Saturday, June 25, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - education, technology & new delivery modes

Over on skepticslawyer, WittyKnitter's What does ‘online learning’ really mean? provides some interesting insights into issues associated with on-line delivery in one major Australian university. I found the comments interesting as well. This blog's readership has quite a strong academic focus.

I made a brief comment that was in a way peripheral to both WK's point and to the comment stream, but was rather an aide memoire to myself.

By accident of history, I have been on the periphery of the application of new technology in education and training for a very long time. As a university child, I grew up in a world where the majority of students were external students at a time when UNE was the only provider of distance education in Australia. Today, one of my colleagues is working on a new-on line training concept.

In the intervening years I seem to have kept coming back to the application of new approaches. In 1987, my then consulting business put on a display of multimedia in an Armidale pub. In 1994, I helped project manage a demonstration combining Armidale schools to show the educational application of new internet technology. And so it goes on.

This is not a personal reminisce, nor is it an attempted appeal to authority or claim to expertise. I am simply setting a context for this muse.

At a personal level, I am somewhat cynical about the hype attached to new delivery modes. This is not in any way a criticism of of WK or her commenters (they recognised limitations), nor of those pioneering new applications in the school area, for example. Rather, I have lived through, worked through or just seen application after application that failed to deliver on expectation.

In other posts on technology I have discussed some of the reasons for this. In this muse, I want to focus on just two relevant to education: conflict in objective plus failure to recognise practical limitations.

Conflict in objective is best seen in the way that discussion on new technology acquires multiple objectives: it will empower students, improve teaching, increase access, reduce delivery costs and make money. Of itself, these multiple objectives need not conflict. In practice, they can and do.

Beyond the obvious conflict in objectives, there are more subtle ones in that delivery modes affect just what is delivered.

Once you have selected a delivery mode, then things have to be tailored to that delivery mode. The effectiveness of delivery modes vary depending upon purpose - in jargon, we call this fitness for purpose. If you haven't properly identified the purpose, then your delivery mode will be less effective.

I am not saying anything profound. It seems self evident. Yet I keep seeing the problem.

Failure to recognise practical limitations is also a constant issue with the newer technologies.

Let me start with a very simple example.

Back in 1996 I did a study on the development of multimedia in Australia. A key issue in the slower than expected take-up, especially in training, lay in a disconnect between developer and customer. Developers were keen to push the technology to its limits and also used the latest hardware and software. The products didn't sell because the computer systems in companies simply didn't have the grunt required.

Surely things have changed? Well, no. Let me take a very simple example. We have broadband, but our wireless connection won't support certain real time applications. It's just not fast enough. The problem is more acute at present because a choke is in place.

In organisations, a different but related problem arises. Corporate rules about the use of emails and the internet can actually preclude students using work computers to access some on-line education material.

If we move outside the middle class city world that presently dominates much discussion, problems become more acute along an age and location dimension. The often implicit assumption, for example, that everyone has a lap top applies to, what, 30 per cent of the Australian population?  

Now the only point that I am making here is that one starting point in looking at applications has to be the ability of the student or customer to actually participate. In theory, you can acommodate this via multiple delivery modes. However, this can be expensive.
Consider another issue that I have written about a fair bit, the simple question of time. Time - student time, lecturer time - is limited. Modern systems require a time investment to learn how to do things. Time is also required to prepare material in the required forms. Often, the time implications are not properly recognised.

This is a muse, not a full essay. I have barely scratched the surface. So I will finish with the simple model that I apply to test some of the new approaches in education and training.
  1. What is the objective to be achieved?
  2. What is required of the teachers in terms of skills, content preparation, support, marking and time?
  3. What are the expectations about students (attitudes, time, skills, equipment)?
  4. What is the process to be followed in delivering?
  5. How will results be measured?
  6. Will it work and at what cost?
This is really a simple process mapping approach. I find that it works. 

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