Moving beyond “instructionally agnostic” educational software

Instructionally-agnostic software plays an important role. But now it’s time that we start to also use software to extend our capacity as educators. This means moving beyond the “correspondence” model of distance education – in which we use software solely as a cost-effective tool for distributing traditional education materials (typically those repurposed from print and classroom environments). It means using software that captures and embodies our best thinking about how students learn. Instructionally intelligent software extends our capacity as educators – it helps us do more with our limited time, money and skills.

Keith Hampson

I think this sums up my current thoughts on the current raft of edtech – it’s too agnostic and in therefore less capable. In this situation (where you’re striving to work within the LMS) everything becomes a hack. Personalisation doesn’t come from offering students choice because it’s thats not agnostic, and therefore not part of the LMS. Instead we seek to offer that function through abstracted data and analytics that assume far too much about “learning” from unrelated data points. It seems odd to employ this method when the user is right there – ask them! I’m liking the word BEYOND at the moment – feels like that’s where we need to be, pushing forward and further out from where we sit now.

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An Online Learning Environment looks like…

So in the last post I discussed the case that regardless of what you deploy – to provide a good online experience you will end up with an Environment. It might be made up of a group of single systems but in essence it operates and functions like an Environment.

To help define what an online Environment might look like I thought it might be best to start off with listing what the Environment should DO!

What are the core functions of an Online Learning Environment?

  1. Single Point of Access
    Users of the system want the simplicity of a single point of access. They want one location to go and perform their tasks, not migrate from channel to channel, system to system.
  2. Single Identity & Profile
    Users want one log in, one profile, one bio and one password! Developers want this too – one set of users, one set of permissions, one source of data.
  3. Structured Collaboration
    The environment needs to be able to set up groups or sites according to their enrolled courses and subjects. This creates a space that is unique to that group and centralises access to all systems, resources and tools for that group.
  4. Fluid Collaboration
    Structuring groups around courses and subject is nice for administration purposes, but with the advent of social media that can hardly be considered best practice any more. Users want and should have the ability to define their own groups and collaboration. From study groups to social clubs – these are all part of the learning process.
  5. Scalable Provisioning & Administration
    Setting up groups, defining membership, access levels, adding, removing, editing and merging sites – these are the facts of administering an LMS and it happens every single session so it should be simple, automated and scalable – from 40 students to 40 000.
  6. Content Development & Delivery
    Academics aren’t designers or publishers but they need a way to develop and deliver content in a variety of forms. More importantly students need to be able to access this content on a variety of devices in a variety of contexts.
  7. Online File Storage
    Despite the post-PC age being upon us we still have files and we need ways to share & store them. The cloud provides a key to unlocking the potential of improving a multitude of systems and creates a space for users and systems to read/write/share information.
  8. Real Time Communication
    As we head towards a more blended approach to our learning and teaching methodologies there is a greater need to offer equivalency or replacements for face to face. Webinars, online meetings and video chat provide ways of replicating some of our spacial settings but in far more dynamic and flexible ways.
  9. Asynchronous Communication
    Chat, email, forums, discussions, comments – are all ways of improving the flexibility of our teaching and communication with our students.
  10. Group Communication and Notifications
    Academics and Universities need to be able to communicate and inform large groups. Staff and students as a whole want to remain connected and know what is happening, how and when.
  11. Rich Media Delivery
    Video and audio are becoming a bigger part of the resources we provide to students. They provide unique opportunities to show students and improve their ability to comprehend. Rich media also forms the backbone of the Flipped Classroom and other initiatives (MOOC, EdX, iTunesU etc)
  12. Assignment Submission & Return
    Key to all educational institutions is the ability to assess. The online environment needs to provide a round trip for students and academics to submit, mark, grade and return assignments in a range of formats.
  13. Evaluation and Feedback
    Key to the development of our academics and their students is the ability to provide be evaluated and receive feedback – early and often. Facebook’s Like button shows how easy this could be from the user’s perspective.
  14. Analytics
    Data drives evolution in a digital sense. We need opportunities to harvest data – but more importantly we need better ways of analysing, interpreting and using it.

That’s my list of the key features. Feel free to contribute any others you can think of!

Sit down, we need to talk about the LMS

Big news this week when it was announced our university will be looking for a new LMS to implement in 2014.

While I am a great supporter of our LMS (Sakai), I have never been a big user. I’m not an academic so I don’t have any learning to manage and with a background in web development I never had a problem getting content online. It’s in these two areas that have been the big wins for our university – managing our complex enrolment profile and getting people and their content online.

So at the moment the question is what replaces the current LMS? Is it another LMS or should we be looking for something else?

Lets start by talking about the current technology landscape because a lot has changed since our first implementation:

  • For starters the world of the web has changed dramatically over the last 5 or so years. The extensible servers of the Cloud and the anywhere, anytime access that mobile brings are huge shifts in how we build large-scale systems and how we access them.
  • At the same time our web ecosystem has broadened. So many new best-of-breed tools are now available that its hard to justify the centralised Swiss army knife approach of the traditional LMS.
  • Finally, there is a push for universities to provide a more personalised and customisable learning experience. The traditional LMS does not provide that, instead it offers a cookie cutter approach that’s easy to scale, maintain, deploy and sell.

At this point I’d recommend some reading to understand that this is a big issue for higher education across the globe – first this article by David Jones especially the discussion in the comments. This series of articles from Canada a are extremely relevant. Finally this presentation from Whitney Hess on framing the problem.

OK finished? I hope that helps frame my thinking – let’s move on.

The dilemma that we face is one where we need to define what it is we are trying to offer in the online space: Are we looking for a Single System or an Environment?

Single System vs Environment.

The Single System approach continues the paradigm of the LMS. A centralised hub that provides a defined set of tools. There is limited customisation available to the teacher, the student or the pedagogy. It provides a management approach to learning and teaching where things are controlled, standardised, measured and scheduled.

The Environment approach instead looks to create a suite of separate tools that operate as a cooperative ecosystem. This approach is highly customisable by both teachers and students and allows each subject or course to be developed and delivered to match the content and context. Rather than a structured approach the Environment provides organisation and a way to navigate.

Reality is…

The reality we actually find ourselves in is… even if your university has the latest and greatest LMS you’re probably still running a patchwork of separate systems to provide all the functions for your university. Despite best intentions technology moves too fast and there is no one size fits all approach. Yes, it would be nice to have a system that can do everything, but it’s not a reality. Despite what an LMS offers the reality is that it is a jack of all trades master of none. To get the quality and performance required you end up with is a patchwork environment of specialised tools and single systems.

So the solution? Well take it as a given and embrace the fact that whatever you deploy it is going to end up as an environment. So take the time to design and plan it properly, make sure it can talk to each other and use the best systems and specialised tools to provide the core functions.

For higher yields and healthier fruit you plant a garden that is symbiotic and complementary rather than throwing seeds to the wind.