Real World Choices: Learning with Technology in Higher Education

The new Learning with Technology Masters will be delivered entirely online from next September and we are currently struggling with decisions about what technology to use. The Institute for Educational Cybernetics where I work is also home for the CETIS service (funded by JISC), one of its aims being to contribute to future thinking in the field of learning technology.

The challenge for the IDIBL project is trying to implement a learning technology solution that takes advantage of this thinking, but that also contributes to the development of the University of Bolton’s strategic development of e-learning provision. In this exercise, we are not concerned with information systems and processes that contribute to wider management of learning activities such as recording of results, admissions, collection of fees, etc. There is an argument that these two dimensions cannot be separated, but for now we want to focus on the learning experience and not allow other factors to restrict choices.

In my mind we face a three way conundrum of trying to enact the CETIS analysis of the likely developments of learning technology in HE, the practical issues facing the ‘real world’ position of the University of Bolton, and an approach that will provided a great learning experience for students based on past experience, but with little or no chance of being widely replicated elsewhere.

What is certain is that our approach will be informed by the overarching principle of personalisation and choice wherever possible within the constraints we find ourselves under. Possibly the three positions can be characterised as:

1. Are we inquiring into the extremes of what may be possible? Web2.0 zealots might argue that we shouldn’t be using and university hosted software at all, paid for services, or proprietary software of any kind. Internet services that are readily available can provide all that is required; all it takes is a movement in mind-set to achieve this;
2. Are we plotting a possible route forward for the University of Bolton? Current Bolton learning and teaching provision is based around WebCT with supporting technology such as SITS. Although few would argue for this to be the only approach, there is a strong support for platforms such as Moodle which offer some of the advantages of a Web2.0 in that it empowers staff and learners, but could be characterised as a development or second generation VLE rather than a new approach;
3. Are we developing a low risk approach that we are confident best supports the learners? This would be based on the successful experience of the Ultraversity project and would use ‘free’ web services, open source, as well as proprietary software – this blueprint already exists!

Our difficulty in plotting a way forward has, I think, being compounded by not agreeing our primary purpose to start with. Once we do this, then the technological choices will be constrained by that choice and our key requirements are pretty simple:

• hold community discussions between staff and students
• have collaborative, private and public work-spaces
• provide course resources – published to the www is good
• submit work that can be verified for date and completeness
• monitor participation and ‘attendance’ – for the purpose of making interventions for those experiencing difficulties


3 thoughts on “Real World Choices: Learning with Technology in Higher Education

  1. Lydia

    Hi Stephen
    Congratulations on getting the MA up and running – this is great news for online work based learning. The proven hybrid technology mix is one which may well please all – it has the solid central element and the innovative complement. To become wholly decentralised would be new and exciting – I have every faith that this is possible, but just like when Ultraversity started I suspect most of the barriers will be about institutional and practitioner resistance (formed out of history etc etc). The challenge I guess is to integrate the formal HEI with the informal without stifling the benefits of external freedom. I wonder would there be any place for virtual immersive world technologies in this mix – second life springs to mind? This seems to be of increasing interest to HEI’s – would it feature in your technology team list?

  2. Stephen

    “I wonder would there be any place for virtual immersive world technologies in this mix” A few colleagues here at IEC are heavily into this area and I am sure that it will feature but probably as an exploratory activity. After all, the people we hope will do this Masters will face these questions in these very issues in own work-places and may chose to make them the focus of an inquiry.

    Cheers, Stephen.

  3. Shirley

    Hi Stephen, I’ve been piloting Moodle (its OK, of course) and am involved (again) in VLE evaluation. My natural inclination is for the extremes of Option 1 but there are issues of data protection, intellectual property and university policy to contend with.

    I don’t know which version of WebCT is used at Bolton, but Vista looked more community-oriented than the Campus edition – but with either version there is the possibility of using it as a home base and venturing out into social technologies (and/or bringing them in).

    I really liked elgg/eduspaces – perhaps worth following up on current discussions there, see if things have got moving again. It looks promising tonight 🙂



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