An online learning scenario for HE?

The software choices faced by the Ultraversity project have vexed Jonathan Furness and myself for a considerable time now, and the diagram above illustrates where our current thinking is. The main points to grasp is that we will be adopting a web services approach using open source software (OSS) and other free software where we can. We aim to stitch this together using RSS and LDAP technology where possible, and where we can’t we will rely on individuals developing a ‘conceptual’ model of what we are trying to do.

In what we are attempting, there is nothing particularly new as the ideas around OSS and web services have circulated widely for quite some time. However, It is worth adding that without a bottomless pit of technical resources (we don’t have that) that this is an ambitious approach for us to take. It is also worth adding that an approach that doesn’t have a predominance OSS wouldn’t seem to make any sense at all.

One of the issues that interests me is why we find it so hard to make these decisions, and I would make a link between this problem and what Beck characterises as “The Risk Society”. Since the latter third of the 20th century, Beck sees us living in a society that is characterised by inherent uncertainty. This society is differentiated from first an agrarian society followed by an Industrial age that gave way to a society as we know it today characterised by “globalisation, the individualisation of the experience, the questioning of expert systems, and the burden of identity construction” (M. Gabe 2004).

The difficulties faced by Ultraversity when deciding what technology choices to make provides a useful lense through which to examine and perhaps start to understand how the rules and assumptions that govern our decisions are changing in responses to the ideas of Beck and the factors identified by Gabe.

Ultraversity believes in championing empowerment of researchers. A part of this for us this means the appropriation of technology (using for their own and possibly unintended purpose) to take control of their own futures as lifelong learners by exercising the right to choice and personalisation of their learning.

However, in practice Ultraversity struggles to accommodate this desire and I would argue that in a large part this is because it is operating within the confines of a 20th century University system that was built on a certainty derived hundred’s of year of practice and which no longer holds true.

Some of the constraints are:

  • regulations that enshrine absurdities such as arbitrary word limits for assessment products in an age of multimedia
  • Interpretations that administrators, support staff, and ‘teachers’ apply that reflect their own values, beliefs, and philosophy, and own experience of HE and learning – the baggage we all carry!

    A combination of the constraints identified above and our responsibility to provide online services that will enable student researchers to undertake an inquiry focussed degree with online community at its heart strongly influences our thoughts and choices. Our natural desire is to seek technological solutions that place Ultraversity in control of the learning experience reducing the level of uncertainty as much as possible – we are cautious by nature!

    This is ultimately, I believe, doomed to failure as it is clinging to the old paradigm of certainty where in reality the future will hold increased levels of uncertainty. For example, how do we reconcile the need to have assessments from remote students delivered to the faculty office in hard copy by a set time and date? Increasingly the reality is students building websites, using weblogs and other technology to work collaboratively on ‘real life’ issues offering assessment products that don’t fit into a neatly packaged report that can be handed in!

    The pace of technological developments around web services is rapid as is the increasing sophistication of Ultraversity student researchers both as they progress through the degree, but more significantly as entrants who increasingly have broadband connections and use the www and the services it provides as a part of their daily life.

    Ultraversitie’s technological aim must be to provide robust, but also innovative services that enable student researchers to study successfully. However, it is commonly accepted that schools cannot now match the sophistication and choice of hardware and software that many pupils experience out of school, but that they do still need to offer the best they can so that a level of entitlement for all is reached.

    The increasing sophistication of student researchers and the web services and other tools they chose to use will increasingly outstrip that which Ultraversity can offer. This isn’t a race we can win nor should we even enter it, but we do however need to retain a strong sense of entitlement for all, and recognise that there will be an increasing gulf between those student researchers who develop a sophisticated personal e-pedagogy including the appropriation of the technology and those who struggle.

    So what do we do?

  • Where possible we ‘hard wire’ the ‘entitlement’ services into a portal to take advantage of single sign-on authentification and the exchange of data between systems
  • We encourage student researchers and learning facilitators (lecturers and tutors) to ‘soft wire’ web services together. By this I mean negotiating and agreeing the use of other web services in ways that are sensitive to each other’s needs
  • Challenge regulations and practices that are not designed for the 21st century learner
  • Realise that increasingly students will vote with their feet and move towards relevant education away from the irrelevant

  • 3 thoughts on “An online learning scenario for HE?

    1. Shirley Pickford

      Given the financial commitment of universities to Blackboard or WebCT, it might be expedient to consider where these relate to the scenario. University investment in these environments might mean that some of the data such as marks could be handled better from the administrative point of view. I had an interesting chat at Coventry University about Moodle vs WebCT. Issues raised were development time, interface with HE databases, another change for lecturers, internal politics. Just a thought. I like the way your concept is shaping up.

    2. Stephen Powell

      Yes, I see this point Shirley and will think about how to include this in the diagram. In the case of Moodle it is fairly straight forward as it is OSS and should ‘hard wire’ in nicely. Proprietary systems such as WebCT (and FC) have historically been ‘closed’ platforms and as such are more problematic to integrate. However, hopefully it will be a case of change or become extinct for them!

    3. Shirley

      Most of the ideas which we can’t do with WebCT are in fact possible – this is an organisational rather than a technical issue, but one that will need to be faced and changed.


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