Doomed to Repeat

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
― Edmund Burke

This well-known quote is certainly true when it comes to the history of educational technology. I recently participated in a NERCOMP event that considered the use of tablet computers in education. The opening presentation touched on some failures, specifically a spectacular failure of a $1B iPad program for Los Angeles schools (see this LA Times article). This is not the only example.

The iPad is one in a long series of technologies to be promoted as something that would revolutionize education. For example, Thomas Edison once said in 1922, “I believe the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks”. Since then, many technologies have been hyped and adopted without a revolution occurring (see October, 2012 post).

The problem with this and similar initiatives is that it concentrates on getting the new technology into the learning environment without first creating a strategic plan for how the technology will be used and how the users (particularly the teachers) will be supported. The assumption is made that all that is needed is the new technology and everything will work by some sort of magic. Prior to the recent focus on tablets, many schools and colleges adopted policies requiring students to obtain a laptop but had no strategies for how they were to be used in classes. As a result some instructors have banned laptops from classes, seeing them as more of a distraction than a help (e.g. Laptops vs. Learning – Washington Post)

Fortunately, the NERCOMP event did include some success stories. A professor from Baypath University described how he was initially a skeptical and unwilling participant with little technical experience but now is an enthusiastic supporter of the use of tablets in the classroom. The key ingredient of the success story was the training provided alongside the adoption of tablets. The extensive training, provided by edtechteacher, focused on what students can do with the tablets in class instead of providing details about the technology or all the apps available. Seven guiding principles aimed at promoting active learning with the technology were adopted:

1. Exploration, not planning
2. Activities, not Apps
3. Flexible tools (e.g. video creation), not discipline specific apps
4. Creation not consumption (by students)
5. Student uses, not Faculty uses
6. Task challenges (to students), not step-by-step instructions
7. Student choice of tools, not instructor-assigned apps

The initially skeptical professor said the experience has transformed his perspective on teaching and sees the changes as a dramatic improvement. He is often amazed by what his students do with the technology.

diagram of SAMR

Key to this approach is focusing on the higher levels of the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition Model, which defines levels of technology use in teaching and learning. The most basic and most used level is substitution, where technology is used to perform the same task as was done before the use of computers. Thus, the instructor uses PowerPoint to replace acetate slides and chalkboards and the students use laptops to replace paper notebooks. The highest level is redefinition, where technology results in new learning tasks that were previously inconceivable.

The approach to learning, not the type of technology, is the key. Training should be focused on facilitating learning outcomes not merely technology features and operation. This is the way to change history not repeat it.

Further Reading:

The Human Touch by Lowell Monke, Education Next, Fall 2004.

Research on in class use of laptops and other devices. The Teaching Center Journal, Washington University in St.Louis, Sept, 2014.

Active Learning

One problem in education is that there are constant waves of interest–some might say hype–around fashionable terms. Very often the core concepts behind the terms are not new and the important new concepts are not made clear.

One good example is “active learning”. There may be a false sense that all of education is mainly made up of students sitting passively listening to instructors providing lectures and that a few brave innovators have recently started to change this. In a sense, all learning is active. Students sitting passively in a lecture theatre are learning if they are actively processing what they see and hear. Quiet contemplation can be considered active learning, if a student is cognitively active.

The true value in the modern sense of active learning is making the active part of learning explicit. There needs to be analysis, synthesis and evaluation evident in the learning tasks as they occur, not just in exams many months later. For example, reading a chapter for an assignment is a learning task in which active learning (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) is implicit in the act of reading. If students are asked to highlight what they think are the key passages in the reading assignment and compare their selections with their peers, this task makes explicit the active learning. It also exposes potential flaws in their cognitive approach that can be corrected thereby enhancing their future learning.

active learning class scene 2

Bonwell and Eison, 1991, define active learning this way: “Active learning engages students in two aspects–-doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” Active learning in this sense relates to the concept of “reflective practice” (see: May, 2013 entry), which theorists identify as a key skill of effective professionals. Active learning begins to develop this important skill in aspiring professionals.

Active learning exists on a continuum rather than as an absolute. Thus, if student time is spent reading and listening without verification of their being cognitively active in these tasks, the learning is relatively passive. If the time is spent solving problems and creating tangible outputs (e.g. a concept map), it is relatively active. The concept is also very much related to flipping the classroom–another fashionable term covered in a previous blog entry. It should be immediately apparent upon walking into a classroom where active learning is taking place that students are fully engaged in learning. The pictures above and below provide an illustration of this:

active learning class scene

There now are a range of tools that instructors can use to help facilitate more active learning. Low-tech ones include highlighting, drawing and using Post-it notes. High-tech tools include the advanced learning spaces discussed in the last blog entry or apps for iPads and other such devices. Aurasma is one example of this as illustrated in this video:

Bonwell, C.; Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass.

Innovative Learning Spaces

I participated in the annual EDUCAUSE conference earlier this month. EDUCAUSE is one of the biggest events showcasing technology in education. Two years ago at the same conference I noticed an interesting addition to the exhibition floor: vendors of furniture. The furniture vendors were mainly promoting innovative classroom designs.

This year, innovative classrooms were a prominent topic at the conference. One of the keynote speakers, State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher described how SUNY is encouraging more interactive forms of learning and redesigning classrooms to support this. She highlighted FLEXspace, an online community for sharing ideas about novel learning space design.

A traditional classroom design primarily facilitates a lecture-based mode of education and conforms to this basic layout:
Abstract diagram of typical classroom

A more modern approach to education employs the Internet for presentations and in the classroom creates a more interactive experience for students. This can be done in a traditional classroom but this is not an ideal setup, as this picture illustrates:
students collaborating in a traditional class

A layout supporting such an approach looks more like this:
Abstract diagram of an interactive classroom

This video from George Mason University illustrates such a class in action:

In one of the EDUCAUSE sessions I attended, we were polled to determine the percentage of us at colleges with interactive classrooms. Of 51 respondents, 26% reported between 5 percent and 50 percent nontraditional classrooms,  49% reported less than 5 percent and 16% had none. It is clear that the development of classrooms to support interactive learning has a long way to go.

In another session, participants brainstormed issues involved in designing and using such classrooms and came up with this list:

Collaboration/communication among stakeholders
Whose job is it to do needs assessment?
Including the student voice
How do you get involved early enough to make a difference?
Achieving multi-use reconfigurable spaces
Balancing what you spend your money on: What’s the biggest bang for your buck?

Scheduling: How to pair redesigned classrooms with the right faculty
Proving a return on investment
New spaces vs. old teaching

The last issue is particularly important. I continually emphasize in this blog that changing technology alone is not sufficient to change learning. A newly designed space will not automatically result in an instructor abandoning passive lecturing. New methods are required to engender an interactive learning environment. If an instructor is committed to making the classroom experience more interactive, such a space may transform the experience.

The change in the space illustrated in the video is more about the psychology than it is about the technology. Indeed, one presenter noted how students loved the low tech, i.e. round tables and all around white boards, but did not like the high tech, the wall-mounted flat screens that display their laptops. Students considered their laptop screens a private space not to be shared publicly.

It is important to recognize that every space on campus has the potential to transform learning. It is not just traditional classrooms that need to be redesigned for the Internet age. Click on the graphic below to see a slide show of more innovative learning spaces:

Abstract diagram of an interactive classroom

Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again

Any system is a collection of different sub-systems and components that must work together well to be effective. Systems are less effective or not effective if too much emphasis is placed on certain prominent components and others that are less prominent but no less important to overall system success are neglected.

In the world of technology this often is seen in a focus on the technology itself (selection, purchase and installation) and neglect of the human element–the needs of the people using it and the technical support provided. Humorists have found a rich source of material in this. One of my favorite examples suggests this issue is not confined to the modern age:

Support does not always go so smoothly. This example from the British sitcom “The IT Crowd” is described as the “truest moment ever”:

Two types of poor support are demonstrated by the actors in this video clip. The first is frustration that the person needing support does not have the same level of knowledge as the person providing it. This ultimately results in conflict. The second is the IT specialist’s inability to explain things in non-technical terms. He is so absorbed in technical jargon that he does not recognize others’ need for explanations in plain English. Acronyms and Jargon can foster efficient communication within a group of specialists but it also can create barriers to communicating with non-specialists.

This problem is not confined to the IT world. Instructors potentially can interact with students in similar ways. Denial of climate change and evolution, for example, suggests scientists are not always effective in communicating with the general public. Educators need to help specialists communicate effectively with all audiences. This is particularly important for those who will be employed by organizations that provide customer service or who will become educators themselves.

Sticking with Blackboard

Over the last year, our college underwent a thorough review of its learning management system. After considering all the options and running a trial of Instructure’s Canvas, we decided to stick with Blackboard Learn. Blackboard has established a dominant position in the market over the years often by buying out its rivals. Canvas, our trial system, has mounted a substantial challenge to Blackboard mainly by employing a fresh approach to this category of software. It adopted a truly cloud-based platform and focused the design on the user experience. The LMS market has been both fluid and complex as illustrated by this infographic created by Phil Hill.

LMS msrket trends
It has been interesting to see the changes that have taken place.

The reasons our college decided to remain with Blackboard, despite having some problems with it over the years, are varied. Partly, it may have been a feeling of better the devil you know but also there was undoubtedly the influence of positive change at Blackboard under the new management (see A new Blackboard? ). In particular, there seems to be a reaction to competition from Canvas in the area of user experience.

Last month I attended Blackboard’s world conference for the first time to get a sense of its path forward. I was impressed with the scale of the event and the new emphasis on the user experience. A user experience lab was accessible throughout the conference so participants could test forthcoming improvements that will make the system “friendlier”. It is a substantial and real change over Blackboard’s previously clunky approach to interface design when doing something simple could take multiple clicks. The recent hiring of Jon Kolko, who is well known within the human-computer interaction and design communities, illustrates Blackboard’s new approach. Jon will be focused on improving the company’s mobile apps.

Blackboard’s move to the cloud was a major announcement (see this video for a short non-technical explanation of the cloud). During our review of Canvas vs Blackboard there was some confusion over what was meant by a cloud-based system. Blackboard was thought to be on the cloud because it was hosted on Blackboard’s servers and not on a College server. A hosted service gives each user its own copy of the Blackboard product (often different versions) running on dedicated resources. A true cloud system is one in which users have separate data and custom views but everyone shares the same version of the product. Blackboard will run its new cloud version on Amazon Web Services just as Canvas does.

Blackboard has a number of products (57 in all). In addition to being an LMS vendor, it offers a leading tool for synchronous learning (Collaborate) and tools for analytics. These tools have been sold separately and operated under separate business units but will in the future be merged and integrated. The next versions of Blackboard products will be sold under four levels of integrated services:

Learning Core: The Learn LMS (with some added tools)
Learning Essentials: Learn plus Collaborate
Learning Insight: Adds Analytics for Learn to track learning outcomes
Learning Insight & Student Retention: Basically everything Blackboard offers.

In addition to the many presentations on Blackboards products and how they are being used, the conference featured two very inspiring key note speakers. One is posted online.

A shorter version of the other can be found in this TED talk.

For another perspective on the conference see:
Blackboard’s Big News that Nobody Noticed
Posted on July 18, 2014 by Michael Feldstein

Common Challenges

I recently participated in a conference on health care informatics. A number of the speakers discussed the main challenges in health care: cost, quality, integration and including a patient (end-user) voice. These could apply equally to education.

Some presenters spoke about topics I have included in my recent blog entries. For example, in my February post on the curriculum problem, I noted how it is increasingly difficult for the curriculum in most disciplines to keep pace with the accelerated rate of knowledge generation brought about by the internet age. One speaker, a physician, called on members of his profession to stop pretending they can be current with the latest information about their discipline. He talked of the knowledge processing-capacity gap and the need to provide contextual information support at the point of care.

We have the capability to produce checklists, reminders, alerts, warnings and identification of alternatives (automatically updated based on the latest knowledge) for electronic records and treatment protocol forms. However, such technologies are not in widespread use. As long as we are relying solely on knowledge in the heads of medical professionals rather than on just-in-time knowledge embedded in the technology infrastructure, the gap will get wider.

In my March entry on the scientific method, I noted how much educational practice is informed by unsubstantiated belief instead of educational science and effectiveness data. A conference presenter referred to a study of over 1,000 physicians in the UK that revealed only 3 percent successfully reviewed effectiveness data about their practice regularly and 55 percent had never attempted to collect and review data. The majority just have faith that they are making a difference.

There are few virtuous loops in health care that measure patient outcomes, analyze data to determine what is working and instantly share the results with care providers. Large-scale data collection and analysis is required to make this happen and lack of data standards creates a barrier. For example, a project in Massachusetts to create a data interchange is targeting only the 20 electronic health record systems that have substantial market presence, meaning that in one state there are so many incompatible systems in use it is not possible to cover them all.

A whole industry has been created by IT companies that provide translational services between different health related data systems. This problem has been an issue with educational software systems too, although there has been progress in getting many vendors to adopt some common standards for data interchange. Organizations such as the IMS Learning Consortium with its Learning Tools Interoperability standard have been helpful in this regard.

Despite these problems there was a great deal of optimism among conference participants that technology has the potential to radically transform and improve the health care system. In addition to large-scale data analytics to help improve health outcomes, there were a number of presentations on the use of mobile apps and providing greater patient access and involvement through personal health records and virtual visits.

This short video provides an example of the impact of large-scale (big) data analytics in healthcare. It is possible to argue for similar analytics being applied to education.

The User Experience in Education

Usability is a term usually related to the interface design of technology-related systems. Its aim is to improve a system’s ease of use. The classic definition of usability is relative rather than absolute. One cannot say a design is usable, user-friendly or has good usability. One can say that design A is relatively more usable than design B based on some measure of: effectiveness (user goal completion), efficiency (time taken to complete the task, number of errors and number of times seeking assistance), satisfaction (user’s rating of experience) or learnability (amount of instruction/study required). Numerous evaluation techniques have emerged to measure these factors.
It is also possible to argue that, similar to specific products, organizational systems and services are designed with more or less usability. For example, the design of signage to facilitate navigation in a public library contributes to the usability of the library as a service.


The term user experience (UX) has become more commonly used. UX recognizes that while usability is important and an often neglected part of design, the holistic nature of design is such that a successful design requires balancing all of its different aspects (usability, functionality, aesthetics, etc.). It recognizes that a finished design is a gestalt—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. UX initially was mainly applied to technology (e.g. web site design) but is starting to gain traction for evaluating and improving higher education; for example, the library experience and first-year experience.

Design decisions dominated by those not trained in UX design create a barrier to achieving a good user experience. As illustrated in the above photo, many designers will design with their own perspective of what is important and assume the user is just like them. Another problem is that designers will sometimes categorize the advocates, purchasers or managers of what is being designed as the users instead of identifying and understanding variations among actual users. Design should be centered on the end-user.

The development of new textbooks is one example of how user-centered design of the UX has yet to influence education. Publishers tend to assess the quality of a new textbook by asking peers of the authors (potential advocates for purchase) instead of conducting studies with students (the end-users) to determine whether the book supports and inspires learning.

Reference: A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education by Tamim Ansary

This video presentation by Paul Bennett illustrates user-centered design of the user experience in action: