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e-Help Seminars - David Richardson
e-help Seminar 38
ICT based learning in Sweden
Stockholm 6-7 October 2006

I began by trying to give you a picture of the Sweden I work in. Sweden's a very large country by European terms - with a land area about the size of western Europe, but a population of just about 9 million. Most people live in small towns and villages, which are quite a way from each other (I mentioned that I drove 380 kms to get to the meeting, and passed about 2 manned petrol stations on the way - and one place where I could stop off and get some coffee on the way home. Most of the time I was driving down two-lane roads through thick forest.).

Given the fact that the government's policy for many years has been to make higher education available to everyone, and that it's really important for the small towns to try to reduce the 'brain drain' to the cities, then using ICT in education is essential. The problem is that not many people have known how to do it!

The Swedish government has shovelled money at anyone who wanted to try to get ICT-based distance education off the ground, with very varying degrees of success. The process has followed a familiar pattern: you start by giving money to technicians and computer experts … but they don't know much about teaching; so they define the problem as the moving of bits of information into the heads of the learners ('giving them knowledge'); so they start off by writing their own learning management system; then they discover that it's really expensive and incredibly difficult; so they buy a commercial platform programme; then they spend all their funds trying to organise the content; but they find that they don't have any content; so they try to get some teachers to hand over their notes; which they put on the platform; and often they manage to run courses; which have an incredibly high drop-out rate; and finally they evaluate the whole process; and quite often just give up … several million euros later.*

*However, there have also been plenty of success stories, where the common factor has been that teachers have been empowered by getting their hands on fairly simple tools and being given their heads.*

The success stories have generally looked at the acronym ICT and realised that the technicians' (see above) mistake was to see it like this: IcT. In other words, it's all about information and technology. However, for a teacher it's all about: iCt - communication. Once you concentrate on create communication between learners, teachers and materials, you can come up with all sorts of creative solutions. However, you can almost never shrink-wrap them, and all of them depend on on-going inputs from fairly autonomous, independent-minded teachers, whose loyalty is first to the students' learning … and only later to the technology.

This doesn't mean that these teachers don't need any kind of support - it's just that the support works best when it fits itself to the teachers, rather than tries to tell teachers how to teach. I mentioned the way the Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning (http://www.cfl.se/?sid=60) organises its IT support: they have an IT department which is responsible for keeping the networks running, and 'web warriors' who are technicians and programmers who are made available to teams of teachers who're putting on-line courses together. They have an intranet where courses are constructed and tested. When the courses are judged by the web warriors and teachers to be ready, the IT department gets to look at them, and then they're placed on the public server.

*There also needs to be pedagogical development which is informed by knowledge about ICT. I mentioned the goat-cheese farmers in Jämtland in the north of Sweden who could latch into a network of similar farmers to be able to download a list of ingredients in German for their German customers. In 1997 I was running a course for study centres in Jämtland who were joined together by this Zonline system (http://www.zonline.se - except it's all in Swedish). Zonline is basically a First Class based system and I was trying to tell them of the virtues of the web. "It's a very simple way of making high-quality pictures available to the students," I said. "But why do you need pictures in teaching materials?" they said. "Aren't Word documents enough?" BTW Zonline now has a variant of its system for downloading to 3G phones - the next technological and pedagogical challenge.*

My conclusion from all this was that course designers and teachers were suffering from the syndrome described in this Japanese saying: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In other words, we were letting the technical features of the systems we were using define our pedagogical goals, rather than concentrating on using that technology to achieve our goals. I concluded that I needed a common pedagogical denominator in order to make sense of the bewildering variety of technologies I had available, and the one we developed is something I call 'the cone of input'. As luck would have it, I found a description I wrote a while ago, so here it is:

The cone of input … is a conceptual tool the team I work with developed a few years ago for teachers to try to make sense of the range of tools and possibilities they have available. The reason we did this in the first place was that we were drowning in information and technological toys, and no-one seemed to be able to give us the big picture from a pedagogical point of view.

We started with a quote from "In Search of the Virtual Class" (Tiffin, J and Rajasingham, L, RKP, 1996):

“For the moment, let us accept that the amount of bandwidth is a measure of the amount of information that can be transmitted at a given time by a channel …

“The irony of the current situation is that the classroom is a broadband environment and can be used to transmit as much information as the senses can absorb. Yet we mainly use it for learning with words which require little bandwidth.”

This gave us the idea that 'bandwidth' would be the unifying concept.

If you start with maximum bandwidth, you've got a physical environment like a classroom or a lecture hall. Studio video conference uses a bit less bandwidth; the web even less; e-mail even less; and the cable that goes to the printer on which you print out your handouts least of all.

Put these 'rings' of bandwidth together and you've got a cone - which is what the teacher or tutor has to put her inputs into. The aim, however, is to create a rich learning environment in which the learner creates a 'cylinder of learning' with bandwidth as wide as that available face-to-face.

There's a financial aspect to things too - the more bandwidth you use, the more it costs (someone, anyway). There's no such thing as a 'free' lecture hall, or a 'free' journey to the face-to-face site for the students.

Then there's a pedagogical side to things. Perhaps with many subjects people need the rich input of face-to-face before they can fill their own 'cylinder of learning'. Other subject areas thrive on the minimalist input of low-bandwidth environments like e-mail, since the distractions are fewer.

In any event, the course designers are faced with a balancing act all the time in order to use the optimal amount of bandwidth at all points throughout the course. We've found this process so complex and stimulating that it feels a lot more like art than science … which fits in very well with the empirical way I work as a teacher!

*Here's an example of the cone of input in practice. I have a colleague who teaches history in adult education in a area of natural beauty called Hälsingland. One lovely spring evening he was in the bus on the way home from a course meeting and took a blurred digital photo of a local beauty spot out of the window. When he got home, he posted this on his site with the question "Is this the soul of Hälsingland?" Within 24 hours everyone of the course had responded (with poems, stories and observations), and then they started responding to the responses, etc. In other words, a small piece of input in the cone of input created a very large amount of student learning.*

You're free to take a look at the site I use (the link's both at the bottom of this posting and at the top of the page [Distance Courses]) … but bear in mind that the on-line courses I work with are all centred on communication, and you can't create a link to the network of contacts students have with each other and with me. In fact, you could say that the desire to 'see' any course I work on is a category mistake (a term from philosophy coined by Gilbert Ryle: a foreign visitor comes to Oxford and is shown round the colleges. "But where is the famous 'Oxford spirit'?" he asks. That's a category mistake: you can point to a college, but you can't point to the Oxford spirit.).

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