Wednesday, 21 November 2007

NITLE keynote

It's been a while since I've posted. In the interim, I've finished the 2nd edition of Using Moodle, organized and run the UK MoodleMoot, moved from Leamington Spa to San Francisco, given a keynote address at the NITLE conference, as well as working my IBM gig.

It's been a busy few months... but I'm now back to posting!

I'm very happy with the address I gave at the NITLE conference, but I didn't think to record the audio. So I'll just post the slides here for now. I think there are some ideas here for future exploration (and maybe another book).

Friday, 13 April 2007

One Moodle Per Child?

Jamais Cascio has posted about an IEEE article on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The idea is to give 100 million children in the developing world their own laptop. They've designed a ruggedized, cheap, easy-to-use laptop for about $150 and the first experiments are now taking place in Nigeria.

Jamais highlights one issue raised in the article "Felsenstein notes that teachers will (rightly) see these laptops as a direct assault on their authority, and many will be banned from classrooms, leaving the kids to use the machines unsupervised."
Jamais believes a generation growing up hacking it's own machines outside of the institutional confines will be a boon to a developing nation. I'm not sure I disagree.... but I adoption is the achilles heel of a project I desperately want to succeed. IThe laptop is a physical by-product of a revolutionary meme. The alien memetic virus is guaranteed to create an institutional allergic reaction.

What happens when the laptop is banned from the school for causing disruption and challengin the authority of the teacher (who isn't getting any training)? Without a network, how useful is a participatory culture device?

All of this gets me to thinking about the role of Moodle in this endeavour. The laptops are built on a constructivst model. They encourage experimentation, production of artifacts, sharing wtih others... all of the wonderful ideas we espouse in the Moodle community. But we also provide tools to reinforce teacher authority (roles, grading, quizzes, etc) to both encourage adoption and to meet the needs of teachers where they are. We introduce new concepts by disguising them as the old, like memetic camoflauge.

Of course, this means we have a wide variation in the levels of use. Most Moodle teachers use it to post static resources with little thought to how to change their teaching. They use the technology to amplify their old, inefficient methods. A smaller number use it to slightly modify their delivery, moving some tasks out of the classroom. And then a very few understand the potential revolution and transform their classroom practice in extraordinary and powerful ways.

The compromises made by Moodle have made it easy for schools to adopt, providing the potential for transformation while not demanding it. I wonder if the OLPC demands too much transformation to be accepted. The lack of training, content, and the radical philosophy for radical philosophy's sake smack of academic hubris. If it's pushed outside of the classroom through institutional reaction, we will have lost a huge opportunity to help catalyze the development of the poorer nations.

I desperately hope I'm wrong, and we see a flowering of participatory education in OLPC nations. But I've been involved in too many educational institutions to be optimistic.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Open Content

In Feb, I gave a talk at the MoodleMoot in Albuquerque about developing open content like open source software. Right now there are two primary models for developing creative commons (or similar) content. First, a single author develops a piece of content and shares it with the world. Comments and suggestions for improvement are fed back to the author, who then makes changes or not. Second, the wiki model, allows anyone to develop edit or author, with limited version control or QA. So what you see one moment may be different from what the next person sees.

In this presentation, I argue for a middle way, mirroring the open source development process. Anyone can contribute, but only trusted members of the community can commit patches to the main release. There is a punctuated release cycle to release a new version, which has been quality checked and used by the beta testers.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

On Rediscovering David Hawkins

In 1993, I had the honor of meeting David and Francis Hawkins in their home in Boulder Colorado. At the time, I was an undergraduate finishing my degree in environmental studies and investigating the connection between environmentalism and education. He and Francis were remarkably generous with their time and until recently I had no idea of their incredible achievements.

David was a true renaissance thinker. He served as Oppenheimers assistant during the Manhattan project and was the project's official historian (Download the PDF of his history). He also the Hawkins of the Hawkins-Simon condition a useful macroeconomic principle for evaluating the sustainability of economies. But I knew both of them primarily through their work in education.

Both David and Francis were deeply humanist in their approach. They had a confidence in the abilities of young children and dedicated teachers which is lacking in our standards and testing driven educational culture today.

I bring this up as I have started re-reading David's two collections of essays on education, The Roots of Literacy and The Informed Vision. The central themes of these works include the value of direct experience, an openess to new experience and the unexpected, and the value of allowing children to find meaning in their activities as the primary impetus to growth. In his essay 'The Roots of Literacy' he states "children can learn to read and write with committment and quality just in proportion as they are engaged with matters of importance to them, and about which at some point they wish to read and write."

Of course, our modern educational system doesn't exactly encourage students to engage with matters of importance to themselves. Instead, we have developed the conditions for a culture of boredom and ennui. From the article "About 30 percent of the students indicate they are bored due to lack of interaction with teachers and 75 percent report material being taught is not interesting."

The real tragedy is we know what the answer is. The Hawkins are among a great tradition of humanist educators. But our factory schools are unable to change.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

And then there are days...

And then there are days when you wonder why you bother...

I know this has been around for a while, but it's new (and funny) to me. It also reminds me of a quote from a recent interview with Alan Kay:

How much learning is a person willing to do to really learn how to use a computer? The answer, over the last 25 years of the commercialization of personal computing, is almost none. Nobody really wants to put in any amount of effort. The things that people have been willing to learn have tended to be like the media they grew up with, which have really simple user interfaces. (The big exception is video games.)
(via infocult)

A true willingness to learn requires a certain amount of playfulness, a willingness to make mistakes, seem ridiculous, deconstruct the center of your beliefs, and emerge out the other side changed. I think this is as true in general education as it is in learning to use a new technology.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

MoodleMoot Albuquerque

MoodleMoot Albuquerque is a wrap. It was an intense day of hallway conversations, great presentations and general good will to all Moodle kind.

Kevin Kelly's (not the former editor of Wired, but the Online Teaching and Learning Coordinator at San Francisco State University) opening keynote discussed communities of collaboration going beyond just the software within Moodle. Kevin has begun to outline the spread of open source methods to other areas within education.

Kevin used Wenger's definition of a community of practice - Groups of people who share a concerns, a set of problems, who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting. He then made a distinction between a community of learners and a community which learns. A community learns by gathering, adapting and generating new knowledge. It then produces artifacts which reflect the changes made by the community through feedback and continuous adaptation to a changing environment.

This is the fundamental difference between the wikipedia model of development and the traditional open source model. By limiting the number of people who can commit code, testing for reversion, and setting targets for set releases, OSS projects are communities that learn. As the software improves, it reflects new knowledge embedded within the artifact. Well-managed OSS projects move against the flow of entropy, capturing new knowledge and structure with most new releases.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, too easily falls victim to the entropy of the system. There is no pre-filter for quality contributors, no way to reify the new knowledge of the community, and no strong measures for managing reversion.

If we are to develop useful open educational resources, we must develop communities that learn and give them tools and processes to capture the learning. We must treat the development of new educational materials like the development of new software.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Education Automation

I've been re-reading the book that launched me on my career path. (No, not Using Moodle although I am working on the second edition). Bucky Fuller's Education Automation is the book that put me on my path into education and technology. As a college grad with a degree in Environmental Conservation, I didn't exactly have a clear direction to take. But I had been a big fan of Fuller since my early days as an architecture student (which obviously didn't pan out).

So now, 13 years later, I'm reading Education Automation again. You can too. It's freely available on the web from the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

What always strikes me is how prescient this little book is. Two-way TV? Point-to-point communication for the whole world? Access to the world's best content? Sounds kinda familiar to me.

photo © Alex Gonzalez for CC:Attribution