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Twenty years of network learning

by Malcolm Ballantyne


2009 saw the twentieth anniversary of Network Learning at Birkbeck. As far as we know, the MScs in Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour were the first degree courses in the UK to require students to interact online. Twenty years for an e-learning project is a major success by any criterion, so why did it happen at Birkbeck? As is often the case there was no single reason, there were three contributing factors.

First, in the mid-1980s, the whole of Birkbeck faced a financial crisis. There was a change in the funding formula for part-time students that assumed that a university's core funding should be based on full-time student numbers and that part-time students were a marginal additional cost. It didn't work for Birkbeck and for a while it looked as if the whole College might close. The matter was resolved, but for only for undergraduate students. Postgraduate departments had, in effect, to double the number of students. In Occupational Psychology (as it then was) we quickly realised this meant extending our catchment area beyond the London area.

Quite coincidentally, the Psychological Services Division of the Manpower Services Commission approached the Department, asking if we could develop a distance learning version of the MSc for their psychologists who were based throughout the country. If so, they could support the necessary curriculum development.

Lastly, I had been experimenting with on-line tutorials on my second-year module ‘People and Advanced Technology'. The technological support for this was very crude but I had actually done it as early as 1981. Looking back, I think I was the person who needed persuading the most but we brought these three factors together and the result was Network Learning.

A story which hasn't been told is how, as an occupational psychologist, I was running on-line tutorials in the early 1980s. I came to psychology relatively late in my career, I didn't get my BSc until I was 30. For the first 10 years of my working life, I worked as a television technician for the BBC. I quickly discovered that a technical career was not for me, but the work was interesting, and I became absorbed by the experience of technological change. Between 1960 and 1970, the original 405-line television system was replaced by the 625-line system, colour television was introduced and, less obviously but more profoundly, valves were replaced first by transistors and then by the first generation of silicon chips. The work I and my colleagues did was transformed dramatically.

Having got my degree, I then worked as a psychologist for British Steel and saw even more dramatic effects of technological change on heavy industry with essentially heavy manual jobs becoming mechanised and computer-controlled.

And so, in 1974, to Birkbeck, as one of the two last lecturers to be taken on by Alec Rodger – Leonie Sugarman and I were interviewed on the same day. I covered ergonomics and work design and, when we redesigned the course in 1976, I started my second year module on the effects of changing technology on people's working lives.

In the summer of that year, the College very generously supported me in attending a NATO ‘Advanced Study Institute' – two weeks in Greece working with some of the world's top human-computer interaction specialists and it was here that I first became familiar with the work which was being done on the organizational impact of IT. This also led, three years later, to being invited to join a British Library funded project in which we aimed to replicate the production of an academic journal on-line. The software we used was an early computer conferencing system called Notepad which, incidentally, gave me access to e-mail for the first time. In 1979, there weren't many people to send messages to.

In 1978, a very influential book on computer mediated communication was published, Hiltz & Turoff's ‘The Network Nation'. This described how computer conferencing systems had first been created and, significantly from my point of view, raised the possibility of interactive learning systems. I had to try it and persuaded Brian Shackel, the director of the BL project, to allow me to register my 1981 students on Notepad. It was immensely difficult. The computer was at the University of Birmingham and there weren't that many dial-up terminals at Birkbeck. The telephone system was quite unreliable in those days but we actually managed to make contact and run some on-line discussions.

Following this experience I applied for funding for more reliable technology. The feedback I received for these unsuccessful bids suggested that what I was proposing wasn't really understood. So, with the arrival of the first Birkbeck VAX computer, I wrote a system myself – OPECCS, the Occupational Psychology Experimental Computer Conferencing System. It was very simple – and by this time we had e-mail in the form of VAXmail – but it worked quite well and I think it must have been around this time that my colleagues became aware of what I was doing.

So, why has Network Learning been so successful? It's difficult to be certain but my own feeling is that it was because we had a clear philosophy from the start. We started with the assumption that what made the Birkbeck approach distinctive was the opportunity for students to meet face-to-face and discuss things informally – allowing for what John Dewey called ‘collateral learning', learning which is neither planned nor intended but which nevertheless happens and is significant. In taking on students from a wider geographical spread, the face-to-face element would have to be less frequent but should remain an essential part of the process. The purpose of the technology was to be that of maintaining continuity of discussion between these face-to-face meetings. This was quite unlike the Open University's approach where the process was seen as a distance learning experience where the technology was an additional, and optional, means of support.

More recent ideas, particularly from knowledge management, would support the Birkbeck approach. The debate on ‘stickiness' and ‘leakiness' of knowledge in organisations (why is it so difficult to get ‘best practice' transferred across an organization while the company's best guarded secrets disappear out of the back door to one's competitors?) recognises the importance of face-to-face contact in the transfer of tacit knowledge. Even Microsoft, determined to operate its R&D function in Washington State, eventually had to relocate to Silicon Valley. I've never been able to understand those who maintain that for ‘true distance learning' there must be no face-to-face contact.

I left the Department at the time that Network Learning was starting in earnest. We had one year of a pilot with Manpower Services Commission psychologists as students – it was shaky but it worked. Twenty years on, it's wonderful to see the success that has followed.

NWL: graphics from the early user guides

NWL: graphics from the early user guides

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