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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Text Representation and Cognitive Processes: How the Mind Makes Meaning in e-Learning


Since e-learning relies still relies heavily on text-based learning, it is very helpful to have a basic idea of how the mind makes meaning from discourse. Understanding how the various forms of textual representation operate will help one design more effective instructional materials, activities, and assessments. According to discourse theorists, written language has the following aspects or components in the text itself, which consist of Surface Code, Textbase, and Situated Text. It also helps to understand the factors that influence how an individual processes that language. Finally, the mechanisms used for comprehension matter a great deal when one is trying to achieve uniform learning outcomes. Achieving standard outcomes is simply not possible without first understanding when and how to activate relevant knowledge, and then how to guide the learner so that he/she acquires skill in selecting the correct meaning-making processes.

Podtrac Player

Regurgitation? Look to Surface Code.

Surface Code. Surface Code preserves and presents the exact wording and syntactical structure of the discourse.

*Surface code is rarely remembered more than a few minutes.
*To remember surface code, the individual must rehearse, repeat, recycle verbatim the text that has been read or identified by its visual appearance. This is often done by means of verbal repetition. The ability to repeat the words does not have any relation whatsoever with comprehension.
*Implications: Avoid quizzes that require verbatim repetition; or, alternatively, when asking students to memorize lists, make certain they are used later as the foundation of categories or classification schemes.

Language Bridges and Glue: Textbase

Textbase. Textbase is made up of propositions that construct "the representation of a particular event, action, state or goal expressed in the text." It consists of predicates (action) and arguments (subject).

The function of textbase is basically twofold, and involves the following two activities:

*help comprehend events, action, etc.
*help link other propositions and force connections, relations, hierarchies

If one thinks of textbase as what glues things together, or what creates bridges from one to another, it makes it perhaps a bit easier to conceptualize the best way(s) to develop instructional materials.

Effective instructional activities could include having students accurately identify the relationships of content (true-false, multiple-choice are useful for this), and to create maps of how the conceptual bridges work (and where they go).

For example, causal relationships, compare-contrast, and extended definitions can help students understand the relations, not just with textbase, but also in more complex aspects, described later.

The connection to life, experience, reality: Situated Text

Situated Text. Situation Model (mental model) is the nonlinguistic, referential context of what the text is about (Graesser, Singer, Trabasso, 1994).

This is where the student applies his or her knowledge of the world to the content. It is also where the instructional activities should map relationships between the content and the outside / external world. This can be done by providing background and history, by taking an interdisciplinary approach, and by incorporating activities to build deeper understanding.

*Interactions and connections between prior world experience and the surface code and textbase
* Critical in e-learning because it forms the foundation of future learning.
*Implications: Develop readings and instructional materials rich in potential connections with lived experience, and maximize resonances. Also, be sure to incorporate essays that build deeper connections and which situate meaning. This includes compare-contrast, extended definition, process, causality, and argumentation.

Levels of Discourse: Author? Genre? Factors that influence how a person assigns weights and categories

Levels of discourse matter because they help students move from the specific to the general, and to develop meta-cognitive awareness and flexibility with the subject.

1. Communication Level. The Communication Level focuses on the audience, and involves adjusting the presentation of the message to meet the needs of the intended audience
*Reader can also try to imagine the author and the author's reasons for the arguments

2. Genre Level. The Genre Level "assigns the text to one or more rhetorical categories" (Graesser)
*Text genres can be narrative, expository, persuasive, descriptive
*If a person believes the narrative to be from a newspaper, they will process it differently than if they think it is a from a work of literature.
*Literature tends to be compared with other novels of the same genre; newspaper articles tend to be read in terms of connections with one's experience or other events in the world.

The Comprehension Mechanism:

Three aspects of the comprehension mechanism:
1. Code: Needs to understand the language and the genre
2. Process: Activate relevant knowledge
3. Skill: be able to identify the appropriate meaning-making strategy

The reader's background is important, and as is his or her experience in problem-solving and interpreting text.

*Knowledge of the world influences text comprehension
Action: Link to outside resources
Action: Relate to what readers are likely to know

Conclusions, Recommendations, and Implications.

*Background knowledge is useful and helps trigger the transfer of information

*Negative transfer can happen when there are no points of contact and students relate things to the wrong items.

*Superficial similarities between things helps speed the data transfer

*Experts will have a different experience with text than novices. Spontaneous connections will be made, whereas novices will need to have pathways defined for them. It is also helpful to provide novices with background material, such as links.

*People prefer causal structures

*Construction-integration occurs in the analytical process, and creates neural networks, or mind-mapping.

*Embodied cognition (Glenberg, 1997) suggests one should limit the meaning of something to what it means in the real world, and not the potential denotative meanings embodied in the language

*Avoid abstract symbols, concepts represented in a way that acknowledges limitations based on real world / real body.

Take the survey!

Useful References

Davidson, J. E., & Sternberg, R. J. (2003) The psychology of problem-solving. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Glenberg, A. M. (1997) What memory is for. Behavior and Brain Sciences, 20, 1-55.

Glenberg, A.M., Wilkinson, A.A., and Epstein, W. (1982) The Illusion of Knowing: Failure in the Assessment of Comprehension. Memory & Cognition, 10, 597-602.

Graesser, A. C., & Clark, L. F. (1985). Structures and procedures of implicit knowledge. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Graesser, A. C., & Millis, K. K., & Zwaan, R. A. (1997). Discourse comprehension. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 163-189.

Graesser, A. C., McNamara, D., VanLehn, K.. (2005) Scaffolding Deep Comprehension Strategies Through Point&Query, AutoTutor, and iSTART. Educational Psychologist 40:4, 225-234

Graesser, A. C., Singer, M., & Trabasso, T. (1994). Constructing inferences during narrative text comprehension. Psychological Review, 101, 371-395.

Hacker, D.J., Dunlosky, J., and Graesser, A.C. Eds.). (1998). Metacognition in
Educational Theory and Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

van Dijk TA, Kintsch W. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.

Voss JF, Silifies LN. (1996). Learning from history text: the interaction of knowledge and comprehension skill with text structure. Cognit Instruction; 14: 45-68.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Eating Disorders and the Extended Definition Essay for Online Writing Courses


It is an ironic counterpoint to the obesity epidemic. Adult women weighing as little as 56 pounds and so malnourished that their bodies are shutting down continue to starve themselves, continuing to believe that they are fat, or are teetering on the edge of out-of-control weight gain. Any sense that the weight loss was to become more attractive wears away as one looks at the frighteningly skeletal bodies. When one compares "before / after" photos, one finds oneself wanting to blurt out that the anorexia or bulimia-driven woman looked more attractive before, even if she considered herself a bit plump.

Although the quest for thinness may seem admirable, when it spirals out of control, so do the negative health consequences. Among the more common side effects of induced vomiting are extreme tooth decay, ruptured esophagus, seizures, heart arrhythmia, stroke, and even heart attack. Victims who suffered fatal heart attacks include Karen Carpenter. Terry Schiavo, whose case became a flash-point for quality of life and right-to-die debates, fell into a coma as a consequence, according to medical experts, of practices associated with bulimia.

Because eating disorders touch almost all women, either directly or indirectly, it is a topic that is quite engaging for first-year composition classes.

Sample Structure for an Essay

Interest-Engaging Illustrative Scene:
Varieties of eating disorders in action. Scene of a person who suffers from anorexia. Scene of a person who suffers from bulimia. A scene of a person who suffers from pica.

Eating Disorders Overview: What are they?
What are eating disorders? What are common types of eating disorders? Anorexia, bulimia, pica, etc. Who suffers from them? Where and why? This should be a brief overview.

Types of Eating Disorders:

Type 1: Anorexia (long paragraph - 125 words or so)
What is it? What are the most common behaviors? How common is it? Which well-known people have suffered from it? What happens to people with this kind of eating disorder? What are the physical and psychological consequences? What are some of the reasons for it? What are possible treatments? Are they successful?

Type 2: Bulimia (long paragraph - 125 words or so)
What is it? What are the most common behaviors? How common is it? Which well-known people have suffered from it? What happens to people with this kind of eating disorder? What are the physical and psychological consequences? What are some of the reasons for it? What are possible treatments? Are they successful?

Type 3: Pica (long paragraph - 125 words or so)
What is it? What are the most common behaviors? How common is it? Which well-known people have suffered from it? What happens to people with this kind of eating disorder? What are the physical and psychological consequences? What are some of the reasons for it? What are possible treatments? Are they successful?

Aspects of Eating Disorders

Aspect 1: Psychological Aspects
What are they? How do they manifest themselves? Are there connections between depression and eating disorders? Anxiety and eating disorders? Affiliation needs?

Aspect 2: Sociological Aspects
Do individuals acquire eating disorders as a response to social pressures? Is it a behavior that is both condemned and condoned by one's peer group? How might sociological pressures present themselves? How does the media influence perceptions? What can one say about the eating disorder (anorexia, in particular) websites that seem to encourage and promote eating disorders?

Discussion and Analysis
What are some of the trends? What are your opinions? What do eating disorders reveal about our society or our ideas about ourselves?

E-Learning Resources on Composition (Blogs, etc.)

The Shifted Librarian has excellent resources which can help any composition student conduct effective online research.

Weblogg-ed's discussion in defense of Wikipedia is indispensable for anyone who wonders how and when to use Wikipedia, given recent scandals, such as the "punk'd" bio of Sagenthaler. What better place to virtually "punk" a person than a respected resource? No one would have believed it if the fake bio had appeared on The Onion (!)

The Online Learning Update discusses the latest developments and attitudes toward online learning. The links and articles are quite valuable for instructional designers and instructors.

Alan Levine's Cogdogblog has interesting discussions about e-commerce techniques and carefully considered responses to the wikipedia debate, as well as lively exchanges on current e-learning practices.

Burks On Learning contains useful links and insights into the highly user-friendly software for podcasting and blogging. The focus is on adding media-rich content, and engaging readers. Students and instructors alike will find his blog very helpful.

Stephen Downes' OL Daily is a treasure trove of articles and insights, ranging from news you can use today, to thought-provoking research and e-learning articles.

Jane Knight's e-Learning Centre contains extensive resources of use for individuals in every phase of e-learning course and program design and administration. The "Showcase" of e-learning courses provides access to examples of best practices in action.

Key Words for Searches:

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Karen Carpenter
Margaux Hemingway
Princess Diana, Diana Spencer
DSM-IV Handbook
Eating Disorder Treatment centers
Eating Disorder Information centers

Useful Websites:

ANRED: Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders

Facts About Eating Disorders.

Speech Given by Diana, Princess of Wales, on Eating Disorders.

Anorexia and Hollywood (photos of a woman who weighs around 56 pounds. I wonder if she is still alive...)

Dangerous Extremes: 48 Hours Investigates

"Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self" by Lori Gottlieb
"Wasted: A Memoir" by Marya Hornbacher
"Inner Hunger: A Young Woman's Struggle through Anorexia & Bulimia" by Marianne Apostolides
"My Life as a Male Anorexic" by Michael Krasnow
"Starving for Attention" by Cherry Boone-O'Neill
"Solitaire" by Aimee Liu
"The Art of Starvation" by Sheila McLeod
"My Name is Caroline" by Caroline Adams-Miller
"The Monster Within: Overcoming Bulimia" by Cynthia Rowland
"Diary of an Eating Disorder: A Mother and Daughter Share their Healing Journey" by Chelsea Brown Smith & Beverly Runton
"Dying to Please: Anorexia Nervosa and Its Cure" by Avis Rumney
"Dark Marathon: The Mary Wazeter Story; The Ongoing Struggles of a World-Class Runner" by Mary Wazeter (Mannhardt) with Gregg Lewis


"The Best Little Girl in the World" by Steven Levenkron
"Kessa" by Steven Levenkron
"Hunger Point: A Novel" by Jillian Medoff
"The Passion of Alice" by Stephanie Grant
"Eve's Apple: A Novel" by Jonathan Rosen
"Perk" by Liza Hall
"Life Size" by Jenefer Shute
"My Sister's Bones" by Cathi Hanauer

Friday, December 09, 2005

Diverse Teams: Key to Effective Online Collaborations


Diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in higher persistence, satisfaction, and retention. This applies to e-learning as well as face-to-face settings, and is reinforced by work I recently rediscovered which was published more than ten years ago by teams investigating the impact of diversity on team performance.

Comparing task performance of homogeneous groups against the performance of diverse groups revealed a number of rather surprising things about how diverse groups interact with each other and achieve defined outcomes.

Performance was measured in two separate categories:

1- Problem-solving;
2- Quality of interaction between group members.

The researchers, W. Watson, K. Kumar, and L. Michaelsen (1993), found that the level of diversity of a team did have a measurable impact. Within the confines of their research, a "diverse" team was one that contained at least two or more nationalities and three or more ethnic backgrounds.

In this case, heterogeneous groups out-performed homogeneous groups in interaction, and in problem-solving (where the tasks were not complex) when the groups were short-term.

Group heterogeneity

1- Stimulated productive discussions
2- Increased the number of strategies employed in problem-solving.

Other findings included that

1- Small tasks are more effectively performed than complex ones;
2- Short-term groups are dynamic and characterized by high levels of productive interaction.

While these findings may seem self-evident, upon close examination, one sees that the results are almost counter-intuitive. Instead of creating confusion or miscommunication, there is a new level of clarity. The is attributable to the fact that diverse groups interact more and are solution-centered. The higher the level of diversity, the more solution-focused the interaction.

The implications for online collaborations are multiple:

1- Encourage diverse groupings
2- Assign tasks with simple structure, which can be accomplished rapidly
3- Avoid complex tasks and problems and create building-block structures
4- Ground tasks and activities in a real-life situation that has an objective correlative in the phenomenal world, which is to say, make it something the group members can relate to, and which can help them in their lives.

There are many implications for future research, both in terms of workplace virtual collaborations and online learning. It might be interesting to see if there is a relationship between the level of communication and interaction in a diverse group with satisfaction and persistence.

Clearly, collaborations that frustrate team members lead to a failure to persist and such demotivating collaborative activities negatively affect completion, satisfaction and retention rates. If the converse is true, it would be very useful to take a close look into how diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in persistence, satisfaction, and retention.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Goal-Setting and Self-Regulation in Online Courses: The Basics


Goal-setting, which is an aspect of self-regulation, can be a vital part of an adult student's success in online learning. It increases motivation dramatically, not only by building in rewards, but also by increasing skill levels and perceived self-efficacy.

In 1979, Locke and Latham published a landmark paper that presented their research on self-regulation and motivation, which involved logging industry workers in the American South and the West. The findings suggested that when individuals are able to set their own goals, and if they are provided the support and resources they need to achieve the goals, productivity increases. This article proposes a goal-setting model that includes the following components: input sources, achieving goal commitment, overcoming resistance to goal acceptance, goal attributes, support elements, and performance. Benefits include high performance, role clarity, and pride in achievement. It also identifies possible dangers of implementing goal-setting. Employees may become dissatisfied by the failures, may be tempted to take short cuts, and may ignore non-goal areas.

Later, Locke and Latham published research that established connections between goal-setting, self-regulation and job satisfaction. It grew out of Locke and Latham's original research, as well as from the Wurzburg school on intention, task and set, Lewin on aspiration, and Ryan on intentions. The results are that goal specificity is key to developing motivating goals. Commitment to goals is also seen as a key element if performance is to be impacted in a positive way. The connections between goal-setting and work satisfaction are revealed to have a direct connection to expectancy theory. High expectancy and specific, high goals will lead to satisfaction when mediating mechanisms such as effort, persistence, direction, and plans lead to contingent and non-contingent rewards.

Further building on earlier research, White developed an evaluation instrument designed to determine how goal-setting relates to the actual performance of university students. The instrument measured the both the goal-setting attitudes and behaviors. Findings found correlations between specific and clear short-term goal-setting and academic performance.

Definitions and Key Concepts

Self-regulation is the way an individual monitors, controls, and directs aspects of his or her cognitive processes and behavior for themselves.

Self-regulation involves the following cognitive processes:

1. Planning: organized steps, includes goal-setting, developing a strategy, and identifying obstacles;
2. Monitoring: involves the ability to observe, acknowledge, and measure progress toward one's objectives;
3. Evaluating: involves assessing outcomes, gauging progress;
4. Reinforcing: reflection and recognition of success, involves reward.
Goal-setting involves self-regulation and is very task and outcome-oriented. It also requires one to develop cognitive abilities and skills.

Application to Adult Online Learners

Self-regulation: Adult learners are beneficiaries of self-regulation because it allows them to create order out of an often chaotic existence, and it helps them organize time, energies, and resources. This is a vital element as adults seek to balance career, family, travel, goals, dreams, and responsibilities.

The following are steps that will help the adult learner build skills needed for self-regulation:

1. Planning.
Set goals => must identify goals
Develop a strategy => analyze the task, describe the desired outcome
Prior experience and knowledge => identify useful knowledge or experience

2. Monitoring
Determine progress => observe and measure
Fine-tuning => identify needed adjustments
Re-assess desired outcomes => Propose changes in order to attain goal

3. Evaluating
Assess strategy => was desired outcome achieved? was it done easily? efficiently?
Lessons learned => Is there anything to modify or incorporate in future attempts?

One of the most widely used approaches to goal-setting is the SMART model, which was developed and popularized by Stephen Covey. The SMART model below includes adaptations for adult learners.

S = Specific - Make the goal very specific, both in terms of time and tasks
M = Measurable - Monitor progress, and recognize when the goals have been achieved
A = Achievable - Impossible goals are very demotivating
R = Resourced - Adult students should always invest in resources needed
T = Time-based - Realistic time frames, with short-term and long-term goals

Useful Articles

Assor, A., Kaplan, H, & Roth, G. (2002). Choice is good, but relevance is excellent: Autonomy-enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviors predicting students’ engagement in schoolwork. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 261-278.

This article reports the results of a study to determine how teacher behavior, and self-regulation affects the level to which students engage in their schoolwork. The findings suggested that teachers who were able to explain the relevance of the schoolwork to the students and to model self-regulation had more success in encouraging students to engage with the schoolwork.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Boekaerts, M., Pintrich, P. R., & Zeidner, M. (Eds.) (2000). Handbook of self-regulation. San Diego: Academic Press.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist. 57, 701-717.

Locke E A, Saari L M, Shaw K N & Latham G P. (1981) Goal setting and task performance: 1969-1980. Psychol. Bull. 90, 125-52.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P (1979). Goal setting – A motivational technique that works. Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1979, 68-80.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). Work motivation and satisfaction: Light at the end of the tunnel. Psychological Science, 1, 240-246.

Pervin, L.A. (1992). The rational mind and the problem of volition. Psychological Science, 3, 162-164.

Schunk, D. H. (1995). Self-efficacy and education and instruction. In J. E. Maddux (Ed.), Self-efficacy, adaptation, and adjustment: Theory, research, and application (pp. 281-303). New York: Plenum Press.

Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (1997). Social origins of self-regulatory competence. Educational Psychologist, 32, 195-208.

White, F. (2002). A cognitive-behavioural measure of student goal setting in a tertiary educational context. Educational Pscyhology, 22, 285-304.

Zimmerman, B. J. (1998). Developing self-fulfilling cycles of academic regulation: An analysis of exemplary instructional models. In D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Self- regulated learning: From teaching to self-reflective practice (pp. 1-19). New York: Guilford Press.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 13-39). San Diego: Academic Press.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts: Compare-Contrast Essay Writing Guide


Writing a comparison-contrast essay can be fun if you can find engaging items, concepts, or issues to write about. One good topic is coffee. Starbucks commercialized drinking upscale coffee drinks, but even before Starbucks became an international presence, boutique coffee had already significantly shifted the coffee-enjoyment experience. Coffee is much more than a drink, it is a flavor, a way of life, a fashion statement, and an endorsement of an ideology or worldview. To think of another large purveyor of coffee, one often points to Dunkin Donuts, once anchored by its core product (donuts, of course) but now sought after for its coffee. Dunkin Donuts coffee used to be the usual "cup of Joe," but has that changed in recent years? One might be able to gain insight by writing about it.

Here is a flowchart that helps students find manageable topics to write about, in which they can incorporate concrete details from experience. It also provides a point of departure for more universal items and issues. The form can also be modified for use with other topics one might want to compare and contrast.

Before we get started, here are a few questions that came to my mind: Should Dunkin' Donuts follow Starbucks and update their offerings again? Note that Dunkin Donuts now has a dark roast offering. How about food? In airports, Starbucks stores have nice ready-to-go turkey, veggie, and other sandwiches. Perhaps Dunkin' Donuts could build sandwiches from their in-house super-fresh bagels and expand their lunch or dinner business. Should they continue to diversify? With a core business of donuts, will Dunkin Donuts go the Krispy Kreme way?

A good comparison-contrast exercise can help unravel these questions. Time to enter the "java shack" ...

Begin enticing the reader into the world of coffee. Start with illustrative scenes.

Part I:
Step inside each world. An imaginative adventure, a journey for your reader.
Step into Dunkin Donuts. What is it like? What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like? Who is there? Where is it? Is it a franchise, or are these company-run stores?

Step into Starbucks. What is it like? What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like? Who is there? Where is it? Is it a franchise, or are these company-run stores?
Part II:
The general and the specific.

The general: What does each store offer? Describe the full array of products and some of the salient characteristics of Dunkin Donuts and of Starbucks, with emphasis on the coffee, the packaging.

How does each store, either Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks, establish brand identity? What is the identity of each?

The specific: The showdown: The taste test.
Describe the coffee. What do you like? What do you not like?

Analysis and observations: Insights about the world we live in, developed by thinking about both things.

What does Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks make me realize about the community it serves?

What makes the Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks popular? Is it more than the coffee?

What are the assumptions Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks makes about the clients?

How does a careful analysis of commercial products, marketing, and brand image tell me about what businesses believe about the clientele?

When I go into Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks, do I feel like I "fit in" more than in the other? Why?

Am I being subtly "programmed" by the commercial enterprises to "be" a certain type of person, or act a certain way?

Ideas this gives me for the future.
Thoughts, etc.

Useful Websites
Dunkin Donuts Nutritional Facts and Calorie Information:
Dunkin Donuts:
Starbucks Nutritional Facts and Calorie Information:
Corporate Ethics and Accountability: contains discussion in the body of the article about Starbucks, and the fact that it receives awards for being environmentally friendly, while paying Guatemalan coffee workers exploitively low wages.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Why Do Kids Kill? Cause-and-Effect Essay Online Writing Flowchart


It is difficult to explain why there have been so many cases in the United States of kids killing parents, relatives, schoolmates, and total strangers.

Like many of society's troubling issues, the explanations are murky at best. Yet, despite the lack of clarity, we want to untangle motives, influences, factors, and possible deterrents.

This essay flow chart helps students recognize how to support and argument and to avoid flaws in their logic.

When postulating a cause and effect relation, it is important to examine the nature of explanations and the argument for possible bias, logic flaws, faulty assumptions.

Statistics and History.
It is very persuasive to provide statistics and background. However, statistics can distort the situation and shape the reader's perception of events. Statistics can reinforce negative stereotypes, in addition to providing a realistic view of things.

Nature vs. Nurture.
Are some people born violent? Or, alternatively, does the environment make a person violent? Are individuals socialized into violence? Nature vs. nurture arguments are easily accepted by most readers, but if one is not careful, an argument can be biased and simply reinforce already existing opinions, ideas, and political stances.

Possible Cause #1: Television Violence (emulatory behavior)
Psychologist Albert Bandura conducted ground-breaking experiments which suggest that children imitate violent behavior seen on television. This argument has been expanded to suggest that children will behave violently after being exposed to media of all kinds, including video games, multiplayer interactive computer games, violent images, television, and even music.

Cautionary note: Does the author have a hidden agenda? Are the statistics being used to support underlying bias? There can be faulty assumptions, too. Does every exposure to violent behavior result in violent action? Does this assumption lead to damaging stereotyping?

Possible Cause #2: Brain Chemistry
Are some people born with brains that are "wired" to be violent? Brain scans that demonstrate differences between the brains of violent criminals and ordinary law-abiding individuals have been used to support the notion that organic differences in the brain and nervous system are responsible for violent behavior.

Cautionary note: Whose research is being used? How did they conduct their research? Is there hidden bias? Be alert to socio-economic, ethnic stereotyping which masks itself as "biology."

Possible Cause #3: Culture of Killing
Do some societies develop a "culture of killing" that rewards people who are violent in certain ways? Are kids who kill transformed into anti-heroes, or cult figures? Does this lead to copycat acts? Which sociological and psychological theories and theorists can be used to weigh in on both sides of the argument?

Cautionary note: Is the writer's bias getting in the way of objectivity? Are things what they seem to be? Do appearances deceive?

Possible Cause #4: Warped Values
Can children's violent acts be attributed to a general decline in morality and values? This argument is often used by individuals who are promoting a particular agenda. In using this argument, it is very important to define morality, values, and the ideal. It is useful to also refer to philosophical ideas about the common good and ethical behavior.

Useful Websites:

Columbine: Wikipedia entry:

Kip Kinkel: The Killer at Thurston High (PBS Special)

Lionel Tate: "Wrestling Case" Draws Life Sentence

Tate case profile:

Red Lake Ojibwa Reservation school shootings:

Albert Bandura, etal
"Transmission of Aggression through Imitation of Aggressive Models"

Imitative Violence: An overview from India and Indian film
"The Trend of Violence on the Indian Screen & its Influence on Children"

"TV Violence and Brainmapping in Children," by John P. Murray

Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, by Richard Rhodes

Bullying in high school: Of Bullies and the Bullied (Psychology Today)

ChildTrauma Academy, Bruce D. Perry, M.D.
Articles on the relationship between childhood neglect, trauma, and brain development

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Diversity and Online Collaboration


Diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in higher persistence, satisfaction, and retention. This applies to e-learning as well as face-to-face settings, and is reinforced by work I recently rediscovered which was published more than ten years ago by teams investigating the impact of diversity on team performance.

Comparing task performance of homogeneous groups against the performance of diverse groups revealed a number of rather surprising things about how diverse groups interact with each other and achieve defined outcomes.

Performance was measured in two separate categories:

1- Problem-solving;
2- Quality of interaction between group members.

The researchers, W. Watson, K. Kumar, and L. Michaelsen (1993), found that the level of diversity of a team did have a measurable impact. Within the confines of their research, a "diverse" team was one that contained at least two or more nationalities and three or more ethnic backgrounds.

In this case, heterogeneous groups out-performed homogeneous groups in interaction, and in problem-solving (where the tasks were not complex) when the groups were short-term.

Group heterogeneity

1- Stimulated productive discussions
2- Increased the number of strategies employed in problem-solving.

Other findings included that

1- Small tasks are more effectively performed than complex ones;
2- Short-term groups are dynamic and characterized by high levels of productive interaction.

While these findings may seem self-evident, upon close examination, one sees that the results are almost counter-intuitive. Instead of creating confusion or miscommunication, there is a new level of clarity. The is attributable to the fact that diverse groups interact more and are solution-centered. The higher the level of diversity, the more solution-focused the interaction.

The implications for online collaborations are multiple:

1- Encourage diverse groupings
2- Assign tasks with simple structure, which can be accomplished rapidly
3- Avoid complex tasks and problems and create building-block structures
4- Ground tasks and activities in a real-life situation that has an objective correlative in the phenomenal world, which is to say, make it something the group members can relate to, and which can help them in their lives.

There are many implications for future research, both in terms of workplace virtual collaborations and online learning. It might be interesting to see if there is a relationship between the level of communication and interaction in a diverse group with satisfaction and persistence.

Clearly, collaborations that frustrate team members lead to a failure to persist and such demotivating collaborative activities negatively affect completion, satisfaction and retention rates. If the converse is true, it would be very useful to take a close look into how diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in persistence, satisfaction, and retention.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Harnessing Affect and Cognition in an Online Course


Instructors who teach online courses are often well aware that they need to employ instructional activities that harness the powerful relationship between cognition and emotion. Without engaging emotions, it is very difficult to motivate students. It is even difficult to capture the students’ interest enough to bring about conditions needed for learning to take place.

Understanding the psychological theories of affect is key. Certain questions must be examined:

1. How do emotional states arise?

2. How can one state be replaced by another?

Emotional states are triggers. The interactions between emotions and cognition give rise to flows of thoughts. If the e-learning space can set in motion both feelings and thoughts, then there exists the potential to have a very positive experience.

Here are other questions that come to mind:

1. What technique or action can help shape or guide the flows of thoughts as they move toward meaning-making cognitive processes?

2. What are the elements in an online environment most likely to engage emotions and help or compel the student to transition from one emotional state to another?

In order to gain an appreciation of the connections between external emotional triggers found in the environment (for example, in an e-learning space or environment), and mental properties, it is necessary to step back and tease apart the causal relations.

According to philosopher of mind Paul Thagard, thinking is usefully understood as “simultaneously involving numerous representations that constrain each other” (Thagard 2002, p. 275). For Thagard, the relationship between emotions and cognition can be mathematically represented as a series of contingencies, or causal relations, and the equations involve weighting the variables, which could include features, traits, behaviors as well as the cognitive processing act of creating analogy and categorization. For Thagard, how the factors are weighted (or mediated) is heavily influenced by emotion.

What are the implications for e-learning?

If one accepts Thagard’s idea that it is possible to predict or model the chain of thoughts that could propel an individual to a different emotional state, the implications for e-learning are clear.

In order to create an ideal learning environment, with sufficient affective engagement to be both motivating and to trigger flows of cognition, thought, mental processing, and meaning-making, it is necessary to have a fairly good sense of the learners, their values, and the pacing of the activities so that the thoughts and emotions stay dynamic.

The dynamic emotion-cognition relationship can be represented in a four-phase or four-stage model as represented below:

Phase I: The Triggering Cognitive Event

example: Seeing Katrina damage to New Orleans

Phase II: Cognitive Determinants

example: what was the damage? was the damage done by humans? did the levees break because of negligence or simple act of God? was the damage controllable? did anyone do anything to control it? was there a higher purpose in seeing the damage? are there any “lessons learned”?

Phase III: Emotions

example: anger, sadness, shock, outrage

Phase IV: Thoughts in Response: Cognitive Determinants with Emotions

example: start asking questions; where was FEMA? could this have been prevented? is anyone to blame? who was hurt and why? who are they? what are the connections to one’s own experiences? beliefs?

In addition to using the model to develop instructional activities that encourage deep learning, it could be applied to experiential learning.

It could also be used to help writing students become aware of when a specific emotion is being evoked in order to develop a persuasive argument. One a very basic level, Thagard and the other philosophers of mind who suggest that the relationship between cognition and emotions can be mapped are echoing Aristotle’s writing on rhetoric. I do not want to leave out Plato, as well. The primary difference between classical rhetoric and the computational models used to describe the relationship between cognition and emotion is one of degree, not of concept. The goal of any mathematical model is consistent alignment with the phenomenal event; and, thus an eventual high level of reliability and goodness of fit. Eventually, one could use the mathematical model to predict responses.

What would be useful at this point would be research that would gauge how and when emotions and cognition could be considered to be mappable in the four phases of the example, and how elastic the model can be and still have instructional utility, given diverse students, instructors, and contexts.

Reference / Useful Works

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Cognition and motivation in emotion. American Psychologist, 46, 352-367.

Lerner, J. S. & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 146-159.

Port, R., & van Gelder, T. (Eds.). (1995). Mind as motion: Explorations in the dynamics of cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Scherer, K. R., Schorr, A., & Johnstone, T. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thagard, P. (2000). Coherence in thought and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thagard, P. & Nerb, J. (2002). Emotional Gestalts: Appraisal, change, and the dynamics of affect. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 6 (4), 274-282.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Diary of an Online Collaborationist


This podcast provides a tongue-in-cheek look at the experience of participating in an collaborative final project for an online course. Please do not miss the companion piece for this article: "Why Online Collaborations Fail."

Working on the collaborative final project for a recently completed online course was a wonderful experience in many ways. I went through a full range of emotions from the very beginning - from feeling embarrassed for being off to such a slow start, to euphoria for when my partner, Patrika (not her real name - I've altered it to protect myself), and I were really bringing things together, and we developed a structure that allowed us to both contribute without perturbing the piece as a whole in terms of voice or continuity.

Along the way, I found myself in different states of mind, or stages in the unfolding process. Here are a few (a bit tongue-in-cheek):

Phase 1: Self-flagellation: There's nothing like a good round of self-flagellation to motivate oneself to pull out of a state of lethargy or procrastination and to try to get back on track. I like to tell myself I am "deadline driven." Apparently, I'm not - at least not to the degree I had congratulated myself about. I am caught up in the throes of procrastination and work avoidance. Thankfully, a truly repellant task came along and I could avoid it by turning my attention to the long-neglected instructional design certificate unit. To my horror, I find I am several weeks behind on the discussion board. It is like one of those dreams I used to have about being assigned to teach a class, and then getting the day (or semester) wrong.

Phase 2: "The Fog:" What am I supposed to do? How do I get started? My partner describes herself as a person whose friends tell her she's the most driven person they've ever met. I'm happy she's taken the lead. That doesn't really lift the fog, though. I still am not sure what I'm supposed to do, or what the expectations are. As is my way, I decide to stumble around in the fog until I hit a wall or fall into a car-swallowing chughole. The fog always gets worse before it gets better. The darkest hours are… who am I? What am I doing here? Deep existential questions start intruding. I dig out the syllabus. It is a bit thin in terms of the final project, but it is at least reassuring. I look down and realize I have given myself a paper cut.

Phase 3: Whining and Self-Pitying aka Shame: Patrika e-mails me her first draft. It looks to me at first glance to be about 3,000 pages long, filled with original research and statistical gymnastics: chi-squares, linear regressions, and one-way ANOVA, along with a refutation of Occam's Razor, and blueprints for an intergalactic Noah's Ark to save all the world's endangered species' DNA. I immediately start wringing my hands and fretting. I call my mother and complain that I can't seem to lose weight and that every man I've ever met after I reached the age of majority has valued emotional doggedness more than (at least in my opinion) the more intriguing affective approximations of flux and chaos theory. I take a deep breath and start scrolling through Patrika's magnum opus. Thankfully, the 3,000-plus pages shrink before my eyes to a manageable 10, much of which consists of a nicely wrought outline. I can see where I need to add material. I'm even starting to have a few ideas of my own about how the collaboration could take place.

Phase 4: Exploring the Woods: The concepts are intriguing. I'm intrinsically motivated. I'm fascinated by the sub-topic I've chosen for my part, which is self-regulation and goal-setting. Researching this is helping me understand more about my own work patterns and behaviors. I'm playing in the woods, and getting a bit far afield. It is very satisfying.

Phase 5: Playing with the Dollhouse: Sooner or later, it's time to come inside. I can't play in the woods all day. So, I have my bundle of papers, printouts of articles, and notes. It's miniature furniture to arrange in the dollhouse I've constructed in my mind. The paper is coming together well, and I'm happy that we've decided that it is not necessary to dismantle the dollhouse once we've brought in our separate pieces of furniture. Instead, we've decided how to combine our separate pieces, and to move the armoire into the corner, and to place the tiny dhurrie rug in front of the teeny-tiny four-poster bed. I'm amazed at how much fun it is to collaboratively re-arrange the parts of the paper, smooth out the rough edges, and think of how to bring certain points into focus. Thankfully, we both had a good idea of what the desired outcome would look like. Rather less happily, it is just the two of us. Our other collaborators are gone. One dropped the class, and the other seems to like to post to the discussion board, but abhor collaborative paper-writing.

Phase 6: We Did It! aka We Are Women, Hear Us Roar: Well, actually Patrika should be the Helen Reddy of this duo, but, despite my slow start, I am proud to say that I contributed something of substance. Self-regulation, yes. Not only have I learned something I can use when I develop courses and programs, I have figured out how to take a massive task and to carve it into bite-sized chunks. It is all about how much you can chew. Okay, maybe it's not. Maybe it's about the rewards, and the good feeling one gets when the task is knocked off and another one underway. I reward myself by going to Closeouts and buying a pair of fuzzy gloves for $2.99 (plus $5.00 shipping), and a vintage library-bound copy of Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's. I wonder what it would feel like to become a caricature of oneself. I suspect I already know.

Phase 7: Oops, Where's Waldo? A twinge of conscience kicks in. Is it wrong to move forward when a partner is doing nothing? Is it ethically okay to structure the collaborative work so that it is clear which person contributed to each part? Or, as a true team, should we smooth it all together? The gaping holes left by our errant (aka Missing) partner are about as obvious as one could get without going the next step and signing him up for The Apprentice, just for that schadenfreude moment when the inevitable "You're fired!" happens. Is it healthy for group work to be so laced with resentment and self-righteousness? I'm not sure, but it amazes me how often that happens in traditional face-to-face group work. The nice thing about the virtual environment is that we can move on and compensate for the lack of participation of one or more. I dash off an e-mail to Patrika, thinking all the while that we were amazing. We looked straight into the jaws of ambiguity and came out alive, kicking, and ready to take on another instructional design certificate module.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fighting Intrusive Thoughts Using Podcasts: A Strategy for Effective E-Learning


(presented at INSITE, June 2006). Podcasts can be used in e-learning to combat intrusive thoughts. They can be a part of an effective self-regulatory strategy which also accommodates multiple learning styles while overcoming intrusive thoughts and the anxiety that accompanies them. As a result, academic performance can improve, while increasing self-concept and self-efficacy.

For the full article, please visit Proceedings of the INSITE Conference:

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why Online Collaborations Fail


Ask online students if there was anything they disliked in their last online course, and you're likely to get a resounding "I hated the group work!" Best practices for online courses tend to place a great deal of importance on collaborative learning, either in the form of discussion boards, or in group projects. But while discussion boards work quite well, depending on the skill of the facilitator and the nature of the questions, group projects are often such miserable failures that they taint the learner's perception of the entire course.

What happened? What went wrong? There are usually many factors, but a few are listed below:

Too complicated. The project contains too many steps to reach the final outcome. The complexity makes it difficult to understand and to delegate work, and to set achievable goals.

Solution: Instead of requiring one large group project, ask the group to do four or five small group projects that will require just two or three steps, rather than dozens.

Time conflicts. Required collaborations do not reflect the real time commitments of the participants, nor do they reflect schedules or time zone differences.

Solution: Give the team at least a week to do each project, no matter how small. Ask the individual team members what they are doing to find out and accommodate each other's time constraints.

Friction between team members. Team members disagree, express frustration, or stop communicating altogether. Some team members are deliberately obstructive, or criticize work, endlessly debate small points, or refuse to contribute at all. Instead of working on the problem, the energy of the group is spent in conflict resolution. Some may drop out. Others find they become passive when they believe that their input does not matter, and they let the dominant team members do the work.

Solution: Define the roles as well as the tasks. Provide guidelines for team-member roles, and describe actions to be taken by team members.

Tasks are vague, poorly defined. Although the outcome may be defined and described well, the individual tasks are not clearly defined, nor are they delegated in an effective manner. Tasks are repeated needlessly, or done with contradictory results.

Solution: Define and describe the tasks in terms of what needs to be done, how to do it, and how to present the results.

No clearly defined goal or outcome. The overall goal or desired outcome may be imprecisely described or defined. It is important to clearly define the concrete attributes: length, structure, content, purpose, format, complexity.

Solution: Make sure that the outcome and goals are as clearly defined as possible. "SMART" goal-setting is ideal: Specific, Measured, Acheivable, Reasonable, Time-based. Of course, there are downsides to having rigidly defined outcomes. They can inhibit extremely creative and driven students, and they can result in conformity and mediocrity.

Resentment because of lack of work parity. Team members become angry because the work load is not evenly distributed. Some team members may be perceived as slackers or freeloaders, who take credit but refuse to pull their weight. The converse can also be true. There may be resentment because one team member will attempt to dominate and not allow individuals to participate in the process. The dominant person may be perceived as a bully, much to his / her surprise. She thought she was simply being efficient, proactive, and "Type A."

Solution: Listen. List the roles and the behaviors expected of the roles.

Competitive rather than collaborative. Group members are caught up in proving that they are "right" and that the others are not. They do not want to modify any of their work in order to have it mesh or blend with the others in order to produce a coherent whole.

Solution: Separate the tasks and roles so that there is division of labor, rather than overlap.

No sense of community. There is a failure to bond, and hence a failure to thrive. Collaborations with this problem sometimes never get off the ground.

Solution: Ask team members to post photos, details about themselves that they'd like to share, and to start a discussion board or forum in which they discuss current events and items of interest.

Irrelevant activities. Team members may resist doing activities they perceive to be irrelevant to the overall goal or objective they envisioned when joining the group. Even those who go ahead and do the activities may feel resentful.

Solution: Let the team members know how their work ties into the final objective (the project), and how it ties into a larger world as well.

Collaborative papers require "blending" rather than stand-alone components. The collaboration is expected to produce a paper that flows as though it were written by a single person. This can pose a monumental, even insurmountable, challenge because individual voices, writing styles, even format can be completely at odds. Further problems surface when individual team members resent the way that their work has been edited.

Solution: Develop structures that allow individuals to insert their own work in sections clearly identified as pertaining to them. Do not try to blend or mesh the parts.

These are only a few suggestions. There are more, which will be presented at a later date. At that time, there will also be a discussion of types of collaboration projects that work well, and examples will be provided.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Charismatic Leadership in the E-Learning Organization


Leading change requires courage, vision, and across-the-board buy-in. Transition and change are not easy, even in organizations that trade in change and innovation. Anxiety and tensions abound, and a bureaucratic, "management by committee" approach may cause the organization to flounder. Centralized control is one response to change; radical decentralization is another. In either case, one fairly traditional response to ambiguity is to look for a single charismatic leader to emerge.

Does the charismatic leadership approach prove effective in the distance or flexible program?

According to many scholars and historians, there is definitely a role for the charismatic leader, no matter what the organization. A person with vision and the talent to communicate that vision is indispensable in the initial or start-up phase.

Charismatic leadership gets the program off the ground, and it can be used to promote it and obtain "buy-in" across the organization.

According to most writers on the subject, the charismatic leader:

*Possesses a clear vision.

*Understands the vision now, and how it should unfold in the future.

*Articulates the vision in a manner that captures the imagination of the listeners.

*Inflames the passions of the listeners / followers with a vision of the ideal.

*Makes clear connections between the vision and lives of the listeners, and suggests how their goals, ambitions, and dreams can be realized and their lives materially enhanced by endorsing the goal.

*Leads by example. The charismatic leader adheres to the same tenets that he or she espouses, and shows how to put the concepts into practice. It could be a concrete example of how technology in education has changed his or her life.

*Allow dependency and a certain amount of passivity to occur in the followers, which may result in a suspension of action in order to advance the ideas without interruption.

*Encourages listeners to become followers, and to blur self/identity boundaries and to displace narcissistic ego needs and grandiosity onto the charismatic leader.

*Delineates a mission and communicates it effectively to the followers, who can see how it relates to them.

The charismatic leadership style may be indispensable in an e-learning organization in need of rapid change. However, there is definitely a "dark side" to charisma, and not just in doomsday cults and rogue nations.

Does a cult of personality work at all in a network, or in a distributed organization? Much depends on the organizational "glue" that holds the structure together.

Fear is an effective, yet ultimately corrosive, glue. In an organization across a distributed network where members are kept in line through fear and omnipresent surveillance, the leader's face and/or the unifying logo is a constant reminder, of coercion and of the needs that are to be met if one adheres to the vision.

Freedom from fear creates longer-lasting bonds. Meeting needs, emotional and physical, and giving individuals the freedom to accomplish their tasks in multiple ways, and using creative approaches is of paramount importance in an organization that seeks to thrive over the long term.

Charismatic leaders in a distributed environment often promise that members of the organization will be able to self-regulate and to have a great deal of self-determination. However, if the charismatic leader's promises of security and the satisfaction of emotional and physical needs are not fulfilled, they face backlash and anger.

Charismatic leadership can be problematic in a distributed environment. Some contributing factors include the following:

*Cult of personality can lead to the emergence of factions and rival personalities.

*The charismatic leader requires constant image control and "packaging." The non-verbal, semiotic elements of the message may be harder to control in a distributed environment, where unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your outlook) juxtapositions may result in a complete undermining of the message.

*Maintaining control requires keeping the vision "hot" and the persuasive elements "fresh." Ethical issues can be sidestepped in the quest for efficacy.

*The locus of control can be too centralized, and the decision-makers can be out of touch with the needs of people / entities in the network.

*There may be an untoward emphasis on affect, which is to say that the charismatic leader may try to maintain a tight grip on the emotions and emotional needs of the followers. They may be asked to disregard real physical conditions and the psychological climate and to delay the satisfaction of needs for a better pay-off sometime in the always-nebulous future.

The charismatic leader who practices such coercive tactics will eventually be caught up in a net of cognitive dissonance. In the short run, however, the discomfort may be masked by the followers' willingness to believe in the concept of a necessary sacrifice.

Perhaps, now that we're ending the discussion of charismatic leadership in a distributed environment, in an e-learning organization, it is useful to revisit definitions of charisma.

Charisma derives from the Greek word, charis, which means gift. Associated with the notion of gift, are rather superhuman or magical attributes - charm, the power to captivate, the ability to encourage individuals to suspend disbelief.

I'd like to close the discussion of charismatic leadership in an e-learning organization with the suggestion that probably the only effective and ethical use of extreme charisma in such an organization is, most resolutely, not to build a cult of personality. It is absolutely inadvisable to construct the notion of charismatic leadership around a single person or persona and then to distribute it in multiple digital forms (podcast, image, logo, emoticon, streaming media) across the network.

The true charis, or charming and enrapturing gift, is the Internet itself, and the qualities of the network that bring out the best in the points along the network, the individual participants.

In a truly distributed environment, the charismatic leader is the network itself, with the charm, power to animate hearts, minds, and spirits, and to inspire action, creativity, and constructive thought.

I feel a fit of visionary sci-fi coming on… perhaps I should stop now, and save the discussion of how the network becomes a charismatic leader for another day.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Distributed Leadership in the E-Learning Organization


Distributed leadership is often referred to as democratic leadership, which gives an indication of the profoundly non-hierarchical nature of power and authority structures in communities of practice or sub-group task forces that are called upon to realize organizational missions and outcomes. It is a powerful organizational strategy, and one that makes excellent use of the resources - human, physical, and financial - of an organization. Because of its usefulness, and overview and discussion are provided below.

Characteristics of Individuals Within an Organization with Distributed Leadership:

Individuals perceive themselves as stakeholders: Because of this perception, all individual team members are willing and able to assume leadership positions, when needed.

The organizational mission can be achieved in stages: The tasks needed to achieve the mission can be broken down into component parts and distributed to the teams best able to achieve the tasks.

Distributed roles and tasks: They take place in different time zones, places, and under widely divergent conditions.

Leaders have expert (rather than title) authority: Leadership shifts according to need; the leader role generally resides with the person who has expert authority for the designated task.

Vision is a unifying force: A clearly articulated vision which is equally shared among all members exerts incredible cohesive force. It is what allows progress to be made without diverging or going off course.

Collaborative teams formed for specific purposes: The teams have fluid membership, which changes according to the task, the roles, and the requisite talent.

Communities of practice emerge: Although collaborative activities tend to disband, the communities of practice maintain their affiliation long after the task, and often connect with each other in order to brainstorm about future needs and potential collaborative configurations.

I'm a leader now!  meeowww!

Aspects of Distributed Leadership (after Woods, 2004) as applied to the e-learning organization

Analytical concepts: The notion of a vision, mission, and desired outcomes constitute an analytical foundation.

Emergent and dispersed: This contrasts with leadership by a single individuals; distributed leadership is characterized by the constant appearance and/or emergence of leaders, which are not necessarily in a single location, but instead, are dispersed in time and geographical space.

Inclusive, based on contingent status: Participation by team members hinges on organizational need and the importance of the vision, mission, and outcomes. Teams and communities of practice are open and inclusive, rather than rigid.

Formally neutral: The individuals are task-oriented, and political or ideological agendas are considered unnecessary and counter-productive.

Instrumental autonomy: Team members are less constrained by existing teams than in an organization in which leadership stays in one location. They are able to act with autonomy when their actions are perceived to help bring the organization to the realization of its goals.

Functional toward human capacities: Leadership shifts according to specific, finite, task-oriented needs. Individuals may assume leadership for the time that their specific skills, talents, or other attributes are needed, and then may abnegate leadership when that moment of need is over.

Although writers on educational leadership tend to propose competing terms for distributed leadership, and alternatively refer to it as dispersed, collaborative, democratic, or shared leadership, all tend to agree that it is the prevailing model in an environment that is employed in organizations that have numerous tasks to accomplish, and a wide variety of skills and resources.

The e-learning organization benefits from a distributed model because it allows collaboration, creative problem-solving, and innovative product design and resources management in an environment that is characterized by rapid technological change, and swiftly emerging learner demands.

Useful References

Barth, R. S. (2001) Learning by Heart, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burns, J. M. (1978) Leadership, New York: Harper & Row.

Castells, M. (1996) The Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell.

Court, M. (2003) Towards democratic leadership. Co-principal initiatives. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 6(2), 161-183.

Fullan, M. (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gronn, P. (2003) Leadership: who needs it? School Leadership and Management, 23(3), 267-290.

Gronn, P. and Rawlings-Sanaei, F. (2003) Recruiting principals in a climate of disengagement. Australian Journal of Education, 47 (2), 172-184.

Hargreaves, D.H. (1999) The knowledge-creating school, British Journal Education Studies, 47 (2), 122-144.

Kets de Vries, M. (1999) High-Performance Teams, Lessons from the Pygmies. Organizational Dynamics, 27 (3), 66-77.

Leithwood, K & Jantzi D. (1990) Transformational leadership: how principal can help reform school cultures, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 1(4), 249-280.

O'Neill, B. (2002) Distributive Leadership: Meaning Practice (Milton Keynes: The Open University).

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization, New York: Doubleday.

Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., and Diamond, J.B. (2001) Investigating School Leadership Practice: A Distributive Perspective. Educational Researcher, April 2001, pp. 23-28.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woods, P.A. (2004) Democratic leadership: drawing distinctions with distributed leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, March 2004, 7(1), 3-26.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Vision and Leadership in the E-Learning Organization


What are defining characteristics of vision in an e-learning organization? With all the talk about vision and mission, are people really taking the time to speculate on what that might look like?

While individuals understand the role of vision in an organization, the importance of vision is even more pronounced in an e-learning organization, where communities of practice include team members who are often separated by time and place, but united by technology.

Characteristics of vision in an e-learning organization can include the following:

Future-based: It is flexible, and attainable in the near future, with long-range goals also in place. It is not too rigid a vision, a dn it accommodates individual differences, locations, technology, and cultures.

Open-ended: A vision open enough for individuals to see themselves in the picture. The desired outcomes involve behaviors that the individual finds appealing and potentially enriching.

Connected: A connection is established between the individual and the leaders who articulates the vision. The result is deep identification with the concept, which leads to an understanding of self, society, and community.

Engaged Affect: It has the capacity to inspire, inflame, and to result in ongoing commitment and persistence in spite of discouraging events.

Tolerance for Frustration: The vision encourages delayed gratification, and provides a mechanism for overcoming frustration.

Collective: The vision encourages individuals to release their individual goals and objectives and to substitute a collective one, where the good of the whole is valued over individual gain.

Creative contribution: The vision inspires one to contribute one's individual, unique talent within a team, and to modify one's skills to adapt oneself to meet the needs of the group, and to achieve the collective goals.

Distributed teams / Virtual collaboration: Individuals see how they fit within the vision, and they contribute their part by means of virtual collaboration in a highly distributed environment.

Articulated in multiple delivery modes: The vision can be articulated and realized by means of multiple modalities, including text, streaming media, audio, graphics, movies.

Collective contributions: Resources -- time, talent, funds, equipment, ideas -- are contributed "any time / any place."

Leaders and Vision in the E-Learning Organization

E-Learning Queen Being Queenly - sketch by susan smith nash

James McGregor Burns, whose classic works on leadership closely examine the characteristics of the world's great leaders has, after decades of study, concluded that all great leaders have in common a few defining characteristics.

The first, the power to inspire, motivate, and transform, is based on the ability to develop a vision for oneself and one's fellow human beings.

The second, a firm inner commitment to a personal vision, involves the willingness to listen, observe, absorb the anxieties of the times and to be willing to rise to all challenges.

The desire to learn is also the desire for positive transformation, and the ability to transcend the self-limiting attitudes and circumstances that one faces when one least wants or expects it.

James McGregor Burns maintains that leadership involves inspiring and motivating individuals, and thereby persuading them to want to become followers and leaders simultaneously. Vision is the unifying force.

Bernard Bass finds that charismatic leadership inspire and motivate through the force of personality, and that their ability to communicate a vision encourages projection and affiliation.

Manfred Kets de Vries suggests that charismatic leaders convince followers to give up their narcissistic needs and to project them onto the leader. Thus, they are able to make others responsible for their destiny, in the hopes of active transformation where the leader is the instrument, the change agent. Thus, the charismatic leader allows the followers to see the realization of their hopes and dreams.

The desire to learn, the hunger for knowledge needed to implement a vision -- these are the characteristics that define the transformational leader. Leaders in the e-learning organization, with a profound dedication and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and lifelong learning, must understand that in order to innovate, adapt, and survive, they must exhibit the qualities of great leaders. This involves being able to grasp, define, and articulate the vision in a way that motivates team members in the community of practice to work together.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Best Practices Gaps, Part 2


This article addresses gaps that emerge between best practices and benchmarks, and the actual conditions and results of distance and flexible learning in institutions of higher learning. This part focuses on problems that emerge in the production of courses, curriculum and instruction, and in the area of faculty support, training, and mentoring.

Quality Courses, Curriculum, and Instruction

The learning organization has an academic and instructional plan, which has been developed, reviewed, and approved by teams consisting of teaching faculty, subject matter experts, and governing / executive faculty members. Instructional strategies adhere to generally accepted principles of online and distance instruction, and rest upon a solid foundation of theory, practice, and experiential/research knowledge.

Possible Gaps.

---Cookie cutter courses. Developing courses quickly, efficiently, and at the lowest possible cost becomes the most important issue, rather than providing the flexibility required in order to produce a course that is not just a bundle of information, but a true learning experience.

---Unwittingly producing training, not higher education. Problem-solving, analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking skills are cornerstones of higher education, and the various stated outcomes that one finds in college-level courses display these skills. However, it is easy for colleges to fall into the trap of producing an e-learning experience that requires little or no actual synthesis of information, and which does not make connections from one discipline to another. Further, courses often fail to provide scaffolding for more future courses.

---Flexible delivery modes should stress multiplicity of modes. It is tempting to succumb to an "all or nothing" approach and to offer courses in only one delivery mode. However, learners need flexibility in order to accommodate their lifestyles and the reality of work, travel, access, and schedules. Thus, institutions must be able and willing to offer not only face-to-face instruction, online, and hybrid, but also variations that include CD-ROM and PDA (or pocket PC) for mobile computing. Content should not be confined to the visual, but should also incorporate downloadable audio, such as mp3 files (podcasts).

---Lack of a plan, or coordinated instructional strategy. Because many institutions find themselves playing "catch up," they are often scrambling to deliver what students say they want (or at least what they wanted six months before). In a "catch-up" situation, institutions lose their ability to plan effectively, and find themselves correcting mistakes made because of moving too fast, and without a coherent, well-mapped out and coordinated plan.

---Jumping on the latest delivery mode bandwagon, even when not appropriate. Institutions waste time, money, delivery efficacy, and faculty competency when they jump onto a trend without doing a thorough needs assessment, SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), or a clear analysis of their capabilities and capacity. As a result, institutions have found themselves trying to produce and deliver streaming media classroom lectures, synchronous chat and whiteboard lectures, interactive video game-based simulations, even when neither they nor their students have the bandwidth, computing power, or access to really be able to do it. This does not even begin to touch the problems of instruction in that sort of environment, with such high-power needs, and such a steep learning curve for instructors.

---At-risk students left behind. The online environment can be a sink-or-swim world where only the hardiest and most adept learners stay afloat. It is important to accommodate all learning styles, and to understand the real environment and conditions of learning of at-risk students. This is not simply a matter of making things ADA compliant. It means creating instructional strategies and activities that build community and camaraderie, do not require "extreme" technical skills, and which give individuals multiple ways to do the same task.

---Failure to conduct objective periodic program reviews. The successful launch of an online program is usually accompanies by a huge sigh of relief, coupled with a state of near catatonia (or post-traumatic shock syndrome) over the next several months, even years, as faculty, staff, and information system support seek to recover from the shock of close encounter with "disruptive technology." However, this fails to take into consideration that the nature of disruptive technology is to change the way that people think about tasks, and how they approach it, now that the technology has changed. In order to be successful, it is imperative that one continue to look at one's goals, vision, mission, and desired outcomes and to determine how those have been affected by the technology and the delivery approach.

Faculty Support, Capacity, Training, Mentoring, Compensation

Faculty members teach and develop courses in areas where they have demonstrated
expertise, experience, and/or leadership. When asked to instruct courses, faculty are provided support, training, and guidance in a proactive manner. Compensation is fair, and intellectual property issues are settled in a manner that is mutually agreeable.

Possible Gaps.

---Failure to provide timely and appropriate mentoring and training. Not only do institutions fail to provide mentoring and training, they also fail to require instructors to undergo the training. In failing to do so, they do the instructors a disservice, particularly in a world that is increasingly dominated by a class of distance professors who have taken the time and effort to equip themselves with the latest equipment and skills to be effective online / multi-modality instructors.

---Failure to review faculty credentials and evidence of growth. In part, this is a legacy of a tenure system that allows professors, once tenured, to become complacent, or to "retire on the job." It is also a case of expediency. It is not easy to find professors who are early adopters, or who keep themselves up-to-date with technology. They can be good facilitators, but are they staying current in their subject matter? Or, are they continuing to inform themselves of best practices and effective methods to achieve desired learning outcomes? Further, if an institution requires evidence of growth, they have an obligation to support it materially, philosophically, and psychologically.

---When flexibility becomes rigidity. This is a paradox that it, unfortunately, not uncommon. Institutions that start out being flexible by offering students the opportunity to take online courses, may, in fact, become rigid as they invest in learning management systems, templated courses, and a "one way only" instructional design / subject matter expert model for developing courses, and then require the professor to teach in one certain way, to accommodate the technology rather than learner needs.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Best Practices Gaps, Part I


Best practices and online learning benchmarks are good, but limited. They fail to identify the places where institutions are likely to fall short, and they do not provide the kind of information that one needs when all systems fail, and students, faculty, support staff, and administrators are at their wits' ends because demand has outstripped capacity, and the only way to meet commitments is to go desperately into the red (fiscally speaking), and to ignore learner outcomes, although they are now mandated by the State in which the institution makes its home. This article explores gaps. This is Part I.

Committed Institution

Overview. The learning organization must prioritize distance and flexible learning, and in doing so, must demonstrate support that is realistic, appropriate, timely, and expandable for the future.

Possible Gaps.

---Program "force-fit" to institutional mission.

In their eagerness to offer online courses and programs, institutions may force-fit the program to the institution's vision and mission. The vision and mission of a university may be grounded in face-to-face interactions, and the philosophy that underlies the instructional strategy may require an environment that the faculty and staff understand only in terms of face-to-face instruction, or in traditional bricks and mortar arrangement. This becomes problematic because it creates a culture gap within the institution.

Although there may not be open resistance, the institution could find itself confronting underground backlash, and troubled with factions, divisive camps, and a breakdown of the vision itself. In this case, the institution must remember that it is reshaping the vision, and for it to be effective, all stakeholders must have buy-in. In other words, they need to have a role in shaping it, and mapping it to their own lives and agenda.

---Revenue generation perceived as more important than the education experience provided.
Although there are few people who believe this any more, the early days of online education were typified by the academic equivalent of get-rich schemes. Later, it became clear that the initial investment of online courses can be steep, and it requires ongoing maintenance and operating expenses, as well as what can be quite steep costs for instruction and student services. When expectations are not met, there is a tendency to try to retrench and cut costs. What results is a focus on costs rather than quality. Further, it becomes tempting to outsource services and to obtain open-source content that has not be reviewed or adapted to one's own instructional and institutional goals.

Learner-Friendly Environment

Students, faculty, and other users find the services provided by the learning organization easy to use, accessible, and thorough. The learning organization provides online services such as registration, records, bursar, and library access. Technology utilized is up-to-date and appropriate for the user's actual environments and work patterns.

Possible Gaps.

---Ambiguous needs assessments. A successful online or hybrid program requires clear and realistic alignment with learner needs. In order to accomplish this objective and to attune courses and delivery with learner needs in the present (and not the past), it is important to utilize multiple methods of collecting data to gain understanding of the needs of the students. Current needs are important, as are what are projected to be important needs in the future. Focus groups, online surveys, random surveys, and interviews are effective methods and should be done on a regular basis.

---Always a half-a-beat behind the technology curve. It is false economy to have outdated technology, or to think that investing in online infrastructure is a one-time expenditure. Some of the most common ways that institutions find themselves behind the technology curve are:

-Insufficient bandwidth, and no plan to do "edge computing" to "load-share" surges in volume.

-Old, unworkable home pages and portals, with outdated java applets, javascript, etc.

-Old websites using out-of-date plugins (old versions of flash or shockwave, etc.)

-Failure to update software, holding on to old versions of learning management systems.

-Failure to hire adequate numbers of appropriately trained staff, support staff, and faculty.

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