Using Moodle with a student centred curriculum

Earlier this month I was invited to do a presentation for the Moodle MOOC. The presentation included the use of the live slides approach where the audience of the presentation is responsible for creating slides from which I as the ‘presenter’ can try and draw a narrative. It’s an approach I’ve used many times with many different audiences, but in this case things took an unexpected detour. As the participants were given access to the white board, they simply would not focus on working together. Now… this was particularly impacted by the fact that the software we were using had ‘moveable slides’ which allowed them more freedom than i’ve seen before, but it ended up taking about 25 minutes to get things started. You can watch it here.


Why moodle?
I got an email today from the excellent Paul Allison asking about the moodle assignment I was actually going to talk about during that presentation and never got around to. Paul shares my concern about Moodle being a platform that can easily lead to a very hierarchical teacher centric approach to online learning. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, but it’s default separation of roles, separation by topic or week, and linear structure can easily guide you to a checkbox, step by step approach to online learning.

I want students to be responsible for much of the curriculum that is covered in the course. I particularly don’t want to create a scenario where the students believe that learning happens when the instructor lays out clear objectives that they are to conquer. I understand that many people think of this as contravening best practice, but i tend to think that it creates a power relationship around learning that can lead to students ‘not’ learning when someone isn’t around to sanction it for them. I think of life long learning as a much messier, disjointed struggle than that. I think that if you are trying to prepare students for confronting decision making about a particular topic, then you need to, in some degree, mirror the uncertainty to daily life so that they can practice that decision making with a guide or mentor close to hand. The course is at if you are interested. The ‘textbook’ for the course is at

So i wanted to use moodle, show my students how a discussion forum worked, but i didn’t want to be controlling it.

The assignment
So, the goal then was to create a moodle activity that would force my students to find an interesting way to use a discussion forum to address an issue that they were thinking about as part of the course. In order to facilitate this I created a Moodle course and invited all my students into it as teachers. We broke them into groups of from 2-4 and each group was responsible for creating a ‘homepage’ as a topic within the course. That homepage (topic) would be theirs to design, develop and host a discussion on their chosen question.

We did the registration live during the class. There were a few hiccups due to some irregularities with people’s accounts… but no real big deal here. As I am wont to do, i didn’t assign individual groups to numbered topics, I let it be a free for all. Groups had to grab their topic by editing it and putting their subject description in the title. This created a bit of a flurry of excitement and a couple of ‘HEY, we were going to do that one’. I wandered around the class to ensure that each group had eventually got a topic section and then proceeded to explain what a discussion forum was and had them do some basic interactions in an example topic area that I started building in the classroom. I am resistant to the idea of creating a proper exemplar as I’m trying to get students to think their way through what should be there rather than try and copy what is there. I always struggle with whether this is a good position to hold or not.

Here is one sample of an entry from one group. I picked it because it’s the right size to fit in the blog post :). It’s also a good example of the kind of thing i was looking for. Others offered much more or less copy on the page… there was alot of variation. But the space became theirs (as apposed to mine) very quickly.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.46.46 PM

Outcomes (so called)
The way things turned out in this class, i was going to miss one of our three hour f2f sessions for a conference. This assignment was intended as a replacement for a three hour class, and the students were therefore requested to show up online from 6pm-9pm local time and participate in as many substantive discussions as they could during that time. They were also responsible for monitoring and facilitating discussions in their own section. A few students setup a google hangout to help in their coordination but most simply did their best to participate.

I was pretty happy with the outcome. We got a fair amount of substantive discussion, and some interesting ideas that hadn’t come up in the course so far. We had a feedback session in the next face 2 face class and students spoke with confidence about the possibilities of discussion forums. Many students suggested that they occasionally became over focused on other topics or their own topic and found it difficult to switch back and forth. I was online in Spain during the first half hour or so and did some trouble shooting over twitter with four or five students.

It’s the first time i’ve had this kind of freeforall in a Moodle. I kinda like it. I particularly like the idea of students building their own home and would like to do something where students had to keep going back to improve and refine their own space. Maybe a whole course for each group. Meh. Maybe next time.

Below is the group feedback that i sent to my students regarding the assignment.

Moodle discussions
Cell phones in the classroom
“Several times last year, when I noticed a student texting while I was giving a lecture, I would stop, stare and wait for them to finish texting, then continue with the lecture, as if nothing ever happened. It didn’t take too long for all to realize that they were being stared at by all. The students themselves then became the “Text Police” My enforcement wasn’t needed.” Daryl
The technology requires an establishment of new society norms. It is, as Sherri suggests, a question of professionalism. That’s going to be different for different classes. But the key is to make overtly clear (as Daryl does very nicely here) about what is expected and what the new normal is.

Twitter and brevity
Do you feel as though 140 characters is enought to say something substancial? Can you pack in lots to communitucate thoroughly? Shannon
It certainly keeps the clutter down! Well, I would say that it can do a lot but, yes, I wouldn’t want to do my dissertation over Twitter ; 0 Mark

A couple of things here. First, I note that Shannon critiqued Twitter’s substantialness in 128 characters… excellent work Shannon. Mark makes one of the two points i would make here a. Twitter is not for everything. The second point is addressed by Andrea when she says that twitter is a place for connections. The corrollary to this is that twitter is NOT, generally, a place for content. If i have something substantial to say i might link to it on twitter… but i wouldn’t try to write it there. It’s just not designed for that.

Finding the need before the tool
I could see us posting a students code and then have students provide feedback on it. One thing that some of this technology provides is a way to do things that some students may be able to get in to using. BJ

I could totally see this as a twitter/pastebin combination. Get students to post the code on pastebin, and tweet it out to everyone else. For that matter… coders have been using IRC for collaboration for a generation. Might be good to get them in the habit of doing that. If you wanted to get real creative, you could setup an IRC channel for students to exchange code with people doing the same type course at another institution.

Kids these days
Spoiled by their parents, which leads to the sense of entitlement and not having to or willing to work for what they want, showing no respect for their parent’s hard earned dollar. Don

I can’t seem to put my hands on it, but i found a quote from about 60BC in the Roman Republic a few months ago that said the same thing as this almost to the letter. This is the complaint of every generation about the one following it. This also doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but we need to remember not to associate all things into the same problem. Daryl says “he was lucky to have a working wristwatch” a statement that would have been ‘spoiled’ a generation before. We need to remember that it is the adults in society who are responsible for setting norms for the use of technologies, these norms don’t just make themselves. We are entering into a strange period where we have things in our culture that have confused norms associated with them (eg. texting). That’s not the kids fault.

The great higher education money debate
Very cool discussion (and a great way of seeing what a discussion forum can do). I would like to add that when comparing College to University you’ll find different results in terms of ‘lifetime earning’ than you will in ‘immediate employment’. The main theme of the discussion seemed to be ‘it depends on what you want’ which i totally agree with. I eventually ended up with an undergraduate degree in philosophy (after starting in computer programming, which, frankly, i hated). University worked for me – eventually. Anyway, i don’t want to go down the rabbitt hole here, the point is, the discussion forum allows for multiple points of view and it allows for people who don’t necessarily like to break into arguments in class to do so with time to consider what they are going to say.

Online learning
One of the themes of discussion is related to the comparison of online learning with face to face discussion. One of the reasons i love teaching ed366 is that it gives me the chance to be in a classroom, which I love. I also love getting input from people from different perspectives, cultures and experiences, which is often more difficult in a place like Charlottetown. Our class is not particularly culturally diverse. There are affordances to both modalities… some suit some of us better than others. I agree with BJ that my favourite is a blended model where we can steal some of the advantages from both approaches. It need not be either or though, in most cases.

Interesting to see everyone on the same side of a discussion for once :). It speaks well of our government and our culture, i suppose, that privacy isn’t a concern to its citizens. Don says “if you do the crime, you do the time” – and that works fine as long as you and the people with the power to harm/incarcerate you agree on what is a crime. The catch comes when those things don’t line up. Lets imagine that, like in many, many countries, it becomes a crime to criticize a political party or a religion or some other organization. An interesting discussion. In this case our discussion forum, different from the discussion above on university/college, shows our agreement.

A review of rhizomatic learning in Mendeley

I’ve committed to taking the work i’ve been doing around rhizomatic learning to the next level this year. I don’t necessarily know what that’s going to look like, but hopefully it will at least mean a few more papers and some better thinking. One of the steps that I’ve taken in the last few days is to setup a mendeley group dedicated to rhizomatic learning and seeing what we can do about gathering the scant existing publications together into one place. So far the response has been very good, and a considerable about of stuff has been gathered.

But what to do with it all?

A lit review
If you go over to the group page on Mendeley you’ll see a number of papers, a bunch of people, a brief description of the group and a link. That link goes to a googledoc. It’s occurred to me that the only way i’m going to be able to organize my own thoughts about the papers that are being put into group is to have some contextual piece that will walk people through it. I may, over time, become familiar enough with all the papers to not need this crutch. But i will certainly need it over the short term, and it would seem that it could be useful for others.

There is something terribly ironic about applying this much structure to a concept that in some ways IS structural resistance itself. But, much like D&G suggest in their own introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, we have to do something. If i’m going to further my own work, share work with others, then we need some kind of context within which we can work some kind of exchange.

My own goal is to see if it is possible to create a practical teaching/learning approach grounded in the philosophy represented in those articles. Something that starts way over in the netherworld of french post 1960 philosophy, and finishes in someone’s classroom. I’m starting to get asked the question… “how would i do this in my school/classroom”. I don’t know if there are answers to this question, but i’m going to try and find out 🙂

The language challenge
Rhizomatic learning is based, however enigmatically, in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. They are French and, to put it broadly, difficult to define. Some would call them postmodern or post-structuralist philosophers, but they did not particularly seem to like those terms. I will not delve into that debate here, suffice it to say that they have a particular way of looking at the world, and an entire language built up around how to talk about that. Some of that language they inherited from philosophers and psychoanalysts before the, some, frankly, they simply made up or so profoundly changed from their usual meaning that they might as well have made them up.

This special language makes any work on rhizomes (and associated concepts) a very difficult one. I feel very passionately about the narrative that emerges from D&G’s work and believe that it has a very important story to tell about education, learning, complexity and uncertainty. I always tend to get caught, however, between speaking in technical terms about the philosophy behind it, and speaking in terms that people unfamiliar with the French Philosophical context will accept at face value.

Lets try… decalcomania – one of the characteristics of the rhizome

according to wikipedia it

“is a decorative technique by which engravings and prints may be transferred to pottery or other materials.”

It evolved to a surealist practice of

tracing without an original

which seems more appropriate to the usage that D&G mean for it. Awesomely, the same wikipedia entry claims that decalcomania is the root work of Cockamamy, which was a deliberate mispronunciation. It was also shortened to ‘decal’. This, then, is the accepted usage of the word.

According to a quote stolen from a colleague (Keith Hamon) for Deleuze and Guattari decalcomania is

“forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction.”

I recently described it as

“They grow and spread via experimentation within a context”

Without using the term decalcomania at all.

They are similar, certainly, but its not an easy voyage from one to the other. Plus, the word shape itself (with ‘mania’ at the end) suggests that its meaning may be more esoteric and psychobabbely. This without even opening up the discussion about the actual biological nature of the rhizome.

And i’ve lost some of the deeper political meaning with my translation. I had a similar conversation a few weeks ago with my concerns over the translation of ‘war machine’ from ‘machine de guerre’.

Working through the language in a group is going to be a struggle. Those of us crossing disciplines always get into trouble over this i suppose, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

A way forward
So i’m going to go ahead and keep adding to my lit review document. And whether it’s a document that i finish three years from now, by myself, or something where a bunch of others join in and we publish it somewhere with 20 authors is of no great concern to me. I’ll poke away at it, feel free to do the same yourself.

Community as Curriculum – a research project

I’ve been trying to figure out what I would do for the third of the rhizomatic education papers, I had hoped to pull together some of the things i’d learned since the original paper and pull it together with the second piece of writing around guilds and networks. This has lead me to thoughts about how some of the work was being interpreted and what there was to learn from looking out to the idea as it is connected to the network – the idea in its own own environment as it were.

The research project
I want to survey the way in which people have taken up the idea and how it has affected their practice. I want to interview them, and get a sense of why they tried it in the first place, what there expectations were, how well trying it reflected those expectations and what they ended up with in the real world. I have some expectation that the actual in class reality of turning the idea of curriculum into something else probably has a number of practical challenges in different fields, and I’m very interested in how people confronted those, how the learners confronted them, what their opinions were… I’m curious.

If the start align, i will be teaching ED366 again this year. Educational Technology and the Adult learner. I’d like to take the results from the first part of the research and apply it to the course as it stood 2 summers ago and see how it could be improved from the new interpretations.

Not too complicated really

Examples of uses
I’ve found a few very interesting examples of students either studying the rhizomatic education paper or running projects or courses using adapted versions of the content.

English 505 University of East Michigan
The paper appeared to be one of the challenges presented to the learners in the course. As you can see by the wiki, they made some very detailed analysis.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign- Dance Program
The dance program at Illinois appears to be arguing that the idea of ‘community as curriculum’ can allow them to consider their students as experts and allows them to guide what the word ‘curriculum’ means.

We are Media Project
By no means a ‘central’ idea to the great work done in the we are media project, but certainly an idea that was explored as a philosophical shift in thinking in terms of creating a curriculum.

What I’m hoping for
Well… I’m hoping for examples of people using the idea (and hopefully re/better-interpreting it) and having those people make contact with me so i can find out what they did.

I’m also hoping for advice on how to make the research project better. This is the first time I’ve set out on doing a research project without funding or formal structure… so ideas are most welcome.

I’m hoping, overall, to move the idea forward. It was, originally, the story that I put on the things that I have learned while working with all of you. It seems to have been a useful story for others as well, and now i’m kind of attached to it, so I’d like to see it grow.

Dave’s wildly unscientific survey of technology use in Higher Education

This survey
In the late spring early summer I sent out the questions below to my twitter followers in the hopes of getting a starting point for the discussion of where universities are with technological adoption, particularly where it is supporting learning.

A word on the respondents.
The responders to this survey included their names on the understanding that their names and institutions would not be published as part of the results. I include institution because, for many of them, the responses would clearly indicate who had completed the form.

The form was sent out to the followers of my twitter account. There are any number of biases inherent in that, not the least being that the majority of them, broadly speaking, don’t mind seeing my twitter updates. I am professionally familiar with almost every respondent. We got one student respondent and the majority of the others are either edtech or educational professionals at Universities in North/South America and Europe.

All that to say this this is not a terribly scientific survey, but it does reflect the usage of educational technologies at 25 institutions of higher ed in different parts of the world. I would not use it as a guide to action, but rather one more piece of the overall context.

This piece is strewn with ‘davenote’s. These are personal reflections on the data rather than quantifiable results pulled from the data. I would regard these with suspicion if i had not written them.

Do you use E-Portfolios at your university? If so, please tell us what you use and what the uptake has been like. Does it work well? Does it help or hinder ‘learning’?
Over half of the respondents replied in the negative to this question. Of those that suggested that some use was being made pebblepad and d2l were most often cited as the Eportfolios of choice. There was some consistent commentary about lone individuals or faculties (usually Education) that were moving in this direction, but no mandatory eportfolios were mentioned.

Overall (other than the ‘No.’) respondents, the general thrust of the respondents seemed to be that they understood this to be a good idea but that there was some confusion or resistance about how this was actually going to be done.

davenote: eportfolios are a vast hidden overhead. They really only make sense if they are portable and accessible to the user. Transferring vast quantities of student held data out of the university every spring seems complicated. Better, maybe, to instruct students to use external services.

Are you doing much with so-called ‘mobile education’? Can you point us to some of the work you are doing?
Most universities that responded said they either had none or there had been ‘discussions’ but no real movement. A smaller group suggested that they had done podcasts, one iphone applications and several others had explored ways to format existing work so that material was easily readable by mobile devices.

davenote: Our new mobile infrastructure at UPEI appears to be ahead of the majority of the respondents. By far the easiest ‘mobile’ work seems to be to just make sure your websites conform to mobile standards.

Are you using anything for lecture capture? (we’re using epresence) Is this something that you would consider an advantage for instructors or learners?
Quicktime broadcaster/podcast producer. camtasia. elluminate.adobe connect. Aprevo. Sonic Foundries, MediaSite system. Lectopia. echo360. ustream. jing.

A real broad spectrum of different tools appear to be in use with most universities saying that they are using something. There are only 2 occasions where broad spectrum adoption is present, but most seem to think that this is a necessary part of the 21st century university. There was also a broad interpretation of this question, some interpreted it to mean capturing powerpoints, some video and some the audio that was being produced. There is certain an indication of broad adoption.

davenote: There are a huge number of options and they are all fit for different purposes, and most require significant support. Things like ustream, adobe connect and elluminate benefit from being supported off site and being easy to record but suffer in the accessibility portability department.

Do you have an LOR (Learning Object Repository) or OER (Open Educational Resources (thingy)) Are these collections something that ‘should’ be part of a institution of higher education?
Over half of the respondents here said they did not have an LOR to speak of. There were many of those that suggested that bands of educators worked together to share materials. Of those that responded in the affirmative the majority suggested that the ones that were in use were getting little use. A handful suggested that the use of the LOR was mandatory and that it was being used for sharing. My guess here would be that either it gets built into the system (some form of mandatory) or people will move off into whatever works for them and their colleagues.

davenote: The peers we have in our learning and teaching are more often in other universities… these are the people that we really need to share with.

What is your elearning support structure(do you have a dedicated elearning support group?) Are there specific needs that are/aren’t being satisfied? Is this considered a ‘professional curriculum position)?
One respondent in particular simply laughed at the idea that they were being supported at all. The vast majority, however, have a centralized support system (perhaps 7-8 did not) and they are usually in the ‘educational support’ division or the elearning support group or something else that suggests a group dedicate to computer assisted learning. In each of the 5 cases where the support was being done by computer services the comment was coupled with “and they don’t know anything about learning”.

davenote: the comments here seem to suggest a much higher level of satisfaction with a centralized elearning infrastructure. I am biased in this, as I have suggested the same thing, but these respondents at least, seem to agree with me.

Are you using a VLE (LMS, LCMS, CMS) for education? Which one are you using, and what percentage of faculty do you estimate actively use it? How do you feel about them?
Broadly speaking this is the question that need not have asked. Everyone said yes, many suggested that use was mandatory and that there was a universal presence for every course. It was a mixture of moodle, D2L, blackboard/webct.

davenote: yup.

Do you have a formal elearning strategy? Is it publicly available? Do you think such a thing is necessary?
Many universities seem to have an elearning strategy, for some it is included in the overall strategic plan, for others, it is a discrete document. With the exception of the respondent that suggested that it was more important that they have someone in charge of thinking about this rather than the document itself, all respondents agreed that it was necessary (if they answered that part of the question. About half of those that were spoken of were publicly available.

davenote: Strategic plans, if enforced are very good things. Even if they aren’t enforced, they at least reflect thinking at a given time.

Are you using any tools (twitter, wikis etc.) that might be considered web 2.0?
I hesitated to include this question in the first place, as it was likely that the respondents to my twitter account would be using collaborative tools. They were. Twitter, delicious, WPMU, Twitter, Plurk, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Vimeo, Ning, Chatzy, Diigo … and the like. The two themes that seem to come out is the purposeful viral spreading of these tools and the institutional support of blogging.


Pointing to the ‘Social’ and the ‘Network’ in making the case for social networking (twitter edition)

I recently did a presentation for a senior administration group on campus at UPEI and, in combination with some very good questions from PatParslow about how I talk about organizing my twitter account, I figured it would better mark my learning and potentially prepare these thoughts for a more deeply thought article to post it here and get some feedback from you fine folks if the topic interests you.

The difference between social software and social networking
Let’s get this out of the way. Social Software is a vague term that describes a type of software, often web based, that, as part of it’s core functionality allows for a social interaction of some sort (sometimes called web2.0). Its content is often contributed by the visitors to the website. Social networking is the act of using those particular functionalities in a social, networked type way. Consider the example of using as a place to find (by using the search) and store your bookmarks (maybe by using browser plugins) because it’s more convenient than storing it on your desktop. This is an example of using social software. Now, consider actively becoming a part of other people’s delicious network, using the for:username functionality to share to people within that network, and tagging strategically to help the larger community potentially use those links. I have two delicious accounts, one – davecormier – is just me using social software… the other, which i share with other folks, – edtechtalk – is a fully socially networked account. People share to it, and from it. There is social and network.

A story for talking about social network based on the Hemmings pink slip party
Imagine walking in a room full of two hundred faceless people in suits. You walk in, look around, and slowly start to ask each person, one by one, what they do and who they are, and who ‘their people are’. It was this situation that the Hemmings pink slip parties were designed to combat. They were designed as a way of facilitating the hiring of otherwise excellent geeks who lost their jobs when the tech bubble crashed in 2001. They were parties where employers wore green armbands, job seekers wore pink ones and ‘friends’ wore blue armbands. A simple solution with some really far reaching consequences.

Three things happen immediately. The context becomes defined – the first practical purpose of the ‘gathering’ is for people to find and offer jobs. Yes, some people may be looking for a partner or a good time, but these are now formally secondary. Two, when you look around you no longer see a sea of suits, you see people as they have defined themselves for this particular context. Third, and potentially most importantly, you know who YOU are. You can, at any time, look down at your arm and figure out why you are in this particular context.

A word about twitter
Twitter is a pretty clean example for talking about the division between social software and social networking. It is, by its core structures, inherently social. You can, if you want, be a pure consumer on twitter. You can also be a pure broadcaster. These are both uses of social software, but, I would say, aren’t strictly ‘social networking’. Imagine the non-web equivalent at our party of a person in the party giving a speech for the entire night, or conversely, sitting i a corner and listening in on everyone’s conversation, but never opening their mouth. Not social. Not networking.

Approaching social software and becoming a social networker. twitter
First, and I think most importantly, you need to decide on an armband. There are, of course, any number of ways of going about this, but it’s critical to ‘getting’ twitter. If you simply see those 200 faceless people from our above example and you yourself aren’t identified, then you are just going to run into and find random people. This is probably going to be frustrating and leads to the “Twitter is stupid, it’s just people talking about themselves all the time, why would i want to do that?” or my favourite “yes, i can see how it works for you, but i don’t have time for that.”(meaning, of course, that they probably don’t see)


So you can create a simple description of who you are, you can use things like wefollow to join tags and you can write about the things that you are interested in. These things add up. That’s not to say that you can’t talk about other things on your twitter account or that it isn’t social, but you will get back from it what you put in.

The second issue, is that you need to start identifying who those other people are. You can see your armband(s) but you need to learn how to see other people’s armbands so you can join the discussions that are going to be of interest to you. There are any number of ways to go about this, Mr. Tweet is a good example… it will give you the folks most like you (again, you need a good profile) who are the most popular (notice i didn’t say interesting, they aren’t necessarily connected). A nice strategy is to follow a particular search and reply to folks inside of that stream. Downloading something like tweetdeck, and using the search functionality to follow a word (or phrase) (I follow drupal and upei on my work tweetdeck and different ones depending on my current whims at home). This will give you a quick snapshot of every user using that word on twitter. Hugely powerful and a great way to get your networking… uh… networked. (note: actually helping people is always the best way to start a network)


So, in the process of doing this, you click on the people who are saying things that are of particular interest to you, you combine those with some of your existing colleagues, a couple of superstars in your field (or not in your field) and you start to interact.

The final issue i wanted to discuss was the management of your network. There are many theories about this, and I wont claim any supremacy for mine other than to say that it is how i stay effective with the degree of networkedness that I have created for myself. I am a constant gardener of my network, following people, unfollowing people, paying more attention to some people for a while and then moving on to others. This is the critical difference between a network and a community… My community members i stay with, my network is something more practical.

3RD Weed/feed your network

I do not follow everyone who follows me. I do occasionally monitor that list, and choose people to follow and see if they ‘work’ for how I use twitter. I know that a few people have been irritated by the fact that I have unfollowed them, even when i participate with them in a community elsewhere. I’m sorry they are irritated, but I personally can’t follow 1200 people, some people can.

Why I unfollow
I try to keep my twitter network as light as possible. I realize that to some people 145 people seems like alot, but they are all folks who either don’t post (which i eventually weed out) or people who’s posts are helping me with my work (sometimes just by being entertaining 🙂 ). Contrary to the popular criticism of social networking, I tend to choose people (like PatParslow) who challenge my thinking rather than people who already agree with me. (that might be because there aren’t many of those latter folks 😛 ) The tweet that got Pat responding today was “If a person’s tweets impedes my ability to scan twitter in a negative way.” And that’s what ‘different’ tweets do. They stop me from scanning. There are two sorts.. the kind that stop me from scanning and produce new thoughts, new ideas, give me an insight into a person I work with or a laugh 🙂 and then there are those that stop me and leave me with none of the above results. This is not meant to be claim of general interest (certainly i’ve unfollowed some very popular people who are much smarter than me) but rather that it doesn’t suit the particular way that I use twitter. When one person does this more than once, I stop following them for a while. This is how i managed to keep myself moving forward.

Other network notes
I tend to have my tweetdeck up, in some form, on my computer about 85% of the time I’m in front of the screen. I don’t need to turn it off for deadlines, because i use it too much when i’m in a hurry. I do turn it off if I’m trying to do paper work or other non-time related tasks… then it get distracted.

I do not think that an @davecormier requires a reply. I try to reply to folks asking me questions, but will not always ‘stop working on the things I’m working on’ in order to do so. A direct message does require a reply.

The twits I follow are the 145 people I think I’d like to run into at the coffee pot when i’m working… where i’ll learn little bits of stuff, have a laugh, bend my thinking. I’m often wrong about that… but not very often. It helps me work.

(note: see Ulrich’s comments in post regarding plurality. I do mean networks, not network)

The CCK08 MOOC – Connectivism course, 1/4 way

To the best of my knowledge, the term “MOOC” comes out of a skype chat conversation I had with George Siemens about what exactly he would call this thing he and Stephen Downes were doing so I could call it something for the ETT show were were planning on the subject. We threw a bunch of possibilities around, and I dropped MOOC into the connectivism wiki, and, yesterday, someone asked me to do a presentation on the topic. 3 months. crazy. I’m not going to dial down into specifics of how the course is structured, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about… check out the wiki first.

We had two discussion on edtechtalk about the course before things actually kicked off… We had George, Stephen, Alec Couros and Leigh Blackall come out and share their opinions on the topic. Stephen and George as the course leaders and Alec and Leigh as two of the best thinkers on open courses that I know. The upshot of it was that it really was going to be an open course, and the instructors were going to allow the students to form whatever groups they might be interested in and they would provide the communication stream but not the organizational scaffolding.

Communications – What there is
There are a variety of ways in which learners in the connectivism course are being distributed to the world, and I’ll break down each one and try to establish how i feel they’re working at this point. Overall the communications weight on George and Stephen is huge, they’re involved in a large number of conversations, and have been trying to follow the vast weight of the content that has been produced… not sure this is a sustainable model, nor would it necessarily work as well for a different teacher who didn’t already spend a large amount of time working on the web. (note – i hate googlegroups and am therefore not able to speak to them. haven’t participated, have heard that they exist)

Moodle is a Virtual Learning environment and is being used for one primary (forums) and one collateral purpose (aggregation). The aggregation purpose serves the same goal as the multitude of pageflake, netvibes etc… aggregation page… it helps people see what’s going on. Good so far as it goes. The moodle discussions have taken on that nice tone that I like to see. They are polite, (mostly) and there is an acceptance that it is a public space. There are several exploratory threads that I think have been very useful to the learners… i’ve always really liked discussion forums for co-creation of knowledge. I think this is working… for those who are using it.

The Daily and the blog.
This is the master aggregated list of all the posts related to the course as well as a few plucked out by Stephen as of particular interest to him, and the blog serves as a central stream of discussions (i particularly like Stephen’s round up… agree or disagree Stephen always leaves you with something to think about) I’ve used the Daily as my main way of following along with the course.

The wiki and the readings
I think that the syllabus can be very helpful, but the work there has not really been worked on by anyone other than Stephen and George… not much sense having a wiki when only the administrators end up working in it. Wikis almost always end up this way… This is the main syllabus for the course, and a good way to catch up with the core course material. I’ve not done most of the readings, but they are available here, and I’ve been sampling them occasionally…

The live stuff – eluminate and ustream
I’m not a big fan of eluminate, i think it’s a little clunky, it’s never really liked my microphones and i think it’s far too ‘display’ centric. It replicates the f2f presentation and I think, doesn’t really represent the most realistic way that people participate in front of their computers. I’m biased, i like the ustream format we’re doing… it’s more user focused and I get to talk more 🙂 That being said, these are the most effective parts of the course for me, I really have to commend both Stephen and George for their lucidity and their willingness to be in the firing line every day. I’m loving moderating the ustream and have really enjoyed the questions from the chatroom… still wondering if it makes sense to bring people into the live discussion… so far the format seems to be working with me as the rep. of the folks in the chatroom… would like feedback on this.

Early lessons
I remember George saying something in one our our Edtechtalk discussions like “just getting the course off the ground is what I’m going to consider a success” and I think I agree with him. It’s a huge undertaking, with lots of little bits and pieces and a collosal amount of data. That being said, here’r some of the things that I’ve taken out of the first quarter of the course

Prerequisite Literacies
I think this kind of course needs a very specific description of what people are goign to need to know in order to be able to participate effectively. This might also include go forward models in terms of how people might go about doing that. For those of us who participate in online communities all the time it wasn’t terribly difficult, but i get the sense that more online participation would have resulted from added scaffolding.

Community building
I’m a bit of a community freak. I’m in the online stuff for the community as much as the learning… I like to hear about people’s lives as much as their professional accomplishments, I learn from their mores as much as their knowledge. I would have liked a bit more sanctioned community building directed from the top, to help scaffold the organicness of the groups that are out there… but that’s just me.

Course standards
I’m not sure if this is a lesson or not, because i think it’s been handled pretty well. There are some folks who’ve taken a more combative approach to the course which others have felt restricts the conversation. I HATE ‘what you can do’ standards on the internet generally, but i think the grace with which S and D have accepted critiques speaks well for them and open courses generally.

My own goals going in were to get a better sense of where my own work fits in with Connectivism. I’ve said several times that I’ve felt that rhizomatic community stuff seems like a subset of connectivism, even though I personally don’t go in for the ‘neural networks’ stuff… a science i consider too shadowy at this point to use as a premise for solid philosophical discussion (let alone practical application) I believe i’m seriously at odds with S & D on this and, as they have clearly done way more research on this than I have, I would probably consider taking their opinion over mine. I just can’t help but think that we are at the Bohr Atom stage of our understandings of our brains at this point… we have some models, they are a verifiable narrative, but not something I’m looking to use to guide my policy.

The debate around my article has been interesting (and not least in the way that people were WAY more polite about the theory during the live discussions) … particularly in the ways that I haven’t been clear. I don’t, for instance, think that rhizomatic education is a particularly fantastic way of memorizing things that are useful. I do realize that there are many different ‘real world’ issues out there that make it difficult. That theory did, at least partially, come out of real experience in the classroom and after the paper was released, I actually ran a course by its priciples… that was fairly well received. There are gaps, and many have been very nicely elucidated in the discussions.

Very cool so far. much more to say, but babyland has left me with other gardens that need tending.

Living Archives – Reflections on an Educational project

Project launch – Monday May 26th – 10am Studio Theatre, Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown, PE, Canada.

Living archives started as a conversation with Elizabeth Deblois about what we could do that might be interesting for the 2008 anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. She wanted to do something with technology and kids, and I’d been looking for a good project to bring some of the interesting things I’d seen on the intertubes here to the Island.

Outline of the Project
Living archives (video introduction… see all eight pro-videos for full scope of project) is a history project for middle school students headed up by the University of Prince Edward Island. The students searched through local archives and museums for information that would allow them to contextualize 19th century PEI. Following the idea that the creation of materials forces a more profound examination of materials and focuses that research the students were to create a ‘textbook’ in a variety of formats including text, images, video and Opensim. We had three classes of students, eight months and were funded by the Canadian Culture Online Partnership Fund (PCH) and had a fairly large group of project partners all listed at the bottom of each of the living archives web pages. Sometime in the next few months I’ll post a more detailed project management review…
We invited some Seniors, heritage professionals and in french, musicians (Margi Carmichael but the microphone was turned off 🙁 ) and storytellers from the community to come into the classrooms in order to try to bring some context to the research they were doing. They also spent some excellent time in the field at the Archives and the museums as well as coming to the University.

Initial Reflection
We had a number of reality checks on this project, a number of unforseen challenges that forced us to change directions or pull back to our ‘bare minimum requirements.’ The experiences of the community at large talking about their projects and my own edtech project management experience led me to only claim to be able to deliver the bare minimum of what i thought possible… in some cases we blew that away – hundreds of blog posts and images – and in some other cases we didn’t get as far as we would have hoped (peer training videos, opensim). So planning for small, make-able successes and allowing for the increase in scope to happen based on events rather than trying to force it worked out well for us.
The students and the teachers involved have all reported a very high level of satisfaction… even though we forced them a little hard through the development phases of the project. A little more work done on standardizing the language used in the web interface would have saved us many, many hours of pain and misery. There is a sense, I guess, where the scope of this project overshadows the simplicity of its basic structure. Any project like this one (where the development of curriculum and configuration of software and people workflow are done during V.1) should plan for V.2 of the project and actually show how simple it would be to integrate into the mainstream school system. I will write a report that suggests a number of ways that this could happen, but it’s not at all the same as having done it. The NO 1 response we’ve been getting from people is “WOW great project, hardly sustainable though is it.” It could be sustainable, but more on this later.

The Students
This is where the real success was in this project. The students took a very passionate approach to the work that they were doing and got very involved in researching the history. They also became committed to the idea that their work was going to be published and that it mattered how good the writing and the research was. There were several stories in this project where school folks or parents commented on their amazement on how involved the kids were and how excited they were to ‘study’. I really enjoyed the work that I got to do with the kids and was constantly amazed at how quick they were to adapt and how well they dealt with adversity. I was also (though i shouldn’t have been) quite taken aback at how much peripheral knowledge they acquired during the course of their work.

The Technology


Our main platform was based on a build out of Drupaled done by the fine folks at funny monkey. Due to circumstances beyond all of our control, we ended up getting started 4 months late, so things were built very quickly. The key requirement from the platform was workflow. There needed to be a way for the work to start out in a private garden ‘work area’ and be promoted to public. I saw that sense of ‘graduating’ the work as critical to the success of the project. Too often in a straight out blogging project you end up with ‘first draft’ work published to the website and it never gets reviewed as the work feels ‘done’ as soon as it’s published. In our situation publication was something that the students needed to earn. I would definitely do this again. Our ring leader here was a WAC professor and Montgomery scholar from NYU who worked tirelessly with the teachers and students. I’m not sure how she feels about having her name posted, I’ll ask her and update the post if necessary.

The biggest problem we had was in not having a fully refined requirements list at the outset… this was not really anyone’s fault but it really hurt our first couple of months and added a great deal of frustration on the ground. It took us a very long time to figure out that we were missing an efficient and simple teacher interface… we’d done a pretty good job with the students… just not for the teachers. Fortunately, our project manager (saviour) and our teachers persevered. If i had this to do again and I would hire a student teacher to go to the classroom once a week to reinforce the training and report back difficulties with the interface.

This idea of reportage, too, was problematic. When I think of the problems we had – wyziwyg, language standardization, insufficient training in terms of available workflows – a good (read: simple) reporting system would have gone a long way to improving the day to day feelings of all people involved in the project. There was too much distance between development and user and that extra body, that student teacher may have been the missing link that could have pulled that together.

All that being said, we managed to create a french and english version of drupal. We got literally hundreds of posts from the students, the excellent people at PARO digitized many hundred of images (not to mention the job they did facilitating the research with the kids and giving them the research tools that they needed), we created 10 3D artifacts that are available on the website, close to 100 videos, and build on the work that is currently being done in the UPEI library integrating drupal and fedora. We’ve zipped this version up (cleaned of project specific content) and will be posting it soon.

LIVING archives MUVE in Education (Opensim) see detailed reflection here
“Why didn’t you just use second life?” oh wow… am i ever happy we didn’t. First of all, it’s been very exciting to be around at the beginning of an excellent open source community. The opensim people have been hugely helpful, and we managed to get 3 very cool houses built and get the student work inside those houses.
With Second Life you are caught either on the Teen grid (no parents or adults) or on the adult grid (no teens) and, if you have a case like ours, (half of our students were 12) you get nothing. Zilch. So, in moving to opensim we managed to keep all of our data internal, created default student accounts for the kids to use, and now have no worries about possible after effects.
As the opensim with alpha software posts lays out… we had alot of challenges. But, as further work being done (say with openhabitat) is showing, it can be really helpful to have your own, personally controlled virtual world at your finger tips.

Other tech

We bought video cameras (and microphones with short cords doh!) three rear projection smart boards a couple of computers per classroom and upgraded some of our hosting hardware on the UPEI side. Had this project started six months later, I would have bought 20 eeepcs for each school and we would have been cooking with gas. Some of the computers we used were… not new… and crashed if you tried to keep two separate windows open at the same time.

Idea developments

Had some excellent help with this. Funny monkey had a great deal of influence on the webdesign… i take it for granted now because i’m so familiar with it, but the public/private website with a built in eportfolio and video/blog/audio publishing tool is second to none. Elana Langer is responsible for the increase in scope of the project as well as large chunks of the video. The folks at PARO are responsible for giving us the sense of what is possible from a research/archives perspective. Mark Leggott at the library told me about the grant opportunity with PCH and was a great deal of help in writing my first grant. Sandy McAuley was super helpful with the pulling the educational research together and getting the training and Lesson plans planned, and posted. Stephen Downes is responsible for whatever elegance this project has as he explained to me that some pieces of the project were together and that, really, they should all be connected and should look back at each other.

Project management

Bonnie Stewart is responsible for pulling together pretty much every piece of this project. Without her energy, patience and perseverance none of this would have gotten done.

ohzz… There are bunches of people and cool stuff I’m forgetting, but oscar is sick and I need to have my presentation done by launch time. SORRY PEOPLE AND COOL STUFF I FORGOT. ttys.

Notes on ‘Scientific’ research in education and NCLB

While doing any research, I get incredibly distracted by side ideas that pop up. I’ve decided to use my blog as a place to take some of those notes for ideas that may be the start of future research, or may prompt someone else to go down that road. Today we started with an article called “School Reform 2007: Transforming Education into a Scientific Enterprise” by Barbara L. Schneider and ­Venessa A. Keesler College of Education and Department of Sociology, Michigan State University. Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 33: 197-217 (Volume publication date August 2007)
On scientific research and NCLB
It’s a very compelling review of how we got to a Scientific view of educational research and how “random assignment field trials” are de rigueur inside the educational field right now. I was particularly interested in how the US Federal educational people have released a report detailing how they like this to be done. (p. 3586) It goes on to say that one of the effects of this has been that
NCLB (No Child Left Behind) places two key ideas at the center of school reform: performance and scientific evidence.”

The problem with this is that projects like this

emphasize incentives for outputs (student achievement) rather than the inputs that we know matter, such as raising teacher educational expectations, helping students spend more time on task, engaging students in challenging material, providing students with frequent and positive feedback, and helping students learn to be strategic in reaching their goals.

This is a critical difference for me. Focusing on the results of an activity sort of leave aside the process by which those results were achieved. I always think of the way calculus was taught to me. We never saw hide nor hair of a practical real world example of what made calculus so integral a part of the sciences. The work by which i ‘understood’ it, that is, could prove my mastery by doing problems had little or nothing to do with the way that those things might be achieved in an ‘applied’ way. Nor did I learn very much about how to learn something ‘like’ calculus for myself. I learned to remember a basic set of values, that did not really represent the base set that professional mathematicians would use, nor did it really make any contextualized sense to me. It was, in effect, an alienating activity.

Research Results from NCLB and possible explanations

The Harvard University Civil Rights Project also sponsored an extensive study on test score gains during the first years of NCLB. Comparing fourth and eighth graders’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics achievement test results prior to NCLB (1990–2001) to its initiation through 2005, Lee (2006) finds that achievement did not significantly improve. Moreover, racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps between advantaged whites and disadvantaged students have not changed significantly. State tests, however, appear to show greater gains, which suggest several alternative hypotheses: The states may be setting the bar on their tests too low; NAEP may not be as good an instrument as state tests for assessing year-to-year progress; or students may have no incentive to do well on NAEP tests so that trying to equate the tests, even if one could make the test items comparable, would be biased in favor of exams that are incentive based (Loveless 2006).

I particularly like the way this quote lays out some of the possible explanations for the results. It could be that they learned more, could be that the State reps have changed the rules to make the results look better.

As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows… i’m not super fond of this kind of research. I think that it has its place among the strata that represent the work done in education. I think that a drastic increase in test scores related to class size would be significant. (Interestingly, this article sites research that shows it has little to no effect) It should not, however, carry the day on anything. Any test, or any research, no matter how ‘randomized’ is immediately ‘framed’ by the person who has defined the research questions. The common response to this is that there are ‘rules’ governing the framing of research questions that reduce the risk of this. I agree, some research questions are awful. Some less so. Some very interesting.

The underlying assumption that truth is sitting there, waiting to be discovered, however, informs this kind of research. It assumes that THERE IS A PERFECT education system out there to be discovered. That there will be a solution if we look hard enough. This is highly unlikely. The unified educational theory that will support all students is a windmill, nothing more. It is an artifice that looks like universal education, and is mostly normative. It is designed by those in power, designed to serve the skills that those people value. This is not a statement about their intentions… just a necessary result of the way we are socialized. I think the things I think are important are important. You, likely, do the same. It is difficult, in a multicultural society, for that to work for everyone.

Any time that you use money as an ‘encouragement’ for schools to ‘perform’ you are running the risk of simply having the rules of the game change from under you. To quote the old expression… “teaching to the test creates great test takers”

Three things to remember when thinking about educational reform

1. Most educational reforms are about political grandstanding
2. Scale is important… what works on a small scale may not transfer to a larger scale
3. Few reforms receive continual support.

Hess (1999), in a study of school reform and school politics in a stratified random sample of 57 urban U.S. school districts from 1992–1995, offers another perspective on the failure of reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. First, most reforms, he contends, are not serious attempts to change teaching and learning but are more about political grandstanding, especially for those in high-level school decision-making positions. Second, some small-scale reforms fail when placed in larger settings, suggesting either that they work only in certain situations or that the requirements to bring specific interventions to scale remains unknown. Third, few reforms receive continual support. Those who engage in reforms are quickly churned in the process. Principals and teachers may invest in reforms that quickly fall out of fashion, and they are then left feeling defeated after having committed resources, time, and personal psychic energy to a wasted effort. Or some veteran teachers simply wait out the latest proposals, sticking to their own methods until the reform efforts fade. These teachers can become a source of inertia for change, leaving reforms to inexperienced professionals who often lack institutional memory on why certain interventions have or have not worked. Hess (1999) concludes that the professional and political interests of urban school leaders need to be linked to the long-term performance of their schools, a diagnosis that is consistent with the prescriptions offered in NCLB. Article quoted from Hess F. 1999. Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform. Washington, DC: Brookings Inst. Press

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