Saturday, January 28, 2006

Gillmor's failure a lesson for elearning bloggers

One of the early champions of blogging as a method of revolutionizing many aspects of society was Dan Gillmor, a tech columnist in the Bay area he has been a strong voice of citizen journalism.

This is roughly the idea of engaging lots of people in researching and writing stories about various topics in the news and world. In short, people working together to create their news and informaton business rather than relying on a few professionals. It's an interesting idea and there is certainly evidence that some elements of this idea are at work and may eventually evolve into interesting new media outlets, but Gillmor's project is over for now. In this letter to his readers he talks about why this didn't work. Some of the reasons he discusses such as his own interests, passions, and skills are worth reflecting on, but some of the reasons are important for others who are trying to develop various types of interactive participant-engaging communities. In particular, I am thinking of people who are attemping to develop robust elearning blogging enterprises.

He doesn't say this directly other than saying the site didn't take off as expected, but I think what he means is that there may not be that many people who are prepared to spend the time necessary to make significant news contributions in their spare time.

Here are some quotes from Gillmor's letter to the Bayosphere Community that I think we should reflect on:
Citizen journalists need and deserve active collaboration and assistance. They want some direction and a framework, including a clear understanding of what the site's purpose is and what tasks are required.
This is a reminder that there are reasons for editors and copy editors and others who pay attention to the structure and big picture of helping people accomplish their work and present their information in coherent packages.
The tools available today are interesting and surprisingly robust. But they remain largely aimed at people with serious technical skills -- which means too ornate and frequently incomprehensible to almost everyone else.
This is hard for many of the early tech developers to understand, but even the current relatively simple blogging tools require more sophistication that we realize.
Tools matter, but they're no substitute for community building. (This is a special skill that I'm only beginning to understand even now.)
This may be the most important point in the whole article. Just because you can create communities in cyberspace, it doesn't mean that you will. Creating community whether F2F or in cyberspace is a skill, process all its own that doesn't have anything to do with technology. It is also a skill that is considerably more difficult than learning how to create an elearning blog. All of us who are interested in creating participant-engaging learning environments need to spend more time thinking about the "community" aspect of this work.
Though not so much a lesson -- we were very clear on this going in -- it bears repeating that a business model can't say, "You do all the work and we'll take all the money, thank you very much." There must be clear incentives for participation, and genuine incentives require resources.
Although Gillmor here is I think referring to people being paid, it is one more reminder about the importance of community. People will participate in many different activities without monetary pay if there are other incentives or reasons for participating-- love of the activity, to help others, to reciprocate others who have helped them, etc. Again this is all about community-building.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Folding@Home--is this what elearning is all about?

At Stanford University a group of scientists has been involved in an interactive science experiment involving understanding proteins in various diseases.

Now I don't imagine they think of this work as teaching about biology and such, although I don't know. They need a lot of computing power so much of their effort has been to try to harness other's to help them by contributing computer power. This is an example of "distributed computing." Rather than them processing all the data, they have written a program that you can download and let your computer run. When your computer completes its analysis it returns the results to them. What to contribute to this interesting experiment-- download the software here.

If just the chance to "fold a protein" isn't engaging enough, read some of their results, participate in one of their communities, see a map of all the computer/people processing this data across the world. Getting intrigued now? They hope so.

My computer geek son found this work when he was a teen.... I kept finding the computer on all night long and was wondering what was happening. Despite my repeated insistence that he turn the computer off at night, it continued to run over a couple of weeks. Finally, he let on..... he was folding proteins..... he was interested in the distributed computing aspect more than the biology, but still one evening at dinner he described reading the latest results published in recent issues of Science. When some of the software had a problem on some types of computers, he wrote a simple fix to the problem. In the course of this work, he got feedback from other programmers who suggested ways to streamline his computer code. In short, he participated in an interesting learning environment that taught him some science and some computing.

This work seems like an interesting way to build elearning.

Clifford Stoll's challenge to elearning

Probably one of the most consistent voices to question the value of the Internet in the classroom is Clifford Stoll. Recently, he debated Carol Twigg, National Center for Academic Transformation about the value of computers in the classroom.

Here are a couple of excepts from Stoll's comments:

I'm a reactionary. Technology is fun to play with. There are lots of cool gizmos. But does it belong in the classroom? Are our students well served by it? Increasing I feel that the answer is no....

I want to see in students curiosity, enthusiasm, a yearning to work hard, a willingness to confront and grapple with interesting questions. If you want to destroy curiosity, you couldn't think of a better way to do it than hook somebody up to a fire hose of information, so that any question they could possibly have would be answered just by typing ""

So, what's the effect of computers in the classroom? They take our mind off what should be happening in a class. They point us at a cool-looking screen with flashy graphics and let us shop for sneakers while the teacher is speaking....

If you want a quality education, it's going to be expensive. The same thing applies to education as applies to food. You can have cheap food, you can have good food, you can have fast food. If you want fast education, and you treat your students as if they are items on a conveyor belt, you can do it. But your quality will suffer, however you measure that.

What I want to get out of a learning experience is inspiration. A sense of direction, a sense of, Hey, I'm connected to a human being.

I've yet to see one Web site that's inspiring. I was weaned on filmstrips in the 1960s, but I can't even remember the titles of three of them, while I remember every teacher that I had at Buffalo Public School 61. I remember every teacher I had at Millard Fillmore Junior High School. I remember my teaching assistant in introductory freshman English.

What's the most important thing in a classroom? It's a motivated student and a good teacher. Anything that comes between them — whether it's a filmstrip, an instructional movie, an educational video, a cool high-definition Web site, or an iPod — may seem like lots of fun to students. But will it be good for learning? Will it be good for inspiration? Will students remember it? (from the Chronicle of Higher Education, December 9, 2005, p. B12-14.)

It is easy to agree with many of these comments by Stoll. But haven't we all also seen really bad teaching? Stoll says that he has never seen an inspiring film strip or website, but is it possible to build a website that engages students in a topic and then build interaction tools that engage that student who are also interested in that same topic. Can you only be inspired by people? Can you name a movie that inspired you? A book? A research study? Lots of things inspire us besides people?

U of North Carolina Students on eLearning

The editorial board of the The Daily Tarheel wrote the following:

In today's high-speed society, online courses are comparable to Super Wal-Mart. Both offer low-priced goods and both are convenient for people from all walks of life.

And just like with Wal-Marts, we would like to see more and more of this service popping up.

With the help of that technology, people across the state - not just college students on campuses - can receive a high-quality education from distinguished universities without having to leave the comfort of their own homes.

Grab a comfy desk chair and a computer, and you're all set.

What do you think about this? Is elearning the wave of the future? Is elearning like a Super Walmart? What about quality? Will this matter? Can we provide the quality of education in a elearning format that is comparable to F2F?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Future of Higher Education

Ann Kirschner, Founder of Comma Internation, wrote this in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

I predict that the day will come wihen the commitment to a four-year residential program will seem arachronisitic to students, and certainly to their tuition-weary parents. The most competetive students will veer away from the sychronized long march to graduation, in favor of more individualized and creative learning experiences that weave a tapestry of classroom, independent-study, distance-learning, internship, and other educational elements. Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec 9, 2005, p. B6.

In this quote Kirschner reminds us that the learners that may be most underserved by much of today's higher education programs are those students who can move past the basic course material and seek additional learning opportunities. At least in part our efforts at elearning should especially focus on developing learning environments that engage these self-directed, self-motivated learners.

Children online - What are they doing?

There are a lot of articles and rampant speculation about the coming changes in society and education due to children spending time on the Internet. In large part much of this talk is based on very little evidence about what young people are actually doing online.

Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science has been doing some of the best research to see what children are actually doing online.

One of her key findings is that children are mostly using the Internet for communication with friends. Twenty-nine percent of children (ages 9-11) and 31% of childrne (18-19) are more likely to choose books to help with homework. This suggests that for many children the Internet is not necessarily a powerful "learning" tool.

Saturday, January 21, 2006 as a sample of my online teaching ideas

In about 2000 I was a major designer of the website, which was an effort to create a website for family members about important concerns that they have.

One of the strategies was to create short (50-100) word answers to questions that family members were likely to have. The idea was to provide a lot of short answers to specific questions and then organize these in ways that led to deeper and richer information on this same topic.

Here is a sample of what we did. One common question about divorce is-- what is the divorce rate in the United States? We provide the answer here and then at the bottom of this page is a link to a longer article on the demographics of divorce that provides more information on divorce statistics. On the page there are links to some of original U S Census Bureau data for those people who really want to learn more about divorce rates, trends, etc.

We know from watching how people naviagate through the site that the path that we created is followed by a number of users of the website. The other evidence we have of our success is that this particular page with the short answer quickly became one of the most popular pages found when people searched for "United States divorce rate." Today at least it continues to be the first or second item on a Google search.

A critical idea in our development of this website is that each "answer" to a question should be coherent, meaning unit of information and users would not have to follow the links to get the whole idea. They only had to follow the link if they wanted more information.

Student Faculty Partnerships in Higher Education

Yesterday I participated in a workshop about student-faculty parternships in learning that was conducted by Dr. Anna Ball and Dr. Neil Knobloch in the Department of Human and Community Development at UIUC. (See Ball and Knobloch's learner-center teaching website.)

There were a lot of good ideas, but I came away especially intrigued by the idea of involving more students in the teaching process. We constantly talk about the need to invovlve students actively in learning. Perhaps on the best ways is to re-think our notion of what it means to be a student. At present the rough the division of labor is generally the teacher provides educational experiences and the student receives these teaching experiences. What if we assumed that in every instance students would always be expected not only to learn from the teacher, but would always be expected to have some role in teaching. This teaching might be in the same classroom as they are enrolled for learning, but it might also be students in another setting outside of this specific classroom. The point is that sometime during any class or learning situation, students would be expected to convert some knowledge, skill or experience into a learning experience for others.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Stephen Downes' ideas about education and blogging

One of the most interesting commentators on elearning is Stephen Downes. Recently, he wrote an article in eLearn Magazine in which he suggests that the "read-write" internet will completely transform education. He titles the article E-learning 2.0. This is article to read to get a feel for where elearning might be headed.
Another interesting article by Downes is in Educause Review (sept/oct 2004) titled Educational Blogging. In this article he describes some of the ways that teachers and students have been using blogs. Much of this is still happening in elementary and high schools and not in higher education.

Here is one nice quote from this article, "The process of reading online, engaging a community, and reflecting it online is a process of bringing life to learning."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

First Post

I thought I would try this blogging thing out. I have been creating various elearning websites, etc. for 10 years so it seemed like about time to try this version of elearning to see what happens.