Archive for August, 2008

On Definitions

August 31st, 2008

There’s an interesting comment under that last post about the importance of having common definitions — what I’ve called “terms of convenience.” They’re terms we know mean one thing, but we use them to signify another. The key element there is that the meaning comes from context and that the meaning is known to be variant depending on that context.

Take the term “distance education.” It actually developed from an early one – “correspondence school.” The interesting juxtaposition here is that the latter is more descriptive and perhaps more accurate than the former. Unfortunately, the negative connotations accruing to “correspondence school” because of a long history of shoddy and inappropriate implementations of “correspondence school” stripped the term of any credibility. Nobody who was serious about education could afford to be associated with a “correspondence school.”

I’ve said in other venues that the first technology that allowed for the separation of teacher and learner in geography was “spoken language.” The first technology that permitted the separation of teacher and learner in time was “written language.” Everything after that is just implementation of those two basic ideas. Use an augmentation to transmit the voice directly across a distance in real time, or use a different augmentation to encode the message into some medium that can be retrieved later. In communications terms, that’s synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Every so-called “instructional technology” can be categorized into one of those two forms. They are, by the way, mutually exclusive. Some technology is “educational” but not “instructional” so I’m being precise in this definition.

Which brings us back to the term of convenience, “distance education.”

Modern distance ed goes back to the middle of the 1800s when a man named Pitman began a correspondence school to teach shorthand by mail. Television was probably the next big technological step with the “tele-courses” in the fifties and sixties where the lecture would be broadcast by TV. On footnote in this history is the “school of the air” that serves kids in Australia’s outback. Teachers use shortwave radio to teach kids isolated on the ranches and sheep stations. The general tenor of “distance education” was “correspondence school” — sometimes augmented with broadcast.

The web changed all that.

When it became clear that the web and its various affordances — pages, blogs, discussion boards, etc — were being adopted by large numbers of people, the platform became a viable one for educational purposes. Many of the courses offered online, even today, are (a) webified correspondence courses or (b) “shovel-ware” — courses where the instructor put the lecture notes and powerpoints online and runs the discussion board like a Q&A session.

There was a transitional period in the 70s and 80s with people like Otto Peters and the “industrialization” of education (what I call the University of Phoenix model) and Desmond Keegan who polled organizations who were doing something they called “distance education” to find out what comprised those programs.

Keegan’s six characteristics have been instrumental in shaping modern distance delivery but I’m not convinced that he’s done us an unvarnished service. His methodology is based — not on any theoretical foundation but on a survey. “What are you doing in this program you call ‘distance education’?” When he condensed the responses to the six most common characteristics, those characteristics became codification of a de facto standard of what makes up a distance education experience.

Unfortunately, they’re useless at defining what distance education could be because they’re predicated on what novice practitioners were doing and calling distance education. Without any kind of theoretical foundation, this set of characteristics has focused three decades of practice.

So, for the purposes of this class, at least for this one week, I’ve insisted that we examine the actual underpinnings of what “distance education” really means. We can go back to using it as a term of convenience next week where it’ll represent courses offered under circumstances where the teacher and student are not in relatively close geographical proximity at the same time. As we use that term of convenience, underneath it is the acknowledgment that all we are doing is A) using some technology to transmit the class’s speech across a distance too great to be overcome by lungs and vocal cords or B) encoding the messages for transmission across space and time using some medium other than sound.

Definition of Distance Ed

August 30th, 2008

As we wrap up the week on Definition and History, here’s my take on the definition of distance ed:

phaedrus » Blog Archive » Definition of Distance Ed
There isn’t a valid one because the construct of “distance education” is meaningless. Sure, Keegan has a nice list of diagnostic characteristics. Kearsley avoids the question. The Commission on Colleges Southern Association of Colleges and Schools defines it “for the purposes of accreditation review, as a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction occurs when student and instructor are not in the same place. Instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. Distance education may employ correspondence study, or audio, video, or computer technologies (see Morehead’s statement).” But each of the definitions is flawed by one basic assumption — that there is a distinction between distance and non-distance education.

The purpose of defining it in order to suggest what technologies might be available is a valid one. It’s useful to know if the course is “online” or “correspondence” or “compressed video” but to suggest that using the subsets of technologies available in those “labels of convenience” as somehow different than “real education” is misguided and inappropriate.

The Importance Of Teachers

August 29th, 2008

TED Talks

Got the link from a Gary Stager tweet.

When IM Is the Best Way to Stay on Top

August 29th, 2008

Interesting ‘gator fodder this morning. I love that they’re discovering the utility of ten year old technology:

When IM Is the Best Way to Stay on Top :: Inside Higher Ed :: Higher Education’s Source for News, Views and Jobs
t’s tough to keep up on your workload, whether you’re a faculty member responsible for several classes or a student juggling a full schedule. The logistical dance becomes even more daunting for those learning remotely — from computers hundreds of miles away, or another campus in the same college system.

Of course, they *have* to use the expensive system that integrates with their learner management system and will, therefore, close the door on all the students who are no longer enrolled, cutting teacher and learner off from each other on the last day of classes – terminating the friendships among the learners – and costing the system thousands of dollars for the privilege.

But hey, that’s not important. It’s only money.

Myth Guided

August 29th, 2008

Carmela picked up on the Learning Styles debate from OLDaily in her recent post and that made me think that it’s probably time to wheel out the Top Five Myths post. I’m not sure what it says that we’re going down this road so early in the class (Note the text in the reference) but perhaps it just means I’m more aware of it.

How many of these myths have we already run into in this class?

Fear Is the Mindkiller

August 28th, 2008

The now famous litany against fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune isn’t a bad anodyne for the anxiety some of you may be feeling:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I bring this up because Colby made an excellent point about worry and I had a nice IM exchange with another of you last night about a similar subject. It might be useful for you to know that you’re not alone. It’s happened in every single instance of this course that I’ve taught. I responded to my previous classes with this breakdown of “Thinking Like a Learner”

Thinking Like a Learner
This course is about learning. Paying attention to fulfilling the letter of the syllabus and grading rubric is not thinking. That’s gaming. Gaming is possible but the pay off isn’t as great.

One of the problems with trying to teach this class is that, as teachers, you’re all indoctrinated to focus on Education and a lot of what you know instinctively about learning has been subsumed. Before we can talk about how to use some of these exotic technologies to deliver instruction, we first need to get back to a basic understanding of learning. The challenge for me is to help you acquire the skills to use the tools as learners, to help you become as fluent in blogs, feeds, gators, IMs, and chats as you are with textbooks, whiteboards, syllabi, and lecture. You need to master these tools before you can expect to understand how to use them in your art. The key to that mastery is understanding how to use them to *learn* with before you try to use them to teach.

Monica's Comment

August 27th, 2008

One of the comments on my earlier post deserves some attention:

Considering Education
Education, I think is often seen as formal instruction, and learning as something that can be concretely measured.

Unfortunately, I think Monica’s right. That IS the perception.

My problem with that perception is that it’s completely backwards.

Learning — as educational psychologists have known for decades — cannot be measured accurately. One can only attempt to assess some subset of interest and then only by measuring it indirectly with a test of some kind. The more authentic the test, the more likely you get a true measure. The classic task of “making change” is a good example. I can teach you about money, and give you strategies for making change, and then assess you by a) giving you a quiz on paper, b) giving you some money to handle, or c) sending you to the store to find out whether or not you can make change accurately for 125 customers in a day (without the cash register that tells you how much you owe them).

Education is the only thing that can be measured. “Do they appear to have learned what I intended to teach them?”

Logically, you cannot ask whether or not they actually learned it, only whether or not they can demonstrate it on a given day for a given assessment. Logistically, you can’t go back two years later and give them another assessment to find out if they still know it, if they’ve made the learning part of their lives or only picked it up long enough to pass your test and move on to the next course. And you can’t test for things you didn’t intend to teach them. You don’t know what it might be – how significant or how meaningful it is. It’s not relevant to the educational experience you’re presenting, even though it might be more profound than the actual lesson.

Case in point: I did a stint as a teaching assistant in the Teacher Prep program at the University of Northern Colorado. My job was to teach Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to preservice teachers. My assessments were all intended to assess whether or not the students could use the tools to accomplish specific work related tasks. But on more than one occasion, what I taught them was that the computers were just tools — mostly simple tools — that they could master. That they could get beyond the mechanical and use the tools with students in ways that enhanced their abilities to teach. Those lessons came through loud and clear, and while I didn’t intend to teach them, they weren’t on any syllabus, the reality is that these unintended lessons in technology were the ones that were the most profound.

That’s why I teach the way I do now. The syllabus has one set of requirements. That’s what’s intended by the course, but I’m paying a lot more attention to teaching to the unintended. By doing so, I’ve learned that I can exceed those intentional objectives by orders of magnitude.

And while I learned it in school, my teachers didn’t know they were teaching me.

Network Building

August 27th, 2008

Will Richardson has a great post about a framework for assessing network building. This paragraph stood out for me, because I’ve been looking at my own network recently as well:

Weblogg-ed » Assessing Network Building
I constantly struggle with my own work in this. The last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the nodes in my network, trying to think critically about diversity, reexamining the tools I use to access it, looking at the ways I interact and what I contribute. For all sorts of time-related reasons, I’m not happy with the scope of my work right now either; it feels too text heavy, too comfortable. And, for many of the same reasons and even though I have made some changes of late, my network seems static. I need to come up with some strategies for freshening things up around here.

Looking at the nodes, yes. I’ve been looking at the nodes on my network and doing some reflection there. It would be easy to just look at the nodes represented in my ‘gator. Easy and misleading, because my ‘gator is only portion of my network. It represents – for the most part – the textual portions. There’s a whole ‘nother side represented by my twitter friends, the people I have on IM, the podcasts that load to my iPod, and the work that I produce in audio myself.

There are people that probably aren’t adding a lot to my ‘gator. With over 450 feeds there, more than a few of them get a cursory glance and “mark as read.” There are folks in my twitter-space that don’t contribute much, but I keep them because, every once in a while, they say something funny, or poignant. My ‘gator as education, news, technology, and political feeds. My twitter-peeps are split between educators and podcasters with a smattering of miscellaneous gems that I stumbled on by accident.

Then there are the avatars I know from SecondLife. And the MUDders I play with occasionally. And the folks I know (and owe a visit to) from TappedIn.

And that’s just the electronic network. I count the people I know in RL but don’t talk to all that much because I really only get to connect to them when I meet them in person. Relatives. Professional colleagues who aren’t connected (yes, and don’t get me started on them).

There’s probably part of my network that I’m overlooking.

On of the interesting challenges in assessing network building, then, is even figuring out who and what your network is. Much like trying to assess learning, there’s a limitation on that assessment which is imposed by the nature of the assessment. You can only assess what you’re looking for. Incidental learning, which might actually be a more profound learning, disappears. If I’m examining the nodes I’ve specifically added to serve – say – education, I might well overlook the developing relationship with my barrista who speeds me on my day by recognizing me by my drink and offers an interesting perception on humanity from behind the expresso bar.

Gaming : MUDs

August 26th, 2008

I’m a sucker for MUD.

If you’re not up on the acronyms, MUD is a “Multi User Dungeon” or a “Multi User Domain.” It has its roots firmly in the old “Adventure in the Colossal Cave” .. one of the very first computer games in the genre (c. 1975). It’s a text based adventure game where words paint the scene and control the action. MUDs are the precursors to the whole MMORPG movement. They’re the Neanderthals of the multi-player world, but unlike Neaderthals, they’re far from extinct.

There’s a unit in this course where you’ll be playing in the MUD and we’ll talk more about it later, but I wanted to bring it up now because one of this week’s readings is Gredler’s “Games and Simulations and Their Relationships to Learning” wherein she lays out five criteria for “educational games.”

  1. Winning should be based on knowledge or skills, not random factors
  2. The game should address important content, not trivia.
  3. The dynamics of the game should be easy to understand and interesting for the players but not obstruct or distort learning.
  4. Students should not lose points for wrong answers.
  5. Games should not be zero sum exercises.

These factors go a long way to explaining why “educational games” suck. By sucking the “fun” and the “game” out of “educational games” the value of games as instructional tools is greatly reduced.

Winning based on skill and knowledge is ok, but without random factors, some of which might be “game ending” there’s no risk. No risk means no emotional investment. No emotional investment means the game means nothing to the player. There’s no incentive to keep playing.

Games should address important concepts. I’m not convinced that a useful game needs to present useful content. There’s an exercise we use in our teacher prep programs at UNCo that uses the game Oregon Trail as an example of anchored instruction to teach the use of basic computer tools — word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The students play the game and then use those tools to do specific tasks based on what happened in the game. The *game* — a simulation of a passage to Oregon — has nothing to do with how to make a header in a Word document, but has everything to do with providing grist for the instructional mill. It adds interest, and flavor to what would be another “how I spent my summer vacation” assignment otherwise. I believe that MUDs would be terrific for remedial reading. But that doesn’t mean that the MUD has to be an adventure about how to break down phonemes and construct meaning.

As for the dynamics of the game, I’m sorry but with the exception of a very few games I can think of (Othello, Chess) the “simple games” are the “stupid games.” They’re the games you teach people to get them used to *real* games. I understand that time constraints in classrooms make complex games problematic for instructional purposes. That’s a classroom problem and not a game problem.

Students should not lose points for wrong answers?? Why not? Shouldn’t that depend, maybe, on the game? Is your score on game is your grade for the class? Is there no “let’s play again” button? This is just silly. No risk, no reward. And *maybe* there’s a reason in the game for the student not to lose points but — really — if it’s an instructional game, we’re bound by some arbitrary PC ruleset?

The last qualification rules out every instance of jeopardy and quiz games. Spelling bees, not allowed. You can’t have zero sum — every student has to be able to win the game at the same time. I’m sorry. There are very few games that have this stipulation or function. It’s the nature of the game. While it’s possible for the student to play solitare — giving everybody the opportunity to ‘win’ their own game (or not) — the ability to play in a social environment is just so much more powerful that they seem to be natural for educational applications.

There’s some interesting ideas in this article, but I’m reading it with a very critical eye. It only takes one counter-example to derail a theoretical foundation, and this foundation is pretty shaky. I think there are plenty of games that can be used for educational purposes that are not, themselves, instructional.

Which brings me back to MUDs.

Just my opinion.


August 26th, 2008

Distance education is a redundant term. You can read my take on the subject in On Distance Education.

As you’re working through this muddy field, remember that the institution has a vested interest in assuring that the classroom remains the gold standard. When the only mechanism for education was the classroom, that was an easy case to make. Once there are alternatives, defense mechanisms kick in. Arguments like “You don’t know who’s really in your class” and “Students can cheat more easily” and “I can’t tell who’s not getting it if I can’t see their body language” start popping up. All red herrings intended to create a perception of difference between “classroom” and “distance” education. Anything to maintain the status quo.

But in the words of Dr. Horrible:
“The status is not quo.”