'We have not really taken control of technology in e-Learning. We have allowed it to happen to us.'

We had the pleasure of talking with Kevin O’Rourke, head of e-Learning Support & Development in Dublin Institute of Technology, who currently works with the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Irish higher education. We were happy to welcome Kevin as a keynote speaker at eLEOT 2016, 3rd EAI International Conference on e-Learning e-Education and Online Training, and pick his brains on how ICT technologies are tackling problems in teaching in learning, both new and old.
Could you summarize the scope of your current work and what you came to share with everyone at this event?
Essentially, my current work is looking at the infrastructure that is used across Ireland’s 25 publicly funded higer education institutions from a digital perspective. In 2014, the National Forum produced the roadmap for digital development across the sector, and as a part of that, it became clear that we really have very little idea as to what people have been using sectorally. They have been using all kinds of different virtual learning environments, they use different tools from Google, Microsoft, lots of free tools, so part the work of me and my co-workers is to actually put some shape on that, so that we can have a picture, nationally, of what is in use across the sector. And it’s been quite interesting.
The one that’s become clear to me and certainly one thing that is part of my presentation at the conference is that I believe that, for the most part, we have not really taken control of technology. As a sector, we have very much allowed technology to happen to us, and while we have specific tools such as Moodle and Blackboard across the sector, we haven’t deployed them in any strategic way for education purposes. And I think a part of that has to do with the fact that, certainly, nobody is gonna tell anybody how to do their teaching, but another part is that, for the most part, we just don’t know what it is we want or how we want to deploy them. We put the tools in place which has let people to do as they please, but what I have been discovering, particularly in the Irish sector, is that it seems to be a fairly universal phenomenon and I think the future is going to involve us being a little more savvy in our use of digital tools. They have changed the way the world is and the way we look at the world and I think our students and our educators and staff need to be educated into the uses of these tools, what they can do for learning, the way they are fundamentally changing the way a university regards itself, the way business is done, the way trading is done, and I think we need to, rather than to simply add tools and allow things happen to us, we need to be much more strategic as we go into the future around our use of technologies.
Some argue that digital age has introduced neurological changes to our brains, suggesting that young people today have a harder time to, for example, perform deep reading. Some say that hypertext has programmed us to take in a great breadth of information, but at a shallow level. Do you think that the way our brains keep jumping to different ideas and activities in short bursts can be leveraged to achieve more efficient learning methods? Or do you think that this trend is mostly negative and something about how young people access information needs to change at a fundamental level?
The change certainly is problematic for higher education in so far as our model is very much based on that old hour long lecture followed by a recall of facts that are examined in an assessment practice. That model has certainly worked for a long time, but obviously, there is something a little bit “wrong” with it. Because of the way we can now communicate it is not necessary to continue to perform education in that classroom-based manner and everybody acknowledges that. We also know that classrooms have never been the best way for people to learn. Quite often, it is by getting people to teach and participate that they get to learn a little better than simply by receiving information and regurgitating, for lack of a better word.
Obviously, young people are learning things today that perhaps aren’t quite the things that we want them to. Take for instance gaming – yes there is definitely learning happening there, but it’s not curriculum-aligned, even though it could be if we were to spend some time with it. But on the other hand too, the notion of deep reading and deeper understanding is the mark of scholarship. The notion of writing as well – writing is the currency of scholarship. What many people would say today is that students today aren’t writing the way they should and there is no reason why we shouldn’t actually have them writing and producing their ideas, even in other formats such as video, while having them work together in ways that wasn’t possible before. In the past, the notion that students plagiarize and the notion that they are not willing to engage with ideas is I think more of a problem of the way we assess students than the students themselves. After all, it’s quite clever in many ways if they can plagiarize and get away with it (laughs). You know, shame on us for not designing assessments that do not authentically assess them.
What I think is becoming increasingly important is the notion of coaxing our students into learning, the notion that when we design a course, the learning almost has to be hidden. I don’t want to say that we have to ‘trick’ students into learning but I’ve heard the phrase ‘head fake’ being used when students realize that they have learned something after they have come to an experience – whatever that is and howeever that is.
So I think that it’s about a combination of, indeed, some classroom-based education, because we are social creatures when it comes to learning, but also utilizing technology in ways that we haven’t thought about before. We can design our syllabi and curriculums in ways that exploit the potentials of the technology and that will take us beyond ourselves and challenge us a little more, as well as students.
At the conference, I looked at the notion of the class, and the belonging to a class, and the lecture as a center of learning, and we can certainly retain that to some extent, but we certainly need to rethink how we do that and how we are dealing with the people we are dealing with. We need to be aware of the the notion that in a classroom a student can correct us by accessing information that is available through internet. We need to find ways to engage our students that perhaps might challenge them to find the data, to actually share data among themselves and to not simply listen to us, as the parlance goes, the “sage on the stage”. There is a wealth of information out there and we really need to think about how we teach, how we engage our students in ways that are relevant to the current situation because technology is here, it’s not going away and access to that information is there at all times.
Do you think that people who have better access to e-learning and online training enjoy the actual learning process more than those who don’t?
In the case of enjoying the experience, we have to be honest with ourselves and say that there is an awful lot of badly designed online courses out there. There is a lot of courses where the notion has been that you sit there, you read a page, you read a second page, then you do a quick test to see if you recall the first two pages okay, you do the next two pages, so it’s just “click-click-click-test, click-click-click-test” – and that is not particularly engaging for students.
Yes, for those who need to achieve a qualification online for the work CPD – they will go through it, they will endure it. But what it comes down to is not necessarily having to get through that type of learning experience because it seems that people won’t engage. Courses need to be designed to engage the students, to keep them aboard in ways that involve not just interaction with the content, but also interaction with each other. And I think the whole Moog experience, to some extent, has shown that people need to be motivated, they need reasons for engaging with it. Level of learning is one of the reasons, but it may not be the top reason why people engage. When, for instance, people need CPD for their work and so on, they may not enjoy the experience but they will complete it because their carreer depends upon it.
Learning itself, I’m not sure that people enjoy the whole time coming into lectures. Quite often, the traditional classroom experience is not necessarily an enjoyable experience in the sense of learning. “Lecture delivery”, for lack of a better word, can be quite boring, “lecture delivery”, the way a lecturer performs in the classroom may not be the most engaging of things to happen. The way someone reads a series of powerpoint slides, as is sometimes the case in lectures nowadays, is not necessarily engaging.
So what it comes to – do they enjoy it more? I’m not entirely sure, in some cases, when it’s designed well, they certainly can. What I know from my own experiences – both from the perspective of a lecturer and the perspective of a student – is that when you have a good online experience, it can be hugely engaging, almost all-consuming to the extent that once the class is over, you almost miss it and the engagement that you had with students. And I’ve heard the same from students as well. When there has been a good online experience where people have enjoyed learning, but it can be the same in a classroom. Again, it is around the design, it’s around the individual who has conducted the session.
Do students who use e-learning methods achieve the same results as full-time students visiting lectures at school in person?
A lot of studies are showing that there is no significant difference, that those who are online can achieve the same results, sometimes better results than students in traditional classrooms.
But how do we measure that? That’s another point. Traditionally, one of the things that I’d say from my own experience as a teacher is that I will certainly use the data from the back end of our system to see if students have engaged with class. I will try to design the class so that they have to engage with each other online, but even that they engage with the material. That is a part of my feedback to students at the end of the course – I will say “this course is designed with a 5-credit module, it’s designed to do a hundred hours and I can see from the back end, from the analytics side, that you have engaged with that side for only six hours”, for instance. In terms of course attendance, you need to have in the reason of a hundred hours the question – “where is the rest of it and are you sure you’ve engaged adequately with it?” So there are ways of assessing students and the results that can be achieved that are more than purely a mark on paper.
So I guess ‘how we assess students’ is hugely important and we can assess them differently in this digital era. We must start thinking more and more about assessment. In fact, one of the themes of the National Forum in the current year is assessment, the possibilities of digital assessment and what it means for the ways we do it into the future.
To conclude, have you had an experience at this event that you found compelling, or which inspired you for future work?
One thing that I discovered at the conference is that small is beautiful. Before I came I was unsure as to how many people were going to be there, I have come prepared to speak to ten or a hundred, I was unclear about that. But actually, as it turns out, what was good was that there were 30-40 people – and the great thing about that was that in the course of the two days I got to speak to most people, most people also spoke so we got to talk about each other’s work, we got to continue a conversation in a way that is probably not feasible at larger conferences.
I know that one thing we’ve discovered here at Dublin Institute of Technology while running an e-Learning Summer School for academic staff to engage with topics around e-Learning and learning technologies in the classroom, is that we have deliberately always kept the numbers of that under 50 because people said that in the course of the week, they get to talk to everybody and they get an experience that is quite unique in many ways. And I’d say that with being at the UCD this year, the fact that it was small really opened my eyes to the possibilities of learning in a conference as opposed to simply participating in some kind of presentational form, but to actually go and learn from others, to actually engage with people. So really, small is beautiful and well done on keeping that format in a way that was organized, yet informal enough to keep us all stimulated. I enjoyed it and hopefully I’ll get to join you again at some stage in the future.
eLEOT 2016 took place in Dublin between August 31 – September 2.