Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: November 2007

Extreme learning and teaching

The following is an initial development of taking some the fundamental premise from Extreme Programming and apply it to learning and teaching. The rationale for doing this is to see if it provides a more effective way of generating improvements in learning and teaching at higher education, and in particular CQU.

Some additional discussion around this idea is happening on the CDDU wiki.

What is extereme programming?

This is not a question I’m going to answer. There are better answers online from people with a much better understanding then I. This is one. Use Google if you want more definitions.

This answer to the question includes a range of factors that I’m not going to consider in this post. Including:

  • Emphasis on customer satisfaction.
  • Enable late change in customer requirements.
  • An emphasis on team work.
  • An emphasis on communication, simplicity, feedback and courage.

The idea I want to engage here is the fundamental premise behind extreme programming that has stayed with me. The “extreme” in the name comes from that premise.

The premise is that we know a range of practices or principles that are effective in improving the quality of software development. Extreme programing aims to turn those practices on/up to the extreme.

The problem

The idea is that current approaches to improving learning and teaching are simply to complex. Too encumbered by the baggage and arguments of different philosophical perspectives and ignorances.

For pragmatic, often cynical, academics engaging in deep and meaningful discussions about a practice (learning and teaching) that is perceived to be undervalued (in comparison to research) is destined to be difficult.

What if we had a simple, straight forward, apparently logical/common sense approach that was simple to understand?

Yes, there are a whole range of potential limitations and problems with this approach. But then that’s what research and innovation is about. Having a new, different idea and then trying it out. Finding out if it is any better.

The idea

The idea is to

  • Identify some simple practices/principles that are known to contribute to good learning.
  • Develop a curriculum design and development process that places an emphasis on maximising those principles.
  • Perhaps drawing in other ideas from extreme programing.

So what are the principles. The obvious first choice for someone from CQU are Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles of Good Practice. CQU has adopted these as a key component of its learning and teaching strategies.

The principles are:

  1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  3. encourages active learning,
  4. gives prompt feedback,
  5. emphasizes time on task,
  6. communicates high expectations, and
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

There are probably others, but this seems to be the simplest, most widely known collection of these types of principles.

What next?

This is a simple mind dump and doesn’t go any deeper than the surface. There would need to be a lot more thinking about how these principles can be “turned up to the extreme”.

There would need to be thought given to how this would actually be translated into a curriculum design process with academics. One that engages them in the process and also the organisation.

Simplicity, e-learning and shadow systems

BJ Fogg looks like an interesting sort of guy, particularly with the work CDDU may be doing over coming years with e-learning, PLEs etc. From his home page, he is a psychologist who investigates how people use technology.

He’s doing work at Standford University around Facebook and using it. Via the blogosphere I have come across a video of his on simplicity. It’s hosted on Facebook and here comes some of the bits I have discovered which I don’t like about Facebook. I’m not sure the URL above will work and you will have to have a facebook account to view it. Not real open.


In the video Dr BJ Fogg attempts to define and explain simplicity. (Here’s where I attempt to explain the framework from my disjointed, surface viewing of the video.)

Simplicity is personal and contextual. Different people, in different contexts will have different perceptions of simplicity. Simplicity is not something characteristic of a particular object or process.

Simplicity has 6 elements

  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical effort
  • Brain cycles
  • Social deviance – going against the rules/norms
  • Non-routine

Something that is perceived to be simple minimises the relative use of the resources of the above 6 types.

Different people will have different levels of resource types. The example used in the video is of a teenager who might have more time than money compared with an older person who has more money than time.

Another point made is that “simplicty is a function of your scarcest resource at that moment”. If you short of time, how a system impacts on your time is going to be a major decider in whether or not you find a system simple.

Lessons for e-learning and information systems

I’m a fan of the Technology Acceptance Model as a reasonable explanation about why people use systems. In short, perceived usefulness and perceived ease-or-use are two of the major factors. Obviously ease-of-use has connections to simplicity.

I think most of what passes for organisational systems for e-learning (it might be possible to expand that to most information systems within organisations) within universities are so far from being simple that it is not funny. I believe this is one of the reasons why the level of adoption and quality of use of most e-learning is, at best, patchy.

First lesson. If simplicity is not characteristic of a particular object, but instead contextual and personal. Then the idea of single interface systems/processes does not make sense in an organisation like universities or for a task like learning. Universities are incredibly diverse and learning is incredibly personal (and diverse). A single system/interface for all almost certainly means that it won’t be simple for anyone.

A number of the systems at my institution don’t even recognise the difference between academics and administrative staff. For example, the system which tracks academic misconduct amongst students provides the administrative staff who regularly work with the system through out the year with exactly the same interface as the academics who use it rarely. It’s no surprise that academics report that system is difficult to use (even though it is also extremely useful).

The scarcest resource for most academics at CQU that I know of is time. They don’t have time to do the important things.

What makes it worse is that most of the systems make them waste time performing tasks that are busy work, that shouldn’t be required. And that just annoys them.

I’m just off the phone from a rightly annoyed academic. CQU’s main LMS is Blackboard. CQU also has a system called the Academic Staff Allocation system, it tracks who is teaching what, where and when.

A number of CQU courses have large numbers of staff involved, all being “managed” by a course coordinator. Obviously those staff should have access to the Blackboard course site. Currently that only happens through a manual configuration process performed by the coordinator at the start of term. A time when they are busy trying to get the course up and going.

Obviously, they shouldn’t have to do this.

E-learning systems need to be simpler to use. BJ Fogg’s definition provides a potentially useful way of looking at that.

Integrated VLEs/LMSs – benefits and fixes

Niall Sclater is the Director of the Open University’s (UK) VLE (UK acronym for LMS) Programme which is implementing Moodle (some FAQs). Over the last few days he has made a couple of interesting posts:

As you would expect from someone responsible for an institutional project implementing an integrated VLE both posts either defend or promote the characteristics of an integrated VLE.

I have an interest in moving towards a much more eclectic approach to providing the functionality required for e-learning within a university. However, I also don’t think its without its problems or necessarily something that would happen quickly. Writing about these posts helps crystalise some of the issues.

I’ll start with the first one.

Problems and benefits of reinventing the wheel

The first post is essentially a list of the problems to be faced if the “blog” and “wiki” tools integrated into an LMS (in Niall’s case Moodle) were to be replaced by open source alternatives like WordPress or Mediawiki.

The post is interesting because these are real problems to be addressed if the idea of making greater use of Web 2.0 tools as part of an eclectic, but integrated, alternative to an LMS is going to happen.

The list includes the following. I’ve attempted to generalise beyond Moodle and the OU and then provide an alternate perspective. I’m not claiming that the alternate perspective is the stronger argument, just different.

  1. An institution will already have internal expertise in the LMS they are using. Using external tools would require increased effort (read cost) to maintain knowledge of the functionality, code base and release cycles of open source software.
    However, the pool of external expertise that an institution can draw upon to supplement or replace internal expertise will almost certainly be much larger for the external tool than the VLE/LMS. Of course, there is the question of “integrated knowledge”. A Moodle expert would know all of the tools. But a lot of the Moodle tools are extensions, by 3rd parties which need to be learnt. But then I wonder if a PHP/Java/Web 2.0 expert would also have the same skills and capabilities but with a much broader collection of software to draw upon.

    Also if you were going to actually install the external blog/wiki tool onto a university’s infrastructure you wouldn’t need to know about multiple blogs/wikis. Just the one chosen to be installed. The major difference would be that the breadth of choice would be much greater if you were looking at generic tools than if you were looking at tools that would fit into a particular VLE.

  2. Non-LMS products have widely differing user interfaces and have not been enhanced for accessibility and usability in the way that has been possible for Moodle tools.
    This is a potential problem but then I’m not yet convinced that quality through consistency works effectively. If the interface is designed well, I’m not sure it really matters if the interface is different. This is something I’d love to research/investigate at some stage.

    I’d also suggest that an active open source product like WordPress is always going to be able to have (or eventually develop) a better interface. Also, the majority of these systems are “skinnable” and thus, if really necessary, you could make the interface the same.

  3. Single LMS integration allows easy transfer of data between applications within the LMS. Doing so with external applications would be a highly complex software engineering task.
    I’m not so sure it would be that highly complex. The Webfuse system has been designed to integrate external applications. At least 5 years ago we integrated a discussion forum into the system. A fairly junior (but very capable) technical staff member took a few weeks to integrate. It took that long primarily because the discussion forum (and Webfuse) didn’t really follow “good software engineering practice”. Most of the more modern systems I’ve seen make this sort of thing much easier.
  4. With an integrated LMS, the user only has to authenticate once. No need to replicate user databases, access permissions etc.
    This to can be worked around and fixed. Especially as systems move towards single sign-on, openId and similar sorts of technology.
  5. Easier to track usage within a single database rather than having several separate systems.
    VLEs/LMSs and enterprise systems in general (e.g. Peoplesoft etc) are known to be really terrible at reporting. Most organisations are using business intelligence/data mining tools to track usage, trends etc. These types of tools are designed to bring disparate databases together.
  6. A cut-down blog/wiki tool may not be as feature packed as a specialist tool but it may provide the necessary functionality for learning and teaching in an appropriately simple method.
    There is an argument to be made here. But there’s also an arguments to be made that generic tools can be “skinned” to achieve the same outcomes and that there is benefits to students in using real tools.

PLEs ("social media") and measuring/ensuring success

Murray Jennex, an information systems academic from San Diego State University, made some points about the adoption of “social media” type tools by experts by drawing on findings from the knowledge management literature (he’s the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Knowledge Management). The points are discussed further in a forthcoming paper by him in the Journal of Organisational and End-User Computing (Jan-Mar, 2008: 50-63).

The points he makes are very relevant to CQU’s Personal Learning Environments project and we will need to engage with them. The purpose for writing this post is to try and make sure we remember to do this.

The points made include

  • Use of these systems is not a good measure of adoption or success. Quality of use and intention to use the tools when needed are suggested as alternatives.
    System use is always an attractive measure, because it’s easy to measure. Quality of use is a little more interesting. But obviously something we need to consider.
  • It’s not that the desire to use the tools is missing, it’s the need to use them that is missing.
    This is a point that interests me in terms of PLEs. Why would existing CQU staff and students need to use a PLE? Adoption of e-learning in the form of an LMS has been slow and gradual and, at least on the surface, that type of approach has more in common with traditional learning and teaching practice. The PLE is potentially radically different.
  • The tools do not fit within our work process.
    Based on a fundamental discovery from knowledge management. When “knowledge contribution” is an extra function, people will not do it. The task needs to be part of every day practice.

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