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Posts Tagged ‘Open Learning Network’

Loosely Coupled Gradebook Presentation @ TTIX 2009

The slides for my presentation at TTIX 2009 about BYU’s loosely coupled gradebook project.

And a link to the UStream capture of the presentation.

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?

An Open (Institutional) Learning Network

April 9th, 2009 jonmott Comments

I’ve been noodling on the architecture of an open learning network for some time now. I’m making a presentation to my boss today on the subject and I think I have something worth sharing. (Nothing like a high-profile presentation to force some clarity of thought.)

I wrote a post last year exploring the spider-starfish tension between Personal Learning Environments and institutionally run CMSs. This is a fundamental challenge that institutions of higher learning need to resolve. On the one hand, we should promote open, flexible, learner-centric activities and tools that support them. On the other hand, legal, ethical and business constraints prevent us from opening up student information systems, online assessment tools, and online gradebooks. These tools have to be secure and, at least from a data management and integration perspective, proprietary.

So what would an open learning network look like if facilitated and orchestrated by an institution? Is it possible to create a hybrid spider-starfish learning environment for faculty and students?

The diagram below is my effort to conceptualize an “open (institutional) learning network.”

Open Learning Network 2.0

There are components of an open learning network that can and should live in the cloud:

  • Personal publishing tools (blogs, personal websites, wikis)
  • Social networking apps
  • Open content
  • Student generated content

Some tools might straddle the boundary between the institution and the cloud, e.g. portfolios, collaboration tools and websites with course & learning activity content.

Other tools and data belong squarely within the university network:

  • Student Information Systems
  • Secure assessment tools (e.g., online quiz & test applications)
  • Institutional gradebook (for secure communication about scores, grades & feedback)
  • Licensed and or proprietary institutional content

An additional piece I’ve added to the framework within the university network is a “student identity repository.” Virtually every institution has a database of students with contact information, class standing, major, grades, etc. To facilitate the relationships between students and teachers, students and students, and students and content, universities need to provide students the ability to input additional information about themselves into the institutional repository, such as:

  • URLs & RSS feeds for anything and everything the student wants to share with the learning community
  • Social networking usernames (probably on an opt-in basis)
  • Portfolio URLs (particularly to simplify program assessment activities)
  • Assignment & artifact links (provided and used most frequently via the gradebook interface)

Integrating these technologies assumes:

  • Web services compatibility to exchange data between systems and easily redisplay content as is or mashed-up via alternate interfaces
  • RSS everywhere to aggregate content in a variety of places

As noted in previous posts, we’re in the process of building a stand-alone gradebook app that is consistent with this framework. We’re in the process of deciding which tools come next and whether we build them or leverage cloud apps. After a related and thought-provoking conversation with Andy Gibbons today, I’m also contemplating the “learning conversation” layer of the OLN and how it should be achitected, orchestrated and presented to teachers and learners . . .

While there’s still a lot of work to do, this feels like we’re getting closer to something real and doable. Thoughts?

Learner Presence in Course Management Systems

As I’ve contemplated the future of course management systems (CMSs) in higher education, I keep coming back to fundamental problem of course-centricity. In the 1990s, faculty members wanted an easy way to build websites for their course and products like Blackboard & WebCT met that need. As they’ve evolved and other players have emerged (particularly open source products like Sakai & Moodle), CMSs have become more robust and feature-rich. However, they’ve remained fundamentally course-centric.

So what’s the problem with a course-centered system? Nothing, if all you’re trying to do is make the management of courses more efficient. But if you’re trying to change practice, to make teaching and learning more dynamic and flexible . . . you need a different kind paradigm.

One of the best ways to illustrate the limitations of a course-centered system is to think about learner “presence.” When and how does the student “exist” inside of a CMS? The answer today is only when he or she is enrolled in a particular course and only to the extent facilitated by the instructor. And when the semester ends, it is as if the learner never existed in the CMS–he or she is no longer “present.” All of the connections between learners and other learners, between learners and instructors, and between learners and content are “deleted” when the course goes away.

The Open Learning Network (OLN) model I’ve described elsewhere would not be so course-centric. Instead, it would be centered on learning, learning without artificial constraints on time or definitions of learning experiences (e.g. semester-based courses). The difference between learner presence in a CMS and an OLN is depicted below. In the contemporary CMS, learner presence builds during the time a student is enrolled in one or more courses. But that presence drops off sharply and disappears when courses disappear at the end of a semester. In an OLN, presence continues to grow, building on previous semesters’ (or other units of academic time) connections to people and content, becoming more and more valuable to the individual learner and to other learners in the network.

Learner Presence in a CMS

Learner presence is yet another reason we should be thinking about, planning and laying the groundwork for a new kind of teaching and learning infrastructure–an open learning network–in which learners can take ownership of and remain engaged in their own learning careers.