Monday, July 21, 2014

Personal learning environments

Mark Johnson has written a thought provoking post on personal learning environments at in which he discusses some of the ideas that came up at the pleconf in Tallinn.  There are several points that he raises that I want to pick up below.

I was involved in some of the early debates around PLEs, and at the time the debates were not about technology, but about the ownership and control of learning and teaching. There was much discussion around the VLE (LMS) being owned and controlled by the university (or college or school) and that this disenfranchised the learner. The PLE was a way of giving control to the learner. A wide variety of tools and forms of engagement were being discussed, largely based on social tools as there was (and I think still is) a strong (if not always well articulated) social constructivist approach to learning underlying most of the PLE enthusiasts approach.

Secondly, I think that you need to be more careful about what is social software (or hardware). Almost any technology can be used socially, but it is about what the key affordances are. Social networking tools are clearly social (the clue is in the name). Some tools are not, such as text editors, but can be used socially (either by posting the results or by cloud hosting and sharing). Others have social elements (powerpoint is essentially a broadcast technology rather than a social technology, though one could argue that by posting on Slideshare there can be discussion, and equally there may be social elements in a presentation - but usually by deviating from the slides.

Finally, I am very worried by your comments on coolness, which remind me of the VLE is dead type discussions. VLEs are clearly not dead, and it is at the point at which technology becomes normal (stops being cool?) that it is widely productive. It also seems to be at this point that many learning technologists lose interest in it and want to move onto the next technology.

So, I think the priority is exactly the opposite of what you suggest in the last paragraph ("The priority is to embrace and understand emerging technology, and to avoid getting trapped in what was once new and cool, but now isn’t."). The priority is to work with what users want, and especially to help users to make the most effective use of the technologies that they are already using; with the understanding that this will grow organically as they adopt other technologies.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Improve access to the British Library from outside London

Roly Keating
Chief Executive
British Library
96 Euston Road

06 June  2014

An open letter to Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library

Dear Roly,
I spoke to you a while ago at a dinner of the society of Bookmen where you gave a presentation, and I suggested that British Library, if it is to serve Britain, rather than just London, should have reading rooms across the country, at least in the major cities such as (in alphabetical order) Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Southampton.
I would like to explain my reasoning for this proposal, together with some suggestions as to how it might be achieved.
The British Library is intended (together with the National Libraries of Wales and Scotland) to serve all the people of the United Kingdom in their scholarly activity.  However, for many people it is extremely expensive to have to travel down to London in order to consult the Library’s collection.  As the number of books that can be reserved is limited it can often take several days of research at a time to cover all the books that are wanted, and this means either multiple train tickets or the even greater cost of staying overnight in London. Scholars who are based outside London therefore need great dedication to give up whole days for what may turn out to have been the wrong books and either deep pockets or someone else who will fund their travel. 
I appreciate that the late opening of the Library which at least means that it is possible to get several hours work in the library whilst making use of saver tickets, but it still means taking a whole day away from work, and adding perhaps four or more hours travel time to make use of the library.  There is also the problem that arriving later, as cheap tickets require, means that all the desks may already be taken.
Therefore to better serve the people who live outside the M25 I think that there is a need for access to the library more locally.  Given that the vast majority of books are now stored in Boston Spa and therefore have to commute to London there is little reason why they should not also commute to other locations.
I envisage this working by cooperation between the BL and university or city libraries which could dedicate some space specifically for consultation of BL resources.  This space would obviously have to be available to any BL ticket holders, and whether it is staffed by BL staff or subcontracted to the local library would a detail that needs to be sorted out.  Given the cost of distributing books and the (presumably) considerably smaller size of local reading rooms it may not be appropriate to have daily deliveries, but once or twice weekly should be possible to each branch from Boston Spa (with books from London’s holdings presumably going via Boston Spa).
Not only would this significantly reduce costs for scholars based in the provinces it would also reduce pressure on reading space in London.
I am aware that there are many problems that would have to be resolved (clearly many fragile books and manuscripts cannot easily be moved, but that is a fraction of the holdings).  There would also be some additional funding required to cover staff costs in the local reading rooms and distribution of the books to them, but if the British Library is to truly fulfil its remit to be a library for the whole nation, rather than just for London and the wealthy, then I am sure that with some effort these could be resolved.
I hope that you will consider these ideas and the possibility of at least a trial in a couple of centres.
Yours sincerely
Tom Franklin

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Deep, strategic and surface learning

the #ocTEL course this week has been thinking about approaches to learning, and the differences between deep, strategic and surface learning , which have been defined as:

Defining features of approaches to learning

Deep Approach
Intention — to understand ideas for yourself
Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experience
Looking for patterns and underlying principles
Checking evidence and relating it to conclusions
Examining logic and argument cautiously and critically
Becoming actively interested in the course content
Surface Approach
Intention — to cope with course requirements
Studying without reflecting on either purpose or strategy
Treating the course as unrelated bits of knowledge
Memorising facts and procedures routinely
Finding difficulty in making sense of new ideas presented
Feeling undue pressure and worry about work

Strategic Approach
Intention — to achieve the highest possible grades
Putting consistent effort into studying
Finding the right conditions and materials for studying
Managing time and effort effectively
Being alert to assessment requirements and criteria
Gearing work to the perceived preferences of lecturers


Source: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

There has been much discussion as to whether these are a continuum, and which forms are better than others (better for what one might well ask).  I want to start at the other end, and ask why someone might choose to learn something, and in that case what is the appropriate approach, as it at least helped to clarify my thinking; so in no particular order:
  • To solve an immediate problem - where the learner is trying to achieve something, anything, and they have a particular problem that they need to solve they may take a purely surface approach and say I want to solve this problem, what do I need to do? I can go back and look at this in more detail later if I want to.  Others may take a deeper approach and look at the issue in a more generic way and use it as an opportunity not just to address the immediate problem but to learn something that will be generally applicable in other situations.  I know people who do each of these, and people who will do both depending on their interest in the problem and the urgency of producing a solution.  I cannot see how a strategic approach might be relevant here, but would love some examples.
  • To pass an exam - The focus here is similar to that of solving an immediate problem, in that it is getting a short term problem fixed.  However, the immediacy is not as great (and the stakes may be high).  People do use all three approaches depending on all sorts of things.  For instance, are they interested in the subject, or is this and exam that they "just" need to pass and can then forget all about; if that is the case they may well take a surface or strategic approach.  Is this a subject where the learner knows that they will continue to use what they have learnt after the exam? In that case strategic or deep learning might be appropriate.  Is this a subject in which they have a real interest?  In that case deep learning might be appropriate for some of it, whilst strategic or surface learning may be appropriate for other parts.  I studied Zoology as my undergraduate degree topic, and took a deep approach to much of the course, but there were some parts that frankly bored me (anatomy and taxonomy in particular), so I studied the principles but took a very surface approach to the actual details (my taxonomy is little better than dem dry bones, and I used to invent beetles when I needed examples in taxonomy).
  • To learn something out of curiosity / for fun - One might think that here people would always chose deep learning, but that would not be true. People may learn songs without worrying too much (or even at all) about either the deeper meanings of the lyrics or anything beyond the tune of the song, or learn a recipe without thinking about the culinary principles that might be involved (although maybe Heston Blumenthal has changed that for some people?).  Other people will take a deep approach and actively engage with the topic and consider the principles etc.  I am not sure how relevant strategic learning can be here, as there is no external driver to  be strategic about.
  • personal or professional development - I guess here I am not thinking of courses on which one is sent (which  would be similar to pass an exam) so much as things one may chose to do in order to enhance ones career, but are self-motivated and (probably) not examined.  I would suggest that this is somewhere between passing an exam and learning for fun, and that therefore the approaches might be similar.
What other motivations are there for learning? what might be the approaches used? and what research has there been into this way of looking at the issue?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reflections on #ocTEL week on Concepts and strategies for Learning Technology and their relationship to CMALT

There has been much interesting discussion again this week, and a lot of issues raised and thoughtful, reflective comments posted by so many people that it has been a joy to participate, and occasionally to respond.  The focus of most of the comments and postings that I have read has been strongly focused on the pedagogy.  I think that the opening question about how one’s own practice relates to the quadrant (

set a good tone, and some people even posted some of their practice and published quadrants, one that I looked at by Maha Bali (‏@Bali_Maha) lists some of her practice

There are two areas of CMALT that the work that people have done relate to:
  • 1a) An understanding of the constraints and benefits of different technologies
  • 2a) An understanding of teaching, learning and/or assessment processes

Clearly there is some overlap between these sections anyhow, but also, the way in which people have approached this week’s work has had different emphases, some people taking a more technological starting point and others a more pedagogic one.  Note, that neither of these are better, they reflect different ways of thinking, different interests and different starting points.
There has been discussion of strategies for learning and teaching (or was that teaching and learning) and that has covered both institutional and personal strategies, and the relationship between them, and sometimes the dissonance that can be created when personal belief systems and institutional structures are at odds.
There has also been discussion of learning theories and how practice relates to (preferred) learning theories.
All this has been excellent, and the spirit in which it has been undertaken has been that of mutual support and cooperation, which supports the principles as well.  In case you have forgotten the principles are:
  1. A commitment to exploring and understanding the interplay between technology and learning.
  2. A commitment to keep up to date with new technologies.
  3. An empathy with and willingness to learn from colleagues from different backgrounds and specialisms.
  4. A commitment to communicate and disseminate effective practice. 

I would say that all those participating in the MOOC (at least all that I have seen) are amply demonstrating all four of the principles, and I think that is what has made membership of the MOOC such a pleasure.

What has been shown is people’s deep engagement and enthusiasm for thinking about teaching and learning and the processes involved.  All of this would come across very well in CMALT applications as it shows: 
  • Knowledge (experiential knowledge from people’s practice, engagement with the theory and how it supports their practice).
  • A willingness to learn and to share experience, good practice and ideas.
  • A keen ability to reflect on practice, and to think about how that reflection will impact on future practice.

All this is exactly what we are looking for when we are assessing CMALT applications.

The one thing that has sometimes been missing (because this is not CMALT applications, but a public discussion) is the supporting evidence.  I would not expect to find it here.  Often this material is sensitive, and ocTEL is not about proving what you have done, but learning from what you, and your colleagues, have done and are doing.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Using the ocTEL MOOC to support learning

I have been following some of the discussions that have been happening this week, and really enjoying the quality of much of it and the level of engagement that so many of you are showing (and I hope that I am demonstrating too).  One of the things that I have been thinking about is how this relates to undertaking a CMALT (Certified Membership of the Association for Learning Technology) application, and I think that it demonstrates the types of thing that we are looking for in your application. 
When assessing applications we are looking for three things relating to each of the headings.  These are description of what you have done, evidence that you did it and reflection on what you learnt from doing it.  I want to focus on reflection here for two reasons.  Firstly, applicants often have the greatest difficulty with reflection (that is we often have to ask applicants to do more reflection before we can accept the applications) and secondly the topic this week has been so general that it is harder to relate to most of the specific sections of the application.
I have seen considerable levels of reflection in some of the postings where people have commented not just on what they have done (description), but also why it worked (or didn’t) what might have made it work better and what they learnt from doing it.  This is exactly what we are looking for in applications, and is really helpful for other participants in ocTEL.  While CP Scott may have said “"comment is free, but facts are sacred” it is often the comment that is more useful for other people. This, for instance, is why case studies are such a popular way of understanding the possibilities of learning technology (or anything else for that matter).  While it may be true that facts are sacred and comment is free (though most facts are contested anyway, and much comment wouldn’t be worth paying for) it is when they are combined in a thoughtful way that the greatest understanding is developed both by the writer, and the reader.  When you are writing posts, or reading posts (whether blogs or in the forum or anywhere else) think about what is description, what is the evidence supporting it and what reflection there is.  Try to include some reflection in all your postings, it will really help to further your own understanding, and yes, I know I have not included reflection in all my postings, so I will try harder for the rest of ocTEL to include some reflection in my postings.
One of the other areas that we are looking for in CMALT applications is communications both as something to write about specifically in section 3 and because it relates to two of the principles behind CMALT:
·       An empathy with and willingness to learn from colleagues from different backgrounds and specialisms.
·       A commitment to communicate and disseminate effective practice.
Even vicarious learning supports the first of these two, whilst so many of you have been willing to comment on postings by others shows a commitment to communicate and disseminate effective practice.  Indeed, particiaption in the MOOC could be used as evidence in the communications section.
The other two principles are:
·       A commitment to exploring and understanding the interplay between technology and learning.
·       A commitment to keep up to date with new technologies
And here again there has been the start of discussions in these areas, which I am sure you will be pursuing as the ocTEL continues through the other weeks on topics relating to learning and technology.
What is very clear to me is that many of you already have the knowledge and experience to gain CMALT recognition, and that you can use ocTEL both to increase your understanding of learning technology and learning  and to reflect on what you already know and do.  That makes an ideal preparation for completing your CMALT application, so I hope to see a flood of applications at the end of June or start of July.

Good luck and enjoy ocTEL.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What's in a name? Why call it Technology Enhanced Learning?

What is now commonly called technology enhanced learning has gone by many names in the past including e-learning, online learning, blended learning and I am sure that there must be others that I no longer remember.

Names are important, at least names for things, because they tell us something about that thing.  So lets look at these names and see what they say to me, and maybe why they were chosen and why they were subsequently dropped.  No doubt technology enhanced learning (TEL) will eventually be replaced by something else for a perfectly good reason too.

The first name I remember was e-learning, and that was never a name I liked.  The focus is on it being different from "real" learning.  e was all the vogue at the time.  e (always lower case for some reason or other) was for everything.  e was for new and e was about replacing the current with new business models and destroying the old.  At the time a wrote a short piece (e-learning, b*****-learning and f*****-learning or what is wrong with e-learning) which poked fun at the idea by comparing e-learning with b-learning and f-learning which were the real thing.  they were book-learning and face-to-face learning.  Neither perhaps particularly well named, but it made for the nice b**** and f****.   

Online learning was no better that e-learning, and in some ways I think even worse, as what happened to offline, but at computer, learning? In those days there were lots of CD-ROMs (as we called them) and DVDs as an easy way to distribute content.  Now, there are plenty of e-books, podcasts downloaded for offline listening etc etc.  So, again it suggests that it is something different from "real" learning, and that it something that has to be done online.

Blended learning was all the rage for a while, but really (almost) all learning these days is blended.  The proportion and ways in which technology and non-technology learning and teaching are very variable from mostly work in classrooms with little use of computers to mostly online distance courses with very little of the teaching not being mediated by technology.  At that point blended learning comes to mean very little.  Blended between what and what? and for what purpose.  To me it always sounded a bit mushy (put it all the blender and out comes baby food or soup).

Technology enhanced learning is a big improvement.  We have learning, as before but we are about enhancing it through the use of technology.  I have seen some people complain about the word technology coming first, but learning enhanced by technology is really not going to work (for a start it is in the passive voice).  So, it says what we are trying to do. Although, I do accept that some people might want something more like technology transformed learning, which may perhaps be what the next name relates to.  On the other hand, the focus might move towards teaching (but I doubt it) and it might be technology enhanced teaching.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Is crowdsourcing like DNA?

In the, mostly excellent, new JISC Infokit on Crowdsourcing Martin Poulter provides an analogy whereby the computers do things sequentially and get things correct each and every time, whereas in biological systems there is a level of error, but that it is constant and self-correcting.   I am unhappy with much of this analogy, and in order to perform some of his crowdsourcing would like to explain my problems with it.

I need to include a lengthy quote and then  explain my problems with it:
"Computer 1 works in sequence through its list of instructions. If it has to add two numbers, it grabs the two numbers from wherever they are stored, puts them through its adding machine, sends the answer to be stored and then clears its workspace to prepare for the next instruction. It only begins a step once the previous one is complete.

"Computer 2 is completely different. Parts of Computer 2 are constantly breaking off and other things are constantly sticking to it. It thus exists in a state of near-equilibrium with its environment. However, it makes progress because the equilibrium is not exact. When part of its structure corresponds to part of the correct solution to its problem, Computer 2 becomes a little bit more stable. So over time it grows bigger and more complete, even though from minute to minute it is rapidly changing in a way that seems chaotic. Just under half the steps in the development of Computer 2 are reversals of previous steps.

"Another difference with Computer 2 is that a constant proportion of its steps give incorrect answers. Asked for 1+1 it will most of the time say 2, but every now and again give 3 or 4. This is not as disastrous as it sounds, because the answers are so frequently erased and replaced, and correct answers are more stable and more likely to become part of the long-term structure. Still, there is no guarantee that every instruction is carried out correctly.

"Here is another difference: Computer 2 is more energy-efficient by a factor of a hundred or a thousand, according to the physicist Richard Feynman. What’s more, these two machines are things we encounter all the time. Computer 1 is a microprocessor of the type we have in our computers, our phones, our cars, and ever more everyday objects. Computer 2 is DNA.

"The long-term sustainability of DNA is not in question. Microprocessors had to be brought into existence and need constant external power because of their relative inefficiency. By contrast, DNA just happened when certain molecules came together. DNA does not need to be plugged into the wall. Given enough time and the opportunity to make lots of mistakes, DNA has made things that seem highly designed for their environment, all without any kind of forward planning."


"We could say that the DNA approach works to create things that are organic. In practice, organic means:
  • Modular: a failure of a part does not mean a failure of the whole
  • Visible in quality: it is possible to evaluate the quality of a part, independently from the whole."
I don't have any problems with description of computer 1, at least for individual processors.  once you get into parallel processing  then it begins to break down, but lets not worry about that.  My real problem comes with computer 2.  First there is a confusion between three things:  DNA, genes (a stretch of DNA that codes for one thing) and phenotype (loosely, the expression of the gene).  DNA is not a computer; DNA is, if anything, analogous to a computer programme.  It encodes what needs to be done.  It tells the machine (which you could consider to be the ribosome, cell or the individual)  what to do, and then the ribosome "reads" the DNA sequentially and produces the requisite protein.  Like a hugely parallel computer there are many processors which are all working at the same time, reading a part of the DNA programme and producing output (in the form of proteins).  Protein copying is pretty accurate, though there are errors, and there are many processes in cells to handle quality control.  The place where inaccuracy may occur is in copying the DNA (duplicating the programme).

I simply do not understand what is meant by "computer 2 is more energy efficient by a factor of a hundred or a thousand" What are we measuring? What is computer 2?  Assuredly, it cannot be DNA.  DNA does not compute any more than the a program computes.  Programs tell the computer what to do, DNA tells the cell what to do.  We could argue that the ribosome is the computer (it is where the mRNA (messenger RNA derived from the DNA) is actually processed.  But in order to work they need the whole organism to provide the energy and nutrients needed.

As to the sustainability issue, yes, DNA emerged (personally I like the ideas of Nick Lane in Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution for how life arose).  However, given that DNA is just like a programme, then a programme can exist perfectly well on a CD or pen drive, without being plugged into the wall.  Equally, a virus's RNA or the DNA in a spore or many eggs can sit dormant without an energy source.  But, in both cases, nothing happens until energy is added.  In the case of a computer this will be electricity (battery, plugged into the wall or even just solar power) for a living being it will be stored energy (equivalent to a battery) as in an egg, consumed energy from eating something (equivalent to needing to be plugged into the wall) or solar energy in plants.

Where the description goes completely wrong is in the last part of the quote.  Selection occurs not at the gene (let alone base) level, but at the individual level.  If an organism is sub-optimal then it will be out-competed by others and leave fewer (or no) offspring.  A failure of the part thus means a failure of the whole.  Equally it is not possible to evaluate the quality of a part independently of the whole.  Selection acts on the individual, not the gene.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Why it is hard to make learning more efficient

There have been many attempts over the years to increase the efficiency of learning, but they have had little effect.  We still take in students at around four or five (a bit earlier at some times and later in some countries) and shunt them through a system that they emerge from many years later having learnt whatever they may have learnt.  Then there are those claims of dumbing down which would suggest that learning becomes ever less efficient rather than more efficient.  So, in this posting I want to look at some aspects of this.

The first thing that I want to look at is the difference between efficiency of teaching and learning.  I think that lectures provide an excellent example of the difference between the efficiency of two.  If you double the number of people attending a lecture then the lecturer is being twice as efficient (assuming nothing else changes, though in fact increasing the audience size may affect the lecture).  They are providing the same learning opportunity to more students at the same cost.  Clearly they are being more efficient.  However, for the student there is no improvement in learning they are attending the same lecture delivered in the same way and with the same content.  There can therefore be a distinct difference between enhancing efficiency in teaching and learning.  We also know that the lecture is one of the least efficient forms of learning; that is for the time invested by the student less knowledge and understanding is achieved than with almost any other learning activity.  However, from the teachers point of view it is very efficient.  One hour is spent teaching (plus however much preparation time) and you can have several hundred (or even more) learning hours happening.  This is exacerbated by the consideration that learner time is "free".  When looking at reducing the cost of learning most of the effort goes into reducing the cost of teaching because teachers are paid.  Little effort goes into reducing the cost of learning (beyond things like open educational resources (OER)).

This raises the question of where is there pressure to reduce the costs of learning coming from.  Let us suppose for a moment that we could double the efficiency of learning (we are not concerned at the moment about how this might be achieved, we are just looking at a counter-factual).  If we could double the efficiency of learning then children who enter school at the age of five would graduate from university at about the age of 13 (they would have learnt in eight years as much as students currently learn in sixteen).  Is there really any desire to do this? There is continual pushing for the raising of the school leaving age, which, in the UK, is effectively 18 now.  This is not just because of the perceived need for an educated workforce, but also because of the political need to keep the number of young unemployed people down.  So, if learning were made significantly more efficient we would probably just be asking children to learn a great deal more than they do at the moment.

Looking at higher education there have been some attempts to make it more efficient (as opposed to more effective) for the learner.  For instance there have been a few attempts to reduce honours courses from three to two years by having short holidays, and it could be argued that part-time study is a more efficient use of the learners' time as they can combine study with work.  However, most of the focus has been on reducing teaching costs, not learning costs (with the already mentioned exception of OERs and their like).

This brings me to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which I suggest do not make learning more efficient (they may make it more flexible), but which if they work the way that there promoters suggest then will be very (massively) efficient from the teacher's or institution's perspective.  Are they an efficient way for students to learn?  I suspect that they are actually quite inefficient, although it would be very hard to collect appropriate data.  To put this another way, do students learn the same amount (and I am deliberately being vague here as learning may also be occur at different levels in Bloom's taxonomy) in the same time as through other forms of learning?  If not then the total cost of MOOCs could be very high; except that we do not value the learners' time.  If we valued the learners' time, which I believe we should,  and they are slightly less efficient than other forms of learning then MOOCs are very expensive.  However, student time is seen as completely free (there is not even an opportunity cost usually associated with the time spent studying).  Thus, when we are looking at the cost and efficiency of the MOOC we are only looking at the teaching cost, and not the total cost of learning.  I am well aware that many people will argue that MOOCs at least offer students the chance to study something that they might otherwise not have the opportunity to study, and that they may be studying for fun.  I am perfectly happy with that, but it is besides the point of making learning more efficient.