Wednesday, September 26, 2007

eLearning Lets it All Hang Out

I just read a report that came out in June titled Laboratories of Reform: Virtual High Schools and Innovation in Public Education. Published by the Education Sector, an independent education think tank in Washington, the paper provides an overview of online education at the high school level across the United States. Not surprisingly, the results are mixed; some jurisdictions are doing a fine job of providing alternative access to secondary education, and in others the quality is just not up to snuff. However, what I found more interesting in the report was that eLearning efforts often precipitate important re-examinations of teaching and learning practices (eg. increasing student participation, fostering self-reflection and independent learning, etc.), and that experiencing online teaching often motivates teachers to improve the ways they teach in the classroom. The report also highlights how administrators and parents are appreciative of the transparency of actually seeing what happens in online classes and can more easily monitor quality. It is in these ways that virtual classes act as "laboratories of reform."

This has long been a bug bear of mine: that it is widely assumed that what happens in the in-person classroom is sacrosanct, yet distance education and eLearning efforts have to consistently prove that they are as good as the classroom experience. Not withstanding the "no significant difference" studies between various forms of education, non traditional approaches have always assumed a greater burden of proof. Having been in the distance ed and online fields for a dozen years, I can attest to the fact that the work I have been involved with faces far more scrutiny and is held to higher standards than what happens in the classroom.

The irony of all this is that there is no hiding in any case with respect to eLearning. Everything is available for as detailed examination as one wishes to undertake. One can very easily assess the quality of:
  • learning content and activities
  • learning objectives
  • learner direction and supports
  • structure and sequencing
  • interaction
  • teaching presence
  • feedback to learners
  • learner assessments
Because it is "all out there" in eLearning and a permanent record is created, it makes it far easier for stakeholders to know exactly what is transpiring in the virtual learning environment. It is therefore much easier to assess quality against expected standards, to hold course designers and facilitators accountable for their work, and to initiate continuous improvement programs. Whether in secondary education, post-secondary education, adult continuing professional development, or corporate training, there is too much that happens in physical classrooms that occurs in an unexamined vacuum.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Does the World Really Need More Lectures?

I did some quick mental math and came to the conclusion that I must have sat through many thousands of lectures delivered by hundreds of lecturers in my lifetime. And through all of this - primary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate studies, graduate studies, and innumerable professional development courses and conferences - I could probably point to a small handful of lecturers who were totally enthralling and provided a meaningful and memorable learning experience. There are two reasons for this. One, genuinely good public speaking and presentation skills are scarce. Two, straight information presentation is not a good way to learn anything at other than a surface level.

What brought on all this reflection was a notice I received that Lectopia, a lecture capture system developed by the University of Western Australia, had been acquired by a company called Anystream. The newly combined entity is now known as Echo360. Their mission is to supply universities and colleges with this technology that allows for the capture of live lectures to be played on a browser later, allowing the user to see and hear the lecturer via a small window, and to see the lecturer's notes / presentation in a larger window. The idea, as far as I can tell, is that learners could replay the lecture later for review, or the captured lecture could be "dumped" into a course management system for inclusion in online versions of courses.

After viewing some of the sample lectures on the Echo360 site, and remembering other similar examples using other technologies, I can definitely say that I am not impressed. Most lectures are bad in person, but they are even worse when replayed later online. You cannot really see the lecturer (window very small), the sound quality is crappy, many of the graphics used are difficult to read, and you cannot interact with anyone or anything. Everything about it reinforces the impression that you are not there and not part of it.

If the idea is to merely present information for easy anytime access online, why not produce this professionally in a controlled environment (not the chaotic echo chambers of huge lecture halls), where you can ensure that sound, pictures, graphics, animations, etc. are all in synch, of good quality, and working as intended? Not to mention editing out all the "ahs," and "ums," and "where was I now" comments. You can then use the in-class time for meaningful interactions beyond information transfer (e.g. debates, case studies, role plays, etc.) and deeper levels of learning.

Recording lectures to replay online reminds me of the very early days of silent films. Directors filmed stage plays. Then someone realized that having this new technology (the camera) meant that they were not bound to the stage, that they could take the camera and go on location and film virtually anything anywhere. We still haven't had that "aha" moment yet with respect to the ways that technology can free us from the lecture hall and the mind-numbingly boring way that we continue to educate and train. We are still walking backward into the future.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Let's Junk the Jargon

A recent Chief Learning Officer magazine electronic newsletter carried a press release about Thomson Learning and Tata Interactive Systems collaborating on a new project called the Thomson Learning Lot. According to the press release,

"Tata will...develop systems for content-creation work flow, as well as for publishing and archiving objects, then rendering the learning material on the portal... The project involves combining such technology as LAMS, DSpace, Fedora, Zoomla, uPortal and so on...This is another example of the Web 2.0 software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach where various open-source softwares are used."

Huh? After reading the entire announcement top to bottom, I still have no idea what the Thomson Learning Lot is, why it exists, who's lives it will improve, or why I should care. This is because the entire message is presented in impenetrable jargon.

I realize that every field has its own language and is prone to jargon. However, I think the eLearning field takes it to a new level. If you want proof, just go to the website of an eLearning software vendor, or attend an eLearning conference, or read an eLearning magazine or journal. The speech or prose is often laden with jargon that is exclusionary of those not on the "inside" and makes eLearning seem much more mysterious and complicated and costly than it need be.

I think that such exclusionary language works against the interest of the field because it scares off those we may be asking to invest in eLearning projects. We would be much better off speaking to potential clients or key stakeholders (i.e. those controlling the purse strings) by using plain, straight-forward English (or French, or Farsi, or Chinese, etc.)

In the meantime, however, there are ways to cut through the jargon. I offer the following translations of key eLearning terminology for the uninitiated.

"We offer a robust, stable, and fully-scalable enterprise-wide LMS solution to facilitate competency development across the organization."

Translation: We hope this newest version of our eLearning software does not crash and burn when it has more than five users on it at time.

"Our plug-and-play open architecture approach facilitates interoperabilty and is based on industry standards for Web deployments (XML, SOAP or AQ) and supports major learning standards (AICC, SCORM, IMS, and IEEE)."

Our eLearning software plays well with others.

"Our product is an integrated, field-configurable, shrink-wrapped application."

To be honest, I haven't figured this one out yet, but I think it must be well packaged.

So the next time someone tries to snow you with eLearning jargon, ask them to translate it in such a way that your grandma or grandpa would understand. If they can't, don't do business with them. Because, if we cannot get past the jargon, we cannot focus on what is truly important. And sometimes the jargon hides the fact that the person using it has nothing important to say.