Archive for June, 2008

The Gap: Web 2.0 & Higher Ed

June 20th, 2008 jonmott Comments

Just read an excellent post by Martin Weller over at e-Literate. Weller makes the excellent point that instituting social learning technology (Web 2.0 apps) in higher ed is not merely a matter of technology–it is (surprise) just as much a social and cultural issue. (Weller is from the Open University and is one of the key players behind SocialLearn.)

Weller invites us to “think of the learning systems we use as the metaphor for the way we approach pedagogy, the learner experience and the role of the educator.” This is a thought-provoking exercise that reminds us that systems should be here to serve us (learners and those who facilitate it) not the other way around.

The biggest “social” obstacle to the implementation of networked learning environments in higher ed is, as Tevye would have put it, “Tradition!” There will undoubtedly be “bottom-up” pressure from students to evolve, but the transition is also likely to be generational as newer, younger faculty members, raised in the Web 2.0 world, begin to change the practices of the academy.

Participatory Learning Culture & the CMS

June 19th, 2008 jonmott Comments

Henry Jenkins was the closing keynote at the NMC Conference last week. Jenkins provided his latest thoughts and observations about today’s “participatory culture.” While individuals have greater capacity than ever before to appropriate, repurpose, remix and publish “new” content, Jenkins argues that this phenomenon is not as new as sometimes think. In fact, he argues, Herman Melville “remixed” themes from the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton and whaling culture to create Moby Dick. Today’s participatory culture, though, differs from what prevailed in Milton’s day in several important ways. Today’s culture is characterized by:

  • Relatively low barriers for engagement
  • Strong support for sharing creations with others
  • Informal mentorships
  • Participants believe their contributions matter
  • Participants care about others’ opinions of them and their work

In the world of social networking and self-publishing, traditional definitions of “teacher” and “learner” and the relationships between them are passé. Jenkins is fronting an important and promising effort to address the “new media literacy” competencies that are required to flourish in today’s participatory culture. But what I found most striking as I listened to his talk was the gap between the technologies that are most readily available on most college campuses today and the technologies that under gird the participatory culture of the “real world.”

I have argued in a previous post that course management systems are generally ill-designed to facilitate a transformation of teaching and learning practices. Jenkins’ keynote served to further crystallize this view in my mind. To illustrate just how far the average CMS is away from providing the infrastructure for a participatory learning culture, think about how students, teachers and learning activities are defined in most CMSs. First students only exist inside courses. They have no presence (i.e. roles or relationships) outside of a course. There is no learning space that bridges or transcends the course. At most institutions, when a semester is over, the student might well have never existed in the system. He or she cannot login and see past course work, reconnect with classmates, etc. One promising change in this equation is the emergence of e-portfolio tools (especially when integrated with CMSs) which allow students to collect artifacts of their learning as they go along, maintaining a record of their learning across courses. On balance, however, the technology still doesn’t do much to foster an environment in which learners are active, creative participants in the learning process. (Think about what about when students graduate. What happens then?)

The role of teachers is much the same. They don’t exist outside of a course. And courses are generally the be-all and end-all of “learning act ivies” inside CMSs. There’s no space for learning that transcends and aggregates learning from individual courses. There’s little if any space for programmatic learning, support of general education, metacognition, informal learning, lifelong learning, etc.

In the future I see, course management systems will not (or at least should not) exist. They should be replaced with learning management systems or, better yet, with learning network environments in which students can create and manage their own personal learning environments, unlimited by course schedules, course rosters, etc. Academic technologists (and software developers) should quit looking for new and more efficient ways of automating the past. Instead, we should be facilitating more open, flexible and dynamic learning environments.

Oblinger at NMC 2008

June 14th, 2008 jonmott Comments

The New Media Consortium 2008 Summer Conference has been a great event. This is BYU’s first year as an official member of the consortium and this is my first time attending the conference.

In the opening keynote for the conference, Diana Oblinger, President of Educause, set the tone for the conference by providing a vision of Education 3.0 (for more on this, see John Seely Brown).

You can watch Diana’s presentation online. She makes the case that we’re moving into a new phase of education & learning with different rules and opportunities than we’re used to.

Here’s what I thought was most interesting / thought-provoking:

1. Technology matters a lot, but it’s even more important to understand our students, what they do, what motivates them and how they spend their time. Tidbit: the average student spends less than 10% of their time in class per week. What are they doing the rest of the time?

2. We’re inundated with references to the “digital native” and the “Generation Y” student . . . But how are they different in ways that really matter to learning? One of the most important realities of today’s students is that they don’t see themselves as passive recipients (consumers) of information. They are content and knowledge producers with a plethora of outlets for self-publishing (e.g. YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Blogger, etc.). Whether we’re ready for it or not, whether we like it or not, learning is increasingly situated in a “participatory culture” (see Henry Jenkins).

3. Oblinger asserts that learning context matters as much as learning content. Accordingly, she argues that we need to keep learning about learning and encourage our students to do the same. I appreciated her perspective because we often deal with learning ex post facto, i.e. after we’ve put everything together that way we want / think is right (or convenient for us), then we ask the “learning” question. This is exactly backwards. We should always begin with student learning (the “end”) in mind and then work toward facilitating it as best we can.

Oblinger concluded by calling for the creation of a “discovery infrastructure” in which we think about ways to repose data and distribute resources to promote learning. This is really the heart of “Education 3.0″–utilizing distributed computation and knowledge resources in a learning network that leverages both computation and human power to maximize opportunities and potential for learning.

The bottom line? As new possibilities and modalities are enabled by new technologies, we have to continue to keep our eyes on the prize. None of it matters if it doesn’t contribute to more, better and longer-lasting student learning.

Digital Story-Telling

June 13th, 2008 jonmott Comments

I had the unique opportunity to attend a “digital story telling” workshop w/ Bill Frakes at the New Media Consortium 2008 Summer Conference. Frakes is a world-renowned photographer. He’s been a staff photog for Sports Illustrated for 13 years, so it’s safe to say he knows his way around a camera. ( recently posted a “Bill Frakes’ Favorite Shots” gallery. Pretty amazing images.)

Among other things, he talked us though the process of setting up to shoot the Kentucky Derby. This remarkable undertaking was a blending of artistry & technical skill. Using 40 digital SLR cameras with remote controls & timers, the setup involved a variety of technologies. But Frakes actually had very little to offer by way of technical rules or recommendations for budding photographers / story-tellers. While high-tech cameras and computers are the tools of digital story-telling, he reminded us that the tools themselves don’t tell stories. Frakes encouraged us to think of the camera as an extension of our eyes and a way to “draw with light” the images that are meaningful to us so we can tell stories that matter. While he has the fortune of taking photos that are viewed by millions of people, as a digital story-teller he’s satisfied if any given image he takes is meaningful to one person. That’s not a bad sentiment for a photographer / story-teller. It reminds me that education is about “the one.”

By the way, Apple also did a demo of the new version of Aperture. Almost makes me wish I owned a Mac. They even handed out free copies of the software to conference attendees. I wonder where I can install and use it . . .

Roger Schank and the Tyranny of Grades

I purposely put off writing an entry about Roger Schank’s visit to BYU (which spanned Monday and Tuesday of this week) because I wanted to mull things over for a couple of days. Sometimes big ideas (and Schank offered up several) take some time to digest. (Kimberly McCollum, one of my former graduate students, has provided an excellent summary of his talks on her blog.)

Well, I’ve thought about my conversations with Schank and the lectures I heard him give and I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  1. I spent the better part of two days with Roger during his visit, sharing meals, listening to his prepared lectures and sitting in on informal conversations with faculty and administrators. Today what stands out most to me from all of this is Roger’s unabashed commitment to learning. He really cares about it. He wants people–everyone, everywhere–to learn. I know that sounds trite, but when you meet a larger-than-life scholar (Roger’s the only person I’ve met who has written 25 books) you aren’t quite sure what to think of them. In my estimation, Schank is motivated by a deep-in-the-bones belief and desire that all people should have more and better opportunities to learn than they do today. Not only is he a revolutionary, but he’s a true believer.
  1. The key to Schank’s argument is that learning begins and ends with motivation. While every teacher would love to teach classrooms full of intentional learners, the vast majority of students are not motivated to learn for learning’s sake. Schank posits that learning is fundamentally about wanting something. Unfortunately, the reward structure of the educational status quo requires students to please teachers to get favorable grades. Schank calls this arrangement the “tyranny of grades.” Schank estimates that high school and college students are motivated almost exclusively by grades in 90% of their courses, and not by some greater desire to do something.

Citing his recent experience teaching his grandson to crawl by putting a green squeaky frog just out of his reach, Schank reinforced the value of providing students with real-world learning situations. Deriding “required courses” (and plain “courses” for that matter), Schank argues for a story-based curriculum in which students are required to solve the kinds of practical problems they are likely to face in real life. His new science-based high school curriculum, for example, requires students to (among other things) file a report about a crime scene, create an exercise and nutrition plan for a client, and identify and eradicate a mysterious fungus destroying farmer’s crops. As students work toward these goals, they are provided with the facts, information, theories, formulas, etc. they need to succeed. Story-based, goal-driven curriculum doesn’t require artificial, external motivation for students. The motivation is intrinsic in the learning activities themselves.

  1. While institutional inertia works against change in higher education (hence Schank’s efforts to reform high school education instead), change is possible and should be pursued by those who care about and work in higher education. Schank’s litany of problems with higher education is familiar:
    • University faculty members want to (and are rewarded to) pursue their specialized research agendas.
    • Students want to acquire meaningful skills that will help them succeed after college. Less altruistically, they want good grades that will help them get good jobs.
    • Since faculty members are rewarded for excellent research and merely adequate teaching, they have no incentive to significantly improve their teaching or student learning.
    • Faculty offer courses that are easy to teach and to grade, not necessarily courses that will substantially prepare students to be successful citizens, family members and employees.
    • Faculty and students collude with each other in a perverse system of rewards by agreeing not to tell on each other–”You don’t tell on me for not really teaching, I won’t tell anyone I’m giving you easy As and Bs.”
    • Universities produce students who frequently need to be “re-trained” by their employers.

So how can administrators, teachers and support staff hope to change such an entrenched system? For starters, we can personally contribute to a culture of learning by refusing to support the status quo. Change, as the aphorism goes, happens one step at a time. In higher ed, change must begin and continue one instructor, one classroom at a time.

We can also pursue systemic change by taking the accreditation focus on learning outcomes seriously. By focusing on what students should be able to DO when they complete degree programs, we can start changing the way we think about curriculum, learning activities and assessment. There are some shining examples of this sort of paradigm shift at BYU and at other institutions across the nation.

Finally, administrators need to begin changing incentive structures to reward faculty activities that are focused on student learning and not just their own research. One very promising avenue is to bring research and teaching together through mentored student research programs (such as the one at BYU).

  1. Schank’s ideal model for teachers is the coach or mentor, providing help and motivation for students when they aren’t ready for it or maybe don’t even want it. Although unlooked for, such assistance will almost always be favorably received if the learning context is authentic and the students is, therefore, motivated to accomplish the goals it requires. The role of the teacher is to “put the squeaky green frog in the right place and then make reaching it increasingly difficult” as the student’s capabilities increase.


Schank is the kind of thinker who challenges our assumptions and questions the status quo. While he can be (by his own admission) hyperbolic at times, extreme rhetoric is sometimes necessary to wake people up out of complacency. My hope is that his visit to BYU has accomplished just that by reminding us that our primary duty is to help students learn and that we ought to be exploring better ways to do that, even if doing so causes some personal or intellectual discomfort.

The More Things Change . . .

Technology was supposed to transform education. But it has not. Instead of using technology to fundamentally change (improve!) teaching & learning, we have used it to automate old ways of doing things.

I recently discovered Larry Cuban’s book Oversold & Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2003, Harvard University Press).  In the book, Cuban notes that university boards, presidents and administrators uniformly say the reason their institutions are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on instructional technology is to “revolutionize” teaching and learning. To test the validity of this expectation, Cuban examined the impact of massive technology investments in K-20 education in Silicon Valley. His conclusions are not terribly optimistic. He found little evidence that technology infusion has yielded significant changes in teaching strategies (Cuban 2003, 130). On the contrary, Cuban concluded that, by and large, “teachers used technology to maintain existing practices” (138) rather than to “revolutionize” the way they teach their students.

Once again, history repeats itself. Teachers in Silicon Valley (where resources and attitudes are favorable to a technology-enabled teaching and learning revolution) have responded to new technologies much like their predecessors responded to film, radio and instructional television. The adoption curve was slow, but over a long period of time, even the most stubborn “laggards” began using films and television in their classrooms. But the new technology did not lead to the transformation of teaching & learning practices. Rather, new technologies became “peripheral to the daily routines of teaching and learning,” much like today’s new technologies are for today’s teachers (140).

Perhaps even more worrisome are the results Cuban uncovered at Stanford. Notwithstanding the University’s investment in thousands of computers, networks connections in dorm rooms, and computer labs, teaching and learning activities remained largely unchanged: “Lecturing still absorbs more than half to two thirds of various departments’ teaching practices. . . . These traditional forms of teaching seem to have been relatively untouched by the enormous investment in technologies” (171).

In 2008, we might ask if course management systems (CMSs) like Blackboard, ANGEL, Desire2Learn, Sakai and Moodle have made the kind of revolutionary difference we’ve been waiting for. By all accounts, CMSs have had largely the same impact as previous technologies–they are used to maintain existing practices and, I would add, to make them more efficient. CMSs are generally used to support traditional, semester-based courses. Even hybrid and online courses taught via a CMS are frequently “lecture-driven” in their design with multiple-choice quizzes and exams accounting for the lion’s share of course assessment.

Why do we persist in pouring the same old wine into new (and shinier) bottles? The reasons are many. But at least one significant driver of this phenomenon is that CMSs, like most of the educational technologies that have proceeded them, were designed to support traditional teaching and learning activities. While this may have made sense 10 years ago, the net result is that most CMS functionality reinforces learning through rigid, semester-based courses. And these courses are largely about “content.”

Admittedly, there are many, many counterexamples to what I’m describing. In fact, I serve as a Director (judge) of the Blackboard Exemplary Course Program. As such, I have had the privilege of reviewing dozens of excellent courses over the last few years that break the mold, transforming the way teaching and learning occur. But the truth remains–CMSs started out as “course website” creation tools. As they’ve evolved and matured, they’ve opened more opportunities for faculty & students to interact and learn in new and exciting ways. However, as long as the CMS continues to essentially mimic the traditional, semester-based, lecture-centric (think “content”) model of learning, we’ll have to keep waiting for the learning revolution to arrive.

What’s a revolutionary learning technologist to do? Pressure CMS developers to change and encourage faculty members to be innovative in their use of the CMS on your campus. Viva la revolucion!

Categories: Teaching & Learning Technology Tags:

Roger Schank & Goals

We’re hosting Roger Schank here at BYU for a couple of days. He’s a brilliant, fascinating thinker. Among other things he insists that learning begins and ends with GOALS. If you don’t have explicit goals in mind when you attempt to teach (help someone learn) you’re really wasting your time . . . But faculty members generally teach students what they want to teach them because that’s the behavior the higher ed system rewards and reinforces.

IMHO, BYU is actually moving very productively in this direction. Evidence?

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Beginning with the End in Mind

 When I think about technology, I always think about problems. Not problems with the technology itself, but about problems that technology can be used to solve. Far too often we technologists get enamored with a cool new technology (”It’s shiny!”) and we immediately begin looking for something to do with it. “Hey, this cool new hammer would work as a bottle opener if you hold it just right!”


But alas, a very long list of bad teaching & learning technology implementations can be cited to demonstrate why the “solution looking for a problem” approach is a bad idea. When I was an instructional designer at BYU’s Center for Instructional Design (now the Center for Teaching & Learning), I constantly fought this battle with faculty members who would come to the Center and announce that they needed a DVD, a website, an immersive 3D simulation, or some other such instructional technology creation. I would politely nod and we’d have a conversation that went something like this:


ME: Okay, so we can build the best (fill in the blank) possible, can you explain to me exactly what it is about your course that’s not going the way you want?


FACULTY: What do you mean?


ME: Well, once we’ve built (fill in the blank), what should be better about your course? Better yet, what should your students know or be able to do that they currently don’t?


FACULTY: Well, that’s a good question. What they really lack is . . .


From there, we’d spend some time talking about student learning and what the faculty member could do to better facilitate it. Then we’d explore how (fill in the blank) would help students learn better or faster. As often as not, we’d decide not to build (fill in the blank). Instead, we’d tweak some things in the course and build something else more appropriate to the problem the faculty member was trying to solve.


Based on experiences like this, I’ve developed a very simple approach to teaching and learning technology, academic technology and technology in general. Simply put, a technology is only as useful as the problems it solves. The trick for technologists, then, is to always begin with the end in mind. We have to get focused on the problem we’re trying to solve and stay focused on it. We have to constantly ask ourselves, “What am I trying to fix or improve? How will I be able to tell when I’ve succeeded?”


Once we know what we’re trying to improve, we have an objective. Let’s call it a “goal.” With our goal firmly in mind, we can then move to strategy formulation. I think of a strategy as a long-term plan of action focused on achieving a goal. From strategy we can then move to specific tactics or operational activities aimed at implementing the strategy.


Let me make this more concrete. Let’s say that the faculty and administrators on a campus are concerned that they’re using up too much classroom time on administrivia, e.g. collecting and returning papers, administering quizzes, etc. A GOAL aimed at addressing this problem would be to reduce time spent on administrivia during class time. One possible STRATEGY for accomplishing this GOAL would be to move most class-administrative activities to an online environment where they could be completed outside of regular class time. One possible TACTIC for implementing this STRATEGY would be to make a particular online course management system (CMS) available for faculty members and students.


The beauty of this approach is that it drives both goal-driven technology implementations (tactics) AND straightforward evaluations of those implementations. Was a technology implementation effective? That question can now be answered, first and foremost, by answering another question: Was the goal accomplished? If the problem is less severe or even non-existent after the strategy and tactics were implemented, you can declare success. If the goal wasn’t accomplished, at least you learned that the tactic (and perhaps the strategy) you picked didn’t work.


Admittedly, this is a simplistic approach to technology planning and evaluation. But it has served me well and I’ll continue to rely on it until something better comes along. The bottom line? Technology should be used to make the world a better place. If we’re not able to demonstrate exactly how and to what extent technology is improving things, all were left with is, “It’s shiny!”