Saturday, 26 February 2011

What have I learnt this week?

In H807 this week the concept of innovation in e-learning has continued to be the main theme.

Applying Rogers' ideal types

We examined Rogers' (2003) model which puts forward five categories to represent the speed with which people take up an innovation. Rogers describes people as 'innovators', 'early adopters', 'early majority', 'late majority' and 'laggards'.  Contributions to the tutor group forum on this topic were really interesting, and people related a range of experiences from their personal and professional lives to illustrate points. Most contributors could recognise some or all of Rogers' categories in themselves or in people they worked with.

A couple of really relevant points emerged for me from the discussions on the forum. Firstly, on reflection, I had perhaps been a little quick to criticise 'laggards' who are reluctant to adopt new technologies. Of course there are often very good reasons why people don't embrace new technologies, so it is important to acknowledge people's circumstances and to recognise that their point of view may be perfectly valid. However, this leads on to my second point, which is that the extent to which one is 'obliged' to adopt a particular innovation must vary depending on whether the decision is a purely personal one or one which is based on the collective decision of a team. At a personal level for example, one can decide whether or not to use Facebook to interact with friends and family. If I decide not to use it, I don't think that makes me a laggard. If I don't personally see any value to be gained from using Facebook then that is my choice. However, in professional situations, decisions are often taken collectively. A course team may decide that a particular technology is to be used to support the delivery of a course. Once that decision is made then there is an implied responsibility on the members of that team to adopt the technology. Obviously, if team members need support then support must be provided, but in my view it will undermine the potential success of an innovation if team members behave as laggards.

Will an innovation fly?

For the H807 course material Pettit (2011) adapted Rogers model to an alternative framework which set out five criteria for assessing e-learning innovations. The five criteria were relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. We were asked to briefly consider these criteria in the context of a personal experience with a technology. I chose my experience of trying to set up discussion forums in connection with my own modules.

Following my experience on H800 in 2010 I was enthusiastic about the use of discussion forums. I felt that there could be genuine advantages for my own students to use discussion boards, in particular to provide a means by which the experience of part time students could be shared by full time students. (Relative advantage). I had observed the benefits through my own experience. (Observability). I didn't think the use of the technology was particularly difficult, since most students were familiar with various forms of online messaging. (Complexity). However, the initiative wasa complete flop, and I wonder whether students simply didn't feel that idea was compatible with their own expectations of the course (Compatibility). If they signed up for a face-to-face course, then maybe they simply didn't see the value of the forums. Perhaps I should have experimented with a small scale trial before introducing it fully. (Trialability).

Early adopters or early majority – who is the key?

This section considered the so-called 'chasm theory' developed by Geoffrey Moore. This theory suggests that there is a chasm between the initial adoption of an innovation and its widespread adoption in the mainstream market. If this chasm is not bridged then the innovation is destined to remain stuck in a small-scale market. (Tanahashi, 2005).

When I read Rodgers' theory I initially felt that he had it about right, with the gradual progression from early adopters to early majority. However, having thought about Moore's Chasm theory, I do think he makes a valid point. I think there is a significant gap between an innovation being taken up by a few dedicated enthusiasts and its wider adoption by the early majority. At my own university, whenever an innovation or a new e-learning initiative is being promoted, there will tend to be a seminar or a presentation specifically for a small number of key people in each school. Similarly, when views are being sought about possible future directions it will generally be the same people who are consulted. I think this is akin to Rogers' idea that marketing needs to focus on the early adopters. Rogers maintained that the early adopters would act as local missionaries to speed the diffusion process. However, the reality is that there is a huge step from getting those early adopters on board to getting more widespread adoption amongst the early majority.

What counts as innovation?

For the final activity of the week we were required to consider a set of criteria developed by Kaye & Hawkridge (2003) to decide on which case studies to include in a book about innovations in business education. In the tutor group forum we were asked to indicate the criteria which we thought were appropriate for selecting e-learning projects. The key thing which emerged for me was the wide range of perspectives from which people approach an exercise like this. I think this is a reflection of the fantastic diversity of professional backgrounds and experiences which students bring to the the H807 course. Rather than analyse the responses in detail, I thought it would be fun to take the key words from each of the contributions and put them into a word cloud. Here's the result:

Wordle: Criteria for assessing innovations

Putting all this in the context of my week at work

Alongside my studies on H807 it has been a really busy week at work. We are currently undertaking a five-yearly review of the Construction Studies Undergraduate Programme, which requires some pretty difficult decisions to be taken about whether to retain certain courses, and how to design the structure and content of the programme to respond to the current context. This week I have been working on one of the key documents in this process – the critical review document. This is supposed to identify the key issues which will need to be addressed in the review. After hours of discussions amongst the team over the past few months this week was all about getting it into the document in and clearly highlighting the relevant issues and supporting evidence. I've worked pretty much all day, every day on it and have ended up with a bit of a monster – over 21,000 words in 60 pages, plus seven appendices!

Ironically, a lot of the agonising which has taken place in the discussions about the review have concerned new ways of working – in other words, innovations. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that higher education faces an incredibly challenging environment over the next few years. I think we are going to have to be much more responsive in our attitudes to students and in the way we deliver our courses. Not everybody is going to be happy with the new ways of working, and some of the ideas we have are potentially risky, but I really feel that we are going to have to be proactive if our courses are to survive.


Kaye, R. and Hawkridge, D. (eds) (2003) Learning and Teaching for Business: Case Studies of Successful Innovation, London and Sterling, Kogan Page.

Pettit, J., (2011) "Activity 2 – Will an innovation 'fly'?" in H807: Week 3: Who innovates, who follows? [Online course materials] Available from (Accessed 26th February 2011)

Rogers, E.M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations (5th edn), New York, Simon and Schuster.

Tanahashi, H. (2005) The Innovator Theory [online], Tokyo, Mitsue-Links

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Innovative practice with elearning (Part 2)

SHEFFIELD HALLAM UNIVERSITY: Use of e-portfolios in Social Sciences

This case study described the introduction of an e-portfolio system to support personal development planning (PDP) on a social sciences course. The e-portfolios were introduced in the first year of the course in a module which was primarily concerned with core skills. The e-porfolios were to replace a paper-based approach to PDP which was recognised as being of limited value to students. Most students appeared to approach PDP in a very superficial way. There was a desire to promote PDP as a means by which students could reflect more deeply on their learning and to foster a community of practice.

A commercial e-portfolio tool (PebblePad) was selected and this operated separately from the university's VLE. PebblePad enabled students to prepare webfolios containing evidence in a range of media, including text, audio, video and web-based materials. It also facilitated group work, sharing work in progress, and feedback. PebblePad was considered to be visually attractive, with a simple interface.

The initiative was successful in that students seemed to be motivated to engage with it far more actively than had been the case with the previous system. Students also welcomed the ease of use and the ability to collaborate and receive feedback. The team believes that PebblePad has moved from a 'bolt-on' to an embedded aspect of the course.

However, the introduction of PebblePad was funded through special sources of funding and it was not clear whether funding would continue to be made available. Furthermore, PebblePad was maintained outside the university's VLE and was therefore not integrated into it. An interesting point was also made about the inertia that exists amongst some academic staff towards the introduction of elearning initiatives:

"Whilst course teams are motivated by the pedagogic potential of new technology and, working 'at the chalk face', are acutely aware of the need to motivate students and enrich their learning experiences, the policies and practices of large, bureaucratic institutions are shaped by many other considerations. This disjunction can make pedagogic innovation hazardous. In addition, in a context of increasing staff workloads and pressure, the tendency to inertia is strong: if a pedagogic approach is new and untried, it is a risky and time-consuming business to experiment with it; in contrast, to continue to do what you know has worked reasonably satisfactorily in the past, despite its drawbacks, is the safe option."
Personal commentary

I found this case study interesting because the experience of the team accords precisely with my own experience of PDP. Students do not engage with PDP in the intended manner, and they tend to approach it very superficially. We have introduced an e-portfolio system which has had some success, but this project seems to have successfully embedded the e-portfolio in the course, which I don't think we have quite managed. I think the success of the project may lie in the quality of the e-portfolio product (PebblePad) which is far superior to the integrated facilities available in VLEs such as Blackboard.


SHEFFIELD HALLAM UNIVERSITY: Use of video case studies to highlight issues in Qualitative Research Methods

This case study described an initiative implemented on a postgraduate Qualitative Research Methods module on an MA Social Science Research Methods course. Essentially the project consisted of integrating a series of links to video material within a research methods module. The video material included content from established resources at other universities, as well as material from Goole Video and YouTube. This was supplemented by the author's own material

The video material provided a basis for introducing visual research methods to students, and also provided material which could be used interactively in lectures and workshops.

Personal commentary

I selected this case study because I thought the case study was using video-based material to provide guidance to students in the conduct of research. I obviously misinterpreted it because the video material in question is actually research material itself. Whilst I don't doubt the value of this approach in research methods training, I don't actually see it as being particularly innovative.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Innovative practice with elearning (Part 1)

In Week 2 of H807 we are exploring a series of case studies published by JISC which provide examples of the tangible benefits of elearning. We are required to individually select four of the case studies (from the total of 37) and consider these in some detail. We are then required to publish blog entries detailing our findings.

This posting covers the first two of the case studies I have selected. A second post will cover the other two.

Case Study 1: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER: Online Economics Texts

This case study described a project in which full time undergraduate economics students in their second year of study were provided with access to online resources to support their studies. The resources included case studies, videos, online exercises, multiple choice questions and so on, and were intended to reinforce the material covered in lectures.

The modules had previously been delivered via 2 x 1 hour lectures plus a 1 hour class each week. The online exercises effectively replaced the 1 hour class, whilst the lectures were retained. Students on the modules were required to purchase a set text and in doing so they received access to a publisher's website on which could be found all the online resources. Each lecture was linked to an associated online exercise which students were instructed to carry out. In the case study described there was no compulsion to participate, though it was suggested that in future the online exercises may form part of the assessment for the course.

The benefits cited in the case study did not seem to be very substantial. Pass rates on the modules were said to be "equivalent" to the traditional modules, though it suggested that retention rates were high. (The case study did not make clear whether retention rates had also been high on the old modules). It was suggested that the project enabled staff to get involved in elearning, though this was not really explained, since staff input seems to have been minimal. The most tangible benefits seemed to be the savings in staff time and the space savings achieved by reducing the number of classes.

Personal commentary

I selected this case study because my first impression was that it was going to describe an innovative way of linking online texts to the taught material. Having examined the case study in much more detail, I feel that it is hardly an innovation at all. All the online materials are developed and hosted by a publisher, with no input at all by academic staff at the university. All that has happened is that students are told to buy a set text and this gives them access to a website containing various resources. The face-to-face classes previously provided for students have been replaced by online content which is provided by the publisher. The university has saved considerable staff time and achieved space savings at no cost to itself at all. The case study, in my opinion, does not provide any significant evidence of consideration for the students and their learning in the design of the project. The overwhelming impression I am left with is of a team of academic staff who are too busy with their research to be seriously bothered with teaching undergraduates, and this publisher's resource provided a convenient way of providing resources to students without requiring any input from themselves. Having implemented the project it seems somewhat disingenuous to dress this up as an innovative elearning initiative.


Case Study 2: LEEDS METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY: Use of WebCT in a blended learning approach to multimedia design skills

This case study described an initiative by an enthusiastic and committed member of staff to adopt a truly blended learning approach to the delivery of a module about web authoring. Blended learning is a widely used term which can be applied to any situation in which traditional face-to-face delivery is combined with online support. In some cases this can simply involve the provision of digital copies of learning materials on a VLE to reinforce the content of lectures. However, in this case study the author used the VLE to provide a whole range of online facilities which integrated with the face-to-face sessions. These facilities included online assignment materials, image databases, discussions, quizzes and so on. An interesting aspect of the case study is that the author did not feel that the standard VLE interface (in this case, WebCT) was adequate to satisfactorily integrate the various online components. Consequently he used an HTML authoring tool to change the interface. In doing so he completely altered the user's experience of the VLE by using images of a sailing ship to provide a "metaphor for the delivery of a learning journey".

Although the initiative did not have a significant impact on assessment grades (though there was a marginal improvement in the pass rate), it was evident from student feedback that students clearly valued this innovative approach. The students' interest was maintained, and they appeared to like the practical nature of the module.

The author notes that the initiative was borne out of his own enthusiasm, but that this enthusiasm began to wane when he realised that his university did not appear to willing to invest in the resources required to provide support to other staff who may be interested in adopting a similar approach but do not necessarily have the requisite skills.

Personal commentary

For me there are two aspects to this case study which stand out. Firstly, as is so often the case with this type of innovation, the impetus came from an enthusiastic member of staff who saw an opportunity to improve the learning experience of students. Unlike the previous case study, the member of staff involved was actually prepared to invest considerable time and effort to ensure that the students benefitted from the project. This commitment occurred without any support from the university and it is sad that this lack of support ultimately led to the person involved losing enthusiasm.

The second interesting aspect relates to the use of a standard VLE (in this case WebCT). It was evident that the author did not think that the standard interface of WebCT provided sufficient flexibility to be able to adequately integrate the required content. This strikes a chord with me, and the constant frustration I experience with using Blackboard (another 'off the shelf' VLE). I find the interface on Blackboard to be very limiting and I would love to have the web authoring skills of the lecturer involved in this case study to be able to adapt it.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Exploring the concept of innovation

The first week of H807 has been concerned with the concept of innovation. Some interesting ideas have been put forward on the tutor group forum, and it has occurred to me that the whole concept of innovation is very relevant in my current context. I'll come back to that shortly, but first a summary of the points I have gleaned from the forum, with acknowledgement to the members of my tutor group:

  • Innovation can be interpreted both as the implementation of something completely new and as the application of existing ideas in a new setting.
  • Innovation is, to some extent, context-dependent, i.e. something which is deemed innovative in one setting may be considered standard practice in another.
  • The promotion of elearning as an innovation purely on the grounds of cost effective delivery does not necessarily mean that the innovation is, or will be, successful.
  • The best innovations meet a genuine need – there is little point in innovation if it isn't useful. In an educational context, for example, an innovation might be considered successful if it makes learning more interesting, or more exciting, or more flexible, or more collaborative.
  • Many educational innovations emerge from the 'chalk face', and are reliant on the enthusiasm and imagination of educators who can directly recognise the potential benefits of them.
  • When educational innovations are designed and implemented, the learner's perspective must be at the forefront. This means considering both the direct benefits which the learner will gain from the innovation, and the investment of time and resources required on the part of the learner in order to realise those benefits.
  • As a concept, innovation is generally viewed in positive terms. However, innovation can also be disruptive – it is often associated with change and in many organisations there is an inherent resistance to change.
  • Most large organisations, including universities, are not really conducive to innovation because they are constrained by bureaucracy and regulations, and don't always have the necessary infrastructure. Promoting a culture of innovation requires a commitment on the part of the organisation to invest in the necessary time and resources to achieve it. Some large organisations (such as Google) do actually achieve this.
  • The resistance to change which is inherent in many universities, occurs both on the part of academic staff and on the part of students. Some academic staff, for a variety of reasons (some of which are perfectly understandable) do not recognise the potential benefits which innovative approaches could bring to students' learning experiences. In addition, some students are equally reluctant to adopt new approaches to learning.
  • Innovations often arise out of crises – as the saying goes: "Necessity is the mother of invention".

So – that brings me to my own context at my university. As most people will be aware, the proposed new funding arrangements for higher education are going to create an extremely challenging environment over the next few years, though no one is really sure exactly what the impact will be. In response to this, the Dean of our school instigated a school-wide review exercise over two days last month in which all staff were required to participate. One of the exercises involved being split into groups and asked to come up with new ideas (innovations?) to respond to the challenges we faced. I gave the report-back presentation from our group to the rest of the school and one of the key things which I suggested was that each module should become a self-contained learning package which would continue to be delivered face-to-face but would be supported with greater use of online resources. I wasn't proposing a move towards distance education, but simply the use of technology to provide greater flexibility of access for our students. I argued that the 'learning package' approach would enable prospective students to decide for themselves how many modules they wanted to commit to in any one year, rather than being forced into a rigid programme of study designed to suit the university. Judging by the response I got from some staff, anyone would have thought I was Nick Clegg turning up at a students' rally! I stood and took flak from across the school as I defended the idea and emphasised the potential benefits, but it was clear that there would be major resistance to such a move from a significant proportion of staff within the school.

So will this "innovation" ever see the light of day? I'm not sure. From comments I received afterwards, it is apparent that not all staff are opposed to it. It is possible that when the real implications of the new funding arrangements become apparent maybe colleagues will view things in a different light. As it happens the courses for which I am responsible are currently undergoing their periodic review, so the course team has an opportunity to implement some changes anyway. I think all we can do for the moment is to ensure that our courses are structured in such a way that a move towards a new delivery mode could be implemented with minimum disruption.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Tips on Social Networking

A really interesting article from the Harvard Business Review about social networking. I picked up on it via a 'tweet' from John Seely Brown, who is one of the few people I currently follow on Twitter and who also happens to be one of the authors. The article presents "five tips for smarter social networking":

I don't really consider myself to be much of a social networker. I've got a Facebook account which I never post to, and a Twitter account which I've only just set up to use in connection with my next module on the OU MA ODE course. Nevertheless, the article struck a chord with me in relation to my experience of blogging. I blogged a fair bit when I did H800 last year, but I often felt quite uncomfortable about doing it. This article has helped me to put things into context, and has perhaps given me a bit more confidence in blogging. Let me explain by referring specifically to each of the five tips:

1. Express more vulnerability. 
I suppose I've always had a perception that we're supposed to present a strong, confident persona to the world, and that it is not really appropriate to display one's shortcomings openly. One of the reasons I've used social networking so little in the past is that I have never felt that I had anything to say which anyone would be interested in. The point here is that, by identifying challenges we are facing we might actually be able to get advice from other people. Even if we don't get advice it doesn't do any harm to articulate the difficulties we are having.

2. Mix professional and personal lives
My natural tendency is to compartmentalise my life into family, study, work, social, etc. I've even thought about running separate Twitter accounts for each aspect. Of course, this would be a nightmare to maintain, so I've gone for a single Twitter account. Similarly with blogging, when I started my blog last year it related only to my studies. This time I'm hoping that I will be able to cover a variety of issues, including my studies, my work, and even a bit of fun stuff. 

3. Provoke. 
I've always been slightly nervous about putting anything vaguely contentious in the public domain, so my blog posts have generally avoided anything controversial. Maybe I need to be a bit more provocative.

4. Promote others
I think this is a good idea. If I see something useful or interesting, then I'm happy to draw it to the attention of others. This seems to me to be exactly how social networks should work.

5. Actively seed, feed and weed.
I also agree with this point. I think social networking needs to be carefully cultivated. I don't see the point of blindly following celebrities on Twitter. We should use them to make connections and contribute to our own understanding of the world.

So - let's see if I can put these tips into practice over the coming months.