Monday, September 28, 2009

On boring VLEs

Federal Upset
Originally uploaded by Shermeee

I did a staff development session today on some new tools in the University's Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and on the way in to the session (no-one knew it was me delivering the session which put me in a great position for eavesdropping pre-match conversation!) I heard several people chatting about 'another dull VLE session', 'the VLE is so boring' etc and although I get where they're coming from, I do wonder why people get so hung up on the tool itself. I know I probably veer towards the more personalized learning environment camp, but even then, they're all just tools and it's what you do with them that's interesting.

Anyway, I got into the session and made a start and asked them who thought that the VLE was dull... best to tackle this stuff head on, I reckon! So, a few hands went up. 'How many of you... honestly?' - a few more hands went up. Y'know. I agree. It's just a 'thing' after all, isn't it? A shell with some bits and bobs you may or may not use.

So, I moved on. I asked, 'How many of you put your lecture PowerPoints in the VLE?'. Lots of hands. 'How many of you provide anything more than your lecture notes? Anyone put any additional activities in there?'... no hands. I asked them what that might feel like for their students. Was that an interesting or helpful place to be once you'd downloaded those PowerPoints? Were those PowerPoints really that helpful without anything else? Were they engaging? Have to say, there wasn't a great deal of nodding at this point!

I then got them to imagine a really great learning experience that they'd had while they were at school or university and what made it great. I then asked the group 'did anyone's great experience involve a great teacher?' Hands. 'A really great subject area?' A few more. 'A really great activity or experience?'. Lots of hands and nodding. 'Did anyone's great experience involve how brilliant the room was where the learning happened? How great the chair was they were sitting on? How great the desk was they were using? The pen? Anyone particularly excited by the pen they were using?'. No-one.

Y'know. I think I actually heard the penny drop as they realised that it's what you do with something that makes it good and not the places or tools which make it extra special. It's funny how quick we are to blame an environment and forget that inspiring teaching and learning is about the people and the players. As adults we look at an empty cardboard box and see it as a storage device. Somewhere to put 'stuff'. As children we looked at that same cardboard box and saw a plane. A car. A train. An adventure waiting to happen. What happened to our own creativity? It seems like we get confronted by a 'virtual learning environment' and think that's enough. The learning will happen regardless of the effort we put into it. Wrong! So, so wrong! When eLearning works, it's an amazing, interesting, vibrant, evolving, engaging, rich space. When it's just a shell. A place to download PowerPoints... boy oh boy is it a sad bag.

I admit it. VLEs are dull. But what goes on inside them doesn't need to be dull. Here's to opening up the box and seeing what you can really do with it and putting an end to using VLEs as document dumping grounds. Days where you get to see people imagining bucketloads of learning potential and want to hold onto it themselves. Coming up with ideas as you're talking and scribbling them down as quick as they can. Now, those are the really great eLearning days. :o))

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The 10 PowerPoint Commandments

For the past week or two I've been involved in various staff development / conference bits an' bobs and my head is jam-full of PowerPoint loathing. It is such an uninspiring tool... or rather, it is used in such an uninspiring way, so much of the time.

So, wanting not to fall into that trap myself (though I'm sure I've done some of these - I have vague memories of thinking the typewriter entrance effect was cool at one point!), I'm going to set myself 10 PowerPoint Commandments:
1. Thou shalt have other tricks up your sleeve as well as PowerPoint
2. Thou shalt not use rubbish quality images or diagrams
3. Thou shalt not use stupid effects
4. Thou shalt restrict bullet points
5. Honour thy audience's eyesight
6. Thou shalt not bore
7. Thou shalt not use the slides as speaker notes
8. Thou shalt master the slide controls before the presentation
9. Thou shalt be concise
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's Prezi... learn to present well without any props first
If I don't have to use PowerPoint, I'm not going to. When I do, it should be in a purposeful manner. If I ever catch myself simply reading the slide contents out to the audience, I'm going to take myself straight home and read to my kids instead. They like me reading to them... I'm sure the rest of the world doesn't. :o)

So there!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

ALT-C '09

For the past three days I've been tootling to and fro going up to Manchester for ALT-C 2009 and although I'm a bit shattered (understatement of the year) it was a really useful experience. While it is still fresh in my head, and before I crash out, here are my five highlights from ALT-C:

1. The VLE is Dead debate. Okay, not so much debating as a good ol' e-learning ding dong with no winner declared... but the best thing about that? Hearing people getting really engaged and passionate about e-learning! So often we get stuck in the mire of everyday institutional / academic battles and forget that e-learning has the capacity to really grip you and get you thinking. About its complexity. Its potential. Its issues. Its benefits. Drawback. The whole good, bad and ugly shebang.

2. Jonathan Drori's talk on making successful pilots and 'being mighty'. A super talk and he came up with 10 great pieces of advice about projects, so, in reverse order, here's his top 10:
10. Understand the barriers - cost, relevance, ease of use, experience, talent, resources, coherence. Be honest about the talent! This one is hard to do!

9. Think about who are you trying to impress!

8. Sort out project management from editorial leadership

There is a confusion between what is project management and what is editorial leadership and you need to know the difference between the two. In other words, you need someone to say 'that's a bit crap' and take that role in the project - it can make or break a project!

7. Ensure everyone understands the pilot! Seems obvious but so often we skip straight into what the project is now doing rather than giving it a background and contextual description

6. Understand where your pilot fits in

Whereabouts on this chain...

stimulate interest > engage > guide > communicate > create or 'do' something

... does your project sit?

Try to create virtuous circles

5. Choose good measures of success - make the measures make sense!

4. Partnerships - on this... when encountering new partnerships ask this question...

- what does each partner say they want?

then work out this one...

- what do they actually want?

No matter what they say, they may well also want a mix of the following: political influence / power / limelight / money / credit

Universities want some combination of the above - but contextualized
Personal agrandizement is also important!

3. Know everything you can about your audiences - don't just look at the known

2. A word on new formats and services - sketch it out using a storyboard. It's cheap, efficient and can open dialogues with people who should then be able to understand what your project is about

1. Is something missing? Ask yourself this question! Are you testing the wrong thing?
A useful and interesting talk and grounded in lots and lots of experience of projects, which was excellent. I loved his closing thought:

"Meet your audiences. Fiddle. Be curious!"

It should be every e-learning bod's mantra.

3. Excellent opportunity for putting faces to names - even though I did get the carbon footprint conference guilts from Terry Anderson's keynote you can't beat a bit of face to face stuff and I wish that the packed timetable and stupid amount of commuting I was doing had allowed for more chatting. :o)

4. Some great keynotes from Terry Anderson, Michael Wesch and Martin Bean and following the #altc2009 hash tag throughout their presentations gave a good sense of what was relevant to the audience too. Nice way to capture the 'relevance flavour of the month'.

5. The CrowdVine site - worked well and was a useful way to network pre-conference. Liked it and good to see that it was used by most people attending ALT-C.

Okay, so those are my five main highlights. What made the not so good list?

1. The catering!!! Absolute rubbish! Well, unless you like a queue, cheap biscuits, limited drinks and soggy pasta o'course.

2. The lack of quiet spaces to chill out. A seriously noisy venue and for little ol' me who has a bit of a struggle with tinnitus at the best of times, it made networking tricky.

3. PowerPoint overload. I came across presentations with too many slides. Too many notes per slide. Too quick transitions. Presenters simply reading out the contents of their slides. And a generally uninspiring PowerPoint-fest. There has to be a better way than PowerPointing everything. And I can feel a PowerPoint boycott coming on while I work out what that might be.

4. Hashtag spam on the Twitter feed for the conference. Must try to find ways of filtering spam when using hashtag aggregation for events... it's not good on any level.

Okay, am slinking off to collapse. Hopefully will get my 'thinking about it all' head back on soon once I've got a tad of energy back! I'll leave you with my twice-daily view of the Peak District which I had the pleasure of seeing on my gargantuan commute!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lock Down Learning

I have a question which goes round and round in my head and it concerns trust. In fact, it concerns trust of adult students / employees and the conflict with a web 2.0 / user-generated world. Why don't we trust people? In fact, I can tie it down a little further.... why do we only trust people when we feel that it doesn't really matter?

Here's an example. An institution has a stance whereby constructivist learning is promoted. Students should 'own' their learning. They should construct their own knowledge. Be critical. Thinking. Reflecting students. We want them to engage and be interested in what they study. But... we put those flowing, interesting, fluid notions of ownership and contextualisation and shove them into a VLE. We encourage people in with the idea that these tools have potential and the capacity to offer them a useful learning environment... then, it seems, we slam the door shut behind them and tie down all the tools until our systemic desire for control is satisfied - "what if someone's offended?", "what if they sue us?", "what about quality control?", "what about... what about... what about...?". "Oh, just turn it off, that'll be easier".

Nominally, we want them to learn it 'their' way, but the reality is that we don't feel comfortable if we're not learning 'our' way. Why don't we trust people? As soon as something becomes institutionally hosted then issues of liability, reputation and administrative control rear their heads and lock down ensues.

Is it any wonder why systems get only a token use? Is it any wonder why students are out there every day using their own tools and systems - making choices, being supported by their peers, when we're too scared to let go just a little. Unless, of course, it's behind closed doors and it doesn't really matter anyway. Are VLEs symptomatic of 'lock down learning'? Where's the trust? What would the educational landscape really be like if we put some real control in the hands of users?

I've just read 'Here Comes Everybody' by Clay Shirky (yeah, late to the party, I know!) - and it occurs to me that what if our VLEs aren't a case of 'here comes everybody', but instead result in 'there goes everybody' as the PLE offers the flexibility and personalisation which makes learning really meaningful?

PS Thanks to AJ Cann and Steve Wheeler for feeding my inner rant. :o)
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