Thursday, 23 January 2014

Plumbing, Pedagogy, Policy, Personalised Learning and ePortfolios

Calman Learning Centre, Durham
Calman Learning Centre, Durham
Earlier this month I attended (and presented at) the Durham Blackboard Users' Conference. This was my fourth time to attend the conference, which is always a very valuable event, particularly at the start of the new year. This year's event was no exception. Quite apart from the excellent keynotes (Patrick Carmichael and Robin Goodfellow) and the varied programme, this also gives me a chance to catch up with a very open and sharing community of learning technologists, teachers and administrators with common issues and challenges.

It's now about 2 weeks since the conference and I've had a chance to let some ideas and thoughts settle. Rather than being a conference report, I'd just like to write down some of my reflections arising from the event. Apologies for the long post, it has taken me a few days to bring the threads together.

An archive of the tweets from the event is available on storify.

UntitledOne of the first things that I noticed on arriving at the Calman Building, before the Mobile User Group meeting, was a notice on the back of the toilet doors, politely advising people on how to use the facilities. My first thought was that I wished somebody would put something similar in the toilets at NUIG. But then I wondered how we have arrived at a state in society where such a notice is considered necessary? Surely these recommendations are well known! And if people (staff, students) in a university don't know how to use the toilets, how can we expect them to use the VLE?

Perhaps inspired by this notice, Elaine Tan (@ElaineRTan) in her final session asked if eLearning technologies should be like a toilet - functioning, clean and accessible, but not in your face? I would agree that many supporting IT systems should be like this, for example registration, fees, expenses, records etc. Elaine's question arose however in the context of a study of incoming student expectations around the use of technology in their learning, and the realisation that they weren't particularly looking for the latest bright, shiny tools.

When it comes to the use of social media, as Robin Goodfellow noted in his keynoted, students will not take kindly to attempts to redesign social learning practices already in existence informally.

I think this is a reminder to us all that we absolutely have to stop focusing on the technology, and finding ways to implement it in (or outside) the classroom. But rather than delegating technology to the status of plumbing, we have to remember to always focus on the pedagogy and start from there.

Technology and Pedagogy
 In a previous blog post, as part of my reflections on #edcmooc, I argued that technology does not change education. But, the introduction of a technology can sometimes have the effect of causing us to rethink our pedagogies. A simple example can be seen in the use of classroom response systems, or clickers. These are often introduced simply to engage students, but can cause a lecturer to think about how they integrating the clickers into their teaching, eventually even considering using peer instruction as an approach.

Sometimes the introduction of technology can expose poor pedagogy, as in the project described by Andy Raistrick (@AJRaistrick) in his presentation ePortfolios for Learner Engagement, Feedback, Plagiarism Detection and Electronic Marking. Although presented as an unsuccessful project, in fact the overall result was very positive. The complicated ePortfolio system was abandoned, when it was realised that that there were some basic underlying problems with the assessment design - a very good outcome. Andy's presentation was a highlight of the conference for me.

Robin Goodfellow's personal learning
Robin Goodfellow, in his keynote, also spoke about a failed ePortfolio project, which he described as a "triumph of design over need". This was in the context of his own personal learning journey and highlights again how failure can be a very effective learning experience.

There was a lot of talk about ePortfolios at the event, and tools to support these. But I think we're asking the wrong questions. Unlike blogs or wikis, which are particular technical tools, an ePortfolio can be different things to different people, in different contexts. Is the ePortfolio about the product or the the process? What is the purpose: to collate and archive, to reflect, to document, to get a job? I think the best presentation I've seen on ePortfolios was from student teachers at #GREAT13. This put the pedagogical considerations at the heart of the discussion. The technology is secondary.

Personalised Learning and Policy
One of the conference themes was personalised learning, which was interpreted in different ways by different speakers. But there was also a lot of talk about policies for technology use, which makes me wonder about personalised teaching.

It would appear that there are many academics who are incapable of using or making decisions around the use of technology in their teaching. We heard about lecturers who cannot set up their own assignments in a VLE, can't make rational decisions about assessment deadlines, or the results of a Turnitin report. And so it becomes necessary to make policies about threshold standards for VLE courses, online assessment design and submission practices, required use of tools, compulsory training etc. Once a policy is in place, as pointed out by Bryony Bramer and James Leahy, it then becomes necessary to describe the exceptions to the policy (because there always are exceptions).

I've written before on my thoughts on threshold standards for Blackboard courses, and how they are the invention of the Innovation Prevention Department. Here's why I don't think we should be making policies around how the VLE is used:
  • I see a Blackboard course as an extension of the classroom/lecture theatre, where the teacher and students can decide how they want to use it to best support teaching, learning and assessment activities. A lot of the time, they don't use it very well. But maybe they can learn from their mistakes, rather than being told how to use it.
  • Policies are problematic anyway. There are always exceptions. And when a policy is in place, somebody has to police it. That's a position of oversight that I don't want to be in.
  • Why not just provide sets of recommendations, examples of good practice, and a rationale for why it's not a great idea to have a submission deadline of midnight on a Friday night?
  • Most importantly, by removing the authority for teachers to make these decisions about assessment and to organise their courses themselves, we are also shifting responsibilities. Some academics will resent this (and they are often the people we want as champions) while others will quite happily abdicate that responsibility. As a result, the technology we want to promote becomes associated with administration rather than with teaching.
A simple example of my last point - at NUI Galway we create new, empty Blackboard courses each year for each module taught. Instructors have access to their new (empty) modules and to their old modules. We do not copy content from one year to the next for them. Why?  Because it is up to the lecturer to consciously make the decision to use exactly the same materials (and hence to perform a course copy), or reuse some materials, or to start with a blank slate.

As always, the Durham Blackboard Users' Conference was a splendid event. It was a great opportunity to network and provoked a lot of thought at the start of the year. Many thanks to Julie Mulvey, Malcolm Murry and everybody involved in the organisation.

Some other reflections from the conference:
ePortfolios, Digital Literacies and the Role of Data  (Matt Cornock)
Reflections on the Life of i (Sue Watling)
Durham Blackboard Users Event 2014 (Graeme Boxwell)
Durham (14th) Blackboard Users Conference 2014 – “Life of i”(Ashley Wright)

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