Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Video games can reshape education"

Forgive me for being skeptical about "U.S. scientists" saying that video games can reshape education. It sounds like there was a study of some kind that showed that kids don't learn much if they watched TV and played video games all evening. Through some convoluted path I can't really follow, the author attempts to connect this to the vast learning potential of video games, as if they just appeared this year.

A couple of years ago, I was interested in this contest to create "stealth learning" games, and three years ago I was thinking similar things about Why Video Games Won't Thrive in Mainstream Education . Although the quality of the games and consoles have improved since then, what's changed about education to make them thriving in schools more likely?

A Scary Minefield of Ideas!

I guess this is supposed to be a good news story, and really it's just a relaunched school district site, but the slant of the article just seemed so wrong somehow that I wanted to post it -- County education Web site unveiled:
"Already in place in some Pajaro Valley schools, in a month, every student and teacher in the county will have free access to subscription encyclopedia sites that are aligned with California state education standards and are designed to keep kids from culling half-baked or just wrong information in a general Internet search.

On Google, for example, typing Martin Luther King Jr. pulls up, a site that acts as platform for white supremacists.

'The great myth is that if it's on the Internet, it must be true,' said Thom Dunks, director of technology for the county office. People think of porn and that which is harmful for kids, but there's also a whole minefield of ideas out there.'"
Yeah, porn is one thing, but imagine kids having access to IDEAS! Lock the doors! Shutter the windows! They just don't get it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Recommender Systems

Stephen Downes linked to this older (1999) page on Recommender Systems in his recent paper on Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge. It pre-dates the social-software boom, but still acts as a nice overview and notes the value of recommendations in finding people in addition to movies, books and other items:
"Although currently recommender systems are mostly used for finding things, such as books and CDs, Resnick thinks that one promising application may be recommending people. You could use recommender systems to find the right consultant or colleague - or even a potential mate."
Most people sharing a learning goal in 43 Things aren't necessarily looking for people to collaborate with (although there is functionality to form explicit groups to pursue a goal together). It could be used as a sort of recommender system for finding people ("I'm looking for people sharing my goals"), but it looks to me like it's being used more as a recommender system for things you might like to do or learn. The network that emerges around a goal does loosely connect people to each other, but that may not be as valuable as the connections between the artifacts themselves: the entries outlining what their experiences have been in pursuing the same goal, why they decided to pursue it, what they hope to accomplish, how the learning helped them, pitfalls to avoid, etc.

Perhaps it's more important as a way of finding content (advice, resources, opinions, possible applications) than as a way to find like-minded people. The primary "pivot" is the goal itself, with the people associated with each goal as secondary pivots. It is interesting to find out what other goals someone is pursuing besides the one you share with them -- that function is more exploratory than the process of figuring out if you want to pursue a specific goal.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Elgg for Professional Development

Dave linked to this story a while back, and I finally got around to checking it out: Saugus Union School District creates hot spot for collaboration, distance learning. The cool thing about this approach is that a school managed to get educators excited about social networking for themselves -- as personal professional development and as a communication tool -- before wading into the oh-so-scary world of students using the tools. Now that they're seeing the benefits, they want to get kids using it too. From there, it probably improves the chances of getting kids really learning as part of the wider them learn in a safe place first and then gradually open things up. Elgg makes that progression relatively easy with flexible permissions. While I'd love to see schools diving straight into the deep end, this kind of approach probably makes more sense for most institutions.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

New Systems for Sharing Learning Goals

I think the intersection between learning goals and social software is heating up. The popularity of 43 Things must be contributing to the interest, and maybe some of my babbling here has helped moved things along, but I think there was probably a certain inevitability about it -- in environments where people are deciding what to learn, who to learn with and figuring out how to go about it, these tools could be really valuable.

George Siemens introduced the U of M's Virtual Learning Commons a few weeks ago and linked to a backgrounder on the project. I had it saved in Bloglines for too long, and thankfully Brian nudged me to take another look at it. It's a system for students to post their learning goals as a way of recording them, finding related resources and connecting with others who share the goal. It seems to be pretty slick, and even in the current closed mode (registered students only) with relatively few participants, it looks like there could be the critical mass to make it useful. George's note about it:
"It sets learning in a conversational spaces...knowledge as a pathway through connections with others...learning as a constant in life. I'm confident that this implementation of social learning (integrated with institutionally provided academic support) is a first indicator of more prominent trends. Learning not as an explicit task...but as a constant action."
I also got an e-mail about Learning Flow and Lee Kraus explains what it's for:
"LearningFlow is a web-based application that allows (you) the learner to identify learning goals, then associate resources from across the web to that particular learning goal. The goal can also be shared with others interested in learning that goal."
It's also got a pretty nice, simple interface and some cool features for sharing goals. The kicker with any system like this is that it depends on large numbers of users and goals to start being really valuable. Until you have a few people sharing a (often quite unique) learning goal, it's just a place to store yours. So we'll see if it catches on. Elgg integrated this kind of functionality last year as well, in the context of a much richer feature set -- I should ask Dave if he's received any feedback about it.

Update: Roger Stack is paying attention to these goal-based networks as well. He describes a cool program at his school where mentoring/counselling groups have formed around areas of interest.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Groups and Networks

I've been enjoying Stephen Downes' recent writing, talking and showing on the distinction between groups and networks. On Half an Hour, he has two solid posts called Groups and That Group Feeling, and digs in really deep on a full-length paper: Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge. In multimedia territory, he's also got a video explaining the differences (Google Video), as shown in this whiteboard full of goodness, and also audio of one of his talks in New Zealand (mp3), covering somewhat broader territory.

I like how the concept of the personal learning environment pops up in all the right places, but I've been stewing on other personal connections to some of these differences between groups and networks. I got thinking about the kind of angst I had after blogging here for a year. I had been naively (and egotistically, I guess) expecting some sort of community to form around my blogging experience, but I didn't know what it should look like. I thought it should feel like joining and belonging to a group. At that time, Seb Paquet wisely pointed out that I had actually become part of a network, but Stephen's ideas now have really helped clarify what exactly that meant.

I also realized that some of my initial investigation into 43 Things was misguided because I was looking for people learning in groups; something more like the classroom discussion boards in the courses I had been taking. I thought that once you found a bunch of people who shared a learning goal, you would really have to become a "group" to learn much of anything that mattered. I noticed that there wasn't much evidence of conversation or interaction between the people sharing a learning goal and interpreted it as a potential weakness of the site as a learning space. But of course the people sharing a learning goal are part of an emergent, informal network. Stephen's main network words all apply: diversity, autonomy, openness, and connective. There is the potential for powerful learning, but it won't look like a cohesive, unified group of people busy learning something together.

The third thing that popped into my head was my grown-up hockey experiences. I played as a kid, up until I was 16 or so. In recent years, I've half-heartedly started playing again. Last winter, I tried two very different formats. I played a few games for a local old-timer's team, and I played noon-hour drop-in hockey a dozen or so times. It hit me last night that the contrast between the two formats is very similar to Stephen's differences between groups (the old-timer's team) and networks (noon-hour drop-in).

The team was all about unity (us vs the bad guys), coordination (scheduled games, annual fees, obligation to show up, set lines), closed (you had to be invited) and distributive (core group ran the show, stars were central). The noon-hour drop-in hockey was all about diversity (whoever shows up today plays, regardless of skill level or age), autonomy (you decide when you want to come, when you want to rest), openness (everyone welcome every time), and connective (over time you talk to many more individuals than you would have on a single team).

While it is true that there are benefits to playing on a team -- added motivation to support your teammates, more cohesive relationships, and beers after the games -- I found that the drawbacks way outweighed the benefits for me. At drop-in hockey, I played more often, learned more (more ice time, more variety), spent less money, met more interesting people, and just had more fun. It may be a personality thing (some people really do seem to thrive in groups of all kinds), but I think networks make more sense for me.