Friday, December 26, 2008

Micro and Mass Education--2008 in Review

There are the beginnings of both education focused on specialized topics "micro-education" and education that engages large numbers of people "mass-education." There are a number of opportunities and challenges embedded in these efforts.

Specialization (micro-education). Just as the Internet makes it possible for specialized products to find a market in the long-tail, the Internet also affords the opportunity for specialized educational efforts that are targeted to a specific audience. Teachers who are interested in teaching about topics that would not find students in their own school are now able to find interested learners when they open their courses on the Internet. This possibility expands the diversity of topics that can be explored and studied.

Engaging Many People (mass-education). Another trend is that the Internet has created the opportunity to teach courses to a mass audience. There are two examples of these efforts. On the one hand, several people have begun to offer courses in which they invite anyone interested to enroll (See Work Literacy and Role playing & Simulations of Open Education). These efforts are interesting because they present interesting instructional design challenges for the teachers-- how do you provide feedback to 2,000 students? When you invite contributions and input, how do you monitor the quality of the interaction and the new ideas that are introduced? Likewise, as a student how do you get the teacher's attention? Will your questions ever get answered in this mass courses?

Another version of this phenomena is BJ Fogg's ideas about mass interpersonal persuasion, in which he has asserted that the Internet combined with social networking creates the possibility to change behavior in large numbers of people. In particular, he notes that never before have educators had this combination of tools--persuasion, automation, social distribution, rapid cycle, huge social graph, and measured impact. He suggests that creates an enormous potential to educate people and change behavior.

Summary. Both microeducation and mass education deserve to be explored in more detail and a lot of questions need to be asked about how to design these various approaches, when to use these designs and what success can be achieved with these efforts.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bonk's Test for Online Instruction

Curt Bonk provides a humorous, but only too accurate test for what it takes to be an effective online instructor. Here is his test for phase 1, the bar only gets higher from here:
"Phase 1 test. Instructors must put in 100 hours per week and 1,500 hours during an online course. There is a very simple qualifying test here—-potential online instructors are placed in a testing room and asked to try to stay awake for 3 straight days. Toothpicks, Super Glue, coffee, Jolt, Mountain Dew, Fixx, and Red Bull are all freely provided. Those who can stay awake are allowed to venture to Phase 2 of the testing. Those who simultaneously use all the supplied items found in the room can skip Phase 2 and move right to Phase 3."
The sad point here is that those of us who are advocates for using technology often wonder why people don't want to use this technology. Bonk's list is a good reminder of why teaching online is hard, frustrating and challenging and perhaps only approached by the few who can pass his test.

For these approaches to become more commonplace it is up to those of us who think this work is important and ultimately a powerful addition to other instructional approaches to design systems that do not require passing this test.

We are still far from this, but remember that this technology is only 10-15 years old and printed books are 500 years old and lectures are at least 10,000 years old..... not a surprise that we are better at using books and lectures to teach than the web.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

FAQs-- Questions Matter

I have asserted in a variety of places that an important way to structure "learning objects" and ultimately to structure content on the web for use in multiple learning environments is through the use of questions. Today I bumped into a wonderful little quote that I will use in the future whenever I begin conversations about why questions are useful in learning.

"Questions are the door to human wonder" (p. 23). Harvey, S. (1998). Nonfiction matters. York, ME: Stenhouse.

This is a nice way to begin a discussion that questions are at the foundation of learning and when we start with the questions that a learner begins with we can take them through a maze of knowledge in an interesting and useful way that begins to link information to deeper and deeper knowledge and richer questions, but it always seems like the first place to begin instruction is with the learner's own questions.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Encouraging Participation in Online Communities

Understanding participation in online communities is one of the important areas that will help educators and others who are interested in developing and maintaining effective learning communities.

Brian Butler has contributed some important theoretical and empirical findings to our understanding of online community participation (See my summary of Butler et al Building Community Online.) His recent article with several colleagues in the Communications of the ACM (2007, 50(2), 69-73) is another useful contribution.

In main findings is this article are:
  1. Offline interactions are the strongest contributor to posting activity.
  2. Users perceptions of "usefulness of the website" are the strongest predictor of viewing community website material.
  3. Larger communities produce more posts and more views. Small online communities may have great difficulty in surviving.
  4. Efforts by the community leader did not affect online posting or viewing.
In the concluding remarks about these findings, Butler and his colleagues suggest that the importance of "offline interactions" may be less important in high quality information technology (broadband and good conferencing technologies) infrastructures than lower quality structures. They suggest that in this study offline meetings may overcome the problems associated with more cumbersome technology.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that efforts by the community leader did not affect participation. They suggest that leadership may be a foundation building block for establishing the community rather than a factor that affects participation.

These findings provide more clues about creating effective online participation, but we still have much to learn. It is particularly important for us to understand more about the relationship between online relationships and online community building.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What motivates Wikipedians?

The short answer seems to be "to have fun."

Oded Nov at the Polytechnic University, New York recently surveyed Wikipedians about their values and the extent of the time they spent contributing to find out what motivates them. Nov asked contributors to Wikipedia about how much they endorsed various value statements about the degree to which contributing to Wikipedia was a labor of ideology, helpfulness, overcoming negative personal feelings, career enhancing, a chance to learn, or in response to others encouragement and/or just fun.

Wikipedians reported that the main reason they contributed was that it was fun and when Nov correlated this value with the time spent contributing there was a strong positive correlation. Interestingly, the other strongest correlation with the level of contribution was overcoming efforts to overcome personal problems.

Nov doesn't ask any deeper questions, but we are left with a puzzling finding. Is Wikipedia an effective way for people struggling with personal problems to have fun? Are there two different groups of people-- those motivated to have fun and another that is motivated to overcome difficulties. And what does this suggest about encouraging participation in the Web 2.0 world? Should fun be the primary goal?

Note: This report was published in the Communications of the ACM, 2007, 50 (11), 60-64.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Are books still better than websites?

Many edublogs (See Education for Well-being and World without Walls for example) are fond of telling us that learning is now all the network and that the web has become a great open resource that will dramatically improve our ability to educate people. In general, I am in agreement on this matter and share the view that the web is a powerful tool for teaching and learning, but we are still a long way from having the best tools for use in classrooms, especially elementary school classrooms.

The most common criticism of K-12 teachers is that our classrooms are not open to the web and to the resources available there. These classrooms are described as "closed." I am not sure that "traditional" classrooms are as "closed" as these authors' propose. As teachers we have had books for a long time and good teachers have always brought in lots of outside resources (movies, pictures, current events, community members, etc.) to their classrooms. Today they have a new source of material (the web) in which they can bring information and material, but that doesn't mean the classroom was ever a "closed" knowledge space.

The problem with framing the issue as a "network" vs. "closed" system is that we may be ignoring the real issue which is that teachers needs reliable systems of resources that are easily accessible. It is still easier find a useful book for use in your classroom than it is to find an equally useful website when you compare things like credibility, reliability, right level of difficulty, range of activities for your classroom, etc. Yes, you can find this on the web, but it still takes more work. You can google words and find stuff, but most of what you find is not that useful for your classroom or the particular level of your learners. In most cases, it is also up to teachers to judge the credibility of the material that they find on the web. Sometimes this is easy to figure out and sometimes not. (Are always right all the time, of course, not, but at least we know that there has been some editorial review.) Can teachers still find useful stuff, yes, of course, and many are finding it, but we have not paid enough attention to building a robust system that allows teachers to find the right material in easy ways.

It has been assumed that we would build "digital teaching repositories" and there are a few out there, but even these are far less useful to the average teacher.

If we want teachers to use the web, we are going to have to build better tools for them to use.

Adding Richer Credibility to Wikipedia

A central complaint about Wikiepedia is its credibility. (See Wikipedia, Truth and Citations) This past week, Robert McGrath, NCSA, University of Illinois, suggests ideas about how credibility can be added to collaborative community knowledge spaces at 2008 Microsoft eScience Workshop.

McGrath begins with an acceptance that shared knowledge communities like Wikipedia are a given. He suggests that what needs to be added is a more extended way to embed the knowledge, data and sources that form the foundation of the information or knowledge claim. He writes,
"We can imagine a 'better Wikipedia'; with a broader and deeper account of the purported knowledge presented. Rather than a single snapshot of knowledge, the artifact can be a complex web of knowledge including data, computation, and visualizations, and the history of the current artifact. Drilling down from the “article” leads to representations of the history, sources, and processes underlying the claims, including the data and software used, as well as citations and who did what. This enables evaluation of the knowledge (is it credible?), and comparison of
alternative accounts (e.g., using different data or assumptions)."
Unlike many other critics of Wikipedia, McGrath is not suggesting that we abandon the Wikipedia-type of shared knowledge communities, he is trying to add information that fits the Web 2.0 capabilities that makes these collaborative knowledge communities more credible.

He prvides a few suggestions about the types of information that might be available through a "who says so?" button on a Wikipedia article:

  1. Notes by the writer that would comment on the sources of information.
  2. Supporting or related documents (this is already a standard for Wikipedia).
  3. Data, procedures, other information about how the writer arrived at his or her conclusions
  4. Information about affiliations of the author or using Web 2.0 language, he refers to this as "social network information, reputation and trust relations."
He suggests that this accountability cannot be done through a centralized authority. What is needed he says, is
simple reliable mechanisms that enable users to “mash up” the required accountability. ... The general principle is to design flexible and reusable middleware that provides the “right” set of services, without “wiring in” a specific set of assumptions about how the systems must be used.
McGrath also acknowledges that the same level of accountability is not necessary within all types of collaborative communities, he notes, "Infrastructure should provide services that enable communities to implement their own culture of accountability." In short, the credibility of celebrity and/or sports information may evolve a different pattern of credibility than scientific reports.

These ideas are very promising in regards to helping us think about structures for developing a range of educational and scientific web-based collaborative knowledge efforts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Human Communication Eras

In a interesting paper, "Once in a hundred generations" Paul Berkman, writes,
"Once in a hundred generations, every 2000 years, an information technology threshold is reached that changes human capacity to manage and discover knowledge. Invention of the digital medium created such a paradigm shift and we are now faced with the challenge of sustaining the information products generated with this transformational technology."
Berkman goes on to describe the implications of this digital transformation for libraries, but the emergence of digital information has implications for learning and all parts of society that involves knol edge and information. This reminds us how big of a change we are experiencing.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Michael Wesch's Students' Incomplete Vision

Michael Wesch and his students have produced a very provocative video depicting the degree to which today's college students are disconnected from the teachers, classrooms and learning experiences. In large part, the students explain to us that their classroom experiences are outdated or limited compared to their real world and attribute much of this to the pervasive explosion of information via the Web.

This seems like an incomplete explanation. College for many American students has become a commonplace experience. Yes, there are still many first-time students, but for many students this is just another level of an ordinary process of growing up. One doesn't have to go back many years to find a different experience of going to college. It would likely have been the first-time that a young person lived away from his or her family (perhaps even among the very few times they had even traveled more than a few miles from home. Most young people went to work following high school (assuming they competed high school). College was a very special, privileged place.

Yes, the web has opened up new sources of information, but radio and television even opened wider vistas. In the past a new college students would have been exposed to many ideas and experiences that they would have never encountered in their hometowns, now many of these ideas and experiences have been witnessed through television which continues to be the most dominant form of "information technology" used by young people. In short, the college experience is just more ordinary for many students. Most colleges have made many adaptations to this changing landscape, there are more out of class opportunities than ever before for students-- service-learning projects, internships, study abroad, clubs, lectures, programs of every sort. Most undergraduates have opportunities to be engaged in independent research and/or specialized learning projects. The sum total of what a young person learns at college has never been just what happens in the classroom. Perhaps today that is even more the case.

But this does not mean that all is still well in the college experience. Undoubtedly, we can make the classroom experience for interesting and engaging. Web-based technology can give us many more tools to develop effective learning processes. The large lecture hall experience as a dominant form of instruction is certainly in question. Few college instructors will mourn its passing. But despite all the hype about learning via the web, most of the current web-based instructional forms at-best copy the large lecture format-- only now they are on video or voiced-over slides. If a live lecture is boring, watch a few of us for an hour on video and you will long for the live version!

I am optimistic about our ability to transform learning in new and engaging ways with technology and Michael Wesch is one of the pioneers with his development of his World Simulation course which is transforming the instructional process. But it isn't just using technology to replicate what we have done in classrooms in the past, it is adding new ways to engage and interact with ideas and with each other. That is both the challenge and opportunity for educators.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Learning Community Instructional Designs

Creating online learning communities has been on my mind this past week. I continue to think that creating robust learning communities will become an increasingly important part of education so I began to reflect on several recent experiments in teaching and learning and try to see what they suggest:

Here are the three interesting experiments:

Work Literacy

This course was an effort to introduce a variety of Web 2.0 skills to people.

Role playing & Simulations of Open Education (OpenEdSim)

This is a planned course to create a role playing simulation of Open Education in order to help students acquire a variety of skills that are essential to the creation of open educational enterprises.

Engaging the Students in Writing the Text (Wikitextbook)

This course is an example of engaging a group of undergraduates in writing the textbook for the course in which they are enrolled.

Analysis-- some general questions about these efforts.

The questions I found myself asking about all these efforts were the following:

1. How is course content created?

In the Work Literacy course, the basic content was provided by the authors who wrote a brief overview of the technology and linked students to additional, more in-depth resources. In OpenSim, Wiley seems to primarily be linking students to other resources for the basic core content of the program (still in development, this may be wrong). In Wikitextbook, the authors start with the material in the course that was written by students in previous classes.

2. What are the basic learning activities?

In Work Literacy in addition to reading the content, students are invited to ask questions, engage in various activities and post their insights into discussion forums. In OpenSim, students are invited to select one of several roles in the course (e.g., artisan, bard) and prompted to complete a series of quests (active learning activities that require the participants to critically think about a topic and produce a product). In the Wikitextbook course, we don't know a lot about the overall course, but for the contributions to the textbook, we know that students are invited to write about a topic for the course.

3. How are discussions conducted?

Work Literacy includes wide use of social networking technologies and forums in which participants are invited to post their thoughts and reactions to the topics. The forums are moderated by the course instructors. This is not clear with OpenEd or Wikitextbook.

4. What roles do students play in the class?

In Work Literacy the authors make a special point of creating some optional roles that correspond to how engaged the participants want to be. They adopt the Groundswell categories of spectator, joiner and creator and develop specific assignments for participants who want various levels of engagement. In OpenEd, Wiley has defined fun medieval titles for roles-- bard, monk, etc., but these roles don't reflect different levels of participation, they reflect a focus on a different type of content. Wikitextbook doesn't explicitly discuss roles, but nonetheless, invites students to participate in creating the textbook for the class. In contrast, the student is immediately expected not just to be an active participant, but given a specific role as content creator. It appears that students don't have the option of being a spectator or joiner, they must be a creator and will be held accountable for being a creator.

5. How is feedback provided?

This may be the most important difference in these efforts. Work Literacy was designed as a professional development experience. Feedback is happenstance as a result of participation in discussion groups in which there may or may not be feedback about one's ideas. In OpenEd Sim the feedback looks like it is done by the instructor. In Wikitextbooks there is much emphasis and explicit guidance given about students providing feedback to each other. There is a clear expectation that students will learn not only how to create a resource, but they will also be engaged in learning how to evaluate other's work and provide good feedback. (See rating the articles. )

So where is this taking us?

Content creation.
The Wikitext book model holds the most promise in terms of creating a sustainable content for a learning community, but this model doesn't provide any particular bridge from one group of students to the next. In short, the students who created the content for the course move on and the next group of students benefits from their creations, but not from any "insights" or ability to provides guidance, instruction and/or direction to the next group of students. Likewise, if the content that is left behind is improved, the original student does not get the any benefit in terms of the new material since they have "moved" to the next course. In Work Literacy, there is a lot of content, but it is not assembled in any particular order that would be very useful to someone entering the site after the discussion. (See Tony Karrer's personal reflections on Work Literacy, Michelle Martin's deconstructions, and Harold Jache for additional insights about the strengths and weaknesses of this work.)

Sustainable learning communities. Work Literacy and maybe OpenEdSim offer the most promise in terms of creating a sustainable community because they have created a platform for interaction about a variety of topics. In Work Literacy it is unclear what the authors hope to do with the course-- do they close now since it is over? Do they have plans for continues to provide oversight and facilitation of the discussions and topics? Will they add new topics over time? Perhaps they never intended to create a sustainable learning community, but since they had over 700 people assembled an interested, what could they have done (or still do) to foster ongoing interaction and learning? What about designing "teaching apprentice" roles to foster ongoing work? Isn't one of the best ways to foster learning, getting a chance to teach others?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Could we teach teens about relationships online?

Social scientists who study dating, relationship development, cohabitation and marriage would seem to me to be perfectly positioned to use social networking tools, texting and other new media tools to explore these issues with young people in ways that not only increase our knowledge about these topics, but engage young people in interesting and challenges explorations of these topics.

Ito and her colleagues in their explorations of young people and new media, describe a process of "geeking out" which young people
are delving into areas of interest that exceed common knowledge; this generally involves seeking expert knowledge networks outside of given friendship-driven networks. Rather than simply messing around with local friends, geeking out involves developing an identity and pride as an expert and seeking fellow experts in far-flung networks. Geeking out is usually supported by interest-based groups, either local or online, or some hybrid of the two, where fellow geeks will both produce and exchange knowledge on their subjects of interest. Rather than purely “consuming” knowledge produced by authoritative sources, geeked out engagement involves accessing as well as producing knowledge to contribute to the knowledge network (p. 28-29).
Ito and her colleagues also document how young people use new media tools to develop and maintain social relationships and romantic interests. In short, these tools already are being used as a natural place of social development so...... this seems like an obvious place to both study social relationships among young people and a place to engage young people in "geeking out" on more sophisticated explorations of social ties that intersect with the ways in which social scientists study relationships.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can Universities Become Networked Publics?

Writing about youth and new media, Ito and colleagues use the term "networked publics" to
"describe participation in public culture that is supported by online networks" (Ito et al., Living and Learning with New Media, 2008, p. 10). The authors note,
Rather than conceptualize everyday media engagement as “consumption” by “audiences,” the term “networked publics” places the active participation of a distributed social network in producing and circulating culture and knowledge in the foreground. The growing salience of networked publics in young people’s everyday lives is an important change in what constitutes the social groups and publics that structure young people’s learning and identity" (p.10)
So I find myself asking, "are universities places in which young people (those not attending the university) can "participate in producing and circulating culture and knowledge?" There are some examples of individual faculty who are engaged with young people and with the public in culture and knowledge. Henry Jenkins immediately comes to mind with his work on fan culture and various media analyses. However, his scholarly interests coincide with popular culture so that seems too obvious. I am particularly interested in natural and social scientists. Are there chemists, biologists, psychologists, family scientists, adolescent developmental scientists who are developing ways to engage young people?

I haven't done an in-depth search, but I don't see this work. Am I missing this? Are we missing ways to engage young people in developing their thinking about math and science by not presenting this world in ways that allow their active participation?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brief Overview of Connectivism

A five-minute overview of the basic ideas of connectivism. An important part of this video is a description of the role of teachers and how they guide a student's exploration of blogs, websites, etc.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Stephen Downes on Modularity (or Learning Objects)

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years. (See my other comments on "learning communities" and the "learning marketplace.")

Downes also reviews the idea of "modularity" or what has been referred to as "learning objects." He is not quite ready to abandon this idea even though he acknowledges that this idea has been not been as promising as many thought. In general, he reminds us that the "lego" metaphor has not been useful. So far educational content has not been reduced to small chunks of material that can be easily assembled into larger learning units. He has a couple of ideas that seem to help move this conversation forward. First, he suggests that the reuse of learning objects may need to shift from the teacher's hands to the learner's hands. In other words, he suggests that rather than teachers assembling content and connecting it together, the student collects learning materials and assembles this material for themselves.

He also comments that the size of a given unit of learning is shrinking. Rather than thinking about learning coming in course-size units he writes, "a 20 or 40-hour course may be appropriate in an in-person learning environment, shorter courses are more appropriate online, as short as ten or fifteen minutes."

In the end, he acknowledges, "None of our metaphors, such as Legos or atoms, describe this version of modularity appropriately. I once used the metaphor of objects in an environment....the objects function autonomously, connected, interacting, but not joined." Here is acknowledges Wienberger's idea about "everything being miscellaneous." Although this is true, this does not mean that it is not useful to create particular types of miscellaneous units that can be assembled into largeer integrated structures.

This does not seem to help us move forward. I remain unconvinced that we have either the right metaphor or the right "unit" in which to construct learning. I remain convinced that the simplest learning unit is a "question and answer." This is the smallest learning transaction and could form the basis for constructing larger learning units.

Stephen Downes on the Learning Marketplace

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years.

In 62 pages, Downes covers a lot of topics and any reading and analysis requires a lot of attention. This is the second of my comments about his review. (See Downes on "learning communities.")

One of the central challenges of online learning is how educational enterprises will make money. Downes like many others has observed that making money on selling content. He writes, "What should be understood, however, is that the bulk of educational content online will be free to access and reuse."

His idea for how the educational market will work is as follows:
"Content providers will discover there are much larger markets to be had when they help people create their own content. This will be the basis for the educational marketplace of the future. In general, helping people provide for themselves – helping them, in other words, save time and money – will provide the best opportunities. Selling people cameras instead of pictures, for example. Course content creation kits instead of courses."
I have put the emphasis on the last sentence which is his main idea. This is an interesting idea that I am not sure is quite right. Too often Downes and others seem to forget that there are a range of learners from those who are just starting to learn and those who have advanced knowledge. Novice learners are not likely to be able to create structures of content and information into any reasonable structure. They need frameworks, scaffolding, and guidance which is what teachers provide. Teachers also provide feedback and direction-- "here, take a look at this. " or "have you thought about this?" or "here is the general way that people look at these types of problems" Although there are some types of learning (match, some language learning) that are more likely to be automated, there are many areas that we are a long way from automating (natural and social science, skill-based areas-- medicine, teaching, law).

There is still a marketplace for this type of learning. This is not to say that Downes is all together wrong in pointing us towards the idea of "course content creation kits." This is an interesting idea and worth trying to imagine both how to create the "kit" and what tools this needs, but also how to create content that will be easy to assemble into such a kit.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stephen Downes on Learning Communities

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years. For anyone new to this area, this would be a good analysis and foundation about the important issues to be considered.

I am in general agreement with much of what Downes has to say and his article provides ideas and insights into issues that I don't understand, but there are some issues where I disagree. One of those issues is in his comments about learning communities. He writes,
"Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a ‘learning community’ – save, perhaps, the strained and artificial creations of educational institutions that try to cram classes into collectives, creating personal relationships where none naturally exist. Rather, people learn in communities, and what would make any given community a ‘learning’ community or otherwise is whether people in the community learn more or less well."
There are a couple of problems with this statement. First, Downes seems to be only thinking about online learning communities. Obviously, learning communities (see Wenger) have existed a long time before there were computers and the internet. In contrast to what he says, there are "strictly speaking" learning communities and in some cases these have been created explicitly for learning and they are not "strained and artificial creations of educational institutions." In this statement, Downes seems to have some particularly bad models of online learning communities in mind.

From these particular bad examples he comes to the conclusion that learning communities cannot be intentionally created stating,
"It is probably a truism today (though there still remain exceptions to be observed online) that communities are grown rather than constructed, and that (therefore) they are owned (and managed) by their members rather than by some external agency."
This is an unfortunate conclusion and wrong-headed. Again the problem here is that Downes has in mind particular types of learning communities, but he doesn't tell us exactly what these are.

Learning communities come in all types and have lots of different purposes. And they can be created or grown organically. It is not useful to think about learning communities in a very narrow way. We need to be thinking about these ideas broadly and begin to understand how to create effective learning communities for different purposes. In my mind it is perfectly reasonable for an instructor in a specific educational course to intentionally foster students getting to know each other and to communicate their ideas, get feedback, etc. in the confines of a a classroom on online forum. This experience may be time-limited and the depth of the interactions and exchanges may be limited, but this does not mean that the instructor has not created a learning community. (Elsewhere, I have described a range of roles in learning communities that provide a structure to creating communities.)

My concern about these comments is that educators will not create these limited, but valuable learning communities or will sit by waiting for communities to emerge without taking an active role in trying to create them. I don't think Downes intends this, but his focus seems wrong.

In some later paragraphs, he notes that "they [learners] will no longer need organizers to create communities." Here is focus seems to be on the fact that there are simple internet-based social networking software that is openly available. The challenge of creating and maintaining effective learning is communities is not a software problem, it is a social problem. Downes is overlooking the fact that successful learning communities are those in which members of the community engage in the social processes of engaging people in useful and interesting ways. See Butler and his colleagues discussion about who does the work in online groups and why some communities succeed and others fail. "Tools and technical infrastructure make online group communication possible and support the group’s interactions with the outside world. Social behavior sustains these groups over time" (Butler, et al., 2002, p. 4). (Also, see my summary of Butler.) Downes is naive to think that all learners at all times will create their own learning communities from scratch and that there will not have to be organizers and facilitators of learning communities. There is not one type of learning communities. There are multiple types that serve different purposes at different times.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

David Weinberger on Orders of Information

In this short video (9 minutes) David Weinberger explains a core idea that "everything is miscellaneous" or that information on the web is miscellaneous and that this gives us the ability to categorize and organize it in different ways for different purposes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Curt Bonk's View of Open Education

Curt Bonk continues to think about the important ways that education is opening up and how to participate in this work. Here is his keynote address at the University of Wisconsin that provides an overview of his forthcoming book, We All Learn. The talk is about 1 hour long. You can skip the Introduction by forwarding the slides to Slide #2.

Monday, November 10, 2008

OpenLearn: The Philosophy Behind UK's Open University

In this short, 4 minute video, you learn about the basic components of how the British Open University is designing a platform to share free educational resources.

The Future of Learning

Some good ideas about The Future of Learning. A video presentation at the 2007 HASTAC conference.

This is almost an hour-long video, but there are many important ideas presented.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Howard Rheingold continues to develop his ideas for building community through the creation of a social media classroom platform. This 8 minute video provides an overview of his ideas.

Online and F2F Community Collaboration

This past week my class on Program Development explored the problems and possibilities of creating community-based collaboration in F2F settings and online. In general, most of us were reluctant to give up the importance of some F2F interaction as a part of creating communities.

I think it is still hard for me to completely believe that I can create as deep and rich of relationships with only online communication. We pushed the idea with a discussion of whether the addition of audio and video would overcome the limits of not being in the same room with people. Most of us neither had the experience to make a firm judgement about this or were aware of research findings that helped us answer this question. We did read a chapter in a very interesting book called Leadership at a distance (2008), edited by Susan Weisband. The chapter we read was by Brian Butler and his colleagues, titled, "Community effort in online groups: Who does the work and why?" A key point that Butler and his colleagues make is that successful online groups are the result of social behavior, not technical infrastructure. They write,
"At least four kinds of social behavior are necessary. First, people must tend the tools
themselves by managing software versions, keeping address files up to date, and so on. People also must recruit members to replace those who leave. They must manage social dynamics. They must participate. Without these group maintenance activities, even sophisticated tools and infrastructure will not sustain viable online groups" (p. 4-5).
There is a lot of "stuff" buried inside these four social behaviors that they identify and these are complex interactions to maintain and sustain in online settings (and in F2F settings). There is still much we do not know about online collaboration and the kinds of efforts it will take to make these work.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Family Meals & Technology Use: A Cause for Concern?

In Networked Families, the Oct 2008 report about families and their use of technology, the authors report that those families with more technology devices in their households are less likely to eat together as a family on a daily basis.

Specifically, they report that 53% of multiple cell phone owners (2+) eat together daily with family members while 66% of families with only 1 or fewer cell phones. Likewise, families which own multiple computers (2+) are less likely to eat together (51%) than families that own only 1 or fewer computers (61%).

Additionally, adults in families which own more technology (cell phones and computers) also report less satisfaction in time spent with family members. It is unlikely that the technology itself is making families spend fewer meals together and be less satisfied, but these findings do remind us that stressful, complicated lives in which technologies dissolve boundaries between work, social networks, and entertainment and so forth may diminish our interpersonal time together.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Can Internet-Based Interventions Work Reach the Underserved?

Richardo Munoz and his colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco have been experimenting with an Internet-based program for stopping smoking. The program is designed to help participants stop smoking. Munoz suggests that this work has the potential to reach poor and underserved populations around the world. In an early report published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research in 2006 the scientists report that the participants are as successful at quitting smoking for a seven day period as people who use nicotine patches. Roughly, about one-fifth of the participants are successful at quitting smoking one year later.

Munoz reports that this program reached 4000 people in 74 countries in the early phases. Since the program was offered in English and Spanish it reached a broad range of people.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What is the purpose of higher education?

What is the purpose of learning on the web? Is it a reference source or is it a "space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated." This is how Henry Jenkins frames the questions being asked about the whether or not university websites should be open platforms that allow students and the public to contribute or closed processes in which experts (university professors) provide credible information.

Jenkins notes that if we adopt the open model then

"Everyone in the university would need to have a stake in insuring the integrity of the process and that means being highly critical and skeptical of anything that gets submitted, whether by a student or a teacher."
This is a different model.

A central question in this model is what do you do when bad or wrong information is presented in a university-based website? Jenkins writes,
"It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other's content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?"
In short, are we teaching the content (only the facts) or are we teaching how to think critically about issues and ideas, how to make a persuasive argument and so forth? As teachers we often like to have the last word and to be the best source of information, but in quiet reflection we know that we have often been wrong and that the history of knowledge and science is always about the development of new ideas and throwing away earlier notions that don't hold up. Although we often do have good ideas that are worth consideration, there is still much room for improvement. Likewise, rather than teaching the basic facts wouldn't we be better off teaching people how to think more carefully about ideas in our fields of study?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wikipedia, Truth and Citations

"With little notice from the outside world, the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia has redefined the commonly accepted use of the word 'truth'" so writes Simson Garfinkel in a thoughtful analysis of "Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth."

Garkinkel's central point is that Wikipedia is based on a principle of verifiability as a basis for inclusion. Here is the policy statement:
"The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true. Editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or likely to be challenged, or the material may be removed."
The Wikipedia policy statement goes on to define what is meant by a reliable source and distinguishes between primary, secondary and tertiary sources. This is a very thoughtful presentation of about the idea of verification and the distinctions between different types of sources. I would suggest that this presentation is as good as any common introduction to the use of source material when presenting ideas. Indeed, I would suggest that many faculty in high school and college could use this site as a basis for explaining to students about appropriate uses of source material. It should also be noted that this is not remarkably different than how other secondary sources (e.g., paper-based encyclopedias, reference books, textbooks, etc.) are created. That is, they are compilations of "verifiable" information from primary sources that are put together to provide information. In short, Wikipedia's verifiability standard is quite similar to other common ways in which teaching and learning materials has been created.

Garfinkel's other major complaint about Wikipedia is its refusal to allow "original research" to be posted. Here is the general policy:
"Wikipedia does not publish original research or original thought. This includes unpublished facts, arguments, speculation, and ideas; and any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position. This means that Wikipedia is not the place to publish your own opinions, experiences, or arguments."
This seems like a very sensible policy and is again a common, but rarely stated policy in regards to printed encyclopedias and textbooks. The place for "original research" is in journals and other forums in which other scientists and peer colleagues can carefully analyze the content, methods and assertions. Wikipedia is correctly acknowledging that its "editors" do not have the technical expertise to make judgments about the quality of "original research." This seems like a reasonable policy. Garfinkel correctly notes that this means that sometimes there are odd results such as when a person seeks to correct an entry or citation about themselves. He gives a good example in which Jaron Lanier (see Digital Maoism) was only able to get his own biography corrected by citing another source as a basis for statements about himself. This is problematic and does point out the that the "no original research" policy is not perfect, but it does not make a convincing case that Wikipedia would be substantially improved by the addition of orginal research in general. Wikipedia is simply acknowledging its own limits as a generally reliable "secondary" source, not a primary source. When it is treated as a secondary source, it is doing a pretty good job.

Social Network Design in Prevention

This past week my graduate program development course considered social network design for use in prevention and intervention programs. We viewed Howard Rheingold's Social Network Classroom ideas and read BJ Fogg's Mass Interpersonal Persuasion and examined the efforts by the Open University to build a social learning platform.

At the beginning of the discussion I think we were all skeptical of the idea that social networking would work in changing behavior. We gave examples of the various silly activities that were possible in Facebook-- playing games, putting objects and slogans on Facebook walls and so forth and noted that although Facebook could be playful, fun and entertaining with friends and acquaintances it was just not a place that one expected to do anything very serious like thinking about changing behavior or learning something new. Despite Fogg's description of a model for how persuasive strategies could be widely disseminated in a social network environment, we were not convinced that the evidence was there to explain how someone would change a difficult interpersonal (e.g., try an alternative to spanking) or personal behavior (e.g., get more exercise). Also, knowing the demographic profile of social networking (young, better educated, etc.) we were doubtful that many of the people most in need of information and ideas of change, were not likely to have the time or access to this technology.

But then we began to think more cleverly about how we got information through social ties to other people and the fact the challenge of getting people's attention to address real issues in their lives. Most of us acknowledged that we were more likely to try something or pay attention if a trusted friend recommended it than if a stranger suggested it. This reminded us that just getting us to pay attention to an issue in our lives was a challenge that social networks might overcome. We also reflected on a central challenge which was engaging people to think about issues within relationships and families and began to explore ideas for using music and photos as fun ways to begin to explore relationship ideas and information. We mentioned that quizzes about a television show or some life experience (How well do you know your partner?) could often be interesting and prompt us to compare ourselves with others or begin an exploration of an idea. Generally, we began to warm up to the idea that it might be possible to create social communities on the web that captured our attention and fun and interesting ways and drew us into deeper conversations and activities that could change behavior. We haven't seen examples of these types of efforts, but we left thinking that this was possible.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Scientific Storytelling--Radio Lab, WNYC

Scientists should tell stories... this is how Robert Krulwich, maker of RadioLab, begins his commencement address to CalTech students. In a 30 minute speech Krulwich asserts that creationists and other myth makers are busy creating compelling stories about the world works and if scientists don't create their own compelling stories then no one will listen to them. He tells the story of Galileo who he suggests was not only a great scientist, but was good at writing and demonstrating interesting ways of showing people new ways of thinking about the world. Krulwich suggests that if Galileo had been more obscure or communicated his ideas in less interesting ways he would have been far less of a threat.

In another short podcast, Krulwich and co-host, Jad Abumrad, give a behinds the scenes look at how they translate science into a language that the general public can understand. There are the usual Krulwich gags, but along the way they tell us how they create stories out of complicated scientific evidence. Although I am very fond of RadioLab and their entertaining explanations of science, Krulwich and Abumrad, do not tell us much about behavioral and social science. In these areas, we have a different problem of explanation than physics and biology. With behavioral and social sciences, the challenge is that everyone has their own behavioral and social explanations of everyday life. No one says to the physicists, "the quarks in my house don't behave like that" or "my family of quarks work like this..." Behavioral and social scientists have to help people ask tougher questions about the generalizability of their experiences and to examine more data about their hypotheses about how social phenomena work. I think this is more challenging than understanding the realms of science that are outside of human experience.

And finally, here is an interview, Chasing Bugs, with a great scientific storyteller, E.O. Wilson, who not only is an excellent entomologist, but also a great communicator about biology to the general public. In this interview, you get a terrific look at the man behind the science.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Digital Divide is Built on the Literacy Divide

Today, 500 years after the invention of a revolutionizing technology that changed the way people learn and transformed education, one-fifth of the world's population still lacks the fundamental skills necessary to take advantage of that technology.

So what was this revolutionary technology? The printed book.

According to the the Human Development 2007/2008 report by the United Nations Development Programme, world wide literacy rates are at an all-time high, yet only 82% of the adult population has basic literacy skills. For young adults, ages of 15-24 years of age, the literacy rate is better reaching about 87%.

In the least developed countries in the world, only 53% of the adult population can read.

Although literacy rates in the developed countries like the United States are higher than the developing world, US literacy rates are still worrisome at a time when it is increasingly important to continue to learn new ideas and skills in order to succeed in the emerging knowledge economy.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 14% of US adults have below basic skills in the ability to comprehend and use written materials. It is also important that literacy rates in the US did not improve between 1992 and 2003.

The digital divide is important to address, but the literacy divide still deserves our attention. Likewise, the digital divide will not be overcome without serious attention to the literacy divide.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Model for Thinking about Web 2.0Tools

One of the challenges with all the Web 2.0 tools is to understand the functions behind the various tools and how they fit together. Kyleen Burgess provides a very nice overview and conceptual picture that provides perspective about how the various Web 2.o tools fit together and how they can be used to carry out the functions of a teacher and provider of information. Burgess' slideshare on this topic also suggests various tools behind each of these areas and how they can be used to improve productivty and effectiveness.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Virtual Worlds Educational Nonsense

There are some valuable ways in which virtual worlds can be powerful learning environments, but there is a lot of nonsense being presented about this work as well. Robbins-Bell in a recent article in Educause Review makes a variety of assertions about virtual worlds in regards to higher education that don't make a lot of sense.

Here are a few of her assertions and my replies.

Participatory Culture Engages Students in New Ways

"The participatory culture offers exciting new opportunities to pull learners into conversations and turn passive, knowledge-receiving students into active, knowledge-making student."

There is a huge leap in this sentence between the notion that "participatory culture" has anything to do with "education." Most of the "participatory culture" involves entertainment and playful activities. This is fun and interesting, but there is no evidence to suggest that my ability to make and watch YouTube videos has anything to do with my learning math, science or literature.

Virtual Learning is more Life-Like Than Classroom Learning

"The false separation between classroom learning and life learning is falling away with each new form of social media that becomes part of our everyday life."

"The genuine conversation and participation that virtual worlds encourage is a step toward more authentic learning for all students."

Although much of today's education takes place in classrooms and laboratories, it is false to assume that these learning experiences have nothing to do with life learning. Although some of us learned to read at home with our families, most of us learned to read in classrooms and most of the rest of our life learning is dependent on that skill. Isn't this the case that learning to read in a classroom is strongly related to life learning? Likewise, doing a science experiment in a physical laboratory seems much more like the real life learning I might do some day working in a job doing biological or chemical analysis than doing this in a virtual reality.

Virtual Learning is Deeper, Richer or More Extended than other types of teaching.

Robbins-Bell makes the case for why virtual worlds can be powerful for teaching and learning, but most of these activities are not unique to virtual worlds or assume that other forms of online or F2F instruction do not use the same strategies. For example, she suggests that since students cannot get into classrooms 24/7 that classroom learning only occurs during the classroom time period. The reason that higher education campuses have students on campus is so that they can go to the library, get together in dorms and student centers to study and and visit the offices of professors is so that learning can take place outside of the specific classroom time period. Learning on college campuses has never been limited to just what happens in the classroom.
Likewise, many other web-based tools are also available 24/7, not just virtual worlds.

Virtual Worlds Create a more robust "presence" than other forms of online learning.

Robbins-Bell suggest that in virtual worlds one has a "presence" that is different than one's experience in a chatroom or discussion board. This is true, but as yet there is no evidence that this presence leads to better learning.

Virtual worlds allow people to explore identity which improves and or expands learning.

The most troublesome idea is that the ability to create avatars and deal with issues of identify, roles, etc. is advantageous in learning. Much of what we have to learn has nothing to do with issues of identity, roles, etc. There are clearly some topics that could use these tools to explore these issues, but this would be very limited. In most cases, how you look and what you wear makes no difference to the learning. Robbins-Bell also demonstrates little understanding of the experience of people with exceptionalities when she writes,

"a non-handicapped student can take on a handicapped avatar to see how it feels."

I would suggest that putting on a blindfold and walking around the house will give you a much better idea about dealing with blindness that pretending to be blind in a virtual world.

Wide-area Network Advantages of Virtual Worlds

Robbins-Bell asserts that "the wide area network of virtual worlds implies that the space is public to join and participate in, meaning that students can interact with and learn from a larger community than can be offered by their local campus." Again this assertion assumes that students in higher education are limited to campus for learning or that other web-based tools (discussion boards, learning communities, etc.) do not offer similar opportunities. This just isn't the case, students have always taken field trips & studied abroad, done internships and so forth. Likewise, communities members and other experts have always been invited to campuses to enrich and extend the learning opportunities. Clearly, any web-based tools can create opportunities for participation in a broader range of learning experiences, this is not only available in a virtual world. With videoconferencing, I don't just have the opportunity to interact with visual representations of people, I can actually see and participate with the actual representations of these people.

There are some valuable ways in which virtual learning environments can be used to create learning experiences, but the examples provided in this article don't offer those examples. To advance the development of learning within virtual worlds, we have to develop learning opportunities that can enrich or extend what can be done F2F or in other online environments.