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.

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