Observations on university L&T portals

At some stage soon I need to start developing a report on “learning and teaching portals”. i.e. how our institution deals with online resources around learning and teaching. There are a few issues with how we do it, and it appears that we’re not alone

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been helping organise a teaching orientation session for new academic staff. Consequently, I’ve had to spend a fair bit of time engaging with what is there at the moment. What follows is a collection of observations on that experience and on-going discussions.

This experience has been somewhat novel for me because in the last 5+ years working here I’ve tended to avoid the L&T portals because: I could never remember where to find them; or, I was more comfortable finding help elsewhere.

There are two sections here

  1. A list of observed problems with such spaces.
  2. An initial set of possible explanations

Observed Problems

Can’t be found – poor discoverability

Simply finding what online resources are provided by institutions around learning and teaching can be an impossible challenge. There is poor discoverability.

This can be due to the quality of available search engines, meta-data etc. I know that most people avoid using the institutionally provided search engine to search the institutional websites. Instead relying on Googles site:http://usq.edu.au capability.

The problem, however, also exists in category/organisational schemes. For example, trying to find where the link to L&T resources sites on the institutional staff portal has often been a task beyond people. But this problem extends to L&T specific sites.

At least two local L&T “portals” have been developed. Both contain useful information and both have been organised in specific ways. For example, one is organised by week of semester. Starting from about week -4 (4 weeks before semester) and up to week 20 (3 weeks after semester). Resources are organised into the week when they are deemed most appropriate.

Sadly this only works if every teacher follows the same weekly schedule, which is highly doubtful.

The saving grace for this particular portal is that it is hosted in Moodle and the latest version here now provides a half-way decent (but not perfect) search engine.

The big model problem

It’s become quite widely accepted that an educational institution should have an L&T framework. A set of models or structures that help the whole institution understand how learning and teaching happens. That common understanding then helps professional learning, strategic planning, operations etc.

The problem is that developing a L&T framework/model within a University context is incredibly hard due to the diversity of the learning occurs (amongst other factors). It’s so hard that it takes a long time and a lot of effort to develop that framework/model. This creates a problem.

For example, let’s take the draft L&T/LMS framework from RMIT that consists of 6 principles (connected, consistent, inclusive, aligned, clear, dynamic) and four stages

  1. Plan & Design
  2. Build
  3. Review
  4. Go live

Take a look at the Plan & Design section and you’ll see an example of the consistent structure of the framework. A brief description of the stage and then a collection of tabs covering: Context; Roles & Expectations; Learning Activities & Content; Communications; and, Feedback & Assessment. Each of these tabs includes: a description; tips for success; and threshold standard. Each of the threshold standards is described, linked to the principles, and some have links to related resources.

some is an indication of the problem. Visit the review stage and you’ll see a more explicit example

This section will have resources, templates and suggestions of how peers can be used in the design, development and review process.

It’s unfinished. Given that Australian central L&T units (often those tasked with developing this sort of framework) are restructured every 3 years or so, it’s not hard to see a potential problem with completion, let alone embedding the framework long term as part of the institutional culture.

Not only is there a lot of work required to develop an institutional L&T framework, there’s a lot of work to understand it and figure out how your practice fits within it. The RMIT framework is quite understandable and I’ve got quite a lot of knowledge in this area, but even I was starting to get overwhelmed by the long list of threshold standard (going by this page there are 80 of them).

I wonder how much effort teaching academics would invest in understanding the L&T framework, in light of other tasks.

Not there

Like many other institutions, my current institution is rolling out some quite nice, new technology enhanced learning spaces. I helped out with the orientation for new teaching staff in one of these new spaces recently.

It was a nice space for collaborative work. Spaces for small groups with a provided computer and large screen. Problem is we (amongst the more technically literate of staff) couldn’t initially figure out how to turn the computers on. There were no instructions in the room (that we could find) on how to turn these computers on. It was only through someone randomly pressing buttons that the method was discovered.

I’ve since searched for resources that would help provide pedagogical advice for these new rooms. Not there.

In the last couple of weeks a teaching staff member queried whether there was any professional learning opportunities that would help new casual tutoring staff develop some ideas around teaching in tutorials. Not there.

At least, given the poor discoverability around these resources, none can be found. Not quite the same as “not there”, but not far from it.

Out of date

As part of the work on the new orientation session it became apparent that a range of information was out of date. Examples included:

  1. A L&T portal identifying as an Associate Dean Learning and Teaching a staff member that left the institution two years ago.
  2. Changes in a HR system for advertising staff training opportunities breaking instructions from the institutional knowledge base for technology questions.

Not of the web

@cogdog writes the following in this blog post

Frankly I am not sure people should not be teaching online without some level of basic experience being and doing online. I have no idea if this is off base, but frankly it is a major (to me) difference of doing things ON the web (e.g. putting stuff inside LMSes) and doing things OF the web. I am not saying people have to be experts at web stuff, but the web should be like a place they feel like they inhabit, not just visit or witness through a glass plate window.

One assumes that the people helping people to teach online should also be able to do things “OF the web”, rather than just ON it.

There’s been a recent upswing at my institution in the use of Joomag – an “online publishing platform designed for you”. The products I’ve seen are online magazines viewed via Flash. A technology that is deemed by many to be

a fossil, left over from the era of closed standards and unilateral corporate control of web technology. Websites that rely on Flash present a completely inconsistent (and often unusable) experience for fast-growing percentage of the users who don’t use a desktop browser. It introduces some scary security and privacy issues by way of Flash cookies.

But even when the web is used, there appears to be limited basic awareness of fundamental web features, such as hyperlinks.

For example, my institution’s knowledge base for doing stuff with the institutional web-based systems take this standard form.

  1. Go to insert name of some system
  2. Click on the insert a tab name
  3. Click on the insert name of link
  4. various other instructions

There is a sequence of instructions about how to find a particular system hidden away in the depths of the institutional systems. Rather than simply just provide a link directly to it, such as

  1. Visit insert name of link
  2. various other instructions

There’s a chance that this is due to a desire to develop in people the habit of going to the institutional staff portal and finding their way from there. Fine, do that, but still include a link once people have read the instructions.

Some possible explanations

What follows are an initial set of possible explanations for these problems. Hence they also provide some pointers to possible solutions.

Too much focus on the “do it for” path

When trying to help teachers (e.g. by developing an L&T portal), there are four broad paths you can walk

  1. DIT – Do it to the teachers

    You decide what’s best and do it to them.

  2. DIF – Do it for the teachers

    The teachers decide what’s best and you do it for them.

  3. DIW – Do it with the teachers

    You and the teachers work together to figure out what is needed and do it jointly.

  4. DIY – Enabling Teacher do it yourself

    The teachers are enabled to do if for themselves.

The L&T portals that I’ve seen appear to have largely adopted the first two paths, with very little evidence of the last two. In some cases, the DIT/DIF paths are used with the intent to build the foundation for DIW/DIY, but that intent rarely translates into actual DIW/DIY.

Perhaps in part because of the “big model problem”. i.e. the DIT/DIF designers build a wonderful model of how it all works with the assumption that the teachers will grok that model and use it as the basis for their DIW/DIY. The only problem is that it’s too much work to grok the model.

Suggesting a need to start with where people are, increase the level of DIW/DIY.

Perhaps the size of the model involved, it’s distance from the schema of teachers, and who designs it is the defining difference between DIF and DIW? In terms of the L&T portal perhaps the defining difference is about who can organise, contribute and modify the resources that are within the L&T portal?

Limited technology – Kaplan’s law

In this institutional context, L&T portals have been developed with the technology that is available. Either Sitecore (designed for managing a marketing-controlled corporate web presence) or Moodle (designed to support learning and teaching in a formal course context).

Neither of these are a perfect fit for the provision of a L&T professional learning opportunities to a hugely diverse set of teaching staff.

Not open

David Wiley has suggested 5Rs for open – retain, reuse, revise, remix, and re-distribute. i.e. for a resource to be open, you should be able to

  • retain – Make and own copies.
  • reuse – Use in a wide range of ways.
  • revise – adapt, modify and improve.
  • remix – combine two or more.
  • redistribute – share with others.

None of the local portals I’ve seen appear to say anything about openness. Even if they used an open license, none of them actively provide support for (amongst others) the revise R.

In fact, increasingly the resources that are produced are going into an institutional Equella repository as PDFs, or are hosted on institutional systems where permissions are set up to prevent anyone (except a narrow set of people) from adapting, modifying and improving.

Organisational hierarchy

Mishra & Koehler (2006) argue that quality teaching requires (emphasis added)

developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy, and using this understanding to develop appropriate, context-specific strategies and representations. (p. 1029)

It needs a contextually appropriate integration of technical, content and pedagogical knowledge. Within most universities these bits of knowledge reside in (at least) three separate organisational groupings. None of these organisational groupings are experts in the specific combination of techincal, content and pedagogical knowledge required to generate the best possible learning outcomes in any specific context.

Instead, each organisational grouping tends to focus on their own task/expertise.

Hence at one stage my current institution had a different “L&T portal” for each organisational grouping that offered some level of support for teaching.

Overcoming this is hard.

Not aware of the need

In many cases, the people responsible for L&T portals are simple not aware of the need. They don’t know what the teaching staff are trying to do, so can’t provide the necessary support.

This is somewhat like the situation reported in this post from a few weeks ago. Instructions for some video-conference spaces haven’t caught up with the fact that there’s a trend toward using Zoom for video-conferencing, rather than the Cisco video conference gear. Even though the Director of ICT services has suggested that this move to Zoom for video-conferencing is being actively supported.

Focus on design and development

Most L&T portals and the resources developed for them appear to put almost all of their resources and consideration into the design and production of resources. Very little thought or resourcing appears to be invested in thinking about: evaluating use; updating and improvements; archiving etc.

de la Harpe et al (2014) in developing some online resources for RMIT appear to give this some thought in the following (p. 36)

A library guide was chosen as the SpringShare software that the library guides uses has been adopted by most universities in Australia and would, therefore, be simple for other universities to adopt and adapt. It was also very easy to use and sustainable since the librarians agreed to curate it and ensure it was kept up to date with current links

Nice to plan, but how does reality pan out?

The original project’s web page (http://www1.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=xnbgfx4a17h3) published on the front page of the report is a 404. As is the other RMIT hosted site on the front page. The youtube video still works.

Suggesting something about the advisability of using an institutional web site.

The URL for the libguides of resources produced by the project are still available, but last modified at the beginning of 2016. The resources all appear to work and at first glance appear quite valuable.

RMIT still appear to be using the LibGuide content management system, but it appears my institution doesn’t. As it happens, some of the features of libguides appear to be a good fit for some of what I had in mind.

But technology doesn’t solve all problems.

I was recently pointed this section of the RMIT website. It’s maintained by the “Academic Development Group” (which appears to sit within the College of Business at RMIT) and is focused on teaching spaces

It appears that there is no use made of the teaching spaces online resources generated by an RMIT led OLT project into teaching spaces that are still hosted on the RMIT site.

Pattern entrainment

Earlier this week (I think) @timklapdor provided a link to this Medium article

The article touches on how the mental models people hold of the Web depend heavily on their experiences. It links to findings from Pew Internet that only a very short amount of time has to pass before people’s experiences with technology are very different. It then maps a history of recent Internet technology to understand the different experiences people have had of the Internet. This is important because

These mental models will be diverse — and will keep evolving — but may not include many of the (primarily web-based) concepts and literacies we grew up with — including for some the usefulness and importance of URLs, web standards, markup, accessibility, search engines, and the browser as the primary access point to the online world.

For these users, Facebook (or WeChat in China) is now a primary method for finding, reading and sharing information online. Messenger, SnapChat, Instagram, and WhatsApp apps have become some of their preferred methods of communications. Some in fact have no concept of the internet outside of these platforms.

This touches a bit on the problem of being “on the web” rather than “of the web”.

But it is also indicative of the broader problem created by pattern entrainment. i.e. this tendency how we think to be confined by our experiences.

If you’ve trained as a desktop publisher, some types of multimedia designer, or marketing, then your experience suggests a certain way of using the Internet (online magazine, branding, quality control etc). If you haven’t gained the experience of living with the web, then how can you be expected to design L&T portals that are on the web?

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