Thursday, October 30, 2003

Failure of Personalization

A bunch of interesting articles and comments about personalization on the web:I'm still standing by my post from last month responding to Jay Cross's article on the topic -- personalization is hard because it's expensive and difficult to handle all possible variables, or at least enough variables to personalize properly.

Timelines: Usability and Instructional Technology

A few people already linked to Timelines: Usability and Instructional Technology, but I wanted to save it for later. I've occasionally talked about the necessary convergence between instructional design and user experience design, and this chart is a step in that direction. In a way, it could be two separate charts, because there's been very little overlap between the fields. But I think the author is combining them intentionally to show the potential for instructional design to learn something from the history of software usability and the new user-experience methodologies.

Minnesota eFolio

I've had this post about Minnesota's eFolios kicking around for a week or so. The state's online portfolio initiative is fascinating, but I also didn't want to lose Stephen's excellent comment:
"Sounds like the specs for a great open source personal identity feed, the sort of thing that could (and should) be linked to from blog posts..."
I love this concept of a the personal identity feed, especially in the context of a professional/educational portfolio. Oh yeah, and I also wanted to save Will's great post about blogs and portfolios.

The Concept Gap

Peter Merholz is on a bit of a tear these days -- every day seems to reveal a great new post. The other day, he wrote about a conference presentation covering the concept gap in product development.
"He identifies the crux of the problem as a gap between the marketers and the engineers, where the marketers develop a requirements document full of features and great ideas, but the engineers need to develop a specification that precisely labels how the thing will work, and the two are never well reconciled. Marketers need to get more concrete, and engineers more abstract, so they can meet up in the middle and ensure that ideas flow successfully."
My interaction design work mostly takes place smack dab in the middle of that gap. A recent restructuring actually put interaction design as part of the marketing department, meaning that we're responsible for defining and prototyping the user experience on new products, then working with graphics, content folk, and developers to shepherd the project through the final stages.

We've seen the pitfalls and difficulties with the gap he talks about, but the challenge keeps things interesting. George linked to an article about Surviving Course Development Wars that is probably the elearning equivalent.

Teaching Simple Design

I keep meaning to link to blog.IT, a great instructional technology journal by a woman named Evan. Today she's talking about cool vs. constraints in design using excellent examples from her student interns.
"They learned how to create tables, links, and style sheets. In my mind, that's all you need to know to create a decent site. That is the foundation. But every quarter the skilled students complain that they aren't getting to do enough 'cool' stuff, not realizing that sometimes a more simplistic design can be 'cooler'."
I think she's on the right track. Designers, especially new designers, often get so caught up in the possibilites of the technology that they lose sight of the purpose of the design. And people can always learn programming languages and fancier stuff on their own -- it's actually easier to learn those things later when you have a contextual problem you're trying to solve. I'd way rather have students learning to create usable sites with good organization and elegant design.

College and Employment

I believe that smart people with good technology have the potential to revolutionize education, but sometimes I think we get myopic about the details and forget about the bigger issues. If you'd ask most educational theorists what the purpose of post-secondary education is, you'd probably hear about citizenship, building knowledge bases, social networks and a bit about career preparation.

If you ask students or prospective students about college, you'll hear a lot about employment. Which is fine, except that there are too many myths surrounding the employment value of degrees. Joanne Jacobs has written an interesting article on the topic: Job Hunting 101: A degree is often worth $6.75 an hour. Her excellent blog also has some further comments on the topic.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Commodity Courses

George asks a big question: What's Up With Education? More specifically, he heard a slick ad for the University of Phoenix on the radio in Winnipeg (!!), and wonders how a good local college like Red River can survive in the face of market-oriented online competition. He speculates that courses (and the content that goes with them) are becoming commodities that will continue to drop in price.

Like music, news and any other information that can be digitized, the web will drive the price of courses toward zero. Institutions are starting to realize it -- MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative seems to be tacit acknowledgement that institutions are no longer in the business of providing information for a fee.

George throws out some good ideas to add value beyond the commoditized and industrial-era courses -- learning services, communities, accreditation and prior-learning assessments included -- and I think he's probably on the right track. Not everyone thinks that post-secondary education should be customer-driven, but the U of P's greatest competitive advantage may be that they're willing to view the entire process as a real business, which means giving clients what they want at a price they're willing to pay.

And what do they want? Do the students at Red River College today even care about the courses themselves or really want the learning for its own sake? I'd guess that the majority are there for the credential that they believe will lead to better employment. If a good job is their true motivation, then that's where the value lies -- connections to the local job market, local networking, trusted accreditation and individualized employment services. A college could also add value in assessing and conveying what students can do (skills, portfolios, etc), rather than testing and grading what they know.

Focusing on the applications of learning rather than the theory makes sense for a community college, but what about the University of Winnipeg, or any other traditional university? I'd be more worried about the threat to them than Red River. Peter Merholz wrote a conference summary this week about experience economics. Check out the graphic he's included there. What would the equivalent be if you translated it into learning experiences? Traditional courses are obviously lower on the pyramid, but what goes in the upper reaches?

Instructional Design in a Vacuum

Stephen Downes seems to have disagreed with my last post about the importance of having educational technologists and designers in contact with the needs of all stakeholders. He says:
"It is possible to design very good, if not optimal, systems with zero user feedback. Many things - from great works of literature, to great art, to innovative software, have been designed this way."
While that is certainly true, educational technologists and designers are not creating works of art for their own amusement or self-expression. They're mostly trying to create web sites, learning objects, software or other resources to help people teach and learn things.

It seems to make sense that we would design better learning resources if we found out why people wanted them in the first place, understood the context for their use, and tested prototypes to make sure the intended users could actually accomplish their goals. This is pretty basic instructional design methodology, but my main point was that these steps often get glossed over because they're more difficult than just designing in isolation.

Stephen actually found a great example of this problem in a recent post: Library Terms Evaluated in Usability Tests and Other Studies. A library created a web site for students to access online journals and other library resources. The designers of this educational site were probably skilled enough. They even got in contact with a librarian (better than working in a total vacuum), because the terms they chose as navigation labels tended to be library terms. But the students didn't understand them -- many expected something else when they clicked on a link. If the designers had done some prototype testing with students (even just a few), they could have come up with a much better learning resource.

It's true that decent systems can be designed without stakeholder participation or feedback. Most of us would love to believe that our assumptions are at least close, and that the decisions we make about designs will help people accomplish their goals. But very few people get it right the first time. Skilled designers are almost always shocked the first time they see the results of usability studies on their work. Our first instinct is to blame the users for their inability to understand the most obvious navigation or complete the simplest tasks.

As educational technology develops, and online learning becomes more prevalent, user experience will become more and more important. People will expect their courses, learning environments, and digital resources to be as easy to use as the best e-commerce, games or communication tools. Users might not give us the magical inspiration for a better way to learn, but they can usually tell (or show) us where our designs aren't working.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

e-learning Stakeholders and Design

Peter Merholz is taking some interesting notes at the HITS Conference (Humans | Interaction | Technology | Strategy) this week. The conference is focused on interaction design and business strategy, but much of what he's learning could be translated into e-learning terms without losing any value. In Part 1, he's got a great diagram showing how the needs of stakeholders in a project should be interrelated, and compares it with how it usually works, using Technologist, Client, Customer and User.

In e-learning, you could translate those to Technologist/Designer, School, Teacher, and Student. Ideally, there would be lots of communication and between all stakeholders to ensure the best learning experience:

But in reality, projects or purchases get done in waterfall fashion, pulled out of the classic venn diagram into a chain. As Peter points out, this "resembles the child's game 'telephone,' where the fidelity of the message degrades as it passes from person to person."

If the designer isn't in contact with the end user, how can the learning environment/software/course/resource be designed to optimize their experience?

Monday, October 20, 2003

Design for Real People

Gizmo Geeks on Trial
Anyone familiar with usability testing and user-centered design won't find anything too new in this article, but I get the sense that those of us designing educational software and sites need to keep these issues in focus. It's all too easy to believe that we know enough about how people will use our designs, and that users will be able to figure it out.
"Cooped up in high-tech design labs, surrounded by the latest in computing gadgetry and soft drink machines, the men and women who design the world's most important devices -- from medical equipment, airplane cockpits and nuclear plant control rooms to more mundane gizmos like cellphones and VCRs -- give little thought to the people who will use their creations, Vicente says."
One step beyond giving thought to the people who will use our stuff is to actually test it, get real feedback and integrate it into the designs. Even the most skilled and empathetic designers tend to be surprised when they see how difficult it is for real people to use their creations.

Friday, October 17, 2003

We Interrupt This Blogcast...

My wife gave birth to a beautiful baby girl yesterday. We named her Ella, and she's the reason I just started four months of parental leave. Not sure whether that means I'll have more or less time to write -- I guess we'll see.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Teachers Threatened by Online Alternative

Suit seeks to stop online program
Perhaps I've been spending too much time in the parallel universe of Joanne, but this article is fascinating. Teachers' unions are suing an organization that offers accredited online high school courses because homeschooling parents do most of the facilitating. I guess MVNA has "real" teachers on call, but not enough to make the unions happy -- they're clearly threatened by this model and I don't really blame them. Programs like this could be future of education, at least for the subset of parents who can swing it, and the role of official teachers is certainly diminished (as they are arguing in their cases).

This new model may be bad for teachers, but what about kids? I didn't really understand Stephen's logic a couple of weeks ago when he said that homeschooling was a bad idea because many parents are not qualified to teach. The idea that none should be allowed to because some can't do it well seems a bit absurd, and the public system is in the midst of trying to figure out what it means to get "qualified teachers" when funding keeps getting cut and districts face teacher shortages. We all know smart people who would make better teachers than many of the ones that the government says are qualified. And what if they had good curriculum to use with their kids, online collaboration tools and all kinds of extra-curricular social activities available -- sports, clubs, friends, travel, etc -- wouldn't that have the potential to be an excellent learning experience?

The Fourth Planet

The Fourth Planet: A Colony of the Future
This activity is interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, it's problem-based learning that uses the power of web communication to enrich the experience for everyone involved. The scenario is interesting, the look is great, and the developer has made clever use of several free applications to get people collaborating online:
  • Movable Type to set up blogs for each "colonist" when they join the simulation
  • Ikonboard for a password-protected message board
  • Gaggle for teacher-monitored e-mail
There seems to be a lot of overlap between these services, and I'd be very curious to see how students were instructed to use each one. You'd think that if the blogs were done right, you'd never need to use a message board, and Gaggle is a weird net-nanny-like e-mail service that would seem unnecessary. It's much richer and more engaging than the usability webquest my group developed this summer -- it's a great example of a collaborative simulation and learning environment that doesn't require expensive visuals, animation, game engines or even in-person role-playing. The activity is part of the excellent Discover Multiage site -- I can't find the name of the author.

gURL and Education

There's something revealing about New York Post's reaction to Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain and Life as a Gurl being available in schools. It's not surprising that some parents were bewildered and outraged that their daughters were getting information about sex in a tone and style they could relate to. If that's as far as it went, it would just be your classic sex-ed kerfuffle.

So why am I writing about it? The authors of the book are also the founders of, which already happens to have a million or so teenage girls reading, playing and discussing whatever is on their minds. I gather that the book doesn't have much that isn't already on the site, which most girls have probably seen at some point -- they claim 40% of all teenage girls who are online have visited the site. Their mission:
"We hope to provide connection and identification in a way that is not possible in other media. Our content deals frankly with sexuality, motions, body image, etc. If this is a problem for you, you might not like it here."
I suppose it's typical that parents demand an old-fashioned book-burning when this stuff shows up in school, but I find the hypocrisy hilarious. Kids are living online, getting access to any information they want and talking to each other about it, but their parents don't have the foggiest clue. The problem is that much of the info the kids are finding on their own may be misleading, flat-out false or damaging...whereas the philosophy of gURL is honest and they'll at least get the facts mostly straight. But this is yet another example of self-directed "learning" that kids are doing versus the institutional constraints of schools and education in general.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Informal vs Formal Learning

Some good thoughts comparing courses to informal learning communities over at Mathemagenic, with links to some great articles on the topic. Informal learning probably just feels right to most of the people who are motivated to read, write and link about their interests, but everyone else tends to be somewhat bewildered by that type of behavior. It just doesn't fit the old industrial mindset, which dictated that all learning should be formal, and preferably aimed at making you more employable.

I've probably spent as much time blogging here as studying in my masters program over the last year, and I've probably learned equally much (as if that was quantifiable). The courses aren't cheap, and they're not as convenient as informal learning, yet I continue to take them. Why? Three main reasons: credentials, discipline and feedback. The credential is probably the obvious one -- even though the concept seems antiquated in the knowledge economy, it still feels like advanced degrees make you more employable. That may be changing, but the job postings I'm seeing often require the credential.

Lilia referrs to the value of structure, and the fact that some students require it to learn much. I'm a random sort, preferring to follow rabbit trails of information that tend to lead nowhere. I could do that indefinitely and not accomplish much of would be more like entertainment. Courses require a type of discipline to think about things just outside of your normal rabbit trails and reflect what you've learned in essays or presentations you'd never attempt on your own. The product may be irrelevant, but the process is essential.

And feedback might seem out of place in a comparison like this. The blogging community talks a lot about the interaction of blogs, and we've all seen some great quasi-conversations emerge across several sites at once, but the type of feedback you get on your writing tends to be somewhat impersonal, even if you get to know the personalities behind the writing. Comments might point you somewhere for more info, or disagree with something you've written, but they rarely give you a sense of how you're doing overall. You might know that Person B disagrees with your stance on standardized testing, and that a study exists to refute one of your points, but you probably won't get help in improving the articulation of your arguments or research skills.

In a course, a good instructor (and engaged classmates) provide feedback about the process and products of learning. In an informal learning community, you get the illusion of freedom to explore your own ideas at your own pace, but if you try to keep up with everything that's going on, you get dragged into the curriculum of the commons -- the group is "deciding" what to study on the fly and that may change by the hour. If nobody else in my community is interested in what I'm interested in right now, I won't get feedback. In a course, you might be more likely to get the luxury of lingering on a topic or set of topics with a group of people who are all following the same rough schedule.

I run into this same sort of conflict in designing educational software and sites. Our customers are educators, and most want structured navigation around discreet activities or lessons. We know that students may learn more from a learning environment that lets them follow their interests and make their own connections, but that assumption is based on the idea that students are motivated enough to initiate and follow those self-directed paths.

Via Bill Brandon, who also has some illuminating thoughts on the subject.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Joanne Jacobs and a Parallel Universe

Joanne Jacobs writes a lot of interesting things about education, and she doesn't editorialize too much -- the stats and articles she links to mostly speak for themselves. This article about differences in how parents talk to their kids is fascinating. Her writing has a commonsense appeal that keeps you reading, but it was all unfamiliar to me.

Then I checked out a few of the sites in her blogroll and found evidence of a bona fide learning network. There's Brian, Kimberly, the Cranky Professor, and a cast of other articulate characters, all linking to each other -- the same stories tend to pop up in multiple places. They're writing intelligently about issues in education, and maybe Joanne is a bit of a guru in the group.

I felt as though I had stumbled into some sort of parallel universe. I'm used to seeing an article or link make the rounds of "my" learning network: George, Rob, Seb, minor guru Stephen, and the other 20 or so smart folks stuck in my aggregator. But I hadn't ever come across links to Joanne's gang, or any of the articles that were making the rounds (and generating conversations) in her circles.

The blogs I follow often focus on educational technology, but many of the stories and opinions are related to education policy and theory as why don't these worlds overlap more? I suppose the answer is politics. At the risk of generalizing too much, many of the sites in Joanne's network take a right-wing angle. In this world, standardized testing isn't all bad, teachers tend to whine too much, and libertarian homeschoolers and voucher supporters reign. I know that the network I'm developing isn't homogeneously left-wing, or necessarily taking opposing views on those issues, but there is a definite split.

I suspect that I've been mostly seeking out people I agree with -- perhaps I could learn better by admitting more outside perspectives. I was enjoying the inner conflict created by some of the things I read on these "other" sites. Often, my instant reaction was that they had it all wrong...but then I had to question my gut feeling. Why had I made up my mind on those things in advance? But what's really interesting to me is to think of all the other parallel communities talking about issues in education from different angles.

Friday, October 10, 2003

More on Blogs in Education

Will R. pulled together some rich posts on the topic of what's working with blogs in education, mostly bouncing off of James Farmer's recent article, and then extending it further by responding to some of Bill Brandon's thoughtful comments. Bill makes the point that although distributed conversations are powerful, they're difficult to follow and participate in, and ponders the benefits of blog-style interaction between students:
"If we're talking about children in primary school, or even in high school, will the long-term outcomes be better if they learn to interact directly with each other, or if they learn to interact by commenting on each other's weblog entries (assuming that they find the latter as engaging as dealing with other kids, an assumption I very much doubt would be valid)."
I think this is probably true, but I've been thinking of a different spin on this one. If my students are working on a project to plan their futures (careers, post-secondary education, leisure, relationships, etc), and one of the goals is to get them talking to each other about those plans, you'd hope that each student could find one other that shared some interest or future goal.

If Jimmy is interested in working with lizards, studying herpetology at Utah State University, and collecting movie posters from the 1940s, he's unlikely to find someone else in the class (or school, or state) that shares any of his interests. If it's assigned, a classmate will dutifully comment on his stuff (in person or online), but there's no engagement or true exchange taking place.

The power of the network only kicks in if you open it up to the wider web, where Jimmy might connect with Suzy on the other side of the country, who happens to be fascinated by lizards and movie memorabilia -- perhaps she's never heard of the program at Utah State University, but if you connect those students, they both increase their research and knowledge base in their shared interest areas.

In a related thread, the excellent Blogtalk site (cool project) has a new article about blogs as possible lightweight e-portfolio platforms, with some good examples and background.

Timeline Navigation

Using timelines as navigation is a pretty esoteric subject, but this is why I love the web (and bloggers as a type of glue that holds the web together): through a link on Headshift, I found Matt Jones' list of timelines, which contained a comment linking to an even better one with screenshots and analysis from Erin Malone. And it all showed up just as I was trying to figure out how to chart a student's career plan into the future...on a timeline.

Game as Thinking Environment

It may be obvious that games and simulations don't have to be historically or statistically "accurate" to help you learn. But in the context of games in education, this issue is sticky. A student might learn a lot about the fictional world of Vvardenfell by playing Morrowmind -- maybe even some transferable learning about complex systems and different types of cause and effect -- but is that type of learning going to be valued by the average Grade 9 geography teacher?

Gonzalo, the creator of the simple and clever September 12th Shockwave game/simulation, has been saying some interesting things about how simulations can be used to intentionally stimulate critical thinking, while acknowledging that bias is both a limitation and a trigger for thought. I like the honest response to a fair question: Are your games biased?
"Of course they are. We do not believe in objective journalism. We prefer games that encourage critical thinking, even if the player disagrees with our games’ ideas."
On the seriousgames listserv, he goes further down this road. It recalls some of Stephen's analogy comparing traditional education to a scripted theatrical production (students are "actors" following the curriculum/script) and real learning to be more like the free-form exploration of a game (learning environment). Gonzalo has obviously done more thinking about this than I, so I'll let him explain:
"My main goal is this to be an object-to-think-with, a small system (anthill, playground, laboratory) for experimenting, elaborating hypothesis and contesting assumptions. From the start, I knew that it was going to be taken differently by different players but that is just part of this trade. The author of simulations needs to trust more her players than, say, the novelist or filmmaker. It is the difference between designing a story, which is open to interpretation but quite constrained, and a toy. At this point in my life, I am convinced that creating a good toy is a far more difficult (and appealing) task than storytelling."

Wednesday, October 08, 2003


I like the spirit of GamerDad, although the introductory blurb is kind of stuffy:
"GamerDad is here for parents (or anyone with children in their lives) curious about what games are appropriate and whether games are harmful."
The site is way more about games than about parenting, but adds a "Kid Factor" at the bottom of each review, like this one for Rise of Nations. It would be cool to also have a "Learning Factor", or something like that.

The reason the site works for me is the acknowledgement that dads can still have fun doing the things they've enjoyed doing in the past...but that it's extra fun if you can have fun doing those things with your kids. I recently did some research into sites for dads, and most of them seemed to be along the lines of ultra-earnest"how to be a loving, responsible parent" or support groups for dads who aren't coping.

If You Build It

James Farmer does some reflecting on what's working with blogs in education, pulling together some interesting links and references. The sub-sub title could have been "...and what's not working", because many of the cases he points to have had uneven success. It's certainly true that people are finally starting to understand that "if you build it, they will come" just doesn't work, particularly in mainstream education, which tends to take a conservative view of new technology.

We've been discussing this issue at work in the context of using blogs as part of a web-based portfolio to help students record and reflect on their future possibilities. We know that just providing the tool won't ensure that it gets used. My current angle is that students would only voluntarily use a tool like that if they had something they really cared about to reflect on, but most of what they're doing in school doesn't fall into that category. Teachers may assign projects using the tool if it's safe and simple, but the likelihood of students engaging in the process is certainly lessened by it being obligatory to begin with. As an aside, the xplana site is beautiful -- most blogs and sites in this field are functional and clean, but very few are so pleasing to the eye.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Headspace to Headshift

I had the vague sense that I'd include lots of user-experience-design links and commentary in this blog, but it hasn't happened. Perhaps I've put that professional development aside for now while I'm immersed in educational technology and theory in this masters program.

Anyway, I did find this excellent list of resources tonight: user experience design from Headshift, which seems to be one of these very cool web consulting firms that I find so intimidating at times. Great stuff, though -- some of it idealistic, but much of it very practical, and most of it overlaps nicely with instructional design ideas. Reminds me that I should be documenting some of the emerging design processes we've been developing at work.

Choices Explorer

A few readers have asked me what kind of projects I've been working on lately. The last project we finished was an overhaul of an online career-information service for kids called CX Online. The main goals of the overhaul were to simplify the interface to improve ease-of-use, increase the prominence of post-secondary-education content and give the visuals an update to make it more engaging. Since it's a subscription product, you'll have to register for a free trial to get access -- yes, that's a bit of a pain.

Schools mostly purchase it to help their guidance counsellors deliver career-planning programs to students, which might explain why I occasionally ramble about guidance programs and issues surrounding the tension between free and paid educational resources. I'm a supporter and beneficiary of open source and free information, but I have to acknowledge some hypocrisy on my part -- Bridges' subscription model has helped keep me employed in very interesting and rewarding work for four years now.

So why do people pay for it? Educators know they can find a lot of the information from all sorts of free sites, but thousands are still willing to pay to get it all in one place where they know the quality is good, the process doesn't require extra research or work for them, and the students are somewhat protected from the nastier side of the web. I'd appreciate any feedback on the product itself, or the business model behind it.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Games are better educators than we think

Games are better educators than we think
This thoughtful article is full of good ideas and interesting connections, showing relationships between e-learning, games, literature and historical accuracy. It doesn't have all the answers, but asks good questions and points the way to the sweet spot between educational and entertaining.
"The fact that they generally teach us about fictional worlds or nonacademic issues is secondary to the fact that history, literature, geography, art, and pretty much anything else can be taught effectively in a game environment. And not only will the learner absorb and retain the knowledge, he will do so without even realizing (consciously) that he is learning at all -- learning is implicit in play. Video games can become the electronic equivalent of The da Vinci Code -- educational while fun.

Any one of us who played through Morrowind could easily ace a quiz on Vvardenfell geography, religion, politics, flora, whatever. We could analyze Tribunal laws, assess the impact of Daedra worship on Dwemer/Dunmer relations, and produce sociological postulations on Ashlander tribal structure."
Another good quote: "The point is that though Morrowind happens to be about a fictional culture in an imaginary world, there's no reason why games must be limited to that." He goes on to talk about games that recreate events and environments from literature, which students are studying anyway. Ideally, some literature is likely to be entertaining to students...moreso than say, European history, which would probably require historical accuracy to qualify as educational.

Outside the Fence

The always-insightful Robert Paterson left a good questioning response to my last post about privacy and responsibility: "Why would the teacher ask her students to get a blog - they are free at that level - now the school is not on the hook. The teacher then gives good blogging lessons?" This is probably the way to go, but I don't know if it's watertight. Let's say the English teacher gets everyone in the class to sign up for a LiveJournal account as part of a journaling assignment, and someone in the class uses that account to broadcast something nasty (threats, hate, porn, whatever). Even though the service is outside the fence (not hosted internally or installed on school machines) and the student's inflammatory entry was not part of the assignment, could that teacher still be in trouble? You'd hope not, but in these days of blame and liability, people get more concerned with covering their butts than facilitating innovative learning experiences.

Charles was also following the conversation, and pointed out the importance of small groups in getting learning communities going. This makes a lot of sense for assignments with a set number of students -- I'm trying to extend that thinking into a system that could have thousands of students spread all over the continent...maybe you could still form "study groups" based on interests, rather than affiliation with a single class. But I'm also realizing that it would be easy to associate students by school...perhaps those systems could be combined.

UBC e-Portfolios

I followed a link from Michelle Lamberson's site to an overview of an initiative to use more e-Portfolios at UBC. The document covers many of the benefits of using online portfolios, particularly focusing on the reflection involved in selecting and commenting on your own work.
"This reflective process gives people a chance to learn more about themselves and their abilities. As the students evaluate each artifact and decide whether it should be part of their e-Portfolio, they are evaluating their work and themselves. For Belfer, the most valuable aspect of creating an assessment e-Portfolio is that students have an opportunity to think about what they’ve learned and what areas they need to develop next, rather than just focusing on their marks."
I bolded that last line because it hits a nerve -- this type of reflection, community-building, and personal development seems to run counter to the current educational focus on marks, testing, and standards. Portfolios are personal and internalized, recording the past and projecting into the future -- tests are competive and uniform, offering a one-dimensional view of a single moment in time. Many teachers and administrators intuitively know that standardized testing doesn't do much to help with real learning -- perhaps more will embrace portfolios as a softer, more student-focused system that can be run in parallel.

Butterfly's Nightmare

A few of these blogging/education/privacy threads seemed to get intertwined on the weekend. Butterfly Gemini talks about her personal nightmare when she discovered that a student had made threatening comments in her LiveJournal:
"So on a whim one evening, I searched for the city in which those students resided. It was not that difficult to ascertain to whom a number of the journals belonged, despite their entire full name not appearing on their Info pages. Oftentimes, though, they would do some survey and write in their full name. The biggest surprise and scare though was the one entry which glared at me when I scrolled down to read the life-threatening comment with my name clearly mentioned."
Her institution's response was disappointing, but telling. They seemed to imply that it was the teacher's fault, asking whether she had sent the student to that site or assigned the journal-writing. Two things become clear when reading this post: students will use the web to write whatever they want about their school, teachers, and fellow students...and most schools will be so fixated on the potential dangers that they won't be able to harness that same power for learning.

Friday, October 03, 2003

More on Blogs, School and Privacy

In an earlier post about issues surrounding blogging in school, I picked a random LiveJournal user as an example of someone who obviously likes to write, but probably wouldn't learn much from a blogging assignment about a topic she didn't care about. After getting some traffic from the link, she posted about it and responded with some smart ideas about blogs in school, including when they might be most appropriate:
"I would imagine that while giving students blogs in subjects like science or math might only inspire a select few to ramble on about their projects, the idea could be quite useful in a course for english, social studies, psychology (or in more advanced foreign language classes)."
I've heard others use this right-brain/left-brain split before -- I wonder if it's true? Yesterday I was digging into issues of privacy and security, and two pieces of legislation (U.S.) kept coming up: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). We've looked at COPPA before, and it didn't seem to affect our work because we don't often deal with kids under 13. But FERPA is interesting -- if a school purchased one of our products and it was used to collect student records and information, FERPA guidelines would apply. I find it disturbing that students don't have more control over their own records, but that's another issue altogether -- I need to research this further.

I've been excited about LiveJournal since Lisa gave me a tour of the basics a couple of weeks ago. The way they handle user profiles, friends, interests and permissions is just genius -- and the application is open source! Jenni points out how the security/permissions features might solve some of the privacy issues:
"The security feature on LiveJournal and most other blogging sites allows for a measure of privacy - perhaps require the student to make x number of public posts in a certain amount of time, but if they want to write about something more private, they can do so and it is up to them whether to leave it public or simply use a filter. Feeling secure tends to make people feel slightly more free in their writings."
This is good stuff. The next hurdle is the issue of acceptability. If your English teacher gives you a blogging assignment and you post something nasty, you're in trouble with the teacher because you know the rules. But if a school district purchases online portfolios with blogging capability for 10,000 students, people will inevitably be offended by something students post -- who's responsible for monitoring and controlling what's ok? We know that more control equals less freedom, and if you give students less freedom, they're likely going to disengage. Or would limited journalling functionality be better than nothing? I'm still hoping there's middle ground in there somewhere.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Student Privacy and Web Publishing

I can't believe I missed this exchange about Student Publishing and Privacy back in spring. I probably saw posts popping up on the aggregator, but the issue wasn't pertinent to me at the it's a gold mine for me. A great example of personal just-in-time learning. Thanks to Greg Ritter for pulling together a few good threads on this topic.

Visual vs. Structural Complexity

Balancing visual and structural complexity in interaction design
Thanks to Column Two for the link to this short article about the types of problems I'm trying to solve right now. We're envisioning combining two educational web sites into one integrated version that could still be purchased separately -- a really meaty information architecture test. We're discussing the tug-of-war between providing few (and simple) options and access to the information people need (lots of options) from top-level navigation pages.

Simulations and Desire

Social Impact Games is interesting for many reasons, but I particularly like the site's tagline: "Entertaining Games with Non-Entertainment Goals". I was just checking it out when Bud came through the office, and in the ensuing conversation, I asked him how his kids use their computer at home. He described how his ten-year-old son visits a hockey-equipment site to endlessly try colour combinations for the goalie pads he wants. It's a commercial site, not a game, but it engages his attention to the point where he loses track of time -- a simple Flash tool that isn't meant to be educational in the traditional sense, but he's certainly learning.

This got me thinking about the flow-state-inducing and quasi-educational qualities of other basic "simulations" designed to sell. I'm a mountain biker, so the Santa Cruz Bicycles bike builder makes me drool. The Timbuk2 site lets you customize your own messenger bag -- very slick. Lots of sites have similar "build-your-own" features, and the best ones give you instant visual and textual feedback about the effects of your choices. They make it easy to see the consequences of alternative options, like any good game does. They also inspire desire by helping you visualize what you want, and giving you the sense that what you've created is unique to you. It's the tip of the mass-customization iceberg. So how to translate that desire and customization into a learning experience?

Learning in Fast-Forward

Interesting thread on Slashdot this morning. Since distance-learning students can now get lectures on DVD, they aren't constrained by watching them at real-time speed:
"Since I live in Connecticut, I am taking my lessons on DVD and videocassette with tests, quizzes and helpful advice from TA's online. It didn't take me long to realize how s-l-o-w the whole lecture process was. But with WinDVD4, I started ramping up the speed. It didn't take long to get to 2x normal speed. Other than the lectures taking half the time, I didn't miss anything."
I've heard of the opposite strategy fairly often -- pausing and replaying parts of lectures that require more time -- but this simple idea was new to me. It's like the multimedia equivalent of skimming when you read.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Teachers Talk

High school teacher Butterfly Gemini talks about the challenges of teaching teenagers in a difficult environment. I love the tone of The P(r)ep Assembly and The Paper Issue. The students want nothing to do with the assembly, but are forced to go anyway.

I've also been enjoying this exchange from Ms. Frizzle who also posted a matter-of-fact response to Butterfly's story about kids not having paper to write on in class. Life in the classroom...

More Blog/e-Portfolio Connections

James Farmer took my last post and ran with it, rightly pointing out that blogs might not fit well into traditional teaching models, but that they might help in the transition to more authentic learning experiences:
"... in this new context, where learners build their learning, where we 'facilitate' and don't 'teach' and where courses aren't assessment driven is where blogs will work."
I'm assuming he's referring to standardized tests and grading systems when he says assessment, because I think blogs could be a key part of assessment if they were properly integrated into a course or community. Will Richardson also picked up the thread and added that blogs may have their "greater use in a structured school environment as a digital portfolio." This connection between blogging and portfolios keeps coming up -- James also pointed to George's excellent post about the evolution of learning communities and networks, which tickled my brain yesterday and contained a key point for this discussion:
"We need a portfolio that allows the ability to track and manage our own learning network. This portfolio is the equivalent of what we now call a transcript. It needs to be learner owned/controlled."
I agree with everything in these posts, because they're pointing the way to a compelling networked/individualized learning culture that moves beyond our outdated industrial model. It would be total revolution if these ideas really took hold, and I sincerely hope they do...preferably sooner rather than later.

My challenge is to try to reconcile the difference or conflict between the stated needs of customers who are stuck within the current system/mindset and creating the type of tools that would work well in the new learning culture -- maybe even tools that could help facilitate that transition. If we create the ultimate portfolio tool that helps learners store their samples and information, connect to experts and peers, record their impressions and connections, but nobody can use it within the existing system because they don't understand or don't have time, then the whole project is a waste.