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ICT-based Distance Learning in Sweden


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#1 David Richardson

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 11:46 AM

I'm making a posting about my presentation in Gothenburg yesterday (if I don't do it now, it might take quite a while before I have time again).

Firstly, let me say how much I enjoyed meeting the E-HELP members and associates who made it to Gothenburg. I could only participate in a small part of the discussions, but they were interesting. I wish I could have been there longer.

I was speaking without notes, so it may be that I miss one or two points … but you've got the film, so you can always fill out this account from that. My presentation allowed for on-going dialogue with the rest of you, so there were, inevitably, one or two points I'd intended to make, but didn't. I've included these here, marked with asterisks, so that you can see the difference between what I said and what I intended to say!

ICT in Distance Education in Sweden

I began by trying to give you a picture of the Sweden I work in. Sweden's a very large country by European terms - with a land area about the size of western Europe, but a population of just about 9 million. Most people live in small towns and villages, which are quite a way from each other (I mentioned that I drove 380 kms to get to the meeting, and passed about 2 manned petrol stations on the way - and one place where I could stop off and get some coffee on the way home. Most of the time I was driving down two-lane roads through thick forest.).

Given the fact that the government's policy for many years has been to make higher education available to everyone, and that it's really important for the small towns to try to reduce the 'brain drain' to the cities, then using ICT in education is essential. The problem is that not many people have known how to do it!

*The Swedish government has shovelled money at anyone who wanted to try to get ICT-based distance education off the ground, with very varying degrees of success. The process has followed a familiar pattern: you start by giving money to technicians and computer experts … but they don't know much about teaching; so they define the problem as the moving of bits of information into the heads of the learners ('giving them knowledge'); so they start off by writing their own learning management system; then they discover that it's really expensive and incredibly difficult; so they buy a commercial platform programme; then they spend all their funds trying to organise the content; but they find that they don't have any content; so they try to get some teachers to hand over their notes; which they put on the platform; and often they manage to run courses; which have an incredibly high drop-out rate; and finally they evaluate the whole process; and quite often just give up … several million euros later.*

*However, there have also been plenty of success stories, where the common factor has been that teachers have been empowered by getting their hands on fairly simple tools and being given their heads.*

The success stories have generally looked at the acronym ICT and realised that the technicians' (see above) mistake was to see it like this: IcT. In other words, it's all about information and technology. However, for a teacher it's all about: iCt - communication. Once you concentrate on create communication between learners, teachers and materials, you can come up with all sorts of creative solutions. However, you can almost never shrink-wrap them, and all of them depend on on-going inputs from fairly autonomous, independent-minded teachers, whose loyalty is first to the students' learning … and only later to the technology.

This doesn't mean that these teachers don't need any kind of support - it's just that the support works best when it fits itself to the teachers, rather than tries to tell teachers how to teach. I mentioned the way the Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning (http://www.cfl.se/?sid=60) organises its IT support: they have an IT department which is responsible for keeping the networks running, and 'web warriors' who are technicians and programmers who are made available to teams of teachers who're putting on-line courses together. They have an intranet where courses are constructed and tested. When the courses are judged by the web warriors and teachers to be ready, the IT department gets to look at them, and then they're placed on the public server.

*There also needs to be pedagogical development which is informed by knowledge about ICT. I mentioned the goat-cheese farmers in Jämtland in the north of Sweden who could latch into a network of similar farmers to be able to download a list of ingredients in German for their German customers. In 1997 I was running a course for study centres in Jämtland who were joined together by this Zonline system (http://www.zonline.se - except it's all in Swedish). Zonline is basically a First Class based system and I was trying to tell them of the virtues of the web. "It's a very simple way of making high-quality pictures available to the students," I said. "But why do you need pictures in teaching materials?" they said. "Aren't Word documents enough?" BTW Zonline now has a variant of its system for downloading to 3G phones - the next technological and pedagogical challenge.*

My conclusion from all this was that course designers and teachers were suffering from the syndrome described in this Japanese saying: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In other words, we were letting the technical features of the systems we were using define our pedagogical goals, rather than concentrating on using that technology to achieve our goals. I concluded that I needed a common pedagogical denominator in order to make sense of the bewildering variety of technologies I had available, and the one we developed is something I call 'the cone of input'. As luck would have it, I found a description I wrote a while ago, so here it is:

The cone of input … is a conceptual tool the team I work with developed a few years ago for teachers to try to make sense of the range of tools and possibilities they have available. The reason we did this in the first place was that we were drowning in information and technological toys, and no-one seemed to be able to give us the big picture from a pedagogical point of view.

We started with a quote from "In Search of the Virtual Class" (Tiffin, J and Rajasingham, L, RKP, 1996):

“For the moment, let us accept that the amount of bandwidth is a measure of the amount of information that can be transmitted at a given time by a channel …

“The irony of the current situation is that the classroom is a broadband environment and can be used to transmit as much information as the senses can absorb. Yet we mainly use it for learning with words which require little bandwidth.”

This gave us the idea that 'bandwidth' would be the unifying concept.

If you start with maximum bandwidth, you've got a physical environment like a classroom or a lecture hall. Studio video conference uses a bit less bandwidth; the web even less; e-mail even less; and the cable that goes to the printer on which you print out your handouts least of all.

Put these 'rings' of bandwidth together and you've got a cone - which is what the teacher or tutor has to put her inputs into. The aim, however, is to create a rich learning environment in which the learner creates a 'cylinder of learning' with bandwidth as wide as that available face-to-face.

There's a financial aspect to things too - the more bandwidth you use, the more it costs (someone, anyway). There's no such thing as a 'free' lecture hall, or a 'free' journey to the face-to-face site for the students.

Then there's a pedagogical side to things. Perhaps with many subjects people need the rich input of face-to-face before they can fill their own 'cylinder of learning'. Other subject areas thrive on the minimalist input of low-bandwidth environments like e-mail, since the distractions are fewer.

In any event, the course designers are faced with a balancing act all the time in order to use the optimal amount of bandwidth at all points throughout the course. We've found this process so complex and stimulating that it feels a lot more like art than science … which fits in very well with the empirical way I work as a teacher!

*Here's an example of the cone of input in practice. I have a colleague who teaches history in adult education in a area of natural beauty called Hälsingland. One lovely spring evening he was in the bus on the way home from a course meeting and took a blurred digital photo of a local beauty spot out of the window. When he got home, he posted this on his site with the question "Is this the soul of Hälsingland?" Within 24 hours everyone of the course had responded (with poems, stories and observations), and then they started responding to the responses, etc. In other words, a small piece of input in the cone of input created a very large amount of student learning.*

You're free to take a look at the site I use (the link's both at the bottom of this posting and at the top of the page [Distance Courses]) … but bear in mind that the on-line courses I work with are all centred on communication, and you can't create a link to the network of contacts students have with each other and with me. In fact, you could say that the desire to 'see' any course I work on is a category mistake (a term from philosophy coined by Gilbert Ryle: a foreign visitor comes to Oxford and is shown round the colleges. "But where is the famous 'Oxford spirit'?" he asks. That's a category mistake: you can point to a college, but you can't point to the Oxford spirit.).

#2 David Richardson

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 11:55 AM

Marratech

In Gothenburg I showed two OHPs of desktop video conferences on our Marratech server.

Marratech is a desktop video conference programme which you can read more about on:

http://www.marratech.com

There are now several versions of the programme, including a freeware version (which is, of course, much more limited than the licensed version). We have a licence for 5 virtual rooms, which can be used to bring people together from wherever they happen to be. The threshold for the remote user is very low: all you need is the free Client software (downloadable from the Marratech site), a cheap webcam (if you want to be seen), and a cheap headset and mike (if you want to avoid deafening everyone else with feedback.

If you want to try Marratech out, go to this site:

http://www.meetings....tmarratech.html

(It's run by the Swedish University Network - SUNET.)

If E-HELP members want to use one of our Marratech rooms for on-line meetings, get in touch and I'll set it up for you. I'd be happy to host an on-line meeting to show you different ways in which we use Marratech.

#3 Anders MacGregor-Thunell

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 04:05 PM

First of all - thank you very much for an inspiring presentation. I personally feel that we were so lucky at the Gothenburg meeting because we found such interesting and gifted educators!
I have now had the pleasure of viewing the videoversion on the parts of your presentation that I missed. What I especially like with your presentation is the focus on the Communication process. It's a well known truth among the more experienced teachers that the pedagogical approach doesn't have to be the one that is in fashion - it's the communication between the teacher and the student(s) that makes the difference. Here ICT could have been a problem. It's interesting to follow how you have overcome eventual problems that could occure when you try to keep a teacher-student (or student-student) relation over distance. Distance education with the help of ICT has truly become a powerful instrument. B)

If E-HELP members want to use one of our Marratech rooms for on-line meetings, get in touch and I'll set it up for you. I'd be happy to host an on-line meeting to show you different ways in which we use Marratech.

I think this offer sounds very interesting and I would be glad to try it out with other members. Maybe we should plan a shorter Marratech meeting before the Heerlen meeting?

#4 David Richardson

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 04:47 PM

One really useful aspect of a system like Marratech is that you can do the groundwork for a meeting in advance, so that you can concentrate on the main business when you're there together. Imagine if you'd managed to do the business of the breakfast meeting in Gothenburg over Marratech before you'd even arrived.

I had a mail from my new student in Hong Kong this afternoon. She got the study pack this morning (posted on Friday in Sweden …), and we're going to do a Marratech meeting on Wednesday, so that I can bring her up to the same speed as the people who were in Tingsryd on Saturday (just before I turned up in Gothenburg, that is). If I didn't have desktop video conference, that wouldn't be possible.

BTW one aspect of my talk I forgot to write about was the way we can bring experts like Chris Metress in Birmingham, Alabama into direct contact with students or pupils, using desktop video conference.

#5 Andy Walker

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 09:58 PM

I was fascinated by David's talk and I will certainly be investigating Marratech software in the future.

I am also convinced that David's insight and experience will make an excellent case study for our course in 2007.

#6 John Simkin

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Posted 19 September 2005 - 11:00 AM

*The Swedish government has shovelled money at anyone who wanted to try to get ICT-based distance education off the ground, with very varying degrees of success. The process has followed a familiar pattern: you start by giving money to technicians and computer experts … but they don't know much about teaching; so they define the problem as the moving of bits of information into the heads of the learners ('giving them knowledge'); so they start off by writing their own learning management system; then they discover that it's really expensive and incredibly difficult; so they buy a commercial platform programme; then they spend all their funds trying to organise the content; but they find that they don't have any content; so they try to get some teachers to hand over their notes; which they put on the platform; and often they manage to run courses; which have an incredibly high drop-out rate; and finally they evaluate the whole process; and quite often just give up … several million euros later.*

*However, there have also been plenty of success stories, where the common factor has been that teachers have been empowered by getting their hands on fairly simple tools and being given their heads.*

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


A very stimulating presentation. I was particularly interested in the section where you helped organize your students into “self-help” groups. This reminded me of my experiences as a student with the Open University (1970-1976). I joined the OU at its inception. In many ways we were guinea pigs in this distance learning experiment. I have read several times since how the OU experiment had a dramatic impact on worldwide distance learning. Harold Wilson wrote in his memoirs that the OU was his greatest achievement. He also thought it was one of his more successful “socialist” measures. It was no coincidence that he put Jennie Lee (Nye Bevan’s widow) in charge of the project. Even Margaret Thatcher became a fan, mainly because it turned out to be a cheap way to educate people, however her education secretary, Keith Joseph, did accuse several OU departments of being dominated by “Marxists”.

In reality, it was not the distance learning aspect of the OU that made it successful. It would never have worked if it had not been for the self-help groups and the summer schools. It was this face-to-face contact that kept you going. We noticed that those students who did not attend the regular self-help meetings often dropped out.

This experience has convinced me that any distance learning scheme needs to organize a way for students to have regular contact with other students. I was interested to hear you say that students were more likely to contact a fellow student than a tutor when they had academic problems. This was also true of the OU. It also helped us to develop a more cooperative approach towards learning. This is one aspect of the OU that has stayed with me over the years.

When I later joined a conventional university course at Sussex I was shocked to discover how different these students were to those of the OU. It was competition rather than cooperation that drove these students on. This was especially true of those students that had not experienced life outside of school and university.

My experience of the European Virtual School, E-HELP and even this Forum has reinforced the need for face-to-face meetings.

Your presentation got me thinking about the way we deliver the E-HELP course that we are developing for the third year of the project. It will of course be a real meeting. However, it will limit the numbers we can communicate with. I will be interested in your ideas on how we can deliver this kind of course in the form of distance learning.

#7 Graham Davies

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  • Interests:I began my career as a teacher of German and French in secondary education in 1965, moving into higher education in 1971, where I taught German (and also English as a Foreign Language to students training to become professional translators) until 1993. I have been involved in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) since 1976. In 1982 I wrote one of the first introductory books on computers in language learning and teaching, which was followed by numerous other printed and software publications. In 1989 I was conferred with the title of Professor of CALL by the Academic Board of Ealing College of Higher Education (later integrated into Thames Valley University). I retired from full-time teaching in 1993 but I continued to work as a Visiting Professor for Thames Valley University until 2001. I was the Founder President of EUROCALL, holding the post from 1993 to 2000. I am a partner in Camsoft, a CALL software development and consultancy business, which was founded in 1982. I have lectured and run ICT training courses for language teachers in 22 different countries and I sit on a number of national and international advisory boards and committees. I have been actively involved in WorldCALL since 1998 and I currently head a working party that is in the process of setting up WorldCALL as an official organisation that aims to assist countries that are currently underserved in the area of ICT and the teaching and learning of modern foreign languages. I am fluent in German, I speak tolerable French, and I can survive in Italian, Russian and Hungarian. I enjoy golf, skiing, walking my dog (a retired racing greyhound) and travelling. I used to scuba-dive regularly - my last dive was on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 - but now I just swim at my local fitness centre.

Posted 19 September 2005 - 02:55 PM

John writes:

In reality, it was not the distance learning aspect of the OU that made it successful. It would never have worked if it had not been for the self-help groups and the summer schools. It was this face-to-face contact that kept you going. We noticed that those students who did not attend the regular self-help meetings often dropped out.



Exactly my wife’s experience. She did an OU degree in the 1970s/80s, having never passed a formal examination (not even O-level) at school. She ended up with a 2.2 in English, Philosophy and English.

I said the following in a keynote I delivered at the UCALL conference, University of Ulster at Coleraine, June 2005:

“Whither technology? Expansion of online learning

Undoubtedly, there will be an expansion of online learning, but it is more likely to supplement conventional modes of learning rather than replacing them. Language learners in particular cannot acquire certain skills, for example conversational skills, without face-to-face contact with an experienced teacher, but software tools such as Wimba now facilitate synchronous and asynchronous oral communication and are already being used in distance-learning CALL environments.

Many universities, however, may be focusing on the wrong target group. The typical university student aged around 18–25 is the least likely person who would want to spend their time studying for a degree sitting in front of a computer screen. Such a student is more likely to want to get away from home and enjoy university life in all its aspects:

“But do we really want to deliver whole courses via the Web? Do we really want to deprive young people of the valuable experience of leaving home, studying and socialising with their peers, joining societies, going to clubs and parties, travelling, and falling in love? Do we really want to breed a generation of screen-gazing zombies?” (Davies 2002)

The spectacular crash of the UK e-University (UKeU) in 2004, which was set up at great expense and launched in 2000, is a clear indication that the target groups of online courses still need to be identified. The thousands of students who were expected to sign up for UKeU courses simply did not materialise. More market research on the demand for online courses clearly needs to be done, and the vast amounts of expenditure on the technological infrastructure of such courses need to be reduced.

Established distance-teaching universities have tended to focus on older people (aged 30-plus) returning to education and lacking the time to spend studying in the traditional way. Perhaps this is the group that online courses need to focus on too.”

Davies G. (2002): “ICT and modern foreign languages: learning opportunities and training needs” [Online]. Available at: http://www.camsoftpa...co.uk/needs.htm

#8 David Richardson

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Posted 19 September 2005 - 08:19 PM

Your presentation got me thinking about the way we deliver the E-HELP course that we are developing for the third year of the project. It will of course be a real meeting. However, it will limit the numbers we can communicate with. I will be interested in your ideas on how we can deliver this kind of course in the form of distance learning.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


I'll start a new topic about this within this sub-forum.

#9 Terry Haydn

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Posted 22 November 2005 - 04:58 PM

I am trying hard not to sound fawningly sycophantic but I found this element of the Gothenburg seminar one of the most interesting and thought provoking of the whole programme. A bit of it is to do with 'tone'; I don't tend to like it when people sell their wares too enthusiastically as if they were selling double glazing or something. I think it is important to be cautious in terms of claims made and thought that David did this in his seminar, but at the same time he made you think about aspects of ICT that soemtimes get forgotten about. It also helped me to understand Sweden a bit more clearly and this was also very helpful and actually made me feel a bit more optimistic about the future of human society.

#10 David Richardson

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Posted 22 November 2005 - 06:47 PM

Thanks for those kind words, Terry!

We've just started testing a new feature in Marratech - dialling out to a conventional video conference studio. It works really well, and it's going open up all sorts of possibilities of including individuals who can't get to a studio in conventional studio meetings.

So, if anyone has a video conference studio they use which works on the H.323 standard, I ought to be able to enter your IP address and call you up on it.

#11 John Simkin

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 04:04 PM

David Richardson's presentation can be seen on video here:






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