Thursday, April 23, 2009

Building an Online Early Learning Professional Development Community

Designing online learning communities remains on the important challenges for educators. In other postings I have written about the roles for learners in communities and tried to describe general ideas for creating online communities.

In this post, I want to develop an outline for how to create a community focused on child care, parenting, and early learning to elaborate my ideas about online learning communities.

At the moment I mostly have questions rather than answers.

1. Can we create a community that includes for parents and professionals?

There are lots of overlap in terms of the types of issues and concerns faced by both parents and child care professionals. They are both interested in healthy development-- helping children grow, learn, eat nutritiously, be safe, etc. There are some differences especially between those professionals who care for children in centers with multiple children versus a parent with only one child. There are fewer differences between a family child care provider and a parent.

2. What advantages or disadvantages might there be to developing a parent-professional learning community?

The biggest advantage would be that parents and professionals could learn from each other and see the issues that they share in common. The disadvantage is that professionals may want to ask questions and raise issues that they would prefer be discussed within the professional community rather than in the presence of parents. Likewise, parents may be interested in hearing from other parents about issues rather than from professionals on some issues.

3. How would learning be organized?

I would create microlearning opportunities such as short audio, text, and video material that address a single issue, problem or idea such that these microlearning experiences could be assembled into larger learning activities such as lessons, courses, and so forth. My best example of microlearning is the FAQ (frequently asked questions) structure in which there are specific questions with short answers. Likewise, in many cases, these answers are also linked to related questions or additional information. I also think that short quizzes and surveys are other tools that can be easily used to create microlearning situations. Brief audio and video material can also be used to illustrate ideas, topics and experiences that can't be easily captured by words.

4. How would the learning community be organized?

In organizing the learning community, I would return to my ideas about "roles of learners." My idea is there are a range of roles that vary by level of knowledge or ability and level of engagement. I have hypothesized five levels from novice to partner. It is worth noting that I assume that expect for the novice level, in all the other roles I assume that the participants function as both teachers and learners. In short, each person is both responsible for teaching those members at the next role below themselves and learning from the members at the next level above them. Being both teacher and learner is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be in a learning community. (See a more extensive discussion of these roles.)

Here you begin to see one of the challenges of having both parents and professionals in the same learning community. How will people feel about both parents and professionals developing learning materials? Can parents (without other credentials) obtain the role of "expert" in the learning community?

What types of technology tools are needed to support this learning community?

There needs to be an easy way to create FAQs (short question and answers), quiz tools, survey tools, audio and video tools (perhaps just the capacity to upload audio and video rather than editing tools), forums for both synchronous and asynchronous discussions, and tools for assembling short microlearning content into longer and richer learning experiences (e.g., courses, how-to segments, etc.). At the most advanced end there may need to be research tools such as data collection, management and analysis.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

FAQs as Microlearning Units of Education

Despite significant advances in the use of online tools for teaching and learning, I still don't think we have conceptualized the right platform for learning online. Wikis, blogs, forums, repositories, social networks, and so on all have their place and usefulness in learning, but it is still difficult to assemble a powerful sequence of learning content and activities.

In the early stages there was much talk of "learning objects" as a basic building block of learning. Learning objects were conceptualized similar to software code objects that were designed to execute specific functions within a computer program (e.g., code for printing text) that could be used over and over again whenever that particular function was needed. A learning object was conceived as a similar unit of "learning" that could be used as needed in a teaching activity. Lots of puzzles and troubles emerged from this effort (see a summary of these problems), but gradually the idea of "learning objects" has been abandoned.

FAQs-- Frequently Asked Questions as a Learning Building Block

I think the problem is that we haven't developed the right building block for creating learning opportunities. In short, we haven't gotten the unit of production right. Yochai Benkler writes, "The number of people who can, in principle, participate in a project is therefore inversely related to the size of the smallest scale contribution necessary to produce a usable module" (The Wealth of Networks, Chapter 4, 2006, p. 101). I would suggest that whole courses, whole lectures, etc. are too big to include very many participants. Also, materials of this magnitude serve as useful resources if you are teaching similar material, but they are rarely designed in such a way that another teacher can easily incorporate the material into their own teaching/course, etc. This lowers the actual usage of such materials. The the brilliant aspects of the Wikipedia is that they developed a system that got the "unit of production" right.

FAQs as a solution to the "unit of production" problem for learning. If we start at the basic unit of learning, I think that most learning starts with a question. Whether we are thinking about the questions of a child (How did the stars get up there?) or the scientist (How did the stars get up there?), most learning begins with a question. So what if we began to create a platform in which teachers could write questions and answers (FAQs) and then there were tools for assembling sequences of FAQs into longer sequences of learning? Would this work?

A Limited Example

In a website, MissouriFamilies, I developed some limited models of this FAQ structure. For example, here is a simple FAQ, "What is the divorce rate in the United States?" Here is a longer article that is constructed from a series of FAQs about trends in marriage rates.

My own brief efforts in trying this strategy suggests that it is possible to create a series of FAQs that can be assembled into longer learning sequences.

What about Audio/Video/PowerPoint FAQs?

Although I have not tried to create audio or video FAQs it seems to me like they would be similar to text. That is, they would be short clips that answer a question or illustrate an idea. Again they might be put together in a sequence to teach a larger point.

I am less certain about how to create a easy set of PowerPoint slides for a lecture or other type of presentation from a series of FAQs. Clearly, you couldn't just string together the words or have a series of slides that had each of the FAQs. This is an interesting question to think more about.

Other Issues in Using FAQs to Building Learning Experiences

One of the biggest challenges in using FAQs is the developing an answer that is appropriate to the level of the learner. A child's question about the stars is not the same as a physicist question about the stars even if they use the same words. There is no easy solution to this problem. To build useful systems we will have to develop ways of tagging FAQs with metadata that capture the essential "learning attributes" that need to be considered with each FAQ. This will be challenging, but perhaps less challenging that to continue to create the same content for multiple efforts to teach the same content.

There are also all types of questions. One useful way to begin to think about these questions is to use the revised Bloom taxonomy of the cognitive domain of learning. (See Forehand presentation of this work.) Often this work is used to help teachers learn how to ask questions of students to encourage them to seek deeper levels of synthesis and analysis of an issue, but these same questions can be used to build a structured set of FAQs that move from basic information about a topic to a deeper understanding. Likewise, the Bloom conceptualization can be used to build learning sequences with FAQs.


I am not ready to give up on the idea of our creating learning materials that we can use and reuse in building learning activities.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Early Learning Educational Platform-- What's Missing?

Over the last several years, Illinois has been building an educational and professional development infrastructure for child care (early learning) professionals. This project known as "Gateways to Opportunity" is designed to bring together all the resources for educating beginning and advanced professionals interested in early care and education. Additionally, there has been a long-term effort to integrate many of the resources for parents and professionals at the Illinois Early Learning Project.

These efforts have advanced the resources for parents and professionals interested in young children and have developed a wide array of useful tools-- newsletters for early learning professionals, a listserv for professionals interested in early care, descriptions of early learning standards and video examples of classrooms, teaching and work with parents, parent materials in Spanish, English and Polish, and much more. There are also many useful links to other resources on the web.

Despite all this useful material, I still feel like something is missing and there is something about the design of these websites that is lacking.

Review of the Illinois Early Learning Project Website

One difficulty is the conceptual structure of this website-- it is organized by structural features of the material rather than by the content. For example, there is a section on "videos" and "tip sheets" (which is actually a reference to the fact that these are designed as print materials). Organizing material by delivery mode is a structural characteristic of the delivery system, but not a characteristic that would be particularly important to a parent or professional who is more likely to be interested in a particular topic, issue or question. This points to another problem with these materials which is that parent and professional material is intertwined. The Illinois Early Learning Project website could easily be organized by the type of learner/client/audience so that parents could find the materials designed for them and professionals could find materials addressed to them.

Review of the Gateways to Opportunity Website

This website is better organized to address the needs of particular types of potential audiences (parents, students, current professionals, etc.) and there is a lot of useful resources located in each section, but I still have the feeling that the organizational structure reflects the resources rather than the interests or questions of the audience. For example, in the section designed for higher education faculty there are many useful links to appropriate resources, but they could be organized around the tasks or needs that higher education might be interested in such as: resources for getting approval as an entitled program, resources for professional development, resources for your students, new teaching resources, and so forth. In short, the website could be organized around the questions or concerns of the audience.

This organizational structure may result in people overlooking valuable resources. For example, the website has an extensive list of research reports listed under the section titled, Resources, but there is no link to this directly from the higher education pages. This list of research studies is likely to include a number of items that would be of interest to higher education faculty either for their own professional development or for their instruction to students.

Adding Interaction, Participation and Community

Increasing websites are incorporating opportunities for online users to interact on the website, participate in the creation of knowledge and building community. (See my general description of these topics and links to other resources about these issues.) In order to build an effective platform to education and professional development in early learning, we will have to build a platform in which there are opportunities for parents and professionals to engage with each other and with the creation of content in these online settings. This means moving beyond websites as places to find information or to tell people about the issues. This calls for a different type of design and a more open online platform.

This is the big challenge for those interested in building an effective learning platform for early learning.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Falling for Social Science: People in Mind?

In a fascinating book on the role of physical objects and children's developing love of science, Sherry Turkle in Falling for Science, has collected essays from over 25 years of students at MIT in which she asks them to write an essay on the question:
"Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?"
In this book, she shares the essays that students have written over the years that capture the excitement, passion and curiosity that objects often played in these students' growth as young scientists. This is wonderful reading and Turkle uses these reflections to craft new insights into how we foster science education.

The question I was left thinking was how young people's interest in social science emerges. I have often thought that most young people come to social science (family studies, psychology, sociology, anthropology) by the back door. They come into the fields because of an interest in helping people, concern about injustice, puzzled by the difficulties that have witnessed in the lives of their families, communities and so forth. I am not sure many of our entering students would view themselves as entering college in a "science field" or even see themselves as "scientists."

Often it is only after beginning to study that that they discover that there are systematic ways of studying these issues and understanding these problems and fall into love with social scientific work. One of the significant challenges of teaching social science is that students often assume that their own "theories" about how social relationships work and how people grow and change are "right" and have not done very careful thinking about how to test these theories or how to marshal evidence in support or against a particular view of the world. In short, we are often teaching them about how to think critically and scientifically about people and the social world-- in short to think more scientifically about these ideas.

But this is just a hypothesis and I have never explored these questions in the way that Turkle has asked this of her students. So what would the question be to ask young social scientists?

"Was there an event, circumstance, or problem in childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your choice of this major in social science?"

And if it is the case that our students discover that they not only have an interest in making the world better or helping people, it would be interesting to ask them when they began to think of themselves as "scientists." And what pushed these interests and passions forward?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Updated Information on the Integration of Teaching, Content and Technology

In a very polite comment, Punya Mishra, corrected my earlier post on his work and noted that there was an updated description of his work regarding the integration of content, teaching and technology. Here is the updated image of the conceptual model. Mishra and Koehler continue to explore pre-service teacher's reports on these different areas of knowledge and have developed a good tool for measuring these domains.

(For more about their work, see this website.)

Although their focus is on these interior domains and the intersection of the domains of knowledge, I think it is also important to explore how the outer circle (labelled "context") intersects these domains. The contexts for instruction are also changing. At a simple level, the "Internet" is always a contextual backdrop to F2F instruction. Also, how these areas of knowledge work when a teacher is teaching in an entirely online environment is quite different than teaching in a traditional classroom.

This adds complexity, but we need to understand how this is handled by instructors as well.