Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Web Learning about Web Learning for teachers

On one of my shortest transatlantic jaunts, I spent 3 days this week with an international  team developing a series of eight web based tutorials on e-learning for university faculty. The series is a bold, entrepreneurial attempt to speed the adoption and effective use of e-learning and online education resources beyond early adopters to the notoriously pedagogically and technically conservative, mainstream faculty employed in our universities. Unlike typical publicly funded professional development ventures in this arena, this project was sparked by Epigeum Ltd a spinoff from Imperial College, London.

Epigeum’s business model for this venture is to find a number of postsecondary institutions willing to fund the development of web based tutorials. These first, investing institutions get use of the materials and also provide reviewers, critics, pilot testers and consumer voices to insure the product meets real needs and administrative expectations.  The financial model calls for additional institutions to sign on for licensing of the products after production – providing a profit for Epigeum.

The collaborative development model employed selects a grand guru, intellectual leader (in this case Diane Laurillard, of conversational learning model fame) and a team of module authors, ‘expert reviewers’ and end users – or at least those employed to train the end users.  An author and an expert reviewer are selected and assigned to create curriculum for each of the 8 topics selected by the initial investing universities, the grand guru and Epigeum staff.  In this case these ranged from Intro to E-Learning; Using third party content, Net based communications and five others.  I’m not sure how I was selected to be a part of the development as an expert reviewer, but the development process sounded interesting, I’ve a lot of respect for Diane and we all know how desperate is the need for effective PD related to e-learning among this crowd.
The carbon footprint abuse comes from the proscribed Face-to-Face meeting which was held this week in London. Authors, reviewers and reps from investing institutions came from 6 countries (but mostly the UK) and converged for a day and half meeting. Hopefully effective use of google docs as well as lots of email will eliminate the need for further F2F meetings.

The process began three weeks ago with the course authors drafting and sharing for comment,  a proposed syllabus (using Google docs). In order to maintain consistency each ‘module’ consists of an introduction, 12-15 ‘screens’ of content, a summary, a multiple choice quiz and a list of resources for further exploration. The design model also insists that modules are not cross linked to allow for modular use as learning objects. The Google docs spreadsheet module was employed so the content, and especially the learning outcome of each ‘screen’ is articulated by the author and vetted by the ‘ expert consultant and other members of the development team. Each module is designed to take 60-90 minutes of end user time to complete. Fortunately, Epigeum technicians and media experts will actually create the screens which  (I understand) will make liberal use of video, animation and other multimedia resources. The modules are formatted to meet IMS content packaging standard so that they can ‘eaten up’ and delivered by a variety of LMS (OK make that VLEs, in the UK) delivery systems.

I’m looking forward to seeing the products as they evolve and we discussed a multiple case study design to study their actual use – given the wide variety of contexts and manners in which they COULD  be utilized and supported in the subscribing and subsequent purchasing institutions.

My greatest concern is with the “direct instruction” teaching/learning model employed. Australia’s famed educational theorist, Shirley Alexander asked a pointed question to Diane Laurillard, after her initial ‘what is this all about’ presentation,  questioning  what learning (or instructional ) model was being employed in the design. Uncharacteristically, she dodged the question, but direct instruction jumped to mind.

I know that professional academics are busy people and are used to the “tell ‘em what you are gong to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em; model” of instruction and this MAY work for the real thirsty. But I wish we could learn to spark interest in the most exiting and revolutionary technology ever to be used for formal instruction, in ways that were just a bit more designed to fire the imagination and engagement of users – both as learners and as teachers.

I’ll report later as this project moves to release of product (about 9 months) and distribution to initial and additional consumer institutions.  Meanwhile I am sure Epigeum would welcome further inquiry into purchase or support and it is nice to see PD models emerging that are not dependent upon whining for new money from government.

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  1. September 9, 2008    

    The for-profit approach to this kind of system worries me a bit and, as a structural feature, might well drive the rest. Get the best people in the world on conversational and social learning, then make them produce a non-social product? Someone is missing a trick here.

    Even from the three experts you mention, this is an incredible team to assemble. The approach to development seems unusually sound, employing all the right standards and methods. By rights these should be the best lessons ever! My suspicion is that they might not be so, even though they are sure to be good. So much is determined by structural features, especially the earlier decisions, that even the best team in the world (this could be it) cannot overcome the constraints. Throw in a bunch of power relationships and the strengths of the team become more dilute. And then the technical folk get involved…

    Very small point: my understanding is that the UK community is fond of using ‘MLE’ (managed learning environment) to mean what most of the rest of us mean by ‘LMS’, rather than the more generic ‘VLE’, which describes any kind of virtual space used specifically for learning, whether incorporating management features or not. Why does the UK not do what everyone else does? I have very little idea. Having said that, and on the whole, I would mostly rather have a managed learning environment than managed learning 🙂

  2. September 10, 2008    

    A very interesting post!
    As a company we are in the process of writing e-workbooks with checklist excercises embedded. The idea being that in order to complete the work book you will have completed a number of excercises showing that the concept has been understood. This gives an effective tickbox for educators to quuantify up take with.
    As for using technologies the workbook are in effect hosted wikis which in itself encourages engagement and active interaction. This method also allows a question and answer space with the discussion pages.


  3. Philip Watland Philip Watland
    September 15, 2008    

    Hi Terry,

    The project outcomes sound promising and I would be happy to become more involved and will contact Epigeum. In my current role I find that there is more than enough training on the mechanics of how to use various educational technologies (click here to add this; click here for this option …) . What is missing seems for me as well (and what this project seems to be aiming to address to some degree) is how educational technologies can be used to support teaching and learning. It will be interesting to see how these modules model this.


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  1. Reflections on week 1 | digital lifeboat on October 17, 2008 at 4:39 am

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