Category Archives: ples@CQUni

PLEs and the institution: the wrong problem

Yesterday, I rehashed/summarised some earlier thoughts about “handling the marriage of PLEs and institutions. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on that post. Am coming to the belief that this is just the wrong problem, or perhaps just a symptom of a deeper problem. (Signal the start of the broken record).

All of the students and academic staff (the learners) of a university have always had their own PLEs. It’s only with the rise of Web 2.0, e-learning 2.0 and related movements/fads that the PLE (and/or PLN) label has become a concern. And only because of this has the question of how, or indeed if, an institution should provide a PLE arisen. In much the same way that universities – at least within Australia – have had to deal with distance education, flexible learning, lifelong learning, open learning, blended learning and a whole range of similar labels and fads.

The product focus

The problem that I am seeing is that university teaching and learning – and the systems that underpin and support that teaching and learning – are “product” or fad focused. i.e. folk within the institution note that “X” (i.e. open learning, blended learning, PLEs, e-portfolios etc) is currently the buzz word within the sector around learning and teaching and hence the organisation and its practices are re-organised – or at least seen to be re-organised – to better implement “X”. From this you get a whole bunch of folk within institutions (from senior management down) for whom their professional identity becomes inextricably linked with “X”. Their experiences and knowledge grow around “X”. Any subsequent criticism of “X” is a criticism of their identity and thus can’t be allowed. It has to be rejected. Worse still, “X” becomes the grammar of the institution, everything must be considered as part of “X” (thus good) or not part of “X” (thus bad).

Various factors such as short term contracts for senior managers; top-down management; certain research strategies that generate outputs through investigating “learning and teaching with “X””; the increasing prevalence of “project managers” within universities and the simplistic notions many of them have; deficit models of academics; and the wicked nature of the learning and teaching problem all contribute to the prevalence of this mistake.

The process focus

What I described as a way to handle the marriage of PLEs and institutions is no different from the approach we used to implement Webfuse and no different from the process I would use to attempt to support and improve learning and teaching within any university. It’s an approach that doesn’t focus on a particular “X”, but instead on adopting a process that enables the institution to learn and respond to what happens within its own context and outside.

Some broad steps:

  • Ensure that there’s a L&T support team full of the best people you can get with a breadth and depth of experience in learning, teaching, technology and contextual knoweldge.
    This is not a one off, it’s an on-going process of bringing new people in and helping the people within grow to exceed their potential.
  • Implement a process where the L&T support team is working closely and directly with the academics teaching within the context during the actual teaching.
    i.e. not just on design of courses before delivery, but during teaching in a way that enables the support team to help the teaching academics in ways that are meaningful, contextual and build trust and connections between the teaching academics and the support staff.
  • Adopt approaches that encourage greater connections between the L&T support team, the teaching academics, students and the outside world.
  • Support and empower the support team and teaching academics to experiment with interventions at a local level with a minimum management intervention or constraints in terms of institutional barriers.
  • Observe what happens in the local interventions and cherry pick the good ideas for broader incorporation into the institution’s L&T environment in a way that encourages and enables adoption by others.
  • Implement mechanisms where senior management are actively encouraged to understand the reality of teaching within the institutional context and actively charged with identifying and removing those barriers standing in the way of teaching and learning.
    The job of the leaders is not to choose the direction, but to help the staff doing the work get to where they want to go.

What’s important

The identity of “X” is not important, be it graduate attributes, constructive alignment, PLEs, Web 2.0, social media, problem-based learning, blended learning etc, all these things are transitory. What’s important is that the university has the capability and the on-going drive to focus on a process through which it is reflecting on what it does, what works, what doesn’t and what it could do better, and subsequently testing those thoughts.

How to handle the marriage of PLEs and institutions

The following is my attempt to think about how the “marriage” of the PLE concept and educational institutions can be handled. It arises from reading some of the material that has arisen out of the PLE conference held in Barcelona a few weeks ago and some subsequent posts, most notable this one on the anatomy of a PLE from Steve Wheeler.

The following is informed by a paper some colleagues and I wrote back in 2009 around this topic. That paper, aimed to map the landscape for a project we were involved with that was attempting to implement/experiment with just such a marriage. By the time the paper was presented (end 2009) the project was essentially dead in the water – at least in terms of its original conceptualisation – due to organisational restructures.

The paper and this post attempts to use the Ps framework as one way to map this landscape.

In summary, people (students and staff) already have PLEs, the question is how to effectively create a marriage between each person’s PLE and the institution that is effective, open, and responds to contextual and personal needs.

Product – what is a PLE

The assumption is that the definition of what a PLE is, is both uncertain and likely to change and emerge as the “marriage” is consumated (taking the metaphor too far?). I like the following quotes to summarise the emergence aspect

Broader conceptualisations see technology as one of a number of components of an emergent process of change where the outcomes are indeterminate because they are situationally and dynamically contingent (Markus & Robey, 1988). Ongoing change is not solely “technology led” or solely “organisational/agency driven”, instead change arises from a complex interaction among technology, people and the organization (Marshall & Gregor, 2002)

But we found some value in defining what a PLE is not:

  • a single tool;
  • specified, owned or hosted by the university;
  • be common across all students;
  • necessarily involve the use of information and communication technologies;
  • be a replacement or duplication of the institutional learning management system.

Picking up on the last point, we position the PLE as a counterpoint to the LMS

The PLEs@CQUni project emphasises the role of PLEs as a counterpoint (in the musical sense where two or more very different sounding tunes harmonise when played together) to the institutional LMS

The design guidelines we generated from this were

  • The "PLE product" is not owned, specified or provided by the university.
  • Each learner makes their own decisions about the collection of services and tools that will form their "PLE Product".
  • The University needs to focus on enabling learners to make informed choices between services and tools and on allowing for integration of institutional services with learners’ chosen services and tools.
  • The PLE work will act as a counterpoint to existing and new investments in enterprise systems, by combining them with the students’ customised environment in order to provide previously unavailable services.
  • The final nature of the PLE product and its relationship with the institution will emerge from the complex interaction between technology, people and the organization.

People

When looking at the people involved, we developed these guidelines:

  • The PLE project will fail if learners (both staff and students) do not engage with this concept.
  • People are not rational decision makers. They make decisions based on pattern matching of their personal or collective experiences.
  • There is little value in asking people who have limited experience with a new paradigm or technology what they would like to see or do with the technology.
  • The project focus should be on understanding, working with and extending the expectations of the participants within the specific conditions of the local context.
  • A particular emphasis must be on providing the scaffolding necessary to prepare learners for the significant changes that may arise from the PLE concept.

Process

It’s long been a bug bear of mine that universities are so project centric, that they believe that big up front design/traditional IT development processes actually works for projects involving innovation and change. This is evident in the guidelines around process we developed:

  • Classic, structured project management practices are completely inappropriate for the PLEs@CQUni project.
  • An approach based on ateleological or naturalistic design is likely to be more appropriate.
  • Project aims should be based on broad strategic aims and place emphasis on organisational learning.

Purpose

A project has to have a purpose doesn’t it? At the very least, for political reasons, the project has to be seen to have a purpose. The guidelines for purpose were:

  • The project will cultivate an emergent methodology.
  • The project will focus on responding to local contextual needs.
  • The overall purpose of the project is to support the institution’s new brand.

The last point is likely to bring shudders to most folk. Branding! Are you owned by “the man”? This was partly political, however, the “branding” really does gel with the concept of the PLE. The tag line is “Be what you want to be” and one of the “messages” on the corporate website was

CQUniversity interacts in a customized way to your individual requirements. Not all universities can say that and few can say it with confidence. We can.

For me, there is a connection with PLEs.

Place

To some extent, the discussions from the PLE conference that I have seen seem to assume that all universities are the same. I disagree. I think there are unique differences between institutions that can and should be harnessed. What works at the OU, will not work at my current institution. So the guidelines for place we developed are:

  • The project must engage with broader societal issues without sacrificing local contextual issues.
  • It must aim to engage and work with the different cultures that make up the institution.
  • It should use a number of safe-fail projects, reinforcing those with positive outcomes and eliminating others.

What’s missing?

There are other aspects of the Ps framework not considered in the paper or above – Pedagogy, and Past Experience. However, the above suggests how these would be handled. i.e. connecting with current practice within the specific place and trying to extend it to better fit with the ideas underpinning a PLE. Such extension would be done in diverse ways, with different disciplines and different individuals within those disciplines trying different things, talking to each other and working out new stuff.

What would it look like?

There were two concrete changes the project implemented before it was canned:

  1. BAM/BIM;
    Provide LMS-based method for staff to manage/aggregate and use individual student blogs (PLE).
  2. Generating RSS feeds from Blackboard 6.3 discussion forums.
    The institutional LMS at the time was the ancient Blackboard 6.3. We implemented an intermediary system that generated an RSS feed of posts. A way for students/staff using newsreaders (PLE) to track what was happening within the LMS and at the same time saving them time. They didn’t need to login to the LMS, go to each course, check each discussion forum for new posts….

These two bits only really touched the surface. In fact, these interventions were intended as easy ways to scaffold and encourage the greater use and integration of “PLE” like concepts into the daily practice of learning and teaching within a university. The start of a journey, and valuable because of the journey to come, more so than the destination they represented. A journey we we’re never able to carry through for an interesting distance. Here’s hoping that someone can start it again.

Podcast for presentations at the PLEs & PLNs symposium

The following basically tells the rationale and approach used to create a (audio) podcast of the presentations from the Personal Learning Environments & Personal Learning Networks Online symposium on learning-centric technology.

I don’t know if anyone else has already done this, but just in case will share.

If you don’t want to be bored by the background, this is the link for the podcast.

Rationale

I’ve hated the idea of the LMS for quite some time. I even had the chance to briefly lead a project looking at investigating how PLEs could be grown and used within a university, at least before the organisational restructure came. In its short life the project produced a symposium, a number of publications, various presentations and a little bit of software.

Due to the background I had some significant interest in the symposium being organised by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. However, due to other responsibilities, odd times (given my geographical location) for the elluminate presentations and the low speed of my home Internet connection I knew I was unlikely to actively engage. Some of these factors have already prevented my on-going engagement with CCK09.

I probably would have left it there, however, over the last 24 hours two separate folk have mentioned the symposium and almost/sort of guilted me into following up. The one thing I can do at the moment, due to a fitness kick involving a great deal of walking, is listen to mp3s. So, I wanted an easy way to get the mp3s. A podcast sounds ideal for my current practices.

The podcast

Last night I did a quick google and found this page that seems to provide a collection of links to video and audio recordings of presentations associated with the CCK09 course. Including some mp3s from the presentations at the PLEs & PLNs symposium

Rather than download and play silly buggers with iTunes I decided to recreate an approach we used on our first “Web 2.0 course site”. Using del.icio.us the students and staff in the course could tag audio/video for inclusion in a podcast created by Feedburner.

So I followed the same process for these:

I just hope now that I have the time to reflect and write about what I listen to.

Thank you Deidre and Maijann for the encouragement to engage with the symposium. Thanks to those organising the symposium and CCK09 for the resources.

Cooked course feeds – An approach to bringing the PLEs@CQUni, BAM and Indicators projects together?

The following is floating an idea that might be useful in my local context.

The idea

The idea is to implement a “cooked feed” for a CQUniversity course. An RSS or OPML feed that either students or staff or both can subscribe to and receive a range of automated information about their course. Since some of this information would be private to the course or the individuals involved, it would be password protected and could be different depending on the identity of the person pulling the feed.

For example, a student of the course would receive generic information about the course (e.g. any recent posts to the discussion forums, details of resources uploaded to the course site) as well as information specific to them (e.g. that their assignment has been marked, or someone has responded to one of their discussion posts). A staff member could receive similar generic and specific information. Since CQU courses are often offered across multiple campuses staff and student information could be specific to the campus or the sets of students (e.g. a tutor would receive regular updates on their students – have they logged into the course site etc)

A staff member might get a set of feeds like this:

  1. Student progress – perhaps containing a collection of feeds. One might be summary that summarises progress (or the lack thereof) for all students and then one feed per student.
  2. Course site – provides posts related to the course website. For example, posts to discussion forums, usage statistics of resources and features etc.
  3. Tasks and events – updates of when assignments are due, when assignments are meant to be marked, when results need to be uploaded. These updates would not only contain information about what needs to be done, but also provide links and advice about how to perform them.

The “cooked” adjective suggests that the feeds are not simply raw data from original sources. But that they undergo additional preparation to increase the value of the information they contain. For example, rather than a single post simply listing the students who have (or have not) visited a course site the post might contain the students GPA for previous courses, some indication of how long into a term they normally access a course site, when they added the course (in both date and week format – i.e. week 2 of term), links back to institutional information systems to see photos and other details of the students, links to an email merge facility to send a private/bulk email to all students in a particular category, a list of which staff are responsible for which students etc.

The point is that the “cooking” turns generic LMS information into information that is meaningful for the institution, the course, the staff, and the students. It is this contextual information that will almost always be missing from generic systems, simply because they have to be generic and each institution is going to be different.

Why?

The PLEs@CQUNi project already has a couple of related sub-projects doing work in this area – discussion forums and BAM.

Discussion forums. The slideshow below explains how staff can currently access RSS feeds generated from the discussion forums of CQU’s current implementation of Blackboard version 6.3. A similar feature has already been developed for the discussion forum used in the other “LMS” being used at CQU.

The above slideshow uses the idea of the “come to me” web. This meme is encompasses one reason why doing this might be a good thing. It saves time, it makes information more visible to the staff and the students. Information they can draw upon to decide what to do next. Information in a form that allows them to re-purpose and reuse for tasks that make sense to them, but would never be apparent to a central designer.

BAM. The Blog Aggregation Management (BAM) project now generates an OPML feed unique for each individual staff member to track their students’ blog posts. The slidecast below outlines how they can use it.

The indicators project is seeking to mine usage logs of the LMS to generate information that is useful to staff. I think there is value in this project looking at generating RSS feeds for staff based on the information it generates. Why depends on the difference between lag and lead indicators.

I’ve always thought that too much of the data generated at Universities are lag indicators. Indicators that tell you how good or bad things went. For example, “oh dear, course X had a 80% failure rate”. While having this information is useful it’s too late to do anything. You can’t (well you shouldn’t be able to) change the failure rate after it has happened.

What is much more useful are lead indicators. Indicators that offer you some insight into what is likely to happen. For example, “oh dear, the students all failed that pop quiz about topic X”. If you have some indication that something is starting to go wrong, you may be able to do something about it.

Aside: Of course things brings up the problematic way most courses are designed, especially the assessment. They are designed in ways such that there are almost no lead indicators. The staff have no real insight into how the students are going until they hand in an assignment or take an exam. By which time it is too late to do anything.

Having the indicators project generating RSS posts summarising important lead indicators for a course might encourage and help academics take action to prevent problems developing into outright failure.

This is also encompassed in the idea of BAM generating feeds and the very idea of BAM in the first place. It allows staff to see which students are or are not progressing (lead indicator) and then take action they deem appropriate.

It’s also a part of the ideas behind reflective alignment. That post also has some suggestions about how to implement this sort of thing.

Getting feeds out of BAM – the first steps

The Blog Aggregation Management (BAM) project is an attempt to be a bit more Web 2.0/SaaS in the implementation of e-learning within a University. BAM works by students creating and using their own blog on one of a number of freely available external blogging services and registering it with BAM. BAM provides some management infrastructure that integrates these external services with university information and also offers support for staff to mark and track student posts. The staff interface is primarily via a web interface.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about changes to enable teaching staff to use RSS readers as their primary interface. This post details some initial steps towards achieving this.

What’s been done

A fairly simple addition has been made to BAM. The ability for an individual staff member to download an OPML file. The OPML file contains pointers to the blogs for that staff member’s students. Many CQUni courses have large numbers of staff teaching large numbers of students.

The OPML file can then be imported into a newsreader and used to track the posts students are making to their blogs. Without a need to visit the university supplied web interface.

The following screencast is intended to help CQUniversity staff make use of this feature. It also illustrates the why and what of the process.

The next step

The feeds within the OPML file are the “raw” files from the student blogs. i.e. they only contain the students raw blog posts. There is no additional “cooking” of the feeds from the individual student blogs to add additional value. Some examples of “cooking” could include:

  • Addition to each post of links back to the BAM web interface (e.g. a link to the interface that staff use to record a mark for each post).
  • Addition of information about the student – their name, student number etc.

The aim is to get this initial “raw” feed feature out to the staff and see how they go with it. If all goes well, the “cooked” feed feature will come out later.

Some potential updates to BAM – a step towards breaking the LMS/CMS orthodoxy

The initial design and use of the Blog Aggregation Management (BAM) system was, in part, designed to try out approaches that leverage the protean nature of information technology. A major part of this is a move to something different, and hopefully better, than the current, broken e-learning orthodoxy within universities that is stuck on the idea of course management systems (CMS – aka learning management systems) as the only possible solution.

The vast majority of what BAM does was designed and implemented over a couple of months almost 3 years ago. Since then we’ve learned a bit about using BAM and also have some time to extend BAM in appropriate ways. This post seeks to explain the next major expansion of BAM, which will see it move further away from CMS orthodoxy. In particular, the plan to expand BAM’s generation of RSS/OPML feeds so academic staff can avoid badly designed web-based management interfaces and use an RSS reader of their choice as the major interface to BAM.

Current limitations of BAM

One of the assumptions underpinning BAM was to significantly question the ability for a university to provide a blogging service that could compete with existing free blog services in terms of reliability, quality of features and quality of support services and resources. This is an extension of one of the principles behind the design of the Webfuse e-learning system (Jones and Buchanan, 1996) within which BAM is currently implemented. This principle is talked about under the heading “Flexibility and don’t reinvent the wheel”

The design of the M&C OLE (online learning environment) will attempt to maximise adaptability by concentrating on providing the infrastructure required to integrate existing and yet to be developed online learning tools. The M&C OLE will provide the management infrastructure and consistent interface to combine existing tools such as WWW servers, online quizzes, assignment submission etc. into a single integrated whole. While a number of the component systems will be developed at CQU, the emphasis is on integrating existing tools into the OLE.

At the moment, BAM provides a management interface for academic staff around existing blogging engines. Actually it is designed so that students can maintain a reflective journal in anything that will produce an RSS feed. The only direct interaction with BAM by students is at the start of term when they register their blog using the interface shown in the next image.

BAM blog registration

Academic staff currently use a web-based interface provided by BAM to track student blog registration and posts, view student posts and mark student posts. See the screenshots in this paper for what they look like. That is, BAM is still stuck in the CMS orthodoxy.

Moving to RSS readers and OPML feeds

Late last year there was a simple extension of BAM to allow academic staff to obtain an OPML feed pointing to all their students’ blogs. This could be imported into an RSS reader of their choice, in order that they could keep a track of posts by their students. There were a number of limitations of this approach:

  • It wasn’t automated.
    Someone had to run a script, generate the OPML feed, send it to the staff member who could then import it. They should be able to do it themselves.
  • It only provided access to the student posts, none of the other BAM services.
    The OPML was using the RSS feeds straight from individual student blogs. It did not go through BAM and consequently could not provide any additional BAM/institutional related information. For example, which students hadn’t yet registered their blog, no direct access to the BAM marking interface, etc.

Implementing BAM “cooked” feeds

The premises on which this extension of BAM is based are:

  • Increasingly people will have an application they use to access, manipulate and store RSS, OPML and other feeds.
    e.g. I believe the Outlook, the spawn of the devil, even supports feed reading now.
  • Using this application(s) to track information of interest will become part of their daily life.
    The “come to me” web will become increasingly important. It’s certainly part of my everyday life at the moment and it is an improvement over the “I go get web”. These two assumptions were the basis for the work in this presentation aimed at adding RSS feed generation to discussion forums in Blackboard course sites.
  • BAM’s interface does provide some additional information about the student, the course etc. that isn’t provided in the “raw” RSS feeds from each students’ blog.

The fundamental idea is that BAM will generate “cooked” RSS feeds and that academic staff will be able to access the feeds for their students via their choice of RSS reader. The outstanding questions are:

  1. What ingredients need to go into the cooking?
  2. What’s the best (and easiest) technical approach to implementing “cooked” feeds?
  3. Why are academics going to use this?
    This is the big one, if they don’t want to use it, then there’s no point doing it. The aim will be that this will be easier and more effective than using the BAM interface.

What the cooked feeds need to do

At the very least cooked feeds will need to support all of the existing functionality provided by BAM and where possible provide additional functionality.

Existing functionality

  • Which students have registered their blogs and which haven’t.
  • A method to view photos and details about the students who fall into either group (registered or not).
  • Provide a link to a “mail merge” facility for those students who fall into either group.
  • View statistics about student blogs – e.g. how many posts in total, when was the last time they posted an entry and a link to the student blog.
  • A marking interface for each post.
  • A question allocation interface for each post.
    BAM was originally designed to implement individual student reflective journals where students are expected at fixed times during a term to answer specific questions. BAM automatically examines each student post and attempts to determine if it is a response to one of these fixed questions.
  • Information about whether the post has been marked or allocated.
  • Whether or not a student has answered all of the necessary questions.
  • Ability for the course coordinator (academic in charge of a course) to view and track student posts for other teaching staff and also the staff’s marking progress.

Potential new features

  • Indication of what new posts there have been since the academic last visited.
    This is essentially what would be provided by an RSS reader.
  • Addition of institutional/student based information to individual blog posts.
    Currently a post to a student blog does not include any information about who the student is, their institutional student number, whether or not the post is a match for one of the required questions they must answer, a link to the marking and question allocation interfaces for BAM posts
  • On the fly copy detection of student posts.
    Currently there is a half-baked script that will compare all student posts against each other to check of copying. There’s questionable educational value for this, but something that is perceived to be useful by staff.
  • A daily summary of activity by related staff and students.
    Each staff member could see a single post that summarises activity by their students. For example, who posted, which questions they answered, who still hasn’t registered, who did register, what copy detection incidents were identified etc. In addition, staff who are supervising other staff could recieve a daily post on the progress of staff. For example, how many of each staff member’s students haven’t registered, haven’t posted, haven’t been marked etc.

    This idea could serve the basis for a broader service associated with courses and perhaps attached to some current work around indicators

Technical implementation

Initial quick ideas might include

  • The provision of two top level feeds for each staff member.
    1. Activity summary – this is the daily summary of activity by related staff and students. Staff and students might be updated as separate feed items. Non-supervisory staff simply wouldn’t see an item of that type. Alternatively, the would see such a feed. It would simply summarise what they did over the last day or so. Staff who are supervising other staff, would also see posts summarising the activity of the staff they are supervising.
    2. Student posts – similar to the existing feed, this would consist of numerous feeds (one per student) summarising what they have posted to their blog.
  • Perhaps a “staff activity” feed.
    Supervisory academic staff might also have a third collection of feeds. The “Staff student activity” feed would include one collection of feeds for each staff member being supervised. This collection of feeds per staff member would be exactly the same as “Student Posts” feed that the supervised staff member would see. This would allow supervisory staff to see the detail, if they wanted to.
  • Cook the individual student blogs
    The individual student feeds would not be from the blog feeds. They would be cooked versions from BAM that will have added a range of additional institutional and BAM related links and information.

Initial implementation ideas might include:

  • Each of the individual feeds would be implemented as simple RSS files on the institution’s server
    i.e. static files that are updated by BAM, but staff are requesting the static files, not a script or similar. The drawback here is that a Perl access module will have to be written to control access to the appropriate folk. The advantage is that some of the “cooking” will require some significant processing (e.g. copy detection). Also the OPML feeds that bring these feeds together for staff could be implemented in a simple hierarchical file system.

    For example, BAM/YEAR/PERIOD/COURSE/Staff/username/{all.opml|summary.rss|students.rss}. And for each student …./COURSE/Students/STUDNUMBER.rss

  • Updating of these feed files would be done at the end of the current BAM “mirror” process.
    Every hour or so BAM goes out and checks each student’s blog for any new entries. If it finds any, it updates a local mirror of the raw RSS file. Could add to the end of this process all of the necessary steps required to “cook” the feeds.

Questions

  • What features are missing?
  • What potential implementation approaches have I missed?
  • What problems exist with the above implementation plan?
  • Is the cost/benefit ratio sufficient for me to implement these plans given the PhD etc.?

Down with the cookie-cutter LMS: the Edupunk ideology and why integrated systems might go away

Edupunk as a term has been circulating since May last year. D’Arcy Norman has posted the YouTube video from below with a couple of folk talking about Edupunk, including Jim Groom the guy who originated the idea

One point agreement amongst the participant is that Edupunk arose because a lot of people were frustrated with the constraints of course management systems. First the video.

I agree 100% that the commercial CMSes are horrible, constraining and need to be done away with. My interest in this that my current organisation has decided to go with Moodle. An open source CMS that has an aura of “from the people” and thus being better than the commercial systems. In fact, the underlying feeling of a lot of people is that the open source CMSes are a paradigm change away from the commercial systems.

I’ve never agreed with that. I’ve always felt that they are exactly the same model and will have exactly the same problems. There will be some minor advantages around the edges as the code is open and the community is much larger, but in the end there is a “management” that has final say. Especially when these systems are implemented within universities. I’m already hearing rumours about our version of Moodle being “run as vanilla”.

When I grabbed the video from YouTube, the comment on the YouTube page indicates that I’m not alone

Decolonize and resist the corporatization of education, the florescent lighted LMS of Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle.

Scarcity and abundance

The CMS/LMS model is based on the assumption of scarcity that takes a number of forms:

  1. Scarcity of online services.
    The university had to provide discussion forums, content distribution mechanisms etc in an integrated system because staff and students couldn’t find these services online in late 90s and early 00s.
  2. Scarcity of knowledge and ability.
    Very few staff or students are familiar or comfortable with online technology and using it to support learning and teaching. This was especially so within learning and teaching support units. Instructional technologists, at some stage in the past, weren’t renowned for their technical ability and adaptability.
  3. Scarcity of reliable technology.
    University IT departments have to deal with a large amount of technology, and previously, had to deal with it at a very low level. This required having large numbers of folk who could deal with low level technical issues.
  4. Scarcity of support services.
    The need to have lots of people keeping the technology going, the scarcity of knowledge and ability of staff and students and limited budgets meant that support services were minimised. Especially direct support for learning and teaching and e-learning. The historical absence of technology in learning and teaching has meant that universities have not had specific people tasked with helping support staff and students in using technology for learning and teaching. It’s been an on-going battle between the information technology and the learning support folk. The end result, there has been little or no combined support for e-learning.
  5. Scarcity of understanding about how to do e-learning.
    To this day, very few people in management roles at university have little or no understanding of the complexities associated with learning and teaching, let alone e-learning which adds technology (another topic they know very little about) to the mix. This scarcity of understanding leads to the adoption of fads and fashions as logical decision making (see some related posts: the silliness of best practice, open source LMS – the latest fad, and alternatives for e-learning).

It is my belief that many of these assumptions of scarcity have or will be very soon overthrown. For example,

  1. Scarcity of online services.
    Completely and utterly overthrown. Any number of projects, mostly Edupunk projects, have shown you can effectively and efficiently support an e-learning course using existing online services. I’ve been involved in two such projects: BAM and Web 2.0 course sites.
  2. Scarcity of knowledge and ability.
    Increasingly students and staff arriving at Universities use a broad array of technologies. While they may not be experts with this technology nor familiar with using it for learning, we are in a much better place than 10 years ago. Plus the sheer penetration of this stuff into real life is reducing (not removing) the burden on universities to train staff and students. This trend, may not be sufficient to make a difference today, but I don’t see this trend turning around. Eventually we will get to the stage where the a majority of our staff and students are comfortable with technology.

    This trend is what has enable the Edupunk movement. People who are comfortable with technology realising just how constraining and crap the CMS/LMS experience is.

  3. Scarcity of reliable technology.
    Another certain trend is that technology keeps climbing the abstraction layers. i.e. it’s becoming more powerful, you can do more advanced things with less effort. This applies as certainly to the support or organisational infrastructure as it does to end-users. The increasing abundance of external services (e.g. software as a service, cloud computing etc.) is further continuing the trend that organisations no longer need as many low level technical folk as they used to. Those resources can be freed up.

The last two scarcities are the most problematic. Given the long history of faddish management decision making in universities, especially around learning and teaching, I don’t see this one changing anytime soon. Especially when, in many institutions, there is no effective marriage between learning and teaching and technology that effectively harnesses the potential synergies possible when deep understanding between these two fields is effectively mixed to produce something new.

Which is perhaps what is starting to happen in Edupunk. Individuals are starting to work around the barriers and limitations of the organisations they work for.

It’s time for universities to catch up.

Reliability – an argument against using Web 2.0 services in learning? Probably not.

When you talk to anyone in an “organisational” position (e.g IT or perhaps some leadership positions) within a university about using external “Web 2.0″ tools to support student learning one of the first complaints raised is

How can we ensure it’s reliability, it’s availability? Do we have as much control as if we own and manage the service on our servers? Will they be as reliable and available?

My immediate response has been, “Why would we want to limit them to such low levels of service?”. Of course, it’s a little tounge in cheek and given my reputation in certain circles not one destined to win friends and influence people. There is, however, an important point underpinning the snide, flippant comment.

Just how reliable and available are the services owned and operated by universities? My anecdotal feeling is that they are not that reliable or available.

What about web 2.0 tools?

Paul McNamara has a post titled “Social network sites vary greatly on availability, Pingdom finds” that points to a Social network downtime in 2008 PDF report from Pingdom. The report discusses uptime for 15 social network tools.

A quick summary of some of the comments from the report

  • Only 5 social networks managed an overall uptime of 99.9% or better: Facebook (99.92%), MySpace (99.94%), Classmates.com (99.95%), Xanga (99.95%) and Imeem (99.95%).
  • Twitter – 99.04% uptime
  • LinkedIn – 99.48% uptime
  • Friendster – 99.5% uptime
  • Reunion.com – 99.52% uptime
  • Bebo – 99.56% uptime
  • Hi5 – 99.75% uptime
  • Windows Live Spaces – 99.81% uptime
  • LiveJournal – 99.82% uptime
  • Last.fm – 99.86% uptime
  • Orkut – 99.87% uptime

Is it then a problem?

The best you can draw from this is that if you’re using one of the “big” social network tools then you are probably not going to have too much of a problem. In fact, I’d tend to think you’re likely to have much more uptime than you would with a similar institutional system.

The social network tool is also going to provide you with a number of additional advantages over an institutionally owned and operated system. These include:

  • A much larger user population, which is very important for networking tools.
  • Longer hours of support.
    I know that my institution struggles to provide 10 or 12 x 5 support. Most big social network sites would do at least 10 or 12 x 7 and probably 24×7.
  • Better support
    Most institutional support folk are going to be stretched trying to maintain a broad array of different systems. Simply because of this spread their knowledge is going to be weak in some areas. The support for a social network system is targeted at that system, they should know it inside and out. Plus, the larger user population, is also going to be a help. Most of the help I’ve received using WordPress.com has come from users, not the official support, of the service.
  • Better service
    The design and development resources of the social network tool are also targeted at that tool. They aim to be the best they can, their livelihood is dependent upon it in a way that university-based IT centres don’t have to worry about.

Down with facebook – why I’m going to minimise my use

I’ve had a Facebook account for about a year. I’ve never really used it beyond making contact with other folk. Have never uploaded any content and tonight I’ve decided to make that permanent. I won’t shut the account down. I’ll keep it open so that friends from the past can find me.

However, I won’t recommend it to folk. Just the opposite, stay away. I also won’t be handing over any of my content.

Why?

Alan Levine has a post that closely resembles my own view. Some long term reserve about Facebook and some recent additional motivation due to the change to the Facebook Tos.

Original qualms

My original qualms were due to not really seeing the point of an integrated, one stop shop like Facebook and being philosophically (i.e. probably unreasonably for most) opposed to integrated software that doesn’t support sharing.

I’m a small pieces loosely joined (it’s a PhD/Webfuse/UNIX command line thing) sort of guy. I use Twitter, have a blog, use photo sharing and slidecast and all on different services. Why would I use a single integrated system? One where I am stuck with whatever crap tools they’ve decided to provide.

What’s worse, it’s been claimed that Facebook is doing what Microsoft did, and we all hate Microsoft. At least I do.

This qualm applies to any of the similar integrated systems – e.g. MySpace etc.

The terms of service

The concerns about the recent change in the terms of service may not be not as bad as some fear. However, for me it’s the hair that’s broken the camel’s back.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

I’m sticking with collection of Web 2.0 tools that I can pick and choose from and connect in ways that suit me. Small pieces loosely joined.

Update: Amanda French has a post that compares the Facebook ToS with those of other services. Interesting read.

On the plus side

Facebook is a pretty easy system to use and the ease of connection between folk, not to mention the sheer number and spread of people on it are all very positive observations in favour of Facebook.

I’m assuming it’s really easy for the less computer savvy to get into and the size of its user population is a big plus.

RSS feeds into course management systems – why?

Last night I was looking for some information about recording audio for powerpoint presentations in order to create a slidecast

Aside: I like Slideshare and I like creating slidecasts. However, synchronising the audio with each slide is a pain, even using the interface provided by Slideshare. I’d much prefer being able to record the audio while giving the presentation and having it automatically synchronised. A while ago I thought we had a process using Powerpoint, but no. Bloody powerpoint keeps cutting off the last few seconds of the audio for each slide. To get it to work you have to pause for 5 seconds at the end of each slide. If you have any insight into how to fix this, please let me know. I can’t even find any mention of this problem via Google.

While searching for some information I came across the TLT Group’s wordpress blog because of the low threshold applications included some stuff on narrations. It also had an LTA on integrating RSS feeds into a course management system.

I sent this around to some folk at the PLEs@CQU project and some others. One of them responded with

I am not sure of the advantages of having RSS feeds go through the CMS. It is an easy thing for individuals to set up in their own, online personal learning environments.

It’s easy to do, not

Some of the other low technology applications included on the TLT site include

Personally, I’d class these tasks as much simpler and more familiar to people than integrating RSS into a CMS.

The definition for an LTA used on the TLT blog is

A Low Threshold Application (LTA) is a teaching/learning application of information technology that is reliable, accessible, easy to learn, non-intimidating and (incrementally) inexpensive.Each LTA has observable positive consequences, and contributes to important long term changes in teaching and/or learning. “… the potential user (teacher or learner) perceives an LTA as NOT challenging, not intimidating, not requiring a lot of additional work or new thinking.LTAs… are also ‘low-threshold’ in the sense of having low INCREMENTAL costs for purchase, training, support, and maintenance.”

Even though they are low threshold, you would be surprised at the number of academics who do not know how to carry out these tasks. Computer literacy amongst academics remains fairly low. I also think the same applies for students. Most of these folk know how to do what they do regularly – email, IM etc. But there are few people who are comfortable with and able to explore applications and think of how they can harness the features of technology to improve education.

Especially if it requires a rethinking of how they teach.

Advantages

The uncertainty held about the advantages of this approach is, potentially, one example of this difficulty people have of applying new features of technology to learning and teaching. Some possible examples follow, but they mostly come down to the following description

Incorporating a newsfeed into your WebCT course is a great way to get dynamic, changing content into the password protected environment of WebCT.Potential uses include creating an up to date ‘breaking information’ news source for your class.

which comes from this page which is pointed to from the LTA RSS page.

The example used on that page is for the academic to maintain a course blog that they use to keep students aware of events. This is similar to what was done on the EDED11448 website for “latest discussion”.

The EDED11448 website also shows a more interesting example of this practice in the portfolio, weblog and resources sections. Each of these pages show an example of aggregating individual RSS feeds from students into a single RSS feed and then including it in the course site.

As was pointed out above it is easy enough for students and staff to make use of these RSS feeds in their own personal RSS readers. They don’t need to go to the course site. However, I can think of two reasons why this is a good thing:

  1. It helps maintain an identity for the course.
    Like it or not, course websites remain an important contributor to the identity of a course offering and/or to the staff member coordinating a course. Many folk like, in part because it has become the accepted practice, to have a course website that can be seen as a product of a course. Having it distributed into everyone’s personal learning environment removes that sense of identity. There has been some work around learning networks that suggests that this is one of the requirements of a learning network. For example, look at this paper and search for the section titled “requirements of a learning network”.
  2. It’s still not easy for everyone to use an RSS reader.
    As I pointed out in the previous section. RSS readers are still not common place. A lot of people don’t know what they are. A lot of students have become indoctrinated into the practices associated with a course website. Having the RSS feed in the course website helps the transition. The advantage of this idea is you can support both the course website and those with RSS readers.

    For example, the EDED11448 website looks like a fairly typical course website, this serves the traditional students. There is also an OPML feed that allows the entire site and all its contents and updates to be tracked via an RSS reader.

    Isn’t a key feature of personal learning environments allowing the students to make their own choice. They choose, course website or RSS reader, or both.