conglomerations to leverage existing resources and reduce cognitive dissonance. For example, the Webfuse default course site conglomeration was integrated with a range of CQU specific systems, processes and resources. The Webfuse online assignment submission system evolved a number of CQU specific features that significantly increased perceptions of usefulness and ease-of-use (Behrens et al., 2005).

Some justificatory knowledge

The concept of constructive templates (Catlin, Garret, & Launhardt, 1991; Nanard et al., 1998) was developed in response to the difficulty faced by content providers in developing hypermedia structures that followed the known principles of interface and hypermedia design. Constructive templates helped content experts to create well designed hypermedia (Catlin et al., 1991). The “conglomeration” principles build on the constructive template idea through insights from distributed cognition and related ideas. Amongst other important aspects, Hollan et al (2000) describe how distributed cognition expands what is considered cognitive beyond an individual to encompass interactions between people, their environment and the tools therein. Boland et al (1994, p. 459) define a distributed cognition system as one that “supports interpretation and dialogue among a set of inquirers by providing richer forms of self-reflection and communication”. Scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations aim to improve or increase the quality and quantity of cognition within an e-learning system and support self-reflection and communication.


Behrens, S., Jamieson, K., Jones, D., & Cranston, M. (2005). Predicting system success using the Technology Acceptance Model: A case study. Paper presented at the Australasian Conference on Information Systems’2005, Sydney.

Boland, R., Ramkrishnan, V., & Te’eni, D. (1994). Designing information technology to support distributed cognition. Organization Science, 5(3), 456-475.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Catlin, K., Garret, L. N., & Launhardt, J. (1991). Hypermedia Templates: An Author’s Tool. Paper presented at the Proceedings of Hypertext’91.

Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: Toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7(2), 174-196.

Jones, D., & Luck, J. (2009). Blog Aggregation Management: Reducing the Aggravation of Managing Student Blogging. Paper presented at the World Conference on Education Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2009. from http://www.editlib.org/p/31530.

Nanard, M., Nanard, J., & Kahn, P. (1998). Pushing Reuse in Hypermedia Design: Golden Rules, Design Patterns and Constructive Templates. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 9th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia.

A story of the power of intrinsic motivation

This weekend provided a wonderful story of the power of intrinsic motivation, and a perfect example of what I think is increasingly wrong with Australian higher education, especially its use of technology.

The story

My two sons (5 and 3) have been going to swimming lessons for the best part of the year. We’ve found a wonderful swimming teacher. A locally-based university student from Poland who takes the boys for solo 30 minute lessons one after the other. A great learning environment. What’s more, due to the time we go, the pool is almost deserted. A much better space to learn how to swim than some alternatives.

And yet, for last 6 weeks at least, the oldest boy’s improvements had plateaued. He can swim up and down with the kickboard at a great rate of knots. Had even got the hang of the arm motion, while kicking and looking down with his face under water. But a psychological gap had formed around swimming by himself. The idea of swimming away from his instructor for the side of the pool, just a metre or two away, reduced him to hysterics.

In recent weeks, we’ve plied him with bribes, gentle threats and just about every other tactic we could think of. None worked. The hysterics might reduce in volume, but were still present. At times evidence of his fear would arise when getting ready to go to swimming. He was saying he hated swimming. That all changed this weekend.

For some reason and from somewhere, he’s developed the idea that he wants to be a diver when he grows up. He wants to swim under the ocean with tanks on his back and fix things. The first I heard of this was when we were getting ready to go to swimming. The first thing he did when he got to swimming was to tell his instructor about his new career goal.

Obviously this was something we could build on. We’d already laid the ground work with comments about the importance of being able to swim to the career prospects of a diver. The instructor picked up on this and worked it into the lesson. Even to the extent of changing the routine a little to build on this interest.

The change was phenomenal. There was no crying or other signs of hysterics. The task of getting him to go under water, touch the bottom, wait and then surface was easy. Swimming solo not a hassle. He probably swam solo more times in this one lesson, than in all his previous lessons. On the way home, the future diver was saying things like “I love swimming” and “Daddy, do you know how many days a week I want to go swimming? Everyday.”. The eagerness was palpable in his voice.

The intrinsic motivation provided by the desire to be a diver, combined with a great environment and an instructor that leveraged that intrinsic motivation has made a huge difference.

The relationship with educational technology

A while ago I blogged about an interview given by Alan Kay. He used the analogy of computers being like musical instruments. The entire discussion around technology has (almost) entirely focused on the instruments and not on helping the teachers become musicians. The aim isn’t to give every teacher a piano, we have to give them a love for music.

I took Kay’s argument in a direction that supports my pet peeve. i.e. I think the environment Australian (this may apply more broadly – countries, schools etc – but I’ll limit my claim to my where I’ve had experience) universities create around technology actively prevents academics from becoming musicians, from engaging more heavily with educational technology. Tom Haymes pulls my “Kay post” into a broader discussion, and wants to make another point about why educational technology has failed.

I have faculty who are almost physically phobic about computers and technology.

I’ve seen this same sort of phobia from academics. However, I’d like to argue that the presence of this phobia is most likely due to the limitations of how educational technology is being implemented in the university environment. In particular, the inability of existing methods to engage with, or perhaps even discover the intrinsic motivation of the phobic academics.

The deficit model of the academic

While I’ve seen academics who are phobic about using technology, or at least profess to be when having to learn the new LMS – or some even sillier, badly designed local institutional information systems. I’ve seen some of those same academics talk about how they were using Skype, Facebook, or some other technology to talk with their kids, grandkids, parents over the weekend.

Don’t take my word for it, Xu and Meyer (2007) report on a 1998 – yea, that’s right, 1998, 12 years ago – survey reporting that 70% of academics had computers at home. Jones (not me) and Johnson-Yale (2005) report on a survey of over 2000 academics that finds that academics have long-term exposure to the Internet and computer use. Duderstadt et al (2002) suggest that academics make extensive use of technology in research and scholarship. Use that in many cases drives the evolution of the technology to meet their needs.

The “blame the academic” excuse that is used typifies a deficit model. A deficit model that does not help address the problem. For me, at least in the specific examples I have seen (and perhaps more broadly), the deficit model is a symptom of what is wrong with how universities are implementing educational technology. To be somewhat more provocative, it’s a symptom of the folk responsible for educational technology planning within universities trying to find someone to blame, rather than accept that they’ve gotten it wrong.

An example: “enforce the checklists”

Here’s perhaps an extreme example, but one I heard of recently. An institution I’m aware of has, over the last couple of years, instigated a range of checklists for tasks. The idea is that as academics create a course synopsis, a course site, moderate assignments etc, the tick boxes off on a checklist. In the last little while they even implemented an information system so that the checklists were computer-based, not paper-based.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the checklists have become for the vast majority of academics. Yep, that’s right. Surprise, surprise, most academics simply tick all the boxes as quickly as they can. Regardless of whether they have complete all the tasks. It gets worse.

Recently, there was a problem in a course (or perhaps a few) that finally revealed that the academics weren’t perhaps treating the checklists as seriously as expected. Do you know what one of the “leaders” seriously suggested as a solution? “This time we have to enforce the checklists”.

How’s that for engaging with intrinsic motivation?

The weaknesses of current approaches

Tom Haynes gets at the crux of the weaknesses with this

Are we but ghosts in the machine or are we its masters? This tension comes out most clearly in the administrative vs. teaching divide. How many technologies are inflicted on us with little or no forethought as to how they will impact the frontline user? And how many of us simply accept that?

Traditional institutional educational technology within universities today can be characterised as:

  • A “rational” processes results in the “objective” selection of a single, integrated information system (the LMS) for the entire institution.
  • The information system is only recently starting to provide some of the functionality people have been using for years, but most of it still sucks.
  • A project team is set up with the aim of ensuring that all staff and students know how to and do use the system.
  • An on-going support team is set up, typically using the cheapest people available and who are then responsible for showing people how to use the system (and nothing else).
  • When someone asks to do something innovative, it is explained either that
    1. If you follow this 134 step process (the students have a 532 step process) you can get something that sort of looks like what you want to do, but not really.
    2. Computer says now i.e. the LMS can’t do that.

It goes on, but the point is that nothing about this process is designed to engage with the intrinsic motivation of the academics. It’s not even designed to engage and build upon what the academics know. It’s designed entirely to get the academics to use the selected system, because that is efficient.

And then they wonder why the vast majority of academics don’t produce brilliant examples of e-learning! And that’s before we get into other environmental issues like the relative value of teaching and research, the increasing percentage of sessional (adjunct) teaching staff, or the underpinning over-emphasis on the product, rather than people or process.

Learning the violin

Returning to Alan Kay’s analogy with musical instruments. The LMS approach to educational technology is a bit like someone deciding that all the kids in a school have to take up the violin. Even those that would have like to learn the guitar or the saxophone. You know the idea, it doesn’t matter what instrument they learn, as long as they are learning music.

Sorry, but intrinsic motivation plays a part.

Using educational technology is a learning process

When an institutional introduces a new LMS, the academics have to learn how to use the system. If the institution wants academics to improve their teaching, then the academics have to learn new methods, strategies etc. For me, teaching is fundamentally a learning process. It never stops.

For me, this means that the implementation of educational technology within universities should be thought of as “teaching”, i.e. helping others learn. So, what do we know about learning?

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School is a book produced by the National Research Council from the US. It’s a book that “synthesizes the scientific basis of learning”. By understanding what is known about learning, the book suggests implications for teaching. The first implication for teaching is

Teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them.

The major problem I have with institutional attempts at implementing educational technology, is that they effectively forget or ignore what we know about learning and teaching. I suggest, that if you want high quality use of educational technology, then how the institution implements educational technology has to engage what people know, what they want, what they are having problems with. If possible, it has to identify the intrinsic motivation of the academics and respond to it.


I came across this post in my RSS feeds after finishing the above. It gives another great perspective on the deficit model mentioned above.


Duderstadt, J., Atkins, D., & Houweling”, D. V. (2002). Higher education in the digital age: Technology issues and strategies for American colleges and universities. Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers.

Jones, S., & Johnson-Yale, C. (2005). Professors online: The Internet’s impact on college faculty. First Monday, 10(9).

Xu, Y., & Meyer, K. (2007). Factors explaining faculty technology use and productivity. Internet and Higher Education, 10(2), 41-52.

Crisis in higher education and limitations that prevent change

Over the last few days I’ve been catching up on some writing (first last week Leigh Blackall and this morning from Richard Hall) that, at least for me, seems to be trying to find ways that the current crisis in higher ed can be used as a spring board for something better. I certainly think there is an opportunity there. Dave Snowden has argued

The best chance any organisation has to do things differently is during a crisis. During such a time people’s willingness to do things differently, to be open to working with people who they normally avoid is higher than in normal circumstances.

My problem is that when it comes to universities – especially those Australian universities that I’m familiar with – I’m not confident that anything can/will be done.

In this case, my natural cynicism has been enhanced by a couple of years of experience within one institution into a possibly unhealthy contempt. On the other hand it is also being challenged by a colleague’s observation that

you’d be the perfect person to carve out a space in the brave new world of open education.

The following is perhaps the first step in trying to reconcile the unhealthy contempt into something that might be productive. It’s an early step, and a quick one as I need to finish the thesis. So don’t be looking for answers, yet.

The failure of the PLEs@CQUni project

I was really taken with this quote from Richard Hall’s post

Can institutions afford to be stereotypical when it comes to engaging with those students’ and their identities/individuality? This doesn’t mean leaving those students to create their own outsourced personal learning environments. But it might mean an activist role for institutions in building frameworks that are open enough to make sense to the variety of students in their own contexts. The reality and medium-term effectiveness of centralisation or outsourcing of homogenised services is therefore a major issue, in light of the need for institutional uniqueness.

It captures brilliantly what was the vision behind the failed PLEs@CQUni project.

What surprised me more was that Richard also quoted and linked to a recent post of mine. The quote he included was this line

It’s the focus on the product that has led university leaders to place less emphasis on the process and the people.

In the original post, what I meant by product was degrees, not tools. The focus of management had become on we have to develop new product/degrees or improve the current ones without any thought to the people and the process that we’re using to product the product. let alone any thought about whether the product/degree is what is actually needed. The entire way of thinking within the institution is focused on that product/degree. Not surprising, because senior management on short-term contracts are being measured by the number of consumers purchasing the product/degree.

But that’s an aside. The point here is that the focus on product also underpinned the failure of the PLEs@CQUni project. A fundamental argument in my thesis is that when it comes to e-learning (and universities in general) teleological or plan-driven processes have become dominant. Not only that, I argue that for the type of activity and context in which e-learning operates, plan-driven processes are completely inappropriate. To such an extent that university folk either aren’t even aware that there are alternatives. Or, if they are aware of the alternatives, then they either disparage them as undisciplined, or have faddishly adopted the perception of using the alternatives, without really understanding or implementing them properly.

The same pressures that created the neo-liberal university Richard talks about also encourages, perhaps even requires, the adoption of techno-rational, plan-driven processes. That is, senior, knowledgable people identify the solution and then employ project boards and other folk to ensure that the entire organisation implements that solution. Senior people aren’t able to say, “We don’t know what the best solution is, we’re going to explore”. That would be seen as ignorant (the leader must have the answer) and inefficient. If you decide you don’t want to adopt the solution, you are seen as inefficient or not a team player. And eventually when the inevitable problems arise (because they really didn’t know what would be needed now, let alone in a couple of years) it’s not the senior management folk or the process that gets the blame. No, it was poor implementation. If only we had better people doing the implementation…

Humphrey Appleby

It is in this environment that a project like the PLEs@CQUni project was always going to fail. The PLE idea was, and still is very new, for most senior managers. It also sounds inefficient, “You mean each student gets to choose their own set of tools and we have to support them? Won’t that be expensive?”. In the words of Humphrey Appleby, any senior manager pushing PLEs would be making a “brave decision”. Especially when the project was described as an exploration into what can be done, you can’t waste resources on exploration. This is particularly troubling for the teleological, techno-rational, clueless senior manager when everyone knows that an LMS, preferably an open-source LMS, is what every university needs.

And then there is the influence of the innovation prevention departments most often created by the traditional hierarchical organisational structure that arises from the application of traditional decomposition. A structure that means in-depth knowledge of technology, learning and teaching, and actual learning and teaching are separated into disparate fiefdoms that can only communicate through self-serving senior managers.

Did I mention that my perspective had probably been elevated to a unhealthy level of contempt?

The problem facing responses to the existing crisis

I tend to think that these barriers will continue to exist. I’ve been waiting for senior management at universities to seriously engage in Snowden’s clarion call to think anew and avoid “The dogmas of the quiet past”. However, I think the constraints of techno-rational approaches are so embedded in the neo-liberal pressures within government/society and the thinking of senior management that I can’t see this changing anytime soon.

For example, one of the steps Leigh is suggesting is

Offer all the universities in the world your service, outlining the cost benefit analysis you’ve done for them (like Google Docs did). All you need from them is assurance they will give your graduates the rubber stamp on your assessed and moderated say so.

If a big international publishing company offered this argument, then there is a chance that some universities would adopt. Well, let’s face it. When it comes to many large classes, they already have. However, if it were a network of hippy, wiki former academics….

Then there is the increasing pressure to standardisation and accreditation being heralded within Australia by TEQSA. This pressure arises from the same techno-rational place underpinning all of the above. In that environment, I think it would be a “brave university senior manager” who would adopt such an approach. At least without the hippy, wiki former academics demonstrating how their “course” met the standard learning outcomes identified by TEQSA.

Which tends to go against everything they hippy, wiki former academics would be trying to achieve. Are the two approaches increasingly incompatible?

A way forward?

That’s a question for myself. A personal question. Do I see a way forward that might allow me to contribute? I’ve already left the institution, but am I still part of the academy? Do I want to be? What do I want?