Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Learning About Web Site Usability

My group posted our final project the web-based learning course this week. It's an online unit called Learning About Web Site Usability. I'm fairly proud of it, although my partner Bryan ended up doing most of actual site creation. We framed it as problem-based learning, having students play the role of usability consultants for a fictional firm. It has three main components:
  • Group blogs for students to record their progress and discuss throughout the unit
  • One four-part WebQuest to help familiarize students with usability concepts
  • Further student research online to help them understand usability
  • Students plan and conduct their own usability tests with users
  • Each group presents the results of their tests and offers recommendations for improving the usability of the site they chose
Developing group projects like this is challenging in an online course -- we were separated by five time zones, using crummy tools like WebCT to try to collaborate and communicate. It helped a lot that Bryan and I had already worked together on a project for a previous course. This is the same project I was hoping to do using Blogger to create the whole site and help the instructor monitor student responses with RSS. Considering our tight timeline and the limitations of Blogger (great tool for free, but not the most flexible, of course), we scaled back that ambitious plan. We could still do the RSS thing, requiring students to set up their own feeds, but it seemed too complex. I was happy that the student blogging component stayed in there, and I even came up with a fictional group blog to illustrate the possibilities...probably wishful thinking, but worth thinking about.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Kelowna Fire

About a week ago, a fire was started by lightning in a wilderness park near Kelowna. My parents' house was in the path of the massive blaze that emerged in the following days, but somehow it was saved, even though neighbours on all sides lost their homes. Our home was a block away from the evacuation alert zone. We didn't have to leave, but the last week has been incredibly stressful...makes you feel small and powerless. I kept some updates in my personal blog, but Castanet has been our local information lifeline.

Friday, August 15, 2003

One Year as a Teacher

The key to survival: Savor the triumphs
A reporter took a leave of absence from his reporting duties during the 2001-02 school year to teach seventh-grade language arts, and he's written five articles about the experience. This link goes to the final article, which also provides access to the previous ones. It's quite personal, and paints a vivid portrait of life in a junior high classroom. I had an emotional reaction to it, recounting the nebulous rewards, inevitable frustration and exhaustion of my first experiences teaching kids. I'd recommend reading this to anyone who thinks teachers are overpaid or have it too cushy with their two months of holidays. Larry Slonaker has also written some articles about school technology, but I was interested in the fact that technology never comes up as a factor in his account of teaching. It's just way down the priority list, assuming that decent computers/connections are even available in the school he was teaching in. Thanks to Gwen for the link.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Scientifically Proven Educational Methods

Why Do We Read? by Peter Temes in Education Week
I've never thought much about reading education, but some wonderful internet seredipity led me to the writing of Peter Temes. One of his parenting articles had been reprinted in Utne, and it made enough of an impact on me that I blogged it. Somehow he discovered my posting and e-mailed me, which started an excellent exchange.

This article about why we read caught my attention, partly because looking through his Great Books Foundation site made me wish I had more time to read literature, but also because it talks about the current political focus on "scientifically proven" methods of instruction. In the U.S., several federal education funding initiatives are tied to that dubious concept, and Peter pokes some big holes in the philosophy:
"So what do we teach our children and our teachers about the nature of science by funding only "scientifically proven" reading methods? First, we teach them a wrongheaded view of science as an engine of static truth and proof. Second, we teach them that science is about authority: Someone (in this case, someone in Washington) will tell you what is proven and true. Your job is not to reason why, but to execute."
At Bridges, when we first started looking into No Child Left Behind legislation, there was much hand-wringing over how we were going to prove scientifically that our software and instructional materials met specific learning outcomes and curriculum standards. But it seemed a bit like an exercise in futility to me. How can learning about career paths and planning post-secondary education options be proven to improve test scores? There was this vague sense that it had something to do with motivation, which Peter also covers in reference to reading:
"First and foremost, we must remind teachers that they are not only teaching how to read, but why to read. They must find ways to share wonder along with linguistic correctness, or else we will raise a generation of students who can read, but will too often choose not to.

The Quality of Forums in Online Courses

After reading George's comments about online communities, I got thinking about my coursework. I'm just finishing my fourth online course in a graduate program, and they've all had forums available, and all instructors assigned marks for using the forum. In fact, the bulk of the courses take place in the forums, which basically makes WebCT a very expensive message board.

What's interesting to me is that there's a huge difference in the quality and quantity of the discussions that take place between courses. Even though the tool is the same, the topics are similar, and there are the same number and type of participants...some forums just never thrive and people post the bare minimum to get by. In those courses, you never get into the subject matter in any real way. In others, there's rich discussion, with lengthy, meaningful threads that often don't stay entirely on topic at all, but still contain excellent learning.

So why are some forums (courses) more successful than others? Just like in F2F courses, the instructor sets the tone. In my limited experience, the successful instructors:
  • select meaningful materials with the potential for controversy or emotional engagement
  • set clear expectations for the type of interactions that are desired and acceptable
  • participate in the discussions themselves as peers, but with the willingness to guide occasionally
  • create clear, discreet sections to contain groups of threads...to make it easier to follow new ones
None of this would seem very difficult, but it's elusive for some instructors. I wonder how much help they get when setting up these courses?

Wednesday, August 13, 2003


Area Guidance Counsellor's Door Always Open
George posted a link to the Onion's mockery of internet social networks like Friendster. It's one of those easy pot-shot features that gives you a quick laugh and then you're on to the next one. But it reminded me of an article they wrote a couple of years ago about guidance counsellors. It's quite subtle, not really taking open jabs, but conveying the disconnect between kids and schools:
"Of the three or four students who seek out Wisniewski during the average week, most wind up filling out career-choice questionnaires that gather such information as whether a student is a people-person, is creative, or likes to work with his or her hands. The results are then plotted on career wheels which are later found on the floor by the drinking fountain."
I'm not posting this to make fun of high school guidance counsellors -- I think their jobs are difficult and necessary -- but I've often wondered about the effectiveness of most guidance experiences. And I thought the article was hilarious.

If the purpose of schooling is generally to create good citizens with some knowledge of words, numbers, ideas, people and places, the guidance office tends to be the lone outpost that acknowledges the need for students to find some way to make a living once they leave...or further their education to eventually attempt to make a living. Since kids have already been institutionalized for most of their lives, many choose college as a natural extension of that experience, delaying the inevitable and giving them the vague sense that it will facilitate The American Dream for them at some point.

Guidance counselling and career planning are viewed as afterthoughts in most high schools, to be addressed briefly (if at all) at some time before graduation. It's not integrated into classroom or academic expectations, and students are generally expected to take care of it out on their own, with few skills and little support. But shouldn't schools do more to help kids figure out the sustainability of their lives after high school? B.C. used to have mandatory courses in Career and Personal Planning (CAPP), but they were often taught by teachers who didn't have any background in the subject, with limited resources and unrealistic curriculum expectations. So now they've killed the program and replaced it with a graduation portfolio assembled by students as they progress through high school, with no curriculum, training support, funding or guidelines for implementation. It's like they're acknowledging the importance of employability, but aren't really willing to commit to it.

Meanwhile, teachers feel that the system is already too focused on preparing kids for work. Students are graduating with no clear sense of what they should be doing, or why. A provincial study in 2001 found that "only 38 per cent of graduates were satisfied with how well the education system had prepared them for work; only 63 per cent were satisfied with how the system had prepared them academically for post-secondary education."

A further problem is student disengagement in anything that smacks of school. I've talked to local students about CAPP and their aspirations. Most have this ambiguous fear about their post-secondary future, and feel that they'd like help figuring it out, but then when it was time for CAPP class, they tuned it out. This disconnect is what interests me the most, because there seems to be an expressed need, but the mode of meeting that need wasn't effective. What might work better?

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The Coming Revolution in University Education

Universities: Where Next?
Robert Paterson wrote this intense article earlier in the week, and I never had time to read it properly till today...but even the first section makes for fantastic reading and thinking. He makes a compelling case for an impending revolution in post-secondary education, charting converging (colliding?) revolutions in demography, values, technology and expectations of costs and services. I had no idea how universities function internally, and the article gives you that glimpse, along with an indictment of old policies and some solid predictions about where things are headed.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

WebQuest in Blogger

Last night I was starting to experiment with using Blogger to do a WebQuest for my group's Designing Web-Based Learning project. We had already outlined it in Inspiration, but the outline was pretty speculative. Then today, cogdogblog Alan brought up the idea from a MERLOT seminar he's in: MERLOT: CATS and WebQuests.

I'm pretty excited about our little project -- it's not a complete course, and doesn't require anything fancy...just a simple unit on web site usability for design students. Originally we were going to create it as a regular site, but who wants to be sending huge FrontPage files all over the continent for three weeks? Out of a blog, we (developers) can all use the same web interfact to edit and add material, and we're including student blogs as part of the unit, so students can blog their own resource finds and opinions. This also means that the teacher(s) could have each student set up an RSS feed, so the instructors could use an aggregator to monitor activity in the class. More on this later...

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Sustainable Lifestyle

If I Wanted to Make Money in Elearning...
George Siemens has written what amounts to a simple guide to career development for folks in this field. Lots of good ideas, with examples of organizations that have made a go of it. Many would require intensive funding and serious development, but it's wonderful to skim the list and dream of possibilities.

The Play Ethic

The Play Ethic...there's something very compelling about this site. I found it through Robert Paterson's excellent blog, where he pulled out some wonderful quotes from Pat Kane's writing:

"Children should leave schools feeling motivated, in command of their faculties, and capable of expressing themselves in forms and behaviours which both please themselves and others. Why would such a child choose the temporary utopia of drugs, over the actual joys of skilful self-creation? Why would they not choose to play?"
It's utopian, for sure, but rings so true for me. He's defining play in much the same way as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi does when he talks about flow theory. Challenge, expression, creativity, problem-solving because you want to...why are those things not more prevalent in education?

And who is this Pat Kane? I guess he's an author who's started a "cultural consultancy"...what a cool career. This article from the Observer covers the basic tenets of his philosophy, and I find it so refreshing, even though he labels people like me as Lifestyle Militants: Play for Today.

One more note on play in education: last year, this article by Lloyd Rieber rocked my world. He works with groups of kids to design and develop video games, but the product is less important than the process: Designing Learning Environments That Excite Serious Play (the detested pdf crashed my browser, so this is the google conversion instead).

Monday, August 04, 2003

Why Video Games Won't Thrive in Mainstream Education

Why Most Educators Won't ...Turn to Games for Help
I wonder how many articles like this have popped up since Atari exploded in the early '80s? Every few months, some eager reporter (or teacher) sees how cool and engaging the latest video games are, and asks "why aren't these things being used in school? Imagine how motivated kids would be!" Then maybe they do a bit of digging and find that, sure enough, a few very creative teachers are finding ways to integrate parts of the cool games into their teaching. But further digging reveals that many more don't want anything to do with them, or are spending their materials budgets on awful edutainment software titles that are nothing more than jazzed up textbooks, with specific sequences and few choices. The key issue revolves around control. Elearningpost pulled out the best quote in the article:
"People will object to games that have a variety of choices because they can't limit the choices their children make," Gee said. "However, if you remove that type of ambiguity, you've removed any sense of morality from the game because there are no consequences to bad decisions."
Traditional education is all about control -- controlling what kids learn, when they learn it, and in most cases, how they learn it. Not that the approach is all bad, but good games tend to be more like punk rock -- they thrive partly because they chafe against all forms of control. They're irreverent, funny, loud, free-form, visually intense, and you find out about the effects of your choices in real time. As soon as the "game" is designed to align with curriculum standards, the odds of the game being engaging drop to almost zero.

George also linked the Wired article, and asked whether students actually learn more through games: "I know the they are more engaged and involved...so it's easy to assume that they learn more...but it's not conclusive." I suspect the answer is that they definitely learn more, and the learning may last longer, but they're probably not learning the specific points that the curriculum demands. Your educational philosophy will determine whether you think that's ok or not.

Let's assume that a Grade 5 teacher is abandoning his old textbook-and-lecture unit on cities, and replacing it with a unit using SimCity. It's hypothetical and generalized, of course, but the original unit probably exposes kids to information about suburbs and downtowns, civic government, and maybe some basic economic systems, using reading, questions, and probably some class discussion. Kids are unlikely to remember very little of it two weeks after the test. Using the SimCity unit may cover a few of those curricular items incidentally, but they're certainly not the focus. Some of the activities in this unit:
  • construct and manage your own city using Sim City 2000
  • write a history of your own Sim City
  • design your own skyscraper and build it
  • add your skyscraper to the city being created by your classmates
Through these activities, they may never learn the definition of gentrification, but they're going to learn all sorts of interesting stuff about causes and effects in cities and they're probably more likely to understand and apply what they've learned. They're likely to collaborate, learn about solving problems and figure out why design is difficult and important. So far so good, right?

This is where it gets tricky. Some of what they learn won't be historically or statistically accurate (it is a game after all), which will make many social studies teachers nervous. If there's a standardized test in the subject, the learning is unlikely to align very well with what students will be asked on the test. The teacher is also going to have a hard time convincing administrators fund the purchase of multiple licenses, since it would be too expensive to pay out of the teacher's personal materials budget. Getting the software installed on all the machines and booking enough time in the computer lab will probably be a nightmare. The time-strapped teacher must also learn the game himself, develop supporting materials and lessons, and risks looking stupid if it doesn't work out. With these barriers, only the most determined teacher would forge ahead and try to implement the unit. And this is a simulation game, which is usually considered the most educational flavour in the gaming world.

George also asked if there were any studies measuring the effectiveness of learning with video games. I ran across this one, which is not very encouraging: No Magic Bullet: 3D Video Games in Education. A revealing quote from the summary: "...we can say that creating a motivating 3D game that meaningfully enhances learning is a difficult task." There's an understatement...

Just so it doesn't seem totally hopeless, I did get really excited reading this article last year: 3D GAME SOFTWARE AND ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION. It's different than the usual story of integrating a popular game in the classroom, then trying to justify its educational value. In this case, educators used free software (Worldcraft) designed for editing and creating 3D-gaming environments to help architecture students prototype and view buildings in 3D. Instead of having to purchase and learn complex, expensive CAD drawing tools, students had a simple, game-like interface to create their masterpieces. When they were done, they could run through the buildings with groups of classmates or instructors. Very cool -- maybe there's still hope.

Friday, August 01, 2003

Another RSS Convert

Thanks to George for kicking my butt to try an RSS aggregator, showing me where to find SharpReader and how to use it...then encouraging me to at least attempt to create an RSS feed for my blog, which I did quickly using a simple service called RSSify. It's not perfect, but I was thrilled when I managed to add my feed to my list of RSS subscriptions.

Reading about RSS for months didn't really give me the sense of why it was valuable. But after trying SharpReader for about 30 seconds, I was converted. Pardon my newbie exuberance, but what an amazing research tool this is -- now I understand why the edutech bloggers have been so excited.

Usability ROI and e-learning

Boxes and Arrows just published this scathing review of one of Nielsen/Norman Group's $122 reports about the return on investment for usability work. The wonderful Peter Merholz covered most of this stuff at the last Adaptive Path workshop we attended in San Francisco, but I was mostly interested in the last half of the review, where the authors link to a better study, share a simple matrix of some of the ways usability gives value, and offer some advice for ensuring that usability is measurable and integrated into every design project. And I thought the conclusion was really solid:
User experience practitioners have long known in their guts that their efforts truly add value when developing products or systems. And we've been long frustrated to see our abilities relegated to the tactical end of the product development process, where we're given poorly considered ideas and told to make them into useful, usable, and desirable products. By concretely demonstrating our impact on the success of our works, we will find ourselves involved earlier in the process, helping determine what will be made, not just how to make it.
This is mostly referring to corporate web-design projects, but I think it applies equally well to the design of learning experiences (especially e-learning, of course). It sounds as though professional instructional designers are often asked to turn bad learning materials into mediocre e-learning modules, rather than being given the chance (and resources) to create better ways to help students build knowledge.

When we study the usability of a web site, we focus on how difficult it is for users to complete tasks and find information. Substitute "learners" for "users", and you see why e-learning could benefit from these efforts to justify user-experience design in the usability community. It's easy to see the "soft" benefits of making an online course more usable, and you could measure the benefits of a redesign -- satisfaction, information retention, amount of support required, but shouldn't it go beyond that? How do you calculate the real ROI of online-course usability/design when in most cases the students represent a captive market?

There seems to be an essential feedback loop missing, perhaps related to the quasi-business status of the current post-secondary education system. I've felt that lack of accountability in the worst online courses I've taken so far -- the ones with bad organization, boring materials, ghost-in-the-machine instruction and limited feedback. But those courses are requred for the program I'm taking, so I suck it up and jump through the hoops, since I've already paid for the term and there are no other courses available. If I complain to the instructor, I'll be viewed as a troublemaker and be punished with poor marks, and even if the administration finds out that the course is terrible, and they initiate an expensive redesign of the course and remedial intervention for the instructor...how would that affect their bottom line? Students might be more engaged, but most of them are stuck in the program for the duration anyway, and it won't necessarily affect their purchasing decisions.

I suppose in the corporate training sector, the ROI focus may be more on how training results are manifested in business metrics: improved sales, reduced costs, etc. In general, how and what is learned is less important to a corporation than how much the training costs and how it will improve the bottom line of the company. When you get into these secondary cause/effect relationships, it gets difficult to attribute much value to the actually usability of the online course. So even in this case, although everyone knows usability is important, how do you prove it?