eMeeting - 3rd July 2014


Those Invited: Prof. Liz Bacon, Prof. Lachlan MacKinnon, Dr. Cos Ierotheou, Andy Wicks
Those Present: Prof. Liz Bacon, Prof. Lachlan MacKinnon, Dr. Cos Ierotheou, Andy Wicks

Associated Documents
Watch the video
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We have had difficulty meeting because of the work pressures at this time of year.  It seems that we could try the "e" of e-leaning to overcome this … and maybe I could even use you as a formative experiment?

What follows is the result of the reading/thinking with which I have been playing since we last met at the end of April.  It is being presented on a web page in the old format of an atom, i.e. as on-screen text, PDF, MP3 and video.  If you do feel responding is appropriate, then please do feel free to use any medium with which you are happy.  It would not matter to me whether this was responding by email, a sound file from a Dictaphone, an annotated version of the PDF or as a video.

There is a small questionnaire towards the bottom of the web page.  Please feel free to fill it in, if you feel comfortable doing that.



We discussed a matrix of learning theories at the last meeting, the intention being to classify the different theories according to whether they were learning style/strategy or teaching style/strategy.  This might allow patterns to emerge which could be used to influence the design of VLEs.

I then gave a presentation on this position to the PhD group on the 21st May.

The learning styles are important, but other things will also influence the accessibility and user-friendliness of a VLE, e.g. font size and colour, the order in which the topics are presented, etc..


Movement in thinking since then

This last point was bothering me until I realised that the point of a VLE is to break down barriers to learning, of which learning styles is one (possibly a very important one, but still only one).

The educational system in the UK (and those that followed around the world) is really three separate systems bolted together; primary, secondary and tertiary.  Each had different goals when set up.

Primary Education

Free, public primary education was created under the Elementary Education Act of 1870.  Its enactment was driven by three forces; industrial competitiveness (the overt reason), the Reform Act of 1867 which enfranchised swathes of illiterate and ill-educated voters and the needs of the military when fighting European and Colonial wars.  None of these reasons had anything to do with education – they required learning.

The schools created under this act varied in quality from borough to borough, but they all used the monitorial system under which one teacher controlled a large number of pupils, typically 100.  The teacher would not have had time for individuals – that was left to monitors, older peers to sort out.

Secondary Education

It was not until the Education Act of 1944 that a free public system of secondary education became law.  The school leaving age was raised to 15 (with the intention of increasing it to 16 – something that only happened in 1972).  The main effect was to create three streams after the age of 11; the grammar stream, the secondary technical stream and the secondary modern stream.  Pupils were assigned educational opportunities at the age of 11.  Whilst changes could be made at 13, this was rare.

Tertiary Education

The first Arabic university in Timbuktu was probably in operation before the Battle of Hastings, but the first European university was founded in 1088 in Bologna.  The purpose of these medieval universities was to provide the social elite with the skills needed to rule.  The curriculum started as generalist (classics, geometry and theology), but migrated into separate subject areas over time.  (Also, an interesting article which pushes the origins back further.)

From this, it seems that the word "education", like other words in English such as mathematics, has been used to aggrandise.  What is really meant is learning – a phrased used correctly in the Houses of Parliament when referring to “The learned ...”.  For most, this learning means acquiring the skills needed by employers rather than becoming educated.

Employers are naturally interested in what employees can't do, whilst educationalists are concerned with what they can.  The goals of the employers were, in general, not related to helping people learn and so barriers were created.  The educational system we use now was based on the needs of industry which wanted workers who were compliant, would take breaks on the ringing of a bell, eat at fixed times and stay at their posts in between.  This may sound harsh on employers, but that is the economic driver which funds the social system we all enjoy.

If an educational system was devised from scratch now it would be based on mitigating the effects of as many barriers to learning as possible and be very different from the one we have today.  A VLE should plug the gap between the current system and this idealised one, i.e. it should aim to help learners overcome as many barriers to learning as possible.

The problem therefore becomes one of identifying these barriers to learning and then finding which, such as learning styles, can be overcome using a VLE.  The design of the VLE should seek to overcome these barriers for pedagogy (child/teacher learning), andragogy (adult/adult learning) and heutagogy (self-directed learning).


The three ‘isms

Something I may have forgotten to mention is that you have each provided me with very useful advice, even at this early stage of the PhD.  These have been codified on the introductory page of my site for the first phase – I am anticipating equally useful insights when it comes the product and write-up phases.  The Liz Principle says read widely, so I have.  The problem was which approach to take.

The behaviourist approach is not valid for my research interest because VLEs do not be seek to modify the behaviour of the users – in fact the exact opposite – they should work in the way the student works.  The behaviourist approach is used in adaptive learning.  However, it could be argued that people are not deterministic and that the whims in learning speed, style and content should be decided by the individual rather than guided by the VLE.

The cognitivist approach relies on the ability to measure thought processes via experimentation (positivism).  Again, this is the reverse of what this research aims to do.  It would be possible to build a huge range of VLEs and then let students loose on them to see which works and under what circumstances – but that would be impractical.  It would be more efficient to develop a set of rules that minimise the barriers to learning.

The constructivist approach assumes the learner acquire understanding from the interaction between their senses and their minds.  Given a stimulus, human will try to categorise it so that they can see where it sits in relation to other, pre-existing stimuli.  This is closer to where a VLE should be, but it fails to cater for those who prefer to learn in a holist manner, i.e. who need a context before the detail has any meaning.

Each of these approaches has its drawbacks and each minimises the importance of metacognition in the ownership a student feels towards their learning.


The new kids on the block

The Lachlan Principle says learn to read.  Taking that advice has taken me through a body of literature much more quickly which means that I have had time to explore a wider range of avenues.

The Cos Principle says that there is no such thing as wasted time, merely roads that do not need to be revisited.  This gave me the green light to go and explore … and I did.


It would be nice if there was another approach that worked for e-learning – and there is.  Connectivism, coined by George Siemens in 2004, and expanded upon by both George Siemens and his colleague at Ontario University, Stephen Downes (as well as many others since), takes an alternative approach.

Imagine that I am 16 and in a class I find boring.  I don’t get it because the teacher is stupid and no good and … well, you get the teenage angst thing.  So, I go on FaceBook to complain to my friends.  One of them emails back a link to a video on YouTube that was helpful.  I have a look, but whilst OK it does not work for me.  However, one of the links on the right looks promising and turns out to be just what I need.  Excellent! I email the friend who sent to original link with the details of the new one.  The friend also likes it so he tweets about it.  The tweet is picked up by another student in Wellington, New Zealand who then eulogises about it on Digg and reddit.

This is connectivism in action.  The concept is that a self-created network of learning can be an effective learning tool.  By its nature, it is unstructured and student driven.  This may sound idealistic, but it is what happened on the Introduction to Programming course this year.  One student came across JTables in Java and suddenly a host of others decided that was what they needed.  They created a mutual body of learning entirely uninhibited by the curriculum we were teaching.

But that leaves another problem.  How can one list and prioritise the barriers to learning?

Visible Learning

Enter John Hattie of the University of Melbourne.  He has collated studies on education from all over the world and now has the results from over 50,000 studies in his database.  From this he has identified 138 factors which influence the quality and quantity of learning.  These have then been ranked according to the relative effect they have on learning.  Some interesting results from this are that class size is relatively unimportant, whilst self-grading and frequent feedback have a great effect.

He identifies six general groupings of effects; the student, home, school, curricula, teacher and teaching strategies.  Each of the 138 strategies is then assigned to one of these groups, which means the importance of the group can be examined.  According to Hattie, the teacher is the most important element in learning.  A VLE will not replace an effective teacher.

Another interesting result is for Computer Assisted Instruction which comes in at 71 out of 138 – a fairly non-descript outcome.  There should be scope for improving on that, given that VLEs are still in their infancy and that learning theory has not been applied to them rigorously.

The theory is called visible learning because Hattie advocates learning being visible to both the learner and the teacher.  This implies clear goals, clear measurement of achievement and a fast response to work being completed.



The literature review is certainly not complete yet.  However, it seems that a connectivist approach to visible learning may be a promising avenue.  The 138 criteria from Hattie can be categorised as relevant to VLEs or not.  The list of VLE relevant factors can be supplemented by other aspects, such as adding links to social media (part of the connectivist approach).

The VLE could allow users to create sets into which their family and friends can be added to make the experience more personal.  You can imagine little Johnny emailing his Dad for help with long division whilst discussing the blood-thirsty Vikings on a blog which he is updating in between watching the science experiment again on YouTube that his friend recommended.  In this way the VLE could include family and friends in the learning process - making it communal and a community – an extended e-family.

It could also have a set created by each the teacher of each subject for a particular level.  This would have two advantages; it would allow close monitoring as well as progression in a subject would be at the speed of the learner.  It would be assessment on demand.

If government wanted to be involved then they could create the list of items to be covered in each set for each subject as the core curriculum.  This would allow schools, colleges and universities to add whichever other sets they felt appropriate.  It would also leave the learner free to add other sets which interest them – I have not come across a child who was not curious and wanted to explore.  The VLE should and could allow that.