ECTEL2015 Thu pm (3): Mark Brown Keynote

Liveblog notes from EC-TEL2015 (#ectel2015) in Toledo, Spain, 16-19 September 2015.

[posted late and with no photo because of problems with wifi in the hotel]

Slides are on slideshare.

Keynote: Reframing the Network World: Transformative Life-long Learning for All

Prof Mark Brown, Director, National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University

Socrates – unexamined life is not worth living. This keynote framed in that tradition.

What is the purpose of a keynote, right at the end? It’s important to bring you back to the conference theme. So I’ve done that in the design of this keynote. Also a role in taking the big picture look. I want to challenge some of my own thinking.

National Institute for Digital Learning – launched Nov 2013.

This week has been dominated by OECD report – headline “Lack of computers in schools may be a blessing”. There are not that many computers in Ireland, by comparison with other OECD countries. Have had live interviews on TV news about it. It’s important to engage in this technology debate.

Report is “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection” – read the Exec Summary, the headlines don’t match. The data is from 2012, based on PISA data. A group of academics launched almost a petition against the PISA statistics as fundamentally flawed. Statistical significance, but that doesn’t mean it’s causal. Must remember this. Methodological flaw – computer is not a single entity. A computer can be used in such a wide variety of ways.

Dublin City University. In 1876 his family left Ireland. Had 18 children, 850 descendants now. I’m committed to EADTU, three large projects, two MOOC projects. From my European gaze, I’m taking a different world view. I was at ALT last week in the UK.

Another world view. Quite connected in to US communities. In particular, with Arizona State University, Michael Crow’s book about reinventing university education. He was at DCU the week before, we are partner universities. Also Penn State University, online distance. Work on a leadership academy.

Important is New Zealand. Image of Hobbiton. The view is typical of New Zealand – very green. But minus the hobbit houses.

I take a bit of all of these parts of the networked world. Discussions about theories. ‘It is theory that decides what we can observe’, Einstein. Rooted in social science view.

Turning the box inside out, pulling it apart, then putting it back together. Not going to offend everyone.

Framing – colour vision test chart. Most audience see a 3. Some see a 5, some see nothing.

If 16 in the circle is the answer, what is the question? Not 4 squared, date I came here.

Another one (with 1) – percent of what the world spent on weapons that could have put every child into school by 2000. We could have achieved the Millennium Goals for education if we’d spent 1% less on education [and spent all that efficiently on achieving them]

John Pilger – despite technology advancement, the wealth gap between developing and developed countries has more than doubled.

If we don’t address that, the wicked problems – unsustainable population growth, inability to feed ourselves, urbanisation. Climate change, whether you believe it or not. (?!) If we don’t, what will future generations think of us?

The role, the purpose of TEL is within a moral imperative. Not in a religious sense, but about the future of humanity. That’s what’s at stake.

1. Degrees of disconnection
2. Dissecting Designs
3. Dilemmas

I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with the whole metaphor of design.

The light comes through cracks. In 25 years as an academic, I hold to this. School education, I see too much of covering the cracks. Even more depressing is that going on increasingly in university education. Those cracks are where new insights come. Being colour blind I see the light more clearly.

Take a dose of realism and skepticism in what I’m saying. “All generalisations are dangerous, even this one”, Alexandre Dumas. I’m deliberately [overstating my case]

1. Degrees of disconnection

There’s a dream of disruption. Some say, unlike other areas –  photo, print – we haven’t [been disrupted]. When we look at traditional, campus education. Blended learning I don’t like [as a term], it’s not disruption. The traditional experience is they start, have 12 weeks, work their way through, have lectures, tutorials, crit, labs. We might celebrate when we’ve made some disruption, cancelled tutorials by putting content online. This is a weak sense of blending. It’s trying something differently.

A stronger version, has more personalised learning, different for learners depending on what they already know, they take different paths. We provide some kind of adaptive experience, they don’t experience the same. This is far more blended, in the sense of the use of affordances of technology. Common characteristic – still an exam at the end.

There are some times you have to front up and show what you know. I have no problem with exams. But we still put students – even distance students online – [they] have to come to venues and write with a pen. Or we put the computers in rooms like these. Writing for three hours – I can’t do that any more. I don’t know how we’re asking students to do that.

How far have we really come? In 5 years time, will this still be happening? [I think it probably will, sadly.]

Headline: “Apple Watch leading universities to ban wristwear entirely from exam theatres”. No sense that something is wrong with the technology – the exam is a technology. This is a metaphor for a tension, the disconnection in a networked world.

Another example – the pedagogy of the pipe. It’s great we can put material, make it available, engage, feedback, peer feedback. The cold, hard stark reality, with some empirical evidence. Unlike the dream of the VLE or LMS, where we want to create not a pipe, but a vibrant mountain stream. The river of knowledge, the life in the stream, always changing, lifelong learning, the water’s bubbling away, dynamic, rich. Moodle we brought in and called it Stream, using this metaphor – not just the VLE/LMS, was also Mahara eportfolio. Mahara is Maori word for thought, or think. We weren’t poor in commitment. But we ended up with a backwater, a swamp, with lots of stuff. Was stagnant, not many people went there very often. We’re not learning a lot. Look at those activity logs – lots of stuff, smelly, not very active.

MOOCs have re-energised us around the future of the VLE. A MOOC is an LMS or a VLE. Even Forbes magazine acknowledges that Alison is the first VLE. FutureLearn (yay!). Strong advocate for the work the OU in the UK does. But this announcement – “FutureLearn delivers the largest MOOC ever as more than 400,000 learners convene for English language learning”. Not sure that’s right, there is a world of those in Asia. I got more uncomfortable when I heard this. Peter Horrocks tweet “UK MOOC snatches world record for sign-ups. UK quality beating US $$?”. New VC making strong statement about international dimension of FL.

I felt uncomfortable because there are many many other languages in the world. For me, internationalisation is about understanding how the world is a very diverse place. The English way of viewing things. It’s a privileged view of things.

Krause and Lowe “Invasion of the MOOCs: The promise and perils of MOOCs” – another colonialist tool? I’m a product of neo-colonialism.

In NZ we are having a referendum on four new flags, to get rid of the Union Jack element of the flag that does not resonate with us.

Peters, M (2013) MOOC and Beyond: the Revolution to Come. Truthout, August 17. Points out the neoliberal theory, MOOCs are the ultimate of the free market, laissez-faire education. Australia and NZ have bought in to this.

Want to contrast this with an example, two week ago or so. Commonwealth of Learning, based in Vancouver. MOOC4D, MOOCs for development. Very different in vision and technology. Many parts of the world cannot play videos. in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu. There was no internet, only by satelite, worse than most parts of Africa.

[He had an audience participation bit here but skipped it. Shame!]

2. Dissecting Designs

Got people to point East (with eyes closed). Look round the room, everyone is pointing all over the place. It’s not a tested example – if we can’t decide as well-educated people which way East is, what are our chances for teaching and learning. [Didn’t actually do that exercise with us either. I’m not sure that’s the best strategy]

Can you design for learning? That’s at the root of the conference theme. Diana Laurillard – “using new digital tech to improve education is not rocket science … it is much, much harder than that.” I advocate her work, her Conversational Framework. Still has a lot of value as an explanation of the interactions in teaching and learning. Comes from pre-online days, but is a well-cited model.

Another framework – Community of Enquiry Framework or Model. To explain Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, Teaching Presence. Another body of literature arguing for Learner Presence.

The HoTEL project – has visualisation of Learning Theories.

If we can’t agree on the theory of learning, how can we set about designing for learning. There is a huge debate about this. Important to anchor what you’re saying in some kind of theoretical perspective. Being pragmatic is not good enough, you do come with a framework.

Sfard, 1998, educational researcher. Theoretical exclusivity and didactic single-mindedness can be trusted to make even the best educational ideas fail. [Side note: I wonder if we need a movement like the one that launched counselling – Carl Rogers – it’s not really the theory that helps your teaching, it’s how you treat your learners.]

“Not everything that can be counted counts, not everything that counts can be counted” – attributed to Einstein [but from memory I think it can be sourced more reliably elsewhere] What you choose to measure may not be an indicator of learning. It may be activity, at best.

Grainne Conole 2010, “The principle of designing learning for the future is to help make the design process more explicit and shareable.”

We can design for teaching. Most of the papers done in formal learning contexts. If you count up hours from 5 to 25, time for learning, the hours spent in formal learning, versus informal, formal learning is just so small. But we place so much focus on the informal.

More formal learning – modes of interaction framework, interactions paradigm. Teacher-learner, learner-learner, learner-content interaction. Overlaid with Tools, Plaes, Spaces. That’s why learning design is important. It’s more complex – Pace, Place, Mode.

Learning is not not, arguably, rooted in spaces [like the lecture theatre we’re in]. Most focus is there. On campus out of class is important in learning design. Off campus in class – synchronous, or async. [Acquisition vs participation axis crossed with physical vs virtual.] But there is leakage across those. Learning is messy. New technologies play a role. Entwined learning, it doesn’t fit in to tight quadrant.

Grainne Conole again – The 7Cs Design Framework, Designing for Learning in an Open World. It’s just a heuristic for the design for teaching. When I’ve run workshops, where rank and file academics, it doesn’t work. Don’t tell Grainne. It’s complex, they don’t operate like that. It doesn’t route in to their world.

I use the metaphor of a compass. We can’t design learning, but give teachers a compass. Learning by listening (instructionist), sharing (connectivist), doing (constructivist), making (constructionist). Direct teaching often seen as a dirty word. It’s what I’m doing right now. If I didn’t think that was of value I wouldn’t be here. Any good will swing between them, but there’s no recipe. If you put it in the hands of the learner …

To promote and critique another example. Really elegant, grounded in Diana Laurillard’s work. Designing for teaching, and I don’t think it resonates. A model for thinking through hough you do design at a high level. Course Resources Appraisal Model tool.

(video demo of it at this point) [Note: The OU uses a Learning Design tool that does something very similar to this. And I remember CRAM from back when Diana was at the OU.]

It considers over three runs, on assumption that most of the costs of prep are in first run, amortised.

I love the elegance of the theory behind this. But if I work with academics, with this tool. When I’ve done it with similar ones, you’re not going to get far. I will stand behind Diana’s work. Design, we have to be talking about costs as well. Every design has costs, whether direct or not. Typically we haven’t engaged in that.

I want to tap in to conversations about learning analytics. Link to LACE – 9 October – Open University – running a Learning Analytics event. [The LACE SoLAR Flare, in Milton Keynes, UK – come and join us!]

There’s much sheer naivety about the messiness of learning. Paper earlier today – PredictED – Moodle Activity, Insight Center. We can learn a lot from this. Good reasons to explore, so long as we are cautious about our conclusions. Paper about Moodle logs.

Make a jump from someone else’s work, sporting analogy. [Slide of Rugby data]. In NZ we don’t play much football, soccer. NZ went through last world cup but one (soccer) without defeat. The Rugby World Cup starts tomorrow in the UK. They all wear GPS trackers, whole list of players, we can monitor, track data, compare players against others, see what they did. Analyse it to death. really powerful. Again, in learning.

One fundamental issue. Performance takes place in the network. Concern when learning is treated as a individual, being done to you. It’s a co-constructed activity, in a network with other people. With sports, in the course of a game, what one player does, and measurement of their individual performance is heavily dependent on what others do. In VLE terms, what one person does can’t be taken in isolation. Performance, on the sports field. It’s hard in rugby to be good as a fly half if your forwards are crap.

The sum of the whole is greater than individual parts – slide of the All Blacks doing a haka. Team in the world that has highest percentage win rate over the last 100 years.

[He skipped over the discussion and questions here too.]

3. Dilemmas

Three dilemmas –

Iron triangle – Cost, Access, Quality. Tradeoffs have to be made. John Daniel – can’t satisfy rising demand for HE by relying on trad approaches. People need education because humanity needs educated people.

It’s important to explore different designs for teaching, for institutions. OECD gave us a report, have estimate of growth of HE – it’s big.

ICDE reports series – EADTU – Quality models in online and open education around the globe: State of the art and recommendations. The report’s fairly superficial, describes frameworks.

We have to confront the situation around student success (vs dropout or retention). Truth is, we have a challenge around success, particularly in more flexible models of education. For those that are state funded, this is what the public gets back. In others where there’s more cost on the learner, huge obligation to provide an education where they’re more likely to be successful.

The challenge for all three – greater access, may have quality problems, but less cost, because scale.

It’s become an expensive activity, seen as a private activity. In continental Europe we see that. But see a very large private provision in education. A partnership model has a place to provide quantity. But in Australia and NZ. In NZ, education is the 3rd largest earner – agriculture, tourism, education.

Around cost, challenge to maintain, e.g. in Ireland – free provision. Not a single piece of research examining the public return on investment of more open HE. Greville Rumble – The Costs and Economics of Online Distance Education. This research should happen.

Analytics could help us. This plays out daily in Ireland. Officially only 3%, 2.7% of students are distance. They’re not funded, not seen as a good return on public investment.


TEL should be in the service of big ideas, not as a big idea in itself. (adapted from Barnett, 2011).

We must keep our goals and outcomes in mind and not get distracted. Costing, quality, access issues.

A design framework, more rooted in a transformatory one – UNESCO pillars of learning – learning to be, to know, to do, to live together. This is what they are. Fifth one that I add – learning to change and transform.

ELLI spider, measure against the UNESCO pillars of learning. I can tell you, Europe’s not doing that well on those measures.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them – again attributed by him to Einstein [and I’m skeptical]

We can learn from patterns of activity. They’re not that different from what we’ve always done.

The FUN of reflection – what’s the Fundamental point, what new understanding will you take away, [what new thing will you do]?


Q1, Andrew Ravenscroft: Agree it’s messy. There are some pointers. We invent taxonomies of learning, but not looking at fundamental. Learning starts with curiosity and imagination, then dialogue, then thinking. Learning relationships. It’s not that difficult. I say read Vygotsky. We can think about designing learning. It baffles me why fundamental DNA – imagination, dialogue – gets obscured by these diagrams.

MB: Feeling uneasy, I like to take the language of opportunity. I feel I pushed this too far in to the pedagogy of the depressed. This morning, adding creativity, the Arts in to STEM. It’s about the outcomes we’re looking for. We need more creative, inquisitive people. A lot of what we do is counter to that. But remember my generalisation comment.

Q2, Katherine Maillet: At the end of the day, we do 3h exams, in your research, can you give us hope this will change? We’re piloting innovative learning environments. Teachers would love to, but students have to take baccalaureat at the end of the year.

MB: Don’t have a problem having to perform. Whether it’s 3h, I don’t know. In previous institution, were trying to pilot online exams using Criterion system. Create flexibility to take exams, or tests, from their own home, flexibly. Why make it less flexible? That tech does exist. There are implementation issues. In an European context, listening to research funded in first keynote. Why aren’t we being more strategic? Funding a project to do something in this space. People are time poor. Students. If we can make more time, that’s sensible. Not seeing that level of strategic thinking. I would hate to think we’re still doing this in 5 years. For campus as well as distance.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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