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.

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.

What are the assumptions which PLEs/Learning 2.0 etc overthrow

Friday I am supposed to be giving a 30 minute overview of the PLEs@CQUni project. The tentative title is “PLEs@CQUni: Origins, Rationale, Outcomes and Future?”. As part of the origins section I was going to talk about some of the fundamental assumptions of university learning and teaching which PLEs, learning 2.0 and associated concepts, memes and propaganda are undermining, or at least questioning. The following is an attempt to outline some of those and hopefully a plea for the perspective of others.

This isn’t an attempt to get the definitive list. I’m sure there are others out there – pointers welcome. This is an attempt to put together a short list which can be used to make strong points to my potential audience and encourage them to consider that, just maybe, it’s time to reconsider a few practices.

Closed classrooms

Old, closed classroom

The idea that the classroom is restricted by four physical walls and a roof has been under attack through the use of e-learning. However, much of e-learning, as currently practiced, still restricts learning and participation to the classroom. If not the physical classroom, at least to those that are enrolled in the course.

There are levels to this. At the most restrictive level even the members of the course aren’t able to access the content and learning archived in an online course before or after the term/semester has ended. Even if this access is possible, anyone not in the course cannot typically gain access.

Increasingly through movements like open educational resources, open courseware, open access journals and others the notion of restricting access to learning within universities, especially public universities is being questioned.

The practice of openness was a fundamental component of the early Internet and subsequently the open source community. That practice has started to inform/infect other areas of practice and certainly appears to be embodied in social media.

David Wiley picks up these theme and does it more justice in this journal article. And put it into practice.

George Siemens and Stephen Downes are taking this to the extreme with an open course on connectivism and connective knowledge.

Scarcity

The traditional practice of university teaching and the most common current practice of e-learning at universities were based on one fundamental assumption – scarcity.

The knowledge held by the university academic was scarce. Learners would find it difficult, if not impossible, to access that knowledge via any other means but attending formal courses run by the university and the academic with the knowledge. Textbooks were scarce and expensive.

In the 90s, access to the Internet was scarce. Especially in the early to mid-1990s people were often enrolling at Universities in order to gain access to the Internet. Universities became responsible for providing the modems and other infrastructure to provide that access. Subsequently, services on which to host content, discussions and other services on the Internet/World-Wide Web were scarce. Universities had to provide the infrastructure to host the content, discussions and other services associated with learning and teaching.

Then a funny thing happened. These things became abundant. People didn’t have to come to universities for information, expertise, Internet access or Internet content, discussions and other services. They were spoiled for choice.

The first place I go to find an answer to a question is Google. I’m sure I am not alone.

The first place I go if I want to

  • put a powerpoint file online is Slideshare;
  • share an opinion or a publication is WordPress;
  • engage in some collaborative editing of a paper is Google docs; or
  • share some images is Flickr.

And each of the above tend towards being open.

Knowledge and internet services are now abundant. As George Siemens mentioned in a recent talk “When you have 3 dogs you give them names. When you have 10,000 cattle you don’t bother”. Number or amount matters. You do different things when resources are scarce than when they are abundant. Practices have to change.

We have already started thinking and doing playing with how this might change in terms of providing course websites with out first Web 2.0 course site.

Primacy of formal learning

formal

The majority of the emphasis in university learning is on finishing the course. Be it the learning going through the course or the academic teaching/designing the course, the focus is on the course. At the extreme end of this perspective is the situation where the course doesn’t connect with the outside world. Doesn’t recognise that most learning doesn’t happen in a formal classroom.

On the web and in the literature you can find numerous folk (1 and 2 ) who will suggest that the vast majority of learning does NOT happen in a formal education or training environment. Most learning occurs in ad hoc, unexpected interactions with peers, family and friends.

In the current “knowledge-based economy” it’s the responsibility of universities to recognise that learning doesn’t stop when students graduate (not does it start when they enrol). They will keep learning, the will need to. It’s our responsibility to help them develop these skills and perhaps to collaborate with them in the on-going need for lifelong learning. Perhaps leveraging the benefits of their informal learning as the move through life can improve the quality of our formal courses.

Look for incompetence before you go paranoid

I suggest that many of the problems organisations face can be traced back to a few observations

  • There are limited resources, the organisation can’t do everything.
  • Most of the important problems faced by the organisation are wicked problems.
    There is no one correct solution, or even an easy way to identify the “best” solution.
  • Large organisations are inherently “multi-cultural”.
    The different professions which make up an organisation have different world views.

Consequently, when it comes to solving a difficult problem there are on-going battles between the different sub-cultures about how to best solve the problem. Battles that can often (and sometimes quickly) decline into political battles that can get quite nasty. So nasty that people can often feel (sometimes rightly so) that people out to get them.

For quite some time I’ve used the following phrase as an alternative perspective

Look for incompetence before you go paranoid.

To be honest, the original intent was probably to suggest that the other folk know less (incompetence). My understanding of it has evolved now to the stage that, most of the time, their “incomptence” simply means that they know differently. Their different cultural perspective is showing through. They have a different way of looking at the world

The trouble is that every perspective or world view brings its own blind spots. People with a certain perspective simply can’t see things that others can. An example/technical definition of this is inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness.

An example wicked problem

An example wicked problem is the selection of an information system to support e-learning within a university. A decision being faced at my current institution. The decision has been made to go from Blackboard v6.3 to an open source learning management system – either Sakai or Moodle.

One of the reasons behind the move to an open source LMS is the reduction in cost. There are a range of perspectives about this reason. On a recent post in her blog Jocene describes one of these perspectives as held by someone at the institution.

He was a fan of the system. Apparently it only costs the university $55k per annum to run it as the CMS. Now I haven’t actually shopped around, but it sounds like a bargain to me. Anyway, we are moving away from it, apparently, to something more expensive and less familiar to the end-users

Would be interesting to hear the argument about how Blackboard is cheaper, at least on this point. I believe the $55K mention is meant to represent licence fees paid to Blackboard for using their product. Given that the open source product has no licence fees, am not sure how it can be more expensive.

Of course this doesn’t factor in support costs etc. But the support costs are going to be pretty much the same. The lack of familiarity to uses is going to be a problem, but then we have to move away from Blackboard 6.3 (it’s no longer support by the vendor at the end of next year) and even if we moved to a more recent version of Blackboard. That version is going to be as unfamiliar to the users as either open source version.

The above shows just two very different views of this problem. If you delve deeper into the different conceptions of this problem held by the various different sub-cultures at the institution you would be almost certain to find many, many more. And these are likely to create significant discussions.

Perceptual blindness

I’m willing to bet that very few, if any, of those perceptions, especially those held by people directly involved in the selection process, contain anything like the perceptions Jocene continues on with in her blog post.

I wonder if the person Jocene was talking with is able to see the alternate perspective Jocene expresses?

Paraphrased by me, that perspective sees a level of control in the position of the IT support person in their definining of what systems can be used and in their use of language to exclude non-IT people. The perspective raises the question of whether or not the rise of PLEs, Web 2.0 and social media will clash with this level of control and even turn the tables and put the control back in the hand of the “users”

Aside: There’s the old question, “There are only two industries in the world that call their clients/customers ‘users’. Can you guess which ones?
The computer industry and the illicit drug trade”.

The warlike atmosphere

For me this discussion is starting to develop into a dichotomy. On one side you have the “controlling IT folk” who are denigrating users and making it more difficult. At the other end you have the downtrodden user fighting back with the help of the liberating technology of PLEs, Web2.0 etc.

In trying to make that point I looked at the Wikipedia page on dichotomy which includes the following interesting and relevant quote

In The Argument Culture (1998), Deborah Tannen suggests that the dialogue of Western culture is characterized by a warlike atmosphere in which the winning side has truth (like a trophy). In such a dialogue, the middle alternatives are virtually ignored.

To often it appears that the differences in opinion within organisations lead to a warlike atmosphere that creates an environment where the middle alternatives, usually the more appropriate alternatives, are ignored. An environment in which there can only be one winner.

An environment where paranoia leads to the assumption that the bastards are out to get me and I better fight back. Rather than an understanding that the bastards are actually “incompetent” (i.e. they have a different perspective on the situation and that there may actually be value in engaging in a dialogue.

PLEs and universities

Each year EDUCAUSE (a US-based “nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology”) surveys “technology leaders in higher education” about their top concerns. The 2007 Top-Ten IT Issues survey results indicate that the #1 concern is “Funding IT”. This had been the #1 concern for 2003 to 2005 and “lost out” in 2006 to a combined concern (Security and Identity/Access Management) which was split in 2007.

In this type of environment, it’s not surprising that IT leaders are keen to control how and what is done with IT at universities. They have to pay for it and they are concerned about how they can pay for it. IT is expensive and the only way you can save money is to ensure that it is used efficiently and you need IT expertise to make those judgements.

There are a number of folk, including me, who have argued that the changes behind PLEs, Web 2.0 etc. are creating a paradigm change for IT departments. A paradigm change is not an easy thing to handle.

Consequently any project that seeks to introduce the use of PLEs or even simply Web 2.0 technologies into an existing organisation is going to have to deal with a likely paradigm change. A change that, according to Kuhn, only happens through a complex social process. An engaged dialogue, rather than a war.

Gathering principles for Web 2.0 – PLEs

The PLEs@CQUni project is attempting to figure out how/if social software, web 2.0 etc can be effectively used at CQUni to improve learning and teaching. I’m part of a group attempting to figure out how we can do this, figure out what works, what doesn’t and get these technologies/ideas used effectively.

As part of this process we need to think about the principles that underpin these technologies and identify how they can used, what problems they will pose and how we can investigate further what they mean for the students and staff of CQUni. This post is, hopefully, the start of a gathering of and perhaps some reflection on what others have already written about these principles.

Web 2.0

In this Slideshare presentation ???? lists the following principles of Web 2.0 (no references)

  • No products but services – “There are no products, only solutions”
    Which seems to focus on simple solutions to customer needs identified through a problem solving approach. This has some implication for the processes to be used, a sense-making, adopter focused approach could be argued to be more appropriate.
  • Customisation
    Allow the user to choose, don’t force them to use what you have made. Allow them to incorporate what we provide into their “home” in a way that they choose. This is exactly the opposite of what happens in traditional IT divisions where the focus is on providing one way to do things as that is cheaper and easier to support.
  • Focus on the “long tail”
    Don’t focus on just the majority, look to all of the folk. Look to leverage customer self-service?
  • Harness collective intelligence
    Make use of network effects, wisdom of crowds etc. Make the results of that collective knowledge available to the user. Try to encourage participation, easier said than done because only a small percentage of folk will contribute. Implications about openness and trust which may prove challenging in an organisational setting.
  • Specialised databases
    Claims that every significant Web 2.0 application has been backed by a specialised database (e.g. Google, Amazon, eBay etc.). Potential connection here, the specialised database for PLEs@CQUni would be the CQU specific data: course content, discussions, staff and student knowlege about the learning experience etc.
  • Who owns the data
    A particularly interesting question in this context where information sharing isn’t typically near the top of the agenda.
  • Perpetual beta
    No more version numbers. It’s always being improved in small ways. This has interesting implications when an organisation is using traditional project based development approaches. i.e. where the developers only get to work on specific projects selected by their management. An approach that generally has to have version numbers.
  • Software above the level of a single device
    Move away from the computer focus, support different devices, allow use on any.

The honeycomb approach Gene Smith has taken identifies seven building blocks for social software. Those seven are:

  • Identity – a way of uniquely identifying people in the system
  • Presence – a way of knowing who is online, available or otherwise nearby
  • Relationships – a way of describing how two users in the system are related (e.g. in Flickr, people can be contacts, friends of family)
  • Conversations – a way of talking to other people through the system
  • Groups – a way of forming communities of interest
  • Reputation – a way of knowing the status of other people in the system (who’s a good citizen? who can be trusted?)
  • Sharing – a way of sharing things that are meaningful to participants (like photos or videos)

The place of free social software in institutional e-learning

Background

A week or so ago I attended an ACODE workshop in Wellington. On the night before it started Desire2Learn hosted a round table looking at the question of where free social software fits with the institutional practice of e-learning within universities.

The invited speaker was Leigh Blackall who has provided a summary/background to his talk on his blog. His post has generated some additional comments and discussion from other folk on the blogosphere.

I’m particularly grateful for this for two reasons

  1. I missed his talk. I arrived in Wellington the afternoon of the round table and my neck did not enjoy the travel. By desert I was ready to go home and so missed the talk.
  2. CQU is currently embarking on a project that, to some extent, must answer this exact question.

The following are some initial attempts to consider Leigh’s comments, examine the responses made by other folk and reflect upon these within the context of CQU and it’s PLEs @ CQU project.

The question set by Desire2Learn was the following

The use of easily accessible and, in many cases, free social software tools such as MSN, Skype, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life and a wide range of blogs and wikis, has become almost ubiquitous among the so-called ‘Net Generation’. In the context of a growing emphasis on eLearning, most commonly facilitated by enterprise-scale Learning Management System and a range of institutionally managed and supported communication and collaboration software tools, and in an environment of increasing emphasis on intellectual property rights management and quality assurance, how do universities (and other educational institutions) respond to the use of free, open-access tools in common use by their students? What are the potential educational uses of such tools? What are the current practices of use of these tools within educational institutions? What are the issues, risks and hidden costs? What are the advantages and benefits?

What did Leigh say?

Of course, you could always read it yourself. I provide the following summary to help me grasp the argument and generate some to dos for me.

Leigh first sets the scene by asking a couple of questions, and providing answers, that unpack the question a bit more.

  • Is free social software almost ubiquitous?
    Leigh suggests a net connection of more than 25kbps is required to use free social software and points to statistics that somewhere around 67% of NZ homes don’t have an appropriate connection.
  • Is there a growing emphasis on e-learning?
    There is the suggestion, at least in NZ, that this may not be the case. E-learning is still something special, not part of normal practice.

The emphasis of the post/talk targets the question of what would be an appropriate response from an educational institution to the ubiquitous free social software.

A simple summary of his argument might go something like this

  • Social software embodies a social constructivist set of ideals.
  • Universities are an inherently behaviorist institution, all learning at such institutions, regardless of intent, retain notions of behaviorism.
    I know of some folk, those how relate strongly to and attempt to regularly use social constructivist approaches in their learning/teaching at universities, who would react strongly to this. I believe Leigh’s point is that because universities, as an example of formal learning, attempt to reward some behaviour (e.g. completing assignments within set criteria, participating in class/discussion forums etc) and punish/discourage other behaviours (e.g. not submitting work within in a fixed time frame) that they always include an aspect of operant conditioning which is a standard part of behaviorism.
  • Attempting to fit social software (round shape) into such a behaviorist institution (square hole) is the wrong way to go.
  • Instead, the aim should be to make the square hole round. The formal learning within behaviorist institutions should be more like and connect more with informal learning.

Some early thoughts

There is something to Leigh’s argument, but it’s probably been taken to the extreme. This might be useful to get a rise and generate some thinking amongst ACODE attendees. However, as a strategy/argument to take to institutional senior management and academics, it doesn’t appear to be all that useful. If I used this at CQU I can see the folk less involved in learning and teaching writing the argument off as just plain silly and the folk who have invested time and energy in learning and teaching being offended.

I wonder if the following, related and very similar, argument would be a potentially more acceptable argument. I’m working on the assumption that in order to get change within an institution you need an argument that folk can agree with. I also think the following argument has a few less leaps that can be argued with (though not an absence).

The argument basically is

  • All software is designed with a particular model (set of data structures, algorithms, way of looking at the world).
    Leigh’s argument relies on leaping a bit further and agreeing that social software embodies social constructivism and the LMS behaviorism.
  • The LMS model is based on that of how universities (especially North American universities) operate and is generally closed.
  • The free social software model is much more open and has a range of other differences with the LMS model.
  • As the more open model, embedding social software within a LMS, will lose a number of important capabilities.
    Those of us who have had to use the “blogs” and “wikis” currently embedded in some commercial LMSes have come across these limitations.
  • Getting the best of both models would appear to require tweaking the LMS model to enable it to work with the social software model – make the square hole to work within the round shape.
    This also has the advantage of minimising the leap for the staff and students of universities and hence makes it more likely to get adoption. This is important, as it’s this use that will help encourage further development and tweaking of the LMS model.

Reactions of others

There’s been a bit of discussion around this on the blogosphere. Some of the responses/questions raised on Leigh’s post and on a post from Janet Clarey include

  • Do students have the capability to set their own learning goals? Is informal learning sufficient for cognitive development for all learners?
  • How does assessment (rewarding of behaviour) fit within the type of social constructivist approach described?
  • Is Leigh’s proposition that social media is a product of social constructivism and LMS of behaviorist?
  • Can social media be used within behaviorist software?

From scarcity to over abundance – paradigm change for IT departments (and others)

Nothing all that new in this post, at least not that others haven’t talked about previously. But writing this helps me think about a few things.

Paradigms, good and bad

A paradigm can be/has been defined as a particularly collection of beliefs and ways of seeing the world. Perhaps as the series of high level abstractions which a particular community create to enable very quick communication. For this purpose a common paradigm/collection of abstractions is incredibly useful, especially within a discipline. It provides members of a community from throughout a wide geographic area with a shared language which they can use.

It also has a down side, paradigm paralysis. The high level abstractions, the ways of seeing the world, become so ingrained that members of that community are unable to see outside of that paradigm. A good example is the longitude problem where established experts ignored an innovation from a non-expert because it fell outside of their paradigm, their way of looking at the world.

Based on my previous posts it is no great surprise to find out that I think that there is currently a similar problem going on with the practice of IT provision within organisations.

What’s changed

The paradigm around organisational IT provision arose within a context that was very different. A context that has existed for quite sometime, but is now under-going a significant shift caused by (at least) three factors

  1. The rise of really cheap, almost ubiquitous computer hardware.
  2. The rise of cheap (sometimes free), easy to use software.
  3. The spread of computer literacy beyond the high priests of ITD.

The major change is that what was once scarce and had to be managed as a scarce resource (hardware, software and expertise) is now available in abundance.

Hardware

From the 50s until recently, hardware was really, really expensive, generally under-powered and consequently had to be protected and managed. For example, in the late 1960s in the USA there weren’t too many human endeavours that would have had more available computing power than the Apollo 11 moon landing. And yet, in modern terms, it was a pitifully under-resourced enterprise.

Mission control, the folk on earth responsible for controlling/supporting the flight had access to computer power equivalent to (probably less) than the Macbook Pro I’m writing this blog entry with. The lunar module, the bit that took the astronauts from moon orbit, down, and then back again is said to have had less power than the digital watch I am currently wearing.

Moore’s law means that computer power increases exponentially with a similar impact on price.

Software

Software has traditionally been something you had to purchase. Originally, only from the manufacturer of the hardware you used. Then software vendors arose, as hardware became more prevalent. Then there was public domain software, open source software and recently Web 2.0 software.

Not only was there more software available in these alternate approaches, this software became easier to use. There are at least half a dozen free blog services and a similar number of email services available on the Web. All offering a better user experience than similar services provided by organisations.

Knowledge and literacy

The primitive nature of the “old” computers meant that they were very difficult to program and support. But since their introduction the ability to maintain and manipulate computers in order to achieve something useful has become increasingly easy. Originally, it was only the academics, scientists and engineers who were designing computers who could maintain and manipulate them. Eventually a profession arose around the maintenance and manipulation of computers. As the evolution continued teenage boys of a certain social grouping became extremely proficient through to today when increasing numbers (but still not the majority) are able to maintain and manipulate computers to achieve their ends.

At the same time the spread of computers meant that more and more children grew up with computers. A number of the “uber-nerds” that grew up in the 60s and 70s had parents who worked in industries that enabled the nascent uber-nerds to access computers. To grow up with them. Today it is increasingly rare for anyone not to grow up with some familiarity with technology.

For example, Africa has the fastest growing adoption rate of mobile phones in the world. I recently read that the diffusion of mobile phones in South Africa put at 98%.

Yes, there is still a place for professionals. But the increasing power and ease of use of computers means that their place is increasingly not about providing specialised services for a particular organisation, but instead providing generalised platforms which the increasingly informed general public can manipulate and use without the need for IT.

For example, there’s an increasingly limited need (not quite no need) for an organisation to provide an email service when there are numerous free email services that are generally more reliable, more accessible and provide greater functionality than internal organisational services.

From scarcity to abundance

The paradigm of traditional IT governance etc is based around the idea that hardware, software and literacy are scarce. This is no longer the case. All are abundant. This implies that new approaches are possible, perhaps even desirable and necessary.

This isn’t something that just applies to IT departments. The line of work I’m in, broadly speaking “e-learning”, is also influenced by this idea. The requirement for universities to provide learning management systems is becoming increasingly questionable, especially if you believe this change from scarcity to abundance suggests the need for a paradigm change.

The question for me is what will the new paradigm be? What problems will it create that need to be addressed? Not just the problems caused by an old paradigm battling a new paradigm, the problems that the new paradigm will have. What shape will the new paradigm take? How can organisations make use of this change?

Some initial thoughts from others – better than free.

A related question is what impact will this have on the design of learning and teaching?

Integrated VLEs/LMSs – benefits and fixes

Niall Sclater is the Director of the Open University’s (UK) VLE (UK acronym for LMS) Programme which is implementing Moodle (some FAQs). Over the last few days he has made a couple of interesting posts:

As you would expect from someone responsible for an institutional project implementing an integrated VLE both posts either defend or promote the characteristics of an integrated VLE.

I have an interest in moving towards a much more eclectic approach to providing the functionality required for e-learning within a university. However, I also don’t think its without its problems or necessarily something that would happen quickly. Writing about these posts helps crystalise some of the issues.

I’ll start with the first one.

Problems and benefits of reinventing the wheel

The first post is essentially a list of the problems to be faced if the “blog” and “wiki” tools integrated into an LMS (in Niall’s case Moodle) were to be replaced by open source alternatives like WordPress or Mediawiki.

The post is interesting because these are real problems to be addressed if the idea of making greater use of Web 2.0 tools as part of an eclectic, but integrated, alternative to an LMS is going to happen.

The list includes the following. I’ve attempted to generalise beyond Moodle and the OU and then provide an alternate perspective. I’m not claiming that the alternate perspective is the stronger argument, just different.

  1. An institution will already have internal expertise in the LMS they are using. Using external tools would require increased effort (read cost) to maintain knowledge of the functionality, code base and release cycles of open source software.
    However, the pool of external expertise that an institution can draw upon to supplement or replace internal expertise will almost certainly be much larger for the external tool than the VLE/LMS. Of course, there is the question of “integrated knowledge”. A Moodle expert would know all of the tools. But a lot of the Moodle tools are extensions, by 3rd parties which need to be learnt. But then I wonder if a PHP/Java/Web 2.0 expert would also have the same skills and capabilities but with a much broader collection of software to draw upon.

    Also if you were going to actually install the external blog/wiki tool onto a university’s infrastructure you wouldn’t need to know about multiple blogs/wikis. Just the one chosen to be installed. The major difference would be that the breadth of choice would be much greater if you were looking at generic tools than if you were looking at tools that would fit into a particular VLE.

  2. Non-LMS products have widely differing user interfaces and have not been enhanced for accessibility and usability in the way that has been possible for Moodle tools.
    This is a potential problem but then I’m not yet convinced that quality through consistency works effectively. If the interface is designed well, I’m not sure it really matters if the interface is different. This is something I’d love to research/investigate at some stage.

    I’d also suggest that an active open source product like WordPress is always going to be able to have (or eventually develop) a better interface. Also, the majority of these systems are “skinnable” and thus, if really necessary, you could make the interface the same.

  3. Single LMS integration allows easy transfer of data between applications within the LMS. Doing so with external applications would be a highly complex software engineering task.
    I’m not so sure it would be that highly complex. The Webfuse system has been designed to integrate external applications. At least 5 years ago we integrated a discussion forum into the system. A fairly junior (but very capable) technical staff member took a few weeks to integrate. It took that long primarily because the discussion forum (and Webfuse) didn’t really follow “good software engineering practice”. Most of the more modern systems I’ve seen make this sort of thing much easier.
  4. With an integrated LMS, the user only has to authenticate once. No need to replicate user databases, access permissions etc.
    This to can be worked around and fixed. Especially as systems move towards single sign-on, openId and similar sorts of technology.
  5. Easier to track usage within a single database rather than having several separate systems.
    VLEs/LMSs and enterprise systems in general (e.g. Peoplesoft etc) are known to be really terrible at reporting. Most organisations are using business intelligence/data mining tools to track usage, trends etc. These types of tools are designed to bring disparate databases together.
  6. A cut-down blog/wiki tool may not be as feature packed as a specialist tool but it may provide the necessary functionality for learning and teaching in an appropriately simple method.
    There is an argument to be made here. But there’s also an arguments to be made that generic tools can be “skinned” to achieve the same outcomes and that there is benefits to students in using real tools.

Personal learning environments @ CQU

The unit I work with received some good news on Friday. We were told that the proposal for looking at how CQU could adopt and adapt Personal Learning Environments had been successful. We’ll be receiving a significant influx of funds so that over the next two years we can take some significant steps to making the use of PLEs an almost regular experience for CQU staff and students.

It’s still very early days and we’re still figuring out just how we’ll approach this. More information about the project is available on the CDDU wiki including the original proposal.

There are a huge array of questions that we hope to think about and make some suggestions about over the next couple of years including (but certainly not limited to)

  • Exactly what is a PLE?
  • Does it make any sense at all for an organisation to be involved in PLEs (they’re meant to be an individual thing)? If yes, then what form should that involvement take?
  • PLEs, from any number of perspectives, are a radical departure for university staff and students, how do we design, develop and deploy PLEs that are adopted and beneficial for staff and students? Should we?
  • What educational approaches work best with PLEs? ….many more similar…
  • What impact does the adoption of PLEs have on more traditional forms of e-learning (e.g. VLEs, LMSs etc.)?

CQU’s first “web 2.0 course site” goes live

Working with Bernie Walker-Gibbs, CD&DU has helped produce CQU’s first “web2.0 course site” for the course EDED11448, Creative Futuring. It’s been talked about previously. This post talks briefly about the purpose and initial experience.

Overview

At a recent on-campus presentation I gave an overview of the how and why behind this little experiment. If you really want, you can have a listen via Google Video

What

The work the students will be doing during term can be explained by drawing on the structure of the site:

  • Discussion
    A place for students and staff to talk about the course. Implemented using a blogger blog.
  • Learning Space
    All of the material for the course hosted on a WetPaint wiki.
  • Portfolio
    One part of their assessment is to develop an idea that will fundamentally revolutionise the way people currently work and live. They are meant to use their RedBubble portfolio explore possibilities and develop ideas. Some of the students already use RedBubble to host a portfolio of their artistic work – you can see some examples on the Portfolio page.
  • Weblog
    The students will be expected to use their Redbubble journal to reflect on material from within the course as part of one of their assignments.
  • Resources
    As students and staff are traveling across the web they will be using del.icio.us to tag/bookmark resources they find relevant to the course and its content. This approach will also be used to generate a podcast of resources they find on the web.

While the website will provide one interface into this work the theory is that they will also be able to use a news reader via a course OPML feed.

Initial experiences

  • Initial implementation has been surprisingly easy.
    The combination of RSS feeds from the external services, Yahoo Pipes, Feedburner, BAM and Javascript has worked surprisingly simply. This appears to be a very useful way of developing a high level of e-learning with a minimum of cost.
  • Little annoyances
    Not many, mostly to do with the need to become familiar with a different way of developing websites. The one that springs to mind is that the RedBubble feeds add a “Comment on this work” link that is not within a paragraph tag which throws out the CSS.
  • Separate services make it difficult to get started
    Using 5 separate ‘web 2.0 services’ means that students have to create accounts (if they don’t already have them) and come to terms with each of the services before starting the course. This is a hurdle. For a normal course site students may well have a similarly complex hurdle, but it is one which, once overcome, is applicable to most of the other course sites. At least at the moment the “web 2.0” approach can’t be shared. This isn’t such a problem for this specific course, a course where innovation etc is a focus. But it won’t transfer easily. The implication is that we will need to reduce this hurdle somewhat to be more widely adopted.

  • Initial student perceptions.
    The students could be considered in the net-gen generation and most had MySpace accounts. Only one (of 8 or 9) had a blog. Most were somewhat overwhelmed by the number of tasks required to get started.