Friday, June 24, 2005

Really Using the Web for Learning

I dug up two non-education articles today, both focusing on the bigger picture of what's working on the web from a business perspective. Both have direct implications for an educational future where people have choice in how (and where, and who with) they learn.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Relinquish Control offers a snappy take on how designers (web, instructional, whatever) should be looking for opportunites to connect users to what they want, no matter where it is, and not be focusing on constraining them:
"Relinquishing control is a scary prospect because it diminishes certainty. With control comes predictable outcomes that you can bank on. But in this increasingly complex, messy, and option-filled world, we must acknowledge that our customers hold the reins. Attempts to control their experience will lead to abandonment for the less onerous alternative. What we can do is provide the best tools and content that they can fit into their lives, and their ways."
The second article (thanks, Dave) looks at the fall of Excite in the face of Google's dominance -- Lessons from Silicon Valley. I liked this quote, especially while thinking about the contrast between an industrial approach to schooling (process the greatest number of people) and the future of learner-driven, networked learning:
"The 20th Century mass production world was about dozens of markets of millions of people. The 21st Century is all about millions of markets of dozens of people."

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Happy Birthday to It (again)

I missed this blog's birthday, making my general neglect of it all the more apparent. Unlike last year's blog birthday angst (and the lengthy follow-up), I'm not feeling strongly about the process or the product of what's been happening here. As I look through the posts, I see that it's mostly turned into a link blog, which reflects the lack of time I've devoted to it and is closer to what I started doing two years ago. I'm figuring out that my interests in this field are pretty narrow, and not often shared by many others, which is fine.

Part of what I hoped to do last year was focus some blogging energy on more specific projects with more tangible outcomes, and I've done that in the past year. I've collected a year's worth of material for my thesis project in my lifestylism blog, and started a community blogging experiment that turned into a citizens' association web site. Both of these projects have been satisfying, and I'm realizing that this blog is still important to me for different reasons.

To those of you who are still reading, thanks for coming along for the ride and staying in touch.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Merritt Workshop: Online Learning Communities

The first half-day session I chose in Merritt was called Online Communties: Virtual environment for networking, collaboration, and communication. It struck me again that you can't "skim" at a conference, because I would have liked to attend all of the morning sessions, but I was glad I ended up in this one.

SFU's Co-op Community

Quentin Beck talked about the site they've set up for SFU's Co-op Education Program. It has a fantastic look -– with the photos of people and clean layout, it feels inviting and personal. Not that looks are everything, but so many of these educational sites and applications are so clunky and ugly that the interface creates barriers to further exploration.

I thought that one of the best features of the site was the ability to browse student profiles in each academic discipline (scroll down). So if you're a student considering a co-op option for human resources, you can see profiles of the students who have done work terms in that discipline. Clicking into a profile gives you the student's take on their experience and work-term employer, even including contact information if you're logged in. Potential employers can also browse profiles for their recruiting efforts. It's fairly simple and powerful, offering great networking potential. I imagined the value for a high school student trying to get a sense of a potential post-secondary program and what kind of work it might lead to.

Although this is a definite strength of the site, I'm not sure that it constitutes a community, at least not in the sense that I understand it. It's fantastic marketing and provides a great information resource. It gives the impression of a student-driven network, but all of the content in the profiles is carefully monitored, edited and approved by the webmasters. They can't have co-op students slagging employers. So although the exercise may be reflective for the students, the primary utility is for the institution -- it's more about marketing than the spirit of blogging or community-building. I don't mean that as a criticism. This is a very specific focus, and it appears to be working exceptionally well -- but calling it a community seems to stretch the definition.

This attempt to balance institutional control and personal freedom is interesting. It appears that the discussion boards are more free-form (although still moderated), but there hasn't been a lot of activity in there considering the overall usage and number of members. Other than that, the rest of the site has all kinds of learning resources that apparently get a fair bit of traffic: job interview practice, resume help, portfolio guidance, and work trends. They built the site themselves over a year and a half and adapted open-source tools for some sections.

Learning Times

The next two communities we saw in the session came across a bit like sales pitches for Learning Times, which is a very expensive subscription-based application for creating hosted online communities that reminded me of what the big LMS vendors are offering -- packed with features and locked away behind virtual fences. Paul Stacey was representing BC Campus, but he's also affiliated with Learning Times -- he presented BC Campus's online communities for educators. These are closed systems, so I can't show you what they look like. If you're not directly associated with a BC public university, you can't even view their main community as a guest.

This one is more open, but still requires registration and login to read an article. I understand the need for permissions and security, but these kinds of sites just don't feel like part of the web -- they seem to represent the opposite direction of the best possible future for the web. They do not enrich the wider network or take advantage of it.

We also saw an online community for this fascinating research project, also hosted by BC Campus/Learning Times at the cost of about $8000/year, which would be way more if they weren't associated with BC Campus. I wonder why they wouldn't have gone with Bryght or IncSub for a tiny fraction of the cost, with better interfaces and open-source foundations? It seems like they might have succumbed to feature-itis, thinking they needed every possible networking feature (chat, listserv, message board, blogs, permissions, etc) all in one application, rather than choosing separate tools as needed.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Merritt Workshop

Last week I attended BCCampus's Spring Workshop on Educational Technologies in Merritt. As usual, I learned more over beers with new friends than I did in most of the official sessions, but that's kinda the point of these things, right?

I picked the all-day session on e-portfolios with David Tosh and Kele Fleming. There were lots of interesting tidbits in the first part of the day, but my notes are focused on overlaps with my own interest in planning portfolios. Here are my highlights and ideas in point form, because I'm too lazy to craft decent paragraphs out of my scribblings:
  • David talked about the UK's focus on Personal Development Planning for Higher Education, which will require university students to have their own PDPs by 2007 -- this is an obvious example of the convergence between e-portfolio implementation and the type of work I'm doing with Bridges on career and education planning
  • Further to that career planning/e-portfolio connection, Kele mentioned that she's been noticing a trend toward e-portfolio implementations in universities that are initiated in the schools' Career Centers. That seems like a real difference from what I was hearing a year or two ago, when portfolios were going to be used primarily for collecting artifacts and assessing coursework -- I like this "new" focus on personal portfolios for planning the future. I need to do more research on what college career centres are up to these days.
  • For the reality check along those lines, they mentioned York's cancelled project to initiate e-portfolios from their career centre. It reminded me that I hadn't checked back on Karina's excellent project blog for a while -- it struck me that her research probably helped her organization realize that they weren't ready for e-portfolios on the scale they thought...but then after the project died, smaller groups (faculties, departments) started poking around and asking her questions about e-portfolios. This is significant.
  • Universal, one-size-fits-all e-portfolio solutions seem destined to fail in universities. Successful implementations will be more focused on very specific learning goals (maybe documenting your student-teaching experience) within smaller groups. I wonder how many organizations will go further in the process than York did and build or buy complex campus-wide portfolio "solutions" that don't get used because they never properly figure out what they are trying to accomplish? E-portfolios are in buzz mode...still generating more light than heat.
  • Kele talked about an initiative with Paul Stacey to explore connections between BC's portfolios and post-secondary admissions. Cool idea, but there seemed to be some skepticism in the group about it. Having talked to my operative in UBC's admissions department, it seems a bit far-fetched -- they've got a very specific assembly line approach to applications that leaves no room for personal expression.
  • We had a good discussion about whether employers will value e-portfolios for hiring, and the consensus seemed to be a general mockery of the concept in our group. I tried to reframe it a bit: the portfolio as a rich representation of someone's professional and intellectual identity that would only be important to the employer when they were down to a few finalists for a position, rather than the portfolio being seen as an uber-resume used for filtering out hundreds of applicants. The group was curious about my on-the-fly example of current employers googling an applicant and using the search results as a sort of emergent e-portfolio for the applicant that was never intentionally assembled. They didn't much like this idea, but it's the reality already.
  • We covered some of the tired process/product talk and assessment for learning vs. assessment of learning -- no real insights here, but it was good to talk a bit about student resistence to the whole thing, either assessed or not.
  • There was some discussion about "selling" the benefits of e-portfolio usage to students and instructors, but I’m not convinced that you can dress them up to make them “cool”. Apparently students want to see examples of good portfolios, and they also want to see their instructor’s portfolio ("why should we do them if you're not even bothering to try?").
  • Dave talked about the importance of social interaction and customization (personal control over the appearance of portfolios). The former got me thinking about obstacles, especially how hard it is to get students to blog and create connections around curriculum -- why are they going to care enough in an assigned portfolio project to really get into it?
  • In the second half of the day, we got to work with three e-portfolio applications to compare their philosophy and interaction, which was really interesting. The Open Source Portfolio is a glorified resume builder with a terribly clunky interface -- it felt like punishment to have to use it for half an hour. The interface for KEEP Toolkit was way worse, using all kinds of bizarre interaction that seemed to ignore the past five or six years of usability and web development. I failed to see why anyone would use it for anything. As I've written elsewhere, ELGG was great, but people seem to have a hard time seeing it as an e-portfolio solution.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Class Mobility and College Dropouts

Via George comes this interesting story about rising numbers of college dropouts. Even more fascinating in the context of my thesis project were the links off to an excellent interactive exploration of class mobility (Flash). As educational technology, it's a great example of a fairly simple learning object that helps people understand a heavy-duty concept.

Looking at the actual content of the interactive display and the article, I'm interested in how we're generally sending more people to college, but more are also dropping out. Check out the differences between how people from different socioeconomic levels perceive their prospects and the value of education. I was also fascinated by the grid comparing incomes and education levels and seeing how it changed for different types of occupations.