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The Politics of RBL

Note that this paper was first written in 1998, and has only been lightly edited since then. Were its anxieties justified?

Displacement of face-to-face teaching
Development costs and investment
RBL and the structures of knowledge
Top-down and bottom-up
(Note from 15 years on)


Like most technical innovations, resource-based learning (RBL) may appear to be politically neutral, and yet its development can raise important political questions. While there is much in RBL which is not new-correspondence colleges, for example, have been around for a century-the rapidly developing interest in its new, interactive forms, gives it a higher profile. This paper sets out to explore some of those questions.



See also Technology and Learning

Displacement of face-to-face teaching

Part of the incentive for the development and adoption of RBL, particularly on the part of Further Education (FE/Community) colleges, has been the prospect of finding cheaper and more flexible means of delivering courses to students. While market penetration of home computers at the time of writing is still less than 10%, thus providing a current limit on the number of people who are able to undertake study from home, many FE colleges are investing in computer-equipped study areas where students whose lifestyles do not permit regular attendance at classes can drop in and work through multi-media and interactive packages. In this way, it is hoped that increasing numbers of non-traditional students can be drawn into further education in the spirit of life-long learning. Soon, it is hoped, the advent of greater bandwidth in the telecommunications infrastructure, digital terrestrial broadcasting and the expansion of the market for home computers (possibly network computers rather than today's PCs) will increase the opportunities for study from home, and the business opportunities afforded by this development are attracting the attention of major players.

So far, so good: the technology appears to be developing to met the requirements of lifelong learning, and contributing to the democratisation of learning.

However, in the case of the new resource centres in FE colleges, learners are assisted increasingly not by lecturers, but by a new kind of employee, the technician instructor. Since the incorporated FE colleges are under continual pressure to reduce costs, the technician-instructor post is increasingly popular. First, such staff can be employed for less than the cost of a teacher. Second, as staff whose major role is to enable students to make use of the hardware and software, rather than to teach in a particular subject area, they can be deployed flexibly on a wide variety of courses. Indeed, it is perfectly common to find students on business studies programmes working alongside those on health and social care courses or those few remaining on engineering technician courses, in the same room, at the same time. Third, the responsibilities of the technician-instructor do not include curriculum development, lesson preparation or assessment, and so all their working time can be spent in direct student contact, making them even more economical (Lucas and Betts, 1996).

The role of the traditional "lecturer" is therefore potentially shrinking, with consequences which cannot yet be determined. On the one hand, students may well be learning through state-of-the-art packages, which can be customised to meet individual needs and learning styles: they will be able to work at their own pace, and not be penalised for missing an important session. They will be spared dry delivery by staff who have either not had time to prepare more interesting sessions, or who have not up-dated their notes since they started teaching a course ten years ago. They will also be spared the occasionally destructive group processes in class, with disruptive students soaking up the teacher's time in class management. On the other, they will be deprived of the opportunities for discussion afforded by an effective classroom group, of the personal interest of a teacher who knows them through working with them for a much higher number of hours per week, and of the spontaneous opportunities for learning created by the in-class learning conversation. In short, learning becomes consumption, rather than an active process.

As yet, there are many areas of practical skill development which can not be emulated effectively by RBL: hands-on cookery, engineering, horticulture or hairdressing are likely to require direct supervised practice in the presence of an experienced and knowledgeable instructor for the foreseeable future. However, the term "instructor" is used advisedly - there is already a developing tendency to delegate these mundane aspects of teaching to staff at this level, who are not expected to assume responsibility for the higher level "theoretical representation" component of the learning conversation, in Laurillard's model (1997), thus limiting the opportunities for reflection and adaptation which she sees as so crucial to the learning experience. Combined with the emphasis on practical competence which is characteristic of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ), with the secondary role being taken by the requisite "underpinning knowledge", there is a danger of creating a system in which learners develop superficial performance skills without the deeper resources to deal with new and unpredictable situations.





(This was true in 1997: in 2003 it is 60%+, and higher in the relevant demographic groups)


Development costs and investment

If the delivery of RBL is already beginning to have an impact on the organisation of post-compulsory education, its production may have even more profound effects. As yet, the market for RBL is immature, particularly on the computer-based front. Thoroughly commercial efforts are directed at the mass "edutainment" market, and many other packages are either "home-grown" by enthusiasts, or the product of efforts by teams of academics (sometimes supported by government sponsorship) to meet needs for their own programmes.

However, developing RBL has never been cheap, and the higher the expectations for multimedia presentations, the more expensive it will get. The lead time is very lengthy, and the reality is that in some fast-moving fields, a given package will never repay the investment involved within a single institution. RBL confuses the current distinction between taught hours and directed study hours on modules, but if the lower taught hours figure is taken, of say 30 hours, and the conventional ratio of 100:1 preparation to delivery time is adopted, then a module completely taught by RBL can take 3,000 person-hours to prepare. Even assuming that the module is taught to five groups a year, and that conventional lecture preparation takes three times as long as delivery, it is still going to take seven years before the initial investment is re-couped. In many cases the material (if not the mode of delivery) will be out of date within that time.

Keenan (1998) bemoans the poor quality of much educational multimedia in the UK, and attributes it to the state of the market. He does not, however, pursue the argument much further, which is to acknowledge that a maturing market will mean that standard packages will have to be developed which can be used in large numbers of institutions. Once the RBL package is used by fifty or five hundred groups of students a year, economies of scale set in.

However, any teacher's experience of trying to fit anything other than the smallest standard exercise into a teaching sequence is that everything else has to be tailored to fit around it. Even at university level, teachers using text-books are beset with the frustrations of them never quite being exactly what is required for their individual vision of how a course might be taught. This situation is likely to be become more pronounced with RBL, and as one lecturer put it, "Who is going to want to listen to my lectures when they get sit at the feet of an international authority in the field, with material illustrated with video, interviews and animated graphics rather than balck and white overhead transparencies?"

Extrapolate, and "Mavis Beacon teaches Typing" becomes "Anthony Giddens teaches Sociology", "Harry Kroto teaches Chemistry" and "Stephen Jay Gould teaches Palaeontology". Even if such packages substitute only for key-note lectures, and are followed up by seminars (the kind which are currently led by graduate students), the net result must be standardised modules, or even complete programmes, across a number of institutions. This might address national concerns about the comparability of degrees, but at the cost both of institutional distinctiveness, and of the necessary diversity of academic voices. Just as there is a current concern about the hegemony of Microsoft in PC applications, which are after all only empty shells with minimal content, there may in the future be an even better-founded concern about the hegemony of academic "stars", returning full-circle to the days when education meant the explication of Aristotle and (perhaps) the Bible. This theme, with particular reference to the potential dominance of  government and multinational corporations, has been persuasively explored by Noble (1998)

Perhaps this picture is an exaggeration. After all, the current concern is with the chaotic variety of voices heard over the Net, where anything can be published without benefit of peer review or any other kind of quality control, rather than with the possibility of intellectual monopolies. But the process nevertheless does point in the direction of the down-grading of the contribution of the local academic, and further supports the trend identified above, of academic instructor-technicians merely servicing substantive material from intellectual power-bases. Post-modernism may come after modernism, but what does it come before?



RBL and the structures of knowledge

Laurillard (1993) has clearly shown the limitations of resource-based learning packages in emulating the learning conversation which takes place between the effective teacher and the learner. The package is basically a static entity, and however effectively programmed with branching procedures to deal with common errors, etc., it cannot reproduce the teacher's adaptation to the learner's understanding and misunderstanding of the material.

RBL is best suited to the delivery of what Kolb (1984), building on Hudson (1967) calls "convergent knowledge" - material in which there are right answers. Part of the impetus for Hudson's original research stemmed from his concern about the misrepresentation of the abilities of some boys by intelligence tests: because the tests were standardised and marked according to given correct answers, boys who exhibited creativity and arrived at equally valid answers by non-standard routes were penalised. Unfortunately, there were no compensatory questions which valued their creativity or "divergent" thinking. Kolb extended the idea of the two styles of thinking to suggesting that different forms of knowledge embodied the different styles. Mathematics and scientific subjects (at least as taught in school) are convergent; the arts and humanities are more likely to value divergent thinking. In Kolb's model of the cycle of experiential learning, convergent knowledge is in the quadrant moving from Abstract Conceptualisation to Active Experimentation, whereas divergent knowledge is in that between Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation.

Divergent knowledge can only be built on by open-minded facilitation which is prepared to accept the personal vision offered by the learner and to explore and develop it. At present, only human beings in conversation can do this: it may indeed be said to be a form of Turing test. RBL packages, which not only contain the definitive version of that which is to be learned, but also the assumption that there is such a definitive version, necessarily assess only the progression of the student towards understanding or mastering that content. One might conceivably envisage a fine art RBL package which would teach a student to produce a facsimile or even a pastiche of the work of a given artist or school, but the only way in which it could teach anything approaching "originality" would be by exclusion: the work would resemble nothing in its database, but it could have no way of judging that work or suggesting how its vision might be refined.

The simple moral is to confine RBL to what it can do well: after all, most knowledge is of the convergent kind. Laurillard (1993) suggests that science learning up to third-year undergraduate level is necessarily about understanding other people's discoveries. But the divergent component may often be greater than one thinks. For Kolb, the transformation of experience suggested by the Reflective Observation stage of his cycle is expressed in terms of "connotations" (or "intensions" [sic] as he calls them) -what the experience means to the individual. This is both important in enabling the person to fit the experience into her or his own coherent model of the world, and in its private and personal nature. Again, a live teacher can work with the learner's personal world, but not so a resource-based package.

Indeed, packages have to treat the world as objective fact, rather than as socially constructed. While it is possible for an inanimate resource to suggest several different interpretive approaches which may be adopted towards a given topic, as many more advanced textbooks, do for example, they cannot negotiate the realms of meaning which are constructed by learners with their teachers. On the other hand, since those realms are so often contaminated by irrelevant factors, they have their place - just as students have long been encouraged to read around subjects for themselves, rather than simply to listen to their teachers.



Top-down and bottom-up

The concerns which have been expressed in this paper have largely stemmed fromthe spectre of "big" RBL: sophisticated packages which themselves command so many resources for their development and delivery that they must be regarded as substitutes for, rather than aids for, face-to-face teaching. It is ironic that in many cases the "information revolution", a substantial factor in the development of post-modern world-view(s), should in many respects be driven by the imperatives of unregenerate modernism.

Nevertheless, as the sheer amount of juvenile rubbish on the Web gloriously demonstrates, the technology for the development and delivery of modest, small-scale RBL is accessible to people of modest technical competence. This is not merely a matter of computer skills: the ubiquity of the photo-copier (and its precursors such as spirit duplicators) has changed the practice of teaching in many ways. Video cameras are getting cheaper and more flexible all the time, and the cost of stock is negligible. There is the potential for the further development of those "home-grown" resources referred to earlier, on a bottom-up basis. Such resources, although modest, are the products of individual teachers' visions, rooted in their experience of learning conversations and tailored to complement their teaching styles. It is important to preserve this resource.

A view from 2013

MOOC. Says it all. As I write in June 2013, the Massive Online Open Course looms over higher education, as the spectre at the feast. They are the (actually not very impressive) products of the top-down business model, via CourseEra, edX, and others.

At the time of writing, the most trenchant critique of MOOCs and their potential impact on higher education (much as envisaged above) comes from Jonathan Rees' blog More or Less Bunk (the title does not refer particularly to MOOCs--he's an historian). I've also weighed in and reported on my brief experience with one of them on my blog here, here, here, here and here.

(Updated 3 June 2013)




HUDSON L (1967) Contrary Imaginations; a psychological study of the English Schoolboy Harmondsworth: Penguin

KEENAN J (1998) "Learning the Price of Quality" THES Multimedia Supplement, 9 Jan 98, vi.

KOLB D A (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

LAURILLARD D (1993) Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology London: Routledge (2nd edition now available, 2001)

LAURILLARD D (1997) "A systems model of individual learning applied to organisational learning and the HE system" Paper at "Applying Systems Thinking to Higher Education" conference, Open University 12 July 97.

LUCAS N and BETTS D (1996) "The Incorporated College: Human resource development and human resource management - contradictions and options" Research in Post-Compulsory Education vol 1 no 3 pp 329-344

NOBLE D (1998) "Digital Diploma Mills: the automation of Higher Education" [on-line: available at http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_1/noble/index.html ] Accessed 22 March 2002


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