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Objectives and Innovation

In the consultations I often provide for various online programs, I’ve seen a particular problem over and over again in regards to the integration of technology: educators begin integration from a focus on the technology. At conference after conference I hear educators talking about reaching students through new technologies, with once again the focus on the technology. I’d like to give some real life examples of how this can sometimes be short-sighted and  problematic.There are two questions that should guide the integration of any technology: what problem is it meant to solve and/or what objective does it match to?

Plenty of instructors are adding mobile components to courses because “students want to use their cell phones” or because they read its an upcoming technology.  What the educators do not understand is that this is about accessing their coursework using their mobile device, instead of a computer or laptop.  It does not mean they want you to create an assignment that requires the use of a mobile device! If you are requiring students to have a mobile device for a particular course, then it better well have a measurable objective associated with that requirement. One example, would be the need for majors in Geographical studies to use GIS applications. This is related to program objectives for their career.

Here are two examples of a courses that required the use of mobile devices–one that was a good integration, and one that was a poor integration. School A offered a course on Ethical Uses of Technology for Educators. This course required students to have a mobile device. The objectives associated with this requirement were developed to insure that teachers became familiar with mobile devices and the unethical ways they could be used (advertently or inadvertently) in a classroom.  The students in this course were given activities that required them to test how easy it would be to use a cell phone in unethical ways, and to reflect on how this would impact the classroom. This is a good integration of mobile technologies.  The second example is a poor use: the course was on American Music.  There were four objectives to the course, all of which required an understanding of different aspects of music. A mobile component was added because the developers wanted an innovative course, and that intent was to enable  students to upload and download music on their handheld device. Not a single one of the objectives of the course had any reason to require knowledge of this skill, nor anything related to mobile technologies in general. The purpose in including this activity was so that the professors could research whether students would use a mobile device.  This is an example of a very poor understanding of integration. To make it clear, a better way to do this would be to insure the course was hosted on a site that could be accessed and interacted with via a mobile device.

Support for third party applications can also become a problem relatively quickly, and once again I’m referring to unnecessary third party programs such as various web 2 programs. Instructors get angry that the helpdesk can’t or won’t provide support for whatever application they choose to use, but there are thousands, if not millions of them out there. At smaller colleges, where courses are taught exclusively by the faculty member that developed them, the instructor should insure that they are familiar with the application before requiring students to use it. At large colleges, where courses are developed by a team and taught by adjuncts, the problems are much bigger, and third party applications need to be selected more carefully. Adjuncts assigned to teach the course may not be familiar with the program, or they may have their own favorites, and may not be willing to learn it a third-party  because its a program the developer likes. It is also unfair to expect the helpdesk to learn them all and be prepared to assist students. Again, third party apps should be chosen when they are needed to solve a particular problem, when the helpdesk is willing to support it and/or there is a particular course objective tied to the use of that application.

Access and course objectives should always be the first considerations. Activities and assessments need to be directly related to those objectives. Technologies should be chosen with those in mind.  True student-centered teaching does not require particular technologies because they are cool, but because they will assist the student in achieving the course objectives and provide greater access, otherwise we may be putting undo demands on the students.

Here are some important questions that can help guide the integration of technology:
1. Is the addition of the required technology needed in order for students to achieve course objectives?
2. Will the technology decrease or impede access in anyway?
3. Is support available for students who have difficulty with the technology?
4. Will learning to use the technology detract from students learning the required content of the course?

We all need to make our courses more collaborative and more engaging for our students. We also need to have students exposed to the various technologies they will encounter in the work environment. We just need to insure that the technologies we choose help, not hinder, learning.

Learning Analytics

A few weeks ago, I attended a symposium on learning analytics, jointly sponsored by NERCOMP and Educause ELI.  It was a day well spent. The morning session consisted of  presentations on Learning Analytics; the afternoon session was hands-on. Each team was asked to design an application that would do some form of learning analytics. What was at stake was a $10,000 check from a venture capitalist (all in good fun, of course).  Each team presented their application, at the end, and the group voted.  My team developed an application that would follow students eyes as they read course materials, as they interacted with the course. The thought was it would reveal the effectiveness and use of various course materials. (It tied for first place).

What I came away with was lots of questions, lots of ideas regarding the use of learning analytics.  The power of learning analytics is that they allow us to truly understand our students. They help us target intervention with greater accuracy. One institution shared that information gathered from their LMS showed a very distinct correlation between failure rates, and dates of first logins to a course.  This knowledge allowed them to develop interventions that could be put into effect the first weeks of the course.

The presentation that most interested me, was on the development of software that could “read” essays and determine the extent of comprehension. I can see this as an extremely useful tool, most especially for MOOCs and other courses with large enrollments.

Value of a K-20 State-wide ePortfolio System

When I started teaching Middle School, in 1998, I was introduced to the idea of ePortfolios by an expert in education. At that time, there was a great deal of interest, in the State of Vermont (where I was teaching), around the idea of implementing them into the classroom. Well, here it is 14 years later, and the talk of ePortfolios from K-20 is still a topic of discussion, and something we’ve yet to implement well, particularly in K-12, not just in Vermont but nationwide. Why so? There are a few reasons why this is the case.

The first is that Higher Education departments of education primarily implemented systems specifically designed for meeting accreditation standards. They were difficult to use and definitely not something you’d use in a K-12 classroom to get kids excited about learning. Yet, these were the only eportfolios pre-service teachers were familiar with using.

Second is that the cost of proprietary systems are generally out of the reach of most school districts, especially when there is no mandate to have them. Even when there is a mandate, it is usually not followed by money to help with the implementation. Open Source options are often frightening to districts, and there are no salesmen at conferences pitching their products.  Schools have been on there own to come up with a solution, and then try to help the teachers learn how to build ePortfolios into teaching & learning in the classroom.

All of which leads to the third reason: teachers were never taught how to use ePortfolios, nor the purpose of them. To me, this is the most troublesome thing of all, because ePortfolios can be extremely powerful tools when used properly.

And finally, ePortfolios aren’t easily ported from one system to the next, but students are. And this is the primary reason that a state-wide portfolio system K – 20 is the ideal way for these to be implemented, most especially if this is taken on by a State University system that could host the application for all schools in the state. AND, if it was an Open Source solution, students of the system could have access for life. The State could host it, and charge a cost recovery fee for schools to use it. Precedence has already been set in New Zealand where the entire country is on the Mahara system. The social networking components of the system allow educators and students to interact with each other on a national basis as well as a regional basis. Students can move from school to school and their work follows them.

The benefits to the State System would be the ability for students to move throughout the system, from Kindergarten through life and take their portfolios with them wherever they went. They would have a complete record of their learning, their skills, even their dreams. Pre-service teachers would be using the same system their students would use. Portfolios could be used to meet entrance requirements for the University system. And the list goes on and on.

In the fall of 2010, while I was at Plymouth State University, we hosted a state-wide K-20 ePortfolio Day. It was extremely well attended. It was clear that educators from Elementary, to Secondary, to Tertiary education needed to collaborate with one another in the effective use of ePortfolios and participants expressed an interest to keep the dialogue going. http://www.plymouth.edu/office/online-education/531/eportfolio-day-2010/

There are a number of states that are currently poised to take this on: Being that I’m now in New York State, my hope is that NY State will see the value in this idea, and it will be the first state in the nation to implement a state-wide comprehensive K-life ePortfolio system that really works. NY’s current system (MyPortfolio) is focused on career and technical abilities, and is set to fail because of this. ePortfolios can be used for teaching & learning, for building projects, for critical thinking skills, etc. Here is a perfect example of what can be done on the K-12 level: http://myportfolio.school.nz/view/view.php?t=TpvU3eGSIOzy64aP7Kbn

#ioe12 What does it mean to be Open: Open Content, Openness, and OpenWashing

Nowadays, it seems almost everyone is in one way or another jumping on the  OpenWagon.  This  new cool prefix “open” seems to come before more institutional and product names everyday. It reminds me when “lite” products came on the market. Ah–the New Lite Butter: 25% less fat than our original brand. So, now the product has 150 calories of fat per serving, instead of 200.  Is that lite?  I guess it depends on what you compare it to.

I find myself asking the same type of question when an educational institution suddenly adds “Open” in front of its name, or someone claims to be leading an “Open” initiative.   Schools consider themselves using Openness when they use OERs–but is that truly being Open, or maybe just good for their proprietary business practices–a “lite” version of their education?  Is a university system truly Open, when they do not use any Open Source technologies?  Students are paying for the proprietary system, and the school is not making any contributions to the  community: Is that Open? Is it Open when students’ ePortfolios are on proprietary systems that they didn’t choose and that they have to pay for (long story how ePortfolio systems work)?  And, is something open just because it is “free”? Or is there far more Openwashing going on in educational institutions than we realize?

If we can measure a company’s Openness using a set of standards, to determine whether what they offer is Open or Openwashing, couldn’t the same sort of standards apply to other Open claims? And if so, to what degree do we take that?  I wonder how many schools are now using images with CC Share-alike licenses on them, behind closed systems.  I wonder how many Open institutions keep their decision-making processes behind secret doors.  So many questions.  Perhaps we need a scale–like those “lite” products: 20% more open than before… courses are 20% cheaper than before because we are using open textbooks, etc.

Honestly the movement towards Openness in education is a very good thing especially when the commitment to becoming more Open is with the student, and education in general, in mind.  The sad thing is that so many myths and irrational thinking around openness, open content, open source, etc still abound. And there are just so many Open mirages out there.

My mother always reminds me:  “you need a little fat everyday you know”.  My response always has some sort of reference to the kind of fat in the product, and about my commitment to maintaining a healthy diet.  So, everything can’t always be open (well, maybe). I mean there are somethings that need to be private, and some ways we need to make money–besides those ugly banners on web sites everywhere. But when is something “lite” and when is it “low-fat” or “fat-free”?  When is something openwashing and when is something truly open?  My view is that true Openness comes from an ideal and an understanding of what Openness is really all about–community.

Here’s a few interesting commentaries on OpenWashing to get you thinking a bit more:

http://www.fastcompany.com/1790122/pearson-blackboard
http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1934

 

 

#ioe12 NH Passes a Bill supporting Open Source

HB418, passed by the NH Legislature requires all state agencies to use “open source software when acquiring software and promotes the use of open data formats by state agencies. ” The Bill goes on to define the term “open source” and boldly states “The Department states proprietary solutions will require agency justification to the Department and approval of the proprietary solution by the Department’s Chief Information Officer.”  http://www.nhliberty.org/bills/view/2012/HB418

Six months ago I was employed at one of the state universities in NH, and now am at a state college in NY.  Both are on an open source LMS.  The SUNY system, however, when given the option to choose an LMS, chose to go with the proprietary system Blackboard and most of the Colleges and Universities in the system will be moving over to Blackboard in the coming months. Not all of them will however. There are several schools going with Moodle, or staying with Moodle.

Last week, on the Directors of Distance Learning listserv, there was quite a debate about the choices, and the old myths about open source arose. It all seemed like the spouse who says the lowest thing they can think of, even if it isn’t true, to defend their position, even if it’s wrong.

SUNY is a large system. It prides itself on the “Power of SUNY” and is now talking about the “Openness of SUNY”, but when given the option, they chose proprietary. In my opinion: what they failed to understand was the opportunity they were given to truly make a difference in the future of the learning platform.  Having access to the code of the LMS they chose, would’ve allowed them to use the “Power of SUNY” to make the platform one that would meet specific needs of SUNY, leverage SUNY innovation, and contribute to the community of LMS development.  It was a great opportunity and they missed it. One can only hope that they will come to their senses at some point, and see the value of belonging to an open source community.

Open source LMS platforms are in use throughout the world; used by institutions with thousands of online courses and students as well as by small private institutions.  Having been the LMS Administrator of Moodle at more than one institution, I can say that Moodle does not require a team of programmers–that is an absolute myth about open source that is continually perpetuated!   Several System Admins of Moodle have told me that managing Moodle takes up less than 5% of their job. One of the IT folk I worked with at another institution once told me “I get better and quicker help from the Moodle community, than I ever got from Blackboard”.

Open Source is about community.  That’s the philosophy that makes open source successful and that draws us to it.  It’s about a community of users helping to make the software better, to increase usability, and to insure that the functionality we most need is implemented. In the Moodle community, and other open source communities as well, individuals can suggest improvements (if not build them). The community tests the system, comments on it, and supports it. Yes, there are open source products that have not developed a large community of supporters–products that are still in their infancy, or that do not have a large base of individuals using the application, but that is not the case with the LMS.

I applaud NH and the wisdom of it’s legislators.  There are, already, numerous schools in NH that use Moodle, Mahara, or Sakai.  I expect there will be many more adopting OS in the future.  In truth, it makes a great deal of sense that the state institutions, who are supported by the community of tax payers, choose publicly developed system applications (open source) over those that are proprietary whenever possible.