Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Beginning to explore innovation in elearning

Week 1, activity 3 is beginning to explore what we mean by innovation in elearning. This post summarises and records some thoughts relating to papers on the subject.

Firstly, ‘New technology in learning: a decade’s experience in a business school’ by Rich and Holtham (2005).

This paper describes the introduction of innovative uses of IT into campus-based MBA courses in 1992 - almost 20 years ago. At this point home and business computing was minimal and email was only just beginning to be explored within the academic network. It doesn't go on to describe changes over the decades since, but it's a short paper, so forgiven!

The MBA programme used email based activities with the aim of adding value to their existing process, particularly through fostering effective group work. Valuable opportunities for international collaboration via email were noted, and email was used for simulations in which students could practise management skills. The paper is brief and doesn’t state in detail how value of the interventions was measured.

It is noted that there was reluctance both amongst some faculty and some students. Some felt that IT should be taught as a practical skill or separate topic, and didn’t appreciate its value as a learning tool. Student’s initial computer literacy was variable, and the need to learn basic computer skills obscured further learning outcomes for some.

The paper reports that changes to teaching/learning were achieved by using IT “as an adjunct to existing channels for instruction”. Given the unfamiliarity with technology of many of the students, I wonder if this use of IT as an additional rather than sole medium made the technology more acceptable, appealing and less daunting to use. Perhaps this is a note to not go overboard with innovation, but to ensure that students are guided in their development, rather than thrown in at the deep end?

Students are described as having participate in a “dynamic knowledge network... which was used to encourage professional knowledge creation... exploiting active learning and knowledge building...” These seem to me to be very common aims or uses of ‘innovative’ elearning, i.e. the development of community, social and connectivist learning and knowledge creation and sharing with varying degrees of collaboration. These can be aims of non-e-learning too, so I’m wondering about what additional or further goals innovative elearning might be able to achieve.

The paper concludes that a small group of faculty with only limited technical resources were able to produce innovative, pedagogically sound material using ICT. I wonder if if the group had in fact been larger or had wider institutional support, whether this might have hindered their ability to be flexible and creative in their learning design. Or perhaps, conversely, did the lack of wider support mean that this was a limited experiment? We’re not told about subsequent elearning innovations trialled by this particular institution, and clearly the growing uptake of elearning suggests that lack of support is not excessively stifling. However, a number of student colleagues on H807 have expressed frustration at their own institutions’ reticence to support or adopt innovation. It seems that a certain critical mass might be necessary to get early innovation going, but that attaining wider acceptance is much harder, and indeed may limit the level of innovation which can be achieved within an institution.

Take away points/thoughts:
  • Despite a massive growth in familiarity with IT in past 20 years, we should not assume that technological innovations (even with pedagogical value) will be universally appreciated by students/educators.
  • The need to acquire technical skills could obscure other learning objectives if computer (and wider technology) literacy is assumed or under-supported.
  • Innovation in elearning needs sufficient technical support and positive attitudes towards adoption, but not stifling by large bureaucratic institutions.
  • The paper didn’t talk about how success of the innovation was measured. Measuring what is innovation and what makes a successful innovation are areas for more thought!

The second paper was ‘Innovative teaching: sharing expertise through videoconferencing’ by Lück and Laurence (2005).

This is a 2005 paper referring to a process of developing videoconferencing to support lectures by internationally-absent lecturers to a tourism degree class in 2003. I was somewhat surprised to see the substantial effort which was expended on developing the technology - this wasn’t the case of adopting a commercial off-the-shelf solution and applying it to the interactive lecture scenario, as I would have assumed such technology might have been available in 2003.

The aim of the work was to provide a technical solution which permit guest lecturers, possibly based on another continent to lecture to a local class. The desire was to enhance student knowledge through exposing them to the perspectives of international experts with whom they would otherwise be unlikely to be able to interact. It was this contact with “out-of-class sources” which students rated particularly positively.

The paper also cites the principles of “good practice in undergraduate teaching” by Chickering and Ehrmann (1996), including:
  • encouragement of contacts between instructor and students,
  • involvement of active learning
  • respect for diverse ways of learning
  • prompt feedback.
These were written pre-widescale adoption of elearning, but still provide useful guidance. I was somewhat surprised by the argument that the ‘prompt feedback’ principle was fulfilled by asking students to complete evaluation forms after the event; I was expecting this type of principle to relate to providing feedback to the student on their learning - not an elearning or innovation issue though!

The authors argue that videoconferencing offers new possibilities to higher education, predominantly through the extended opportunities for collaboration. They note that they would prefer not to view videoconferencing as a replacement for face-to-face class time, but as an event integrated into the class syllabus. This seems to echo the argument for elearningHoltham.

Again, this paper was about the use of technology to expand knowledge networks - an apparently emerging theme for H807. The aspect I found hard to believe was that video-conferencing was particularly innovative in 2003. However, it was clearly a novel, engaging and inspiring experience for both the students and lecturers involved in this project, and therefore, for them, innovation in elearning. This raises a new (still ill-formed) thought for me - that innovation is relative to its context. What is new and innovative for one user or user community may be old hat to another. Applying a technology or method in that scenario is innovative, even if not a brand new idea which would be globally ‘innovative’. So, some aspects of innovation can involve re-use, or re-application or techniques. Innovation doesn’t require re-inventing the wheel.

Take-away points/thoughts:
  • Innovation may be through technology development, or through the application of technology in some new way
  • An activity or use of technology may be innovative in one context but not in another
  • Students valued opportunities for interaction particularly highly
  • Providing a technology, even though it may offer a valuable opportunity (e.g. a technological solution to interact with someone geographically distant), does not necessarily mean that the activity will be easy. Every day social influences such as feeling intimidated by a senior/expert, conventions around group interaction, etc will also play a part.

    Rich, M. and Holtham, C. (2005) ‘New technology in learning: a decade’s experience in a business school’, British Journal of Educational Technology – Special Issue on Innovation in Elearning, vol.36, no.4, pp.677–679

    Lück, M. and Laurence, G.M. (2005) ‘Innovative teaching: sharing expertise through videoconferencing’, Innovate, vol.2, no.1 [online]


    1. Hallo Alice,

      I just attached a pdf-file in the General forum where I copied and pasted all the material from Block 1. It is really a pity that they do not offer a printable version, that would safe some time.


    2. Brilliant Sylvia - thank you so much!