Moodle: A Year Off

Last year, I carried out a bit of research into how ESOL learners perceive and feel abt the notion of online and blended learning, and I had grand plans, or plans, anyway, to trial some sort of blended element to one of my courses this year: adding an online element through the VLE as an adjunct to the main course, and linking into the main course as its been taught.

It didn’t happen. In fact, for most of the classes I taught this year, the VLE generally has been a non-event: not unused, for sure, but much less promoted and enforced as I might have done in previous years. Strangest of all, I spent a significant chunk of this year teaching ICT, a context in which VLE access might be seen to be somewhat integral for all sorts of reasons.

There are several ways a person could react to this. There might be knee-jerk outrage that I might be so openly rejecting best practice in elearning as espoused by my institution. Frustration, perhaps, as well as outrage, that someone so evidently capable of using the VLE without much specific effort has simply failed to engage. Yeah, whatever. So sue me. I’ll put it in my action plan for next year, if you like.

However, the only really interesting reaction is to ask questions about why this might be. which is a great question, but I’ll tell you what, I don’t really know. I’ve always blown hot and cold on the VLE as a general thing, often finding it too staid and dry, with clunky interactive tools that are much easier to replace with externally sourced things: Google forms and documents replacing quizzes and assignments, for example, emails and the occasional Facebook update forming communication and feedback channels for student work. And you know what, there has been paper: real texts, bits of cut up paper, photocopies, all the stuff that works bloody well without the extra fart-arsing of logging into a system, whether through college devices or BYOD. Controversial, I know.

There just hasn’t been a need. There hasn’t been a gap that the VLE has had to fill. There has been no process which could have been more efficiently or effectively managed through a college VLE. Indeed, for some of my courses, the VLE would have created an extra layer, extra stuff to do, an extra barrier to learning, and arguably not an enabling thing at all.

And let’s not forget that the notion of a VLE as the be all and end all of online or blended learning is essentially flawed. From a certain perspective a VLE has many benefits: tracking learning, monitoring engagement, that sort of thing. I can see that, although that is at least one of the reasons a VLE is just so horrendously dry and tedious.

I’ll tell you what, though,  we’ve been blending all over the place. Most digital technology use in class is no longer special, and lessons are connected in ways which were simply impossible in the past. The biggest visible impact, of course, would be student’s own devices: I’ve done whole ICT sessions with students using their phones to carry out search activities, for example. The interesting thing there, of course, is that the activities themselves tended to be printed on paper to enable more comfortable switching between task instruction and the web search. Sure multi-tasking smart phones are pretty average these days, but it’s still not easy or smooth on anything smaller than a tablet simply because of the physical dimensions involved. Student devices feature most prominently as reference sources: dictionaries using either spoken or written words, google images to find simpler meanings, that sort of thing. Apps have had very little impact, apart from dictionaries. I think the paid for nature of that aspect places significant limitations, although some amusement was found with the google translate app which can sometimes show translations of printed words floating on top of the original in a very cool augmented reality stylee. We’ve had some iPads at one of our centres: I’ve used them a few times with maths: researching prices, for example, or number based information to form the basis of some numeracy practice. 

And I’ve got to admit the interactive whiteboard has really come into its own this year for me: being able to manipulate an audio recording, then annotate the answers to the questions has worked well this year, and generally using the IWB as part of whole group checking of answers, as well as simply as a projection screen has been fairly normal. In one class we managed to bring to life the inexplicably common subject of house types by looking up students’ houses using Google Streetview. Quite why words like “terraced house” and “semi-detached” which are neither high frequency nor terribly useful are so often taught at low levels is always a bit of a mystery, but still, we did, and it became real.
Then there has been my own use of technology to develop resources. Just because the students haven’t used the tech themselves doesn’t mean the tech hasn’t had an impact. I create a lot of my own resources, using, yes, digital technology to do so, utilising the web as a source of authentic texts, both written and spoken. Then there is the cation of resources, digital and otherwise using technology: I created a neat little jigsaw speaking activity using a photo of the college canteen menu with the prices blanked out: I took the picture with my phone,  and then edited it in word using text boxes to cover prices.  Easy as pie, and an authentic, realistic, communicative speaking task for a group of beginners. I emptied my wallet onto a table and took a photo of the (edited) contents to teach money and simlar vocab: this formed the presentation on the whiteboard and the practice and speaking work that followed. 

Still, by all means, tell me I’ve not being using online learning. In one regard, perhaps, I might as well not have bothered using the technology at all if it isn’t tracked through the VLE because there is no evidence to an outsider that any of this happened. This is hardly a reason to use a VLE, of course, if the impact on learning is negligible. I have scant respect for this kind of auditing “evidence” of learning in lieu of professional trust, not least because fifteen students accessing the VLE every week for ten minutes isn’t proof of anything apart from, well, accessing the VLE. I’ll concede I don’t think I’ve been innovating particularly, mind you. All I’ve been doing is making use of the technology in a way which is normal, without forcing in the technology because someone thinks it’s best practice. This “normal” technology is embedded in a way that the VLE could never be. I have been using the VLE with one group, my evening class, fairly regularly as a support for and extension of lessons, or for people who miss class, because I know it works well in that manner for that group of students. 

But for the rest of the time? It’s just not the best tool for the job. 

Nothing New or Innovative Here. 

You know, it really is very tempting to think of notions of blended learning as cobblers. Or at least as old non-cobblers rehashed as cobblers. Because if you take a careful look at it, blended learning, hardly a “new” concept at 15+ years old, is either simple old fashioned correspondence courses, or it’s even simpler, more old fashioned homework.
Let me explain. I’ve been looking into what blended learning is and what it has meant and the general consensual definition is that it’s a combination of some online learning and some face to face learning. Sometimes the online element is considered discrete from the face to face element – essentially a correspondence course by computer alongside a face to face course; or the online elements and the face to face elements are linked, perhaps after the manner of the absence of innovation that is flipped learning, in which case the online element is basically homework. 

However, distance learning by correspondence and homework are, in themselves, not necessarily bad things. Lots of people have successfully learned by distance learning, and a lot of people have gained a lot from homework. All blended learning does is take these perfectly serviceable ideas and chuck them on a web server. What you end up with is the usual “it’s innovative” cry that gets attached to doing stuff on a computer. Paper based multiple choice gap fill? Boring. Multiple choice drop down box on a website? Innovative. Give instructions verbally? Sooooo 20th century. Send them by text? Wow! 

It takes me onto thoughts of SAMR. Essentially this is the idea that technology use in education goes through distinct stages:

  • Substitution, where technology merely does the same as a non-tech method, but brings nothing to it. 
  • Augmentation, where the technology does the same as non-tech but also adds something to the process. 
  • Modification, where using the technology changes the activity. 
  • Redefinition, where the technology creates a whole new type of activity which would have been unimaginable without it. 

There’s a neat definition on this site, with some neat videos: http://www.educatorstechnology.com/2013/06/samr-model-explained-for-teachers.html although the Google Drive example is probably not the best example, although it is easiest to explain. 

So far so clever. It seems to suggest a link with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and you can tell that whoever thought of it clearly had the ideas first and the name second, because it hardly trips off the tongue. It’s a nice idea too, and one which should encourage us to experiment with technology more, and think about the effect it has.
However, I have to be honest and say at my initial reaction was annoyance. A little bit, I have to be honest, was a knee jerk reaction to educational initialisms and acronyms. But there was more to it than that. Like Bloom’s taxonomy as it was originally stated, SAMR seems to suggest a hierarchy of changes, where the SA stuff is somehow perceived as less valuable than the MR sections, much like the idea when discussing Bloom that somehow knowledge is less valuable than being able to synthesise and evaluate. Bloom, happily, is being presented more frequently as a wheel rather than a pyramid, although the divisive hierarchical notions of “higher order” and “lower order” thinking persist. 

However, it occurred to me that I was reading SAMR wrong. It’s not meant as a goad or an encouragement, and Modification and Redefinition are not intended to be taken as better than Substitution or Augmentation, or even of not using the technology at all. No, these are descriptive terms only, and can be used just as easily to justify a technology not being used. Is there a cognitive or learning benefit to the application of technology? That’s the real question. 

And thus we come back to blended learning. How does it fare under SAMR? Let’s think about the two models of blended learning. 

Is there a benefit to the technologicalisation of the distance learning model? I think there is: having the learning materials quite literally to hand at all times through your mobile devices could be a benefit to some learners. Technology lends itself to easily available multimedia: rather than films on TV restricted to weird times of the day, you can have films on demand. You can have instant feedback on certain types of task, collaboration with people all over the world and so on. Indeed, the breadth of reach and relative cheapness of digital technology means that some elements might run which might otherwise not happen. Whether students engage with this sort of thing is a whole other question: even with monitored assessment in the form of quizzes and so on, the temptation, unless it’s absolutely fascinating, and the student 100% motivated, is to try to work out how to game the system. I know that’s what I have done for every bit of mandatory online training ever. I usually start with the final assessment task, then look up (or simply Google) the bits I can’t work out, rather than actually engage with every single piece of said online training. I suspect that this doesn’t lead to brilliant learning, but I do think that a clever online learning designer would take this tendency/temptation into account. Sadly, they don’t seem to have done this yet. 

And the closely linked homework model? Crikey yes. A web link to an interactive task which can be done on the bus or during a break, quick written feedback on digitally submitted writing (even by email!), flexibility of being able to do homework without needing a piece of paper, the (for some) added motivation of a bit of whizzy graphics, quick right/wrong feedback on a quiz meaning that students can think about where and why they made mistakes before coming into class to discuss just those questions. 

The other question to ask, however, is whether either of these models is actually better than a 100% face to face learning. My gut feeling, and my belief, is that they aren’t. For me, face to face learning trumps any kind of online learning simply because of the speed, ease and naturalness of the classroom interactions, although homework can be used to augment that process. Any idea that blended learning is better is often based around assumptions that classrooms are places where teachers stand and talk at or demonstrate to students and students absorb, perhaps with a bit of questioning. My own classroom practices as an ESOL teacher aren’t based on this: rather they are based on notions of enabling and promoting spoken interaction, of discussion and questioning, and for me, the technology simply cannot replace that. Not yet, and maybe not ever. 

How blended is blended? (and other knotty questions about blended learning)

For my research project this year, I’ve been reading up on blended learning, making notes, and generally carefully reviewing it in a measured and analytical tone elsewhere. As an adjunct to that formal enquiry, and to help me get my thoughts in order, I thought I would start to summarise my informal reflections here. Later on, perhaps, a version of this, or even a direct link to this, may form part of the finished product, but I’m not sure how much I want to make that explicit a link between who I am outside of my workplace and who I am within it. Regardless of how easy it is for someone to make those links, my conscious segregation of my online self from my “at work” self serves to highlight the usual “opinions expressed not those of employer” caveat.

So anyway, the focus of my project is blended learning, in particular learner attitudes and reactions to it, and as a startling point I need to identity exactly what we mean by blended learning.

Blended learning, or as it has sometimes been called “b-learning” (horrid, I know), at its most basic definition, is learning that takes place through more than one medium. Whilst we can score all sorts of lazy rhetorical points about the blend not necessarily including digital technology, in current usage it means learning taking place in both face to face and online contexts.

So far so simple. Or not, actually. Let’s break down what we mean, for example, by face to face learning. Pulling ideas in from my head, I would argue that face to face learning is learning that takes place with at least two people interacting verbally with one another. This typically means classroom learning, of course, but could also mean one to one tutoring. This learning takes place through things like listening to someone talk, asking and answer questions, discussion and expressing opinion, watching someone do something and then being coached through doing it yourself, gaining exposure to knowledge presented visually through images or through pieces of writing, or perhaps a short piece of video is watched and then discussed or analysed. This is a fair summary of different aspects of face to face learning, I think, although clearly I haven’t been able to cover every aspect of this at this stage, and neither would I like to.

So what do we mean by online learning? Hmm. The thing is, I start to think of what I could write here, and actually decent online learning potentially includes every interaction above, merely managed and mediated through a computer. (Before I go any further, I am using the word computer to describe, accurately, any kind of device including a laptop, PC, tablet, smartphone, etc. I just can’t be bothered to write that list every time just to make some techie pedant happy.) Given the nature of modern technology, hyperlinked through the Internet as it is, all of these interactions are available digitally if we so desire it, albeit with slight variations in discourse manner and etiquette, as anyone who has used Skype or FaceTime can tell you.

If the difference between face to face and online is not in the nature of the interaction and the learning, but is simply a matter of medium then there are still other questions to ask about blended learning. Can online learning be guided, or is it independent learning? I included video, for example, or a written text in my list of face to face interactions, but if these are accessed online in class by learners either as a group or individually, is this online learning? Well, yes it is, but it’s not what usually comes to mind when people think of online learning. The suggestion often with online learning is that it is a form of independent distance learning managed by computer, but where does this leave real time guided online learning, like a managed chat or forum, or a webinar? These are clearly not situations where learners are working independently, but are being given direct facilitation, guidance and input just like a face to face classroom.

This does get me thinking about SAMR. This is the idea that educational technology use goes through stages from Substitution of digital for non-digital activity to a point where the technology takes on a life of its own and Redefines the activity and the learning. I disagree. All forms of technology use in an educational context do not fundamentally alter the fact that human interaction is at the heart of the process, all the computer does is alter the format and scope of that interaction. Yes, you can collaborate on a document using Google docs, then comment on it and then take part in an online chat at the same time with learners in another country and this IS exciting. Very very exciting, in fact. But it isn’t fundamentally different to, say, working with a partner on a paper based piece of work, discussing it with a class and then, crazy stuff that this is, posting it out to someone in a different country for them to look at. The speed changes, and this is important, because immediacy has an impact, but then so does a lack of immediacy, and time for reflection and thinking. the idea of progressing from substitution to redefinition is an attempt to make a lot out of not very much.

So I come to my final, most challenging question. How blended is blended? A full blend of learning modes is when the technology is fully integrated into the face to face teaching. In this model, learners shift from technology to face to face and back again as part of what happens in the classroom. They look something up on a tablet, review a shared document or presentation both online and verbally. A construction teacher demonstrates a bricklaying technique to all the group, then uses augmented reality via mobile devices for learners to scan an image to quickly access a video of the same demonstration while they are trying to do it themselves. ESOL learners use online dictionaries as standard, and close and recap the lesson with a Socrative quiz, or record their learning progress via electronic ILP. These are simple, almost natural blends of technology and face to face learning: a pure form of blended learning, perhaps, or, as I like to call it “learning”.

This model and these ideals, however, were pretty much entirely screwed over in FE by the FELTAG report and the 38th recommendation: that 10% of all learning should be online by 2015, working towards 50% by 2017. This was probably the only new idea in the recommendations, as well as being the least important and by far the most stupid. Once you start thinking in terms of percentages, then the natural response, particularly where evidence is required by the bean counters at the Skills Funding Agency, is to come up with a model of learning where you can easily measure the 10%. This gives you a model which is essentially a chimera: convert the most easily convertible bits of your course into online work! and set aside time for students to do it in their timetable. This is just a hasty, simplistic combination of face to face and online delivery. It’s not Crick and Watson, it’s Dr Frankenstein.

This approach of bunging 10% of learning online doesn’t persuade teachers to apply good principles of blended learning, where technology is used in clear, direct partnership with and as part of classroom learning. It needs good principles of online learning, yes, but it isn’t really blended learning.

If I think of an ESOL class I taught last year, where learners switched from computer to face to face and back again, stopping occasionally to check stuff on their phones, then I reckon that lesson hit about 50% computer mediated, online learning. If my estimate is right then that’s my 2017 target met right there. Or, because I didn’t use an online element in the preceding four lessons, that’s 10% online on average, right?

Of course to evidence this I would need to provide extensive transcripts of the lesson, and make sure that it was all managed and embedded through the VLE so that it could be tracked. Evidence evidence evidence. And this is why it is far easier to go for the “stick a unit on the VLE with a couple of quizzes as assessment” model of blended learning than any genuine blend of learning.

Blended learning, then, is a complicated issue, made more so by top down impositions like the 10% online element. Most complicated of all is that this is all before we have even asked any students what they think of this, or whether, in fact, any students do want their learning like this. Do students want the 10% online model, or would they prefer fully face to face but with properly blended technology? This, especially in the age of the Learner Voice, is a much more important question, and one that in FE in the UK, nobody seems to have asked.


I’ve been resisting for years now, it seems. Years and years. And yet she’s got me again, pulling me back to her, despite my best efforts. She’s been wooing me, drawing me in with her glamour and elegance, and with her subtle edge of sexy rebelliousness.

The wicked mistress here is, of course, entirely metaphorical, and her name is Technology. I think I would go so far as to say that my entire career, since my very first job, has been linked to some form of computer. That’s fifteen years, fif-bloody-teen, of going online, taking students online, using and occasionally abusing computers, the Internet, phones, tablets, MP3 players, the whole shebang, not to mention the bits and pieces that have fallen by the wayside. It has been a largely professional affair: my love of gadgetry is confined to what I can scrounge from the workplace. I am not rich enough to justify needless expenditure on the latest gadgets, and do not live amongst high end laptops and flatscreen TVs linked to tablets and various other bits. My home TV is a CRT telly I got when my Nan died years ago, my own laptop is running Windows Vista* and was bought in 2006 (it is physically dying now, to be fair). My only concession here is my phone, a fairly up to date iPhone 5s, but even that’s only possible through a contract.

So, what happened? I got tired and just a little bit bored. I had become the technology guy, the computer chap, you know, the one rushing around telling everyone about cool new this, and exciting new that, and, well, it got boring. I’m not sure when it happened, really, but I got to the point where I simply did not have the energy to be excited in front of “so what” faces any more. I also got fed up of being pigeon holed, known only for his ability to stick a computer on and show you something while rattling on about it being “cool”.

I think, as well, that there was a change to my own personal philosophy of education, insofar as I can lay claim to having one. Back in the mid-to-late 2000s it was all about online resources. It was all about this website, that CD-ROM (remember that?), these pre-prepared, teacher-centric resources. I discovered Reflect for ESOL and dogme, and started to look at those resources much more harshly. Who decides the content of resources? Who dictates the methods used in the classroom? How can we stop paying lip service to learner centredness with teacher imposed strategies like ILPs, and start to hand the control of the classroom to the learners? To my mind the technology of the later part of the 2000s was all about this kind of teacher led stuff, and wasn’t there, not really, for much else.

As well as my own personal changes, I think it was a reaction to the increasingly rabid claims of the pro-technology gang, fundamentalists to the core. Technology is Good. Education without Technology is Bad. The tipping point here was at a conference for JISC where I felt uncomfortable, almost bullied, when I argued, quite reasonably, against the assumption that technology is a pre-requisite for good teaching. The blinkeredness of the assumption was quite shocking, really. To shift metaphors briefly, I felt like a moderate Christian asking complicated questions about the nature of God and belief amongst a group of Southern Baptists.

Between probably about 2009 and 2012 I fell out of love with technology, and took active steps to avoid her. Sure, I missed her, and, true to all messy break ups, we had one night stands, flirtations, longing looks in shop windows, but by and large I kept her out of my life. And last year, really, I broke it off. I’d had enough, and didn’t care two hoots for the VLE, for tablets, for BYOD, for any of it. Me and technology, well, we were Over.

Meanwhile, of course, several years after I had been championing technology, suddenly technology was mainstream. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the action, culminating in the final forced acceptance of institutions to embrace technology through the whip cracking of FELTAG and the SFA. So I took up the attack, and proposed a piece of research this year which was founded on an inherently critical approach. Yeah, yeah, 10% online, whatever, embrace the future yadda yadda yadda.

No, wait. Let’s look at the driver here: inevitably, and perhaps reasonably from a certain perspective, this is not about effective practice, and never was. This is about money saving. Nobody apart from a few enthusiasts wanted technology: it was expensive, unwieldy, hard work to implement, required mental changes, staff development and so on. Nobody wanted it. Never mind the impact of the technology on the learning: despite the best efforts of JISC and LSIS, technology was always going to remain at the sidelines of institutional practices: empty, unenforced words in policy documents. Suddenly, of course, there is the mandate to save money through 10% online study and everyone wants in. The shift for teacher development also has moved from the carrot of “look at this exciting thing that will really engage your learners” to the stick of “put 10% of your course online or we are going to have to start talking redundancies”. Never a positive motivating factor, that one.

Talk about red rag to a bull. Wait a minute, I wanted to say, has anyone EVER actually asked students what they think? Has anyone sat down and said “hello, 17 year old motor vehicle engineering student, are you a digitally literate, technologically confident person who expects significant chunks of learning to take place online?” Has anyone ever spoken to adults with low levels of any literacy, never mind digital skills and literacy? Again, the driver here is financial, not the learners. The old trope “learners expect technology these days” is more or less taken as a given, but is it actually true? I wasn’t so sure, particularly with the adults I usually encounter. I put a research proposal together and have got some money to find out.

Now, the initial side effect of this was to look at my own practices, and do you know what? I’d never really broken it off with dear old technology at all. I have been BYODing away, VLE all over the place. I thought I had said goodbye, but there she was, part of my life all the time. What’s crucial, however, is that I’d been letting learners take the lead on this. If they were struggling with a word, I’d get them to check spelling using predictive text on an old phone, or download a dictionary app on a smartphone. I’d point them to websites to get further language practice, get them to engage with social media, all sorts of things. The technology had crept into the classroom via a couple of mindset changes (“Phones on!”) and was quietly, naturally, embedding itself. This was not because learners were expecting it as part of their learning, but because technology supplied the answer to a problem. No dictionary in the classroom, and three flights of steps to the dictionary cupboard? Go online.

Technology is no longer there because I am making it be there, but because it is part of the scenery. Technology, for me, is not innovative, it is just a thing we use. Even amongst a low level ESOL class, smartphones are almost as ubiquitous as pencils. And like pencils, digital technology is sometimes the best tool for the job, and sometimes it isn’t. My mindset has changed, as has the technology. I am no longer blindly, crazily in love, but the love has grown and matured into something else.

Technology: all is forgiven. Let’s make a fresh start.


*i always seem to end up buying the shit version of Windows that comes out before a really solid, popular version. Before Vista I had a PC running Windows ME, which was so poor nobody has ever heard of it.

Evidence, Anecdotes and bike helmets again.

Last week, Chris Boardman, Olympic cycling champion, and general ambassador for cycling in the UK went on public British TV to talk about the benefits of cycling, reducing the barriers to it and the rest. The piece showed him and the presenter riding sedately round London, with the BBC presenter wearing the full cycling monty: helmet, hi vis, lycra, the works. Chris Boardman, who has made his career on two wheels, was wearing not only normal clothes, but no hi vis stuff and crucially, no helmet. Naturally various social media went off on one, complaints were made to the BBC for Mr Boardman setting a bad example, and with gloomy predictability the calls for helmet wearing to become a legal requirement followed. Sensing a nice bit of pent up outrage the BBC followed this up with an online poll about cycling with headphones on, where a majority said cyclists shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Well, ok. I talked about helmets before, and there is an excellent site devoted to the statistics for and against helmet wearing. And by and large, statistics would suggest that a) the public health benefits of cycling far outweigh the impact of wearing a helmet; and b) where helmet wearing has been made a legal requirement this has led to a decrease in cycling uptake. The cycling fraternity is usually quick to point out as well that in enlightened countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, helmet use is unusual and the number of cycling head injuries are lower because the infrastructure in those countries is far better for a more sustainable transport economy.

The pro-helmet lobby is a bit rubbish with its statistics and prone to a nice bit of cherry picking – especially when one considers that far more head injuries in the UK occur when people are driving or walking and yet nobody is suggesting that pedestrians or motorists wear a helmet or not listen to music. (Statistically, especially in the case of pedestrians, helmets might not be a bad idea…). The most pervasive and engaging pro helmet lobby, of course, is the personal anecdotes: genuine sad stories along the lines of “if my son had been wearing a helmet….” My possibly slightly callous answer to that is to say “yes, but if your son had been riding in an environment where the culture and road infrastructure was less aggressively pro-motorist he might not have had an accident at all.” Unfortunately you can’t fit that sort of thing into a neat headline or Facebook meme.

All well and good. I still wear a helmet, if I remember. I encourage my children to wear one. Sometimes I forget and cycle a few miles without one, but when I do I get it in the neck. For some people to is tantamount to just walking out in the street and lying down under the nearest bus.

This is all about evidence and the use of evidence. When it suits a particular social or political viewpoint, evidence is triumphantly pulled out and waved under the noses of everyone who cares to listen. When it doesn’t, however, it gets quietly ignored in favour of emotional anecdotes.

We can see a parallel here with teaching. When a piece of evidence exists in favour of a particular viewpoint it gets quickly trumpeted across various media. This happened with the Sutton Trust report “what makes great teaching” last week. Here we have a fairly big study which is generally pretty careful in its claims and suggestions. It is pretty measured stuff, but the only bit that made it into the media was the big claim that evidence suggests that discovery learning is less effective than direct instruction. It’s worth noting that this claim is made carefully in the report. First up, the direct instruction it describes is telling people stuff, yes, but also questioning them, finding out what they remember, and generally involving them in being talked at. What it isn’t is the two hour lecture that comes to mind, and which suits a nostalgic conservative view of education in the Good Old Days. And actually, discovery learning done well can be effective, but which needs lots of support and scaffolding from the teacher. Done badly, all educational interventions are rubbish.

Much the same happened with the FELTAG report. This made all sorts of good suggestions, but the only one which appears to have made any inroads into education is the suggestion that 10% of all courses become online. It’s been almost amusing to watch the handwringing that has happened by various commentators in social media about this. “But FELTAG is about more than the 10% thing! It’s about teacher development and sharing and all sorts of good things!” And they are absolutely right, but I’m not sure in which naïve universe the hand wringers are living when they think that a sector under increasing financial pressure is not going to focus on this as an opportunity to cut costs. The only time anyone ever hears of FELTAG is when it gets cited for the reason behind the 10% of courses going online. Pretty much all the good ideas about supporting and training teachers have been forgotten, because they are expensive ideas. Because the FELTAG report has an evidence base, or at least claimed to, then it gets used as a stick with which to beat staff into getting on board. I’m lucky: we have regular training days at work where we have the whole day to explore these things, and some serious time has been given over to preparing and supporting staff. I’m also pretty technologically confident, so my learning curve hasn’t been that steep. But that’s not true for every teacher in the land, not by a long shot.

The other challenge with the 10% rule is that on reading the report there appears to be no evidence to suggest that it works. The whole of FE is basically taking part in a massive experiment. It’s not been sold that way, of course, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence nationally or internationally that this is going to work. For me, when viewed that way, this becomes actually more exciting, because UK FE can be the big study cited in the rest of the world about how this worked really well on a massive scale. I hope.

One way or the other, it does fit a particular need at a particular time, it fits trends and fashions and what people are interested in. Ditto the cherry picking of the Sutton Trust Report, and much of the discussion around helmet use for cyclists. Evidence is there, yes, but it’s usually filtered through the censors of fashion and policy, and so needs to be viewed as sceptically as the rest.

Becoming an ICT teacher

Probably my biggest shift in the last two years has been a from being an ESOL teacher to becoming an ICT teacher for ESOL students: indeed, the majority of my contact with ESOL learners at the moment is as an ICT teacher, rather than as an English teacher. I come to this with mixed emotions: there are good sides and there are less than good sides.

What I like about it, for example, is that it’s a bit of a change – apart from anything, it’s a fun challenge to work out how to make functional ICT interesting. This, I have to say is no mean feat given how desperately tedious and, well, functional the ICT syllabus is. I have drawn on my ESOL experience a little here, but also on my own ICT learning – nothing in functional ICT is learnable for its own sake, really. Where I have been shown something techie which I genuinely have gone “wow, cool” about but then not needed or had opportunity to make use of, then it has gone into the great recycling bin of forgetfulness. I think that when teaching ICT, you need to set it in a context or a situation, and make it interesting that way. The other benefit to this, of course, is that the lessons can be differentiated more easily – the formatting for a tri-fold leaflet is significantly harder to think about than a poster, but the content can be more or less the same; or in a session on spreadsheets you might have one person working on just entering data, another on entering data and adding formulas and another doing both then making a chart.

It’s a different type of knowledge to the type of knowledge I’m used to, I think. Language is a fairly subtle blend of skills and knowledge, which are quite tricky to ever completely segregate. In ICT, however, most things are fairly simple. The essential motor skills are pretty straightforward, and for me most of practical functional ICT is essentially about knowing specific sequences of actions to achieve a particular end. Click that, move that, double click there, click-copy-paste-drag etc. Things can get more complicated, of course: were we to go deeper into computer technology, we would encounter commands and conditions in programming. Alternatively, drawing back out from the dry functionality we encounter social and personal issues: health and safety, of course, but also those aspects of digital literacy that revolve around data ownership, personal privacy and so on. These latter ideas lend themselves very easily to a discussion or reading lesson in the ESOL model, and then allow you to cover the practical elements by having students prepare a leaflet or presentation using the appropriate software, or accessing data to inform the discussion with online research or in the format of a spreadsheet.

Where I am less happy is in the syllabus. I’ve already described it as dry and tedious: and it is. Functional Skills exams and syllabi are by their nature pretty dull and boring, be they English, maths or ICT, and it’s the teacher’s job to make them engaging, often for learners who may not want to engage. Some people would have you believe that stuff on a computer is a form of motivational alchemy. I wonder if it is the elearning fraternity (gender specific term intended) trying to protect their status as innovators, perhaps. Either way, ICT is not immune to being seen as dull: once you get past social media and the rest, the functional windows and office software focus of the subject doesn’t hold interest for long.

Another thing I noticed last year were the huge gaps in my own knowledge, and my knowledge of structuring learning in ICT. As I may have said before, most of the learners I now teach have, technically speaking, greater evidence of ICT knowledge than I do. The challenge for me is structuring and scaffolding learning. I don’t have the subject knowledge or the teaching/learning experience to properly scaffold learning in ICT. It’s growing, of course, and next year I’ll be better than this year. Apart from anything else, I keep getting caught out by the relative ease of the exams for which learners have been entered.

So could I ever make a full transition from ESOL to ICT? Probably not. ICT certainly fails to excite me in the same way as language teaching and learning does: probably the most interesting elements are the social/privacy aspects of the web. For the time being, it remains just an interesting extension of the teaching I have been doing for some time: using ICT to develop language skills, only with a specific ICT syllabus attached. As daft as it might sound, it just ain’t grammar.

Blended Learning: A pre-research reflection

I have been lucky enough to get a grant from those kind folks at the Education & Training Foundation to carry out a piece of research. The focus of my research is on student feelings about blended learning, their perceptions of its impact and on the issues they may have themselves in terms of their own digital literacy and in terms of access to the necessary technology.

The reason I chose this topic is likely to be clear to regular readers of my blog. I think that I would probably describe myself not as an e-learning enthusiast but rather an e-learning pragmatist. There is a value – my own experimentations and reflections are enough for me to feel comfortable saying this, but unlike the enthusiast I am unconvinced of its ability to work as a universal standard of best practice.

It’s like this. In my mind there are two basic tropes in education: the evangelists and refuseniks (who I rather amusingly saw referred to as “the crossed arms brigade” the other week).

The evangelists are the enthusiasts, the ones who are convinced of the amazing ability of technology to transform all learning for all learners all the time. While they may concede that the technology does need to be used well, for the evangelist the absence of technology in the classroom is A Bad Thing. We, they cry, are the innovators and the game changers. I say evangelists for a very specific reason: theirs is a stance of absolute, unquestioning and unshakeable faith, and this stance can be just as annoying as the uninvited religious doorstepper: it is simply not possible to say “yes, but…” to them, and any even slight acknowledgement of having a positive experience with ICT is seized upon with delight, just as a the doorstepper will seize upon any moment of doubt in your religious opinions.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the refusenik. This is the person who has been doing it that way for years and sees no reason to change. It was good enough for me at school in 1965, good enough for me when I started teaching in 1983, and it’s good enough for me now. (Those dates, by the way, are no indicator – I’ve met refuseniks who started teaching after I did, and evangelists who started their evangelising on a Spectrum 48k.) The refusenik is the traditionalist, the conservative. For them, if it ain’t broke… This stance is just as annoying, for almost the mirror image reason, as the evangelist: where the evangelist annoys because they are so stubbornly fixed upon technology as panacea, the refusenik simply won’t acknowledge any value to technology. They are both stubbornly fixed in a single viewpoint.

These are, of course, deliberately provocative extremes, but  in the black-and-white discourse of blended learning and CPD, these are sometimes the only two possible roles you can be cast in (although you are allowed to aspire to be an evangelist – “I’m all right at using technology X, but I’m not like Fred, he’s so good with technology”).

There are two issues here: one is the polarising of these approaches to technology and the other is the equation of innovation with technology use.

Actually there are three, but the third one is the biggie, so we’ll come to that later.

The reality of teaching is that we are all on a continuum somewhere between the evangelists and the crossed arms brigade. I would probably place myself at about two-thirds, perhaps three quarters of the way to an evangelist.

Innovation, of course, can and should go beyond the application of technology. Unfortunately, however, using technology has long been synonymous with “cool” and it is this sexiness which makes it very appealing. It’s big hits, instant wins, observable changes – bang – the students are using ipads! They are bringing their own devices! Pow! They are using the VLE! Kerpow! Enthusiastically embracing technology is sometimes seen as the only kind of innovation, suggesting that now the development of learning and teaching expertise relies purely on the application of technology to that process, and really it isn’t. There are other advances, other developments. Technology is just one form of innovation.

The third issue, the really big one, however, is nothing to do with teachers. It’s to do with learners. I have to stop really and ask a question. Has anyone ever asked students what they think? FELTAG certainly didn’t appear to credit many actual students in their report, apart from a brief nod to the NUS. Certainly learner voice was notable by its absence in the report (although lots of good things were said about learning and about teachers). Nobody seems to have gone out and found out what students are capable of, what skills they have, how much support they need in using this technology, and, crucially, whether they think it will help them learn. It reminds me of when I was on a debate panel on whether technology made for a better lesson – there were two students next to me, one of whom was arguing against. I felt deeply sorry for him because he was unimpressed by all this technology use, and yet the general air in the room (full of educators, teachers and so on) was pretty close to “stupid boy, you don’t know what’s good for you.” (Considering I was arguing the same point, for a short time things felt a little hostile.)

But before the refuseniks come rushing in with joy, this doesn’t mean that students don’t want technology in their learning. I suspect they don’t want you friending them on Facebook, but they may well want it. They may want more online and less face to face, or they may want things the other way round. The issue is not around whether they do or don’t, but rather that in the general discourse around technology and blended learning, assumptions have been made about learners but nobody seems to have asked them. And that, ultimately, is what I want to find out. What do they know? What can they do? What, as blended learners, do they expect?