April 2005

Lessons from Synergy Learning Experience

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The present situation
Some commentators have described the present state of the Indian Multimedia/Games capabilities as similar to what the Indian software development industry was 10-15 years ago. According to a study by Andersen Consulting, the Indian multimedia and graphics industry, currently pegged at $550 million, is slated to grow at 30 percent annually over the next three years and achieve revenues of US$ 15 billion by 2008. This growth will surely come mainly from outsourcing from the United Kingdom and America and whilst there is real competition from the Far East. One thing India has in its favour is the English language skills of its workforce. Professor T.K.Ghoshal, Joint Director, School of Education Technology, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, cites various reasons for the 'tardy growth' of Indian Multimedia Content Industry including lack of expected export order, lack of domestic market, lack of feel and sensitivities towards the special needs of the (export) market, lack of indigenous content corpus and, finally, lack of skilled/experienced manpower. Perhaps Indian education may best address this last reason, this 'skills gap'.

The challenge
It is improbable that this gap would be filled by a 'quick fix'. A more long-term approach would be required, one that needs to begin in the secondary schools. This may only be achieved by relevant, focused and quality training of students in the appropriate areas and skills. The courses must provide internationally recognised, valued and creative courses with certification. Pathways must allow progression in skill acquisition, the 'unlocking of creativity' and ultimately employment in the creative industries, or even self-employment. The multimedia/games industries require this skills and Indian education must respond by creating an indigenous creative workforce, which can then take advantage of the outsourcing opportunities. These are the challenges for the schools and colleges.

A similar challenge
This situation is very similar to the situation Synergy Learning (http://Synergy-Learning. com) found itself five or six years ago, albeit on a much smaller scale. Synergy Learning was formed in 1997 as a joint venture between the University of Ulster and ICL (Fujitsu) in West Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was a social regeneration programme for a deprived area of Belfast. The aim was to teach to the people of West Belfast ICT and multimedia skills. The multimedia part of the company was growing quickly and there was a need for new employees. However, when Synergy went looking they discovered that within Belfast there were very few qualified and creative people to employ. The problem was solved by basically 'growing their own' candidates. To do this, Synergy wrote and obtained accreditation for a multimedia course, which would produce the type of employees, they required. They obtained funding for the course from the Department of Education and delivered the course over two consecutive years.The course was extremely successful. Certification and graduation were good and the majority of the graduates gained employment in the growing multimedia sector of Northern Ireland. Synergy Learning actually still employs two of the original graduates. Many started successful small business. Later Synergy saw the commercial possibilities of the course. The courses were initially introduced in five colleges and two schools in Northern Ireland. Learning resources and staff development were purchased from Synergy by the colleges. With the resulting success in the colleges and schools, Synergy further developed the courses, the materials and the pedagogies required making the offering more global and have established partnerships with schools and colleges in England, Wales, Eire, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

An example of synergy learning interactive tutorial.
This is a simulation of Macromedia Dreamweaver and the student has to actually click on menus, enter data and interact with the interface. Software tools and skills can be learnt without having access to the actual software.

A possible solution
Perhaps a solution to India's problem may be of a similar nature

  • The introduction of recognised relevant courses
  • The adoption of new pedagogical approaches required with new technology
  • The introduction of quality learning and teaching resources.

With such subject content (multimedia/games) and with a wide audience, traditional classrooms and methodologies may not be sufficient or even cost effective. New technologies must be used in the solution. The power and accessibility of the Internet must be harnessed. 'e-Learning' may provide part of the solution.

However, care should be taken that traditional classrooms are not simply uprooted and transplanted on top of this technology. The integration of the new technologies has not always been handled properly and sometimes the power of the new technologies is lost when they are used to carry out similar things that have always been done in our traditional classrooms. Indian education must ensure that the new technologies are seamlessly integrated into a modern learning environment and do not appear as 'bolt-ons' which change nothing. Indian education must learn from the 'e-Learning mistakes' of the West.

If an e-Learning approach is to be adopted then many things will need to change and the education system, the student and the teacher must recognise this. e-Learning has many definitions. 'The convergence of the Internet and Learning, or Internet-enabled learning'; 'The use of network technologies to create, foster, deliver and facilitate learning, anytime and anywhere'; 'The delivery of individualised, comprehensive, dynamic learning content in real time, aiding the development of communities of knowledge, linking learners and practitioners with experts.'

e-Learning, if designed and delivered correctly is and does all of these things but in many cases the emphasis is put on the 'e' and not the 'learning' – inherently e-Learning is about 'Learning'. This will require many paradigm shifts in many different quarters. All these requirements fall into two categories: support and financial issues and pedagogical and methodological issues. The latter issues include the creation of different learning environments, pedagogical changes and the creation and adoption of relevant learning and teaching materials. The challenge is also to adopt strategies such that as many learners as possible have access to such environments, pedagogies and materials.

Consider two of the above requirements to ascertain what the challenge really is.

  • adoption of an appropriate pedagogy
  • appropriate learning materials

Pedagogy
Schools and colleges, while looking at the introduction of such courses, must also look at different delivery methods. There will be a variety of audiences and with present and future technology education will obviously not be confined to the physical classroom. The audiences will consist of students within the education system but will also consist of those on the periphery of the system and indeed those outside the system. It will consist of those who want to retrain, those who want to change career, those who want to up-skill, those who want a qualification for their present skills plus many more. It is unlikely that traditional didactic teaching methods, nor even perhaps full time education, will be entirely suitable for everyone and more progressive approaches and different timetabling arrangements will be required. Digital Distance Learning will be a major factor in any solution. Recent experiences in e-Learning suggest that a blended approach is most suitable. The role of the teacher is no less important, in fact it is probably more important now. In the areas of multimedia and games, teachers will be required more and more to adopt the role of facilitator rather than the role of knowledge expert. They must encourage innovation and creativity.

Example of the e-Learning material
This is how the materials are presented in the virtual learning environment or indeed in a simple Intranet. The list of topics is presented on the left and the different icons on the right represent the different types of learning materials.

The new technologies will provide a variety of online learning approaches not previously available. These will include online face-to-face situations between teacher and student, live e-Learning-self paced online learning, live demonstrations online, master classes, collaboration online, synchronous and asynchronous tutoring, discussion groups and the development of communities of practice as well as simple knowledge acquisition. All of these methods require changes in teacher, student and classroom organisation. The management of these changes is another major challenge to Indian education.

The pedagogy supported by Synergy Learning operates in an e-Learning environment underpinned by social constructivist learning theory which blends 'face-to-face methods, tutor-led demonstrations, student research, learning tasks, online learning materials, offline learning materials, collaborative and cooperative assignments, teaching on demand, self paced learning, student centred approaches in varying degrees depending on what has to be learnt. This pedagogy allows for a variety of different learners in a variety of different situations.

Learning materials
It is widely recognised that learners do not all learn in the same way and they do not even learn the same things in the same way. Individual learners have a variety of learning approaches and use these approaches in varying degrees in different learning situations, e.g. visual, auditory or kinesthetic. A good learning environment must also allow for the construction of knowledge, the constructivist approach and, more specifically, social constructivism. Any learning materials that are produced for the e-Learning environment must reflect these differences and this underpinning theoretical perspective. Consequently good learning materials must be in several formats and foster and encourage collaboration and co-operation. Learners must be able to choose their own personal approach and have the opportunity to engage in discourse with others and collaborate and cooperate in the learning environment just as they would in the normal classroom.

Synergy Learning has been developing such pedagogies and materials for several years now and has built up a large amount of expertise and e-Learning resources, i.e. learning resources that can be placed into new e-Learning environments.

When developing the e-Learning materials for the multimedia/games courses Synergy went through three phases.

  1. Analysis of what had to be learnt – In these courses learning includes: mastery of tools, skills acquisition, conceptual understanding, meta models such as critical thinking, research methods and meta cognition.
  2. Consideration of the different learning approaches such as drill and practice, constructivism (mental models and scaffolding) social constructivism (social activities, communities of practice and common knowledge).
  3. Development of different types of materials which consisted of :

    • Temporal models (movies and demonstrations)
    • Spatial models (graphics, 2D models, 3D models)
    • Process models (interactivity, mimicry)

These models include pictures, graphics, diagrams, text, learner interaction, step-by-step activities, demonstrations, simulations, sound/speech and learning as well as assessment tasks. The materials were created as a series of small 'Learning Objects' which can be used and reused in a variety of ways.

Issues and challenges
The issue and challenges for teachers and the Indian education system would appear to be how best to fill the skills gap, adopting a long-term approach. The solution must in itself make use the new technologies of multimedia and games. Indian education must consider introducing courses and curricula in the relevant fields that are engaging, accredited and have an international value, develop new pedagogies that are suitable for and make optimum use of the new technologies and use innovative and creative learning resources produced by the new technologies.

It would appear that many schools and colleges have already moved some way along this road and there are other institutions that are helping. Negotiations are underway with the British Council, Liqvid (http://www.liqvid.com), Edexcel and Synergy Learning to introduce some of the courses, adopt the pedagogies and use the resources within the Council's Managed Learning Zone. This Zone already provides courses that use the new technolologies and e-Learning extremely well. (http://www.britishcouncil.org/india-education-onlinecourses-2.htm).

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