Dimensions delimiting conceptions of online teaching – something to guide the indicators and the evaluation of LMS data?

Col Beer has been doing some work around the “indicators” project – an attempt to mine system logs and databases of a course management system (CMS) to generate data of some use.

One of the (many) potential problems with the work, and the work of its like, has been attempting to generate some sort of understanding about how you can rank or categorise the type of learning or activity taking part on on the CMS.

In the following I wonder if the work on teachers’ conceptions of teaching, particularly that associated with online teaching (e.g. Gonzalez, 2009) might provide a useful solution to this problem.

Research on teachers’ conceptions of teaching

There is a large amount of research, quite a research tradition, around understanding the different conceptions of teaching (and subsequently learning) that academics bring to their experience. Much of this work believes that the quality of student learning is directly influenced and constrained by the conceptions of teaching held by teaching staff. (Following from this is the idea that to improve the quality of student learning you have to target teachers’ conceptions of teaching, but that is another story.)

Teachers’ conceptions of online teaching

Gozalez (2009) extends the work on teachers’ conceptions of teaching to the online environment. One of the contributions of this work is some “dimensions delimiting conceptions of online teaching”. The following table is adapted from Gonzalez (2009) and represents these dimensions. I wonder if these dimensions could be used to guide the indicators project? More on this below.

Dimensions delimiting conceptions of online teaching (Gonzalez, 2009: p 310)
The web for individual access to learning materials and information; and for individual assessment The web for learning related communication (asynchronous and/or synchronous) The web as a medium for networked learning
Teacher Provides structured information/directs students to selected web sites Set up spaces for discussion/facilitates dialogue Set up spaces for communication, discussion and knowledge building/facilitates-guides the process
Students Individually study materials provided Participate in online discussions Share and build knowledge
Content Provided by lectuerer Provided by the lecturere but students can modify – extend it through online discussions Buit by students using the space set up by the lecturer
Knowledge Owned by lecturer Discovered by students within lecturer’s framework Built by students

The benefit that this provides is to give an existing framework, with some basis in research about what staff already do, to guide the design of statistics/indicators to be drawn from system logs and databases. Statistics that could indicate the conception of online teaching that is being used by the academics. This could be useful to identify “good” staff using more advanced pedagogy, identify the traditional ones, use this insight to guide training and interventions and perhaps as part of a research project to establish connections between the conceptions identified form the system logs and the outcomes of students in terms of final results.

For example, some potential indicators

  • A course where all content is provided by the academics indicates that the staff member is at the “lower” end.
  • The use of tools such as wikis, blogs (tools that encourage contributions from students) and which are actively used by students indicates a staff member/courses at the “higher” end.
  • A course site where the site framework is put in place by the academic and can’t be modified by students, indicates low end.
  • Large amount of discussions from students, that has low levels of interaction, indicates someone in the middle. High levels of interaction indicate someone at the higher level.

Implications and questions

There is probably many more than the simple ones outlined below. But it is getting late.

  • There is mention of the role context plays in limiting or influencing teachers’ conceptions (and thus the quality of student learning), should the nature and affordances of the technology available play a similar role?
    • Do the affordances of a CMS actively get in the way of teachers’ being able to, or even aware of, the “networked learning” (the “good”) approach?
    • Do the affordances of a PLE type approach actively encourage a more “networked learning” approach?
  • Can this work help expand/enhance the evaluation of learning and teaching, which is somewhat limited at most universities.
  • Is there a role in a design theory for e-learning for some of these ideas?


Gonzalez, C. (2009). “Conceptions of, and approaches to, teaching online: a study of lecturers teaching postgraduate distance courses.” Higher Education 57(3): 299-314.

Featured on slideshare – the give and take of social computing

The editorial team over at Slideshare have decided my recent PhD presentation is worth of featuring on the Slideshare home page. The following screen shot of the Slideshare home page is included as proof and also as a record. 105 views before being featured. How high can you go?

Featured on slideshare

This is another example of the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back” approach to networking, links and social software. In the email I got from Slideshare with the good news was this

p.s. Why not blog/twitter this and let the world know about your awesome creation?

So here I am, blogging about it. So, maybe I’ll raise views on the presentation. Maybe I’ll make more people aware of Slideshare as a service. Plus, by featuring my presentation on the home page, my presentation gets more hits.

Of course the $64K is, “what value is all of this”?. Well, apart from the small amount of pleasure I get from “running up some good numbers” (apparently there is a bit of brain science or psychology that explains this good feeling – must look that up at some stage), the main benefit is the unknown.

There may not be any positive value in it, at least not to me, at least not this time. However, there could also be something really valuable and something that would never have happened otherwise.

Just this week, a post of mine on patterns for e-learning has started a conversation with the head of an Art and Design Research centre in the UK about design and some of the very interesting work that he and his students/colleagues are doing. Without the blog post, I would never have made that connection.

Punya Mishra posted something this week on this same topic. His post makes the point much more poetically than mine and he uses a good term for it “serendipitous connectabilty”.

In the time it has taken me to write this post, the number of views on the presentation has gone to 122 views – 17 views while writing.


A couple of days after being feature, and by now having moved from the Slideshare home page, the presentation statistics are now: 1265 views, 118 downloads, 5 favourites (including the co-founder of slideshare), 5 comments and being added to 1 group.

PhD update #1 – the start of a tradition?


In attempt to encourage on-going work and solve the problem of keeping various folk updated I’m going to start a new Friday tradition – posting a summary of the PhD related work I did in the last week. Here’s to the first of many.

20th to 27th February

In the last week I’ve

  • Given a presentation on the thesis at the ANU
  • Caught up on some literature on higher education.
  • Had a related paper accepted at an international conference.
  • Created a to do list/overview of the thesis.
  • Given some thought to the research note describing how to write up information systems design research work.

I close with what I currently think I’ll aim for next week.


129 slides in 30 minutes, given, recorded and placed onto slideshare and turned into a slidecast. In the last week, the slidecast has just gone past the 100 views.

Literature on higher education

For some reason, earlier in the week I ended up looking at the online archives of the journal Higher Education. Found a number of papers of interest, both to the PhD and other work.

I’ve incorporate the work of a number of these papers into Chapter 2. I’ve found this much easier now that I have a firm grasp on the Ps Framework. Having that structure makes it much easier (but not straight forward) to build the argument.

What I’ve been reading has also led to a couple of blog posts. Some of these have been trying to get arguments for the thesis down in to prose.

To do list

Today I’ve achieve the major thing I wanted to do this week. Get some overall idea of where the thesis is up to, what its structure is and what is left to do. The to do list serves this purpose. I hope to keep this updated, both adding and striking out, to dos as time progresses.

Presenting design research work

Originally, the submission to JAIS of Gregor and Jones (2007) included an appendix that offered a suggested structure for a design theory/research thesis/paper. They didn’t want to publish the appendix so we put it online a couple of months ago.

At least one of us is keen to get this published. Today I blogged another post providing a potential argument about why the research note is important, even though “experts” will think it problematic.

Next week

For the foreseeable future (a few weeks at least) I think my major aim will be two fold:

  1. Make significant progress, if not complete a draft of Chapter 2 on the Ps Framework.
  2. Similar progress on Chapter 3 – especially because I want to get feedback on the ideas I currently have, which may prove to be novel and consequently somewhat limited.

Why formulaic guidance annoys experts and why they ignore the needs of the novice

Shirley is keen to do some more work on the “research note” suggesting a structure for a design theory/research thesis/paper. This was the appendix that was original part of Gregor and Jones (2007) but which JAIS decided not to publish. The main reason was that the reviewers thought it boiled down the process of publishing to a formula, and they obviously thought this was a bad thing.

The rejection by the reviewers is interesting because the research note has proven to be useful and interesting for a range of folk. Even before the 2007 publication we had received requests from at least one information systems Professor for a copy he could use in a doctoral seminar. I should point out that this gentleman (who shall remain nameless) has some significant runs on the board in terms of publications around information systems design theory. Shirley also continues to get requests for it.

We put the research note onto my blog in early Oct 2008 and have not widely publicised this. Even though, it has been viewed 114 times and is sitting at #10 of the top posts on my blog.

So why the disconnect?

The blindness of experts

I’m suggesting that this difference in response to the paper is based on a mismatch of requirements between a novice researcher (e.g. someone taking a doctoral seminar) and an expert researcher (e.g. a reviewer for a Tier 1 journal). What the novice researcher thinks is a god send, a way out of the swamp. The expert thinks is simplistic and demeans their expertise.

My argument is that the expert researcher is blind to the requirements of the novice, because the expert thinks differently and is not taking seriously the needs of the novice. The expert is doing the novice a disservice.

I’ll use the Dreyfus model of skills acquisition as the basis for my conclusion.

Dreyfus model of skills acquisition as an explanation

In earlier post I pointed to a video that was my introduction to the Dreyfus model of Skills Acquisition. Based on a paper title “A five-stage model of the mental activities involved in directed skill acquisition” the model identifies 5 stages of learning a new skill and the characteristics and requirements of people in each of those stages. See the following table for a summary of the model.

Novice-to-Expert scale
(Adapted from Lester (2005))
Stage Characteristics
Novice Rigid adherence to taught rules or plans
Little situational perception
No discretionary judgement
Advanced Beginner Guidelines for action based on attributes or aspects
Situational perception still limited
All attributes and aspects are treated separately and given equal importance
Competent Copying with crowdeness
Now sees actions at least partially in terms of longer-term goals
Conscious, deliberate planning
Standardised and routinised procedures
Proficient Sees situations holistically rather than in terms of aspects
Sees what is most important in a situation
Perceives deviations from the normal pattern
Descision-making less laboured
Uses maxims for guidance, whose meanings vary according to the situation
Expert No longer relies on rules, guidelines or maxims
Intuitive grasp of situations based on deep tacit understanding
Analytic approaches used only in novel situations or when problems occur
Vision of what is possible

One of the ideas underpinning this work is that if you want to help someone develop their skill you have to

  • Identify where they are located in terms of the skill?
    Are they a novice? Competent? etc.
  • Customise your “training” so that it fits what people at that level need and to help them move onto the next level.

So at which level would you place a reviewer for a Tier 1 journal? At which level would you put a doctoral student starting out on his PhD? Do you see how these two very different people require different assistance?


There is most definitely a place for the research note. It would serve a good purpose in helping novices move up the Dreyfus skill levels. However, it should be written to ensure that it helps novices move beyond the level of applying a formulaic approach to a deeper understanding.

One suggestion/thought that arises from this is that perhaps the research note should not be a straight forward formula. i.e. give the impression that the authors have agreed on a single structure that is suitable across all situations. Perhaps the research note needs to have some disagreement or other strategies to “appropriately” move the novices from the lower levels to the higher levels. Rather than present the end result of the “experts” formulation, perhaps it should show some of the questions and reasoning that informs the “experts” formulation.


Stan Lester, Novice to expert: the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition

Minute papers – encouraging reflection?

Part of the rationale for developing and using BAM had its origins in this unpublished paper (Jones, 2005). A part of the paper talks about minute papers, that content is reproduced below.

Minute papers

The minute paper is one way to help promote meta-cognitive thinking amongst students and to provide academics with ungraded, anonymous, immediate feedback from their students in order to assess how well and how much they have learned (Murphy & Wolff, 2005). Empirical tests have found that students completing minute papers scored higher than those who did not (Murphy & Wolff, 2005). For academic staff, minute papers raise the awareness of student experience and misunderstandings and provide an opportunity to reflect on teaching. Also it is a mechanism through which the academic demonstrates respect for and interest in student opinion and encourages the student’s active involvement in the learning process (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Unlike other forms of course evaluation the minute paper can be explained to students as a vehicle for improving their own on-going instruction rather that that of future students (Chizmar & Ostrosky, 1998).

A minute paper asks students to take a minute at the end of a class or topic to answer, traditionally on paper, a small number, usually one or two, of questions about the class. The most common two questions are:

  1. What was the most important thing you learned during today’s class?
  2. What question(s) remain upper-most in your mind? Or, what is the muddiest point still remaining at the conclusion of today’s class?

The anonymous student responses are handed into the academic who makes use of these responses to make some adjustment in the course. If minute papers are overused or poorly used it can be seen by students as a gimmick or pro forma exercise in polling (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Murphy and Wolf (2005) found that as the semester progressed a few students became “bored” with the minute papers and gave rushed and trivial responses to the questions. It is difficult to prepare questions that can be easily understood and quickly answered (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Implementing the one-minute paper in an online form did not achieve the same response rate as a paper-based version but was superior in that students provided longer responses, provided the instructor with greater flexibility with replies and were automatically archived for future use (Murphy & Wolff, 2005).

The author has used minute papers in face-to-face teaching and found them to be useful. It is thought that asking distance education students to blog a minute paper each time they do some study will provide a minimal level of structure and help the coordinator be aware of how each student is progressing.

The need for observable change

The minute paper idea has some similarity with the concept of a course barometer (Jones, 2002) through its use a simple, regular set of questions asked regularly during term to provide academic staff with feedback from students that can form a basis for improvement.

The commonality continues in terms of the importance of observable change. The barometer paper (Jones, 2002) found that students were much more likely to contribute to a barometer if they could see observable change happening as a result of barometer feedback. This overlaps with the point made above about minute papers

If minute papers are overused or poorly used it can be seen by students as a gimmick or pro forma exercise in polling (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Murphy and Wolf (2005) found that as the semester progressed a few students became “bored” with the minute papers and gave rushed and trivial responses to the questions.

The observable part of “observable change” also suggests that the course barometer, at least in its original format, is likely to be an improvement over minute papers. This is due to the fact that student comments are visible to all students on the course barometer, however, student comments in minute papers are typically not visible to others.

Use of minute papers with BAM

The initial BAM assignment had 3 of 9 questions use minute paper like questions. For example

Post an entry to your blog that answers the following questions:

  1. What were the most important concepts you learnt about data and process modelling this week?
  2. Why do you think those concepts are important?
  3. What are the data and process modelling concepts that are still causing you the greatest problems?
  4. How might the problems you are having be solved?

There is much research still to be done on the use of BAM. One avenue of interest might be to investigate the quality of the answers given to these “minute paper” questions and any correlation with final results. (yes, there are all sorts of limitations with that sort of research, but still some small amount of value). Perhaps Chizmar and Ostrosky (1998) can provide some insight into this.


Angelo, T. and K. Cross (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Chizmar, J. and A. Ostrosky (1998). “The one-minute paper: Some empirical findings.” Journal of Economic Education 29(1): 3-10.

David Jones, Student feedback, anonymity, observable change and course barometers, World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, Denver, Colorado, June 2002, pp. 884-889.

David Jones (2005), Enhancing the learning journey for distance education students in an introductory programming course

Murphy, L. and D. Wolff (2005). “Take a minute to complete the loop: using electronic Classroom Assessment Techniques in computer science labs.” Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges 21(1): 150-159.

Improving university teaching – learning from constructive alignment by *NOT* mandating it

The problem

Most university teaching is crap. Too general, too sweeping? Maybe, but based on my experience I’m fairly comfortable with that statement. The vast majority of what passes for teaching at Universities has a number of really significant flaws. It’s based more on what the teaching academic is familiar with (generally based on the discipline experience) than on any idea of what might be effective.

So, how do you improve it? This is not a simple question to answer. However, I also believe that most of the current and proposed answers being used by universities to answer this question are are destined to fail. That is, they will be able to show some good practice amongst a small percentage of academic staff, but have the vast majority of learning and teaching to be less than good.

I should point out that almost all of my attempts to describe why I think this is the case and to outline a more appropriate solution have been, essentially, failures.

The following is an attempt to draw on Biggs’ (2001) three levels of teaching to formulate three levels of improving teaching that can be used to understand approaches to improving learning and teaching. I’ll briefly outline an important part of what I think is a better solution. I’ll also reject the approach Bigg’s (2001) outlines as being too teleological, too complex, simply not likely to be effectively implemented and consequently, fail.

By the end of writing this post, I’ve come up with a name “reflective alignment” for my suggested solution.

Biggs’ three levels of teaching

Levels of thinking about learning and teaching

The image to the left is taken from a short film that explains constructive alignment, an approach developed by John Biggs. (I recommend the film if you want another perspective on this.)

These levels of knowledge about teaching lays the blame for poor student outcomes in the hands of the teachers and what they perceive teaching to be about. The three levels are as a focus on:

  1. What the student is.
    This is the horrible “blame the student” approach to teaching. I’ll keep doing what I do. If the students can’t learn then it is because they are bad students. It’s not my fault. Nothing I can do.
  2. What the teacher does.
    This is the horrible “look at me and all the neato, innovative teaching that I’m doing”. I’m doing lots of good and difficult things in my teaching. Are the students learning?
  3. What the student does.
    Obviously this is the good level. The focus is on teaching and leads to learning. Biggs (2001) uses a quote from Tyler (1949) to illustrate that this is not a new idea

    [learning] takes place through the active behavior of the student: it is what he does that he learns, not what the teacher does

Flowing from these levels is the idea of constructive alignment that encompasses the type of teaching likely to suggest a level 3 teacher. Constructive alignment is based on the simple steps of:

  • Clearly specifying detailed learning objectives for students.
  • Arrange teaching and learning activities that encourage/require students to carry out tasks that provide the student with exposure, practice and feedback on the learning objectives.
  • Design a grading/marking system that requires the student to demonstrate how well they achieve the stated learning objectives.

Performing these 3 simple steps well results in the situation that Biggs (2001) describes

In aligned teaching, where all components support each other, students are “trapped” into engaging in the appropriate learning activities, or as Cowan (1998) puts it, teaching is “the purposeful creation of situations from which motivated learners should not be able to escape without learning or developing” (p. 112). A lack of alignment somewhere in the system allows students to escape with inadequate learning.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So why don’t more people use it?

“Staff development” is crap!

That’s my characterisation of the position Biggs (2001) espouses (SDC = Staff Development Centre). This includes the following comments

…getting teachers to teach better, which is what staff development is all about…..staff development…is being minimized in many universities, not only in the UK but also in
Australia and New Zealand…..Typically, staff development is undertaken in workshops run by the staff development centre…This is the fundamental problem facing SDCs: the focus is on individual teachers, not on teaching

I particularly liked the following comment from Biggs (2001) and find a lot of resonances with local contextual happenings.

Too often SDCs are seen from a
Level 2 theory as places providing tips for teachers, or as remedial clinics for poor or beginning teachers. Most recently, they are being replaced by training in educational technology, in the confused belief that if teachers are using IT then they must be teaching properly for the new millennium.

Biggs’ solution

Biggs’ (2001) own summary is hard to argue with

In sum, QE cannot be left to the sense of responsibility or to the priorities of individual teachers. The institution must provide the incentives and support structures for teachers to enhance their teaching, and most importantly, to involve individuals through their normal departmental teaching in QE processes.

However, the detail of his suggested solution is, I think, hideously unworkable to such an extent as likely to have a negative impact on the quality of teaching if any institution of a decent size tried to implement it. As Biggs (2001) says, but about a slightly different aspect, “the practical problems are enormous”.

I’ve been involved with the underbelly of teaching and learning at universities to have a significant amount of doubt about whether the reality of learning and teaching matches this representation to the external world. I’ve seen institutions struggle with far simpler tasks than the above and individual academics and managers “game the system” to be seen to comply while not really fulfilling (or even understanding) the requirements.

3 levels of improving teaching

Leadership: when in doubt, wave a flag

I’d like to propose that there are 3 levels of improving teaching that have some connection with Biggs’ 3 levels of teaching. My 3 levels are:

  1. What the teacher is.
    This is where management put teachers into good and bad categories. Any problems with the quality of teaching is the fault of the academic staff. Not the system in which they work.
  2. What the management does.
    This is the horrible simplistic approach taken by most managers and typically takes the forms of fads. i.e. where they think X (where X might be generic skills, quality assurance, problem-based learning or even, if they are really silly, a new bit of technology) will make all the different and proceed to take on the heroic task of making sure everyone is doing X. The task is heroic because it usually involves a large project and radical change. It requires the leadership to be “leaders”. To wield power, to re-organise i.e. complex change that is destined to fail.
  3. What the teacher does.
    The focus is on what the teacher does to design and deliver their course. The aim is to ensure that the learning and teaching system, its processes, rewards and constraints are aiming to ensure that the teacher is engaging in those activities which ensure quality learning and teaching. In a way that makes sense for the teacher, their course and their students.

Reflective alignment – my suggested solution

Biggs’ constructive alignment draws on active student construction of learning as the best way to learn. Hence the “constructive” bit in the name. I’m thinking that “reflective alignment” would be a good name for what I’m thinking.

This is based on the assumption that what we really want academic staff to be doing in order to ensure that they are always improving their learning and teaching is “being reflective”. That they are engaging in deliberate practice. I’ve talked a bit about this in an earlier post.

I’m just reading a paper (Kreber and Castleden, 2009) that includes some support for my idea

We propose that teaching expertise requires a disposition
to engage in reflection on core beliefs…..The value attributed to the notion of ‘reflective practice’ in teaching stems from the widely acknowledged view that reflection on teaching experience contributes to the development of more sophisticated conceptual structures (Leinhardt and Greeno 1986), which in turn lead to enhanced teaching practice and eventually, it is hoped, to improved student learning.

So, simply and without detail, I believe it is important that if a university wants to significantly improve the quality of the majority, if not all, of its learning and teaching then it is to create a context within which academic staff can’t but help to engage in reflective practice as part of their learning and teaching.

That’s the minimum, and not all that easy. The next step would be to create an environment in which academic staff can receive support and assistance in carrying out the ideas which their reflection identifies. But this is secondary. In the absence of this, but the presence of effective reflection, they will work out solutions without the support.

(There is some potential overlap with Biggs’ (2001) solution, but I don’t think his focuses primarily on encouraging reflection. It has more in common with Level 2 approaches to improving learning and teaching, especially in how it would be implemented in most universities. Yes, the implementation problem still remains for my solution and could also most likely be implemented as a Level 2 approach. But any solution should be contextually sensitive.)


Biggs, J. (2001). “The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning.” Higher Education 41(3): 221-238.

Kreber, C. and H. Castleden (2009). “Reflection on teaching and epistemological structure: reflective and critically reflective processes in ‘pure/soft’ and ‘pure/hard’ fields.” Higher Education 57(4): 509-531.

Down with the cookie-cutter LMS: the Edupunk ideology and why integrated systems might go away

Edupunk as a term has been circulating since May last year. D’Arcy Norman has posted the YouTube video from below with a couple of folk talking about Edupunk, including Jim Groom the guy who originated the idea

One point agreement amongst the participant is that Edupunk arose because a lot of people were frustrated with the constraints of course management systems. First the video.

I agree 100% that the commercial CMSes are horrible, constraining and need to be done away with. My interest in this that my current organisation has decided to go with Moodle. An open source CMS that has an aura of “from the people” and thus being better than the commercial systems. In fact, the underlying feeling of a lot of people is that the open source CMSes are a paradigm change away from the commercial systems.

I’ve never agreed with that. I’ve always felt that they are exactly the same model and will have exactly the same problems. There will be some minor advantages around the edges as the code is open and the community is much larger, but in the end there is a “management” that has final say. Especially when these systems are implemented within universities. I’m already hearing rumours about our version of Moodle being “run as vanilla”.

When I grabbed the video from YouTube, the comment on the YouTube page indicates that I’m not alone

Decolonize and resist the corporatization of education, the florescent lighted LMS of Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle.

Scarcity and abundance

The CMS/LMS model is based on the assumption of scarcity that takes a number of forms:

  1. Scarcity of online services.
    The university had to provide discussion forums, content distribution mechanisms etc in an integrated system because staff and students couldn’t find these services online in late 90s and early 00s.
  2. Scarcity of knowledge and ability.
    Very few staff or students are familiar or comfortable with online technology and using it to support learning and teaching. This was especially so within learning and teaching support units. Instructional technologists, at some stage in the past, weren’t renowned for their technical ability and adaptability.
  3. Scarcity of reliable technology.
    University IT departments have to deal with a large amount of technology, and previously, had to deal with it at a very low level. This required having large numbers of folk who could deal with low level technical issues.
  4. Scarcity of support services.
    The need to have lots of people keeping the technology going, the scarcity of knowledge and ability of staff and students and limited budgets meant that support services were minimised. Especially direct support for learning and teaching and e-learning. The historical absence of technology in learning and teaching has meant that universities have not had specific people tasked with helping support staff and students in using technology for learning and teaching. It’s been an on-going battle between the information technology and the learning support folk. The end result, there has been little or no combined support for e-learning.
  5. Scarcity of understanding about how to do e-learning.
    To this day, very few people in management roles at university have little or no understanding of the complexities associated with learning and teaching, let alone e-learning which adds technology (another topic they know very little about) to the mix. This scarcity of understanding leads to the adoption of fads and fashions as logical decision making (see some related posts: the silliness of best practice, open source LMS – the latest fad, and alternatives for e-learning).

It is my belief that many of these assumptions of scarcity have or will be very soon overthrown. For example,

  1. Scarcity of online services.
    Completely and utterly overthrown. Any number of projects, mostly Edupunk projects, have shown you can effectively and efficiently support an e-learning course using existing online services. I’ve been involved in two such projects: BAM and Web 2.0 course sites.
  2. Scarcity of knowledge and ability.
    Increasingly students and staff arriving at Universities use a broad array of technologies. While they may not be experts with this technology nor familiar with using it for learning, we are in a much better place than 10 years ago. Plus the sheer penetration of this stuff into real life is reducing (not removing) the burden on universities to train staff and students. This trend, may not be sufficient to make a difference today, but I don’t see this trend turning around. Eventually we will get to the stage where the a majority of our staff and students are comfortable with technology.

    This trend is what has enable the Edupunk movement. People who are comfortable with technology realising just how constraining and crap the CMS/LMS experience is.

  3. Scarcity of reliable technology.
    Another certain trend is that technology keeps climbing the abstraction layers. i.e. it’s becoming more powerful, you can do more advanced things with less effort. This applies as certainly to the support or organisational infrastructure as it does to end-users. The increasing abundance of external services (e.g. software as a service, cloud computing etc.) is further continuing the trend that organisations no longer need as many low level technical folk as they used to. Those resources can be freed up.

The last two scarcities are the most problematic. Given the long history of faddish management decision making in universities, especially around learning and teaching, I don’t see this one changing anytime soon. Especially when, in many institutions, there is no effective marriage between learning and teaching and technology that effectively harnesses the potential synergies possible when deep understanding between these two fields is effectively mixed to produce something new.

Which is perhaps what is starting to happen in Edupunk. Individuals are starting to work around the barriers and limitations of the organisations they work for.

It’s time for universities to catch up.

Blogs in E-Learning: BAM, Moodle and a taxonomy of educational aggregation projects?


The Blog Aggregation Management (BAM) Project is a 3 year old project to extend some of the ideas (especially small pieces loosely joined) behind my thesis into the brave new world of “Web 2.0” (circa 2006). It was also intended to help solve a set of immediate problems in a particular course I was teaching through appropriate assessment and activities implemented by each student having their own blog. BAM provided the essential management and institutional wrapper around the use of these blogs to enable us to track and mark student progress.

More information on BAM can be found in this post and on BAM project page. The post is probably the most recent and complete perspective.

The next steps

Since 2006 and its original design and implementation there has been little work done on BAM. Some minor extensions and repurposing, but nothing else. Most, if not all, the publicity and publications about BAM have been web-based and/or by other people. This is about to change.

Today I received notice that a paper on the initial application of BAM by Jo Luck and I has been accepted at the EdMedia’2009 conference. All going to plan, we’ll use this presentation as a deadline and a platform to do and announce some more work around BAM.

This additional work will include:

  • A taxonomy of educational aggregation projects.
  • An examination of the chances of integrating BAM with Moodle.
  • Additional BAM papers.

Taxonomy of education aggregation projects

One of the reviewers of the paper for EdMedia wrote

The reviewer wonders whether there were other BAMs that may also exist. Some mentioning of BAM in the literature search in this aspect may be worthwhile.

An important question and one we will have to address in some way for the revised EdMedia paper. In my travels I haven’t come across any projects of a similar type to BAM, though there have been a number of aggregation projects in university learning. Perhaps it is past time to search for or create some sort of taxonomy of the different aggregations tools and their approaches currently available.

Any pointers?

The obvious place to start is Google. My first go is “educational aggregation blogs”, possibly a bit too specific, but I’ll start there and then come back to RSS and more generic feeds later. A Google for “educational aggregation blogs” reveals the following links:

  • Aggregation and the Blogs at Penn State.
    A 17 March 2008 post (author not immediately obvious) explaining how one course had students blog in their own university provided blogs and then aggregated these feeds into the course Pligg site.
  • Getting there one piece at a time.
    A March 12, 2008 post outlining how individual researcher blogs are aggregated into a “mother blog” focused on undergraduate research course. It includes a public tagging system. It and some of the posts seem focused on WPMU.

From that simple and limited search a couple of dimensions seem to be presenting themselves:

  • What is being aggregated? Who owns it?
    Both the above seem to be aggregating posts made on blogs provided and hosted by the organisation. BAM aggregates posts made on any RSS feed.
  • What purpose is the aggregation is used for?
    The above examples present the aggregated feed to a community to do something with. BAM currently aggregates it for teaching staff/markers, though it has also been extended for community use in EDED11448.

Integrating BAM and Moodle

My current institution has decided that Moodle will the institution’s course management system come 2010. To my current knowledge Moodle doesn’t provide a BAM like service. An obvious useful innovation might be to port BAM to Moodle. This would make it available to a broader collection of people.

Before we do this, we have to

  • Check the Moodle community to see if this has already been done.
  • Become more familiar with the Moodle way of doing things to determine if this makes sense and is doable.

Additional BAM papers

This first paper only scratches the very surface of what we’ve already done and doesn’t come close to capturing future possibilities. At the very least there are the following papers that could arise out of the BAM work:

  • Indepth examination of the feedback from student and staff focus groups during the initial use of BAM.
  • Broader discussion of the implications of BAM for how the “Product” part of e-learning within universities is understood.
  • Broader discussion of all the uses of BAM over the last 3 years.

Branding and universities – a mismatch of purpose and place?

I’m currently reading Waeraas and Solbakk (2009), a paper titled “Defining the essence of a university: lessons from higher education branding.” and with the following abstract.

Branding is a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in higher education over the last few years. It entails defining the essence of what a university ‘‘is’’, what it ‘‘stands for’’, and what it is going to be known for, requiring precision and consistency in the formulations as well as internal commitment to the brand. This article details what happened in the process of defining the essence of a regional university in Northern Norway. Addressing the challenges, the article reveals that the notions of consistency, precision, and commitment generated resistance from faculty members and made the process very difficult to fulfill. An important finding is that a university may be too complex to be encapsulated by one brand or identity definition. The article describes this process, explains the reasons for the difficulties, and discusses some implications for higher education branding.

The Ps Framework: a messy version

My interest in this paper arises out of some recent local experience, but mostly because of my PhD Thesis and the Purpose and Place components of the Ps Framework that is arising from the PhD.

For me, branding and how it should be carried out is a perfect example of a teleological design process and the mismatch such a process is for a “place” like a university. A perspective that the authors seem to agree with

An important finding is that a university may be too complex to be encapsulated by one brand or identity definition

Why branding?

Waeraas and Solbakk (2009) give the following partial explanation

In the face of increased national and international competition, universities and colleges in all parts of the world have begun a search for a unique definition of what they are in order to differentiate themselves and attract students and academic staff

They differentiate themselves by identifying their brand. To do this they must

Organizational identity is believed to be a fundamental starting point for the corporate brand definition. In order to communicate an organization’s identity, the organization must first know its essential and unique characteristics

In their literature review, Waeraas and Solbakk (2009) proceed to outline what is required to achieve this. In doing so, they draw on a lot of words and phrases that very heavily draw upon the “organisation as machine” metaphor which underpins much of management and information systems research. Behrens (2009) talks more about this. There’s a lot of talk about “managing, defining and mesuring” identities, characteristics and core values.

The also mention a number of researchers who have indicated some troubles with this sort of approach

Albert and Whetten suggested that precise classification may even be undesirable or unattainable in some contexts, as the complexities of organizations ‘‘may make a simple statement of identity impossible’’…..Over time, organizations become institutionalized as patterns of interaction and meanings emerge…….Any deliberate attempt by top management to change the organization’s identity will ultimately pertain to its integrity and distinctive competence. By implication, organizations with strong traditions and deeply rooted values will be difficult to change, leaving top management few degrees of freedom in terms of the potential for planned change. Attempts by managers at treating organizational identity as a holistic, overarching phenomenon are likely to produce resistance and conflicts (Humphreys and Brown 2002).

Views of branding

The authors list a range of views of branding from the literature

  • Positive views, where authors see “branding as an instrument for improving competitiveness and reputation”.
  • Not so positive, where authors think “branding is not a rational tool, but just a myth or a symbol that universities use to demonstrate conformity to their institutional environments”. A view which can lead to cliche and conformity.
  • Finally, the mismatch view that suggests “its implementation challenges the traditional values that exist within academia in general and within specific universities in particular”.

The mismatch between purpose and place

As a teleological design process, at least as it is typically implemented, branding assumes that it is possible to achieve a single “brand” (or purpose) for the organisation and then expect everyone to work toward it. This collective action is important to maintain the brand

An organization’s communication should be integrated and orchestrated (van Riel 1995; van Riel and Fombrun 2007), and employees should all share and endorse the same views about the organization, preferrably by ‘‘living the brand’’

This assumes that it is possible and desirable for all members of a university to act with common purpose, to live a common brand. Trouble is, that isn’t what universities are

In general, there is no tradition for tightly controlling faculty members’ actions or communication
in universities. Individual members of a university are, by definition, very
autonomous individuals.

This is assuming that you could actually define a common brand in the first place

The data have clearly revealed considerable difficulties in defining the university’s overall identity; its ‘‘essence’’.

In terms of place, Universities are perhaps to complex to be simplistically reduced to a single identity

The lesson learned from the VI experiment is that universities may be too complex and fragmented to both understand and express as single identity organizations. This complexity is difficult to encapsulate simply by three values and/or an overarching identity definition, as one definition would rule out alternative definitions. Putting the emphasis on only one definition would be the same as saying that this focus and its related disciplines are more valid than others. As university members often identify more with their academic disciplines and units than with the university as a whole, the consequence of such a reduction of variety is, not surprisingly, resistance and conflict.

So what’s the solution

I’m somewhat surpised by the solution suggested in the paper and the one apparently adopted by the President of the University. It mirrors some of the fundamental parts of my PhD work

A pragmatic approach to higher education branding would imply building on the variety
that exists within the organization……Instead of imposing one official and consistent definition of the organization and to control the meanings linked to it, he found it more practical to emphasize a repertoire of identities and meanings.

Rather than artificially, and ultimately less than successfully, restrict the variety embodied in a University, celebrate it. That’s a fundamental principle of my design theory for e-learning and the benefits that arise are essentially the same

First, it provides a great deal of flexibility……Such a flexibility is a considerable advantage when it comes to matching ambiguous and complex demands from the external environments….Second, retaining multiple values and identities may promote uniqueness. Higher education institutions have better chances of becoming strong brands if they are allowed to express their unique strengths and virtues, however inconsistent.


Behrens, S. (2009). “Metaphor, meaning and myth: Exploring diversity in information systems research”, Working paper based on an earlier work

Waeraas, A. and M. Solbakk (2009). “Defining the essence of a university: lessons from higher education branding.” Higher Education 57(4): 449-462.

When was this – past experience of e-learning

It’s amazing at how perspectives around technology and its use in education don’t change. In the presentation on this page I use some quotes from the what if presentation by Karl Fisch to outline some previous fearful perspectives on the impact of technology on learning that mirror many of the perspectives held of e-learning.

The following couple of quotes illustrate that the positive perspectives of technology can also be found in history.

Both the processing and the uses of information are undergoing an unprecedented technological revolution… This is perhaps nowhere truer than in the field of education. Once can perdict that in a few more years millions of schoolchildren will have access to what Philip of Macedn’s son Alexander enjoyed as a royal perogative: the services of a tutor as well-informed and as responsive as Aristotle.

Patrick Suppes, “The Uses of Computers in Education.” – 1966, Scientific Amercian

The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability: and something is bound to come of it.

Vannevar Bush, “AS WE MAY THINK”,
The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945