Thursday, December 30, 2004

Blogs of Note: December 2004

The year is drawing to an end, and I'd like to briefly list a few blogs that caught my eye this last month. They contribute to the burgeoning field of online education, and help organizations and individuals keep from constantly reinventing the wheel, and to establish productive, collaborative relationships.

Full Circle Associates:
Nancy White's Online Interaction Tools Resource Sheet is the best information sheet and checklist I've seen for analyzing web-based online interaction tools. It helps one evaluate platforms, and provides a rubric for trying to make order from the chaos of the open-source offerings.

Thoughts Mostly About Learning by Stephen Powell:
Stephen Powell's post on Blackboard, Inc. had me cheering out loud (a very rare thing -- I'm a quiet person). Powell points out that Blackboard and the LMS providers absolutely DID NOT respond to the public's needs. In fact, the origins were murky at best -- how many of you remember, back in 1994 or 95, when fledgling local internet service providers (dial-up) often consisted of three or four servers in an office suite? Then, as they found they could not meet expenses, they started seeking value-add activities. Most started putting together little virtual shopping malls, or designing e-commerce sites or websites for local businesses. Others decided to offer information, directory information, recipes, e-books, dogfood, whatever -- fodder for an IPO and a subsequent boom-bust case study. The education market was always considered to be a perfect place for the "value-added" activity -- particularly as schools moved away from computer labs and static computer-based learning and more into a distance environment. The first attempts (Blackboard was definitely one of them) was designed to organize material -- and, all those who experience the first generation of all the learning management systems -- remembers how they privileged streaming media and the idea of "replicating the classroom environment." In fact, the big concern was bandwidth, as the more theatrical professors raced to buy a logitech minicam and tape their lectures. The platforms never integrated well with the types of databases that universities use (peoplesoft, oracle, banner, etc.), and never considered that faculty members might actually value their time. Learning management systems continue to be ridiculously inefficient -- an industrial engineer would have a field day with it -- what should take one or two keystrokes invariably takes 10 or 15, with potentially long, long waits as java-laden pages download over slow dial-up modems. I'm not advocating throwing out the learning management systems. They are a great place for integrated activities -- discussion boards, e-mail, content download, gradebook, roster, etc. But -- I'd like to see someone like Blogger take them on, and have an LMS that contains powerful blog elements, with a much truer type of interactivity, with wider scope of influence. Powell's post on Blackboard is welcome and important. I'd like to see him ask more questions --

Stephen's Web and Stephen Downes' OLDaily
I was delighted to read Stephen Downes' article about the dangers of predicting trends in the e-learning world, and how it distracts from the big picture by making one get caught up in the effluvium of absurd detail. He's right -- who cares if blogs are "peaking" and what of spam volumes? I have a rather jaundiced view, too, of the techie soothsayers... what is rather tragic is that, like the Saturday Night Live parody, "Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy," most people just can't tell when there's a spoof being launched. They also can't tell when there's the techie equivalent of a carnival barker or a faith healer selling immortality and fame in the form of specious "open source." I'm not saying that one should be philistine and culturally tone-deaf -- just to ignore trends or new developments. I'm also not saying one should not make a reasonable assessment of the market, the audience, and the technology employed. What I like about Stephen Downes' approach is that he foregrounds the discussion by talking about functionality and user needs: real people trying to do real tasks. This is a great approach and the secret to staying grounded.

George Siemens is one of my favorite authors, and his articles are timely and timeless. The principles are sound, regardless of the technological ephemera that may surround him, and he makes the readers think, not only about specific problems, but about the world at large. An example is the work he posted on the open source movement in March 2003. His latest post -- which more or less eviscerates learning management systems,, points to the fundamental misunderstanding about learning management systems -- that the content will teach itself, and that the faculty member will have the flexibility to engage students so that they really care about learning. It's a great article. That said, is a great resource, the blog side of it frustrates me. It takes a hundred clicks to get to any meat, and by the time you get there, you've forgotten what on earth it was that drew you there in the first place. Elearnspace's main website is fantastic -- it reminds me of a sketch for an earthwork by Robert Smithson. Believe it or not, that is high praise. The Spiral Jetty is conceptual art at its finest. By the way, Siemen's site is one of the few that is accessible to individuals with low vision who use the most common screen readers.

The Distant Librarian:
This is a clean, straightforward, and eminently helpful distance library blog. For those of you who have tried navigating the average academic / university online library portal, the experience can be, in a word, a blood-letting. Most library portals assume that everyone is a librarian and that everyone understand how to navigate in a cyberworld that has no breadcrumbs, no indications of what lies beyond the click or below the fold, or what the cryptic line of letters indicating electronic databases could possibly mean. If navigating those sites is tough, information retrieval is even worse. I suppose that anything worth having is worth suffering for. (That is the correlary to the adage that anything worth joining has its hazing phase.) The Distant Librarian is the compassionate alternative, with engaging and timely articles, and a nice blend of technical resources as well as practical ones.

The Shifted Librarian:
The Shifted Librarian has the best blogroll I've seen for edu-resources that will make one's life a bit easier, and avoid what I like to think of as the "cottage industry problem" in e-learning. The articles deal with how information can be easily accessed and shared in useful ways -- a task which, in less adept hands, leads to facile overgeneralizations without any true rigor. This is valuable -- applicable for individuals in knowledge industries of all sorts -- universities, colleges, and schools being just one sort. A heroic, valuable site.

James Farmer's Incorporated Subversion:
The results of a study / survey to determine how individuals really use OLE's (online learning environments) to achieve learning outcome objectives is presented here. The results are not exactly what one might have expected. Instead of a focus on interaction, there seems to be a focus on web "presence" -- which points to a looming problem of passive rather than active learning. It also resonates with the surge of complaints these days that Learning Management Systems encourage faculty and institutions to assume that the content teaches itself, and (worse) that content mastery is a skill that is even the least bit useful in today's world. Situated learning, and a cold, hard look at EBL (experience based learning) is something that James Farmer encourages. The fact that LMS platforms are rigid and actually discourage experience based learning is another thing altogether. Farmer suggests it is something that needs to be addressed -- urgently.

There is a great article that reflects on the fact that there have been some highly publicized cases of bloggers getting book contracts based on their popularity. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the old mp3 sites where high-traffic downloads would, in theory, translate to CDs (not just impromptu raves in "lily pad" party houses). The article raises a great point -- does the e-world (esp such an interactive one, so highly reliant on posting, comments, interactivity, blogrolling) really make the leap to paper? I suspect that in some cases, the answer is "yes," particularly if the blog has achieved a brand image, a presence -- something individuals would like to be associated with. Of course, this starts to look a lot like consumer culture, pop culture fad -- probably okay -- but there is a real danger in chasing sensation. One can run the risk of being the always one beat behind hanger-on, seeker of an identity, rather than trying to express one's ideas within the realm of community. After all, it's community that's missing from the book you buy at amazon or borders (unless you plan to discuss it in a forum -- virtual, face-to-face, or both). Blogs make it worse, in a way -- since most (including myself) am using a packaged template (after having mangled the modified template I created for myself ... weeks of work evaporated!! grrr!!) ... Blogs have a lot to be desired, too, in terms of easy indexibility... so -- the things that might differentiate a person are not quite there. If anything, blogging is an exercise in publicity, marketing, and public relations -- in addition to being a place of community building, sharing of ideas, and developing a self or presence through the power of one's creative elan.

E-Learning Acupuncture:
A very intriguingly named blog that has very valuable information. The article on Macromedia's Captivate is useful. I recently saw a demonstration of it at this year's Sloan-C conference in Orlando -- I have to say that the blog article and demo were equally useful -- perhaps even more accessible than the live demo. There is a useful article that links to resources in edu-blogging that I found extremely helpful. There is also an article I wish that every university administrator would read and take to heart: "Faculty Do Not Receive Enough Training To Teach Online" with a link to the original article: Intelligent commentary, good selections.

I thought I was imagining things ... (!) ... thankfully no -- in fact, Bloglines HAS been malfunctioning lately!! I was wondering what was up!! Even before I mutilated this blog & messed up all the settings, there were some signs that things were not right in the happy land of feeds & syndications. The latest posts and results of competitions were interesting. It's hard to feel very confident in elections and voting -- but, I think that they are a great thing to have. At the very least, readership goes up and people are curious about the nominees. I am very grateful to this -- I had not had the chance to fully investigate Crooked Timber,, and I am glad I was introduced to it and encouraged to peruse it at length. Great stuff.

E-Learning Design Challenge:
One of these days, when my confidence is restored, I'm going to submit a topic to the challenge. In the meantime, I'll be an admiring onlooker. Is there something you've found difficult to teach online? Submit it to E-Learning Design Challenge.

This is one of my favorite blogs -- well-designed, always lively, and has useful materials that I find helpful and useable. A discussion of Newsgator was informative -- the fact that the University of Phoenix has started incorporating Sims and Serious Games is BIG news & more or less overlooked by most edublogs. This bears checking out -- it is great to see a powerhouse like U of Phoenix opening that door.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Warblogging: Diverse Communities in Difficult Times

An online course dealing with war stress, team-building under duress, and shortages of equipment, personnel, and time, revealed that need that active-duty military and dependents have for a supportive community is nowhere near being satisfied, and in fact cannot be met in a face-to-face community. In fact, conditions often make community-building an impossibility.

Online courses can offer a place for community building to begin to take place, as evidenced by the online course, “Leadership in Difficult Times, which was developed in response to a stated need for a leadership course that dealt specifically with current real-life issues. Students’ essays, journals, and discussion board postings were astonishing in their intensity, focus, and eagerness to embark an in-depth exploration of issues that included post-traumatic stress syndrome, team-building under duress, and dealing with shortages of personnel, resources, and time.

Warblogging is another method used by individuals to develop a community of practice, and to share lessons learned. While one might suppose that most “war blogs” would be almost jingoistic in their stance toward war, what one finds is quite the opposite. Support for families, details of day-to-day experiences, and philosophical introspection are perhaps even more common than agenda-laden politically or ideologically-inflected blogs.

Proliferation of “warblogs” – Many started at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, and the authors lost enthusiasm or the will to keep blogging. Newer blogs are reminiscent of many personal blogs, and are similarly filled with day-to-day journaling, lists of likes and dislikes, and contain the all-important blog roll. Perhaps the most influential of the blogs are “portal blogs” such as Blogs of War, which ranks military-based blogs.

Blogs of War:
This blog contains current events as well as recommendations and ratings of other blogs. It is an absolutely incredible resource which provides not only summaries of news but also links to related sites and/or analysis. The blogroll is quite effective, balanced, and useful. The presentation is uniformly up-to-date, fair, and thought-provoking.

Active-Duty Military

Incoherent Ramblings Risawn – Fort Lewis, Washington. This is an entertaining and enlightening look at the inner life of a young enlisted female soldier who describes her life and the changes she is undergoing as she progresses in the military. Her blog has continuity and reads like creative non-fiction.

American Soldier --
Brief entries, thoughts on current events, political aspects, the media.

Deployed and in Iraq / Afghanistan / Other

A Day in Iraq -- Michael, from Fort Benning, Georgia, describes his experiences and reactions to current events during his deployment in Iraq. There are many vivid details, and one gets a sense of authenticity – something often lacking in war reporting.

My War -- -- unidentified soldier in “hell on earth” Iraq shares his perspectives, experiences, and provides a bit of a reality check as an antidote to the official media.

Aarrggh! The Home of Two of Jonah’s Military Guys -- Interesting, with commentary on current events as well as a chronicle of day to day life as a soldier.

Dependents and Military Families

Marine Corps Moms --
This is an invaluable resource for families of deployed military. As the mother of a Marine, I find that I have mixed emotions about information -- I crave it, and yet I begin to brood. What I admire about this blog is that there are stories (and photos!) of Marines. Many are deployed to Iraq, and the accounts are good to read -- they help demystify the subject, and eliminate media spin by focusing on the individuals rather than their ideology. There is a lot of information, and it is there for when it is needed. This blog is a great service and a labor of love.

Independent Journalists

Kevin Sites Blog – Dispatches from a Life in Conflict --
This is the journalist who gained 15 minutes of infamy for filming a young Marine shooting what turned out to have been a booby-trapped injured insurgent. At least this is what I understand the facts to be. At any rate, it is worthwhile to read his thoughts about the various ethical dilemmas. This begs the question – ARE there any ethics in war?

Military Retirees and Aficionados

Froggy Ruminations --
A Navy SEAL reflects upon his experiences and maintains an up-to-date resource on current Navy SEAL activities and accomplishments. This blog is only marginally interesting for those who are not SEALS, SEAL families, or SEAL aficionados.

“Grunt Poets” -- Creative Writing – Young Enlisted

Not for the faint of heart, these writings of young Marine Corps infantrymen (grunts) simultaneously shock, sadden, and give tremendous into the emotional landscape that typically hidden from view, or masked by an exaggerated “jarhead” persona.

Entrails of the Equivocate

Intensely personal and disturbing prose poems,

with extended metaphors for inner conflict
and the self-immolation that comes with
the Marine Corps experience as their psyches are melted
down and they are reformed into something
born of more than 200 years of tradition.
Influences and allusions abound –
Dante, Milton, Rabelais are just a few.
Formo a Animus
Funny, insightful, heartrending.

One is reminded of Eli Weisel,
as well as Dostoyevsky, Salinger.
Shame-Spiral Continuum
Articulate and intriguing essays on the

nature of reality, the influence of consumer culture,
the impact of media programming on our behavior.

One finds echoes of the Matrix, Baudrillard,
Deleuze, and Guy Debord (Society of the Spectacle).

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Online Writing Instruction in a Post-Derridean World

Although many students would prefer to think of good writing as something innate – or, better, as bad writing as something they have been inoculated against -- the reality is that writing is a skill developed over time.

Writing is not simply a series of talented moves or gestures. To write well requires one to think well. The writer must organize his or her argument and, on a more fundamental level, he or she must be able to simultaneously consider all the factors that go into constructing a good essay, report, article, or paper. Not only does the learner need to be able to analyze and organize facts and figures, he or she must also consider the purpose of the activity.

Some of the questions that should be invoked include the following: What is the ultimate aim? Who is the intended audience, and what characteristics to they have? In addition the writer must envision the writing task from the point of view of the author’s motives, the audience, and social context. Further, in a larger frame, it is important to understand what is often referred to as the “rhetorical situation,” a term first coined by Lloyd Bitzer, a professor of rhetoric whose research interests focused on strategies used in persuasive discourse and the construction of effective arguments. According to Bitzer, a rhetorical situation occurs when an author, audience, and a social context converge to create a rhetorical act, such as an act of writing or speaking.

The rhetorical situation is commonly depicted in the rhetorical triangle. The discourse that is being produced is considered the “medium,” because it is through this that the author, audience, and social context come together, each with a potentially mediating influence. In this case, “mediation” refers to the power it exerts to subtly change or overtly co-opt meaning.

Please keep in mind that the rhetorical triangle changes shape depending upon the kind of discourse being produced. For example, academic writing will be depicted in a different way than advertising.

In the 1970s and 80s, numerous articles were written about the “rhetorical situation,” and it achieved almost mythical status in terms of its efficacy to explain how the dynamics of persuasion work in the phenomenal world. The discussions were expanded with the notions of Jacques Derrida, who, with the concept of “differance,” (discussed in his 1981 essay, “Semiology and Grammatology”) interjects the interplay of psychology and social context, to demonstrate how internalized notions of authority further exert influence on how meaning(s) are generated. Foregrounding the act of interpretation, either conscious or unconscious, Derrida emphasizes that there are numerous factors that bear upon how the idea of the humanistic subject comes into being. That subject becomes deconstructed once its ontological pillars are undermined, and as Derrida points out, there are many ways to collapse those ontological moorings.

With the approach of “differance” in mind, as texts are produced and interpreted, it is useful to look at the activities that take place on the edges of the rhetorical triangle, and how relationships are forged. For example, the notion of identity is destabilized once we realize how it is not an absolute, but it protean, metamorphosing element, which changes in response to dreams or fantasies, social pressure, which can create tensions between the ideal and the real, the flawed original and its perfect simulacra. The subject, which in this case, would be writing and speech, are likewise destabilized by “differance.”

In 2004, with e-mail, the Internet, text-messaging via pdas and cell phones, the model continues to be useful. What tends to add variables are sub-categories of context and author. For example, the context may be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of both. What this means is that the realm of academic writing has expanded and that it is more vital than ever for the writer to understand the conventions of the particular genre or occasion, and how they shape reader expectations.

Writing for college is a fairly complex task and the conventions are not always expressed as clearly as one might hope. For that reason, it is vital for a learner to have taken at least one course that focuses exclusively on academic writing. This will form the core for skills, knowledge, and analytical thinking which will be expanded and built upon as the student progresses. Although there is wide latitude in the degree of formality found in writing for college, the boundaries for a particular writing occasion can be very narrowly constrained. This can cause frustration for the learner who has not acquired the conceptual, analytical, or problem-solving skills to able to successfully negotiate the situation.

That said, there is no reason to fear academic writing. The same basic building blocks reappear in many places and are applied in many situations, with modifications made in accordance with the writing occasion.

For example, the basic building block, the paragraph, is used not only in constructing essays and research papers, but is also required in essay exams that require expository writing. The ability to shape an argument: present a clear thesis statement, with supporting evidence requires processing and understanding the system of logic that underpins the argument.

Writing for college may seem a bit daunting at first, but ultimately it is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have. Not only is it a self-esteem builder to be able to structure an argument, it is deeply affirming to be able to communicate with others who have similar goals and interests, that is to say an affinity group.

In addition to writing essays for example and communicating with other learners, it is also important to be able to successfully produce academic essays. There are a number of genres or “modes” to manage. These are either presented as stand-alone essays or they constitute components of a larger work, such as a research paper, thesis, or dissertation. The forms most frequently encountered in academic writing are the following:

Extended Definition: In addition to definitions and descriptions of the thing under consideration, this essay explores how it is that we know. Evidence is critical, as well as clear sentences. Although essays are often “stand-alones,” many times this is section of a larger paper.

Chronological Narrative: While creative non-fiction utilizes this mode in the construction of memoirs or histories, it is also important to be able to write this type of essay. These are used in histories (in history, international relations, political science, sociology), as well as in presenting biographical background and a notion of the provenance and evolution of an idea within a research paper or thesis.

Compare-Contrast Essay: While it is hard to imagine a research paper or thesis centered on comparison-contrast, the ability to write a well-formed essay is important, particularly for essay tests.

Taking a Position: One can argue that all expository writing is a variation of this, or at least incorporates some of the structure. Argumentation and persuasive writing involve careful planning, not only in gathering research, but also in bringing together evidence and constructing the logic that will help support one’s position.

Process: This is an essay which includes how to do something or tell how something happens. It is very important for individuals who will take technical writing courses.

Cause and Effect: Cause and effect essays are widely-found, and they provide an excellent opportunity to look for logical fallacies and inadequate evidence.

Here it is useful to emphasize again that there exists a close connection between writing and thinking. To write well requires one to be able to think flexibly and about the various aspects of the rhetorical triangle. The more cynical writer may dismiss this as a call to generate clichés, and that academic writing merely asks the student to subjugate individual difference in order to conform to a rigid pattern. This is most often presented as an objection when students are asked to submit their writing to automated grading systems such as, or when they are writing for a standardized test such as the SAT that utilizes similar artificial intelligence-fired programs.

However, instead of generating clichés, writing in a mode or genre can be profoundly stimulating, even liberating, inasmuch as it allows self-expression and the construction of possibility, new ways of looking at, perceiving, or conceptualizing the world.

Much, of course, depends on the rhetorical situation. This means considering all the factors mentioned earlier, and more. The following questions resurface, but rephrased in ways that allow conscious deconstruction of the argument, subjectivity, and relationships between the sides of the rhetorical triangle: Why did the author write the piece? What were the conditions under which it was produced? What was the context? What was the goal of the writer vis-à-vis the readers? How was language employed? How is the writing intended to function within the world? What are the assumptions and beliefs of the audience? How does the social context in which it is read and produced influence the production and interpretation of the text?

To appreciate this task, the learner must learn how to conduct what is often referred to as a “close reading” of the text. This does not mean simply capturing the denotative content of the argument, but instead, requires readers to become active interrogators, and to be able to ask questions that begin to reveal the issues surrounding the rhetorical triangle: intended audience, perceived social context, conditions under which one anticipates the text will be read.

At the same time, such questioning will also begin to allow elements to surface, even though they may begin as disguised or submerged. For example, underlying assumptions within the argument that include beliefs, ontological positions with respect to the validity of “evidence,” cultural constructions, notions about how it is that we know (tests of the “real”), and when and how something is considered to have meaning, and/or be meaningful. However abstruse or perversely recondite these concepts seem at first encounter, it is definitely worthwhile to go to the effort to understand them and their implications. Awareness, self-consciousness, an ability to construct effective questions, and highly-evolved analytical skills are as vital for learners in college courses as for instructors, guides, and general inhabitants of the planet.

Recently, literary analysis, close reading, and the writing process have begun to preoccupy themselves with understanding how it is that learners become motivated to write essays. Instead of looking only at form and engaging in a close reading of the text(s), there has been a fervent focus on “situated learning,” and “embodied experience.” First developed by J. Lave in 1998, the concept of “situated learning” suggests that “learning as it normally occurs is a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs (i.e. it is situated)” (Lave 192) and “contrasts with traditional classroom learning activities which involve knowledge which is often presented in an abstract form and out of context” (Lave 193).

Thus, to be most effective, it is important to structure activities so that they have a grounding in something that is perceived as ontologically tangible. That can be a person’s experience, current events, current perceptions and beliefs, or a set of activities centered on a community of practice. “Anchored instruction” occurs in a setting when an instructor deliberately “anchors” or “situates” the activity. It follows, then, that college writing learning and teaching activities should be designed around a `anchor' (or situation) which could be some sort of case-study or problem situation. In preparing for the writing activity, the readings, discussion materials, settings to analyze should allow exploration within the essay or text produced.

By establishing a point of contact, the activities are perceived as relevant to one’s life, and also useful in helping explain the world at large. The motivating aspects of this cannot be overstated. Instead of simply checking a box and satisfying a requirement, the students find that their activities help them untangle and understand their world. It invokes Kenneth Burke’s notion that literature (and by extension, writing) is “equipment for living.”

Useful Additional Readings:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. and Introduction by Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. The Gulf War was presented like some star wars video game, a simulation of a war. Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist, wrote an essay that the Gulf War did not happen. Many critics miss the point and assume that he means that it did not literally happen. That was not his point. His real criticism was the way that the conflict was presented. The media was not allowed to really report the war.

Perhaps the American military learned from Vietnam. Vietnam was presented on television many times in an unedited manner to the American public. The American public turned against the war.

Thus to Baudrillard, never was there a true conflict during the Gulf War. America won before the first bullet was shot. The video presentation of the war only demonstrated the constructed nature of the war. War is hell and should never be edited. If it is allowed to be edited, the true lessons are lost. Baudrillard commented that even the idea of peace was a simulation. Saddam Hussein was allowed to stay in power. (Now we return). Having spoken to Gulf War veterans, they emphasize the true horror of that conflict. They are beginning to write about the battles that were not told. – Wayne Stein

---. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Biesecker, Barbara A. "Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from Within the Thematic of Diffé rance." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 22.2 (1989): 110-30.

Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1 (January, 1968), 1-14.

Bransford, J.D. et al. Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Sprio (Eds), Cognition, education and multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 1990.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.

----. (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

----. (1941). Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941.

Derrida, Jacques. Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. and Richard Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

----. 'Freud and the Scene of Writing," Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978: 195-231.

-----. "Semiology and Grammatology," Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981: 26-33.

Kaufer, David S. "Point of View in Rhetorical Situations: Classical and Romantic Contrasts and Contemporary Implications." Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979): 171-186.

K-B Journal. (Kenneth Burke Journal). Accessed November 7, 2004.

Kenneth Burke Society Homepage. Accessed November 7, 2004.

Lave, J. Cognition in Practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. Situated Learning: Legitimate Periperal Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

McLellan, H. Situated Learning Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1995.

Miller, Arthur B. "Rhetorical Exigence." Philosophy and Rhetoric 5 (1972): 111-118.

Smith, Craig R., and Scott Lybarger. "Bitzer's Model Reconstructed. Communication Quarterly 44 (1996): 197-213.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Sims, A.I., and Online Writing Instruction

Sea-changes are already occurring in online writing instruction as A.I.-driven programs, video game-based simulations, and customizable avatar-driven chat complement and sometimes even supplant the threaded discussion boards, chat, peer-reviewed papers, file-sharing, asynchronous collaborative learning and assessments of the most popular learning management systems.

Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven programs are being incorporated in the writing curriculum in order the help students become more aware of grammar, spelling, and usage issues, as well as to prepare for standardized tests, such as the new machine-administered and graded essay section of the SAT test. Other AI-based programs include those designed to detect the used of published sources (potential plagiarism and academic honesty issues). These programs can be used in conjunction with conventional LMS-driven online programs, or can be used in hybrid courses that feature some online as well as some face-to-face instruction. Specific programs include automated writing tutors and automated essay scoring such as My Access! by Vantage Learning ( Plagiarism detection programs include ( Intellectual property theft can be detected by i-thenticate (

Integrating Automated Writing Assessment into Writing Instruction

Learners who are having difficulty with grammar, word usage, style, and other mechanics of writing can benefit from automated writing assessment. This is particularly useful for learners for whom English is a second language. Further, when combined with more creative activities, it can allow the instructor to focus on more customized activities. For example, the automated writing activities could be the equivalent of a writing lab, or the kind of language laboratory used in language instruction.

One of the most popular programs is MY Access! by Vantage Learning ( This is how they describe their product:

MY Access! provides more than 100 specific writing assignments and assesses the quality of the writing not just on a grade-level scale, but also in five domains of writing: focus & meaning, content & development, organization, language use & style, and grammar & mechanics. MY Access! gives detailed strategies and lesson plans for each of these specific areas. MY Access! keeps track of the learner’s writing over time to see how he or she is progressing in each area and tracks their improvement.

The drawback is that “canned” prompts (writing assignments) can be boring, and thus fairly demotivating. One way to avoid that is to have students share their experiences on a discussion board. Another way is to make the “canned prompts” relate to the more creative writing assignments to be read by the instructor. This provides scaffolding, and helps continue the trend of “learning by doing.” It also allows some questioning of the automated feedback.

Avatar-Centered Synchronous Group Chat (and Possible Guided Learning Activities)

The next step in valuable learning experiences using sims and AI has been to integrate customizable avatar-centered multi-player “rooms” for live chat, and multi-player video game-based simulations with opportunities for reflection, exchanging news and views with classmates, writing papers that are anchored in the sim or the avatar experience, and participating in peer reviews of papers. ( is an avatar and “world” provider, which allows the subscriber to customize the shape, costumes, hair, and general appearance of their characters. It even allows one to develop costume design, which has led to a cottage industry for a number of participants, who have developed their own clothing lines, then make them available for sale via e-shop and e-auction. In addition, individual players can decorate a dream home. Needless to say, these provide enormously entertaining and productive learning experiences, when situated and framed within a set of tasks and assessment rubrics.

The following screen shots from a “fan site” at demonstrates how players customize their characters, and how the dialogue shows up in the balloons. For the IM (instant messenger) generation, this is a very comfortable way to communicate. The key for the instructor is to make sure that the spaces are refereed and that learning activities are taking place. The instructor becomes the virtual facilitator

“Worlds” are customizable, as well as the characters. This provides opportunities for an instructor to create scenarios, and to facilitate activities that involve role-playing and negotiation. For courses in fields such as social work, psychology, human relations, and communication, such activities can help overcome the negative stereotypes associated with rigid text-and-static image online interactions.

For entrepreneurship and marketing classes, the fact that the designs are for sale is something to consider. For example, one subscriber has developed a line of fashion items which can be found and even purchased at Simlove Designs

Before thinking that this is a perfect place to take care of one’s Christmas list, it is important to take note that these fashions are for the sims, and that one cannot purchase the items with money, but must use “T$”s, which are earned in the simulation, in, and by other aspects of sim-commerce.

Black Dragon Boots: $T3400. is one of the most flexible of the customizable sim worlds, and requires a bit more planning on the part of the instructor than the courses that simply utilize an existing simulation video game.

Utilizing an existing simulation game requires different instructional strategies. For example, one can then require students to form teams and then compete against each other. Or, if they play individually, they can respond to a set of reflective questions on a discussion board, or in a forum in which individuals can share their experiences. For example, Small Ball Baseball is a free sim, downloadable onto a pc via a download site: The game gives players an opportunity to be a manager / owner and build a baseball team that will compete in leagues and tournaments worldwide.

Depending on the interests of the learners and the objectives of the course, free sim games can be utilized in a number of ways. Because the approach is problem-based, there are many aspects that can be analyzed, and the game can potentially be utilized in many types of classes. Perhaps the most universal use would be to apply it to a first-year composition class, where students could write a number of essays, ranging from process, extended definition, taking a position, to a full research paper.

Learning Strategies

How does the use of video-game based simulations, A.I.-based programs, and an integrative sim / learning management system approach accomplish learning goals? Many learning strategies are accommodated in this way that simply cannot be touched in any other way, even in face-to-face instruction.

---More identification takes place when one has a chance to role-play, particularly when they are able to create a persona, and they have choices in developing their virtual identity.

---Mastering semiotic domains gives rise to flexible thinking, and the development of a new “vocabulary” in terms of one’s new affinity group.

---In the virtual space, there is a psycho-social moratorium, that gives individuals the chance to act outside the bounds of their normal groups. Participants can take risks as they role-play, and their real-world limitations are lifted.

---Self-knowledge is enhanced through virtual, interactive role-play, particularly if it is guided by a mentor or facilitator, so that certain learning objectives are met. Learners become aware of their own abilities, tendencies, and patterns to approaching the world, particularly if some of their activities involved self-reflection.

---Situated learning makes connections to embodied experience, and thus connections to real life are maintained, making it a more dynamic and relevant experience.

---Key information is available “on demand” and delivered “just in time,” so that learners gain experience in acquiring information in that way.

---Culture is embodied in the learning experience and the learner gains knowledge and experience in negotiating the group environment.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Adding Sims and "Serious Games" to E-Learning Now

The recent "Serious Games Summit DC" brought home the fact that simulation, in some form or another, should be a part of all online programs, higher ed and corporate training. This article discusses how to incorporate free or commercially available serious games and sims in one's online courses and programs, and the kinds of instructional strategies that are most effective.

The summit was held October 18-19, in Washington, DC, and it attracted a standing-room only crowd of game developers, military contractors, and representatives from various industries, including health, communications, education, financial services, transportation, and manufacturing. Although the focus of the summit was on developing "serious" games (games that transcend entertainment and are used in industry or the military), there were indications that a sea change has already occurred, and the question is not whether or not serious games (or sims) are effective, it is how to most effectively deploy them. Cost-effectiveness is always a consideration, and many games are now available on pda and gameboys. Case in point is Guidance Interactive's Glucoboy (R), which will be discussed more at length later in this article.

Although video games and simulations have been around for a long time, the interactivity and the fact that they can be multi-player, with the ability to modify the simulated environment makes them more useful than ever, particularly in training teams, or utilizing team-based training. According to Jim Piggot, CEO of
Team-Play Learning Dynamics (TPLD, Ltd.), the ideal "serious game" needs to be multi-player or at least use AI to created a simulated decision environment. Needless to say, this is not very effective if avatars can't be modified or customized, and if cultural beliefs and potential knee-jerk reactions can't be introduced by the players. The game needs to be "smart," with the ability to "learn" (in other words, be trained based on patterns). That said, for team-play to be most effective, there must be surprise elements; which is to say that randomness and unpredictability are vital. Entrepreneurship and safety education were mentioned as amenable to interactive multi-player serious game development, particularly if the goal is to raise awareness of causal relationships, likely outcomes, and potential catastrophes.

One of the most hyped serious game is one intended for children, and is to be played on a Nintendo Game Boy. Actually, to call
Glucoboy a game is a misnomer. Actually, it is simply used as a data collection device, which rewards the user for entering data and for achieving target levels by activating games. The intended users are sufferers of juvenile diabetes, whose behaviors need to be influenced in order to keep them maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. Glucoboy encourages children to check their blood sugar levels, to maintain a healthy level, and to be aware of the dangers of allowing their levels to get outside a desired range. It is an ingenious combination of cognitive and behaviorist strategies.

Based on the level of interest and the types of presentations made and arguments presented, one could start to make a case that serious games (and even not so serious ones) can be incorporated into all kind of learning environments, with positive results. With the multiplayer, distributed aspect of things, it could be possible to have a "sim" unit accompanied by a discussion board, where students share their results, insights, and responses to guided questions.

ER: The Video Game (Legacy Games - PC)

This is a narrative-driven video game based on teh television series. With a release date of October 25, 2004, it one of the latest of games based on television series, including reality television. The narratives could provide students with an opportunity to explore medical ethics, discuss appropriate medical procedures, and explore human behavior under stress.

Cold Case Files (Activision, Inc.: Release September 14, 2004)
Criminal justice courses could be beefed up with content and multi-player interactions as individuals follow the narrative to solve the cold cases. Along they way, they could learn about forensics, legal proceedings, affadavits, evidence-gathering, rules of evidence, abnormal psychology and deviancy, sociology, and creative problem-solving.

Flight Simulator - FS Flight Ventures (Abacus - Release October 5, 2004)
This would provide one with a basic familiarity with instrumentation and the concepts of flying.

Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 (Frontier Developments, Inc.)
Zoo Tycoon (Microsoft)
Tycoon games are great sim games, spawned from the original mainframe computer games utilized in engineering and marketing courses back in the 1970s where teams would manipulate variables to see what the consequences of widget marketing and widget manufacturing decisions would be in a multi-player environment. With Sim City and all the worlds after that, sim games became big, big, big -- especially those that combine fantasy (theme parks are perfect for that) and humor (hence, the zoo). Both of these games would be perfect in entrepreneurship classes, as well as strategic planning, creative problem-solving, and team-building.

The Political Machine
Needless to say, the life expectancy of this game is down to almost nil, but doesn't everyone want to be a virtual Lee Atwater (of Bush / Dukakis fame), or Karl Rove? Political strategy takes a back seat to understanding semiotics, the impact of image, the manipulation of stereotypes and cultural truisms, and media-inflected and constructed reality. This is a great complement to psychology, political science, sociology, public relations, and English (cultural studies / rhetoric & comp) courses.

Law and Order: Justice Is Served (Legacy)
The narrative is this: "A talented tennis player is found dead before the start of the U.S. Open. It is your job to follow the clues, put together the evidence, and convict the killer. You'll be helped by detectives from Law and Order." The easy decision would be to use this video game in conjunction with criminal justice classes to help illustrate forensics, legal procedures, and criminal law. However, it could be a perfect complement to an English composition course which requires individuals to make a case and support their conclusions or hypotheses with evidence.

Virtual U:
This is a free sim game, downloadable from the website. In it, the player is the president of a university or a college and must increase enrollments and maintain profitability.

Small Ball:
The players must manage and train a baseball team. Although this is not necessarily multi-player, it could be made collaborative by assigning teams to decide key decisions. Also, each week could have a new scenario, guided by an instructor. For example, the facilitator could require students to sign certain pitchers, or make certain questionable decisions. Then, the players could choose how to compensate for the bad decisions. Discussion boards could allow individuals a place to share.

This is an absolutely outstanding free download for courses that require students to understand the complex world of logistics, and how they relate to economic development. The game asks players to make decisions to solve economic and transport problems within a sim city or environment.

Wall Street Challenge:
Virtual Trader:
Although Wall Street challenge focuses on New York, and Virtual Trader is British, both games allow players to explore the intricacies of stock trading, and to understand what various terms mean and how they play themselves out in real or simulated situations. Of course, it's better to learn with sim money than real money, so I'm thinking that this game would be even better than assigning extra points for joining a student stock market association, or something of that nature. One can also start to gain an appreciation of one's tolerance of risk, and trading styles.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Dreaded “Sage on the Stage” Comes Back -- In the Discussion Boards!

When you think of a professor-dominated discussion board, do any of the following things come to mind? a) the instructor is a pompous know-it-all; b) I'd better be careful and make sure and say what the instructor wants me to say; c) I don't want to respond to a classmate's question -- what if I'm wrong and the professor sees it?; d) It is time-consuming to read the professor's responses to everything, and I don't have time for my regular assignments; e) I want to be encouraged, not overwhelmed; f) It is boring to read my classmates’ postings because they are simply parroting what the professor has already said, and are not willing to ask tough questions, or make intellectually challenging statements.

One of the most enduring beliefs about online education is that it transforms the passive learning experience one finds in a classroom where the professor lectures while the students sit and wordlessly take it all in, into a dynamic, interactive learning experience that puts the student in the driver’s seat, with the instructor as a kind of driver’s ed teacher seated in the passenger’s side, but with a dual brake – essentially a “guide on the side” to keep you from killing yourself.

But, does that really happen in ordinary practice? Sadly enough, it is not unusual to see cases where the discussion board does not function as a non-punitive environment, nor does it encourage the open exchange of ideas. Instead, I see all the negatives of the “sage on the stage” passive, professor-dominated classroom, along with a few other negatives thrown in, which include learned helplessness, bullying, intimidation, self-censoring, unreflective echoing of professor lecture notes, and other behaviors.

I've tried all sorts of techniques in discussion boards, and one thing I keep wondering about is this: if the professor responds to each posting, does it discourage students from working with each other? For example, I've noticed that the students in certain classes will be extremely responsive to each other's questions, especially when it is posed as "Does anyone know... ?" When I see that occurring, I prefer to take a “hands-off” approach. My thought is that if I jump in and answer the questions, it will discourage students from developing a sense of community. However, am I abandoning or neglecting the students?

I prefer to think that I am fostering creative problem-solving. Others may accuse me of slothful indifference. They may not realize that I’m reading all the postings. I will only intervene when it is a question that no one but the instructor can answer.

I like minimal instructor intrusion in the discussion board area. Of course, math courses and the sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) are another issue (as you point out). Even though a student may have the problem worked out, he/she may not be able to explain it thoroughly. That said, I still think it is useful to have "virtual study groups."

Some of these ideas are based on what happens in multi-player video games -- instead of waiting for an "authority figure" to solve problems, people become resourceful and develop functional teams and engage in "just in time learning." These thoughts and principles are spelled out in James Paul Gee's wonderful book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning. He is a professor holding an endowed chair in the College of Education at the University of Wisconsin and is highly respected in his field. He was a keynote speaker at the International Conference of Educational Multimedia held in March 2004 in Quebec City, Quebec.

What Gee had to say absolutely captivated the audience -- he criticized traditional classroom learning and demonstrated how people learn in video games -- they figure it out & are rewarded all along the way -- and, they enjoy it, because it is a fascinating, tantalizing puzzle, as well as a test of skills and wit in a multiplayer environment. It teaches people to think and to problem-solve, and NOT to regurgitate memorized facts and figures, which are immediately forgotten.

I asked a few students, in a very unscientific survey, what they thought about it. I received some eye-opening responses. Here are a few of them, paraphrased and presented in the order in which the students tended to respond. It is a rather informal indicator of relative importance.

--- A sense of community and trust cannot happen in a discussion board where the instructor intrudes and inserts comments after every single posting.

--- Responding to each posting freezes out real discussion, and turns into "trying to please the teacher.”

--- Students are nervous about answering each other’s postings. "Learned helplessness" sets in as students wait for the teacher to give them the "right" answer rather than relying on each other. It also pits students against each other in a potentially negative environment of competition rather than intellectual exploration.

--- The professor is not “listening,” but pontificating. It is more effective when the professor responds only occasionally to individual postings, and once a week to sum up general trends and issues. If there are specific points to clarify, or to provide additional information, professor postings are welcome.

--- Professor postings that include graphics are effective, especially if they illustrate a point without being shocking or going off in an unrelated direction.

--- Humor and a positive tone are infinitely more effective than a didactic, preachy, “I’m-always-right” tone.

--- Badly utilized thread techniques create cognitive chaos. A nicely-ordered and arranged threaded discussion board is very effective, particularly when color coding is utilized.

--- Including links to lengthy examples (math problems, etc.) or lecture notes is better than putting it in the discussion board itself.

--- Discussion board topics should clearly relate to the course itself. This seems obvious, but it is ignored or disregarded every day. Derailing the conversation and starting to veer off into murky and potentially controversial territory is something that frequently occurs. It is perfectly okay for the instructor to remove irrelevant and improper posts (after notifying the person doing the posting, of course).

--- Rigid scoring rubrics discourage posting. There should be some leeway given to creative “flow.”
I’m going to embark on a literature search and start to develop a survey instrument to address some of these issues. It might be interesting to see how a “best practices” sense emerges, particularly in terms of different disciplines.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

e-Blogs of Note -- October 2004, Part I

The E-Learning Queen takes a look at a few e-learning blogs that have caught her eye, and prepares to brief her instructionally designing cats (if she can find them). E-learning blogs are featured, although some are more wide-ranging than that, and deal more with broad social and technological issues that impact our understanding of how e-learning is evolving.

e-Clippings: *Legero*Cogito*Scripto Not only is the design first-rate, with fantastic use of images, screenshots, and typefaces, e-Clippings is probably my absolute favorite in terms of visionary blogs – ones that really seem to catch the wave of what is looming coming to us in the near future. I completely agree with Mark Ehlert's notion that it is time to start a wiki on e-learning blogs. I suppose the only challenge is to develop certain criteria and categories to help with classifying the emphases. That will not be easy, since the very nature of e-learning is to be interdisciplinary and to cross boundaries. Eventually, it will probably come about that blogs will be places where individuals can share their favorite learning objects, shareable content objects in general, and editing / blogging utilities programs of all types. Ah, who says that the old 2COWS vision died with the dot.coms? If we all pay for a little piece of the system, it pays for itself. e-Clippings brings back that old, wonderful energy, that idealism and vision. Can something be sizzling and refreshing at the same time? See for yourself.

Full Circle Associates Online
Nancy White is, in a word, inspiring. Her blog, Full Circle Associates Online Interacion and Community Blog, reflects her commitment to the use of Internet technology to help bring about positive change. Community is definitely a touchstone concept here – her communities are ones that come together because of a shared vision and a need to develop tactics and support for bringing to fruition.

Albert Ip – Random Walk in E-Learning
Albert Ip’s theories and writings about how good narratives are the key to effective simulations are invaluable for any researcher or instructional designer seeking to understand how one could incorporate simulations in an online course. The idea that narrative-driven simulations can be useful even without graphics is good to contemplate, particularly in a video game-inflected world. This is appropriate not only for business and marketing simulations, but for leadership, team-building, and a multiplicity of other applications.

Soul Soup
Wonderful feeds, with valuable commentary. Soul Soup creator Anol has a great sense of what is interesting and useful to people at this point in time, and he covers a wide range of topics. I like his sense of humor – his incorporation of drawing and designs is absolutely delightful. I love the “If Cats Could Blog” contrasting with “If Dogs Could Blog.” Many articles and links that help individuals think about the implications of new developments.

Excellent discussion boards. My favorite topic: “Ten Damaging E-Learning Myths.” The topics and blogs that are covered are engaging and deal with the way that people really use the Internet at home, in academia, in the office. A commentary on a recent blog, “IM and Work” caught my eye. Just as I thought that IM was beginning to lose a bit of cachet, esp. in the workplace, it seems to be back.

Jay Cross Internet Time Blog

A few weeks ago, Jay Cross posted thoughts on the lightning-fast changeovers from IE to Mozilla Firefox. His arguments and points made seemed remarkably thorough and cogent – and, after reading other articles on the topic, I now believe so even more fervently. I don’t Mozilla yet – I burned myself on browser-browsing, but I have to admit I actually liked Mosaic, and the Netscape products (Netscape Composer is still used to teach basic web editing!), and Opera. Jay’s thoughts encourage participation and a general willingness to beta-test again. His Furl page is quite a nice resource as well.

Excellent discussion boards. My favorite topic: “Ten Damaging E-Learning Myths.” The topics and blogs that are covered are engaging and deal with the way that people really use the Internet at home, in academia, in the office. A commentary on a recent blog, “IM and Work” caught my eye. Just as I thought that IM was beginning to lose a bit of cachet, esp. in the workplace, it seems to be back.

y Cross Internet Time Blog

A few weeks ago, Jay Cross posted thoughts on the lightning-fast changeovers from IE to Mozilla Firefox. His arguments and points made seemed remarkably thorough and cogent – and, after reading other articles on the topic, I now believe so even more fervently. I don’t Mozilla yet – I burned myself on browser-browsing, but I have to admit I actually liked Mosaic, and the Netscape products (Netscape Composer is still used to teach basic web editing!), and Opera. Jay’s thoughts encourage participation and a general willingness to beta-test again. His Furl page is quite a nice resource as well.

Michael Feldstein has some insightful things to say about the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) and how it relates to the Sakai project and other open source initiatives. Before the emergence of wiki’s, I was very skeptical about the viability of anything a) collaborative; b) open-source; c) true sharing (no infomercials). They all seemed to be a variant of the “we don’t have a business model, but we’re so cool it doesn’t matter” mindset. Not to be cynical, but such initiatives often exploit idealism – the ones who chumpishly keep working for “the dream” or the “stock options” while the guys behind the IPO are long gone. Thankfully, OKI seems to be a different breed of cat. The wiki concept certainly does – witness Wikipedia – it’s successfully raising money for hosting (and quite modest bucks -- $50,000 needed vs. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is looking at $2 or $3 million to keep it from having to go subscription-only). At any rate, the particular focal point here is on educational tool design. What a relief. For anyone struggling with variations of LMS’s, the most pointlessly frustrating process has to be the use of the tools. This is a great example of the power of collaboration – getting the designers, the programmers, and the users together to see how people really use their tools, and where the process snags and slowdowns occur. I’m looking forward to the next set of conversations.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Learning Object Production and Implementation: UT Telecampus

Learning objects produced and implemented for multiple e-learning applications. Jennifer Rees and Michael Anderson of UT (University of Texas) Telecampus discuss an innovative, large-scale project that required the expansion and development of learning objects. Interest and discussion in learning objects has picked up considerable steam in the last year, Jennifer Rees points out, which has resulted in the circulation of multiple definitions of what constitutes a learning object. Jennifer and Michael participated in an online interview with Susan, which was first published in Xplanazine. Susan was thrilled with the thoughtful, detailed, and accessible descriptions of learning objects, their development and implementation, and was delighted to be able to share the interview here.

Most agree that the learning object is a small, digital, accessible, transferable packet of information. From there the definitions vary and may include something as simple as what we call an information object - such as a jpeg or gif - to a learning object as complex as a medical simulation. When the use of learning objects (LO) began in the arena of corporate training it was simpler to define. As it migrated to the arena of higher education's online offerings and was tied to multiple instructional design theories, the complexity of the definition grew.

Michael Anderson, Manager, Course Development and Technology ServicesAnderson leads a team of instructional designers and multi-media programmers. Course developers work with academic and corporate partners to create and oversee innovative online courses. Technology staff administer course hosting, manage technical support services, and design and deliver solutions including a 15-campus student information system.

Jennifer Rees, Manager, Communication ServicesRees leads a team of communication specialists to promote awareness and understanding of the UT TeleCampus and the online programs it supports. Services offered include website design and content management, surveys, market research, graphic design, advertising placement, media relations, publication design and organizational communications.
Overview of the TRACK projectOn February 16, 2004, the University of Texas TeleCampus launched a free (grant funded) web application named TRACK (TAKS Readiness and Core Knowledge). The site is designed to help prepare 11th graders for the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) exit-level test administered throughout Texas beginning spring 2004. Students must pass the 11th grade exit-level TAKS to graduate.

The UT TeleCampus (UTTC) was charged with design and delivery of a dynamic, highly-interactive program that would provide students, teachers, and parents the ability to access informative webpages, sample diagnostic tests, and learning materials in the four subject areas tested under the 11th grade TAKS: algebra and geometry; biology and integrated physics and chemistry; English; and social studies. Ultimately, 230 diagnostic items were selected for use in the site along with more than 340 learning objects, comprising 400 hours of instruction.

The plan's important and noteworthy strategy to take a learning object approach in developing TRACK learning materials represents a departure from the standard approach to Web-based learning materials. Tactically, UTTC needed to distribute the learning object design and development workload to as many authors as possible in order to meet the ambitious schedule. Typically, a large organization might require two years to develop a comparable amount of material. The project was developed in six months and saw more than 50,000 registered high school student users in its first 90 days live on the Web.

--- A Discussion with the UT TeleCampus about Learning Objects -

(Rees)Interest and discussion in learning objects has picked up considerable steam in the last year, resulting in the circulation of multiple definitions of what constitutes a learning object. Most agree that the learning object is a small, digital, accessible, transferable packet of information. From there the definitions vary and may include something as simple as what we call an information object - such as a jpeg or gif - to a learning object as complex as a medical simulation. When the use of learning objects (LO) began in the arena of corporate training it was simpler to define. As it migrated to the arena of higher education's online offerings and was tied to multiple instructional design theories, the complexity of the definition grew.

(Anderson) The definition we've used for learning objects for a while is fairly simple: a digital resource that can be reused and supports learning. But that's just the definition.

More important are the characteristics we've attached: our LOs are:
o encapsulated and discrete: objects are self-contained and do not depend on anything external; they can accept and send data through an interface point, but everything an object can do is represented by its message interface.
o discoverable: objects contain data about themselves so that other objects know how to use and communicate with them. Metadata is the implementation of discoverability.o coherent: objects utilize internal navigation for a consistent UI presentation layer.
o responsive: objects provide a feedback loop to the learner (and perhaps others) for verification of the learning outcome.
o polymorphic: objects have the ability to change at the moment they are called; this ability is represented by accepting messages (such as userIDs) and sending messages (such as assessment results) to provide object individualization.

(Rees)So what this means to our learners, whether they are high school students or graduate students, is the interactive learning content they receive online will support learning and will arrive via a common user interface that doesn't cause users to spend more time on navigation than learning content. What it means to us here is we can efficiently (time and finances) build encapsulated parts that, through good instructional design theory, can be woven together in various (but not unlimited) ways to convey knowledge - a verifiable process from viable student feedback.

(Anderson)With the more than 100 graduate and undergraduate online courses we offer each semester, we typically build rather than encounter LOs. But whether we are creating or viewing LOs, 90 percent of UTTC online course content is built using LOs. Faculty develop self-contained lessons (or modules or topics or sessions--you pick the name) around a learning objective (perhaps several); that objective is taught via content pages (text and images, Flash, audio, JavaScript interactivity, video, Java--you pick the technology) and assessed (self-contained quizzes, external high-stakes tests, uploaded homework documents, mandatory discussion board posts, group design projects presented in a synchronous chat session--you pick the assessment type). More important than where we've used LOs is why we've used them: for the most part, by virtue of the design modularity, we've used LOs to prevent our content from being "locked up" inside an LMS.

(Rees)That's an important point to consider. Since we launched in 1998 we have used three courseware platforms. With the first we had the content locked in each course. When we went to switch vendors it took the better part of the year to convert the courses to the new platform, during which time we were essentially at the mercy of the vendor. When our second LMS was purchased and we needed full-scale course conversion again, the content, which had been packaged in LOs, was converted in one month. Michael's team has built a course in our current LMS detailing our process.

(Anderson)The first conversion was literally one page at a time, copying and pasting the text into Dreamweaver; right-click and save the image; change the image SRC parameter to match the saved file. Once we had pulled all of the assets, we constructed self-contained LOs that were packaged as zipped files and uploaded. It did take a year. For the second conversion, we downloaded the dozen or so package files per course from Prometheus and uploaded those same dozen files to Blackboard. It took a month.

The best explanation of how the objects are built is located in the UTTC Capabilities course, as well as the TRACK project. We acquired hundreds of objects from outside sources for TRACK, but for UTTC courses, the objects are built inside the UT System. The process for identifying and selecting TRACK LOs was iterative and collaborative: teams of teachers and curricula experts surveyed Web and CD resources to identify materials that matched the TAKS objectives; the teams then analyzed, debated, and ultimately scored the materials in online discussion forums; when acceptable LOs were located, we negotiated with the owners for non-exclusive distribution rights. If no objects could be located, or if negotiations failed, LOs had to be produced by the TRACK team.

The priority was to cover every learning objective broadly and add depth as time permitted; the primary goal to launch TRACK with at least one LO for every objective was accomplished. Where LOs had to be built by the TRACK team, this primary goal demanded simultaneous subject development; as a practical result, we set up a Social Science team (90% created by TRACK), an English team (100% created by TRACK), and a Math/Science team. The latter group created relatively few new objects (20%) but integrated assets (information objects) such as video clips, PowerPoint slides, PDF documents, and test item banks into a customized QuickTime player and Flash self-assessment engine.

The TRACK project is an expansive test readiness program. One point of particular interest in TRACK is the use of LOs from multiple sources given a common look and feel. I think it's important to note that because LOs are independent pieces doesn't mean they have to look like it. But, the plan to take a learning object (LO) approach to the development of TRACK learning material represents an innovative departure (NLII, 2003) from the standard "all-encompassing textbook" approach to Web-based learning materials. The plan was predicated on both strategic and tactical goals.

Strategically, we needed to design the learning materials in such a way that they could be easily and constantly (perhaps on a monthly schedule) updated with new materials. Tactically, we needed to distribute the learning object design and development workload to as many authors as possible in order to achieve the ambitious schedule. Typically, a large organization such as the University of Texas Dana Center might require two years to develop an entire 4-subject online curriculum; a commercial developer such as Lightspan might require a $5 million investment. The TRACK project demanded the same breadth and quality of content with 25% of the time and 10% of the budget.

(Rees)Yes, Michael brought in two short-term contract Flash designers and teamed them with his designers. The teams produced an impressive volume of LOs in very short order and with extremely effective results based on pilot study and survey results. It was critically important that we used educators to help gather the initial "seed" content that Michael's team used to create the TRACK LOs.

(Anderson)Fortunately, the extremely granular nature of the TRACK learning content-based as it is on well-defined and specific TAKS (the state mandated test - Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) objectives-lends itself to an LO approach. The acquisition of the learning content was developed by first establishing teams of experienced classroom teachers who surveyed and selected applicable Web resources, including commercial sources of digital content whose assets could be repurposed for Web delivery. The end result from the teacher teams was a series of maps, tables of content of the best the Web has to offer, keyed to the specific TAKS objectives.

(Rees)One of several formidable skills that Michael's group brought to the project was their diligence in creating an elegant, seamless user interface. Students and teachers using TRACK would never know that TRACK's content had been farmed from a multitude of sources because of the interface design.

(Anderson)That was a concern we addressed early in the design process. The potential drawback of the LO approach is cognitive dissonance as students move from a blue Flash animation to a green Java simulation-was addressed in two ways:
(1) a coherent and comprehensive interface menu and navigation was developed aftersurveying the initial collection of objects for the presentation layer of the learning objects;
and (2) the development by the teacher teams of bridge material which would serve to provide a consistent voice and tone and a common structure of:
(a) applicability and contextualization of the object to the TAKS objective;
(b) the object itself; and
(c) a self-assessment, summary, and transition back to the learning objective.

The result is a heterogeneous collection of world-class, multimedia-rich learning materials tied together by a strong narrative thread.

The learning objects are managed as zipped package files. The questions around naming protocols, directory structures, and functions are more applicable to information objects-smaller "chunks" that compose our learning objects. The distinction (for us) is important. For example, for some institutions, a photo is a LO; at UTTC, it is not. We made a decision NOT to catalogue objects at that fine a level (although we sometimes regret that decision when we are hunting for a specific image) because the expense (time) spent describing and then searching exceeded the expense (time) to recreate the information object. Because we manually assemble LOs (as opposed to using a machine to assemble them), we are not as dependent upon the extensive metadata generated in cataloging functions.

(Rees)The metadata tagging Michael has mentioned is a growing topic of concern in the world of LOs. Designed to be efficient and financially viable, a repository of LOs is useless if it's inaccessible by vague or inadequate catalogs. To be a true LO, the object must be discoverable, yet it's equally inefficient if the cataloging itself is so time-consuming that the cost to do so exceeds the value of the content itself, which can happen if you aren't setting some parameters. Michael is intimate with the work of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative for this subject, but chose a different naming convention based on our specific needs.

Since the UT System wasn't planning to individually distribute the LOs external to the System, but did need to access, edit and redistribute the objects, the naming protocol for TRACK was based on the TAKS objective and the accompanying Texas Essential Knowledge (TEKS) expectations. The compilation of these objectives comprises the questions/topics of the TAKS test. LOs are named thusly for quick, efficient reference: Subject Area/TAKS Objective/TEKS Objective/LO Identifier

While we're on the subject of metadata it would be good time to express concerns that we have here at the UT TeleCampus with regard to discussion of metadata being an 'end all' solution where machines simply compile LOs from repositories and create online courses. We disagree with that model for higher education. Using Wiley's (David A. Wiley, II, The Edumetrics Institute, Utah State) metaphor of metadata being like the content and nutritional value labels on cans, we'd like to take that metaphor a step further. Just because you could see a list of contents on a series of cans on a given grocery store shelf does mean pouring them together would make a gourmet meal. Good instructional design and good designers have to be involved in bringing the content together appropriately.

(Anderson)Exactly. Think of the difference too in the way a teenager might prepare a meal with little knowledge of recipes and then think of Julia Childs. This goes beyond tags and content into having deep understanding of how the pieces fit together.

(Rees)Yes, and again as Wiley points, the references in the last few years to LOs being like LEGO blocks is overly simplistic (and maybe even dangerous) for the same reason. We agree with his suggestion the metaphor move to atoms, as LOs are like atoms in structure and scope. They are small objects, but not the smallest, and they can be assembled to create larger objects; however, not every atom can be bonded with every other atom effectively. Just because a LO exists on a given topic does not make it the appropriate choice to package with other LOs in the goal of supporting a specific learning outcome.

One of things I've been thinking about is referential metadata. By adding qualitative statements to the metadata we can know more than say, this LO is a ___ file size, 32 second html doc based on ___ instructional theory covering the 1812 war. We can know, this LO is a 32 K html doc (etc) covering the 1812 war that was effective in raising scores for females in 10 - 12th grade. There's nothing in the object-oriented model that says it can't pass and receive messages. Of course, this is problematic from a variety of privacy points, but it's interesting to explore.
Finally, LOs are intimately related to SCORM, a LO specification that is becoming a de facto standard. For UTTC, LOs must be SCORM-compliant in the use of variable names.

(Rees)The UT TeleCampus partners with more than 100 faculty in a given full semester. It's both impractical and impossible for Michael's team to create the courses completely in-house. His department and our Student and Faculty Services staff work with faculty from course approval through course delivery providing a myriad of training and support services.

(Anderson)Faculty will be the managers of LOs in constructing a course, but (most) faculty will rely on course development teams to build LOs. The message interface aspect of LOs has our attention--and seems to hold the most promise.

Even the "infinite" variety of LOs promised by massive online global repositories comes down to this: some really cool computer-based interaction that eventually gets boring. However, if you concede that LOs include a message component, we can enable LOs to "talk" with other objects: tests can be posted to grade books; RSS feeds can be pulled into pages and pushed into blogs; student interactions can be tracked and guided; teams can explore and learn and solve complex problems together in an immersive, communication-rich online community. In what seems at times a silent digital wilderness, voices can be heard.

(Rees)To see what LOs look like in the real world, feel free to access TRACK. By going to the TRACK website at you can follow the links to the login page. Create an "other" account (please do not create a student account - we want the diagnostics available exclusively to the students using them in Texas) and explore subject areas.

(Anderson)And bear in mind that not all content is appropriate for LOs. The top five considerations:* Is this content valuable enough to build as a LO?* Is the size of the content appropriate for a LO?* Does the content have clear learning objectives?* Can mastery of the content be assessed via feedback?* Do the concepts build in complexity over the LO?

There are many, many people joining the discussion about LOs. A few leaders that come to mind include: Wayne Hodgins for the term and the analogy. David Wiley for the ontology and OSS. David Merrill for making sure "something happens." Ruth Clark for the cognitive theory. Ellen Wagner for application in performance support. Stephen Downes for insisting on RSS. Andrew Gibson for exploring the pedagogy. Chuck Barritt for the RIO/RLO model. Grady Booch for OO-software. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The UT TeleCampus is the centralized support center for online education among the University of Texas System's 15 academic and medical research facilities. To learn more:

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