Above the Trees (A tall man’s perspective on elearning)

After recently drawing up the plans for a new module to bring online Rubrics to Drupal; I paused, looked at my white board and said “when is it I was able to finally begin looking this far ahead?”.  For years (2.5 to be exact) I had been merely keeping my head above water.  Implementations of new features into courses were in an on-demand fashion with little planning or  sustainability planning in mind.  Courses were in a vaccume environment where no one course affected the planning of another.  Then we reached a critical point; how to manage all these courses w/o an infrastructure / network / controller to do so?  So one was created.  With a network came standardization, sustainability planning and most importantly blah blah blah….

ENOUGH ALREADY PEOPLE!  I’m sick of hearing about systems to develop and push and manage e-learning.  I’ve been working on these systems the last 3 years and you know why?  Because I thought that ultimately, with better tools comes better learning materials and with better learning materials comes better learning outcomes.  Well, that may be the case but from a developer’s perspective all I’ve ever done is enable people to (on good faith) put that ball in motion.  As a result, nothing I’ve ever created has directly impacted the learning of a student and I’m willing to bet nothing you’ve created has either (if you do what I do).
You make systems for people to help students.  Or you install / write code so that people can bold text properly in their Wyziwig text editors with the hope that better formatted web pages with (OOoooo) Tables and hyper-links will lead to better learning outcomes.  Well not to tick any instructors off but a lot of times your material isn’t the most memorable thing for students taking your courses.  I’d like to think I would know having taken online courses before in recent years.  Here’s the million dollar question I charged the rest of my unit with the other day.  Have you taken on online course?  It’s rather funny because you’d think in being experts at telling people how to design them (and some designing them the last 8+ years) that they surely would have taken some online courses themselves.

Not a single one.  So, being an “expert” in the field of taking online courses, having taken an infinite % more of them then the rest of my Unit (and maybe your’s), as well as being someone who is involved in the political and design implications of systems I’d like to share some of my experiences…

  • Content w/o multimedia is boring — the Web and Web 2.0 world is all about speed.  What are the two most costly events in a computer program? Input and Output.  It takes a long time to generate content and a long time to absorb it.  The web and life are moving too fast to sit down and read you’re (while very important I’m sure) 4 page-scrolls of text.  I’m sorry, I wish I could say people are reading it but I’ve seen how long they stay on pages (thank you Woopra) and they ain’t all speed readers.  Utilize other forms of media w/o making it overkill. It doesn’t have to be high production quality / pricing either.  There’s a lot you can do with a 15 dollar subscription to Jing.com, a computer with a webcam, and minor knowledge of copying and pasting embed code.
  • Update your material frequently— The web brings down costs.  Cost of entry, cost of knowledge (in generation and consumption), cost to develop content and cost of ownership.  But the trade off is that typically the information is here today and outdated tomorrow.  We live in a 24 hour news cycle; a government falls on the other side of the world and 5 minutes later we have reports given live streaming video reports with the new administration.  10 minutes after that it’s old news that everyone’s heard and onto the next puppy or kitty that did something cute somewhere.  The dash in the attention span is shrinking and the degree to which material is relevant is shrinking as well.  We can no longer have course materials that are more then 3 years old and still hold the same credibility as material created a month ago; it’s impossible.  A lot of people live by “Publish or Perish” in education, if you’re not getting your name out there the assumption is you’re doing nothing.  The same applies to the web and web materials (especially in an OER model where people can find out how old materials are potentially).
  • Twitter is recycled, on demand powerpoint; CUT IT OUT — I’m getting sick and tired of hearing people either complain that they arne’t doing enough with technology because they aren’t using social media in their courses or talk about how amazing they are and how the paradigm has shifted.  For the longest time we (techy people) would poke fun at instructors who said they were using technology in the classroom only to find out it was powerpoint.  The same will become trust of social media.  “I’m using facebook for my class”  really? Who cares.  Rule 1, students like their privacy and don’t want their social world overlapping with their academic one.  Rule 2 points back to the previous point about updating your material because honestly, how sustainable is a course model that includes social mediums?  They’re typically free, so there’s no reason for the owners to care if they should go away (other then their business model didn’t work).  But say it did just switch to a pay service, now you have a course with key components tied to something that people would have to pay to access.  Don’t think bosses and administrations would be too key on that.  Seriously though: use web 2.0 technologies very cautiously and put a lot of thought into where they’ll be 2 years from now becasue the rate of collapse in technologies, being able to plan “ahead” now means 1 to 2 release cycles of a course / product, not 4-6 years as previous projections would have been for industries.
  • Like it or not, we are a business — e-Learning is one of those investment opportunities where you spend money up front to obtain a sustainable, long term income. A “Teach a man how to fish” business if you will in higher-education.  But our clients aren’t interested in that aspect typically.  They’re the one paying to have access to the instructors and that money trickles back down the pipe.  It’s important to remember that because I see a lot of people still thinking that Institutions are immune to the ills of a poor economy.  There are a lot of opportunities to become a leader (search drupal elearning) but there also needs to be the realization that our end users are suffering big time.  They’re having a harder time finding student loans, harder time finding even part time jobs, and their time is becoming more valuable as money becomes tighter across the board.  No longer can there be the seemingly frivolous expenses for online education (as I said before, you’d be amazed at what even jing can do to spice things up)
  • Lastly, Remember the goal of elearning — Students.  It’s all about the students.  Somehow that gets lost along the way for many.  You’e building a system for learning management and to get information out to people but it doesn’t really hit home that what you’re doing is enabling people all throughout the chain.  You’re enabling IDs to work with faculty to organize their content better.  You’re helping multimedia people integrate new media solutions so that IDs / Instructors can implement higher quality material without any additional knowledge.  You’re allowing instructors to better communicate feedback, assessment, and academic direction to students.  And that’s what it’s all about, enabling the students to receive that knowledge in as pure a form as possible, hope that you can transfer as much as possible in as short a time as possible and impact their lifes in a positive way with that knowledge.  Sure you might not be helping them learn how to plant crops in the correct order in order to feed their family (unless you work on the Green Mountain project…then maybe you do 🙂 ) but you’re helping students save their time (and productivity hours which = money) in order to help them better themselves.  Never lose sight of that.

So….you may be wondernig where does this leave things?  Where are we going? Where is elearning going?  Well… as a few bullet points before I leave it up to the blogs to take me out of context 😉 …

  • Drupal in E-Learning Consortium is coming.  A more well defined plan will be outlined here as a result of discussions with interested members (here, other blogs, phone calls, drupal ed group, conferences) and I hope to be in talks with some other Uni’s about what this would actually mean and how it could benefit all of us (again, keeping financial times into account).
  • The Assignment Studio and Rubric modules will be available for download on Drupal.org in the coming weeks.  Just need to clean them up a little bit but they should be good to go in their current state for at least a beta if not full release
  • My next two projects will be a site branding module to help create a consistent look and feel across all sites with it installed and a site_manager module.  Similar to the course manager as talked about in the past, this will allow people to manage far more then one drupal site, from 1 drupal site.  You’ll be able to define a network of sites (given that you can access them on your DB user account) and verify / change settings globally across all sites that have that setting / module enabled.
  • STUDENT GEARED WORK — Finally, the thing that got me to write this in the first place.  It’s all about the student so I’m going to finally start putting together some stuff that’s just for them.  Specifically in the form of visualizations for data generated by the assignment studio / rubric modules, as well as creating a console to demonstrate their activity within the course alla tracker, statistics, browscap and a bunch of other fun things.


Tr.im is dead.  I never used the service but it FINALLY gives me the chance to raise the concern most seem to overlook when relying on a free service: what happens when it goes away?  In a downmarket it’s no longer a question of if it’s when.  Just look at youtube.  “OMG ITS SO COOL” isn’t good enough to the guys paying to run the servers and keep a staff on hand to manage the beast if it’s not generating income.   This video sums it up rather nicely — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CqRcCHk_Pc (look for the google heatmap analysis).  There have been similar stories on CNN and fox news talking about the culture of free on the internet needing to change.

Need another example?  PANDORA will be scaling back it’s free portion and creating a pay service.  How many people got an iphone and said “PANDOA = FREE RADIO ANYWHERE”; soon, not so much.  Relate this to education, don’t get too tied to off-site services if you can’t do them inhouse.  Perfect example, youtube / vimeo / ANY OF THE media services out there.  How deos Flickr make money?  Or…gasp, Twitter?  What is the financial model for twitter?  And would you participate if it was a pay modle? Cause I hate to break it to everyone but how does free benefit the guys providing the service?  What we’re doing?  Moving towards youtube / vimeo / flickr.  Why?  Offload the strain on our machines while we still can, keeping in mind that we can’t become beholden to any of those services just in case.  I will say for Vimeo though that it has a for-pay model in place (which we pay into) and it’s fabulous.

Going to reference this video again but http://vimeo.com/5493202 “please charge for your services; stop making things free”.  People will pay for a service and it also gives the service provider incentive to keep it running 🙂

Unofficial Drupal in Higher Education Online training announcement

So it’s been awhile since I wrote about anything happening with Drupal in education and decided I’d clue you all in on what the future holds for us.  For the Fall semester there will be two exciting new modules released from the e-Learning Institute under the ELMS umbrella.  The first is the Assignment Studio which allows you to manage grades and helps establish a standardized way via taxonomy terms that students can submit their work.  It’s mostly a routing module to help you understand how you can setup an assignment submission system in Drupal and then an intense GUI to make it all very easy to manage.  In past builds we’ve been able to handle 2 instructors / TAs grade 40+ assignments (per student) for a class of 150.

This is all made possible via the second module that will be released called the Rubric module.  I’m particularly happy with the direction that the rubric module has taken simply because it has real instructional backing in the naming conventions used.  It’s also going to be setup on a standardized architecture w/ another rubric project on campus so (theoretically) you could use either Drupal or a Flex app to manage / display / assess work.  Great UI going on with that project as well and it’s probably 85% completed if you’ve been keeping up on my screencasts.

The last thing, which I’m most excited to tell you about, is an idea that’s come up in the past over at the institute and now is going to come to fruition.  We’re always grappling with three big issues:

  1. How do we get instructors to implement new technologies effectively?
  2. How do we ensure that these new technologies are stable yet push the envelop in education?
  3. How can we get into the OER “marketplace” when because our courses we develop need to be locked down to course section?

Solution : I wil be creating a course (with help from the rest of our team) that essentially covers how we do business.  There will be (at the moment at least) 3 main modules to the “course”.  One on Drupal, one on Instructional Design, and one on Graphic Design.  This will help me get my feet a bit more wet with instructional design, get something out in the OER realm, and teach people about topics that we’re working on day to day.

I became inspired by this video http://vimeo.com/5493202 in which the speaker suggests that as a web 2.0 business you need to sell your byproducts.  Our byproduct is an effective and advanced e-learning unit that produces high touch, high polish courses.  Now, I know that as part of a university we can’t really “sell” what we do but we can certainly help others learn from what we’re doing well (and not so well) in the past.  This also gives me the oppurtunity to utilize some new teaching technologies that remain widely untapped in our courses.  For example, we’re just recently getting into using Vimeo for instructor introductions to our courses.  I’ll be demonstrating how to do it as well as others in the unit if our course gets big enough.  Another example of a technology I’ll be using to demonstrate concepts is The Pulse (http://www.livescribe.com/).  With this I’ll be able to draw diagrams of how our architecture works internally (Drupal + our modules) and speak at the same time.  This will help with context which I hope will help with knowledge transfer as it relates to the topic.

At the moment the Assignment Studio / Rubric modules are my #1 priority (as well as integration into our courses) but I’ll be working on this course when I need to take a break from code.  Any thoughts on topics you’d like to see covered or level of detail?  I’ll appriciate any / all feedback so we can meet your needs.  Our technology test bed can be your next best OER resource 🙂