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Post-workshop notes

Stephen W. Draper, Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow.

Contents (click to jump to a section)


Notes following a workshop at IoE, London on 4 Feb, 2000; disseminating various projects on new technology for (HE) education.

1. Practical guidelines for new technology all come from old technology

The workshop made me think again about a hypothesis of mine: that the principles underlying the use of new technology for education are all identical to general principles; and that when confronted with a bug or disaster with new technology, the solutions are all tactics to be found in good practice with old technology. It is just that low level habits ("skills") don't automatically work the same way with new technology: but functions, problems, solutions are all the same.

See my notes on video conferencing: almost all of those recommendations are such e.g. use of an agenda, introducing people round the table(s) at the start, etc. I would add in addition, that even the business of starting by making sure that everyone can hear and see (which you might think was just to do with the new unreliable and strange technology) is something which actually we should all do all the time even in lectures.

Another case: Hamish MacLeod says that in email conferencing, people "lose the sense of the audience". I would say: a) actually sometimes you DO see this problem with face to face; e.g. tunnel vision deficit; b) we need skills for doing this on email e.g. lurkers sometimes should add messages of "yes; agree;" or defend third parties; and that this DOES correspond to skilled group tactics face to face (e.g. by facilitators) e.g. asking for agree/disagree and going round the table ....

2. The underlying issues

Away from tactics, and to the experience as it is felt by participants (students); and to the language in which they express it, the way they see it.

It is about social self-presentation, and personal relationships (not about learning, even in the HE context). E.g. I won't speak because it's embarrassing; will speak because I like the tutor, or feel we have begun a personal relationship; won't speak because that is showing off, self-presenting as nerd, ...

And it is this that explains exactly why many of the good practices are good: introducing people at the start (or only using video conferencing after face-to-face meetings) to set up the personal relationship; and equally, email student discussions will often work only if the discussion has been started in class (i.e. so the students feel OK about discussing with each other or the tutor).

3. The deep points underlying the workshop

A. Don't forget the learners

We DO need some studies of what it is like for the learners (students): natural history studies. This for 2 reasons:
  1. Because data on what is happening with new technology means little without comparisons to what happens with the old technology. E.g. "few students use the conferencing/web pages" but how many use/used the library? Very similar complaints are heard periodically about that.
  2. To spot the good practices with the old technology, as we are likely to need them to fix problems that burst out more obviously with the new.

Partly, of course, this can alert us to the social/personal experiences that ultimately motivate the good tactics (see above).

But also, for Charles, it is about measuring the resource use (the "ensemble" balance i.e. the relationship between the multiple resources students have access to in learning); and observing the "re-mediation" ...

B. Social

The crude view is these — the social and the individual or cognitive — are two perspectives on the same thing. A better view, perhaps, is the Rom Harré cycle i.e. that the learner cycles between a private cognitive constructivist digestive phase, and a social, aligning one.
See also this page on reflection, and search it for refs and comments related to Rom Harré.

C. Educational design (of material, courses, ...) is about the ensemble

There are still too many studies about a single medium, ignoring the fact that learners normally have and use multiple resources, and the designer's job is to design the ensemble. The important question about a new medium is not whether it is a substitute for an old one, still less whether it can replace all the all ones, but whether it complements them and fits in. A new medium that was only used by 20% of the learners, but brought the pass rate up from 75% to 95% would obviously be a hugely important; while one that was used by 90% but made no detectable difference to learning outcomes would not.

This point has many applications. For example, in relation to a case discussed at the workshop, if there is lot of content discussion in class, why should the students use email for it?

A further point is that one of the media in an ensemble (but ideally all of them) needs to have the crosslinks to the others. Classically, the teacher's input does it for textbooks; on TV, the announcement at the end of documentaries of telephone helplines, WWW, email fora is a growing instance. If (in relation to Chris Fowler's talk) there is to be "no DIY" of multimedia materials by academics, then it's a frozen medium of lesser value, though no worse than textbooks.

D. Researcher vs. practitioner

It would be interesting to apply Minimal Manual ideas to presenting findings for practical use.

Note too how it is quite hard to get your actual behaviour (skills) to be changed by your theoretical understandings. This reversion to habit, significantly enhanced when the agent is under stress, is what we see causing trouble in video conferencing etc.

Image vs. diary data

This section concerns Crook's study of the presentation of student life as represented by a) publicity photos b) student diaries. I think it's pretty silly, but can't stop thinking about it.

I suppose for me it revolves around the question of what should be represented: student time, effort, study, organising or otherwise defining activities.

After all, if we represented time fairly, then sleeping would be the biggest category, eating another large one. And these are essential causative factors for learning: without them, no learning. And of course, they are important to the students too when considering what university life might be like as experience. On the other hand if we want only to focus on a narrower set of activities as somehow more central to studying, then what's the criterion? The mathemagenic acts organised by university teachers are only a small part of a student's study actions, but thought of as key in the sense that they are expected to trigger off and to organise the other (solo) actions. In that sense, the photos are fairly representative as the key activities.

Another angle is that they tend to focus on the expensive resources a university offers/must fund (labs, libraries). Again, a focus on the key points on which others depend.

A quite different angle is that probably most such photos are done by publicity units possibly rather ignorant of student life; and without thought about what a student actually should know when choosing whether to come to a university. That angle would suggest changing publicity unit briefs, and researching what prospective students should be told.

And the point that the photos seldom show teachers. Well, on the basis of time spent, teachers (contact hours) are few. On the basis of what a student should know: i.e. what is different about university learning from their past experience, well the absence of teachers in your face is perhaps the biggest point to convey. And even from a functional view, the most important part of what a university teacher does is probably curriculum design and resource provision, not direct contact.

A similar angle, is the issue of what makes a good photo: i.e. the kind of abstract idea that an image can easily convey. Is it surprising that photos reflect what it is easy to convey by images?

Another angle again, perhaps closer to Crook's thoughts on this, is about what the key activities/experiences of study actually are. A thought he triggered was that a key point is the written feedback on work: this would make a bad photo superficially: a student reading the scrawl. Yet although the student reads them alone, they are actually a very personal interaction. As well as at the heart of what a student gets from a course (as opposed just to paying for library access and learning what they want). Of course such things would make a bad photo: that is, it would be harder to convey in a photo the significance of a student reading feedback on their work.

Skills and context

There was a presentation on skills CBT: a big government push involving web based or mediated remedial skills training e.g. for literacy. A debate burst out from the audience on skills being context-bound, not transferable. While the audience made it sound as if they believed there were no transferable skills and so no point in attempting to teach them, I think this is a fascinating issue we are still learning about. The most plausible answer is that a combination is needed of emphasis on the general and transferable, and of immediate links to a specific context of direct relevance to the learner's experience. A classic example of this is the phonics pseudo-debate on how to teach reading, where TV could find people ready to argue reading should be all phonics (transferable) or all meaningful (picture books). There is a corresponding issue in teaching basic computer skills: drill new users only on specific packages, and see them fail to apply powerful general strategies to new packages; or drill them on what is transferable.

What these notes have left out

1. The presentation on org.mem. and storing all emails for political battles later. Steven Brown @lbro

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