Saturday, 27 February 2010

Until Heads, Principals get it, use it, live it or retire much frustration continues

I have been invited to speak to some nice e-learning people at a JISC RSC forum in a few days and really would like to make an impact. I guess it's not going to change the world but I would like to do a bit more than just talk about web tools. For a while now I've been attending events, listening to students, watching developments at my College and others and seeing staff development activities come and go and I'm amazed at how little seems to have changed since I started looking at this in any detail back in 2003.

Yes, there are more smartboards in classrooms and the PCs seem to work a bit better and more equipment is available in staff rooms and classrooms. But I would have expected that to have happened anyway - as a sort of natural progression - what I can't detect is any significant shift in the enhancement of teaching and learning using the stuff, despite all the money poured in to various government agencies, some of which trickled out to institutions and despite all the effort made by some really talented and well-meaning e-learning advisors, guides, support people et al.

What appears on the smartboards or on the new screens is much as one would have expected from gradual progression too. But that seems to have ground to a halt with Moodle. It's been available for 5 or 6 years now but all students get from the vast majority of courses on the 'VLE' is a long list of links to Word documents or PowerPoint presentations. Click on one and you're waiting while the PC configures something or other and after a few minutes there's some tedious-looking Times New Roman or Arial spread across a sheet of A4 that doesn't fit the screen and a bundle of toolbars that are not exactly relevant to the content.  Go for the PowerPoint link and hold your breath as the excitement builds - will it be a new window or not? Will it start playing and advance at a rate faster than I can read or will it open with all menus blazing and invite me to skip the first five slides as I can see them to one side and they look uninteresting?

The presentations themselves seem largely to be text only, and far too much of it at that, and many slides appear pretty much as they did when the content was imprinted on a thermal transparency encased in a cardboard frame and displayed on the wall by some overhead projection device.

That really seems to be about it. Where are the images? Where are the web pages that load so much more quickly than Office-ware? Where are the news feeds and illustrated links to interesting support material? Often students simply print out the Office-ware and carry on as before which makes me wonder why on earth the tutor went to all the trouble to upload the stuff in the first place. Oh, statistics. Of course. I forgot. By logging in to the VLE management can get lots of lovely figures about how many students are using it, and how many tutors haven't visited the CPD section since 2007.

I know some well-intentioned managers who have wanted to spruce up the rather sad default display of courses or links to other pages by introducing icons, images related to content etc. and this has improved the visual side of things. The trouble is, it can take a while to set up and is a pain to change should any of the content pages be moved or should new ones be required. It's usually only a few members of staff that can do that sort of thing well anyway as it's not exactly straightforward.

Even if progress by staff generally has been gradual, it has been positively zooming in comparison to that of many senior managers. 'All staff' E-mails still come out with Word documents attached, often several and PDFs a-plenty. The inevitable presentation at a meeting is a PowerPoint, with only the nice new Office2007 backgrounds distinguishing them from years gone by. The handout, though, is still the familiar six-to-a-page sheet of mini slides that sets everyone looking for their glasses. Some more enlightened presenters do put the material on Moodle but, once again, it's the link as I've bemoaned above.

That, indeed, in my view is why so little has really changed in some institutions. Few senior managers, those who should be setting an example to others, who should inspire others, who, damn it, can afford to hire the staff to do so if they can't themselves, so few seem to use technology effectively themselves in either their 'teaching' staff or general communication. If Marketing or PR people haven't something handy then it's unlikely that there'll be any images in the communications. There's very little use of the VLE that staff are constantly being hounded to use. There's virtually zero evidence of any of them having any web presence themselves or being able to contribute to updating web content to share with staff or the world.

I remember, six years ago, showing a Principal's Secretary how using a blog could replace whole piles of minutes and notices and how her boss could use it too. The feed from the blog could have appeared as headlines on a web page or the VLE and people would think 'Wow! If he or she can do it then so can I'. Well a few might, at least. The blog is still live but the last entry was the first.

I remember showing another College manager how Google documents could be utilised in 2006 to allow several people to work together on a document. Instead of umpteen people battling with different versions of a spreadsheet and never knowing whether report[1].xls or report[3].doc was the right file to use, there would be one document on-line which was automatically saved and the latest edit shown. Everyone would know where they were and inboxes would be saved vast amounts of confusing attachments. The guy loved it but nothing ever happened.

Where these events occurred and I was the person trying to make the change then I feel as though I failed. I should have been more firm, insisting that they try the new ideas. I tried to show good examples and where other institutions did seem to move on a little I hoped that would help me implement change. It's funny - I never actually found out why senior staff didn't do it. I have a feeling it was a lack of confidence - having to ask for help may have been embarrassing, a fear of making a silly mistake when using the 'new' technology. They were the bosses, too. They had made it. They didn't need to impress anyone. No-one was going to threaten them. Old, familiar ways sort of worked still and only odd people like me seemed to object out loud. So nothing happened.

Now that they don't teach, will they ever learn?