Interview of the month: Professor Steve Molyneux, the Learning Lab

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28th Jul 2000
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Based at Wolverhampton University, The Learning Lab has been established as a European centre of excellence to develop and showcase applications of learning technologies within the education and training sector.

Launched in November last year, the Learning Lab was formed as a collaboration between Professor Steve Molyneux of the University, Microsoft and ICL. It has a number of founding members who have contributed financially to the Lab, and who will be collaborating on ICT-based projects, but the Lab also offers advice and information to any interested organisations interested in developing or using technologies for learning.

TrainingZONE spoke to Steve Molyneux, Director of the Learning Lab about the work of the Lab and how he views the current state of online and computer-based technologies for learning.

TrainingZONE: How did you get involved in the learning lab project? Presumably you were already carrying out research in this area?

Steve Molyneux: The Learning Lab was actually founded by myself, ICL and Microsoft, and came about through a long term relationship I had with both companies. My background is in the use of technology to support education and communities.

One problem we have in the UK is an uneducated marketplace. Industries are saying that technology can assist with learning, but these claims are not capable of being supported by academic research. Another problem has been the fact that most suppliers of CBT have built around the technology, forcing trainers to change the way they teach and causing resistance.

To combat this, the Learning Lab was set up as a Centre of Excellence offering free consultancy to end-users in an independent environment, and also to provide members of the Lab with market intelligence.

TrainingZONE: Is it the case that you are more concerned with finding out about how the student interacts with the technology than the technology itself?

Steve Molyneux: We don't research the technology itself, as that's something which the companies themselves are better at. What we are interested in is the impact of technology on the learning process, the effect on the student, the design of materials and the difference in being in a virtual and a real classroom. One of projects we've been working on is to do with looking at how IT can support dyslexics by teaching them about the problems they face.

TrainingZONE: As your briefing says, CBT is becoming more and more important. Is there a danger that the market is getting flooded by online and PC based learning providers?

Steve Molyneux: The biggest problem is whether the companies producing these products understand the learning process? Do they understand the cognitive processes involved? There is still a need for interaction with human beings - some people may not find that CBT enhances their learning at all.

There is a paradigm shift taking place within society from the industrial revolution to the knowledge revolution, and it is fast becoming the social responsibility of organisations to provide learning opportunities. Businesses have to respond most companies are scared that if they train their staff, they will leave. They don't understand that within a learning culture, if you offer training opportunities, your staff will become more loyal - it's a win-win situation. Government strategy is about developing staff to have knowledge assets. The current government is excellent in the respect that they are committing funds to improve things - for example, here in the West Midlands there are lots of 'sunset industries'. Funding is needed to re-skill the work force, and this is coming through.

TrainingZONE: Do you think the quality of content is out there at the moment?

Steve Molyneux: No, but I hope and pray that publishers of traditional textbooks start to publish things on line - they have the expertise of structuring this type of content. At the moment, some are worried about copyright and competitive markets, which is part of the reason some of them are buying eachother up.

TrainingZONE: Do you think CBT facilitates learning more easily for some topic areas that others? If so, how could this be rectified?

Steve Molyneux: It's not to do with the method, it's to do with how the technology is used. If you just use it to deliver content, you might just as well use a book. Using collaboration tools, such as forums and chat areas encourages what is known as reflective learning. However, it's no use using e-mail if the tutor doesn't respond for days, or discussion forums which are not active. Our university system is based around what students actually want to use the system for, then the technology has been used to develop that. Actually, anything can be supported using technology, although the technology is not all there yet - for example, the learning of languages is quite difficult due to the interaction needed.

TrainingZONE: The vice-chancellor of the OU is quoted as saying that print on paper will never be replaced and will remain the most powerful learning medium - he seems to be playing down the role of technology in learning.

Steve Molyneux: I'm sure that people said that paper would go out of fashion when the printing press arrived! - It's important to remember that it is only another use of support - it's about empowering the student rather than putting instructors in charge.

TrainingZONE: Some trainers may be concerned that the technology may take over from their roles.

Steve Molyneux: Well, the use of CBT does mean that the role of the trainer changes from 'chalk and talk' to mentor, facilitator and guide. People who 'pooh pooh' technology are technophobes - through all the technology that has developed over time, it has never replaced traditional teachers.

What people fail to recognise is that society changes - 16 and 17-yr-olds today are part of the 'net generation' - young adults who are completely 'au fait' with IT and virtual communities. We now have 3 1/2 yr-olds in reception classes learning how to log on to networks as soon as they start school. We have to provide for these kids as they grow up - at the end of the day, students are our customers. Here at Wolverhampton University we are already offering top-up degrees on the internet, and by 2007, all courses will have technology support built into them.

TrainingZONE: Tell us about research being undertaken into the comparative effectiveness of learning through CBT compared to traditional methods of delivery.

Steve Molyneux: It's something that's difficult to carry out, because the goalposts move every time you start. Companies may say that their CBT product is x times more effective, but as yet there is no proof, because technology shifts all the time. There are also other factors involved, such as the novelty factor, or the way that the tutor works with the student. Because of this, the study we are working on will last for at least a year. We'll be using a large sample group and will be interviewing them at different stages of the process.

TrainingZONE: What do you think the LearnDirect initiative will achieve?

Steve Molyneux: What it's trying to achieve is laudable, but it's a huge task. They are doing their best - it will be interesting to see once the learning centres are open the products that are actually being delivered - there will need to be much more relating to soft skills.

The thing to note is that Michael Wills (Minister for Learning and Technology) has appointed a manager to cover all the different government initiatives. We don't know what's going to happen with the e-university, for example - we haven't seen the business plan yet.

TrainingZONE: Providing market intelligence is just one of the services you provide to your members - what does this involve?

Steve Molyneux: A couple of examples: Microsoft are working on a number of new technologies and wanted some feedback to see whether their design engineers had a product which was suitable. We got together a group of school teachers - 25 in all, brought them to the Learning Lab and the Microsoft people showed the prototypes to them (they signed non-disclosure agreements). The teachers were then asked for feedback as to what was wrong with the prototypes and what could be changed. It's especially an issue for US companies as they may not understand the UK education system and culture.

Granada learning are going to be releasing a managed learning environment in the near future, and wanted feedback from the FE and HE sectors. We organised an open forum of academics and got them into focus groups to discuss it.

TrainingZONE: What about research within the business world?

Steve Molyneux: AZLAN wanted the Learning Lab to brief their sales force on current developments in government. We organised a briefing for them to explain what technology can do. The services to our members include use of a meeting room and lab and a permanent exhibition. The technologies are put onto our servers so visitors can come and look at them and pick up brochures, We are also appointing a senior research fellow who will be carrying out research on behalf of members.

Since the launch of the Lab in November, over 300 visitors have come to see it and to receive advice about their own plans. These have included colleges and universities and companies such as Pearson, Unisys, xebec McGraw-Hill. Yesterday we had representatives from HM Customs and Excise, who wanted to look at how they become a learning organisation. We've also had people from the DfEE, NHS, Lloyds TSB and KPMG from Germany.

TrainingZONE: Many TrainingZONE members have an interest or involvement in CBT - what involvement can they have with Learning Lab?

Steve Molyneux: We are looking for more members at the moment. There are two levels of membership: Full Members and Associate Members. Full Members have access to a number of different facilities, such as use of the Learning Lab for seminars, content development and access to research papers developed for a fee of £10,000 per annum, together with the option of receiving key note addresses at conferences from myself. Associate Members can join for £2,000, which will give them four opportunities to use the Learning Lab for meetings, one white paper and a learning technologies sales kit. Anyone is welcome to come and see the work of the Lab - contact to make an appointment.

TrainingZONE: Thanks for taking the time to talk to TrainingZONE.

About Professor Stephen Molyneux

Professor Stephen Molyneux currently holds the Microsoft Chair of Advanced Learning Technologies at the University and is also Director of the DELTA (Development and Evaluation of Learning Technology Applications) Institute. He previously held the IBM Chair of Information and Communication Technology and the Asymetrix Chair of Interactive Multimedia. He also acts as scientific adviser to the European Commission and European Parliament on interactive technologies. Professor Molyneux has also been a consultant at board level to Siemens, IBM Europe, BMW and Deutsche Telekom and was Scientific Adviser to the German Ministry of Science and Education.

He is Chief Architect of the ERDF funded BroadNet project, A joint £2.6 million project between ICL, IBM, Telewest and the University of Wolverhampton aimed at providing University for Industry services to businesses across the West Midlands. Within the community Professor Molyneux is the visionary behind the Telford & Wrekin community network, a £7.5 million broadband initiative to link schools, libraries and the home. This network is seen by many as the most advanced community network in Europe.

Professor Molyneux can be contacted at [email protected].To find out about becoming a member of the Learning Lab or to arrange a visit, ring the Learning Lab on 01902-323932 e-mail [email protected].

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