dev.wpmued is live! Calling all WordPress in education developers to contribute.

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:

WPMU For Education blog

The basic idea is an aggregation blog for “WPMU for education” developers. Jim Groom provided a blog from his WPMUEd domain so that a new channel, dev.wpmued could be created. I used the Add Link Widget with FeedWordPress to turn this blog into an aggregation of content from developers who are working on developing WPMU in education using the method that Jim and I came up with. I seeded it with a few of my often read WordPress MU in education blogs (myself, Jim, D’Arcy, Boone, OLT and CUNY Dev). Continue reading “dev.wpmued is live! Calling all WordPress in education developers to contribute.”

Current Wordle

Clint Lalonde recently wrote about using Wordle as a reflective tool in order to decide whether the blog posts that he wrote for class were on topic. I like that idea a lot.  It also reminded me of thoughts that opened09 had circling in my head. Over time, a writer’s skill and focus changes, that is a given. But how to monitor this? I think Wordle provides a visual representation that is simple and powerful. I will try and take wordle snapshots of this blog every few months and compare them, mostly out of interest, but also as a way of reflecting on my own constantly changing passions and motivations.

So here it is, 17 August 2009, the Wordle for all my content is:

my Wordle
my Wordle

Blackboard (and other closed LMS systems) make university a rip-off

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?

My blackboard welcome screen
My blackboard welcome screen

Social Media Classroom – Training wheels that don’t come off.

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.social media classroom

Scott Leslie set up an installation of Social Media Classroom the other day and offered for others to take it for a spin. I gave it a try and here is what I think.

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 ReadWriteWeb said 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Related from around the web:

http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2008/08/20/social-media-classroom/

http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=45674

http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/the_social_media_classroom_a_new_platform_for_education.php

Personal Learning Environments

From Sonson on Flickr
From sonson on Flickr... click on image to go to source

At CELC 2009 I was part of a panel of students that tried to answer the question: Personal Learning Environments. What do students think? The other students on the panel were Angeli and Zack. Cindy Underhill was the mastermind that brought us all together and did a superb job of directing things.

So what did us, the students have to say about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)? I don’t know how much I can speak for Zack and Angeli (although we did agree on the majority of things), but here are my (heavily supplemented) answers to the core questions that Cindy asked:

1) What do we know about how students define personal learning environments?

For this question I avoided the (arguably defunct) definition of PLEs as an environment that educational technologists create for students to learn in (nobody even brought it up in the session). Instead, I defined it as “the environment in which I learn” (I think a lot of people are starting to agree with this definition as well). This includes a bunch of distributed technologies (a topic that I regularly blog about), but it also includes other things, like my classmates, my roommates and very big pieces of paper. This is important, so everybody in ed-tech listen up: you cannot create an entire PERSONAL learning environment for students! It is impossible. Every student has their own way of learning, every student evolves their environment continuously (look at how my tools have changed) and any one tool will be obsolete as quickly as any other piece of technology. Don’t despair though… there is still plenty of work for you to do. What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn. The process should be as follows:

  1. Find out where the gaps are in the student’s learning
  2. Fill the gap with an easy to use tool.
  3. Let them know it exists and show them how to use it (the part, in my opinion, that professors and educational technologists are worst at).

I didn’t get a chance in the session to really flesh that out… but there you have it. Give me the tools and let me use them to build my own environment.

2) How do PLEs contribute to the development of learning competencies?

With my definition above, this question doesn’t make too much sense. The reality is, that a PLE only really contributes to the development of a student’s “learning competencies” when they know what the hell that means. Or when they care. Students don’t often take the time to think about how their current study techniques are actually helping them to learn. They just study and pray that they pass the exams… which brings me to the next question…

3) Are PLEs effective without educational reform?

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
Image via Wikipedia

The answer is… only a tiny bit. My PLE is helping me to get good grades… not to learn. In fact, because of how education works, most students don’t have PLEs… they have “PGGEs” (Personal Grade Getting Environments)! At the end of the day, that is what most students really care about. Why shouldn’t they? As Cindy said in her follow-up post “We’ve structured the education system this way, it’s not their fault”. I am often way too busy memorizing things to actually learn them.  Learning takes time and effort… it also takes practice and conversation, it is much more efficient to get good grades by memorizing the textbook. This is not only a curriculum problem, it also has to do with the whole way degrees are structured. A Small anecdote for a recent event in my life:

After speaking to someone in Science advising I realized that I will not graduate from University if I do not take the second introductory (1st year) Physics course. I took the honours version of the first course and scored 87%.  I would dearly love to take a 4th year Psychology course on human behaviour instead… but if I do take it, I won’t graduate. The irony is that for me, the Physics course will be a breeze, I will ace it easily.  I find it so easy that it doesn’t interest me at all. If I took the Psychology course I would enjoy it a lot more. It would also be a lot more difficult and I would actually learn something new. It would contribute far more to my plans for the future than the Physics course.

Seems wrong doesn’t it? That same story is being told by countless times hundreds of thousands of students all around the world.  Then professors complain that the students are not interested in the stuff they teach. If you give students the freedom to choose what they will learn and emphasize through proper assessment that they are there to learn and not just there to get good grades, then students will be interested. I would bet my life on it.

Conclusion to that long-winded rant: Without educational reform students don’t care about learning, therefore their “learning environment” is severely neglected, making it ineffective.

4) What’s your role in supporting the development of personal learning environments?

This was kind of a double-edged question… one for us to throw back at the audience. My comment that I threw back out to the audience was this:

You cannot expect students to think about and improve on their learning if you are not modeling the behavior and seeing what works and what does not.

They may all have finished formal education, but in this information age we all have to continually learn and the better we are at it, the more successful we will be. My challenge then, to anyone who reads this post is:

Think about your own personal learning environment. Really dig deep and figure out what contributes most to how you learn. What distracts from that learning? Now, patch, build and experiment with your own environment to try and improve it. You will find yourself much better off for doing it.

If you are involved in education at any level and you cannot do what I have asked above… then you are really incapable of helping students do it as well.

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The two fundamental problems of education

OLPC pilot Thailand - Ban Samkha - hiking
Image via Wikipedia

While attending the 2009 Canadian e-Learning Conference I was suddenly struck by the fact that there were two very different ways that people were trying to better education. There are simply two things that need to be accomplished before education is fixed. These are:

  1. Access
  2. Reform

Access is an obvious challenge, there are too many people in the world that do not have access to a good education.  Reform on the other hand is less obvious, but also necessary, even the best education that is given to the wealthiest of people is deeply flawed and missing something essential, that education has to be fixed.

Now, here is the problem, where do we devote the most of out attention in order to have the maximum impact possible? On the one hand, giving the uneducated even the most basic education seems to be the most important, but again, do we want to be giving them a deeply flawed education? However, we can’t ignore those that suffer while we slowly chip away at the entrenched problems that education currently faces.

Since both are necessary, the only real course of action is a two-pronged approach. Whenever dealing with one problem we need to constantly be mindful of the other. This can be done as they often go hand in hand. The best example of this has to be the open education movement. By creating open and free educational resources (as well as encouraging their re-use) we not only provide access (by lowering the cost of providing/consuming education) but also help with reform, as we allow (and encourage) educators to build on and refine what others have done… creating something much better, instead of continually reinventing the wheel.

Of course, open education is not the only way that we can marry these two goals. The one laptop per child initiative, efforts to utilize technology in the classroom, project-based learning and a whole host of other movements and projects are capable or bridging the gap between these two fundamental educational goals. All that it takes is some thought, creativity and awareness. I challenge anybody who is working to try and improve education to really think about which one of the problems they are currently addressing and to look for ways to augment their effectiveness by addressing the other problem.

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Seth Godin: Create a movement

If you are one of the people who watches the TED talks often (and if you are not, it is in your best interest to become one) then you have already seen the video below.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

I was introduced to the phenomenon that is Seth Godin by my friends Rob Winson and Matt Corker. Seth Godin is one of the most revered marketing gurus of our time.

In this TED talk he talks about the importance of creating movements or “tribes”. He says that every now and then “someone stands up and says: this one is important”. This is a cause that I am passionate about and I want to organize people around me to help get something done. He ends with “go out and create a movement”.

:en:Seth Godin
Image via Wikipedia

My movement is simple. Let us help to fix education. Education is broken. There has to be a better way to teach human beings to contribute to society than what we are currently doing. Studying textbooks and tests are an incredibly inefficient way of learning. Humans have evolved to rely on education. We have stopped adapting physically and are using education to drive our adaptation. In order to continue to evolve and create the best society that we can, our education system has to evolve. The fact that things are being done the same way that they were done 100 years ago is crazy. Education has to be fixed.

Now of course I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to fix education, nobody. I have some ideas, but they are not guaranteed to work. What is needed is for students, educators, parents and anybody else involved in education to experiment openly and to document their successes and failures. For people to realize that things are not working and for them to work to improve them. With critical mass, we can change things.

So, wanna join my tribe?

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Grading on a curve. Making students evil?

Disney - Evil Emperor Zurg!
Image by Express Monorail (Hiatus) via Flickr

While studying for my recent test in Artificial Intelligence, I used Quizlet (still an awesome service) to create a deck of flashcards in order to help memorize all of the terms. As I was about to post the link on the class discussion board so that others could use it, I hesitated. The reason for my hesitation? I asked myself, “if the grade for this test gets curved? Would others using this possibly lower my grade?”

The answer to the question is of course yes. If the grade had been curved my helping the rest of the class would have hurt me. I posted the link in the end but am still disgusted by the fact that I even considered not sharing with others just to improve my own grade. I am even more disgusted by the fact that I have to make that choice. What if I was really into getting good grades (although we all know what I really think of grades)? Could I mislead people on discussion boards or during study groups in the hopes of bringing down their grades and increasing my own? How many students do this at the moment? Yuck!

So, the model of curving grades is broken. If it fosters malicious competition then it is not a model that should be used. The model cannot just be thrown out though, as it is very useful.It protects students from professors who have lost touch with just how difficult their material is. It helps to make sure the course grades from year to year are consistent. So how to fix the model?

My one proposal is to give students who work towards increasing the understanding of their fellow students some form of bonus grades. If a student can provide proof of the fact that they helped to increase the understanding of their peers then they should be rewarded in some way. Sharing is a good thing… not a punishable offense!

 

Update: The actual test that I took was not curved in the end. In fact it was a really well written test with all the questions relating directly to the learning goals of the course and most students in the class did really well. I still have many other courses where grade curving and scaling will be applied this year, but Artificial Intelligence isn’t one of them. 

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A problem with learning outcomes… and mayby curriculum in general

A line through 20 points?
Image via Wikipedia

Having clear learning goals in a course has been a great step forward for education.  In courses where this practise is used (and used well) students know exactly what they will be able to do if they successfully learn the material in the course. There is also a clearer view of what the practical requirements are for what they have to do to prove that they have learnt what they are supposed to learn.

The problem comes when you don’t really agree with the learning outcomes of a course. Now, I know that any course contains core material, but at the same time students should have the freedom to decide what they concentrate on. For example:

I am currently taking a course called “Numerical Approximation and Discretization”. The learning goals boil down to “understanding, selecting, utilizing, assessing and creating” different Numerical Approximation techniques.studying

Now, I will never have a career in numerical approximation. However, I might find it useful to understand and select techniques of numerical approximation in some future research that I do. I will probably never have to create my own technique so why should I learn how to do it? Or even more importantly, why should I be assessed on my ability to do that? Would it not be possible for us to be provided with a range of possible learning outcomes for a course and let us choose the ones that we want to pursue? Those can then be tested more rigorously. We would still be exposed to the other things, but will be allowed to concentrate on that which we are passionate about. I don’t think that this is that far fetched, for instance I already get to choose the courses in the program that interest me, why not have a choice over the goals within those courses?

I know that any form of granularity makes a professor or curriculum committee’s job much harder. However, in courses where assessment is already based around certain outcomes I feel it would not be too difficult to weight assessments based on the student’s preference in outcomes.

It all really boils down to this: Should students have some kind of input on their goals learning goals for a specific subject, or is that something that should only be decided by a curriculum committee?

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The problem with grades

Yesterday I followed a link from D’Arcy Norman to this article in the Globe and Mail about a professor who was fired because he gave all of his students A+ grades so that they could focus on the learning instead of worrying about grades. While reading the very humorous comments I stumbled across a reference to this Calvin and Hobbes comic:

© Universal Press Syndicate
© Universal Press Syndicate

It highlights what I hate most about the way the world conducts education.

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