treasure-chestI was fortunate to be able to meet Lawrie Phipps in person recently when presenting at the DMLL on our virtual exchange activity Clavier. I have been a twitter follower of his for a while. We spoke briefly about the work Jisc are doing on #codesign  and I went away having decided to make a contribution to the discussions. I hope that this post helps to clarify where I am in this discussion about the future for learning environments in Higher Education.

My experience and background in learning platform design are evidenced here and drew upon a need to support a strategic development of tutor skills in a rapidly changing teaching context. Language learning under Institution Wide Language programmes has expanded rapidly in the UK as students on all courses recognise the need to be able to work internationally and provision needs to support their access to interaction beyond the 2 or 3 hours a week in class. We are fortunate to have an outstanding international team of tutors, many of whom approach teaching in innovative ways and there is no doubt in my mind that our community of practice approach to Languages@Warwick is in part responsible for their active engagement in technology enhanced learning.  That is not to say it’s perfect, just that it is fit for purpose and offers sufficient flexibility to support a wide range of activities. The walls have holes – staff are encouraged to work in the open for example using slideshare, to connect with others outside the institution. We maintain an open gallery of our recordings to share what we do.

An institutional VLE is inevitably a set of compromises. Much like the exam system in education, it is often conceived to please too many stakeholders, reducing needs through oversimplification in order to source generic tools, mixing up the supposed purpose (supporting learning) with a range of other management demands (e.g. tracking and reporting on staff and student activity). It can, just as the school exam system has done, fail in its primary purpose when these secondary demands are over prioritised. Management bemoan a lack of engagement, poor return on investment, learning technologists see VLE’s full of powerpoints and little else. Students and staff become “lab rats” to provide stats to produce graphics in boardrooms, learning migrates to other more relaxed online spaces outside institutional control in order to accomplish the central purpose which remains dear to staff and students alike. Lack of transparency in our design can destroy trust, undermine collaboration. Let’s not forget how important it is to feel safe in order to learn.  Such outcomes are the product of a failure to understand the importance of relationships to the learning process.  Fortunately we have been able to enlist student input into our ongoing design process, this helped clarify our way forward thanks to building in time for play. The student findings are shared on this padlet wall, a former student of mine also reflected on her experiences of our moodle based platform here prior to going on to a Master’s course in London.

As there is much to lose by getting these decisions wrong and given that we are working in Higher Education, an ethical approach should be at the heart of all we do. Here are my recommendations for success in the next wave of development of institutional online spaces:

  • Design for your core purpose: learning matters, keep this central. Consult widely. We include a student owned space (Mahara) in our provision, to counter the push of our course spaces, a place to think unobserved.
  • Don’t over design. A monolith is not an inviting space for collaborative activity. We need to embrace interdisciplinary activity, not design it out of our online spaces. Be prepared to share control.
  • Context: what you need is shaped by what you do, what you do is then limited by what you have chosen. Do you understand your core activity?
  • Ownership: empower your users to own the space, give them freedom to experiment, failure is a learning tool. Transfer control if you want engagement. Lock everything down and wrap it in rules if you think you know best and are prepared to go it alone.
  • Think global, act local: The next big opportunity could come from outside so ensure that you have ways to let it in. Institutional processes should not prevent innovation, that way is the path to obsolescence.
  • Trust your employees to do a great job, recognise and reward when they do. Be courageous and inclusive. If you don’t believe in your mission, who will?

I realise these are principles rather than quick fix solutions, but this is about more than plugins and systems. I’m human and if you ask for co-design you can expect the process to be messy. Anything else would be reductionist. Of course it is possible that our online space could be considered unnecessary if there is an institutional decision to put all activity in one VLE. More compromises would be made. Fortunately there are many free tools out there and fewer boundaries to doing what we practitioners consider crucial to great learning. The landscape has changed.




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