Blogs in E-Learning: BAM, Moodle and a taxonomy of educational aggregation projects?


The Blog Aggregation Management (BAM) Project is a 3 year old project to extend some of the ideas (especially small pieces loosely joined) behind my thesis into the brave new world of “Web 2.0” (circa 2006). It was also intended to help solve a set of immediate problems in a particular course I was teaching through appropriate assessment and activities implemented by each student having their own blog. BAM provided the essential management and institutional wrapper around the use of these blogs to enable us to track and mark student progress.

More information on BAM can be found in this post and on BAM project page. The post is probably the most recent and complete perspective.

The next steps

Since 2006 and its original design and implementation there has been little work done on BAM. Some minor extensions and repurposing, but nothing else. Most, if not all, the publicity and publications about BAM have been web-based and/or by other people. This is about to change.

Today I received notice that a paper on the initial application of BAM by Jo Luck and I has been accepted at the EdMedia’2009 conference. All going to plan, we’ll use this presentation as a deadline and a platform to do and announce some more work around BAM.

This additional work will include:

  • A taxonomy of educational aggregation projects.
  • An examination of the chances of integrating BAM with Moodle.
  • Additional BAM papers.

Taxonomy of education aggregation projects

One of the reviewers of the paper for EdMedia wrote

The reviewer wonders whether there were other BAMs that may also exist. Some mentioning of BAM in the literature search in this aspect may be worthwhile.

An important question and one we will have to address in some way for the revised EdMedia paper. In my travels I haven’t come across any projects of a similar type to BAM, though there have been a number of aggregation projects in university learning. Perhaps it is past time to search for or create some sort of taxonomy of the different aggregations tools and their approaches currently available.

Any pointers?

The obvious place to start is Google. My first go is “educational aggregation blogs”, possibly a bit too specific, but I’ll start there and then come back to RSS and more generic feeds later. A Google for “educational aggregation blogs” reveals the following links:

  • Aggregation and the Blogs at Penn State.
    A 17 March 2008 post (author not immediately obvious) explaining how one course had students blog in their own university provided blogs and then aggregated these feeds into the course Pligg site.
  • Getting there one piece at a time.
    A March 12, 2008 post outlining how individual researcher blogs are aggregated into a “mother blog” focused on undergraduate research course. It includes a public tagging system. It and some of the posts seem focused on WPMU.

From that simple and limited search a couple of dimensions seem to be presenting themselves:

  • What is being aggregated? Who owns it?
    Both the above seem to be aggregating posts made on blogs provided and hosted by the organisation. BAM aggregates posts made on any RSS feed.
  • What purpose is the aggregation is used for?
    The above examples present the aggregated feed to a community to do something with. BAM currently aggregates it for teaching staff/markers, though it has also been extended for community use in EDED11448.

Integrating BAM and Moodle

My current institution has decided that Moodle will the institution’s course management system come 2010. To my current knowledge Moodle doesn’t provide a BAM like service. An obvious useful innovation might be to port BAM to Moodle. This would make it available to a broader collection of people.

Before we do this, we have to

  • Check the Moodle community to see if this has already been done.
  • Become more familiar with the Moodle way of doing things to determine if this makes sense and is doable.

Additional BAM papers

This first paper only scratches the very surface of what we’ve already done and doesn’t come close to capturing future possibilities. At the very least there are the following papers that could arise out of the BAM work:

  • Indepth examination of the feedback from student and staff focus groups during the initial use of BAM.
  • Broader discussion of the implications of BAM for how the “Product” part of e-learning within universities is understood.
  • Broader discussion of all the uses of BAM over the last 3 years.

Branding and universities – a mismatch of purpose and place?

I’m currently reading Waeraas and Solbakk (2009), a paper titled “Defining the essence of a university: lessons from higher education branding.” and with the following abstract.

Branding is a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in higher education over the last few years. It entails defining the essence of what a university ‘‘is’’, what it ‘‘stands for’’, and what it is going to be known for, requiring precision and consistency in the formulations as well as internal commitment to the brand. This article details what happened in the process of defining the essence of a regional university in Northern Norway. Addressing the challenges, the article reveals that the notions of consistency, precision, and commitment generated resistance from faculty members and made the process very difficult to fulfill. An important finding is that a university may be too complex to be encapsulated by one brand or identity definition. The article describes this process, explains the reasons for the difficulties, and discusses some implications for higher education branding.

The Ps Framework: a messy version

My interest in this paper arises out of some recent local experience, but mostly because of my PhD Thesis and the Purpose and Place components of the Ps Framework that is arising from the PhD.

For me, branding and how it should be carried out is a perfect example of a teleological design process and the mismatch such a process is for a “place” like a university. A perspective that the authors seem to agree with

An important finding is that a university may be too complex to be encapsulated by one brand or identity definition

Why branding?

Waeraas and Solbakk (2009) give the following partial explanation

In the face of increased national and international competition, universities and colleges in all parts of the world have begun a search for a unique definition of what they are in order to differentiate themselves and attract students and academic staff

They differentiate themselves by identifying their brand. To do this they must

Organizational identity is believed to be a fundamental starting point for the corporate brand definition. In order to communicate an organization’s identity, the organization must first know its essential and unique characteristics

In their literature review, Waeraas and Solbakk (2009) proceed to outline what is required to achieve this. In doing so, they draw on a lot of words and phrases that very heavily draw upon the “organisation as machine” metaphor which underpins much of management and information systems research. Behrens (2009) talks more about this. There’s a lot of talk about “managing, defining and mesuring” identities, characteristics and core values.

The also mention a number of researchers who have indicated some troubles with this sort of approach

Albert and Whetten suggested that precise classification may even be undesirable or unattainable in some contexts, as the complexities of organizations ‘‘may make a simple statement of identity impossible’’…..Over time, organizations become institutionalized as patterns of interaction and meanings emerge…….Any deliberate attempt by top management to change the organization’s identity will ultimately pertain to its integrity and distinctive competence. By implication, organizations with strong traditions and deeply rooted values will be difficult to change, leaving top management few degrees of freedom in terms of the potential for planned change. Attempts by managers at treating organizational identity as a holistic, overarching phenomenon are likely to produce resistance and conflicts (Humphreys and Brown 2002).

Views of branding

The authors list a range of views of branding from the literature

  • Positive views, where authors see “branding as an instrument for improving competitiveness and reputation”.
  • Not so positive, where authors think “branding is not a rational tool, but just a myth or a symbol that universities use to demonstrate conformity to their institutional environments”. A view which can lead to cliche and conformity.
  • Finally, the mismatch view that suggests “its implementation challenges the traditional values that exist within academia in general and within specific universities in particular”.

The mismatch between purpose and place

As a teleological design process, at least as it is typically implemented, branding assumes that it is possible to achieve a single “brand” (or purpose) for the organisation and then expect everyone to work toward it. This collective action is important to maintain the brand

An organization’s communication should be integrated and orchestrated (van Riel 1995; van Riel and Fombrun 2007), and employees should all share and endorse the same views about the organization, preferrably by ‘‘living the brand’’

This assumes that it is possible and desirable for all members of a university to act with common purpose, to live a common brand. Trouble is, that isn’t what universities are

In general, there is no tradition for tightly controlling faculty members’ actions or communication
in universities. Individual members of a university are, by definition, very
autonomous individuals.

This is assuming that you could actually define a common brand in the first place

The data have clearly revealed considerable difficulties in defining the university’s overall identity; its ‘‘essence’’.

In terms of place, Universities are perhaps to complex to be simplistically reduced to a single identity

The lesson learned from the VI experiment is that universities may be too complex and fragmented to both understand and express as single identity organizations. This complexity is difficult to encapsulate simply by three values and/or an overarching identity definition, as one definition would rule out alternative definitions. Putting the emphasis on only one definition would be the same as saying that this focus and its related disciplines are more valid than others. As university members often identify more with their academic disciplines and units than with the university as a whole, the consequence of such a reduction of variety is, not surprisingly, resistance and conflict.

So what’s the solution

I’m somewhat surpised by the solution suggested in the paper and the one apparently adopted by the President of the University. It mirrors some of the fundamental parts of my PhD work

A pragmatic approach to higher education branding would imply building on the variety
that exists within the organization……Instead of imposing one official and consistent definition of the organization and to control the meanings linked to it, he found it more practical to emphasize a repertoire of identities and meanings.

Rather than artificially, and ultimately less than successfully, restrict the variety embodied in a University, celebrate it. That’s a fundamental principle of my design theory for e-learning and the benefits that arise are essentially the same

First, it provides a great deal of flexibility……Such a flexibility is a considerable advantage when it comes to matching ambiguous and complex demands from the external environments….Second, retaining multiple values and identities may promote uniqueness. Higher education institutions have better chances of becoming strong brands if they are allowed to express their unique strengths and virtues, however inconsistent.


Behrens, S. (2009). “Metaphor, meaning and myth: Exploring diversity in information systems research”, Working paper based on an earlier work

Waeraas, A. and M. Solbakk (2009). “Defining the essence of a university: lessons from higher education branding.” Higher Education 57(4): 449-462.

When was this – past experience of e-learning

It’s amazing at how perspectives around technology and its use in education don’t change. In the presentation on this page I use some quotes from the what if presentation by Karl Fisch to outline some previous fearful perspectives on the impact of technology on learning that mirror many of the perspectives held of e-learning.

The following couple of quotes illustrate that the positive perspectives of technology can also be found in history.

Both the processing and the uses of information are undergoing an unprecedented technological revolution… This is perhaps nowhere truer than in the field of education. Once can perdict that in a few more years millions of schoolchildren will have access to what Philip of Macedn’s son Alexander enjoyed as a royal perogative: the services of a tutor as well-informed and as responsive as Aristotle.

Patrick Suppes, “The Uses of Computers in Education.” – 1966, Scientific Amercian

The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability: and something is bound to come of it.

Vannevar Bush, “AS WE MAY THINK”,
The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945

Patterns for e-learning – a lost opportunity or destined to fail

In the following I reflect on my aborted and half-baked attempts at harnessing design patterns within the practice of e-learning at universities and wonder whether it was a lost opportunity and/or a project that was destined to fail. This is written in the light shed by the work of a number of other folk (Google “patterns for e-learning”), including the current JISC-emerge project and, I believe, the related Pattern Language Network.

I think I’ll end up contending that it was destined to fail and hope I can provide some justification for that. Or at least that’s what I currently think, before writing the following. Any such suggestion will be very tentative.


Way back in 1999 I was a young, naive guy at the crossroads of software development and e-learning, I was wondering why more academics weren’t being innovative. Actually, the biggest and most troubling question was much simpler, “Why were they repeating the same mistakes I and others had made previously?”. For example, I lost count of the number of folk who tried to use email for online assignment submission in courses with more than 10 or 20 students. Even though many folk tried it, had problems and talked about the problems with additional workload it creates.

At the same time I was looking at how to improve the design of Webfuse, the e-learning system I was working upon, and object-oriented programming seemed like a good answer (it was). Adopting OOP also brought me into contact with the design patterns community within the broader OOP community. Design patterns within OOP were aimed at solving many of the same problems I was facing with e-learning.

Or perhaps this was an example of Kaplan’s law of instrument. i.e. patterns were the hammer and the issues around e-learning looked like a nail.

Whatever the reason some colleagues and I tried to start up a patterns project for online learning (I’m somewhat amazed that the website is still operating). The why page” for the project explains the rationale. We wrote a couple of papers explaining the project (Jones and Stewart, 1999; Jones, Stewart and Power, 1999), gave a presentation (the audio for the presentation is there in RealAudio format, shows how old this stuff is) and ran an initial workshop with some folk at CQU. One of the publications also got featured in ERIC and on OLDaily.

The project did produce a few patterns before dieing out:

There’s also one that was proposed but nothing concrete was produced – “The Disneyland Approach”. This was based on the idea of adapting ideas from how Disney designs their theme parks to online learning.

I can’t even remember what all the reasons were. Though I did get married a few months afterwards and that probably impacted my interest in doing additional work. Not to mention that my chief partner in crime also left the university for the paradise of private enterprise around the same time. That was a big loss.

One explanation and a “warning” for other patterns projects?

At the moment I have a feeling (it needs to be discussed and tested to become more than that) that these types of patterns projects are likely to be very difficult to get to work within the e-learning environment, especially if the aim is to get a broad array of academics to, at least, read and use the patterns. If the aim is to get a broad array of academics to contribute to patterns, then I think it’s become almost impossible. This feeling/belief is based on three “perspectives” that I’ve come to draw upon recently:

  1. Seven principles for knowledge management that suggest pattern mining will be difficult;
  2. the limitations of using the Technologists’ Alliance to bridge the gap;
  3. people (and academics) aren’t rational and this is why they won’t use patterns when designing e-learning and

7 Principles – difficulty of mining patterns

Developing patterns is essentially an attempt at knowledge management. Pattern mining is an attempt to capture what is known about a solution and its implementation and distill it into a form that is suitable for others to access and read. To abstract that knowledge.

Consequently, I think the 7 principles for knowledge management proposed by Dave Snowden apply directly to pattern mining. To illustrate the potential barriers here’s my quick summary of the connection between these 7 principles and pattern mining.

  1. Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted.
    First barrier in engaging academics to share knowledge to aid pattern mining is to get them engaged. To get them to volunteer. By nature, people don’t share complex knowledge, unless they know and trust you. Even then, if their busy…. This has been known about for a while.
  2. We only know what we know when we need to know it.
    Even if you get them to volunteer, then chances are they won’t be able to give you everything you need to know. You’ll be asking them out of the context when they designed or implemented the good practice you’re trying to abstract for a pattern.
  3. In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge.
    Pattern mining is almost certainly not going to be in a situation of real need. i.e. those asking aren’t going to need to apply the provided knowledge to solve an immediate problem. We’re talking about abstracting this knowledge into a form someone may need to use at some stage in the future.
  4. Everything is fragmented.
    Patterns may actually be a good match here, depending on the granularity of the pattern and the form used to express it. Patterns are generally fairly small documents.
  5. Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.
    Patterns attempt to capture good practice which violates this adage. Though the idea of anti-patterns may be more useful, though not without their problems.
  6. The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.
    Even if you are given a very nice, structured explanation as part of pattern mining, chances are that’s not how the design decisions were made. This principle has interesting applications to how/if academics might harness patterns to design e-learning. If the patterns become “embedded” amongst the academics “pattern matching” process, it might just succeed. But that’s a big if.
  7. We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.
    The processes used to pattern mine would have to be well designed to get around this limitation.

Limitations of the technologists’ alliance

Technology adoption life-cycle - Moore's chasm

Given that pattern mining directly to coal-face academics is difficult for the above reasons, a common solution is to use the “Technologists’ Alliance” (Geoghegan, 1994). i.e. the collection of really keen and innovative academics and the associated learning designers and other folk who fit into the left hand two catagories of the technology adoption life cycle. i.e. those to the left of Moore’s chasm.

The problem with this is that the folk on the left of Moore’s chasm are very different to the folk on the right (the majority of academic staff). What the lefties think appropriate is not likely to match what the righties are interested in.

Geoghegan (1994) goes so far as to claim that the “alliance”, and the difference between them the righties, has been the major negative influence on the adoption of instructional technology.

Patterns developed by the lefties are like to be in language not understood by the righties and solve problems that the righties aren’t interested and probably weren’t even aware existed. Which isn’t going to positively contribute to adoption.

People aren’t rational decision makers

The basic idea of gathering patterns is that coal face academics will be so attracted to the idea of design patterns as an easy and effective way to design their courses that they will actually use the resulting pattern language to design their courses. This ignores the way the human mind makes decisions.

People aren’t rational. Most academics are not going to follow a structured approach to the design of their courses. Most aren’t going to quickly adopt a radically different approach to learning and teaching. Not because their recalcitrant mongrels more interested in research (or doing nothing), because they have the same biases and ways of thinking as the rest of us.

I’ve talked about some of the cognitive biases or limitations on how we think in previous posts including:

In this audio snippet (mp3) Dave Snowden argues that any assumption of rational, objective decision making that entails examining all available data and examining all possible alternate solutions is fighting against thousands of years of evolution.

Much of the above applies directly to learning and teaching where the experience of most academics is that they aren’t valued or promoted on the value of their teaching. It’s their research that is of prime concern to the organisation, as long as they can demonstrate a modicum of acceptable teaching ability (i.e. there aren’t great amounts of complaints or other events out of the ordinary).

In this environment with these objectives, is it any surprise that they aren’t all that interested in spending vast amounts of time to overcome their cognitive biases and limitations to adopt radically different approaches to learning and teaching?

Design patterns anyone?

It’s just a theory

Gravity, just a theory

Remember what I said above, this is just a theory, a thought, a proposition. Your mileage may vary. One of these days, when I have the time and if I have the inclination I’d love to read some more and maybe do some research around this “theory”.

I have another feeling that some of the above have significant negative implications for much of the practice of e-learning and attempts to improve learning and teaching in general. In particular, other approaches that attempt to improve the design processes used by academics by coming up with new abstractions. For example, learning design and tools like LAMS. To some extent some of the above might partially explain why learning objects (in the formal sense) never took off.

Please, prove me wrong. Can you point to an institution of higher education where the vast majority of teaching staff have adopted an innovative approach to the design or implementation of learning? I’m talking at least 60/70%.

If I were setting the bar really high, I would ask for prove that they weren’t simply being seen to comply with the innovative approach, that they were actively engaging and embedding it into their everyday thinking about teaching.

What are the solutions?

Based on my current limited understanding and the prejudices I’ve formed during my PhD, I believe that what I currently understand about TPACK offers some promise. Once I read some more I’ll be more certain. There is a chance that it may suffer many of the same problems, but my initial impressions are positive.


Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

David Jones, Sharonn Stewart, The case for patterns in online learning, Proceedings of Webnet’99 Conference, De Bar, P. & Legget, J. (eds), Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Honolulu, Hawaii, Oct 24-30, pp 592-597

David Jones, Sharonn, Stewart, Leonie Power, Patterns: using proven experience to develop online learning, Proceedings of ASCILITE’99, Responding to Diversity, Brisbane: QUT, pp 155-162

“An ISDT for e-learning” – Audio is now synchronized

On Friday the 20th of Feb I gave a talk at the ANU on my PhD. A previous post has some background and an overview of the presentation.

I recorded the presentation using my iPhone and the Happy Talk recorder application. I’ve finally got the audio up and synchronised with the Slideshare presentation.

Hopefully the presentation is embedded below, but I’ve had some problem embedding it in the blog (all the other slideshare presentations have been ok.

Nope, the embedding doesn’t want to work. Bugger. Here’s a link to the presentation page on Slideshare.

Limitations of Slideshare

In this presentation, along with most of my current presentations, I use an adapted form of the “Lessig” method of presentation. A feature of this method is a large number of slides (in my case 129 slides for a 30 minute presentation) with some of the slides being used for very small time frames – some less than a second.

The Slideshare synchronisation tool appears to have a minimum time allowed for each slide – about 15 seconds. At least that is what I found with this presentation. I think perhaps the limitation is due to the interface, or possibly my inability to use it appropriately.

This limitation means that some of the slides in my talk are not exactly synchronised with the audio.

The Happy Talk Recorder

I’m very happy with it. The quality of the audio is surprisingly good. Little or no problems in using it. I think I will use it more.

An information systems design theory for e-learning

Yesterday I gave a presentation at the Australian National University on my PhD. I’m doing it through ANU and this 30 minute presentation is a standard requirement of study. The slides are up on slideshare (embedded below). I recorded the audio and will be trying to put that online later on today and make the slides into a slidecast.

The presentation

It appears embedding the presentation in this post isn’t working at the moment. The slides can be found here on slideshare. — seems the embedding is working now.

The description

It’s been a while since I worked directly on the PhD and creating this presentation was a way to become deeply familiar with the thesis again, in preparation for writing it up. So the presentation is structured in line with the thesis and provides a high level overview of the whole thing.

While the information systems design theory (ISDT) that is the main product of the thesis gets a mention, explaining the design theory is not the primary goal of the presentation. Such descriptions have been given in other papers (Jones and Gregor, 2002; Jones and Gregor, 2004). Instead the emphasis of the presentation is on the other components of the thesis that are in need of some extra work.

Most of the content of the presentation is focused on chapter 2 and the Ps Framework. In fact, must of it is related around the content of a paper I’ve proposed for later in the year.

Essentially the idea is that the practice of e-learning within universities has a definite orthodoxy (which LMS will we adopt). I suggest that for a number of reasons the understandings that underpin that orthodoxy are entirely inappropriate and this is why most university e-learning implementations are plagued by less than widespread use by academics, low quality learning by those that do use it and some concerns around return on investment.

There’s also some early work on the structure of chapter 3 – the research method. But still early days there.


Jones, D. and S. Gregor (2004). An information systems design theory for e-learning. Managing New Wave Information Systems: Enterprise, Government and Society, Proceedings of the 15th Australasian Conference on Information Systems, Hobart, Tasmania.

Jones, D. and S. Gregor (2006). The formulation of an Information Systems Design Theory for E-Learning. First International Conference on Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology, Claremont, CA.

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%), (99.95%), Xanga (99.95%) and Imeem (99.95%).
  • Twitter – 99.04% uptime
  • LinkedIn – 99.48% uptime
  • Friendster – 99.5% uptime
  • – 99.52% uptime
  • Bebo – 99.56% uptime
  • Hi5 – 99.75% uptime
  • Windows Live Spaces – 99.81% uptime
  • LiveJournal – 99.82% uptime
  • – 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 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.