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Evaluating Uses of Learning Technologies?

Ross Priory, Scotland.
The next presenters at ICE 3 are Michael Begg, Rachel Ellaway, David Dewhurst, and Hamish MacLeod. They describe themselves as educational informaticians, and note that the idea of learning design has been somewhat diluted by the ubiquity of online teaching spaces. Instead, this group focus on proximal development - experimentation with spaces which are in a constant state of development and often sit at something of a distance from the institutions around them.

The problem here is Web2.0: the variety of definitions which exist; and the lack of clarity about its standards. Why do institutions say they like it, yet do so little about it? Who is implementing it in an educational context, and who owns it? What is the origin of the claims that it is going to make things better? What makes us "us" and the institution "them" - and is Web2.0 for us or for them (or for the students)?

E-learning is increasingly embedded, but open to individual interpretation; institutions are increasingly reliant on it and related technologies, and these are increasingly maintained using top-down, centralist, managerial approaches. Web2.0 is similarly open to interpretation, while powerful corporations are steering this 'democratisation' of content; there is an implementation 'hype-cycle', but also a lot of good work out there. Learning technologies are also open to interpretation, and aspire to meaningful pedagogical interventions but largely amount to an enhancement of traditional centralist administrative paradigms. More interesting e-learning work is instead carried out at a sub-institutional level away from administrative eyes. Students may increasingly see higher education as a means of accreditation, though - so who are the partisan supporters of non-centralist approaches actually still fighting for?

In short, the rather dystopian vision here is this: new and powerful tools are being offered by multinational corporations, to institutions who don't get them, while partisans fight under the radar, for students who increasingly care mainly about getting degrees...

They now present the results of an exercise they had us do yesterday - rating various e-learning tools, and groups in education from students to universities, on a collectivist-individualist and libertarian-authoritarian matrix (as also used by the Political Compass Website). Very interesting to see how different tools and groups are placed on this compass space by participants at this conference. This ties into theory on the personal construction of domains, that is, the psychology of how we construct our understanding of new phenomena we encounter: we anticipate new phenomena through existing knowledge and beliefs.

We're now working through a live exercise using the University of Calgary's WebGrid III system, rating different teaching technologies (from books to wikis) according to various aspects (such as reflexivity, multimodality, etc.). What comes very clearly out of this exercise is that such ratings are highly subjective and case-dependent; the evaluation of uses of learning technologies is very much open to personal interpretation, which makes wider quality assurance very difficult: administrators may point to an institution's 'embrace' of Web2.0 technologies, while the institution's educators themselves may continue to say that such uses continue to perpetuate some very hierarchical, teacher-centred and authoritarian models. A more uniform understanding of the affordances of learning technologies as it may emerge from the rating exercises with WebGrid would provide a stronger and less refutable argument towards specific beneficial uses and against the administrative approaches, it is suggested - but at the same time, does this merely replace one top-down policy with another?

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