Overview / Rationale

Our current systems for housing teaching and learning materials act by default rather than by design as a repository and require the work of the educator to effectively yield additional and appropriate uses of the virtual learning environment (VLE). This is in part due to the fact that these systems and computer platforms as a whole were initially created as a replication of a paper based, physical office. The affordances (Norman, 1988) from the physical to the digital helped and enabled a semi smooth transition. Man-computer symbiosis (Licklider, 1960) was the next expected development in cooperative interaction between man and electronic computers.

In Licklider's paper related to input and output, he identifes “Desk-Surface Display and Control” and “Computer-Posted Wall Display” as changes he expected to see by around 1975.

For effective man-computer interaction, it will be necessary for the man and the computer to draw graphs and pictures and to write notes and equations to each other on the same display surface.

Some information must be presented simultaneously to all the men, preferably on a common grid, to coordinate their actions.

Most current systems have yet to come anywhere close to Licklider's concepts. The problem lies in the fact that most of the controls and display systems we interact with share a historical connection to the design choices made at Xerox PARC in the 1970s.

We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us. (Culkin, 1967) 

Could digital tools be “born digital”? Our own mental maps or schemas (Piaget, 1936) have been updated through our experiences and thus our learning is redefined. We now have very serious GPU performance within all our electronic computers. Can we start to consider and build on affordances that are native to the digital?

The status quo of the current systems has a shelf life that is coming to an end.

Learning is a collaborative, shared endeavour and historically a famed art school approach that is now embedded in studio based teaching, but this model has yet to extend to the digital platforms we have in a truly meaningful way. Currently this results in both digital personal learning network (PLN) silos and institutional hierarchical repositories that provide little or no benefit to the best types of collaborative teaching and learning.

As knowledge increases amongst mankind, and transactions multiply, it becomes more and more desirable to abbreviate and facilitate the modes of conveying information from one person to another, and from one individual to many. (Playfair, 1786)

The systems we use do not yet augment or enhance this process.

Learning objects (LOs) are digital entities that are authentic and based on real-world events. ... By now, as instructional designers and eLearning developers, you may have access to a plethora of reusable learning materials. These are also known as knowledge objects or nuggets. (Andriotis, 2016)

Our screens and devices can provide an engaging fluid, adaptable, and user driven approach to these learning objects. The current paper replicating, top down, centralised hierarchical approach to knowledge acquisition is outdated.

How could we undertake collaborative knowledge building within design education using human centred design processes to create digitally augmented ways of managing and engaging with knowledge?

Area of research

This research is within the domain of Web Science and connects to the education remit of the Web Science institute.

The Web Science Institute (WSI) is located at the intersection between technology and society, researching how the Web is changing the world and the world is changing the Web and providing a bridge between the two. (Anon 2018)

The practice element of the PhD is specifically looking to utilise the concept of the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) web.

a new Decentralized Web has the potential to be open, empowering users around the globe to control and protect their own personal data better than before (Anon, 2018)


The LMS (Learning Management System), the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment or MLE (Managed Learning environment are at the heart of all institutional mechanisms and are suppose to support teaching and learning. However these platforms are often derived to support the administrative needs of an institute.

The LMS, the VLE, is a piece of administrative software — there’s that word “management” in there that sort of gives it away for us in the US at least — software that purports to address questions about teaching and learning but often circumscribing pedagogical possibilities. (Waters, 2014)

The systems are not fit for purpose and need to be reimagines with teaching and learning at the core many Managed Learning Environments (MLE) have promised to enhance education and yet there has been very little evidence that this is in fact the case.

Despite the widespread application of digital technologies in higher education there is scant evidence to suggest that these have had a significant impact on student learning. (Bainbridge, 2014)

An awareness that “In education it is often taken for granted that technologies can ‘enhance learning’” (Kirkwood, Adrian and Price, Lind, a 2014) should be considered however this project will not look in detail as to why we should utilise digital tools within higher education; we will take this as a given.

There is little point lambasting current products such as Blackboard however Blackboard is currently the largest installed Learning Management System (LMS) across the globe and caters for a host of courses within both Further Education and Higher Education. We will use Blackboard as the example, but understand other systems, Moodle, Canvas and others have also taken similar approaches in their main products.

Blackboard emulates the real world, as a simulation. In this instance the simulation is an office environment where there are administrative processes to connect staff or students to specific files and folders. The system can be imagined as a locked filing cabinet where each person knows the specific code to access a specific folder within a give cabinet. This process inherently upholds the top down hierarchy, for example a folder that a student has access to is not a location she can put new items, unlike the tutor, the folder to the student is read only, they cannot even attach anything to this folder. This is the default. This setting comes from the administrative database centre which has to categorise individuals against roles as tutor or student. These systems thus by their design become a holding location for materials that staff are obligated to provide. The system provide’s one improvement over paper copies, namely that the student is not able to to lose the document.

The tension between new tools and old practices should give you a hint. It’s simple to introduce iPads into the classroom, for example. It’s much more difficult to use them to do entirely new things, particularly things that run counter to how classrooms have operated in the past. (Watters, 2015)

These tools are outdated and although some supplement teaching and allow for additional tasks such as lecture capture, wiki’s, blogs and quizzes they do little to embrace the medium they reside on.

You can see its Dot Com roots too in the VLE functionality and in its interface. I mean, some VLEs still look like software from the year 2000! The VLE acts as an Internet portal to the student information system, and much like the old portals of the Dot Com era, much like AOL for example, it cautions you when you try to venture outside of it. (Watters, 2014)

Due to this dearth of user experience there has been a lot of investment into Edutech from Venture capitalists.

Higher education is ripe for “disruption”—to use Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation”—because there is a real, systemic crisis in higher education, one that offers no apparent or immanent solution. (Bady, 2013)

(Adkins, S.S., 2016.)

Audrey Watters has been tracking and revealing Edutech investments on her site for a number of years including up to date investments including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, who has been investing huge amounts in the education sector, with clear focus on Edutech.

So we have two competing positions. Firstly organisations such as Blackboard are inherently not going to change very fast, they have a very successful business model that has been in place since their inception in 1997. We only have to look at major record labels or publishers to understand reluctance to change, specifically when connected to a highly successful and profitable business model. Secondly we see huge investments from venture capital into Edutech in an attempt to disrupt the market.

Venture Capital

The web’s arrival ushered in a world where we could collate & connect people in ways that had not been imagined. This opened up the possibility for innovation in arts, science, research and democracy. Projects such as Wikipedia clearly demonstrated the power of the web. The web started to democratise many facets of society & asked us to question how our world would be governed and understood(Leadbeater, 2009). Business models where flipped with new ways of thinking & innovation appearing in an attempt to help us navigate this new landscape & ever-growing wealth of information (Mason, 2008). Pioneers foresaw ways in which humans & computers could work together to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the planet. This didn’t last long.

The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem; we have a social problem.(Berners-Lee, 2016)

The web has become adtech; our view of the knowledge and data on the web is being funnelled through the view of the corporations & their need to sell ads for revenue. The web and the tech industry are dominated by a small number of highly profitable corporations, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and Apple. These corporations (except for Apple) utilise data gathering techniques within their software and platforms to provide free services while selling to advertisers the potential for targeted ads.

Google et all. is ground zero for a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behaviour. This is a surveillance capitalism. (Zuboff, 2017)

The new scarcity in the internet age is attention. since there is a surplus of information, more information flowing through our society than any of us could ever hope to process or understand, the new bottleneck on our economy is attention. we now live in an attention-based economy. (Manson, 2017)

These two concerns become intrinsically connected. The need to keep our attention is being transformed by the surveillance of our data.  This business model is well understood by venture capitalists, data is the new oil (Humby, 2006) and this has been clearly influencing Edutech investments.

digital technologies are being imposed upon formal learning environments, particularly focused within HE and often associated with the ‘student experience’ agenda. This imposition often reflects what amounts to a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, in which pedagogy is side-lined by neo-liberal practices of efficiency and surveillance. (Hannon and Bretag, 2010; Holley et al., 2011).

The annual NMC Horizon Report on Higher Education in 2014 looked at this trend of Data driven learning and assessment.

As learners participate in online activities, they leave an increasingly clear trail of analytics data that can be mined for insights. (Horizon Report, 2014)

Another UK report in 2016 From Bricks to Clicks: The Potential of Data and Analytics in Higher Education Sarah Porter co-chair of the report suggested that those education providers utilising technology to gather data on students could leave traditional campus-based institutions lagging behind.

Universities need to engage with data tools now so they can understand their power. (Guardian 2016)

The report argue’s that all UK higher education institutions should be considering using learning analytics – the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners – to improve student support and achieve strategic goals, such data could be used to support the recent system that ranks Universities the Teaching Excellence Framework. The report imagines a system in which students at risk of failure can be identified from their first day at university.

In 2015 Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced in an open letter to his new born daughter, promising a host world changing plans, that part of the 99% of his shares now donated to his philanthropic company a commitment to providing personalised learning;

technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. (Zuckerberg, 2015)

Google Classroom has been growing in features and install based over the last few years. Google.org has not committed a total of $100 million in “supporting education and economic opportunity” (Fuller, 2017). Part of this initiative is to sell Chromebook’s into Education, which require a Google account. Microsoft in a bid to catch up with Google’s dominance and sell their own hardware into education also announced Intune for Education.

Now Windows 10 devices offer the power, performance and security schools need at the same price as Chromebooks, with none of the compromises. (Microsoft, 2017)

Windows 10 by default also updated its 45 page terms and conditions so you agree when setting up Microsoft;

will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to protect our customers or enforce the terms governing the use of the services (Microsoft, 2015)

The data mining potential of Silicon Vallery algorithms transformed from adtech to showing you what to learn and when, Edutech.

While Facebook may feel like a modern town square, the company determines, according to its own interests, what we see and learn (O’Neil, 2016)

We are at a point where we can decide if the future model for education is surveillance and data akin to the proximate Silicon Valley model or if Edutech has a future based around open practice, specific pedagogy and the needs of the tutors and students.

The following chapters propose approaches to consider instead for designing edutech.