E-feedback for students – a personal view

Online grading - credit: Magna publishing[translation for Americans: staff=faculty; assessment=grading; VLE=LMS]

There’s an interesting and, I suspect, common debate going on at Bath Spa University at the moment, regarding the pros and cons of providing online feedback to students for their written work. Practices vary across the institution; every academic School has some staff members who use online essay feedback and others who provide feedback exclusively on paper (although our academic regulations require that all staff use Turnitin for plagiarism detection).

The arguments on both sides are easy enough to summarise. Those in favour cite timeliness of feedback, support for disabilities, higher takeup rate, staff time efficiency, student expectation, lower carbon footprint, legibility of feedback, increased wordcount and accessibility of feedback. Those against cite difficulty with the software interface, staff time efficiency, the learning curve required by staff to use it, physical issues using computers and displays, and the ‘academic freedom‘ of staff to defend pre-Internet working practices (of paper-based marking). Considering that this article is originally being written for a blog site (bathspaweb2.edublogs.org) about the benefits of e-learning, it’s no secret that I consider that the pros outweigh the cons. But my reasoning is not based on tech-evangelism – rather, it is because, like all of us, I have devoted a large part of my professional life to ensuring that my students have the best learning experience possible, and experience has shown me that online marking enables students to receive feedback that is more timely, relevant, extensive and clear than the equivalent paper-based method. Does this require academics to learn new skills? Certainly. Can it improve the student learning experience? I believe so.

This is not to say that all assessment feedback is better online. Feedback can and should take many forms; in my own formative and summative assessment I use face-to-face tutorials, group seminars and peer assessment, all using verbal protocols that would have been familiar to any 19th-century academic. But I also use Skype, Google talk, pdf annotations, Jing, Camtasia, Zotero, YouTube , emailed MP3s, Turnitin, Minerva (our VLE), and various blogs, sites and wikis. In each case the feedback tool, whether analogue or digital, is selected with the goal of giving students the clearest and most helpful feedback to support their learning. I personally abandoned paper feedback in 2003, initially for reasons of timeliness (emailing feedback to students was simply quicker and easier) and later for reasons of increased pedagogical benefit.

Let’s start with a scenario that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever marked a pile of paper essays. We dutifully annotate every paragraph, highlighting well known spelling/grammar errors such as possessive its, splice commas and providing notes to help students to improve academic citations. [This article is only being distributed electronically. If it were in paper form, the three hyperlinks in the previous sentence directing the reader to additional online learning resources would be unavailable]. At the end of a long, gruelling day (or week, or month!) of marking, we have a large pile of paper on our desks. We then pass these marked up essays back to the students – often some months later if it was a summer submission – or leave them in an office for collection. Sometimes students collect work and read the feedback, and sometimes they don’t. You only have to prowl the corridors of any building on any campus to find box files containing marked work that students have not collected. I know of one colleague who, at the end of a full marking/handback cycle, was left with 75% of the papers not collected by returning students, who had ‘moved on’, or for whatever personal reasons had no interest in reading the feedback. He was heartbroken – all his detailed and diligent work was wasted because the very people he was trying to help were refusing to engage with his preferred method of communicating.

Pedagogical research studies show that feedback is a vital part of the student learning experience, but the UK National Student Satisfaction Survey results consistently demonstrate that a large proportion of students are unhappy with the ‘frequency, timing and method’ (Holmes and Papageorgiou, 2009) of the feedback they receive from tutors. Online feedback is usually received more quickly by students, because they can read it without coming to the campus, or waiting until staff are available to return it. It can be accessed at a convenient time, and from anywhere, thus supporting distance learners, students with mobility issues, and students with families or day jobs. Pedagogical research supports these assertions. Bridge and Appleyard (2008) found in a comparative study of online vs paper submission that;

“88% of students reported a time saving and many reported financial benefits using online submission. 93% of students preferred having their feedback available online rather than printed and handed to them. Overall, students preferred online assignment management to postal or physical hand-in.” (Bridge and Appleyard, 2008)

And good quality online feedback can provide opportunities for additional learning beyond the limitations of paper marginalia. If a student’s essay fails to reference important academic literature in the field of study, our feedback can contain hyperlinks to further reading. If the essay makes a basic error of grammar, style or citation, we can provide hyperlinks to websites and articles that will enable the student to improve these areas for next time. I have a 500-word ‘rubric’ set up on Turnitin’s Grademark facility so that every time students misuse splice commas I can drag and drop a detailed explanation of how they can avoid making this error in future.

The other consideration is the demographic of our current and future learners. Over 90% of BSU students own their own laptop, and 100% have on-campus web access. Many primary schools now use a VLE for key stage 2, and most secondary schools provide online feedback of some sort through VLEs, including Moodle. Teachers throughout key stage 2 and 3 are setting up their own blog sites to support student learning and encourage online interaction. When these children become young adults and enter HE, we can speculate that an 18-year-old first year undertaking our assignments would be somewhat bemused  – perhaps even unimpressed – to receive an A4 printout with handwritten comments, three months after hand-in.

But good quality e-feedback, just like good quality teaching, takes training, skills and experience to deliver. And ‘late adopters‘ (Rogers, 1963) are often left understandably confused by the array of options and the difficulties of getting started. The staff learning curve for a lot of e-learning tools – and I include our own Blackboard/Minerva solution – is far steeper than it should be. As academics we’re thrown in at the deep end with these tools, and the designers of the tools are often so preoccupied with adding features that usability suffers. And although we have some excellent staff training support in our universities, the interfaces should not be as difficult as they are to operate. No-one asks for training using Facebook or Google, because these companies have poured $millions into improving usability. Setting up a Turnitin assignment in the Grade Centre is unreasonably fiddly and complicated. This poor usability creates an apartheid between early and late adopters, with the risk that only the former may provide e-feedback to students. The result is that students become disgruntled that they do not get the same quality of feedback from all staff.

The challenges of software usability and staff IT literacy are very real barriers to students receiving good quality feedback. As assessors, there are two directions we can choose. If we consider that the benefits (to our students) are worth the effort, we’ll forge ahead and confront our difficulties as learners of a new ‘language’, even if the online tool is a bit clunky and difficult. If the learning curve is too great for us, we will resist, and will find a way to intellectualise disengagement – ‘academic freedom to mark however I like’, ‘I like the tangible feel of paper’, ‘I get RSI sitting at a computer’, ‘it’s worked for me for 20 years’ etc.

Let’s look at these arguments one by one. I suggest that the term ‘academic freedom’ may be being misused here. Our own UCU definition of the term covers five areas, all of which relate to the intellectual concept of academic freedom (and all of which I would defend as vehemently as the next colleague). None of them (nor any of the academic literature) refer to the freedom to choose the administrative method by which written feedback is delivered.

The ‘tangible feel of paper’ is a personal preference that doesn’t provide an observable student benefit, and in any case, staff and students can print online materials if they need to. As regards the ‘RSI argument’, physical issues connected with computer usage must of course be treated seriously by academics and organisations, and anyone with a disability of any sort should be – and is – supported in their role. Recently, a member of my team who suffered from back problems told me he was unable to sit at a workstation to deliver online marking, and needed support and advice. We provided him with a portable MP3 recorder and a short training course in how to upload audio files to the VLE. His students received online verbal feedback that was far more extensive than the paper based equivalent, and they made very positive comments about this perceived improvement.

The ‘it’s worked for me for 20 years’ argument may be self-centred rather than pedagogical, but it does provide useful evidence of the need for high-quality staff support. If academics have a responsibility to their students, so managers and institutions have a responsibility to their staff. Given that opposition to online marking is almost always expressed by those who do not yet have the skills to deliver it, there is clearly a staff training issue to be addressed. And this needs to be more than a one-off Friday afternoon showing a small group how to set up a TurnItIn dropbox. Generic ongoing IT literacy must be supported and maintained. In the digital age, communicative teachers need to be able to embed a video, operate simple content management systems, resize a JPEG, make pdfs, share collaborative documents, take a screenshot, store files in the cloud, manipulate a search engine’s advanced features, record an audio file, and most importantly, provide links to other sources of learning. And the challenge of supporting digital immigrants (by which I mean all of us older than about 35) will never be greater than it is now. 15 years ago it wasn’t an issue – students were expecting to receive paper feedback, and in any case the online tools weren’t good enough to provide a better alternative. 15 years hence it won’t be an issue – the majority of the teaching workforce will be naturally digitally literate, having been born into an online society. So the tension we see now, between early and late adopters, will naturally disappear as technology, staff literacy and student benefit combine. If you’re reading these words any time after, say, 2016, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss was about.

2012’s intake of students were born around 1994 and have only ever known a wired world, at home and at school. By contrast, most of us started our professional lives in a pre-Internet age, and have had to adapt our practices – as teachers and as learners – as new tools have become available. The Internet is a new communication tool for our society, enabling instantaneous transfer of information and ideas from one to many, from many to one, or from many to many. As academics we are professional communicators, and many of us are understandably excited by the current and future opportunities for better communication with learners and colleagues. But we’re learning a new language, and we must work together to ensure that our fluency is shared.


You’ll notice that this article isn’t Harvard referenced. Rather, it is hyperlinked. Harvard referencing was invented around 1881 as a system of enabling scholars to follow paper-based trails of information by providing enough metadata about a work to enable it to be located in a physical library. Most other citation systems predate the Internet. Hyperlinks were invented in the mid 1960s and are the primary method by which users navigate online. It may be interesting to speculate whether these long established citation systems decline as the same rate as the need to access information in its physical form.

Taming the Lone Ranger

In my own PhD research I often undertake background reading on creativity-based research. With the imminent (and sad) demise of HE subject centres (our own in the Performing Arts being PALATINE) I’ve been looking through their materials to ensure that nothing useful gets lost when their website is taken down during mid-2011.

While trawling I found an excellent article about institutional strategy for e-learning, presented at the Creativity or Conformity conference 2007 in Cardiff. It addresses some of the challenges HEIs face when trying to harness the ‘Lone Ranger’ enthusiasm of early adopters of e-learning practices (including Web 2.0 tools – the focus of this blog). I’ve uploaded the document here just in case the original web source is removed. Interestingly, this is another example of the ever-increasing number of formal HE research papers that are freely available online (as much-discussed in this blog previously).

The first sentence of the abstract summarises the article’s perspective neatly; “The creative use of elearning technology is both fostered and retarded by higher education institutions”.

Taming the Lone Ranger: The Creative Development of Elearning Technologies within UK and US Higher Education Institutions (Whitworth & Benson, 2007) – download Word document.

Here below-pasted is the full text of the article (copyright retained by the authors).


Creativity or Conformity? Building Cultures of Creativity in Higher Education

A conference organised by the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy

Cardiff January 8-10 2007

Taming the Lone Ranger: The Creative Development of Elearning Technologies within UK and US Higher Education Institutions

Andrew Whitworth & Angela Benson

School of Education

University of Manchester

andrew.whitworth@manchester.ac.uk http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/andrew.whitworth/

Department of Educational Leadership,Policy, and Technology Studies

The University of Alabama



Copyright © in each paper on this site is the property of the author(s).  Permission is granted to reproduce copies of these works for purposes relevant to the above conference, provided that the author(s), source and copyright notice are included on each copy.  For other uses, including extended quotation, please contact the author(s).


The creative use of elearning technology is both fostered and retarded by higher education institutions (HEIs). HEIs can be classified as professional organisations, in which core workers (academics) retain considerable autonomy, but these organisations struggle to benefit from their creative energies in a wider sense. Mintzberg’s work shows that universities as a whole find innovation difficult. These large, mature organisations cannot simply reinvent themselves as “innovative” organisations.

One suggested approach to elearning innovation in professional organisations is what Bates (2000) has called the Lone Ranger model. But even Bates suggests this model will die out as HEIs’ use of elearning matures.

This paper uses three case studies of “Lone Rangers” to show how elearning innovation has been fostered and developed within HEIs. Our case studies exemplify different relationships between the Lone Rangers and their host organisations: Lone Rangers may be marginalised, may stay independent, or may accommodate themselves and their innovations to organisational needs.

Far from having been exiled, the Lone Ranger is alive and well—working, without institutional support, on the next generation of elearning technologies.

Keywords: Creativity, innovation, course management systems, higher education institutions, Lone Rangers, case studies.


Higher education institutions (HEIs) are institutions with an educational remit, but they are also workplaces, and organisations with an interest in innovation in a more instrumental, economic sense. No matter how creative the solution to a pedagogical problem, these innovations cannot flourish and spread in the absence of a sympathetic organisational culture. The subject of our paper is the relationship between elearning innovators and their host organisations. How do the creative activities of individual academics stand in relation to the hosting HEI?

INNOVATION or innovation?

Like all technologies, elearning is socially shaped (Williams and Edge 1996; Dutton et al 2004). And the possibilities for social action in an environment are constrained by extant technological infrastructures and the information flows they facilitate. The technology/ organisation relationship is therefore characterised by both social shaping and technological determinism: it is co-evolutionary (Andrews and Haythornthwaite 2007).

Co-evolution, however, can result in symbioses which are neither progressive nor creative. HEIs, like all large organisations, are quite resilient to change. While this can have benefits—there are huge capital investments in HEIs and technologies which should not be lightly discarded—Gooley and Towers (1996) characterise HEIs as “ocean liners”, difficult to turn or stop:

“…despite the intentions of enterprising (or perhaps deviant) individuals, the investment in infrastructure… tend[s] to maintain distance education towards the status quo…. We are not saying that education providers are change-averse… only that their organisational structures tend to contain the way that the new media are appropriated.”

This is a paradox for managers of HEIs. Any organisation has an instrumental, macro-level interest in innovation. Management gurus stress this so strongly that we call it INNOVATION, in upper case. The justifications are quantitative and economic: the impetus behind the development of new processes and products being the improvement of profit margins and market performance. INNOVATION literature appears in journals like the Harvard Business Review, and is targeted at executives and other senior planners. For example, Garvin (1993) bemoans the tendency to treat innovation as random or spontaneous. He suggests that managers need: a plausible, actionable and easy to apply definition; clear guidelines for management practice, not aspirations; and tools for assessing performance. Roffe (1999) focuses on the need for training and staff development, and Valcke (2004) on change management strategies. Irlbeck (2002), writing more specifically about HEIs, felt there was a lack of necessary leadership skills vis-à-vis elearning innovation, stating that “there is little education for the management of this field, which brings a peculiar need for the understanding of academic culture and mores, together with a need for excellent modern management skills that encourage creativity and marketing knowledge and skills”. All take a “strategic choice” (Child 1972) approach to INNOVATION, suggesting that a creative culture can be inculcated in an organisation through strategic management decisions.

However, responding to the challenge of elearning is not just a matter for institutional leaders. Learning is a necessary organisational response to change in any environment, but for organisations to be effective, learning must take place at all levels. It needs to be self-sustaining (Senge 1999), and self-critical (Argyris 1999). Yet macro-level, strategic INNOVATION may struggle to adapt itself to diverse contexts. Scientific knowledge can be abstract and generalised, but technological knowledge is always partly “micro-cognitive” (Bonaccorsi & Pammolli 1996). Technology is more “hands on” than science, often being developed through rough approximations and testing (Nightingale 1996), and always adapting to circumstance. INNOVATION risks retarding individual workers’ ability to experiment with, and thereby self-critically evaluate, new technologies.

The HEI context

INNOVATION may be a macro-level success factor for organisations, but we need to understand how it is also practised in their own workplaces by individuals responding to contextualised, quotidian situations. What are the specific contexts faced by micro-level innovators within HEIs? How do the micro- and macro-levels work together—or do they in fact cancel each other out?

Mintzberg (1989: 173-195) classifies HEIs as professional organisations. They are large and loosely coupled (Weick 1976), with a generally autonomous professional core, supported by a more hierarchical support staff. Gooley and Towers’ “ocean liner” metaphor (see above) has some credence, though Mintzberg observes (1989, p. 188) that “the professional organisation is, paradoxically, extremely stable at the broadest level and in a state of perpetual change at the narrowest one.” Pockets of innovation emerge frequently, and the literature is replete with accounts of them (e.g. McPherson and Nunes 2004). But dissemination of innovative practices is difficult. “Loose coupling” is evident in the distance between different academic departments, to the extent that—as we will see—departments can actively disassociate themselves from the INNOVATION goals of the wider organisation. Weick notes (1976: 2) that loose coupling can seem “sloppy” practice from a management perspective. Nevertheless, it is empirically evident in HEIs. Effective management responds to what is, rather than what should be present (Mintzberg 1989: 26-42); we can also ask why it is that despite loose coupling there are still “remarkable constancies” in practice across HEIs (Weick 1976: 1).

Educational innovations are as often produced by processes of negotiation (Cervero and Wilson 1998) and/or situated action (“on the ground” responses to educational problems – Suchman 1987, Carr and Kemmis 1986) as by planning or strategising. Education is less a “science” than a practice which must constantly update itself in the face of new challenges in specific situations (Carr and Kemmis 1986). Educationalists must learn about their work environment—its organisational structures and its technological infrastructures—if innovative solutions to pedagogical problems are to be found. Elearning solutions, whether developed through institutionalised INNOVATION or more “random” events, must still be adapted to specific contexts by individual teachers. This is (lower-case) innovation; but it is far from guaranteed that its results will fall into line with strategic INNOVATION.

Elearning accentuates the problem of how HEIs can respond to a rapidly changing environment. Heppell (2006) goes so far as to imply that elearning constitutes such a severe “disruption” to HEIs that it threatens their existence. In the face of such a threat, management literature would suggest HEIs have to INNOVATE: but what strategies are appropriate in this context? How can creative cultures emerge vis-à-vis educational technology, and how can these be linked with—and fed by—creative practices at the micro-organisational level?

“Lone Rangers”

The title of Bates’ Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders (2000) suggests it stands in the INNOVATION camp. Yet Bates does attend to the specific context of HEIs. They are distinctive organisational types in which “strategic planning” is not necessarily an effective way of securing staff support for elearning solutions (ibid: 55). Loose coupling means that dissemination of strategies can be poor, and they can be ignored by the autonomous professional core. Strategies are insensitive to the diverse contexts within HEIs, and rarely responsive enough in a turbulent environment.

As an alternative Bates suggests an approach whereby individual teachers are given small grants to encourage experimentation in innovatory pockets (ibid: 59-60). He calls it the “Lone Ranger” approach and claims it:

“can get a wide range of faculty started on using new technologies for the first time. … It can help faculty understand the potential of the technology and thus lead to innovative ideas about how to use the technology in a specific subject area… It avoids having to make difficult decisions about long-term investment in technologies that may prove ephemeral: ‘winners’ can emerge. Finally, it maintains the autonomy of faculty to decide on the teaching method that best suits them …. A laissez-faire strategy creates an environment that encourages experimentation” (ibid: 60, emphasis added)

In other words, he claims the Lone Ranger model can seed contextualised learning about technology at the micro-level, and successes can be fed back up to the macro-level. If he is right, this addresses the problem of synthesis between the two levels which, as noted, is where HEIs tend to struggle. So why then does he think this model will—indeed should—die out?

Bates goes on to describe several disadvantages to the approach (ibid: 60-3). Solutions tend towards the “amateurish”. Lone Rangers may overcommit to technical work (design, programming) better done elsewhere. Innovations are too context-specific; they cannot “scale up”, and the “not invented here” syndrome may create resistance to them elsewhere in the organisation. Dissemination of lessons learnt is poor. He continues (ibid: 66):

“Certainly there is a time in an organisation when the laissez-faire or Lone Ranger approach may be suitable, and that is when a university… is just beginning to commit to the use of new technologies. A laissez-faire approach combined with some cash grants spread evenly across the institution is a reasonable and often effective means of gaining buy-in from faculty and helping them understand the potential and requirements of using new technologies for teaching.

However… the laissez-faire approach is not a sustainable way to run an organisation that has made a fundamental commitment to using technology for teaching. It is too hit-and-miss. It wastes resources, ignores the experience and many lessons that have been learnt outside the higher education sector about how to design and develop creative media products and services, and above all fails to ensure high-quality technology-based teaching in any consistent or widespread form.”

We believe this opinion is flawed. Bates implies that a catalyst, such as funding, is required to kickstart innovations which comprise a micro-level “test bed” for the HEI’s INNOVATION needs. However, an HEI does not,  once only, “commit to the use of new technologies” for teaching. Educationalists are, or at least should be, continually learning about their environment in a self-reflexive manner (Carr and Kemmis 1986). Technologies continually emerge and are creatively adopted by “Lone Rangers” to solve pedagogical problems. Innovators are in all likelihood already working in their professional capacity on solutions which the management of a loosely coupled organisation may not yet have noticed (see the case studies below). The question therefore becomes, how can top-down INNOVATION strategies and bottom-up situated action complement one another? How can individual learning provoke and sustain organisational learning (Senge 1999), particularly in the face of turbulent technological change?

Note also Bates’ phrase, “fails to ensure”. He acknowledges that HEIs are loosely coupled and contain diverse settings in which autonomous individuals try to solve day-to-day problems, but to then bemoan the inability to “ensure” consistent, widespread quality in such an organisation is contradictory. Bates acknowledges the empirical nature of HEIs, but seems to neglect its consequences—that is, loose coupling—and what this means for innovation.

Case studies

We now present three case studies which illustrate the Lone Ranger experience. They are developed from data collected for a project, “Technology at the Planning Table: Negotiating Power and Interests in Course Management Systems” (Whitworth and Benson 2006). Space unfortunately precludes discussion of the theoretical and methodological basis of our work: the most significant influences here are activity theory (Engeström 1999) and the negotiation-based framework of Cervero and Wilson (1998).

We conducted interviews with elearning planners, instructors, assistants and developers working across eight online Masters’ programmes; four in UK universities, four US. At the time of writing, detailed coding of these qualitative data is underway to analyse the relationship between context and activity, and the subsequent impact of innovations. Limited space means we cannot reveal details of the coding, but in each case we draw on information about personal history, perceptions of organisational context, creative activities undertaken, and the interviewee’s perception of their impact. Although reports are subjective, we believe our data provide valid pictures of states of affairs within our case studies (Whitworth and Benson 2006). All personal, programme, and institution names have been changed.

These narratives do not show failure as such, but are far from being full successes from an institutional point of view, despite positive impacts on Lone Rangers at a personal level. This may seem to support Bates’ view that the approach cannot scale up. However, although our summaries are brief, they also suggest that his dismissal of the model is perhaps unfair.

1: Alby

Alby is a classic “Lone Ranger”. HeeHe innovated in elearning without direct financial support. From 2000-2005 he worked in the School of Computing of Northborough University, a large “redbrick” HEI in northern England, before joining a different university. He was part of a team called “ICT-Ed”, who developed ICT and information literacy skills in non-Computing undergraduates. Alby inherited a “primitive” HTML site on taking over a web design course in 2000. Over five years and three versions, he developed this into a site through which students could complete the course entirely online. He conducted research on the efficacy of the site, motivated by studying for the PGCLTHE qualification, but received no funds or other direct departmental support for this work.

ICT-Ed is an important source of teaching income for Computing, but carries no research prestige. As a social rather than computer scientist, albeit one with an interest in elearning, Alby was marginalised in his department—a department which was itself marginalised within Northborough, at least in CMS terms. This manifestation of loose coupling is highlighted in an interview (conducted after Alby’s departure) with Ed, head of Computing:

“Historically, in every Computer Science department in the world, there is an extremely sceptical view taken of e-learning, computer-based learning, computer-assisted learning, and predominantly, we don’t touch it.”

Northborough has an institutional CMS—itself developed by “Lone Rangers” in a different department—but Ed considers Computing’s own electronic infrastructure to be better matched to their needs. Loose coupling allows for this sort of autonomy, and resultant technological diversity (see also case 2 below), but can also detach innovations from strategic planning, even at the micro-level. Ed told us in his interview that ICT-Ed did in fact use the institutional CMS: actually, this was not the case. In many other types of organisation—and in the INNOVATION literature—this lack of knowledge about the creative technological activities of a “subordinate” would be considered an extraordinary lapse.

Note also the unplanned career progression here. As is common in HEIs Alby “grew into” his position, through teaching assistant work, rather than having been appointed as an experienced practitioner with specified skills. Alby did conduct self-critical enquiry into his own and his learning environments’ effectiveness, and has determined that he wants to continue using—and innovating through—CMSs and web-based teaching. But this will be in his new job. At Northborough, his marginal status cut off both his own career progression and the dissemination of his innovations. Ed noted that Alby’s innovations remained in use after his departure, but they remain cocooned in ICT-Ed; a marginalised team in a department which (in CMS terms, and through choice) is marginalised in Northborough.

We cannot dismiss the possibility that a suitable job might have arisen for Alby, but this is the sort of random factor that INNOVATION advice suggests should be better managed. Nor are we passing judgment on Northborough’s culture and treatment of “micro-innovation”. Nevertheless, Alby’s case reflects the difficulties HEIs have in identifying and supporting innovators and disseminating, if not solutions, then learning. Alby’s work brought him personal success – a “tenure track” position at another Russell Group university – but his innovations have at best been preserved at Northborough; it seems unlikely they will be further developed. Nor will Northborough directly benefit from his future work.

2: E-Tech

E-Tech is an online program which introduces practising teachers to educational technologies, hosted at the University of Arcadia (a large US state college). It contained online elements as far back as the 1980s, with email and bulletin boards used in a blended model alongside face-to-face monthly workshops. Though clearly innovators, in this period E-Tech received no direct institutional support: widespread online teaching was not, at that time, on any HEI’s agenda. However, in line with the Bates model, in the early 1990s Arcadia released funding to develop online teaching. Two interviewees, Terry and Niall, collaborated on a successful bid for these funds which enabled them to take E-Tech fully online.

According to Terry, Niall and current manager William, E-Tech was from the start a “laissez-faire” environment in which experimentation with technologies was encouraged. This springs directly from pedagogical needs: E-Tech’s students themselves work within diverse technological environments, and are encouraged to solve problems with reference to their own situations. Although Arcadia has an institutional CMS (WebCT), E-Tech does not therefore demand the use of particular elearning solutions. Only certain minimal standards (for example, consistent styles for web pages, specific logos) are expected.

However, most E-Tech faculty have recently adopted Moodle as a CMS. Quentin, the team developer, “discovered” it and disseminated his experience among other faculty: a process akin to Bates’ claim that “winners can emerge” from autonomous, self-motivated exploration of different elearning solutions. Independence is not compromised, however.  Terry—who continues to teach on the program as an adjunct despite having moved to a managerial post in a different college—has resisted this change. He dislikes certain features of Moodle, such as the chat room, which he finds inadequate for his purposes. He also said that the move would reduce his “ownership” of his teaching environment. He therefore continues to teach his course using a self-created HTML site: only basic tech support and “proof reading” is required from the E-Tech support team.

We should therefore note that self-critical evaluation of teaching practice may result in a decision not to adopt an innovation:

“INTERVIEWER:  If you had to develop another new course now, would you stick with the single clean website approach?

TERRY:  I would.  But it’s not for lack of knowing Moodle and… other tools…. I feel there’s too much there that I wouldn’t care or need to use, and therefore in a sense, it’s a bloated tool.”

Self-critical, autonomous work with elearning may therefore, in some ways, conflict with organisational INNOVATION. Yet for Arcadia to demand that Terry and E-Tech convert to WebCT would not only violate their academic integrity (both their professional status, and the teaching goals of the program), but might also retard later innovations. Interesting observations were provided here by Bob, who has executive responsibility for WebCT on this large campus. When asked whether he was comfortable that there remained departments at Arcadia who used different systems, he replied:

“innovation can happen in more dimensions when we have more flavours going on. And in general, resource is tight for supporting things of this nature at the campus level, so we tend to be utilitarian, and not creative. The units are more likely to be creative, and that’s to be encouraged…. Where we have problems is that when people come up with something that’s actually interesting, how do we aggregate that up to the larger enterprise, and I don’t think we have a good model for that.”

It seems that despite the fact E-Tech are not as self-consciously independent of their parent HEI in quite the same way as Northborough’s School of Computing, it remains the case that E-Tech’s work—originally seeded by “Lone Ranger” funding—has not really disseminated through Arcadia. Yet let us also note that some adaptations made by Quentin—as part of E-Tech’s autonomous, self-critical processes of enquiry—have been included in revised Moodle source code, and all E-Tech’s senior academics have published widely in the field of elearning (though we cannot cite for reasons of anonymity). We suggest that only the most crudely instrumental criteria for judging INNOVATION could view E-Tech as a failure.

3: EFL-1

EFL-1 are a UK online programme based at Middleton, another large redbrick member of the Russell Group. They recruit teachers of English from a global market. Like E-Tech, they were early innovators in distance learning, with mixed-media teaching having been offered since the 1980s. “Lone Ranger” funding has recently enabled EFL-1 to recruit former students as development assistants on the programme: some have subsequently become fully-fledged academic members of the team.

When Middleton adopted WebCT in around 2001, EFL-1 were one of the first programmes to make widespread use of it, but again, we heard evidence of micro-innovators rejecting particular campus-wide solutions. Felicity, the Programme Director, said:

“We stayed within WebCT for one year with certain course units only. Then came out, because we were unhappy with it. Went back to our own web pages, and then we’re back into WebCT fully fledged, have been for the last couple of years now, in a big development…”

Felicity and other interviewees used the term “cottage industry” to describe EFL-1. They have accommodated to the institutional VLE, but continue to work on new approaches within that environment—much along the lines suggested by Bob above. Having said that, Lex, another EFL-1 academic, called this “subverting” WebCT. For instance, they have worked on ways to exploit WebCT’s administrative support, while simultaneously trying to compensate for what they see as problems with the interface by designing their own web pages that are incorporated within the WebCT “shell”. This from Felicity:

“we have worked on finding alternative ways of making WebCT work for us… We wanted a menu system that was fewer clicks than we thought WebCT would allow us to do… In the end, Joanne [a development assistant] came up with a bespoke set of pages in Dreamweaver…  So the index page has been fooled… the WebCT index page, we bypass that and have our own index page. And she designed these drop-down menus, because you can’t do drop-down menus in WebCT.”

Interestingly, Felicity specifically states that the main driver for innovation in EFL-1 is not funding, despite the fact that such money enabled someone like Joanne to be recruited in the first place. Rather, the main driver in her eyes is the educational problems they face in dealing with their diverse, global market, with students located in areas where reliable broadband access may not be available.

EFL-1 are autonomous, but they are not independent in the way of E-Tech or Northborough Computing. They are embedded into the CMS infrastructure provided by the university: not just the system itself, but sources of technical support and development advice. However, they remain responsible for their own adaptations of—and to—the system. As Bob noted in Arcadia, contextualised teaching situations like EFL-1’s are the best place to experiment with elearning. The question of whether their creative practice can “scale up” to the macro-level is not really relevant. Adoption of WebCT was a macro-level INNOVATION decision at Middleton. “Lone Ranger” funding was here used as much to adapt to INNOVATION as to produce micro-innovation—in fact the two levels now go hand-in-hand, through the feeling that this accommodation is under constant review. Lone Ranger funding therefore remained useful to EFL-1 even after their HEI, in Bates’ terms, “committed to the use of [a specific] technology in teaching”.


Three scenarios are apparent here, which we summarise as marginalisation (Alby), independence (E-Tech) and accommodation (EFL-1). The last seems the most progressive product of these “Lone Ranger” activities, but even here, EFL-1 have not adopted the campus-wide solution in an uncritical, and thereby uncreative fashion.

We suggest these narratives suggest a need for the continual provision of “Lone Ranger” funding within HEIs, despite Bates’ claim that the resourcing of elearning should have outgrown that model. In each case, innovation in elearning predated institutional attention to it, and there seems little reason to believe that further developments in elearning are already on the institutional radar. The production line has not halted: Ed observed that his department were engaged in work on techniques such as interface design, AI and Grid technologies which “in maybe 10, 20 years” would offer new possible elearning solutions. In fact, such developments may themselves result from Lone Ranger funding. Bates’ criticism of “amateurish” results is devalued by the fact that EFL-1’s CMS — WebCT— was noted by Bates himself (2000: 74) as resulting from such funding: an excellent return!

Dissemination of knowledge may often be poor and haphazard but here we need to look not at what Lone Rangers are doing but at wider organisational characteristics. If universities want to retain their ability, as organisations, to INNOVATE, creativity must bloom somewhere, despite pressures towards consolidation around single campus solutions. We learn about elearning best in teaching settings – which by definition, administrators and developers do not enter. Lone Rangers continue to work on creative solutions to the problems posed by new developments in elearning technology, and do so in ways which centralised, strategic planning cannot address. This situation has not changed simply because HEIs have moved into a more mature relationship with elearning: in fact they have only just begun to explore the possibilities of this technology. The very nature of HEIs requires a different approach to INNOVATION than is typical in the mainstream management literature. Attempts to override autonomy by imposing campus-wide solutions seem as likely to lead to “subversion” of the technology as adaptation to it: and even adaptation requires ongoing institutional support which is applied in micro-situations and is thereby sympathetic to context.


We would like to acknowledge support (financial and otherwise) from the Worldwide Universities Network and the British Academy, and also the help of our interviewees.


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Kindle’s in the kindergarten

Here’s a copy of a post from my Web 2.0 blog.


In my own academic research work (PhD in progress until 2014) I try to keep all my data and documents in The Cloud. This is partly borne out of enthusiasm for e-learning generally, but mainly out of practical necessity; my bibliography is currently around 200 items, and I expect it to hit 1000+ eventually. Some of these works are paper-based books, but most are electronic journal articles (stored as indexed, searchable pdfs, with the attendant bibliographical metatdata available to the citation tools available in Zotero). I work on 5 different Macs and an iPhone, and although I have a paper-based library at home (with, like,real bookshelves and everything) this library is, of course, non-searchable by text string, slowing down my research productivity.

My supervisor is a very experienced and knowledgeable academic who tends to work in a very different way i.e. using paper-based books and printing out journal articles. We understand each other in this respect; he often champions the depth of thought needed to sit down for a long reading session with no distractions; I am inspired by the intellectual and conceptual ‘branching’ that can be achieved by plundering an academic’s bibliography and exploring ideas online – e.g. finding Google book previews to develop further reading.

To contextualise the forthcoming rant about the frustrating limitations of Amazon’s new Kindle For Mac (and iPhone) application, here are some of the characteristics of physical books vs on-screen documents.

Books .pdfs
Better/more tactile reading experience Uncomfortable for long reading sessions
Geographically fixed Available everywhere
No text-search Fully searchable
No copy and paste Quoted excerpts can be pasted into work
No hyperlinking Can be hyperlinked (chapters/headings etc)
Cannot be shared with others Can easily be shared
Immune to copyright infringement Susceptible to copyright infringement

If you agree with this (I hope uncontroversial) summary of the characteristics of the two media, you’ll agree that the first and last rows represent the advantages of using books for research; the rest represent the advantages of using electronic means of study (summarised by but not exclusive to the category ‘.pdfs’). My personal choice is always to go with e-media for these reasons, but it’s exactly that – a personal choice. Many highly effective and more high-profile academics than I are still using paper-based research.

So, to the issues with Kindle. As you see I am already a primed and enthusiastic user of e-learning and an on-screen reader, so yesterday for the first time I found an academic text on Amazon that was available as an e-book download for Kindle. Previously, whenever I’d discovered a research text that was in print, I’d either schlepped over to a library (creating an ever-increasing carbon footprint) or bought the book online and waited for the post to arrive a few days later (increasing the postal service’s carbon footprint – but I’ll leave aside the eco-angle for now).

The book (Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi) showed up as being $12.01 as a Kindle download. Not bad for a large-ish specialist interest book, I thought, and way cheaper than my local Waterstones, until I looked at the row below and  saw that the paperback version was $8.99. How can it possibly be cheaper to produce a physical book than an e-book – do the Kindle R&D department staff have a particularly luxurious office building? Never mind, I thought – at least I’ll get it straight away without having to wait for shipping from the USA, and I’ll have the advantage of being able to read the book on the phone too, so I’ll pay the extra and get the download now. Literally one mouse-click later, the book was on my Mac desktop and syncing merrily over the web to my phone, with Amazon’s legendary e-store usability making it an effortless online purchasing experience.

The Kindle app allows you to read the book, and change the font size on-screen. It remembers where you left off reading, and lets you put a manual ‘bookmark’ in the text. And that’s the whole feature set. No text search, no copy-and-paste, and no indexing – exactly, in other words, like a real book.

It appears, then, that Amazon have taken the e-book metaphor to its logical extreme. They have managed to reproduce faithfully all of the disadvantages of the physical book medium online. So much so that even when I’ve bought a Kindle book, I find myself going to Google Books limited preview in order to text-search it. Here’s the table updated to compare the Kindle to the printed book.

Books Kindle
Better/more tactile reading experience Uncomfortable for long reading sessions
Geographically fixed Available everywhere
No text-search No text-search
No copy and paste No copy and paste
No hyperlinking Very limited hyperlinking
Cannot be shared with others Cannot be shared with others
Immune to copyright infringement Immune to copyright infringement

The last row, of course, is key to all this. If Amazon enabled all my wish-list of features, the copyrighted object (the text itself) would be easy to copy and distribute. But these are specialised works with a small sales volume in any format – if Amazon made the usability of these e-books greater, more academics would buy them, especially if the price point was more realistically tied to the production cost.

My point is that the Kindle e-book represents an inferior product to the physical book – at a higher price – and it provides fewer features for the reader than a pdf. Even as an e-learner I do actually like the physical experience of having a book – it’s just that the other advantages of e-text outweigh this short-term tactile benefit.

Kindle/Amazon should learn from the music industry’s experience in the early 2000s – consumers will not tolerate Digital Rights Management for long.

Second Life in Education

Here’s a rare thing – a post about e-learning where I’m not wildly enthused!

Since 2006 I’ve been unable to figure out whether Second Life is a huge opportunity for live real-time collaboration in HE, or whether it’s a declining online video game with a clunky interface that encourages trivial levels of thinking.

My dilemma seems to be shared by the sector, too. Second Life actually predates Facebook but hasn’t grown at anything like the same rate; in fact, adoption of it by HE stakeholders seems to have drifted a little. In 2007 UCAS bought an ‘island’ (a server) in SL – here’s a picture of my avatar (Jon Duvall – find me in-world sometime if you’re an SL user). Look carefully at the picture. You’ll note that the island is currently advising students that places are still available… for 2007 entry.


Think about SL intellectually and you can see immediately why some early-adopter academics got excited about it. It’s a metaphor. Everything in it is a metaphor – even onself. And the quasi-social interactions in-world have obvious parallels in pre-Internet higher education.

5 reasons why SL is like traditional education

  • It’s synchronous, real-time interaction. Learners and teachers have to be online concurrently in order to meet in-world
  • It’s geographically specific – you have to be within ‘earshot’ of another character/avatar in order to communicate with them
  • Educational establishments in SL have auditoriums where large numbers of people can sit
  • SL environments are limited to a small number of participants due to the bandwidth involved – only about 60 users can inhabit the same island space. That’s a very small lecture hall…
  • It doesn’t support viral growth of ideas, information or concepts because nothing in-world is recorded

Of these, the first point is the most obvious downside – and also, in an e-learning context, the most significant. I’ll come back to real-time vs asynchronous learning in a moment…

Academic researchers, intoxicated by the SL ‘sociology metaphor’ perhaps, were keen to explore opportunities. There are even some in-world conferences – and the JISC were keen to fund these investigations so we could all evaluate the possibilities of the technology/game/metaphor/experience. I’ve met songwriters in-world, of course, but never written a song. I’ve met researchers but never read one of their papers. In ‘first life’ (i.e. my real lectures) I demo’d SL live to a group of students back in 2006 (we attended a covers gig in-world with a real singer and an animated avatar), and we discussed whether it might be an intriguing marketing opportunity for nascent bands and artists. A few tried it – but no-one got any more gigs or punters as a result (contrast with myspace and Facebook, which is the bread and butter marketing platform of every new musician).

Lots of Universities signed up to SL in 2006-7. Here I am at the deserted campus of Southampton University. They took an innovative approach, creating a remarkable (looking) campus in-world.

It seems, in Southampton’s case, like their primary strategic motive was marketing. And (IRL) they have an impressive campus. Here I am walking over an interactive 3D map, which builds the environment of the building you’re in around your avatar; this is their concert hall.

It’s clear that someone has seen a possible marketing opportunity to be directed specifically at overseas students. Sitting in the outdoor in-world cinema auditorium, my avatar watched a Quicktime video of some international music students discussing why they like studying at Southampton.

My perception of Second Life is that it’s an amazing technical achievement and an intellectually fascinating social concept. But any user (or learner) benefit it has can be provided more effectively by other online means. Further, the bandwidth requirements of the environment combined with its real-time nature mean that it’s actually a very poor medium for delivering information, learning or social interaction online.

Contrast SL with Facebook (as an example of online interaction between people), which came out around the same time (2006-7).

5 reasons why Facebook is not like traditional education

  • It’s asynchronous – users can engage with it when they want to
  • It’s geographically all-encompassing – users can access it from anywhere, including mobile devices
  • Educational establishments don’t have to ‘build’ communities or virtual presences – they build themselves from fragmented groups of users who find each other voluntarily
  • FB environments can have an unlimited number of users
  • It survives purely on the viral nature of content – memetic communication. There are no rules of (social) engagement – ideas and relationships live or die based on their popularity

It’s worth noting that points 1, 2 and perhaps 4 are also provided by VLEs.

And now let’s look at the democratic evidence. SL adoption rates (beyond ‘Try Me’ experimenters) are small – see this early article from 2006. Contrast this with the growth of Facebook. To compare stats –

  • 42,000 users are currently using SL as I write this, and 1.3 million users have used it during the last 60 days.
  • More than 120 million users log on to Facebook at least once each day.

Of course, SL & FB are very different tools – but I think they show an interesting contrast between the relative popularity of synchronous and asynchronous interaction.

LectureIT colleagues often get very excited about the idea of webcasting a lecture, but I can’t see the point of going through all that hassle – the balance between technical setup and user benefit isn’t right. If you’re going to arrange for lots of people to be in the same virtual ‘place’ simultaneously, you’re giving participants a slightly poorer (and often technically underwhelming) version of a real life lecture. You’ve saved them some travel, but beyond the environmental advantage of reducing travel, you haven’t really enhanced learning. Webcast a lecture and people can access it once. Record it and post it online and people can access it forever.

I hope this blog entry demonstrates that despite my often breathless evangelism for e-learning and all things Web 2.0, the SL example shows that just because something is online, it’s not necessarily a better tool than its traditional equivalent. When I teach rock bands about arranging, we work ‘live’ with guitars and drum kits – because they’re the most efficient tools for the job. Even the live lecture/seminar still has a place, despite its limitations as a method of information exchange, discussion and enquiry. But if the lecture has a part to play in 21st century learning, so does the blog, wiki, BBS and email exchange. And these asynchronous methods provide positive advantages for the learner, precisely because they can be accessed at the user’s convenience.

And that, really, is my (e-learning) point – what web users seem to want is asynchronous interaction. When we build e-learning objects we need to empower students by giving them access to learning when the tutor is not online. And this means generating great content, and ensuring people can build online communities around that content – and around each other.