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.

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