Friday, December 5, 2008

1.5.2: More from the New Zealand scene

The 2007 WIP report from AUT (PDF) gives a useful snapshot of Internet use in New Zealand. Drawing on a sample of 1,430 New Zealanders (randomly selected from the adult population, with 'booster' samples from specific groups), the report found that:

  • 78% of the sample are Internet users. 16% are non-users, 6% 'ex-users'.
  • 15% of the sample accessed the Internet from work, school or public access (that is, not from home).
  • 66% of home users have broadband, 31% dial-up. A further 29% have wireless or mobile access (an unfortunate breakdown in that wireless connectivity might be home-bound).
  • 44% of Internet users believe themselves to be 'excellent' in ability; 30% 'very good', and 30% as 'not good'. Level of confidence is related to the respondents' income.
  • The Internet is rated as the most important source of information, above television, newspapers, radio, and other people. Of course, this conceals more than it reveals; syndicated information sources frequently run across these different media.
  • New Zealanders are divided in terms of how reliable online information is (see prior post on what this means for information literacy). The importance of the Internet for information decreases with age; about 90% of 16-19 year-olds view the Internet as an important source of information, adding more weight to calls for information literacy among the new adult learner population.
  • Significant for those pushing a 'Web 2.0' agenda on the grounds that it is what users demand: only 28% are actively involved in social networking, and only 10% keep a blog. While the report does state that "Some aspects of Internet behaviour such as content creation or social networking were much more prevalent among the under-30s", only about two-thirds check social networking sites on a monthly basis (21% report 'never') and less than 20% of users aged between 16 and 29 keep a blog (and, of course, 'keep' is an open-ended term in itself). Online games are accessed monthly by only about 30% of those aged 16-19, the highest user group of online games.
  • Connectivity and perception of the Internet's usefulness increase with respondents' income. 
The report contains some very useful extrapolations of connectivity based on various demographic information. In my view, e-learning practitioners need to be up to speed with this sort of information as it alerts us to opportunities and potential barriers to our practice. Findings like this help to keep practice well-grounded and realistic; too often we assume what the end-user has, and what their online behaviours are.

1.5.2: The context of connectivity

A recent World Internet Project report for 2009 has some disturbing news for New Zealand internet connectivity, but some encouraging news for online education. An overview in Stuff reports that:

  • While three quarters of New Zealanders are Internet users, only about 65% have broadband connections
  • About 80% of users check email at least once a day
  • New Zealand's broadband services rank 12th out of the 13 countries surveyed (beating only Columbia).

The press release and highlights from the report itself (PDF) reveal that New Zealanders are split between those who think that some online information is reliable (51%) to most information is reliable (49%). About 40% of online Kiwis buy online at least monthly. Of those Kiwis not online, 45% said it was because they were either not interested or the internet was not perceived as useful to them; 19% because they were confused by the technologies. Kiwis are the highest users of internet banking in the responding countries. Interesting, too, is that over 38% of Kiwi respondents over the age of 65 are online.

In response to the question, "For information in general, how important is the Internet to you as a source?" 33% of Kiwi respondents said 'very important', 38% 'important'. 17% were 'undecided', and 'not important' and 'not important at all' were 7% and 5% respectively.

  • "How frequently do you use the Internet to get information for school related work? (18 years and older)"
Several times a day: 20%
Daily: 31%
Weekly: 24%
Monthly: 17%
Less than monthly: 5%
Never: 3%
  • New Zealanders are not high online video watchers (65% of users 18+ report 'never').
  • "Are you currently using the Internet? (18+)":
18-24: 92%
25-34: 89%
35-44: 86%
45-54: 82%
55-64: 75%
65+: 39%

The New Zealand connection to the WIP is provided by AUT. While I was unable to find any information about sampling, the fact that the international research is coordinated among universities gives some assurance as to validity.

So what? Well, here's my analysis.
  • Applying the Internet to tertiary study is completely defensible. Issues of access are passé; even 'the last trapper in the north' is likely to have reasonable dial-up access. Those without Internet access are either extremely unlikely to be interested in tertiary study, or else are likely to be surprised as to how easy it is to use. Given that about half of those not online said it was because the Internet was not perceived as useful, and that Internet for higher education would provide a use, it seems that there is an exceptionally small number of New Zealanders for whom Internet access would be a barrier to participation in tertiary education. Age, it seems, is not a significant barrier to access.
  • We must not (still) assume broadband connectivity when applying technologies in education. While the last trapper in the north may well be connected, they are also likely to be frustrated by large downloads and applications requiring high traffic.
  • Adult tertiary students are actively using the Internet in their studies, however there are issues of infortmation literacy. That about half of online Kiwis believe that over half of the information accessible online is reliable is not a very useful statistic in some ways; sites vary in terms of the impression of reliability they offer. Still, steps must be taken to ensure that tertiary learners are able to discern the good from the bad (and the ugly).
It is vital that e-learning practitioners consider Internet access in their technology mix. The findings here indicate that there is little excuse for not making use of Internet technologies on the basis of access, and that it is still too soon to assume broadband connectivity for required learning experiences. While New Zealanders are remarkably e-literate, there are still issues of information literacy to contend with.

1.4.3: The transferability of 'e'xcellence

I received a copy of the Ako Aotearoa "Excellence" report today, which profiles the 2008 recipients of the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards (PDF report available from the Web site).

What makes an excellent teacher? In the forewords and opening comments, terms such as "...committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic...", "...enthusiasm... their passion and commitment to their subject, an ability to stimulate their students' thinking and interests... ever alert to the teachable moment and... a profound commitment to enhancing the achievement of their students", "It is about integrity, passion, resilience and continual reflection on the nature and scope of the teaching-learning process". Dr Peter Coolbear remarks that the awarded teachers have approached their calling in contrasting ways, and "were also engaged with their subject and anxious to share that engagement". Students talk of being empowered and inspired, and consistently comment on the good listening skills of their excellent teachers.

I loved this quote from Graeme Fraser:

"[They see their students] not as objects to be stuffed with information, but as creative learners who are exploring their horizons" (p.7).

Each of these principles and observations, in my view, is transferable to the online environment. I am particularly reminded of Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, and his comments on good teaching:

“...good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (1998, p.10); “Bad teachers distance themselves from the subject they are teaching – and in the process, from their students. Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life… [they] possess a capacity for connectedness” (p.11).

Most informative for e-learning practice are these quotes from the recipients themselves:

  • Dr Lisa Emerson, Prime Minister's award recipient:
"The e-learning strategies I design give students learning opportunities they couldn't achieve in any other way: more access to me as their teacher, the opportunity to be part of a community of learners, and custom-designed tools which allow them to develop mastery of specific skills through an individualised learning path."

  • Dr Hamish Anderson:
"Since 1999 I have explored the use of on-line student support including the delivery of formative assessment. The quizzes provide students with a flexible learning tool which they can attempt multiple times, on demand, at any time prior to the final examination. Every quiz contains a randomly selected question set covering the same learning outcomes and has the same overall difficulty level. Calculation questions covering both elementary and complex problems use randomly generated variables so students must recalculate a new answer for each quiz attempt. In total I have developed close to 1,500 questions and I add to these each year.

The value for students of the on-line quizzes and large questions database is the ability for students to complete them multiple times and receive instant feedback. I encourage students to use the quiz learning tool to target their learning by identifying which areas they are yet to master."

  • Adrian Woodhouse:
"I make use of on-line tools in my day-to-day teaching practice to create an environment of comfort and familiarity as well as provide an expanded access to resources. I have developed a blog site where students can view movies of dishes they will prepare during the course. The site also contains footage of past students training for and competing in cookery competitions (both local and national) and theme dinners held over previous years. While useful as a flexible learning tool, it also allows students to view practical content that is taught during the course prior to it being formally introduced. Recently I have taken this initiative one step further and converted our practical movie clips to a format that allows students to download them to their iPods."

What strikes me about these accounts is that none of them are complex or particularly innovative. Rather, they are useful and meet a particular and identifiable learning need. They are different yet effective strategies.

Want to be a good e-teacher? Then attend to the basics. Know your stuff. Love your task. Serve your students. Take (evidence-based) risks, and learn from mistakes. Take a long-term view of your success. Have the courage to succeed. And, don't expect technology to outshine you or do your job.