Monday, September 3, 2012

I am thinking about threshold learning as it relates to eLearning, especially as it relates to resistance to adopting eLearning in various respects. The concept has allowed me to re-think on a higher level a problem that I run into often: content agnosticism. Being an eLearning professional, I believe that content delivered to students should be primarily HTML-based. Why? It’s one of those concepts that when you try to explain, the explanation never seems to add up to good enough reasons that content should be HTML-based (instead of PowerPoint slides, or PDFs, or Word documents; an app would be a separate discussion). It seems like a threshold concept: you either “get it” or you don’t. That is, you grasp the significance of all those little points or you don’t.

The browser already runs HTML. Delivering your content in something other than HTML is introducing a second software that is not needed. This is a very important point for some and particularly ho-hum for others. The threshold learning link above is a PDF; my computer opens it fine. What’s the big deal? Yes, it’s not really a big deal. Because I’ve opened a second software program, it may prompt me to install an update or it may crash, but we’re somewhat used to those experiences. So, again, it does not seem important. However, with the introduction of HTML 5, the browser is going to become so much more powerful and flexible that HTML may force itself into becoming the standard content-delivery mechanism it already should be. You will no longer need secondary software (Flash Player, Quicktime, etc.). And the content will be device independent. In addition, following standards makes your content future-proof, in general.

A second reason to use HTML is that properly structured HTML content is most accessible. I don’t just mean most accessible to learners using assistive technologies. Look at the previous paragraph, accessibility also means flexibility. It is accessible to all devices, as well as people, regardless of what software is installed on the device. Again, though, who cares? HTML can be made inaccessible. Just as PDFs and PowerPoints can be inaccessible. And if your phone can’t open a PDF, too bad, the learner can switch to a computer is the thinking. Introducing these unnecessary steps or software is not viewed as particularly important.

And perhaps it isn’t. I could be completely wrong. Perhaps this is a personal tempest in a teapot. That’s the thing with threshold concepts: they may or may not be correct, or they can be worded incorrectly, or they can be misapplied.

But there is a threshold concept here. It has something to do with teachers becoming comfortable adopting technology. So perhaps my concern with HTML is too limited. It is subsumed under a wider threshold concept. But that concept also has something to do with best practices. It is obvious to me that delivering content via HTML is a best practice; it is not obvious to someone else. Again, that is either a threshold concept, in that it changes the way you think, or I’m wrong. However, I don’t think I’m wrong about the higher-level threshold concept. I will provisionally say it as follows: teachers should adopt technology following best practices.

First, you either agree or disagree with the concept. You take the blue pill or the red pill, in Matrix parlance. You may disagree with the concept and come up with various justifications, but it is becoming increasingly clear that disagreeing with the premise is going to put you on the “wrong side of history.”

Second, you then can agree with the concept but then misapply it or only apply parts of the insight. In terms of the SOLO taxonomy, you can easily become un-structural at this stage. You might say, “I am comfortable teaching with technology...look at this great iPad app,” for instance. Yes, it is great that you are implementing that technology, and that particularly app may be the best available, so that should all be applauded. And that thinking has led to a plethora of articles about iPad’s and education. But we are talking about one device. Why should our thinking (and students) be limited to one device at one point in time (an increasing number of app’s, for instance, don’t support the first generation of iPad). I actually shudder when I read articles, articles written with a tremendous amount of thought and enthusiasm, debating whether iPad’s should be used in education. The focus is simply too narrow, I think, for someone with a deeper understanding of the concept. It locks you in to a particular device at a particular time, and device-independence is another best practice (hence, the move to HTML 5 and away from Flash, for instance, which has been accelerating in no small part because of the iPhone and iPad).

So, my original problem is now re-framed. A teacher could say, “I am comfortable teaching with technology. Look at my great PDF.” And there is nothing essentially wrong with that assertion...unless you have gone through the threshold concept. A PDF is perhaps the second-best option. It is free. It is widely available. It opens nicely in a LMS. It is portable. For the portability reason, a PDF can sometimes be the best practice, but you have to understand the issues to even be able to make that conscious choice and not just turn to making PDFs because that is the software that you are comfortable with.

Thinking through the idea of a threshold concept will certainly help any eLearning professional who is working with (and potentially frustrated by) a recalcitrant or un-structural teacher. It allows you to put their thinking (and your own) in a wider context.

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