Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: December 2009 Page 1 of 2

BIM – the show student posts screen

This post describes the initial implementation of show student posts screen. IT builds on the format/process used in the show student details screen.

Required data

There should be some similarity with the show student details screen. The first three match.

  • Which students the marker is responsible for.
  • User details for those students.
  • Student details from student feeds
  • Split students into registered and unregistered.
  • Student details from bim_marking.
  • List of questions for the bim.

Implementation questions

  • Main question appears to be how to call this screen.
    Probably need an additional parameter to specify which of the operations that the teacher can call: ShowPostsDetails AllocatePosts MarkPost.

    Yep, that seems to work. Using screen as the parameter. If empty, defaults to show student details.

  • There's also the question of including both bimId and courseId in the view.php for bim.
    Currently it is only including the course id. This means that a course can only have one BIM. A limitation.
    Actually, this is an example of my limited, but hopefully growing, knowledge of Moodle. The id passed in is for the course_module table which holds information about the combination of course and activity/module. So this is not a worry.

Get the data

The first four points from above are duplicated from the show student details screen. Easy.

List of questions - uses existing bim_get_question_hash.

Student details from bim_marking. Given a list of student ids (from $registered) get the appropriate details. Very similar to bim_get_feed_details. So create bim_get_marking_details

Show the data

This should be very similar to show student details. Simply showing some additional fields in the table. Tasks are

  • Show the unregistered students first. Done
    This is intended to be annoying so as to encourage the markers to get the students registered. Of course, this may back fire for students who have stopped the course early.
  • Show the registered students.Done
    Bit of work, but is going. Have to look at the sorting of columns in flexible_table. Actually, that's down to the test data. Will leave it for now.

What's left to do

Tasks left to do on this screen and subsequent screens include:

  • General improvement in look and feel.
  • The sorting isn't working as expected. flexible_table not quite set up properly yet. This will effect the details screen as well.
  • The tab interface for details/posts screens needs to be set up.
    Some initial attempts have proven to be somewhat less than successful.
  • There are now links to the AllocatePosts screen - but it's not working.
    Function in place, but just displays message.
  • There are now links to the MarkPost screen - but it's not working.
    Function in place, but just displays message.
  • Question of sorting on the question columns (by mark, submit and not submit)
  • The # of functions per screen is getting quite large, getting to the stage of needing to break it out into support libraries.

BIM – Staff show details screen

This post documents the creation/completion of the BIM show details screen. This is used by staff to get a summary of their student details, whether they have registered their feed, made posts etc.

The BIM design will be based on the equivalent BAM screen with some slight modifications. For example, I don’t believe Moodle will have the equivalent of the Webfuse “Photo Gallery” or “email merge” facilities.

The post is starting to evolve into a semi-standard structure that I think I’ll use with the other screens. Will see how that goes. The structure at the moment is:

  • Identify all the data required for the screen.
  • Specify any questions about the implementation I have.
  • Document what I did to get the data.
  • Document what I did to get it showing in the browser.

Data that is required

To implement this screen, the code will need to retrieve the following data

  • The list of students who the staff member is responsible for marking.
  • User details about the staff member (name etc).
  • User details about the students.
  • Information for the students from bim_student_feeds
  • Identify which of the marker’s students haven’t registered their feeds.


  • Staff (not course coordinator) have two main screens for BIM: show details and show posts. Should I implement these as tabs? Probably yes
    The coordinator will have an additional screen to configure the BIM activity, this could be represented using an additional tab.
  • Does the coordinator/teacher/student switch in view.php work with the test data?
    It seemed to work before. If I’m going to write this screen, I need to login to Moodle as a teacher, but not coordinator. It works as expected. Little wins are good wins – well they are better than loses.

Get the data

Basically this should document the points identified in the data section above.

Staff members students

Need to know which students the staff member is responsible for marking.

For the purposes of testing this is being held in the table bim_markers_students because I’m uncertain how the local Moodle instance will populate this information. Eventually, I’m assuming it will be part of the groups features. I can update the code then.

Rather than separate out getting the list of student usernames and then their details. Let’s combine all this into the one function bim_get_markers_students( $bim, $userid)

Ahh, but of course, I’ve created the table markers_students using the course, not the BIM. As this was how BAM worked (sort of). This means $bim will need to, in the short term, be replaced with the course id.

DONE: currently returns an array of user details for all the markers’ students with the key being Moodle user id.

User details for markers

This is a quite straight forward use of Moodle database API.

Student information from bim_student_feeds

Need to take the student ids from the array above and get the information for the students from bim_student_feeds.

$student_ids = array_keys( $student_details );
$feed_details = bim_get_feed_details( $bim, $student_ids );

Identify which students haven’t registered

This is essentially find all those students in $student_details that don’t have an entry in $feed_details. The question is, does PHP have some in-built functions that might help with this? A simple for loop and an ‘exist’ function could do this. Do I worry about going further?

This page suggests that the function array_diff_key() might be what I’m looking for.

However, the trouble is that bim_get_feed_details is returning an array with keys being the feed id, not the student id. Need to update that.

That’s working.

Get it producing in the browser

Time to get it working in the browser.

Will leave the question of the tabbed interface until the next bit of work. Will focus on getting this screen working. There are going to be two main sections to this screen:

  1. Registered feeds.
  2. Unregistered.

The course description section that is in the BAM version of this screen can be forgotten, I believe, as BIM is working within the course Moodle site.

This is essentially showing a bunch of data in a table. Can do this in for loops, but surely there’s a quicker way in Moodle. Seems I need to dig into weblib.php again. Of course, print_table. Will need to manipulate the data to use it.

That’s working, at a basic level. More work to be done includes:

  • Look at alternating row colours to improve layout/appearance.
  • Figure out how to display the date/time properly, in this case number of days ago.
  • Add in the red/green/yellow for the cases where the last post was a while ago.
  • Modify URL for live blog to some HTML.
  • Left align the headers.
  • Left align the other numeric columns.
  • Add the ability to sort by columns.

I now learn about tablelib.php that specifies a flexible_table class.

Current status

Have got flexible_table working somewhat. The sorting isn’t working appropriately, the display of columns etc needs some work, but the data is being displayed.

Doing a similar thing with the show posts screen should be fairly simple and somewhat similar. Probably pay for the next step to be to finish these screen and get the tabs working, before duplication for show posts.

Time to go home on Xmas eve.

BIM – minor fixes to show student details

This post follows on from the last post in doing some minor improvements to the show student details screen in BIM. This includes:

  • Link between the question ID and the question name
  • Double check the display of the “All posts”.
  • Add in the link to posts for Marked Answers.
  • Re-do the interface to be Moodle like.

Question ID and question name

In a couple of places on the screen there is a need to take the question id and return the question title. Basic solution is:

  • Create a hash with question id as key and title as value (possibly with other things).
    bim_get_question_hash( $bim ) seems like the go.
  • Use the hash in the appropriate places.

Done and working nicely. The link for posts is also done. The all posts is working as currently designed. This means, apart from look and feel, this screen is essentially working.

Make it Moodle

Moodle has a particular style/approach to HTML/look and feel. At this point in time, I haven’t used it for this screen. Time to start doing it.

Where I’m up to

Did a bunch of work on the view student details screen, tidied up a bunch of stuff. Still not happy with the look, but will leave that till later. Time to move onto some of the staff screens.

A screen dump of the screen is available on Flickr. It’s based on real data so identifying information has been blurred out. But you get the idea, boring, ugly. Needs to be better.

Herding cats and losing weight: the vimeo video

This is in part a test of’s new support for Vimeo video. The video below is of a presentation I gave at CQU this year. The abstract is below. The slides are on slideshare.


The environment within which Universities operate has changed significantly over recent years. Two of the biggest changes have been a reduction in state funding for universities and, at the same time, an increased need for universities to demonstrate the quality and appropriateness of their services, especially learning and teaching.

Consequently, most universities have developed a range of strategies, policies, structures and systems with the intent of improving and demonstrating the quality of their learning and teaching. This presentation will draw on the metaphors of herding cats and losing weight to examine the underlying assumptions of these attempts, the resulting outcomes, question whether or not they are the best we can hope for, and present some alternatives.

The video

Shaking up e-learning "design" – little help?

This is a plea for pointers, suggestions and direct assistance.

It arises from the confluence of at least three separate threads over the last couple of days:

  1. Some talk on Cloudworks about motivating teachers to use technologies;
  2. A blog post and associated presentation about bringing aspects of game design to boring tasks; and
  3. My current task on developing BIM, particularly the interface.

The premise

It’s moderately difficult to motivate students and staff to engage with e-learning technology. Most e-learning technology has boring, if not actively complex and disheartening, interfaces. Insights from game design and other areas offer an opportunity to make some improvements which may in turn help make it more likely for people to use and enjoy e-learning technology.

The difficulty

Most e-learning technology is designed by techno-nerds (e.g. myself). Most nerds suck at interface/experience design.

My current designs for BIM illustrate this quite effectively. But then so do most of the interface/experience designs that I see with Moodle activities/modules. Let’s not get started on some of the commercial LMS/VLEs.

One of the reasons BIM is designed to allow students to use external blogs (like WordPress) is that the interface/experience design is just so much better.

The desire

There’s a definite experience gap between the students/staff using an external blog service like WordPress and then having to come back to occasionally use BAM/BIM. It would be great to try and make the design of BIM engaging, different, fun, interesting….More like and vimeo, perhaps even better.

The first iteration won’t achieve this goal. Timelines too short. But playing with re-designs that draw on these principles would be an interesting, and hopefully fun, little project.

Little help?

Given that I currently suck at this type of interface/experience design, I need a little help in the shape of books, blogs, websites, interested folk and general advice on what principles might guide such a project.

Please make suggestions below. Feel free to volunteer.

Resources I’m already aware of:

BIM – cron and view student details screen

In the last bit of BIM work I’d successfully created some test data and laid out some rough plans for what is next.

The aim of this post is to document the bit of work done on the show details screen up and going. The initial work on the screen was documented here. This post draws on the test data, adds some support functions to manipulate it and improves the screen.

Should be fairly simple.

What’s to be done – testing the test data

First, things first. There’s an error when I view a BIM as the old student I was using for testing. Perhaps it is time to test out one of the new students.

Choose one of the students enrolled in one of the courses, use the dummy password and we’re away. Get into the course, click on the bim activity and get an “error getting feed for” error.

This error comes about because the feeds aren’t getting automatically updated/mirrored yet. So the attempt to look at the local RSS file fails.

At this stage, I could probably kludge this up and/or write the section of BIM that should do the updating – i.e. run from cron. That’s what we’ll do.

Moodle, activity modules and cron

So now begins the trawl through the Moodle resources to find out how to run/define cron activity from an activity.

The version.php file in each activity defines a cron value, which appears to identify how regularly to do something. The question is what?

This appears to be answered here with the details being that this value specifies how regularly (in seconds) to run the modulename_cron method defined in the lib.php file.

What to do?

The bim_cron function basically has to check all the current bim activities that are being mirrored, for all registered student feeds, it has to attempt to do a mirror on the feed URL and the copy of the feed on disk. Some pseudo-code

$mirrored = get_mirrored_bims()
foreach ( $mirrored as $bim )
  $students = get_registered_feeds( $bim );
  foreach ( $students as $student )
    mirror the feed;

One of the problems in writing this is the testing of the code for the above. Running from cron complicates the testing, so I’m going to run it from the show student details screen while under development.

Most of that is all working. Just working on the question of doing the mirroring process.


Looking into this has led me down the path of using the SimplePie caching mechanism for maintaining the local versions of the RSS files, rather than the original method. This has resulted in a few other changes in how the rss is retrieved, but it’s all working.

As a result some of the necessary changes to the show details screen happen automatically.

What’s next

Some minor tasks related to the show details screen to do:

  • Do something about the link between the question ID and the question name in both Marked answers and All posts sections.
  • Double check the display of the “All posts”.
  • Add in the link to posts for Marked Answers.
  • Re-do the interface to be Moodle like.

BIM – Creating the test data, completing dbase design

The last bit of BIM work resulted in getting the show student details screen up and going, mostly. Any more of these screens will draw on, at least in part, other data from other tables. Time to get those populated. This will be done using data from BAM currently being used.

Creating the table

Dummy data

Will need some good data for testing. So the plan is to convert some existing data from BAM into the BIM format. Here are the steps.

Get the BAM data

Need to update local versions of the BAM data as a first step. Getting some recent data likely to be most useful.

Complete the creation of all BIM database tables

Need to have these set up before I can convert all the data. Due to the linkages between tables, the conversion process will have to know something about these tables. Last one to be converted is bim_questions. Back to the XMLDB editor. bim_questions will have the following fields (initially)

  • id bigint(10)
  • bim bigint(10)
  • title varchar(255)
  • body text
  • min_mark int(5)
  • max_mark int(5)


However, Marker allocations: is still a problem. BAM relies on a Webfuse database to track which markers are responsible for marking which students. My current institution is still figuring out/potentially changing how they do this. I could figure out how Moodle does this currently, however, not sure if that will change + it will take more work.

At this stage, the plan is:

  • Convert the existing Webfuse MARKERS_STUDS database into a Moodle/BIM table.
  • Write a support function or two that allows BIM to use (but not manipulate) the data in that table in a way that is independent of representation/format.
  • Use those functions in BIM to get the data.
  • At a later date, modify the support function(s) to work with whatever is decided.

So, bim_markers_students will have the fields:

  • id bigint(10)
    ID for the table.
  • course bigint(10)
    The course ID for uniquely identifying the Moodle course for which the marker allocations hold.
  • marker bigint(10)
    The user id for the marker.
  • student bigint(10)
    The user id for the student.

To populate bim_markers_students with the data from MARKERS_STUDS will require the need to read MARKERS_STUDS, expand out the place markers (ALL, campus names etc), get user ids from Moodle, combine the two into SQL. DONE

This will require the entry of student and staff information into Moodle for the staff/students associated with the courses being tested. This has been done with a bulk upload of a CSV file generated from Webfuse code.

Convert BAM into BIM data

Due to the various connections between the different data, this is probably not going to be straight forward. Here’s a first attempt at the process I think I’ll need to follow:

  • Select the course offerings to bring over. I’m thinking at least 2 courses, currently only have permissions for 1 (but two different offerings of it).
  • Create Moodle courses for those offerings.
    I’m only talking about 2 to start with, so manual creation will do. Done.
  • Create accounts for both the students and the markers.
    This will involve a couple of hundred students. So will have to do the bulk upload thing. So, need to create a CSV file from local data. Here’s an example from the help screen

    username, password, firstname, lastname, email, lang, idnumber, maildisplay, course1, group1, type1
    jonest, verysecret, Tom, Jones,, en, 3663737, 1, Intro101, Section 1, 1
    reznort, somesecret, Trent, Reznor,, en_us, 6736733, 0, Advanced202, Section 3, 3

    Need to extract all student accounts from local data and have username=student number, contact data and populate the course information (DONE). Staff will be much the same but different username.(DONE).

  • Enrol the accounts in the courses.
    DONE as part of the bulk upload.
  • Convert the BAM_CONFIGURE (bim) data for the offerings I’m going to include. — Actually, this will be creating bim activities in the courses.
  • Convert the BAM_QUESTIONS (bim_questions) table.
  • Convert the BAM_BLOG_STATISTICS (bim_student_feeds) table.
  • Convert the BAM_BLOG_MARKING (bim_marking) table.
    Need to know the question ID for a given question in Moodle. i.e. translation from what question ID is currently in Webfuse and what has been created in Moodle. Hard code a hash will probably be the quickest way. Webfuse doesn’t use ID, it uses the title of the question. So, somewhat of change there. DONE

Where to now

So, I think that means I now have a good collection of test data on which to build the rest of the screens. The task now is to start working my way through those screens and getting them implemented/tested with the current data. Thinking the order should probably be:

  • Get the show student details screen working as much as possible.
  • Get the show posts and show details screens working for staff.
  • Get the marking screen done.
  • Get the re-allocation screen done.
  • Get the configuration screen for coordinator done.

That should get BIM very close to completion.

Supporting curriculum mapping?

The following was initially written as a report for my current institution. I’ve removed the name of the institution here. It is my perception that most universities suffer from the problems described below.

I am particularly interested in answers to the following questions:

  • Is there any university that has done curriculum mapping well, broadly (i.e. at least one program, perhaps multiple) and consistently over time? Who are they?
  • What methods/tools have been used for curriculum mapping?
  • Is curriculum mapping really worth it? What’s the evidence?
  • What other theories, tools and practices might help increase the success of curriculum mapping?
  • What other barriers and hurdles get in the way?


The absence of any standards or support for the act of curriculum mapping is a flaw in the practice of learning and teaching at this university. It creates risk in a number of practices, including but not limited to: the accreditation of programs; implementation of generic attributes; understanding the student experience; and, the collegial discussion of an improvement to the curriculum of programs.

In 2006 the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA – released a report of its quality audit of the university, which included a number of recommendations. The implementation of curriculum mapping with support from appropriate processes, resources and systems is a key component of any institutional response to recommendations #6, #8, #12 and makes important contributions to recommendation #5 of the institution’s 2006 AUQA report.

It is suggested that:

  1. The institution should prioritise the implementation curriculum mapping through the provision of appropriate resources, processes and systems.
  2. The aim should be to embed the production and use of curriculum maps into the everyday practice of learning and teaching, rather than simply adding yet another process or system to be used by academics.

The rest of this document covers the following topics:

  • What is the problem?
  • What is curriculum mapping?
  • How might it be done?

What is the problem?

Few, if any, of the programs (a collection of courses/units that make up a degree, e.g. Bachelor of Science) at the university have an up to date overview of their program that shows how students are prepared for and assessed in terms of the program’s learning outcomes, the course learning outcomes and associated graduate/generic attributes or skills.

Those programs that do have an up to date overview almost certainly have an impending visit from an accreditation agency. That looming visit has almost certainly required a frantic, and likely fruitless, search for the documentation produced for the last accreditation visit followed by a process of asking current academics for up to date information on the courses they teach and the resources, activities and assessments they use in those courses. Those individual reports are then collated by a central person or group and presented to the accreditation body. This process is to be repeated at the next visit.

The problems associated with current practice includes, but is not limited to:

  • loss of knowledge;
  • duplication of work;
  • little or no knowledge of how one course relates to another;
  • almost certain development of duplication and holes in the curriculum;
  • no ability for people teaching within a program and those charged to help to understand the overall picture;
  • no ability to provide the overall view to students; and
  • many more.

What is curriculum mapping?

Curriculum can be defined as

a sophisticated blend of educational strategies, course content, learning outcomes, educational experiences, assessment, the educational environment and the individual students’ learning style, personal timetable and programme of work (Harden 2001).

The curriculum represents the expression of educational ideas in practice (Prideaux 2003).

Curriculum mapping is a representation of the different components of the curriculum in order that the whole picture and the relationships between the components of the curriculum can be easily understood (Harden 2001). Curriculum mapping displays the essential features of the curriculum in a clear and succinct manner (Prideaux 2003) and provides a context for planning and discussing the curriculum (Holycross 2006).

Curriculum maps ensure that decisions about the curriculum are not made in a vacuum. Curriculum maps are a key requirement for curriculum development, which includes identifying professional development needs of academic staff, as curriculum maps provide the necessary information to identify the requirements of a particular course and program. Curriculum mapping provides an object that can help academic and other staff communicate about the curriculum of a course (Holycross 2006). Mapping is a remarkable tool for communication among teachers (Jacobs 2003).

Recommendation #8 in AUQA’s audit report of the university (AUQA 2006) is

AUQA recommends that the university encourage a more collegial approach to curriculum development, which will both stimulate and incorporate scholarship and research and philosophical discussions about quality education

Curriculum mapping is most prevalent within the primary and secondary education sector. However, curriculum mapping within tertiary education has been advocated and driven by the generic skills movement (Sumsion and Goodfellow 2004). Curriculum mapping is also quite common within medical education (Romkey and Bradbury 2007). The entries (The University of New England 2004; University of Queensland 2004; Murdoch University 2007) in AUQA’s good practice database that mention mapping are generally associated with mapping of graduate attributes – a small component of curriculum mapping.

Recommendation #6 in AUQA’s audit report of the university (AUQA 2006) is

AUQA recommends that the university develop strategies to systematically embed its generic skills and attributes into the curriculum, teaching and assessment practices of the University such that the CQU experience is of a consistent quality and is comparable with universities nationally

How might it be done?

Although the generic skills literature provides examples of final products of curriculum mapping, there is surprisingly little guidance concerning the practicalities of the processes involved (Sumsion and Goodfellow 2004).

This section describes how to do curriculum mapping by looking at:

  • process;
    The basic steps involved in curriculum mapping.
  • difficulties; and
    Some of the factors that complicate and reduce the effectiveness of curriculum mapping.
  • systems.
    The tools and approaches used to implement curriculum mapping.


While there is not a standard process, a curriculum mapping exercise will normally include some or all of the following steps:

  • data entry;
    Typically the course designer or coordinator will provide information about the course including: its resources, activities and assessment and how those link with outcomes and attributes. Some work has been done where students complete the curriculum maps (Romkey and Bradbury 2007).
  • confirmation or triangulation;
    In some, but not all, mapping exercises this information is then confirmed either through an independent check by a third party or through triangulation with other data sources such as students.
  • synthesis, comparison and analysis;
    The resulting course maps are then brought together to enable comparison and analysis of the overall curriculum.
  • sharing; and
    Curriculum maps and the results of analysis are shared with a wide array of interested parties including accreditation bodies, staff teaching within the program, support staff, students and management. Within the school sector such maps are also available on the web to parents.
  • response.
    Some form of action is undertaken as a result of the analysis.

These steps should be embedded directly into the standard teaching practice within the organisation and this is, at least theoretically, what happens in schools. It appears that in higher education this is typically a one-off process. A long term commitment to mapping can only come by infusing the process into the culture of the program (Holycross 2006).


This is perhaps because developing and implementing a curriculum map is not an easy task (Holycross 2006). It is not the straightforward, unproblematic task so often portrayed in the generic skills literature (Sumsion and Goodfellow 2004). Driven by government requirements, university initiatives around graduate attributes remain patchy with the best outcomes being the production of “curriculum maps” which have the potential to foster superficial and ineffective approaches to the development of graduate attributes (Green, Hammer et al. 2009).

Some of the difficulties arise due to:

  • tensions between accountability and autonomy;
    Curriculum mapping promotes accountability (Daniels 2005) and can be seen as a top-down attempt at control that can give rise to staff resentment (De La Harpe and Radloff 2000). A commitment to a collegial approach within a climate of facilitation, trust, autonomy and transparency is necessary for effective curriculum mapping (Sumsion and Goodfellow 2004).
  • workload issues.
    If curriculum mapping is to be undertaken effectively, recognition of the time demands on all involved is necessary (Sumsion and Goodfellow 2004). Failure to recognise extra workload is the main problematic institutional influence reported by staff (Gonzalez 2009).

The potential impact of audit instruments and processes, like curriculum mapping, can achieve the opposite of their intended effect (Power 1994). It will be especially difficult in an institutional context where, despite rhetorical changes, promotional and payment systems have yet to convincingly reward teaching equally to research performance (Green, Hammer et al. 2009).


The majority of curriculum mapping at CQUniversity has been performed with traditional tools such as pen and paper and basic software applications such as Word and Excel. In terms of mapping graduate attributes – a subset of curriculum mapping – Sumsion and Goodfellow (2004) report on the use of Excel spreadsheets at Macquarie University, Murdoch University developed a web-based tool called GAMP (Murdoch University 2007), and the University of Queensland appeared to use word processor documents (University of Queensland 2004).

The much higher level of use of curriculum mapping within schools has resulted in a number of commercial curriculum mapping systems including:,, and

Choice of an information system for curriculum mapping must consider the time it takes to develop and maintain the database, it must not impose an unnecessary burden on academics (Holycross 2006).


AUQA (2006). Report of an Audit of the University. Melbourne, Vic, Australian Universities Quality Agency: 72.

Daniels, L. (2005). Integrating technology into teacher education through curriculum mapping: Year three and sustainability. Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2005, Phoenix, AZ, USA, AACE.

De La Harpe, B. and A. Radloff (2000). Helping academic staff to integrate professional skills. Integrating key skills in higher education: Employability, transferable skills and learning for life. S. Fallows and C. Steven. London, Kogan Page. 165-174.

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

Green, W., S. Hammer, et al. (2009). "Facing up to the challenge: why is it so hard to develop graduate attributes." Higher Education Research & Development 28(1): 17-29.

Harden, R. M. (2001). "AMEE Guide No. 21: Curriculum mapping: a tool for transparent and authentic teaching and learning." Medical Teacher 23(2): 123-137.

Holycross, J. (2006). "Curriculum Mapping – An essential tool for curriculum development." The Journal of Physician Assistant Education 17(4): 61-64.

Jacobs, H. H. (2003). "Connecting curriculum mapping and technology." Curriculum Technology 12(3).

Murdoch University. (2007). "Embedding graduate attributes in a course curricula."   Retrieved 3 September, 2009, from

Power, M. (1994). The audit explosion. London, White Dove Press.

Prideaux, D. (2003). "Curriculum Design." British Medical Journal 326: 268-270.

Romkey, L. and L. Bradbury (2007). Student curriculum mapping: A more authentic way of examining and evaluating curriculum. 2007 American Society for Engineering Education Southeastern Section. Louisville, Kentucky.

Sumsion, J. and J. Goodfellow (2004). "Identifying generic skills through curriculum mapping: a critical evaluation." Higher Education Research & Development 23(3): 329-346.

The University of New England. (2004). "Integrating graduate attributes into UNE courses."   Retrieved 3 September, 2009, from

University of Queensland. (2004). "Graduate attribute mapping in programs."   Retrieved 3 September, 2009, from

BIM – Saving/manipulating RSS files

In the last post I’d gotten started having the show student details screen actually getting data from the database. One data source this screen needs is not in the database, it’s in the RSS file from the student’s blog that is mirrored on the Moodle site. This post talks about the process about how BIM will be saving, reading and using that RSS file in its operation.

There will be at least two parts:

  1. Identifying the location for the RSS file (and putting some dummy ones there).
  2. Manipulating the RSS files.


As discovered in the last post Moodle works with a directory referred to as moodledata as the file system store. Each course has its own area in a sub-directory based on the course id.

So, the obvious plan would be to put a bim directory in the course sub-directory. Since there may be the case that more than one BIM activity could be added to a course, I’ll put another layer of sub-directories in place based on the bim id. At that stage, we can use the userid, actually, I’m going to go with username (I’m still of the opinion that a support person may still look at the file structure and that the username – which @ my institution is the student number – will be more meaningful than the uid) as the filename and put a .xml extension on the end.

So, the path for my test user (username=david) on my test course (cid=4) and my test BIM activity (bim id=1) would be


Which means I can put some test data into the file.

Manipulating RSS

Sadly, at this stage, the RAW book I’ve been using only has information about using a Moodle API for constructing RSS files from scratch. For BIM, we need to be able to use existing RSS files (also ATOM and other type of feeds) from existing blogs. So I don’t think this is appropriate. Need to find what alternatives exist within the Moodle community.

I had originally found the magpie rss library. However, it now appears that Magpie is deprecated and SimplePie is preferred. So, looks like I’ll use that.

This won’t be the only place I’ll have to manipulate a student’s feed. So I should abstract this out. Straight procedural and into a library? Or, go object oriented? All my recent experience has been OO, but new to PHP. Might stick with procedural for now.

Next problem is getting SimplePie to parse the feed for this blog as a test. It appears that SimplePie doesn’t like control characters in a feed. The problem here. Remove those and it works fine. To do: Figure out how to handle these cleanly. Need to make this robust.

The SimplePie API is documented online. It has a get_feed_tags function that should fulfill one of the needs for the registration process.

Current status

The show student details screen is now almost fully working – sans any of the normal sanity checking and a few bits to tidy up. Some progress being made.

BIM – Getting "show student details" working

This post summarises the work necessary to take the next step in BIM development. As summarised in the last post the plan is to implement the remaining screens roughly complete so that potential users can interact and give feedback. This included the need to start designing and populating remaining database tables.

This post focuses on the implementation of the Show student details screen. This screen is used by students to show what BIM knows about their blog. This includes # of posts, blog url, allocation of posts to questions and any marks/formal comments from academic staff. Two steps:

  1. Create and populate database tables.
  2. Code up the display function.

The question of saving data into the local file system also comes up at the end.

Create and populate database tables

Let’s start with the tables BAM uses:

  • BAM_CONFIGUREHas been replaced with the table bim in BIM
    The table is used to hold details about which course is using BAM.
  • BAM_BLOG_STATISTICSHas been replaced by bim_student_feeds
    Holds details about individual student blogs. The URLs for blog and feed, number of entries etc.
  • BAM_BLOG_MARKING Suggest replacement with bim_marking
    Holds information about individual student posts that have been allocated to a particular question and eventually marked and formally commented on by a marker.
  • BAM_QUESTIONS Suggest replacement with bim_questions
    The idea is that the student will have to respond to some specific questions through blog posts. This table holds the detail about those questions. The title, a textual description and some details about how they can be marked (not currently used).
  • BAM_UNALLOCATED Will probably replace with bim_unallocated_posts
    This summarises the list of posts from the student that have not been allocated to a question. Used in the management process (can’t remember exactly how/why)

COURSE,PERIOD,YEAR (and A_TITLE) in all of the above is replaced by the bim field/identifier that links back to the bim table. i.e. this is how each course/bim activity relationship is tracked.

STUD is replaced with userid


Looking at the following fields:

  • id bigint(10)
  • bim bigint(10)
  • userid bigint(10) – ID into user table for student/author
  • marker bigint(10) – ID into user table
  • question bigint(10) – ID into bim_questions
  • mark double
  • status (Submitted, Marked, Released) – what about Unallocated?
  • timepublished bigint(10)
  • timemarked bigint(10) – seems to be a Moodle trend to use time as bigint(10)
  • link varchar(255)
  • post text
  • comments text

At this stage, for the show student details screen. This is the only table needed. So let’s create it and do some coding.

Oh, the joys of the XMLDB editor. enum values are defined using quoted (single quotes), comma separate values.

There’s still the question of how to get it to create the tables in the database after adding them in XMLDB. Will need to follow up on that. Kludged it with the SQL generated by XMLDB.

Time to put in some dummy data so that the show student details screen will work. Will use my own blog as the dummy for this case.

Code up the display function

The current hard-coded show student details screen looks like this. This is what I need to code up.

All fairly basic stuff:

  • Identify and retrieve the necessary data from the database.
  • Perform any calculations to generate new data.
  • Display the output.

Only problems getting used to the PHP way.

Saving data in the file system

BIM keeps a local RSS file that mirrors the students’ blog RSS. BAM worked by saving a copy of the RSS file into the file system. I plan for BIM to work the same. So, need to find out how to save data properly into the Moodle file system. Details:

  • Called “moodledata” or the Moodle data directory, outside DOCROOT.
  • Each course will have a sub-directory within that area.
  • Each course sub-directory has 2 sub-directories: backupdata and moddata.
  • moddata is for files associated with activities.
  • moddata contains a sub-directory named for the activity module that is saving the data.

There’s much more being saved there. But this is what I’m interested in.

Seems there is a Moodle library file /lib/rsslib.php that includes functions that allow for the creation of an RSS file from scratch, including giving the file name. Not sure this is exactly what I want here. But close. (More discussion page 189 of the Extension development book)

There are a few other examples to use. Back to that later.

BIM – getting student registration working

So, getting back into BIM development. The last post reminded me where I’m up to. The following is an attempt to plan, implement and document some code. Am starting where I left off, with the registration process for students. As part of this process I am finally starting to use the to do list for what it was meant to be used for.

Properly creating the form

The registration screen is being shown for student users. But it’s not with 100% “proper” Moodle code. i.e. it’s not using the forms library. The process is meant to be something like this:

  • Create a separate PHP class that has the detail for the form.
  • Work the code for normal usage/processing of the form into the appropriate PHP file.

I believe, for my needs, this translates into:

  • Create a PHP file in the module directory that follows the template.
  • Use that form in the view.php file.

Create the form

Found a slight difference. The template uses a form where it extends the class moodleform. The example I am using from the quiz module extends the class moodleform_mod. The _mod seems to suggest a special class for use in modules?

According to the xref docs on the forms stuff the moodleform class is a

Moodle specific wrapper that separates quickforms syntax from moodle code. You won’t directly use this class you should write a class definition which extends this class or a more specific subclass such a moodleform_mod for each form you want to display and/or process with formslib.

So it looks like some of the older docs are a bit out of date/wrong. But then docs in the same file suggest otherwise.

A page on moodleform_mod

At this stage, I’m again suffering my standard problem with Moodle. There seems to be no one place or one approach that helps you get an overview of how things fit together. This shouldn’t be this hard.

Moving forward

It was at this stage that I discovered a book that promises to give a more coherent overview of the task of creating an activity module. Initial impressions are okay. The true test will be in the work I describe below.

Using the moodleform class. I’ve been able to get the form being displayed. So, the next steps are:

  • Get it displaying what is required.
    The textual part of this is reasonably easy (I currently believe). Just using the addElement( 'html', $unregistered ) method to add some HTML in a variable. IMPORTANT: The HTML should not be hard coded in a variable. Needs to go in the lang files.

    All this “extra” work/abstraction in terms of form is necessary because of the nice way Moodle handles forms and auto puts it into the database (generally). This requires that the names of form elements match the field names in the database. Will also need to identify what other information needs to be held within the form in order update the database.

    The database table that holds the student registration is called bim_student_feeds and has the following fields

    • id – set automatically when values inserted NOT NEEDED
    • bim – the id of the particular instance of bim being referred to. Will need to use this when inserting. Already have this in view.php
    • userid – should be able to get this from existing structures, no need to be in the form.
    • numentries and lastpost – both can be null/0 initially.
    • blogurl – from the form
    • feedurl – needs to be calculated from the blog url
  • Figure out how to process that information.
    This seems to be quite straight forward. In the view.php there are a couple of if statements to control what is done if the user presses the save or cancel buttons. Have this control flow going already. Just need to add in a bit of checking and the code to check the student’s blog URL and extract the feed URL from the blog and consequently show appropriate error messages and/or insert the data.
  • Get the data entered in the form into the database.
    Quite straight forward using the Moodle database API calls. The biggest question here (and not a real big on) was to double check the “ids” that are being inserted/checked in the database.

Check IDs

The details about where each students’ blog is located, along with some additional information, is stored in the bim_student_feeds table. The fields of this table are listed above. There are three “ids” in the table:

  1. id – the unique id for each entry in table.
  2. bim – id for the specific bim activity, link back into the bim table. At the moment, I believe the assumption is that there can only be one bim activity per course. Will need to check this, probably no reason that there can’t be more than one (from a code perspective).
  3. userid – the id of the user/student for the feed.

To display the register form for students, there is a bim_feed_exists function that returns true if there is already a feed for the student. If there isn’t, display the register form, else display the details of the students form.

Obviously, the registration form code has to insert the appropriate data into the table. At the moment, there is a bit of a discrepancy about how that is working. Due mainly to the ad hoc way the data has been added. Time to fix that.

What should happen:

  • bim_feed_exists should be checking to see if there is already a combination of bim and userid in the table. id doesn't matter, as for duplicate feeds, it will be different. Must change that.
  • view.php needs to insert the right data. And here's the problem. Still hard-coded to 0.

What's done

At this stage the student registration process is working. If by working the definition is that the student without any registered blog URL will see the registration form. They can enter their URL and it will be inserted into the database. There is a list of tasks outstanding here:

  • Blog URL needs to be validated as correct.
  • Feed URL needs to be extracted from the blog url.
  • Some logging of registration needs to be added.
  • Appropriate error checking and reporting needs to happen with the process.
  • .. many more..

Where to now

Again I come up to the question of depth (complete all the necessary detail for registration to work properly) versus breadth (get all of the screens done so I can show folk).

At this stage, I'm leaning towards the breadth approach. I need to show the users of BIM what things are going to look like, even with the chance of seeing it in action. I face this question previously and chose depth, however, now that I've got database/form processing working I'm thinking the breadth approach might work better.

So, the plan is:

  • Design, create and populate the rest of the database tables for bim.
    This will allow some of the "show details" screens to have real data to draw upon. The data will be modified/anonymised versions of real data from BAM.
  • Work through the remaining screens so that they appear to be working but without many of the additional/real working they will need in the end.
  • Release these iteratively to the folk thinking of using BIM next year.

BIM and Moodle development – a more coherent overview found?

Today has been a fairly frustrating today with a mixture of organisational “stuff” and an increasing level of annoyance at the state of the public documentation around Moodle development slowing down BIM development. That state is essentially with stuff all over the place, no coherent path through it and regularly discrepancies between advice from different sources, or sometimes the same. But that’s the nature of documentation and open source projects.

The one bright spot today has been stumbling over this book which appears to fill the hole. Even if it is commercial. Having said that, the realease as writing nature of the book and some other aspects (donations to moodle) seems to indicate an enlightened company. On first skim the book looks good. Time will tell. Though, I am guessing that due to the nature of the type of book, complexity of the task and that it’s still being written there will be some rough edges (already submitted my first errata), or areas not covered.

Bugger, small problem. The one aspect I’m currently struggling with (use of moodleform_mod within a Module to create a new form – i.e. not in mod_form.php) is covered in their example. However, the authors have used moodleform and not moodleform_mod as the base/abstract class. I thought that was a no no?

Well, if I take their approach and use moodleform. It appears to get past the syntax errors being caused by my lack of understanding. Perhaps I just need to progress with that until future enlightenment.

So some progress today.

Here come the indicators, wait for the task corruption

Over the weekend it was reported in various media outlets that the Australian government has a new plan for higher education. A plan that includes words like “results-based funding”, performance, targets, quality and “readily available”. They cynical tone that I hope you are hearing, is not solely – or even mainly – due to some opposition to the idea of universities being accountable or effective. It’s mainly due to the belief that I think for the majority of teaching at universities this move will encourage more task corruption than it will actual real improvement in the quality of teaching.

This post argues for that perception. A bit further down (and in the comments), there is an argument against the practice of requiring new university teaching staff to complete teaching qualifications.

Do you agree? Disagree? Do you know of literature, blog posts or people that have argued otherwise? Are there strategies/advice that can be adopted to limit this sort of stuff (beyond what I’ve suggested at the end?)

Results-based funding: some detail

As outlined in this article there will be four broad areas:

  1. Student participation and inclusion.
  2. Student experience.
  3. Student achievement.
  4. Quality of learning outcomes.

The associated discussion paper goes into more detail.

Section 6 of the discussion paper lists the principles “developed to guide the choice of indicators for performance funding arrangements”. The list includes this one (my emphasis added)

be derived from high quality, objective data sources, and where possible collected at ‘arms length’ by an independent body, as well as not easily manipulated;

Part A of the discussion paper then offers more detail on each of the four measures/indicators. Including the provision of exact information about how the measure will be evaluated. The following information is given on page 14 for the Student Experience measure

  • Goal – improve student engagement and satisfaction.
  • Engagement
    • Target population – 1st year domestic under-graduate students.
    • How target will be articulated – Percentage point improvement in retention rate.
  • See the bit in bold in the above list? Yep, Percentage point improvement in retention rate. i.e. if you pass more first year students, you’ll do better. Retention is also used in the “Student achievement” indicator.

    Obviously pass rate is not a measure that can be “easily manipulated”?

    One perspective on pass rate

    A number of years ago, I was told that one part of one university was seriously considering paying casual teaching staff based on the number of their students who passed. It is my understanding that most people could see the problem with this. If people were paid based on students passing, then most – if not all – of the students would pass. Surely, this is an extreme example?

    Trouble is that it isn’t. Lot’s of evidence of this. The following is taken from Tutty et al (2008)

    More insidiously, there was evidence that rather than just inhibiting change, these
    ‘‘quality measures’’ may actually encourage inferior teaching approaches……The solution to the high failure rate was to change the assessment to satisfy the institutional requirements of satisfied students and reasonable pass rates rather than explore an alternative learning and teaching approach – an effective solution in the current higher education environment that encourages the academic to prioritise other areas, such as research.

    Even if it is not as straight forward as connecting payment to passing, the message in the above is that growing importance of certain quality measures will influence the behaviour of individuals. I believe this is essentially what Goodhart’s law suggestions

    any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes

    Oh dear, teaching qualifications again

    It’s with great sadness that I see the following included as a target for the “Quality of Learning Outcomes” indicator

    Agreed increase (n) in proportion of teaching only and teaching and research staff in academic organisation units with a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education or equivalent.

    The obvious assumption here is that if you have a graduate certificate in higher education (or equivalent) you will be a better teacher and your students will have better learning outcomes.

    The trouble with this is two-fold:

    1. The evidence for support of this causal linkage is weak (e.g. Stes et al, 2009).
    2. It ignores the impact of task corruption and Goodhart’s law.

    The first is more difficult to talk about giving perceived limitations in the research. Let’s assume that the connection does exist. What happens when institutions are being encouraged/required to increase the percentage of staff with Graduate Certificates in Higher Education? Goodhart’s law would seem to suggest that the causal connection/statistical regularity will collapse.

    i.e. the staff being forced to complete the Grad Cert will engage in compliance behaviours. They will do enough to get the Grad Cert with the likely outcome that they will not undergo any serious change in their understandings of L&T or in the behaviours. Consequently, student learning outcomes won’t change.

    Better solutions

    This section is included here because some folk complain that I am quick to point the flaws and slow to point to solutions.

    The broadest solution I’ve suggested is given in this presentation. It requires quite a significant mind shift from the current simplistic, quasi-corporate decision making being adopted around learning and teaching to an approach more informed by what we know about complex systems and the motivations and cognition of human beings.

    The simplest solution is embedded in this suggestion on how to improve outcomes on course experience questionnaires. An approach that essentially requires the identification of the smallest changes that can be made to bring courses into line with what we know about student preferences and ensuring that appropriate resources are allocated.

    Another solution I’ve suggested is the REACT process, especially if it were resources the right way. Done correctly, I think it can fulfill one of the main findings from a recent OECD report on teaching quality. i.e.

    Encouraging bottom-up initiatives from the faculty members, setting them in a propitious learning and teaching environment, providing effective support and stimulating reflection on the role of teaching in the learning process all contribute to the quality of teaching.


    Tutty, J., J. Sheard, et al. (2008). “Teaching in the current higher education environment: perceptions of IT academics.” Computer Science Education 18(3): 171-185.

    Getting back into BIM: Summary and way forward

    The last couple of months have resulted in an absence from work on BIM (BAM into Moodle). This post is meant to be a summary of where I had gotten up to and a restatement of what I need to do. The latter part is somewhat uncertain due to limited communication within my local context. Somewhat disappointing.

    On the plus side, contributing to my lack of work on BIM was the attendance at a couple of conferences, including ASCILITE’09. It was obvious from a number of ASCILITE presentations that BAM/BIM remains an important and innovative tool that is much needed.

    If you’ve only started following this blog recently, this is they type of post acts as a log/diary of the work I have done on BIM. Probably not much of interest to a broader community.

    Current status

    Up until now most of the work has been familiarising myself with the “Moodle way”. I’d gotten to the stage where there was:

    • A BIM activity module in the Moodle source tree.
    • The module would create the BIM database tables.
    • The ability to add BIM as an activity to a course.
    • The resulting link inserted into the course would operate as the student details screen (screen dump) and show details about the students blog posts.
    • This screen would react to different data within the database.

    The one remaining, fairly important task to be done was to figure out how to get Moodle to take data from the user and appropriately put it into the database. This is essentially the one remaining component of web application development.

    Once familiar with this process, the implementation of BIM becomes a translation process from the previous system into Moodle.

    How it will work

    This is developed in other posts, but I’m going to re-create it here to refresh all those dormant memory patterns I have. Much of it is pretty similar to BAM. I’ve included links to screen dumps from BAM of most of the screens listed below. BIM screens will be based on these, but they will likely be different.

    The intent is that BIM will work in the following way:

    • Creation.
      • Course coordinator will add BIM as an activity to their course.
      • In doing so, the coordinator will need to fill in the configuration screen with details of the use of BIM (assignment name, posts etc.)
      • At the end of this process, there will be a link in the Moodle course to the BIM activity. This is used by both staff and students.
    • Normal use.
      • All users of BIM will use the link to the BIM activity added in the creation stage (e.g. this screen dump). Depending on what role they perform, they will see different information:
        • Students: there are two different views for students
          • Register Blog screen – appears when the student has not registered their blog. Shows some explanatory text and a text box. The student has to paste in the URL for their blog and hit submit. If there is a valid feed, success.
          • Student details screen – appears once the student has registered their blog. It will show what BIM knows about the student blog (where it is, the student’s name, the number of posts) and also any marking information (marks and comments) that have been released (only staff within an appropriate role can release marks/comments).
        • Coordinator: will have access to three different screens (all which are also used elsewhere by other people – with some modification).
          • Configuration screen – the same as the screen they see when adding BIM as an activity. Allows them to view and change the configuration of BIM for the course. There will need to be some limitations on what can be changed, but this needs to be thought through.
          • Show details screen – shows an overview of the details for all students. “All” students can be chosen as for the course, for a particular marker etc. Details include student name, number, number of entries in blog, and link to live blog.
          • Show posts screen – shows for “all” students an indication of whether they have posted answers to a particular question; number of posts blogged and marked; summary of marks etc.
          • Mark post screen – this is where the students’ post is marked (if required – not all courses using BIM mark blog posts).
          • Re-allocate screen – BIM attempts to automatically allocate student posts to the question (set by the coordinator) that it matches. This automated match doesn’t always work. This screen shows all of the student’s posts and allows the coordinator to change the allocation of a post.
        • Other staff: Will have access to the Show details screen, Show posts screen, Re-allocate screen and Mark post screen as described for the coordinator. The main difference is that “other staff” can only see details for students that they have been allocated to mark.
      • Aggregation, mirroring and allocation of blog posts.
        At a regular time interval (set at the system level) BIM will check if there is a new post to each students’ blog. If there is, BIM will
        • Add a copy of the new post(s) to a local RSS file, one per student.
        • Examine the new post(s) to see if they match any of the required questions as specified by the coordinator. If there is a match, the database will be updated to indicate another question has been answered.
        • Update the database that some new posts have been made.

    The Innovation Prevention Department: Why?

    The final keynote at ASCILITE’09 was by James Clay and was titled the Future of Learning (this is a link to an apparently earlier presentation by same author, same topic). Many aspects of the talk resonated with many in the audience, however, the one that perhaps resonated the most was that of the Innovation Prevention Department.

    James, as he describes in this comment was suggesting that most organisations have one department that seems to hold back innovation. The comment reveals James’ use came from Jon Trinder (slide 6). A quick google reveals the phrase being used as a chapter title in this 2002 book. So, it doesn’t seem to be a new concept that there always seems to be one department within an organisation that prevents innovation.

    So, what’s the problem?

    The problem is that in giving a list of departments that could possible fulfill this role, James started with the information technology department and that’s about where most of the audience seemed to stop listening. Many didn’t hear the other suggestions in James’ list. From where I was sitting, as soon as IT was mentioned most of the audience started nodding their head and remembering specific examples of where their IT folk had thwarted some innovation. It wasn’t long before “the Innovation Thwarting Department” play on information technology department was doing the rounds.

    As it happened, there were a couple of IT folk in the audience and another couple listening to the tweet stream. Not surprisingly, they were somewhat chagrined at this disparaging label for the work they do. Mark Smithers talks about his dismay at seeing the tweets from ASCILITE mentioning this. Nick Sharrat shares his thoughts about

    the frustration I often feel when my profession is disparaged for actually just ‘doing it’s job’, especially by people who often display an incredible naivity about the real world of IT.

    Not surprisingly, people don’t like being disparaged.

    Is there something there?

    Both Mark and Nick give lots of examples of the difficulties that IT face in doing their job. The constraints, which are many, within which they have to operate. They give examples of where the request or idea from the user is significantly flawed from a different perspective.

    However, isn’t it a worry when a significant percentage of the audience at a conference like ASCILITE’09, when presented with “innovation prevention department”, immediately though of the IT department? Rather than simply explaining why IT folk are rational, professionals working in a complex environment, shouldn’t there be an interest in understanding why the ASCILITE crowd are thinking this way?

    Given that ASCILITE is about computers in learning in tertiary education the folk at ASCILITE are keen to use computers effectively for that task. Given that IT professionals are be a key component/enabler of this work, shouldn’t they be getting on?

    I can’t see how the two groups can work together effectively if there exists this gulf in perceptions. If the source of the gulf is understood, perhaps that will enable the gulf to be bridged.

    Does anyone know of any work that has sought to document the causes for this gulf between IT and L&T folk? What about identifying strategies for moving forward?

    My suggested reasons

    Both Nick and Mark give a variety of reasons/problems for why/how IT function. The following is a start of some reasons that I propose for why L&T folk have formed the “innovation prevention” impression of IT. I’m doing this because I believe this is the first step in moving forward. Let’s have both sides get their cards on the table and then figure out ways forward.

    I must emphasise that the following list is based on my experiences, reading and perceptions. It is not meant to be definitive and may not describe what really happened, however, they do capture my perceptions of that reality. Please understand that the perceptions people have of what goes on is what drives how they act. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe that the reality is otherwise. People will react based on their perceptions, not yours.

    I should note that I have an IT background. I’ve taught IT professionals. Some of whom have worked within IT departments in higher ed. I’ve also run a large scale IT system that was not part of central IT (though it is now).

    The assumption of objectiveness, rationality and professionalism.

    Nick argues that

    So, next time your IT department seems to be out to get you, give them a little more credit – you need to trust that they are proffesionals making very difficult compromises.

    Being a professional brings with it the aura of objectiveness and rationality. The trouble is that people are not information processing intelligences that make rational decisions. Our intelligence is based on pattern matching, our pattern matching processes are rife with biases and shortcomings. For example, the following was the finding reported by the technical team (consisting mostly of IT professionals) on the comparisons between different LMSs being considered at my institution in about 2003/2004

    strongly feels that the Blackboard product has the best overall technical fit and provides the best opportunity available to meet our tactical needs while minimizing support problems and costs

    . This is in spite of the observation that Blackboard had never been run on the existing infrastructure, one of the other LMS was a locally grown system that had been running on existing infrastructure for a number of years, and that a year or so after the implementation of Blackboard the institution had to invest in an entirely new server infrastructure due to problems in running Blackboard on the old infrastructure.

    And that’s before we get into politics. I’m sure any number of people within organisations can point to situations where the politics of the situation has driven the decision. IT departments are not absent of politics.

    Note: this does not mean that L&T folk are better, more rational, than IT folk. It’s just that both sets of people are prone to irrationality and biases.

    Who specifies the needs around innovation?

    Nick specifies the role of IT professionals as

    to provide systems that meet the business needs. That’s ‘needs’ and not ‘wants’

    . The trouble is that when it comes to innovation you can’t specify, you can’t plan. I use a quote from Joseph Gavin Jr in my email signature

    If a major project is truly innovative, you cannot possibly know its exact cost and its exact schedule at the beginning. And if in fact you do know the exact cost and the exact schedule, chances are that the technology is obsolete.

    It’s the emphasis on specification and planning that is in-built into most IT projects that is a direct anathema to innovation.

    Limited understanding of the nature of teaching and learning.

    This continues on from the previous point. IT is focused on specification, global solutions, the same solutions for all. Learning and teaching is all about diversity, variability and change. Features that do not match well with traditional IT processes. I’ve argues this in a recent presentation video (and slides).

    IT assume that the same processes they use for student records systems will work for learning and teaching.

    The user deficit model.

    Nick’s comment about people with “an incredible naivete about the real world of IT” in some IT folk (but by no means all and I don’t know Nick so this is not meant to be a characterisation of him) demonstrates a user deficit model. i.e. the users are stupid, we need to make the decisions for them, we know what’s best for them.

    This type of model is embodied in the acronym PEBKAC and it encourages a blame the user approach to thinking. Read the criticisms of PEBKAC to see how often user error/stupidity is due to the lack of quality in the IT systems.

    There’s a trite little saying

    There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users. The computer industry and the trade in illicit drugs.

    It may be trite but it shows a mindset that can and does exist in some IT folk.

    That said, there’s also a similar mindset towards/deficit model of teaching academics held by L&T support staff.

    The wrong rules

    While I was writing this, the following tweet came from Matthew Allen tweeted a point made by Skewes at the Broadband Futures event in Australia

    the problem is not technology; it’s the rules which prevent innovation

    . This ties in somewhat with the first point, but it’s also more than that.

    The vast majority of the practices of IT folk arose from a period when IT resources and the ability to use them were scarce and expensive. Increasingly with the advent of social media, the cloud, SaaS etc, I think we’re seeing the rise of a period of abundance in terms of the ability and availability of certain types of IT resource (some others may remain scarce).

    The rules for handling scarcity are the wrong rules for handling abundance.

    Change the environment, not the culture

    I’ve heard a number of folk at ASCILITE’09 claim that there needs to be a change in culture amongst academics around learning and teaching. To me this has always sounded a bit like a deficit model of teaching staff. It’s a model that I’ve heard again and again at ASCILITE’09 and in other literature around learning and teaching in higher education. You know the sort of thing e.g.

    Staff spend years getting their PhD in Physics and are then automatically expected to be good teachers.
    Most academic staff don’t have any qualifications in education…..

    i.e. there are problems with the staff and this needs to be fixed by innovation X (e.g. LAMS, learning designs, PLEs…), practice Y (e.g. all staff must have an education qualification) etc. We need to herd these problematic cats into a more productive direction.

    In this situation, culture is being used to describe the academics and what they do. It is ignoring the other component, which I’ll call the environment for the purposes of this post. My proposition is that it’s not the culture you want to change, it’s the environment. The environment is not conducive to the type of outcomes people want, and while the environment remains the same, no amount of changing the culture will have any effect at all.

    (As you’ll see below, some/most literature tends to use culture to refer to what I’m calling the environment. Sorry for the confusion, but I’m trying to engage with what some folk have been saying.)

    The following discussion may also connect with the cascading change symposium at ASCILITE and perhaps the idea that we need to focus on 3rd order change, not 2nd order change.

    The environment

    The university environment is not conducive to innovation, improvement or an emphasis on learning and teaching. Simply put, academics get rewarded for research. In terms of learning and teaching, they get words, but not action, about the importance of teaching for promotion and a collection of top down impositions and moves to standardisation. An environment conducive to compliance and corruption behaviour, not improvement in quality.

    For example (Twining et al, 2006: p 72)

    While the senior management team has an important role to play in fostering an ethos that supports change (see p77 Leadership), it is also clear that the wider educational context plays a vital role as well. At present the culture within education does not encourage people to take risks or innovate. Additionally, many educators in schools are still coming to terms with initiatives that they perceive have been imposed upon them. This can lead to ‘initiative blindness’ (Interview 26 – LA) which acts as a barrier to further change.

    Reflective alignment

    Academics are knowledge workers. Here’s a quote from Peter Drucker on knowledge workers

    The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself towards performance and contribution, that is, toward effectiveness.

    This quote is from the book “The effective executive” first published in 1967.

    I would describe the approaches being taken at my institution, and many others, as leaning much more towards the controlling/directing of the academic, rather than the helping. The increasing corporatisation of university are leading to policies, processes and systems that require standardised approaches across units and institutions, that move towards the controlling/directing rather than the helping.

    I’ve argued before that there are 3 observable levels of improving learning and teaching (re-purposing Biggs work on learning)

    1. What the teacher is.
      This is the old laissez faire approach to teaching in universities. There are some good teachers, there are some bad teachers. The institution isn’t really worried about this. Won’t try to do anything, except perhaps the really bad ones in out of the way courses.
    2. What the institution does.
      This is where most institutions are now. A university can’t have bad teachers. So to improve teaching and teachers the institution does lots of stuff. Institutional level policies, practices, studies, systems etc. Management take a big hand in developing and driving these things. They search for fads and fashions. Graduate attributes, LMS, e-portfolios, grad certs in L&T and any other centrally driven, institutional level approach tends (but not always) to fall into this category.

      Another symptom of this level of improving teaching is on-going restructures in the learning and teaching support groups (central and faculty). It’s indicative of senior managers arguing about who owns, controls and decides what the institution does. It’s indicative of who controls the agenda and attempts to control the academics and the culture that arises.

    3. What the teachers does.
      This is where we have to go (IMHO) and what I talk about below.

    What the teacher does?

    The simple argument (and yet very difficult to implement) is that the environment should encourage teaching staff to expend effective energy and effort on reflecting on their teaching and learning and acting on that teaching and learning. It should not focus on what the institution does. Some detail follows.

    In terms of improving learning and teaching, I follow this perspective

    Master teachers are not born; they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do developing the courage to recognise faults, and struggling to improve. (Common, 1989)

    The reflection and struggle to improve has to be rewarded. This means that the vast majority, if not all, of the academics need to believe it will be rewarded and not just because senior management says it is.

    The institutional environment has to help academics reflect and struggle to change. This has to happen in a contextualised way. An individualised way. A way that breaks down disciplinary boundaries and group think. Top down doesn’t work. An approach that focuses on creating connections between people with the appropriate knowledge and capabilities to help the reflection and the struggle to improve. Generic global analysts and project managers do not help. The network of people has to include people with the combination of knowledge of learning, teaching, technology, the literature and the context. The network of people have to be encouraged to interact in regular and unexpected ways.

    The focus of the network has to be on helping the academic reflect and struggle to improve. Not on specifying de-contextualised best practice, but on helping reflection and improvement.

    Focusing on 3rd order change

    The cascading change symposium at ASCILITE was described in part as

    This symposium brings together a diverse and international group of researchers to explore the problems and limitations of using social media as a leverage point for second-order change in higher education. It aims to engage contributors and the audience in theoretical and empirical reflection on possible directions for further conceptual and methodological development in that area.

    I wondered whether we should focus on 3rd order change, not 2nd order change. Some definitions of “orders of change” – my re-phrasing of Bartunek et al (1987):

    • First order change – incremental changes which occur within an existing way of doing things or paradigm. i.e. you tweak at the edges without radically changing the context/culture/assumptions
    • Second order change – a fundamental change in the way of doing things, or the paradigm. i.e. you change the context/culture/assumptions to something entirely new.
    • Third order change – you develop the capacity of the system or the components of the system to change the context/culture/assumptions.

    I believe that the above suggestion, a focus on what the teacher does and especially focusing the environment on helping the academic to reflect and struggle to improve is more likely to create 3rd order change. i.e. the aim isn’t to help them to undergo 2nd order change, as that assumes you/they have decided what they need to change to. The focus of reflective alignment is on enabling 3rd order change.

    Small interventions, fundamental shifts

    James Clay wrote a blog post about the cascading change symposium. He makes the following observation

    My opinion is that these changes or interventions we make that we report at these conferences are always small and tiny and therefore can’t make a huge differences. We need to make major interventions at a institutional or even at a societal level if we are to effect fundamental change.

    I agree. Most of the interventions at a conference like ASCILITE are amongst the innovative teachers or from the support staff people who help them. We can’t make the type of institutional level change that I believe is necessary to achieve the 3rd level of improving learning and teaching. We can’t change the environment. In his post, James identifies one of the reasons

    People with the power to effect change do not (in the main) attend such conferences and therefore such changes do not happen at an institutional level.

    Until the top level folk engage in this type of thinking and move away from the 2nd level of improving learning and teaching, which perhaps could be described as a focus on 2nd order change, I don’t think there will be any significant change.

    Of course, one of the problems in getting management to engage is another aspect of the current environment. Short-term contracts for senior managers which contribute to them wishing to take charge, engage in large-scale projects of “2nd order change” (typically connected with the latest fad going through the community), move on and consequently trumpet the value of what they did before it becomes obvious there were no real change.

    Perhaps the ASCILITE conference organisers should actively invite a few institutional leaders to attend the conference – i.e. not do the welcome but sit in the sessions, engage in the discussions as yet another attendee.


    Bartunek, J. and M. Moch (1987). “First-order, second-order and third-order change and organization development interventions: A cognitive approach.” The Journal of Applied Behavoral Science 23(4): 483-500.

    Common, D. (1989). “Master teachers in higher education: A matter of settings.” The Review of Higher Education 12(4): 375-387.

    Twining, P., R. Broadie, et al. (2006). Educational change and ICT: an exploration of priorities 2 and 3 of the DfES e-strategy in schools and colleges, Becta ICT Research: 106.

    Page 1 of 2

    Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén