Sunday, August 13, 2006

UNE Strategic Planning - impact of new technology

I see from the internal UNE schedule that Council is meeting tomorrow, Monday 14 August, with the final round of internal consultations to be finished by the end of next week. So the process that I am going though is running out of time.

It would be very easy simply to send in some comments on the planning paper. But solid, original, thought takes time. I see the search engines are now picking up the posts, but again this takes time. Regardless of short term issues, if I want my comments to have longer term impact then they must have substance. At one level it does not matter if my views are accepted or not, but I do want to force consideration of the issues.

Against this background, this post looks at the impact of new technology on future UNE operations, drawing from the discussions on training that I am presently involved in. The post is broken into two parts:

  • Part one provides an annotated list of relevant links. The links are obviously not exhaustive, but will at least provide an introduction to the discussion.
  • Part two provides a short summary pointing to issues for UNE.

Relevant Links

Selective links with comments follow. There is a focus on blogs because increasingly this the way in which experts, and many not so expert (there are over 51 million blogs world wide), make their views available. I use selected blogs as a way of keeping in touch as well as debating issues that happen to interest me.

Blogs dealing with e-learning and the on-line world include:

  • Learning Circuits Blog: sponsored by the American Society for Training and Development, this blog is a good way of keeping in touch with issues in the world both of e-learning and of training from a US perspective. The current debate on Learning Circuits on informal learning and courseware has some interesting if indirect implications for UNE.
  • eLearning Technology: written by Dr Tony Karrer, CEO of TechEmpower, I find this blog useful in looking at some of the technical and training issues associated with the application of e-learning in bigger organisations.
  • eelearning: written by Dave Lee, this blog is a more eclectic and general blog dealing with training and related issues with a special focus on the on-line world.
  • Corporate eLearning Development: Brent Schenkler is an enthusiastic technical expert whose blog sometimes makes me scratch my head because I have no idea what he is talking about. But his blog also includes a lot of material that even I can understand, that makes me think.

I was going to put in a reference to Jay Cross's blog as well, but for some reason it is off-line today making it difficult to get the right link.

Moving from training specific blogs, Academia online by Andrew Leigh is the simplest explanation I know as to the potential importance of the e-world to individual academics. Richard MacManus's Read/WriteWeb is an excellent blog on next generation web and media containing a range of useful material and comments.

Turning now to blogs as such, there was an interesting debate on Learning Circuits about the role of blogs as a knowledge management tool, in the development of communities of practice and as a training related communications device. During this debate I prepared a case study on the possible use of blogs in specialist medical colleges.

Mobile Blogs, Personal Reflections and Learning Environments by Paul Trafford is an interesting article looking at the role of blogs in higher education from a UK perspective.

Implications for UNE

Some statistical background before talking about UNE. I provided this in an earlier post but am repeating it now to set a context.

Some 31 per cent of Australians have added content to the internet.

Around 4 per cent of presently have a blog, perhaps 10 per cent have a web site. Sixteen per cent of Australians have added information to a group site or blog, 29 per cent have shared content such as photos. These figures are around two years old, so current percentages would certainly be higher.

You would expect UNE as a leading educational institution to display a pattern at the upper end of the on-line This does not appear to be the case.

I am not a current student of UNE so do not have access to UNE on-line. Instead, I used public sources to do my checking.

I started with blog searches on Google and Technorati looking for blogs or blog posts in some way linked to UNE. In doing so, I searched on UNE blog, University of New England blog and University of New England. In doing so, I found some of my own posts plus one from another former student in history, but otherwise not a single blog in the first four pages in any way connected with the institution.

I should note, though, that from monitoring blog searches over time, the University PR people are not bad at getting their press releases picked up! I also know that the blog searches are not perfect since I know of at least one UNE linked blog that was not picked up.

I then cross-checked this by going to the UNE site itself. Here I started by doing a search on blog and blogs. I found:

  1. The IT Directorate hopes to have the necessary infrastructure in place by end 06 to provide web blogging within UNE.
  2. Just two UNE blogs, one for St Alberts College and one a student blog. There is one apparent alumni blog, but is it not a proper blog and in any case has not been updated since March 05!
  3. An interesting paper by Eric Wainwright on the creation of an E-Learning commons.
  4. One reference to use of a blog as a communications device in the context of a particular computing course.
  5. No references at all to staff blogs.

I hesitate to draw firm conclusions on such flimsy data, but on the surface UNE and its staff appear to be below the Australian on-line average, not above as I would I have expected. To the degree that this conclusion is correct, then I suggest that this is a key strategic issue that needs to be addressed as part of the strategic review.

More specifically, I think that the review needs to take into account:

  1. The development of UNE on-line to better meet both internal and especially external needs, taking into account developments in the on-line learning environment. There is an important underlying strategic issue here, the extent to which UNE wants to go the mass plane jane delivery routes being pioneered by some of the private providers. My personal view is no. These approaches rely on the combination of volume with very low delivery costs. I think that they are in conflict with both the UNE experience and what appears to be growing student disillusion. The evolving discussion now appears to centre on ways to make the on-line experience richer.
  2. The increased use of on-line options and especially blogs as a device for communication with students, in teaching and in creating communities of practice. To illustrate what I mean by a simple example. In an earlier post I mentioned that when I was a postgraduate student UNE had a large number of post grad students in regional and local history and that I suggested at the time that this should be used as a base to create a national centre in the area. My focus was very much on interaction between interested people - what would now be called a community of practice. This failed at the time, but would now be remarkably easy to establish because of the availability of blogs.
  3. The need to encourage staff to establish their own blogs and associated web sites to encourage discussion and self-publication. As an example, John Quiggin's blog is one of the most widely visited academic blogs. He also appears to score remarkably well in the citation indexes.

I know that there is nothing especially profound in these comments. I also know that UNE is working on these issues. However, when I was in Armidale earlier this year for the Drummond dinner and canvassed some possibilities including blogs, I formed the impression that the whole thing was just too far outside individual experience for people to see the relevance. I also formed the view that these techniques were seen as the responsibility of the IT Directorate rather than matters that should be addressed as an integral part of teaching and research.

If these conclusions are in any way correct, then we have a clear training problem.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I'm not sure it's so much a 'training' problem as a cultural and strategic one. UNE has such a strong and proud tradition in distance education that, IMO, we've been a little slow in adopting new strategies. Because we did things so well in a pre-internet era, much of our thinking about teaching and elearning is still in the mode of providing quality text-based resources in hard copy for individual study.

I am hoping that the new Strategic Plan will provide clearer direction for Teaching and Learning at UNE than has been the case in the past.

In the meantime, you may be pleased to hear that at the Teaching and Learning Centre we are addressing these issues and ecouraging staff to explore other options for engaging, interactive and collaborative teaching and learning. In fact next week I'm running sessions on new tools for online learning, so hopefully that will encourage some more use of blogs, wikis and other social software tools.

Bronwyn Clarke
Educational Developer

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this post, Bronwyn. I thought that your comment on culture and strategy was a perceptive one. I, too, hope that the plan will provide a clearer direction for teaching and learning.

I will use your comments as trigger for a new post to extend the dialogue.