Just before Xmas I had a paper published in the Interactive Learning Environments journal. The paper is entitled Toward a Narrative Pedagogy for Interactive Learning Environments.
Over the two days I heard a dull introductory speech by Charles Saumarez Smith, an excellent keynote address by Gráinne Conole, and attended a series of parallel sessions where 17 presentations were made on various subjects including: blogging, podcasting, the use of 3D environments in design teaching, visual literacy, teaching rhetoric online, Second Life, and various always fascinating takes on e-learning practice. I met some very nice people and exchanged a lot of useful information with colleagues. One balmy summer evening we were all treated to a superb dinner at the Tate Modern, and whilst chatting amiably on a terrace high up on the river side of the building watched the sun go down over the city. Marvellous.
I came away from the conference with two over-riding impressions. Firstly, that teaching staff universally loathe the Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) they use. I didn’t meet a single person who had one good word to say about either Blackboard or WebCT. Frankly, I’m not surprised: as pieces of software they’re slow, clunky, lumpy, and plain butt ugly. The only VLE anyone seems even vaguely enthusiastic about is Moodle, which I can’t comment on because I’ve never used it.
Secondly, a theme that emerged from the presentations was that students were using a wide range of services and devices as technological support for their learning: iPods, mobile phones, blogs, wikis, search engines, and other “peer approved” social networking sites. Communication was seen as being mixed mode, and, importantly, not necessarily routing through institutional channels. (For example, how many students use their university email account? That would be roughly, er, none.)
Now clearly these two observations are related! They suggest to me that the current generation of VLEs are not fit for purpose. They’re totally outmoded; huge, lumbering, expensive dinosaurs. The softwares available on the open market—usually free—are vastly superior in terms of both their technical implementation and the underlying design principles: they’re open, adaptive, ever-evolving, personal, social, creative, involving, and yes even fun.
They are truly software.
That’s it. An excellent conference that provided much food for thought (if not necessarily any answers).
[Note: Looking at the Blackboard and Web CT websites it seems they've now merged into one company. Shudder....]
Last week I attended the Designs On eLearning conference at the Fashion Retail Academy in Gresse Street, London W1. I hadn’t been aware of the Academy before and it’s hardly surprising: it’s brand new. According to The Guardian it was set up with money partly from the government and partly from industry, and provides education at FE level (Levels 2 and 3 on the national scale).
Anyway, it’s gorgeous. What a fabulous place to work and learn in. It’s cool and modern without being cold and detached. It’s stylish but utilitarian. It’s been designed. Here’s some pix I took whilst there:
Where I currently work the environment is quite poor: shabby, grey, drab, and with learning spaces laid out like factory floors. It’s completely out of date, both physically and conceptually. How are staff and students alike supposed to be inspired, enthusiastic, and empowered in such an environment? These days when I teach I want a multi-purpose space: perhaps I’ll start a session with a demo using the computer and projector before breaking off for small group work. Later you might find me scribbling madly on a whiteboard in answer to some questions that have come up. We might use cameras or video, and someone might bring in a laptop or a mobile phone with work on and we’ll need to see it and to share it. At the moment this means I often swap rooms in the middle of a session, or else I’ll have to arrive early and set up equipment borrowed from elsewhere. Sometimes—far too often—I can’t do what I would really like to do at all…
The modern learning space needs to be flexible, social, and egalitarian, with technology embedded into and integrated with the space. It needs to be wireless. It needs to be bold and stimulating, because in the 21st Century we really, really, really need to throw off the ball and chain of the 12th Century teaching methods we still use, and that we remain forced into using by the straightjacket of our archaic working environments. JISC published an excellent report last year called Designing Spaces For Effective Learning and in it they say:
A learning space should be able to motivate learners and promote learning as an activity, support collaborative as well as formal practice, provide a personalised and inclusive environment, and be flexible in the face of changing needs.
Well, at least The Fashion Retail Academy look like they’ve got most of the way there. There is hope for us all…
I was recently involved in an online workshop sponsored by Kaleidoscope’s SIG on Narrative Learning Environments. As part of this we looked at number of proprietary NLEs and this one really caught my eye.
POGO is a “distributed learning environment” (Fusai et al 2003) developed by the Universities of Siena and Liege, Phillips Design, Ravensburger Interactive Media, and the Domus Academy. There are two things that particularly interest me. Firstly, the designers have specifically used narrative as a pedagogical underpinning for the system, and seem to have developed their theoretical model from both observation of children’s story-telling activities and from the literature (Papert and Bruner in particular). Secondly, they’ve completely rethought the computer interface: there’s no point in my describing the system in words, just watch the video:
Really, really interesting. If you want more, there’s a paper describing the development and design of the system referenced below. However, note that the video dates from 2001 and the paper from 2003, and we should perhaps ask ourselves what has become of POGO. Is anyone using it? Can you buy it? Googling suggests not…
Shame. Love that Mumbo!
Fusai, C., Saudelli, B., Marti, P., Decortis, S. & Rizzo, A. (2003) Media Composition and Narrative Performance at School. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 19, 177-185.