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Ausweb 04, the neutrality of educational software


Here's what interested me about the keynote speakers on day one of AUSWEB 04. We had two good quality presenters with a hidden theme, the 'neutrality' of educational software.

First up was Murray Goldberg, founder of WebCT, now of Silicon Chalk (available in power-bloody-point only, but with speaker notes, which are an interesting read: "Practice, practice, practice"). He talked (quickly!) about the history of WebCT about which I have a few comments, and new tools for managing and facilitating interaction, about which I will comment another time.

On his slides he calls WebCT a CMS, which had me confused. It's a Content Management System? But no, he meant Course Management System. These things are now commonly known as Learning Management Systems. Apparently CMS is an archaic term.

I may be reading too much into this, but it seems like an acknowledgment of the state of the art; typical Learning Management systems are not really managing learning, they're managing courses – the course code, the course title, lists of students, the course content, marks and so on. A learning management system might really be like a quality management system – a methodology rather than a software application. Either that or Murray travels with a really old slide show.

In the question time at the end, when dealing with the idea that general purpose tools can be used by 'bad' teachers to do 'bad' teaching more efficiently, Murray talked about his goal of making his software 'neutral' regarding things like pedagogy. This is the bit that interests me. What is this neutrality?

For a start neutral never means transparent - software colours anything, even if only a light tint. Murray noted this himself, saying that his Unix background had made WebCT flexible but maybe harder to use than some other systems.

From a content management perspective, which is the bit that interests me, the neutrality of both WebCT and Blackboard (and Caddie of course) with respect to content standards means they tend to get used as a file system on line; the 'neutral' thing they do is allow upload of any-old file in any-old format.

In a parallel universe, with a different kind of IT market, neutral might mean you only let people put up web materials and not office documents.

One technologist's neutral is another's reverse-gear.

My job involves compromising, or overcoming, or suppressing, the neutrality of learning management systems by enabling an organisation to set up publishing standards, and help their authors and editors to create consistent, usable courseware, cheaply and quickly. To do this, we have created a courseware management system that lives outside of the Learning Management System - my paper explains some of the issues.

Sunday's second speaker, André Greenberry, Lieutenant Colonel, Staff Officer Grade One, Flexible Delivery Development Headquarters Training Technology, had lots of colour and movement to show, but there's a written paper as well.

Lieutenant Colonel Greenberry demoed marvellous media-rich training materials which I gather were created in Director, then showed us some of the same kinds of materials in a new web based Learning Management System. He mentioned that he did not have the control he wanted over fonts and layout and so on. So the software is not neutral enough. The Lieutenant Colonel does not want, I gather, to give all of his 69 staff and assorted contractors free reign to change the font on a given page. What he would need, though, would be a way to set the doctrine on matters of layout and style; that is the software needs to be neutral until an officer with enough authority orders it otherwise.

And André is interested in a lot more than the font - all the stuff he showed us was driven by educational theory and Army culture and most importantly by experienced instructional designers and trainers; I'm interested in how we can make software that is configurable at those levels. I quote from the paper:

Understanding the science and art underpinning the development of eLearning is a prerequisite for the design of a quality product. But alas, many eLearning products are being designed oblivious of the requisite science and art. There are a plethora of computer based learning packages that simply focus on delivering huge amounts of content and contravene basic instructional design principals. Information presentation does not constitute learning. So it is that eReading, eBoring and eSleeping products are dissolving the 'learning' ideals of eLearning. It is becoming more and more apparent that the principals of learning are being subsumed by the eLearning delivery medium.

Which I think, is along the lines of what I am saying about the 'neutrality' of Learning Management Systems - easy to sell, more or less easy to use, but nothing to do with learning.