Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Extension or Public Engagement 2.0-- Building Community

Just as there are new discussions about the impact of the Web 2.0 on education (Education 2.0) and Science 2.0, there is another important change that needs attention in regards to opening up the relationship between scientists in universities with interests in real world issues and the public who seeks answers (or at least our best thinking) on important issues.

This third phase of the opening of universities is in regards to re-thinking the extension or public engagement mission of the university.

One of the traditional features of land-grant universities (for example, Illinois, Ohio State, there is at least one land-grant university in every state) is the Extension Service. Established by federal legislation in 1914, the Extension part of these universities was created to take scientific research about agriculture and family life to the rural parts of the United States. Over the past almost 100 years the focus has been expanded and broadened, but the same basic mission has remained the same. Today in most counties across the US there is still an extension office linked to a land-grant university. Even large cities such as Chicago and New York City have extension offices that serve these urban communities.

One of the fundamental ideas the Extension Service was the idea that these county offices that had regular contact with everyday citizens would be place where science and societal problems would meet. And that at this nexus research at universities would identify real issues confronting the public and the public would find practical solutions to their concerns. In this beginning and for many years, this person to person exchange of needs and solutions was met by people meeting face to face. Over time this exchange evolved to include the use of mass media (radio, television) and in the most recent times the use of the Internet.

However, the general model of exchange between the university and the public has generally been based on an expert model that assumed that the university faculty had the answers and the public had the questions. Today this remains the general model of operation.

Recently, the Extension service as unveiled a new communication platform, titled eXtension (pronounced e-Extension) that is based on the Web 2.0 tools that allow the creation of learning communities and invite more mutual exchange of information.... except.....

that many of the protocols are still based on a very limited ability for ordinary people to contribute in very meaningful ways to the information. Rather than create collaborative communication spaces that are typical of the Web 2.o world, we have retained a closed, hierarchical presence that assumes that the public has little voice in these discussions.

Blogs, wikis, feeds, social networking and all the other tools that have been created to facilitate communication and collaboration are available to open up the communication between scientists with interests in societal issues and the public with insights and ideas about these problems.

If universities are going to fulfill their public engagement and extension dimension, they will need to embrace these Web 2.0 tools and open up a rich and varied dialogue with the public about today's issues. Faculty will need to open blogs with a wide variety of citizens and engage in thoughtful conversations about the ways in which science can make a difference with today's pressing issues whether this is climate change, ethnic relations, school reform, and so forth.

From the perspective of the university we have never had a better opportunity to communicate with the public and engage them in thinking about these complicated issues.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pete Seeger's View on "Web 2.0"

Pete Seeger, folksinger, was interviewed recently by Bob Edwards for his weekend radio show.

Seeger, who is approaching 90 years old, always encouraged his audiences to sing along with him in concert. In the course of this interview, Seeger made the following comments that remind us that "participation" may not just be a blog thing or a Web 2.0 phenomenon, but something that is more deeply embedded in society. In response to Bob Edward's question about Seeger's encouraging his audiences to sing along, Seeger says,
"I think that participation is the saving of the human race. Participate in games, puzzles, fun, storytelling and when you're grown up participate in education. Learn to ask questions, the most important thing you can learn in the world is to ask questions. Next important thing is to learn how to give a report. You read a book and you don't just read it, you learn how to give a report in two minutes telling roughly what the book is about and you learn to work with other people, participate in politics, participate in work, all sorts of things. It's the key to the future of the human race-- participation. "
You probably couldn't write a clearer formula for Web 2.0. Hearing this from Seeger makes you think that if Seeger were in his youth today he would be a major contributor to the blogosphere, YouTube and the most popular guy on social networking sites.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Applying the OpenWetWare approach to behavioral research

OpenWetWare is a good example of how to begin creating a shared interactive space to begin exchanging information and ideas about science.

The focus of this work is on biology, but the principles and structure that have been created are applicable to other science areas.

In OpenWetWare they have three main sections related to the research: materials (things that get used in biological research), protocols (procedures for different research activities) and resources (everything from biological material to journals).

For behavioral scientists, these sections would translate as follows:

1. Materials (research instruments, questionnaires, databases, etc.)
2. Protocols (procedures for collecting and analyzing data)
3. Resources (data sources, funding sources, journals, etc.)

Another dimension of the website includes: Labs, Groups, courses, blogs. In short, scientists and use this platform to manage their laboratory group or to create a new group of scientists to work on a common project. The courses section seems to be a wiki-based course platform. The blogs section provides a platform to create blogs related to biology. Again all of these would have easy parallels in the behavioral sciences.

Some useful ideas about Science or Discovery 2.0

Scientific American has begun a discussion of Science 2.0 (I have referred to this as "Discovery 2.0."). Interesting they not only posted a discussion of ideas about open science and laboratories, but they the article itself is posted prior to publication with the invitation to readers to provide comments and feedback.

The article doesn't provide a provide a definition of Science 2.0, but roughly the suggestion is that scientists will begin to do their work with open data, lab notes, results, etc. in ways that allows for this work to be viewed and commented on by others.

The most discussed example is MIT's OpenWetWare, which is a wiki designed for biologists to open their laboratories to others and share information.

There are a lot of issues to work through, but this quote sums up my feelings about this effort:

"the real significance of Web technologies is their potential to move researchers away from an obsessive focus on priority and publication, toward the kind of openness and community that were supposed to be the hallmark of science in the first place."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

George Siemens continues to expand his discussion of a "world without courses." His latest post expands his discussion of this idea.

He identifies for major problems in the creation of open learning enterprises:

1. Finding quality content
2. Creating pathways through content
3. Fostering connections between teachers and learners
4. Determining competence (accreditation of learning/teachers/schools)

I would add the following challenges to this list (some of these only apply to higher education and graduate education)

1. Creating quality content. We have models for textbooks, f2f lectures, etc and know somethings about effective teaching in traditional classrooms. We have not identified the effective models for open learning and we have barely begun to learn how to create effective multimedia instruction.

2. Creating learning communities. Perhaps this idea is encompassed in Siemen's "fostering connections," but there is a lot of work to be done regarding the creation of effective learning communities in regards to roles of instructors and roles of students. Here are some ideas I have been working on in regards to the roles of teachers and learners.

3. Developing collaborative relationships online. I think we have underestimated the amount of time, effort and skill that it takes to develop effective collaborative relationships from a distance. This is at the heart of advanced learning between teachers and graduate students. We have much to learn in this area.

4. Conducting research online. I am not sure if this is true, but I think that effective graduate training will require that we have our research tools online. In short, this means that we need to put our research labs online. The challenges of this task vary by field. Some fields already have much of their labs online (astronomy) and some fields would have significant difficulty moving all their work to an online space-- biology and chemistry for example. Some types of social science research can be moved online, but there are ethical and privacy issues that need careful attention.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Changing Distance Educational Landscape

Educators who have been on the Internet for the past 10 years have often tried to tell those who were not on the Internet that the world of education is rapidly changing and that institutions who currently are primarily invested in F2F residential programs may be at-risk.

There is lots to debate about this issue and there is a variety of evidence both for and against the growth of online education. Here is a small glimpse at online education in Illinois that tells you something about the patterns.

In Illinois in 2007 there were 158,362 online distance education enrollments and there were 8,679 online class sections offered. See Distance Education Enrollments 2007 for the complete report.

These numbers have dramatically increased since 2001 when there were 19,764 enrollments in 1,753 courses. Complete report.

So let's take a look at the major residential university in Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What is the pattern over these six years? In 2001, the University of Illinois had 1400 Internet enrollments and in 2007 there were 2,032, not much change. Clearly, Illinois is not leading the change in regards to offering courses through the Internet.

So who has been leading the change? The biggest single change seems to be DeVry University, a private, for-profit university that focuses on technical skill training. In 2001, DeVry had 196 Internet enrollments and in 2007, they had 74,021 enrollments. In 2001, DeVry accounted for less than 1% of the online enollments and in 2007, they account for 47%. In 2001, the U of Illinois had 7% of the online enrollments and by 2007 it had only 1%.

If this pattern holds true in other states, then you can begin to see how higher education is changing. These patterns show how the landscape of higher education is changing and which institutions are going online to educate students.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Shared Learning Environments or "what is teaching?"

A number of people have been thinking about how to develop "personal learning environments" which are tools or platforms for gathering information and ideas together, but Stan Shanier suggests that in addition to needing tools to manage one's own learning, there also needs to be tools to learn together--- a idea that he calls: "shared learning environments".

Personal Learning Environments are a compelling concept and one that makes huge sense whatever angle you look at it from. However, I can’t help feeling there’s something missing or simply something wrong with the terminology? We cannot escape the fact that, in order to learn, we need other people. Both formal and informal learning requires human interaction – whether that be the words of someone written down, media others have created or the acknowledgement from others of our grasp of concepts.
For me this translates into classrooms, schools and other learning spaces. The problem is that when you mention these concepts it is easy to get locked in on existing versions. For example, most of the existing online learning management systems recreate the tools and processes of F2F classrooms with lectures, assignments, multiple choice exams and the like and with a rhythm of weekly activities, etc. It has been hard to break out of this mindset and begin to understand that we do not have to replicate all the structures of the F2F classroom online. Many of these structures exist because you had to manage people moving in a limited physical space.

So here is my beginning list of the things that I want a shared learning environment to have from the perspective of a teacher:

  • Multiple ways of creating content (text, audio, video)
  • A series of formats or structures (both small and large) to convey ideas.
  • Ways to create multiple paths through content.
  • Ways to communicate synchronously
  • Ways to communicate asynchronously
  • Tools to check understanding, comprehension.
  • Tools to create complex illustrations

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Do we need "courses"?

George Siemens in a very interesting presentation asserts that we are beginning a process of unpacking our educational process into smaller and more distributed units and that we can begin to construct educational environments without courses.

Here is his general definition of a course:
Courses are structured, organized, bounded domains of information that are administered to students by educators who seeks to wrap some form of interaction or learning activities to that the experience will ultimately be able to achieve value primarily defined by academic standards through accreditation.

He unpacks courses into four parts: content/information, conversations (that is, instruction), connections (relationships between teacher and students, and among students) and recognition or accreditation.

We have been able take courses apart and distribute them, but how do we put them back together?

Here is how he frames this issue:

The key challenge that remains and it has not been addressed to date…is how do we pull these pieces (accreditation, content, conversations, and connections) together. How do we bring together the informal reputation points that we might derive through interactions with other or the referral process that may occur in our interactions with learning content and how then does that come together in an academic setting so that we have some degree of comfort when we dialogue with someone who stated they’ve received their degree from global online and distributed university as evidenced by these thousand learners who’ve assigned reputation points and as a result of having gone through x-number of sources of learning material, podcasts or whatever else. At this point this is a key missing piece. Pulling together the distributed conversations with the distributed content and finding a way to assign a degree of value is one of the biggest challenges of discussing an educational model that moves from the largely traditional hierarchical structure most of us recall.
This is a bigger problem than just "accreditation." The other aspect of courses is that there are sequences of learning various topics. It is generally important to learn to add and substract before learning to multiple and divide. Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody has been exploring ways that organization is formed on the web, but there is still much that must be done to pull distributed learning back together. And we still need guides through this sequence. Most learners will not find their own paths through all the possible material.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

What's wrong with tags

A lot has been made of "tags" as ways of organizing and grouping disparate information and ideas. It has been said that "tags" create the opportunity for novel constructions and links between various ideas that get a similar tag and that these tags create new "folksominies" rather than rigid "taxonomies."

However, it seems to me that these actual create a lot of noise and grouping of stuff together that rarely makes sense. Tagging may be a good way for find an idea or to begin a search for information, but they are not helpful for organizing the information. Organizing information takes more than tags or keywords, it takes "structure" that links information and ideas in coherent useful ways. This is more than an "aggregator" or a "tag cloud" again these are useful in seeing a bunch of information that various people think seems to go together, but rarely does this provide us with a coherent or integrated picture of what this all is.

This makes me think that we need another set of tools that allows us to link tags (that is, ideas, topics) together in an easy and convenient way so that I can create an organized structure for the information that I have gathered. This allows me to throw away some pieces of information that have the same tag and organize other information into a more coherent structure.