Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Reusable Student Created Online Work

I've been arguing that our students should become mentor/teachers for other students. One other thing that our students might be doing, related not orthogonal to this direct teaching function, is to have students make "learning objects." Within a class as part of the course work, some of the assignments should be to make learning objects. Why? Because the idea is that these things can be re-used. The reuse by peers does two things. It provides a means of evaluation for the original work. And it provides a motivation for the student to do the best work possible. Most student work has no use value beyond the creation and in many cases the students don't take the work seriously. Some of the folks who boost ePortfolios argue that there is some subsequent use as a credential on a resume. Perhaps. If the work happens to be in the same line of work as where the students is searching for a job that is true, otherwise not. The credential motivation is often weak. That the work has reuse value can be a stronger motivation. And it emphasizes a sense of social value that should appeal to student ideals and that I believe we should encourage in our students. The first reasons that student articulate for going to college are almost invariably about getting a good job and providing a secure future. There may be many other unarticulated reasons – an 18 or 19 year old is still grappling with meaning of life issues and where he should place his personal commitments - we should be tying into that with our instruction and doing work that is simultaneously educational for them and has social value is a good way to do this.

The issue for the doubter here, and I’m sure there will be lots of doubt, is how can the instructor maintain quality in the course and yet use content that is generated by students. Shouldn’t the content, instead, be generated by the experts in the profession – the journal articles, textbooks, and Web sites created by the top faculty? Of course, it must be true that some of the course content is from experts. Part of any course is exposing students to the expert thinking. But beyond that, the answer to the question largely depends on the primary metaphor the instructor maintains in considering how the course should be designed.

If the metaphor is about pouring content into students’ heads, then what is poured must be expert content. With this metaphor, I believe the correct question is to ask whether the student heads are sponges or sieves. If sponges, great, keep doing the approach. If sieves, maybe we need a different metaphor. My preferred metaphor is instruction as dialog. Students learn through their responses and how the path of subsequent question and answering unfolds. If you like this metaphor, then the key question is how does the instructor make the students open up, make them receptive to response? I know that when I got started with ALN 10 years ago that was the primary question. I think it is still the main issue.

Especially at the beginning of the semester, the instructor’s job is to a significant degree getting the student comfortable being open in spite of the student’s novice status. Too often, I believe, instructor attempts at dialog turn into monolog because the students aren’t going for it. Why take the risk of looking stupid in class? My belief is that many instructors turn to the pouring content into the student’s heads approach, because they’ve been unsuccessful in getting good dialog.

The benefit of using work created by other students is that the class will find the material accessible. For that reason it is a good starting point into the material. The student work is not meant as a substitute for expert content. It is meant to initiate the discussion. It can have good reuse value for doing that. And because students will be more comfortable benchmarking themselves against other students, it will encourage the openness that we want in the classroom.

Instructors must think of the technology more as a place to showcase the work of students and less as an electronic file drawer for the content they produce or the pdfs of articles that their colleagues in the field produce. In turn the Blackboards, WebCTs, and other CMS companies must design the next generation of their systems to enable students to produce this type of reusable work. This means the students should have access to all the tools that are available to the instructors. Technically, I don't think this is hard. Conceptually, there are still blocks. Right now, I feel like a voice in the wilderness making this argument. Everyone buys the jargon that effective instruction must be "student centric." But those in the field who find the CMS coming up short in this dimension are arguing for different software, perhaps ePortfolios to do the trick.

I think that is wrong. First we can't afford it. We can't afford to support one system after the next when we find the earlier one deficient. Second, and I believe more to the point, the ePortfolio approach doesn't do anything for student work as social value, and thus does not give a way to integrate students in as content producers. For that, re-use is critical. And so I believe we in ed tech really need to be advocating for it. If the voice is loud enough, the CMS vendors will get the message. Ironically, I don't think the Sakai folks are ahead of the game here, even if they come from within our community. The reuse of student work is not the focus of their current efforts.

What does an instructor do now to adopt the approach when the tools aren't really there to make it obvious that is what the instructor should do? How can we in ed tech promote the metaphor of dialog and reuse of student work? And how do we get instructors sufficiently engaged that with respect to our current CMS systems, they "love the one their with?"

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