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Getting from Here to There

Two interesting posts this week at e-Literate that dovetail nicely with my ruminations about “open learning networks.”

First, Nathan Garrett launches a critique of the “modern CMS” with a picture of a young man sitting watching a video monitor (looks to be circa 1965). Garret asks: “Is this our modern course management system?” Garrett bemoans the fact that CMSs are primarily about one-way information dissemination. Alternatively, he argues that we should encourage the use of social software which promotes the ideals of student creation and ownership of content, peer learning, and public review of their work.

In another post, Glen Moriarty argues that today’s CMS/LMS falls short of its true potential because of a hesitancy to leverage the “Web 2.0 strengths of the Internet.” Moriarty is the CEO of Nixty where he intends to “create applications that intrinsically motivate people to learn and teach others.” Building on Google’s OpenSocial, OpenCourseWare and OpenID, he believes we can create an infrastructure which will “amplify learning for people and institutions around the globe.”

In my estimation, both critiques of the “modern” CMS and the proposals about where to go from here are right on the money. If we persist in simply automating what happens in the classroom (predominantly lecture and information dissemination), we’re not leveraging the power of the tools available to us. (As an aside, wouldn’t it be great if you could authenticate once into your institutional learning environment and be simultaneously logged in to Google, your Blog, etc. Or vice versa?)

But how do we convince others to change? That change is even necessary? How do we encourage administrators, faculty and students to make the kinds of changes, small and large, that will move us toward these ideals?

The challenge before us is a social and cultural one, not a technical one. As observers like Garrett and Moriarty rightly point out, we already have the technology before us to facilitate better learning. So why don’t we use it more and more effectively?

If you’ve read my previous posts (or even the title of my blog site), you’ve probably gathered that my philosophy of learning technology is more focused on learning than it is on technology. By this view, it’s actually backwards to start the conversation by talking about technology. In fact, with many of our colleagues we should avoid talking about technology (especially specific technologies) as much as possible, particularly at the outset. We should begin by talking about what we want to students to be, to become and be able to do.

Do we want students to be more literate? More capable of expressing themselves cogently and persuasively? Using a variety of media? We’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in higher education answer “No” to any of these questions.

Do we want students to feel more confident creating their own content, be that content text, graphics, animation, video, whatever? Do we want them to learn the value of testing their ideas (their “content”) in the market place of ideas, seeking and responding to others’ thoughtful responses to what they’ve created? Again, the answer to these questions is an emphatic “Yes!”

I concur with Garrett and Moriarty that Web 2.0 technologies and social software can be used to significantly transform and improve learning. But not everyone sees (or even sees the need for) such a future. As technology thought leaders in the academic community, we bear the responsibility of bringing others along, helping them see the proverbial light. As the old saw goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” As enamored as we can sometimes become with technology, the real “honey” we must use to convince others is the passion we share with them for learning.

  • I think a critical tool to have in building and proselytizing learning 2.0 tools is a key metric. This metric would be used to guide building decisions and to measure success.

    In the book "Good to Great", an important event in the transitions of good companies to great companies was identifying a key metric or denominator as the book calls it.

    The process of picking and using this denominator served as a mechanism to push deeper understanding of the company's economic engine. The companies asked themselves this question "If we could only pick one and only one ratio -- profit per x -- to systematically increase over time, what x would have the greatest and most sustainable impact on our economic engine?

    Wells Fargo went through this process during bank deregulation:

    "Consider Wells Fargo. When the Wells team confronted the brutal fact that deregulation would transform banking into a commodity, they realized that standard banker metrics, like profit per loan and profit per deposit, would no longer be the key drivers. Instead, they grasped a new denominator: profit per employee. Following this logic, Wells Fargo became one of the first banks to change its distribution to rely primarily on stripped-down branches and ATMs."

    Because Wells Fargo understood their key economic drivers, they were able to a) encapsulate this logic through identifying a new denominator and b) use this logic to make many highly successful changes.

    So my question is what are the key drivers of BYU's (and other school's) learning engine? What denominator or key metric offers the best insight as we plan / build / measure / proselyte new online technologies in education?

    My suggestion would be conversations on learning topics per student per day.

    I love Robert Scoble's (social media figure) goal to have an interesting conversation every day. Conversations with others seems an important key to learning almost anything.

    My best educational experience by far here at BYU was the ISys Junior Core -- It's 24 credits over two semesters. I was placed in a group of four and spent eight hours a week sitting next to my group members. Almost all of our projects were group projects and those that weren't we often ended up working together anyways. Everything about the core was designed to push us students to talk to one another. A mailing list was set up for the ~110 students in the core. It saw heavy usage with students asking / answering questions about all sorts of class / ISys related questions.

    The effect of all this was conversation, lots of it. Because of these conversations (and great professors / projects) I learned far more and I had much more fun than in other classes here. We talked so much about ISys / non isys topics that many of us became good friends. I looked forward to class because I was going to see my friends.

    By comparison, in most other classes I learn in isolation. I don't get to know other students very well so I don't talk much with them about the subject so I learn less and the class is much more boring.

    My take on all this is we learn best with friends who are striving to become what we are striving to become.

    Obviously not every classroom experience at BYU can hope to replicate what's done in the ISys Junior Core but I think much could be improved. The types of assignments given (e.g. more group work) and the integration of social software tools that make it easier for students and professors to connect online and offline would do much to help more conversations happen at BYU which would dramatically increase the quality and quantity of education.

    What do you all think?

  • Thanks for the note Glen. While my job is in academic technology, my academic background is in political science, so I tend to think of the people-dimension of problems first. I like your 2x factor. It's realistic and mitigates against frustration.

  • Yeah, I think when it comes to administrators and programming schedules (!) you've got to overestimate, so that you aren't too frustrated. Unique background; that's gotta be helpful b/c it seems a good bit of academic technology is about training people and navigating committees.

  • Jon, really appreciate this post. Your point about convincing decision-makers with a bit of honey, in my perspective, is right on target. Sometimes it seems that some folks in the ed-tech space can be a bit harsh on these folks. Change is incremental and I think we have to find ways to make it very attractive to them for change and then bet on it taking 2x longer than we initially estimated. I wrote more over on Michael's e-Literate blog.

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