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Archive for May, 2009

I’ve Seen the Future and the Future is Us (Using Google)

The past couple of weeks have been full of new technology announcements. Three in particular are notable because of the splash they received as “pre-releases” and how different one of them is from the other. I’ll readily admit that in these observations I have a particular bias, or at least a very narrow focus–I’m looking at the potential of these new technologies to transform and dramatically improve learning. By my count, one of the releases has the potential to do so. The other two? Not so much.

First, WolframAlpha launched amid buzz that it was the “Google killer.” It promised to revolutionize search by beginning to deliver on the much awaited “semantic web.” In their own worlds, Wolfram’s objective is to “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” This ambitious vision is intended to make better sense of the data accessible via the web to help us answer questions, solve problems, and make decisions more effectively. In the end, though, the tool is in reality “a variation on the Semantic Web vision . . . more like a giant closed database than a distributed Web of data.” It’s still early to be drawing final conclusions, but Google is not dead. Life goes on much the same as it did before. And, most importantly from my perspective, it does not appear that learning will be dramatically transformed, improved, or even impacted by the release of WolframAlpha. (BTW, I loved @courosa’s observation that “the Wolfram launch was like that group that claimed they were going to reveal evidence of UFOs a few yrs back.” After the hoopla died down, there wasn’t all that much “there” there.)

The second big product announcement, and the month’s next contestant for “Google Killer” status, was Microsoft’s Bing, Redmond’s latest attempt to reclaim its Web relevance. Microsoft is spinning Bing as a “decision engine,” also aimed at dramatically improving search. Beginning with the assertion that “nearly half of all searches don’t result in the answer that people are seeking,” the Bing team promises to deliver a tool that will yield “knowledge that leads to action” and help you “make smarter, faster decisions.” (By the way, is it still 2009? A product release website with text embedded in SilverLight that I can’t copy & paste? Really?) Again, it’s early–Bing isn’t even publicly available yet–but even if MS delivers on its lofty claims, this sort of technology doesn’t seem poised to transform learning.

Maybe I’m missing something, but better search doesn’t seem to be our biggest barrier to dramatically improved learning. And both WolframAlpha and Bing are coming at the problem of data overload with better search algorithms, better data processing tools, and intelligent data sorting / presentation tools. I think all of this is great. But neither of these approaches touches the fundamental, core activity of learning–making sense out the world’s complexities in communities of learners. In my “Post-LMS Manifesto” earlier this month, I observed:

Technology alone cannot save us or help us solve our most daunting societal problems. Only we, as human beings working together, can do that. And while many still long for the emergence of the virtual Aristotle, I do not. For I believe that learning is a fundamentally human endeavor that requires personal interaction and communication, person to person. We can extend, expand, enhance, magnify, and amplify the reach and effectiveness of human interaction with technology and communication tools, but the underlying reality is that real people must converse with each other in the process of “becoming.”

Having seen WolframAlpha and Bing, I’m even more firm in this belief. Advanced, improved, more sophisticated search and data sorting technology is much needed and wanted. I’ll be the first in line to use the search engine that proves itself more effective than Google Search. But, as the MLIS students at UBC understand, “without the person, the information is just data.”

A People Problem, Not a Data Problem

Enter Google Wave. In striking contrast to the Wolfram & MS attempts to surpass Google’s search predominance, Google itself announced that it had reinvented e-mail. It’s no coincidence that the reigning king of search hasn’t been spending all of its time and resources on reinventing search (although I don’t doubt that the Google brain trust is spending at least a few cycles doing that). Google has instead focused substantial energy on improving the tools we use to collaborate and communication around data and content.

In it’s Bing press release, MS notes that there are 4.5 new websites created every second. Two years ago, Michael Wesch noted that the world was on pace to create 40 exabytes (40 billion gigabytes) of new data. And the rate of data creation is only accelerating. More recently, Andreas Weigand contends that “in 2009, more data will be generated by individuals than in the entire history of mankind through 2008.”

On the surface, this might seem less substantive than improved data search and analysis tools and, therefore, less relevant to the business or learning. But dealing with data overload and making sense out of it all is a fundamentally human problem. Again, we can extend, expand, enhance, magnify, and amplify the reach and effectiveness of our access to and analysis of data, but making sense out of it all requires individuals, groups and crowds to have conversations about the origins, interpretations and meanings of that data. That is essence of being human. We can outsource our memories to Google, but we cannot (should not!) outsource our judgment, critical analysis, and interpretive capacities to any mechanical system.

The Future of Learning and Learning Technology

<melodrama>I’ve seen the future. And the future is us.</mellodrama>. As we use–and even more importantly appropriate, adapt, and repurpose–tools like Google Wave, we can leverage technology to preserve and enhance that which is most fundamentally human about ourselves. I appreciated Luke’s reminder that teachers and learners should “take ownership of online teaching and learning tools” and, accordingly, “not be shy about reminding our users of their responsibilities, and our users shouldn’t be shy about asking for help, clarification, or if something is possible.” This is precisely what many users of Twitter have done. My startling realization about my Twitter activity is that it has become an indispensable component of my daily learning routine. It’s become a social learning tool for me, giving me access to people and content in a way I never imagined.

Based on an hour and 20 minute long video, Google Wave appears poised to dramatically improve on the Twitter model. Accordingly, the possibilities for enhanced interactions between learners are encouraging. And the ripples of the Wave (sorry, couldn’t resist) have profound implications. With Wave, entire learning conversations are captured and shared with dynamic communities of learners. Lars Rasmussen (co-creator of Wave) noted: “We think of the entire conversation object as being a shared object hosted on a server somewhere” (starting at about 6:22 into the presentation). The ability for late-joining participants to “playback” the conversation and get caught up is particularly intriguing. Elsewhere:

  • Jim Groom asserts that Google Wave will make the LMS “all but irrelevant by re-imagining email and integrating just about every functionality you could possibly need to communicate and manage a series of course conversations through an application as familiar and intimate as email.”
  • David Wiley wonders if Wave might “completely transform the way we teach and learn.”
  • Tim O’Reilly observes that the emergence of Wave has created a “kind of DOS/Windows divide in the era of cloud applications. Suddenly, familiar applications look as old-fashioned as DOS applications looked as the GUI era took flight. Now that the web is the platform, it’s time to take another look at every application we use today.”

All of this continues to point to the demise of the LMS as we know it. However, I agree with Joshua Kim’s observation that the LMS’s “future needs to be different from its past.” As he notes, he’s anxious to use Wave for group projects, but he wants his course rosters pre-loaded and otherwise integrated with institutional systems. This is, as I have previously noted, the most likely evolutionary path for learning technology environments–a hybrid between open, flexible cloud-based tools like Wave and institutionally managed systems that provide student data integration and keep assessment data secure. And this is bound to looking something a lot more like an open learning network than a traditional course management system.

As we adopt and adapt tools like Twitter and Google Wave to our purposes as learning technologists, we have to change the way we think about managing facilitating learning conversations. We can no longer be satisfied with creating easy to manage course websites that live inside moated castles. We have to open up the learning process and experience to leverage the vastness of the data available to us and the power of the crowd, all the while remembering that learning is fundamentally about individuals conversing with each other about the meaning and value of the data they encounter and create. Technologies like Google Wave are important, not in and of themselves, but precisely because they force us to remember this reality and realign our priorities and processes to match it.

I’ve seen the future of learning technology, and the future is us.

Where’s the Innovation?

I just read Kim Cofino’s absolutely fabulous post about the absence of real innovation in education. Much of her post is a summary of Tom Kelley’s talk at the Hong Kong Summit. But her summary and additional insights are great. I highly recommend that you read her entire post.

Kim asserts that innovation doesn’t “mean just adding more technology to the classroom [but] thinking differently about learning in its entirety.”

I concur with Kim–dramatic change and innovation will not (cannot) occur by incrementally improving our existing practices. We need to see differently and invent the future instead of constantly reinventing the past.

True to form, I believe this kind of innovation has to start with our goals (the end!) in mind. That is, we have to constantly ask ourselves what we really want learners at our institutions to know and, even more importantly, to be able to do? Are the educational experiences we’re providing for them enabling to do the things we really care about? If an outsider who had never seen an institution of higher education before dropped on to one of our campuses, what would they think was most important to us? I’m afraid they might conclude that test-taking and throughput were among our highest priorities.

Kim suggests that embracing project-based learning and student competency portfolios are good places to start, to get us unstuck and on the road to innovation. I agree. However, while adopting these and other new approaches, we must stay doggedly focused on why these things matter–they matter because they will help learners become what they really need and want to become.

So how do we get there? In Tom’s talk, he warned against the “Red Queen Effect” in Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass and reminded us that, “if you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” This bias toward action was reaffirmed in a quote I came across this morning from Frank Tibolt: “We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.”

Once again, I ask, “What are we waiting for?” Time to get to work!

A Post-LMS Manifesto

In the wake of the announcement of Blackboard’s acquisition of ANGEL, the blogosphere has been buzzing about Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and their future (or lack thereof). The timing of this announcement came at an interesting time for me. A BYU colleague and I (Mike Bush) recently published a piece in Educational Technology Magazine with the unassuming title “The Transformation of Learning with Technology.” (If you read this article, you’ll recognize that much of my thinking in this post is influenced by my work with Mike.) I’ve also been working on strategy document to guide our LMS and LMS-related decisions and resource allocations here at BYU.

These ongoing efforts and my thoughts over the last twenty-four hours about the Bb-ANGEL announcement have come together in the form of a “post-LMS manifesto” (if can dare use such a grandiose term for a blog post). In the press release about Blackboard’s acquisition of ANGEL, Michael Chasen asserted that the move would “accelerate the pace of innovation and interoperability in e-learning.” As a Blackboard client, I certainly hope that’s true. However, more product innovation and interoperability, while desirable, aren’t going to make Blackboard fundamentally different than it is today—a “learning management system” or “LMS.” And that worries me because I continue to have serious concerns about the future of the LMS-paradigm itself, a paradigm that I have critiqued extensively on this blog.

Learning and Human Improvement

Learning is fundamentally about human improvement. Students flock to colleges and university campuses because they want to become something they are not. That “something” they want to become ranges from the loftiest of intellectual ideals to the most practical and worldly goals of the marketplace. For those of us who work in academe, our duty and responsibility is to do right by those who invest their time, their energy, and their futures in us and our institutions. It is our job to help them become what they came to us to become—people who are demonstrably, qualitatively, and practically different than the individuals they were before.

Technology has and always will be an integral part of what we do to help our students “become.” But helping someone improve, to become a better, more skilled, more knowledgeable, more confident person is not fundamentally a technology problem. It’s a people problem. Or rather, it’s a people opportunity. Philosophers and scholars have wrestled with the challenge and even the paradox of education and learning for centuries. In ancient Greece, Plato formulated what we have come to call “Meno’s paradox” in an attempt to get at the underlying difficulties associated with teaching someone a truth they do not already know. The solution in that age was to pair each student with an informed tutor—as Alexander the Great was paired with Aristotle—to guide the learner through the stages of progressive enlightenment and understanding.

More than two millennia later, United States President James Garfield underscored the staying power of this one-to-one approach: “Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins [a well-known educator and lecturer of the day] on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.” I suppose President Garfield, were he alive today, would include LMSs and other educational technology on the list of things he would give up in favor of a skilled, private tutor.

The problem with one-to-one instruction is that it simply doesn’t scale. Historically, there simply haven’t been enough tutors to go around if our goal is to educate the masses, to help every learner “become.” Another century later, Benjamin Bloom formalized this dilemma, dubbing it the “2 Sigma Problem.” Through experimental investigation, Bloom found that “the average student under tutoring was about two standard deviations above the average” of students who studied in a traditional classroom setting with 30 other students (“The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring,” Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4-16). Notwithstanding this enormous gap, Bloom was optimistic that continued focus on mastery learning would allow us to eventually narrow the distance between individually-tutored and group-instructed students.

Moving Beyond the LMS

There is, at its very core, a problem with the LMS paradigm. The “M” in “LMS” stands for “management.” This is not insignificant. The word heavily implies that the provider of the LMS, the educational institution, is “managing” student learning. Since the dawn of public education and the praiseworthy societal undertaking “educate the masses,” management has become an integral part of the learning. And this is exactly what we have designed and used LMSs to do—to manage the flow of students through traditional, semester-based courses more efficiently than ever before. The LMS has done exactly what we hired it to do: it has reinforced, facilitated, and perpetuated the traditional classroom model, the same model that Bloom found woefully less effective than one-on-one learning.

For decades, we’ve been told that technology is (or soon would be) capable of replicating the role of a private, individual tutor, of providing a “virtual Aristotle” for each individual learner. But after the billions of dollars we’ve spent on educational technology, we’re nowhere near such an achievement. In fact, we can’t even say that we’ve improved learning at all! (See Larry Cuban’s Oversold & Underused for an excellent, in-depth treatment of this subject). And our continued investment of billions of dollars in the LMS is unlikely to get us any closer to our learning improvement goals either. Because the LMS is primarily a traditional classroom support tool, it is ill-suited to bridge the 2-sigma gap between classroom instruction and personal tutoring.

We shouldn’t be terribly surprised or disappointed that LMSs—or any other technology for that matter—have not revolutionized learning. As Michael Wesch and his students have so sagely reminded us, technology alone cannot save us or help us solve our most daunting societal problems. Only we, as human beings working together, can do that. And while many still long for the emergence of the virtual Aristotle, I do not. For I believe that learning is a fundamentally human endeavor that requires personal interaction and communication, person to person. We can extend, expand, enhance, magnify, and amplify the reach and effectiveness of human interaction with technology and communication tools, but the underlying reality is that real people must converse with each other in the process of “becoming.”

Crowdsourcing the Tutor

If we are to close the 2-sigma gap, we must leave the LMS behind and the artificial walls it builds around arbitrary groups of learners who have enrolled in sections of a courses at our institutions. In the post-LMS world, we need to worry less about “managing” learners and focus more on helping them connect with other like-minded learners both inside and outside of our institutions. We need to foster in them greater personal accountability, responsibility and autonomy in their pursuit of learning in the broader community of learners. We need to use the communication tools available to us today and the tools that will be invented tomorrow to enable anytime, anywhere, any-scale learning conversations between our students and other learners. We need to enable teachers and learners to discover and use the right tools and content (and combinations, remixes and mashups thereof) to facilitate the kinds of interaction, communication and collaboration they need in the learning process. By doing so, we can begin to create the kinds of interconnections between content and individual learners that might actually approximate the personal, individualized “tutors.” However, instead of that tutor appearing in the form of an individual human being or in the form of a virtual AI tutor, the tutor will be the crowd.

While LMS providers are making laudable efforts to incrementally make their tools more social, open, modular, and interoperable, they remain embedded in the classroom paradigm. The paradigm—not the technology—is the problem. We need to build, bootstrap, cobble together, implement, support, and leverage something that is much more open and loosely structured such that learners can connect with other learners (sometimes called teachers) and content as they engage in the authentic behaviors, activities and work of learning.

Building a better, more feature-rich LMS won’t close the 2-sigma gap. We need to utilize technology to better connect people, content, and learning communities to facilitate authentic, personal, individualized learning. What are we waiting for?