Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 03, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version
Associate Director of Knowledge Management and Innovation Research Centre at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Professor within the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the same institution, Eric Tsui has been the recipient of several international awards in Knowledge Management and E-Learning, and will be a guest speaker at this year’s Blackboard Teaching & Learning Conference Asia 2018 (TLC Asia 18). At the event, taking place in Singapore this coming October, Eric will talk about the many challenges and opportunities associated with networked learning, such as the necessary shift for learning environments from a teacher-centric server-based in-house system to an ubiquitous cloud-based learner-centric service.
To excel in networked learning, Eric believes students need to learn from multiple sources, with flexible and dynamic boundaries transcending beyond the walls of the classroom. Peer-based social lifelong practices need to be routinized and new pedagogies need to be introduced to incorporate feedback and integrate quality input from learners.
At TLC Asia 18, Eric’s talk will highlight some of the significant efforts carried out at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) to enhance the learning experience and outcomes of students, teachers, and graduates. Before the event takes place, the director sat down with Blackboard to give us a preview of his highly-anticipated chat. Take a look below.
- What are your expectations for TLC Asia 18 and what can participants expect of your presentation?
I expect to meet a lot of like-minded people at TLC Asia 18. I have never participated in this conference before, so I am looking forward to being there. I hope people are looking forward to hearing about my work in Hong Kong as well, including the tools I have used and how the LMS can fulfil many of the students’ expectations around their learning process, but more is needed beyond the learning management system.
- Can you tell us about the work you have been doing at PolyU related to the development of the ‘21st Century Learning Environment’? When did you start the implementation? What has been your experience in this area so far?
I have a passion for designing and delivering blended learning and online learning, which I have been doing at PolyU for the past 15 years. I like to explore the use of technologies to not only store, retrieve and connect people across different regions and different places, but also explore how technology connects people in a better way, identifying people’s expertise, enriching the learning environment, and most importantly, enacting a refreshing and effective learning experience.
Learning should also be highly interactive. We should not just deliver one-way lectures in classes. In fact, we should seize every opportunity we have for students to collaborate amongst themselves and even with people outside the classroom. I call this a kind of open learning pedagogy that enables students, teachers, and others to co-create new learning content, syllabus and even a curriculum. Of course, the teacher must also execute his or her professional judgement to ensure that the newly created materials are indeed appropriate to be incorporated for future deliveries.
Furthermore, for the last seven or eight years, I have been operating what I call a Personal Learning Environment and Network (PLE&N), because there is always a strong need for everybody – both students and teachers – to learn from multiple sources such as different people and quality sources outside of class, and on an ongoing basis. Learning should not be confined to just teachers and students but should extend to cover additional members, for example, graduates, practitioners etc. There are functions like a semi-automatic bulletin board, where every student sets up his or her PLE&N using public domain Google tools, which are free of charge of course, that I believe supplement the LMS functions very well. This helps students to continue to co-learn, as well as to raise awareness around class information and content. It also helps them to keep up-to-date on specific topics of interest, even after the semester has passed and after they have graduated from the university if they desire to do so.
- In what phase are these projects at now?
The PLE&N has been operating for eight to nine years, with more than 2,000 students across two dozen subjects having used it. It has been very encouraging because about 15% of the learners (mostly graduates) continue to use it and to co-learn with current students. Plus, they’ve got access to me as well, so I can share ideas and updates with them. This is wonderful.
As for the open learning pedagogy project, we just started about a year ago, and student feedback is that they’d like to see this kind of technique spread across many other subjects as well, and not only the ones I teach at PolyU. I am collaborating with colleagues at three departments, plus a number of academics at universities overseas, so I’m looking forward to trying that out, with more subjects, and at more universities.
- Why did you change the learning environment mindset from a teacher-centric server-based in-house system to a learner-centric cloud service?
For centuries, teaching has been teacher-centric. In other words, the systems, the processes and the content have been designed and given to us for easy use, easy authoring, and easy retrieval by the teacher. That, in a way, promotes the one-size-fits-all teaching approach. The teacher goes into the classroom and treats students like all of them have the same intellectual background. This is never true, but in the past, due to a lack of data and a lack of technology, we could not do much about this. We had to use the one-size-fits-all approach.
Now, with technology and the networked economy advancements, as well as an increasingly connected society, we no longer need to use the one-size-fits-all approach. We can work in a far more customized fashion in terms of identifying who needs more help, or maybe who is more interested in certain topics, and how to personalize both the content and the teacher’s care and attention to individual students. Having said that, I think it is clear that we must move as soon as possible from a teacher-centric environment to a student-centric environment.
- How did students perceive this change? Have you performed any kind of survey to make sure they are happy with it?
I have collected a lot of feedback – I have even interviewed students and graduates for this – and it has been very interesting to hear what they have to say. The feedback from undergraduate students is much different from post-graduate students. Undergraduate students, naturally, being younger and having been ‘spoon fed’ all along, when they get to the university and a new pedagogy is being introduced – like content co-creation or the use of a personal learning environment – to them, this is something very new. I would say students consider this approach as something revolutionary. Initially, many of them do not immediately appreciate the value of lifelong learning, as they are not used to contributing and learning from sources other than the teacher. I receive a lot of feedback about this particular point. However, there is a growing number of undergraduate students who are quickly becoming mature. For these students, they sure understand and appreciate our switching the learning from teacher-centric to student-centric.
Now, when post-graduate students are involved, that is a different ball game. Post-graduate students are more mature than undergraduate students and they immediately know this is a good thing, and I’ve had overwhelming support and encouragement from them. So, there is a wide range of different opinions and they differ depending on students’ experiences and maturity levels.
- What were the main challenges in implementing your new learning environments? How are you working to overcome them?
Both of them required a lot of effort. Teachers have to think about the techniques and select the tools they are going to use very carefully. Many of the tools we use are still in beta, so that means that over the last few years we’ve had to switch from one set of tools to another in order to recreate the same environment, which takes time. To get good results, with sustainability and reaching all students, I believe the teacher has to be in the thick of it, spending a lot of time facilitating and guiding the students. The moment students realize that the teacher has created the environment yet he or she is not actively spending time on it, students will lose the motivation and the momentum to continue to learn in the environment, and that defeats the entire purpose of the project. To sum it up, all these things take time. Of course, curiosity gets us started and passion takes us to the finishing line. We have to continue to evolve, updating and re-evaluating new tools, being prepared to drop a few of them and move on to another set of tools whenever it is necessary. We must be active all the time and show students the way – which requires effort, passion, and energy from the teachers. I love it, and I put in a lot of work to get my students steady with the use of these new learning environments.
- Which Blackboard products do you use at PolyU and what has been the company’s role in the development of your learning environment?
We are using Blackboard Learn 9.1. The university commissioned the service to use with all the basic features and helped us do all the infrastructural support – the backup and all those things. What I have learned is that in order to provide a truly student-centric environment, everybody needs to continue to work together and that includes the LMS vendor, the academic, and the university’s IT and Administration departments. Some processes need to change for students to continue learning on a lifelong basis. That means perpetual access to the learning content of the subjects students have taken. There needs to be some process and administrative changes, and also vendor support in many aspects in order to truly enact the student-centric environment of the 21st century. We count on Blackboard to be our partner.
- In an interview you mentioned, “Technology by itself is not the way to go.” Could you please elaborate more on this affirmation? In your opinion, what is the most important role that technology plays in online learning?
We are not trying to merely use technology as a solution. We are trying to enact a student learning environment. Whatever it takes, whichever way we design it, then and only then can technology come in and determine whether it can add any value to it. Merely adopting technology without planning would not work. Like I said before, without process change, administrative support, etc., I don’t think technology alone is the recipe for success.
- What do you think the future of learning environments will be? What would you like to see in this field in 10 years, or even in 20 years from now?
Wow, that is a tough question. With ongoing training as a guide, we should be assuming that learning will be increasingly monitored by machines and robots. Of course, we can talk with robots and learn the basics of any subject, but there is also a higher level of planning that needs to be done, personalized to each and every one of us. Learning and content will be structured for us, and knowledgeable people will be recommended or even introduced to us at various stages of our learning. All these activities are monitored and automatically performed. That said, there is also a large part of that which will be based on analytics, network traffic, as well as on other learning community members’ experiences, and so on. That will shape our learning path individually.
- Eric, thank you for the interview. Any additional message for our community and TLC Asia 18 participants?
I am really looking forward to meeting like-minded people from the region. I believe we should not blame the LMS for not having this ‘feature or that feature’ – You can never encompass everything. As I said before, the real challenge lies in how to adopt the right technologies, for the right purpose, sustain deep collaboration, enact process change, and so forth, in order to enact a 21st century student-centric learning environment. We all have to crack those challenges, co-develop individualized learning paths that are not only effective but also reward us with superior and refreshing learning experiences.
Photos by: AFP – Jayne Russell