The reusability paradox – WTF?

WTF?

The reusability paradox.  How can reusability be bad?

When first presented with this concept last year, I must admit I really did struggle with it.  As a techhie, every fibre of my being compels me to focus on reuse.  Hence, the paradox.  After some weeks of struggling with the reusability paradox, it did start to make some sense, emphasis on some’.

I have recently revisited this concept, both in discussion with my (to be) PhD supervisor, but also in my day-to-day work as an Educational Developer/Lecturer/Educational Technologist.  My revisit has prompted this blog post as a way of recording some connections I have made to real-world examples of this phenomenon, and how this impacts my thinking about technology (re)use.  This thinking is far from crystalised.

David Wiley explains the reusability paradox in the context of reusable learning objects, and more broadly, the open content movement.  When this concept was initially presented to me, it was already positioned in terms of technology.  I find it easier to start with the original context in learning design.

What is the reusability paradox?

David explains it quite succinctly as:

A content module’s stand-alone pedagogical effectiveness is inversely proportional to its reusability.

He explains that the more contextualised a learning object is made, the more meaningful it becomes to that context.  However, it also means the learning object becomes less reusable to other contexts.  We have a trade-off situation – effectiveness (in learning) vs. efficiency (in scalability). David concludes:

It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another, unless the end user is permitted to edit the learning object. The application of an open license to a learning object resolves the paradox.

I don’t think an open licence alone will resolve the paradox, but that is a discussion for another post.

The reusability paradox in the wild

So enough of abstract concepts – how does the reusability paradox play out in the wild and in other ways besides learning objects?

i-see-dead-people
“I see dead people the reusability paradox.”

I often see the reusability paradox when working with lecturers – conceptually the same as David Wiley explains, but at a higher level.  My particular experience relates to the contention of reusing units of study between different awards/degrees.  This is pretty typical in the STEM areas – in my institution we refer to them as service courses (units).  I work with a science school, and a key foundation unit of study taught from the school is anatomy and physiology.  There would be a dozen or more degrees that require students to have a sound knowledge in this area.

Conventional management wisdom seeks to reuse anatomy and physiology units for health related-degrees.  This is efficient use of resources, right?  And “why re-invent the wheel?”

But before I explore those questions, let’s first take a step back for a moment.

The key criteria for reuse is applicability to other contexts.  If there is sufficient overlap or congruence with another context, then a reusability factor could be considered high, thus worthy of reuse.  Learning is very contextual, particularly when you factor, as David does, the underpinning of constructivist learning theory.  Learners construct new knowledge, upon their own existing knowledge.  This is very individualised, and based on each learner’s past experiences, and ways of thinking.

Learning designers have some tricks to help deal with such diversity, such as researching your cohort, conducting a needs analysis, and ultimately categorising learners and focusing on the majority.  Clearly, this is flawed – but this is how massification of education works.  For instance, if you are preparing a unit of study for nursing students, then you can make some reasonable assumptions about those students motivations (i.e. they want to become a nurse); their prior formal learning (i.e. previous units studied within a structured nursing curriculum); and even down to smaller groups such as pathways to study (i.e. were they enrolled nurses – ENs or school-leavers). These assumptions of course aren’t always correct.  Nevertheless, the key point is that this unit of study is reused by all nursing students studying for the Bachelor of Nursing degree.  A more or less reasonable trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency.

So let’s return to the example of an anatomy and physiology unit of study.  In this instance, we see different discipline areas, albeit health related, attempting to reuse a unit of study.  Despite all being health related, a paramedic student’s needs aren’t the same as physiotherapy students’, or medical science students’.  And while some disciplines hail from within the same school, others disciplines are situated elsewhere within the organisational structure.  Now, consider the diversity of the cohort.

So to cope with this type of diversity, I typically see three approaches:

  1. Make the unit of study as abstract (decontextualised) as possible making no assumptions about learners or their backgrounds, and “teach the facts”.
  2. Design the unit to cope with the highest represented context (i.e. the discipline with the most students).
  3. Design the unit of study to address multiple contexts, in an attempt to make it meaningful to multiple disciplinary groups.

In other words, make it meaningful for no-one; make it meaningful to the biggest group, and nobody else; or, try to make it meaningful for everyone.

Approach 1 is obviously ineffective, especially considering constructivist thinking.  You end up with students asking “why do I need to know this?”, or “that course was so dry and boring.”

Approach 2 while not quite as flawed as approach 1, can be less than ideal.  Particularly when the highest represented group is small compared to the entire group.  In such cases, the other groups feel marginalised, “I want to be a Paramed, not a Physiotherapist.”

Approach 3 can also ineffective because you can end up with a study unit that is incredibly complex.  This group of students does this, that group does that.  As the lecturer, you have to manage the mixture.  The students too can become confused about requirements. You can also run into “equity” type policy constraints, such as “all students must do the same assessments.”  This is an important point.  If you end up with such complexity, you really have to ask the question, “why not just have separate units of study?”

But solving this challenge isn’t the focus of my blog post.

The Reusability Paradox as it Applies to Education Technology

So does the concept translate to technology?  Yes it does!  And similar issues arise as a result.

Recall the three approaches I see people use to deal with the challenges of reuse for multiple contexts?

  1. Make abstract
  2. Contextualise for the largest group
  3. Contextualise in multiple ways for multiple groups

Let’s consider Approach 1

David Wiley says of the reusability paradox:

The purpose of learning objects and their reality seem to be at odds with one another. On the one hand, the smaller designers create their learning objects, the more reusable those objects will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning objects are, the more likely it is that only humans will be able to assemble them into meaningful instruction.

I think this statement has some “translatability” to an education technology context as:

On the one hand, the smaller developers create their learning technology tools (e.g. programming libraries rather than complete systems), the more reusable those tools will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning technology tools are, the more likely it is that only developers (and not designers) will be able to assemble them into functional learning technologies.

David Wiley also says:

To make learning objects maximally reusable, learning objects should contain as little context as possible.

To remove context is to make something more abstract – to take away intrinsic meaning or specific function.  Indeed this makes things more reusable, it also requires re-contextualisation.  In the context of technology, abstraction leads to dependence on the developer.

Let’s skip to approach 3.  With this approach, we end up with technology that attempts to do everything for everyone.  These technologies become so complicated to use, that people simply don’t use them.  My favourite example of approach 3 is the Moodle Workshop activity which is a “powerful peer assessment activity”.  I consider myself to have a reasonable grasp of technology, and yet after 45 minutes of tinkering with the workshop activity in Moodle, I gave up.  I have only seen 1 person at my institution use it.  It has so many options, too many options, because it tries to account for all the different ways one might attempt to embed peer assessment into their course.

So what about approach 2?  We reuse a learning technology without change – meaning it is focused on the majority of requirements (however that might be determined).  This is typical of COTS (commercial off the shelf) solutions.  This inevitably leads to functional gaps – “the system does this, but I want to do that.”  If the gap is substantial, it can lead to workarounds.

Does technology need to be reusable?

This is where I struggled last year with the reusability paradox.  If you can’t reuse a technology, then isn’t that a serious limitation?  Management are constantly looking to replicate successes – “This worked so well, so how can we use this in other areas?”

When I am creating/adapting/augmenting technology for others, I have to demonstrate “bang for buck” in terms of my time invested.  Does what I create, at least have to pay for itself in affordances?  I normally look for economies of scale, and the obvious way is through reuse – it is usable by X number of people.  Management/decision-makers get this – easy. However, technology can offer other economies.  For instance, depending on the technology, it may instead allow a specific group of people to do something much better, quicker, cheaper, or if its very innovative, something they couldn’t do before.  But that something might be very specific, so specific that it isn’t very reusable, and limited to a small audience.  Yet, if it still yields a net gain, is that bad?

What if a technology is so specific, it’s designed for just one person – yourself?

Workarounds

At some stage in our lives, we have all had to engage with some form of workaround to get from A to B.  Not just in terms of technology but life in general.

If you create a workaround, does it need to be reusable?  Perhaps not.  But what if you want it to be?  How can you go about it?

This is where my time (and thinking) ends for now.

 

The Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV) – Heatmaps of Student Activity

Introduction

This blog post introduces an emerging implementation of learning analytics for lecturers that offers a novel approach to the visualisation of learning analytics within the Moodle LMS called the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV).  The motivation for its design was born from the frustration of using the standard analytics reporting functions available in Moodle 2.2 by lecturers at my institution. While there are many efforts underway to improve this functionality within the latest releases of Moodle, at least for my own institution, these improvements are likely to be years away from adoption.  One emphasis with these improvements, is a greater use of graphs over tabular lists, most common in earlier Moodle 2.x versions.

What is MAV and How Does it Help Lecturers?

MAV takes a fresh approach to representing student activity within Moodle, by using heat maps (or click heat maps) as shown in the screenshot below:

Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV
Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV

In the example above, MAV is representing the number of students who have accessed various resources and activities on a Moodle course site by colouring the links accordingly.  In this way, MAV is focused on assisting with teacher reflection – identifying which elements of the course were used by the most students, and those which weren’t.  On presenting the above snapshot to the lecturer,  they responded: “Aaaah that’s interesting.  I’m surprised that as many students as that used some of the links.”  After further discussion, they shared the following comments:

I do feel that [the course] is guilty of that to some degree that we baffle them with BS and overwhelm them with far too many resources till they can’t separate the forest from the trees. I was certainly in two minds about even including most of those resource links at the beginning of the semester. I can certainly understand the results in the mid-term tests…they were compulsory

This is exactly the sort of teacher reflection that was intended by its design. Another excerpt from a Moodle page rendered using MAV from a much smaller postgraduate course is illustrated below.

Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students
Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students

The lecturer of this course has been experimenting with MAV for a few months, and had the following to say about what changes might be made in future offerings:

… academics as students may already know and understand about the feedback resources I gave them, that is why they didn’t bother reviewing. Now I’m thinking of removing them. But in saying that, it is up to me to provide the scaffolding they require, so I’m thinking I should leave it there because it is good practice, even though I know they aren’t using it, but could potentially use it for their own students.

When asked about MAV’s ease of use:

It was very easy to use MAV to get an insight into useful resources. I
would have no idea how to get this info through normal Moodle tools and
activity reporting.

Within higher education, learning analytics is predominantly used to identify “at-risk” students with the view to prevent or limit student attrition (Chatti, Dyckhoff, Schroeder, & Thüs, 2012; Lodge & Lewis, 2012).  Identifying learners “at-risk” is only one, albeit important complex issue to act upon.  MAV in its present form is designed to assist lecturers with teacher reflection and course learning design.

Why heatmaps and How Does MAV Work?

How to turn on and off the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV)

Norman (1993) reminds us that “We humans are spatial animals, very dependent upon perceptual information. Representations that make use of spatial and perceptual relationships allow us to make efficient use of our perceptual systems, to think experientially.” By using heat maps, it allows the lecturer to visualise student activity spatially within the real-world Moodle site itself, rather than through abstract graphs or tabular totals.  This is not to say that graphs and tables are not valuable.  The heat maps are just an alternate approach, and one that is more accessible to a broader cross-section of lecturers, as it easy to use and requires no training or guided instruction – it simply leverages our anthropological intuition.  The screenshot (left) shows how the MAV can be switched on and off in the same way that Editing mode can be turned on and off – something even the complete Moodle novice quickly masters.

The tool presently has a modest list of configurable options, which it is planned to expand over time.  This expansion will be balanced with the value of keeping the tool simple and focused on the tasks that lecturers wish to perform.  At present, the options are largely focused on teacher reflection where lecturers are able to change the following properties of the representation:

  • display count of clicks versus count of distinct students
  • select specific weeks of the term for activity (incomplete)
  • select specific groups within the class
  • select either a heat map visualisation or a font size (think wordle or tag cloud) visualisation (for those with colour-blindness)

These options are changeable through the dialog (below) that is presented in the browser page, when the lecturer clicks on the Activity Viewer Settings option immediately beneath the on/off option in the settings menu (shown above).

MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page - Display Mode
MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page – Display Mode

How is MAV Implemented?

In its present form, MAV has limited affordance for action.  It like many other existing analytics tools focuses heavily on information, and not enough on supporting action.  For MAV however, this is surmountable due to its technical architectural design, which is somewhat unusual. MAV is not implemented as a Moodle plugin on the Moodle server, but rather as a browser addon on the lecturer’s computer.

Student activity in Postgrad Course Moodle Book Table of Contents, using MAV

This browser driven approach is not new.  SNAPP, a tool for conducting social network analysis within Moodle uses what’s called browser bookmarklets and has gained considerable popularity.  Another approach more closely resembling MAV was taken by Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) who created a browser addon that “talks” to a related server component sitting along side Moodle from which it retrieves analytics data, and is then “drawn” into the Moodle page as a graph in a custom block.  To the viewer, the graphing block appears as a seamless part of the Moodle page, but in reality, the information has been synthesised between the analytics server and Moodle. MAV too has a server component that “talks” to a copy of the Moodle database and extracts statistics for display by the browser addon.  Where MAV diverges from the approach of Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) is that it is not focused on the conventional approach of using a Moodle course block to display information.  Instead MAV treats the entire Moodle page as a canvas for conveying information, and in a way that is contextual to the canvas itself.

The problem with traditional Moodle plugin development is that “the LMS is commonly managed at an institutional level and it must support several courses, [and so] installing a customised module becomes a complicated procedure both technically and administratively.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012) By using a browser addon and matching analytics server, “we simplify the task of providing visualizations to participants of the course, valuable for the execution pilot studies or the evaluation of visualizations.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012)

This approach makes it easy to be agile and innovative without disturbing critical high-availability environments such as Moodle.  If the browser addon breaks in someway, it is easily disabled in the browser settings restoring the default Moodle functionality.  It is of course not without drawbacks.  To name a couple, changes in Moodle are likely to break the Browser addon and there are sure to be variations to consider between Moodle versions.  It is believed on the whole, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  This thinking will be tested over time.

MAV and Open Source

MAV is licenced under the GPL, and will be made available in the coming weeks via github.  It is hoped that other educational institutions using Moodle may be interested in collaborating with the technology and the approach to refine and improve on the concept, and implement new ideas.  Research is planned around its design and use.  An announcement will be made when the source code is available and how people can get involved.

Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV
Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV

MAV in the Future

The following outlines a sample of ideas for MAV in the future.

Allow the lecturer to visualise the activity of individual students

As a scenario, consider an assignment extension request from a distance student.  In evaluating the request, one of the things lecturers often consider is the amount of work the student has done leading up to the due date, offset by any mitigating circumstances that may have prevented such work.  Using MAV, the lecturer could select this student through the MAV settings, and see how often the student has accessed relevant aspects of the course, when, and perhaps in what sequence.  This would assist the lecturer in making an informed decision about the validity of the student’s extension request claims.

Provide affordances for action based on the analysed data within MAV and Moodle

As previously mentioned, MAV presently offers little in terms of affordance for action on the visualised student activity.  One useful function supportive of teacher reflection would be to assist lecturers in capturing their reflections on their course sites while they view the heat maps.  In the examples given at the start of this post, the lecturers were analysing the student activity and making decisions about how they might change their course in the next offering.  What if lecturers could click on a resource that they wish to change in the future, and make notes within the Moodle site itself using MAV.  The change and their thinking is captured immediately as they reflect, without having to venture somewhere outside of the Moodle site and thus breaking the natural flow of their reflective activity (Villachica, Stone & Endicott, 2006).  A small icon could be attached to the resource or activity as a reminder that a change is to be made.  Then when they need to update the course for the next offering, sometimes in a years time, the information is readily available and still in context of their course site.

Integrate contextual information in Moodle pages in other ways besides heatmaps

As an example, wherever a student name of number is displayed on a Moodle page, provide a hover menu or visual that provides additional information about the student.  This could be things like their contact details and other info from their profile page.  But it could also be a range of information from other sources (see next point).  This also marks a shift from the low hanging fruit that is clickstream data to information that embodies more depth.  As a contextual menu to each heatmap link, options could be provided to see a list of students who haven’t, and perhaps just as importantly have accessed a given resource.  These students could then be contacted via mail merge either encouraging them to engage with the resource or activity, or praising them for doing so.

Using the browser addon architecture to integrate and aggregate other information services and data

The browser addons need not be limited to aggregating/synthesising information from only the server analytics component and Moodle.  Opportunities exist to integrate MAV with other initiatives at my institution such as the Student Support Indicators Project (SSI).  This integration can work in both directions.  Identify using MAV which students have not made use of critical resources or participated in activities, and then look up their student success factors through the SSI.  Similarly, on identifying a student within the SSI who is showing lower engagement with their course, redirect the lecturer to the Moodle course site with MAV switched on, and only showing the elements of the course used by the student, giving further detail to their behaviour.

References

Chatti, M. A., Dyckhoff, A. L., Schroeder, U., & Thüs, H. (2012). A reference model for learning analytics. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 318. Retrieved from http://www.inderscience.com/link.php?id=51815

Leony, D., Pardo, A., Valentın, L. de la F., Quinones, I., & Kloos, C. D. (2012). Learning analytics in the LMS: Using browser extensions to embed visualizations into a Learning Management System. In R. Vatrapu, W. Halb, & S. Bull (Eds.), TaPTA. Saarbrucken: CEUR-WS.org. Retrieved May 25, 2013, from http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-894/paper6.pdf

Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Villachica, S., Stone, D., & Endicott, J. (2006). Performance Support Systems. In J. Pershing (Ed.), Handbook of Human Performance Technology (Third Edit., pp. 539–566). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Philosophies of Technology – Technological determinism

This post forms part of a series, where I am attempting to identify my philosophies around teaching and technology, and reflect on the impact it has on my instructional design, as detailed in my initial post.

This third part of the series is focused on the philosophy of technological determinism.

Kanuka’s (2008) summary for a definition of technological determinism is explained as:  “Within this orientation [of technological determinism], technologies are viewed as causal agents determining our uses and having a pivotal role in social change.”  So to me, this implies that the technology itself is the focal point of the learner’s education.  Kanuka then goes on to explain that technological determinism is typically aligned with negative views of technology in education, to the extent that it actually harms the learning process, rather than supports.  Views on this point by Noble, et. al. (1998)  have been discussed by Kanuka where she says:

Noble and colleagues (Noble, 1991; Noble, Shneiderman, Herman, Agre, & Denning, 1998) have written extensively on the relationships between distance-delivered e-learning and de-professionalization of the academy.  These scholars are concerned about the erosion of academic freedom, and thus they are aggressive critics arguing that the expansion of distance-delivered e-learning as a leading-edge movement to commercialize education will work to de-professionalize faculty members and erode academic freedom (e.g., Noble, 1998).

Another view from a range of scholars as described by Kanuka question:

modern technologies and many condemn technology for disseminating an onslaught of incoherent and fragmented trivialities to the world at the expense of engagement, reflectivity, and depth.  They also argue that modern technologies and growing neoliberalism are creating a rising capitalistic climate that includes political-economic interests such as comodification, commercialization, and corporatization of education.

Ouch.  I wonder what they would make of my ranting here on my blog about their ideas – fragmented trivialities? 🙂  So from what I understand, those who are technological determinists are generally considered to be the ‘negative nellys’  – those who believe technology is the root cause of de-professionalism, erosion of academic freedom, and the proliferation of surface rather than deep learning.

Well this is certainly not me.  Thankfully, Kanuka continues:

The assumption underpinning these views is that technology determines our uses and impacts society – in a negative way.  Although not often given the label of technological determinist, scholars who view technology as influencing our education systems in positive ways also hold the same assumption that technology determines our uses and impacts society, but in a beneficial way.  In the area of e-learning, for example, Garrison and Anderson (2003) assert that educational technologies can transform the learning experiences in positive ways, resulting in increasing the quality of learning experiences.

So, while not typically identified as technological determinists, there are groups that share the view that technology determines our uses and impacts society, but instead in positive rather than negative ways.  Don’t you just love how people like to work in black and white, right and wrong.  Perhaps, just perhaps technology can be a negative or positive influence or even both, depending on the context.

Kanuka through her literature survey identifies a few examples of where technology as a causal agent has had a positive influence over education.  One in particular:

For example, Lapadat (2002) argues that with asynchronous text-based Internet technology, learners have the means to compose their ideas and thoughts into a written form of communication.  This, according to Garrison and Anderson, provides learners with the ability to critically reflect on their views, which is necessary for higher-ordered learning.

I wonder how using asynchronous text-based Internet technology for composing ideas and thoughts into a written form of communication is any different or any better to writing on a piece of paper?  Surely a learner can reflect just as well with pen and paper as they can with Internet technology?  Of course, using Internet technology can offers a significant sized audience and may cause one to think carefully about what they choose to write.  You would think this would apply to me. 😀  Then there is the following point where Kanuka adds:

As these examples illustrate, both advocates and opponents of e-learning believe that e-learning technologies determine the uses and the agents.  In less bi-polar positions, this orientation also asserts that the effects of new media (e.g., social software) has influenced post-modern ideas.  Poster (1997), for example, puts forth the notion that the Internet has instantiated new forms of interaction and power relations between users, resulting in significant social impacts.  Nguyen and Alexander (1996) assert further that the Internet has produced new realities in our everyday lives.

It is the social aspects of Internet technology that is really making a positive contribution to education.

Kanuka concludes with the following which highlights the shortcomings of technological determinism as:

This one-dimensional view of technology suffers similar logistical problems with the uses- and social-determinist orientations.  Educators positioning themselves from a one-dimensional view of the impact of technology perceive the properties of a particular technology as having the ability to predetermine educcational outcomes.  Little, if any, attention is given to the effects of educational, social, and historical forces that have shaped both educational systems and educational technologies.

I this Kanuka makes a very good point here in that all these philosophies are very much one-dimensional, narrowly focused and oversimplified.  There are so many factors at play in education.  I can’t say that I subscribe to any one of these philosophies as an educator, although I will need to reflect on this further.  Something else that strikes me is that discussion around the positive or negative aspects of technology is focused on distance education and e-learning. It is as though technology and distance education are exclusively intertwined and not relevant for other modes of study such as face-to-face.

KANUKA, H. (2008) Understanding eLearning Technologies-in-Practice Throgh Philosophies-in-Practice. IN ANDERSON, T. (Ed.) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. 2nd ed. Edmonton, AU Press.

Philosophies of Technology – Social determinism

This post forms part of a series, where I am attempting to identify my philosophies around teaching and technology, and reflect on the impact it has on my instructional design, as detailed in my initial post.

This second part of the series is focused on the philosophy of social determinism.  I commented in my initial post, the difficulty I have had with reading Kanuka article (reference at the bottom).  This part of the article was quite a handful.  I’m not sure if my interpretation below is correct or not.  Perhaps others have some insight into social determinism that may correct any misunderstandings I have.  Feedback is most welcome.

Kanuka introduces the concept of social determinism as: “… educators are concerned with the integration of technological artefacts within social systems and cultural cntexts.  This perspective emphasizes the way our uses of technologies are affected by the social structures and the social construction of technological artefacts.” This was the main critical failure identified by Kanuka in the uses determinism philosophy as I understand it. So with social determinism, the choice of technology is informed by the context in terms of society and culture.

Kanuka continues:  “Educators holding this view are concerned about the ways that social and technological uses shape the form and content of the learning experiences.”

So there is an acknowledgement that society and choice of technology affect the form and content of the learning experience.  This does sound sensible to me.

Kanuka then suggests that unless education providers learn to adapt and innovate in a marketplace of accelerating globalisation and increased competition, their long-term viability may be in jeopardy.  The solution she suggests from the social determinist is to “move to technologically innovative and consumer-oriented education.”

Here is a quote that I am not quite clear what she means.  Kanuka states:

These views rest upon the way technology is socially embedded and constituted.  In particular, social choices shape the form and content of technological artefacts (Dahlberg, 2004).  As with uses determinism, however, social determinism has logistical issues that are difficult to resolve.  Specifically, this orientation can lead to flawed understandings of educational technology, if developed without reference to user agency or material limits (Dahlberg).  The line of reasoning in this orientation – that technologies embody social choice – negates a multifaceted understanding of the place of agency in technological development … Social contexts do not simply manipulate education systems at will.  In our everyday lives, there is a dynamic mutual shaping between the social, technology, and users’ environments.

Yikes!  It is clear I am no philosopher. 🙂  I am guessing what Kanuka is saying is that technology is not socially embedded, but forms part of a 3-way relationship between sociality, technology, and the user agents, and the learning is shaped by all 3 aspects together.

The third instalment analyses technological determinism.

KANUKA, H. (2008) Understanding eLearning Technologies-in-Practice Throgh Philosophies-in-Practice. IN ANDERSON, T. (Ed.) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. 2nd ed. Edmonton, AU Press.

Philosophies of Technology – Uses determinism

As part of my studies, I have been asked to identify my philosophies around teaching and technology, and reflect on the impact it has on my instructional design. We have been asked to read Kanuka (2008) as a source of information on various teaching and technology philosophies, and how they are often aligned.

I have to say upfront that I found this article incredibly difficult to read.  Kanuka’s writing style is very abstract and with absence of any concrete examples on which to relate to my own experiences.  Actually, there were a few analogies that were quoted from other authors.  This did help a little to understand the point she was trying to make.  So I have decided first to try and reflect on what I have read and see if I can explain in my own words, her definition of the 3 types technological philosophies relating to education:  uses determinism, social determinism, and technological determinism.

First cab off the rank is uses determinism.

Kanuka’s lead in sentence states:

In its simplest sense, this position [of uses determinism] emphasizes technological uses and focuses on the ways in which we use technologies within learning and teaching transactions.  In this approach, technologies are perceived as neutral tools and are simply devices that extend our capacities.

So the basis of uses determinism is that technology is nothing more than a tool that is used by learners to learn.  Kanuka goes on to say:  “As users, we determine the effects of technological artefacts.”

So my understanding is that uses determinism postulates that in designing technological artefacts for learning, the designer can create a learning environment with deterministic outcomes unaffected by the technology itself.

This view is elaborated through an analogy by Jonassen where she quotes from a paper written in 1996:  “‘carpenters use their tools to build things; the tools do not control the carpenter.  Similarly, computers should be used as tools for helping learners build knowledge; they should not control the leaner’ (p.4).”  Kanuka introduces another analogy by Clark with “In his writings, Clark claims, in part, that technologies are ‘mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition’ (1983, p.445).”

To me, these views/ideas seem quite bold, something Kanuka addresses later in the article where she states:

In particular, viewing e-learning technology as a neutral tool assumes that there is a technological fix for an educational problem.  This instrumentalist line of thinking assumes that technologies exist without social or political origins, and that uses and users are the casual agents in the production of social action (Lacroix & Tremblay, 1997) – often celebrating unconstrained consumer sovereignty, and resulting in instrumentalism and/or structuralism (Golding & Murdock, 2000).  The problem with instrumentalism is that there is an inclination to place emphasis upon the intentionality of agents, with an unbalanced focus on the interactions between the actors and the technologies.  As a result, educators tend to narrowly focus on the role of the agents and disregard the broader social structures and/or technological artefacts’ effects on the learning outcomes, leading to explanations that overemphasize the power and autonomy of actors.

Wow, this was quite a morsel to digest. 🙂  My interpretation is that the idea of uses determinism takes a simplistic view of technology as a tool and does not match real world complexity, especially in the years that have past since the ideas of Clark and Jonassen were published.  Especially today where such technology provides such a wealth of information and opportunities to share and collaborate with others.  There are so many aspects of modern day technology that is beyond the control of any one entity.  How do you control the actions of others using the same technology for example?  Equating modern day technology to a hammer is a gross oversimplification.

Kanuka concludes her discussion of uses determinism by saying that:  “The belief that individual actors have complete control over the effects of a technological artefact is a misguided and naive assumption.”  I would have to concur with that conclusion.  Uses determinism would not be my technology philosophy for learning.

The next instalment is discussion on social determinism.

KANUKA, H. (2008) Understanding eLearning Technologies-in-Practice Throgh Philosophies-in-Practice. IN ANDERSON, T. (Ed.) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. 2nd ed. Edmonton, AU Press.

Improving university teaching, learning theory, and curriculum design

(Update: This post I wrote two years ago when studying instructional (curriculum) design.  It seems quite relevant to my current study of CCK11, so I thought I would add this reference so that it may be included in the 2011 MOOC offering.)

I read this article by David Jones some time ago, and have been thinking it over.  As an early career curriculum designer, I am trying to find my place in the world of education, and how I can be an effective learning designer.

My understanding is that David in his article argues in order to improve university teaching, we should focus on teacher reflection, rather than learning theories.  Reflection is the lowest common denominator in any improvement of learning and teaching practices.  Without it, the teacher is destined to make the same mistakes over and over.  This is highlighted by Biggs and Tang in their book Teaching for Quality Learning at University 3rd edition, which I am currently (trying to) read, and reflect upon, and is drawn upon in part by David (I believe – it is getting late and I have an assessment due tomorrow :)).  Biggs and Tang state:

Wise and effective teaching is not, however, simply a matter of applying general principles of teaching according to rule; they need adapting to each teacher’s own personal strengths and teaching context… Expert teachers continually reflect on how they might teach even better.

Let us imagine that Susan and Robert graduated 20 years ago [as teachers].  Susan now is a teacher with 20 years’ experience; Robert is a teacher with one year’s experience repeated 19 times.  Susan is a reflective teacher:  each significant experience, particularly of failure, has been a learning experience, so she gets better and better.  Robert is a reactive teacher.  He goes through the same motions year after year …  The kind of thinking displayed by Susan, but not by Robert, is known as ‘reflective practice’.”

It occurs to me that prescribing any particular learning theory (such as constructive alignment) is not the answer, after reading a blog post by Stephen Downes.  Stephen critiques a paper by Dicks and Ives that conducted a study into how instructional designers design.  In particular, Stephen highlights the following quote from Dicks, and Ives:

Our interviews appear to confirm the findings of Kenny, Zhang, Schwier, and Campbell (2004) that instructional designers do not do their work by following established models, nor by basing actions on theory. Instead, our designers’ tactics suggest they view design as an ‘ill-structured problem’ (Jonassen, 2002; Schon, 1987) or ‘wicked problem’ (Becker, 2007) with many possible solutions, which they pursue with a large repertoire of social and cognitive skills.

Stephen had the following to say about this quote:  “Which really forces the question of whether our discipline should continue its ill-founded focus on (this person or that’s) theory. ”

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to quite a few different seasoned instructional designers over the past couple of weeks, and I have seen a common theme emerge that is aligned with the findings of Dicks and Ives above:  there is no one ultimate learning theory.  All have stated that while they may have a preferred theory, it is rarely implemented solely to a learning design.  Choice of theory is informed greatly by the context in which the learning is to occur.  No less is the actual teacher of the course a critical factor in deciding which theories are appropriate.  If the teacher has been teaching for many years and has a traditional behaviourist approach to their teaching; trying to model their course design around constructivism or connectivism is not going to prove to be an effective learning design.  This is unless the teacher was motivated to reflect on their practice and consider alternate ways of doing things.

I have been investigating various learning theories over the past week – hardly a deep analysis, but I always considered religion as an appropriate analogy for learning theories.  Everyone has their own view, and they can’t all be right.  However, what I am discovering is that learning theories tend to support one another more so than contradict, which was my former view.  So its probably not so much about which one is right, but which one is right for the given context.

I am finding learning theory absolutely fascinating, yet I do not have sufficient time to study as deep as I would like.  I have decided to remain completely open minded in terms of what tools (theories) I choose to inform my learning designs.  Studying many different theories arms me with many tools, and I hope this will mean I am a more rounded designer.  The skill will be to use these tools in the right combinations to maximise effectiveness.

Definition: Behaviourism

As part of my Certificate in Emerging Technologies for Learning, I am studying 4 popular learning theories. The first theory I am discovering is behaviourism.

I have read an article by Melissa Standridge hosted on the Department of Eduational Psychology and Instructional Technology wiki, from the University of Georgia.  The article begins with a definition of behaviourism, which was stated as:

Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable and measurable aspects of human behavior. In defining behavior, behaviorist learning theories emphasize changes in behavior that result from stimulus-response associations made by the learner. Behavior is directed by stimuli. An individual selects one response instead of another because of prior conditioning and psychological drives existing at the moment of the action (Parkay & Hass, 2000).

The article then proceeds with a summary of the work from behaviourism advocates. Much of this work was conducted through experiments on animals.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think at this point.

Work conducted by Skinner involved an approach known as operant conditioning.  Melissa writes:

His model was based on the premise that satisfying responses are conditioned, while unsatisfying ones are not. Operant conditioning is the rewarding of part of a desired behavior or a random act that approaches it. Skinner remarked that “the things we call pleasant have an energizing or strengthening effect on our behavior” (Skinner, 1972, p. 74). Through Skinner’s research on animals, he concluded that both animals and humans would repeat acts that led to favorable outcomes, and suppress those that produced unfavorable results (Shaffer, 2000). If a rat presses a bar and receives a food pellet, he will be likely to press it again. Skinner defined the bar-pressing response as operant, and the food pellet as a reinforcer. Punishers, on the other hand, are consequences that suppress a response and decrease the likelihood that it will occur in the future. If the rat had been shocked every time it pressed the bar that behavior would cease.

While it seemed briefly amusing to think of students as experimental rats in a lab (classroom), the final sentence of this paragraph got me thinking:  “Skinner [B. F. (1904-1990)] believed the habits that each of us develops result from our unique operant learning experiences (Shaffer, 2000).”  I am currently reading Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University and so I am immersed in learning theories around constructivism.   Biggs’ (2007) states:  “All [forms of constructivism] emphasise that the learners construct knowledge with their own activities, building on what they already know.  Teaching is not a matter of transmitting but of engaging students in active learning, building their knowledge in terms of what they already understand.”  I wonder if these two learning theories compliment each other in some small way.  I’m not quite sure how to define or articulate the link at this point – its just getting too late.  Will need to give this further thought.

Reflecting on my own prior teaching activities, I have employed behaviourist tactics in my classes without even realising it. One of the key aspects of success with behavourism is to understand your learners desires and to select highly attractive and valuable reinforcers.  As Melissa puts it:  “They change behaviors to satisfy the desires they have learned to value.”

Some of the behaviourist designs I have employed include:

Chocolate bars

When I was teaching network security, there was a particular module of learning that students found difficult to remain engaged in.  Without the opportunity to make changes to the design of this learning module, instead I attempted to improve engagement in the material and the class activities through small rewards of the confectionery type.  The class activity was question and answer sessions where I would go around the room soliciting solutions from students.  Those who got the answers correct would receive a chocolate reward.

It was mildly effective.  In subsequent offerings, I redesigned the learning activity which proved more effective.

1Gb Memory sticks

Similar to the situation of the chocolate bars, I made a competition of the question and answer time and kept a tally of correct answers for students.  The top two students received a free 1Gb memory stick.  At the time, 1Gb was quite large, and being IT students, it was an attractive item.  This was more effective than the chocolates.  Seems it was a better reinforcer than the confectionery.

Access to a desirable learning activity

When I was teaching data communications, I included an activity that was popular with students.  The activity was for students to be hands-on with creating their own network cables using Cat 5e UTP cable, connectors and a cable crimper. I organised for network engineers and support staff from the university’s networking team to volunteer their time in my class, and assist with the learning activity.  I split students into groups, and then assigned them a mentor from the volunteers.  Each would then guide the students through the process of connectorising their computer cables. On completion, the students would then attach their cable to a tester and determine if the cable was connectorised correctly.

The first time I ran this activity, students were unable to recall the order in which the individual wires were to be connected, despite setting it as homework.  This delayed the activity and quite a few students resulted in faulty cables.

To improve on this situation, the next time I ran this activity, I set the homework to rote memorise the order of the wires.  They are colour coded.  The students were told that they would have to recite the order of the coloured wires from memory before they were permitted into the activity room.

On the day, I went around the room asking students the order – those who had it correct from memory were permitted into the adjacent room to commence the activity.  Those who couldn’t remember, would have time to revise, and after cycling through the class, I would return to them.  Three quarters of the group had it correct first time round.  The activity ran to schedule and there was only 1 faulty cable at the end.

Similar results were repeated in the following offering of the course. This proved to be an effective design.  Also on reflection, with the inclusion of the volunteer mentors, it was a form of cognitive apprenticeship. 🙂

Desire to win

It had been suggested to me that nothing will bring out the inner fire of a geek more than a little healthy competition.  This was in response to queries about how to improve engagement from the students.

When I was teaching System Administration, I was looking for a way for students to develop problem solving skills, and at the same time, gain a deeper understanding of how the UNIX shell parses and executes commands.  So I set a challenge and divided the class into two groups.  As teams, they were required to write a UNIX shell command that would perform a specified set of actions with the greatest efficiency, and the minimum exec system calls.  My apologies for the non-geek reader. 🙂

There was no prize but the glory of being the winner.  Boy were they right.  The students engaged with gusto, searching through documentation, man pages, howtos (even espionage) to come up with the ideal solution.  The winners had bragging rights for weeks to come.  It was also encouraging to see that the score difference between the two groups was by only 1 point, and the winning team’s score was only 1 point short of my own model solution.

It seems to me that behaviourism is not the trendy learning theory of the day, yet in certain circumstances, I believe they can be quite effective.  It is not something however I would use to underpin an entire course design.