Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Tired of tools talk?

Geez I’m tired of all this techy tools’ talk. A large portion of the e-learning industry has decided to become experts on DIY tools rather than experts on learning. Hundreds of the damn things are being showered upon us, discussed, and of course, mostly ignored and discarded. A huge amount of energy is being diverted towards techy tools, which are largely toys for the boys, the trainspotters of the e-learning industry.

There are many reasons for calling time on this stuff, but here are four for starters:

1. De-accelerating progress

If we devoted more time to actually delivery, rather than endless speculation about the means of delivery, we may accelerate progress. There’s definitely room for experts in this area, such as the excellent Jane Hart, but we don’t need to dominate discussion with tools talk. It’s mostly a diversion.

2. Distracts from mainstream tools

What’s worse is the fact that this obsession distracts many from looking at, and using, the tools that have already become de facto standards. Word, PowerPoint, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube, iTUNES, Google Docs, Email, Messenger, Skype – these are tools with hundreds of millions of users. Remember, we’re in the stone-age technically in learning. We don’t even record lectures for Christ’s sake!

3. Tools need skills

Most tools offer only the 'promise of productivity' as they ignore the time taken to become proficient. While recommending this never-ending torrent of tools, few discuss the need to learn how to use them, the actual skills base and the distracting effect this can have on actual delivery. We’re like those people who’re always fiddling around with cameras, tripods and lenses, but never really get round to being a photographer.

4. Diminishes e-learning

Tool up by all means but don’t get obsessed or worse, addicted to techy tools. It makes us look like learning geeks, and places us in a dark corner where we’re more likely to be by-passed and ignored.

Let’s get back to the business of learning, the psychology of learning, performance, change management and the real business issues in education and training, before we bore everyone to death with these ‘tools of a tired trade’. Turning e-learning into a giant B&Q or Wal-Mart is to caricature the industry.


Unknown said...

I find the same thing with productivity 'tools'. Some people seem to spend more time on finding out about/blogging about/posting videos on YouTube about the next best way to orgainze/synch their desks, email, diaries, filing cabinets etc. that it's a wonder they have any time left to put the tools to work actually doing something productive.

Donald Clark said...

Exactly - there's a tendency for people with all the gadgets and widgets to spend more time organising than doing.

Rob Alton said...

...and then when they do do something, they just replicate what we have been doing for 20-30 odd years - objectives/text/illustrative picture/next/back/mcq. I'm sick of it too. Thing is many clients expect this type of approach and many of us provide it without challenging assumptions.......because we need the revenue.

Michelle Gallen said...

This post captures so much of a frustration I've been feeling recently. Playing with gadgets and widgets is way more interesting (and a whole lot easier) than the hard graft of working with a limited number of tools to produce content that works. I went through a phase of checking out every new tool in the Internet DIY store and eventually realised most of them are fiddly, not integrated with anything useful, and take loads of time to get used to. They're quickly abandoned by most people.

Many 'non-professional' e-learning producers I know struggle to create a basic but effective learning experience in PowerPoint.

But to be honest, I think quite a few e-learning professionals I've met would also struggle to do that - they know how to ring the bell and blow the whistle, but the actual content is bland, boring or a cop-out.

I guess bad e-learning is like any other bad content - no matter how much money is spent on special effects and big stars for a Hollywood Blockbuster, if the script sucks, the movie will bomb.

Paul Angileri said...

The key point here is that there are so many tools available that one gets caught up looking for every next best thing or screwdriver, and gets pulled away from their actual job, designing and implementing good learning programs.

I like many have just come across all the new gadgets and gotten interested, but after seeing a few lists of most of the known applications and tools out there, it becomes apparent that we do not need all of these to do our jobs. Michelle captured the other aspect of the gadget focus, that being that few of them can help in a very robust way.

Very little is needed for good instruction in reality; we can identify a great instructor immediately, even if s/he has but their own voice and presence either in person or remote. I think the most important part of instruction is the ability to deliver it well without anything other than the aforementioned speaking (vocal or written) prowess. Alas, I am learning such skills, so I must develop this capability further myself. The new (and even some of the old) tools are great for accomplishing work, but they do not inherently instruct better than other methods.

apthorpe said...

Speaking as a (thankfully) former Blackboard system administrator, I worry about all the attention paid to iPods, 'clickers', Second Life, etc. At my institution there seemed to be endless handwringing about technology. For every cost-effective and innovative project that went forward, five good ideas were hamstrung and left stillborn, and another ten chasing their tails either over political issues or just meandering about waiting for someone to put them out of their misery. I suppose that's the nature of US education; I wouldn't know, coming from the engineering side of the fence. It is depressing though, watching all this go on and not being able to help.

Blackboard specifically is a horrid money sink, awful technology wrapped in a thick layer of questionable business practices. Much more could be done for much less, should the administration be less prone to doing what everyone else is doing without a second thought.

I don't want to be just a naysayer - I believe there are plenty of tools out there that can improve educational effectiveness, for organizing instructors, fostering group discussion, or giving students flexibility in how, when, and where they can access course material. This doesn't cover even slightly revolutionary uses of technology. And I question whether we even need to be revolutionary, given the poor language skills of US undergraduates. I fear the right approach may be to strip students of their technological aids and make them read, discuss, argue, and write clearly and persuasively. I would love to see technology address these social problems, really, because it would make my (ex-)job as technical staff seem much more important to the educational process.

My experience has been that progress comes more from teams working together as equals than from committees whose members each have to make sure they get their grubby fingerprints on the end product, assuming they even get that far. I've seen small isolated tech teams work with faculty to develop some really interesting applications. My experiences with committees has been far less positive.

Also, I don't know if the practice of having Marketing departments within colleges is widespread in the UK. I will say that should this happen at your institution, a substantial quantity of rat poison 'accidentally' placed in the appropriate pot of tea may well be the only reasonable response. I've found on the whole that rats are far more intelligent and much much less destructive.