Educational technology: deja vu all over again

I must be getting old and have spent far too long in universities and educational technology. I keep seeing the wheel being reinvented all over again.

Today, spam from Facebook lured me there to unsubscribe from notifications, once again. Whilst there I was lured into @kierenjamieson’s page/wall (whatever) by his unique collection of cat videos and food porn. But then there came a link to this opinion article titled “Reduced scope of the Office of Teaching and Learning should focus us on what works”.

It takes the announcement of changes to the OLT and turns it into some suggestions about what might work better. Suggestions that include investing in “platforms that support collaboration in teaching and learning”. There’s also the observation that “biology professors all over Australia” teach the same content, from the same history, using the same books and the question about “what if all of them could deliver a learning experience that is currently achieved by the top 10 per cent of their peers – an experience that engages, challenges and stimulates their students”.

It then points to BEST network as an example of this that is currently working. Apparently a world first, a “teaching network run by academics for academics” powered by technology from Smart Sparrow. It’s a cloud-based system that

supports a sustainable model of academic crowd-sourcing that frees teachers from the constraints of their institutional silos, to the benefit of student, teacher and institution alike

I’ve heard a fair few rumblings about Smart Sparrow over recent years all indicating that apparently it’s quite good. Plus the description of the BEST network makes it sound wonderful. Time to go have a look. Interesting to see whether I could get access. The site looks good and I was successful in loading up a lesson and engaging with it. At no stage did I need to login. That’s good.

But this is when the problems set in.

The “lesson” I engaged with was a multimedia page turning exercise with the (questionable) advantage of poorly constructed multiple-choice questions for interaction. Just like the various truly crappy HR/Quality/Legal “lessons” I’ve been required to complete over the years by organisations.

Granted, the Smart Sparrow technology has been used to implement something that is very well integrated and is has good graphic design. But, knowing little about the content area I was able to successfully work through the lesson answering questions based on common sense guessing, or simply eliminating the nonsensical options. The folk behind this particular lesson need to read “The 10 stupid mistakes in design of Multiple Choice questions”.

Now this might have been just a one-off. Maybe I picked the one bad one. Maybe there are some really well designed examples. But in the end it appears that the technology is re-producing the same old multimedia/MCQ lessons that have been around for yonks. Sure, I imagine that the “adaptive” part means that there is some good algorithms behind the scenes that allow you manage, branch and direct learners in good ways.

But those will still rely on the design team being able to leverage those algorithms by designing the knowledge base. Which is the really hard work.

Then there’s the question about these lessons being reliant on proprietary software. Can anyone say “loss leader” and “lockin”?

If I’m the biology lecturer at ACME University, how do I organise for my class of 1000 biology students (and their data) to get into the various systems required for them and I to effectively use the wonderful, adaptive lesson I’ve found? Is central IT and L&T at ACME University going to be able to help?

Is this Bates’ Lone Ranger problem all over again?

I had a quick look through the BEST network, and it wasn’t very explicit about the licensing. Certainly no clear statement of the content being openly licensed.

On the plus side, it does appear that people are using the site to share resources. But then again this isn’t all that new. Google “learning object repository”. Or you might want to visit Merlot. Even I – as someone skeptical about the value of specific repositories – added something to Merlot in 2007 and Merlot started 10 years before that.

And to give Merlot it’s due, at least it’s website is still operational almost 20 years later. It is arguably the exception that proves the rule that these types of specific community sites/repositories for sharing University learning and teaching resources/tips will disappear within 5 years of initiation. As many ALTC/OLT projects can attest.

Just because we have a new technology, it doesn’t fundamentally change the practice. It seems educational technology is destined to make a better wheel, or perhaps just build horseless carriages.

How about we try for some transformation?


I’m in a skeptical frame of mind (more so than usual). I’ve only had a quick skim of the BEST network. I only looked at one “lesson” from it.

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