Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: August 2007

Technology scan – CQU and e-learning

The Division of Learning and Teaching Services which includes CDDU is going through a planning process driven by a range of organisational and contextual issues.

As part of that process various folk we’re asked to complete aspects of an environmental scan. Being the nerd in the group I was asked to do the technology scan. The following is a brief summary.


There are two main themes to my scan

  1. Specific technologies that will be of interest over the coming years.
  2. Underlying trends/themes.

I’ve done this sort of thing, broadly speaking, a couple of times before in a more traditional presentation format. So not surprisingly I will likely repeat myself and make the same mistakes.

The previous attempts include: some video of a presentation from 2005, slides and online resources from 2007 and version 2 of the slides from 2007.

Specific technologies

Rather than develop my own list of specific technologies, and in the spirit of reuse, it made more sense to point people to the Horizon reports from the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE.

The 2007 Horizon report identified the following and their time frames. I’ve added some information about what I know is happening at CQU. Actually, that’s a lie. It will be what the group I’m working with is doing. I don’t know enough about what is going on at CQU to be aware of what others are doing.

TASK: If anyone from CQU reads this and knows of other related work. Please post it in the comments.

The list.

  • Within one year or less
    • User created content – already starting to happen, slowly
      The course EDED11448, Creative Futuring is an attempt at a “Web 2.0 course site”. As part of this course students are using RedBubble to share their artistic productions. The class are also using to generate a collection of resources, and theoretically, a podcast.
    • Social networking – I don’t think we’re doing anything in this area just yet. It potentially, could be very interesting as an approach to reducing attrition through enabling students to develop personal connections with others.
  • Within two to three years
    • Mobile phones – I don’t think we’re doing much with this.
      Like everyone else people have played with podcasting, which at a stretch could be something mobile phone related.
    • Virtual worlds – something should be in place by 2008.
      CQU is a partner in a Carrick funded project looking at encouraging the use of virtual worlds in education.
  • Four to five years
    • Educational gaming – nothing to my knowledge
    • New scholarship
      Various staff are starting to use blogs for various forms of scholarship (e.g. what you’re reading now). But as an organisation, I don’t think we’ve engaged with it.

Generic Trends

The following are a collection of generic trends or drivers which I believe are contributing to the above technologies and will contribute to the next generation.

  • Moving up the abstraction layer.
    Since the very early days additional abstraction layers have been added to technology. Way back when you had to physically wire computers to do a task, then you could program them in binary, then low level languages and up the ladder to today when visual programming environments are allowing just about anyone program. 20 years ago we were limited to manipulating text and numbers on green screens. Now you can manipulate 3D objects within a virtual world.

    With each move up the abstraction layer old necessary skills become questioned, new skills and new approaches need to be considered. New possibilities open up. We’re not finished yet.

  • Becoming ubiquitous
    When I first talked about the Web in 1994, no-one knew what I was talking about. It was a rare person who did know. These days it would be rare person who did not know something about it. Increasingly people have and use access to these technologies. There are always exceptions, but they are becoming less common.
  • Everything is becoming open.
    Increasingly content is open and available. Increasingly software systems need to be open. This openness is enabling sharing and developing of new applications which are further up the ladder.
  • Innovation is moving beyond the universities and research centres
    A bit more than 10 years ago the list of the really cool stuff on the web would have been dominated by websites, data or tools from universities and research centres. Now, it’s generally outside universities. Companies are doing cooler things better than universities are capable of.
  • A requirement to question the status quo.
    All of these changes open up new capabilities, new ways of doing things. Novelty which challenges the status quo, the way we do things around here. To be really effective in using new technologies what, how and why we do things has to be questioned.

The role for institutions with PLEs

There’s an increasing rhetoric raising in the ranks of university-based education folk about the importance of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). There are any number of good resources on the web that mention PLEs.

My interest in PLEs are being driven mostly by the likelihood that CQU will be starting a major project looking at encouraging the adoption of PLEs within CQU courses. A draft of the proposal is available

So my question is, given that the aim of PLEs is to give the learner control, to remove the institutional focus, to make PLEs support multiple institutions, then what role does an institution play in developing PLEs?

Perhaps a better question is, what does an institution have to do to its policies, processes, pedagogy and systems to enable students to more effectively use PLEs?

My current answers include

  • Helping discover what is actually PLEs will be.
  • Helping change policy, practice, pedagogy and systems to better support PLEs.

Though, I do always have at the back of my mind, that the idea of a institution being involved in PLEs is just a little silly.


The notion of a PLE is still very much open to discussion, disagreement and definition. In fact, the “personal” bit may just mean that there is no agreed definition. Each person, because of the unique background and requirements, will end up with a PLE which works very different. For example, I come from a UNIX background, wrote a web development framework/system and use a Mac laptop as my only computer. So my PLE combines aspects of vi, perl, Webfuse, some Web 2.0 apps and mostly reside on my laptop.

An institution attempting to encourage broad scale adoption of PLEs amongst its students, courses and academics should offer an opportunity to discover a lot of things about PLEs and how people do (or don’t) use them.

Why change

The general trend in all the current definitions of PLEs indicate that any institution that would wish to encourage their use amongst their students would require some significant changes in a range of attributes. So, why would an institution consider a change. I can think of at least two broad reasons

  1. The change required of PLEs can contribute towards learners who are more in charge, more responsible for their own learning. Learners who are actively taking a hand. Supported well this should, in line with a lot of literature around the knowledge society (Puni, 2007), lifelong learning etc.
  2. The changes of institutional attributes (policies, processes, systems and pedagogies) will to some extent be inherently good. They will result in a more flexible, better focused institution.

What change

So what changes in institutional attributes will be required and just how can you claim that they will be inherently good – which is somewhat questionable?

Systems. One of the first steps I would take in supporting adoption of a PLE at an organisation would be the opening up of existing, closed learning management systems so that they could integrate with the PLE. Essentially, wrap the existing LMS with feeds for various aspects.

The aim being that academic staff wouldn’t immediately need to change practice. They could keep using the LMS. But the PLE, initially in the form of a glorified feed reader, could provide the student with some advantage. i.e. not having to check each of the course LMS websites for new stuff. It comes to them.

A potential next step would be to enable the PLE to be used by staff to “put material into” the LMS. Posting content, discussion, messages could be done via the PLE and in keeping with the notion of a PLE breaking down the distinction between staff and students, between the producer and consumers, this capability could be made available to students as well.

As well as providing this functionality in an easier to use form than currently available in most LMS. This approach could provide an additional benefit to the institution, particularly at CQU. It could enable the institution and its elearning to become independent, to some extent, on the existing LMS. If staff and students are used to using their PLE to create and interact with content etc then they don’t really care which LMS is being used.

Potentially other institutional systems would need a similar treatment. This could be a good thing because most of CQU’s information systems are not focused on the learner. The systems are focused on supporting the organisational unit that owns the service and/or the IT developers who implemented the system.

Change of these systems will likely more difficult than changing the LMS. The LMS and PLE sit within the same organisational responsibility, very broadly the L&T unit/division. The other systems, student portal/enrolment/timetable etc, are the responsibility of other organisational units and hence intra-organisational politics and ownership will serve to muddy the waters.

Pedagogies. The vast majority of pedagogy at universities, particularly CQU, are not exactly what you could call student-centered. The whole notion of a PLE is based around a focus on being student-centered. Of encouraging active, construction of knowledge. Of perhaps even moving to a move connectivist type pedagogy.

Personally, I think this is the most difficult change. It represents a radical mindshift in the conceptualisation of learning held by most academics. Most institutions do not reward academic staff for making this type of mindshift, research still brings greater reward.

Policies and processes…and expectations

Many of the assumptions and characteristics of a PLE bring into question some of the existing institutional policies and processes. Some of these, like copyright and intellectual property, are already being brought into question. If an institution does move considerably to using PLEs and associated, appropriate pedagogies then some fundamental questions, such as how they allocated workload, need to be addressed.

Currently, much workload calculation is based on the number of students and how many lectures and tutorials are required to service those students. Which raises another very interesting question. The majority of staff and students have an in-built expectation that a university education involved lectures and tutorials (depending on discipline and country). A move to PLEs and associated, appropriate pedagogies is a move away from those expectations. Students and staff can both get very stroppy around change and breaking of expectations.

Which perhaps is the biggest thing that has to change at universities, the permission to fail, to make mistakes, to try things which don’t quite work. To much of the prevailing wind, at least at the Australian universities with which I’m familiar, is focused on CYA, avoiding the appearance of failure to avoid the subsequent pain and agony.

How we’ll do it, if we do

Given that,

  • The concept of a PLE is still under negotiation.
  • That it represents a considerable change for institutions, staff and students.
  • You can never be sure of the outcome of such change, especially when it challenges very strongly intra-organisational boundaries.

any move we make to looking at PLEs will have to be exploratory.

Aimed just as much, if not more, at discovering more information about PLEs and how people and institutions can engage with them than with implementing some pre-conceived idea.


Puni, Y. (2007). Learning spaces: an ICT-enabled model of future learning in the knowledge-based society. European Journal of Education. 42(2): 185-199

Diffusion theory to guide adoption of immersive Web3D environments in learning

Through a range of coincidences I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with a team, lead by Penny De-Byl, that was successful in obtaining a Carrick grant to look at how to enable academics adopt the use of immersive 3D environments in their teaching. The project is only just starting, we had our first project meeting just over a week ago at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), and are still feeling our way as a group and a project.

The purpose behind this post is to think about how CDDU might achieve the rather difficult task of getting a reasonable number of Central Queensland University (CQU) academics interested and enabled to use these environments. In particular because CQU, like many other Australian institutions, exist in a context which makes this somewhat difficult task a great deal more “interesting”.

Demonstrating a cognitive bias, i.e. going back to what I already know, and a typical academic flaw (self-referencing), I’ll fall back on a quick paper which some colleagues and I wrote a few years ago. In Jones, Jamieson and Clark (2003) – does this use of “formal” academic referencing make sense in a blog post? – we proposed the use of a model from Rogers’ (???) diffusion theory as a means for understanding the likelihood and the amount of work required to get a percentage of acacdemic staff to adopt a web-based innovation for learning and teaching. Rogers model is very general, so it isn’t limited to e-learning, but that’s what we were interested and, more importantly, what the track of the conference in a nice part of the world was interested in.

So, in the following I’m attempting to apply the model we adopted from Rogers and applying it to the problem facing the Web3D project. For me, the model is a useful tool to identify the potential factors and give some insight into the problems we might face.

Actually, in the paper (Jones, Jamieson and Clark, 2003), we claimed/thought the following.

We suggest that by examining each of these six components a faculty member can:

  1. Generate a range of issues to consider before implementation.
  2. Predict the amount of effort required to achieve the required rate of adoption.
  3. Predict the level of reinvention.

It is important to note that this evaluation is not based not on supposedly objective benefits of the WBE innovation. Instead this evaluation will be based on subjective, contextual, and environmental issues that are unique to each situation.

Variables which influence the rate of adoption

The version of the model we adopted from Rogers looks like this.

Diffusion theory model for rate of adoption

Perceived innovation attributes

When someone is introduced to a particular innovation (e.g. immersive 3D environments) they perceive that innovation to have some characteristics, some attributes. Rogers (1995) work looking at a huge array of innovation diffusion projects hasidentified a set of five innovation attributes that most strongly influence whether or not someone will adopt an innovation. Those five attributes are:

  1. Relative advantage – The degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes.
  2. Compatibility – The degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters.
  3. Complexity – The degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use.
  4. Trialability – The degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis.
  5. Observability – The degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others.

My believe about how the Alive3D technology and its application to learning and teaching at CQU, will be perceived at CQU goes something like this

  • Low relative adantage
    In the CQU context innovations, particularly fairly different ones like this, are not going to be perceived as offering advantage to teaching staff.
  • Low compatibility

    For the majority of folk e-learning is an LMS, sharing documents, holding discussions and similar. Few have done anything within a 3D environment, even fewer have created 3D environments. For the small number of folk who use Macs, the fact that the software only runs on Windows, will further reduce compatibility.

  • Fairly high complexity
    They haven’t done 3D. E-learning and technology, for many, most?, is perceived to be hard. 3D will be perceived to be harder.

Triability and observability will both be fairly low. This will be something that we can build on and improve.

Please recognise that there will be never anything like a consensus view amongst academic staff, this is meant to be very broad brush guessing exercise on my part. It is also not meant to represent any objective set of characteristics of the technology, it is meant to represent how academics at CQU will apply the bounded rationality and the cognitive biases which we all have to how they perceive this project and its technology the first time they see and hear about it.

Innovation decision

When deciding whether or not to adopt an innovation Rogers (1995) identifies three types of decisions

  1. Optional – Each individual in a social system to adopt or reject the innovation.
  2. Collective – The social system makes a consensus-based decision to adopt or reject an innovation
  3. Authority – Made by those in authority with the expectation that the social system will follow that decision.

For most academics, the adoption of Web3D will be an optional decision. For those working within more constrained programs/disciplines it might require either a collective (consensus from the whole disipcline group) or an authority decision (head of program/school).

Rogers indicates that authority decisions generally show the fastest rate of adoption and that optional decisions are made more rapidly than collective decisions. He also suggests that some types of authority decision can also suffer from large amounts of “reinvention” – the degree to which an adopter modifies the innovation in the process of its adoption and implementation.

Communication channels

The Rogers view of diffusion of innovation is of a particular type of communication which is aimed at reducing uncertainty about the innovation. That communication occurs through a channel, a particular medium. The nature of the channel, its attributes, are suggested to influence how effectively the communication is. Diffusion theory characterises communication channels based on the following spectrums

  • mass media or interpersonal; and
    Mass media channels, which enable small group to reach a large audience, are a rapid and efficient means by which to inform an audience of an innovation and lead to changes in weakly held attitudes. Interpersonal channels, links between two or more individuals are more effective in dealing with resistance or apathy.
  • local or cosmopolite.
    Cosmopolite communication channels originate from outside the social system. Potential adopters of an innovation rely more on subjective evaluations from other individuals like themselves who have previously adopted the innovation than objective evaluations of an innovation.

Social system

Every organisation is a collection of social systems. The various connections/networks of individuals that have some thing in common. Typically the joint problem-solving required to achieve common goals. For example, teaching within the same program or perhaps at the same institution. Diffusion theory identifies the following characteristics of a social system which influence adoption

  • Social structure – the formal arrangement of units within the social system.
  • Communication structure – the informal, interpersonal networks which link the social systems members.
  • System norms – the established behavior patterns and beliefs that are common amongst the members of the social system.

The use of Web3D is not likely to challenge the system norms, at least not to a great extent. If might be seen as just another learning innovation for which the responsibility for evaluating, selecting and using is left up to the individual academic. This might change somewhat in some component social systems.

Lessons or activities for Web3D

The following are a collection of “action items” which might apply or which might need to be done within the context of the project

  1. Do some evaluation of academic staff’s perception of Web3D when they are initially (or prior) to hearing about it in order to test whether or not some of the “beliefs” above bare out.
  2. Design the communication strategy (e.g. initial presentations, websites etc) to maximise the chance people while perceive the innovation in a way likely to encouage adoption.
    • Be able to demonstrate in a clear way the advantage this approach brings to the specific context.
    • Frame the communication about the innovation so that it is “fits” with current contextual practice.
    • Provide simple and straight-forward ways through which people can play with the technology – perhaps straight after the introduction.
    • Ensure that what work is done is observable to others
  3. Should theoretically need to know more about the particular program/discipline groups and, in particular, about how decisions of this type are likely to be made.
  4. Aiming to implement Web3D as a simple trial, that doesn’t require consensus or perhaps authority decisions might also be worthwhile.
  5. Identifying a decision-maker with interest in Web3D might also be useful.
  6. Initially, awareness will be raised via a mass-media, cosmopolite communication channel – a CQU wide presentation. It needs to be followed up with a range of interpersonal and local discussions.

Problems with all this

Diffusion theory can contribute towards “development” approaches that are more focused on the human, social and interpresonal aspects of diffusing an innovation rather than on the purely technical aspects of the innovation.

But, as with any theory, technology or idea, diffusion theory is not perfect. It brings with it, it’s own set of blinders. It tends to have an assumption that the social system/the adopters need the innovation. There is a pro-innovation bias. In this case, the project team has made a decision that Web3D is good and that it will make a difference to the practice of learning and teaching. We’ve made the choice and, at least, I am attempting to use diffusion theory to convince (perhaps brainwash) people to adopt Web3D. It can lead to the situation where those who adopt Web3D are seen as superior to the recalcitrants who have not made the positive adoption decision.

To some aspect this is true. I am part of the project team, part of my “success” will be measured by how widely and well Web3D is adopted and used within CQU. I am, not suprisingly, attempting to maximise this. However, I do need to ensure that this process is implemented and perceived to be providing the information about the innovation so that academics can make informed decisions based on their perceptions and understanding of their own context.

I need to be honest that this is not a silver bullet. Which is good, because it isn’t.


David Jones, Kieren Jamieson, Damien Clark. (2003). A model for evaluating potential Web-based education innovations. Paper presented at the 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii.

Rogers, E., (1995), Diffusion of Innovations (4th Edition), New York: The Free Press.

Mediawiki, organisational websites and emergence

This week the unit I work for finally got its website up and going. The Curriculum Design & Development Unit (CDDU) is tasked with helping CQU “become a world leader in flexible and on line learning”.

Towards that end the website has been implemented using Mediawiki and its current content and structure has been put together using a very emergent process.

Rather than doing the up-front analysis and design of a traditional approach, we’ve basically made it up as we’ve gone along. Different folk making suggestions, changing or improving other peoples work and talking about what it all means.

I think this approach has worked because we’re a new unit, still figuring out exactly what we’re doing, who we are and how we fit with the rest of the organisation. This type of emergent approach has helped us formulate some answers to these questions.

There remains a question about how this emergent, “Web 2.0” approach will scale and work as the site progresses and our needs for it. There have been observations that the “Web 2.0” approach is more difficult in corporate settings because of the 1% rule. The idea that only 1% of contributors in online environments (e.g. Wikipedia) will contribute.

The implication is that 1% of the large number of visitors to Wikipedia still means a lot of contributions. 1% of the number of visitors to the CDDU website is going to be really, really small. So, consequently there’ll be very few contributions.

The difference for the CDDU site is that we’re not aiming for its main purpose to be built around user contributions. The site/wiki is there to help CDDU do its work. We, and the people we work with, will be the major contributors.

How many visits and contributions we get will be dependent on how well we use the tool, not on how many people visit and the subsequent 1% of contributions.

It shall be interesting to see how it emerges. For now I’ll keep a track here of how the statistics go

  • 15th August – 2,367 page views, and 365 page edits
  • 27th August – 5,751 page views and 629 page edits
  • 29th September – 26,181 page views and 1,215 page edits
  • 12th October – 31,689 page views and 1,367 page edits
  • 18th October – 34,718 page views and 1,457 page edits
  • 3rd November – 43,808 page views and 1,703 page edits
  • 11th November – 50,087 page views and 1,729 page edits
  • 13th December – 66,687 page views with 1,806 page edits
  • 1st Jan, 2008 – 73,605 page views with 1,827 page edits

It's the process, stupid (not the product)

Time to bang on again about the “product fad” that is course management systems and higher education.

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a by-invitation event looking at “e-driven organisational transformation”. We were asked to talk for 10 minutes about how experience/views on such transformation.

The title of my presentation was It’s the process, stupid (not the product) and gave an overview of my experience with e-learning at CQU since about 1996. It’s available on Slideshare. The presentation gives a different take on the generations of development of Webfuse as described in a previous paper.

(Apparently the presentation slides have gone down quite well in terms of design. Slideshare selected it to feature on the home page. I left doing the presentation until I got to London. This caused a problem as Internet access in the hotel was significantly less than promised. Which is one reason why I had to rely more on personal photos – those are my boys in the presentation.)

View the presentation on slideshare

The major point of the presentation is one I’ve made previously. i.e. that when deciding how to do e-learning universities are spending way too much time and energy on the product and ignoring other important considerations. In the missing Ps presentation I identified a collection of these including: place, people, purpose, and process. It’s process which I believe is a major consideration.

Not only are other considerations ignored, but the understanding of product that is demonstrated is limited.

Problems with the product focus

Christopher Sessums recently talked about a number of the limitations of how people consider products.

The internal-audience problem. The problem that the people designing systems are often very different from the users and consequently problems arise. This problem seems to be extended with CMS evaluation at universities through the selection process often not involving significant numbers of academic staff and generally only very limited input from students.

Sure, academics and students might be involved with focus groups, but when it comes to make the final decision, at least at CQU, it was the input of technical staff and instructional design staff that had major influences on management (who actually made the decision). Then once chosen these same staff have significant influence over directions. Even the best governance structure is going to limit the input that “real” users have.

Consumers are irrational. Even if you can involve all the people with equal input you have the problems of bounded rationality and various cognitive biases. Chistopher Sessums talks about the tendency for people to select systems that have more features, more complexity over simpler systems. Even though they will never use all of the features.

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