Friday, May 28, 2004

Blogging Addiction and Community

This blogging-as-addiction concept will probably get lots of chuckles, some grudging acknowledgement of truth and probably some defensiveness from bloggers. Will had some funny, honest thoughts about the need to blog. I'm currently in semi-withdrawl myself.

I don't want to quit blogging outright, but I do want to come up with a plan for continuing in a sustainable way, and for the right reasons. For me, that means reducing the time I spend reading and writing about a wide range of topics, then applying the knowledge I'm gathering to real projects with greater depth.

Although I've managed to avoid posting for a few days, I haven't been able to stay away from Bloglines, which feeds my desire to link and comment. There's something about seeing new posts popping up in an aggregator that feels similar to getting e-mail from friends -- a little thrill of connectedness and importance that simulates the sensation of all of those very smart people writing directly to me.

It's almost a physiological response for people who really value good thinking, and want to have an impact (be heard, be recognized, contribute to change/growth). The sense of community and intellectual stimulation yielded by blogging are as real as the highs in any addiction. I guess I'm just starting to wonder whether the benefits are "real", and whether they balance out the considerable costs.

After my last post, I got some good advice from Seb, which I should heed: "Maybe it's time to trim down on your subscriptions to keep the instant-attention mania at a respectful distance." Both he and Aaron also wisely asked what kind of community I was looking for. It's a sticky question for me, because I've always contended that I was keeping this blog primarily for myself. But I think most bloggers get their first few thrills when somebody else (especially someone they respect) links to their stuff or comments favourably. That's the gateway drug, I think.

Once in a while I do feel connected to a wider community. I've occasionally had links, comments and e-mails from wonderful, smart people that made me feel like I "belonged". For example, this week I got an invitation to participate in this fascinating e-learning project, along with 20 or so other people who I'd consider part of the loosely-defined community I sort of identify with. They're people I read, and some of them might even read my stuff occasionally, but I'd mostly never know.

I'm starting to think that to really feel part of any online community, the connections must go beyond the linking/commenting sphere. The only people in my wider community that I feel connected to in any real way are ones I've met in person or exchanged e-mail with. The blogging process may help introduce you to people with shared interests or perspectives, but for those connections to meet my criteria for real community, those interactions aren't enough on their own.

When a blogging connection becomes more intense (personal e-mail, meetings, etc), it drops out of the web of connections that we usually call "community". They become two-way interactions (which seem more authentic), but do a bunch of two-way interactions constitute a community? For example, I've e-mailed (and linked to) Chris Corrigan and Rob Paterson, and they've both connected to each other in many ways, including in person...but there's nothing that connects the three of us as a community.

Perhaps it's just a difficulty with definitions and expectations based on traditional types of social interactions -- I'm obviously not explaining this very well, and it's just sounding like complaining, which wasn't my intent.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Happy Birthday to It

Headspacej turns one year old today. Last May, I didn't really have any expectation for what I was trying to create. Hundreds of posts later, it's really hard for me to figure out how successful this experiment has been. The process has been worth it for the few online friends and connections I've made, and it has been a fascinating learning tool, mostly because it kept me reading the work of smart people in the field.

That said, the amount of time consumed by reading and then writing here (then reading some more) would have shocked me before I started. I don't know if blogging is something you can really do half-way. I did some blog/soul-searching when I came back from my parental leave and decided to keep going with it, but nagging doubts have returned.

I have some reservations about continuing on the same path with this blog. First of all, there is no such thing as community in the blogging world...or if there is, I haven't been able to join one in any meaningful way. Perhaps my expectations are skewed. There are people you read and people who read your stuff, but the game of finding or creating your community, complete with technoratitus (obsessively checking who's linked to you) feels like a pointless treadmill right now.

Secondly, the cult of novelty makes my head spin. There are already enough solid, well-organized resources in my interest areas sitting in two sites (for example) to keep me learning for years: elearnspace and Stephen's Web. Although both sites have excellent blogs, I'm just talking about existing archived material -- all of which has been carefully selected, annotated, and organized.

Just because something is new and relevant does not mean that it demands instant attention. The odd new piece does warrant further investigation and study, but it doesn't seem like anyone has the patience to really dig into anything -- everyone is too busy chasing the next link to think too much about the few really excellent resources (often not very new at all). I suspect that trying to "keep up" with educational technology is like watching soaps...once you're in the flow, you're afraid of missing anything, but the reality is that you could miss an entire season and then "catch up" on what has happened in the first episode you return to.

And finally, at the individual level, nobody really cares what I write here. This is not a pathetic plea for sympathetic encouragement to keep blogging. I'll flip it around -- if any of the sites I read regularly blink out tomorrow, I will register a moment of disappointment and then move on to the other 30 sites in my aggregator. My contributions are pretty much the proverbial piss in the ocean, which might still be ok for me, but I'm thinking that I may have completed the "information gathering" phase of my learning curve here. Perhaps it's time to focus on contributing something of real value for a change, or maybe it's just way past my bedtime and I should have saved this as a draft an hour ago.

And I still chuckle every time the Blogger spellchecker suggests "flogging" as the replacement for "blogging", which it doesn't recognize as a word. Perhaps the Blogger boys left that in there for their own amusement -- I wouldn't put it past them.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: An Education For All Human Beings

Every six months or so, I go back and read this astounding interview with Howard Gardner. In contrast to the "study whatever you want" philosophy of the least-structured unschoolers, he feels that everyone should learn some key things in math, science, languages and social studies (even if the student doesn't really feel like it). But in even sharper contrast to the conservatives who want to standardize curriculum even further, he believes that we try to cover way too many topics in each discipline. He wants depth, not breadth in curriculum.

Digging into a couple of meaningful topics within one discipline teaches someone the practice of that discipline and trains the mind to think about context, relationships, and connections. He's talking about learning to think, then applying knowledge and skills to new problems and topics within that discipline, with the possible spinoff of cross-discipline applications as well. This approach takes away the pressure to "learn" thousands of facts:
"The notion of coverage, of going through a bunch of disciplines, and learning facts and concepts, is assessed by schools all over the world. It's never been a very good idea, but now it's really irrelevant. I would throw away 95 percent of the coverage that we do; figure out really important questions and issues, and give people lots and lots of time to learn about how disciplined minds think about those issues, and then to practice those disciplines themselves."
Right now, an average high school student studies might take two history courses between Grade 9 and 12. One might cover all the important points from 200 years of national history in five months. Maybe the other one tries to pull out the highlights of 500 years of European history with the same amount of class time. Even if those courses are exceptionally well-taught, the odds of the student retaining much of that information past high school is close to zero, and more importantly, they aren't learning anything about the process of thinking about historical problems.

Now, discard that traditional view of high school history. What if history students could spend a whole year studying the holocaust? Think of the web of knowledge you could build around that concept, stretching back into the roots of racism, digging into the geopolitical climate of the years following World War 1, analyzing the economic and social costs of World War 2, studying the personal stories, images and art of the people involved, and extending it into the creation of the Israeli state and the United Nations.

Ideally, the students could find areas of interest within those parameters, even choosing to focus on a relatively small number of sub-topics depending on what stories were compelling to them. But most importantly, they would learn how to find the resources required to really understand some aspect of what happened in the past. Each student could then use the processes and skills they've learned (and perhaps some of the historical knowledge as well) to learn independently about any other period in history. Once you have the cognitive tools, finding the information is easy, especially in the information age.

Helen Barrett and Digital Stories

Helen Barrett has started a blog: E-Portfolios for Learning...which reminds me that I still need to post my notes from her excellent presentation (PDF) at the Lifia conference.

In her inaugural post, she links to a paper she's started called Electronic Portfolios as Digital Stories of Deep Learning. Although it isn't polished yet, it covers most of the philosophical e-portfolio issues I've been blathering about here in the last month or so and includes a great introduction to the range of tools that can be used. I'm looking forward to watching the progression of this work.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Gwen's Musings

My work partner Gwen is an extraordinary researcher with similar interests in education and design. Many of the links I've included here and blathered about were received from her. She's one of those natural bloggers who has been using e-mail to distribute resources and thoughts. I finally badgered her into starting her blog -- Musings about news, web sites and education.

One of her first posts is about a smart editorial in EdWeek proposing that all students should have individual education plans, which are currently reserved for special needs students:
"The law requires schools to provide special ed students with individual education programs because of their differences. Why shouldn’t every student have an IEP that addresses differences in strengths and weaknesses? When I suggested this to a middle school principal, he replied that schools are not structured to handle students as individuals with unique learning programs. And that’s exactly the problem. Since we can’t restructure kids, we need to restructure the system."

Equal Access to Quality Education

The belief that more education will create more equal opportunities has been proved wrong
Stephen linked to this interesting (and somewhat flawed) article about the quality gap between the education of rich and poor kids, and offered a provocative challenge to go with it:
"To achieve parity of opportunity, it isn't necessary to take these away from children of well-off parents, but rather, to provide these (or their equivalent) to all children in society. It's not that hard to do, and we have the means to do it, but from where I sit the greatest stumbling block isn't the means but rather the resistance (as exemplified by this article) of those who are better off - after all, who wants to lose their advantage?"

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Learning Webs

Aaron Campbell posts eloquently about learning webs as a supplement to (and eventual replacement for) traditional industrial-model of education, weaving together radical unschooling, learning objects, referral systems and wonderful inflammatory quotes from Ivan Illich.


Peter Morville's Findability site links to the best web design resources focused on creating sites and applications that help users find what they're looking for. I first heard this term a couple of years ago and thought it was a weak attempt to eke out yet another consulting niche for some guru of the week. Didn't we already have information architecture, interaction design, usability, interface design, human-computer interaction, user experience, user-centered design, etc, etc? But I don't really care what they're calling it today, because this site has also assembled some of the best resources around topics that interest me like social networks and user experience research.

E-Portfolio Paradigms

David links to an e-portfolio initiative at Oral Roberts University: "Beginning the fall semester of 2004, all entering freshmen will be required to compile, maintain and complete an electronic developmental portfolio as a graduation requirement." Like the new BC high school graduation requirement, it's not optional, has several specific outcomes and standards that must be met, and focuses on non-academic areas like spiritual and physical health as well as cross-discipline skills like leadership, communication and ethics. They also provide a mandatory course in e-portfolio development, much like BC's Planning 10 course, but the rest of the program is designed to be student-managed.

After George linked to my objections to e-portfolios as high-stakes assessment tools, e-portfolio guru Helen Barrett left a response to my cantankerous review: "I couldn't agree more. I am concerned that in the name of assessment, we are losing a powerful tool to support deep learning. I am concerned that we are losing the "stories" in e-portfolios in favor of the skills checklists. Portfolios should support an environment of reflection and collaboration."

She also linked to an in-depth outline of the competing paradigms for e-portfolios, which I'll need a week to digest, but it really shows how the concept of the e-portfolio is malleable enough for people to bend it to their will. She's done some good work in trying to reconcile the often conflicting goals of institutions implementing e-portfolios.

What portfolios are for is entirely dependent on your educational philosophy -- the technology is relatively easy. If your goal is to make all students jump through specific hoops and measure the quality of their finished products, then you could use e-portfolios to provide the structure and template for standard-driven assessment. If your goal is to get students reflecting on their learning, identifying areas of interest and struggle, documenting their learning process over a period of years...then an e-portfolio could be perfect, but it wouldn't look anything like the other one. Guess which one makes more sense to me?

Monday, May 17, 2004

Unschooling and Curriculum Questions

This hodgepodge of articles all focus on the question of what the purpose of K-12 education should/could be. My expert researcher/work partner Gwen dug most of them up, and I still can't believe that she doesn't have a blog of her own. It would be a pure gold mine.
  • School: The Heart of Darkness? -- Robert goes off about unschooling and makes some excellent points, mostly quoting John Holt's philosophy to "let every child be the planner, director, and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he is to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it."
  • This is School? Life inside a school with no curriculum or schedule. Students learn what they want, play games, take naps, whatever. I've always thought this would be a huge waste of time, but it's compelling.
  • I'm curious about the idea of guerilla learning within the school system. I guess Grace Llewellyn is working on a book to accompany her more radical Teenage Liberation Handbook for parents and students who aren't willing to homeschool, but see the value of the philosophy.
  • Want a Job? Hand Over Your SAT Results If a company values SAT scores as the ultimate measure of a good potential employee and your SATs suck, you probably don't want to work there. Actually even if your SATs are good, you probably don't want to work there. Which is a great segue into Robert Paterson's take on unjobbing -- rich stuff.
And finally, in this corner, representing the conservative factions who'd rather give kids more of what they've been getting all along as a way to make education better:
Where Do Multiple Pathways Take Us?. The author cannot imagine a system where high school students are all required to take algebras 1 and 2, geometry, biology, chemistry, physics, four years of English, three and a half years of social studies, including economics, and two years of a language other than English. He seems to think that this sacred list is pretty much what society has agreed that every kid should learn, preferably with each subject taught by teachers in classrooms for an hour at a time, with limited connection to other courses or real-world applications. Implied is a basic disregard for the future aspirations, abilities or interests of individual students.

The main argument is that there are no legitimate alternatives to the traditional structure, and I think this is rather disingenuous. Multiple pathways within the existing structure aren't that hard to imagine. Why not let a kid who loves learning about other cultures take a dozen history, geography and languages with one practical math course like "tax returns and personal finances", and maybe one science course covering the history of science and environmental issues? Flogging students with years of advanced science and math who have no interest in (or future application for) the information is obviously pointless. Not everyone will be a scientist or engineer. Unfortunately, even that level of change doesn't seem likely any time soon. The best some have come up with is to revise high school diplomas to layer on things like employability skills in addition to the "required" courses. Ugh.

Interaction Design for Offshore Development

I guess I have a soft spot for Alan Cooper because he's sort of the godfather of interaction design as a discipline, and his book was influential in getting my current position created at Bridges. I sometimes disagree with their stuff, but it does get me thinking.

Today's Cooper newsletter has an interesting article about designing products for offshore development. In my previous ruminations on outsourcing, I left out my belief that interaction design may be one of those jobs less likely to be sent offshore. Not to say that some parts of the design process couldn't easily be exported, but someone still has to decide why a product should be built and what exactly it should do (how it looks, behaves, functions). Although the article focuses mostly on creating documentation for outside developers, it also reads like a manifesto for good interaction design in general, and contains gems for instructional design or e-learning production regardless of where the code is written.

Education Arcade

Water Cooler Games has great coverage of the Education Arcade conference. Stephen pulled out some interesting quotes from Brenda Laurel, who like me, is skeptical about the education system ever embracing video games. Not that kids can't (and shouldn't be) learning from games -- it's just that their goals are totally different:
"School teaches basic skills. It used to do a pretty good job, but now we have a crisis. Starting i n the 20th century, school also provides socialization and, more importantly, also babysitting while parents go to work. School teaches test taking behavior. And school teaches about authority: teachers know more and have more power; students have no power. Students' ability to express agency is limited to 'petty transgressions' or 'achievements of excellence' within the structure provided by the school."
Amen. A quick search directed me to some of her excellent writing, particularly Making Better Media for Kids. A couple of quotes I liked:
"I asked Mark, if you wanted to design computer games that appealed to boys without a lot of violence, what characteristics would the games need to have? His answer was simply, 'empowerment.' We need to come up with some representation of personal agency other than violence."
"Our heroine, Rockett Movado, was unique in her ability to see the possibilities open to her and to make conscious choices about what to do next. Our products allowed girls to try this skill and to see how things might turn out differently depending on what moods, attitudes, or choices we bring into the next moment."

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Value of a Career Counsellor

One of my key areas of interest is finding better ways to help people make career transitions, particularly from school to work. Traditionally, this kind of transition has been facilitated by the school's career center and/or career counsellors. Considering the number of kids who come out of high school and college with no real direction or sense of what they have to offer, you'd think that would be a pretty important role.

Gwen sent me this job posting today. The University of North Carolina is hiring a full-time Career Development Counselor with a masters degree. The list of responsibilities is extensive and demanding. The salary range? $27,038 - $31,000, which basically means that the supply of qualified applicants is too high, and/or that the demand for career counsellors is very low. Sure seems undervalued to me.

Thinking About the Purpose of Education

Chris Corrigan bounces off of Doug's comments about the absurdity of assuming that every kid should be going to university after high school for a four-year degree. I liked Doug's approach, but Chris takes it to a deeper level:
"The most important thing we can offer children, whether in school or not, is an ongoing reflective conversation that facilitates their own understanding of their own learning style. This meta-learning trumps all the content we can stuff into their skulls because it encourages them to engage with the act of making meaning out of the world, a critical skill for evaluating one's own place in society, and the contexts in which one operates."
Robert Paterson was thinking along similar lines a couple of weeks ago (and I like Chris's simple comment there too) when he wrote: "What would it be like to acknowledge that a child has everything he needs within him and that society's great task is to help him find his true self?" Ahh, I'm a sucker for big questions like that....

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

School Vouchers on the Left

Nervous Michelle offers her take on the school voucher debate. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the issue, but it's personal for her...she's taught in a public school and had a less-than-stellar experience, and sees that she'll have a really hard time paying for the obviously superior private school for her kids. She and I both want to support the public system, but perhaps our expectations for our kids precludes our interest in the collective good.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Manitoba Association for Distributed Learning and Training

I so wish that I had heard about this MADLaT conference at my alma mater in Winnipeg this week. I would have gone in a second, if only to see a few of the excellent presenters like Paul Little, who inspired me with this enthusiasm over coffee a few years back, Diane Janes, who has been the best instructor I've had in my masters program so far...never mind the always enlightening George Siemens presenting on Art of Blogging and summarizing a presentation by Stephen Downes'. I would have loved to discuss my administrative hassles with the head of student services in distance programs at Memorial, Bruce Belbin and get a refresher on e-portfolios from Lifia founder Kathryn Barker. Oh well, maybe next year.

As an aside, the Blogger spell-checker doesn't recognize the word "blogging", which is kind of funny. But not as funny as the word it suggests to replace it: "flogging". Seems sort of apt.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Is a Degree Still Worth Having?

George asks the right question and links to an interesting article from the BBC: Is a Degree Still Worth Having?. An insight from the UK that applies equally well over here:
"The report found that the real skills shortage was not for degree-qualified workers but for skilled technicians in construction, engineering and information technology. It criticised the government's target of 50% of young people going to university as 'arbitrary' and said it reflected the needs of neither the economy nor young people."
Doug often wades into this one and he wrote eloquently about the same topic this week:
"The status of any given educational credental provides little value when it's in abundant supply. There are an increasing number of highly educated, debt-laden, unemployed young people who are quite unhappy with those of us who implied that a college degree was a ticket to a healthy, self-reliant life. Those days are gone."
I know, I'm starting to sound like a broken record on this stuff.

This Teaching Life

Scott Bulfin is doing wonderful things with blogs in his classes. This excellent English unit uses blogs to teach about blogs. The course blog becomes a makeshift LMS, creating quite a nice little class community that could reach beyond the school walls very quickly. Each student gets a blog for their assignments, which tend to be open-ended enough to give them some latitude to inject some of themselves into the process. Kieran's is probably representative of the average -- more than just jumping through hoops, but not writing volumes.

Hipteacher has also been discovered by the edubloggers this week. She's hip indeed, probably the kind of high school teacher we always wished we had. Young, independent and creative, with good taste in music and no fear of using technology, she makes you wonder how education will be transformed if we see a whole generation of teachers like her roll through the system.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

E-Portfolio Levels of Maturity

Portfolios to Webfolios and Beyond: Levels of Maturation
On a first skim-through, I was excited about this paper. It's thorough, clear and focused on the goals of e-portfolios, which I'm currently immersed in. The paper even includes a couple of decent case studies at the end, which is always nice. The authors used eight criteria to develop five ascending "levels of maturity" for portfolios:
Level 1 - Scrapbook
Level 2 - Curriculum Vitae
Level 3 - Curriculum Collaboration Between Student and Faculty
Level 4 - Mentoring Leading to Mastery
Level 5 - Authentic Evidence as the Authoritative Evidence for Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting
I was still with them at this point, and I was busy admiring their charts when I realized that I don't at all agree with their approach to e-portfolios. Their main considerations reveal the focus of their recommendations: "value to the student, value to the employer, value to the educator, value to the educational institution, potential for contributing to digital equity within the educational institution, and expense involved in developing the portfolio/webfolio." Although "value to the student" is first on the list, it gets quickly trampled by the other five considerations, which are all focused away from the student.

The basic assumption here is that the goal of any portfolio initiative should be to have portfolios eventually replace high-stakes testing. That sounds admirable enough, but their top couple of levels of maturity look a lot like high-stakes assessment to me: linking everything to pre-defined standards, departmental goals and taxonomies. The portfolio starts to be an extension of the most formalized components of traditional schooling, serving the interests of the institution. I'm generalizing, of course, but as soon as you apply rigid standards to a portfolio, I feel that it ceases to be a portfolio. It just becomes a series of assignments, which decreases the chances of students engaging in the process in any way -- they're just jumping through hoops.

I'd probably be tempted to reverse their scale, putting standard-driven (and probably template-driven) portfolios at the bottom of the heap. A few steps up would be something more student focused, probably involving as much personal reflection as possible, with the design/content starting to reflect the goals of the individual, and all of this activity preferably taking place within groups of likeminded souls. At the highest level of maturity, you'd see something like Stephen's Web -- a collection of experiments, polished work, musings, photographs, connections to people, documents, tools and resources of every stripe that have developed over time. The organization, design and contents of the portfolio should reflect the individual, not the institution's goals.

Via Michelle