With Denmark still in Covid lockdown and days filled with online classes and meetings, we had first snow and frost bringing some much-needed light and then a rapid change of weather. A major part of the lockdown is due to end on March 1, but most teaching is still online and museums, concert venues etc. are still closed.
The topic for the “smart universities”* panel might seem a bit distant from social work but the presentations were interesting in themselves and at the same time raised some issues which could be relevant for future developments in education. Here I’ll base my post on the presentations by Dorthe Lund of DTU, Denmark, and Maarten van Steen, University of Twente – Twente incidentally has a BA programme in public administration which has some parallels with the professional BA offered by UC Lillebælt.
One point of departure was the design of “smart” campusses, defined as environments where academic staff and students had access to the infrastructure of the campus and were able to pull data about the use of various kinds of infrastructure from different kinds of data gathering devices, like eg. “smart” lampposts or sensors placed in libraries or similar kinds of semi-public environments. This gave students access to data which would allow them to search for patterns in everyday behaviour and develop solutions which could be appliced in practice. As Dorthe Lund noted, the introduction of a “smart” campus also meant that teachers and students had to find ways to collaborate with janitorial and administrative staff in the design and implementation of projects.
Two general points were relevant to both presentations.
The first relates to the physical settings of education: Here both DTU and UoT had worked with designing specialised workshop-areas on campus as a supplement to (or even a replacement of) more traditional classrooms. This would allow groups of students to collaborate on the development and design of different types of projects. We should also note that even if “campus” has become a popular term for any kind of location with academic and educational facilities, Twente is more like the traditional US (or Oxbridge) type of campus with a mix of (student) housing, leisure activities and academic facilities.
The second obviously relates to privacy and the integrity of data collected on the smart campusses. Here universities and other HE institutions have to balance the possiblities of surveillance technology with the legal and ethical issues raised by mass surveillance. At the OEB 2015 Cory Doctorow adressed some of these issues and his speech is still available on YouTube.
*I’m a bit allergic to “smart” as a buzzword, hence the quotation marks
Limitless learning was the general topic of one of the planary debates which opened Friday’s sessions.
Among other things, Alec Couros notes the expansion of the types of sources available in what he called the network/teacher diagram. The insight that knowledge is now available in many more formats obviously makes the task of teachers more complex but learners/students also face a more complicated world.
On the positive side, some creative students (in all ages) are able to use the internet actively no only by searching for and applying existing knowledge but also by presenting problems and asking for help or guidance. In this way, a service like YouTube has developed into a huge, sprawling repository of learning objects and this has happend without anyone ever designing YouTube as such. On the negative side, the development of the net also has created a number of problems, including the supply of all kinds of false information, and the abuse of individuals’ digital identities (Couros gave some chilling examples by presenting his fakes digital dobbelgangers). Finally, Couros also raised the question of the future availability of the free internet as an issue.
Diana Laurillard took a slighly different perspective to the debate by discussing the various roles and activities involved in learning. One point related to the topic of e-learning is the relative importance of acquiring knowledge vs. inquiring, discussing and applying knowledge. Teachers will have very different roles in these four types of learning, but e-learning platforms and the design of courses will have to take the possiblities for interaction between teachers and students and between students themselves into account. Laurillard also pointed out the MOOCs could only partially realise the potentials of e-learning as they lacked the element of individualisation which students at the basic or bachelor level need. In this way MOOCs in their original form could be a useful tool for learners in mid-career, but they wouldn’t supplant more traditional forms of contact between students and between students and teachers, at least not without a serious loss of quality in education.
A second point raised by Laurillard was that the drivers of digital learning – both in form of technological developments and actors pushing for e-learning – might be strong but that they in general were badly aligned with the different needs and behaviours of learners.
Due to a conflict of schedules I had to leave before Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation had finished his contribution but I noted some important points in his speech: The internet and digitalisation hasn’t overcome traditional social cleavages – there is still a massive difference between younger and older people when it came to the use of digital technology, variations in educational background and income still play a crucial role in acces to and use of the digital world and finally he, like Alec Cuoros, was worried about the tendency toward centralisation of services on the internet.
Choosing a pre-conference workshop for OEB 2016 presented me with some problems. Unlike earlier years I felt that the workshops available were either too techical for my needs and abilities, too close to what I could learn by working with one of our own experts on learning technology at UC Lillebælt or repeating themes I had learned about during OEB 2014 and 2015 or similar national conferences.
In the end I decided to select a workshop presented by the UK Open University about the design and implementation of a new LMS environment where one of the specifications had been the integration of mobile and desktop access to courses. I was a bit unsure, though, about the content and the actual audience the OU had had in mind: The workshop could be aimed at developers, managers and project leaders (those who order bew or updated LMEs) or teachers and students using the environment on a day-to-day basis. Ideally, all these parties are necessary participants in the successful development of something so complicated as an LMS – and it is easy to imagine a successful workshop based on the participation and contributions of people representing all three sides, but confusion about the target audience may have held prospective participants away.
Another, less legitimate, factor limiting participation may have been that the workshop was provided free of charge. I imagine that if OEB participants had had to defend spending € 50-100 on a workshop to their employer, the number of no-shows would have been considerably smaller. This may seem strange but the explanation had a certain economic logic to it.
The workshop itself could be described as a mixed experience. I could imagine the set-up would work not just well but very well if the workshop leaders were given the task of running a similar workshop for, say, employees and students at a university which wanted to update its LMS. The presenters also did a very good job in making us consider some (three hours only allowed us the scratch the surface) of the complexities in designing a good user experience and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that students at the OU evaluate the UX of the new LMS in positive terms. So in terms of the pedagogical level, I will give the presenters very high marks.
That said, I lacked information about the outcome of the process which led to the update of the OU’s LMS: What would my UX be if I enrolled in a course or a programme at the OU? The process must have led to some insights which could be transferred to other HE institutions. I could also argue that the model presented by the OU is applicable to many major development projects – in fact we teach our students at the Social Work programme in Odense and Vejle some of the same tools for developing social work initiatives. So what were the factors that are specifically relevant for working on LMSes aimed at the mobile emvironment compared to LMSes in general or other development projects? I am still unsure about that.
So to sum up: After the workshop, I am convinced that we use the right didactic tools at the School of Social Work when we teach students about how to develop a programme, but I failed to gain new knowledge about the specific demands LMSes have to meet in the age of the mobile/desktop mix.
It is that time of the year again…
During the next couple of days I’ll be attending Online Educa Berlin for the third year running and you may feel entitled to ask: Have the previous two years had any impact on my day-to-day work?
Good question. It is probably most fair to say that there have been no large-scale revolutions but that Clive Shepherd’s discussion of different ways to “blend” specific elements of learning continues to be a useful model for my planning of courses. Partly by accident, partly by design, I have begun experimenting with recorded instructions and presentations, specifically in a course module where I will be teaching and supervising student groups making interviews with marginalised citizens. The e-learning format seemed an obvious vehicle for instructing students about their assingment and techniques for preparing and analyzing interviews while using the face-to-face time for tutoring and supervision. As the course module has only just started, I won’t be able to evaluate and comment on the experiment before January. But I still think that last year’s workshop gave me the tools needed to conceptualise the different ways of organising the preparation, instruction and application of skills-oriented teaching and learning.
I guess that another lesson which I have learned is that planning and implementing a fundamental revision of a study programme is likely to be doomed because of the complexity of a cross-disciplinary programme. Doing small-scale experiments is a much more viable strategy.
How about this year’s OEB, then? I found it a bit difficult to select a relevant pre-conference workshop but in the end I opted for a workshop about e-learning, content platforms and mobile experience. Most students – and teachers – in HE are familiar with mobile devices and we could argue that the mobile interface is already our main interface with the WWW but we are still some way away from integrating this experience in the design of LMEs and teaching materials.
Another theme that I will try to follow is a series of presentations on the first day of the conference which focus on the role of students in producing learning content and structuring learning. This also fits with a project I will be contributing to during 2017 concerning the implementation of the “study activity model” in Danish professional BA-programmes with a specific focus on blended learning. I will try a write more about this later in the week. As a follow-up I consider attending a number of presentations focussing on students “owning” or “controlling” their learning environment – even though my plans are still open for revision.