Posts Tagged ‘Web 2.0’

When the Lining of the Cloud ISN’T Silver . . .

November 24th, 2008 jonmott Comments

Google’s free SecondLife clone, Lively, is going away at the end of the year. As Google notes on its official blog, “not every bet is going to pay off.” Google’s recommendation for preserving what you’ve built on Lively? “We’d encourage all Lively users to capture your hard work by taking videos and screenshots of your rooms.” Hmm. Too bad there aren’t any 3D-world standards that would allow virtual environment creators to export and redeploy what they’ve created . . .  

The more pertinent note, at least for the subject matter of this blog, is that the lining of the cloud isn’t always silver. As Kyle Matthews noted in a post today, this should remind us all that free cloud-delivered software has an obvious and–depending on how much you rely on it–potentially devastating downside. Say you had built a rich 3D environment for a course you were going to launch in Lively next semester. You’d be out of luck. I’m thinking the “videos and screenshots of your rooms” would be missing some of the interactivity you had in mind when you set it up.

While PLEs are big part of the future of education and a world in which learning is more learner-centric, some caution is in order when we rely heavily on cloud-based apps. I’m not suggesting that Google Docs or Blogger are going to disappear anytime soon, but educational technologists run a decided risk when they rely on free cloud apps for mission critical teaching and learning functionality. One alternative is to deploy open source versions of these apps on servers we control on our own campuses, but that misses some of the promised efficiency and elegance of the Web 2.0 promise.

With economic hard times ahead, we might see several promising cloud apps disappear. Here’s hoping that the natural selection process won’t be too brutal. In the meantime, learning technologists must come to grips with the sometimes harsh economic realities of the Web 2.0 world. If our favorite app doesn’t prove economically viable, it will eventually go away. Then what?

Bridging the Gap Between the Campus Enterprise and the Cloud

November 19th, 2008 jonmott Comments

PlugJam ( appears to offer a crucial piece of the open learning network puzzle. While it makes intuitive sense to allow seamless integration between campus-based apps and Web 2.0 apps, it’s much easier to think about such integrations than it is to actually pull them off. According the company’s website, “PlugJam is a solution for schools, colleges, and universities looking to bridge the gap between existing campus-based tools and Web 2.0 services, allowing students to use their favorite social networking environment or Web Service to access their campus-based resources.”

This illustration (also from PlugJam’s website) shows how the PlugJam open API facilitates interconnectivity between the campus enterprise and the cloud:

Among other things, PlugJam allows campuses to:

  • Create social and informal learning tools from your existing systems
  • Link your Web 2.0 photos, videos and bookmarks
  • Build dynamic e-Portfolios with Campus and Social Network Resources e.g. Flickr, YouTube, Delicious
  • PlugJam has already built ”connectors” for Blackboard, Moodle, Peoplesoft Student, “identity management servers” and “portal servers”.

    I can’t wait to see what this tool can do!

    (For another take on PlugJam, see “Bringing Student ‘Stuff’ to Campus Enterprise Systems“.)

    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 . . .

    Blackboard & the Innovator’s Dilemma

    July 23rd, 2008 jonmott Comments

    As Clayton Christensen has famously observed, the producers of innovative products gradually lose their creative, innovative edge as they acquire and then seek to protect market share. When a company’s innovations result in significant profits, managers generally find themselves face to face with the innovator’s dilemma. To remain successful, Christensen argues that companies need to listen “responsively to their customers and [invest] aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that [satisfy] their customers’ next-generation needs.” However, these very same behaviors can create blind spots for innovators. By simply providing incremental improvements to existing products, companies run the risk of missing major, paradigm-shifting innovations in their market spaces. Likewise, they’re in danger of focusing too much on their existing customer bases instead of new potential customers who currently don’t user their products (non-consumers). These twin dangers leave erstwhile market leaders susceptible to disruptive technologies, provided by firms who aren’t stuck in current paradigms or too narrowly focused on pre-defined customer segments.

    Blackboard finds itself squarely in the midst of this classic problem. They have a large and fairly stable customer base. Incremental feature enhancements, improved customer service and product stability are likely to keep most of their customers satisfied for time being. But what of the disrupters in the market place? If one considers open source CMS alternatives like Sakai and Moodle to be the most-disruptive players in the market, Blackboard’s strategies appear to be on the right track.

    In his 2008 Bb World Keynote by Michael Chasen (President & CEO of Blackboard) showed screen shots of Blackboard NG (”Next Generation”) demonstrating the integration of Sakai & Moodle with Blackboard:

    Sakai & Moodle courses in Bb NG 

    This technological innovation will allow instructors and students at various institutions to use the CMS of their choice with a common entry / aggregation point–Blackboard.

    Blackboard is also attempting to play nice with Web 2.0 and mobile technologies.

    Blackboard on iGoogle
    Bb NG on an iGoogle page

    Blackboard on the iPhone
     Bb NG on the iPhone

    Blackboard is also making it easier to add Web 2.0 content to course sites (e.g. easy insertion of YouTube videos, adding Facebook pages to student profile pages).  

    While I applaud these innovations as good steps in the right direction, there remain fundamental flaws with Blackboard’s (and virtually every other CMS provider’s) underlying infrastructure. For all of the new window dressing, Blackboard remains first and foremost a semester-based, content-delivery oriented, course management system. The software is not (at least noticeably) evolving to become a student-centered learning management system. And while the addition of wikis and blogs inside the Blackboard system is as welcome improvement, there is still little or no integration between student learning tools “inside the moat” and outside of it “in the cloud.”

    It is for these reasons that I don’t count Sakai, Moodle, D2L or Angel amongst the biggest, long-term threats to Blackboard. Disruption will, I believe, come from another direction.

    In Christensen’s newest book, Disrupting Class, he and his co-authors argue that the real disruption in educational technology will come (and is already coming) via learner-centered technologies and networking tools. A rapidly growing number of people are creating their own personal learning environments with tools freely available to them, without the benefit of a CMS. As Christensen would say, they have hired different technologies to do the job of a CMS for them. But the technologies they’re hiring are more flexible, accessible and learner-centered than today’s CMSs. This is not to say that CMSs are about to disappear. Students enrolled in institutions of higher learning will certainly continue to participate in CMS-delivered course sites, but since these do not generally persist over time, the really valuable learning technologies will increasily be in the cloud.

    Open learning networks have the potential to bring together the world of the CMS (or better yet “institutional learning networks”) and the world of PLEs together. The next big challenge ahead of us is to figure out ways to create autonomous, institution-independent “learner spaces” that provide home bases for learners that can bridge the two worlds. In these spaces, learners would ideally aggregate relationships, artifacts, and content from ALL of their learning activities, be they digital or analog, online or offline, synchronous or asynchronous, from one institution or many. Blackboard still has the opportunity to provide such a space. If they want to.

    If they don’t someone else will.

    And it won’t be long.

    More on “learner spaces” in future posts . . .

    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.

    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.

    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 . . .

    The Gap: Web 2.0 & Higher Ed

    June 20th, 2008 jonmott Comments

    Just read an excellent post by Martin Weller over at e-Literate. Weller makes the excellent point that instituting social learning technology (Web 2.0 apps) in higher ed is not merely a matter of technology–it is (surprise) just as much a social and cultural issue. (Weller is from the Open University and is one of the key players behind SocialLearn.)

    Weller invites us to “think of the learning systems we use as the metaphor for the way we approach pedagogy, the learner experience and the role of the educator.” This is a thought-provoking exercise that reminds us that systems should be here to serve us (learners and those who facilitate it) not the other way around.

    The biggest “social” obstacle to the implementation of networked learning environments in higher ed is, as Tevye would have put it, “Tradition!” There will undoubtedly be “bottom-up” pressure from students to evolve, but the transition is also likely to be generational as newer, younger faculty members, raised in the Web 2.0 world, begin to change the practices of the academy.

    Participatory Learning Culture & the CMS

    June 19th, 2008 jonmott Comments

    Henry Jenkins was the closing keynote at the NMC Conference last week. Jenkins provided his latest thoughts and observations about today’s “participatory culture.” While individuals have greater capacity than ever before to appropriate, repurpose, remix and publish “new” content, Jenkins argues that this phenomenon is not as new as sometimes think. In fact, he argues, Herman Melville “remixed” themes from the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton and whaling culture to create Moby Dick. Today’s participatory culture, though, differs from what prevailed in Milton’s day in several important ways. Today’s culture is characterized by:

    • Relatively low barriers for engagement
    • Strong support for sharing creations with others
    • Informal mentorships
    • Participants believe their contributions matter
    • Participants care about others’ opinions of them and their work

    In the world of social networking and self-publishing, traditional definitions of “teacher” and “learner” and the relationships between them are passé. Jenkins is fronting an important and promising effort to address the “new media literacy” competencies that are required to flourish in today’s participatory culture. But what I found most striking as I listened to his talk was the gap between the technologies that are most readily available on most college campuses today and the technologies that under gird the participatory culture of the “real world.”

    I have argued in a previous post that course management systems are generally ill-designed to facilitate a transformation of teaching and learning practices. Jenkins’ keynote served to further crystallize this view in my mind. To illustrate just how far the average CMS is away from providing the infrastructure for a participatory learning culture, think about how students, teachers and learning activities are defined in most CMSs. First students only exist inside courses. They have no presence (i.e. roles or relationships) outside of a course. There is no learning space that bridges or transcends the course. At most institutions, when a semester is over, the student might well have never existed in the system. He or she cannot login and see past course work, reconnect with classmates, etc. One promising change in this equation is the emergence of e-portfolio tools (especially when integrated with CMSs) which allow students to collect artifacts of their learning as they go along, maintaining a record of their learning across courses. On balance, however, the technology still doesn’t do much to foster an environment in which learners are active, creative participants in the learning process. (Think about what about when students graduate. What happens then?)

    The role of teachers is much the same. They don’t exist outside of a course. And courses are generally the be-all and end-all of “learning act ivies” inside CMSs. There’s no space for learning that transcends and aggregates learning from individual courses. There’s little if any space for programmatic learning, support of general education, metacognition, informal learning, lifelong learning, etc.

    In the future I see, course management systems will not (or at least should not) exist. They should be replaced with learning management systems or, better yet, with learning network environments in which students can create and manage their own personal learning environments, unlimited by course schedules, course rosters, etc. Academic technologists (and software developers) should quit looking for new and more efficient ways of automating the past. Instead, we should be facilitating more open, flexible and dynamic learning environments.