Passionate About eLearning

Mark Smithers from RMIT talks about his passion for Educational Technology over the last 15 years.

What is my Passion in eLearning?

HeartI was invited to write about, “What is my passion in eLearning?”. I have to admit that this apparently simple question is, in fact, quite difficult to answer. In fact, it has been so difficult that it has taken two weeks longer to write this than I originally expected. Part of the problem for me has been actually determining what I am passionate about in educational technology (I’m broadening the topic slightly) and whether what I am passionate about now is what I was passionate about when I started. After quite a lot of reflection I’ve decided to recount what drove me me when I started in web based elearning in 1995 and what drives me now.

What drove me when I started?

So why did I start using elearning in my teaching practice back in 1995? Well I had just started working in the School of Architecture and Building at Deakin University were we delivered courses to full time, on campus students. The delivery was very traditional. For my subjects each student would receive 26 hrs of lectures and 26 hrs of tutorials (not the tutorials of 12 that I had been lucky enough to experience as a student but tutorials of 20 or more). I think I was OK at delivering lectures but I really enjoyed small group work with students. I knew that of the subjects I lectured at the time I would be able to deliver maybe 10 hours of what I thought were really good lectures where I would be able to explain some fundamental concept in an engaging way and occasionally interactive way. I also knew that a fair number of my lectures were just information transfer to a passive, mostly disinterested audience. In fact the passivity of the audience became a major concern for me. I had been used to working with classes of 20 to 40 in the UK, in Australia I was dealing with classes of 300. In fact one of the small reasons I eventually left an academic career was my inability to remember my students names and engage with them during a lecture.

In short, I felt that there should be a better way and set about thinking how I could develop what would now be called a ‘blended learning’ approach to my courses. This would see me delivering fewer lectures and providing a high proportion of the course ‘content’ in more engaging ways online. I was particularly taken with the ability for students to interact with online content. I still believe this is very important although it is often overshadowed by the current emphasis placed on social interaction in elearning.

Many of the concepts that I covered in my courses were best explained using visualisations. For example, the effect of load on a steel frame. It was my aim to develop simple online visualisations that students could interact with to see what happened when they did things. I had been impressed with the text based distance learning materials produced at Deakin University and with using the British Steel Architectural Teaching Package when teaching at universities in the UK. What I wanted to combine was the quality of those materials with the interactivity that interactive learning objects could be provide.

I wanted students to be actively engaged in learning and not sitting passively.

So this was the plan; a smaller number of high quality lectures, more engaging interactive learning online and more face to face small group work. I was very focussed on improving the outcomes for my students through the use of elearning although, perhaps ironically, I was trying to use elearning to give me more face to face time with my students in small groups.

Looking back now I can see that I was being perhaps a tad over ambitious. It took a little while to realise just how long high quality interactive learning objects take to produce. Tools and techniques have evolved considerably since then but there is still a strong need for careful planning in the development of such material. But I digress. Back to the post.

What drives me now?

I haven’t taught a university course for ten years. I am hoping to start teaching again in a small way some time this year if I can find a Course Coordinator who would like me to work for them. During that time I’ve consulted, written, developed and strategised about educational technologies in higher education. Much of my time has been spent with frontline academic trying to use new technologies in ways that will improve the outcomes for their students. I’ve had chance to thing about some of the wider issues about implementing elearning in universities.

I still believe strongly in engaging, high quality interactive content and my understanding of the production costs of such material is much better than it was when I started. I am more inclined to see a highly valuable interaction between such content and social learning. You could say that I see a future that blends constructivist models of education with connectivist models.

More than that though, I think students should be able to learn at a time and place (and pace) of their choosing. Increasingly I am seeing a deinstitutionalised future for many (not all) learners. All of this is tied in to the role of universities.

I’m also now very passionate about the idea of open content and open educational resources. I believe that the products of publically funded institutions shouldn’t be locked away in walled gardens. I think that the next decade will be a period of great challenge for many universities. It is exciting to be part of what could be a revolutionary period in higher education.

Having said all that though, what I am most passionate and excited about, even after fifteen years, is the sheer potential that the internet has to educate and improve the lives people all over the world. I sometimes have to pinch myself and think how extraordinarily lucky I am to be a tiny, contributing part of a massive ad-hoc, decentralised, global undertaking that continues to revolutionise education in new ways every day.


Mark Smithers is currently Senior Manager, Teaching and Learning Support in ITS at RMIT University. He can be reach on Twitter @marksmithers, LinkedIn or his blog.