Fear and loathing in academia

My mother recently started a distance learning course using WebCT, and immediately asked if this was “one of Elgg’s competitors”. “No,” came my answer, “but I’m interested in how you’re finding it.” She was neither impressed nor unimpressed, but did remark that nobody was using the bits they weren’t required to for their course; for example, the general chat area on the discussion board was left completely untouched. Presumably this extends to the content within the rest of the discussion board and the participation with the assessed parts of the system: people will do what they are required to, and no more. There’s no engagement beyond what’s been prescribed.

A few years ago, before Elgg was anything more than the name of a small Swiss village, I did a world history distance learning course using another e-learning product and had a similar experience. A full 10% of our mark was received for “contributing to the discussion” (and wasn’t graded beyond that), so there were quite a few one-line answers and restatements of the original question. There was very little participation or exploration of the possiblities of the system by the educator; they themselves appeared to be doing the minimum required.

On Tuesday I went to visit Adam Marshall in order to have a chat about Elgg and LUSID. His tool requires educators to provide yes/no questions which theoretically allow a learner to measure his or her progress in a subject. Of course, you then need educators to actually provide those questions, and keep them updated as courses and fields change. If the questions aren’t searching enough or don’t represent the depth of the course, the tool is less effective, and the learner is even less likely to use it as more than a box-ticking exercise.

So it comes down to this: before the learner can be engaged in a system, the educator must be. That’s the real challenge in all of this. There are plenty of students coming in who have grown up with computers around them and aren’t afraid of the technology; students who will hopefully share some of their enthusiasm with those around them, and who can be supported formally where their experience is lacking. Educators, meanwhile, are more hesitant, and often view computer usage in classroom environments with suspicion. I’ve been accused by lecturers of undermining society – and while that’s probably an extreme example of technophobia, it’s an illustration of how much work it can be to get people over that initial fear and distrust, and then to show them the potential of a system. For a system to actually be useful within a classroom setting, educators have to see and be using that potential. (This is less true, I think, for more conversational systems like Elgg, in which learners can participate amongst themselves – it does still hold to an extent though.)

A well-known system design principle goes like this: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The simpler something is, the more people will use it (and, in the context this was initially devised, the easier it is to fix). Certainly Elgg has received far more attention since we reduced the number of main menu options to five and revamped the look and feel. Google has won much acclaim for its GMail and Google Talk services, which have low overheads and completely unobtrusive interfaces while still being powerful. RSS wouldn’t have taken off if it had 170 types of tag and took three weeks to program a suitable parser. Weblogs are phenomenally popular because you can publish something for the world to see in three clicks.

Computers are not inherently engaging: it’s not enough to stick up a discussion board and assume people will use it for reflection and conversation. Sure, there are people – myself included – who are interested in the workings behind the scenes and do things like teach themselves programming languages. In the general sense, however, most people don’t want to be stuck behind a keyboard and monitor when they could be out in the real world talking to people in real life; they need to be given a compelling reason to use the software. The question is not how to force users to use the software. The question is, simply, how do you add to their lives?

If you’re not actively trying to enrich someone’s experience and have built a system for ease of marking, or that aims to treat each learner as an item to be processed in a sort of homogenous education factory, don’t be surprised if nobody really wants to use it. You’ve created a bureaucracy designed for the institution rather than individuals; stacking that on top of having to use a computer is going to result in a system that most people will actively try and avoid. Considering that campus-wide licenses for a lot of e-learning software can stretch to hundreds of thousands of dollars for large institutions, that’s potentially a considerable waste of money. Educational institutions exist to provide a nurturing environment in which people can teach, learn and research more freely and effectively – surely that ethos should shine through into the software?

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