The challenges of learning networks

I’m attempting to write a paper for the CQU Lifelong Learning conference held in June this year on Learning networks and how current university ICT mechanisms restrict their development. Specifically I’m looking at the requirements of a learning network and how learning management systems are restricting innovations like learning networks in online education.

Lifelong Learning
According to Edwards et al (1998) the modern adult is subject to an ever-increasing explosion of information which in turn places a greater emphasis on learning, which is ongoing, rather than content, which will soon be out of date. More succinctly George Siemens (2004) states “know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where”.

Discipline Based Learning Networks
A method that is increasingly used to promote both lifelong learning and professional knowledge is learning networks. Learning Networks are self-organized online communities designed to facilitate lifelong learning (Berlanga et al 2007). According to Koeper & Sloep (2002) in these communities learners participate, actively creating and sharing activities, learning plans, resources, and experiences with peers and institutions.
Inhibitors to online learning networks
Most online learning mechanisms like learning management systems provide leaner-content interaction effectively (Siemens 2004) and there is some research like Ladyshewsky (2004) that indicates it may even be more effective than traditional methods like face to face. However due to the centralized, administrative approach that most learning management systems take, the tools to provide learner-teacher and learner-learner interactions are basic if they exist at all. George Siemens (2004) makes the observation that only recently and in limited ways have LMS vendors started extending tools and offerings beyond simple content sequencing and discussion forums. He goes on to say that while this is progress it’s still within a “locked-down, do-it-our-way” platform. Some of the limitations of LMSes I look at are:

  • Environment.
  • Organization and Instructor focus.
  • Innovation and approach
  • Informal learning.
  • Course based models.


Digital Asset Management @ [somewhere]

The use of digital assets such as audio, video in education at an organization like [somewhere] is an important factor considering online/distance student population. How do we engage these students online particularly when we are using 1990s style learning management systems that produce very bland HTML at the very best? Part of the solution I feel lies in delivering content that makes intelligent use of video/audio that catches the student’s interest, is pedagogically sound and utilizes ‘trendy’ technologies such as Podcasting, youtube, slideshare etc. However these delivery methods and protocols are irrelevant if the systems used by the organization that creates or utilizes these media assets doesn’t have effective systems for creating, cataloging and delivering the content in a timely, efficient manner. Enter the Digital Asset Management System or DAM.

Some of the problems associated with the way digital assets are being managed include.

  • Currently the digital assets aren’t cataloged in any searchable or reportable manner.
  • Copyright and attribution information isn’t being tracked.
  • ROI is poor due to lack of re-usability.
  • Management of associated infrastructure such as storage servers is extremely difficult due to the lack of metadata.
  • Digital assets are becoming much easier to produce by the average user increasing the quantity of assets in circulation.

My opinion is that a simple, usable DAM would solve a whole range of issues including some of the ones listed above. The core business of the organization is education and the Academics are the conduit of the core business so the system must be made with this cohort firmly in the fore mind. How do we go about it?

There are roughly  three groups who produce digital content at [somewhere].

  • The Video Production Group or VPU.
  • Flexible delivery services or FDS.
  • Other staff like academics and FBI techs.

Each group has some specialized requirements but the process for all groups can be summed up simply in the following stages.

  1. upload of the digital content via a web page that is linked to a database that records metadata on the digital asset leveraging data provided by systems such as LDAP to help in field pre-population.
  2. processing of the digital asset such as video/audio transcoding to selectable formats.
  3. moving the processed asset to it’s long term storage such as a NAS. This step is automatic and doesn’t require user intervention.
  4. Publishing, including automatic publishing where possible to student facing systems as well as user notification.

In my mind I see a system like this developing in an organic fashion. We start with the basic upload pages and a simple hosted database and develop as required using modular construction with few interdependencies between facets of the system thus reducing ongoing development costs with future changes. An example of change might be a move away from Learning Management Systems to Personal Learning Environments which will be all the easier with the organization’s digital assets cataloged and easily accessed by the user. The easier it is for the Academic to find and publish their desired digital asset the better the system. More to come as time permits.

First Steps to Building an online learning community.

I will soon be embarking on a project as part of a graduate certificate in Flexible Education Delivery which involves building an online community for a specific program at CQU. (Luckily I’m doing this with some smart people who have a wealth of teaching experience). So in preparation for the first meeting tomorrow I’ve been doing some reading on how to maintain a healthy active  online learning community. First of all I found some interesting references to definitions of a community and how the definition has changed with the advances in technology that removed the obstacle of distance that hindered interpersonal communication.

Researchers now consider the strength and nature of relationships between individuals to be a more useful basis for defining community than physical proximity (Hamman, 1999; Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998; Wellman, 1997; Wellman & Gulia, 1999a)

An online community can be described as people who come together for a particular purpose, and who are guided by policies (including norms and rules) and supported by software” ((de Souza & Preece, 2004; Maloney-Krichmar & Preece, 2005; Preece, 2000).

I found this article by Caleb John Clark (1998) ,while quite old, to be somewhat useful to someone like me who has very little experience in education. To roughly summarize:

  • Online learning communities are grown, not built. Online learning communities should be grown, not built. Online communities are strongest when grown by members into unique and supportive, environments.

1. Communicate the purpose of the community
2. Specify the ritual and requirements of membership
3. Decide on the participation and personality of the leaders
4. Provide clear guidance for new members
5. Offer growth opportunities for established members.
6. Create a policy for handling disputes and disruptions
7. Cultivate cyclic rhythms for events and communications.

  • Online learning communities need leaders. Online learning communities need leaders. Leaders are needed to define the environment, keep it safe, give it purpose, identity and keep it growing.
  • Personal narrative is vital to online learning communities. Personal narrative is vital to online learning communities. Personal stories and experiences add closeness, and provide identity, thus strengthening online communities.

Another interesting aspect of online communities is the ‘lurker’. It can be expect that only 10-20% of the regular visitors to any online community will actively participate while the rest quietly watch and listen. According to Stacey Horn in her book Cyberville(1998) this is ok. So long as the leaders are encouraging participation in a comfortable environment let the lurkers lurk.

The tail wagging the dog. Working for the IT system.

“In its current form I think most people would tell you that it hasn’t delivered a lot as compared to the old system… what we’ve said in terms of re-implementing is that if you’re going to take a system like a PeopleSoft system or a SAP system you have to come from the premise that it’s been developed usually with best practice in mind. What you should always try to do is rather than trying to modify the system to suit your processes at all times try to look at ways of modifying your processes to suit the system.”

http://www.zdnet.com.au/news/business/soa/In-depth-RMIT-s-PeopleSoft-disaster/0,139023166,120279146,00.htm 

Is it just me or the tail wagging the dog? Shouldn’t the systems work for the organization? What I find amazing is how many businesses are slaves to their IT systems. A classic example is the rise of Point Of Sale systems in the late 80s, early 90s. Shops moved from 7 department cash registers to POS systems and found they needed more staff due to the inflexibility of the software supplied with the POS system which required every item of stock to be checked in before the system would even allow it to be sold. Maybe software isn’t so soft?

An interesting side effect of the dominant  IT system is the way managers perceive it’s value. Here at the University where I work we have a multi-million dollar Peoplesoft system that costs an incredible amount to maintain and ultimately is only an administration system yet management don’t seem to question the associated costs of this but question the value of the student facing systems that are our principle source of income.

“March 29, 2004 (Computerworld) — Ohio’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit against PeopleSoft Inc. seeking $510 million in damages over a problematic installation of the company’s ERP and student administration applications at Cleveland State University.  “

http://www.computerworld.com/softwaretopics/erp/story/0,10801,91720,00.html

June 23, 2006 (Computerworld) The 11-campus North Dakota University System (NDUS) continues to work on a troubled rollout of PeopleSoft ERP and academic software that critics said has exceeded budget and missed deadlines.

 http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=printArticleBasic&articleId=9001396

Apparently I’m not the only one who questions the wisdom of Peoplesoft but I don’t believe the problem is just with Peoplesoft. There is a massive industry of consultants, standards and compliance around IT. ITIL is another example of standardizing what should be common sense and I’m sure the ITIL consultants are rubbing their hands together over this latest fad. More to come.

Graham Attwell’s ‘The future of eLearning’

Well the holidays are over and it’s time to start thinking about personal learning environments again. I’ve read a paper by Graham Attwell on PLEs which for me, raised some interesting ideas.

  • Employers also increasingly wish to see evidence of the ability to apply skills and knowledge in a particular context. PLEs could facilitate such presentations, in an extended form of an e-Portfolio and through links to an e-Porfolio.”
  • “the embedding of computer based communication within the tools of the workplace. This offers the opportunity to develop learning environments whilst simultaneously accessing and shaping the production and business process through such interfaces.”

I’m particularly interested in the notion of the blending of the learning environment with the work environment.

Learning theories.

I work for the Curriculum Design and Development unit at Central Queensland University. I come from a technology background so I’m endeavoring to learn more about the curriculum design process and how people actually learn. As part of this learning journey I’m going to broadly write about learning theories in order to get this stuff straight in my head as I find a lot of stuff written about learning theory ambiguous and over analyzed. I’d appreciate comments as I expect my perceptions of some or all of these things to be wrong.

  •  Behaviorism is based on a new behavior being repeated until learned. Positive behaviors are rewarded while negative behaviors are punished. Behaviorists are concerned with measuring the new behaviors.
  • Cognitivism is the thought process behind the behavior. Changes in behavior are indicative of changes in though processes. Brain-based learning.
  • Constructivism is where we construct our knowledge based on our experiences. A teacher in this context will seek to guide the learner to build their own knowledge within the confines of their person.
  • Social constructivism argues that the optimal learning environment is one where a dynamic interaction between instructors, learners and tasks provides an opportunity for learners to create their own truth due to the interaction with others. (Wikipedia)

Loosely based on these theories are:

  • Objectivism. Reality is external and objective. Knowledge is through experiences.
  • Pragmatism. Reality is interpreted. Knowledge is negotiated through experience and thinking.
  • Interpretivism. Reality is internal. Knowledge is constructed.

Real life learning is complex and non-linear and modern learning through technology adds another complexity into the mix. Incorporating technology into learning theory is connectivism. Based on chaos theory where its assumed that every thing is connected to everything else ( I like the butterfly analogy where a butterfly flaps it’s wings in the Amazon and causes a cyclone in Australia ), connectivism is saying the conduits to knowledge are more important than the actual knowledge which fits with my experience, at least my professional experience anyway. With technical tasks in a fast, ever-changing world I’ve found its more efficient to know where the information is than know the information. Connectivism states that new information is continually being acquired and the ability to distinguish important from unimportant information is vital.

According to George Siemens the principles of contructivism are:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
  • nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (up to date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  • Decision making is itself a learning process. choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality.

Some things that I find fascinating about connectivism are the implications in other areas of life like the recognition that complete knowledge of a problem or system can’t reside in a single person therefor diverse teams of varying viewpoints are critical for more completely understanding ideas. Web2.0 is a connectivist concept. George Seimens says that the pipe or conduit to knowledge is more important than the content of the pipe. The ability to learn what we need to know tomorrow is more important than what we know today.

George Seimens ( A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/Jan_05.pdf#page=7)

Stephen Downes (http://www.downes.ca/)

The decline of the compliant learner

I’m reading an interesting paper by Peter Goodyear titled “Environments for lifelong learning: ergonomics, architecture and the practice of educational technology“. It talks about the changing face of instructional design in the Web 2.0 era. I’ve cherry picked some quotes that I found relevant.

  • it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that we can design learning technology systems around an assumption that they will be used by learners in the ways we prescribe.”
  • ” a shift from the creation of ‘tasks-in-objects’ to ‘environments-for-activities’.”
  • “Evaluative data seems to be indicating that, however good the learning software, students will rarely use it unless they are obliged to do so.”
  • “It is now part of the folklore of information systems design and software engineering that technology needs to be built around a well founded understanding of what people actually do. Just listening to the managers’ account of how work should be done is a recipe for disaster and leads to unused and unusable software systems. Why should higher education be any different?”

Another point he makes and one that I’ve thought about with regard to PLEs relates to learning communities and has been proven by the present day LMSs. A learning community grows of it’s own accord and any attempt to force the growth will lead to a situation that we see with our own LMS which is poor student participation.