Archive for September, 2005

New lesson format and inexpensive virtual conferencing

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

46070168 09076376b2 m New lesson format and inexpensive virtual conferencingI carried out a lesson
at the Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland, under a course
held by Prof. Kirsimarja Blomqvist and Lassi Köppä. It was a journey
from the elements of network society, new actors like pro-ams, through
FLOSS and Open Content to bottom-up emerging technologies like blogs,
wikis and information aggregation. I highlighted the need for a
personal learning environment, which is not controlled by some
inistitution but the users themselves.
The point of this post is not my presentation but the way I
brought Stephen Downes in right in the end to wrap up the day with a brief introduction to eLearning 2.0.

I don’t like traditional conference or lesson formats, so I wanted to
try something new. In the beginning of the day I registered the
students to our Open Source Dicole
system to use wikis and blogs to write down some ideas they might have
while I talk and maybe to connect some fresh ideas coming in through
some information feeds I had selected beforehand. Things worked pretty
well, they shared their notes through the system with others.
I believe that if students have a few weeks to get used to
such a way to participate in lessons, they would be more natural in collaborating their
rising ideas and questions. Later they could analyze the most prominent
questions online.
The other idea started when I suggested Stephen Downes a couple of days before my talk to participate through Skype.
I would setup a a chat room for students where they could chat with each
other and propose questions to each other or Stephen while Stephen
talks. For the chat room I used CGI::IRC,
a web based IRC client which was among the wikis and blogs in the
online environment. Stephen wanted to show some slides and pointed at S5, a very nice XHTML/CSS/Javascript -based slide system.

The problem is that S5 is only designed to display slides in your end.
We wanted it to work so that when Stephen changes a slide, the slide
would also change in our end. One of my programmers, Martti Leppänen,
took the challenge and the next morning I had S5 working as
client-server through some AJAX voodoo.

In summary we used a chat room (Open Source), a modified version of a
slide system (Public Domain) and Skype (free as in beer). It was very
exciting for the students and I think it was for Stephen as well when
the students started to flow in the chat room to say hi.
We had the ability to remix software to do what we wanted and
we did. Skype+S5+CGI::IRC and you have a very different experience. No
plugins or software installations required for students, only Skype at
the teachers computer and you are set.

The code of the modified S5 is here. It doesn’t work out of the box but it’s not hard to figure out either.

Non-accessible e-learning: lawsuit against an institution using WebCT

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

“A former Capella University student has filed a lawsuit against the online institution, claiming that it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by using technology that does not accommodate his learning disabilities.” (by The Chronicle of Higher Education via matkalla)

The technology used in the Capella was WebCT.

I think the student has a point in here. I am not an expert of WebCT, but colleague of mine was lately using it and wrote pretty good review about the poor support for web standards in the WebCT. The use of JavaScript and frames seems to be a hack to “protect” the content inside WebCT, so saving it locally would be more difficult. Read the content and remember it!

In WebCT they probably seriously think that learning happens by scanning content with your eyes and then saving it in your personal hard disk located in your head. “Learning without limits” – as their slogans says.

It’s interesting how the Learning Management Systems, such as the WebCT, reminds of the monastery model of schooling. “Authority sets the goal and chooses a closed group of people to implement it” writes Pekka Himanen in his article The Academy and the Monastery (also a chapter in his book The Hacker Ethics).

It’s not illegal to run a monastery, but to call your monastery academy is cheating.

CmapTools and scaffolding

Monday, September 19th, 2005

I only lately heard about CmapTools. If you are not use to read concept maps you may find the textual description of the software more user friendly. CmapTools is a software toolkit design to facilitate manipulation of concept maps. It’s pretty brilliant set of software tools, although with some extra features it could be a great group meaning-making tool, as well.

cmaptools 450 CmapTools and scaffolding

Two weeks ago, Alberto Cañas from the CmapTools project visited Helsinki. The CmapTools project is a research project carried out in the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. I didn’t make it to his lecture as I was traveling, but my colleagues went to see him and his demo.

Now we have our own CmapTool server running and are very interested in to find out what we can do with it. It is a really nice piece of software. What I really like is that CmapTools is a real “concept map tool” – not a mind map, drawing tool or any kind of hybrid of these. It seems to be very good tool for the task it is designed for.

Probably the nicest features in it are those making it possible to collaborate on the concept maps with other people over the network. If you have a server running you can let other people to modify and annotate your concept maps. This way CmapTool is a groupware, collaborative software or social software (whatever concept you like most), as well. The search features are really nice. For instance you can search other concept maps and web with your own concept map! It works so that it picks-up from your concept maps the search terms (your concepts) and makes the search with them. In five minutes I found some maps made by some people I have met in Colombia and who I didn’t even know that they are using the tool.

I have some ideas that could make CmapTool even more useful in a collaborative use. At the moment (at least I couldn’t find any) there are not any “alert” features letting me automatically know if someone has edited my concept maps. RSS would be great for this. Possibility to link concept maps together could also help collaboration around them. Visualizations of the whole “concept map sphere” would be a natural way to browse them (at the moment you either use hierarchical folder structure or the search feature to find maps). The visualization of the whole “concept map sphere” could simply be implemented by adding concept maps with same concepts close to each other.

And then the reasons why I decided to write about the tool to this blog. In CmapTool there are many great features and with some additions made in it, it could become CSCL and social-constructivist learning tool. So what is needed?

  • The object, where you now write your concept, should be such that you could also write some content in them – more like notes with subject line, content, inline images and links to other files. This way the concept map could become spatial “discussion forum” where group of people could add notes related to other notes and makes links between them.
  • Objects should also have “scaffolding feature”. Objects should carry category with help text and check lists orientating and supporting (scaffolding) participants to have scientific discourse in the space. Like in Fle3 Learning Environment. Each time when you would add a new object you would be asked to choose what kind of knowledge you are bringing to the discourse: problem, hypothesis, scientific theory etc. The scaffolding idea comes from Vygotsky’s development theory.

In my research group we could implement these features to the CmapTools. There is just one major obstacle. CmapTools is no free/open source software. It is free to use, but not FLOSS icon sad CmapTools and scaffolding

Solving communication disasters with FLOSS social tools

Saturday, September 3rd, 2005

Evelyn writes about the help of wikis for people in urgent need for localized information. Robert Scoble talks about the same thing and points that we need a new kind of search engine.

This reminds me of 9/11 which was the starting shot for blogs, as Hugh wisely compares that Katrina is for wikis what 9/11 was for blogs.

When 9/11 came, people were not able to get all the news they needed from the mass media. People got online to search for more intriguing information while leaving the sensation-oriented media behind. This is when people discovered blogs and also started their own. It might be a coincidence that the rise of blogs begun right after 9/11, but the event might have had partial effect to push the blog snowball forward.

This history reminds me of 9/11, because now I’m doing the same, looking online for more interesting and detailed first-hand experiences rather than following the mass media. This is what I did during the last two disasters, 9/11 and the Tsunami.

While blogs came to rescue for people who had a desire to look for more information online, now wikis come to people who actually need the help. No television channel has changed to broadcast news for the people who need help. They broadcast news for the more profitable mass audience, throwing some sensational powder in the mix. It was a category 4 storm that hit me – oh that’s nice to know – but I need to know if my house is still standing and how to find my relatives. Unfortunately the ones with the largerst resources in communication and capability to spread help for people in need have other interests.

This might be a turning point for wikis that sets the wiki revolution free. There are many free tools and many of these tools are so easy to use that anyone can use them. Wiki is one of them. The method of Open Source is the enabler and useful applications like collective distributed disaster help are cases that push it forward.

But as much as these easy-to-use and cheap social tools are useful for large disasters, so are they scalable for a single organization and their own little catastrophies, be it a community of schools, a medium-sized company or a multi-national organization.

One of my customers switched to IP telephony and unfortunately the system is not working rock-solid. Usually when people in this large organization have problems, they will use phones to call to neighboring units to look for help from people who might know what to do. Now if telephones are not working, the problem will escalate and accumulate as more work on the top, i.e. management.

Ross Mayfield writes that if a software-driven business process fails to serve ones activities, one will adapt using the informal network of resources to get things done. In other words, when business process fails, business practice takes its place. Now if you don’t have capabilities to support informal networking among the organization on an event when a business process fails, you are in trouble. This is exactly what is needed in the case of my customer: capabilities for the people in the organization to know each other. A dating system for their own people.

To support a business practice in events of failure, we need a bottom-up collective distributed social system to help people to get things done with peer-help instead of straining those who hold the strings. Social tools like wikis, blogs and social networking might as well be the partial bottom-up answer to these communication problems, not a top-down intranet.

This applies to learning as well. If you don’t have a formal way to solve a problem, you will use your informal network of peers to find a way to overcome what you have in front of you. Your knowledge is not necessarily anymore in your head, it’s distributed in your social network and you are beginning to scratch those digital tools that will help you to use it as an extension to your own thinking.

Mobile phones for learning

Thursday, September 1st, 2005

Next week I will be in South Africa. This is already my third trip this year to there. This time I have great expectations for the trip. With partners from SA, Indian, Brazil, US and Finland we are planning a new project called MobiLed – Mobile phones in informal and formal learning in developing countries. The project itself is still under construction, but in the workshop next week we will already generate some scenarios and produce video mock-ups out of them.

I can’t write down here any of the scenarios we have discussed already online, but I can tell you what are the main technology components we are going to use. They are:

The pedagogical foundations of the scenarios are:

  • Student and group-centred learning;
  • Project-based learning;
  • Problem solving;
  • Inquiry learning.

And you can trust us, we will be very activity-centered in our design. It’s going to be a fun week!

By the way: I do not believe on the MIT Media Lab’s $ 100US PC project. PC is not the way to go in developing countries. PCs are clumsy. I have wrote about this before and so did Douwe before me.