Sunday, February 27, 2005

Time stamp

When writing these posts the stamp appears below the HTML editor. For quickies like this message, that is fine. For long ones, it is less good. I wish the time stamp would be inserted at the time of publishing rather than at the time of initial composing. I have found that I make a lot of typos so need to edit my posts for that. The editing shouldn't change the time stamp. That is done correctly now.

Intervention in K-12

If we in Higher Ed want to promote abstract representation in learning and if I'm right in my previous post that students learn to do this (or not) well before they go to college, then the utilitarian thing to be doing would be to help the schools encourage this type of change in students' perspective. I am struck, however, that much of what the current intervention does, which happens via student teachers in the schools, achieves quite the opposite.

Lessons are planned, with the "scaffolding" carefully constructed. There is a lot of structure put into place. Students are encouraged to conform to that structure. There may be many benefits to the approach. But I don't believe it encourages learning as abstract representation. For that there needs to be open ended discussion. And there needs to be work on "hard" problems where the solution is "found" most likely through introspection. (Here I'm thinking about math where there are the solutions. There has been a lot written of late about teaching students to deal with messy problems that don't have a "right answer" but only different ways to approach the problem. That is fine for higher ed, but in K-12 before one gets to that point, it would be good for students to spend some significant time on framing where there is a confirming method of success --- the solution has been attained and that is testable. )

The difficulty with hard problems is that people turn away from them, because they don't have a sense that they can make progress --- getting stuck is not fun and from there one often gives up. So the other thing that clearly needs to be learned is persistence -- staying with the idea till it bears fruit or until it is clear it is a dead end.

How do we go about doing this? My broad strokes, unscaffolded idea is that our students in higher ed, those majoring in things other than education, become mentors for students in the schools. Some of that bonding has to occur face to face, most likely during the summer, but with neighborhood schools that would be possible during the regular academic term. And then the rest of the time this would happen online in some sort of asynchronous discussion area. Our students, in turn, would be mentored by faculty, not on the method of teaching, but rather on the problems being discussed and on the approach at framing them. Somehow the teachers in the schools would have to partner so these discussions tied into what was being covered in the more formal curriculum.

Obviously this needs a lot of fleshing out, but the key point is that it is our students and not our faculty who are primary. That is the only way to make the interventions scale, and have some utilitarian impact.

Math might be a good area to start in because of the shortage of teachers, so the interventions might be welcome. There then might be other materials to accommodate so as to give the discussions focus.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Habits of Mind Form Early

I'll get back to the economics issues in a few days. This morning, while I'm working on my second cup and getting ready to go into the office, I want to focus on the following question. At the college level, can we really affect the way students think? or is that pre-set before they arrive on campus and the best we can hope for is to affect what ideas students look at and perhaps modify their sense of taste as to good questions and whether issues can be interesting even if they remain unresolved.

This past week my wife and I had a parent-teacher conference for our fifth grader, Ben, and since this was scheduled outside of the normal time (where its 15 minutes max) we were able to have a nice long chat about Ben. It's not fair for me to write about my own son in a public forum, so I won't do that here. Instead I want to focus on a few observations the teacher made. First, there is quite wide ability of the students in the way they learn and the observations they make. Some of the students learn at the surface level, at this age boys are more prone that way than girls. Others are capable and in fact do make abstract representations. They have a more adult view. Some of these kids may be more comfortable in the company of adults than with other kids. Second, these kids learn in all settings, not just the classroom. TV, which of course has been railed against as encouraging passivity in the kids, can be a good source for learning. Ditto for computer games. The issue may be with the kid, not the medium. What is the kid's intellectual disposition? Do they hunger to absorb new knowledge? We're talking fifth graders here, not adults. Third, the kids memorize on their own accord. This is the way they bring in new knowledge into the body of things they already know. The question is whether they can then use that new knowledge in other settings. The kids who are capable of abstract representations can do this.

We didn't get into what fraction of the kids learn at surface and what fraction of the kids have the more mature approach, but it is clear from the discussion that the schooling itself doesn't foster this, though it may reward the one over the other. And I'm talking about an excellent classroom with a really good teacher. So it either comes from the home or the genes. We don't like to talk about the latter and I don't haven anything smart to say on this other than that it is the residual for what is not well explained by nurture, so let's talk about the former. It seems obvious that the type of conversations kids are involved in matter. Parents help their kids grow through these conversations. So it is worth asking whether those are welcoming from the point of view of the kids and if they are akin to adult conversations or kid level. That matters a lot, at least that's my guess.

The related issue, turning this back to teaching, is whether the conversation occurs as open ended dialog or a negotiation, with some uncertainty as to how it will play out at the end, or if it is more close ended, a lesson with the purpose of achieving a pre-known result. My wife insisted early on, sometimes to my own chagrin because I wanted to get on with it, that the kids discuss and negotiate with her and let that process resolve issues. The result is that they negotiate everything and really don't go for the "I'm the parent and that's why" although we are able to enforce a few rules, but they have learned to argue and to relish argument as a form. Argument produces ideas and it does so in a social, adult setting. But it is time consuming and takes more processing, so it is less good for learning pre-known results.

That there are gender differences on the maturity of thinking at Ben's age suggest that kids do, at some point, make the leap to hyperspace and go from surface learning to abtract representation learning. But probably not everyone does make that leap. Much of what I take to be the goal of promoting active learning, a student-centered approach, and encouraging critical thinking seems to be taking the kids still on the immature side of the learning beforehand and making the class setting the trigger for encouraging the leap to happen. I know I've internally (meaning in my own head an occasionally in private converstation) been critical of the approach especially on the brainstorming and quick hitter type of active learning exercises that I've seen promoted, because it doesn't seem to acknowledge the need to chew on ideas and process - having the internal dialog that represents a similar method to argument but is with oneself and being somewhat unsatisifed about coming to conclusions too soon. So the question is whether we are deluding ourselves that by changing our method we can have big impact on the students. In other words, if the leap has not happened by the time they are 18, why should we expect it to happen at all?

But there is the thought that one does both surface learning and abstract representation learning and the setting determines which. I am not sure on this, but now I turn to myself as an example. In my ed tech role, I am largely self-taught and my prior role as a faculty member played a big role in conditioning that learning. However, I also operate within CITES and that has its own norms and culture. There, just to get by, I've had to accept many things at surface level. There is just too much to incorporate it all into some abstract representation. When I do ask why, I find myself unable to come up with answers that satisfy me as the critical thinker. For example, there are a lot of things that require my signature for approval. The signature is supposed to be my commitment that there has been scrutiny and oversight by me. In many cases, there is no other test than the signature. And because we are hierarchical, sometimes the real scrutiny is coming from elsewhere. So there are definitely cases where I sign, mumble somthing to Mary, and that's it. We have a process built around signatures, so I accept it. My drill down into things is orthogonal to the signature process, determined by things that interest me. They are two parallel strands, not one coherent whole. And I live with that, because that's they way things are done. Time is too short to make them otherwise. Apart form this little essay this morning, I've never reflected on it.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Slightly less enthusiastic

It appears that the comments don't sit on my site but rather at the site. So although the person making the comments doesn't have to become a member, it is still easy for Blogger to track them. I'm less impressed by that.

Circling back to the beginning

Let's consider again the issue of using the Google tools like Groups or Blogger, but now let's consider that from the perspective of the previous post. The CITES services leave gaps in terms of needs. The question is how best to fill in the gaps. Should CITES do that itself (or perhaps in conjunction with the Library) by creating a new campus Blog service? On the flavor meter is that beginning to move away from plaing vanilla and so is better left in the hands of the departments and colleges? Or is the need still sufficiently idiosyncratic that the solution should be left to the individual, in which case they are likely to stumble onto the Google service or some other commercial service that is "free" and functional?

If it is CITES that should fill the void, and one thing that outsiders don't understand is that there are real costs to a service, even one as simple as a Blog, especially if you offer it to the 50,000 or so members of our campus community. There is the hardware and the storage as well as the support issues. Agreeing that there are real costs the next issue is how those woudld be funded. If it is internally funded and assuming no additonal revenues will be forthcoming to support the new service, then one has to ask what other service should CITES cut to finance the Blog service. If it is externally funded, one has to ask what will be the source of revenue? This raises a serious strategic issue for CITES. Does it take the conservative approach and only support those services where it has a pretty good feeling the funding will be there long term. Or does it do a lot of pilots, for example with a Blog service, and hope that if the interest is there the funding will be forthcoming externally, but with the risk that if the funding doesn't come then CITES will have to cut some service, either the burgeoning Blog service or soemething else. I should add that right now CITES' operation is pretty lean and mean. There are not a lot of things to cut.

That is part of my interest in Google. Since the market is supplying these services that are financed via advertising, the experiment can happen with no implied future reduction of any service and no additional funding commitment needed from the Campus. The other part, as I've already articualted, is my feeling that in this space the market is likely to provide better quality services because of the greater incentive to innovate. Indeed just today I see that they've changed the way they allow comments to Blogs. Before it used to be either anonymous or you had to be a member to include identity information in the comments. Now they are allowing non-members to enter such information and links to homepages (or Blogs not on That is precisely the functionality I wanted to make my Blog useful in a social setting. I want comments from the community, I want to know who they are from, but I don't want them to have to have to become members of unless they want that themselves. Actually, I'd also like comments to appear just as posts, but with a comment flag to indicate it is not from a member of the blog.

Economics and Positioning

If you look at the url for this Blog, Guava is the name of the server and CITES is the name of the organization I work in. (UIUC is the university.) CITES is the academic computing organization for the campus. While CITES has many services the big three at present, each with some role in teaching and learning, are Express (the email service relying on the Mirapoint solution); Netfiles (the file storage and Web Publishing service relying on Xythos); and Illinois Compass (the learning management system based on WebCT's Vista software). In each case, while these services get substantial usage, there are similar services being provided on campus, within CITES and in the departments or colleges. I won't drill down on these, but simply note that one can think of these services as coming in different flavors and depending on the particular need, some other flavors may be more palatable than what CITES offers. CITES tries hard to have its flavor as plain vanilla, to satisfy the majority. Rum Raisin should be offered by the departments, not the campus.

I want to get into a different issue with these services - that of underlap or overlap and how these services are positioned. On the underlap side, the gaps may mean unmet needs or they may mean that solutions will crop up in the units, or that entrepreneurial faculty and students will find solutions on their own. All of this is happening to some degree. On the overlap side, for example, files can be stored in Illinois Compass or in Netfiles, one has to ask whether the services complement each other or if they compete with each other. Complementing is happening, for example, when during a course files such as student assignments are delivered inside of Illinois Compass but at the conclusion of the course those files are archived in Netfiles. As an organization, we'd like as little of competition between the services as possible especially because resources are so scarce. Of course, some competition is a benefit in producing higher quality of service and giving the user some choice. But, as a matter of principle, that competition should come from outside of CITES rather than within.

Naturally each of the providers of these core services within CITES would like more resources to support them to make them more robust and more fully featured. And there is a desire to offer additional services to fill in some the gaps. For example, while CITES has two different streaming servers that offer some volume of usage, neither are at present a "production service" that is openly available to all on campus. Netfiles, on the other hand, is probably not the right place to house audio or video files, unless these are really low bandwidth. So there is underlap here.

There is another way that one can think of the positioning of the services and that is in terms of the type of use they engender. For example, PowerPoint though heavily used is viewed as demonous software by some because it encourages the instructor into monolog mode in the live classroom and also via the ability to click from one slide to the next encourages the instructor to go at a pace faster than the one that is best for the students. But one can use PowerPoint in a collaborative way with the class and an informed perspective of how the technology can best be leveraged will generate a different type of usage. To a certain extent, it is recognizing this idea of informed perspective that has CITES supporting Illinois Compass with a consultant approach to help create that perspective while the other core services, Netfiles and Express Mail are supported with a help desk approach and hence the usage is left up to the individual member of the campus community.

One last thought before critiquing CITES positioning of its core services. The current services have been determined in large part by what came before. When the old Unix email clusters were getting long in the tooth CITES looked for more current solutions as replacement. Mirapoint was chosen after a comparison of alternative. But it didn't do Web publishing or file storage. The old Unix cluster did offer those functions. So Netfiles came about to fill that gap. Similarly, when it became apparent that the historical approach to course management with Blackboard and WebCT wasn't scaling, we looked for a new solution that would. Illinois Compass came out of that need.

CITES hasn't done much about looking ahead and choosing services based on the perceived future need. And, noting that once a service is created and has a volume of use that produces substantial inertia to sustain that service, one wonders how the CITES services fit from that view. I'll contain my attention to Illinois Compass, because that is in some respects my baby.

There is criticism out there coming from the burgeoning ePortfolio community, that Course Management Systems in general will have a comparatively short half-life and are soon to become dinosaurs because they promote an approach to instruction that is teacher-centric, while with our teaching and learning hats on this campus and elsewhere we are trying to promote an approach that is learner-centric. While what teacher-centric and learner-centric means may be obscure to those who don't focus on these issues full time, anyone who has taught with Illinois Compass will recognize readily that the instructor has many more tools at her disposal than the students do. So, the argument goes, design software that puts the student work front and center. Doing so will promote good instruction and when the pedagogic benefits become obvious the dinosaur CMS will die, or so the argument goes.

I have been pushing on two fronts, one to get our instructors to think of Illinois Compass as the place for student work and, two to get WebCT to open its tools up to the students in some sandbox area. I've also been promoting the idea that students should be making learning objects, both as part of their course work and afterwards as course designers in training under the supervision of an instructor, to try to to promote the learner-centric approach without necessarily abandoning Illinois Compass as the underlying infrastructure. This way of thinking, however, has not had a big amount of visiblity.

What has been visible is the discussion of open source CMS, notably Sakai, and that potentially our future is with that, either as an add on or perhaps even as a replacement. But what is strange here is that Sakai has now partnered with OSPI (open source portfolio initiative) with the idea that ePortfolio is another tool to fill the space. Unless CITES funding changes radically in the future, I don't see our campus as filling the space with more services, that is not affordable. So something has to give here and at present I'm not sure what. In theory, our community will let us know via their use and their expressed wants. In practice, there are the loud voices of early adopters and then the silent majority of the rest of the instructors. It's getting this to matter to the latter that causes me to scratch my head ---- a lot.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Why focus on something other than Illinois Compass

I believe that every class which has an online aspect needs to have some private space for the class, independent of whether it has public space as well. Compass affords just such a private space. Moreover, I think it really bad design to "put everything into the discussion board" for example, by having lecture notes and syllabi as file attachements to discussion postings. Further, blogs, as distinct from discussion boards, don't enable threading. The linear approach in blogs is fine if the idea is straight narration. It is less good as a browsable interface. Finally, there are other tools in Compass - quiz and grade book are examples - that are separate from the discussion board and yet these tools are useful to use in conjunction with each other. Compass is great for that. So I am very pro using Illinois Compass for instruction and certainly want to promote that.

Compass may be useful for non-instructional purposes, but now things become a little harder for the designer, especially regarding user management. If one used a development site as collaboration, say for a workgroup in a lab, then the other members would have to be added to the site one at a time and the information requirement is knowing their netid. There is no way at present to add multiple users in one fell swoop, especially not with the section level access that we are giving, nor a way to do lookup of netid based on their name. (This latter functionality does exist at the course level.) The other issue is adding non-uiuc users. They must have accounts loaded into the global database and doing that is a manual thing for CITES staff. We will do it when we see the value in the teaching and learning. But it is a clunky solution.

It is also worth pointing out that even in the instructional setting, there may be an interest or need to have a public site that is open to accompany the closed site in Illinois Compass. If this is just for showing files, the Netfiles service can be used. But if this is to allow more interaction and participation by people off campus, then some other approach is needed. The Group or Blog may fill that need well.

Getting back to the non-instructional use, there is a big convenience issue to think through. If the group is small or with static population, straight email may be an effective solution. That happens all the time. But if the group is large or with a dynamic population there needs to be a more proactive way to manage the group and that group management capability should be distributed not centralized. The commercial environments do this better than our campus does it right now. There is a question of whether the campus will catch up. I hope so, but I'm skeptical.

The other point here is on bringing others into the conversation as lurkers, deliberately allowing them to lurk only, not to post. There likely are multiple possible ways to do this, but generating some xml feed of the site seems an integral part. Currently, those type of xml feeds are not generated by anything that CITES supports. So that is something to think about in addition.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

First Serious Post

This begins daily reflections on learning technology. Unlike other blogs in this area - this one will stick with my personal reflections, rather than become an amalgam of developments in the field.

My current pet theme is on the software that Google provides - both Groups and Blogger, I'm less interested in Gmail - and whether we should use those comfortably in academe as collaboration tools or if we should shy away from them and provide our own alternatives. The overriding haunting theme is that innovation will follow the market. Google operates in a big market, much bigger than Higher Education. It has greater incentives to innovate and get things right from the user's point of view to build up market share than do companies that provide to higher ed or open source that is coming from within higher ed. So one can readily envision that it's tools will evolve in ways to capture the user's imagination and to make things easy for them. Of course Google is not the only game in town. But it is hot right now and it has relatively current tools. The Groups tool is in beta now.

Compared to what we currently support in CITES, Listserv and WebBoard, the Groups tool is much easier to manage especially regarding users, anyone can do it, and there is the added benefit that the recent activity of the group can be syndicated so as to appear on other Web sites. This allows an insiders/outsiders approach. The insiders participate in the group via posting. The outsiders lurk. I find this intriguing. It might work well for groups that focus on particular tools that CITES supports, such as Illinois Compass and Netfiles.

The Groups tool is currently weak on sharing images. Links to Web pages (or images) work fine as straight links with no html code needed, but images can't be embedded. I'm guessing that won't be a problem in 6 months. Of course Blogger has an html editor that allows embedded images.

There is an issue about the ads. Actually, if one email subscribes to a group (and one can send out blog posts to a group so this is also true for subscription to a blog), there are no ads. The ads are only visible when one actually logs into the group. My way of thinking as a user, not as a campus administrator, those ads are there when I log into the New York Times site. And I get pelted with email from the various ecommerce sites I visit,, for example. So if the ads are the concern, by my way of thinking that is not a big deal.

More troubling is that Google is getting profile information on anyone with an account (and maybe anyone who posts to a group via email even if they don't otherwise have an account). So there is a privacy concern and the potential that the profile information will be exploited. If that happens via Google peddling its own stuff --- no big deal, that is expected. But it could go beyond that.

Right now, Google seems extraordinarily sensitive about spam and deterring that. This is one reason why Google is attractive with its toolset as compared to its competitors. The fear, I suppose, is that Google may sometime in the future look not so hot. In that event, as its financial fortunes suffer it will be more tempting to exploit the profile info for profit. I think that is the real concern.

But I'm wondering if that makes sense on a practical level. Is the stuff I'm sending in email now, the same sort of thing I was sending 3 or 4 years ago? Does a profile based on old info have a lot of market value? If Google does head south, I'd likely abandon it. There may be some inconvenience of spam after that, but is this something that I should really fear? And as long as Google's fortunes are going strong, doesn't it have incentive not to cash in on my profile? What am I missing?

Some of my colleagues might like the "stronger commitment" that would come from a service CITES provides about protecting privacy. But given the financial environment, would CITES' commitment to the service itself be as strong as Google's?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

RE: email post to blog

From: Lanny Arvan
Sent: Mon 2/21/2005 5:43 PM
To: hi there
Subject: email post to blog

This is a little test to see if the blog gets this message. I'm also interested in whether formatting is preserved in this type of communication. Here the first use of the word formatting is in red, bold, and with increased point size.

test of email to blog

This is lanny writing as leslie to see if I can send an email post to a blog where Leslie doesn't have an account. I hope the answer is yes.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Ginger is the Cutest

This is our dog Ginger. She doesn't take listerine but sometimes we call her gingivitis.

Does the comment publish?

I guess the way I have this set up, comments by others can't be published until the blog get's republished. If that is correct, there should be a comment from Leslie Arvan to the previous post published as I publishthis post.


So I'm confused. I can export this full blog and directory structure to guava. That is good. But I can't do it with another blog that was first built to be hosted on Blogspot. I have no understanding of why that is the case, but I can stick with this one now and see about getting it to Netfiles.

Third Post

Here we go again

Second Post

The first one failed to publish let's see if I can make this work now.

First Post

I'm publishing this to guava. Let's see if that happens easily. If possible I will pull down the file structure to look at. Maybe we can still figure out how to do a blog on Netfiles this way.