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Content Ownership and Sharing in an LMS

Posted in Teaching, Technology on July 16th, 2010 by darcusb – Comments Off

Michael Feldstein has a post on the new Repository API in Moodle, and explains that it enables easy import and export of content to/from course sites. But, he suggests, this may well be a solution to a more fundamental design failing; as he puts it:

A fundamental flaw in LMS design is that the course, rather than the student, owns course documents. While it’s great that Moodle makes it easy to export course contributions to places where students can hold onto them after the course gets archived, this mechanism relies on students making specific efforts to save their work. I would prefer to see a system in which the canonical copies of student-created course documents (or faculty-created course documents, for that matter) live in the users’ private file storage space and the course instance is granted permission to access them.

I think is exactly right, but I see two issues. First, who owns group created/edited documents? I doubt this is an unresolvable issue, but it does add a layer of complexity to the discussion.

Second, I’d want to consider a broader notion of sharing. Consider an example:

I teach a large-enrollment introductory course that is part of the University’s “Top 25″ initiative, which seeks to reorient these sorts of more typically lecture courses around principles of inquiry-based learning. We have a team of people who teach this course who worked at figuring out new course modules that we could share among instructors. But the sharing happens (or not, as it were) through a wiki, and the kind of content we have up is not available in a fully ready-made form such that each of us can simply take it and go in our individual courses. Sharing just takes too much work as it is.

I’d like my LMS to make it really easy to share teaching resources among faculty; ideally not only within just a particular LMS instance at a single university, but across universities. Why can’t I, for example, create a course module and make it public? Why shouldn’t I be able to easily borrow work from colleagues at other institutions? And by easily, I don’t mean having to force them to export some damned package, email it to me, and then make me import it. I mean single-click sharing. What if, for example, I could search for particular concepts in my area of geography, and get a list of modules from both my colleagues here, but also other colleagues elsewhere, and simply click to use it in and/or adapt it to my course?

So that’s a use case: I really want to contribute to and borrow from my colleagues’ work in ways that go far beyond what’s now possible. What does it take to make that possible? Am not exactly sure, but think it’s likely to require rich metadata and structured content authoring. Sakai 3 will, for example, have a template system that allows for wizard-like creation of new content. I could imagine using those templates to layer RDFa metadata into the content itself, and then somehow collecting that metadata and exposing it through some sort of API (SPARQL?).

Sakai 2 and/or 3?

Posted in Teaching, Technology on June 22nd, 2010 by darcusb – 3 Comments

My institution is entering the Sakai community at a time that is both awkward and exciting. Sakai is now a two-product world. Sakai 2 is well-developed and stable: the LMS we have now. Sakai 3, on the other hand, is the emergent next-generation LMS: incredibly promising, but not yet ready for wide-scale deployment.

Given our roadmap to transition over the next year or so and have Sakai fully deployed in the Fall of 2011, the obvious question all of us that attended the Sakai 2010 conference were asking was: should we just look to jump straight to 3? Ultimately, after all the discussions, we ended up with about four different possibilities:

  1. do Sakai 2, and effectively ignore Sakai 3
  2. do Sakai 3, and ignore Sakai 2
  3. run Sakai 3 for the nice new social-networking features to act as a kind of portal with Facebook-like features, but run Sakai 2 in “hybrid mode” for the more traditional LMS functionality that may not be ready when we need it
  4. similar to the above, but run the two instances completely separately
Each approach has its trade-offs. The first ensures a longer transition to Sakai 3, where I think many of our faculty and students would really like to at least experiment with it ASAP. It would also insure another, somewhat abrupt, transition. The second is probably not realistic in our time-frame; some LMS functionality that some faculty will need will likely not be ready by Fall of 2011.

I got the feeling that our group was more attracted to the last two options, both of which would present faculty and students with the new face and the unique features of Sakai 3, and allow a more incremental and seamless transition to the next-generation LMS functionality as it became available. I also personally gathered that the ultimate decision will have to come down to facts on the ground, as they evolve. In short, we probably ought to concentrate on Sakai 2 now, but monitor the progress of Sakai 3. If the project moves at the pace projected in the roadmap then running 2 and 3 together in hybrid mode may well be a viable option. If not, running them separately initially might make more sense.

Another related important question will be what we use for portal functionality. Sakai 3 could hypothetically serve as a nice, flexible, portal interface. It is substantially more ambitious than the traditional LMS model. Certainly some of our people were thinking about this idea. And other institutions have as well. UC Berkeley, for example, is deploying Sakai 3 as its portal system for the coming Fall. But such a move at my campus would likely require a rethink of what our portal functionality should provide, and unlike Berkeley, we already have a portal constituency on campus. So I can imagine some political challenges as well.

Belorussian provided by PC

Sakai 2010 Conference: Impressions

Posted in Teaching, Technology on June 18th, 2010 by darcusb – Comments Off

Having just recently been involved in Miami’s decision to move from Blackboard to Sakai, I was asked to attend the annual Sakai conference along with our some of our IT and instructional design staff. I just got back last night. Here’s some thoughts and impressions.

For some background, I’m an academic whose focus has nothing to do with technology. Nevertheless, I have years of experience in working with open source communities on issues related to academic (mostly research) authoring (see, for example, my work on CSL, which is an outgrowth of work for OpenOffice). But because this work is not central to my academic position, I have tended to avoid investing cash and time resources in attending related technology conferences. With Sakai, though, it’s a little easier to justify my involvement, since it has direct impact on my teaching, and on the broader teaching and learning community at my institution. Aside from a talk I gave at a Code4Lib conference a few years ago, then, this is my first edu technology conference.

So what did I think in a nutshell? I was deeply impressed. The Sakai community is diverse, smart, passionate, and energetic. The sense of mission the community has is almost palpable. It is clear that there is a lot of deep thinking that happens in this world, and that there is a lot of discussion and community engagement around that. At the same time, this seems to be a quite pragmatic community as well. They know what they want to do, and they seem to know how to get there.

In particular, my respect for the Sakai 3 effort continues to grow. Before we made the decision to go with Sakai, I had already spent a lot of time looking at the project: downloading and running the current code, looking at the technical design, reading through the more user-oriented design documents, and talking to the Sakai product manager (Clay Fenlason) about the process by which they were realizing this ambitious vision for a next-generation LMS and collaboration system. So I was already really impressed with Sakai 3 before the conference. But at the conference, you can see how all this works is materialized.

I watched a demo of the NYU pilot project (see, for example, this session description), for example, that will be going live in the coming months. Because the lead Sakai 3 UI designer was in the room as well, we could have a collective discussion about details of the work, both now and in the future. What became clear in these and other discussion is that there are some really sharp people working on this project. At no time did a question come up where I got the impression that these people had anything but an absolutely clear focus on what they were doing.

I also went to a session that explained all the work and thinking behind this diagram.

Sakai 3

This diagram represents a year of intense work of pedagogical experts from around the world, trying to imagine (and re-imagine) the core principles that should drive the design of a next-generation LMS. The idea is that nothing concrete moves forward with Sakai 3 without justification in these principles.

Here’s an image from the session:

Sakai design lens discussion

The session drew broad participation. It wasn’t just instructional designers or pedagogy people in the room. The guy you see in the right foreground with the dark blue shirt is Clay, the product manager. There were also a number of programmers in the room involved in the discussion as well. This is really good to see, as there are sometimes obvious disconnects between more user-focused design people, and programmers. There were even a number of faculty participating in the session as well. This is what the Sakai world means when they say that Sakai is by educators for educators.

I was also struck that the design principles noted above, and the way that Sakai 3 is proceeding more concretely, is fully consistent with the educational mission of Miami. This is software that should beautifully enable more student-centered, integrative, learning and research collaboration in ways that are simply not possible in current generation LMSs. So my hope is that my institution fully embraces these possibilities, and contributes what it can to realizing them. Now is the time to think big!

Bye Bye Blackboard, Hello Sakai

Posted in Teaching, Technology on June 2nd, 2010 by darcusb – 4 Comments

Last week, I was part of a meeting that decided on a recommendation for Miami University’s LMS transition over the next year or so. We ultimately chose among four options:

  1. Blackboard 9 (stay with Blackboard, but move to next version)
  2. Desire2Learn
  3. Moodle
  4. Sakai
Interestingly, there was very little support, if any, for continuing with Blackboard. There’s just been too much frustration with both the software and the company. It’s hard to justify spending so much money on such a mediocre solution, particularly given current budget issues.

Our ultimate choice was Sakai. I can’t say exactly what it was that ultimately organized the consensus around the choice, but my own argument in the meeting was roughly as follows:

  1. all of the current LMSs are more alike than not
  2. the open source options (both Moodle and Sakai) give the institution greater control over our own destiny going forward, with more options for support, for influencing the direction of the software, and for deciding when we want to transition to new versions
  3. Sakai in particular has a really smart forward-looking roadmap in v3 which is shaped by the right, pedagogically-oriented, vision

For me personally the plans for Sakai 3 were a primary differentiator. The tight coupling of a new architecture placed at the service of a shiny new interface that is easy-to-use and flexible, and which is designed based on user-testing from the beginning, is, I think, the right direction. The widget and template-based approach has the potential to make it easier and quicker for new users to get going. The devil will be in the details of exactly how well they implement these ideas, but I am looking forward to seeing how Sakai 3 evolves.

Now the real work will start for the IT staff here. They’ll have to figure out the best way to transition course content from Blackboard, to train faculty and students in how to best make use of Sakai, and set up some kind of governance structure to manage our relationship with this new technology. I’m hoping this can include some mechanism to get IT services staff and interested faculty involved in the Sakai community, and contributing in different ways to its future evolution.

Sakai 3: Mix-and-Match Tools

Posted in Teaching, Technology on May 15th, 2010 by darcusb – Comments Off

Earlier, I covered some interesting new characteristics of Sakai 3, but want here to add another. Existing LMSes are hamstrung by a number of assumptions and limitations. To sum them up, today’s LMS tends to be both course-centric and tool-centric. If, for example, students that share two or three related courses want to setup a group, they can’t do it; the LMS assumes students are part of courses (or in some cases, non-course sites). Similarly, the LMS experience is constrained by a focus on discrete tools. If you want students to reflect on some ideas, and then host a discussion on them, you need them to go to two separate places: some webpage-like thing that describes the ideas, and then a separate forum where the discussion may happen. If the student wants to refer back-and-forth between the two areas, they need to do awkward things like open two windows or tabs, or do the browser back-and-forward button thing. This is a totally artificial limitation that has real consequences.

Thankfully, Sakai 3 does away with these limitations. Groups, for example, may exist independently of course and sites, and so will allow more flexible sorts of online sociability and collaboration among students, researchers, and so forth. On the tools front, Sakai 3 breaks down the walls that have previously divided them. If you want to host a discussion on some content, you can simply create your page, add the content, and then at the bottom of the page add a “discussion” widget. Upon doing so, a discussion thread will be available at the bottom of the page for students to view and contribute to.

The current UI has widgets for a variety of common features: polls (complete with a nice instant-view graph of the results), comments, quizzes, etc. But it also has some clever new ones, such as a Google Maps widget that allows you to embed a live Google Map (though as I geographer, I have to say that I’d really like to see more here, like the ability to ask for a country, and have it understand what I mean; this might be more a limitation of Google Maps though).

Here’s an example of what this looks like with the polling widget. First, we decide to add a poll to our page. We go to the “insert more” drop-down on the right side of our editor …

the insert more drop-down

Once we select “poll” we get a dialog to set it up.

widget configuration

Note that this dialog pops up in place; no need to go to some separate page to manage this. Once we have it all ready and click “insert widget”, and save the page, we then see this, which is also what students will see …

poll widget student widget

When a student comes across this, again, they don’t have to go to some separate place to take the poll; they simply click their choice in place. Even more cool, once they’re done, the live widget presents the results of the survey in a graph view.

poll widget results

In turn, this graph will continuously update as other students take the poll!

A couple of months ago, Lance Speelmon at Indiana University presented a demo of this at a Sakai conference in Japan. You can see that starting at about the 23 minute mark or so of this video:

So let’s pause for a second and ponder the implications of this: I will be able to create a page for some topic in a class. I can add some text to present the issues for the topic and link to some background readings. I can then embed any other widget I want right there in the page! Bigger picture, this widget architecture is designed to be easy to work with for developers. So if I have some idea for a great new widget, any on-campus developer with basic web development skills could hypothetically help me create that widget.

When I started pondering what I want in a next-generation LMS, this is exactly the sort of thing I was imagining!

On Choosing an LMS

Posted in Teaching, Technology on April 28th, 2010 by darcusb – 10 Comments

So long story short is that I’ve been a part of a suddenly rushed process to decide if and when to ditch Blackboard for an alternative LMS. I’m part of one group of mostly faculty who are taking a look at this issue from our perspectives, and we now have to come up with our conclusions. I’m strongly in favor of ditching Blackboard, but still feel I don’t have enough information or time to assess the differences between Moodle and Sakai. If anyone has any useful experiences or links that address this in general, or some of my specific questions below, please leave a comment.

  1. How easy is it to reuse content (quizzes, assignments, etc.) across courses (both term-to-term, as well as sharing among different instructors)?
  2. How do the details of the assessment modules in both Moodle and Sakai compare? I have the vague sense they’re broadly comparable (though with perhaps the nod going to Moodle with its ability to tie assessment to outcomes, and then have reporting based on this; not sure Sakai has this), but would like to explore this more.
  3. How integrated is TurnItIn? Both claim the feature, but I would like to know, in particular, if grades from TurnItIn can populate to their respective gradebooks (as happens now with Blackboard, though not very reliably).
  4. inbound and outbound SMS integration?

Zotero Groups and Teaching

Posted in Teaching, Technology on September 24th, 2009 by darcusb – Comments Off

Like Sean Takats, I’ve been experimenting with using Zotero’s new groups functionality in a graduate seminar I teach. Here’s a quick report.

The course in question is a beginning seminar required of all grad students in my department (though this year I also have someone from history as well). Its purpose is to introduce them to the history of the discipline (geography), and to given them basic skills to analyze the development of literatures in more focused subfields.

The course involves weekly readings and reading responses. In the past, students posted the reading responses to a course listserv. The major product of the term is a literature review paper on the evolution of a subfield.

So my initial plan was:

  1. setup a private Zotero group for the course
  2. create collections for different broad topics, as well as weekly topics
  3. ditch the class listserv and have students comment on readings by adding notes to the Zotero items

How well did this work? Not exactly as planned. Item 3 above was a disaster, since Zotero groups are not setup to facilitate discussions. So I switched back to the listserv.

It’s been a challenge to get students up and running with Zotero, but they’re starting to adjust, and contributing to what may have a lot of promise: a collaborative annotated bibliography of sorts that will hopefully develop over time so that it can be a resource for future grad students.

But, issues:

  1. Tag management is a PITA for individual users, but unmanageable for groups. Automatic tagging is really more trouble than help, but before realizing this, you end up with dozens and dozens of useless tags, and no easy way to bulk manage them. Morever, there appears to be some weird syncing-related bugs that happen when I edit or delete tags individually. This is a problem that I hope gets resolved.
  2. Sometime sync issues (which could be networking related; not sure).
  3. There’s no easy way to see who contributed what to a group library.
  4. Students have struggled a bit understanding how group items relate to personal items (they are copied, not shared).
  5. No annotated bib support (I ask them to submit one).

So I think it’s fair to say we’re finding promise in the group functionality, but that there’s still some work to do.

Google Wave and Learning

Posted in Teaching, Technology on June 2nd, 2009 by darcusb – Comments Off

Michael Feldstein has two smart posts on the implications of Google Wave for learning:

Quick summary: like me, he thinks Wave is a potential game-changer that has major implications for learning. But he basically answers “no” to the question presented in his second post. His argument comes down to the core point that Wave is unstructured, and this is not always in sympathy with the goals of learning. The argument is twofold:
  1. Permissions: as he puts it, there are times when you want to control permissions, when you don’t want everything to be editable to everyone, when you want to steer a conversation or process in a particular direction. In those cases, the Wave Server as currently being demonstrated will not provide the necessary structure. It is possible that Google will implement fine-grained permissions structures in future versions, but I doubt it.
  2. Sequential structure: there are times when waves are exactly the opposite direction of where you want to go. I believe that half of good teaching is sequencing experiences such that students are more likely to learn in deep and meaningful ways…. Wave is not designed for that at all. To the contrary, it is designed to get out of the way of free-form communication.
I think Michael is spot on: how much of an LMS Wave could replace hinges on how much permissions control Google opts to add, and how well it can be integrated into other, more structured environments. I also suspect he’s right that Google is unlikely to add this sort of structure, but instead make it easy to integrate Wave into other, more structured, environments (such as an LMS).

But if we accept the conclusion that Wave is likely to be more a supplement than a replacement to a more structured LMS, this leads to I think an important question: how might the two worlds—structured and un/semi-structured—be best integrated? It doesn’t seem to me to necessarily follow, for example, that taking a big existing LMS and bolting Wave on is likely the best answer.

Google Wave Free Association

Posted in Teaching, Technology on May 29th, 2009 by darcusb – Comments Off

So Google’s announcement of Wave seems like a big deal. Rather than the typical deep and thoughtful post, which I’m sure others have done, some random thoughts:

  • from what I can tell, unlike much of Google’s current application infrastructure (GMail and Docs), the code will be open source; this would be really big
  • also unlike the current apps, Wave is distributed; this is also a really big deal
  • the collaborative document-editing seems wicked cool, and goes a fair bit beyond Docs
  • I absolutely cringe when I hear the phrase rich text in 2009, particularly when Google has so failed to get the basics of structured documents right in Docs
  • OTOH, HTML 5 provides some room for them to improve this if they put their mind to it
  • would really love if the extension mechanism was rich enough to allow integration of citations (say a Zotero extension; though perhaps something more distributed), and flexible enough to do it right (which by definition means not based on bibtex)
  • This has potentially big, though as yet unclear, implications for higher education, and for the sort of work that happens these days in LMSs.

Collaborative Course Blogging

Posted in Teaching, Technology on April 9th, 2009 by darcusb – Comments Off

Kris Oldes posted a link to an interesting article about an effort to use a multi-user WordPress-based blog with social networking functionality (BuddyPress) to integrate four different courses around a broader theme. This is the sort of thing that’s impossible to do in any LMS that I know of, but which has the potential to be a really valuable experience for students and faculty alike. Moreover, the intellectual work embodied in the course can endure beyond the semester, and the small group of students involved.

I’m interested in doing something like this (though more modest; only one class) next term for my Global Change course. At some point, though, I need to talk to people about the technical (how best to do it; Elgg vs. BuddyPress) and privacy issues involved in such an effort. I really like the idea of doing public blogging and comments, for example, but am not sure how to deal with privacy issues around that