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This is a local Internet for local people, there is nothing for you here…

March 15, 2012

In this the third of my posts loosely associated with my seminar at Dundee University I’m thinking about some of the reasons why elearning is not as widespread as it could be in schools. (NB: notice, I’m not saying ’should’ be!)

If schools are going to add meaningful elearning experiences to their learning and teaching repertoire, they are going to have to spend some time considering what will or will not work. It’s not enough to put an IWB in every classroom and expect learning to suddenly become ’better’ – just ask the Schools Whiteboard Expansion (SWE) Project: London Project (Moss, 2007)

Of course, this lack of a clear vision for ICT use by those who hold the purse strings, and who make the decisions based on ’value-for-money’ rather than pedagogical considerations, can hardly be blamed on them, after all it is almost impossible to find empirical research that that demonstrates the impact of ICT. Incidentally, if you do find research suggesting the IWBs can improve attainment, can I give you a hint? ”Follow the money”!

Given the general lack of reliable evidence, it is very hard to justify spending on anything new. Sadly, this thinking also hampers the adoption of elearning in secondary schools. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s one thing to have teachers who can use technology, but if they have no evidence to support purchasing tools for classroom use, it becomes nigh on impossible to justify spending on ICT resources. The perfectly reasonable, and justifiable question we need to be asking is what problem does ICT solve. Up till now, there has been a strong move to justify ICT use on the basis that it is ICT, but as someone said to me today, that’s like justifying using pen and paper because, well, they are a pen and paper. There is little point using any tool unless it has some intrinsic value to add, and when it comes to learning and elearning, we don’t really appear to know what that impact may be.

The worry is that we spend a lot of time and effort developing elearning resources, yet all we are often doing is making existing resources available through a new medium. I have been very influenced by @downes recent paper on elearning generations, not least because of the coherent and logical progression of elearning he outlines. He identifies the digitisation and online sharing of resources as the first generation of elearning. What he so clearly points out and identifies is the need for communities around learning. These allow learners to develop their own ideas while still maintaining a central, or core, idea that unifies their learning. It is a case of moving away from content for content’s sake, to one that

…seems to entail offering a course without content – [but] how do you offer a course without content? The answer is that the course is not without content, but rather, that the content does not define the course. That there is no core of content that everyone must learn does not entail that there is zero content. Quite the opposite. It entails that there is a surplus of content. When you don’t select a certain set of canonical contents, everything becomes potential content, and as we saw in practice, we ended up with a lot of content.

Stephen Downes

In practical terms in a secondary school, we can achieve this when we set learners an idea as a task, and allow them to demonstrate their own learning in the way they feel is most suited to them. As an example of this, I would offer up the video put together by one of my S2 pupils (aged 13). Her response to my task: ”What is beauty?” is still – despite the mistakes that she identified herself (a bit too long, some slides are far too wordy) – one of the best pieces of pupil work I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving:

Inevitably, the connectivism model outlined by Downes et al would struggle to survive in a Secondary school – we have too many demands on our time to produce ’results’ – but the notion that we should be creating communities around our classrooms, communities that are not restricted to those physically in our rooms, is immensely appealing… especially if that community included the parents of the learners. But wait… isn’t that what Glow was meant to provide? Let’s be honest, we needed Glow with all it’s attendant short comings so that we could learn and develop and plan for the next iteration. If nothing else, Glow has been invaluable in helping raise the profile of elearning and online capabilities, even as it failed to live up to the hopes of many who had already taken some steps in this direction. The real genius of Glow was in helpingextremely helpful teachers appreciate that there are online learning opportunities, and that quite a few have expanded their own learning and teaching toolkit as a result.

Another side effect of the ”cheapest = best value” mentality that permeates most public services is that ICT is provided using a default ’spec’ dreamt up by someone who has no idea what the PC could be used for in an education setting. The fact that the provided PCs will run M$ Office, but little else, speaks volumes about the lack of pedagogical insight of those responsible for provisioning. In addition to this, many Local Authorities have a default specification for their Network which can mean it is nigh on impossible to add other devices — so you can forget BYOD (Bring your own device) anytime soon in schools. Also, this particular restriction applies to staff just as much as pupils.

Incidentally, let’s briefly consider the elephant in the room: the iPad. Apple have dominated the tablet market through their combination of specs and price, the availability of software which is virus free, and from a school’s point-of-view, world class accessibility tools built in! Yet because of an inherent distrust in corporate minded councils who have swallowed the M$ Kool-Aid, there are unreasonable restrictions in place that mean they are yet to see much in the way of a meaningful deployment in Scottish schools (and yes, I do know about the Cedar Schools 1:1 deployment… but their pupils pay fees, mine don’t!) Such is the entropic nature of ICT deployment when it comes to anything new that I have heard from a friend of mine about a school which took delivery of some iPads to help learners with additional needs, and months later, they are still sitting in a cupboard gathering dust because no one can agree whether they should be connected to the Internet in school. Sad.


Am I really just envisioning an ideological and pedagogical dreamworld? The realities of secondary schools means we are dealing with real learners with raging hormones and great curiousity – a potent combination that requires careful handling. Of paramount importance is the need to keep learners safe online. This is done by filtering and blocking and emasculating the internet so that it is a ’safe’ environment. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the many pupils who has worked out how to use your (jailbroken) mobile phone to create an ad hoc Wifi hotspot that allows anyone within range access to the ’real’ Internet…

What it will boil down to in the secondary sector is that setting up and maintaining effective and worthwhile elearning to support learning is a costly and labour intensive operation. With the current changes going on with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, very few teachers have the time or inclination to devote to adding an elearning element to their classroom practice. Put simply, it is the 11th priority on a list of 10 – but I firmly believe it should be in the top 5.

So, is there a pedagogy of elearning? Maybe. I think it is better to think that elearning is just one more tool with immense potential that should be included in every teacher’s learning and teaching toolkit. We’ll see.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2012 9:43 pm

    It’s such a pity that the lack of pedagogical empathy from those responsible for procurement and school network infrastructure impacts on fuller use of ICT, eg BYOD, access to twitter, facebook, etc. Change we a man once said. Great post.

  2. March 15, 2012 11:19 pm

    Thanks! Being honest, I’m torn with the whole BYOD argument… Whether it’d be a good or bad thing is still open to debate. I’ve seen plenty of arguments both for and against… that said, for most of us working inScottish Education, it’s a moot point.

  3. March 15, 2012 11:29 pm

    It will suddenly tip one local authority will get it and HMIE will use them as model for driving change across Scotland
    The only way to squeeze more good things into schools is to have lots of blended learning
    Learners should be able to bring their own browsers.

    They are doing it already folks
    Schools need to walk alongside learners in their learning journeys

  4. Mr W permalink
    March 16, 2012 12:10 am

    I totally agree about the need for blended learning. There is enough anecdotal evidence, and some research coming out of tertiary education, to suggest that it may be the way forward… of course, it does require schools or authorities to develop meaningful content, support communities of learners, and ideally allow other schools/learners to become involved.

    I don’t know if any Local Authority would be willing to go that far yet. I suspect it will start with one or two schools, and then possibly a LA. The problem is this will take time… Too much time. 😦

  5. March 17, 2012 9:15 am

    Great stuff Neil, The point about glow bringing ict to the notice of many is important.
    There are a few iPad projects beginning to spring up. We (North Lanarkshire) have a First Year (about 100 pupils) and a couple of primary classes doing a short term 1-1 with pupils taking devices home. I’ve talked to a few of the primary pupils. I was expecting good things but have been astonished by how much they are using the iPads and how creative they are with them after only a few weeks..
    How this model can be taken forward on a wider scale (if the results continue to be positive) I do not know…

  6. Mr W permalink
    March 17, 2012 9:21 am

    Great to hear about the iPad project. I’d be really interested to discuss how the effectiveness is going to be evaluated once you’ve been running it for a wee while.

    I know that @fraserspiers said something similar with the Cedar Schools 1:1, so it’s good to hear that you’re noticing something similar. 😉

    I’m looking to carry out some research into ICT and literacy in particular, so may be in touch with you about that as well.

  7. April 3, 2012 3:04 pm

    Hi Neil – just preparing to ‘reply’ to your InspireED seminar series at Dundee University later this month! You and Prof Hartley are a hard act to follow …:-) ! My approach is going to be a little different from yours, although there’s alot that you write in your blog that I wholeheartedly agree with. While Prof Hartley said he spoke as an academic, I’m speaking very much as an academic developer and am taking the line that we need to acknowledge a distinctive e-pedagogy in order to encourage teachers to say ‘I’m an experienced and hugely competent teacher, but I don’t know what to do here in online environments” . I hope that by saying that the pedagogy is distinctive and different from traditional face to face teaching – we give staff ‘permission’ to say that they need professional development that goes beyond technical skills training in order that they can provide excellent learning and teaching experiences for students in online environments. .
    Great blog – thank

    • April 3, 2012 5:04 pm

      Hi Julia,
      You are too kind. You’ll find the Dundee University audience lovely. Very responsive and lots of great questions.

      I have to be honest to being rather intimidated before my own session… everyone else delivering has a PH.D, and is highly respected… I’m just a hands on practitioner! (Yes, a bit of false modesty! 😉 )

      What I like about the topics and speakers is that we all cover a real breadth of experience and knowledge – from the academic to the practical. In addition, we appeared to cover the whole range of learners, from early years through to post-graduate.

      I like the thought that your focus is on enabling teachers to find out what is out there and how it can be used. As I’ve mentioned, one my main areas of interest now is in trying to identify where ICT can have an impact as opposed to the appearance of an impact.

      All the best for your session! 😉

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