Friday, December 02, 2005

Virtual Learning Spaces

I came across an interesting piece by Clay Shirky on Situated Software in which he describes a software design approach via small group customization where the question – will it scale? – is not a consideration at all. Presumably user satisfaction is quite high with the situated software because it was designed to work in the context where the users are located. Whether situated software offers a robust solution, i.e. the costs are reasonable and the application is sufficiently durable, is an open question. (The argument for is that with clever design the software takes advantage of the local group characteristics to keep cost down and user expectations about the service are more readily brought into line because they can see the “back end” part of the service.) This is an interesting piece to read, certainly provocative if not a portent of the future.

I want to drill down and consider how Shirky used situated software in his teaching, in a course called Social Software. He divided the students into groups and each group had to design and build some software that the other members of the class would use. The use by the others could very well be taken into account in the design and implementation, indeed that is what motivated some of the clever designs that were produced in Shirky’s class, but more interesting regarding instruction, from my point of view, is that the use serves as an informed evaluation of the work of the original creators by their peers. One wonders whether it is possible to have such informed evaluation in other courses.

Unfortunately, from that perspective, it is not typical in other courses for student projects to create things of practical use by other students. It is more typical for course project deliverables to be written documents in some format. So the question arises whether other students can read those documents and provide feedback for the creators in a way that is meaningful to both. I believe the answer to that question is yes, it is possible.

In a piece I wrote for Campus Technology Magazine a couple of years ago, I talked about dialogic learning objects as a possible mechanism for achieving this end. After that article appeared I taught an Econ 101 course to honors students where I followed that approach. During the early parts of the course the students completed “content surveys” that I authored, written in a style to imitate an article in the New York Review of Books, but of course with Econ content and with questions interspersed that required the students to write some response. After the students responded I would collate their answers, distribute those, and then discuss in class. This particular group was an easy class to please, so it may be premature to make generalizations on the approach, but it remains that they liked these content surveys very much.

About one third of the way into the course, the students were required to produce content surveys of their own, just as Shirky’s students produced software. Some of the students were a bit doubtful that they could produce anything that others would find worth reading. (This is an example of the standard problem that novice students compare themselves to expert instructors in terms of their own performance and invariably they come up short in that comparison.) We got through that problem through my encouragement and coaching. The students did indeed produce content surveys though they were “flatter” than mine, but they were useful and interesting to read nonetheless. The novel aspect of their surveys was the metaphors the students came up with; in several cases those were more appropriate entry points into the topic than what I would have delivered.

A crucial aspect of making the approach work was the ensuing class discussion. I found that because we had already done the survey and I had read their comments that we could start a little further into the topic and bring out some deeper points. In one particular case, which was a discussion on the economics of population growth, I had coached the team that wrote the content survey on the possibility that Malthus is wrong, that there had been an economist right here at Illinois, Julian Simon, who had made this very famous bet with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, about how the price of scarce metals would vary over a 10 year period. Simon won, and the students were able to find some articles by other economists who made Simon’s points more formally. So the content survey ended up being critical of the Malthus view. In the class discussion, I got the students to reflect on human nutrition and stunted growth, by getting them to consider the size of the armor for knights we see at various museums such as the Chicago Art Institute. That both sides of the argument might have some validity and that which side a particular individual took in the debate might very well depend on the individual’s circumstance, was really good for the students to see and made that particular class very gratifying to teach.

Armed with this experience, I did start to generalize and still maintain that a very good way to teach is to have students make reusable learning objects as part of their course obligation, the content surveys being an exemplar from the class of possible learning objects, and therefore the Course Management System is the essential virtual environment for this type of instruction. I still subscribe to this argument.

However, I’m not sure whether the argument has legs with other instructors. In the meantime, there has been a lot of excitement about wikis for supporting collaboration, both in the classroom and with the research group. The argument for wikis is that every student is potentially both a reader and a user and thus the wiki is a great way to make the students fell part of a larger community. While the community building is a good thing, I have to say I’m not entirely comfortable with this view and find it easier to take the Shirky approach and separate out the creator from the user. Indeed, all of us may be both, when broadly considered, but when drilling down to a particular project it seems to me we are usually one or the other.

But I’m quite willing to believe that others think differently and that what is important to them is creating a completely horizontal environment where each person’s role is determined only by their own participation and not some pre-assigned role. Indeed, blogs may do likewise in terms of building a communitarian sense. So I think that some folks out there are asking whether blogs and wikis might end up replacing the CMS.

One such article on the subject is by Scott Leslie in his blog, on the false dichotomy between ELGG (an open source blog/file management/social networking application) and Moodle (an open source Course Management System, which incidentally features a wiki). Scott talks about peaceful coexistence of these two applications at Athabasca University and he links to an article by Terry Anderson describing how this will be done. It is encouraging to see others think that faculty will by their own volition operate in both environments, and choose one or the other depending on the need. But I’m not sure it will play out that way.

The wiki and blog software, while in some cases accommodating private communication among a limited set of users, is first and foremost meant to be used out in the open where postings are generally available on the Internet. For many people I know, this sense of openness is what the Web is about and hence these folks feel an affinity toward these environments. I do think that if the CMS don’t afford an open component in their environment, they will lose these folks who will move on to the newer coloration technologies. So I think it a safe prediction to say that at least some of our communication in the future will be happening out in the open and indeed that a greater share of what we do will be publicly available.

Beyond that, however, things seem quite uncertain. Will the same environments be used for formal instruction and research collaboration? Will we finally “solve” how to distribute content efficiently so that we can move past that and focus more on the student and the student’s interactions? Will we continue to see on large campuses such as mine that many individual units try to support their own thing, whether developed locally or not, so the service can be more situated? Or will they tire from that and hence we end up with fewer flavors of these type of environments overall? Should very large classes and more modestly sized course be using the same software? Will tool interoperability happen for real in the future so that we can mix and match apps according to our own inclinations?

It should be fun finding out.

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