Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Integration with professional lives of academics – why industrial e-learning fails and why post-industrial might work

I’m currently struggling with writing the “Place” component of the Ps framework as part chapter 2 of my thesis. In wondering the literature, as I tend to do while writing, I’ve come across an article (Gilbert and Geoghegan, 1995) that has some interest for me. Gilbert’s description of the paper is

The Internet is changing the way some of us develop ideas and communicate. The following, for example, is a sample of an “electronic” discussion about how to bridge the gap in higher education between the early adopters of information technology and the mainstream faculty who are yet to use technology to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms.

The initial post in this discussion is from Geoghegan and includes early versions of his ideas around why instructional technology adoption within universities were stalled, and in particular the notion of the technologists’ alliance. While I find that notion very helpful in my work, this post is about something else.

The Gilbert and Geoghegan (1995) article consists mostly of Geoghegan’s initial post and then various summaries/abstracts of the subsequent discussion on the mailing list. One of summarised responses is from Randy Bass (someone who has gone onto other things since then) titled “Professional Integration: A missing link”. The article includes the following quote from Bass’ post

I would argue that if we can’t talk about how technology integrates with the professional lives of teachers, then we can’t talk about the substantive adoption of technology in teaching among the mainstream of faculty. Therefore, to any ‘depth and pace of change’ taxonomy, I would add a category called ‘Professional Integration.’ And I pose this category as a challenge to publishers, IT support persons, and funding agencies to find ways to address the professional needs of faculty through technology, both as an end in itself and as a means to transforming teaching and learning strategies.

To me, this implies that the use of technology in learning and teaching by mainstream faculty will be in someway limited (either in numbers or quality), unless that technology becomes integrated into the professional practice of the faculty. It also implies that the LMS approach to e-learning will never be all that successful because of the difficulty of applying it to professional practice and that subsequent paradigms of e-learning might be better placed, if done correctly, to achieve this. It also raises a range of other questions (at least for me), and, finally, illustrates just how slow I’ve been to realise some implications of the work of Stephen Downes.

Professional integration and industrial e-learning

In an earlier post I suggested that there have been, so far, 6 different paradigms of e-learning within universities. The current paradigm is industrial e-learning and is characterised by the selection, installation and support of learning management systems (LMS) as “enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for education.

How well can an LMS be integrated into the broader professional practice of an academic?

I would argue that it essentially can’t. An LMS’ primary organising unit is the course offering. It is implemented within universities based around course offerings and all of the university infrastructure that feeds and supports the offering of courses. This infrastructure doesn’t fit well with supporting research or community service. The two primary other parts of the professional practice of an academic. As an example of an even more constraining example, many institutions limit access to their LMS to people who have valid institutional user accounts.

Interestingly, when I think about it from this perspective, I have seen academics try and use the LMS to support their professional practice. I have heard academics ask for a Blackboard site for their research group or one for the ex-students. Academics have been looking for e-learning technologies to help them with their professional practice, but the LMS hasn’t helped.

I guess you could link this with the Sakai project’s claim/aim to be a collaboration platform, rather than an LMS.

Professional integration and post-industrial e-learning

In that post on the paradigms of e-learning I suggested that the next paradigm could be called “post-industrial”. An approach that arises out of “cloud computing”, social media and associated ideas. Other authors such as Stephen Downes and others have described this “paradigm” in more detail under labels such as e-learning 2.0.

Apart from any inherent advantages that these tools and approaches may have for learning and teaching, perhaps one of their greatest strengths is the ability to be used and significantly enhance the professional practice of academics. My experience has been that social media has helped my professional practice. Perhaps the key to improving learning and teaching through technologies is getting academics to eat their own dog food, to use social software in their professional practice. Once this happens, perhaps it will become natural for them to use it in their learning and teaching.

Perhaps rather than spend (and waste) vast amounts of time on special curriculum design projects, e-learning systems, professional development around learning and teaching and vast top-down projects on adopting L&T innovation “X”, institutions should focus on showing faculty how the new social software technologies and the different perspectives on knowledge embodied in them can be harnessed to improve their professional (and personal) lives. Focus on this and just wait for the changes in thought processes to filter through and start to impact learning and teaching.

This links nicely back to the view that you can only change the quality of learning and teaching in a university course by changing the conceptions of learning and teaching brought to the course by the academic.

Perhaps this is the way to deal with the problems identified in this great presentation.

I recognise that this wouldn’t at all be easy, I identify one problem in the last section. However, I also think it would likely be considerably easier and more effective than trying to convince them to improve the learning and teaching by using approaches and technologies that are not only non-applicable to the rest of their professional practice, but also consume time that they could be spending on the rest of their professional practice.

Catching up with the Downess

As I was writing the above, I realised that I’ve been somewhat slow. Taking a different tack or starting from a different perspective, this appears to be very close to what Stephen Downes has been talking about all these years. Yes, he even summarises it nicely when writing about the purpose of his website.

Oh what a slow learner I’ve been, to be nice, perhaps I’ve been aware of the dots, I just haven’t connected them. Perhaps that’s partly due to the brain-washing I’ve received by being part of the university sector for too long.

Some implications

So, what implications/questions might you draw from this perspective? Some initial attempts:

  • The L (learning) in LMS might be a significant constraining factor on the ability of the LMS to significantly improve/change learning and teaching at universities.
    At least while “learning” in this context is limited to something that students do under the direction of staff and the institution. While the people designing LMS and the folk implementing and supporting them within universities hold to this understanding, it will be too difficult for academics to integrate the LMS into the rest of the professional practice. In fact, the LMS may continue to strengthen the unhelpful distinction between learning and research within the minds of the institutions and their staff. Has some interesting implications for how the teaching/research nexus (a big focus in Oz at the moment) can be improved.
  • Moodle won’t be the saviour of learning and teaching.
    Moodle, because it is open source and said to be designed from on a social constructivist perspective, is being held up by many as the saviour of e-learning. However, since it continues, to some extent, the separation of learning and research it probably won’t be. Especially when some institutions are simply using Moodle as a replacement for the commercial LMS and consequently reinforcing in the mind of the mainstream that it really is no different from Blackboard etc. Interestingly, though, I have seen any number of examples of where Moodle has been used for professional purposes outside of university courses. I’ve always found it a bit kludgy for that purpose.
  • What about integration with personal practice?
    The Bass quote talks about integration with professional practice. But I wonder if as more and more academics are using Skype, Facebook, Flickr etc in their personal lives, if that won’t drive their tendency/desire to use those specific applications in their professional experience, including learning and teaching. Of course, this potentially raises the question of whether or not the blurring of professional and personal places/activities is a good thing.
  • Do the silos in universities encourage this separation?
    At most universities that I’m familiar with there is usually a separate senior person responsible for teaching/learning, research and community service. Or if these are combined into one person in any way, that person usually treats them as separately. Even if they wish to combine them there are usually, at some level, separate committee structures for each task.

    This would seem to make the task of getting some approach to technology to support professional practice more difficult as the different perspectives, goals and responsibilities of the different organisational structures would create additional tensions and misunderstandings.

    It makes my head hurt just thinking about what you’d have to do to get some level of understanding from the different parts of the organisation…..

There are many more.


Gilbert, S. and W. Geoghegan (1995). “An “online” experience: discussion group debates why faculty use or resist technology.” Change 27(2): 28-45.


Lessons for from past experience


First official BAM paper done

1 Comment

  1. I’ve had a similar experience recently with a simple RSS reader jumping up and surprising me while I was off trying to piece together what a PLE would look like.

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