The Friday Interview: Vincent Wade, Trinity College Dublin

30 Sep 2005

With fingers in a number of pies, Vincent Wade (pictured) very much personifies the multifaceted modern academic. A full-time senior lecturer in computer science at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), who runs a Knowledge and Data Engineering Research Group, he is also director of the Centre for Learning Technology (CLT), an on-campus facility that has pioneered e-learning technologies since it was founded in 1998.

The day we met, Wade had just given a presentation at a Higher Education Authority (HEA) conference, Learning in the Digital Age. His wide-ranging presentation covered a lot of ground and encapsulated the approach to e-learning taken by one large university. In an interview afterwards, he shared some of the lessons from TCD’s e-learning engagement.

TCD has had a formal e-learning system in place since the late Nineties, when it installed a campus-wide learning management system (LMS). In common with most other Irish universities, TCD opted for a commercial LMS (WebCT) rather than an open source system (such as Moodle or Sakai) but for Wade the issue is not about whether you choose one system or another but how you knit them together. “Open source will become part of the fabric of e-learning but I still do see a need for commercial products as well, so the issue is how you bundle them together and how they work together,” he says.

Whatever system is chosen is going to cost a substantial amount of money, he points out. “This applies not just to commercial software; there are hidden costs in open source as well. Anyone I know who is using Moodle is actually paying for support from a commercial company.”

On the issue of how to get started on e-learning, a common mistake, he says, is biting off more than you can chew: “It’s better to get something small working well that you can grow than trying something extremely large and find it needs a lot of reworking.”

But the biggest mistake a university can make, he warns, is to set up its e-university as a separate academic entity, divorced from mainstream teaching. The biggest challenge, therefore, is how to make “e-learning core to a university’s teaching and learning”.

This ethos of being immersed in pedagogy has been core to the CLT since inception. In practice this means that the centre is not technology-led but user-led, Wade explains. “We don’t turn around and say: here’s a tool, how do you want to use it? If it looks like a hammer, everything becomes a nail. You try to find out what the learning objectives are and then look how you might achieve those using technology.”

In keeping with this approach, the centre invites academics to submit research proposals every year. The best of these then become learning innovation projects taken on by the CLT. One of the current batch of projects, Vision, which is being run in conjunction with TCD’s Psychiatric Dept, involves the development of an interactive training tool that teaches psychiatry students a range of interviewing techniques. Actors were hired to conduct virtual interviews in which a student interviews a depressed patient. A pilot version allows students to view video clips portraying a depressed patient responding to questions chosen by the student. The student’s ability to select the questions leaves them in control of the virtual interview. An online quiz allows students to conduct a mental state examination on the virtual patient just interviewed.

The next step is to develop a compositional tool that will allow student doctors to put their own training programmes together and Enterprise Ireland funding has just been secured to this end.

“When it comes to health sciences particularly, some of the e-learning content can get very expensive to develop,” notes Wade. “So what we’re trying to do is very innovative and focus on the pedagogical benefit and overall quality rather than having to get actors in each time.”

While most of Ireland’s universities have had e-learning programmes in place for years, there has so far been very little networking between them and little effort to develop common programmes. The ambitious plan to develop a National Digital Repository (NDR) looks set to change all that.

The repository — a three-year initiative involving the seven universities, Dublin Institute of Technology plus the 13 other institutes of technology that formally began in December 2004 – is funded by the HEA and the Department of Education and Science. It aims to draw together in one resource existing digital images, maps, pieces of film and audio, texts, simulations and other multimedia elements. It is seen as an essential part of the process of reducing the cost of developing e-learning teaching and learning materials.

The project was given what the HEA described as a significant boost yesterday when the HEA and the UK’s Joint Information Services Committee signed a memorandum of co-operation to share information and best practice during the development of their respective national digital learning repositories.

According to Wade, who heads the project team, the first 18 months of the project are being spent building the infrastructure and ironing out issues around, for example, digital rights management. At the same time, a small number of courses will be piloted. During this phase, the content will be refined based on feedback given from the academics involved before being rolled out as a full working system.

Wade explains that the NDR should be seen as more than simply a database. “Storage is part of it but it is also about workflows – how you get material in and out.” For example, it will have to be very user-friendly so that an academic can click-and-drag material out and integrate it within its own LMS or simply link to the content in the NDR without extracting it. Most of all, says Wade, “it’s got to fit in with the workflows of the academic”.

Wade describes the repository as a “foundation block” for how the universities can begin to collaborate in the e-learning area. He points out that other smaller projects under the HEA are happening within universities – such as developing assessment and disability tools for e-learning – and the outcome of these might also be shared within the repository.

Despite the progress of the NDR and fact that most universities have had e-learning strategies in place for a number of years, there is still, Wade believes, a reluctance to give e-learning the attention and resources it deserves. E-learning, he is convinced, should be a priority not an afterthought. “At the end of the day, e-learning is a core business of a university.”

By Brian Skelly