End of Free Ning Networks: Live Online Discussion: Apr. 20th

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

Ning social networks have been very popular, particularly among educators for whom they meant a free – without ads for K-12 classes – learning environment, with blogs, forums, photo and video galleries, personal pages for members and the possibility to create sub-groups.

But on April 15th, Ning’s new CEO, Jason Rosenthal, announced that they were going to end Ning’s free offer: see Ning Update: Phasing Out Free Services by John McDonald, Ning Creators‘ forum. This is a severe blow,  as there is no simple way to back up a Ning network. Continue reading

Teacher Skills Critical for Success in Online Classes

John AdsitBy John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

The subject of this exchange (“Assuming That Teachers Aren’t the Primary Obstacle to Change . . .“) is near to my heart because it is a problem with which I have struggled for years. I have a somewhat different perspective, though. I chose Bonnie’s post for my reply because of its quotation of the Suzie Boss article.

For many years I have struggled to bring learning activities such as are described in that article to online education. I had to do so in many a different CMS, including WebCT, BlackBoard, eCollege, Moodle, Angel, uCompass, and Desire2Learn. My very first attempts, in 1995, were in pure HTML, writing the code in Pico and corresponding with students in Pine. (Anyone remember those?)

There is no question that the structures of CMS greatly interfered with my ability to do this, and I had to invent many “workarounds” to get something like what I wanted. I was also constrained by the concept of the least common denominator–maybe I had the technology to do something truly innovative, but if my students did not have the computing skills, tools, or bandwidth to participate, I could not use it.

I believe I was successful in doing this to a large extent, but that success uncovered a far larger problem.

When I was managing curriculum, both for an online high school and for a company in the private sector, I led the development of guidelines directing how to implement these kinds of thinking activities into curriculum housed in a CMS. The problem was finding course writers who could do it. I found that it was a rare course developer indeed who understood how to frame constructivist learning activities and authentic learning projects in the first place. If they could not do it in the classroom, there is no way they could do it within the structure of the CMS. For the most part, the teachers we hired started with the notion that a higher order thinking skill activity meant that students had to repeat given facts in a paragraph rather than check them off in multiple choice.

______________________________

It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

______________________________

Once we got meaningful activities designed, we encountered the next problem. The teachers who taught the courses we designed had no idea how to facilitate that kind of learning. They expected that they would only have to grade completed assignments, not interact meaningfully and skillfully with the learning process throughout the course. Without such facilitation, the students floundered.

I recently looked at a BlackBoard-based college course in which the students were supposed to work collaboratively on a group project. It was not going well, and the student complained that this online education stuff just didn’t work. When I looked at it, though, I saw that the fault lay with neither online education in general nor BlackBoard in particular. The project was so poorly set up by the professor that it could not possibly succeed, either online or in the classroom. Given 10 minutes, I could have rewritten it into a format that would have worked well.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

**

Bonnie Bracey-SuttonBonnie Bracey Sutton, 22 Oct. 2009, 9:20 am:

Lots of factors are involved. The way in which teachers are trained, and then there are the divides: the infrastructure divide, the digital divide, the depth of content divide, the cultural idea map on what constitutes knowledge and . . . the tools.

As someone else said, there are so many new ways of working, where is the time to meaningfully evaluate and use what works.

Click here for some suggestions for good practice.

But schools have a culture which is shaped by the leader of the school, most often the principal. So what happens in that space is a result of permission and understanding.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a “revolutionary change” in teacher training, in college programs that train teachers for the classroom, programs that are responsible for educating at least 80% of the country’s teachers. In a speech prepared for delivery today, Duncan said that traditional teacher-preparation programs do not give educators enough classroom experience and do not guide them in using data properly. Officials are predicting about 1 million teaching vacancies over the next four years as veteran baby boomer teachers retire, and teacher training must become a priority.

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 22 Oct. 2009, 12:36 pm:

This speedy medium allows for the exchange of half-formed thoughts–even half-baked thoughts–which are subject to recall after others push back against them, so here goes with a half-formed half-baked thought stimulated by John Adsit’s fully thought out post.

The thought was stimulated by John’s reference to “constructivist activities.” I fancy myself a half-baked constructivist, yet I found myself bristling at John’s use of the term.

And after thinking through the other half of the thought, this is what I came up with:

When I was a college faculty person, I didn’t resist change, I fancied myself a change agent. I did, however, resist change suggested by others, particularly other change agents who looked at my course materials, sighed, and proceeded to suggest changes.

That is, teachers may not be resisting change. They may be resisting change agents.

Looking at my old self honestly, I concluded that I would have resented Lisa Lane and John Adsit and Tom and Jim and Bonnie setting up shop as experts who were qualified to look at my courses, find them wanting, and proceed to describe how they should be changed.

(All this before I left the classroom and set myself up as a full-time change agent.)

Was I one of a kind, or one of a very large type?


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 24 Oct. 2009, 12:03 pm:

I remember most of what you are talking about. My growth and ease in education began with a funded project called Cilt.org. Click here for the link. This will take a little time to look at but it was teachers, professors, research people, companies and even more. We were funded. I participated in several teams. The research findings are there. Time for new funding? Cloud Computing? Participatory Culture? What else?

Assuming That Teachers Aren’t the Primary Obstacle to Change . . .

encounters80Introduction: This encounter began with a comment posted by Lynn Zimmerman to Tom Preskett‘s latest article (“Blackboard Reinforces the Status Quo“). ETC has published variations on this theme in the past, but it seems to be a zimmerman40problem that defies the collective wisdom of educators at all levels. Could it be that we’re barking up the wrong tree? If we assume, for a moment, that teachers aren’t the primary obstacle to change, then who or what is? Why? And what can we do to overcome this obstacle? -Jim S

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 10:38 am:

I’m trying to recall a period of my professional life when “teacher resistance to change” wasn’t used as the master explanation for the failure to improve education. Education seems almost equally divided between insisters on change and resisters to change.

So: some random, hypertextual questions and thoughts for Lisa, Tom, Lynn–and me.

If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

Education budgets are in shock. Institutions have already moved to drastic economies, including the increasing use of poorly paid adjuncts to do most of the teaching. Will adjuncts using Web 2.0 pedagogies be able to instruct more students, fewer students, the same number?

If an institution using the old organizational structures offers 25 sections of English 101 to Freshman, should those sections teach from a common syllabus, or does each instructor set her own goals and choose her own Web 2.0 pedagogy?

Michael SandelA Harvard prof named Michael Sandel–you’ll find him on YouTube–teaches a course called “Justice” that attracts as many as a thousand students: so many that Harvard has to commandeer its theater building for the course. Apparently the students as well as the prof thinks the course generates “active learning,” despite these numbers. Can a lecture really generate “active learning”? (Sandel is now in the process of putting his course online.)

It’s been said before–by me among others–that it’s more useful to think of the system as eliciting the resistance rather than any one element of the system, like the teacher.

Churchill, you remember, started with the building. “We shape our building,” he said, “and then our buildings shape us.” Lecture halls, classrooms, offices, dorms: those structures resist change at least as insistently as teachers.

When teachers leave the existing system–when campus faculty become part of an all-distance learning initiative, for example–their “resistance to change” often ends.

We need to consider changing our explanations for teacher behavior. And that might require overcoming our own resistance to change.

jims40Jim Shimabukuro, 21 Oct. 2009, 12:49 pm:

Steve Eskow: If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

Good question, Steve. The answer’s yes and no. The underlying issue in online learning seems to be ease of use. On the one hand, CMSs (Course Management Systems) such as Blackboard, Moodle, and Sakai are responses to the problem of learning how to move courses online, either fully or partially. The assumption is that an integrated system, or a CMS, is the best method. It’s the Swiss Army knife approach, the all-in-one. Learn one system, and you have all the functions that you’ll need to teach and learn online.

The problem with this all-in-one approach is that users are locked in to a limited set of features. If we compare teaching to building a house, then a CMS is a closed construction system that provides basic tools and materials. The instructor, as carpenter, quickly discovers the limits of her/his tools and resources. After a while, it’s obvious that the house can take on only a limited number of shapes — and it ends up as a little box in a virtual landscape of boxes that all look just the same.

Teachers are, if anything, fiercely independent. They want to own their courses, and they do so by selecting their own required textbooks and resources and developing their own syllabi and learning activities. They demand the freedom to set up their own schedules, assignments, learning activities, and grading systems. They often demand a specific room in a specific time slot. This is what makes teaching an art and so personally fulfilling. The CMSs, for all their purported simplicity, run counter to this independent spirit.

On the other hand, a completely open system such as Web 2.0 is, at least for the novice, bewildering. Where to begin to build a course? How? In comparison, a CMS is a haven of order and simplicity.

From the perspective of an administrator, a CMS is a simple and logical way to move classes online. The alternative is, apparently, chaos.

But is this true?

I’d argue that it’s not. A quick exploration will reveal that all the functions available in a CMS are also available on the web. The difference is that they are not roofed under a single CMS. In a very real sense, the world’s largest, most flexible, most open, and most powerful CMS is the web itself. Instead of just one format for discussions, you have scores; instead of just one format for submitting or presenting papers and projects, you have countless; instead of just a handful of ways to present course material, you have a nearly infinite number.

The point is that once you’ve seen what’s available in the world’s market place, there’s no going back to the single store in your neighborhood.

From the perspective of IT folks who are assigned the task of guiding neophytes into the brave new e-world, the prospect of putting all their effort into a single closed system versus a nearly infinite variety in an open system is very attractive.

But looked at another way, this one-answer approach is shortsighted and ultimately noneducative. If learning is empowering, then this approach stifles learning. In the end, you have instructors and students using a very limited subset of what the web has to offer, and the transfer of learning from the single CMS to the worldwide web is nil. The web remains a scary, chaotic place, and the users are back at square one when it comes to web proficiency.

Returning to your question, Steve: Yes, the students taking five online classes in a web-wide or open CMS (OCMS) would have to learn five different OCMSs. But the critical difference is that all of the parts of the different OCMSs are on the web and the student will quickly learn how to categorize and use them. It’s like getting your bearings in a strange city or highway system. You learn that they all have the same features, and it’s just a matter of adapting to slight variations.

In the end, the student and teachers learn to be at home on the web rather than in the limited confines of a single, closed CMS (CCMS). It’s the difference between being at home in the world and being at home in your neighborhood. Opportunities for creativity and development are unlimited. The outcome is empowerment of the student and the teacher.

Are there problems in guiding faculty in the use of this open approach? There are, but they are far from being insurmountable. In fact, the process can be quite simple. It’s the same ones we use to teach general skills that need to be applied in different ways for different settings. But that’s for another discussion.

Are there other problems, such as security? Yes, of course, but, again, solutions aren’t all that difficult to develop.

When it comes to technology, freedom of choice is a critical factor. Examples abound. All we need to do is look at our choices of cars, cell phones, entertainment, travel, computers, software, etc. The movement is always toward more options than less. We can expect no less in education, in teaching and learning.

Steve, I was planning to respond to some of your other points, but I’ll need to do that some other time.

bbracey40Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 21 Oct. 2009, 12:55 pm:

I enjoyed the GAID Global Forum in Monterrey, Mexico, because every time a person blamed it on teachers. I queried:

Who decides what the curriculum is that teachers use and what flexibility is there in your system?

Who creates the infrastructure for teaching and learning in digital ways and what is the way, the method of teacher professional development?

Is it like a vaccinatioin — one shot and that’s it, or is it sustained and supported?

Access to information: Is it there? What speeds are there? So many teachers don’t have broadband at home.

What access do teachers have (in the US, too) to broadband and the rich resources on the web? Do they have it in school and at home?

What time is allowed to update practice and to learn new media?

GAID2009

The professors from Latin America were saying that the computer should not replace the teacher. I asked how would that be possible or do you mean you have a problem with elearning initiatives while you are being webcast? Why one technology and not the other?

Infrastructure, content, community of practice and support, sustained support for devices and programs, use of tools like T Pack, understanding of Bloom’s taxonomy, digital understanding of cyberbullying and resources — who makes these decisions and are they known?

There is a lot more. What really gets my goat is that other people tell us how to teach and then when it does not work we get the blame. For example, the last 8 years of no science and all of the groups that have gone to Washington complaining about it.

Ms. Spelling killed the teaching of science with NCLB. Example: the teachers in Washington, DC, following the practices that DC accepted have now been weighed by Ms Rhee and found wanting. So who is to blame when schools don’t have a website or teachers don’t have email. Hello?

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 21 Oct. 2009, 1:08 pm:

Great questions. I even get bewildered from time to time with so much on my plate. I was single and so time was not a problem. These days I don’t have the time, though I am an eager advocate of what works. Some things are not to my liking, but in a K-12 school system we usually don’t get to make those kinds of decisions.

Some informed practice requires teacher involvement, reflection, and understanding. Everyone tells me teachers can’t program. That is not true, but programing takes an investment of time and support.

Here is an interesting take from an Edutopia Blog: “Let’s Get Real About Innovation in Our Schools,” by Suzie Boss 10/12/09.

Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 1:40 pm:

I have to brood some about your provocative comments, Jim.

One question occurs immediately.

Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine.

Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize?

On the other hand. . .and there’s always another hand:

The system is professional, tested, flexible. . .and allows you and the rest of us to concentrate on ideas rather than systems and technology.

Jim Shimabukuro, 21 Oct. 2009, 2:28 pm:

Steve Eskow: Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine. Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize?

Good question, Steve. Yes, I think my choice of WordPress (WP) for ETC fits with my views on using the web as an open CMS. ETC uses WP as part of the web — not part of a closed CMS. WP, as used by ETC, is available and accessible to everyone. Anyone can use it to set up a blog for an endless number of purposes. Use it in ETC and become proficient, and the tool is also yours to use for your own purposes. Transfer of learning? Yes, definitely. And it’s free.

I explored four different blogs before deciding on WP. Two were part of packaged systems, a social network (Ning) and a closed CMS (Sakai). The fourth was freely available on the web, Blogger, which is easier to use but not as stable or powerful as WP.

There are other blog programs, but for me, it came down to Blogger and WP. I chose the latter. If there are better open web, free blog platforms, I’d like to explore them.

Is it perfect? Definitely not. But improvements keep coming, and in time, it ought to address many of its shortcomings.

WP doesn’t have the feature you want — email notification of a reply or post — but it probably will someday.

We could shift ETC into the Ning social network (SN), and that would give us the feature you want, I think. I’m not sure how powerful Ning’s blog is. My first impression wasn’t very good. Or we could pour ETC into a Ning discussion forum setup to get the feature you want. But in my mind, we win a battle but lose the war. There are so many more advantages to ETC in the WP environment than in Ning.

This is not to say that WP doesn’t need to beef up its discussion features. It does. But my guess is that WP isn’t fully aware of the potential of discussion in blogs. In time, though, hopefully it’ll learn and turn the discussion feature into a powerful tool that surpasses that found in Ning.

WP’s discussion feature is on a par with most open web blogs that feature posts by selected writers. If a reader comments on an article, he/she doesn’t usually receive notification of comments from other writers. This notification feature seems to be standard for SNs, but not for blogs. But this could change.

I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question, Steve, but if I haven’t, please let me know.

keller40Harry Keller, 21 Oct. 2009, 2:48 pm: In public schools in this country, teachers are the problem and the solution. Because so many classroom decisions are left to the teachers, they can stymie reform and innovation. These days they are underpaid and overworked. When your school sits in a difficult neighborhood and your class size has ballooned, you are a miracle worker if you can have any learning take place. It’s not particularly surprising that they resist new ideas. Besides, many new things get funded for just a year or two. The teachers put in the time to learn about these things and then find that they’ve wasted their time when they disappear.

Teachers are the solution for plenty of reasons that I don’t have time to explore now.

I’m getting ready for CSTA (California Science Teachers Association) and have lots more to do before I leave.

CSTA2009


claude40Claude Almansi, 23 Oct. 2009 12:05 am:

[Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 10:38 PM:] If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

[James N Shimabukuro, 22 Oct. 2009, 12:49 AM:] Returning to your question, Steve: Yes, the students taking five online classes in a web-wide or open CMS (OCMS) would have to learn five different OCMSs. But the critical difference is that all of the parts of the different OCMSs are on the web and the student will quickly learn how to categorize and use them. It’s like getting your bearings in a strange city or highway system. You learn that they all have the same features, and it’s just a matter of adapting to slight variations.

Personal experience: in 2007 Università della Svizzera Italiana foresaw an “intensive French module” for their Master course in Intercultural communication, but they have re-used the same URL for the 2008-10 course), to be given in French and English. I was put in charge of this module (which took place Apr. 16-20) rather late, and with indications about number of participants varying from 3 to 15 until the day before it began. Actually, there were four participants, all already inserted in professional life.

When I asked for access to the Master’s Moodle CMS to store info so that students could concentrate on oral activities without having to take notes all the time, the organizers told me I couldn’t because training in the use of the CMS was only foreseen for after the language modules. I thought it was odd to have to train folks in using (managing maybe, but using?) Moodle, but there was no time to argue, so I made a wiki instead (click here to see what it looked like when we started).

When I showed the wiki to the students, their first reaction was, “Why not the Moodle CMS?” I explained, they raised their eyes to the ceiling, then went at the wiki. None of them had ever actively used one before, but it took them under 5 minutes to get the hang of this one. They liked the idea of not having to take notes all the time, particularly the two (a grand 50%) who had broken their writing arm.

I guess nowadays, a new web app is no problem either for younger students who grew up with Web 2.0 things that are all similar due to their XML basis – see Michael Wesch’s classic video “Web 2.0 . . . The Machine is Us/ing Us” (1).

[Steve Eskow, 22 Oct. 2009, 1:40 AM:] I have to brood some about your provocative comments, Jim. One question occurs immediately. Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine.

(en passant: apart from the RSS solutions I mentioned in the thread about notifications, another work around is to make a comment yourself and check the box for “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”)

Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize? On the other hand . . . and there’s always another hand: The system is professional, tested, flexible . . . and allows you and the rest of us to concentrate on ideas rather than systems and technology.

Blogs can be used as LMS, but wikis – which nowadays are just as easy to use – are definitely more adapted, because they don’t have the linear constrictions of blogs (2). Moreover, wikis keep the history of changes, so if you or a student bungle/s, you can always revert to the former version – most free wiki platforms enable download as a zipped file in 3 clicks of the latest version of the whole thing, some even of all the history. Fewer bloging platforms offer this possibility.

__________

(1) If you’re already using intranets in your work: re “The Machine is Us/ing Us” video (also see the thread in this list about folks annotating stuff “on” one’s page with tools like Sidewiki and Diigo): there are several Diigo annotations on the video page, collectible in 2 clicks – including one by Wesch himself about adding the video to Mojiti (where the video actually disappeared under several layers of comments, which you could fortunately disable if you wanted to see the video).

(2) These linear constrictions can be bypassed: in 2005, I made a mirror of a Tunisian Human Rights site that was being blocked by censorship in Tunisia, in a blogger.com blog: I made a “table of content” entry I dated something like 2100 so that it’d stay on top, then linked in it to the other entries where I copied the pages of the site. But a blog is short for web log, and logs are intrinsically linear, because they are time-based, like diaries. Wikis *offer the possibility* of a time-based reading, through the history feature, but they don’t impose it.

Blackboard Reinforces the Status Quo

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

According to Lisa M. Lane, in “Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching” (First Monday, 5 Oct. 2009):

Course management systems (CMSs), used throughout colleges and universities for presenting online or technology-enhanced classes, are not pedagogically neutral shells for course content. They influence pedagogy by presenting default formats designed to guide the instructor toward creating a course in a certain way. This is particularly true of integrated systems (such as Blackboard/WebCT) . . . . Blackboard “tends to encourage a linear pathway through the content,” and its default is to support easy uploading and text entry to achieve that goal.

I’ve always approached this from the opposite angle and said that VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) are designed for the current education market rather than to improve or change practice in any way. So it’s file repositories and grading books all the way. Remember, unlike Web 2.0, many of these VLEs are commercial products and, in business, you give the customers what they want, and customers don’t want their pedagogy challenged. You also have to remember that a lot of the collaborative tools have been added on as VLEs react to what is going on out in the real world. But when they are add-ons they don’t really impact the intrinsic design or structure. They could redesign as new versions, but they don’t. Certainly, each “new” version of Blackboard is so simliar to the last that it’s almost indistinguishable. Maybe the consistency is important to them, but it’s a real missed opportunity. By the way, I’m quoting Lisa’s use of CMS, but I use LMS (Learning Management System) and VLE. I steer clear of CMS because it can get mixed up with Content Management System.

A CMS must be designed around a central pedagogy: consistency of interface relies on consistency of approach. It is only important to recognize that the interface of any software reflects its intent.

I’d not thought about it in these terms before. Although I agree with this, I’m not sure that Blackboard is designed with any particular pedagogy in mind. I think it’s more a case of designing around the prevailing perception of what teaching is. Moodle is deliberately different. The collaborative tools are much more prominent, and the grading system is rubbish, probably deliberately so.

Lisa then characterises most educators as “web novices.” She says:

These users were trying to reduce their cognitive load by limiting their use of the software, while Web experts were able to keep their goal in mind easily while searching more deeply.

And:

When faced with a different interface or online environment, novices are inclined to utilize only the aspects they understand from a non-Web context.

It’s a double-whammy. First, you have a majority whose personal ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills don’t allow them to easily explore and experiment with the full range of what a VLE has to offer. Second, you have a majority who are content, if not happy, with the prevailing pedagogy of current teaching. Thus, there is no desire or compulsion to embrace, explore, or experiment with software that challenges this. I also feel the knowledge of pedagogy within education is pretty limited, but I don’t base this on any hard facts. Anyway, both these issues are massive barriers to the adoption and use of Web 2.0 type tools . If you’ve read my articles in ETC and my blog, then you’ll know how sad that makes me.

More attacks on the Blackboard functionality:

Most professors think in terms of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved within the context of time, rather than space . . . . Blackboard’s default organization accepts neither of these approaches in its initial interface.

You can, of course, change this, which is what I often advise my academics to do. But why have it like this? What it does validate and reinforce is the notion that content, course news, and grading is all the VLE is good for. It’s not for teaching or learning, but to retrieve information. It’s a passive rather than active relationship, Web 1.0 not Web 2.0.

She continues:

There is more satisfaction in mastering a few elements than in experimenting. Instructors move very slowly into features of the CMS that support less-instructivist models, and experience with the CMS over time does not necessarily lead to more creative pedagogy, or even to more expanive use of system features.

So we have a situation where educators struggle to get to grips with what a VLE can do AND they don’t really want to anyway. That’s not good.

Review of Traxler’s ‘Students and Mobile Devices’

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

I heard that the best ALT (Association of Learning Technology, UK) paper this year was Students and Mobile Devices: Choosing Which Dream by John Traxler so I thought I’d review it.

Generally, it was very interesting and gives a good overview of the implications mobile devices have for education. There were times when the words “mobile devices” could have been replaced with “Web 2.0” and there were points with which I disagree.

Here some of the key passages with my comments:

“Students no longer need to engage with information and discussion at the expense of real life but can do so as part of real life as they move about the world, using their own devices to connect them to people and ideas…”

That’s a great description, isn’t it. Even if you don’t agree with it, it’s great. When you read it, you need to think in terms of multimedia rather than text. However, for the connect part I don’t think we are there yet. Certainly, my iphone doesn’t connect well enough in enough places to be used in this way.

“Interacting with mobile technolgies is different and is woven into all the times and places of students’ lives. Mobile phones have created “simultaneity of place”: a physical space and a virtual space of conversational interaction, and an extension of physical space, through the creation and juxtaposition of a mobile social space.”

Thinking about it, maybe mobile devices more than Web 2.0 in general will have more success in challenging the domination of the didactic lecture. With mobile technologies woven in, education will have to accomodate them and their social nature will slowly creep into the teaching and learning.

“When we say we can ignore desktop technologies but not mobile technologies we mean that desktop technologies operate in their own little world, mobile technologies operate in the world.”

Again, this is catchy, but I think this goes too far. It’s not as if every office space with a computer exists in another world or is outside reality. Anyway, the point is well made that there is a here-and-now aspect to mobile technologies that can surely be utilised by education.
iphone
“With the possibility of perpetual contact, the mobile phone ends in fact by shaping time as a container of potentially continuing connection.”

With the always on connection and a myriad of methods to do so, the only constraints to staying in contact is the consent of the people involved. There are now no restrictions. It’s worth saying that this isn’t all about mobile technologies because once people reach home most switch to laptops/PCs. What this means for education is that it’s one of the more obvious challenges to the ridiculous notion that we learn in neat sessions according to a timetable Monday-Friday. This is part of the formal vs informal learning debate.

“Mobile devices are also eroding physical place as a predominant attribute of space. The phrase absent presence (Gergen, 1996) describes situations where groups of people physically together, co-located, are all connected elsewhere.”

This is challenging the physical buildings of our education institutions. Some good points in this issue have been made in the CreateDebate: UK Higher Education needs more radical change than a debate about who funds it. It’s worth noting that it’s wrong to attribute all these notions to mobile technologies in isolation. I see them as part of the Web 2.0/socail media ethos — an ethos which has at its heart the natural human inclination to communicate, network, and, above all, socialise. I talk about this in my blog post Use Social Media — Fulfill Your Destiny!.

“Educational provision is built around time and place: the timetable, hand-in dates, the classroom, the year-group, the deadline and the laboratory… the education system, especially the formal university system, is getting out of step with how many students perceive the world they live in and… changes are needed to keep universitites aligned to a changed and mobile society.”

This is worth recording because it echoes a sentiment that I agree with: Higher education is behind the schools when it comes to use of learning technologies. Again with the above, you could substitute the word “mobile” with “Web 2.0.”

“These changes and trends will cause significant shifts in the idea of ownership, specifically the ownership of technology and of knowledge.”

This is an important point that relates to learners taking more control of their learning. However, it needs unpicking. From students’ point of view, they are owning when and where they access their learning so there is freedom and choice in that sense. This is important because of the impact that it should have on the way learning is delivered.

“In its earliest forms, knowledge and learning came from lectures, a linear format from an authoritative ‘sage-on-the-stage’ with no pause, fast forward or rewind, and from books, substantial and linear but segmented and randomly accessed. the delivery of knowledge and learning by networked comptuers meant . . . new heuristics of usablity that prescribed how knowledge and learning should be chunked and presented.”

There are two important issues here. First, a major motivation for change from me. The transmissive mode is flawed because if you miss something then you’ve missed it. And if you’ve missed something at the beginning then that’s it for the rest of the lesson. It’s as if part of the challenge of learning is being able to concentrate fully for the entire time. Any mind wandering (something I do) and, well, that’s tough! Any disruption (more on this later) like communication and you’re out!

The other issue is the attempts at chunking of textbooks that I remember from school. We would skip from chapter to chapter in an attempt to follow a contextualised route through the learning. You would think once a better mechanism for achieving this were invented education would jump all over it.

“Mobiles devices extend and enhance this voice because they allow users to capture content, for example images, sounds, data and voices themselves, form the real world, from events as they happen, specific to when and where they happen.”

It’s important to note that the other big area where mobile devices can really make a difference (apart from the “simultaneity of place” issue) is with multimedia. It really is so powerful to be able take videos and photos on the spot and network this immediately.

______________________________

It’s important to note that the other big area where mobile devices can really make a difference . . . is with multimedia. It really is so powerful to be able take videos and photos on the spot and network this immediately.

______________________________

Now some things I disagreed with:

“There are drawbacks. The first is that these developments reinforce a tendency to view knowledge and other forms of content merely as commodities or assets. The second is that this choice and control are exercised at a purely personal level, allowing individuals to each pursue their own curiosity, constructing their own private libraries and inhabiting their own worlds of knowledge. This erodes the idea of a commonly accepted canon, a common curriculum, of things we all need to know and are assumed to know and replaces it with what some poeple have referred to a neo-liberal nightmare — not dream but nightmare.”

With the first point, I don’t really see the problem. How people view the knowledge or engage with the learning is up to them. We don’t need to control how people think. The second point I disagree with. He views greater learner freedom and a loosening of control over educational institutions over any aspect of the learning process as a bad thing. The opposite is true for me. He’s actually describing a utopian PLE. Strange as this passage seems at odds with the spirit of the rest of the paper.

More on disruption: “There is a weak version of disruption that amounts to nuisance; phone calls in class, texting in exams, photographs that should not be taken, inappropriate ring-tones and so on. There is however also a strong version of disruption. These devices allow students to access and store images and infromation of their own choosing and perhaps create and distribute new images and information independently of the lecturers and of the university.”

I would add communication opportunities to this. What he’s challenging here is the notion of disruption as necessarily bad. — a notion that prevails at present. Certainly, mobile devices are seen purely as a nuisance in current educational structures. The weak version description is what they say, but really the strong version of disruption is what they are worried about — worried that they will have to change and accommodate.

On infrastructure: “Wholeheartedly adapting an approach centred on student devices is challenging and radical for institutional IT units. Their roles would change drastically, depending on the institution and its mission, and on its finances.”

Not much to say except yes. But I don’t think, wholeheartedly, adaptation will happen any time soon. Here and now, wifi has to be standard and of a high quality in education and elsewhere.

Some points about formal/informal learning: “We used to make a distinction between formal learning activities in our universities on our equipment and self-motivated learning activities outside our institutions not on our equipment… If we are to embrace student devices, this simple dichotomy breaks down and the boundary becomes blurred.”

This is informal or learning that needs to, first, be acknowledged and then engaged. The breaking down of the boundaries is only troublesome if you teach by habit rather than design. If you have deliberate and informed learning design then catering for this is manageable.

“Guaranteeing e-safety becomes more problematic when on the one hand we encourage the use of student devices for learning but on the other hand have no ability or authority to control how, when or where they are used, nor any control over the applications, data or networks they support. At the very least, policies of acceptable use must evolve rapidly to address the affordances of student devices.”

I think seeing everything through the prism of control isn’t correct here. It comes from a standpoint where the institutions are at the centre of education rather than the learner, which is wrong. E-safety is so overplayed in education. Yes, we need to take care, but we shouldn’t shut things down on this proviso. Also, I wouldn’t worry about “policies of acceptable use” as these seem to spring up almost before they know how to use something.

About training: “. . . faces staff developers with the enormous challenge of preparing teachers and lecturers to work with a range of devices.”

Yes, and this is a mantra of mine as I can often not get past this area in my context. However, I would say that the goalposts are shifting in this respect. Increasingly, new tools/environments are becoming easy to use and more intuitive. So it’s more a case of getting educator to experience using a tool/environment rather than learning how-to use it. Only by experiencing a tool/environment can they understand what it’s all about. This is particularly true of Web 2.0.

Lecture Your Way to Stardom!

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

Karl Kapp talks about teachers who have gone on to become rock stars in “Teacher . . . Stepping Stone to Rock Star?”  Interesting . . . and surprising they let a young Sting teach at a convent school! Anyway, my point here is the notion of teacher as a rock star is something that is common and can be negative when it comes to challenging the sage on the stage notion and moving towards a more collaborative approach. Sometimes I see it in their eyes: “Do you really think I’m going to give up being the centre of attention?” Of the many barriers to the adoption of learning technologies of the Web 2.0 variety, this is one of the least acknowledged.

KISS Boston 2004

Taking the focus away from the teacher/lecturer isn’t what the all powerful one wants. This is where ego gets in the way, and quite simply there are many who like the sound of their own voice too much. When thinking about a blended approach, how likely is it that someone like this is going to countenance replacing some of the face-to-face with e-learning? Or adopt any kind of learner centric approach that diminishes his or her role from expert to facilitator or guide?

Sting 2009

I am, of course, playing devil’s advocate to some extent. I have more respect for the teaching profession than almost any other, and there are so many brilliant teachers. However, some of the brilliant ones fall into the above category. They need to be more flexible and, in some ways, feel less threatened by new ideas. 

Remember the focus should be on what’s best for the learner — not the teacher.

‘Please Prepare for Cross Check’: A Review of ‘Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities’

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

In August 2009, I received an email from Etienne Wenger, announcing a book he has written with Nancy White and John D. Smith called Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities (Portland, OR: CPsquare, 2009). In a way, this book is a follow up activity on a survey of community oriented technologies that Etienne published in 2001. I was amongst those who downloaded this report, finding an overview of various technology products and – more important – inspiring insights that helped me to understand the role of technology for communities. We were in the process of implementing community features for the portal e-teaching.org, a German Web site on e-learning in higher education. Since then, the concepts of situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice have greatly influenced my work on the design of educational resources.

In a community of practice “learning means to become, that is, to belong differently than we do at the moment” (Lee & Roth, 2003). Since Howard Rheingold’s seminal work on virtual communities (1993), online communities of various kinds and in very different fields, such as marketing, education, community informatics, etc., attract researchers’ and practitioners’ attention alike. A fundamental question across the various perspectives and domains has been up to now how online communities work: How do they come into existence? What are critical success factors? And how can technology be designed to support community development? Digital Habitats develops a conceptual model to describe the skills necessary for choosing, implementing, and maintaining digital tools that enable a communities’ togetherness. The character of the work can be placed somewhere between practitioner’s guide, academic reflection, and visionary pamphlet. The book’s eleven chapters are clustered into four parts: “Introduction,” “Literacy,” “Practice,” and “Future.” The following summary outlines the content of each part and highlights a chapter or concept that I found particularly inspiring.

Cover of the book Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith

Part I

The first three chapters introduce the idea of learning communities, explore how their development is intertwined with technology, and finally define the notion of technology stewarding: “Technology stewardship is an emerging role that describes both a responsibility and a practice – an attitude as well as all the conversations, decisions, and learning that address the design and management of a community’s technology infrastructure” (33).

I was most impressed with the theme of chapter 2, which gives a historical overview of the mutual influence between communities and technology, drawing a bow from the Well to Web 2.0 and from the physicists at CERN to Ward Cunningham’s first wiki, invented to support the pattern community. “Technologies have changed how we think about communities, and communities have changed our uses of technology” (21). Technologies enable communities to form and to act in new ways, offering infrastructures for interactivity and connectedness. At the same time, communities have played a critical role in the invention of new technologies.

Part II

Chapters 4 to 6 introduce three different models on technology’s role for communities. These models constitute a specific kind of media literacy that allows for analyzing the technology needs of a community and pursuing a course of action. The first model includes different aspects of technologies such as tools, features, platforms, and configurations. The second model points out the inherent dilemmas of everyday community life. The third model deals with the specific traits of different communities, their so called orientation. “Communities learn together in different ways: some meet regularly, some converse online, some work together, some share documents, some develop deep bonds, and some are driven by the mission they serve. We say that these communities have different orientations towards the process of learning together. An orientation is a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community” (69).

Chapter 5 offers a thoughtful perspective on the technology landscape, building upon three inherent polarities that challenge technology use in a community: Togetherness vs. separation, participation vs. reification, individual vs. group identity.

  • Togetherness vs. separation: Community interaction follows a rhythm of togetherness and separation. The use of synchronous and asynchronous tools and the alteration between them are part of this rhythm.  “How do synchronous tools contribute to a community’s rhythm, both because they enable members to be together in time and because they often leave traces in the form of recordings or transcripts? In an asynchronous conversation, how often do people have to post something to sustain an experience of togetherness?” (57).
  • Participation vs. reification: One could also call this polarity “interacting vs. publishing.” For instance, the writer’s community behind the ETC blog has a lot of discussion and negotiation that is handled through a mailing list. This is the “participation” part, where we interact with one another and negotiate meaning and identity. The “reification” part is happening when we actually write a blog entry or pursue a project: “Literally, reification means making into an object” (57).
  • Individual vs. group identity: Learning together in a community of practice does not require or produce a homogenous group of people, all focused on the same goals. Communities cannot expect to have everyone’s full attention, since the activity level, learning aspirations, and needs vary individually. This creates both a challenge and potential for discourse, both being fueled by technology. “Technology contributes to the tension between individual and community. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology also increases the complexity of the group/individual polarity. By providing varied opportunities for togetherness, it also opens the possibilities for extreme multimembership” (59).

______________________________

“Technology contributes to the tension between individual and community. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology also increases the complexity of the group/individual polarity. By providing varied opportunities for togetherness, it also opens the possibilities for extreme multimembership.” –Wenger, White, and Smith

______________________________

Part III

Although the introduction states clearly that Digital Habitats is neither a shopper’s guide to technology products, nor a roadmap to technology selection, this part of the book comes close to filling out these roles. Chapter 7 addresses contextual factors that have an impact on technology choice, such as stage of community development, diversity and complexity, members’ experiences with and attitudes towards technology. Chapter 8 discusses the pros and cons of different acquisition strategies like “build your own,” “get a commercial platform,” “use open source tools,” “go for the free stuff,” etc.  The focus of chapter 9 is the ongoing role of technology stewardship in the daily life of a community. Chapter 10 gives a practitioner-oriented summary in the form of an “action notebook,” comprising checklists, step-by-step guides, questionnaires, and evaluation sheets. Actually, I found this section also interesting from a research perspective. One can use it as a concise instrument to analyze the characteristics of different online communities (see pages 149-152).

Part IV

The final part is an essay on the future of technology stewardship. The two central questions of this outlook are: “Where is the interplay between community and technology going?” and “How should technology stewards develop their practice?”

Chapter 11 identifies four emerging trends that influence out interaction within digital habitats. First, an increased connectivity around time and space is fostered by ubiquitous Web access through wireless networks and mobile devices (“always on”) as well as the new qualities of virtual co-presence in 3D environments. Second, we are facing new modes of engagement for interacting and publishing. The web is becoming a medium of self-expression. At the same time, technology enables mass collaboration on an increasing scale. Both perspectives are brought together through application programming interfaces (APIs) that support a constant remix of web content.  Third, the geographies of community and identity are changing. The complexity of the Web is growing. People can choose from a multitude of communities and resources. The boundaries between different Web sites are becoming more and more dynamic. Due to search engines, every voice popular enough becomes accessible. Individual content aggregation allows for a personal information diet that makes the mix palatable. Fourth, people are using the Web increasingly as a socially active medium. “The combination of distributed production, digital representation, and search capability make the web an active medium where the social and the informational build on each other” (179). Programs exchange and produce information about social relations, supported by semantic web technologies. Our digital footprints are intermingled with the reflections others imprint on us.

Who should read this book?

A review should not only tell you how much I liked the book, but also what you as a potential reader might get out of it. This calls for a clarification of the target group. Luckily, the authors have already done this job themselves, describing three groups of addressees.

  • Deep Divers are interested in exploring the connections between technology and community from an interdisciplinary angle. Their focus lies in applying conceptual models and learning theories to the domain of technology adoption by communities of practice.
  • Attentive Practitioners are interested in developing their practice, whether technology plays a major or minor part in it. They seek practical advice as well as theoretical concepts to communicate their role as technology stewards effectively.
  • Just Do-It-ers are action oriented with a strong focus on getting the job done. Their main interest is in practical tips and tricks while the more conceptual aspects are in the background.

This review reflects a “deep diver” perspective. A practitioner’s summary would most likely highlight different aspects of the book. Whatever description characterizes best your interest in online communities, Digital Habitats is great reading for those who seek a compass to navigate the technology ocean.

For additional information and further discussion, see the accompanying weblog: http://technologyforcommunities.com/