Archive for October, 2005

Wikiversity – time to vote

Thursday, October 20th, 2005

The Wikimedia community (e.g. Wikipedia, Mediawiki software and many more) is voting on Wikiversity idea. Wikiversity is a project “to build an electronic institution of learning that is relying on the wiki model”. The voting is made for making a decision on if the community should launch the project or not. I have rather contradictory thoughts about the Wikiversity idea.

I think Wikipedia is one of the most important social innovation of our time for knowledge distribution. The way the Wikipedia is build and how the community work is totally admirable. The wiki way of peer reviewing seems to work in many cases much more efficiently that the peer review in some areas of academic research. Of course review of encyclopedia articles is very different than a review of academic articles, but still…

“Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge”. You can’t really argue against the mission statement of Wikipedia. But can this mission be translated to the context of university? Would it be then: “imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of higher education of all higher education in the world”. I think it can.

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia for the rest of us. My estimation is that about 95% of cases it is good enough for 95% of people. Of course if I am doing research I want to verify the sources of information and look for information from many sources. Still 95% of my needs of information are other than research related and Wikipedia is fully capable to fulfill them. And this is because the Wikipedia people have build up a community with rules and practices that seems to work. This makes Wikipedia a quality encyclopedia.

I think the Wikiversity project should not loose any of the good practices that have made Wikipedia a success. Wikiversity should aim to be the University for the rest of us. Not to be another university, but a different university, just like Wikipedia is not an ordinary encyclopedia. Wikiversity should also aim to have academic activities of which 95% are good enough for 95% of people.

And who will be teaching and studying in the Wikiversity? The wiki way it should be open for anyone to do both. If things go smoothly in some time there will be a “faculty” with members that have a good reputation. The community will find some people’s courses more useful and valuable than others.

So, what is my problem with Wikiversity? I am seriously worried that it may end-up to be just another platform for delivering learning materials – only. Period. I am afraid that Wikiversity community will not understand what are the factors that make a great academic institution. It is not tests, degrees and accreditations. It is the community.

Academia – the community – offers you a chance to work on topics with other people who share the same interest. That makes you learn. It is true that you read books and listen to lectures at the University. But, actually, all this is just a side activity supporting the common objective trying to understand the topics with your peers. This requires dialogue and shared research. In great academic institutions this means group discussions, assignments, exercises, seminars and other forms of active learning.

You also need great teachers who love their topic of teaching and know what kind of obstacles and problems students face when studying this topic. They are all a little different in a different disciplines. The teacher may know the challenges only if she is doing research in the same area, as well. You can show the way only if you have made it yourself. Conducting research means also that you are ready to change your mind and take another path.

Wikiversity should be an institution that is doing research and involving younger generation to this process. It should be a community – not a lecturing machine that is trying to maximize its income. There should be, however, some kind of system of giving credit, even degrees. The more creditable people should hold a right to give credit for those who have made a good job. This shouldn’t be a problem because everything is very transparent in wikis.

I believe that if things are done well, one day Wikiversity will be useful for the people using it and also recognized byt the outside world. It may take a while but it is possible. Some years ago there were not many people who believed on an encyclopedia which anyone could edit. So, I voted “no jaa” (well yes). Lets see.

State of finnish eLearning

Thursday, October 13th, 2005

I attended as an assisting organizer a conference entitled “eLearning & Corporate Competence
at Kalastajatorppa, a Hilton hotel in Helsinki. Attendees included
high-profile people from the sector of eLearning in Finland, both
providers and customers. I was asked by Juha-Matti Arola from KONE corporation to work on the interactivity part of the conference, especially the learning buffet event.

Juha-Matti
was also interested in possibilities of corporate blogging and for that
purpose we created a blog for him. During the conference event we
posted over 10 posts, one being a podcast, right from the event. In
learning buffet we had George Siemens and Stephen Downes throwing a co-presentation about the changing nature of online learning. We used Skype for audio, S5 for slides, Dorgem for webcam, CGI::IRC for
chat (modified to receive mobile text messages) and some other
tools to carry out a very interactive and self-organizing event. Our
blog software, audio editing software, servers and everything else was
also Open Source. Next time I might try Gizmo project for audio, which relies more on open standards.

We also had teleconferences carried out with Centra where people like Jay Cross
gave presentations but my purpose was to show that all this technology
is already available for everyone who wants to be a prosumer, a creator
or a creative remixer in the networked world. The technology is cheap
(often no-cost and/or Open Source) and available for all. The
technology is able to achieve the exactly same capabilities and even
more than commercial alternatives. Online collaboration is already here
and not anymore a luxury of those who have the resources.

You can read all our blog reportages including presentations from
people like Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Jay Cross, Pirjo Ståhle,
Esko Kilpi, Bo Harald and others at Juha-Matti Arola’s blog.

I had a positive feeling at the conference. It seems a lot of people
think that platforms for online learning are dead. The approach to
design a business process for online learning, in which the learning is
only carried out in a separate learning environment and not embedded in
the work practices themselves is faulty. Information system-driven
business process thinking is dropping dramatically. Informal learning
also received a lot of attention and there was a lot of discussion how
we could support informal learning inside and outside organizations.
Our blogging effort and working as creators instead of consumers at the
conference was a living example of informal learning.

Another good thing is that many companies have moved from
technology-driven approach to competence-driven approach.
Technology is a very small part of their offering, the work always
starts from analyzing the needs, capabilities and people before
implementing any technology.

I also had a few good conversations why learning objects are dead as
well. Open Content, Open Source, consumers as creators, social software
and Web 2.0 also became familiar to people who attended the conference.

Distance teaching and learning is difficult

Thursday, October 6th, 2005

I am not a great fan of “distance learning”. I have found out that it is very difficult – if not impossible – to build real group cohesion in a distance learning program. Now I am doing my best as a coordinator and a teacher in two different distance learning programs. Here are some notes about them.

What I really like in teaching and learning is the feeling that people are giving their best for the community. I guess this is actually the reason why I never got out or the academia. When it works well your colleagues and students are challenging you everyday: they argue with you, they share their thought and insights. They make you think.

I haven’t seen this really happening in distance learning programs. The freedom (or lack) of common space and time means often lack of commitment and responsibility. It just is difficult to build a distance learning community where people feel secure to present their so-called stupid questions and naïve hypothesis, which are anyway crucial in a good learning process.

However, the possibility to meet and work from distance with people you would never get a change to work with face-to-face makes the distance learning programs tempting. I am also seeing that when times go by we will have more students and scholars who are already somehow familiar with online communities and online cooperation. They will have more online (distance learning) skills. Maybe then this is a little easier.

The two programs I am right now involved in are rather different from each other and the other one is only just about starting. I haven’t done these kind of things for a while but it looks that it is just as difficult as I remember.

With UNESCO we have launch a pilot program called Art, Design and Technology Master Classes in the Arab States. Except us all the other partner Universities are in the Arab states. All the teachers of the program are also from the region. Our task has been to do the instructional design and to design, to help teachers in the content production, and to set-up the online environment (we are happy to use Moodle, which is definitely one of the best FLOS distance learning platforms). Actually the program is not all distance: selected number of students will get together in Beirut for one week to plan their final projects.

All ready it the stage of applications – you can apply to the program online – it has been challenging to communicate the program the right way for the students interested in it. Still, I am pretty sure that the application procedure will go smoothly. What I am worried about is how we will build the online community when people have never seen each other. My experience is that collaborative learning online is successful only if people know each other first face-to-face.

In the other program I am teaching seminar about “ online teaching and learning” (in Finnish, only). The participants are art teachers around Finland. They are working everyday as teachers in schools and doing their studies at nights and weekends. The whole program, they are in is 90% distance. They have face-to-face meeting with their local tutors, but seminars like mine are carried out online only.

In my seminar we try to simulate “seminar working”, so that all participants have their own “net teaching project” which they are developing during the course. The plan is to improve their original plan in a knowledge building kind of process. There is no “fixed curriculum” but I naturally try to direct the discussion around the projects to direction that is meaningful in the context of the course. As it is seminar I decided to use our own Fle3 platform and it’s knowledge building tool. It’s good to eat your own dog food!

So far the students have been very active. Of course there are individuals who are doing just what is asked for to pass the course, but most of them a really interested in to do their own “net teaching project”. The obvious link to their teaching in schools is of course a good motivational factor. The results of the seminar are usable ride away in their work. Still collaboration between the participants is a real challenge. After three weeks of intensive online working they have end-up to formualte very small groups of 2 or 3. Some participants are also focusing only on their own work. It is no more a community collaborating. Maybe the problem (if this is a problem, at all?) is that the participants do not have a shared object but rather these individual projects. I guess I must do some “social network analyses to get a real picture of this.

Teachers’ online communities

Saturday, October 1st, 2005

Stephen Downes wrote a pretty hard critics on the European SchoolNet’s SchoolPlaza“the unique collaborative environment where teachers sharing similar interests or teaching the same subject can meet, communicate and work together”. Stephen wrote:

“the Flash interface is just awful; it took a long time to load (the photos never did finish loading) and the text is tiny (really really tiny) on my screen, and the animation jittery and slow ….”

I have to say that I was testing the site already some weeks ago and we also discussed about it in our research group. Our experience of the interface was pretty much the same as Stephens: it is unusable. I didn’t pay much attention on it because I thought that it must be one of the many EUN’s research projects.

I am happy that Stehen wrote about the bad usability of the SchoolPlaza and I am pretty sure that the message goes all the way to the EUN office. I know many people from there and know their expertise. This is also why I do not understand what went wrong with the design of the SchoolPlaza?

The EUN already has pretty well functioning collaboration system called EUN community. Basically any teacher can start there a project and can use the basic online collaboration tools (members, web page, discussion forum, file sharing etc.). The tools are not necessary the latest and greatest available, but they work and are available in five languages.

Also the ETwinning is one kind of online community for teachers.

The SchoolPlaza seems to be an ambitious project. The aim must have been to develop Flash-based “teachers’ online desktop”. I do not have anything against ambitious projects – that is what we try to do all the time. The problem is that if one is doing experiments, one should also clearly communicate the matter for all. If the project is a research project one should do testing and piloting with group of teachers and not to “launch” the site with fanfares.

A relevant question is also what is the point to design specific tools for teacher community and why not to use all the great tools already available (blogs, wikis, forums etc.)? On the other hand the daily life in school is very different from the daily life of computer professionals who are actually the people behind the design of all the great online community tools. For instance, most teachers are not that use to write longish texts – so blogs, wikis and also the discussion forums are almost out of question. Maybe this is the challenge what the SchooPlaza project is trying to solve with picture, audio and video services. I really hope that the SchoolPlaza will contribute to the process of finding answers to these design and research challenges.