Friday, November 30, 2007

Wrap Up

Near the end of what will hopefully be the busiest semester of my PhD program (roughly comparable to the busiest semester during my MBA program, except then I was only working part time), I finish up one of my four classes with this post. Intro to Open Education has been an interesting class.

Professors teach. They have not all been trained in teaching, so you don't necessarily expect every professor to always be a masterful teacher. Being in a department of Instructional Technology, however, there is a higher standard. In their teaching, we expect them to practice what they preach. I think that has happened in this course.

Brittany G (from Flickr)In another class where new PhDs get to know the faculty and write about how their interests align, Wiley said that someone once wrote on their evaluation that they had no idea what he was interested in. Oh. Well, in every class I have had from him, there have been elements of collaboration, reusing open materials, utilizing the latest technology, and learner control in the structure of the course. Looking at the research and presentations on his CV, it is all about collaborating with Web 2.0 tools, creating and reusing open content, providing instruction via the Internet with various technology, and giving learners materials that are most effective for them. So it's nice to see he's using what he's been researching. Okay, enough about Wiley.

There was a lot of content packed in this course. I liked both the individual comments directly on my posts and the synthesis or highlight posts. When Wiley stopped the comments and went back to the synthesis posts and we were supposed to respond to others' postings for the last three readings, I chose to leave individual comments on others' blogs rather than do my own synthesis post. The comments just seem a little more direct and personal. That said, I liked being able to see everything in one place. Either way, hopefully we boosted each other's pageranks by all the interlinking. For the future, a little more coordination and training up front on how to set up a feed reader and properly tag everything so it is easier to see everything in one place would be very beneficial. That is the power of the tools we used, but I don't believe we really harnessed that power. Or maybe just I didn't.

During the semester, I found myself citing articles we read in this course in papers I wrote for other professors. I also cited papers from other classes in my postings here. I plan on going back through some of the papers I've written over the past year and posting several of them here. For some reason it's just a little easier to find and cite my own writing when it's out in one spot on the web for me to access anywhere, instead of scattered among the four USB drives I carry around, my laptop, home computer, work computer, several wikis, and Google Docs.

In my day job, I'm in charge of Computer and Information Literacy at USU. We're currently starting the process to hammer out a statewide agreement so we have at least a minimum level of competency across all the local higher ed institutions. I have included in my recommendations that students should be able to contribute content via a wiki. I am also suggesting that in addition to teaching about copyright, plagiarism, and piracy that we make sure we teach fair use and the CC and GFDL licensing of content. I put together a wiki page and invited the representative from each school to put their recommendations there. One tried and couldn't get it to save right. Another school emailed me to post it for them. I've seen nothing from the rest. I sincerely hope we can keep up with the new kids, both their needs as well as their strengths, so we can really provide them something useful, not just a lame, out of touch test.

Brittany G (from Flickr)As I've been reading and writing a bit about virtual communities lately and thinking about how something along those lines might work for a dissertation topic, I've been impressed by the community in this class. I've communicated more with many members of this online class than I have with the people in my face to face statistics class I'm in right now. Other than a few of us that do stats homework together, I never talk to anyone. For this class, it was a little bit of a slow start, but we had to give time for half the class to drop out to really get going. Conversations started up pretty quickly on what people thought about how the class was going, and changes were made because of that. The conversations about the content were fantastic. The added diversity by having so many countries represented added valuable depth to the course, with many more points of view to consider. Now that it's over, a few people set up a wiki to keep the community alive. That's great. There are some people in this class that will make a real difference in the lives of a lot of people.

Do No Evil

I recently discovered Cory Doctorow. Apparently he's pretty well known. I had never heard of him until I stumbled upon some of his writings in searching for articles related to a paper I was writing. Of course, I ended up reading a bunch of his stuff instead of what I needed for my paper.

He has a fun story called Scroogled where he pictures a world in which Google turns evil.

I haven't gotten to it yet, but I'm looking forward to reading his When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth, when I get a minute.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Time Keeps on Slippin Slippin Slippin

mtstradling (from Flickr)As I look into the future of higher education and the impact of the OER movement, I read OpenCourseWars again, having read it a couple times recently. A problem of this particular fictitious history, which simply requires some amount of suspension of disbelief, is the short amount of time in which the story takes place. It seems unlikely that any major changes in higher education generally could occur in a 7 year span, especially given several court cases and multiple levels of appeals, which themselves probably take most of that time. Then there's the part where Google becomes evil, but I digress, as that is not really the point of the story. What's important is the discussion of the problems with the CC-NC clause, license compatibility issues between GFDL and CC, and the explosion of the sharing culture.

My first prediction is that we will have compatible versions of the GFDL and CC licenses by 2010, although concessions will have to be made on both sides, and they will not be fully compatible. There will be certain versions of both that play together. Some people will care and use the license-exchange option, and some will continue not to care and mix them anyway.

My second prediction is that as new collaboration and communication tools are created and distributed over the next 10-15 years, more virtual schools like WGU will pop up, and the jucos, tech schools, and for-profit institutions will embrace collaborative education methods. Broadband access will finally become universal and inexpensive after a narrow vote in Congress funds a major investment in infrastructure, as lobbied for by Google. The two major options will be wireless and powerline networking. With increased access a whole new market of potential nontraditional students will open up. With the lower-tier schools enabling and empowering their students, the research universities will have no choice but to adjust their practices to remain competitive. The top-tier schools will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the collaborative age and then will immediately turn around and congratulate themselves on their innovative practices (like how the cellphone companies fought against phone number portability, but now tout it as a great feature since they were forced to implement it).

My third prediction (a subset of number two) is that the textbook industry will go away as we know it. As Wikipedia and its sister projects continue to grow, the younger professors, who are adept at Web 2.0 tools and who resent their professors that forced them to spend $1,000 per semester on out of date textbooks, will stop requiring textbooks for their courses. It will be a slow process, and some form of printed textbook will always be around, but the demand will eventually diminish.

My fourth prediction (also more details on number two) is that these young professors will adopt new teaching methods that leverage student and alumni knowledge and information-gathering skills to develop their lesson plans, giving them more time to complete their research. That won't last long, though, as many faculty positions will become 12-month, rather than 9-month appointments to deal with the increasing numbers of students and their tendency to take classes year-round, since many classes can be done from any location.

My fifth prediction is that my children will not remember a time when you had to pay for long distance phone calls. Okay, so that doesn't have much to do with OER or higher education, but that will be the seamless nature of technology within a few years, and openness will be expected in all facets of life.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


An important sentence from an article I recently read regarding evaluation was, “There is a need to help evaluators consider the way in which usability and learning interact.” That was the whole point of the article, so it was nice to see it directly stated in the introduction. To back up this claim, they present two well known evaluation checklists that fail to address the learning component to software, focusing more on usability of the software.

The Jigsaw Model, meant to address this need, follows a multi-level approach that addresses various tasks involved in both learning concepts and using the software. After addressing them independently, it looks at the relationships among the various concepts. While I’m not particularly interested in evaluation, it does (or should) permeate all steps of the design process, and I do like the focus on the integrated view, showing how everything fits together. Often courses will teach specific concepts or skills without relating them to the general field and without any help in figuring out how it all might be used in the real world.

I am interested in Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory. Much of the software side of the Jigsaw Model fits in with the need to reduce extraneous cognitive load. That is, as students spend time learning to use a specific piece of software or trying to integrate it with their computer’s speakers or printer, extraneous cognitive load is present. That is, students are spending time trying to figure out something other than what they are supposed to be learning. Unless the class is about troubleshooting printers or HCI, when there are problems, the students stop learning to take care of these other issues. Students shouldn’t have to deal with poorly written software when trying to learn.

Germane Cognitive Load (the good kind) is the processing and storing information that is being learned. By manipulating and working with the materials being learned, students will learn to understand it better. The anti-test-cramming argument would come into play here, with little likely germane load experienced when students just try to memorize a bunch of words right before the test. Without constructing schema to help figure out how everything being learned fits together, there is no context, and everything will be forgotten after the test. It is unfortunate that our education system seems so intent on tests. Performance on tests is rewarded, even though the process in preparing for tests often gets in the way of students being able to really focus on digging deep into the material for the class.

Squires & Preece point out that successful learning will involve students relating concepts and skills being taught to concepts and skills previously learned and used in that field of study. Usability issues need to not only keep from getting in the way of facilitating learning, but will ideally be designed to promote it. That integration of learning tasks and usability tasks is key in minimizing extraneous cognitive load and encouraging germane cognitive load.

Squires, D., & Preece, J. (1996). Usability and learning: Evaluating the potential of educational software. Computers & Education, 27(1), 15-22.

Internet-based Communities

I mentioned an article about online communities and how the framework presented applies to the learning objects community. There were some other general points of the article that I thought I should follow up on.

Online communities tend to be successful or not in their own right, but well-designed software can facilitate an increase in productivity. With the many Web 2.0 tools available to us, along with pervasive connectedness, we see increased collaboration. It is becoming less necessary for communities to have to spend much time creating technology to suit their needs, other than simply choosing from many pre-existing tools and perhaps extending the tools' capabilities by mashing up with another tool. For a great matrix of tools that can be combined to form something new, see ProgrammableWeb's Mashup Matrix. For an awesome mashup example, see the Ad Generator, which combines photos from Flickr with components of real corporate slogans for moving, yet meaningless advertisements that you could spend an hour watching.

I thought it was interesting when de Souza talked about emoticons as symbols that take the place of body language and that some are close "to becoming a stable conventional symbol that can be universally understood by the computer literate population." Being involved in computer literacy myself, I would hope that the ethereal goal is not only to standardize upon symbols that computer literates can understand, but that our collective grandma could use also. That point is addressed in a way I hadn’t thought about before, when de Souza discusses how software designers communicate both directly and indirectly with their users. The direct communication is through help files and FAQs, and the indirect communication is how the designer works through the software to help users know how to interact with the system in order to achieve their goals. I might almost reverse those and call the help files indirect communication and the system interaction direct. Yes, a help system consists of the words of the designers directly handed to the user to explain what is going on; however, this communication only happens if something went wrong in the interface. The fact that someone is looking through the help means that something has broken down between the user and the tool. The user is knocked out of “the zone” and extraneous cognitive load begins to increase as the user has to try to figure out how to use the help system in order to help them learn how to use the primary system.

I’m actually interested in some of these design and usability issues as they relate to communities. The individual implications are important and factor into a lot of what I do for work, but the richness of experience that is gained through teamwork, especially as facilitated through the use of technology is very exciting with all the resources available to us now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Call for Mashups

Greg called for some lighthearted and creative mashups to celebrate Wiley's 10th birthday. Here's to 10 more years!

Unfair Mashup
Original photo by jylcat

I should have mentioned, but didn't, that the picture in my last posting was dedicated to Erik.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Learning Objects Community

I recently read an article by de Souza & Preece (2004) about online communities. Specifically, they point out two components by which an online community can be assessed: sociability (people, purposes, and policies) and usability (software). In their framework, these two components have to be aligned to produce success. Any community (whether online, offline, or a hybrid) will have sociability factors that change as the people (or purposes or policies) in the community change. For any online community, the software has to work with those people, purposes, and policies. They continue on to discuss Semiotics and HCI and how communication takes place among users and designers. The important part, I thought, was that everyone is communicating all the time, but the message doesn't always get across how we expect it.
In the Learning Objects community, Wiley points out that since much of the work with implementing learning objects, defined by some as reusable (purpose) resources, was done by software engineers (people), who wanted to ensure that content systems were technically interoperable (policy). How usable are the software and standards we ended up with? Well to give you a hint, people don't use them. They use tagging and RSS, which are simple and friendly for all the non-engineers that are actually trying to develop and share content for teaching, rather than IEEE's LOM and other complex metadata implementations that the software engineering community designed. With two distinct communities, it is no wonder that tools developed by one were not usable for the other.

Since Learning Objects have been respawned as Open Educational Resources (OER), the usability side of de Souza's framework has changed to match the needs of educators and learners without software engineering degrees. OER are simply placed online so they can be easily found and licensed to allow reuse and localization.

How well do sociability and usability match now? It's better. When I google a term, whether related to statistics, learning theory, etc., I often find myself looking for the Wikipedia entry, and it often shows up right at or near the top of the results. Why do I look for it? The articles are consistently formatted, generally well-written, and I can use the material I find because of its GFDL license. The fact that Wikipedia shows up at the top of so many search results means that a lot of other people are using that content as well. There are still licensing compatibility issues and a need for more content to be contributed, but both are happening. It just takes time; learning objects haven't been dead that long.

deSouza, C. S., & Preece, J. (2004). A framework for analyzing and understanding online communities. Interacting with Computers, 16(3), 579-610.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Tracing Learner Practices

Barab, et al. discuss [Barab, S. A., Hay, K. E., Barnett, M., & Squire, K. (2001). Constructing virtual worlds: Tracing the historical development of learner practices. Cognition and Instruction, 19(1), 47-94.] participative learning environments (PLEs) as providing a learning process where students collaborate with peers to solve problems (student-based), rather than sit through the more common didactic, lecture-based (teacher-centered) process. Instead of lecturing on a topic and expecting students to draw their own connections to the real world, Barab suggests that knowing and doing cannot be separated.

It was interesting how the solar system group was struggling with the teacher trying to control her group and both sides being frustrated until the teacher gave up and the students gladly began running their own show. Much of what they did, however, was based on teacher direction. I wondered what training or instructions the teachers had received in this study. Each of the participants reflected on their goals and expectations and whether they were met. It generally seemed that the students were happy with what they had done, since they were fully aware of the time they put in and understood the compromises they made to complete the projects. For the camp directors, it seemed that the theater project, which was more driven by the students, met more of their expectations, while the solar system group’s teacher-directed approach met fewer expectations. Even so, in both groups the students learned and experienced changing group dynamics and were able to teach each other things they had learned one-on-one with one of the technical experts (adults). Much of the instruction, then, was just-in-time and context-specific.

Although the students used computer-based tools to perform many of their tasks, this study was not about the use of technology, rather about group dynamics, relationships, timing of instruction, and real-world experience. This study has many similarities with Problem Based Learning (PBL), although the lack of training and buy-in on the part of the teachers (especially the solar system teacher) causes it to diverge from a true PBL model. Although, for anyone that has had a micromanaging boss, the solar system group might have had the more real-world experience.

The discussion of how the introduction of technological artifacts was interesting. Two points were made: that certain artifacts (the glue gun) may reduce the need for students to learn or understand certain concepts and that other artifacts (predeveloped door) can undermine individuals or communities that are less efficient or become devalued. I recently posted about the book The World is Flat, and my first thought was that the devalued person needs to get over it, just like the people whose jobs are outsourced to India need to retool. If your job can be done by a shell script, then why are you still here? However, as I’ve reflected on Barab’s point, I see he is talking about teachers and designers of PLEs and the need to be aware of the potential impacts of artifacts introduced into an environment. It’s not that they shouldn’t be introduced, but that they should be implemented for a reason, with the teacher being aware of possible implications of their introduction. Some of the most important concepts can be learned and most creative ideas generated during a Storming stage of team development, when group members are fighting for control or direction because of some change to the group, but the teacher should be aware of such changes and ready for them.