How can technology support flexible working?

Rita Chiu

Rita Chiu is a Learning Design Coordinator at Box Hill Institute with over ten years’ experience across the VET, corporate and government sectors. Can we encourage innovation and teamwork while also working at different locations? Rita says yes – if we take advantage of the technology available to us. And there might be some extra benefits to this approach too.

The need for flexible working arrangements

My team members are talented, hard-working individuals who are at different stages of their lives and careers. This means different pressures and responsibilities, from family demands to personal priorities. They also have different hours during which they are most productive. Some require a quiet space to do their work, for example, which isn’t easy to achieve when you work in an open office and meeting rooms are in high demand. So we have a flexible arrangement where team members can work from home, and we also have several staff members who work remotely at client sites. But these set-ups require support, both in terms of management and technology.

The challenges of working remotely

Working from home can be an isolating experience, and it can be difficult for both the manager and the team to bounce ideas off each other, share workload and be transparent. In my experience the most effective way is to call each other, but then other team members miss out on the spontaneous problem solving required for innovative projects. In an effort to keep everyone informed of what has occurred, the email trail begins, with the risk of either getting bogged down in words or losing ideas and messages when people get dropped of the CC list.

How technology can support individuals and teams

For adhoc conversation and collaboration we use Yammer. In our case Yammer is a good tool for collaboration across departments within our organisation. We found that having the chat tool embedded in the browser was not useful, however, as we often missed alerts. The file collaboration option is useful when teams are contributing to a single document, but the need for this is rare.

For meetings we use WizIQ, which is accessed through our Moodle. These meetings are often fast-paced as people are able to contribute either through speaking, typing or sharing their screen. The different modes of communication happen simultaneously.

We use Lync 2013 to chat one on one or as a group. When the need arises we invite members from other teams to join our discussion on specific projects. It’s handy to conduct project handovers between teams and to explain concepts and storyboards via screen sharing. This is a better tool for bouncing ideas too. The online meeting space is great, so we don’t need to wait until a room is free to conduct a handover. Projects are never held up because someone isn’t working at the office.

Making our progress transparent

We use Trello to track the development of online resources across teams. The process is:

  1. The project manager divides the project into sub parts (these are usually units of competencies) and creates a card on Trello. A card represents a component of a project. It has a start and end date, and contains the details to complete that component. A project will have many cards.
  2. The project manager allocates a label for the card, and if the card is ready to go and ready for a learning designer, it will be labelled accordingly.
  3. The rest of the team is able to see everything that is in the pipeline at a glance.

Since Trello is cloud based, I can access it on my phone, iPad or at home on a PC and get an accurate snap shot of where my projects are at. It’s particularly handy during client meetings!

It’s also quite easy to allocate quality reviews, online reviews and testing by allocating tasks to team members. They will get an email notification, but the important information is retained on the card. It’s much easier to track, and doesn’t clog your emails.

Example of a Trello board for a kitchen redesign project

Other benefits of online collaboration

Learning designers should have practical experience collaborating online. If we expect teachers and students to collaborate and participate in a blended or fully online course, we should also experience what it’s like, and understand what works and what doesn’t. By connecting online, we learn about the frustrations and challenges, as well as the benefits and potential. If we get annoyed with a lot of emails, surely students and teachers will too! Ultimately by offering a flexible working environment we ‘walk the talk’. If we the learning designers find it painful, we can use this experience to refine the process so that when it is delivered to teachers and students it is an efficient and enjoyable learning experience.

Are you ready to walk the online talk? Contact eWorks to find out how.

The digital journey from mainframes to SaaS

Rodney Spark

Rodney Spark is the executive director of eWorks and chair of the E-standards for Training Expert Group (EEG). Rodney focuses on improving the flexibility and quality of learning through the application of information and communication technologies (ICT). Here, Rodney shares his views on the digital journey from his first encounter with computing to the emergence of software as a service (SaaS).

Where did your digital journey begin?

My first computer experience was a ‘dummy’ terminal connected to a mainframe. Interestingly, despite the emergence of the PC and individual computing, we have returned to the same scenario – personal devices that connect to large data storages and applications for manipulating the data. There is one significant difference worth noting though and that’s device mobility. For the end user the connecting spaghetti is now ubiquitous and invisible. While you could argue that it has been a 30 year circular path back to our starting scenario, it is important to understand that the journey itself has been essential for re-purposing computing, including for education, and for exerting a ‘people’s voice’ on the re-build.

Then came the thought of ‘big brother’

In the 70s individuals and society were exposed to the conceptual fears created by Orwell’s 1984 and big mainframe computers profiling everything we did was definitely ‘big brother’. Of course the government gave us the privacy legislation that we demanded but was that truly a guarantee that no-one was looking? The emergence of PCs enabled local applications and local data storage, the perfect ‘privacy’ solution for the distrusting public. Then Apple gave us intuitive interfaces enabling a common accessibility to the power of computing.

The birth of personal computers (aka fridges)

Apple IIe
Credit: Apple IIe, by William Warby

My first ‘PC’ was an Apple IIE in 1983 but it wasn’t until I upgraded to my Macintosh SE that I understood the flexibility and creativity that the world of ‘icons’ offered. It was only a black and white world though but the Macintosh SE was also unique for being the first portable PC. It was fully self-contained, you only had to carry the one item and use it wherever you could find electricity. For 1987, my Mac SE was a high performing PC with an 8MHz processor, 1MB of RAM and a 20MB hard drive. In terms of portability there was a well-padded carry bag with strong handles for carrying the 8kg weight. I used to strap the SE on the back of my motor bike and it looked like I was transporting a small fridge.

A time for sharing

Once satisfied with computing’s ‘new world order’ I wondered at the things we could do on our computers but it was a lonely experience given we couldn’t share it with others unless we put a floppy disk in the mail. The Internet changed all of that. At first it was hard to believe that something built for national security and covert activity would not impinge on our individual liberties. In fact the irony is that it enabled ‘people power’ and the capacity for us to share ideas, beliefs and those wonderful things we were starting to create on our PCs ….. and we were able to share privately or publicly.

Learning through computing

It was the Internet and subsequent growth of digital communication that enabled education to fully realise the learning value that computing offered. The wave of PCs that flowed during the 80s and 90s promised low-cost, self-paced learning for all. The IT world was excited about CBT (computer based training) and CAL (computer assisted learning). Employers embraced it with the same level of enthusiasm because it promised them low-cost training for large employee numbers. Educators, however, were not so quick to support CBT/CAL because it sought to replace rather than understand the teacher’s role in ensuring cost-effective learning outcomes.

Or not…

Large amounts of money were invested in CBT/CAL programs for diminished rather than increased learning returns. The three main reasons for the high development cost were:

  • level of technical expertise required
  • emphasis on professional production values, and
  • attempts to mimic the teacher’s capability to respond to individual learning needs.

Experienced teachers will tell you that the repetitive use of identical learning content and teaching strategies does not guarantee the same learning environment or learning outcome. The student is the differentiating ingredient and the teacher is able to adjust accordingly. CBT programs may have been technically innovative and visually attractive but their educational value was limited to rote learning. Consequently CBT/CAL failed to impact on mainstream education, let alone improve the availability and accessibility of learning.

The importance of content

The arrival of the Internet changed this because it promoted content over production values and it enabled content to be packaged with live social commentary. Students exposed to Youtube and other ‘cloud content’ no longer expected high quality production, the focus shifted back to the relevance and usefulness of the content. Today there is a greater student acceptance of teacher created learning material using new digital tools such as mobiles, cameras, videos and so on. Cut and paste learning objects surrounded by teacher commentary and learner support is the essence of quality and affordable e-learning. All good teachers have sound instructional design and communication skills which is why good teachers are also good e-teachers. Contrary to the original promotion of CBT, e-learning is affordable because of the teacher. Teachers adjust and support the learning experience, they provide the quality assurance for maximising learning outcomes and hence the return on the training investment.

The cloud with more than a silver lining

To understand the reason for returning to individual ‘dumb’ devices connected to centralised intelligence we need to understand the popular acceptance of the ‘cloud’. The Internet facilitated the perception of ‘anarchy, state and utopia’ where everyone benefits from everyone else’s presence. There is no perceived threat of ‘big brother’, you control your own content deciding who can see what and the rules of behaviour are limited to the basic requirements to ensure that the Internet survives. Putting aside the debate about the reality of this perception, the impact has been millions of people using the ‘cloud’ to create, store and display their intellectual property. Similarly, millions of people entrust the privacy of even their most intimate communication to the Internet in the same accepting manner as they have always done with telephony. Through social networking services such as Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn and Tumbler people have embraced software as a service (SaaS) and the cloud storage of their digital artefacts. SaaS provides reliability and predictable cost compared with owning local-based infrastructure. As our connecting devices got cheaper and smaller, our use of local applications and data storage reduced.

E-learning today

For eWorks, this shift in mindset is also very evident at a business level with over 200 employers and training providers now using the TrainingVC to manage and deliver their training. Although the TrainingVC has been providing the benefits of SaaS for over 15 years, the demand today for the service is unprecedented. Like many other businesses, training providers are seeking to reduce their ICT risk exposure (i.e. the escalating and unpredictable cost of managing secure business infrastructure) by moving to cloud based services which in turn enables them to concentrate resources to delivering their core business. E-learning began with local applications servicing pockets of innovation. Today e-learning is a core component of the business strategy requiring the provision of business critical systems. This means:

  • full disaster recovery
  • ensuring the security and integrity of data
  • 24/7 access for anyone from anywhere, and
  • large databases and storage requirements.

How has eWorks fared in the digital journey?

There are several reasons for eWorks’ longevity as an SaaS provider.

  1. Our industry leading Service Level Agreement guarantees a performance that’s greater than what’s usually offered for SaaS.
  2. Our research and development capacity to keep up to date with new technology and learning innovation, changing the service accordingly and in conjunction with the preferences and needs of our users.
  3. Our capacity to provide an end-to-end e-learning solution that includes the integration of the TrainingVC with other business systems and local portals, the provision of off-the-shelf or bespoke learning content and related staff training.

I am proud that eWorks’ track record of delivering excellent service is best illustrated by the volume of new business we win through referrals from a loyal and supportive portfolio of clients.

Does your organisation need some support through its digital journey?
Wherever you are, eWorks can help.

If you read one higher ed report this year…

NMC Horizon Report 2015 - Higher Ed edition

Bronwyn Lapham works within E-standards for Training, an activity of the National VET E-learning Strategy. This project includes the annual research, development, review and ratification of the E‑standards for Training – the technical standards for the vocational education and training (VET) sector. Today Bronwyn shares a summary of the one higher education report that we need to read this year – and in the process saves us from having to read it!

What is the Horizon Project?

The NMC Horizon Report – Higher Ed edition for 2015 was published at the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting, held at Anaheim between February 9 and 11 2015. The Horizon Project is a longitudinal research project seeking to monitor emerging technologies expected to have an impact—in the case of this edition—on higher education. The New Media Consortium (Twitter: @NMCorg) also periodically publishes reports that focus on technology trends for schools, libraries and museums.

The Report is the output of collaboration by a panel of experts whose work is published, and freely available for viewing or download. There’s an extremely rich resource in the accompanying wiki, which includes the discussion that took place around each of the topics. The Report is—as previously—broken down into three areas: trends, challenges and technologies, all of which are sub-categorised.

This blog post summarises the trends in higher education that were identified in the NMC Horizon Report – Higher Ed edition for 2015; I’ll be following up with the challenges and technologies identified in the report in subsequent posts.

Short-term trends: 1-2 years in each direction

Increasing use of blended learning

The term blended learning describes the situation where at least some component of a learner’s education is delivered via digital media, and where the student has some control over when and where it takes place. This delivery method is blended with the more traditional face-to-face classroom-type setting.

Benefits of this style of delivery include flexibility and ease of access. The high rate of adoption followed by a large rate of drop-outs often observed in MOOCs initially indicated that use of this style of delivery might be short-lived. However, support mechanisms like learning analytics, adaptive learning, and tools allowing combinations of real-time and asynchronous communication between teacher and student continue to improve, allowing problems to be overcome and benefits realised.

Redesigning learning spaces

Changing the settings in which learning takes place is thought to transfer focus from teacher to student, and support more interactive, collaborative and active learning experiences. Collaborative learners are not necessarily confined to one place; learning can be shared with others in remote environments providing grounding in real-world work and social settings.

Common examples of these environments include relocating the presenter at the centre of the group, video conferencing with remote students, and the provisioning of common areas with electrical outlets, wi-fi and other supporting infrastructure to allow congregation of students engaged in learning.

Mid-term trends: 3-4 years in each direction

Growing focus on measuring learning

Learning analytics is the measurement of data gathered during the learning and assessment process. The data can be used to personalise learning for the student, improve on existing pedagogies and identify students at risk of disengaging or who are otherwise falling behind. The practice uses equivalents of commercial activities where businesses analyse online habits in an effort to predict consumer behaviour.

There is potential for great gains in the reliability of figures that benchmark achievements in retention and progression, but privacy and ethical issues should not be forgotten – what level of consent should be asked of a student? What control should they have over their data? Further reading is available in the report, but early research in Australian VET is also available. See Embedding Eportfolios from Box Hill Institute, and Interpreting Learner Analytics Data from Canberra Institute of Technology.

Proliferation of open educational resources

Open educational resources are those that are not just free of charge; there is a movement to have the definition include ownership and rights. In other words, to allow free use to take, re-purpose and modify resources at will. Prestigious universities in the US such as MIT, Harvard and Carnegie Mellon have published resources that range from full courses down to individual items. They are generally published under Creative Commons (or equivalent) licences.

In Australian vocational education and training, many such learning objects (including the Flexible Learning Toolboxes) exist at, alongside resources for purchase.

Long-term trends: 5+ years in each direction

Advancing cultures of change and innovation

This topic addresses attempts to stimulate innovation and creativity. The underlying driver is the application of Lean Startup methodologies, that is, iteratively re-working product in response to needs of early adopters, reducing exposure to the risk that would traditionally be taken on with heavy investment in an initial launch of a product.

The way higher ed institutions are adopting this methodology is illustrated in the report using an example of how tech infrastructure on campus environments was upgraded to support the use of mobile devices. These upgrades were carried out when it became evident that mobile devices could play an important role in learning and teaching. Examples of the way universities around the US are sponsoring entrepreneurship include collaborations with business and government. VET in Australia would seem to be a leader in this.

Increasing cross-institutional collaboration

This section of the report discusses how, more and more, institutions are creating consortia for strategic alliances and combining resources. Joining forces is also seen as a sustainable way to support infrastructure and IT upgrades, and to provide a broader appeal by being able to offer a broader range of services. The Internet has effectively eliminated many barriers to these alliances.

While there certainly are–and will continue to be–mergers between institutes in Australia, it will be interesting to see how this trend evolves here, and whether market competition will allow local consortia to develop as they have in the US and Europe as stated in the report.

Queries or concerns about developing technology trends in higher education? Get in touch with @VET_Estandards or @eWorksTweets on Twitter, or contact us.

Virtual Reality and E-learning – Endless Possibilities

Since Windows 95, the term virtual has been used to describe aspects of computer system interfaces, to make them easier for users to understand. Creating icons to look like actual folders or files and displaying windows on a virtual desktop, allowed users to relate computer programs and their various components to items in the real world.

More recently we have seen the term virtual reality (VR) in the media, particularly with the recent purchase of Oculus Rift (a prominent company selling VR headsets) to the social media behemoth, Facebook. In this article we will take a look at virtual reality and the possible applications of this intriguing approach to education.

First person gaming

Screen from Doom (video game)
Source: Doom mapformat screen
Author: Fredrik – License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The introduction of personal computers (PCs) brought more computing power to the home market in the late 1980s, which allowed developers in the early 1990s to create games that gave a first person perception of three dimensions. A notable example is ID Software’s game Doom, released in 1993.

Although these were dubbed 3D games and presented the user with a representation of a virtual environment, they were still displayed from a two dimensional device, typically a computer monitor or television. This level of immersion was enough to revolutionise the gaming industry, turning it into an estimated $30 billion industry in 1998, which was largely driven by 3D games.

Stereoscopic imagery

Source: A GAF View-Master vewer model G red
Author: IlPasseggero – License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Another 3D technology, stereoscopic imagery, is an important aspect of virtual reality that is much older than computer games. You might be familiar with the perception of 3D provided by the famous View-Master based on an invention by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. By using slightly different images for each eye, this process creates the effect of 3D.

Virtual reality

Oculus Rift
Source: Orlovsky and Oculus Rift
Author: Sergey Galyonkin – License: CC BY-SA 2.0

While virtual reality is a broad term, it is mostly associated with hardware and software technology of 3D gaming in conjunction with a stereoscopic headset. The combination of both technologies greatly enhances the level of immersion experienced, as I can certainly attest after enjoying a virtual roller coaster ride at a recent Australian Virtual Reality Association meeting. While I remained aware, on some level, that it was a computer simulation, the visual and audio experience was enough to give me some of the bodily feelings of motion and adrenaline that I have experienced on real-life roller coasters.

Education and virtual reality

There are currently many discussions in the media about how technology is transforming education. The possibilities for virtual reality in an educational setting are thought-provoking and seemingly endless. The following statement from the book In Search of the Virtual Class (1995) is an excellent summation of the possibilities that virtual technology offers:

[Virtual technology] offers us the possibility of a class meeting in the Amazon Forest or on the top of Mount Everest; it could allow us to expand our viewpoint to see the solar system operating like a game of marbles in front of us, or shrink it so that we can walk through an atomic structure as though it was a sculpture in a park; we could enter a fictional virtual reality in the persona of a character in play, or a non-fictional virtual reality to accompany a surgeon in an exploration at the micro-level of the human body.

What an exciting time it is in e-learning!