Technology in the Classroom

A lot of people are talking about the article that was in the NY Times that made the argument that millions of dollars spent on technology did not improve “learning.”  I put learning in quotes because as many people have pointed out, “learning” in this case equals test scores.  Test scores remained flat.  Whether real learning occurred might take a few years to figure out.

It’s part of my job to “integrate” technology into our curriculum.  Really, I’m just there to help teachers do that by pointing out possibilities and working with them to redevelop lessons, etc.  But I’m actually kind of down on technology for technology’s sake, which is what I’ve seen happening in many places, and what I’ve seen advocated by some of the people whose blogs and Twitter feeds I follow.  I teach the “technology” classes at our school, but I refuse to teach PowerPoint and Excel and all those applications.  I am application agnostic in my approach.  I’ve been shifting the curriculum gradually toward a computing/computer science curriculum.  This is a trend I’ve seen in other places, and one that I think is really important.

Instead what I encourage is for teachers to have students use presentation, spreadsheet, image editing, video editing, and other applications within the context of their classes.  And don’t focus on the tool!  Let students use whatever is at hand, while making sure the school also provides options.  So, for example, an English teacher has her students do a multimedia essay.  I come in and together we talk about strategies for putting together multimedia vs. a regular essay.  I also talk about what’s available to them in terms of tools.  There are free tools online, things the school provides, and many students have their own computers with things like iMovie.  The focus is on learning to compose differently, not to learn the ins and outs of an application that may or may not be around in 10 years.

I do the same with math and spreadsheets and special graphing software and even scale drawing tools.  Basically, teachers simply remain open to the possibilities that technology has to connect their students to the material.

We are in the process of evaluating several technology initiatives, and I have to say that I’m the cautious one for once.  I just want us to not throw money at something that might be better solved by a reevaluation of curriculum.  Or we should do things on a smaller scale.  And then there are other areas where I think even more money needs to go.

I’m very lucky in that I’m surrounded by really smart people who are completely open to incorporating technology into their curriculum.  They don’t have a knee-jerk anti-technology reaction either.  They’re very thoughtful about their use of technology.  It makes my job a little easier, and, I think, helps our students be thoughtful about their own use of technology.

Enhanced by Zemanta

News Flash: Computers don’t make students better at school

Several stories have crossed my radar over the last week touting the horrifying news that computers might actually make kids worse at reading, writing, and studying.  Mark Bauerlin wrote up something for Chronicle (oh, Chronicle, can you please stop doing this?) about two of the stories and that prompted me to write, because I’m all agitated now.  First, there was the story in the New York Times that looked at two studies that showed that computers in homes, especially in low-income homes, caused(?) lower test scores.  One study actually just looked at broadband expansion and noted that test scores have gone down in North Carolina as broadband has expanded.  In both studies, the implication is that the computer and the broadband expansion are causes of the lower test scores.  Does no one teach the difference between cause and correlation anymore?  There are so many other factors here–income, decreased budgets in schools leading to larger class sizes and a reduction in support services and after-school programs that effect lower-income students especially.  And there are probably a huge number of other factors.  Both studies mention parental supervision, which may be lacking in lower-income homes.  Hmmm, wonder why? Could it be they’re working four jobs to make ends meet?

The other story shows that college students tend to transfer bad non-technologically enhanced study habits to technology-enhanced study habits.  Well, duh.  Did the computers cause this? No.  If you do something badly without a computer, you’ll probably do it badly with a computer.

Can we stop blaming the computer (and the Internet) now?  Yes, just sticking computers into schools or homes or into the hands of college students without any kind of direction or thought is likely to have negative, or at least no positive effect.  Again, duh.  If you really listen to some of the less evangelical (sorry, but some of you are) ed tech people out there, they say this over and over again.  You need to be thoughtful about your pedagogy when using technology.  Kids need to have limits and supervision and be given direction.  And e-learning can be a bad thing if it’s just used to gain efficiencies rather than to improve learning outcomes.  Technology is not magic.  As soon as we stop believing that it is, we might be able to accomplish something with it.

One thing’s for sure, Bauerlin’s conclusion that “we should temper our enthusiasm for e-learning” has a point, but only because his logic is skewed.  E-learning is not the problem.  We are.  People using technology as a panacea instead of as one of many tools for learning are the problem.  Let’s quit blaming the technology and start moving into the 21st century.  If we temper our enthusiasm for technology, where will our next computer scientists, biotechnologist, ecotechnologists, engineers, and even entrepreneurs come from?

Technology tools pros and cons

With the first week of class under my belt, and lots of hands-on work with tools both in and out of the classroom, I’ve been thinking about the good and the bad of the tools I use for teaching.  I have not mastered the Michael Wesch level of technology integration.  I tend to focus on a couple of things–blogs, maybe a wiki, and usually some kind of multimedia project.  Twitter, Ning, delicious–I’m afraid to go there.  Which I know is saying something for someone who works in and is in the middle of teaching a course on educational technology.  The course is stretching me just a bit beyond my comfort zone, which has me trying out lots of new things for teaching, things I may use on my own but haven’t incorporated into my pedagogy fully.  One of my students suggested that she was feeling like the tools we had looked at so far were more useful for her professional development rather than for teaching.  I know how she feels!  Here are some of my thoughts so far.

Overall, the number of things out there that one *could* use is enormous.  This makes finding the right resource or tool very difficult.  I’ve been digging through my various networks in search of resources for chemistry and biology teachers.  It’s harder than it looks.

The textbook.  It was suggested to me that I use a textbook to provide some structure to the class.  I was glad to do so since I’d never taught this topic before, but now I’m sort of regretting that decision for a several reasons.  One, the book wasn’t in when the class began, as I’ve mentioned previously.  Two, I chose to use the electronic version for myself and told the students they could choose either option.  They’ve all chose the hard copy version.  The electronic version, while convenient, is kind of lame.  The links are not clickable.  There’s an affiliated website, also not clickable when mentioned in the text.  Instead, you have to type in the url and then dig through an index to find something.  Despite being published in 2009, some of the links to examples and external resources no longer work.  Despite being a book about incorporating technology into teaching, there are so few specific examples, it’s laughable, and almost no use of technology within the subject matter itself.  There pdf’s to print out or online quizzes to take and an occasional video to watch, but there’s no tutorial that would take you through a lesson plan or technology integration process (there are, to be fair, links to external versions of these–but you have to type the link in yourself).  Besides the technical issues, I’m finding myself too closely tied to the book.  I ventured away from it today and felt much more comfortable.  I have used textbooks or readers in the past to good effect, but for some reason, this isn’t working as well as I’d like.  Tomorrow I’ll be reading next week’s sections, so I’ll see what I can add of my own to make it much more palatable.

Google Toolbar.  My students are all using it for bookmarking and other things, so I thought I’d use it too.  I switched to Google Chrome a few weeks ago, mostly for speed reasons.  Ironically, the Google Toolbar will not work with Google Chrome.  Really?  So I switched to Firefox and lo, and behold, it works fine.  The share button is especially nice, letting you share pages with your social network quite easily.  When you click on it, it gives you about fifty or so sites that you can share the page with.  Pretty amazing.  You can also bookmark on bookmarking sites, put something into your reader and all kinds of other things.  I’m hoping we can experiment.

Edublogs.  I decided that since this was a popular platform for K-12 educators, that I’d give it a try.  After all, it’s built on WordPress, which I’ve always liked and am familiar with.  I also recommended the site to my students.  Two of them went with Edublogs, two with WordPress.com.  During our “pimp your blog” segment in class today, we found some major differences between the two.  I already knew that the widgets/plugins available via Edublogs were limited, in part, I’m sure, to keep things simple.  But, there were some key plugins that weren’t available in Edublogs that I think should be.  One, RSS Feeds.  It just seems silly that I can’t include a simple RSS url that will then display the latest posts from that feed.  I’d love to be able to do that for my student blogs, which for now are just linked to.    I don’t see why a handful of other plugins besides the very basic ones provided, couldn’t be included for free.  Considering that the target audience for the site are K-12 teachers, many of whom shell out their own money already for classroom supplies, you would think that more free stuff would be readily available.  Wordpress.com includes the RSS plugin, btw, as well as many others that Edublogs does not include.

Widgets, gadgets, embedding objects.  Without the more automatic widgets for WordPress available, we resorted to the tried and true method of cutting and pasting lines of javascript into the text widget.  It works, to be sure.  But it’s a little over even my fairly tech savvy students’ heads.  Both Google reader and delicious have codes for embedding their feeds into any web site, but they’re both pretty hard to find, and delicious’s is nearly impossible.  Part of this is that a lot of blog applications now allow you to include these things with the click of a button.  WordPress.com had a delicious widget, so that one could enter their username and voila! delicious feed.  But some people want or need to go old school.  It’d be nice if those scripts were more easily found or foregrounded.

It’s hard to keep in mind that I’ve built up my tool collection over several years and that I may have switched specific providers of tools–from Bloglines to Google Reader, from Blogger to WordPress–I’ve developed an understanding of how these tools work that my students don’t necessarily have.  For me, switching products is like buying a Toyota after driving a Pontiac for years.  Sure the gear shift is in a different place and the radio works slightly differently, but I still know how to drive the car.  For my students, who’s familiarity rests primarily with Facebook, email, IM and course management systems, it’s a little like riding a bike and then learning to drive a car.  Yeah, they both have wheels and gears, but the functionality is quite different.  Warning: learning curve ahead.

The Future of Educational/Instructional Technology

Over a year ago, I discussed the shift I was seeing in how faculty use their educational technology support staff. The shift I had noticed (and continued to notice until I left a year ago) was a shift from a consultative mode to a service mode. Instead of faculty coming and asking to sit down and talk about the potential uses of technology in their classes and get help in figuring what to use and how to use it, they started to simply ask that the work be done for them. There are two reasons for this shift (in addition to the usual issues about faculty time). One, the faculty that asked for consultation rather than service were typically the more tech savvy among their colleagues. They are now mostly doing the tech stuff on their own, even the new stuff. Two, the demand from students for more use of technology in their courses has increased so that those faculty who were average to less than average users of technology started using it and didn’t get the consultative mode and/or didn’t want it. They saw technology as separate from their course and the work they needed to do for their course and therefore, delegated that work to whomever they could.

Now, I know that different schools have probably had different experiences, but I can also say from still being on job lists for the type of position that I once held, that what those jobs are asking for now are not the kinds of skills I have or had. Most are positions for course management support. The position entails teaching faculty how to use the system, providing support (though what support means is never defined). Sometimes the position entails system support as well, which is a whole different skill set from the teaching side, often requiring some programming skills and at the very least, system administration skills (something most educational technology people have a tiny bit of, but not enough to manage a whole system effectively). In addition, because course management systems are increasingly used by other units besides the academic ones, there’s often a clause in the description about working with non-academic units, meaning that you’re hiring a person whose focus is teaching and learning to help the athletic department put videos online (I’m not making this up).

Another common job is that of instructional designer, a job that varies widely. Sometimes the job entails creating media for courses, such as video, flash, and learning modules. Often the job is described as working with faculty and others to “design, develop, and implement online and hybrid courses.” I know people who have these kinds of jobs and they often end up doing the lion’s share of the work. Faculty drop off syllabi, images, video, etc. and the designer makes the course. It’s production work, and granted, it requires a good deal of thought and likely, the person doing the work is better off having some knowledge of college teaching, but the requirements often don’t indicate that such knowledge is useful. Most ask for a master’s degree in instructional design, educational technology or just plain education. But I can tell you that those degrees are usually aimed at K-12 environments, often at the teachers themselves and not the support staff. The best jobs include teaching as part of the job requirements, but only 1 in 100 ore fewer include teaching either as a requirement for getting the job or as a responsibility of the job itself.

I’m not the only one who left because the job was shifting to a technical support job and one that supported not just the academic side of the house but the administrative and student services side as well. Several colleagues that I’ve talked to over the last few months have either quit or wish they could because they’re basically being a glorified technical secretary or help desk person rather than someone who provide knowledgeable advice about the best practices in teaching and learning with technology.

All this brings me to Michael Bugeja’s article in the Chronicle. He argues that in the current economic situation, colleges need to scale back their use of technology. I agree. It’s interesting that he mentions the gadgets, the equipment, the Second Life accounts, but not course management nor the staff that supports any of the above. Perhaps he’s being careful and doesn’t want to suggest that those who staff Ed Tech departments or who support, for example, Second Life, should be let go. I’m reluctant to suggest the same, but it seems to me that in some cases, a specialized person doing that kind of work might not be worth it, not if a school isn’t going to make good use of that person.

I did not see the kind of technological expansion that Bugeja mentions. I struggled to even get faculty to use Blackboard, much less clickers, Second Life, or mobile devices. I didn’t see faculty creating new courses around new technology. I offered a freshman seminar on blogging two years in a row, but otherwise, I didn’t see courses on Facebook or Twitter or iPhones, nor did I see regular courses making use of those tools. And, at other schools similar to my own that I’ve done some consulting for, the same is true. Most are still trying to get faculty to use the technology that makes sense to use. There’s been no crazy expansion into Second Life.

That said, I have seen a general increase in the use of technologies that are free. Blogs, wikis, Google apps, Twitter have all come to be used effectively in classrooms, but not because an educational technologist was there to make it happen. Most of the uses I’ve seen have come from the faculty themselves, who increasingly are using these tools in their own work, so it becomes natural to them to try to use them in their teaching. No extra staff needed. And usually, no cost for the tools themselves.

If schools really want to save money, they might consider looking first at the CMS. If one is necessary, then they might consider going open source. But I’d take a long hard look at whether a CMS is even necessary. Not only does the system itself cost money, but the staff to support it also costs money (and the staff cost remains if you go open source). And radically, I might suggest that instead of hiring educational technologist, one might consider having faculty serve in that role, perhaps with a course release to do so. Perhaps there’d be a faculty member in that role in every division (i.e. sciences, humanities, social sciences) or, if your school is large, in every department. Production might be relegated to student workers or lesser paid interns rather than on costly full-time staff. And I know, this sounds bad, eliminating educational technology staff.

The other option for such staff is to take them out of the IT department, and put them under the academic units. The more closely they can be to the faculty they consult with, the better. And if they can teach a course every year, even better, so that they know what faculty face. I think either model I’ve suggested, could potentially reduce technology costs. After all, sometimes, the IT people (ed tech people included) get wowed by the technology and jump in head first without thinking about whether or not it will actually get used. Even if the cost is only in time, that’s still a cost that some can ill afford.

I don’t think, as Britt does, that Bugeja casts technology as an evil. Instead, what I think he’s saying is that technology is expensive and it needs to be assessed more carefully before spending the money on it. I agree that Bugeja fails to point out many of the positive aspects of using technology in teaching. But we technologists also need to remember what technology costs and make sure it’s worth that cost before using it. Technology is not always the answer. Though many of my ed tech colleagues agree with that statement, most faculty think that ed tech people are technology pushers. We have to get away from that. What often needs to change is the teaching method. Sometimes technology can push someone in that direction, but sometimes, we have to start with the non-technical teaching issues first.

I see, then, two potential futures. One is to keep going down the production road, and that is a road that many larger institutions are already going down, since those who do the production cost less than the faculty. They can produce a video lecture that reaches 700 or more students and only have one faculty member, maybe even a grad student TA. The other is to go down a road where there is less technology of the one to many kind like CMS’s. And the use of that technology will be led by faculty with fewer ed tech people needed.

I have more disjointed thoughts, but will save them for later. Being away from educational technology for the last couple of months has made me see it differently. I feel like the model we have–ed tech people as a separate entity–just isn’t working and isn’t creating the change in education that we need. And I see that change happening more and more though individual faculty who are “just doing it.”

Snarky Education

I really like Mark Bullen’s Net Gen Skeptic blog, because I, too, maintain a healthy skepticism about they hype surrounding the so-called Net Generation.  I don’t think they’re all disengaged, tech-savvy people.  When I teach and use something as simple as a blog, I have to teach about 80% of the class how to use it.  And often, I have to teach 100% of the class how to use it effectively.  Most of the students I’ve run into who have a blog use it as a diary or as a way to communicate only with friends.  So learning to blog in public is a difficult thing to do.  If you read the likes of Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital, these students started a blog at birth and by the time they reach college, have gained a huge audience and are earning their college tuition through selling ad space.

Bullen’s latest post about the Snark effect, an effect where policy or strategy is based on assertions rather than on a full evaluation of the situation, i.e. empirical research.  Bullen asserts that the call for technology in education is all snark and no bite:

The Snark Syndrome is clearly at play in the discussions around the Net
Generation and education. I have lost track of the number of times I
have heard educators repeat the stereotypes about the Net Generation:
short attention span, expert mutitaskers, technologically savvy etc
etc. Countless Michael Wesch-like You Tube videos are circulating
urging us to wake up and change our ways or else risk losing an entire
generation of learners who we are failing to engage. The answer, we are
told, is more digital technology

I think many people who encourage the effective use of technology in teaching and learning are not just saying it because we need to engage a crew of digital natives who would rather be Facebooking than sitting in class.  Instead, we see a future that’s digital, where we know our students need to understand and be critical of the information that is flowing past them every day at a very rapid pace.  They will be expected to use many of the Web 2.0 technologies in their jobs and will need to be able to learn how to use new ones and determine whether they are effective tools or not.  And many of us do look at the research.  Many of us are looking at research that is 40 years old and that still holds, that says that active learning is better, and we see that technology is one of many ways to achieve best practices in learning that are supported by decades of research.  My own dissertation investigated through empirical study whether blogs were an effective tool for teaching writing.  They are.

If people are blindly jumping into using technology for technology’s sake, then Bullen has a point.  As a consultant (one of the people he says educators are blindly following, though I do know a lot about education), I would never suggest that educators simply follow my advice without thinking about whether it would work for them.  It’s likely they’ll want to make small adjustments based on their own needs and experience.  I merely make suggestions, show things that have worked for me or for others, and talk about the research that backs up those suggestions.  In fact, the whole point for me of using technology in the classroom is so that we don’t create a generation of blind followers, that we have students who will be able to tackle the huge problems they will face: global warming, dwindling fossil fuels, global strife.  Blind following in any of those cases is a bad idea, and I believe that technology can be part (not all) of the solution to helping them become better informed and make better decisions.

Cross-posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting.

Naked Teaching

Alex Reid and Tim Burke have both commented on this Chronicle article about SMU’s proposal to remove computers from the classroom.  Both Reid and Burke have pointed out that removing computers does not guarantee that teaching will automatically improve.  Burke notes that teachers who use PowerPoint as a crutch used to use notes or transparencies and will likely simply revert back to those pre-computer methods.  Burke outlines some suggestions for what makes lectures better.  But Reid raises the issue of what to do with a hundred or several hundred students when you’re not lecturing.  The article itself notes that “Lively interactions are what teaching is all about.”  I can tell you that in my spring class with 40 students, managing those lively interactions was quite challenging.  How, then, do you do that with hundreds?  There are no answers in the article itself, though it gives examples of interactive discussion occuring in several classes.  There is no mention of how large those classes are.  Reid suggests that the delivery of college courses will need to change.  The article mentions the pressure on colleges to do more within the classroom since lectures are now either freely available or available at a lower cost (for college credit) online.  Why would someone want to pay thousands of dollars for something they can get for free?  Lectures, then, and especially bad ones, are no longer always a cost-effective and certainly not a learning-effective way to deliver instruction.  Could a place like UC-Davis, where my colleague Leslie Madsen-Brooks works and where there are classes as large as 700 students, afford to break those large classes up?  Would it make sense to have such a large class watch the professor deliver her lecture via a video podcast and then be broken up into smaller chunks to meet with TAs to discuss the material, work on problem sets, or do some other activity?  There are costs involved in the production of the video and then there are the costs of the labor to handle the smaller sections.  Are there ways that this method saves money?  Lower facilities costs?  Better retention rates?  Justification for higher tuition?

This issue makes me think, too, of Dean Dad’s occasional suggestion that we should decouple class time from class credit.  What if a student can breeze through a first year biology class in half the time? What if another student needs a year to cover the same material?  Can colleges accommodate that and if they do, what are the costs?  While the technology that allows this kind of time compression creeps me out a little bit when applied to younger students, it seems perfectly logical at the college level, especially in courses where there’s already a huge distance between faculty and student.  Being able to check in with a tutor or a TA from time-to-time while working through the material on your own strikes me as better than the current lecture system.  There are actually many possibilities, facilitated in some cases by technology.  The problem is at least two-fold.  One, none of the options are likely to both improve instruction and reduce costs (many seem more expensive).  Two, change within the ivory tower is extraordinarily slow.  There are so many competing interests and in places where large lectures are the norm, the students’ best interests are often last on the list.  But I do think that students and parents are starting to ask, “What am I paying for?” when they see that they’re getting material that is easily accessible for free or at a much lower cost.  Hopefully that pressure for change will reach the podium of the lecture halls.

Cross-posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting.

Innovation or Nightmare

This New York Times article describes a summer program for middle schoolers where lesson plans are generated by computer algorithm. On the one hand, it sounds like many of the kids are enjoying the computer games that teach math.  On the other hand, this seems like a scary prospect of kids sitting in front of a computer all day.  Yes, the lessons are tailored to each student, which I think is a good thing and a good use of technology, but there seems to be little real interaction with the teachers or with other students.  Though the article mentions small group activity and lessons with the teacher, it’s unclear how much of that actually occurs.  There’s the suggestion, in fact, that fewer teachers are needed.

For now, the curriculum is focused on math, because there are materials–quizzes and games and whatnot–already available. There’s no mention of how they’d do language arts or social studies.  Would they just have online quizzes?  What about discussing a book? Blogging about it? I’m not opposed to using computer quizzes to test skills and basic facts, but those don’t necessarily indicate a full understanding of the material.  That’s one of the problems with state tests now; they test things that can be memorized not the understanding of the concepts behind those facts.  It may be that this curriculum is being supported through discussions and writing and other kinds of engagement, but that’s not the impression I got, and frankly, this scares even my technophile self.

Cross posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting

Clickers!

A number of posts have commented on the Chronicle article and the NPR story on clickers. I really don’t like clickers. I recognize that there are certain classes, mostly large lecture classes, where they seem necessary. Buy why do they seem necessary? Because there’s a recognition that students don’t always learn well in those settings and so the clickers are used to determine if the students are learning and if they’re not, in theory, to go over material again or differently so that they do learn. So rather than deal with the root of the problem, they throw technology at it. This is the worst use of technology in education and unfortunately, it’s the most common.

Bugeja adds in a comment to Soltan’s post linked to above the following:

Cost is the issue. No research to my knowledge documents any learning benefit according to empirical analysis–in this case, raising hands as opposed to clicking keypads in those hands.

Here’s my point:

Unless we stop underwriting any benefit, especially without the above analysis, technology–which promised to democratize academe–will continue to corporatize it, at the expense of the Humanities, I’m afraid.

In the article, he suggests that the idea for investing in clickers came from a few faculty who’d been pitched the technology along with textbooks by publishers. The IT department was simply commissioned to implement the technology after the fact and very little analysis of the costs or benefits was done by either faculty or the IT department. I wonder how many other “educational technologies” came about this way. There’s often an assumption by faculty that the IT department or Teaching Centers cram technology down their throats. But I wonder if it’s not really the case that a few faculty started agitating for something. Where did the idea for CMS’s come from? But really, no matter where it comes from, I agree that before investing in anything, technology or otherwise, one should do the cost-benefit analysis. I had to do this just to purchase a printer in the corporate world. One would think that in academe, which are supposed to be non-profits, that such analysis would be even more important.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

The Problem with Facebook

I agree with Alex Golub’s stance in his IHE piece on Facebook. As he argues, the lack of granularity in friend settings creates a situation where you either cloister yourself or you don’t. It’s a very different world than the one we actually live in, where you have people that you work with and would go out to dinner with and people that you work with but wouldn’t. In other words, Facebook forces you to draw clear lines when there aren’t any. I’ve had a Facebook account since 2004, and I’ve had this blog that long and I twitter and generally put myself out there all the time, so I’m not squeamish about having a public persona. I think most people have gotten past fear of Facebook, and thanks to some highly publicized incidents, most students have figured out that posting risque pictures is a bad for future job prospects. As Facebook goes more and more mainstream, however, things are getting kind of weird.

For example, most of my high school classmates have now found me on Facebook. The first person to find me a couple of years ago was my best friend (we’d already found each other’s blogs), and that was cool. It was a great way to stay in touch and it faciliated the ability for us to visit each other. But then the peripheral friends started friending me and I wasn’t sure what to do about that. So I friended them and that was okay, but now all my current real friends are mixed in with former students, former classmates from high school, college and grad school and it’s getting pretty messy. I unsuccessfully tried to use Facebook to arrange a gathering while I was in my home town over the holidays, and that failed miserably (I totally felt like I was in high school again), not because of Facebook, per se, but now I’m wondering why I have those people in my friend list anyway if I can’t even contact them to have lunch because I’m not entirely sure I want them to know about my day-to-day activities. And likely vice versa.

Over the weekend, I friended the mom of one of my daughter’s friends. This, too, strikes me as odd. I actually wrote her a note when I friended her just to say that I was surprised to find another mom on FB. I did it mainly to keep in touch with the mom circuit. She works full time, but also seems involved in a lot of local mom-related activities.

So, I think Facebook makes me feel like George Costanza–my worlds collide.

Blackboard going Web 2.0?

Blackboard, 9.0 :: Inside Higher Ed :: Higher Education’s Source for News, Views and Jobs

IHE describes the launch of the new version of Blackboard as including Web 2.0 and social learning tools. I’ve only seen the company video showcasing the new Blackboard.  So, it may not be fair to comment at this point, but I’m going to anyway.  The interface definitely looks better, incorporating drag and drop customization and context menus that eliminate much of the clicking that annoyed so many people.  It seems to have absorbed the blog and wiki tools that were previously provided by a third party.  However, the look of the blogs (and the rest of Blackboard) still appears to be bland compared to “blogs in the wild”.  Also, Blackboard is still course-based with content contained within individual courses and unable to be shared outside or even across courses within the institution (I do know that course content can be share if you buy Bb’s Content System).

Although I prefer an open platform that allows students to present their work to the world, this semester working with WordPress Mu as my class platform for the first has made me appreciate why someone would gravitate to Blackboard.  The main issue is getting people into the system.  Although it’s tied to our central login system, the steps to get people logged in are clumsy.  Also, managing the work of 40 or more students gets somewhat overwhelming.  I do have a plugin that shows me how many posts people have made and we’re doing some work to organize their papers when that time comes, but it’s still required some significant work to make all that work.  Partly, of course, this is because WP Mu wasn’t built to do this, but that’s what happens to most Web 2.0 apps.  They start life as one thing and become something else entirely because of the way people really use it.

I think a few minor improvements to a Course Management system might make it something that those of us on the bleeding edge rethink using it.  Here’s what I propose.

  1. Make it possible to share content across courses easily.  Allow, for example, two courses to link together.  They might be courses being taught this semester by different instructors centered on the same theme but in different disciplines.  Imagine the conversations that could take place!  Or they might be courses from previous semesters.
  2. Make it possible for “real” customization of a course.  Let instructors be able to design the front page not just by changing the menu items across the left nav, but change where that navigation is.  Allow widgets to be added that pull in content from outside sites right onto the front page.  Allow the instructor to minimize the institutional branding so that they can feel more ownership over their course.
  3. Allow students to customize their area too.  They might be able to customize their blogs within a course, but they might also be able to build a portfolio by pulling in work from their courses that they’re proud of.
  4. Make it possible to make the course public.  Make it possible for faculty to allow the public in if they want.  You can still make copyrighted materials private and obviously, grades, but allow the outside world to see the course and see the blogs and other student work.

There’s probably more that could be done here, and it does seem that Blackboard is moving in the right direction to a large extent, but they are driven in their design in part by the assumptions of institutions who are still very course and discipline-based.  Until they get beyond the idea that learning is closed off from the world and contained within courses and disciplines, course management systems aren’t going to change.