I just finished presenting a workshop on Personal Learning Environments to around 300 international students for UBC’s JumpStart international orientation. I think it went really well, but for anybody reading this that went to the lecture, don’t hesitate to comment below on how I could improve.
I just watched the movie “Idiocracy” as recommended by Brian and Joe. In the words of d’Arcy Norman“damn. that movie was depressing, funny, and awesome”. It tells the story of a distopian future, where due to the fact that smart people have less children than stupid people, by the year 2500, smart people have died out. Everyone is incredibly stupid. Those left spend their time drinking “Brawndo, The thirst mutilator. It’s got electrolytes!” and watching people get kicked in the balls on television. It’s a future where everyone behaves exactly as Kraft, Walmart, etc want us to behave. It’s a brilliant cautionary tale and I highly recommend watching it.
Will it happen though?
Is there a possibility that humanity is doomed to get dumber? I think yes. There are many different reasons why this may or may not be so (all of which better suited for a non-wee-hours-of-the-morning post), but I think the largest of those is that in a world of stupid people, the corporations win. Corporations are psychotic entities that would do anything to get us to behave as they want and they have a lot of power (as described in another thought-provoking move, the Corporation). The power is evident everywhere. They are doing their damndest to use all media at their disposal to dumb-down children and make them into perfect buying machines, doing their bidding.
How do we stop it? We fight back in the schools. If education can be revolutionized (and there are many smart people working on it) then we can teach the young how to take back the power from the corporations and to make them do our bidding instead. Eating healthy, exercising, learning and being compassionate are what smart people do and we need to ensure that despite the corporation’s efforts, everyone is given the tools and motivation to do so.
This is a war, it’s humanity VS. the corporations.We are fighting to see who controls who. If we get real about being flexible and innovative enough to fix education and make it a place where people learn to become smart enough to take back power from our creations.
The one thing that really struck me about IE was the concentration on narratives. In the book students are given an arbitrary topic when they start school (for example “leaves” or “wind”) and work on a portfolio around that subject for their entire school school career). They are then guided by portfolio mentors to apply everything they learn to this topic. So for instance, when learning about metaphors, they are asked to find metaphors in literature involving leaves. When learning about area, they can find the best way to estimate the area of different kinds of leaves. This way of teaching serves the duel purpose of not only making students an expert in their topic, but also
gives them something tangible to relate their learning in all areas to. It forces them to develop a habit of applying the things they learn.
Now, I haven’t figured out how I feel about the idea of an “arbitrary” topic (I think students should at least have some influence in the choice of their topics). However, at a university level students like myself should have the power to choose their own topic and follow it through. I chose my topic of improving education (both in method and in distribution) a long time ago but can see many points in my education where I have failed to relate my learning back to that. For instance), why was I bored stiff in my databases class when I could have been finding ways to relate it to my passion? Boring as SQL may be, it can be seen as a powerful upgrade to parts of human language due to its exceptional clarity. The questions I should have been asking myself could have been as follows:
Should everyone learn how database queries work simply in order for them to understand the pure logic that it creates?
Is this type of logic necessary?
Does that kind of thinking make innovation more or less likely to happen?
So many questions could be formed from something as boring as SQL queries. I know that the ones above are very surface level, but that is precisely because I was not thinking deeply about this while they were being taught databases in depth. I have this feeling that I would have been able to draw many deep and meaningful connections.
From now on I intend to try my damnedest to relate everything I learn in school to my central topic and in order to test how powerful this way of thinking can be.
Last week I spoke at ETUG 2010. My talk was entitled “Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective”. In the talk I made a case for user-centered design and then explained the perspective of over 96% of the users of educational technology. Below is the video of my presentation (only starts about 1:50 into the video) and read on for a short summary.
The idea here is that games and school have more in common than does school and life. So perhaps, instead of finding ways of engaging students by turning to real life, we should be turning to game design.
How is school like a game?
Both School and Video games are highly repetitive environments where you overcome deliberate obstacles in order to reach a goal. In both cases, you pay money in order to perform work. I’m going to use one of my favorite games of all time, Diablo 2 as an example in some direct comparisons.
Over the last 6 months I have given two presentations on the ideas of Personal Learning Environments/Networks. The first one was in late August for UBC Jump Start, a 2 week orientation program for students that I attended in my first year at UBC and that provided me with great friends and learning experiences. The second presentation was give at the 2010 UBC Student Leadership Conference, a conference that I have been heavily involved with over the past few years and this year was co-chaired by two good friends of mine, June Lam and Robert Winson. I had some technical difficulties with the first presentation, but the second one went really well, I even won the “best returning presenter” award for it.
This year I am participating in the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge (CCK09) course offered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I was considering taking it for credit, but ran out of time and energy to jump through the hoops needed to make that happen. So instead I am doing it for fun, learning for the sake of learning, because it is a topic that really interests me (I will have to put some of the principles from my very first blog post into practice).
At OpenEd09 I was part of a very necessary conversation. We were talking about different ways in which our respective universities use WordPress MU. The consensus was that in order for us to be truly successful we need to be sharing much more. Sharing our frameworks, sharing our plugins and sharing our hacks. Boone Gorges frames the conversation nicely here and talks about what is needed from developers. Enej and others responded by reviving the OLT Dev blog. However, Matthew Gold rightly said this:
But we need to build more lasting channels of communication soon, lest we miss some important connections
So here is my attempt to provide those connections:
Here is an anecdote (it happened to me today) outlining just one of the many things that is wrong with closed class websites and LMS in general:
I am currently working at a software company as an intern, writing a program. Now of course, as anybody who has taken Software Engineering knows (don’t worry readers who are not in Computer Science, I promise I will not lose you), when you make software you have to provide different types of documentation about it. Things like, why you made it, how it works, how to use it, who is going to use it… all these things and many more have to be written down formally and saved somewhere in order for your software to live a long and happy life.
Now, Software engineering (CPSC 310) is a class that in part teaches you how to write all of this essential documentation. I took this course with Meghan Allen, one of my favorite professors simply for the fact that she teaches like a human being and not an automaton. This is post is no reflection on her, just on the system that she is pushed into using by those above her . Anyway, in the course she would explain why this documentation was needed and how to do it. She would then provide us with careful examples of what it should look like. We were asked to use her examples as reference when creating our own documentation for our class project.
So far so good, pretty normal learning experience. But, we skip ahead to right now. My little program that I am writing for this big software company needs documentation. I remember why, but am very fuzzy on how. What to do? Of course, I can just go back to the example from class an… but wait. The examples were posted in Blackboard. I can’t see them anymore. They were a great resource… utterly useless as I have no way of applying it to a real life situation.
Ok, Well, not utterly useless. I still have the assignment that I handed in (thanks Google Docs for keeping it safe for me). I could still google the type of documentation and find other examples online, which works, although it takes time (less time of course than writing this post). The thing is, I know that the document is a fantastic resource, why should I have to go and search for others? Shouldn’t the university-provided example be better than most things I can find online anyway? Isn’t that the point of somone spending time writing it up in the first place? Money was used to create that example (mine and the government’s) so why should it be a one-time deal used only to help me complete an assignment? Can anybody come up with a sane reason why it should not be available to me always? I feel ripped off, because I had a resource and it was snatched away from me. If it had been given to me in good old-fashioned paper handouts, I would still have it.
This is just one example amongst a sea of them that I am sure most students experience often. I guess most don’t even realize that they are getting a raw deal for the time effort and money they put into the classroom. In three years of university I have taken well over 10 courses with Blackboard components. What do I have to show for it? See for yourself. Below is my list of blackboard courses. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside doesn’t it?
The Social Media Classroom is a web service created by Howard Rheingold that provides a space for students to engage in many of the most popular social networking activities out there. It includes blogs, wikis, forums, social bookmarks, user profiles and chat. The goal is to provide a very low threshold environment for students and faculty to learn about and to use social media as a way of augmenting the classroom.
The Social Media Classroom does exactly what it says that it will do. The user interface is quite impressive, making thing really easy to jump into. Sarah Perez on ReadWriteWebsaid that “its ease-of-use and educational slant make its introduction an impressive and potentially game-changing move for the educational system as we know it”. I think she would be right, if it were not for some big obstacles that the platform faces. These are:
It seems to be closed off and private by default (although this may have just been the system I used). If outsiders can participate (as has been shown by Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Groom and D’Arcy Norman) magic can happen. We need to let the world see what students are doing in university.
The “Social Media Classroom” is missing one little word in the title. A game changer would rather be a “Social Network Media Classroom”. Although students can edit their own profiles in the Social Media Classroom, there is no way to form groups or to add people to their network. The network is often the most powerful part of any social media applications and it is a terrible oversight to not include it.
The training wheels don’t come off. This application is great for students who do not know of, or use social media tools. However, it sucks for those that do. They are not able to use their current networks or applications. Most people who have blogs would want to use their own blogs for a class. Or use their own social bookmarking service. These people (the ones who would be very useful in this environment as they could guide their peers and instructors in the use of social media) will feel alienated and resent having to use the Social Media Classroom. If an education-based social media application is ever to be successful it has to provide an easy way for experienced students to show others the tricks of the trade and for novice students to take the wheels off of the bicycle and use real tools when they are ready for it.
The bright side is that these are relatively easy things for the social media classroom to fix. Jim Groom is already taking care of the training wheel problem at UMW blogs with his BuddyPress, FeedWordPress, WordPress and mediaWiki experiments. UBC’s OLT also has some of this in the works. I’m sure that Drupal is powerful enough to do the same for the Social Media Classroom. The network part simply takes adding some features and making it open… well that should be just flicking a switch.
The Social Media Classroom is a good service and I really wish that more people had taken Scott Leslie up on his offer of trying it out on his hosted server. If you are in education, check out Social Media Classroom. Despite all of my complaints above, I would still far rather use it than any course website that I have ever used (Blackboard or otherwise). With a few simple, yet fundamental changes, it could just be a game changer yet.