15 December 2010

7 types of learning spaces

Generally I try not to post links without some useful additional comment. However, I've run out of year so am scrambling to get everything out of the way before Christmas, and I think that Ewan McIntosh's short presentation (Learning spaces. Virtual spaces. Physical spaces.) is worth a bare link. I've been following his blog for several months, and he has interesting things to say. In fact, Scotland seems to be a bit of a centre for good educational technology stuff.

Anyway, if you one of the lucky ones cruising towards the end of the year without a care or a deadline in view, stop off for a look at his work.

13 December 2010

Discover something surprising about yourself and the Web

I have a serious post (and some final reflections on ASCILITE) bubbling away, but in the meantime, here's something just for fun: http://www.veryshortlist.com/vsl/daily.cfm/review/1741/Web_video//?tp.

06 December 2010

Day 2 of ASCILITE 2010

The plenary speakers this morning included Lev Gonick from Cleveland - talking about a massive project to link up hundreds of citizens via fibre optic broadband and provide them with ongoing health monitoring ... among other things.  Bit too Big Brother-ish for my liking. Tom Reeves was very funny, provocative, and quite charming. He recommended some books that will go on the library order, too.

Spent the afternoon (after my own presentation) listening to presentations on the use of 3D virtual worlds in education ... which was surprisingly interesting. (Did I just show a bias?) Apparently dozens of people across Australia are doing amazing things in Second Life ... who knew? Andrew Cram presented some early findings from his PhD studies on the use of actors in virtual worlds to set up ethical dilemmas for students ... something very intriguing there.

Felt my own presentation was a little rushed, but will follow up on a request to create a longer version of the presentation and post a link on this blog.  Nice to be wanted!  Thanks Ann and Beth.

Off to the conference dinner in a few minutes ... which I hope to enjoy as much as others, even though I won't be wearing a Kiss Me Quick sailor's hat after all. (It's fancy dress - an ASCILITE tradition.)

Random comment on ASCILITE 2010

Am participating in the 2010 ASCILITE conference in Brighton-le-Sands this week.  The presentations started today and will continue on through until Wednesday afternoon. Picking sessions is always tricky; the grass is always greener in the breakout room next door. “Which paper?” “Which session?” - these are the perennial questions for conference participants.
I haven’t yet found the pulse of the conference, but maybe that will come tomorrow. There's an old saying that if you take one good idea away from these kinds of conferences, you've spent the money well.  I haven't heard it yet, so am looking forward to the next two days.

ASCILITE has always had a large number of papers about what and how, and fewer papers asking why, but I’m hoping that at least the keynote speakers will give me something of substance to chew over. So far, all the speakers I’ve heard (including the plenary speaker this morning) have presented papers about examples of interesting practice and demonstrations of a range of well-designed teaching and learning activities. I haven’t heard any great new ideas or encountered any particularly innovative ideas yet, but it’s always good to sit in the room when people share their practice (or even other people's practice).
This morning, Shirley Alexander posed a question about research by the tribe. She wondered if we are tackling the difficult questions, or taking the easy route. What are the “big hairy audacious” research questions? Are those the things we are investigating? (If you have to ask the question ...)

The symposium this afternoon on teachers, technology and design was interesting.
Lots of encouragement from the organizers to use gadgets, someone lending conference participants iPads for three days, special websites set up to make it easy for conference participants to plan which sessions they want to attend and to remember to go ... but the special temporary network broke before morning tea.
Tomorrow brings us the international plenary speakers - the recently retired Tom Reeves from the University of Georgia and Lev Gonick from Case Western Reserve University. There are some papers on big issues in the morning - strategic leadership capacity building for ICT and systemic change through professional development. In the afternoon, there is a session on virtual worlds. I haven't made up my mind about them yet, so am intrigued by the title of the first paper - "Australian higher education institutions transforming the future of teaching and learning through virtual worlds". It's a big call!

Oh, and I’m on after lunch.

18 November 2010

What's the purpose of education?

So … there are two main theories of curriculum design – product and process – that can be used to help us understand course design, development, and delivery. While both models deal with common elements (objectives, content, method, and assessment / evaluation), in the product model, knowledge (and learning) is bounded and packaged. Once a course has been designed and the parameters of the course established, students are guided through the pre-defined learning experiences and finally tested to see how well they have achieved desired learning outcomes. The process model, on the other hand, is more fluid and provides for collaborative exploration of the field by both teacher and student. The teacher is expert, the student novice, but they occupy and investigate the subject matter together. The former guides the student, while leaving room for the student to construct his or her own learning experiences and pathways. In practice, these models probably lie at opposite ends of a continuum, rather than each in their own box.

For instance, if the conversation is focused on the ways in which research is or could be used in undergraduate teaching, the product model aligns with Healey and Jenkins’ notion of research-led teaching, whereas the process model of curriculum design might be employed in a situation where the teacher is employing research-based or even research-tutored teaching (Healey & Jenkins, 2009). Healey and Jenkins differentiate in their model between student as audience and student as participant, and these, for me, are the key differences between the product and process models of curriculum design. It should be noted that it is possible for a teacher, in a single course / subject, to provide learning experiences that address all four aspects of the Healey & Jenkins model.

The nature of undergraduate research and inquiry (Healey & Jenkins, 2009, p 7)

In my work with teaching academics in a research-intensive Australian university, I don’t hear academics talking about the theory that underpins their teaching practice. Let’s face it, I don’t hear them talking about their teaching very often at all. Discussions about curriculum usually centre around topics and core knowledge, even among the accountants who have recently been involved in a conversation about the graduate attributes of their cohort.

Is this something that universities should be concerned about? I think so, given the information we are getting about how TEQSA will approach issues of quality and standards.

I’m not sure that teaching academics even have a common understanding of curriculum or the design of learning environments and experiences. This is supported by a study conducted in Australia by Fraser and Bosanquet. They write that four different categories of meaning emerged when academic staff were asked about their understanding of the term curriculum: Category A: The structure and content of a unit / subject; Category B: The structure and content of a progam of study; Category C: The students’ experience of learning; and Category D: A dynamic and interactive process of teaching and learning (Fraser and Bosanquet, 2006).

Those using Categories A & B, according to Fraser and Bosanquet, “conceptualize the curriculum as a product that can be defined and … recorded”. Those using Category C conceptualize the curriculum as a process that facilitates student learning, and those using Category D view the curriculum as a dynamic, emergent and collaborative process of learning for both student and teacher. (Fraser and Bosanquet , 2006, p 272) Clearly, Categories A and B align with the teacher-centred, content-oriented product models of curriculum design, and Categories C and D with the learner-centred, learning activity-oriented process models. They conclude that academics associate many different meanings to the term curriculum, and that these variations extend to “the epistemological assumptions that underpin [their] understandings”. Fraser notes that the “impact of such a variation in understanding on the teaching and learning processes and practice of the institution is not well known”. It is her view that an exploration of the meanings of the term curriculum and the language of teaching and learning could in itself become a useful focus of the partnership between higher education developers, discipline experts, and university leaders (Fraser, 2006).

None of the Fraser-Bosanquet categories address perhaps the most important factor shaping curriculum design decisions: beliefs about the purpose of education. An Irish academic developer, new to the work, wrote in 2010 of her struggle to find an appropriate starting point for her work. She turned to the literature and discovered that “one aspect that appears to be quite diverse in its presentation is the start of the process”. Some of the authorities she consulted pointed out that curriculum design models often overlook “personal attitudes, feelings and values involved in curriculum making”, while being strongly influenced by the discipline. She quotes Stark, who recommends early exploration of staff considerations and beliefs (O’Neill, 2010). Advocates of the process model frequently recommend something along these lines. Hawes, for example, includes in his model a range of guiding principles, including theories of child behavior, teaching and learning, and epistemology (Brady, 1995). Walker writes of the platform upon which a curriculum designer bases decisions, and lists beliefs, theories, conceptions, points of view and aims / objectives (Print, 1993).

Many writers have addressed this issue of the foundation upon which decisions about curriculum are made. So, what should education foster and facilitate? In the literature, we find a range of conceptions or ideologies about the purpose of education.

1. The polymath (Posner, 1995; Smith, 2000): The first, and the one least applicable in a modern university setting, is the notion that there is core body of knowledge which will be familiar to all educated people. Exponential growth in the sum of human understanding means that it is now almost impossible for most people to know something about everything, but this was not always the case.

2. Social efficiency (Posner, 1995; Smith, 2000; Schiro, 2008): Those who subscribe to this notion believe that the purpose of education is to meet the needs of society, by preparing citizens to function as mature contributing members of society.

3. Discipline-based, scholarly endeavour (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Posner, 1995; Schiro, 2008): This concept is based on the value of discipline-based knowledge. It values content knowledge, the skills of the discipline, and the ontology and epistemology of the discipline. Those designing curriculum with this concept in mind believe that the purpose of education is to help students acquire the accumulated knowledge of the academic discipline in question. Such curriculum addresses not the topics particular to the discipline and enables students to use and appreciate the ideas and works that constitute the discipline. Such designers sometimes refer to “core knowledge” for their discipline.

4. Cognitive development (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Posner, 1995; Smith, 2000): This concept aligns with the idea of generic skills. Those who build on this foundation believe that the purpose of education is to give students the skills they need to learn how to learn, and to employ and enhance their intellectual abilities. Discipline knowledge is important, but more importantly, it provides the content base that allows students to acquire and rehearse generic skills. Discipline-based knowledge is instrumental to the development of intellectual abilities that can be used in areas other than those in which the processes were originally refined.

5. Humanistic, learner-centred experiences (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Posner, 1995; Schiro, 2008): These designers believe that education ought to provide students with intrinsically rewarding experiences to enhance personal development and enable them to achieve self-actualization. Content is selected according to student interest. The focus of curriculum designed on this basis is the interests and concerns of students, and the goal of education is the personal growth of individuals.

6. Social reconstruction (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Smith, 2000; Schiro, 2008): Social constructionists base their practice on the works of writers like Giroux, Illich, Friere and Habermas. For them, the purpose of the curriculum is the reform of society. Education is designed to facilitate the construction of a new and more just society that offers maximum satisfaction to all, and school is an agent for change. These designers sit at the radical end of the political spectrum.

7. Educational technology (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993): It could be argued that educational technology is not a separate category, but rather an approach that supports the social efficiency conception of curriculum. The educational technologists are less concerned with process and more interested in the “technology” by which knowledge is communicated and learning facilitated. They rely on a very broad definition of technology that includes not only material objects (software and hardware), but also systems, methods of organization, and techniques. They draw on theories of behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism (see Siemens and Downes). The instructional techniques and strategies employed by educational technologists include problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning in a student-centred environment. This approach has informed distance, flexible, and online education.

This leaves me with two questions:

• How do I find out about the philosophy of education that underpins decisions about curriculum design made by my academic colleagues?

• How do I encourage my academic colleagues to share with each their understanding of the term curriculum?



Brady, L. (1995). Curriculum development, 5th edn. Sydney, Prentice-Hall.

Eisner, E. W. and Vallance, E. (1974). Conflicting conceptions of curriculum. Berkely, McCutchan Publishing Corporation.

Fraser, S. (2006). Shaping the university curriculum through partnerships and critical conversations. International Journal for Academic Development, 11(1), 5-17.

Fraser, S., and Bosanquet, A.M. (2006). The curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it? Studies in Higher Education, 31(3), June 2006, 269-284.

Healey, M. and Jenkins, A. (2009). Developing undergraduate research and inquiry. York, The Higher Education Academy.

O’Neill, G. (2010). Initiating curriculum revision: exploring the practices of educational developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 15(1), 61-71.

Posner, G. J. (1995). Analyzing the curriculum, 2nd edn. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Print, M. (1993). Curriculum development and design, 2nd edn. Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Schiro, M. S. (2008). Curriculum theory: conflicting visions and enduring concerns. Los Angeles, Sage.

Smith M. K. (1996, 2000). Curriculum Theory and Practice. The enclyclopaedia of information education, www.infed.org/biblio/b-curric.htm.

15 November 2010

Models and theories of curriculum design

“When teachers are asked to develop a curriculum, part of the requirement is to formalize that undertaking by writing it in the form of a curriculum document. The format of that document is almost invariably a statement of the objectives, content, method, and assessment in that order. Such a presentation may predispose teachers to adopt this format as a model for curriculum development, and thereby use an objectives model in the development stage. There would certainly be few, if any, curriculum documents where the objectives are presented at the end, even though this sequence might be a reflection of how the curriculum was developed. So the obvious logic in presentation need not parallel the method of development.”
(Brady, 1995, p 85)

This week, I’ve been reviewing models of curriculum design, partly because I’m giving a paper at the ASCILITE conference in Sydney in a couple of weeks about the Bones Model which underpins my own practice, and partly because of the whole learning outcomes = standards thing that seems to underpin some of the paperwork doing the rounds (see TEQSA and the ALTC standards project).

Accepted models of curriculum design emerging from studies of school-based education last century, are classified as “product” (aka rational – Print, 1993 or objectives – Tyler, 1949), “interactive” (Taba, 1962), “cyclical” (Print, 1993), or “process” (Wheeler, 1967; Stenhouse, 1975, and Hawes, 1979). Biggs’ model of constructive alignment, written for the higher education sector, owes much to the work of these early school-based models.

The best known of these is probably the linear product model. The assumption underpinning this model is that there is an agreed body of knowledge that students need to learn. It starts with a statement of objectives, follows with descriptions of content and method (selection and organization of teaching and learning activities), and finishes with evaluation, which generally encompasses both assessment strategies and evaluation of the curriculum. In these models, objectives serve as the basis for devising subsequent elements, with evaluation (assessment) indicating the degree of achievement of those objectives. The focus is on teaching.

Tyler’s 1949 model, one of the earliest linear examples, is based on the four questions he poses:

1. What educational purposes should the institution seek to attain [objectives]?

2. What educational experiences are likely to attain these objectives [instructional strategies and content]?

3. How can these educational experiences be organized effectively [organization of learning experiences?

4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained [assessment and evaluation]?
His highly influential model was modified by Taba, who proposed a variation that recognized that while documenting the curriculum can be linear and logical, the process of design is a lot messier. Her interactive model adds the idea of a needs analysis, and reflects more accurately actual iterative design practice.

Figure 1: Taba’s Interaction Model (Brady, 1995, p 81)

The cyclical models from the next stage in the evolution of curriculum design are similar in many ways to the linear and interactive models that preceded them. They incorporate the same or similar elements – initial situation analysis, identification of aims and objectives, selection and organization of content, selection and organization of learning activities, followed by an assessment / evaluation process (Wheeler, 1967; Nicholls & Nicholls, 1978). All of these product models – linear, interactive, and cyclical – are efficient, logical and clear. They probably don’t reflect actual curriculum design practice for most teachers, but they serve as useful checklists and tools for documenting curriculum.

The process models that followed them (Print calls them “dynamic” models) are more interesting. In the student-centred process models, the teacher’s role is that of facilitator rather than content authority. These models assume curriculum design to be an ongoing process, dependent on emerging information and practice, shaped by the beliefs, experiences, theories and philosophies held by those planning the learning environment. These models go well beyond the core elements of objectives, content, method, and assessment / evaluation, although these are recognized as part of the process. Hawes, for instance, shows that designers draw on theories from psychology, teaching and learning, and epistemology in making decisions about content and process selection. There can be problems with classrooms designed along these lines. For example, it may be difficult to ensure consistency of content coverage from cohort to cohort, and the quality of learning is very dependent on the quality of teaching. Attempts to compensate for these aspects have contributed to the discovery learning and problem-solving movements.

Figure 2: Hawes’ Process Model (Brady, 1995, p 84)

Walker is even more general, listing beliefs, theories, conceptions, points of view and aims / objectives.

Figure 3: Walker’s Model (Print, 1993, p 75)

So how are the product / interaction / cyclical models different from the process / dynamic models? The product models are prescriptive, the process models descriptive. The role of assessment is different. The former have clear objectives and aligned assessment strategies (generally prepared before the start of classes) designed to test how well students have achieved the learning outcomes; the latter may have assessment strategies designed to find out what students have learnt, and a highly diluted focus on learning outcomes.

It’s pretty clear that Biggs’ notion of constructive alignment owes more to the former (objectives) model of design than the latter, as do the many models of Instructional (Systems) Design aligned with the ADDIE approach familiar to instructional designers and those who have worked in distance education (see Dick & Carey’s Systems Approach, Esseff & Esseff’s Instructional Development Learning System (IDLS), and Romiszowki’s Instructional Systems Design (ISD), among others).

More recently, there have been some efforts to develop new models for higher education. Bell & Lefoe, writing in the late 90s, identified a lack in the traditional instructional design models which had not previously provided for decisions about media and the provision of flexible access. They proposed an early flexible learning curriculum design model that addressed decisions about media use. This aspect of designing curriculum for flexible and online delivery has become increasingly important as tertiary institutions across the world have rolled out Learning Management Systems and started to use social networking tools. Irlbeck, Kays, Jones & Sims describe their Three-Phase Design (3PD) Model as emerging from the blurring of the distinction between online and distance education (Irlbeck, Kays, Jones & Sims, 2006). The 3PD model provides for a team-based approach to the design, development, and delivery of online courses and deals not only with the initial development of learning materials and online environments (Phase 1: Preparing functional requirements), but also ongoing review and revision phases (Phase 2: Evaluate, elaborate and enhance, and Phase 3: Maintain).

In spite of this work, and the long history of curriculum design theory, models of curriculum design are not widely known amongst Australian academics.

And yet, and yet … academics in Australian universities do design curriculum, and they seem to be having some reasonable success in teaching their disciplines with little or no knowledge about these theories of curriculum design.

How can this be?

Well, I’ll be pondering this at length and posting more on the topic soon.


Bell, M., & Lefoe, G. (1998). Curriculum design for flexible delivery – massaging the model. In ASCILITE '98 : flexibility the next wave? : proceedings of the 15th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, December 14th to December 16th, 1998.

Biggs, J. & Tang C. (2008). Teaching for quality learning at university. Sydney, McGraw-Hill.

Brady, L. (1995). Curriculum development, 5th edn. Sydney, Prentice-Hall.

Hawes, j. (1979). Models and muddles in school-based curriculum development. The Leader, 1.

Irlbeck, S., Kays, E., Jones, D. & Sims, R. (2006). The Phoenix Rising: emergent modes of instructional design. Distance Education, 27(2), August 2006, 171-185.

Nicholls, A & Nicholls, S. (1972). Developing a curriculum: a practical guide. London, Allen & Unwin.

Print, M. (1993). Curriculum development and design, 2nd edn. Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London, Heineman.

Taba, H. (1962). Curriculum development: theory and practice. New York, Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Tyler, R.W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Walker, D. (1971). A naturalistic model for curriculum development, School Review, 80(1), 51-65.

Wheeler, D.K. (1967). Curriculum process. London, University of London Press.

09 November 2010

The Perfect Teacher

In a recent post at elearnspace, George Siemens gives us his list of six "key skills for educators". These are areas in which teachers need to be competent and comfortable. I see them as characteristics that can (should, in an ideal world ?) be used to shape curriculum. Siemens has written much more extensively and formally on these issues elsewhere, but the blog is a neat little introduction to some of his ideas.

His list of six, in summary:
  • technical competence: Siemens' idea here is that teachers need to know the technology of the time and place, and to understand that tools are not neutral. Rather, they create adjacent possibles*. He says that "using any tool well requires a blend of technical competence and awareness of pedagogical opportunities".
  • experimentation: Curriculum can't be static. Educators need to experiment, "refining their learning approach to constantly changing contexts".
  • autonomy (learner, not teacher): Learners need to be constructing their own learning, and teachers need to give them room to do that.
  • creation: Giving learners room to create through intentional experimentation provides opportunities for the learning environment to evolve.
  • play: Siemens contrasts experimentation (see creation above) and play; play, he says, is random exploration without a goal or target - flexible, personal and engaging. Students need to play as part of the learning process.
  • developing capacity for complexity: The world is complex, and answers are more like a canvas painted in response to a problem landscape than lego-blocks that need to be clicked together. Students need to learn to tackle complexity.
Teachers who take these ideas into consideration won't be using a linear Tyler-style model of curriculum design. Their classroom will be messy and complex, and responsibility for learning will be shared between teacher and students. Wouldn't that be exciting?


*"Now I define The Adjacent Possible. Consider a flask of 1000 kinds of organic molecules, and call them the Actual. Now consider all one step reactions among the Actual. It might be that novel molecules are formed. Call these “the Adjacent Possible” given the Actual in the flask. This Adjacent Possible is perfectly definable given reaction conditions and a minimal lifetime of a chemical species." Stuart Kauffman

20 October 2010

Where do the bright shiny things live?

It’s a lot easier to create content for the Web than it used to be. Only a couple of years ago, it was pretty difficult to make beautiful things to add to a website without sophisticated authoring tools and skills well beyond anything I could possibly be bothered to acquire. Now, just keeping track of the tools is almost impossible.

I rely almost exclusively on a fantastic site called Paul’s e-learning resources. Paul, whoever he is, has gathered together an amazing list of free, easy-to-use tools that can be used to produce “high quality resources that can be used on any web-enabled platform”. Teachers around the world need to bookmark this site. You’ll find this treasure trove at http://sites.google.com/site/technologyenhancedlearning/.

The variety of the materials on the site, and the speed with which it grows, will help to prevent you from becoming victim to Baby Duck Syndrome (BDS) … a truly delightful concept. According to wisegeek.com (via Stephen Downes):

Baby Duck Syndrome is a term used to refer to the tendency of computer users to prefer the systems that they learn on, and to reject the unfamiliar. In addition to applying to operating systems, Baby Duck Syndrome applies to software programs, keyboard layouts, and other electronics. This concept has a firm basis in psychology, as many humans have a known preference for maintaining the status quo, rather than exploring new possibilities ... This technical term is a reference to the work of Konrad Lorenz, a psychologist who actually studied geese, not ducks, although his work could be generalized to ducks. He learned that when baby birds hatch, they "imprint" on whatever moving thing they first see, whether or not that thing is a parent. Lorenz famously got several clutches of goslings to imprint on him, and there are some charming photographs of Lorenz teaching the young geese how to swim, eat, and perform other tasks.
(Well, that explains the LMS cults.)

However … back to Paul. This week, Paul introduces us to Voisse (a free tool that can be used to create audio journals, among other things), Markup.io (“a neat little bookmarklet … that you can click on anytime to start annotating whatever webpage you are on at the time … your annotated page is then given a unique URL which can be shared”), Muvizu (a tool for making 3D animated movies), and Spicynodes (helps you to make mind maps of the content you’ve put into your LMS site). … and that’s just the beginning of the tools he has tested and reviewed, and to which he has provided links.

So, if you are looking for new and interesting ways to present content, or to engage students in authentic learning activities, or to avoid BDS, go and visit Paul.

21 September 2010

"Chance favours the connected mind"

In between working on the projects on my desk and attending the meetings in my diary for today, I've been listening to Steven Johnson talk about Where Good Ideas Come From on TED, and reading the latest ECAR Research Bulletin: Strategic Directives for Learning Management System Planning.

Johnson is the kind of speaker that we expect from the TED presentations. He is slick, entertaining, and makes a couple of points well, by telling stories to illustrate his argument. His point in this presentation is that innovation happens when the unplanned, emergent, unpredictable power of open, innovative systems is allowed to take us in unexpected directions. The stories he tells in this presentation are about the value of cross-fertilization of ideas, particularly amongst unexpected collaborators. He says that we frequently present new ideas as bolts from the blue, epiphanies that occur without warning. In fact, he says, more often than not, ideas "fade into view". They arrive after a long incubation period, often after a hunch has been cultivated. I'm coming pretty close here to mixed metaphors, so I'll step back from reporting on Johnson's presentation. In any case, you can see the whole thing for yourself – it's only about 20 minutes long.

In the ECAR Bulletin, White & Larusson address an issue that has been up for discussion among my colleagues recently – a classification system for websites created using a Learning Management System.

I am currently using three categories: Campus, Blended, and Distance. These are based on where the students are, and how their course is delivered. My definitions are not dissimilar to those used by many institutions in Australia. They should not be read as hierarchical. Those who are designing learning environments would, I hope, use these definitions to help them decide which kind of site would be the best for the purpose at hand.

1. Campus: The course is designed to be delivered face-to-face. The LMS site provides back-up copies of course materials, i.e. the Course Outline, recordings of lectures, lecture handouts. Student-student interaction is non-existent or minimal (e.g. a social forum may be the only online contact students have with each other). The only online assessment activity, if there is any, is use of the quiz tool, or online submission of assignments.

2. Blended: The course is designed to be delivered partly face-to-face and partly online. LMS-based activities, e.g. discussions, simulations, or quizzes, are core activities designed to enhance learning. They count towards the final mark. Web-conferencing may be used.

3. Distance: The course is designed for students who do not attend any campus-based events, i.e. students who study at a distance from the university campus and are not visited by the lecturer. The full range of online teaching tools is considered in the design of the site, and many are used to their full advantage.
I also talk, in some of my training sessions, about the three sets of tools that an LMS provides – tools of:

• Administration,

• Dissemination, and

• Collaboration and Co-operation.
White & Larusson's categores are Transmission, Evaluation, and Interaction. In their paper, they bring together the ideas that gave me my categories for delivery modes and tool classification options. Their Transmission category matches my Campus category fairly closely, and uses the tools I group together under Dissemination. Their description of their Evaluation category draws on some but not all of the tools I classify as Administration. Specifically, they write of the value of the tracking tools, which allow the lecturer to monitor patterns of access by students. They suggest that information collected in this way about how the group is learning can be used by the lecturer to modify and evolve learning activities over several iterations of a course. Their Interaction category uses the tools I classify as Collaboration and Co-operation. Then, they go on to give us nine points to guide thinking about how an LMS ought to be implemented.

So – to bring these ideas together – I suspect that I am harbouring one of Johnson's "slow hunches". The idea hasn't yet faded into view, so I need to write about it, to put it out there in the world for discussion.

How much learning in a university ought to happen behind the walls of the institution, and how much ought to happen in public? How much student effort (in the form of completed assignments) ought to be made public? If ideas are "networks", as Johnson says, and not "single things", what are the implications for the way we build online learning environments, the way we train our students to think about things and solve problems, and the ways we assess student achievement? If we value innovation, and true innovation comes from collaboration, and ideas are not single things but networks that fade into view as the collective creates them ... what then?

Hmm-mm – I think I need to let this one simmer for a good while longer.

15 September 2010

Thoughts of the day

David Jones posted an entry to his blog today in which he refers to a 2003 interview with Alan Kay.

Kay says, in the interview:
"But I think the big problem is that schools have very few ideas about what to do with the computers once the kids have them. It's basically just tokenism, and schools just won't face up to what the actual problems of education are, whether you have technology or not.
Think about it: How many books do schools have—and how well are children doing at reading? How many pencils do schools have—and how well are kids doing at math? It's like missing the difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won't give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people.

On the other hand, if you have a musician who is a teacher, then you don't need musical instruments, because the kids can sing and dance. But if you don't have a teacher who is a carrier of music, then all efforts to do music in the classroom will fail—because existing teachers who are not musicians will decide to teach the C Major scale and see what the bell curve is on that.

The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.

Educators have to face up to what 21st-century education needs to be about, and start thinking about solving that problem long before they bring the computer on the scene."
Not unexpectedly (to those of you familiar with my opinions on such matters, at least), I find myself immediately attracted to this idea. We all know that giving people hammers and chisels won't turn them into master carpenters any more than putting pianos in classrooms will turn students into musicians. Why then do so many of my tribe* persist in the belief that merely giving university teachers and students access to an LMS will either change teaching practice or improve the learning experience?

Of course, it won't – not without many other changes, most of which can be traced back to the need to ensure that all university teachers are expert in both the body of knowledge that comes from their discipline and also in the practice of teaching.

So ... can we please stop talking about e-learning and focus our attention on good curriculum design and excellence in teaching?

But that's enough of that old groove.

Here's something much more interesting ...

This afternoon I am playing in the background a presentation by the very excellent Michael Feldstein. Feldstein works for Oracle as "software strategist and product manager", and maintains the e-Literate blog. He knows more about Learning Management Systems than most – the culture and the history as well as the architecture and the coding. His presentation – W(h)ither the LMS? – explains why the world is ready for the next generation of LMSs, what they might look like, and how they will be designed and built. Forget discussions about mythical PLEs – listen to Feldstein and imagine a future where online learning environments are properly integrated and truly permeable.

Ahh-hhhh ....

* ... and by "so many", I mean "any".

17 August 2010

Issues of the day: quality, compliance, and English language fluency

Two articles in the online edition of The Australian's Higher Education supplement caught my attention today.

The first reports on comments from academics teaching in the business disciplines in Australian universities (along with others who have an opinion about TEQSA and the ALTC disciplines setting standards project). I won't repeat the content of the article – you can read it for yourself.

A number of issues are highlighted by the article: the challenges ahead for TEQSA, the tussle between RTOs and the higher education sector (particularly universities and especially the Group of Eight), the question of an agreed definition of quality and how this might be measured, and the seeming disconnect between the implementation of recommendations from the Bradley and Cutler Reports.

Universities don't come out of this one looking good. The RTOs and the VET sector seem to be very willing to demonstrate that they have carefully aligned curricula with assessment strategies that test how well students have achieved clearly articulated learning outcomes. Universities, and in particular the Group of Eight universities, seem to be inclined towards the view that no one has any right to ask them to demonstrate how they measure academic achievement. If TEQSA is funded appropriately, and universities are required to participate in its compliance checks, many academic staff will be running to catch up with their colleagues teaching in other parts of the sector. In some ways, that is a bit unfair. Australian university lecturers, by and large, don't know much about teaching. They know about giving lectures, about running tutorial-based discussion groups, and about assessing how well students know the knowledge of the discipline, but most of them have no theoretical foundation to their teaching practice. Not their fault – they were hired because they know lots about their disciplines.

Maybe we should start by making it compulsory for all universities to enrol their teaching academics in proper teacher education programs – except, of course, those who already have a teaching qualification. At least then they would have the knowledge necessary to engage in a conversation about curriculum design and teaching strategies other than those invented in medieval Europe. We would, of course, have to acknowledge that this would take time away from research and current teaching activities – so we'll need to hire more academics to help with workloads, especially if we want the country to maintain research outputs and we intend to send more Australians to university. (And before you say anything, let me tell you that it's no good suggesting that Australian academics work harder or longer hours ... most of the good ones already put in 50, 60, or 70 hour weeks.)

Oh, yes, I suppose we could create two categories of university academic – the research academic and the teaching only academic. This, in my view, is a dreadful idea. It's the research that gives depth to teaching in universities. Many of the very best of our teachers are outstanding researchers as well.

So it's all a bit tricky.

The second article reports on moves by professions to require international students to pass English language tests upon graduation. Here's the thing: most Australian universities will enrol international students for whom English is a second (third, fourth) language if they achieve 6.5 on the IELTS test – somewhere between competent and good. This score does not guarantee that students are fluent in the language. That puts lecturers in a difficult position. It would be wrong to penalise students for poor English language skills unless fluency is a designated learning outcome for their chosen program of study – and because language skills are rarely articulated among program learning outcomes, they don't. That means that students who learn the declarative (foundational knowledge; knowing what or knowing about stuff in the discipline) and functioning knowledge (skills; knowing how to apply declarative knowledge to complete discipline-specific tasks) required by their course, and have sufficiently good English language skills to convey their understanding to the lecturer, pass the course. That gives us graduates – in accounting or nursing, for example – who can't get jobs because the employers expect a higher standard of English language skills.

That's all a bit tricky too.

Maybe the new government will have the answers.

01 August 2010

Dependability and reliability: are they important?

This post originally started out as a slightly bad-tempered comment on the lack of reliability in the Learning Management System (LMS) used by my current employer. The detail of the current problem is indicative of the larger issue.

In my first draft, I wrote: "Here's the thing about educational technologies. They must be robust and reliable."

Is this true, though? Some parts of the system have to be utterly reliable – and making sure that enrolled students have dependable access to the online environment is one aspect that must be taken seriously. There are some other tools that need to be equally trustworthy. My list, based on current online teaching practice in this university, would include the tools that manage content (documents, video clips, audio clips, and images, for example), the discussion tool, the gradebook, and the assignment submission tool. Other tools are less-widely used, or support activity that isn't essential to course completion, or are being used experimentally. It may be acceptable to provide less reliable tools that fall into these categories, although I'm not convinced that this is true.

If an academic is toying with curriculum innovation, is it good enough for him (or her) to be using a technically unpredictable tool for that innovation? I argue that when the institution provides an inadequate tool, it puts curriculum innovation is at risk. If I'm using a faulty tool to implement a teaching innovation which doesn't work, do I blame the design of the innovation or the tool I used? What if I can't tell which is to blame? The difficulty is that the development of reliable online teaching tools is expensive, and too often, we don't get past the "proof-of-concept" stage.

In order to move curriculum innovation beyond experimentation, the institution must provide the right instruments – highly robust and utterly reliable applications. If we are to encourage curriculum innovation, we have to place before our teaching academics an array of tried and tested tools that gives them options for variety in the way they design their teaching innovations. Exploration of new tools should not need to include any time working out how to ensure that they function properly. If I want someone to find the joy in working with wood, providing them with a faulty hammer or a blunt chisel isn't a good idea. If I want them to be creative and construct amazing wooden things, I need to make sure they have the best tools available.

The range of tools provided should, ideally, exceed the range used by any one academic and certainly surpass the assortment used by the majority. All of them must work properly, almost all of the time.

Imagine my frustration, then, when even basic system functionality is flawed. The university I work at currently has chosen Moodle as the LMS (a replacement for WebCT, which was turned off a couple of months ago). In moving to Moodle, those maintaining the backend, including the data feed from the Student Records System (SRS), have discovered that they need to rebuild the mechanisms that populate the class lists. With me so far? Describing in detail the systems that ensure that currently enrolled students have access to the relevant Moodle sites is beyond my technical knowledge – and interest, to be frank.

I know that there is a difference between a true integration between the SRS and LMS and the LDAP-data transfer currently in place, but that's about the extent of my knowledge – and well beyond my sphere of interest. However, it is clear even to me that students are dropping into some kind of chasm between the SRS and the LMS. Who are these students? How many are there? How do we retrieve them?

Most importantly, how many staff and students will decide not to devote time to online teaching and learning because their initial experience is of faulty or badly implemented technology? Once they move away from online learning, how do we get them back? What needs to be in place to make sure we don't lose them in the first place?

On the other hand, there are the real risk takers – those who are happy to experiment with newly developed and not fully formed tools. This group would be frustrated if they were restricted only to the tried and tested. It seems, then, that we need an online learning system that provides for three clearly labelled sets of tools.

1. the essentials: The tools in this category will depend on they way the institution uses on the online learning environment, e.g. to deliver distance courses or support a blended model of teaching. Functionality for the tools in this category must be the most reliable, with a very, very low fail rate.

2. the exploratory: Reliability for this set of tools is slightly less important than for those in the first category, but is still pretty high.

3. the experimental: Control of this set of tools should sit with the technology innovators and risk-takers on staff, and students required to use them should be warned to expect problems.

That way, the people who sit in the bulge – the pragmatists and the conservatives – don't have to spend too much time thinking about the technology and are able to focus on ways to use it. The enthusiasts can play with the experimental, and the visionaries can show us the way forward with the exploratory – and we all know what to expect from the system and the tools in play.

Innovation is risky. An institution that manages innovation well will also be managing expectations and perceptions – and putting enough money into ICT to ensure that at least the essentials are utterly reliable.

Once that happens, I, for one, will be slightly less grumpy.

28 July 2010

Great teaching techniques

Every now and then, I'm going to post links to good ideas I've encountered. This week, I have two to pass on.

This week, I came across a link to one Canadian academic's approach to teaching his students to read crtically - something students are often left to work out for themselves. Roland Paris, an academic from the University of Ottawa, uses a simple technique to introduce his students to the idea. His site is worth a visit.

The team behind the Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange (ASKe) team at Oxford Brookes has a fantastic approach to teaching students about assessment standards. It's simple, it's easy ... and the short workshop early in a student's studies seems to result in better marks over the long-term.

If you do try either of these techniques, let me know how you go.

25 July 2010

The Australian National University's YouTube channel

I've just subscribed to The Australian National University's YouTube channel, which gives me access to a whole range of presentations by amazing speakers. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next.

You can too: http://www.youtube.com/user/ANUchannel#p/a

Videoconferencing on AARNet

This from Campus Review (22 June 2010), p 12 ...

"By the end of this year, Australia's Academic and Research Network (AARNet) plans to launch a free videoconferencing service for students, researchers and academics in Australian universities. Called AARNet Anywhere, it will let users link up to as many as eight people on the AARNet network."

According to the article, AARNet is partnering with ViVu, a US-based company whose system piggybacks on Skype to allow multi-party videonconferencing, allowing up to eight people to participate at a time. They can share slides or other information in a collaboration window.

Sounds fantastic, even it the service will be limited to those of us with access to AARNet.

Is "digital" the right word?

"Imagine you are travelling on a train, say in Australia. Imagine, while on this train, you are on your mobile phone, speaking to a friend. Your friend is travelling on a train also, but this train is travelling between London and Edinburgh. ... Both of you are using laptops, and you're on the web via WiFi, searching for information. Additionally one of you is using Twitter, the other is using Facebook, and you are communicating with other friends, via these, in the US and China." The writer says that such train questions often end, jokingly, with a question about which way the smoke is blowing. (Harper, 2010)

My question would be: "Which way is the wind blowing?" It could easily be argued that Australian universities, by and large, don't know.

In a short piece in a recent Campus Review, Harper discusses the implications of the evolution of digital technologies for universities – for the ways our institutions use, develop, and analyse them. He says that if universities are to maintain relevance in the contemporary world, they must lead the way in exploring the uses of the technologies. He isn't writing about the conversations I encounter most of the time – you know, the ones that focus on whether it would be better for academics to use an LMS or a blog or how you make students take part in online discussions about course content or whether it is fair to all students to set group assignments. He is writing about the need for universities to start taking communication technologies seriously, to embrace the opportunities they provide for new ways of collaboration and learning, and to design curriculum that advances our understanding of how these technologies have and will affect our worlds.

First of all, he says, we should stop talking about "digital" technologies and start talking about "synaptic technological use". He writes: "In essence, contemporary technologies are synaptic; meaning they are technologies of flow, of bringing together, of transmission, exchange, networking, of social, financial, political, cultural and personal activity. The experience-focus of these technologies has long superseded any logical reason for a continued reference to the digital. And yet, in universities this reference continues to be widespread, as if we have entirely failed to grasp the size and complexity of the changes that have been occurring in the world around us."

Makes sense to me.


Harper. G. (2010). Digital is dead: synaptic technologies rule. Campus Review, 22 June 2010, 20(12), 13.

24 July 2010

Learning how to teach at university

Last week I spent the evening at a local tutors’ induction evening. It was a pretty simple affair: a presentation by one of our lecturers – The First Tutorial, a presentation from the head of the academic skills unit – Diversity, and a panel discussion.

The tutors came in nervous and left full of confidence, so we’ve found the right mix … just enough information to get them started, but not so much that they feel overwhelmed. Most of those who attended will work very closely with their course convenors, who will plan the tutorials and give the new tutors solutions to the worked examples that usually take up most of the time in tutorials in my part of the University. Those who will be facilitating discussions for the first time will get an extra bit of help.

I should be pleased, but I’m not.

It really bothers me that there is an expectation in many institutions that it is possible to learn how to be a good university teacher on the job.

Most of those who take their PhD from the University I currently work in go on to careers in academia. In recent years, the University has introduced a program that gives them some idea about how to teach, but there are still some who slip through with only a tutors’ induction evening and a bit of part-time tutoring or lecturing to prepare them for a career that will probably include teaching and committee work as well as the research for which they have been well-trained. Universities in Australia generally don’t require their new recruits to have a teaching qualification.

Surely this isn’t good enough.

Perhaps the new quality agency – the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency – will work with DEEWR to change this situation. I hope so – our students deserve teachers who know how to do their job properly. That calls for more than content knowledge.

18 July 2010

The tribe of the invisible mender

What is it that educational designers (or educational developers or instructional designers) do, exactly? When I am asked, I say that I assist my academic colleagues when they are designing curriculum or preparing to teach – and most people seem to be happy with that answer. Whether they picture me doing the tasks I actually do or not is another matter.

In the abstract for a paper that explores Canadian "instructional designers' stories of practice ... using four lenses: reflexivity, voice, strong objectivity, and power / authority", Campbell et al, wrote "Instructional designers regularly engage in a process of professional and personal transformation that has the potential to transform the culture of institutions through faculty-client relationships. Instructional designers promote new ideas and understandings in social contexts that include other designers and clients, among others". They frame educational design as "an active practice based on community, practical reasoning, personal perspective, and semantic innovation involving memory and leading to action" (Campbell et al, 2006, pp 1-2, 15).

This picture of the work of the tribe resonates with me (fluffy in wording as the description is), because it is difficult to identify exactly the contribution made by the tribe. The skills, knowledge and expertise brought to the task by my colleagues are amazingly varied.

Figure 1: Finding a place as an educational designer

Most of us have expertise in both educational technologies and theories of curriculum design and teaching in higher education. I sit about where the orange cross is in Figure 1, but I would be surprised if anyone else working in my institution as an educational designer would put themselves in precisely the same spot. If I were to cast the net wider and include more of the tribe from around the world, the diversity of practice would be even more obvious.

There is, however, another important dimension to this discussion. The educational designer, as a member of a team designing curriculum, must participate fully; he or she generally brings to the task a body of knowledge unknown to, or at least less-well known by, the academic teachers in the team. However, it is essential that the academic manager of the course (the lecturer in charge or the course convenor) never loses any of his or her sense of ownership of the curriculum.

You could say that we are like book editors. Pam Peters, of Macquarie University, once said in an address to the Canberra Society of Editors that a good editor is like an invisible mender: the better the editor is at the job, the less obvious the editor's contribution to the project. No one ever expects the editor's name to go on a book cover. For the same reasons, educational designers should remain in the background. Students don't need to know which courses have been influenced by the contributions of educational designers.

That model works beautifully so long as someone senior in the system knows the value of the contributions by educational designers and editors. Sometimes writers and lecturers do realise that the work with their name on it is much better because of the contributions of these people, but they can't be counted on to remember it. Ideally, the work of my tribe will be championed by someone quite senior who builds a consultation session into the approvals process, so that it becomes accepted university practice.

It would be even better if there were opportunities to match the strengths of individual educational designers to particular curriculum design / enhancement projects. Often the professional goals and the approaches and practices of particular educational designers diverge dramatically from those of the academics with whom they are working. Educational designers themselves are varied in background, approach, inclination, temperament and any number of other attributes. However, in this institution at least, the educational designers are "embedded" in selected academic organizational units. Academics in those units get one type of assistance only. It would be much better if we had an arrangement where the pairing of academic and educational designer were more considered.

On the other hand, academics are like novelists in other ways too: they will accept advice only from those they trust. They are more likely to accept advice from their local educational designer than from an unfamiliar person. It would be difficult for each educational designer to know as much as the group about every aspect of the work in a particular institution – for example, as much about graphic and web design as they do about models of curriculum, as much about social networking tools as they do about Learning Management Systems, or as much about the characteristics of undergraduate students in science as they do about graduate coursework students in philosophy.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that each institution builds an educational design team that includes people with a range of interests and expertise, and makes sure that they know each other's strengths. That way, at least we can call on each other for help. That, combined with an institutional policy that every academic curriculum designer is expected to have consulted his or her local educational designer, might do it.

Or would it?

Campbell, K, Schwier, R. A. & Kenny, R. F. (2006). Conversation as inquiry: a conversation with instructional designers. Journal of Learning Design, 1(3), 1-18.

15 July 2010

What is an educational designer, anyway?

I'm working on a post that puts my thoughts about this into some vaguely coherent form, but what do you think? If you type your answer in, we'll end up with a tag cloud ... a lovely little online activity to end the work week. (Answer Garden, the tool I used, is a bit like a collaborative version of Wordle.)

What is an educational designer, anyway?... at AnswerGarden.ch.

13 July 2010

Phases of assessment

Australian university students complain repeatedly about the quality and timeliness of the feedback they receive, and yet academic teachers know that not all of their students take the time to read and reflect on the feedback that is provided. Increasingly, those researching the role of assessment in higher education are seeing it as a lever for change in curriculum design practice, for more productive and focussed student learning, and as a tool to build on support mechanisms, particularly for first year students.

Sally Kift, in her recent presentation at the University, drew our attention to an article by Janet Taylor, in which she outlines a model for assessment design that addresses six important aspects.

Taylor (2008) says that an assessment strategy must:

1. include both formative and summative items,

2. assist students to negotiate and access the culture of the university,

3. meet student needs in terms of timing of deadlines,

4. ensure that students get good feedback as early as possible,

5. assist students to develop "self-regulatory" behaviours, and

6. avoid unreasonable workloads for both staff and students.
Her model divides the study session into three overlapping phases:

Phase 1, at the beginning of the study session (e.g. weeks 1-4 in a 13 week session), is when students complete assessment for transition activities: low contribution to final grades, low to no marking involved – reflective activities like study plans and learning contracts.

In weeks 3-9, students complete assessment for development activities, characterised by items that carry marks that make a low to middle contribution to the final grade, but provide extensive feedback, e.g. draft essays, reading logs, notes on a literature review, or materials prepared as part of a portfolio. Time allocated to marking on the part of the academic should be, Taylor says, "relatively high".

The final phase (weeks 7-13), assessment for achievement, is characterised by summative activities with a high weighting – that is, they have a relatively high influence on the final grade, e.g. examinations, final reports or essays or portfolios.

adapted from Figure 1: Strategies for assessment (Taylor, 2008)

Taylor says that assessment tasks in the first phase should require little marking time, but allow staff to identify students who might struggle. The activities that fall in the assessment for development group are the core of any first year course. "Once engagement is established by the early assessments, the task of the middle assessments is to maintain the engagement and develop and confirm students' skills and knowledge". (Taylor, 2008) The assessment activities in the final phase carry most weight towards the final mark, but are generally submitted too late to be of any real use to the student looking for guidance, so feedback can be kept to a minimum. Her argument is that the earlier an assessment item is due, the more feedback it should provide and the less weight it should carry in the overall, final mark.

It's worth reading the whole article; the model is useful for anyone designing an assessment strategy, not only those concerned with the first year experience.

Taylor, J. A. (2008). Assessment in First Year University: A model to manage transition. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice. 5(1), Article 3. http://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp.

Evolving teaching practice in universities

This week I attended two excellent, if poorly attended, staff development activities arranged by the University. In the first, Vicky Minderhout (Seattle University) and Dan Bedgood (Charles Sturt University) collaborated on a workshop that was advertised as teaching large classes. They took the group through Minderhout’s Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) model, which has its roots in small group discovery learning.

To quote from her materials:

“A POGIL classroom or laboratory consists of students working in small groups on specially designed guided inquiry materials. These materials supply students with data or information to interpret followed by guiding questions designed to lead them toward formulation of their own valid conclusions – essentially a recapitulation of the scientific method. The instructor serves as facilitator, observing and periodically addressing individual and classroom-wide needs.”

The real power of the model became clear as Dr Minderhout modelled her technique with the group. Her classroom is highly managed and time-on-task is structured and focussed.

The second event, a presentation and workshop run by Professor Sally Kift, advertised as focussing on the First Year Experience, also worked its way towards a discussion of good curriculum design. Kift has spent some time in her own institution working to ensure that her colleagues understand curriculum as widely as possible. She gave us the definition used by her institution, QUT:

“Curriculum [is] far more than a list of content to be mastered, or a list of units in sequence. It is a learning environment: a planned arrangement of space, time, resources, people and ideas.”

Both events were outstanding: master classes in good teaching technique and practice, clearly grounded in the research that supports the practice of all good curriculum designers. Kift, in particular, gave us a walk through her own evolution as a university teacher, and give us an insight into her current work as the ALTC Discipline Scholar for Law, developing the Threshold Learning Outcomes that will be used by the new quality agency – TEQSA – to assess standards.

Sadly, almost no one from my own institution attended either session, and those who did attend are already excellent, innovative teachers or members of my tribe – the educational designers of the University . We are already familiar with the issues, the practices, the literature, and the research. It’s always great to review materials, and to get someone else’s take on the body of knowledge ... but ... why aren’t my academic colleagues from the disciplines attending in greater numbers?

One of Tony Bates’ posts gives us a possible answer.

He reported this week on two articles that deal with the implementation of educational technologies, and barriers to change that might (could? ought to?) come about as the result of the benefits afforded by a range of technologies.

He writes:

“There is an increasing awareness that for technology to be used effectively, there [have] to be changes in the way people work. This ‘truth’ is only slowly penetrating the post-secondary education sector.”

For a long time, members of my tribe – the educational designers – thought that if we told our academic colleagues that we were implementing educational technology, we would be able to smuggle in a few ideas about good curriculum design and improved university teaching. Some of my current colleagues still talk about using the introduction of a new Learning Management System (LMS) as a Trojan horse. I think this is a complete furphy: if we tell our highly intelligent, time-poor academic colleagues that we are talking about the technology, they believe us. I believe that we need to be a little more respectful ... but also a little more demanding.

Bates concludes this post with two points. He chastises those academic staff members who put their own careers above change that will benefit students and the sector, and puts his opinion that institutional change will be impossible without improvements in the governance of universities. He calls for more effective leadership, more training in change management, and academic career incentives that reward innovative teaching.

There is a strong feeling among many working in the sector that a large proportion of Australian universities are too focussed on research at the expense of teaching. This would come as a surprise to the average Australian saving up to send his or her children to university. The average Australian thinks that the main purpose of the higher education sector is to educate future generations, to provide them with the knowledge, the skills, the expertise and the qualifications that will give them a leg up in the employment market.

Of course it is a little more complex than that. For me, universities are learning organizations, where the community (staff, students, and other interested participants) construct, share, and acquire knowledge. Some in the community are expert, some are novice – all are learners, whether they are crusty old researchers on the point of retirement or first year undergraduates right out of secondary school. Not everyone perceives universities in the same way, though. For too many of my academic colleagues, they are the ones who know how to “do” university work (so why should they change?), and their students and the general / professional staff of the university do not.

That, I think, is why change in universities is so difficult.

If we could re-conceptualize the university as a place where all are learners, it might be easier to bring about evolution in the way university academics approach their curriculum design and teaching practice.

07 July 2010

The LMS Wars

(or how I first came to comment on a blog posting)

Why have so many universities across the English-speaking world signed up to use Moodle as their Learning Management System (LMS)? The short answer, in my view, is that Blackboard broke trust with the academic community by claiming to have invented the LMS, and in doing so, damaged the reputation of all vendor-supported LMSs. Many in the academic community, now mistrustful of proprietary products, have elected to use open source products – Moodle and Sakai – because they feel that they have greater control over them ... and therefore over their teaching materials, curriculum, and the learning environments they create with their students.

How did this come to be? Before I get to the actual dastardly deeds, let me review a bit of history.

As soon as the Web was invented in about 1990, educators were harnessing it to facilitate online learning in various ways. Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the history of virtual learning environments for those really interested in the detail. Initially, it was mainly those with technical skills who were teaching online.

In the mid-1990s, something remarkable happened: a computer science academic from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Murray Goldberg – along with his colleague Sasan Salari and a bunch of graduate students – invented the first real LMS, which he named WebCT. At first, he gave it away to anyone who asked. Once he started getting requests from countries outside north America, Goldberg and his employer (UBC) created a company to manage the product and introduced a licensing fee. By late 1999, this company had been acquired by Universal Learning Technologies. Goldberg and his associates went on to other projects. This change in ownership was announced at the second International Conference for WebCT users in Athens, Georgia. At the first international conference, in 1999 in Vancouver, Goldberg was constantly surrounded by a group of his graduate students wearing Teva sandals and WebCT T-shirts with their email addresses embroidered on their sleeves; we attended a salmon barbecue on the beach and drank beer. At the Athens conference the next year, Carole Vallone emerged dressed as Cruella De Vil and told us how she was developing a range of WebCT-related income streams so she wouldn't have to increase the price of the WebCT LMS licence fee. We nearly believed her, but change was in the air.

Nevertheless, WebCT was the first of the online learning software products that provided the three sets of tools that still characterise the true higher education LMS: tools of administration (e.g. integration with other enterprise systems, tracking and monitoring, gradebook), tools of dissemination (e.g. links to document files, slides, audio and video clips, websites), and tools of collaboration (e.g. discussion boards, social networking lookalikes). WebCT made it easy for anyone to teach online, and it made it much easier for institutions to ensure that only enrolled students had access to the online learning environment, by allowing them to build integrations with their student records systems.

As an aside: there are similar LMS products that have been developed for the training and development market, but these are significantly different from those developed for the higher education market. The Catalyst Interactive product is an example.

WebCT dominated the English-speaking market, followed by Blackboard, followed – much further behind – by a whole pack of smaller emerging or evolving companies. By this stage, Blackboard had established a strategy of buying up these smaller companies. It seemed that they did this whenever they spotted one that had developed functionality missing in their own product, or whenever it looked as if one was emerging as a threat to their market share.

Around this time (2000), a Perth-based PhD student called Martin Dougiamas began work on the first open-source LMS – Moodle. The second open-source LMS, Sakai (named for some mysterious reason after the Iron Chef), was developed by a consortium of American universities – Michigan, Indiana, MIT, and Stanford. Sakai hit the market in 2004.

In 2006, Blackboard bought its biggest rival, WebCT. It now offered a suite of LMS products, including various iterations of WebCT and its own product, and dominated the market. Its closest rival was the emerging Canadian company, Desire2Learn, established in 1999. Blackboard reportedly tried to buy Desire2Learn, but the overtures were spurned.

Then came the bombshell: sometime in late 2005 or early 2006, Blackboard patented the LMS in several jurisdictions, including the USA and Australia. The patent documents listed some incongruous people as the inventors, including Matthew Small, Blackboard's in-house lawyer.

This came to the attention of most of the educational technology, LMS-using community in mid-2006. I read about it on Michael Feldstein's blog, e-Literate, and made my first comment on a blog in July 2006.

Very quickly, Blackboard sued Desire2Learn in a West Texas court for infringement of this patent – in short, for selling the Desire2Learn LMS in US markets. Thus began the LMS wars.

I won't go into the detail of the battle (which is not yet completely over). If you are interested, trawl through Feldstein's blog, using "edupatent" as your search term. As far as I can tell, John Baker, the CEO of Desire2Learn, has shown a much greater commitment to the ideals of education and to the educational community than his counterparts at Blackboard. It would have made much more financial sense for him to agree to a royalty payment early on. He didn't. He has challenged Blackboard's claim to have invented the LMS at considerable cost.

In quick succession, Desire2Learn was found to be in breach of the patent and ordered to pay royalties of $US 3 million, the sue-appeal-sue-appeal legal dance began, Desire2Learn and others asked for a review of the US patent, and the LMS-using community created a Wikipedia site listing all the "prior art" that demonstrates clearly to me that Blackboard's claim to have invented the LMS is at best dubious.

Importantly, those institutions that were looking to upgrade or replace their LMS turned in droves to the open-source LMSs – my last two employers included.

Since then, things have calmed down quite a lot. The US Patents Office has revised – somewhat – its original decision. Blackboard and Desire2Learn have come to an agreement of some kind. Blackboard apparently returned the original payment of $US 3 million + interest. It is rumoured that their profits in the year that they returned that payment were significantly less than the money they handed over to Desire2Learn. The extensive documentation about the patent and the legal battle on the Desire2Learn website has either been removed (as part of the agreement with Blackboard?) or hidden behind a password I don't have.

Who has suffered most as a result of this debacle? In general, it's the whole of higher education. In particular, it's time-poor students who now rely on the online learning environments that have become essential to the efficient and effective operation of higher education.

As far as I can see, the only good thing to have emerged from this situation is that Desire2Learn still exists, its market share continues to grow, and it continues to offer a strong viable alternative in the vendor-supported LMS market. Because Desire2Learn stood up to Blackboard, other smaller vendors – the Australian company Janison among them – are less likely to suffer the same fate. Blackboard may stand by its agreement not to sue those involved with the open-source LMS products – time will tell.

And for those of us working in the institutions that adopted Moodle? Well, Moodle is a perfectly acceptable LMS in many ways, particularly for those institutions that deliver the bulk of their programs in a face-to-face mode. It is great for the cottage industry, bespoke learning environments that get bolted on to existing traditionally-delivered programs or created to service small operations. I don't think it works well for large distance education systems or institutions committed to a fully-flexible operation – at least, not without considerable in-house programming and super-technical support.

Following last year's Moodleposium in Canberra, someone asked me what I thought of the event. "I felt as if I travelled there in a time machine," I said. The only thing missing was the pack of acolytes in their email-embroidered T-shirts.

01 July 2010

The Bones Model: the basics of curriculum design

In the last couple of years, I've been working with university teachers, usually when they are in the process of designing or re-designing courses. By courses, I mean the bits that make up a university degree - units or subjects.

I found myself sketching the same diagram over and over again to illustrate the relationships that ought to exist between the key elements in any curriculum: course content, program aims and objectives, course learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, assessment, and graduate attributes (or, if you prefer, capabilities and qualities).

Those of you familiar with John Biggs' work will see immediately that my sketch didn't arrive in my mind out of thin air - it draws on the diagram on page 59 of the third edition of his book. More recently, it occurred to me that I needed to include evaluation. So here's an extract from a short paper I put together recently, outlining some of the thinking behind the model ...


Biggs and Tang discuss two kinds of knowledge (declarative and functioning) in detail. Declarative knowledge, they tell us, is propositional knowledge: knowing about or knowing what. "Such content knowledge accrues from research, not from personal experience. It is public knowledge ... verifiable, replicable, and logically consistent". Functioning knowledge, on the other hand, is "based on the idea of performances of various kinds, underpinned by understanding". (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p 72) These concepts were key to the development of the Bones Model, as was Biggs' notion of alignment. Biggs describes reflecting on the success of his initial experimentation with portfolio assessment, and deciding that "it was because the learning activities addressed in the intended outcomes were mirrored in both the teaching/learning activities the students undertook and in the assessment tasks" (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p 52). Many academics, schooled by their research training to focus first on declarative knowledge, put the content of a new or revised course at the heart of their approach to curriculum design. Educational designers, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on the changes engendered in students as a result of the learning experience they have undergone. That is, changes in the way students view the world, improvements to their skills and expertise, or alterations in their behaviour. Both aspects of curriculum design are important.

Figure 1: The Bones Model: the essentials of curriculum design

The strength of the Bones Model is that the educational designer starting a new project is able to open the conversation with any aspect of curriculum design. A teaching academic is able to focus first on the issue of most immediate concern and move into a discussion that cycles through the other elements of the Model. Links between the different aspects can be clearly explained, and the designer can bring to the conversation research relevant to any aspect of curriculum design, at the most appropriate moment. If, for instance, it appeared likely that the academic concerned were trying to cover too much content, the designer could introduce a discussion about threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2006). If the discussion focused first on educational technologies and learning activities, the designer could, for example, elicit the academic's intentions for formative assessment strategies and recommend the most appropriate technology for the planned teaching and learning activity. If the conversation were about a new course to be introduced to an existing program, the designer and the academic are able to focus on the ways in which the new course assists students to achieve program goals and objectives and contributes to the maturation of graduate capabilities. With the Bones Model providing a touchstone for the conversation, both designer and academic continually assess the course from the perspectives of integration and alignment through successive iterations of development.

Working with the Bones Model, the curriculum design team addresses a range of questions.

Course Content: What information needs to be covered in the course? What are the sources of this information, e.g. published and grey research, review literature, websites, audio-visual material? How can the information be most authentic, e.g. case studies, current research findings from lecturer or colleagues, real-life projects?

Program Aims, Goals, Objectives: Program learning outcomes provide the touchstone for all course learning outcomes, especially for core courses. These are the goals for the whole Program. How do Program Aims mesh with the Australian Qualifications Framework descriptors?

Course-level Intended Learning Outcomes: "On satisfying the requirements for this course, students will be able to …" How do course-level learning outcomes link to graduate capabilities and qualities? How do Course-level Intended Learning Outcomes mesh with the locally-developed Discipline-specific Core Learning Outcomes and ALTC Threshold Learning Outcomes?

Teaching & Learning Activities: Where and when will students be learning? What learning activities, processes and events will be most effective and efficient in giving students the necessary learning experiences to absorb the course content, apply their newly-acquired declarative knowledge, complete activities that demonstrate their functioning knowledge, and achieve the course outcomes? These are the learning activities that occur throughout the semester: group activities, field trips, laboratory work, online learning activities, etc.

Assessment: What kinds of assessment will provide authentic measures of how well the student has achieved the course learning outcomes? What kinds of assessment will demonstrate that students are able to apply declarative knowledge in completing activities that test functioning knowledge? What are the relevant marking criteria and how do these reflect commonly understood standards – for program, course, discipline, profession, College or Faculty, and university?

Graduate Attributes, Capabilities, Qualities: What will graduates be like? What will they be able to do? What skills and expertise will they be able to list on their résumé?

Evaluation: How and when will the program / course be reviewed or evaluated? What will it be judged against? What moderation processes are in place? When is feedback sought from students? How do student comments inform the evolution of the curriculum?

Those using the Bones Model are not locked into a rigid linear process with a fixed starting point; rather, the Model facilitates an authentic iterative process while ensuring that all elements of curriculum design are addressed.

Meyer, J. H. F., and Land, R. (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. RoutledgeFalmer: London.

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university, 3rd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Veness, D. (2010). 'As simple as possible': the bones of curriculum design. 2010 ASCILITE conference - curriculum, technology & and transformation for an unknown future. 5-8 December 2010, Brighton Beach, Sydney, Australia. Retrieved 17 February 2012 from http://ascilite.org.au/conferences/sydney10/Ascilite%20conference%20proceedings%202010/Veness-concise.pdf.