Interview: Hamish MacLeod (University of Edinburgh)

Dr Hamish MacLeod is senior lecturer in the School of Education at University of Edinburgh. He teaches on their MSc course in eLearning, which practices what it preaches: the course is taught via the Web. His particular interests are in the potential of various computer / network mediated channels of communication in teaching and learning, and the use of games in teaching and learning.

I spoke with Hamish about the theory and processes taught on the course, and what eLearning looks like in practice. He did not disappoint. Keep reading for some great in-depth knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, the evolution of the student-teacher relationship, and how the web is shaping education.

What do you need to consider when developing an online course?
There are lots of different ways in which learning can come online.  Ours is quite an intensively tutored programme.  We can support our students in the online, distance mode as well - if differently - as we could support students on a campus-based programme.  Clearly taking communications online changes group, and interpersonal, dynamics in interesting ways.  But it should certainly not be see as (inevitably) a deficit change.  In many ways, these changes are the subject matter of our programme.  

How has the teacher’s role changed?
We sometimes come on prospective students, or colleagues, or funding bodies, who assume that bringing education online is simply a matter of content dissemination.  That it is a matter of independent engagement with a “knowledge source”.  That the teacher’s job is done when the “content” is put online.  Which inevitably leads them to assume that the online course is a less fulfilling and adequate experience than the campus course.  

I would see our job as developing good and meaningful tasks for the students to engage with, through which they can call upon this material, and anything else that seems relevant.  We also want to see students working collaboratively on many of these task.  My position (and I know that some of my immediate colleagues would disagree with my emphasis) would be to see little change in the teachers’ role when learning and study are brought online.  But the online mode compels one to *think* more carefully about what one is doing, and trying to achieve.  I like the expression “the orchestration of experience” as a description of what teachers do; and I think that this applies equally online and offline.  One just does it in different ways.

Do technologies in general change what education needs to be and do?
I think it must. The development of a tool to help us achieve something changes the nature of the task in hand, and so the cycle goes on. Things may be different; not necessarily better or worse.  There is the recent study on how the access to computer-based databases might change the way in which we choose to remember things.  Some can see that as a decrement in our cognitive capacity.  But it might just be a matter of how we choose to deploy scarce resource.  And of course what we know about expertise is that it is not a matter of how much raw information we can call upon from memory - senior students probably know more “stuff” than their teachers - but on the (often discipline-specific) way that experts detect patterns and construct understanding, and action.  

What is the experience like for online learners?
You would have to ask the students. I have heard it observed that anyone more than three rows back in a large lecture theatre is a “distance learner”.  And my experience as a teacher on campus-based programmes in the recent past is that our students are increasingly “distanced” from us, by pressures of (earning) work, and other social and cultural stresses.  I think that we have good relationships with our students.  We have a relatively high retention rate for a distance programme - depending on how you count it, of course, but around 90% - which might be seen as a useful metric of student experience.  And we certainly see students making good working relationships, which look like turning into friendship that would persist beyond there engagement on the programme.

Have online learning environment changed the accepted theories of teaching and learning?
It is bound to be the case that the development of new approaches in teaching and learning is going to make us reflect on our traditional approaches.  Many HE academics are good, intuitive communicators, but may not have reflected deeply upon their approaches to pedagogy, but rather teach as they were taught - drawing intelligently on their experiences of what worked, or did not work, for them as students.  Going into new areas of teaching - like trying to take one’s teaching online - forces one to think anew, as one cannot just import what one has always done, or what one remembers seeing modelled successfully.  So I would see explorations in online learning, or the introduction of various technologically supported approaches to teaching, as likely to make us think more about what we do in all areas of our practice.  But I wouldn’t say that there are any profound changes in the way that we should be thinking about theories of learning.  

Are there any new theories?
There are new theories, or new perspectives on theories, that are emerging.  The “connectivism” notion, for example.  

There is no doubt that electronically mediated forms of communication, and computer-supported collaborative work (or learning), will give more prominence to ideas of “distributed cognition” being important in education.  But for me, this is much more a matter of ideas that have been around for a long time - like Papert’s ideas of “constructionism”, or Vygotsky’s social emphasis in learning - coming of age in the connected context.

What opportunities do new technologies afford teachers?
[New technologies] can enable us finally to adopt approaches that we may always have aspired to, but which physical circumstances, and the nature of spaces, have hitherto prevented.  For example, I recently heard a colleague in Law talking about how he was using a new “lecture capture” facility that he has access to.  The traditional pattern of his teaching was one lecture, followed by a two hour seminar, every week for ten or twelve weeks.  This was not the *best* way to use the time.  It was just the traditional pattern, constrained by the demands of the timetable.  That was just have time was parcelled out.  But now, he had recorded all of his lectures, and encouraged the students to view all the lectures (which were intended to provide general scene-setting) in the first two weeks of the semester.  Then they could devote the weekly timetabled time over the rest of the semester to deeper, and more discursive exploration of the area.  All sorts of “resource-based learning” and “problem-based learning” may offer great potential when linked with networked access to resources, and other people.

Another example - in the past we might not have thought it appropriate to send early years students to the original journal articles, but rather we adopted a first year introductory textbook which gave them the background that they needed.  But perhaps it was really not a matter of what was, or was not appropriate, but rather what it was practically possible to do.  We just could not send all 300 students in a first year class to read the *one* paper copy of the article in the library.  Now, if there happens to be an accessible and stimulating article in Nature that we would want everyone to be aware of, they can *all* have a copy on their laptops, or iPads, by the end of the afternoon.

How do you assess the effectiveness of online learning experiences?
Online access to tools and resources, directed towards meaningful tasks, engaged in collaboratively, should lead to productive outcomes, in terms of the students’ abilities to address their own continuing learning and development.  

When we are asked about the effectiveness of technologically supported approaches, we are often implicitly being asked to compare their effectiveness with the “gold standard” of the didactic classroom approach.  We really have limited evidence about just how effective these traditional approaches are.  And perhaps we are not even looking at the right thing.  Perhaps “good lecture” contributes more to the students motivation and engagement than it contributes to their knowledge base.  It was a good lecture because it makes you want to know more.  I am not wishing to be sceptical about the value of the good lecture; but rather to flag up the need to think carefully about what it is that we are replacing - and what might be lost - when we try to replace the lecture with some other mediated means.  

One cannot just change the *teaching* unless one is prepared to examine the means of assessment.  If we seek to improve the teaching and learning, but still use the same old assessment methods, we may miss the impact of the innovation.  Or the students may benefit less from the innovation than they otherwise might.  Clearly, students look to the regime of assessment to judge what we value.  So if we teach for comprehension and creativity, but continue to assess for information retrieval, we will very much be missing an opportunity.  Biggs talks about “constructive alignment” in the overall design of learning opportunities and assessment criteria.  And I think it was David Boud who observed that students can rise above the impact of bad teaching, but that they cannot escape the consequences of bad assessment.

But generally we have (hard) fun in coming up with creative and valid ways to assess the work of our students that call on all sorts of new media, and forms of expression.  It can be challenging, and difficult to convince ones colleagues sometimes, but if one looks to design, and fine art, and architecture, and medicine, there are all sorts of good ideas out there.

What are the shortcomings - for both the learner and the teacher - of online learning models?
There is no doubt that certain sorts of online learning can lead to isolation.  So that is something that one works hard to avoid.  If one is successful, then the pattern of co-dependence within a student group can be very supportive and encouraging.  One of our students, Tony McNeil,  coined the lovely term “ambient collegiality” in relation to his use of Twitter.

I think another shortcoming - perhaps more for the teachers than for the students - is that the potential for communication is unending. One has to set limits on the amount of time that one spends reading blogs and discussion posts.  And this has to do too with the cultivation of appropriate expectations in the students.  But it is all very seductive.  Speaking for ourselves, we have some excellent students, whose work makes a very real contribution to our own scholarship.  So there are very real gains to be had in the reading of the blogs and the discussion posts.

Becta (formerly known as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) was a non-departmental public body (popularly known as a Quango)] funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, in the UK…

Becta was the Government’s lead agency for information and communications technology (ICT) in education, covering the United Kingdom. It was established in 1998 through the reconstitution of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET)…

…it oversaw the procurement of all ICT equipment and e-learning strategy for schools. It is a member of European schoolnet.

The organisation went into liquidation in April 2011 following its funding from government ceasing in March 2011.