Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sowing Seeds

A quick follow up to my post about using sports measurement as a way to understand the measurement issues with learning. The last week or two there has been a lot of attention to what is called “the Bubble watch,” an attempt to determine the four or five last in teams to the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament as well as the four of five teams just out. Illinois is one of those on the bubble and so there’s been much local interest in this. Listening to the various pundits on the matter there is one obvious point to make – they disagree. As a fan, I’m not sure even about how I feel about the question. The lesson –when there is a performance standard, the boundary is gray, not a sharp line of demarcation.

The issue is especially relevant given all the current discussion about measuring student competency via ePortfolios. With that one can envision fairly tough standards, so that even those in the gray zone look reasonably proficient, but one can also envision the alternative where the standard itself is moderate and consequently those near the boundary seeming incompetent, though some of these folks will be deemed otherwise. I’ve not read exhaustively about ePortfolios but my sense of this issue, especially given the discussions on the topic in which I’ve been involved, is that it simply hasn’t come up. We live in a Lake Wobegon world where most of us really would rather not think about measuring performance.

When we do, however, how things look in the gray zone will become critical. And the choices seem to be either to set up a fairly elite club or to be inclusive but then not appear to be very demanding. These issues will be all the more acute if many students find themselves in the gray zone, which is where many students are now, in my view, only we’re mostly taking a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach that has been made somewhat overt, for example by the documentary Declining By Degrees, but not to the extent that it is causing real pain that will lead to fundamental change. The folks advocating for ePortfolios seemingly talk about a kinder gentler form of evaluation – if students are reflective about their own learning within an environment that encourages such self-reflection, then the gray zone issues disappear. With ifs you can put Paris in a bottle.

* * * * *

Last Thursday and Friday I was at Northwestern for a meeting of the CIC Learning Technology Group. It was good to see friends and colleagues from the other campuses around the CIC and to get to know some of the newer members of the group. There are a lot of sharp people and the collective knowledge is quite large. So it ‘s also a good place to get caught up with what’s happening in the profession, at least as far as the impact on big schools.

One of the big disappointments right now is Sakai. People are speaking more highly of Moodle, not as a development framework but as a user friendly environment that generally gets good marks from students and instructors alike. Minnesota is running it at a central level as an alternative to the commercial Learning Management System. Many of us have multiple instances on our campuses that are not centrally supported. Some of the development that had been done in the Sakai setting has moved over to Plone, which is quite a powerful environment and the results from the development apparently can ported to integrate with commercial learning management systems. This is what most of us wanted all along. It is strange because our group and the CIO group talked about Sakai ad naseum at prior meetings, but I can’t recall a single discussion about Plone. (The little I learned about it came from sidebar conversations with individual members of our group, not from talk ensemble as we worked our way through our agenda.)
nterestingly, the agenda item on future directions for our group morphed into a discussion of how to build better relations with folks in the Library. We probably spent forty five minutes to an hour on just that topic. There are several Library groups in the CIC and a few years back we did a joint conference with the DLIOC group held at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago, with the focus on getting Library Content into the Learning Management System. Some of the campuses have now moved to using the LMS for their eReserves and abandoning a separate eReserves system. For the end user this is probably preferred, because then eReserve items can be blended in with other course items. But it is probably worse for tracking purposes and arranging for copyright clearance when necessary.

In our discussion we talked about cultural differences between the Library and Academic Computing, about their need to proceed in a deliberate manner with caution as a seeming guiding principle to their decision making, while we feel a need to be flexible and responsive and hence are more prone to take risks. I got the general sense from the group that we all recognize the need to work more closely with the Library and to engage them on many dimensions, but there was some frustration expressed about why things haven’t moved further in this dimension already. For me personally, I know some folks in the Library very well, but I don’t know too many of them and so my own people network is limited that way.

We spent some time talking about Second Life – there is a CIO group that is now holding meetings there and the question is whether developments in this environment represent the next wave of activity we should be engaging in. There was an argument made by Joe Conte from Purdue to the effect that from a serious gamers point of view Second Life just isn’t good enough. The graphics are less than stellar and they take a long time to render. I countered that on the other hand some of the hard core gaming environments may seem less welcoming to students who don’t think of themselves as geeks and hence for interdisciplinary groups of students it may be the right environment. John Harwood from Penn State raised the question of what we actually know about how learning is encouraged in Second Life or similar environments. At present, the answer seems to be not very much.

We also talked about Facebook and about Campus blog services. Some of the campuses are offering the latter through the CMS. Others are doing this as a stand alone. In both of these cases there is the underlying motivation to tap into informal learning and provide environments that are conducive to that. But we seem to be much more expert on how to start up such services than on how to really address the lead-a-horse-to-water issue. And its on this point that I chose the title for this post.

The members of this group spend a lot of time thinking about production services, whether physical learning spaces, placeware such as Breeze, Elluminate, or Horizon Live, or some of the other offerings I’ve mentioned above. Because of the size of the institutions, there is a bit of a disconnect between the offering and the use and this focus on production services in our discussion created in me a sense that my colleagues are viewing those services as seeds – they throw them out there and see what grows as a result.

One of the reasons I switched jobs is because I’m less interested in sowing seeds now. I want to spend more attention on what you might call cultivation – promoting good use of the services we already have. Our meeting had little discussion of good use. I’m afraid that happens too much with learning technology. And here I’m trying to make a circle with the observation that Barbara Ganley made about the ELI conference – her session with Barbara Sawhill and students from Middlebury and Oberlin was sparsely attended. It’s as if what was done in this session was irrelevant for many of the attendees, though in fact it was the heart of the matter.

At the risk of projecting my own preferences on the profession as a whole, I think we need to abandon some of this seed sowing in favor of cultivation activities. But, and I think these issues are tied together, the younger professional learning technologists were not faculty members first. Learning technology for them has been a career unto itself. And it is first and foremost about the technology itself, being on top of that and having a good pulse of it. That can be all consuming. Unfortunately, it also can create a perception by others that learning technology is irrelevant.

We did a little was down memory lane and reviewed the group’s history. There had been a grant program funded by the Provosts to promote inter-campus projects. The grants themselves were a trifling and as John Campbell of Purdue described it, with the grant program the Provosts were aiming at some very big objectives with a very little bit of funding. Most of these projects did not endure and indeed the grant activity itself died as did Provost sponsorship of our group. This actually was healthy, because there was a lack of realism in that grant program and we’ve move away from the fantasy.

But there was one aspect of it that I miss and I wish we could capture in our current setup. When we’d meet on a particular campus, the grantees from that campus would do a presentation about their project and we’d have a discussion with them about their implementation. To the extent that there was innovation in the teaching, we got to witness that first hand. We need to do something like that now. We need to connect to the people who are teaching with technology, whether they’ve done something that is fabulous to showcase or if they are only in the working-through-the issues stage. Re-establishing that connection seems critical to me. I don’t know how to do it, but it’s a must. As much as I like to be with my colleagues I want to know what we do matters and that it matters not just to us but also to the community that we are trying to serve.


beth said...


I found your discussion of sowing seeds versus cultivating growth interesting.

As a consultant for Elluminate, I am just beginning research to develop a white paper that provides statistical results of using synchronous or blended eLearning at academic institutions. In addition, I would also like to provide tracking tools for those interested in doing so. The idea is that instructors, departments, school, etc. need amunition to get continued funding for these initiatives. In other words, we want to help them cultivate!

If you know of any resources or existing research, please let me know. Also, last year I did a white paper, "The Impact of Synchronous Online Learning in Academic Institutions: Customer Experiences from K-12 and Higher Education," that contained anecdotal information from our clients. If you are interested in seeing it, visit

Beth, Elluminate "Goddess of Communication"

Lanny Arvan said...

Beth -

I find it interesting to observe that in an Educause group in which I'm involved we use the phone for planning with a Sharepoint site in conjunction for support materials.

This paper may be of use to you, though they use a home grown environment for their synchronous piece.