Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A lesson from the BBC about elearning

In David Weinberger's new book, Everything is Miscellaneous (2007) I have been struck by one particular example that I think we should heed as elearning educators. On page 112 he gives an example of the BBC's efforts to make their content available digitally. Weinberger writes,

" The BBC system standardizes over three hundred different attributes that may apply to recorded material, including subject, producers, language, length, type of media, even whether it has won any awards."

I am thinking that if radio and television requires 300 attributes to capture all the dimensions of this work, how many attributes do we need for learning materials. I am thinking that we have underestimated the extent of metadata that we need to add to text, images, etc. in order to make this material easily usable by other teachers. We have not understood the conceptual work that we need to do to make learning materials easily modular for use by others.

Weinberger also reports that Tom Coates and Matt Webb also have given much thought to how find programming, navigate it and use it. They ended up with a decision that the "the most useful object-- the one that accords best with how the audience thinks about programming-- was an episode, ..." Here is another lesson for elearning designers. Have we figured out the right "unit of teaching" or "unit of learning" for our audience? Is this different for teachers than students? It seems to me that rather than work on "microlearning" or "learning objects" we might be better off trying to figure out the "most useful object" for our audience.

What is microlearning and is it a useful idea?

I recently stumbled on to "microlearning.org" which has held several international meetings and produced a series of conference papers about this topic. On the one hand, I am pleased by some of the ideas that I have read in these papers, but I still think that we are using the term of "learning" in a much too loose fashion. Consider the following statements:

“The developments of computers, Internet and mobile phones in the last ten years have transformed our living, working and learning environments to such an extent that we are actually continuously engaged in microlearning” (p. 7). [emphasis mine]

“Microlearning” has become the most common everyday practice in the information society. It’s the way we breathe in information and exhale communication” (p. 7).

(Source: Bruck, P. A (2006). What is microlearning and why care about it? In T. Hug, M. Lindner, P.A. Bruck (Eds.), Micromedia and e-learning 2.0: Gaining the big picture (pp. 7-10). Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press. http://www.microlearning.org/MicroConf_2006/Microlearning_06_final.pdf)

Are the above statements true? Are we really learning in these exchanges? This seems somewhat true to me, but how is this different to listening to television or the radio? Clearly, some learning is taking place, but this seems like at least an imcomplete notion of learning. Is exposure to ideas enough for learning? Shouldn't a person get feedback about their knowledge on a topic and doesn't this lead to more informed learning or knowledge?

On the Relationship between microcontent and learning objects

This chapter describes the relationship between microcontents and learning objects.

Definition of microcontent:

“A [very] small unit of digital information that is self-contained, individually referable/addressable, allowing use/re-use in different loosely structured macro-contexts and macro-containers” (p. 297).

“a microcontent piece with educational purpose plus metadata describing the piece itself and it educational usages may be considered as a regular learning object. However, the microcontent vision entrails those descriptions should come from subjective personal views of the world., e.g., those views offered by blog authors” (p. 296).

I am not sure about most of the middle of this article as it seems to focus on the engineering side of the problem of building repositories.

The concluding paragraph is telling about what remains to be done:

“ On the conceptual side, the main open problem is how to embed micro-pedagogies or micro-didatics into usable ontologies, so that software tools can be developed to aid humans in the setting of microlearning contexts—but for this, studies of learning theories must come before actual ontology engineering” (p. 302).

This captures one of the biggest problems in the use of terms like learning objects and microlearning—it is not at all clear how the “learning” part gets folded into the definitions. At present we do not have a metadata formulation that captures of the “learning” or “educational” dimensions of these data.


Sanchez-Alonso, S., Sicilia, M., Barriocanal, E., & Armas, T. (2006). In T. Hug, M. Lindner, P.A. Bruck (Eds.), Micromedia and e-Learning 2.0: Gaining the big picture (pp. 295- 303). Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Microcontent is Everywhere

Leene 2006 Microcontent is Everywhere

MicroContent are self-contained indivisible structured pieces of content, which have a single focus and a unique address for (re-)findability” (p. 25).

He suggests there are five common characteristics of a unit of microcontent—focus, structure, self-contained, indivisible, and addressability.

Focus refers to the idea that the content focuses on a single thing, a single idea, a single topic. He gives the examples of a blog post on one topic, a review of a single book, a music track, etc.

(I don’t think this works very well. Is a book on microlearning a document that focuses on one topic? And is a review of two related books in the same article disqualify it as a piece of microcontent? He is trying to provide a definition of “small” but this is very difficult, because small depends on the context. A book is small in the context of a library, but it is large compared to a paragraph.

Structure is an interesting idea. This is an attempt at specifying the appropriate metadata that should accompany microcontent. He lists the following basic elements for a structure:



Tags (keywords)


Creation date/time

Change date/time


I also have some trouble with notions of self-contained and indivisible. These are interesting ideas, but they depend a lot on context.

For teaching and learning I am still troubled by the lack of any information or metadata that captures the information needed for learning—level of difficulty, reading level, etc.

I also wonder how we construct the “difficulty” or “complexity” path through information. This is what teaching is about. I still think the part we haven’t done is to add the metadata about learning to our content.

In this article I am most disappointed in the discussion of microcontent types. The “types” seem to be based on information technology formats, eg., text used in blog posts is different than text used in a recipe because they have different data formats. This leads to an infinite number of types of microcontent formats. Maybe this is okay, but I am not sure.

This also causes me to wonder about a format for “learning content.” This is roughly what people were trying to do with “learning objects” but again we got stuck in the technical specification that had little to do with the context of learning.

Again I find myself wondering if what is wrong with our efforts in this area is that we still don’t have the right metadata descriptions attached to text, images, etc.

I also find myself asking whether we need to develop a "learning content" standard? Is that what people were trying to do with learning objects?

Maybe the problem with learning objects is that we don't have the right metadata description attached to text, images, etc.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Education Needs to Embrace Miscellany?

I am about half-way through David Weinberger's new book, Everything is Miscellaneous (2007). In this book Weinberger suggests that order can emerge out of the miscellaneous disorder of the web.

In short, he suggests that when people are not restricted to the order of the physical realm or even the order of simple physical forms of metadata systems (e.g., the Dewey decimal system or the index in the back of a book), then people can create many new orders (he calls them "third orders") that reflect a particular individual.

These ideas have many implications. I have been thinking about the problems of learning objects and the sharing of teaching materials in general. Most of us expected that as teaching materials were converted from classroom lectures and textbooks to online modes, then there would be much more sharing and construction of courses from web-based teaching materials. Well, mostly this hasn't happened. There are probably lots of reasons, but I have begun to think that we have never gotten the model right for sharing teaching materials. If you look at most of the stuff that we share in repositories like Merlot, you find that we share whole courses, or lectures or web-based laboratory exercises. These are all nice, but they aren't easily adapted to another course or another teaching activity. In short, we don't have a third-order system for sharing teaching stuff. We haven't invented the Amazon or Wikipedia for teaching and learning. Maybe the model is out there, but it is not readily apparent.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Status of Learning Objects

On the one hand, writing about learning objects as the solution to better online education has been decreasing, but there is still some discussion of this idea. David Wiley wrote the following:

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these declarations [learning objects are dead] since they started appearing, and I’ve come to the somewhat troubling conclusion that I don’t think I care if learning objects are dead or not.
Almost everyone cites his original definition of learning objects so it is interesting that he has come to this conclusion.

In another article, Michael Feldstein writes that there is no such thing as a learning object and goes on to say

I believe the term "learning object" has become harmful. It hides the same old, bad lecture model behind a sexy buzz phrase.
I think we may be giving up on the idea of learning objects too soon. I think Wiley is correct in saying that the current way of thinking about learning objects is dead or perhaps a deadend. I also think Feldstein is correct in saying that "learning objects" got a lot of buzz, but maybe there wasn't that much there.

Perhaps the most telling is that Wikipedia has a note in May 2007 on the "learning objects" page that says this article maybe confusing or unclear for some readers.

If even the Wikipedians can't figure out how to talk about "learning objects" we are really in trouble.

I think what has discouraged a lot of people is that efforts to develop learning objects and repositories has proven to be much more difficult than anyone imagined. Teaching and learning is complex and has many dimensions. We were naive to think that we could easily create online learning that would overcome all the complexity that exist.

However, I think we should still work on the ideas of sharing learning materials and the idea of reusing existiing materials. This time we need to do the hard work that it will take to make this happen.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Why hasn't educational technology made teaching more efficient?

The advent of the Internet was supposed to make the work of teaching and learning more efficient. If you read what many of us wrote over the past ten years you will find continuous reference to the idea that computers and the Internet would transform education into a much more efficient process. Few people who have built course websites and been involved with various course management systems (e.g., Web CT, Blackboard, etc.) would say that their work has gotten more efficient.

There have been important efforts to create teaching resource warehouses to store teaching materials-- the most extensive is Merlot which seeks to store a wide range of teaching materials.

Despite some significant strides in this area I think we are still only at the beginning and I think that we have several things wrong with our basic elearning educational model.

Here are my major criticisms of our efforts so far:

1. We haven't gotten the unit of production right. Yochai Benkler states, "The number of people who can, in principle, participate in a project is therefore inversely related to the size of the smallest scale contribution necessary to produce a usable module" (The Wealth of Networks, Chapter 4, 2006, p. 101). I would suggest that whole courses, whole lectures, etc. are too big to include very many participants. Also, materials of this magnitude serve as useful resources if you are teaching similar material, but they are rarely designed in such a way that another teacher can easily incorporate the material into their own teaching/course, etc. This lowers the actual usage of such materials.

2. We haven't opened the doors to full participation in our business of teaching and learning. Few teachers are prepared to let our students help write the curriculum and few of us are willing to invite people outside of education into the work of teaching and learning. Most of us are not willing to trust that anyone but other credentialed experts can contribute meaningfully to teaching and learning in our classrooms.

3. We haven't gotten the basic unit of learning right. We continue to try to teaching online in the same ways that we teach F2F or we try to adapt previous teaching tools to the web (for example, books). Mostly this stuff doesn't work very well. I would suggest that the basic unit of learning is questions and answers. The basic learning exchange is a student asking a question and a teaching giving an answer or a teacher asking a question or being given a problem and asking a student to solve it.

4. We haven't really created learning objects. There has been much talk about developing learning objects and repositories like Merlot make a point of suggesting that they are collecting learning objects, but they are really teaching objects. In other words, they are resources for teachers to use to help students learn, they are not resources that a student can engage with independently to learn something. Both types of materials are needed, but we need to call them by the right names and make this distinction.

5. We haven't really utilized computers, the Internet and web to create really interactive learning situations. There are some interesting new ideas about using games, virtual worlds and the like to create some interactive learning environments, but the level of technical expertise needed to develop these types of resources is very high. Rather than continue to develop another course management system we need an interactive platform to develop learning experiences that can be used by a wide range of educators.

Participatory Education in Universities

"Blogs represent a powerful tool for engaging in these larger public conversations....We make a mistake, though, if we understand such efforts purely in terms of distance learning or community outreach, as if all expertise resides within universities and needs simply to be transmitted to the world. Rather we should see these efforts as opportunities for us to learn from other sectors equally committed to mapping and mastering the current media change" (Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 16, 2007, p. b9-b10)
This quote is how Henry Jenkins describes the evolution of the ways in which universities should begin thinking about how to engage the world in a more participatory fashion.

He goes on to say, "
The modern university should work not by defining fields of study but by removing obstacles so that knowledge can circulate and be reconfigured in new ways."

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Students and the use of technology for learning

Here is a good example of the fact that how students use computers may have no connection to their learning. In this New York Times article, they report that some schools who provided laptops to all their students are abandoning this practice because there is no connection between the computers and learning. Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops

Now one important caution about this article is asking what else happens in classrooms and schools that has nothing to do with learning. And what we missing about schools that does have a connection to learning, but we often overlook it? For example, there is emerging evidence that extra curricula activities improve learning outcomes for students. (See the research by
Dr. Christy Lleras at the University of Illinois We don't know exactly how this works, but these findings should make us more thoughtful about how learning occurs and what happens in schools outside of the classroom that may be important to learning.

Communicating with Today's Undergraduates

I remain skeptical about the various talk about "digital natives" and other terms to use about today's young people. I know that they use various forms of technology to communicate, but I am not sure they use technology to "learn" or at least they don't use it in the ways that I think about learning.

Nevertheless, I am sure that they are using technology to find out information about which colleges to attend and what programs are being offered by various schools. In short, I suspect that most students narrow down their choices of potential schools based on what they learn from the web. But how does this connect with their choice of a major? For example, the well-known majors are probably introduced by a variety of people, but for students interested in psychology and sociology, how would be they find "human development" or "family studies" or "community development?" I don't know and I don't think anyone else knows other than to say that they either know someone or they accidental stumble across this information.

All this leads me to think about how those of us in more invisible majors connect with high school students and how this might be done through technology.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Digital Higher Education Institutions

Here is an interesting effort to begin thinking about how high education institutions might look if you were to start creating one today.


On of the most interesting parts of this effort is that readers of this document can add their own ideas about how they think institutions might change.

One of the most important changes in higher education in the digital world will be creating a system of peer participation and managing this development for learning. This is different than creating social connections on MySpace or with other social networking technologies and yet it takes advantage of these types of tools for a specific purpose of learning.