Archive for September, 2008

OpenEd 2008

September 26th, 2008 jonmott Comments

I attended OpenEd 2008 @ Utah State the last couple of days. Even though I missed the last day of the conference (today) it was one of the best, most inspiring, thought-provoking conferences I’ve attended in a long time.

Here are some highlights /observations:

  • Seeing Yale’s OCW demo and being reminded that sometimes quality is more important than quantity. They have seven (yes, 7) courses online that have been viewed by 500,000 people. Not too shabby.
  • David Wiley’s declaration: “If my students can Google it, I don’t need to teach it.” The new knowledge economy is much more about what you can do with information than it is what you can memorize. (See my recent post RE ChaCha.)
  • Interesting observation by Yoshimi Fukuhara of Keio U that OCW sites are too focused on content and not enough on the learner experience.
  • Tusk Project at Tufts U facilitates “personal knowledge management” for students.
  • Terry Bays of OCWC suggests it’s critical for institutions to be clear about the goals their pursuing via Open CourseWare, i.e. what benefit(s) will it bring to the institution? Without such clarity, OCW efforts will be difficult to sustain over time. Jacque du Plessis made a similar argument in his presentation on the OCW lifecycle.
  • The hike up Logan Canyon. A very nice, refreshing break in the middle of the normal conference grind.
  • Finally meeting Brian Lamb after bumping into each other on Twitter and blogs for several months.
  • Confirmation from several folks after my presentation that a standalone, CMS-independent gradebook is a critical missing link for the creation of more open, flexible learning networks.
  • General mood / ideology / philosophy permeating the conference that learning and learners are much more important that institutional niceties, systems, vendors, etc. etc. etc.

Great conference! Thanks to the organizers, presenters and participants!

Spiders, Starfish and Institutions of Learning

September 17th, 2008 jonmott Comments

I just finished reading The Starfish and the Spider. The authors argue that a growing number of organizations are more like starfish than they are like spiders. Spiders are “centralized” in that they have a head that governs the rest of the body. If you cut off the head, the spider dies. In contrast, starfish do not have a central nervous system. They have no head, no brain. If you cut off a tentacle from a starfish, the starfish will probably grow a new one. In some species, the tentacle might even grow a whole new starfish. 

Exactly how a starfish survives, e.g. how it decides to move from point A to point B, is something of a biological mystery. Without a brain to coordinate the movement of its tentacles, a starfish could just flop around on the ocean floor. But somehow it moves. The legs somehow negotiate with each other to move in the direction that  is best for the organism, say in the direction of something to eat.

Starfish organizations are similar in nature. With little or no centralized coordination, they still manage to pursue and achieve a common (or widely shared) goal.

The authors suggest that starfish organizations have the following characteristics (p. 46-53):

  • There’s no one person “in charge”
  • There’s no recognizable headquarters
  • If you “thump it on the head” it survives
  • There’s an amorphous division of roles
  • If you “take out a unit” the community survives
  • Knowledge and power are distributed
  • The organization is flexible
  • Units are self-funding
  • It’s difficult (or impossible) to count “members” or participants
  • Working groups communicate directly with each other (instead of through a central organization)

Alcoholics Anonymous, the music-swapping community, al Qaeda, and craigslist are examples of communities that are more like starfish than they are like spiders. 

Traditional institutions of learning (colleges and universities) are much more like spiders than they are starfish. In contrast to the starfish organizations described in the book, Universities have clearly identifiable leaders (presidents), a headquarters, and are dependent upon the “central administration” to survive. Additionally, there’s a clear division of roles, the organization tends to be more rigid than flexible (think colleges & departments), units get the bulk of their funding from the central organization, and you can count the participants (student FTEs). In some ways, however, Universities can be like starfish–you can (in most cases) take out a unit without severely harming the organization, knowledge and power is distributed, and working groups frequently communicate directly with each other (without coordination from the administration).

In the end, the authors suggest that the most successful, dynamic and vibrant organizations are likely to be hybrids, i.e. part starfish-part spider (sounds like a bad SciFi Channel movie, doesn’t it?). Open Content and Open Educational Resources, and Open CourseWare all have the potential to make institutions of higher education more like starfish. These movements tend to promote broader participation in and ownership of curriculum. There is no “president” of the OER movement. Instead there are “thought leaders.” Instead of a headquarters, some working groups recognized by the community as centers of excellence and best practices. There is an amorphous division of roles. It’s difficult to count the participants. And so on.

But how do we reconcile the fundamentally starfish-like traits of the OER community with the traditional hierarchies of colleges and universities? The ideal hybrid organization is centralized where centralization adds the most value to its members and decentralized where decentralization is best. For example, eBay is centralized when it comes to verifying the identity of buyers and sellers and the security of financial transactions. But it is highly decentralized when it comes to what is bought and sold and at what price in the auctions it hosts. These decisions are made almost exclusively by the members of the eBay community.

As institutions of higher education evolve, they might similarly remain centralized in cases where centralization adds value to students–paying instructors, providing physical learning spaces, certifying student performance, granting credentials and degrees. Accordingly, institutions might become increasingly decentralized when it comes to the creation and delivery of learning materials, the bundling of various learning activities, the provision of teaching and learning tools, etc.

Many faculty and students are already moving in this direction in their teaching and learning activities. Are college and university administrators paying attention?

ChaCha and the Nature of Knowledge

September 2nd, 2008 jonmott Comments

The text “answers” service ChaCha invites user to “simply ask your question like you are talking to a smart friend and ChaCha’s advanced technology instantly routes it to the most knowledgeable person on that topic in our Guide community. Your answer is then returned to your phone as a text message within a few minutes.”

I tried a few questions to see how it works. Here are the results:

Q: What is a confidence interval?
A: A group of continuous or discrete adjacent values is used to estimate a statistical parameter (as a mean or variance)

Q: When was the French Revolution?
A: A major transformation of the society and political system of France, the French Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799.

Q: How does photosynthesis work?
A: Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants convert carbon dioxide to sugar and oxygen using sunlight for energy.

Q: Who wrote the Book of Mormon? (Thought I’d try a difficult one.)
A: No one can say with certainty who wrote it, or which author wrote which portions. There were too many contributors.

The answers are surprisingly cogent. Where do they come from? According to the site, live “ChaCha Guides” are behind the answers:

ChaCha’s Guides are individuals who are part of a vibrant community dedicated to helping people by sharing their knowledge. To become a ChaCha Guide, you must pass a series of tests that verify that you are a good fit with our Guide community. You are then able to go through ChaCha’s Search University and simulation process to become certified as a live ChaCha Guide. This unique approach aims to ensure that only knowledgeable people who have an interest in sharing their knowledge with others are part of ChaCha’s Guide community. ChaCha’s technology is also learning from each answer that is provided by our guides so that we can deliver accurate answers as quickly as possible

It’s unclear to me if the Guides are volunteers or if they are paid. In any case, this service raises interesting questions about the nature of knowledge. When I first heard of ChaCha and did some investigation, I was primarily concerned that students might use such a service to cheat on exams, quizzes and even homework. And I remain concerned that a student might surreptitiously use a cell phone in his or her pocket to “look up” answers on a test.

But this got me thinking about the nature of knowledge and the importance of recall. If a student can (almost) instantaneously get answers to factual questions, how important is it for us to require them to memorize facts? ChaCha will certainly not be the last or most sophisticated tool that provides just-in-time answers to knowledge questions.  As educators and learning technologists, our challenge is to figure out how to make assessment more meaningful and authentic in a world in which rapidly accessing facts is a trivial matter. When anyone can access any bit of knowledge anywhere, anytime, the real premium will increasingly be knowing what to do with that knowledge. Memorization will increasingly give way to analysis, synthesis and the creation of knew knowledge.

Plus cha-cha change . . .