Friday, 11 November 2011

It's time for a change

With several good minds in e-learning being made redundant in HE and FE institutions recently I would like to set up a consortium of these bright and smart people to provide advice and practical assistance to schools, colleges, universities here in the UK and, where practical, anywhere else that can make it worth our while.

For too long now big firms like Capita and the like have dominated the scene and many colleagues will be familiar with the clunky and poorly designed interfaces, the cost of those extra packages needed to ensure that one set of data can be merged with another and trying to meet management requests for reports by techniques like highlighting a load of columns on the screen and copying and pasting them into a spreadsheet so that they can actually do something useful with them.

Moodle provided FE Colleges, in particular, with an opportunity to escape from the costly clutches of WebCT but, for many, has merely remained a kind of repository of Word and PowerPoint files in long lists broken by the occasional heading. Despite all the enthusiasts and well-meaning support and, indeed the good intentions of its creators and developers, virtual learning environments have remained precisely that - virtual learning environments, an environment where learning might take place but doesn't really. VLEs were all the rage back in 2002, like smartboards, when the British Government handed out substantial chunks of money to institutions to develop what was then called ILT or Information Learning Technology. We had Becta, LSDA, Ferl, NLN, CEL, NLN and a whole alphabet soup of similar bodies with similar aims, all offering conferences in nice hotels and many recruiting Regional Co-ordinators and E-Guides or Subject Something-or-others. I was one, seconded to LSDA and had a marvellous time touring the many institutions in my region spreading the e-learning gospel and handing out grants for projects. With NLN Learning Technologies Team I even got to work with some Education Department officials and began to comprehend how to get money allocated to fund our ideas for what we could do next.

With AoC in 2004 I was particularly pleased to lead the development of a scheme whereby staff in institutions could buy a nice new computer or laptop and get the cost deducted from their salary, thereby saving a very handsome 30% or more by way of income tax and other savings. That started brilliantly but having to put together a 78-page bid document to ensure that the whole thing met all the EC legislative requirements meant enthusiasm stalled and, although it did get launched, the company acting as go-between twixt people and the suppliers gave up the ghost and Labour withdrew the tax relief shortly afterwards.

I have written and spoken a lot already about how little real change there seems to have been, though, in the classroom. Apart from a projector and smartboard, and more computers, many institutions still don't seem to have got it, or if they had, they haven't moved with the times much since. So many tutors still get told to 'put it on moodle' so students have to scroll through tedious-looking lists of Office document links which take an age to open. That's all anyone has taught many tutors to do - upload a document so it is an understandable failing. We need pictures, links to web pages and fast-loading material, not Microsoft Office files. We need some variety so that tutors can do things their way and display material independently, without lots of notes and training, and in a style that they choose rather than being obliged to follow some house style created by someone in Marketing who really only meant to set rules for adverts and posters, not every ruddy document produced by anyone at the place.

We need assignments that are easy to read and understand so there's a chance that students will actually read them and not merely point to a screen and ask the tutor what they're supposed to do. We need systems whereby students can drop work off on-line instead of printing a myriad copies - but not one that refuses to accept anything that isn't on its very short list of acceptable formats.

What we don't need are more and more computers strewn around classrooms, usually arranged so that once the students have sat down the tutor is left staring at a load of backs and heads and shoulders silhouetted against bright screens. Once, yes, I was arguing for more and more equipment to be available in classrooms but now we can move on from there. Wireless networks aren't the on-off affairs they once were and seem to run whatever is thrown at them just as fast as anyone wants. Laptops, tablets and pads take up little space and don't restrict anyone to where they sit, or, for that matter, even which part of the building they actually get taught in. By all means leave a few pcs or macs whirring in the rooms - and, of course, changing to portable devices would imply that all those barren places can now have one too! - but nowadays every space can be a learning space, and every room a 'well-equipped' classroom.

One of the barriers to tutors' advance on the e-learning front has been the fact that so many still don't teach in places where students have access to computers so, whilst those that are with it may get them to use their phones or refer them to addresses to check out at home, in the library or ICT suite later, they don't get the instant in-class benefit of having lots of goodies on hand to display as and when the mood or lesson plan takes them. This could be bashed down in one move.

My heart actually sinks now when I walk in to a brand new multi-million pound establishment classroom and am greeted by the backs of 50 black Dell monitors and, worse, boxes and cables linking everything together in some sad spaghetti world. Where a few weeks earlier had been a delightful, well-lit living and learning space with notice boards still with rectangular profiles and a carpet not decorated by random chewing gum splodges there is now just a mass of machines, chairs and work surfaces like some old office furniture store.

New technology means that we can provide attractive, comfortable space for learning. We can take account of what kit the students themselves bring in and like to use. If that's a phone then we need to work with phones more. If it's a laptop then we need to allow them to tap into our wireless networks and if that means beefing up the security to cope with all that invasion of IT Services' privacy then so be it. They've had a good time secreted in a room far away from the main show for long enough.

It's not particularly expensive these days either. Even if institutions have now spent all their grants and extra ILT funds on this and that or him and her then we're mainly talking about refurbishment and x new bits of kit which shouldn't represent that great a chunk out of the income each full-time student generates. And if the profit really isn't there then I suggest that senior management aren't doing their job effectively so lose one which should pay for 1000 laptops.

There are also still grants and project funds galore out there if you look. It's hard work digging them out and often the deadline for bids is a matter of days away by the time you find it. Universities have lots of bids they can apply for from organisations like JISC as well as the heavier and difficult to comprehend European stuff which appears to be continuing apace regardless of the demise of the countries' economies in the EC. HE is supposed to work with FE on many of these projects but usually have, er, a 'special relationship' with just one institution and all the others seldom get a look-in. And if you're really keen then there's always something available for those politically-correct minority projects which could be tweaked to suit what you have in mind with a bit of imagination.

Tutors aren't going to have time to do all this and curriculum managers are getting scarce these days as belts get tightened and they're the least able to justify their office desks and secretaries. So it's down to the senior management team to get on with this but they can only do so if they actually comprehend what e-learning and the technology itself is really all about. Now that, regrettably, is where all the policies, initiatives and Blair money has almost totally failed. I would say 'utterly' rather than 'almost' were it not for the fact that I do know one or two brilliant minds and enthusiastic people who have made it to the top table and one or two one-time good tutors or curriculum managers have even been promoted and can now bring some common sense and new thinking at their meetings. Most of the 2006 SMT crowd, however, now have very respectable salaries and training in all sorts of areas useful for their own career advancement but have managed to avoid technology for the last 5 years. You only have to to see the e-mail Word attachments, PowerPoints at meetings (and that, indeed is what all their presentations are as few have dared venture into non-Microsoft land) and occasional forays into distributing an Excel file for others to update and send back, to be able to make a pretty accurate assessment of their own skills and confidence in using new technology.

So who is going to promote new thinking when the risk of their own lack of competence at worst or understanding at best is highly likely to be out there for all to see? One or two questions from well-informed staff is all it takes to blow a hole in the poor well-dressed people's veneer. Even those with a determined personality and appropriately thick skin, and especially those with an appealing honesty in admitting they're not as good as they know they ought to be these days, need a stuff drink or to restart a smoking habit before embarking on and leading the business of making a change.

But change there must be. And that's where my colleagues and I hope to be able to help.

1. Recognise things need improving.
2. Accept that you don't really know what you're talking about when it comes to technology and e-learning.
3. Appoint us to get you some money and start the process and maybe locate some experts at your place.
4. Get on with what you are good at.
5. Take the credit later and give up drink and fags again.

No comments:

Post a Comment