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This 500 page ebook is distributed under a Creative Commons license.

Opening Up Education:

The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge

edited by

Toru Iiyoshi & M.S.Vijay Kumar

foreward by

John Seely Brown

published by

MIT Press

There seemed to have been rather a lot of discussion in 2009 about whether the VLE or Virtual Learning Environment was alive or dead (including the ALT-C 2009 debate), and the rise of the PLE (Personal Learning Environment).

I’m very interested in PLEs and informal learning and have blogged and vlogged about the concept.

I’ve perhaps been less interested in VLEs. They seem to serve an institutional purpose, but always seemed to constrain the means students use to express their learning and, therefore, the learning process itself.

However, I’ve recently had cause to look at the area of VLEs. Doing this process I asked myself, “What if you wanted to use VLE technology to provide an environment for open learning?” Well, two things have caught my interest in answering this.

The first is ATutor. I began to amass information about ATutor and rather than let that work go to waste, I decided to write it up here in the hope that it might be useful to others.

When considering the available VLE products, I was interested in the potential of utilizing OpenLearn resources; this led me to consider interoperability standards. The significant standard on the rise for educational requirements is the IMS Common Cartridge, driven by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. This seems to be more significant to education than the SCORM standard, which from my reading of the information, is more appropriate for distance learning and training, and is primarily significant for the US Government and Military training purposes. Common Cartridge aligns much more with a blended learning approach, though is still useful for distance or purely online learning.

Well, by early January 2010 there were only two products that conformed to the IMS Common Cartridge standard, one of which was ATutor.

First I needed to look at the content from an OpenLearn module, so I downloaded one in Common Cartridge format from the Open University site, and then something to look at it with. I found the use ‘as is’ Common Cartridge Builder software (zip file) and downloaded it. I was able to easily unzip and import the OpenLearn module, look at the folder structure and add to the content if I wanted. That seemed very easy.

So how would the same module load into an open demo version of ATutor? I logged into this demo version, and even without unzipping the module was able to import it into ATutor. That too was so easy. Atutor comes with a Common Cartridge editor built in, so creating interoperable content should be easy (I haven’t tried this out yet). I was beginning to think I was onto something here. What if I could create a community using ATutor and import Open Educational Resource (OER) modules and allow access to anyone who wanted to learn from them? Plus I could create my own courses and then make them available as OER. This could possibly encourage others to do the same.

As ATutor is developed out of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC) at the University of Toronto, accessibility of the software is a primary concern. So ATutor conforms to these accessibility standards:

  • W3C WCAG 1.0 (AA)
  • W3C WCAG 2.0 (pending release)
  • W3C ATAG 2.0 (pending release)
  • Section 508 (US Rehabilitation Act)

There is also an ATRC Web Accessibility Checker so content can be check for accessibility as it is being developed.

ATutur runs on Apache, PHP and MySQL, so nothing too surprise there. I installed a working version of ATutor onto a server running Apache 2.0.63 – PHP 5.2.10 – MySQL 5.0.85 in a little over two hours. The only problem I encountered was that I couldn’t log into the Super Administrator account, not sure why, but I amended the password in the database and everything was fine.

Core releases occur in June/July and December to not interfere with general institutional run courses.

Because of the open ethos of ATutor, there are links from their support website to Open Educational Resources (a vlog post about OER). And significantly, there is a module available to integrate MERLOT resources into ATutor hosted courses.

MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, searchable collection of peer reviewed and selected higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services. MERLOT’s vision is to be a premiere online community where faculty, staff, and students from around the world share their learning materials and pedagogy.

MERLOT’s strategic goal is to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning by increasing the quantity and quality of peer reviewed online learning materials that can be easily incorporated into faculty designed courses.

http://www.merlot.org/merlot/index.htm

I’m interested in using ATutor to create an open learning environment open to anyone to use; with OER course content and with the integrated social network facility for collaborative learning. This could become yet another componet of someone’s PLE. I’ll play around with my installations some more and then start to populate it with some courses.

Which leads me on the second system that has caught my interest. At the time I’m writing this there doesn’t seem to be a vast amount of information available about NIXTY (it’s not publically released yet; I’m on the list for the private beta), but what I have come across has made me very interested in the concept. NIXTY is another Learning Management System (LMS). However, it seems to be going to offer an environment that provides a place to integrate formal and informal learning. The learning processes can be sheltered for an institutions needs, but there is also the potential that learners informal activities can be brought within the NIXTY environment. Also, with a view to the way learning could be going, there is the potential to integrate other Web 2.0 technology with this LMS. It gives learners a place to present their informal work as well.

I was trying to think of a metaphor for NIXTY this morning, and what popped into my head was an old pirate galleon. The main part of the ship is the institutional section, with all that contains, but should you want to walk the plant there is a vast ocean of other resources to you investigate and use for you learning. I await developments in this area with eager anticipation.

Oh and I read NIXTY is working to becoming IMS Common Cartridge compliant.

Additional Links via Diigo:

Some VLE is Dead links:

Today I came across two very interesting pieces which provide options for assessment when requiring students to participate using blogs and wikis. Assessment when using some of these technologies in education seems to be a continuing bugbear.

The first is a very interesting slidecast by Konrad Glogowski from the University of Toronto. Konrad explains one route to introducing the process of blogging into the classroom and how to develop that process with students. Here he uses a plant growing metaphor, which requires the students to consider what they want from their blog right from the onset. Formative feedback is given to the students partially based on the students’ initial considerations. The overall process applied is one of student enquiry, with them engaged on a topic of research of interest to them (hence ‘engaged’ is the operative word). Konrad nicely weaves in concepts from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi throughout his presentation.

If you are even considering introducing blogging into your curriculum I would suggest spending 36 minutes to view this slidecast:

with a corresponding blog post.

Paralleling this but for introducing the use of wikis into teaching is this blog post. This article gives some of the academic theory for using this collaborative process. Significantly how to apply assessment to a collaborative wiki based process is considered. And interestingly there is an explanation of how a tool developed by the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) called WikiDashboard was used to ‘measure’ contributions to wikis by individuals.

Is it possible to recreate the immediacy and interaction of a small seminar group within a large lecture theatre setting?

Well there are tools that can provide a lecturer with feedback during a lecture, the student response system being one example. However, that has to be pre-planned prior to the lecture to be used effectively, so that system doesn’t necessarily give the immediacy you might be looking for and doesn’t allow for audience questions and discussions to take place like in the small seminar group.

But I think there is a phenomenon that can be used to give a lecture more interactivity and dynamism. The concept has arisen out of microblogging during conference presentations. I first saw it at Eduserv Symposium 2008 with the audience (in the lecture theatre and elsewhere online) microblogging comments and them being displayed on the big screen. I’ve subsequently participated as a microblogger from my office, whilst watching livecasts of conference presentations, or without seeing any official output from a conference. This is backchannelling; the discussions that takes place outside the organised channel, so to speak. (I suppose you could say the backchannel is anything that isn’t directed from the front.) If this backchannel is brought into the proceedings it does add an extra dynamic angle to the event. The primary medium for this is now ‘Twitter‘, though before that there were various exponents of ‘CoverItLive‘.

Now image taking that process and implementing it in a lecture theatre with full connectivity and students with laptops or smart phones. Suddenly you’ve got a means of involving your audience right there in the moment. They can be asking questions, giving immediate feedback, allowing content restructuring in realtime, highlighting areas where they don’t quite grasp the concept and need further explanation, they can be interacting, discussing and answering each other’s questions. By the end of the session you and the students can have a transcript of the process, which may be beneficial depending on your needs. Also the channel can be used outside class-time to continue discussions or for the tutor to ask questions to reinforce understanding.

So what are the services that could be used for backchannelling? Well a few suggestions of one’s that allow you to set up a private space for your purposes without having to register are Chatzy, Today’sMeet and TinyChat. Alternatively you could use Google Docs.

My Diigo links about ‘backchannel’ and ‘backchannelling’

Whiteboards can be used for collaboration or shared discussion work. A group of four or five students gather (or huddle) round to develop ideas. There are ways of capturing this work, placing copycams around the place to take an image of the whiteboard and upload it onto a web location for retrieval tends to be the institutional approach. A quicker way I’ve found is to use a smartphone to take an image and upload the image directly onto a photosharing site using Shozu.

This is good in small teaching rooms for small groups. But does it scaleable? And is it affordable?

Well I think a viable, free alternative has just evolved, and it’s called EtherPad. What EtherPad allows you to do is to simultaneously edit text online as a group, see the screencast. This means that groups can collaborate online in real time, pitching in ideas, but with the advantage of having a useful ‘document’ at the end, which can be accessed from anywhere, re-edited or cut and pasted elsewhere if required. Much more useful than just an image.

With student laptops in lecture theatres this services could be used to introduce effective small group work within a large group setting. Also, there is no requirement to have an expensive AV system installed for the lecturer to be able to display work from different groups. Instead, the lecturer can just use the lecturn PC to display the work of different groups via a web browser, provided s/he has the relevant URLs. Again, this is an example of scaling up a facility that is only usually available in expensive technology rich small group working rooms.

There are additional advantages. Groups where members are physically remote can still easily collaborate in realtime.

But doesn’t Google Docs do this already? The answer is no, not in realtime. “EtherPad lets multiple people work on the same text simultaneously”

This article is a quick breakdown of the BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis – Clever.com – broadcast 12 March 09 20:30-21:00

The programme addressed issues about whether the younger generation are only getting a superficial grasp of information, with their skimming techniques and superficial searching or are they actually becoming the most skilled and knowledgeable generation. Professor David Nicholas of University College London (UCL) seems to be in the former camp, while Don Tapscott (founder of the international think tank ‘New Paradigm’, and chairman of the nGeneration Innovation Network) is in the latter.

Stephen Fry, the famous comedian, actor, intellectual, raconteur and more recently the most famous British user of Twitter, compared the power available to someone with a computer or a mobile device with that of the greatest, most powerful monarchs of history, and concluded that we in society today have greater access to knowledge and understanding at the ends of our fingers than royalty and dictators of the past could ever hope for.

By viewing the logs of page accesses it is possible to see trends of people’s use of the web. Researches at UCL have used this approach to analyse people’s habits and are finding that searches tend to shallow across a large range rather than deep and concentrated. Prof Nicholas uses the TV channel hopping analogy. The commentator suggests that maybe this search process has become the enjoyable element, not the information itself. And Prof Nicholas concurs, thinking of his own approach he doesn’t go online to read, and there are many other distractions to capture one’s interest. Average time on a web page is less than a minute. Long articles just aren’t read.

Don Tapscott believes that after DNA the most important factor affecting how your brain is ‘wired’ is what you do during adolescence. The previous generation spent more free time passively watching television. The younger generation has traded in television watching for doing a range of activities on computers. It’s argued that this develops greater problem solving, engagement and other skills as interaction is increased, as they tell and retell their stories, as they work out strategies for game completion, and so on. [Rewiring in the brain is something that is happening all the time - connections and pathways are formed by experience, whatever the experience, learning to read for example.]

Jonathan Douglas the Director of the National Literacy Trust questions whether the perceived change in reading habits is a bad thing. He says that it might indicate that people are becoming more efficient in their reading approach. Stephen Fry thinks that it’s a misnomer to place the Internet at odds with books. He believed that they complement each other beautifully. And he points to similar arguments made when the novel was introduced; how novels would cause mass illiteracy, or at least a refusal or an inability to engage in serious study.

Don Tapscott thinks that the didactic model of the teacher standing at the front and pouring facts into the ‘empty vessel’ of the students, who store it in short term memory until they are tested by the teacher is an outdated model: maybe suitable for previous generations where you left education and were set for life. Now, in his words, you are set for 15 minutes. But Professor Tara Brabazon of Brighton University disagrees. She has banned her first year students from using Google and Wikipedia. She believes they need to attain the standards required at university for reading and writing. She goes on to say that they don’t need Google because there is the library and online peer reviewed articles, which Google wouldn’t find, that they need to engage with. She believes that one problem with student centred learning is that students work within their boundaries exploring their own culture, when a well structured curriculum will cause them to transgress their boundaries and learn about other cultures.

When considering the question about whether the younger generation are best placed to utilize the digital environment, Prof Nicholas says that they don’t have the framework required to make the best use of it, they are unaware of the authenticity and authority of information, which hasn’t undergone the same rigorous vetting processes of (for example) the publisher. They aren’t therefore necessarily equipped to deal with this vast amount of information available to them. This is contrary to the popular assumption that the younger generation is better equipped than the older generations. Indeed, because the older generations do have an appropriate framework, they are the ones who are more empowered with greater access to a larger range of available information about which they can make informed choices.

So what about the ability of younger people to ‘multitask’? Well evidence shows that there isn’t actually such a thing as multitasking; there is the ability to switch quickly between tasks. And the research of Professor Martin Westwell of Flinders University, Australia shows that young people don’t have the ability to do this very well until they are in their 20s. So much of this available technology is actually acting as a distraction, preventing them from concentrating.

Prof Brabazon concludes by saying that the younger generation isn’t indulging in anything different than the rest of us; shallow, superficial users.

So, the presenter postulates, perhaps we should be less worried about the technology and more about the society we are living in that shapes the way we use the technology.

Academic Earth

What if you didn’t quite understand a fundamental law concept in your last lecture? What if you wanted a different perspective on that something or other? What if you wanted something explaining in a slightly different way?

How about attending a lecture on it at a different university? Maybe Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Yale, Harvard or MIT. Well maybe you can’t actually attend a lecture at one of those prestigious institutions of learning, but what about viewing a series of lectures recorded there in your subject?

Well via Academic Earth you can do just that.

Their mission:

‘Academic Earth is an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world class education’.

Courses and subjects covered include:

If you want to see a whole 36 part lecture on general human anatomy covering the human brain and muscular system, nervous system, muscular system, digestive system, the liver, and so on, then that’s available. What about The Nature of Persons: Dualism vs. Physicalism, Physics I: Classical Mechanics, Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, and many more.

In addition the site runs a rating system, where registered users grade the standard of the lectures.

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