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Unit 1-2

Page history last edited by Gary Motteram 9 years, 2 months ago


Thinking about tools


Belderrain (2006: 144) invites institutions to reflect on current use of technology and how "new, cutting edge computer-mediated communications (CMC) may enhance the learning experience for students." The paper you will read identifies some of the roles that different technologies might play and during this course we will be taking a critical look at the match between tool and purpose. First of all, some preliminary thoughts on the evolving development of distance learning and use of different tools within our own programmes.


I and have been working with the Language Teacher Education Group in the School of Education for many years. The group began postgraduate distance teacher education in 1988. At that stage all the distance materials matched what Boyle (1995) and Bates (1995) refer to as first generation distance education. These were self-contained packages made up of printed text and images on paper which were posted to distance learners via surface mail. As new distance course units were designed, we moved into second generation distance education with audio and video cassettes and software delivered on floppy discs and CD ROM with some email support.


In 1996 the Group began to use third generation distance education harnessing the tele-conferencing potentials of communication technologies such as email and video conferencing. Now we talk about fourth and even fifth generations reflecting increased flexibility of learning opportunity, and with the advent of Web 2.0 and social networking facilitating further the potential for collaboration and sharing, we are again looking at their impact on the design of distance education.


Decisions about which tools to use are influenced, of course, by various factors. We need to remember White's arguments that local ecology is a strong mediating factor, and indeed Belderrain identifies some of the constraints of specific contexts to integrating certain technologies. Access has been one of those defining factors, and in the past this has certainly influenced our own moves towards web-based delivery. For a number of years in the late 1990s through to the first years of this century, debate about moving from print to web was frequent in our team, with opinion often divided. We find ourselves still debating other decisions, for example the use of synchronous exchange; types of web based tools and environments e.g. Blackboard 8 (WebCT) v BB9 v Moodle v blog architectures. We'll no doubt be discussing some of the issues behind such debate as we do our first seminars, including the new kid on the block, MOOCs. This is an interesting wiki exploring the history and current practice of MOOCs.


Interestingly, with the extremely rapid growth of freely available online tools and opensource software, one might assume that access to specific tools, that is beyond the virtual learning environment (VLE) that we have adopted, is becoming less of an issue. This is one the one hand the case and yet we are aware that access to these cannot be assumed. Some of you may find access to Skype or blogging software blocked where you work; our university VPN also doesn't work everywhere. And of course access still involves learner ability to use the tools that are decided upon; and individuals will have personal preferences and experiences. However, perhaps more important are implications for shifts in teaching and learning paradigms (Belderrain, 147-150) that learners also need to feel comfortable with. For example, given the tools now available to online educators, how central is group interaction; how do learners respond to discussion forum exchange; how does synchronous activity contribute to learning; do text or video-based interactions make substantive differences?


Further paradigm shifts are likely to be driven by Web 2.0 developments. This text that you are reading, for example, is a form of communication between us; this wiki version can be changed and updated by you as well as me. I am using the Web medium to write/talk to you in a way that I might perhaps talk to a face-to-face group. Interactivity is also introduced via hyperlinks or tasks that take you to different tools. These tools might be of various types.


We also need to consider the increased use of technologies in all modes of teaching and learning.


This course is about online learning in distance and distributed contexts. There is a longstanding literature on distance learning, which will inform our thinking and we will be exploring this in unit 2. Over recent years, the terms distributed learning and blended learning have become a common focus of attention, especially in Higher and Further Education. Embedded in these developments are recognitions of changes in the way in which learning can extend much more readily beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom. This might be in terms of independent learning activities that still relate to face-to-face contexts; it may be also in terms of facilitating communication between peers in collaborative activity, again still rooted in face-to-face locations. And of course it may be in terms of shifting the whole learning process and experience to online environments.


In our own context, we see all these models in action. On campus we meet students face-to-face on a weekly basis but set up tasks that involve further research based on web based tasks or group based enquiry that is then brought back into the face-to-face classroom; we also have learners who experience our courses totally via virtual learning environments (as many of you in this group). In all these settings, there is no doubt that the use of various online tools not only facilitates tutor ambitions for their course design, but they increasingly make up a default 'toolkit' for all students, whatever the mode of study.


So what does a default 'toolkit' look like? There is no doubt we have seen radical developments in online tools over recent years. What are we all using and for what purposes? To stimulate our discussions about online tools and communications, let's see if we have a shared base and whether this is further shared by other educational practitioners.

Jane Hart - Head, Centre for Learning and Performance Technology maintains http://c4lpt.co.uk, a website that logs emerging e-learning technologies. For a few years she has surveyed professionals to find out what their top tools for online learning are.


This allows for us to take a look at 'shakers and movers' and the tools that have stayed on the scene for a long time.


Before taking a look at the most recent results, spend a few moments listing the 10 online tools that are integral to your own online learning and/or teaching.


Then go to http://c4lpt.co.uk/top100tools/


You can check the slideshare or simply skim the list.


Take notes on the following lines:


CategoryToolThe most significant movers (up or down)One of your top 10? Familiar/unfamilar to you?Personal reaction/comment




If you are unfamiliar with any of the tools mentioned, Google them or follow the links from the examples.


In the Discussions forum:

  • share your personal top 10;
  • comment on whether you are surprised by any of the items that figured in the top 25 identified by Jane Hart or indeed by any omissions in either categories or tools;
  • while this is a general list of technologies used in education, you might start reflecting on their value in online learning.


Optional follow up: A good place to look at for up to date ideas on the uses of technology in education are the Horizon reports. These started as an overview of higher education, but now cover all of the education phases. The both look at the now and are also forward looking.

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