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Five questions...for Seb Schmoller

By Lisa Neal / October 2007

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Seb Schmoller is an independent consultant and the chief executive of ALT, the Association for Learning Technology, a UK professional and scholarly association which promotes good practice in the use of learning technologies in education and industry. ALT also facilitates collaboration between learning technology practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. Schmoller's popular email newsletter addresses e-learning-related issues from a uniquely British perspective.

Lisa Neal: What do you see as the most exciting innovation in e-learning today?

Seb Schmoller: The increasingly solid and usable amount of publicly available and findable open knowledge on the Internet is providing a backdrop for big changes in the way e-learning is organized. And the impending mass roll-out of One Laptop Per Child is exciting by any measure. You could describe these two changes as being on the opposite sides of the same coin, each involving the "death of the proprietary": proprietary knowledge in one case, and proprietary software in the other.

LN: Do you think people are designing and developing online courses differently because of this proprietary knowledge and software and, if so, with what results?

SS: It strikes me that "design and development" take place at two levels.

Level one concerns the nature and purpose of the activities in which a course involves learners. Are they collaborative? Do they use course content, or content that is out on the internet? Does the work the learner does count towards their grade? Does the activity take place inside the system that supports the course or outside it?

Level two concerns the technical capabilities, affordances, and constraints imposed by the overall environment in which the course is organized.

Are design and development happening in different ways because of the death of proprietary knowledge and software that I mentioned earlier? The answer is yes. The increasingly solid and usable amount of publicly available and findable open knowledge on the Internet will lead designers to use it, rather than make their own. For example if you are writing an online course about international development you would almost certainly want to write activities making use of Gapminder. Similarly, why write "handout material" when, for many purposes, Wikipedia and other open resources are such a rich resource?

LN: What is the role and influence of user-generated content such as Wikipedia in online learning?

SS: That depends a bit on what you mean by users in "user-generated." If by users you mean learners, then there are some interesting examples of learner-generated content, and of this content being built into course provision. The Sloan Consortium has catalogued some of these examples, but it should be noted that not much has been added to this site in the last six months. If by user you mean anyone who can put content up on the publicly accessible Internet, then such content is increasingly influential. Firstly, there are "big and comprehensive" resources like Wikipedia, which rank highly on Google so that people find them when searching. Secondly, there is material written by bloggers that is sometimes of high quality, and if it is well-linked-to, it will be easy to find. Thirdly, there are resources that are hosted by services like Flickr or Slideshare or YouTube. Of course there are major issues of quality and of fit/relevance to the curriculum in question; and, even if a resource is covered by an open license like Creative Commons, re-use of the resource in course materials may still present legal problems.

LN: What are the biggest trends in e-learning in the UK, and do you think this differs from Europe or the rest of the world?

SS: Now that so many citizens have private access to a large proportion of (though by no means the majority of!) the world's knowledge, there is much greater opportunity for citizens simply to find things out when they need to know them. So a big trend is the growth in informal learning, unmediated by a training or learning provider. And there is a growing trend to access "the best" version of learning materials, rather in the manner that people access the best version of their favorite music as a matter of course. Currently we are some distance from this being the norm, but I would say that the trend is towards, say, first-year physics students watching MIT's Walter Lewin on their iPod, rather then attending an inferior version of the same introductory physics lecture provided by their own university. These trends pertain anywhere there is widespread Internet access, but factors such as language affect the scale and extent of the trend.

LN: If you were to teach an online course tomorrow, what would you choose as your dream topic, students, and delivery methodology?

SS: You know how to ask challenging questions....which I will sidestep by saying that I do not dream about teaching on-line courses! Years ago I was closely involved in developing a course called Learning to Teach On-Line. Around that time, though the proportion of managers that were working in distributed environments was small, I, along with others, toyed with developing a course called Learning to Manage On-Line. Now would be a good time to take that project forward, given the big growth in the proportion of managers who interact with their organization, colleagues, and customers online. And for delivery methodologies I'd try simply to build the course around the use of the range of online tools that managers now use: email, IRC, telephone conferencing, online collaboration environments, wikis etc.


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