Monday, September 29, 2003

Obstacles and Barriers

Both Sebs make great points about the difficulty of integrating blogs into formalized learning. Both mention the importance of time -- keeping a journal (online or not) is time-consuming and requires more commitment than most students may be willing or able to muster. They've also agreed that a new blogger will have to do it for a while before seeing much benefit or value from the networks that emerge. I think they're speculating mostly about the post-secondary realm, and I'm wondering whether the obstacles would be even greater for high-school students.

Aside from issues of privacy, permissions and censorship that I've outlined below, the key issue when considering the potential of blogging in high school is this: will the students care enough to actually write something meaningful? If teachers are creating blogging assignments for topics that don't engage kids, the exercise is destined for failure. Good blogs require a lot of initiative and persistence, and students aren't going to display either if the curriculum is irrelevant to them.

It's not unlike the issues surrounding discussion forums in online courses. In some forums, students are engaged in intense, meaningful other courses, nearly everyone just does the bare minimum to get their measly participation marks. Assigned blogs would likely follow a similar pattern -- in the most engaging courses, good blogs and comments would emerge, and some students might even continue with the process after the course ended (assuming their blogs weren't locked inside some crummy proprietary LMS). But that still assumes that most of the learners are fairly self-directed, and that may be the deal-breaker when you're talking about high school.

It's not that teenagers hate writing, or think blogging is dumb. Almost half a million LiveJournal users are 20 or younger. Occasionally they might talk about school, but this realm is all about interests...stuff they actually like. Ask Jenni the Odd (scroll down to see her interest list) to blog about some inane aspect of American history, make it a requirement for passing the course, and she'll probably jump through the hoops, but I doubt she'd learn much in the process.

So yeah...easy to see obstacles. But the potential is still huge -- maybe it's just a matter of finding topics in the curriculum that kids could care about, giving them simple tools like blogs, and letting them express things in ways that are meaningful to them. Does that sound like school to you?

ePortfolios and Student Blogs

Weblogging at the Institut St-Joseph
In my e-portfolio post last week, I noted that the student portfolios I looked at would all benefit from being done in a blog or at least containing an online journal component. In response, Remolino sent the link to this excellent description of what they're doing with portfolios and student blogs at their school in Quebec.
"At the Institut St-Joseph, weblogs enable students to publish daily records on the Web of what they have learned, make it easier than ever before for teachers to guide students, foster the participation of resource persons in classroom activities and provide parents with access to continuous updates about their child's experience at school.

This digital portfolio initiative is particularly in line with the school reform process as it promotes authentic writing situations, reflective analysis, the development of learning communities, and a high level of independence among students in terms of new information and communication technology."
The program's press release also contains some great info for those of us who are trying to sell the idea of integrating student blogs into education process. It sounds like the Institue St-Joseph plan involves school-wide participation, including the nifty use of syndication for teachers tracking students' progress -- looks like they've really done their homework to come up with an elegant, inexpensive system that should work really well if everyone is committed to it.

In our applications, students will be exploring future options and creating potential plans -- high school courses, college programs, other training and career paths. This is traditional career planning stuff, but it could be extended into all areas of life and aspiration -- family, homes, transportation, relationships, parenting, travel, etc. Then it would get into the area of things kids might actually want to blog about, without just being forced to jump through school hoops. This ties into my excitement over the concept of possible selves from last week.

We've got a few obstacles in integrating blogging functionality into our applications -- mostly around privacy and censorship. First of all, the software is purchased by educational institutions, and they have very strict ideas about what's OK for students. So if we gave kids the ability to upload photos and files, inevitably someone will post nasty things that other kids will see, and they'll occasionally post mean or slanderous text, which forces us to be police. They'll probably post identifying information, share things their school wouldn't be comfortable with, and vent about their teachers. There's no way we could monitor a hundred thousand blogs for "inappropriate" behavior, but if we limit the flexibility to post only approved content, kids won't engage with the process and it would never achieve the critical mass required for real communities to form. More on this later...and thanks again to Remolino and Mario. Their blogs make me wish I wasn't so pathetically unilingual.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

PEACE School

I know almost nothing about alternative schools, but in my recent anti-establishment wanderings, I keep coming across references. I guess in some ways, I had written them off as the domain of the rich, but I don't know where that stereotype comes from. My good friend Shawna sent me a link to a school near Montreal called PEACE School.

I'm fascinated by their philosophy, and I'd love to see it in action. Project-based learning, workshops, multi-age grouping, integrated curriculum, authentic assessment -- it sounds like they're doing the things that people speculate about and wish they could implement in public schools. I need to do more research into schools that are actually pulling this stuff off in real life.

Bad Educational Software

I quite enjoyed Timothy Burke's post pondering educational software for kids. He's also been watching his toddler interact with games...a source of endless fascination for me. Much of the conversation seems to be taking place around Liz's post, probably because Timothy's site doesn't let you comment, but his additions are as good as the article:
"It’s especially deadly when it comes to children’s games: the absolute worst are the ones that have been designed by someone whose main ambition is to be socially responsible and 'educational'. Then come the horribly licensed properties."
As an extension of the issue, Kevin Marks offers some practical reasons why so much children's software stinks, and includes a few examples of titles that are pretty good. He also talks about the root of the disconnect: "Childrens 'culture' in games or TV is triply disintermediated - by parents, publishers and producers". I rambled about a similar disconnect in Designing for Educators or Students, but when I re-read it now, I realize that I was still stuck in an institutional mindset. The kids don't want any part of the scenario I was using, except that it's a hoop they're supposed to jump through -- but they do want to play games that are actually fun...and those worlds rarely seem to overlap. When I ranted that Video Games Won't Thrive in Mainstream Education, I tried to answer the same question with this answer:
"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.
Thanks to Seb's Open Research for the initial link.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003


We're designing online portfolio components at work right now, so I was happy to find Scott Leslie's EdTechPost this week. His directions sent me to this directory of college-level e-portfolio programs (click "Show All 51 Records") -- an incredible resource for finding out how schools are using portfolios. I followed a few links to get to a sample portfolio from Ryan Bizorek, who was required to complete an e-portfolio at the wonderfully named Kalamazoo College. It's excellent work, I think, showing real reflection and future thought.

The student portfolios would all benefit from being done in a blog or at least containing an online journal component, if for no other reason than to save them from mucking with terrible web-authoring tools. This should be the assessment of the future...

Butterfly Gemini

How Hard is it for a High School Student?
This is an excellent post from an honest, reflective teacher who's questioning some of the basic premises of educating teenagers in schools. The implied comparison between the high-school experience and workplaces is interesting, and some of the comments address it further. It's not related to technology or instructional design...actually, I'm realizing that my last few entries don't either. I guess I'm in one of my back-up-and-try-to-see-the-big-picture phases again. A quote:
"Could you learn about seven different subjects each day, five days a week? Could you switch gears every forty-eight minutes to adjust to each of seven (and for some kids, eight) different teachers’ rules and routines?"
It's interesting that the person maintaining this wonderful blog has chosen to remain anonymous. As a reader, it initially feels like a loss to not know more about the writer, because a good blog draws you in and makes you wonder about the human behind the words. But the relative anonymity also lets her be more open about what's going on without offending the people and events she refers to. So for pure reflection, it's a bonus, but it's harder to become part of a network if you want to remain anonymous.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Possible Selves

Possible Selves: Envisioning the Future (pdf)

This is a very short article with a list of resources about the concept of "possible selves", and I'm in love with it.

Way more of public education, parenting, and professional development should be focused on helping people figure out their possible selves: "Possible selves represent individuals' ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they fear becoming." This should include careers, learning, relationships, beliefs, experiences and credentials -- anything that matters to the individual. Career education has mostly been focused on information like "doctors make $X and go to school for Y years", while most academic education entirely ignores the idea that the stuff you're learning should be connected to your aspirations.

One of the studies looked at the desired and expected futures of ninth-graders. I thought this quote was fascinating: "Although hoped-for and expected selves did not predict students' academic performance, feared selves did." So...if I hope to become a doctor, or actually expect that I will become one, that won't necessarily motivate me to perform well in school. But if I have legitimate fears about my future -- maybe I'm scared of poverty, or afraid of being stuck in work that I hate -- that will drive me to perform better.

This aspiration/fear split has interesting implications for the types of messages or instruction we use with kids. Right now we try to get every student to believe that they must go to college, usually with the spoken or unspoken message that you'll never find meaningful, living-wage work if you don't. Perhaps the fear is what drives the longevity and power of that message. Aspirations don't seem to have the same power, probably because they're more abstract and difficult to imagine because we don't have much information about all the possibilities.

This excellent article deserves a post all by itself, but for now I'll just steal a quote: Gen-X Meets Gen-Y: Youth Perceptions and Concerns about the Future.
"Many young people seem to have hopes with no clear idea of the roads to achieve these goals. Since we hear so often of the media savvy nature of youth today, innovative use of media and technology might be useful to help educate youth in this regard, rather than using traditional tools alone."
So it's as easy at that. We need to design an elegant game/simulation/application that helps kids create possible selves, trying on different future paths as easily as they'd try on jeans at the mall. Social software is the obvious step beyond this, letting kids share those experimental selves with each other, connecting them to experts and communities of interest. Lisa gave me a tour of LiveJournal yesterday, and the communities in there inspired me to make this happen for career development.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Home Schooling Going Mainstream?

More families opting for home schooling
These articles seem to be showing up more and more often -- this one isn't particularly good, pointing out the usual inane arguments against parents teaching their kids at home, but I loved this line:
Home-schooling methods run the gamut from extremely structured classroom-type lessons to "unschooling" techniques, where the student's interest rather than a curriculum determine the content of the learning.
I've been ranting about the shortcomings of government curriculum this year. I was astounded when none of the teachers in my summer courses seemed to be interested in the question of who should be deciding what goes in the curriculum. I suppose this shouldn't have surprised me -- although all teachers care about their students, they are largely agents of the state.

Another interesting thing about the quote is the range of methods. I suppose that there are as many versions of home schooling as there are home schoolers, and as many reasons for their decisions to home school. My reason would be primarily to design a curriculum with my kids, pursuing interests and exploring big questions with great depth rather than learning a little bit about hundreds of disconnected topics that are mostly meaningless to anyone.

The web also gives parents and students incredible self-directed access to information about almost anything, lessening the dependence on teachers as providers of information and expensive textbooks that may be mostly irrelevant to most readers. It's probably only a matter of time before interested home schoolers start using simple tools like blogs and message boards to create informal courses or communities of's probably happening already. It's exciting to imagine the possibilities.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Old-School Adminstration of Online Learning

My learning experiences in the online program I'm taking have generally been great. There's no other way I could have taken my masters without moving or quitting my job, and I've learned more in some of these online courses than I did in my entire face-to-face undergraduate degree. The freedom to learn on my own schedule, using online resources and participating in discussion forums suits me fine. That's the good news.

The bad news is that although Memorial University offers online learning, they clearly have no understanding of what online students are looking for, or they understand the needs, but choose to ignore them. Within the program, which is all online, specific courses tend to be run reasonably well, but the administration of the overall program is almost hilariously out of touch. They don't seem to understand that students learning online require a different way of operating. Examples:
  • Online students have to pay a $40 recreational facility fee every term...apparently you may opt out, but this requires approval from the dean. I live approximately 5,000 miles from the school, so I'm unlikely to enjoy the use of their weight room any time soon.
  • Most of the mail I get from the school refers to on-campus activities and guidance about dorms, seminars and people I will never meet. I think I've received two letters that applied to me in any way -- both were bills requesting large sums of money.
  • Speaking of money, online students are charged an additional $2550 for the priviledge of not being located in St. John's. Yet we don't use the infrastructure of the university, take up space in lecture halls or parking lots, use the library or any other services. This year they added a new $40 distance-ed fee on top of the big one, with no explanation given.
  • I decided not to take any courses this term because our baby is due, and I just found out that I have to apply to the dean for a leave of absence from the program. I'm paying them to take courses, but apparently they get to decide whether I'm allowed to stop taking them.
  • Courses are full within an hour of registration, usually with no alternatives -- I realize that this is a feature of most university programs, but shouldn't it be easier to scale online courses for higher demand? The instructor could be anywhere in the world and you don't need more physical space.
I could go on and on, but I didn't intend this to be a whining session. I probably got what I deserved, because I wanted a degree from an older, recognized university, and they've already got a century of experience providing bureaucratic administration. I guess I thought that an online program might be different.

What's interesting is that I expect to be treated like a customer. I want immediate, friendly service and learning on my own terms. I expect the administration of my program to be like managing my personal account at Amazon, with instant feedback and the ability to get exactly (and only) what I want. Education has never been set up that way, but the demand for good, flexible service will continue to increase. I'm feeling locked-in now, but if I found out that UBC or another university offered a similar program at a similar price with better service, I'd certainly advise people to check it out. Is this commoditization of learning a bad thing, or will it force old institutions to improve the quality of the experience for students?

Preschool Education...Italian Style

Howard Gardner has written a fascinating profile a preschool system in Italy. It reflects the type of intellectual freedom and intensity that I would love for my children:
"At Reggio, the curriculum emerges from the children's own interests. If, say, on the first day of school, children observe a rainbow and become curious about the array of colors, they might spend the next two or three months investigating the nature of light, color, and water, and how rainbows emerge and disappear."
This is in such sharp contrast to the way we look at education that we have a hard time envisioning how a similar system might work for older children, but it's a shame. Reading this account makes curriculum seem like tyranny. Thinking about it led me to this serious reading list from a society in India with a radical mission: "provoke, challenge and dismantle factory-schooling and construct and connect new open learning communities". Worthy goals, methinks.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Industrial Model

This philosophy page from Critical Mass shows the power of a great graphic. They're using the industrial metaphor in the context of individualized marketing messages, but this visual could certainly be applied to the personalization of learning. There's no question that the current education system was built around an industrial model -- envision the graphic going the other way, with varied individuals going into the machine and coming out the other side standardized.

Jay Cross wrote about personalizing learning this week:
"The industrial revolution succeeded because of the specialization of labor and the substitution of machines for labor; it took most of the people out of the equation. eLearning attempted to do the same thing. In the early days, eLearning was justified by the savings in instructor salaries and airplane tickets when learning migrated from the classroom to the desktop. Of course, people aren't bales of cotton and learning is social, so most of the early eLearning programs went down in flames."
So why don't producers of educational materials, sites and software use effective personalization? Because it's more expensive and complex. Standardizing creates cost benefits because there are fewer variables to control and single versions of each piece of content. But people aren't standardized, so they tend to detest being treated as if they were. It's easy to design a bunch of pages or tasks that are connected by a fixed or sequential navigation system -- creating systems that reflect and infer a user's choices is hard because they introduce variables that increase exponentially as the number of decision points grow.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003


Governments have traditionally botched online services, but they're getting better. U.S. and Canadian governments have always published labour market information and career development advice, ranging from articles about how to write resumes to complex databases of occupation titles. Companies like Bridges have thrived because the government sites were so incredibly bad -- confusing interfaces, dry content, old data and unnecessary barriers. Schools have been buying commercial equivalents for similar information because they tend to be easier to use, more interesting and offer better functionality.

The government sites are improving, particularly in the realm of career development. This HRDC iQuizzes page includes some interesting new assessments that educators might find useful, especially the learning styles and multiple intelligence quizzes. They could be easily used with students to help them understand their strengths and weaknesses, offering teachers some guidance for how to teach for different styles of learners.

If governments continue to move into providing educational content and information tools for schools, where does that leave private educational content providers? Stephen Downes commented on the huge kerfluffle in the UK over the BBC's plans to introduce piles of new learning materials for free public consumption:
"Moreoever, these publishers ought to consider the fact that new media may damage their earnings no matter what. Finally, I think it's a bit much for commercial enterprises to be saying that the government should not be providing education."
It's hard to disagree with either point -- governments are in the business of educating citizens, so why shouldn't they "compete" with private providers of educational resources? And it's certainly true that the web drives the resale value of information toward zero anyway. But none of this is very comforting if you work for a company that employs people in your community and provides services that people find valuable.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Ivy's Educational Technology Breakthrough

Ivy had an educational technology breakthrough last week: she learned to use the computer mouse. Apparently this is not evidence of prodigy status, as there is already a booming market for toddler-targeted software. The article isn't particularly well written, and I found the idea of parents spending $2.8 billion on educational toys (including multimedia) sort of repulsive. Overzealous moms collecting every Baby Einstein title and talking about the importance of a good college for their 16-MONTH-old's future...isn't it all a bit disgusting?

Pushing very young children into predefined learning activities seemed rather odious, but that first impression may not be entirely fair. And the definitions of pushing and learning are tricky. I spend a lot of time online, and my two-year-old wants to participate, so we've found a few things that we enjoy doing together online. It's certainly learning -- play and learning are completely intertwined. I had shown Ivy how to use the mouse a couple of times before, and she enjoyed zooming it around the mousepad for its own sake, but had never made the connection between the physical motion and what was happening on the screen. The week before in the SuperDuperDolphin game, she suddenly understood that the dolphin did tricks when she clicked on the pail of fish, but she couldn't figure out how to move the cursor over the pail.

Last week's breakthrough came while playing a Flash activity called Sing-a-Song Clay-Along from the Disney empire (see screenshot). It's a simple piano with four characters, one of whom is performing at any given time. I gave her the mouse and showed her how to click the button again, then let her loose on the virtual keyboard. She was concentrating intensely, but smiling when the character would sing different notes as she clicked the keys. Then I asked her to try getting the pig to sing, and she slowly moved the cursor over the pig and clicked...then went back to the piano and started clicking virtual keys. Oink, OINK, her great delight.

I suppose this is happening for young kids all over the world these days, and shouldn't be a big deal. But for someone who believes in the power of the web to transform learning and knowledge, it seemed like a significant milestone -- a symbol of the online access Ivy will have to ideas, entertainment and other people throughout her life. She won't remember the first time she used a computer, mouse or's just part of her environment. I wrote a bit about Ivy's favourite online activity from her pre-mousing days: The Snake Game, using me as a guide and the Google image search as her playground. It's a great way to spend time, but her new skill gives her more control over the world...well, the virtual world, anyway.

I guess I have this vague sense of lingering guilt that she's too young to be sucked into the digital vortex, but I think that's the Luddite in me. These things she's experiencing online are more interactive than anything she'll see on TV, and allow her more control to create, explore and manipulate than any reading session might offer. But $3.8 billion is just ridiculous -- one of the coolest things about the web is that this stuff is all free.