Friday, November 17, 2006

3TU Graduate School

Being a member of two working groups (ICT & Education and ELO-Groupware), I participated in the 3TU Graduate School (GS) Day which was held in Utrecht on November 16th. Very near to the famous Dom Church it was good to meet a lot of the members of the several development and project groups in the 3TU GS organisation. Since September 2006 the three Dutch technical universities already offer two master programs within the collaborative 3TU setting: Sustainable Energy Technology and Embedded Systems. The morning program was mostly filled with short presentations by the project groups who worked on several issues of the 3TU GS. It was interesting to hear about the achievements of the other groups, the problems and questions they have encountered and meet the people in person, which you normally see listed in mail headers.

The presentation of ‘my’ ICT&E group focused on the results that have been achieved in the past year, but also tried to give a realistic perspective for the future learning environment for the 3TU GS. Our main problem was that the development groups primarily focused on the development and organisation of their curriculum. Therefore, the ambitions with regard to an advanced ICT-based instructional design (face-to-face, distance education, campus blend, etc.) were rather modest. The problem for the ICT&E group was that it was not very clear what was needed and when it was needed to facilitate the 3TU curriculum. The danger of this situation (and a known pitfall!) is that the discussion narrows down to all kinds of interesting and nice working tools (the bottom up method). People may even experiment how these tools can be used within their course or project. Before you know there is a complete chaos of ICT tools, which cannot be managed from an ICT perspective. For fast prototyping it is not a problem to do some experiments, just to see how things might work, but these prototypes have to be thrown away as soon as the experiment has finished. This perspective, however, is not very attractive for instructors. Only few have an intrinsic motivation and interest to participate in this type of innovative experiments. The majority likes to use proven technology, which is easy to use, is serviced and maintained and –most importantly- which helps them to organise their work in a more efficient way.

The ICT&E group argued that we should first take a step back and look at the problem from a 3TU ICT Architecture. First, take the business process (the education process starting from subscription till becoming an alumnus) as a starting point, then define the information process (which functions do you need, required integration processes) and finally the technical process (which tools, operating system, one integrated system (e.g. Blackboard or TeleTOP) or a smart and coherent combination of technical components, thus creating a sort of personal learning environment). It is important to broaden the discussion by looking at the architecture as a digital learning and working environment (DLWE), and not solely as the classic virtual learning environment (VLE) such as Blackboard, WebCT or TeleTOP. The purpose of an integrated information architecture is much broader than the classic VLE. Moreover, it is stressed that we should look at it by taking account of open standards and interoperability issues. Even if the 3TU will not achieve a common DLWE (both from a short or long term perspective), the open standard approach will guarantee a second best scenario that components can work together. The information process which is required to support a student’s learning process should not be hindered by technical barriers. Even if the underlying systems are different, the front-end interface for the end-user may still be one coherent environment.

An important outcome of the 3TU GS day (in my view) is that the ambition level (with regard to ICT&E) of the board of directors seems to be more in line now with the realistic context in which the project group has worked so far. The follow up work (starting from business processes and mapping these on a functional architecture design) is already in a preparation stage. The next 3TU GS day (one year from now?) will demonstrate how far we succeeded in the achievement of a common / shared 3TU-DLWE.

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