Schools, systems and change done to me

If you read, listen or watch to a certain sub-section of the media around schools and the education system more broadly it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that schools are broken and need to be changed. A couple of recent posts from the feeds I track have got me thinking. George Siemens recently described his belief that it is so broken that it needs to be changed from the outside, probably by entrepreneurs. George Couros, speaking from within the systems, has generated some discussion with a post reflecting on whether or not and why people don’t like change. He summarises some of the comments in this post.

The type of change that is being talked about within the education systems are, to me, examples of a wicked design problem. This is mostly because educational systems are human systems. As such they are not simple, ordered systems. Education systems are complex adaptive systems. Which, when you simplify it (potentially a bit too far), means that there is not one single answer. So, while the following questions some existing perspectives or approaches to change, I’m not claiming to have the single answer.

The deficit model of changees

This is one of my bugbears. It is one I heard again and again and again within a university context from people who were trying to change the system. It’s the practice of blaming the changees. That is, the reason why our wonderful plan for radically improving education failed because the people who had to change weren’t good enough.

It’s a common experience. Eric Johnson made the following as a comment on the Couros post

The ‘agents’ of change are usually outside of the classroom and if a teacher raises concerns they are slapped with a tag such as rigid or resistant.

The problem isn’t with the change. The problem is the deficiencies of the people who have to change.

Change done to me, not with me

There was a common observation at the place I used to work that the staff were, after many years of change, change weary. This observation was made in one of two situations. First, as a pre-cursor to the rationale for another change project. Second, as part of the post-mortem involved in examining why the last change project failed.

As someone who had been on both sides of the change process, I always felt that such comments showed a lack of understanding of the context and experience of the staff. From my perspective, it wasn’t change that the staff were weary of. They were weary of change being done to them. Rather than being involved in identifying requirements for change or helping develop options for change, staff were being put through change management processes designed to ensure that they appropriately implemented the change designed by someone else.

Problems with external change

In terms of the problems with change in systems being designed by someone else, Eric’s comment from above makes another important point.

The ‘agents’ of change are usually outside of the classroom

The people deciding on what change is to be done and how that change is to be implemented are increasingly from outside the system. Within the organisation I have the most recent experience, major changes in teaching policies, processes and systems are being implemented and made by people who have little or no recent experience of teaching within the system. This is a problem on a couple of fronts which are illustrated by a couple of quotes from a recent keynote from Dave Snowden (the quotes are foundations to his work, so appear quite often)

First, is the implications of the characteristics of a complex adaptive system on how you can change it.

You only understand a complex system….by engagement with the system. You can’t study it in abstract and decide what the right thing is to do. There are many different things. All of which could be right. Therefore you have to actually start to work within the system to see what is possible.

The fact that so much change is being identified and implemented by folk from outside systems, and perhaps more importantly outside individual schools (an individual school is, I think, a complex adaptive system), is the reason that so many people feel that change is being done to them. The external people driving this change do not have good tacit knowledge of the particular system so that their change tends to create a sense of disconnect from people who do have good tacit knowledge of the specific context.

Another quote from the same Snowden keynote about what he had to go through in order to be apart of the general manager track at an organisation.

I wasn’t even allowed to enter the general management program until I’d done a year in sales, a year in support, a year in production and earned my bonus in each of those years. Because until I’d lived the life of a salesman, until I’d lived the life of a support person, I wasn’t in a fit state to make judgements about their capability. Because my knowledge was explicit, not tacit.

Kathy Mann gets close to this idea with the following comment on the Couros post

They need someone who has been in the trenches, slogged it out, and can share the good, the bad, the ugly about where they’re going. Too often they get someone who’s just done the research or the book learnin’. There’s no credibility there. They need to hear the war stories.

It is in the war stories that folk can identify the shared tacit knowledge. The difference remains that some of the war stories from one school will not translate to another, there will be some differences.

Defining future outcomes

Underpinning much of what is talked about around change in organisations and societies is a set of techno-rational assumptions which lead to beliefs about the ability to engineer change and organisations. Snowden again

All of these methods are focused on defining a future outcome. Remember the 3-year plan, the 5-year plan, quarter….the assumption is that we’re dealing with a machine that we can engineer. Engineering is the dominant idea. So we define an ideal future state and we try and close the gap.

Which brings up the problems with outcomes-based measures, Snowden

Outcome-based measures. These days in the UK and the US. Teachers, and Australia as well, who actually inspire students get no reward. Teaches who fill out learning plans get rewarded.

The success of such teleological processes require conditions that simply do not exist within most human systems.

Change from within?

So, it looks like I’m arguing that change may be possible from within these systems. Maybe.

What I am thinking about is that the majority of the problems with the education system arises from that system not being designed to enable and encourage its participants to see change as natural. After all, what could be natural than an education system that is always changing through learning. The problem is that the current educational systems (at least those I’m familiar with) are too teleological and are unable to learn. They are unable to change.

This inability is what makes change so hard and a topic for conversation.

The biggest change from within I’d be pushing for is a change that frees schools and education systems from the constraints of techno-rational, teleological thinking. I don’t think that’s the type of change that entrepreneurs are going to make. They are going to create different systems and contexts. The best of these will be designed to learn and change.

Charity begins at home, doesn’t it?

In the first few years of teaching information technology at university I met a number of mature age students who were returning to study to get degrees. These were amongst the most enjoyable students to teach, not to mention simply being the best students. One of those students struggled with aspects of the technology, but stuck at it and did well. So well, she ended up completing her PhD years and years before I even looked like completing mine. She even ended up being the head of the school teaching IT.

Not long after that she did a funny thing. At least it seemed a funny thing to me. She gave it up and got into doing volunteer work overseas. At that stage I couldn’t understand why she’d leave the safety and challenge of an academic job to do such a thing. These days I have a much better idea of why that might be attractive. But increasingly, the main reason I didn’t get it is captured by the phrase “charity begins at home”. Sure there are a lot of people in some really horrible situations overseas and they need all the help they can get. But the same can be said of situations closer to home.

Closer to home

This has been reinforced to me over the last 5 or so years. The small town closest to our home has a reputation for being rough. As far back as 30+ years ago when I was in primary school my friends in the rugby league team spoke with just a touch of fear of having to play the team from this small town. They were tougher and rougher than most and even at, or perhaps because of, that age it was assumed because they did it harder than us. And that was from kids who were in one of the other less well off areas. Observations of this small town over the last 5 years or so has reinforced this impression.

I was wondering if this impression is an ill-informed prejudice. So I went looking for some statistics. The Australian Bureau of Statistics maintains a socio-economic index for areas. From that list it is possible to identify 158 local government areas in the list. Ranked from most disadvantage to least, the small town I’m talking about comes in at 35. Perhaps not so bad. But then from my quick look, the majority of areas worse off are indigenous communities. What is happening in those communities is perhaps Australia’s greatest shame. That the local small town is ranked close to these communities suggests (within the limits of such statistics) that my impression has some foundation.

This then brings up the link between poverty and performance. As here and in related resources, “the strongest predictor of academic underperformance is poverty.” A finding that doesn’t bode well for the children of the local small town. The school’s 2009 annual report provides some support for this. On the year 9 NAPLAN tests the school’s average in all areas is less than the Australian average. Only 58.3% of Year 10 students at the school complete Year 10. In 2004, ABS figures suggest that between 1994 and 2004 average completion rates ranges from 60%-64% for males and 71%-75% for females. In the six years since 2004 the state government has been pushing for increased completion rates, so not great.

Where to teach?

As part of my studies next year I have to teach for periods of time in two local schools. We get to nominate our top 3 selections. For some student teachers, the schools they teach at during their training end up offering them positions. So, what sort of schools do I want to gain experience in? What sort of schools do I want to teach in? If charity begins at home, then surely I should be aiming to teach at the high school in the local small town? I think I will be a reasonable, if not good, high school teacher and there is a lot of research supporting claims that good teachers can make a difference.

Or, should I go with the local private school. A school that is currently turning students away and subsequently has a student cohort drawn from a much higher socio-economic group? I’ve been told I’d be attractive to such a school as I’ll have a PhD but still be on the salary of a first year teacher. i.e. I’m cheap and help tick some prestige boxes.

Isn’t it time to give something back?

The constraints of the systems

George Siemens has recently suggested that in his experience innovation within the systems of formal education such as k12 “is not producing the impact it should”. This resonates with my experience of the university sector and much of the experiences I’ve been hearing about within k12 recently. The nature of the formal education systems is getting in the way of change.

I spent much of my 20 years in universities fighting the system. Do I really want to spend the next phase of my working life fighting another system? I’m thinking I could probably make some difference working within the constraints of the system, but would it be enough? Could I be happy with that? Isn’t making do with the constraints of the system one of the contributing factors to the stability of the system?

All these and more will be answered for me personally over the coming years as I get into the process. Wondering what others who are going or have been through this process think?

8 stupidest management fads of all time

Increasingly I think most of management is driven by fads. Even if the “fad” has some good underlying principles, or is perhaps simply a bit better than previous options. It is still implemented by management as a fad. As if we only implement this successfully, we will have the silver bullet that solves all our problems. Within higher education I have previously argued that open source learning management systems are one of the more recent fads.

Aside: and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. e.g. moving to an open source LMS needs senior management buy in. Which means the implementation of the open source LMS must be seen as a success. So, even if the implementation fails miserably (e.g. first term of go live the new LMS doesn’t play well with the chosen database and falls over if more than 5 people login resulting in a need to pay more for an external consultant to fix the problem) the implementation team will receive an organisational award, because it has to be seen as a success.

Which brings me to this article on “The 8 Stupidest management fads of all time”. I thought it would be fun to reflect on whether I’ve seen them in higher education.

1. Six Sigma

Yep, an adjunct business academic at a commercial partner of the institution I worked for thought that six sigma would be a good idea for application to teaching. Actually, just did a quick search of my email archives.

It was 2007, there were problems with assignment and exam marking and review of grades. The application of six sigma would improve these problems. What was really scary was that the folk in charge at the time could of, with the right campaign, been convinced of the need to do this. Especially given that there was a recognisable fad of business faculties teaching six stigma.

Six sigma was attractive to management because it gives the impression of them being disciplined and rational. They are getting someone (with a black belt) to look at the processes and re-design them based on statistics and formula. Obviously a good thing, it will make the processes more efficient. Of course, this type of techno-rational thinking thinks that people are just cogs in the wheels of the great machinery of the university and will follow such re-designs to the letter. It also assumes that the systems of the institution are ordered systems. That an external person can come in, analyse the system and prescribe effective changes.

At the time, I did a quick literature search and found the following quote (Goh 2002)

In fact, administratively, conformance is required in Six Sigma not just with respect to process output but in terms of employee participation as well. Regimentation via a hierarchy of ‘Master Black Belts’, ‘Black Belts’, and so on would go against the very culture in a community of academics and researchers, even students. The bottom line approach taken in Six Sigma cannot be the driving factor in the pursuit of academic excellence. Cynicism, well before anything else, would be the first reaction if the leadership of a university is to tell everyone ‘Take Six Sigma— or this organization is not for you’, a proclamation made famous by Jack Welch as CEO of General Electric. It is little wonder that to date, nothing is heard about any university proclaiming itself a Six Sigma institution.

Funnily enough, at least 5 years earlier I had been involved in projects that were making effective interventions into these problems. But these interventions were done in a contextual way, responding to real problems experienced by those involved and trying to help them based on the deep understanding of the system provided by being a part of the system. Not being an external analyst with no historical connection or understanding of the context.

2. Business process re-engineering

Sadly, and for my sins. I was briefly part of a team of young academics who thought BPR was the bees knees. The other two were IS/Business academics, just graduated and full of conviction for what they had learned. I was a programmer, big on techno-rational. If we only designed the system/processes properly, everything would be alright. We even got a grant, but we never did anything with it. Thank god.

3. Matrix Management

Yep, saw this one. One of the Deans of a new re-structured faculty about 5 or 6 years ago thought matrix management was all the go. It was as successful as the description. Complexity, got in the way of real work. Especially bad because none of the other faculties adopted this management structure. So if you were meant to work with the faculties, you had to figure out which management structure each had and who you should talk to.

4. Management by consensus

It was never known as this, but self-managed teams/groups was essentially this. Implemented around 1996, apparently to break the power of a single administrative staff member and empower other administrative staff. As outlined, important decisions were avoided (but then that wasn’t really new for universities) and I’m sure there were people who knew the advice offered to keep the minutes.

5. Core competency

I haven’t seen this one. But then that’s because universities are meant to traditionally perform at least three tasks: teaching, research, and community service. i.e. rather than do one thing well, we do three badly. Of course, the unofficial core competency is research, but bugger all academics actually do research.

6. Management by objectives

Yep, strategic plans, management plans etc. All management by objectives. Get a group of smart people to identify the objectives, ignore the realities and then be surprised when the world is different. It’s great for those folk who game the system. Those who prove their worth by ticking the objective boxes while concurrently ignoring the real needs of the organisation.

7. The search for excellence

Haven’t really seen this one. Have heard of it.

8. Management by god

Thank god I haven’t seen this one. Can’t imagine it even being considered within a secular organisation within Australia.


T Goh (2002), A Strategic assessment of six sigma, Quality and Reliability Engineering International, 18(5): 403-410

Changing times and connectivism

This is a simple holding place for some ideas and quotes from George Siemens’ recent Connectivism: Changing times talk.

Fundamental task of education

Translating this into high school teaching within formal settings raises some interesting questions

…the fundamental task of education is to enculturate youth into this knowledge-creating civilization and to help them find a place in it….traditional educational practices – with its emphasis on knowledge transmission – as well as newer constructivist methods both appear to be limited in scope if not entirely missing the point. (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2006)

This is the challenge Siemens mentions later

Challenge to repurpose education on explicit system-wide connections and connectedness model

Challenging at the best time of times, but aiming for system-wide, that will be hard.

Knowledge == learning


In networks, knowledge and learning are the same thing: one is the product and the other the process


Siemens starts his suggestions with

Complexity, emergence, self-organisation

Which reinforces my beliefs/prejudices and hence is good. However, it also reinforces how had achieving anything system-wide will be when techno-rational management practices is the standard in formal education, especially public education.

Then comes

Social and knowledge connections

I have some ideas about how an individual teacher might enable some of this. Though building on it within a school would be also beneficial. Making the practice common for a cohort would perhaps be the first step.


Knowledge-building (growing)

My interpretation is that this is the ultimate goal. You want to model this for the students and then hope that they develop the practice/skill to continue this. Definitely looks like signing up and working at CCK 2011 should be a priority.

Segue into analytics

Towards the end there is the connection to analytics. Had wondered what got Siemens interested in this.

Complete (or nearly) connectedness requires emphasis to shift to data analysis, visualization

This has been one of the questions I’ve been asking of myself. One of the best known guidelines for teaching is that you have to start with what the learner knows. If they can’t easily make the connection to what you’re trying to teach, they won’t make the connection, the won’t learn. How do you know what a class of 20 to 30 kids know? How do you know what an individual student knows? How can you create environments that enable them to find the connections?

How and what “analytics” can you implement/harness within a school setting? Must admit that analytics as a term turns me off, reminds me of business intelligence folks and feeding management.

Interesting times ahead

As described earlier the next couple of years probably has me becoming a high school teacher. A transition I am planning to blog about, perhaps eventually to do some research about. This comment by Scott Aldred suggests that this might be an interesting experience. Scott’s point is that various constraints and factors arising from the nature of public education and its organisation within Australia and Queensland are such that reflective blogging is not as straight forward as you might hope. Given that I’m generally somewhat cynical/critical, this might become problematic.

It is ironic that Scott’s comment is made on an article by Dean Shareski arguing/stating that having teachers blog is a great way to make them better teachers. It shall be interesting if I see evidence of the constraints Scott has seen.

He should know as he’s been a teacher educator at the University I’m returning to as a student. And if you look at the list of followers on his blog you can see quite a list of current/previous students from that university. Most of which appear to be keeping blogs about their journey as student teachers. Mostly as a requirement for their studies. Interesting times.

Installing and starting with Moodle 2.0

As a first step to BIM v2.0 I’m installing and starting to play with Moodle 2.0 (RC2). The following is a summary/reflection of the experience. One of the aims of this is to investigate how Moodle 2.0 handles its integration with external blogs and see what lessons/insights I can learn for BIM v2.0.

Warning: This is a little incomplete, I’m posting early for testing purposes.

Registering external feeds

Okay, this is a surprise. To register an external blog (see image below, click on it for larger version), you need to provide the actual feed url. This is somewhat surprising for two reasons:

  • most students/staff don’t really know about feeds; and,
    This raises the question of whether ease of use is more important, or educating them about the new medium is more important.
  • it’s not needed.
    Simplepie, which I believe is the PHP library used to retrieve the blog feeds, can do auto-detect.

register external blog - Moodle 2

For BIM, the presence of auto-detect in Simplepie meant it was possible to make it easier for the students/staff. The initial use of BIM was focused on getting the students to reflect etc, it was felt requiring them to grasp what a feed was and figuring out how to find their feed was not central to the outcome.

Having a look at the Moodle 2.0 code, it does use simplepie, or at least a “moodleised” version

require_once($CFG->libdir . ‘/simplepie/moodle_simplepie.php’);

I wonder what the reasons were for not adopting auto-detect?

What’s been done to moodle_simplepie.php

At the very least, it is a OO wrapper around simplepie. Apparently simplepie is untouched. Going by initial comments, the OO class aims mainly to connect Simplepie with various Moodle configuration variables and settings.

Mmm, I haven’t looked at this sufficiently. But it appears that the method used to retrieve the blog avoids using Simplepie’s support for auto-detect. It even calls curl directly before passing over to Simplepie. With BIM I assume Simplepie will handle all that. I’m assuming this is due to a performance issue or similar that I’m not aware of.

Actually, it appears that I modified the internals of simplepie to use the Moodle curl configuration variables (mostly proxy from memory). Putting the mods in the wrapper is the more correct approach, however, it does appear to remove the ability to use Simplepie’s auto-detect. Disclaimer: I haven’t checked this thoroughly and thus could be entirely wrong. Which I suspect I am, given that the auto-discovery stuff in Simplepie is known.

Mmm, I probably need to spend more time on this as it would be good if BIM v2.0 would simply use the Moodle wrapper for Simplepie.

More problems

Bugger. When I do try to register this blog with the direct feed URL, it doesn’t work.

The URL you entered does not point to a valid RSS feed

Works fine on the same machine from BIM, so something in the Moodle 2.0 configuration must be off?

Ok, with a bit of debugging it appears that it’s getting a timeout. There’s a setting for a 2000 millisecond timeout somewhere. It’s a curl problem, or at least that’s where it is being reported.

Okay, the default timeout being set in moodle_simplepie is 2

// default to a short timeout as most operations will be interactive

Seems that this was too short for my net connection, adding a 0 on the end and it works.

What does Moodle store about external blogs

First, have to view the entries from my registered blog. There they are, but only the first couple of lines. Can’t see any option on this view to allow me to see the complete posts. Is the complete post actually stored?

Looks like posts (from lots of sources) is stored in the post table.

id               bigint(10) unsigned 
module           varchar(20)         
userid           bigint(10) unsigned 
courseid         bigint(10) unsigned 
groupid          bigint(10) unsigned 
moduleid         bigint(10) unsigned 
coursemoduleid   bigint(10) unsigned 
subject          varchar(128)        
summary          longtext            
content          longtext            
uniquehash       varchar(128)        
rating           bigint(10) unsigned 
format           bigint(10) unsigned 
summaryformat    tinyint(2) unsigned 
attachment       varchar(100)        
publishstate     varchar(20)         
lastmodified     bigint(10) unsigned 
created          bigint(10) unsigned 
usermodified     bigint(10) unsigned  

Looks like the display code for the blogs is using the summary field, hence the summary. Looks like the content field for an external blog contains the ID for the blog in the table blog_external. Suggesting that the entire content for an external blog is not stored internally by Moodle.

Okay, the “mirror” process for external blogs is done by the blog_sync_external_entries function. It appears that it deletes all entries for an external blog each time. Then it retrieves them. It uses the description element in the XML for each item as the content, rather than the content element. Description, I believe, is the summary while content contains the full content.

I’m a bit worried about this deleting of all entries before adding all the posts again. Mainly because not all posts remain in the RSS feed. As people post you are going to lose posts to the external blog. At least if I’m right about the deleting.

If this is the correct interpretation, then when I publish this post the current last entry in my external blog should disappear from my test Moodle. Time to try that out. Of course, there is going to be a delay until the synchronise process is run at some stage. Going by the config option, this is every 24 hours (by default). Time to reduce that, post this and check again in a little while. Interesting, only allows me to reduce it to 12 hours.

Confirmed. Based on my testing it appears confirmed that the external blog integration with Moodle only includes the current contents of the external blog’s feed in Moodle. Most blogs only keep a limited number of recent posts in their feed. This means that external blog posts are not a permanent member of the Moodle blog. They will disappear as the owner makes more posts.

Funny characters

The biggest problem I’ve faced with BIM has been dealing with the “funny” characters inserted into blog feeds when people copy and paste content from Word. Wanted to try this out with the external blog functionality in Moodle 2.0 and see if it remains a problem (i.e. did I miss something simple).

So, I have a known problem feed. Time to register it as an external blog and see what happens. Ok, it registered fine. Do the special characters appear? Will only work if the special characters are at the start of the post, due to Moodle only storying the description, not the whole content. Yep, the problem feed does have the special characters in the description. And yes, they do appear in Moodle. See the image below, see the black diamonds containing question marks? Those are the special characters.

Special character problem

I haven’t had a problem with special characters in this situation on MySQL. The problem has arisen when using Postgres, at least at one institution.

Other core/plugins using Simplepie

Seems that the rss block is the only other part of the core using it. Seems to be basic stuff. Uses moodle_simplepie to construct object and uses mostly straight Simplepie member functions to perform tasks.

It does, however, appear to be using auto-detect. This is looking good for use in BIM 2.0. Though I do wonder why the external blog stuff doesn’t use it. Performance?

$rss =  new moodle_simplepie();
// When autodiscovering an RSS feed, simplepie will try lots of
// rss links on a page, so set the timeout high

    return $url;

return $rss->subscribe_url();

It is interesting that the display feed functionality is done by hard coded table tags, rather than the Moodle table API/classes.


One of the other tasks for BIM 2.0 is to start a testing regime. The external blog support apparently comes with some tests, hoping to borrow the approach.

Seems to be some Moodle standard for unit tests with a class UnitTestCaseUsingDatabase, which sounds like one of potentially many. Now I see that there was something available as way back as 1.7 based on SimpleTest. And here’s the stuff for 2.0.

Outstanding tasks

  • Special characters are there. Implement a test with special characters in blogs…will have to be in the summary.
  • Will need to test further whether or not the moodle_simplepie class can use the SimplePie auto-detect.
  • Yes it does. Check to see if the Moodle external blog implementation will actually start losing posts.
  • Check out other Moodle plugins using the moodle_simplepie class.
  • Talk with folk involved with Moodle/Simplepie about the “issues” identified above.
    Seems they already know of this stuff.

Understanding EduFeedr and contrast with BIM

The following is an attempt to summarise an attempt to understanding EduFeedr a bit more. Especially to compare and contrast it with BIM. I’m particularly interested in seeing what lessons can be learned from EduFeedr, not to mention what code and ideas can be borrowed.


EduFeedr is an educationally enhanced feed reader, designed specifically for courses that take place in a distributed learning environment where all students use their personal blogs and other social software.

i.e. EduFeedr is aimed at open courses. The need for it arose out of experiences with such courses and the workload involved in tracking contributions.

EduFeedr offers four main tasks

  1. setting up the course;
    Each course has a “site”. Each site has six sections: (1) course feed, (2) course info, (3) participants, (4) assignments, (5) progress, and (6) social network.

    BIM: is a Moodle activity. Each Moodle course can have multiple BIM activities.

  2. enrolling to the course,
    Done via a simple form with name, email and blog url

    BIM: students have to be enrolled in the Moodle course containing the BIM activity.

  3. aggregating blog posts and comments, and

    BIM: only aggregates posts

  4. visualizing the progress and social network between the learners.
    Displayed on EduFeedr and also able to be downloaded. Information can be downloaded in various formats, including: OPML file containing all post and comment feeds; a vCard for email addresses of participants; HTML blogroll.

    BIM: student details are available via various Moodle sources. BIM does provide an OPML file for teaching staff containing the URLs for their students’ feeds.


EduFeedr is implemented on top of Elgg and uses Simplepie, JSViz.

Actually, the retrieval of the feeds is done by a companion utility called EduSuckr. EduSuckr is run hourly. BIM: mirroring also run via cron, but time is controlled via the Moodle configuration interface. Mirroring of an individual student blog is also done when a student attempts to view their details.

EduFeedr and EduSuckr appear to communicate via WSDL/SOAP.


  • No standard way to locate comments feed.
    BIM: doesn’t look at comments, but I assumed this might be a problem.
  • Linking posts to assignments.
    Appear that they expect students to link to the description of the assignment for the post.

    BIM: tries to compare the title and content of the student blog post with the title/content of the assignment question using simple similarity comparison. Teaching staff can also allocate a student post to a particular assignment question….future plan is to allow the students to do this as well.

  • Linking comments with participants.
    Again lack of standards with identifying authors of comments, makes this difficult.

    BIM: doesn’t look at comments, so not a problem.

  • Only recent items in feeds.
    This is a problem with BIM as well. EduSuckr uses the same solution as BIM. It keeps a local archive of all posts. The teacher can specify a period when to archive posts. BIM has the option for mirroring to be turned off.

EduFeedr is live. BIM for open blog courses

Via Scott Leslie’s free and learning composition comes the news that EduFeedr is up and going.

EduFeedr is somewhat related to BIM in that it aggregates blogs posts from participants in a course and allows tracking of posts against set assignments.

The difference is that EduFeedr, unlike BIM, breaks free from the LMS. Which is arguably both, depending on context, a good and a bad thing. It does perhaps go close to some of what Leigh Blackall was looking for. Some more references here. The author’s blog appears to give more of the background. Including the explanation that EduFeedr is more designed to support open blog courses, i.e. those not using an LMS.

After a quick look, there are also some features and ideas that could help improve BIM and inform the design of BIM 2.0. e.g. visualisation of connections between posts.

In terms of the downsides to EduFeedr, Han’s post about recent talks on EduFeedr provides some indications. e.g the inability to autenticate participants. On the plus side, you don’t need the LMS.

Amplify’d from
EduFeedr is a feed reader for online courses where each participant is using his/her personal blog to publish thoughts on course readings, answers to assignments and other course related postsRead more at

Additional thoughts

EduFeedr relies on a component called EduSuckr to grab the blog posts and comments. It relies on SimplePie, as does BIM. WIll be interesting to see if there is some capacity to reuse some fo the code. Already from looking at the code, there are some ideas to improve BIM.

Getting back into maths – it is not linear

As mentioned last week, I’m slowly commencing the process of becoming a high school teacher in information technology and mathematics. As part of that process I’m trying to get back into maths – its almost 25 years since I did my undergrad math courses – and build up a network of folk and ideas.

So, via the well known @coursa, I find @katierosenkranz (a pre-service teacher with a math minor) and her mention of a “prezi” – Math is not linear. Not only does the content of this presentation resonate, the number of additional connections being added to my baby math network is rapidly increasing. Including @pvnotp author of the presentation. Though I do admit a need to connect with some more Australian folk.

Math is not linear

The presentation essentially argues that the simple linear presentation of math topics within schools has some problems. Problems that can be addressed and learning improved by drawing on an understanding of the connections between the different math topics.

In part this gets at the whole idea of teaching as a logical, sequential process where the expert builds the foundations for student learning. It’s the assumption that guides most teaching of computer skills to students. You have to have them in a lab with an expert watching what they are doing helping correct mistakes and misunderstandings. Compare that with the approach taken by the Hole in the wall project.

This idea is also connected with the TEDxNY presentation from Dan Meyer

The topic areas

Alison’s prezi includes a slide that contains a list of math topic areas. I’m simply going to treat the following as an initial bit of revision of mine. Actually, in many cases, I’m not sure I ever could have described what these topic areas were about and how they connected to the real world. Even though I was good at maths, I think I was better at playing the high school math game, rather than gaining deep understanding. This is itself one of the problems I’m hoping to avoid in my teaching.

If I’m going to break this linearity, I’m going to have to develop the knowledge. It won’t be complete and it is basic, but it’s a start. The topics are:

  • Algebra;
    So, part of pure maths along with geometry, analysis, topology, combinatorics and number theory. And what’s generally taught in high school is elementary algebra. Ahh, personal connection, Rob’s work in ring theory is abstract algebra.
  • Geometry;
    AKA earth measuring. Hadn’t made the connection with the name. Am sure there could be some interesting connections made with kids through that name. One of the oldest forms of math.
  • Set theory;
    The study of collections of objects, of sets. What’s interesting is how the Wikipedia description of when various topics in set theory are introduced in formal schooling seemingly illustrates Alison’s point. Some basic stuff in primary school, and then the more advanced stuff in undergrad. It’s also somewhat symptomatic that I can understand what it is from the Wikipedia description, but I’d be hard pressed to explain practical relevance to a 13 year old.
  • Number theory;
    Okay, either the Wikipedia article introductions are getting worse or I’m tiring, I’m finding it harder to explain/understand number theory. Of course, that’s probably because I’m trying to think of practical examples, and to some extent that’s not what number theory is about. Though there are some important practical applications of number theory findings (e.g. cryptography), practicality is not the immediate aim of a number theorist. It’s on the properties of numbers etc. that they are focused.
  • Calculus;
    Interesting that wikipedia uses a “study of” description for calculus (study of change), geometry (study of shape) and algebra (study of operations and their application to solving equations) on the calculus page, but not on the others.

    An example of the perils of top-down de-composition? The loss of the whole that arises from dividing a description of mathematics on Wikipedia into separate pages written by different authors?

    Calculus focuses on limits, functions, derivatives, integrals and infinite series. :) They like their terminology, don’t they. Perhaps that is a big part of the problem. Mathematics really is a language and we’re teaching the language by dividing it up and teaching it separately. e.g. we’ll teach you French by dividing words up into topic areas such as politics, economics, the arts etc. No wonder learners find it hard.

    Interesting, this Wikipedia page attempts to connect to the practical applications.

  • Statistics;
    Ohh, it’s the “science of the collection, organisation and interpretation of data”. Closely related to probability theory. Or it’s a branch of math dealing with the collection and interpretation of data..differences of opinion.

    Statistics starts with a population of objects. Objects which have properties, information about these properties are gathered. Rather than study the information about all objects, a sample is taken. Statistics analysis then either describes the data gathered or draws inferences from that data.

  • Probability theory;
    Concerned with the analysis of random phenomena. The mathematical foundation for statistics.
  • Combinatorics.
    The study of finite or countable discrete structures. An interesting comment in connection with Alison’s posts “Combinatorial problems arise in many areas of pure mathematics, notably in algebra, probability theory, topology, and geometry”. i.e. it connects with many of the topic areas.

Interestingly, this list does not include arithmetic, which is what most people think math is.

While, the above process has been useful in refreshing some basic ideas. It’s also revealed just how much work I do have to do. Some of which will come back quickly, e.g. observing some of the mathematical equations in the above I found myself remembering aspects of them from 25+ years ago.

I also found it interesting, but not that surprising, that the Wikipedia pages aren’t that easy to learn from. I’m wondering if there aren’t online resources that do a better job of explaining these for non-mathematicians. Which in itself raises an interesting question, in a few years will I claim to be a mathematician or simply a maths teacher? What implications will my answer to that question have about my teaching?

Delving into institutional information systems

As recently noted, I’m about to return to university study. Have decided that I’m going to keep a journal of the entire experience. Perhaps with some intent later on to use this as data for research around the student experience. This may be of some interest as I will be studying at the institution I worked for as an academic for 20 years.

Completing enrolment

My current task is to complete the enrolment process. This means I have to use the dreaded institutional ERP system. In the dim dark past this system did not have a good reputation, I’m wondering if it has improved?

Starting with downloading the guide

The first recommend step is to download the user guide. I don’t remember Amazon or similar online commerce sites requiring a user guide to be downloaded. Why should completing an enrolment process for a university be any different?

Oh dear, not only should I download the guide, I should also print it out. So, this not only suggests a somewhat less than usable system, it’s also not particularly sustainable.

Mmm, this is what is shown on the page to download the guide

please download and print the XXXX Student User Guide. This guide can be found here or by clicking on the words ‘XXXX Student User Guide‘ throughout this webpage

The underlined text represents links. Given that I am being advised to download and print this guide, I’m assuming I’ll get a PDF when I click on the link. Ahhh, no.

Instead I get taken to another page titled “Student user guides” which offers me a choice of three separate student guides. One for enrolment, one for Moodle and one for assessment. Each of these guides have their own sections on the page. The enrolment section contains exactly the same text as I’ve included above. Only this time when I click on the link I get the PDF.

At this stage, I have to remember to use the back arrow on the browser to return to the enrolment system. Ahh, no. That was just a web page with a list. You have to login elsewhere to get to the actual enrolment system.

The lovely portal

And you have to love this. The pages don’t give me the link directly to the system in which I have to complete my enrolment. I actually have to go to the student portal first, and then see the link to the enrolment system.

Usernames and passwords

Okay, they haven’t fixed this year. Student numbers at this institution come in three flavours, each starting with a different letter. The pre-peoplesoft student numbers have the letter followed by 8 digits. The post-peoplesoft student numbers have a letter followed by 7 digits. The pre-peoplesoft students have to remember to remove the last digit from their student number in order for the authentication system to work.

That’s right, all the documentation has to tell students to use different approaches depending on their student number. Why not just make the system accept both? Sounds like a perfect example of misplaced PEBKAC.

Now, new students are supposed be given a default initial password that lets them in. I’m thinking I might have some problems as I was enrolled as a Masters/PhD student at this institution a good 10 years ago. So I am guessing that my student number doesn’t have the default password.

It failed the first time, but this seems to have been user error. I tried again, very carefully and it seems to have worked. So I know have a very non-institutionally branded page from the SUN access manager to set options.

Ahh, restrictive password rules. Minimum 8 characters, must have 3 of 4….making passwords so difficult to create and remember that people have to write them down.

Ok, no its telling me that the current paswword I entered wasn’t correct. Which is interesting, as I was very careful to enter what I thought was correct. No, that didn’t work a second time……Ok, very carefully now. Caps lock is off. Nope, that didn’t work.

So, ignore that and see what else I can do. Change password reset options, that seemed to work. Not real well, but it worked. What about change my email address, I’d prefer it to go to my gmail account. Ahh, I get the error “mail-User does not have sufficient access”, but the changed value is there.

Ok, so what do I do know? I was trying to login to the enrolment system. Let’s click on “Help”….Ahh no, a 404 error.

Moving on

Regardless of the above, I am able to get into the portal and the enrolment system. So, let’s press on while it works. After all the aim here is complete my enrolment, not diagnose intermittent problems with institutional authentication systems.

Oh dear, the start page of the enrolment system is littered with “important” notes all in bold and centered. Making it difficult to read. Oh wait, there’s another link to the student guide. Of course, all of the important stuff has no connection to me at all. Why doesn’t the enrolment system know that I’m currently trying to complete my enrolment? Why isn’t the first thing I see when I login to this system direct guidance on completing my enrolment?

Oh, and I’m being a naughty boy using Chrome. Best viewed with IE7, IE8 and Firefox. The addition of Firefox is a step up from previous advice.

So, I’m past the important information and into “David’s Student Centre”. I’m here to accept my offer. Surely there has to be a prominent link on this page to help me do this? Ahh, there it is. Down the bottom. Ahh, a popup which Chrome rejected, thought it accepted it from another institutional page.

Ahh, it’s an acceptance wizard. Only 13 steps. First step was click accept. No I have a page and a bit of text with HTML elements mixed in with content, perhaps due to using Chrome. But come on, it’s just a page of text. How can you do that in a non-standard format?

Bad formatting

Page 3 doesn’t have any bad formatting, but page 4 does. And page 3 had various form elements….not even consistent? And now onto the “HEC form” and the problems are horrendous, see the image.

So, I have to login with Firefox. Don’t want to go through the portal, so type in the direct URL. Ahh, just the host name doesn’t work, click on “Peoplesoft login”, ahh, redirected to authentication system. Logging in again. The default password seems to be working.

The system knows that I haven’t completed the form. So it asks me straight away to complete it. Why didn’t it use this before?

Okay, so the pages are displayed fine with Firefox. Gees, it’s just text and a couple of check boxes. That’s done.

So now I have to select a specific plan for secondary. I thought I’d already done this, but apparently have to do it again. Okay done.

“Tacit” knowledge

I’m just thinking what this process must be like for someone with no experience of this institution. There’s a lot of knowledge I’ve built up over the years that makes navigating all this much easier. I’m finding simply navigating the system a little challenging. If I had the extra cognitive load of not knowing the terminology….

Adding courses

Oh, this is interesting. When I’m selecting specific courses to enrol with, I can see that

Your enrolment shopping cart is empty

The student as customer message is being established early.

Okay, to add a course, I have to search for it. Course codes are the traditional peopelsoft XXXXYYYYY, where XXXX is a subject code (e.g. EDED), and YYYYY is the catalog nbr (e.g. 20491). The trouble is that only peoplesoft and folk who feed it really care about this distinction. For everyone else a course code is EDED20491.

This is important because the “search” form for courses requires that you know that EDED is subject code and that the number is a different part. Even though all the printed docs accepting me don’t make this distinction. In addition, the search form by default has “Course Career” set to non award. The system knows that I am studying a postgraduate program, but it hasn’t set this properly. So I have to know how to change this.

All this is increasing the cognitive load of the student. I can imagine students without knowledge of the institution having to waste time looking up the guides, looking for that bit of information that helps get them past each little step.

At least the search form has remembered the settings I created from the first search. It shows it can be made easier.

Of course, this program has a fixed set of courses. I have no choice. I have to complete the courses that are set. So why should I have to actively choose the courses via the system, why aren’t the courses already set?

A hold on your record

So I select the courses and go to finish the process. Only to find out that there is a hold on my record. So I can’t enrol until that is removed. I wonder what it is?

There is a “Fix Errors” button which when pushed takes me back to the start of the add courses process. This is not going to do anything about the hold. At least, my understanding suggests that.

I saw another part of the home page mentioning holds. If I go back and look at that it is apparent that the Division of Financial Services at the institution thinks I owe it almost $5000. That’s interesting.

Also interesting that in processing my application and accepting me into the program, there was no mention of the holds. Seems I’m destined not to complete my enrolment today. Time to email the debtors address.

Student email

Actually, I’m wondering if my student email account has any insights to share on this. The student email system was purposely modified not to allow students to forward official email to their personal email accounts. And I haven’t ever checked it. Maybe there is something there.

Oh, my session has timed out. Okay, log back in. Oh dear, no there is a 404 error on the portal. What’s more, it’s for that absolutely essential resource – dtfavicon.ico – the little icon for the browser to show!

Ignore that, back to another page, into web mail. No, nothing there.