The VLE is dead?

VLE death?Read this post on The Ed Techie – Martin Weller’s blog (Martin is a professor of Educational Technology at the Open University).

This particular entry is going back a bit (2007) but its discussion points are even more relevant now that more sophisticated web tools are available. Weller identifies a number of pedagogical needs (discussion, content, virtual meetings, posting materials etc) then systematically lists the advantages and disadvantages of hosting them externally from the corporate/university VLE. He’s not a breathless evangelist, though (which Prensky could perhaps be accused of) – this is a measured discussion that deals with the issues of students’ engagement with ‘closed’ University VLE/IT systems, the relationship with student fees, staff awareness of technology generally, and DPA/user authentication.

Weller identifies the advantages of VLEs first;

  • Authentication – this is quite a big one. Students are authenticated via the University database and this feeds through to the VLE and related systems. Single sign on is obviously a big plus here. For small courses you could manually enrol your students on your wiki (if you didn’t want it to be open to all), but for some of our courses we have 1000+ students, so that isn’t scaleable. Having said that, this is not a problem that is insurmountable. Authentication isn’t really my subject area, but with openid, Shibboleth etc people are moving in this direction. What I want is to be able to apply the OU authentication to any site I want, so if I create a wiki I simply tell the OU authentication system to include that url. Maybe it can do this already? The issue of roles is more complicated, but again if we start on this now, it’s not impossible to crack.
  • Convenience – there is a degree of convenience for both academic and student in having all the tools packaged in the VLE. However, I think there is also an increasing frustration at being limited to these tools, and also an increased ability to cope with a range of tools.
  • Support – if you have one centralised system then you can offer centralised support also. If every academic is using a different collection this becomes more difficult. However, these tools are all pretty easy to use, and one could easily have a collection of supported ones.
  • Reliability – if we house the VLE then we can guarantee the server times and service level agreement. If it is housed on an external system you have no control if it goes down. This is true and something that keeps IT people awake at night, but this surrendering control is going to be one of those things we just have to get used to as we use more third party apps simply because they’re better.
  • Monitoring –  one of the tools that a VLE offers is the ability to monitor a student or cohort’s progress. These can be useful tools in identifying problems and offering support. While a loosely coupled system wouldn’t offer this at the individual level, there are an increasing number of sophisticated analytical tools available (as Tony Hirst repeatedly tries to get me to realise) which will provide much of this information.

But he then goes on to outline the pedagogical advantages of free web tools, thus;

  • Better quality tools – because offering each of these loosely coupled elements is what each company does, it is in their interest to make them really good. This means they stay up to date, have better features, and look better than most things produced in higher education.
  • Modern look and feel – related to the above, these tools often look better, and also their use makes a course feel more modern to a user who is raised on these tools compared with the rather sterile, dull systems they encounter in higher ed.
  • Appropriate tools – because they are loosely coupled the educator can choose whatever ones they want, rather than being restricted to the limited set in the VLE. This is one of the biggest draws I feel – as an academic if I want a particular tool I don’t have to put a request in to IT and wait a year to get a reduced quality version, I just go ahead and use it.
  • Cost – using a bunch of free tools has got to be cheaper hasn’t it?
  • Avoids software sedimentation – when you have institutional systems they tend to embody institutional practice which becomes increasingly difficult to break. Having loosely coupled system makes this easier, and also encourages people to think in different ways.
  • Disintermediation happens – this isn’t really a benefit, just an observation. If a services can be disintermediated then it will be. In this case the central VLE system is disintermediated as academics use a variety of freely available tools.

This entry led me to Scott Leslie’s term ‘loosely coupled teaching‘. Check the comments below the entry (this, too, is back in 2007). It’s clear that there are many others doing this sort of thing i.e. using free web-based tools as well as (or instead of) formal VLEs to deliver teaching. And in many of these cases the benefits of working externally are clear – including the very fact that we, as members of the wider HE community, can learn from looking at them.

Digital Immigrants & Natives – the backlash

There are some that argue that Prensky’s work is merely speculation – I would certainly agree with Jamie McKenzie’s assertion that his research methods are hardly exemplary. He cites no evidence for his claims, and has no primary research to back them up (apart from one mis-quoted, mis-spelled scientist’s work in a very different field of neurology). Like many over 30s, I find his vaguely disparaging descriptions of the ‘immigrant’ class to be irritating after a while.

But even though his expressions are sometimes glib and his methodology almost non-existent, I’m not so sure Prensky is wrong. I currently work with a class of around 45 Commercial Music students, and they certainly exhibit the behaviour Prensky describes, individually and en masse. Even the most diligent and motivated of them send me Facebook messages asking questions that have been covered extensively during the previous week’s lecture. But whenever I post a link to an interesting subject-related article on Facebook, they always seem to be familiar with it by the next time I meet them.

Wall of MacsI do get irritated when I see a wall of Apple logos in a lecture, because I know (or at least delude myself) that while some of the students will be ‘taking notes’ most will be, at best, checking out the Wikipedia entry on the band/track I’m discussing, and at worst emailing/IMing a mate about pub plans.

But this has led me to question the idea of the lecture itself. Is this ‘one-to-many’ pedagogical model really so relevant any more? There is a facetious university toilet graffito that states “A lecture is the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either.” I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this in our work – where the eager-to-please student regurgitates our own PPT slides in an essay without triangulating them with their own research. I do agree with Prensky that the linear single-presenter model of teaching is actually alien to many learners… perhaps in the same way that an RSS feed is alien to some lecturers.

So Prensky has not, I would argue, presented primary research of any validity. But what he has done is to ask an important question about tutor/learner interaction, namely – should we maintain pre-Internet pedagogical models in our teaching, bring in new models alongside them, or abandon them altogether?

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats


ImimgrantsThe terms I used in the presentation – to describe most of our teachers as ‘Digital Immigrants’ and most of our learners as ‘Digital Natives’ – comes from writer Mark Prensky.

I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in technology-based teaching and learning – no, anyone who teaches at all – should read his work. Here is a faintly damning but nonetheless thought-provoking excerpt describing characteristics of digital immigrants – i.e. us.

The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all
immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain,
to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past.   The “digital immigrant
accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather
than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program
itself will teach us to use it. Today‟s older folk were “socialized” differently from their
kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later
in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent.  They include printing
out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you – an even “thicker” accent);
needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than
just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office to see an
interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL).  I‟m sure you can think of
one or two examples of your own without much effort. My own favorite example is the
“Did you get my email?” phone call.  Those of us who are Digital Immigrants can, and
should, laugh at ourselves and our “accent.”

But this is not just a joke.  It‟s very serious, because the single biggest problem facing
education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated
language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks
an entirely new language.

The quotation comes from this article. Oops. Looks like I didn’t use correct Harvard referencing there.

We’re in the blogosphere.

Get over it.

Teaching songwriting with a Mac laptop

Demo panel at the UK Songewriting Festival 208[note – Feb 2013 – most of the links from this 2008 article are now defunct, but the basic principles of how I project lyrics in lectures are the same, so I’m leaving this post online for archive purposes].

I occasionally get asked, by undergraduate studentsFestival songwriters, and songwriting teacherswhat software and hardware I use to project lyrics and play back songs for analysis during songwriting lectures. Sometimes the question actually hijacks lectures and diverts us from discussing the actual song, so I’m going to write this blog post about it, so next time someone asks, I can just send them this link and get on with talking about songwriting!

This is unapologetically nerdy and exhaustive, because the people who ask about this sort of thing often want lots of technical detail.

The hardware
During lectures I have my Mac laptop with me – it’s a standard Mac Powerbook running OSX andiTunes. This is connected to a VGA projector (see photo) and a mini-jack audio cable connects the Mac to whatever sound system we’re using (in the photo example we used a small mixing desk on the table, routed into the theatre PA system in the ceiling).

The library
My iTunes library is around 6000 MP3s that I’ve collected over the years from various sources. The computer is always live on the ‘net, so if someone in the lecture class wants to discuss a song I don’t have, I just spend the £0.79 then and there and buy it online.
Because I’m sometimes running a PowerPoint or web browser simultaneously, I like to be able to play and pause iTunes remotely in the background. Sometimes I use the Apple remote for this, but most of the time I prefer to use a background application called Synergy, which is a simple iTunes controller that provides play, pause, next track functions etc, using function keys.

Lyrics and MP3s – the background
We all know that despite many years of attempts by rights owners to prevent fans publishing song lyrics online, it’s possible to locate the lyrics to almost any song on the ‘net. But using a web browser to do this live in a lecture is inelegant, and distracts the class from the song. So I combine two techniques – MP3 lyric metatags and lyric widgets.

An MP3 metatag (or to get really techy, its ID3 metadata… stay with me, here – it gets interesting soon!) is simply a way that the MP3 file can have textual information or images (title, artist, composer, cover artwork and lyrics) attached to the file. iTunes has a really simple text editor – just click Apple-I on any iTunes track to bring it up.
So once the lyric is found on the ‘net and then pasted into the MP3’s iTunes lyric info window, it’s there in the file forever, right there on my hard drive. This works for MP3s and also protected AAC files bought from the iTunes Music Store.
So far so good, but that’s still a lot of hassle, especially if I’m running seat-of-the-pants lectures like this year’s SWF (where I asked every member of the audience to write down a choice of song for analysis, then downloaded them live in the classroom). And it’s also not very useful to bring up the Apple-I info window, because the font size isn’t big enough for the class to see on a projector.

The widgets!

In 2005 I discovered Mac OSX lyrics widgets. These are small applications that run in the background using Apple’s OSX Dashboard (i.e. they work with any Mac). There are several, but they all do essentially the same thing – display lyrics attractively on screen from the iTunes lyric data. But that’s not all. If they don’t find any lyric data, they automatically search the ‘net for the lyric, and then extract the text from the lyrics sites they interrogate, and paste it into the MP3 for you. All this happens live, in the background, meaning I can download a song (legally, of course) and then have the lyric embedded in it within less than 10 seconds.
I use several widgets, running concurrently, because they all search slightly different lyric sites. I’ve found that if one widget doesn’t find the lyric, another one will, and then the first one will simply pull the data from the MP3 itself (which will have been embedded automatically by whichever widget found the lyric online first). My current ones are;
Sing That iTuneFireHarmonic and the defunct but easy-to-find PearLyrics.

Icing on the cake – hot corners
Mac users will know that OSX supports hot corners. So I set up the Mac so that every time I move the mouse pointer to the top left of the screen, it launches Dashboard. Having previously set things up so that the lyrics widgets are always running, this means, in a lecture, all I have to do is play an MP3, sweep the mouse to the top left of the screen, and the lyrics appear!

But there’s more…

Sometimes, we have an iTunes playlist running while we’re setting up a lecture – a list of recent hits, or songs in a particular form, theme or genre. So to make this a bit more visual, I also occasionally use Jewelcase, a shareware plugin for iTunes that displays not only the lyric metatag, but also the JPG of the album cover metatag – and puts the whole thing in a beautifully rendered spinning CD jewel case. Projected 20ft high in a lecture, it is a thing to behold!

And a tiny bit more…
This setup works great for lectures, but sometimes we’re discussing tempo. We can usually find the chords and key of a song (just by having an acoustic guitar to hand), and we can see its form usually from looking at the lyric and listening to the playback, but finding the tempo was always a bit fiddly, using a metronome there in the lecture.

So I searched the ‘net for a tool that would enable me to mouse-click along to a track, display its tempo in Beats Per Minute, then embed the tempo in the MP3 for next time. It’s called BPM Widget. Does what it says on the tin!