Thursday, April 27, 2006

Half Full Or Half Empty

Yesterday at our brownbag, we had a very nice talk from Gary Cziko, who though a Professor of Educational Psychology in the College of Education is an enthusiast for using online technology to support language learning. This was the topic of his presentation and he showed us an array of interesting and readily available tools to use, both freeware and inexpensive hardware, as well as pushing the idea that we may learn from others online who are similarly interested in learning language by exploiting the obvious comparative advantage that we are all experts in our primary language and hence if you are a native Spanish speaker and I a native English speaker and we want to learn the other language that is the basis for a partnership. I was struck during the presentation of how Gary’s approach has been driven by his own needs as a learner of languages and his preferences for using the technology --- for example he does not want to be tethered to his computer, so portability was a big deal for him --- and how unlike the approach that would be taken if the query had been driven by somebody teaching language acquisition by others. There were several of those faculty in the audience but for whatever reason they didn’t engage in discussion about Gary’s findings during the talk. This dichotomy between how you would learn if driving that learning by yourself and how learning is structured in courses that provide academic credit seems a topic worth discussing further. Right now I’ll leave it with the observation that the two are certainly not the same.

I had a little follow up thread with Gary afterwards on some technology issues. We’ve both been playing with Google Page Creator. He really likes it for quick Web publishing. I thought it was excellent as a starter tool for undergraduates who otherwise don’t have Web publishing experience and further that could be used by students who have to make Web pages for course projects or assignments. The template approach that Page Creator uses is probably easier for the novice than using a WYSIWYG editor for the same purpose. And to the extent that the students are already using Gmail as an alternative to campus provided email, this would seem to be a natural extension for them. But for faculty use, the lack of branding with the campus would seem to be an issue.

Given how nice Page Creator is, I’m kind of surprised that Google has not yet “wrappered” all the services that are accessed with the same Gmail login and password (Google Calendar and Google Talk, for example) and that other services like Blogger and Groups have different login and password strategies at the moment. So they aren’t yet offering a “unified online space” approach to their services. Apple seems to have to have done this, and merged it with their desktop tools, but Apple doesn’t have big enough market share on campus at present, especially among the undergraduates. So we’re still in the mix and match world and in that sense the glass is half empty.

Let me turn to Blackboard and what they’ve been up to since the merger has been announced. I’m somewhat upbeat about the merger because in the prior world of the separate Blackboard and WebCT I believe they were dissipating resources that can now be redirected to product development and innovation. But for obvious reasons it is prudent to take a wait and see attitude and I believe early signs can be read either up or down.

As a WebCT Vista customer, today I received the April Newsletter and following links in that I came to the Blackboard Blog. On the one hand, it is good to see them with an open space like this that is distinct from the corporate site, where individual posts can be attributed to specific people and hence so the views expressed are more personal. I do not know, at present, the four bloggers listed on the left of the page. But I was happy to see the post from Karen Gage, someone whom I do know from WebCT, and it suggests that the space may be used in the future for other folks within Blackboard to express their individual views openly. I would certainly welcome that, especially if the commenting was a little bit less like the glossy brochure type of communication that comes in the newsletter itself. This is all on the glass is half full side.

On the other hand, I was put off by the copyright notice on the blog. I don’t recall seeing a copyright notice on any of the blogs I follow including such corporate blogs as the New York Times blog or the ESPN blog and it seems to me that one doesn’t embrace the open sharing of information that blogs are supposedly about via a copyright notice of this sort. Further, the location of the notice on the page just didn’t seem right to me. (The Creative Commons notice that I use is at the bottom of the page.) I could be overreacting. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done that. Sometimes I incorrectly go off the deep end. But for the time being I don’t believe that is the case and believe instead that I’m correctly interpreting that copyright notice as evidence of the presence of the Dark Side of the Force within Blackboard. (On a different but related front, I was curious about what software powers this blog. Is that Blackboard software? If so, it is certainly more open than I had been lead to believe by reading some other commentators about the Blackboard Blog tool. If it is by somebody else, where is the attribution?)

I do want to know from the company how they are going to embrace Web 2.0 apps in the future, and while I don’t expect a dissertation on the subject now, it would be comforting to have the feeling that they “get it” and, frankly, I’m not sure they do. From where I sit, and my prior comments about the Google tools were intended to indicate that, we are in a multiple environments world from here on out. That is the reality. We need to adjust to it. We need the LMS, absolutely. But it won’t do everything for us and we shouldn’t ask that it does. It would be really good if it were friendly with these other environments. However Blackboard (and other LMS vendors) may fear these other environments because not all clients may make the conclusion that the LMS is absolutely necessary (especially when Google is giving the software away instead of charging for it directly) and instead view these alternatives as substitutes rather than as complements. So I believe I understand the issue from a business perspective. From my perch, I’d like to see a sufficient expression of confidence in Blackboard that it feels comfortable with its offerings having substantial comparative advantage that the Web 2.0 apps won’t erode its business and that consequently it can accommodate the openness of Web 2.0. As I said, right now there are signs that can be read both ways on this.

Let me turn one more time and now focus on my own campus, where we have a brand new Provost and where we are immersed in a strategic planning effort. This suggests opportunities, especially for those who make the good argument and can gain support for that from others. There are possibilities for a blended learning initiative here, an IT minor, and a more broad sweep of IT within the overall curriculum that would justify a larger investment in learning technologies across the board. On the other hand, there are possibilities that the new research initiatives will squeeze out other activities that compete for the same scarce funds and that we will limp along with learning technology as with other campus infrastructure.

I suppose it all depends on how one looks at things.


Greg Ritter said...

Hey Lanny -- great comments about our blog. I responded to some of them over on Educate/Innovate. Thanks!

Greg Ritter
Associate Director, Research & Development
Blackboard Inc.

Lanny Arvan said...

Greg -- nice to meet you...virtually. And thanks for the long and thoughtful response at the Educate/Innovate site.

Some of the power of blogging is illustrated by this little back and forth. I make a post early Thursday afternoon, based on what I had gleaned from the Educate/Innovate site. Somebody at Blackboard reads my post, probably by Friday, and that somehow cascades to having it make the rounds among some Blackboard execs over the weekend resulting in your post today. Those lags are pretty short, in my view. So it facilitates dialog. And the entire community can particiate, either through their own postings on their own sites, via comments, or mostly by lurking (but with interest).

I sympathize with the "finding voice" issue that you and your colleagues have in writing the blog. The tone and information of your content will matter a lot to those who pay attention to the blog, but on the flip side there will be the question of whether you and your colleagues speak for Blackboard as a whole or only for yourself. I think that reconciling those issues is easier within Higher Ed than it is in the corporate setting, but we have those issues too.


Kate said...

Lanny, I can tell you that as a long term client of Blackboard, I know the Bb bloggers both virtually and really, and I can assure they're all great people! With the exception of Greg, the others had not previously blogged, so were novices when Bb had a go at blogging from the 2005 conference in Baltimore. This was a success, in as much to share what was happening at the conference with those who couldn't make it as anything else, and as such created a great demand for a blog to continue. There isn't a blog feature yet in Bb, a topic of ongoing hot debate, and these guys are pretty busy with the merger and trying to please all of us all of the time. They're getting there. If you struggle with the copyright notice, I hope you don't choke when you see any of their corporate presenations, which have carried the same legal disclaimer since they started public listing proceedings - most of us just ignore it as corporate necessity. Knowing lots of the Bb directorate, I'm happy to say I don't see a copyright notice (or in fact anything) on this blog as a 'dark side' influence, indeed I have seen Bb become progressively more open over the last two years, a timescale which I also think has seen them come a lot closer to goals for elearning 2.0. This was a hot topic last week at the BbWorld Europe conference, and I personally think the future with Bb is rosy and exciting. I hear the bloggers at the Bblog speak with their own recognisable personal voices despite sitting within the corporate message, and I think Bb are more than aware it would be obvious and disadvantageous to attempt to gag them. Some of the collections of links to community resources and research findings I have thought particularly interesting, and I hope will long continue. Maybe I'd like to see a few more introductions to Bb (and perhaps the community) individuals to help those of our new family from WebCT to get to know everyone and feel part of that family as speedily as possible. In a world where people choose their preferred information source, I think the Bblog offers an additional and valuable resource to all of us. As does your blog, which I - and likely many other Bbers - shall be coming back to :)

Kate Boardman
E-learning Manager
University of Teesside

Lanny Arvan said...


Thanks for the comments. My issue with the copyright notice was for the blog only. They've got an RSS feed to the blog up already. Don't they want us to subscribe to it? And we're talking about blog posts, not software code. I have no problem with Bb posting a copyright notice for the latter. It is their software, which clients license. They've got every right to put up a notice for that.

BTW, I found your blog and that got me to try TextAloud, with some of the professional voices. Very nice.

Ron Starc said...

I think Text Speaker is one of the best text to speech software. You can use it for converting your lessons to MP3.