Saturday, 29 October 2016

E-learning as a job: The skills requirements of Universities today

There are significant differences of interpretation as to what "E-learning" or "Technology-enhanced learning" actually is - particularly when it comes to the expectations of employers and the capabilities of employees. Managers will often envisage online courses with videos, quizzes, etc and assume that this is what 'e-learning' is. As a result of this expectation, tools have been tailor-made to produce such online presentations (Articulate, Storyline, etc). Basically, they're "glorified Powerpoint", simply sequencing content, and unfortunately, whilst they produce nice-looking content, they are extremely limited in their capability to harness the full potential of technology in education. Sitting in front of a video, clicking on buttons in answer to quiz questions is a miserable educational experience (watch the wonderful computer scene in "I, Daniel Blake" to see precisely how miserable this stuff is)

Human learning, teaching, and more broadly, communicating is extremely complex and poorly understood. Technology can be a tremendous asset or a terrible hindrance. The difference between the two is the creative imagination, educational insight and technical capability of the educational technologist. In each of these categories, the commercial 'tooling' of e-learning - whether its the institutional VLE, presentation software, or commercial social software - together with the managerialism of education has had many negative effects. If creative imagination is restricted to the capabilities of the software, the results will all look the same. If the educational insight is missing, there will simply be a load of content (which may look lovely) that nobody will engage with. If the technical capability isn't there, then the educational technologists cannot step outside the box because their legs are tied together.

But this is what we see in the world of educational technology now (if you don't believe me, just look at the majority of submissions for ALT-C). Too many educational technologists simply do what they're told, produce Powerpoints (Storyline/Articulate) with voice-over (maybe a little bit of animation), a few quizzes, and stick the files on the VLE. It looks pretty (sometimes) - but there's no thought. Sometimes, being a bit more ambitious, they might facilitate teachers feeding back to students with audio or video - but that's about it. There's no consideration of what else might have been possible. There's no discussion with the academics whose content it is as to how what they want to communicate might be communicated differently, there's no consideration for the context or needs of the learners, or an insight into the sheer boredom of gazing at a screen for hours.

The irony is that the sequencing of content can be achieved in much richer ways by avoiding the 'professional' tools. E-learning standards like IMS Content Packaging can aggregate rich content including simulations, games, (and quizzes, etc) from all over, and when played through the VLE, display in just as slick a format as that produced with the likes of Storyline. Understanding the authoring of content packages, the different kinds of content which can be created, the mixing of javascript and html5... all of this 'techie' stuff is being lost because there's now a package that makes it all easy, whilst at the same time attenuating the technical possibilities. But it isn't difficult - even if a tool like Reload looks a bit daunting at first (see

But then, understanding what becomes possible with content sequencing opens up what is possible with the multitude of web programming tools we now have. Real-time conversation and collaboration with NodeJS, Rich 3D graphics with Threejs and WebGL, data visualisations with d3.js, Agent based modelling with Python Mesa and the web version of Netlogo, data analysis with Jupyter notebooks, artistic visualisation with processingjs... the list goes on. We can do amazing things with the appropriate technical skill and theoretical insight.

Having said all this, producing content is not a terribly productive or educationally useful thing to do. There is content everywhere - there's little need to produce more of the stuff. What we lack are effective tools with which people can engage one another in innovative kinds of learning conversation. I quite like the idea of merging tools with content, so that content (say a video) is itself part of a tool - perhaps a tool for producing an analytical diagram which can then be used as a spur for conversation. The tool/content boundaries can be blurred - they are effectively both forms of constraint on the learner.

Which brings me to the underlying theory of what educational technologists do. The theory of e-learning is a potpourri of ideas which do not hang together. The worst example is "Networked Learning" - a mix of Illichian radicalism, communities of practice theory, poorly thought-through Pask/Laurillard cybernetics mixed with even more poorly conceived connectivism (which is also cybernetic), bits of activity theory, design-research, etc (see . There is no convincing ontology and no coherent epistemology: the theory merely looks like a patchwork of topics from a course design (which indeed it is!). Where's the intellectual ambition? And indeed, where's the critique?

There appears to be no desire to really pull this apart. After all, why would you? If you can simply grab little bits of theory to defend the latest project (however thin), and it ticks the box of "theoretical foundation" or "research methodology". More disturbingly, academic managers like to consider themselves well-versed in "educational theory" so that they can dictate the educational practices they wish to see in their institutions. Effectively, this is to reify something which is essentially transcendental, and instead of authentic human interaction and organic learning, we have robotic process and technocracy. But all our educational theory is deficient, and yet none of it is explored for the precise ways in which it is deficient: there is no exploration of the constraint boundaries of theoretical explanation and prediction. That would be a much more effective research programme.

Our tools for getting to grips with understanding the constraint boundaries are going to involve data. But this is not the learning analytics or big data which has hypnotised everyone. It has to start with a deep question which is as inseparable from education as it is from technology: What is information?

We simply don't know, and since it appears that information rules our lives more and more, we urgently need to understand better what we are talking about. This is the proper academic territory of e-learning: it is the intellectual engagement which can fire up the truly radical and transformative experiments in the relations with human learning conversations and technologies.

The ultra-conservative spirit that afflicts our universities at the moment seems to suggest that technology is 'over' - or at least settled around the VLE, Turnitin, E-portfolio and classroom polling systems. What a miserable thing! But, in true Marxist spirit, it will collapse under the weight of its own ontological contradictions. There, perhaps, is the most important role for the educational technologist - to warn of the consequences of not thinking. 

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