Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Connectivist 18th Century

I have written a couple of postings discussing the idea that Connectivism isn't new (it is just highly relevant right now). There is an interesting note in USA Today by Elizabeth Weise on a project at Stanford called "The Republic of Letters" put together by Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen that visually maps the networks of letter writers in the 18th century. The project graphically reveals the networks through dynamic animation. Oxford University supplied information on 50,000 letters (15,000 of them written by Voltaire). Today's social media is merely faster and cheaper.

Weise writes "The 18th century was alive with networks. Despite what some might think today, they weren’t invented when the first email was sent in 1971.

'In fact, going all the way back to the Renaissance, scholars have establish

ed themselves into networks in order to receive the latest news, find out the latest discoveries and circulate the ideas of others,' says Edelstein."

This project is a good example of cross discipline studies (History, French, and programming) helping us gain an understanding of where we are now and where we are going. Truly in the spirit of connective knowledge.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

I Predict Things Will Remain the Same...

Cutaway view of a space colony.Image via Wikipedia

...only very shiny.

I always brace myself at this time of year for all the predictions that are going to come out for the following decade. These "predictions" are often a way to express our hopes and fears and often have little to do with how technology and history play themselves out. Who would have predicted medical simulations in virtual worlds? Or that the next latest and greatest computer for the classroom would be the phone? What astounds me about predictions for the future is how much of the past world-views get projected forward. Predictions are often ways to repackage our best loved prejudices and preserve them for the future.

Larry Cuban's "An End of Year Prediction," for instance, gives us the same fears of online learning repackaged.

"Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade." This has not been the case at all. Online learning has been nothing but a growth industry. And it will continue to be, not just for colleges but for the k-12 as well. The economy is in such a state that online learning is pretty much here to stay. According to the Sloan Report, K-12 Online Learning: a 2008 Follow-Up Survey, the overall number of K-12 students engaged in online courses in 2007-2008 was estimated at 1,030,000. "This represents a 47% increase since 2005-2006" and this number is increasing for this year as well.

"Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge." This will simply not be the case because no one can afford to build the schools in the traditional sense. This statement ignores what is happening in brick and mortar schools. They are turning more and more towards technology to solve their problems. Notice the concern with the teacher being in charge. I really hope those attitudes change.

Cuban goes on to say that "The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities." This shows a real lack of understanding of what online education is and what is possible. The only way one could write such a statement is to have no real interest in the field of online learning or educational technology. There are many studies that show that it is a successful medium for interacting, learning and building community; all skills that are certainly needed in the 21st century workplace.

"Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally," writes Cuban, "but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction." The joke here is that it is expanding exponentially. Just in my own workplace it has expanded 100% and nationally it is increasing steadily at

According to the USDLA, "Distance learning is used in all areas of education including Pre-K through grade 12, higher education, home school education, continuing education, corporate training, military and government training, and telemedicine.

I predict that predictions will go on being made that ignore research, the facts, and reinforce the power dynamics of the medieval classroom. There are many articles and stories that discuss the expansion of online learning in the K-12. A good place to start is at eCampus which has a number of articles on this page that discuss the rapid expansion of e-learning.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Digital Writing, Digital Teaching - Integrating New Literacies into the Teaching of Writing

Image of a wooden pencil sharpener.Image via Wikipedia

I wanted to write a brief note recommending Troy Hick's excellent blog, Digital Writing, Digital Teaching. I live in a schizophrenic shadow world of being an instructional designer (lots of tech) and a former English teacher (where's the pencil sharpener?), and I really appreciate the natural merging of these fields that this blog represents. Recently I heard George Siemens define literacy as facility in the dominant media of the day; this blog is a great big step in that direction. This is generally rare in English departments. It is also a very useful blog because he links to his syllabus, teaching tips and assignment ideas.

When today's students go into the modern workplace, they will not be asked to write a 10 page paper on how new media can be used to promote collaborative work. They will be judged on their ability to actually do that. English departments can be the place where the traditional writing skills, rhetoric (in the good old classical sense), and critical thinking can be brought together with social networking and the new media.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Bloom's Taxonomy?

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on De...Image via Wikipedia

I read a comment on an education blog about "Bloom's Taxonomy": "Why should we use that old thing?" was the basic tone. Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain, simply put, classifies knowledge from lower to higher order of objectives from knowledge (memorization), comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. I wanted to put up a brief note on this because speaking as an instructional designer and erstwhile teacher, there is no better tool for organizing content for in-depth learning and reflection. Is it an accurate description of the "cognitive domain"? Is there really such a thing as the "cognitive domain"? Speaking as a Buddhist, maybe, but you can't get there from here. Seriously though, Bloom's taxonomy recognizes that there are different ways of knowing and understanding. If it is not an accurate description of the mind, it is because it never claimed to be the Master Key to All Human Cognition. NASA scientists know that Einstien's description of gravity and time are more accurate than Newton, but they still use Newtonian principles and math to orbit satellites or to send something to the moon. Bloom's Taxonomy is like this. It is not a Unified Field Theory, but a tool that does specific things. What Bloom's Taxonomy will do very well is fix a test or an assignment.

Every once in a while, I will get a faculty member who will ask me to look at a test. Sometimes the test is too difficult or too easy or the students seem not to be able to demonstrate what they have learned. Invariably, it is because the questions that they are asking rely too much on one particular section of Bloom's Taxonomy. In other words, the instructor will write a test that he or she thinks will demonstrate a student's ability to apply knowledge and what the test really relies on is memorization or comprehension. There is a whole list of verbs applied to each domain that can help in re-writing or creating tests. I can demonstrate quantitatively that this method works. I have seen it work in grades, retention, longitudinal studies, etc. I have not seen anything coming close to that coming from any other school of thought on education, constructivist, connectivist or what have you. There are a lot of new ideas about how Bloom's Taxonomy can work in social media and I think that these should definitely be tested, explored and used.

There are many great explorations of these ideas on the web and I want to encourage you to look at some of them. A summary of the work is at Bloom's Digital Taxonomy, but there is a lot of interesting things being done with these ideas elsewhere too.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Google Wave in Education

Collaboration@Work  - 2020 OrganisationsImage by Monica A. via Flickr

Google Wave is opening to the public soon. Even before it is out of the gate, there are pronouncements on what it is and is not good for. And since this is an education blog, I want to look a little at the teaching and learning side to this. One of the the great things about education technology is that the best educational technology never starts out as "educational;" the technology is always designed for some other use and a couple of educators figure things out like how to turn a spreadsheet into a writing rubric that inserts comments into student papers at the click of a button. Or that the AI routine in someone's R2-D2 in a virtual Star Wars world can be re-purposed in a medical simulation. That is why I think pronoucements about how Google Wave will be used are a little premature. There are a lot of tools in Google Wave and extensions and mash-ups yet to be created. Two things that are important to me as an instructional designer in all of his are the collaboration and play back feature. Collaboration is an essential to online learning. The level of interactivity in collaborative learning is unmatched by the typical "online textbook" model of online classes. We are already using Google Apps in classes. The collaborative functionality built into those, combined with email, and chat tools will make Google Wave a very powerful tool. The play back feature - the ability to play back the history of the the collaboration, will be useful for students for reviewing course content. Instructional designers can leverage this feature by scaffolding how a wave is constructed (or how information is brought into a wave) with this in mind. This is a new way of thinking about design. The play back feature will also give us new ways to research online interaction and collaboration. We will be able to measure in real time where things work and where they don't; when students run into trouble and when they "get it."

Collaborative tools are a great opportunity for giving back to control and responsibility for education back to the students. The collective intelligence of an entire class is pretty good at finding and sharing the information they need to be successful; especially if that class is facilitated by someone modeling critical networking skills. The combination of tools in Google Wave seems to enable that.

I will be more excited by the translation tools after seeing them in action. The rest of the tools have all been tested by us in other places, on other platforms - the brilliant thing is bringing them all together. The real genius comes in seeing how a network of teachers, students, and designers will use it in the end.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Flies with Bad Memories

DrosophilaImage via Wikipedia

Victoria Gill, science reporter for BBC News, wrote in her article "Bad memories written with lasers" last Friday about researchers who "have devised a way to write memories onto the brains of flies, revealing which brain cells are involved in making bad memories." This reveals memory to be much more mechanistic than I have written about here in the past. Just last night I was in a conversation with someone that went something like "if memories and thoughts are chemical, why can't I make you drink something and see or hear a specific memory?" Miesonbock at Oxford has found 12 cells in the fly's brain that are responsible for "associative learning." The really important part of the story for me is where Miesenbock says "I have every expectation that the fundamental mechanisms that produce these error signals are the same in the brain of the fly as they are in the brain of the human." I think it is a huge leap from the fly to the complexity of the human brain but it is not so huge a leap as it was from the Friday before last. Twelve neurons that can be tricked into associated a smell with a predator is still quite a ways away from understanding the role communication and social interaction play in learning, but this is certainly an important step in understanding how neurons connect and create learning.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

The Past is My Co-Pilot

McLuhan says that we travel blindly into the future looking at the past through the rear view mirror. There should be little tiny letters though that say "Objects in mirror are

The rear-view mirror of a Mazda 626. It shows ...

closer than they appear." Today I talked to a dear friend from the past. I am sure she doesn't really know how dear of a friend she was, but if you recall Junior High and your freshman year in high school - anyone who treated you decently, talked to you, regarded you as a human being, shared a smoke, and didn't hit you more than was necessary was pretty damned decent. She had/has a genuinely delightful smile. I don't really remember a lot of people from those years but the few people I do remember were or are remarkable (for good or ill). You have to remember that I was just a little bit denser back then. I didn't enjoy much about those years, and I have no real way of being objective about them. Anyway, someone I have known since the 3rd grade friended me on Facebook sometime ago. I have added a few of his friends and low and behold, there was that smile; that refuge in a sea of Junior High horror. And I was really stunned because I knew that 20 years ago, I would probably never see that person again in my entire life. I grew up as ungracefully as possible and got the hell out of Dodge. I left a geographic location with the thought of never returning and all of those years would fade away. I was wrong, of course, on so many levels. I thought I would walk out creating more memories of greater or lesser value and I would just keep moving. Westward, ho! in a metaphorical sense. That is how it has been for my family since at least the Potato Famine. But that is not how it is going to work out.

We have a different relationship to the past now. We talk about how fast the future is coming, but the past is catching up. As more and more social networks go up and intermingle, as more and more records go online, the internet is the new small town you never moved away from. The person who stayed behind and lived for the glory days of soccer at El Camino Junior High thinks about life differently than the person who has followed job after job promotion across the continent. I am not making a value judgment both have their plusses and minuses, advantages and disadvantages. Someone who has remained in one place for a long time is more settled, more connected to their family, friends, and community and because of that they are more invested in what happens locally; they might vote more, buy locally, invest in local business, attend local colleges - these are all good things and values that are just being discovered in places like Silicon Valley. Someone who leaves might have a broader perspective on life and have a greater awareness of national and world issues. They might be exposed to a wider variety of viewpoints and a diverse population. These are just generalities. George Bush was from somewhere else, and despite everything managed to hold on to his simple beliefs.

If those lines are erased, if the networks carry our past with us where ever we go, what kind of person does that create? If I remember madelines and mint tea with my aunt through the lens of all my experiences, it is a different record than a picture or an online document. Memories are shaped and reshaped over time. And technology can change that. A high resolution photograph of Amadinejhad waving his passport revealed that one of the most vitriolic anti-Semites actually came from a Jewish family - a single moment captured by technology changed the past as it was presented forever and hopefully will help change his future.

We talk, as educators, about how the connected world is changing the way we think because of our increased connections with one another and with information. I will be interested to see how networks change the way we think as we connect to our past. Are our world views based on events as we knew them or from events as they were? Are the connections to the past in the online world somehow "more valid" than the events that I think I experienced? Is the memory of the network any more accurate than mine? Who will judge that? I think we are all about to find out.

"Every man's memory is his own literature." - Aldus Huxley
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Networks in the Rear View Mirror

"The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future." - Marshall McLuhan

The real issue is not that networked thinking is new but the the networks have gotten significantly faster. But not faster than we think. The same technology that we use to build the networks is the same technology that we use to mediate the information. The information over networks is moving at such a pace that we have to adapt ourselves to keep up.

I loved the image that Jane Knight posted this month from Sean Carton. I linked it to the left. It is interesting to me because this is one of the few that acknowledges the inherent networked capacities in humans. The whole idea of writing arises from the desire to connect memory and ideas with other people, places, and the future. In a way, cuneiform libraries are networks because the information in them was meant to be copied, preserved, and sent to others. Carton's time line jumps from the 550 BC postal service in Persian straight to the telegraph in 1792. A nod should also be given to the East and the Silk Road as a network, especially since the Chinese found a 2000 year old letter in a post office adjoining the Silk Road. Again, I really appreciate the fact that he is giving us some idea of networks before the 1960s but I think an important addition to this timeline would be the monastic system of the Middle Ages. Not just for the "look-at-me-I-was-a-humanities-major" bit, but because those monasteries were so successful at transmitting, preserving, and passing on information that we are still struggling in the shadows of those institutions today. They were really good at finding, copying, and preserving books. That is where a lot of the traditions in colleges come from. Students are taking notes in classes today because in the 12th century university, the only way to get a copy of the book that the instructor was reading from was to copy it yourself. McLuhan calls schools the "custodians of print culture."

Some of the great epics of the West open with guards waiting to see the fire from the next tower over or with runners and messengers delivering news. A great deal of exposition is given in letters in Shakespeare and later we also have epistolary novels where the movement of information can sometimes shape the plot. What I am trying to point out is that there has always been this awareness of connectedness and information. What is happening now is that we are learning how to mediate that seemingly overwhelming speed of that change and that mediation is changing the way we think.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Notes Towards a Connectivist Instructional Design

Illustration of spacetime curvature.Image via Wikipedia

Connectivism is a new theory of knowledge that reflects the new ways that people are currently communicating and learning in a networked world. As George Siemens puts it in his ground-breaking essay, "Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn. Learning needs and theories that describe learning principles and processes, should be reflective of underlying social environments." It is contrasted with Constructivism, which says that people construct meaning from relating knowledge to past experience and new information. I am still unclear why those two projects must necessarily be opposed or contrasted with one another, and I mean that sincerely. Often, Connectivism actually sounds like a means to construct meaning. Constructivism says that in order to teach, we must understand the mental models that students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models. Why can't one of those "mental models" be a networked model? I like to think of the contrast between Connectivism and Constructivism like the one between the Theory of Relativity and the Copernican model. The theory of relativity is more accurate and complete, but engineers are still using the Copernican model to put satellites in orbit and to land spacecraft on the moon. Connectivism is able to account for the more complex relationships in the networked world

As an instructional designer, I see so many intersections between what a Connectivist classroom would look like and a Constructivist one. Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. A Constructivist curriculum is customized to the students’ prior knowledge and provides opportunities for students to discuss new knowledge and frame it to their own experiences.

In the same way, I envision a Connectivist learning theory (actual content may vary from illustration on the box and contents may have settled during shipping), in Constructivist classrooms, instructors facilitate connections between information and ideas and foster new understanding in students. This is a student-centered environment where instructors shape their teaching strategies to student responses. Constructivist teaching encourages students to critically analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely on open-ended questions, collaborative learning, problem-based learning, and promote student-student interaction. This is exactly what happens in the Connectivist classroom as I understand it.

Constructivism has little room for grades and "standardized" tests. In Constructivism, the learning process is the assessment. Students play a significant role in assessing their learning through reflective assignments, peer review, and self-evaluation. This is often through projects and portfolios which measure a student's progress over time. Projects can also measure, interestingly enough, a student's ability to build a smart network. Portfolios are seen as a greater measure of a student's skill and abilities than a single examination because portfolios tell us where a student has come from and where they are going. How long do students retain information from a test? (That is another post.)

So Connectivism does a little bit of all of this but the real jumping off point is in collaborative work. Students take control not only of their own learning but of the curriculum as well. As an instructional designer, I have to build assignments that encourage, facilitate, enable and empower students to work together and build connections. The students need the critical thinking skills not only to evaluate what they are seeing online, but to know what connections are worth making - they need critical network evaluation skills. Not all networks are created equal. Siemens and Downes are right when they say that there is learning in networks. There is a lot of stupidity too because the networks are made up of people. There is nothing inherently clever about a network. The students need new skills that ask:

  • who should I be connecting to?
  • what makes an "intelligent network"?
  • how do I make useful connections?
  • is this connection worth making?
  • is this network worth keeping?
  • how do I know when my networks are working for me?

This is different from Constructivism in that even more power is put into the hands of the learner, not by the teacher, but by the networks themselves. Students who are connected in the right way will often solve problems for teachers such as, learning how to broadcast a workshop into Second Life and pull in more people, or those moments when a student is able to introduce a source or expert in the field that the instructor has not met before. Connectivism takes the faith in the students' ability to learn to a whole new level and moves it to the networks' ability to teach as well. As an instructional designer, this is very exciting - curriculum becomes a handbook for cells and learning nodes - like Maoists or AA meetings.

An ironic note to all of this is that Constructivism is still seen in many places as a revolutionary act. Taking the sage off the stage and turning him/her into the guide on the side (as cliche as that is) has not happened in most classrooms. Student-centered learning is seen as a great threat to certain kinds of teachers. It is a shame because never before have we had a greater array of tools available to us to take advantage of the network-building skills that students are already using.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Open Source Music Textbook

The missal of the Dominican covent of Lausanne...Image via Wikipedia

Musopen is a free source of public domain music, both recordings and sheet music. They are also creating an open source music theory textbook. I would love to see an open source music appreciation course using these materials. This site combined with other free resources like the Wikipedia Sound List would provide a lot of material for such a course

"Musopen is an online music library of copyright free (public domain) music. We want to give the world access to music without the legal hassles so common today. There is a great deal of music that has expired copyrights, but almost no recordings of this music is in the public domain. We aim to record or obtain recordings that have no copyrights so that our visitors may listen, re-use, or in any way enjoy music. Put simply, our mission is to set music free."

The music is very well organized and down-loadable. Also you can embed the music in a web page so if one was to create a music history textbook in a wiki, one could easily use this. I love the example I chose below. "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla" was the processional at my wedding and the Marine Band does some interesting things with it that really allow you to hear the textures and layers in this piece:

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Don't Just Sit There; Learn Something!

Participatory learning has always been one of my top learning modalities. I love this video. It speaks to the frustration I think a lot of students and instructors have with education as a one way channel. To go from a culture where sitting up straight and being quiet is a core foundational skill to one where learning to create, connect, and share are the skills is really exciting. There is so much sense in what George has to say about how teaching and learning works. Connectivism has informed a lot of what I do as an instructional designer. Research has shown that the more interactive an online course is, the higher the retention rate. When I look at curricula, I like to ask a few questions:

  • Why is the student here?
  • What is this student doing?
  • How is what the teacher is asking the student to going to help the student connect with other ideas in the course and from his or her fellow students?
Here is the video from Robin Good's YouTube channel:

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Time for New Model for Online Learning

Courtyard of the Collège de France.Image via Wikipedia

I have been taking a closer look at Straighterline today. The Washington Monthly ran an article on the company called "College for $99 a Month." Their model is that students sign up to take classes for 99 dollars a month. The courses are accepted for credit at four colleges including Fort Hays State University. The courses are supported by a team of teachers, course ad visors, and 24/7 online tutoring. The courses use McGraw-Hill content (like many community colleges) and the courses are further vetted by the faculty and administrators of their partner colleges. The brilliant thing about this arrangement is that it allows students to take the courses at their own pace. One student discussed in the article was able to finish four classes in two months. For colleges with holes in the online schedule, it seems like a perfect fit. If you read the comments at the Washington Monthly you will see a lot of reasons not to do this - and they all basically center around the idea that either a) the purpose of the college is to provide jobs for teachers or b) a new model of education is wrong because education can only be defined by the old model. All of the reasons to not do this pale in comparison with the real issues facing students today.

According to a Michael Mandel in Sept. 12th's Business Week, since 2000, college costs are up by 23% since 2000 and pay for young college grads is down 11% over the same period. How can colleges and universities justify this? We have to come to grips with the fact that costs for the students are out of control - we need to look at alternative cost models like Straighterline; we need to adopt open source textbooks and technology. Straighterline is delivering the same outcomes and content at a significantly lower cost. In my experience, the same McGraw-Hill modules are being taught at many colleges with less interaction and support. Students should not be satisfied with courses with little interaction, little support, and where faculty do not provide timely feedback. What Straighterline can't do, and the colleges can, is adopt open education resources. Straighterline needs the quality assurance and expertise at McGraw-Hill. We should be taking the lead. We should be applying our expertise to free, open source texts and lowering costs for students.

I know that there are going to be a lot of people who are mistrustful or even upset at Straighterline's model. I like the fact that they will bring people to the table talking about things like cost, authentic assessment, and online course quality. It is long overdue.
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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Overly Connected?

That question came up recently in conversation and I really resent it because after I tweeted the question, which automatically sent it to Facebook, that had my Blackberry buzzing away from friends who had forwarded the question to Friendfeed and Plurk; I realized that I really didn't have enough time to answer the question adequately. Some responses went into my Google Reader which upped my unread items by another dozen.
Other responses were from friends who made films or podcasts of their take on the question. I did some research through Wikipedia and some of my contacts in Delicious Bookmarks which led to a long conference call via Skype with researchers in India and Scandinavia. Our conclusion after running a survey in Google Docs and conferring with some friends in LiveJournal was that we are probably not overly connected but we are holding off a final judgment until the images of our jointly edited concept map of the question are shared on Flickr, Twitpic, and Picasa.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Clarence Fisher

These were recorded by Alec Courosa via UStream. Clarence Fisher is an inspirational teacher who is really on top of 21st century literacy. He says that his role is not to be the smartest man in the room but to help students learn to make connections to people and information.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On My Semantic Radar

Diagram for the LOD datasetsImage via Wikipedia

There is some interesting news about the focusing of standards for the semantic web by the W3C today. The semantic web is the idea that by combining different kinds of metadata, it will be easier to find, share and combine information on the internet. According to Wikipedia: "At its core, the semantic web comprises a set of design principles, collaborative working groups, and a variety of enabling technologies. Some elements of the semantic web are expressed as prospective future possibilities that are yet to be implemented or realized. Other elements of the semantic web are expressed in formal specifications."

One interesting way to learn more about the semantic web is to take a look under the hood at webpages that use semantic data.

Uldis Bojars and Sergio Fernandez at the SIOC project have written a plug-in for Firefox that allows you to do just that:

"Semantic Radar is a semantic metadata detector for Mozilla Firefox.

Available at Mozilla Add-ons site. It is a browser extension which inspects web pages for links to Semantic Web metadata and informs about presence of it by showing an icon in browser's status bar. Currently it supports RDF autodiscovery (SIOC, FOAF, DOAP and any type) and RDFa metadata detection.

New: Semantic Radar can now ping the Semantic Web Ping Service when metadata are detected. This allows for a community based discovery of the Semantic Web data."

Right now the semantic web is a hodge-podge of many different kinds of data and systems. That is changing some with SKOS - (Simple Knowlege Organization System) which was announced by W3C as the standard.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Visions of the Semantic Web Future

Damascus CitadelImage via Wikipedia

Every so often, as technology changes, people like to make predictions about what the future holds for us.

I love these visions of the future from semantic web folks:

Web 2.0 – Web 3.0 – Web 4.0? one8nine UnConference Blog: "I’m booked on a flight from Toledo to Seattle. It’s cancelled. My phone knows that I’m on the flight, knows that it’s cancelled and knows what flights I should consider instead. It uses semantic data but it also has permission to interrupt me and tell me about it. Much more important, it knows what my colleagues are doing in response to this event and tells me. ‘Follow me’ gets a lot easier."

There are so many things wrong with this scenario! What if the phone is wrong? What if you are not on a flight and it only thinks you are on a flight and then buys you a one-way plane ticket to Damascus by mistake? Now your boss wants to know why you are charging plane tickets to Syria and Homeland Security has put you on a watch list because you are buying one way tickets to Syria and you forgot to update your passport. Why? Because the same glitch that bought the ticket forgot to send you an email reminder that your passport had expired. The semantic web is smart enough to correct those errors, but after a long talk with your HAL9000 smart phone, they said to hell with it. Why should we take care of someone not smart enough to secure his bluetooth connections and needs an email reminder to breathe? I don't want to be interrupted by my phone. What would it say if I wanted to change service?

Here is another great scenario for the future:

"As a project manager, my computer knows my flow chart and dependencies for what we’re working on. And so does the computer of every person on the project, inside my team and out. As soon as something goes wrong (or right) the entire chart updates."

And what happens when our phones realize we are in trouble financially? They get concerned. We could be jeopardizing the mission. What would happen to them if we go for a cheaper plan? They suck data from our RFID chips and credit cards, make a run on the company, and buy us out.

It is really difficult to predict what the future holds for us in technology because we can't really predict the necessary conditions for change. If someone could have predicted what the economy was doing five years ago, then someone might, for instance, have had some idea about how innovation would happen in education.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

20 Online Fact Checkers and Reference Books

The World Factbook 2008 (Potomac Books reprint...Image via Wikipedia

Libraries are not the only places to find reference materials. There are many different online encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, and fact books that can be used for free on the Internet. Here are 20 online fact checkers and reference books that are freely available to everyone:

Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body - This online reference book provides an in-depth look at the human body. Gray's Anatomy features more than 1,000 engravings and illustrations.

Encyclopedia Smithsonian - The Encyclopedia Smithsonian offers 1.9 million records--from art to zoology. This online encyclopedia also links to more than 180,000 videos, images, and sound files.

The World Factbook - The CIA provides this online fact book with resources on government, history, economy, people, communications, transportation, and military. The World Factbook is also a great reference for maps, flags, and fun facts.

The Farmer's Almanac - This almanac has been providing information to people since 1792. The Farmer's Almanac offers useful information on weather, gardening, astronomy, and food.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary - This online version of the famous dictionary offers definitions, pronunciations, and information on word origins. Merriam-Webster also features a variety of other references, including a thesaurus, encyclopedia, and medical dictionary.

World Book Encyclopedia - World Book Encyclopedia has been providing reference material for children and adults since the early 1900s. This encyclopedia features accurate facts on history, people, events, and more.

Brewer's Readers Guide - The Brewer's Readers Guide offers reference material for poems and well known tales. This is a great reference for finding information about plot lines and quotes.

Encyclopedia Britannica - This online encyclopedia offers information on every topic imaginable through articles, videos, images, and biographies.

Roget's Thesaurus - Roget's Thesaurus is a well known resource for increasing the flow of words in writing. The online version of this reference features an easy-to-use search engine.

Wolfram Mathworld - This comprehensive online math encyclopedia provides information on everything from algebra to topology. Wolfram Mathworld is updated daily and carefully maintained to provide the latest mathematic techniques.

RefDesk - The RefDesk is an Internet fact checker with search engines, news headlines, dictionaries, literature, and other useful resources.

Virtual Reference Shelf - The Virtual Reference Shelf features links to information on everything from abbreviations to statistics. This site is a great place to find the best links to all sorts of factual information.

FactFinder - This U.S. Census Bureau tool offers factual information on housing, population, economic, and geographical data.

Encyclopedia of Life - This online encyclopedia offers scientific information on every species on earth. The Encyclopedia of Life includes both text and images.

Infoplease - Infoplease provides answers to factual questions on a wide variety of subjects. This informative site also features encyclopedias, summer guides, almanacs, dictionaries, and timelines.

John Hopkins Medical Desk Reference - This medical site provides links to comprehensive information about medical conditions and illnesses.

Artcyclopedia - The Artcyclopedia offers facts about artists, news, history, and movements in art. The site also links to more than 100,000 sources of factual art information.

American Museum of Natural History - The American Museum of Natural History is a great place to find factual information about anthropology, astronomy, biology, natural science, and paleontology.

Library of Congress - The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress offers several resources for checking historical facts.

Med Bio World - Med Bio World is an online medical fact checker with journal articles, databases, dictionaries, and directories. This is an excellent site for finding up-to-date medical facts and information.

This is a guest post from education writer Karen Schweitzer. Karen is the About.com guide to Business School. She also writes about accredited online colleges for Online Colleges.net.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Revisting the Digital Divide

My Samsung BlackjackImage by Dillon K. Hoops via Flickr

I was looking back at some bookmarks and materials that I had on an old computer and it was fascinating to me how the questions around technology have changed. When educators were talking a lot about the "digital divide" back in the early 2000s, the questions were around how were we going to get these expensive machines and infrastructure to the poor. They needed lots of power, cables, expertise and money. Computers were huge and expensive and they still can be today. But we now define a whole other class of machines as computers, including phones, netbooks and PDAs. The most important of these right now are the phones. According to a report by the International Telecommunications Union back in March of this year, at the end of 2008 there were there were an estimated 4.1 billion phone subscriptions world-wide, compared with about 1 billion in 2002. And the definition of a phone has certainly changed since 2002. Phones now play media and connect to the internet and allow for a whole new kind of connection to learning materials. We no longer need to distribute media through CDs or laser discs. Data storage and new kinds of programming (java, ajax, web2.0 tools, etc.) combine to make distributing media easier than ever. Technology is still not absolutely universal, but the wide variety of tools that are now available for communication, the availability of netbooks for under $200, the low-cost of connectivity via WIFI and phone networks means that the real digital divide is one of the imagination. We need to bridge the gap between how we think of learning networks and teaching and the wide variety of tools and technology that are now available.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

12 Time-Saving Tips for Teaching Online

PLANTATION, FL- NOVEMBER 02:  Howie Brown adju...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Online learning saves time for students. Students in online courses have 24/7 access to their course materials, other students, and their instructor. For working students, this is an incredible benefit. But we often hear that online learning takes a lot of an instructor’s time. I have found that it can be, but when a course is set up in advance to take advantage of a learning management system’s features, a lot of time can be saved. Many of these techniques make for a more engaging experience for the students and less stress for the instructor.

Here are some of my favorite time-saving tips. Please add to them!

1. Create a comprehensive syllabus.
  • Utilize a "Week Zero," a module that explains to new students how to be an online student and use the learning management system (LMS).
  • Direct students to tech support and the help desk as much as possible.
  • Create a course “scavenger hunt.”
2. Use a syllabus quiz.
3. Make your course easy to navigate.
  • Keep as much content as you can no more than two clicks away.
  • Use a consistent format week-to-week or module-to-module.
4. Schedule your time.
  • Do not work on your online course because you can; work on it because you have scheduled the time.
  • Let the students know your schedule.
  • Access your course consistently (e.g. three times a week) and respond to email promptly (with-in 48 hours).
5. Automate your course as much as possible.
  • Take advantage of the time-release feature of announcements.
  • Record and reuse lectures.
  • Let the LMS handle as much of the grading as you can.
6. Distributing and exchanging documents.
  • Use the assignment feature of your LMS instead of e-mail.
  • Have the students attach documents to a forum posting.
7. Centralize question and answers.
  • Use a discussion forum for “Frequently Asked Questions.”
  • Create a FAQ page.
  • Ask students to ask questions in the forum rather than e-mail.
8. Use online groups with a deliverable
  • Let the students do the work.
  • Do not respond to every posting, respond to the group deliverable.
9. Use a "common responses" file to quickly paste in answers to common questions.
10. Allow students to facilitate online discussions.
11. Use a detailed grading rubric to help answer questions in advance.
12. Encourage student-student interaction and study groups.
  • Give them the space to solve problems.
What about you? How do you streamline your online teaching process? Leave a comment below if you have any time saving tips.
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Monday, July 13, 2009

What is Innovation?

As I have been working here at my new job, I have been thinking a lot about innovation. In previous postings, I have talked about how money, or the lack of it, influences change and innovation.

I am at a new college, College of the Redwoods, as Director of Instructional Design. It is an exciting time at an interesting college (think of the old Chinese curse): a ten thousand square mile college district needs to expand its online college with little to no money and with what I would consider a minimal infrastructure. This is just the sort of climate that breeds innovation. I also have a chance here to work with innovative people like Maggie McVay Lynch, the Dean of Distance Learning. If her name rings a bell it might be from her article on preparing students for online learning; it is often cited. We used these ideas in our health information management class. She is also responsible for bringing Sakai (called "MyCr" here as customized by rSmart), Gmail, and Google Apps for Education to the campus. Many campuses would consider these radical and outrageous moves - especially IT depts. - but they feel like the most natural solutions here.

So a definition of innovation that is useful here is one by David Yost who used to work for Apple's Advanced Technologies Group: "Another way of putting this is that an innovation lowers the costs and/or increases the benefits of a task. A wildly successful innovation increases the benefits-to-costs ratio to such an extent that it enables you to do something it seemed you couldn’t do at all before or didn’t even know you wanted to do." That is certainly what is happening here. We are moving from a linear, hierarchically organized "learning management system" to a "collaborative learning environment" that is much more inline with constructivist (and connectivist) models of online learning. One of the things that makes College of the Redwoods such an exciting place to be right now is that few here have any real idea how a combination of tools like Sakai and Google Apps for Education can dramatically increase the interactivity of their courses and build community among the students and faculty.

Yost also makes a note of James Burke's ideas on innovation: "...the web of innovation has been and always will be highly interconnected, how each innovation brings forth a paradigm shift which enables other innovations that were unthinkable in the previous paradigm."

I often wonder if ideas from people like George Siemens are not acceptable to some because Siemens is answering questions that some people are not asking yet. And when you find yourself in an institution that is short on money that their ability to see beyond their traditional positions also changes. So a few things have to be in place for innovation: the right people, ideas, and a catalyst (like a budget collapse!). Anyone of those may not be enough.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Language: News of its Death Greatly Exaggerated..

Samizdat, a book published by Pathfinder Press...Image via Wikipedia

I am not an apologist for Twitter. These technologies come and go and what remains is the ingenious methods that humans devise to connect with one another. There is nothing superficial about the insatiable drive for people to connect. I find it really ironic that someone can publish an article about how Twitter is destroying the English language when half a world away the streets of Tehran are burning and there is no main stream media there to get the message out. The news of the riots, student deaths and voter fraud is getting out through Twitter, the current unsuppressable voice of the people, the cyber samizdat. What is language for but to inform and express ourselves? How can something that so powerfully enables that expression be "the death of language"? Aren't we forgetting that language is not an end unto itself? What was the last 20 page paper that changed the world? It is a very simple tool. Short, sometimes cryptic utterances that are merely 124 characters long, yet it is undermining the foundations of power in ways that the mainstream media once did. Articles like that declare Twitter to be the death of language, meaningless, or superficial are only looking how it works not what it does or the effect. What is does is create networks that enable communication, and we will see that this kind of technology will have as profound effect on the world as the telegraph or the radio.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Twitter and Social Networks for Teaching

An example of a social network diagram.Image via Wikipedia

Sharon Gross wrote a great post on teaching with social networks called "Embracing the Twitter Classroom." The article is a good short argument for the connectivist classroom and the work we did here at Tacoma Community College in HIM 101. In that class, we used blogs, wikis, and twitter to create a community of learning.

There is nothing really new about using these tools for teaching and learning. Since the dawn of constructivism, educators have been talking about getting students to share their experiences as it relates to what they are learning and to communicate what they are learning in their own words. Constructivism is a recognition of the social dimension of learning. These technology tools are just other media that enable and facilitate that. Where the real change comes when these tools and networks become so ubiquitous that they begin to shape how we think and communicate (and no news there either since McLuhan).

Just as educators had a responsibility to teach the critical thinking skills needed for the traditional media, we have a responsibility to show students how to apply and use the new. Sharon Gross puts it well when she says "But the point of teaching students to use social media isn't just to embrace a novel trend: it's to help students become literate in our networking-based society."
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Connection Between Interactivity and Retention in Online Courses

Target Interactive BreezewayImage by j.reed via Flickr

Here is some preliminary research/reading into online course retention, completion, success and interactivity. It is a claim I make in our handbook of online course development, I want to make sure our research is up to date. If you have anything to add to this, PLEASE comment with a link. You will be remembered in a later annotated bibliography!

This kind of research is essential for understanding the importance of group projects, social media, and utilizing a wide-variety of networking modes in online courses. It is not enough to have information on the web or in a network. Students and teachers need to engage with this information, interact in a network in particular ways. This becomes a course design strategy. Some of these articles are older because I believe that they hold some keys to how we should be looking at social networks and media - both of which hold a potential for interaction undreamed of in the early 90s.

Aldrich, Clark (2009) A Taxonomy of Interactivity. Clack Aldrich On Serious Games and Simulations. http://clarkaldrich.blogspot.com/2008/08/taxonomy-of-interactivity.html

Anderson, Terry (2003) Getting the Mix Right Again: an updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 4, No 2. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/149/230

Henry, Jim and Meadows, Jeff (2008) An Absolutely Riveting Online Course: Nine principles for excellence in web-based teaching. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, V34(1) Winter / Hiver, 2008. http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/179/177

Herbert, Michael (2006) Staying the Course: A Study in Online Student Satisfaction and Retention. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume IX, Number IV, Winter 2006. University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center. http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter94/herbert94.htm.

"Incorporating Interaction in Your Distance Learning Course." (2005) Academic Technology Center. Worcester Polytechnic Institute. http://web.archive.org/web/20060909200751/http://www.wpi.edu/Academics/ATC/Collaboratory/Teaching/interaction.html

O'Brien, B. (2002). Online Student Retention: Can It Be Done?. In P. Barker & S. Rebelsky (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2002 (pp. 1479-1483). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. http://www.editlib.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Reader.PrintAbstract&paper_id=9973

Roblyer, M. D. and Ekhaml, Leticia (2000) How Interactive Are Your Distance Courses? A rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning.
Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume III, Number II, Spring, 2000. State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center. http://www.westga.edu/~distance/roblyer32.html

Sims, Rod (2000) An Interactive Conundrum: Constructs of interactivity and learning theory. Australian Journal of Educational Technology. 2000, 16(1), 45-57. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet16/sims.html

Shedroff, Nathan (1994) Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design. http://www.nathan.com/thoughts/unified/

Thorpe, Mary (2008) "Effective Online Interaction: Mapping course design to bridge from research to practice." Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24(1), 57-72. http://ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet24/thorpe.html

Thurmond, Veronica and Wambach, Karen (2004) Towards an Understanding of Interactions at a Distance. http://web.archive.org/web/20080130193445/http://www.eaa-knowledge.com/ojni/ni/8_2/interactions.htm.

What I am reading now:
Journal of Interactive Online Learning http://www.ncolr.org/jiol/
This is a publication of the Virtual Center for Online Learning Research. There are articles here from 2002 to the present.

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