Thursday, February 04, 2010

e-Learning needs better tools

The webinar on “Trends in Personal Learning” by Stephen Downes, at Canberra Institute of Technology today was disappointing. Stephen was billed as "a reliable forecaster of trends and events in online learning", citing his "prescient" 'Future of Online Learning' and other works. But the technology for the webinar did not work properly. This made anything he said about using such technology less credible: if a guru of the technology can't get it to work, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

There were difficulties with the sound quality for the first part of the talk. I was tempted to offer to help (as I have a CIT certificate in A/V production), but the staff fixed it after about ten minutes. However, there remained intermittent problems with the audio, video and slides.

As for the content, what we got was a rambling monologue. Stephen was not able to get effective and timely feedback on the presentation due to the technical problems. This confirmed my view that such video conference presentations are of little value when used as a substitute for live presentations. Either the technical facilities have to be of a very high quality, or the system and presentation format has to be adapted to allow for the inevitable problems. The technique I have used in the past is to pre-record the presentation and only use live links for the question and answer time. This reduces the need for a reliable high speed connection (it also forces the presenter to present a well crafted, succinct presentation).

As for the content of the presentation I liked the description of the iPad as personal and portable. Stephen addressed the issue of the lack of content creation tools by arguing that later versions and similar devices will add those tools. Essentially the iPad is not important as a device, but because as a way to popularise the idea of highly portable devices for taking notes and for learning. Ironically I was using a cheap netbook with a keyboard to take my notes (which works very well for education and costs half as much as the iPad).

Stephen argued that new tools will spark creativity to create new content. Unfortunately what he was showing in reality were poor quality Powerpoint slides. This largely lowered the credibility of the argument. If these new tools are so good, then why wasn't he using them?

Stephen then discussed the value of videoconferencing. Ironically in the middle of that the image cut out. Of the video events I attend, only about one in twenty works well. The rest were as this webinar was, with much of the time taken up trying to fix problems with audio, video and slides. Even when the technology is working, what is presented much of the time are poorly prepared rambling monologues. I do not believe that this is the future of education, or of human communication in general. It is disappointing that after so many years of claims for video-conferencing the technology has advanced so little.

I had not heard of by Stephen Downes before CIT invited me to this event and I did not learn much more about him or his ideas from it.

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