Category Archives: Elearning capability

Reflective practice: the need for open questions

Use of open questions in (e)learning

Open questions are more likely to lead to in-depth discussion in face-to-face or online learning contexts than closed questions. A simplistic example:

  • “Is A better than B?” (closed) invites just a yes or no answer.
  • “What makes A better than B?” (open) invites the learner to justify and explore the rationale behind their decision.

This is not to say that closed questions should never be used, just that their use should be limited – in the above example, the two questions could provide a useful sequence for initiating discussion.

Use of open questions in reflection

Similarly, when encouraging teachers to reflect on their own practice, we need to encourage them to consider and respond to open questions. A reliance on closed questions tends to discourage in-depth reflection. Why? Because in-depth reflection requires consideration of causes and significance of events, and open questions are required to really explore these.

In a recent project, I developed an app which allows the user to reflect on, create and store responses to reflective prompts (questions) relating to e-learning practice. The questions are drawn from one section of the eLearning Guidelines (eLG).

During the development process, I decided to make small adjustments to the wording of many of the questions to make them more open questions. For example:

  • The original question “Do learners have the opportunity to self-assess their readiness for eLearning?” seemed to invite a simple yes/no answer, so it was reworded as “What opportunities do learners have to self-assess their readiness for eLearning?”
  • Likewise, “Is it clear at the start of the course what support teaching staff will offer learners?” was reworded as “How is it made clear at the start of the course what support teaching staff will offer learners?”

I feel these open versions of the questions will encourage teachers to review the evidence and reflect on effectiveness more deeply.

Whether or not you are currently using the eLearning Guidelines, you might find the app a useful tool for reflecting on your e-learning practice. The Android app is free and is available to download from the apps page.

E-Learning project tenders – do they discourage innovation?

In Smaller RFPs, more agility and smartass kids, Mike O’Donnell claims that overly prescriptive and complex tender documents in the IT sector discourage those best able to compete the work and actively encourage large companies to take on the work at grossly inflated prices.

I’ve seen similar problems in some large e-learning projects. Often the RFP documents are overly prescriptive in the process and governance requirements. That is, they include detailed criteria on how the successful tenderer must be organised and managed. Of course, those commissioning such projects need some security as to the viability of the contractor. But some RFPs are so prescriptive the effect is to discourage or even prevent smaller, more agile contractors from taking part.

In an environment where we need all the innovation we can encourage, I believe those looking to commission e-learning projects need to rethink their approach.

What do you think?

Benefits of high-speed broadband to education

FibreopticA recent NZ herald article reports on a survey by Motu Economic and Public Policy Research which questions some assumptions about high-speed broadband and its effect on productivity. In particular, the survey found that there was ‘no discernable (sic) additional effect arising from a shift from slow to fast broadband’.

The article then goes on to state the contrary viewpoint and ends by claiming that there is evidence that high-speed broadband would deliver benefits such as :

  • hospitalisation of older people could be reduced by 40-70 per cent
  • smart grids could save 30 per cent of energy
  • e-education would deliver far more productive 1:1 education services
  • smart cities, smart transport and smart infrastructure would greatly contribute to the environment and society at large.

These seem like gross generalisations and are, I suspect, not based on any rigorous evidence. Working as I do in education, the 3rd bullet point seems to me like over-optimistic hype: I don’t believe that it’s a lack of bandwidth that prevents 1:1 services from being widely available in our education system. Sure, a ‘fat pipe’ would mean one-to-one tutoring would be able to use a full range of high-quality media. But would that necessarily be more ‘productive’? Writers such as Garrison and Anderson have argued that asynchronous text-based interaction is more effective when higher-order learning is an imperative.

If bandwidth was such a key factor in improving the effectiveness of education, I’d expect the lecturers I work with every week to be clamouring for it. Many of them are already doing great things with embedded media and synchronous communication. Where the technology is holding them back, it’s more likely to be a lack of reliability and training. If speed was the key factor, they’d all be working with KAREN. In fact, the great majority of them have never heard of this high-speed network.

I’m all for high-speed broadband being widely available to educators here in New Zealand, and I look forward to the day when I can use new tools in new ways because lack of speed is no longer an issue. In the meantime, we need to beware of hype which tries to persuade decision makers that high-speed broadband is the ‘missing piece of the jigsaw’: education will only become more effective when a whole raft of problems are resolved. Indeed, we could make profound and positive changes without changing the technical infrastructure. It’s about a lot more than mere speed.


Garrison, DR & Anderson, T (2003). E-learning in the 21st Century. Routledge Falmer, London.

Unknown author. About KAREN. Accessed 3 November 22009 from

Unknown author. Survey questions ultra-fast broadband gains. Accessed 3 November 2009 from

Photo: Optical fibre by BigRiz

Wikis, learning and faulty knowledge

Information and knowledge in a vocational education setting often has a significance beyond that in more academic courses: in fact, the life and well-being of the students and members of the public may depend on its accuracy. Consider the following scenario:

CC: photo Robert LawtonJan is a nursing lecturer in a department which has recently begun to incorporate a ‘community of practice’ approach, including the use of a wiki for students and staff to collaboratively build publicly-accessible knowledge resources. She logs in one Monday morning and sees that a student has added to the page on clinical practice, including information which is contrary to accepted practice and could put patients’ health at risk.

Jan is appalled: What if another student read that information over the weekend and put it into practice? What if a practising nurse has read it and is about to complain to Jan’s head of department? Jan immediately deletes the incorrect information, then wonders whether she has done the right thing.

How should Jan have reacted? In fact, if Jan’s department had been through a thorough planning process, the risk of faulty information being contributed as well strategies for dealing with it would have been identified prior to implementing the collaborative activity. So Jan would have known exactly how to react.

Some e-learning specialists feel that Web 2.0 tools like wikis have no place at all in vocational education because the risks of ‘faulty knowledge’ are potentially so great. I don’t happen to believe that, but I do believe we need to identify the risks when we are planning, along with what we will do when ‘faulty knowledge’ is contributed. And we need to share this with students beforehand, so that they too understand the risks and how these will be handled.

If we do identify that there is a risk of ‘faulty knowledge’ being contributed, we need to also identify how we will:

  • Monitor the wiki (ie how will we know incorrect information exists?)
  • Deal with the published incorrect information (eg is it deleted, corrected or annotated?)
  • Correct the students’ faulty knowledge (ie that underlies the incorrect information)
  • Maintain a democratic and motivating collaborative environment while retaining the right to intervene
  • Communicate the risks and how we’ll deal with them to students

I believe the potential benefits of exposing ‘faulty knowledge’ outweigh the risks – but we do need a well thought-out plan for dealing with incorrect and potentially dangerous information.

Photo by Robert Lawton

Digital strategy – can we really lead the world?

The Digital Strategy

The New Zealand government’s draft Digital Strategy, was released recently. It states:

New Zealand will be a world leader in using information and technology to realise its economic, social, environmental and cultural goals, to the benefit of all New Zealanders.

An ambitious vision, and one that builds on New Zealanders’ self-belief as can-do people. But I’m not convinced the performance of the country’s technology providers supports such ambitious goals.

Hype vs reality

I knew my ISP was keen for me to sign up for their new ‘unbundled DSL’ service when the information pack, on expensive paper and complete with faux wax seal, was hand delivered to my front door by someone far more glamorous than the usual courier drivers. I’m too cynical to be taken in by the claim that the new service would ‘bring New Zealanders the ultimate communication experience‘. But over the last few months my broadband had been getting measurably slower and the email service less reliable – perhaps ADSL2 would fix all my problems?

You can probably guess the rest of the story – the recurring failure of various parts of the system, the constant calls to support staff to log faults and to check on progress, the lack of proper documentation about the system and its status. The details are too tedious to go into here. Suffice to say it’s 1 month later and I’m still disappointed in the service. My personal elearning capability and productivity has fallen away as I’ve become preoccupied with technical problems.

Technical support vs management

Overall, I’ve found the provider’s technical support staff to be very helpful and responsive in trying to resolve faults. Conversely, the management of the roll-out seems to have been very ad-hoc: the impression is of a process relying on trial-and-error and the competent fire-fighting skills of technical staff. Many times I’ve thought to myself: ‘if only they had planned this properly’ or ‘if only they’d spent as much on communicating information as they did on hype.’ Sadly, I’m sure this is not the first or last time I’ll have such an experience.

Being good at fire-fighting and fixing faults might make you a good follower, but it won’t make you a world leader. Innovation is extremely difficult in a culture focused on a constant round of short-term fixes. If New Zealand is serious about being a world leader in information and technology, it will need to radically change its management culture, not just upgrade the copper.

Some related news articles:

Internet nightmare: why NZ broadband sucks

The future of broadband in NZ