Thursday, August 30, 2007

In the News: What's Happening in Teaching and Technology this Week

Although there are still a few weeks until the quarter is underway, for most everyone else in the nation, this week or next is back to school. Media outlets are in a frenzy to produce interesting back to school articles. From NPR we get a reminder of the culture shock that some new college students experience: Away to College, and a New Culture. The Chronicle of Higher Ed and many other educational sites notes that Firefox is releasing a special edition: Firefox Releases New 'Campus Edition' Web Browser.

If you haven't checked out Zotero (which is a plug-in included in the Campus Edition of Firefox) you should. It is produced by The Center for History and New Media and George Mason University. Zotero is similar in function to Google Notebook, but in my mind, easier to use for serious research. Read/Write Web's recent post, provides a round up of web based tools for students. My personal favorites are yBib and EasyBib, which assist students in properly formating their citations. (If you give your students proper instructions, there really is no excuse for them to turn in sloppy bibliographies.)

For Fun: Here's a new website that combines wikis and mindmapping, creating a new way for visual thinkers to navigate the web: WikiMindMap.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Learning management systems under fire

In my previous post, I explained the difference between a learning management system (LMS) and collaborative learning environment (CLE).

LMSs have of late come under fire from faculty and educational technologists alike.

Mike Caulfield asks whether LMSs stifle learning instead of encourage it:
Enterprise e-learning is about classroom management and enterprise reporting. It is about the so-called measurement of learning. We force students to use enterprise systems, because like the email system we “give” them, it makes our lives easier and accomplishes goals that have nothing to do with the student.

What would e-learning look like if we started from the needs of the student, instead of the institution? What would it look like if the overriding question was “How can we use technology in a way that benefits the student?”

My guess is it’d look a lot like life. It would be a wonderful mess of different students and professors choosing different tools on an ad hoc basis. Their choices would evolve over time. And because the students worked with real tools (and possibly even on real problems) they’d graduate with bankable skills rather than detailed knowledge of how to use an LMS that has no analogue in the outside world.


But, if we started with the student, there would be no e-learning “system” in the sense of a single integrated application provided by a vendor. Instead of focussing on buying e-learning systems, we’d focus on building an e-learning culture.

Mike offers a small round-up of others' feelings about LMSs here. He notes that much of the anti-LMS sentiment comes from outside the U.S. As an erstwhile scholar of American culture, I find this fascinating--I sense another blog post brewing!

George Siemens ferrets out the root problem of LMSs:
I have criticized LMS' in the past (Learning Management Systems: The wrong place to start elearning). I think they can be atrocious tools for learning - the control rests in the hands of administrators and software designers - not learners and teachers. I believe that learning happens in a networked manner (both in our brains and in the creation of external networks of people, content, and technologies). I don't think that LMS', in their current incarnation, are sustainable. However, I do believe they will continue to be a part of our future. I have yet to encounter an elearning initiative that was not heavily peppered with LMS talk. The decision makers like LMS'. The future, I hope, will provide a more balanced view of learning that includes teachers and learners.

In a post on his blog, Leigh Blackall posits that LMSs are roadblocks to "liberated information and knowledge." She asks about the personalized learning environment (PLE) and virtual learning environment ( VLE)--terms which are sometimes used synonmymously with LMS, and sometimes to indicate an analogous form:
Why do we need a PLE when we already have the Internet? The Internet is my PLE, ePortfolio, VLE what ever. Thanks to blogger, bloglines, flickr, delicious, wikispaces, ourmedia, creative commons, and what ever comes next in this new Internet age, I have a strong online ID and very extensive and personalised learning environment.

These are excellent questions. I don't organize my work or personal life in SmartSite, so why should I ask students to organize their intellectual lives in an LMS? I have used Blogger, YouTube, and Wikispaces in American studies courses, and I find them superior to the tools offered by the current version of SmartSite. I know I could cobble together a course out of several different online tools, most notably Blogger, Wikispaces, the Bloglines feed reader, the social bookmarking tool, YouTube, and Flickr's photosharing service.

Such tools, however, reflect my teaching philosophy and may not reflect yours. If you're looking for a way to manage your course, then SmartSite may be a simple solution for you.

In the face of such (apparently sound) criticism, why do so many people still find LMSs attractive? Because LMSs do have a place in course management--which is why I'm happier when I see them called course management systems. (I'm fine with managing a course, but I'm uncomfortable if I'm managing learning.) Because SmartSite also offers a wiki and forums, you can also use SmartSite less to "manage" learning and more to promote collaboration among students--to encourage students to ask questions and take more initiative in their education. If you want such tools all under one technological roof--without having to send students hither and yon to different sites for wikis, blogging, forums, photosharing, and more--then SmartSite is your solution.

Some resources advocating for at least some use of LMSs:

Dave Cormier offers a rebuttal to Leigh Blackall's post.

Terry Anderson delineates the distinction between PLEs and LMSs and lists the advantages of each approach to e-learning. He sees PLEs as individualized, lifelong collections of learning resources, while LMSs are course-specific and address concerns (students', faculty's, and institutions') about intellectual property, privacy, and security.

There's site packed with 20 pages of links to information about PLEs.

What are your thoughts about LMSs and PLEs?

SmartSite: Learning Management System or Collaborative Learning Environment?

You may have heard that UC Davis is replacing the course management functions of MyUCDavis with a new course management system, SmartSite. While SmartSite offers many improvements over MyUCDavis, instructors still need to think through their use of SmartSite before plunging into the new system.

SmartSite raises a number of pedagogical questions. Depending on how you use SmartSite, it can serve as either a learning management system (LMS) or a collaborative learning environment (CLE). Although occasionally these terms are used interchangably, an LMS differs significantly from a CLE, and the difference is more than a philosophical one.

An LMS is all about management. In SmartSite, tools that best represent this approach include the schedule, syllabus, announcements, tests & quizzes, modules, and gradebook. These offer ways to manage the dissemination of course content and assess student learning.

A CLE promotes collaboration. In SmartSite, tools promoting collaboration are the wiki, forum, chat, messages, and to a lesser extent e-mail archive. These tools make learning a bit more transparent and allow students to help each other study. They also--the wiki especially--are good locations for group projects.

In which way do you use SmartSite? Do you feel you have successfully combined the LMS approach with the CLE without students feeling overwhelmed? If so, please share in the comments!