Posts Tagged ‘Open Learning Networks’

Getting from Here to There

July 11th, 2008 jonmott Comments

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.

Open Learning Networks

In the mid 1990s, instructors needed an easy way to create websites for their courses. With the advent of the web, the possibility of online syllabi, course notes and even online discussion boards had become a reality. But only the most tech savvy faculty members could create such sites without technical assistance. Course management systems (CMSs) were born to meet this need. When an institution installed WebCT or Blackboard and made it available to faculty, they could quickly and easily create their own course sites. Over time, CMSs have become more robust and feature-rich. They have also become more “enterprise” in their nature. On most campuses, CMSs are integrated with Student Information Systems (SISs) and are considered part of the institution’s enterprise technology portfolio.

While these developments have generally contributed to the stability and reliability of CMSs, they have also tended to make them less flexible and adaptable. Given their enterprise status, it is complicated and expensive to perform upgrades and customize functionality (via open APIs or otherwise). In response, faculty members and students have increasingly gravitated to Web 2.0 social networking tools that provide almost a much greater range of options and flexibility. The choice appears to be a centralized, enterprise “networked learning environment” on one hand and open, customizable “personal learning environments” on the other.

As we look to the future, it is worth considering the possibility of bringing these two worlds together in what we might call “open learning networks” (OLNs). In an OLN, faculty, students and support staff would reap the benefits of enterprise, networked software for authentication, identity management, integration with SISs, etc. Additionally, they would be able to use a vast range of Web 2.0 apps, integrated into the OLN via web services and other sorts of integrations.

What exactly might this look like? The picture is still coming into focus in my mind (and I’m anxious to hear others’ thoughts and comments), but I think it would look something like this:

1. A core of institutional authentication, identify management and data integration services to bring learners and teachers together in a secure institutional environment. Once “inside” a local, institutional OLN, learners and instructors would be linked together in groups based on course enrollments, majors, clubs and other groupings recorded in various university systems. They would also be linked to content related to past and future learning experiences, projects and assignments. A key component of this aspect of the OLN would be a persistent, sharable learner profile that would serve as a hub for the learner’s various connections to other learners, content and learning applications.

2. An OLN would also provide connections / integration points with a variety of open education resource repositories, institutional content collections, and user created content tools, including various self-publishing sites like YouTube, Google Docs and blogs. The OLN would facilitate “registration” of personal learning environment tools and social networking tools so that they are trustably associated with learner profiles. For example, once inside the OLN, users would be able to see the blogs, Facebook profiles, personal content collections and other tools and resources associated with other users (based, of course, on permissions and rights to see such information).

3. The OLN would also need to be integrated with robust online assessment tools (e.g. for formative and summative quizzing and testing), a “harvesting gradebook” capable of aggregating data from a variety of learning applications, and an eportfolio tool which students could use to archive and document their learning experiences and activities.

Admittedly, this is a vague vision. But it seems to capture the best of the rigid, centralized CMS paradigm and the open, free-form world of personal learning environments.

We are beginning a conversation at BYU to explore the feasibility of creating an OLN, what it might look like at our institution and how we might go about building it. One of our first matters of business is to consider the development of an open, web services enabled university gradebook. Having such a tool in place would be an important first step toward creating a viable OLN. More to come . . .