Friday, February 22, 2008

A Missing Part of eLearning

The Internet has solved the problem of making a lot of information (easy web-based publishing tools) available and building a systems of finding information (search), but the task of organizing this information remains the "user's problem." And it is a big problem. I am not talking about better search strategies that help me find information more specific to my interests. We need that too, but I am talking about organizing the information that is on the topic that I am interested in, but comes in lots of disparate pieces.

I think one of the reasons for the popularity of Wikipedia is that the information has a structure. If I look for information there, I know that it will be organized in some type of framework and if the topic is related to other ideas, then I can go read those other ideas. In short, I can follow a logical path through the content.

So clearly one solution to the problem of lots of information is organizing it. But if "Everything is Miscellaneous" as David Weinberger tells us, then how to be put it back together. There are a variety of "aggregator" tools, but this is a long way from satisfactory, this simply puts all the miscellaneous stuff into one big pot.....There is still no "organization" to the stuff. I can tag it and hook various ideas together... again a useful tool, but still there is only limited organization.

It seems to me that I need an "outline" tool. A tool that allows me to take my miscellaneous tags and give them structure and pattern. I want to provide structure to my "cloud" of ideas. So what am I missing here?

Products and Services in Education

A team of U of Illinois educators spent part of this week with a business consultant, Andrew Neitlich, who provided guidance about ways to incorporate business strategies into our educational work. He has lots of good ideas, but one idea that I found especially powerful is this idea about linking products and services.

Most of education is an intensive service that requires us to teach the same material over and over again to new students. This is costly. Neitlich reminds us that along the way educators can create various products of these teaching activities-- lecture notes, teaching aids, curricula, textbooks, etc. that could be part of overall teaching enterprise that may be sold/marketed to students who are in the course or even to those who are not in the course, but who are just interested in learning about the topic.

Obviously, we already do this some with lecture notes and textbooks, but this could become a more central strategy to the overall educational enterprise such that it is more commonly and more easily done.

Personalized Learning

The National Academy of Engineering has identified the "grand engineering challenges" that face society and suggested some of the work that needs to be done to address these issues.

One of the areas they identify is personalized learning. The problem is described as follows:

Throughout the educational system, teaching has traditionally followed a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, with a single set of instructions provided identically to everybody in a given class, regardless of differences in aptitude or interest. Similar inflexibility has persisted in adult education programs that ignore differences in age, cultural background, occupation, and level of motivation.
They suggest that what we need are personalized learning systems that are more closely tailored to the needs and interests of the learner and suggest that "web-based expert systems could be designed to address this need. This has long been a dream of computer-based instruction, but the record on our ability to create these systems is dismal. This indeed makes this a "grand challenge" and one that continues to need our attention.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Learning versus Practicing a Profession

"The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practice the profession" (p. 83).
This interesting quote appears in a article by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark, titled, "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential and Inquiry-Based Teaching (Educational Psychologist, 2006, 41(2), 75-86.

I know that this should not be an insight to me, but it is. In this article they review efforts to prepare medical and law students using problem-based methods of instruction and demonstrate effectively that these methods are not as effective as more direct techniques of learning the basics knowledge of medicine and law before attempting to apply these in practice settings. In general, studies have found that problem-based learning is not superior in terms of various outcomes such as clinical problem-solving skills.

The authors conclude that medical students like other students need to acquire basic knowledge and conceptual frameworks for organizing that knowledge prior to trying to put this information into practice through problem solving. They note that techniques such as a process worksheet can guide students that provide a description of the phases one should go through in solving a problem may be a more structured way of introducing effective problem-solving strategies.

Does Discovery learning work?

At least one of the reasons I have been attracted to the use of online instruction is because of the possibility of creating more authentic learning environments. In general, I have had a bias towards creating problem-based, discovery, constructivtist approaches to instruction.

In the past few weeks I have been doing my homework which means that I have been reading the literature on instruction and I am increasingly skeptical of my simple ideas about instruction. Here are a few highlights from an article by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark, titled, "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential and Inquiry-Based Teaching (Educational Psychologist, 2006, 41(2), 75-86.

The main point of this article problem-based learning makes too many demands on novice learners' working memory. In short, beginning learners are trying to identify the basic facts and issues related to the problem while also trying to employ novel problem-solving strategies using that information. The authors write,
"cognitive load theory suggests taht the free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learnning" (p. 80).

They also cite the work of other researchers who note,

"when students who learn science in classrooms with pure-discovery methods and minimal feedback, ... often become lost and frustrated, and their confusion can lead to misconceptions.... Other researchers found that "because false starts are common in such learning situations, unguided discovery is often inefficient" (p. 79).
So why do many of us resonate to the contructivist theories of teaching and learning? These researchers also offer us insight here. Just as novice learners benefit from direct instruction, expert learners seem to benefit from the contructivist, inquiry-based approaches. In other words, the point is not that all constructivist teaching is wrong or ineffective, it is developing teaching strategies that over the course of a students' experience shifts from much guidance to less and less guidance.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

An Extension of Kevin Kelly's Qualities for Education

Here are some addtional thoughts I have had about Kevin Kelly's article, Better Than Free, about values of information when copies are free and lots of information is available.

At least in educational settings the quality of "interpretation" can be expanded to include the ideas of "guidance and explanation." The value of a good class is not the syllabus, the text or the classnotes, it is the value of the instructor. It is the opportunity to seek further clarification or to get to ask questions that link your current knowledge to some new idea.

This is why MIT can afford to give away its course content and still find students willing to buy the opportunity to be in the classroom with an instructor.

Somewhere is the qualities of "accessibility" and "findability" is the quality of organization. The value of an article in Wikipedia is more valuable than the same article that stands alone because the article embedded in the organizational structure of an encyclopedia can be easily linked to deeper information and related ideas. There is great value in this "organizational structure."

One of the commentators on this article also identified "community" as another possible quality that would be of value beyond the information itself. This again has lots of applicability in regards to education. We are still trying to figure out ways to replicate online the "community of scholars" aspect of F2F education. We don't yet have all the tools we need to create this experience online and one of the dangers of creating online graduate degrees in particular is this missing piece. The value of synchronous, spontaneous, or serendipitous conversations that can occur in a lab, classroom, hallway can easily be overlooked in the design of online education. The variety of educational experiences in traditional, campus-based education is still much richer than the online world.

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.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Open Science among plant science

Here is a good example of where we need to be heading in terms of creating open systems of scientific development. There has been alot of talk about Learning 2.0, perhaps we need to begin talking about Discovery 2.0. (or maybe we are still at 1.0). The point is that there are many new tools and strategies that can be employed by scientists, science educators and the interested public around research and discovery.

NSF just funded a major effort to bring together plant scientists to share data, work on common problems, etc. Here is a quote from iPlant about its mission:

"This is an exciting time for science education! A user-friendly cyberinfrastructure will mean that for the first time in history everyone can work with the same data using the same tools in the same timeframe as high-level researchers. The goal of our Education Outreach and Training (EOT) is to ensure that everyone – students, teachers and faculty, from middle school to graduate school – will have the access and training to use these data and participate in research in real time."
They note that there is even room for social and behavioral scientists in terms of their willingness to create opportunities for social and behavioral scientists who are interested in collaborative processes and other other aspects of people working with each other across time and distance. As we know from some limited work in this area, there are substantial questions in this area. Well here is a chance for others to take a first-hand look.