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.