Wednesday, December 22, 2004

E-Portfolio Flurry

My PEI friend Robert offered his take on e-portfolios this week, and got into another discussion surrounding Karina's post about George's e-portfolio article. David also responded to Rob's article with some solid points. I'm staying neutral and just enjoying the conversation for now.

Update: Another solid post from Karina about e-portfolios and blogging, with some interesting distinctions related to the purpose of e-portfolios.

Friday, December 17, 2004

December Hodgepodge

My bloglines account is getting absolutely clogged with wonderful stuff this week, and I can't seem to get it this is one of those bookmarking posts that I hope I can return to and expand:
  • George Siemens was on tour in the last while, eloquently summarizing the e-portfolio realm and supporting his fascinating theory of learning, which he's calling connectivism.
  • Karina exposes some key issues with selling people on e-portfolios, asking great questions about why there are so few examples of excellent portfolio usage. My old concern goes a step beyond that -- I think educators who see excellent portfolios assume that they can force the experience on everyone with similar good results. She also linked to another e-portfolio project/resource with an interesting team.
  • James asks another great question about the LMS I cannot like, wondering aloud why anyone should be forced to learn how to "compile" in WebCT (to read the discussion board). I asked the same question in a software evaluation course (taught through WebCT) that started a session of students wondering how the course site could have such a terrible interface.
  • Apparently, I'm a plagiarist of sorts, along with a few million other bloggers who quote other people (with attribution) in their writing.
  • 43things deserves its own in-depth post. Many smart steps beyond Twinkler, their new site helps organize people around the things they want to do in life, connecting people who have already done them with those who want to try. The potential for informal learning is unbelievable, and they've done some very smart things with tagging and clean interface ideas. I think it's still invite-only, but I'll invite any interested folks who promise to play nice. The Robot Co-Op is doing some fantastic work here that takes a very cool approach to some of my less-exciting ideas about getting people engaged in their futures.
  • The Experience Designer takes on e-learning with a pick axe.
  • Only Connect had two short posts about using stories in learning and the role of narrative in games...and I don't want to lose them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Hip Science Teacher

A while back I wrote about the apparent mismatch between the experience and savviness of the next generation of teachers and the archaic system they find themselves teaching in. Today Gwen sent me a link to wockerjabby, the blog of another hip young teacher who's starting to bang her head into the wall of curriculum:
"I don't yet (and I may never) know exactly what I think of standards and their progeny, the prescribed unit plans and bubble sheet tests and workshop models, but the more I see of curricula, the more I become convinced that they need to be dramatically reduced if not eliminated altogether. where is the joy in visiting each of nearly two hundred destinations on a map for only forty-five minutes each?

in my classroom we have a policy that any question about science may be asked at any time, and depending on a number of factors we will either save it for later, when it can get the attention it properly deserves, or I will derail the entire class so that we can talk about something else that we are deeply interested in. the curriculum says I have to visit each of several dozen topics in turn. but I want my kids to ask questions, to explore, to pick up the rocks and sift through the mud below, to really get their hands dirty"
This is the kind of teacher I want for my daughters. She's an advocate for kids who is obviously passionate about teaching, she's web-savvy and writes wonderfully, and I'm sure she makes the best of a difficult situation in New York's public school system.

But I can't help but try a little utopian thought experiment. Imagine her in the opposite learning environment of where she is right now -- set her loose for three or four months with:
  • a dozen interested kids of different ages
  • no curriculum except a flexible focus on science as an organizing principle
  • the freedom to explore interesting places and environments where science can be experienced and seen in action
  • no pressure to switch topics or disciplines every hour
  • the freedom to follow ideas and trains of thought as far as they're interesting
  • access to great equipment and technology, letting her kids reflect and learn as part of a network of interested people
  • license to have fun
Those 12 kids would emerge with a completely different type of knowledge than 12 kids who had spent the term in school. They wouldn't do well attempting to regurgitate information on standardized tests, but they'd know a lot of information about a few things in context. And they'd go way beyond information -- they'd understand how to do science, how to recognize and pursue interesting questions, how to work through projects with their peers, and most importantly, they'd be engaged.

Monday, December 13, 2004


James pulls out some fascinating bits about the costs associated with big-name learning management systems. Stephen's follow-up is also spot-on. The program I'm in requires my use of WebCT and I've occasionally vented about the terrible user experience...but the numbers James is throwing out there are amazing. Why, why, why, would a school ever go that route?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Passive Learners

I should link to more of Will's more enthusiastic posts too, instead of pulling out his minor crises of faith, which tend to be caused by the tension between the demands of the education system and the potential he sees for real learning:
"And, luckily, we've learned to love learning. Our kids, unfortunately, are still dependent learners for the most part. They're dependent on an educational system that force feeds them a prescribed curriculum in order that they can pass a high stakes assessment that certifies them as being 'educated.' They're dependent on us to decide what is important for them to learn and what isn't. Our system enables them, in the worst sense of the word, to become passive learners for the most part, because passive assessments are what determine both our students' and our schools' fates."
Will and others in his network are real change agents within the system, moving a giant dinosaur towards authentic learning through new kinds of connections and interaction -- but it must be frustrating to see how slow things are changing, especially when the old-schoolers keep throwing up obstacles.

Board Games and Competition

Via Seb, an article about successful board games designed to let everybody win. It's a fascinating take on competition in games with educational undertones, even drawing on Howard Gardner's work in multiple intelligences. The tension, as the designers see it:
"If there's too much competition in one of their games, it'll turn into a snarling Nietzschean contest. But too little competition can be just as bad. That's just plain boring, and risks turning into a well-meaning but tedious educational game that 'just doesn't have any juice,' as Alexander puts it."
Interesting that anything associated with an educational game is automatically shunned, even though these games are clearly great learning experiences. So much of school is competitive, and competition is one way to engage some students...but so much of the "real world" is collaborative and creative, with many shades of grey, rather than simple winning blacks or losing whites. The author of the article also blogs about it a bit.

CBC's News Feeds

Via Abject Learning, news of CBC's feeds for news of all kinds. You gotta love the CBC when they do smart things like this. Now if only they had included article abstracts...but the headlines are better than nothing.

The flipside of this improved access to information is its contribution to my own personal media obesity. Do I really need more unread items demanding my attention every hour of the day?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

New E-Portfolio Resource

Judging by the first few entries in ePortfolio @ York, this should be a great resource. Karina is a veteran blogger who gets to research and write about this stuff as part of her job.

Great Use of RSS

I suppose ed-tech folks have been talking about the power of RSS for a couple of years already, and everyone already uses it for subscribing to blogs, but I had my eyes opened this week. Others have talked about using RSS for syndicating learning objects, especially objects that weren't simple html pages, but I guess I never really got it because I wasn't actually experiencing it. Yesterday I finally got it, thanks to Webjay, a great web application I use for online music playlists. Creator Lucas Gonze has worked some magic with Atom feeds that got me all excited. Take a look at the screenshot of a single entry from a feed showing which playlists have been updated.

So instead of seeing only the usual title, text and a few links out, you're seeing cool functionality that can be accessed right out of your newsreader. It has the effect of making Bloglines (or whatever you use) another interface for Webjay. You get lots of great information about a playlist -- how many playlists are related, number of comments, which new songs have been added, etc. -- but the real power comes in what you can do from these links. Without leaving your aggregator, you can download the newest songs from a playlist and listen to the entire playlist just by clicking which player you want to use. And a single click out lets you copy a track to your own playlist, view or leave comments, view all related playlists, and visit the sites the new songs came from.

Maybe I'm behind the times, but this seems like really powerful stuff. Imagine the educational applications -- combining learning objects, sequencing video and audio enclosures, using FOAF information to connect learners with experts and other learners, custom webquests, individualized research that could be easily assembled into reports or presentations, integrating good stuff from Furl and could go on and on. One thing Lucas mentioned was that the uptake on playlist feeds hasn't been very good -- perhaps he's still ahead of the times a bit, since we're still in the stage where subscribing to feeds requires manual intervention from keeners and tech-types.

Update: Seb describes in detail how he's crafted his own custom radio station and best-of playlists using Webjay feeds. Now imagine the richness if Webjay could be combined with something like Flitter to give you instant info about the new songs you're finding, and suggesting related artists?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Social Networking and Learning

Since David and Ben launched their learning landscape application, I've been thinking about how it might fit into the realm of social software and learning. Two quotes from Marc Canter keep sticking in my mind, both aiming at the main issue with these applications. First, he's pointing out what Stephen Downes also illuminated a while back -- just getting people together is only one part of the equation:
"It's fine and dandy to have a sexy interface (as Huminity does) and even to go through the paces of connecting to your peeps (all over again - I may add) but the proof in the pudding are the 'activities'. What can I do with this social network besides meet people? I mean - don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with meeting people. But once you've met them - you gotta have something to do - and none of these systems have that."
I think that's a valid criticism of the existing ones, and the next quote offers some potential advice on how to avoid the "yet-another-social-networking-site" problem:
"I'm finding that the BEST social networks are those that focus on specific constituents, target audiences and niche demographics. is for videogamers and the AlwaysOn-Network is for - those sort of people."
1UP is a fascinating learning landscape in an unconvential sense. If you love video games and want to learn more, it is mecca. You can even do a sort of multifaceted people search that I was wishing for last month -- find gamers that share your platform, game preferences, age range, location, gender, etc -- imagine how easy it would be to form your community and learn about the games you love and new possibilities! One of the things that makes it work is that the potential audience is already pre-selected by interest, much as the potential audience for something like thefacebook is already defined by location (limited to your college campus).

So those purely social and leisure applications are already well understood, but what about using the same kinds of tools for supporting institutional education? Is that an automatic paradox? The problem seems to arise when the agenda is driven by the institution. A faculty or program at a university could adopt elgg to help facilitate reflection and collaboration, but would probably also want some measure of control over the process. If it only gets used for assigned group projects (like e-mail/discussion groups/group blogs/wikis are used already), it's not taking advantage of the power of the wider web. Granted, it would easier and more interesting to use than WebCT, but that's not exactly revolutionizing learning. More thought required, obviously...

Friday, December 03, 2004

Personal Knowledge Networks

Brian Alger's writing is always thought provoking and intense on a wide range of topics, some of it focused on learning environments. One of the things I like about his site is how he cross-references concepts across his posts using a variety of tools (MT search, Furl, Google, etc). Unlike blogs which mostly link out to stuff on the web, many of his links reference his own internalized or contextualized views on a concept. So instead of a link to David Suzuki's site, he'll often link to a previous post about the scientist (which is fairly common), or his own page of David Suzuki references from all of his posts, which goes a step beyond the usual categorized archives you see on some blogs. He might also link out to a Google page containing all of the places he's referenced a concept like narrative in his posts.

I must admit that this self-referential style seemed extremely introspective at first (which isn't necessarily bad). He also doesn't have comments on his site, which made it seem like a rich inward-facing network of concepts and ideas, rather than a central node in a larger network (I'm generalizing a bit, because he does include links out as well...just not as much as you'd usually see). But I came to see his site as a sort of representation of how our minds store information, with everything cross-referenced to everything else...much like the web itself, but previously locked inside our heads. I started to see the learning power for Brian himself, and felt thankful that we could share in his process of making connections.

Not that Brian is the first one to organize a personal site this way. I've used as an example of a rich personal knowledge network that provides a blueprint for the direction I think e-portfolios should go. Stephen Downes has most (all) of his years of entries, papers and presentations organized by a huge range of relevant topics, allowing you to slice and dice his personal database. Every post has related categories, although I wonder how much they get used. He also uses the Google engine to search the site, which seems to work well enough. Community functions are all there, too, but I've always been surprised how little activity takes place there considering his stature in the network.

So what? This exploration was triggered again by Beyond the Electronic Portfolio: A Lifetime Personal Web Space, linked to by George and enthused upon by Will. It's a fairly compelling vision, with many of the right questions being asked. It does bring to mind the issue of portability -- instead of believing in the pipe dream of centralized, permanent webspace, I want to be able to upload, download and move my stuff around between different web apps.

Right now I've got credentials, profiles and content in four blogs (Tripod-hosted, Blogger and Livejournal), Flickr (photos), Future Shop (photos), Webjay (mp3s and playlists, sadly currently hacked and broken), MSN (hotmail and messenger), Yahoo (streaming music and groups), elgg, personal webspace through my ISP, two other online mail accounts, Technorati, comments and discussion-forum entries in several online communities, reams of coursework stuck in the black hole of data known as WebCT, piles of work content and communication behind the corporate firewall, everything in my indispensible Bloglines account...and don't even get me started about what must live on the three hard drives of the two computers I use regularly.

Sorry, that got out of hand. I guess I'm seeing that many of us already have too much stuff, and the tools we're using now aren't helping us organize it in any meaningful way at any given time, never mind being able to assemble different views for different audiences with different permissions.