Website renovations and productivity tools

Well I think I’ve finally sorted out how to keep my website a bit more organised. I’m over “hand-crocheting” websites, although the USMA Taekwon-do site is still hand-done. I’m using WordPress for most of my writing these days, and Aperture to manage my photos and make web albums. I’m beginning to play with video editing, but I haven’t really had enough time to do too much other than minimal work using iMovie to archive to DVD.

I haven’t found MediaWiki to be as good for collaborative writing as I thought it would be – maybe because I don’t always have access to broadband internet in the way I have grown used to (and possibly because I destroyed my MediaWiki installation through trying to move the index page … D’oh!). But on mature reflection, the most likely explanation is simply that wikis have a much more limited niche than initially anticipated. The more successful wikis (eg WikiPedia, various codices) seem to be those in which specific agreed-on content (documentation) needs to be collated efficiently by a group of people with overlapping knowledge that is not controversial. I beginning to be convinced that wikis are just not the right medium for creative content that “belongs to an author”, and wikis are not as useful as I envisaged for evolving my own ideas. The refactoring process feels inefficient with multiple versions of, for example, a Word document, but that is because the inherent nature of task (organising ideas into some sort of framework) is an inefficient process.

Spookily, I’m actually finding M$ Word and Powerpoint to be useful individual work tools, especially with Word’s new Notebook layout and the much improved Powerpoint > HTML conversion. Maybe the honeymoon period will end soon and I will have another go at wikis, but M$ is certainly heading in the right direction in terms of creating a tool that synchs with the way I actually work and makes it easy to give a face-2-face presentation which can be also web-distributed with minimal overheads.

I must be getting old because I’m also finding that communication spaces have shifted recently – I no longer use goofey, that wonderful little instant messaging service run at Monash way before anyone much was using online chat. It was an extremely efficient collaborative work tool as well as being an active online community and there were quite a few people I got to know on goofey before meeting them face-to-face. I have cycled through MSN, ICQ and email depending on who was limited to what by their workplace firewalls. I recently had a bit of a love affair with my new phone (a Nokia 6280) – the 2MP camera is pretty effective, and with a 2GB memory card, I no longer feel a need for an iPod. Most of the people I want to talk to will now engage in text messaging, and it’s probably my instant messaging medium of choice.

Almost a year of working at DSTO on the restricted Defence Network has desensitised me to the inconvenience of having inconsistent email availability – I can’t access DSTO email from anywhere other than on-site, but while I am at DSTO I can’t reach any of my other email accounts. All-in-all, just as the rest of the world is catching up to the “always-online” expectation, I have moved away from it a bit. I have pretty much managed to avoid MySpace and YouTube and almost all my email is work-related. In fact I rather like the idea of postcards and letters.

Hopefully with a revamped site based around WordPress, a totally cool MacBookPro, a camera, phone and video camera, I’ll be able to create good contet a lot more productively now.

Simulations in aviation and medicine

I gave a talk last week on simulations in aviation and medicine as part of the MUVES seminar series at the University of Melbourne. It covers a wide range of ideas that I hope to capture better over the next few weeks and months.

– Link to powerpoint slides and notes

As an aside, I have recently installed Office 2004 for Mac and this is the first time I’ve used this version of Powerpoint – against all odds, I’m pretty impressed with the Presenter Tools which allow a timer, the notes and upcoming slides to show to the presenter while mirroring only the slideshow itself to the audience. I am also reasonably happy with the web output as per this link. It is now pretty straightforward to prepare a presentation, present it and post it on the web. And with the “save as picture” option for slides, Powerpoint becomes a fairly useful tool for preparing diagrams.

When the tool actually does the job I want it to, I am much less inclined to bag it – though I reserve the right to be deeply offended when people use the wrong tool for their job.

Corruption in evidence presentations – Edward Tufte

I have just received my copy of “Beautiful Evidence” and I love it already …

“Making a presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity. The use of corrupt manipulations and blatant rhetorical ploys in a report or presentation – outright lying, flagwaving, personal attacks, setting up phony alternatives, misdirection, jargon-mongering, evading key issues, feigning disinterested objectivity, willful misunderstanding of other points of view – suggest that the presenter lacks both credibility and evidence. To maintain standards of quality, relevance, and integrity for evidence, consumers of presentations should insist that presenters be held intellectually and ethically responsible for what they show and tell, Thus consuming a presentation is also an intellectual and a moral activity.”

Decision making at universities

from The Age: Melbourne Uni row over degrees

“If you take heads of departments somewhere and tell them we’re about to climb Mount Everest with one sherpa and no oxygen, they’ll say ‘of course’,” he said. “It’s only when you get to camp two they say, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and ‘I didn’t realise I was going to have to carry my own provisions.’ “
Professor Stuart MacIntyre – Professor of History

This quote captures the problem of corporate-style decision-making in the age of marketing and spin – who needs to worry about the details when the glossy brochures looks so good? Only nerds seem to read the fine print or worry about the substance of an argument these days, and then – shock !! horror !! – they are so surprised when things go pear-shaped in ways apparently noone could have foreseen – at least not while wearing their HHGTTG peril-sensitive sunglasses.

Blackboard patents the LMS ???

I noticed this link to Michael Feldstein’s post in Stephen Downes OLDaily – apparently Blackboard has been granted a patent for anything remotely related to LMS!!

All I can say is “QUE ??????”

(perhaps I will be able to say more when I read the details and the other commentary … and hopefully our LMS Governance Report has it right that Blackboard-style LMS will be increasingly irrelevant to online learning … but I doubt that the patent is only for Blackboard’s current LMS model …)

Meanwhile, there is a discussion thread at, since Moodle is the obvious Blackboard threat …

… and in that discussion thread which began by assuming Blackboard was doing it for a bit of publicity rather than with intent to pursue competition is the copy of a letter to Desire2Learn suing them for infringement of copyright – sounds like it might all get a bit nasty.

And obviously I posted this prematurely, but these two posts give the more food for thought …

And this one is a link to Wikipedia where the history of Virtual Learning Environments is being documented.

LMS Governance Final Report

For most of the past 9 months, I have been working with my colleague James Quealy on a Melbourne Monash Colloborative Project on Learning Management System governance.

The final report was posted on the Melbourne/Monash Committee for Collaboration in Educational Technologies website for 18 months and was available for download as a PDF. This website had disappeared in the new-look University of Melbourne website, so I have taken the liberty of posting it here.

The major conclusion from our research was that enterprise LMS software is primarily an administrative tool for delivery of subject-based content and for communication rather than a vehicle for pedagogical transformation of tertiary teaching. Therefore an LMS, as a piece of software, doesn’t require any particular special governance so long as good IT governance practices are already in place.

Most of the governance issues relating to LMS are either academic governance issues, IT governance issues, or derive from the mistaken belief that “new technology” has so radically transformed the educational world that old academic principles no longer apply, and anyone who says otherwise is in denial and/or a dinosaur, and is not worth arguing with.

In our report. we have attempted to outline issues of IT governance in higher education, and we have tried to outline an online future (“Elearning 2.0”) where LMS is largely irrelevant, and online tools are so much part of the furniture that they don’t need governance.

The Annotated Bibliography is a work-in-progress. It was originally housed at, but given that the server has been decommissioned, I have taken the liberty of moving it to my own wiki site (Aug 2007). Maybe James and I might find some time to continue working with it …

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.

Excerpts from Improving the Mind

I have finally received my copy of the following book, and spent an entirely enjoyable afternoon reading it from cover to cover. It is just as relevant now as it was in 1741, and the language use is sufficiently quaint to add an enticing quality to the text possibly above and beyond its original intent. I recommend the book highly.

Dr Isaac Watts, 1741, Improvement of the Mind
edited and abridged by Stephen B Helfant and J. David Coccoli, 1987,
Helfant Publishing House, Groton, Massachusetts
ISBN 0-942969-00-6

According to Dr Isaac Watts, there are five methods for “improving the mind”, each of which has its individual merits, but all of which should be integrated for best results. I have taken the liberty of transcribing a few paragraphs of the text to give a sense of the writing style, and to provide the basis for some further discussion and to provide the context for my further writings, since the book itself was hard to get hold of.

In this post, I’ve reproduced some basic content, and in future posts, I will comment further on what has been written.

1. Observation

Observation is the notice we take of all occurrences … whether they are sensible or intellectual, whether relating to persons or things, to ourselves or others … All those things which we see, which we hear or feel, which we perceive by sense or consciousness, or which we know in a direct manner, with scarce any exercise of our reflecting faculties, or our reasoning powers, may be included under the general name of observation … When this observation relates to any thing that immediately concerns ourselves, and of which we are conscious, it may be called experience … When we are searching out the nature or properties of any being by various methods of trial … this sort of observation is called experiment … All these belong to the first method of knowledge: which I shall call observation”

2. Reading

Reading is where we acquaint ourselves with what other men have written, or published to the world in their writings. These arts of reading and writing are of infinite advantage; for by them we are made partakers of the sentiments, observations, reasonings and improvements of all the learned world, in the most remote nations, and in former ages almost from the beginning of mankind.”

3. Lectures

Public or private lectures are such verbal instructions as are given by a teacher while the learners attend in silence. This is the way of learning … philosophy … from the professor’s chair; or of mathematics, by a teacher shewing us various theorems or problems, i.e., speculations or practices by demonstration and operation, with all the instruments of that art necessary to those operations.”

4. Conversation

Conversation is another method of improving our minds, wherein, by mutual discourse and inquiry, we learn the sentiments of others, as well as communicate our sentiments to others in the same manner … under this head of conversation we may also rank disputes of various kinds.”

5. Meditation

Meditation or study includes all those exercises of the mind, whereby we render all the former methods useful for our increase in true knowledge and wisdom. It is by meditation we come to confirm our memory of things that pass through our thoughts in the occurrences of life, in our own experiences, and in the observations we make. It is by meditation that we draw various inferences, and establish in our minds general principles of knowledge. It is by meditation that we compare the various ideas which we derive from our senses, or from the operations of our souls, and join them in propositions. It is by meditation that we fix in our memory what we learn, and form our own judgement of the truth or falsehood, the strength or weakness, of what others speak and write. It is meditation … that draws out long chains of argument, and searches or finds deep and difficult truths which before lay concealed in darkness.”

Dr Watts goes on to compare and contrast the various methods of improving the mind, and some of his observations deserve re-examination in the modern context. His analysis is still very insightful today and I reproduce some snippets below.

“It would be a needless thing to prove, that our own solitary meditations, together with a few observations that the most part of mankind are capable of making, are not sufficient, of themselves, to lead us into the attainment of any considerable proportion of knowledge, at least in an age so much improved as ours is, without the assistance of conversation and reading, and other proper instructions that are to be attained in our days. Yet each of these methods have their peculiar advantages, whereby they assist each other, and their peculiar defects which have need to be supplied by the other’s assistance.”


“(An) advantage of observation is, that we may gain knowledge all the day long … and every moment of our existences we may be adding something to our intellectual treasures. “


“By reading, we acquaint ourselves, in a very extensive manner, with the affairs, actions, and thoughts of the living and the dead, in the most remote nations, and most distant ages, and that with as much ease as though they lived in our own age and nation. By reading books, we may learn something from all parts of mankind; whereas by observation we learn all from ourselves, and only what comes within our own direct cognizance. By conversation we can only enjoy the assistance of a few persons, viz., those who are near us, and live at the same time as we do, that is, our neighbours and contemporaries; but our knowledge is much more narrowed still, if we confine ourselves merely to our own solitary reasonings, without much observation or reading: for then all our improvement must arise only from our own inward powers and meditations … When we read good authors, we learn the best, the most laboured, the most refined sentiments, even of those wise and learned men; for they have studied hard, and have committed to writing their maturest thoughts, and the result of their long study and experience: whereas by conversation, and in some lectures, we obtain many times only the present thoughts of our tutors and friends, which (though they might be bright and useful) yet, at first perhaps, may be sudden and undigested, and are mere hints which have risen to no maturity … It is another advantage of reading, that we may review what we have read; we may consult the page again and again, and meditate on it, at successive seasons, in our serenest and retired hours, having the book always at hand: but what we obtain by conversation and in lectures, is oftentimes lost again as soon as the company breaks up, or at least when the day vanishes, unless we happen to have the talent of a good memory, or quickly retire and note down what remarkables we have found in those discourses. And for the same reason, for the want of retiring and writing, many a learned man has lost several useful meditations of his own, and could never recall them again.”


“There is something more sprightly, more delightful and entertaining in the living discourse of a wise, learned, and well-qualified teacher than there is in the silent and sedentary practice of reading … A tutor or instructor, when he paraphrases and explains other authors, can mark out the precise point of difficulty or controversy, and unfold it. He can shew you which paragraphs are of greatest importance, and which are of less moment … He can inform you what new doctrines or sentiments are arising in the world before they come to be public; as well as acquaint you with his own private thoughts, and his own experiments and observations, which never were, and perhaps never will be, published to the world, and yet may be very valuable and useful … A living instructor can convey to our senses those notions … which cannot so well be done by mere reading … He can describe figures and diagrams, point to lines and angles, and make out the demonstration in a more intelligible manner … even though we should have the same figures lying in a book before our eyes. A living teacher, therefore, is a most necessary help in these studies … When an instructor in his lectures delivers any matter of difficulty, or expresses himself in such a manner as seems obscure, so that you do not take up his ideas clearly or fully, you have opportunity at least when the lecture is finished, or at other proper seasons, to inquire how such a sentence should be understood, or how such a difficulty may be explained and removed. If there be permission given to free converse with the tutor, either in the midst of the lecture, or rather at the end of it, concerning any doubts or difficulties that occur to the hearer, this brings it nearer to conversation or discourse.”


“When we converse familiarly with a learned friend, we have his own help at hand to explain to us every word and sentiment that seems obscure in his discourse … we may propose our doubts and objections against his sentiments and have them solved and answered at once … difficulties we meet with in books, and in our private studies, may find relief by friendly conference … if we note down this difficulty when we read it, we may propose it to an ingenious correspondent when we see him; we may be relieved in a moment, and find the difficulty vanish: he beholds the object perhaps in a different view, sets it before us in quite another light, leads us at once to evidence and truth, and that with a delightful surprise …”

“Conversation calls out into light what has been lodged in all the recesses and secret chambers of the soul: by occasional hints and incidents it brings old useful notions into remembrance; it unfolds and displays the hidden treasures of knowledge with which reading, observation, and study had before furnished the mind. By mutual discourse, the soul is awakened and allured to bring forth its hoards of knowledge, and it learns how to render them most useful to mankind. A man of vast reading without conversation, is like a miser, who lives only to himself. In free and friendly conversation, our intellectual powers are more animated, and our spirits act with superior vigour in the quest and pursuit of unknown truths. There is a sharpness and sagacity of thought that attends conversation, beyond what we find when we are shut up reading and musing in our retirements. Our souls may be serene in solitude, but not sparkling, though perhaps we are employed in reading the works of the brightest writers. Often has it happened in free discourse, that new thoughts are strangely struck out, and the seeds of truth sparkle and blaze through the company, which in calm and silent reading would never have been excited. By conversation you will both give and receive this benefit; as flints when put into motion, and striking against each other, produce living fire on both sides which would never have arisen from the same hard materials in a state of rest.”

“A man who dwells all his days among books, may have amassed together a vast heap of notions; but he may be a mere scholar, which is a contemptible sort of character in the world. A hermit who has been shut up in his cell in a college, has contracted a sort of mould and rust upon his soul, and all his airs of behaviour have a certain awkwardness in them; but these awkward airs are worn away by degrees in company … The scholar now becomes a citizen or a gentlemen, a neighbour and a friend; he learns how to dress his sentiments in the fairest colours, as well as to set them in the strongest light. Thus he brings out his notions with honour; he makes some use of them in the world, and improves the theory by practice.”

“Mere observation, lectures, reading and conversation, without thinking, are not sufficient to make a man of knowledge and wisdom. It is our thought and reflection, study and meditation, that must attend all the other methods of improvement, and perfect them.


“By a survey of these things we may justly conclude,

  • that he who spends all his time in hearing lectures, or poring upon books, without observation, meditation or … conversation, will have but a mere historical knowledge of learning, and be able only to tell what others have known or said on the subject
  • he that lets all his time flow away in conversation, without due observation, reading or study, will gain but a slight and superficial knowledge, which will be in danger of vanishing with the voice of the speaker
  • and he that confines himself merely to his closet, and his own narrow observation of things, and is taught only by his own solitary thoughts, without instruction by lectures, reading, or free conversation, will be in danger of a narrow spirit, a vain conceit of himself, and an unreasonable contempt of others

and after all, he will obtain but a limited and imperfect view and knowledge of things, and he will seldom learn how to make that knowledge useful.”


“These five methods of improvement should be pursued jointly, and go hand in hand, where our circumstances are so happy as to find opportunity and conveniency to enjoy them all: though I must give my opinion that two of them, viz., reading and meditation, should employ much more of our time than public lectures, or conversation and discourse. As for observation, we may always be acquiring knowledge that way, whether we are alone or be in company.”

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

Virtual environments and simulations

In order to understand appropriate use of technology in teaching, we need to understand which aspects of our curriculum are critical for which aspects of our future learning. For example, if general hand / eye coordination is transferable across tasks, do we need to agonise over detailed task-specific simulations for each task we want to learn? And if hand / eye coordination is transferable, do we need a few authentic, high fidelity simulations, or a broader range of generic simulations.

Let’s take a specific example of a visuo-motor task simulation using stereoscopic 3D vision and haptic (active touch) feedback from a hand-held probe. If haptic feedback is only helpful with the level of fidelity provided by a stereoscopic visual display, this implies that it is critical for the visuo-haptic feedback to be ecologically valid and temporally faithful, and for the task model to be authentic. If ecological validity and authenticity are not critical, the question must be asked as to which specific aspects of the simulation are important (rather than just “cool”)?

If active exploration of visuo-haptic-motor space versus passive presentation of sensory information is critical, then would it be enough to provide a 2D visual display and allow active exploration through joystick control? Does it depend on whether you are learning how to perform the specific task (where differential haptic feedback might be important) versus learning how to conceptualise the specific task (where joystick-controlled exploration might be enough)? Does the “analogue” continuous control provided by the joystick teach something different from the digital discrete-step control provided by keyboard controls? Would haptic feedback through specific sequences of pre-determined tasks (selected for cue salience) provide better learning outcomes than free exploration of the model space (which may not result in the student exposing themselves to relevant comparisons from which they can extract salient task cues)?

Research into haptic feedback is a perfectly reasonable undertaking, but is there enough evidence to suggest that one should invest in 3D VR models and haptic probes for real training and education situations? Not only does the haptic feedback need to have a demonstratable impact on learning outcomes, but the learning outcomes must be critical to the goals of teaching and financially supportable compared with other teaching strategies. For high fidelity visuo-haptic simulations to be financially viable, new task models would need to be able to be developed more cheaply and quickly than the active life of the simulation hardware, the haptic feedback itself would need to have made a significant contribution to the specific task learning outcomes, and the learning outcomes would have to be achieved more cheaply than by other available methods.

How do you test the learning outcomes? Is it in terms of specific skill acquisition? Should task-specific training also be generalisable to other similar tasks? In order to address these questions, there needs to be some theoretical understanding of the nature of the task and a clear articulation of task-critical features. Some differential learning situations (in presumed order of ecological validity) to think about for example in a surgical scenario are:

1) training on cadavers / animal models

2) training on 3D models with haptic feedback

3) training on 2D models with interactive exploration (joystick / keyboard control)

4) “yoked control” observation of surgery (real and simulated)

In considering differential learning outcomes, what framework of learning do we assume? Do we have measures which can provide critical data to distinguish between hypotheses? What would we consider to be evidence for improved outcomes between, for example, task 2 and task 3? Is task 1 the appropriate control condition, is it a test condition, and / or is actual surgical performance the only valid “test” of learning? Without a strong model for how haptic feedback enhances skill acquisition, it is difficult to provide a strong justification for the significant financial outlay in introducing VR + haptic feedback training solutions.

How do the issues raised for this specific simulation example pan out for other teaching paradigms? I contend that we need to be able to identify specific teaching and / or learning objectives and to take a position about how our practice brings about the achievement of those objectives. This necessarily entails a conceptualisation of what occurs during teaching and learning. It also requires some position on short-term versus long-term learning, specific skills versus task-specific knowledge versus discipline-area knowledge, and the metacognitive processing around these things.

Do we take a position that declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge are acquired differently? If so, what primary learning outcomes are desired – skill based or discipline based? How do we conceptualise the relationship between theoretical knowledge and practical skills deriving from that technical knowledge? I contend that without taking a position on these questions, we cannot make informed decisions about educational design. Furthermore, for practical skills, we can break down requirements with respect to domain knowledge about a domain versus metaknowledge and insight around aquiring domain-specific practical skills. Does evidence from the perceptual-motor learning area suggest different approaches to teaching dependent on the requirement for repetitive accuracy of well-defined motor skills in a well-defined environment, versus creative perceptuomotor response and adaptability for a defined outcome in a changeable environment? Do we need to incorporate redundancy in simulations to ensure exposure to multiple cues to increase the potential for adaptability in changeable environments or are we aiming to extract the essential, minimal cue set to perform a task to become extremely efficient? What are the implications for robustness, pattern recognition (synthesis / generalisation …) and rule extraction (analysis / abstraction …) of different forms of simulations?

(now also posted on my OLU 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.

Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy

NOTES & IDEAS: Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy | Academic Commons
via Stephen Downes

Students taking their first philosophy course often express surprise when encouraged to use “I” in their papers. Unlike academic writing in most other disciplines, philosophical writing frequently and strongly states the “I” because philosophers have to develop and defend their own positions. They cannot weasel out of taking responsibility for their views, and thus the assertion of the “I” means that they are willing to stand or fall with their expressed position.

This is an interesting perspective – I always understood that the third person / passive voice of scientific writing was to indicate that the concept being expressed could stand alone by itself without the need for a personal appeal by me as its proponent. But the mood has drifted such that it has become more like parliamentary privilege – I am sufficiently removed from the concept that I don’t need to identify with it or suffer any discomfort or guilt-by-association if it is flawed.

Writing regularly

Yet again, I’m finding it difficult to maintain a regular writing habit because I’m struggling with releasing ideas before they are entirely formed. I suppose this is the obvious tension for traditional academics for whom the publication process has been a rigorous and long-winded affair in which ideas are gradually honed down to being the next step in a logical progression, or if they are too divergent, become embedded in a cocoon of qualifiers to ensure the mainstream has time to accommodate a shift in direction. Traditional published ideas already have a stamp of approval from a subset of academic peers.

Writing regular opinion pieces in a blog is really a bit more like a seminar series of the sort that I remember from 15 – 20 years ago, where discussion was robust and every concept was open to examination by a passing parade of academic colleagues, many of whom were outside of the specific area of research, and some of whom were expert in the areas immediately adjacent to the topic under discussion. Although for the most part, the atmosphere was collegial before and after presentations, during the actual seminar itself, it would be rare to hold back on contesting the contestable.

The difference I see between a seminar and a blog piece is probably timeframe and longevity – a seminar is restricted in time and location, and participants need to be able to react and interact in real time. In contrast, a blog piece might be stream-of-consciousness, but reaction to it might be prepared in meticulous detail giving an unfair balance to the argument. The lack of contextual information on the type or timeframe of a blog article / commentary leaves me feeling more vulnerable and exposed by a blog article than I would in a F2F situation with similarly constructed material.

Then again, the attraction of blogging is the fact that high quality generalist F2F academic interaction seems to be becoming rarer, especially in the cross-disciplinary domain, but I want to ensure that my ideas are still available for peer review in some form. To be honest, I’m not quite sure who my appropriate peer group is in the mix of cross-disciplinary genres that is emerging as my current “voice”.

My other ongoing problem is deciding where to write things. It is increasingly a problem for me that I work as an academic in a faculty academic support area. Although I am employed as an academic and am therefore expected to have expert academic opinions, my academic views are often at odds with the service policies of my faculty / university. I am less and less confident that dissenting views are well-tolerated in corporatised academia and if my academic expert opinion is at odds with current policy, it is more likely that expression of my opinion will be construed as subversive rather than as my academic obligation to share my expertise.

As a result, I have four blog sites – my work blog, my edublogs-hosted blog, my personal blog and my taekwon-do blog, and increasingly I am tempted to write things on my personal blog to ensure that I am not offending anyone (or more accurately, if I am offending anyone, I’m not doing it in their workplace). Interestingly, the content of my taekwon-do blog (now replicated on my personal blog) is probably the most relevant and informative with respect to my expertise in pedagogy, cognitive science and principles of teaching and learning, and most of the stimulating ideas have come from watching a committed, passionate martial artist teach the mental, physical and ethical components of his discipline to students from 5 – 50+ in a way that is accessible to all of them. This is true cross-disciplinary cross fertilisation of ideas.



This looks like the sort of tool I’ve been looking for – a content management system with the appropriate granularity for teaching, such that text, images and other multimedia elements are stored in a database, and there is a presentation / editing tool to allow use of elements in the database in a given teaching situation.

It’s been developed at Princeton, there is a Building Blocks integration to Blackboard, and it is Open Source – sounds ideal, although I’ve not examined any of the details yet, and the devil is always in the detail …

Blackboard Acquisition of WebCT

Stephen’s Web ~ by Stephen Downes ~ Blackboard Acquisition of WebCT

Being the lazy commentator I am, I will link to Stephen Downes’ compilation of commentaries on the acquisition of WebCT by Blackboard and write my own commentary when I have had time to think it all through.

It is also interesting to note an article back in 2003 in Xplanazine and a follow-up this week.

My initial cynical take on this is that Blackboard has swallowed the serious Higher Ed vendor competition which has a better toolset but worse usability, and it will now focus on the VET / TAFE / K-12 market for vendor systems rather than developing new stuff for Higher Ed. If you want Higher Ed tools, go Sakai if you can afford it and / or you have an IT team that wants to play with toys, or go Moodle if you want a ready-made simple system that works and is easy to support or modify.

Or you can go to
Blackboard and WebCT Merger – FAQs
and have all your questions answered by Blackboard …