Archive for the ‘Teaching & Learning Technology’ Category

Jim Groom is Watching Me

February 12th, 2010 jonmott Comments

Jim Groom, aka Rorschach, is watching me. He apparently took umbrage with my ELI presentation in which I–very much tongue-in-cheek–suggested that he and Michael Chasen could live together in harmony, perhaps even sitting down to sing Kumbaya.

Jim appears to be concerned that I’m advocating a “middle-of-the-road” approach that validates the LMS paradigm. Lest anyone else be confused, let me state that nothing could be further from the truth. If you listen to my entire presentation, I hope it’s clear that I’m not advocating the perpetuation of the single, vertical, integrated technology stack that is the LMS. Rather, the AND that I’m really advocating is the blending of the secure, university network for private, proprietary data (e.g., student records) and the open, read-write Web.

David Wiley and I recently argued, the “open learning network” model is “revolutionary primarily in its refusal to be radical in either direction.” There is value in both the LMS and PLE paradigms. However, blending the best aspects of both does not mean keeping either or both in their current forms. It means leveraging the best of each and mashing them up into something completely new and different. By doing so we can create a learning network that is both private AND public, secure AND open, reliable AND flexible, integrated AND modular, and that is supportive of both teachers AND learners.

Institutions and Openness

January 21st, 2010 jonmott Comments

There has been lots of great discussion at ELI 2010 about openness–what it means, why it’s a value we should embrace, and what it means for institutions.

As I’ve contemplated all of this, I was reminded of Whitman poem:

“I Hear It Was Charged Against Me”
by Walt Whitman

I HEAR it was charged against me that I sought to destroy
But really I am neither for nor against institutions;
(What indeed have I in common with them?–Or what with the
destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta, and in every city of These
States, inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel, little or large,
that dents the water,
Without edifices, or rules, or trustees, or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.

I aspire to belong “the institution of the dear love of comrades.” That is why I embrace openness. But being open does not mean being anti-institutional. I affiliate with formal institutions that embrace Whitman’s ideal, institutions made up of outward-reaching “comrades” trying to make the world a better place. I teach, attend professional meetings, make presentations, write articles, blog, engage with colleagues via social media, all in the context of my association with my formal institution of higher education.

We can embrace openness *and* remain ardent supporters of our institutions. Indeed, institutions of higher learning have been the primary source of intellectual and cultural openness throughout history.

I embrace openness. I embrace my institution. There’s no contradiction in that.

The CMS and the PLN

January 19th, 2010 jonmott Comments

It’s a been a long time since I blogged. Between sending my son off on a mission to Brazil, celebrating my 20th anniversary with my sweetheart, working on some offline writing projects, taking some time off for the holidays, getting back into the swing of things with the New Year and the new semester, and launching our loosely-coupled gradebook at BYU . . . Well, let’s just say I’ve been a little busy.

During my blogging hiatus, I did manage to get a paper published with my friend and colleague David Wiley. In the paper, we catalogue what we believe are the fundamental weaknesses of the CMS.

Writing this paper and taking some time away from blogging has allowed me to think some things through. As the title of my blog constantly reminds me, technology is only as good as the change and improvement it brings to teaching and learning. I have become supremely utilitarian when it comes to teaching and learning tools, applications and platforms. When it comes to the CMS and the Personal Learning Network (PLN), I readily admit that there are plusses and minuses to each. (For some thoughts ont the distinctions between PLNs and the PLE, see the references below).

I’m currently writing from ELI in Austin, Texas where I will make a presentation about open learning networks. As part of my preparation, I asked my PLN via Twitter (see below for a listing) for sources that delineate the strengths and weaknesses of the CMS and the PLN.

Here’s my meta-listing based on the research I did with David for our article, my own experience, and what I’ve gleaned from the resources shared by my online colleagues:

CMS Strengths

  • Simple, consistent, and structured
  • Integration with student information systems (SISs) so student rosters are automagically populated in courses
  • Private and secure (i.e., FERPA compliant)
  • Tight tool integration (e.g., quiz scores populated in gradebooks)
  • Supports sophisticated content structuring (e.g., sequencing, branching, and adaptive release)

CMS Weaknesses

  • As it is widely implemented, the CMS is time-bound (i.e., courses go away at the end of the semester)
  • Teacher, rather than student, centric
  • Courses are walled off from each other and from the wider Web, thereby negating the potential of the network effect
  • Limited opportunities for students to “own” and manage their learning experiences within and across courses
  • Rigid, non-modular tools
  • Interoperability challenges and difficulties (significant progress is being made on this front, but the ability to easily move data in and out of the CMS and to plug in alternative tools to replace or enhance native tools remains to be seen)

PLN Strengths

  • Almost limitless variety and functionality of tools
  • Customizable and adaptable
  • No artificial time boundaries–remains “on” before, during, and after matriculation
  • Open to interaction and connection with persons without regard to their official registration in programs or courses
  • Easily sharable with others both inside and outside of courses, programs, and institutions
  • Student-centric (i.e., each student selects and uses the tools that make sense for their particular needs and circumstances)
  • Compilable via simple technologies like RSS

PLN Weaknesses

  • Complex and difficult to create for inexperienced students and faculty members
  • Potential security and data exposure problems–FERPA issues abound
  • Limited institutional control over data
  • Absent or unenforceable SLAs–no ability to predict or resolve Web application performance issues, outages, or even disappearance

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it begins to clarify the picture in my mind. If we persist in an either-or debate about the CMS versus the PLN, we will be falling victim to what Jim Collins calls the “tyranny of or.” When faced with difficult decisions, we often cast them–artificially–as dichotomies. We must do this *or* that. Collins argues that the alternative is to find ways to leverage the “genius of and,” to bring together the best of both alternatives and create a chimerical best-of-both-worlds solution.

That is the vision of the open learning network–to bring together the best of the CMS and the best of the PLN to create a learning platform for higher education that meets the broad and diverse needs of faculty members and students engaged in the teaching and leaning process. Doing so is what I get paid to do–to provide technologies that will help teachers and learners be more effective without having to worry about technological complexities and navigating the swirling waters of apparently contradictory paradigms.

Please comment with your suggestions for improving my listing of strengths and weaknesses and I’ll edit the lists (with attribution). If you have additional resources to add, please share those as well.

More fun to follow soon . . .



ELI’s “7 Things You Should Know About … Personal Learning Environments

Alec Couros: “What is a PLN? Or, PLE vs. PLN

Steve Wheeler: “It’s Personal: Learning Spaces, Learning Webs

David Hopkins: “Pedagogical Foundations for Personal Learning

John Seely Brown: “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0

Edublend: “Cloud Learning Environment – What is it?

grazadio_elearning’s PLE Bookmarks on Delicious

Things I’ve written on the subject …

Bush & Mott: “The Transformation of Learning with Technology: Learner-Centricity, Content and Tool Malleability, and Network Effects

Mott & Wiley: “Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network


Tinkering, Playing, and Learning

November 6th, 2009 jonmott Comments

John Seely Brown is visited the BYU Campus today and gave a compelling talk about Homo sapiens, Homo faber, and Homo ludens.

Essentially, he argues that the formal education focuses almost exclusively on the Homo sapiens notion of “man as knowledge,” attempting to fill students with information and facts. This is gradually, in some quarters, giving way to Homo faber, or “man as maker,” students as creators of new knowledge and ideas represented in learning artifacts. But what Brown argues is almost completely missing is the notion of Homo ludens, or “man as player,” students as tinkerers, playing with ideas, concepts, trying new ways to put things together to express ideas solve problems.

While this is somewhat akin to what Gee has said about learning through playing games, Brown is suggesting, I think something deeper and more profound. When we play and tinker, he says, we get into systems and figure out how they work, why they work, and what the rules are that underlie various systems. Having done so, we can begin hacking them, changing conditions in the system to get results we want but for which the system wasn’t explicitly designed to produce. (This is a process Paul Buchheit richly terms “applied philosophy.”)

Playing and tinkering can be casual, simply messing around. But when we move (and help our students move) to deep tinkering, we “soak and poke” around systems to see what can be pushed around, what can be rearranged, what can be repurposed, and what can be modified to what result. This yields what Brown terms and “intimate familiarity” with material at hand and an “embodied immersion” in a system. Deep tinkering results in the sort of deeply situated understanding Polyani calls “indwelling”.

This kind of knowing and learning facilitates the transformation from learning to know, to learning to be, to learning to become. And becoming requires repeated effort, frequently followed by failure, followed by refined effort, followed by incrementally improved performance. Over time, this process of failing, over and over and over again, yields success (and even, in many instances, perfect performance).

So how do we get to this kind of learning in our schools?

Brown offers two suggestions. The first is that we need to strike the right balance between Homo sapiens, Homo faber, and Homo ludens with a sense of awe and zest for life at the core. This directly leads to the next suggestion—dramatically improving learning will require more institutional innovation than it will technological innovation. Technological affordances already outstrip practice. What we need to do now is rethink the ways we organize to facilitate learning—authentic, deeply situated learning—and use the technology available to us to make authentic differences in the lives of our students.

This reminds me, once again, that while the technology is important, dramatically improving teaching and learning practice is at least as much a cultural challenge as it is an technological undertaking.

Why Wave Won’t Replace the CMS

October 15th, 2009 jonmott Comments

Last week, Jeff Young added to the Wave hype with his frequently Tweeted and Re-Tweeted post “Could Google Wave Replace Course-Management Systems?

From what I’ve seen of Wave so far (I got my invite this week), I’d have to say, “No chance.” I have three reasons for making this conclusion:

1. Wave doesn’t replicate core CMS functionality.

The CMS has become the dominant technology of choice for instructors in higher education because it allows them to easily create course websites which are automagically populated with the students enrolled in their courses. The tools faculty members use within the CMS bear little if any resemblance to the feature set I’ve seen in Wave. Blackboard usage data at BYU indicates that faculty members overwhelmingly use the CMS for administrative purposes–content distribution, announcements, teacher-to-student communication, gradebooking, and (to a lesser extent) quizzing. This data is consistent with Morgan’s conclusion in her study of CMS usage in the University of Wisconsin System. The CMS, she observed, is “fundamentally a conservative technology … [for] managing groups, providing tools, and delivering content… Faculty use the CMS primarily as an administrative tool to facilitate quiz administration and other classroom tasks rather than as a tool anchored in pedagogy or cognitive science models” (1, 11).

While Wave appears to be a promising learning dialogue platform, it lacks the core CMS features that have driven faculty adoption. The same can be said of WordPress. When Blackboard melted down at CUNY earlier this year, many users turned to WordPress-powered blogs. But, as Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen observed, such Web 2.0 tools lacked key administrative applications like gradebooks.

Until alternative technology emerges that can blend new technologies like Wave with existing technologies like SIS-integrated gradebooks, the CMS is unlikely to lose its popularity with instructors.

2. Using Wave to teach would require embracing a completely different kind of learning paradigm.

The CMS is, indeed, a fundamentally conservative technology. Accordingly, it has been used primarily to support and reinforce the traditional lecture-driven, content-heavy, and instructor-centric model of instruction. Technologies like Wave, blogs, wikis, and Twitter are unlikely to replace the CMS anytime soon precisely because they are nothing like the CMS. They are all tools that facilitate dialogue around content and lack robust tools for content distribution. As such, they would require faculty members to focus less on making students “knowledgeable” (stuffing their heads with information) and more on making them “knowledge-able” (helping them effectively find and use information to solve particular problems).

Faculty members who remain focused on knowledge and content dissemination have little reason to move away from the CMS.

3. The CMS is unlikely to be replaced by any single technology–Wave or otherwise.

The CMS is the Swiss Army Knife of educational technology. It does lots of different things not very well. But it’s simple and convenient. For most institutions, replacing the CMS will require mimicking the ease of use and core functionality of the CMS. A hybrid of both “enterprise” technologies (e.g.,  student information systems, university managed secure gradebooks, quiz engines) and a mix of cloud-based, Web 2.0 applications (like Wave) is the next natural step in learning technology evolution. The advantage of such a technology ecosystem would be its malleability–it would be significantly more open, flexible, and interoperable than current CMS technology. Accordingly, it could simultaneously meet the needs of the majority of faculty members who still gravitate to the content-centric and administrative functions of the CMS while enabling those who are ready to move on to do so.


It is time to reframe the educational technology debate. In recent years educational technologists have been lining up on opposing sides of the PLN versus CMS debate. The reality, though, is that there are desirable features of both alternatives. It’s time to mash them up and create a chimerical new kind of technology that can give us the best of both worlds.

Is it a motorcycle? A car? It's both!

Is it a motorcycle? A car? It's both!

Gaming, Social Learning & Authenticity

September 29th, 2009 jonmott Comments

James Paul Gee argues that gaming, particularly role-playing gaming, is providing young people with precisely the skills they need to be effective and productive in our new mediated culture and highly networked workplaces.

Gee’s positive view on the impact of gaming confirms what I’ve concluded about the video game “races” my son occasionally organizes in our basement. Gaming has the potential to bring people together in new, different, and socially healthy ways. My son’s game races consist of assembling a group of four or five friends, each with his own game console, copy of a game, and television. With all of them in the same room, they say “Go!” and race through the entire game together. As they race, they talk, compare game strategies, tell jokes, and snack (a lot).

Game Racing

Game Racing

Notwithstanding the warnings of critics, gaming is not (or at least doesn’t have to be) a socially isolating activity. On the contrary, Gee contends that game players overwhelmingly want to join, participate, teach, mentor, lead, and build their gaming communities.

Among other things, Gee argues that game playing enhances the ability to be in communities and collaborate, to be smarter in the community than they are individually. Unfortunately, we’re not adequately leveraging games and gaming principles in our classrooms. Gee argues that we essentially have two educational systems–one that is dynamic, collaborative, and community based and another that is narrowly focused on what an individual can do, without assistance or help from others, in a very narrow domain. In fact, when kids attempt to collaborate in individually focused learning and assessment contexts, the traditional educational environment perceives such behavior as cheating, even when it is merely mimicking what happens in non-technology mediated contexts.

Part of being on a team is being an expert and knowing what everyone else does and how your expertise works together with everyone else’s expertise. We are unlikely to see significant, transformational changes in student learning and performance until we change both the way we teach and assess students. We need to shift our focus from testing how “knowledgeable” our students are to how “knowledge-able” they are. Can they adeptly use a variety of tools to find information, connect and collaborate with others, and solve problems? These are the skills they’ll need in real life. To prepare them for the challenges they’ll soon face, we need to leverage the new affordances of new technologies to replicate these kinds of authentic activities (which can in turn be authentically assessed) in our schools and classrooms.

WordPress iPhone App

September 27th, 2009 jonmott Comments

Just discovered the free WordPress iPhone app. Great way to write short posts on the go. This post is mostly to see how it works … and to note that technology never ceases to amaze me.

Why is it that with such amazing technological affordances available to us we haven’t significantly and demonstably improved learning???

Assessment as a Social Activity

September 17th, 2009 jonmott Comments

I’ve been following the Washington State Harvesting Gradebook project for sometime and have been impressed with the intellectual rigor behind the project. That is clearly evidenced in this video overview of the project:

The comments at the end of the video are particularly significant. The narrator concludes:

At bottom, our research findings challenge many traditional assumptions. We are all understanding now that more than ever learning and assessment is or should be social. It benefits from the insight and diversity of broader engaged community. Expertise is distributed. It is not monolithic.

Assessment and assessment criteria, as Wiggins has long argued, should not be a secret. Students’ energy and creativity in their learning should not be held hostage by a classroom or coddled with promises of, “Someday in the real world …”

Intellectual capital is mistakenly recognized as a noun. Intellectual capital is a gerund. It is learning. And it is most valuable when it’s plural: “We learn.”

This emphasis on community and social connections in the learning process (which encompasses assessment) is reminiscent of Brown & Adler’s assertion that it is time for us move beyond the Cartesian premise of “I think, therefore I am” and embrace the more realistic and rich notion of “we participate, therefore we are.” As we make learning and learning assessment more social, public, and transparent, learners will be naturally more invested and engaged in the learning process because they become co-creators and co-custodians of the experience. The WSU model of social assessment that incorporates external assessment of student work extends this openness into the broader community in which our students will work and continue to learn after graduation.

As we move forward with the development of the BYU gradebook, we will incorporate these elements of social assessment, facilitating self-assessment, peer assessment, instructor assessment, and external (third-party) assessment. The resulting treasure trove of authentic assessment data will more than meet our accreditation needs (so long as our program outcomes, learning activities and assessments are aligned!). But far more importantly, this rich, community-centric assessment approach will deepen and enrich the student learning experience.

To Act or To Be Acted Upon

September 16th, 2009 jonmott Comments

One of my favorite scriptural passages reminds us that we all have a fundamental choice to make in life–to act or to be acted upon. Certainly there are many things in life that are beyond our control. But we have the choice–every day, every hour, every moment. We can choose to let external forces push us forward to a destination not of our choosing or, instead, to take what comes and continue to chart our own course, pursuing goals we define, completing projects we choose to complete, notwithstanding our external environment.

Sailors call this “tacking into the wind.” A headwind might seem an insurmountable force working against the forward progress of a sailboat. But experienced sailors now how to set the sails to harness the power of the headwind and propel the vessel forward.

Today, we and our students face shifting technology winds. In our learning spaces we are beset with numerous challenges that can sometimes feel like strong headwinds–technology compatibility, reliability, security, plagiarism, copyright issues, hacking, bullying, pornography, privacy, and even addiction. So, do we act in the face of such challenges and act, or do we passively allow ourselves to be acted upon? A recent study conducted by researchers from the Cranfield School of Management and AJM Associates suggests that adolescent and teen “addiction” to technology is causing poor academic performance. Since the full 25-page report is only accessible for a $25 fee, I haven’t read the entire piece (I need to eat lunch this week). Accordingly, I cannot judge what the authors suggest we do about the “techno addiction.” But the comments in the official press release suggest that technology is acting upon us and our students.

Andrew Kakabadse, one of the study’s authors proclaims:

“Our research shows that technology obsession hinders spelling skills, implicitly encourages plagiarism, and disrupts classroom learning.  Despite school policies restricting mobile phone usage, students use the phone frequently, with the majority making calls from the toilets. The mobile phone continues to be a prime channel of social communication during the school day.”

He further observes:

“Shockingly, a high proportion of teenagers (59.2%) admitted to inserting information straight from the internet into schoolwork, without actually reading or changing it.  Almost a third (28.5%) deemed this as acceptable practice despite recognising that such behaviour is considered plagiarism.”

While we should certainly be concerned about plagiarism and other potentially negative implications of technology use, suggesting the technology is the culprit and that we should somehow try to control it is like a sailor attempting to control the wind. As individual teachers and learning technologists, we have little if any control of the technology landscape in which we and our students interact. We and our students have mobile phones, iPods, and ubiquitous access to the Internet. If we are worried about inappropriate use of these technologies, disconnecting and powering down are not the answers. As Kakabadse himself notes, students are bringing their technology to school “despite school policies restricting” them from doing so. Rules, restrictions, and technical barriers are not going to keep technology out of the classroom, let alone prevent inappropriate usage of technology.

Low-Tech Texting

Low-Tech Texting

Our job as teachers and as mentors is to harness technology for our own purposes, to use it to accomplish our goals, and to help our students to do the same. Instead of futilely trying to control the wind or wish it away, let’s tack into it. Let’s be creative and find new ways to leverage the technologies we all have at our fingertips and in our pockets. (For example, instead of banning cell phones from the classroom, how about using them creatively to foster student engagement?)

Technology is not the bogeyman. Low levels of student engagement in the classroom is not a new problem. Remember low-tech texting?

Technology can be used for good or for ill.

Given the choice, I opt to act and not to be acted upon. I choose to proactively use technology for purposes of my choosing, to accomplish my goals.

And I opt to teach my students to do the same.

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Outsourcing Our Memory to Google

August 8th, 2009 jonmott Comments

Robert Kelly, author of How to Be a Star at Work, made the following observation about the percentage of knowledge the average employee stores in their own mind, versus the amount they retrieve from external sources as the need arises:

“What percent of the knowledge you need to do your job is stored in your own mind? Or put another way, what percentage of  time do you spend reaching out to someone or something else for knowledge that is essential for you to get your job done?

In 1986, the average answer from responses to surveys or hands in the air at group seminars was that most people had about 75 percent in their heads. In recent years, the percentage has dropped 15 to 20 points, and in the case of one company I worked with recently, fallen as low as 10 percent.”

So how does this relate to our work in higher education? We live in an age in which anyone can access virtually any factoid instantaneously. As I was driving home from work with my 18 year old son the other day, Rush by Big Audio Dynamite was playing on the radio.

I provide it here for your listening pleasure:

Rush – Big Audio Dynamite II

We couldn’t remember who sang for B.A.D. My son grabbed my iPhone, did a quick Wikipedia search and resolved our dilemma in 1o seconds. (In case you’re wondering, the front man for B.A.D. was Mick Jones.)

My colleague David Wiley has been challenging instructors to quit teaching or test factoids that can be found instantaneously on Google. The teacher’s job used to be dispensing information that students could get nowhere else. Now they have ready access to more inforamtion that we dreamed possible when we were in school. Our job now, as Mike Wesch likes to put it, is to make our students “knowledge-able,” not simply knowledgeable. Our job today is to help students find the right information and use it effectively to solve problems.

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