This year’s annual Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference took place on the 9th and 10th of January at the University of Durham. I don’t know what the attendance numbers were, it looked as if they were down on last year, but there was still a very good turnout from across the UK. In this report I’ve tried to take a thematic overall view rather than give a blow by blow account of each presentation.
The conference theme was ‘Life of I’, with the emphasis on personalised learning. The speakers interpreted the brief in a wide variety of ways, and frankly some of them had simply shoehorned the theme into a paper they wanted to present.
The first keynote on day one did address personalised learning, and Professor Patrick Carmichael gave some good examples, and reasons, for involving students in the design of courses, online spaces and technology. I’ll skip over some of the post-structuralist guff about ‘discourses’, ‘praxis’ and ‘transversality’, suffice to say that it is an approach which encourages reflective practice in both students and teachers. It is a bottom up approach to curriculum design which ties in with ideas about the ‘student as producer’ and ‘student as partner’ in the learning process.
This type of personalised learning is in stark contrast to the type of ‘personalised’ (or, more accurately, ‘individualised’) learning implicit in the view of education as a commodity, and students as consumers, picking chunks of knowledge to enable them to ‘get a qualification’. There was an explicit criticism of MOOCs in this respect, as not only encouraging bad pedagogy, but also encouraging the objectification of knowledge. The student as producer approach positions learning as it should be – a collaborative, reflective and cooperative endeavour to develop learners, teachers and learning.
Personalised learning can also enhance the development of learner identities through collaboration in online environments. A project at Durham University used ‘Formally Informal’ blogging in an introductory teaching and learning programme as a way to encourage PhD students to develop their identities as teachers and academics. The blogs were created in Blackboard, were not monitored and were not compulsory. The analysis of interactions done at the end of the blogging period showed the students moving towards developing their teacher/academic identities. What was interesting about this was that it showed how Blackboard collaborative tools can be used to enhance a course, and to create a sense of community and identity among students. The tools within Blackboard are often seen as a means to an end – i.e. students have to blog their opinions to gain a percentage of their mark, or to start a conversation for a seminar. While this approach has pedagogical benefits in encouraging participation, it can lead to a somewhat instrumentalist approach that could miss out the potential impact that collaboration can have on developing the identities of students as learners and researchers. As opposed to merely developing an identity as a consumer of educational produce.
E-portfolios were also highlighted as a way to personalise learning, and to provide a way for students to develop a more reflective approach to their learning. This depends of course on how the e-portfolios are set up and used. They can be used as a showcase, collation and collection, a part of a CV, with the focus on the end product; or they can be about the process of putting it together. Whatever they are used for, e-portfolios are an example of putting pedagogy and teaching and learning ahead of the technology. The technology is a support, enhancing the learning rather than driving it.
This is the approach that we try to implement in the College of Social Science here at Leicester. The difficulty we have is that, in the case of Blackboard, the particular technology is already in place. And, like the conference speakers trying to shoehorn the theme into their papers, there is a danger of trying to force the technology onto the existing pedagogical practice – ‘we have a VLE, so use it’. The way to enhance learning with technology is to consider the existing cultural practices of the teaching and learning environment, and see what technology can add. It may be that it adds nothing. If there is reluctance or resistance among teaching staff and students, we should try to find out the cause of that resistance, and work with people to engage them in ways that are mutually beneficial – a personalised approach rather than a top-down approach. That’s what I would see as considering the Life of I.