Breaking Boundaries – Broadening Access

March 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

The second of our ESRC funded Breaking Boundaries seminar series was recently held at the Oxford Internet Institute and our speakers discussed the general issue of broadening access, with a specific focus on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OER).  The seminar was led by three speakers: Sarah Porter, Professor Grainne Conole, and Dr Rebecca Eynon.  All three critically engaged with issues surrounding inclusion and the ways in which technology in the form of MOOCs and OER can and cannot facilitate greater access to educational opportunities for people who have traditionally been excluded from them.

Sarah Porter, Visitor at the OII, previously Head of Innovation and part of the senior management team at Jisc, acted as chair for the seminar and opened the session with a short presentation on the historical development of MOOCs, drawing on her extensive practical and research experience in the area.  She particularly highlighted the way in which Gartner’s Hype Cycle can be applied to MOOCs.  The cycle represents four main phases of the adoption of new technologies: the technology trigger; the peak of inflated expectations; the trough of disillusionment; the slope of enlightenment; and the plateau of productivity.  Sarah argued that hype around MOOCs increased significantly during 2012 as they became increasing visible in popular culture.  However, as negative news stories are beginning to emerge, 2013 and 2014 may represent the trough of disillusionment.  The shape the plateau of productivity may take, therefore, remains to be seen.

Following this presentation, Grainne Conole, Professor of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester, expanded on Sarah’s discussion by exploring MOOCs and OER’s abilities to disrupt traditional educational structures by also contextualizing them within a historical timeline, charting the development of these, and other, educational technologies.  She highlighted the potential false dichotomy between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, arguing through the use of a self-created ‘taxonomy of MOOCs’ that inter-MOOC diversity is highly nuanced.  A key area she raised, that was touched on by all the presenters, was the ways in which high dropout rates from such courses should be interpreted.  Critics of MOOCs often point to such dropout rates as an indication that technology hasn’t necessarily broadened access to the degree that some of the positive discourses suggest.  However, Grainne argued that completion shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a mark of success, and that with different users bringing different needs and agendas to their courses, they still had the potential to have valid educational experiences regardless of whether the course was fully completed.

Rebecca Eynon, Senior Research Fellow at the OII and Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, concluded the session with a presentation in collaboration with Nabeel Gillani and Isis Hjorth, focused on conceptualizing interaction and learning in MOOCs.  The presentation offered findings of an ongoing research project that undertook a mixed method analysis of two MOOCs, investigating the different ways in which users interact and communicate within them and how these relate to learner characteristics, experiences and outcomes.  Building on an extensive network analysis, the speakers presented a series of four typologies of learning and learners – just in time learning, just in case learning, life-long learning, and educational access – arguing that each had very specific goals and needs.  Therefore, they argued that recognizing these diverse needs and goals must be considered when discussing the ways in which such technologies should be conceptualized as supporting wider access.

The seminar was very well attended (with a large number of people also following the live stream on the Breaking Boundaries website) and the issues raised by all the speakers were extensively discussed over excellent refreshments provided by the OII following the session.

Recordings of the presentations and copies of the accompanying slides are available on the Breaking Boundaries website.  Don’t forget to come to the final session of this seminar series on Thursday 13th March, Room G/H, Oxford University Department of Education, in which Dr Niall Winters will discuss ICT for Development with a particular focus on the education of healthcare professionals in Kenya.

James Robson


Has the Ed Tech Bubble already burst?

April 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today I read an excellent editorial by Neil Selwyn, soon to be published in Learning, Media and Technology (, in which he criticizes academics working in the field of educational technology for being content with restricting themselves to specialist publications and inward looking communications often via the very technologies they are vociferously advocating.

Selwyn argues that there is a significant gap between the ed tech rhetoric and the realities of the technology users on the ground, propagated by intra-mural dialogue and a lack of healthy inter-disciplinary exchange.  A major contributing factor to this gap, he suggests, is the fact that ‘many of the discussions taking place within the educational technology community about social media are actually being conducted through social media’ (2).  This leads to an ‘ed tech bubble’ – a skewed self-referential world view which has little communication with or affect on the outside world of education.  This bubble, he argues, needs to be burst.

I am, of course, acutely aware of the irony of the fact that I came across this editorial via a Tweet from the Selwyn himself and that I am discussing it on an ed tech blog.  That aside, broadly speaking, there are three main strands to Selwyn’s critique: that ed tech fails to engage properly with wider academia at an inter-disciplinary level; that ed tech fails to engage with wider society beyond both itself and academia; and that ed tech is too eager to uncritically enthuse about the transformative promises of technology.  I think these are extremely important points to make and whole-heartedly agree with them. However, I suspect the situation may not be quite as bleak as he suggests.

Firstly, the problem of a lack of inter-disciplinary engagement with wider academia (and the wider world in general) is certainly not unique to ed tech – as Selwyn acknowledges himself.  It is a problem that plagues all disciplines and one which regularly causes intra-disciplinary angst.  While ed tech is certainly a guilty party, I very much doubt it alone can find a solution.  Inter-disciplinary collaboration is necessarily a concerted effort by all disciplines involved – all disciplines involved in inter-disciplinary engagement must be engaged.  To a certain extent this engagement is taking place across many universities, as divisions increasingly emphasize the need for inter-disciplinary collaboration, and grant-giving organizations demand it.

Secondly, in the UK, it’s arguable that the discipline is still recovering from the shock of losing BECTA.  This was a formalized way for many academics involved in ed tech to communicate with both policy makers and a wider more general audience.  At present its loss has left a vacuum, and Selwyn is right to emphasise the need for different avenues of public engagement.  However, it would be wrong to overlook the fact that in the recent past the discipline (or parts of it at least) has been actively involved in public outreach.

Finally, while Selwyn is right that it is all too easy to find a large amount of literature enthusing about the promises of new technologies, there’s also a growing trend in research coming out of places like the IOE (unsurprisingly), Oxford, Manchester (and many more) that analyzes and engages with technology critically.  This can be seen in the upcoming student conference hosted by Oxford University Department of Education’s Learning and New Technologies’ Research Group – ‘Losing Momentum: Current Challenges in Learning and Technology’ (  This conference aims to explore the nuanced realities of the use of technology in an educational context and Neil Selwyn will be delivering a keynote address.  We’ll blog about it…

I think Selwyn is right to highlight the problem of the ed tech bubble, but would like to think that, with the emergence of new critical research approaches, it may already be beginning to burst.

James Robson

Educational values and asynchronous learning

April 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

I recently attended a two day conference on asynchronous learning at a teacher education college in Mumbai. The whole experience was a delight – hospitable, lively, wide-ranging – but I have to say that the immense pleasure everyone took in presenting their work and debating the ideas, and in being together all in one place in order to do so, did not entirely signal a heartfelt confidence in the benefits of working asynchronously, at a distance, in isolation and in your own private time.

One of the speakers (Ms Sunita Britto), a member of the college faculty, gave a clever and enjoyable paper in which she suggested that maybe asynchronous learning could try to build on the educational values that were found in the ancient Hindu educational context of a gurukul, where the guru/teacher and shishyas/disciples lived together and shared all mundane aspects of their lives, the students working for and learning from the guru, in an educational context that was holistic, demanding and social. And resolutely synchronous.

Perhaps, claimed the speaker, those same educational values might be reborn by focusing on the opportunities enabled by asynchronous learning for timely feedback, online social interaction, and learning at one’s own pace, in the process of trying to meet a demand for learning that would have been unimaginable back in the days of the original gurukuls. It was an argument well worth exploring, and I thought it was a great contribution to make to a conference that was not always – with good reason – wholeheartedly behind what it was ostensibly advocating. The argument that perhaps online distance learning could provide new ways of embodying those ancient values of the gurukul suddenly made asynchronous learning appear like a solution worth pursuing. That was quite an achievement in itself.

Reflections on Assistive Technology from the Dyslexia and Technology in Education conference: Part 2

December 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Carrying on from my previous post, another common topic at the conference, and linked closely to the points I made before, was in making the best use of what’s already available. Young people need to be taught how to use computers more effectively, to gain all the benefit they can. Touch typing was strongly advocated by several of the speakers — Jackie Harber pointed out that it is of particular help to dyslexics, as looking at the keyboard wastes precious working memory on low-level tasks. Keyboard shortcuts were also strongly recommended, as they can speed up frequently used tasks (usability professionals may already know that providing shortcuts for frequent users is one of Ben Shneiderman’s Eight Golden Rules for interface design). This is particularly vital to dyslexic learners, for whom a lot of writing tasks will generally take longer, so any time-saving mechanisms will be helpful. Using keyboard shortcuts may also make the effects (e.g. increasing the font size) immediately obvious, without getting lost in menus and option screens. Knowing about the tools available in applications will also be helpful — for example the use of ctrl-f (‘find’) to search for text may aid learners who have difficulty in ‘skimming’ text by eye. But these are in fact all strategies that can benefit any computer-user, and arguably should be a key part of early school IT lessons — touch-typing is one of the most useful IT skills I have, and sadly that was self-taught.

This also links in nicely with a topical issue that’s close to my heart, which is the current drive to reform IT teaching in schools. Do children need to understand how a computer works, and how to write code in order to use one? Maybe not, but increased understanding of something surely just helps you use it better. I don’t need to fully understand how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car, but the more I understand about how the brakes and gears work the more efficiently I can drive it. Spending all a child’s time in IT lessons learning how to use Microsoft Office seems to me like spending driving lessons just learning about all the different colours you could paint your car.

Reflections on Assistive Technology from the Dyslexia and Technology in Education conference: Part 1

November 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last weekend was the British Dyslexia Association’s first conference on Dyslexia and Technology in Education, with invited speakers, workshops, and demos of assistive technologies. As a newcomer to the field, this really helped me get a better picture of current practice, and what some of the big issues are. Over this week I’ll be posting some of my reflections on common themes and points of interest that particularly struck me while I was there.

First, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a constant worry about costs, and a need to look for affordable solutions. The phrase “in these difficult times” seems to get used a lot: the recession is hitting schools hard, and it is even harder for independent learners who aren’t at school or university, and so don’t have access to the Disabled Students’ Allowance. In fact, recession or not, it’s hard to imagine a time when people wouldn’t want to pay less for software if they could! And yet, the surprising fact is, there are a huge amount of free solutions available which seem remarkably overlooked. One of the speakers, Craig Mill, introduced MyStudyBar, a free toolbar containing a range of free, open source applications. These include mind mapping software (compare to Inspiration at £70.80 or MindGenius at £68.40 for a single educational license), voice recognition software (compare to Dragon Dictate at £122.55, or Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional at £356.42), and text-to-speech (compare to ClaroRead at £154.80 or Read&Write at £168.00). Other similar options were also presented, such as the ATbar for web browsers, or the FX Toolbar for Word. That’s not to say that some of the paid-for solutions aren’t perhaps worth the money, if you have money to spend — they may be more stable, have more features, integrate better with other software, and are likely to have better documentation and support available. But if you buy all of them together, that’s a lot of money to spend, and the simple fact is that not everyone can afford it. Another speaker, Maggie Wagstaff, talked of the tendency in education to ‘start at the top end’, and buy the most advanced, specialist software available, such as Dragon, when actually a better solution would be to start from the bottom, using free solutions even such as Sound Recorder (comes as standard on all Windows PCs), to get users used to speaking their ideas, build confidence in hearing their own voice, and see how they get on. They may then move to the voice recognition tools that now come free with Windows or MacOS. The advanced software should only be needed for advanced users! Also, even if a school or university is willing and able to buy these expensive solutions, the learners may not be able to afford these solutions at home, or after school, and the speaker also pointed out that using software that is also available at home can help maintain engagement between home and school, so more thought needs to be given to affordable solutions, particularly for early learners.

This is linked to a general question that’s been on my mind, about why people don’t use more free software. My gut feeling is that the big software companies simply have better marketing, and if you’re new to the area, are under a lot of time pressure, find it hard to do the research (perhaps through the sort of reading difficulties you are trying to solve) or are not particularly tech-savvy, it would be very easy to believe what the salesmen tell you. There was, for example, a demonstrator at the conference showing a portable reader that takes a photo of a page of text, and then reads it aloud to you, with about 90% accuracy (which actually is just low enough to be a bit annoying). This cost around £700. Alternatively, after a little googling, I’ve found mobile apps that claim to do the same thing for free or at least under £10 (provided you already have a smartphone). I think another reason is that people are stuck in the mindset that ‘all good things cost money’. When one of the speakers showed a picture of a child’s hands being covered by a screen to obscure the keyboard when learning to touchtype, there was an immediate question from the audience of “where can you buy that?” The screen in question was a piece of cardboard — other audience members suggested a tea-towel instead. But I’m sure if you sold a black plastic sheet with branding on it for £14.99 people would buy it. (I think the other sad reason for people to get put off free software is that the wonderfully clever programmers who are happy to spend all their free time writing code just for the fun of it seem to have much less interest in writing the ‘boring bits’, like the manual!) Yet I think that the tides are turning; through mobile app stores users are becoming more exposed to free and cheap software, and many of these address specific needs (see the BDA Technology website).  Another speaker, EA Draffan, introduced the EmpTech database, which allows a user to search through an extensive collection of reviews and information about assistive technologies by features that are most relevant to them, which includes searching only for freeware solutions. There is a wealth of great software out there, and as people become more skilled at information searching they may find that the solutions have been out there all along.

Retrospective view on Learning, Media and Technology Conference 2011

July 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

The fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, was also the Learning, Media and Technology Conference day for the Institute of Education, London. The conference was designed for all levels of doctoral students to share their proposal, methods, and findings. It was such a fantastic experience to see so many independent and enthusiastic researchers from all over the world present their work. The three organizers, Neil Selwyn, Rebecca Eynon, and Martin Oliver, also gave incredibly helpful tips on transforming a conference paper into an academic journal article. A moment like this not only made me realise that I was not the only person who is still struggling to explain her research in one line, but also reminded me that what I have been thinking about pursuing might have already been achieved. That said, I also recognized that much research builds on the work of others, adding to and reinterpreting the studies that have come before. In fact, doing a doctoral study is all about finding a voice—this conference was a chance to teach students how to speak in their own accents.

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