Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Vision of Students Today

As we think about curriculum and learning in the College of ACES we need to think about students today. I am always sceptical of terms like the "digital generation" and other ideas that suggest today's students learn differently, but there is always a little something to this.

In this video, A Vision of Students Today, Michael Wesch and his students raise some questions about the experiences of today's students.

From FAQ to data: Linking information to research

Faculty at land-grant universities who engage in outreach work often assert that the difference between their work and that of other professionals engaged in offering solutions to issues, is that their work is built on research evidence.

In online presentations it is increasingly possible to provide a demonstration of those connections. For example, Here are three links from a website, MissouriFamilies.org developed at the University of Missouri:

Here is a link to an answer to a FAQ: What is the divorce rate in the United States?


At the conclusion of this short answer is a link to a longer document that explains more about the pattern of divorce in the United States. Here is that link:


In this article, there are links to specific U.S. Census documents that present the governments official population records. In this case, an interested reader can follow the evidence trail from the short answer to the data. In this way the reader, if interested, can determine whether the answers presented were reasonable and match the data.

Online Learning Infrastructure

The missions of teaching, research and extension have usually been thought of an separate activities. In an online learning environment it is increasingly possible to create an structure in which there are clear connections between these activities. Here is an example of a general structure that starts with short answers to common questions. As a student/participant becomes more engaged in the topic/issue, they become involved with more complex learning activities.

Monday, August 25, 2008

ACES 2.0: Land-grant Model for the 21st Century

As the University of Illinois moves forward in developing eLearning initiatives and a global campus, the College of ACES has a unique opportunity to not only participate in these activities, but to lead the way towards developing a land-grant model that builds on the historic missions of research, teaching and extension by extending these efforts.

A number of pioneers have begun to describe the Learning 2.0 and Science 2.0 that involve developing interactive and collaborative settings. Building on these ideas we can begin to think about the unique niche that the College of ACES has 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.

Opportunities for Research Universities

There are a number of unique aspects to the College of ACES that give us the opportunity to create a different kind of online learning presence.

Open our research laboratories to the world. Since we have active scientists who are discovering new knowledge and creating new ideas, we should think about ways to open these activities to people interested in learning. There are a variety of ways that we can open scientific labs and other similar activities. In some instances this can be done by making the tools available to people. For example, at the U of Illinois Beckman Institute, they have created the "Bugscope" that allows elementary school students use a scanning electron microscope. In addition to opening specialized tools to the public and students, we can open databases and other types of experimental processes in order to show this work. We can begin to think about ways the public might be engaged in data collection. There are a growing range of collaborative tools that offer ways to engage other scientists and students in research. Openwetware is designed to encourage scientists to share biological and biological engineering information across laboratories.
The Journal of Visualized Experiments publishes video demonstrations of scientific experiments.

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."

Our scientists are participating in these activities, but are we providing the leadership for creating the next generation of research laboratories?

Open our classrooms to the world. There are various ways that we can open our classrooms to the world. We can adopt the "open course" idea that has been chosen by MIT in which the course material is available to the public. This may include podcasts of lectures by faculty, slides from lectures, lecture notes and a variety of other tools. We could also provide limited access to various classes as they are in progress where outside students could follow the progress of the course while it is taking place and perhaps have limited opportunities to interact with students in the classroom and/or the instructor.

Creating learning communities led by faculty. A bolder effort might involve the creation of online learning communities that would span graduate students, undergraduate students and public in ways to explore ideas and conduct learning activities. Rather than engage in educational activities in which graduate education is separate from undergraduate education and this is walled off from public participation, it is possible to create participatory learning environments in which there are various levels of learning that are integrated into a multilayer learning community. (My notes about possible roles in such a learning community and an example of levels of social participation at museums that can be adapted to other learning settings.)

Link our outreach activities to educational options. The University of Illinois and many other universities have a significant online presence in its outreach activities. For example, U of I Extension maintains many websites on a variety of topics of interest to the public. Among these websites there is a vast amount of information related to nutrition, horticulture, farming, family and so forth. From looking at the page views in the tracking of these pages, we know that millions of people are looking at these web pages, particularly the pages about horticulture.

Much of the material that appears in these websites is created by faculty and staff who work side by side with researchers and teachers and yet there is little or no online connection between the work available to the public and the teaching and research. Let me try to illustrate what I mean by this horticulture example.

As a gardener I can find out some useful things about the asparagus beetle. So let's say that I get very interested in all the various bugs that crawl around the garden and I would like to find out more about in general about garden pests. U of Illinois Extension provides an extensive array of helpful resources including newsletters for gardeners, printed materials, a calendar of F2F educational programs, and a chance to ask questions to Extension personnel. Behind this work is a department of faculty who teaches undergraduates and graduates about this work and a variety of research projects. Yet other than occasional links at the bottom of the pages, there are no links between the outreach/extension activities and knowledge and these other efforts. In short the public is very engaged in reading and interacting with these outreach resources has little or no chance to digging deeper into the other educational and research activities of the University of Illinois. Although there are some links from the research and educational parts of the unit to extension and outreach activities, these are also limited. As I noted earlier the outreach work gets lots of public attention, but if these people who find the outreach material were interested in looking more deeply into richer educational experiences such as taking courses or becoming a horticulturist, they would not easily make the connection between the outreach experiences and the educational courses. Likewise, if someone where interested in understanding more about the research behind the advice regarding fertilizers, weed control, and pesticide, they would have little idea how the outreach work is connected to the scientists who study this topic. By connecting this outreach work to the educational and research activities more directly there would be a natural way in which a person could be engaged in deeper learning opportunities.

There are some other examples in the College of ACES in which there are better connections between the outreach work and the educational and research missions. In Farmdoc there are specific links to the faculty authors and from there it is possible to view their teaching assignments and research publications. There are also some examples of links between reports and the data behind the reports so that an individual can find out more about the basis for the report's conclusions. Another example in which there is a better connection between research and outreach is the Illinois Livestock Trail. In the "papers" section there are often scientific research reports about the livestock topics.

There are many additional opportunities to provide connections between the outreach work and the teaching/research missions of the College.

Build a learning structure from the quick answer to the discovery/research process

In short, what I am suggesting is that the College of ACES has the opportunity to build an online learning infrastructure from the answers to "frequently asked questions" through intensive group experiences (e.g., classrooms) to the discovery process (e.g., laboratories, farms, etc.). Although it may be possible for other types of learning organizations (for-profit universities, etc.) to build these structures, at present most of these other universities are focused on the "classroom" portion of the online learning process. Many of these organizations don't have a "research, discovery, creative process" to link to because this is not an expectation of their faculty. Likewise, few universities have a well-organized outreach program that can engage the public in general information.

Many Questions

There are many questions that remain to be answered about this idea. Is there a robust financial model that can sustain such a learning environment? Are there integrated software tools that would allow for this range of learning experiences? How do you engage faculty in participating in creating a structure like this? What types of support do you need to build such a structure? Are there particular science niches that the College of ACES might fill?

First Steps

As I mentioned at the beginning I think these times call for bold ideas. These ideas would mean creating online learning experiences that are more complex than most existing models. The first steps may be to inventory the various online activities that are currently taking place and try to put them into a larger framework. This means finding the laboratory and creative activities that already have an online presence. It means finding all the online outreach activities and continuing education courses, then building links between the outreach, courses and laboratories. These first steps would be an effort to put together this jigsaw puzzle of pieces into an overarching framework and then begin to fill in the missing pieces.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Good answers to FAQs

Writing brief answers for the web is different from writing academic papers. Your audience is the general public. They will not know technical jargon or theory. Their primary interest is in understanding an issue, finding out something or solving a problem.

Below are some guidelines to guide you in writing. There are also a set of references at the end to provide additional information and examples.

Characteristics of a Good Answer to a Question in a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) format:

The first sentence should answer the question. In writing on the web you have to assume your reader will scan the document and look for evidence that they are going to find what they are looking for. They are unlikely to read the whole answer, so the first sentence of a good answer should provide a complete idea that generally answers the question that is being asked.

The complete answer should be no longer than 200 words. Web writing needs to be brief. If an answer requires more than 200 words, it may not be read. If the question is complex and has several parts, break up the answer into sub-questions.

Sentences in addition to the first sentence should provide examples and additional clarification. Don’t waste your sentences. Provide clear examples or suggest things someone can do in each sentence.

Write at an 8th grade reading level or even lower. Academic writing is often written at the 12th grade reading level. Assess the reading level of your writing in Word using the settings on the “Spelling and Grammar” tool. You can also paste your text into this online site http://www.editcentral.com/gwt/com.editcentral.EC/EC.html to get a check on the reading level. The reading level can be lowered by shortening the length of sentences, reducing the amount of jargon, and using fewer words with 3+ syllables.

The length of sentences should be 15 words or less. Good web and popular press writing has short, clear sentences. Look for words you can eliminate.

Limit the use of technical jargon. Academics use a large number of technical terms, acronyms, etc. that rarely make any sense to the general public. It is best to avoid these terms. If you have to use a technical term, provide a definition.

Answers should be written in the active voice. Avoid using the passive voice in writing answers as these sentences are usually more complicated. In the active voice the subject performs the action expressed in the verb.


Parents make a difference in the lives of their children.
Harsh or punitive discipline can cause long-term problems for children.


Children’s lives can be affected by their parents.
Long-term problems of children can be affected by a parenting style that involves harsh or punitive discipline.

Avoid using phrases such as “research indicates” or “research has found”. In general, you do not need to use tell your reader the source of the information in an answer. This is implied. They should be able to find out this information (if they care) by some other place in the website such as the “about” section that explains the sources of information on the website. If for clarity or variation in the sentence structure you want to indicate the “source” of an idea, then use generic terms such as: “scientists have found…” “clinicians recommend….,” “parent educators suggest…, etc.”

Moral imperatives should be avoided. The tone of an answer should not suggest or imply that a parent or family member who does not do something is deficient or fundamentally wrong. Avoid using words like “should or “ought.” Likewise, it is better to suggest what people should try to do rather than focus on something they ought not to do.

Answers should be based on scientific evidence or best practice. This is the hallmark difference between good answers to questions and the usual material that you find on the web. Good answers should be based on current theory and research. Our scientific understanding is still limited and so there is not research evidence regarding all the questions and practical issues that people encounter. This requires extrapolation from existing evidence, best practice from clinicians and others who work with children, youth and families. Our knowledge from both science and practice is limited. The answers to questions will change as new information is discovered. When possible, acknowledge the limitations and weaknesses in our scientific understanding in your suggestions and recommendations .

Answers should be dated and should identify the author and the author’s affiliation. Since there is continued growth in our knowledge and understanding it is important to have material dated. This reminds us to continuously update material and why some answers may be different. It is good practice to identify authors and their affiliations as this is a way to indicate to people the source of information. Credibility is at least in part conveyed through identification with trusted (or not trusted) sources of information.

Answers should include links to additional resources or related ideas. Good answers to FAQs are short answers so there is always more to learn or related ideas that may extend someone’s understanding. Good answers should provide links to related topics or to more in-depth information.

Answers to questions that include potentially dangerous behaviors or complicated issues need special handling. Providing short answers is not always appropriate to every question or at least the answer should not encourage the reader to limit themselves to mere information sources. For example, when questions imply dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, it is important to address the real danger.

Here are some examples of dangerous or complicated questions:

  • My mother lives two blocks away so when I take my baby to visit her, I just put the infant carrier on the car seat next to me. My mother says I need to buckle her into the car seat, what do you think?
  • I have heard that vaccines cause autism, so my friends are refusing to have their babies immunized, what should a parent do?
  • My 6-month-old seems to look at me less, stares off into space, and doesn’t smile or make sounds like he was a couple of months ago. My pediatrician says I shouldn’t worry about this, but I am worried. Any advice?

Answers to these questions should include the information about child deaths in cars without car seats and the frequency of accidents near people’s homes. The autism question is very complicated, but this is probably a question that should include the danger of contracting various childhood diseases, encouragement to take to a pediatrician and links to more in-depth sources of information about the link between vaccines and autism. When particular symptoms or behaviors are reported, good answers should encourage people to seek professional help (in this case) another professional who may do more in-depth development assessments. Answers to dangerous or complicated questions should usually include suggestions for additional sources of help including telephone hotlines, local professionals or services. An answer can include information about why professional help is important and what to expect from professionals.

Additional sources of information about writing:

Kendall-Tackett, K. A. (2007). How to write for a general audience. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Nielsen, J. (1997). How users read on the web. Retrieved July 16, 2008, from http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20050314.html

Nielsen, J. (2005). Low literacy users. Retrieved July 16, 2008, from http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20050314.html

Nielsen, J. (2008). Writing style for print vs. web. Retrieved July 16, 2008, from http://www.useit.com/alertbox/print-vs-online-content.html