My WebCT Course

OK, so I eventually got around to playing with WebCT in a course creation role. I was exceptionally cruel and condescending, but there again, it goes to show how easily and quickly it is to discriminate against all sorts of aesthetic likings, as well as people with disabilities.

I actually feel aghast as to how difficult WebCT is to use when creating a course – absolutely no part of it seemed intuitive to me at all. Whether that’s because I have a background in HTML/CSS, maybe, but I don’t think the aesthetic design of it can go that wrong unless you really try; it seems very difficult to even get an idea of how the hierarchy works. I simply wanted to add a new “webpage” as you would normally, and found it to be utterly impossible unless you went into an option that seemed to have a different semantic meaning than what you were really after.

Is that really how you need to work WebCT? You just delude it into thinking everything’s OK?

Is that education?

Obstacles and isolation

I think what really struck me today was something that I’ve (had to) take for granted for several years now; the optimistic assumption that other people are up-to-speed with technologies and the internet.

I say “had to” because it’s a truism – in terms of work, and of advising friends and family, after a few years experience I now believe it is impossible to develop technology and counsel and train colleagues on technology at the same time. I believe it’s a problem that all developers face, and something which the open-source movement has yet to tackle (namely, it doesn’t have the money to try). But in order to develop a meaningful product, you have to have users who are able, willing, and likely to experiment with and use it to its potential. Therefore you cannot offer beta technology to an unknown audience, and expect results.

The fact that Alex got trapped in the CCCP room – Denise’s phrase “became quite tense” is absolutely spot on, however irrational – is testament to the fact that learners operate on many different levels. When I first entered the environment I too was concerned that something was wrong, because the doors wouldn’t open. Turns out all you need to do is disregard the laws of physics and it’ll all be OK. But while these unintuitive aspects quickly become playful – slamming at speed into the ground just for spectacle – they are serious flaws in presenting a virtual world to the wide range of students that can be expected to study at University.

Mature students are one army with a different line of reasoning from the current undergrads; disabled students too occupy a different stance. Following the social model of disability, Alex was disabled by the environment – the walls were too restrictive and the doors didn’t open as you expected. This is exactly the same physical division you see with wheelchair users and other people with mobility impairments, and it exists even in a purely electronic world.

Even excluding the physical barriers, the moon is a huge landscape with no radar; people with learning difficulties or lacking in confidence would easily give up long before they discovered where the rest of the group where; would they even try to contact by chat or would they go it alone? A student with Aspergers probably would opt for the latter – and notably may get more from the course in experiencing the solitude than if they’d been restricted. But the dislocation is profound, and I can easily see how easy it is to be lost, both in the environment and in the user interface itself: throughout the entire time that Alex was lost, nobody suggested clicking the Teleport To Home button that would’ve resolved the entire crisis. Again I chose not to do so because it defeats the purpose of defying the obstacle; that the easy way out exists doesn’t entail it should be chosen.

And yet no classified disability is necessary to encounter obstacles; that’s what I have suddenly re-learned from today (and in other areas over the past few months with computer security crises and the fact that broadband internet is a warzone suitable only for the well-equipped). Every user who embarks on a new venture requires a helping hand, and it is empowering to see a community spirit developing where there is no precursor; there is no relationship between any of us other than an entry in a Registry database tying us into this one course, and there is no requirement for us a collaborate and communicate (yet) in order to benefit our marks. Yet it still happens. So long as humanity itself does not wane, there may be hope for such immersive VLEs!

Immersion

Is it dangerous for learning to be addictive? Maybe it’s just because it’s Friday afternoon, but I do wonder whether anything would’ve got done in Active Worlds had there not been the “imposing tutor presence”. 🙂 More so than textual chat, there is a relaxed feeling in 3D environments where time flies and nothing gets done.

There is also the danger that the environment overtakes the course; that everything becomes centred around the student’s perceptions of how things should look, and starts to customise/filter out parts of the learning experience to suit their own purposes, rather than actually being “taught”. This is part of a much wider discussion on whether students should be taught in the first place, but it does remind me somewhat of the Better Than Life total immersion video game in Red Dwarf, where everything is chosen and reflected on in the first person only, and everything other than the game is irrelevant. If 3D environments were used to a greater extent than in this course, as an illustrative and imaginative tool, then more care would need to be taken in asserting more clearly the aims and purposes for which the tool is to be used.

Virtual Universes

As a continuation of comments posted in Moon Group 2, my interactions with the group this afternoon which I wasn’t supposed to be in felt somewhat like a violation of privacy. It’s great fun but if a group is trying to work, and someone – whether part of the group or an outsider – just can’t be bothered and wants to lark around, then who has jurisdiction for removing/warning them? It seems to involve a far more complex set of moderation issues than with a simple chat program, since there are multiple ways of expressing oneself, and I could have a significant negative and disruptive impact on the class without saying a word.

The opposite is of course true; the opportunity to express oneself in a more expansive way was the reason why smileys came around, and 3D environments it could be argued are simply an extension of this. Instead of posting URLs to people you direct them to locations/coordinates – perhaps there’s nothing fundamentally different about the baseline of the environments apart from the visual distinction.

It’d be interesting to see research into the ways students with specific learning difficulties cope with these kinds of environments. It occurred to me in Colleen’s talk that the map of the mansion, guiding you around the website, may work better than a list of textual links for some students, but may throw up false associations for others (e.g. subconsciously, the lounge should contain less formal discussion than the drawing room; the bedroom should be more “fun” than the study, and so on) and that particularly if someone has poor spacial awareness and processing difficulties, it could be immensely daunting to be plunged into something like Active Worlds.

Dangers in room 2

Some of the thoughts expressed in Hypertext, and particularly illustrated by ‘This is a test’ are of grave concern when considering cognitive organisation and its implications on navigation. In a traditional learning environment there are three stages where information is gathered: direct presentation (lectures/handouts); required reading; and secondary reading / student’s own independent research.

For a student lacking in confidence, or with learning difficulties, even stage 1 can be difficult to attain. In a science based course, for example, if the course documentation doesn’t sufficiently illustrate the semester plan, or provide a synopsis in advance of the lecture plan, then when the student attends the lecture, and misses one key point in the introduction, the entire hour can be wasted, never to be repeated. Attempting to then revisit the lecture, even by recording it or with notes, can be time consuming and often fruitless. It’s in the student’s interest to prepare for the lecture, but the tutors must also work to provide a clear and solid framework, including as much detail as possible.

(NB: this works well with this course, particularly in that the course content section contains several layers of complexity that the student can ‘drill down’ through depending on need, and so isn’t swamped with information).

Stage 2 is particularly difficult for students with dyslexia or a visual impairment, since it typically covers vast swathes of reading which even the most competent student can find ‘enough’ to manage for a week. Given that the reading is required and will be reflected on, there is little lee-way in class for skipping readings. Notably online this isn’t so much of a problem, with this blog being a case in point (it certainly isn’t week 4). However, I’ve felt confident enough in re-organising the course to suit my own needs, partly because it doesn’t have a vast impact on my life; a ‘proper’ UG or PG degree does have significant impact and one wonders to what extent students will be comfortable attacking materials in their own way; for many, the rigid structure is a help rather than a hindrance in that it prevents them going off track.

Stage 3 never existed for me as an undergraduate, for various social reasons (!) and also because I never knew where to start. There was no information immediately available to hint at what would be more useful to a particular line of questionning – granted this could be obtained by consultation with the tutor, but tutor time is at a premium and this was before the widespread adoption of email. So it just never happened. This was fine, but imagine having ‘This is a test’ as a suggested reading, only amplified and complexified. In essence, you have the internet, with the aid of Google et al. A student who was already a little flumoxed by stages 1 and 2 will either shun the internet entirely and go into denial about the whole week, or will embrace the internet and go off on completely the wrong track. Neither is good. The lack of a hierarchical and consistent navigation in ‘This is a test’, and subsequently in the internet, is confusing and daunting when you are mining for information. As a game and a bit of fun, it’s all fine, but good websites are familiar websites, and that means you know your way around instinctively. With more and more of the web evolving into user interfaces, and WebCT etc. already existing often as a double layer interface (the surround of WebCT itself, plus the structure the tutor has decided to implement, good or bad) mean that throwing things up on the web without due consideration of all the consequences, and particularly hyperlinking to as many relevant items as possible, will only confuse and add concern to students already feeling out of their depth. Observe the Wikipedia entry for ‘internet’ as an indicator of how overlinking can destroy meaning and value. A student reading course material, religiously opening links provided in the background, who then finds they’ve opened 15 more browser windows, will give up and go to the pub. Can’t blame them!

One particular pet-hate is recursive linking in an infinite loop – in ‘This is a test’, hyper-text links to reading which links to hyper-text which links to reading, seemingly for no other purpose but for the hell of it. That’s an unhelpful guiding hand and eternally frustrating when the student thinks they’re just beginning to get somewhere.

Blended learning and environment generations

The issues raised in the Garrison article in part 3, on the benefits provided by asyncronous discussion as opposed to real-time face to face are significant. Positively, in that it enables students with less confidence, or processing/learning difficulties, the period of time required to provide a competent response with which they are happy. In a face to face setting this can be immensely troubling, especially if the student feels that the encounter may affect their course marks; if marks decline, regardless of whether it’s related to the student’s inhibitions, the student may steadily withdraw altogether from complex discussion scenarios and play a safer card, which lessens the learning experience for all involved. The ability to prepare responses beforehand can be valuable.

However, there can be a tension between formality and informality here too. When essays are augmented with performance in tutorials, it’s obviously in the student’s interest to excel in both. With the informality of discussion forums though, students may feel a swing towards devoting their thoughts to the marked work, and ‘save’ relevant insights for their essays. I’ve certainly felt this occur at times when considering posts in the discussion forums; the more you write and think about something, the more relevant it becomes to the assessed work (the blog) and the likelihood of actually posting it in public becomes proportionally less.

Presumably this tendency exists far more in Humanities subjects than sciences/medicine, and seems related to confidence as well – the balshier students will just go ahead and post the same thing in both blog and forum, and there’ll be nothing wrong with that. But the students are justified in being sceptical as to how far tutors will read into the informal segments of any generation of learning environments, including blended learning, simply because it’s a new horizon for all concerned. In my undergraduate degree I was accused of plagiarism and found the idea preposterous; turns out I just wrote prose in a style that the tutor found to be unexpected. The accusation was worthwhile; had I not been consulted, the given mark could conceivably have been artificially lowered, through no fault of my own other than indulging in study and the task too deeply.

Access

Now back from Kenya and attempting to catch up, likely in reverse chronological order and so making this blog somewhat non-linear. Might be a good thing!

The problems encountered organising and connecting to online chat bring up various questions:

  1. the chat applet, though I haven’t tested it, probably isn’t very accessible, nor intuitive, to a disabled user.
  2. the applet is also proprietary and as experienced personally, may not work under certain circumstances
  3. the WebCT applet isn’t as passive as might be desired; most instant messaging tools sit in the background, permanently logged on but doing nothing, until something happens. This can be done with WebCT but require multiple web browsers to be open and is a little cluttered. Notifications are also limited, meaning you can sit on the chatroom for hours of quiet, be doing something else, then suddenly miss an entire conversation, coming back to find everyone gone.
  4. regardless of the method used, finding common times that suit all people is nigh on impossible
  5. the concept of organised chat harks back to traditional tutorial structures and may be less suitable/less necessary with new elearning courses (it’s very necessary here as an experiment)

1 and 2 could perhaps be avoided by using a more common and widely recognisable chat system: IRC or MSN Messenger / Yahoo Messenger are mature and work better with the operating system, and hence with assistive technologies. IRC in particular allows for different clients to connect to the same server architecture/chatroom, meaning cross-platform problems (e.g. Mac) can be easily resolved.

4 is in part resolved by the production of a chat transcript, which is very helpful for those who simply couldn’t attend for whatever reason. This would also be aided by having several chat sessions staged at different parts throughout the course; this would lead into point 5, preventing the rigid traditional course structure from interfering too much with the experimental side of the syllabus.

Casual chatroom conversations may be few and far between because of the problems point 3, and defecting to a more common system of communication may be the resolution here.

Blogging, and the new generation

I’ve heard of various instances of people using blogs as a notepad for their studies, which they then realised could be opened up to the world at large for comment, collaboration, and just plain information harvesting. By and large the blogs are produced by masters/phd students, but there’s then the others: BBC reported on Hangleton Community Junior Schoo, whose pupils (7-8 year olds) have been blogging for a good while now and learning to share/express themselves to a much wider audience.

This mixes in with online chat/forums and the increased diversity of experience/knowledge that can be gathered by young children, the effects, positive or negative, of which haven’t yet been seen. Perhaps when this happens, we’ll really see the true wave of e-learning; rather than hybrid approach which aims to fit as broad a range of learning/teaching styles as possible.

Generations of distance learning

An expansion of comments made in the (VLE) forum:

The generations approach is really only useful for someone who is documenting the evolution of non-traditional environments as a historical project, not as something with any semantic/pedagogic meaning. Different courses, tutors, and students will make use of the available resources in different ways.

Clearly a degree in internet studies is necessarily going to make far greater specific use of the internet and learning environments, than one in, for example, physical education. That isn’t to say that teaching physical education is possible without technologies – it’s nowhere near as effective without them (video particularly) – but rather than the adoption of technologies is dependent on the willingness and suitability of both sets of participants. This seems somewhat similar to ‘The black hole’ story – all aspects of distance/e-learning require commitment and comprehension from tutor and student before they can start to be explored and used effectively.

In this respect, the evolution of distance learning stages that Garrison describes is structured on a historical basis, rather than a take-up/subject-based approach. The latter would be more helpful in identifying the effects that each “generation” of technologies has on the course providers/recipients, rather than the developments from generation to generation.

There is also the question of how to assess the effectiveness and necessity of each approach; with traditional learning, many different teaching formats and learning strategies have emerged, many of which have been left by the wayside. The same will need to happen with distance learning techniques, and many of these will be brand new, bleeding-edge technologies that will require further refinement before they can properly be used. A prime example of this is the fact that web is not quite ready as an accessible medium for all (both technically, and socially), specifically for users with disabilities, but also those with different language requirements and backgrounds. It’s certainly a great step forward compared to some learning systems, but not necessarily all.

It seems wrong then, to treat them as generations which succeed each other; rather they should co-exist and come to the fore where the course locus demands it, so that alternatives can emerge for students who prefer, or need, to be ‘old school’.

Trying to find focus…

The academic / teaching focus of the course is fazing me slightly; I have found I don’t have a specific application for a digital environment to be used for, since I’m a member of support staff. I don’t consider this to be a flaw of the course, since it’s part of School of Education, rather a slight stumbling block while I figure out a pseudo-application which my thoughts can focus around.

e-everything

Hamish kindly passed on details of a journal article on ‘The New Literacy’ today. The experience has left me somewhat shaken.

  1. it’s been 4 years since I’ve had cause, or time, to read/request a journal.
  2. I didn’t comprehend what the zetoc Alert actually was at first.
  3. I clicked on the link expecting to be able to read the article in full; I just got shelfmark/Dewey info.
  4. I then clicked on the ‘Request a copy from your Institution’s library’ link, expecting Zetoc to be able to send me through EASE into Athens and to the journal I was after, or even to hit the reserve button for me. It didn’t. It just gave me more info on how to order it.

This is nothing radical or at all surprising for those in more academic circles, but I began to question the likelihood of me actually reading the article within different timescales, all of which came up with “none”. I was born into the digital age and expect things on demand. To my detriment, I’ve never properly used the University library, and as a result of that, am likely not to in this instance. I simply can’t be bothered to trudge over there, unearth my staff card, locate the book on a particular floor, locate the book, find that someone else has got it stored in the pile of 40-50 other books they’re somehow expecting to get through in the next 6 hours, and then face the prospect of fines of an inordinant magnitude when it gets lost at home or work.

So am I losing out? A fellow colleague has the kindness to pass on something of interest and I just snub it?

Nah. I’ve got Google. A quick flit with the article title and author name, and there it is, in full, and I can sit here getting progressively less-healthy, fineless. Splendid.

Of course, I didn’t read it yet – I just bookmarked it, like the hundreds of other interesting-but-I’m-busy pages that linger in that folder, never to be touched again. But that’s e-learning for you.

(article available at – TechLearning.com)

At the last minute…

It’s been some time since my last confession. This is partly due to work commitments, both at University and outside, turning the days into nights and round again, but partly I think to do with the distinction between the reactiveness of the discussion forums, and the proactive need on a blog; pop over to the forums and it’s easy to be re-inspired by ideas and thoughts that have occurred before, so participating is just a click away. Sculpting a weblog is a very different process, and I can see it being something which begins in dribs and drabs, and ends in torrents, as the course material introduces more and more suggestions.

As a form of continuous assessment, I’ve found the same problem as with traditional assessment – the subconscious desire to keep putting it off, and off, until the deadline. With an effective deadline every couple of days, I could already believe myself to be falling behind; on the other hand, if there is nothing significant to say, perhaps nothing should be said at all!

On the other hand, the ability to do course reading, and respond to course reading, “whenever”, when compared to a traditional tutorial group at a prescribed time (usually 9am), allows for a much richer expression of character and involvement, both for those who simply don’t like mornings, and those who actually can’t do mornings, or other times, and who can only participate at certain times and in certain ways/places. I noted Hamish’s concern that there is no revolution here, but there is certainly evolution.

Hello World

My first blog post, and a tentative one; outside of university I have stayed away from the isolation that blogs can pose, preferring to be much more involved in beginning and participating in discussions which eventually are beyond my control. Many professional blog tools allow commenting, but this is still within the control and discretion of the author, and seem to impose a more regimented, “this is good!” | “what are you talking about?” division.

A solitary, secret, yet nearly voyeuristic blog may be an easier, or more difficult, accomplishment. Talking to a brick wall can be theraputic and distressing at the same time!

Album: Transgenic Knockout Mice

After years away from electronic music, we downloaded a demo copy of Fruity Loops and hacked away at it until we came up with these cuts. As it was a demo, none of the tracks could be saved, only exported! As a result each track, accidentally, follows the jazz tradition of a single take in a single session: the tracks have only ever existed during the creation phase (30 mins to 3 hours) and in their current incarnation.

As a result there’s very little complexity, very little proper production, but hopefully it’s all fun and games anyway. We didn’t really know what we were doing so there’s a load of elements which just loop forever since we couldn’t shut them up. But that’s music.

Tracklist:

  1. Welcome
  2. I Am Municipal
  3. Overearth
  4. Ecorn
  5. Yo
  6. Yonna
  7. Tits
  8. Elude (Parts 1 and 2)
  9. Triad
  10. The Storm
  11. We See It
  12. Cacophony

(yes, Overearth is an insanely clever and cryptic homage to one of the finest dance outfits there ever was.)

There’s also a “Japanese Version” that was mashed up a few months later; it excludes Tits and reorders things slightly because we weren’t happy with it. In the end though this was the original and should be the one that is preserved. No VSTi was harmed in the making of this production (it’s just samples and FL’s default synths).

Download Transgenic Knockout Mice in Mp3 format