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.


  1. Brent schlenker · August 22, 2009

    Great post! I would love to talk more with you abou drupal & eLearning. Are you a member of the eLearning guild by any chance. I’m really looking for someone familiar with drupal to do a presentation at DevLearn09 in Nov. In San Jose, CA. Are you on the west coast?

    • btopro · August 23, 2009

      Thanks Brent! I am not a member of the eLearning guild (heard of it) but it does seem like something I probably should be looking into more. Definitely interested in speaking Drupal in education (specifically higher edu); if you’ve haven’t noticed I like trying to rial people up :).

      I’m not on the West Coast but I may be able to swing it; we should definitely setup a conversation some time this week maybe? Tweet me whenever works for you as I believe we’re already following each other.

  2. Clint Thayer · August 25, 2009

    Nice post!

  3. Bram Moreinis · November 19, 2009

    Hmmph, Bryan…..I have a bad code today (can’t translate certain vowels due to a stuffed nose) and therefore not feeling optimistic….but some of this rant sounded too dark even for me….

    Getting a little BFullerian: can’t have structure without tension and compression. Say compression is the learning side and tension is the teaching side. Constraint is the mother of creativity. No constraint, it’s like “hey, go write a thesis about anything, any length, any media” – don’t expect quality!

    So you’re a tension element – part of a chain. A chain is wonderful when it’s hooked up to nodes as a counterpoint to compression. A chain on the ground, not so exciting. So if you’re building eLearning systems for a real college doing real learning, BE VERY HAPPY!

    But even a chain on the ground is a lot more wonderful than a single link. If you’re part of a team of professors, developers, administrators, etc….don’t say only the professors have the fun!

    You say it’s about the students. Well, but the higher education institutions are “blessing” the knowledge the students are coming for….I wouldn’t leave it to the “market” to bless what’s real, else I’d have to eat Big Macs.

    Example: I spoke to a prospect yesterday. He wants to build a Little League website that adds social networking (so kid baseball players can have online profiles, see their stats, get to know each other, as well as see when their games are/were).

    I asked, “have you asked any kids if they’d care about this? Maybe they just want to play baseball?” He hadn’t.

    I think it would be fun to make this for him, with Drupal – and I think it would be much more fun (and valid) to work with student focus groups and see if and how they can come up with something they WOULD want to project their meatspace baseball relationships to.

    And then I think about how the kids can do student journalism – do sports reporting about the games, some kids provide the photos for the reporters whose articles are inspired by the photos as well as by their own memory of the games, how the social network context is what gives meaning to all of it….without people watching and reading, who cares about writing and producing?

    So – it’s all got to build together, try to stay valid long enough to get people on board deep enough to contribute themselves…it’s got to be a structure with tension (the technology and organization holding it together) and compression (the kids and coaches putting in the content, pushing the limits, filling the spaces).

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