Saturday, February 09, 2008

Creating Educational Websites that Matter

By now everyone and every institution has a website and there is a lot of good information available. However, most of us probably have some sense that we haven't yet found very satisfactory ways of creating educational websites or online platforms that have the qualities for functions that seem to take full advantage of the Internet. In a recent article, Better Than Free, Kevin Kelly describes properties of the information on the Internet that have value beyond the content of the information itself. He provides a lot of interesting ideas about how to approach online education and what is often missing from our online educational enterprises.

Kelly's first point is that the cost of reproducing digital content has been reduced to almost nothing. He describes the Internet as a huge copying machine that can produce copies over and over, copies of text, video, sound, etc. So he asks the question, what can't be copied? He suggests these things that can't be copied may be the qualities that are valuable in a time cheap copies.

He identifies nine generative values or properties that he suggests have "intangible value that we buy when we pay for something that could be free." I have tried to link these to aspects of education.
  1. Trust of the source. Everyone can produce information about a topic, but people and institutions that have developed a long-standing reputation for providing information based on science or technical expertise have a special value. The value of "trust" reminds us why established schools and institutions have a huge advantage over newly created "online universities" that have to build a reputation. At the same time those established institutions who create a poor online presence will be damaged. Increasingly, many people will use an institution's online presence as a basis for judging their quality.
  2. Immediacy. Getting what you want easily and without effort is worthwhile, perhaps especially in a time of infoglut; it is powerful to obtain information via email or feeds directly to you. Also, for people who have special interests in a topic, there can be attention to the most uptodate information. Our ability to communicate new scientific information beyond an almost exclusive scientific community is very limited. The Internet provides a much faster method of translating new scientific information to people than what we could do in F2F classrooms and textbooks.
  1. Personalization. Most information on the web is very generic-- specific information or answers to your questions or your needs is valuable. One specific example is a newsletter tailored to the age of your child so that you get information about topics that are common at a particular time in a child's life. The closer that we can get to creating information a person needs the more value this will be. For example, two people may both need to learn geometry, but the odds are that we not be at exactly the same level. A good pre-test that more closely identifies the right place to start learning would be very valuable. There are huge opportunities to personalize learning. Students at any level don't necessarily need the same "dose" of a topic.
  2. Interpretation, Guidance or Explanation. If reading the textbook were all it took to learn most subjects, there would have never been schools, but most of the time it is helpful to have someone around to answer questions, extend the meaning of the text or connect ideas together for more meaning. MIT can make it's lectures and course materials available for free, but if you want to get the guidance of a MIT instructor, you have to pay a hefty price.
  3. Authenticity. This is related to trust. Certain people or institutions have a reputation of providing a certain quality of information.
  4. Accessibility or Organization. Kelly describes the value of ease of access, but I also think that obtaining things in an organized structure or the ability to create various organized structures is valuable. The value of an encyclopedia or wikipedia is that it is organized in a way that you can easily understand how to navigate the information. There would also be value in tools that would allow you to assemble your own personal wikepedia. "Tagging" is great for anchoring various pieces of information, but creating your own structured resource would be even more valuable.
  5. Embodiment. Here Kelly acknowledges that sometimes it is worth having a physical object like the actual DVD, CD or book. The National Academy of Sciences makes all their books available for free online and anyone can read these books on the Web, but if you want to get the physical book, you pay for it. They report that they have been selling more books since they have been making them freely accessible. Sometimes it is helpful to have the "whole thing" rather than just the parts.
  6. Patronage. Kelly writes, "It is my belief that audiences WANT to pay creators." Maybe this is naive, but there is some truth here. It should remind us that we should always provide a means for our students/audience to contribute to the work.
  7. Findability. When Kelly talks about this quality, he has Amazon in mind in regards to aggregating lots of books together and creating tools so that customers can find other similar books or can read reviews that provide guidance to potential buyers. This is another quality that also has potential applicability to educational enterprises. It is easy to find lots of information about almost any topic regarding children and families, but it is rare to have the opportunity to read other people's comments about those articles. These comments would provide others with more insight about the value about the particular article. Likewise, it is rare that one bit of information leads to more extended information in any logical or valuable way. If I am searching for what to do with a child that is biting, I might also be interested in other negative behaviors in young children, managing children in group settings, general topics related to young children, and so forth. Creating good paths and directions through the mass of information is more valuable than ever.
Good educational websites cannot simply be more information, they need attend these qualities and include tools that address these issues for their clients.

1 comment:

jessica said...
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