Building a Better Teacher

Building a Better Teacher ~ Stephens Web ~ by Stephen Downes.

Stephen comments on an article in the NY Times that claims great teaching can be taught, an issue of great interest to me and Stephen alike. In his comment (from which I declined to actually read the original article), Stephen suggests that the article is effectively a marketing blurb for a book by Doug Lemov, which in turn is promotion for his consultancy. When The NY Times implements its “subscription paywall”, this sort of book promotion will not be effective because the articles will no longer be widely distributed (many of the people who read the NY Times for free will not pay for the privilege). Stephen also notes that Lemov uses “unsurprising techniques” (ie nothing new or innovative) and there are no scholarly references to the “Lemov Taxonomy”.

I am interested in Stephen’s comments because there is subtext that jumps out at me:

1) Paywalls will discourage advertising masquerading as journalism. (Possibly a good thing about paywalls? Of course I won’t find out because I won’t pay …)

2) Where will newspapers get their pay-for content? (Implication that much of the content of newspapers is actual marketing / promotion. Can real journalism only be resurrected by making people pay to read?)

3) Lemov has no “scholarly references to it” – by which I presume Stephen means that Lemov is not cited by any papers in academic journals and that this reduces Lemoy’s credibility. I find this an interesting observation given the subtext in a lot of Web 2.0 discussion that the gate-keeping process of peer-reviewed academic journals creates an unnecessary monopolisitic constraint on the dissemination of new ideas.

Deep specialisation key to collaboration | The Australian

Couple Elizabeth Blackburn’s comments with the Climate Change Wars, and you start to see why “science” is getting a bad name. Add in the funding models over recent times (who pays for research) and it all starts getting even murkier.

NOBEL prizewinner Elizabeth Blackburn’s discoveries in molecular biology led her into cross-disciplinary research in cancer and chronic stress, but she warns that researchers first need deep specialist knowledge.As institutions are focusing on breaking down barriers to cross-disciplinary research, the University of California-based professor cautions there is a risk of researchers being shallow if they seek to generalise early.”My feeling is not to get too cross-disciplinary and shallow and spread all over the place too quick,” Blackburn tells the HES while visiting Monash University, where she is a distinguished visiting professor.”One needs to be able to bring something very substantive to the table because I can see the temptation would be to try to be overly generalised and shallowness would be the consequence.”

via Deep specialisation key to collaboration | The Australian.

Academic freedom of expression at The University of Melbourne

Standing Resolutions of Council – Chapter 4 – General Resolutions Including Protocols : The University of Melbourne.

seems to have been replaced by this during the “Policy simplification project”

It’s a sad reflection on Australian academia that this needs to be stated clearly, but it is refreshing that it has been. (and it’s a sad reflection on my writing that I no longer know what specific point was being made, due to the link no longer being active – note to self, make sure that writing of commentary includes the key point being identified!)

My Taekwondo blog …

It is more than two years since I wrote anything in my taekwondo blog – but not because there is nothing interesting to say. In the past two years I have learned so much more about technique and application and moral culture, and it has been an exciting and challenging time to be part of USMA. Apart from my own thoughts on taekwondo, I’ve been delighted to watch my daughter’s skills develop and was very proud that she represented Australia in Argentina in the World Championships. She just missed the medal round in patterns, and performed to the best of her ability in sparring – a great effort for her first international event.

The reason that my taekwondo blog has died is a sad reflection on taekwondo in Australia – too much politics, not enough technique / application, and a seeming abyss of moral culture. To write anything about taekwondo, to question any technique, to reflect on good and bad aspects of the art form, to consider the relationship between a Korean martial art developed in a military context and modern Australian cultural context – all these are political minefields with people searching for disrespect or subversion or technical error in every utterance, rather than looking for a way forward and an open exchange of ideas to build on the wonderful foundation created by General Choi and bring it to people of all walks of life, including women and children.

When the administration of taekwondo is more about building individual business interests than serving the students of taekwondo (giving back to taekwondo in the form of leadership and instruction), the moral culture at the core of the martial art is destroyed. There will always be a very difficult path to tread through the democratic legal framework for Not-for-profit Associations versus the Dan hierarchy of a martial art, and the only way to negotiate a path through this is through plenty of discussion around common goals. Of course this is almost impossible if there are no common goals, and most parties have the goal of exerting maximum power with minimum input.

So rather than writing a whole lot of stuff about the exciting things that I’ve learned through training taekwondo with Sabum Cariotis and sharing my passion for a martial art with other people who might have thought of starting but did not know whether it would be okay for them (e.g., too old, too unfit, too inflexible, wrong demographic etc), I don’t write anything at all. It is a real shame, because so much of the way I think in my own professional area of cognitive science and spatial coding has been heavily influenced by my martial arts training. My discussions with Sabum Cariotis on space, time, temporal sequencing of movements, trigger points, options and decision-making have triggered all sorts of ways of understanding spatial coding, and I have also learned so much about cognitive aspects of training for expert skilled performance through watching Sabum Cariotis instruct and learning how to instruct martial arts under his guidance.

I have to say also that my eLearning blog has also died somewhat because of similar issues – universities are also becoming more focused on their business interests than on their core mission of community service through generating and sharing knowledge and understanding. I work for a specific institution and my academic output belongs to this institution as part of their “intellectual property” … such a strange concept, that “intellectual property” has a life of its own outside of any individual’s own intellect. It would be an interesting exercise to force university managers (and taekwondo practitioners) to study enough philosophy of mind to have a view of what constitutes knowledge (or skilled performance) and whether or not it can exist independently of the mind (or body) which is using it …

Doctor and Patient – Looking Beyond MCATs to Pick Future Doctors –

Doctor and Patient – Looking Beyond MCATs to Pick Future Doctors –

The investigators found that the results of the personality test had a striking correlation with the students’ performance. Neuroticism, or an individual’s likelihood of becoming emotionally upset, was a constant predictor of a student’s poor academic performance and even attrition. Being conscientious, on the other hand, was a particularly important predictor of success throughout medical school. And the importance of openness and agreeableness increased over time, though neither did as significantly as extraversion. Extraverts invariably struggled early on but ended up excelling as their training entailed less time in the classroom and more time with patients.

It is interesting to see that the personality factors leading to long term future success are different from those leading to short-term “success”. Failure to consider progress over the whole training continuum is becoming a serious “quality” issue in education. The need to  enforce more rigorous standards early in training to prepare students for later training is difficult to do when evaluation is at the wrong granualarity. (Note to self: look up the Belgian study from which the data were reported)


I’ve been reading lots of Oliver Sacks over Christmas – reinforcing my view that the foundation of scientific study is observation. He provides this quote in the preface of “An anthropologist on Mars” which is itself from G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown:

Science is a grand thing when you can get it; in its real sense one of the grandest words in the world. But what do these men mean, nine times out of ten, when they use it nowadays? When they say detection is a science> When they say criminology is a science> They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect; in what they would call a dry impartial light; in what I should call a dead and dehumanised light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his “criminal skill” as if it were a sort of eerie growth, like the horn on a rhinoceros’s nose. When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour. I don’t deny the dry light may sometimes do good; though in one sense it’s the very reverse of science. So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious. It’s like saying that a man has a proboscis between the eyes, or that he falls down in a fit of insensibility once every twenty-four hours. Well, what you call “the secret” is exactly the opposite I don’t try to get outside the man, I try to get inside.

I have particularly enjoyed reading “Uncle Tungsten”, his memoirs of his childhood, where he had the freedom to do curiousity-driven research despite all the potential risks, thereby gaining a much deeper understanding of the world, and a thirst for knowledge gathered through detailed observation and reflection as well as through careful experimentation.

Yay! Finally fixed my login issues …

Thanks to this post, I have finally solved my WordPress login issue:

Fixing the WordPress login issue | John Hawkins Unrated.

Last May, I noticed that I had only posted 4 things in the past six months and had not been doing regular upgrades and was basically completely out of touch with the web world and the art of regular writing. I got excitable, wrote some stuff, decided to upgrade WordPress to the latest version, couldn’t log back into the admin site and have been locked out ever since. I spent two or three evenings spread across the last 6 months trying to solve the problem and decided it must be a weird Mac thing. I had pretty much given up until I read this post and cleared the plug-in entry from the database.

Job done!

The only remaining issue was to try to get my uploaded media content working again, but I solved that by linking to it elsewhere. So now I have a working blog and all I have to do is start writing!

Blogging at work

I had an email today from someone wanting to talk to me as an academic who blogs and asking how blogging might help with my work. The amusing aspect of this request is that in the past week I have taken down my work blog on the basis that I am generally uncomfortable posting anything even mildly controversial to it, and the wider its readership (currently not wide because I don’t actually advertise my blogs anywhere), the less controversial I would be willing to be.

This is more of a reflection on my perception of my workplace than on whether or not anything I say is truly controversial or whether or not management actually has a view on blogging – but it is a still a disturbing aspect of the “new academia”. I am not comfortable having a blog as my personal commentary on issues of the day. I suspect part of my lack of comfort is because it would not have the balance of a range of other commentaries on the same issues when few other academics at my institution blog. Also in the field of online learning, it is not clear who are the “experts” since online learning is still relatively new.

But there also seems to be less of an ability or willingness these days to distinguish “role-based professional views” (me in my organisational role) from “professionally-informed personal views” (me as an academic psychologist) from “personal views” (me). My views on blogging and on online learning and the world in general differ in my recent role as Head of an Online Learning Unit, versus my academic role as a cognitive scientist / IT specialist interested in forms of communication, versus as me unbeholden to anyone else.

I would love to be able to say that blogging has allowed a return to the more collegial aspects of intra- and inter-disciplinary engagement, providing an avenue for sharing informed but relatively informal perspectives on current topics despite the busy-ness of the academic day compared with 20 years ago. I would love to be able to say that I have got to know a range of my colleagues I would otherwise not have known by reading their “conversations” on their blogs or having them interact on my blog. But in fact, through blogging, I have got to “know” a range of people from across the world rather than from my own location – this is good, but it is also a bit disappointing. All my previous forays online have primarily involved maintaining social networks that exist face-to-face rather than meeting new people. I have spoken on a number of occasions formally and informally to colleagues about blogs, but the response has been luke-warm at best.

The main reason I blog as an academic is that it forces me to think through what I write at a sufficient depth to “put it out in the world”. I tend to blog longer pieces on a particular idea rather than shorter commentary on issues of the day. It may be a quirk of my own style that I need a potential audience to clarify my academic thoughts, or it might just be a quirk of being an academic in a non-teaching role … perhaps as a teaching academic, the audience of students continually tests one’s thoughts. Then again, as a teaching academic, I would be much more likely to blog regularly to round out the topics being taught beyond the formal curriculum. I would also encourage students to blog and to share bookmarks.

I originally got into blogging as a way to store annotated bookmarks to things I’d read online – still at from 2003-2004 but I now think that something like MediaWiki offers a better solution. The blog version allows me to find things that I read in passing and deserve a closer look, whereas the wiki version allows me to keep the most up-to-date view of what I’ve read prominent, and lists articles by topic.

I’d have to add that another reason I blog is that I think scientific publishing is struggling. In the attempt to quantify research quality by counting publications, academics responded by publishing every idea as a separate little paper rather than saving things up until there was something worthwhile to publish. So it is very hard to read “the literature” because it is heavy with quantity but light on quality. It is hard to find “seminal works” in an area over the last 20 years because everything comes out as drip feeds to ensure maximising publication quantity. Blogging allows a constant feed of fresh ideas without burdening the academic publishing system, and I would rather publish regular blog articles online while I write a substantive book than churn out a series of low impact publications, each of which says very little. Blogging ensures that I am contributing to the general knowledge base if people want to read what I have to say, but I’m not forcing my views on anyone who doesn’t want to listen.

The major difference between “blogging” and maintaining a personal website is the fact that blogging is based around date-based entries whether or not the temporal aspects are important, but that distinction is blurring. The ease of use of blog tools makes them a tool of choice for webpublishing irrespective of the “bloggyness” of content. The best improvement in WordPress (my favorite blogging tool) is the ability to create static web pages as well as blog pages, although I haven’t really played with it much. The best improvement in MediaWiki(wikis being the obvious alternative to blogs as an easy web-publishing tool) is the new focus on allowing restrictions on authoring – this is against the true web spirit of total openness, but much more realistic in terms of understanding human nature (there really are people out there who have nothing better to do than deface other people’s work) and accepting that it takes time and a certain degree of exclusivity to build online communities.

A few words on management

Escape from Cubicle Nation: Open letter to CEOs, COOs, CIOs and CFOs across the corporate world

This is a great rant- the solutions are not necessarily solutions I would choose, but the
message to management is timely.

– some points I particularly liked were under the following headings:

– Don’t spend millions of dollars trying to change your culture

– Don’t ask for employees’ input if you’re not going to listen to it

– Don’t train people until you know what problem you are solving

– Focus on the work people do, not how or when they do it

I suspect there’s a lot more good sense in the articles on her website but I would still prefer to fix the system than abandon it.

Content Management in LMS

This was originally composed May 2005 … I am currently going through unpublished notes that still seem like current issues – clearly this is only an issue for Learning Management Systems ™ not for Web 2.0, and what I’m trying to do in writing this is to highlight what functionality is missing from an LMS that would make it an attractive option for me as a teacher.

At my university, the stated institutional drivers for a content management system associated with the LMS were:

– protection of intellectual property
– managed access to a wide range of resources
– compliance with copyright and other legislation

The further rationale was that academics, especially those already using web-based resources, would want content management because they have difficulty keeping track of content.

But what does content management actually mean to an academic in the context of an LMS?

The basic atomic units of an LMS are the course shell and the user: an instance of a course shell for a unit of study links content and tools (unit resources) to a student cohort enrolled in the unit.

Content management issues relate to the fact that unit resources are reused from semester to semester, and a number of units share some or all of their resources. Superficially, it seems like a no-brainer that shared content should be stored once in a managed repository and linked to by the different courses in which it is used. Also many academics teach similar content. It also seems obvious that instead of each academic making their own resources, they could use resources already used by their colleagues.

But let’s look at the academic workflow a little more closely. For example, let’s consider the lecture notes or slides (the “lecture powerpoints” for want of a better term!) in an established unit. Say I taught 6 lectures in Sensation and Perception in Second Year Psychology last semester, and I’m preparing my unit for the upcoming semester. Theoretically, I have all the materials prepared and it’s just a matter of reloading the same content.

But what if I look at the calendar and notice that one of my lectures falls on a public holiday? So now I have five lectures to cover the same amount of material or I need to adjust the material I cover. The lectures are not quite the same as last semester. I start with most of the content prepared, but it will be reorganised such that I will end up with a different version from the previous semester. If I use presentation software (such as Powerpoint) to generate my lecture slides which support a face-to-face lecture, not only might I want to reorganise content, but I will probably want to incorporate details of teaching staff, consultation times etc into those notes, and these will almost certainly change on a semester to semester basis. Maybe I also find that the Introductory Psychology course has changed such that my second year cohort of students has a different set of assumed knowledge from previous years. How will this affect the structure and emphasis of my presentations?

In fact, even where there are no obvious outside drivers for change, very little in my course site will be exactly the same as the previous semester – the shell is the same, but the materials and student cohort are different. The work of updating the material is actually an integral part of teaching preparation, plays a large role in initiating any reflective practice around teaching, has always been time-consuming and error-prone, and often relies on idiosyncratic “local knowledge” of office staff and individual academics for its accuracy.

The benefits of content management software are not nearly as obvious as they appear to be at first blush, due to the nature of our teaching materials. We would need to change radically the way that we author teaching content. We would need to separate out content and semantic structure from instance-specific organisational / administrative structure, and we would need much finer granularity in content management. Instead of managing content at the level of learning resources such as “powerpoint presentations” which mostly need to be updated each semester, we would need the facility to generate individual slides and individual images which could then be built into presentations within the LMS. In this scenario, he LMS would need to provide the ability to author content. But if I have a presentation generated within the LMS, how do I get to present it to a live audience in a context where I may not have a live internet connection? Rather than the LMS being a repository for content to be placed in, it could also become a tool from which stand-alone presentations could be generated.

So for LMS content management to be useful, the granularity of content management needs to be at the level of presentation components, there needs to be the ability to generate saved presentation and packaging templates, and there needs to be the ability to export presentations and packages for use outside of the LMS. This needs to be outside the level of the course instance to be truly useful in the context of sharing materials.

In the context of course updating, the monumental task of updating important dates within the LMS deserves special consideration. For example, in a twelve week course, date structures might be in the format “WeekDay, Week X” such that Topic Y starts on Tuesday of Week 3 and by entering the date of the starting week, all dates are relativised. The ability to enter exceptions would need to apply (such as public holidays, Easter etc) but an automated tool to check all dates within a course would be of enormous “content management” value. Currently, in many LMS. conditional release of resources and activity by date requires tedious hand-editing via web forms through lack of a course-based relative date format.

Back to the role content management itself, imagine now an extensive repository of potential course content in the LMS. Imagine that this content is not linked to course instances. To go to the next level and make the LMS into an academic tool for course-building, the LMS would need tools for curriculum mapping. Not only do I want the ability to search the content repository for material suitable for my course, but I also want the ability to ask each instance of content where else and how else it has been used. I want the ability to prepare curriculum maps outside of course instances so that my teaching colleagues can see where content and curriculum occurs in an overall program. I want to see what resources other academics are using to elaborate the same themes in their subjects. I want the ability to link topic themes across subjects so that I can highlight themed relationships across for example Psychology and Sociology and Psychology and Physiology. This view of curriculum building envisages topic and resource themes across course instances but with a level of granularity that goes beyond strictly hierarchical aggregation. To be truly useful, these themes need to be visible outside of course enrolments, such that teaching staff can see cross-disciplinary relationships to inform their teaching, and students can see linkages to inform their current study, but also to inform their future enrolment.

And now that we consider LMS tools for building curriculum beyond the level of course instances, we also need to consider the curriculum building workflow.
– Where does “work-in-progress” fit?
– Can there be an optional approval process for content “release”?
– If a version of content is released, can work continue on that content, but not be released?
– Can I link to Version 3, rather than Version 4 Beta and when I link to Version 3, can I opt to accept all the changes, or only update to “released versions”?
– Can I ask to be notified on updates to content I don’t own? Can I ask to take over content I use but don’t own, if at some future point, the owner no longer wants it but I still do?
– Can I force updates to specific content (eg changes to spelling or obvious bugs)?

Requirements for Learning Content System:

1) Content should not be tied to course codes;
2) Need LMS presentation authoring tools with the capability of export;
3) Need flexibility to generate content maps (curriculum mapping) according to a range of schemes: for example into course content, topic content, theme content, discipline area;
4) Need the ability for staff and students to build and save their own curriculum maps of content for study purposes3) Need LMS authoring tools for presentations;
5) Need LMS syntactic authoring tools (saved sub-course templates for aggregating content – eg specific problem-based learning template for medical curriculum).

This has barely even touched upon the issue of shared responsibility for content and the dynamics of interactions between academic colleagues. Institutions are mostly blind to all but the extremes of interpersonal behaviour, but it would be naive in the extreme to think that there are no issues relating to sharing content and sharing workload.

Distributed Learning – Stephen Downes

As anyone reading my work-related writings would be aware, I am a big fan of Stephen Downes and his insightful, well-reasoned, beautifully articulated thoughts, his prolific writing, aggregating and commentary, and his willingness to share his thoughts (verbal and visual) with the world. There is something reassuring about having someone articulate many of the things are circulating in my own mind, even if I don’t always share Stephen’s point of view on the role of institutions and educators. I have never directly communicated with Stephen but I feel some affinity with him through my interactions with and engagement with his writings and because he is Canadian and I spent a few years living and working in Canada. I very much miss the OLDaily posts – these came to be my main source of EdTech web resources because nearly all the material of interest to me that I found through my own RSS aggregation came to me via OLDaily as well. I miss OLDaily because I am lazy, and I prefer to have a filtered information source that I trust than build my own (for EdTech). But I am also aware of a person behind OLDaily, and I wish that person all the best in his search for meaning and thank him very warmly for the contribution he has made to my understanding of online learning and educational technology and for the richness of the web resources he has shared with us. The degree to which I feel I “know” Stephen through his web personality is an interesting lesson in building online communities, concepts of identity and trust, and peer review in Web 2.0. My view of Stephen has built up over 3 years of reading his work and following his line of thought and as importantly, seeing who and what he links to and who and what links to him.

I listened to Stephen’s recent podcast from Tennessee, and for me it was yet another example of Stephen articulating precisely the view of the world I have been trying to capture:

“We often hear that it’s not about the technology – it’s about the learning … technology is a means to get to the learning …
but actually, it’s not about the learning either …
Learning is a means to an end, and we don’t know what the end is – it is different things for different people.
What is it to have a good life, to be engaged in a life, to have a happy life? Learning is the just the thing we do to try to get ourselves to have a good life, a happy life … a productive life – well that’s another thing.”

Stephen then asks how we should judge the quality of learning if it’s actually about leading a good life. Not by relying on empirical studies, not by looking at educational outcomes from interventions, not by benchmarking etc … if we are trying to live good lives, what would be the test for this? Possibly the most relevant question is whether or not we are happy.

Stephen then comments in passing that he is talking to the wrong people – he is talking to people who are heavily invested in traditional online learning and educational technology – it is their bread and butter, their livelihood, and he is saying to them – “this won’t work because it is not what people want”. The evidence for this is that when people really want to learn something, traditional online learning is not what they do.

[Note – I started writing this two weeks ago while Stephen’s actual words were fresh in my mind, but never quite finished working up my notes … I remember that the thing that particularly resonated with me is the fact that people who are heavily invested in educational technology are not easily going to hear the message that they are “doing it wrong” … yet paradoxically they continue to ask for “expert input” from people who are trying to tell them exactly this. The educational technology community is relatively small, and it seems we are all assumed to be pretty much on the same side despite our strong differences of opinion voiced fairly clearly. I don’t really get it. So I’m at some level relieved that maybe Stephen doesn’t get it either.]

Below is my summary of what Stephen was saying:

Traditional institution-based online learning is product-based, based around “learning content”, learning objects / learning resources. The emphasis is on course content. LMS were maybe a necessary step – a link between traditional learning and the online world, but now need to move on to Web 2.0 (name is a fad, but model is here to stay).

We need to be able to slot in new things as they become available – this is not just a technology perspective, but is an organisational and administrative issue. Ask yourself the question: could you add something that happened last night into your course today? (Yes, probably …) But could you not just discuss it, or note it, or use it as an example, but actually give credit for it? If a new technology was invented overnight, could you use it in your LMS tomorrow? Even if the technical and licensing constraints allowed for it, would the organisational / administrative structures allow it?

In contrast to an LMS (content-delivery) view of the world, Stephen discusses Learning Networks – instead of educators providing a service to people directly, they will be providing a service to enable people to provide that service to themselves. Education is not about the content – content is the medium of communication. If education is about engagement and practice, content is the mechanism we use to get people to this point. Web 2.0 embodies the concept of Learning Networks – the web has changed from a place we go to consume media to a place we go to do things. To elaborate further: where the web is a broadcast medium, Web 2.0 is a platform; where web pages were documents, Web 2.0 is a word processor; where the web was a “read” medium, Web 2.0 is a “production” medium. The web is now a place to produce content. The content doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be good enough.

The idea that good is good enough is not to suggest that there is no requirement for quality in education – rather, it emphasises that quality in education relates to learning quality rather than content quality and improvement in educational outcomes relates non-trivially to what is currently available. Stephen came to eLearning from a remote environment where the choice was not between good eLearning and good classroom teaching, but between eLearning and nothing. “Good enough” is really good when compared with nothing. eLearning is more about access than quality – there needs to be a minimum quality of course, but the important factor is access not quality.

Learning content after “the age of content” begins to look more like the pixels in an image which allow you to recognise the picture as a visual representation of something – learning content (eg blog posts, video, images, animations) allows you to form a picture of the phenomenom you are trying to understand. Learning content is scattered over the web in the form of user-generated content and you can pull it together dynamically as you need it – the picture painted and its usefulness changes over time but the importance of an individual piece of content can be viewed in the same way as the importance of any individual pixel in the overall image.

In Web 2.0, learning takes place not in institutions, but in social networks and communities created by and for the learners themselves, eg Yahoo groups, special interest groups. Content goes into the web where it is aggregated, remixed and distributed to other people, but increasingly, there is no need for professional intermediaries. Scott Wilson’s picture of a personal virtual learning environment built from currently available web technologies and services is so much richer and more dynamic than an LMS – it taps into all sorts of resources using protocols and APIs that allow distributed resources to talk to each other.
Future VLE diagram

The guiding principles of protocols and APIs are simplicity and flexibility. Stephen makes the point that protocols rather standards are the way to go – institutions and corporates try to exert control via standards, which have to be used exactly as they are written whereas protocols, which can be used how they are written, or can be used differently allow for greater freedom and autonomy, and only become a mechanism for sharing information if people want to use them,ie if sharing is important to them for whatever reason.

The internet is no longer (never was?) about consumption, but about interaction with a community – the dynamic network of interactions within the community provides the meaning and semantics of what we do. There is a lot of work on the structure of social groups, and we don’t need to rely on professionals to produce our materials – knowledge created by a community of amateurs will be better than content created by “professional content creators” such that the objectivity of wikipedia is produced specifically by not requiring it – people want objectivity, so that’s what they end up getting.

So we have Web 2.0 – what does eLearning 2.0 (based on Web 2.0 technology) look like? I have copied an image from one of Stephen’s powerpoint slides to illustrate this:

Resource profiles
Resource production
Resource repositories
Resource syndication from repositories
Resource aggregation
Digital Rights Management (in the form of credit for ownership rather than signing away your firstborn child)

eLearning 2.0 resource model - Stephen Downes

We don’t need recording specialists or production houses to produce educational content – there is a huge volume of content being produced to replace traditional educational content.

How do we determine whether new educational technology is connectivist or “old” (Web 2.0 or traditional web)? Here are four criteria to consider:

1. Autonomy
Does it allow people to using the technology to be autonomous? Can they make their own decisions, configure their own environment, user their own services, create and structure their own content?

2. Dependence
Does it force people to use a particular software program, a specific data format, a particular resource provider?

3. Diversity (not of the usual socioeconomic variety)
Can you use different programming languages? Can you use different types of computers and devices to access content (eg iPods, desktops, phones)?

4. Openness
Can you add content to the system? Is content provision restricted to a privileged few? Can anyone get content from the system or do you need to be a subscriber or are you required to sign a licence in your own blood? Does it help people communicate with each other? Does it help people make the kinds of connections which are the kinds of things people look for not from an “education” but from a life worth living?

Downes Educational Theory
A good student learns by practice, practice and reflection.
A good teacher teaches by demonstration and modelling.
The essence of being a good teacher is to be the sort of person you want your students to become.
The most important learning outcome is a good and happy life.

After listening to this podcast and looking over the many articles written by Stephen Downes over the past few years, I am becoming a bit more confident that my serious difficulty in producing an (overdue) report on LMS Governance is not because of incompetence or slothfulness on my part or that of my colleague, but rather from the Douglas-Adams-esqueness of the task …

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

I suspect that the people who commissioned our report will be similarly displeased by an answer like “42”, but I’m not convinced they wish to know how we arrived at that answer, let alone what the right question might be. The idea that LMS Governance is irrelevant because Learning Management Systems are irrelevant is not likely to be a popular view among those who have been champions of eLearning. The idea that it is not about the content, and it is not about ownership, and it is not about quality (given a certain base level standard) is also not likely to be popular an educational technology sector that has primarily focused on these things.

But the really serious bone of contention is probably more about reflecting on and understanding what it is that we do as academics and educators and learners. It is a humbling and sobering thought to realise that much of what we engage in as “serious teaching and learning” is actually incidental to the real learning process, and on mature reflection probably always has been. However this is best the subject of another post – for the moment, suffice to say that online learning is about creating a dynamic timely personalised transportable learning environments around the learner as part of a dynamic interacting learning network, not about restricting “learning content” to institutional LMS.

Some thoughts on being a good student

I have learnt a huge amount over my lifetime, but I have rarely been a classic “good student”. I didn’t do my homework and I didn’t attend lectures regularly (unless the lecturer was particularly good or I had friends who were “conscientious” and were taking the same classes) although I always went to tutorials and prac classes because they were “hurdle requirements”. To make up for my slackness, I read the textbooks and recommended reading and constructed my own study notes around the headings in the course outline. I came from an academic family and a background where books abounded and reading was a favorite leisuretime activity – reading the texts was a “lazy way out” for me in terms of study. I paid the penalty for my slack study habits of rarely getting top marks although I usually did pretty well. Of course, in hindsight, I realise that my poor study habits were actually pretty good lifelong learning habits – finding out from the “community of experts” (my lecturers) what they thought I should know, reading up on it, and only asking them questions when I knew enough of their domain to be taken seriously (the point at which their expertise became meaningful to me). I tended to be accepting of their right to dismiss me not because they were superior or smarter, but because I knew that I had rarely paid them the courtesy of listening to their lectures so I was probably asking about things that I should already know.

This is not “confessions of a slack student” but more an understanding that the things define being a good student may not necessarily promote the best long-term learning. The things that result in the highest grades may not necessarily reflect the best long-term learning either. But it doesn’t mean the structure shouldn’t be there. We may put structures in place with a particular purpose in mind, but although the type of scaffold will determine what we are capable of supporting, we may not know ahead of time whether we will be planting climbing roses or passionfruit or ivy. Even if we take care to plant one thing, it may well be that something else ends up growing in its place.

And from the other side of the fence, I take great care in preparing lectures or presentations or articles – the time and effort that goes into preparing content is not at all commensurate with the importance of that content to the audience or to the size of audience. And more often that not the prepared content is only loosely related to what I end up saying. However the process of content preparation is critical to my role as an academic and critical to my ability to share knowledge and be part of a community. In fact it is critical to my identity as a person – for me, I am what I know about.

Bloggers’ Rules | Harold Jarche

Bloggers’ Rules | Harold Jarche

In reading these rules (which are Dave Pollard’s rules), it seems increasingly obvious to me that as blogs become more “mainstream” as a way of publishing, we really don’t need to distinguish between blog readers /writers and readers and writers of content published in other formats.

As per one of the comments, bloggers are discovering basic journalistic rules and the trick is to produce good content on a consistent basis …

Blackboard Beyond Initiative

Blackboard Unveils Blackboard Beyond Initiative: Financial News – Yahoo!

Stephen Downes is very optimistic in his OLDaily comments

“… And maybe the 2.0 thing is buzzword bingo. On the other hand, though, maybe the right push at this point of time will see the words result in product. And that would be a good thing. I think we can do a lot of good if we try to help and nudge Blackboard in the right direction, and that includes nodding positively when they say the right things. “

James Farmer is much less impressed and I tend to be on his side in this instance.

I see Blackboard’s “initiative” as a blatant and deliberate continuation of a specific marketing strategy, already seen to good effect with the Blackboard Content System. The perceived need for content management of LMS content is high on the agenda at many academic institutions. So Blackboard puts out a product called a Content System to supplement their Learning System. It sounds like it is a tailored solution to the problem, so it easy to convince institution management to buy on name alone without too much examination of specific functionality. The Content System and Learning System are obviously integrated if they come from the same company, aren’t they? Once a “solution” has been purchased, institutions are very reluctant to change. Blackboard deliberately brought to market an immature content system to ensure that they were “in the space” early with a “solution” – they figured that by the time institutions noticed the staggering degree of immaturity of the product, they would have had the time to backfill the system and make it work.

The more recent buzzwords in eLearning are things like: Community of Practice, Networked Learning Environments, Social Networks, Collaboration. Institution managers will be hearing these terms and how their institutions need to adapt to the learning needs of “digital natives” entering our universities … and Blackboard is talking the talk and sounding like they have the solutions already to go. They are the leading eLearning vendor, and they are right up there with the latest stuff.

Of course, a cursory examination of the underlying course-based architecture of the Blackboard Learning System would make one wonder exactly how Blackboard will be able to graft the community-of-practice and social-network concepts of learning onto an architecture designed specifically to restrict access to courses based on enrolment, to allow guest and observer access to resources but not interactive tools, and to deny all that is not expressly permitted (rather than restrict only where necessary).

I suspect that it will be enough for most institutional administrators that Blackboard executives can talk the community / collaborative talk with great earnestness and enthusiasm, and have tools with plausibly community-minded collaborative names, without actually needing to transform their products to allow the full eLearning 2.0 experience (whatever that really means … something to do with student-centered learning, learners creating content, online communities etc … blogs, wikis, aggregation, personal identity, etc – basically using internet technology to support social networs of learning). In fact, I can’t really see why you would ever need an LMS for eLearning 2.0.

And as for the marketing power of product names: insofar as the Blackboard Content System was an example of marketing genius (allowing the name to imply functionality that is glaringly absent), by the same token, the Blackboard Portal System was a marketing disaster – many institutions already had plans for portals, so despite the fact that Blackboard Portal provided significant extra functionality specific to Blackboard, it was often overlooked for purchase. It has since been renamed the Blackboard Community System, which is much more desirable, despite the same functionality …

(first posted to

Blogging in the past …

What is the etiquette for “blogging” into the past – ie posting reactions and commentary written in longhand at a particular point in time, then posted to a blog a long time after the event? I am about to start transcribing a set of opinion pieces that have taken form in a notebook and are journal-like in nature (ie they are dated entries around topics-of-the day).

When I blog these things (as in put them into blogging software) is the date of publishing when the piece was first written (on paper) or when it was transcribed into the ether? How does one handle the temporal mismatch? If my blog is a representation of the evolution of my own individual opinions, then date of publishing should reflect the date of writing. But if my blog is a representation of my place in the conversational space of the blogosphere, then the date of publishing should be the date of entry to said blogosphere.

And if I blog to this site, should I refer to or copy this article to my other sites …? Am I self-plagiarising? Or does my writing become a different piece if it is embedded in a different context? What is semiotic implication of where I post something?

These and other questions have bubbled to the surface via a talk at UniMelb by James Farmer …

(first posted on my yabber edublogs blog)

Theory in educational technology

I have become increasingly frustrated with the literature on educational technology and online learning, in part because so often the connection between theory and practice in applied / action research seems to be entirely absent. I am not quite satisfied with research which claims to be situated within a “framework” rather than to be testing any specific hypothesis deriving from a theory or theoretical perspective. In research on how we use technology to enhance learning, I believe we need to have a plausible model of learning, a plausible model of teaching, and a clear articulation of the desired outcomes from our teaching practice. I would actually go further, and question whether we should be focussing more on teaching than learning, since it is the teaching side of the equation that we engage in, and over which we have some level of control. It does not seem appropriate especially in a university, to answer basic questions about the nature of teaching and learning with motherhood statements about “student-centered learning” and terminology which seems to derive more from political correctness than scholarly investigation.

The choice of whether we focus on teaching or learning alone seems to me to have theoretical implications which should follow through into our practice. For example, with a focus on (social constructivist / student-centred) learning, we are implicitly favouring inductive models through which students build on what they already know and follow their interests and strengths. With a focus on teaching, we are externalising domains of knowledge, setting learning objectives, and defining the things to be learned at the end of a course of study irrespective of the student’s individual knowledge base or interests. We need to be clear about our purpose and intent, because there are strong implications for practice, depending on which position we adopt.

So here are some questions that I believe deserve due consideration. When we engage in educational / instructional design, is it appropriate to consider teaching and learning without having a position on the nature of knowledge representation and epistemology? Is it appropriate to consider the effect of “learning styles” or interface design on learning without a good understanding of cognitive processing, perceptual processing, memory and attention? In taking account of learning styles, are we aiming to build all modes of learning for each individual (work on areas of weakness as well as, or in preference to areas of strength) or are we focussed on relative fairness in terms of assessment (allowing everyone to focus on their areas of strength and hide their weaknesses)?

In designing simulations or replacing practical classes with virtual projects, can you really consider or measure learning outcomes without a fairly comprehensive understanding of the whole process of learning? Which learning outcomes are relevant indicators of good teaching? Which learning outcomes are indicators of inherent student ability / skill? Are short-term learning outcomes or long-term learning outcomes the ones to focus on? Do our educational theories speak to which outcomes are relevant? Does our rhetoric on desired graduate attributes speak to what indicators should be important?

Convenience measures do not make for good science if they do not measure things relevant to a theoretical position. The fact that something has been measured does not substitute for a theory. Quantitative analyses and statistical differences between groups do not by themselves constitute good research if they are not theoretically grounded and do not form critical tests of specific hypotheses. The fact that a data set is compatible with a theoretical position is no great contribution to science if the same data set is compatible with a range of other theoretical positions, and a different data set from the same study would not have allowed rejection of any competing theories.

In thinking about theory in this area, I am repeatedly drawn to the position that educational technology research is not a discipline area by itself, but provides a potential context for data which speak to theoretical questions from core discipline areas such as cognitive science, social psychology and computer science. It is important for us to ensure that any research questions relate back to core discipline areas rather than building an entirely self-referential data set around a single piece of technology or learning design.

Leadership crisis

I don’t know of any research off the top of my head that would relate the changing age profile in our society to failure of leadership and I haven’t really looked very hard, but
here’s my line of thought:

– population demographics are such that we have an ageing population
– political / social leaders are now reaching leadership positions when they are older (cf age of famous political / military leaders in history …)
– because people are living longer (and because of the loss of a reasonable percentage the world war 2 generation of males ?), baby boomers reached leadership positions sooner, with less basis, and occupied them for longer

There is now a mismatch between peak of intellectual / motivational / creative force so that potential energy for leadership is lost and people develop wisdom and / or cynicism before they get an opportunity to practice energetic leadership.

In the emerging model in my head, the peak of focussed, driven intellectual energy maybe around the age of 30 to 35 … when potentially great people know enough to lead, but don’t know enough to have doubts.

Internet users quick to judge. 16/01/2006. ABC News Online

Internet users quick to judge. 16/01/2006. ABC News Online
“Visual appeal can be assessed within 50 milliseconds, suggesting that web designers have about 50 milliseconds to make a good impression,” the Canadians report in the journal Behaviour & Information Technology.

Given that users continue to view the large number of visually unappealing sites out there, maybe this research suggests that visual appeal can be assessed, but is not actually all that important to people accessing a site for information.