The Parable of the Thingamajig

We are reaching the end of our evaluation process here on my eportfolio committee. So in a month of impassioned pleas, I hope y’all forgive me one more. This is the last push.

But I want to do it this time by telling a story.

I want us to pretend it is 1985, and we are considering two competing products for the library. Let’s say that the need is to teach students how to do research circa 1985, and we’ve decided to spend some money on a product to do that. The plan is to develop a “research curriculum” and to get a tool that helps us better understand students’ research ability.One product is called “Thingamajig” and is billed as a replacement for the NYT Index, ERIC, Dialog, and the card catalog. It replaces the Library of Congress system with its own “superior system”, and collates material from multiple subject indexes into its own aggregate database. It has maybe a tenth of the resources available in the library as a whole, but they are well arranged.

In order to do research students log into this tool and use the special Thingamajig™ search tool. Then they give the Thingamajig call numbers to the librarian, etc. And because all their work is logged in the Thingamajig system, we can very easily assess whether these students are starting to get the hang of “research thinking” – Thingamajig can log and score everything done inside of it.

The other product, which we’ll call ResearchRank, just gives some standard ways of assessing student work and pumping out reports. For the actual work, it lets students use the same things they would use outside of the institution: The NYT index, ERIC, Dialog, the card catalog, etc.

In fact, as new resources become available for doing research, ResearchRank doesn’t care – if the professor can understand how the student is using them, he can assess them.

Which is the better product? Which serves the student better?

All of these eportfolio template products we’ve looked at exist in a Thingamajig mindset. Rather than let students use tools that have a broad application outside the boundaries of our college
, they push the student to think of eportfolios as dependent on

institution-specific technology. They keep the student in an unempowered mindset. They force the student to see technology in the wrong way.

To return to our example, imagine it’s 1987 and you’re a professor hiring for an assistantship. You have to chose between two students.

The first student comes in. And when talking about research they tell you how great they are at research – they are, after all, proficient in Thingamajig. They tell you how they used the specialized undergraduate templates to do research in Thingamajig. Are you familiar, for example, with the “Essay Research Template for Political Themes #5”? They did an excellent project using that.

The next student comes in and tells you about subject indexes, the problems of restricted vocabulary, how much they hate the quirks of ERIC, and how low they’ll get a result set on Dialog before they print the list. They tell you a neat system they devised using colored post-its to keep track of where quotes came from. And they tell you about the time it failed and they ended up citing Richard DREYFUSS on particle physics.

You’d choose the second student in a heartbeat. Sure, maybe Dialog rolls out a new version in 6 months, and those skills are irrelevant – but the second student has demonstrated an ability to solve real world problems with real world tools. They understand how to interact with technology – technology extends their will rather than limiting or defining it. And because they have to construct their own environment, they don’t confuse the process of research with the parameters of some school-bought tool.

You’d choose the second student. So would I. And we’d be absolutely right to do so.

The real world tools of reflection today are numerous, but they are not in TaskStream, or ePortaro. They are wikis, blogs, video-sharing sites, Flickr,, etc. We can show students how to use these tools to better understand and represent their experience.

Or we can buy them a Thingamajig.

I really think that’s the choice we’re looking at here.

Announcing the Learning 2.0 Pecha Kucha Contest

Heard of Pecha-Kucha? It’s poetry slam for the design crowd. Haiku for the business world.

It’s the solution to Death by Powerpoint. Here’s the rules:

  • Each pecha-kucha participant delivers a PowerPoint presentation
  • Each presentation must comprise of 20 slides, no more, no less
  • Each slide must be displayed for exactly 20 seconds
  • Consequently, each presentation is exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds long

(h/t Downes)Â

Now what I would propose is this — anyone reading this post

  • Make a Pecha Kucha entry about some aspect of Learning 2.0
  • Post it on slideshare or youtube or whatever…
  • Tag it on, etc. as PK_Learning2.0

 And let the games begin. I know it would be a lot cooler to get in a room with some gin and tonics and do this, but baby steps, right?

The college as student/project matchmaker

What would happen if instead of encouraging students to build yet another fake bookstore project we had encouraged them to write wikiscanner?

They’d have changed the world, that’s what.

What if instead of having statistics students take multiple choice tests on data analysis we had them examine earmarks or deficit spending using ManyEyes?

They’d change the world, that’s what.

What would happen if our Modern Language students translated popular foreign blogs into English, or our film production students organized to film every presidential candidate’s appearance within 20 miles and post the video on YouTube or What would happen if our chemistry students went to the Salvation Army Store and bought historical toys to test them for lead, then posted the results?

We do a lot of real world projects at the college I’m at — in fact, it’s one of the most admirable facets of the college. We’re truly a leader in this regard.

But my belief is we can (and will) will go much further along this road in the coming years.

Why? Because in the old world there was a real cost to real world projects. Very often you were putting students at the helm of something expensive — equipment, time, something. Putting inexperienced students in charge of those resources was at best a risk, and at worst a danger.

And we built our educational system around those parameters. In the manufacturing economy, you had to run students through simulations of work, because failure was EXPENSIVE and publication RARE. Products required expensive investment, equipment, resources. And even more purely intellectual products had physical limits on them:  in the non-networked economy, publication was the privilege of the few, and outlets for one’s findings were hard to come by. There wasn’t really much of a publication tier for undergraduates.

So, in many cases we waited until people were in graduate school or in industry to encourage them to do things with real impact. And we spent our time in college with them preparing them so they wouldn’t fail when they eventually did engage with the world-at-large.

There are (and were) exceptions, and many of them. There are stunningly good programs at my college that put students in Art and Architecture and Safety Studies in positions where they do great work, real work, in service to the greater community. And when I see such things, I’m just inspired and proud.

But I’m saying in our net-enabled world, we can make such learning the norm, and not the exception.

The reason why is simple economics. In a networked information economy, failure is cheap. Production is cheap. And if you produce something worthwhile, distribution is free.

Film students don’t have to tie up the professional grade camera (at least not for everything) — they can film events on a $100 USB device. Statistics students don’t have to pay for database access or tools — there’s a wealth of public data out there, all waiting for someone to sift through it. Translation of a foreign blog takes only a student and a computer.

The other day I wrote an application that posts to twitter every time a bill or resolution is passed in the House of Representatives. It took me two hours. It didn’t cost a dime.

There are literally thousands of worthwhile projects out there, just waiting for a student to take them on. But students aren’t familiar enough with the landscape of real-world needs to know where these opportunities are.

If we want real academic engagement, we have to treat undergraduate education the way we treat our most successful graduate programs. We have to see a major part of our role as pairing interested students with interesting problems. We have to be a bit of a matchmaking service. Because that’s how we are best going to help our students change the world.

Leigh Blackall: Teaching is Dead, Long Live Learning

So Leigh Blackall is my new favorite edublogger (Sorry Jim!).

If you want to know why, you can listen to this podcast.

Favorite thinker? Not sure. Thinker? It’s odd, but I feel these observations are just so obvious. I’m not sure I ever had to think them up, or that Leigh had to think them up, or that Jim had to think them up, or that Jon had to think them up or that even Roger had to think them up.

So it’s really unfair, but I don’t think of this stuff as shockingly brilliant. What I’m shocked by most often is why it’s not just obvious.

I mean, I put all this Web 2.0-speak on top of my explanations, but what I want to say most often to people is — so have you ever tried to accomplish a real world goal? Yeah? Well, it’s like that.

All the same, when ideas become so obvious that you can’t remember when you first got them, it’s very often because history is hurtling towards an inevitable change. So a historical frame is useful. Leigh does a nice job with that. If you haven’t check out his stuff, I highly recommend it.

You can start with this if you want:

Loosely coupled assessment

Here’s the thing it’s 2000 all over again. Eportfolio is the new LMS.

Watching a recent vendor presentation I thought “I can’t believe this is happening again.”

That single phrase. In a loop. In my head.

Because remember — this happened once before. The LMS vendors came in with an assessment and management tool, and told us it was an elearning solution. At the time, I was on the other side of the equation, with a company trying to sell award-winning goal-based scenario software to colleges who were saying but we already HAVE an elearning solution. It’s called Blackboard. Or WebCT. Or whatever.

And so Blackboard, an assessment and management tool, determined the pedagogy of colleges for eight or so years. Because teachers wanted to import rosters, we put students in a closed box and told them it was elearning.

When it wasn’t. The truth is the kids were doing more elearning on MySpace than in Blackboard.

How do we avoid it again? How do we avoid imposing something that is just pedagogically WRONG on a new set of students because we need to meet some institutional assessment needs?

There’s only one way — loosely coupled assessment.

If we are going to talk assessment, we are going to have to segregate it. Your assessment tool should ONLY assess.

We don’t need to talk more about student needs wth vendors that supply assessment tools. We need to talk to them less about student needs. It’s not their business.

Literally: it is not their business.

In fact, we should remove student needs entirely from the equation.

The students know they can get far bettter solutions to their problems for free elsewhere. They don’t need a eportfolio system to post their resumes on.

So enough of letting assessment vendors tell us what facilities we will be forced to use in their walled garden, and expecting us to be excited about it. Enough with assessment vendors selling us “environments”. What we should be doing is describing the the enviroment that might exist — students using WordPress, Blogger, S3, GDrive, email, messaging, etc. And then we should ask if they have a tool that can evaluate that. How will their tool interface with the learning environment we’ve constructed?

Anything else is insanity.

Electronic Textbooks and CommentPress

Via bavatuesdays, I learn of CommentPress.

Obviously there are other non-WP group annotation tools. What’s really striking to me here, however, is how powerful the fit is between the CommentPress approach to text and the best bits of traditional literary exegesis.

So great is the fit, as a matter of fact, that I half wonder if CommentPress could become the first step toward faculty blogging — rather than the other way around…

Goal-based scenario/simulation vs. learning 2.0

The most invigorating job I ever had was working for CognitiveArts programming learning “simulations”. Founded by Roger Schank, CogArts was truly a company with a mission — to revolutionize education through technology rather than simply extend the current system. And we pushed the envelope in every way we could. I worked with a large team of programmers whose goal was to make the ultimate Choose-your-own-adventure multimedia learning experiences.

The core idea was simple: people learn by doing, so learning should simulate doing in a low risk environment. Schank’s favorite talking point was this “Which would you rather your airplane pilot have — 90 hours of the flight simulator, or 90 hours of book study?”

Simulations would generally lead a person through a “goal-based scenario”: perhaps as a Governor’s economic advisor they had to make decisions for a hurricane torn state on things like price controls and rationing, and observe the effects of the action. Perhaps they had to negotiate a house price as part of Harvard Business School Publishing’s Negotiation class.

The key to the system was failure-based learning paired with just in time instruction. Students would be encouraged to develop expectations about what would happen as a result of their actions. When they failed, they would be provided with context-sensitive instruction, and encouraged to try again. It had been shown in a number of studies  that by providing the bulk of the instruction after failure that you could get retention of information significantly higher.

The system was later copied (often poorly) by other corporate training companies, and is now a pretty standard offering of most custom elearning vendors (although I would argue that the desire of many vendors to push such modules into a one-size-fits-all assessment harness profoundly degraded the experience — at CogArts we built an LMS that was precisely tailored to the needs of our scenarios).

This autodidactic gaming approach to elearning seems miles away from the PLE and the Inverted LMS (I still haven’t quite resolved if those are the same thing yet — please excuse my transitional use of both terms). The Inverted LMS is inherently social and collaborative; the CogArts model was solitary and self-taught. Indeed, if there was one flaw with what we did at Cognitive Arts, it was probably that in the move from CD-based non-networked learning to web-based instruction we were not radical enough in our rethinking of the social element of education.

Despite that, I’d argue that simulations are very close to the PLE/Inverted LMS in theory. Why?

Because both focus on learning by doing. Where there is high-risk to real life failure simulations make a lot of sense. And where the definition of success in a field or task is very narrowly defined, simulations shine. The flight simulator, one of the first computer applications ever built, still remains the model here.

But the web has introduced us to plenty of low-risk ways to engage in disciplines. And that’s where the new approach comes in.

An example? At CogArts, one of the apps I admired most was the “Is it a Rembrandt?” simulation, which provided students with detailed pictures that could be faked paintings or undiscovered Rembrandts. The students, through learning about Rembrandt’s style, had to make the call. Experts were there to give them the just in time instruction should they fail — explaining this or that about brush strokes or subject matter.

I’d still pay good money to use that sim — I think it remains a wonderful way to learn, and one that appeals to our gaming culture. Put software like that in a current high school, and you’re going to blow the doors of education. In a good way.

But what is striking nowadays with the web is how it supplies plenty of real low-risk problems for students to engage in. The Rembrandt simulation was built during a mid-90s rash of discoveries that certain Rembrandts were fakes. Ten years later if such a thing happened, there’d be a good chance you could get hi-res photos of detail from the fakes, if you asked nicely.

So what happens then? You gather your students, you put up a wiki and series of student blogs, you roll your sleeves up, and you get your class analyzing the paintings. Google becomes your just-in-time learning application, which is cool, because that’s what your JIT solution will end up being in real life. Success or failure is determined, as in life, somewhat fuzzily by the reaction of the experts in real life: if you can get them to engage with your work at all, that’s a high level of success; if they actually start agreeing with you or noting things as valuable insight, even better.

I miss both producing and playing with the Schank software, just because of how much fun it was, and if I could buy those titles shrink-wrapped from the local Staples today, I’d spend my own money to buy a title a week. Heck, I may go home tonight and play the Cable & Wireless simulation, which I still have a disc of somewhere. In a perfect world the government would fund more of these sorts of simulations.

But the brilliance of the internet is how much it matches, for a certain subset of problem, the perfect learning environment CogArts was simulating in its courseware. As with the simulations, on the internet you can try out ideas without much risk, you can get information from Google on a Just-in-Time basis, and you can talk to experts about the validity of your decisions. And, yes, it’s a lot fuzzier, and I certainly don’t want my pilot to have put in 90 hours of BLOGGING, but for certain types of learning (and possible for most learning), it’s a preferred method of engagement.

In Which I Meet Our (Other) Allies

So, I’ve just stumbled into a gold mine. Via an inbound link from Stephen Downes, I’ve discovered that much of what I’ve been calling an inverted LMS has been called elsewhere a PLE (personal learning environment):

Helen Barrett receives an email from Mike Caulfield describing an Inverted LMS, which turns out to be the PLE, independently discovered. More here. She also gets a note from a graduate student, who writes, “I’m trending towards the view that the system we will end up with will use RSS to expose content, tags to organize it, and open ID to selectively share content with certain people.” Yes, as people look at the potential of online technology, they begin reaching similar conclusions. Independently, autonomously.

And it’s true! There is much overlap. But just as I’m about to object that the Inverted LMS goes further than the PLE, I find this post via connections to Downes: Leigh Blackall’s Die LMS Die! You Too PLE! And stuff like this warms the cockles of my heart. All the cockles. Every single one:

Question to the PLE: Why do we need a PLE when we already have the Internet? The Internet is my PLE, ePortfolio, VLE what ever. Thanks to blogger, bloglines, flickr, delicious, wikispaces, ourmedia, creative commons, and what ever comes next in this new Internet age, I have a strong online ID and very extensive and personalised learning environment. Actually I think the PLE idea is better envisioned by the futurist concept known as the Evolving Personalised Information Construct (EPIC). I think we already have EPIC, so why do we need the PLE?

OK — apart from the fact that his was written over a year and a half before, and that it spells personalized with an “s” — isn’t it really Enterprise Learning Systems Considered Harmful to Learning?

The gift keeps on giving: there’s apparently a tag for PLEs. I know because my article was tagged by someone under it. And among those articles are ones that deal with these questions of how loose the PLE should be, ala Blackall.

(Why so few American representatives, I wonder? It’s all Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia…)

I don’t think any of these ideas are new, really; it’s more that they’ve been refined during the long dark reign of the LMS. Looking at the network of people I’ve stumbled into I can see that they’ve been pushing these ideas outside the mainstream for some time too.

But I can’t help but feel that something is starting to happen here, when so many unrelated people are coming to the same conclusion. The very power of blogs to do what we see here — to organize people and refine ideas, to propel thought forward, to get things done — is what has revealed the LMS model to be such a cruel joke. So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that as blogging becomes ubiquitous these ideas, once considered digital utopianism, now can be expressed in very real and practical terms.

And even where the ideas are old, they now relate to a trailing-edge frame of reference — or soon will.

Over the next couple of days I’ll sift through my newly found goodies, and share what I find. I have a feeling it will be pretty extraordinary.

Marc Andreessen Supports the Inverted LMS (sort of)

This is fascinating, to me at least. Marc (are we allowed to call him Marca?) came late to blogging, but he’s clearly making up for lost time and talking to the right people.

But what I noted in his recent post was how much his view of the larger web (via Sifry) matches exactly what we’ve been talking about over here vis-a-vis the Inverted LMS (or really the Inverted CMS idea applied to education). Marc writes:

The first time I met Dave Sifry, over three years ago, he told me that conversations on the Internet would eventually all revolve around every individual having a blog, each individual posting her own thoughts on her own blog, and blogs cross-linking through mechanisms like trackbacks and blog search engines (such as Dave’s Technorati).

The advantage of this new world, said Dave, is that each individual (anonymous or not) would be publicly responsible for their own content and in charge of their own space — substantially reducing the risk of spam and trolls — and the communication would flow through the links. There would still be the risk of link spam, but at least this new world would make people more responsible for their own content, and that would tend to uplevel the discourse.

I think Dave is exactly right, and the implications of this new world are very interesting.

The rest of the post is worth reading too — it’s more of a head-nodder, mostly reiterating stuff that ALL bloggers learn very quickly, but it’s great to have it all in one place. And it has the neat advantage that you can send it to the non-believers with a note that says “From the guy that co-founded Netscape.”

I’m saying, it doesn’t hurt.

Inverted LMS Revisited: The various uses of containers

Gardner Writes has a good critique of of my Inverted LMS post, which raises a number of important issues.

So let’s say first I am both manifesto-prone and conversation-addicted, and those things generally equal out.Â

This is conversation Mike speaking.

The question Gardner poses is whether “student-centered” swings too far in the other direction:

But I’m driven to respond because the matter is not simply one of awakening from a “hasa” world into the brave new “isa” world. If only it were that simple. “Hasa” and “isa” are not alternatives. They are partners in a dance. They are both parts of the inescapable, imperfect, provisional, necessary work of conceptualization itself. Of identity.

There’s a “hasa” element in our experience that we should not reject, lest we swing from one mistake to another.

I absolutely agree on this point. The interplay between who we are and what we are contained by is inescapable.

Or rather, I should say the tension between those two models is inescapable, since we can model most things either way.

So are we entering a brave new world of isa? Partially. I heard Dave Weinberger the other day on IT Conversations, talking about his latest book, Everything is Miscellaneous. It seems related to this. One of the advantages of modern tagging systems is that we break free of having to impose a single hierarchy on things. In the world of data, you can file the spatula both in the silverware drawer and by the grill.

I think that’s a really major thing, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the ramifications of that. And at the same time I think that the chance of hierarchy and taxonomy going away completely is exactly zero. As I said in the original post, it’s too comforting. Inspired by your post, I’ll clarify even further: it’s too useful.

I’ll give a great example — in my free time, I co-run a pretty prominent online political community called Blue Hampshire. It’s run on a piece of software called Soapblox, which allows all 600 members to post their articles on the site and comment and rank them and so forth. And compared to the blogswarms I’ve been a part of, Soapblox is very much a box. You’re in that community or you’re not.

Now would I dismantle that community and break it into 600 WordPress blogs x-reffing each other? Not on your life. Or at least, not yet. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why that would be a disaster, but I’ll mention four:

1. Comfortability: People on the site very often come from DailyKos, a national site that runs similar software. They know how this system works. Why not capitalize on that?

2. Power in Numbers: As one of three managing editors of this 600 member site, I represent the community. Because we’ve pooled our effort here, I can get candidates to talk to us. I recently got all the Democratic campaigns to write up a short paragraph for us describing explicitly what their differences on Iraq policy were. Had we been seperate blogs, they never would have considered that.

3. Shared Identity and Unique Experience: People sometimes x-post to other sites, but what the community really appreciates is stuff written for them precisely. There’s something about having something very precisely keyed to members and not available anywhere else (including one’s personal blog). You see people express this feeling often in comments.

4. Policing: The nice things about boxes is you can very satisfyingly kick people out of them if they break rules of engagement.

Is all this possible in a more distributed model? Maybe. I’d say most likely. You can kick someone out of an MU aggregator by unsubscribing to their feed. You could syndicate more selectively. You could collect stats to show your bargaining power….etc.

But the point is this: the very simple model of Soapblox, for all it’s faults, enabled us to become the number one blog community in New Hampshire within three months of our launch. And more importantly, it has allowed our members to have a real effect on both New Hampshire and national politics. We’ve involved over 600 people (that have signed up to post), and we average about 70 comments and ten posts a day. Campaigns contact us, rather than we them.

And I’ll admit we couldn’t have done that, on that level, using a more loosely coupled model.

At least, not yet.

There’s a lot more I want to say, but I will end with this — where Gardner says…

But the impulse of which the LMS is an institutional perversion is not, I’m beginning to think, wholly wrong. The challenge is to re-imagine school so that the boundaries can be artful, changeable, semi-permeable, and the result of creative decisions, not administrative convenience.

…I think we’re in complete agreement.

 So if I know all this, why the manifesto?

Because I think 99% of people don’t even know there is another way. And they can’t imagine another way things might work. And frankly there’s no really extant example that goes as far into the attribute model as Blackboard goes into the container model.

So while it might seem unneccesarily Hegelian, I think we need to talk about what the antithesis is, and hopefully build it. It’s not always obvious, for example, how one might model a study group vs. a class using a less container-oriented approach. Part of that is doing what Gardner describes — understanding the good things the modern LMS/CMS has done for us.

But I think the other part is building the antithesis and taking it for a spin. It’s only in that way that we can really know it’s efficacy, and to my knowledge no one has tried that yet.

My gut is if we do this we will find ways to deal with many of these issues — if we give it a chance.