Is OCW a “shovel-ready infrastructure project”?

More on this later, but I wanted to throw this out to see if anyone had any thoughts on it.

You’ve probably heard that to stave off the next Great Depression, the government will intervene in the form of a massive stimulus package, focused on infrastructure.

What gets interesting is not that the government may need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to get us out of this, but that there don’t seem to be enough places to spend it. Here’s Krugman on that point, several days ago:

Infrastructure spending will take time to get going — a new Goldman Sachs report suggests that projects that are “shovel-ready” are probably only a few tens of billions worth, and that a larger effort would take much of a year to get going. Meanwhile, it’s very questionable how much effect tax rebates will have on consumer demand. So it may be hard for stimulus to get much traction until late 2009 — and that’s even if Congress goes along, which may be a problem given all the bad analysis and disinformation out there.

You can see the problem — you want to spend on infrastructure, because infrastructure builds future economic success while employing people in the near term. People get employed building a light rail system, for instance, and when it’s finished it attracts business, cuts down on fuel consumption, lowers road maintenance costs, and allows employers to draw from a broader employee pool.  But there’s only so many light rail plans (and other construction plans out there) that are “shovel-ready” – designs have to be approved, things priced out, etc.

While I know construction is the gold standard of infrastructure — and a particularly effective tool for broad stabilization of the economy — I wonder if just a sliver of money could be made available for a shovel-ready educational project: opencourseware.

As Wiley and others have pointed out, OCW fits the infrastructure description. The production of OCW is a capital expense, and the American public would be left at the end of the investment with a tangible good (or set of tangible goods), regardless of whether the project continued (and this part is the key to successful stimulus — hiring 6,000 teachers only to lay them off at the end of the year does long term harm as a stimulus, whereas hiring 6,000 people to produce educational materials does not). And the same way that new roads and new cables opened up broad productivity gains in previous eras, open educational resources are likely to create benefits for some time to come.

Is it shovel-ready? I think so. The stimulus could fund a broadly horizontal project. For every school that can get 10 professors to agree to release their materials, have the federal government fund one OCW staff member. And since we’re looking to invest as much money as fast as possible, twenty professors gets you two staff members, and so on.

At that level of staffing, the demands placed on central IT should be minimal. The type of work is lightly technical, and happens to be a useful experience for any light technical worker who has been laid off and looking to broaden their skill set. There’s a strong OCW community already in place to provide newbies guidance — which should reduce the strain on central IT (or Academic Affairs, if that’s where it is run from).

I doubt this would be a huge stimulus, but it could be one small place where the stimulus might go. My back of the envelope calculation on it says it could put anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 people to work who would in the space of a year produce anything from 20,000 to 200,000 courses or other educational materials.

Definitely worth thinking about — a stimulus project that in one year catalogs the content of almost any course one could imagine, all across the U.S., while keeping the newly unemployed insured and off the unemployment rolls.

What’s not to like?

(as always, everything I say here is my own opinion, and does not represent the views of my employer, the OpenCourseWare Consortium…)

UVU and the OCWC

Jared Stein writes on his blog that UVU has decided to go open, using a very simple mechanism:

Now UVU is not just a vocational/trade school (though I daresay there is more than one administrator who would like to de-emphasize that fact now that we are a university); most of our programs are in the liberal arts and sciences, and I know faculty in those areas will be interested in sharing what they are doing, too. Because we have only recently become a university, I know we have a lot of faculty who are seasoned and enthusiastic teachers, not researchers, and that may make them more likely to share what they do best. So our approach has to facilitate these folks as well, and keep the process as unencumbered as possible. To this end, the process we have proposed neglects the OCW/OER labels, and focuses on re-licensing of UVU-owned (”work-for-hire”) content under a Creative Commons license. At this point it’s a single form, and once it’s been signed by UVU administration the faculty member will be free to publish the content under any medium available.

Jared talks at length in the post about some of the issues he’s struggled with, echoing some of Scott Leslie’s concerns about the role of institutions in sharing in general:

The most important part of this announcement is not that UVU will be engaging in opencourseware, nor even that we can officially join the OpenCourseWare Consortium—the key for me is having the chance to explore and articulate a vision for openness at UVU, and how we might proceed in a way that contributes uniquely and with impact.

Scott argues that a problem with institutionally-guided sharing is “they [the planners/sharers] didn’t actually know what the compelling need was, it just sounded like a good idea at the time.” In our case the “need” has driven me from the beginning. Instead of just saying, “Hey, OCW is cool and the OCWC has a lot of big names (not to mention the press coverage!)” I had to decide why anyone in the world would care that Utah Valley University, a former trade college, would be sharing it’s course content, activities, and educational materials.

I think there’s quite a number of people on the grassroots side of things that feel this way. When you’re in the trenches the PR piece and the recognition piece doesn’t seem to matter much. And frankly there’s always something that feels a little slimy about PR — and I say that as a person who does PR.

My feeling on this is pretty simple. The OCWC membership is a tactic, PR is a tactic, grant funding is a tactic, having lunches with your provost is a tactic, a simple form is a tactic, merit pay is a tactic.

And at OCWC we try to provide other tools you can use, finding presenters, pairing people with like interests up, trying (in despair recently) to build a healthy news network up. We’re constantly looking for other things we can offer people to get the job done. (In other words — we’re needs driven as well).

But ultimately, if people can get the job done without us, that’s fine too. The fact is the boundaries are not rigid here. If UVU is successful with their approach, I am absolutely going to get Jared’s form and put it into the toolkit as a resource — a path for people to choose if they want. And whether UVU comes on board with us or not, whether they call what they are doing OCW or not, they are encouraged to come to any and all OCWC conferences and talk with the people on the ground doing it in other institutions, or lift copy they need from the OCWC Toolkit.

In the best of worlds these boundaries are naturally blurry, because this is not ultimately about membership — its about a movement. We’re all in this together, no matter what the terms, and to my mind success is the best proof of efficacy of method. Congratulations to Jared and others at UVU on successfully pushing this through!

OCW, Pandora Radio, and the Myth of Web 4.0

Just as people I know have finally come round to using Pandora Radio I’ve grown sick of it.

I can’t remember when I started using Pandora, and as you will see in a minute, that’s part of my problem with it. The first song I bookmarked was in March of 2006, but I think I may have started even before that.

Kicking the Tires on Pandora...

I can remember how excited I was about Pandora at first. I had been crawling the MP3 blogs, sampling bands, burning CDs for local friends, and listening to web radio station KEXP for the next band to fall in love with. I ran a mailing list called culture whore, where friends and I traded recs.

It was a lot of work, frankly.

Then I turned on Pandora, and it did it all for me. No more of the inevitable Mars Volta song in my KEXP stream — I didn’t like it, bam! it was gone. It was a radio station built exactly around my tastes, always expanding, and requiring no effort from me. A dream come true.

And so I stopped trolling the blogs, stopped listening to normal Web radio, stopped making mix CDs for friends. I would just come in in the morning and turn on Pandora.

And about 2 years later (in March of this year) I quit using it, finding that the two years I had used it had been a bit of a musical wasteland for me, despite all the great bands I had discovered. And the only explanation I could give was that it had “Muzak-ed my music”.

While most people are flocking to it now, I expect that most music-lovers will follow a similar trajectory. In fact, I’ve talked in the past six months to quite a number of early adopters who are off Pandora now, and it’s interesting to compile some of the reasons they cite, with one or two issues of mine thrown in:

  • They don’t like the lack of authorship: A web radio show of the KEXP or WFMU type is put together by a person. And to listen to it is in some sense to engage in a dialogue with that person.  When John in the Morning — a DJ I have listened to since I lived in Seattle — when he plays a track off the new Pedro the Lion CD he’s making an assertion about that track, and when he follows one song with another song, moving from Sense to early Portishead, that’s something we can mentally give a thumbs up or thumbs down to — in a way that is just impossible with Pandora (sorry).
  • They don’t like the lack of an object: A radio show that occurs on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. is an object for discussion. So is a mix CD, or an album. People can listen to the exact same thing and discuss their different reactions to it. A canonical object is a shared cultural experience in a way that a randomly mixed personal playlist is not.  And while I can share my “station” in Pandora, it merely replicates my preferences — no person is hearing the same songs I am in the same order, never mind the same time.
  • The singles culture deadens you: The chunks of experience in Pandora are 3 to 4 minutes long, and delivered to you without effort. I remember the periods of my life before Pandora being marked by the albums I was listening to. I hear Superchunk’s Here’s to Shutting Up and I can remember the particular e-learning projects I was working on at the time. When Belle and Sebastian’s Boy wIth the Arab Strap plays, I’m transported to early days with my oldest daughter, a tiny peanut we rocked to sleep to the tones of “Sleep the Clock Around”. And so on. But honestly, around two years ago that association stops. My life has no soundtrack. I think that’s a combination of the things above — that resulted, as I said, in Pandora “Muzaking my Music.”

I’m back to albums and radio stations now, and it feels good. My daughter and I have been listening to the new Submarines album, and I have no doubt that she is creating memories too. I’ve re-engaged with my mailing list, and put the music blogs back into the RSS.

And it feels human. It feels like waking up after a long slumber.

That’s the problem with the Web 4.0 vision of intelligent agents — without intent and authorship and humanness — at least as part of the equation — having better music is somewhat meaningless. I’d rather have John in the Morning play stuff I don’t like 20% of the time and have that be a connection with authorship than Pandora play what I like a 100% of the time.

What does that have to do with OCW? I suppose this. There’s some talk about OERs fitting into some kind of humanless delivery system — the dynamically assembled dream of Web 3.0 or 4.0 or whatever it is. That’s good for some things.

But there is always going to be a hunger to connect with those larger authored enitities, big chunks of shareable cultural experience ordered sequentially and representing someone’s vision with which you’ll interact. Albums, Radio shows, Mix tapes, and yes, courses. If there’s a reason OCW matters in a world that wants to dynamically assemble OER it’s because the idea of authorship and voice is core to to our sense of humanness. OCW is like the album format — it’s not the only way to do authorship and voice, to humanize our efforts and allow us to share intentional experiences, but it’s one way. And that, ultimately, makes courseware worth doing, no matter what future technology may make possible.

[Or shorter version, I guess: OCW is album rock.]

If a Columnist Calls a Tail a Leg…

There was yet another Andrew Keen inspired article last week bemoaning the age of “wikiality” — an age of supposed gullibility of us internet sorts. It begins with shocking news — people are getting quotes wrong, and Web 2.0 is at fault:

Truth: Can You Handle It?
Better Yet: Do You Know It When You See It?
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008; Page M01

How many legs does a dog have, if you call the tail a leg? Four.
Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

Abraham Lincoln *

[*Note: Lincoln never said this. He liked a similar, more long-winded anecdote about a cow, but the dog version? Nope. Still, the quote is credited to Abe on some 11,000 different Web pages, including quote resources Brainy Quote and World of Quotes.

Though not technically “true,” the quote makes a nice start to this article about truth, being topical and brief, so if we want to go with truth-by-consensus (very popular now), we can go ahead and just say that he said it.]

Hesse then explains the crisis:

Andrew Keen describes it as “the cult of the amateur” in his same-named book. Stephen Colbert called it “wikiality” — meaning, “a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it must be true.

Information specialists call it the death of information literacy.

What’s really amusing about the Hesse article is that her initial example – the Lincoln quote – is an example where the web was more correct — and the web could have shown her that. The web has well known conventions for dealing with authority and making truth more verifiable, and when these conventions are embraced rather than rejected, one gets better results.

Follow along while we compare what it takes to verify truth on the web, and what it takes the “old world”…

Score one for wiki-world

Hesse seems to be claiming that the web (and it’s tendency to magnify casual opinion over scholarship) was responsible for this quote being wrong. But was the quote actually wrong? That seemed an important point — and nothing in the article seemed to prove the “Brainy Quote” version false — nothing, that is, beyond her simple assertion.

I decided to use the web to find older, more authoritative references to the “false” quote. It was easy once I realized that I should include the phrase “said Lincoln” to filter out simple non-contextualized quotes, such as one finds in quote lists. In fact, once I figured that out, an extremely early instance was on the first page of results [Note: my posting this article appears to have altered that result set]. It appears in a work called Lincoln’s Own Stories published in 1912:

Once when a deputation visited him and urged emancipation before he was ready, he argued that he could not enforce it, and, to illustrate, asked them: How many legs will a sheep have if you call the tail a leg?” They answered, “Five.” “You are mistaken,” said Lincoln, “for calling a tail a leg don’t make it so”; and that exhibited the fallacy of their position more than twenty syllogisms.

It took less than fifteen minutes to prove the Hesse article wrong: far from being an false product of the wild web, the quote has an extremely good provenance. There’s a small matter of it being a sheep mentioned, but it matches the “wiki” quotes far better than the “long-winded anecdote” about a cow that Hesse favors.

Incidentally, the web can even show you how the “sheep” may have become a “dog”: Christopher Morely uses the modified Lincoln quote in Parnassus on Wheels in 1917 citing a dog, Wikipedia shows us he was an editor of several editions of Bartlett’s Quotations, which probably explains why the quote appears in his editions of Bartlett’s in the dog variation (no full text online, but see cites here).

That doesn’t seem to me a problem of authority. And it certainly has nothing to do with Web 2.0.

Score zero for the world of “authority”

Then, I decided to try it the other way round — could I prove the Hesse version of the Lincoln quote was from an even more trustworthy source?

Here’s where it gets ridiculous — the article that is bemoaning that people simply believe what they read provides no source for their version of the quote. So whereas you, the reader of this blog, can click the link “Lincoln’s Own Stories” to verify my assertion, to verify something in traditional media requires launching a federal investigation.

To try to find the source for her quote, I took the fact that it involved a cow, and probably contained the core phrase “calling a tail a leg”. Google Web search turned up nothing of use. Google Scholar turned nothing up, neither did Google Book Search. Figuring the author probably read this in a book (or saw it in a documentary) I tried Amazon’s full text search. Bingo.

The keywords I had chosen occurred in the biography “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald. But the book was not providing a useful context snippet to Amazon. So I went down to the library, and got the book out. I looked up “emancipation” in the index — far too many pages listed. Looked up cow, and of course found nothing. Ugh.

My lunch break was slipping away. In a moment of insight, I went to the terminal in the library and pulled up I did “search inside the book” again. While the snippet didn’t appear, it gave me the page number: page 396. I turned to the page — Aha! There was the source of the Hesse version. It talked of a long-winded anecdote about a Western case involving a cow.

Which raises the question: why do the defenders of “truth” want to make it so hard to verify their sources?

I won’t belabor this much longer. The source of the quote in the Lincoln biography is an obscure quarterly from 1950, the nearest available copy of which is in Worcester, about an hour and a half away. I thought of getting the article through Interlibrary Loan, but realized from the title “A Conference with Abraham Lincoln: From the Diary of Nathan Brown” that even if I got the journal, the article relied on a diary that would not be accessible to me.

So the Hesse version appears based on a single, non-primary source which references a journal article the author didn’t read, and the journal article references a diary that neither the author of the WaPo article or the author of the biography has ever seen.

It’s a big circle of trust, none of it linkable. And yet the web people, who are insisting on verifiable, linked sources are somehow the intellectually sloppy ones.

A final check

Still, given my source was from 1912, and the unverifiable source was likely contemporary, I could only prove that the quote being bemoaned as a product of “wikiality” had a good history, and was more verifiable. I couldn’t prove that it was more likely. So I called in a favor. I used to be a search interface programmer for the amazing Readex “Early American Newspapers” project, the project to create a searchable full text database of this nation’s periodicals from pre-revolutionary times until 1876. So I emailed a person I know that still programs there. I asked them if they could punch in “Lincoln” and “calling a tail a leg” into the product and send me back the first results.

Sixty seconds later I had my answer — Web: 1, Books: 0.

What Lincoln said to the party visiting him — well, it was reported in the Chicago Tribune at the time.

And it’s not a “long-winded anecdote about a cow”, but rather, it’s much closer to that quote that appears in all those crazy wikis.

Headline: Lincoln’s Own Construction of His Proclamation;
Article Type:News/Opinion
Paper: Macon Telegraph, published as Macon Daily Telegraph;
Date: 10-23-1862; Issue: 841; Page: [3];

LINCOLN’S OWN CONSTRUCTION OF HIS PROCLAMATION — A little while anterior to Lincoln’s interview with the clerical committee (says the Chicago Tribune) a couple of other abolition fanatics found their way to the President and pressed upon him the emancipation scheme, and this was his reply: You remember the slave who asked his master — if I should call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have? ’Five’ ’No, only four, for my calling a tail a leg would not make it so.”

(Incidentally, the Readex Collection of Early American Newspapers is the most exciting thing going on in historical databases today — if your institution doesn’t have a license to it, you’re not serious about American History. Go check it out…)

I realize this is a Macon paper (hardly an uninterested party) quoting the Chicago Tribune (as was the custom in early papers). But there are plenty of other hits from other papers in the list as well — I’m staying on the clear side of fair use here, but they are there to be discovered by any user of Readex.

Suffice it to say, however, that the quote, and Hesse’s problem with it, are far more telling than she anticipated.

The subtitle of her article asks if you’ll know truth “when you see it”.

It’s a good question, but Hesse has the battery wired backwards.

The answer, from any web literate scholar, is if you make it easy for me to check it, maybe I will know it when I see it. The web does that in spades, which allows us, ironically, to repair the errors that the Washington Post generates.

The Meaningless Homepage

[Cross-posted in part at the Online Communications Blog]

Good article today forwarded to me by Jenny Darrow asking whether sites like are becoming increasingly irrelevant as marketing tools.

The answer is obvious to anyone that’s ever looked at their Google Analytics: yes, absolutely. You can see this clearly in the statistics — students come in and do a couple things in very fast succession:

  1. Check tuition cost
  2. Check financial assistance information
  3. Maybe, though hardly ever, check to see if we offer a specific degree. (They almost never look for information about the degree — the question is simply whether we have that degree).

Then it’s to a decision point — send me the application, apply online, or, in the case of Keene State — schedule a campus tour (the option we really push, since it seems to be the most beneficial to the student and to us).

Why this surprises people I have no idea. But it continues to surprise people, who wonder why we don’t put reams of material about program X or Y in between that student hitting the home page and the link to the campus tour.

The answer is that the student applying here has already made their decision before they hit the home page — or at least made enough of a decision to schedule a campus tour. Marketing information has to be done well on a site like — but it’s in broad strokes — they’ve come in sold on taking that tour, assuming you handle that last five yards well.

[This isn’t always the case with parents, who are often perusing the materials looking for the general “tone” of the college, but that’s a post for another day].

So what is that decision based on? This decision to give you a chance that’s made before they even type “Keene State College” into Google?

It’s reputation. Word of mouth, the comments on Facebook or MySpace, Livejournal articles, what they saw on YouTube, what their high-school friends that came here last year told them. And maybe even importantly for this generation, it’s what their parents may have heard on NHPR, or seen in the Concord Monitor, Newsweek, or USA Today.

And eventually, if we let it, it’s through perusing the artifacts of the truly Visible University — YouTubes of recitals, videos of football games, discussion boards of classrooms, student projects posted online.

So in a world we we cannot control what prospective students (and donors) see about us, what’s left for us to do?

I believe the key is to engage those channels in an honest and helpful way, through embracing transparency and creating a culture of engagement. In a post .edu world, that’s where our message has to go.

More on how to do that later. But give the article a gander, it’s five paragraphs, and a good starting point.

Networked Learning and Distributed Reporting

If I go often to the well of what’s going on in the Politics 2.0 and Reporting 2.0 space, it’s because few areas are going through such a radical high stakes change.

Not change in a political sense, mind you. Much of the change going on is a rather frantic bid to make sure that new technologies don’t erode existing power structures both in media and politics. But the stakes involved and the very real wakeup call received by the establishment in 2006 has led to a situation where the political space is ahead of the curve in use of new technologies and organizational principles.

So it’s no surprise that we see a glimpse of the new world of work today from Huffington Post’s Off The Bus group of reporters (disclosure: I’m one of those reporters).

It was a normal subject they covered today: Sen Obama’s campaign did a massive door-to-door operation this past weekend. The average coverage of this would be to send a reporter out to one of the 40-odd cities where this canvassing was taking place.

Off the Bus had a better idea: since they have dozens of reporters already in these locations, why not ask them all to stop by their local event, and get some basic information about the canvass — people involved, why they were there, basic turnout numbers, doors knocked on, general level of commitment of people talked to.

It was information a local person could gather in about 30 to 60 minutes, both by talking to the organizers and tagging along for a couple door-knockings. And since the people tagging along were local, they could put the information in context.

Off the Bus set up a Survey Monkey form, and mailed it out to any of their reporters who could spare the half hour. One blogger was responsible for compiling the data and putting it together, but the data was made available to all involved (in fact, the raw reports were made available to the general public).

And what was the result of this? Well, it was a mixed bag. The reporters were in many places stonewalled by the Obama campaign. Where they did tag along though, they found that for the most part support for any candidate was far softer than what polls have shown, and that people as a whole are tired of talking about the Iraq war.

Briliant? Groundbreaking?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But look at the mechanisms and philosophy on display: radical transparency (in making all reports viewable), distributed tasking, use of simple online tools such as Survey Monkey, multi-literate reporters taking video, writing copy, all coordinated through a Google group, and done at almost no cost — because the reporters are already in place…

This is not just the future of reporting. It’s the future of our networked world. In fact, it’s the present already in many industries where need for the coordination of people with different specializations exists.

Do our students know how to work this way? Are we teaching them?

I’d argue that projects like UMW Blogs do just that, showing people through that ecosystem of Google Reader, WordPress, and MediaWiki the power of the network.

(and you can add any of my previous endings here — you know the screed. Why in the world would we send kids out into the networked world with a BlackboardTM understanding of life?)

There is no “tech”. Get over it.

Via SmartMobs, regarding our millenials:

“Young people don’t see “tech” as a separate entity – it’s an organic part of their lives,” said Andrew Davidson, vice president of MTV’s VBS International Insight unit.

“Talking to them about the role of technology in their lifestyle would be like talking to kids in the 1980s about the role the park swing or the telephone played in their social lives — it’s invisible.”

The more you get into “tech”, the more you realize there’s no such thing. As any systems analyst will tell you: there are processes, and some pieces of them are automated and some aren’t. Some pieces have hardware components, and some don’t. Some storage is on paper, and some on tiny electric switches.

The process is inviting your friends out for a drink. It’s not using the telephone in drink invite mode. You don’t start out and say I need a product to invite my friends out for beers and optionally gin and tonics. And we don’t really worry that the phone is from one vendor, and the cab you take down to the bar is from another.

What we say is — hey, wouldn’t it be neat if instead of having to call everybody seperately I could communicate with them all at once? And slowly that process evolves…

What’s my point? I suppose it’s that from a process standpoint, if we see our personal algorithms as the higher order application, loose coupling has been the norm, more than we realize. And given the worldview of the current crop of kids, we’re likely to get back to that. And that’s a good and powerful thing.

Prometheus Meets the Enterprise Management System

Prometheus, holding a torch, enters a small office in a corporate IT department. At the desk is Fred, who looks up when he enters.

Prometheus: Behold, I bring you fire!

Fred: Great! We’ve heard about the fire market. Very exciting. So is that it? That flaming stick you’re holding? That’s the product? How many do we need?

Prometheus: Well, no. By “bring you fire”, I mean a set of skills by which you can create your own fire at will.

Fred: Yeah, sorry, that’s not going to work. What if our personnel changes? They’ll take these skills with them, and we’ll be stuck looking for skilled workers to replace them. How much does a firemaker cost? Do we have to pay relocation? You see the problem…

Prometheus: Yeah, but I mean, it’s fire. I’m bringing you fire.

Fred: What if we ASP it? When we need fire, we’ll have an SLA with you that you’ll bring us fire within 20 minutes.

Prometheus: But it’s not a product or a service — it’s a set of methods. The amazing thing is anybody can make their own! I can teach, you take two sticks like this…

Fred: Oh, there we go! Why didn’t you say so? The sticks are the product, right? How much are the sticks?

Prometheus: Um, nothing. Free. You can use any sticks you want.

Fred: That doesn’t sound very safe. Can you supply approved sticks?

Prometheus: No, but I can show you how to select sticks that are appropriate for…

Fred: Once again, there you go with all these skills. What happens if the person you show how to select sticks leaves? We don’t want firemakers. We want a firemaking product.

Behind Prometheus, A Systems Vendor enters, holding shrinkwrapped box.

Vendor: Behold, I bring you the Fire Management System.

Fred: Finally!

Prometheus (sulking off): I’m going back to my rock…

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.

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.