VLE v web 2.0

The debate over digital learning platforms in HE often focuses on the choice of technology. It misses issues around supporting engagement with digital learning and the production of quality assured, inclusive content. Those involved in the VLE v Web 2.0 discussions should look backwards as well as forwards. A decade ago, in the wake of the Dearing report into the future of higher education, and the government’s Harnessing Technology,  funds were made available to embed VLEs across the sector, but with little attention to the resource implications for staff. Failure to see the resourcing of virtual learning as important as the provision is with us still. In 2009 we are in strikingly similar position to that of ten years ago. The Edgeless University and the government’s Digital Britain report advocate increased reliance on internet based communication and opportunities for virtual higher education experiences. JISC supports a greater use of Web 2.0 type technologies as appropriate tools for meeting the diverse needs of an ever increasing diversity of students. As budgets are cut it’s perhaps inevitable that the question of value for money is raised.

The death of the VLE headline is not new but criticism can be skewed and fail to reflect the wider picture. The source is often from the 3Cs corner; Computer Confident and Competent where a RTFM philosophy (or in these days WTFV) only serves to widen the digital divide. Narrowing the gap between those comfortable with a keyboard and those still at the pen end of the digital continuum should be a priority.

The old fashioned and clunky VLE may be uninspiring to some but for the majority it is a prerequisite to engagement and offers a ‘way in’. Web 2.0 tools require digital literacy and that takes time to learn. We are far from a situation where these skills are universal. Whether a VLE is replaced by PLEs made up of learners own preferences, or an institutionally provided set of customisable tools, there will still be a requirement for an entry level environment that enables rather than disables both staff and students. The support implications, and their cost, of any virtual learning platform should be a key issue. Without this there is little chance of encouraging the levels of digital engagement required for the virtual provision of high quality and inclusive higher education experiences.

BBC gets it wrong again

The BBC are making a documentary on the way the web is changing the world and inviting the public to contribute ideas. The opportunity to have your say is not obvious from either the BBC Home Page or the BBC Technology Page or BBC dot.life or BBC Click; if it wasn’t in my browser history I might have thought I’d imagined it so if you’ve missed this opportunity to join in the debate then the urls are here.  BBC Digital Revolution (working title) Website and
BBC Digital Revolution Blog

Good luck. Let me know how you get on.  I’ve been trying for five days to complete my registration. I want to raise issues of access as there is no mention anywhere of how technology can disable as well as enable; about awareness of barriers to digital data or how those with the most to gain from virtual communication are being excluded; not only by the cost and availability of assistive technology but by the lack of inclusive and accessible design of web content.

Registration on this blog is clearly not an automated process; I’ve clicked the link and sent emails and still am not able to contribute. There are two issues here; firstly this public forum is not that public and secondly it looks as though contributors are being vetted – surely not!   The BBC are asking the public for ideas but don’t seem too interested in making that to happen.

beware of google…

Recently I blogged about how Google had got something right. Now I’m reverting to my original view that Google may be a force to be aware of – be very aware.

While there was a Google hiccup  this week, in google words a ‘miscalculation’ or a ‘big deal’ that resulted in Gmail being down for two hours threatening their dominance over the cloud computing empire, the digital giant is working hard to strike a deal with the US book association for the monopoly on digitisation. Other giants such as Microsoft and Amazon are hastily forming an Open Book Alliance  and with good reason because if Google get their way they will have the sole rights to digitise every book without fear of prosecution for copyright infringement.

Google would then be the owner of all US digital text making a mockery of current copyright legislation which makes unlicensed scanning and reproduction illegal. But looking ahead, should this happen, how long before Google start selling information or more scarily, how long before a corporate western giant gains control of public access to it?

On the digital continuum, this is the extreme opposite end to the open access and open content debate and hopefully may do more to further the cause of open-ness than anything else so far.

flawed digital britain

Martha Lane Fox is hoping the Olympic Games in 2012 will do for broadband what the queen’s coronation did for television sales in 1953. The new Digital Champion says not having access to internet exaggerates and exacerbates the problems of the most socially and economically disadvantaged people in the UK.  It’s not clear how this success will be measured. The number of new signers-on at a community centre?  Increased applications for broadband?  Are there plans for new computers to include a broadband connection in the way television sets are licensed?  Neither is it clear how competency will be achieved. Training through family and community responsibility is another vague governmental idealism.  “Get kids training grannies, get all of us kind of plugging into our local communities to try and pull the whole country along. If we all took it on ourselves to train 10, 20 people, the job is done,”

Digital Britain is fundamentally flawed. The rhetoric fails to recognise that the technology is only ever the tool.  Acquisition is not the same as use nor does ownership equate with competence. This is utopian thinking; create the desired environment and the population will respond accordingly.  Issues of diversity, literacy, cognitive and physical abilities, are all typically absent. The RNIB suggest that 1 in 12 of those aged 60 have a sight loss, rising to 1 in 6 by the age of 70; everyday 100 people in the UK begin to lose their sight. The number of people with a degree of visual impairment is expected to more than double in the next 25 years, an increase linked to an ageing population and poor health.  Dyslexia Action suggests 10% of the population have difficulty with reading and writing. Low levels of literacy and numeracy are linked to truancy, disengagement with education is linked to a cycle of unemployment, low income and poor housing – all factors contributing towards the social and economic disadvantage identified by Martha Lane Fox.

 But – rather being negative – it could be that the government is finally serious about targeting those for whom digital data poses the greatest barriers? That Digital Britain is the long awaited acknowledgement of the need for affordable assistive technology, recognition that ALL Internet content should be available in multiple, alternative formats and that ALL computers should have decent magnification and screen reading software installed as standard. If Britain is to become digital then priority has to be given to diversity on a national scale. You can bring the technology to the people but you can’t make them engage. Not without addressing the very same factors that have created the target audience of the report in the first place.

vote for the VLE

Last weeks THES ran an article on the demise of virtual worlds in HE. I have mixed feelings about this. Earlier in the year I attended a conference in Second Life (http://tiny.cc/kmEkQ and http://tiny.cc/PSYaw) and concluded it had the potential to provide a powerful learning experience but this had to be offset by problems with access. While many UK universities have an SL campus it was rare to visit and meet anyone. Similarly with recreations of cities or simulations designed to raise awareness of issues such as schizophrenia; dressing up in a toga in ancient Rome may be great fun initially but the experience is fundamentally unsustainable. I don’t know what the current usage is but in a similar BBC article a few weeks earlier, Technology, Twitter and the downturn, says SL traffic has declined by 67%.

The THES article quotes Dr Lowendahl as saying lecture capture and retrieval is taking over from podcasting and elearning repositories. Podcasting always was problematic in terms of access as transcripts were rarely made available, as were elearning repositories with no quality assurance and/or attention to inclusive practice. While the traditional lecture transitions poorly to an online environment the idea of capturing and indexing may be a step forward but I wonder who will take on those roles not to mention quality assure and make accessible 50 minutes of videowith associated captions/subtitles/textual alternatives?  Moving on, Dr Lowendahl also says that e-books are currently top ‘of the peak of inflated expectations’ in 2009. Concerns about ebooks and readers are well documented here on this blog.

So I wonder what predictions can be made for technology enhanced learning in 2010? Well, here’s one.  How about using more effectively the tools we already have? The good old VLE, now embedded within systems and support, provides a virtual platform for the delivery of a range of innovative digital content for teaching and learning. It may be solid and a little clunky. It may not be very exciting to play with. But it’s reliable and it does what it says on the tin. What more is needed?

partially converted to google

When it comes to preventing barriers to access then Google is not a winner; for example Chrome has been around for some time and its use is still problematic for a non-mouse user. But for once I can sing Google’s praises regarding one access issue. The Google toolbar is exactly what’s needed with the limited space you get when using screen magnification software to access the Internet. The customisation features enable all frequently used tools to be positioned in one area – that’s just what’s required and I’m now recommending its use in instances such as these.

This conversion process is an interesting one. Again it shows how we don’t engage with the technology unless there is a need; it isn’t enough to have all the tools at our disposal – they have to make a difference to something we are already doing – and be an improvement to it. As elearning champions that’s a challenge well worth bearing in mind.

rethinking sex and gender

The Caster Semenya female/male debate is currently raising awareness of sex but so far it seems the media have yet to address gender. A decade ago I challenged the accepted belief of  a genetic sex and a social gender. Informed by the literature of the time (Butler, Fausto-Sterling, Hausman etc) and supported by Press for Change the leading political group led by campaigners such as Dr Stephen Whittle, I collected first hand narratives from individuals with transgendered lives who described growing childhood realisations of their internal sense of gender conflicting with the sexual identity bestowed on them at birth.  I was privileged with insight into the cruelty of ‘normalisation’ practices as individuality was medically categorised into one of two available ‘sexes’. I saw at first hand how limited conceptions of a sexual binary were inadequate to reflect the true variety of human existence. Rethinking Sex and Gender highlighted the need for more flexible attitudes and understanding, called for wider recognition of AIS, Intersex and transgender identity and suggested the mismatch between externally identified sex and internal experienced gender should be further investigated.  All discrimination is based on divergence and a fear of difference. Legislation recognises human rights but does nothing to contest human prejudice. Transgendered and Intersex identities continue to challenge one of the most fundamental tenets of society; a fixed sex gender duality supporting the power structures of dominant ideology.

Response to http://bit.ly/e3CEs by Joss Winn

I accept that higher education is on the cusp of change; and that there are multiple drivers. I have no argument with the role of education technology in the future of higher education, or with the potential of the Internet to widen participation, and I fully support encouraging students in becoming self motivated, self directed learners.

I would argue with the use of the word ubiquitous with regard to Internet connection and have several blog posts that do so.  http://tiny.cc/dZRvJ / http://tiny.cc/dP5oY / http://tiny.cc/nK2I9 / http://tiny.cc/5QydY Any further trawling through the current documentation on digital learning may not be the best way to respond to the issues raised. Instead, I would suggest looking backwards as well as forwards.

Titles such as the Future of HE, Harnessing the Technology and Widening Participation in HE have been around for some time. The targets of the past are also similar to those of the present; transforming teaching and learning, engaging hard-to-reach groups; building open accessible systems, offering flexible ways to study, sharing material within and between institutions, encouraging HEIs to work together, make the development of e-learning more affordable etc etc. We have been here before.

The push for embedding VLEs into HE in the 1990s came on the back of promises of improved staff and student experiences but failed to adequately manage the transition process. The sector now hosts a digital divide between staff who demonstrate confidence and competence with the technology and those who have yet to engage. If we take anything forward from this current drive for extending the boundaries of educational technology, and burdening it with ever more ambitious expectations, then it must be attention to the needs of those still at the analogue end of the digital continuum.

Even the nature of this digital debate is divisive as those with the most to offer in terms of understanding the nature of their resistance will not be here. I fully support the setting up of an Open Learning Innovation Fund but suspect it will attract the converted who are all too often unaware of the development needs of those yet to engage. Unless there is focus on the building of bridges, rather than yet more innovation, then the existing digital divide will continue to widen.

The value of blogging is in brevity but at the risk of extending this post into an unrealistic length and testing staying power, I want to show how Rogers http://tiny.cc/Ru4Lk  identifies 5 requirements for successful adoption of innovation which can be usefully applied here.

1. Offers a substantial improvement on the existing situation. For many people online delivery offers very little improvement on f2f delivery. The majority of staff and students like and prefer f2f contact.
2. Compatibility with existing life. There are multiple reasons for resisting the pressure to engage in virtual learning or adding an online dimension to a life; we should be investigating these to better understand barriers to engagement.
3. Ease of adapting. Technology can be complex and if it can go wrong it will; a single failure which experienced users may laugh off can be terminal to tentative steps at engagement.
4. Trialiability. Practice requires access to reliable hardware, appropriate software and effective internet access; not everyone has these – again for multiple reasons. There also needs to be time in which to experiment. With ever increasing workloads, and lifestyle pressures, the opportunity to have supported learning experiences may not be possible.
5. Visibility. Again, if the technology can fail it will and, with new users in particular, it often does. When this failure is visible to other people it can be the greatest deterrent of all. The move from VLEs to blogs, wikis and podcasts is indicative of the increasing complexity of the technology. The more visible that development is then the more the process of engagement is seen as an increasing challenge.

Rogers also identifies five categories of adopters which can be applied.

1. Innovator. Young risk-taker, specialist in the area and in association with other innovators creating a clique of shared practice and ideas. Vocal promoters often have little understanding of the fears and concerns of others who have yet to engage.
2. Early Adopter. Also young risk-taker with specialist knowledge, resilient, copes with failures. May have more insight into the needs of others but it’s well recognized that these leaders work in a vacuum and when they move on their work comes to a standstill and rarely survives.
3. Early Majority. Easily put off, may be reluctant users, but are gradually increasing their engagement at a low level. Success will lead to greater confidence and in time they may become champions in their own departments.
4. Late Majority. Need to see it working first, remain sceptical and take a great deal of convincing. Those who have tried and failed may gradually come to agree in principle to the benefits of online content as a supplement to f2f but will upload material retaining existing formatting. Appropriate interactive, inclusive resources designed to stimulate interest, motivate and engage only happens in small pockets of good practice
5. Laggards. The digital immigrants who find themselves in an alien land of blogs and wikis have multiple reasons for not engaging, all of them valid. Identifying and addressing these will provide valuable information and is a necessary step if the sector is serious about creating digital literacies and moving towards online HE ‘for millions’.


 Sarah’s Story is a 90 second video designed for television and banned by Clearcast, the television watchdog, as containing images that were ‘too distressing’. The aim of the advert was to raise awareness of Motor Neuron Disease. Thankfully, by banning it, Clearcast have increased publicity of both MND and the MND Association. Its wrong when the reality of disease, deformity and disablement is considered ‘too distressing’ and something we should be protected from. It should be the other way around. Every application of the label disability involves a person and these attitudes both devalue and diminish status. For more information about the ban see the Telegraph 25/07/09  and the Transcript from You and Yours, Radio 4 30/07/09 

digital data = digital divide

I take the point raised in a comment on a previous post  about digitisation and have been wondering if there’s a chicken and egg situation here. Which came first? The digital data or the means to distribute it? Let me give an example of where I’m coming from when I say digital data is increasing the digital divide.

A Yahoo user group has uploaded a pdf file (single format, no Adobe Reader, another issue) and sent out a group email with a link to the document. To access it the blind user has to go through a process of identifying the link, saving the link, then opening the link, which only then takes them to the login page for the group but that involves logging into Yahoo. A blind person has problems joining a Yahoo group in the first place because that involves a captcha and they can’t see it – or hear it – so someone else has to set it up for them – but when they’re on their own they don’t know their login details – as sighted people we can’t always remember our login details – and they can’t read them – and you can’t multi task with this screen reader so even if you had them stored on an email then to get back to that, then back to the Yahoo login page, would be a lengthy process (and in our fast mouse-click world an incredibly tortuous one). They want to read this file; the email has made it sound interesting and relevant and the whole nature of the group is about self help and empowerment but they can’t access it. The result is ever increasing levels of frustration at being excluded and being dependent on others. I agree that digitisation should be increasing access to the written word, like the printing press revolutionised access to text; but on an individual level that was only so long as you could read the appropriate language. We operate independently in a sighted world but visual impairment (VI) takes away that independence and while digitisation should be widening participation, the reality for VI is that access is hidden behind multiple layers of technology and you can’t separate the two. Chicken or Egg?  Which was my point in saying “increasing digitisation of text is also increasing the digital divide and putting in place yet more barriers to participation”.