Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Back to Basics

It is interesting to see how TV depicts someone with substantial intelligence and education. Surely that must mimic our own stereotypes about such people. On my favorite show for the last couple of years, The West Wing, the resident genius was Jed Bartlett, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics and President of the United States rolled up into one. That is quite a combo. In terms of the scripts (are they instead called screenplays?), however, the econ knowledge hardly ever was on display. I recall one episode where Jed orders a battleship (or a set of ships, I can’t remember that detail) to the Taiwan Strait, in anticipation of some escalation with China, to be followed by a standoff and then ultimately a return to sensibility, and where during the course of the show he has Sam reason through the decision tree too, demonstrating it is not all hocus pocus but rather a well imagined but possible to conceptualize process. This was the economist qua game theorist in action and it was a good episode. However, this particular show was the exception, not the rule.

More often Jed’s knowledge was on display through his ability to quote rather obscure historical facts. Most frequently, he quoted passages from the Bible, where his encyclopedic knowledge was there not just to demonstrate his intellectual prowess but also to deliver the more subliminal message that it’s not just right wing conservatives who know their Bible and it’s not just right wing conservatives who rely on it for strength and inspiration. Be that as it may, the intellectual power of Jed Bartlett is captured not just by his ability to recall but also by his quoting the passage in a fitting context. That is intellectual power and it is not something that many of us do well if at all.

I know I’ve always been impressed by that ability. When I was a kid my sister, who is five years older than me, had friends over to the house who could quote long passages from Shakespeare and (my memory is vague on this) seemingly did so in regular conversation rather than as a request for a mini performance. Whether it is because my own inclinations run in other directions or for some other reason, this ability to repeat large amounts of prose or poetry without seeming forethought and to do so in a setting where it seems appropriate is something I admired greatly at the time and still do respect.

I have a better understanding now of the source of that ability. My younger son is able to quote passage and verse as well, but unfortunately not from Shakespeare. Instead, he takes his inspiration from Oblivion or The Simpsons or some like fare. Being able to quote from these sources is less impressive to me, though it obviously points to the need for intense immersion to generate that ability and then the recall of passages can be seen as a by-product of the immersion. Implicitly then, the Jed Bartlett character was immersed in the Bible during his formative years and my sister’s friends were likewise immersed in Shakespeare and then the quoting in context can be seen as signifying intellectual power not just from the apparent ability to do so but also from the prior immersion in the subjects, which could not have happened without intellectual fascination and deep enjoyment from the study.

Nowadays there seems to be fascination with how to promote immersion, as evidenced by this recent piece on Digital Game Based Learning from Educause Review, while at the same time there also seems to be an emerging consensus that instruction that focuses on content distribution is wrong headed, for example see this recent piece on Information Literacy from Campus Technology Magazine. I struggle with these ideas, all the more so because I have several good friends who are Librarians, some with a focus on Information Literacy, and among those some who want to bring games into the Library as an object of study. I am sympathetic with the issues that are driving their work, but I’m much less happy with the conclusions they are coming to. Indeed, I wish the expression “Information Literacy” was dropped from the lexicon and replaced with something else, something that I think is more fundamental.

The core questions for each of us are: how do I come to know what I know and how do I come to believe what I believe? Ken Bain of NYU, who was the speaker at our annual Active Learning Retreat, tells the story of students studying Freshmen Physics, but armed with an Aristotelian conception of space and motion, rather than a Newtonian one, who when confronted with experimental evidence produced by their instructors that would seemingly refute the Aristotelian view and force them to adopt a different mental model, instead rejected the evidence as exceptional and therefore not relevant. This story is indicative of the core issue.

A different but related story is told by Rand Spiro and Robert Alun Jones, who in talking about how students read the texts assigned by their instructor say that in the main they are “interpretive essentialists” treating the reading as truth to be learned as such in some disembodied way, rather than as information to be debated, analyzed, and modified in such a way that in can be incorporated into the student’s own world view. While I wouldn’t use their phraseology to describe the issue, I would instead say that students first and foremost memorize what they are required to read, I think they certainly are onto the way many students do indeed read, particularly in an academic setting.

We would prefer a world where when students hold something to be true they do so in a contingent way, where they welcome new evidence that they can employ to “test” their knowledge and their beliefs, at a minimum for consistency and perhaps further for predictability. We would further like students to be able to ask framing questions that drive their own personal inquiries as well as the ability to “play” with new ideas and new technologies so that in their explorations they can expand their “bag of tricks” and gain deep understanding. We would like our students to be well grounded in the fundamentals so they can understand how derivative ideas emerge and perhaps generate some of those derivative ideas for themselves.

Or would we?

* * * * *

My son, the same one who can quote chapter and verse from Oblivion, is taking Tae Kwon Do now. This is something he wanted to do and especially since he didn’t want to go to camp this summer, we encouraged it. He’s been doing it for several weeks now and just earned his “orange belt,” so he is one rung up from complete novice. The place where he goes had a “graduation ceremony” last Friday and I attended, just as if this was a regular school event. The kids had already been tested and this was more of a way to showcase what they had learned for the parents and other guests.

Of course there were the various blocks, kicks, and punches along with the screams that accompany these actions. And some of the more advanced kids also demonstrated fighting with sticks (I’m not looking forward to my kid doing that) which apparently costs an extra fee to get that type of training (I’m not looking forward to that either, but c’est la vie). None of this was particularly surprising. The part that made me take note was different. Repeatedly, they had the kids repeat a mantra to the effect that they will do what the parents say the first time they are asked. (This was in a class for kids 12 and under.)

The really amazing thing about this is that the Tae Kwon Do is having a noticeable effect at home. We’re having fewer negotiations on basic housework --- the dishes are ending up in the dishwasher after meals. There seem to be fewer of those family arguments about who should be doing what. And my son is taking pride in his increased sense of responsibility. He’s enjoying this. It isn’t punishment at all. He seems to need the structure and the discipline.

* * * * *

My economist training forces me to make arguments of the type – sometimes we want to have it both ways but in reality we’re forced to make tradeoffs. In this case, maybe we can have kids who understand that in some domains it is important to be well mannered, respect their elders, and obey the rules while in other domains it is important to follow their own curiosity and imagination, learn via playing with the ideas rather than to get good grades, and keep a healthy skepticism both about truth and about authority. I can even see making the further argument that when kids are very young and immature they need more of the former and as they get older they need to swing more in the other direction.

But it is certainly true that school embodies both of these notions in very strong ways and school does so all the way from pre-K through doctoral education. Surely in many cases the kids get confused about which domain they are operating in – the obedience-respect-authority regime or the play-and-follow-our-own-inclinations alternative. Further while we are instructors, learning technologists, or librarians at work many of us are parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles at home and there really isn’t anyone holding us accountable about whether we are consistent in our own wishes across these realms.

I think this is where we need to start. If we favor one of these regimes and deny the other entirely, we’re missing something important and can’t be right as a consequence. We need to make sense of how they can co-exist. Information Literacy and Gaming and the rest can follow from there. Treating them as primitives unto themselves will surely get us into trouble, if it hasn’t done so already.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Jen Dah

I’m mostly through reading Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind. I’ve got some issues with it and in some places I was hoping for some more depth than I found. But there are definitely some things to ponder in it and some things to try. One of his recommendations is to “Celebrate Your Amateurness” and with that he cites Marcel Wanders. After checking out Wanders’ own Web site, I found this interview with him, which is quite interesting although my first reaction to the page was, “this guy is really hip and I’m definitely not, so what am I doing here?” To my surprise, the interview itself read well. Perhaps people who seem worlds apart really aren’t after all. Here is the specific question and response on amateurness.
what is your approach to the question of ecology and
sustainable design?
I have found lots of ways to deal with it, but I'm not the kind
of guy to work on lil' inventions to save the world.
I work with durability in design.
products worth bonding with for a lifetime.
it is important to make ‘aged’ products, objects that feature
conventional elements with modern, lasting materials...
which will last time as well as concept.
in the face of a throwaway culture that consumes meaningless
products, I want my creations to have more quality
... and more qualities.
I’m a sort of amateur, amateurs aren’t so sure about things so
they investigate and sometimes find an interesting solution,
bringing new ideas to it that experts might overlook.
I have an overall respect for ourselves and the world
- and I think this is the basis of ‘good design’.

I suppose that my entire blog represents this notion of the amateur, but to the extent I’ve mostly contained myself to teaching and learning with technology issues, I also claim at least some credential as an expert. In this post, however, there is no such credential. I’m a ditz on gender matters, marrying rather late in life, with no particular flair at all outside the confines of academia, and finding increasingly frequently that I prefer to be alone with my own thoughts than to interact with others, especially of the opposite sex. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to writing about gender and in the spirit of celebrating my amateurness, I will write about something I don’t fully understand.

* * * * *

Driving from a party at a friend’s house on July 4 to the fireworks, we had a bunch of kids in the car with us; some were our own others were the children of our hosts and one was a friend along for the ride. There were 2 girls and 3 boys, ages 12 – 14. Guess what they were playing........ Give up? They were each coming up with “pick up lines,” laughing at the good ones and critiquing the others. This is something I don’t recall ever doing as a kid. And while it clearly was influenced by what they’ve learned from TV (my kids really like to watch Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and DVDs (is that why they like The Simpons?) they were doing this face to face, aloud, parents listening in, not aided by IM or any other electronic communication. Hmmm.

* * * * *

At the same party, the adults divided up more or less along gender lines. Many of the guys sat outside, drank beer and discussed economics and sports (as one topic not two). There was a brief foray about Moneyball, how now every team in major league baseball now seemingly drafts college players (this was one of those deviant behaviors that supposedly gave Billy Beane an edge on the competition), and how difficult it is to consistently identify talent that the market undervalues. There was further discussion about Sandy Alderson, Billy Beane’s mentor and predecessor as GM for the Oakland A’s, and how he reformed major league baseball by getting the umpires to call the strike zone as it was originally intended (width of the plate, from the knees to the letters) rather than how they had reinterpreted it, (3 to 6 inches wider on each side of the plate and from the knees to the waist). Following that we talked about how the change gave an advantage back to the hitters and that the very dominant pitchers with superb control (particularly Greg Maddux) lost out on this move, which was partially the reason for making the change, because batters can more readily make up or down adjustments than they can inside or outside. I chimed in with an additional supporting argument. With the up down issue batters can better read the type of pitch, because no pitcher intends to throw a high curveball.

I’ll admit we’re not the most social lot, probably a descriptor that would apply to most economists, but the point I want to emphasize is that our geekiness encourages the gender separation and further that gender splits of this sort may disadvantage girls, particularly when it comes to quantitative reasoning and most importantly on being able to tie story telling into an analytical model framework (which as a social scientist I would argue is THE SKILL). The point was brought home to me earlier this week in a discussion I had with an instructor here who teaches introductory statistics. She told me one of her own motives was to get girls to be able to think quantitatively, enough so that they could evaluate on their own the correctness of an article in the New York Times that presented statistical information. Collecting baseball cards way back when taught us certain things about statistics. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Girls don’t seemingly have any alternative play that delivers essentially the same lesson. Hmmm.

* * * * *

Speaking of statistics, I’m confused on the issue of whether the ratio of males to females among traditionally aged students attending college is a problem or not. Here’s a piece that says it is something to worry about. Look at the table at the bottom of the article. Only look at the columns labeled 2003-04. For the upper income students, I read this as a dead heat between females and males – meaning gender is not a factor. For middle income, and especially lower income students, however, gender does seem to matter – there are more females than males enrolled. But what is one to make of this? Is this a latter day James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause) effect? Or is it simply a rational response to the current labor market. (If the males defer going to college until they are more established in the labor market they won’t show up in this 24 and under demographic and if they find decent work perhaps they don’t attend at all.)

In aggregate, the issue doesn’t seem to show up on my campus. (Scroll down to “People” toward the bottom of the page.) We have 53% males, which partly may be attributed to our College of Engineering, a very highly ranked college that regarding student body (and I believe this is true among the faculty as well) is heavily male dominated, and that may suggest that if one disaggregates elsewhere on campus one will see the distribution swing the other way. I don’t have the data in front of me but I’m guessing that if one looked at the numbers for those majoring in humanities or the fine arts, that segment would be disproportionately female.

There certainly have been overt attempts to recruit women into engineering careers, but should there be overt attempts into recruiting men to apply for college admission across the board? More hmmmm.

* * * * *

Returning to Daniel Pink’s book, one of the main arguments is that because “left brain skills” are increasingly being valued as commodities by the market (that means the value of these skills is falling), in large part because of the emergence of India and China, the rational economic response is to recast work along lines that requires more “right brain” thinking. Males are more disposed to the left brain approach. So if Pink’s logic takes root broadly, the upcoming decade and perhaps the entire 21st century should mark the ascendancy of the female. Sounds plausible, but I wonder if it really makes sense as an argument.

First, and most obviously, by Pink’s own logic if more people go into right brain occupations, that will have the effect of commoditizing those professions, perhaps not to the extent of what is happening in computer programming now, but certainly to some degree. Second, there is the superwoman issue, and the reality that culturally child rearing is not a 50-50 thing. Third, Pink doesn’t get into the issue of risk taking at all in the book, at least as far as I recall. If you think of running a business today as mimicking, more or less, the type of high stakes poker that is now a favorite for TV viewing, then it’s bluster and bravado that counts. (Certainly the poker on TV is heavily male dominated.)

Put a different way, the top of the corporate ladder exerts an enormous influence on all the rungs lower down. Pink is right that there is a need for more right brain skills within the corporation, but if that’s not part of the job description for the CEO, then people might not chase down the acquisition of right brain skills to the extent that Pink considers. On the other hand, some aspects of right brain thinking – Story Telling and Symphony certainly, maybe other components too – are necessary pieces of the CEO arsenal. Maybe this will be the century of women after all. Hmmm.

* * * * *

I’d like to close with a point I’ve made before. It’s hard to be a nerd during childhood, there is a lot of social stigma attached to it. For boys, however, it is easier than for girls. My experience when I was a kid and at least for my older son he seems to have replicated that, it is possible to find a cohort of like minded kids and so one doesn’t have to bleach out all the idiosyncrasies. For girls who are inclined to be intellectual in a geeky way, however, I believe they are less likely to find a cohort that is unobtrusively nerdy. I’m of the mind that these kids will feel impelled to suppress a good part of their personas just to achieve some form of social acceptance. I’ve really not seen this issue discussed as much as I think it deserves.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bracketing

I am now back from the WebCT Users conference, one day before it has concluded. I’ve got some meetings on campus today that I can’t miss so I left the conference early. I don’t want to do business with the Blackboard company in my blog; that doesn’t seem appropriate. But because I wrote the earlier post about current thinking on the LMS and because there are a variety of readers of my posts, I thought I’d give some snapshots of impressions I got from the conference.

* * * * *

Something novel that Blackboard is trying, which seems interesting and potentially quite useful is the work Peter Segall is doing interviewing college presidents and provosts about their views of institutional pressure points on educating students today. This is preliminary work before doing any sort of connect the dots exercise that shows the LMS can address these issues and, indeed, perhaps the LMS in its current structure can’t do this well. But it might paint the environment well enough to offer a way to frame the strategic direction the LMS developers need to follow. The other big point is that it might help to create an environment where the presidents and provosts want to talk with the CIOs (and perhaps also the Learning Technology Directors like me) about matching what we are doing with technology to support learning with the environment in which our students live and operate.

I don’t want to go over the deep end on this sort of thing, because I think there is a chasm between the CIOs and these other campus leaders and I don’t believe it will be so easy to close that, at least on big campuses such as mine, and while we inside the learning technology area clearly view the LMS as strategic in support of the campus mission, I’m skeptical on whether that is perceived to be the case by the Presidents or Provosts, unless online learning is a key part of the institutional mission. I’ve repeatedly expressed this view in an Educause group that I’ve worked on dealing with the next generation of IT leaders. However, it is interesting to see efforts to narrow this gap and it is sensible to me that this happen in a systemic way outside the situation of any particular campus.

* * * * *

Here’s a little bit about communications between Blackboard and us and how that went and where it needs to go. First, I’d encourage those at the company who are so inclined to read my post Killing The Puppy. It has absolutely nothing to do with the LMS. It is about teaching very bright students and how to communicate with them when they are learning. Without too much modification, I think it translates well into how I would like to see the communications between us and the company. We did have some frank talk the last couple of days. But there also was a lot of patting the puppy. I understand there needs to be some of this, especially in a corporate setting where there is a need to promote and market the product and what they are doing next. But that can’t be the extent of it.

My sense of good communications it that there develops a strong yet implicit understanding of what the other wants and needs to know. Absent that, information is transmitted that is potentially interesting and important, but whether it is received well and understood and digested properly is an entirely other matter. Here is an example.

In talking about the merger back at Educause last October the point was made that the merged entity would benefit from pooling the respective strengths of the two companies. Over the last couple of days I heard at least twice about how Vista customers would benefit from Blackboard’s significant investment in testing and engineering and how in the migration of Blackboard 6 to Blackboard 7 they were able to get that migration down from a matter of days to a matter of hours. That clearly was an object of pride for Blackboard and it does sound like an impressive accomplishment. But is it relevant for the Vista customers who are migrating from version 3 to version 4, sometime in the next year or so? I wasn’t sure. I chatted with some other Vista customers about this and their impression was clearly that their own migration, perhaps a year from now, would be a matter of days.

Michael Chasen, CEO of Blackboard, made the point repeatedly that once we’re all in the Vista 4 environment, there won’t be further migrations for quite a while with their application pack and service pack strategy the alternative – smaller updates a la installs of updates in the Microsoft OS that are individually more gradual and less disruptive. That is all well and good but it still leaves me asking about when and where the benefit from the Blackboard testing and engineering environment will be received. To conclude on this point, I believe I heard what was said on this matter but I did not completely understand why I should care about it. The communication on this score was earnest, but it still could be improved beyond that.

I think this cuts both ways and that I (and quite possibly my peers at other institutions) need to learn as well how to send messages that we think are important to the company, so these messages are not just received but fully digested as well. Let me be clear about this, because I’m confident that I write and talk in an understandable way. The issue for me is how planned the communication must be and how repeatedly the same points must be made. It’s July now. Say we have some conference calls before Educause in late September. How much of what we talked about the past couple of days must be replayed intact in September? I don’t have a sense of that. In the customer is always right world the vendor may be reluctant to critique the customer’s message, but with a mutually agreed upon belief that there needs to be continual dialog, some of this is necessary. After all, we’re puppies too.

* * * * *

Speaking about a planned approach versus being more spontaneous in support of learning, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, who has a parallel position to mine. We covered a variety of topics during a cocktail party Wednesday night. The one I want to focus on here is the issue of whether the back end support for learning management systems such as WebCT Vista should reside in a unit that focuses exclusively on systems in support of learning or if it should be supported along with other big IT applications, for example, email. Of course, there are arguments on both sides of this, but since recently we’ve gone the other way it was interesting for me to hear him talk about the value of having this support in a unit that focuses on learning. The key issue is how priorities are set and how the tradeoff between enhancing purely back end functionality – redundancy and self-insurance, monitoring and sizing of the cluster, policies for change management, etc. – versus expanding the scope of offerings that promote learning, for example through Powerlinks partners or homegrown enhancements or additional tools that Blackboard has to offer. This is not a static, one time question but an on going concern that determines what will be done next and the pace at which this will occur. It was very useful for me to hear the other point of view on this.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Current Thinking On LMS

Its been a while since I’ve made a post about Learning Management Systems and it seems appropriate to do so now, less than a week away from the WebCT Users conference in Chicago. Given the acquisition by Blackboard, I’m certainly interested in learning about company tone and upcoming plans. But I’m equally interested in strategic analysis of the broader industry and how Blackboard sees their company positioned in that respect. So let me begin with that and how some internal discussions in my IT organization are happening now ( I assume those mirror conversations on peer campuses) and then I’ll get back to my sense of where there are threats to the LMS and where the LMS natural advantage lies.

In our organization we’re at the talking stage, not yet the doing stage. One of the big things in this talk is “messaging convergence” meaning voice, data, and video services coming together in one interface or, perhaps in a better description, coming together via some “broker services” so that the user can have an interface of his or her own choice. How this gets done, of course, remains a bit of a trick, but what’s most interesting to me here is that the big telecom players clearly want into this game and they’re beginning to have offerings that will compete, perhaps quite aggressively, with vendors of placeware software. I did a quick scan of Blackboard Partners Web page and while they have an impressive array of partners, telecom companies are not listed there. In contrast, several publishers are listed. I had always assumed that at some point one would see integrations between publishers and LMS vendors. Perhaps that is not to be and the integration will be with telecom companies. Hmmm.

Another big thing in this talk is outsourcing, particularly of email. I don’t know how this will play out and for those on campus it should not be inferred that I’m saying we’re going to do this, because we simply haven’t reached that decision point yet. But it is straightforward to make the argument. There are some very big and highly recognizable names in this space: Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo and if they compete for hosting student email the packages they come up with might very well be much more feature rich than anything we can offer on our own. There are some arguments against regarding the protection of student privacy and keeping student email and related services free from advertising. So, again, I don’t want to say how it will play out.

But I do want to note the following. If email does get outsourced, then the cat is out of the bag and CIOs will be asking about outsourcing the LMS or at the least outsourcing some of the functions that are currently in the LMS and then trying to bargain down license costs for those remaining functions. The most obvious function here is content management and distribution. One doesn’t really need an LMS to get a PowerPoint presentation or equivalent to the students. iTunes U is an example of an alternative. If one were to peel of the content management and distribution function entirely, would there be enough left to sustain the demand for LMS? Alternatively, if one makes the argument that the LMS should still be in the content management business because it can achieve tighter integration with other internal LMS functions (calendar, assessments, announcements, etc.) doesn’t one still have to convince CIOs that this is true?

My own view is that the LMS will be a mission critical application for some time to come because there is a huge current dependency on it and there are not obvious alternatives that would satisfy most of our current users. But there are a variety of pressure points which if the LMS is to remain viable in this mission critical role, it must address. I provide an annotated list below.

Student Time Management/Convenience

Data from our most recent annual technology survey of students in Campus Housing (this survey over samples first year students since upper classmen tend to move off campus) shows that cell phone usage is ubiquitous and over 70% of those students are using their cell phones for text messaging of some kind. Let’s say for the sake of discussion that the typical student does this via forwarding out of Gmail. And then let’s say that in WebCT Vista, the typical student has set up mail forwarding to their email account. What’s left to do on mods in the LMS side that would enhance this type of use?

The answer seems obvious to me. Students in their course sites should be able to email subscribe to other functions – announcements, calendar, discussions… and then those send either as they are delivered or reminders are sent near when a deadline is approaching. So one enable would be this type of subscription function between the various other tools in the LMS and email.

But now consider an alternative since, after all, at least in Vista, the email is on a class by class basis. The student has set up Google Calendar for use and has her cell phone set up to get text messaging from that source. This student might prefer therefore to be able to export their calendar from across all the classes in which they are enrolled and then import that into Google calendar.

Perhaps there are yet other ways that the LMS can accommodate messages and alerts on a student cell phone. If so, thee LMS should take a do it all approach, since how the students manage this will be idiosyncratic and it works overall if they all can be accommodated.

Openness/Accommodating Web 2.0 Applications

I’m involved in a fledgling project with our Undergraduate Library to build a virtual space for our new Learning Commons. And at the outset what I want to do is have some focused conversations on among a selected group of people but have that open to the community for anyone to comment. I didn’t know how to do this with WebCT Vista, so we’re setting up a pilot Movable Type server and we’ll try to create Mother Blogs from individual blogs as suggested by Barbara Ganley. If that works in a community setting, and if we’re trying to put a sense of community into the classroom setting…

My sense of this is that blogging (and wikis too) are sufficiently far along that as with student cell phones and messaging, they need to be accommodated by the LMS. How might that happen and would an English Instructor like Barbara use the LMS? Well, I think they might if they found it useful. Vista has a reasonably nice group function. Might Barbara want to use that in conjunction with her blogging? Might se want to evaluate some of the work done one a group basis rather than an individual basis? Might she want to evaluate not just each assignment but also the trajectory of writing as the students get a sense of each other’s voice and get further engaged into the subject of the course? These all seem like real possibilities to me and while I don’t have a sense of how the underlying integration would occur, it certainly doesn’t seem outlandish to me that it might.

Even with that, however, I assume that the integration is tighter with built in tools in the LMS and one might equally want to expose them to the outside world, for example a discussion board that outsiders can make comments in. This sort of things has been a wish for a long time. If it doesn’t materialize more and more instructors will move away from the LMS and use Web 2.0 apps and not avail themselves of the tools inside the LMS that might be useful to them.

Designer Capabilities For Students

We are not doing this at present, but I can see a point in the near future where on demand we’ll give students a site in the LMS where they have designer access so they can build learning objects (I’m interest in assessments) that might be administered to others. I know Vista 4 has the elements of this with students being able to contribute links that the instructor can incorporate into the site. But pedagogically we need to go beyond that. We need to put students into a situation where they design things and then have the students evaluated by how others react to their design. This type of activity is crucial in producing the type of critical thinking we want our graduates to be able to do.

The LMS offers a general framework for doing this with assessments, where a student or a group of students writes the assessment and other students take it and in the ultimate question give their reaction to taking it. This can then be reciprocated so that student assess each other and the designs receive an experiential critique. This can then become the basis of in class discussion, where the students are more likely to be engaged because they’ve invested themselves beforehand.

This type of activity is possible now but it is clunky to do and training the students to be designers in the LMS might prove to be a distraction in the class. So what needs to be done is to make this much more user friendly and give the students a sense that the authoring function is do-able and even fun.

Data Ingest and Data Manipulation

Larry Summers, before he put his foot in his mouth that cost him the presidency at Harvard, was making an argument that I generally agree with to the effect that our students need to educated to think about data, how to get interesting results that are data driven, and more generally how to be empirically based in what they come to believe is true. Summers was arguing this more or less at the same time as the book Moneyball appeared, and the success of that book helped to convince me of the validity of Summers point. But I think it is still generally true and we should be encouraging that type of teaching.

The LMS is potentially quite useful in this regard because one can have class “experiments” where each student inputs his/her observations and then those can be aggregated/pooled. The survey tool is the natural place for this sort of work. But there are two clear needs to make this possible. First, consider the individual student who is data gathering. That student might take data that is spit out of some apparatus, or might make several recordings of a particular variable and only report the average. So, in general, it makes sense to assume the data created by the student resides somewhere else, say in an Excel spreadsheet. It then needs to be transferred to the LMS. Of course this can be done one entry at a time but that is clunky and time consuming. The LMS already has the ability for an instructor to import a column (or multiple columns) of grade data. There is a need to give the students a similar capability for entering their data.

Second, students need direct access the submissions of the class as a whole if they are themselves to perform analysis on the aggregate. At present, the instructor can access all the submission, download and post for the class to view. But why should the instructor play this intermediary role instead of having the instructor simply click a checkbox that says make results available to the class? And if the LMS goes the extra mile of produce some bivariate graphs and analysis of numeric data of this sort, that too should be made available to the students in the same way.

Conclusion

The LMS is an environment for managing course logistics and for promoting learning. Changes in IT that we’re all observing can threaten and ultimately defeat the LMS, if LMS vendors don’t adapt appropriately to that changing environment. There are some fairly straightforward changes that need to be made on the convenience front that will make information housed in the LMS accessible by student when using their cell phones, which is their preferred mobile device. But the real case for the LMS will be made for what it delivers directly to promote learning and we need to see modifications of already existing capabilities to push these environments in that direction. Regular readers of my blog will note that these are changes I've suggested before. The point of bringing them up again here is to buttress the argument that things can be done to make the LMS more an environment about learning and thereby differentiate it from Portals and other tools that have a broader base of use than higher education.