21 September 2010

"Chance favours the connected mind"

In between working on the projects on my desk and attending the meetings in my diary for today, I've been listening to Steven Johnson talk about Where Good Ideas Come From on TED, and reading the latest ECAR Research Bulletin: Strategic Directives for Learning Management System Planning.

Johnson is the kind of speaker that we expect from the TED presentations. He is slick, entertaining, and makes a couple of points well, by telling stories to illustrate his argument. His point in this presentation is that innovation happens when the unplanned, emergent, unpredictable power of open, innovative systems is allowed to take us in unexpected directions. The stories he tells in this presentation are about the value of cross-fertilization of ideas, particularly amongst unexpected collaborators. He says that we frequently present new ideas as bolts from the blue, epiphanies that occur without warning. In fact, he says, more often than not, ideas "fade into view". They arrive after a long incubation period, often after a hunch has been cultivated. I'm coming pretty close here to mixed metaphors, so I'll step back from reporting on Johnson's presentation. In any case, you can see the whole thing for yourself – it's only about 20 minutes long.

In the ECAR Bulletin, White & Larusson address an issue that has been up for discussion among my colleagues recently – a classification system for websites created using a Learning Management System.

I am currently using three categories: Campus, Blended, and Distance. These are based on where the students are, and how their course is delivered. My definitions are not dissimilar to those used by many institutions in Australia. They should not be read as hierarchical. Those who are designing learning environments would, I hope, use these definitions to help them decide which kind of site would be the best for the purpose at hand.

1. Campus: The course is designed to be delivered face-to-face. The LMS site provides back-up copies of course materials, i.e. the Course Outline, recordings of lectures, lecture handouts. Student-student interaction is non-existent or minimal (e.g. a social forum may be the only online contact students have with each other). The only online assessment activity, if there is any, is use of the quiz tool, or online submission of assignments.

2. Blended: The course is designed to be delivered partly face-to-face and partly online. LMS-based activities, e.g. discussions, simulations, or quizzes, are core activities designed to enhance learning. They count towards the final mark. Web-conferencing may be used.

3. Distance: The course is designed for students who do not attend any campus-based events, i.e. students who study at a distance from the university campus and are not visited by the lecturer. The full range of online teaching tools is considered in the design of the site, and many are used to their full advantage.
I also talk, in some of my training sessions, about the three sets of tools that an LMS provides – tools of:

• Administration,

• Dissemination, and

• Collaboration and Co-operation.
White & Larusson's categores are Transmission, Evaluation, and Interaction. In their paper, they bring together the ideas that gave me my categories for delivery modes and tool classification options. Their Transmission category matches my Campus category fairly closely, and uses the tools I group together under Dissemination. Their description of their Evaluation category draws on some but not all of the tools I classify as Administration. Specifically, they write of the value of the tracking tools, which allow the lecturer to monitor patterns of access by students. They suggest that information collected in this way about how the group is learning can be used by the lecturer to modify and evolve learning activities over several iterations of a course. Their Interaction category uses the tools I classify as Collaboration and Co-operation. Then, they go on to give us nine points to guide thinking about how an LMS ought to be implemented.

So – to bring these ideas together – I suspect that I am harbouring one of Johnson's "slow hunches". The idea hasn't yet faded into view, so I need to write about it, to put it out there in the world for discussion.

How much learning in a university ought to happen behind the walls of the institution, and how much ought to happen in public? How much student effort (in the form of completed assignments) ought to be made public? If ideas are "networks", as Johnson says, and not "single things", what are the implications for the way we build online learning environments, the way we train our students to think about things and solve problems, and the ways we assess student achievement? If we value innovation, and true innovation comes from collaboration, and ideas are not single things but networks that fade into view as the collective creates them ... what then?

Hmm-mm – I think I need to let this one simmer for a good while longer.

15 September 2010

Thoughts of the day

David Jones posted an entry to his blog today in which he refers to a 2003 interview with Alan Kay.

Kay says, in the interview:
"But I think the big problem is that schools have very few ideas about what to do with the computers once the kids have them. It's basically just tokenism, and schools just won't face up to what the actual problems of education are, whether you have technology or not.
Think about it: How many books do schools have—and how well are children doing at reading? How many pencils do schools have—and how well are kids doing at math? It's like missing the difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won't give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people.

On the other hand, if you have a musician who is a teacher, then you don't need musical instruments, because the kids can sing and dance. But if you don't have a teacher who is a carrier of music, then all efforts to do music in the classroom will fail—because existing teachers who are not musicians will decide to teach the C Major scale and see what the bell curve is on that.

The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.

Educators have to face up to what 21st-century education needs to be about, and start thinking about solving that problem long before they bring the computer on the scene."
Not unexpectedly (to those of you familiar with my opinions on such matters, at least), I find myself immediately attracted to this idea. We all know that giving people hammers and chisels won't turn them into master carpenters any more than putting pianos in classrooms will turn students into musicians. Why then do so many of my tribe* persist in the belief that merely giving university teachers and students access to an LMS will either change teaching practice or improve the learning experience?

Of course, it won't – not without many other changes, most of which can be traced back to the need to ensure that all university teachers are expert in both the body of knowledge that comes from their discipline and also in the practice of teaching.

So ... can we please stop talking about e-learning and focus our attention on good curriculum design and excellence in teaching?

But that's enough of that old groove.

Here's something much more interesting ...

This afternoon I am playing in the background a presentation by the very excellent Michael Feldstein. Feldstein works for Oracle as "software strategist and product manager", and maintains the e-Literate blog. He knows more about Learning Management Systems than most – the culture and the history as well as the architecture and the coding. His presentation – W(h)ither the LMS? – explains why the world is ready for the next generation of LMSs, what they might look like, and how they will be designed and built. Forget discussions about mythical PLEs – listen to Feldstein and imagine a future where online learning environments are properly integrated and truly permeable.

Ahh-hhhh ....

* ... and by "so many", I mean "any".