This week the New Zealand Ministry of Education released the latest report (well actually an annotated bibliography) identifying major themes and messages for the tertiary sector from an analysis of the e-learning literature. The key findings of the report entitled "Learners' Participation, Retention and Success in e-learning: An Annotated Bibliography" include few surprises and generally underscores the importance of institutional policy, teacher pedagogy and the way in which e-learning is part (or not) of the learning culture. Derek Wenmoth provides a useful summary of the major themes.
Instead of restating or repeating Derek's blog posting, and the report's Executive Summary, in the spirit of constructive critique there are a number of statements and conclusions that do not sit comfortably with me. For example, arguably one of the most serious flaws in the report is the claim associated with learning styles. The report concludes that “Learning styles are predictors and determinants of learner outcomes” (p.11). As far as I'm concerned the learning styles literature has been well and truly discredited by a number of leading scholars and there is very little evidence supporting this movement. Here is a link to just one report of many in recent years that challenges the validity of learning styles. Indeed some proponents go so far as to totally reject the claim that learning styles exist and in many respects the literature in this area is nothing more than pop psychology. I'm very surprised to see such high level endorsement of learning styles in a Ministry of Eduction report and it raises questions about whether the report was subject to sufficient peer review.
Another statement in the report that raised eyebrows to say the least is the claim that “females prefer a more collaborative, interactive approach whereas males tend to take a more functional approach” (p.14). Such sweeping generalisations are not helpful and this type of conclusion is not as well empirically grounded as common folk knowledge would suggest. Again I'm most surprised to read such a statement in a Ministry report which tends to discredit the validity of other more solidly grounded conclusions.
The other issue I have with this report is a common flaw throughout the e-learning literature in that the use of the term e-learning encompasses a range of practices. Arguably relatively little can be gleamed from studies that do not unpack the different assumptions, pedagogical orientations and tools of e-learning which range from reinforcing the practice of multi-choice tests to supporting media rich and highly complex online scenarios exploring wicked problems. Put another way e-learning is not a stable or fixed entity that can be studied as an independent variable.
At Massey University we intend to devote a forthcoming “Hot Topic” lunchbox session to discussing the major themes and messages in this report. I've already invited the author of the Ministry report to attend this session in order to engender some lively discussion.
I thought is was about time that I posted my first blog entry for 2012. I took an extended break from work over January and it's now time to get back on the horse, especially since I now have a new job... well actually two.
On Friday it was formally announced that I have accepted the positions of Director, National Centre for Teaching and Learning along with the Director of the Distance Education and Learning Futures Alliance (DELFA). The new roles come with a promotion to full professor after an externally contestable selection process. Suffice to say I'm now looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that these directorships offer over the next few years.
In the meantime, a few days ago I came across this video by Corning Incorporated entitled "A Day Made By Glass". It provides a futuristic insight into how lives will be different and potentially transformed through the ways we decide to design, develop and ultimately use new technologies. The video has some stunning examples of new technology applications enabled through glass and it makes you realise that the iPad is just the tip of a new wave of mobile and ubiquitous technologies. The 'class community activity table' looks really valuable as a means of harnessing the social, interactive and collaborative nature of learning. And the large information wall in the Redwood State Park shown during a class field trip is fairly cool.
This is the second version of the original 'A Day Made By Glass' which was a major hit on Youtube with over 17 million hits. I predict it won't be long before this even longer second version of the video surpasses this figure. I'm just a little worried about all the finger marks on the inside of the windscreen as I drive to work reading an electronic newspaper and answering my email... all at the touch of a finger. Sales of Mr Muscle glass cleaner might skyrocket in the future.
The paper argues that research into learning technology is driven by far too much rhetoric and more explicit attention needs to be given to theory. It makes a case for greater engagement with theory through examples from three case studies and goes some way to illustrating the value of creating a more dynamic relationship between theory and practice. Although I'm not sure I totally agree with the sweeping claim that 'theory has had a relatively small role to play in learning technology research to date', there is no question that the field is dominated by 'hype and excitement rather than evidence' (Bennett & Oliver, 2011, p.179). Moreover, a pragmatic interest in exploring the affordances of the latest technological developments is often at the expense of serious theorizing.
Having said that, it's important to recognise that social, economic and educational theories (at least the established ones) can be blinding and rather than 'make sense' of the affordances and possibilities of new learning technologies through our existing theoretical lens, we need to engage in theory building in order to truly imagine alternative learning futures. In particular, I'm talking about futures which are more equitable, socially just and sustainable... for all. Nevertheless, I can't disagree with the following conclusion:
'Research in learning technology has focused on practical, instrumental concerns, to the detriment of its ability to engage with theory. Previous reviews have show that theory has been relatively neglected, with most of those examples that do use theory best characterised as applying it rather than engaging with it in a critical or scholarly way. This situation risks turning the field into a narrow and derivative area of work: at best, only able to draw from other areas; and at worst, only of relevance to those with a vested interest in the specific practical situation currently under study' (p.187).
Let's hope we see more creative and imaginative theories in 2012 as real alternatives solutions to the deep-seated problems we face, which have haunted us over the last 12 months, as our futures really do depend on them. That's probably a good note to sign off for the year as I plan to take a few weeks of much needed rest and relaxation.
Footnote: I need to state for the record that many of our so-called theories are based at best on pop psychology and unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations, so I'm not advocating for more creative theories without supporting evidence. Put bluntly the field suffers from far too much rubbish written in the name of theory, as illustrated by concepts such as the digital native.
This is just a brief reflection on the recent QS Apple conference in Manila where I presented a paper on the new face of internationalization. The paper challenged two basic assumptions: distance education is second rate and online learning is poor quality. My central thesis was that online and distance education is the new normal as a new type of globally untethered learner is expecting a new type of higher education for new times.
The paper goes on to outline how traditional universities are being chiseled away by the rise of the amateur and new business models as a multitude of new higher education providers emerge. The conference reinforced for me how quickly the global higher education landscape is changing in Asia (and beyond) and the role new alliances and partnerships will play in maintaining the relevance, reputation and revenue of both traditional and modern 21st century universities. In particular, the groups and partners that universities decide to associate themselves with will become essential as higher education institutions respond to the challenges of the new global environment. During the conference I was interviewed about these changes although there is only a short extract of this video interview on the conference website.
I was also pleased to collect on behalf of Massey University a QS Award for the Best International Student Recruitment Brochure judged according to the concept, design, layout and content. Massey is currently expanding the number of degree programmes available by distance to international students living overseas and the award recognised the quality of our 2012 Distance Education International Prospectus. Arguably QS is the most reputable of the university ranking systems and Massey recently received 5 stars for the quality of our international programmes (the top ranking) which bodes well for the future of our online and distance education offerings targeting distance learners.
This year's ascilite conference finished yesterday in Hobart and was attended by over 380 delegates. I'm pleased to report that next year's ascilite 2012 conference will take place in Wellington and I'll be leading a team from Massey University as the host institution to ensure we maintain the high standard set in 2011 and we have an exceptional event. Part of the 2012 conference team from Massey attended this year's conference in Hobart to promote the Wellington conference and here is a photo of our booth:
The conference theme for 2012 is: Future Challenges | Sustainable Futures
The theme recognizes that Education is facing a number of significant challenges. Recent waves of global uncertainty coupled with local crisis and government reforms are reshaping the tertiary education landscape. In the backdrop of these challenges new digital technology is enabling new models of teaching and learning. Yet, serious questions remain over the sustainability of these new models and the claims about the potential of new technology, especially in the face of deeper challenges.
The aim of the 2012 ascilite conference is to explore some of these challenges and to better understand the complexity of sustainability—in its widest sense. The basic premise is that what happened in the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. There are three future-focused sub-themes:
• Learning for the future
• Teachers as future makers
• Leading in a climate of change
Ascilite 2012 will be held on the Wellington waterfront at the iconic Te Papa Tongarewa – National Museum of New Zealand. Enjoy the spectator views of Wellington Habour and take time to discover some of the rich history of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Wellington is an excellent conference venue with lots on offer including a lively nightlife and many tourist attractions within walking distance. Here is a brief and rather amusing video clip of why you need to come to Wellington in November 2012...
The New Zealand edition of the 2011 Horizon Report was released today. The Report lists the 12 “technologies to watch” which are claimed to uniquely reflect the state of tertiary education in New Zealand. This is the first time that a New Zealand specific report has been released and the findings make interesting reading in comparison to reports from other regions. The table below provides a comparison of the "short list" between New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the Global Edition.
The differences between the rankings could reflect regional priorities and the relative evolution and maturity of new developments in different parts of the world. However, we should not rule out questions about the validity of the contrasting selections as they come from experts in the field who should have a local and global outlook.
I have to say the absence of learning analytics is a major omission in the New Zealand report as this area of technological innovation is one of the really 'hot' topics internationally and it has been described as the "next big thing". The second Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference is in Vancouver in May 2012. Arguably, learning analytics has already arrived and I would certainly place the development in the two to three year category.
But then I can hardly complain as I was left off the initial selection process by accident and pressures of work and travel commitment prevented me from participating in the identification and voting process. It is also surprising to see Open Content (i.e. Open Educational Resources) and Digital Scholarship missing from the New Zealand list as I believe these two developments are already reshaping the nature of academic work and the way institutions design and deliver courses.
In terms of scholarship, I encourage you to read Martin Weller's recent book on how technology is reshaping scholarly practice.
Although it seems everyone agrees 'The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators', I'm less convinced about the New Zealand panel conclusion that, 'The growing availability of bandwidth will dramatically change user behaviours in teaching, learning and research over the next five years'. This claim seems to be very technology-led and overly focused on the supply-side of internet provision. We know from the experience in other countries that more attention is required on the demand-side, especially in tertiary education, as it's naive to think that if we built it, they'll come.
Once again this year I'm a little critical of the failure to acknowledge that new technology is not neutral and more attention could be given in future years to the way technology will impact our lives--for better and worse. Digital exclusion would appear on my list of the major challenges facing tertiary education and New Zealand society at large. We need to be wary of the inherent technological determinism promoted by the annual Horizon Report exercise. But the New Zealand edition of the Report will no doubt generate further discussion and for this reason it serves a useful purpose.
However, it does make me wonder whether we need to start a regular horizon report for predicting the type of new pedagogies that we should expect to see in our tertiary institutions over the next one to five years. Of course the list of pedagogies could be quite short and may not change from one year to the next.
And in terms of pedagogy I'm reminded of the finding in the recent "Going the Distance Report" that less than one-third of chief academic officers believe that their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over the last eight years.
The full report is available from the New Media Consortium website.