Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

One example of industrial e-learning as "on the web" not "of the web"

The following arises from some recent experiences with the idea of “minimum course sites” and this observation from @cogdog in this blog post

I have no idea if this is off base, but frankly it is a major (to me) difference of doing things ON the web (e.g. putting stuff inside LMSes) and doing things OF the web.

It’s also an query to see if anyone knows of an institution that has implemented a search engine across the institutional e-learning systems in a way that effectively allows users to search for resources in a course centric way.

The symptom

There’s a push on at my current institution’s central L&T folk to develop a minimum course site standard. Some minimum set of services, buttons etc. that will achieve the nirvana of consistency. Everything will be the same.

The main espoused reason as to why this is a good thing is that the students have been asking for it. There has been consistent feedback from students that none of the course sites are the same.

The problem

Of course, the real problem isn’t that students want everything to be the same. The real problem is that they can’t find what they are looking for. Sure, if everything was the same then they might have some ideas about where to find things, but that has problems including:

  • The idea that every course site at a university can be structured the same is a misunderstanding of the diversity inherent in course. Especially as people try to move away from the traditional models such as lecture/tutorial etc.
  • The idea that one particular structure will be understandable/appropriate to all people also is questionable.
  • Even if all the sites are consistent and this works, it won’t solve the problem of when the student is working on a question about “universal design” and wants to find where that was mentioned amongst the many artefacts in the course site.

The solution

The idea that the solution to this problem is to waste huge amounts of resources in the forlorn attempt to achieve some vaguely acceptable minimum standards that is broadly applicable seems to be a perfect example of “doing things ON the web, rather than doing things OF the web”.

I can’t remember the last time I visited a large website and attempted to find some important information by navigating through the site structure. Generally, I – like I expect most people – come to a large site almost directly to the content I am interested in either through a link provided by someone or via a search engine.

Broader implications

To me the idea of solving this problem through minimum standards is a rather large indication of the shortcomings of industrial e-learning. Industrial e-learning is the label I’ve applied to the current common paradigm of e-learning adopted by most universities. It’s techno-rational in its foundations and involves the planned management of large enterprise systems (be they open source or not). I propose that “industrial e-learning” is capable and concerned primarily with “doing things On the web, rather than doing things OF the web”.

Some potential contributing factors might include:

  1. Existing mindsets.
    At this institution, many of the central L&T folk come from a tradition of print-based distance education where consistency of appearance was a huge consideration. Many of these folk are perhaps not “of the web”.
  2. Limitations of the tools.
    It doesn’t appear that Moodle has a decent search engine, which is not surprising given the inspiration of its design and its stated intent of not being an information repository.
  3. The nature of industrial e-learning, its product and process.
    A key characteristic of industrial e-learning is a process that goes something like this
    1. Spend a long time objectively selecting an appropriate tool.
    2. Use that tool for along time to recoup the cost of moving to the new tool.
    3. Aim to keep the tool as vanilla as possible to reduce problems with upgrades from the vendor.
      This applies to open source systems as much as proprietary systems.
    4. Employ people to help others learn how to best use the system to achieve their ends.
      Importantly, the staff employed are generally not their to help others learn how to “best achieve their ends”, the focus definitely tends to be on ho to “best use the system to achieve their ends”.
    5. Any changes to the system have to be requested through a long-scale process that involves consensus amongst most people and the approval of the people employed in point d.

    This means that industrial e-learning is set up to do things the way the chosen systems work. If you have to do something that isn’t directly supported by the system, it’s very, very hard. e.g. add a search engine to Moodle.

All of these make it very hard for industrial e-learning to be “doing things OF the web”


The dilemma of open courses in an Australian university


The core problem with learning analytics?


  1. beerc

    “The main espoused reason as to why this is a good thing is that the students have been asking for it”

    I’ve heard this one many times before and I can’t help thinking that it is what the students have been conditioned to expect as opposed to what might actually better facilitate learning via the web.

  2. Agreed. Same here. One of the ways I attempt to influence this mindset is through my somewhat unorthodox approaches in the domain of support and guidance to faculty. Currently it’s mostly in service to putting courses online.

    One approach is the let-me-show-you-how-to-google-that. Being of the web means we have to get good at finding answers ourselves. I model the mindset by saying candidly “I’m only 3 steps ahead of you on any given issue. I google everything.” By saying this, I give smart people permission to not know, to be learners.

    I’ll also make the argument to my colleagues–decision-makers, that the support/training models we have engender an industrial mindset. They’re utterly unsustainable. The only way forward is to encourage the kinds of habits of mind we see, and I’ve studied, used by people “in the wild” of sophisticated technologies. These habits include playing around, tinkering, learning by doing, self-sufficiency and -directedness, to name a few.

    So we create a physical space and events (e.g. user-groups) to encourage these habits. It seems to work.

    Still….I’m of the opinion too that if people are unable and/or unwilling to adopt this mindset, that must be acceptable. Technology should adapt to human beings not vice versa. In the end, it’s about living life, not dinking around with its technology. 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment Suzanne. Much agreement.

      One slight extension, rather than just physical space/events to encourage tinkering/bricolage, I’m wondering how/if we can modify the industrial mindset to also actively encourage and engage in bricolage. My first year back as teaching faculty has really reinforced just how current industrial mindset seeks to actively prevent it. This is where I’m hoping to play in the coming couple of years.


  3. Agreed David. I was thinking too that what we also have is an institutional mindset to deal with. The institution is a cultural space (conceptually and physically). I think faculty do tinker and bricolage within this space, but maybe in isolation, that is on their own, or within their discipline. I notice for example that those in the sciences, (a more gadget oriented mindset, perhaps) seem to have those opportunities in place.

    A piece I wrote recently, somewhat related.

    • Liked the piece, though I almost stopped reading when I saw the word “incentivized”. 🙂 I read on.

      One thing that struck me was the differences in the context. My experience within Australian universities has been with institutions that have established 2nd generation distance education processes that have then made the decision to go online. It wasn’t a choice or a selection process that resulted in academics developing online courses, all/most courses are expected to do this.

      For a range of reasons, this has led to a very industrialised approach to the support of e-learning. Lots of quality assurance, process management etc which have really prevented bricolage.

      Then there’s the fact that both institutions I’ve worked in have had at least 3 physical campuses. Which makes the “place” approach you mention in your piece difficult.

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