14 April 2006

On neuro-diversity

(On re-visiting this post, I find that the link I posted now leads to a gambling site which tries to trap you there; so I've removed the link—and hence most of the point of the post—but there's still some point to it. If I find the blog again I'll re-link.)

I was clicking along to "next blog..." when I came across this one. Having just had fascinating presentations at our course Symposium about neurodiversity, it rung bells for me; there is no information at all about the blogger, but is he (probably "he") an "Aspie"? (Apparently their preferred term for people with Asperger's syndrome.)

For more on Asperger's, go to http://www.neurodiversity.com/asperger_general.html and read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" by Mark Haddon (London; Vintage, 2004); it may have been criticised by experts and clinicians, but for the lay reader it offers great insights into Asperger's, and it's also an intriguing read.

12 April 2006

On e-learning

My (now former) university is keen on e-learning. We have a Virtual Learning Environment or "VLE" (Blackboard, in case you want to know; personally I think they should have gone with Moodle, which is open source and free and much more customisable, but they did go to a lot of trouble to make up their minds—although I don't remember Moodle ever being mentioned.)

Still, there is a requirement for every course to show how it is making use of the VLE; there is now a 25-question form to fill in for every validation. In practice, of course, this means that academics mostly use it as an electronic cupboard; they upload their presentations and handouts when they remember to.

Obviously, I'm quite keen on making use of the net (I use the term advisedly) to complement and support learning, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. But I detest the VLE; it's clunky, putting material on it is slow (ftp is much faster and more flexible and takes about five minutes to learn at most), and accessing mainstream web pages from it is a joke. The VLE does set out to do a lot of things, but it ends up doing none of them very well.

Today we had a Course Board, which includes reports from student representatives about their experience of the course, which we take very seriously. There was a clear theme through all the student reports (among other things); the VLE does not work. They complained about problems with accessing it, and navigating it if and when they got in (it takes five or six clicks through various layers to get to any substantive content, and for technical reasons half our students can't work in groups with the other half). And this was after major efforts to promote it at induction and throughout the course, and much whip-cracking by our e-learning co-ordinator to ensure that staff posted materials on it (she threatened to remove their buttons if they did not comply—a fearsome threat!)

This might merely have been a matter of dubious gripes, (although I did get a mini-cheer in the committee when I floated the notion that the whole enterprise might be over-blown—tempered with later points which indicated, in the nicest possible way, that I am a respected but eccentric old-timer) but;

Later on we had an evaluation of our residential event based on a questionnaire of everyone attending. I had slipped in a question about "Are you finding the VLE a useful resource for the course as a whole?" The results were unequivocal; (n=82 out of a possible population 0f 108)
  • Very useful; 2%
  • Quite useful; 21%
  • Not at all useful; 77%
I admit that there may be technical issues here. Some of the colleges in which our students work use Moodle, and they are generally quite enthusiastic about it; there may be issues about the implementation of our VLE, and we did not ask any follow-up questions. Even so...

Someone commented to me afterwards; "If you had asked about usage of your website, you would have got a very different answer!" Maybe. I'd like to think so (and some spontaneous comments by students suggest this is not merely a fantasy) but we still have a long way to go to make e-learning really useful to those who are not forced—by course design—to use it.

(We didn't ask about it in the evaluation, but many people commented in the face-to-face review session on how useful they found the opportunity to go to the library)