Thursday, February 26, 2004

Ottawa Senator Learning Online

Why would a multi-millionaire NHL hockey player take courses online? Towering Senators defenceman Zdeno Chara says he's learning online because he spends a lot of time in hotels and on the bus, and there's no way he could take classroom courses with his schedule.

Portfolios and Social Software

There's a lot to get your mind around when you start digging into this social software stuff. I've been lurking on the related conversations for a year or so, but haven't ever seen much reason to participate or apply it to my work. Now I'm seeing that it all could apply to the concept of student planning portfolios and I'm determined to figure it out.

Career Information Delivery Systems (CIDS) generally have portfolio components already, where students keep their resumes, assessment results, career interests and educational plans. They're locked away in proprietary systems not unlike learning management systems. Students might do a fair bit of work over the course of a year, then lose access to their collections, relying mostly on printed copies that they managed to keep intact.

This process tends to lack any real personal engagement because it doesn't encourage constant updating, reflection or connecting to other people. A completed portfolio is usually static, and doesn't convey much in the way of actual identity. It's a fairly dry profile, without personal voice, evidence of progression, or the connections of a network. Blogs could "flesh out" the rest of the identity. Stephen wrote in his Semantic Social Network article:
"Such efforts, however, do nothing to mask the fact that, in a social software system, there is nothing at the end except a short profile and, if we're lucky, some contributed comments. The richness and subtlety of a blog identity, mentioned above, is missing."
The same applies to static portfolios. Richness and subtlety would require true engagement, and my theory is that students won't engage in the process if their work isn't shared, compared, discusssed, modified and improved in collaboration with others. Stephen's conclusion nails it:
"What is true of learning organizations is true of online community in general. Content without community cannot achieve its full impact. Community without content is empty. It is only through the joining or fusing of these two levels that the full advantages of both worlds may be realized."
Rob made a comment along these lines in response to my informal survey of high school portfolios: "The learning portfolio as you show it is just a poor CV (resume). Being static, it has no meaning." Although it is evidence that some process was completed (a hoop jumped through), it does not necessarily reflect the identity of the person. Perhaps that's most valuable in the traditional portfolio format, designed primarily to show your work. I was interested in this multifaceted portfolio search in that realm.

So a successful career-planning portfolio would have to have a few elements:
  1. profile of the person's interests and other characteristics they want to share
  2. indication of their future plans and progress on related tasks or projects
  3. facility for regular written reflection
  4. place to store, link to and display artifacts
  5. simple mechanism for finding other people with similar interests and plans
  6. ability to communicate easily with friends or mentors and tracking those interactions
  7. online portability and exportability to other media
  8. mechanism to give user control over their identity and privacy
Although it sounds easy enough, it's interesting that existing blogging tools and social software don't do many of these things very well. Discussions across blogs can be very frustrating, and keeping track of many different people's opinions and topics can become a full-time job. Social software networks connect profiles well, but don't allow for much personal expression, and your personal information usually ends up locked up inside their systems.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Demyze of My Ryze

I've looked at Ryze a bunch of times in the last couple of years, but hadn't created an account. I thought the concept of "pivots" was interesting, and it's always discussed in the context of social software that works reasonably well. I don't know if the focus was different in the early days, but the service is now all about making money, both for the site's creators and the network marketers who seem to dominate the space.

I guess I should have known what I was getting into -- the tagline on the site is "Business Networking". I had this vague sense that it was about finding other people to discuss shared interests and potential work collaboration. Sharing knowledge and contacts is one thing, but within a few minutes of creating my profile, I already had a bunch of friendly-sounding people signing my guestbook -- at first that seemed kind of cool, but then I realized that they were all trying to sell me something, which made me want to run screaming from the place. It felt like I had volunteered to be spammed.

Before deleting my account, I managed to hunt down the user experience network, which I knew I had seen before. There were familiar names like Peter Merholz, and so I thought maybe there was some hope of redemption for the service. But even once you find some people with a shared interest, there's very little meaningful interaction that can take place there. I could sign Peter's guestbook (to what end?), or try to add some of the likeminded souls to my friends list (so what?). The network message board is useless, with no organization to speak of. An empty experience.


When I was writing about identity sharing yesterday, I had completely missed Stephen's vision for The Semantic Social Network. Actually I had seen it, but admittedly much of this stuff goes right over my head when I'm busy. Acronyms and tech-speak tend to make my eyes glaze over, but his entry about LiveJournal and FOAF woke me up today.

FOAF (Friend of a Friend) might be one of those acronyms that I'd usually ignore, but it may be exactly the kind of thing I was trying to describe at the end of my last post. If students could create their future plans in an online planning portfolio, that data could easily be exported into a FOAF profile which could be used in all sorts of interesting ways. On the academic side, it could be combined with the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) to communicate with school's student information systems.

Let's say we aligned our portfolios with those frameworks and a student "completed" their portfolio. Their academic data could then be exported to SIS using SIF (whichever data the school wanted) and the things the kids cared about could be exported to a LiveJournal account, or saved in a FOAF file that could be read by other social software systems: IM, ICQ, Friendster, or any online community that supported the format.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Guzzlefish and Affinity

This isn't related to learning in any obvious way, but it's pretty neat. It's a service/site called Guzzlefish that lets people post their media collections (games, movies, music) -- just titles and reviews, not the media itself for download -- then discuss, compare and trade. At first it seemed like a lame idea to want to show off your consumer excess, but I think it's more interesting than that. Most of us feel that the movies and music we enjoy reflect something about our identities.

Our tastes in movies and music are facets that help us determine our levels of affinity to other people -- none of this is new in the social software realm, and services like Ryze let you find shared locations and interests of all kinds, even combining multiple facets if you're willing to pay. But I don't know if they offer Guzzlefish's coolest feature: when you're looking at a collection or profile, you can choose to see a list of the users with the most shared titles. So you can find someone across the country who has 28 of the 46 movies you own, which isn't earth-shattering, but if you're passionate about movies, that shared interest could be pretty cool.

This got me wondering about other identity-matching systems. If I understand Friendster correctly, you can only connect to other people within your social network. Maybe you can search for multiple facets within that circle, but that still seems limiting. Lisa says LiveJournal used to offer multiple-interest searches for paid users, but they turned it off. does some really sophisticated things with their search, including multiple facets, the ability to save your searches, and a one-click compatibility search that must be amazing if it works as billed.

I'm also wondering if there would be a benefit to this kind of affinity-matching in an online career planning service for high school kids. Ideally, a student could fill their portfolio with things that reflected their identities -- interests, plans, skills, goals. Would they engage in the process enough to want to see the portfolios of other kids who shared many of their attributes? If I'm in Grade 10, thinking about becoming a veterinarian and planning to go to Brown University, would I want to connect to others who had a similar plan?

Friday, February 20, 2004

Small Schools

This is the most in-depth account I've seen of what it's like to learn in one of the new high schools funded by Bill and Melinda Gates' small schools initiative. One girl's work-experience journal is interesting, and I love the emphasis on project-based learning.

Online Portfolios -- Informal Research

Some gross generalizations from my last couple of days of research into online student portfolios:
  • There seem be very few students who are willing to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the portfolio assignments. This leads to very little variation between the portfolios -- the same categories and types of information tend to be very similar.
  • Within one class or school, everyone seems to use the same tool to build their pages. All of the portfolios at this school in Alaska have the same three-frame format and reliance on cheesy gifs and background graphics, which gives them a very 1996 feel. Not that students should all have to be graphic designers, but it looks like they spent more time creating rotating banner graphics than working on the content. It made me realize that the format of blogs tends to enforce a focus on content, because the tool mostly takes care of the rest.
  • Girls seem to put more effort into sharing their work online. This is no research project or anything, but I looked at sample portfolios from several schools all over the continent and the trend seemed to emerge. At one school in the maritimes, I skimmed through the student portfolios looking for the ones with more than five entries -- and the majority are from girls. I don't know if there's much to infer from this, but it raises interesting questions about student motivation (both sexes).
  • Updates are infrequent, if ever. Most of these portfolios seem to be one-shot projects that are abandoned once marks have been assigned. In thinking about this, I realized that even if students did want to maintain their pages after the end of a course, they'd probably have to get server access from past teachers to add, edit and upload text or images. There's no real evidence of continuity in anything I looked at -- lots of empty or missing pages.
  • Most schools offer a template of some sort that gets used by almost everyone, along with some design guidelines that are apparently ignored by most. Again, any kind of blog would be a better structure than what I've been seeing. I suppose they're also trying to give kids some learning and practice in creating pages, but I don't know if it's worth it.
  • Some kids love to write, and others couldn't be bothered. Obvious statement, perhaps, but it really becomes clear that portfolios are going to really appeal to a small percentage of students, and only some of those are going to bother to put in the effort to engage in the process.

Tech Sophistication Index

An educational marketing company called Market Data Retrieval does some really interesting research on how schools use and purchase technology. They've also made a tidy business of selling this information. The 25% reduction in school technology spending is an eye-opener. Their Tech Sophistication Index ranks schools according to the amount and accessibility of the hardware they have. While this may be valuable for companies trying to target their marketing, I wonder if there is a direct correlation to actual technology integration in those schools. Better (and more) technology certainly doesn't mean that it's being used effectively.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The Ups and Downs of Weblogs in Education

In the process of getting my work gears churning, I'm looking at some stuff about blogs and portfolios again. I thought this list of opportunities and obstacles was practical and thought-provoking. I like her reasons "Why we should hang in there..."
  • gives a voice to students and educators
  • fosters needed change in education
  • opens up communication flowing in many directions rather than top to bottom
  • makes technology relevant and applicable to the twenty-first century
  • empowers educators and students to speak out on things they care about

Authentic Tasks

Authentic Tasks: "An assignment given to students designed to assess their ability to apply standard-driven knowledge and skills to real-world challenges." This would seem to be the obvious way to assess what students have learned, but most assessment is almost wildly inauthentic. I loved the simple comparison chart:

Traditional ------------------------------------ Authentic
Selecting a Response -------------------------- Performing a Task
Contrived -------------------------------------- Real-life
Recall/Recognition ----------------------------- Construction/Application
Teacher-structured ---------------------------- Student-structured
Indirect Evidence ------------------------------ Direct Evidence

This came in a roundabout way from Mario Asselin, who's doing an amazing portfolio/weblog initiative at his school in Quebec. I wish I knew enough French to get the flavour of the student portfolios and figure out how the program is working so far.

NESTA Futurelab

This group in the UK is doing some very interesting things -- I wonder if Canada has any equivalent? Not a bad goal: "By bringing together the creative, technical and educational communities, NESTA Futurelab is pioneering ways of using new technologies to transform the learning experience." They're doing all kinds of fascinating research, projects, and collaboration. I'd love to sink my teeth into a couple of this year's research questions:
  • How can new sorts of interfaces enable children with special educational needs to use technologies to meet their educational and social needs?
  • What planning, voting and evaluation tools could be developed to support children's involvement in the processes of decision-making within schools?
  • How might simulation tools be used to enable modelling and reflection on social, economic and political decisions?

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Beyond Educational Content

A good friend of mine is starting up a sideline business in e-learning and training. His first experimental project is the production of an instructional video (DVD) in one of his areas of interest. He's a smart guy and has a good team of likeminded folks helping him. They've invested in some equipment to produce different types of digital learning content.

He asked for my advice on the project and the premise, so I fired off a late-night e-mail. It loosely outlines my emerging beliefs about the business of e-learning. It's an unpolished attempt to pull together some of the threads I've been following from Stephen and George. My skepticism for any plan to sell educational content isn't new, but I'm trying to see better alternatives. This veers further into business than the usual education stuff, but like many others in the field, he's trying to find a way to make a living in this realm. Anyway, here it is: Beyond Educational Content.

Bringing College Courses Into High Schools

An Early Taste of High School
One of the things we try to do is ease the transition for students going from high school to post-secondary school. Ideally, they'll make better decisions about their education if they have some clue about what they're interested in and how those interests might connect to their future careers in some way.

Early college high schools take the transition to the next level, allowing students to take college and high school courses simultaneously after Grade 9. The practice seems to be gaining steam along with several other similar initiatives administered by Jobs for the Future:
"Some advocates highlight the savings from two years of college tuition—a significant factor for families with low and moderate incomes—as a draw for participation. But the restructured approach to high school learning is the biggest selling point to students, early college high school officials say. New features include small school size, personalization, and a reconfigured school day.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Back on the Horse

I'm back at work after four months of parental leave. You'd think that I would have had more time for reading and writing while I wasn't working eight hours a day, but blogging really fell off the back of the bus while focusing on our daughters (and moving, and trying to eke out some personal time). Work is so easy compared to full-time parenting.

Having some time away helped me consider why I write here and read through reams of other people's writing about education, technology and design. I think I may have burned out on the process -- at some point I was having a hard time caring about these fields at all, so I pared down the aggregator to a few must-reads, including very few work-related ones. I took a break and wondered whether I'd care again.

This week I started poking around some old haunts online, and one of the most interesting blogs I read was my own. Before you openly mock my narcissism, hear me out. I read so much other stuff online, that I don't often go back to see what I've written...but personal reflection was the original point of recording my thoughts here. Reading through nine months of my ramblings, questions and connections helped me realize how much I have been learning. I've just been forgetting to reflect.

I figure that this stuff is as close to passion as a work-related activity can get for me (don't get me started on leisure and Gen-X slackness), even if nobody else is paying attention. But I've also decided not to let the process own me -- I'm going to avoid ramping up the aggregator feeds again. You just can't know everything about even a small slice of a single information domain.