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What do we mean by Online Learning? A System Architecture Perspective
Pagecast from Professor Alan Bowen-James
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Tascam DR-1 recording of first 5 minutes of Workshop
Please note that my Pulse Smartpen that I used to make this recording ran out of battery before the end of the workshop. I had failed to fully charge the pen before the start of the conference and I had reordered around 2 hours earlier that day. This is the first time I have used the smartpen at a conference and it appears that the battery life may be an issue when attempting to record more than 3 hours without recharging the pen.
Thanks to Pauline Ferguson for editing this transcription.
What Do We Mean By Online Learning: a Systems Perspective?
by Professor Alan Bowen-James
Learning and Teaching Conference, Sydney, 16th July 2010
Chris Sheargold: Good day everyone. Can we have your attention please? Thank you. [Click, click, click]. Rupert Russell, thank you, good on you. For those of you who don't know me I'm Chris Sheargold, Associate Vice Chancellor in Melbourne and the Director of Libraries, I'm here to introduce this workshop, "What Do We Mean By Online Learning: a Systems Perspective?" and I'm particularly pleased to introduce Professor Alan Bowen-James who's been with the University for ten days, eight days, not a very long time, so this is a baptism of fire for him. Alan is the Associate Dean, Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Business. Alan comes to the University in general, and to this workshop specifically with a very strong range of experiences, Alan has worked in teaching in a number of universities, he has worked with private providers, with peak industry groups and the like. I notice particularly Alan that you have had a connection with NextEd in a past life.
Alan Bowen-James: Indeed I was going to mention that.
Chris Sheargold: And NextEd as some of you would know is where we launched ourselves into online learning many, many years ago now. So without further ado I will ask you to make Alan welcome and hand over to him.
Alan Bowen-James: Thank you very much, in fact NextEd is where I would like to start, because even though I just joined the University and I was invited shortly after signing up to participate in this conference, my association with the university really goes back over 10 years because I was the Chief Operating Officer at NextEd that put universities up online around the world. Among the various universities in Australia you would be familiar possibly with UQS online, RMIT, La Trobe as well as ACU and we had Blackboard installed here all those years ago. But even though the title of my talk focuses on technology straight away I want to say my concentration is not technology, and that's for a number of reasons, in fact I didn't even want to put a PowerPoint up, and I said I'll just use a whiteboard, that's why there is a whiteboard here. Good old fashion technology, but I was advised that I really should have a PowerPoint and there's a paper I am working on at the moment and so I thought I would cannibalise bits of that and we will have a PowerPoint presentation of sorts and Ingrid has very kindly offered her services to assist me in that regard so I am not rushing from here-to-there and back and so on.
The questions are welcome throughout but if it's a long or detailed question or whatever you might want to leave it till the end because anyway because I might possibly could answer the question or address it En Passant. When I said that I'm not focused on technology I was reminded of this only a few months ago by a former student of mine ... who reminded me that many, many years ago when the Internet was starting to become a fad and we were playing with it and I lead an ARC funded research team on online databases, and so I am going back about 18 or so years ago, and my students asked what? I am talking about the mid 90's when he asked this, 'What is the most reliable, robust information technology? I said, 'The most reliable' and I say the same thing today by the way, 'the most reliable and robust real-time, online, random access, information storage and retrieval devise is a book printed before 1600'. Why? Acid free paper, they are still around. Your DVDs will last maybe 30 years, they oxidise pretty quickly unless you keep them in a nitrogen environment and that's hard because you won't live in that environment, even though 70% of the air we breathe is nitrogen.
The point is that we get too enamoured of our technologies, and end up concentrating on the technology rather than our practices, what it is that we wish to achieve, the business rules of the organisations that we're in. Indeed if I may say there is a certain erotomania around our technology such that as soon as we have a new gadget the instant though is how we adapt this to what we do and so on. Now that's creative, innovative and so on, but often we forget what it is we're trying to do, and we end up distorting what it is we think we are doing or trying to do in order to accommodate the technology. So straight away even though my title is somewhat misleading because it talks about systems architecture, is not actually misleading because systems architectures are actually written on paper. When I did the initial design for ACU all those years ago with Blackboard because our team was working on the then, what's now regarded as a primitive technology, pretty advanced in those days, we actually sat down and did it all on paper and worked out and then we implemented it. An architecture does not necessarily mean an advanced technology. It's all about the ways in which we connect the various elements that will converge, hopefully in an efficacious fashion, to help us achieve the ends we wish to achieve. In fact, I was asked, 'Oh, you mean when you talking about online you're talking about eLearning.' I said, 'No, that's what we used to call it years ago when we sent out CDs, along with the books and so on. But of course, if you wish to, we can call it eLearning.' 'Well, no we are OK with online learning. What would you rather call it?' 'Distributed Learning.' And I want to talk about that today, distributed learning. They said, 'People might not understand that'. I said, 'OK, I'm happy to stick with online learning and use that term providing that during the talk I can actually talk about distributed learning because that's what I mean.' And what do I mean by distributed learning? In fact that this is a somewhat distributed learning exercise, in the sense that here we are different folk from other geographies, but we have joined together in the one time-and-space in order to have some engagement, we are going to take down copies of this either orally or some script or whatever and take it away, and in some way or other we will engage with it later. That's actually quite tight; of course once you then start doing this over the radio, over the TV, over the Internet and so on, the pattern of distribution changes, the pattern of interaction alters. But in fact one of the important things with respect to what's called online learning or indeed distributed learning is that the systems and the technologies are available for us to choose the variety of ways in which we which we wish to engage both each other, third parties, and various resources.
So, the real system architecture I am going to talk about, then we can look at all the PowerPoint stuff which I was obliged to do, is really as simple as this in some respects, but of course as we know simplicity is always terribly deceptive, and please allow me to use some old technology because it not only reflects my history but also the fact that in some ways it's just so much easier to communicate with people with something simple.
When we talk about distributed learning we are not just talking about the impartment and dissemination of knowledge and the way in which that knowledge is incorporated by individuals. In an academic environment we are often talking about four key elements.
One (1) whether we appreciate it or not is called Marketing. Letting people know about the message, whatever it is. That's whether were talking about ACU as an institution, a particular faculty, a particular course, a particular unit, or in fact even getting the message out about I am really serious about plagiarism, and I am really serious, and my message is, I am not going to be soft, or whatever it is. In other words one way or another getting the message out these are your primary high level communications. One way or another, whatever form of distributed learning you're engaged in; there is always a marketing element.
In this quadrant there is always a customer relationship element, a service element, we call them Student Management Systems, in business they call them Customer Relationship Management Systems, CRM systems, If you get very sophisticated in business sometimes there even built into your enterprise resource planning and SAP Hazards CRM's. But one way or another is all about capturing the data that you get related to your key stakeholders. Remember that you have got to communicate with them one way or another in various levels. And of course you have got to have that data knowing who your audience, your stakeholders, your participants, are. Remember this is all about the learning environment, because learning primarily is about engagement in the first instance from both the teachers' and the students' perspective, or the teachers' and the learners' perspective. But especially, it's about an understanding of what it is we think we are doing. See because, as was said in that excellent talk this morning by Sally [Kift], most education, most learning takes place outside of the classroom, we all know that as educators.
We communicate, we have Customer Services. In our Student Management system what we have is essentially a permission based system. So we have got messaging going back and forth there and we call this a Student Management System. We call it various other things. Now somehow we have all this data about students and we want to interact with those students. In the eLearning/online world if we're talking about web enabled we'll talk about this as an LMS, that's primarily what Blackboard is of course. Others call it a virtual learning environment; I prefer to call it a managed learning environment because in fact the classroom is a managed learning environment. Whether it's in cyberspace or in this room it's still a managed learning environment, managed in terms of the expectations, certain protocols, certain etiquettes, that are associated with it, and of course there's communication this way, why? Do you let anybody walk into that environment? Well sometimes you do, but if you have got paying customers and your budgets of concern to you maybe you won't, so indeed there is a permission based system going back and forth. But of course there is intellectual property here; it's not just a question of people entering either a physical space or a virtual space without access to a whole host of resources that either the teacher uses or the student uses, whether they're called libraries, books, YouTube, you name it.
So one way or another you have what are called content object repositories, databases. In the new world of online distributed learning they are content object repositories. Now, when we talk about distributed learning what we say, among other things, is that these elements need not be in the one spatio-temporal location, we know that even with our classrooms, the libraries are not in our classrooms. Funnily enough, with modern technologies we have a degree of convergence that makes propinquity in terms of our resources possible, we can be closer to each other in this space by using imported and then exported technologies than we ever were in a traditional classroom where somebody had to physically leave the room to get the learning element, the book or whatever. With these new technologies there is essentially a new; when I say paradigm a terribly over used word, but when one says this I say it carefully there is a new way, and there has been abroad for many years, a new way of interacting that in fact many educators don't appreciate anyway near as much as their children do. As I learn from my three daughters about education every day, as I become more and more antique for them and quaint, in terms of this and they see daddy struggling to keep up with all the technologies and so on, even though I hold a few a patents in them. Anyway in terms of the way in which we are talking about online learning or distributed learning we're talking about elements that can be all over the spatio-temporal world, but it's all about points of convergence. The architecture is what makes it happen. The enabling technologies will be adapted, or adopted, discarded, rediscovered in various cycles according to all sorts of fashion. If we put to one side the technology, whether it's our iPod, iPad, iMat or whatever it is, the thing is, and understand that the architecture which is based on our business rules, the logic of what it is we intend to do, as long as we appreciate that, and understand that technologies are only enabling devices will we ever understand how we can adapt these various distributed technologies to meet our distributed learning needs.
And at long last I may as well use the PowerPoint, this other technology, which now seems so outdated, and in fact we can go past all that because otherwise we are concentrating on the text, but really a few things that I want to point out, technology should not be the enabler. Key message, if you take nothing else away from today don't worry about the technology that's secondary, it's your so called business rules that should dominate. When I say business rules I am not talking about commerce as such, I'm talking about whatever business it is you think you're in, such as imparting knowledge to a student.
Systems integration, the actual technology itself is secondary yet again to the way in which it's integrated, we all know this. Even on our humble PC's on our desktop we use a fraction of the percentage of the capacity of those beasts, because, a) we don't know how to and b) they are not actually integrated in our work and life and other practices so that we have the wherewithal to use them. And importantly with good architecture we have agility. We can move onto the next one [PowerPoint slide].
Why is agility important? Well, I just thought I would put up a few things here to talk about, a distributed learning environment and the various things we have. I spoke about a student management system, you see when it's all like that and it's not organised it's pretty hard to understand, what do we think we're doing [with] this online hence the importance of that. Well we know we have got logistics, we know we have enterprise resource planning we have to be feed and somebody has to organise all of that, somebody has to do it. Student management system well we all had to be accredited or whatever it was to get here. Resource management we know about that, customer relations, all of this. Let's go to the next one [slide]. Somehow they have got to be connected. In the early days we were very focused, and this is very much what say Blackboard is, it's a toaster compared to a bread maker. What is does is it takes a predefined object, a piece of bread, it'll do something, it'll warm it up nicely for you and here it is. All the parameters are largely set. What we are moving towards in distributed learning nowadays, and in technology broadly speaking in a variety of enabling technologies in other areas, I won't go into as bread makers. Namely you make the bread and you get it just the way you want and you will be able to toast it just as you like. In other words what is happening with distributed learning technologies and online technologies is we are finding more power is moving into the hands of the individual users, students, teachers, administrators, quality assurance folk, and others, and you know what they're making the bread. And there toasting it in different ways, but it's important that it's all held together.
System commoditisation, what does that mean? Well it's very interesting, I did part of an MBA at Deakin and I did the other part at Stanford, and you know what? The notes were better at Deakin, than at Stanford. They had become commoditised we all know that. Textbooks, I used to be with Thompson Corporation. You're all familiar with Thompson textbooks, called St. Gage now; I used to be the General Manager Asia Pacific in Education. We all knew what was happening with textbooks, of course and indeed the choice between one or the other well, it's often a very idiosyncratic decision whether you go with McGraw Hill or Thompson for this, that or the other, they become commodities. But system commoditisation has enormous impact on the systems themselves but also the choices you make. You see the thing is if somebody says,
'Oh you did your MBA at Deakin that's OK, but you were also at the Slone School,'
' Yeh, but you know what the Deakin stuff was',
'You were at the Sloan School! You were at St'
'But you know the Deakin, if I had to compare the stuff'
'You were at the'
So the point was of course, that the brand dominated; and what Deakin had to offer, yeh that's an MBA and that's commoditised and the materials and so on. I was really, I thought, cos the Rolodex factor at Stanford was something else, but that's another story. We have to understand commoditisation because managed learning environments, LMSs, have become commoditised. Last time I did a survey of them and had to review them, in a commercial capacity, there were about 600 that were quite reasonable. And there are most probably are about, I don't know, 2 or 3 thousand that are you know dodgy brothers stuff that still works and so on, and there may be millions more out there in backyards and garages and so on. So the question again, if there is no problem about choice, the problem is that the decision you make today, is going to live with you for years, decades! So be very careful about the choices you make and why you make those choices in a highly commoditised environment. Not need to worry about that; let's go...In fact I'll move on because I want to give us some more time to talk. Let's go the next [slide] if we could.
Early days, right, ancient history stuff, we all had student management systems. They even had them in the 19th century. Thompson used to own a thing called the International Correspondence School, started in Glasgow in the late 19th century, and I was amazed to see a student management system in Glasgow when I went there that had been built in 1896. A card system, quite automated, quite impressive.
Logistics we know about that. Learning Management System , Blackboard, and so we have all that. Content altering tools, various sorts of things there. Microsoft Office and library resources. And of course what happened is that these things started to get connected, as these systems started to become more tightly integrated. We started to link student management, student data with logistics and learning management with Learning Content Management Systems. Now I could get very technical here, but essentially this is the content object repository I was referring to. Somewhere the content has to live somewhere. In the early days of Blackboard, things have changed, not that much, it's essentially and LMS, a very good one for its time. But LCMS's have actually grown independently. And in fact, can do a whole host of things that you never dream of in there, because there purpose specific systems. Well you know, time went by and we found we could do a lot more things and thing started to get a bit more connected, the library resources were brought in and we could do that, and of course synchronous classrooms. Because again, we know that, when I use the term synchronous and asynchronous we are having a synchronous exchange, because the same geography; it does not even have to be that, but it's in the same time zone. We are talking contemporaneously, if it's asynchronous it's like sending an email which you may respond to 5 days later or leaving a voice mail for you. We need not be in the same time space in order to communicate. So synchronous; classroom event is a classical synchronous activity, email is a classical asynchronous activity. And of course we then see things starting to be connected. But you see not everything, we go to the next one [next slide] and then of course we start to see our different systems, because you know what the Library will have its own system and we have to connect to that, and then we have to connect with some other system, and then there is the quality control system and so on. And then we start using various tools for that. I don't want to get too technical.
So that then lead to other things being connected and ePortfolio, we keep on going [next slide], till eventually all that mess that we had before. If we could go back a little bit [few slides]. Thank you. What's happening is you are starting to see what always happens when you get a plethora of little sub systems that are doing quite nicely on their own thank you very much. Eventually it starts to become a bit chaotic because organising all this of this becomes a real headache. Then we move on [next slide]. So what we start to do is create virtual sets, brackets. We create an environment, and we call it a portal [next slide]. OK we go through the portal, what would happen is that we capture various elements, and importantly these would have to be standards determined. And bless the U S Department of Defence because remember the driving force of the internet, we would not be here talking about web stuff if it weren't for the US Department of Defence. That funnily enough there is a story that many years ago, it tried to offload the non-defence and non-scientific research aspects of it to AT&T and said, 'Look for' I can't remember for how many for 10, 20 million, 'you can have the dam [lot]. ''What would we do with it?' Right, I mean this of course was in the 80's. Remember the Internet was of course technically invented in 1968. In 1968 there was a fully functional Internet when the US department of defence for a very specific defence purpose. And people forget that the Americans gave this to the world. It was literally given. And then they tried to sell for a few million bits of it. AT&T ended up buying a few percent 7, or 8 I can't remember for so many billion a few years after it turned down the whole thing essentially for just a ....account.
Anyway the US Department of Defence set standards. Why? Because it's still the world biggest distributed learner. It's still the world's biggest user of online learning technologies, the US department of defence. You think you have a few students? You try training simultaneously 1.7 million people, in various programs often hi-tech, high security environment.
So they created a portal structure using standards. The important thing here is that all these elements relate through a variety of standards that allow the elements to talk to each other in a highly collaborative but coordinated way. And what we are starting to see is the advent of what's starting to become familiar to all of us now in terms of the portal structure that we associate with traditional online or distributed learning. There are still elements outside but they relate[next slide]. Oh, that's a lot of bumf about standards, don't worry about that if anybody is interested in what LDAP is and all that but it's not really relevant [next slide].
Some interesting stuff here. What we start to see is that once we set the standards right, the standard that the US Department of Defence uses that's now worldwide that even Blackboard had to adopt called SCORM, is one where you have a system here and you can start interacting with other external elements. We've got YouTube and so on, fascinating stuff that's occurring now. When I did this whenever it was, I thought well I won't put in the stuff about etext books. It's funny that only a night, two nights ago a former colleague from the US said 'look it's going to occur in the next few weeks I can't give any details blah, blah, blah, but you're going to see a deal has been signed where we are going to stop selling a whole bunch of text book as paper. And essentially they are all going to be integrated with various Learning Management Systems. By the way Blackboard is one of the parties, that's got a deal, there are many others and so on. And of course I will talk about open source later if people wish to; I would love to but not in the context of this because I don't want to concentrate too much on a specific technology but again. So I could add text books here as well, the traditional paper based textbooks of course we all know is a dinosaur. But that's a dinosaur, remember that they were around for a lot longer than our species so we should be very respectful of dinosaurs. And they will be with us yet because remember that technology always has to a certain extent a fairly long lead-in-time, that of course is becoming compressed.
But what you are seeing are a number of external elements that you will never want to bring within the portal structure being incorporated but always staying outside for a whole host of reasons, from intellectual property, security, you have got all sorts. You just don't want them there they are just too big, so what happens is you say well I'll have a little chunk of YouTube. So do what University of NSW does for example have many of its lectures on its own YouTube channel, all universities; many universities I should say are doing this. So next one please [slide], and of course it gets a bit more complex, we can go to the next one [slide], that just has a slight variation on it. Till eventually what you'll see is that multiple portals start to get connected. And various universities, the Australian Technology Network is doing that, but also when I was asked to consult with a private provider a number of years ago we did this. We actually had various institutions that had their own portal but they come back to one centralised system that now handles thousands, tens of thousands of students, this is a private institutions . And it runs, each one has its own branding, each one has its own special permissions, so that sessional staff here, and so on, can't get into that, and students from here can't get into that unless they've permission to do so. But they work off the one back-end. Now, in a highly distributed environment such as ACU, I mean talk about distributed learning, ACU is quintessentially distributed learning, even if only geographically. This is very, very compelling, and of course the Student Management System works across all, making sure that everything's [connecting]. And it can still link with all your external resources. Thanks.[Next slide].
And then of course there is no reason why you would want to stop all of this, this other private institution had linkages into other parts of the world and they had their own system. And of course you can link all of that. We are talking, these are big institutions. But you know what? You could just as well do this for a class, within a faculty and other faculties if you wish to, for your combined degrees or whatever it is you wish to do.
This has got a whole host of motherhood statements beginning with the long journey, and all that sort of stuff. We needn't worry about that because it will take away time. Let's go to the next thing.
There is an evolutionary path here, and we have to actively engage it, if not necessary pursue it both strategically and tactically. The evolutionary path is towards complexity at one level. Commoditisation and the massive choices that commoditisation entails, but also we now have tools to simplify or at least, if I can say, organize that level of complexity that will allow us to do things in a much smarter way than prima facie we think we could given the enormous complexity confronting us. For example if we go back a few [slides], thank you so much Ingrid.
Ingrid D'Souza: That's alright.
Alan Bowen-James: If we go back a little bit. Ok, here, that's good. Thank you.
This looks so daunting, when you get down into the detail designings, I had to, I did the higher-level design for the Stock Exchange Knowledge Bank System. Many of you are familiar with any of that; they've got a learning management system. They have to get 32,000 stock brokers and other folk involved in a highly secure environment that had to go through numerous firewalls, and they all had to be able to control and distribute intellectual property in a secure socket layer that any bank or Fort Knox would be proud of and yet had to be fairly open. Now, the challenges there we thought would just be impossible, how could you do this? 'Oh and we want you to connect people all over the world, because we want to get into the New York Stock Exchange, Frankfurt of course' you know naturally, and you know you could just see the list going. And this was quite a challenge, in fact what we found was that through properly modelling the system, that things had evolved to the point where there were now meta tools that we could use where robotically they could handle the lower level of complexity, and indeed allow us to get on with other things. And the interesting thing was it's a bit like island hopping. What I mean is this - during the Second World War, of course, you did not want to take every single island in the Pacific occupied by the enemy so you would go to the strategic ones and you would get back to the others when they were sufficiently starved that they would want to surrender or whatever, right. So you would island hop. Well you do a lot of that , that's called agile computing, you do a lot of island hopping, and you back fill providing that you have the appropriate technologies that allow you, to give you sufficient comfort, that you can actually do this and come back and understand what it is that has happened. So, believe it or not it's a bit like medicine, where you open up and have a look but meanwhile remember that you've got a steaming abdomen open in front of you. You better do something quickly because you don't really know what's going on until you see it, and then you have to make a decision whether you are going to take out those four feet of, pardon me my antiquity, a meter and a bit of bowel and what it is you are going to do, right. So what it means is that you do a lot of diagnosis, wishful thinking and prognosis but you have lots of good techniques and tools and sufficient knowledge to know that you handle these systems as they emerge.
Can I tell you what's fascinating with what's happening with a lot of systems in the Internet? Google is fantastic, that's why Google still has a tremendous advantage over many others. It's very interesting, I was talking to; this is going back now a year or so, to one of the chief mathematicians with [Google], one of my doctorates is maths education, so talking to the mathematician about some of the algorithms. And some of the algorithms are so complex and because the intellectual property is held so tightly they don't just put it on a table so to speak, and say here you are steal our IP, join another company and that's it, goodbye Google. They don't do that. What they do is only maybe only three or four people know the whole algorithm for any particular thing. And they divvy it up, and they do that island hopping thing where you know this, and you know that, and you can connect that, but you won't know this, this and this, and just take it on faith that it will work, because we've designed a system that is self organising. Now what we're finding with the system, with the Internet is, and this is occurring with the increasing complexity of data and the processes put on it, it is and it will be increasingly in the future self organising. And you know what, when the first Internet Protocol was first devised in the 60's it was because, why? Well in the event of a nuclear war we won't know what servers are around and there won't be people to maintain this. So the original design for the protocol assumed a self organising system. And a bunch of mathematicians sat down and said 'How you could set up a system that essentially, providing you gave it juice, you know you feed it, you kept the electricity on and all of that somewhere, it could keep running its self?' Well, we have reached that stage in the Internet. When I spoke to the senior Google folk about what they knew of what was going on within server farms and when I talk of server farms you see aircraft hangers out there, not nearby. Image those many, many, many times larger with thousands of servers all doing so many megaflops a second in terms of computational process. They have no idea, only at the highest possible level.
That strayed a little from what we were talking about before but that was really just talking about the level of complexity we could go into. Back into distributed learning environments. What is the relevance of what I just said then to distributed learning environments? To a contain extent what happens is that once you open up your learning environment so that folk are able to a large extent self serve, because you've got fairly automated systems, one way or another, that are providing you with material. Your assessments are going back and being automatically marked or whatever it is that is happening. You are moving between this, that and the other, someone's in Ulladulla someone's in Ulánbátor but you're in the same class somehow with a teacher from Nebraska, where ever it is, what it does, eventually of course, is what you find is that you lose control of that system very quickly unless you have built self organising principles into it. And that's one of the key things that we learn. When you come back to very basic distributed learning system architecture at some point the key messaging, the marketing, the cogs, the management, the customer relationship or your stake holder relationship, who are the individuals or entities, I mean not let's not be species specific, or even carbon compound specific. The entities that will one way or another participate; given what I have just said, most of them will be silicon compound, the portal so called as I have mentioned there, the managed learning environment in which this will operate and of course the intellectual property.
Now the take home message or messages.
One, we're talking about distributed learning. The technology is not secondary it's tertiary. That sounds crazy because it's so important but it's tertiary. Because what you have got today that absolutely infatuates you will be old hat tomorrow. The question is how does it all connect? How does it meet your particular needs?
The second aspect, you build for scalability now. Work towards a stochastic future. Linus Pauling when he got his first Nobel Prize in chemistry, well the first Nobel Prize was in chemistry, the second wasn't, had developed the science of stochastics . What that means and that's incredibly important in advanced IT as well as chemistry is this. When you start a particular chemical process, you don't actually know it will end up exactly at this point. You only know it when it's a certain percentage away, from the beginning. It's reached a certain stochastic threshold, and it's only at that point, one minute to midnight that you know what's going to happen, which way it will go. The Internet is a lot like that, learning, education is always about that. It's a stochastic process. Our learning outcomes, our graduate attributes. Can you predict from the day you start teaching a student what the outcome will be? But you will have a very, very good idea a few days before they graduate. That may be your stochastic point. What we try to do as educators is bring that stochastic point back further so we can intervene more if we think it's going somewhere we don't want it to go.
When we design distributed learning systems, any sort of systems such as this what we try to do is build it in such a way, that wherever possible we have some sense of where our stochastic points may be and where the future may actual reside with all of this.
Getting back to the old technologies and Blackboard, if we can go back a bit [back a few slides]. Thank you, you are so kind Ingrid. Let's keep going, keep going. Back, there we are.
Frankly, this is called getting personal because I was involved in building that system at the time it looked so wonderful I can tell you. In fact outside of Blackboard in the states we were the only group aloud to fiddle with their assessment engine, for what was then called Blackboard 6, as you know Blackboard took over WebCT and all that sort of stuff.
And the reason you might ask yourself, gee in that environment in this world where this stuff is burgeoning how come these companies keep collapsing? And how come Blackboard itself is only worth a few hundred million on the stock exchange? I mean it's not a multi-billion dollar company. Why? Because everybody else out there is doing all this other stuff and you know what, it's getting commoditised and it's cheaper and so on. A system that was designed and did very well what it was supposed to in those days cannot compete. I shouldn't say that, maybe it can, but cannot necessarily compete going forward, with systems that at the very least can do this
Or [systems] that can do that.
Speaking now with an ACU hat, my fresh ACU hat, we need to be able to build for this at the very least, and all the other stuff I mentioned before going forward. We need to have a strong sense of our architecture. Why are we architecting in that way? Question.
Question from the floor: Alan, I know that you can give me time to ask, but I just jump in because, what my understanding is, a self managed system what you're talking about . Can a system substitute you in self managing this PowerPoint presentation ... you swap so many times, can a system do that?
Alan Bowen-James: No, you see
Questioner: Compared with what you did now?
Alan Bowen-James: It's a good point. In the same way as you can have remote surgery you can have computers programmed, but you know, at some point the computers have to be programmed. It is very interesting. You can
Questioner: Programmed by you and me? If I don't have the algorithm
Alan Bowen-James: Yes
Questioner: the computer just acts based on my algorithm
Alan Bowen-James: Yes, that's right.
Participant: and my algorithm is work is self rewarding but not the computer.
Alan Bowen-James: If we're talking. Obviously now we're getting into the world of wild speculation, cybernetics and so on. But the point is fundamentally correct. And that is, obviously we as carbon compounds have a distinct advantage at the moment, because our processing power and our particular histories and so on as such that we still run the show. Will that necessarily be the case a century or two from now? That, I can't tell you. What I can say is that if you look at the way things are trending, we had better start learning smarter. If you're saying someone could replace me and do a better job or an entity of some sort I have absolutely no doubt about that would that entity at this stage do the base planning that would set the systems up? At this stage, no. They're very, very, very, good at working, I'll give you a perfect example; nobody here can calculate the way a little hand held calculator can. No, nobody here can. But calculators don't design themselves. And it is very interesting, that's not even so important, you know why? We didn't evolve, on getting back to the evolutionary point. All we had to know was that mammoths were coming at us. Did somebody say, 'Is it 22 or 24 mammoths?' 'I don't know Charlie, will that make a difference?' [Hand clap]. Squash. The point is we just had to know one or more mammoths that might make a difference to us and could we react accordingly. The thing is that at this stage what I am saying is that even with systems such as this. The fundamental design, but more importantly the understanding of what the system is suppose to do, and all those other seeming intangibles, the qualitative aspects, that are so much harder to capture in a computational environment. That's where fortunately, thank you, we still hold the edge. And I believe we will for some time to come.
But I think what you've said as well has important pedagogical implications, and that is, it's too easy to rely on the technology to do the work for us. And I think one of the hard things for teachers, for educators, is actually to temper the technology. As much as I love online and been involved in doing all that and set up universities and so on with it over the years, frankly I much prefer to talk to people face-to-face. I much prefer the intimacy of human interaction. But you know what? It's wonderful if you can use the technology to help you do the things that you do repetitively and so on, that are labour intensive, that have a high opportunity cost. You know it takes forever to get here, and I am wasting all this time sitting n a lecture that I could have had a look at online. You know what's interesting, Queensland University in the Med. School. It's done something quite fascinating. This is a few years ago, John Hay my old boss from many, many years ago when he was VC at Deakin. He went up there and basically in the Med School said, 'People are wasting their time in classrooms for stuff that's not important'. So he said 'Can you work with us and do something, in terms of these are on campus med students?' Now medicine is one of the most hands on subjects, discipline areas you can imagine. I suppose Swedish massage more, but medicine will do.
So the thing is that so many of the lectures and tutorials were a waste of time for many people. 'What did he say? I didn't hear.' 'I don't know. She was talking', or so on. Or three students always dominate the tutorial and all that sort of stuff. So we found, using tons of evidence, that actually putting certain learning events into an online environment actually was an equaliser. It gave people who had either learning difficulties, language difficulties, or whatever, the opportunity to go over and over. A great quality control mechanism. You know 'What was the lecture like for you yesterday?' 'He had a cold, he was feeling lousy. It was terrible.' 'It was great today he got over the cold'. You don't have that problem. But you know what you need to do in medicine. Sometimes you really do have to labour over that cold body in Pathology. You really have to see those histopathology specimens, you really have to talk to a patient, heaven forbid it does happen. So what happens is that you take out the resources and all the effort and the opportunity cost associated with unnecessary face-to-face interactions and you invest a massive amount of time and effort into getting particular learning events right. You maximise the potential of propinquity, of direct human interaction and all its idiosyncrasies and foibles and that's fantastic. And that's really what we're looking forward to I think in the future. We use these technologies and systems and everything to free us to do things like this if we think this sort of encounter is important. And the other stuff we do when we can, because remember we live in a world now where our lives are not as neatly compartmentalised as they use to be. I mean I'm just in school now. I'm at university now. What does that mean? Well sex, drugs, rock and roll, childcare ... and I occasionally get some learning and then I go and get a job, and so on. The good old days. Increasingly people are going to be working and learning and having their kids and all the things there going to do and they're going to try and fit various activities into the spaces. So these enabling technologies, the distribution of learning is not just going to be spatiotemporal it's going to be internalised in our lives. We learn in the office we're going to be learning after hours, we're going to be doing all these things and indeed we use these technologies in order to facilitate that. But back to your fundamental question, earlier on I think we'll still be doing that and hopefully the technologies will be enabling and not controlling us.
Question from the floor: When you talking about this ... I was reading an article about how we live in different compartments we have to perform multiple roles as a human being. I was writing a paper and I read something about how work interferes with family, but whatever happens in the family has less impact on work because family has so much permeability to play on the different roles and you know give it to someone else or not do it whereas at work you can't. And you know exactly because of all this technology students have so much permeability to play with their education they don't take it seriously at all. That's what is happening that's what we see.
Alan Bowen-James: You know what, the first aspect of what you said I think is very interesting and I think there is a lot there in terms of the permeability of the various compartments so to speak, virtual compartments in our lives. To say that students don't engage, because of technology all the data is opposed to that. If you look at any of the research worldwide, and stuff that I looked at I only recently returned from Europe...
At this point the battery in my Smart Pen went flat and I had also run out of room on my 2nd digital recorder (so triple redundancy is the go next time)
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Russell, R. (2010, August 26, 10:03 am). LTC conference 2010.
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