Playing devil's advocate to educational technology evangelists

July 2007

Martin Weller wrote not so long ago about how he found himself taking on the devil's advocate role recently when discussing new models of education. This is a feeling I know only too well. I think it partly comes from having seen things from various sides of the fence - I've taught at various universities in quite different environments, and worked as a learning technologist before I decided to concentrate on developing web applications for education.

First of all, when I taught, I found most of what I read about teaching and education didn't seem to apply to my subject. Almost none of the research or advice around seemed relevant to teaching university-level mathematics. It was probably great in other contexts, but it felt like a whole type of learning had been largely ignored, possibly because it's very difficult for somebody who hasn't studied mathematics at university to have much of a clue what it is like. On occasions though, I even got the feeling that the specialists in education didn't even regard mathematics as being a valid subject, worthy of study - one of the rare times that I've really felt the existence of The Two Cultures.

I always felt very constrained by the syllabus for whatever course I taught. Changing a syllabus was never easy, especially when other courses followed on from your one. In many cases too, my job was definitely to teach the syllabus not to question it. Limited contact time with my students plus the fact that they were juggling my course with lots of others, always felt like the hardest hurdles to overcome. It wasn't just a question of how to get your students to learn mathematics, it was how to get them to learn it efficiently. Assessment was always a massive bugbear and something you can't just ignore from a pedagogic pedestal. Universities have rules and expectations about assessment so you have to fight the system if you want to do anything at all non-standard. You also face the problem that students will work hardest at the courses that assess them most throughout the term, almost leading to a competition between lecturers to assess their students most in order to get them to dedicate sufficient time to their course. Physical space was an issue too. It was hard to get room allocations without old-fashioned style tiered lecture seating sometimes.

Of course, I also quickly discovered that if you wanted an academic career, teaching always had to come a very low second to research. Appointments and promotions were always made pretty much entirely on the basis of research and you were competing against people who put their time into their research not their teaching. The fact that I enjoyed teaching more than research was one of the main reasons that I left academia.

Working as a learning technologist was different again. To justify my job, I was dependent on persuading lecturers to use new technologies. You realise very quickly that you can't push other people to take some risks even though you might be prepared to take them yourself. People worry about things going wrong with technology, about university rules and procedures, about the hassle that will be involved if they commit to something, and although they obviously never said so, I suspect also about making a fool of themselves in front of their students and letting their students down. I used to see a massive part of my role as removing barriers for the lecturers. You don't really have the luxury of only working with people who are risk-takers, and if you want whatever you do to have potential of going at least a little a bit mainstream, you can't rely on a total lack of risk-aversion.

So as a result of these experiences, I think my mind goes into pragmatic over-drive quicker than many other people's. It's a fine line, because you don't want to prematurely shoot down potentially great ideas when there might be some way of making things work. When I voice what may sound like reservations, I'm actually often mentally problem-solving, trying to encourage other people to help with ideas as to how to overcome those difficulties. It's a bit frustrating when you ask questions and it gets interpreted as not 'getting' it, because I'm often actually one stage further on. I do try to only do it when I'm in the company of other folk who don't need to be evangelised to though, and I'm really glad that there are people around who are great at evangelising. The more people whose minds are opened, the more people there are to have bright ideas about how to do things in practice.

For instance, it's a massive step from realising that you're learning a lot by blogging to effectively helping students to use blogs to learn better. I'm more interested in the ways people are making that step than in whether it is possible for blogging to be a learning experience. Likewise, it's easy to assume that because of the success of wikipedia, that wikis are some magic solution for education without understanding anything about the conditions under which wikis work and figuring out how to apply those. It's also easy to forget how deep and subtle a lot of things are that are taught at university compared with the sort of things discussed on blogs or social networking sites (though there are definitely exceptions and it'd be great to see more, but I think it's not necessarily trivial to foster). And as with web sites in general, often implementing an idea well is much tougher as coming up with the idea in the first place.

I'm interested in when and why things don't work or don't have take up with faculty as well as when they do but I also get really excited when I see places actually trying completely new approaches. My opinions do differ from some people in that I do think formal learning of one sort or another has a place for a long time still. There's likely to be a general increase in the amount of informal learning happening but I think not all sorts of learning will be easily possible completely and some things are too important to rely on people learning them informally. Both creating environments that encourage informal learning and trying to improve formal learning directly are worthwhile pursuits.