Friday, March 30, 2012

Mobile Learning by Default

Motorola MILESTONE smartphone displaying Wikip...Motorola MILESTONE smartphone displaying Wikipedia home page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)When I first started reading about mobile learning platforms, there was a lot of talk about special content management systems or learning management systems that would enable mobile learning (or "mlearning"). A few years ago, there were a lot of mobile learning platform start-ups, but it looks like that is not really where mlearning is going to go. Many applications support mlearning right out of the box. For instance, my wife, Jacqui, teaches reading and she uses Softchalk to create her course "textbook." She then uploads it to Sakai (the college's learning management system). Students will often read in the classroom on the computers. One day she came in when the students were supposed to be reading and a few of them had their phones out. She asked them to put them away. They quickly turned the phones around to face her and she was really surprised at what she saw: they were reading her textbook on their phones. Not only could they read it, but all of the images, roll-over definitions, embedded videos and annotations worked perfectly. She didn't have to do a thing. And it really tells us how students engage with content and the digital world. The students who need or prefer the mobile content just naturally navigated to the content with their phones.

Style sheets can detect when a web page is being accessed by a mobile phone and then redirect the user to the mobile version of that page - Facebook does that and so does this blog. uses a mobile style sheet and I didn't have to do a thing. In fact, some visitors of this blog have told me that they prefer the mobile version to the pretty web version because it loads faster and they can access the information they are looking for quickly.

One of the things that impressed me about the Angel learning management system before they were subsumed by Balkbored was that every part of the LMS was accessible by phone even before the wide-spread use of smart phones.

What is my standard for mobile sites? One of my favorite mobile sites (I used to teach English in a happier time long, long ago...) is the mobile ESL site at Athabasca University put together by Rory McGreal et alia.  This is a very useful site that is openly licensed. We are working on a version of this for College of the Redwoods so stay tuned. This is the model of how mobile sites should work: simple, self-contained, easy-to-read, and it includes self-assessment! This is the how and why of mobile learning. This is what the students will be using on the long bus ride to school. This is genius. If all of that wasn't enough, you can download the files and adapt them to your particular circumstances and upload them to your own server because it is openly licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Students have reported that they are able to access Sakai (the learning management system used at College of the Redwoods where I work) on their mobile phones without too much trouble. Here is a screen shot of the mobile interface from Ithaca College in NY:

It is important for us to understand as educators that students often will be catching what they can of their learning experience when they can catch it. It behooves us to use tools that by default makes the learning materials as accessible to as many as possible.
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Monday, March 26, 2012

OER Policy Registry: Request for Help

Image representing Creative Commons as depicte...Image via CrunchBaseCable Green just lit the Bat Signal!

Greetings Open Colleagues,

The open community shares a need for more information to help us with our work. We know, for example, that there are many policies supporting open education at institutions and governments throughout the world. Many of us know of some of these policies, but it would be extremely helpful if we had a single database of open education policies that the entire community could access and update.

To meet this goal, Creative Commons has received a small grant to create an “OER Policy Registry.” The Open Educational Resources (OER) Policy Registry will be a place for policymakers and open advocates to easily share and update OER legislation, OER institutional policies and supporting OER policy resources. We have begun to enter OER policies into the registry, but we need your help to make it a truly useful global resource.

The open movement is reaching a stage where we’ve had some real, concrete OER policy victories and there is the potential to achieve many more. Sharing our collective knowledge of existing OER policies, in the same way we believe in sharing educational resources, will help advocates and policymakers worldwide be more successful.

Please join the effort:
(1) Contribute any OER policies you know about via this Google form.
  • We are collecting both legislative AND institutional (non-legislative) OER policies from around the world. Your form submissions will be added to the draft list of OER policies.
(2) Review the draft list of OER policies. (Google doc)
(3) Forward this message to your colleagues, lists, blogs, and other channels, to ensure that we get as much input as possible. As the OER movement is global, it is critical that we capture OER policies from around the world.

Anyone can add OER policies to the Google form through the next month. Beginning May 1, the OER Policy Registry will move to the Creative Commons wiki. At that point, anyone will be able to edit and update the OER Policy Registry on the wiki, and all contributions will be licensed under CC BY.

We’re starting with a Google form because (a) it’s easy and (b) wikis require you to create an account before editing, and that may be a barrier to participation.

CC is in contact with other projects that collect similar information, including UNESCO, CoL, the Florida Distance Learning Consortium, EU OCW and a project in New Zealand. We will add OER policy data they gather as it becomes available. If anyone knows of other efforts to gather OER policies, please send them to Anna Daniel ( and we will reach out to them too.

If you have any suggestions or feedback on the content and/or framework, please let us know.

Warmest regards and thank you!

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Wired Love: From Telegraph to Twitter

An illustration of Phelps' Electro-motor Print...An illustration of Phelps' Electro-motor Printing Telegraph, the last and most advanced telegraphy mechanism designed by George May Phelps. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)This is an article I wrote for the "Tech Beat" column for the Times-Standard:

As one who works in online learning, I often get forwarded emails from colleagues alerting me to the dangers that might arise from using Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks. For instance, a few years back, after sending out a notice for a workshop on social networks and education, I received several emails warning me with a link to David Gardener's article called “The Marriage Killer: One in five American divorces now involve Facebook” from the Daily Mail. This lurid article begins with, “It used to be the tell-tale lipstick on the collar. Then there were the give-away texts that spelled the death knell for many marriages. But now, one in five divorces involve the social networking site Facebook....” The implication being that I may want to be careful in promoting the use of social networks like Facebook in education because there are perils that lurk beneath the surface of the Internet that may lead to unintended and tragic consequences.

This is not surprising. I have given workshops on how to use virtual worlds in education, often using educational sites designed in the virtual world “Second Life.” Invariably, after sending out the announcement for the workshop, I will get a cautionary email such as the one informing me of the 40-year-old British couple who had famously married in Second Life in a huge wedding, but then divorced later after one of them had an alleged “affair” in the online world. The wife said that she caught her husband's avatar having sex with another animated woman: the couple are now divorced (in the real world).

What are these stories really telling us? Is there anything really inherently dangerous in online communication? This is not a question of 'should we' or 'should we not' have relationships online. The fact is that the online world is just another medium of communication, and that is what humans do: communicate in a wide variety of ways. We are every bit as complicated in our courtship rituals and communications as the rarest of birds-of-paradise in New Guinea.

The only difference between the modern online courtship rituals and those of the past is the new medium of the Internet. There are a lot of things we are doing online that we never could have imagined doing just 10 years ago. Who would have thought that making purchases online would become so commonplace? Or online banking? Or wedding invitations?

But yet, there was something about the more recent warnings I received that seemed very familiar. And the reason is that every time we, as a culture, develop a new technology, there are always those who see it as the first step down a slippery slope that will ultimately mean the end of the world as we know it.

For example, people had been batting around the idea of the telegraph in various forms since the 1740s. Eventually, Samuel Morse developed a system that could transmit signals over long distances and by the 1860s there was a trans-Atlantic cable, a well-established telegraph network in the Northeastern United States and a network in California and other parts of the West linked by a trans-continental cable. In less than a generation, this new technology transformed how people handled money, got the news, ran elections and even fell in love!

Doesn't this sound familiar? Sense trouble?

The stage was set for wire fraud, romances and the usual chicanery that happens when people figure out new ways to communicate with one another. There was even a novel written in 1880 by telegraph operator Ella Cheever Thayer who published the world's first “cyber-romance.” “Wired Love: a romance of dots and dashes,” was a novel about two telegraphers who fall in love over the telegraph wires without ever meeting face-to-face. It was the mother to the film “Shop Around the Corner” (about a relationship via letters), and the grandmother to the modern email version of the love story “You've Got Mail.” “Wired Love” was a bestseller for 10 years, and according to Tom Standage in his book “The Victorian Internet,” relationships like this were not at all that uncommon.

For every failed relationship in cyberspace, there is an example of success. The most famous modern example is the couple in the “twitterverse,” Greg Rewis and Stephanie Sullivan (now Mr. and Mrs. Rewis). Greg Rewis proposed to his girlfriend on Twitter and sent an instant message on his phone asking her to check her Twitter account just for good measure. Later, their children sat in the church and tweeted the ceremony to those attending virtually.

Despite the “dangers,” the real lesson is that people communicate and connect with one another. This is what we do. We are very good at it. We will use all forms of communication for education, banking or socializing. Despite the warnings and cautionary tales, people will not resist using any means possible to connect with one another.

Geoff Cain is a member of the Redwood Technology Consortium and director of distance education at College of the Redwoods. Contact him at
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Twitter and the Greater Community

Tweeting bird, derived from the initial 't' of...Tweeting bird, derived from the initial 't' of Twitter Deutsch: Twitschervogel, entwickelt aus dem Anfangs-'t' von Twitter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Over the last week, I went to a bookstore where an internationally known author was reading from her latest book. As people were sitting down, we all started talking with one another. We were gathering together to share an experience, to connect with one another over our shared love for this author and books in general. I looked over the crowd and there were a handful of people with their heads down tapping quickly into their phones. I followed suit. The woman behind me said to her friend, "I wish I could Tweet."  Now I thought this was very funny on many levels - she was not saying she didn't have the ability or the means although both of those could be true. She may not even own a mobile phone. What she was expressing was that she was really excited to be where she was and she wanted to be able to share that with a broader community - with as many people as possible. The popularity of Twitter, microblogging, and texting isn't in the inanity of knowing who is eating pizza where, but in our connection to that greater community. This is not to say that knowing when someone is eating pizza is really inane. I have found by reading tweets from people I know and work with, I begin to get an unconscious sense of their life's patterns. I will sometimes catch myself knowing I had better call an associate at 3:30 because they always head out to the gym at 4:00. The company celebrated their sixth birthday on March 21st. Like most 6 year olds, it is still finding its legs and learning how to read. Twitter has certainly become part of the digital public square when to "Tweet" can also mean "I wish I could tell the whole world I am here."

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Friday, March 09, 2012

Tapping the Power of Analytics

The Learning Analytics CycleThe Learning Analytics Cycle (Photo credit: dougclow)This is an article I wrote for the Tech Beat column for Times-Standard:

Professor Dunn is a chemistry teacher with 120 students in three sections of her class. Her students are all reading the same materials, working on the same projects, and yet, after the midterm, she sees that the results across the courses are different. Why is one section having a problem when the other two are not?

Then she receives several emails from her college's learning analytics software concerning several students in the underperforming class. The emails were generated by a computer program that looks at what is happening in the school's online interface with student data from other parts of the campus such as Admissions and Records, EOPS or the athletics department and uses that to recommend specific action or interventions to help the students. For example, one email recommends a time-management learning unit and tutorials, while for another student, the program recommends tutoring and that the students contact their academic advisor. Why the different strategies?

Professor Dunn's classes are part of a learning analytics project that can help her students. What the learning analytics program “knew” that Professor Dunn did not know was that one student is fresh out of high school with little direction but is on the basketball team, while the other student is returning to college after being in the workplace for a few years and is a single parent of two young children.

The learning analytics program keeps track of what her students are doing and why. It is a computer program that analyses data for correlations that most instructors don't have the time or access to the necessary information to perform for each student. The software tracks who her students are, how they did in the past, where they are now, how much time they spend with the materials she posts online and how they do on her tests. The program will help her predict what kind of help her students will need to succeed.

Again, the concept of analytics is nothing new; researchers and academics have been writing about analytics since the 1970s and learning analytics as we now think of it since at least 2004. This is a concept not just for businesses but for many traditional colleges as well. For instance, Purdue University uses a system called “Course Signals” which can be seen at Rio Salado College in Arizona is using learning analytics as well with its “PACE” program.

Are there problems with learning analytics? Why do some consider it controversial? Some consider any kind of analytics to be an invasion of privacy. Others think that because businesses use analytics to sell T-shirts on Facebook that the only application for analytics is business. A few have written that the teachers should be making the decisions and not a computer.

A lot of care is taken with learning analytics software to encrypt student identities. The information that the program accesses is already being gathered by the schools and other agencies; learning analytics just uses that information to help faculty make decisions about how to help their students. And no computer program is perfect; no computer program will remove the need for critical thinking skills on the part of the administrators, teachers, or students.

The business sector has been using analytics for many years to make decisions. They have been very successful at it. If Amazon, Facebook and other online services can provide a custom commercial environment, why can't education create a customized learning environment for the students? This is not a trivialization or even a commercialization of education. Business is not the only field that uses analytics. The field of epidemiology, the study of how disease spreads, has been on the forefront of analytics for years. They specifically track the relationship between human behavior and disease.

Analytics is basically making decisions using data. We do that now. The real question is, how do we get out of the way of our data and let it tell its story? William James said that “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Human beings get hung up on details; computers do not. Humans also have the unfortunate habit of combining perfectly usable data with our opinions, misconceptions and prejudices, everything that is otherwise known as “common sense.” Machines are not making decisions for us. We are using them to gather relevant data and to show how the data interrelates for the benefit of our students.

The goal of learning analytics is to enable teachers and schools to identify educational opportunities for each student's level of need and ability. More than just a buzz word, learning analytics promises to harness the power of advances in data mining, interpretation and modeling to tailor education to individual students more effectively.
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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

My Mediæval Family

It occurred to me the other night that there are plenty in my family that would have done alright in the Middle Ages. I have a nephew who is a bookmaker - no, his uncles were pretty disappointed when it turned out to be actual books and had nothing to do with horses. He designs actual books: not ebooks, not pdf files, but actual books. My sister is a Catholic chaplain. My brother Crispin, as good  a medieval name as you would want to hear, is a distiller. And my father makes stained glass windows. My wife makes her own bread. There are a few leeches in the family - I mean the ones who practice the medical arts. We have a fair amount of builders and designers in the family too along with poets and bards. All of those occupations or professions take a measure of patience and curiosity; a penchant for philosophy and craft (and the ability to see why philosophy and craft go together). Anyhow, I am grateful for being in a big family where everyone is doing good work.

A window Jim Cain (my dear father) created for an Episcopal Church in Coalinga, CA.

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